The supermarket checkout line. She was white-haired and frail. Her buggy was filled to capacity so that it looked like she was pushing a coal barge up the Mississippi. The first item she placed onto the conveyor belt was an extra-large case of Coors.
“That’s a lot of beer,” said I.
She smiled. “On sale.”
“Are you the one who drinks it?”
She nodded. “Two beers a day keeps the doctor away.”
“I don’t think that’s how the saying goes.”
“Yeah, well, I hate apples.”
Her voice had the same timbre as a tuba. She wore a pink silk jacket draped over her shoulders, buttoned at the top, á la 1952. She wore green polyester slacks such as I haven’t seen since Florence Henderson was on primetime. You could have smelled her floral scent from across the county lines. Ea du old lady.
“Get over here and help me,” she said to me, as she struggled to unload her buggy.
She didn’t say please. She didn’t say, “Young man, would you be so kind…?” She told me to “get over here.”
So I helped her.
“You’re a nice guy,” said the woman, watching me labor beneath the weight of her 1,439-pound bag of Pedigree dog food.
“Tell that to my wife,” I said.
“So you’re married?” she said.
“I was married once.”
“Is that right.”
“Yep. I was happily married for ten years. Ten outta fifty-three ain’t bad.”
Then the woman cackled and told the bag boy to fetch her a carton of cigarettes. Marlboros. Menthols.
After which she dug into her purse and removed a stack of coupons roughly the size of a Tolstoy novel and gave it to the cashier.
The cashier girl accepted the coupons hesitantly and flashed me a look indicating that she was not enthusiastic about her career path right now.
“What was his name?” I said.
The woman looked at me. “Whose name?”
“Oh, his name was Phillip, but I was the only one who called him that. Everyone else called him Cricket.”
“When he was a kid, someone made him eat one of the crickets they used for fishing bait. He did. The name stuck.”
The cashier flipped on her checkout-lane light for a coupon-related price check. The cashier’s face looked very—how do I put this?—irked.
“When I met him,” the woman said, “he was obsessed with airplanes. That was all he ever wanted to do, be a pilot.
“He was working part-time at a little airport in Tennessee, and he asked if I wanted to take a flight with him. I said, ‘Phillip, you ain’t a pilot yet.’ He said, ‘So what?’ He was nineteen, I just turned fifteen.”
“So did you fly with him?” asked the teenage bag boy.
“He was breaking every rule in the book by flying solo. Coulda really gotten in trouble. But he was so dang handsome. I held his hand on that flight. I’d never held someone’s hand before.”
The bag boy was rapt.
“Then,” the woman went on, “Phillip started dating another girl who was his own age, and I almost died. I liked him so much, I wasn’t going to lose him. So I went to that hussy’s house one night, and I had a little talk with her.
“I told her that I was gonna marry Phillip, and that was that. And she’d better get lost or I’d beat her senseless with my bare hands.”
“Did you really say that?” said the bag boy.
“Heck yes. Although she didn’t quit seeing him. But don’t worry, I didn’t beat her up… Very badly.”
“Phillip finally told me I was too young for him, he said didn’t I want to go steady with someone my own age? I said no, I knew I wanted him. I told him I was gonna love him forever. And I did. He was the great love of my life.”
The bag boy had long since forgotten about bagging groceries. He was now leaning on his elbows.
“So he broke it off with the girl,” she went on. “Then he asked my daddy permission to marry me when I turned sixteen. And we were married. That man was the best thing that ever happened to me, and a good father.”
When the cashier finished ringing up the old woman’s items, the lady turned to me and the bag boy.
“Wanna see a picture of him?”
She removed a faded Olan Mills photograph. It was your typical standing-husband-seated-wife photo from the 1970s. He wore a suit. She wore floral. The man’s face was reddish, like he’d already been into the Coors. They were perfect.
“That’s a great picture,” said the bag boy.
“Yeah,” said the old woman. “We had a lotta fun.”
The bag boy offered to assist the woman to her car. She accepted the help. Later, when I saw them in the parking lot, I approached the woman’s open window and said, “Excuse me, ma’am, but I never got your name.”
She peered over her old-lady sunglasses at me and the bag boy.
“I’m Loretta,” she said. “But I’ll warn you two fellas right now, I’m way outta your league.”
Then we watched her peel out of the supermarket parking lot, leaving nothing but a trail of black rubber behind her.
“Man,” said the bag boy. “Cricket had his hands full.”