After receiving his B.A. in English from Colorado State University, C.W. Bigelow lived in nine northern states before moving south to the Charlotte NC area. His fiction and poems have appeared in The Flexible Persona, Literally Stories, Compass Magazine, FishFood Magazine, Five2One, Crack the Spine, Sick Lit Magazine, Poydras Review, Anthology: River Tales by Zimbell House Publishing, Foliate Oak Literary Journal, Midway Journal, Scarlet Leaf Review, and Temptation Press Anthology - Private Lessons with another story forthcoming in Poydras Review.
“I’m a widow,” Gladys Welock barked to no one particular as she made her way down the liquor aisle to the fish counter. Squat and sturdy, except for the hint of a limp, a scar from a stroke suffered a decade before. Her tanned leathery skin, brought astonished double takes from the other shoppers in Peter’s Supermarket; a result of years of toil on the golf course under the unforgiving sun. She had been a champion many times. Becoming a widow provided her sudden relief and a generous uplift in spirits – an escape from the doldrums in which she had waded for the previous decade. The tenacity of her husband’s cancer and the toll it took as it ravaged his body with absolutely no sympathy or pause was relentless and pitiless as it refused to grant even a breather once it hit its stride. Her mystifying look of joy brought confused and astonished looks from the customers who heard her declaration. How could widowhood bring one such delight? Peter’s Supermarket was a contemporary, almost futuristic adobe-skinned building that was designed specifically for senior citizens, who made up seventy-eight percent of the population in Love Lakes. A spacious, yet comfortable ambiance was designed to make them feel as though, they too, actually belonged in the new millennium. The sprawling parking lot was filled with golf carts, the choice of transportation because the residents were more comfortable with the battery powered vehicles than their aging, unwieldy, gas-guzzling automobiles. Wide aisles housed a breathtaking selection of products stacked in orderly rows, displaying provocative colors as the shoppers shuffled by sluggishly. Realizing their customer base lacked the appetite and basic interest, but owned the financial strength; they did their best to make the propositions irresistible. In aisle after aisle shoppers gazed at the enormous, vivid displays, so mesmerized by the colors and attractiveness of the products, they ended up at the checkout aisle with a cartful of impulsive purchases that would be taken home to go unused and ultimately discarded. The chain’s marketing department referred to it as the “the Shopping Channel effect.” Gladys’ first stop was the liquor aisle. She stopped her cart in front of the vodka, not just any vodka, but the cheapest available. She wasn’t about to be romanced by the marketers. After all, it was only potatoes, ethanol and water. “They say it’s better for us than gin,” her husband Bob claimed decades before, influenced by an article he read in The Wall Street Journal. Adding, “There’s no difference in taste from brand to brand, so we can save money too.” Gladys’ parents had been devoted gin drinkers. A smile spread across her dry, cracked lips as she recalled her father’s Yorkshire terrier Max. Each night during the work week, like clockwork, Max began pacing at the front door at 5:15 PM, thirstily awaiting his master’s arrival home from the office. Little tail wagging accompanied by an excited growl that climbed the scales as the minutes went by and the master’s appearance grew closer, finally erupting into a fervent, high-pitched yip when the doorknob turned. At the sight of his dapper master, Max launched into a series of backward flips – one, two, and three in a row – before pausing to yap some more. Her father’s reaction to Max’s antics depended upon his day, but usually brought a broad smile. “Max, just a minute,” he chuckled as he hung up his coat in the closet before marching to the bar where he poured two gin martinis – his, the only one with an olive, because Max had choked on one once. The diminutive pup was relentless in his pursuit, beside himself with craving, spinning frantically in tight circles, colliding with Father’s thick ankles when he paused to retrieve the evening newspaper from the hall table on his way to the den. His tizzy didn’t end until his drink was placed on the floor. Promptly lapping it up, each muscle turning limp as he stumbled to his plaid bed in the corner and promptly passed out. Gin. It would be good to have gin, as she bent down and retrieved a bottle of the most expensive brand. After all, it was a special occasion. She marched past The Delicatessen and the rows of cold cuts protected in sparkling window display cases – roast beef, pork, Scrapple, head cheese, locks, and dairy cheeses were odorous enough to pierce the dull senses of the shoppers because the display doors were cracked just enough to send the wafting odors into the air like a weapon. Never mind preserving the freshness of the product; these folks couldn’t taste anyway. At Peter’s all the clerks were retirees as listless and confused as many of the customers. It was a love fest of octogenarians, many even older. Come get your kicks at Peter’s. Only the cleaning and stocking crews were younger than retirement age and since they were imported from assorted Caribbean islands they could do nothing but nod and smile when asked for directions. Since English was a foreign language their stuttered attempts to respond only bewildered the customers. Actually it was another well-conceived plot by the owners to send the clientele on even longer tours of the store to whet their appetites for products they might never have seen had they not been led astray. Scrapple was Gladys’ favorite breakfast. She was raised on it in Philadelphia, but found it hard to find while following Bob around the country as he was promoted from one job to the next. On opening day at Peter’s the previous year all shoppers could fill out forms asking for items to be stocked. She asked for Scrapple and shark cartilage pills. Bob had read an advertisement in the Sports Section of the local newspaper touting shark cartilage as a cure for cancer. He also read that apple seeds shorn of brown skin were full of nitroglycerine and cured cancer if enough were ingested. It didn’t mention a quantity. Gladys spent many an hour shucking the skin of those miniscule apple seeds causing her fingertips to blister which made it hell holding a golf club. It had not been a good day on the golf course. She continually struggled to reconcile past success with her present frailty and futility. The stroke had left permanent weakness on her left side. In addition to the stroke was a problem with her sight. Making matters worse was her refusal to accept facts – so, on the first tee her expectations were in line with her past success and she approached the new round with the confidence she had during her glory days. It didn’t take long for her hopes to plummet into reality and obscenities beneath her breath slipped out after each dismal shot. Her eyesight issue was due to a tumor on her pituitary gland that had grown out of control before being discovered. “The pressure exerted on the optic nerve from the tumor has cut off the blood flow for so long there is permanent damage,” her doctor explained after performing the operation. “It is like when your leg falls asleep, but it isn’t going to wake up. The nerves have entered into an everlasting sleep.” She happily used that explanation when describing the ailment, since everyone had experienced a leg falling asleep and could relate to that sensation. More difficult and frustrating to explain was the effect it had on her sight. Glasses did no good. Shadows were the only way she described what she saw and how she saw. She could no longer read books, not even large print editions and couldn’t needlepoint which had both been beloved hobbies. Hobbies that allowed her to pleasantly pass the cold winter days up north waiting for golf season before they moved permanently to Florida. Bob was off doing whatever he did wherever, whenever he did it. Like a good golf game, they were gone forever. “Was it the cause of my stroke?” The question popped out. She wanted desperately for it to be the reason she had the stroke – a neat, simple, straightforward answer. She rarely asked questions. Whenever she asked questions she received bad news, so it was usually more palatable going along without knowing, wandering through a benign atmosphere – untouched by unwanted news. “Can’t be sure without seeing the X-rays.” Bob had left those in North Carolina at the hospital after the stroke. “What good will X-rays do?” he argued. He hadn’t liked having his golf round interrupted to rush over to the seventh hole, where her stroke pitched her right out of the golf cart as if someone had reached down and shoved her into the ground with such force her face had to be wiped clean of mud. The first thing he said when she awoke in the hospital, groggy and totally disoriented, wondering who she was, where she was, and what had happened was, “I was putting for bird, damn it!” He showed up on the day of her release two hours late and claimed to have been pulled over by a cop going through a school zone. “Was going two over the speed limit. Can you believe it? I argued for an hour with the damn cop. He was some punk hick barely out of the academy trying to build a reputation.” He paced back and forth, still huffing before pulling to a sudden stop as though he’d had an epiphany, and as an afterthought added, “I told him you were here in the hospital…and…he didn’t, didn’t even care.” She sat helplessly on the edge of the bed, fighting waves of dizziness and clenching the sheets for support as she waited the arrival of an attendant who could lift her into a wheelchair. Bob didn’t seem interested in her struggles, sitting comfortably in a chair consumed by an issue of Newsweek Magazine from two weeks prior, insisting he would get her in the chair, except, “What if I drop you? My liability. Then what? Not only would I have to pay for this stay, the total amount, forget insurance, mind you, but that much more if you land back in here because I dropped you.” Her back muscles had twisted into spasms after sitting so long, forcing her to lean forward, weak but weathering the pain, on the precipice of falling off the bed before the attendant finally showed up to rescue her. “Good,” Bob, irritated so he complained, “you show up when I finally found a good article to read.” He turned to the attendant and huffed, “Cause you were so late, I’m taking this magazine with me and I don’t expect to see it listed on the bill.” Gliding down the hallway, she felt a strange sense of danger, sudden fear as Bob urged the attendant to hurry along. “We have to go to the radiologist before we leave and we have a long drive back to Florida,” he explained at the elevator doors where floor-to-ceiling windows overlooked the parking lot. Heart beating wildly, she gasped to catch her breath after realizing she’d been holding it the whole ride. “Duplicates of your X-rays will be ready tomorrow morning,” the radiology nurse, Emma explained. “You’ll want them to bring to your doctor at home.” “Why not today?” Bob complained, leaning over the counter, shoving his face into hers. “You’re too late. Didn’t give me enough time.” Bob backed away. Nervously shifting his weight from one foot to another, he periodically peered out the window past Emma as if he were expecting someone to drive up. Gladys looked to Bob for direction and help. Would it be too much to ask, after all these years – to show a little empathy? Somehow reach down into that blossoming gut of his and do the right thing? “We’re leaving today,” he announced. “I’ve signed her out.” He rubbed his fingers over his lips, the way he always did when he needed a cigarette. Smoking and drinking were other habits he couldn’t break. Emma, a forceful, yet friendly expressive sort, with a large smiling mouth under a wide nose, suddenly frowned. “And the doctor allowed this?” Her tone was accusatory, rolling her eyes at Gladys as if to say, what is this ass trying to do? “Have no choice. Gladys said she wants to go,” Bob explained, shrugging and lifting an eyebrow as if to say, “crazy broad, what am I to do?” “Told me she would feel more comfortable resting at home.” It was a boldface lie. Gladys suddenly wanted to sleep. A gray haze hung over her eyes, dragging on her lids like a weight, and nothing, absolutely nothing made sense to her. But he claimed he had important things to do and she could rest and recover at home. “Well, I can mail them to your home address,” Emma offered, still looking worriedly at Gladys. “Tell you what, I’ll call you when we get home and give you the address. Do you have a card?” Pulling away from the curb where she had been lifted from the wheelchair and deposited into the front seat like a sack of potatoes, she pleaded, recalling her doctor’s words, “But they said I should stay another couple of days to make sure it doesn’t happen again.” Her words were like drunken soldiers tripping over the muddy field of her tongue. “Nonsense. Look, your fine. And besides, what can they do? If it’s gonna happen, it’s gonna happen.” He didn’t even give a glance. If he had he would have seen her right cheek lay like a limp pancake and her mouth drooped lazily and how she had to use a handkerchief like a dam to keep the drool from flowing over her chin onto her blouse. The insistent, annoying buzz in her ears wouldn’t subside – like a helicopter hovering above, making it impossible to hear anything clearly.
Gladys banged on the stainless bell that sat on the fish counter. “Where are you?” she cried. She was invigorated and couldn’t help but smile. “I’m coming!” A whimper came from behind the wall. “Hurry! I ordered three lobsters and I’m running late.” Lobsters were her favorite food, bar none. Always had been and always would be, especially the green gook. “Name?” “Welock, damn it! I’m Gladys Welock and I’m a widow.” “I’m so sorry! Recent occurrence?” asked the hefty, platinum blonde woman, fully filling the red pinstriped white apron all the employees were forced to wear over their red shirts. She waddled to the tank and grabbed a sizeable pair of tongs. With no hesitation, displaying grace uncommon in such a large woman, she jumped onto a step stool and thrust the tongs into the lobster tank, grasping the closest crustacean. “I’m sorry for being so thoughtless. Recent or not has little to do with the anguish, the loss.” Her paunchy face crumbled with recent memories of the loss of her own husband. “Today. He checked out today. I missed the moment though,” she stated matter-of-factly. “Was playing golf… poorly too. When I got home there was a message on my phone machine. From the time of the message, I judge I was at the turn. I was buying a Coke and a hot dog. What was even more ironic, his voice is still on our answering machine. Took the message of his own death.” The platinum blonde’s name was Hedy according to the nametag on her left breast. She stopped, lobster caught in the clutches of her tongs – claws pinching, running in place. A baffled expression clouded her painted face. “Golf?” She really hadn’t intended to spit the word with such disgust, but she did. She couldn’t help it. It was disgusting. Gladys leaned to the left, hand on hip and tapped her red loafer impatiently. “Cancer, not golf. How the hell could golf kill anyone, unless, of course, you don’t yell fore? And that means you aren’t following the rules. Hell, even Bob followed the rules on the golf course. It was imminent, bound to end anytime and it turned out to be today.” She took a deep breath and then sighed loudly. Hedy continued frowning, the wrinkles around her eyes and brow appearing like highways on a road atlas. “You’re saying the poor man died alone?” Gladys was losing patience. Her guests were arriving later that day. “No. The nurse told me she asked if he wanted anything, he shook his head, took a deep sigh and that was it. Gone. There! He died with the nurse. If you’re judging me because of my absence…” She paused, glaring at the clerk. She hated people who assumed they knew all sides to the story. “No, no. Far be it for me to do any judging,” Hedy back pedaled, still morosely affected by Gladys’ cold nature, but realizing she could only bring trouble to herself by displaying an holier-than-thou attitude. “I’m just a clerk who is here to serve your fish needs, not to pass judgment. But since you brought it up, aren’t you tingling with a bit of the guilts? I mean, golf!” She cringed. Couldn’t keep her mouth shut! Never could keep her mouth shut. Gladys huffed. “Golf is what I do. It’s what he did too. Had the situation been reversed, I’d have been alone and he would have been putting into holes. Now give me those damn lobsters. I’ve got places I’ve gotta be.” Hedy placed the live lobsters in a white cardboard container. “Pay at the front,” she sniffled, obviously hurt by the response. “You a widow?” Gladys asked, abruptly shamed into showing some kind of empathy, which was the lesser challenge. Having to ask forgiveness for her attitude would have been worse. She had loved Bob, loved him a long time, but love has to be nurtured to survive. “Four times,” Hedy sighed, rolling heavy mascara eyes, relieved the customer’s anger had subsided and actually a bit excited at the sudden attention. Her eyes widened. “More like a murderer, it sounds like,” Gladys huffed, did a quick turnabout and headed to the checkout counter cutting off any response. “Those who judge without knowing should just keep their thoughts to themselves,” she muttered beneath her breath. The lobsters scratched the cardboard carton and she recalled the first time Bob brought lobsters home for her. He’d just received his first promotion and he bought one for each of them, definitely an expensive delicacy in those days. She was shocked into titillation because he had never been one to splurge. “I even get my own secretary,” he announced. “Do you know her?” she asked, sipping gin. “I know of her. Seen her a few times is all.” “And,” she teased cheerily, thinking it rather fun and clever, whimsical with the thought of the extra money and status the promotion would bring. He shrugged, curled his lip and coyly arched an eyebrow. She took a double take, for he had never once appeared so sheepishly flirtatious. She decided it was a shot of testosterone, a bit of the rooster step because of the promotion and let it go at that. Each checkout counter was manned with teams of two. A woman on the scanner greeted the customers with a pleasant smile and current event conversation, while the bagger was always a man who talked and talked about location. Since most residents of Love Lakes hailed from somewhere else, it tickled the shoppers to talk about their original home. It really kicked into high gear when a visitor from out of town was in the store. Visitors were obvious; a younger person accompanying their parent – visiting the supermarket so the larder at home was filled with edible items and not the normal bland dietary supplements the regulars purchased. The dialogue would commence, filled with questions meant to put the visitor on a pedestal and make a lasting impression on the regular shopper, so they would continue to return. “Where ya from?” “How’s the weather up there now?” “I’m from Poughkeepsie, myself. Can’t say as I miss it all that much. Hard to miss the weather, if you know what I mean.” Bob had never once joined Gladys in Peter’s and she liked it that way. When it opened she ventured in alone to see what all the hoopla was about. So new, so modern, so far removed from Bob – it became her refuge. No one knew him. Gladys was the only person in the Ten Items or Less checkout line and placed her lobsters and gin on the conveyor belt before opening her red purse. She liked the way it matched her loafers. She tried, whenever possible, to match her purses to her shoes. “Good morning, Mam.” The clerk smiled. She was a tall, washed-out woman who looked lost in her ill-fitting striped uniform. Her nametag read Phyllis. Flesh hung loosely from her face as though it were searching for padding. “Having a good day?” “Lost a husband today,” Gladys announced without looking up as she dug for money in her purse. Phyllis sprang right into action, reaching for the microphone, as if she were grabbing a weapon. She had been trained for these moments in her checkout clerk training classes. “His name?” she asked, holding the mike to her mouth, ready to shout it out over the loudspeakers to help Gladys find her husband. Lost husbands were common occurrences, usually discovered drifting absent-mindedly, incapable of finding their way to the front on their own. Peter’s actually hired women whose sole purpose was to wander the aisles looking for lost patrons and lead them back to their respective partner. “I didn’t lose him,” she chuckled, actually finding humor in her speedy response. “He died. Cancer! Christ, if you knew Bob you’d know he was never lost a day of his life. The man always knew where he was. Course, I didn’t always know where he was!” She paused, looking up with a smirk, before handing over her money. “Now I do though. Now I do.” “Where was he from?” asked the bagger, following procedure, as he shoved the lobster carton into a red striped plastic bag and placed the bottle of gin on top of it. He was jowly with a stomach that pressed anxiously on the buttons of the white shirt with Peters etched across the pocket. Gladys grabbed the bag from him with a sudden swipe and said, “His mother and father, like the rest of us.”
“I love her.” The words came out like bullets that penetrated her psyche, kicking up dust of ancient memories. This was pre-tumor, pre-stroke, when she still marched with the pride of a peacock, the reigning golf champion wherever she went, though it was way post-sex, which explained a lot as she recalled the moment later, but who had perfection in their marriage? It was Sally Slater, a bleached blonde who hung out on the outer boundaries of their social group, attending only the larger events, never the small intimate gatherings. How could she attend? She was single. Gladys wasn’t even sure she’d ever been married and hadn’t given her a thought until Bob came out with his striking confession. She looked up at him with a doubtful smirk, not finding his attempt at humor particularly clever, though it was a little better than most of his jokes. They had never once discussed this woman when Gladys innocently stated, “Sally Slater called today.” No curiosity, no doubt, no blame, just stated a fact – hadn’t even begun to wonder why the woman had called and how did he answer? Not the expected, “Who is she?” or “I wonder what the hell she wants?” No. Three life-changing words, marching out of his mouth with way too much ease, obviously something he’d rehearsed. “I love her.” Midst the echo of his words, the discernment – could he be serious, no he must be joking – all circulating midst an emotional explosion in her mind while she looked at him with that deer-caught-in-the-headlights expression, he repeated it. “I love her.” “I heard you,” she said, burying her face in one hand while waving for him to stop with her other. One thing for certain, she didn’t want to hear it again, she wasn’t even sure she wanted the history. Maybe if she ignored it he wouldn’t bring it up again and the moment would pass like a thunderstorm and the sun would pop back out and their life could continue as it had before the recital of those three words. When a husband decides to leave after so many years, unloading all his dirty laundry in a twenty-minute tirade that absolutely wipes the image of the man the wife thought she knew from the face of the earth; is it her fault or his? It did finally explain one mystery however, the sudden disappearance of his sexual appetite, for which she paid mightily since he had refused to make love to her for years, and for the life of her, she didn’t understand what she had done wrong. She’d left her new diaphragm on the bed one evening years before, a little wink, a little appetizer – a come-on that had her grinning deviously to herself when he went upstairs to change after work. But there was no call to join him from the hallway and he didn’t even mention it on his arrival downstairs – totally ignored it. She found it in the wastebasket in their bathroom later that night. And shocked beyond words she climbed into the shower, though she never showered at night, and cried. When she confronted him at breakfast, too unstable and shaken to mention it when she crawled into bed the night before, he looked at her with surprise. “I thought that was someone else’s.” And who the fuck might that be, she wanted to scream? But she didn’t. And they never made love again. Listing all his sexual affairs over the years, beginning with that secretary of his first promotion, in the same monotonous manner he repeated every fucking golf shot he took after every fucking round over the years as she sat perfectly still, letting the names punch her into a stupor. Was she the stupid one for having no clue, or had he been so cunning that no one could have noticed his indiscretions? In an obvious attempt to infuriate her so she would release him, divorce him so he could be with Sally Slater, a plan that might have worked on anyone of her friends, actually most any other women she knew, he rattled off the many, many names and she pictured the faces of all these women she knew, some of whom she considered friends and wondered what the others looked like.
“Gladys, we tried. We really did,” Hester Piedmont sighed, hugging her daughter, trying to console her. “Your father and I just can’t continue to live together under this roof. Sometimes things don’t work out as you plan.” “But none of my friends’ parents are divorced,” she cried. “No one gets divorced. Why can’t you stay together? I don’t understand.” Her mother shrugged as she shook her head. “I can’t stay with him. I’m sorry.” As it turned out her father had begun sharing martinis with someone other than Max. The word got to not only her mother but also most of the citizens in town. She didn’t seem to mind becoming a divorcee, in fact didn’t mind what people whispered behind her back and actually seemed happier. It certainly wasn’t a problem moving onto other men and she never seemed to worry over the effect it had on her daughter. Gladys never understood what she might have done differently so that her parents would have stayed together. And Max kept going to the front door every night until he died, which, ironically, was soon after her father died, four days before Gladys graduated from high school. During the graduation ceremony, as she waited for her name to be called, she searched the crowd of her classmates for one, just one whose parents were divorced. She couldn’t find one, but recognized two other students that had a deceased parent.
There would be no divorce. Bob ended up having freedom to be with Sally, but it wasn’t exactly what he wanted. As long as Gladys was alive, that woman would not be his wife. And though that woman ended up accepting the arrangement, it wasn’t what she had hoped for either, certainly not the blue ribbon. So what if he, for the last ten years, spent three nights a week with Sally. So what if it was Sally that went to dinner with him at all the restaurants in town. Who was his wife? And who was the other woman?
“May I help you with your bag?” asked the bag runner, another service offered at Peter’s Supermarket. He must have been Gladys’ age, standing in the shade of the cart depository, sweat glistening on his sun scalded baldhead. She paused a moment, holding up her bag of lobsters and gin for him to see. “No thank you.” Gazing into the bright blue, blistering hot sky, she rattled, “I’m a widow,” then marched confidently to her golf cart. She repeated it aloud. Sally couldn’t claim that. It made Gladys smile.