Best before

I judge people by the groceries they bring through my checkout. I know this isn’t fair—they could be buying for their physically challenged aunt or their alcohol-abusing neighbour—but I do it anyway. It gives me something interesting to think about at work. My favourite customers are the pasty-faced anemic couple who come through every Thursday evening, buggy brimming with Fritos, Diet Coke, boil-in-a-bag entrees and microwaveable TV dinners. Nothing fresh. Nothing green.

I have this theory. I measure how sexually satisfied people are by the amount of junk food they buy. The more junk, the more the need for oral gratification, intense munching in front of the television. My anemic couple is obviously having sexual difficulties. I’ve been coming home with huge bags of Doritos myself these days.

My wife comes to bed with pointed metal clips in her permed hair to keep it buoyant—metal life preservers for her sinking coiffure. I kiss her carefully to avoid getting impaled on these instruments of beauty. Her cheek is slightly greasy with moisturizer. She is trying to preserve her skin. I read the packages: “Unique moisture complex helps smooth away wrinkle lines. Enhances skin hydration through efficient water delivery system.” I imagine her bloated, completely hydrated without any lines at all, just a smooth oval with perfectly coiffed hair on top.

COMING April 4, 2017

I’m the assistant manager at Jim’s FOOD on the corner of Willow and First in downtown Madawan. Jim is huge—a lunar eclipse of a man. He is always pinching my upper arm, urging me to try the FOOD pasta line. “You’re not much of an endorsement,” he says in his PA-system voice, loudly guffawing afterwards, making me wonder when I can retire. I stand at my cash register, mind immobile, fingers moving:

Jamaican bell peppers—vegetable code 69—$1.33

Chicken noodle soup (special)—89 cents

The Ultimate Tampons (a unique FOOD product)—$4.29.

During quiet moments I sometimes read the ingredients on the packages. My favourite part is the “May contain” list. I make up my own: Life may contain unusual amounts of general malaise sodium glutamate. Relationships may contain dehydrogenated unhappiness. I marvel at how little I know about the science of the food industry.

My wife’s shoulder pads are getting bigger. They used to be scant, barely accentuating her natural curves. Now she sticks thick foam pads directly onto her bare shoulders. Sweaty foam against her smooth skin. “In-Shape” they’re called. “Enhances your wardrobe and flatters your figure.” She looks like a quarterback. She’s calling a passing game but never follows her own signals. I don’t know what will happen next. Her shoulder pads are gigantic now—offensive tackle size. Soon she’ll have to turn sideways to pass through the bedroom doorway.

I’m bruising the produce. I caught myself gripping grapefruits the other day, one in each hand, squeezing gently. I glanced furtively at the customer who was mercifully diving into the bottom of her cart to retrieve a bag of Oreos. I quickly keyed in—Grapefruit 2 for 99 cents—and grabbed the porterhouse steaks. Today my anemic couple bought a bunch of bananas. This depresses me beyond measure. My wife has started using strange beauty products. She squeezes her eyelashes with metal tongs to curl them. It looks like she’s plucking her eyeballs out. She’s bought Jolen to bleach the shadowy hairs on her upper lip. I liked their scant darkness, the way drops of sweat would bead there when we made love. Now they are pale, almost invisible, totally innocuous. Sometimes she uses an apricot facial mask. “Deep-cleanses pores and gives skin a luminous sheen.” Her eyes peer out of the stark white as she files her nails and watches “Sex in the City” re-runs. She can’t laugh—the mask is too tight—so she chortles and snorts.

I read: “Kool-Aid may contain tricalcium phosphate.” Millions of kids are gulping water softener. I glance up from the cash register and am surprised to see my wife coming into the store. She never does the grocery shopping, food is my business. I peer around my cash register and see her shoulders sway down the cleaning goods/toiletries aisle. The muzak seems louder; I have to ask Mr. Leeuwen to repeat what he’s said.

“I have a coupon for the Premium Plus,” he bellows. I forget to charge for three tins of Friskies cat food. I don’t care. Then she’s standing at my cash. She’s started to wear a dark shade of lipstick—“Raspberry Stain” it’s called. I have covertly watched her face in the mirror as she applies it, carefully outlining her mouth with a matching pencil, using a small brush to apply the lipstick in controlled strokes. She is impossible to get near now. I fear her huge red, indelible smudges.

I say hello or something, smile grudgingly. She’s buying an over-sized bag of FOOD cotton balls and two yellowish-red mangos. I put them in a plastic FOOD bag. The mangos are surprisingly heavy, ripe. I can’t believe she’s buying fresh fruit. I avoid her eyes, fearful I might betray my suspicion. My theory. I take the money and give her change. “See you later,” I mutter as I turn to the next customer.

At supper that night I watch her mouth as she eats. She doesn’t swallow one mouthful before inserting the next. I glimpse her molars mashing pork chop with green beans with potatoes. She takes her plate to the sink and returns with one of the mangos and a sharp paring knife. She carefully removes all the peel, then bites in. Juice oozes out of the corners of her mouth and dribbles down her chin. She doesn’t offer me any.