Today's Reading

CHAPTER TWO

A few weeks after he showed me the pictures, my grandfather picked me up from school. "We're going to Bristol Farms," he announced as I got into the Mercedes. "You can help me pick out dinner."

A married couple was coming to dinner that night, and my grandfather was eager to impress them. A week or so earlier, we'd had cocktails on their boat, a large motor yacht docked at the Long Beach Marina. It had a fiberglass hull and expansive tinted windows. Marilyn had drunk a glass of pink wine, which our hosts also drank, and my grandfather had a gin and tonic.

"Heavy on the tonic and light on the gin," he'd told our host, who'd made a great show of mixing drinks at the wet bar. "The diabetes, you know."

I'd been given a Coke, shown a place to sit on the plush, white carpet, and then ignored, so I passed the time watching the adults.

The man's bald spot was sunburned, which looked painful to me. When he'd first met us on the dock, he'd been wearing a captain's hat. His mustache was a pale ginger, bushy and unkempt. He wore a white Izod shirt and khaki shorts and topsiders without socks. My grandfather wore almost exactly the same outfit, which I would come to recognize as a kind of yachtsman's uniform, but my grandfather wore no captain's hat. "Never trust idiots who wear captain's hats," my grandfather said. "It's a sign they don't know what they're doing."

The man's wife perched on a stool next to him at the bar, leaning in to the conversation as if she were supremely interested, but I could tell she was bored by the way she kept looking at her red fingernails. She was wearing white Bermuda shorts and a white and navy striped sweater, and her long legs stretched down the barstool. In her earlobes were red plastic earrings that, upon closer inspection, turned out to be anchors. Like Marilyn, she was much younger than her husband.

My grandfather talked expansively while Marilyn sat demurely on the couch next to him, fiddling with the stem of her wine glass. The couple was trying to sell my grandfather the very boat we were sitting on. In fact, this was exactly why we were having cocktails with the couple in their navy whites and nautical flair. My grandfather wanted to buy a boat, a motor yacht to take us through the canals of Europe and to Costa Rica, the Fjords and San Diego. My grandfather wanted a boat because he'd been in the navy and because he loved the sea. My grandfather wanted a boat so that we could make a quick escape—from what, he didn't say.

At the end of the night, he'd invited them over for dinner at our house. On the ride home, he was already planning the meal; he was going to pull out all the stops. Marilyn said nothing and stared out the passenger window.

***

The afternoon of the dinner, the Bristol Farms parking lot was bustling with BMWs and Jaguars. Inside it was swarming with Friday crowds: Palos Verdes wives—processed blonds fresh from the tennis courts, still dressed in pleated skirts and appliquéd windbreakers—kids just picked up from school, businessmen charged with bringing home something for dinner, and people who liked to eat, like my grandfather. Bristol Farms was his favorite grocery store. I knew we'd be getting much more than we needed for that night's meal.

My grandfather's trips to the grocery store were completely different from Marilyn's. Marilyn went shopping at Ralphs with a list she'd carefully updated all week. It was written in orderly cursive with her Pilot Razor Point pen and used unappetizing abbreviations like "chix" for chicken. Her list was composed of things we actually needed: staple foods, ingredients for recipes, paper goods, pet food. She had a nylon coupon organizer that she'd ordered from a newspaper insert, the same kind of insert from which you could order a thousand printed address labels or customized checks with five different American patriot eagle designs. Marilyn's trips to the grocery store were carefully orchestrated campaigns, military operations upon which hung the entire war effort. Keeping house was like war for her, an angry battle against the shoes that cluttered the floor, the dishes that piled up on the counter. Too often, it seemed, I was fighting for the enemy, putting my shirts inside-out into the laundry hamper, leaving my dirty socks under the dining room table and empty glasses on the floor by my bed.

When she went grocery shopping, Marilyn mapped her trip down the aisles so she'd buy canned goods first and end up at the frozen foods last so they would have less time to melt. She bought a predetermined number of cans of cat and dog food, stacking them in her cart in columns of eight high. She checked each egg in the carton and carefully calculated the price per ounce of cereal, cat litter, and frozen juice concentrate. At the checkout stand, she placed her items on the conveyor belt in the exact order in which she wished them to be bagged. She instructed exasperated baggers how to place them in the sacks: "Double paper, please. And pack them as full as possible—don't worry if they're heavy. You can get more in there," she'd say, placing a bag of celery and a box of crackers on top of an already-packed bag. "See?"
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