• Revelation at the Food Bank

    Merrill Joan Gerber

    Summer 2022

    “Did you ever have sex with another woman?” I asked my husband when he was eighty-five and we had been married for sixty-two years.

    I could see he was dumbstruck. I was angry about something, maybe about everything, the stupidity of everyone, the mistakes that were made every day by careless, indifferent idiots.

    My husband had ordered new glasses—just ordinary glasses, a regular pair and a pair of sunglasses—and when the optician’s office called to say, “Your glasses are ready,” he drove ten miles to pick them up only to learn that only one of the two pairs was ready. Was this not ultimate stupidity? Why wouldn’t I be angry? My husband rarely gets angry, so I have to be angry for him.

    Another time we went to In-N-Out and ordered two burgers, two fries, and extra ketchup. A girl handed me the bag through our car window. When we got home, we found she had given us three fries and ketchup, but no burgers. Of course, I tried to call when we got home, but you can’t call the place where you bought the food—only the corporate offices in some other state. We ate every one of the fries.

    I never used to say “fuck.” But lately, I say it more frequently because our old house is so crowded with fifty years’ worth of stuff, and things keep falling down on me—books tumble out of bookcases, clothes stream out of closets, and pills crash out of medicine cabinets. Now these cabinets are also full of face masks, and latex gloves to be worn while taking in the mail.

    At the start of the pandemic, my cleaning lady, who worried about us because we are so old, suggested I go to the food bank because it was safer than going grocery shopping. Why would I go to a food bank when I hadn’t lost my job, wasn’t homeless, and could pay for my groceries? She insisted that I would be less likely to catch COVID-19. I’d have no contact with people and could stay sealed in my car. She gave me directions to a church, told me they were the kindest, nicest folks, and that they gave away free turkeys every Thanksgiving. I so desired a free turkey for once in my life. After our last Thanksgiving, my husband said we should no longer buy a turkey for the holiday—it was too heavy for him to handle, too hard for him to carve now that he had a tremor, too much leftover food for just two people. Who of our children would even come to spend Thanksgiving with us? All our daughters were grown, lived far away, and not one would be interested in the little chocolate turkeys I used to buy them at See’s Candies.

    I drove the two miles to the food bank at the church—really just one left turn from our street onto the road that goes from our house to the magnificent golden cross at the church’s entrance. WELCOME—YOU MUST WEAR A MASK the sign read, and I joined the orderly line of supplicants winding their way through the parking lot in a colorful parade of cars. Among them I noted a BMW, a red Mercedes, and a Humvee. A pretty woman at a table greeted each car, one by one. She talked briefly to every driver, and typed something into a small computer. When I got to her, she took my name but didn’t ask me if I were poor or homeless, and placed on my windshield a little card that read ONE SPECIAL ITEM FIRST VISIT.

    “Have a great day,” she told me, “and God bless.”

    When I arrived at a temporary stop sign, an older man bent toward me and kindly asked, “How many families and where do you want the food? Back seat or trunk?” I told him one family, trunk. He wrote 1-T on my windshield in white marker. I drove forward and noticed a swarm of volunteers wearing bright orange vests hurrying to the open trunk of the car ahead of me, each person carrying a carton, or a gallon jug of milk, or a bag of vegetables (some celery stalks sticking out the top), or a lumpy, foil-wrapped object, shaped, I thought, like a frozen chicken. One female volunteer was smiling as she deposited a bag into the car ahead. A young man with powerful arms was loading a large sealed box into the trunk. On its side was printed LOS ANGELES REGIONAL FOOD BANK and under it the words FIGHTING HUNGER. GIVING HOPE.

    My turn now. I stopped, I felt vibrations behind me as my trunk door was raised, and a series of thumps shook my car. The trunk was gently closed; the man wiped the white letters off my windshield, gave me a thumbs up, and I drove off, only to stop at one more station. A woman about my age came to my open car window and said, “How can I help you? Baby diapers? Wet wipes? Formula? Hand sanitizer? Masks? Dog food?”

    “I don’t have a dog.” She looked at me closely. “Maxi pads? At my age I have to use them, maybe you can use some too.” Then she astonished me by extending her closed fist through the open window toward me, and I automatically extended mine, and we fist-bumped. “Friends!” she announced. She handed me some carefully wrapped portions of maxi pads. “See you next week, my friend,” she said. I drove home, somewhat stunned but aware that I was smiling.

    When I opened my trunk in the garage, I felt a rare excitement—a kind of delight that a surprise awaited me, as on a special birthday. I carried a bag of potatoes into the house and asked my husband to help with the rest. The gallon of milk was too heavy for me. The carton, also. We put all the food on the kitchen table.

    A beautiful chocolate layer cake, which I guessed was my special first visit item, showed an expiration date of two days ago, but I was certain it was perfect. Someone had also placed in my trunk an orchid plant in a red plastic pot. It was mostly wilted, but it still had a few floppy purple flowers hanging off a stem. How kind someone was to do this for me. Even imperfect beauty raised my spirits. In the big carton were bags of rice and beans, a box of spaghetti, cans of tuna, chicken and soup, jars of peanut butter. We unpacked the various bags and found a bottle of cooking oil, a pound of butter, apples, walnuts, carrots, onions. Other gifts I discovered included a can labeled LIQUID DEATH, a bottle of dark-truffle ketchup, a six-pack of caramel-pumpkin yogurt, and a package of wild sardines in hot jalapeño sauce.

    “Do we really need all this?” my husband asked.

    “Do we need to eat?” I replied.

    Whatever roused my anger toward my husband had been percolating in me for years. He was such a caring and thoughtful man, yet common annoyances surfaced. Why does he put so much cream cheese on his bagel? Or leave lights on in every room of the house? How come he tries to open the front door after our walk before he thinks to put his key in the lock?

    At one trip to the food bank, I was given a five-pound bag of frozen diced ham, packaged in a long cylindrical tube. Baffled by how to store this inconvenient shape, I’d stuffed it way back in the refrigerator. That night, considering what to cook for dinner, I pulled out the tube. The sealed end split open and five pounds of freezing ham shards shot out and struck my body everywhere, ham juice soaking my pants and running down my legs into my shoes.

    “Fuck,” I yelled. But wouldn’t anyone?

    My husband would not. Such words do not abide in him. The anger that comes over me around mealtimes is because I have to make all the meals. We married young, when men were not house husbands, cooks, or babysitters. The man had the job. My husband was a professor, he worked many hours and graded many papers. That was the arrangement. The challenge of every meal belonged to me—three times a day, year after year. I also had a job—I wrote stories and books. But I did my work at home, where all the other work, including the care of our children, awaited me.

    I must have long ago been resourceful and creative about food. I once had a professional deli-meat slicer, a bread-making machine, a blender, a toaster oven, and a pressure cooker—along with a cake mixer, waffle iron, popcorn popper, tortilla press, and everything you would need to core, peel, or shred an apple. Most of those gadgets still crowding my counters and stuffed in my kitchen cabinets have died by now—parts having failed or gone missing, their instructions booklets vanished. I still had one beloved Jewish cookbook that contained my favorite banana bread recipe, and I’d written hundreds of dates up and down that single page over the years, the days on which I baked that one perfect bread.

    Since I was now stocking up at the food bank, certain foods never showed up at our dinner table. An eggplant, for example. Chicken livers, never. Lox, of course not. Cream cheese, croissants, blintzes, chocolate bars. Whenever I needed something essential, I simply—like everyone else—ordered it from Amazon. One day my husband said he’d lost his nail clippers so I ordered six of them for $6.99 from Amazon. A big truck came the next day, with a bearded driver in it, to deliver the tiny nail clippers with a key chain attached to each one of them. Another day, a soft envelope turned up in my mailbox from Nordstrom, where I never shop. It was addressed to a woman named Linda Black at an address exactly one block to the south of my house. I could feel that whatever was in the envelope was silky and soft, perhaps a nightgown or a blouse. I could imagine it on my body. Who would ever know if I kept it? I could slit that package open and be the owner of whatever was in it.

    However, when my husband saw me bringing in the mail, I told him that a package had been misdelivered. He said we should take a walk and bring it to its rightful owner. I considered telling him I’d do it myself later. He’d never know I’d kept it. Why is it I’ve never confided to him the truth about certain lowlife instincts I harbor? Does marriage require these kinds of confessions? Does he conceal such thoughts from me? I doubt he has them. But I often wonder how his truths differ from mine and how much we hide from each other.

    We walked to the neighbor’s house, rang the bell. The man who lived there opened the door. We didn’t know him, though we’d lived in our house over fifty years and passed his house nearly every day on our walks. In truth, we lived in an indifferent and chilly neighborhood. Taking the package from me, he appeared to recognize, as I had, that the object inside was soft and flexible. He held up a forefinger as if he had just remembered something—and then told us that his wife had died two weeks ago. Of breast cancer. He shook his head sadly at the package. A little dog appeared at his feet; as we stood at the door, he bent to pat it gently. Then he thanked us and wished us a good day. Whatever expensive garment had arrived would never be worn, almost certainly would never be returned to the store, and, after all, could have been mine.

    Some days later, as we sat outside our front door admiring the oak trees that largely concealed the slope of mountain to the north, we saw the bereaved husband walking his little dog. He waved and was, in fact, coming to see us. He held out our bank statement that had been misdelivered by the mailman to his house. We all agreed heartily that United States postal workers ought to notice that streets have different names, even if some of the house numbers are the same. Learn how to read, folks, I thought.

    Now that we seemed to have made a local friend, I was distressed when, shortly thereafter, a FOR SALE sign went up in our neighbor’s yard. On our next walk, we stopped to pay attention to the garden that he had long ago planted in front of his house—a design of shapely stones, large boulders, and colorful drought-resistant plants. Almost overnight, it seemed, one of those desert-like plants had shot forth a great, phallic stalk. Within days, it sprouted layer upon layer of smaller phallic stalks. With my cell phone, I took a picture of the odd creation. An app identified the plant as Nepenthes, which brings forth growths that look exactly like the human penis. A garden of penises—amazing. Having had only a sister, I never really saw one of them until my wedding night.

    The house sold quickly, and whoever bought it proceeded to destroy the stone garden and tear out all the beautiful drought-resistant plants. I felt a pang to see those handsome phalluses cut down, but I also realized that the widower’s house had a much better view of the mountains than ours. He no doubt sold his house for a lot more money than we would ever get for ours. Thoughts like this convince me that I am unlucky, though my husband often tells me how lucky we are.

    There are ever-present, recurring reasons to be distressed, to be furious. I seem to contain a switch that, once flipped, destroys whatever peace I might have briefly achieved. My husband has affectionate advice for me all the time. He takes my hand when he sees me getting agitated and begs me: “Please, just relax.” What kind of advice is that? He certainly has experience in relaxing, as it is my job to write all the complaint letters, call the banks when they make mistakes, schedule appointments with the tax man, the doctors and dentists, write the checks to the housekeeper and the gardener and pool guy and notify—when our credit card has to be updated—the twenty places that bill us every month for whatever we have to pay endlessly for.

    At the food bank, my fist-bumping lady friend looks forward to my weekly arrival. She seems thrilled to dispense unusual nonedible materials that for some reason are donated, or have expired in some unique way. Bars of soap made out of sugar. Bamboo toothbrushes—the lightest handles with the softest bristles. A glass mug engraved with the words: ENJOY THE MAGIC OF CHRISTMAS! One day she handed me a three-by-five index card on which she had personally written these words:

    I can tell you are a worrier. Throw all your anxiety onto Him, because He cares about you. Cast your burden on the LORD —He will support you! Don’t be anxious about anything; rather, bring up all your requests to God in your prayers and petitions along with giving thanks. Then the peace of god that exceeds all understanding will keep your heart and mind safe in Christ Jesus. Of course, I thanked her. Clearly the people at this church want me to enjoy life. They give me gifts, they welcome me, they wear masks to protect me from the pandemic, they invite me back, they bless me and bless me. Who else does this? Who else wants me to have happiness? I’m a Jewish girl, but I’ve never known the rewards of religion. Is it too late?

    Unquestionably, my age presents challenges, though the internet tells me I have a good chance of living to ninety. But the road ahead is filled with so many medical tests. My doctor, who doesn’t actually see her patients now but instead communicates only by video-call or email, ordered a series of blood tests for me. Since my breast cancer surgery ten years ago, she requires me to have a CEA test, which tracks a particular cancer marker. She called to inform me that my recent test’s results were concerning; my antigens were elevated. She duly ordered another and, after I had my blood drawn at the lab (both the tech and I wearing our masks), she called to inform me they’d risen further. Duty bound, she then referred me to an oncologist, who, without ever seeing me clinically, ordered yet another test, a CT/PET scan.

    Merrill Joan Gerber has written thirty books, including The Kingdom of Brooklyn, winner of the Ribalow Award from Hadassah magazine, and King of the World, winner of the Pushcart Editors’ Book Award. Her fiction has been published in the New Yorker, the Sewanee Review, the Atlantic, Mademoiselle, and Redbook, and her essays in the American Scholar, Salmagundi, and Commentary.

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