Serving House: A Journal of Literary Arts
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Creative Nonfiction
2994 words
SHJ Issue 9
Spring 2014

The “Sandie Five”

by Roisin McLean

The large sandstone-sided Shoprite supermarket in West Orange, New Jersey, looms hidden behind the hill graced by Macy’s, Dress Barn, and Panera Bread in the Essex Green strip mall along Prospect Avenue. Hundreds of customers are flocking to Shoprite for emergency and impulse shopping this Saturday, October 27, 2012. Normally dedicated to her budget and diet, Leah Croft, on Aisle 2, Coffee and Tea, hefts a heavy cylinder of 4C Iced Green Tea mix into her cart and crosses it off the list, at the bottom of which she has penned “Bad ” to mean some highly caloric delicacy, not yet decided upon, that will console her in the ninety-mile-per-hour winds. She unbuttons another notch, feeling a “private summer” hot flash and her claustrophobia kicking in as she’s elbowed by all manner of folks preparing for Hurricane Sandy and PSE&G’s frightening first-ever announcement to expect power outages. Fear of the unknown starts to draw her down once again into a vortex of terror, but she resists out of habit, distracts herself with contemplation of what sweet delicacy she shall indulge in, but decides to postpone the decision, like a carrot on a stick, until she has purchased all the canned goods she does not want to eat.

“What is unisex?” asks a cute curly blonde tot of her father, who wears an olive khaki-colored mechanic’s uniform with “Steve” embroidered in Rutger’s “Scarlet Knights” red on the chest pocket placket.

“You know what unisex is, sweetie,” he says, glancing over at Leah and winking, “it’s the church’s little cardboard box you’ve been putting coins into for kids on World Sunday tomorrow.”

“I hope your daughter’s Sunday school teacher is as quick-witted as you, Steve.” Leah winks back.

“Yeah, that Unicef conversation should be rich. I’m sure I’ll hear about it. Happy shopping!”

“Thanks,” says Leah, who moves on to Aisle 4, Canned Fish, etc., where she helps herself to several tins each of mackerel, sardines, anchovies, and mussels. She must remember to look for fresh-cut vinegary horseradish, since the creamy mild sauce in the refrigerator will turn bad once the electricity goes off. What aisle would fresh horseradish be on? Must be Fresh Produce. She skipped that aisle, where more people than she expected were helping themselves to greens. Those silver-haired yuppies in V-neck cashmere sweaters and pony-tailed joggers in Nikes and leggings must live on the mayor’s street, which no doubt would retain electricity. Or maybe they have back-up generators. Leah turns to pluck some canned corned beef hash from the opposite shelving and smacks into a middle-aged, green-bag-wielding female shopper dressed in a navy suit, all business on a Saturday and no humor in sight. Leah apologizes, waits for the discontented woman to pass, and picks two cans of the store-brand hash.

“And then you almost took the ramp toward Bayonne,” says a lovely green-eyed redhead to Steve, who has appeared in Canned Fish now, too. “You knew we were headed for Newark Airport and Scotland.”

Leah perks up and eavesdrops. Her significant other lives in Scotland.

“Bayonne? Scotland? They’re pretty much the same,” says Steve, straight-faced.

“Yeah,” the redhead says, “lots of angry fat men wearing no pants.”

Steve laughs so hard he drops a can of Hormel Chili on his hard-booted foot. “Hey, now, let’s be politically correct.”

“Actually, I am,” she says with a self-righteous toss of her hair. She lifts their fidgeting blonde tot from the cart and sways her smoothly from side to side.

The chili can rolls to a stop at Leah’s feet, and she returns it to Steve, who nods a smiling thank-you.

“Let’s not forget I’m the one who ate the haggis, and you barfed on me,” Steve says to his green-eyed beauty.

“Watch it, I’ll beat you with a stick,” she threatens with mock fierceness.

“Promises, promises. Oh, look—‘Nessie Jerky,’” he says to his wife while pointing down the aisle.

“What? Where?” she asks.

With a Scottish burr, Steve says, “Loch your mouth on this jerky!” and he bumps his lower quarters into her belly, at which they smooch unashamedly and hold up hurried and harried shoppers with heaped carts.

When the couple, tot in tow, moves down the aisle, gently touching at shoulders and hips, Leah feels lonely. She hasn’t yet made a Skype account. Her Scottish boyfriend is clearly busy just now, yet his emails overflow with worry for her and his friends along the U.S. Eastern seaboard. She wishes he could be here to hold her snugly in his arms under the down quilt on her king-size bed when the house gets battered, although she admits with guilt that she should prefer him out of the hurricane’s path. Leah takes stock of her cart—all boring canned goods—and considers the “Bad ” on her list. There’s only so much canned hash and corn one can stomach. What shall she indulge in?

“Mop assistance required on Aisle 11.” The voice on the public address system is too loud, perhaps to be heard over the hundreds of customers speaking over each other.

Aisle 7, Cookies and Baking Goods, is mobbed. Shoppers throng—no milling today—at the cookies end of the aisle. They, too, must be planning scrumptious off-diet respites, and baking will be out of the question. Within easy hearing distance, Leah observes a haggard, pasty-faced, bushy-haired young man in an oversized Army jacket. He is clutching in long white fingers a bag of ginger snaps, and his left eye quivers shut and open, shut and open, as he argues the wisdom of his spicy choice over the chocolate chip brand of his girlfriend, Hispanic, dressed in skin-tight red leggings and over-the-knee boots. What an odd pair they seem. They clearly can’t decide on one brand of cookie but then exchange knowing smiles and happy shrugs, as if used to such an impasse, and toss both bags atop cartons of Pop Secret and Orville Redenbacher’s microwave popcorn in their cart. Maybe they live on the mayor’s street, too, or are stocking up before driving west. Sensing their argument as a game they play, Leah envies their ease with and knowledge of each other. The unlikely pair embrace, and he twines his white fingers in her glossy black hair, which brings to Leah’s mind the sharp image of strange thin broken shells she found one year while beachcombing the cove along Toms River in Island Heights. Such decoratively pitted pure-white strands, no thicker than twine, and mixed in the sand with shiny obsidian shards, would create a gorgeous necklace if the jagged edges were polished smooth. When the Aisle 7 crowd disperses a bit, she wedges her cart in toward the cookies.

For some reason, the “Keebler” shortbread section has been hardly touched, shelves still brimming with colorful row upon row of yellow bags. Leah finds herself studying the leafy Hollow Tree logo and the white lettering of “Keebler” splashed across a red background. The colors make her think first of Valentine’s Day and then the “bleeding snowman” in the Scottish courtyard last Christmas and the ketchup splotches on the snow-dusted cobblestones that she inadvertently tracked inside onto the wide pale planks of her boyfriend’s kitchen floor, which she cleaned immediately and quietly along with her boot bottoms lest she trail the ketchup farther onto his Persian carpets and incur more condescending fault finding, an alarming and atypical pattern in his recent behavior. Maybe someone used to speak to him that way. If only he could remember that his angry tone stabs deeper than nails into people who suffer post-traumatic stress disorder. She hopes it’s just a phase that passes before he breaches the final threshold of her PTSD, which will catapult her into full flight and self-preservation mode. Ironically, Leah thinks, maybe they are blessed to have a primarily long-distance relationship. But she loves him and wishes he were here; a healthy dose of his once-normal support and enthusiasm would be so very welcome right now. She selects two bags, one Pecan Sandies shortbread and one Toffee Sandies shortbread.

Leah loves shortbread and knows, as most cookie aficionados do, that the shortbread recipe dates back centuries to Arabian cuisine. She also knows what most people don’t know: that Keebler was founded in 1853 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, where her Scottish immigrant great-great-grandfather used to work and gratefully accept over-baked “rejects,” which his family, of course, never rejected. Pecan Sandies, a childhood favorite, always make her think of him with his silver hair and thick silver-rimmed eyeglasses, enlarging watery Monet-like blue irises, per her grandmother’s diary. If he were alive today—at age 179—he’d be up on a ladder at home stoically boarding up windows without a grumble, or more likely cursing up a super-storm.

With a flinch and a grin, it occurs to Leah why people might not be buying Keebler’s Sandies. And yet how appropriate to munch on Sandies during Hurricane Sandy. Yes, Sandies will be her “Bad ” while she waits it out. Talk about embracing your fear, she thinks, and imagines eating an entire bag’s worth under the down quilt where she will huddle alone.

On Aisle 9, shelves are bare where the inexpensive bottled water is sold out. Leah places an overpriced twenty-four pack in her cart, thinks about it, and resignedly adds another.

“It was like this yesterday, too,” says a grinning, broken-toothed African-American man, who is trying to lift a plastic gallon of water with a prosthetic arm. A beer-bellied, unshaven fellow in a gray sweatshirt rushes over to assist.

Noting the humane gesture with appreciation, Leah still grinds her teeth as she crosses off “Water,” the last item on her list. She can’t stand wasting money. At least she has homeowner’s insurance, so if the hurricane damages her house, she won’t have to pay out of pocket. But she can’t afford the time it would take to fix the house because her car lease is expiring soon, she can’t get a home equity line due to “Insufficient Income,” and she’s way too close for comfort to the ludicrous situation of having to sell her house in order to buy a cheap car—in which she’ll have to live because she won’t have a roof over her head any more. Could Mother Nature have chosen a worse time for “the hurricane of the century,” not to diminish Katrina’s impact? How she hates this downward spiral, the sucking vortex that grips her in the economic recession and her own depression. That’s two spiraling vortexes, Leah thinks, the hurricane and the economy. In her experience, spiraling vortexes usually come in threes. She wonders what the third one is. A marble-gray pigeon with pink-tinged wings flaps in front of her face and soars up to the rafters of the supermarket ceiling.

Leah checks herself for guano, finds none, and heads for the cashier lanes up front but is surprised by a new arrangement. Today, Shoprite has organized to queue customers on the dairy and bread aisle at the side of the store and wend along the back as necessary. A very official young Asian assistant manager with a blond buzz cut directs each customer to a lane once a purchase is finalized. Leah heads back down Aisle 9, can’t get through the glut of carts and folks trying to buy water, and aims for the far corner via Aisle 11, where the spill has apparently been mopped up already. In the corner, at the end of the line, she stares at the milk there is no point in buying.

She tries to count the number of people and carts in front of her but can’t see for all the taller heads. She imagines the orderly consumers awaiting their turns—alternately weary, hurting, bored, or cheery, each one leaning on his or her respective cart—a penitent queue approaching the pay-up confessional, a concept to which she, a Presbyterian, can bring no personal experience. She wonders if a Catholic can slip away with a clean and clear conscience on the deathbed. Timor mortis conturbat me. Blood on the lintel—futile in the wake of acts that are clearly not of God. The line moves up the length of the butter section, where Leah grasps a pound of Land o’ Lakes Sweet Creamery Butter, admires the Native-American maiden on the box, thinks of baking and pressing cookies—peppermint Christmas trees, ginger camels, and cream cheese wreaths—and then puts the box back in its spot on the refrigerated shelf. When the power goes out at home, the butter will go bad long before the fresh Italian loaf, which she just now realizes she forgot to add to her list. “Give us this day our daily bread” takes on new meaning.

“Stop that, Timmy,” whispers a woman behind her. Leah turns to see a happy mop-haired little boy, who is clearly too young to know the word for what he is doing. His eyes are starting to roll back in his head, and his legs are dangling out the front of the cart as he rises to full sitting height and lowers and rises, over and over, pressing his precious little privates against the firm wire mesh of the shopping cart. His motion simulates the carousel at Seaside Heights, where the horses sink and leap in grace and gilded garlands. Every year, she rides a mare named “Lillian,” which is painted in green cursive on her flank. Lillian’s pole is static, which Leah prefers to dizziness. The male creatures also stand fixed but line the outside edge of the circular floor, handsome and regal, especially Mike the camel, Walt the roaring tiger, and Leo the lion, whose curled lips and teeth are frozen in roar. At the center of the carousel hub, among sparkling mirror tiles that spin in and out of view, historical information is posted that she memorized in spurts maybe forty years ago: “Hand-carved Dentzel/Looff Carousel...built circa 1910...real Wurlitzer ...military band organ.” She wonders that she never photographed the carousel before. At least it’s a snapshot long held in memory. She must remember to take her digital camera next summer.

It occurs to her then that she keeps thinking about anywhere and everywhere except for here and now, the imminent threat, fear of the unknown, to be thrust or not upon them all without prejudice within twelve hours. And she must shoulder it alone. She sighs. Then, with fresh insight from nowhere, she perceives the huge supermarket as a microcosm of the global village and its citizens united in a common bond: surviving the upcoming unknown. They all have their own problems, and now this, the hurricane on top of it all. Parents put on brave and cheerful faces for their children. Some folks still believe “it” could never happen to them, no matter what “it” is. Believers. Non-believers. The worried. The afraid. The doom-sayers. The nay-sayers. The African-American woman with the blotched face and pain-riddled knees who wheezes and leans heavily on the push bar of her shopping cart. Leah knows how the woman feels. A short Slavic woman has toddler-style bangs that demark a straight line between her limp hair and lined face; her shopping cart contains more dog and cat food cans than “people” food. Leah figures she’ll know how that feels soon, too. And then there are the truly optimistic folks, maybe Catholics, maybe not, who simply live proactively and don’t worry, put on a happy face, and even make jokes, which makes the threat much more manageable for everyone else. She remembers reading in some psychology magazine that if you want to feel better, simply smile. She knows it works, and she smiles.

“Lane 12, ma’am,” says the blond Asian manager, who in his black pants, starched and pressed white shirt, and tie, looks like a pilot but without the hat and a bar of wings.

“Thank you, sir,” Leah says, still smiling.

As she unloads her canned goods and bottled water onto the conveyor belt, she suddenly realizes what the third spiraling vortex is—her own gullet—and she dashes back to Aisle 7, Cookies and Baking Goods, to scoop up a bag each of Simply Shortbread Sandies, Dark Chocolate Almond Sandies, and Cashews Sandies, bringing her Sandies stash to five. She smiles through the notion she’ll soon be sporting the “Sandie Five” like a “freshman fifteen”—desperate times call for mouth-watering pleasures—and feels perversely good about being so “Bad

Still smiling, she folds the cash register receipt in her wallet and checks the time on her cell phone. Not bad, only twenty-five minutes from the far corner to out the door, which under normal circumstances would probably cause her to seethe but today is admirable thanks to Shoprite’s emergency organization. She rearranges the cookies in one of her Shoprite green bags lest they topple out.

“Ah, a Sandies lass,” says a male voice beside her.

She turns in wonder and sees it’s not her Scottish gent but rather an attractive, well-groomed man with, of all things, silver hair and silver-rimmed glasses.

“Ah, you found me out,” Leah blurts.

“Care to sit out the storm with me? I’ve got a front-row seat on First Mountain,” he says, with a glimmer of nothing but innocence on his face.

Leah can’t tell whether he’s a phenomenally good player, a jokester, or a sweet lonely widower seeking company and chit-chat.

“No, but thank you,” Leah says, “you just made my day. See you here next Saturday?”

“God willing. I’ll bring popcorn and Sandies.” And with that, he salutes her and is on his way, no doubt to First Mountain. Must be a lovely view.

It occurs to her that her smile was forced before but now feels radiant. Following the global villagers out the automatic door, she pushes her Sandies-filled cart into a deceptively balmy afternoon and the ubiquitous unknown, alone, but not.

—First published in a slightly different version in OH SANDY! An Anthology of Humor for a Serious Purpose. Lynn Beighley, AJ Fader, and Peter Barlow, Eds. 2013. Reprinted here by author’s permission.


SHJ Issue 9
Spring 2014

Roisin McLean

earned an MFA in Creative Writing, Fiction, from Fairleigh Dickinson University, has been nominated four times for the prestigious Pushcart Prize, and was a semifinalist for The Katherine Anne Porter Prize in Fiction (Nimrod/Hardman).

She has published fiction (under various pen names) in Perigee: Publication for the Arts, Fiction Week Literary Review, Serving House: A Journal of Literary Arts, and Pithead Chapel.

Her essays appear in Winter Tales II: Women on the Art of Aging, in OH SANDY! A Humorous Anthology with a Serious Purpose (all profits of which benefit survivors of Hurricane Sandy), and in Runnin’ Around: The Serving House Book of Infidelity. Her interviews with ex-pat author Thomas E. Kennedy appear in The McNeese Review and Ecotone.

She is currently working on a linked short story and novella collection. She has worked as Managing Editor for Macmillan Publishing Company and in hands-on book production for other publishing houses, both on staff and freelance.

“...we have been born here to witness and celebrate. We wonder at our purpose for living. Our purpose
is to perceive the fantastic. Why have a universe if there is no audience?” — Ray Bradbury