Previous Challenge Entry (Level 4 – Masters)
Topic: Phew! (02/11/10)
TITLE: Guilty as Charged?
By Marita Vandertogt
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The express line-up is long, too long. There are seven items in my cart. The lady in front of me has nine. The limit is eight. I count hers, just to be sure, pretending to read a magazine in the wrack beside me.
“I don’t know where people get the nerve,” a woman behind me says, frustrated. “I only have three things here, and the lady in front of you.... well,” her voice trails off.
That’s all I needed. “Yes,” I say, pulling my purse strap up higher on my shoulder, in an almost militant move. I look briefly at the woman behind me, lips curling into a supportive smile.
The woman in front empties her cart on the counter without so much as a backward glance of guilt. The noise below me is my foot tapping hard on the cement floor.
“Excuse me.“ I muster up the courage, brought on by the woman behind me, “but we notice that you should probably be in the line next to us. You’re over the limit.”
I turn around to bring the woman behind her into the conversation. But she isn’t there. She’s standing in the line two rows over and ignores me. I was alone.
“Well,” the woman is small, older than I thought. Her eyes look down and counts the items again. “Oh my,” she says, her voice sweet, apologetic. “I didn’t realize. I’m so sorry dear. Sometimes I forget which line I’m in, or how many things I have.”
I feel my neck shriveling inside the collar of my coat. How petty, I think. What was wrong with me. It was one item for goodness sake.
“That’s okay,” I apologize to her. “I’m sorry actually. I’m not normally this picky.” She pats me on the shoulder, and smiles.
That’ll be $45.16. The clerk stands waiting for the woman to hand her the money.
“Oh dear,” she reaches into her pocket. “The money, it’s not here.” Her voice gets higher with each word. “It’s gone. It’s not here.” She pulls at both pockets, her eyes little grey sockets of wild. “I know it was here. I left with it this morning.” Then she turns to me, her eyes calmer, her voice mellowed down to a low accusing tone. “I had it when I came into the store.” She looks at me, with a hint of accusation in her voice. “Then this woman, well, she started accusing me of having too many things. I don’t know what happened to the money.” The woman begins to ramble, her sentences don’t make sense to me.
“Yes, I just mentioned you had too many items.”
She keeps on talking. “I think she might have my money.” She keeps pulling at her pockets, and looking at me.
“What,” I repeat, slightly stunned. By now there is a substantial line behind us. I am too embarrassed to turn around. I just want this to be over with.
“I’m sorry.” The clerk stands waiting. “But I need the money. Did you want to come back later with it.”
“I guess so,” she says, staring straight at me as though all this were my fault for not giving it back to her.
My hands are sweating. The pause between us seems eternal. So far this whole event only took moments, enough to make my thirty-two years of living bring question to my own character. What had I done?
“Elsie,” the clerk says. “You can’t keep doing this. We’ll hold the groceries for you until you can get the money and come back for them.”
The clerk grabs her two bags and puts them behind the counter, then starts to check my items through. By now, I was white with worry. “I’m so sorry,” I say to the clerk. “I never meant to cause trouble by telling her she had too many items.” Now I was rambling.
“Hey,” the clerk smiled. “Relax. She does this about once a week. Either forgets her money, or hasn’t cashed her check and doesn’t want to admit it. I didn’t think you were taking her seriously.”
“Whew,” I feel the tension drain from inside. The flash cards of the prison cell in an orange suit shut down immediately. “No, of course I didn’t take her seriously. ”I smile as I hand the clerk my money. “Of course I didn’t take her seriously.”
And “whew”, you made it to the end of the most boring story I have ever written.
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