Popeye as a Role Model

Interior of a general store, with wooden shelves full of candy on one side of the image, and wooden floors and walls for the buildingWe are out of butter and short on cream, so Hunter and I decide that a trip to the general store in town is in order. It’s too far to walk, but a half hour drive isn’t too bad, and there is still enough of the city people in us that we like to get out and about a little now and again, although I feel that’s a trait that is slowly dying out in us.

The pollen is thick in the air here today, and we almost have to scrape it off the windshield of the car before we can see through it to drive. “I thought we left this shit behind in the desert,” I say.

“It follows you everywhere,” she says. “Welcome to global warming. Also, it’s springtime. That sort of helps it along.”

“Stupid springtime,” I grumble.

“You won’t be saying that in the winter,” she says.

“Nope. I’ll be saying ‘stupid winter.’”

It’s been dry the past few days, and we throw up a cloud of dirt behind us as we drive along the mile stretch of unpaved road, before we get to the main drag. One of the neighbors has the frame up for a new shed by their house, another has a jungle of tomato plants in raised beds running along the edge of their lawn. It’s very Mayberry out here, it feels to us, although unlike Andy Griffith’s fictional town, we very rarely see any other human beings actually out and about doing anything. Generally we gauge how busy things are by what’s been erected or torn down since the last time we drove past.

Hunter points to her side of the road as we continue driving. “Those people have a yurt,” she says.

“Do we need a yurt? Are you having yurt envy?”

“Every home needs a yurt,” she says. “Somewhere to banish obnoxious houseguests when they are acting like assholes.”

“Good thing we live so far in the boonies that we’ll never have houseguests,” I say.

“We should still get a yurt.”

“I just like the way the word sounds,” I tell her. “Yurt, yurt, yurt, yurt.”

We hang a right at the intersection (no stop or yield signs in any direction, because again, we live in the boonies), and head towards town. The scenery is what you would expect out here: trees to the left of us, more trees to the right. Every once in a while there’s an old farmhouse, or a trailer that’s generally between twenty and fifty years old, and then another fifty acres of trees before you see another farmhouse or trailer. Everyone’s property, no matter what the housing situation, generally falls into two categories. Either it’s a beautiful piece of land, with gardens and fruit trees and a farm stand by the driveway, or it looks like an exploded junk yard, with rusted shells of washing machines and dead generators littered about, skeletal frames of cars and decomposing box springs cluttering nearly every walkable space as far as your eye can see. Oftentimes these two categories of property are literally right next door to one another. I’m sure we’ll get used to the bizarro dichotomy eventually, but today is not that day.

“We are not allowed to turn our yard into something that looks like that,” I say as we pass a property containing what looks to be every abandoned refrigerator on the eastern seaboard.

“There will be a murder/suicide before that happens,” Hunter says.

“I would be the murder in this scenario.”

“I didn’t specify.”

“You don’t have to,” I say.

Our drive takes us past the local post office and town hall, and further on a bit from there is the local grade school, which serves several of the townships in the area (we’ll be passing the high school on the way as well, which also takes all the teens from nearby towns). To our right, we’ll pass the local trash transfer station, where we bring our garbage and recycling. There’s no municipal trash pickup where we live, so once or twice a week we’ll load up our suburban with a bag or two (we don’t generate much waste, and any cardboard we have gets repurposed by us before it ever needs to leave the property), and check out the swap shop, which is where people bring things they don’t want anymore, but don’t want to throw in the garbage. We’ve grabbed more than a few nice old wooden chairs, a few tables, and a dehumidifier for the basement from there already. It’s a once- or twice-weekly treasure hunt that we’ve come to relish.

Grossett’s General Store is on the main drag of the next town over from us. The term “main drag” does a lot of heavy lifting here, because all there is on the strip is another post office, a weed shop, a bakery, the small town library, and Grossett’s. All the parking at every business is empty most of the time, but Grossett’s eight spaces are perpetually in use, and today is no different. We manage to squeak into a space at the edge of the lot, next to the library.

“We are obviously going to get pizza while we’re here,” I say as we get out of the car. We have discovered that there is no better place to get pizza by the slice than Grossett’s, and the prices are ridiculously reasonable, especially if you get lucky and arrive when they are sliding new pies into the display, at which point the previous slices are wrapped in plastic and put into the fridge with .75 cent stickers on them.

“Obviously,” Hunter agrees.

We head into the store, and head to the back where the dairy is kept. On the way, we pass everything you’d expect to find in an old style general store: candies and jerky, hammers and nails, pencils and pads, toilet paper and paper towels, flour and sugar. There’s a deli counter in back for sandwiches and pizza pies, and a refrigerated display of meats and cheeses from local farmers in the area (all, like the pizza by the slice, very reasonably priced). We grab a pound of butter and a pint of cream, toss a couple of hot slices onto paper plates, and make our way to the checkout by the door.

“Afternoon,” the checkout lady says. We haven’t been living here long enough to know her name yet, but I’m sure once we’ve been in a few more times, we’ll know it for sure. That has a way of happening, we’ve discovered, living in the woods.

“Afternoon,” Hunter says.

“Find everything?” the lady asks.

“Always do,” I say. “Usually more than everything.”

“We’re good at that here,” the lady says. “Always something for somebody.”

“Kind of a magic shop,” Hunter says.

“Oh, ayuh, that we are.”

(I’ve noticed that it’s not just a Stephen King writing affectation; people really do say “ayuh” out here, I swear on a stack of Bibles.)

As she is ringing up our purchases, I glance at the side of the counter and see a small white display box, slid off to the side, nearly hidden behind a bowl of twenty-five cent dog biscuits. “Wow,” I say. “Seriously?” I reach around the bowl and pull out one of the items on display in the box: a small red package of candy cigarettes, with a picture of Popeye the Sailor Man emblazoned on it. “Popeye Tasty Candy Cigarettes,” I read off to Hunter.

“I didn’t think they made those anymore,” Hunter says. “Aren’t they illegal?”

“People think so, but they aren’t. You just can’t use the word cigarette on them anymore.” I tap the box. “Which this one does, so that’s weird. These things must be twenty years old if they’re a day.”

“Just unpacked them last week,” the lady says. “We get them every month, steady and regular.”

I put the box on the counter, and grab a second pack to add to it.

“You are actually buying candy cigarettes,” Hunter says.

“Oh, ayuh,” I say, because it’s hard not to say it now that I live in Maine. “I used to get these all the time when I was a kid.”

“You’re not smoking them in the house,” she says.

“I’ll be sure to only do it outside, so I don’t get powdered sugar on the furniture.” For the record, I don’t smoke, and my pack-a-week Popeyes habit when I was nine years old never led me to move on to any harder drugs (although I was known to have a bubble gum cigar now and again as a pre-teen).

“Two for a dollar,” the lady says, ringing them up.

“For that price, I should have bought the whole carton,” I say. I take my debit card out and put it in the reader.

“We’ve always got them,” the lady says. “Got more in back, don’t you worry.”

Like the old-school smoker I most definitely am not, I slip the packs into my shirt pocket. “I’ll be back for more. I’m going to have a powdered sugar monkey on my back now.”

“Don’t make me have to take you to rehab, monkey boy,” Hunter says.

“I won’t go, go, go,” I say, quoting Amy Winehouse.

“You folks are from away, aren’t you?” the lady says, handing me a receipt.

“Does it really show that much?” I ask.

“Oh, ayuh,” she says, nodding. “But you don’t look too harmful.”

“No,” Hunter says. “Not even a little.”

I tap the Popeyes in my pocket. “Not as long as I get my fix. I’m right as rain then.”

Hunter takes the butter and cream off the counter. “I’ll get him out of here now,” she says to the lady. “He’s going into one of his weird phases, and there’s nothing to do for it except lock him in the basement when we get home, and let him work it out.”

I take the plate of pizza slices. “Long as I have my smokes, babe.”

“See you next time,” the lady says, and she says it like she means it, and not like we’re summer people she’s glad to see go out the door. It gives me a little spot of the warm and fuzzies, thinking that even though we’re from away, we might be able to find a little bit of community here nonetheless.

First though, I’m going to open up a pack of candy cigs, and have myself a Popeye.

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