My mom sent me to the grocery store for paprika and a can of golden mushroom soup. But she wanted me to make sure I got the cheap paprika. She really didn’t want me to spend too much on paprika. So after asking me which of the two grocery stores I wanted to go to, she told me to go to the other one. Then she began to walk around her house as if it were the grocery store, explaining to me where I would find the paprika she wanted.
“It’s by the salad dressing. You walk all the way to the end, and then you have to turn around. There’s a wall that isn’t really a wall. It’s not a wall, but it’s like a wall,” she told me, walking through her living room and kitchen the whole time.
“It’s facing 14 Mile Rd,” she added, after thinking about it for a moment.
Finally I asked her to show me the brand of paprika she wanted. She went to the cupboard and pulled down a container of parsley. “Okay, so it’s <Brand Whatever>,” I said. No, she told me. But it was about the same size and shape. And it was around the spot on the shelf where the parsley was that I would find the paprika.
So I get to the store. I walk to the end as described and turn around to find a wall that isn’t a wall, and there is salad dressing next to spices. But these spices are expensive, not the brand she wants, and don’t include paprika.
I took a photo, so I could show her. Maybe this is where they used to keep the paprika she likes, and now they moved it somewhere else or they don’t stock it any more.
I walk around for another five minutes because there are lots of walls that aren’t walls in grocery stores, and there are many places where salad dressing of different kinds and fanciness are kept. Paprika could very easily be kept anywhere.
Finally I give up, after picking up some pita chips and hummus for myself. (My mom keeps buying pita chips and hummus for me and keeps being surprised when I eat them all. So I buy extra.)
In the next aisle, I pick up the Golden Mushroom soup. “It’s regular Campbell’s,” my mom has told me, “not the fancy kind,” as if I have never bought soup before. “It’s not cream of mushroom, it’s golden mushroom,” as if I have never seen the cans of condensed soup she uses for cooking about once a week, never buying more than one can at a time. (She doesn’t tell me not to buy the low-sodium or heart-healthy version, but I know not to, because I was there the time she bought it and it tasted like soap had spoiled.)
There at the end of the soup aisle, against a wall which you might call a wall—but like all grocery aisle dividers is not really strictly speaking a wall (because truly what makes a wall a wall? Is it its solidity or the space it defines? What is its quidditas?)—there is an entire row of spices of the size and shape and indeed the very brand my mother prefers. They cost a dollar each.
I scan the rows for paprika, expecting for the word, the color, and the bottle to leap out at me as it always does. It’s rare I have to actually read anything; the word just jumps into my head, fully preprocessed by my unconscious brain. I have been reading for a long time, and have become very fluent at it, even in situations where there are many, many words to read.
But this illumination does not happen with the paprika. At first I am perplexed. I have to confirm that the shelf is ordered alphabetically, and then move letter by letter, the literacy equivalent counting on my fingers. It feels strange and unwelcome and I enjoy it immensely.
Finally I realize the problem. There is no paprika on the shelf, but there is a gap where one would expect paprika to be. It is a lexical gap, made manifest. It is not as if there never were paprika, because such an erasure would not leave a trace. There is a trace, a paprika-shaped hole on the shelf. Well, a paprika-bottle-shaped hole.
This may have defeated some other person. I feel certain that my father would have complained endlessly about being sent to get paprika where no paprika was to be gotten. But this is not my first trip to a grocery store, nor is my ability to read and reason my only skill.
I reach behind the empty box of paprika bottles to reveal another box of paprika bottles. This one, however, is only half-empty. I pull it forward.
A small mystery. Did someone take all of the paprika out of the first box and most of the paprika out of the second? Have other shoppers been reaching behind it, as I did, and then replacing the empty box each time? Or simply reaching past with the box still in place?
I set aside these thoughts, turn all four bottles so the “Paprika” label faces front, and put the empty box behind the half-empty one. Will the person stocking the shelves know that they need more paprika? I weigh that against the interest of the shopper in search of paprika. I wonder if I should find the person whose job it is to restock this shelf. I wonder why my mom gave me such convoluted instructions to what is clearly THE spice aisle in the store. I mean, there are hella spices here, not just the brand my mom likes, but fancy ones too.
I set aside all of this and continue on my way through the store. My mom needs the soup and paprika for the meal she’s cooking.
Another aisle down, past the sugar and baking supplies, I see yet a third location in the store where spices are stored.
Touché, McCormick. It is you my mother warned me against; it was your special in-store placement that her half-remembered, fully-embodied directions were designed to foil. I feel as though my real enemy has finally revealed himself.
I look at the paprika. I had jokingly told my mom, after she’d explained the virtues of the inexpensive paprika at length, that I would definitely be returning with gourmet smoked paprika.
I find a small bottle of smoked paprika. It is half the size of the bottle of paprika I already have. It costs $2.69. But I think, maybe my mom would like to try the smoked paprika. I am buying the paprika. I don’t know if she has ever had smoked paprika. She was very excited to try black sesame seeds a few weeks before (which frankly were not worth it). I add it to my basket and move on.
When I get home I present my mom with the soup—two cans, not just the one I was instructed to get—and the paprika. She thanks me. I show her the pictures and tell her the story and she thinks it is very funny. She is excited to try the smoked paprika and very happy that she will have more paprika for later. She tells me not to eat all the chips and hummus right away.
Then I realize I’ve forgotten something I wanted to buy: pickles. My mom looks through the refrigerator because she thinks there might be pickles in there. (There are not.)
I tell my dad that I had seen some fancy pickles, but wanted to look for the kind I liked best. What kind is that, he asked. I like the Clausen pickles, sliced in half, I explain. I have had better pickles but the Clausen are a good value. “The dill?” He asks. Of course, I reply. “The long sandwich slices?” He asks again. I say, yes, those are very good, but in most cases I just prefer the halves. I tell him I like the halves better than whole pickles or spears. Halves, to me, are just the right amount of pickle.
He tells me a story about a favorite sandwich of his which he can no longer eat since his heart attack, a sandwich of garlic bologna with these long transverse pickle slices. They did not have long slices of pickles until only recently, and I remember how my dad was very taken with them. I do not like bologna but I sympathize and agree that yes, those pickles are very good.
The next day (today), my dad announces that he would like to go to the produce store. He is picking up oranges and grapes. Would I like anything?
I ask him to get some strawberries if they look good and he can get a good price. He tells me not to worry about it.
My mom and I think my dad’s interest in this produce store is curious. It is not close to their house, but in a far-flung, much wealthier suburb. My dad does not normally like to drive for anything. He also complains mightily if he feels my mom has spent too much money on something, but if he buys it himself, he is always very satisfied with his choices. My mom has seen the receipts from the produce store. We worry he is getting fleeced for fruit that is good but not great. But he doesn’t get to go out for much other than his doctor’s visits and our trips to the gym, so his produce store trips make him happy.
I say that sometimes strawberries can be very expensive. He again tells me not to worry and that he will buy some strawberries.
When he returns, he is very proud of the strawberries. He does not understand why I am more interested in my computer than the strawberries. He seems disappointed that I am not eating the strawberries now.
He also proudly presents to me a jar of pickles. “They didn’t have the long sandwich slices,” he apologizes. The pickles are Vlasic spears. I smile, and pick out two of them to eat with my sandwich.
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