Saturday, December 29, 2007

We Call It The Gulag

He was walking home carrying two fistfuls of grocery bags when the older woman crossed his path. It was Emma's mother, who he hadn't seen since her daughter's wedding in late August, despite the fact that she and her husband lived just a few blocks from him.

He had seen Mr. and Mrs. Wunsch on the street, here and there over the span of time he'd been living on the Upper West Side. They were always generous hosts whenever he was over as a guest of their daughter and son-in-law's, but he'd never stopped them on the street to say hi. It wasn't in his nature to initiate idle palaver with people he was tangentially acquainted with.

But he was in the middle of one of his take-care-of-everything days. He'd paid his bills, done his laundry, dropped off his dry-cleaning, scheduled a haircut and stopped by the grocery to restock his empty fridge. The year was rapidly closing shop and he felt generous. Every so often, he liked to force himself to do something against his nature—to act like regular human beings might act—which is why he decided to follow her into the pharmacy to say hello.

"Hi there," he said, approximating a neighborly smile as Mrs. Wunsch looked up at him.

She wore a vacant, expectant expression on her face as she looked straight at him for a good 20 seconds. An expression that said nothing more than, Yes, boy, what do you want from me?

It gave him pause. She wasn't going to help him out with his magnanimous gesture and he immediately began to formulate an exit strategy when her face brightened with recognition.

"Oh, HI!" she said, finally. Interrupting his mindless approximation of chit-chat. "I guess you're on strike."

"Yes," he confirmed, thankful for the introduction of a subject that stretched beyond the weather. "It's bad timing for me and I've had to return to my old day job. But you do what you have to do. It's important. Hopefully, it won't drag on forever."

She nodded, her smile fading. She glanced down at his grocery bags. "How can you afford to shop at the D'agonstino's? They mark up their prices so much!"

"I know," he said, approximating the guilty look of a child caught doing something he really shouldn't be doing.

"We shop at the... we call it 'The Gulag'," she confided, referring to the large Food Mart situated a block from his apartment. He didn't want to tell her that it reminded him too much of the ghetto supermarket he was forced to shop at during his darkest years in Brooklyn. The sharp scent of industrial disinfectant permeating the aisles.

"I go there for some things, but there are some things I like at the D'ag," he offered. Her smile fading further beneath her indifference, he lifted his grocery bags with his friendliest grin. "Well, I'd better get this stuff back!"

She brightened again, at the indication of his departure. "Have a happy new year!" she said.

"Happy new year to you!" he volleyed back as he launched out of the pharmacy. Warm with humanity.


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