Produce in a Pandemic

 

 

My poem “Produce in a Pandemic” has been published in the latest edition of River Dog. The full piece is below:

 

 

Produce in a Pandemic

It’s 1990,
the cold metal bars
in the shopping cart child’s seat
are a quiet relief from
the San Fernando Valley sun.
In the market, I see pyramids
of gleaming ruby apples, uniformly waxed.
Grandma knocks on watermelons
puts her ear to the rind, listening
for something an octave lower than
the Muzak anesthetizing the store, lower
than the bored drone of fluorescent lights.
Something I could not hear.

It’s 2020,
Grandma is quarantined
in the same house she bought in 1959.
The fields outside her windows
that reminded her of native Oklahoma
paved over for an airport. The wealthy
still buzz over in luxury jets, their exhaust
coloring her swimming pool slightly grey.

She texts me her grocery list, the first time
she’s ever asked me for anything, ever.
Two bags of greens
(The parakeets prefer kale)
A nice baking potato
Half n’ Half for coffee
Three ripe avocados
Mylanta, if they still make that
And a nice melon for breakfast

This is more than just the list:
this is the moment I was raised for,
everything I should have been studying
watching from the cart seat, her eyes
carefully studying the nutrition labels
comparing the ounce per dollar prices,
instead of being mesmerized by the Toucan Sam
following my nose to childhood diabetes
crying until I was catatonic for Cocoa Puffs.
I learned that generic Malt-O-Meal
Marshmallow Mateys and Good Enuff Puffs
were a delayed “I love you.” A sensibly priced
breakfast later meant money for soccer cleats,
a summer popsicle from the ice cream man.

I am ready,
my old underwear mask tied
across my face like a ninja, I stealthily
cut through the 99 Cent Store,
dodging coughers left, produce gropers right.
This is what I spent 30 years training for:
the Home Ec final taken during a fire evacuation.

They don’t have Mylanta, but I know she’ll love
America’s Pride brand liquid antacid because it’s 99 cents
and the flimsy bottle means more chalk for your buck.
The Half n’ Half available is a miracle,
no cans of condensed milk as a substitute,
no memories of ration cards, no WWII flashbacks
to a church key, saucer pan on the stove,
infant sister crying for something better.
Three avocados, hard like green dinosaur eggs:
You’ll have your guacamole in 5-7 days, Grandma.
No kale, but among these three different
mixes of salad, kale is the 3rd or 4th listed
ingredient. The parakeets can kick the iceberg
and romaine to the newspaper lined floor.
A baking potato is not chosen for ripeness,
but for a skin that will tan, crackle in the oven,
the innards blistering through, puffy golden,
I grab five, wipe the soiled prints off my hands.

Then the final boss
The melon:
I grab a cantaloupe: bald and spotted
like Grandpa’s head, and I knock
dull thuds, signifying nothing.
I pick another, knock on Grandpa’s head
hoping to hear his voice:
how to fasten a bolo tie
how to replace a fuse
how to smooth the grout between tiles
something that tells me what’s inside.

I remember him in the VA hospital
foggy eyes glazed off into the distance
how I knocked, knock, knock,
knocking on his brain with my questions
hoping to hear something resonate from inside.
He saw the TV from the distance:
“The greens aren’t guarding the reds”
The blurred abstraction of Michigan St. v. Ohio St.
and it was true, the Buckeyes were dominating the paint
and we discussed, the triangle offense, John Wooden
and the proper form for a free throw before he slept
and I never saw him wake up.

I palm the cantaloupe like a basketball
imagine shooting it into the cart, with perfect form
from just outside the dairy case, hoping Grandma
will hear the swish when she opens the bag.

I leave her groceries on the porch,
can only see her through the screen door.
I remember before we got air conditioning,
how the cool breeze through the screen
on a summer night in the valley
brought sweet deliverance as we watched
the weather forecast through the waves of static.
Now I see her on the screen, just as obscured
and distanced, projected in low definition
but her warm glow forged in the dust bowl
still reflects on my glasses.

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