I’d avoided going to the grocery store during the first few days of the pandemic by relying on brands of microwave dinners and bags of junk food and beer that I’d lived on every day over the past few years.
But my supplies were running low, and home delivery was too expensive even before things went to hell. I considered getting takeout for ten people and then living off it for a week, but spending any serious money seemed like an even worse idea now.
I resolved to make my way to the market after work.
Work was weird, or maybe it was weird because it wasn’t so weird considering what was about to come. We had meetings and talked about plans for the next few weeks as if all those crazy people fighting over toilet paper on TV were just another bad reality show. It was nice outside when I left the office, one of those early spring evenings that couldn’t decide if it was cold with a hint of warmth, or warm tinged with a chill. I decided to walk instead of taking the bus.
When I arrived, the parking lot and sidewalk were packed. The automatic doors never seemed to get the chance to close, spasming every time as if they were trying to chew the shoppers. Everyone had toilet paper in their carts. I imagined a TV reporter explaining how wiping butts was going to help stave off the apocalypse until someone sent an empty cart rolling past me. I grabbed it and turned around to hit the first aisle.
Normally, my infrequent trips to the store were less visits than robberies; I’d race up and down two or three aisles grabbing my favorites, and I was usually out before anybody really knew I’d been in, confident that I could rely on the occasional restaurant dinner or liquid meal to complete my diet.
This time shoppers rolled past and ahead of me as if they were the thieves, only slowing down to swipe products off shelves instead of stopping. There wasn’t much left to choose from; the spaces seemed abandoned instead of just empty. A bin with a few green leaves was all that was left of what I assumed had been lettuce. Next to it was one limp, deformed carrot. Across from the produce were shelves that I think were once stacked with crackers, only all that was left was a brand I’d never heard of made out of sweet potatoes and no salt, which was probably why they were still there and would remain so even after the apocalypse.
When I turned the corner to collect my go-to brands for pre-made dinners, they were gone, as were any other options. My first, second, and third choices for junk food were also gone. So was my favorite beer.
The apocalypse wasn’t approaching, it had already arrived, and I was in it. I mean, I got it, things change, but this was ridiculous. I had no idea what to look for.
I turned a corner to an aisle above which a sign read: Kitchen Essentials, which I don’t think I’d ever seen before. Ahead of me were a handful of shoppers huddled around a store clerk who was handing out packages pulled from an opened box. People were reaching and yelling as the guy calmly handed or threw them. As I rolled closer, more shoppers sped past me while others whipped around the other end of the aisle. The guy started throwing packages over people’s heads to reach them.
I got about as close as I could and raised my hand. I don’t know why. I just stood there like a guy in class who possibly didn’t know the answer to a question the teacher had asked. The store clerk saw me and threw a package directly at my head. I barely caught it with my hand instead of my nose and looked at the label.
The letters were printed in large black letters on a pale pink plastic background about the size of a small brick, followed by the words “For Dinner.” Some smaller print lined the bottom, but it looked like it had been smudged so I couldn’t read it. Next to the brand name was one of those cheesy commercial headshots of a smiling consumer having an orgasm over what they were about to eat. It felt light and somewhat squishy.
The people in front of me continued to push and shove each other. I rolled closer and caught the eye of a woman who had yet to start reaching.
“What’s Farknorb?” I asked.
“It’s for dinner, silly,” she answered.
“No, I meant, what is it?” I added.
She smiled and shook her head, then moved her cart closer to the mob and started jumping up and down to get the clerk’s attention.
I turned around, barely missing another shopper rushing past me, and made my way to the shortest checkout line, which was two people deep. It moved fast since nobody had much in their carts and I think the cashiers and shoppers were anxious to get the whole thing over with as quickly as possible. When it came to my turn, I picked up my package of Farknorb and held it up to the cashier.
“What is this?” I asked.
“Farknorb,” he replied, gently taking it from my hand and scanning it. I looked at the register’s screen. It was a bit less than my favorite brand of dinner food product.
I tapped my phone and grabbed the Farknorb and was about to ask the cashier again about it when the shopper behind me pretty much pushed me forward and started unloading her mountain of toilet paper onto the counter.
New shoppers buzzed in front of me and one took my cart and sped into the store. I saw the line of people waiting outside the store’s big picture windows and felt an intense need to get out of there, so I held my Farknorb close to my body and dashed through the chomping doors. My apartment was only a few blocks away.
It was quiet again on the street once I got a few steps away. There weren’t many people out even though it was still sort of rush hour. It felt colder, or less warm, if that makes any sense, like the weather was having trouble making up its mind. It felt different and weird. So did the Farknorb, which occasionally seemed to wiggle or push against my hand, so I’d switch it to the other one until it happened again.
I got to my building and reached an elevator just after someone else walked in. We both turned and then leaned back into opposing corners before looking at one another. She seemed my age and had a shopping bag in one hand. I watched her eyes go to the package as I held it against my hip. She smiled.
“I see you got your hands on some Farknorb,” she said. The elevator dinged just as I opened my mouth to respond and she left in a hurry.
Once in my apartment, I threw the Farknorb on the counter and pulled out my phone. A quick search told me that Farknorb was a brand of processed wildeplant, which is a spicy tuber found mainly in the American Southwest. The company that made it was called Zingbalt and it was headquartered in Klunktiff, Arkansas. I went to the website and saw the same image of the orgasming consumer that was on the package. Farknorb was the only product Zingbalt made. I looked up Klunktiff; yup, there it was, right next to a larger city called Abcoldish.
I swear the Farknorb moved.
I put my phone down and almost rubbed my eyes but caught myself, and instead washed my hands. I’d never heard any of the names I’d just found on the Internet. Granted, I flunked out of Cub Scouts because I couldn’t memorize street names more than two blocks away from our house, so maybe I’d forgotten them? I sat on a stool and waited for the Farknorb to move or wiggle again.
Instead, I realized for the first time that I was scared.
Nothing seemed familiar anymore. It was easy to mock stupid shoppers grabbing toilet paper but there were news reports of dead bodies piling up in China and entire cities being locked down and people stopped at the borders by police. I started replaying the images in my mind. Then I couldn’t stop. What were we supposed to do? Nobody was telling us what was happening to food supply chains and meds and work and the entire economy. Things weren’t normal anymore, whatever that once meant. Maybe stocking up on toilet paper made sense.
I went to my fridge and found my last beer, cracked it open, sat back at the counter and picked up the Farknorb. It was squishy w and it seemed to resist when I squeezed it. I flipped the package over and there was no list of ingredients, no cooking instructions. I put it down and looked it up on my phone again. Nope, no instructions there, either.
I got up and pulled out a plate, then ripped open the Farknorb and poured out a white, shiny, gelatinous brick that landed with a thud. It looked about as appetizing as a sneeze. I opened the microwave, put it inside and gave the timer a few minutes, which would be enough time for me to finish my beer if nothing else.
After doing so, the microwave beeped, and I pulled out the Farknorb. It looked identical to the way it had looked when I put it in. I poked a finger about a half-inch into it. It was cold.
I tried again, only cooking it for 10 minutes and without a beer to drink. Same result.
Could there be something different about using an oven instead? Having never turned mine on, I had no basis for comparison. I studied the knobs for a bit and figured out how to start it, setting the temperature at 200 or so, which seemed pretty hot. When I picked up the wiggly Farknorb it just looked so plain, so I put it down and rummaged on my shelf for some way to dress it up. All I could find was my saltshaker and a container of red chili peppers. I applied both liberally, so now the Farknorb looked like it had the chicken pox.
I put it in the oven and waited, checking periodically through the cloudy window in the door to see if anything changed. It didn’t.
After I don’t know how long, I used an oven mitt from I don’t know where to pull out the plate and put it on the countertop. I found a fork in the sink and sat down. The Farknorb gave off no steam or odor, and it cut as easily as a cake. I put it up to my mouth, thought twice about it, and then took a bite. That first chew was really, really slow.
It was the best fucking thing I’d ever tasted.
I took another bite and had the same reaction. It wasn’t too spicy or bland, thick or runny, not too hot or cold. A lot of flavors seemed to mix together so I couldn’t really identify any one of them. Tomatoes for sure, I think, only tinged with an earthy fruity thing that hinted at citrus. The texture was somewhere between pasta and a steak, and it seemed to melt in my mouth as I chewed. I tasted coffee, chocolate, and tart salad dressing.
I’d never imagined such weird combinations, but they worked for me. More bites revealed more nuanced flavors, like I was eating something different every time. I had to stop myself after inhaling almost half the Farknorb. I’d cooked my first meal and it was wonderful, and I didn’t feel full as much as I felt satisfied, like I knew what I was going. It made sense.
Then I watched some video of an old football game on my computer (I didn’t remember a team called the Frillspents ever playing for Buffalo, but it was old), went to bed, and slept like I’d been anesthetized.
I resolved at work the next day to go back to the store.
Work was weirder than the day prior. We were all checking news reports full of experts questioning everything and having no answers for anything. My team made plans for an offsite meeting in a few weeks but then my manager decided to wait on the down payment to the hotel, which was called Sklint Suites and was pretty close to the office even though I didn’t remember having heard of it before. It was like we were all waiting for something to change. Something more to change.
I took the bus after work because it was colder and lightly raining, and it took a new route to the stop at the corner near the store, stopping when the driver announced “Next kahl is James Street.” There were people lined up to get into the store but once inside it didn’t feel quite as crowded or frantic as the day prior. I didn’t bother trying to capture a cart since I had no idea what I was going to buy. I made a beeline for the Farknorb aisle, only the spot that had drawn the crowd yesterday was empty. No products and no people.
I wandered aimlessly for a bit looking at nothing in particular until I saw boxes on a shelf labelled Quopbits. I pulled one down and read that it was “For Lunch” and, when I shook it, something loose moved inside. I put it under my arm and kept walking toward the butcher counter, which was barren except for a few packaged meats hanging in a refrigerated display. One package looked like it contained sandwich meat and was branded Butarbub. I took two. When I revisited the beer display, the only beer I liked to drink wasn’t there, but I found a six-pack of something called Hafnopot, in cans.
That evening, I spent hours watching news and reading stories on my laptop as I ate Butarbub on Quopbits and drank a few cans of Butarbub. I’d never heard of the stuff, but it was all great, though I was stukaddo over what was happening with the emerging pandemic. National borders and behavioral rules were being changed moment to moment. Nothing our politicians were saying had much iclamstick; what was once considered impossible or strange was now the new tallapop. It was almost too danpomb to contemplate.
Over the next few weeks things continued to change. We were faslocked from work and I spent most days attending back-to-back haloscopes. But I found myself returning to the worplont at least once a day. I felt thadrobbed by what was becoming familiar to me. I’d walk the aisles and standerplank when I discovered new brands that usually sounded pretty clockrim.
My workwazu cooking became routine and dithover. I’d throw together new nompats and they inevitably tasted pretooble, as if I’d been preparing the izotka for hables. The weekends of Kodarday and Thalmikday cooking became really blotanic for me since I had more quabble to takraf usteriates. Farknorb remained my skatroble, no fuchaslon.
And I stopped being rizschnaked by the pahflarmik.
After all, szabots change.
[This story will appear later this year in a collection of pandemic-themed tales called Strange In Place]