(This is part 3 of Lost and Found, a short story that will be posted in five parts over five days. You can find Parts 1 and 2 by clicking on the Short Stories and Poems tab in the menu bar.)
As Eleanor entered the grocery store, she could feel her anticipation grow. She had shopped in the store hundreds of times, but she never looked forward to the experience. The items she bought were always the same and the meals they made were bland and predictable. This time, although her mask hid her smile, her eyes sparkled with excitement.
Her shopping trip took much longer than usual because she had to search out many of the items on her list. For the first time she could remember, she found herself in the International Foods aisle, picking up several cans and packages. Standing in front of the shelves, she made notes of the many exotic ingredients she had never heard of, vowing to learn more about them.
As she was checking out, Eleanor was surprised when the clerk recognized her despite her mask. Even though she had shopped there for years, she had never really taken the time to remember employees’ faces or learn anyone’s name. She had always focused on getting in and out as quickly as possible. No time for small talk. This time, though, the clerk’s eyes smiled at her above his mask. “Wow, you really have some different items this time. Not your usual at all,” he exclaimed.
Eleanor didn’t know whether to be irritated or pleased. Apparently, her former shopping habits had attracted attention and, now that she was exploring other recipes and ingredients, he had noticed.
“Young man,” Eleanor began to scold, but then she stopped and reconsidered. Smiling behind her mask, she simply replied, “I’m very excited to try some new recipes.”
Back in her car and anxious to get home and start cooking, Eleanor applied a little extra pressure on her gas pedal. She was almost home when she saw a spot of brown out of the corner of her eye. Quickly stepping on her breaks, she prayed that she hadn’t hit whatever it was.
Eleanor got out of her car and looked around. While she was relieved that she hadn’t hit anything, she wondered what it was she saw. “Hello? Is anyone out there?” Eleanor tentatively asked. She was answered with a rustle in the tall grass alongside the road. “Hello?” Eleanor asked again. This time, she heard a little whimper. After some more rustling, a small, scruffy, brown and white dog emerged.
“Oh, hello,” Eleanor said. “Aren’t you sweet?” The dog reminded her of a pet she had when she was young. Maybe a bit of terrier, some shepherd, and a whole lot of who knows. Sadie had been a joyful part of her childhood. Her mother had complained about the dog hair everywhere, and her father was always cleaning the dirt and mud Sadie traipsed in, but they all loved her and were heartbroken when she died. Early in her marriage, Eleanor had suggested they get a dog, but her husband had vetoed the idea. “Too much work and mess,” he stated, ending all hope of a discussion.
After Eleanor assured herself that the dog was ok and, seeing children playing behind the tract of homes just beyond the field, she got back in her car, confident that the dog belonged to a family who lived in the neighborhood. “Bye, little one,” she said as she pulled into the lane and started to drive—a little slower now—back home.
Eleanor was eager to try her first new recipe, Coconut Chicken Curry. Although she knew the flavors would be quite different from what she usually ate, the directions seemed straight-forward. As soon as she got home, she removed her mask, put her groceries away, washed her hands, and got busy. The chicken needed to marinate in a sauce for an hour, which would give her just enough time for her scheduled Zoom catch-up with her son.
“Hi, Mom. How are you getting along?” Douglas Jr. asked cautiously. He tried not to show his growing alarm at the untidy appearance of both her living room and her hair. In the background, he could see that books were scattered here and there, and vases stuffed with flowers filled every flat surface. Even more worrying were her clothes and hair. As long as he could remember, his mother wore simple housedresses and always had her hair pinned neatly in back. He couldn’t be sure, but was his mother wearing jeans? And her hair was starting to look as disheveled as her house. Wiry waves of gray-blond cascaded around her face and fell to her shoulders. His once sensible and restrained mother was turning into a hippie right before his eyes.
“I’m making a pot of coconut chicken curry for dinner tonight,” Eleanor answered, her eyes dancing with excitement. “The chicken is marinating in a sauce that smells heavenly. I’ll simmer it later in a mixture of coconut milk and more curry. I can’t wait to try it”.
Douglas Jr. was now convinced that something was wrong with his mom. He couldn’t recall a time growing up that his mother cooked with curry, let alone coconut milk. His mother and father were sensible people who ate sensible food, just as they all liked it.
When the call ended, Douglas Jr. had an uneasy feeling. His mother seemed almost joyful (a word, he realized with a start, that he wouldn’t normally use to describe her), and she appeared healthy and engaged, so he wasn’t worried about her safety. It was just that the woman he had spent 20 minutes talking to bore little resemblance to the mother who raised him.
Eleanor, on the other hand, thought the call went great. She wanted her son to see that she was doing well—terrific, in fact—and that he had no reason to worry about her. Her happiness with the call carried her through the rest of her meal preparation and into devouring one of the best meals she ever had. Who knew that curry, cilantro, and coconut milk (all ingredients she had never cooked with before) could make chicken taste so amazing?
As Eleanor washed her dishes at the sink, her thoughts drifted to the little dog she saw earlier that day. Other than the bit of white on its face, it had looked so much like her beloved Sadie. What if the pup didn’t belong to one of the children she saw playing? Perhaps it was all alone and needed help. Maybe she should have taken it home with her.
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