The Independent Counsel’s wife has asked him to pick up a few things on his way home from work. There’s a Safeway in the basement of the shopping concourse at the Watergate. It costs a fortune to park in the lot, but the Independent Counsel finds a spot beside a meter on Virginia Avenue. The Book of Proverbs says: “Then shalt thou walk in thy way safely, and thy foot shall not stumble.”
This store is known as the “Senior Safeway,” even though GWU students shop there too. It’s been open for thirty years. The groceries are overpriced and frequently out-of-stock, but it’s handy for people who live in the neighborhood. Bob and Elizabeth Dole stand in line to buy milk with everyone else.
The subterranean grocery store abuts the shopping promenade between the hotel and offices and the Watergate East. The Independent Counsel disentangles a shopping trolley–the sign calls them “BASKARTS.” He appreciates not being obliged to deposit a quarter like a thief. When did Americans stop trusting each other?
The confidential assistant to the Assistant Secretary of Defense for Public Affairs is in love with a married man: the Big Creep. She tries not to leave her mother’s apartment in the South building of the Watergate complex in case he calls. The Safeway under the hotel can be yucky–there are dust bunnies in the corners– but she’ll pop in because it’s so convenient. The confidential assistant and her mother are neighbors with the Doles.
The Safeway is the only store at the Watergate which stays open until 10 P.M. There are three clerks on duty, though one of them has removed her smock to smoke a cigarette outside. The confidential assistant says, “Hi!” so cheerfully her voice cracks on the “i.”
The Safeway is small, with narrow aisles and noisy strips of florescent lamp. A ballad contends with the clamor from the air conditioner, freezers, and lights. The confidential assistant takes a trolley even though she only wants a few things. Her eyes are red from crying. Opalescent chicken breasts and fuchsia lumps of ground beef strain against plastic wrap in the open-faced freezers. The man singing the ballad says he has finally found love.
The confidential assistant mulls over boxes of Honey Mustard Chicken, Cheese Ravioli, and Chicken Parmesan Lean Cuisine. She’s feeling strangely indecisive. The Big Creep is on vacation with his family. She hates him for how he’s treated her, but if he was standing in front of her right now she’d probably give him a big hug.
There is an advertisement for a realtor on the front basket of the Independent Counsel’s trolley. This smooth-talking shyster used to worship at the same church as the Independent Counsel. He bends to study the photograph, which appears to have been doctored. A shimmer effect has been added to the edges of one of the realtor’s front teeth in order to enhance his smile. The deceitfulness and mendacity of the mob in the White House are contagious. The ocean spits up tarred beasts when a tanker leaks its dirty oil into the sea.
The Independent Counsel pushes the trolley past jars and squeeze bottles of mayonnaise and mustard, stout jugs of ketchup and barbeque sauce, boxes of noodles with little plastic windows, cubed tins of turkey Spam, napkins, plastic cups, Styrofoam plates. His wife said they need toilet paper, and garbage bags. They’re completely out of milk and eggs until their housekeeper does a big shop tomorrow.
A young woman with long black hair standing in the middle of the frozen dinner aisle blocks the Independent Counsel’s route to the dairy section. Her head is cocked to one side and her palm rests just above her rump while she contemplates her choices. The Independent Counsel clears his throat, but the black haired girl remains oblivious. Her shiny locks gleam in the dull light and the smell of her perfume masks the odor from the meat section.
She’s just like them. Entitled. The type of people who see a peach tree and pick the choicest, most juicy fruit without stopping to ask:
Whose tree is this?
The confidential assistant and the Big Creep are both Leos. Two Leos always have an intense relationship; when they compliment each other they can become soul mates. Leo couples are passionate and playful, but they also struggle for dominance and clash.
The confidential assistant reaches into the freezer for some frosty boxes of Honey Mustard Chicken. The depressing song ends. She checks the produce section at the back of the store but everything except the bananas looks really gross. The oranges are chartreuse. The confidential assistant trails her fingers across a pyramid of oblong, maroon apples and fluorescent yellow granny smiths. She picks up a kiwi and it deflates in her hand.
Sometimes it seems like the confidential assistant can actually feel the Big Creep’s experiences in her heart. In March she dreamt he was in trouble and it turned out he’d tripped and needed emergency surgery on his knee. The new song playing in the store is Rhythm is a Dancer.
There are only two cartons of eggs left: the harvest is great, but the workers are few. The Independent Counsel takes a carton even though the Best Before date is two days away. The accelerated beat of Rhythm is a Dancer increases his feelings of irritation, although the music is very faint.
The Independent Counsel has been conducting his investigation for three years. It has grown swollen and distended with malfeasance. The scope is constantly expanding; one line of misdeeds uncovers three more. It’s like turning over rocks after a rainstorm, when the worms come up out of the wet earth to mate.
He notices a lady struggling to reach around a load-bearing column which blocks access to the milk section. She’s wearing a medical alert bracelet and wiggling her fingers to try and touch the cartons. He says, “Allow me,” and reaches into the fridge for the milk.
His soft-spoken voice is familiar. The woman has a pair of glasses dangling around her neck on a chain. She puts them on and recognizes the Independent Counsel. She says, ‘Oh. It’s you,’ very abruptly. The Independent Counsel is unruffled. He tries not to worry too much about what people think.
There is no Philadelphia light cream cheese left in the dairy section. The confidential assistant hates this Safeway! Of course they have every variety of I Can’t Believe It’s Not Butter! and Country Crock. She adds a 4-pack of yogurt to her trolley. The confidential assistant thinks that the Big Creep associates sex with guilt and shame. She saw him on his birthday and they got into a big fight. The confidential assistant picks up a bottle of Diet Coke. She rocks the last package of plain toilet paper off the top of a display of scented rolls.
The confidential assistant worked late and she is anxious to get home, yet she lingers. She pushes her trolley past the deli, the frozen dinners, the cereals, the cookies, and a wall of cat food, looking from side to side to make sure she isn’t forgetting anything that she might want.
The Independent Counsel picks up a package of lavender scented toilet paper, which is the only kind left on the shelf. The Independent Counsel has extremely sensitive skin. He can smell the rolls through the plastic wrap, and the deodorizing stench sets his nose hairs on edge. He has everything his wife asked him to get. The Independent Counsel looks at his watch. He’ll get back to McLean at around 10 P.M.
The Independent Counsel picks up a jar of raspberry jam and studies the label. He appreciates the feel of the smooth glass and the weight of the preserves in his palm. He is struck by waves of unquenchable yearning. James the Just wrote, “What is your life? You are a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes.” The Independent Counsel decides that he might as well take one more look around the store while he’s there.
The 15 Items and Under Express Lane is held up because the rude senior the Independent Counsel helped pays by check. The people in the Express Lane mark their displeasure with clucking noises and loud sighs.
The Independent Counsel is standing behind a young lady in revealing jean shorts. Her grimy feet and cracked toenails are wedged into filthy plastic thongs. Were it not for her hooded GWU sweatshirt he would have mistaken her for a derelict. A wire shopping basket is thrust out jauntily at her side, its contents exposed to the Independent Counsel’s gaze.
The Independent Counsel attempts to count the items in her basket: he sees a box of strawberry Pop Tarts; a mesh bag filled with red discs of Babybel cheese; a tub of Vaseline; Q-Tips, a box of tampons and a package of sanitary napkins. Objects related to the unspoken, yet at the grocery store we display our intimate purchases to strangers, as naked as jaybirds.
The cashier leans into the microphone and says, “Front manager to aisle one, front manager to aisle one.” She folds her arms and smiles grimly at the confidential assistant, who is the next in line. The confidential assistant sighs and tilts her head backwards. The GWU student blows air through her pursed lips. The Independent Counsel pushes his tongue up against the roof of his mouth then yanks it away to cluck. He’s keeping his eye on the GWU student to make sure she doesn’t shoplift any chocolate bars or packs of gum.
Louise Phillips lives in London. Her work has most recently appeared in The Independent, Litro, McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, 3AM Magazine, decomP magazinE, The Los Angeles Review, and is upcoming in failbetter. Her blog is theintermediateperiod.