(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.
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
“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.
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.”
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.”
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.”
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?”
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.”
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
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.
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?”
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!”
tired-looking mother passed by, failing at keeping her child from
grabbing packages of straws from the shelves and flinging one into
“Guess I needed straws,” Alice mumbled.
Dan’s face was becoming red. “Lima beans and straws!” He was nearly yelling now. “What about me?”
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.”
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.”
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.”
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?”
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.”
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.”
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
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.”
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!”
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.