You will need coupons, hundreds of them. It’s okay if they expire because ideally you’ll have a filing system in place by the time they reach critical mass. I suggest a blue nylon pouch with fraying edges and a silver snap to hold the top flap in place. If you’re organized you’ll use your coupons before they expire and if you don’t you’ll just have to clean the envelope out every weekend while clipping the new ones out from the newspapers you get each Sunday. Don’t be fooled into thinking a newspaper is anything but kindling covered coupons and a sheet of lukewarm comic strips with which to torture your children. For the record, you know Pearls Before Swine loses its comedic impact when it has to pass through your mouth before your kids can hear it. It drives them crazy but announcing the punch lines serves the dual purpose of irritating them and letting you feel like an adult penguin vomiting into the mouth of its young. You, the provider, the nurturer, squeezing through front door flanked by bags the size of full garbage liners stuffed with coats that might fit. You the hunter-gatherer, making endless trips between the house and a minivan trunk packed with double bagged groceries. Love wrapped in plastic, better than pureed fish wrapped in stomach acid.
Which brings me back to groceries. Effective shopping requires strategy; lists, tactical maneuvers. Imagine your family as a squadron of fighter jets, less flashy than the Blue Angels but every bit as patriotic. Divide and conquer. Send the oldest girl to find things she can’t fuck up, shelf stable condiments or discontinued novelty ice cream, teach the younger girl to look at the impulse candies by the register with her eyes and not with her hands. Teach them both to dangle from the nose of your cart, counterweighted by fragrant cantaloupes and packages of store brand pasta and graying meats on “Manager’s Special” to stash in the garage freezer.
Carry a calculator, in case cell phones haven’t been invented yet. Divide the cost of the cottage cheese by the weight; find the price per ounce. Do this for every brand and size container of cottage cheese. Find the cheapest per ounce. Put it in the cart amidst protests from little girls who only like the Knudsen brand on their pasta. When you get home, realize they’re right, and that Knudsen is far superior to Kraft or any store brand, the alternates too tart or dry or soupy, and Knudsen, perfectly smooth beneath its lid until stirred into a creamy, tender sea of cheese curds to be spooned over hot margarined pasta cooked several minutes too long until the whole thing slips down your throat in a hot-cold flurry of lactose and starch. Start hoarding the Knudsen coupons until you discover the pink plastic tub by the half-gallon at Costco and surrender to the convenience of the bucket. The girls like everything you cook: the half moons of brick red kosher salami fried in margarine and drenched in scrambled egg, the American cheese sandwiches on white bread with margarine. The Rice-a-Roni, the Hamburger Helper, the delicate golden slices of toasted challah from the only bakery in town that makes it. All of it glistening beneath a perfect sheen of Country Crock.
When the candy bars inevitably go on sale, slip one into the palms of each girl, watch their eyes bulge at the unbelievable heft of an entire Milky Way in a tiny clenched fist. The older girl likes the dark chocolate ones, the younger, milk. Stash this away next to the note about Knudsen’s, the place that could eventually catalogue the older one’s inevitable teenage vegetarianism, the list of gelatin-free gummy candies to stock the glove box with, or the brand of tampons your wife prefers and the best deal on peanut butter. Do not forget to buy peanut M&M’s. You will want them when you settle into your makeshift garage office to watch action films or professional wrestling on the tiny workbench television, to masturbate and fall asleep sitting up with your hand still perched on the mouse, jaw slack and eyelids fluttering in the stale air.
In the morning, the girls will jump into your bed and wiggle into the blanket valley between you and your wife. You will think about the cubes of cut cantaloupe in the fridge, how much longer until they rot, how to convince the girls to snack on fruit when there’s cheese to be had. They want breakfast. While they eat, noisily, you will sit at the table and pore over newspaper inserts for deals on paper towels, paper napkins, and paper plates. Diet soda. Fat-free ranch dressing. Cans of tomato sauce. Processed cheese. Frozen vegetables. Look for the manufacturer’s coupons and cross-reference the store sales to maximize your discounts. Don’t be afraid to shop at multiple stores. Don’t be afraid to take hours. When you get home, dissect the ribbons of receipt paper with a highlighter. What did you spend? What did you save? Tell anyone. Tell everyone.
Here are some tips for grocery shopping. Smile your crooked smile when the clerk recognizes you and calls you Mr. Coupon because here, of all places, you are titled. In the grocery store aisles, you’re a strategist, a mathematician, and a gambler. In the check-out line, you’re shameless about the stack of clippings you trade for food. You disowned the shame ages ago, left it for the perturbed cashier waiting to go on lunch, or for your daughters to shovel into their backpacks, to keep and to save, to bag and to carry.