Grocery Shopping with Mary McCarthy

Essays

By Rebecca Brill

Image: “25 Years,” by Ezra Scott-Henning, 2016.

Summer evenings when no one is home, I make a point of eating pungent things. Sprawled on my bed, I eat stinky cheese, garlicky crackers, spicy mustard, and anchovies off a paper plate. I drink wine out of a plastic cup.

Hannah Arendt has just been widowed. It hurts just to pass the days. She doesn’t sleep, and when she does, she has nightmares, wakes up in a cold sweat. “I don’t think I told you that for 10 long years I had been constantly afraid that just such a sudden death would happen,” she writes in a letter to Mary. She is coming to stay in the Maine house, to find relief. Mary is glad. She arranges the guest home for Hannah.

There are only two people I’ve enjoyed anchovies with: my mother and myself. When I offer them to my roommates, they squirm.

Mary picks up the things she has seen in Hannah’s kitchen. Strange to fill a basket with items she doesn’t ordinarily buy: ham and eggs, instant coffee and anchovy paste. The anchovy paste takes her some minutes to locate. Before Hannah, she didn’t even know of its existence. But then, before Hannah, she knew almost nothing, though she was sure she knew everything, young and high on her own man-shutting-up beauty and switchblade wit. Then Hannah came along, her brain a Talmud of goodness. Mary delights in devouring the volume. She could scan it a thousand times over without ever grasping its meanings. She is surprised to learn that she likes it this way, likes knowing just how much she doesn’t know. In perusing her own mind’s half-filled pages, she finds comfort, delicious and peculiar. She examines the tube of anchovy paste before placing it in her basket.

At the fancy grocery store, I buy silvery-white anchovies in a Tupperware full of brine. At the regular grocery store, I buy black anchovies in a red and yellow tin that in clean cursive, says “Roland.” “Roland” is a flourish, a gesture, the swish of starched skirts. If I were someone else, I might link this to Barthes, but I’m not interested in Barthes, I’m interested in anchovies: their texture, their grease, their reek.

Hannah sets down her things in the kitchen. Before she even manages to take off her coat, her eyes locate the tube, like a familiar but not entirely welcome face in a crowd of strangers. The face of someone she’d rather not greet but knows too well to ignore.

I believe in saving anchovy tins. They are good for storing precious things that might otherwise end up in the trash: candy hearts, bobby pins, tiny rag dolls affixed to ponytail holders, a vial of oil, the dried petals of the boutonniere someone pinned on my dress before a reading I gave, sea glass I collected years ago on a Nyack riverbed but which might just be the shards of beer bottles and I don’t care which because the sun will make its pale green sparkle just the same.

Hannah glares at the tube with the disparaging look she usually reserves for inane party guests. “What is that,” she says to Mary. It isn’t a question.

As a teenager, I wrote a not very good short story about a girl who spends her adolescence brining in a jar. On her eighteenth birthday, the jar is opened, and the girl emerges, naked, pickled, and reeking of sulfur. When she enters her family’s kitchen, her parents hardly recognize her. How anchovyish she has grown!

Mary tells Hannah, though she knows Hannah knows, has eaten years’ worth of anchovy paste at her sun-drenched kitchen counter. “Oh,” Hannah mutters. They leave it at that.

I spy anchovy paste in Aisle Six. It tickles my tongue, and I long to buy it, to buy the whole store out. But that distrustful “Oh” rings in my head, and I don’t. I can’t.

Some speculate that Mary and Hannah were lovers. Academics have long refuted this. I take comfort in knowing that either way, Mary has heard Hannah’s “Oh.”

A man told me women taste like fish. I asked him what kind, hoping he’d say anchovies, but sadly, he refused to specify.

Mary tells the story in Hannah’s eulogy: “She did not wish to be known in that curiously finite, and as it were, reductive way. And I had done it to show her I knew her—a sign of love, though not always—thereby proving in the last analysis that I did not know her at all.”

After an argument, a friend left a can of anchovies on my desk. “For your personal use,” the accompanying note read. Not knowing whether to feel moved or invaded, I thought, Yes, anchovies are personal, quite possibly too personal to be a gift. Nevertheless, I polished off the piscine peace offering, letting salty oil coat my lips.

Oh what I’d give to taste Hannah’s anchovy paste. Oh oh oh what I’d give to know Mary, to know Hannah. Oh to visit with Mary and Hannah, oh to hear them talk over cups of coffee, coffee and ooooooh.

Order a Greek salad at a diner and the waiter will warn you of anchovies like bad weather or an iffy horoscope. He will do this even though they are listed on the menu and even though they are what make a Greek salad a Greek salad. I order extra anchovies in mine, as if claiming others’ unused ones. I like how the taste of fish can’t be described as anything other than fishy.

I know anchovies like Mary knows Hannah. I know them despite their wish to be a fish unknown.

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