Last weekend, I graduated with an MFA in creative writing from Georgia College, here in Milledgeville. For the celebration, my mom drove down from DC, picking up her sister Cindy on the way, in Greensboro, NC, and my younger brother and his wife flew in from Austin. Over the course of the weekend, each of them independently mentioned The New Kroger.
“That’s right,” I’d say to my guests in the back seat, making eye contact through my rearview mirror. “Third-largest in the state.”
This fact always scores silent nods, looks passed back and forth, until someone says, “Well, let’s go see it.”
For the life of me, I can’t tell what to make of this. A large part of me fears what my guests will think of me, that in this moment they’ve resigned their expectations for what this town—and by extension, my life here—has to offer. They’ve seen it all: the heat waves shimmering off the enormous, empty parking lots; the smokestack on the lake; the dilapidated houses and trailers on the south side; they’ve made the two-hour drive to a good movie theater; they’ve heard the thousands of whitebread students from suburban Atlanta speaking without a trace of a Southern accent. The looks they pass each other across the backseat seem to say, Roger’s been living the kind of life that features a grocery store. And now it’s going to make our vacation highlight reel. This place is not only a food desert, but an experience desert.
But then, something remarkable happens whenever they get to The New Kroger: they go in.
Because The New Kroger is something of a miracle. The contrast with its environs couldn’t be more evident, or unexpected. The Milledgeville scenery is dusty, dry, hot, and spiky; land that’s given rise to seas of prickly loblolly pine, and to the hearty leaves and buds of the ninety-five-million-year-old giant magnolia genus, but other than these robust survivors this land doesn’t admit very freely of growth, of nourishing surplus. But enter The New Kroger and you’re met with, straight-away, winding paths through colorful organic produce (three choices of bok choy, red onions gleaming like amethyst), exotic fruits (tamarind and Buddha hands), a sushi bar with free samples, and three oblong refrigerated islands of international cheeses and cured meats. And though these paths are synthetic and seem suburban, the psychological effect is transportive, immediate, and entire, because through the plate glass at the store’s front, as you run a wedge of camembert over the scanner at the personal checkout, you can still see, not too distant, the coal-fired power plant expiring smoke over the lake. So illusion or no, legitimate or not, all ethics aside, this grocer’s bounty is a safe house, a host, a welcome relief.
Take what happened with my mom and her sister, Cindy, for instance. My mom’s already visited Midgetville a few times, a New Kroger veteran, but this weekend was Cindy’s first visit, and she was but an initiate. In fact, Cindy’s something of an initiate into our family, because until four years ago, the year before I came to Milledgeville, my mom, now sixty-nine, never knew she had a sister.
Four years ago, Cindy—whose last name is Jolly—called my mom and told her they were sisters, that my mother’s father, my grandfather Jack, had an affair with Cindy’s mother, Bernice, and Cindy was the result. Both of my mother’s parents had known, but neither of them said anything to her. They were of an interior generation, and carried this secret, in absolute silence, to the grave. Cindy’s parents had done the same. But Cindy’s parents had been drunks, incapable of parenting, and so, when Cindy was but a toddler, she became, remarkably, a ward of my grandparents—a daughter to the wronged woman.
My grandmother (also named Bernice) knew about Cindy’s parentage, and still took her in as her own. Cindy would spend evenings and weekends with my grandmother, who would help her with her homework, take her to museums and movies, buy her clothes for school, supply her with groceries to bring back to her parents, who’d mop up all their cash with booze. Cindy even vacationed with them (sometimes both Bernices would go on these trips, something I can’t make much sense of). At my grandmother’s funeral six years ago, Cindy told my mom that my grandmother had saved her life. At the time, my mom had no idea what she meant.
My mother has more than a decade on Cindy, so by the time Cindy was a regular visitor, my mom was more or less out of her parents’ house, off to college. She’d had little to no contact with Cindy until that phone call four years ago. The two of them have the same master’s degree (counseling), and Cindy’s daughter, Mallory, plays the violin, the instrument my mother has taught now for decades. Cindy had sworn to Jack and the Bernices that she wouldn’t say anything about the affair until both of my mother’s parents were dead. And she kept that promise, and the shame of it, until it was time.
And here she was now, new family, celebrating my life in Milledgeville. But after a few hours, when we’d seen everything there was to see, all I could offer her was a grocery store.
On Saturday afternoon, we arrived at a graduation barbecue only to find they were running low on ice. Instead of running up the road to a gas station, my mom told me she could take this opportunity to show Cindy The New Kroger, over twenty minutes away. I wanted to go along as guide, but didn’t want to ditch my classmates, so the two of them went alone. They were gone for an hour and a half. On returning, they only had a bag of ice, and our beer had warmed, but Cindy, my mom said, had been mesmerized by the store, had, as I’d hoped, wanted to take her time and see the whole thing.
Perhaps it’s the location. That in this part of the world, stumbling upon The New Kroger is an unexpected gift, as our family seems to have been for Cindy. Or maybe it’s something else. Because when Cindy disappeared with my mom’s car again later that night, she was gone for a good long while, for hours, and though she said she was just going to check out The New TJ Maxx, when she got back, I knew she’d been elsewhere, and so I said to her, in private, “You went back to The New Kroger, didn’t you?” And Cindy Jolly, whom I now call family, whom I now call my aunt, who I now know must share a certain devilish part of my blood, only smiled slyly in reply, afraid what I would think of her.
Roger is a composition teacher at Georgia College in Milledgeville, Georgia. He's working on his first novel, and would like to tell you all about it.