Elizabeth Wagner


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.