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Writing Contest Winner: "The Red Plastic Basket"

June 29, 2021 (Last Updated June 28, 2021)

48 Hour Books

We are pleased to announce the winner of our 2021 “Stranger than Fiction” Writing Contest! Congratulations, Mary Brown, for your fantastic story.

 

The Red Plastic Basket

Phil limped into Winn Dixie—his left hip was aching again—and shook off the rain that beaded his light brown canvas hat. He smiled at the eager young clerk who offered a metal cart but picked up a red plastic basket, remembering the days when he could afford to buy enough groceries to fill a cart. At 64, he was still tall, still quick-witted and handsome, still working in the accounting office at a New Orleans university, but almost broke now because of Jim’s illness.

Jim. They met twenty years ago at an art exhibit in the French Quarter, both staring at the same painting, which he found confusing, but which Jim admired enthusiastically. They had a good-humored argument about the merits of the painting, continued the debate over dinner at Le Bayou, found themselves with more common ground than variances, and started living together three months later. Jim could always make me laugh, make me think, make me feel better about myself.  Phil was the consistent wage-earner in their partnership; Jim’s personality helped him get repeated jobs as a waiter, and that personality invariably caused him to lose each of those jobs. 

Twenty, fifteen, seven years ago, that wasn’t a problem. Phil made a comfortable living and they could even take a vacation every other year or so. They went to Charleston one spring during the university’s Mardi Gras break, to Vermont one summer, to San Francisco one Christmas; their trips together created memories that Phil found soothing, now, since the hard times had started.  He pulled up those memories tenderly, almost reluctantly, as though they would wear thin if he handled them too much. There was not much else to bring him comfort.

Ugh. What awful noise blared from those loud overhead speakers? Someone somewhere must like the ridiculous junk that the store usually passed off as music; he thought it was horrid. But on rare occasions, there’d be a really good song, one of the classics from the ’70s or a peppy number, something that made him smile and boosted his spirits just for a bit. Once he heard Elton John’s “What the Girl Wants” and actually danced in the bakery department, alone, surrounded by the smell of fresh donuts.

With the plastic basket in his left hand, he moved quickly past the fresh fruit—too expensive—though his mouth watered at the thought of grapes with strawberry slices and cantaloupe chunks, drizzled with honey.  Perhaps the time would come again when he could shop without constraints. But Jim needed protein and his appetite was so limited these days.

When Jim found that he had pancreatic cancer, their relationship had changed drastically, on many levels. Not wanting to burden their friendship, he moved out shortly after his diagnosis without telling Phil about the illness. Angry, hurt, confused, Phil tried to forget about his lover. But after a few months Phil heard that Jim was sick and homeless, without resources; he found his friend and convinced him to return home.

Phil took on the responsibility of Jim’s care without hesitation. In all the years of their relationship, they never discussed finances, and they continued that pattern now. Jim had no idea how much his illness was costing Phil. There was always the heaviness of unspoken tension; both men carried weights, burdens of gratitude or responsibility, and pain. There was still love and affection, but no lightness anymore; laughter was rare.

He picked up some Heinz 57, thyme, sage, and salt-free Mrs. Dash seasoning. Out of necessity, Phil’s cooking style had changed from the rich Creole and Southern food that once delighted him. No more fried chicken, potato salad, shrimp cocktail, crawfish etouffee. No more lemon icebox pie, chocolate doberge cake, fresh peach ice cream. He’d feel guilty if he prepared those dishes now, because he couldn’t afford it on at least two levels.  His bank accounts were just about wiped out by the cost of experimental treatments which Medicaid wouldn’t fund; even more important, he wouldn’t be able to enjoy his food while Jim was unable to savor it with him. Just one more thing to resent. Bitterness lay coiled in the pit of his stomach. He pushed it down whenever it surfaced, but he knew it was there.

He also knew his commitment to Jim was as strong as ever, perhaps intensified by their shared trial. But he was always tired now. The stress of suppressing his feelings was draining him faster than the demands of Jim’s physical care. So many emotions.  He loved his partner, but he was angry at Jim’s needs; scared at the unknowns in the future, happy that he could help Jim, resentful that he needed so much help; disappointed in himself because he was not as patient as he should have been, sad that his life had degenerated into an unpleasant cycle of work/caregiving/more work/chores/errands, distressed that his carefully managed finances were in such a shamble.  But still he loved his partner.

Heading down Aisle 4 for a small bag of sugar, Phil passed a cheerful couple with a jolly toddler in the seat of the grocery cart. What lies ahead for that baby? According to Jim, his was a happy childhood in central Louisiana, though he always felt that he was different from other boys. In late adolescence when Jim acknowledged his homosexuality, his father—a deacon in the local Baptist church, a pillar of the community—looked at him with revulsion and blamed himself for his son’s perversion, as he termed it.  He sent Jim to live with his aunt in New Orleans and told him never to return home, never to contact his parents or his sister. When his dad died eight years ago, Jim was not even told until the funeral was over.

In spite of twinges of environmental guilt, Phil picked up a couple of foil baking pans so he wouldn’t have to scrub the cast-iron skillet. I really should start recycling. Maybe after… But then he jerked his thoughts away from impending death, or “the passage” as Jim called it. Because Jim would be dying very soon. The doctors had reached their limit, and told Phil simply to help Jim be as comfortable as possible while he waited. In his slow days alone at home, Jim had started praying again, started sifting through the teachings of that little country church from so long ago, searching for bits of truth. He’d cobbled together some version of faith that comforted him, made him a little easier to live with; he said he wasn’t afraid to die.

Hospice workers stopped by periodically, and Phil went home every day during his lunch break, but he knew that he would very soon have to hire attendants to be with Jim during the day. Another expense to be postponed as long as possible. Phil checked his cell phone to be sure that the ringer was turned up.

Jim’s cousin, Annie, had promised to spend some time with him. I’m glad he has some kind of religion, Phil mused, something to help him feel better, even if I can’t see any sense in it. Jim had started talking about heaven as a place where everyone would get to, after they died, as soon as they saw themselves as they really were, realized and repented for the damage that they’d inflicted on themselves and others, recognized The Divine One in grace and glory. Jim never said “God,” couldn’t relate to a heavenly Father, but he believed in a Supreme Being who was light and purity and love and goodness, who offered truth with mercy and freedom with beauty.

For dinner, Phil found some center-cut pork chops to bake. It would be wonderful to be able to believe in something. Jim was even convinced that his father would be waiting for him in heaven, able to see himself clearly and to see Jim clearly, and that father would embrace son with unencumbered love and respect at last.

Preoccupied with his thoughts of Jim, and heaven, and mercy, Phil didn’t realize that the pork chops were “Buy One, Get One Free” and only picked up one pack. He turned up the pet care aisle to get cans of dog food for their elderly chocolate Lab, who now had to be lifted into the bed so she could curl up by Jim. I am surrounded by the infirm and the dying. Who will care for me when I am old? Just then, finally, a good song came from the ceiling speakers, by the great Art Garfunkel:

            I bruise you, you bruise me;
            We both bruise too easily, too easily to let it show.
            I love you and that’s all I know.

Phil set his basket on a tower of cans so he could rest for a moment, embrace the music, ease his mind. He’d always loved this song.

All my plans have fallen through,
All my plans depend on you…

His phone rang and he jerked it from his jacket pocket. Annie was calling. “Phil—he’s gone. I got here and he was gone. I’ve called the police. I think his heart just gave out. But he looks so peaceful, Phil.”

Tears flooded his eyes, his heart. He stood by the Purina and sobbed without shame as golden music filled the air.

When the singer’s gone, let the song go on;
There’s a fine line between the darkness and the dawn.
They say the longest night has a light beyond.

But the ending always comes at last;
Endings always come too fast.
They come too fast, and they pass too slow.
I love you and that’s all I know.

He dried his eyes on the sleeve of his blue jacket and headed for the exit, his red basket forgotten on the stack of dog food.

 

My thanks to the shopper who left a red basket with Heinz 57, thyme, sage, salt-free Mrs. Dash seasoning, sugar, foil baking pans, and one BOGO pack of pork chops in Winn Dixie’s pet food aisle. The basket and its contents, and Art Garfunkel’s song, are fact; the rest of the story is fiction.

 

 

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