Quotes that Say Something

"Please, dad, get down and look. I think there's some kind of monster under my bed."

Life when seen in close-up often seems tragic, but in wide-angle it often seems comic. -- Charlie Chaplin

"And when the cloudbursts thunder in your ear, you shout, but no one's there to hear. And if the band you're in starts playing different tunes, I'll see you on the dark side of the moon." -- Roger Waters, "Brain Damage"

Oct 22, 2014

The Last Progress of Hyrum Craver (In Progress)

By  Butch Ekstrom

           During his final and most crazed days, whenever the decrepit Hyrum Craver  beheld his grown and beguiled son, Michael, who thought himself resplendent in his once gleaming and pliant, now stained and tacky, white suit, the old man concluded that a spanking bright archangel had come from some dark and foul corner of heaven in a counterfeit plot to deceive him with pity and assuagement. Like many dry drunks and violence-driven men who have aged nigh unto oblivion, Hyrum felt like the world and its hordes of lousy inhabitants owed him, owed him a lot, for his mischances and god-forsaken adversities without end, particularly his marriage to a dastardly, dumbed down, and achromic spouse named Winnie for forty odd years (who passed years back while snoozing in the bony embrace of a sicklied dark force), not to mention his ill-conceived brood of screwball, outright loony, adult children. Immobilized and left wheezing in his disintegrating mind and body, before he subsided in full, old Hyrum schemed to stick it out in his clapboard cabin through the decisive throes and malaise, in the company of his three bachelor boys, through thick and thin, because these children owed him a great debt for their provided-for lives and, being poor, near destitute and illiterate to the core, and no longer durable enough to fist bash his way out of any conundrum, Hyrum acceded that there was no one, and nowhere else, on the planet to which he could turn, not even his obstinate and churlish pair of baby girls, one of them with whom Hy had fathered his elder grandson who seemed to decline in body mass and drift more off base in the head every day.

          "The white angel might still save me," Hyrum thought as he wobbled in and out of feeble stages. But he had known little and had not conserved any Faith during his exhausting hard luck and strings of grinding setbacks, mostly the ones he could squarely and violently blame on his insufferable bosses, spouse Winnie, and his laggard offspring. 

          Agonizing and breath-burgling emphysema attacks wracked the father's aged constitution. Once Hyrum convinced the boys, Allen and Darren, that he would never, never tolerate imprisonment in a money-grubbing hospital or Medicaid pit -- like the relegation of an infirm senior hound dog to those cut-throats in a rescues' kennel -- shadowy and fouled by age old moans and groans, and incessantly smelling of amber, acidic body discharges lying wet in scattered bedpans. Allen and Darren at last ceased their sensible, if not purely affectionate and sacrificial pleadings, with Daddy, while Michael knelt in a corner to pray and contributed little to conversations. The challenged pair of siblings knew that there was a tawdry chunk of life insurance money, not that many dollars, but in vain fantasies it augured like a million bucks glimmering on a threadbare horizon; a paltry Social Security death benefit from the government; and maybe some other valuable pluses, presents under an undernourished and mottled holiday tree, which they could only imagine: perhaps an astonishing inheritance of goods or currency from unknown family straight out of God's mysterious bounty and goodness, or a stash of money long bagged and secreted that only Winnie or Hyrum could reveal and release, or such as eternal relief from the undodgeable burden of parental caretaking, Kentucky albatross-like -- so, life without Daddy anymore.  

         "Daddy, you hold on. You gonna make it, if you hold on," Allen and Darren repeated over Hyrum's sick bed several times a day. They sometimes patted his hands that folded together on top of the soiled, yellowed sheet and odorous ancient military blanket. They sought to sound convincing. 

         During early morning and late each afternoon, in the dimness of his emotional state, the father would watch the white-suited archangel rise from his kneeling post, brush particles off the knees of his pants, with a shaky hand straighten the elastic band over the right bicep of his suit jacket, lean over Hyrum, make the sign of the cross on himself, and and then rub a small circle with his pulsing thumb slathered with oil on his father's forehead. 

         This felt, each time it happened, like an affront. But would God's messenger, a pure archangel, cause him any harm?, Hyrum wondered.

         The earnest but creepy interloper, who invariably needed a close shave, whose otherworldly right hand smeared with the chrism shook with palsy, whose eyeglasses shrouded his dark and inset eyeballs, whispered to Hyrum conspiratorially, "Go be with God, old man."

          Hyrum gasped for oxygen. Lord, bring me peace, for I am a dying servant, and I have served you without fail and without complaint, you know that to be the truth, he prayed. Hyrum feared his dying breath, knew it would commence soon, and the old man replayed the inevitable and morose pantomimicry.

          "Daddy, you gonna need anything?," Darren would blurt late every evening. 

          These were the invariable, last words uttered among the assembly of Cravers just before the final lamp in the clapboard cabin, its mute glow illumining patches of the tamped down dirt under their sock feet and the deteriorated, meager furnishings that had not been dusted or polished since Winnie passed, got extinguished. 

          No answer came forth. Hyrum was off to the land of nod once the night's food got picked up and put away in the old icebox. Michael felt his way to his silent, little room, and would remain unassailed in his coveted retreat, even if he had to climb out his cracked window to relieve himself in the yard, during the night. Allen and Darren hastily closeted themselves in their beds so they could talk far into the night amidst their littered roomette, every inch of its coarse space overwhelmed by thick and accreting layers of repellent detritus from their childhood and adolescence and recent acquisitions, or plug in their separate pearl iPods with earplugs, before snorting and snoring in tandem, bodies side by side, faces bent toward each other, until another day in the Commonwealth dawned. 

+++   +++   +++

         Second thing in the ramshackle cabin every morning -- since Michael, the soundless creeper, the white-bedecked spirit, emerged first from his dark-of-night withdrawal, a spiritual stealth artist still a bit mussed and bleary from a long sleep, or like a penniless mime roughed up while rectifying sinful street spectacles and do-gooder despairing, in from the shadows of some big city, would pray over his parent, at whom he would stare with intensity -- two displeasing and unbridled howls sounded inside the main room. 

         Allen and Darren, resembling two overused and chunky sleeping bags stuffed and bumpy with over-ripe and castoff fruits from local fields, rushed hand in hand into the main cabin space, and disrupted everyone. The mop top boys, in their sick humor rudeness, pretended to be burnished fire trucks -- with their sirens blaring at 10 out of 10 volume settings -- to set the scene for the breaking of another Kentucky morn. 

         Yet on this occasion Michael who had knelt by Hyrum's pallet looked pale and stricken. Michael had placedhis hands on the edge of his father's bed, a hesitant outreach to check on and perhaps comfort one abrasive parent who had always been there but now was starved for breath, rigid, still as the deepest nighttime, and thus missing. 


To Be Continued

I'm still here, but yet I'm gone
I don't play guitar or sing my songs
They never defined who I am
The man that loves you 'til the end
You're the last person I will love
You're the last face I will recall
And best of all, I'm not gonna miss you.
Not gonna miss you.
I'm never gonna hold you like I did
Or say I love you to the kids
You're never gonna see it in my eyes
It's not gonna hurt me when you cry
I'm never gonna know what you go through
All the things I say or do
All the hurt and all the pain
One thing selfishly remains
I'm not gonna miss you
I'm not gonna miss you

             By  Glen Campbell, "I'm Not Gonna Miss You"

Oct 15, 2014

The Elevation of Conscience Over "Authority"

A midpoint report, from this month's headline making Synod of Bishops (in Rome), reveals that Catholic leaders are considering conciliatory language toward gays and lesbians, divorced and remarried Catholics, and couples who live together before getting married.
. . .  Pope Francis has deliberately engineered a lively discussion of issues. It will help shape the pontiff's legacy.
Reporters and commentators are producing a flurry of analyses mostly centered on the question of whether the synod portends a change in substance or merely a change in tone. Such is the abiding question of Francis' papacy.
 The Role of Individual Conscience
Conscience (versus) authority is the pre-eminent battle underlying the synod's debates. Even the dramatic turn from language such as "living in sin" and "intrinsically disordered" is a tacit nod to conscience over authority.
. . . Evangelicals have mostly accommodated birth control and divorce, but not premarital or gay sex. Mainline Protestants rarely enforce what weak prohibitions on premarital sex remain, and are more rapidly accepting gays and lesbians in the life and ministry of their churches.
The Catholic church, of course, is against all these things . . . But even the church's significant authority (in the sense of teaching, legislating, and ruling) is insufficient to bind its adherents' consciences to the fullness of its teaching.
. . . even for Catholics (who) put them in a perpetual state of mortal sin, individual conscience and church authority are often in fierce tension. 
Enforcement of sacramental exclusion tends to fall most frequently and publicly on divorced Catholics who have remarried without seeking an annulment. It seems uneven that perpetrators of heinous crimes -- including Catholic inmates on death row -- may receive Communion in prison (so long as they are not divorced and remarried) while civilly remarried Catholics are deemed unworthy to receive Communion for the rest of their lives regardless of how decently and ethically they live.
An Elevation of Conscience?
While homosexuality and remarriage are grabbing headlines, it is actually contraception that may be most relevant. Non-acceptance of teachings about contraception was decisive with most Catholics. . . . It largely explains the slow-but-sure Christian elevation of conscience over authority.
As a Protestant, I can live in the tensions.  . . . The Catholic church is a humane bulwark against a destructively permissive and pornographic culture where everything is commodified and nothing is sacred. To that end, perhaps it would be better if more Catholics submitted to church teaching.
But on some level, I remain grateful that Rome has no authority over my conscience. The trouble for the church is that a lot of Catholics think like I do.

Original article:  


Oct 9, 2014

Book -- Table of Contents (10-1-14 Update)

Novellas and Stories:

Yellow Light Means Prepare to Stop

It's Senior Day -- Let's Go Krogering! 

The Time I Met the Real P.F. Chang

A Dark Star    (Novella)

Leaving Normal: A Family Fable    (Novella)

Nica's Selfie

The Emperor's Bloody Valentine

Constant Companions    (Novella)

The Last March of Hiram Craver  (In Progress)

The Deconstruction of Molly

Blackwood Timbers    (In Progress)

Yellow Light Means Prepare to Stop

Yellow Light Means Prepare to Stop

A New Story by Butch Ekstrom

The grouping of sounds . . . said something comforting to Inman about the rule of creation. What the music said was that there is a right way for things to be ordered so that life might not always be just a tangle and drift but have a shape, an aim. It was a powerful argument against the notion that things just happen.
                                                                                 -- Charles Frazier, Cold Mountain

Hello, hello, baby -- You called? I can't hear a thing. I have got no service in the club, you see see. What, what did you say? Oh, you're breaking up on me! Sorry, I cannot hear you, cuz I'm kinda busy. Kinda busy. Kinda busy. Sorry, I cannot hear you, cuz I'm kinda busy.

                                                                                  -- Lady Gaga, "Telephone”

  Because I try to balance my vulnerable senses and maintain my equilibrium during difficult times, I have been re-reading a book called Cold Mountain. It's about the chaos of battle, panic and loss, perseverance, and ultimately the hope for redemption in the old South during those bleak, defeating days after the Confederacy fell to the Union. Inman is the protagonist of the book. Yes, that's right -- Inman.

Struggling back up the slopes of Cold Mountain seemed the right thing to do since lately I have experienced (in my troubled mind), unwillingly and incessantly, patterns of four -- thoughts, phantoms, memories, fears, questions, or some combination thereof -- that collide and become jumbled up in that hidden but conscious part of myself that I call Me. Each package of four always I experience as a mysterious and discordant nexus. I know what I imagine is not real. But yesterday I believe I saw four jagged and stony pieces of meteorites, aimed at me like brutal, fleeing convicts scarily blowing in from the four corners of our minimum security galaxy, borne on perpendicular shafts of gray interstellar winds. Like the raw ingredients of an unholy zia, the four racing rocks seemed to have emanated from a secretive otherworldly desert. As yesterday gave way to nightfall, my thoughts became fixed on a collection of daring, logo-covered stock cars -- each was coming relentlessly toward me from north, south, east, west -- grill toward grill, bright and flashy headlights merging into a blazing white and blinding spotlight, as if a chicken at the crossroads battle had been green-flagged by an unseen and evil-minded mastermind. Goofy. Troubling. Unstoppable. As each of these episodes recedes in my imagination, with the postmodern and symbolic ambiguity of a David Lynch movie, I hear this song, Into the Great Wide Open, as unseen credits roll,

     They moved into a place they both could afford,
     He found a night club he could work at the door,
     She had a guitar and she taught him some chords,
     The sky was the limit -- Into the great wide open,
     Under them skies of blue. Out in the great wide open.

     Rebels without a clue.

So what will this day bring? I have a premonition that it might be my last. But that's probably just my paranoia at work. Why do I say so? Because here in the darkness before dawn . .  .
I am staring transfixed, sensing a hotness in me, at a strangely alluring piece of photo-art. It is a stylish picture made with a classy Nikon camera on a sizzling desert day near the Four Corners of the Southwest. It decorates the front panel of a CD jewel-case by a local rock 'n roll band. The group is called Dark-Eyed Juncos -- desert-dusty, sharp billed, and relentless scavenger birds of prey. They (the musicians) remind me of hardened, blue collar power trios like Cream, Rush, the James Gang, and other music legends.

This stylish picture's hues are primarily black, white, gray, and a color that makes me whisper (to myself) fuchsia, a lush pinkish hue. It depicts my friend -- and current stylist at a place called Dream in Color -- named June (who plays a dedicated-to-rock bass guitar for the Juncos in local clubs) and her two middle-aged male bandmates. She is perched in the middle. These men have crept close to her and appear to be whispering secrets into her left ear and the right. ('Here we go again. I feel the chemicals kickin' in. It's getting heavy and I wanna run. I wanna run and hide. -- So, what are you waitin' for? Take a bite of my heart tonight!) One man is dressed in a spotless and glimmering white linen suit, topped by a tilted white fedora. The other is clothed in a diabolical black frock coat, with a pirate-style do-rag (all black with white diamonds) tied over his skull and an equally black gentleman's stylish top hat over it all. 

June wears a stylish, but reasonably modest, gray dress, an enveloping shawl with long strands of fringe, and high cut gray-leather boots sharply decorated by straps and buckles. She sits outdoors whimsically (reminiscent of the mythical Alice, in a granny rocker, anxiously making her way back from Wonderland) on a fiery hot, improbably overstuffed easy chair of fuchsia out in the  burning Mesa Arts Center park. June has a 'curious girl' -- or is it perplexed and frustrated? -- maybe surprised but heart-aching -- expression on her face. Her finely etched eyebrows are arched high. For the moment, she seems pinned tight to her perch, like an avian corpse stuck on the board of a science experiment. The entire photo backdrop is a mysterious blend of pink and gray, like an airborne cloud tinted by a flaring sunset. In the middle, at the top of the photo, is a prominent number 928 (which seems harmless enough) on a plain black panel. Ambiguity and ambivalence drip like liquid drugs from this CD cover. What secretive temptations, what salacious thoughts, which indecent proposals, what hurtful assertions are being whispered into June's ears? What does she hear? (Does she hear anything?) Will that linen white or distrusting black one turn her head? I begin to imagine that June is, what now?, what?, shaking, rattling like an angry desert snake's tail, now coming apart while lurching back and forth hard -- a desert bird, a junco, ensnared, pinned, pulled, then ripped by the wings while anxiously attempting to take flight. -- I blink and everything goes white. In my thoughts, I fear that I have gotten lost somehow, not knowing where, on a vast and sunny expanse of Death Valley desert.

But somehow and for some clouded reason I suddenly stand erect and gaze blankly, feeling alone -- there is no searing heat, no numbing cold, no physical sensations at all -- outside the glass door of the cramped little hair salon of Cheri Casio (a stylist of mine from another lifetime -- but not that long ago . . . ), which I visited almost monthly for twenty years. I am looking through the wide pane of glass that holds the swinging door-frame and spreads out to effectively form most of Cheryl's storefront wall. It is a sultry and cloudy afternoon during the month of June. It is the year 2006. Forgettable days. Summer in the South is really coming on. A sense of irony wells up in me. The building that holds Cheri's cramped quarters is growing steadily warmer because the Louisiana humidity (a phenomenon constant and oppressive in the old South during deep Summer months) is beginning to build up like a radioactive cloud. Many of the little hair and fingernail shops surrounding Cheri's are dark and abandoned, haunted by the irrevocable loss of their lease-holders who fled the tornadic violence of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, then the horrific flooding aftermaths those troublemaking ladies brought to town.
I notice that my in-glass reflection looks forlorn, I am shaggy and unkempt, dark half-moon circles of depression underline my eyes, my shirt is wrinkled. I read the name of Cheri's business painted in green and gold just above eye-level -- A Cutting Remark -- on the illuminated pane. I hesitate. I can't bring myself to push inside just like old times. I am leaving. Soon. It's going to come too soon! Is this the last time? "Probably," I whisper wistfully, to myself and gaze down. No one overhears me.

Cheri has been a kind and loyal (but fundamentally lonely and husband-hungry) friend, month after month, year after year (for almost 20 years, over 200 styling trips in, I told you). -- She's a Catholic girl raised on a Mississippi riverbank across from New Orleans. She exhibits great pride, precision and perfectionism in her work. Once a thriving business, she has now lost much of her clientele to the powerful storms that have come and gone. Cheri would invariably ask for my Dear Abby opinions, as we waited for her hair-dyes to seep into my roots and before she would go swinging her scissors around my head, about her recurring troubles with men both single and married.

That forlorn aspect I see in my reflection is beginning to feel like an anvil of guilt pulling down on my neck. Okay, I will not tell her that this is the last time before I leave. No farewell. No 'thanks a lot,' my dear. I have decided. Sorrow will rule the day. (Sadly I know this is the wrong thing to do.) I hold a tattered, paperback copy of the novel Cold Mountain, which I thought I was going to re-read as we waited in uncomfortable chairs for the hair color to take effect. -- Why? . . . Seven long months have passed in this damaged and reeling area, as it struggles back toward wholeness from being hurled into a barely civilized, medieval state by ferocious winds and deluges, still reeking with the acrid and messy smells of hurricane floods rising up from the bayou turfs. Each stressful day (all through 2006) devolved slowly into a long wake in an unsanitary civic funeral parlor, yes, a wake that refused to end at sunset, like a nightmare and unfunny parody the film Groundhog Day.  I tell myself:  Not one more painful utterance of  'So-long, pal. Thank you and goodbye. You've been great.' No more daylong wakes. Not one more clingy handshakes. No more awkward hugs and teary endings. So I turn my back wordlessly, regretfully, to A Cutting Remark. I feel sad beyond words. Walking toward my car, head down, like a preoccupied pall-bearer carrying a corpse toward a gaping hole that's already been dug. I know this is wrong, an immoral choice, a sorry turn of the screw. Perspiration drops trace from my neck down my guilty spine. I wonder if Cheri will forgive me for my disappearing act. I will try whisper an emotional 'I'm sorry,' ever the conman at work, into her ear someday.

Stop thinking this, I command. Then my imagination heats up, working hard, and I let slip to the ground the worn paperback of Cold Mountain -- as if I am stroke victim gone horrifically numb on the left side -- but I am not standing in the raggedy parking lot anymore. No, I standing upright again in a place far (perhaps very far?) away, inexplicably, that I have never encountered before . . .

but . . . a strong feeling of disbelief overwhelms me. I feel dizzy and claustrophobic. I have been been lurking motionless -- on a hard, gray industrial carpet -- in the dim and poorly finished-basement hallway of an indistinct office building. The walls need to be washed, having turned iron-gray mixed with urine yellow, an unattractive and cloudy tableau. I sense anger and disbelief. This basement smells like an ancient library. Well, in fact, it is an old library I notice. A high-tech office telephone with a complicated panel of buttons and lights sits archly on a thin white shelf by my side, a waist-high protrusion on the bottom half of an old dutch door. The message-waiting light on the phone flashes red brightly. -- On (red). Off. On (red). Off. On (red). Flash. Flash. Red. Flash. Off. Red (on) . . . Persistent. Unflagging. You've got mail are the disembodied words that echo through the hallway. Tirelessly the blinking continues. Eight voice messages have been captured in the terminus. Eight lights a flashin' . . . Seven calls a waitin' . . . Six words unheeded, I hum spontaneously, stupidly, to myself. The phone flashing red, off, red, off, red, off has been ignored for six months, perhaps more. This I somehow know. I judge it to be an evil sign.

Anger swells anew in my heart. This phone extension apparently belongs to any staff member. A catchy song -- Hello, hello baby. You called? I can't hear a thing! -- about telephoning pops into my head. Then, a nameless, faceless aged co-worker stands with me, seemingly oblivious to the fact that this situation is all wrong. Callous inattention and disrespect are words that preoccupy me.

I ask her, why did these calls come in? What did the callers want? Does anyone care?
In a hushed tone, the old woman worker tells me, ' . . . Well, you see, sir, the secret password was not retained. No one has it. Can't do anything about it. Not now.' 

Then, she shrugs. I feel like bursting because I am so mad. Liquid and toxic disdain floods my body and soul.

And who's gonna fix this? Who's gonna this mess clean up?, I demand to know, like a charging bull in small pen. Get I.T. pronto. No excuses. Fix it. -- Who's in charge here?

I appear to myself like the hollow shell of a court-martialed officer, clothed disgracefully in a tattered uniform, a failed leader with no conscripts, bereft of his battalion of Misfit Toys, sent back to an empty barrack. Big winds issue from empty caves, I remember, as an old saying goes.
The bland co-worker replies like a dispassionate junior officer, 'Why, you are, sir. You're in charge."

I blanch, my hands fly up, and I lean back quickly as if shocked by an electrical current. Here it comes again, I tell myself. There is a tingle creeping up my neck, then I get a rush of vertigo and quickly I feel turned upside down by an unknown force.

Then rapidly, incongruously, I go slip-sliding down a steep metal chute that has just opened, straight into the driver's seat of my frigid automobile, slamming down hard on my butt but seated upright, at the chute's bottom. I hear a bone-crunching sound. My tailbone area crackles in pain. After a single nervous breath, immersed in the green glow of my illuminated dashboard, a strange fantasy swirls to life –

I am driving my car to the New Orleans airport, block after urban block in the famed Garden District. It is a wickedly frigid and deeply dark winter morning. The neighborhood is enveloped by a pure blackness, an unexplored and underground cave. Silence reigns. Houses are dark inside and out. Many are abandoned, boarded up, water-scarred; some are tagged with painted-on graffiti, courtesy of post-Katrina search and rescue squads. Many tags are shaped like a cross (with a variety cryptic symbols around it -- these denote clues like 'empty house,' use caution, or 'abandoned animal on these grounds)' There are still bodies of people and animals lying, decomposing, in some of these places. But search teams have gone home and must be sleeping now in warm encampments of their own. A great many street signs are utterly useless. They lay face down, their poles flat on the easements by the sidewalks or wedged in messy gutters, toppled by the ravaging winds and floods those big, hurricane girls brought by.

My headlights shine like the eyes of a wild beast in this deep, unnatural darkness. On the deadly day of August 29, 2005, thousands of streetlights all over the city of New Orleans malfunctioned catastrophically. Their cycle of lights -- red-green-yellow-red -- disappeared. Traffic lights began to blink either yellow or red incessantly as the Hurricane Katrina headwinds at last relented. The maddening and incessant flashing for months upon months, most of the lights in the Garden District were yellow, lacked clarity and finality, hurled caution into the wind. It symbolized a taunting message from the inscrutable gods: 'Heads-up, trouble abounds. There be no safe passage during this life.' The taunting, like trash talk on the basketball court, went on month after month unremitting throughout the city streets. 'Fragile is life, vulnerable is humanity, we hold your fate in our hands, so vulnerable are you! At times the taunt went: 'Make your own rules. No more black and white, no more red and green. Nothing clear. Or make a break for it. Dare you, you loser.'

At a very slow speed under the morning darkness, worried about who or what might be approaching, I roll the car carefully to the storied intersection of Broadway and Freret, near historic but hurricane-ravaged Tulane University. On Broadway I am heading toward the airport. A shiny dark red Suburban emerges oversized, from darkness, to my right. It comes toward Broadway on Freret Street. It is on a right angle to me. Its brakes whine as it halts for the yellow light. I look over. The whole scene goes bright yellow, then dark, then . . . on each of the four street corners sheets of cold mists -- like an amber cloud of airborne illness -- settle down and seem to spread like paint over all.
I think I see Cheri sitting the Suburban's driver-seat, a thick black coat with a high collar is pulled up around her neck and dark hair. Her stare is red-eyed, menacing ungodly. I am very alarmed. The woman looks right through me. Her lips are closed tight but I sense her angry sentiment "Get away!"  She shakes her head back and forth, violently, to emphasize her bitter indictment. I spy an animal in the Suburban with her. Dark-tempered, black, and furry -- a big dog?, a gorilla?, a black wolf?, a unidentifiable predator from an untamed wilderness? The beast stalks around the interior of her SUV with menace, its full furry tail swishing madly. Momentarily I think of piney, Tennessee forests swaying in stiff winds in the story of Cold Mountain. A horrific sense of resignation wells up in me. I sigh -- but the whiny sound of my cold breath redounds to me, from the green glow dashboard, doleful and stale. The cold pinpricks my face like a spray of ice pellets. Heartbreak takes me. I feel lost. Alone in the dark. Freezing and lost.

A song springs up on my car radio -- "Animal" (In a millisecond, I fall into a confused and questioning state. This cannot be, not in truth! The properties of time, sound, and place bend precariously right before me. This recording will not be heard by anyone, anywhere, on any radio, until 2010. -- Yet, here it plays in the deeply dark winter cloud, an up-tempo departure anthem, much too uptempo for this deep, misty cold, and soulful pre-dawn –

     Here we go again, I feel the chemicals kickin' in
     It's getting heavy, and I wanna run
     And hide -- I wanna run and hide,
     I do it every time, you're killin' me now
     And I won't be denied by you
     The animal inside of you. Oh oh,
     I want some more. Oh oh
     What are you waiting for? 
     Say goodbye to my heart tonight.

I grunt a utter an Ugh. --I whisper more lyrics just heard: 'Hush, hush. It's us that's made this mess. So what are we gonna do?'

The unbidden song ends with an eerie fade, not a cold, definitive endstop. No music follows. Radio static buzzes around my ears as if the station has suddenly signed off. I reach for the FM buttons. I remind myself reprovingly that the radio in my vehicle no longer works.
The scratchy static dies away. Silence prevails. The distressing yellow lights keep blinking. Momentarily, (like a fool) I worry needlessly that a runaway Amtrak train, it's exhausted conductor catnapping at the controls, will come crashing through this intersection to mash me senseless, just as Cheri's fiery Suburban runs into me. A four-corner, four-direction disaster is what I imagine, I gasp and look away. I wish it would . . . No . . . I don't, I don't, I won't. Moments of inaction slip by. No other vehicles materialize. Silence reigns. This stupid shit is just never going to end, I shrug. Dejection pricks me. S.S.D.D., I tell myself -- same stuff, different day. 

(Time’s passage brings other prickly and unsuspected changes. Months after, my mind has cleared somewhat. I become aware that I am in a crowded lecture hall. I see a professor with a confident bearing standing behind a podium. I sit on the left hand margin among hushed classmates. She begins in a measured way to pose questions, matters deep to ponder, about post-traumatic stress disorder, as if it were a clinical disease. In her smooth and experienced voice, she develops a thesis. PTSD is a condition wherein someone victimized by a real life experience, which proves lastingly painful and horrific, is burdened, perhaps in an unalterable manner, by . . .

What? I say to myself. Confusion nips at my mind. I guess I fell asleep. Or my pitiful attention must have been wandering again, I surmise deceptively . . .

Yet I have undeniably heard certain words by the teacher behind the polished wood podium. What was it she said? The professor skims hastily over her prepared text toward a poignant endpoint, then glances at her wristwatch. Suddenly she seems pressed for time. I am still stuck on her previous point. She said – think about a Netflix movie that boots up time after time deep in someone's unlucky cortex in washed out colors. Purely there On-Demand, typically triggered by the pulsation of a hidden command button.

The lecturer asks them all to listen up. She is about to deliver her last, key point.

She peers down through a set of half-moon eyeglasses with shiny black rims, a very academic look. She holds her note pages steadily. She contends, 'Often an innocuous moment of sensation can be the tripwire, that hidden command that reignites the painful and life-changing experience one has had. Post-traumatic and disordered – p.t.s.d. to spell it out, a re-living of something one has suffered. It can come from the smoky odor of a house fire that turned a family's life into fear, despair, and cinders. It can be traced to an innocuous pinewood smell in a wardrobe or a piece of clothing steeped in dry cleaning fluid on a hanger deep inside a backroom closet. Or, as you all have no doubt heard, for many survivors locally of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, it could be the storm-soaked reek -- just a whiff or two of some most putrid smell -- in a flooded home long abandoned or a motor car’s once flooded trunk now crammed with junk salvaged from a maelstrom. Finally, it could issue from sidewalk piles of ruined and discarded personal items: personal photos, kids' toys, broken knick knacks, decimated X-Box units, music collections, and stained castoff clothing, situated on easements in front of former family dwellings during the heat of a summertime.

The professor closes her notebook. She looks pale, grim, fretful. She looks up, lights glare across her half-moon glasses, and scans the lecture hall briefly. Silently she tucks her precise notes under an arm and strides out of the room without looking back. I notice one phrase -- author unknown -- scrawled onto a dry erase board behind the wood lecturn. It reads: 'Let us learn the lesson of the The Great Deluge and its rainbow. God will be with us. We've come too far to turn back now.'

I sit, in a dead-stop, at the nexus of Freret and Broadway, a crossroads, a zia some would think. It seems like time to fly. Gotta go, bro, I tell myself. Delta is ready when you are! 'We love to fly, and it shows!' -- The amber street lights caution against rash action; they flash without sentiment: Go. Don't! Go. Don't! Go? Don't! . . . . Sick stuff. Survival. Just doing their job. It's all too confusing. Prepare to stop, or prepare to fly?

Like in a poorly plotted horror movie, the false image of Cheri with the red eyes fades into the deep black mist. On all 4 corners, the absurd yellow blinking will go on for months more.

I think, ‘Can't anybody in this effing town repair anything? Can't anybody tell me clearly what I should do? How in the world. . .?’

Suddenly, I flinch. My cellphone vibrates somewhere deep inside an interior pocket in my hefty overcoat. Phone call? Text message?

      Hello, hello, baby. You called? I can't hear a thing.
     What, what did you say? Oh no, you're breaking up on me,
     So sorry I cannot hear you, I'm kinda busy . . . –

A message at 4 in the morning? No. Impossible. It couldn’t be . . . My heart thuds. My stomach rolls. I feel that dizzying vertigo again, deeply spooked. I feel certain that I know who's trying to reach me. Yes, in fact, I'm sure of it. Here in the depths of darkness, with the promise of a possible dawn not far away, with my smartphone at my service, this cannot end well. In my mind I hear the twitchy trill of the future song again:

     Here it comes again
     I feel the chemicals kicking in
     And I wanna run and hide
     I wanna run and hide:
     Say goodbye to my heart to-night 

And then -- without warning -- once more I find that I have been placed transfixed, a hotness rising like a cloudy mist in me, at a strangely-alluring piece of photo-art on a CD cover. The number 829 looms at the top of a black-slate panel, as do the ominous words A Dreamer's Remarks. I recall that this scene at some other time seemed harmless enough. But now, with alterations, it feels like the foretelling of a cruel coincidence, or a secret code? I ponder. Is this supposed to be funny, some kind of joke? I feel anger and resentment. But I smile in resignation because reality can be stone cold, unforgiving, unyielding. In my mind I hear the tinny echo of  Tom Petty’s tune The Great Wide Open spark sickly to life. It’s coming from some cavernous space -- an empty house or deep cave shaft, I wonder -- that seems far away.

In an entrancing photo on the CD cover (the one which I am studying), there is an oddly appealing scene of three people, obviously a trio of rock 'n roll band mates. One man is in spotless linen white, with a spotless white fedora; one man is cloaked in a black frock coat with a black do-rag (covered with white diamonds) tied over the top of his head, and the last figure, a pretty female, named June, dead-centered in the picture, a Summer girl, wears big silver hoops for earrings, stylish gray clothing and high boots. She appears to be tight-lipped, perhaps curious, perhaps alarmed or perhaps grateful, as she heeds the words that one male companion whispers secretly in her ear. Yes, what is that secret, June? What do you hear?

I wait anxiously for clues: a whisper, a knowing glance, a receptacle into which meaning might be poured. But no one says anything. Perhaps things do just happen.

***   ***   ***   ***   ***   ***

Soundtrack.  Click to listen:  "Animal," by Neon Trees


It's Saturday -- Let's Go Krogering

It’s Saturday – Let’s Go Krogering

Original Fiction by Butch Ekstrom

“It was only a sunny smile, and little it cost in
giving, but like morning light it scattered
the night and made that day worth living.”

                                                                     -- F. Scott Fitzgerald

       Saturdays I usually welcome. Mostly they are errand and catch-up days, freedom from the mundane aches of five days at the most unremarkable job in the galaxy. Once I've had a decent Friday night’s sleep, following two or three (okay, sometimes four or five) Shock Top brews and some Netflix, I am ready to roll by 10:00 a.m. My ritual odyssey of the Never-Ending Shoulda/Woulda/Coulda List kicks into gear.

       Things are supposed go like this:

           Pull Scion onto street;
           Drive through ATM line at bank -- make deposit, get cash; 
Inch up drive-through lane at Starbucks;
Acquire veinte green ice tea, 2 straws please;
Ponder if gorgeous bank teller on ATM camera screen meant  
    anything by ‘Can I do something else for you?’;  
Visit Kim Can Do dry cleaning shop – leave stuff, pick other stuff up;             
Drop envelopes, old-school postage glued on, into rusty mailbox;
Double-check if squeaky mailbox drop-slot did its job;
Drive to grocery store, go in.

       In New Orleans, people identify my next tactical move as “making groceries.” However, in this mid-South haven, the step (based on decades of commercials) is known as 'Kroger-ing,' So, like ‘Let’s go Krogering.’  Even if you were to drop into a Handi-Mart, Publix, or Piggly Wiggly, the effort might be labeled Kroger-ing.

Grocery Cart Selection: Easy Does It

Major food stores in America usually offer two basic shopping cart models. So a successful supermarket foray will begin normally on the open prairies of a monster-size parking lot. This is where (in my opinion) the best basket options wander, both models, on worn-down wheels, like farm animals aimed in no particular direction.               

Your selection will prove critical. You will long for a basket that is well-balanced, with a properly aligned chassis, sturdy handlebar, and no annoying wheel wobbles. Secret some anti-bacterial Wet Wipes on your person. The big moose would be your Traditional -- a grocery industry standard, with four high-sides, a deep-well basket, a low slung horizontal rack right above its four wheels. Old age and uninventive design srob each Traditional of drink cup holders (a sinful omission). But it does supply a mini-basket in which tiny kids can be wedged.

The Traditional 

The Traditional normally evinces a horrid dullness in its metalwork, scratched and gashed from wear and tear, with dead tread and wiggly wheels. Like balky John Deeres and old farm horses out in the country, they present themselves for service as long as they benefit from minimum care and shelter.                                                            

Yet, during a recent burst of spectacular innovation, the grocery industry began to offer The Small Fry - or The Smart Dart -- sporadically at supermarkets. Of reduced size, with a shallow, no kiddies allowed, collection basket, a reliable handle, and a pair(!) of drink holders to insert walk-around beverages, the spiffy, scatback SF really fits my bill. Bigger: no, sir, it is not always better. 

A Black Smart Dart
Yes I live alone in a modest place. My requirements seem simple. But the annals of grocery lore teach that those whopping-big bascarts tempt wimp-willed, low skilled, and addictive eaters into over-shopping. Even cagey, lonely veterans (as in my humble case) succumb to the 'fill 'er up' mentality. It’s discouraging. What kind of sick human being races over to the Kroger just to snag an improbable sack of Science Diet (food for Fido), a three-gallon jug of canola oil, and  double party-pack of graying pork chops 'on sale?' What a way to deplete the budget and clog family arteries. Truth be told, I have never personally stumbled upon an 84-pack of Fanta Orange two liters on sale, or a 50 pound supply of breaded catfish nuggets or a 15 pound 'family can' of Heinz Pork & Beans.’

I wouldn't even know where to search. Something must be wrong I fret.

On a recent weekend, by pure happenstance, I got schooled on proper cart-care and selection. The strangely meaningful episode has me tiptoeing, still, beside the humming DAIRY case and eyeballing other shoppers as I assay my weekly Kroger Games. 

Which Way to Check Out?

      At 11:11 a.m. I was later than usual for the Games. Rain pelted my car. Cold winds blew crisscrossing shopping carts around the parking area like a disturbed flock of farm animals or unmoored skiffs atop a black lake. I hoped that the predictable Saturday customer tsunami had not washed into store yet. I eyed an abandoned Small Fry near my Scion. But a whooshing gust and sheet of rain of blew it far from me. I felt disappointment. 

"Oooh ominous," I whispered with a trace of a smile. 

I knew I should chase that little basket. But three teen boys -- one I could make out as Darius, a cool kid -- with Kroger rain slickers and hoods, like wind frenzied yellow ghosts, chased wildly to corral the escapees. One of them pushed a hobbled old Tradtional my way.

Slowly we wobbled and wiggled toward the fresh greens and produce. I was wet. My calm and composure had been harshed away. I sucked a long drink from the plastic Starbucks cup in my hand, glad that I had it. I took a deep breath.

Bagged yellow onions -- 3 pounds, fresh basil, sliced mushrooms, a Napa cabbage, bell peppers in a mini-rainbow of colors, and pods of bok choy were the first staples among my food needs. Impulse buys followed. They were Ragu Old World sauce, dry whole wheat pasta, and a hermetically sealed sack of the Keebler elves' finest sugary delights.

My arms, face, and hair stayed damp. I could swear my clothes were visibly shrinking, underwear included. I struggled to Aisle 7 -- CANDY, GUM, SOFT DRINKS, WATER, BEER, WINE COOLERS. I wondered about chugging a couple Neato Mojitos right there in 7. But I noticed up ahead a new arrival from Aisle 6. She was a pretty blond girl dressed in soft and casual Lacey brand sky blue sportswear and blindingly neon green New Balance jogging shoes, with neon pink trim, and silver accents. Honey, you look like Disneyland, I thought crazily. 

She rolled her Traditional toward me. This female – apparently a Millennial but not for long – made me think of Jennifer Something or Other, who's from here, and who plays the out there badass, Katniss Everdeen, so lethal, in"The Hunger Games" films. I guessed that Lacey was 28 or 29 years old, a competent but disinterested attorney who strains each week through long, billable hours, very low-profile, amidst a greedy old male law firm. I was sad to note that Lacey had no bow and arrows, but in this open-carry jungle of state that would have been a thrill.

       When I feel good, even somewhat playful in public, I like to bedevil others in Kroger's with brief eye contact, a wink, maybe just a hint of Charlie Manson homicidal delusion to line my brows. What I get back is unpredictable -- modest smiles, the silent head nod, blank stares, impertinent look asides, crimp-lipped How ya doing?'s, someone's lecture full of grievances about the way this store is run. Fun. Whee. My snarky principle at work in this is Keep them guessing what you’re up to!

       This was not one of those feel good forays. The cold rain had been a damper. Yet something that no man can resist attracted me to this blonde girl, besides her splendid Katniss locks, racy kicks, and sky-blue Lacey outfit. She was beautiful, disinterested, and she had been diligently piling items -- like I do -- into the child-seat of her Traditional basket. 

       On Aisle 7, I sidled up to Katniss. The devil prodded me to embrace her, seek her painted lips. She dropped a fat carton of Tic Tac mints into her cart. I sought eye contact and produced a smile. I wished I had drunk those wine coolers. Kat pretended not to notice. Kat raised her shiny Blackberry. Faking a look of concern, got busy tapping a text message. Like, I imagined, Marcy -- geezer alert aisle 7. Her long nails ticked on the smartphone. I pushed on. Would I hear the click of the camera on her handheld?

       At the mouth of Aisle 11, I flagged badly. I craved a rest. Surrounded by freezer cases, I hunted for a Sara Lee red velvet cake. 

          Katniss appeared at the other end of this row. I rounded toward Aisle 12 –ICE CREAM, NOVELTIES, PIZZA, POTATOES to the left. Lingering on chilled open shelves, to my right, were CHEESES, BISCUITS, YOGURT, CREAM CHEESE, BUTTER, MARGARINE -- PLUS a few random consumables stretching back to a perpendicular wall full of MILK and JUICE compartments. Above this area, in huge letters, was the message DAIRY. 

I sensed a minor surge of god feelings. It surprised me. My clothes and hair were almost dry. The Never Ending Get Around was coming to an end.

It Was Right Here

       I decided cockily to freelance my way (sans basket) to secure the last things on my shopping list. I barely noticed that the blond, preoccupied with her Blackberry, was still standing up Aisle 12. I parallel parked my Traditional beside displays of Shredded Cheeses, Greek Yogurt, and Horseradish. I hustled in and around several, high-number aisles. I grabbed a gallon of ice cream (Cherry Cordial, No Sugar Added), Hershey dark chocolate syrup, frozen grape juice  bars, Klondike mint bricks, microwave popcorn, and Pillsbury breakfast pastry. I completely overlooked Sara Lee. Soon my loaded hands and arms were feeling a chill. I slid toward to my big cart to dump my stuff. I felt happy I could pass through one additional area, BAKERY SHOPPE, before making a zippy escape from Krogering.

       My fingers encircled the chilly metal push bar on my basket. The cart's aged wheels squeaked when they moved.

       But not for long.

       "Excuse me, sir . . . . Uh, sir?" an impatient female voice said behind me. I took another step. Couldn’t be for me.

       "Sir, you are taking my . . ."

       The intrusion made me suddenly testy. I turned and saw Katniss up close. She was very pretty indeed. And quiet as a stalker in those NB shoes.

     "What is it? What did you . . . . Oh, hey!” I stammered. 

     "I think you've got my shopping cart there," the lawyer said, cool but puzzled.

       I looked down to study the basket. My thought process reeled. Would I throw up? 

      'Geez, . . . crap,' I acknowledged. I did have hers. My most recent pick-up items were lying atop the things in her kiddie carrier seat. I stared at the carton of Tic Tacs. 

      'Geezooey,' I mumbled, dumbfounded as ever.

       Katniss and a few assorted bystanders stared at me. 
       "Wow. I, I've never done anything like this. Sorry. And I'll tell you now, Lacey, I’ve been shopping a lot of years. A lot" I added, drawing close to an aimless ramble.

       "Lace-ee. Oh wow, sorry, miss. Stupid," I blushed and slapped my hand on my forehead.

       What civil or criminal penalties might a lawyer might slap on for commandeering someone else's Kroger basket? 

       I explained defensively, "Mine -- my cart -- was right here too. I parked it right here. See?"

       I scanned all of Aisle 12. My basket had vanished.

       "Now . . . here it is gone. Who in hell would take my groceries?’  

       Katniss and others smiled. She said that she did not know. Her black and silver smartphone gleamed, like a gemstone, under the overhead lights.

      "Well. Thanks a lot. So . . . Ummm, I’ve gotta go look for it" I said anxiously.

      I would hide in a place isolated, near SEAFOOD, until this all blew over. I would know my basket if I saw it. 

      "You know, mister, people just up 'n walk off with stuff nowadays," a middle-aged woman in a tired Virginia Slims tee shirt blurted. "Just like that. Freaks me out." She cradled a family-size box of Velveeta and a can of Grand butter biscuits in the crook of an arm.

       "They'll probably go 'n figure out what they done 'n just leave it be somewhere,” a man in an oily auto repair-shop jumpsuit said.

      "Yeah, guess so," I said. I pushed the basket to walk once more.

      A strident female voice called, "Sir! Sir!"

      "What? Yeah?" I asked absentmindedly.

      "My cart. My cart. That’s still my cart. I need it back,” Katniss declared.

      "Oh yeah," I blushed. "So sorry."

      The word discombobulated came to mind. I doubted I could then pronounce it.

       Kat grabbed impatiently for her basket. As she did, I noticed that Katniss had selected raw fruits and vegetables, whole wheat muffins, tilapia strips, Lean Cuisine and Healthy Choice entrees, a filet of top sirloin, and some sugar-free candy. This girl was all business. Disciplined without whimsy. No Guy Fieri, Hell's Kitchen, or Food Channel poser nonsense in her grocery life. Then I saw the Tic Tacs once more. Iron Chef would be proud of her.

       "Yeah, well, I'm sure this happens. They all, the baskets, look the same if you don't look closely," Kat said graciously. 

        I made a split-second choice to speak. "Yeah, well, yeah but not if you get one of those great, new little carts. The Small Fry. That's what I call them -- Small Frys. You know 'em -- they've got the drink holders, a central basket, and the wide bottom wire rack for things like cases of Fanta or sacks of Science Diet for big dogs." 

        I grew scared again. 'What the hell?' In my head, my voice sounded foreign, high-pitched, out of control maniacal.

       Katniss said, "Hmm. Yeah. Well, I guess that's right. That's about all." In her hand she clutched her shiny phone.

      “Are you planning to give me your way cool Blackberry too?," I joked.

       She laughed nervously and said no. Quickly she slipped it into her Coach shoulder bag. I sensed pity from her. Several more shoppers had slowed to look on.
       "Well then, bye. Sorry." I turned to flee.

       "Sir? Sir? These would be yours. Don't you want your items?" My new friend pointed down to the pile of Pillsbury breakfast buns and other food selections that I had dumped into her cart's child-ready bin.

       I turned a deep red. Don’t hurt me, Miss, I thought.

       "Sure enough," I whispered. "Good idea. Thank you and I'm outta here." 

      Perplexed, I held the groceries in my arms. How would I finish this? 

Almost The Last Straw

      After a frantic search, I was discouraged. My basket had become invisible. In my mind, it rolled swiftly, under its own power, groceries flopping and twitching, out Kroger's door and across the parkway.  

      The managers and security guards should recognize my dilemma, I told myself. Briefly, I angrily blamed an oblivious, fictional octogenarian couple krogering mindlessly through SUGARS, SPICES, SWEETENERS, SYRUPS which had nabbed my basket. I quick-stepped up and down Aisles 11, 10, 9, 8 . . . 

        My stress level was still going up. Each time near DAIRY, languid customers and store managers chatting with low-rung employees to avoid the public's demands burned me up. Then I snapped inside. I scooped up the leaking Cherry Cordial and other stuff to stomp toward the checkout zone. carton of ice cream and my armsful other stuff toward the checkout zone. It was time to engage.

* * *

       A thick steel pole, floor to ceiling, painted bright yellow, easy to see in theory, stood in the middle of this old Kroger.  I spied two women leaning against it. One was African-American. Her bright red vest and nametag identified her as Melda Plumb. The other red vested lady appeared to be a Latina named Lanita Reyes. They were Kroger floor managers: poised, all-knowing, ready to help.

       Melda squinted at me over her half-moon reading glasses. Lanita closed her mouth and looked toward the self-check lanes impassively.

     "Yes?" Melda asked, but her tone had a ‘don't tread on me’ trace in it. She eyed my softening perishables.

       Feeling mildly intimidated, I began, "Well, uh-huh, I mean, ha ha ahhh, you may not generally hear about this kind of thing. But . . . Or, well, you may think that I'm a bit unhinged, that I would say this but, but . . . look I can't find my cart with my stuff in it. Nowhere."

       "Did you look at where you left it at?" Melda asked matter of factly. Lanita looked at me with anticipation.

       "Uh. Yeah. I sure did,” I said. Now I was a defendant in a courtroom. I pleaded my case. “Aisle 12. CHEESES, GREEK YOGURT and you know. So. I was gone over to Aisle 11 and then I came back and my basket was gone. You know?" 

      "Did you look around some more? Did you see anybody with it?" Melba asked. Lanita nodded unhelpfully.

       "Yeah. I did all that. I looked hard. I even went back twice by MILK and CREAMERS. Look, I don't want y'all to think I'm crazy. But I don't know what else to do."

       "Somebody just took it,” Melda stated without feeling. Then like a veteran TV detective, she added, “They'll ditch it. For sure. Just ditch it. We ‘ll find it – we find 'em all over all the time.”

        Lanita nodded again with a smile. 
       "What? Really? Just like that?" I asked in disbelief.

       "Look, don't you be worried none. Just go get you another cart. Those items belong to you?" she nodded toward my full hands.

       "Yep,” I answered. “But they're fading on me fast."

       "I know. It's a pain. But you go on and start over. Go on, get going. I'll look for your things. If you see your basket you come get me right off. If I find your cart I'll tell you once it shows up. Okay?" 

        Melda seemed suddenly balanced and reassuring. Lanita nodded again.

      "I'll be over There," I said unhelpfully as I pointed at the FRUITS and VEGETABLES sign on a distant wall.

     "Don't you worry none. Somebody'll look down, see what they done, and they'll figure THIS all out," Melda noted. 

      The two red vested officials walked away 

       After a couple of steps, Melda stopped. She turned quickly. “Just in case, how will I know that it's yours?” she asked.

       "In the little top basket for kids. A big plastic Starbucks cup. Iced tea. Two green straws will be sticking out of it . Can’t miss it. Tucked into the kiddie seat,” like I was testifying to a court reporter.

       Melda tossed me a strange look. Then she headed across the Kroger Games turf to where the big bosses hang.

* * *

       Moments later I commandeered another abandoned cart to re-commence my shopping excursion.

     First I snatched some jasmine rice, that jar of  Ragu sauce, and the dry pasta. Then I stalk-walked, still angry, over to FRESH FRUITS and VEGETABLES.

      I snapped -- with a little too much angry vigor-- three plastic sacks off the bag dispenser next to a pile of Granny Smiths. Take it easy, don’t go postal, I cautioned -- the world is watching. A big woman, with a doe-eyed, little peanut in her Traditional perch, anxiously assessed the danger I might pose or if I was carrying concealed weaponry. 

     "For bell peppers and onions," I blurted.

     Briefly I turned toward a shopper checking out Napa cabbages. I motioned to her to extract her white earbuds with the small silver skulls and crossbones.

       "What's the problem?" she inquired seriously, caressing a Napa lightly.

       "Just wondering . . . here," I pointed to the vegetables and flshed a hint of a smile. "What was green, could really sing the blues, and dance up a storm?,"

       "Sir? I dunno. Really, I . . . ." She rolled her eyes.

       "Okay. Okay. You give up? -- Elvis Parsley, that's what, ha," I said.

       "Oh," she said, unmoved. She stuffed the earbuds back in.

       "Whatcha listening to?" I asked loudly.
       "Parsley's Greatest, dude," the woman retorted. At last she grinned.

       "Ha. That's funny, now that's fun-nee" I said. But the game was over.

       I pushed onto Aisle 4. It was deserted. The words LATIN FOODS, INTERNATIONAL, MARINADES, GRAVY clung to the signage above. 

       Then before I could say enchilada, my life as a Kroger Valued Customer changed permanently.

       On the overhead announcement system I heard clearly, "Good afternoon, everyone. Will the Kroger Valued Customer who is missing his shopping cart please come to the BAKERYLAND department? We got what you're looking for."

       Feeling suddenly hot and furious, I glanced about furtively. I was alone on 4. No one stared at me. Had Melda really said 'missing his shopping cart' out loud? I listened for derisive laughter. But a soft, background muzak version of "Fools Rush In" hummed up and down the aisles. 

       'Wait a minute. Nobody knows it’s me!' I said to myself, relieved.

       Then a bit louder Melda declared, "Attention. Attention, will the Valued Customer who lost his shopping cart please proceed to the Bakery Shoppe? We have a very special surprise here. It's your runaway."

       Lost? Effing lost? I shivered with embarrassment.

       Lanita emitted a muffled snicker in the background before the microphone went dead.

        "Geez, ladies, go ahead and announce it to the world," I mumbled.

*   *   *

       I worked my way with my replacement cart, like a snail in a crosswind, across the front of the grocery. Its wiggly wheels squeaked and complained on the linoleum floor. I felt panicky. Could people be giving me the dreaded sideye as the Loser Man who was so hopeless he lost track of his slippery basket? The painfully formidable, Saturday checkout lanes stood to my left. Progress proved difficult. Individuals with overflowing carts slowed me by veering left and right without care or caution. Some haphazardly bolted back out in front of me thus surrendering their spots in numbered aisles. Items clacked and smacked on the floor as random things fell over the top edges of overstuffed Small Frys. Two little kids in a faux, red and yellow BMW attachment (on the front of some man's Traditional) darted at me, daring a head on collision, like NASCAR cutthroats. I stopped abruptly. One child, with a wad of chewing gum and a runny nose, stared at me. The other, looking dosed by a psychotropic med, flipped me off. 

       Beautiful, so charming indeed, I murmured. My immediate thought was to slap the little flipper's hand. Instead, I briefly sized up the gent pushing the faux BMW. Clearly he suffered from more than an irreverent child or two. Let the man and his PTSD pass I decided. 

       An old woman, dressed in tacky, seam-stretched Wal-Mart clothes, sporting spiky wild white hair, but with no coat in sight, veered persistently in front of me. She inched forward slowly and leaned, as if drugged and nearly sleepwalking, over her Traditional's push bar. Her head was bent forward and her two bare and wrinkly arms and hands dangled, corpse-like, inside her cart -- like an old feline that had been sucked up into a pick-up's engine with her legs dangling. The old lady's feet were dragging -- each set of toes pointed down on the scuffed linoleum. I pictured her sound asleep but yet guiding  a rusting Ford-250 carelessly off the rain-slickened parkway. Near Kroger's main doors, she ditched her truck atop a red No Parking square of asphalt. The back of the woman's faded shirt looked wet and held an outline of a fragile fetus. It said "Pretend that I'm a tree. Protect my life. God bless the unborn!" 

       I considered strategies that would allow me to slip around this creeping nuisance without killing someone. But I let it go. I needed to arrive in one piece over in Bakery Land, or Baker's Shoppe or Baskersville, or whatever. Melda was waiting, I hoped. Meanwhile, I felt chastened, impatient, and, wow, thirsty. 

Doing It Her Way

       Melda in the red vest and khaki trousers, all skeptical and streetwise in her demeanor, waved pleasantly toward me. She seemed glad to roll my grocery-bearing, Traditional cart toward me. Two green Starbucks straws were sticking up proudly, like a country's beloved flag, from the kiddie seat area. Melda steered briskly through all the carts around her.

       She has driven this way before, I thought stupidly. The lyric I once was lost but now am found played, with a big church organ, in my head.

       "Bueno suerte. Must be your lucky day, senorComo no?," Lanita spoke from the big yellow pole.

       "Must be," I conceded.

       Melda Plumb rolled up to me. She actually seemed sympathetic for a second.

       "I don't know how to thank you. I really don't,” I babbled. I felt like a fool. “Thank you. You’re great. I really, really did not want to do all this over again. But where'd you find it? How?”

       Melda replied, “You know what? You gave me a good clue. I saw them straws clear 'cross the floor. Two green straws. Yessir. If you hadn't a said somethin' I'd still be looking."

       She handed the drippy cup to me. "Here. You look like you could use a stiff drink. Been some kinda mess, ain’t it?"

       I drank two big swallows. It did taste good. Anxiety had turned my mouth bone dry.

      “I was like really, truly, worried when I first came up to you ladies,” I stammered. 'Like you'd think I was unhinged or whatever. Going mental. Some kinda lunatic . When I first told you it sounded kinda weird even to me. Wow. Harsh day.”

       "Look at this stuff," Melda gestured toward my Traditional collection. "Look like yours, sir?"

       It looked good to me. No mystery items. A Traditional that wheeled straight ahead. Hastily I grabbed my Aisle 12 acquisitions and transferred them to my recovered basket. I would switch the melting ice cream and drippy juice bars with replacements soon.

      "So where'd you find it, ma'am?" I asked.

     Lanita answered, "Back near DAIRY, by the milk cases. It be dumped. Ditched. Chillin' all by it's lonesome."

       "That's the deal," Melda agreed.

       "Well, you’re a lifesaver, I mean it," I flattered her. "Heh, heh, I, I guess you were pretty what's all this when I told you what my problem was. Right?"

       Melda scowled. "No sir. Not at all," she said in a very matter of fact tone. "No-oo-o, sir. Okay, then. That's it. I'll take your second basket, put your second-stab goods away."

       Katniss/Lacey rolled into my field of vision behind Melda, bound for a checkout lane. The girl was texting again on her gleaming Blckberry. Then without warning she shot a disapproving look my way.

        I felt something flutter in my heart.

        Katniss spoke into the phone, "So I was I sayin' -- this older guy starts rolling away with my grocery basket, for real. Crazy shit, huh? So I say ‘Sir, oh Sir?’ . . . Oops, Marcy, I gotta bounce." 

        A sarcastic smile and a light toss of her lustrous hair came next. But before laying items on the checkout belt, Katniss laid her compact phone aside, tightened her lips, and saluted Melda and me by raising her right arm, extending three fingers, trident style, just like the heroine in the The Hunger Games films.

       I was awed. Katniss raised a Super Big Gulp cup that she somehow now had half-hidden in her cart. 

       "God the amount of sugar in that cup must be sending her into a walking coma," I noted to Melda and Lanita.

       "I wouldn't know, mister. What’s blondie's problem anyway? If you axe me, I think she's got a bad attitude," Melda snorted.

       "No biggie. That was just a badass gesture to another one. Admiration maybe,” I replied but knew that was not true. 

       "So, so thanks again and . . . wait a minute!" I said loudly. "You said You were not surprised to hear that my basket was lost?"

        Lanita snickered again.

       "No, sir. Not at all," Melda said politely. "Happens a lot. But don't you worry you-self none. Carts, they get lost (she makes exaggerated air quotes with her fingers as she declares lost). Seems like every day. DDD. Ditched, dodged, and dumped we call 'em. It was pleasure to serve you, sir"

       "Yeah, I guess Saturdays are bad. Lots of folks, lots of carts needed, everywhere," I complained.

      "No again, sir," Melda scowled, but she was just playing me. "Now it do be busy at Kroger's on weekends. But with all the old old folks comin' to us on Thursday for Senior Day, I'll tell ya the truth. Just wait till you see Senior Day – it's a nightmare.

       Lanita nodded eagerly. She was missing two front teeth. "Night-mare, senor."

       An old man in a wrinkly red vest came up. His badge read Thurbert Bumfield. World's Oldest and Longest Kroger employee. 

       "Caught yo'self' another runaway did ya, Mel?" Thurbert asked with childlike glee. 

       Melda, Lanita and he laughed strangely. He had touched a nerve of some sort. 

       I went on to the checkout lane. All the self-scan lanes were busy. I would wait in line for a human. 

       Darius the SnowBird, as I call him (Darius flies south each year to escape local winters), would be my checkout guy. He calls me "My dog, Mister Valued Customer" or and fist-bumps with me after scanning my Kroger discount card. 

        A few departure lanes away I spied the not cool, nosy female with the Virginia Slims shirt. She was a caustic specimen: You know people just up and walk'n off with your stuff -- just like that. I searched for her hunk of Velveeta cheese Grands. No worries. They were gliding down the scan belt.

         I was so done for now with Krogering. I was open to some different kind of hunt. 

        Darius got busy scanning my stuff. Over the loudspeaker came a voice with a strange but recognizable feel. The words boomed this time. Ms. Melda Plumb with the red vest said:

              "Attention, Kroger Valued Customers. Thank you for Kroger-ing today
              at our superstore. Listen up now please. Announcement. Announce-
              ment! We've got a lost little child, a young boy, at the FRESH MEATS
              counter. A real handsome and polite little boy he is. He is missing his 
              family. He say he came with someone named "Mommy," and that you,                   Mommy, are lost. This boy's name is Efraim. So, if Efraim is yours 
              please come now. FRESH MEATS counter. Hwon't make it far on his                     own."

          After a moment of reflection, before the electronic beep, beep, boops began again,
I called out for all to hear.

               Members of the Kroger Valued Nation. Listen up! Time to unite! I who     
               have lost much in this life know this truth. We get by when we help 
               each other, seek what each other needs and values. Another child 
               has gone missing. It's our duty, not a game, to help him, Efraim, 
               find his future now. Listen to me! How many more souls must be lost? 
               How many more must not go missing? 

         I extended my arm, three fingers pointed upright, trident style. I bowed my head like Katniss in the movies.

        The checkout zone grew hushed. A handful of shoppers looked down. Many pretended nothing had happened and just went on. 

        I noticed the muzak track was playing a song throughout the store. It was The Citizen Cope's "Let the Drummer Kick." As in kick that bad habit.

       "Word, my serious white V-I-P and Valued Customer. My dog," Darius the SnowBird whispered.  

       We fist-bumped. I replied, "Truth."

       The Velveeta Lady and the curvy barrister in the Lacey outfit continued about their business. Darius finished my bagging.

       I rolled my packed-tight Traditional to the sliding doors to exit. Shoppers made self-scanning machines go boop, boop, beep. Strangers murmured to each other. Cellphones chirped, like agitated bluejays, throughout the store. 

       'That Melda. What a cut up,' I mused. She aims between the eyes.

       Elvis Parsley began to sing his syrupy rendition of "I Did It My Way."


         Soundtrack Cut for this Story:

           Citizen Cope,  "Let the Drummer Kick"

           Elvis, "My Way"