Howard pushed his shopping cart down the wide, clean aisles of the Havelock’s oversized grocery store. The metal cage rattled in front of him, almost empty. It was only November, but, to the left and right, shelves had already started to glisten with trinkets for the coming Christmas season.
In a way, Howard felt glad to see the season of gifts begin to sprout its dark, tender leaves. But it exposed the hardness of his heart. He only had five dollars and thirty-five cents in his pocket, and it would have to last until next Friday. He had neither money nor kindness to plow into gifts.
The aisle led him past the candies and gaily wrapped packets of snack cakes and cookies, towards the misted glass of the dairy section along the back wall. About a third of the way down, on the left, second shelf from the top, he caught glimpse of an unfamiliar shade of burnt orange.
Dare Maple Creams™. The manufacturer had changed the graphics and color scheme. Howard lifted a box off the shelf and rolled it over in his hands. They hadn’t changed the quantity: it still had a satisfying heft.
Back when he was an accounts manager, Howard could devour a box of maple creams in one evening. He did it to reward himself it for some small achievement, like journaling a particularly complex purchase order. He remembered the box’s heft, the way it slid across the reader at the checkout counter and the particular tearing sound the wax paper inside made as he ripped the ridged seal, just before releasing that pine-fresh maple scent. Before he had even cleared the parking lot of his local store, walking home, he had already eaten three or four.
Howard tried to remind himself that, about the time of the evening news, he’d feel ill from the sugar load racing through his bowels. Right now, in the brightly lit Havelock store, though, he found himself unable to connect any harsh feeling to that orange package.
Howard peered at the price tag attached to the shelf below the cookies. The price had been revised, too. $6.49! It made the glossy package seem even more precious in his hands. He smiled wryly. Anything over two dollars, now, was a major investment, taken with the same planning and price comparison as he used to spend on choosing a vacation spot.
Howard placed the package back on the shelf. He caressed its smooth supple folds with his fingers. Someday… he sighed to himself, someday I will come back to you.
He knew he wouldn’t. The ground beneath his conscious self had shifted. The part of him that craved maple cream cookies had become separated from the bedrock and had tumbled into the sea. As Howard pushed his cart down to the end of the aisle, he realized he had sent a sweet goodbye to the craving as well as to maple creams. He would not be going back to it.
“I wonder,” he said, half aloud, “I wonder if I could use that in the novel?” But he already knew the answer was no. That in itself was another change: he realized he had attained a sense of not only what his novel was, but what it was not. He would do without maple creams without denying he liked them, but, more importantly, his novel could do without many things he would have liked it to have.
He had a sudden sense of his novel’s hero Manfred walking down the aisles of his suburban Arlington supermarket. It would have fierce florescent lighting and display racks topped with expensive goods, suitable for the high-wage mandarins who shopped there.
Howard stared at the almost empty bottom of his shopping cart. He could almost see what Manfred would have purchased. Rib steak. Apples. Manfred liked apples, from Northern California State, where he had grown up. He ate fish, several times a week, something Howard personally disliked. He did have a bit of bowel trouble–and would be insistent Howard not mention it–and he ate rolled oats for fiber and cholesterol management. Because he liked steaks–big, and thick, with tangy applesauce and mashed potato.
All this Howard knew in a flash, yet he also knew he could never include any of what he had just understood. He had come across something like the difference between ones work and ones day off. He had a deal with Manfred: he could share a personal detail only if it related directly to the novel’s plot. He would be forever full of these tiny observations of his character and forever unable to share them.
Howard smiled to himself once more. He grabbed a carton of two-percent from behind its semitransparent window. Now it was on to the lentils section. Manfred couldn’t stand lentils, but he wasn’t restricted by Howard’s budget. Howard was the one who had to make sure both the money and the typewriter ribbon were well-spent.
D. M. Kerr is the writing name of a Canadian writer currently living and working in Singapore, where he teaches game design and business. You can find other examples of his work in recent issues of Page & Spine, Nixes Mate and the Kurt Vonnegut Museum and Library’s So It Goes journal. They don’t have Dare Maple Creams™ in Singapore (sigh).