by Andrea Carlisle

Jane became aware of someone coming up close behind her in the crowded checkout line, so close she could hear breathing. When she turned to look, she saw a pale, thirty-something woman with dark hair in loose braids, a bruise big as a fist on one cheek and a rash across her forehead. She stared down at the credit card in Jane’s hand, her lips moving as if trying to memorize the numbers. Jane slid her thumb over her card and whispered, “Don’t do that.”

The woman didn’t seem ashamed or walk away, as Jane had expected. Instead, she asked, “Why not?” She didn’t even bother to whisper. “You got enough. I don’t.”

“Because,” Jane said, “if you steal someone’s credit card number you can go to jail.”

“So?” The woman hitched a dirty backpack up higher onto one shoulder.

No cart, Jane noticed. She hadn’t even bothered to pretend to be shopping. She’d seen Jane pull the credit card out of her wallet and hold it loosely, numbers exposed. Old woman: easy target. 

“Sixty-five isn’t old,” Jane wanted to say, but she knew someone so young would disagree. Lately, even she was starting to disagree.

Since the woman didn’t budge, Jane felt she should go to a different cashier, but it was late Friday afternoon. The long lines at every cash register didn’t move so much as oozed. She only had a few things in her cart, but the express line drifted all the way to the pharmacy and she refused to use self check-out. It put people out of work.

A twinge in her right leg told her that her new knee didn’t like standing still for so long. She saw the bruised woman was looking vaguely in the direction of the cashier.

Maybe it was the fact that a man with a full cart rolled up behind them, trapping them together, or maybe it was that bruise glowing red at the center and surrounded by a storm of blue-gray, or possibly the thought of people out of work, but some force that had no agenda, that only wanted to speak, took hold of Jane’s tongue. Whatever the source, the words were out of her mouth before she could stop them. “Are you hungry? I can buy you some food.”

            The woman turned to scan the point of purchase shelves, most of them crammed with candy bars.

            “It’d be a one-time thing. But it will be food, not candy.” She thought of her parents’ childhoods, the way they’d barely scraped by during the Depression. This wasn’t exactly that sort of time, but it wouldn’t hurt to offer.

 “You got plenty of money,” the woman said. “Buy me both.” She continued scanning the candy shelves.

 Jane wanted to explain how not all old people had money, and surely she didn’t have a lot, but she knew that argument wouldn’t get far. People believed whatever they wanted. “Real food only,” she said, and nudged her cart a few inches when the line crept forward. “I’ll check out and then we can shop for you.” She looked at the carts rolling in behind them. “I’m not going to lose my place in line now.”

“I’ll shop by myself. Can I use your credit card?” One hand reached, palm up, out toward Jane and slowly drew back. “What are you supposed to be anyway, offering to buy me some food? Jesus Christ?”

“You got it,” Jane said. “I’m trying to be Jesus Christ.” She wanted to turn around, but something held her in place so that she faced the rash, the bruise, the scuffed backpack that looked as if it had spent most of its existence under an overpass. The bruise seemed to get larger by the minute, a splash of blue-black ink in milky white. The eyes beneath gently arched brows were a brilliant, disarming green.

For a moment, the woman looked down, then off toward the crowded store. “Keep your god shit to yourself.”

“I don’t have a god,” Jane said. “We’re in the same godless boat here.”

The emerald eyes jerked away from the crowd and toward her. There was something in them in addition to anger. Loss? Remorse? Battered faith? “Unless maybe you do have a god,” Jane said.

Now what had possessed her to say that? Just because she’d intuited something else might be going on other than need and a general, brazen pissiness, she didn’t necessarily have to point at it. She wished she could bring herself to shut up and turn around. She needed a way to sum up, renege on her offer and go home, put the groceries away, get on with her life.  

“Listen,” Jane said, trying for a reasonable but firm tone, “you use other peoples’ credit cards, you go to jail. Go to jail and you’re away from people you love, people who love you and probably some who need you.”

The woman shaded her green eyes with one hand and looked around the store like someone on a desert island would scour the horizon for a ship that could save her. She turned back to Jane and opened her arms wide, which emphasized not only their emptiness but their thinness in a jacket too large. “Yeah?” she said. “Like who might that be?”

            Jane realized she hadn’t delivered the right exit line for turning away and getting on with her life, but she was wearying of the comebacks. “Nobody whatsoever needs you. I get the message. Nobody whatsoever needs me either, when you get right down to it, but I’m not going to go to jail for doing some stupid crime in a checkout line.”

Jane felt another twinge in the vicinity of the new knee. Apparently, in addition to grocery store lines, it didn’t like arguments. Or it could be reminding her that, although she could walk around as much as she wanted, it hadn’t healed enough yet to stand its ground securely if an unknown woman she insisted on talking to decided to give her a shove.

When she tried to meet the gem-like eyes and communicate a wish for peace, Jane saw they’d almost lost focus. Hunger or drugs; she decided on hunger. The threatened knee relaxed; it even bent slightly so that she could lean forward a little, positioning her body in an almost friendly posture. She spoke in a soft voice, not out of any kind of gentleness so much as not wanting the man behind them to hear. She’d seen him out of the corner of her eye enjoying this conversation for all the wrong reasons to judge by his smirk. “I’m serious about buying you food. I promise it won’t be a repeatable offense. You can’t put me in jail for it. What do you say?”

The eyes snapped back into focus and the response came in a loud stage whisper. “I say fuck off, you Jesus freak.”

Jane stood up straight, gathered her coat around her, and felt a sweeping sense of confidence in her intuition. Somewhere back in a long ago time, probably childhood, a sense of holy something or other had almost definitely been part of this woman’s life, and it was more than likely Christian. “Okay,” she said. “I’ll fuck off, if that’s really what you want. But I don’t think Jesus would be very happy with his little girl right now. Why can’t she have some food like anybody else? Shouldn’t matter how she gets it.” It felt liberating to say something she didn’t believe but suspected this woman just might. It felt a little manipulative, too, but she didn’t really care.

The woman glared at her. “Fuck. Off.”

Jane knew she had to be careful, not to push it too far. “It’s just an opinion,” she said, calmly certain this would be somebody’s opinion of how Jesus would judge the matter. She might as well borrow it and surrender to whatever was driving this offer in her to feed a stranger who tried to steal her credit card number. “Some would say that’s how Jesus might see it, that’s all. If there ever really was such a person.”

Jane turned away and leaned against her cart, glad for the relief on her lower back, which had started to ache. She saw the line had shortened by only two people since the conversation had started. She waited to sense movement behind her, the rustle of a departure, but nothing happened. She stepped forward as the line edged slowly along, and by the time she’d punched in her code for the credit card and checked out, the woman had moved in front of her and stood waiting.  

Jane bent her right leg slightly, testing the knee to see if it could take another tour down the aisles. She felt no pain but thought maybe it would be better for her peace of mind if she went over to the pharmacy section where she could sit down at the blood pressure machine and wait, then pay for the woman’s groceries when she’d finished shopping.

Yet, the sense of being possessed by something continued, and whatever was doing the possessing wanted her to do otherwise. It was probably old age itself, she suspected when she caught a glimpse of the blood pressure machine. She may be on the younger side of old, but she’d already learned that old age felt free to ask for a new knee, please. And wasn’t it just like old age to lead her into a conversation with a stranger and make an offer she shouldn’t make, given her meager income? Old age didn’t mind tricking anyone, either her or the young woman, into doing what was good for them. It was taking her over, bit by bit, day by day, in its insistent way, and paradoxically the possession often manifested in a kind of free feeling within her that felt somewhat familiar, an echo of childhood’s free-ranging days, making it hard to resist.

And now, in the packed and sprawling store, old age possessed her to leave her full bag of groceries with Customer Service and head with the cart toward the bread aisle alongside the woman whose name she did not yet know, but soon would.

About the Author:

Andrea Carlisle’s short stories, poems and essays have appeared in Catamaran, J Journal: New Writing on Justice, So to Speak, Northwest Review, Willow Springs, Calyx and other literary journals. For seven years she wrote a blog about caring for her mother: Go Ask Alice…When She’s 94. A book of her essays on aging will be published by OSU Press in the Spring of 2021.