He is wearing a Bluetooth headset, and he rarely speaks other than to murmur or hum the occasional notes we play every eighth measure or so of a conversation in which we are the listener and want to reassure the speaker that we are still attentive. Little nothings. I assume a person is unreeling a long narrative to him at the other end—or rather, not the end, because that would imply “of the line,” as if they are connected by copper as in past ages. The speaker is somewhere distant in a vast nonlinear universe of invisible vibrations.
We are in the Kroger, each of us walking slowly up and down aisles under the harsh fluorescence that is part of the modern food experience. I push a cart and check a list. He stops now and then to consider a product, seemingly at random. He examines several boxes of Stovetop Stuffing, turning them as if to read the cooking directions and nutritional information. But he doesn’t choose a box. He reshelves them and walks on empty handed. He examines other products with the same sense of absorption and with the same result.
I wonder if there is actually anyone speaking to him. He seems, suddenly, too absorbed, too connected, as if he is engaged in the sort of mute but meaningful interaction that we would all very much like to participate in but rarely find. Something important is happening, and he is attuned to it. I decide he’s faking it, and then I immediately recognize my mistake. There may be no one speaking to him, but he is nonetheless engaged. He is a man performing a mundane chore and has created for himself a context of meaning, or the feeling of being in the presence of meaning.
Our paths cross several times—in the international section, the home products aisle, the bakery, and the cold dairy space at the far end of the store. He remains absorbed. I have filled my cart, and he now holds a bag of hamburger buns and a package of cheese. We check out at aisles next to each other. The cashier asks me if I found everything OK. I want to say yes, of course, that’s why I’m here, ready to check out, but I say only yes thanks and hand her my shopping bags so the bagger doesn’t begin putting my food in plastic. I ask if it’s time for me to put my loyal shopper information into the keypad, and she says um hmm, meaning yes, of course. I punch numbers on the keypad, bothered by the rubber walls meant to protect my codes, but the information doesn’t make it to the cashier’s screen and she says, oh, smiles, and says try it now, and I do, and my loyalty status appears on the screen and she says there we go. Meanwhile, at the aisle beside mine, which I am now facing, the connected man is staring above the head of his cashier and across the store, the way that a friend I knew long ago in high school would do at parties. His cashier asks him to swipe his card, and he is mildly startled by this distraction from what he listens to, smiles, then takes care of his chore and retreats inward again.
I follow him out of the store and into the parking lot, where the cars and the shoppers communicate their intention with motion. A young man in a black SUV proceeds slowly but without any indication of stopping, and an elderly woman whose path would have taken her in front of it, and who by rights, I think, should have the right of way, stops and walks around the back of the vehicle, but several yards ahead of her a younger woman, dragging a child with one hand and holding three plastic bags in another, walks in front of the car without bestowing a glance at it, daring it to mess with her, and it stops for a moment. Further ahead, another woman, pushing a shopping cart with both hands and with her child walking shyly beside her, waits for a car that has clearly stopped to let her pass. The elderly man who is driving smiles and gestures for her to go. Beside him sits an elderly woman who I assume is his wife. The woman with the cart waits and ignores them, refusing to look at them, daring them in her own way.
The attentive man has ambled to his car, a Camry about ten years old, one hubcap missing but otherwise intact. As he extricates his keys he looks across the plain of parked cars, shoppers, children, oil stains, refuse, artificially red mulch around small tress at corners, the iHOP and Texas Roadhouse across the street, and the interstate just beyond, still listening, still not speaking, still engaged and present and simultaneously absent. He seems almost Buddha-like, with his sense of detached engagement. It’s an open question as to whether he is silly or enviable. It may be that a person is, in fact, continuing a long and meaningful monologue to which he listens, or it may not be a person, it may be something else, or simply music, or nothing at all, if there is such a thing, but he listens, or he appears to listen.
These are the sorts of things that happened in the days when we went to grocery stores in a different state of mind.