Reality Truck

Town Without Pity

Just once, I want an experience where we throw away 91 cents together.

—Albert Brooks to Debbie Reynolds in Mother

Being the oldest in family, and the only girl in my generation, means that pretty much anything I do takes on unimaginably scandalous proportions in my small hometown.

Sometimes I see the reaction coming and can steel myself for the disapproval—usually I don’t, and I get blindsided.

Most readers, are for example, familiar with the great Crystal Light debacle of the 90s—wherein my diabetic family and stepfamily were visiting and, in preparation for their stay, I had bought a little cannister of Crystal Lite lemonade (est. cost approx. $3.99 in Clinton dollars) so I could offer them tasty, sugar-free cold drinks…never realizing the firestorm this would set off. (I think everyone agrees, a couple cans of Dr. Pepper and diabetic comas would’ve been a far preferable outcome.)

In serving what they all viewed as an overpriced luxury item, I had become the profligate daughter—given to such insane heights of excess and extravagance that I might as well have been caught lighting cigarettes with $100 bills, and extinguishing them with the champagne flowing from my bathroom faucets.

A wastrel.

A black sheep.

I can still remember the tear in the corner of my mother’s eye—the disappointment that registered in her voice as she recommended the economical alternative that passes for lemonade at their house (“a little RealLemon, a little Sweet’n Low,” she advised, choking back emotion, “you’d never know the difference.”)

Oh sure, I was making a good living—a responsible citizen in the eyes of many. I had a healthy IRA, home equity, and no car payment…but I expect that did nothing to ameliorate the visions of me homeless—huddled over the the Rupp Arena heating vents in a vain attempt to warm myself—that haunt them to this day.

The cannister is still in my pantry—only one lone, forlorn, ill-conceived container recklessly consumed while three remain—forever serving as a cautionary tale of what COULD happen (and had that whole Y2k thing panned out, I’d have been set for drinks for at least the first few weeks of the apocalypse).


Thank God for my brother is all I can say.

The Chef.

From Austin. In town for the month.

Who with one savory lasagna managed to obliterate the Crystal Lite episode from our family’s collective consciousness.

Years from now, when everyone is gathered at the obligatory funerals and weddings, I am happy to report my prediction that lemonade will have been long surpassed by dairy.

It was scandalous enough that his lasagna called for three, maybe four, kinds of cheese…. (exactly as it does at my house, but we’re not talkin’ bout me….Not anymore, anyway.)

That might’ve kept the Episcopalian ladies auxiliary going 'til Christmas: “Four, you say?… really….? Why I wouldn’t know where to begin finding four cheeses for a lasagna? I can’t even begin to think…Yes, yes, well, mozzarella, of course….Parmesan, maybe? And you know there’s that ricotta, but we don’t eat that kinda stuff at our house…Tastes just like spoiled cottage cheese if you ask me.”

That woulda kept ‘em going and sustained the town’s conversational mill up through the holidays at a minimum. It would’ve probably become the butt of many an inside dinner joke whenever any wife spooned Ragu over the spaghetti and one of the kids, or perhaps the husband, might ask “say, do we have four kinds of cheese to go with this Marge?” as he snickered behind his hand and the table erupted with laughter.

We’re already talking about an inconceivable culinary and budgetary excess… until you get to the part where ONE wedge of cheese cost…THIRTEEN dollars (and it was probably less than an ounce, if you MUST know).

And thereupon, stunned silence overtook our corner of the world…because this was the kind of thing that takes a few days to absorb before it can become a laughing matter.
I mean, $3.99 for some lemonade? Ha!! That’s a good one! Ya had me goin’ there for a minute!! Four kinds of cheese? Oh yeah, pull this one, it plays jingle bells.

But THIRTEEN bucks?

Pour un wedge du FROMAGE?

Just who the hell do we think we are (I imagine the town elders are saying)? Rockefellers? Vanderbilts? Bill Gates?

Have we taken leave of our senses? Set up a meth lab? Started selling oxycontin on street corners? Are we growin’ weed on the family farm? Stealing hubcaps off cars? Taken up rap and gangsta violence?

Clearly, the only kind of enterprise that would finance such extravagance would be ill-gotten gains.

Equally clearly, this is a shame we’ll all have to bear until it dies down and another teen pregnancy or stabbing comes along to occupy the communal conversation for a few days.
First of all (though I wouldn’t have the guts to say this within the family), I didn’t even know you could BUY $13 cheese in my hometown, and I’m kinda proud to know there’s a market that’ll sustain it. (Though I do hope somebody checked the expiration date.)

Second, I have painstakingly removed all the price tags from all the cheese in my refrigerator, so that I don’t get written out of any of the wills the next time any estate planning is done. (But I still gotta stick up for my brother here in silent approbation: we are not Kraft kidz.)

I’m already halfway to being disowned because I don’t stock the Sam’s Club “7 pepper blend” in my cupboards (so if you see me crouching behind the refrigerator sprinkling an unknown substance on your food, relax….I’m just grinding fresh pepper as quietly as I can). I guess if I wanted to be less uppity I could scatter the peppercorns right on the table and put a mallet, or a small hammer, at everyone’s place setting. Right next to the sidearm I’ll place under everyone’s napkin, so they can hunt and kill their own prey in the nearby park.

Because the truth is, I really can’t tell what’s going to set my family off.

For example, one of my aunts was in town last week and dropped by my office to borrow some books.

I’d forgotten to mention her visit to my coworkers in the front of the building, so I felt pretty bad when she was subjected to the usual interrogation that any unannounced drop-in might get here (stopping just short of a full body-cavity search).

One guy held her at bay while another walked back to my office and, with a skeptically arched eyebrow, relayed that “Someone who SAYS her name is ‘Kitty’ is here to see you.”

Uhhhhh, “yeah,” I acknowledged. “That’s AUNT Kitty.”

To which he replied accusingly, “Mmmm-Kkkkkk. Whatever. I don’t have her name down. Nobody told me.”

(I could picture the inquisition that was probably taking place, “Kitty whooooo? Aunt Kitty whoooo?….” followed by “ARE YOU EYEBALLIN’ ME, MA’AM….?”)

It was a pretty short visit. Uneventful.

She was fine though.

Or so I thought.

By the time I got around to checking in with my mother, I’d worked up a nice apology about not leaving Kitty’s name at the front door so she could come straight back.

That was quickly dismissed in favor of a lengthy conversation about WHY was I running around barefoot?

Apparently, the tom-toms started beating the second my office door closed, and it’s been the source of some distress in my family for days now.

I usually kick off my shoes when I walk into my house, or my office. Always have. As aberrant behavior goes, it strikes me as pretty innocuous, but the mounting consternation led me to feel a need to inquire further… trying to imagine the source of this dismay.

Well, I ventured, did she say my feet were dirty….?


Was she worried I don’t have any shoes?


Did she think our floors are carpeted in ground glass and I might injure myself?


So I give up. I’m just waiting for the next tense family moment when everybody’s at a loss for words, which is when I plan to tell them I can’t afford shoes anymore cause I spent my LAST thirteen bucks on cheese. n