Monday, March 18, 2013

{one very old woman}

I was buying a carton of eggs, two boxes of cereal, a bag of chips, and some nuts. Because I guess that's what you get when you go to the store for eggs when you're feeling snacky. Because everything just looks so dang crunchy all of a sudden. Because you start to walk down every aisle thinking, "We really don't have any crunchy things at home right now." And then you start to pick up every crunchy thing you can get your hands on and it's all you can do not to rip into it all in the middle of the cereal aisle.

Do you ever picture yourself tearing open a bag of guacamole chips and pouring them over your head in the middle of the grocery store? Because I do, sometimes. When I go to the store for eggs and I'm feeling snacky.

Anyway, as soon as I'd reigned in my inner cookie monster and made it successfully to the eggs and back {making only the few necessary stops on the way}, I found myself at the checkout behind a very old woman buying a very small candle. Just a very small candle. In a pink box. With a price tag on it that said $5.00.

The cashier smiled broadly at the old woman and picked up the pink box. She held it in her pudgy hands and examined it. And I examined her, because I saw that she was interesting.

She was maybe forty, maybe thirty-five, maybe sixty-two. She had chin-length straw-like unbrushed hair, the kind that really isn't any colour at all anymore. She was overweight. She looked happy, but a little absent and completely unsure. She wasn't wearing make-up or rings or any other jewelry. But she might have been wearing a watch.

I can't remember.

She looked at the candle, at the price tag on the box. She smiled again at the very old woman. "I don't know?" She pulled the candle out of its box and turned it over in her hands. "I don't know?" she repeated. "There's no bar code or anything?" All of her sentences ended with soft, concerned question marks. I wondered if she ever used staccato exclamation marks or firm periods.

The very old woman smiled back, politely. She didn't seem to understand. "It's five dollars," she said.

"Yes?" asked the cashier, even though it wasn't really a question. "But there's no barcode? See?" She held the box up for the very old woman to inspect. "And it's the last one? Because I know there are none more on the shelf? We only had one?"

A loud sigh erupted from the permed brown hair behind me. I turned, surprised, and saw that a small line-up had formed. The woman with the megahair was holding a bottle of conditioner and a Pepsi and had her hip thrust out so that she could rest her hand on it while impatiently tapping her foot and thus maintain a picture of completely justified sanctimonious angst. "What's the hold-up? We a bit slow?" She directed the question at me, but I could tell she wanted the cashier to hear it too.

The cashier didn't hear it though. At least, she didn't appear to. She was perplexed. She'd been trained to scan the barcodes. What could she do if there was no barcode to scan? She picked up the candle, set it down. Picked up the box, set it down. Looked around the store as though the answer might float by on a butterfly. My heart hurt. Where was her manager? She needed help. She tucked some straw hair behind her ear and looked at the bottom of the box again.

"What? Is she too lazy to go and see if there is another one on the shelf with a bar code?" Megahair said bitingly. "I shouldn't have to stand in line all day just because some cashier doesn't know how to work the register."

A blonde woman further back in the line laughed knowingly. "I know, right? I don't exactly have a million years. I should just shop somewhere else."

I wanted to tell her that she should just shop somewhere else. I wanted to tell Megahair that she was acting like a selfish two year-old, that she hadn't really been waiting all that long, that this woman was doing the best that she could under whatever circumstances there were. Because I could tell that there were circumstances. Couldn't they see that?

They couldn't. They'd been made to wait for almost five minutes. The blonde woman pushed her way to the front of the line and rapped on the counter. Her fingers were full of rings. "Can't you hurry? Isn't there another register or something? What's taking so long? Look how many of us are waiting!"

The cashier didn't even look up. She was intent on the task at hand; singleminded in her determination. She didn't see the line-up, or hear the grumblings, or see my smile, which I meant to be comforting and consoling. She didn't need comfort or consolation. She needed to find the barcode. She needed to help the very old woman. And then, she needed to help whoever was next. One at a time. The crowd didn't matter to her because there never was a crowd. There was only always one person. There was only always one very old woman.