Wednesday, May 31, 2017

Story 231: A Quick Errand

Gail hated shopping at Zip Grocery, but the nearest actual chain store was ten miles away and the bus schedules had just been getting more and more labyrinthine.  With all the twists and turns and transfers, it would take her almost two hours each way.

The bell on the door jingled as she walked in, and Gail took a basket.  As always, her goal was to shop as quickly as possible.  Everything about Zip Grocery was the opposite of the big chain places - the aisles were narrow, so that as many shelves as possible would fit.  The lights were dim and flickery, giving off a muted yellow glow rather than the stark white of new fluorescents.  The brands were often strange, companies Gail had never heard of or boxes labeled in other languages.  Still, she had never had a problem with the actual food.

As she passed the counter a ghostly form became faintly visible, like a mirage.  "Still looking!" Gail said, and the figure vanished.  That was really the worst part about Zip Grocery.  The water marks on the ceiling, the dusty shelves, the radio playing mostly static with just a few recognizable fragments of music - all of these Gail could ignore for convenience.  But the ghosts were usually too much, and would have been again today if she hadn't overcooked dinner.

As if reading her thoughts, a voice came over the speakers and drowned out the static.  "You have a date?"
"Yes, Mrs. Habbash."  She had given up asking them not to eavesdrop.  It didn't seem to be intentional, sometimes they just picked up a signal.
"Who is the lucky boy?  Anyone I know?"
Gail dropped a box of what she hoped was cornbread mix into her basket after failing to decipher the Korean(?) on the front.  "Um.  Yeah, I guess maybe.  Eric?  Eric Swift."
The static returned, and Gail sped up.  Chili wasn't a very good meal for a date, but it was fast and easy and she didn't have time to do much from scratch.  It would be better than the bone-dry and rock hard pork roast she had somehow created.  If there was something wrong with her oven she doubted the landlord would get around to fixing it in the next year.

She looked down at her basket.  Two types of beans, shredded cheese, chili powder, tomato sauce, some withered limes, and the cornbread mix.  She had the rest at home other than beef, which Zip Grocery didn't carry anyway.  There was a tiny carniceria down the street she could hit on her way home.  Abruptly, the static stopped.
"Hello, dear.  So sorry about your date."
"Hasn't happened yet, Mrs. Habbash."
"Oh.  Oh!  I must have gotten distracted.  Of course."
"Wait.  Why are you sorry?"
But the radio was just static again, interspersed with tiny fragments of La Bamba.

Gail placed all her items on the counter, and then put her basket away while the old shade of Mr. Habbash rung her up.  He had died right there behind the counter, if the stories were to be believed.  Heart attack or something.  They had found his wife dead in the little apartment above Zip Grocery the next day - presumably she had wanted to be with her husband, and had succeeded.
"Shame about that Kelly girl," Mr. Habbash said.
"Lived on 34th, I believe."
The speakers gave out a burst of loud static.
"Right, right," he corrected, "43rd.  Correct as always, dear."
Mr. Habbash finished ringing Gail up and gave her her change.  She hesitated, wondering if she should ask about this Kelly person.  She hated ghosts.  Hated being in the room with them, having to interact with them, having to smile and be polite around them.  But she was also just so curious.
"So... what happened to Kelly?"

Mr. Habbash turned and looked at her, his eyes suddenly looking extremely solid as if they could at any moment fall through his ethereal body and land with a wet sound on the counter.  A blue light wavered inside them, seemingly a long way off.
"She passed on a few months back.  Spoke to us in passing, about her boyfriend.  Well.  Enjoy your chili, young lady."
The speakers crackled slightly before Mrs. Habbash spoke up, "And don't be such a stranger.  We've always liked you, dear."

The oven did in fact turn out to be broken, which meant even with close supervision the cornbread wasn't quite right.  The chili turned out to be delicious, which was fortunate because there were a lot of leftovers; Eric never showed.  She called but got voicemail, texted but never got a reply.  Later, after even the leftovers were long gone, she heard that he had abruptly moved out of state.  Probably some sort of family emergency, though nobody seemed to know details.  For reasons she couldn't quite put into words Gail felt relieved.