If only something would happen. What, he did not know. He couldn't recall the date; every day was like the one before. The screen door banged open.
"Jules, dinner is served."
He stared out at the dimming light and the blue and purple floaters drifting about. The smokestacks along the horizon kept on smoking, and the group of men down by the mailbox kept on conversing, smoke from their pipes covering their faces.
He could make out the voice of Mr. Robbins, who lived across the street and was usually hitting his dog with a cane, rambling on about his Cadillac.
"Jules, get in!" another voice shrilled.
"Just give me a minute," he scowled.
A fluorescent speckle flew at his face, and he stood up with a start. The stoop was getting uncomfortable. He leapt off onto the curb and slowly made his way across the street.
A small, yellowed paper flew down the pavement and whipped past his leg before it landed on the edge of Robbins' stoop. Jules picked it up and squinted. A coupon for Miller's grocery, with a blackish scrawl at the bottom. The store's symbol at the top was a large and bolded 'M' overlaying a bag of vegetables. He hadn't been to Miller's in a while.
Life had thrown enough tomatoes at him already. What need was there to face more at the grocer's? But what was it that Mr. Miller had told him last time?
"Hope, Jules, there's always hope."
That was in August, which was the last summer. The last year of light and sun.
If there was one more face to see again, there was no reason it couldn't be the weary yet cheerful one of the storekeeper. The man whose daughter sat at the cash register with her large, wondering eyes and endless questions, while he figured out how to best arrange his produce.
"Enough, Stella, I need those bills in the register. Not under counterfeit analysis. No counterfeiter in his right mind would come here. I can assure you, those are fives."
Jules managed a grin at the recollection of the eight-year-old. He shared her birthday, February 29. The day that came and went like a caterpillar, and emerged now and then with enough wingspan to carry him through to the next year. He stumbled forward, a left at the end of the smoky road, a right at the train tracks, and then...
Where was the awning of red and white with the bold black lettering? The hat store was twelve feet forward and faced Miller's diagonally. Or was it twenty-five feet ahead?
"Would just be better to turn 'round and go home," he muttered wrathfully.
It must have been eight o'clock by then. Mother's impatience wrapped tensely around his ankles. Someone was coming towards him. He could ask the way and be on with it.
"Jules? Good evening. It's getting dark, are you alright?" Mrs. Shipkin stared anxiously up at him.
"Yes, ma'am. Going to the grocer's."
"Please, you go and tell your mother we've missed her at Book Club."
"What a lady," he shook his head with a sneer as her figure disappeared. "She can't string a proper sentence together, let alone run a book club."
The numbness descended further down his chest. He ran his fingers shakily through his hair. Titles streamed in front of him. Robinson Crusoe. The Count of Monte Cristo. He felt Mother's arm around his shoulders and the warmth of delightful words digested. But adventures were over. A voyage to the grocer was the only one left.
"Mr. Miller!" he yelled. "Where is the front door? I need to speak to you, please, can you hear me?"
He pounded down the sidewalk, the tears dried up in his ducts refusing to budge. A street lamp smashed into his face, and the blood trickled down his nose. Still, he kept running until the striped awning ballooned above him.
He shoved open the door with the old chime. The sound of the steady tone and smell of oranges deposited a nostalgia he didn't want to taste.
"Jules! What?" The misty grocery engulfed him.
Standing behind the counter was his old friend chewing a cigar and looking like the Wizard when Dorothy pulled back the curtain.
"It's late! Why are you bleeding? Why would you?...I thought the order to your house was delivered yesterday morning."
"So what brings you here? I haven't seen you in ages! Boy, it's been a rough winter, wouldn't you say? How's your mother?"
"She's been fine. I wanted to ask you about..." He paused to swallow. "This."
And he held up the coupon.
"What is that? Looks like a piece of comic strip to me. Come closer."
Jules maneuvered around the selection of candies and focused on the man's brown tweed cap. Closer, closer.
"Lemme see. Ten percent off legumes, huh? Where'd you get this?"
"I found it on the street."
The grocer chortled loudly. "I don't object to you receiving a discount, my boy. But to come down here a couple minutes before closing time? What's your situation?"
"You mean the real reason I came?" Jules frowned. "I wanted to, to..." He coughed away a sob. "To see you again."
"Ah, missed me, haven't ya? I told you to visit in autumn. We had pumpkins like you wouldn't believe!"
"No. I forgot your store. I forgot the color of radishes in season. I forgot your unibrow and why everyone nags you to fix it. I forgot all of it. Every shade."
"Oh, I see."
"Yes, you do," Jules mumbled, and he felt the urge to kill. To pummel this jolly man to the ground. "You do!" he thundered. He grabbed the square object on the counter and hurled it at Miller. "Won't you keep your trap shut for once?!"
He rushed towards the door, tearing down the chimes on the way out. They clanged behind him with an echo that froze up his mind and goaded his legs to run like some mad dog.
Home again, home at last. The smoke flew to his face. Mother's face flew out and pulled him inside. Her hands came up to clutch her hair.
"Jules, please! If you insist on leaving after dark, I need to know you are safe. At least tell me when you plan to go somewhere, so I'll know. At least!" She wrung her hands in desperation and hugged him. He pushed her away and sat at the table.
"I'm twenty two. I can handle myself." His voice was oddly placid.
"But where were you?"
"I reunited with a friend."
"Oh? What was that like? Was he happy to see you?"
"Yes, he was. We had a nice time."
"I'm glad to hear it, dear."
She took a faltering breath and plastered a smile to her face, then retrieved his cane from his hand and placed it against the wall.
She pushed the plate towards him. "Honey, it's nine o'clock."
"I know, Mother. I know."
"Roasted radishes at eight."