Ultra

Summer, 2008 / No. 20
Art by Ian Phillips
Ian Phillips

Ron slouches in the swivel chair and presses the Play button with a socked toe. He has convinced Cassandra from Deli to come up and watch something unusual on the security monitor from the morning’s power outage. The monitor shows Aisle 5 in infrared mode. Shelves of ketchup, cooking oils, Saran wrap made eerie by the lack of light and shoppers. Several seconds pass before a middle-aged woman with short brown hair appears pushing a loaded cart.

“So this was just after it happened? ” Cassandra looks at Ron’s neatly combed hair, detects a minty scent in the air.

“Just before they got the generator running. They’d already evacuated.”

“Then what’s she doing still inside? ”

“Hang on, just watch.”

The woman abandons her cart and charges down the aisle and out of view. Ron hits a button to show Aisle 6, likewise deserted except for the sprinting woman. She stops at the laundry detergents, removes several enormous boxes from the bottom shelf, and crawls into the cavity. Her arms appear and reposition two boxes to fill the gap. And she’s gone, only she isn’t.

“O.K., that’s weird.”

“You haven’t seen the best part.” Ron reaches for Cassandra’s waist but she twists away.

“You have thirty seconds to show me. I’m not even on break. I said I was going to the washroom.”

“Patience, Cassandra. Keep watching.”

I lay in bed listening to the incessant and unusual squeaking of the cardinal that woke me. It seemed like a sign. I turned to look at Benny, half-asleep, with one arm shielding his eyes from a stripe of sunlight. “Since when have cardinals started sounding like two pieces of Styrofoam rubbed together? ”

“How can you talk that way about a bird? Jesus, Barb, it’s nature.”

I got up and pulled on a T-shirt and shorts. What could a change in song signify? An environmental imbalance? Something about to happen? I felt compelled to make an unscheduled inventory of my emergency provisions in the basement room where I store cans of tuna, beans, potatoes, soup, bottled water. Several shelves had been emptied. I shot back upstairs and Benny confessed that he and our son, Carson, had hauled off a few dozen cans to a community food drive. I would discuss the provisions issue with Carson later. On Saturday mornings he was usually teleconferencing for the two organizations he ran from his bedroom (world peace and the preservation of some bird species—not cardinals, thankfully). He was planning to spend that day making his birthday piñata (a combat tank to be whacked down from the basement ceiling, then burned on the driveway. The day before, when he’d tried to explain the underlying political statement, I had left the room, overwhelmed). He’d promised not to turn the party into something huge like the earthquake relief benefit in our living room that necessitated hiring an engineer (our home’s structural load: maximum two hundred and fifty people, seated or standing still). Carson was turning eleven.

The time will come when my family will gush gratitude for my foresight. They will survive because of it. All I ask is that they respect my efforts to prepare for the emergency that will surely one day test our wits and resources. The newspaper on our doormat suggested that day had arrived—“ELECTRICITY GRID OVERBURDENED,” “NO FORESEEABLE END TO MARATHON HEAT WAVE,” “WORLD OIL SUPPLY PAST PEAK,” “PROVINCE ON TERRORISM ALERT.” After a quick, nutritious breakfast I was off to Ultra-Store, a five-minute drive away.

It took another five minutes to cross the parking lot past shoppers pushing huge rattling carts under a sky that was a vague whitish-grey composite of heat and smog, a sky with no suggestion of how the day should be spent. A whatever kind of sky, like the environment giving the finger right back at us. The leaves of the puny trees were browning. The expansive sidewalk was a large griddle capable of cooking people before they could get inside to the food. The automatic doors, opening and closing, repeatedly sighed a one-note mantra, or was it a warning? Maybe a hymn. With an extensive restocking list, I was looking at minimum forty minutes in Ultra-Store, a grocery store gone mad. A loathsome place. An airport hanger with Spider-Man underwear, six flavours of pomegranate juice, marinated beef kabobs, fitted bedsheets, flaxseed oil, Tensor knee braces, citronella candles, Egyptian tomatoes, frozen nan bread, ant traps, novelty socks, forty types of deodorant, and starfruit from Indonesia. With brilliant lighting reaching into every corner. With no place to seek shade. I could only brace myself and shop.

My cell rang. Or played, rather, one of Carson’s compositions that he programmed into it.

“Hello? ”

“Can you pick up a few things from our regular shopping list? ” Benny calling.

“Well, the cart will be full of restocking items, but I’ll try to squeeze something in.” He would recognize my pissed-off tone and its subtext: How dare he compromise our safety by decimating the provisions.

He said, “Bagged milk, one per cent,” and hung up.

“Good morning, shoppers! Wondering what to serve for dinner? Pick up a box of breaded chicken bits from the freezer aisle. They’re every bit as good as fresh!” The voice cut off and the store soundtrack resumed with a Madonna song Benny had sung badly at a karaoke bar on our honeymoon.

Approaching the bottled waters, I was distracted by a man staring at boxes of licorice. He looked vaguely familiar, maybe Joel Wallingford, who used to hang out with Benny and me at Scarborough College. At first I wasn’t sure if it was him—the slackened chin and pouches under the eyes, the faded Roots T-shirt and cargo shorts. Joel used to gel his bleached hair into explosive shapes, wore wacky shirts and tartan pants. The guy turned and stared, caught, like me, looking ordinary in middle age.

“Barb? ”

“Joel.”

“Wow, you live around here? I’ve never seen you.”

“I tend to keep a low profile.”

“Ha ha!” His outburst earned the stares of several weary shoppers. “So, how’re you doing? Man, it’s got to be—what—fifteen years? What are you up to these days? ”

“Just some geotechnical consulting. Dirt and aggregates, nothing special.” I dismissed my life, flicked it away like lint from my shirt. All for his benefit. True that my home-based business had withered, or so Benny accuses, in reverse proportion to my burgeoning hobby: collecting information on humanity’s progress toward self-annihilation.

“And how’s Benny boy? ”

The image of a charming young Benny popped into my mind, surprising me. Benny Morton, the moderate one, the one who eased Joel and me and others back from the edges of things. Like intriguing drug offers or arguments with sharp-tongued drunks in clubs. Benny, who led us back to our homes to sleep, or in my case, to bed. In our current marital state as distracted housemates, it was too easy to forget.

“You knew we finally got married? We have a son.”

“Fantastic. Well, as you can see, I’m still standing. Still breathing.” He sucked in a great gulp of air and, on the exhale, added, “Married too. Third time.” He shrugged and looked around, as if to locate family members or a shopping cart or some other life accessory. “So this is fantastic running into you. We should get together. I’d love to see the Benmeister. Has he changed? What about his amazing hair? ”

“Benny is still Benny, though with diminished hair.” Recently, I’d trimmed his crazy halo of brown curls in an attempt to make it proportional to his bald spot. His hair as exuberant and generous as the man himself.

“Benny’s the best. The best.” Joel shook his head in awe.

I nodded, wanting a wrap-up—I still felt like strangling Benny, after all.

Joel’s gaze drifted to my cart. “Man, Barb, you doing some serious cooking or what? ”

“Just stocking up.”

“Yeah? I should do that.”

“Not enough people realize the importance of provisions.”

Provisions?” A giggle burbled out.

“Well, yes. You never know when something might happen.” I was reluctant to get into it, but couldn’t stop myself.

“You mean, like fifty people show up for dinner? ” He was sniggering.

“No, something catastrophic. Like a collapse of the food distribution system, which is vulnerable, to say the least.”

Joel indulged in a rippling laugh that rose in pitch and volume. Passing shoppers smiled at us as if they’d rather stand around with a goof like Joel—who once convinced me to skip a mid-term soils test to hang out with the guitarist from the Meat Puppets—than get their shopping done and get the hell out of there.

Tears formed in his eyes. “Barb, you’re something. I’d better get going, but E-mail me, O.K.? Joel100@hotmail.”

It would be O.K. when I got away from him. Carson’s music played from my purse like a miracle.

“I’d better take this call.”

“Don’t forget: joel100@hotmail.”

“Absolutely.”

He bounced away on the balls of his feet.

It was Benny again.

“Jesus, Barb. Here’s what I need for dinner: two pounds of stewing beef, onions, green pepper—”

“Whoa. You’re making a stew when it’s forty-five with the humidex.” Surely if I laid the facts in front of him, he would see his folly.

“I’ll turn on the air. I’m in the mood for hearty.” Possibly a comment on my recent foray into beans and tofu: eating low on the food chain.

“Unbelievable.” I rolled my eyes at a passing woman, desperate for a witness to my husband’s inanity. “I will not furnish you with the makings of an irresponsible meal….You know damn well why not.” I hung up.

Benny and I had an understanding about the air conditioner. If he turned it on, I’d leave the house in protest against burning coal to relieve us from excessive heat caused, in part, by burning coal. Carson was with me on this and could be counted on to don his “PULL THE PLUG ON WASTE” T-shirt, though he did remain in his cooled room. I’d been meaning to talk to him about that.

I made a sharp aisle turn and almost rammed my cart into Joel and the loaf of bread he carried. I managed a smile and kept going.

“Code 99 to the shipping dock.”

I moved through the store, following my list and watching customers reach for things they probably hadn’t come to buy. I watched their pace slow to the Valium tempo of the soundtrack. If they weren’t careful, they might forget to leave. I pushed my cart, hearing the staccato beeps of the cash-out scanners layered over an irritating Tina Turner song, “What’s Love Got to Do With It,” I’d spent twenty years trying to forget.

I was reaching for a can of chickpeas when I felt a breeze on my neck, heard the squeal of a cart at my heel. Benny, with a red face and bulging eyes. He must have raced over. A Benny this pissed off was an unusual sight. I hesitated to break eye contact but had to see what was in his cart: three trays of stewing beef and a bag of brownies that wouldn’t make it through the car ride home with him this stressed. He started grabbing cans of tomatoes like a delirious game-show contestant.

“I’ve got the air on and it’s going to be the perfect temperature when I get back to make a humungous pot of stew. It’s going to be simmering for hours.” An elderly couple glanced up from their shopping list, frowning.

“Did you not feel the temperature out there? We are simmering, Benny. The world is on the brink of crisis and we need to be thinking of survival, not comfort. But go ahead. Cook a stew on the hottest day of the goddamn freaking millennium. I’m speechless—”

“Code 400 to the shipping dock.” I looked around but no one was acknowledging the apparent escalation of codes.

“No, you’re neurotic is what it seems to me. And you’re making Carson neurotic too. I don’t even know what the hell either of you are talking about half the time.”

“I’m shopping to protect our family. Call that neurotic, then. And who’s looking after Carson, by the way? ”

“June is checking in on him after she cuts her grass. But you, Barb, you are really getting screwy.”

Screw you, Benny!” I turned, heart sinking into my gut, and met the horrified stare of a woman who was covering the ears of her toddler. Had we been yelling?

Benny stormed off with his cart, the drama hugely diminished by how long it took him to pass the rice, pasta, and boxes of Kraft Dinner. I headed the other way, not caring where to. I ended up in front of a fridge loaded with the Pepperettes sausage snacks Benny adores. His family’s cardiac history being what it is, I only buy them for special treats.

“Hey, Barb. Benny’s here too.” Joel was beside me holding a kielbasa. “I bumped into him on his way in.”

“We’re fighting.”

Joel put the kielbasa back like it was something he would have to earn first. He fixed me with a steady gaze. “Fighting is part of marriage. And it’s O.K. As long as you keep the love flowing too. When you hold back on the love”—he pretended to pull his hair out—“it’s hell.”

“My marriage isn’t the problem, Joel. The problem is that nobody seems to see the big picture.”

“You’re right. It’s all about perspective.” For a moment he stared at the display of plastic deck chairs beside the pasta fridge. “E-mail me, Barb. We should talk.” He walked off with his bread.

I could hear little voices singing the alphabet out of synch and turned. Two girls in purple jackets were crouched beside the deli counter. They stopped at P and started over. Behind the counter, a young woman yawned and weighed a tub of potato salad with a blank expression. “Cassandra,” her name tag read, the italicized letters suggesting a dynamic quality that wasn’t apparent. She slapped a sticker on the lid and looked at the clock as she passed the tub to the customer. Imagining the tedium of her job, I considered my own relative freedom. Benny had done well with his hockey store, well enough for me to pursue my research. That got me thinking about Benny’s good qualities: his unsinkable optimism, his tolerance of things he didn’t agree with. Maybe I was being too hard on him. I picked up some Pepperettes and hid them in my cart.

I found Benny in the cookie aisle. “Remember your heart. You have to limit the saturates.”

“Barb. Sweetie.” He put the Decadent chocolate chip cookies back and reached for my hand. His eyes were damp. “That’s what I need. I need you to show me you still care.”

“I do, though. I always do.”

“Good morning, shoppers! Be sure to visit our dairy section and sample our new Stringy Cheese flavours. Don’t forget to pick up the Ultra-Pak and save.”

“No, you’re focused on practical things. Like that spreadsheet on survival strategies. You don’t pay attention to me.”

“What kind of attention do you expect when you take off with half the provisions? ”

“It was a food drive! I didn’t take, I gave.” He shook his head as if to clear the subject away. “Barb, we have to keep the love flowing. Our love.”

“So you bumped into Joel Wallingford too. What’s with him? ”

“He’s a good guy. He cares about us, even after so many years. Right away, he’s giving me advice.”

“Let me know when he’s got a solution for climate change, O.K.? I’ve got to finish up here. I still need proteins.” I was about to leave but his eyes were still shiny. “So you’re O.K., Benny? I’ll see you back home? ”

“You keep going, Barb. Proteins.”

I squeezed his hand and set off.

I was almost at canned tuna when a deafening boom shook the building. The vibration lasted several seconds. People gasped and stopped. The lights went out. The scanner beeps stopped. One long and uneasy moment of quiet followed before people began murmuring and a voice called instructions I couldn’t hear. Everyone started rushing through the darkness toward the exits, abandoning their carts. I couldn’t leave mine. I was frantic, wheeling it down aisles, looking for Benny, wanting to warn him about going out, about blindly following the others into an unknown situation outside. The store was emptying. I breathed shallow gulps of air, pushing the cart, trying to fight the urge to join the panic and leave. I needed to calm down. Figure out a plan.

I saw the detergents. A place to hide and regroup until I understood the nature of the threat. I’d phone Benny and check in on Carson. I shifted enough boxes out to make space and crawled onto the shelf. I tried my phone but there was no reception. It was dark and silent. No music, scanner beeps, price checks. No messages for shoppers. The boxes around me like gravestones.

Soon I heard the squeak of rubber-soled shoes and a voice, as precious as my own heartbeat, calling my name.

I could only manage a whisper: “Benny.”

“Barb!” He was near, then pulling the boxes out, and leaning into my hiding spot. “Honey, what are you doing? They want everyone outside. I snuck back in when I didn’t see you.”

“Carson! I have to call.”

“I already did. June’s helping him paint the piñata.”

“He shouldn’t be outside. It’s not safe.”

“Barb. It’s not what you’re thinking. It was just a delivery truck. It rammed into the building, knocked down some wires. It damaged the generator. But everything’s O.K.”

This news didn’t relieve me. I couldn’t understand why.

“I’m so frightened.”

“Don’t be. It was just an accident.”

“But I can’t stop worrying.”

“Let’s share the worrying. We can worry together.”

I reached out to stroke his cheek and the lights flicked on, only very dimly. A guitar solo began playing, a song I couldn’t place.

“Hey, see? They have the generator going.”

“Benny, only you would know to come find me here. Only you understand.”

“This is good, Barb. We’re really listening to one another, really talking. That’s all that matters, right? ” I stared at his face squeezed between detergent boxes and wanted to laugh. Benny smiled. “We should celebrate tonight. Have a special dinner.”

That reminded me. “The stew, though. There’s still the problem of your energy consumption. I can’t abide by that.”

“O.K., what about a barbecue. Beef kebabs. Mmm.”

Lower, Benny.”

“Sausages? ”

“Lower.”

“O.K., chicken. Forget tofu, Barb. There’s no way I’m putting that stuff on the barbecue.”

“All right, chicken.”

“What do you say we have friends over? ”

“You’ve already invited Joel.”

“It’ll be like when we were young. Like it used to be.”

“That does sound kind of nice. Benny? ”

“What is it, Barb? ”

“I could really use a cuddle right now.”

Cassandra eyes the clock. “It’s probably getting busy. I’d better go.”

Ron fast forwards until some guy is on his hands and knees with his head between the Ultra-Paks. The store lights are partly on, affording a better view of his wide bottom.

“Who’s that? ” She’s interested again.

“Who knows? ” They watch as two slender hands reach out and grasp the man’s arms. He backs away, helping the woman out and up to standing. They converge in a tight clinch, their mouths locking together.

Cassandra stares at the monitor. “That’s new.”

“You can bet the dweebs in Marketing would never expect consumer behaviour like this. Does it really surprise you, though? Some people can’t control themselves with the lights off.” Ron slaps the arm of his chair and swivels to look at her. “Well, that had to be worth a trip up to my lair, eh? Care to climb on and join me for a little spin? ”

Cassandra isn’t listening. Why should she pay attention to someone who reads gaming magazines in a darkened room with no clue about what it’s like down there. He doesn’t know how easy it is to slip into a robotic trance slicing greasy meats in the fake sunshine. There are times she wants to escape the counter and run like that woman did. Or drag her hands down the perfect displays, start an avalanche of gum, oranges, potato chips. When the truck crashed and the power went out—in that wonderfully unscripted moment when no one knew what to do, she felt a surge of excitement. Like the electricity was coursing through her instead of the store.

Cassandra opens the door. “Sorry, Ron. Gotta go. Gotta go serve the people.”

When she hands over a tub of green coleslaw or bag of limp ham, she’ll look for a flicker of recognition in their eyes, a hint that they’re also thinking about how ridiculous things have become. From now on she’ll be watching more closely.

The Talking Creek Talking Magazine
Ultra
Read by Ryan Bigge and Kevin Connolly