By Joyce Carol Oates
Originally Published in Omni, December 1993, and collected in Haunted: Tales of the Grotesque
Father spoke quietly. “We’ll do the shopping for your mother, the turkey and all. You know she isn’t feeling well.”
At once I asked, “What’s wrong with her?”
I thought I knew. Probably. It had been three days now. But the question was what any father would have expected of any daughter of thirteen.
My voice, too, was a thirteen-year-old’s. A scrawny sort of voice, drawling, skeptical.
Father seemed not to hear. Hitched up his trousers, rattled the keys to the pick-up as a man does who likes the feel of keys, the noisy rattle. “We’ll just do it. We’ll surprise her. Then it will be done.” He counted on his fingers, smiling. “Thanksgiving is on Thursday, day after tomorrow. We’ll surprise her so she can get started early.” Yet there was a vagueness in his pebble-colored eyes, that moved upon me scarcely seeing me; as if, standing before him, a long-legged skinny girl all elbows and knees and pimples gritty as sand scattered across her forehead, I was no more to him than the horizon of scrub pine a short distance away or the weatherworn fake-beige-brick asphalt siding on our house.
Father nodded, grim and pleased. “Yes. She’ll see.”
With a sigh he climbed up into the truck on the driver’s side, and I climbed up into the truck on the passenger’s side. It was just getting dark when he turned on the ignition. You needed to make a quick escape from our place, before the dogs rushed out yammering to be taken along—and sure enough, hearing us slam the truck doors, there came running Foxy, Tiki, Buck, hounds with some terrier blood in them, barking and whining after us. Foxy was my favorite, the one who loved me best, hardly more than a year old but long-bodied and showing her ribs, big wet staring eyes like I’d broken her heart going away without her, but what the hell, you have to go to school without the damn dogs and sometimes to church and sure enough you want to go to town without people smiling at you behind your back, figuring you as a country hick with dogs trailing after. “Go on back!” I yelled at the dogs, but they only yipped and fussed louder, running right alongside the pick-up as Father took it out the drive tossing up gravel in our wake. What a racket! I hoped Mother would not hear.
I was feeling guilty, seeing Foxy left behind, so I poked Father, and asked, “Why don’t we take them along, in the back?” and Father said, in a voice like he was talking to some fool, “We’re going grocery shopping for your mother, where’s your sense?”
Now we were out on the road, and Father had the gas pedal pressed down flat. The fenders of the old truck rattled. That weird high vibration started in the dashboard like a cricket none of us could ever find to stop it.
For the longest time, the dogs ran after us, Buck in the lead, and Foxy second. Long ears flapping, tongues out, like it was warm weather and not an almost-freezing November day. A strange feeling came over me, hearing the dogs barking like that—loud and anxious as they’d bark if they thought we were never coming back. Like I wanted to laugh, but to cry too. Like when you’re tickled so hard it begins to hurt and whoever’s doing it, tickling you, doesn’t know the difference.
Not that I was tickled any more, that old. I don’t guess I’d been
tickled in years.
The dogs fell farther and farther behind, till I couldn’t see them any more in the rear view mirror. Their barking faded too. Still, Father was driving hard. The damn road was so rutted, my teeth rattled in my head. I knew better, though, than to tell Father to slow down, or even to switch on his headlights. (Which he did anyway, a few minutes later.) There was a mix of smells about him—tobacco and beer and that harsh-smelling steel-gray soap he used to get the worst of the grease off his hands. And another smell too, I couldn’t name.
Father was saying, like I’d been arguing with him, “Your mother is a good woman. She’ll pull out of this.”
I didn’t like that kind of talk. The age I was, you don’t want to hear adults talk about other adults to you. So I made some kind of low, impatient mumble. Not that Father heard, anyway—he wasn’t listening.
It was eleven miles to town and once we got on the paved highway Father kept the speedometer needle right at sixty miles per hour. Still, it seemed to take us a long time. Why would it take such a long time? I’d come out without my jacket, just wearing jeans and a plaid wool shirt, and boots; so I was shivering. The sky was on fire, behind the foothills and the mountains in the west. We had to drive over the long shaky bridge across the Yewville River that used to scare me so when I was little, I’d shut my eyes tight until we were on solid land. Except now I wouldn’t let myself shut my eyes, I was too old for such cowardice.
I think I knew that something was going to happen. In town, maybe. Or when we returned home.
Father drove straight down the middle of the high wrought-iron vibrating old bridge. Lucky no one was coming in the left lane. I could hear him mumbling to himself, like thinking aloud. “—coupons? In the drawer? Jesus. Forgot to look.” I didn’t say a word because it made me mad, either of them talking to themselves in my presence. Like somebody picking his nose and not seeing you’re there.
(And I knew what Father was talking about too: Mother kept shopping coupons in a kitchen drawer, she’d never go to the A & P without taking a batch of them along in her purse. Claimed she’d saved hundreds of dollars over the years—! What I’d come to think was, grown-up women liked to fuss clipping coupons out of the newspaper ads or shoving their hands up to the elbows in some giant box of detergent or dog chow to fish out a coupon worth twelve cents. You figure it.
For Thanksgiving, though, there’d be a lot of food coupons. “Big savings” on the turkey, plus all the extras. But this year there was nobody in our house to take the time to notice them, let alone cut them out of the ads and file them away.)
Driving to town is driving downhill, mainly. Into the valley. Out of the foothills where it always seemed colder. On the far side of the river, Yewville looked squeezed in, steep streets dropping down to the river, flat-looking, almost vertical, at a distance. I was starting to get that nervous feeling I’d get sometimes when we came to town, and I guessed I wasn’t dressed right, or didn’t look right —my face, my snarly-frizzy hair. Father made a wrong turn off the bridge ramp before I could stop him so we had to drive through a neighborhood that didn’t look familiar: tall narrow row houses built to the sidewalk, some of them boarded-up and empty, and not much traffic on the street; here and there, old rusted tireless hulks of cars at the curbs. There was a thickness to the air as of smoke, and a smell of scorch. All that remained of the fiery sunset was a thin crescent in the west, very far away. The night coming on so fast made me shiver more. And there was the A & P but—what had happened? The smell of smoke and scorch was strong here, you could see that the front of the store was blackened and the plate glass windows that ran the length of it had plywood inserts here and there. The posters advertising special bargains BACON BANANAS TURKEY CRANBERRY MIX EGGS PORTERHOUSE STEAK had begun to peel off the glass and the building itself looked smaller, not as high, as if the roof was sinking in. But there was movement inside. Lights were on, flickering and not very bright, but they were on, and people were inside, shopping.
Father whistled through his teeth, “Well, hell.” But pulled into the parking lot. “We’ll do it, and get it done.” There were only five or six cars in the lot, which looked different from what I remembered—more like raw earth, with weeds growing in cracks, tall thistles. Beyond the parking lot there wasn’t anything familiar, no other buildings, or houses, just dark. I whispered, “I don’t want to go in there, I’m afraid,” but Father already had his door open, so I opened mine too, and jumped down. The smell of smoke and burn was so strong here my nostrils pinched and tears came into my eyes. There was another smell beneath it—wet earth, decomposing matter, garbage.
Grimly, grinning, Father said, “We’ll have Thanksgiving like always. Nothing will change that.”
The automatic doors were not operating, so we had to open the ENTER door by hand, which took some effort. Inside, cold damp air rushed at us—a smell as of the inside of a refrigerator that hadn’t been cleaned in a long time. I stifled an impulse to gag. Father sniffed cautiously. “Well, hell!” he murmured again, as if it was a joke. The rear of the store was darkened but there were lighted areas near the front where a few shoppers, most of them women, were pushing carts. Of the eight check-out counters, only two were open. The cashiers were women who looked familiar but they appeared older than I’d remembered, white-lipped and frowning.
“Here we go!” Father said with a broad forced smile, extricating a cart from a snarl of carts. “We’ll do this in record time.”
One of the cart’s wheels stuck every few rotations but Father pushed it hard and impatiently in the direction of the brightest-lit part of the store, which happened to be the fresh produce section, where Mother always shopped first. How it was changed, though! —most of the bins and counters were bare, and some of them were broken; the aisles were partly blocked by mounds of decaying debris and plywood crates. There were puddles on the floor. Flies buzzed groggily. A flush-faced man in a soiled white uniform, a porkpie hat jaunty on his head declaring, in red letters, BARGAIN HOLIDAY BUYS! was snatching heads of lettuce out of a crate and dumping them in a bin so carelessly that some of the heads fell onto the filthy floor at his feet.
Father pushed our cockeyed cart over to this man, and asked him what the hell had happened here, a fire?—but the man just smiled at him without looking at him, a quick angry smile. “No sir!” he said, shaking his head. “Business as usual!”
Rebuffed, Father pushed the cart on. I could see his face reddening.
Of all things, a man hates to be treated rudely by another man in the presence of one of his children.
Father asked me how many people Mother would be cooking for on Thanksgiving, and between us we tried to count. Was it eight? eleven? fifteen? I remembered, or thought I remembered, that Mother’s older sister was coming this year with her family (husband, five children), but Father said no, they were not invited. Father said that Uncle Ryan would be sure to show up, like every year, but I told him no, didn’t he remember, Uncle Ryan was dead.
Father blinked, and drew his hand over his stubbly jaw, and laughed, his face reddening still more. “Jesus. I guess so.”
So we counted, using all our fingers, but couldn’t decide. Father said we would have to buy food for the largest number, then, in case they all showed up. Mother would be so upset if something went wrong.
Mother always shopped with a list neatly written in pencil: she’d keep it in plain view in her hand, sending me around the store getting items, up and down the aisles, while she followed more slowly behind, getting the rest, examining prices. It was important to examine prices, she said, because they changed from week to week. Some items were on special, and marked down; others were marked up. But a bargain was not a bargain if it was spoiled or rotten, or just on the brink of being so. Suddenly, with no warning, Father gripped my arm. “Did you bring the list?” he asked. I told him no and he pushed at me, as a child might do. “Why didn’t you!” he said.
Father’s face in the flickering light was oily, smudged. As if, despite the cold, he was sweating inside his clothes.
“I never saw any list,” I said, meanly. “I don’t know about any damn list.”
We had to get lettuce, though, if Mother was going to make a green salad. We had to get potatoes to be mashed, and yams to be baked, and cranberries for the sauce, and a pumpkin for pie, and apples for applesauce; we had to get carrots, lima beans, celery . . . but the best heads of lettuce I could find were wilted and brown and looked as if insects had been chewing on them. “Put them in the cart, and let’s get a move on,” Father said, wiping his mouth on his sleeve. “I’ll tell her it’s the goddamn best we could do.” Then he sent me running around, slipping on the wet, puddled floor, trying to find a dozen decent potatoes in a bin of mostly blackened ones, a pumpkin that wasn’t soft and beginning to stink, apples that weren’t wizened and wormy.
A plump-faced woman with bright orange lipstick and trembling hands was reaching for one of the last good pumpkins but I slipped in under her arm and snatched it away. Open-mouthed, the woman turned to stare at me. Did she know me? Did she know Mother? I pretended not to notice, and hauled the pumpkin to our cart.
The rear of the fresh produce section was blocked off because part of the floor had collapsed, so we had to turn around and retrace our route. Father cursed the grocery cart, which was sticking worse. What else did Mother need? Vinegar, flour, cooking oil, sugar, salt? Bread for the turkey stuffing? I shut my eyes tight trying to envision our kitchen, the inside of the refrigerator that needed cleaning, the cupboard shelves where ants scurried in the dark. They were empty, weren’t they, or nearly—it had been many days since Mother had shopped last. But the quavering lights of the A & P were distracting. A sound of dripping close by. And Father speaking to me, his voice loud. “—This aisle? Anything? We need—” His breath was expelled in short steaming pants. He squinted into the semi-darkness where the way was partly blocked by stacks of cartons spilling cans and packages.
I told Father, “I don’t want to,” and Father told me, “Mother is counting on you, girl,” and I heard myself sobbing, an angry-ugly sound, “Mother is counting on you.” But he gave me a nudge and off I went slip-sliding on the floor where water lay in pools two or three inches deep. My breath was steaming, too. I groped quickly for things on the shelves, anything we might need, Mother would want canned applesauce since we wouldn’t be bringing her fresh apples, yes and maybe creamed corn, too, maybe canned spinach? beets? pineapple? green beans? And there, on a nearly empty shelf, were cans of tuna fish, bloated and leaking giving off a powerful stink—maybe I should take a few of these, too, for next week? And a big can of Campbell’s Pork and Beans: that Father loved.
“Hurry up! What’s wrong! We haven’t got all night!” Father was calling at me through cupped hands, from the far end of the aisle. I gathered up the canned goods as best I could, hugging them to my chest, but some fell, I had to stoop to pick them up out of the smelly water. “Goddamn you, girl! I said hurry up!” I could hear the fear in Father’s voice, that I had never heard before.
Shivering, I ran back to Father and dropped the cans in the cart, and we pushed forward.
The next aisle was darkened and partly blocked by loosely strung twine . . . there was a gaping hole in the floor about the size of a full-grown horse. Overhead, part of the ceiling was missing, too: you could look up into the interior of the roof, at the exposed girders. Rust-colored drops of water fell from the girders, heavy as shot. Here were fairly well-stocked shelves of detergent, dish washing soap, toilet cleanser, aerosol insect sprays, ant traps. A woman in a green windbreaker was reaching beyond the blocked-off area to try to get a box of something, teetering on the edge of the hole, but her reach wasn’t long enough, she had to give up. I hoped that Father wouldn’t make me go down that aisle but, yes, he was pointing, he was determined, “—she’ll want soap I guess, for dishes, laundry: go on—” so I knew I hadn’t any choice. I slid along sideways as best I could, around the edge of the hole, one foot and then the other, trying to make myself skinnier than I was, not daring to breathe. The rust-colored drops fell in my hair, on my face and hands. Don’t look down. Don’t. I leaned over as far as I could, stretching my arm, my fingers, reaching for a box of detergent. There was regular, economy, giant, jumbo,jumbo-giant: I took the economy because it was closest at hand, and not too heavy. Though it was heavy.
I managed to get a box of dish washing soap too, and made my way back to Father who stood leaning against the cart, pressing a hand against his chest where he’d opened his jacket. I was clumsy dropping the detergent into the cart, so it broke, and a fine silvery acid-smelling powder spilled out onto the lettuce. Father cursed me and cuffed me so hard on the side of the head my ear rang and I wondered if my eardrum had broken. Tears flooded into my eyes but I’d be damned if I’d cry.
I wiped my face on my shirt sleeve and whispered, “She doesn’t want any of this shit. You know what she wants.”
Father slapped me again, on the mouth this time. I rocked back on my heels and tasted blood. “You’re the little shit,” he said, furious.
Father gave the cockeyed cart an angry push, and it lurched forward on three wheels; the fourth wheel was permanently stuck. I wiped my face again and followed after, thinking what choice did I have, Mother was counting on me, maybe. If she was counting on anyone at all.
Next was flour, sugar, salt. And next, bakery products: where the shelves were mainly empty, but, on the floor, a few loaves of bread were lying, soggy from the wet. Father grunted in resignation and we picked them up and dropped them in the cart.
Next then was the dairy products section, where a strong smell of spoiled milk and rancid butter prevailed. Father stared at pools of milk underfoot; his mouth worked, but he couldn’t speak. I held my nose and plunged in gathering up whatever I could find that wasn’t spoiled, or anyway wasn’t spoiled too badly. Mother would need milk, yes and cream, yes and butter, and lard. And eggs: we didn’t raise chickens any longer, a chicken-flu had carried them all away the previous winter, so we needed eggs, yes but I couldn’t find a carton of one dozen eggs that was whole. I squatted on my haunches breathing in little steamy spurts examining eggs, taking a good egg, or anyway what looked like a good egg, from one carton and putting it in another. I wanted at least twelve and this took time and Father was standing a few yards away so nervous waiting I could hear him talking to himself but not his actual words.
I hoped Father was not praying. It would have made me disgusted to hear. The age I was, you don’t want to hear any adult, let alone your father, yes and your mother, maybe most of all your mother, praying aloud to God to help them because you know, when you hear such a prayer, there won’t be any help.
Next to the dairy products was the frozen food section where it looked as if some giant had smashed things down under his boot. The insides of the refrigerating units were exposed and twisted and gave off an ammonia-like stink. A young mother, fattish, tears on her cheeks, three small children in tow, was searching through mounds of frozen food packages, ice cream packages, while the children fretted and bawled. The cartons of ice cream were mainly melted, flat. The frozen-food dinners must have been thawed. Yet the young mother was stooped over the packages fussing and picking among them, sobbing quietly. I wondered should I look too—we all liked ice cream, and the freezer at home was empty. The ice cream cartons lay in pools of melted ice cream amid something black that seemed to be quivering and seething, like rippling oil. I went to look closer, nudged a quart of raspberry ripple ice cream with my foot, and saw, underneath, a shiny scuttling of cockroaches. The young mother, panting, snatched up a carton of chocolate chip ice cream, shaking off cockroaches, with a sound of disgust; but she put the carton in her shopping cart, along with some others. She looked at me, and smiled, the kind of helpless-angry smile that means, What can you do? I grinned back at her, wiping my sticky hands on my jeans. But I didn’t want any of the ice cream, thank you.
Father hissed impatiently, “Come on!” He was shifting his weight from one leg to the other, like he had to go to the bathroom.
So I brought the dairy things back, best as I could, and put them in our cart, which was getting filled at last.
Next, the meat department. Where we had to get our Thanksgiving turkey, if we were going to have a real Thanksgiving. This section, like the frozen foods section, seemed to have been badly damaged. The counters spilled out onto the floor in a mess of twisted metal, broken glass, and spoiling meat—I saw chicken carcasses, coils of sausage like snakes, fat-marbled steaks oozing blood. Here too the smell was overwhelming. Here too roaches were scuttling about. Yet the butcher in his white uniform stood behind the remains of a glass counter, handing over a bloody package of meat to a woman with carrot-red hair and no eyebrows, a high school friend of Mother’s whose name I did not know, who made a fool of herself, thanking him so profusely. Father was the next customer, so he stepped up to the counter, asking in a loud voice where was the turkey, and the butcher smirked at him as if he’d asked a fool question, and Father said, louder yet, “Mister, we’d like a good-size bird, twenty pounds at least. My wife—” The butcher was the store’s regular butcher, familiar to me, yet changed: a tall, cadaverous man with sunken cheeks, part of his jaw missing, a single beady eye bright with derision. His uniform was filthy with blood and he, too, wore a jaunty porkpie hat with red letters proclaiming BARGAIN HOLIDAY BUYS!
“Turkey’s all gone,” the butcher said, meanly, with satisfaction,”—except what’s left, back in the freezer.” He pointed to a wall, beyond a smashed meat counter, where there was a gaping hole; a kind of tunnel. “You want to climb in there and get it, mister, you’re welcome to it.” Father stared at the hole and worked his mouth but no sound came. I crouched, pinching my nostrils shut with my fingers, and tried to see inside where it was shadowy, and dripping, and there were things (slabs of meat? carcasses?) lying on a glistening floor, and something, or someone, moving.
Father’s face was dead-white and his eyes had shrunk in their sockets. He didn’t speak, and I didn’t speak, but we both knew he couldn’t squeeze through a hole that size, even if he tried. Even I would have difficulty.
So I drew a breath, and I said to Father, “Okay. I’ll get the damn old turkey.” Screwing up my face like a little kid to hide how frightened I was, so he needn’t know.
I stepped over some debris and broken glass, got down on my hands and knees—ugh! in that smelly mess!—and poked my head inside the opening. My heart was beating so hard I couldn’t get my breath and it scared me to think that I might faint, like Mother. But at the same time I knew I wasn’t the kind of girl to faint, I’m strong.
The opening was like a tunnel into a cave, how large the cave was you couldn’t see because the edges dissolved out into darkness. The ceiling was low, though, only a few inches above my head. Underfoot were puddles of bloody waste, animal heads, skins, intestines, but also whole sides of beef, parts of a butchered pig, slabs of bacon, blood-stippled turkey carcasses, heads off, necks showing gristle and startlingly white raw bone. I thought that I would vomit, but I managed to control myself. There was one other shopper in here, a woman Mother’s age with steely-gray hair in a bun, a good cloth coat with a fur collar and the coat’s hem was trailing in the mess but the woman didn’t seem to notice. She examined one turkey, rejected it and examined another, rejected that and examined another, finally settling upon a hefty bird which, with a look of grim triumph, she dragged back through the hole. Which left me alone in the cave, shaky, sickish, but excited. I could make out only three or four turkey carcasses remaining. I tried to sniff them wondering were they beginning to go bad? Was one of them still fresh enough to be eaten?—squatting in bloody waste to my ankles. All my life that I could remember up to then, helping Mother in the kitchen, I’d been repulsed by the sight of turkey or chicken carcasses in the sink: the scrawny headless necks, the loose-seeming pale-pimpled skin, the scaly clawy feet. And the smell of them, the unmistakable smell.
Spooning stuffing rich with spices into the bird’s scooped-out body, sewing the hole shut, basting with melted fat, roasting. As dead-clammy meat turns to edible meat. As revulsion turns to appetite.
How is it possible you ask, the answer is it is possible.
The answer is it is.
The smells in the cave were so strong, I couldn’t really judge which turkey was fresher than the others so I chose the biggest bird remaining, a twenty-pound bird at least, panting now, half-sobbing with effort I dragged it to the opening, shoved it through, and crawled after it myself. The lights in the store that had seemed dim before now seemed bright, and there was Father standing close by hunched over the grocery cart waiting for me, his mouth agape, a twitchy smile at the corners of his lips. He was so surprised at something, the size of the turkey maybe, or just the fact of it, the fact that I’d done what I’d done, blinking up grinning at him, wiping my filthy hands on my jeans as I stood to my full height, he couldn’t even speak at first, and was slow to help me lift the turkey into the cart.
Then, weakly, he said, “Well, hell.”
The store was darkening, only one cashier remained to ring up our purchases. Outside, it was very dark; no moon, and a light snow falling, the first snowfall of the year. Father carried the heavier grocery bags, I carried the lighter, to the truck, where we placed them in the rear, and dragged a tarpaulin over them. Father was breathing harshly, his face still unnaturally white, so I wasn’t surprised when he told me he wasn’t feeling all that good and maybe shouldn’t drive home. This was the first time ever I’d been a witness to any adult saying any such thing but somehow I wasn’t surprised and when Father gave me the key to the ignition I liked the feel of it in my hand.
We climbed up into the truck. Father in the passenger’s seat pressing his fist against his chest; me in the driver’s seat, behind the high wheel. I was only just tall enough to see over the wheel and the hood. I’d never driven any vehicle before but I’d watched them, him and her, over the years. So I knew how.
I'm a Reference Librarian at the University of San Francisco's Gleeson Library, and I run the Joyce Carol Oates web site, Celestial Timepiece.