I go to Rodney and Betty’s grocery only for the credit, because they sell mealy hamburger and I won’t touch the chicken anymore after the kids found feathers stuck in their drumsticks. It was at a barbeque, a really rare day when the sky is clear cornflower. It is unusual having a summer day when the air is light, light, without so much humidity trapped inside it you could suffocate.
We had a barbeque in the back yard and my son Harry invited his neighbor friends. I made homemade baked beans and roasted corn. Leon, Harry’s best friend, shrieked after taking a bite of his barbeque sauce-drenched drumstick on finding a chicken feather protruding from between his front teeth. He picked it out as if his little fingers were tweezers. As he held it up he upchucked his beans and corn and a hairy bite of the drumstick. Poor Leon, he left, having no appetite for the strawberry pie I had baked.
Leon did not waste any time telling the neighborhood about my drumsticks riddled with chicken feathers. My Harry though, he was born wise and discreet, and didn’t say a word except that Rodney was an amateur butcher and it was clear he didn’t go to school to learn the trade. Now we only eat the hamburger that you can see Rodney grinding in the back of their small grocery, which is a converted old farm home, with the grocery section in the former living and dining rooms, the cash register where Betty leans on the counter all day the previous entry and hallway, and behind Betty the kitchen that Rodney transformed into a butchery and prep area. Through the door ajar behind Betty you can see Rodney standing among piles of vegetables on one counter and skinned chickens and sides of beef on another counter, going back and forth between projects.
In the very front of the store when you first walk in Betty has a display of old-fashioned candy she thinks is good but most kids don’t eat that stuff anymore – licorice and peppermint pillows, hardtack caramel and gumdrops, candies that have become pale from sitting untouched for so long in sticky cellophane wrappings.
In her ledger Betty records in elaborate cursive handwriting the items and quantities I purchase the amount they cost. She totals the purchase, figures the tax with her adding machine, and records the final amount due in bold pen. She writes on a small notepad the date and amount and hands the note to me asking me to proofread the two totals then initial the amount she’d written on the note. I initial every time because Betty’s computation skills are spot on.
In the top drawer of my dresser, reserved for underwear, important documents and mementos, such as Harry’s first haircut I have kept in a small white envelope, I stack Betty’s invoice notes in a pile behind my pantyhose to try to forget about them. Betty never asks for a specific amount of money, $10 or $20 is enough towards my balance, which I often give to Harry to give to Betty to avoid the humiliation of facing her.
She would never give Harry the look she gives me when I have $10 to pay towards a $225 balance. Not a look of disapproval, but one more towards inquiring pity, not pure pity like a Madonna in a painting looking down on an injured horse or a band of poor children, with soulful eyes showing the unbarred depths of her pity. Behind the wet pity in Betty’s eyes, seeming verging on tears as I would hand her a 10-spot, there was a solid wall of judgement that probably shone more in the slight purse of her lips and cinching of her eyebrows than in her eyes, a confused look where the pitying eyes did not match the tight muscles around her mouth and eyebrows.
Betty has thin, pale skin and a strong bony figure with an uncurved, straight-lined strength. It’s difficult to see it though as she wears dated threadbare cotton dresses with the same tiny floral print. She has around five different versions of the same dress she pairs with a blue apron. She always wears an apron as though she were the butcher and Rodney the cashier. Curiously, Rodney often has liberal swears of blood, some fresh and some dried, streaked across good white or light blue shirts he wears. He is driven to butcher but at the same time look professional. On Sundays after church he never removes his best suit to butcher. Betty’s style reflects a careworn time like the dust bowl era, complete with scuffed leather flats and thick brown panty hose. She has bright gray eyes, that as I say veer on judgement. And though her hair is gray like her eyes it is soft and unwiry. You never see Rodney and Betty speak though they are almost always together and within just feet of each other.
According to Harry she brightens when he comes in to pay her and she always gives him a piece of her aged candies. Harry holds back a grimace when she hands him a hard caramel in a red cellophane wrapper. I laugh when he shows it to me, it’s our little joke, and we put it in a candy dish we call “Rainy Day Candy” that we have never touched.
For over two years I’ve stabbed away this way, paying Rodney and Betty first (with Harry as my messenger) and rent second. I look for teaching jobs that do not exist in our little town, and in the meantime work at my bread-and-butter job at the laundromat dusting off the washers and dryers, folding clothes for extra tips, and making change for customers. There are only a finite number of teaching jobs in our town and my only option is an occasional substitute assignment.
On a day when Harry was still at school and I was on my way home after work I stopped by their store to pick up a few groceries. This late September day was bright and crisp but windy, the kind of day when the leaves have a sixth sense and you open a door and they blow in mischievously and you laugh because they dance inside the door you are trying so quickly to close, and a few escape inside leaving their slower sisters outside. You can’t really help smiling and laughing at this. But it was not the time for playful leaves to blow in because Rodney was manning the cash register while Betty was out. He swept past me like I was invisible and quickly gathered the unruly leaves with his foot, pushed them outside and slammed shut the door.
Rodney had never been so close to me so I could see for the first time the color of his eyes, brown and round and filled with a kind of terror or anxiety. Exactly the opposite of his wife’s gray eyes that matched her wisped hair pinned in a loose bun. I saw their opposing looks and understood her calm albeit judging look because it countered Rodney’s bristling and stricken look. I understood they couldn’t both exist at this pitch of anxiety as much as they both couldn’t go around with Betty’s confidently beatific look. They complement each other, I realized. I never had that kind of luck. My husband Bill left in the night over two years ago leaving a note only that he was sorry for Harry. We were so much alike I completely understood why he left me without him having to discuss it or write it down. We were adventurers when we married and I wouldn’t ever discourage him from that, so when he left to take a machinist job in Jersey, I was happy for him and only sad for Harry. But as I say, Harry has a kind of baffling maturity and said he was sure once ‘dad got situated’ he would ‘be in touch’ with us. Harry has not heard from Bill and his only power now is in refusing to ask about him.
With Rodney’s slamming shut the door the autumnal brightness disappeared and the store foyer was in shadows again and felt darker after the peek of light. The shadows enlivened in a contrast and lit up the rows of candies. Harry insisted it was not age but condensation on the outside of the wrappers that made them cloudy and sticky. Harry did not assume like I did that the candies were old just because most everything else in the store was aged: wilted vegetables that could come to life, Betty said, with a simple ice water bath, soft potatoes covered with eyes we had to dig deep to carve out, cans of soup and beans that indisputably did have a fine layer of dust on their tops but, as Betty points out aren’t even close to approaching the expiration date, dented, rejected boxes of saltines and cheap wafer cookies.
Matter fact the meat was by far the freshest product at Rodney and Betty’s, yet it was the meat of aged or spindly animals. Somehow they got a deal on those animals from small struggling farms in the rural county. No one was brave or inquisitive enough to follow Rodney on his trips to the far reaches of the county, they just knew he wasn’t buying local meat because the farmers in town could attest to that. Of course they were relieved as they would not want to be attached to or supportive of Rodney’s shoddy butchering.
In the dark foyer Rodney turned to me again with those wild brown eyes and said he had wanted to talk to me for some time about the feathers in his drumsticks. In summer that story spread through our town like the plague and he was still suffering poor chicken sales. I looked at Rodney and knew it was futile to explain that Harry’s friend Leon was the story spreader, and anyway, my reputation as a decent cook, mom and fun, occasional substitute art teacher was tarnished too. But looking in his pained eyes I knew that he hadn’t the capacity to care or ingest information beyond the existence of his and Betty’s little store.
Rodney then brushed the back of his hand across my cheek and whispered with such uncharacteristic warmth that I had the softest skin he had ever seen. Like me witnessing his crazed brown eyes finally up close, he was experiencing my skin that way. He said he had watched me from ‘the back’ and that my skin seemed to be encased in a glow. (Really, encased? Rodney has spent way too much time butchering.) He said he would forgive my debt and my spreading of lies about his chicken if he could just occasionally touch my skin. He said Betty wouldn’t know and might not care anyway. He cried. He said he was miserable and that, yes, sometimes he wasn’t so careful with the feather removal. He said they were barely surviving, that the floorboards were about to go and some unlucky customer would fall through the cracks into the cellar on top of the vicious rats. He said they were just about in the poorhouse and that my paying my debt wouldn’t make much of a difference at this point but touching my skin would make all the difference. He said a really far-out thing, that it might save his soul.
In the afternoons I let Rodney get so close to my face I can feel fury and hopelessness vibrating in his eyes. If I could lick his desperation it would taste acrid and fermented behind his wild pupils. I do not think I am doing anything practical like wiping out my debt, or anything lofty like saving his soul. I am an adventurer, like Bill is, Bill the Machinist, and I am just trying to digest experiences and opportunities as they come. I guess I am trying not to judge Rodney. I think his angst might be teaching me something. And Harry, he says it makes sense why I’d want to go to the store in the afternoons when Betty is away. Harry says Betty is a tough cookie and that her caramels are even tougher. Then we have a good laugh.
Image by erwin nowak from Pixabay
4 thoughts on “Self-Made Grocers by Susan DeFelice”
I liked this but it’s difficult to explain why.
The characters are brilliantly drawn. You get a feeling for them all.
You are left wondering how far she will take it to write off her debt.
There is a lot of misery in this and I suppose the acceptance of the miserable groceries and bad meat is an emphasis on their lives.
This is really well done and skillfully put together!
This is a truly fine blend of realism and creepiness. You really want her to start swinging and telling everyone to fuck off that’s she’s trying her best and that only slime considers everything in terms of buy and sell. But she’s got kids.
My grandfather told of a grocer like Betty. It was the sixties and there was a burly, greasy one-armed man who ran a little store that smelled like turned onions and leaky wine bottles. Grandpa Henry heard that creep had a special credit program for young welfare mothers, but wasn’t sure he believed it until someone emptied both barrels of Remington shotgun in the guy yet left the register untouched.
Thank you for your feedback and insight about the story, Hugh and Irene (your grocer story is chilling!)! I don’t know whether it’s normal dedicating a short story.. but this one is for a mom I know who had a no-nonsense but funny approach to life, appreciation for random details and the simple beauty of, say, a fall day, soft spot for/curiosity about the desperation of others in spite of being in the trenches of desperation herself in a time before therapy, meds and welfare programs were readily available. Her chatty, observant, manic brain is what kept her sane. So did her son, who was her rock and grew up fast.
I like the protagonist’s description of Betty, quite a complex character. The protagonist’s view of the world is also intriguing. She’s a good observer, even of herself, she doesn’t judge as much as be in the experience. Kind of reminds me of Joan Didion. The story also advances the case of vegetarianism. (he he).