The bread is where the Cheerios used to be. The coffee and tea have moved one lane over, down at the far end on the wrong side of the aisle. Canned soups are usurping the spot where only last week Nabisco Premium Saltines reigned supreme.
Shoppers, desperate for dinner, lurch from shelf to shelf, grimly focused on survival. A woman shoving her cart along a cross aisle is blind-sided at an intersection by a man trundling a load too high to see over, his face gripped by a manic rictus of obsession.
Oh, the humanity.
She shakes off the impact to her T-boned shopping cart and charges forward, hell-bent to complete her mission.
I have asked three red-smocked workers where I might find the pudding. The first of them said, “Who knows? I’m as stumped as you are.” The second simply gave me a blank stare. The third whipped out a printed map of the new arrangement and shouted, “Aisle Three!”
I pushed my cart to Aisle Three, where hung tranches and troves of plastic pudding cups for kids’ lunches. Angst. How can I go back and tell the red smockers I’m looking for pudding powder that comes in a little cardboard box, that you mix up yourself?
Fundamental Questions On the Order of the Universe
They have re-stocked our supermarket, putting everything on the wrong shelves. Why overturn a system that has worked well for months, if not years?
How can They do this to us? Who is this monstrous They (Pronouns: We / Us / We’ve Got You Where We Want You, Little Consuming Worm)?
Who are these godlike beings with the power, and apparently the authority, to wreak blind havoc in people’s lives?
Dammit, Jim, there are lives at stake here!
Sanity Asserts Itself
When you are mired down in bottomless confusion, there’s nobody like my old friend Milo Bung to set you straight.
Sure enough, here he comes, pushing one of those pint-sized carts, whistling.
“Milo! I haven’t seen you since the start of covid.”
“Oh, that,” he says, as if the global pandemic were already decades in the rearview mirror. “How have you been?”
“Well, all right, I guess. Until now.”
“Why? What’s the problem?”
“What’s the problem? What’s the problem!” I cry. “Have you not noticed that nothing is where it should be?”
“That’s a hum-dinger, ain’t it?” Milo chuckles. “I couldn’t find the ramen noodles, so I picked up some light bulbs instead.”
“It’s what was there,” he says. Five boxy cartons of regular bulbs top his cart, plus a four-foot fluorescent tube. “You never know when something will burn out.”
I snicker. “Next time you need a quick lunch you can munch on some 75-watt Soft Whites.”
“Naw,” says Milo. “Thought instead of ramen I’d pick up a little peanut butter. Look, it’s right here.”
“Swell. Now if I could only find pudding.”
“Pudding? Aisle Three.”
“No, that’s the kind in little cups. I want the chocolaty powder in little boxes.”
Milo furls his brow. Then it unfurls. “Go ask a store employee where to find the Jell-O.”
“Where to find the Jell-O.”
“Sure. The pudding will be right beside it.”
A red smocker told me the Jell-O would be in Aisle Seven. And it was.
The pudding was right beside it.
I hate when Milo is right.
I bought sixteen boxes.
Larry F. Sommers, Your New Favorite Writer
Price of Passage
Norwegian Farmers and Fugitive Slaves in Pre-Civil War Illinois
Below is the first draft of a story. You can help make it better by commenting on what you liked or what you didn’t. Feel free to make suggestions. How could the story be better?
WAYNE MATCHED HIS STEPS TO THE ROTATING GLASS DOOR of the Ultra Star Boston Back Bay Convention Hotel. He walked out into warm summer air and took a deep breath.
Eleemosynary this and eleemosynary that—he had left all such talk behind in the hotel’s lobby. It was just a fancy word for charitable. It did not apply to the Society for the Support of the Classics, since the group aided no persons in actual need. Yet “eleemosynary” was always on the lips of Caedmon Truescott, silver-haired czar of the Society. For Caedmon Truescott nothing was more important than virtue.
Wayne, having no agenda outside the hotel, drifted with the traffic toward Boston Common. The Society would applaud when he ousted Truescott as chairman of the executive committee. He could hardly wait. Maybe it would happen in tonight’s plenary session.
Truescott’s prime asset was Charmayne, his second wife, young and blonde. Charmayne, always at Caedmon’s side, bedazzled everyone. Wayne could not place Charmayne in the same thought with Mavis, his own stalwart wife of four decades. Give Mavis her due: She studied Greek and Latin to read Homer and Ovid in the original, something none of the other well-heeled classicists of the Society could claim. But Mavis was no Charmayne.
The white spire of Park Street Church loomed ahead. Wayne belatedly realized he had walked past Boston Common barely registering its huge green presence. Well, he would start paying attention, now that he was downtown.
“Not a care in the world.” A voice pierced the babble of passersby. Wayne turned his head. A man in the shadow of the church stared straight at him. “Fat and happy, aren’t you? Probably from out of town, you have that stargazing look.”
Wayne halted. “Are you talking to me?”
The man was young and shaggy, his clothing foul. The man’s dark skin challenged Wayne as much as his words. “Bet you never missed a meal in your life.”
“I don’t suppose I ever have. No apologies. I work for a living.”
The man smiled. “As would I, my friend, if I could.”
“What do you want?”
The eyes looked down, then up. “The price of a meal would help—not just for me, for my wife, too.”
Wayne looked around, saw no woman nearby.
The beggar scowled. “You think I’m a liar?”
“No. I just—” Wayne pulled out his wallet. “Here.” He handed the man all his cash. He did not know how much he was carrying. It did not matter.
The man glanced at the bills, shoved them in a pocket. He looked at Wayne appraisingly. “The Bible says, ‘If a man takes your coat, give him your cloak also.’”
Wayne’s jaw dropped open. “You want my coat, too?” People hurried by, stepping around him and the young beggar.
The beggar’s eyed glittered as if enjoying a rare bit of sport. “Do I look like I have a coat, brother?”
Wayne sighed. He took off his suit coat—two hundred at Men’s Wearhouse? But did it matter?—and handed it to the beggar.
“Thanks, man.” Accepting the gift with his left hand, the beggar swung a roundhouse right and connected with Wayne’s nose.
A brief spasm of pain. The man sprinted away, carrying Wayne’s coat, dashing into the street between cars and vanishing into a warren of buildings on the other side.
Wayne’s world spun. He breathed heavily.
Where was he? Why had the man punched him?
He felt hands on his shoulder.
“Oh, my God, that man’s crazy. What did he do? Are you all right?” A middle-aged woman with a creased face stared into his eyes.
“I . . . it’s all right.”
“No, it’s not. Look here, you’re bleeding.” She squirreled into her shoulder bag, brought out a wad of Kleenex, and shoved them under his nose. “I’ve seen him before. He’s not right.”
He took the Kleenex from her hand. Bright red stains. He dropped the Kleenex on the sidewalk, fished out his pocket handkerchief, and held it on his nose.
“Look, it’s down your shirt.”
“It’ll wash. It’s no trouble.”
“That man got away with your coat.”
Wayne felt cornered. “Maybe he needed it more than me.”
“Nonsense. You should call a cop.” She looked up and down the street. “Where are they when you need them?”
Spectators formed a knot around Wayne and the aggrieved woman.
“Listen, “ Wayne said, “it’s no trouble. I’ll just go to my hotel, the . . . Hilton Something . . . it’s right up here.” He parted the onlookers and walked away, past the church, toward the tall buildings beyond.
“Well, I never,” said the woman, her voice fading behind him.
He only had to get back to the . . . place. The place where Mavis was. Hotel. Yes.
The Hilton Something. No, no, not Hilton. But something of the sort.
He thought as he walked: he had been in Cincinatti before, surely he could find his way back. No, not Cincinnati.
Toledo. Was that right?
There was green on his left. He went through an arch and found himself in a shaded garden. No, not a garden. There were tombstones. Old tombstones—thin, dark tablets with names incised in square letters. Here was a big white one: PAUL REVERE. Imagine that.
He left the cemetery and continued, up and down city streets. One block, then another.
The place he was looking for must be close by. Maybe it was just beyond the next block. With tall buildings intervening, it was hard to see your way.
Bystanders stared at Wayne. What was there to stare at? A cop directing traffic in the middle of an intersection gave him the fish eye as he limped by.
The sun angled sideways. It threw long, blue shadows between buildings.
Wayne wearied. He started to fear that he would never find his way.
He almost gave up hope. Then it was right in front of him: The Hilton. No, not the Hilton. Something else. Back Bay something, the sign said. But it was the right place. He remembered the wide, revolving door.
He marched carefully to stay ahead of the door. Then he was inside.
He looked around. Some people in the lobby were familiar. One man gave him a little one-handed salute. Wayne knew him well but couldn’t think of a name. He waved back, smiled weakly.
What now? Find Mavis.
Where would she be?
A key. He needed a key. In his wallet. He remembered putting it in his pants pocket after the gypsies made off with his coat. Gypsies? Whatever.
It was there. Good. He pulled out the wallet, opened it, and found the key card. The back of the card had the hotel’s name and a pattern of diamonds.
No room number. Of course. They didn’t do that anymore.
He was stumped.
A young woman in a powder-blue coat eyed him from the front desk.
He walked over to the counter. “Can you help me? I have this key, but I can’t seem to remember my room number.”
She smiled, her white teeth setting off her smooth chocolate skin. “Happens all the time. I can help you.”
He almost burst into tears. She could help him.
“What is your name?” she asked.
“Wayne. Wayne Purvis. Mister and Missus.”
“You’re booked in here with Missus Purvis?”
She studied a screen. “Here it is.” She smiled again. “I’ll just need to see some ID.” She raised her eyebrows expectantly.
Wayne pulled his driver’s license out of the wallet and handed it over.
The young woman looked at the license, then at him. She frowned. Squinted at the license, then squinted at Wayne’s face. She bit her lip.
“Very good,” she said. “It’s you, all right. Looks like you met with some mishap?” She did the thing with her eyebrows again.
“That’s why I want to get back to my room.”
The young woman studied him another moment. Then she wrote something on a slip of paper. “Eleven twenty-three. You can take the elevators over there.” She handed him the paper and pointed across the lobby.
Wayne saw Mavis.
“Wayne!” She rushed to him. “We’ve been looking all over for you. What’s happened?” She gawked at his appearance.
“I met somebody.”
“I guess so.” She looked dismayed, then threw her puffy arms around him. It felt good.
“I’ll explain” he said. “Can we just, just go to our house, first?”
“In Chippewa Falls? Wayne, this is Boston.”
“Yeah, yeah, I mean . . . our room. Go to our room.”
“Of course, darling. That’s a good idea.”
Over her shoulder, across the lobby, that silver-haired guy looked on.
Wayne saw the dour look on Truescott’s face and knew that this moment was the end of his dream to unseat Truescott and become chairman of the . . . the Classical something or other.
Well, let him stare, thought Wayne as Mavis steered him to the elevator.
It was good to be home.
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Author of Price of Passage—A Tale of Immigration and Liberation.
Price of Passage
Norwegian Farmers and Fugitive Slaves in Pre-Civil War Illinois