by Cecilia Worth
Opportunities for kindness exist just about everywhere.
Friday evening and the Safeway in Homer, Alaska is half empty. No end-of-week-thank-God-it’s-time-to-party festivities going on in this supermarket. On the other side of the continent, my family and friends sat down to dinner hours ago, and my east-coast upbringing frowns on a woman dropping in to a local bar for conversation. Maybe moving so far from home was a big mistake.
Around me solo shoppers trudge from aisle to aisle, depositing single cans of soup into mostly empty shopping carts. Shoulders drooping, they gaze into frozen food cases at TV dinners for one, consider at length before deciding between fudge ripple ice cream, the half-gallon size, or a Sarah Lee carrot cake slathered with no less than one inch of dense cream cheese frosting.
My cart is the kind with wheels that stick, knocking my midsection into the push bar. I’ve lurched to a halt at the corner of the cheese bin. Most of the wedges of Danish Blue in a plumb line below my chin look unnervingly like painted Play-Doh. I don’t care, though. To me they are just a landmark to locate the Cambozola, a rich moldy Brie with a deliciously nasty flavor, the perfect substitute for an evening that is definitely going nowhere.
A man shuffles up alongside me, stands there, his rough, calloused hands with black-rimmed nails resting on the shiny chrome next to my pale princess skin. He wears a jacket whose canvas has weathered to a sheen from many years of use and a black knitted cap that folds his reddened ears outward into little wings. His beard is grey, untrimmed. A hint in the air suggests that he could use a bath. Both of us gaze downwards as though the blue cheese is a museum exhibit that has us spellbound.
He turns to me, swaying a little, eyes not totally focused but working at it. “Which blue cheese would you recommend?” His face bears no smile. This is a serious question.
“Weeeell…” He looks unbearably earnest, the way someone might when asking for an explanation of shooting stars. I want to steer him right, peer again at the Play-Doh, but its appearance has not improved.
I fumble and mumble, travel the route of possible responses, finally blurt out, “I’m not really a fan of blue cheese myself. You’re asking the wrong person.”
He seems to shrink, to fold back into himself. Something in me edges closer to the sinking feeling that’s been crowding me all afternoon. I can’t allow this.
“I prefer the Cambozola,” I offer. He looks startled. This is a star he has never heard of.
“It’s like blue cheese, but better. Tastier. Delicious, in fact. Satisfying.” I emphasize the last word. The light returns to his face. “Usually it’s right over there.”
Simultaneously we shift our weight, scurry to the far end of the cheese bin, hunters on the scent of the elusive solution to the Friday-evening blues.
We peer down at the nests of Swiss, Gouda, and Havarti. Whether it’s my truant serotonin or his alcohol level, we cannot locate our quarry. He shrugs his shoulders as though to say he’s not surprised, shambles off empty-handed between shelves of hair color and permanent waves, rounds the corner at shampoos and disappears from my sight.
I feel terrible, as though I’ve failed in a mission to save the planet, turn one last time to the cheeses and, eureka!, almost obscured by boulders of cheddar, the name “Cambozola” imprinted on two triangular shapes hits me between the eyes.
I dash off, passing the Clairol in a blur, skimming by chips and dips. Then, abreast of the plastic case fronting Kodak film, I see myself, careening behind my cart in search of—what? a good deed? to share a bit of cheese with a stranger who’s probably already beat a retreat next door to Eagles’ Liquors? This is ridiculous, a Friday-evening woman abandoning her dignity and self-restraint. I slow to a sedate stroll. Then, rounding the corner near the corn flakes, a familiar figure in a well-worn jacket and blue cap almost collides with my cart.
“I found it,” I hear myself say, wondering what on earth I am doing. “I was looking for you.” What am I saying? The words spill out from someone else, not the Ann Landers me. “Two pieces left.”
“Do you have them?”
“No.” Oh, my God, suppose someone else has taken them. “Quick!”
Co-conspirators, we streak past sausages and bacon, sodas and seltzer, arrive breathless.
The two triangles of Cambozola still nestle where I saw them last, plastic wrap clinging to soft ripened innards that hint at gooey mouthfuls on crisp crackers. It’s like winning the lottery. We each lift a wedge as though it is made of gold. He turns his over, studies the price written on the label.
I wince. “More than five dollars,” I say. “Expensive.” Maybe I’ve done the wrong thing after all.
“That’s all right,” he answers. “I can manage.” The smile that splits his beard, fleeting and shy, tones down the bleariness in his eyes.
He turns towards the cash registers, starts walking, spins around, waves the Cambozola above his head, moves off again.
I walk in the opposite direction, crackers in mind, notice that the cartwheels now roll along easily, that the atmosphere in the supermarket feels lighter. Almost like home.
Cecilia Worth is a writer who lives in Homer, Alaska. This story won the Bronze Award for Doing Good or the Kindness of Strangers in the Second Annual Solas Awards.
About Editors’ Choice:
Every week we choose one of the great stories we’ve received from travelers around the world and present it here as our “Editors’ Choice.” For more about the editors, see About Travelers’ Tales Staff.