I don’t know why I remember him but I do. I first noticed him in the produce aisle. There was something about the way he pushed his cart – perhaps slightly unsure of himself. He was old, the kind where you can see all the veins in his wrist, and discolored blotches of skin appeared in random places along his exposed forearm. There was also frizzy, thinning white hair trying to escape from under his baseball hat.
As he picked through peppers I watched him for a few seconds; he would pick one up, study it as best he could with shaking hands and then put it back. He’d select another, look at it inquisitively, and then place that one back on the shelf too. Picking through produce is normal, but the way he did it indicated inexperience in the exercise. After watching for a few seconds I left him to his peppers and continued on to the next item on my list.
Later, I saw him again in the transition between the hair products aisle and the one with paper stuff in it. I probably would not have recognized him again if I hadn’t been so intrigued by his pepper-picking before. I was following behind him as he pushed his cart when he and another woman passed each other going different directions. At the same moment two bottles of shampoo from a supermarket display fell to the floor. The woman was closest to the display, and she picked up one of the bottles and put it back. The old man picked up the second bottle, and with a wide grin as if to say “Ha! Isn’t this a hoot!”, handed it to the lady who was still standing in front of the display case. The lady returned his good-natured smile with a scowl, grabbed the bottle from his hand and put it back on the display. She pushed her cart off in a hurry, and left him standing there with his smile fading. Finally he turned back to his cart and continued on to the juice aisle.
As I watched him turn into his next aisle I felt I understood his story. He was inexperienced at this. Very inexperienced. He had been married for sixty years to a woman he loved. She always did this part while he was away at work. Now she was gone and he was left to fend for himself. What’s a “good pepper” look like? Who knows? He knows they tasted good when she made them, that’s for sure. Now he lives alone in the house they built together, mostly reading his favorite books or maybe watching some TV.
The only time he really gets out and has some human interaction is when he has to do the shopping, and that was the smile I saw when he handed that lady the shampoo bottle from the floor. It was interaction, it was life, it was a chance to strike up a conversation about the weather. Maybe he was about to tell her she looked a little like his wife, at least until she gave him that I’m Too Busy For This Shit snarl. Not then. Nope. She grabbed that bottle from his hand and unknowingly threw something away. He might not have a whole lot left to give the world, but he had a little bit that day, and she didn’t want it.