The squeaky wheel of the grocery cart echoes hollow in the sparse vegetable and fruit section. I don’t hear it. I park in front of the asparagus, drifting in and out of awareness, as I pick through the sickly lot of them, looking for a good batch held together with three skinny blue rubber bands. Hearty veggies and fruits are rare and pricey nowadays. Avocados are as small as lemons now—both can fit in the palm of a small child. Fortunately, their pits are genetically modified to be smaller; a delicacy for the rich. Limited quantities make them pricey, like fifteen dollars apiece pricey, even here in this somewhat plush southern lake town; a town where big new luxury and sports fossil-fuel-guzzlers saturate the air, the roadways and lakefront mansions swallow nature as the water recedes around them. The dry orange clay lake bottom leaves open scraps of land, later creatively and stylishly masked to make the property more aesthetically pleasing. This all so properties will retain its lakefront value and aesthetic worth. Of course, when it rains, it floods; the continued erratic weather a product of arrogance and avarice.
The melody in my ears floods my body and mind. My latest attempt at pleasure: listening to music while grocery shopping. I let the tunes sweep me into the past. I’m in our loft in LA standing in front of Nik and Alison—parked on the opposite ends of the sofa—as I dance around in a camisole and panties belting out breathy Meg Myers’ lyrics. His wide toothy smile inspires me and I’m singing and strangling my heart out to music that blares so loudly, Alison complains, again. She rolls her eyes and goes back to work on her laptop.
I stare at the overpriced puny asparagus for the entirety of the song lazing in that memory before realizing I’m still standing there in the shadow of time when the next song comes on and the memories flood me all over again. I move on to the next aisle, next tune, repeat, and Chicago’s Hard to Say I’m Sorry. I swallow the aches and memories like a shot of whiskey and carry on; it burns, it hurts; I want more; I need more.
My five security crew in their prototypical black SUVs are near. I feel three of them hovering nearby at a safe but attainable distance in the bare and frigid vegetable and fruit section; the others, Jessie and Vin, in the continuously running vehicles awaiting outdoors. Their enormous size makes what few shoppers there are in this small rich southern predominantly white part of town scrutinize them circumspectly. Mostly because they’re big black and brown people that have the unmistakable bulge of a weapon in their jackets decked out in not-so-nuanced black tactical gear. Former Spec Ops soldiers, trusted friends and former Marines of Parker and Gray, enlisted specifically to protect and serve the West family … protecting me, while grocery shopping. It would be comical if it wasn’t so sad.
“Do you want them to look so intimidating?” Alison asked Parker when he assigned them to us after… the incident.
“Absolutely,” he said without hesitation.
Loaves of bread. Loaves and loaves of bread. Packaged and sealed ready to be bought and eaten, slathered with butter and blackberry jam—blackberries, another rarity. I stand at the top of the aisle at the grocer gazing down what appears to be an unending aisle of bread. All types: flatbread, bagels, muffins—English and otherwise—wheat, multigrain, baguettes, brioche, crepes, sourdough, scones, rye, pumpernickel, white … I could go on, I won’t. So many choices. I wonder why such a bloated small town has need for so much bread while their skimpy veggie and fruit section aligns with other stores I’ve visited? This, however, is one of those big rich chain grocers; a few remain; those stores with aisles and aisles of overpriced food most of which is thrown away and left to rot in padlocked dumpsters after their expiry date with not a thought to the hungry and homeless. The long never-ending aisles of food only for the people that can afford it. Its gilded halls open by invitation only. Yes, that’s right, invite only and shoppers less frequent as most deliver nowadays—what few that can afford.
Let them eat bread. At ten dollars a loaf? I doubt it.
The music continues uninterrupted and I grab a loaf of a favorite gluten free bread from a nearby fridge and move on towards dairyland. I hear the unmistakable inner snickers of Ali and Nik as they listen to my soliloquy about bread as I then choose the most expensive flavorless kind.
In addition to the gluten allergy handicap, society chooses to capitalize and exploit those more vulnerable; those afflicted carry the burden of higher prices for the luxury of eating tasteless cardboard.
Why do we punish the most vulnerable and poor among us?
I shrug off the question arriving at the uninterrupted lines of fridges and gallons and gallons of jugs of white goo with multi-colored tops categorized by fat content. Bovine lactations filled with enough hormones to fire a rocket to Mars; if not that, then the millions upon millions of the same cattle that fart methane into the atmosphere; so, if we’re not getting it from one, we’re getting it from another; it being pollutants.
I shiver in distaste and choose a carton of almond milk ignoring the pang of unease and tightness that I feel knowing the environmental cost and when I see the steep price—a product of growing up poor; I’ve never gotten used to having money. Not that it’s mine.
It is now.
I avert my eyes ignoring another stab of hypocritical avoidance and move on no longer hearing that inner laughter from Nik and Ali. The uncomfortable pangs of having money and feeling the incredible stigma behind it and how ridiculously fucked up it all is. My subconscious whispering to me: what about all the others?
The next aisle, filled with junk food full of candy, sodas, and chips, and an underweight white woman—so underweight I can see her rib and hip bones highlighted in vivid detail through her tight clothes—with a handcart and a bouncy blonde ponytail, her stick-like legs wrapped in pink leggings and a Carolina light blue v-neck tee. She grabs a six pack of Diet Pepsi, a super yuge bag of chips, and another bag assortment of chocolate bars. She looks back at me: “YOLO,” she says smiling unapologetically bobbing off towards the register and I have a sudden desire to play whack-a-mole. I turn around and exit that aisle without comment or smile trying to shatter the ugly socialized impulses breeding beneath the surface of my irritation.
Next: alcohol and more songs by Lifehouse and Hanging By a Moment and that ache again of familiar and favorite songs that connect us and time; soundtracks of memories made, not easily forgotten. We’re in the south; no hard liquor in big grocers; only wine and beer. Smaller now; everything is smaller now; smaller packages, smaller portions; not as much, nor as many. The domestic beers—not to be confused with boutique beers or microbrews and craft beer boom—are far more prominent in this area where it takes up most of the aisle. Less brands now. Imports—those ferner beers—are relegated to a small space separately away from the rest. Even smaller bottles and cans with a lot larger price tag, including some kind of federal import tax an obstinate congress and willfully obtuse president imposed; a real loss for growth worldwide and the country in general, but a real boon for bigots, rich people, and multinational corporations. Local enterprises, cultures, and commoners have yet to benefit from this tax like they were told it would over and over again. That we should’ve taken those promises seriously, not literally. Even the local boutique microbreweries—what few remain; at least not in this grocer—are banished to a corner with a much higher price tag. Domestic brew Michelob Ultra, sitting front and center in an exceedingly large display, should be marketed, in my humble opinion, as looks like piss, tastes like piss.
Many, many moons ago, long before Nik, I used to take part in a drinking club with a running problem called Hash House Harriers, an inclusive group of incredible and witty professionals who have lots of fun gathering on Sundays, socializing, and running through the woods and stomping through the mud drinking swill on down-downs. Down-downs are when you do something ridiculously embarrassing like fall on your face, anything wacky and humiliating, all in the sport of fun. They put you in a circle at the end of the run, while singing dirty limericks, and make you down the entire cup of warm beer till you can’t anymore. When you fail to drink the entire cup, you get the rest dumped on your head. After sitting in a hot trunk most of the day, Michelob Ultra was their down-down drink. Ever since, I’ve been a certified beer snob. I shudder thinking of that bittery punch of warm piss and make my way towards the registers at the front of the store reflecting on the time I told Alison about hashing and why my aversion for that beer. Alison has little patience and deep candor for weird white folk as she repeatedly likes to tell me.
“You white people are freaks.”
“Says the black, Jewish, Muslim, atheist, asexual, transgender, immigrant, philosopher, hacker, scientist, and poet nicknamed Ali from rural North Carolina.”
“Fuck you and you’re the biggest freak of them all.”
“With a potty mouth to boot,” I deadpanned winking at her.
“Do you have any real coffee beans this week?” I ask a grocery store employee hovering nearby. I feel the impatience rolling off him. He’s obviously tired of getting that question. Putting on his best charm and smile, he answers like the good corporate stooge he is, one that wants to keep his minimum wage job pandering to all these pampered rich people now that these types of jobs are as rare as the beans, fruits, and veggies he’s peddling—essential workers exploited without rights and living wages and benefits; the new normal. I make direct eye contact and give him a warm brief smile—the best I can presently do—affording him the understanding and cordiality of someone that’s been in his position.
Yeah, empathy, that thing that’s become recherché.
“No, we have the artificial and modified beans, but no real ones. Not this week. I’m told there should be a good harvest in a few weeks,” he says like a pro at mollifying.
“Thanks,” I murmur. “Have a great day,” I add walking off in a cold daze, but turning to smile back at him in gratitude.
He seems as taken aback by my cordiality as I am. His smile becomes a little more genuine. “Thank you. You too.”
Kindness to those around us is an under appreciated quirk that some people—myself included—seem to have misplaced these past few years in wake of all that’s happened. The time for being civil has long past. I have a reason for my umbrage; we all have a reason more or less, but that seems to be moot without the stain of ugliness and the confrontation of realness. If only we make the effort to be a little bit more tolerant and compassionate? Maybe that would’ve stopped what happened and the decline? No. Ali would say no, it’s always been this way and white people haven’t noticed it because we live in a bubble and are oblivious to our own privilege—rich white people especially. Compassion though? Something I keep having to remind myself, like a mantra: be compassionate, Willa, they may be hurting too. Those tired tags may not seem like an enlightening concept, but they bridge the divide of apathy and compassion, something that is sorely lacking nowadays and according to Ali, had always been lacking to folks like her. ‘Be civil’ is code for injustice and fascism.
Ali’s right. As much as I want to reach for hope and compassion and empathy, I see the ugliness. I’ve seen what’s happened to her, to me, to others. The dog whistle of white supremacy, misogyny, and bigotry booms across and within our poisoned history.
Will it ever end? No, it won’t end. We’d be deluded if we told ourselves otherwise. Kindness really has little to do with the socio-economic and cultural complexities. Or, does it? And I’ve never really been nice. Nice and kind? Not the same. Not to me. Niceness is a shell that can be melted and cracked and compassion and kindness are rarely underneath.
I stand at the rear of the SUV putting my groceries in the back—Jack helping—while staring at the anorexic bouncy blonde as she gets into a white Aston Martin sports car with a red and white MAGA bumper sticker, stuffing her face with potato chips, littering in the process. Not bothering to buckle up, Taylor Swift music booming, she peels out of the parking spot narrowly missing an elderly white haired lady—who throws up a middle finger—and her shopping cart. She cuts off a rusted faded blue Ford truck driven by an old smiling Hispanic man who joyfully waves at her and continues slowly onward, still smiling, both an oddity in this sea of red Trumpville Point, and I wonder if Taylor would feel as irked as I am.
Jack and I make eye contact, a tired expression between us.
Be kind, Willa. She may be hurting too.
I laugh at myself and the absurdity of my thoughts. Fuck that and fuck her. I need my anger. It’s self-preservation. Fuck you and your ready for the revolution; the revolution is here and has been since the dawn of fucking time.
© 2020 Pamela Gay Mullins