|A Midsummer Tale ~ Second Place
On: Frozen Foods, Fresh Produce
and Young Love
City living has changed me. My driver's license meaningless, I traipse the streets of New York coveting fashions I would have previously found abhorrent. When my friend tells me she's looking at renting a 3-bedroom house in Richmond for $1,200 a month, I accuse her of lying; $1,200 is the price of a nice one-room studio. I have adopted an edgy disdain for chain restaurants like Chili's and Ruby Tuesday's, as well as movie theaters that show only the biggest-budgeted of motion picture events.
But more than anything else, what has changed are my feelings toward grocery stores. Leagues away from the pristine culinary oasesówell-stocked aisles of olive jars and granola bars, bounties of exotic imported produce, tundras of frosted cupcakes in glass casesóthat comprised the grocery store in small-town Virginia, the local Brooklyn supermarket is a disgruntled affair, populated with dusty boxes of indiscriminate cereal, overpriced yogurts, and withered tomatoes. I shy tragically away from the deli section, filled with regret and yearning for gourmet pasta salads. In short, the supermarket has ceased to be the exquisite, enchanted place it once was.
I applied to work at Martin's Grocery for a variety of reasons. For one, I had just graduated high school, and needed a cash reserve for college. For another, I loved food and loved grocery shopping, loved easily maneuvering a shiny cart through wide aisles, looking for the best bargain on frozen spinach. For another, my parents were threatening to make me flip burgers at McDonald's if I didn't find another job soon.
But mostly, it was Daniel.
I had first become smitten when I picked up the prints from a roll of film I had dropped off at the customer service counter. Daniel (as his nametag informed me) smiled past his slightly-snub nose as he handed me my change. His clothes were loose in an accidental way, and his plain brown hair was the awkward style of a preppy cut that has gone too long without maintenance.
"Could I fill out an application?" I asked.
"For what position?" he said.
"Cashier," I said, in what I considered to be a seductive way.
"You're in luck, we really need cashiers right now." Daniel handed me a form.
I saw it blossoming before me, a summer romance among unreachably high towers of toilet paper and lusty cuts of beef. Surrounded by an ambient mist from the vegetable sprayer, Daniel and I would see past the gray-striped shirts and vests that were the Martin's uniform, and to the inner cavities of each other's beautiful souls.
I signed the application and passed it to Daniel.
"Chris!" he shouted. A thickly spectacled woman emerged from the room behind the customer service counter.
"Here's an applicant to be a cashier."
Chris eyed me from behind her spectacles.
"Can you train right now?" she said.
After receiving my diploma, I had planned for all my mental faculties to be on hiatus for the summer. However, I had never anticipated the intellectual storm that learning register etiquette and produce codes would prove to be. My training was harrowing and traumatic.
As a bag of kiwis approached me on the conveyor belt, I panicked. I couldn't find their produce code on the laminated list hanging nearby. The irate homemaker in front of me was narrowing her eyes a millimeter more every second. I took a chance.
4050, I typed into the register. Cantaloupe, responded the monitor.
The homemaker's eyes were suddenly bulbous.
"Those aren't cantaloupes!" she notified me. "Those are kiwis."
"Sorry, sorry," I said to the laminated list as I urgently searched it for kiwifruit.
I cancelled the cantaloupes. 4030, I retyped. Kiwi, answered the machine.
"That's better," said the homemaker. My pride, formerly the volume of a watermelon (4031), had shrunken to the size of a grape (4022).
Each evening when I finished my shift, I carried my money tray into the small room behind the customer service counter to count that day's gross income. Only a glass window separated me from Daniel, still dutifully servicing customers in front. I counted stacks of bills and coins multiple times, just to prolong the number of minutes Daniel and I would be in such close physical proximity. The claustrophobic, windowless money-counting room was saturated with romantic possibility.
"Bye, Daniel," I would call when I forced myself to leave work.
He would open the glass window, poke his head through to watch me leave.
"Bye, Kat," he'd say, and as I walked through the automatic sliding doors and into the parking lot, I would wonder if the heat I felt was the sun radiating off the cement or the passionate flame of love.
I determined that my emotions had nothing to do with asphalt on an afternoon in late June. Daniel had the day off and I was not looking forward to a day at Martin's without him. I petulantly scanned credit cards and stowed personal checks in my cash drawer. The day plodded along at the same rate as my conveyor belt.
But at the end of my line of customers, I recognized a particular nose-arc and characteristically lackluster brown hair. Daniel was buying a box of donuts and a quart of milk.
"Couldn't stay away?" I asked him.
"Missed this place," he said, but I knew he meant I think you are phenomenal. I handed him his change and felt great affection towards my summer job.
Halfway through the summer, Martin's introduced Triple Coupons. The premise was simple: cut them out of the newspaper and affix them to a pre-existing coupon. The value of the coupon increases threefold; fifty cents off oatmeal suddenly became a dollar-fifty. Seventy-five cents off pudding cups escalated to a swarthy two dollars and twenty-five cents. It was a time of great joy for coupon clippers across the county. With the sunlight streaming in the windows in the front of the store, glistening off polished vegetables and polyurethane-wrapped meats, shopping bills were reduced by dollars every minute.
The most diligent pennypincher had an endless supply of coupons for $1.50 off a box of Vienetta ice cream. Vienetta cost slightly less than four dollars. When attached to a Triple Coupon, the Supersaver's savings were slightly more than four dollars, meaning that every time she bought ice cream, the Supersaver actually made a profit. It began to be typical to peer down my conveyor belt and see a cavalcade of Vienetta approaching, with the Supersaver close behind, counting coupons and ice cream cartons to ensure the numbers were the same. I would scan the bar codes of the boxes, then scan the coupons and press "x3". I would bag the ice creamódouble bagged, to reduce the possibility of melting. Then, after pressing the "total" button on the cash register and finding a negative number, I would pay the Supersaver for taking food from the market.
One afternoon I heard Chris frantically saying that Becky, who was supposed to work overnight, had gotten sick.
"I'll take the shift," I said.
"You're really stepping up to the plate," said Chris. This particular plate paid time and a half, so I didn't mind stepping up in the least.
By eleven PM, Martin's was deserted. I took a magazine back to my register and started reading about the latest star scandals. At irregular intervals late-night shoppers appeared to make purchasesóbachelor men buying a week's supply of microwave meals, mothers-of-two who could find no other time to stock up on napkins and glass cleaner. I alternated reading about the hottest new actors with attending to young college students with desperate needs for pre-made cookie dough.
At twelve-fifteen I looked up from a Drew Barrymore interview to see Daniel walking with his familiar wobbly gait through the sliding doors.
"What are you doing here?" I said. "It's past midnight."
"I snuck out," said Daniel. "My parents go to sleep early. They don't know I'm gone."
"I thought you might be getting bored."
I tried to think of something clever and winsome to say in response, but I failed.
"You snuck out of your house to go to the grocery store?" I said.
"Most people sneak out to go to parties."
"I snuck to the grocery store."
Daniel didn't stay long, but after he left I could no longer concentrate on my Hollywood reading material. The night passed dreamily, soundtrack provided by the Celine Dion and Luther Vandross songs being broadcast over the supermarket speakers. For the first time, they seemed poignant and touching.
In the early morning the sound of soft rock suddenly started merging with the scent of multitudinous baked goods emerging from the ovens, ready for the day's bakery shoppers. This was a sensory world I'd never known, the promise of the precipice of morning. As I was released from my shift, I remembered Daniel's illicit midnight visit. I hummed along to Fleetwood Mac singing "Silver Springs" as I bought myself two fresh muffins.
The Triple Coupon Phenomenon continued; the Supersaver and I had struck up a friendship. Each time she came through my line, she wrote down my schedule for the coming days. She sought my register faithfully with her cart full of ice cream. Each week brought a new shipment of Vienetta ice cream. Each week, a new series of interactions with Daniel. We swapped stories of overprotective parents and made fun of boy bands. We shared stories of wacky customers. He'd served a man who had bought thirty ears of corn (4078) and nothing else. I told him about the Supersaver.
"You know," he said, "you're not supposed to triple coupons if the triple coupon will be more than the cost of the item."
This was news to me.
"Whoops," I said.
The next time the Supersaver came through my line, I took a deep breath and prepared for the confrontation. She was buying five boxes of Vienetta.
"I'm not allowed to triple the coupons if they're going to be worth more than the price of the item," I told her sorrowfully. "This is the last time I'll be able to triple your coupons." I felt like I was breaking up with her. It's not you, it's me. I want us to stay friends.
"I understand," she said. I bagged her ice cream, gave her the $2.50 I owed her from the Triple Coupons and we prepared to part ways forever. She began to walk towards the automatic sliding doors and the parking lot beyond, then paused. She turned around.
"I want you to have this," she said, taking a box of Vienetta out of her bags.
"Oh, no, I couldn't take that from you!" I said.
"Please take it. It's my way of thanking you," said the Supersaver. "You're the best cashier I've ever known." She left the ice cream at the end of my conveyor belt and disappeared without another word.
My shift wasn't over for another three hours. I despaired; the ice cream would melt before I could take it home to the freezer.
My despair was interrupted by the manager: "Kat, you can take your fifteen-minute break now," she said. I seized two plastic spoons from the salad bar and led a bagboy to the bench outside the front door.
Outside, it was dark. The humidity was dissipating. The fluorescent lights inside Martin's shone through the windows onto the parking lot, but diluted, and gently. The ice cream had already begun to dissolve in sugary rivulets inside the box. It seemed that everything was getting softer.
"Help me eat this," I told the bagboy.
"The two of us can't finish that entire box of Vienetta," he said, aghast. I handed him a spoon.
Time was limited. The ice cream was melting. We finished in the requisite fifteen minutes. I threw away the box and utensils, returned to my register. The bagboy started collecting abandoned carts from the parking lot.
Many moments occur too quickly, gone before you've realized they've happened. A few days later, the Triple Coupon promotion ended.
Two days before I left for college, Daniel asked me to lunch. We went to Ruby Tuesday's; I had the day off and his shift didn't start until evening. We sat in front of our meals, naked without our store-issued shirts and vests. It seemed odd to be eating food, not selling it. After we ate we went for a drive through the countryside. Daniel parked on the shoulder of a dirt road and we walked into the woods.
It was dusk. The leaves and branches sieved the sunlight. We sat on a log and tried to think of things to say. His shift was starting soon. We got up, started walking back to his car.
"Wait," I said. He stopped. I kissed him. It was getting dark. Things were ending.
The summer had slipped by without my knowledge; it was suddenly time to abandon my hometown and my home friends, to buy discount luggage and fill suitcases with attire appropriate for college. It was time to move on, move up. Move north. I handed in my nametag and my gray-striped shirt and vest. I collected my last paycheck and did not bother to look fondly down the orderly aisles or let my gaze linger on deli panoramas. Backward glancing did not cross my mind. I did not yet understand the nature of things never being the same.
And time has passed, and grocery stores have changed. A month after I moved into my dorm Daniel called me from his school in Florida. He wanted to see me when we came home for Thanksgiving break. I was ambivalent. I was writing papers, and going to parties, and complaining about the dining hall food but secretly loving it all the same. I did not have the attention span to venerate the summer. I did not speak to Daniel again.
And in the grocery store now, in the cramped and raucous Brooklyn supermarket, I choose citrus fruits and tomato sauces without sentimentality, and without the pulsing thrill of possibility.
What did I love: was it Daniel, or was it the grocery store? The oversized cornucopia of fresh and packaged foods or the tenuous anxiety of blossoming teenage romance? Or maybe they meant nothing separately, and mystique only materialized when they existed together? Something has been lost, along with the flirtatious exchanges at adjacent cash registers and the haunting scent of freshly-baked pastries in the darkness before sunup. I miss produce codes, I miss Triple Coupons, I miss Fleetwood Mac. I miss the magic of the supermarket summer.
After two years working in the Financial District of New York, Katherine Vondy will begin pursuing her MFA in Film at USC in the Fall of 2004. Her work has appeared most recently in Red River Review and in The Lunatic, The Lover and the Poet, a short story compilation from Ginninderra Press. Katherine spends her spare time creating bad puns, watching reality television and waxing nostalgic for the past. E-mail: kavondy[at]yahoo.com.