Eating Alone

Mary Filbert struggled to get out of her 1993 powder blue Chrysler Imperial, parked in the first available handicapped spot.  Her knees ached as she pushed herself from the leather seat and her thumb throbbed when pressed the button on the key fob to lock the doors.  Steadying herself against the light blue car, she shuffled her feet along the pavement and clutched her purse tight to her side.  She stopped and turned her face to the warm sun shining brightly in the early morning sky, took a deep breath and waited, allowing the rays to penetrate.  She closed her eyes and stood quietly.  After a short time, she opened her eyes and slowly turned toward the Kroger store. 
Mary’s Saturday morning journey to the Parker Street Kroger began more than a decade before.  What was once an enjoyable family responsibility is now a lonely, bitter chore.  There was a time when the grocery shopping represented well-planned Sunday dinners, weeknight family suppers and nutritious packed lunches for her husband, Mark and their only child, Phillip.  The grocery shopping was a duty that proved her value as a wife and mother.
When Phillip left for college, Mary and her husband continued the traditional of eating together each night but the conversation around the table often lagged.  At the end of the meal there were more leftovers than they could ever eat.  It took Mary five years to learn how to divide her recipes by a third but that was the year that Mark had his heart attack.  Mary didn’t need to cook for a month after the funeral; she had enough casseroles in her freezer to feed an army of families.  She thought it was odd to have this much food and have no one to eat it with. 
Standing only four foot, eight inches tall, and weighing just over one hundred pounds, Mary’s appearance was that of a small child.  She had always appeared 20 years younger than her actual age.  And no one in the neighborhood noticed that she was getting smaller with each passing week.
Mark died in October, the month of hibernation preparation in the neighborhood.  After the flood of casseroles and sympathy cards, everyone began their work preparing for the cold winter and Mary never saw anyone again.  Leaves were raked, doors winterized, gardens mulched and mowers were put away and in the midst of all the activity, no one noticed Mary’s decline. 
At first, Mary tried to live life as normally as possible.  She would fix a small roast.  She would spend an hour cutting potatoes and carrots, stirring together the tomato paste and red wine, and searing the Pot Roast perfectly before loading it all into the stove.  Several hours later, the table set, the roast on the table, she would slice the meat and serve herself a potato.  There was no conversation, only the sound of the clock on the wall and the living room TV filled the silence.  Her two mechanical companions offered the only company she would have that day.  The food was bland.  The meal was without purpose.  Without finishing the meat or potato, she scraped it into the trash and started cleaning the plate.
Each time it was the same; she told herself she had forgotten to add the salt or she assumed the quality of Kroger’s meat was declining.  In reality, Mary knew that the problem was not today’s pot roast, or yesterday’s roasted chicken, or Tuesday’s meatloaf, or any of the other meals she had prepared.  Mary knew the problem was the isolation and it was killing her.
So, that Saturday morning, when Tyler Pennington pulled into the Kroger parking lot and climbed out of his minivan, Mary surprised herself when words came out of her mouth.  He was walking quickly into the store and looking at his shopping list, unaware of her presence.  He jumped when this old, little, thin woman, shuffling slowly into the Kroger began to speak.
“This use to be my favorite time of the week,” Mary said dryly. “and now I just dread it.” Mary spoke as if in the middle of an ongoing discussion.  Tyler was at a loss for words. 
“Really?” he replied. Tyler tried to think where this conversation was headed but had missed the last two months of one-person dinners so was at a disadvantage. “Too many people in the store?”
Tyler’s pace slowed to match the old woman’s.
“No,” Mary looked down at her feet as they shuffled toward the automatic sliding door. “I just hate cooking for one.”
Tyler looked at the list in his hand, written by his wife the night before.  There was enough food on this list to feed all four of his family for two weeks.  He thought about his family’s dinners; the spilt milk, the containers of leftovers, his wife’s over-cooked chicken and rice casserole and the noise.  For a brief moment, Tyler thought about inviting this old woman to dinner.   Like a Christmas special on TV, he would walk in and announce to his wife that he had a surprise, his arm around the old lady.  His wife would be skeptical at first but the old woman would win them over with her love of the children and her ability to make chicken and rice that wasn’t the texture of cardboard.  She would make them happy and they would save her from her loneliness.
Tyler looked at the list in his hand again and said, “My grandmother had the same problem.  You never know how much to buy.”
Mary couldn’t remember how they parted.  She thought the young man’s pace picked up before they reached the door and he was gone.  Tyler experienced the same fade in memory.  He thought that the old woman’s pace seemed to slow when they arrived at the grocery carts or that he lost her in the produce section.  Whichever way it happened, they never saw one another again.