A Knowledge Worth More Than Einstein's Intelligence
The first time Henri Fleischer thrust open the doors of the Smart Shopper and swaggered his way over to the Bargain Bins, I assumed he was on a quest for Victoria Falls and had somehow mistook Livingston, Tennessee for Livingstone, Africa. The seventy-some-year-old man was dressed in head to toe safari khaki and wore a hat whose floppy brim rakishly set off his glasses-framed, bright blue eyes. He was a smaller build — probably 5’4’’ on his tan-shoed tippy toes — but he carried himself like a Land of Canaan giant.
Within moments I knew Henri's monochromatic garments weren’t his only peculiarities. His grocery buggy was now heaped with every organic, egg-free, dairy-free, gluten-free, kosher-friendly item our store had in stock. He also wheeled and dealed my husband until he got boxes of mixed spices for on top of — not next to — nothing. But the funniest part of it all was when this health-nut careened his stockpile through the checkout line, he asked our cashier if he could also add a few boxes of Nicorette gum to his tally. Well, Henri didn’t want just a few. Mind you, this debonair safari explorer wanted all fifteen boxes. With fifty-some years of smoking in his lungs and years of calorie-laden food bulging his belt, he had decided to make a change.
Every couple of months Henri Fleischer showed up at the Smart Shopper with just as dramatic an entrance as his first. Sometimes he’d switch out his safari khaki for a mechanic’s outfit of navy blue, but his air of swaggering self-confidence never changed. With a penchant for scoping out characters in every nook and cranny I can find, I was beyond curious what this “Dr. Livingstone, I presume,” food-hoarder’s story was.
While Henri knocked row after row of Nayonaise jars into his buggy like the Apocalypse was upon us, I pushed my cart into the aisle and absently began stocking. I can’t remember how I initiated the conversation, only that I did and almost immediately wished I hadn’t. Not that I didn’t enjoy talking with him, but I was very aware that this Henri Fleischer fellow had an IQ skyrocketing miles past my own. He did not come across as pompous; he just knew everything there was to know about literature, science, economics, politics, religion. You name the subject, he had studied it at every angle and facet it could be studied.
Two weeks later our second conversation revealed that he was a former detergent company owner who’d sold his multi-million dollar business to his son, Henri Fleischer Junior. That was why his appearance at the Smart Shopper was so sporadic. He split half of his time in Livingston and the other half in Michigan where the detergent company was based. While there, he would go around in his diesel Chevy, collecting money from those who still owned his son.
A few chats after that, once Henri and I had finished discussing fluffier topics such as politics and religion, I asked him what he felt about love.
“Love?” he incredulously asked, looking at me from beneath his floppy khaki hat. “Ha! There’s never been such a thing!”
“Oh, Henri!" I gushed. "But there is!” As proof, I pointed over to where my husband was pricing cleaners. “There’s the love of my life right now.”
Henri mumbled something about chemical reactions and how the euphoric effects, like any synthetic element, wear off after a few years.
“Henri?” I asked, being careful to keep my eyes on the shelves and not his wrinkle-carved face. “Why do you feel this way?”
“My wife left me after forty years. Four-tee years of marriage!” he sputtered. “Can you believe that?”
To soothe the impact of this last information, a few minutes later Henri said, “But I’m dating someone else, now. A Jewish cello player. From Russia.”
“Hmmm, hmmm,” I replied, but honestly I didn’t know whether to believe him.
Just the other day Henri Fleischer returned to the Smart Shopper to clean out the rest of our pickled green beans: $169.00 worth, at 25 cents a can. My husband was out at our land, building our house, and I had just settled in for an afternoon writing session. I have to admit, I was a little perturbed when I realized I would be sacrificing my writing time to the loading of a diesel Chevy truck.
But when I saw Henri, I knew losing a writing session was worth it. He was still dressed in a mechanic’s outfit of navy blue, and he sported a baseball cap whose brim highlighted his glasses-framed, bright blue eyes. Those things had not changed. What had was the rounding of his shoulders; the way his frame did not fill up the warehouse like he was a Land of Canaan giant, but just a 5’4’’ man whose every cell was weary of the world and all inhabiting it.
After I passed Henri the final flat of cans, he stacked it, looked at them all layering the bed of his truck, and said, “Well, that’s the last of it.”
“Last of what?” I asked.
“The last of the food. I won’t be getting any more.”
That’s when I knew something was truly wrong. Over the past two years, Henri had been like a grocery-hoarding vulture: scarfing up items such as Matzo meal, agave syrup, tahini, jellied fish--all things our country customers thought too strange to consume.
Pausing in my movements, I looked up at him. “Henri? Are you okay?”
He sighed; his rounded shoulders sagged even lower. “No,” he said. “I’m not.”
“My girlfriend broke up with me. The Russian cello player. You know? In Michigan?”
I sheepishly nodded.
“And my son doesn’t want me to help him with the company any more.” He sighed again. “He said he doesn’t need me.”
“Oh, Henri,” I whispered.
He tried to smile, to shrug, but neither gesture portrayed the nonchalance he was hoping to convey.
Once we had gotten Henri’s total tallied (no Nicorette packs this time; Marlboros were peeking out of his mechanic’s shirt pocket), and I had tasted his Russian soup he made from our very own pickled green beans, I waved goodbye to him and headed back up the steps to our office to resume my afternoon writing.
But instead I found myself looking at our desk where my husband sits to type up QuickBooks, fill out employee checks, do taxes. I looked at my chair where I have finished one novel and am working on another; at my tattered Novel and Short Story Writer's Market book; at my recipe box filed with more short story rejections than acceptances.
I stood there for a little while longer, glancing between my husband and my life, and I was overcome with gratitude.
For although I might not have studied every angle and facet of literature, science, economics, politics, and religion, I have found and I have known love.
And this love, my friends, is a knowledge worth more than Einstein’s intelligence.
Jolina Petersheim's publishing credits include Cicada, Maypop, Waiting Room Magazine, Washington Poets Association, Pensworth, Branchwood Journal, The Patriot, and The Robertson County Times. She lives near Cookeville, Tennessee, with her Mohican-man husband, their 40 acres of untamed territory, and one unruly but lovable Southern novel-in-progress titled, Them Ties That Bind.
© Jolina Petersheim