Grocery Shopping

Grocery Shopping

Grocery Shopping 1920 1440 Whitney Curry Wimbish

Nola went shopping even when her pantry was full, as it was today. Down aisle 13, the store-brand aisle. Ignored by other shoppers, but not Nola. The corporation still used her father’s slogans and packaging. De-Licious De-Lund! White letters in a red rectangle. De-Lightful De-Lund! Echoes from a different life.

Into the cart: A De-Lund raspberry granola bar. De-Lund peanut butter cookies. And from the cold case at the end, chocolate milk. A child’s snack.

A young worker called out. “Mrs. Derry! Good morning!”

“Hello honey,” Nola said. “Just picking up a few things.”

What she wanted to say: “This is my father’s store! He founded it!” But she held her tongue because that would sound like lying, or worse, boasting. The daughter of Ryan Derry would be a millionaire, wouldn’t she? Millionaires don’t do their own shopping. Derry, the “De” to Dale Lundegaard’s “Lund.” The pair had been local figures, for a time. But they had fallen from memory long ago and now the origin of the store’s name was nothing more than minor trivia. The corporation’s omnipresence had rendered it invisible; there were two hundred De-Lunds across the Midwest. It was as unmoored from its history as completely as Starbucks is from literature.

Out of 13 and over to 14: herbs and spices. The florescent lights shocked against the white floors. The sound system soft-rocked “Louie Louie.” A young father spoke softly to the baby strapped to his chest. Men could do that kind of thing now, be direct with their love.

Nola took a deep breath. She recalled what her sister would say when Nola wanted her to stay home instead of going to a friend’s. Hortense was only four years older, still a child herself.

“Who do you want?”

“Tensy.”

“Who do you got?”

“Dad.”

They’d say it together with a rhythm and after a few rounds Nola would forgive the betrayal and let her older sister go.

Nola changed the words as she made her way through the store.

“What did you want?”

“Stop this,” she told herself.

“What did you get?”

She paused. “Stop.”

 

When she was a girl, De-Lund Grocers had been nothing more than a single small room. Displayed to the right: long underwear, wool stockings, durable work shirts, denim overalls, sheets, towels. On the left: dried beans, dried fruits, tea, corn, flour, spices and a twenty-pound mass of prunes you had to pry apart with an ice pick – an eight-year-old Nola’s first job. Now prunes were called “dried plums” and coated with powder so they never stuck.

A meat counter lined the back wall and a room beyond served as an area for testing cream for butterfat and candling eggs – the task of holding an egg before a light to detect blood spots within. Nola could picture her older sister at work on a low, three-legged stool. The heel of her shoes always set her knees higher than her hips, so the semi-circle of her skirt fell like a petal, the accidental elegance of a real-life Cinderella. Hortense would wrap her arms around Nola, and Nola, aware her deadly birth had shattered a happy family, would bend towards that sunlight like a starving weed.

“Help me decide on this one,” Hortense said, and held out an egg. Her fingers were long and narrow, with smooth-edged nails. Nola took the egg in her own fingers, grubby from stacking boxes of turnips. She held it to the bulb.

“I think this one is good?”

“Let’s keep it for ourselves, then.”

The land outside stretched to the horizon in all directions and thunderstorms could be seen hours before they hit.

 

Nola wandered to the next aisle: Kitchenware. It was a marvel how many new inventions came out these days. Some useful, some less so, like the banana-shaped mold with ridges at half-inch intervals. Nola gathered one was meant to press a banana into it to “save countless minutes,” as the packaging claimed. Hortense would have said something smart and funny about that.

 

When Nola first heard what had happened, she immediately wondered, “Who’s going to run her shift?” – the disjointed thought of shock that made her face grow warm with shame whenever she recalled it since. Dad had made a delivery to the hospital, but left out the order of coffee, which no Midwestern enterprise can go without, then or now. Nola was busy at a farm outside town, so Hortense, a nervous driver, went with the forgotten parcel herself. Perhaps the ice had been invisible. Perhaps Hortense had hit the brakes too hard instead of pumping them, as Nola would have known to do. Perhaps, despite her nerves, the 23-year-old was daydreaming. It was ghastly to imagine the moments the car spun into the opposite lane, to imagine the oncoming livestock truck fail to swerve in time. Nola hated that she pictured it so clearly but feared the day her aging mind could not.

Being so close to the hospital, doctors came at once with a stretcher for Hortense. But an hour passed before they managed to separate the cars and retrieved her.

Had dad been there? Had he seen it happen? Had he seen his daughter’s ruined body? Nola had never asked.

 

And here was another gadget Hortense would have loved. A tea infuser in the shape of a little man. His belly held the tea; his arms hung over the side of the teacup as if it were a hot tub. In another world, Nola would have bought one of these silly toys and later slipped it into Hortense’s purse when she wasn’t looking. Nola would say nothing and wait and an hour later or the next day or even two days later Hortense would discover it and call and say something funny and Nola would laugh and Hortense would laugh and it would be like it had always been except now they’d be two old ladies who could talk about everything that had ever happened and each would know how the story went.

 

Sitting in the front pew, Nola could see the tremor of her father’s grip and the tears start to form the moment he stood before the congregation. He opened his mouth as if to speak, then closed it again. He tapped his papers against the platform. Rearranged them though they were only two. He smiled, a last effort, then let his face crumple. With as much dignity as he could muster he walked swiftly from the chapel and the echoing space filled with rustling as friends and family turned to watch him go.

Nola straightened her back and stood. She smoothed her skirt and walked to the front. She gathered her father’s papers and looked out at the crowd.

“Hortense was sweet and gentle. We all loved her so much.” She stopped to collect herself. “Never was anyone kinder. To me, or anybody.” Then she followed her father out the door.

Nola walked home and found it empty. She watched as slanted afternoon light faded and bright stars appeared in the sky. An hour passed, then another. When she set out, she only half-acknowledged that she knew where she would find him. If only his heart had not already been broken. If only he had been at a bar, say, having a rare and fortifying drink. Or back at the church in prayer. But here he was. Light through the workroom window cast a single square onto the black ground and the sound from within was the deep halting cry of a wounded animal. Nola saw her father sitting on the low, three-legged stool, his arms on his knees, his hands limp, his chin bent almost to his chest. The egg-candling lamp illuminated the deep downward lines of his open mouth. What Nola thought she’d always seen from the corner of her eye was suddenly in focus. She would have been cold comfort for the loss of a favorite child, so she turned homeward and towards her own grief.

Dad’s sorrow remained, Nola kept her distance, and when pneumonia overtook him the following winter, she was once more before the congregation. Nola was unsurprised when the lawyer said she would receive her father’s modest savings; she was his last remaining relative. But she had not expected the second document, which requested she assume his position as company partner. When she saw that it predated her sister’s death, a thick wall rose up inside her, holding back an ocean of regret so she could live safely on dry land.

Dale Lundegaard held his hat in both hands. “You sure you don’t want it?” A lawyer had marked where both needed to sign. Nola shook her head and offered a smile. Like Hortense’s favorite adage, actions speak louder than words.

 

From a distance, Nola watched the business grow. From her junior college in Wisconsin, where she got a library sciences certificate. From the Grand Forks Public Library, where she still worked after thirty-five years. The store incorporated, added more locations, moved into new states. With no children of his own, Dale had left his wealth to the corporation itself, which was now controlled by a roomful of strangers.

 

At the checkout Nola made small talk with the cashier, another ruddy-faced kid who referred to her as “Missus.”

“Just this?” The snack was tiny in the huge cart.

“Sure is.”

“It’s really coming down today.”

“It sure is.”

“Can’t forget your hat on a day like this.”

“No, hon, you sure can’t.”

The sliding doors opened and closed noiselessly. The light was dim. Nola reached her car, set her single grocery bag on the passenger seat, turned the ignition. Not ready to go home she drove to the lot’s far end and regarded the store. She watched its soft halo refract in the falling snow and grow brighter against the rapidly drawing night. She pictured her anonymous car from above, a gray rectangle in the center of the parking lot, slowly blurring to nothing.

Header photography © Emma Sywyj.

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