Summer 03


Fish Sticks




     After the fire — which I did not start — I snuck through a hole in the chain-link fence that had been hastily erected around the remains of the store. That there was already a hole, clipped with precision, chain link slices curled like drapes, ought to have put me in the fear of transients. My mother always said I should get raped the way I act, and just to spite her I don't get raped.
     There was no one hanging around the ruins of Uptown Market. The fire had been hot and all consuming upwards, the black smoke had rolled in billows straight for me and my apartment windows. I shut them hard and panicked while my children jumped for joy. The smoke bounced off my windows on its way to the sky.
     Now that workmen had carted off the more easily removable debris, you could see that the terrible flames had left a black and white striped ruin. The open aisles of the store were wide and clear, the floor tile was unscathed, and tanning under the sun. But where the goods had stood it was black and bubbled and melted and charred. The upright posts of the store shelves had fused to the ground at off-kilter angles, making an impenetrable thicket of blackened spikes. They looked like giant, hopelessly overcooked shish kabobs.
     Beneath the open sky I walked the aisles of my old grocery store. I could still find my way around Uptown Market, the breeze blew pleasantly, I almost felt like I should be pushing a cart. I was looking for one thing in particular. There had been a tiny checkout counter located, oddly, in the middle of the store. I had never noticed it until my very last visit to Uptown Market, on the same night as the fire.
     Wherever it had been, it had not left a distinct piece of ruin. But I didn't get a chance to completely orient myself before I saw some men about a hundred yards away. They were walking towards the remains of the market from the back side. I took off fast through the hole in the fence, went home, haven't been back, and can't go back in any case: the bulldozers have come to completely level the remains.

Although I assure you I had nothing really to do with it, I feel responsible for the place burning down. I wouldn't tell anyone around here that, of course. Why don't you forget it yourself? It is a great inconvenience to all of us here, all of us who had not already surrendered to the new Super Wal-Mart.
     I admit it, I too have sometimes — often — lined up and walked the wide aisles of Wal-Mart in circles, dazzled, pushing carts the size of Eldorados. Went with my kids, some riding, some walking, some hanging off the edges like riggers on clipper ships. Inspected the goods, hopeful goods, hopeful purchases attaching themselves to all of their hands like thistles and burrs to puppies' fur. In general, I try to avoid the place. Yes, it is cheap, but just try and get out of there in a half an hour. And I never felt guilty about shopping at Uptown.
     I recall mentioning Wal-Mart guilt to a recent boyfriend who harrumphed that a single mom shouldn't feel bad about getting the best deal she can. I mean really, was that the real him coming out? Contemptuous of me? He was. But I threaten to get off the subject, which for now brings us to fish sticks.
     I had been in a hurry the night it happened, in a hurried search for fish sticks. Fish sticks for the evening meal. Which tend to be cheap at Wal-Mart. I do wish I'd gone there that night. It sucks that there had been fish sticks in the fridge already but Mindy, she's the littlest, had been eating them frozen right out of the box. I found Mindy sitting in the corner of the kitchen, looking up innocently, greasy breading everywhere. Half-eaten fish sticks were arranged neatly around her in rows. I love that, where they take one bite out of every single piece of food they can, it's like they're mathematically ruining the greatest total amount of food.
So I picked up Mindy and hugged her and took her into the bathroom to change her and rinse her. I wasn't even mad.
     Jody and Mitchell came in while I was cleaning Mindy like they would get bonus points for telling on Mindy after the fact. I acted like I was angry at them but I was merrily soaping Mindy.
     When I had cute little naked Mindy wrapped in a pink fuzzy towel that is maybe the single nicest thing in the whole apartment, I informed everybody that I was going to need to go to the store to pick up some more fish sticks to make fish tacos. "Look at this, I already had the cilantro chopped and the cheddar cheese grated and I'll even pick up more sour cream so everybody can have lots but Mitchell I need you to watch everybody while I walk over to the Uptown Market. No I can't take anyone, I can't take anybody with me."
     I said one more thing before I walked out the door, "don't let Mindy give the frog any sugar." I locked the deadbolt. Jody waved at me from behind the window. With the rubber backed drapes undulating behind him he looked like a puppet on a TV show. I waved back happily.
It was dusk. I ran down the cement steps of the apartment house but walked when I had to cross the parking lot, careful in step so as not to get run over by some backing up asshole in an S U V. It was just around the corner to get to the Uptown Market. Once I got out of the apartment parking lot I was on a real sidewalk. I could relax. The sky was that shade of purple got by crossing sodium yellow security lamp with the new blue night. The air was sweet, the occasional puff of blue smoke from a failing old car as inoffensive as a social cigarette.
     Under the awning in front of the market I stepped around the starry array of broken bottle glass, veering wide of a pair of drunks who were slouched against the wall. I got inside the store. It was quiet, there was one girl at a register and the other two baggers were standing around talking to her. I swooped up a red plastic shopping basket. To get to the frozen goods I had to first walk by the meat counter. Good specials on pork chops but I was skipping that, going straight for the freezer aisle, the middle row of the store. There were few customers shopping but they were aggressive. It was a trick dodging the carts, they seemed to be bearing down on me from all directions. Everybody had that run-you-over look. Which I perceived peripherally, not looking them in the eye.
I made it to the center aisle dominated by the standup freezer cabinets. I saw Popsicles, and bags of frozen corn, bullet-like green beans, greasy frozen fries, and here at last were the fish sticks.
     Fish sticks were outrageous. They wanted five bucks for 56 thin fish sticks. Five bucks for breading with a little strip of fish. I'm going to pay five fucking dollars because I don't feel like figuring out something else to fix than fish stick tacos.
     I was bent over in the frozen cabinet, cursing. Fucking fish sticks. A man came up behind me and leered at my ass. I could see him do it, his face reflected from a steel plate in the freezer. I turned to curse him but nobody was there. I looked back in the freezer at the place where I had seen his reflection but the metal was all fogged up. I did a doubletake into the aisle but there was nobody there. I turned back into the cabinet and moved to touch the metal with my finger, rub off the fog. "Ouch!" I pulled my finger back. The cold bit my skin. I held my finger in front of my eyes for a second, focusing on it. It was red and wrinkly, hurt like a little spanked baby. Strange desire to get stuck to frozen.
     Focusing past my finger I could see a crumpled bag at the back and bottom of the freezer floor. A big frosty bag with its name turned away. I got down on my knees and leaned my whole torso into the freezer, stretching my hand out for the bag. I sensed movement behind me as I stretched but I did not interrupt my motion. I was stretching and stretching into the cold and I got a handle on the corner of the frozen bag, and then I pulled, and slow motion the bag stretched and peeled off the freezer floor, and I pulled out my torso from the freezer connected by my hand to the frosty frozen big bag. In the aisle I could see I had succeeded, it was fish sticks. I had, in my hands, a bigger bag of fish sticks, 64 fish sticks, and an almost unbelievable price on them of $1.89!
Sitting on the floor there I let out a great gasp of gratitude. I let the fogged up freezer door shut, and saw that I had not imagined the movement around me. There were people standing right next to me. They weren't looking at me though. They were looking ahead to the front of the store. The line from the register had stretched back to here, and past here, to the end of the aisle.
     I got up and brushed myself off, for I was covered with dust and frost. As I had neglected to give my empty red plastic shopping basket anything to protect, someone had snatched it away. So now I traded off the freezing bag back and forth between my hands. I looked at the "GOOD UNTIL" date on the bag. These fish sticks still had a future. I looked again at the price tag, and sure enough, it still said $1.89. Wal-Mart itself couldn't beat that. I tried holding the freezing bag from a corner so it wouldn't be so cold. I looked toward the registers. I felt that my gratitude for this find ought to sustain me through this very long line.
Then I walked to the back of the store anyway, looking up the aisles for a shorter line. This little Uptown Market wasn't the kind of place that had Express Lanes for those of us who were buying little, lanes where we could exit quickly. Uptown Market wasn't the kind of place that would deliberately reward the disorganized.
     I did a fast survey of the registers from my view at the back; there were five cashier stations but only three were open, and from each of these stretched the most amazing line, like a freeway jam, people all looking forward, some with carts and some with baskets, and anchoring the end of the third line I saw a big fat man; he held a great rectangle of diapers, diaper pack corners poking out around him, like the square peg that failed to fit in the round hole.
     I did one more quick survey and settled on the third line, now three customers longer than the last time I looked. It would just have to do. I was holding this amazing bag of fish sticks in one hand — and then the other — because it was so painfully cold. I would just have to wait. The kids in the apartment would have to wait. I would have to hope that Mindy didn't eat all the cheese for the fish tacos I was going to make. At an incredibly low price. I began to think more and more about the kids in the apartment left alone there by me. It seemed interminable. The line wasn't moving at all. The big fat man was fuming and sighing and looking around for someone to sympathize with. I watched his head turn toward me. When his eyes sought mine I looked down.
     There was one thing though, nobody had gotten behind me. Which meant that I wouldn't lose anything scouting for some other way out. Perhaps I could walk to the front and just lay down $2.25 and say, "keep the change." But my weird bag of fish sticks was going to possibly be an argument. As in, is this the right price? Would they do that to me? In any case, it precluded trying to shuffle out of there quickly.
The thought occurred to me then just to walk out of there holding the fish sticks, just boldly take them. But why would I want to steal this bag of fish sticks? It had such a low price. It seemed a shame to steal it. Where was the bargain in that?
     And, incidentally, some fuck would be staring at my ass; I'd get caught. And leaving my kids behind. They would take them away from me if I was caught stealing with them in the apartment alone! What was I thinking. I haven't stolen anything in years. By now, I should say, I'd abandoned my place in line. While I had been thinking of darting and stealing, my feet had brought me to the front of the store.
     I looked from the front side at the layout of the store, at everybody waiting. Where had all these people come from? I looked at their faces trying to find some clue, looked at the things they held, realized that time was wasting while I pondered. It was that pointless thinking: the mind is making six different tallies and at the center, poof, is nothing. And into the center of my mind came something I was looking right at, there in the middle of the store. A small checkout counter. I looked at it more. A small checkout counter in the middle of the store, and, standing behind it, a man wearing a store apron. He was staring at me expectantly. I walked up to him.
     "Are you open?" I said. He nodded. As I came closer it became clear that this checkout counter was quite a bit smaller than the others — I had to stoop to place my fish sticks down on the counter — and that the man, too, was small, shorter than I, cute in a teenaged way, with blond hair poking out from under his cap and a friendly, simple expression.
He proceeded to turn his attention away from me and poke about at his register. He looked like some kind of animal, except that animals tend to know what they are doing. A spider wrapping up an insect, for example, or a gopher burrowing a hole; they look like they know what to do.
The cashier caressed the little buttons, stroked the register tape. He paused from his poking to scratch his forehead. He scratched up to the underside of his cap and pulled it off, revealed blond hair in a sweat mold the shape of the cap. He put his cap back on. He looked at me. I held up the frozen bag of fish sticks, smiled, jiggled the bag. Turned the bag towards him so he could read the price tag, "hmmm?" I said in a familiar way, as if we went through this all the time.
     He nodded to me and turned to the register. Like a church organist, he brought his fingers from on high down upon the buttons. Out popped the cash drawer. The total, with tax, read $2.39. This was far too much sales tax but time was a wasting. I held out a ten dollar bill; he pinched his fingers on it and plucked it from my fingers. Then he did the strangest thing, he shut his eyelids and passed the bill under his nostrils in a sweeping motion. He laid the bill in the cash drawer and shut it. He smiled at me.
     "My change?" I said. He smiled at me. "My change?" I said, louder. "I gave you a ten." He smiled at me. I thrust my arm out under his chin, pointed a finger at the total on the register. "I gave you a ten. A ten. You owe me seven something. $7.71!" I was shouting, hand outstretched.      "Give me my money!" I yelled.
     "What's going on here!" said a voice from behind. I turned and there stood a security guard. He was frowning at me. He had his hands on his hips. Oh, great.
     "I gave this guy a ten for a two dollar purchase and he didn't give me my change." I turned and looked at the cashier. He looked bewildered. Shouting like that made me feel like I was being deceitful. "I want my change," I said more quietly.
     "All right, just hold on lady, let's just calm down," said the rent-a-cop to me. When he said "lady" my face went contemptuous faster than you can say, "contemptuous." I looked the rent-a-cop up and down. His face was hard, and in this context, ridiculous. He wore one of those scratchy gray polyester uniforms, a too-tight uniform that revealed a little bulge around his stomach. The thought of trailing the pinks of my fingernails against that gray polyester uniform sent thrills of disgust through me; to caress that uniform would send the most unhealthy vibrations coursing through me, clusters of echoing ick. My eyes strayed down, I expected to see the white line of t-shirt around his neck but he wore none, and I could see his nipples pressed against his scratchy, ugly uniform. Naked under that uniform top, his pencil pointed male nipples would chafe and redden. There was the most unpromising little bunch around his groin, but my eyes were getting mushy all the same. Surely at least the man wore underwear. Polyester scratching around the genitalia produces an unsightly and painful rash.
     I shook out of this trance and turned to look at the cashier, who to my great surprise was holding out a $10 bill at me. Clearly not comprehending what was going on, the cashier held it straight from his body like a contaminated object. "Oh, thanks," I said, trying to play it cool. Then I turned to the security guard. "Will that be all right?" I asked sarcastically. He had already turned to go. My eyes began their gravity travel down the clinging fabric of his polyester — no — I jerked my head away. The cashier was now struggling with the bag of fish sticks, trying to force the big bag into a plastic sack at least a size too small. Every once in a while he would pull his hands away from the freezing bag and blow on them. Then he would try to stretch the plastic bag a little further around the frozen fish stick bag.
     He looked like me, when I haven't done the laundry for a week and am trying to get some size-too-small garment on one of the kids for bedtime, only the fish sticks didn't protest. The children's poor little heads, me trying to yank the collar down to their neck. Fish sticks were cold, so cold that the cashier's fingers seemed to become arthritic before my eyes, and his breath wasn't doing the trick, and he started to rub them on the backside of the register, which I suppose was warm.
     "I can get it," I said. I reached out for the bag.
The shopping bag, stuck halfway onto the bulging fish stick bag - it looked like a man with his pants down. I got the plastic bag handles around my wrist. "Thanks," I said to the cashier. I turned to walk to the exit. Behind me I heard fuzzy electronic sounds. I was in the middle of the store, had no receipt, had not properly paid for the fish sticks — had in fact paid nothing for them — but had made quite a public display of exchanging money. I could smell something chemical. I walked. I could hear a high pitched squeal, something like a tea kettle. I could smell crisp electric smoke. It smelled like a broken toaster. I was at the door. I kept my eyes pointed straight ahead of me.


Vic Perry ( will be performing at the Philadelphia Fringe Festival in September, 2003. He's the prose editor at Send him something. His work has appeared at and "other, you know, places." He lives in New Mexico.