Cleanup on Aisle Four

By Jennifer Lai

Grandma and I are in the produce aisle when a teenage boy in an oversized hoodie and baggy jeans darts past, ramming my shoulder.

“Hey!” I sidestep a wayward cantaloupe he’s knocked to the ground and nearly crash into a Jenga tower of Fuji apples.

“Becky, lower your voice,” Grandma says, “it’s very unbecoming.” She picks up an apple and eyes it like a jeweler, then points at a bruise the size of a pearl. “This is why I check everything thoroughly.”  

The teen skids by the bell pepper display as a heavy-set security guard huffs away a few steps behind, trying to close the gap. After they disappear from sight, glass shatters in the distance.

Exhaling loudly, Grandma inches toward the organic fruit section with her wooden cane. “How are things going with your boyfriend?”

I pick off a produce sticker covering a small hole on an overpriced pear and tell her about my latest argument with Landon, how he adopted a Pomeranian despite my reservations about pets. “Can you believe that? It yaps all day. Pees everywhere. And chews on my leather cushions.”

Grandma unfurls her arthritic hand. “There’s only so much one can take.”

“Plus, he’s out most of the day. So guess who ends up taking care of Maxie?” I reapply the sticker so that the pear’s blemish is visible and think of how often in the past three years I’ve hidden my irritation from Landon to keep peace: spending winter vacations at ski resorts even though I hate snow, hanging out with his stoner friends who don’t know their wrists from their elbows, and even agreeing to not cook broccoli—my favorite food—in our apartment because he can’t stand the smell. And now, the dog. 

I let out a sigh. 

“Did you tell him how you feel?” Grandma peers at me over her black oval-framed glasses. “How you really feel?”

I kick at the legs of the display post. “Every time I try, he changes the subject.”

The teen’s shriek of laughter erupts from the corner of the store, followed by the security guard’s deep, vibrating voice that seems to bounce off the walls. “Stop. Right. Now.”

Grandma shuts her eyes and shakes her head. “Why do you give in to him?”

I shrug. “Relationships are about compromise, right?” 

 “Sounds to me like you’re doing all the compromising.” She rests her hand on my shoulder and looks up to meet my gaze. “You need to put your foot down. Make him listen.”  

On the overhead system, a woman’s voice crackles to life: “Requesting clean up on aisle four.” 

A moment later, the teen comes back into view, grabbing his crotch and flipping off the security guard, who is a good ten paces behind, then races by two middle-aged women who lunge out his way, causing a cucumber stack behind them to avalanche to the floor.

“Oh, for crying out loud,” Grandma wails. She totters a few steps forward then sticks her cane into the teen’s oncoming path as he passes, sending him sprawling forward. His face slams against the linoleum with a satisfying thud.

“Hold my cane,” Grandma says to me then nudges the teen in the ribs with her Velcro orthopedic shoe. After he flops impotently onto his back mumbling a string of expletives, she tears a banana loose from its family and shakes it at him. “Young man—” She bends down and spanks him on the top of his head with the banana. Bop. “Stop this nonsense right now.” Bop bop. Her voice raises a notch. “Do you understand me?” Bop bop bop. 

When she threatens another smacking, the teen jolts upright and shoots his hands up in defense. “Okay, okay, okay.”

“Go on now. Be a sweet boy.” Grandma cranks her head toward the towering security guard and gives him a pointed look. 

The security guard utters a breathless “thank you” then grabs the teen’s arm and hoists him to his feet.

My phone pings. Landon. Hey Babe, can you come home soon and walk Maxie? Guy and Tony want to head to the bar.

I show Grandma the message. She nails me with a glare that tells me more than her careful, caveated words.

I text: No. And we need to talk when I get back.

Grandma hands me the bruised banana. “Are you hungry?”

I give her back her cane, place the fruit in my basket, then toss in a couple bunches of broccoli. “Famished.”

                                                               *   *   *

Jennifer Lai lives in Washington state. Her recent work can be found in or upcoming from Brilliant Flash Fiction, Flash Fiction Magazine, The Sunlight Press, and Star 82 Review.

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