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Tribal Custom

                 With an hour to go until closing time, Dr. Galvex came into the Diamond Food for the first time with his new wife. He’d found her during an expedition to a remote village in the rainforest and the whole town had been buzzing about her ever since he’d come home to Multioak.

Business was slow as it always was on Thursday nights, and even though he was a manager, Oscar was bagging for Linaea on register seven when he saw Dr. Galvex and his new wife come into the store. Dr. Galvex, in youthful cargo shorts, sandals, and with his shirt half-buttoned, looked none the worse for wear after his long trip. He was not a tall man, but his brown-skinned, black-haired wife, walking next to him as he pushed the cart, only came up to the middle of his chest. She was barefoot and wore a pair of running shorts and a child’s t-shirt covered with embroidered strawberries. As they moved out of sight down the produce aisle, Oscar saw her looking around in every direction, her unblinking eyes absorbing everything.

                Oscar could only imagine what it would be like to grow up in a hut in a jungle and then one day find yourself strolling into a place like Diamond Food. Not that Diamond Food was that great, but relative to what Dr. Galvex’s wife was used to, it probably seemed great. Oscar handed the customer at Linaea’s register her paper bag full of cat food and sponges, thanked her for her business, and tried to look at the grocery store around him as if he’d never seen it before, as if he’d never even conceived of such a place. It didn’t work. The conveyor belts, cash registers, magazine racks, shelves lined with detergent and chips and olives: they were all too familiar. And his imagination had never been that good.

                Oscar had been working at Diamond Food for twelve years. He’d started as a tubby, oily-faced stock-boy when he was a junior in high school and had worked his way up to a managerial position by the time he was twenty-six, which he realized wasn’t actually that fast, but the money was more than enough to support his simple lifestyle.  He was still a little pudgy, but the acne had cleared up and the dentist routinely raved about the quality of his molars. Oscar wasn’t dissatisfied. He liked knowing what was expected of him.

                “I’m going to see how things are on the floor,” said Oscar, drumming a quick pattern on the top of Linaea’s cash register.

                “Sure,” said Linaea, redoing her thin, yellow ponytail for the tenth time in as many minutes. “When can I take a smoke break?”

                “When Mark comes back from his,” said Oscar. One of his primary roles as a manager was to coordinate his subordinates’ smoke breaks.

                Oscar took a moment to straighten some jars of salsa on a display at the end of the snack aisle and then rounded the corner into the produce aisle. He didn’t think there was any harm in being curious about Dr. Galvex’s wife. He’d never met someone from a primitive tribe before.

Dr. Galvex was standing in front of the wet produce section investigating the prepackaged grapes. A few feet away, his wife was eating a handful of cantaloupe slices from a package she’d torn open and dropped on the floor. Dr. Galvex either hadn’t noticed or wasn’t concerned about it. His wife looked at Oscar as he walked towards them. Then she dropped the rest of the cantaloupe slices on the floor, reached for a package of cucumbers, and tore open the plastic. She extracted one cucumber and took a bite. Then she made a sour face and dropped all of the cucumbers on the floor along with the package.

“Hello, Oscar,” said Dr. Galvex. He followed Oscar’s gaze to his wife and the fruit and vegetable mess she was making on the floor. Then he looked back at Oscar and smiled, “It’s her first time in a grocery store. Sorry about the mess.”

“Oh, I understand,” said Oscar, forcing a smile of his own as Dr. Galvex’s wife tore the plastic wrap off of a head of lettuce. “I’m sure it’s all very foreign to her.”

“It is,” said Dr. Galvex. “She thinks this is your personal supply of food.” He chuckled.

“Don’t I wish,” said Oscar. “Unfortunately it’s the store’s food.”

“Yes,” said Dr. Galvex. “A concept she would never understand.”

Oscar wondered if this was true. He looked at Dr. Galvex’s wife again, and even while spitting a mouthful of lettuce onto the floor, her eyes were among the most intelligent Oscar had ever seen. It looked as if she was thinking things that Oscar wouldn’t be able to think until he was on his deathbed, if then. He didn’t think it would take long for her to grasp the concept of a store.

“Would you mind telling her that I’d prefer that she not eat my food until it’s paid for?”

Dr. Galvex shook his head. “I’m sorry, it’s her peoples’ custom to freely partake of a host’s food once they’ve been invited in. She would take it as the height of rudeness if you were to tell her to stop.”

“Can’t you tell her that we have a different custom here?” asked Oscar.

“She doesn’t understand the concept of a custom,” said Dr. Galvex. “In her mind, her peoples’ customs are just the way the whole world works.”

“But,” said Oscar, “I’m responsible for the product that-”

“You have the benefit of television,” said Dr. Galvex. “You have a telephone, the internet, education, you’re literate. You know that everyone has different customs and you know how silly it would be to expect someone like my wife to live according to our customs after only a few weeks in town.”

Oscar cringed as Dr. Galvex’s wife moved over to the dry produce stands and struggled to pry her way into a grapefruit with her bare hands. “We’ll keep a tab of everything she eats,” said Oscar. “And then you can pay for it with the rest of your bill when you check out. Does that sound like a workable solution?”

“It does not,” said Dr. Galvex. “You’re being a lot more culturally insensitive than I expected. I think I’ll take my business over to Forton’s Foods if you’re going to be like this.”

“Forton’s closes at 8,” said Oscar. “And I guarantee you Mr. Forton would not be excited about your wife eating her way through his store with no intention of paying for it either.”

Dr. Galvex glared at Oscar, his lips twisting with disgust. Then he turned to his wife and motioned for her to come to him. His wife, peaches dripping in each hand, followed him as he stalked towards the store’s front door. But halfway to the door, Dr. Galvex’s wife stopped, turned, and jogged back to Oscar. She looked up at him, her face a puzzle with no solution, and said one word. It sounded like the word, “golf,” but Oscar assumed it probably wasn’t “golf.” He had no idea what it meant, but the finality in the woman’s tone worried him. She turned and hurried out of the store after Dr. Galvex.

Someone tapped Oscar on the shoulder and he flinched. It was Mark.

“Can I have a smoke break?”

“You just had one,” said Oscar.

                “No I didn’t,” said Mark, scratching the top of his head like a primate. “That was Linaea.”

                “Before her,” said Oscar. “You had one right before her.”

                Stymied, Mark’s eyes moved from side to side as if looking for a point of weakness in Oscar’s argument.

                “I’ll tell you what,” said Oscar. “If you clean up all the produce on the floor here, you can have another smoke break.”

                “Can you get me the mop and the mop bucket?” asked Mark.

                “No,” said Oscar. “That’s part of the job.”

                “I guess I don’t need another smoke,” said Mark.

                Oscar walked past Mark and headed for the back room to get the mop. He hoped that whatever Dr. Galvex’s wife had said to him wasn’t some sort of primitive tribal curse. Not that he thought curses were real, but it was never a good feeling to have someone wish ill on you. And he knew himself well enough to know that once a few bad things happened to him, he might start to wonder if the curse had anything to do with it. It would bug him.

                He filled the mop bucket with hot water. He wheeled it out onto the floor, its wheels squeaking and sticking so that Oscar had to fight it the whole way to keep it from rolling into precariously balanced displays of wine and pastries.

                He picked up the discarded fruit and packaging.

                He mopped the juice off of the tile floor.


                The next day, Oscar drove over to Dr. Galvex’s house with a covered casserole and a plate of cookies he’d baked that morning. He rang Dr. Galvex’s doorbell and stood on the porch with the plate of cookies balanced on top of the casserole dish in his arms. He might not have understood much about primitive tribal customs, but he knew that it never hurt to be neighborly, especially when someone was new to an area and maybe feeling out of place.

                Dr. Galvex opened the door wearing jeans and a vest. There were black swirls painted on his face and chest. “Hello, Oscar” he said. “Don’t be alarmed by the markings on my face. They’re sleep symbols. A custom of my wife’s people. Come in, please.”

                “I wasn’t alarmed,” said Oscar, stepping into Dr. Galvex’s living room. Dr. Galvex’s wife was lying on her back on the carpet, wearing the same clothes she’d been wearing the previous evening. She looked up at Oscar and then looked away as if she’d already figured him out and had moved on to bigger and better things. “I just wanted to bring you some food I made,” said Oscar, holding out the dishes. “I felt bad about the misunderstanding last night and I wanted to try to make up for it.”

                “You brought us food?” asked Dr. Galvex. He looked nervous. He glanced down at his wife and said, “We can’t accept the food. I’m sorry, but according to my wife’s customs it’s a great insult to bring food to a neighbor. To her, it’s like you’re saying we’re too lazy to provide for ourselves.”

                “No, no, no,” said Oscar. “I’m just trying to be friendly.”

                “I know that,” said Dr. Galvex. “But she won’t understand. We can’t accept the food. I believe she already resents the way you flaunt your disrespect of her customs.”

                “But I don’t know her customs!” said Oscar.

                “She thinks you do,” said Dr. Galvex. “She thinks everyone does.”

                Dr. Galvex’s wife sat up. She looked up at Oscar. She said the same word she’d said the previous night, or something similar. It sounded more like “gulf” this time.

                “What does that mean?” asked Oscar. “Is she putting a curse on me?”

                Dr. Galvex shrugged. “Not sure. I don’t know that word.”

                “Can you ask her what it means?”

                “I can’t,” said Dr. Galvex. “I don’t know any of her words.” The sleep symbols on his face made it hard to take him seriously.

                Oscar was getting tired of holding the casserole and cookies. “So when you say what she thinks, you’re just speculating?”

                “No,” said Dr. Galvex. “I studied her culture extensively during the two weeks I spent in her village.”

                Dr. Galvex’s wife got to her feet and padded past the two men and out of sight down the hallway. The men watched her go. “It’s time for her customary imaginary hunt. Every day she locks herself in a room and imagines she’s hunting lizards.”

                Oscar nodded and said, “hmm,” but he no longer believed Dr. Galvex knew what he was talking about. Dr. Galvex’s wife had not looked like a woman on her way to a locked bedroom to imagine hunting lizards.

                Oscar dipped into the cookies on his way back down the front walk. He sat in the front seat of his car and ate three of them before starting the engine. If the customs of a tiny tribe thousands of miles away hadn’t somehow intruded again, Dr. Galvex and his wife would have had the pleasure of eating the best batch of cookies Oscar had ever made.


                Two weeks later Dr. Galvex came into Diamond Food just before it closed on a Friday night. He was alone and his face was still marked with the sleep symbols. Oscar approached him in the snack aisle where Dr. Galvex had opened a bag of tortilla chips and was consuming them morosely, chip fragments sprinkling around him on the floor. When he saw Oscar approaching he said, “I know they’re still there. They don’t wash off.”

                “I wasn’t going to ask,” said Oscar. “Where’s your wife this evening?”

                Dr. Galvex put the half-eaten bag of chips back on the shelf as his eyes welled up with tears. “She’s gone.”

                “Gone?” Oscar was only kind of surprised.

                “She escaped,” said Dr. Galvex.

                “Escaped? I thought you were married?”

                “I did too,” said Dr. Galvex. “But she pried up floorboards under the bed in the guest room and crawled out through the crawlspace.”

                “Ahh,” said Oscar. “During the, uh, imaginary lizard hunts?”

                Dr. Galvex nodded. “She was imagining lizard-hunts and tunneling out at the same time.”

                Oscar doubted that the imaginary lizard hunt had really been part of the equation. “Why didn’t she go out the window?”

                Dr. Galvex shook his head, a faraway, wistful look on his face. “She didn’t understand windows. Glass was pretty much beyond her comprehension. I try not to think about what might have happened to her. But how is a woman like that going to make it on her own? She’s probably lost, confused, alone. Maybe dead. ”

                “I don’t think you give her enough credit,” said Oscar.

                Dr. Galvex snorted. “You don’t understand the cultural gap, Oscar. You think everyone in the world shops for pre-packaged food in slick, modern grocery stores.”

Oscar was tired of being lectured. “Were you planning on paying for those chips?”

“I didn’t like them,” said Dr. Galvex. “I decided against them.”

It occurred to Oscar that many problems attributed to cultural gaps could probably be better explained by gaps of other sorts. As he carried the half-eaten bag of chips to the back room to spoil it off, Oscar was suddenly struck for one brief moment with the reality of how strange and fantastic Diamond Food really was. Then he reached out, turned a can of black beans so that the label faced out, and the feeling passed on and was forgotten.

Discussion Questions

  • Summarize the theme of this story with two words. Spell at least one of the words correctly.

  • What are some places or objects in your daily life that would strike you as strange if you’d grown up in a hut in the rainforest? What are some places or objects in the daily lives of people who have grown up in huts in rainforests that strike you as strange right now? Now, are you really so different, you and them?

  • What makes a culture great? What makes a culture terrible? Use the word “customs” in your answer.

  • Where do you think Dr. Galvex’s wife went? Do you think she’s doing OK? If she’s still around, how long do you think it will take her to completely adapt to her new culture?

  • Of all the things that have gone wrong in your life, what percentage of them would you say were caused by cultural gaps?

  • Where would we be without our beloved customs?