Costly Purchases Not Covered by SNAP

Submitted into Contest #228 in response to: Write a story in which a character eats something that they shouldn’t have eaten.... view prompt



This story contains themes or mentions of suicide or self harm.

“Just the… three bottles of Tylenol and the vodka?” The elderly cashier looked up, both unpracticed and uninterested in concealing his judgment. The thin young woman standing at the counter smiled at him and said, 

“The Smirnoff is a gift for my in-laws, and I’ve been having terrible headaches lately.” She paused, then added,

“You know what? Throw this in too— I feel like splurging.” She smiled brightly as she tossed a single-serving instant oatmeal packet on the counter, then looked up, clearly expecting him to scan her items. With a deadpan expression, the cashier held his hand out:

“I’ll need to see some ID.” Marian rolled her eyes as she pulled out her wallet. 

“I only come in here twice a day, Dean— I’d think you could remember by now that I’m twenty four.” The old man did not respond as he scanned her ID and then her items. 

“Cash?” he asked, bored. Marian shuffled through her purse and pulled out a blue card. 

“Um… put the oatmeal and pills on this, and I’ll do cash for the booze.” The cashier sighed deeply, as though he didn’t get paid enough to deal with the incompetent public and said, 

“SNAP doesn’t cover medicine. I can put the oatmeal on it and that’s it.” Marian shook her head with embarrassment. 

“Right, sorry— you’re right. I’m just… frazzled today.” The cashier scanned her purchases and shoved the plastic bag towards her. He seemed half-asleep as he said,

“I’m supposed to ask if you would like the Smirnoff gift-wrapped with our—” But Marian was already on her way out the door with her loot. 

“Thanks as always, Dean!” she called as the bell tinkled behind her and the door snapped shut. 

One bumpy bus ride and a freezing four-minute walk later, Marian stepped into her small house and locked the front door quickly behind her. She shivered involuntarily— they hadn’t had heat for a week and it was impossible to escape the icy Indiana winter outside. As soon as the door was locked, Marian’s face changed so completely that a stranger who had seen her in the shop earlier probably wouldn’t recognize her. 

She had a decade of experience in masking her illness. It was as easy as breathing for her to put on a jovial persona, josh with cashiers, and make small talk with strangers on the bus— the person she presented to the world was a stranger to her, but that person was much easier for others to understand. 

Public Marian was happy. She was easy to laugh and quick to return a compliment. She was an easygoing person that didn’t make others uncomfortable or cry her heart out unprovoked. Public Marian was normal. She was happy. She was kind. 

She also wasn’t real. 

Marian went to set her plastic shopping sack onto the kitchen counter, but there was too much trash lying around for it to fit. She dropped it on the floor in annoyance, but instantly regretted it as she heard the bottle of Smirnoff shatter. 

“Shit!” She frantically tried to scoop up the broken glass, but it was spilling out too quickly to intervene. So, instead, Marian just slumped onto the floor and laid down, watching the cheap vodka seep slowly into her dirty carpet. She laid there for four hours. Or maybe it was four minutes. Did it matter? Of course it didn’t. Time wasn’t real. She rolled around as hot tears filled her eyes and slid over her face. Her nose filled with thick snot and she began sobbing uncontrollably. Nothing in particular had set her off, but there was no going back now. 

It was disgusting. Her cheeks and eyes were puffy with pressure, tears and snot flowed together into a sickly coating across her face. She kept blowing into the arm of her sweatshirt, making it sticky and damp. She periodically started hacking as she coughed, struggling to breathe but not really caring. Her body convulsed as she curled up, a slightly larger version of herself in-utero. She just wanted it to end. She wanted to fall sleep and not wake up for a couple years. 

Life was just too much. Any time she wasn’t working for minimum wage at a job she hated, Marian was waiting for hours in line at welfare offices and food banks. Any time she got close to someone, close enough to hope that she might have a friend— or occasionally something more— this roiling storm cloud in her brain thundered and scared them off. 

She wished she would keep Public Marian on all the time; it would make things so much easier. But once people got close to her, it was only a matter of time before they would discover the real Marian: the one who procrastinated laundry for weeks on end, who sometimes spent hours scrubbing her kitchen within an inch of its life, but other times would let rotten garbage pile up until it made her physically ill. At that point, they would usually make their excuses and slip quietly out of her life.

If anyone survived those discoveries, they would never make it past the second test: meeting Marian’s mood swings. One minute, the two of them would be cuddling on the couch, the next Marian would be screaming and throwing things and crying and begging forgiveness while still hurling accusations. It was exhausting and terrifying for the people she got close to— but Marian wished they could understand that it was a lot worse when you couldn’t walk away. When you had to look that crazy person in the eyes every morning in the mirror. When you had to stay in her life because you were her. But no one ever did. 

After an indeterminate amount of time— although a glance outside would have told her it was early afternoon— Marian dragged herself up from the booze-soaked spot on the floor and shuffled to the fridge. A sour smell hit her face as she opened the door, and with a scowl, she squatted down to see what there was to eat. 

An opened can of peas, a half gallon of spoiled milk, the dregs of a bag of shredded cheese, and a molding sandwich from the bar she got fired from last week. What a feast. She closed the door in disgust and went to rummage through the cabinet. Only then did she remember the oatmeal she had bought, and went to throw it in the cabinet for Ben to find later. He’d be hungry when he got home. 

Marian wasn’t really ready for her next activity, but she didn’t have the strength for much else either. After staring at the wall for a bit, she trudged to the bathroom and turned on the shower. Steam began to fill the moldy room almost instantly. She had put it way too hot, but she didn’t care. She wanted to feel something. 

Without bothering to take off her clothes, Marian stepped into the scalding waterfall and sat on the tiled shower floor. She let the water cascade down her body, slowly warming her and stinging, just a little. Her eyes drifted shut, then open, then shut again. 

She stared with empty eyes at the grout in the shower wall, and observed every speck of dirt and grime sitting in it. She became conscious of how the floor felt beneath her, how her wet and now heavy clothes clung to every corner of her thin frame. She breathed in the steam, and felt it fill her lungs. She smiled, just a little. She could feel something. 

After enough time for her fingertips to start to wrinkle, Marian turned the water off and stepped out. Her clothes were now oppressive, heavy and dripping rather than warm and enveloping. She stripped down to nakedness and wrapped herself in a stained gray towel. She threw her soiled clothes back into the shower. No need to make the floor all wet for someone else to clean up. 

Marian padded slowly to her room and closed the door. It was so cold in this house… This wasn’t going to work. She went back out to the kitchen and turned on the oven, opening the door. She sat on the kitchen floor in front of it and let the heat slowly wash over her as it rose. 

As the oven continued heating up, Marian wandered back into her room and pulled on some dirty leggings and a sweatshirt she still had from an old boyfriend. It smelled like cigarettes and gasoline— familiarity and comfort. She drifted to sleep, wrapped in the old clothes and warmed by the open oven, and snoozed there for almost an hour. It was the only peace she had known in a week. 

Finally, Marian was awakened by the ringing of her landline. She almost picked it up on instinct— but her sister and her social worker were the only people who called that number, and she didn’t want to talk to either of them. Liz would just yell at her for something or other and make her feel worse than she already did, and the social worker would only be calling to see why Marian had suddenly stopped showing up to their appointments. She wished she had an answer. 

Marian wasn’t even convinced she could talk, period. Her throat was sore and raw from the breakdown earlier, and it felt too thick to work. She stared at the phone as it rang out one last attempt to reach her, then shook her head. It was time. 

She found the shopping bag from earlier and, dodging the pieces of broken glass, pulled out the bottles of Tylenol. She would have gotten something stronger from her friend who sold, but she was strapped for cash these days. She was strapped for everything, come to think of it. She had nothing, and she was nothing. That’s how it had always been, and why should it change?

Marian hoped the pills would be enough without the vodka; she was glad now that she had bought three bottles to be safe. To wash them down, she grabbed the almost-empty container of spoiled milk and took her haul to the bedroom.

It was a sorry sight. Limp, dirty blankets lay crumpled on the bed frame, and dirty clothes covered most of the floor space. She had once been more on top of this, but since her latest slump had started, Marian hadn’t had the energy to do any housework at all. 

She stepped through the laundry to open her window for some fresh air. It was snowing now, but maybe the cold would speed things up. And anyway, she wanted to feel the air on her face instead of suffocating in the stench of her neglected room. 

Her nose stung with coming tears as Marian sat down on the floor, leaning against her bed and staring out at the falling snow. It would be quick, and she’d be free. No more welfare lines, no more getting fired for no call-no shows on days when she couldn’t move, no more guilt, guilt, guilt all the time for not being enough to someone she never even wanted. With trembling hands, she opened the first bottle of her dinner. 

Could you call it “eating” if it was just pills? Maybe if she thought of it that way instead of “taking,” that incessant growling in her stomach would shut up for a minute. She smiled at her own joke, but her face quickly dropped again. It really was time. She closed her eyes, poured the bottle’s contents into her clammy hands, and took her medicine. 


Keys jangled and tapped against the front door of Marian’s house as it was opened around 4:00 pm. The person unlocking it hurried inside and slammed it shut, hoping to keep out some of the cold. He continued shivering anyway. As was his habit, he looked around in the kitchen for a snack; bypassing the peas and shredded cheese, he was excited to find a packet of instant oatmeal in the cabinet that hadn’t been there earlier, and began to fix it for himself. The cable hadn’t been paid for a month, so he ate his oatmeal in a quiet living room, humming to keep himself entertained. Finally, he realized that it was unusually quiet in the house, so he wandered over to the bigger of the two bedrooms. 

Maybe if Marian had continued to see her social worker, CPS could have gotten involved before her bedroom door was opened that day, and a bowl of half-eaten oatmeal fell and shattered on the floor. Maybe if the grumpy cashier had paid attention to the sale he made this morning, he could have asked Marian how she was feeling. Maybe if her mother had been present in her life, Marian would have known better how to deal with the pressures she now faced. Maybe if Marian had answered the phone, her sister could have picked up on her mood and come over. Maybe if Marian hadn't been poor and had access to adequate medical and mental health care, she and Ben would be eating a hot dinner in their warm house right now. 

But “maybe’s” are the stuff of fantasy, and none of them prevented Ben from finding Marian crumpled on the floor, then asking in shaky and desperate whisper:


December 13, 2023 00:05

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Michał Przywara
21:52 Dec 21, 2023

Very sad, and a great ending line for it. A picture of a woman in the middle of the worst crisis she's ever been in, and ever will be in. There is a huge sense of being overwhelmed, where she's faced with so many obstacles she doesn't even know where to start - and that delay, naturally, leads to even more obstacles. It really is a vicious cycle, especially when you believe it can't get better, can't even imagine what “better” looks like. Right from her purchase at the beginning, we have a suspicion where this story might be going. But “Sh...


Mallory Jones
02:43 Dec 22, 2023

You always leave the best analyses-- thanks so much for reading!


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Show 1 reply
23:22 Dec 14, 2023

Man, the gut punch on that last word. A sad tale, but expertly told.


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David McCahan
10:48 Dec 13, 2023

Devastating. So well written. The series of “maybes” at the end. Brutal. This one is going to stay with me for awhile.


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