Three days of lockdown, nothing to do, no one to talk to. I sleep. I eat peanut butter sandwiches until I’m out of bread. I watch TV, most recently alternating between the Simpsons and the cable news wars. I watch the Home Shopping Network and a curling match on ESPN. I debate whether or not curling is an actual sport. Perhaps it’s like bowling without the excitement. I debate for forty minutes. Here, time has no meaning. I am isolated and alone. The more I stay here, the more I do not want to leave.
It is wonderful.
I peek through the blinds to see if the world is still going on. People are talking and walking around. It is amazing how effortlessly they move and flow; how easily they converse with one another and blend so naturally into the moving streetscape. I wonder if I can do that. I don’t know. The world outside is very unsettling, not like here where everything is orderly and peaceful. Outside, everyone must walk the same and talk the same and be exactly that same certain same way that does not cause suspicion or concern, because everyone is always evaluating everyone else all the time. Failure to adhere could bring consequences.
People ask trick questions. I could easily be asked a trick question and of course (naturally) I would not know the answer, because it would be a trick question. Some of the people outside are just that devious. Best case; hails of ridiculing scorn and laughter could follow me home, echoing again and again in my head.
Semi worst case to worst case (e.g.): I could be profiled just for being who I am. I could be arrested for something, not walking straight enough, or talking to myself perhaps. Although now, cell phones make it more difficult to spot who’s crazy. I could be or robbed or killed in some way, shot by a sniper, run over by a truck, crushed by a tree or a falling piano. It’s not just in movies. I’ll bet there’s data to support this. I read about a guy a couple of years ago. He was jogging on a beach and a small plane came down behind him, making an emergency landing. His head was cut off by the plane's propellers. He had no idea. He was wearing headphones. The outside is a different place, a withering gauntlet of constant danger and uncertainty.
Surreptitiously, I watch the people on the sidewalk from my third-floor window and hope they do not see me.
I have to go to the supermarket. I don’t want to, but I have to. I am out of bread. I am also out of Doritos and other staples, like Cheez-Its and Frosted Flakes. I make a list. I put potato chips on the list and also pork skins. I love pork skins and I wonder how they get them, to be so puffy, probably some sort of machine. We have machines that can do anything. The world is an amazing place.
After some preparation (pep talks mostly) and three false starts to the front door, I find myself all of a sudden walking briskly along the sidewalk staring down at my shoes (blue tops white bottoms) while trying to keep my balance in the unsettling swim of rampant daylight and unwanted adventure. I increase my speed, walking steadily faster until I reach the pace of almost running. I just want this to be over.
I enter the supermarket.
I grab a cart, the size of two hand baskets on wheels, and begin to tread purposefully through wide airy, fluorescent washed aisles of competing aromas, and enticingly labeled cans and packages so colorfully attractive that I want to buy everything.
Eyes planted on my list, I mumble ‘excuse me’s, avoiding all possible contact with other shoppers; sometimes choosing to take the long way around or coming back later to avoid uncomfortably fumbling passed the blocking cart of another customer. But throughout it all I keep my focus, walking with careful caution, trying not to draw attention to myself, clumsily pretending to be just another one of them. I pause to cross pork skins off my list. Potato chips are healthier.
After ten or fifteen minutes of endless time, I am exhausted. Time stops in the supermarket. My legs tremble and my heart races around bumping into the walls of my chest. But thankfully, my list is finished and soon it will be over.
I head for the self-service checkout lane.
But wait! There is a sign on a yellow chain at the common self-service entrance. “Closed”, it says. I don’t know why.
It’s just closed.
I stand there for a long disquieting moment. I am distressed. I look around, hoping that someone will come and remove the sign. But nobody comes and the entire self-service checkout lane remains steadfastly closed for some unrevealed reason. Its ten odd registers are silently unlit. They are still and stark as tombstones.
I am devastated.
Yet, as it always is in the case of all human tragedy and disappointment, grief must be reconciled so that life can move on. And so I ultimately make my peace with this circumstance and start to look for a cashier. I don’t want to deal with a cashier. I’d have to talk to the cashier and maybe smile. I don’t feel like smiling. I don’t feel like talking. But I must soldier on.
Halfway down the checkout lanes, I see her. There is no one in her lane and so she waits by her register just for me, one hand on her hip, staring into the middle distance at something engrossing in the store. Perhaps she is trying to count the cans in the five-foot kernel corn mountain at the end of aisle seven. She comes to life suddenly as I put my two cloth shopping bags on her conveyor belt.
“How you doin today, honey?"
She says warmly through a broad incomplete array of off white teeth. She calls me “honey” although she doesn’t even know my name. Still, I am her honey.
“No complaints,” I say as I start to load my stuff on the belt in a well-ordered manner. But she pushes the conveyor button immediately and my groceries suddenly become a moving scatter of disorganized things. I struggle to keep up, hoping she doesn’t ask me any more questions. I am wary of trick questions.
She would have no way of knowing that I am wearing the same shirt, pants (and possibly underwear) that I’ve had on for the past three days. So, she couldn’t ask me about that. Then I think defiantly, “I’ll wear what I damn well please.” Yet, I tug self-consciously on my shirt collar, fervently wishing that I could actually believe what I think I believe.
Thankfully, she is not curious about her ‘honey’ and bends immediately to her work quickly, expertly pushing chips, pork skins, bread, and cans of zucchini across the glass scanner; seemingly unhindered in any way by her impossibly long pink and purple flower painted fingernails. Her dexterity is amazing. Yet, she appears withered and broken, except for the flittering dazzle of her nails. I wonder if she has grandchildren. I think she’s a smoker. She seems dried up (shriveled) as if she herself had actually been smoked.
She is done.
I scan my card. She hands me a receipt that appears to be three feet long, full of little pictures on the back and squinty writing that I will never read.
“Have a great day.”
She says with a broad smile and husky voice (yes, definitely a smoker). I am no longer her honey. That is good because being her honey bears certain responsibilities. I’d have to tell her my life story. Plus, there’s the strain of required constant smiling. And what after all do I say, after “Hello” …”Nice day”...? Then what? (not to mention the Iron-Person endurance needed for all that endless listening). I’m glad I’m no longer her honey. It’s all just too much.
“Thank you,” I say. I am weary of thinking of talking; talking and counter talking. And so I finally leave her standing at her station and she immediately resumes her faraway stare in the direction of the still fascinating great mountain of canned corn. It’s as though someone had flipped her off switch and she will now stand inertly (a cashier on-demand) in that exact same way for the next customer or the next 5,000 years.
I am overjoyed that our conversation is over and that my mission will be pleasantly downhill from now on. I do not even think to carefully watch my footfalls as I step rapidly through the automatic supermarket door into the dazzle of summer sunshine.
On the sidewalk once more, I stand briefly adjusting and hefting my two cloth bags (essential for the walking shopper) of groceries. They are heavy. But unlike some, these bags are quite well-made, so I’m not concerned. I start off for home slowly at first. Then, as I pick up my pace, I swing the bags from side to side as counterweights to increase my momentum. I feel myself moving rhythmically along and for the first time completely unmindful of the world around me. Soon I am walking so fast that I am almost running. Yet, I still strain to move faster. The Matlock marathon starts in twenty minutes and I have a whole new idea for reorganizing my bedroom closet.
My heart races with anticipation. I am anxious to be home.
Leonard Henry Scott was born and raised in the Bronx, and is graduate of American University, with an MLS from the University of Maryland. He was on the staff of the Library of Congress for many years and he and his wife, Hattie presently live in National Harbor, Maryland. Scott’s essays and fiction have appeared in numerous publications, such as; The MacGuffin, Crack the Spine,Massacre Magazine, Good Works Review, Cobalt Weekly, and elsewhere.