I Met Death at the Patteson Drive Kroger

By Lori D'Angelo

 went to the Patteson Drive Kroger for Kleenex. I ended up in the pickle/olive aisle. I met a man who told me he could see my future, and it didn’t look good. I would die in twelve days.

He didn’t look like Death. You expect Death to wear a mask, carry a scythe.

This guy looked cute, like Jack on Will & Grace. He had short hair, a beanpole figure, a benevolent grin. He wore a brand name, perfectly tailored suit. He belonged in a fashion catalog, not a grocery store. The suit highlighted his nice ass.

It’s not like I expected to pick up a man in Kroger. I also didn’t expect a man in Kroger to tell me my number was up. I felt like a character in some bad B movie.

Finally, I did the logical thing. I asked the well-dressed Grim Reaper, “How do you know?”

“Your aura,” he replied.

“I don’t believe in those,” I said, clutching a Tostitos bag tightly.

“Just because you don’t believe in something doesn’t mean it isn’t true,” he said. “People thought the world was flat for centuries.”

Even though Mr. Doom was predicting my untimely demise before Valentine’s Day, I still thought he was hot. My best friend, Shelly, says I have awful taste in men. If I was really dying, what did I have to lose?

“So, what do you do after you break the news?” I asked him. “Do you stick around like a hospital chaplain, or are you a hit and run kind of guy?”

“After I tell people, they usually don’t want to keep talking.”

I felt sorry for the guy. He had a tough job, like the Ghost of Christmas Future. After-hours at the ghost lounge, I could imagine him drowning his sorrows in a gin and tonic and trying not to cry into his cape.

“Well,” I said, “I think you owe me dinner.” I ran my hand through my hair and then flipped it over my shoulder in an alluring way.

He seemed shocked. He paused, said, “We’re not supposed to fraternize.”

“With who?”

“Mortals.”

“You can’t just deliver that kind of news and walk away,” I argued. “And I want a nice dinner too. Like Madeleine’s or the Glasshouse Grille. Have you sampled the best of Morgantown cuisine?”

“I usually cook,” he said, pointing to his cart.

I batted my eyelashes and tried to look like a brunette, less ditsy version of Doris Day seducing Rock Hudson in Pillow Talk.

He paused.

If I really was dying, I reminded Mr. Misery, then I didn’t have much time.

“Gather ye rosebuds while ye may,” I said.

“Robert Herrick. Nice guy.”

Of course he knew him. Maybe he was crazy. Even so, he looked rich. He could afford to buy me a meal.

“Look, if the sand in my hourglass is running down, I’d better get my Kleenex and get home. According to your timetable, I have less than a fortnight.”

“A fortnight? Who uses that phrase these days, or did it make a recent comeback?”

“I’d better go. How ’bout dinner tomorrow? Is tomorrow good?”

“Well, I have an appointment—” he began, then stopped. Was somebody else going to kick the bucket tomorrow around dinnertime? Was it someone I knew? I didn’t ask. People died every day, I reminded myself. I could die any day. But I didn’t want to, not yet. I was only thirty-two. I hadn’t even begun saving up for retirement yet. And I certainly didn’t have a will.

If I died, I wondered, who would get my cacti? They’re prickly plants, but I had grown fond of them. The fact that they thrived under my care gave me hope. It made me believe that someday, I really could thrive as a mother-nurturer type.

But now, the cute guy in the Kroger was dashing those hopes. I felt like a kid holding a balloon that had just been popped by a nasty old man with a scythe.

“You have a way of sucking the nectar out of life,” I told him.

“Not the nectar, just the soul,” he corrected.

“I can do seven tomorrow,” he said. “It should be over by then.”

I didn’t ask what he meant by it. We agreed to meet at the most expensive restaurant on High Street.

“Have you been there?” I asked him, trying to act like this was a normal conversation. But he wasn’t playing along.

“Well, there was this one time, when this man was choking on his food,” he said. He picked up a jar of Greek olives. I wondered if he also liked hummus and feta cheese. Did he work abroad or was he only the reaper for the Mid-Atlantic region?

“Oh forget it,” I said. “Don’t tell me anymore. I don’t want to talk about death.”

“Well it’s kind of an all-consuming subject.”

“It doesn’t have to be,” I suggested. “Have you thought about trying to maintain a healthier home-life/work-life balance?”

“You’re not like most people I meet,” he said.

Suddenly, I wanted to get away from him. I wanted to get some 5,000 calorie chocolate ice cream. If I was really dying, screw the diet. Maybe I could also get some whipped cream, a waffle bowl, jimmies, and a maraschino cherry.

“I’ll see you tomorrow at seven,” I said. Then I walked over to the freezer section and picked up the ice cream. I left the Kroger without buying the Kleenex.

*   *   *

At dinner, I noticed that the host and the server shrank back from him.

I looked at him for some kind of explanation.

“I tend to frighten people,” he said.

“Not me.”

“No,” he agreed. “Not you.” He was observing me with amusement. He seemed to be growing fond of me. I wondered if it would be wrong of me to try to seduce him. Was the messenger of death a virgin?

He was wearing black. Yesterday, he had also worn black. It made sense that black might be his signature color. It fit the literature.

The conversation was awkward. How did you make small talk with a man whose job was to—actually what was his job? “You don’t, like, kill people or anything?” I asked too loudly. A middle-aged couple, who was clearly getting out for the big anniversary celebration, turned to look at me.

“She’s just kidding,” he said to the woman two tables over whose hair was bleached so blond it looked like straw. “She’s a writer; she has an overactive imagination.”

How did he know I was a writer? What else did he know? Did he know things I hadn’t told anyone like that I wanted to sleep with my dorky-looking high school math teacher, the priest at my church, or, who was I kidding, pretty much everyone?

“So do you go through training for this type of thing?” I asked him, deciding that it would be best not to inquire any further into what he knew about me. I couldn’t wait to tell Shelly about this guy. Without realizing it, I was humming the words to some Madonna song. “If I live to tell the secret, if I live to tell the tale.” He was laughing at me.

He leaned over into the table and said, “You know you’ve got a great sense of humor.” Hell, I wasn’t even trying to be alluring tonight, and this hot guy, who may or may not have been there to claim my soul, was checking me out.

*   *   *

We ordered a bottle of wine that cost at least $50, and I intended to take advantage of it. Besides, what was the worst that could happen? Death Dude, crazy or not, mortal or not, seemed to know all about me, including my place of birth, my parents’ names, my childhood nickname, and the fact that I had once fantasized what it would be like to do it with a horse.

“So tell me about your first death or your best death,” I said morosely.

“You are getting a kick out of this, aren’t you?” he said, but he was a little too detached. I sensed that his patience was wearing thin. He played with his tie. It was red, matched my dress. “Did you know what color dress I was going to be wearing—and did you try to coordinate?”

He studied me again. I couldn’t tell what he was thinking, but maybe he could tell what I was thinking. In that case, I might as well say it out loud, “Look, I’m not really keen on this death thing. But, you know, laughter is the best medicine.”

He asked if I wanted dessert. I said, “Hell, yeah” a little too coarsely, like some Gretchen Wilson-listening redneck. OK, I admit it. I do secretly listen to country music—sometimes, but I wouldn’t want my colleagues at the university to know about this. I teach a comp class, a business writing class, and, occasionally, when they throw a bone my way, intro to creative writing. “As a child, I qualified for the Johns Hopkins Talent Search. I was unusually bright. I can’t explain what happened. Things just went downhill.”

It’s not that I had failed at life. I mean I’m only thirty-two, but I wouldn’t exactly describe myself as successful. I didn’t have an Academy Award or a Pulitzer Prize or even a publication in a decent literary. Some of the writers I used to run with at the literary group at the library had moved onto other things by now—law, PR, marriage, children—but here I was still single holding onto the dream like someone in an afterschool special.

“Terri, your life’s not so bad,” he said. That was the first time he used my name, and it felt intimate. I knew then that I would sleep with him. It was inevitable. Sometimes you just sense things without being able to say how and, this time, I was right.

*   *   *

We went back to my place. Enmeshed in the sheets with Death, I couldn’t help but note that all his private parts seemed to be working fine. I wanted to ask why he couldn’t disappear—why he couldn’t just say to God or the angels or whoever was above him in the cosmic hierarchy, “Beam me up, Scottie.” He looked at me as we lay there screwing and said, “That would be kind of noticeable if someone just vanished into thin air like that, don’t you think?”

“I didn’t say that out loud, you know.”

“Sorry, I forgot.”

He was reading my mind. Sometimes I think it would be a relief to have someone know all the inappropriate stuff I thought about all the time, but not now.

“Can’t you turn your mind rays off or something?”

“I can’t promise, but I’ll try.”

How? I wanted to ask.

And he answered—and I thought, it’s a good thing that this is going to be a short-term relationship. Otherwise this mind-reading could get to be annoying. Instantly, I wanted to take back the thought. I hoped he hadn’t read it.

He looked like he was about to answer the questions I hadn’t asked but then he stopped. “Let’s try to confine ourselves to out-loud conversations.”

I wanted to say that I wasn’t the one with the problem but I just smiled. “Do you read body language too?”

“That,” he admitted, “I’m not so good at.”

“Perhaps it’s based on your limited experience with corporeal beings,” I suggested.

He laughed again and then he held me and we didn’t speak.

*   *   *

I did tell Shelly that I had met a guy, but I didn’t tell her that he told me he was Death and that I was dying. Unless a doctor could find something wrong with me, no one would believe me anyway. I scheduled a checkup for that week but then canceled it. If I was dying, did I want to spend any of my last moments in a doctor’s office?

I tried to keep morbid thoughts out of my mind as I related to Shelly how excited I was about what the hell was his name, I didn’t even know. Maybe it was Mr. Grim. He paid for our meal with a credit card so he had to have a name even if it was an alias. Maybe we had a kind of connection that went beyond his ability to read my mind. I tried to concentrate to see if I could conjure up his name. All I could think of was Jack from Will & Grace. That and John Donne. His “Mediation XVII” is all about death so it kind of made sense. I told Shelly that his name was John Grace and that he was a doctor. I mean if you think about it, death does cure all illnesses, right?

“When do I get to meet him?” Shelly squealed through the phone lines, and I thought about saying never, or when you get to the promised land, but I knew that would sound crazy so I said Thursday night.

I’d check with him later. He hadn’t given me a number, but I was sure he would call. Just as sure as I’d ever been of anything.

*   *   *

“Hey, how are you holding up?” he asked when he called me at work the next day. He was possibly immortal, more likely a psycho-stalker or an FBI agent. But I hadn’t done anything in my life to interest the government. Well, there was that one time when, after watching an X-Files marathon on FOX, I tried to break into some military base to look for UFOs, but I don’t think that really counts, do you?

“Is that supposed to be funny?” I asked.

“Yeah, sorry about that. Perhaps I could’ve chosen my words more carefully.”

“What’s your name anyway?” I asked.

He hesitated. “Which one?”

Of course, it would be complicated. Everything with him was. “The one on your passport, I guess. Or do you have more than one of those?” Maybe he was like a character from a Tom Clancy novel with multiple identities. Maybe he had an American name and a Russian name. Maybe in one picture he wore a suit and tie and was called something like—

*   *   *

            “John Grace,” he said, and I was dumbfounded.

“Seriously?”

“Yeah.”

I wondered if he knew that was what I had told Shelly. Or maybe he could only read my mind when we were face to face.

“I’m thinking about purchasing life insurance,” I informed him. “Do you think they have a rush plan?”

He said my name, Terri, soft and sweet, and I realized that I was falling in love with him.

“What’s it like not to have to face death?”

“You really want to know?” he asked.

He began to tell me. Some let go easily, and some clung to life with every ounce of strength. He tried to tell them sometimes that this really isn’t the end, but they don’t believe him. Some of them can’t believe that there is a heaven or anything better than life with their husbands and wives and sons and daughters, and some had had lives so hard that they couldn’t wait to get away.

I thought of a prayer I had heard at funerals: “Eternal life grant to them, oh God, and may perpetual light shine upon them.”

It occurred to me that those words might be said about me; well, they would be said about me, sooner than I wanted.

He offered to help me face—what?—himself. “It’s not easy sometimes,” he said. I wondered if his supervisors knew about the time he was spending with me. I wondered if he was neglecting other duties. Were there people who should have been dying but weren’t, or did some people die without knowing what was coming?

“Have there been others like me?” I asked him. He asked me to clarify. He probably didn’t realize that I had begun to pick up some of his thoughts too. He thought of a girl, my age, maybe younger. Hundreds, maybe thousands of years ago, he had loved her. The affair had been brief, given his position, but he hadn’t been able to let her go. In his thoughts, she looked medieval, maybe Puritan. I knew that he thought about her still, and now he thought he would think about me too. I wondered for a moment if it would be kinder for me to break things off with him. Then I realized how lonely things were for him. Maybe I could be selfless for once, earn some brownie points in the great hereafter, use these last days to help him make it through the next hundred years. Even if he thought he was getting away with something, maybe he wasn’t. Maybe this was all part of some grand plan. Of course, I had free will and all. I could choose and so I did.

“Meet me tonight,” I said.

*   *   *

            He met me by the meters on the rail trail down by the river. The guidelines for when to pay were scratched off. We chitchatted about how not even God could get a ticket pardoned from the Morgantown Parking Authority. “Let’s play it safe,” he said and fed both our meters with new-looking quarters.

“Where’d you get those?” I asked, “The Immortal Treasury?”

“BB&T,” he said.

“Oh,” I said and took his hand.

*   *   *

The next night I invited Shelly and John over for dinner. They both arrived at the same time. I had a floor in some crappy house on Dorsey that had been converted, rather badly I might add, into a multi-unit dwelling. Above me lived a PhD student and her fiancé—they tried to make love quietly and failed. She wore thick glasses and looked shy when I passed her in the crumbling stairwell, but I had heard the way she screamed in the throes of passion; and when I saw her on the stairs with her cheap clothes and thick glasses, I couldn’t forget those noises. Below me lived a quiet bachelor with Einstein hair who was tenured in some science subject I would never grasp. At the mention of atoms and microbes, I stopped paying attention. But now I wished I had listened more closely to that Sherlock Holmes-type man with his smoldering pipes and shoulder-padded jackets. Maybe science holds the answers. Certainly, I hadn’t found them elsewhere.

When I heard the knocking, I wondered who had arrived first. If it was John, I’d have to prep him for Shelly—about how she was red-haired and could be blunt. I’d tell him how she’d look at me, especially after I’d said something especially fanciful, and ask, “Terri, are you crazy?” But she was a great sidekick, the kind everyone needs, the kind who appears on prime time dramas with wise-cracking advice and a shoulder upon which to cry.

Shelly was grounded. She would never have sex with a man she’d met in a Kroger especially if he’d told her that he could read her aura and—but I wasn’t going to dwell on that. I was determined to keep on the sunny side. In honor of that, I’d visited the new Kroger, the one out past Office Depot near the Mileground and had gotten a bottle of good wine.

In the entryway, I saw Shelly and John and felt both relieved and nervous. Now I wouldn’t have to prep Shelly on John or John on Shelly, but that also meant I couldn’t influence the interaction between them. Some things, I thought, are beyond my control, and that lack of control drives me crazy. John thought (and it was freaking me out that I could read his mind like this) that Shelly was nosy. She’d already asked him what he did for a living, and I hoped he would say a doctor like I’d told her.

“So, hi,” Shelly said.

“So, hi,” I responded but I was looking at John.

She said, “I thought you said he was a doctor.”

He’d told her lawyer, I realized.

“Oh, lawyer. Did I say doctor? I meant lawyer.”

“Which firm does he work for?” she asked. “Is it one of the ones downtown?”

“No, it’s in Fairmont,” he said. Fairmont, nice, I thought. He may as well have said the moon. Most people from Morgantown only went to Fairmont if they were taking classes at Fairmont State University or if their car dealership was there. Of course, some people lived there and commuted. Housing was cheaper there, but with the price of gas these days, I wondered if those people were really saving any money.

Shelly persisted as they stood there, and I finally said, “Hey, come in, sit down.”

Inside my old apartment, she continued grilling John: “What firm do you work for?”

John gave the name of real-sounding law firm. I wondered how elaborate this whole secret identity was. Maybe he really worked there, had a day job, for security purposes or at least a plausible fake job like the people who built the Greenbrier bunker.

As Shelly asked John twenty thousand questions, John handled me a paper bag. In it was a bottle of wine that was at least five times more expensive than the one I’d bought. I looked at him, wondered where he’d gotten it. Slight Indulgence, he said mentally. It was nice and weird communicating with him like this.

Shelly plopped herself down on the couch in front of the TV, switched it on. She liked to come over because I had better cable than she did. I had HBO, the whole nine yards. She had crappy basic. Shelly was one of those people who complained that everything was a waste of money, but she didn’t mind if you wasted your money and she benefited. Still, she had a good soul, I thought. I wondered if John would agree.

John purposely chose the other side of the couch to give me room to sit between them.

Suddenly I felt a sharp pain in my right shoulder. It was nothing, I told myself. I’d carried a heavy shoulder bag the other day. I should have used a backpack or Roller Board.

John knew about the pain, I realized, because he looked at me with such concern that I felt embarrassed, even though Shelly didn’t know what was going on. She’d never been that observant. “Let’s go in the kitchen,” he said. For Shelly’s benefit, he added, “I can help with the salad.”

“Well, isn’t he handy?” Shelly commented sounding a little jealous.

He knew I was making a salad; of course he knew. He knew everything.

In the kitchen, he got some ice from the freezer. I didn’t have an ice pack; I would have told him, but he knew that too. He wrapped the ice in a Ziploc bag.

I let him put the ice on my shoulder, hold it there.

“I’m not going to die of this, am I?” he asked.

“Sometimes—” he began.

“It’s better not to know,” I finished.

Though this was his job, he didn’t usually feel this kind of connection with mortals, with women, Puritan girl aside. I wanted to ask him about her but didn’t. He would probably think about her again and then I’d know.

Instead, I asked, “Were you ever human?”

He tried to think of how to answer. What he wanted to tell me was that he understood the meaning of loss and didn’t want to lose me. What he said was, “No, I was never human.” I felt the ice against my skin as he held it under my shirt.

“But have you been human since childhood? Did you go to school with other kids, live a full fake human life, or have you always been this age?” This cute, I thought, but didn’t say. I tried to ignore the pain in my shoulder.

“You really want to know, don’t you?” he asked, and I nodded and he told me that he’d spent a lot of time in Baltimore, known Poe, saw his death unfold. “That was a rough one,” he muttered, and I sensed pain and relief that he was finally able to tell these stories to someone. He drifted away to people who were distant and dead, and then he remembered me and my shoulder.

“Can you hold this there?” he asked. He got out the cutting board, began chopping. Got out the saucepan, reached into the cabinet for the Ragú sauce.

“I can cook,” I said.

“Go sit with Shelly,” he said. He was thinking of how little time I had, that I would want to spend it with my friend. I was thinking of some corny oldies song, “Precious and Few.”

“Or, if you want to, stay,” he said.

I didn’t point out that it was my kitchen. Instead, I reached for the pasta box. The water was boiling. I dumped too much rotini in.

He got out some tumblers, poured some whiskey.

“This should help,” he said. He knew my shoulder was still hurting, and he knew that I was scared.

I clinked my glass against his, took a swig and then kissed him. We were too close to the oven, so he backed me up until we were against the sink.

“Terri—” He wanted to say something comforting but couldn’t think of the right words.

“We have to watch the pasta,” I said, “and the sauce, so it doesn’t boil over.”

“But later,” he said, “I’ll stay.”

 *   *   *

The next day, the first class I taught wasn’t until noon. Usually, I got up early and used the morning hours to write. But that morning, I didn’t want to leave my bed and John. And besides, in sleep, my shoulder hurt less. John knew I was in a lot of pain. At 6:30, he offered to run to Kroger, our place, he joked, and get me some Icy Hot.

“I’m okay,” I said, “really.”

But he could read my thoughts so he insisted on going. He threw on yesterday’s black sweater and jeans over his day-old underwear.

“I’ll be back in a jiffy,” he said.

“If only you could do the Star Trek thing,” I joked.

“Yeah,” he said, but he looked really worried.

He returned with Icy Hot, my favorite Starbucks latte, and some pain meds.

“This is prescription,” I said.

“You’re going to need it.”

What am I dying of? I wondered.

“Do you really want to know?” he asked.

I sat up in bed but didn’t answer. He knew that I both did and didn’t.

He opened the Icy Hot, told me to turn.

“You might want to cancel your classes today.”

I thought about arguing but didn’t. The pain was shooting, spreading. I called the department office, said I was sick.

“Will you take me?” I asked after I’d hung up.

“Where?” he asked, and I wondered why he didn’t just read my mind. Or maybe he knew and didn’t want to acknowledge.

“To the ER,” I said. “I want to see if I can beat this.”

“Okay,” he agreed, and I tried not to read his mind. I knew he thought it was hopeless.

“John, let’s just go anyway because then maybe we can…”

“Oh shh,” he said. He looked like he was about to cry so I leaned over and kissed him.

*   *   *

            At the hospital, John was furious.

“It’s not muscle pain,” he said conferring with the doctors. If that was the case, I wondered why the Icy Hot? Maybe to comfort me? “Do an X-ray, okay? Or a CAT scan.”

Finally, I asked him to tell me what it was, and he did. “Look, it’s stage IV non-small cell lung cancer. The tumors can push against nerves in the shoulder and cause pain. Do you want to stay here?” he asked me.

I said I did. I wanted the X-ray, proof, though I knew he wasn’t lying or crazy.

“But you’re—” he began, and I knew what he was thinking, that I was wasting a day we could be spending together. “It’s going to get—” I knew what he was going to say, almost all of it, except the last part. It was going to get a lot worse. It was going to be horrible. The last thing was this: “I didn’t expect to love you.”

I knew he felt really bad. He didn’t want this for me, and, even in his reaper role, he couldn’t stop it. So I tried to comfort him. “Look, we can leave in a little while. We can pick up dinner, go back to my place or yours. I’m off from teaching tomorrow, so we can catch a late movie, take a drive, look at the night sky, whatever you’ve always wanted to do or whatever you did five centuries ago and loved, or maybe there’s something that you didn’t want to do alone?”

He knew what I was doing and smiled. “I’m supposed to be comforting you,” he said, and I looked at him standing there amid all the sick and dying, feeling the weight of their mourning. He was just hot and cute and sad. He worried about the things he couldn’t control, just like I did.

“You know, death really isn’t all that comforting. Even when it’s you. But here’s the thing. I love you too. I love you anyway. So let’s get this over with and go home.”

He nodded and I knew he would stay with me to the end. I loved him for that. I didn’t ask and he didn’t tell me what my last moments would be like. Instead, I thought about Puritan girl, wondered if he had loved her a lot.

John put his hand on my throbbing shoulder, and it still hurt just as bad. But I was glad to feel his hand, his flesh against my flesh.

___

Lori D’Angelo graduated from Northwestern University and received her MFA from West Virginia University. In the past, she has worked as a journalist. Now, she works as a college writing instructor. When she’s not reading or writing, she enjoys spending time with her husband, son, dogs, and cat. She also enjoys watching Steelers football.

Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Connotation Press, dirtcakes, Drunken Boat, Hamilton Stone Review, Heavy Feather Review, Literary Mama, The New Verse News, Pequin, Praxis, r.kv.r.y., Spittoon, Stirring: A Literary Collection, Stone’s Throw Magazine, and Word Riot.


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