Louise Phillips

Title 28

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.wordpress.com.