Nowadays when an older woman stops me on street, she’s either crazy or wants spare change. It doesn’t matter, I stop anyway. I think they might need help getting back home. They remind me of my grandmother in the last years of her life, when she’d manage to wander off in her housecoat and a neighbor would bring her back. Maybe it’s a debt I’m repaying.
She was standing on the curb outside the neighborhood’s mom-and-pop store, a short and slightly overweight woman in her late 50s, dressed in a faded but clean floral-print housedress.
“Excuse me, can you help me?” she asked.
I was in a rush to get home from work but fumbled in my pockets for change. I didn’t find any and apologized.
“No, I meant, can you do me a favor?” She seemed put off that I would have mistaken her for a beggar, but only slightly so; she was more exasperated than anything else, as if she had run into this kind of behavior from strangers before. I noticed she was already clutching something in her hand.
“Could you go in and buy me paper towels?” she asked.
“I sorry, I’m not sure I understand.”
“I’m not on speaking terms with them.” She pointed to the store. “We had a fight.”
“I see. There’s a mini-market on the corner,” I said. “They have paper towels. And they’re probably cheaper.”
“I had a fight with them, too,” she said.
“Well, that must be rather inconvenient,” I said. I hoped she didn’t sense my amusement.
“What can I say?” she sighed. “I’m only human. I get edgy at times. Here, a pair costs €1.50” She unclenched her fist to show me the change.
I was thinking there must be some catch to this, some practical joke behind it, but we had spoken too long for me to refuse. I went in to buy the paper towels.
It was a coldly lit and charmless space, stocked with the kinds of things people suddenly realize they’ve run out of and must have but can’t buy elsewhere because all the other stores are closed. The stuff was obscenely overpriced, but it was the only place in the neighborhood open every day of the year, morning till night. It was a convenience store for emergencies and whims, a shop for bad planners and occasional bakers. No one plans to shop here; they wind up here. Damn, we’re out of milk. The bulb’s burnt. I thought you were buying bread. What, no batteries?
It’s run by three generations of a sullen family. I have never seen any of them smile, even when they sit together in silence on summer evenings outside the store. Like innkeepers at a frontier outpost, they know that their customers are here only out of short-sightedness or compulsion, and thus have little incentive to be pleasant. And they aren’t. It was as if the little annoyances that had prompted their customers’ visits slowly filled the store with a noxious air of discontent that in turn seeped into the pores of the family, displacing other more convivial humors.
I once had a disagreement with them myself.
“Shouldn’t these be in the refrigerator?” I asked, pointing to the cartons of eggs stacked in the summer heat next to the cash register.
“We’re following directives,” the grandson who was on duty that night said. I remembered him when he was still lifting weights and shooting steroids, but he’d gotten injured or bored and now was just a guy with boobs bigger than his sister, a body that sagged like a great sigh of resignation. He didn’t say which directive and I knew it was pointless to ask. I couldn’t imagine him or anyone else in the family reading anything other than the TV Guide or the gossip magazines they faithfully stocked.
“Well, I’ll check out the EU regulations and get back to you,” I said.
“You do that,” he said, scowling. It sounded like a dare.
I found the paper towels and went to the elevated counter at the back of the store that serves as the cashier’s desk and watchtower. Just as the woman had said, the pair cost €1.50.
“Did they ask who it was for?” she asked as I handed her the bag and the receipt.
“No,” I said. “Why would they?”
She ignored my question and thanked me, and I headed home.
I keep thinking I’ll see her again, waiting outside the store with exact change in her hand for a can of tuna fish or a half dozen eggs, like a rowdy drunk eyeing the entrance to the bar he’s been blacklisted from.
She hasn’t reappeared, though. Maybe she does most of her shopping in the supermarket, with its 12 lanes of checkout counters and stockers that work the midnight shift, invisible or nameless people she never has the chance to get angry at. I wonder if she has humbled herself and apologized to the gloomy family. I wonder if she’s done the same thing to her son and nieces and sisters-in-law and shut them out, and now had no one except a stranger to buy her paper towels once the supermarket closed.
Perhaps she has moved on, walking the extra blocks across the park to another neighborhood to do her shopping until she finds herself again prey to her temper and a tongue that won’t keep still, and then on again to yet another neighborhood farther away, in an ever broadening zone of closed shop doors.
Image: Brassai, Paris, ca. 1935