I stand in line at the Des Moines, IA Dollar Tree on SE 14th, six feet back from the shopper ahead of me. We are spaced properly, but he is behind his blue painter’s tape line, so I am forced to stand behind mine, lest I should open a gap that is wastefully large. I stand there for a minute, and nothing happens.
The family ahead of the off-line agitator is apparently buying a month’s worth of groceries. The cashier has yellow hair, cut short, unmoving as if it were a wax mop placed atop her head wet and left there to dry. Her hands move in a blur to scan the family’s trove of foodstuffs. Her frame is large, but it seems she is shrinking, like an inflatable animal losing air and wanting to serve out its purpose before it is rendered flat and put away for the season.
Behind me, a glassy-eyed employee, pushing a cart of $1 each orphan detritus, wanders the aisles like someone lost in the desert. I’ve seen her in all the places I’ve been in the store. I don’t know if she’s stalking me, if she has an assigned task, or if she lacks a directive and is, thus, moving around like a slow-motion human pinball, caroming off the stationary aisle, rolling through seasonal, and ricocheting down the front aisle for the hell of it.
Purpose aside, her vectors bring her up behind me, and she bumps her cart into my butt. Rather than slacken her push, she increases it, as though I am an annoyance to be removed, like I am a stubborn cart in a line that must be loosened and rousted from the ground where I stand, an undeserving claim jumper whose deloucheing will bring about what she desires most: uninterrupted caroming, orbital freedom, walkabout within the four walls of the store. I move out of the way. She moves forward and offers a Dollar Tree apology but neither looks at me nor slows. I feel hot. I want justice. I’ve been wronged, and not just me—my butt!
I think about the after-action report where I would have to justify screaming at a Dollar Tree employee, and my temperature cools. Is this an offense? Have I been wronged? Maybe. I rock my hand back and forth in my mind. Considering the degree of offense with, say, murdering someone in cold blood, bumping of my butt with a cart is decidedly un-duel-worthy, so I get over it.
The man in front of me turns to talk to the lady next to him. She cants her body toward his. She is shorter, older, more dried, like a towel left to bake on a clothesline and then run through a pair or rollers to flatten her out. Her smooth, deeply tanned skin, though, retains its grooved pattern. She wears a crisp black sweatshirt with pink lettering encased in pink wedges that look like pie pieces tumbled off a plate and stacked up wedge-to-point with intention. The letters say
YOU JUST FLIPPED
MY BITCH SWITCH
The pyramidic, juvenile meter of the lines tells me their placement was made for graphic design considerations, rather than poetic.
The man increases his turn toward the woman, and I see him full on. He wears a dusty sweatshirt and stiff jeans, the kind that might withstand a glancing blow from a naked circular saw blade. He looks hardened, a tradesman, perhaps, someone who lives with the labor of his hands. I see the words emblazoned on his mask: FUCK OFF.
Perhaps he meant for it to say FUCK OFF, I HAVE COVID. That would have made sense. Even if it were substituting moonshine for cooking sherry, it would have been an accurate overreaction.
Flipped Bitch Switch leaves the line, and I hear snippets of dialogue between her and FUCK OFF about going back for another this or that. Given that this is the Dollar Tree, those could be brand names.
So missing his companion, FUCK OFF turns to motion me forward. I am surprised and temporarily frozen, like the tailgate of a truck after a freezing rain. I have my AirPods in, listening to the soothing sounds of John C Maxwell discuss Teamwork 101, so I miss a chance to act immediately on FUCK OFF’s beckoning. The irony of my failure to work with the team of the Dollar Tree queue escapes me. But FUCK OFF is persistent in his offering. He intensifies his beckoning, like I’m a long-lost friend, and he’ll be damned if he misses an opportunity for us to connect, if only for a moment.
I move ahead, make the perfunctory protestations one makes when one receives unexpected charity one fully intends to accept. Said protestations are jovially rejected, the offer renewed, and I advance beyond mine and FUCK OFF’s blue tape lines to land behind the family filling up its survival cache. Progress!
Or so it seems, as the pile of foodstuffs has only grown. Perhaps the loading dock is like a bowling ball return, and it pops up right underneath this cashier’s scanner.
“I’m gonna do some in cash and the rest in card,” the young lady says. I take her to be the family matriarch. “The fucking bank locked our cards until Monday.” It is Friday evening, and I wonder what this means for them. I steal a glance at the cash to be used as the primary source of payment. It is all ones. A pile of them, but still ones, and, yes, this is the Dollar Tree, but when you’ve got the bowling ball return feeding TV dinners to you at a steady clip, your pile will quickly feel its inadequacy.
Finally, the bowling ball return jams; the cache is full; and the family moves toward the door, still muttering curses about the “fucking bank,” but they seem to enjoy their public therapy.
I recall similar situations of having engaged in public therapy. One occurred when the road was blocked on mine and my family’s way out to the Oregon coast a few months ago. My fellow motorists and I nosed our cars out of line to try to get a better look. Like cabinets tilted over on their sides, our cars the doors, we flopped open, hoping to be the one to see the cause and take the news to no one in particular, but in the meantime, we shook our collective heads and fists and felt better about it, so I do not begrudge the public therapy of the cache-cash-card family.
Yeah, fuck the bank, I think, but I don’t feel it. Not like them.
I tread in the wake of bank-directed epithets and at last move in front of yellow and stiff mop hair. I notice a stack of pink pregnancy tests. $1 to learn if life will forever change. $1 invested to find out if one is going to be in hock for $250,000 more. I think, Is this enough financial assurance for the weight carrying the result down the hill to the test taker? Is it advisable to see a Micro Machine rolling toward one’s feet when it is distracting one from the dumpster tearing along behind?
I get my total for the clothespins I’ve selected: $5.35. Either a bargain or a cheap ticket to a poorly produced show that will happen the next day when I attempt to use the clothespins in place of gutter hangers. We moved into a new house a couple weeks ago, and this has rendered me a latecomer to the Christmas light display race but has not, alas, lowered expectations from my children. I hope for calm winds.
I pay my $5.35, or attempt to. I stand there staring at the kiosk. It shows me the bullet points of my masked PIN lined up in a row, four of them, each entered with the ultra-modern cyber security awareness of a raised forearm, a palm cupped like a cave, and a turned torso to block would-be looky-loos. The bullet points remain. I am confused. Mop hair looks like she’s in suspended animation, but the medical crew forgot to lower her eyelids. I realize my mistake: I forgot to press the enter key. I feel annoyed that I made this mistake and then simultaneously, inappropriately, unjustifiably angry that I should be forced to follow a step that I forgot. But I bear up, lower my ungloved finger for another go, press the button, and complete the transaction. No one scolds me. No one hurries me along. I am alone in my thoughts of offense. Alone at the dais of my own impatience and incompetence and entitlement. I am arguing with an empty room.
I leave and head for my car, dodging puddles. The temperatures climbed into the 40s today. I had full feeling in my fingers all afternoon. Be damned, drafty windows! I had to push the door open myself on my way out the store, but on my way in, a young girl, perhaps 15, had held the door for me as I fiddled with my gloves, trying to snap them together like a civilized person rather than stuffing them in the pockets of my coat like a brute. I’m refined, I had thought. I put away my gloves properly.
But a kid held the door for me. A guy in a FUCK OFF mask promoted me to a better place in line. A family having ill-defined financial troubles used me and other bodies as unpaid and unlicensed talk therapy.
There was good. There was generosity. There was butt bouncing annoyance. There was presumptuous foisting of troubles. There was perspective twisting of my own reception of decent acts. There was self-reproach that I was a taker, not a giver of acts of kindness.
At the Dollar Tree, everything’s a dollar.
But more is free.