We don’t ask much of customers, only one thing, in fact. One sign atop one lane out of 100 square yards of store.
That gentle request: 12 items or less.
It’s simple, it’s easy, and human decency can usually be counted on to enforce it for us. Usually.
My checkout banter had run its course after two items with this guy – bald, big and dressed to the ones in a slashed and sleeveless black hoodie. Piles of household goods jerked forward on the conveyer belt as I filled another bag in the silence.
Customers in line are usually quiet, but now it was different, thicker, bloated. Their eyes and postures hinted at rage. But Midwest sensibility corked it, bottled it up to fester and swell.
I lowered my eyes as I punched the code for bananas, scanned a six-pack of Gatorade. The list grew on the display above the register: Nutri-Grain bars, $5.45; Dove, $2.99; Dawn, $6.99 … The whole time the line kept growing, snaking now around the tabloids. The man stood tall with his head high, tapping the counter with his wallet as he waited.
Finally, “$312.42,” I muttered, embarrassed.
“Yeah, I’m in line right now,” a woman at the back was on a cell phone. “I’d be home already if this meathead in front could count to 12.”
I froze. Everyone froze. Our eyes got a bit wider.
“You got a problem, lady?” Meathead growled.
A basket hung on her elbow and the cell phone was still at her ear. A toddler fussed on her hip.
“Sorry hon, I gotta go,” she ended the call. “Yeah, I do. It’s the express lane for Christ sake. If you’re gonna stock your nuke shelter, take it to another line.”
Such eloquence! This woman was our poet, our collective voice! We were all suddenly ashamed. We were cowards before her.
But now that it was out, everyone stood a bit taller. Midwest sensibilities dissipated. And when Meathead replied “You need to shut your mouth,” the others came to this righteous Mother’s side.
“Man, she’s right. That’s just rude,” said the frat boy holding a six pack of Bud Light and a Hot Pocket.
“Yeah, this isn’t your personal checkout line,” added the business man with a melon under each arm.
“I’ll knock you’re goddamned heads off!” Meathead roared.
It was every checker’s dream. This was the scenario that played through my head every time some asshole decided to press his selfish boot on the head of the civilized world.
Meathead wore that role like form-fitting spandex. Most people would be humiliated at being called out. He should have grabbed his bags and slunk out of the store. But he wouldn’t back down, maybe he couldn’t back down. He’d probably never had to back down from any affront in his life.
“Why don’t you get out of here!” the elderly woman with her grandkids in tow shouted.
“What a dick,” the sullen teen muttered loudly.
The manager had finally noticed the commotion. “Is there a problem here?”
“I got this. Get out of here,” Meathead pushed him back, probably harder than he intended.
That did it. A tomato flew from the middle of the line and struck him in the shoulder. He stepped forward and met the grin of a spoiled 6-year-old, whose father promptly dragged him back.
“You gonna hit a kid?” Mother shouted.
“If I have to!”
The line stepped forward in unison, Frat Boy at the front. “Go for it.”
An apple flew from the back and hit Meathead in the forehead. He lashed out and punched Frat Boy in the stomach, crumpling him to the floor.
Then, Grandmother whipped his shins with her cane. Business Man slammed a melon on top of his head. As he lay on the floor, Sullen Teen kicked him in the kidney and Business Man let loose another melon.
He staggered to one knee, snatched a bag off the counter, and sprinted toward the exit, knocking aside a young boy waiting for the quarter horse. He stopped and hopped, looking around frantically as he waited for the automatic door to open. He took off through the parking lot.
The group let out a cheer. Society had standards, and those had been upheld in a rare moment of solidarity among strangers.
The manager took me off the line and pointed to the cart of bagged items. “Stock those,” he said angrily.
I took my time, savoring the experience. I counted 68 as I put the last item from the cart, beef jerky, on the shelf. I was about to be the center of attention after the shift, and I wanted the exact number for the retelling.
Later, as I punched the clock, another cashier ran up behind me.
“I thought you want a souvenir,” she said and handed me a three-foot long receipt.
I ran my thumb down the list. The total came to 80 this time. I had forgotten that he stole a bag.