Volume 26, Number 4

My Peanut-Butter-Sandwich Life

Heather Villa

Pearl’s got five bucks in her wallet and nothing in her bank account. She doesn’t need a shopping cart, but Kate likes to push it around. Kate’s her daughter. Pearl dumps a scoop of dried black beans into a plastic bag. Kate reaches for a pen and twisty-tie, sticks out her six-year-old tongue and moves it all around as she writes 452.

There’s Nicky. Marches right past the bulk section, and Pearl’s glad. Pearl knew at ten years old what ruins a friendship. At first Nicky teased Pearl about a twisted tooth. And then she ridiculed her about everything, from hairy arms to pudgy toes.

Pearl leads Kate to the produce section and picks through heads of romaine and finds the heaviest one.

Kate wants strawberries. Pearl convinces her apples are equally delicious.

En route to the checkout counter, Pearl grabs corn tortillas. The mother and daughter end up in line behind Nicky and her congressman husband and Action 7 News.

Nicky’s husband faces the camera and says, “For an entire week my family and I will take on the Food Stamp Challenge.”

Nicky notices Pearl and waves. She adds, “We’ll show people how to make their dollars stretch and eat healthy.”

The camera guy zooms in. Powdered milk, hot dogs, white bread, bologna and other processed foods ride the conveyor belt. Nothing looks appetizing to Pearl.

“Is the lady a movie star?” Kate asks, climbing up and into the cart to get a better look.

“No,” Pearls says. “She’s part of a TV news story.”

Kate sits on the lettuce.

“People get to see her on TV?”


Pearl watches the congressman pay for the purchase with cash.

“We don’t own a television.”

“You got to see the whole show right before your very eyes.”

It’s Pearl’s turn to pay for lettuce, tortillas, beans and one apple.

Back home she puts away the groceries except for the beans. They’ll need to soak the rest of the day so Pearl can cook them for dinner.

Kate wants to go to the park. Pearl agrees but dreads that they’ll need to walk past Nicky’s house to get there. Pearl knows where Nicky lives because she’s disinfected her four toilets. Once the cleaning agency where Pearl works needed her to cover someone else’s assignment. She didn’t know she was cleaning Nicky’s house until she recognized the girl with a wisp of blond hair and braces in a framed photograph perched on the fireplace mantel.

Pearl imagines Nicky standing over the granite countertop making bologna sandwiches. Instead she watches a college-age-looking kid deliver pizza to Nicky’s house.

Kate and Pearl continue to the park and find their favorite willow tree. Kate dangles from the rope-like branches until her mom convinces her to eat. The two eat peanut-butter sandwiches and take bites from the same apple.

Pearl lies to Kate. “Did you know that a peanut-butter sandwich is my favorite thing to eat?”

“So that’s why we eat them every day,” Kate says. “I’m tired of peanut-butter sandwiches.”

Instead of going home, they walk to the public library, Pearl’s only Internet access and Kate’s book haven. Pearl does something she’s resisted for some time now. The online food-assistance application takes a few minutes to complete.

Eventually, something that resembles a credit card arrives in the mail.

Pearl and Kate ride the city bus to Safeway.

Pearl bypasses Nicky’s suggestions. Instead, mixed baby greens, free-range chicken, feta cheese, strawberries and even cookie dough ice-cream end up in the cart.

At least paying with a food card is somewhat discreet, not like when she was a kid and paper stamps were dispensed to the poor. She’s still embarrassed.

Pearl types her code into the keypad.

“You need to re-enter your food card pin number,” says the cashier who doesn’t look old enough to drive a car.

Pearl punches in another number, the wrong number. The cashier exhales, spreading around Dorito breath. The line is three carts deep.

Pearl closes her eyes. Got it. She types the correct code.

Then Pearl wonders: Should I bake the chicken, stir-fry it or just smother it in barbeque sauce?

But Kate has a better idea and says, “Let’s make chicken and dumplings.”

“Don’t forget there’s ice cream for dessert.”

“And strawberries.”

Pearl won’t need to worry about losing ten more pounds, and tonight she and Kate might eat better than Nicky.