Chicken. That was the reason I’d had to stop. It seemed that there was always an item or two missing from the inventory we’d gathered from the good old Handi-Mart that weekend, and now, Thursday night after work, I thought I’d better pick up the chicken. To that list, I’d added shampoo, milk, cornmeal and two packages of gummy bears, a special request from the kids. The list always grew when we had one item to pick up.
Joe’s Market is a medium-sized store, an anachronism today, in the days when most people in the neighborhood bought online and stopped by for delivery. We’d tried that once or twice. But with two going to college, I wasn’t keen on spending the extra twenty for convenience, and besides, grocery shopping was pleasurable to me. I liked to stroll slowly through the aisles and see if there was anything new. Dragon fruit, for example. Exotic, sweet and floral smelling. Green and scaled on the outside, when I’d taken it home and cut it open it had turned out to be snowy white on the inside with tiny black seeds. The outside isn’t always representative of what’s inside, I’d noted.
Today the store seemed dead. It had been a long day at work. Mr. Cuccinelli had laid into me because the article I’d written had misquoted the mayor, and the mayor had telephoned Cuccinelli, rabid about it. I felt terrible, of course. But what could be done when the article was already published. A retraction, Cuccinelli had yelled at me. I’d felt my blood boil. The irony was that it wasn’t even my mistake. Cuccinelli’s nephew worked at the paper and had collaborated on the story. Twenty-four, handsome and spoiled, the nephew would never have taken responsibility, and Cuccinelli would only have been incensed that I suggested it, so I’d just sat quietly at my desk as he laid into me.
Now I was walking in the green fluorescent light of Joe’s, holding a package of cornmeal and making my way towards the chicken. That was when they walked in. I could swear to you that the muzak version of “Sleepy Jean” was playing at the time. They were loud, even in walking, and, as I glanced at my watch, I wondered why they weren’t in school.
The tallest wore a leather jacket and a combed-over mohawk. He walked in with a strut, and even then, just from the way he walked, I knew there would be trouble. Next to him was another, in a plaid flannel shirt thrown over a striped sailor’s shirt. Twinsy Kurt Cobain. He was too young to even know who he was imitating. I instinctively made my way from the meat refrigerator to the milk, farther from them.
Out of the corner of my eye, I could see Joe, sweeping up the floor at the produce aisle. He took a step back, adjusted his glasses and stopped sweeping when they came in. They were obviously in the wrong place. Our neighborhood is a place of trees, of fences, of mothers who try to avoid feeding the kids anything artificial. Our neighborhood is one in which we all worry whether it’s bad for us or good for us to consume dairy. I was strolling in the milk aisle. My eyes scanned the alternatives. Soy milk, almond milk, coconut milk, flax milk, lactose-free milk and organic whole and skim. I took a second look at the Hanson’s dairy jug that was in my hand.
They were boisterous. That was one thing that had gotten my attention. I could no longer hear the muzak because they were playing something else on their cell phones. They hadn’t bothered to turn them off before entering the store. I always made sure that even my ringtone was unobtrusive, generic, something that no one would turn around to hear if it should happen to ring while I was out in public.
Cuccinelli was a jerk, I thought to myself. How was I to prevent his stupid nephew from putting something into the article that was not factually accurate? If I had to check everything he put in, I might as well just write the whole article myself . . . which would have been a whole lot easier. I remembered I’d complained about Cuccinelli at home before. “Ummmhmmm,” my husband had replied. He was watching the basketball game on TV at the time.
So, I guess it would be another night of distracting myself with the laundry, throwing in everyone’s used basketball clothes, making sure that there were fresh towels. They’d promptly be thrown back onto the floor, damp, along with the fetid socks that never really got totally clean and were simply worn and washed until they were finally replaced by new, fresh ones. More work at the paper so that we could get more replacement socks. I’d picked up one extra large jug of laundry detergent and thought better, grabbing two as I left the aisle.
Dinner would be next. I’d chosen a balsamic glaze recipe. It would take a little while to make the reduction, I thought. Jessie would bitch about it, for sure. She can’t stand anything that smacks of the unusual, so I’d likely have to make two portions, one with the glaze and one without. Ironic. I didn’t even want chicken for dinner. What I really felt like was a luscious steak, done my way, that is, bloody on the inside. I know red meat causes cancer, but I’d drink it with a heavy Chianti, like the red blended I’d saved for a special occasion. Antioxidants could balance out the bad stuff, I thought to myself wryly.
Nope, I thought. We have college to save for, and that’s when I realized that I’d made my way back to the meat counter and mini-Cobain and the Mohawk. They were laughing and tossing meat to each other. Frozen turkey legs flying through the air, snatched by Mohawk and pelted back into the freezer. Joe, still holding the broom, had gone back to his chore. I saw that he was consciously making an effort not to look their way.
I was staring. They didn’t seem to notice. They were wonderfully mismatched, shoes with holes. I noticed for the first time that portions of Mohawk’s eyebrows had been shaved off, and he had a tongue ring. I wondered what it would feel like to have the air rush into and out of my feet if I had only the courage or occasion to wear his ripped Vans. It would probably be that same feeling of air rushing on my legs that I used to feel when I walked over the subway grates, attending journalism school in New York.
Their laughter was lusty. “Then chicken!” yelled Cobain, tossing a pack of breasts to Mohawk. Joe seemed to be focused on sweeping up an invisible pile of dirt next to the bananas. Mohawk turned it over. In the blue-green light of the market, I could see an iridescence, a blue vein in the cold chicken. It must be getting close to expiration, I thought. “Nah,” he said, tossing it back. “I can’t stand chicken.” And then, silence just before he launched into a stream of expletives to describe the chicken.
He picked up a package of steaks and a six-pack of the local beer. This ought to be interesting, I thought to myself. I inched over as they wheeled the cart to the checkout register. I sidled into the line behind them and carefully put a tin of extra-strong mints in my cart. I wouldn’t want to have offensive breath at work . . . How could I have forgotten breath mints from the list. Honestly, sometimes I felt like I was failing in everything lately.
Cobain pulled out his driver’s license so he could purchase the alcohol. There was no hologram and the picture looked nothing like him. I peered over at the birthdate: 1964. I almost laughed out loud. Joe had finally put his broom aside. Mohawk and Cobain were loudly ringing the bell at the register, and now, Chief Falcon had walked in from outside the store, picking up a package of Tastycake donuts for the afternoon shift. His eyes trolled the store, and I saw them stop on the beer, then look up at the two youngsters making the purchase.
The moment of truth. I watched as Joe took the license and turned it over in his hand. I saw the silver tongue ring slide over the teeth of the tall one, and I saw Officer Falcon slide his hand over his duty weapon. He was fat. He didn’t need the donuts, but with a duty weapon, he’d surely get the better of the two punks. Joe handed the license back. I waited for the confrontation.
Without looking at the boys, he said “Twenty-eight seventy-six.” He was handed thirty, made change, and I watched, wistfully, as the boys left the store, still laughing, still blasting their music from the cell phone. Chief Falcon hadn’t moved from his spot.
I saw color returning to Joe’s face, and Officer Falcon moved his other hand back to the Tastycakes he was holding. Joe started to ring up my order. When he got to the chicken, I stopped him. It was in a blue Styrofoam package. I could see the yellow, waxy fat congealed and sticking to the taut plastic that covered it. No amount of carefully reduced aged balsamic would make it better. Nauseous. That was how I suddenly felt.
“I changed my mind.”
I took the chicken and tossed it carelessly back into the big blue freezer case. A few more steps to the red meat. I walked over and selected four thick, bloody Porterhouses. I put them into my cart.
“Pilates instructor isn’t gonna be happy,” Joe said to me with a wink.
I drove home. The sun seemed to peek out of the clouds. On a whim, I chucked my breath mints out of the window. I was thinking of bloody steak and nice Chianti to wash it down.