SmokeLong Quarterly

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Grocery Store Mama

Story by Shayla Frandsen (Read author interview) June 17, 2024

Art by Oleksii S

I opened a grocery store even though Nana told me I might as well stuff my money into the garbage disposal and let the blades whir the cash into bits the way tigers maul the humans who had raised them since birth. You can keep a pet tiger your whole life and it’ll still eat you, Nana said, long before it’s starving.

It was only Nana and me growing up. Nana liked tigers and somehow word had gotten out about it which meant her birthday gifts were always tiger-themed, tiger oven mitts and little ceramic tigers swiping at the air and stuffed tigers hanging off the rearview mirror in the car.

But I needed something to do and people needed food to eat so a grocery store seemed obvious. The building itself was dusty and dangerous and covered in graffitied words like “OB NOXXIOUS” but it had been a grocery store before going out of business in the nineties so the bones were good, empty shelving units and the skeleton of a bakery and a glass box which was probably where lobsters had waved at customers and waited to die. I painted the walls white and swept up the broken glass and trapped the rats and cleared out the people who lived on the pipe and slept on twenty-year-old mattresses on the second floor.

If you really want those people to stay away you should buy a pet tiger, Nana said. I said that’s just as illegal as it was the last time you suggested it and didn’t you say pet tigers eat their owners? She said tigers are a sign of good luck and I said oh well in that case I’ll get seven of them.

Nana said name the store Tiger Lily and I looked at her. I think it would be nice she said and she was wearing slippers that had a plush tiger head at the point of each foot.

The first shipments of food arrived glistening in the sun like empty wine bottles washed up on a beach. The men who made the deliveries would walk into the store and look around and check the address on their clipboard. This is Tiger Lily Food? they would ask and I’d say don’t worry about the rats, because even though they had came back they didn’t bite.

The food was beautiful, apples the color of roses and mustard the color of sunflowers and cake mixes like jewels in a treasure chest and bread loaves as fluffy as down pillows. At night I would walk the shelves and run my hand along each item with no skips, I mean I’d touch every single box of Jell-O and cereal and I would hold the cauliflowers and stroke them a bit like they had hair.

On opening day people walked in and stopped like they’d bumped into an invisible wall and they’d look around and look at me and I’d say all shelves will be filled eventually and heat’s supposed to kick in next week.

Nana was the cashier and when people paid she would look them in the eye like she was trying to tell them something without words. Most of the customers were friends of Nana’s which I guess makes sense because old people like to grocery shop. One time Nana’s best friend Gloria bought bananas and two cans of tomato soup and Nana told me she wanted to walk Gloria to her car but once they got there I saw Nana give Gloria her money back.

When Nana came back in I said we need to have a serious conversation because when you do things like that you’re losing us money and Nana said she wouldn’t do it again.

Money did become an issue though because soon I could only afford day-old bread and warped produce and milk might as well have been liquid gold and at night I’d stack the cans upside down so nobody would see the month-old expiration dates.

One day I heard commotion at the front of the store and I thought somebody was stealing shopping carts again but it was a woman with like a hundred kids and then I realized I knew her.

She smiled at me. I heard you opened this place, she said. I wanted to come say hi.

She didn’t actually have a hundred kids but she had three and I saw she was pregnant again and she said how’s Adam and I said we’re divorced and she made a face of distress or maybe pity and I said so these are your kids and when she said yes I couldn’t think of anything to say about them so I said we have a sale on condiments today.

She said we should get milkshakes like we did every day after school in seventh grade. She said remember we made a pact to stay friends forever? She said I was so sorry to hear about Lily. I tried to get a hold of you. She took a step forward and said I’m so sorry.

The overhead lights flickered and Nana leaned forward in her chair and I said all my money’s tied up in the store so I can’t get milkshakes and then I turned around and walked into the room that said Manager on it. That night I turned off the lights an hour early to save electricity and I told Nana to go home and she waited and I said GO HOME and she took out her key ring and twisted at it until the enamel tiger key chain slid off and she propped it up against the cash register.

After Nana left I went to the produce section and took the old fruit in my hands one by one and pressed into their soft brown spots and begged them to last a little bit longer, I’d do anything if they would please stay alive just two days more or even just one.


“Grocery Store Mama” won first prize in The SmokeLong Quarterly Award for Flash Fiction 2024. 

About the Author

Shayla Frandsen earned her MFA in fiction in Utah. She previously earned an MA in English in New York City. Her writing can be found or is forthcoming in New England Review, Iron Horse Literary Review, Under the SunBlood Orange ReviewLiterary Mama, Exposition Review, and others. In 2023 she was nominated for Best of the Net and Best Small Fictions. She was awarded first place in both the 2023 Plentitudes Prize in Fiction and the Blue Earth Review Dog Daze Flash Fiction contest. She is probably somewhere reading on her Kindle or buying a pair of shoes which she does not need.

About the Artist

Oleksii S is a photographer from Ukraine.

This story appeared in Issue Eighty-Four — The SmokeLong Quarterly Award for Flash Fiction of SmokeLong Quarterly.
SmokeLong Quarterly Issue Eighty-Four — The SmokeLong Quarterly Award for Flash Fiction

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