A Lesson at the Piggly Wiggly
by Kathryn Hamilton
Well, it’s a cinch, I guess, that going to a store with my mama took a lot of guts.
Now, I don’t say that easy, see. It’s been a long time now. Years. But I sure remember.
We moved to Georgia from Montgomery when Daddy died. Granddaddy and Granny lived in the Cumberland Apartments down in Columbus, so we went to live with them. Mama was having a hard time without Daddy; in fact, we both were, though I didn’t realize that back then.
Before we moved to the Cumberland, I had these big ideas about living in an apartment building, told everybody at school. Haha—funny. I’d thought living in that house we had in Montgomery was bad. I can visualize it even now with its wooden plank walls and ugly, dented, schoolhouse-gray vinyl floors in the kitchen and bedrooms. Once when we had a thunderstorm in summer, lightning reached right through one of the windows in the living room—almost like an arm—and popped the electric outlet nearby. You didn’t want to be sitting close to a window when a storm blew up is all I can say.
My first view of the Cumberland came at night, so I didn’t get the full experience until the next morning when Granddaddy and I walked out to the car to unload the rest of our stuff. Now, I was barely ten then, yet I knew without a doubt that the Cumberland wasn’t much. Close my eyes now and I see it so well that I can almost smell it too.
Seems like it might have been kind of nice once, but those days had long ago come and gone. Where the grass should have been, folks had worn paths taking shortcuts to their porches, giving the whole place a choppy look, like a honeycomb. We’d even ride our bikes on those trails, so hard and smooth they’d become. Screen doors built to keep out the summer insects that propagated only slightly more than the Cumberland inhabitants were so rusty that if you missed the door handle accidentally, you’d usually push another hole in the screen, coming away with orange on your hand and sometimes even a bloody scratch. And the smell, oh, the smell—kind of a combination of boiled turnip greens and burnt cabbage mixed with the underlying odor of urine that stank up the shrubs beside the buildings where most of us kids, dogs, cats and even a lot of men, drunk and sober, relieved ourselves.
Inside wasn’t much better. Granny kept it clean, I’ll say that, but clean doesn’t do much when the carpet is so old stains lie on top of stains: cranberry-colored shag hiding dirt so well that when she vacuumed, it sounded like popping corn.
So anyway, we moved to the Cumberland “just for a while,” ended up staying until I graduated from high school; well, actually my mama stayed till they razed it five years ago, building a modern edition of the place—with a new, fancy name—that in ten years will probably look just as bad as the Cumberland looked.
Mama got herself a job at the mill which doesn’t sound so bad except it meant that she worked the night shift. You had to work there a few years before they’d give you decent hours where you didn’t have to learn to sleep during the day and stay awake all night. But Mama seemed right proud of herself for finding a job so quick, bragged about it to Granny, though Granny didn’t act impressed, said, “You’d do better trying to get work at a bank. Give you a chance to move up in the world, they would there.”
“Ain’t got no head for numbers,” is what Mama told her.
The first time Mama did me that way happened at the Fourteenth Street Piggly Wiggly. She’d never done this before, not in Montgomery, at least not with me, so when she asked me to walk over there with her, I said yeah, thinking I might get a candy bar or funny book out of it. She wanted me to help her carry home the groceries is why I needed to go, she said.
I found out right quick that wasn’t all she wanted me for.
“Stand right over yonder,” she told me, pointing to a shelf nearby, “and start picking up cans from that there stack while I stay here.” It didn’t take an Einstein to figure out what she was up to. The minute I watched her I felt my face start to burn; I figured everyone in that store was looking directly at us, at her, at what she was doing.
But no one seemed to notice. Good thing, too, cause Mama wouldn’t win a prize for being surreptitious. I suppose if anyone had bothered to take a gander at her, they’d have noticed her stuffing two packages of bacon under her coat. “Mama,” I whispered. “What’re you doing?”
“Hush, now,” she’d given me that look I soon learned to recognize. “Just walk along beside me and do what I say.”
Bacon wasn’t the only thing she swiped that first day either. I couldn’t believe she had room under that ugly coat to hide so much. Meat is what she went for then and most times after, two steaks and a package of pork chops along with the bacon, though once or twice I saw her slip a can of tuna fish into a pocket. “They’s flat, see,” she told me on the way back about the meat packages. “I can hold ‘em up against my chest with one arm and no one’ll notice a thing.”
We headed home along the railroad track that paralleled the main road. Right after we walked out of the Piggly Wiggly she’d hidden behind a big green station wagon and pulled her loot out, jammed it in the one sack I carried, the one with legitimate purchases—cheap canned stuff like pork and beans and soup. I’d thought for sure we’d get caught coming through checkout, thought she’d mess up and lift her arm and all that stolen meat would come tumbling out, that everyone in the store would turn and watch us get captured. It didn’t happen, though. I sweated through the whole thing, dropping the change the cashier gave me, forgetting the receipt, feeling my face burning, my heart thumping, smelling my fear.
I remember that shopping trip like it was yesterday. The others, now, kind of squish together there were so many of them. We switched around to different groceries, going to the A & P some days, the Safeway others, but mostly we plied our trade at the Piggly Wiggly since it was the closest, also usually more crowded which I suppose provided a cover, or so Mama thought. And every time she asked me to go with her, I’d hope, I’d pray—fool that I was—that it wouldn’t happen again, that she’d given it up, decided it was too risky.
We always needed something, though. Always needed it.
So my life went. I eventually made friends with a couple of boys near my age—Sam Bentley and Darius McGee—who went to the same school I did. Darius lived in the Cumberland too, but Sam’s folks had a house. I bet you they never had to help their mothers swipe stuff from the grocery stores.
We never stole any chickens—too bulky Mama said. No roasts, nothing like that. Only those flat, easy-to-hide trays of meat, bacon, maybe even hot dogs. I hated it, hated the feeling it gave me, like we weren’t good enough to be able to pay like everyone else, and I guess that was true. I used to watch other people when we went in, kind of hope I could spot someone else doing the same thing, wanted to share that sense of degradation, I suppose. But I never saw anyone else slipping food into a pocket or underneath a coat. I envied all the other shoppers, the nicely dressed ladies with high heels clicking who strolled their carts along the aisles, loading the basket with all sorts of foods, foods they didn’t have to worry about how they would pay for; the older couples helping each other select stuff, arguing a bit about what was the best deal, but knowing they would get to the checkout without the fear, the terror that they’d be caught stealing. I would imagine how I used to feel before my mother made me her partner in crime, wonder at my ignorance, as I realized that she’d probably been swiping food—and whatever else she needed—for longer than I ever knew about.
One time I told Granddaddy about it. I picked after supper when I figured he’d be in a pretty decent mood—not a good one, mind, but at least he’d have his stomach full. We sat out on the little stoop in front, me on the steps and him in the one chair—cheap, sun-grayed plastic—that would fit out there. It being late April, the weather was pretty nice for enjoying, and I hoped Granny would have plenty of cleaning-up chores remaining before she came outside to join us. Mama had left for her shift at the mill, so even if I had to reveal my secret in front of Granny, I had made up my mind to do it, to bare my soul, so to speak. Still a kid then, I had faith in my grandparents’ morality I guess.
First I had to wait for Granddaddy’s conversation with Mr. Maxwell in the building to our left to finish. They got into a kind of shouting match most every evening about politics, Granddaddy being a solid Democrat and Mr. Maxwell a Republican, so whatever was going on in the world one of them would have something smart-aleck to say to the other about it, blaming each other for the bad stuff. Once Granddaddy hollered, “Bunch of dumbass idiots!” I knew he’d finished. He always ended the conversation that way and Mr. Maxwell would holler back, “Yeah, all of ‘em!” At least they had that to agree on.
“Granddaddy,” I ventured. “What do you think about stealing?” Maybe I took the wrong lead there, for about the next five minutes I had to hear a dissertation on the sinfulness of larceny, but I realized pretty quickly that maybe it hadn’t been a bad start after all, for at least we settled the idea of stealing being against all he stood for. Yet when I confessed what me and Mama had been doing at the grocery stores for the last few months, he didn’t react the way he’d led me to expect.
He sat there for a full minute without saying a word, looking past me to the ugly front of Building C right across from us. “You know, Jimbo,” he finally said, “I reckon there’s stealing and there’s stealing. I don’t rightly know how to explain it, but that’s how it is.”
“But, Granddaddy,” I countered, “we could get caught. What if someone sees us? We could go to jail!”
“Aw, son, I don’t reckon they’d send you to jail for it. Probably make you pay a fine or somesuch. I don’t know.” He slid down in his chair a bit and shook his head. “I do know that food stamps and the Social Security and your maw’s check don’t quite make it to the end of every month. I do know that.”
My heart slid down to my feet, I swear. What was I hearing? If Granddaddy wasn’t going to deliver me from my woes, who would? About that time, Granny came out, squatting on the step beside me, waving her hand in front of her face. “Lord, that kitchen gets hot. Even as cool as it is outside right this minute, that kitchen is hot as fire. Whoowhee!”
So the subject of my mother’s and my unlawfulness was dropped. And I didn’t bring it up again to Granddaddy—or even to Granny. Don’t know if Granddaddy said anything to Mama about our conversation or not, but she never mentioned it, and her sinful ways of stealing didn’t cease.
Summer came and with it the freedom to ride our bikes just about wherever we wanted to go: fish from the riverbank, maybe even climb a fence to sneak a swim in one of those snooty neighborhood pools not too far from our slummy apartments, just to roam the town without caring what time it was or even where we were headed.
One evening while we—Sam and Darius and me—pedaled around in the streets near the Cumberland, Darius declared that he was awfully hungry. We weren’t far from the Piggly Wiggly and I got an idea.
I swear I didn’t really think we’d go through with it. It was almost like I heard myself talking from afar, having no control over any of those words that flew out of my mouth. Maybe I just wanted to see what they’d think of my suggestion, kind of a dare actually. Then, when they both jumped on it like white on rice, I was kind of stuck. I mean, who can back down from his own suggestion, I ask you?
“Great idea, Jimbo!” Darius hollered, smiling slyly at both me and Sam. “Didn’t think ya had it in ya to try something like that.”
Sam, the quieter one of us, just grinned, hopped back on his bicycle watching both Darius and me, waiting, I suppose, for us to signal Go. So I was stuck.
You can figure what it was, what I in my stupidity blurted out without thought, without realizing that what we were planning to do would affect us—at least me—for a long time, forever, I guess.
We weren’t even prepared; hot summer, so of course we weren’t wearing anything to hide stuff in. What was I thinking?
So there I sat in the police department waiting for my mama to pick me up, slouched in an uncomfortable metal chair, feeling like the biggest fool that ever lived. But it was Granddaddy who showed up. Face gray, old and sad—looking like he’d rather be anywhere else but there, looking like he hated even admitting I was his kin. “Come on, boy,” he’d told me, frowning, waving me toward the door. “I done taken care of it.” And he had. Paid off ol’ Mr. Wilson, Piggly Wiggly’s manager. What I stole wasn’t worth much anyway; I hadn’t had room for more than a little packet of Oreos that I didn’t even want. Got those cause Darius said he liked them.
Of course, I’m the only one who got caught. Both Darius and Sam got away—they weren’t the ones who stole something anyway. Just stupid old me.
See, we didn’t do any of it right; I knew that from the get-go. Mama always bought some cheap stuff so we had a reason for being there, always wore some jacket or coat with room to hide our purloined food. The three of us dumbbunnies didn’t even have enough money for a piece of bubble gum. But how could I explain to Sam and Darius that I knew how this kind of thing was done?
Because we got out of the grocery’s door, I guess we thought we’d gotten away with it. Now I know they have to let you leave before it’s actually considered stealing. Now I know a whole lot I didn’t back then.
Like idiots, we stood there outside the door grinning at each other. I was just reaching into my pocket to hand Darius the Oreos when suddenly Mr. Wilson marched outside, grabbed my arm, saying, “All right, son, I reckon you’ll have to pay for those some way,” his face red, perspiring, his angry eyes boring into mine. I realized, hearing behind me the clomp, clomp of my so-called friends’ shoes hitting the pavement as they hightailed it out of there, that I would take the fall.
And my heart kind of sank as I recognized the world I faced: a harder and colder one than I’d reckoned on, that’s for sure.
Kathryn Hamilton is a retired assistant professor of English at Columbus State University. She has published short stories in Halfway Down the Stairs, Knight Literary Journal, Deep South Magazine, Literary Yard, and essays in Mississippi Magazine. At the Chattahoochee Writers’ Convention her work won the short story award.