Another delightful short story from my forthcoming book, We Found the Vacuum Cleaner.
For Gladys there were too many groceries to choose from. Exactly two weeks ago Lester had that heart attack and suffered for three hours. In that time he was awake only long enough to whisper, “I’ll never leave you alone, hon.” But before the afternoon was gone, he was gone, too. Gladys was alone. Their marriage ended without warning after thirty-five years.
Now on this Tuesday morning—her first shopping trip since the funeral—Gladys wandered alone through the grocery aisles wondering how much milk to get. “A quart, I guess. I’ll get a quart.” Then she had to decide about bread. A long loaf or short? “I can’t eat this much celery.” How many cans of soup? Is this too much? Enough?
The shelves and shelves of cans blurred together. The tall end-caps of chips and cereal hovered over her. “Where’s the rice?” She begged. “Where’s the rice?” And then she began to cry. “Oh dear Jesus, please help me.” The tears raced down her lonely cheeks.
Whenever Lester shopped with Gladys, he always stepped away. “I’m going to look for some coffee,” he’d say. Or “Don’t we need to get a birthday card? I’ll go get it.” Or some silly excuse. The last time, he took off saying, "We don't have any cookies for the grandbabies." And he always came back to Gladys with three yellow roses. Always. And right there in the grocery store Lester kissed her cheek. He wouldn’t step away any more...
“Ma’am? Ma’am, are you okay?” A soft voice. “Ma’am?”
Gladys muscled up what strength she had to say, “I think so.” She opened her purse for a tissue. "Yes, I’m fine."
“Can I help you?” She was a pretty woman, maybe forty. “Here,” the young woman said, and offered Gladys a tissue.
“I… I need rice,” Gladys said.
“Uh, did you need it for an adult or for a baby, ‘cause we’re in baby food right now.”
“Come on,” the young woman said. “I know where it is. My name’s Janice.”
With a box of rice in her cart now, Gladys smiled a little and said, “Thank you. I’m sure I’m fine now. Thank you.”
Janice moved away to find her own groceries. Gladys followed her to the meat and watched Janice dig out six packages of steak. “My husband loves his steak,” she said, and dropped them into her cart. But suddenly, she put them back where she found them. “I just can’t get them right now. Not at these prices.”
“Buy the steak,” Gladys told her, surprised at the strength in her voice. “Buy those steaks if he likes them.”
“Oh, no, I’d better not. They’re just getting too expensive.”
“I lost my husband just two weeks ago. You buy your husband those steaks. Sing when you cook them. Enjoy the moment you serve them. Cherish your meal time together.”
Janice stared at Gladys. Without taking her eyes off Gladys, she gently returned the steak packages to her cart. “I’m sorry,” she said. “I didn’t know. I’m sorry for your loss.”
“Thank you for helping me,” Gladys said and smiled.
“Well, I still have some more things to get,” Janice said. She turned away quickly and vanished among the shelves. Gladys breathed a deep, new breath and chose a steak of her own. She shuffled away toward another aisle. It was an easier task now.
When she approached the check-out stand, Janice was waiting. “Hi again. May I give you these?” She offered a long, light package to Gladys.
Gladys peeled back the green tissue to find three long-stem yellow roses. Delicately, she touched her fingertips to them. Tears rushed back, but with a little smile she said, “Oh, thank you.” She pulled the flowers to her breasts and closed her eyes. She remembered Lester's last promise: "I'll never leave you alone.”
“Ma’am, you were such an angel to me today." Janice had a beautiful smile and strong, clear brown eyes. "I really needed to hear what you told me. I wanted you to have these. Really, thank you.”
Gladys offered a warm hug. “Thank you, honey,” she said. “I was lonely. Thank you for speaking to me. You were my angel. God bless you. I love yellow roses. How did you know?”
Janice kissed her cheek.