A fine mist dampened Ruth’s face as she handled a large head of broccoli looking for defects. Unable to find any brown spots, she leaned into the mist. The stinging coldness surprised her and she jumped back and hit a standalone basket of lemons, knocking a few onto the floor. No one else was around and she bent over slowly, hand on the cart, and picked them up, saying a Hail Mary that her back wouldn’t be sore tomorrow morning getting out of bed. She slid her hand down the side of her face. Her skin felt cleansed.
“I could always use some help,” she said quietly to herself. “Maybe Publix should include facials in their produce section.” Actually, at sixty-five, her face might not launch ships anymore, but it did make men of all ages stop, leer and admire, like the one Ruth saw standing near the oranges.
She set the head of broccoli in the cart, knowing that even if she had a few extra pounds around the middle, her legs had remained shapely. Without hose, she wore a skirt cut slightly above the knee and her thin sweater hid bare arms which she thought were getting fat.
When she returned the man’s stare he immediately looked away. “Men,” she mused, “shy and lustful.” Defiantly, she drove her cart right toward the gawker, who was ready to run.
“John,” she beamed, finally recognizing the poor man who lived a few doors down from her daughter Maria.
John Scalish was shorter than she, in his early eighties, and except for the bald dome his face was remarkably smooth. He had recently lost his wife and she felt bad toying with him, even if he did have unholy thoughts with his spouse only months in the ground.
“It’s funny who you run into at night,” he said sheepishly.
“Eleven o’clock is pretty late for us seniors,” Ruth replied. “We should be home getting our beauty sleep.”
“You always look beautiful, Ruth. You could be shopping at three in the morning and you’d still look beautiful.”
“But who would see me at that time, other than weirdoes and thieves?” She saw him start to wither and she rushed a second time to protect him from female assault. “That’s nice of you to say, John.”
Her face reddened, thinking of the many times that she had humiliated another kind and quiet man: Saint Joseph. Often, after a long bout of bad weather, or family tragedy, she had plunged his statue head first into a vase full of water. After the death of her husband, she stopped taking out her frustrations on the Patron of a Peaceful Death, worried that she might lose all peace while still among the living.
Mr. Scalish cleared his throat. “Your hair, it’s different.”
“I had it cut short, kept the curl.” Her thick wavy hair streaked with gray was cut above the ears. Her every feature spoke elegance: cheekbones, slender nose, light-filled brown eyes. Cassano was her maiden name, and her parents were from the seafaring town of Bari on Italy’s southeastern coast.
She added, “Maria said you stopped by last week. You need to get out, be around people, especially children.”
He smiled. “That’s good advice. Your daughter said the same thing, and she also told me that you’re someone I could talk to.”
Maria believed her mother’s powers were that of a therapist, seeing her as perceptive and insightful; not a fortune teller or phony psychic, but a true healer of the spirit. She had even encouraged her to get serious, get a psychology degree, and go legit with her own practice. Ruth had attended college for two years but found its secular outlook harmful.
Staring at his groceries, Mr. Scalish started a sentence and then stopped. Ruth waited, quiet, attentive.
“Maybe,” he said, “maybe I could come by your place and explain better, explain what I’m after.” He brought his hands into prayer, fingers pressed to his lips. “No, No, excuse me, I’m sorry. That doesn’t sound right.”
“John, you miss your wife.”
“Of course. But for heaven’s sake, I’m not being clear.”
“Yes, you are,” Ruth insisted. “You want to hear from your wife again.”
This stopped his apologies. Sadness made his shoulders slump and he looked down and scratched his temple thoughtfully. Ruth knew that even his attraction to her was on the backburner. He missed the ordinary time with his wife.
“Mornings were always our best time,” he admitted. “The phone hardly ever rang till later and, we had an agreement—no TV before nine. We were up at six; we’d have breakfast, maybe look at the paper, but it was nice and peaceful. And then we’d talk some—about our kids, the grandkids, going to the doctor. But it all came easy and then we were quiet again. Sometimes on the couch we’d both fall asleep, and that was nice too.”
“You want to hear her voice again. You believe I can help.”
“Yes,” he said, once again looking at his groceries. “That would be wonderful.”
“John, I get feelings, moods—ideas about people. But I don’t hear voices. Even if I did, you wouldn’t. I can’t broadcast them into the room, like turning on a radio.”
“But if you tried, and you heard my Josie say something, then you’d tell me. I just want to know that she’s all right. You see, I can’t protect her anymore, put my arms around her, make her settle down if something’s bothering her. ”
Ruth waited for the right words. No need to push, or feel panicked, the words always came.
“Here’s what I want you to do. I want you to get up early, like you and your wife did for years, ignore the phone, the TV, and take your nap on the couch. Think of your wife, even if it makes you sad. In your mind ask her questions. Don’t talk out loud. Keep your mind clear and maybe Josie’s voice will bubble up. Don’t force anything, and don’t feel bad if nothing happens at first. Something will. Do that for the next few months. And when you feel like it, come over and we’ll visit, have coffee. I like company.”
Ruth knew the outcome would be bittersweet. His diligence and love would bring Josie briefly to life, and her voice would ring true. A man like John Scalish would cherish that experience for the rest of his days.
A smile grew on his face. “Bless you, Ruth.”
“Oh, shit, don’t bless me. Bless Mary and all the saints.” She laughed yet knew that sadness weighed on everything in life. As Mr. Scalish pushed his cart toward the bread section, she thought of her own wounds: the loss of her husband Carl, her current, problem-filled affair with Sam, and of course, Nick Messina, who had entered her life for just minutes.
Making her way to the seafood counter, next to the wine aisle, Ruth found an empty display case and no one working there. She waved at a college-age kid who ran over, eager to be of service, disappearing into the back room for several filets of mahi-mahi.
When he returned Ruth stood on her toes to inspect the fish and watched him wrap it. He had just handed her the package when she glimpsed a dark figure standing at the end of the coffee aisle. It was Caesar: clean-shaven, wearing a dark-blue pinstripe suit. Hands in his pockets, he moved toward Ruth and she was tempted to ask the young worker to get the manager.
“I was hoping for a smile.” Caesar stopped in front of her cart. Underneath his full head of hair, dyed black, were bushy eyebrows, mostly gray, and fierce, but tired eyes.
“You need someone to put you out of your misery,” Ruth said, trying to muster the strength to deal with the aging hitman.
“All men deserve God’s mercy.”
“Then talk to God. You’ll get no comfort here.” She maneuvered her cart around him, looking straight ahead, her stomach tightening, acid attacking her throat.
“God’s not talking, but you’ll need to.”
“No way.” She passed him quickly.
“Luzzatto’s cleaning house,” he said calmly.
Several feet away she stopped the cart.
“House cleaning’s a big job,” he added. “We need to talk.”
She turned her head slightly, not making eye contact.
“Ruth, keep your calendar open. I’ll call soon.”
Grabbing a bottle of wine off the shelf, Caesar headed to checkout, while Ruth finished her shopping with a tangle of feelings that threatened to level her.
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