Winner of the First Horizon Award for superior work by a debut author.


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Scene at a grocery store

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Nancy deserted her daughters behind the frosted-coated glass door in the freezer section of Food Mart, picking up speed toward the checkout line as an elderly woman glided toward it with eight cans of cat food stacked high in the front basket of a jet black mechanical scooter. Nancy avoided eye contact with the silver-haired competition as she raced into checkout number FOUR and began unloading items before the girls had even chosen a flavor of ice cream.

“Mom?” Paige looked through the foggy glass as it sparkled with ice patches like the glittery cherry Lip Smacker she wore to school that day, despite her teacher Mrs. Abaline having forbid it from class. Her eight year-old thoughts focused on red, Mom was wearing a red sweater. Where is her red sweater? She looked around curiously, but without much concern. After all, this was not the first frosted-covered freezer door she had stood behind in search of her mother. Not even the first one that day, for that matter, as they typically stopped at the Grocery King on the way to Food Mart for their less expensive deli meats.

Nancy waited for the wrinkled scooter operator to pass into another checkout aisle before she poked her head out and in a half-whisper called, “Over here!” While the girls could not hear her, they immediately recognized the waving sleeve of her oversized red sweater like the distress call of an army platoon. The two girls trotted over to checkout number FOUR, each shaking a carton of ice cream over their head as they bounced toward their mother, who had already shifted back to the task of unloading. Nancy lifted her head to the large digital clock over the automatic doors that led to the parking lot, realizing that they had less than five minutes until she was behind schedule for cooking her (in)famous meatloaf and potatoes, checking the girls’ homework, and getting them to bed in time to pay the credit card bill before midnight and its looming late fees. She had organized the day, as with previous days, on an excel spreadsheet labeled TUESDAY, MARCH 8th, though the spreadsheet had been abandoned since three o’clock when she had picked them up from school.

Sarah, the older of the two and, therefore, the more inclined to nonchalantly sneak ice cream past her mother, balanced herself on the wiry shopping cart and its defective front wheel as she dropped a carton of cookie dough and tip-toed over to the magazine rack. Her sister retaliated, altering her voice to an angelically-pitched, “Mom, can I please have fudge brownie ice cream?” She held the carton up like a trophy, and a smile wide as the Mississippi River (which she had just learned to spell in her third grade geography class that afternoon to a tune barely tolerable to Nancy and the eight family members they had called from the Bluetooth in the car on their way to the supermarket).

Nancy continued lifting items from the cart, certain that she could be fully unloaded by the time the checkout woman finished counting change with the man in front of her. She did not stop, or even lift her eyes, to answer Paige’s question. “Is that what you and Sarah decided on?” Paige looked down as the carton sagged in her arms like an overweight cat.

“No!” Sarah called from the magazine rack, holding a Cosmo to her nose as she sniffed the perfumed bindings of an adult magazine she was not allowed to read. “I want cookie dough.”

“Sarah, stop!” Nancy gestured to the magazine with a loaf of bread. “Someone’ll buy that eventually.” Sarah scoffed and rolled her eyes, an effective look she had just learned from a few older eighth grade girls in the cafeteria bathroom that day at school. “I told you both, only one carton this week.”

“But mommmm!” The girls whined in unison.

Nancy cringed at the echo of their whining in her ears, and spoke with her eyes closed. “You only get one. So decide.” She massaged her temples to ward off a mounting headache. They were late for dinner now, just as she was late for work this morning and late picking up the girls. For all the rushing in her life, she never seemed to be on time. “And remember, it needs to be the store brand.”

“Ohhhh, come on!”

The exchange with her daughters delayed her unloading and, as she feared, the checkout woman had already begun to ring up her items. Bleeep Bleeep Bleeeeep shrieked the register, swallowing Nancy’s tightly calculated food budget before she even had time to protest. “Wait!” Nancy pushed the cart aside with her full thighs (baby weight as she still refers to it, eight years later) and barreled toward the woman. “I need to check those items before you ring them up.”

The checkout woman raised her long, penciled-in eyebrow. “S’cuse me, m’ am?” She pushed her hips against the cash register and evaluated Nancy as her long, acrylic fingernails tapped the steel counter. Her name tag was adorned with a bright yellow Food Mart happy face. Her name was Dee.

“I said…” Nancy lifted a carton of milk that had already been registered on the screen facing her. “I need to check these items before you ring them up.”

Dee smirked and curled her blood-red lipsticked lips, pointing to the screen with her thumb like an indifferent hitchhiker. “Everything look ok so far, m’ am?” Nancy studied it, verified that the milk advertised on sale for $3.99 a gallon was registering as $3.99.

She nodded slowly with her response, “Glad the milk’s on sale.” Nancy looked over at Dee, hoping to catch her eye and share a smile. Maybe Dee was a mother too. Maybe Dee understood. But Dee had already continued scanning items, seemingly immune to Nancy’s commentary. She watched each item register like some investors watch stocks on CNBC. Bleeeep Bleeeep. She stared anxiously while the girls politely ignored a routine they were painfully familiar with. Paige eventually walked back to the freezer section, returning the two cartons of brand-name ice cream and arriving several moments later with the store brand Cookies ‘N Cream.

“Wait.” Nancy held out her hand as Dee reached for the cheese. “I have a coupon for that.”

Dee handled the crinkled coupon as if it were vermin, then scanned it and let it drop next to the keys that hung loosely from the cash register. Nancy had hoped that Dee would have given the coupon back so she could use it again next week before it expired. No such luck. And Nancy would never have asked.

Dee continued registering items, very conscious of Nancy’s attentiveness. Their eyes moved together to an item on the conveyor; they both lifted their gaze towards the screen as Dee scanned the item; then their eyes moved back to the next item; and so on and so forth. As Dee’s arms swooped from item to item, the charms on her bracelet clinked and clanked, drawing Paige’s attention and, eventually, Sarah’s as she sauntered back to her sister’s side.

Nancy held the remaining coupons like a poker hand, concealing which items they belonged to until the exact moment that Dee lifted the item to scan. She pulled one out like a gun slinger as Dee reached for the yogurt. “Coupon.” Nancy tried to smile. Tried to pretend it was a game. Tried to ignore what it really was. Bleeep Bleeep Bleeeep.

Dee looked at the coupon for the yogurt.“Na, this won’t work.” She thrust the coupon into Nancy’s face. “Says you need to buy eight yogurts to get the 55 cent price.”

“What?” Nancy looked blankly at Dee, refusing to take it back.

“It says right here…” Dee waved the coupon vigorously so Nancy could not read it even if she had wanted to. “Good with purchase of eight yogurts. Don’t sweat it, its happened to a few people today…” Dee reached for another item as she forced the coupon back in Nancy’s hands. Nancy kept it suspended between herself and Dee as she protested.

“Wait, why would I need eight yogurts? No, they usually give me the unit cost of the sale anyway.”

Dee picked up a box of Cheerios and scanned it. “Not if it doesn’t register on the screen like that, m’am, sorry…” She looked up at Nancy without expression. “I do what the computer tells me.”

Nancy exhaled in disbelief. “Sorry.” Her voice quivered. “No. Sorry won’t do it.” The bag boy stopped assembling Nancy’s groceries. He held his head down but Nancy could feel his smirk, his sixteen year-old pimpled and too-cool condescension. Nancy began to lose track of the items as Dee continued to scan. Bleeeep Bleeep. Nancy did not check the price of the Cheerios; she could not remember how much the lettuce was supposed to be. She held a coupon for dish detergent that she forgot to give to Dee.

Dee reached for a bag of apples on the conveyor and Nancy extended her arm to stop her. “Hey!” She pulled at the bag from Nancy’s grasp and yelled, “Stop it!” as Nancy pulled harder on the bag to keep Dee from scanning. They each held the bag of apples with gusto, as if it were Black Friday and it was the last bag of apples in the entire store.

“Now, listen!” Nancy’s voice grew louder. She heard some of the scanning around her stop. “I’ve had a very rough day and I don’t have time for this, Dee!” Paige and Sarah lowered themselves further to the ground. They quietly sifted through boxes of gum and candies on the lower racks of the checkout line, pretending to be interested in their flashy packaging; pretending this was the first time this had ever happened. “Just give me the sale price for the four yogurts!” All around her, shoppers stopped shopping to look at her like a circus clown, waiting anxiously to see what she would do next. The elderly woman from checkout number SIX sped past in her motorized scooter and shook her head as she sailed toward the parking lot.

Nancy lost sight of Dee as tears spilled over onto the conveyor belt, forming a tiny puddle next to the bananas. She tried to smooth her tears into the rubbery surface with the palm of her hand, and could feel the activity from adjacent checkout aisles freeze all around her. Everything was still. Dee reached out to her, touched her hand as it rested on the conveyor. “I’m sorry, m’am.” She spoke softly like a kindergarten teacher.

Nancy stared at Dee, fixated on her as she lifted her hand to scan the last of the items, the neon green scanning screen obscured and bent the prices as her eyes watered. She reached into her pocket book and found a stray napkin to wipe the smearing mascara from her cheeks.

The bag boy resumed bagging, then lifted his cell phone and began texting wildly when he had nothing left of hers to pack.

Nancy paid for the groceries with cash, finding a few quarters at the bottom of her purse to cover the extra cost of the yogurt, gathered the girls and went home. Sarah and Paige pinched and flicked each other’s arms in the car, simultaneously carving hearts and flowers out of the fog that hovered over the passenger side windows as Nancy sped down the side streets to keep her schedule on track. Each girl carried an extra bag from the trunk to the kitchen table so their mother could balance her briefcase a little easier. They kissed her on the cheek before pushing each other up the narrow staircase with shrieks and stomps in order to finish their homework before dinner.

Later, when Nancy stood at the kitchen sink washing dishes, thinking of all the bills and meetings and soccer games and dance lessons that cluttered her mind, she recalled that brief moment of stillness at the grocery store. She closed her eyes and laughed suddenly, as soap suds poured through the sponge and over the cracks in her dry skin, down the drain as it gurgled along with her laughter.

She laughed as the space in the house filled with noise from the television and the gushing water from the sink and the girls as they bickered with giggles once their homework was finished.  She laughed because it turned out to be the only moment of the day when the chaos had ceased at all.

 

 

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