It would be something of a discovery process.....pulling his red wagon behind him as he learned the ins and outs of food-bank and food-stamp shopping.
On High Street Marla and Lane turned north for the final three blocks of their trek. For her the walk was an all-too-familiar routine. The food bank and the discount supermarket, where she and Sally shopped, were just two blocks apart. She liked to joke that her slightly-unorthodox ‘food wagon’ knew the route by heart.
Truth to tell, that now-normal routine of food-bank boxes, and food-stamp funded grocery shopping, was a relatively-recent addition to Marla's senior lifestyle. Actually, she could pinpoint the exact date when everything in her life had changed, including her shopping habits.
Ironically, it had been years earlier on what the downtown merchants called “Black Friday,” the day after Thanksgiving. On that morning Marla and a friend had joined the throng of shoppers that descended on the East Side Mall, lured by gaudy sales and super discounts.
Sadly, her husband Eric had spent that same morning departing Tanner in the company of Sharon Downing, one of their long-time friends from the mixed-couples bowling league. Before the day was over Marla would learn that Eric and Sharon had for some time been ‘mixing’ in ways beyond what most bowling leagues required.
Though she had not spoken to Eric since that fateful day, they had corresponded through their son Tim long enough to finalize her last piece of ‘Eric’ business.
Though it had been accomplished with Eric in absentia, the resulting divorce was no less real for that. While some women considered their divorce settlement a windfall, by then the couple’s savings were exhausted. In the end she had won her freedom, a rundown single-wide trailer, and little else.
“Here we are,” Marla announced as she started across the half-full parking lot in front of a nondescript warehouse building. “Welcome to the Tanner Food Bank.”
Once inside the unadorned, minimally-furnished reception area the two of them took their place at the end of the long bench that hugged the front wall. There Lane was introduced to ‘food bank shopping,’ which he soon learned always began with a wait. One by one those ahead of them were called to the front desk to have their paperwork confirmed, before proceeding through the open doorway into a back room, where they would pick up their order.
A few minutes later it was their turn. “Hi Cherri,” Marla said when they stepped to the counter. The gray-haired matron looked up from a stack of paperwork to recognize her.
“Sally called, didn’t she?," Marla asked. "To say that her brother was coming with me to pick up her box? She hoped that would be okay, because she’s really under the weather today.”
That sent Cherri pawing through the notes that cluttered her desktop. “And you’re her brother?” she asked when she finally captured the right slip of paper. “You’re Lane? Lane Tipton? Do you have some ID?”
“That’s me,” Lane answered as he fished for his wallet, with its expired driver’s license.
“Okay,” Cherri nodded without looking up. “You go with Marla. Tony will get the two of you fixed up?”
With that it was on to step two of Lane’s food-bank initiation. More to the point, he was about to learn that being a qualified recipient did not make one a ‘shopper’ in the way he had always shopped for groceries.
“A pair of singles?” Tony asked with a broad, undisguised smile in Marla’s direction. Then to Lane, “And you’re playing Sally this morning. Is that it?”
“That’s right,” Lane replied, waiting for further instructions.
A second later he realized that he would not be the one selecting items off the well-stocked shelves. Instead, he watched the half-dozen helpers as they scurried up and down the multi-shelved aisles, filling cardboard boxes with a wide array of foodstuffs. Each box was filled with items selected by volunteers from the current inventory of basic foodstuffs, and sized to fit the client’s family.
Regulars like Marla knew they would have the opportunity to request suitable changes and substitutions to the products offered. Monitoring the exact contents of Sally’s food box, she requested a couple of changes.
A few painless minutes later their orders had been filled……one large box for each of them. Then, with Marla in the lead Lane wheeled their wagon, now loaded with a pair of full-to-the-brim boxes, back across the parking lot to the sidewalk.
“Now, that wasn’t so bad, was it?” Marla asked as they bundled up again to fend off the sunny chill. “They’re good folks. That’s why we like to deal with the Tuesday crew. They make it quick, easy, and a bit flexible.”
“And your supermarket is just up the street from here?” Lane asked. “I think that’s what Sally was telling me? If that’s right why don’t we do them both in one trip?”
Marla’s embarrassed grin was signaling her disclaimer. “First of all, I suppose ‘supermarket’ is stretching things a bit. They call themselves a ‘discount grocer.’ Actually it looks more like a warehouse.
"You never know from one time to the next what you’ll find there. It will be whatever they could buy cheap that week. But whatever it is, they have the lowest prices in town. That’s enough to make them our ‘supermarket.’
“Thing is, shopping there depends on having food stamps. Though, of course, they aren’t really ‘stamps’ anymore. We have what looks like an ATM card. It works just like stamps, and keeps a running balance of our account. But since we’ve pretty much drained our accounts by this time of the month we have to wait until the first of next week, when their computer adds another month’s worth of stamps to our accounts.
“Besides,” Marla was grinning as she nodded at the wagon Lane was pulling behind him. “Our transportation system can handle only two boxes at a time.”
For the next few minutes, until they turned off High Street to retrace their steps back toward the Bluff, the only sound accompanying their trek was the high-pitched squeak of rusty wagon wheels.
By then Lane was ready to offer his own impressions of food banks and discount grocers. “It must be tough,” he said, switching the wagon handle to his other hand. “Having to count on all that stuff to keep going. I know it has been hard for Sally....being alone, getting by on next to nothing, depending on food stamps and food banks. No one ever told us it would be like this, did they?”
A few paces later Marla offered her reply. “That really bothers you, doesn’t it?”
“What bothers me?”
“Living like you are now. Knowing how different it used to be. Remembering how you expected it to be at this stage of the game.”
They paused at the crosswalk, waiting for a car to pass, while Lane replayed her question. “Of course it bothers me.” he finally said. “It would bother anyone. I spent a good part of my life painting a picture of how I thought things would be by now. I suppose I had some ideas of what I deserved, and what I’d have.
“So why wouldn’t I be disappointed in how it’s turned out? You can bet I had something better than this in mind.”
Easing the wagon off the curb he offered a question of his own. “How about you? You’re living in a trailer park, struggling to get by. Pulling your wagon all over town. Is this your idea of a happy ending? Something you’re willing to settle for?”
“What does that mean....'settle for'?”
“I guess it means accepting less than you expected, less than you think you deserve. It’s about ‘settling for’ what’s not enough.”
“Who decides what’s ‘enough’?” Marla countered. “And why do you let it upset you like that....knowing that ‘what is’ turned out to be less than what you wanted? Wouldn't it be a lot less stressful to just accept what is, and learn how to deal with that.”
That challenging possibility must have set Lane thinking. They were nearing the end of the block before he managed his sputtering response.
“Are you saying this is how it ends? Is this what a happy ending looks like? That I ought to sit back and accept the fact that I’m a failure, sponging off my sister? That’s insane. Who in their right mind would settle for this?”
“That’s not what I’m saying,” Marla insisted. “I’m just wondering how you’ll ever be happy if things don’t work out like you want. You know darn well that for a lot of us this is how things are going to be from now on. It’s our new normal.
“Heck, there may come a time when we look back on this as the good old days, even though it feels terrible right now. And if that’s so, where will that leave you? Will you just keep on being miserable about what you haven’t done and don’t have?”
A moment later Lane’s soft “I don’t know” was nearly drowned out by the squeaking wagon wheels. “I suppose I don’t like to dwell on that.”
“Well, I can’t speak for you.” Marla stepped out across the street, confident that she had just won the high ground. “But if I ever come across a chance for that ‘happy ending,’ I hope I won’t let the small stuff....like food stamps and being broke....stand in my way.”
“Why would you worry about that when you hate men? Seems like that will make a happy ending pretty hard to come by.”
“I told you before, I don’t hate men. I just don’t trust them. So for me any happy ending would probably include a guy I can trust."