Denise Kohlmeyer

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NONFICTION

Lesson Learned

Nobody wants Hazel. Including me.

Hazel is unattractive, with dark, prickly hairs protruding from her chin and upper lip. Her fingers are grotesquely curled, her knuckles large as walnuts. Her grey-blue eyes bulge like a frog’s, and she is bent over like a broken branch.

I admit that the first time I saw Hazel, I recoiled. The old hag from Snow White and the Seven Dwarves came immediately to mind.

Nobody wants Hazel. Including me.

Hazel is impossibly slow. And not just because of her bowed legs. She reads every label, checks every expiration date. She is extremely picky. What typically takes ten minutes to usher a Guest through the food pantry, takes triple the time with Hazel.

Hazel’s speech is also garbled. It often takes a repeat (or two) to understand her. And even then, you aren’t quite sure you heard her correctly.

There’s also an aroma around Hazel. Of sour sweat and unwashed body. Her clothes—baggy, unkempt, mismatched—carry the stench of the streets.

Nobody wants Hazel. Including me.

Funny how everyone seems to find something to do when it comes to Hazel’s turn to shop. One needs to use the restroom. Another finds that an item is low and goes to stock it. Yet another says he must go find the director and tell her something and it simply cannot wait.

Nobody wants Hazel. Including me.

But I can’t seem to find a fast-enough excuse this night, so I go over to Hazel and force a smile, bracing myself for the agony that awaits.

I grab a cart and usher Hazel over to the cereal section. She knows the drill, but still I remind her that she is welcome to take two boxes. Hazel contemplates the choices. There are nine varieties. One by one, she picks up each box and scans the ingredients.

Just pick one! I scream inside my head.

She finally decides on a box of Muesli. I place it in the grocery bag on the cart. We move to the next section.

“Do you need any peanut butter or jelly?” I ask, noting that the next Guest and fellow volunteer-shopper are right behind us.

“Tmnypresrvtivs,” Hazel slurs.

I clench my fists. “Sorry, Hazel. What was that?”

She repeats herself, this time more slowly. “Too many preservatives.” Then, “My tongue hasn’t worked right since my stroke last year.” She gives me an apologetic smile.

My fists unclench. I pull the cart forward. We’re at the canned goods now. She points. “Any of those organic?”

I have no idea, but I take a look. At the very back—of course!—I find two cans of organic sweet corn. I hand them to Hazel. She studies a label, nods approvingly. Into the bag they go, a bag that contains only three items now—and we have only moved four feet.

The other Guest finally passes us. My fellow volunteer-shopper gives me a sympathetic look.

I push the cart forward, hoping to hurry Hazel along.

“Did I ever tell you I had polio when I was nine years old?” Hazel says, articulating so I can understand her.

Ah, that explains the bowed legs.

“No. I’m so sorry, Hazel. How awful.” I stop the cart. “Did you have to be put into an iron lung?”

I picture Hazel as a little girl, her tiny prepubescent body encased in one of those massive machines that has to “breathe” for her, forcing air in and out of her diseased lungs. It makes me sad to think of it.

“No,” she says, eyeing the cookies. Hazel has a sweet tooth. “But it took me three years to learn how to walk.”

Hazel’s eyes light up as they land on some Keebler Fudge Stripes. Even though Guests are allowed only one package of cookies, I slip two into Hazel’s bag. She smiles appreciatively at me.

“How did you learn to walk?” I ask, slow-stepping toward the clothing bins. I know we will be here awhile. Hazel will want to sort through each bin to look for something in her size. By the look of Hazel’s girth, she is plus size. I start to rummage, pulling out T-shirt after T-shirt.

“My mother,” Hazel articulates, taking the extra-large pink T-shirt I hand her. She shakes her head. “Pink’s for babies.”

I put the T-shirt back and rummage some more.

Hazel continues. “She was a saint. She had such patience. She massaged my legs every night after she got home from work. And she forced me to get out of bed and stand up every day so my legs would get strong. It worked. I never needed leg braces. But they’ve always been bowed.”

“So you were home by yourself?” I ask, incredulous. I can’t imagine someone that young being left alone all day, every day.

Hazel nods her frizzled gray-white head. “Well, Mother had to work, because my father left us when I was four years old. And there was no one else to watch me.” Hazel abandons the clothing bins. There is nothing in her size this time.

“I’m so sorry,” I say. And I truly am. I wonder at the pain and confusion Hazel must have felt as a young child growing up fatherless. Did she ever wonder if she was the cause of his leaving? Did she question if he had ever loved her? Had she ever tried to find him? I want to ask but am not sure how deep to go with her. We’re instructed as volunteer-shoppers not to be too intrusive, too nosy, to respect our Guests’ privacy.

We move to the toiletry section. I grab a roll of paper towels and two toilet paper rolls and put them in her bag. Every Guest gets them whether they want them or not.

I follow Hazel to the first of five cold cases, pulling the cart behind me. Hazel opens the glass door and pulls out a package of bratwursts, which is covered in a thin film of frost. She flips it over and reads the expiration date. A heavy sigh slips through her lips. The date is a week past. She puts the brats back.

“So what did you do all day when you were alone?” I ask, as yet another Guest passes us and heads to the freezer on the other side. The fellow volunteer-shopper rolls her eyes at Hazel’s back. Slow poke, I read in that roll.

I bristle.

“I tried to keep up with my schoolwork,” Hazel says, inspecting some beef patties now. “But I fell behind and eventually gave up.”

I shake my head in disbelief. “Did you ever go back to school?”

“Oh, yes. But I had to be put in the third grade, even though I was twelve.” She huffs. “I hated that! So, I studied really hard and moved up quickly. I even graduated on time.” Hazel beams, proud of her accomplishment.

I beam too, impressed.

I stand by as Hazel scrounges through the next case. She finds a head of lettuce that’s not too wilted. She picks through the frozen vegetables and selects a bag of peas that is only a day past expiration.

We then come to the last cold case: dairy. It’s stocked with single-serving containers of yogurt—peach, strawberry, and vanilla—half-gallons of 2% milk, and cartons of cottage cheese. Hazel pulls a face and pats her abdomen. “Dairy doesn’t agree with me.”

I nod understandingly.

We’re at the end now. Done shopping. The only thing left to do is to take the cart out to the curb where the groceries will be loaded into Hazel’s car, which is a run-down Honda Civic. The back seat is crammed with all of Hazel’s life.

I hand off Hazel to our designated volunteer-car loader.

“Thank you,” Hazel says, twisting her head sideways. “It was nice talking with you.”

“You’re very welcome,” I say. “And you, too.”

I suddenly find myself wishing for more time with Hazel, wanting to know more about this extraordinary woman and her life. But as I watch her follow her cart, slow-shuffling and bent, I know I will find out more next week, when I will get Hazel all to myself.

Because nobody wants Hazel. Except me.


Denise Kohlmeyer is a former journalist and the co-author of two books in the Clues for the Clueless series. As a freelance writer, she has been published in numerous online and print publications. Denise also earned an Honorable Mention in the 2018 Writer’s Digest Writing Contest for her story “Samaria Revisited.” You can find her at denisekohlmeyer.com.


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Photo Credit: “shopping” by Jürg Stuker, Flickr.com.

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