Hmmm. The ketchup was free of high fructose corn syrup, which was normally a difficult quality to find. It was even fat-free, which was nice as well.
But the questionable part was this: Did it contain red dye #2?
Donald gripped the bottle in his hand and turned it 360 degrees with his fingers.
It was Heinz ketchup, and Heinz knew better than to include that toxic ingredient. Didn’t they? Or did they just know better than to include it on the list?
It was either: a) buy the ketchup, or b) eat the hamburgers dry.
Donald didn’t want to eat the hamburgers dry, but better a dry mouth than a toxin-filled liver.
Just set it down and come back.
That was what one should do in this situation.
But it was hard. Hard to part with the ketchup he’d been carefully holding for several minutes now—learning its feel, learning what it held inside, what sort of complexities made it tick…
Like a book, it had almost become his friend.
But if he didn’t set it down now—come back in a few with a fresh set of eyes—he’d be here all night, standing in the aisle as the lights began to darken.
He certainly did not want to do that again.
So, carefully, he set the ketchup on the shelf. Took two steps backward. Was about to turn and—wait. He grabbed the ketchup and hid it atop and behind some of the others.
He couldn’t let just any random, thoughtless customer walk up and snatch it.
For, in some way, it had already become his.
Her left ring finger was stubbornly chilled. Wherever she went—from saunas to shops—its internal temperature refused to budge.
Cold like the flat she lived in alone. Cold like the word: alone.
She shifted her weight in the landlord’s line, questioning how she ended up here, how the people ahead took so long to pay rent.
Quit checking the clock. It just makes it worse.
But the clock was Karen’s anchor.
3:00 here, 3:00 at the library. 3 p.m. at the house where she used to live. A semblance of some kind of same.
So odd that 60 seconds in here equaled the very length of the minute, that someone, somewhere, spent in a park.
But the seconds in here were different.
She watched the second hand trudge its journey and found herself nodding with every budge. One thousand one, one thousand—
A woman ahead tapped her ugly black shoe, offbeat with pen-clicks of a man by the wall—click-click click-click—while a potbellied guy thumped his stupid gold belt—thump, tha-thump, tha-thump. The clock ticked slower. The room clicked faster. All four walls began to converge.
A beta enlisted in the army of taps by driving his nose to the wall of his tank.
His fin looked like a coatless orphan: cold.
Pacing up and down the aisles, Donald tried to remember what else he needed.
A gallon of milk? No. A bachelor did not need a whole gallon. Half a gallon should do.
He’d barely grabbed his milk and his block of American cheese when the swarm of families descended. What was it with kids and cheese?
He straightened his posture, assembled his items, and walked in the other direction, splitting the herd of moms and their young.
He advanced for the manliest section he could imagine: meats.
Oh. . . hamburgers. He had actually managed to put the ketchup on the back burner of his mind until this.
But now all he could think when he looked at the ridged, squishy masses was the substance that made all the meat taste better: ketchup.
And all he could think when he looked at the bright containers was the other substance on his mind—the one that everyone should fear; didn’t they know? Didn’t they care? The one that was giving the world a scare—
Red dye #2.
Just pay attention to all the meats. Scan the prices. . . $4.25. . . $3.39. . . $2.99; that should do it.
He nestled the beef with the milk and the cheese and was feeling like quite the champion griller until he realized—he was holding the food like a baby. On his forearm, the tops resting comfortably in the crook of his elbow.
Where was a cart when you needed it?
That’s what she was craving.
Of course, what she craved more was her comfy old house, with the sheer white canopy over the bed and the loveseat where you could sink down in between the cushions. . .
It was some sort of seat, wasn’t it? That’s why they call it “loveseat.” Because without love, she felt, a little. . . chairless.
Suspended in air, wherever she went, and there was nowhere—no place—to sit down.
But back to the craving she could actually fulfill—ketchup.
It was the one that was most tangible. The one that made sense. The one that normal, married people also wanted.
Ketchup and fries.
But not the ketchup McDonald’s had. No, it had to be Heinz.
She got in her car and drove for the store. It was the first time since the divorce that she’d actually felt comfortable driving alone—the first time she didn’t feel alone. Because, in this moment, she had a purpose.
Ketchup was her purpose.
Arriving at the store, she bee-lined for aisle seven. There it was, beautifully displayed in the middle of the aisle. Her crayola-red ray of hope.
Standing in front of the ketchup bottles, she reached out her hand and—
A “no” followed by silence. Could this random male voice be speaking to her?
Glancing over her shoulder, she saw a man with up-turned eyebrows, his mouth in a horizontal line of urgency.
“Don’t take the ketchup.”
His balding head screamed “victim” of hair loss, and probably more. His jeans were too light to be classy, too dark to look hip. And his black leather belt—a rope of a lifeline—too slim to be taken seriously.
Karen wasn’t quite sure what sprung up within her.
Maybe it was anger at her ex-husband, Mike, who always told her where she could and couldn’t go (“Walmart? Real high class, Karen.”) and what she could and couldn’t eat (“Do you realize how many calories that is?”), or some sort of annoyance at this man’s earnest, pestered face, which reminded her in some disgusting way of a part of herself she’d rather hide. But in a moment of rebellion, against her ex-husband and against the former doormat inside her, Karen disobeyed.
She reached for a bottle.
And just to assert her feminist rights, she grabbed the one that was laying on top. Just like her, on top.
And then, the craziest thing happened: the man grabbed onto the bottle. What kind of crazy person grabs your bottle of ketchup?
He snagged the neck with his hand. Karen responded by tightening her grip.
No man was gonna take her ketchup tonight.
“What do you think you’re doing?” she blurted.
He tugged at the neck with both of his hands, but fortunately, Karen was strong, and his hands began to slip. They were almost off, almost off and—snap. His finger had caught the lip of the cap. The ketchup spurted open.
Red on his hands, red on his shirt.
He looked like some kind of criminal.
Either that or a man who needed a bib.
She stood at the foot of the decapitated bottle as it lay in a pool of its spilled-out innards. The man’s head was down when she heard him mutter, underneath his breath, “My friend.”
* * * * *
When a dead body lies between you and a stranger how exactly does one proceed? Where can you even go from here?
Of course, they were still in the grocery store. The lights were still on—for the time being—and kids and moms at the end of the aisle still paraded by, pushing leaning pisas of Lucky Charms.
But their laughter sounded so distant.
Donald couldn’t decide if he wanted to look at the woman or not. She looked like a woman who kept people in line—or stressed herself out trying. The big curl at the front of her hair looked forced—like a pond trying to eek out a tidal wave, faking that it was an ocean.
A part of him wanted to know her—to know what it was that made her feel stressed, to know why she needed that ocean.
Despite deciding on no eye contact, Donald couldn’t help but check on the woman. How would she react to their destruction of tasty merchandise? Her face seemed to carry the situation’s severity—unless that expression was simple confusion.
It was very hard to tell.
Still, he felt some connection with her. Whether they were accidental murder accomplices, or witnesses to a condiment-deal gone bad, they were gonna need each other.
“Well. . . looks like we kinda made a mess,” he said with a nervous warmth.
The woman chuckled.
She hadn’t gotten out much, since the divorce. Told her friends no good men were left. No one was normal; no one was nice.
And this guy, well, he wasn’t either.
Though he did seem nice at this moment.
And really, it wasn’t normal of her either, to ruthlessly fight for a bottle of ketchup. She could have just grabbed another if he wanted this one so bad.
But despite his possible lack of normalcy and the fact that until his very last sentence, he’d been actually kind of violent—his eyes were a nice shade of aqua-blue.
And he had just made her laugh.
Grasping for something to fill up this moment, she crouched down to clean up the mess they had made. It wasn’t that she really wanted to clean the grocery store’s floor, nor that it was her responsibility in any way. It’s just—well—in situations like this, what else is there to do?
He touched her shoulder. “Leave it.”
Standing, she straightened her shirt, tugging at the bottom hem so everything fell even.
He grabbed two bottles from the shelf and then swiveled back to face her. He began to move one ketchup bottle forward, but then stopped and tensed his shoulders a bit. Karen looked from side to side, trying to discern the reason for this sudden loss of movement.
As if yanked back like the end of an umbrella, her eyelashes burst further apart for half a second, lengthening her view from the top of the shelves, all the way down to their lonely feet.
Both of them were cartless.
He handed her one of the bottles and started leading for the front. She wasn’t certain why exactly it was that she followed.
Maybe it was because they were both sans carts. Maybe it was the absence of wedding rings. Or maybe it was this underlying sense she had, that both of these people had nowhere to go—nowhere with a seat to sink down in.
“Does your finger ever get really cold?” she asked. “Like, unrelentingly cold?”
There was something about late-night diners, with their shaky overhead lighting and worn, old-fashioned booths, that made her start to open up.
She told him how she loved canopies—they were hidden, private, and pure all at once; she told him of her affinity for 50s bottles—Coca-Cola, Jack Daniels, and even Jerk soda (they allowed her to be nostalgic); and told him about breaking her arm in third grade—who knew bed-jumping could actually be dangerous?
But now, with asking him about her finger, she might have crossed the line.
Donald’s eyebrows moved together as he napkin’d a drop of ketchup off his bottom lip. His brows were similar to the first expression she’d seen him make tonight; only this time, instead of pitiful, Donald looked perplexed.
“My. . . finger?” he asked, reaching for another French fry.
“Yeah, I was just. . . ” Karen faltered, looking down beside her on the seat of the booth, from right to left, as though a part of her hoped a pillow would be there, to pull up her lap and bring her some comfort. Instead, she sat alone, with Donald all the way across the table, not even understanding.
Mental note: tell no one of cold finger syndrome.
She watched his face to see if he thought she was strange, but he seemed to be over her oddball question.
Was it weird that she worried about her cold finger? Was it weird that she cared if he noticed she worried? Was it weird that she worried what her friends would say, when they heard she had French fries at Freddy’s with a random man from the ketchup aisle?
Watching Donald munch contentedly on his French fries, ketchup, and Coke, Karen wondered what it’d be like, to have no strange, abnormal fears.
Donald. He was lucky.
While Karen munched away contentedly on her third basket of fries, continuously dunking them in the little white carton of ketchup—dunk and eat, dunk and eat—Donald sat on the edge of his seat in peril.
He tried to pretend he was normal. Tried to eat fries minus ketchup, but dipped them just a teensy bit every now and then—just enough to keep her from asking.
He’d even gotten it down to a science. Every fourth fry, graze the ketchup. Bend the fingers just a little, to give the essence of a deeper dunk. Wait until she glanced down at her fry, then swipe the bit of red onto his napkin as it traveled to his mouth.
The process was exhausting.
And even with all these steps of quality control, he still couldn’t quite be sure.
What if he’d been eating bits of red dye all along, and still had no idea? What was he thinking? What had he done?
He looked at the half-empty bottle of ketchup and felt his stomach churn.
A possible case of red dye poisoning was making its way through his body, twisting through his digestive system, churning through his veins.
So that was this sickening feeling.
He looked up at Karen, just three feet away, and wanted to retreat inside himself. How would he ever explain to her the toxins he’d just ingested? Like everyone else, she’d laugh at him—call him a kook.
The next thought hurtled him through his chest.
What if he’d made her sick? What if he’d exposed her to red dye#2? What if she got food poisoning, or even cancer, and because of him. . .
“Karen, we have to stop.”
“Seeing each other?” Her face looked perplexed as she spoke the words, but then she looked down with a sheepish grin, her cheeks drawing in a hint of pink.
Pink like red dye #2, when it was in small amounts. And it only took a small amount to kill.
Another time, he might’ve pondered, why his statement, drove her to blush, but he didn’t have time in the face of this urgency.
“No. We have to stop eating the ketchup. It’s red dye #2.”
Stepping out of the diner, into the mid-night air, Karen found herself feeling stronger. Little specklies were growing in the center of her heart. Like brand-new flesh, they were tingly.
It reminded her of coffee that’d been left for too many days—when you make two cups instead of one, out of habit, it’s easy to do—and you come back to find it’s beginning to sprout some mold. Her first reaction was never “gross” or even “time to pour it out.” Instead, she always felt some hope.
At least something was growing.
An older black woman across the street sprawled on some porch steps with her half cigarette. She looked like the type of person who groaned as she bent to take a seat but then, at the very last moment, plopped down with an ultimate thud.
Like the smack-shut of a big, thick book that has finally, finally been finished.
And though the woman’s jowls hung with the weight of undone obligations—probably had a house-full of dishes and crazy grandkids—she looked, for the moment, satisfied. Satisfied to look off into nothing. Satisfied to simply be sitting.
Karen’s mind settled onto a picture of herself sinking into a pile of cushions, light all particle-y in the yellow section of air, rejecting all that was cold and hard and immersing herself in softness, warmth. Not since the house had she gotten to do that.
But what was it with Donald?
Sure, the red dye thing was weird. Heck, half their interactions were weird.
But something about him seemed the same—the same as her, familiar.
Like the old woman across the street, she’d probably groan and pretend to fight it—oh, the aches of giving up singleness, oh, the pains of losing freedom, oh, his annoying red dye fear.
But, really, she just couldn’t wait to shake out her ankles, rest her knees, and sit.