“Did they have it?” Cecil asked as he looked up from the shopping cart parked next to the deli counter. A sign on the counter proclaimed in large friendly letters:
Fresh Pastrami - $7.99/lb
Antique Pastrami - $5.99/lb
Eldritch Pastrami - Negotiable
“Well…” Carlos said, turning a small can in his hand and frowning at the label. They both had to raise their voices to be heard over the constant squealing that filled the store. “They didn’t have hearts of palm, but I found livers of palm. Is that the same thing?”
Cecil shrugged. “It’s a bit saltier, but it’ll do in a pinch. What else is on the list for that dip of yours?”
Carlos pulled a neatly folded slip of paper out of his breast pocket.
“Let’s see… one can hearts of palm, chopped; one cup shredded mozzarella; one half cup grated parmesan; one cup chopped green onion; one quarter cup sour cream; three quarters cup mayonnaise.”
“Green onion?” Cecil said, confused, “Is green a color normally associated with onions? I thought if they were green you generally got rid of them, unless the faceless old woman got to them first.”
Carlos smirked. “Different kind of onion, dear. I think we have everything I need for it other than the onions.”
He glanced down into the cart and surveyed the contents. Next to the mayonnaise, rice noodles, parmesan cheese and canned tomatoes there were other, more local ingredients like celery flavored jello, invisible pie filling, sirloin stakes (Which as far as Carlos could tell were normal sirloins cut into a sharpened wedge shape; he still didn’t quite understand why), bleeding mushrooms, wheat-free bread, and several pounds of fresh, raw squid. He had noticed that people in Night Vale seemed to eat an awful lot of squid for some reason, often referring to it as a “Local delicacy”. It worried him somewhat that the nearest ocean was at least 350 miles away, depending on the time of year. He made a mental note to investigate the issue. In this town you never knew what minor detail could lead to a real scientific phenomenon.
“I think all we have left is produce. Shall we head in that direction?”
Cecil nodded and began pushing the cart, which added its own high-pitched, metallic squealing to that already emanating from other trolleys throughout the store. The first time he had gone shopping at the Ralph’s in Nightvale, Carlos had found the constant cacophony of shrieks from the many shopping carts unsettling at best and headache inducing at worst. He had suggested to the manager, a large, norwegian man with a thick, black mustache and only one eye whose nametag read “Torgny”, that the store should oil its shopping carts more frequently. Torgny had merely stared down at him through his cloudy aviator goggles for several seconds before spitting on the floor while waving two fingers menacingly in the scientist’s direction.
“Oh, they make that noise on purpose” Cecil had explained to him later on, “Otherwise how would they block out the soul-shredding screams and terrible, baritone chanting coming from the deep freeze section?”
Since then Carlos had learned to simply wear ear-plugs.
They trundled past several aisles filled with cans, many with thick layers of dust covering them, and one stocked with unlabeled cardboard boxes of various shapes and sizes, all of which gave off a sharp odor, like the smell of ozone after a lightning strike. They passed the large, empty aisle that had once held the store’s supply of bread, pasta, flour, and other wheat products and wheat by-products. Carlos glanced down the old wheat aisle as they passed and caught a glimpse of an old woman covered in a nest of tattered coats and shawls who scampered away as fast as possible when she saw him looking, quickly disappearing behind the end cap.
“Oh, hi Simone!” Cecil called after her with a smile.
Finally, Cecil parked the shopping trolley next to a bin piled high with potatoes of all types; red potatoes, gold potatoes, silver potatoes, white potatoes, iridescent potatoes, incandescent potatoes and even a few spiny potatoes. Carlos considered picking up a few different kinds to run tests on, but he decided against it as he still hadn’t received his spiny potato permit from the city council. He was beginning to think they were purposely delaying it.
Instead he grabbed the necessary green onions and a few violently red beets and returned to the cart where Cecil was waiting with an empty box labelled “Imaginary Corn: Locally grown!”
“You know there’s nothing in there, right?” Carlos asked. It always amazed him that the normally thrifty Cecil was willing to pay exorbitant fees for an empty box every week.
Cecil looked confused.
“What do you mean?”
“There’s no corn in that box. It doesn’t exist. It’s imaginary.”
Cecil grinned, his teeth as bright and pointy as a white-washed fence.
“Well, duhhh. That’s the point!”
“Cecil…” Carlos started, unsure exactly how to proceed, “You can imagine all the corn you want for free.”
Cecil looked aghast and glanced around nervously.
“Carlos!” he said scandalously, “Are you suggesting I pirate imaginary corn? That’s stealing! Farmers like John Peters - You know, John Peters? The Farmer? - rely on legal purchases of imaginary corn for their livelihoods!”
Carlos sighed and shook his head. He knew better than to press the issue further. Instead he simply shrugged.
“Ok, it’s your money, I suppose. Are we ready to go check out?”
They maneuvered the cart up to the front of the store and got in line behind the stuffed, glass-eyed, placeholder mannequins at the checkout counter since there weren’t any other actual customers to wait behind for the legally required minimum of seven minutes and thirteen seconds.
Once the sickly green light above the checkout counter had lit up to signify that they could proceed, Cecil stepped up to the empty checkout stand and loaded his groceries into the white plastic bags provided before taking out his wallet. He reached over the counter and hit the No Sale button on the register, causing the cashier drawer to pop outward with a loud “ka-ching” noise. He placed two crisp seventeen dollar bills in the till and closed it, waiting for the sound of swallowing before popping it open once again and removing his change. He then loaded his groceries back into the cart while Carlos paid for his own items.
They each picked up their bags and steered the cart into the corral near the front of the store before exiting through the decontamination chamber that lead into the parking lot. Carlos winced as the hot, white, desert sun beamed down on them, but he was glad at least to be able to remove the earplugs without feeling as if his head would explode.
“Well, I suppose this is goodbye for now…” Cecil said as the reached the edge of the parking lot where they each would be heading a separate direction to their respective homes.
“I suppose it is.” Carlos said.
He leaned in and the two shared a heart-felt but slightly awkward kiss, weighed down as they were by their bags.
“I’ll see you tonight then,” Cecil said as they finally parted, “I can’t wait to try that dip of yours.”
Carlos smiled and waved goodbye as he turned and headed down the block towards the cross street that lead past Big Rico’s pizza and then to his house. As he walked he thought about Night Vale. He thought about all the things, little and big, that made the town different and dangerous and special. As he passed by the Dog Park with its looming hooded figures that he would never, ever acknowledge, and the Night Vale Private Library with its looming stacks of books that he would never, ever read, he thought about how much he had grown to love this town and the people in it, not despite, but because of their differences and quirks.
He thought about how, for better or worse, he was home.