Washington NC, Underground Railroad, Freedom Trail
She slurped on a cherry flavored Icee and a brain freeze blinded her just as the pot hole sent her cup flying in the air. In slow motion, a super-sized red arch of slush flew up, hit the ceiling of the car and covered her lap and new yellow top she had saved a month for. Urma Ray pulled into the Piggly Wiggly parking lot at a quarter till three on the sixth of the month. Circling the lot, she tried to regain her sight, dodging cars and sitting uncomfortably in a pile of cold slush. Maybe she should just turn around and go home. Everyone in the world will be in the store this afternoon and she looks like hell now. The time she spent getting ready to come shopping was completely wasted. She circled around one more time in search of a spot. The heat was rising off the asphalt making the wait for a space seem even longer. She had to get something for dinner. If she didn’t shop now, she wouldn’t have it ready for Bill when he got home from work. There wasn’t time for her to go home, change and come back. Finally she found a spot all the way at the top of the lot. Well, I need the exercise anyway.
As she opened the door and swung her legs out of her old Cutlass, ice fell onto the pavement melting in the summer heat. She stood up and gave herself a shake hoping the slushy stains would magically disappear like the ice on the black top. She checked herself in the car side mirror and laughed at the sticker “Objects are closer than they appear.” Too bad her butt wasn’t that small. It was a nice thought though. No stains on the back side. Front wasn’t too bad. Kind of looked like tie dye. Well here goes nothing. She grabbed her purse and pulled out the list. Hopefully her food money was on the card this week. The lady at the agency had promised there wouldn’t be a mix-up this month. It was so embarrassing last trip. Now there was no food in the house and she needed groceries. She had never been in this situation before. They had always survived but this year the price of shrimp had bottomed out and it had been slim pickin’s.
She made the trek to the front of the store, grabbing one of the old, rusty shopping carts. I should have checked the tires before I came in just in case. That was a huge pot hole. What if it damaged a tire? Oh man it would be just my luck today. All she could picture was her groceries melting as she waited for AAA to arrive and change her tire. She turned around leaving the cart parked by the front door. She walked back up to the car. A car slowly stalked her as she headed to the place where she had parked. She turned and waved “Sorry, I’m not leaving. Just forgot something.” The driver mouthed an expletive that she would never repeat and zoomed passed her. Wow. It’s a jungle out here. She carefully checked each of the tires and breathed a sigh of relief. Bald but no damage from their run in with the pit. She headed back to the entrance dodging the cars circling for their spot to park in, trying not to get hit.
Just as she grabbed her buggy and threw her purse in the top basket, Samantha Rutheridge came out of the market. Urma Ray cringed, this is a nightmare.
“Urma Ray, how are you? My goodness girl, what happened to you?”
“There is a pothole at the entrance and I hit it just right. It’s just been one of those mornings.”
“Oh my. Bless your heart. It looks like you ran into a snow cone salesman. A little seltzer water will fix that right up. We missed you at the Altar Guild meeting on Wednesday. You know those are not optional.”
“I know. I had to work. I have a new part time job and I didn’t want to miss a day in my first month. They don’t like that sort of thing you know.” Urma looked over at Samantha’s basket filled to the brim with stuffed sacks. Can you suffer from basket envy? No doubt the steak section will be empty; not that steaks were on her list.
“Oh, I didn’t realize you were working now. Maybe you can schedule to have the evening off next month for the meeting.”
“Maybe. So how is Howard? I was happy for y’all when he won re-election. It was a close one.”
“It sure was. Thank you so much for supporting us. He is doing really well. Always going to the capital and I only see him on the weekends. I miss him but it’s a lot quieter at home, that’s for sure. Can you believe that Mr. Fitz would try to run while he was sleeping with that girl? Like people wouldn’t find out. We are good Christians around here. We don’t put up with that. But Howard did win on the issues, not mudslinging. No one wants to listen to gossip.”
“We were happy to support him. He said he was going to work on some stuff for the local fishermen and I know he will keep his promise. If he can just do something about the prices, the foreign raised stuff is killing us. Oh, I better let you go. You don’t want your groceries to spoil in this heat.”
“I’ll see you soon. I’ll let Howard know that you guys were thinking of him. He will appreciate that. Altar Guild remember. Oh, a little hint,” she lowered her voice like she had a national secret to share. “They have bags of frozen shrimp on sale today. Two for four. A super deal. I loaded up.” She pointed to two bags.
Urma Ray watched the slim, bottle-blond woman head out to the BMW that was parked in the very first spot. “Thanks for the tip.” As if she could afford to stock up. She pushed the cart through the door and pulled out her shopping list. Just the basics. There was no money for extras. She would start with the meat and work her way from there.
The cool air blowing from the meat cooler was heavenly, such a relief from outside. She had to hurry if she was going to cook. She spotted a big pork shoulder that was reduced. Oh, that will make a couple of meals and a ham will be perfect for dinner and Bill’s lunches. Leg quarters on sale, jackpot! Ok, that will be good for meat. Now to the veggies. She was bent over picking out some super large cans of green beans when all of the sudden:
“Urma Ray! Samantha said she saw you in here. How are you girl?” It was her best friend Beth. Urma Ray threw the cans in the basket and gave Beth a huge hug. The middle-aged lady looked like she was on her way to work dressed in her waitress uniform.
“Hey! Where have you been? How are you?”
“I’m good. Lord have mercy girl, what happened to your shirt?”
Awesome. If one more person saw her in her stained shirt, she will be in tears. She just ignored the comment. “I got a new job and things are going good, but it’s keeping me busy. How are you? Bill doesn’t tell me anything. He spends all day on the boat with Tom and I don’t hear a thing.”
“A job? Tom didn’t tell me. I guess I’m out of the loop too. I’ve missed you at the diner. You guys don’t come and eat anymore. I miss you.”
“Yeah I’m working down at the Quickmart. Just part-time but it’s a help with the bills. We haven’t been able to eat out much. You know how it’s been. I’ve never had to work before.”
“Yeah I had to beg for some more hours at the diner. But I’m getting good tips. That helps. Maybe you should come and work with me.”
“I would love that but Bill likes his dinner on the table when he gets home. I wouldn’t be able to do the dinner rush and that’s when y’all are busiest.”
“You’re right about that. Ok, well I’ll let you finish so you can go cook. I’m gonna go check out this shrimp Samantha told me about.” Beth gave Urma another hug and ran off to the frozen department.
Maybe I should look at the shrimp. It is their local specialty. Maybe the store got a deal. Urma Ray pushed her cart down the aisle gathering the other things on her list. Nope, she was sticking to her list. That’s the first rule of a thrifty shopper. She was almost done and it was a good thing because her running total that she was adding in her head was very close to her limit.
She turned to the front of the store and stood in what felt like an infinite line. Oh, there’s the new People magazine. Let’s see who’s sleeping with who. She grabbed the new issue and started to flip through the pages. I can’t believe Blake and Miranda are divorcing. What could have gone wrong there? She flipped a few more and started at the latest fashion trends. Leopard skin leggings, oh yeah, that would look good on a stick! She sighed, envious of the model’s figure. $5000 sunglasses. Do not judge, do not judge. People are so wasteful. I guess if you have it, spend it. Someone cleared their throat behind her and she looked up. The line moved two people and there was a gap between her and the person in front of her. She moved her cart and turned to the man behind her “Sorry.” She gave him her biggest smile. She tried to be more attentive, moving with the line.
She noticed that the girl in front of her had a bunch of the frozen shrimp. “Is that the shrimp that’s on sale?”
“Yep, did you get some? It’s a super deal.”
“Nah. I stuck to my list like a good girl. Do you mind if I check it out?”
Handing her a bag, the girl smiled, “Good for you. Here you go.”
Urma Ray looked down at the packaging. Nice size shrimp too. That is a bargain and then it caught her eye. Raised in China. Can you believe that? Here in shrimp country. Ahh, she was so tired of it. Today frustrated her to no end. This was why she couldn’t pay her bills. The reason the prices were so low. She handed the bag back to the girl waiting in front of her.
“You sure you don’t want some. You have some time.”
“No thanks. I will get some from the dock when I’m in the mood.” The young girl loaded her groceries quickly on the belt. She threw things out of the cart as quick as the cashier could ring them. The cashier was frustrated as the pile got larger and larger until things started to fall on the floor. She was trying to be pleasant but Urma Ray could tell that the dinner rush was wearing on the older lady’s nerves. The customer pulled her cart through and Urma Ray jumped in helping her pick up the items.
“Thanks for the help.”
“No problem. I know it was a long wait.”
When it was her turn, she loaded her groceries on the belt carefully. Organizing her items so the young man at the end of the lane would bag them correctly. She nervously watched the total rise quickly, too quickly. She handed the cashier her coupons and the grunter behind her let out a huge exasperated groan. She turned, smiled, and apologized again.
“Can you page Mark please?”
The cashier looked worried as she punched in the coupons and Urma Ray watched the total fall below her limit.
“Sure, but can I help you with something?”
“Nope, I need the manager for this one.” She pulled out her EBT card. Her face flushed remembering last month’s embarrassment when the card was rejected. That was an hour ordeal and Mark the manager was a saint letting her use his phone while she straightened it out. Oh God, what if it happened again? The cashier paged Mark overhead and he appeared quickly.
“Ma’am, how are you today? Can I help you with something?”
“Yep, give me one minute and I’ll finish up here. You are very quick.”
Urma Ray ran the card and for one tense moment she thought it would happen again. The register spit out the receipt and the cashier smiled. “Have good night and come and see us again.”
“You too. Thanks.” She gathered the last of her sacks and moved the cart. Mr. Grumpy, as Urma had nick named him, could now buy his suitcase of Bud Light. Mark helped her with the cart and they stepped over to the newspaper stand by the front entrance.
“Mark first I wanted to thank you for being so understanding last month. I was so embarrassed and had no idea what to do. You made me feel like a person and I appreciate that.”
“No problem ma’am, it happens all the time I’m afraid. Computers don’t always act right.”
“I need you to take care of two things for me. One is the pothole as you come into the parking lot.” She did her best Vanna White impression; modeling her new blouse and gracefully waving her arms. “This is the result of that.”
“Oh, I am so sorry. I will let Upper Management know. Is there anything we can do about that, the cleaning bill maybe?”
“I’ll see what I can do at home and get back with you on that. It might come clean. The next thing is the shrimp special. You realize that you are in shrimp country, right?” Mark raised one of his thick bushy eyebrows. “My husband works on a shrimp trawler every morning. How much local shrimp do you sell? Do you advertise it? It’s shameful. People are buying buggy-fulls of Chinese shrimp and don’t even realize it. It’s putting us out of business. I apologize for the exaggeration but it’s upsetting. I know people would buy local if they knew what was what. It would probably boost sales.”
“Excellent suggestion. I’ll work on some signing. Sorry about the special. It’s a corporate thing every store received. I’m sure someone should have considered the regional preferences. I’ll get with someone.”
“Thanks Mark. You’re great. Now go see what Mr. Grumpy wants.” Urma Ray motioned toward the register where the man was standing with his arms crossed, stomping his foot, and yelling at the cashier. Mark smiled at her.
“Have a great day.”
“Good Luck,” Urma Ray chuckled as she rolled her cart out the door into the impossibly busy lot. The steep parking lot made the trek back up to the car with a full cart difficult. She put her back into it, pushing as hard as she could. A young couple passed her on their way into the store. “We have to get some of the shrimp that’s on special. A super good deal I heard.” Urma Ray wished she had not overheard them. She pushed harder to get to the car. She loaded her groceries in the trunk. Glancing up she saw a black BMW that matched Samantha’s. No doubt it’s Howard. She peered into the car as he passed at the younger slimmer blond in the passenger seat. He must be making a wine run for the night. “Bless her heart,” she said when she realized it was Abigail from the dry cleaners.
Her driver’s side seat had a huge red stain where the remainder of her Icee melted and dried. Great, another stain, just what the old car needed. She jumped in, gave the gas a couple of pumps and started the car. Squaring her shoulders and sitting up straight, she knew what her priority was. It was not feeling sorry for herself. At least she had a loving husband waiting at home. She pulled out onto the main road and headed that direction to feed her favorite fisherman chicken for dinner. Content with her life, she felt smug. Wham! Her car fell into a pothole and she watched in her rearview mirror as her hubcap rolls into the bushes on the side of the road.
Sometimes Life is good and sometimes we struggle. In the South, we make the best of what we have. We know what is important and we make it a priority: Friends, Family and our Community.