Fiction · 01/04/2017

Heaven and Earth, Horatio

The first to die was Mrs. Jane Hanscombe, a former teacher at Shaker Lane Elementary in Littleton (2nd grade) and the longtime widow of John “Jack” Hanscombe (rest his soul) … Mrs. Hanscombe, who had at the moment of death reached out for and grasped with her time-gnarled hand a box of noodle soup. And the breath went out of her. The claw of her hand clamped the noodles then let them go, and half the shelf of boxed soups, which received her teetering girth, spilled into aisle 6 like so many mahjong tiles.

Dead before she hit the floor, her eyes stared blankly at an overhead speaker blaring “Wild Horses” as though nothing had happened. Sixteen-year-old Jimmy Bell — sweet, shy, shaggy-haired, awkward, acned (painfully so), in his khakis and apron and nametag and skinny tie — had been stacking cans of black beans nearby and witnessed Mrs. Hanscombe’s fall. Before his initial puzzlement could resolve itself into understanding, his eyes rolled back and he slumped over.

Then the screaming started. In produce. By the frozen bagels. Someone watching the grainy black-and-white security footage just then might have thought that this was some kind of performance art wherein seemingly random strangers prompted by a hidden cue — synchronized watches perhaps, or the second chorus of “Wild Horses” — began to collapse in incredibly realistic simulations of sudden death.

Some of the deaths, had they not been so grotesque, had they indeed been rendered as part of a performance art piece — a satire, say, whose intention was to mock death and through gruesome absurdity speak larger truths about the human condition — some of them, yes, might have seemed funny. Bruce Pierce, 44, an overweight HVAC technician in company uniform, pepper-and-salt goatee: he tumbled into the popcorn machine that had been wheeled out for the store’s “carnival of savings” theme … and the popcorn popping, yellow and buttery, and how it slowly enveloped his grinning idiot’s face.

But it wasn’t funny — not to Bruce.

And it wasn’t funny when the woman whose job it was to fill birthday balloons with helium — Teresa Robbins — who had just taken a hit of helium to make her voice squeak because she was trying to get a fussy toddler — one pig-tailed Mimi Estrada — to stop crying … when she, Teresa (auburn hair, artificially whitened teeth, cheek moles) died, and when (it really wasn’t funny) her last breath came out as a long high-pitched chipmunk sigh.

It also wasn’t funny when Mimi Estrada clapped her chubby hands and said, “Again? Again?” and then protested in red-faced rage at Teresa’s unresponsive body. And then died. Does anyone think it’s funny that Mimi died? Her little feet — dusty and tan-lined around the edges of her tiny Birkenstock sandals — dangling from the grocery cart above her own mother’s now stiffening corpse?

Of course not.

Every death in its own way was a tragedy, and some were doozies. Analisa Vanover’s wedding was in four days. Fred Dixon had just beaten invasive ductal carcinoma and his doctor assured him he was now healthy enough for sexual activity. And Fernando Ferguson had that morning, after years of shame and self-doubt, come out as gay to his parents — and as he strolled the soda aisle, basket in hand, aviator sunglasses hanging from the navy blue collar of his Abercrombie & Fitch graphic T, flip-flops flipping, calf muscles smooth and brown, he felt utterly self-possessed, as though his life was finally his own, as though life was richer and deeper and more meaningful — more mysterious — than he could have ever imagined. Unexpected tears welled up and he laughed and wiped at them with the back of his hand. Then died.

That was the end of Fernando and Fred and Analisa. And Mimi and Teresa. And Bruce. Jimmy. Mrs. Jane Hanscombe. And the fifty-two other flawed but beautiful souls who perished that afternoon in Market Basket, in Westford, Massachusetts, taking with them their fledgling hopes and searing regrets, their secrets and scars, the parts of themselves they hated, and their fiercest love: everything life had gifted them, for good or ill, instantly and irreversibly revoked.

Watch them fall, one by one, like sacks of flour, like brown eggs. Watch and don’t look away, because you’re nothing more or less than them, spirit made flesh, life hungry for life, a dash of salt in the broth.

Watch and don’t look away from fifty-one-year-old Maggie Strickland, stout in her nurse’s scrubs, silver glints in the curly locks of her otherwise dark hair, a single mother with a past and a history she could spend every night weeping over if she wanted to but who instead chooses to be grateful — to try to be grateful — for her life now, even when it’s difficult and unfair, when it hurts; kind-eyed, beaten up Maggie Strickland, weary after a double-shift at Emerson Hospital, who had only stopped by the store to pick up a few things for dinner — mushrooms, tomato sauce, hamburger — for a meal for her daughter, June, a high school Sophomore in the marching band who rehearsed all day through the heat of the summer, pounding the asphalt parking lot outside the football stadium, and who would benefit, Maggie thought, from the carbs in a bowl of spaghetti.

Watch Maggie Strickland startle at the sound of a scream and look up, her face contorting in terror as three cashiers at their registers — a strange synchronicity in their white shirts and green aprons — fell to the floor and did not move and were then, almost instantaneously, fallen upon by three elderly baggers in their white shirts and green aprons. Watch her wheel around at the sound of a woman collapsing into a pyramid of lemons, and watch the lemons tumble and roll away like bright yellow rats. Watch Maggie Strickland’s breath catch, her lips quiver, her hands ball into fists, her knuckles go white. Watch her abandon her cart, and the purse in her cart, and dash for the automatic doors and the escape of the parking lot. Then watch her, for no reason you can discern, stop short, a sudden flicker of recognition in her eyes. Watch a thought cross her mind that you could only understand if you had been her, and thinking about your sweet saxophone-playing daughter, when suddenly everyone around you began to die. Watch her run for the exit only to be stopped (now you see it!) by a baby — Lucy Simpson, daughter of Ron and Jenny Simpson, three months old, with a sunflower headband scrunched to her bald head, and shrieking on the floor in her dead mother’s arms. Watch the thought you can’t know cross Maggie Strickland’s mind. Watch her rush to Baby Lucy and grab her up, whispering, “It’s okay. It’s okay. It’s okay.” And even after Baby Lucy stops shrieking and her body goes limp, watch Maggie Strickland keep whispering, “It’s okay. It’s okay.” Watch her as an overwhelming quiet sets in all around, no one screaming, no popcorn popping just the stench of burned kernels, the fading chords of “Wild Horses” like wind passing over an empty field, every last spinning lemon coming to a stop above its reflection in the tiled floor. Watch Maggie Strickland whispering, “It’s okay,” to the baby in her arms.

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Steve Edwards is author of the memoir Breaking Into The Backcountry, the story of his seven months as caretaker of a backcountry homestead along the Rogue River in Oregon. His writing can be found in Orion Magazine, The Rumpus, Electric Literature, Literary Hub and elsewhere. He lives in Massachusetts.