Share This Short Story
December 24, 2015
I know better. I plotted. I planned. But, I failed.
I needed three critical items from the grocery store on Christmas Eve. Just three. Run right into the store. Acquire my targets. Use the express, self-check-out lanes. Escape.
How bad could it be?
I circled the expansive parking lot before spotting a lady loading her groceries in her tank-sized SUV. My turn signal flickered to the world my claim to the space. After loading bag after bag into the cavernous space, she started her vehicle and shifted into reverse.
The backup lights attracted the moths, those drivers of little sporty cars who aim to maneuver faster into the space than me. I could see the driver’s eyes as he gripped the steering wheel and ignored my long-marked claim on the space. We glared at each other as the mammoth SUV backed slowly, my turn signal ticking along with my pulse. Click. Click. Click.
As she cleared the space, the race started. He accelerated his gleaming car forward, aiming to cut me off. But he made a fatal mistake.
He sized up his tiny car against my Wrangler. He compared his waxed shine to my mud-caked exterior. He contrasted his highway speed tires to my off-road knobs. He calculated who would lose if we reached the space at the same time. He backed off. I took the space.
Feeling victorious after the first battle, I entered the streaming mobs clogging the aisles of the store. Without the need of a cart, I zigged and zagged, a contestant in a bizarre game show. I snagged my prey – three basic grocery items that would not wait for post-Christmas shopping. I plunged through the crowds, dodging triple-parked grocery carts, free-range and unclaimed children, and clueless people standing in the aisles with cellphones glued to their ears. Not one bit of Christmas cheer encountered.
Reaching the front of the store, I eyed lengthy lines of people with overflowing carts waiting at every single checkout. The queues snaked across the front of the store and down each aisle. My goal, however, was the self-check lines in the center. I fought my way past screaming children and crying parents and queued behind a dozen people waiting on two of the automated machines.
The line to my left and right seemed much quicker as people sped through their checkout. But I know the game. If I switch lines, they will immediately bog down. Trying not to torment myself, I focused on the two people in front of me. The two people who will be using the two machines in our line. Which one will move faster?
Directly in front of me, a lady pushed a cart with only a few items, all toys that have been inexplicably purchased from a grocery store. I didn’t even know grocery stores had toys, but I also recognized there were aisles in this monstrosity I had never ventured down. I come to grocery stores for groceries and nothing else. Go figure.
From hearing her end of a cell phone conversation, I deduced that the presents are for children that are not hers, but that she suddenly felt obligated to provide for. A forgetful aunt? A forgotten Christmas Eve party? An unexpected family member arriving for the holidays?
In front of her was a man with far too many groceries crammed into a cart despite the express lane limits. A young boy beside him excitedly rattled off the plethora of presents he was expecting Santa to bring. Eyeing the scene, I suspected somewhere was a mom sitting back on a plush couch in front of fireplace sipping a glass of white wine – grinning at her suggestion to her husband to take the children to the grocery store for a few items.
Our line crept toward the front of the store until, finally, Mr. Mom’s turn arrived. Except he had disappeared. His eight-year-old son dutifully pushed the cart forward and grabbed the first item – a bottle of wine – and swiped it across the scanner. A clerk at a central platform whose job is to monitor the automated checkouts glanced at her display. An alert had popped up that identification is needed for an alcohol purchase. She looked toward the appropriate station as the four-foot tall customer handled the bottle. The clerk freaked out. A child can’t be checking out wine. Where was dad? Dad?
I contemplated taking out the kid, but he had already scanned the wine bottle. Maybe if I just bought the wine and added it to my groceries, I could escape quickly. A small price to pay to bolt from the madhouse. But before I moved, the dad reappeared. While standing in line, he remembered a forgotten item and wandered through the store looking for it. A six-year-old girl he escorted. Keeping track of two kids was apparently quite the challenge for him.
The cashier admonished the man to stay close to his cart and kids. Meanwhile, the brother and sister commenced fighting over who got to scan the groceries. To prove to his little sister that he was bigger and in charge, the boy grabbed a pack of napkins out of his sister’s hands and scanned it. To emphasize the point, he scanned it again. And again. And again.
Thankfully, the second machine became vacant. The woman pushed her cart of toys in front of the machine. And stood there. Finishing her phone call. The clerk told her to hurry up. The woman glared and muttered into the phone that some rude clerk was telling her to end the call. Clicking the phone shut, she shot another look at the clerk and started fishing through her purse for the grocery rewards card. No point in getting that out while you are standing in line. Especially when you are carrying a purse larger than most carry-ons in an airplane.
Hearing her search, dad of brat kids realized he hadn’t swiped his rewards card. He needed to scan it now.
Glancing down at my hands, I realized the head of lettuce I held was slowing transforming into shredded lettuce.
Cell phone lady scanned the first toy. The machine obediently beeped and flashed the price. Cell phone lady turned to the cashier and complained the price was wrong. Price check!
Dad placed an item on the scale. Amused that you can weigh things at a grocery store, the daughter leaned on scale. Who knew three onions cost a hundred dollars? Dad asked the cashier to correct the price. The cashier looked like she wanted to cry.
The small counter beyond the dad’s check out machine overflowed with bagged items because he started with dozens of items in his cart. To make room, Dad picked up bags and placed them in his cart. The machine froze. Cashier explained he must leave the items on the machine until he is finished. Dad said ok. Scanned next item. Placed it in cart. Machine screeched. Cashier sobbed.
Cell phone lady finished scanning her items. She began the search of her bag for her credit card. Her cell phone rang mid-search. She answered the phone.
Son and daughter got into a wrestling match over who scanned the next item. They started flinging items at the scanner to see who won. The cashier said in a loud voice, “The children must back away from the machine.” Little girl responded by leaning on scales. Machine made a noise that sounded like a pinball machine in tilt. Or maybe computers can sob like grocery store clerks.
Cell phone lady finished her call, found her credit cards, and completed her purchase. She loaded the toys back into her cart and walked away. Half-way to the exit, her cell phone rang. She answered. And promptly collided with another shopper.
I leapt forward to claim the free machine. I scanned three items, swiped my ready credit card, and walked away thirty seconds later. I expected applause from the waiting hordes behind me, but instead heard the indignant screams from the brother, “But she started it!”
As I passed the clerk’s station, I smiled and said, “Merry Christmas.” Through her tears, she mumbled a reply. I think it was, “Help me.”
With my one grocery bag of three items in my Jeep, I waited to back up because someone else was backing up. Two cars were poised to do battle over the vacancy. They never noticed that if they moved, they could have had my space, too.
Finally clear of the mayhem, I worked my way through the row of cars only to be blocked by an overflowing grocery cart parked in the middle of the lane. A man stepped around the corner of his SUV to retrieve bags from the cart.
It was the dad.
Took everything I had not to floor the accelerator.
Today’s feature image is licensed under Creative Commons: 0.0 License via pixabay.com.