One pound of butter. I stared at it while I felt the cold from the refrigerator case pour down over my shoes. One pound of real butter, not margarine. That was all I needed to make the Christmas cookies my grandma had given me the recipe for, the kind I used to snitch from the big glass jars at her house when I went to visit. I could still feel the hard, cold glass, smell the sweetness of sugar, lemon, and butter, the bright red and green candied fruits like jewels on top.
One pound of butter. So much more expensive than margarine. I sighed at my half-empty cart. I never spent more than we had. It was a pride I clung to, a game I played. There wasn’t quite room in the grocery budget for one pound of butter this week. Maybe next time. Christmas was still a few weeks away. I could buy the butter next week.
At the check stand, I gave a quick, apologetic smile to the person in line behind me as I handed the WIC vouchers to the cashier. The person behind me would have to wait a little longer than usual while the clerk scanned the vouchers for the milk, the cereal, the juice that otherwise would have been back there, un-bought, along with the butter. I gave a quick thought to my husband and baby daughter, it was nice that he had a light school schedule on Tuesdays so I could go do some shopping on my own while he watched our little girl. It would be so nice to give them both a taste of my childhood Christmas memories. I almost wanted to go back and get that pound of butter, forget the budget, it’s Christmas! But there was the clerk nearly done with the things on the conveyor, and this person behind me trying to be patient.
I’d get it next week.
On my way to the car, a scrawny man with wild gray hair straggling out from under a tattered baseball cap wheeled his rusty bike up right next to my cart. “Do you have any spare change?” he asked. “I’m trying to get a bus fare to Salem.”
I paused for a moment, then opened my purse. “I haven’t got much,” I said with a nervous smile. There were no bills in my wallet, just a few coins in the pouch. I gave them all to him.
“Hey, thanks,” he said, and rolled away.
Stunned, I rattled my shopping cart over the parking lot toward my battered blue car. I opened the back hatch with my key and loaded in the few bags of groceries that would feed us this week. Angry, why was I so angry and bitter that I’d given away the last of my change to some stranger who had just asked me for it? Here I had food, a home, a family, he might not have anything but that bike he was pushing.
I closed the hatch back and got in the driver’s seat, then collapsed against the steering wheel, sobbing. Shame, anger, frustration, all raining down in a torrent. And then peace, a sort of resigned peace came over me. I sat up and turned the key in the ignition. Time to go home.
The man with the bike was still standing there, watching me, puzzled, as if curious as to why I was crying.
I didn’t really understand it either. But I wondered if he would still have asked me for money if he’d known about the pound of butter, if he’d really, really known.