Our weekly writing assignment recommended that we ‘experiment with senses you tend to ignore by going to a supermarket with no intention of shopping, and concentrating on listening’ ‘I always go to supermarkets with no intention of shopping’ I thought to myself, ‘but listening to the aisles and become a writer, now there’s a concept.’ The more I thought about it the more excited I became. ‘How could I have overlooked the storytelling potential of listening-in-a-supermarket?’ So successful that all great writers did not take on the challenge and left their protagonists out at sea, slaughtered them on the battlefields and sent them upstream on rafts or down waterfalls in canoes. ‘Could it be a coincidence the Oliver Twist had to be bullied into asking for more gruel? Was there any reason why Injun Joe died of hunger in McDougal’s cave? Why did Jake Barnes roam the restaurants of Paris with Lady Brett Ashley only to eat Hungarian Goulash? Why did all these people have to eat so poorly?’ The pieces of evidence were accumulating in my head like a fast-forwarded movie showing termites building their mound. Could it be that so much genius stepped aside only to allow me to park my story telling abilities in this vacant literary parking spot? Were they all were calling to me to rise up and unravel the mysteries of the whispering supermarket aisles with my yet-to-be-discovered story telling voice? How could I shy away from such an opportunity? But am I worthy?’ I was intimidated by the notion that the ghosts of dead Nobel Prize laureates were waiting for me to free them from their limbo between the aisles of ‘Safeway’. ‘Will it be my quarks of literary brilliance that will let the soul of Hemingway finally come to rest in a jar or peanut butter? Being a sworn shopping-hater how could I spend time in the aisles without arousing suspicion?
Destiny takes care of the blessed – my writing opportunity presented itself a week prior to my son’s Bar Mitzvah (the Jewish coming of age ceremony for thirteen year old boys). A Bar Mitzvah is the most important events in the life of a Jewish family second only to marriage. The importance of the event is celebrated with amounts of food to match. Somehow you never have enough time to prepare even though you know the date thirteen years in advance, so it all came to the last week, the week of my literary inspiration.
‘I have a busy week with my students’ Imma (Hebrew for Mom) turned to me, she did not even bother to soften the blow with ‘I know you hate it but’ She went right to the verdict: ‘…you’ll have to help me with the shopping.’ There it was in all its bluntness. I turned slightly to the right and lifted my head exposing my jugular, the universal sign of surrender. Then I turned back slowly to face her, stopping the turn when our eyes locked. Inside I was rejoicing: ‘a last minute state of mind, where the sense of urgency dulls the sense of quantity, what could be better?’
‘We need soft drinks, and paper plates, and disposable utensils, and cream cheese, and meat, and ’ Did Imma expect me to memorize all this? She must have read my mind. ‘Let me write down what you need to get.’ She started to work down a ‘hers-his’ task list. ‘I could help with the strawberries’ I offered, knowing that strawberries would be the enablers of my literary quest. The Bar Mitzvah happened to fall during a rare period of strawberry shortages inflicted by unprecedented weather patterns. The news channels made it a point to mention that strawberry fields were no longer forever. ‘Good evening I’m Leslie and I’m Dennis soggy ground prevented the pickers from going into the strawberry fields the second week in a row Those that ventured into the fields drowned in the mud or were swept away by torrential water.’ My sense of reason was telling me that I would have to constantly buy strawberries.
‘You never know when the supplies will dry up.’ I argued.
‘You don’t have to keep buying’ Imma said, ‘all you need to do is get a large quantity a day or two before the party.’
‘Are you aware of the shortages?’ I asked raising my voice as if to say ‘do you want me to help or not?’
Not a muscle moved in Imma’s facial expression. This was the stone mask of disappointment, which was her way of saying ‘Why is it that I always regret having to ask you for help?’
‘Strawberries have a half-life of thirty two hours’ I began, eager to make amends. ‘Which means that one out of eight strawberries I get a week in advance will still be edible by the time it gets to the party.’ I was speaking as fast as I could, hoping to complete my argument before the contempt in her eyes crushed my ability to speak. ‘With the current shortages there is no telling if there will be any strawberries in the stores two days before the Bar Mitzvah’. Imma was more concerned with the half-life we still had to spend together ‘get as many as you want’ she said.
I bought strawberries in quantities that allowed us to control their price in global markets. I bought them in every aisle of every store that sold them. I walked the aisles from dawn till dusk, listening, lifting boxes, playing strawberry Tetris with green plastic baskets rearranging the strawberries into more appealing formations, anything that would appear to have purpose; as long as I could walk the aisles a little while longer, but my listening were left unanswered. Imma sensed that there was something going on. As I was about to leave the house on another strawberry mission, she moved to the doorway and stood in a hug-timeout position. I held her close, our bodies touching, my cheek touching hers, with my hands holding her shoulder blades. Her arms were tucked under mine. Imma released her grip, held my elbows and pulled them towards her, indicating that I should complete the hug with my hands around her back. She released my left elbow and raised her right arm behind my neck, resting her hand on the back of my head. Her fingers tightened slightly around the back of my skull, repeating three light squeezes with the tips of her fingers her way of saying ‘deep inside there is a man I love’ A short tender moment that would help us keep moving through the shopping days that lay before us. I pressed my head closer to hers feeling the softness of her cheek against mine.
The rains stopped on the day of the Bar Mitzvah. My son read his designated portions from the Prophet Ezekiel beautifully. In a clear strong voice he sang about the revival of the dry bones, the dry bones in the valley ‘These bones will rise’ he sang with an innocent young voice. I was too absorbed in my offspring’s performance to realize that the prophet was speaking to me. It was during Kiddush (the blessing over the wine and bread) that my vision cleared. ‘Dry bones rising from the valley dry bones rising from the aisles, the souls of literary genius rising from between the wines to the right and the bread to the left provided that one was facing the dairy products.’ I had to get to the aisles one more time, but how, the day’s schedule was full. There was a reception following the Kiddush, continuing to lunch, followed by speeches and songs we had prepared for the Bar-Mitzvah boy, then coffee and some cakes, and finally sitting with the guests through the afternoon and into the evening forcing them to eat the strawberries. The next day was Easter and the aisles would be closed. It had to be that night or there was no telling when the next opportunity for resurrection would present itself.
Fortunately there was a dance party for the kids scheduled for later that night. As we prepared the party hall at the community center, hanging balloons, laying out soft drinks on the tables, filling bowls with potato chips, gummy bears, m&m’s and cookies Imma turned to me: ‘Do you think we have enough soft drinks?’ she asked. ‘Not only are we missing drinks, we are also missing ice and bowls to put it in’ I lied to the woman that would be at my side come what may. ‘Very well, go to Albertson and get what you think we need.’
I entered ‘Albertson’ with trembling knees, leaning heavily on the shopping cart in front of me. I had no intent of buying anything; I was there to listen. I headed straight for the aisle with the strongest voices. The only sound I heard was the repetitive clicking noise of an employee stamping price tags onto a new load of bars of soap. Somewhat annoyed, I moved to the utensils aisle. For a few minutes I pretended to compare identical plastic bowls, while I listened. Every minute or so I would put a bowl into the shopping cart to make things appear natural, not wanting to draw attention to myself. With five bowls and no revelation I moved to the ‘picnic’ aisle. ‘Where can I find a disposable table cloth?’ I asked a passing worker hoping to set a casual atmosphere and ease Hemingway’s tension. The employee shrugged and I quickly thanked him with a nod, not wanting to disturb the silence any further. But Hemingway did not take the bait. I moved to soft drinks to pick and choose between the diets and the regulars, between Pepsi and Coca-Cola, Mountain Dew and Sprite, added a few bottles to my cart still nothing. Half an hour later, with five plastic bowls, seven bottles of soft drinks and four ice bags threatening to melt I had to start heading back. It was then that I heard a voice a coming from in front of me and a little to my left:
‘Would you like paper of plastic, sir?’ The tone was detached without sentiment. It was a rude awakening. ‘No need for bags’ I replied softly, too devastated to make up my mind. Mechanically I loaded the redundant products into the car and headed back to the party. I had listened to so many senses: the sense of ‘urgency’, the sense of ‘quantity’ and the sense of ‘reason’. Yet revelation continued to elude me. Did I misinterpret the location of the aisles? How dry was my valley? Imma thanked me for the extra drinks and ice, all of which remained untouched and had to be taken back home later that night.
‘You haven’t eaten all day’ Imma said as we walked in, ‘Would you like me to heat you some chicken?’ ‘I’m not all that hungry’ I answered. ‘How about a peanut butter sandwich?’ she asked. ‘Fine please do.’ She knelt down to the cabinet and poked around a bit: ‘You’re not going to believe this; we’re out of peanut butter.’
‘I’ll run to the Safeway to get some’