The Check Out Counter

He stands in line, tall, thin, elderly, nondescript. He blends into the magazine rack. He stands there with three items, waiting to check out. Behind him steps a woman with a cart full of groceries and a baby in her arms. The man shyly offers her his place. “Why don’t you go next?”

“Really? Oh, thank you,” says the woman, “that’s very sweet of you.”

For a moment, the man glows pink with pleasure. For a moment he does not fade into the background of the magazine rack. And he notices how good that feels. In his basket he carries a quart of non-fat milk, a loaf of brown bread, and a carton of chocolate ice cream. The items have grown a little heavier as he stands in line. Behind him comes an elderly woman with a cane and a basket. He looks at her and offers, “Madam, would you care to go in front of me?”

She looks at him as though he has asked her to dance and responds, “Why thank you, sir. How very kind.”

As she steps in front of him, the man feels even better, a bit more worthy of the world. He waits and his arms grow even heavier with the load. His ice cream has begun to melt and drops are beginning to puddle to the floor at his feet. At the check out counter, a young Latina girl wonders at the strange old bird who won’t check out his food and just stands in line like a ghost. Spooks her out. She calls to him, “Hey mister, don’t you want to get on home.”

He looks up at her and begins to put his basket on the counter when up behind him comes a young man. Early twenties is the man, with ears and nostrils pierced, shaved head, and tattoos up and down his arms. A cigarette pack is curled into the sleeve of his tee-shirt. He carries a bottle of whiskey and a leather jacket over his shoulder. The old man thinks to himself ‘three’s the charm,’ and offers him his place in line. “Excuse me, young sir, would you care to go next.”

The young man looks at him through snake eyes, “Sure. Why the fuck not.”

He pushes the old man out of the way to make his way towards the counter, but as he does so he steps into the brown puddle on the floor. Slipping this way, then that, down comes tumbling the boy, the old man, the bottle of whiskey and one very small, very black handgun.

Smash goes the bottle! Bang goes the gun! The bullet explodes through the old man’s skinny arm, and red blood begins to mingle with the muddy mess on the floor. Voices scream, security guards shout and alarms go off everywhere. The old man lays in the muck and wonders what has gone wrong. He had only meant to be polite. Now his dinner is ruined, his arm hurts and his pants are dirty.

The police arrive and then the paramedics. Everyone swarms around like flies, the young man is hauled away. Finally, one paramedic, an older woman, reaches to help the old man up. “Sir, let me help you. I believe you may have been injured.”

He looks at her and notices her short curly hair, salt and pepper, and her rather ample breasts. Reminds him of an aunt of his from long ago. As she sits him down on the gurney to bandage his arm she tells him, “You know, you’re a hero.”

“A what?”

“A hero. That young man there would have robbed the store. But you stopped him.”

“Me. No. I did nothing at all. I was just going to let him in front of me in line.”

And the paramedic, who’s name was Betsy, smiles and answers, “Well, sir, that was very kind of you. Very kind indeed.”

And the man smiles back and blushes the color of a rose. And if you were to see that grocery store from the outside that night you would have seen an older, rather plumpish woman talking to a ball of light.

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