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05/26/08: Issue 2

Empty Calories for the Soul
by Stephen L. Thompson

 

Felix Hamilton smashed the white box sitting on his kitchen table.  After a muttered curse, he opened his fist and took out a crumpled business card.

EARLIER

As Felix pulled into the Super Saver parking lot, the engine of his 1995 Manin Nickel squealed.  “Don’t mess with me today,” he shouted, rapping his knuckles on the dashboard.  His few plans, and wallet, had suffered when his battery died the day before.  

His stomach grumbled as he parked, making him curse Dr. Fincke for not allowing food into her precious lab.  Thanks to his adviser, every Thursday he had four classes in a row, then Dr. Fincke’s three-hour lab.

Walking through the automatic doors, he got out his list.  He only needed a few items, but his mother had always told him, “Never go shopping without a list; that way you never leave the store with things you don’t need.” She even gave him a Grocery List pad for his refrigerator.  He usually remembered what he needed and never bothered with a list, but on this night it helped to counter the brain-drain following Dr. Fincke’s lab.  “Never shop on an empty stomach,” he remembered his mother saying as his stomach growled.  “When you’re hungry, everything looks good.”

Inside scores of people waited in the checkout lines, and countless more trudged around the store.  I didn’t think it’d be this crowded, he said to himself.  He debated coming back on Friday, but all he had in his apartment were two slices of pizza.

With a groan he grabbed a cart and weaved around a dozen people to get to the chip section.  As he threw a bag of SuperBrand BBQ Chips into his cart, he heard a man and woman fighting in another aisle.  Each of them shouted, “It’s mine,” several times.  Curiosity got him and the other shoppers on tiptoe, even though they had no hope of seeing over the seven-foot-high shelves.  The argument ended as suddenly as it started, and Felix just shook his head and continued shopping

Eight cans of tomato soup, a loaf of white bread, a jar of crunchy peanut butter, a jar of grape jelly, a case of SuperBrand Cola, and a half-gallon of 2% milk soon followed the chips.  The only thing left on his list was cereal, and after grabbing a box of SuperBrand Breakfast Flakes he headed to the checkout.  Then he noticed two boxes.  In contrast to the multicolored packages bursting the shelves around them, these were plain white and sat alone.  In simple black letters were the words: The Meaning of Life.  Out of curiosity, he picked up one.  It was a little smaller than a typical cereal box and seemed empty.  He shook it and heard a faint rattle.  Hmmm, the Meaning of Life for only $5.99, he thought after he checked the price.

Just before he threw it in his cart, he realized he might not have enough money.  He started to put it back, but asked himself, What is the Meaning of Life?  After adding everything up he realized that to find out he would have to put something back.  The growling of his stomach reminded him he had more important things to do than stand in a supermarket holding a box.  “What the hell,” he said as he tossed it in his cart.  On his way back to the chip aisle, he saw Robyn.

Last semester in his Chemistry lecture she had sat two rows in front of him.  The first half of the semester he spent more time watching her than taking notes.  At a midterm study group he managed to talk to her, but only for a couple of minutes.  Afterward he could not remember what they talked about, and worried that he had made a fool of himself.  In the last half of the semester note-taking was forgotten.  He wanted to talk to her, but could never think of anything to say.  When it came time for the final he thought he would get to talk to her again, but she must have found another study group.  Since then he had seen her a few times, usually when he thought he was over her.  Should I say something? he thought as Robyn got closer.  Like what?  Hi, we were in a study group last semester, and I got a D because I spent all my time watching you instead of taking notes.  You want to go out this weekend?  Schmuck.

Robyn walked past him without recognition.  He stood for a few moments in her perfumed wake, silently cursing himself, before starting for the chips again.

After going a few feet, he heard another argument start behind him.  Robyn and an older woman were fighting over the last The Meaning of Life box.  When the lady won the tug-of-war Felix wondered, Should I give mine to Robyn?  That would be a way to start a conversation.  But before he could grab his box, he heard, “Excuse me.” They all turned to see an employee with a grocery cart full of The Meaning of Life boxes.

The employee handed one to Robyn, who snatched it from him and snapped, “Thank you.” She took a deep breath and with more civility told him, “Thank you,” again.

Both women walked past Felix without even glancing at him.  As the employee started restocking the self, he looked at Felix, shook his head and said, “What a nuthouse.”

“Yeah.” Felix checked his watch, and when he was about ten feet from the employee put the chips on the cereal shelf.

In the checkout line he wound up behind an elderly woman with twenty cans of cat food, and in front of a mother with a crying baby.  When he finally got to the cashier he was going to ask about The Meaning of Life, but a voice called his name.  Looking over the tabloid headlines of, “The Face of Jesus Seen in Jar of Mayonnaise,” and “Psychic Predictions for the New Year,” Felix saw who called him.  “Nick,” Felix faked a smile for his old roommate.  Felix’s parents had not believed all their son’s stories about Nick until Nick had his pre-Thanksgiving party.  It was a typical college party with beer, loud music, half-naked women, and a small fire.  The next semester Felix’s parents gave him the money for an off-campus apartment. 

Nick stopped on the other side of the tabloid rack and asked, “Hey man, you got plans tonight?  I’m havin’ a party.  I’m gettin’ all the chips and crap.”

Felix pretended to think for a moment before replying, “Sorry, can’t make it.  Tonight I have to deliver pizzas, study for an exam, blow my brains out.  Typical night.”

“Damn, I’ll be gettin’ drunk and hopin’ I don’t wake up with an ugly chick.”

After staring at Nick for a few seconds, Felix shooed him away with his hand and said with a forced laugh, “Go away.”

“Hey, you still workin’ at, ah …”

Felix faked another smile and answered, “Sal’s Pizza Palace.”

“Well, I’ll be seein’ you later tonight then.”

“I’ll just follow the fire trucks.”

Nick pointed at him and laughed.  He turned, took two steps, then let out a yell as if he was in a stadium and his team had just scored a touchdown.

Felix suppressed a shudder, then turned to the cashier.  She had rung up and packed everything, including The Meaning of Life box, without comment.  Felix wanted to ask, but the mother behind him was in no mood for a delay.  With eighty-seven cents in his wallet he started for the door.  Before he left, he saw Robyn hugging Nick.

*  *  *

Felix was on the verge of shouting, “Shut up,” to his stomach as he opened his apartment door.  He set his two bags of groceries and the case of cola on the table and after grabbing one of the pizza slices went back to his car.  He returned with his books, and a quieter stomach.  After dropping the books on his beanbag chair he saw there was a message on his machine.  Unfortunately, it was only his mother scolding him for never calling her.

While he heated up a can of soup he ate the last slice of pizza and put his groceries away, leaving The Meaning of Life box on the table.  He checked the soup, then sat down and opened the box.  Inside was a business card.  It read:

Thank you for participating in my gullibility study for my Marketing class,
and for helping me pay my college tuition.

-DA

 With his right hand he crumpled the card, then smashed in The Meaning of Life box.  After cursing whoever DA was, he opened his fist and smoothed out the card.  Why couldn’t I have thought of that?  He shook his head and chuckled.

He stuck the card to the refrigerator with a magnet.  With a smile, he took a pen and wrote on his Grocery List pad, Don’t get suckered!

The soup was finally hot, so Felix grabbed a spoon, opened his history textbook, and started eating out of the pot.

 

 

In the six or seven years since Stephen L. Thompson wrote his story, it has been rejected and failed to place in contests twelve times.  Apparently, the thirteenth time’s the charm.  To see his stories that have barely made it past the rejection stamp, you can check out his website at www.oneoveralpha.com.

 

   

 

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