Editor’s note: Yes, I am the writer being featured this week! Forgive this self-indulgence, but I was very pleased to learn this weekend that this essay was listed in the “100 Notable Essays” section of the new edition of Best American Essays, so I thought I would put to good use my very powerful position as editor and founder of Redux.
~This essay previously appeared in PMS: poem memoir story (2013).
JOY TO THE WORLD
It’s mid-December, a morning of doing errands, a day like any other day, except that everything is going remarkably well: I find a great parking spot. The post office isn’t crowded when I arrive to mail my packages, though the man behind the counter tells me there’s been a line all morning, “until right about now.” Find another great parking spot. Stumble across the perfect Christmas gift for my hard-to-buy-for friend at a locally-owned boutique. And so on.
Last stop, the grocery store, where my luck continues, and the guy working produce locates in the back the last bag of parsnips in the building. Parsnips are a key ingredient in the velvety-lush root vegetable soup I want to make for dinner tonight. “Bet you’ve never seen anyone get so excited about parsnips,” I joke to him, and he laughs pleasantly.
So things are moving along, and I’ve committed to a check-out aisle, unloading my cart onto the conveyer belt, doing my usual tidy job of it: heavy stuff up front; frozen foods, meat, and milk grouped together; produce in one section, poisonous cleaners in another; fragile things at the end. I’m daydreaming about the array of Christmas cookies on the covers of the food magazines, so I don’t notice the person in line ahead of me until she snaps, “I told you I can’t lift more than five pounds! Those bags are too heavy!”
She’s an older, stocky woman with short, frosty blonde hair and a worn, beige, padded coat that’s hanging open, unzipped. She glares at the cashier, an African-American woman who might be called “big-boned” or maybe just “big”; she’s imposing. I don’t recognize the cashier; this grocery store chain has been going through round after round of upheavals in management and union talks, so there are a lot of new cashiers, as well as new arrangements for getting the groceries checked out and paid for as quickly as possible. Now there are often dedicated baggers, and today there’s a fortyish Latina woman with her hair yanked into a severe ponytail standing at the end of the lane, stuffing products into a tattered brown paper bag imprinted with the name of another grocery store.
The cashier says, “Excuse me?” I have the sense that she, too, daydreams in the grocery store, flashing products across the scanner as she thinks about saxophones or new curtains or Christmas cookies, the register’s ding-ding a distant annoyance. She holds a small carton of Egg Beaters in one hand and does not ding it through.
The customer points at the bagger, who is still working on that single, teeteringly-full bag. Her voice sounds desperate, shrill, a tone I try to avoid: “I told you not to put more than five pounds in those bags, and that sugar alone is five pounds.”
True. I’m doing my holiday baking this week, and in the baking aisle, I had grabbed a bag of sugar for my cart: five pounds. Flour: also five pounds.
The bagger piles a few more items into the paper bag, and when there’s nothing else to add, she looks up expectantly. Clearly she doesn’t understand why there’s a hold-up; clearly she wants to squeeze just one or two more things in that crammed bag.
“Calm down,” the cashier says to the customer. (Funny how that phrase actually never calms anyone down.) “You should have told us what you wanted,” and she passes more things over the register scanner—Egg Beaters, ding; baby carrots, ding—and the supply line to the bagger is resumed, and the bagger seems pleased to return to loading up the paper bag. Ding, ding.
“I did tell you!” the customer says. “I told you, and then I told her,” and she jabs her finger again at the bagger.
“She doesn’t understand anything,” the cashier says, which comes off as horribly dismissive and perhaps even mean, but which apparently is true as the bagger doesn’t flinch. Even she can work no more miracles, and she pushes aside the overstuffed paper bag and unfolds another of the customer’s paper bags which she starts loading up.
“That’s why I told you,” and the finger jab swings over to the cashier, which I’m pretty sure will not be a big hit. The customer is practically shouting, and she and the cashier escalate into one of those unwinnable battles: “I don’t like your attitude—you’re the one with the attitude.” Though the cashier repeats several times, “I’m trying to help you,” it’s clear that she actually isn’t or she would stop the fighting and let the customer speak instead of ruthlessly dinging the groceries through. Yet when she says to the customer, “What do you want? We’ll do what you want,” the customer doesn’t say, I want you to take the things out of my recycled stuffed-to-the-gills paper bag and distribute them into ten other bags even if that seems like a waste of bags and even if that makes more work for you, a long sentence, yes, but one which might clear up the situation instantly.
Instead, in a voice brimming with the devil’s rage, the customer finally says, “I have breast cancer, and I just had surgery, so I can’t lift more than five pounds.” Ding.
And the cashier repeats, “Tell me what you want us to do.”
There’s a glimmer of a pause in the argument, and I’m not sure what will happen next. I’m committed to this check-out line, with all my groceries stretching the length of the conveyer now. What am I supposed to do? The bagger shuffles something at the bottom of the bag, perhaps jostling for more room or maybe making sure the English muffins won’t get squashed, then reaches for another bag and keeps packing.
Then the customer shouts, “Cancel my order!” at the exact moment the cashier rings up the last item—Ivory soap. There are about a dozen things collected at the end of the lane that the bagger is stuffing into this last bag.
Meanwhile, a woman has wheeled her cart behind me, and I suggest that she’ll probably be better off in another line; “she just ‘canceled’ her order,” I say, “so who knows what that means?” We roll our eyes at each other because it’s clear that we’re both so very perfect; we’re the type of women who keep lists and tick off chores in an organized, methodical way. If someone needs a tissue or an Advil, we could quickly pull one out of purses. We remember to use the half-off coupons magneted to our refrigerators and always have enough quarters for the meter. We’re probably both winding down our successful and full morning of errands, with the grocery store being our last stop. We don’t plan delays, so the woman takes my advice and scoots over to another line.
“Cancel it!” the customer shouts. “I’m leaving, so cancel everything. Just give me back my bags.” Customers get a five cent credit for every bag they bring in themselves, so she wants to take home her tattered paper bags to reuse them. Or maybe she wants to buy herself some time. She pushes her cart forward a couple of feet, as if to indicate, I mean business, but I’m betting that she needs these groceries; there’s a fair amount of stuff here, not just a head of lettuce or a package of cheese slices that one could leave behind and make do without. I would find it difficult to walk away from an hour’s worth of shopping simply to make a point. Driving down the road to another grocery store for another whole sixty minutes of shopping for exactly the same items would not be on my to-do list; and I would need the groceries I had planned to buy. What would I eat for dinner? Nevertheless, “Cancel it!” she shouts again.
Unfortunately, the bagger has now packed up every last thing. She seems proud of her accomplishment: a hundred and twenty dollars worth of groceries wedged into four bags, all that time trolling aisle after aisle, comparing prices, reading labels, dodging other people’s carts, poking through produce and packages of chicken…reduced into four bags. Part of me admires this efficiency and skill, even as I myself groan when I have to haul in heavy, overly-packed bags from my driveway to my house. Just because something can fit doesn’t mean it should. Just because it’s only packing a grocery bag, doesn’t mean there isn’t a certain art to it.
“Take it all out,” the cashier orders. “The lady cancelled her groceries,” and she starts yanking things from one of the bags, dropping them into a basket that’s usually set aside for the stuff that people change their minds about at the last minute (“Those capers cost how much! I don’t want them.”). But the cashier is rattled, and almost immediately, she’s simply tearing her way through the bags, leaving the customer’s baby carrots and Egg Beaters strewn on the counter at the end of the lane; the bagger watches for a moment, then joins in as if this is perfectly normal—as if this is some kind of fun new party game—and now she’s pulling stuff out of the bag faster than the cashier is.
The customer is crying, not all-out sobs, but more than a trickling tear. She wipes her cheek and says, “First my husband died, and now I have breast cancer and no one’s helping me, and this is all just crappy. I can’t carry these things. I can’t lift more than five pounds.”
“Pray about it,” the cashier says. “That’s all you can do: pray, and you’ll be fine.” She punches a few buttons on the register: maybe cancelling an order is no more than doing that; why wouldn’t cancelling be as efficiently designed as everything else here? I had imagined having to de-scan each item one by one; I had imagined having to load my stuff back into my cart and head to another line. But no, this will be fast and easy.
For the first time, the customer looks directly at me—I have a quick glimpse of bright blue eyes before—I’m ashamed to say—I look away. All I want is to pay for my groceries, I tell myself, to make my root vegetable soup drizzled with truffle oil. (Another element of the perfect day of errands: the gourmet store had a test tube size of truffle oil for only $5.95 so I didn’t have to buy the full size bottle for $26.95.)
So the customer is not speaking to anyone in particular when she says, “I hate the world that gave me breast cancer, the world that does these terrible things.”
I should note here—or somewhere—that my first husband died suddenly when I was thirty-five, and when I went into the grocery store for the first time after his death, I stood crying in the cereal aisle, clinging to the handle of my cart, realizing that I no longer had to remember to buy cornflakes for him. I have definitely hated the world, too. I have hated innocent men and women going about their normal, daily business while less than a millimeter under the surface, I writhed in pain; I have hated well-meaning people who spouted their tired bromides as if sharing with me some great secret only they could impart: “it’s all God’s plan,” or, “time will heal everything,” or, “what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.” I understand that, yes, sometimes there is nothing we can say except this: the world is crap; it’s just all crap.
And I also understand that not many people will want to hear this—or think about it—or believe it, because to do so will smack them up against the fact that the world is random and that what we deserve and what we get have little to do with anything. This woman at the grocery store is only saying what’s ultimately true, though we may not want to—or be able to—hear it.
A shift happens as I’m thinking about these things, and suddenly the cashier is saying, “We can rebag for you. We can make the bags lighter. All you have to do is say so.” The customer’s entire cart-worth of groceries is now unloaded and scattered loose on the counter; her own paper bags have been folded and returned to the cart so she can use them again.
“Now you’re listening to me,” the customer says. “Thank you.” She sniffles, pulls a crumpled tissue from her coat pocket and wipes her nose.
“You still want to cancel your order?” The cashier’s hand hovers over the buttons on the register. Someone else might not have asked, someone else might have been happy to hustle this customer out the door to prove a point. The question is a moment of sweetness.
“No,” she says. “You’re listening to me now.” She tugs her cart back to its proper slot near the register, and the cashier and the bagger start repacking everything they’ve just unpacked, slipping one or two items into each plastic bag. It seems that the customer has accumulated a pile of at least thirty bags now. She reminds them in a shaky voice: “I can’t lift more than five pounds.”
One bag of sugar. One bag of flour. I suspect my own purse weighs more than five pounds.
She’s crying harder, the crumpled tissue is a damp, shredded wad; the cashier is sniffling and swiping her own cheeks; the bagger keeps her head down as she races through the groceries in this revamped style: one item equals one bag. I wonder what she’s thinking about all this bagging and unbagging and rebagging, or if she wants only to do her job and get through the day. “Want a tissue?” the cashier asks, offering the Kleenex box to the customer. “I’m sorry,” she says. “I just didn’t understand.”
“I’m sorry, too,” the customer says, tugging out a new tissue. “I shouldn’t be so angry at you.”
“Do you want to hug?” the cashier asks, then immediately answers her own question: “We need to hug.”
But first, it’s time for logistics. Cards are swiped, receipts are signed, and the last of the many bags is piled into the cart.
The customer is about to walk away, to the glass exit doors, but the cashier says it again: “We need to hug,” and she leans slightly, expecting to embrace over the conveyor belt.
The customer pauses, her face tight and strained and teary, and I’m wondering if she’s thinking, as I am, that a hug may be a bigger bromide than the previous directive to pray, but then she speaks in a low voice as if making a confession: “I can’t lift my arm. It’s still sore from surgery,” so the cashier pushes around to stand next to her and gently embraces her, handling her as if she’s about to break. “I’m sorry,” they murmur to each other, and then we watch the customer walk to the automatic doors which slide open for her, and she wheels her cart through and heads to the parking lot.
My turn. “That was traumatic,” I say as the cashier resumes her post at the register. That doesn’t need to be said, but I need to say something. Too late, I realize that I should have said something to the customer, not the cashier; I should have said, “Ma’am, if you wait for me, I’ll load your stuff into your car.” But I didn’t think to say that, so I state the obvious: “That was traumatic.” My own bromide—understated observation, going for a wry chuckle from my audience, finding a safe distance away from what has just happened.
The cashier is very fast with my groceries, whisking them through the scanner with rapid-fire dinging; she’s not daydreaming now, and neither am I. She’s still sniffling. The bagger takes my recyclable mesh bags and starts loading the hell out of the first one—flour, sugar, a four-pack of fire-starter sticks—Hercules would struggle to lift this bag—but I look away and let her do her thing.
Now—now!—a manager shows up and tells the cashier she’s allowed to go on an early break, and the cashier races off, clutching her tissue, wiping her cheeks, shaking her head from side to side. The manager couldn’t be more cheerful, as if she wants to be the new poster girl for sunny and perky. “How are you today?” she asks me, then ten seconds after I tell her that I’m fine, she asks again, “How are you today?”
So I try out my line one more time: “That was traumatic for everyone,” and she agrees.
“You need a tissue too?” she asks, not joking.
“Almost, but not quite.” I’m not joking either.
The bagger keeps shoving things into this single bag—non-chlorine bleach, cans of tuna, a bottle of sparkling water—so finally I really, really have to say, kindly, “That’s enough stuff in there, I think,” and I shake my head and point to the pile of other bags, so she reaches for one.
The manager turns around and stares at the bagger. “Stop filling those bags too much,” she barks. “People got to carry them.” She pauses importantly, letting her statements sink in. Then she returns to scanning through my items. This is the easy lesson. This is what we can all learn and how we can change. Here, here is a goal we can accomplish and a result we can achieve: we can make sure that less stuff is crammed into grocery bags.
Outside, I run into the customer as she’s dutifully returning her shopping cart to the corral. “Are you feeling better?” I ask, touching her arm, knowing she isn’t, but also knowing this is the only thing a stranger can ask.
She’s still crying, and my question makes her choke back a little hiccup of a sob. Her eyes are very, very clear blue and wide: china doll eyes, kitten eyes. She seems much more fragile with these eyes than if they were brown or black or green. “Oh, thank you for asking,” she says.
I tell her that my husband died, and I’m waiting for the usual reaction—you’re so young—but grief is like a dream, interesting only when it’s our own, and my hand on her arm is all the encouragement she needs, because she jumps in with, “It’s all so hard, just these simple things like groceries. I’m bald, so to go out I’ve got to put on my wig”—which makes her cry harder; I tell her she looks fabulous, though now that she mentions it, her hair does look artificial, something I hadn’t noticed before when I was avoiding looking at her—“and drive out here, and driving!”—an angry dramatic gesture—“if I take one pill, the doctor says I’m not supposed to drive, but if I don’t take it, I feel awful. And then of course it’s the holidays”—and here I see that she’s wearing an inexpensive sweatshirt embroidered with the words “Joy to the World,” the type of sweatshirt one might buy at Wal-Mart or Sears, and I picture her rooting around a dresser drawer, looking for her special holiday sweatshirt so she can pretend she feels festive while she does her grocery shopping, and I have to look back at her eyes and stop thinking about the sweatshirt or I’ll start to bawl—“and I wanted to pick out some Christmas cards for my special people”—and the only way to keep the tears back is to murmur every useless bromide I know: You look fabulous, it’s so hard to do these things alone, you’re doing a great job, the holidays can be so difficult.
She’s very polite about my clichés: “Thank you so much for taking the time to listen to me. Thank you for asking about me. I have to go in tomorrow, and they’re removing more tissue.”
I could try to imagine how frightened she must be, but, frankly, I don’t want to. I’m embarrassed—though glad—that my clichés are comforting, are enough for this waning moment as we stand together at the cart corral of a suburban Virginia grocery store under chilly sunlight and a clear sky. But there should be more. I want to take her home with me and cook up a pot of my root vegetable soup especially for her, drizzling the truffle oil just so in a pretty zigzag; I want to carry a bowl of soup to her while she reclines in bed with NPR interview shows softly burbling in the background. I want to be the kind of person who says, “We need to hug,” and also, I want to be the kind of person who lets herself be hugged by strangers. I want to believe in “Joy to the World.”
But she scares me.
“Surgery tomorrow! No wonder you’re so stressed out,” I say, though “stressed out” is a phrase I use to describe how I feel about a trip through rush hour traffic or having to wait in line at the bank behind someone with a zippered plastic pouch making a commercial deposit.
I continue with my litany of clichés that don’t seem substantial enough for a woman with breast cancer telling me that “the world is a pile of shit…excuse my language,” but finally she has said everything she needs to say, and she concludes with another very polite, “Thank you so much for listening to me.” A cliché lobbed back at me. Or maybe not. She’s stopped crying, and I want so desperately to believe that this little bit I’ve done, this bare minimum of kindness, has helped her.
We part ways—I touch her arm again, but we don’t hug—and I walk to my own car, unload my bags, wheel my cart back to the corral. Think about my soup. Think about a phone call I have to make at 2:30. Think that I’ll never see this woman again.
Though, actually, I do catch one final glimpse of her: She’s driving a non-descript white car that needs to be washed, careening too fast through the parking lot to the exit, sucking hard on a cigarette. Even from where I stand, and even though I’ve never been a smoker, I sense through the layers of car windows and the increasing distance between us, the immense relief of that single, glowing cigarette, that distilled moment of escape.
THE STORY BEHIND THE ESSAY
Well…as a fiction writer, it feels very easy to report on the process for this piece: Here is what happened to me and then I wrote it down. But I didn’t write it down immediately after the incident, though I was very shaken by these events. Several days later, I told the story to a table of visiting family members at a restaurant, who were laughing uproariously in the beginning but then ended up in tears. (To be fair, there were some martinis being consumed.) Seeing the extremes of that reaction—and still feeling the rawness of my own experience—convinced me that I could find my way to an essay if I sat down at the computer and pushed myself, hard.
ABOUT LESLIE PIETRZYK
Leslie Pietrzyk is the author of two novels, Pears on a Willow Tree and A Year and A Day. Her short fiction has appeared in many literary journals, including Shenandoah, Gettysburg Review, The Sun, River Styx, Iowa Review, and Crab Orchard Review. She teaches fiction writing in the low-residency MFA program at Converse College and in the graduate writing program at Johns Hopkins University. She is the editor of Redux. For more information: www.lesliepietrzyk.blogspot.com or www.workinprogressinprogress.com.