A Chance Encounter by Judith A. Lawrence


                     (Taken from: Uncharted Territories (a collection of short stories)

          Damn. She did it again--took off food shopping without her list. It was sitting there right next to her keys on the entry table. And still she overlooked it. She was so forgetful lately. Old age was difficult enough without forgetting where she left her teeth and two hours later finding them in the refrigerator. What was the use of living this long after all?
          When Alice turned eighty it seemed as if her thought processes mixed the past and the present in a prickly ball and spit out a confusing tangle of signals but one thing she wasn’t giving up was driving her car.
          Well at least she hadn’t missed that third turn again and was headed in the right direction to Walmart. This time she would write down which parking row she was on and tuck it in her sweater pocket along with her keys that jangled.
          Four drivers behind her steadily beeped their horns. She stuck out her arm and pointed with her bony fingers to the mileage sign to the right. It said forty miles. She was doing thirty-five. That was good enough. She gave them the finger except her middle finger was locked in a hooked position. She wasn’t sure what a hooked finger indicated.
          The lane on the left of her opened up. The cars behind her moved to the left and roared past her as if they were in the Daytona 500 races. The light changed behind her so she had a minute or two to ride undisturbed before the next line of cars caught up. She would make it to her turn in another two blocks. It was usually smooth sailing after that.
          She slid a cd into the slot and played a Patsy Cline album skipping to the third song “Crazy” singing at the top of her lungs along with her favorite country western singer.
          For years people told her if they closed their eyes when she sang Patsy’s songs it was easy to believe Patsy was right there singing in front of them instead of entertaining folks in heaven.
          Every time she listened to Patsy she remembered meeting Fred, the love of her life, at a church dance. The first tune the Jockey played was Patsy’s “Sweet Dreams.”
          Fred hurried toward her almost knocking her over in his rush. He had a terrific smile and knew his way around the dance floor. From the get-go they fit each other like peas in a pod and rarely spent a day apart for almost fifty-six years.
          When Fred died Alice felt he was still beside her in his own way. The smell of his after shave lotion still lingered on the clothes hanging in their bedroom closet. She could not bring herself to deposit them at the local thrift store.
          She still slept on her side of the bed and spoke to him of her plans for the day while she drank her morning coffee, read the local paper front page news out loud to him, and sometimes while driving in the car she laughed at things she remembered him saying as if he was still sitting there next to her.

          After four spins around the Walmart parking lot she pulled into a spot about twelve cars from the front entrance, jotted down the row number and shoved it in her pocket. She grabbed her bag and stepped out of the car slamming the locked door shut.
          On the way into the store a younger woman rushed around her to the row of carts, pulled one out of the line and stopped right in front of Alice in order to answer her cell phone. Alice tapped the thoughtless woman’s heels with her cart at once apologizing, “So sorry, I thought you were moving,” as she steered her cart around her.
          Without her list it was necessary to go up and down each isle hoping she would remember what she wrote down. In no time she filled the cart albeit with a few unhealthy items that attracted her sweet tooth.
          At the check-out counter she did a fast math count of the items and hoped she didn’t go over her weekly budget. Just ten dollars over her limit, she would need to give up this week’s breakfast at the café. She headed toward the exit.
          The cart checker standing guard in her uniform carefully checked the cart before hers but waved her on. She supposed she didn’t look the part of a thief.
          As people were coming in the automatic sliding exit door she shifted to the entrance door only to be confronted with a group of people coming in. Pushing the cart back to the exit door again there was a crowd of people filling the area arguing over which movie to select from Redbox.
          “Excuse me,” she said regally.
          The group parted with obvious indignation.
          As she approached her car Alice dug into her sweater pocket for the slip of paper with the number of the parking row she was parked at and felt for her keys panicking. No keys jingled in her pockets.
          By the time she reached her car she sat her pocketbook on the trunk lid, dumped everything from her bag and still no keys. She went to the passenger side of the car and peered in. Sure enough there were the keys dangling from the ignition switch.
          “You old fool,” she exploded. “With a cart full of groceries, what are you going to do now?”
          A scruffy young man with a ponytail sauntered up to her. “Can you spare some change?”
          “I’m afraid not,” she said. “If you can help me get into my car, I have some change in my cup well.”
          The young man looked nervously around.
          “See. There’s my keys. I left them in the car.” She pointed.
          He reached down in his boot and pulled out a Slim Jim. “I might be able to use this,” he said.
          Alice was a bit startled that he carried such a tool in his boot but she was in a pickle and had no money to call a locksmith. People were coming and going, not paying attention to them, and her meats and dairy products in the cart were exposed to the very warm Florida weather.
          “Yes, please try,” she said.
          After a few tries he had it open. He even came around to help her load the food in the trunk. As she closed the trunk he slipped in the driver’s seat. She thought he was removing the change from the cup but it was obvious he was going to drive away with her car.
          She quickly slid in the back seat and slammed the door.
          “Get out!” He ordered.
          “No, I won’t get out,” she replied, her heart rattling in her throat.
          “I don’t want to hurt you.”
          “Well then don’t. This is my car. It’s an old car. Why on earth would you pick this one to steal?”
          “Bad luck and convenience,” he snorted.
          “It’s not convenient to me. You’re stealing an old lady’s car and food. What kind of thoughtless young man are you?”
          “Lady, I don’t want to hear it. I have no home, job, money or food. I think I’m a bit worse off than you.”
          “I doubt that.” You’re not old, sickly, alone, living in a shoebox apartment and having your car and food stolen from you.”
          “Sorry about that. But I’m desperate.”
          “You’re going to need tires, a battery, likely a starter, and brakes, just so you know.”
          “I’ll take my chances.”
          “Where are we going?”
          “If you promise to keep quiet I’ll drop you off at your house and leave your groceries with you. I’ll need your car for about a month to find a job. If I find a job or a better car before the month is out I’ll park it in front of your place with the key under the mat. What’s your address?”
          Alice’s options were limited at the moment so she gave him her address with directions.
          Do you live alone?
          Alice hesitated. Normally forthright she answered truthfully. “Yes, alone.”
          Fifteen minutes later they pulled up in front of her house.
          Alice looked around for neighbors but none were out. Usually they were out gossiping. Must be their day off she scoffed. She was hoping someone would see the young man with her in case he decided to oft her.
          He helped her with her bags in the trunk easily lugging all six bags at once. She turned the lock in her apartment door and entered half expecting a thud on her noggin from the young man behind her.
          As she placed freezer and dairy products in the refrigerator he searched around her apartment, checking drawers and closets for valuables, finding none. Alice had long ago sold her jewelry for rent, food, and gas. Her apartment was full of used furniture with nothing worthwhile to sell.
          She thought of running out of her place but was too slow with her bad knees. He would surely catch her before she got out the door.
          “Are you satisfied?” She scolded. “Look at the mess you left going through my things.”
          “Believe me I was not thrilled to be going through your underwear.”
          The young man did a quick check in her freezer. Old people often kept jewelry in their freezer but found nothing there other than freezer burned meat along with the fresh meats she just added.
          He was heading out but stopped in the dining area to look at a dessert in a domed cake dish in the center of the table.
          “What kind of cake is that?”
          “It’s Jewish apple cake. Would you like some?
          He raised his eyebrow. “If you don’t mind.”
          She placed a mismatched thrift store plate in front of him and cut a generous slice along with a glass of milk.
          He ate the cake as if it was his last meal and drank the milk down in one long gulp.
          Though she never raised a child watching him eat brought out her motherly instincts.
          “Would you like a ham and cheese sandwich?”
          He looked toward the door as if he wanted to sprint out. Instead he nodded. “I’ll take it with me and another piece of cake if you can spare it.”
          The whistle from the teapot on the stove startled him and he jumped up from his chair.
          “I’m having a cup of cranberry tea,” she said. “Would you like to join me?”
          “I don’t usually drink tea. I probably wouldn’t like it.”
          “Well taste it and see.” She poured two cups.
          As he was politely drinking she asked, “Do you have family?”
          He reached for the lunch bag she prepared and began eating his sandwich followed with the extra slice of apple cake.
          He seemed to be thinking about what to tell her and suddenly responded with a defensive tone. “No. My lousy parents abandoned me when I was six years old. Don’t know what happened to them. I was raised in a boy’s home. It sucked. I ran away when I was fourteen. I’ve made my way doing odd jobs since but haven’t been able to find work lately. Too many job seekers, and not enough jobs in this area, even low-paying jobs.”
          Alice nodded. “I’m sorry that you had such a difficult life. But you do realize stealing people’s cars will eventually land you in jail, don’t you?”
          “I just know I need a car to find a job. If I was arrested I would at least have a place to live and be fed for a while.”
          Alice shook her head. “That’s a stupid thing to say. You would have a record. How’s that going to get you a decent job. How about friends? Do you have friends?”
          “A couple, but they’re in worst shape than me and they are heavy into drugs. I don’t do drugs. My crappy parents did drugs all the time.”
          “Can I ask you what your name is? My name is Alice.”
          “He hesitated. She was thinking he’ll give me a fictitious name.
          “Larry,” he said, “short for Lawrence.”
          He watched her put the sugar bowl in the refrigerator.
          “Why do you keep your sugar in the refrigerator?”
          She looked confused at first. “To keep the ants away,” she lied.
          “Never knew that. Thought it would make sugar wet and clumpy?”
          “Better than the ants,” she replied.
          She suddenly realized she left the burner lit on the stove when she poured the tea. She turned her back to him and quickly turned it off.
          “I’ve been thinking. What if I offer you a solution?”
          “Look lady I don’t want to argue. I just need your car. I promise I’ll return it as soon as I can.”
          “Well what if we share it? You don’t have a place to stay. We both already know there’s nothing left to steal so why don’t you just stay here and sleep on the couch. I’ll feed you when I cook and you can use the car to search for a job and find a place to live.”
          He looked at her incredulous. “Why would you do that for me?”
          “Because I’ve often been accused of being a foolish old lady. Might as well live up to my reputation. I’ve found in my life that sometimes all one needs is a second chance to straighten out their life. Lord knows yours needs straightening. My deceased husband Fred and I never had children.
          I would like to believe that if I had a son who was left on his own and he was in trouble someone would give him a second chance.”
          Larry stood and looked down at his worn boots. He seemed to be trying to decide what to do.
          “What about neighbors?”
          “I’ll explain you’re my nephew from out of state visiting for a while.”
          “Can I take the car for now to decide?”
          Alice reluctantly nodded yes.
          She watched him get in the car and drive off. She usually had a handle on people but this time she was full of uncertainty. At least she wasn’t dead or physically hurt.

          A week passed. She gave up on ever seeing her car again but stubbornly still hadn’t reported it stolen to the police. Something in her did not want to see Larry arrested. The car would not get her more than a couple hundred dollars from the insurance company at any rate. She could have food delivered for a few extra dollars and take the bus to the doctor’s. She decided to save every dollar she could toward another cheap used car.
          That night she sat on the couch in the living room watching the eleven o’clock news and heard the sound of boots clomping on the porch. There was a sharp knock on her door.
          Alarmed, being that it was after ten o’clock at night, she looked out her window and saw her car parked in front.
          With a happy heart she flung open her door and there stood Larry holding a couple green trash bags in each arm.
          “I really expected you would have called the police as soon as I left last week. Every time I saw a cop car I thought they were after me. After a couple days I figured you didn’t, felt bad, and started thinking about your offer. If you still are up to it I would like to accept. Just want you to know I’m sorry and I’m returning your car regardless.”
          Are those your things in those bags?” She asked.
          “Yes, it’s all I have.”
          “Park them over there in the corner. We’ll see where to fit them tomorrow.”
          “Do you have any more of that apple cake?”
          “No, but I made a pound cake yesterday? Do you like pound cake?”
          “Yes but I never ate home-made pound cake.”
          “I have some vanilla ice cream to go with it.”
          Larry noted the sugar bowl was on the table.
          “I see you took care of the ants,” he said.
          “What ants?” She answered.
          Larry grinned. “Just messing with you.”
          They stayed up into the middle of the night talking about many things, their lives, their beliefs and their disappointments.
          Larry stayed for almost a year. He helped Alice shop, ran errands for her and developed a system for her memory issues by leaving reminder cards in large print around the apartment. At first she objected but grew to like it. Meanwhile Larry gained a much needed twenty pounds from her cooking and baking. He finally got a job, a small apartment near hers and a car. He even met a girl which Alice thoroughly approved of.
          Once he moved out Larry came by to check on Alice every day. He worked on her car in spare hours. The following year he drove up with a used green Ford Escort in great condition and presented it to her. In large letters on a banner he wrote for all to see, Thank you Aunt Alice for my second chance. The neighbors envied her for having such a wonderful nephew.

          Alice continued to drive slowly and irritate other drivers giving them her crooked finger. She still on occasion forgot her keys in the car. Luckily Larry had an extra set. He bought her a heart cameo locket with his phone number in it. She wore it every day and he always came to her rescue when she got in trouble.



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