I am standing in line at the grocery store, stir fry ingredients on the conveyor belt. The woman in front of me is checking out with 5 or 6 bottles of wine, nothing else. She is probably in her seventies and has jet black hair, dyed, and dark red lipstick and purple acrylic nails. The cashier, who appears to be about twelve but is probably older, asks her how her day is, as every cashier at this chain must ask every customer. “You don’t want to know,” says the woman, and the cashier laughs nervously.
This is a response he has probably heard many times lately—last month, hundreds of homes were lost in our town when a wildfire ripped through the area. Last week, torrential rainstorms turned the denuded hillsides into rivers of mud that went careening toward the sea, taking twenty lives and hundreds of homes. Thousands of people are still living in shelters and with friends. For a moment, both the cashier and I think this will be the end of the exchange, but the woman forges ahead: “My husband just died.” The cashier opens and closes his mouth a few times, like a goldfish, and then says, “I’m so sorry,” looking like he wants to join the woman’s husband in death to escape from this moment and this room.
The woman declines the paper bag offered and instead fumbles with the wine bottles and with her purse for a long time. I ring up with my shitakes and miso paste and follow her out the automatic sliding glass doors into the parking lot. I put my groceries in the trunk and watch the woman a few parking spaces away, still fumbling with her many bottles. I want very much to drive off, to go home to my dog and make stir fry in my little house on the side of town that was unaffected by the fire and the flood, where no one I know has died in recent memory. But even there, I will still think of the woman, because I heard her say that her husband died, and even on my side of town, I won’t be able to unhear it.
The woman is sitting in the driver’s seat with the door open, arranging her wine bottles on the floorboards of the passenger’s side. I approach the car and say, “Excuse me, ma’am?” because I don’t know how else to start and she is about to close the door. She looks at me with her eyes narrowed, like she is a little afraid of me. There is no going back now, so I say, very fast, “I was in line behind you and I overheard you tell the cashier that your husband passed away, and I just wanted to say I’m so sorry, and can I do anything for you?” It is a stupid thing to say probably, because who can do anything, really, for a woman whose husband has just died?
The woman tells me that her husband was in the hospital since before the fire, and then he was in a hospice facility. She tells me that she slept on a cot by his bed every night for a month. She tells me that she has been evacuated because of the mudslide and is now staying with friends. “I don’t think anything else can really be done for me,” she says. “But it’s so kind of you to ask.” I tell her how sorry I am that she is going through all that, and I ask if I can keep her in my prayers. “Oh.” She seems startled, then recovers. “Yes. Of course you can. My name is Phyllis, and my husband’s name was Jack.” I tell her my name so that she knows who is praying for her, and then she thanks me and says, “God bless you,” and closes her door and drives away.
I do not know why I am telling you this. Perhaps Phyllis isn’t sure why she told the teenage cashier about her husband’s death. But she did tell the cashier, who was only doing his job, and she must be very lonely and very sad to say that to a teenage cashier. Maybe she just wanted someone to hear her, to know about her grief. And I want her to know that I heard her, and to know that I have taken note of her grief, and I want you to know too. I want you to know that a tiny bit of that woman’s grief will go with me when I drive to my side of town and make stir fry and play fetch with my dog. It seems important somehow that I know and you know that Phyllis slept on a cot by Jack’s bed every night for a month. Perhaps you, too, can say a prayer for Phyllis.
Kelsey Lahr is a writer and professor residing in Santa Barbara, CA. Her literary nonfiction has appeared in Blue Lyra Review, The Copperfield Review, Gold Man Review, Saint Katherine Review, and elsewhere. Her essay "Cranes" was the first runner-up for the Green Briar Review's 2016 Nonfiction Prize. Kelsey's work has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize and publication in the Best American Science and Nature Writing series. Find more of her writing at www.kelseylahr.wordpress.com.
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