I first see him in the dairy section of the grocery store, perusing the shelves of milk. Shaking his head ever so slightly I know exactly what he’s thinking. He looks a little lost. Edging my cart closer I maneuver to the side as if to pass except I stop behind him, pretending to look at the eggs. I’m not sure it’s him but I have to be sure before I speak.
Cheerios, chocolate cake mix, frosting, cornmeal and butter crackers.
It’s him alright. It has to be.
“The prices sure have gone up haven’t they?” I ask him, looking at his back. He speaks without turning around.
“You know I remember when…” he begins, “…when milk was 20 cents a quart and butter was thirty cents a pound…” I finish his sentence.
Grabbing a half gallon of buttermilk, he places it slowly in his own cart and turns to look at my face. Familiarity with a hint of sadness crosses his face and I feel the same. Only in different contexts. I’m sure of that.
“I saw you, you know. Over in the soda aisle. You always did like soda. Drank too much if you ask me but that’s not what you want to hear from me is it?” he asks me with a half-smile.
“No…no. It’s fine. I wouldn’t expect anything different from you. In fact, if you hadn’t said that I would have known I’d spoken to the wrong man,” I tell him smiling now. “How about we go to the café in the front of the store? We can leave our carts there and grab a drink. Coffee perhaps?”
His wrinkled tanned hands grab his cart handle and I look down at his feet as he begins to walk off without a word. Same tennis shoes I notice. No laces as well. It had always been hard for him with his arthritis to tie his shoes, so he’d grown accustomed to not having laces at all. His feet swollen most of the time anyway, it was for the best. More room he’d tell anyone who’d enquire.
I follow him down the aisles toward the deli section where a small snack area is situated. There aren’t many people seated today. It’s a Sunday morning and no doubt most of them are sleeping in or at church. That’s good though. I don’t like crowds.
“You nervous? Not a lot of people here today, I know you’re happy about that,” he says over his shoulder. The shopping cart wobbling under his slow push. He always did manage to get the cart that was about to break down. It never failed. I laugh under my breath a little. It’s almost as if ten years haven’t even passed.
For some reason my laughter stops him and he turns around to look at me. Smiling but looking down I suddenly feel nervous. I have no idea why. I’ve known him for a very long time. Just like milk prices though, things have changed. I’ve been able to flow with the change. I think this must be much harder for him.
I park my cart alongside two more and move for his and do the same. I let him buy the coffee. He’d want that. For as long as I’d known him he’d always kept a couple of dollars tucked deep in his leather wallet for surprise treats and this was certainly a treat.
“I bet you don’t even have a dollar in your purse for times like this,” he states, chuckling as he sets the two steaming cups down in front of me. He continues to smile as he pulls out his chair and slowly sits down.
I grab my own cup, feeling the steam of the black liquid hit my face briefly. Staring into the cup I feel my throat tighten up. How do I ask him how he’s been? Where he’s been and what he’s been doing?
“How have you been,” he asks first.
“Ok I guess. You would know I’m sure…” I trail off. Deep down I know he wouldn’t know and he slowly shakes his head as if to confirm my knowledge of where his life has been spent the past decade. There is no need for those questions right now.
“Jacob’s all grown up now. He’s going to college this fall. It’s been so strange lately thinking of him becoming a man and going out on his own. I feel like I’m losing him all over again.” I run my finger around the rim of the cup as I remember the day my son moved in with his father after the divorce. The pang of guilt and sadness hits me hard and I blink back a tear.
He looks at me with a bit of surprise when my eyes meet his.
“Oh but you wouldn’t know about the divorce either would you,” I ask mostly to myself. Already knowing the answer to my own question. Why is this so hard, I think to myself. Why am I not asking him all about the things he’s seen or done since we last spoke that afternoon in his bedroom at my house? He can’t tell me, that’s why.
Reaching into the pocket of his thin button down shirt, he produces a folded paper towel and hands it to me. I unceremoniously blow my nose not caring who hears. My face has become swollen with emotion and I wipe an errant tear from the corner of my eye.
“You always did carry a paper towel with you,” I say smiling back at him and I crumple it in my hand.
We sit there in silence for what seems like an eternity but it’s really only minutes. I feel like I’m wasting time with him. Time I may never get again.
Reaching across the table he takes my hand.
“It’s so hard!” I blurt out. “I don’t know what to do most days or how to act or even how to begin to help Jacob on his journey. Like I said, I feel lost…” I finish almost whispering.
He speaks softly. “Do you remember when you wanted a jean jacket so badly when we were at Wal-Mart that one time?” I nod and he continues. “You were so determined to have one even it was coming from Wal-Mart, but I didn’t have the money for it. You plead your case the whole time we shopped. Even once we were in the truck, you still kept at it.”
“I know,” I whisper, feeling shitty for that moment in time. I had been a brat about it for sure.
“Do you remember that time you came home after curfew and I caught you sneaking in your window? I was so furious with you and you said I just didn’t understand teenagers?” I nod again, feeling guilty. I remember yelling at him that night as if it was yesterday.
“Oh and then there’s that time you told me you were pregnant and getting married. That was a hard day for me. You too as I recall,” he says smirking at me.
“I was nervous to tell you,” I smile back at him. We share that memory between us for a few seconds.
Staring at him unabashedly, my gaze roams over his familiar face and I notice the things I’ve looked at in pictures for the past several years. His slightly too big nose and ears. His neatly trimmed silver beard. Those bushy eyebrows that rose constantly at my young girl exclamations when things came up that I used to get excited over.
“You look the same, you know,” he says quietly. “You’ve got more gray hair than I remember and some wrinkles starting around your eyes. That’s not bad though. Both suit you as you’ve grown older. Life happens,” he says with a sigh. “Life does go on no matter what happens in the past. The key is to…” he stops, “…always have a dollar in your pocket just in case,” I finish his sentence again. We laugh softly.
“It’s always good to know you have that dollar. You’re never really broke and in some way it always gave me a sense of security, no matter how little you can get for it now days,” he says to me in the same voice I remember him using when lecturing me about things.
“I’m afraid I have to go,” he says rising. I sit there for a minute and wonder where all the time went. Why didn’t I say more? Why didn’t he ask me anything about my life or Jacob’s? Standing up, leaving my cup as well, he draws me into his warm embrace and I smell his Wild Country cologne from Avon. It comforts me. Reminds me of the old days when we were inseparable. “For a long time after you left us, Jacob wore the same cologne. Bathed in it you would think,” I whisper, pressing my face into his chest.
“I never left you. Either of you. I’m everywhere and nowhere at the same time.”
He releases me and walks to his cart. I watch him turn it around and head towards the registers.
“Wait!” I call out and he stops.
Turning, he smiles one last time and speaks. “Remember. All parents feel lost at some point in their lives. Things have a way of working out. You just have to believe in yourself. That you’ve done the right things and most importantly the best that you could.”
Leaving my own cart behind I rush to follow after him but lose him around an aisle. I stop while others pass me by, going about their daily shopping routine. I bring my hand to cover my heart and feel it beat just a bit stronger.
“Bye dad,” I whisper still holding my hand to my chest. “Thank you.”