You have miles to go before you sleep. You’d better get started. No time to relish in the fluorescent afterglow of deli department victory, to let the slap of each pack of meat as it hits the bottom of your cart congratulate you. Fifteen more aisles await your patronage and since you can’t break through the field of people with their forefingers pressed against the glass display case, in order to move on with your shopping you must back up with your cart, wind around the end of the bin train that slices Aisle 1, and retreat to the front of the store by way of the wall of bacon and frozen turkey. As you pass, you scan the expansive hot dog selection for the reduced fat variety. You see fat free dogs, but you know you would have to drown them in mustard and relish to mask their lack of flavor and gelatinous texture. You see chicken dogs, but if you wanted chicken, you would buy chicken in authentic chicken form with fleshy thighs and wings, not wiener-style. You see turkey dogs, cheese-filled dogs, organic Angus beef dogs—but no reduced fat dogs. Sighing and rolling your eyes, you know that you will now have to swing by Shaw’s on your way home.
Aisle 4: Cooking Oil, Salad Dressings, Prunes, Maple Syrup, and—
Can fruit? Is that right? You tilt your head at the sign hanging from the ceiling. Not canned fruit? As though it’s actually the name of some exotic delicacy from a South African jungle, something like “grapefruit” or “star fruit,” rather than a food identified by its factory-based packaging method. You look around, searching for an explanation. But the others in the aisle move past you like you’re not even there. You tighten your mouth. What a shoddy operation this is! Can fruit. Oh, for God’s sake. (Later that night, you Google the phrase “can fruit” just to make sure that you haven’t had a hissy fit to yourself for nothing, and the first result that pops up is “can fruit make you fat.” You feel validated.)
Aisle 7: Potato Chips, Tortilla Chips, Pretzels, Cheese Puffs, Candy, Popcorn, and—
Snacks. (Because the first six products listed don’t fall under the category of snacks, you guess.)
A mother in front of you is arduously pushing a carriage loaded to the brim, her four young boys flitting and spinning around her, alternately catching rides on this extraordinary vehicle. Their feet continually knock two-liter bottles of soda off of the bottom rack and warrant Mom’s chastising. All you want to do is get to the Baked Lays, but these eddying bodies are advancing up the aisle at a pace just fast enough to prevent you from propelling your own cart around them without being guilty of cutting. So you creep behind the brigade, every now and then yanking your cart into your chest when Mom backs up to check the nutrition information on a bag of Pirate’s Booty, or to halt herself from plowing over her littlest son.
One of the pre-adolescents with shaggy hair intermittently pilfers a bag of Funyuns or Extreme Doritos from the wire display and nestles it into a crevice in his family’s already obscene mound of merchandise; Mom barks at him, removes the new addition, and tucks it back on the display, never where it belongs. A second pre-adolescent dances behind Mom, retrieves the very same bag, and returns it to the cart when her head is turned. At one point, four two-liters of Coke thunder to the floor and before Mom can yell her ninth warning that everyone had better buck up or they’re leaving (a reward rather than a punishment, it seems to you), the youngest boy is kneeling on the dirty orange tiles and splaying his body across the bottles to surf. Mom picks him up by the collar of his polo shirt and gives him a hearty shake while his brothers snigger.
Finally, firmly, you decide to rail against adversity. You leave your cart, walk around the commotion, and grab your Baked Cheddar and Sour Cream chips, goddammit. Hell—you grab two, just in case. There will be, there can be, no backtracking today.
Aisle 11: Goya, Arizona Tea, Can Vegetables, Can Potatoes, Gravy, and—
Box Juice. (There they go again. Boxes produce juice when squeezed? Is box juice without cardboard pulp an option? You grunt at your own terrible joke. This place is really not good for your perfectionist disorder.)
Because your children suck up liquids like wet vacs, you prefer to purchase the cheapest possible option of juice. Unfortunately, so does the average elderly couple on a limited budget. A tall gentleman, his hair combed straight back from his forehead into silvery undulations that end in a froth of curls at the base of his neck, obscures your view of the generic brand stock. His wife is short and thick, draped in a housedress of vines and yellow flowers and the scientific name of the yellow flowers printed in black script under each blossom: Begonia x tuberhybrida.
“Don’t get ‘not from concentrate,’” she admonishes her husband. “I don’t like ‘not from concentrate.’ They charge you more for that. I can add my own water, thank you very much.”
“All right,” says the husband. He reaches his hand slowly into the dim cavern between two metal shelves.
“Wait a minute,” she stops him. “Do they carry pomegranate? I don’t like the cranberry. Clogs my throat and makes me choke. Look for the pomegranate, Malcolm.”
Malcolm drags out a bottle of white grape. “White grape,” he announces.
Malcolm pulls another bottle to the edge of the shelf. “White grape.”
His wife wags a finger to urge him on.
“White grape…white grape…white grape…cranberry raspberry…white grape.”
“Oh, this is ridiculous,” carps Begonia. “Men can’t find anything. Let me see. Move over. I’ll find the pomegranate.”
You sit into your left hip, lean your forearms on the handle of your cart, and rest your chin on the backs of your hands. There’s just no way this place manufactures its own pomegranate juice. You’re going to be here a while.