People Gotta Eat

by Sam Brunson

The way KT tells it, I wanted her before we’d ever said two words. She says she wanted me too, so that was fine with her. She knew right then that I was her one. All I knew was she was giving the checker a hard time, so it was my job to get her out of the store.  

She won’t pay,” said the clerk, but KT said she’d spent too much time finding her food to just turn around and walk out on it. She had two carts’  worth, the food all scanned, bagged, and in her carts, the receipt in the checker’s hand.  

What’s the problem, maam?I asked, even though she was younger than me. Store policy said that all women were ma’ams and all men sirs.  If a two-year-old had asked me where the diapers were, I would have said,  ‘This way, maam,and led her to aisle three.  

I just want my food,” said KT.  

She wont pay for her food,” said the checker. Both looked ready to cry.  Ma’am,” I said, we need your money before we can give you the groceries. ”  

I cant pay right now,she said. “How about I come back later with  the money?

“Are you hungry?” I asked. She dressed too well to be poor, but I’d heard about rich people who were so disconnected that the day their help quit-and their help always quit-their world fell apart. They didn’t know how to clean, cook, pay bills, or even buy food. I didnt want her to starve just because she was rich.  

“It’s not about money,” she said.  

“What then?”  

“You’re going to laugh.”  

“I promise I won’t laugh.”  

“It’s my credit cards,” she said. “I brought the wrong wallet-none of  these cards to match my outfit.”  

I burst out laughing, and she started to cry. We cried to pound out a  solution while the line got longer and longer and finally we decided that  I’d cake her purse, pick a credit card, slide it through the machine, put it back, and give her her purse back. She’d sign the credit card statement,  

I’d walk her to her car, and in the future, she’d stay away from chis particular Vons.  

After we’d loaded all the bags in her car, she gave me her number. I  protested, said that store policy didn’t let me pick up on customers, ma‘ambut she said that didn’t matter; as per our agreement, she was no longer a  customer of chis particular Vons. Besides, she said, store policy couldn’t keep customers from picking up on me. Then I told her that opposites attract notwithstanding-I didn’t go for that high-maintenance crap. She looked at me as she got in her car and started to close the door. She stopped, said, “And you think I’m shallow,” closed the door, and left.  

I was practically living with KT before I ever saw her other wallet, but  I still wasn’t prepared. She has the platinum, gold, and silver MasterCard and Visa from every bank I’ve ever heard of. She has a Discover card  (“Simple, black, elegant“), she has some novelty cards with custom designs and colors, and she just got the American Express Blue card. (“What do  you use American Express Blue for?” I don’t know. “) I dont ask how she keeps the bills straight or how she pays chem all on time. I don’t ask what I  wouldn’t understand.  

Tonight I ask, “What else can you make out of apples?”  

She looks up from her crossword puzzle to the sofa where I’m sitting.  “Have you cried apple pie sans le pie yet?” she asks. “Or applesauce  au natural?” 

“Naked applesauce?” I say. Then, “I can use other stuff, too, besides apples. This is important. Its my portfolio.”  

“I just think fifty dishes made of nothing but apples would really set  you apart.”  

We both start thinking. I’ve already got all of the traditional dishes,  like apple pie and crumble, applesauce, and apple cider. Jell-0 with shredded apple. I’ve caramelized and candied apples and dipped them in every sauce I can think of. I’ve got weirder recipes, like apple stir-fry and pork and apple. But I’m still short, and I need to get this portfolio out tomorrow.  

The whole theme portfolio is KT’s idea. Fifty apple recipes that’s a guaranteed year of columns for the Food section of any newspaper, or almost that many weekly segments on the Food Network or a local morning show. I used to talk to the shoppers at the supermarket and they’d point to something in their shopping cart and tell me in a whisper what their grandmother on their fathers side had made with that. I’d never cooked much until I started dating KT-boxed mac and cheese mostly but with her, I discovered I could remember the shoppersrecipes word for word. Some are the worst things youve ever tasted, but most are at least pretty good. And I’ve started seeing patterns, to the point now where I can innovate-like the contestants on Ready . . . Set . .. Cook. with practically anything you put in front of me. And it always turns out pretty good.  

So, we figure, why not get famous? The newspaper or TV will let people know who I am so I can get the financial backing to open my own restaurant, and then KT always interrupts me here with a kiss, because the only “and theneither of us wants to think about includes wealth and fame and paying someone else to keep track of all the credit cards.  

Tonight I’ve got Holst playing in the background. The Planets make me believe I can do anything even tonight when its so soft I cant hear the quieter movements at all. When my supermarket moved away from  Muzak, I voted that we tune in to a classical station instead. I told KT my idea on our third date. We were talking about music. She said shed listened to jazz as long as she could remember, her dad having had Miles  Davis’s whole catalog on vinyl and all, and I started talking about Holst and Aaron Copeland and my ideas for the supermarket. Candles, I told her, and elegant classical music. A maitre dat each of the automatic sliding doors would offer the customers a glass of champagne and describe the day’s specials. I wanted a mandatory jacket policy, I told her over the main course-a remarkable duck in a sauce I still dont know how to make-but I’d decided to choose my battles wisely. Maybe we’d do jackets in phase two, along with the new name, classier than Vons, and live chamber orchestra in the produce section.  

“Wouldn’t it be too dark?” she asked over dessert. People can’t see when they get old and affluent. How would old rich people see if what  they were pulling off the shelf was what they wanted?” My cake was baked with the assumption that “rich” and “good” were the same thing when it came to chocolate and, for the first time that evening, the cook was wrong.  But KT said her apple cobbler was divine.  

Seeing doesn‘t matter, I explained. My supermarket would become known for the quality of its foods, so it wouldn’t matter what you pulled off the shelf.  

“And price?”  

Price, I explained, is part of the experience. And that, under my plan,  would be what we were selling: the supermarket experience.  KT loved it and said she’d call my manager and suggest that the experience at his store might be even better were it more formal.  After I dropped KT off, I typed up, in detail, my proposal. I factored in the costs and benefits, and even ran it by my mom. The next day  I gave it to my manager, who promised to read through it. But when my  Vons made the change, the manager chose a top-40 station instead.  “Have you got apple cobbler?” KT asks me.  

“Of course,” I say, then realize I dont, so I jot down a quick recipe.  I love you,” she says. We’re not going out tonight, but she’s still dressed to kill. The electric blue dress I bought her to match her Blue card first like a  second skin, and she’s wearing the shoes she dyed to match it. Some women’s hair is only as perfect for prom and for their wedding day as KT’s is tonight. And her make-up-her make-up fills one of her bathrooms, just like her clothes fill one of her closets and spill over into the other.  I’m wearing sweats and the T-shirt my mom wanted to throw out three years ago. KT insists they don’t match, but I find matching a far too arbitrary criterion on which to base my clothes. “Besides,” I tell her, “it’s my thinking outfit.” She doesnt know what that means I don’t know what that means-so she can’t argue.  

“Who’s an experimental ’70s composer whose works are known for  their simple, repeated, melodic motifs?” KT asks. “Second letter A, because  it intersects with ‘Carver.”‘  

“John Cage?”  

“Works.”  

“Is this another theme puzzle?” I ask.  

‘”The Minimalists.’ The painters and authors have been pretty easy,  but the composers are killing me. I think I need to take a break.”  Me too. Hungry? I’ll make dinner,” I say, putting my notebook down. I get up to see what we‘ve got. Not much, tonight. “How about we  go out and buy a mango?” I call to her.  

“Can’t,” she says. “That would be cheating.”  

How about we go out and buy a mango at the farmer’s market?” I say.  “Farmer‘s markets aren’t conducive to commando shopping.”  “No they’re not,” she says. “Does ‘Wilde’ have an ‘e’?”  

“As in, ‘animal’?”  

“As in ‘Oscar.”‘  

“Does it need one?”  

“Yes.”  

“Sure.”  

“Done!” she says, looking at her watch. “Two hours, thirty-seven minutes. Then to me, “It’s the principle. She steps into the kitchen and slips her hands into my pockets. “If commando shopping doesn’t work at the  farmer’s market, then we don‘t go to farmer’s markets.” She looks over my shoulder at the counter.  

I was just thinking,I said. “Mango beef stir-fry.” We haven’t had mango anything since Henry‘s.  

KT claims commando shopping was premeditated, even the first time,  but I’m pretty sure I just grabbed the wrong cart by mistake. Since then,  though, we’ve never chosen our own groceries. We walk around the store until we see a cart without a person, grab it and beeline to the cashier,  where we buy whatever’s in it. Then we have to prepare our meals using only what face provides.  

People are most likely to leave their carts alone in Produce and Delibut they never have anything in the carts yet. The smart money steals its carts from Dairy.  

Not steals. When I told KT I felt bad about stealing, she said the shoppers hadnt paid for any of the food yet, so it wasn’t stealing. Still,  sometimes we take a cart that we fill with random food and leave it as an offering.  

Every cart seems to have the same basics, so we cry to choose our targets based on their specialty items. We‘re experimenting to expand our palatal experience, but mango eaters don’t seem to get separated from their carts.  

KT’s mouth is at my ear. Would a farmer’s market be open this late?”  she asks. We’ll find a cart with mangoes next time. I’ll recon the mango  section and give a bird call when I see someone take one.”  

The phone rings and KT goes to answer it. I’ve decided on a watercress chicken dinner because I need to use the watercress soon and can’t see anything else I could make, but I can’t find the almonds and,  when I open the freezer, I see we’re out of chicken. Tonight the kitchen’s kind of like when I play Scrabble-a lot of letters, a lot of useful letters like A and E, but no way to put them all together. The only combination I can see right now is watercress chicken without the chicken or almonds.  

The really funny thing is, we dont have any apples either. With my portfolio, you’d think I’d have apples, but they‘ve become as rare as mangoes.  I have to use my memory and my mind’s tastebuds as I write because I can’t actually make any of my dishes.  

Marc, it‘s your mom.” KT’s back in the kitchen and hands me our cordless phone.  

Marc, is that your girlfriend that answered the phone? This time  of night?”  

‘Tm doing great, Mom. How about you?”  

Mom laughs. “I was just wondering what you were up to.”  Dinner. ”  

You know, plans, goals, future. ”  

Are you talking in life? Or with KT?”  

Yep. ”  

“Well, tonight after dinner I’m going to bed, and tomorrow, when the alarm goes off, I’ll hit snooze a couple of times. Then I’ll get up and do day stuff.”  

“Does any of that day scuff involve a college degree?”  

I’m short one class for my degree. One Spanish class. Mom offered to tutor me; KT said she’d cake it with me; Luiz, a guy I know from Chile, said if I’d give him my 1.0. hed cake the tests for me. The trouble is, after six years of college, I’m burned out. I need to do something else. So what I say to my mom is, ‘Tm finishing a recipe portfolio. We’ll see what opportunities  ring my bell, then I’ll see about school.”  

“Great. In the meantime?”  

“If nothing turns up soon, Jim said he could use another checker.  Great future in grocery scores.”  

People gotta eat,” she says. That was the motto at my first job. We all got T-shirts that said, “People Gotta Eat,” and they had a picture of chis comically overweight guy, napkin tucked in at his neck, his fork and knife vertical in his clenched fists. Our manager wouldn’t let us wear chem at the score, so we’d go in with chem under another shire and stand there and snicker as we bagged groceries because we were fighting the system and the system didnt even know.  

“Mom, I love you,” I say, getting ready to hang up.  

“So when do we gee co meet KT?” Mom asks. You’ve been sleeping with her three months now. ”  

“Mom,” I say, turning red. KT snickers in the next room. I don’t know how she does it, but she seems to hear the blood rush to my face. ‘I’vbeen with KT for almost three months now; it‘s none of your business how  we sleep.”  

“Whatever,” Mom says. We just want to meet her before she becomes our daughter-in-law. Or the mother of our grandchildren.”  “Dont worry, Mom,” I say. We’ll probably come up next Friday.  Love you.”  

“Love you too. And dont forget apple cinnamon bread. I hear her phone click, then hang mine up. I grab a blank sheet of paper and scare writing.  

APPLE CINNAMON SWIRL BREAD  

Makes 2 Loaves  

Bread:  

I tbsp active dry yeast  

1/4 cup water  

2 1 /2 cups milk  

114 cup vegetable oil  

1/4 cup sugar  

2 tsp salt  

6 1/27 112 cups white flour  

FiLLing:  

2 Granny Smith apples, peeled and finely chopped  

I /4 cup sugar  

2 tsp cinnamon  

dash of nutmeg  

“Hey,” I say as KT comes back in the kitchen. Does she know I was going to ask her to marry me tonight? I say, “How about ‘People Gotta  Ear’?” She just looks at me. “I mean, for the name of my show?”  

“It’s true,” she says, not at all convinced. She looks over my shoulder.  “Mmmm. That sounds good. When are you going to make it for me?”  “k soon as you find a cart with apples.” I look back down at the paper. I need to finish writing so I don’t forget anything.  

Mix water and milk, warm in a microwave. Pour into a big bowl and add yeast. Add sugar, oil, and salt, and mix. Mix in flour, a cup at a time, until it’s too tough to beat anymore. Knead the dough on a hard surface, slowly adding more flour until it’s smooth and elastic and no longer sticky. Put the dough in a  greased bowl, cover with Saran Wrap, and Let it rise tiLL it’s doubled in size  (I to 2 hours).  

After it’s risen, punch it down and knead to get air bubbles out. Divide in half and roll each into a rectangle, IO inch by 13 inches. Mix fiLLing ingredients spread evenly onto the two Loaves, and seal edges by pinching. Place in greased pans and cook for 30 minutes at 350 degrees.  

I didnt think about KT again until I asked her out the first time. I’d worked myself up to emergency checker by then, the guy they call on the intercom when there are too many people crying to buy groceries, or when one of the checkers needs to use the bathroom.  

I was cleaning out my wallet and her number was there. I decided to do that date where a bunch of people ask out the biggest losers they can,  except it would just be me and her and I’d be the loser. Wed get thriftstore cloches and play tag in a grocery store and have a candlelight Taco Bell dinner. I’d even call her ma’am all evening.  

“Let me guess,” she said as I walked her to her door. ‘Tm supposed to  be like, ‘Ooh, yuck, cheap unfashionable clothing,and, ‘Like, Taco Bell?”‘  She sounded as blonde as she was. ”And then tomorrow you tell all your  checker buddies about this chick you went out with last night who doesn’t  even have a sense of humor.”  

I nodded mutely. She leaned forward and kissed me. “I had a wonderful rime.” She started to open the door, then turned around and looked at me, hard. “And stop being as shallow as you think I am.” Then she stepped inside and left me staring at the door. I kept asking her out, and I cold myself every time I called that this was the last date, that this time the joke was on her. At the end of every date she kissed me and told me not to be as shallow as I thought she was. Then sometimes she’d say, “There’s more where that came from,” but she’d never cell me if she meant the kiss or the lecture. I didnt tell anyone we were dating.  

‘Tm dying of hunger,” she says. “So how about a midnight snack?”  “What happened to dinner?”  

“It’s 10:30. Dinner would have been at seven.”  

“But doesn’t that make it too early for a midnight snack?”  “How about that apple bread? I mean, without the apples?”  I explain the amounts of time involved in making bread, especially the letting it rise and how, if she’s dying, she’ll be long dead before it’s done. Plus itll be way past a midnight snack and we don’t have any  yeast, either.”  

“But I’m still hungry,” she says in her blonde voice.  

“What have we got?”  

She looks around the kitchen. “What can you do with grapefruit?I  pick three grapefruits up and start juggling. It’s the only thing I can do with grapefruit. I’d cold KT that that shopping cart wasn’t for us, but she had her heart set on the “cute yellow peppers” that matched her nail polish and, as it turned out, cost three times as much as green peppers but dont taste much different. It almost didnt matter, though-KT made me wait to cook them until she was wearing an outfit they matched.  

We decide on cheese quesadillas, mostly because we have cheese and tortilla shells and a little bit of salsa. We mix up raspberry Kool-Aid to go with KT’s dress. I serve grapefruit halves piled with sugar for dessert, and I  just eat the sugar, which has a mild citric tang.  

KT’s not supposed to know that I went ring shopping last week, but she does. I stayed for their jewel school where they taught princess cut,  flawless, and karats, but diamonds still all look the same to me. I don‘t have any money for a ring, but my credit card, plain gray with red and yellow circles, has a couple thousand dollar limit, so that’s how I paid. They say two or three monthssalary, but right now that would be zero, and I  don’t know that KT would go for a ring that cheap.  

Did I tell you about my dream last night?KT asks as we do the dishes. The dishwasher is broken, so for now we do all of our dishes by hand. We agreed that we’d both wash whatever we used during the day,  and do the rest together after dinner, but that never worked, and all of our dishes have become the rest. Tonight KT’s washing and I’m drying and putting away. I’m not allowed to look at her because she’s got an apron on over her electric blue dress, which is actually a dry-clean only electric blue dress. She’s filled the left side of the sink with soapy water and lets the water run on the right side. I once explained to her about droughts and conservation, and she explained right back about she was paying rent and utilities, and we left it at that.  

After she rinses the soap off the dish, she puts it by the sink where I’m standing, my back to her. I wipe off the water and the occasional soap bubble, then put it where I’ll be able to find it tomorrow. I keep my back to her the whole time.  

“I dreamed I was running through sunflowers, happy. I think I might have been naked, but it didn’t matter. I didn’t care what I was wearing. I  could have been dressed like you. What I really remember are the sunflowers and being happy.”  

“Do you want to go up and meet my mom next Friday?” I ask.  “Sure,” she says. “Okay, you can look.”  

I turn around and she blows a big pile of suds in my face. We’re wrestling, we’re on the floor, she’s kneeling on my arms, pinning me down.  “What do you want?” she asks, looking down into my eyes.  Mango,” I say.  

‘Tm serious,” she says, and I say, “So am I.”  

“In two months, you’ve heard from everybody. Let’s say they all say no,  weve got our chef, or no, our Food section is good enough already. Let’s  say even they want to say yes, but I don’t let you go, I stay here kneeling on your arms as the phone rings, two weeks, you can’t get it, and they  decide you were just kidding and give your job to someone else?”  

I think for a minute as she shifts around, trying to put as much pressure on my arms as she can. “How’s this?” I say. “I don’t get the job because they don’t want me or you keep me here. I start booking appearances at clubs until I develop an underground following. Word spreads,  and one day a guy shows up at our door. He’s an agent; he never says he is, but the way his cigarette hangs in his mouth, the way he says, ‘I  hear youve got talent. Show me what you’ve got,’ makes it pretty clearSo I create my stunning signature dish and he says, ‘Let’s make it happen.’  We make a demo and he takes it around. Meantime, the major labels are sniffing around, looking for me. The agent gets a TV producer bidding against a restaurateur until I’m getting six figures after my agent’s  fifteen percent.”  

She lets me up and claps. I take a bow, step out of the kitchen, then come back. She claps harder, begging for an encore, but I’m frowningThats not right,” I say.  

KT stops clapping. “Why not?”  

“This is the kitchen. Kitchen is food, and food is now.” KT just looks at me. “What I mean is, food is present, is current. You can’t think about  future food because mentally you eat it and then the future is gone.”  “So where-”  

“The back porch. I’ll be right there.”  

As she steps out, I grab our one bottle of champagne. It was in an old lady’s cart, along with Lactaid and cat food. The lady had just stepped to the deli counter and I knew I’d need champagne sometime for a special evening. The cat food I decided to toss, although I tried to think of something I could make with it. I never told KT about the champagne. It was only good as a surprise. As I was running with her cart, the old lady called out, “Good luck, son,” but I didn’t stop.  

I empty all of the ice in our freezer into the blue Tupperware bucket we use to mop the floor, then put the champagne bottle in. I grab the two nicest glasses we have and follow her outside.  

“What’s this?” she asks.  

“I thought tonight should be special.”  

“You’re not breaking up with me.”  

I look up at the sky. Even in the city the stars are breathtaking. “I  dreamed last night I was up in space. I was negotiating a trade agreement with an alien who looked like Godzilla, only smaller. When I was done they told me that to seal the bargain, little Godzilla was going to eat me.  To tear me limb from limb. They told me like it was the best news in the world, like they were all jealous that I was getting eaten alive and not them. The thing is, I was elated, too, until I woke up and thought about it. Then I started shivering. I couldn‘t stop shivering. It felt so normal in the dream: you negotiate a treaty, then you get eaten. What kind of life  is that?”  

“But you’re not proposing tonight either, are you?”  

We sit holding hands for a few minutes, looking at the sky. I point out the constellations I know and make up a few others. KT asks how long it takes to get to my mom’s place and what Mom’ll think of her. She asks if  I’ve ever thought about being a dad before and what I thought of the rings  I looked at. I tell her she’s not supposed to know about the rings, what if that’s why I’m not proposing tonight, and she just winks at me. I tell her  I’m seriously considering taking that Spanish class and she asks, “Why?”  

The champagne is still too warm, but we have a couple glasses anyway.  Then KT goes in, but I stay on the steps outside. I try to think of all the girls I’ve ever dated, but KT’s is the only name I can remember. “Call me,  KT,” her note had said, and I just stared at it in the parking lot, trying to figure out what “KT” stood for, until I finally realized I was supposed to say 1r.  

When I asked her if that was her middle or last initial, she just laughed. ‘Tm Catherine, with a C, Nicole Davis,” she said. I went by  Catherine, too, until one day a girl I knew signed my yearbook ‘KT.’ It was the coolest thing I’d ever seen, but I couldn’t use it at my high school. ”  

“Why not?”  

le would be like showing up to a party in the same outfit as your friend who’d told you where she bought it, and that’s how you decided to get it. You just don’t do that. So when I went off to college I started celling  everyone I was KT, Kay Tee.”  

Did you ever see your friend again?” I asked.  

No. I heard she was killed in a car crash going home for Christmas her junior year,” said KT.  

I dont know why I don’t propose tonight. The ring’s in my pocket, I  love KT, I know she’d say yes. It’s not like there’s someone else, or even like  I’d wane someone else.  

If I go in now, I’ll shuffle my portfolio crying to make it more attractive. I’ll cry and figure out how to make apple souffle, or the best way to combine apples, Shredded Wheat, and scrambled eggs. I’ll turn on the  Food Network and read the paper‘s recipes during commercials. But out here it‘s the stars, the limitless open space. I wish I knew what to do.  

KT cracks open the door. Marc?she says. “Ir’s lace.” She closes the door softly and she’s gone. There’s something sad about tonight-we should be celebrating and calling everybody we know, but instead we’re just going to bed. So rather than think about it, I get up. I need to sleep;  some of us have work tomorrow.  

Sam Brunson wants you to know the recipe in his story works; he came up with the concept, and his mom served as Baking Consultant. Sam graduated from BYU in English and is currently crying to pick a law school to go to in the fall. Since leaving Provo, the goatee has replaced the mustache as his facial hair of choice.