Walking across the street to get groceries had never felt so labour intensive for Jason Miller, but he was getting old. His hips creaked, his jaw was tight, his back ached and he never got enough sleep. Being old was nothing but a lonely inconvenience for Jason. Everything and everyone seemed to be passing him by. One minute he was lazing about in his living room, nothing but a shut-in by the neighbourhood's standards. The next, he was standing lifeless at a busy intersection, staring into a flurry of spinning rubber, polished metal and humming engines.
The traffic had seemed to move faster ever since he had hit seventy-five and the crosswalks seemed fewer and further between. Perhaps Gary would be working the express lane today. He seemed to be at the store every Sunday. Gary was the only person Jason knew that spoke to him willingly. Hell, he even seemed to enjoy their conversations as long as he wasn’t too busy. Sometimes they would chat about the price of groceries and how things used to be before the days of plastic bags and bar codes. Last week they exchanged words about the upcoming election and how Prime-minister McNally was making a fool of himself. In truth, Gary was the only reason why Jason bothered to walk the extra three blocks to the Shelf-Save rather than going to the bargain-mart behind his house. Nobody at the bargain-mart wanted to waste their time on a complacent old man like him.
The light changed and Jason adjusted his eyes to make double sure that he was allowed to cross the intimidating street. Stepping off the curb was usually the only tricky part, but this intersection had a parking meter that he could use to steady himself as he lowered his foot down. Jason hated crossing the street. He always felt like an inconvenience to the traffic that waited irritably, the drivers revving their engines in anticipation of a green light. He tried his best to hurry along before the light changed again but his efforts were wasted. He always found himself in the middle of the intersection when the little white man turned into a solid orange hand. He could feel their impatience the same way he felt the static on his hand when he turned on his tube television. He hated the static. It gave him shivers and goosebumps.
Marge knew that. She never made him turn it on, even if she was already in bed and he was standing in front of the damn thing. She’s a kind soul, Jason recalled. She was the kind of lady that opened the door for people and offered them a smile even if they greeted her with a grimace. She volunteered too. They had been retired for a little over five years before her boredom seized her by the throat.
“I cant take the waiting anymore, Jay. I’m seventy-three years old and all I can be bothered to do is bake and read magazines. People our age ought to have more energy, more spring in our step. Its like we’re sitting around waiting to die. We’ve got more time, don’t we? I mean really, don’t you get a little bored?”
“I must be getting old because I could swear we’ve talked about this, Margie. I’m happy the way things have been. I like my television, I like my chair and dammit, I like you. Isn’t that enough? Besides, you’re sick, my love. Doctor said you shouldn’t even be on your feet.”
“I know, Jason. But I feel like I’m-”
“Enough, Margie. I’ll bet there are millions of people that are working right this minute, trying to get to a point in their lives where they can sit down on a Thursday afternoon and watch some baseball. We had better just be happy with food on our table, air in our lungs and god smiling down upon us.”
Jason grinned with that almost in mockery of what he had just said, but he had meant every word. He enjoyed being stagnant and comfortable. Marge was not easily deterred. She went on to volunteer as a cook at a local shelter across from Gatsby Park.
Jason’s foot hit worn asphalt of the local Shelf-Save parking lot, where everyone was in too big of a hurry and there were never enough parking spaces. This was without a doubt, the part of this journey that Jason hated the most. He felt like a turtle in the middle of a busy highway, only in a parking lot, traffic goes from linear to anarchic. He shuffled carefully past the rows of chaotically parked vehicles and meandered through small crowds of parents accompanied by their children. He spotted a moist newspaper on the ground directly beside one of the parking lots many garbage cans and sighed with frustration.
When did everybody stop caring? He wondered.
The doors opened automatically as per usual, which had a funny way of making Jason feel appreciated. It also had a funny way of reminding him of Marge. When Jason got arthritis and it hurt for him to bend his fingers too much, Marge began to help him with things like that. He was upset at first. Not at Marge but, at his no-good luck. His good-for-nothing rotten luck. Marge began to write for him, use the remote for him and on occasion, even hold his cigarettes while he smoked them. It was embarrassing, being babied like that. But before too long, Jason accepted it as part of growing old – a fact of life. Now he had to rely on himself for those things. But never the automatic doors because they were so kind to him, so welcoming and familiar.
He grabbed a basket as usual. Pushing a cart made him tired and he never bought more than a basket load of groceries anyways. Today in particular he wanted milk, butter, a bag of those triangle shaped potato chips and cigarettes or at least that’s what everybody would assume from the contents of his basket. Jason didn’t really need any groceries and he had plenty of cigarettes at home. In a way, the old man was shopping for something that grocery stores don’t even sell. A laugh, a smile, a conversation if he was lucky – anything to feel like he belonged again.
Aisle number four was his first stop and he reckoned that next time he would start with it as well. Aisle four was the best one to look at though it was filled with junk that he didn’t usually care for. Here he saw shimmering, brightly colored bags of potato chips, tall glimmering cans of soda and energy drinks and as he searched higher, he found cases of soda so high up that he would need a ladder to reach them. Behind him were tantalizing packages of candies and chocolates. “Sour rockets!” A package exclaimed. Banana fizzers, Caramel ripples, Choco-dogs! His eyes lit up at the sight of them.
What fun! He thought. The packages danced in his eyes and for a brief moment, he was a child again grasping his mother’s finger in one hand and a lolly in the other, bemused by the possibilities before him. He wondered how he could stand the taste back then. Now the most he could stomach was some plain pasta and a bowl of weak tomato soup. It was strange for him to think that-
“Sir? Sir are you alright?” It was a younger man. A store employee as far as Jason could discern.
“Oh! Yes thank you. I was just thinking about how strange these things seem. When I was a boy things were never-”
The man was already gone. Likely to go stock a shelf or help other customers. Jason’s shoulders rolled forward, back into their usual slump. Why did people have to be so goddamn cold? He palmed a bag of cheese flavored triangle chips and dropped them into his empty basket with a crinkle and a crunch. He took a few weak strides towards the end of the aisle when a familiar face emerged and made Jason recoil with delight.
“Gary! How are you doing, my friend?”
“Well, if it isn’t my buddy Jason! I’m well, thank you. And yourself? I haven’t seen you here in a couple weeks. Thought you might have switched grocers!”
“Oh heck no. Nah, the wife’s been sick again so I’ve been staying home to help her along and whatnot. Nothing serious though, just a bit of a lung infection.”
“Ah well it is that time of year again. I had a nasty cold just a few days ago actually. Nothing a bit of Neocitron can’t clear up though, eh? Say, Jason. I’m just about to call it quits for the day, what do you say I walk you home when you’re done your shopping? You DO walk, don’t you?
“Ill tell yah, Gary that sounds terrific.”
“Great, im just gonna go to the back room and change out of my uniform. Meet you out front?”
Jason nodded with a smile that was mostly gums. His teeth had been worn away from his chewing tobacco days and he refused marge’s every attempt to get him a set of false teeth.
“That’ll be the day!” He had proclaimed. “You wont turn me into some kind of artificial robot!”
Gary emerged from the maze of shelves and gave a friendly goodbye wave to one of the female cashiers. He was a graceful looking man for being just shy of fifty-five. He didn’t WALK towards Jason, he jogged as if it caused him no pain in the knees. His spine was straight too. Real straight, like a dangling rope. He never hunched his shoulders or dragged his feet either. It made Jason wonder if he had aged too quickly, if he had made the right lifestyle choices.
“Ready Freddy?” Gary remarked.
“Aint getting much younger.” Jason laughed as he began to stand with wobbling knees and throbbing feet.
Gary was patient with Jason. He walked extra slow so that Jason didn’t feel compelled to walk speed up. He even held the old man’s elbow as they crossed the street but it didn’t seem to help very much. As they neared the Glidetch and Fillow intersection it occurred to Gary just how far Jason walked every week for groceries.
“Awful long way to go for a bag of chips and a pack of smokes, huh? Isn’t there anywhere closer to home?”
“No.” Jason lied. “But it’s nice to get out and stretch my legs once in a while.”
The rest of their walk was spent talking mainly about blues music. Gary was a fan of Muddy Waters while Jason liked stuff a little slower like B.B. King. They talked briefly about family as well. Gary had a wife named Hellen whom he had met twelve years ago in a café. They had a daughter named Christine who was just finishing grade six. Gary was saddened when Jason told him that he and his wife had never had children. Marge had been diagnosed with ovarian cancer when she was twenty-nine. Due to complications from her treatment, she was unable to bear children.
“It was really something. We had just started talking about having children before she got sick.”
He and Marge had never had siblings when they were growing up either. Gary had to stop himself from tearing up as it dawned on him that this poor old couple were completely alone in the world. He decided that he would visit Gary one day. Perhaps they could have some tea and listen to blues music. Maybe his wife would join them.
They had reached 1624 Moon Crescent, The address of one Jason Miller.
“Well thanks for walking me home, Gary. I really hope you’re not too far from home now. Would you like bus fare?” He asked as he began to root through his jacket pocket.
Gary stopped him.
“Oh no. I prefer to walk. Come by the store next week and we’ll do it again, eh?”
Jason nodded and gave a wave as his gums shone with appreciation. It was the closest thing to a smile that Jason had.
Inside the house, all was quiet as it was every day.
“I’m home, Margie!” He yelled up the stairs.
“How was your trip, Dear?” He imagined her asking.
“It was good. I ran into Gary again. This time he walked me home!”
“That was nice of him.” Jason pretended to hear.
“Yes. It sure was.”