The old man stood with his hands behind his back, oblivious to the new eyes that were on him. His skin was tan and wrinkled, his left hand home to a weathered gold ring. He wore a black cap pulled low over his eyes and a tan jacket that she thought might smell faintly of smoke. If only she could get closer.
The woman rounded the corner, stopped, and peered into the wine cooler. Santa Margherita on sale, Ruffino full price. She was sure he’d be gone by the time she rounded the other three. She passed the reds, the fancy cheeses, and turned her way back to the bakery.
The bananas in her cart no longer existed; the yellow peppers, bag of onions, gone. The song in her headphones came to a pause and the squeak of the cart’s front wheels stopped. He was there. Bent over the cakes, the ones made in the morning in the bakery in the back. He’d only moved an inch.
She crept toward him, suddenly aware of her every footfall. She just wanted to get a little closer, to get a better look. She wouldn’t do anything. What would she say, anyway? Ah ha! I’ve found you. I knew you’d be here. No, she would never say these things. So she just stood.
He took his time with the sweets and finally selected a small, round, chocolate cake. He placed it carefully in his basket and walked past the butcher and the dry goods. The man moved slowly and the woman stood for a second, unsure of what she’d do next. She unlocked her phone and checked her list. At this rate she’d never make it home on time to get dinner in the oven. She was sure, though, that when she finally looked up, the man would be out of view and she could go about her day, collecting her groceries and thinking only of the chicken she would prepare later that night.
But when she lifted her eyes, set on heading to the produce section, he was still in view. There was nothing to do, but she couldn’t not do anything. Again, her feet moved against her will and she found herself behind him, staring at the shelves in an aisle that housed nothing on her list. The man idled by the canned goods before wandering to the next aisle over. The woman followed behind him like a shadow. They moved like this around the store until three cans of tuna, a loaf of bread, and a box of donuts had joined the chocolate cake. When the man finally made it to the checkout, the woman promised herself once again that she would simply return to her list and go about her day. She turned away from the register and down the candy aisle, her eyes fixated on the colorful shelves. She made it about halfway down the aisle before she turned and walked toward the exit, leaving her cart sitting half-empty next to the Reese’s.
In the parking lot she walked slowly to her car, unsure both if the man had noticed her in there and of what she would say if he turned around and saw her following him out of the grocery store empty-handed. But the man never turned. He crossed the lot and as she watched him, she could already tell which car belonged to him. He loaded his bags into the gold Honda and climbed in, completely unaware.
She still wasn’t sure if she would really follow him or not. What was she going to do? Go to his home and then what? She couldn’t. There would be no reason. But no matter how many times she told herself to stop, her feet continued toward her car. She got in quickly and sat for a second before starting the engine and turning left out of the lot, away from her home. She followed him down the main street and into a modest little neighborhood in the middle of town.
When the man pulled into the driveway of a tiny brick rambler, the woman felt the odd sense that she’d been there before. She pulled over, just across from the house, and watched as he unloaded his bags in one slow-moving trip. Once he was inside, she turned the car off and waited for the light in the front room to come on. She held her breath, transfixed by the tiny window to the left of the door. A few minutes passed and she turned the car back on, ready to head home, or maybe back to the store. But then it happened. The light flickered once and then illuminated the small living room next to the entryway. She watched the man carry the brown paper grocery bags from the living room to the kitchen and she turned the car off again.
Before she could stop herself, she was standing on her tiptoes reaching for a large brass door knocker. She knocked twice and then stepped back. With her hands in her pockets and her eyes wide, she shuffled from foot to foot and counted to five, ten, and then twelve. Then the door opened in front of her.
“Darling, you’ll have to forgive me. I’m moving slow as molasses these days.” The man stood in the doorway and chuckled.
The girl smiled up at him and the two looked at each other like old friends.
“Well don’t just stand there, come on in.”
She took her coat off in the entryway and hung it on the hook behind the door. It didn’t wobble like it used to. He must have fixed it, she thought. She untied her Converse and left them on the mat, right next to his brown loafers. It was almost as if the space was left just for her. She followed him through the house, to the small kitchen in the back, where he shelved his tuna and cleared off the countertops.
“Are you hungry? I was about to make a snack. Could I fix ya something?” He didn’t wait for an answer. Instead, he bent carefully over the crisper and pulled out a granny smith. He grabbed two small, glass plates from the shelf above the sink, a jar of peanut butter, and a sharp knife. He cut the apple with shaky hands and then divided it between the plates and placed them gingerly on the table. He pulled one of the wooden chairs out and motioned for her to sit. She did and he placed the jar of peanut butter in the center of the small table, between the two of them.
They dipped their apples and ate in comfortable silence. Every so often the man would look up at the girl and smile so wide it reached his wrinkled eyes. Once they finished, he cleared the plates, and though she offered to help, he insisted that he could manage.
“Tell ya what? I think those birds out there are probably hungry, too. What do you think?”
The girl answered by retrieving her shoes and waiting by the back door until he’d dried the plates. He hung the towel back on the oven handle and shuffled to the front room. When he came back with his brown loafers on, she turned the lock, which didn’t stick how it used to, and the two stepped into the cold air.
Outside, he told her about the cardinal that’d been coming to visit in the evenings. Maybe, if they were lucky, they’d get to see him today. She asked how he could tell it was a boy and he described the vibrant red color of his feathers. “Just like that big dog you like. I call the bird Clifford, ‘cause of him.”
They scattered the seeds on the ledge surrounding the grass and then went inside to watch through the window. They sat back down at the little table in the kitchen and laughed together as the plump squirrel he’d dubbed “Hefty” made off with most of the feed. They waited a while, but the cardinal never came. Or maybe they just didn’t notice. After a few minutes, the man had shuffled to the closet in the living room and reached for the middle shelf.
“You’re the blue player, if I recall correctly.” He smiled down at the open Parcheesi box. The girl remembered losing her favorite piece on Christmas Eve at least ten years back, but the old man set her player in the center of the board, next to his own green marker.
After he’d let her win, he walked to the fridge and, much to her surprise, pulled out two McDonald’s vanilla milkshakes. They cheersed their spoons and ate the ice cream that had somehow not melted at all. When they were almost finished, they both tipped their cups back and smiled at each other through milkshaked mustaches. At some point, the time on the clock caught the man’s eye. How could he forget about the game? The two moved to the living room, where she snuggled up under his arm on the La-Z-Boy and fit in a way that made her feel tiny. A young Bryce Harper hit run after run, and as they watched they took breaks from telling each other stories only to cheer.
The Nats won, 7-4, and the two finished the game with a high-five. As soon as the program changed, the man turned the television off and turned to the girl. “Well, I’m sure you’ve got more stuff to do today than hang out with an old man like me. You get outta here and have some fun.”
The girl didn’t protest. Not then and not later, when he offered to cut her a slice of cake for the road. He cut a generous piece and wrapped it carefully in tinfoil. In black sharpie he wrote in his perfect cursive “Love ya! —G”
In the doorway, he handed her the cake. “Well, you be good out there now, Darling. I’ll see ya soon. Don’t you go being a stranger.” He gave her a squeeze and she rested her head on the tall man’s hunched shoulder. He smelled faintly of smoke.
The girl walked outside and down the street. The man stood in the doorway and waved until she was out of view.
The woman blinked. She wasn’t sure how long she’d been staring at the tiny brick house or even where she was. Her stomach growled and she thought then of the chicken growing warm in her abandoned cart in the candy aisle. She turned the car on and pulled the mirror down. Her eyes were puffy and her mascara fringed them in dark, flaky circles. She wiped her face with the edge of her sleeve and closed the visor. When the woman looked back at the house, tears wet her eyes again. Gone was the American flag on the front porch. There was no garden to the right of the door. In place of the gold Honda sat a red Toyota and the front room was dark. Not a single light shone.