July #114 : Shopping With Alice

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July 2005

Shopping With Alice

By Richard Ferri

(Second Place, Hot Type Literary Contest, Fiction, Prize: $250)

Dan was standing at the end of the canned-vegetable aisle at the supermarket in Provincetown. It was a hot summer morning, and everyone was at the beach or still sleeping off last night’s transgressions. Dan picked up a can of lima beans and began to read the label. He closely examined the picture of the lima beans on the label. He started to cry.

Standing in the nearly empty store, Dan could not help but feel foolish, but he could not stop crying. He had just turned 25, was a mass of solid muscle, had a great job, and yet lima beans were making him bawl like a baby.

“Excuse me,” a small firm voice said, “but did those lima beans do something to you?”

Embarrassed, Dan turned to see a small slender white-haired woman in her seventies staring at him over her grocery cart.

“’Cause if they did I can talk to the store manager for you. Can’t have lima beans bringing a grown man like you to tears, can we?”

Dan almost attempted a smile. “No, that would send the universe off-kilter.”
“That is what I think, too.” The woman stuck out her hand. Dan took it. “I’m Alice.”

“Dan,” he replied as he gently shook her hand.

“Good, now that is over. Put those damn lima beans in my cart and help me finish shopping.”

Dan placed the can in Alice’s cart and followed her. “Now, I am going to get some peanut butter. Does peanut butter make you cry, too?”

Dan managed a smile this time and wiped his face. “I’ll be brave.”

“Good man,” Alice clipped back as she steered her cart up another aisle. “Let’s soldier on.”

Dan followed Alice since he could think of no reason not to. She was about five-foot-six and very thin. Her shock of white hair was cropped neatly around her face. Dan could tell she was an old-time Cape Codder who had weathered many a storm. Seeing a man crying in the canned-vegetable aisle did not throw her off balance at all.

Dan felt the need to explain. “I suppose you’re wondering what that was all about.”

Alice shrugged her shoulders as she picked up a jar of superchunk. “Not really. I’m a total stranger. You don’t owe me any explanation.”

Dan leaned closer to Alice. “Aren’t you at least curious?”

“Curious? Sure. I’m as curious as a room full of gay Republicans in a whorehouse.” Going past the peanut butter, Alice stopped in front of the pickle section. “Here’s a little life lesson for you, Dan. Never buy generic pickles. Those fuckers are limp and tasteless.”

“Point noted. No generic pickles.” Dan’s voice trembled, “You see, Alice, I’m gay.”

Alice just looked up into Dan’s eyes with her no-nonsense face and said, “Well, so am I. Guess we won’t have to worry about any Harold and Maude thing happening.”

Dan tried not to look surprised and Alice caught him.

“Even gay people age. You will age. Those muscles and perfect tan will both fade.”

Alice tossed some milk, cheese and chicken into her cart.

Dan’s mouth went very dry, but he decided he needed to tell someone. Anyone. “You see, Alice….” Dan paused as Alice examined some fillets. “I got my test results about an hour ago. I’m positive.”

Alice slowly shifted her head and looked at him. “So you go to a grocery store and cry over a can of lima beans?”

Dan just shrugged. “I didn’t know what else to do,” he said softly.
“OK, so now I have to ask: Why lima beans?”

“Honestly, I was just walking around in a daze, and when I saw them, they reminded me of damaged blood cells. You know how they’re kind of poufy and have a funny shape.”

“You think lima beans look like damaged blood cells?”

Dan just looked at her. “Is that all you’re going to talk about—lima beans? I just told you I tested positive!”

A tired-looking mother passed by, failing at keeping her child from grabbing packages of straws from the shelves and flinging one into Alice’s cart.

“Guess I needed straws,” Alice mumbled.

Dan’s face was becoming red. “Lima beans and straws!” He was nearly yelling now. “What about me?”

Alice looked up at Dan’s twisted face. “You will be fine. A man who tests positive then cries over a can of lima beans will get it together. When I tested positive, I got drunk. Drank a whole bottle of brandy.”

Alice continued to shop. Dan stood still.

“But Alice, how in the world can you be positive? You’re...” his voiced trailed off.
Alice finished the sentence for him. “I am old and a lesbian.”

“Look, Alice, I am sorry. My mind is just so damn fucked up right now.”

“Let me give it to you in a nutshell. I had a girlfriend for 30 years. After Mary died, I went into hibernation for five years. One day I told myself I had to snap out of it. So I started to go to the social events at the senior center. I met this man and he seemed nice enough. Very pleasant. He asked me out to dinner. Well, I had never dated a man before, but I figured what the hell. A new adventure, right? One thing led to another and we ended up in bed. I got infected. He left town. End of story.” Alice paused. “You know what really still pisses me about it? The sex was terrible.”

Dan let out a small laugh. “Yeah, the guy who I think infected me wasn’t that great in the sack, either.”

Alice did not miss a beat. “Yeah, but I bet you went to bed with strangers for a lousy gin and tonic.”

“Never!” Dan protested. “I only drink scotch.”

“Who knew I was speaking to such a class act?”

“Well, another life lesson. Go with quality and not quantity.”

“I never imagined that I would learn so much grocery shopping with a stranger.”

Dan grabbed the other end of the cart. “But how do you cope, Alice? I keep thinking of the things I have to do. People I have to tell. Decisions I have to make. I have this jumble of thoughts ricocheting in my head.”

“It will calm down. I know exactly what you’re talking about. It is overwhelming. But trust me on this: In a few weeks, you will be thinking a lot more clearly. The only thing you have to do now is nothing. Don’t tell anyone. Don’t make any treatment decisions. Don’t become a rodeo clown. Just let it all calm down.”
“That simple?”

“Look, Dan. In any of life’s rough situations there are basically three choices. First, is to deal with it. The second is to avoid it, and the third is to slash your wrists. I just don’t see you as a guy who believes in denial or someone fond of leaving this planet before your scheduled departure. So the only thing left is for you to cope.”

Dan looked at Alice and could feel a little relief creep into his head. This made sense. He found out he tested HIV positive less than two hours ago. Then he cried over a can of vegetables and met Alice. Things were already looking better.
“So what do I do now?”

Alice smiled. “Help me home with my groceries.”

They paid for the groceries and headed out to Alice’s car. Alice drove to the end of Miller Hill Road. Her house was the last one on the short street and it abutted the woods. It was small but solid. Just like Alice.

She pulled her car around to the back of the house and they got out. Dan carried the groceries and placed them down in Alice’s sunporch as Alice began looking for something in a closet. She pulled out a gun.

“Can you shoot a BB gun? Alice asked.

“Of course. I was a Boy Scout.”

“Good.” Alice fished in one of the grocery bags and found what she was looking for. She marched out to her backyard fence and placed the can of lima beans on a post.

“OK,” Alice shouted. “Shoot the damn beans!”

Dan took aim and with remarkable precision hit the can dead center four times. He put down the gun and smiled as Alice came walking up to him.

“So how do you feel?”


“Well, it’s the same thing with HIV. Got to take aim and fight.”

Alice and Dan went inside, opened a bottle of wine and started to make lunch.

HIV positive writer Richard Ferri is 49. His novel Confessions of a Male Nurse (Haworth) is out in September. 

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