“We’re out of liquor,” a bespectacled young grocer said irritably. “There’s no liquor today. We’re out of it.”
I looked at him hopelessly; I studied him like a partygoer hoping to find a way around an overzealous bouncer. I looked at him and wondered where our regular grocer was, that tall balding man, in that silly sweater with a diamond pattern peeking from under that neatly ironed apron of his. I wondered where he was now. Perhaps he had a day off. Perhaps he was off to somewhere — it was Christmas Eve, after all.
“Lady, it’s Christmas Eve. It’s Christmas for crying in a bucket of snow!” he said, sighing meaningfully and leaning against the store rack with his arms folded guardedly.
“You don’t understand,” I said, lowering my voice to a whisper, though we were alone in the whole store. There was no other soul or spirit around, either of this or of past Christmas. “You don’t understand it at all. It’s for my husband. I need it for my husband.”
I saw the boy glance through a beautifully illuminated store window at our car parked out front, and at my husband, angry, hunched nervously behind the wheel, sitting in the dark — the engine idling as if it were a getaway car waiting for a heist to end. He silenced for an instant.
“Well, I sympathize with you, lady, but still,” his former relentless pose returned swiftly. “If you wanted a cake or some sweets for your kids or even a pint of milk, I’d be happy to help you; I’d be more than happy to oblige. But liquor?” he spread his hands powerlessly. “Forget about it. My boss is very much against it. Not today. Not on a day like this, hell no.”
“You’d better watch your mouth, young man,” a male voice boomed from behind my back; I blenched.
The boy only rolled his eyes, in a motion that seemed to contain more insults and profanities than the air in a bar after a long and drunken night, and strolled away.
“Is it OK, ma’am?” the man asked. “Is it OK? I hate it when those kids talk that way. They have no respect for us, for the mature people in general, not only for us — for the rules, you know? I hate it. I simply can’t stand it.”
“That’s nothing,” I said, embarrassed to be caught like that, like a pickpocket with his hand in the purse belonging to someone else. “That’s really nothing.”
“I was on my way out, you know, I have people waiting for me, a Christmas dinner, a large family, a Christmas tree and all that, and then I heard this—, this pimply little—, I had to say something; I had to butt in. I hate it when people curse. I hate it.”
“You’ve said it,” I replied. “You’ve said it already.”
Only then did it strike me; only then did I recognize him: the voice; the height; the profile; the nose; the insufferable mannerisms; that little note of haughtiness ringing in his voice and spoiling it, like a spot of mold floating in an otherwise exquisite soup in the manner of a helpless and mushy castaway — I used to date the man, not the soup, in high school. It had been ages ago; we had gone out together only once or twice — but still, I used to date him. Now there he was: an expensive coat; a pair of shoes as shiny as a dentist’s smile; an awful toupee perching on top of his scalp, as if something had died up there. He didn’t even recognize me, after all those years.
“So, you’re heading home?” I asked warily. “A Christmas dinner, you said?”
“Yes,” he answered, still reproachfully eyeing the boy above all the shelves. “That’s right. A Christmas dinner. A really big Christmas dinner, you know, with our in-laws and kids and all that.”
“You’ve got kids?”
“Yeah, two of them. Both go to college; they’re very mature now, very grown up — if you know what I mean. So, it’s the only chance we’ve got to see them, you know?”
“I think I know what you mean,” I said, yet I didn’t.
“What was that he didn’t want to sell you?” he asked suddenly, still looking out for the boy.
“Milk,” I said.
“Milk? And that’s it?”
“Yes, milk,” I said.
“Jeez, and the poor bastard sounded as if you tried to wheedle some dope out of him.”
“No, milk. Only milk,” I said, lowering my eyes.
“Well, look here, I can lend you some,” he said in a conspiratorial whisper. “I can lend you some if you want. I’ve already bought more than I needed. I’ve already bought more than my wife asked me to.” I saw him take a carton of milk out of his own grocery bag and hand it to me as furtively as though he were offering me some drugs himself. “Take it. Take it, I say. No one will see it. Take it.”
I glanced down at it; I glanced around the store; I glanced at my husband growing visibly impatient outside, and I glanced at the wretched carton once again. I took it, as ashamed as if I were, indeed, doing something illegal.
“Thank you,” I said. “Thank you for this.”
I stared down at the carton of milk as I was rotating it, numbly, abstractedly, in my hands, like a plumber toying with a valve. It seemed to weigh more than the unfashionable cement shoes being sported by the disgraced members of the mafia.
“That’s no problem. That’s no problem at all,” he said beaming, as proud as if he had just saved someone’s life. “In case you needed something, in case you really needed something, something else — besides, you know, this — you’ll know where to find me.”
I looked at him — dazed, uncomprehending.
“Around a dairy fridge,” he pointed at it and winked at me, then he smiled once again. “I’ll always be around the dairy fridge.”
I glanced down at the milk growing heavier and heavier in my hands; no scales would be able to hold it now.
“Anyway, it was nice meeting you,” he smiled quickly, a bit hurriedly perhaps, and patted me on the shoulder — exactly where my coat had been badly stitched up; I looked at it guiltily. Then he walked to the door, and threw over his shoulder: “And Merry Christmas to you.” He went out to the cold.
A little bell above the door confirmed his departure, like an obedient clerk performing his duty. It was silent there — only a row of fridges hummed discreetly by the wall to the accompaniment of the lights buzzing above my head, like a line of worshipers muttering their ancient prayers. It was silent again.
I quickly put the milk on one of the shelves, like an embarrassed reader returning a long-overdue book to the library; I didn’t care which one — I didn’t care at all. It might have been a rack packed with Christmas socks, for all I cared.
When I went out to the street, it was snowing again. A drizzle of opalescent tiny snowflakes dancing and pirouetting in the wind, shimmering in the light of streetlamps, fell down on me, like confetti during a surprise party being thrown in my honor. It was cold.
A plume of bluish exhaust fumes billowed from the jerking tailpipe — sending out smoke distress signals. My husband stared up at me from inside the car, still seething with fury, still slouched over the steering wheel. I could see him through the windshield; it was lavishly peppered with those glimmering petite things, like a doughnut with a sugar coating.
“You’ve got it?” he asked me through the lowered car window, his teeth clenched. “You’ve got the thing?”
“No,” I said. “There’s no milk today.”
Then I saw a short, plump man — not only drunk but drunk as a drunken skunk — parading down the sidewalk on the opposite side of the street; I saw a fine spruce dangling from his back. He reeled and staggered under its weight, but he somehow managed to forge ahead despite everything — through the snow, through the whole cold world. It was freezing; I knew it was Christmas time.