Greetings, WYMOP readers!
“You can go first.”
I glanced at my shopping cart: two gallons of milk, a half dozen bottles of Diet Pepsi, bread, some of those bottled Starbucks Frappuccino drinks (vanilla, my favorite!), and a couple of other things. I looked at the girl’s hands; she held a birthday card and a chocolate bar. “Don’t be silly,” I said, waving her toward the self-checkout line we were vying for. “That’s all you have? You go first.”
With a grin of thanks, she slipped in front of my cart—then stopped dead, looking at the man currently waving items about in the air above the price scanner in the hopes of making the thing beep. “He, uh, has a lot of stuff,” the card-and-chocolate-bearing young lady said, slipping off to find a different line.
I looked ahead. By God, this dude did have a lot of stuff, a whole bunch of stuff, far more than I’d ever seen anyone try to squeeze through the self-checkout before. Usually people with shopping carts full to the top with goods go through the regular checkout; the bagging area at the other end of the belt from the scanner in self-checkout is too small to hold a whole cart’s worth of items, mucking up the entire process and drawing obvious sighs and death-stares from the people waiting in line.
Recalling however that, for some reason or other, Fate has decreed that when Rob goes shopping he will get in the wrong line, I decided to stay put and see what would happen. Besides, Fate seems to get a little pissed off when I line-hop, trying to avoid my curse, and in the past this has resulted in jammed printers, sudden shortages of register tape, emergency phone calls to my checkout clerk, and the clerk’s sudden slamming down of the Lane Closed sign followed by a tight-butt-cheeked speed-waddle toward the restroom. There haven’t been any actual deaths yet, but someday I plan to line-hop incessantly, just to see if I can force Fate to actually drop my store through a giant sinkhole in the Earth’s crust into the realm of the Mole People, who’ve tunneled up and stolen our Stop & Shop because they’re in dire need of Swiffer cleaning products and, besides, they’ve heard the deli counter can give them the thinnest shaved turkey slices in the state . . . but I digress.
Bearing all that in mind (and yes, I stood in the store a moment fantasizing about presenting a Swiffer WetJet to the Mole king)—and not really being pressed for time for once—I settled in for the long haul to watch the gentleman in front of me completely fail at self-checkout.
“Unexpected item in bagging area,” said the machine.
“How can it be unexpected?” asked Mr. Shopper. “You just rang it up!”
“Please choose the correct produce item from the screen. Thank you for purchasing your beets.”
“Beets? No—those were peppers! Peppers!”
“Please remove all items from the scale.”
“Scale? There’s a scale?”
“Help is on the way.”
“What? But help just left!”
“Unexpected item in bagging area.”
I watched all this go on with a strange (for me, at least) sort of calm, chuckling at each new dilemma and waving people off who tried to get in line behind me. “No, seriously,” I’d say. “It’s too late for me. Save yourself.” People came and went in the other lines around, entering the store, completing their shopping, moving through checkout, driving home, and probably cooking and eating their purchases as I stood there, giggling quietly each time the light above the price scanner took to flashing, heralding yet another visit from the ever-helpful clerk.
The clerk went through several hairstyles as time went on, finished high school, went to college, and started a family of his own. I watched with an odd sort of pride as he trained his oldest son to someday take over for him in the now family business of self-checkout help clerk. The kid was good, really good, jumping right in to enter a code into the scanner when Mr. Shopper was at a loss, or point out the bar code on the bottom of the bag of once-frozen mixed vegetables.
“The bagging area is full,” announced the price scanner, long before the cart was empty. “Please bag some of your items.”
“Called it!” I cried, pumping a fist in the air. Several people gave me strange looks as Mr. Shopper, clearly wishing death upon me, tried for several minutes to pinch open one of those plastic shopping bags in the holder at the end of the bagging area.
Seasons turned. Styles changed. I filled out the form that would allow me, if things kept going the way they were going, to use a senior citizen discount when finally purchasing my food items. A dark-haired twentysomething with a basket over her arm got into line behind me.
“Young lady?” I said. I’d reached the age when referring to a twentysomething as young lady became perfectly acceptable way back when the price scanner was telling the openly weeping Mr. Shopper, “You are purchasing an over-twenty-one item. Checkout help is required.”
I leaned a little closer, giving the woman a better look at my gray beard, deepening crow’s-feet, and—let’s be honest—the dim glow of madness in my eyes.
“I was your age when I got in this line,” I said. “You might want to give one of the other registers a try.”
She chuckled nervously, but stayed put. “Thanks, but I’ll be fine.”
“Suit yourself,” I said.
Some time later, when Mr. Shopper dropped and shattered a glass jar of something quite red and very splashy all over the floor at the end of the register lane, I heard a quiet “Excuse me . . . pardon me . . . can I just . . .” I turned to find the twentysomething working her way through the crowd to another register. I didn’t blame her. Hell, I was happy for her. I smiled as I watched Clerk and Son of Clerk descend upon the red mess with a sort of glee, the former waving about great wads of paper towel, the latter wielding a Swiffer WetJet like some sort of neatnik samurai, then laughed when I remembered, so long ago, daydreaming about presenting a WetJet just like that to the Mole king.
The twentysomething turned and waved to me as she exited the store with her purchases, mouthing the words Good luck. I hope she’s doing well.
One day I woke from one of my standing naps to find Mr. Shopper gone. I stared awhile, unable to comprehend what I was seeing, until I was startled by a light poke in the back. “The register’s open,” said the young man behind me. A line had formed while I dozed, and the kid looked a little impatient.
“Well,” I said, my voice thick with tears. “So it is.”
I made my purchases and bagged my goods, the receipt telling me exactly how much I’d saved with my new senior citizen discount. I tottered off to the parking lot where, surprise surprise, I couldn’t find my car. The kid collecting shopping carts from the lot—Grandson of Clerk, I believe—made a couple of phone calls and found out my car had been thought abandoned and towed away years ago.
Grandson of Clerk was good enough to call me a taxi, which showed up a few minutes later. I climbed in as the cabbie loaded my groceries into the trunk, and the next thing I knew the man was back in the driver’s seat and asking me, “Okay, sir. Where to?”
It seems I was in that store for so long I’ve forgotten my address. If there’s anyone out there who knows my son, Handsome, or maybe my grandkids—if I have any—and can let them know where I am? You’d be doing an old man a real kindness.
Talk to you later?