I’ll start with the standard Happy Thanksgiving to all of my readers, and a Happy Thursday to everyone outside the U.S.
The following piece is a bit of a Thanksgiving tradition for me. I’ve posted the following essay every year in some way, shape or form every year since I wrote it, but before I get to it, a little backstory. In 2007 I was taking Creative Non-Fiction, and our professor tasked us to write an essay describing an event in our lives in which we had been evil, an asshole, or generally refused to follow Wheaton’s Law. Most of us had little trouble pulling it off (we were all college students, after all), though most of the essays were “justifiable” evil. My own, I’ll let you be the judge, but to this day, I still don’t feel sorry about it, and I likely never were.
But I’m getting ahead of myself.
This is a story about pudding.
I should probably begin by mentioning that I don’t like pie. Never have, even the types that are essentially vats of chilled fudge that can establish a family history of diabetes. It’s one of the things that distinguish me from the rest of my family, the other major differences being a lack of allergies, liberalism, homosexuality, and wide feet. Normally these differences mean very little.
It was Thanksgiving day. A wonderful day to be quiet.
I had made plans to bring a book and simply say that it was for a class assignment that absolutely had to be done by Monday when the break from college was over. I wasn’t exactly lying, I did have to read a book and I did have an assignment due the following Monday, but facts tend to evaporate when three football games are scheduled and your parents have a big screen TV. Besides, there was always Sunday night or the hour before the class.
“Vaughn?” It was my mother’s voice from the kitchen, an area you didn’t want to go into on Thanksgiving. Constant motion, no counter space, a TV showing old reruns of Gunsmoke, the pitching hiss of a pressure cooker, dogs wiggling and worming between legs eagerly expecting scraps that were hours off. I knew the tone in her voice, the raised pitch, the hard accent on the “V”, it was going to be a request that I had damned well better do without any questions or whining. If I resisted in any way I knew I’d end up seated in front of the green bowl of stuffing that would chew like cheap croûtons while the other end of the family table would feast from the red bowl, chock full of rich succulent dressing that would taste like a filled plate of everything at the table. It’d be subconscious, but she’d do it.
“Yeah?” Kept the tone even. I was seated on the couch and dreading having to move it in the coming days to make room for the Christmas tree. I hoped it was something simple like putting the dogs out or switching the loads of laundry.
“Could you run down to the store and pick up four boxes of pudding? All we’ve got here is sugar free. There should be some money on the desk in the computer room. And when you get back move those clodhopping things away from the radiator! I almost tripped and killed myself!” I gritted my teeth and bit off a “Fuck” before it made it over my tongue, and went to retrieve the cash, my shoes and my coat. I made sure to move my boots, the aforementioned “clod hopping things”. To this day I still have no clue what the Hell clod hopping is or why it requires specific footwear.
I was going to miss kickoff.
I should mention that while I’ve worked as a cashier in a grocery store on Thanksgiving, I’ve never actually shopped for groceries on Thanksgiving day.
Price Chopper was going to be much like something out of Dante. I decided to try to find the humour in the situation and count the number of people buying frozen turkeys on Thanksgiving day while I was in the store. I also took solace in the fact that I would not have to hear the latest verbally delivered manifesto from my right-wing uncle when he arrived. While I walked down the road to the store I ran through the various conversations that would probably occur at dinner once the general tastes of the various dishes had been commented on within an inch of their lives. I planned as many segues into football-related topics as possible to prevent any drifts into discussions on politics, thus cutting my uncle off and keeping him fenced in an area he was happy with.
When I arrived at Price Chopper I made for the baking goods aisle, taking my time and turning up my MP3 player to drown out the chattering masses
Chocolate pudding. Cook and serve. Not instant. Not sugar-free. Four boxes. Not instant! Cook and serve! Four.
There was a crowd around a small space in the shelves when I arrived in the aisle, my pace slowed more, my finger dialing down the volume on Tool’s “Maynard’s Dick”, as I realized exactly what everyone was gathered about. The pudding.
Assorted housewives, grandmothers, children, disaffected teenagers, all of us standing in a ragged semi-circle about the empty display, the multitude of boxes of Jell-o pudding with bright colors and inviting flavors bordering the gap where the chocolate pudding, non-sugar free, Cook and serve used to dwell. The cacophony of the store seemed muffled in this area, a solemn silence, almost mourning the loss, or everyone locked in concentration, as if the combined desire of the group could somehow bend reality and cause a fresh shelf of pudding to magically appear.
I stepped tentatively toward the shelves, running my fingers along the smooth glossy cardboard boxes of pudding, seeing chocolate, then the words “instant” or “sugar free”. I chuckled for a few moments, realizing that I was living a sitcom moment when I knelt down and looked at the back wall of the shelves.
Shelves for pudding tend to be sloped, so that when a customer takes one, more slide down, always giving the impression that the shelf is full or so that the customer doesn’t have to reach in back to find a box. However, in the days before a major grocery holiday, such as July Fourth, Christmas, Memorial Day, or Thanksgiving, key items are overstocked, often at the expense of neighboring items. In some cases, items are packed so tightly that even the slope doesn’t cause them to slide down, leaving the back of the shelf encased in a wall of pudding, which is what I saw. And amongst them…
Jell-o Chocolate Pudding. Cook and Serve. One box.
I used my fingernails to pry it out, and slowly brought it down from behind the shelves. The box slowly came into view, and was roughly snatched from my hand. I looked up and saw a woman in her late fifties, blond hair with an inch and a half of gray roots showing, a cheap jacket with a faded floral print, her fingers stained by cigarettes. “Excuse me?”
Etiquette drills you into not being able to say anything more, such as, “What the Hell, bitch?”
She didn’t respond, still holding the box. The crowd was dead quiet. “Excuse me, that was mine.”
She tilted her head back, nose raising, “Well it ain’t now.”
I wanted to assert the cold bitch stance that I’d learned at the Rainbow Alliance, which consisted of narrowed eyes and either folded arms or hands on the hips, probably folded arms seeing as I’m not that tall. I wanted to look her in the eyes with a flat affect face and let out “Lady, did your father bother teaching you manners or was he just too busy fucking you?”
It took a sharp stinging sensation on the left side of my face to realize that I’d actually said it out loud.
In the confusion a twelve year old boy grabbed the box from her hand and tore off down the aisle crying out “Mom! I found one! I found one!”
In the recoil, my head snapped to the right, my vision filled with stacked boxes of My-T-Fine Chocolate Pudding. When I looked left the woman was pushing her way through the crowd amidst muffled comments and choked off laughs. I grabbed four boxes of the pudding and headed for the cashier.
By the time I was walking out of the store I was already editing the story in my head for retelling later. My friends at school would get the uncensored version. My parents would be told about the situation without the profanity or the slap in the face. That would be added in as part of the Thanksgiving shopping hysteria in a sea of hands snatching and grasping for the last can of pumpkin Cook.
When I entered the kitchen with the bag of pudding boxes I made the decision to just hand her the bag and go watch football. “I hope these are all right. They were out of the Jello.”
She opened the bag and nodded, “It’s fine. This is the good stuff.”
That night I took seconds and thirds from the red bowl.
After all, it wasn’t like I was saving room for pie.