A Gathering of Small, Little Things, by James Holbert

That was the fourth person Eliza had heard talking about the parking lot since she came into the grocery store. At the end of the cereal aisle, a bodiless voice, caught in the webbing of what now seemed to be a conversation the whole of Market Basket was having, had said the words “out in the middle of the road.” The voice disappeared before Eliza could see which stranger it belonged to. What amazed her was this apparition-like gathering of voices in a public space. Usually in a grocery store, you met a person by hearing them before you saw them. If you saw them at all.

Eliza held in one hand a box of Fruit Loops and in the other the generic Tootie Frooties, debating if the savings from buying the latter was worth the papery and uninspiring taste typical to most knock-offs. When she was in middle school, she once complained that she could tell the difference even though her mother said that there was none. This led to a blindfolded tasting test. Eliza was confident that she had distinguished the two spoonfuls of loops from each other, and years later, now that she had an apartment of her own and had to fill its cabinets with breakfast cereal every so often, she remembered the taste test as one her few lifelong triumphs. Even though her mother said directly after that she had given Eliza two spoonfuls of Tootie Frooties, Eliza never believed this to be true.

She replaced the knock-off back at the head of the row with the other generics. That no one had removed any other boxes was proof of their inferiority. She had been required to reach back several box lengths to remove its brand-name counterpart. She counted. Four missing spaces. Along the shelves down the aisle, there were few voids. The Fruit Loop void made Eliza nervous the same way when, on her way into the store, she noticed one woman had missed buttoning a button on her cardigan. She could not say anything then, but she’d be damned now if she allowed this gap in the product line to exist. Sometimes, you could find teenaged employees rectifying this minor catastrophe as they reached deep into the shelf and pulled forward the once invisible product. Eliza disliked seeing this because it was a lot like reading the instructions to a magic trick. It was pleasing to imagine that everything fell in its place all on its own. And if it didn’t, then the second best thing was knowing that she could make things fall into place herself. She poked the Fruit Loop box back with a delicate finger; she had pulled it too far over the lip of the shelf.

She went to the end of the aisle. The basket swung from its place in the crook of her arm. Last year, her freshman year of college, she’d developed the habit of carrying her book bag there in the crook because she had noticed once on TV that important-looking women did this, which somehow made them look deliberate. Purses in her arm crook followed thereafter. Then grocery bags and grocery baskets. All in the crook of her arm and swinging. The jar of Prego rolled around and crashed from the upright cereal box to the basket’s siding until Eliza caught it up and planted it upright.

At the refrigerated meat section, Eliza heard the people again. While she examined a slab of lamb, she inched closer to the voices by picking her way from packages of pork to beef to chicken.

“It’s still just sitting there, parked in the center of the street,” a man said. Eliza could hear the rattle of the metal cart as something was dropped in. It made her flinch, and she had to tug at the end of her sleeve to hide it.

“Probably forgot to use the E-brake,” a voice said. “Do we want to do pork chops tonight?”

“Sarah’s got that loose tooth, remember?”

Eliza moved away.

She had sauce but no pasta. She wanted pasta tonight. Pasta was a thing she liked to eat by herself in her apartment. It didn’t take long to cook and it was almost trying when you cooked pasta because it was good and sometimes if you did it right it looked like an Italian pasta commercial happening on your plate. But it was cheap and quick and you could boil it while you cleaned up the leftover magazines and notepads on your kitchen table or counted to make sure you had enough anxiety meds to make it through the week. You didn’t want either of those tasks to go unattended for very long.

Above, the snap of an intercom coming to life caused Eliza to stop midstride. The Prego jar toppled over and her ponytail gave a final decisive swing before idling. Even though it boomed over the headspace of all the people in the store, the voice seemed unsure and nasally as though the intercom was its own person and had just woken up from a nap.

“Will the owner of the Toyota Yaris, license plate number XV7-C23, please move their vehicle from the middle of the road? Thank you.”

The intercom cut off and Eliza stood still. She was biting her pinkie finger, and there was the taste of metal on her tongue from the mood ring she wore there. An old boyfriend had given it to her, but she didn’t think about him unless it turned violet, which didn’t happen much anymore, anyway. Now, she tried not to look at the color.

Around her was the hum of amused chuckling. She didn’t see where these laughing people were, but she heard someone, who was obviously used to yelling and being rough and impatient with people—probably a construction foreman, she thought—say “God’s sake” in the next aisle over. Eliza avoided this aisle and went down the next. Once, when her college was renovating the Science building, a construction workman shouted at her to watch where she was going because she got too close to a slab of free-standing window pane. Until the work on the building was finished, she took the long way to her Art History class. She had to retake the course next semester. Too many tardies.

The Market Basket front end had windows that looked out onto the parking lot plaza, a McDonald’s on one end and an old thrift store—with a name that Eliza could never remember—on the other. Customers with bags in their hands stood looking out, Eliza thought, like the windows were an exhibit at the MFA. She wanted to turn around and go find the box of pasta with the little bowties, but she was only half-sure what her license plate number was. She went as far as register number 2 to try and see out the big windows—the light wasn’t on and there was no cashier, so it was fine.

Between two rows of the perfectly parked cars, a single two-door sedan barricaded the lane in the center, stopped where the pavement evened out from its slight incline. Three cars that had approached from the other end of the lot stacked up together, waiting for the invisible driver of the Yaris to move out of the way. There was a honk and the driver closest to the barricading car threw a hand out her window and waved for the cars behind to go in reverse and turn around. Eliza took one step. She remembered hearing once that a human finger had the density of a carrot and, despite this, the brain wouldn’t allow the person to chew it off. Eliza doubted this now, so she took her pinkie out of her mouth. Only a little blood. But now she could hear her own breathing, and Eliza never liked that unless she was breathing out loud on purpose like when she was hustling to class or had sinus congestion.

She had to go away from the front end. Eliza always went to this grocery store even though there was a Shaw’s a mile from her apartment. The aisles here were like roads because, under the sign with the aisle number, there were more signs and each product got its own. They were like names of streets. Canned Foods Street, Soft Drinks Street, Candy/Snacks Street. Eliza, without thinking, went down International Cuisine Street. She never cooked international food. Cooking regular was hard enough.

A couple was standing at the Asian section. Eliza watched the woman shake her head; the man shook his. It was impossible to read their lips, but they looked Eliza’s way. If they didn’t move away—which they fortunately did just as Eliza got halfway down the aisle, pretending as she was to care about Indian spices—she didn’t know what she’d do or where she’d go or if she would still be able to stand. She dialed Dr. Horner.

“Calm down, Eliza. Can you do that for me?”

She was sucking in too much air.

“Did you try taking your medication yet?”

She took it twenty minutes ago.

“Good. Now, can you do what we talked about, Eliza?”

She could.

“Very good, Eliza. Take your time. Deep breaths. Count them in your head for me.”

Twenty-one. She felt better. A little.

“Good, Eliza. Now, you call me if you need to again.”

There were people in the aisle when she looked up. The box of Fruit Loops in her basket lay over the fallen jar of Prego like a broken seesaw. She fixed it. Her pony needed to be tightened; she could feel it. But she left it because people were around, looking at tonight’s or tomorrow’s or next week’s dinner possibilities. It was hard to look at the people, so she looked at the tiled floor. Sometimes when no one was around she liked to jump from one colored square to the next. Not now, though; her knees felt like sap.

There was no one in line at the customer service desk. The pimply employee looked up from his phone; the screen was in his pupils.

“It’s my car,” she said.

The boy shrugged.

“Okay?” he said. “Move it, please?”

She took a breath; she had to breathe; she couldn’t.

She tore away, the basket swinging ferociously from her arm. It was flaring up in her again and she wondered for a minute if she had accidently lied to Dr. Horner about the medicine. But that couldn’t have been because she remembered sitting in the driveway of her apartment building before she left and then spilling some of the pills on the car mat and picking them up quickly so that they didn’t get too dirty for too long.

The produce section smelled like industrially cleaned linoleum. Eliza weaved between the mountains of apples and oranges and watermelons and packages of blueberries and strawberries and tomatoes. She touched a cantaloupe without knowing it because she had her pinkie in her mouth again and she could taste the iron in her blood more than she could feel the veiny skin of the fruit. But when she saw a black-aproned employee coming in her direction from the bakery section, saying something on a walkie, she gripped down with the cantaloupe hand, realized it was there, and plopped it down on the nearest scale while she tried her best to look interested in the whirring red arrow.

When the employee passed, Eliza watched him go until he rounded a pyramid of canned soup. She left the cantaloupe where it was and thought disjointedly about taking her phone out of her pocket. But she did not and instead breathed and then breathed some more. When she was ready again she took the fruit off the scale and put it back where it needed to be. Then she looked at it again and remembered that she didn’t like cantaloupe very much unless it was in a fruit salad. But she didn’t have any other fruits back home and she wasn’t about to spend all her money buying any. So she left it.

There was still nobody at the customer service desk when she came back and she went right up and looked at the boy behind the counter. She forgot herself. The boy eyed her curiously.

“My stuff.” Eliza held up her basket. The box and the jar stayed up.

“You can leave it here.”

People were still staring out of the windows. The customers in line looked out to the parking lot too while they waited for their cashiers to ring in their groceries. Eliza listened to the beeps and the punching of the keys as she walked by. The exit was all the way on the other side. People smiled at her as she went by because the intercom announcement hadn’t been that long ago and this girl walked briskly and went to the exit without any bags and she kept her head down. Eliza knew that’s why they looked at her. And in the half second it took for the automatic door to register her presence, she drew her arm up to her face and bit down onto her bicep.

“That your car?” someone said out of his driver’s side window.

Eliza tucked her chin to her chest. Some shoppers yet to enter the store stood around. They used their hands as visors to see past the sun. Seagulls called. Eliza remembered her loose pony, took out the scrunchie, and pulled her hair back. She arrived at the door to her car before she finished. It made her hustle her fingers, which made her lose her hold on her hair. More people were watching. She could tell because the voices became less distinct. The scrunchie fell to the pavement; she let it go and unlocked the door.

The emergency brake was down. Eliza hardly ever forgot pull it before she left the car. She started the engine and slid the Yaris into the space that it had slipped out of, jerking the brake up before turning the car off again. Both of her hands gripped the steering wheel, and she rested her forehead at twelve o’clock while she breathed until she counted fifty exhales. She usually felt fine after twenty or thirty, but she remembered that Dr. Horner had once said that the mind and the body don’t talk to each other so well sometimes and it was best to take more breaths if you weren’t completely sure. She did ten more when she looked out the window and saw a little girl in the next car over, staring and twisting a lollipop around inside her mouth.

Everyone went inside. A woman with a baby strapped to her chest tore a cart out of its place as Eliza reentered the store. “Sorry,” she said and stamped off before she saw Eliza wave off the apology.

Some of the cashiers were smiling when Eliza went by the rows of registers. When she came back to the customer service desk there was another teenaged employee there, leaning over and taking a piece of gum from the pimply faced boy. Her basket was there, and as she brought up her arm to fix her elbow under the handles, she noticed the wet stain of saliva where her mouth had been on her upper arm. Then she started to walk away.

People were still looking at her. She looked down at all the tiles she knew she would like to jump on if she didn’t feel the way she did and if nobody was looking at her and if, Jesus Christ, she could remember what it was that she planned on having for dinner tonight again. And then she was just about away from the front end.

“I wouldn’t have come back,” someone said, and she heard but she didn’t see who said it.


A Bridgewater State University alumnus from Plymouth, Massachusetts, James Holbert plans on pursuing an MFA in Creative Writing in the near future. His fiction has appeared in The Offbeat and The Bridge.


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