Authors: Mary Beth Keane
Forty-five, forty-six, forty-seven. Johnny Murphy, who’d been sent to the store by his mother, spotted one of his old high school baseball coaches. Home on break from his first year at college, Johnny greeted the older man warmly and stood at the counter blocking the way until someone joked that Mr. Big-Time Pitcher had better shove over. He’d gone to college on scholarship, and the whole town had followed his senior year wins over neighboring towns that were wealthier, had better facilities. Number forty-eight forgot the list his wife had written before sending him off, so he hemmed and hawed up there until he settled on London broil and a pound of German potato salad. Forty-nine and fifty were called up together, to opposite ends of the counter. It was busy now, the numbers ticking by more quickly because the manager had sent help to get through the midday rush.
Next thing Anne Stanhope knew, everyone who’d been waiting alongside her seemed to be ordering, or seemed to have ordered already. There were people who’d come after her—she couldn’t have described them; she felt merely a gathering presence beside and behind her—who now had their meats and cheeses and salads and were on their way. Only Anne Stanhope remained. The employees behind the counter were so busy that the dial was at fifty-two and then almost instantly at sixty. Sixty-one was called. People stepped around her, in front of her, and she felt—right down to her fingertips—a kind of quickening. The gathering of momentum was familiar, though she hadn’t felt it in a while—her heart and her pulse and some wild fury coming together in a rhythm that gained force and speed the longer she stayed quiet, the more she looked around and noticed. Her peripheral vision sparked and distorted the edges of everything so that when she turned quickly to look at something, it moved just out of sight. And even while everything inside her body seemed to speed up, everything outside of her body—the movements of the other shoppers,
the reaching and lowering of boxes and packages into carts—slowed. A carton of milk had a wet drip gathering along the cardboard seam. The tip of an old man’s nose was so vein threaded it looked blue, and when he went to rub it she saw the delicate hairs inside his nostrils, every bit as private as hair in any other part of the body. In the distant front of the store, the automatic doors wheezed open, and she could feel the cold air racing down the aisle to slide under the collar of her coat. She could see that the people around her didn’t care that she’d been missed. She took a step back and saw in vivid color—because her mind was that sharp at moments like this, everything spotlighted so that details she’d overlooked were now glaringly obvious—that in fact they’d orchestrated her exclusion for private, petty reasons that weren’t worth trying to understand. They smirked and nodded and gave each other signals. They’d banded together and decided that number fifty-one would get skipped.
She stepped out of her heels to get a better sense of what was happening, to defend herself if need be, and in one nimble motion she bent and swept the shoes from the floor, tossed them in her basket. She unwound the scarf from her neck.
“Wait!” she called out, raising her hand like a grade-schooler who’d just thought of the answer. She pushed forward to the counter.
“Are you all right?” a woman standing nearby asked. “You can’t take off your shoes.”
“Why can’t I?” Anne snapped, turning on the woman to study her. The woman’s lips were rubbery, untrustworthy, and she had shades of laziness in her expression that Anne found disgusting. Some distant part of her recognized the woman as a Eucharistic minister at St. Bartholomew’s, and she was amazed she’d never noted how revolting she was before this. This woman had put her filthy fingertips on the host, the body of Christ, and Anne had taken it into her mouth. She felt her stomach rise and a crawling at the back of her throat. She put a fist to her pursed mouth and willed herself not to vomit.
“Stop!” she shouted when the feeling passed. Everyone from the seafood case to the imported cheeses stopped talking and looked. She held up her ticket and stepped forward. “It’s my turn.” There was something pathetic in her voice—she could hear it as if she were listening to someone else—and in case they thought she was going to cry she repeated herself, louder, with more determination. But in the few short steps she took to the counter—she felt the cold of the linoleum floor on her bare feet as twin cramps at the bottom of her calves—she forgot what she wanted or why she was there, only that every single person in her vicinity had plotted against her.
“How dare you,” she said to the elderly man standing in front of the pasta salads. And then: “Stop looking at me.”
“I’m very sorry,” the man said, stepping aside. “Please go right ahead.”
“Stop looking at me,” she repeated.
“I’m not. I wasn’t. There’s no need to raise your voice, honey,” he said softly, and everyone understood he was trying to placate her, that this was a situation that could go a hundred different ways and he was trying to get it to go the calmest, easiest way possible. “I’m very sorry about that. It was an honest mistake but now you go right ahead.”
“Stop looking at me,” she shouted at him, and then she swung around and shouted it in the general direction of the rest of the store. The taller of the two hair-netted women behind the counter asked her in a firm tone to please lower her voice, while the other called the manager. Anne turned slowly in a circle, taking in everything and everyone, and then she walked over to the pyramid of crackers—stone ground, whole wheat, sesame, plain—and bumped it with her hip. When it toppled she wrapped her arms around herself and squeezed her eyes shut. There’d been a dozen people standing around but now there were two dozen. More. No one said a word. “Stop looking at me,” she said at a normal volume. Then she covered her ears and began to howl.
Over the loudspeaker, someone paged the manager for a second time.
Peter, who’d opted to wait in the car listening to the top one hundred countdown, had just looked at the dashboard clock when he heard an ambulance in the distance. When it seemed that the siren couldn’t get any louder, it got just a little bit louder until it pulled up to the front of the supermarket and went abruptly silent. He watched in the side-view mirror for a moment, and then he turned and watched out the back windshield of the car. There were people gathered and the EMTs were waving them back. A police cruiser pulled up behind the ambulance. A second cruiser approached from the south lot. Peter had been at Food King once when a man had a heart attack. The man had been holding a gallon of milk, and though Peter hadn’t seen him fall, he’d seen the gallon container glug-glug-glugging milk from its throat, spreading down the dairy aisle while the man on the ground clutched his shoulder. His father had pulled him away before Peter could see what happened next. Thinking about it, Peter wondered why he hadn’t thought of the man again until now. Death was something for grown-ups to worry about but, still, he knew that when his time came he didn’t want it to come at Food King. Janet Jackson was up for the second time, and Peter slumped down in his seat. He didn’t see how they’d get through all one hundred songs before midnight, as the DJ had promised. When he looked up an old man he recognized as Chris Smith’s grandfather was standing at the driver’s side window. Mr. Smith made a cycle motion with his fist and Peter rolled down the window.
“It’s Peter, right? You know me? My grandson is in your class? Listen. Your mom wasn’t feeling well in the store. Nothing to worry about but they’re going to take her over to the hospital. Can I give you a lift home? I’m glad I spotted you.”
Peter blinked at Mr. Smith for a moment, and then he got out of the car so fast that he left the keys in the ignition. “What happened?” he asked, looking now at the crowd at the front of the store in a
different light. He began jogging through the parking lot. When he saw that someone was being carried out on a stretcher, he began to run.
“Mom?” he called from the back of the crowd that had gathered. She bucked when she heard his voice, and one of the EMTs stumbled. “Peter!” she shouted, her voice thin with urgency, and Peter felt every face in the crowd turn to look at him. They stepped back so that he could make his way. “Quickly!” she shouted to him, but he didn’t know what she meant. He noticed that a third EMT was carrying her shoes and her scarf. The tips of her fingers looked bluish and cold, and her hair was parted differently than it had been when she walked away from the car. He wondered if they’d forced her onto the stretcher, and if she’d fought them. Her coat was draped over her like a blanket. “Quickly!” she shouted again, her eyes wild and locked on his, but he froze in place, having no idea what to do. The same faces that had turned to look at him now turned away. The coat shifted and he saw that her hands were strapped down. Her ankles, too. He began to shiver. They lifted her into the back of the ambulance and a police officer waved everyone back, including Peter.
“Peter! Quickly!” she shrieked.
Peter looked at the officer blocking his way. “That’s me,” he whispered. “I’m Peter. Can’t I go in there with her?”
“Peter,” Mr. Smith said, coming up beside him. “Why don’t I take you home and you can call your dad from my house. Mrs. Smith will make you a sandwich.” But he lived with Chris, Peter remembered, and then Chris would know, and then their whole class would know. His shoulders were quaking so violently now that he knew everyone must be noticing. Mr. Smith put an arm around him, but that only made it worse.
The police officer asked, “You’re her son?” He introduced himself as Officer Dulley.
“Yes,” he said.
Officer Dulley asked him for his full name and address, and when he didn’t answer, Mr. Smith gave the officer Peter’s full name and told him he was pretty sure the Stanhopes lived on Jefferson. That, yes, Peter lived
with his mother. Yes, his father was in the picture. They were talking about his dad now. Officer Dulley disappeared inside the ambulance for a few minutes and then came back. No one seemed in any rush to get anywhere.
“Did she have a heart attack?” Peter asked when he returned.
“No,” Officer Dulley said, without indicating if whatever did happen was better or worse.
“What precinct is your dad in?” Officer Dulley asked, but Peter couldn’t remember. It was right there in his brain but he couldn’t come up with it.
“He’s on the job, right?”
It was decided that he would hang out at the Smiths’ house until they got in touch with his father.
“Wait,” Peter said, stepping away from Mr. Smith’s hand on his shoulder and watching as the ambulance doors closed. “I want to go with her.” But they were already pulling away from the curb.
“She’s fine, Peter. She’ll be fine.”
“Well, then can’t you just drop me off at home?” The ambulance paused at the intersection at Middletown Road and whooped the siren twice to let the other cars know it was going to drive through. “My dad will be home pretty soon.”
“Are you sure that’s what you want?”
On the short drive Mr. Smith said it was a tiring time of year, really, when a person thought about it. It was a happy time of year, sure, with all the family and the celebrating but overwhelming, too, for some people. For a start, look at all the money being spent. “Plus it’s different for women,” he added, “they always feel like everything has to be just so with the dinners and the entertaining. You need this bowl to match this bowl. You need this spoon. Used to be people made gingerbread cookies and got maybe one present, but these days things are different.” Then
he looked at Peter like that explained everything. Peter felt like telling him that he and his father had put up their tree. He alone had baked cookies when the day came for the class bake sale. He’d just followed the directions on the package and they’d turned out delicious, then he’d put them in a shoebox like he’d seen the other kids’ moms do. When his mother came home, she snapped at him that he’d forgotten to line the box with foil or wax paper. Who would want a cookie from a box shoes had been sliding around in? She made it sound as if he’d stored the cookies inside a public toilet. All those ingredients wasted. He’d used the last of the butter. She slammed the fridge. The last of the brown sugar. She slammed the cabinet door. But then, when she saw the baking sheet and bowls washed and drying on the counter, she stopped ranting, and it was as if an invisible hand had been clapped over her mouth. She ran her fingers along the table and found they came up clean. She stood before the shoebox and selected a cookie from the top of the pile. He waited. He watched. Finally, she said quietly that they were so good it would be a shame anyway to sell them for only twenty-five cents apiece. They were extraordinary.
“We’ll keep these for ourselves,” she said. “Tomorrow I’ll get some from the bakery for you to sell at school.”
“What happened in the store?” he asked Mr. Smith as they rounded the corner onto Jefferson. “Did someone say something to her? Was someone rude?”
“I don’t know,” Mr. Smith said. “I really don’t.”
“She’s just sensitive,” Peter said.
As they drove down Jefferson, Mr. Gleeson was outside pulling a garbage can to the curb. He looked up at Mr. Smith’s car and watched it slow to a stop at Peter’s driveway. “Is that Francis Gleeson?” Mr. Smith asked, leaning over the steering wheel. He sounded relieved.
The two men spoke at the end of the driveway while Peter retrieved the key from under the rock and went into his house. They were still talking even after Peter poured himself a glass of water and went up to
his bedroom. He chugged the water with his back to the window and counted to forty. When he turned around they were still there, except they’d turned their backs to his house, as if they knew he might try to read their lips and figure out what they were saying.
She had a gun in her handbag. She hadn’t taken it out, she hadn’t even mentioned it, but they found it in the ambulance when they were going through her things. All she wanted was the secret weight of it hanging off her shoulder, cold and solid when she rummaged through her bag for her wallet. She hadn’t planned on using it. She couldn’t even imagine using it. It was just a thing to have. A thing that would surprise people, if it came to it, a thing that surprised her when she remembered it was there and what it was made to do. But the EMT who spotted it handed her whole bag over to the cop like it was on fire. “Your husband, he’s on the job?” the cop asked, holding Brian’s little off-duty five-shot away from himself like it was contaminated. “Local or city?” He popped open the cylinder. “Jesus Christ,” he said, and tilted the gun so that five bullets slid neatly into his palm. Anne Stanhope refused to answer. Once she’d stopped howling in the store, she was unable to speak. She had no interest in speaking. Speaking was a habit she’d gotten into years ago, in the distant past, and now that she’d stopped she felt no desire to start again. It was pointless anyway—all the blah-blah-blabbing and, still, no one understood each other. The EMT came at her with a small plastic cup at the bottom of which a large yellow and white pill rolled around. He lifted her head to place a pill on her tongue, and she spit it back at him.