Contest #119 shortlist ⭐️

My Grocery Store Hobby

Submitted into Contest #119 in response to: Write a story that involves eavesdropping.... view prompt

27 comments

Fiction Romance Drama

Caution: Sexual references.


On a recent morning, I was pushing my cart through the aisles of WeShop, a large grocery store near my home, and overheard a conversation between two employees who were stocking the shelves. One of them said: “The boss told me to be on the lookout for customers who are loitering.”


The other replied: “Who cares how much time customers spend in the store? Aren’t longer visits better for sales?” 


The first replied: “Not necessarily. The boss thinks that some of them are waiting for an aisle to empty out. They will then put small valuable items under their coats and sneak out.”


I thought about this snippet of conversation as I passed them. I indulge in what you might call an unusual hobby. I visit supermarkets and walk through the aisles, partly to purchase food but mainly for the pure pleasure of the experience. It was my plan to visit WeShop that morning but not to linger and certainly not to steal anything. I concluded that I was still on solid ground but I would be more cautious.


The reason for my concern is that nothing brings me more satisfaction than my supermarket visits and I didn’t want them to be interrupted. I can understand your sense of confusion about this so allow me to describe why I behave in this way. For most people, grocery shopping is merely a chore to buy food for the family. For me, a supermarket aisle stands as a perfect example of order and symmetry in our chaotic world. The stacked cans, jars, and boxes have aesthetic value. It’s like taking a stroll through a beautiful forest but, instead, a man-made and better organized one.


My sense of contentment is complete in a well-organized grocery aisle. Under ideal conditions, my fellow shoppers are not talking with anyone to disrupt my sense of calm. And I certainly will never patronize a store with loud music in the background or with annoying announcements over the PA — “Attention! Employee needed in aisle #3. There's a spill.


My hobby, known as aisling among its aficionado’s, is widespread but largely unknown to the general public. In fact, an intense fear of shopping in large spaces is much more common and better known. About five percent of the country suffers from this latter condition. It’s a form of agoraphobia but also largely unrecognized for one obvious reason — people with the condition usually stay far away from the large stores. 


There is some degree of specialization among aislers. I focus on the cereal aisle. I love the shape and contours of the boxes and their gaudy colors and logos. Unfortunately, the manufacturers have made some changes with their packaging that I find distracting. The box designs are becoming even more cartoonish. Just show me a stack of plain shredded wheat boxes with simple graphics and I will be a happy man. The stores are also offering smaller boxes to “reduce” prices. Aesthetically, I prefer the larger boxes over mixtures of different sizes.


Some of my fellow aislers prefer the produce aisle with its fruits and vegetables. I will concede that the vibrant colors of the items are fetching. There is also something to be said for pyramidal stacks of produce. Avocados or grapefruit or tangelos in an orderly arrangement can be arresting. However, I tend to view such displays as transient and unstable. We don’t need this additional tension in our unstable world. 


I know what you are thinking. I understand that all of this aisling does give off the distinct whiff of OCD. I readily concede that some of my aisling friends do carry the hobby a little bit too far. Some may even get kicked out of stores for hanging around and arousing suspicion. I don’t ever visit a store on the same day of the week and I also limit my store visits to about 20 minutes. Everything is under control and I will keep it that way.


***


At the beginning of one of my aisling trips to WeShop several months ago, an unusual thing happened. I was strolling through the wine, beer, and liquor aisle as a prelude to a jaunt in the cereal aisle when I noticed a very attractive female shopper. She had aisler written all over her. Clearly a kindred spirit. How did I know this? First of all, she was pushing her cart very slowly. Secondly, she had only one or two items in it. Thirdly, she was smiling broadly. No one but an aisler will smile in a grocery store because shopping is a chore and not a pastime.


She glanced at me and I returned her look, nodding good morning, and said to her in return: “You seem to be very happy, perhaps even somewhat excited.” It was a dumb comment but not a bad ice breaker on the spur of the moment. And we were far from the bagged ice aisle, so my remark was truly spontaneous.


“I am indeed,” she replied. “This is my favorite aisle. The bottles all have different shapes, colors, and sizes. I know that many people prefer products that have a similar shape but I like the controlled ‘chaos’ of this aisle.” She was now practically beaming, which suited her and improved my mood in response.


“I’m Jack,” I continued, in our little, intimate pas-de-deus.


“I’m Maria. I have seen you here many times before but have been reluctant to speak to you. You seem so self-contained and happy that I did not want to disrupt your mood.”


“I am always happy to meet grocery store enthusiasts, partially those who ‘specialize’ in different aisles than mine. You obviously prefer bottles of wine, beer, and liquor. I prefer cereal boxes while others prefer fruits and vegetables. Still others like detergents and home goods. I often use the term ‘fourplay’ to describe these various types of aislers but you may think that this is too corny a line.”


“It has an appealing ring to it,” Maria responded.


“What a pleasure this has been, meeting you today and all,” I added. “I would like to get to know you better, given our shared interests. If I might inquire, do you come often?”


“About three or four times a week. I would probably come even more but I don’t want to overdo it or get caught in the act.”


“Do you come by yourself or with a friend?”


“Usually by myself but would certainly enjoy being with a friend if circumstances allowed it,” she replied in a somewhat coy fashion.


“Let me tell you a little secret that no one else knows about,” I said. “Behind the store, there’s a set of dumpsters. Between them and the back wall there is a cozy space that I have ‘organized’ and lined with cardboard. My little ‘den’ offers total privacy.”


“Unfortunately, the den has one small problem,” I continued. “Outdated produce is thrown into the dumpsters so there’s a little bit of an aroma inside. It’s not overwhelming but still there. I have spent time with produce aislers there and they seem to be actually turned on by the smell. You will need to decide for yourself if you like it.”


“All of this sounds very interesting,” Maria said softly. “I would like to visit your den, perhaps even right now,” she added, speaking in a more urgent tone.


“OK, then. I am going to head out and go to the back of the store. Meet me there in ten minutes — I will be leaning against the brick wall. We can continue our conversation inside the den and talk about whatever comes up.”


As arranged, we met by the back wall. We embraced briefly in the open and then squirmed together into the small space. Maria was breathing heavily and was pulling up her skirt as we crawled inside. For me, it was the perfect ending for the visit, dessert if you will. Almost as good as a stroll through the cake and candy aisle that I normally consider a bit too frivolous.


***


The next month went quickly. Maria and I coordinated our visits to the store such that we were able to meet in the “dumpster-den” a number of times during the month. Best times of my life, I will readily admit, outside of strolls through the cereal aisle. Then, unfortunately, things started to unravel.


On a Tuesday morning toward the end of May, I had just reached the cereal aisle and began to panic. Not all of the shelves were orderly and some of the price labels were askew or missing. Several boxes of Wheaties were tottering on the edge of the shelf. This was a serious problem, perhaps due to the actions, or inactions, of a new employee. I started to rearrange the items but then stopped, knowing that this was not allowed.


As I was trying to figure out my plan to put things back in order, I saw Maria heading toward me, waving excitedly. This was certainly not behavior I encouraged because it might draw attention to us. She pulled her cart alongside mine and blew a small kiss toward me. Another breach of protocol. Her face was flushed. 


“Let’s skip our aisle visits in the store this one day and go straight to the den,” she whispered. “Our visits there have been too rushed lately — I am looking for a more leisurely and relaxed time with you.”


“Maria,” I said. “Can’t you see that this would cause a number of problems. The cereal aisle is in total disorder. This needs to be fixed right away. Let’s stick with our normal ways and meet afterwards.”


A look of dismay began to descend over her face. “Humph,” she blurted out. “I am not going to play second fiddle to a bunch of cereal boxes. I now understand where I stand in this pecking order. I hope that you will have a rewarding and orderly life. I am out of here.” 


She then abandoned her cart in the aisle, yet another major breach of protocol that I needed to correct. She walked quickly toward the front door and I never saw her again.


***


Some of you may say that I behaved in an inappropriate manner with Maria and that my priorities were way off kilter. This is a reasonable conclusion that I respect. However, there is no shortage of female aislers. In fact, they outnumber men by a big ratio. In retrospect, I now understand exactly what happened between us. It was unwise of me to strike up a friendship with a wine, beer, and liquor aisler. 


Stick to your own kind, my father used to tell me. Very wise advice. Cereal boxers tend to be more reliable, more dependable, and perhaps less flighty. Rumor also has it that produce aislers also tend to be somewhat erratic in their temperament. They vacillate between normal temperature and cold like the fruits and vegetables they so admire. Achieve balance and temperament in your life. That’s the ticket. The den will still be there when the occasion and need arises and I will be on the hunt for a new kindred spirit.

November 12, 2021 13:11

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27 comments

Elle F
17:14 Nov 27, 2021

This story was so interesting and funny. I loved how you associate personalities with grocery store aisles!

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Bruce Friedman
19:07 Nov 27, 2021

Ellle, thanks for taking the time to read my story. Glad you enjoyed it. Grocery stores bring out the best and worst of us.

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Kevin Broccoli
19:46 Nov 24, 2021

I really loved the slow depth of character that built throughout the piece in slow revelations. Great job.

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Lore Ax Horton
19:44 Nov 22, 2021

Any relation to Ralph? Thanks for this story. Very amusing. I laughed a lot and I shared this with my mother because I bet she'll be grateful for the giggles too.

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Bruce Friedman
20:46 Nov 22, 2021

Ralph Friedman? No relation. Sharing is good. By the way, this is my own work and I must admit that I myself laugh out loud every time I read it.

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Janis Van Meter
09:41 Nov 21, 2021

Very interesting story on a topic that was unique but still a good read.

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Bruce Friedman
13:48 Nov 21, 2021

Janis, thanks for your kind words. My goal is to engage and perhaps to surprise readers.

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Alex Sultan
03:10 Nov 20, 2021

Congratz on the shortlist, Bruce. This was a very entertaining read - I'm looking forward to your next win.

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Bruce Friedman
14:05 Nov 20, 2021

Thank you Alex for your continuing interest and support for my stories. You have been one of my role models in the five months I have been participating in Reedsy.

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Happy Bayou Hawk
19:17 Nov 19, 2021

International foods aisle female looking for international foods aisle male but open to assorted waters or coffee/teas. 😂😂😂 Brilliant premise. Loved every word.

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Bruce Friedman
21:42 Nov 19, 2021

Thanks for the very generous comment, Happy. The combinations are endless. Also the opportunity to build a "hot sheet" motel next to all grocery stores. Also the opportunity to log onto Tinder when shopping for cat food.

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Amanda Lieser
18:59 Nov 19, 2021

Hi Bruce, I really like this story because you kept it open ended. I recently finished watching “You” on Netflix and this story certainly gave me those vibes. I love when writers jump into the mindset of a challenging character and I think you did it beautifully. I also loved that final paragraph. It left me with plenty to mull over. Congratulations on getting shortlisted and thank you for writing this story.

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Bruce Friedman
19:06 Nov 19, 2021

Thanks, Amanda, for your generous comments. As always for me and once I get the general plot line down for a story, it takes on a life of its own. Almost as if the protagonist is dictating the story to me. I will check out "You" on Netflix. I got the original idea for my story on a podcast with an interviewee saying that she goes to a grocery store to calm down. The idea had never before occurred to me.

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Amanda Lieser
21:00 Nov 19, 2021

Very cool! Thank you for sharing your creative process with me! If you’d be willing, it’d mean a lot to me if you’d comment on my piece, “Grocery List” because I wrote it for the same prompt and was thrilled at our similar settings. Thank you in advance!

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Bruce Friedman
21:39 Nov 19, 2021

Will do, Amanda. And will get back to you with a comment.

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Deidra Lovegren
16:30 Nov 19, 2021

CONGRATULATIONS :) Woo Hoo Well deserved and long over due. 🎉🥳🎈🎉🥳🎈🎉🥳🎈🎉🥳🎈

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Bruce Friedman
16:55 Nov 19, 2021

You are my role model, Deidra. You have taught me so much, both on the basis of your pithy comments and your stories. I love the variety of your work and I am trying to do the same.

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Deidra Lovegren
17:00 Nov 19, 2021

I'm happily just a hack, but enjoy the process and the journey. Look forward to seeing you win a truckload more. I highly recommend: https://manager.submittable.com/signup Free account to see writing contests around the world, and it keeps track of your entries and reams of rejection letters :)

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Lorna Carruthers
09:54 Nov 19, 2021

Hi Bruce, I'm Lorna, we were introduced in the critique circle, I'm new to all this, so it's nice to meet you! I enjoyed reading your story as I couldn't see where it was going, which is always exciting. I liked how the main character seemed to be aware of his problem to a great extent and talked us through how he manages it, and although it is a seemingly harmless obsession it echoes coping strategies of more problematic obsessions or addictions. I also agree with Melissa that it had a playful tone which was fun to read. I did feel like...

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Bruce Friedman
13:36 Nov 19, 2021

Lorna, thanks for your insightful comments. I have only been writing short stories since July when I joined Reedsy. Since the beginning, I have always tried to put some twists in the stories to both engage and surprise the readers. One of the main surprises I have discovered is that my stories seem to take on a life of their own after I have created the basic plot line. They almost write themselves.

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Lorna Carruthers
10:59 Nov 21, 2021

It sounds like you have a lot of fun writing ☺️ ... I'm looking forward to reading more!

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Bruce Friedman
13:47 Nov 21, 2021

Lorna, I have only written 13 in my whole life and only since I started to submit them to Reedsy. To restate the obvious and for me, getting over the inexperience hump was critical. Once some degree of ease is achieved with the basics like plot and dialogue, the experience becomes even more pleasurable.

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Echo Sundar
20:22 Nov 16, 2021

Wonderfull story! An interesting plot I haven't seen before.

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Melissa Balick
21:56 Nov 14, 2021

Very interesting, unique story with a consistent voice throughout. I actually laughed a lot while reading it. Not necessarily because it’s “funny,” per se, but because it’s playful. The story reminds me, in theme & tone, of a really short & enjoyable novel called Convenience Store Woman by Sayaka Murata. It was translated from Japanese. It’s about a woman (likely with autism) who has worked at a convenience store for many years and enjoys it thoroughly, satisfies by the stratified order of things, the guidebook for behavior, the expectatio...

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Bruce Friedman
23:47 Nov 14, 2021

Melissa, thank you for your insightful comment. I struggled a little bit trying to set the right tone for the protagonist. I liked your distinction between funny and playful for the tone of the piece. I will try to get hold of a copy of Convenience Store Woman by Sayaka Murata on your recommendation.

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Moon Lion
17:29 Nov 14, 2021

An interesting read and well written, I could understand the fascination with perfectly ordered boxes or other particularities in certain aisles.

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Bruce Friedman
17:37 Nov 14, 2021

Thanks, Moon, for your generous comment, I also like shopping in grocery stores but was never quite able to articulate the reason for the appeal. Now I think I know the secret.

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