A man was at the checkout counter at Smiths, the neighborhood grocery store where he often shopped. It was late afternoon and he had stopped by to pick up a few items for supper: some corn tortillas for an enchilada casserole dish, for which some chicken breasts had been simmering in an electric crock pot for much of the day.
As usual, his sense of being in a stream of time had a somewhat driven quality, as if every process involved waiting at a stop light until he was once more released into the future.
He was not a “type A” personality; in some ways quite the contrary. He was just someone enveloped in a mind that feels more at home in the details of daily living than in the ocean of silence that makes such living possible.
Standing at the head of the line behind a woman dressed in a black overcoat—unusual for a June afternoon in Albuquerque—he began to wonder why he had been standing still for so long. Turning around to see the people behind him, he was surprised to see that there weren’t any, but that two or three carts were lined up at the other open registers.
Facing forward again, he observed the scene taking place at the register more attentively. The lady’s cart was empty and the items she was purchasing had been scanned and were waiting to be bagged at the far end of the counter. The cashier was standing with her left hand on the counter and her right arm dangling at her side—a rare posture for the check-out at this smooth running grocery store.
The lady in the overcoat, he now noticed, looked like she was struggling not to cry. He was dimly reminded of something but couldn’t quite place it. Perhaps it was a face in a film like “Schindler’s List”, or some actual footage from that time.
“I’m afraid your card is still being denied, Mam. I’ve tried it twice. Is there someone you can call?”
It passed through the man’s mind that he had not yet begun unloading his own items onto the conveyer belt and could easily move to another line, as other shoppers had already done.
While pondering his next move, his eyes moved over the items standing in the bagging area: two quarts of milk, some pork chops which he had noticed were on sale that day, a dozen eggs, a pack of infant diapers, a head of cabbage, a bag of onions, a loaf of sliced white bread, a bottle of pediatric cough medicine . . .
“I have no one to call. I don’t know what to do.”
The woman, whom he now noticed was far too old to have an infant of her own, spoke in a voice that seemed so drained of hope that the man was drawn into a space that suddenly seemed to be vibrating around her.
As if in response to some other voice than his own, the man stepped around his cart and approached the cashier. He took out his wallet, removed his Visa card, handed it to the cashier, whom he now saw had a tear at the edge of her eyelid, and said, “Please put it on my card.”
The cashier smiled and said in a quiet voice, “God Bless you, Sir.”
The young man who had been waiting at the end of the counter began bagging the items.
The woman was clasping his hands and saying, “Thank you. Thank you. You don’t know what this means to me.”
He was sure he didn’t know, but he pulled out a stack of bills from his wallet and pressed them into her hands. As he did so he realized that this might be the best financial investment he had ever made.