In your story, your protagonist is involved in an awkward confrontation that both scares him and acts as an amusing anecdote to use with his friends. Tell us an anecdote you have of a very public and awkward encounter.
My wife Mara and I went out with our friends Rob and Christina to the Blue Dog Tavern here in Grand Rapids. The second time I got up to use the bathroom there was a line. Well, one guy. Not an uncommon thing for a small bar bathroom to fill up. We chatted. When the guy who’d been using the bathroom came out, I heard the lock unlock and understood: He’d been taking a dump, the bathroom was small, he’d wanted privacy. Understandable. I said as much to the guy I was waiting with as we went in. He took the regular toilet, I the urinal. We stood back to back, separated by a couple inches. Apropos nothing he mentioned how he’d just gotten out of the Marines. I said, “Cool.” When I returned to the table I told Mara and Rob and Christina about the bathroom’s strange design, the unpartitioned regular toilet in line with the urinal. Rob said, “That’s a one-person bathroom, you moron!” and cast my cozy interaction in a whole new light.
What else is on the insecure Soda Buyer’s grocery list?
Red Baron, meat-lovers (don’t ask).
One of the strengths of this story is your ability to include a plethora of precise description in under one thousand words. What advice can you give on how to find space in a flash piece to include in-depth detail?
I think the richness of the detail works in this story because it’s mimicking the guy’s state of mind. He’s in store mode. I based his store mode on mine, so I can tell you: Supercenters tend to make him feel anxious, almost claustrophobic, as if his brain confused an abundance of space with no space, an infinitude of products with no choice whatsoever. If you’re someone who has grocery store existential crises, you either try Shipt or make a plan for getting in and out fast. My guy knows the layout of the Knapp’s Corner Meijer and organizes his lists in an optimal circuit. His eyes are peeled. He’s analyzing his environment. Which is my whole narrational scheme. That boils down to The details should be in service to the story, but ugh, that sounds unhelpful.
Tell us: What is the most surreal event you’ve witnessed in a grocery store?
On Easter Sunday 2017, I wanted Ben and Jerry’s. Walgreens was closed, so I drove up to the twenty-four-hour Family Fare. The marquee read Open Easter Sunday. I had to push my way through the automated door, but that’s nothing new. The Fare in my neighborhood is janky. I walked around some people clustered in a loose huddle around the unstaffed customer service desk and hit the ice cream aisle. When I went to pay every single self-checkout lane I passed was closed. Which was odd. What was even odder: Every cashier-staffed lane was also closed. I turned around, confused. There was another guy about my age with a bag of chips standing there equally confused. I noticed a security guard scowling at us in the entryway and asked, “What’s up with the checkouts?”
“Store’s closed!” he said. His head was shaved and his left eye was twitching like mad.
“So like,” I held up my ice cream so he could see, “there’s no way to buy this then … obviously?”
Boy, was I ticked. I thought about setting the Chocolate Therapy down on the magazine rack, but chickened out. I walked it back to the ice cream aisle and put it with the Cool Whip. As I left I saw that the badge on the security guard’s shoulder read Grand Rapids Police. A real cop? As I pulled out of the parking lot two GRPD cruisers whipped in. Apparently, I found out a few days later, the Fare had closed early for Easter. They had it all on tape. The manager locked the doors and left. Then, a while later, some guy walked up and tried the door, but it was locked. Then another guy tried it and found it locked. But when a third guy tried, the door opened, and over time more and more people filed in, assuming, from the cars in the lot and the unlocked door, that the store was open. I’m not sure why the cop was so mad. He probably resented having to watch over a store thanks to what he assumed was an incompetent, perhaps even criminally malicious, employee. I ended up driving all the way out to Meijer for my ice cream. Meijer doesn’t give a shit about Easter.
When sitting down with the protagonist of your story, you ask him what was so great about the good old days. He tells you …?
I had no idea what to title this story. The only thing that came to mind was “The Good Old Days,” but that was plainly bad, and what would it even mean? The best I came up with was “Mia,” the name of the woman on the Land O’Lakes logo, which in its previous incarnations was famous for its Droste effect, or mise en abyme, i.e., the placing of an image within an image in a way that suggests turtles all the way down. I liked the recursiveness and the pun on M.I.A., but how many Land O’Lakes employees and pop culture professors would end up reading this piece of flash fiction? I have reasons why I stuck with “The Good Old Days,” but they’d take more space than we have and boil down to “speculative fiction.” My protagonist would probably say the good old days were great, but the tellers of good-old-days stories tend to want more from their audience than anyone could ever give.