HENRY GOES TO MARKET
Henry wasn’t thrilled with the here and now. Endless new construction transforming the old neighborhood thanks to property tax abatements. Pedestrians forced to skirt around temporarily paralyzed smartphone zombies. The inability to find menu options as familiar as turkey club sandwiches or creamed chipped beef on toast at local eateries. Cold hard cash as the least welcome of payment options. Cops on bicycles. Gender inclusive pronouns.
Mostly he dwelled on what wasn’t there anymore.
Today was no exception. Henry crossed Christian Street into the Italian Market, and his mental checklist started. Fiorella Sausage — gone. Superior Ravioli — gone. Golden Donut — gone. D’Angelo’s Meats — gone. The Frank Rizzo mural — gone. All within the last few years. And he hadn’t even traveled half a block yet.
He needed bananas. His cardio doctor warned that diuretics cause potassium depletion, and Henry rarely ignored an easy fix. He took his heart meds regularly, along with assorted supplements ranging from Vitamin A to Zinc. Where he faltered was when personal sacrifice was required: the daily pack of cigarettes, the fast food that constituted so much of his diet, and the nightly Seagram’s 7 on ice. He did a fair amount of walking for a man his age. But bad habits undermined any health benefits.
Ahead was Di Bruno Brothers Gourmet Foods. He’d worked there as a stock boy when it was just another grocery store. Now they had satellite locations throughout the city and in the suburbs. Not to mention a very healthy online business. A queue of eager shoppers waiting their turns was a weekend fixture, but Henry hadn’t gone inside for years. He read the window sign boasting CULINARY PIONEERS SINCE 1939. Danny and Joe, the original proprietors, would have thought that culinary was a dirty word.
He stopped to browse through used paperbacks on the outdoor table at Molly’s Books. He noted the incongruity of famous writers like John Steinbeck, Frank O’Hara, and Willa Cather sharing retail space with produce vendors and fish mongers. But he made no purchase. Henry’s tastes ran more to Mickey Spillane and old cowboy movies.
At League Street he remembered faraway weekends peddling brown paper shopping bags for a nickel each while his father sold religious statues on the corner. If a potential customer failed to penetrate the broken English, Henry handled translations. They warmed themselves at barrel fires and ate roast pork lunches at George’s Sandwich Shop where his favorite soda came in bottles adorned with an adolescent prizefighter. On a good day, Henry got home with a dollar’s worth of change in his pocket.
“No! It’s really you!”
An unfamiliar voice shattered his reverie. He turned thinking, “I step out for a quiet walk, and now this?” The woman’s face offered no clues. Henry squinted as though he needed new eyeglasses.
“You worked the First District with my Billy once,” she explained with certainty. “You guys were early responders the night that mob boss was blown up. I met you at the J.R. the next afternoon. You and Billy, sitting there like Starsky and Hutch. Guzzling free boilermakers and dishing all the messy details.”
She seemed near Henry’s age. She was slender and smartly dressed, without visible tattoos or industrial strength jewelry. She wore a minimal amount of makeup under a generic powder blue baseball cap. Her manner was assertive in a downtown sort of way but still pleasant. Not at all like some fading badge bunny.
“But I was never with the police force,” Henry started. “I was a welder at the Navy Yard. Took it up right after high school as an apprentice. And I only drank at J.R.’s maybe once in my life. Sorry.”
“That must have been your lucky day,” she laughed. “And it wasn’t the only time we hung out together. The three of us were tight back then. So don’t go all undercover on me.”
Intentional or not, the double entendre didn’t escape him. He reached for his cigarettes and offered her one
“I stopped smoking long ago,” she demurred. “Something you might consider doing.”
“You know what these things cost? Let me finish the pack at least. What’s your name by the way?”
“Isabelle. You really forgot my name?”
“My favorite aunt was an Isabelle. More to the point, what’s my name?”
She put her hands on her hips and tapped her left foot.
“Buy me lunch, and I’ll tell you.”
“But what would your Billy say?” Henry feigned concern.
“Billy won’t mind,” she sighed. “We’re history now. All that time on the job made him bitter and paranoid. And he stopped trusting anyone anymore. Another habit you should try to avoid.”
“I’ll take a guess here,” he countered too quickly as if defending an actual old friend. “It got so bad you quit him too.”
“Not me. I’m the one who didn’t quit.”
He gazed down as he crushed the cigarette stub, concealing his own regret. His wife passed away over five years ago, and he still hadn’t learned how to get along without her. More than five long years of repetition and idleness. Who was he to talk?
He thought about opportunities born from common misfortunes. And about age being only a state of mind. And about how some things never change. Then he pointed up 9th Street.
“You know George’s? The food’s very good there.”
She smiled and nodded her assent.
“Maybe we can straighten this all out.”
Henry wrapped an easy arm around Isabelle’s shoulder and added, “Just remind me later to get bananas.”
Anthony Nannetti’s poetry has appeared in several print and online publications, including Zone Magazine, Hamilton Stone Review, and The Guardian. He lives in the Bella Vista neighborhood of South Philadelphia where this story is set.