I wasn’t sure how much time had passed but I knew it was too early for Jude to be off work so I asked a man behind one of those glass windows like they used to have at the pharmacies, “Excuse me, could you please tell me where the annex waiting room is? I’m supposed to wait for my cousin there.” I got turned around twice until I figured out what the colored stripes on the floor were for. If he had just told me to follow the blue line I wouldn’t have gotten lost and embarrassed by running into a man in a hospital gown getting a shot … well, you can just guess where as I noticed right off the gown wasn’t tied in the back.
When I finally found where I was supposed to be I realized it must be some type of public area because there were people piled up all over the place. They all had numbers and when their number was called they jumped up and hit the call window like they’d won the lottery; reminded me an awful lot of the DMV and waiting to be called to get my driver’s license. A seat in the back of the room finally came open and I took it gratefully and sat with my box in my lap. To give myself something to do besides wonder what on earth they needed a file on every person in the Protection Zones, I pulled out the IDs and looked them over.
They were pretty ordinary although they did have one of those embedded magnetic strips that were supposed to be fraud proof. Mine were the only ones with a picture. I was turning it over to get a good look at everything when the lady beside me said, “Are you here for the sale as well?”
Another woman said, “Look at the card, it looks hot off the presses. I bet you’ve never even used it.”
A third, more kindly woman asked, “Did you just get it?”
That one I could answer in one syllable or less. “Yes.”
The first woman asked, “Are you here alone?”
“I’m waiting for my cousin to get off work. They told him to meet me here.”
“Well, let me tell you how it works. You take that card – and your cousin – and you go around back of this building. They only let about a dozen or so people in at a time so you’ll likely have to wait in a fairly long line. But I’d still go today as they are having a really good sale and it will be another month until they open again. So long as you have the points you can fill a push cart full.”
The women all nodded like this was a really big deal.
“It isn’t normally like that?”
“Oh no, almost never. First time in the six months since my husband was stationed here.”
One of the women said knowledgeably, “Last one was nine months ago.”
Another woman leaned over to enter the conversation and said, “That long? Really? I hadn’t realized but I guess you’re right.” She turned to me and said, “Usually they give you a tote bag and you are only allowed to use that but they’ve been clearing up the beneficiary rosters and the role has really dropped, at least around here; so much so that they need to rotate things before they go out of date because you know what happens then.”
I shook my head. “No. I’m sorry I don’t.”
They all looked at me like I must have been living under a rock. “They have to donate it. Even the chocolate and coffee which are really good items to …” The woman looked around and whispered, “They make great items to barter for things on the black market.” She winked at me like it was a big secret that she was imparting.
Ignoring her wink I said, “And that donating is a bad thing.”
“It means less for us!” One of the other woman said, raising her voice a little too much so that the others winced and tried to hush her. “It is bad enough that they aren’t excusing beneficiaries from paying taxes but then they take food away from us and give it to people that don’t have to pay any taxes … or anything else for that matter. It just makes me sick. I have to work and scrimp and save just to keep food on the table for my kids while my husband is off fighting God only knows where, and I’ve had to take my brother’s kids in too because his wife ran off and he’s off flying helicopters, and it is an outrage that those … those … people … they don’t have to do anything but make some noise and the government is right there giving them everything they want.”
Her words were making the other women uncomfortable but then the lady’s number was called and she left so that the rest of them relaxed. Suddenly one of them got a real knowing look on her face and said, “She better turn her volume down or those kids aren’t going to have anyone to look after them.”
The other women all nodded in agreement while another said, “I’ve heard some stories I tell you. While some people might be able to get away with that most others can’t and I’m sure you know what I mean.”
One by one the women left as their numbers were called and others took their place but no one else seemed interested in striking up a conversation. I looked up as the door opened for the eleventy-dozenth time and there was Jude looking around anxiously. I stood up and nearly ran to him … would have if there wasn’t such a danger of tripping over so many feet in the aisle between the chairs. He took the box from me and got me out of the door and then asked, “How did it go? Are you ok?”
I was fumbling in my pocket and then showed him the IDs. “And … and guess what Jude … guess what?!”
“What?” he asked, a little alarmed at how hyper I was getting.
“Look!” I showed him the benefits card and he nearly dropped the box on our feet.
He asked, “Is that what I think it is?”
I laughed. “Here,” I said and tried to hand it to him.
He backed up and my smile drooped. He shook his head and told me, “That’s yours.”
“Oh. But … but some ladies in there said there is a sale today and that the last one like it was nine months ago. They said the store is behind this building and that we should go.”
Still cautious he told me, “Well that explains all the people coming to the fuel depot with gas cans. They must have bought fuel cards at the Exchange.”
“Yes!” I said startling him with my excitement. “That’s what those ladies called it.”
He agreed to walk with me around to the back of the building and I was surprised there were only a few people in line. Feeling a little disturbed I muttered, “They said there would be a long line. I wonder if they were yanking my chain about everything else too.”
The man in front of us said, “About the sale?” At my nod he said, “Oh it’s real, just most people have already come and gone. The line this morning was down to the other end of the building and around the corner.”
Jude stretched his neck and looked and then said, “Which is why we didn’t see it from our end.” He looked at me and then said, “I’ll walk you up to the front and then wait for you to come out. You’ll need someone to watch this box anyway.”
“I don’t have one of those cards Dovie; they aren’t going to let me in.”
Disappointed I stood silently beside him; I also was concerned that I would somehow blow an opportunity by not knowing what I was doing. It was only a couple of minutes later that I was at the front of the line. I handed the man there my ID and he said, “You’re only sixteen. You have to have someone twenty-one or older go in with you.”
I grabbed Jude’s arm but he said, “Dovie I told you I don’t have a benefits card.”
“If you are acting as her chaperone you don’t need one. You’ll have to sign here and wear this badge while in the store and then return it here. You can put your box over there.” He pointed to a couple of tables that had lots of other personal items on it. “No heavy coats, no baggy pants, no purses or bags allowed inside. They’ll provide you with paper bags to carry your items home in if you didn’t bring your own; it will get deducted from your card.”
Soon enough, despite the grumbling of the people behind us, we were walking through the doors of the Exchange. I’m not sure if it was a disappointment or not. The place was slightly run down in appearance and the shelves had big empty gaps all over the place. The shelves themselves could have used a serious dusting and the acoustic ceiling tiles had obvious water stains where the roof had leaked at some point.
A cart was thrust at me by an impatient looking clerk and we were told brusquely not to hold the line up. I was nearly frozen in place but one look at Jude’s face and it reminded me of the look he’d worn at the church picnic and I was very glad he was there; he was working out a battle plan. “C’mon.” He led me in one spin around the entire store and then asked, “You trust me?”
Without hesitation I answered, “Sure.”
“OK, I checked your card with that machine and you’ve got enough points to make Midas jealous but you won’t be able to use them all for a long time, if ever, with the way this looks set up. Since we don’t know if there will be anything here next month or how much you’ll be able to get I say we fill this cart like a jigsaw puzzle and get everything we … I mean you … can. You with me so far?” All I could do was nod and follow his lead. “Don’t take anything that we can get for ourselves. I wouldn’t do any of the meats, vegetables or grains. Some of the off-season fruit maybe. Don’t do the sugar because Boo is getting a huge payment in molasses for helping this guy rebuild his grandfather’s sorghum mill and we’ll get a share of it just like I’m giving them a share of whatever I bring in from working. I know you might be tempted to get candy for the kids but I’m going to stand against it. There are too many of ‘em – not just yours but you’d have to add in Reynolds and my nephews and nieces – and it wouldn’t be worth it this time around.” He looked to see if I was going to argue the point and when I didn’t he nodded. “Now what kinda other things do you know you need.”
“Soap,” was the first word out of my mouth because the stuff that I had scavenged from the rest stops was running out.
“Nope. I can barter with the Mennonites for that.”
“Nope, waste of money. We’ve still got all those telephone books, magazines, and catalogs if we need them.”
Feeling frustrated and racking my brains I said slowly, “Vinegar and … and a couple of other seasonings like whole mustard seed. Salt too.”
“Vinegar and salt are good ideas. I don’t know squat about seasonings so I’ll leave that up to you. What about kotex or feminine pads?”
I have no idea why I was so immediately outraged. “Jude!”
“What?!” he said moving to avoid the slap on the arm that I almost gave him.
“That’s … that’s women’s stuff,” I said in a hissing whisper.
“Yeah, and?” I could feel myself turning red from the top of my head to the bottom of my
feet. Not even Jack – who loved to embarrass the living daylights out of me – would have talked about that particular topic so boldly. He asked again, “So do you need them or not? If you don’t I know the women up at the house probably do … all of ‘em except Mom and Crystal anyway. They’ve both had hysterectomies.”
He just kept blathering on and I could have dropped him with a sledge hammer like he was a watermelon right there. He reached over on a shelf and started putting feminine products in the cart, fitting them in like Legos, until I slapped his hands away. “Just … just go. Go … I don’t know … get a gallon or two of the vinegar.”
“Well make sure you get enough of those things,” he said pointing. “With all you females needing them it can’t be too comfortable to run out. We’ll put something heavy on top of them to squish them down if we have to.”
I swear I could have just died. All the women in the store were snickering and all the men were looking at him like he had sprouted a great big boogery horn in the middle of his forehead. I had filled one corner of the cart with feminine stuff but when he came back he rearranged them, added two more large packages, then set a heavy bag of salt and five gallons of vinegar on top of them to “squish them down.”
“Ok, what else?”
I was really tempted to tell him a ticket to the insane asylum for himself but instead stopped and looked over the spices. Pepper, cinnamon, nutmeg, whole cloves, garlic and whole mustard seed were the only things available that appealed to my idea of what a necessity might be … until I saw the pickling salt and pickling spices. Then I spotted the baking soda, baking powder, and jars of yeast.
I didn’t look at the cart, just handed the stuff off to Jude who wedged it in where it would fit. Jude reached over my head and plucked down a couple of big boxes of powdered milk then asked, “Mind if I put in some of these razors for the girls? It might sweeten their disposition some.”
“Be my guest. I’ve got the straight razor and it works fine … at least when my hand doesn’t slip. After what Uncle Roe has done for me I’ll do anything for him and his.”
“Yeah, well … you just go easy on that idea. Dad would never take advantage of you but Rochelle and Wendalene might take you up on it and you’ll never get done ‘doing’ for them.”
Next I threw in cornstarch and unflavored gelatin and then I saw the rennet tablets and put in a bunch of boxes of that. I almost cleared the shelf of toothbrushes we needed so many but I didn’t get any toothpaste because I could make homemade tooth powder sans the fluoride which had had a tendency to freak Mom out over its potential danger for little kids who swallowed it rather than spit it out.
We were at the fruit section and canned fruit cocktail and maraschino cherries tempted me but I stuck to canned pineapple, canned mandarin oranges, and some fresh lemons and limes that I planned to preserve the old fashioned way. I threw in a bag of dried banana chips as well as another one of dried fruit bits. I got two large bottles of lemon juice, added a third, handed back a large can of olive oil, grabbed a bunch of little cans of tomato paste, and then looked to find Jude trying to quickly rearrange things in the cart yet again. “It’s full,” I said in regret watching him juggle trying to make it all work out right.
He said, “Not quite it’s not; if I could just get these stupid things to stop rolling away from where I put them. Let’s take one more turn and see if we can squeeze anything else in.” He found a dusty box of waterproof matches pushed way back on the top shelf, a box of borax, a small jug of bleach, and a long thin box of heavy duty aluminum foil and another of plastic wrap to fill the few remaining, oddly-shaped spaces.
When we got in line we were one of only three carts that didn’t have to back up and rearrange our cart so that nothing stood above the top edge per the rules of the sale before being allowed to proceed to the registers. More than a few people were trying to argue that a full cart was one piled as high as you could get it so long as nothing fell off but that wasn’t flying with the security people. I didn’t look at the total, didn’t care, since I didn’t assume that I’d be coming back and would need the points we were spending then. I treated it as a one off that was more like finding Pirate Jim’s treasure than something I’d be able to count on on a regular basis.
Jude however did and he got cross-eyed and asked, “Are you sure you want to do this? Maybe … maybe you should get something for the kids. And you didn’t get anything for yourself. I can put back …”
I ignored him, as did the cashier in relief, and handed over my benefits card. We pushed the cart over to a table where we had to fit all of our purchases into paper grocery bags and cardboard boxes stacked there for that purpose; and then we went out and I waited while Jude ran to get Grits and the wagon after turning in his chaperone badge. I was just starting to get a little edgy – there were some people protesting or something against the Exchange – when Jude came back.
“I’ll put these in. You get your box. Let’s get out of here. There’s some kind of ruckus up the street.”
“Which reminds me …” and I proceeded to tell him what the Commander had told me.
He snorted. “Like I needed someone to explain that; I’m not an idiot. Once in that man’s office was enough thank you very much. Here, up you go.”
He helped me onto the wagon seat – the people behind him were getting a little impatient for us to get out of their way so they could do their own loading – and we slowly turned the wagon and got on the road to the checkpoint and then out of town as quickly as traffic would allow us.