Authors: Henry Carver
ALSO BY HENRY CARVER
"Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way."
Monday, October 8th, 1990
"And then Rocky knocked the cake out of my hand and he pushed me out of the way and ate it all off the floor. When he was done he came looking for more and licked me all over my face!" Julie giggled until it turned into full-blown laughter.
Angela Gray looked over at Rocky. He was a black and brown rottweiler weighing in at over a hundred pounds, and he was a rescue. By the time the Grays adopted him Rocky had already had three bad legs, the result of daily beatings. With time and care, two had healed. One never would. Some parents wouldn't let a dog like that near a five-year-old girl, but Angela had liked Rocky from the very first time she had seen him, trusted him even, though she couldn't say why.
"At least Rocky's got good taste. That cake was delicious!" Ted Gray said, and started tickling Julie.
The fits of laughter and pointing must have clued Rocky in that they were talking about him, because he hung his head and looked at the floor, exactly like a person feeling bashful. He was what people call a dog with personality.
Every night at six-thirty the Grays sat down for family dinner. It was the one time of day they were all together. Ted worked long hours, but made it a point to be at the kitchen table by six-thirty because Julie would always go to bed not long after. Some people think that family is just a state of being, something static instead of dynamic, but being a family is an action. Family happens when families are together. Every night at six-thirty, sitting around the kitchen table, the Grays became a family all over again.
Angela loved this time of day, loved making the kind of family she had never had as a child come to life again and again. It was a hard thing to put into words.
"Another delicious family dinner," she said. "I love the three of you very much."
"Yes, Julie, I love Rocky too. Now eat your peas."
Julie sneered down at her plate, and Angela was taken aback. Seeing that little face form new and adult emotions for the first time was strange. It was the first time she had seen Julie look at something with contempt.
"I hate peas! I want ice cream! Ice cream. Ice cream!"
Ted took up the chant now too. "We want ice cream! Give us ice cream!"
Angela laughed. "You too, Ted?"
Ted raised his hands and waited, melodramatically calling for quiet. Slowly, Julie's ice cream chant came to a halt and there was silence. It was a roomy pause, and even Rocky raised his head to look at Ted expectantly.
"Ladies and gentleman," said Ted.
"Ladies and gentleman and Rocky, did anyone here read the paper this morning? No? Rocky, you didn't either?" No one said anything.
"I have an announcement to make. I, your humble husband and father, was in the paper this morning. I have been honored with the annual Garden Club award for best roses. Finally!"
Angela sat back in her chair. "Really?" Ted had been nominating himself into the competition for years, something she found to be a little childish. To be fair, though, their yard was immaculate. Even with all the hours he worked and all the business trips he took, Ted somehow found the time to be out in the yard almost everyday mowing and mulching, and above all pruning his rose bushes.
"Congratulations, Ted," said Angela, "maybe now you can spend a little more time with your family." She only managed to keep a straight face for a second, then Ted was hugging her and Julie was coming around the table to cram herself into the middle.
"Frankly," said Ted, "I think this might be the kind of situation that calls for a little ice cream."
"Daddy! Ice cream Daddy! Ice cream!" Between her birthday and the birthdays of classmates, long experience had taught Julie that the only proper way to congratulate or to celebrate was in the company of ice cream. Ted shamelessly took up the chant again.
"Ice cream, ice cream,
" When Rocky started in on the chanting, adding his distinctive baritone, Angela knew it was time to give in.
"Okay, okay. This calls for a real celebration. Tomorrow night, before Daddy leaves, we'll have a very special dinner. In the mean time, you animals stay here, stay happy, and I'll come back with some ice cream."
With days like this, one strung one after another, Angela thought she could stay happy for the rest of her life.
Supermarkets: the morning brings the elderly, moving unmolested at a pace that could (with some charity) be called leisurely; the afternoon crowd is mothers and children, aisles clogged with strollers and saturated with crying; then comes the evening post-work rush, husbands picking up emergency milk standing in line next to bachelors stocking up on soup and TV dinners.
After that it quiets down, and after nine o'clock a supermarket is an abandoned, surreal place. It contains no people, just products, existing only as three-dimensional Warhol still-life, bathed in a halogen glow. It was, Angela thought, like working her way though a washed-out, remedial labyrinth.
She went up one aisle, down another, picking up this and that for the house. She hadn't seen another person since walking in. Even the checkouts at the front of the store hadn't been staffed. Wandering through the rows, where the bright lights obliterated all shadows and with them all relief, was like being alone on another planet. These lights were always glowing, day and night; there were no clocks on the walls; it seemed altogether a place unmoored from time. She had left the warmth of a happy family only ten or fifteen minutes ago, but here the emotional overtones were completely different. Overall, she didn't care for the supermarket at this time of day.
She turned the cart into the cool chill of the freezer aisle, trawling slowly along the frosted doors and looking for the strawberry ice cream. It wasn't in its usual spot. After a few more passes she saw it, up on the very top shelf in the middle of the aisle.
Angela opened the door, stretched, couldn't reach. She jumped up and brushed the carton with her fingers. Standing only a bit over five feet would make this tricky. She looked left, then right, and saw no one. Normally she would be too self-conscious to start shelf-climbing, but at this time of night, with no one else around, what choice was there? She braced a foot on the base of the freezer for her first step up.
Angela's heart jumped, and on instinct she bounced out from behind the confines of the freezer door and spun around. There was a man behind her.
"Hey, sorry. I didn't mean to startle you," he said, "you just looked like you could use a hand."
It was strange the way he had appeared out of nowhere, but Angela told herself to loosen up and say something. "No problem. I just thought I was alone. I didn't even hear you coming."
The man smiled at her. He was at least as tall as the top of a supermarket freezer, and thin. He wore a faded t-shirt and corduroy pants over what looked like heavy boots. Angela couldn't place him in any normal mental category. The boots seemed heavy, like a something a construction worker would wear. The clothes were all surfer, tattered and casual, but he didn't have the tan—or the hair. What hair he did have was severe and dark, cropped close to his head and devoid of the bleaching effects of the sun.
All these were secondary observations to the most obvious one—his sunglasses. They were plastic wayfarers, the kind someone one a yacht might wear, and they were pink. That was the overriding impression: pink frames that drew attention to his face; dark lens that hid the eyes.
Here, under the harsh lights of the store, Angela could easily see a shadow version of herself reflected in the lenses, but, somehow, she was having trouble seeing any real emotion reflected in his smile. He was standing very close to her.
"Can I give you a hand?" he asked, and the smile stretched a little farther. For a second, Angela thought he was hitting on her. Then, in the next moment, she wasn't sure. It was hard to get a read on him, and something seemed…well, Angela thought, what the hell.
"Sure," she said, "I'm trying to get the ice cream off the top. That's it, the strawberry."
"Ah, pink," he said, "my favorite. My sister's too. She loves this stuff." He handed her the carton.
"Hey, can I ask you something?" he said, and either took a half-step forward or just leaned in. Angela wasn't sure which. He didn't seem to move, just suddenly seemed closer.
"Can I ask you something?" he repeated, crowding her vision. "Gabe, by the way." He stuck out his hand.
She tried to shake without enthusiasm, but his hand was like a vise. "Gabe," he said again.
"Nice to meet you, Angela."
"Nice to meet you too."
"Say Angela, do you have a family?" He was still gripping her hand.
"I said, do you have a family? You know, like a husband? Maybe some kids?"
"Look," said Angela, "I appreciate you helping me out, but I'm not sure…"
"Maybe a daughter?"
Angela couldn't bring herself to say anything to that. She pulled back her hand. She didn't see Gabe move, but again he seemed closer. Even closer than before.
"The reason I ask is, I'm new around here. Actually, I'm not from around here at all, but I was thinking about moving here. You know—thinking about being new around here. What to you think?"
"What do I think?" she repeated blankly.
"What do you think about moving here? Is the area nice? What are the schools like? I have a family too—my sister. There isn't really anyone else in the picture, so I take care of her. I want the best for her. And I heard this area is nice. I heard it was full of nice people."
Angela looked at one lens of his sunglasses, saw one small, black reflection of herself looking back. She looked scared.
"If I moved here, maybe your daughter and my sister, maybe they could play together, right? How would that be?"
Angela was starting to feel exactly like her reflection: tiny and afraid. "How do you know I have a daughter?" she asked.
"Well, I asked if you did," Gabe said, "and you didn't correct me."
Her head jerked left, then right. Still no one around. This man wasn't touching her, wasn't holding her here in any way, but she felt trapped. Quickly, she started pushing the cart towards the end of the aisle, towards the turn where she would be able to see the check-out. Please, she said to herself, please let someone be there.
"Hey," she heard behind her, "I thought people around here were supposed to be friendly."
Please, please, please just let someone be there. She had that almost impossible-to-ignore feeling of something coming up from behind her, and the nearly irresistible urge to turn around.
Instead, she just kept moving, kept pushing the cart, unwilling to give in to a run. It was strange to feel the shake of adrenaline here in her supermarket, and as she rounded the corner she let out a sigh of relief. Under a lit-up, neon number four was an acne-faced high school boy staring off into space. Angela almost yelled for him, but decided not to give in to that urge either. She did allow her head a ninety-degree left turn, and took a long look back down the freezer aisle. No one there. Empty. Abandoned again.
Checking out, Angela wanted to bring up what had happened, wanted to make some kind of report, wanted to ask questions, but in the end she didn't know what to say. Plus, she was fairly certain the boy wouldn't have any answers. Already the whole thing was starting to seem distant. Did I over-react? she wondered. Could it have been some kind of misinterpretation?
Pushing her cart out the door and into the open was difficult. She reassured herself with the fact that her car was sitting all alone. The parking lot was huge and empty, so she had a perfect line of sight in every direction. There was nowhere for someone to hide. Well, she thought, there is one place. He could be behind my car.
Behind the car. The closer Angela got, the more her cart slowed down. Finally, she was at a dead stop, standing under a lone streetlight and staring at the trunk. "Jesus, Angela, just do it," she said out loud, and with that she took three quick steps forward and stuck her head around the corner of her Celica.
Nothing. Empty black pavement split in half by the white line marking the edge of her spot. Cool night air filled her lungs and the adrenaline washed away, leaving her with something like a runner's high, and she felt like laughing. She filled the trunk with bags, got in, started the car, and pulled out of the lot. One hundred feet later, she saw the lights pull out behind her.