The Dress from Bangladesh

Fruits of the Midi, 1881
(Oil on canvas, 50.7 x 65.3 cm)
Mr. and Mrs. Martin A. Ryerson Collection, 1933.1176
BY Pierre-Auguste Renoir
The Art Institute of Chicago

At first Joan felt only twinges — a quickening of the pulse as she reached for a can of coffee, a pang of guilt in the vicinity of bananas. Twice, in the weeks since she’d bought the dress, she had come home from the supermarket unable to explain to Charlie and the girls why she purchased nothing but a twenty-five-pound bag of rice or a gnarled ginger root as big as her hand. Today she got a cart, rolled it through the automatic doors, and turned right, through the Seasonal and Impulse items — Velcro can holders, ice-cube trays — to Fresh Produce, where, swept along by vegetable abundance, she gathered snow peas and mushrooms, bean sprouts and water chestnuts, perhaps a dozen other yellow, red, and leafy vegetables, and a hefty chunk of tofu. She didn’t know that she was shopping to satisfy a hunger as big as the world. She grabbed a ten-pound bag of Idahos with one hand and with the other an unseasonable sack of yams, hoisting them both into the cart with some difficulty. On top of these went the fruit, freshly doused by the automatic sprinkling system: waxed apples, seedless grapes, peaches, pears, plums, pomegranates, cantaloupe, kiwi, and bananas.

The bananas were on special — twenty-nine cents a pound. They were a product of Honduras, according to the boxes lined up on the floor around the banana bin. Joan stopped, dangerously as it turned out, to consider. Honduras was far away. Somewhere — she pictured the map — south of Mexico. How could they ship a pound of bananas from Honduras to Econofoods for only twenty-nine cents? she wondered. It cost more than that to mail a one-ounce letter from Davenport to Des Moines.

Product of Honduras, the boxes said.

Not very accurately, Joan imagined bare-chested Hondurans shinnying up the trunks of trees and slicing off great bundles of bananas like the ones she had seen from time to time in National Geographic. Skinny boys, glistening and vulnerable, reached up to catch the bananas their brothers cut from the trees. Bent double under their burdens, they padded flat-footed over sharp-bladed leaves to where a fat white man in a safari hat minded the scales. Joan felt the tropical heat searing the skin of the young men. She felt the steamy air fill their lungs. She saw their muscles strain, their knees buckle.

Joan put back the bananas.

She didn’t know that she was shopping to satisfy a hunger as big as the world.

But other aisles presented other problems. Reaching for a bag to fill with Fresh Roast Colombian in Aisle Two, she saw brown children picking coffee beans with delicate fingers; in Aisle Seven, it was black men, thin and hungry and hatless in the sun, hacking at sugar cane. In Meat and Seafood, she found her sympathies extended to other species. She pictured plump chickens trapped in tiny cages. She gazed in horror at the tank where hungry lobsters picked at one another, their great claws rubber-banded or torn or missing. Behind the meat counter, where other shoppers saw only the butcher turning out plastic-wrapped packs of beef, Joan saw cattle ankle-deep in mud and misery, she heard them lowing as they awaited their turn on the killing floor.

The huge hunger that had made Joan load her cart to overflowing left her. Now she felt a little ill. She pushed her fruits and vegetables toward the checkout, growing weaker and colder, shakier and dizzier, with every step, until, only yards from the No Candy lane, she felt so weak that she could no longer push the cart, and she abandoned it, fleeing through a supermarket scene that kept receding and advancing all around her like a film going in and out of focus. Amid the general roar of blood and static in her ears she heard someone shouting, “Hey! Lady! What about your groceries?” In the car she sat very still, keenly aware of the rolled-up windows and the hard blue sky outside, the heat crowding up against her skin. Her hands lay heavily in her lap, pressing cotton fabric still cool from the supermarket air against her thighs. She was wearing the dress from Bangladesh.

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