This is what I moved away from, the busyness. The grocery’s manager/owner, one of the Js from J&J’s, is stopping people at the door because the aisles are so crammed with bodies that there’s legitimate concern of a fire hazard. I give up on the cereal aisle, don’t even consider the produce, and reevaluate my need for peanut butter.
The local brand, Mary Ellen’s, is on the bottom shelf. This peanut butter is natural but extra smooth, and I imagine spreading it thick on a grainy piece of toast. It won’t be around forever, this brand. Mary Ellen’s daughter recently sold the company to Walzon Corporation, so it will soon be like all the others—Wally’s, additive soup. I will miss this peanut butter. I will miss it with honey and miss it with jam. Since I moved to Marquette, I began making my own apple and pear butters to sell at the farmer’s markets on Saturdays, and boy does that apple butter complement Mary Ellen’s extra-smooth peanut butter.
I wait, widening my stance so as not to be pushed over as the masses shove and shift, and slowly make my way closer to the jar with the brown top and yellow bow. A woman wearing a summer dress and silver sandals moves her cart out of the way as she gossips on her cell, recounting a story about some pop star who has an extra nipple and apparently breast feeds with it, which the woman, I gather, finds tasteless and unnatural. I think about my childhood, long before folks started growing skin tags that morphed into whole new body parts.
It didn’t take long for it to happen in all major cities. Some residents of Los Angeles, Phoenix, Chicago, and Tallahassee were born with extra parts whereas others were born missing things—eyelashes or fingernails, a bottom lip that led to assistive eating machinery, or a tendon that required a synthetic and caused a person to favor one side. It affected the rich first. Plastic surgery was phased out, then unnecessary pills, then all plastic water bottles. After none of these measures did much, people decided it was the food and began to move toward the less populated states, a fast-moving migration that has caused me one hell of a headache.
I stare at the two rows of toes on each of this woman’s feet before she is swallowed by the crowd. There are four people between me and the peanut butter, so I keep my eyes tight on the jar as I wait for an opening I can slip through to get to it. This little store used to have one to five customers max, especially on a Monday afternoon.
Everyone wants a share of the farm life now because things are clean here, relatively. The allergens are natural. The dirt isn’t radioactive, and is often still fertile. Our rain is still the color of water. There are folks in the big cities yet; folks in Houston are hanging on, as are those in Seattle, but it will only be a matter of time. The papers say so. There are community holes broadening in each state, and the middle-class are following the rich.
I moved here when I was younger, before all the hype and glamour attached to Nebraska. It was either Marquette or Benton, and when I visited Marquette I knew it was right. I suppose I was an early adopter. “A simpler way of life” was how it was being sold then—farm life was a brand new advertising initiative on the Internet then, and small-town governments were cleaning house as one downtown after another began to show signs of self-destruction. Back then, there were fellowships and meditation retreats in which people walked mindfully through corn. It all looked so exotic and peaceful. I never thought I’d look back after moving here from Cleveland, but this is ridiculous. I move forward and can almost reach the jar. I try and come a foot or so short.
I have to mix this particular brand of peanut butter two or three minutes. I don’t mind because it is some seriously wonderful peanut butter. The only man blocking me now is wearing overalls, which I appreciate, and his hands are dirt stained. He looks vaguely familiar, probably just keeps to himself, but I think I’ve seen him at the farmer’s market. He’s reading the label of a jar of “Wally’s” Walzon peanut butter with a critical eye.
“Excuse me,” I yell, and a kid runs between us, almost knocking my shopping cart over. “That kind isn’t so good. I tried it a while back. It’s all artificial.” I point to my brand, and he stares at me a long time. His eyes are flat, blue, but I think I can see some amusement in them. He thinks I’m a joke, another one of the hundreds in this grocery on their smartphones, missing the entire point of moving here. When I moved here, the town was 248 people, and this grocery accommodated them easily. Now there are 1,042, and only this one grocery, until the Walzon Plus is built down the road. Aside from the farmer’s market, there’s nowhere else to buy much of anything save the dollar store, so J&J’s is going to be like this awhile.
Overalls doesn’t say anything, but he grabs a jar of my recommended brand, and when he does, I realize it was the only one. I could get crunchy, then try to put it in my food processor. I suppose I could make my own peanut butter, all truth told, but something in me ignores the buy-local-sell-local mantra in my head, and I pick up a jar of the processed stuff as someone behind me mumbles, “Hurry up.”
I am pushed and shoved and elbowed, so I push and shove and elbow. The construction outside is head-splitting. Houses are being built everywhere, exact replicas of each other excepting the color of the paint or direction the garage is facing. Everyone who came from money owns the expensive equipment. The green and yellow of the freshly cleaned and waxed backhoes glisten in the sun, while I tend to just mosey around on an old ATV and read meters and make my jams and pies for the farmer’s market. I loved this life till recently. I am almost to the checkout when I realize I’m missing sugar.
I say, “Excuse me!” no less than a dozen times, but all the folks headed toward me create an impenetrable wall. I call out, then notice the orange flag of a clerk and ask if she can get me some sugar. She just rolls her eyes and waves her flag the direction of the registers, so I leave my cart and rush, best I can, toward the baking aisle, weaving in and out of bodies connected to electrical devices, so many dazed that they don’t notice me crawling between their legs or nudging them with my country-wide butt and hips to get by.
I grab the biggest bag I can carry, so I won’t have to return to his horrid place for a few weeks, but when I return to the register line I can’t find my cart. I just wasted an hour, and I feel restless in a way I haven’t since I lived in Cleveland. I throw the sugar on the floor, and the bag tears open. A mound of crystal white slowly forms, and everyone around watches it and me like we are the most unrefined combination of anything they’ve ever seen.
Overalls is sitting on a bench with my favorite peanut butter. He has his foot propped up on the other side, so I edge my way over to him as folks begin to move around again, trampling the sugar and allowing it to coat their boots and high heels. He moves and gestures for me to sit. This empty space is a rarity, and I take a seat, offering him some gum.
“How did this happen?” I ask him. “When I moved here, everything was so quiet. Everyone lived for the land and listened to the land and lived for the—”
“Land, yeah. But people are nature too,” he says.
“Yeah okay,” I say. “Thanks for that.”
He smiles at me, sun wrinkles deepening around his eyes, and hands me Mary Ellen’s natural, extra-smooth. I hesitate, but I accept it and tuck it away in my canvas bag. “There are people moving back, you know,” he says.
“I don’t blame them. I’d do anything to escape these crowds.”
“People are nature too,” he says again. I shrug, but he nods confidently to reinforce and adds, “When you go, I’ll miss your pies.”
After sitting a while, taking in that special kind of silence only possible in the midst of chaos, I nod my thanks and nudge my way back to the sugar aisle. I brave the produce, determined to make enough rhubarb and strawberry to tide folks over a while as I head back toward the unknown malformations that await me.