It’s a couple hours after sundown and a short, old man in a black suit is about to enter a grocery store. He’s had a particularly difficult week, today being the worst of it, and he wants some comfort food before heading home to wind down. He selects a cart and begins to shop. The store is relatively empty of shoppers, which pleases him.
As the old man selects his items, he notices a periodic resistance from the cart accompanied by an awful skidding sound. One of the front wheels is sticky and keeps locking up. This frustrates him. He jostles the cart a bit to loosen the wheel, but instead it locks sideways completely. Now, the resistance and noise are continuous. His frustration rises to anger. The black tie around his neck feels tight, so he tugs at the knot and unbuttons the collar.
Rather than trade the defective cart for a better one, he opts to try ignoring it. He just keeps pushing, keeps shopping. The old man assures himself that he only came for a few things and it shouldn’t take long. However, the wheel is all he can think about, now. He strains to move the cart forward and the sound is loud, almost painful to his ears. Other customers have noticed it and peer at him inquisitively. He paws sweat from his spotted, bald head. He is embarrassed by their damned sideways looks, this damned sideways wheel. He grinds his false teeth, stifling rage. He blames it all on the wheel. To him, it is an injustice that Chance stuck him with this cart. Nonetheless, he elects to keep pushing.
Though long past his projected time, the old man finally reaches the checkout. A young girl stands behind the register, tall with dark skin and long hair, probably too young to know anything. “Hello,” she says, meekly. “Find everything alright?” He says nothing while placing his items on the conveyer belt. He thinks the question is inane and not worth answering. Can’t she tell he doesn’t have time for this nonsense?
The cashier takes brief, derisive glances at him as she scans and bags his groceries. He can feel her ridiculing him. Who is she to judge? She probably didn’t even finish school. She has no right. Damned young people, do they think they know everything? The old man curls his lips in as his brow furrows into a stark V. His face is flushed with barely contained fury.
Quietly, the girl asks, “Do you have–”
“Why in God’s name are you whispering?” He barks at her. “Speak up!”
Wide-eyed and startled, she clears her throat. “Do you have your discount card?”
The old man thrusts a hand into his jacket pocket and grabs his keys before slapping them down on the conveyer. There are over a dozen various store cards attached to the key ring. She picks them up cautiously with her thumb and pointer finger and sighs discreetly while searching for the appropriate card. After scanning it, she hands the keys back. His total isn’t affected at all.
He glares at her. She did that on purpose, he assumes, just to push his buttons. She knew that it wouldn’t save him any money, but she made him get his card out anyway, just to make his night worse. Why is this happening to him? It just isn’t fair. The old man is now seeing red. He stuffs his keys back into the jacket pocket and takes out his wallet. He withdraws a few bills and slaps them down. “Here, take it!” He shouts. “Hurry it up!”
“Sir,” the cashier starts, carefully picking up the money and opening the register. “Please lower your voice. You don’t have to yell like this–”
“Don’t tell me what to do, you moron! Now, give me my change!”
Without another word, the girl calmly presents his remainder. The old man snatches it from her hand and stuffs his bags back into the cart. The girl watches him with a look of deep concern as he struggles to push the cart to the exit. The loud noise from the skidding wheel can be heard throughout the whole store. A few registers down, a young male cashier with short, blonde hair and glasses turns his head slowly as the old man passes by, flinching as the wheel grinds and screeches against the waxed tile floor. Having no customers in his line, he waits a moment before walking over to the girl.
“You know, you could’ve had him kicked out of the store for the way he spoke to you.”
“Yeah, I know,” she says, removing her name tag and apron.
“Why didn’t you tell him that your shift was already over? Your light was off before he even came into your line. It’s not like he could’ve argued.” The boy pushes his glasses up and scratches his stubbly neck.
“I felt bad for him. He looked really upset and I wasn’t in a big rush to get out of here, so I thought I’d cut him a break.” She reaches below the register to retrieve her purse. “I just wanted to help, but now I feel like a doormat.”
“I told you. Stop being so nice and you won’t get walked on so much.”
She smiles at him sadly. “You might be right after all. See you later.” The girl walks to the front desk to clock out.
“See you,” the boy says, starting back toward his register. He sees a tiny elderly woman standing there with her groceries already loaded onto the belt. “I apologize, ma’am. I didn’t mean to keep you waiting.”
“Oh, that’s quite alright, dear,” she says, smiling. “I haven’t been here but a moment.”
Outside, the old man finally reaches the pavement. He is tired and sweating from his outburst, as well as the exertion from pushing the broken cart. His car is parked in the space closest to the door. Not much farther to go, now. But as the cart crosses onto to the macadam, the resistance is increased. He struggles harder to move it, and a sudden pain ignites in his arms, shocking him. The old man pauses for a moment, hoping it will subside. It doesn’t. He damns the wheel for causing this. He feels mocked by its persistence.
Gathering up strength, he gives the cart a great, desperate shove. Suddenly, the wheel becomes unstuck and the cart shoots forward, throwing the old man off of his balance. He grips the handle to keep himself from falling, but one hand slips free and the cart tips over sideways, taking him to the ground with it. His groceries leap out of their bags and scatter, and pain shoots throughout his whole body. His mouth cracks open with a moan, which rises to a bitter yell. He stops and winces; even yelling is painful, now. The old man struggles to get back onto his feet.
“Hey!” He hears footsteps approaching from behind. Someone grips him under each arm and helps to hoist him up. “Are you okay?” she asks. He turns to see the cashier girl, out of uniform. This close, she stinks of cigarette smoke.
“No!” he says. “I’m not! I just want to go home!”
“Okay, then.” The girl crouches down, gathers his groceries off of the pavement and rebags them. She tips the cart back onto its wheels, and sits the bags neatly inside. “There you go. Would you like help getting these into your car?” She smiles warmly.
He stares at her for a moment, feeling disarmed. Why is she helping him? “Yes,” he says. “If you would. Please.”
The girl is closing the trunk as the old man closes his driver side door. He situates himself in the seat, still in quite a lot of pain. He puts the key in the ignition and turns it. He thinks about the countless times he’s listened to this particular engine start, shopped at this particular store, driven down this street and back home to his wife. He thinks about how ordinary everything felt before, and how there won’t be any lights on in the house when he gets there. He closes his eyes, takes a deep breath, and squeezes the steering wheel to feel the engine’s vibration.
The old man glances over at the girl, who is pushing the cart to the store entrance. The wheel locks up on her. She stops, peers down at it, and gives the wheel a light kick before rolling it smoothly back inside.
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