The Secret of Despair

Karen Carlson

This is the poem of the air,
Slowly in silent syllables recorded;

This is the secret of despair,
Long in its cloudy bosom hoarded,
Now whispered and revealed
To wood and field.

—H.W. Longfellow, “Snow-Flakes”

I gave birth to three new monsters today. In the supermarket, of course.

Something always happens in the supermarket.

I’d already finished about half my shopping. I was doing pretty good. My shoulders weren’t hunched, my fists weren’t clenched, my face was neutral. I was studying the canola oil.

An older man, his potbelly straining his sweatshirt, interrupted my concentration. “Do you know anything about bacon?”

A good sign. If he was asking for my advice, I must not have looked anywhere near as confused as I felt, as I always felt here in the land of too many decisions, too much sensory stimulus, too much peril. When I look confused and scared, even the street people won’t get too close to me. That’s an advantage on days when I don’t have any spare change to give, but in most of everyday life I prefer to blend into the masses and appear, well, normal. Normal acting, anyway. First impressions would always yield “fat woman, sloppy clothes, middle-aged loser” but that’s better than “wacko fat slob.”

What was the question? Did I know anything about bacon? Well, I knew it’s cured and smoked pork belly, of all the foods on the planet it’s probably one of the least healthy and the most irresistible. I haven’t cooked it in, oh, 30 years or so; my last attempt involved a roommate who kept a pan of hair wax under the kitchen sink, right where my mother kept the pan for bacon drippings—that didn’t end happily. I’ve eaten it occasionally, on rare breakfasts out or club sandwiches. I decided that I qualified as knowing anything about bacon—he hadn’t asked if I was an expert, after all.

“A little. What do you need?” I raised my eyebrows a bit, kept a slight smile, and maintained eye contact.

“My wife is making Toll House cookies, and she wrote down “brown sugar,” but all I see is light brown and dark brown, no just brown, so which do I get?”

I understood the question. But what did this have to do with bacon? Oh, wait—not bacon, bakin’. That amputated terminal G got me. Baking. Chocolate chip cookies. Brown sugar. Okay, I still qualified as knowing something about that. Probably more than I knew about bacon.

But it wasn’t a simple issue. Most cooks use light brown sugar, but some prefer dark. It made the cookies a bit crunchier and deeper in flavor, but needed to be balanced with a trifle less butter, or maybe it was more flour, I couldn’t remember. Beginner’s cookbooks will all tell you that unless specified, you use light brown sugar for anything. But how should I know what his wife wanted? What was the right answer?

Reality check: Was I thinking too much? Yes, I was; it was cookies, not brain surgery.

I grabbed a bag of light brown sugar off the shelf and handed it to him. “Here, this is what you need.” I made sure my voice was strong with confidence, and gave him a full smile. He said “Thank you” and wheeled away. I returned my attention to canola oil, comparing the price-per-quart for various sizes and brands.

Oh, no. Wait, I gave him a small bag of store-brand light brown sugar. What if his wife was making a large batch for a family reunion or a party and needed a large bag? Or she really wanted dark brown? Or she was one of those people who thinks store-brand items are automatically inferior to name brands? What have I done? Would she be angry with him when he got home? Would they have a fight? Or perhaps she was a gentle and considerate soul who would just shake her head in amusement at the difficulty husbands have getting the smallest household errands right, and would send him out for the proper sugar—but what if he had a car accident then, and got killed, and she was left penniless and on welfare and died of a broken heart six months later?

Some help you are.

Hi, Bacon Man Monster, why don’t you go find Bicycle Lady Monster and Choir Monster and the whole family of Work Monsters; they all have the same line as you. You’re just a thought, not a voice like schizophrenics hear, just my own thought and I can conquer my thoughts, I can control you, it just takes practice. Mindfulness. After half a century of practice, I was now able to complete my grocery shopping without creating a scene. Usually.

I needed to finish getting these items on my list—yes, I had to follow my list, canola oil, no I don’t need peanut oil or tahini. I had about ten minutes before the bus came. Cheerios, milk, ice cream. I wheeled my cart purposefully and kept a bland, pleasant expression.

Between the Cheerios and the milk, I saw the bus pull up to the stop outside. I could hope that it was early and make a mad dash for dairy and the registers, but then I’d be all knotted up waiting for the cashier to ring up the order in front of me and I’d get impatient and start snapping. Better to wait for the next bus so I could maintain a calm façade. I didn’t really have to get home anyway, nothing waiting at home for me, nothing and no one except sweet Lucy who loved me as much as a cat can, no matter what, as long as the food dish was full and the litter box was clean. I’d putter away the extra half hour before the next bus. I’d wait twenty minutes before putting the ice cream and milk in my cart so they’d stay cold, rather than sitting in summer heat with them melting and curdling at the bus stop. Planning, it avoided potential pitfalls.

What to do for twenty minutes? I could sit on the bench in the frozen food section. It was cool from the freezers, and it was next to dairy so when it was time I could load up and go. I would sit for ten minutes, get the milk and ice cream, then check out, leaving plenty of time before the next bus came. Sounded like a plan. Without a plan, I might end up wandering around the supermarket for three hours, checking out not only weird produce—What is a cherimoya anyway? Will I ever be brave enough to actually cook an artichoke?—but also magazines about subjects I never knew existed and the ingredient lists of seventy-three different kinds of cat food Lucy wouldn’t eat. Or I might completely disintegrate, walk away from my cart and have to, god forbid, come back tomorrow. Paramedics and emergency rooms hadn’t been in the picture lately, but I couldn’t rule them out entirely.

I wheeled towards the bench, the only bench in the store for some reason. I wonder why they put it facing the frozen vegetables? Do the glass doors remind people of a soothing aquarium, with the fish pressed into sticks and battered and stationary? Or do a lot of people finally reach the end of their rope here and need to rest?

There was a grandmotherly-looking lady standing in front of the bench, looking through her cart. Why was she standing—not sitting, standing—in front of the bench? I’d have to wait until she moved. I struck a casual position and a look of concentration and took out my shopping list. People would think I was weird just standing here but it was easier than coming up with a new plan. After all, how long could she possibly stay there?

Three minutes, that’s how long.

Three minutes isn’t a lot of time. In my younger days, I could hold my breath for three minutes. The average pop song lasts three minutes. It’s a commercial break, feeding the cat, brushing your teeth. Not long. Except when you’re standing in a supermarket doing nothing, waiting for Grandma to move away from the only bench in the store so you can sit down. I reminded myself that no one was paying attention to me; I wasn’t that important, everyone was busy with their own shopping. Yet here I was, paying close attention to the grandmother in front of the bench. For three minutes.

She took a small watermelon out of her cart, put it on the bench, and wheeled away.

What did that mean? Did she do that on purpose, or was she rearranging items and forgot it? Should I tell her she forgot her watermelon? Would that be embarrassing to her? Would she get mad at me? Did she just decide she didn’t need it any more and the bench seemed as good a place as any to leave it?

I wondered if it was all right for me to sit on the bench. Would people think it was my watermelon? And when I got up to leave, would someone yell, “Hey, lady, you forgot your watermelon” and I’d have to buy it? Would a passing stocker hate me for leaving unwanted produce strewn about the store, for him to lug back to the other side of the building for proper restocking? Did I have to take it back myself? Might Watermelon Lady be back to claim it and think I was trying to steal it? Was it okay to sit on a bench with an abandoned watermelon?

Everyone’s laughing at you.

Hello, Watermelon Lady Monster. Why don’t you go find Writing Group Monster and Computer Tutor Monster, they’ll be your new friends singing the same chorus of jeers and taunts.

Time for some cognitive restructuring: I hadn’t done anything wrong. It was not my watermelon, and I was not going to take responsibility for it. If I looked at it funny and sat on the other end of the bench, maybe people would realize I didn’t know what it was doing there.

I forgot about sitting on the bench, grabbed the milk and ice cream—let them curdle and melt if they must—and got out of there. I didn’t rush, made my movements deliberate.

My pass through the registers was relatively uneventful. There wasn’t even the typical indecision about whether to use the 14-items-or-less—when, oh when would someone realize it should be “fewer”?—line. If I’m buying six cans of cat food at 3/$1.00, does that count as one item? Two? Six? It mattered, since I usually had about twelve other things in my cart and could use the express line in good conscience if cat food counted as one or two, but not six. There was a whiteboard right there at the service desk, “% of customers with under 14 items who actually use the express lanes, this week, last week”—goal 90%, actual 82%. So they wanted us to use the express lane if we had fewer (not less!) than 14 items. I’ve had cashiers scold me for standing in a regular line, and I’ve had to argue with them that I actually have 21 items but they insist that I use the express lane anyway because the regular registers are backed up.

I wanted to follow the rules; if someone would just tell me what the rules are, I will follow them, I promise.

But today no one was in line at any register so I breezed through a regular lane before anyone could yell at me. I made sure I kept a slight smile and exchanged banal pleasantries with cashier and bagger. I headed for the bench—another bench!—to wait for the bus, about 15 minutes if it was on time, not bad. I sat with my cart in front of me, something to lean on, something to hide behind, something to protect me.

The only other bench-sitter was a girl with an infant in a stroller. Or was it called a carriage? I wasn’t sure of the difference, I’d never had children, never wanted them; even before I married I’d taken significant steps to assure they wouldn’t appear on the scene. Divorce had confirmed my wisdom.

Something went flying past me, to my left. I wasn’t sure what it was; maybe it was my imagination. Or it might’ve been a fly or a bird. But no, another something went flying by, something too small to be a bird, too large for a bee. It landed on the sidewalk, near the brick wall of the store. Several small items clustered there. They looked… Red? Green? White? What was it? Was it any of my business? It became evident the flying freebies were coming from the girl with the baby. She was eating strawberries out of a plastic container from the store, biting off half the strawberry and throwing away the other half complete with hull. It was raining half-strawberries. Right next to me.

Throwing trash on the sidewalk wasn’t nice. Someone could slip on it, a kid could pick it up and eat it (probably with little ill effect, other than to his parents’ peace of mind), birds and bees would gather and thus sting and shit all over the place… and it was just messy. Someone was going to have to clean it up. Why should some poor kid working for minimum wage have to clean up someone else’s strawberries, strawberries he probably couldn’t afford to buy himself because he had a crappy job working at the supermarket, not that he’d want to buy strawberries, he’d probably be more interested in beer and Doritos but still, he’d have to clean it up.

But scolding young mothers wasn’t nice, either. Especially when it could be argued that it wasn’t any of my business. And she had more important things to do than to clean up strawberries, with her sleeping infant, looked like less than three months old; she was probably still feeling the birth changes. Might be the only time she got to sit and relax and if she wanted to eat strawberries and throw the uneaten halves on the sidewalk, who was I to say she shouldn’t?

Dammit, I just wanted to sit here and wait for the bus, and here I was in the middle of a moral dilemma. I wanted to do the Right Thing, if I could just figure out what it was.

I used the 60 Minutes approach. Morley Safer: “So you knew she was throwing away garbage on a public sidewalk, you knew it could be potentially hazardous, and at the very least was unpleasant and would require work to fix, and you did… nothing?” Mike Wallace: “This young woman wasn’t hurting anyone, she was throwing her discards towards a corner, she had an infant to care for, and you… yelled at her?”

Neither prospect looked good. So I improvised another course of action—just fix the problem. I wandered, casually, like I was just stretching my legs while waiting for the bus, over to the area where the strawberries were still raining down, pulled a crumpled tissue out of my pocket, and started picking up half-strawberries. I was amazed at how little she actually ate of each berry. I collected the dozen or so pieces and stood there waiting for more to fall. I’ve always been pretty good at blending into the scenery, hiding in corners, flying under the radar. It was typically my default position; I have to remind myself not to do it. Here it would work to my advantage. Neutral expression, relaxed posture. Maybe she wouldn’t notice me picking up her half-eaten strawberries.

She noticed. “What are you doing?” I didn’t think she was a sneerer, but I was wrong. I really didn’t want to answer her question. The truth—“Picking up the trash you’re throwing on the sidewalk”—would’ve sounded snide, and the technique was to fix the problem without blame or judgment, so I stayed silent.

Apparently my silence offended her. She glared at me, put the depleted carton of strawberries into her grocery bag, whipped her baby stroller around and hurried towards the entrance of the store. Maybe to buy more strawberries. If you throw half of each one away, you need to replenish your stock often. I threw the tissue full of half-strawberries in the trash. My hands were only slightly sticky.

Can’t do anything right, can you?

Good evening, Strawberry Girl Monster. I think you’ll find that Pilfering Co-worker Monster and Jesus Christ Superstar Monster—my, that’s an old one, from about thirty-five years ago when I was in high school—will make good company for you.

The bus arrived; I gathered my bags, climbed on board, and handed my pass to bus driver with a forcibly steadied hand and slight smile.

Finally, blessedly, home. I put away my 18 items—14 if the cat food counts as two items, 13 if it counts as one. The Cheerios and canola oil snuggle safely in the cupboard, the milk in the fridge. Lucy meowed underfoot; I stepped carefully to avoid her tail and paws as I transferred her dinner from can to dish and placed it on the floor, giving her a light stroke and a “good girl.” In the bathroom, I scooped the litter box for that-which-must-be-scooped. I spent the next six hours focusing on CNN and reruns on TV, dinner, reading John Updike’s Problems, listening to my “soothing” iTunes playlist (The Kings Singers doing British Isles folk songs and Johann Strauss, Creedence Clearwater Revival, Joe Cocker, assorted Renaissance Latin), visiting familiar websites for word games and puzzles, attempting without success to fix a broken story, and stroking Lucy when she nuzzled me. I kept the monsters at bay.


The clock creeps past midnight; sleep is the unattainable goal. I use the usual tricks: I invent figure skating routines in my head, count (not sheep, just… count), imagine myself in the arms of someone caring and gentle, visualize a safe place of sea and grass and cool breezes and belonging. But the monsters intrude as my defenses lag. I wonder if Bacon Man is lying in an emergency room now, bleeding and dying; more likely, he and his wife are sleeping peacefully under the same nearly full moon that, for the next hour or so, will shine through my window as a spotlight on my mistakes. And what of Watermelon Lady? Did she get something to replace the abandoned fruit? Is there a stocker remembering how inconsiderate I was to leave the watermelon on the bench? Is Strawberry Girl relating to her baby’s father how some idiotic old bag had nothing better to do than to interfere in the perfectly acceptable behavior of a young mother? Older monsters join in the chorus: Stupid… incompetent… loser… useless… troublemaker… they’re all laughing at you… no one needs you… shut up… go away… die… The pillow feels wet under my cheek; I flip it over. I have three pillows, two sides each. It’s usually enough.


“I’ve lived in Maine for the last 15 years, arriving here via Boston, South Florida, Connecticut, and Long Island, NY. Stories find me by way of a phrase, a feeling, or an event which seems important enough to explore.” E-mail: sloopie72[at]

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