The Boiler

Anna Laird Barto

THE WHOLE FOODS EFFECT

I went to the grand opening of Whole Foods with my friend Denise, and Shannon, of course–I can’t get away from the kid long enough to pee. By the time we got there it was after 11, but we were still one of the first 1,000 shoppers so we each got a balloon and a free reusable shopping bag. The bags were yellow, with big green asparagus tips, like alien penises. Now everyone at the food pantry has one, stuffed with canned peas and other processed crap.

Whole Foods took over the old Johnnie’s Foodmaster. It was trippy going back into the store where I’d shopped all my life and finding everything changed around. I almost walked in through the out-door. Luckily they were handing out maps. Only the fruits and veggies were in the same spot, but they looked way fresher–apples spilling out of crates, cucumbers stacked like Jenga blocks, broccoli in buckets of ice. Or maybe was it was the special energy-saving lightbulbs that gave everything a tasty glow.

The Toonies were out in force; women in Polar Fleece and tight leggings, squinting at nutrition labels; men in pea coats feeling up the apples. Toonies is what we call the newcomers who buy up the old row houses, like my grandparents’ triple decker, and turn them into luxury condos. But me and Denise weren’t the only Townies who turned up for the freebies. We saw lots of people from high school; Jesse Walford, voted most likely to succeed, ankle bracelet showing under his track pants; Angela O’Meara, hiding behind a fedora and dark sunglasses (she thinks she’s a movie star ever since she was an extra in The Town). We even ran into John O’Reilly, who worked with Gramps at the Navy Yard back in the day. Six months ago he was sitting on the benches outside Dunkin’ Donuts, shouting how he rather take two buses to Market Basket than set in foot in Whole Paycheck, but there he was, blocking the aisle with his handicap scooter.

“I just want regular lettuce!” he said, staring up at an avalanche of salad.


“Maybe the iceberg?” I said.


When we first found out Whole Foods was coming, everyone got up in arms. Rents would go up, they said. Like they haven’t enough already. Us Townies would be priced out town. The news called it the Whole Foods Effect. But Whole Foods sucked up real hard, the community by writing big checks to the Boys & Girls Clubs and Charlestown Against Drugs, and hiring people who’d worked at Johnnie’s. They didn’t hire Brian, though. He tried to tell me all the jobs went to the retards, the Somalis and the Spanish, making it my fault too since I’m half-Dominican on my dad’s side–not that I’ve seen the guy in ten years, and don’t speak Spanish nada. I said, “Maybe it’s not because you’re white, but because you’re an asshole,” and that was the first time he hit me since Shannon was born. Even his mom says I should get a restraining order, but I want Shannon to have her dad in her life.


When a guy walked up with a paper cone of dried-up leaves, for a second I thought he was trying to sell us weed.


“Would you ladies like to try some kale chips? We have Cilantro Lime, Tarragon Dijon, Bombay Ranch–” He was hot, with sandy hair and muscles showing through his “Got Kale?” T-shirt. I wished I’d had time to comb my hair before I left the house.


“I don’t know,” I said. “What do you think?”


“I like the cilantro lime myself; it has a tang to it.”


“I’ll try that then.”


I bit down as seductively as I could. Denise snickered.


“Mmm, not bad.” Seriously, it wasn’t. “Denise, you should try one!”


She wrinkled her nose. “No thank you. By the way, it looks like you have fish food on your shirt.”


I turned around to dust my shirt off. When I looked up I saw Dan Corey, one of Brian’s friends, standing a few feet away, over where the meat case with the 4-for-$25 specials used to be. He looked down and played with his wallet chain but I knew he saw me.


I only bought like five things, but it turned out to be way more than $40, which was all I had on my EBT card, so I had the smiley dreadlocks girl at the register take off the organic grapes and the whole wheat pancake mix. The Toonies in line behind me shifted back and forth and looked at their cell phones. I wanted to give them finger but I kept a grip. Instead I swung by the cafe on the way out, grabbed as many spoons, forks, and organic ketchup packets as I could and stuffed them in my purse, right in front of the security guard––big beefy black guy, not like those renta-cops Johnnie’s used to have. He didn’t seem to notice.


“That’s so ghetto,” Denise said.


“Shut up.”

The other night I went by the house on Russell again. It was almost dark. Figures moved behind the beige curtains that replaced the Nana’s Irish lace. Gramps was born in that house, in the third-floor bedroom with the fireplace and the slanting floorboards. His father bought it after he came from Ireland in eighteen-sixty-something to work in the Navy Yard.

When we were kids, my brother Colin and me were over there all the time, especially when Mom went off her meds and thought the Somali family next door was trying to poison us. Our favorite place was the roof. It was unfinished, no deck or railing, just tar paper hot enough to melt your jelly shoes in summer. We’d sit up there to smoke, tossing our butts into the Toonie’s patio next door, and look out over the treetops and chimneys of Bunker Hill to the skyscrapers in Boston. In bad weather, the skyline disappeared behind the clouds, and it felt like a freak disaster had wiped Boston off the map, and only Charlestown was still standing. After Brian and I got together, we’d sneak up there at night to have sex. He’d take me from behind and I’d come so hard I felt like I was out ahead of my body, floating over the roofs toward the city lights. Afterwards, our hands and knees were black with tar.


My grandparents held on as long as they could. That last winter they could only afford to heat the kitchen and parlor. They spent months hauled up behind plastic sheeting, watching CNN and the Weather Channel until they were as paranoid as Mom. With Colin at Concord State–dumbass won’t stop breaking into cars–there wasn’t anyone to shovel the walk. When they finally sold and moved to Senior Housing in Quincy, the Toonies on the block practically threw a party.


I’ve never seen the new owners, though I have a lamp they put out for recycling. (It’s Crate and Barrel; still works and everything.) They repainted the house this antiquey green color with white trim. There’s a wreath on the door made of gold petals the same shape as the mums in the window box. I’ll never admit it to Nana, but I think it looks nice. If I had money I would decorate like that, simple but elegant. They got rid of her Virgin Mary statue, but the hand-painted sign, “This is not the a dog toilet,” is still there, stuck in the grass between the sidewalk and street.


Before I left I checked the blue recycle bin, but there was nothing but newspapers and empty bottles of craft beer.


I’ve been going to Whole Foods more than I thought. Anything to get out of the apartment. I go crazy trapped in the house with Shannon all day. I want to finish my GED and go to school for Nursing Assistant or something, but I only have two classes left, not enough hours to get a daycare voucher, so I’m stuck until she’s old enough for HeadStart–13 months, three days…


I don’t buy much at Whole Foods because it’s mad expensive, but I like to sit in the cafe. It’s clean, bright, and the walls are painted peaceful nature colors. On every table there is a clay pot with a real orchid–way nicer than anywhere Brian took me when we were dating.


One day I’m sitting in the cafe when this Toonie lady stops and says hi. She’s pushing a boy about Shannon’s age in one of those all-terrain strollers, in case your kid needs to climb Mt. Washington or something. Turns out she thinks she recognizes me from her yoga class. I guess I haven’t let myself go as much as Brian says.


She bends over and makes googly eyes at Shannon. She’s wearing black leggings and a puffy North Face vest. Up close I can see she’s way older than me, at least thirty.


“What a pretty girl!” she says.


Shannon ignores her. She’s busy playing with my phone.


“Thanks. I registered her with this agency downtown. They loved her photos. They’re always looking for boys. I can give you the number.” Her kid looks cute enough. Hard to tell through the graham-cracker facial.


“That’s okay,” she said.


“Really, it’s no problem. It’s right here in my phone. Shannon give mommy her phone back–”


“No, really. I don’t want Owen in a competitive environment.”


“The kids don’t even know what’s going on. They just like the attention.”


“I know, but I think I’d rather wait until they’re old enough to make up their own minds.”


I feel the heat rising to my face. “Shannon loves posing. It’s not like I’m forcing her or anything.”


“Of course not, I didn’t mean it like that…” She backs toward the door. “But thanks anyway. It was really nice meeting you.” She never stops smiling, but I don’t like the way she’s looking at Shannon, the same way the social worker does, like she feels sorry for her. Bitch. If there’s anyone we should be feeling sorry for, it’s Owen. She probably won’t even let him play Little League because he might strike out and hurt his feelings.


I look at Shannon bent over my phone, wisps of red blond falling in her face, forehead scrunched with concentration. She’s so smart. She’s not even two and she already knows how to click on the games she likes. If I can only manage not to fuck her up.


Whole Foods has this 5-point rating system for meat. They won’t sell you a chicken unless that it was raised outside a cage, with lots fresh air and space to run around, not worrying about stepping on needles or dog shit. The higher the rating, the more expensive the chicken. To score a 5, the chicken has to grow up in an “enriched environment,” whatever that means for a chicken–maybe they play Mozart for them? I would give anything for Shannon to have as good a childhood as those goddamn chickens. I wonder how Owen would rate?


Sitting here, at the shiny clean table with an orchid, it’s easy to pretend we’re anywhere but Charlestown. We could be in Back Bay, or Lexington or fucking Europe, but I look out the window and there’s the parking lot, the Ninety-Nine Restaurant, and the Bunker Hill Monument sticking up (like a dildo, Denise says, for when you “don’t need no minute-man”). I’ve lived here my entire life and I’ve never even been to the top.


I turn back from the window just in time to see Shannon lean forward in her highchair, reaching for the orchid. Just before her fingers close around the pink petal, she looks over her shoulder to see if I’m watching.


“Bad girl!” I smack her hand. The broken flower falls to the table. Shannon screams. Heads pop up from iPads all over the cafe.


“That’s it, we’re going home.” I strap her back into the stroller and get the hell out before someone calls DCF on me. On my way out I grab a fistful of plastic spoons. Every time I go to Whole Foods I take something: salt, pepper, organic ketchup packets, brown paper napkins. Once I took a whole squeeze bottle of agave nectar, but the spoons are my favorite. It’s not like they’re better than the ones at Dunkin’ or Papa Gino’s. Or maybe they are. Maybe they’re made out of recycled prescription bottles. Maybe if you planted them in the garden, they’d grow.


The other night Brian comes over without calling first and sees the Whole Foods bags on the counter. He says he don’t pay child support so I can buy fucking arugula. I tell him I’m saving money in the long run by not blowing up into a heifer and getting diabetes like his mom. His face turns bright red with purple veins running through it, like one of those heirloom tomatoes.


He starts opening the cabinets and pulling things off the shelves. “What are you doing?” I duck as a package of whole-grain pancake mix hits the linoleum. I’m thinking he’s got money or drugs hid up there, but then he yanks out the drawers one by one. I’m scared he’s going for a knife–he did that once before Shannon was born–but all he finds is plastic spoons in individual wrappers.


“What the fuck?” He rips the drawer from the cabinet and plastic spoons go flying everywhere. “What are you doing with all these goddamn spoons?”


“I’m saving them.” I drop to my knees, start picking them up, and making a pile.


“For what?”


“I haven’t decided yet.” There’s this lady on Pinterest who makes really cute lampshades out of them, but I don’t know if I could ever be that creative.


Brian watches me crawling around the kitchen on all fours. He shakes his head.


“You’re bat-shit, woman, just like your mom.”


I feel like I’ve been punched in the stomach. I haven’t seen Mom since the last time they let her out of the hospital. A friend of Colin’s said he saw her sleeping outside the Malden train station.


I stand up so fast I feel dizzy. “Take it back.”


He doesn’t say anything. The hole in my chest fills with rage. I pound my fists against his ribs, but he grabs me by the shoulders and slams me against the refrigerator so hard I see stars. As I lie gasping for breath, I look up at the cracked ceiling tiles, the spoons stuck to the blades of the fan. I think of the ladies at Whole Foods, try to imagine their pea-coated husbands slapping them around their Crate and Barrel kitchens.


The commotion wakes Shannon, who bawls her head off.


“Jesus Christ, Brian! Do you know how many times I had to read The Hungry Fucking Caterpillar before she fell asleep?”


“Why don’t you just get your new boyfriend to come sing her a lullaby?”


“What new boyfriend? The Comcast guy? The Kale guy? The old guy
who smiled at me that one time on the 93 bus?”


He stands over me and I can smell his dirty socks. “Fat slut! For all I know, Shannon’s not even mine.” I stare straight up at him. His eyes are hazel like Shannon’s, only lighter. When I met him in eighth grade, his eyes were what I noticed. At first glance they’re brown, but the longer you look at them, the more they seem green. They’re greener than ever now, the color deepening where his pupils would be, except they’ve shrunk to the size of pins, floating expressionless across the iris.


“Who was it?” He presses his toe to my throat.


“What do you want me to say? You know she’s yours.”


He steps down. I gulp for air.


“Who?”


I don’t answer. What’s the point? He won’t believe me anyway.


He steps down harder. I gag. I claw at his foot. The pressure increases. It hurts so bad I gasp the name of every man I can think of–my high school English teacher, Tom Brady, Barack Obama–just to make it stop.


I must have blacked out because next thing I know I’m standing on the roof at Russell St. It’s still and bright. Snow sticks to the roofs and tree limbs. The sky is blue and I can see the skyscrapers ice clear across the river. It would be so easy to just step off the edge onto the cushion of air. I hear a child crying, and at first it’s just another sound, like the traffic whooshing on 93, but it gets louder, filling my head and pressing me down on the linoleum. I open my eyes and I’m alone in my kitchen, surrounded by plastic spoons in individual wrappers.

The restraining order says Brian can’t come within 500 feet of me and the apartment, but I still can’t relax. It’s just a piece of paper. What good is that if he decides to come back and make sure no one else will ever have me? The only way I can get any sleep is if I take Shannon into my room and shove the bureau against the door.

To distract myself, I finally started doing something with the spoons. I’m making chrysanthemum wreaths, like the one on the door at Russell Street. What you do is cut a piece of cardboard in the shape of a wreath, snap the handles off the spoons and glue them, face up, in rows, starting from the outside and working your way in. It’s easy, but it takes a lots of concentration to line them up just right so they overlap like flower petals. It keeps me from thinking too much; about Brian and what he might do to me; Shannon growing up without a dad; Nana getting older; Mom’s bipolar and if it’s hereditary. To keep Shannon from messing with my wreathes, I spread out some cardboard, give her her own spoons and a pot of glue. She likes to spread the glue around and watch it drip off the spoon and puddle on the cardboard.


The last step is to take the wreath outside and spray paint it. I’ve made a pink one for Nana, a silver one for Denise, and an orange, green, and white one for Colin, though I don’t know if they’ll let him have it in prison. Now other people are asking me to make wreathes for them, like Nana’s friends in Senior Housing. Denise says I should sell them on the Internet. Maybe when Shannon goes to school–eleven months, fifteen days…


It takes over a hundred spoons just to make a one little wreath. Every time I go to Whole Foods I stock up. Luckily, it’s only 425 feet from my front door (I Google-mapped it on my phone). They got these new dispensers. You press a lever and a spoon pops out the bottom, like those old-fashioned cigarette machines you see in dive bars. Probably, the dispensers didn’t arrive in time for when the store opened, but I like to think it’s because of me, that I was costing them thousands of dollars in plastic. But the dispenser don’t stop me from stealing; I just use my stealth. I sidle up, open my diaper bag, and pump the lever fast as I can. The security guard stands with his arms crossed, staring at me. I just smile and keep pumping.

__________________________________

Anna Laird Barto holds an MFA from Emerson College. Her work has appeared in Terrain.org: A Journal of the Built and Natural Environments, Newfound Journal, and is upcoming in EDGE.