If you look carefully, if you ignore that one is about 80 and the other 5, that one is almost 6 foot and the other not yet 4 foot tall, they look almost the same. At least if you watch them from behind, holding hands, and walking across the parking lot. There’s something about the slouch of their shoulders, their heads held high, and the easy way they walked. You just knew that they were related.
That day, they were wandering the Whole Food aisles, currently checking the produce section, noting the bright reds and yellows of the peppers, smelling the garlic, and wondering about the names of the leafy greens. “There isn’t much red in that red leaf lettuce,” five year old Isaac commented. “I think they should find another name.” The Old Man nodded his assent. They marveled at the size of the melons.
“That one must be 50 pounds,” Isaac exulted.
“Could be,” said the Old Man.
Then they came to the coffee aisle. From long experience, they knew that this would be the culmination of their journey. One by one, they sniffed the various beans. “What do you think about these Italian beans,” asked the Old Man? “How about the Morning Blend? The Costa Ricans seem a little weak to me. What about you, Isaac?” Isaac was excited by their test runs but he was also onto his grandpa. He knew that the Old Man liked French Roast best. So he carefully modulated his responses to the others, building to an exuberant affirmation.
“Grandpa, the French Roast is by far the best.”
“Are you sure?”
“Are you kidding, Grandpa. No contest.”
“I think so, too,” said the Old Man, incongruously hoping that Isaac would someday grow into a French Roast devotee.
The Old Man had a long history with supermarkets. For reasons he couldn’t fully explain, they made him happy. He wasn’t a foodie, after all; far from it. He didn’t cook, either. He liked restaurants as a place for intimate conversation and hardly cared about the quality of the food, itself. OK, he cared a little, but it was companionship, not food that drew him there. Even when he was alone, he loved supermarkets.
As he and Isaac continued their meanderings through the produce section, he remembered those wonderful days with Nathan, his son and Isaac’s father. As a young man, he so enjoyed lifting Nathan into the seat of the big shopping carts and zipping around the aisles. Nathan would giggle uncontrollably as his dad let the cart go by itself and, just as it was about to crash into the cans of peas, catch him, save him. Later, Nathan would smile that sheepish smile of his and wave at passers by. They would wave back—“So cute,” they’d tell the young father—and then look admiringly at him. It was 1972 and there weren’t lots of men wheeling shopping carts in those days. Even fewer with little children.
Assuming he was reading the women’s eyes correctly, he knew he was seen as a hero—one of the few times in his life that he would ever achieve that exalted status. Those supermarket adventures were some of the happiest moments of his life.
By the time Nathan was four months old, his mother and the Old Man had divorced. Since his mother was not interested in taking care of an infant—or anyone else—he had taken on the role of mother and father. He certainly hadn’t planned it; nor had he prepared. He couldn’t remember a single time when, as a boy, he had taken care of his baby sister. That is, until she was about four or five and he ten. Then they had played together and he felt responsible for her.
He felt responsible and profoundly attached to Nathan from the moment he was born. Yes, he was a pretty traditional guy with expectations of freedom and support. But Nathan was a fact. He needed someone to hold him and feed him. He did it. There was nothing noble or even particularly generous about a young father stepping in. That’s what he would tell people. “It was just… What else was there to do
But let me get back to my story. The old man and his grandson had wandered back to the produce section where they were going to buy some baby cucumbers, lettuce, and peppers for this evening’s salad. When they arrived, it seemed quieter than usual. Without knowing why, the Old Man and Isaac found themselves whispering. Then, as if on cue, there was a huge explosion at the other end of the store. It was deafening and the billowing smoke made it hard to see.
A cascade of potatoes spilled onto the floor and tripped them up. As they fell, the Old man said “Let’s stay down here.”
Isaac’s eyes were wide with wonder and fear. “On the ground, Grandpa?”
“Yes. Let’s hide under these shelves, just in case there is another explosion.”
“Was it a bomb, Grandpa”?
“I think so.”
“Will the bad people find us?” Isaac asked.
“I don’t think so, Isaac,” said the Old Man. Not that he was so sure. There could be crazy people with guns, with assault rifles, for all he knew. Like everybody else in America, he’d seen enough slaughter on TV to know what was possible. He knew that the random assassins that now roamed American streets cared nothing for young children or old men. He could only hope that he and Isaac were hidden enough to be safe.
From their hideout, Isaac and the Old Man heard people screaming, shrill with anger and pain—and rage. It seemed like everyone was mad at someone else. Even from their hideout, you could hear that people were running for safety and sometimes shoving others out of their way. But you could also hear people tending to the injured: “Just stay down; I’ll get help.” And “It’ll be alright. Breathe. That’s it, nice and slow. We’ll get you out of here.” Strangers helped and held one another.
Soon there were sirens outside and the sound of professional sounding men ordering others to walk slowly and to keep moving away from the store. That’s when Isaac piped in, his voice no longer tremulous:
“I think we’re safe now, Grandpa.”
“I do, too, Isaac, but we’re going to stay here a little longer. I want to make extra sure that there aren’t any more bombs or bad people out there. We’ll know it’s time when policemen come and tell us so.”
As much as Isaac wanted to see what was going on, he remained still and quiet, folded into the Old Man’s arms. And the Old Man, much as he yearned for the All Clear call from the rescue team, cherished the closeness of the moment.
For the eternity that turned out to be twenty minutes, they waited in their vegetable cave until policemen rushed through the store, ushering them out, and assuring them that there was no more danger. During that entire time, Isaac never let go of the Old Man. But his eyes seemed clear and he craned his neck to see as much as possible from their hiding place atop the potatoes and beneath the mushrooms. You couldn’t tell if he was more frightened or excited. This was an adventure they couldn’t have cooked up. It was horrible but the Old Man was grateful to have seen it through with his boy.
After emerging from their hiding place, they followed the policemen’s instructions, not stopping to gawk or talk, and walked directly to their car. Fearing that Isaac’s parents might have learned about the bomb on the internet or the radio, the Old Man called to reassure them that they had come through the horror without injury and without any obvious signs of trauma.
Fortunately, they hadn’t known where The Old Man had taken Isaac. Every week, he and Isaac traipsed all over the city, exploring one new place after another and traveling the Red Line rails as much as possible. So Isaac’s parents hadn’t worried at all.
Hearing the news, though, they wanted him home right away. The Old man understood. He would have wanted Isaac close, too. He would have needed the reassurance. They headed home.
The Old Man drove home slowly, while Isaac peppered him with question after question.
“Who did that, Grandpa?”
“I don’t know. Maybe we can find out on the news—when we get you home.”
“Did a lot of people get hurt?” The Old Man had been able to shield Isaac from the medics and the stretchers that had filled the far side of the store. So Isaac hadn’t seen the torn bodies, had barely heard the wailing families next to the ambulances.
Still, the Old Man felt the need to be honest. So he said simply and without elaboration: “I think so, Isaac.”
“Why would anyone do that?”
“I don’t really know, but there are some people who are crazy and some people who are so angry that they want to hurt others.”
“I don’t feel that way.”
“I know you don’t, Isaac, and I’m proud of you for that.”
“I’m really mad at the bad guys, though.”
Once home, Isaac couldn’t stop telling his parents, who had both gotten there before their wartime veterans, about the explosion, where they hid, and what they did. They held him. They cried a little. They were grateful without words.
After a while, the Old Man decided the family needed their moment, needed their privacy, and he set out for home. As he drove, he felt a profound sense of loneliness and loss. Even though it was the right thing to leave. Even though he was grateful to have survived the bomb and to protect his grandson. Even so, he wasn’t ready to let Isaac go. He began to shake a little. He ached for Isaac’s presence. And his tears slowly made their way from his eyes to his chin.