In the Produce Aisle


Stories can be found everywhere. You don’t have to look for them; they come to you. Richard Matheson wrote the immortal short story “Duel” after a highway encounter — what we would now call “road rage” — with the driver of a tractor-trailer. I read another great short story, decades ago (and I wish I could remember the author) about a guy who brought his Sunday paper in from the front porch and there was a gawdawful bug on the inside of the newspaper bag which tried its best to kill him and almost succeeded. The author in his Afterward noted that the story was born as the result of a spider catching a ride into his house in the manner presented in the story. And so it goes.

I got the spark — and I mean the SPARK — yesterday in the produce aisle of a local supermarket. I was looking over the carrots and such when I heard a male voice, coming from close behind me, saying, “Hey, old man.” I ignored it —I mean, surely the guy could not be talking to me — yet the person persisted. “You,” he said, using a low voice. “With the concealed carry.” As it happens, I do have a concealed carry permit, and at the time had in my possession a .38 in a pocket holster. It’s very unobtrusive, so that it is not easy to tell when or if I’m carrying, unless someone is specifically looking for it. I turned around to find a stranger of about my height and age, wearing sunglasses and a gimme cap, smiling somewhat strangely at me. “You a fast draw?” he asked. I just shook my head and asked, “What do you mean?” He answered, while moving a step closer to me. “You got a gun. Think you can outdraw me?”

I was thinking at that point that I was dealing with someone who was very foolish at best or mentally unbalanced at worst. My primary concern, however, was that the store was busy. The produce department in this particular store is located close to the entrance and exit doors and everyone  from retirees in golf shirts to moms in yoga pants were making cross patterns near us. I needed to move this encounter elsewhere, and quickly. I said to him, keeping my voice level, “This isn’t a conversation we should be having in here. Let’s go outside and talk about it.” My plan was to wait until we got into the store vestibule or just out to the parking lot where I planned to suddenly trip him, immobilize him, and have someone call 911.

This all changed when the stranger, instead of answering me, smiled, took off his sunglasses and cap, and said, “Hi, Joe.” The stranger turned out to be  a friend of mine, someone I have known for decades and with whom I speak frequently but rarely see. He is retired from a very elite government agency where he was renowned for being able to substantially change his appearance with just a hat or glasses a talent which he demonstrably still possessed (and yes, the passage of time helped him, too). He was pranking me. Some might regard what he did to be foolish, but he knew exactly how I would react, or intended to react — much of what I have learned about such matters, I’ve learned from him — and thus inferred that I would not take action beyond that which would reasonably be called for at any particular point in the situation. As for myself, it took a few minutes to get my heart rate back to normal, as I went through the stuttering motions of keeping up a conversation  and then completing my shopping. In addition to carrots, I suddenly needed to buy some bleach.

After I arrived home and got the groceries unpacked (note to the gentlemen out there: no husband was ever murdered by his wife while he was unpacking the groceries, no matter how egregious his sins) and started some laundry I realized that I had the opening hook of a domestic thriller which I’ve been toying with for months handed to me. Actually, I had several different beginnings handed to me. All of them involve a supermarket, a shopper seeming minding their own business, and an unexpected intervention which sets the plot for the rest of the book careening into a number of individuals’ lives like a bee bee in a box car.

So, tell us, please: have you been pranked recently (after all, it is the Halloween season)? Did it have a short or long-term effect on you? And does it have a potential as the springboard — a spark — for a story? If the answer to any of those questions is a yes, please share if you wish, but hold close if you must.


29 thoughts on “In the Produce Aisle

  1. Good morning, Joe.

    Remind me to NOT arrive in disguise if we are meeting someplace. You certainly had a hook that kept me “turning the pages.”

    I haven’t been pranked recently, but did have some interesting “entertainment” at a woodturning symposium. A large group stood fifty feet away while some backwoodsmen drilled a hole in a huge log, poured in half a pound of gunpowder, lit the fuse, and watched the log open like a clam shell. Of course large chunks of wood, big enough to do some damage, went sailing over our heads and landed a hundred feet away from the log. Not being a risk taker, I couldn’t help but think about what kind of injuries could have occurred.

    I haven’t thought about how to use that in a story, but I’ll work on it.

    Thanks for the post. Glad you didn’t have to tackle your prankster.

    Stay safe!

    • Good morning, Steve. So nice to hear from you again. It wasn’t the disguise part…it was the words and the inappropriate use. Yikes! I will say that it is generally inadvisable to come up on someone’s six and make a comment or a remark which could reasonably be construed as threatening. But you know that already!

      Thank you for your story, which I found to be more frightening than my own experience. That one was worthy of a Darwin Award nomination.

      Thanks for sharing, Steve. Let us know if you come up with a story idea on that.

  2. My comment verges on the political, but I’ll try to keep it confined to creative sparks.

    As a Canadian looking at the US from the outside, and as someone who used to own two shotguns, shot skeet competitively and did some upland game hunting, I was surprised to learn that one of my writing heroes carries a gun, even with a permit.

    I’m not judging you personally, Joe. In fact, I’m not judging at all, but your spark for a story creates its own sparks, myriads of them, e.g., the backstory of a writer who needs to carry a gun: What happened to create that need? Does the writer carry it because of his writing and popularity, or are irate clients from his work as an attorney the concern? Maybe a pop band that never made it because of a critical review? What could happen now that s/he carries a concealed weapon?

    The what ifs are infinite, and I’d write such a story, except that I’m sure many other writers are writing such stories these days, and I’m angrier about other themes.

    One of the reasons I don’t carry a gun is that I’d likely use it, i.e., I’m not sure I could control my rage at the injustices we see every day in so many areas. For example, on two occasions, I’m almost positive that I would have used a gun against dangerous drivers if I’d had one in my glove compartment.

    Everyone is safer if I don’t carry… this said by a well-balanced individual with no mental problems that I’m aware of and very good impulse control. So another what if is a story about an ordinary guy/gal, just like me, who loses it, just for a moment, and all hell breaks loose as a result.

    Maybe some of your other followers will write these stories.

    • Sheryl, thank you for your kind words and for stopping by. I’ll try to stay out of the political as well in responding. The writer carries a gun for the same reasons that he has home and auto insurance: he’s not hoping for catastrophe, but if it occurs he wants a way of mitigating it or indeed preventing it. To put it another way, it’s better to have and not need than need and not have. As far as the difference between the United States and Canada is concerned…let’s just note that we in the lower 48 have social problems which differ considerably from those of our fine neighbor to the North.

      That being said, absolutely, if you are concerned that you would use a firearm inappropriately you’ve made the right decision not to carry one. I would hope that you would never be in a situation requiring a weapon for self-defense, but if you do, remember that anything can be used as a weapon. Witness the famous scene with the eyeglasses in The Godfather Part III. My wife has no desire to carry a gun but has a tactical pen which a purchased for her and which will get the job done in close quarters.

      Sheryl, thanks again for stopping by and sharing. It’s much appreciated.

  3. I’ve never been pranked like that, Joe, but I did once get a story idea in the produce section. I had a germ of an idea about a man with a secret that I’d been lugging around (along with all the others) for a long time. It resurfaced occasionally like a dolphin for a breath, but I didn’t have the the right story or characters or inspiration yet. Then one day in that produce section I overheard a child telling his mother that his father’s job was soooo boring and uncool. The mother simply smiled knowingly and said, “If you only knew….” So amid the onions and the sweet corn, that story was truly born. Although I still wonder about that boy’s father, and remember the smile on his mother’s face.

    • Justine, I love it! Thanks for sharing! What a hook…I’ll be wondering all day — and maybe for longer than that — about what dad’s job really involved. Maybe part of it was keeping Mama happy :-). Thanks again!

  4. Joe–Great story. And since we have concealed (and now, open) carry in Texas, you’ve just given me the opening for a book, although I’ll bet mine will be different than yours in the end. Many–actually, most–of my own novels have been inspired by situations I’ve encountered. Obviously, I’m not the only one. Thanks for sharing this.

    • Richard, I’m really looking forward to seeing your opening when your book is published. Please let us know.

      Re: open carry…Ohio is a traditional open carry state but you have to have a concealed carry permit in order to openly carry in a vehicle. Try saying that ten times quickly.

      Thanks for stopping by and sharing!

  5. I had a high school friend who loved prank phone calls. And he’d record them, the scofflaw. One of his pranks was to call a random number. The person would answer, “Hello?” He’d say, “Is this See’s Candy?” The response would be something like, “Oh, no…” Then he’d say, “Then why did a sucker like you answer the phone?”

    Cruel, I know. I think he’s reformed now.

    Anyway, one time he got a very nice lady (from the voice) and after his “sucker” line there was a pause, and this very nice lady unleashed a few lines of invective that would have astounded a New England stevedore.

    Idea: the pranked traces the call … you fill in the rest.

    • Jim, I well remember prank calls. Some were harmless, others not so much. They seem to have disappeared with the advent of caller ID. Their grandchildren are the folks who call from the “Windows Security Department” and try to take over your computer. I usually play along with them, telling them that I am inputting the code, and when they ask, “And what do you see?” I answer “Pictures of your ugly sister.” The conversation quickly goes downhill from there. Thank you for the reminder of a gentler, better time.

  6. Some punk I work with on occasion gave me the, “Hey old man.” spiel. I made him repeat it 4-5 times before I turned to him and told him that I’d show him an old man real quick. He got scared and shut his piehole

  7. mg, I learned as a youngster that you don’t mess with old guys. Ever. When I was a whippersnapper an “old guy” had usually seen combat in WWI and had been through enough that their capacity for taking guff was set at zero. Good for them and good for you.

    I’m 64 now, but the first time I was referred to as an old motherfrimmer was when I was just shy of 40. Oh, the Humanity!

    Thanks for stopping by and sharing, mg.

  8. Terrific story, Joe. Ideas are like germs, all over the place. Too many good ones, not enough time.

    Next time Windows calls, I hope you don’t mind if I borrow your “ugly sister” line. Hysterical!

    • Would I mind? Debbie, I would be honored!

      The key here is to exhibit befuddled compliance, initially, and then go for the killshot. Pretend that you are following their step-by-step instructions, and then when they ask, “And what does it say on your screen?” go for it. Another good response is “It says that a (insert inappropriate/politically incorrect term) is trying to take over my computer and a drone is about to strike their location.” I have other responses as well. Thanks for stopping by. I hope you have fun!

    • Joe, thank you so much. That’s high praise indeed from someone of your degree of talent. I’ll try not to disappoint either of us.

  9. Wow. What a way to test the heart rate right off the bat! I’m not sure what I’d do if approached that way. I don’t carry, but only because I’m afraid I would shoot myself in the foot. LOL! I would love to learn to shoot one day.

    If that type of encounter doesn’t spawn a burst of creativity for a writer, I don’t know what would. In fact, that ought to spawn a series. 😎

    • Thank you, BK. If you want to learn how to shoot, get yourself a veteran firearms instructor who will teach you how to avoid the mishap you described (which is, do not let your finger break the plane of the trigger guard unless and until you have acquired a target). And if you ever plan to be in the Columbus, Ohio area, let me know in advance. I’d be honored to give you a rudimentary course in firearms safety and instruction.

      I like your idea for a series. If my protagonist makes it to (beyond) the end of the book that might happen. Thanks for the encouragement!

  10. Closet I’ve ever come to something like this is being approached by someone talking on the hands-free phone, and me thinking they were addressing me…

    And the day-job is downtown Atlanta, at the safety-net hospital, and one used to think those on the sidewal talking aloud by themselves and waving their hands were on their way to the 13th floor (our Psych Unit)~ but, now well, it’s a bit hard to make that call any more (so to speak).

    Yours is a great hook, though~ with so many different directions it can lead… Curious about where you go with it…

    • Yes, I get taken off guard by people talking on the phone vs. talking to themselves too. I still haven’t gotten used to it. But then given how much I’m on the phone every day for my job, I really don’t understand people’s fixation with phones at all.

  11. G., that thing with the bluetooth talkers has happened to me a couple of times as well. It’s strange. Back in the day, before cell phones and bluetooth and car phones, oh my, I was in the deep south and found myself driving behind a guy who was gesturing, pounding on the steering wheel for emphasis, jabbing his finger in the air…it looked like he was talking to someone but the car was empty. He also had some sort of lump on his shoulder. I found a place to pass him and I did. As I drove by I saw that the driver was a (at the time) very well known radio and television evangelist, and the lump on his shoulder, was…a parrot. He must have been rehearsing a sermon.

    Thanks for the kind words and encouragement. I’ll give you a taste. The guy in the supermarket is approached, by…a woman…and his entire world changes in a heartbeat…

      • Twice?! Well then, Debbie, my job is almost done! Please scroll down to the comments of Mr. Basil Sands, who presents the definitive method for washing these cyberpunks out of your hair!

  12. SH’s wood explosion story reminds of the time some dimwits decided to blow up a dead whale on the beach in Oregon. Many people were there. Google it and watch it on You Tube. It wasn’t wood falling from the sky.

    I was pranked once. The people that did it were doing it to surprise me, and make me happy. Let’s just say there’s a lot of backstory to that I’m not going into. Instead of making me happy, it just ripped the band-aid off and made me so angry I burst into tears. They took those for tears of joy, and thought they were successful. Thinking about the whole thing irritates me to this day. I would never prank anybody.

    • Catfriend, that’s a tough one. My own policy is to err on the side of caution. You can comfort someone, but I don’t think that you can make them feel better. That takes place over time and distance. Sorry that you had that experience. It’s a cautionary story, for sure; thank you for sharing.

  13. Joe, I have to admit I’m in insta-love with this blog and this topic. The worst prank I’ve ever committed was buttering (yes, I mean with an actual stick of butter) both sides of my brother’s door knob while he was sleeping, knocking, then bolting back to my own bed. You might imagine his cursing -and my giggling- when he got a handful of the icky substance, stomped to the bathroom to wash, then cursed again when he stomped back, only to get another handful of butter. Good times.
    However, my husband tops the experience, confessing once, his mom tied him, his sister, and herself in the kitchen…later when dad came home from work, she told him they’d been robbed. The invader was in the garage, trying to steal their car. My father-in-law, who’d never held a firearm in his life, believed her wholeheartedly and darted to the garage. He had no weapon. No way of defending himself. I don’t know if there’s a story there, but it’s that kind of courage under pressure that makes me admire the man. My mother-in-law, however, well…that was just mean.

  14. A.S.P., thanks so much for your kind comments. Wer’e glad you’re enjoying things here at TKZ. And thanks for sharing that story about your brother (really funny and creative) and your mother-in-law. Your father-in-law sounds like a treasure, a stand-up guy…but…that prank your mother-in-law pulled could have gone very badly.
    Another story… several years ago I was at a writer’s conference and staying below the salt at an overflow hotel which bordered a residential area whose residents consisted primarily of college students. It was about midnight, and a group of authors, editors, myself, etc. were outside the hotel, talking and gossiping (mostly gossiping). We suddenly heard a young woman screaming “HELP! STOP IT! HELP!” I took off running into the neighborhood, trying to locate the voice. The woman kept screaming. Since I couldn’t see anyone, I yelled “GET OFF OF HER, YOU VARLET, OR I SHALL SMITE YOU REPEATEDLY ACROST YOUR CHEEKS AND JOWL!.” Well, I said said something like that. I thought it might stop the attack or whatever until I could reach the scene. Things got really quiet and then two younger women appeared, followed by a third. They apologized profusely; apparently the three were roommates and the two in front had been having an argument with the third and started tossing her clothes down to her off of their balcony, prompting her to start screaming help, stop it, and the like. And yes, alcohol was a factor. I just shook my head and walked away. No one believed me when I returned to the group at the hotel and said that nothing important had occurred. Pranks, indeed, can go wrong. Thanks again for sharing and we hope you keep returning!

  15. Scary on the CC prank, never miss with a dude (or dudette) who is packing, which in Alaska could be just about anyone since there is no concealed carry restriction here.

    That said, I have had so much fun with those “Windows Security Department” (WSD) guys. Sometimes I just talk back to them with a thick Chinese or Russian accent as if I am am immigrant myself. Amazing how long they will stay on the phone before they realize you’ve turned prank them.

    Two weeks I had fun with a guy who tried to sound official by giving details about the security report my computer was supposedly giving them. How could he know I am a senior government IT guy who reads real reports like that every day.

    WSD: Your DNS entries are reporting as invalid according to your PCs NetBios DHCP log. If you allow me to access RDP to your system I can invoke the embedded Microsoft security patch thread and guarantee you will be able to securely browse with no fear of a DOS or ROQ attack.

    Me: Oh my goodness, I am glad you caught that.

    WSD: Indeed sir, we at Microsoft are here to ensure a safe browsing environment for you. So if you will allow me to access your computer I…

    Me: Of course, yes of course, we need to get this bad software off my computer right away.

    WSD: yes, so if you will…

    Me: so did you run the Citrix MCSE shell redundancy command during your scan to make sure there were no false positives in the SCCM report?

    WSD: I…huh?

    Me: Or are you guys using Tenable NESSUS scans to pull the vulnerability list on these inventory control units?

    WSD: Yes sir, if you could allow me to….

    Me: Well, either way, if you are able to scan using either of those methods you obvious have a functional SMS server running your Active Directory admin services, so I will just stand by and let you connect via the VmWare machine interface. So go right ahead.

    WSD: Uh…sir if you will open your

    (I produce a bing sound on my end of the call)

    Me: Okay, that means I nearly have a connection to your computer and we should have your physical location soon. Keep talking to me to hold the connection open for exact triangulation.

    WSD: Excuse me sir? What are you doing.

    (another ding on my end)

    Me: Please make sure to stay in your seat and do not leave, our agents are currently observing you and verifying your personal identity. The sound you hear is security forces cordoning off your area.

    WSD: Wha….
    (another ding)

    Me: Your mother says you were not like this as a child. She says you were a nice boy. She does not understand what she did wrong for you to end up like this.

    WSD: what are you talking about?

    Me: Your mother will be held responsible for any collateral damage you cause. You realize there is a special hell for men who cause their mother to suffer don’t you?


  16. Basil…I am in awe of you. I am laughing so hard that I can hardly type. I hope you don’t mind that might use your presentation, word for word and line by line, next time I get a call from “Windows Security.” Probably later today. Thanks!

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