the book

I was in a San Francisco supermarket a couple blocks from my apartment, shopping for dinner. My years in Japan and my Chinese-American girlfriend had gotten me into the Asian habit of buying small amounts of groceries every day instead of loading up with a week's worth of food all at once. I hate shopping for anything except books and presents anyway, but markets are special. Market are unmitigated torture chambers. I'll do whatever I can to minimize my exposure to them. I'd dashed in for two chicken breasts, a head of broccoli, four Roma tomatoes, and a container of nonfat, plain yogurt. With luck, I would be on my way in five minutes.
     The store was almost empty, the tomatoes were firm, and the broccoli didn't smell like sulfur. I was striding gratefully toward the register when a woman turned the corner into the aisle and came at me with her cart. She was about ninety, dressed in a long flapper's coat and cloche hat straight out of The Great Gatsby. I had to do a sliding tango step to avoid her. She winced and smiled.
     "Excuse me," I said. I always apologize even when it's the other person's fault. I can't help it.
     "Oh, I'm sorry," she said. "I didn't see you." Her voice was young and impossibly feminine, like those recorded announcements played at airports. She hadn't seen me because she was using the cart as a walker, leaning all her weight on the handle, and her view was blocked by an enormous flowered carpetbag stuffed in the folding basket/seat. I was almost moved to tears by that purse and the wooden cane hooked over her forearm like a piece of emergency equipment. She was like an indomitable old mountaineer. The only items in her cart were two cans of mushrooms, a bottle of glass cleaner, and a stick of butter.
     I headed for the checkout again, but KSHH! There was a dramatic cymbal-crash behind me. I turned around. The old woman had smashed her cart into another old woman's cart, a head-on collision. The second old woman was identical--and I mean utterly identical--to the first old woman, with the same long coat, cloche hat, round glasses, cane, and giant purse. I thought they might be twins who lived together and needed two carts when they went shopping because they both used them like walkers, or maybe they had separate checking accounts and liked to keep the bills apart, but then the second old woman screamed, "WATCH WHERE YOU'RE GOING!" at the top of her lungs.
     "WHY SHOULD I?" the first old woman shot back, her well-modulated airport voice replaced by a nasal shriek that sounded amplified, like it was coming out of a bullhorn.
     I'd never heard old people scream full throttle like that. I could barely write the check for my groceries because I was choking down these whimpering, snoring grunts. My cheeks ached all the way around to the back of my head. I knew from the cashier's look that I was being very insensitive, but I couldn't stop. I was imagining the two women flinging their unearthly noises at muggers. They had to be the safest old ladies in San Francisco.
     I went home and told my girlfriend as we made our stir-fried garlic chicken and broccoli with brown rice in a yogurt-tomato sauce. She fell against the cabinet and slid down until she was sitting on the linoleum, howling and holding her stomach. For the next two years, she would screech, "Why should I?" if I asked her to do anything at all.
     When I go to supermarkets now, I sometimes think of her. I remember her braying laugh, and it's not so bad.

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