He stops in the middle of filling up a plastic bag with broccoli and gives me a questioning look.
“Who’s going to cook this stuff?” I ask.
“I thought . . .” Now he stares into the cart.
“It’s not like I know what to do with it. She never let me in the kitchen when she cooked,” I say. Cooking was the one thing she and I didn’t do together. Everything else — shopping, cleaning, watching TV or movies, looking at magazines, gardening, polishing our toenails, doing our hair, trying on clothes, going for walks or runs — was the two of us. But when she was in the kitchen, even I was banished. It was the one place in her life where she was totally in charge.
“Haven’t you noticed,” I continue, “that your meals have come out of a can or the microwave since, like, Christmas?” I take the bunch of broccoli out of his hand and put it back, along with the mushrooms, the little red potatoes, the baby squash. I keep the bagged salad and apples. Then I wheel the cart to the meat case and put back the package of ground beef and the whole chicken in favor of some pre-seasoned, pre-cooked chicken breasts. “I could cook,” Dad says weakly, but he knows I’m right. We’re not the kind of family anymore that sits around the table to a balanced and nutritious meal to talk about our days. We’re the kind that lives on stuff only requiring a person to work the microwave or add boiling water.
After filling our cart with stuff that meets these criteria, I pull Dad along to the checkout line. He’s still in a daze, like he’s only just now living in reality. I think of a line he uses in sermons sometimes: “Denial ain’t just a river in Egypt.” Funny how talking about things safely from behind a podium in church is different from really getting them in real life.
The cashier, a squat fifty-something woman who’s worked here as long as I can remember, smiles big at us. Well, at Dad. “Hey, Pastor Charlie. Haven’t seen you here in ages!” And instantly he turns on his Pastor Charlie charm, going from sad and dazed to warm and present, like our grocery cart tragedy never happened. “Come to church and you can see me every week,” he says with a grin. “You haven’t been since your niece’s baptism, am I right?”
I turn away, look at the candy shelf, and add some four-for-adollar chocolate bars to the conveyer belt. Meanwhile, the cashier and my dad are laughing it up. “Maybe I was hiding in the balcony.” “And maybe you weren’t .”
She loves it. Because all women love my dad. He’s handsome enough even with the little soda-belly he’s grown in the last couple of years, has all his hair, is youngish, charming, kind, a good listener, reliable, attentive, there when you need him. Those last four only apply if you aren’t in his immediate family. Most of all he’s the kind of man who would never cheat, and — as my mom pointed out to me once after a few drinks — that’s exactly the kind of man women want to cheat with. “Ironic, isn’t it?” my mom said, kind of laughing and kind of not. And I wanted to tell her how that isn’t the sort of thing I want to know about or think about my own father, and please could we change the subject, but I don’t think she really realized it was me sitting there with her. I mean she knew it was me, but when she’s drinking she kind of forgets I’m her daughter and she’s my mom. So the definition of appropriate topics of conversation tends to . . . expand.
Dad pays for the groceries with a check, which will fl oat a couple of days while he figures out how to get money into our account.
Back in the car, he’s still in his confident pastoral mode. “I’m sorry,” he says, buckling his seat belt. “The food thing —” “It’s okay,” I say, cutting him off. I turn up the air-conditioning full blast and lift myself off the seat a little to keep from burning my thighs on the vinyl.
Excerpted from Once Was Lost by Sara Zarr. Copyright © 2009 by Sara Zarr. Excerpted by permission of Little, Brown Books for Young Readers. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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No Man's Land
by Simon Tolkien
Inspired by the experiences of his grandfather, J. R. R. Tolkien, during World War I.
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