Susie Lombardo

A grocery store is a criminal place, with anything like food lost between money and chemicals. The higher up on the food chain, the more pesticides. The lower on the pesticide chain, the higher the price.

A shopping cart overflows with Merlot and Gouda, natural cheddar potato chips, organic apples, artichokes, corn fed beef, handmade tortillas, fresh ravioli, vine-ripened tomatoes. Six dollars in yellow bell peppers alone! Walker's short bread, a pound and a half of line-caught Alaskan salmon, and fresh dill even now, even in winter, sleeping in the small clear package of its own tiny greenhouse. But that's not my shopping cart, there where a child spills a gummy fistful of Swedish fish in the crackers aisle.

I carry a plastic basket, its wire handles over my arm. A cart full of groceries would break the bank. I force myself to look away. Mine is dyed orange instead of white cheddar, because of saving $1.78. Why it costs more for the absence of dye, I don't know. But mass-produced tortillas--anybody can understand that economy. An organic purple onion is an indulgence.

On top of a stainless steel counter, there's a plate with thick squares of Oregon Blue. A fine, ripe richness marbled with blue-silver lines. Light rye crackers tossed in an abundant bloom, treated as free, worth a fortune on the shelf. Excess. This is what I want. A pound. Not a sample, not a single piece eaten in public. A pound of Oregon Blue to take home, almost nine dollars, a private stash. I take two samples instead, mouth full.

The only consolation is the Ten-Items-or-Less lane, where I fit easily every time. The woman ahead of me--she has twelve items. I have six. At least two of hers should be mine. Two belong on my side of the dirty red arbitrary divider.

Walking home, it's Oregon Blue I'm thinking of. My bag is small and light. It's starting to rain, almost dark. And there in the dark, in the rain, there's an envelope too clean for the street. An envelope the color of Oregon Blue, barely marbled, resting on the bran cereal bed of leaves. Cream white. It blows against my boots, the damp grasp of an assault. Licking my leather-wrapped ankle. I bend for the envelope, addressed to no one. The flap is open. Inside, there's a grocery store gift certificate: Twenty-five dollars, anonymous. Every word of this is true.

The criminal hand has changed--it's my opportunity now. Back in the store, I start for the Oregon Blue. Nine dollars wipes out half my booty. Corn-fed beef? I cruise the glass case, steaks and chops and cutlets. Twenty-five illicit dollars! Produce is always the way to go, maximizing quantity. I fill a bag with a tumble of green beans, crowding my basket. Organic bananas, lovely. My own Merlot, Gouda, and artichokes. Salmon, sliced turkey, Dijon, pepperocini.

Except I'm already over my limit. Exchange the salmon for Oreos. Then packaged salami. The Gouda for a loaf of bread. But the Oregon Blue? I put the green beans back, reaching for olives. A croissant, day old. I take two. Half a pound of coffee. A pint of Ben & Jerry's. And I'm still over the limit. Switch the Ben & Jerry's for Tofutti Cuties. A small pack. Cheaper coffee. I take a handful of Swedish fish, spilling my own red sugar into the aisle. Put the Oreos back. What good are olives alone? I hide the olives on the shelf, exchanged for five cans of black beans. Marinated artichoke hearts. White cheddar now. Salsa and sour cream. And I'm still over the limit. Start with a quart of soy milk--no, regular milk. Or chocolate Rice Dream. Fresh spinach. I haven't even got a whole meal.

Because there's a problem: For what I want, twenty-five dollars is child's play.