Strangers in the South

I was fiddling around near the bread aisle longer than should’ve been necessary. They always seemed to have just run out of my favorite bread when I come.

A woman in a hairnet peeks around the corner. “Can I help you?”

“Do you have any more Three Cheese Semolina?”

She grabs a loaf of bread from the display with a gloved hand. “Want me to cut it for you?

“Nah.”

She starts bagging it up for me. I’m not fully aware of how my eyes are fixed somewhere in space, my brain stuck somewhere pulling apart memories from two weeks ago.

“You seem… rushed,” she mentions.

“Oh… no…”

“Lot on your mind?”

I hesitate. The explanations and stories have been spilling out of me for a week now. I’d just been at the bank, and when the teller returned after checking the power of attorney signature on the check, I’d ended up telling her he’d passed last week, and he was an amazing man. I could feel a familiar sting in my nose and my vision started to blur as she handed me my receipt. I darted out the doors before I could make anyone think I was a dramatically unstable person roaming around a bank.

“Yeah. I lost a patient last week.” The words still don’t sound right. He was so much more than that.

“Oh, honey, I’m so sorry. Nurse, CNA?” She faces me and rests her hand on the counter.

“Ah, something like that. I was taking care of him for the last three years.”

“Oh, gosh, that’s so hard. Did you get to know him well?”

“Well,” I start. I’m not sure if the next part is necessary. “I’d known him my whole life.”

“Oh, no… I used to work in a nursing home, so you always knew while you were getting attached that they were going to…” She tilts her head and gently shrugs her shoulders so she doesn’t have to say the word. “Then I was with hospice…”

“They’re amazing!” I burst out, only to realize we were saying the same thing at the same time. She smiles.

I look back at the produce section for a minute.

“I don’t know why this is so hard. I just usually picked up my groceries with his…”

“And you’re looking at all the things he liked?”

I nod and smile, my eyes starting to burn a little.

“He was always so particular about his bananas, he wanted them a specific shade of green. I was here last week, the night after, and I stood in front of the bananas and cried for a good five minutes. I’m sure I looked like an absolute nut job.”

She laughs. “If you ever feel a little crazy, you’ll always fit right in here. Were you able to say goodbye?”

I remember everything from that afternoon and that long, long night. The last weak squeeze he gave my hand. The labored breathing, which soon became simply shallow, fading as the hours went on. Listening to the same old songs, over and over again, maybe to help drown out the sound of soft sobbing throughout the house.

He was tachycardic for most of it, and after the last breath I felt the stillness in his wrist, then neck, then chest. It was 4:52 by the time I could tell myself I was marking clinical death. The certificate would say 4:50 AM, October 21st.

It wasn’t until I went outside to let his family stay by his body when I felt an incredible pain just above my stomach, just like I’d been sucker punched — something that sounds so cliché now, but it was one of the most intense pains I’d ever felt. I laid down on his sidewalk hoping it would pass. It was colder than I’d expected and the sky was incredibly clear. I watched an unusually brilliant falling star soar through the gaps between the leaves of his oak tree.

“The family let me stay for the last 15 hours,” I reply. I’d been saying goodbye for a long time, and I knew I still hadn’t finished.

She stepped towards me and opened her arms. I fell into them like I’d known her all my life.

“Then you’re a good person,” she tells me.

She hands me the bread, and I smile and walk on. After wandering the store, I circled back around to the produce section again.

I needed some green bananas.

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