February 2009

Gilbert Allen


Gilbert Allen, a frequent contributor to The Cortland Review, lives in Travelers Rest, South Carolina. Some of his newest work has appeared in Appalachian Journal, Kakalak, Measure, Shenandoah, The Southern Review, Tartts Three, and Living Blue in the Red States.

Halfway There to a Sweet Ride

I'm in the back seat of Clifford Jackson's Ford Expedition. Ruthella Anderson's riding up front, even though she's half a foot shorter than I am, and nearly two feet shorter than Clifford, who's driving. Ruthella's arthritis makes it hard for her to get into things, and even harder to get herself out. A fifteen-minute ride to the Econoclast makes her joints stiffen up like door hinges you'd squirted with Superglue instead of 3-In-1 Oil.

But Ruthella's not complaining. Not today. She stayed up all night watching the Star Wars marathon on cable TV, so, for once, she hasn't done her homework. She's riffling through the box of coupons on her lap, figuring out her purchasing strategy on the fly. Since she always shops at the Econoclast, she tries to file everything in sequence, from the front door to the checkout register. It saves her knees from having to backtrack. She nearly went into cardiac arrest last month, when they moved the spaghetti sauce from Pasta to Canned Vegetables, three aisles over.

Clifford's a file boxer, too. But he's got his coupons arranged alphabetically, by brand name, with a backup directory on his PDA. He used to be the computer systems manager for the local school district, before he took the early retirement package. His brain must be wired differently from mine—I could never keep things straight like that. I've been a ring-binder for ten years, ever since I started couponing seriously.

"People don't understand," Clifford says. "I could keep working, but everything on top of my pension gets taxed. Twenty-eight percent federal, seven percent state, and seven-point-six-five for Social Security. Do the math. Every dollar I save is like making almost a dollar and a half."

"It's not a difficult concept," Ruthella agrees. "I probably could have gotten it across to some of my brighter students." Ruthella used to teach first grade. "Class?"

"The lowest price," we all say together. "On everything."


Once we're inside the Econoclast, we get our wire wagons, and we go our separate ways. The first thing I do is unfold the baby seat and spread out my ring binder on top of it. I've already matched up the SmartSaver coupons from Sunday's newspaper with the specials from the Econoclast flyer—and with the coupons from every other grocery store in town. In addition to doubling manufacturers' coupons, Econoclast will honor anything from other supermarkets, at face value—which is why we usually end up shopping here.

We've turned it into a game. And Econoclast always loses. We allot ourselves $25 each, to buy groceries for the whole week—$50 for me, since I'm shopping for my husband, too. Clifford and Ruthella live alone. Ruthella never got married, and Clifford's wife had a heart attack five years ago.

My own heart does a little two-step under my ribs when I enter the dairy section. There's a Surprize Special on lowfat milk—two for one—and I've also got a Bi-Lo register coupon for a Free Milk On Next Visit. I only shop at Bi-Lo for paper products, so I go there about every three months. By then, the coupon will have expired, so I'll use it here. And get two milks for free.

I walk ten more feet, and I see some barely outdated LaCrème Strawberry Mousse, marked way down—plus, I've got a $1.00 Off insert from my last four-pack.

I'm on a roll, I'm thinking, as I'm pushing my cart down the next aisle. Evidently the Aunt Jemima Regulars haven't been moving—the usual price-per-ounce is outrageous, compared to the larger sizes—so they're on special, to reduce inventory. Conventional Wisdom means buying the largest size of anything, as long as you can use it before it goes bad. Bigger is almost always cheaper, on a price-per-ounce basis. But if you have coupons valid for any size package, and if the store's doubling, then you can do better buying four Regulars instead of one Jumbo. The Jumbo Dumbo, we call it.

For once, HoneyBaked Hams are in stock, so I can use the heaviest artillery in my ring binder—$5.00 off. Turning the corner, I cruise through canned fruits and vegetables, getting what I need, buying the store brand when the coupon for Del Monte or Green Giant isn't enough to make up the difference. Then I take a quick run down the snack food section, where I find another Surprize Special—on Original Craisins. The new chocolate and orange flavors must be eating into their sales. And I've got some SmartSaver coupons, too.

Ruthella's rolled up behind me, with her raspy whisper. "Where did you get those?"

I've tried to tell her to subscribe to the Sunday paper—it's a good investment, even if you throw all the news away—but Ruthella always proclaims that the only thing she reads is the TV Guide. "Do you like Craisins? I've got an extra coupon that expires next week."

Ruthella smiles and extends her gnarled hand. "I would appreciate that."

I always go to The Bargain Bin to finish up. Right before the Ten Items Or Less Register, Econoclast puts all of its damaged non-perishable items into a single grocery cart. They practically give them away. Most everything is useless—except if you coupon. I dive in with both hands. The first thing I hit is a water-stained, half-empty cardboard box of Nexcare bandages. 49¢. I'd never let them near an open wound, but I've got a 55¢ coupon that'll be doubled, so I'll make 61¢ before I throw them out. I keep swimming around. Sorrento Mozzarella, 16 oz. (torn open, Scotch taped, 29¢, 50¢ manufacturer's coupon). Scrubbing Bubbles Aerosol (half-discharged, 79¢—with $1.00 Off, courtesy of Winn Dixie). Crest Pro-Health Dental Rinse (broken safety seal, $1.29, 75¢ SmartSaver coupon—one that I almost didn't bother to cut out on Sunday, tucked into the back page my binder). Two boxcutter-slashed bags of Comet Long Grain Rice. A cracked, sticky bottle of Gerber's Grins & Giggles Baby Wash. A giant jar of Hellmann's Canola Mayonnaise, with most of the label ripped off, so I have to ID it by the metal cap.

I've got coupons for everything. Today, Econoclast is the leaky rowboat, and I am The Perfect Storm. I can't keep the grin from curling up the corners of my mouth.

Clifford and Ruthella have already gone through checkout, so they're sitting on a wooden bench, just beyond the open register. I haven't seen this cashier for a good five years, when she was visibly pregnant. Carla's in her thirties—I'm guessing she's just come back to work, now that her kid's in school. Unlike the teenage part-timers, she never gets impatient with couponers. She probably has her eye on an Assistant Manager position, and she doesn't want any complaints about her to go up the Econoclast food chain. She bleeps through eleven bags of groceries, then picks up my sheaf of coupons from the black conveyer belt. She's efficient, but meticulous. It takes her longer to circle the expiration dates, verify the items, and punch in the negative numbers than it took her to scan and bag my whole cart. She smiles brightly and says, "Ma'am, I think you've set yourself some kind of record. We owe you $15.61."

Even I'm surprised. I didn't cherry-pick. I bought everything Bernard and I will need for the week.

"Oh my God," Ruthella croaks. "I never thought I'd live to see it."

"The hyper-shop," Clifford says. He mumbles something that sounds like it's in Latin, and then he crosses himself, like the good Episcopalian that he is.


We're back in the Ford Expedition, headed for Ruthella's. If I hear any more congratulations, I'll go deaf. At the first stoplight, I say, "I just got lucky."

Clifford's scalp grazes the headliner as he looks back over his shoulder. "Luck has nothing to do with it, Marjorie. It's the Force." Clifford is a Star Wars fan, too. He met Ruthella at a Sci-Fi library discussion group. "Let's face it. You're the Yoda here."

"The Jedi salute you," Ruthella says.

Clifford takes out a small chrome flashlight from the center console, and he passes it back to me. "Your saber, Yoda."

"Master Yoda," Ruthella says. "My words just mark you must. Levitating in front of the yeast rolls you will be."

Ruthella might be eighty-one years old, but she's still sharp as her hatpin. "Cut it out," I say. I can feel myself blushing.

"Next week, Marjorie just might finish before she arrives," Clifford says. "In hyper-shop, the laws of cause and effect no longer apply."

Now we're in Ruthella's driveway. While Clifford waits in the car, I take her groceries inside, and I put them down on her kitchen counter.

Ruthella grabs my wrist. Her fingers feel like a rusty pair of pliers. "This will bring you up to $16.61."

She hands me a dollar bill—she's already given one to Clifford, for gas. Ruthella has never taken no for an answer in her entire life, so I don't even try. "Thank you," I say, and I start to help her unpack.

She clucks her tongue. "A woman like you should've had children."

I'm fifty-nine years old, and I haven't thought about that for years. "I could say the same thing about you."

"I don't have a husband." Ruthella frowns. "But that doesn't seem to stop people nowadays. They might as well be rabbits. Any animal can reproduce, you know. Otherwise, how could they be here?"

I do my best to smile in her direction.

"Don't dawdle. Clifford has to get to Paunches Pilates at St. James by three o'clock. Ever since Donna died, he's become an exercise nut." She snickers through her wrinkles. "Just think of it. A seven-foot Episcopalian, balancing on a giant beach ball." She snickers again. "When God wants me, He can have me."

Before Clifford dropped me off, he told me he still prays for Donna. Every day. Matins and vespers. His wife never went to church, so he figures he needs to stay alive for a while, to put in a good word for her. "Spiritual couponing," he said, waving his huge hand above the steering wheel. He seemed to be absolutely serious. "Maybe God doubles them."

I'm still thinking about what he said, and I'm praying for my own mother, God rest her soul, while I'm putting the groceries away. When I'm nearly finished, Bernard comes home from work. After he pecks my cheek, he points to the kitchen table—which is mainly filled with what I'm going to throw out. "Do we really need all this?"

He doesn't know that I coupon. I've just been taking $150 out of the ATM, every week, for the past ten years. "As much as we needed those storm windows you bought."

"That was twenty years ago," he laughs.

"Eighteen," I say.

"Okay, eighteen. Aren't you ever going to let me forget it?"

Bernard ruined the flowers around the foundation while he was putting those windows up. I was so furious, I didn't speak to him for days. I spent a whole morning hiding from him in the closet. "No." Now I start laughing, too.

But Bernard's face freezes. He's seen the Gerber's Grins & Giggles Baby Wash, and he picks it up. "Honey, what's going on here?"

"Fifteen dollars and sixty-one cents," I say.

Bernard stares at me.

"That's how much it cost. The store." I take the register receipt out of my purse. "Here. Do the math, if you don't believe me."

He checks the receipt, because he doesn't know what else to do. Then I tell him I've been couponing for ten years, and during that whole time I've never spent more than fifty dollars a week for our food.

"Why, Marjorie? I have a decent job. We're not paupers, for God's sake."

"You sell insurance. Your job is to make money," I explain. "My job is to save money. And I'm damn good at it."

Now I can tell he's trying to wrap his head around some bigger numbers. But before he can open his mouth, I let him know a hundred dollars a week went for my mother. "For the nursing home."

"I thought the church paid for that."

"Not all of it."

Bernard puts the Grins & Giggles back on the kitchen table. "Why didn't you tell me?"

"Tell you? Tell you what? You didn't even go visit her."

Bernard lowers his face, then covers it with both hands. "She didn't recognize me. What was the point?"

"I would have recognized you." Each word comes out like a rock, even harder than I feel.

"My God, Marjorie. I thought you wanted to be alone with her. I was respecting your privacy. Why didn't you just ask?"

"Just ask," I say. "You make it sound so easy."

"Three years," Bernard says. My mother died three years ago last March. So my husband puts his arm on my shoulder, kisses the top of my head, and asks me what I've been doing with my money lately.

"It's our money," I say.

"How much?"

"Fourteen thousand, eight hundred and forty-seven dollars. That's before this afternoon. I figure we'll need it when you retire."

"I've been maxing out my SRA," Bernard says. "In six years, we'll have more from Social Security and the annuity than from my salary." He rubs his chin, and I can hear his fingers scratching thoughtfully against the stubble. "I'm guessing we're halfway there," he grins. "To a sweet ride."

I know exactly what he means. His Grand Prix and my Civic have started to spend as much time in the shop as on the road. We deserve a new car. But we've been married for thirty years, with nothing but miscarriages between us, and both of us could make ninety. So I can barely keep myself from asking where in the world we're planning to go.



Gilbert Allen: Poetry
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