Shopping Curriculum

Submitted by Keith Manos to Contest #19 in response to: Write a short story about someone based on their shopping list.... view prompt

Teaching rule #1:  Formulate the curricular objective. That’s a fancy academic expression that simply means to create a goal. Every teacher – even the newbies like me – knows that, and every administrator checks for it when he or she does an observation to evaluate a teacher. The objective is what you want to accomplish by the end of a lesson. Call it a single to-do task for the day. Like today in Algebra 2, my objective was to solve one variable linear function, a typical lesson for the beginning of the school year. 

            Did we accomplish it?

            I don’t know. In fact, I don’t know if I have accomplished any of the academic objectives in Algebra 2 so far this school year. My students’ quiz scores are a bunch of 5/10, 4/10, and 3/10. Yikes!

            My objective now, however, as I meander through the aisles of the Publix grocery store is to select healthy foods. For once. That means no more chips and salsa, soda and beer, or soup cans filled with sodium sludge. I did my research, I made my list, I pushed my cart quickly past all the boxes filled with processed food. I even hustled past the cooler where twelve packs of beers are stacked, fearful that if a student saw me from a distance pausing here, they would announce to Tremont High School that I’m an alcoholic.

            Yesterday I watched this Netflix documentary about healthy versus processed foods, so my current plan is to fill my shopping cart with carrots and celery, skim milk and cottage cheese, applesauce and oatmeal, and even some fish. Publix smells of lettuce and potato salad and cold, scents I’m not used to since my mother always did the shopping when I was a kid. I never knew there were so many cereals, most of them with cartoonish images on the front. I want a man’s cereal, so I selected a granola cereal from the last aisle.

            And although it looks like a brick of wet sand, I even drop some wheat bread into my cart, and then, feeling proud of myself and with both hands gripping the cart’s handle, I push ahead to the end of the aisle. Turning at the end, I bump this girl’s cart, a not so unusual event at grocery stores but still awkward.

            “Sorry,” she says, giving me a brief apologetic smile, her eyes on the spot where our two carts collided.

            I don’t move. I don’t apologize. I don’t do anything. I just stare. She’s too pretty:  sandy-blonde hair pushed behind small ears, tight jeans covering a slender body, pink lipstick, white teeth. “My fault,” I finally utter.

            “No . . . it’s okay.” She disengages our carts, and her wheels squeak when she moves her cart to the right of mine. She’s heading into the bread aisle, which I just traveled, her eyes already scanning the shelves of white, wheat, and rye bread loaves behind me.

            I swallow, my Adams apple suddenly huge in my throat. I don’t slide my cart to the side because I don’t want her to leave. But what to say? That’s why I pull a package of mushrooms out of my cart and ask, “How should I cook these?” I’m being honest. Although I like eating them, especially on burgers, I have no idea how to cook mushrooms.

            She stops pushing her cart to the side, and her eyelids flutter over blue-green eyes as she studies the package in my hand. She gives me a half-smile and says, “Cookbooks are in aisle number four, I think.” She even points in that direction.

            I toss the mushrooms back onto my other groceries and swivel the suddenly clumsy cart so that it is parallel to hers. I don’t care that I’m heading in the wrong direction now. Who is this pretty girl? Her cart is already half full:  Chicken wrapped in plastic, a box of noodles, cans of tomato paste, a ball of lettuce, a bottle of red wine. “I bet you’re a great cook,” I say, using my teacher voice, the tone I use when a student offers the correct answer.

            She stops, checks the bread aisle in both directions like she’s wondering if another shopper heard me, and narrows her eyes. “Is that a pick-up line?”

            I give her what I hope is a surprised look. “No, I’m pretty sure it’s a compliment.” I look into her cart again and wave a hand over it. “Chicken parmesan tonight, right?”  I’m hoping for some momentum here. Thank God she’s smiling.

            She looks into her cart and her smile turns into a quick laugh. “Me, a great cook? If you knew me better, you’d know that isn’t true.” She gives me a polite smile as a way to say goodbye and starts pushing her cart down the bread aisle again.

            I follow her, like we’re in a NASCAR race, and call out, “Okay then, give me a chance to get to know you.” I catch up to her and extend my hand “My name is Brad . . . Brad Miller.”

            She stops, leans a little towards me, and shakes my hand, “Mary Jo. Nice to meet you, Brad.” When she smiles, her whole face brightens, and I’m stuck again because I don’t know where to look. Her smile? Her eyes? Her hair? They all seem to glow against the bright lights of Publix. 

            Mary Jo’s hand suddenly squirms in mine, and I realize I need to release it. When I do, I’m glad to notice she’s not wearing a ring on her left hand. Introductions over, Mary Jo shoves her cart ahead and studies the bread options before stopping and lifting a bag of puffy rolls off the shelf. I follow her and do the same although it’s my second trip down the bread aisle. “So help me out here.” I wave my hand over my cart again. “What should I do with all this stuff? I’m really trying to eat healthy.”

            Another polite smile. “Cookbooks, aisle four,” she reminds me and turns right at the end of the aisle. A moment passes, and Mary Jo is gone, having turned down the next aisle.

            Figures.

            Courting girls has always been a disaster for me . . . I never had a girlfriend in high school, and in college my most serious relationship ended with mutual accusations about who gave whom gonorrhea. I took the penicillin and dumped the girl.

            “Excuse me.” The annoyed voice behind me belongs to a frumpy, middle-aged woman who’s pushing a cart filled with frozen dinners. She’s angling her cart to the side, and I recognize immediately she can’t get by me unless I move. So I do, and then I have to decide: Do I hunt for Mary Jo in Publix or simply finish shopping?

            If I hunt for her, she might think I’m a weirdo, or worse, a stalker.

            If I don’t track her down, I might never see her again.

            I hustle to get Swiss cheese and eggs and for some strange reason a container of Greek yogurt, even though I hate yogurt, and rush to the checkout lines, where I linger going back and forth until I see Mary Jo emerge from a far aisle and head to the checkout lane number eight. I keep my eyes on my cart and make it seem like a coincidence when I get in line behind her. “Hi again,” I say in a voice I hope indicates surprise.

            Mary Jo grabs a carton of eggs out of her cart, places them carefully on the black, rubberized belt, and pauses to peer at me. “Hi,” she says and offers the same gracious smile I saw before, her eyes lingering for several seconds on my face. Then she returns to digging items out of her cart to place on the belt.

            “Did you get everything you needed?” Even after I say this, I know it’s a stupid question, like I’m her father or even worse, her mother. I keep smiling, however.

            She looks first at me with eyes that seem to suggest she feels sorry for me, and then she glances into the belly of my cart. “Did you get a cookbook?”

            I examine the contents of my cart like I’m peering into a well and shake my head.  “No . . . so I guess I still need some help.” True, it sounds lame, but I’m desperate here. I have dated only one girl since I graduated from Kent State University four months ago, and that date was two months ago – an Italian girl who lived in an apartment a floor above mine. We stopped dating after three evenings together because she said I walked too fast and truthfully, her Jurassic Park fingernails made me nervous.

            Mary Jo doesn’t stop putting her groceries on the belt but asks, “Help?”

            I tighten my grip on my grocery cart handle. “Yeah, help . . .. You look like you know what you’re doing in the kitchen. Can I call you?” God, that sounds desperate. You are probably coming across the way you did in high school, hoping the third girl you asked to prom said yes. Mary Jo probably has a boyfriend anyway.

            The cashier, a young girl who probably just graduated from high school, watches us and grins. The fingers of one hand move methodically on the cash register while her other hand scans Mary Jo’s purchases in a constant sequence of beeps.

            Mary Jo pauses with a can of tomato paste in her hand and studies me with sympathetic eyes. “Call me? Why?”

            “Simple. I’m a lousy cook.”

            “That’s it?” She puts the can of tomato paste on the conveyer belt.

            “Well . . ..” Of course there’s more to it, but how does one say, “I think you’re beautiful” in a Publix grocery store? Who does that?

            Mary Jo smiles. “Look, Brad . . . if you’re shopping for clothes at the mall, I can help. Come to my store. But you’re on your own in the kitchen. Sorry.”

            Mary Jo wants me to give up, but I refuse. “You sure aren’t making this easy,” I tell her.

            “Are you referring to cooking dinner or asking me out?” She laughs a little, and the checkout girl in her blue smock chuckles with her as she swipes Mary Jo’s final items past the scanner. The girl, in fact, is so efficient, Mary Jo’s paper bags are stuffed and into her cart in minutes, and before I can say anything else, she’s heading to the exit. I sense the impatience of shoppers in line behind me at checkout #8 and debate between pulling my groceries out of my cart or chasing after Mary Jo. My inner debate ends when Mary Jo gives me a slight wave and that same courteous smile before she pushes her cart out the automatic door and into the parking lot, leaving me stuck with my healthy groceries slowly sliding past the scanner.

            The checkout girl gives me a sympathetic smile as she helps me stuff the items into paper bags. 

            On the drive to my apartment, I yell “moron” at the windshield. Is that the best you could do, Brad? You’re a teacher, for God’s sakes. And I don’t forgive myself. I have to say over and over in a monotone voice and then in a Greek accent (because I have the yogurt) and finally with my Scooby Doo impersonation, “What do I do with all this stuff?” I keep switching from one voice to the other. Who asks that? What were you thinking? You truly are a moron!

            Back at my apartment, I’m still angry and disappointed, feelings that linger inside me the rest of the night. Before going to bed, I brush my teeth so hard it’s like I’m scrubbing the grease off a frying pan. I set my alarm and then stare at the framed picture of a Trojan warrior that hangs on the near wall, a gift to myself when I got the Tremont teaching job. Finding someone should not be so difficult, I tell myself. Like some magic is required. Is this what my life is always going to be like? If not Mary Jo, then who?

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