It would take her ten steps to cross the grocery store parking lot, but Claire stopped after four. That was when she saw them, neatly folded in the carts of every other shopper, the tidy preparations of the diligent. Bags. The word sounded like an expletive in her head.
She had forgotten to bring her own shopping bags. She felt her pulse begin to quicken, and she remembered the last time that this had happened.
She could still see the face of the man at the checkout. At first he hadn’t said anything, and when he had finally spoken, he had said very slowly, “So, you want to use our bags?”
He said this as though he had invited her over for coffee, and she had expected to use his shower or to take a nap in his bed.
“So, you want to use our bags?”
The manager had appeared as though bidden by some silent alarm. “How many bags did you charge her for?” she had asked. “They are ten cents each.” She had stood there and watched, ensuring that he pressed the button the requisite number of times.
Claire remembered the glistening yoga pants man. He had loaded his fresh chard and lentils directly into his backpack. He had frowned in her direction. Fresh chard and lentils did not approve.
The parking lot began to feel very hot. Claire twisted a loose strand of hair and looked around. She saw a cart complete with standard issue paper bags, abandoned, or seemingly so.
She could feel the back of her shirt slowly moisten. She looked around and saw no one. She took it.
“Stay,” a woman commanded into the back of a minivan. It was unclear whether this was directed at a dog or at a child.
Claire did not care. She pushed the found cart through the automatic door.
The grocery store was pumped full of cool air. Claire breathed. She could feel her pulse slow from jumping.
She chose mandarins over navels, and she smelled the grapefruit before she saw it, sweet and bitter. It seemed like a good day for Parmesan cheese, by the slab, not sprinkled.
When no one was looking, Claire counted the bags; there were four, which meant there was room for ice cream. She chose mint chocolate chip. The icy film of condensation felt cold against her palm.
Four bags seemed luxurious, and so she did not neglect the wine aisle. ‘Shiraz Cabernet?’ she asked herself. ‘Yes, I think so.’
Claire was calm as she stood in the checkout line. She saw a father load a loaf of white bread directly into a child’s red wagon. An older woman hefted a gallon of two percent milk into a metal pushcart. When Claire reached the front of the line she saw him. It was the same man, the same checkout man. He saw her bags and smiled. “Good morning,” he said.
“Good morning,” she said, trying the words on her tongue.
She handed him the neatly folded bags, and he began to fill them. Finally, he stacked the Parmesan block onto the mandarin oranges, and it was over. Claire pushed her cart past the register.
From behind her she heard a woman’s voice, “I know that I had my bags,” she said. “I put them in my cart. I put them in my cart before I got my baby out of his car seat.” There was a long pause. Claire did not look back. Then she heard the man’s voice, “So, you want to use our bags?”
Sarah M Blood writes lighthearted fiction. Her first novel explores the humorous aspects of trees, food, and art. She blogs about story and writing on her website, www.sarahmblood.com, and she tweets this and more @sarahmblood.