For a moment, she considered it.
The cashier was a woman, not a 17-year-old guy. Check.
No one ahead of her. Check.
Then she made a sweep with her eyes of the contents in her cart.
Less than 20. Or was it 15? Wait . . . 12. No. That’s crazy. It’s 20. It’s 20 items or less, and I have less than 20 items. Check.
But then she saw the Self-Checkout Lanes.
Shining like the proverbial pearly gates of heaven with an angelic choir, the allure of buying groceries privately with no social interaction whatsoever was too strong. She passed the cashier that wasn’t a 17-year-old guy. She passed the No-Wait, 20 (or maybe 15) Items or Less Lane.
A conversation in which she didn’t have to answer was too great a promise.
“Welcome valued customer.”
“Are you using your own bags?”
“Scan your item. Then place your item in the bagging area.”
The first item she plucked from the cart was a red pepper with a bar code sticker on its skin. She carefully held it above the scanner, waiting for the red laser lines visible through the glass plate of the metal surface to do their job. Technology is wonderful, she thought.
She continued to hold it, but there was no familiar chime.
She turned it over in. She smoothed the sticker in case a tiny fold or crease was the culprit of failure. She even gently pressed the pepper against the surface of the scanner, to no avail.
“Did you pick self-checkout,” said a real and decidedly male voice behind her, “so you didn’t have to interact with anyone?”
“Maybe,” she replied, avoiding a husband’s judgmental glare. Then she all but smashed the pepper into the scanner. Work, you stupid piece of crap!
His voice was kind but impatient.
“This is ridiculous.”
“It. Will. Work.”
“Place your item in the bagging area.”
“See?” She held up the pepper condescendingly, then did as she was told.
Her husband shook his head, and the baby in his arms smiled and cooed at the sight of his mother’s face.
“You have a problem.”
She continued scanning and bagging more groceries.
“You know,” her husband said as she individually scanned and individually bagged the sixth jar of baby food, “these people are paid to help you.”
“I like doing it myself.”
“This takes three, maybe even four times as long. All so you don’t have to speak to another human being.”
“That is correct, yes.”
“I’m going to go get the car.”
“That’s a good idea,” she said cheerfully. She didn’t even look up as he passed, making his way to the exit, and as she placed another item in the bagging area. The price was high, she thought, but the rewards are great. Perhaps one day they could afford to have their groceries delivered to their home, eliminating this problem altogether. But who has the money for that?
She looked in the cart where the diaper bag was supposed to be, and in which her wallet was now living these days.
It was gone.
Of course it was. He had taken the diaper bag with the human for whom the diaper bag was used: the baby. Not the adult woman. The adult woman was supposed to carry a purse, and if she had been, there would be no problem.
The pause in the transaction elicited a response from the machine.
“Attendant has been notified to assist you.”
No. No! Cancel. Cancel!
Within five seconds, she had her cell phone pressed to her ear.
“I need the diaper bag. My purse is in there.”
His voice faded as he hung up the phone. “You have got to be kidding – ”
After an excruciatingly 3-5 minutes, her husband reappeared carrying the baby in one arm and the diaper bag on the other. With an exaggerated and comical pursed-lip expression, he extended the bag to her and she offered a polite “thanks.” He turned to leave, and she returned to scanning her items and placing them in the bagging area, just like the machine said.
Machines don’t get impatient with you, she thought to herself as she scanned and bagged a pack of hamburger buns.
Her last item was a small four-pack case of ginger beer. It was a last-minute addition to their grocery list, her husband having been wanting to make Moscow Mules ever since their friends had introduced them to the refreshing, summery cocktail last month. He “just so happened” to be walking through the liquor aisle and discovered their local store was now carrying it, and had excitedly held it up to her face so she, too, could be excited about the prospect of Moscow Mules.
Now she just wanted to leave. It was getting dangerously close to the start time of the bedtime routine. Countdown would begin at the first unpleasant sound from her infant son, and for all she knew, that could have been minutes ago during her husband’s first trip to the car.
She went to pick up the ginger beer.
This special beer, however, was not packaged in the usual way of its Michelob cousins or its distant relative, Smirnoff. The beers were wrapped on the top, bottom, front, and back with cardboard, leaving the sides exposed and open. Instead of a handle, there was a hole at the top, presumably for an index finger.
Perhaps if she had just taken a moment to examine the item before she tried scanning it, the following would never have happened. But the machine gave no such instructions.
She reached for the beer, paying no heed to the hole, and lifted the beers by their cardboard container no more than two inches from the infant basket at the rear of the cart.
The momentum was not enough to knock them all over, but one beer was shaken loose from the questionable cardboard and tumbled gloriously to the hard, unforgiving floor where it very satisfyingly smashed into an explosion of glass and ginger beer.
She blinked her eyes and felt a sense of dread come over her.
Not over her bare foot in the flip-flop she was wearing, that was now covered in beer.
Not over the tiny bits of glass on her big toe.
Someone would be coming to “help” her.
But it wasn’t just one person. Oh no. It had to be three people, all under the age of 23, descending upon her humiliation like vultures, ready to feast on her pride.
This time, the voices did not come from a machine.
“Hey, Sara, we need a mop.”
“I think it’s somewhere in produce.”
“No, the other mop. We need to get this cleaned up before Darlene sees.”
“But it’s glass, too. Do we mop up the glass?”
“Just mop it all up and get it out of here.”
“Ma’am, do you need another case?”
She glanced up to the stranger who called her ma’am – a young girl with sleepy eyes and a pretty bad set of jagged-cut bangs. She was heavyset and looked annoyed, in the way that only those who work in the food industry can look both annoyed and pleasant at the same time.
The girl turned to the direction of the liquor aisle.
“I’m so sorry,” she heard herself say to the remaining two, feeling both guilt and panic rushing in now that the shock was over. Since meeting their gaze was impossible, she began picking glass bits out of the bottom of her foot, absently tossing them to the floor. Whether real or imaginary, she perceived their displeasure with her, and the disgust of having to interact with such a clumsy fool. Perhaps they were watching all along, she told herself, and saw that she had to wait for her husband to bring back the diaper bag.
Humiliated, she hid her face as the third girl returned with another case of beer.
Instead of placing the item on the scanner, she returned it to the same place it was in the cart. Then she walked away, likely distancing herself from the scene entirely.
This time, there would be no mistakes. She carefully wrapped her hands around the entire case, foregoing the questionable hole on top altogether, and warily placed the item on the scanner.
“Please show your ID to the attendant.”
She shuttered. Now it seemed even a lifeless machine was twisting the knife.
However, a message flashed on the screen. Age verification bypassed.
She sighed in relief. Still, she was forced to awkwardly scoop the four beers from the scanner’s surface, and deposit them into a plastic bag. The action left her flushed and trembling. She made a mental note to call and complain to the brewery and manufacture, a thought she found ironic later. Call and speak to another person? On the telephone? To lodge a complaint? She would rather drop a whole case of beer than have to go through that kind of torture.
She quickly retrieved her bags, carefully adding them one by one to each arm.
Then she turned to the two store clerks still cleaning up the mess.
“I’m really very sorry,” she said softly.
They glanced up at her with polite smiles, and one of them exclaimed that it was “all right.”
She left the store with her bottom lip between her teeth, her nerves shaken, and her pride sticking to the bottom of her flip-flop.
She needed a drink.
A Moscow Mule.