“Do you know where Vidalia Onions come from?”
“I’m sorry, what?”
The woman seems distracted as she rummages through the large dump bin of sweet onions I’ve just spent twenty minutes culling and rotating.
It’s a question I still ask most customers, but by and large they don’t seem to find such trivia as interesting as they once did. They’re certainly much more self-absorbed and in a hurry than they used to be. They don’t care that you can grow a hyrid tomato/potato plant because they’re both part of the nightshade family. Blank stares, that’s all you’ll get in return for a tasty morsel of knowledge like that these days. The senses of curiosity and wonder that I once found so endearing about these creatures is dead. They don’t even seem to like each other, anymore.
I decide to forge ahead, anyway.
“Vidalia, Georgia,” I tell her. “Vidalias are sweeter than your typical sweet onion because there’s less sulphur in the soil down there.”
She looks up at me for a moment with an expression I can only describe as a mixture of pity and annoyance. Her hair is a tangled mess, and there are dark circles beneath her eyes. “Oh, really?” she says. “That’s good to know.”
She doesn’t mean it. She can’t wait to get away from me. One polite, halfhearted smile later, she does just that.
A tug on my sleeve alerts me to the presence of a short, disheveled man with five o’ clock shadow and a T-Shirt commemorating a 2016 charity bicycle race. As he opens his mouth to speak, I already know what he’s going to say.
“Hey, where’s your cilantro?”
We’ve been out of cilantro all day, and its absence has not gone without notice.
“I’m sorry, sir,” I tell him, just as I’ve told dozens before him, “we’re currently out of Cilantro.”
He scrunches up his nose, processing this disappointing information. “How does that happen?”
“Supply issue,” I tell him.
He mumbles something to himself as he saunters off, his cutoff sweatpants making a faint swishing sound between his thighs. His flip-flops clap against the floor in the way that flip-flops invariably do.
I’m not bothered by his reaction. I’m downright pleased by it, truth be told, as it’s one of the more cordial responses I’ve received today.
He could’ve stormed off barking out false promises of never shopping here again, or worse, forced me to indulge and endure some ill-informed lecture about how to properly perform my job. He didn’t, though, and that’s good enough for me.
A pregnant woman parks her cart against the bunker opposite the wet rack and reaches towards the cilantro’s regular location. She pauses, looks up at the parsley, grabs a bunch, examines it and tosses it on top of the broccoli crowns on the lower shelf. She snatches up a bunch of Italian Parsley, examines it, sniffs it, shakes it, and discards it on top of the cabbage.
I suppose I should walk over and break the news that her search for cilantro is going to end in tragedy, but I don’t have the energy. I’ll let her come to me.
She sighs and paces the entire length of the wet rack twice before throwing her hands up in a spectacular showing of utter exasperation.
Here she comes.
“Sir,” she says, “am I just missing the cilantro? Maybe it’s right in front of my face, but I just can’t—”
“We’re out of Cilantro.”
There’s a long, awkward pause as she stares at me, trying to come to terms with what I’ve just told her. Shock, disbelief, and then…
“I was here last week and you didn’t have any then, either. Do you just not carry it anymore? What’s going on?”
I sigh. “Supply issue.”
There’s a “Gotcha” look on her face, now. Here it comes.
“I’ve been to two other stores today and they both had cilantro.”
Why didn’t you buy it at one of them?
“Different suppliers,” I tell her, and it’s clear she’s unsatisfied but this response. She asks if I’m even going to check in the back, but I assure her that it’s already been well-established that we have no cilantro in stock. She shakes her head and goes away, finally.
I finish stocking the last crate of peaches on my cart and glance at my watch. Almost break time.
A fat guy walks up, grabs a peach and starts squeezing it. “How come these peaches are so hard? Used to be they’d come in bigger too.”
People always complain about things being either too big or too small. If a bell pepper, for instance, is too small, it’s a value issue because they’re priced 68 cents each, regardless of size. If they’re too big, people will launch into a tirade about GMOs.
Ripeness preference is a divisive issue as well. If bananas are green, they want yellow. If bananas are yellow, they want green. If avocados are hard, they need them now and what am I supposed to do with this??? If they’re too soft, it’s these will be rotten by the time I use them. There is no pleasing everyone, as they say. A supermarket is a microcosm of the human experience in full. No one can agree on anything, and they’re all very passionate about issues of very little consequence.
Oh yeah, back to the guy who says the peaches are too small. Naturally, he’s not wearing a mask. None of them are anymore. I am, of course, because my employer requires it, but I’m only protecting them. They don’t know that my physiology is not susceptible to the same viruses that are sometimes deadly to humans. From their vantage point, I’m one of them, and I simply don’t matter.
“Quality fluctuates,” I tell him with a shrug. It’s fresh produce, you imbecile. It’s not a product that rolls off of an assembly line. You get what you get, sometimes.
The man grunts and picks up another peach. He furrows his brow and looks up, down, right and left. “Where are your bags?” He demands to know.
I point to a dispenser not five feet away. He groans and scuttles over to it, unrolls three and rips them off, discovers he’s got two bags he doesn’t need and tosses them on the floor. He loads up the remaining bag with peaches and gets another bag.
“Sir,” says a middle-aged behemoth of a woman who’s just rolled up on a mobility scooter, “can you tell me where your frozen pie crust is?”
“Aisle fourteen,” I tell her.
“Are you sure? I looked everywhere and couldn’t find it.”
I walk over to frozen, quickly locate a wide variety of pie crusts and wait for her to catch up on her scooter.
“Right here,” I say when she arrives.
She frowns. “Well I saw these, but I was looking for Pillsbury.”
But of course you were.
I find the crust’s empty location and inform her we’re out of it. I don’t feel like checking in back, because frozen’s bins are so cluttered one can scarcely find anything.
She glides away disappointed, and I head back to my cart so that I can clear it off before break. I slip on the discarded sacks on the floor and fall flat on my back.
The reaction is mixed—some laugh, some gasp. Only one person comes to my aid and helps me to my feet; asks if I’m alright.
I’ve never figured out how to initiate a relationship with a human woman, and in most cases, I don’t care to. Kelly’s different, though. I think I might even be in love with her.
She’s been working here for five years now, and seeing her is always the highlight of my day. Sometimes we break and even eat lunch together.
As I rise to my feet, her long, curly hair brushes against my face, and the olfactory senses of this vessel I’m housed within detect the rich, fruity scent of her shampoo.
I can see the concern in her eyes, even though her mask has fogged the lenses of her glasses. I miss her smile.
I could end all of this, so easily.
“You alright, Hal?” she asks me, and her voice is like a beautiful song to my auditory senses. My entire body relaxes and tingles. This effect she has upon me, it’s truly extraordinary.
“Oh, yeah,” I assure her with a self-deprecating chuckle. “Broke my tailbone, perhaps, but then again, humans don’t have tails so I think I’ll be alright.”
She laughs. “You crack me up, Hal.”
I love the sound of her laughter, especially when it’s prompted by something I’ve said.
“I’m about to head to my fifteen,” I tell her. “Would you care to join me?”
She glances at her watch. “Oh, wow, yeah, I didn’t know it was this late already. Time flies, I guess. Yeah, sure, let’s go.”
Her mask comes off when she sits down on one of the hard plastic chairs in the lounge, and I get to see her smile again. It’s all that matters to me in this moment.
We talk about frivolous, inconsequential things, but all I can think about is how I could end all of this at any time. This pandemic, that is.
With the exception of Kelly, I’m perfectly satisfied with sitting back and allowing humanity to thin its own herd. I don’t care anymore. I’ve had enough of these beings, especially after working in a grocery store for twenty years.
I want to intervene though, because of her. I want to save them all, just to save her.
I can’t do that, though. I can’t save this world and bask in the adoration that would inevitably accompany such a feat. I can’t risk exposure.
My people, you see, they don’t exactly know I’m here. When my mission failed, and I crashed my vessel, custom dictated I end my existence.
But I didn’t. I’m still here. The most intelligent sentient creature on the planet Earth, forced to toil away in the produce section of a grocery store that’s changed hands and names no less than three times during the course of my employment.
Managers speak to me as if I’m a child. Customers speak to me as if I’m some feeble-minded idiot who’s incapable of doing anything else for a living.
All of that would change if I stepped forward and announced my true identity to the world and backed it up with proof. Still, Earth communications were likely still closely monitored, and my people would know. I must remain in hiding.
“So what are you doing for Memorial Day?” she asks me, ripping open a bag of Funyuns.
“Oh, nothing much,” I say. “I’m not too big on holidays. I’ll be working, anyway.”
She laughs. “Yeah, me too. Do you even remember what it feels like to be a normal human being?”
I laugh, but not for the reasons she thinks. “No. Not at all.”
I’ve got to tell her.
“Kelly,” I begin, trailing off as my confidence fades.
“You’re talking to me, right?” she teases. “That is my name, last time I checked.”
I sigh. “Kelly, how would you like to come over for dinner Saturday?”
She seems disconcerted. I shouldn’t have asked. Now, things will be awkward.
“Okay,” she says, surprising, as humans sometimes say, the shit out of me.
The conversation shifts into a work-related gripe session for the rest of our break, but I’m elated. I’ve never felt this way before. I invited a beautiful woman to have dinner at my apartment, and she accepted.
And humans get this feeling all the time. The sense of personal validation alone borders on intoxication.
I’m on Cloud Nine (human slang I finally comprehend) the rest of my day, and when I arrive home to celebratory meowing from my cats Mookie and Pookie, I tell them all about it.
“Im going to tell her who I am. I’ve got to tell someone.”
“You’ve told us,” Mookie points out, licking his paw and brushing it downwards across his face. “Isn’t that enough?”
“Yes,” Pookie agrees as she leaps onto the countertop and rubs her face against me. “Why all this telling? The humans aren’t ready. You know that.”
“The two of you should understand why better than anyone,” I say. “Don’t you ever wish the humans knew you could speak?”
Mookie was on the countertop now too, his tail curled into the shape of a question mark. “Can you postpone this personal crisis until after dinner?”
“Oh, yes, of course. I’m sorry.” I grab a can of wet cat food from the pantry and pop the lid. Mookie and Pookie swarm me and meow demands.
“Feed us! Feed us now, human! Feed us! Come on! Just put the food in the—there you go. See? Was it that hard?”
They forget all about my issues as they lap up their chicken and liver classic pâté with all the vigor and enthusiasm of not having eaten in days.
I love these creatures, and I cherish the ability to communicate with them, but they can be downright silly, at times.
“You know the food is about to be dispensed,” I muse aloud. “Why make such a fuss even as I’m in the process of preparing it?”
They ignore me, as they always do when eating, and I retire to the couch with an apple and a delightful old human book I’ve borrowed from the library. I read often. My world never developed written languages, as we communicate telepathically, with our feelings, and have no need for them. Still, the artistry of these word books prompts me to suspect we’ve missed out on something terribly important.
Days pass by, and my Saturday night date with Kelly draws closer, accompanied by an intensifying sense of anticipation and—dread? Am I afraid?
Human bodies are weird. How is that I’ve not yet gotten used to living in one after so many decades? It’s not as if they’re overly complex creatures. They aren’t like the cats, or those friendly dolphins at the Zoo.
I’m still on Cloud Nine well into Thursday afternoon when a phone call annihilates my good mood.
“Honey, we’re just worried about you. We haven’t heard from you in months, and I know you’re out of pills by now. Hal you can’t stop taking those pills, alright?”
I hang up on her. We’re still out of Cilantro, and here comes some Karen to inquire about it.
“Where’s your cilantro?” she asks, and in my mind I’m screaming at her.
“I’m sorry. We’re out of cilantro.”
She stares at me.
I stare back.
This uncomfortable, silent exchange continues for what feels like quite some time before she sighs and says “That’s really weird. How does that even happen?”
I shrug and walk away. None of this matters, because my life is about to change for the better. I won’t let anyone dampen my spirits for long.
The big day finally arrives, and I spend all day meticulously cleaning and straightening my apartment before starting dinner. The cats refuse to stay off the countertop as I prepare the chicken piccata we’ll be dining on later this evening.
“She’ll be here in less than an hour,” I inform them. “Please behave.”
“I don’t like it,” says Mookie. “Not one bit.”
“Agreed,” said Pookie. “I don’t trust strangers. I think you should call the whole thing off and let us eat this chicken.” She inches towards the pan on top of the stove and leans down to sniff it with her little pink nose.
“Get down,” I shout at her.
“No!” She protests.
There’s a knock at the door, and both cats leap to the floor and flee to the bedroom for shelter.
I smile, shake my head and answer the door.
She looks lovely, as always, and a little different, too. That’s because she’s wearing a yellow sundress instead of the khaki pants and forest green polo shirt I’ve become accustomed to seeing her in, I realize.
We greet each other with an awkward hug, and I invite her into the living room. Dinner’s going to be another thirty minutes or so yet, I tell her.
She notices evidence of cats—catnip mice, a scratching post and of course, despite my best efforts to remove all traces of it, hair.
“How many cats do you have?”
“Two. Their names are Mookie and Pookie.”
“Aw,” she says, “that’s cute. I didn’t know you had cats.”
“You’re not allergic or anything, are you?” I ask, afraid of the answer.
“Oh, no, not at all. I love cats. My landlord doesn’t allow pets, but I grew up with cats. Where are they?”
“Hiding,” I say, loud enough for them to hear.
Kelly laughs. “I had a couple like that.”
We chat about work, shows we’ve been binging, books we’ve read, etc. She’s read quite a few books I’ve never heard of, but now intend to seek out.
Dinner is delicious, or so she tells me seven times throughout our candlelit meal. At one point Pookie comes out to nibble some kibble, regards Kelly skeptically and shoots back to the bedroom. She doesn’t speak, of course. She plays dumb, as is their custom when in the presence of humans.
After we each knock back two glasses of wine, the idea of confessing my identity to her becomes irresistibly appealing. I’ll finally have someone with whom to share my lifetime of lonely secrets.
“You’re not afraid to come over here?” I ask her. “You know, with the pandemic and all.”
“Nah,” she says, shaking her head. “You’re jabbed, right?”
“Yeah,” I tell her, then shake my head. “No. I mean, I’m protected. I can’t carry the virus.”
She gives me a funny grin. She’s expecting a punchline of some kind, but I have none. her grin falters. “What do you mean?”
Now or never.
I take a deep breath. I can do this. She’ll either believe me or think I’m crazy, but it’s not as if simply telling her could possibly make enough of an impact to garner the attention of the homeworld.
“I’ve actually been wanting to tell you this, Kelly, for a long time.”
She frowns. “You’re married?”
I laugh, but uncomfortably. “No, no. No, of course not. I’ll just um… I’ll just come right out and say it. I’m not who you think I am.”
“What’re you in witness protection or something?”
“No, but the principle is essentially the same. I don’t want to be found. I’m hiding.”
“From… from my people. I’m an alien.”
There’s a long pause, and then she breaks into a fit of laughter. “You’re so funny,” she says, slapping me on the arm.
I consider letting her believe I was joking, but I can’t. I have to tell someone. Really tell someone.
“You know about Roswell, don’t you? Area 51, all that stuff?”
She nods, and I can tell she’s already getting uncomfortable as I fail to laugh with her.
“Well, that was my ship. I crashed on this planet all the way back in 1947. I’ve been here ever since, working various jobs to sustain my human existence.”
She shakes her head. “I’m not sure where you’re going with this, Hal.”
At this point Mookie comes strutting into the kitchen. “I told you not to tell her,” he says with immense satisfaction. “Now look what you’ve done—you’ve freaked her out!”
“Shut up,” I snap at him. “Get out of here!”
Kelly frowns. “Aw, don’t be so mean to the poor little kitty, he probably wants food. Their bowls are empty.”
“He always wants food,” I say, “as evidenced by how fat he is.”
“How rude!” he meows.
“I told you to shut up and get out of here!”
“Fine,” he hisses, darting out of the kitchen, his twitching tail advertising his agitation.
“Anyway, as I was about to tell you,” I continue, “I’m not supposed to be here. I was supposed to kill myself, if you can believe that. Standard procedure in these cases. I don’t want to do that, so I eek out a living working at the store with you and keep a low profile. Only thing is, I’m watching all of these people die from Covid, and I could cure them. Don’t you understand? On board my vessel is a medical kit containing a nanoinjector. I used it to alter my DNA to appear human, but there were still a few hundred million of the tiny little buggers left. They can be programmed to self-replicate, enough to give everyone on Earth an injection. The only one I care about is you, though. I don’t care if everyone else dies. Human beings are awful. I used to believe otherwise but… and my people are awful, too. If I could get that kit, I could inject you and we could watch the whole world around us die, and then everything on it would be ours.”
I can see right away that I’ve said too much. She either thinks I’m crazy, or I’m taking an unfunny joke way too far. She can’t decide which.
Pookie re-enters the room. “Way to go, Romeo,” she says, and I throw a dinner roll at her.
“Go away!” I shout, and she screeches a litany of profanities at me and Kelly as she dashes into the hall like a bolt of orange lightning.
“Hal!” snaps Kelly. “What is wrong with you?”
What is wrong with you?
Look at him, I think he’s retarded or somethin’.
What’s wrong with him?
We’ll find out what’s wrong with you, honey.
What’s wrong with you?
What are you, some kinda retard?
Where’s your cilantro?
What’s wrong with you?
I slap my palms against the sides of my head and groan. I have no control over this outburst. This body, this human body, something is wrong with it. With its brain. Maybe if I could get to the ship and get the medical kit…
“Well you should’ve heard what she said about you!” I tell her, perfectly aware of how insane the words must sound. As far as Kelly is concerned, cats don’t talk.
“Hal, I think I need to lea—-”
There’s a knock at the door.
I run to investigate, peering through the peephole.
“Hal, open the door, sweetheart. Please. I’ve been very concerned about you.”
Kelly is trying to open the door. She’s afraid of me. This isn’t what I wanted at all. I seize her by the wrist and beg her to wait.
More knocking. “Hal!”
Kelly jerks loose of my grip and flings the door open.
There she is, my relentless pursuer, the one who, bafflingly, claims to have given birth to me. I’m not sure who she is or what she’s trying to accomplish, but I’ll be damned if I let her ruin this for me.
“Oh, hello,” says the old woman when she sees Kelly. “I didn’t realize Hal had company. I’m his mother.”
“And I’m leaving,” says Kelly, rushing past her.
“She’s not my mother!” I call after her, but she pretends not to hear.
I turn to the old woman. “Well, now you’ve done it.”
She smiles. “Come on, Hal. It’s been long enough. Time to come home.”