There was no reason why the book should have been there, carefully wedged between the russet potatoes and yams, piles of tubers so dusty they looked like they had been lying there for a century. The book itself was a little younger, published in the early seventies by an independent publisher, Miller Brown Press. I paused my shopping cart, locked the wheels, and thumbed through the pages of the book. “Love and Faithfulness During a Time of Great Isolation,” the title read. Curious. Fortuitous. Auspicious? Whatever was the right word to describe an eerie coincidence. In my mind’s eye, I saw someone, maybe a disgruntled store clerk or shopping associate, slipping in and leaving the book for me to find.
My mother and father would have had completely different interpretations of this. My mother, for one, was always quick to believe in the power of a sign or a miracle. Even a penny on the sidewalk, if it had a certain year on its face, could be proof of some divine intervention. Once, when I was a little girl with pigtails, we were driving to our grandmother’s house during Thanksgiving break, and my mother stopped at a gas station for a mid-drive “rest and feast”. She loved that phrase, forever committed to the idea that if you said it with the right intonation, it would rhyme. “Rest” was using the bathroom, and “feast” was grabbing a weirdly flavored 75-cent snack from a shelf that hadn’t been restocked the since World War One had been called The Great War. That was my favorite things about gas stations on Thanksgiving road trips, those random discontinued snacks that seem like practical jokes on the American Consumer. Things like mustard flavored potato chips, or bags of pickles mushed like applesauce, the crazy, 9AM-gin-fueled fantasy of some divorced marketing whiz trying to add excitement to his achingly dull life. “You know how kids like applesauce? I’ll bet two month’s visitation rights that they love mashed up pickles you could eat with a spoon!” And of course, some secretary (whose only qualification was a high tolerance for harassment) clacking away at a typewriter so fast that her polished fake nails were splintering and shooting away from her keyboard.
It was at that gas station, with the Picklesauce (it’s nothing more than relish, right? Mashed pickles that you have to slurp with a spoon?) that our car broke down that one Thanksgiving. There we were, stranded a hundred miles from Nowhere and more than two hundred miles from Somewhere, when the Pakistani man who owned the gas station called out to his redneck buddy in the back garage to come lend us a hand. Neither the Pakistani guy nor the redneck spoke the other’s language, which gave the entire situation a chaotically wholesome feel, a multicultural Odd Couple, in which two middle-aged men in a truck stop gas station overcome their differences to price gouge exhausted families with mustard flavored potato chips. Fortunately, they gave us a decent rate on our car repairs, which amounted to nothing more than a replacement tire. My mother loved to tell the story, it was the quintessential example of fate and destiny converging. “I mean, what are the odds that our car would break down at the exact place we needed to be to get it fixed?”
On the other hand was my father, who thought miracles were only in movies, and signs existed only on street corners. My father had once made the mistake of replying to Mom’s story with a mathematical formula and statistics about cars breaking down. Math always ruins the mystery of miracles.
Was there any miracle or mystery to this flimsy book? I turned the book over, shifting myself to avoid getting clipped by the carts of other shoppers. “Love and Faithfulness During a Time of Great Isolation,” published 1973. Nowhere on the book did it specify what the great isolation was, and I couldn’t figure out if there was any particular historical context. Whoever had published this didn’t specify, just assuming that everyone that year would be familiar with whatever war or famine or sickness was going on around them. They say that one of the biggest problems historians have is that some events are so famous and so taken for granted that no one even bothers to write them down. If a volcano explodes next to your house, everyone assumes that historians will know about it, because it was obvious and affected your entire village, and even the sheepherder’s weird son— who once got his skull kicked in by a particularly angsty sheep, and can only make sounds when he’s hungry or when the sheep are running way— if even he remembers the volcano that burned the entire village, then of course none of us need to write it down, because we’ll always remember it. And whoever had printed this book was of a similar opinion. Nothing, in the foreword or back cover, gave the reader any clue of what was happening. I suppose I could just search Google: “What bad thing happened in the year 1973 that no one wrote down?” Back in a time of national innocence, of course, when bad events were so rare that each one was the subject of discussion for a whole year.
Someone behind me was politely tapping their shopping cart, trying to hint without causing a scene that I should stop reading and start gathering potatoes. I unlocked my shopping cart and rolled it down the aisle, hoping I wasn’t running over any small children as I flipped through the book. Page 57: “Many people have taken up casual romantic liaisons as a way to fill the lonely void. If this is you, ask yourself why you are so focused on alleviating the symptom of your loneliness instead of the root case?” Ok, so it was one of those books. Some self-help thing. Take a problem common to everyone, but make it feel so specific that the reader is convinced it was addressed exactly to him. My mother would have swallowed those sorts of books up, with her signs and symbols and cosmic coincidence. My dad would have been less enthused. For him, coincidence was not so much divine mysticism as mathematical inevitability. Of course now and then you’re going to see a penny on the street that has the same year that your childhood cat died. Of course now and then your car will break down, and the only person able to help is a gas station owner with a whole garage equipped for cars that break down. And of course, people who are lonely enough to buy a book on loneliness will feel that the book was written specifically to them.
Then I noticed it. Something not quite so miraculous as to mean anything to my mother, but not so common as to be dismissed by my father. On page 93, random letters had been filled in with pencil. (d…b…g…) Never two letters in a row, and the shaded letters seemed to be chosen randomly. I flipped through the rest of the book, absentmindedly pulling my shopping cart out of the way again, as some barrel chested and white-lichen-mustached man pushed past me. In the entire book, about a dozen pages contained filled in letters, like some child had used it to practice for an SAT exam. I glanced back up the aisle at the dirty mound of potatoes, wondering who left this there. I imagined some figure with an ominous black hat and a monocle or fake mustache, looking with increasing frustration for a book with secret code that had been picked up by a casual shopper. If this book had been hidden by someone, were they still in the store? If it was meant to be picked up by someone else, were they already here?
I was in the middle of something. I was in someone’s way. Not exhausted, exasperated shoppers, but agents and spies, people trying to communicate without anyone knowing, only to be interrupted by a curious shopper who wanted to try to make that candied yam and raisin recipe she had seen in the recent Buzzfeed article. This book had been purposely hidden between the yams and russet potatoes, dusty and piled up, with their wrinkled skins and pockmarks winking and laughing at me.
I had a few options. I could race home and try to decipher the clues. I’d solved medium-hard Sudoku puzzles and those only took about forty minutes, so maybe I could try my hand at the code in this book. Or I could put it back, and casually wait to see who picked it up. Or…
There was a pencil stub lying on the floor. My mother would have deemed it divine instruction, a clear prompt from the Universe, or God, or G.O.D., the Giza Ocular Dilation floating above the pyramid on the back of every $1 bill. My father would have rationally pointed to a kiosk with rolls of plastic shopping bags and a cup of carefully sharpened pencils for shopping lists. Or writing encrypted messages.
I took a fresh pencil from the kiosk, leaving the dirty pencil on the ground for the maintenance team. I spent a minute on each of the already marked pages of the book, filling in an extra letter or two on each line. Then I went to a virgin page, 73, and filled in thirty random letters (b…d…q…p…) with the quickly dulling pencil stub. I returned to the crevice between the yams and russet potatoes, and slipped the book inside, somewhat embarrassed by how excited I was. Was my life really so isolated that I got a high out of sabotaging a secret message between spies that I would never meet, that might not even exist outside of my overactive imagination? Was this who I had become? Someone who thinks it’s entertaining to play hypothetical pranks on fictional intelligence operatives? Or maybe I secretly wished to be caught, wanted to be a dangerous suspect, wanted to be waterboarded and beaten with crowbars until I broke down and confessed that I ruined their elementary note-passing routine not because I had blown their cover, but for the mere chaotic fun of it. Or maybe I hoped that there was a security camera above me, and that the person in charge of making sure that no one shoplifted potatoes would be compelled to watch my whole ten-minute drama, equally confused by why I had removed a book from the potatoes as by why I had put it back after scribbling in it.
“You’ll never believe this, dear,” the hypothetical security camera observer would say later tonight, walking into his house and taking off his suit and tie, because for some reason it’s the 1950’s. “I think I saw an American agent sabotage communication between two Russian operatives!”
“No, darling, you don’t say?” his wife, who is also his secretary, would reply, simultaneously pouring him a martini while transcribing the whole conversation on her typewriter. (Together they are writing a self-help book for people so lonely that they invent fantasies in which they thwart international espionage)
“She was standing by the potatoes at the store. No one else would have seen it; she must have been specially trained! She fished out some book the Russians were using to pass notes, changed the content of one of the messages, and saved our country from an impending plot by the Communists!” The store-clerk/self-help-guru would take his martini from his adoring wife/secretary, and will propose a toast to russet potatoes, mustard potato chips, and the American way.
My mouth was somehow both dry and slimy, as if I had just eaten an entire bowl of salty, vinegary Picklesauce. I was so on edge from the mission I had accomplished that I forgot to buy any groceries, and left my shopping cart where it stood, rushing out of the store and resolving to keep a pathetically sharp eye on the news for any stories about international spy missions being foiled.