Hungry Man Salisbury Steak had been his favorite frozen dinner since he was a kid and his mother let the family eat frozen dinners on Friday nights on the folding snack tables while they watched TV. She called it “an indoor picnic” and they would sit together and watch the Brady Bunch and then the Partridge Family and his mother would sing the theme song and his father would cover his ears and laugh and everything would be easy. How old were his parents then? Younger than he was now, he thought, early thirties maybe. Brian let the sadness settle into him as he pulled open the glass door and released the white blast of cold air.
Then he heard a little girl’s voice yelling, “Daddy! Daddy!” and, as he looked up, she came running by him in sneakers that lit up pink, her coat falling off her shoulders. She ran into the arms of a man wearing blue jeans and brown work boots who crouched down to lift her, a man who just a minute before had been scanning the frozen dinners at the top of the aisle. “I didn’t expect to see you,” the man said.
Brian watched the man scoop up the little girl and squeeze her until she giggled, and then he turned back to see her mother following behind. Dark hair, nice looking, sad eyes.
He recognized her with a mental click and ducked his head. A nurse he’d slept with four or five months ago, he remembered her raspy voice, her matter-of-fact manner, but not her name. He remembered that she’d said her ex had been in construction or plumbing or something. He’d never called her back, knew he never would when she’d given him the number. But he didn’t have to worry. She didn’t register him at all, didn’t even turn his way. She passed, pushing the cart ahead of her like a shield, the scene of her ex-husband holding their daughter, giving into her jumping pleas, lifting the girl up on his shoulders now, pulled emotions one after another across the woman’s face like different colored veils. Brian watched fascinated—happiness, heartache, regret, shame, pain.
Brian watched her as she walked by out of the corner of his eye, and the words “I love you” came into his mind, she was saying it with her eyes to the man who held the child. He thought, she still does but she isn’t going to say it out loud. Maybe she doesn’t know it. She was almost beside Brian now and he turned into the frozen food case. Then, as she passed, he turned the other way.
Through the frosted door, he watched them. Looked at the father, chin tilted up, hands holding the daughter’s ankles, steadying her. They were almost together now, the cart in between them like a metal fence.
[Refer: Anne Colwell writes: “This story was, weirdly, partly inspired by Updike’s ‘A&P’—I think he permanently changed the way I see grocery stores. They became for me places where the most strangely personal dramas can get acted out in public ways. The last image also connects (in an off beat way) with Casey Murphy’s story ‘Fences.’.]
Image by Miki Yoshihito via Flickr Creative Commons
Anne Colwell, a poet and fiction writer, is an associate professor of English and creative writing at the University of Delaware. She published two books of poems, Believing Their Shadows and Mother’s Maiden Name, as well as a book about Elizabeth Bishop, Inscrutable Houses. She received the Established Artist in Fiction Fellowship and the Established Artist in Poetry Fellowship from the Delaware State Arts Council, as well as the Mid-Atlantic Arts Fellowship at the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts. Her chapbook, Father’s Occupation, Mother’s Maiden Name, won the National Association of Press Women’s Award for Best Book of Verse. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in several journals, including: Valparaiso Review, Mudlark, r.kv.r.y, Southern Poetry Review, Gargoyle, Prime Number, and Octavo.