Volume 34, Number 4


Helene Macaulay

I rolled up to Wegman’s at precisely 8:13 AM, threaded my chain through my bike’s body and wheels, locked it to the rack, detached the front basket and walked over the already-melting asphalt toward the entrance. As the sliding doors parted, hitting the air conditioning felt like slamming into a block of ice, but it calmed my anxiety like water to fire. I pulled up my face mask, scraped my sweat-soaked hair into an elastic and grabbed a cart from the “sanitized” row. The cart handle felt deliciously cool in my palms.

The place was already packed, and there was a combative energy blowing through the produce section that could sear a steak. I spied what appeared to be a couple of middle-aged divorcées, dressed in their summery best, carts packed with prepared foods fit for the Friday night superspreaders they were surely planning—rotisserie chickens, packages of pulled pork and that omnipresent supermarket guacamole, preserved with a nearly lethal dose of citric acid that’ll pickle your tongue for days. The loud clacking of their high-heeled wooden platforms added a particularly frenzied touch. Their male counterparts, cluelessly perusing the produce, did their best to evade them, holding out for women half their age, who in turn wanted absolutely nothing to do with them. The scene was starting to make me tense, so I took a deep breath, grabbed some Champagne grapes in passing and sprinted over to the prepared food section. I scooped up a to-go sashimi platter, sailed past the endless shelves of organic tea and made a beeline for the imported cheeses. After much deliberation I placed a wedge of Roquefort and a round of Cremeux de Bourgogne in my cart and threw in a box of rosemary and sea salt Crunchmasters and a deli container of olives I found at an adjacent display. I skipped the pricey olive oil and balsamic in the neighboring aisle, since I still had a few drops of both at home, but a bottle of agrumato caught my eye, so I nestled it carefully atop my backpack, which was occupying my cart’s toddler seat. I had a lone log of chèvre at home that was a month past the expiration date, but I knew it would still taste great with some backyard tomatoes, a splash of the agrumato and a nice, dry bottle of cava to wash it all down.

I wheeled over to the fish case and perused the salmon but it was pre-cut and packaged in shrink wrap so I passed. I stopped by the cured meats enticed by the organic bacon, which I inspected for several minutes. A few feet further down, a package of weisswurst caught my eye. I envisioned it boiled and cradled in a mustard-schmeared French roll, but my cholesterol was in the red zone last time I had it checked, so I passed on that too. Continuing on to the poultry section, I selected a small free-range chicken, and in keeping with la recette de Thomas Keller, I’d roast that sucker at 450° and smother it in organic butter and fresh thyme.

I rolled over to the dairy case, which was clear of people except for a couple of Karens perusing the cream cheese, but they exited the aisle as soon as I arrived. Blissfully alone, my attention progressively shifted to the piped-in Muzak which happened to be Pink Floyd’s Animals, while the faint smell of bleach, ubiquitous since lockdown, reassured me that at least at this very moment, everything was right in the world.

I had planned on making a week’s worth of tzatziki, but I’d foolishly forgotten to pick up some cucumbers in the produce section, which I’d rather have died than gone back for. So I skipped the liter of Greek yogurt, grabbed a pound of cultured butter (for the chicken) and headed over to the beer aisle. On the way I passed a cranky old boomer wearing a Make Ocasio-Cortez Bartend Again hat, his cart stacked to the brim with Genesee Cream Ale and Sahlen’s hot dogs, ostensibly for a Bills tailgate party later in the afternoon. He sneered at me as I passed, the way those motherfuckers invariably do whenever they lay eyes on anyone under forty, and I had to resist the temptation to snatch the hat off his head along with the tawdry polyester wig he had stuffed underneath it. Though I had lifted a 2016 premier cru Meursault Charmes from the restaurant which would positively slap with the cheeses, the thought of drinking the entire bottle by myself struck me as rather outré. I persuaded myself that it perhaps would be best saved for a special occasion, so just for shits and giggles I picked up a few bottles of Rochefort 6 Trappist Ale for seven bucks apiece.

Though it occurred to me how absurd it was to be buying items of such pronounced extravagance on my meager line-cook’s salary (the cruel irony not lost on me that I could nary afford to eat at the restaurant at which I was employed), I convinced myself that I made up for it by partaking in the staff meals at work. And though the meals were better than decent, half the time there was nothing left after the servers went back for seconds or thirds before the BOH could afford to take a break. Cunts. In that case I found nothing wrong with copping a couple of goat cheese-stuffed, prosciutto-wrapped figs from the walk-in. Or grabbing something out of the six pans at the pantry station when no one was looking. Or swiping a Gorgonzola-stuffed banana pepper when the pizza chef stepped away from his station. I once happened upon some handmade chocolate truffles in the lowboy under the pastry chef’s station and scarfed them down when I thought no one was looking. She being no fool, however, saw the cacao powder smeared on my chef’s coat and said that if I ever tried it again, in no uncertain terms she’d break my neck. I believed her too—I once saw her eviscerate a server who made the unfortunate decision to call her a fucking bitch, and I don’t believe he’ll ever call anyone that again. To their face, anyway. On top of it, she was fit as fuck, not to mention smokin’ hot. All the guys and some of the gals were on that razor’s edge between libidinous and terrified of her, but it didn’t matter—you got the idea she knew she was way too good for any of us, and she was dating one of the Bills’ defensive linemen to boot.

I wheeled my cart over to the ice-cream aisle and considered buying a pint of Jeni’s Brandied Banana Brûlée, but it would surely melt by the time I got home. I had a few strands of the saffron I’d “borrowed” from the restaurant’s dry storage in my cupboard, but I had run out of rosewater and pistachios for the bastani I had planned to make later in the week and threw those into the cart as well.

They say you shouldn’t shop when you’re hungry, and I guess you could say the same thing about being high, because by the time I was ready to check out, my cart was nearly full. I had withdrawn my last two hundred dollars from the ATM at the 7-Eleven on South Park that morning, but I broke into a cold sweat when I realized that it must have spilled out of my backpack’s outer pocket, as I had failed to secure the closure on the ride over. To make matters worse, I was already late on my credit card payments, so attempting to use one would have been out of the question. To avoid further embarrassment, I casually dumped the cart in the cereal aisle (after slipping one of the ales into my backpack), feigned having forgotten something, backtracked up the same aisle, made a U-turn down the next one and sauntered through the baking aisle unable to decide if it calmed me or intensified my paranoia. Smiling amiably underneath my face mask, I nonchalantly exited through one of the unmanned checkout lanes, stuffing a three-count pack of Ferrero Rocher truffles under my T-shirt, and ambled toward the exit.

I walked back out into the heat, glancing behind me the whole way, but I hadn’t set off any alarms, and I didn’t see security tailing me. I freed my bike from the rack and placed my backpack inside the basket. I put my helmet on and mounted the bike, but I must have hit that pothole on the way over harder than I had thought because my front tire was completely flat. In my frustration I reached into my backpack, uncapped the pilfered bottle of ale and gulped down the cold, delicious nectar figuring I’d need the hydration for the wearisome walk home. Payday was still two days away, but I had four singles in my bag that I’d kept aside for bus fare, so in lieu of going home to an empty refrigerator, I stopped for a slice at a takeout window along the way and, perched on an outdoor picnic table, gobbled it down with the purloined chocolates and the rest of the ale. Suddenly, I heard a thunderclap out of the east, and then a massive black cloud appeared on the horizon, moving rapidly overhead and releasing a deluge of biblical proportions, which soaked everything in its path. Dragging my bike through the curtain of rain, I stopped at the Orchard Park Street overpass and tossed my empty bottle into Cazenovia Creek. Dazed and still hungry, I watched it slowly float away in the muddy current until it finally disappeared from view. I took the long way home.