The man behind her said, “Let me ask you a question,” but she didn’t turn to see what the question would be. Something about what he said bothered her—it was the way he put it. She was out of sorts today, but, nevertheless, what he said was not the same as asking, “Can I ask you something?” Or saying, “Excuse me, I’ve been wondering…” She thought about the sound of the man’s voice as she watched the woman in front of her scan cans of chicken broth. This was the self-checkout line, the one she liked because it required little human interaction. This man had said, “Let me ask you a question.” His voice was not small or sleepy or full of doubt. It was brisk and firm. He sounded like he had an answer already.
The grocery store had not worked out for her today. The feeling she wanted had not come through and there was no pleasure in it. The quiet store in the middle of the morning. The world seeming full of bright things and odd things, things to be devoured. There were shiny eggplants more black than purple. There were jars of exotic jam she had never tasted: ginger preserves, key lime marmalade. Dewberry jelly. But the thought of white toast did not make her imagine jam on the end of a knife. She had a list of things she needed. Yogurt, garlic, anchovy paste. She crossed out the items on her list with a pen that she’d found in her handbag and she did not stop to read the labels on bottles of wine. She did not look to see if someone had invented a new flavor of pop tart, or check to see if Bön Ami was in stock again. No elderly gentleman came by and spoke to her in a foreign language about the best ways to prepare brown rice, about the longest roads back to the beginning. Nothing spoke to her, not the man stocking Coca Cola products or the woman laughing at birthday cards in the aisle beside the bread. There was no soap on sale. “Let me ask you something,” she said to the man behind her, but only in her head. It might have been a biting question about politics, the rights of all mankind. About how, if you’re going to ask permission, you should make the question mark sound with your voice. “I have a question for you,” she thought and she watched the woman in front of her answer her cell phone, pressing it between her ear and her shoulder to free both her hands for scanning. A box of Rice Krispies and two bags of fruit flavored marshmallows. A thin plastic bag full of poblano peppers. Would fruit flavored marshmallows make good Rice Krispie treats? Excuse me, sir? Do you know something you can tell me? I think I have a question for you? Would you mind terribly if I let you ask me a question?
The other day her brother had called her on the telephone, told her about Hemingway’s six word story. She did not believe that it was true: “For sale: baby shoes, never worn.” The imagination, she understood, was supposed to move forward, build its own story out of the words provided. But there was no story there. Either the baby died, before or after birth, or it went around shoeless until its feet grew bigger. There was nothing much to say. Not with such an anonymous baby. “Excuse me,” the man said now. This time she turned to face him, but she didn’t say what she had planned. Let me tell you something, mister. The man looked like other people she had met. He looked like he knew a foreign language, like he had stuffed individual mushrooms into the pockets of his coat. She stood still, watching the movement of his mouth, tiny like quivering. She smiled at the man, then, without even meaning to, and listened for what might come next.
Elizabeth Wagner studied fiction at the Center for Writers in Hattiesburg, Mississippi.