Once again, it was time to trip to the local chain grocery to resupply. Not critical. Just routine, so as not to “suddenly” be out of flour, sugar, coffee, or such. And fresh veggies. Limited shelf life, you know, necessitating trips to the grocery every week to ten days, those veggies.
A year or so ago, I liked grocery shopping. Enjoyed the aromas of fresh produce, in-store baked goods, and yes, the coffee! Not anymore. With social distancing, periodic unexplained shortages, and devious sourcing and variety substitutions, grocery trips went rapidly from pleasant, to tedious, to dreadful.
To this point, the Missus, who also likes grocery shopping (or any shopping, really) had agreed I should complete the odious task alone. Why should two suffer needlessly? Lately things have been easing-up. The Missus felt she’d like to get back to enjoying and helping with that little detail of life. I allowed it possible with no small degree of trepidation. Off we went.
Pulling into the mega-grocer’s parking lot I noticed it was now enclosed in a six-foot chain-link fence. That fencing channeled vehicles into a single line, leaving appropriately social-distanced customers to single file through a now small, guarded entrance. Out of our automobiles, the single-file herding paradigm held.
Finally inside the building, there were no broad aisles and neatly partitioned “departments” – fresh produce, canned and boxed goods, meats and seafood, housewares, and “HBA.” Shoppers were funneled into a serpentine pathway defined by plastic tape oddly akin to yellow “crime scene – do not enter” markers.
“Gee things have changed!” said the Missus.
Indeed. We seemed more to be in a damned cafeteria of sorts. A school lunchroom. We were in a line approaching a stainless-steel serving rail fronting glass-covered stainless tables loaded with buckets and trays of prepared foods. I guessed foods. Aside from familiarity with what it should be, there was nothing suggesting edible, no aromas of any sort.
One of two uniformed keepers of the entry accosted us. “Dine in or carry out?” she asked.
Thinking I’d missed a sign or a news article on the grocery’s morphing into a cafeteria, I balked. A spirited discussion ensued. I’ll spare the details. The Missus must have answered the question correctly as she passed forward, as did the next two “customers” while I negotiated. Something I said was interpreted as an admission of defeat and I was admitted though now fourth in line behind the Missus.
We serpentined or whatever one does wiggle-waggling from point A past points A1, A2, A3, through An to point B. Three hundred and fifty yards to cover twenty feet. The Missus knew the secret. I did not. She passed through. I was waylaid again.
A large woman challenged me. “Dine in, or take out?”
“Does it make any difference?” I asked. “I’m not here to eat. I’m here for groceries.”
“That’s how we do it now. What did you tell the woman at the main door?”
“Think I told her, ‘Yes.’” I lied.
“That’s not an answer.”
“It is. My wife does that to me all the time.”
“Dine in or take out? I have to give you the right color napkin. That’s how the servers know.”
I was tempted to continue this bit of edification but instead replied, “See the lady ahead in line giving me that panicked look? I’m with her.”
I was granted entry with a red napkin. The bodies in front of me permitting, I shuffled forward along the tubular stainless-steel rail. At the first serving station, I guess, a person of indeterminate gender growled at me.
“You want meat?”
“What is it?” I asked.
“I dunno,” the voice managed.
“I dunno.” A conversationalist.
“Okay. Do me.” Something emerged from the grey murk and moved toward a big red plastic tray. You know the kind – an exaggerated TV dinner tray, four compartments separated by pointless little ridges meant to keep dry from wet and green from brown, or in this case gray. The something was huge. “Not that one, it’s too big,” I complained.
“Looks bigger to me. Not sure I can handle all that.”
“Same size. Made by machine. Meat pressed onto a bone.”
“What kind of bone?”
“I dunno.” Back to that again.
“Look,” I began but was interrupted.
“Sir, you take this if you want meat. You’re holding up the line. Or I’ll call security.”
I frowned. She called security.
Security arrived by sliding one position to her right in the line behind the counter, abandoning her post working vegetables or whatever was next on the menu. She, I think she, was tall and skinny and looked like she’d already had a bad day.
“Is there a problem here?” she asked in a masculine voice better suited to Ollie Ogre beneath the drawbridge.
I lied. Again. I was beginning to feel like a Democrat. “No. I’m just waiting for my chicken and…”
“Meat.” Tall Skinny corrected.
“What kind of meat?” I risked asking again.
“No one knows. Just take one.”
“Okay. We’re good here. I’ll take that piece of meat.”
Tall Skinny went back to her abandoned position. The chunk of whatever grey meat hit the tray, obviously my tray, with a decided metal clang. As the serving tools looked like solid plastic, coquettishly matching the trays, I determined the clang was from something inside the ersatz meat.
I shuffled to the right. Tall Skinny asked me, “Which vegetable?”
“What’s the green one? Green beans?” I figured it was safe to ask since Tall Skinny and I already had a relationship.
“Dunno,” she said.
“The yellow? Squash?” I pressed.
I began to suspect the service staff tried to distance themselves from intimacy with the menu. Perhaps part of their wage was dinner in-house and they really didn’t want to know. “What’s it smell like?” I asked.
“Doesn’t smell.” Tall Skinny growled.
“What do you mean?” I pushed.
“No smell. Someone might be offended if it did.”
“How about allergies. Think about that?”
“Not an issue. Hypoallergenic.”
“Oh. Gimme a little dab of both.”
“Okay. You pick.”
I caved. “Okay. The green.” If Tall Skinny had to call security on me, I wasn’t prepared to see the next step up the security ladder.
The Missus, ahead of me, kept looking at me and shrugging. I skipped the next station by simply shaking my head. It was stuffing or potatoes or sawdust, I wasn’t sure. I was sure it didn’t look like something I wanted to even think of eating. My tray shuttled down to what I assumed was the dessert station.
A slow learner, I began. “What’s that?”
“Really? Pie? Cake? Flan?”
“Dunno.” Back to that.
“You taste it?”
“No way! Not me! You want some or not?”
Apparently Tall Skinny had been watching. A new version of security arrived at the dessert station in the person of a short wide woman clad in an apron wielding a four-foot long spoon capable of stirring any witch’s cauldron.
“Sir,” she began in a voice directly from every six-year old’s Wizard of Oz nightmare, “is there a problem here?”
“What is that?” I asked, pointing to the curious goop.
“Why do you want to know?”
“I might decide to eat it.”
Short Wide made a scrunched-up face, snatched the dessert server’s ladle from her, scooped a blob of whatever and plopped the red-brown-orange doughy looking stuff in the largest unoccupied compartment of the tray, handed the ladle back to the server, spun, and walked away.
The Missus had managed to aside herself until I arrived at the register. I watched as an attendant poured my goodies into a boxy cardboard thing that immediately started to leak. The empty tray was unceremoniously chunked into a trash bin.
“You wash those?” I asked the cashier, who looked to be Short Wide’s twin sister.
“No,” she replied.
The Missus interrupted what was going to be a learning experience for me. “I’ve already paid,” she said, “let’s get the hell out of here!” That bit of cursing would cause the Missus no end of grief. At some point, she’d probably eat a bar of soap as an act of contrition.
In the car, the Missus found a towel to catch the leak from her cardboard box thing as she held it in her lap. She stuck a grotesquely fat knife/spoon thing made from as much plastic as was in any of the serving-line ladles into the box.
“How the hell does that work?” I asked.
“Not very well,” she replied, lifting a taste to her mouth.
“What’s it taste like?”
“Tastes like nothing with a weird oily feeling. Maybe a little bitter. No taste, really, or smell. Why would they do that?”
“So not to offend anyone.”
She took another bite and screwed up her face monstrously. “Ugh!” She rolled down her window, and very much unlike the proper woman I married, pitched the whole container out the window. Grabbing my box or whatever, she tossed that out the window too, quickly rolling the window up to keep the rejected “food” from managing its way back into the car.
“We have chicken in the freezer at home,” she declared. “And rice in the cupboard. Stop by my sister’s farm. We’ll beg some tomatoes from her garden, and I’ll put something together.”
As directed, I stopped. Missus’ sister was delighted to get rid of some of her surplus. The Missus put together a most delightful Chicken Cacciatore. Oddly, it looked like chicken. Smelled like chicken. Tasted like chicken.
We’re looking for a new place to shop groceries.
Of course, that was a flight of fancy. I dunno. Insomnia and maybe something I ate. Not Cacciatore; last night was grilled pork steak with steamed broccoli, carrots, and cauliflower – recognized all of them. Everything at present is so far from normal, I suppose frustrations just stretched life into a goofy aberration.
You know, like we used to do with Silly Putty and the Sunday funnies? You remember Silly Putty? No? You remember the Sunday funnies in the newspaper? No? Newspapers, you see, printed news aggregators, were the way we used to read the news. See, there was this kid who’d bicycle past your house daily, throwing a rolled-up newspaper onto your porch. Or into your rosebushes, or if it was raining, into the ditch in front of your house… Yes, printed. On actual paper…