Natasha – Black on the Outside concluded
Mama was waiting for me at the bus stop that afternoon. She waved her hands over her head, prompting the bus driver to ask her what was the matter when he pulled over and opened the double doors so I could get off. I lowered my head, dodged her open arms as if I didn’t know her. She was usually still at work after school let out. She didn’t come home until after five, and no one was allowed to bother her until she had taken off her pumps, changed into her housecoat and slippers, and watched the end of Family Feud. It was her post-work routine to shed eight hours of dealing with “stupid people who somehow get paid more than me.” If not done in that order without interruptions, she was rude and nasty for the rest of the night, which usually meant Daddy had to run through the drive-thru at McDonald’s or Bojangles’ or we’d go to bed hungry.
The bus drove off, screeched to a halt at the stop sign in our front yard, and then disappeared down the hill.
“You get fired?” I asked, pulling at the straps of my backpack.
“Is that how you greet your mother?” She held out her arms again and, no longer under the penetrative gazes of my giggling classmates, I wrapped my arms around her waist and stood on my toes to kiss her cheek.
“There is absolutely no food in the house. I think your father wakes up in the middle of the night to clean out the refrigerator.” She straightened up and wiped her hands on her gray pinstriped pants. “Want to ride to the store with me?”
“I have math homework.”
“The best way to learn math is shopping. You write down the price of all the food we load in the cart then tell me what the total should be.” I nodded and followed her to the car parked in our dirt driveway.
There was a Food Lion two blocks from our house that we never went to. It was in a strip between a barbershop and a clothing store that only sold oversized jeans and throwback jerseys. Mama called it the “hood store” because only poor black people shopped in it, and the food was always old. The meat section had more pig feet, chitterlings, and chicken than anything else. Most of the packaged meat had already been seasoned because it was approaching the “sell by” date. Daddy once bought some hamburger patties that had begun to turn brown, and when Mama brought it back the next day, the customer service girl was popping her chewing gum so loudly, Mama wanted to slap it right out of her mouth.
Instead, we shopped at the Lowe’s Foods twenty minutes across town, on the other side of the train tracks, where the only black people you saw were women in dresses and heels. Not one of them still wore the bonnet she slept in. The men didn’t step out of their cars in flip-flops and socks.
Here, you didn’t have to worry about someone approaching you to sell Nike tennis shoes, mix CDs, or bootleg movies out of his trunk. You didn’t have to worry about people knocking on your window begging for gas money when you just saw them get off the bus at the corner. You didn’t have to worry about drunk old men leaning against the brick wall outside of the automatic doors and making obscene hand gestures towards their crotches when you walked by. You didn’t have to worry about club promotional clutter on your windshield when you returned to your car.
At the Lowe’s Foods, no one harassed you in the parking lot about feeding their families or investing in their business. They lowered their heads when you walked by. The blonde women in tracksuits clutched the purses a little bit tighter, but forced themselves to smile while you stood next to them squeezing tomatoes and picking green bananas. The cashiers barely glanced at you. They swiped your food, accepted your coupons, and didn’t roll their eyes when you asked if a certain food item was on sale. They didn’t mumble to your back as you walked out of the store. They smiled as they handed you the receipt, enunciated variations of “have a nice day”—“good afternoon,” “come back soon,” “have a great rest of the evening.”
The food was much more expensive, but it was of a better quality. The fish never reeked from the trunk on the way home, and we never opened stale cereal. If she didn’t see the cut of beef she wanted, Mama would ring the bell for the butcher, and he would hand her a freshly packaged flank she would roast in the crockpot for Sunday dinner.
I scribbled down the prices as we walked through the produce section first. Mama dropped grapes, bananas, apples, green beans, and cabbage all into the basket. In the meat section, Mama shuffled through various cuts, examining the fat trim before tossing the meat back into the pile while I stared up at the Lunchables kits hanging over the packaged slices of ham and turkey. I pulled down a pepperoni pizza Lunchable. Inside was a stack of three miniature tortilla shells I assumed to be the pizza dough. Underneath the stack lay a packet of tomato sauce. In the two smaller sections were shredded mozzarella and cheddar cheeses, and nickel-sized, bright red pepperoni slices. I held the package up to her face. “Mama, can I have this?”
“What is it?” She snatched it from my hand, flipped it over to read the nutritional facts. “This isn’t real food.” She hung it back on the racket. “Don’t you buy school lunch?”
“But Breanna’s mom said that school lunch isn’t real food?”
“Well, tell Breanna that her mama needs to worry about feeding her own kid.” She pushed the cart further down the lane towards the dairy products then paused as if to change her mind. I stayed put, reaching my hand back to nab the pizza again. “Tell ya what.” She pointed to aisle five, ahead and to her left. “Go pick yourself out a snack to take to school with you. Chips, crackers, popcorn, cookies, whatever you like.” She held up her finger. “One thing only.”
I sprinted down the aisle, ignoring Mama’s cries for me to walk. There was so much to choose from. The Lay’s potato chips. Was I to select barbeque, my favorite, or sour cream and onion, which came in a close second. The Pringles stood tall next to the air-filled bags of chips. They might have been a better choice, but I could never retrieve a chip from the long cylinder without snapping it in half. I kept walking. I paused in front of the cookies. The ginger snaps my mom always ate with cheese cubs and hot tea. The Chips Ahoy! I could never finish without smearing melted chocolate all over my face and dropping crumbs down my shirt. The Chicken in a Biskit crackers that we strangely only ate at Christmastime. Then I saw it. The blue and white package. The blown-up picture of two chocolate cookies with a white cream filling sandwiched between them.
I’d never eaten an Oreo before. The commercials suggested you dip them in milk first. Some people broke them in half, licked off the filling and tossed the rest. Why not scrape off the cream, discard the white on the inside and only eat the chocolate? Why not fill them with chocolate syrup instead, or press the cookies together, sans filling, and dip them into chocolate milk? Why was the white always better?
An older woman with a curled back tapped me on the shoulder. She wore a pink hat with a flower the same color as her alabaster hair. “Are you thinking about buying those?” she asked with a shaky voice, her loose neck skin jiggling as she spoke.
“My mom said I could have just one.”
“Well that’s a good selection, dear,” she said. She took the Oreos off the shelf and placed them in my hands. “Sweet on the inside, just like you.” She winked, poking my chest.
And just like you, I thought as she walked away, holding her basket in the crook of her elbow, her own pack of Oreos lying on the bottom. Sweat and white. Just like the people in this store across the train tracks, miles away from the hood grocer, who let us shop in peace. Just like Breanna who didn’t call me names because I didn’t act or talk like a normal black kid. Just like the Jesus figurine, the Savior of the world before we fleshed him out with brown ink. Sweet and white.
I trotted back to Mama’s cart and placed the Oreos in the top basket on top of the eggs.
“How much?” she asked.
“You think we’re at a hundred dollars yet?”
I counted the list of numbers. We were up to twenty variations of one, two, and three dollars, and the subsequent change amounts. “I need a calculator,” I said.
Mama chuckled in her throat, cooing like a pigeon. “Let’s get some milk and get out of here.”
As we pushed the heavy shopping cart together, I imagined how the Oreos would taste after soaking in milk at the bottom of a cool glass.
© Nortina Simmons