Scoundrel Time

Hiding From My Past in the Produce Aisle

Standing before a table heaped with avocados, I watched the other shoppers toss bags of potatoes, onions, and apples into their carts. I was alone in my pursuit of just the right green-black fruit. When I found it, it wouldn’t last more than a day or two, while ten pounds of potatoes might last a month or more. Yet shopping for avocados comforted me. Shopping for the apocalypse did not.

“I’ve been here since four this morning, but I can’t keep nothing on these shelves,” the store clerk restocking bags of sugar and flour told me, after I’d asked how he was holding up now that the coronavirus panic had begun. “It’s like a hurricane, a snowstorm, and Thanksgiving all in one.”

Amidst a pandemic, there are more questions than answers: should I buy enough to feed my husband and me for two weeks, or a month? And, what is “enough”? When exactly might the supply chain be so disrupted that supplies run out? What will make me feel better if I am felled by the virus? And, most vexing, when does “enough” for me and mine mean not enough for someone else? I’d already grappled with whether taking the second 24-pack of shelf-stable milk would mean depriving a family of a staple they would need, whereas I simply thought it would be nice to continue having my morning cup of coffee the way I like it—milky, no sugar—if milk became scarce. I decided on taking only one. Was it one too many?

That morning, I’d awakened early with a hunch to go shopping right away, to not even make coffee first. Now, I’d already loaded my super-sized cart with the bags, cans, and boxes of all the things everyone else was now trying to grab.

En route to the store, a childhood memory surfaced. It was of my mother explaining which berries of the forest were edible and which were poisonous, in case of a nuclear winter. That happened around the time of her divorce from my father, when my brother and I started eating both breakfast and lunch at school. Years later, my mother admitted what I had suspected: we had been on public assistance.

Each avocado I squeezed gave way just enough to signal it was at its peak. I wondered, should I make guacamole? The voice of my 23-year-old son spoke in my head: “You’re so bougie, Mom.” My son is proud of me, but he has misgivings. “I mean, you used to do a lot more with less, Mom.”

It has been more than a decade since I asked my son’s father for a divorce. That was during the Great Recession, which for me had become a depression. Sinking in debt, my husband unemployed, the currents of dissatisfaction that for years had streamed around our hearts at last subsumed us, and down I went. The only way to break the surface, I figured, was to swim out on my own.

His court-ordered promise of five hundred dollars a month was all he could afford. Other than that, I was broke and jobless.

The day our divorce decree was signed, I stood before the mirror in the bathroom that I no longer shared. Staring back at me was a middle-aged woman who had never amounted to much in her own eyes. I nearly fainted from panic. I knew how to forage, but was that enough to survive? Between my screams and sobs, I vowed not to move back south to my parents. And, I would do whatever it took to keep my son from resenting me any more than he already did.

I leveraged a contact I’d made months earlier into a job writing and editing for a local lifestyle magazine. It gave me a public persona, but the paycheck was too paltry to make ends meet. Using a made-up name and email address, I registered with a church-sponsored food bank in a different county, to avoid embarrassment. The amount of food I could get at the food bank left me enough money for gas to drive to work. Meanwhile, I edited restaurant reviews and wrote profiles of wealthy families in town, arranging photo shoots of them in their glamorous homes. Once, when my photographer and I arrived at the home of a nationally known sports celebrity and his family, we found them and their home in complete disarray. I offered to cook them dinner while the photographer set up amid the chaos. They had a lovely kitchen, stocked with professional-grade cookware and gourmet ingredients.

Did my son know any of this? I’d never told anyone.

I kept scrimping, writing, editing, and crying through my panic most nights. Eventually, I moved on, moved up, and finally moved out of the state altogether, landing a job I wanted in Washington, D.C. Since then, I’ve achieved more than I ever thought possible. I have everything I ever wanted, security most of all.

Standing alone with the perfect avocado in my hand, I heard it again: “bougie.” I understood, then. The avocado was a distraction from remembering the past. It had returned to me moments before in the cereal aisle, when I caught a woman taking a box of raisins out of my cart.

“Those are mine,” I’d said, shocked by my nasty tone. “Put them back.”

She mumbled an apology, smiling and nodding as she returned them to my stockpile. She rolled her cart away from me, slowly, dragging my security in her wake. I wanted to run after her and give her the raisins. I wanted to tell her I was sorry. I wanted to cry. I wanted her to know I understood.

Instead, I watched as she disappeared around the corner, out of view. Untethered now from life as I thought I knew it, I rolled my cart up one aisle and down another, only occasionally registering what I saw: marinated artichoke hearts, clam juice, packets of dried porcini mushrooms, other seemingly small indulgences I previously would have built dinner party menus around, but which now seemed sinister, immoral, even. And yet, I felt pressure to keep weeks’ worth of pasta and rice interesting.

I chose a bottle of hand-crafted tamari sauce. Had the woman looked at my cart and thought my life was easy, the way I used to look at the wealthy people I had featured and photographed?

Steering through the rippling crowd, I thought about the store clerk. I’d asked whether he’d had time to prepare himself and his family for whatever was coming. He was covered for about a week, maybe two, he confided. Beyond that, who knew? He didn’t have the resources to buy and store the amount of provisions the rest of us were hoarding around him.

“It don’t matter none,” he reasoned. “In the end, we all gonna hurt.”

I stared at him. I knew what he meant. I’d never stolen from anyone, but I knew what it was like to hurt.

“Good luck to you,” I managed to say.

“Same to you, ma’am. Have a good day,” he replied.

I put the avocado in my cart, next to the raisins. It would be my little luxury, one I once would not have been able to afford, one which might be hard to come by again soon. All I knew for sure was that in the end, we are all going to hurt.


Whitney M. Fishburn studied creative writing at Harpur College, part of the State University of New York in Binghamton where she was a student of novelist Ron Hansen. After more than 30 years spent primarily as a health policy and sciences editor and reporter, Whitney now publishes the online journal of American thought, docu-mental: mapping the american states of mind.

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