By Julie Jones
Before the pandemic at Ali’s local grocery store, the cashiers used to always ask if she’d found everything she needed. She always had, but today she didn’t, and they’d stopped asking months ago. Today she’d had to track down a manager, distinguishable by their insignia: orange vest with name patch and a face mask printed with the words “Ask Me Anything.” Ali did.
Maria replied through her mask. “We’re fresh out of sorry.”
She did not, Ali noticed, say she was sorry.
“Well, screw you, too.” She spun her shopping cart away. Her pantry shelf of patience, never well-stocked in the best of times, was empty. Anger, on the other hand, was always available, always shiny, always crisp. Sweet or tart, red or green, she had her choice of Self-Righteous Beauties, Vengeful Pinks, Justified Jewels, Commiserate Crunchies, and Green Jealousies. But she didn’t know what she was going to do without any sorry. She’d been planning on apologizing to Fred for her affair with his sister, but now?
“They’re out of sorry,” Ali yelled to the nearby shoppers who pushed their carts among all the cold perishables in the dairy section. Milk. Orange juice. Eggs. Sorry sauce. Sorry grew deep in the earth along the walls of coal mine shafts; a dark lichen, easily bruised, with a short shelf life even when liquified and bottled as condiment. Sorry went well with just about everything. “They don’t have any goddamned sorry sauce!”
Restraint, it would seem, was out of stock as well for Ali. At home, they’d lived with Fred’s sister for over nine months, and all that togetherness had both expanded and exhausted Ali’s capacity for intimacy. Tabatha had been in town to celebrate Fred’s fiftieth birthday in March when the pandemic sunk into people’s consciousness. Since she had no family or pets of her own at home, Fred and Ali offered that she shelter in place with them.
Any formality that attends the hosting of a family guest quickly vanished along with the wearing of bras for the women and the plucking of nose hair for Fred, but he’d previously been a private plucker and sprung that little secret upon her in the midst of a pandemic. Was that the basis for a strong marriage? Yes, Ali had vowed to love him through sickness and health, but she’d sworn nothing vis-à-vis nose hair.
He claimed no one could see his nose hair on video calls, but had he not noticed that everyone’s laptop cameras were aimed straight up a person’s nostrils? Nor had she known the lengths to which nose hair could grow. According to the CDC’s “Facial Hairstyles and Filtering Facepiece Respirators” infographic, his nose hair qualified as a toothbrush moustache. How was she supposed to feel sexy with him looking like that?
But an apology must be made. She wheeled her cart back to Maria and complained. “I’ve been to every store and every website and everyone is out of sorry.”
Some of the nearby shoppers angled their carts sharply away from Ali, obviously attempting to avoid any ejaculated droplets that might escape her face mask. Others scowled above their face masks as if judging her for not appreciating that Maria was an essential hero, putting her life on the line just so people like Ali could have sorry sauce. Others rushed to the checkout lines, perhaps paranoid she might pilfer their carts. Did they have the last of sorry? Or were they hiding, snatched up from behind the wall of canned garbanzo beans, a single grain of that most rare commodity, joy?
“But,” said Ali, momentarily regaining a modicum of composure, “might you have any contrition? Any regret? Any remorse?”
“We’ve got a bit of freeze-dried compunction over in aisle four,” said Maria. “Not much left of that either, though, I’m afraid.”
Maria would be afraid. Fear was always in excess. They stocked it under many names—fright, dread, panic, cowardice, paranoia, terror, timidity—but it was always the same product, always half-priced.
Ali had become afraid that Fred might leave her. After the pandemic stretched on longer than any of them had anticipated, after Fred walked in on one of her and Tabby’s “yoga” sessions, after he discovered they’d been practicing less Vinyasa and more Kama Sutra, Tabby decided to return home. Fred resumed his nose plucking. Ali strapped on a bra. She’d even bought him an electric nose hair clipper, having read online that plucking was bad for a person’s nasal health, but they still hadn’t touched one another, and intimacy couldn’t be bought in any store for any price.
“There’s also some self-loathing in the meat section,” Maria continued. “Not quite the same thing, but it’ll do in a pinch—a bit chewy with gristle, an undertone of shame, and a bitter finish—but proper seasoning takes the edge off. A nice spicy rub should do the trick.”
But Ali had used up the very last of her composure. All she had left was desperation, despair, and disbelief. “I don’t want any tricks! I don’t want any rub! I want sorry sauce! My marriage is going to hell all because you can’t stock the sorry sauce?!”
“Ma’am, please calm down.” Above Maria’s face mask, her eyes were unspeakably tired. “It’s a pandemic. Everything’s out of stock sometimes. But if you leave your number, we’ll text you as soon as it’s back.”
“How long will that be?”
“If you believe Don Quixote, soon. ‘Because neither good nor evil can last an eternity; and so it follows that since evil has lasted a long time, good must be near at hand.’ Or something to that effect.”
Ali didn’t believe her, but wondered if the line would work on Fred. It wouldn’t feed his heart, but maybe it would occupy his mind until sorry sauce was back in stock.
“Are words of wisdom for sale?” she asked.
“Every-occasion quotes can be found beside the toilet paper,” said Maria, pointing to the paper product aisle before returning to more essential work.