A bushel of apples – green, Granny Smiths. A package of hot dogs – Kosher. A dozen or so containers of yogurt – light, in a variety of flavors, key lime pie and strawberry banana. Packages of meat – pork cops, chicken breast. A gallon of milk. Toenail clippers. Toilet paper.
Susan always conducted a mental check of people's groceries as she ran their items over the scanner. She would glance over at the conveyer belt, pick up an item, and pass it over the red light, shielded behind the glass plate like a quarantined disease. And in her head, she would examine the item : its shape, its color, how heavy it was, how many times she had seen it before. She would wonder if this shopper had a checklist prior to coming to the store or if this was a grab and go grocery spree. She would try to only judge this based on the groceries, though. More frequently than not, she made little eye contact with the customers and only said what was required of her: "Hi, do you have a rewards card?" "Will that be credit or debit?" "Thank you. Have a nice day."
But in all honesty, it was hard not to peek at customers when they weren't looking. When a mother was distracted by her rowdy children, she would catch a sight of her professionally styled bob, her manicured nails, and her perfect eye makeup. She fingered three or four credit cards in her wallet, picking at them at random, like it didn't matter which account she drew from. Her cart was full of slimfast bars and carrot sticks – but other dirty secrets, as well, like pints of death by chocolate ice cream and a bottle of Jose Cuervo. When a middle-aged man fished around in his back pocket for his wallet, she saw his long face with the dark shadows hanging below his eyes, she saw his wrinkled jeans and plaid sweater, and then she saw his cans of soup, his freeze-and-bake meals, and an unexplained bottle of baby powder. There were gaggles of teens who came to her with sugary sodas and bags of chips. Older women who slowly set out jars of preserves and pickles before limping down the tight aisle way between her cash register and the next with barely enough strength to push their own cart. A tattooed boy in a hoodie with a box of cigarettes and a booklet of Sudoku puzzles. And occasionally a child, not old enough to be unaccompanied, cautiously holding onto a few dollar bills, a dozen eggs, and a loaf of bread.
You learned a lot about people working at a grocery store.
This current customer was another middle-aged woman, very much like Susan, but also very different. Where Susan stood on a black mat all day in black slacks, an apron, and tennis shoes, this woman stood in heels wearing a pressed pantsuit and what appeared to be real gold earrings. Susan's hair was brushed, but frizzy, and up in a ponytail. Her customer's was neat, blow dried, and hair sprayed into place. She noticed all the differences, and immediately she felt insecure by them. This was one of the reasons she avoided looking at customers.
"Credit or debit?" she asked.
"Sorry," the woman said, leaning forward.
She coughed a little. "Credit or debit?"
"Ah... debit, please."
She finished checking the woman out and as she walked away, Susan sighed a little, meek sigh. She looked up to her next customer and smiled slightly. Her cheeks warmed with some color, her face relaxed (even if only slightly).
"Susan." The woman had a deep, powerful voice. Though she was speaking normally, it always seemed to Susan like she was booming. LouAnne rolled up to her on the store-provided, motorized wheelchair. She was an enormous woman, at least four hundred pounds, with a mountain of voluminous red curls for hair. Lest anyone mistake LouAnne for less than a queen, she dressed in a long flowing gown of zebra stripes with huge sparkling bangles and dangling earrings. Like some of the other women that Susan checked out, she had her nails done and her make up on, but LouAnne carried herself differently from other women. For one thing, she wasn't afraid to push Susan at the cash register for more than her usual script.
Susan remembered their first meeting vividly.
"Hi, do you have a rewards card today?"
"As a matter of fact, I don't. You see, I have a new purse that I got the other day when I was shopping at Kohl's. It was Super Savers Sunday, so it was good deal. Only twenty dollars, I think. And I took the tags off, I emptied it out, because you know they always stuff those things with styrofoam and paper and other stuff. And then I took my old purse and moved everything into the new one, so I was all ready to go. But then this morning when I left the house, I took the old purse instead of the new one."
"Oh no..." Susan muttered quietly, not sure whether to smile or look sad. She always hated encounters like this. Some customers were so intent on making conversation with her, and as a result every interaction with them became a game of what is the appropriate social response in this situation? She felt like a terribly awkward person and always tried to remind these customers that she was there to check them out, not cure them of their loneliness, so she never missed a beat in continuing to scan their purchases, even as she tried to avoid looking rude.
"Oh, don't worry. I still have my wallet on me. I went back home to grab it. But you see, I left that on the mantle the day before I got the new purse. So, even if I'd never emptied the old one, it wouldn't have been in there. It would still have been on the mantle. Which is why I didn't bother grabbing the old purse – I figured all I really needed was my wallet. And now," the woman boomed out a hearty chuckle, "I don't have my rewards card!"
"Oh, I'm sorry," Susan said, smiling nervously, pushing through a couple boxes of pasta.
"Well I'm not telling you to feel sorry for me! I want to know – is there another way that you can look it up? Like by my name or phone number or something?"
"What? Oh... no. I'm very sorry." This was another reason that Susan hated interacting with customers. Inevitably, they would stumble upon some store policy or system flaw that inconvenienced them – which, typically, she had no control over – but then she would have to explain why it was she couldn't do what they wanted her to do. And that, more often than not, led to ugly conversations.
"What, nothing? You can't look me up in a directory or anything?"
Susan could actually outline the stages that led to customer fury. First, came general inquiry. Second, came dubiousness. Some people would even undergo two phases of the second stage, their disbelief so strong that they feel the need to ask three times if something is really the as she said it was. And then came the third stage – anger.
Susan was always relieved when some customers opted to skip over the third stage to the fourth, which was disappointed acceptance. They were usually still disgruntled and said nothing to her when they grabbed their bags to leave (not that all customers said thank you or have a nice day as it was – it was just more noticeable when they didn't. The air was heavy with the tension of their sore feelings).
LouAnne, however, waved it off with a bejeweled hand.
"Don't worry about it. What, it's going to save me fifteen bucks or something down the line? I'll live for having spent another few dollars on my tilapia this week. Right?"
This response was outside of Susan's carefully staged analysis of customer reaction-ism, which meant it was outside of Susan's carefully planned table of her own responses to those situations. In unfamiliar scenarios like these, she froze and scrambled mentally to find something to say – anything that wasn't going to take the customer back to stage three or make her look like a fool.
She laughed softly and replied with a gentle, "Right."
"What's your name?" The question came so quickly and in the woman's same booming voice that it startled Susan. LouAnne saw it in her face.
"I don't mean that as a trick question. I know nobody ever asks you that. I'm just curious. You don't have a name tag on you."
"Oh." Susan's face fell. She had a name tag, of course, provided by her store. But she chose not to wear it when she could. It was childish, but it made her feel stupid to wear a name tag – like she was in elementary school and she was on a field trip. Why did people need to know her name? She was just there to check out people's groceries, nothing else. Her name, she felt, was hers. If she wanted to share it with people, she would.
"It's Susan," she said to the woman.
"Susan? My sister-in-law's name is Susan. Nice to meet you. I'm LouAnne."
She put out her fat, bejeweled hand for Susan to shake. LouAnne wasn't smiling exactly – she wasn't the smiling type of person, it seemed – but there was a trace of a smile on her face and her eyes sparkled like ocean water on a sunny day. There was so much to be read there, and Susan took comfort for once in the eye contact she made with a customer. LouAnne was entirely unguarded.
Susan took her hand with her own veined, ring-less, bony one and smiled a more genuine, easy smile.
"There. Now we're friends. Are you alright with that?" LouAnne gave Susan a challenging look.
A small smile creeping on the edge of her lips, Susan nodded her head.
LouAnne nodded her head once, affirmatively. "Good. Glad to hear it."
And so they were friends. Though they had never once met outside of Perkins Groceries, LouAnne made a point every Monday and Thursday when she came to do her grocery shopping to wait in Susan's line. It didn't matter if there was an empty lane to her left and three carts already backed up in Susan's line. She barked at the Manager to leave her alone when he tried to usher her over. She waited for as long as it took so that she could be checked out by Susan.
"You got a new shipment of bagger boys, I see."
LouAnne pointed to three baggers at the ends of the lanes, standing idly by and leaning against the metal hooks that held the store's plastic bags.
Susan nodded her head. "We always get new ones during the summers when they're out of school. Most of the time, they're just trying to earn a little money. Charles is actually saving for college."
Susan turned to the bagger at the end of her own lane. He was a slightly pimpled, skinny boy who looked just old enough to be in high school. He had a messy hill of hair with long, airy bangs that he was always pushing out of his face – but refused to clip back with a bobby pin.
Charles glanced up at Susan with a mopy expression and nodded his head. LouAnne, in her usual intense way of engaging people, set her eyes upon him at once.
"What school?" Compared to Susan's quiet voice, her words reached the youth like a blast of bass and he looked up at once.
"Whuh?" he said, his jaw slackening.
"I said, what school?"
"Oh... uh... I'm not sure yet."
"Well, when do you graduate?"
"Uh... next year." Charles grinned. He glanced over at the other baggers, who were watching the conversation take place and snickering. Susan took a step back from her cash register, and fiddled with her hands under the counter. She, too, watched the conversation, but with a wariness drawn in the lines of her face.
"That's not very much time," LouAnne said. "Do you have any idea what you want to study?"
"Fat studies," one of the other baggers chirped in, and the whole group failed unanimously to control their chuckles. Susan, feeling altogether trapped in her cash register cubicle, began stretching her neck in a futile attempt to lengthen it like a giraffe, hoping to catch sight of the Manager.
LouAnne plowed on, taking no notice of the other boys comments.
"Well?" she boomed. "What are you planning to study?"
Charles' grin faltered slightly, and he mumbled, "I dunno... art or something."
"Speak up! I don't hear that well. What did you say?"
The chuckles and snickering began to die down. Charles looked at LouAnne with distaste.
"I said art."
"Art, hmm? What do you like about art?" LouAnne did not release him from her piercing gaze for one moment. At this point, she pushed the joystick on her wheelchair and inched forward down the lane. Charles didn't move, but he was no longer slouching against the end of the lane. His whole posture had stiffened and he looked ready to spit on LouAnne at any moment.
"I don't know... I just do. What's it to you, lady?"
Other shoppers were looking on now. Some of them were staring, unapologetically, perhaps quite unknowingly. Some of them were checking their cell phones and glancing at their unmoving groceries on the conveyer belts with irritation. The other bagger boys and cashiers were also looking on, occasionally glancing back at each other, hoping to find some common feeling, some safe territory for expression of the strange and undesired feelings they were experiencing.
LouAnne took no offense to the boy's sudden sharpness. She shrugged her shoulders and said, "Just curious. I didn't realize it was a personal question these days to ask someone what their major was. Or perhaps you just aren't sure yet what it is that you really want to do with your life, and that's what's making you so uncomfortable."
"What the hell is wrong with you?" Charles burst. "Who the hell... seriously... who the hell asks somebody in a grocery store what they want to do with their life. Is it because you're a fat ugly bitch and you don't have anyone to talk to at your own home?"
"Charles!" Susan exclaimed, glancing back at LouAnne frantically, terrified of the possibility that this relatively speech-less youth could hurt her regular's feelings. For even though Susan knew how bold and firm LouAnne was, she believed that everyone had a sensitive spot. Another cashier, looking on, had picked up her phone and was quickly dialing numbers. A few of the customers had walked off, disgruntled, leaving their shopping carts behind.
LouAnne raised her hand to Susan, never taking her eyes off Charles. They were crackling like campfire. "No, don't stop him Susan. Go on, boy. Don't hold back. Say what it is you're really thinking."
"Okay," Charles said, taking a step forward, holding himself up as tall as he could so that he could look down at LouAnne. Another bagger boy chipped in with, "You tell her Charles."
"You want to know what I think?" he said, his voice softening with impending cruelty. "I think that you're a delusional, obese, diabetic slob and that you suck off hard working people like me and my dad so that you can get your welfare and disability benefits, so that you can stay at home all day on your sofa and drink soda and eat cheese puffs."
Susan was near-tears. She looked up and saw a customer and another associate talking to the Manager down one of the shopping aisles, pointing down her lane.
"Is that so?" LouAnne's brow arched and she smirked. "And how did you come to know all that about me? I've never met anybody who knew my diet, employment status, and health history just by looking at me."
"Are you kidding me?" Charles snarled. He started shouting, loudly. "Who do you think you are? Do you not realize that you're a fat pig? Look in the mirror! You've probably only been pity-fucked once in your life!"
"What is going on here?" The manager was finally on scene. He walked right up to Charles and pulled him a side. "What do you think you are doing? You can't speak to customers like that."
"She started it!" Charles continued to shout, breaking away from the manager and pointing angrily at LouAnne. "She was the one that kept trying to push my buttons."
"Push your buttons?" LouAnne let loose a sound like a bark. "All I did was ask you what school you wanted to go to and what you wanted to study?"
"Who does that?" Charles retorted. "Seriously, who does that?" he pleaded to his manager.
The manager shook his head at his employee. "Chuck, go back to the break room. I'll talk to you in a minute."
"But - "
"Go back to the break room," the manager ordered, firmly. "I'll talk to you in a minute."
With a dark look to his companions and one last glare in LouAnne's direction, Charles brushed past Susan and down the empty lane behind her. She watched him storm down to the break room, passing through the international aisle, nearly walking into a full cart as he did. She felt colder where she stood after he passed, like a chill wind had suddenly come upon her. Then she looked back at the scene at hand, surprised to see the Manager escorting LouAnne down the aisle.
"Excuse me," she was saying, even more loudly than usual, "I have been shopping here for over four years. I have done nothing wrong."
"Ma'am, I understand – but I won't say it again. I'm going to have to ask you to leave. You are upsetting our other customers."
"Upsetting them? I haven't said a word to them!" LouAnne cried.
"Mr. Seeley, it's true. She was just trying to talk to Charles," Susan meekly tried to interject. "She didn't say anything rude to him or anyone else."
"Susan." The manager rose his hand and shook his head at her. "Don't get involved. Please let me handle this."
Susan watched helplessly on as Mr. Seeley continued to usher LouAnne outside the store. Her friend never once looked back at her, but Susan could tell that she was furious. Her eyes were set on Mr. Seeley like security cameras; if she had lasers for eyes, she would have shot a hole through his head on the spot. She didn't even have a chance to finish buying the groceries that were scattered across Susan's lane, some sitting scanned but unbagged by Charles' post and some still waiting to get checked by Susan on the conveyer belt. Susan felt so lost and dazed, and it was only when the cashier next to her kept her from sinking inescapably into herself.
"What happened?" she asked. "Those boys were just teasing her, and then she blew up at him."
But Mr. Seeley had walked back in and clapped his hands. Addressing the gaggle of customers and associates who had collected in the lanes of cash registers, he announced, "Thank you everyone for shopping at Perkins Groceries. We value your business and we apologize for any inconvenience just now. Associates, please resume your work."
For a brief pause, there was silence, immobility, and a touch of confusion. But as Mr. Seeley's words settled, everyone resumed their normal roles – cashiers checking out customers, customers pulling out their wallets and talking on their cell phones, and the bagger boys reluctantly packing up the purchased groceries. A customer or two peeked down Susan's lane, but before anyone else approached, Mr. Seeley pulled out the gate hidden by the magazine and candy racks to block the path. He then turned to Susan.
"Okay, go ahead and collect all this stuff – put back any of the perishables and leave the other stuff for the stock crew in the back room. Then when you're ready, you can come back and finish checking people out."
Susan nodded her head and Mr. Seeley walked away. She glanced back outside the building through the glass doors, where she could still see a glimpse of LouAnne in the parking lot. She had gotten off the scooter and was now, slowly and with some difficulty, pushing herself into her vehicle. Susan watched until she was all the way in and able to shut her door. She even watched as LouAnne drove out of the parking lot, her tires screeching as she did, causing a few heads to turn.
She looked back at LouAnne's groceries – the bushel of apples, the hot dogs, the yogurt, the milk, toilet paper, and toenail clippers. Not a bag of cheese puffs or bottle of pop in the mix. She sighed and began collecting the goods in a shopping cart. With a heavy heart, she finished the rest of her shift.