by Karen Topakian
Despite my parents’ very traditional separation of tasks, on Sunday mornings, my father would readily head off to go grocery shopping.
It was the 60’s, when RI blue laws didn’t allow major supermarkets to open on Sunday. But a small market in our neighborhood, Mal’s Market, somehow stayed open until noon.
Every Sunday my father would grab his coat from the hall closet and yell , “Alice? Where’s the list?”
My mother clad in her bathrobe and continually caught off guard, would quickly rise from the kitchen table, put down the Sunday paper, reach for a paper and pen to scratch out a list. She would have liked to check the refrigerator and the cupboards to see what she needed. Except she knew she didn’t have time. My father stood in the doorway; hat in hand, keys jangling, ready to go. All he needed was the list. And she knew the rules: keep it short. Three items max.
The ink barely dry on the list, he was out the door in a flash. If my sister or I could don our coats fast enough, we could join him. But he would never wait.
When my dad entered the market with the black and while linoleum tile floor, he offered a big hello to Sue, the owner’s daughter, working at the sole checkout stand. He walked briskly past the bins full of fresh produce – iceberg lettuce, hothouse tomatoes, cucumbers, onions. Past the low aisles stocked with canned soups, mostly Campbell’s, clear bags of white rice and small boxes of jell-o. Directly to the back of the store in front of the big gleaming glass case full of freshly butchered meat where George Tashjian, the owner’s son, and a hearty thick waisted fellow bellowed hello in Armenian, which my father answered in kind. Then he’d ask, “What’s Alice’s got on the list this week?”
My father rattled it off: pot roast, lamb chops and ground chuck. George carefully selected the cuts and wrapped them up in big sheets of white butcher paper. While my father waited for his order, he joked with the other men who appeared most Sunday mornings to hang around the meat counter too; sort of the husbands’ Sunday ritual.
After George handed my father the last package, he wiped his hands on his stained white apron and asked, “What about bacon? See how lean it is,” said George, holding up a slab. My father answered, “It’s not on the list.”
“Sausage?” asked George pulling up a necklace of fat links of pinkish red meat.
“It’s not on the list.”
George tried a third time. “Armen, you didn’t say chicken. What kind of Armenian household doesn’t buy chicken?” My father repeated his stock phrase.
George gave my father a look. A pleading look. My father smiled but didn’t budge. “Alice can make chicken and pilaf,” said George. My father resolute, laughed as he shook his head no.
“I’ll give you a good deal,” said George. Bingo
My father, not one to ever pass up a bargain, nodded yes.
“I’m going to have hell to pay when I go home,” said my father to the other men as George cut up the chicken into parts, wrapped it in butcher paper and handed it over the counter. Some nodded, some shrugged.
One responded, “My wife would kill me if I came home with something she didn’t want.”
On the drive home, my father muttered under his breath about my mother’s likely unhappiness.
When he arrived at the kitchen door, my mother was standing at the sink, washing the dishes. He handed her the bag and kept walking. To the bathroom in the back of the house.
My mother, always genuinely interested in the lives of others, started to ask about George and Sue but my father had quickly retreated out of earshot.
It only took a minute for my mother to discover why. “Where did this chicken come from? Chicken wasn’t on my list. Where’s your father?”
We pointed to the bathroom.
Carrying the wrapped chicken, she stalked him to the bathroom. “What is this?” she asked through the closed door. Holding it up and shaking it.
“Why did you buy this?” asked my mother. “I asked you for three things and you bought four. And one that I didn’t want.”
“George gave me a good price.”
My mother laughed then caught herself. She wasn’t surprised, she knew my father well.
“I didn’t put chicken on the list because I’m tired of eating it.”
She walked back to the kitchen muttering under her breath.
The next Sunday, at 10:30 again my father announced his readiness to go to Mal’s. But this time my mother was ready. She had retrieved a piece of shirt cardboard from my father’s stack of dress shirts, pulled out a marker and written a sign in big bold letters: “NO CHICKEN.”
She instructed my father to take this sign to Mal’s and show it to George.
My father, a man who loved joking around, gleefully snatched up the sign and her list as he sailed out the door.
In he walked to Mal’s, shot a hello to Sue, marched to the back of the store and waited his turn. When George asked, “What’s Alice got on the list this week?” My father proudly held up his “NO CHICKEN” sign.
“Hey, look he’s holding up a protest sign,” shouted one of the regulars.
“I caught hell last week, George,” said my father. “Alice isn’t kidding. No chicken.”
George doubled over laughing. The other men joined in. George put down his meat cleaver, came out from behind the counter, grabbed the sign and waved it around the store, telling the chicken story to anyone and everyone who would listen.
In moments, my father was a celebrity. “Did your wife really write this?” asked one customer. “What a good sense of humor,” said another.
When the laughter died down, George announced, “That’s it, Armen, I’m never selling you chicken again. Never.”
Everyone laughed — but George kept his promise.
A few weeks later my father arrived at Mal’s with chicken on the list. George stuck to his guns. My father begged him. “George, Alice really wants chicken this week.”
“No,” said George folding his arms across his beefy chest.
“I’m going to get in trouble, if I don’t show up with chicken,” said my father.
“I will only sell it to you under one condition,” said George. “Alice has to call me up and apologize.”
And Alice did just that. And my father and his protest sign became legendary.