That morning, at the grocery store we always went to in Front Royal, I saw one of the cashiers I hadn’t seen in a while. A tall woman about my age or maybe slightly older, she was standing in her aisle, supporting herself with a cane. I nodded and said hello as I walked by on the way to the produce section where I got garlic, an onion, four tomatoes, and two potatoes then turned left. I picked up a cheap jar of olives, then headed back down to the meat and poultry aisle to get ground turkey and some chorizo sausage. Circling around to the other side of the store, I picked up more milk and some creamer before turning up the aisle back toward the checkout lanes.
When I got back to the front of the store, the woman was still there, standing on the aisle down from her cash register. “Are you ready?” she asked.
“Yes,” I said.
“All right, I got you.”
As I put my groceries on conveyor belt, I noticed that it hurt for her just to move down the aisle to her register. “How are you feeling?” I asked.
“Well,” she said. “It’s just my second day back. You haven’t seen me around because I’ve been out since January when I had surgery on both my knees.”
“Oh my,” I said. “And now you have to stand all day again.”
“Yeah, it’s back to doing this.”
“Do you get a decent break where you can rest your knees?”
“Well, not really,” she said, and she went on to explain how after they did the surgery on her knees at Warren County Memorial Hospital in town she developed a blood clot that went up to her lungs. For that she had to go to INOVA Fairfax hospital, where she had to stay for a while, away from home and away from her husband who can’t drive.
“Oh no, that’s rough,” I said, knowing how depressed I would get if I had to spend so much time away from my wife Heather and my kids Maggie and Julien.
“Then, when I was back home after the clot, I was doing errands. Coming here for groceries as a matter of fact, when I fell coming out of the cab I took to get me here. I hit my head and had a concussion and hurt one of my knees again, which put me back in the hospital again.”
“Oh wow,” I said. “One thing after another. I hope things get a little easier from here on out.”
“Well, it is good that I’m back working, because now my husband can’t.” And she explained how her husband was working at a juice factory, but because he has COPD and because of whatever gets into the air at the juice factory he can’t work there anymore.
We talked for a while after she’d finished ringing up my groceries. I wished her luck, an easier time, disability benefits, a winning lottery ticket, and about a dozen other things before I went back to my car.
It was a beautiful spring morning. I had the windows rolled down and Miles Davis’s “Spanish Key” playing on the car stereo. It’s the sort of music that’s probably better suited for night time, driving through some busy part of a big city or else driving fast down some highway at three in the morning, but I turned it up anyway.
Back at our house in Front Royal, I brought the groceries in, then put the deep skillet on the front burner of the stove, added some cinnamon, cumin, nutmeg, and a couple of cloves, and turned it up to medium. On another skillet I added some olive oil, and put the chorizos on low. I sat down at the kitchen table, where I pulled apart a bulb of garlic, peeled it, and chopped it all up, then did the same thing to with an onion. When the aroma of the spices in the deep skillet began to waft through the kitchen air, I added olive oil, and threw in the garlic and onion and stirred it for a couple minutes. Then I took the ground turkey and stirred it in before taking the chorizos out of the other skillet and bringing them to the table and cutting them up. After adding those to the mix, I peeled the two potatoes, diced them, threw them into the skillet, then diced the tomatoes and threw them in, too. Last were the olives, two bay leaves, and a little more cinnamon. Then I covered the skillet, turned the heat down to low, and sat down at the computer to do some of the work I get paid for.
I knew that because Julien had his swimming lessons that evening, I wouldn’t get a chance to make this dish, picadillo, later in the day, which was why I cooked it in the morning. When Heather got home from her office in Rosslyn that afternoon, she and I could take Julien to his swimming lesson uptown. Maggie could stay at home and relax for a while and then just have dinner heated up for us when we returned.
When Heather, Julien, and I got back, the dining room table was set and the picadillo was heated up along with some rice I’d cooked right before we left for swimming. We ate dinner, then Heather helped Julien with his homework while Maggie went off to talk to one of her friends on the phone. I walked down the hall and into the parlor, which was where my old stereo with the turntable was set up, and saw that Maggie had two albums out that she was listening to while we were at Julien’s swimming lesson.
The first was Neil Young’s 1972 album Harvest. It’s not my favorite Neil Young record, but somehow it was the only one I had on vinyl there. The other record Maggie had out was the pianist Stanley Cowell’s 1974 solo record Musa: Ancestral Streams. This is one of those records that has followed me wherever I go. Many times “Abscretions,” Equipoise,” “Travellin’ Man” or some other tune from the album will start playing in my head. After hearing it there, I usually like to hear it for real, in the air, filling up a room with its intricate motions and delicate gestures. It’s why, if it’s at all possible, I don’t like to be very far from this record. There is, within its tones and melodies, a kind of magic—magic being something I’ve actually always depended upon. Because despite the often desperate climate of these times here in America—as well as so many instances in the past when I could have easily ceased to have faith in these things—I continue to believe that magic is the adjunct effect of action, and that the power or even the simple possibility of each of these must never be underestimated. In other words, despite the awfulness of any situation, I still believe that good things can be made to happen, and that pure pessimism is for assholes. At any rate, that’s what I always try to tell myself.
The next day, the cashier at the grocery store would again be on her feet all day. I’d be doing my easy work, taking breaks when I want and sitting down, eating well, hearing music in my head, driving, and sometimes panicking, worrying, despairing over all the things that will never get done. It’s not fair, it’s not equal, and I am never doing enough to remedy these situations and predicaments and I am always at a loss as to what I should do next. So I write another poem, another essay, another fragmented bit of remembrance. I keep on going even though my audience is small, I keep thinking even though my thoughts often go in circles, I keep breathing even though the spring air makes me sneeze and always reminds me that, for most people, living is something that is never fully comfortable. I’m good with that and with all the things that are beyond me. And sometimes, even though I am often reluctant to do so, I am happy just to speak to people.
Photograph by Jose Padua