You pull into the only open spot you can find, wedging your CR-V between two barges—a Cadillac DeVille and a Lincoln Town Car—one of which hosts a white-sideburned gentleman snoozing in a reclining position in the driver’s seat, both his lips and his window cracked open for air. Your goal is to finish your shopping before his wife does so that you can ensure no damage to your own vehicle when the gentleman cuts his wheel too soon in an attempt to back out of that space. You get pressed against your rear bumper as a parade of slow-moving people pushing overstuffed carriages ambles past. Already, you are behind your own schedule. But you must carry on to fulfill the duty of the suburban mom that you have become. Even though you work full time, you’re still a teacher, and can no longer justify the repeated trips to flashy supermarket powerhouses that try to beguile you with special saver cards. The recollection of finding a three-pack of Hershey’s chocolate milk boxes here for $1.69 after you fell for a 2/$7 scheme at Stop and Shop gnaws at you even now, and you tilt down your chin and set your shoulders and charge forward toward the electric doors, determined to survive the excursion.
In the lobby of the store, you must wait for an opening in the flow of departing consumers to dart to the left to retrieve a cart. In swinging the cart somewhat violently in the other direction so that you can sidle up next to the monstrous display of 24-packs of bottled water, (you know that you are starting off at a disadvantage by weighing down your bottom rack so early in the process, but you also know that you will never remember to come back to this spot before heading to the check-out), you narrowly miss clipping an overly-tanned middle-aged woman in denim shorts and a neon pink tank top bulging with breasts. She jerks out of your path and glares at you.
“Sorry,” you mumble. Your heartbeat thickens. Its pace won’t subside until you get out of here.
THE DAIRY AISLE
This department needs someone who has experience with cattle prodding to keep the traffic moving. A series of turquoise-and-cream-colored freezer bins trimmed with metal, most likely installed back in the 1950s, runs down the center of the aisle, cutting it into two lanes. You must travel down the righthand lane first, staying close to the shelves of cheese, yogurt, butter, and milk lining the wall. You know you must not hesitate too long in deciding whether to buy Cracker Barrel cheddar or the store brand. If you do, you will feel the hot breath of aggression on your neck and the inadvertent whack of a hand on your shoulder as it reaches in front of you to pluck a product from the display.
In this area, only two carts can fit side by side. As you search for the pre-packaged 2% American slices, quivering with the pressure to act fast, a woman halts her cart beside you to dig her shopping list out of her purse. She makes the mistake of studying her piece of notepad paper for a moment.
“Excuse me. Can you move, please?”
Another woman behind you and the list-checker is tapping the handle of her cart.
Slowly, the list-checker swivels on her heel to face the impatient shopper. “I’ll be just a second,” she says, her tone as viscous as honey. Just as leisurely, she swivels back to her list.
“Well, you’re blocking the whole aisle,” the other woman snips. She is wearing a pair of black pants trampled with tropical-colored flip-flops. Funny, she’s really not exuding a Caribbean-island-like calm.
The list-checker pauses, then guides the nose of her carriage into an nook between the front of your carriage and the polyestered rear end of another shopper, allowing just enough room for the crabby lady to squeeze by.
The list-checker turns to meet your gaze with widened eyes. “Can you believe her?” she says, deliberately loud enough for her accuser to hear.
You shake your head and murmur something, feeling your stomach tremble. When aggrieved, you always talk a good game in your head, but in reality, you fear confrontation.
“For God’s sake. She couldn’t wait one minute?” The now red-faced list-checker leers after the offending shopper, who is maneuvering her way toward the deli counter at the back of the building.
You would rather not serve as an accomplice to murder, so you shake your head non-committally again and busy yourself by picking up the first plastic-wrapped cube of pasteurized processed cheese that your fingers touch. Later, when you place it on the belt at Register 7, you will sigh as you realize that you have chosen full-fat cheese product. If you are going to die of chemically-constructed food, you at least want to be thin until the minute you meet your maker.
“Ridiculous,” snarls the list-checker.
You would push your cart right out of there, but she, and two other people winding their limbs around your body to grab packets of shredded Mexican mix, are in your way.
THE DELI COUNTER
Despite the crowd standing before them with crossed arms and endless orders, the deli associates in their white coats and gauzy hair nets move efficiently and pleasantly around one another like a team of synchronized swimmers. The shouting of numbers and arms raising, pink tickets waving, must imitate the commotion of the Stock Exchange floor. You park your cart against another refrigerated bin and pull your own ticket from the red machine. It says “023.” Your eyes shift up to the monitor with its scoreboard-style numbers: “009.” You purse your lips in aggravation. If you’re going to make this kind of commitment, your family had better gobble up this pastrami and honey ham that you have been repeatedly buying and throwing out.
After seven minutes, you still have ten numbers to go. A grandmother standing at the back of the throng along with you says to her grandson, who sits placidly in the carriage holding a Goldfish cracker container shaped like a Goldfish cracker, “We have to leave. We can’t wait any longer. We have to get to the airport, or Mommy and Daddy won’t be happy.” She lifts the little boy out of his seat and carries him away from the half-full cart, leaving it there for someone else to take care of. You spot in the abandoned pile of loot Purdue chicken nuggets, an eight-pack of chocolate Jell-O pudding, and a family-sized box of Cheez-Its, along with three or four other items that are on your own shopping list. The thought flashes through your mind that in a matter of moments, you could wipe out your visits to half the aisles in the store and save some precious time. But then you tell yourself how utterly strange you would look, rummaging around in Grandma’s leftovers the way a raccoon would scrounge in your outdoor trash barrels. Not that this kind of desperate behavior would necessarily be out of the ordinary for this particular supermarket…but still.
Ten more minutes pass. You check Facebook and Twitter on your iPhone, rub on lipgloss, crunch through half a roll of Wint O Green LifeSavers, and look to see if you have received any texts from your husband that report your children’s relentless “play with me” requests while you’re gone.
An older deli associate, a puffy baseball cap featuring the store logo propped on top of his net-covered head, hands over the counter about a pound of skinless turkey to a woman with lemon-yellow hair. When he withdraws to address her next demand, she unzips the bag of turkey, sticks her fingertips in between some of the slices, grumbles, and re-zippers the bag. Patiently, she waits until the associate has handed her a pound of prosciutto, then slaps the bag of turkey onto the countertop and says, “I wanted this sliced thin.”
“Sliced thin,” huffs the associate. “You didn’t say ‘sliced thin.’”
“I want it sliced thin,” the woman repeats.
“I didn’t hear you say ‘sliced thin.’” The associate nudges the bag of turkey ever so slightly back toward the woman.
“I want it sliced thin,” the woman repeats.
“Sliced thin,” grunts the associate. “Didn’t hear no ‘sliced thin.’”
You squirm. You can’t help but think that the associate should just slice the damn turkey thin. You have no clue how much more deli meat this lady wants, and you need to get home before sundown. You stare at the associate. You narrow your eyes. You sear a telepathic message into his brain. A gratefulness spreads through your chest as he finally yanks the rejected turkey off the countertop and slinks away to rectify the problem.
By the time the monitor clicks onto ’018,’ you can feel buds of rage sprouting just beneath your skin. You pace back and forth in front of the glass cases to release energy and to rehearse your choices under your breath.
The monitor stays on ‘022’ for six minutes. Apparently, everyone is feeding an Italian mob at home. You have never been so glad to be summoned by a weasly-looking little guy with a faint moustache and acne.
“I’m lookin’ for a ten!” he shouts.
A muscular college student in a sleeveless tee next to you extends his hand upward. In a deft Monkees move, you arc your left leg out in front of yourself and cross it in front of his right foot.
“Right here!” you blurt, and hold out your soggy ticket like a torch. “A third of pastrami,” you pant, “sliced thin.”