Image by Dawn Estrin, 2010.
(See also “Shot Through the Heart” by Jim Ruland.)
“Trust me,” he said. “This stuff is imported, honey. You serve it at your next dinner party, their jaws are going to drop.”
The cheese/quince/cracker combo felt dry in her mouth. There wasn’t enough saliva to work it around, much less swallow it down. One mouse.
She coughed, politely at first, but couldn’t hold it back for long, the involuntary retching that followed as her body rejected the free sample. She put her napkined hand over her mouth, her hand closing into a rigid fist as she secreted the warm, moist mass inside.
“Thank you,” she said, and walked away, abandoning her nearly empty shopping cart, picking up her pace when she heard the man calling, “Hey lady!” after her.
She pushed forward, cart-less, whizzing past the Bakery and Deli sections before making a sharp left and ducking into Bulk Foods, taking deep breaths as she listened to the steady rhythm of shoppers scooping and pouring and scooping and pouring, measuring out portions of rice, grains, nuts, and seeds. Still only one mouse, but one always meant more than one. They were social animals. Everyone knew that. They were also fastidiously clean, a lesser-known fact, for sure, but one that filled her with relief. Things could be worse.
After a few minutes, she was ready to move on. The supermarket was like a maze, with bright orange arrows on the floor compelling shoppers to follow a single route through the store. But it was a maze she knew, and the predictability of the layout was comforting. She’d been coming here for years, since back when she was married and lived in the neighborhood. She walked along, finding herself in Breakfast Foods, picking up cereal boxes and pretending to scrutinize the ingredients with care, trying to blend, even though she knew she wouldn’t be buying anything. It had already been enough of a day.
When she reached The Butchery, she was careful to keep her head down. A wall of glass was all that separated the violence from the retail area. As usual, and for reasons she couldn’t fathom, a throng of shoppers gathered, craning their necks to watch the butchers break down the animals, carving their carcasses into choice cuts or feeding them into grinders, the blood pooling on the scratched and dented surfaces of metal utility tables before spilling onto the floor.
It hadn’t always been that way. When she first started shopping there, the aisle had been called Refrigerated Meats, and the wall had been solid. She had even bought meat there and eaten it, the sterility of the blue-Styrofoam-and-plastic-wrap packaging making it possible for her to enjoy her ground round.
And then one day, without warning, Refrigerated Meats was gone. Orange cones blocked both ends of the shuttered aisle. There were plastic tarps and polite signage. Please excuse our mess while we remodel to serve you better! And when it was all over, when they had taken down the tarps and swept away the debris, when she could finally see the bodies hanging from hooks through the pitiless, streak-free glass, there it was. Or rather, there they were. Thousands of tiny rodents crawling beneath her skin, scratching at the surface from the inside with their sharp, careless claws. It had taken weeks for the mice to subside, weeks more for her to find her way back to the supermarket. The trick, in the end, had been simple. She pretended The Butchery didn’t exist. Some days were easier than others.
Today, she kept moving, following the arrows pointing ever forward, hurrying by Seasonal Products, where lingering too long was like touching a wound, banking left into Household Needs, where she reminded herself to breathe. She had just entered Canned Vegetables and Ethnic Foods, when she heard her name. Melinda. She didn’t look up. Maybe she had imagined it. Or more likely, it was meant for someone else. A different Melinda. And then she heard it again.
“Melinda, is that you?”
She looked up from the floor. He looked familiar, but that didn’t mean anything. He was older, square-jawed, handsome, with kind blue eyes and salt-and-pepper hair. Like an actor playing a man whose virility had been restored, thanks to a miracle drug.
The actor smiled and she smiled back, feeling the muscles in her face stretch. He was a good actor, and she wanted to play along. When he stuck out his hand to shake hers, she held out her own.
“Yuck,” he said, pulling away. He opened his hand, staring at the masticated lump that she had forgotten she was holding. “What is this?”
“I’m sorry,” she said. She was ruining this, if she hadn’t ruined it already. More mice.
“Oh Melinda,” said the actor, dropping the napkin and wiping his hand on his jeans. “Don’t worry about it. Gosh, it’s been so long. You look … good.” He seemed nervous, and his nervousness made her feel calmer, more in control.
“You look good too,” she said. And meant it.
“Stacey has me doing Pilates.” His eyes searched her face. She smiled, hoping that was what he was looking for.
“I know, I know,” he said. “Who even knew that was a thing, right?”
Melinda’s face hurt from all the smiling. She started backing away, slowly, passing the canned beets and heading toward the jarred salsas. She was going in the wrong direction, against the flow, the opposite of where the orange arrows wanted her to go.
“I’m sorry,” she said, inching backwards. The mice were jockeying for position, clamoring for space when there was no space. She turned, intending to head back to the safety of Household Needs but misjudged her distances and collided head-on with a mid-aisle display tower of hard shell tacos. The tower careened back and forth before collapsing, boxes of taco shells blocking the aisle. She tried to clear a path, pushing and kicking the boxes out of her way, squeezing her way through any open space. She had had enough. Too much. There were just too many mice.
The man was right behind her.
“Melinda, just listen,” he whispered, his mouth by her ear. “I don’t know what dreamland you’re living in, but I can’t keep paying for this. I won’t.”
She closed her eyes, and covered her ears. Inhale, Exhale. Inhale, Exhale. She counted to ten—one-one-thousand, two-one-thousand, three-one-thousand—and then did it three more times for good measure.
When she opened her eyes, the man was still there.
“Melinda,” he said. And in that one word—her name—she felt the man’s anger, frustration, pain, tenderness, even his love. But she knew it wasn’t real. He wasn’t real.
“You’re a terrible actor,” she said.
The man’s eyes flashed and turned cold, not blue after all but grey, colorless, like stones.
“Get away from me!” She screamed. “Leave me alone!”
Everything stopped. Canned Vegetables and Ethnic Foods had ceased to exist. She was overrun, her body on fire, her blood thrumming in harmony with the writhing mass, clawing at her, drawing blood, struggling to break free. She wanted to cry, but knew that if she did, there would be nothing left, not even her. Instead, she closed her eyes and focused on her breathing, whispering I am here, I am here, I am here over and over like a prayer to herself.
Sarah Kunstler is a criminal defense lawyer, documentary filmmaker, and lifelong New Yorker. She is a member of the Rumble Ponies Writing Collective. You can find her on Twitter at @skunstler