Maude spent most of her time in the produce section, close to the fresh greens that were misted periodically, so that customers wouldn’t be startled when they felt a sudden cold draft as they passed through her. This was also her favorite place to observe the passage of time through the change of seasonal vegetables. She watched sun-sweetened berries and meaty heirloom tomatoes give way to barrels full of winter squash and still-dusty root vegetables; she loved the excitement on shopper’s faces as they saw the end of a long winter heralded by piles of bright rhubarb and woody asparagus spears.
Maude found that time passed differently now. When she wasn’t thinking about it, the hours seemed to pass quickly, especially at night. She didn’t mind floating up and down the empty aisles, humming a little tune to herself as she watched the overnight stockers refill displays. Aisle 11, the frozen section, was her favorite at night. There was something peaceful about the mechanical hum and the foggy glow of the condensation building up behind the glass doors.
But time slowed down to what seemed to be its normal speed when she was really paying attention to something.
Like that time she saw a man scolding his son in aisle 3, canned food and pasta. The little boy, who was probably about 4, had opened a box of macaroni and spilled it across the floor. The boy’s father had crouched down and put his face too close to his son’s and snarled in low tones. The little boy had already started crying when the pasta spilled, and this made him cry harder.
Maude hated seeing parents being cruel to their children. Not many things made her as angry. She still felt things as strongly as before, but not everything was the same. As she watched the man berate his small son, her rage boiled up inside of her. It was the kind of anger that would have made her shake and clench her fists. Instead, what happened was that a stack of canned kidney beans behind the man suddenly toppled off the shelf and struck him in the back of the head. The man stumbled over, stunned. He wasn’t hurt badly, but he did stop his tirade towards his son. Maude watched them until she was sure the man had calmed down and followed them to the exit.
That was about the most excitement she’d see in any given week. A grocery store wasn’t exactly a prime spot for haunting; she’d heard of other spirits taking up residence in museums, funeral homes, theaters, and old penitentiaries (the last one was rather played out, in her opinion). But Maude wasn’t much for spooks and scares. And while the grocery store might not be the most thrilling place in the world, it was familiar to her. And it was where she saw them.
Like clockwork, they’d come in every Sunday. They’d pick up a week’s worth of groceries - milk and cereal, bread and cold cuts for sandwiches, and maybe one or two sweets that the boy picked out. When he was younger, he’d ride in the front of the shopping cart, dangling his legs through the bars. As he got older, he’d totter through the aisles, helping his mother by grabbing anything within his 2-foot high reach.
About once every couple of months, they would come in to shop for Sunday sauce. This was what Maude looked forward to most. She had taught her daughter the recipe as soon as she was old enough to stand on a chair over the big, enameled cast iron pot and stir the bubbling sauce. Their house would be filled with the smell of caramelized onion and garlic, slow-simmered tomatoes, and fresh basil and oregano that was tossed in right at the end. Sometimes they’d add whatever scraps of leftover meat there were from weeknight meals - a pork chop, some short ribs, a few sausages. In the summer, when Maude’s garden was in abundance, they’d make big batches of it to store in mason jars and freeze for the winter.
When her daughter grew up and went away to college, Maude would look forward to the weekends she’d return home, lugging a bloated bag of laundry with her. Most of her time home would be spent catching up with townie friends or holed up in her old bedroom writing papers, but they’d find time to be together in the kitchen, sometimes early in the morning over coffee and fried eggs or late at night after Maude had put the dinner dishes away. But some of the most meaningful moments happened when they were cooking that sauce together - there was something about the steady staccato of chopping onions and tomatoes that set the right mood for vulnerable conversations, when her daughter would open up about heartbreak and new relationships, fears and hopes for her future. It was one of these times while they were waiting for the sauce to cook that she first told Maude about meeting the boy’s father, and later it was in the same kitchen when the two of them told Maude that she’d be a grandmother.
Maude remembered all of these moments with incorporeal tears in her eyes as she watched her daughter pick up a plum tomato and show her son how to squeeze it to check for ripeness. She imagined the memories they’d make together over the steaming Dutch oven, laughing as they’d steal tastes from the wooden spoon that was worn around the edges and permanently stained pink. She thought about how, even though she hadn’t been able to meet him, her grandson would come to know her as he wore the faded, frayed mint green apron (that would be way too large for him) and placed his small hands in the same pockets where her weary ones once rested. He’d hear stories about how she always liked to listen to Oscar D’Leon while she cooked and would dance with her daughter standing on her feet. Maybe when he got older, he’d be told that his sense of humor or the way his brows furrowed together when he was reading was just like her.
Some might wonder why Maude didn’t return to their house, so that she could experience all these moments firsthand; she had considered this herself. But she knew that nothing good would come from holding on too tightly to what could not be. Their home was no place for a ghost - she was better off here, in the grocery store, where no one stayed for very long and she could catch glimpses of their life without intruding too much. She’d wait for them to come in every week, until maybe one day they decided the produce selection was better at a different store, or moved away. And then maybe she’d move on as well, to find out what the rest of the afterlife had to offer. But until then, she had the monotonous beeping of the checkout aisle, and the rotation of fresh vegetables, and the ebb and flow of the grocery’s patrons who were all biding their time in one way or another.