by BRANDON CLIPPINGER
Evie shifted her feet in the scorched grass, then switched her pocketbook from the crook of one elbow to the other. The complex was so quiet. But then again, who would want to come out and make noise in this heat? Raise your voice in it and you could get a stroke, God forbid. Ninety-two degrees, the weatherman had said that morning, and that was on topof the humidity. Thank God she wasn’t a heavy sweater. Her son Morris would have been drenched by now. He was a good man, but no one should sweat so much.
At last the grocery shuttle rounded the corner.
“Thank God,” Evie said aloud to no one. The small bus stopped in front of her, and the door opened with a whoosh. She grabbed the cool metal rails on both sides and slowly climbed up the first step.
“Hello there, Miss Evie.”
“Hello, Oscar, my darling. How are you, dear?”
“Hot enough for you out there?”
“I tell you, it’s days like these you know that Florida was born a swamp, it’s stayed a swamp, and it will always be a swamp. But I need butter to bake cookies for Morris’s sixtieth birthday, so what can you do? Besides, I have a handsome young man to drive me around, so what’s to complain about?” Evie reached the top of the steps and squeezed Oscar’s shoulder.
“Oh, you’re making me blush, Miss Evie.”
“And that’s with me holding my tongue because you’re a gentleman. Heaven knows I’m not a lady, but you’re a gentleman, and I’m using my manners.”
Evie turned from Oscar to face the back of the shuttle and suppressed a grimace. The bus was empty except for Harold, already waving his mitt at her like a first-rate buffoon. Evie gave a little wave and found a seat toward the front of the shuttle so she wouldn’t have to pass him.
“Hello, Evie,” Harold yelled from the middle of the bus, “there’s plenty of room over here.”
“Thank you, Harold, but I get motion sick. Better to sit near the front.”
Evie had met Harold at the ice cream social about a month ago. He’d gone up to her as she was about to leave and started babbling this nonsense about her being the most beautiful woman in the room, how he couldn’t take his eyes off of her. Such nonsense. She’d seen him whispering and giggling with Joan Lebowitz just a few minutes earlier, making fools of themselves like they were two high schoolers beneath the bleachers. She’d avoided him ever since. She’d already had a scamp for a husband—til death did they part—and one scamp per lifetime seemed like enough. Besides, Harold’s shirt was always untucked. And he slouched.
“Gosh,” Harold yelled from the back. “No need to get sick. I can move up by you.”
“Not necessary,” Evie called behind her as she sat, “but very kind of you to offer.”
Evie cringed at the sound of Harold crinkling up his newspaper and shuffling up the aisle. She looked longingly out her window at the sweltering patch of grass she had just vacated. It was moments like these she missed her car so badly she could taste it. It hadn’t been a Ferrari or anything fancy. Just a Toyota Corolla with velour interior, decent handling, and a purple ribbon that Morris had fastened to the antennae so she could find it in the parking lot. Such freedom.
If it weren’t for those ridiculous little accidents—fender benders, really—she’d still have that car. A tiny scratch here, a nick there, and yet everyone has to make such a fuss. That last man who went to the hospital was beyondoverdramatic. It’d just been a little love tap—she’d felt it herself—and that rain had been coming down in sheets. People these days file a lawsuit as quick as they pop a stick of chewing gum.
Evie’s thoughts were interrupted by the sound of Harold’s sneakers on the rubberized tread. She put her pocketbook on the seat next to her as the shuttle eased into motion. Publix was close. Thank God for that.
“Hello, Evie,” Harold said again as he eased down into the seat across the aisle. “You look nice.”
“Thank you, Harold.” She was wearing no makeup, a shapeless brown skirt, and a visor with the name of Morris’s law firm, Schulman & Associates, stitched in gray embroidery across the front. If she weren’t a senior citizen, she was certain she’d be mistaken for a homeless person.
“You going grocery shopping?”
“Yes, Harold. This is the grocery store shuttle. That’s where it goes.”
“I’m going grocery shopping too. The heat always makes me want to barbecue. You like barbecue?”
Evie twisted her mouth and shook her head. “I like it, but it doesn’t like me. Too many spices.”
“Well I can keep it simple too.” Harold cocked his head and smiled. “The flavor of a steak can be nice on its own.”
“Why should you keep it simple? It’s your food, Harold. Crack a jalapeño over it if it makes you happy.”
“Of course.” He looked at his hands and then back up at Evie. “Makes sense to add some kick then I suppose. YOLO.”
Evie squinted her eyes. “Yo what?”
“Yolo? What is Yolo? You’re making no sense.”
“YOLO,” he repeated again. “It stands for ‘you only live once.’ My grandkids were over the other day, yelling it back and forth like a bunch of parakeets. Now I can’t get it out of my head.” He shrugged his shoulders. “Kinda catchy actually.”
Evie cocked her head and repeated the word aloud. “Yolo.” It sounded like some aborigine rallying cry, or maybe a call out of Africa. Something tribal for sure.
“I haven’t heard it said that way before.”
“That’s what kids do, right? They make it new.”
Evie turned to look out the window. You only live once. The concept was nothing new, of course, not that it had ever been her mantra. But the swinging roll of those two syllables, yo-lo, there was something quite pleasing about it, like a domino falling over the edge of a table.
The shuttle rolled into the Publix parking lot, then sidled up to the front of the building. Harold offered Evie a hand, but she pretended not to see it and used the seatback for support as she pushed herself up. She was no fool, none of this you-scratch-my-back-I-scratch-yours business. She didn’t need anyone touching anybody’s back thank you very much.
Evie made her way down the aisle and onto the sidewalk. The second her sneakers hit the concrete she felt like one of her own sugar cookies baking in an oven. She made a beeline toward the automatic doors a few feet away.
“Perhaps we could share a cart?” she heard Harold calling from behind her. “I don’t mind pushing it. It can get heavy after a while.”
“Thank you, my dear, but I’m fine on my own,” she said without turning back. “I’m just picking up a few things.”
There was something to be said for breathing room between the sexes. Even Walter had understood that, though his had been an unfortunate take on the concept: embracing it fully in all matters financial, political, and social, but applying a reverse philosophy in the bedroom. She still cringed at the thought of the lights going off at night, her mild-mannered, bookkeeping husband transforming into a creature that was all paws and tongue, like a werewolf at the full moon. It was a nightly metamorphosis that never ceased to leave her paralyzed.
She’d learned to ride the nights out, until the baby came along, and she insisted that Morris share their bed well into his elementary school years. Eventually Walter began satisfying himself elsewhere, a solution apparent by the parade of perfumes that followed him into their bed at night after “working late.” When he’d slipped that wedding ring on her eighteen-year-old finger years ago under the russet trees of Prospect Park, she’d never expected her life would take such a strange and lonely shape. Without a doubt, Evie concluded, she’d have been better off alone.
“I still don’t mind helping,” Harold called after Evie as she pushed her cart away. “It’s my treat.”
Evie stopped and turned around. “Harold, go do your shopping. Enough already. I’m not interested in sharing your cart, capiche?”
Harold’s smile melted. Looking at his eyes full on, Evie noticed for the first time that they were quite a striking shade of blue. It reminded her of something she had seen before, though she couldn’t quite place it. That sky-blue convertible Walter had driven before they’d gotten married? She’d loved riding in that car, the way she could feel the hum of its motor in her body, the rush of the wind in her ears.
Evie sighed. She supposed she could throw the dog a bone.
“But if you could get a cart for me from the pile, Harold, I’d very much appreciate it. They’re so tightly lodged together. It’s hard for me to pull one out.”
Harold’s face lit up like she’d dropped a quarter in a dusty pinball machine. She watched his olive pants and tan shirt disappear around the corner and then heard the cool hiss of the automatic doors open before him, followed by the jangle of metal against metal. God help her.
When she entered the grocery store, the air felt so cool and clean that she had half a mind to spend the whole day there, eating bananas and reading the jokes in the greeting card aisle. She turned, and there was Harold, walking towards her with a shopping cart, smiling like a knucklehead. So proud. What did he think he just did? Solve the riddle of the sphinx? Build Hoover Dam?
“Your chariot awaits.”
“Thank you, Harold,” she said, taking the cart and turning it in the direction of the dairy aisle. “That was very sweet of you.” Harold stood there smiling with his hat clutched in his hands, as if something sublime were about to happen, though Evie couldn’t imagine what.
“I’ll see you back at Valencia Gardens, Harold.”
“You don’t want help? We have the cart now. Might as well share it.” And isn’t that the way it always works though? You give an inch, and they take a mile.
“My shopping is personal, Harold. I’m buying feminine products. You can’t join me.”
Harold raised both hands in surrender. “Say no more.” He tipped an imaginary hat in her direction and turned toward the produce section. Thank God for the feminine mystique. Of course, the only feminine product she bought in the grocery store these days was calcium supplements for her osteoporosis, but some old tricks held up.
Evie rolled her cart down the dairy aisle, whistling a tune that wasn’t the one being piped in over the PA but that she didn’t think was entirely at odds with it either. She found a four-pack of salted butter with that pretty young woman on the packaging. What a nice smile and good posture she had. She really made you want to just eat sticks of the stuff.
Evie strolled down the aisles to kill time before the next shuttle pickup. Before long, she had a loaf of whole wheat bread, a bunch of yellow bananas—can’t do the green ones, they’ll stop you right up—three peaches, a box of graham crackers, and a pint of pistachio ice cream.
As Evie rounded the bend into the next aisle, she gasped, then clutched her hand to her chest. Coming right at her was another shopping cart, flying at full speed past the cereal boxes. At the helm of the cart was a little girl, five or six years old, her feet planted on the metal step at the bottom of the cart, her face peering over the handlebar in an expression of uninhibited glee, three or four necklaces of plastic jewelry dangling from her little neck. Evie braced for impact because it certainly seemed like the cart was coming right at her, but then the girl and the cart sailed by, maybe a foot between them. There was a rush of air, and then the girl’s blonde hair streaming past her, and then her laughter, like a stream of bubbles.
“I’m so sorry, Miss,” her mother said to Evie, chasing after the girl. “I know she’s a petite thing, but don’t be fooled. She is a bull in a china shop.”
Evie watched the lady run after her daughter and disappear around the corner. Her son had done the same thing of course. It had driven her nuts, partly because she was afraid he’d take out a display of soup or crackers or God knows what, and partly because you just weren’t supposed to do that in the grocery store. But that girl’s laughter. What a lovely sound that was. Evie wished she hadn’t been so strict. Nobody tells you how heavy the cart gets later on, how difficult it is just to push it.
Evie made her way toward the cash register, where she paid with exact change out of her pocketbook. She dreaded the heat that awaited her outside, but the chilled air was penetrating her bones, and she was tiring of the endless rattle of the grocery carts. It was like everyone was pushing around their very own private tinnitus. Enough. Time to go.
She pulled out her sunglasses as she walked outside. Oh, it was terrible. She could feel the heat rising off the asphalt and baking the world into a crisp. After five minutes—How long does it take to flash fry a fish? Not even that long—Evie finally saw the shuttle turn the bend. Her heart soared as the vehicle rolled to a halt and the doors hissed open. But then there was Oscar, hanging out the door with the expression of a sad dog.
“Hello, Evie. I have some bad news. The A/C died on me. We got no air.”
Someone could have died, and Evie would have been less upset. She walked past Oscar without a word and up the shuttle steps. She missed her car more than ever. What bliss to be able to just pull out your keys and drive down the street, or out of this whole schmuck-shaped state altogether if you felt like it. But that’s life, she supposed. When you’re young, the world hands you a fistful of jewels. You take ’em and you fly down the aisle on your cart as fast as you can, sparkling. But then life demands its toll, and you give them up, you pay them out, you pawn them in. That car had been one of her last, thrown back into the coffer with the rest of them. She supposed she still had a few rhinestones clunking around the bottom of her barrel, but even those were just borrowed. She had been a fool to think that any of it was ever hers to keep.
And why wasn’t this bucket of junk moving already? There was a limit to her patience—she was human after all—and if she didn’t get some air circulation right this second, someone was going to get it. She turned and looked out the window, where her question was answered in the form of Harold, jogging through the parking lot, his image bending with the heat. She shook her head. It was like the opposite of a mirage. Instead of an azure pool and coconuts, the shimmering air offered up Harold: olive pants, beige shirt, wheezing through the parking lot, a grocery bag swinging in each hand.
Within moments, she could hear his ragged breathing outside the shuttle, followed by his feet on the steps. His sorry face appeared in the doorway, and oh, he looked just terrible. Face redder than a radish. He was breathing so heavily that he seemed to take up twice the space his body actually occupied, as if extra room were required just for his respiration. She turned and looked out the window. She didn’t have the energy for it. She just wanted to go home.
Harold collapsed into the seat across the aisle from her. His wheezing, my goodness. She dared a look and saw him with his hand pressed to his chest, his eyes staring up at the ceiling, his chest heaving up and down like a bellows.
“Harold, are you ok?”
He nodded his head without looking over at her, his eyes glued to the shuttle’s roof.
“You’re going to give yourself a heart attack, you know that? You think you’re some twenty-year-old hot shot?”
He tilted his head slightly and smirked between gasps. Evie rolled her eyes and clucked her tongue. Such a stupid thing to do.
“Running through the heat like that, it’s foolishness, Harold.”
Evie turned to her side and started rummaging through her grocery bags until she found the pint of pistachio ice cream. She pulled it out. It was wet with condensation, and the sides mushed inward with the pressure of her palm.
“Here, take this. Put it against your forehead or something. If you have a heart attack in the shuttle, it’ll throw off the rest of the shopping schedule for everybody else.”
Harold stretched out his arm and took the pint from her, the inside of his palm grazing against the back of Evie’s hand. Well, that was a cheap trick if she ever saw one. What was it she had read—that even in fits of rage couples know better than to throw the good china? Apparently the same holds true for scamps; even on the verge of cardiac arrest they can’t pass up the chance to cop a feel.
“Thank you,” he wheezed as he brought the pint to his forehead. Slowly, his breathing began to even.
“That was an idiot thing to do, you know that, Harold?”
“I didn’t know that the A/C in the shuttle would be broken. I just wanted to catch it.”
“Even still, you’re too old to go sprinting through the heat. You’re not Jesse Owens.”
“I saw you getting on. I thought I could help you with your groceries when we got back to Valencia.”
Well, wasn’t that rich? Harold, her knight in shining polyester.
“You can’t just go running after every skirt that crosses your path, Harold. You’ll break a hip. Heaven knows you don’t care about bruising your pride.”
Harold took his eyes off the ceiling and turned toward Evie. His breathing had returned to normal. She had never seen his eyes like that before, such small slits of blue, like looking at the sky through a mail slot. With a new sense of control that Evie found unsettling, he leaned across and spoke to her in a low voice, almost a whisper.
“What do you mean, ‘chasing after every skirt’?”
“Don’t play dumb, Harold. Do I look like I was born yesterday? I’ve seen the way you flirt, the way you were canoodling with Joan, just minutes before you came up and started whispering your sweet nothings to me at the social. I may be nearsighted, Harold, but I’m not blind. Just as well, honestly, if you’re going to keep on acting so foolish.”
Harold shook his head, incredulous. “Just because you act like you know it all, Evie, it doesn’t mean you do. It just means you’re too rough for people to tell you otherwise.”
Evie tried not to wince. Rough. That word seemed to stick to her like sweat. Walter saying she was too rough with the boy. Morris’s shrewish wife, whispering when they thought Evie was still in the bathroom that they’d have her over more if she weren’t so rough. But what did any of them know of rough? Always food on the table. Always both parents at home at night. Always time to study for school. Always a faithful spouse. They’d all had it so easy. And all they had to show for it was skin more fragile than eggshells.
“Joan is my cousin, Evie. She’s the whole reason I’m even at Valencia.” Harold looked as if he was going to say something else, something vitriolic, but then he held it. He shook his head again, then exhaled deeply, as if relinquishing something. “I liked you because I think you’re pretty and because you reminded me of my wife, the way she used to act all tough on the outside, but underneath it all she had a heart as big as the sun.” He reached over the aisle and dropped the pint of pistachio ice cream back onto the seat next to her, misshapen and wet. “I’ve been the blind one though. You’re not like her at all.”
Evie watched Harold turn his head away to stare out the window. Frowning, Evie picked up the pint of ice cream and put it back inside one of her plastic bags. So she’d disappointed him by not living up to the memory of his dead wife, and that entitled him to make her feel like a bad person? That wasn’t fair. She hadn’t ever asked for his attention in the first place.
She turned from Harold to look out her own window. The grass and canals whirred by. The power walkers and kids riding their bikes passed each other on the sidewalk. She’d never asked for any of this. She hadn’t wanted it. She leaned back into her seat and closed her eyes. Maybe it had something to do with the heat, but Evie couldn’t recall the last time she felt so exhausted.
The shuttle entered Valencia Gardens. Harold was still staring out the window when Evie opened her eyes. He didn’t budge as the shuttle slowed to a stop in front of Building C. Evie stood up, noisily rustling her shopping bags. She sighed audibly. The muscles in her neck tightened as he just kept ignoring her, staring out that stupid window at a whole lot of nothing. Well, fine then. You can’t push a rope. Let him sulk like a baby; that’s his choice.
Evie began collecting her groceries. Now that the shuttle had stopped, the hot air was positively stifling. Loose strands of hair stuck to her face. She brushed them away and knocked her hat askew. She fixed her hat and then reached down again to try to pick up the groceries. One of the banana stems jutted through the plastic, jabbing her thigh through her skirt. She flinched, and as she dropped her arm, the pack of butter and carton of pistachio ice cream fell out of the bag. The butter landed with a thunk, the girl on the packaging beaming up at her from the dirty tread. The ice cream, on the other hand, rolled down the aisle toward the back of the shuttle. She watched helplessly as the pint curved into one of the back rows, stopping underneath a seat.
Evie turned around with the groceries still in her hands. They were getting heavy. She called back to Oscar for help, but he was talking with someone in a golf cart outside the shuttle, maybe something about the A/C. He didn’t hear her. Evie looked down at Harold, willing him to turn toward her, but he didn’t move.
Evie took a breath and set her groceries back down on the seat. She’d return to pick up the butter; it would stay put, but the ice cream, there was no telling. She inched her way to the back of the shuttle, using each of the seats to support her as she went. When she reached the ice cream, she decided that the best way to get it would be to sit back down and then reach underneath her. Stooping and crouching were no longer in her bag of tricks.
She eased herself down onto the seat and began fumbling underneath her with her hand. She felt the pint with her fingertips, felt it rock slightly back and forth. She waited a moment, and then grabbed for it. Her fingers grazed the carton, felt something come undone. She pulled her hand away, sticky and wet, and looked down. A puddle of green ooze seeped out from under the seat. Evie bit her lower lip and wiped away a damp lock of hair that curled around her ear and down her neck like a spray of moss. She was determined not to cry.
Slowly, she got up and began walking back to the front of the bus. She’d have to tell Oscar about the ice cream, that she’d made a mess. She always seemed to make a mess of things somehow. She kept her eyes on the floor in front of her. When she got back to her seat, she stopped short.
The butter was gone.
Evie looked up, and there was Harold, standing in the middle of the aisle, holding her groceries. The package of butter was back in the bag, the young girl on the box smiling up at her, as if nothing in the world had ever gone wrong, ever could go wrong.
Harold held his hand out to her.
“Come on, Evie. Let’s go.” He shrugged. “Unless you’re some twenty-year-old hot shot?”
Evie looked into his eyes. She saw that that they were not the color of Walter’s convertible after all, or the color of the sky. That blue, it swirled somewhere at the edge of her memory. She was a little girl, wearing her yellow bathing suit with the pink ribbon on the side, her thick black curls hidden away under a swimming cap. It had been a community, youth group-sponsored trip to the Catskills, the only time she had ever been to the mountains. She rode in a boat with other girls across a lake that reflected the sky like a plate of onyx. She had never seen such a dark blue; just a smidge darker and it would have been black.
The sun was bright, but the wind blew cool. She turned around to face backward, away from the chill. The motor was churning through that black water, throwing it into the air. As the foam separated from the lake, it turned an icy sapphire blue the likes of which she had never seen before, and, until this moment staring into Harold’s eyes, had not seen again.
When the boat stopped, the other girls eyed the dark water warily. Evie leaned back against the railing, then bolted forward. The green mountains flashed by, and the lake and rushed up to meet her. When she hit the water, an icy jolt of pleasure passed up through the tips of her toes, shot along the taut sinews of her spindly legs, filled the open spaces of her ribs. It rose and fell between the canary pulse of her heart, tickled the edges of her teeth, and then finally dissipated through the porcelain plate of her forehead. She did a flip underwater, then kicked back upward, her neck craning toward the sunshine rippling at the surface. She emerged laughing, waving, slippery and wet. It was as if the whole lake, the whole world even, had been hers, all hers for the taking, and all she had to do was dive in.
But that freedom, that jolt, it was a memory. Evie was no longer a little girl. She no longer dove into lakes. Time had passed, worked its steady hand on Evie’s bones, and there was no shuttle to take her back. And yet, even here, even now, that glacial blue.
Heaven knows why Harold reached out to her across the tread of that sweltering bus, but she took his hand, took it without a second thought, and she let him lead her home.
Brandon Clippinger grew up in South Florida, received his law degree in Washington, D.C., and now lives in Boston, Massachusetts. He has no plans to move any farther north. This is his first work of published fiction.