Chances are pretty good you have been in Walmart on a weekend afternoon in the throes of a holiday rush or on a weekday evening during back-to-school shopping season. You have likely found yourself standing in one of three open checkout lines on a Sunday afternoon following church or just before 6pm on Christmas Eve. At some point, you have been seventh in line at the pharmacy or even the last person in line at the service desk simply trying to exchange a pair of khakis for an identical pair in a smaller size. Chances are very high, then, you have seen me. I am Small Town America. I am Haggard Shopper. I am Frazzled Mama. I am, let’s be real, that woman.
On one of your weekly (we all know it’s more like three trips per week, but we'll pretend we don’t) visits, you have fought your way through frozen foods, dodged two random children who seem to belong to no one and everyone at the same time, and backtracked six times to get four items you forgot. You have made your way to the one lane for which you are eligible with your 19 items, and you stand dutifully in wait. There is a tired-looking woman in front of you. She is pushing the cart with her hip as she looks at the cell phone in her hand. She has a boisterous child at her elbow with a fist full of candy bars. She also has three more items than this express lane indicates on the glowing sign above both your heads. That woman is me.
What you don’t see is this. She counted her items on the shampoo aisle, but she forgot she grabbed three folders on her way to the register for her son, because she forgot them last time she was here (you know, two days ago...just like you). That child at her elbow begging for the candy just made a stinkin’ A on a quiz she was sure she would fail. The candy bars are celebratory for the child and the woman. They studied for that thing together last night. The cart she is barely moving with her hip, well, it’s been rattling through the store with the Walmart equivalent of a flat tire. She didn’t have time to swap carts at the door, because she is running late for soccer practice and has maneuvered the broken down hunk of junk up and down aisles for the last 25 and a half minutes. She is sick of hearing its ragged bumping rhythm. She has had it.
Her phone? She is checking her list. She forgot the folders last time and doesn’t want to come back tomorrow. There are people who huff and puff in the ears of others and bash the back of her ankles with their carts. She doesn’t want to be in this line anymore than you do. That’s me.
One weekend you run into Walmart to return your husband’s Redbox rental. While you are standing at the kiosk, you remember you need to pick up a gift card for your son’s best friend. The party is soon, and you want to be ahead of the game. This will only take a minute. This is what the express lane is for, after all. You snag the gift card emblazoned with a birthday cake and slide into the express lane.
The woman ahead of you has green paint smeared across her forearm, is wearing flip-flops with the same green hue and four other colors of fading paint dotted across the straps and two peeling drips on her left heel. Her face is red, and you are pretty sure there are sweat stains on her tank. Her hair is in a near-miss of a ponytail, and her wallet is tucked under her arm with the tips of two receipts peeking out just above the slightly-gaped zipper closure. She is carrying a gallon of paint and has placed her basket on the counter. Inside you can see a tube of cinnamon rolls, a quart of ice cream, and a half dozen bananas. Where is her Irish Spring and Secret? Geez.
As the cashier closes out that quick sale, the painted lady reaches for the forthcoming receipt. What should have been a smooth and fast transaction screeches to a halt before you and your birthday cake gift card. Her check has been declined. You think you see the cashier roll her eyes. You know you are rolling yours. A check? Really? The befuddled woman in front of you mumbles something inaudible as she fumbles in her messy wallet and pulls out a credit card but not before she digs around for what seems an eternity to see if she might have the cash to cover her four items. She doesn’t, so on the credit card it goes. Finally, she exits, still mumbling and red-faced.
What you need to hear is this. This is the third time she has had a check declined in the last year. Somewhere, somehow, she doesn’t know when, her driver’s license number has been crossed with someone who is bouncing checks. She has called the bank multiple times. They have assured her her account is in good standing, but they can’t guarantee the declined checks will stop any time soon. She is afraid of debit cards now, too. She dreads every trip to the store now and forgot that she didn’t have cash until she was in the line in front of you. She needed the paint to finish her bedroom, because tomorrow is a work day. That credit card she hesitated to use? She has tried with all her might not to use it for months. She would like to pay it off. It pained her much more to have to use it today than it irked you to have to watch her hold it while she scrounged for cash that you are just sure she knew was not there. If it makes you feel any better, she has left a bevy of disgruntled shoppers in her wake in stores all over your small town. Don’t take it personally. She is tired of it, too. She knows what all of you are thinking. That woman is me.
Before you head home from church Sunday, you decide, against your better judgment, to stop at Wal-mart and put part of the week’s grocery shopping behind you. You have some coupons and want to try your new Walmart Savings Catcher app. You are going to be quick, so you opt for the handbasket. As you turn onto the paper goods aisle to get your Bounty, you almost collide with a woman in the middle of the aisle. She is standing next to a virtually empty cart and is positioned squarely in front of your brand of paper towels. She has two things in her cart, a box of Band-Aids and some popsicles. Your handbasket is brimming. (You are a master at the handbasket.) The shoes you wore to Sunday School are killing your arches, and you would like to get home. You excuse yourself and sidle past her. She isn’t moving much, but you grab the Bounty and exit the area. Enough of that.
About seven and half minutes later, you have gathered the ingredients for the meatloaf and the new potato recipe you scored on Pinterest while you were waiting on the church service to begin. As you limp toward the check-out, you see her. She is still pushing a cart almost void of items. You have managed to fit everything into your handbasket including a gallon of milk and still carry the Bounty by a teeny pinch of its plastic covering in your other hand. She has wasted a perfectly good cart for less than half a dozen items. The two of you, of course, are veering in the same direction and end up in the same lane. She’s standing in front of you. It’s now that you notice her arms. They are bruised. She is rubbing the inside of her forearms, and her hair looks oily. Actually, she looks thin and frail and very unhealthy. You, out of morbid curiosity, lean around her. Well, she won’t notice anyway. In her cart you see a box of gauze and some latex gloves. Hmmph. Yep. Well, at least she uses gloves. She moves very slowly to place her items on the counter when the cashier greets her. Not nearly fast enough for you and the woman behind both of you who is snorting the very insults you are thinking.
You see her cart, and you see her arms, but you don’t see it all. What you can’t see is under her shirt sleeve. It’s not track marks. It’s a PICC line, and this is her first trip to Wal-mart since she was discharged from the hospital. Her bruises aren’t from her unhealthy, drug-riddled body. Those bruises are from all the needle-sticks it took to draw blood over the last week. What you won’t hear her say, because she owes no one there an explanation, is that she stayed away from her family for over a week while being treated for a staph infection that she likely picked up from a handbasket like the one you have draped over your arm. She is giving herself IV medication and is receiving home health services. She is weak. This trip to get five things has exhausted her. But, by God, she is glad to be alive. This little jaunt she made by herself to get supplies and brought her to cross paths with you and your Pinterest-inspired ingredients list is her Mt. Kilimanjaro. You can only see the back of her head as your nails tap your staph-covered basket, but she has a smile on her dried-out lips. She is getting back some of her independence. There I am again.
I am sure we will cross paths again soon. I am out of toothpaste tonight. There are about three squeezes left in our tube. I don’t have a coupon, so I won’t slow you down with that. I cannot, however, promise you that I will remember to bring my wallet inside with me, because there may be 85 things going on when I leave work, and I could be responsible for half of them. I am sure that if I don’t bring it in, I won’t remember that I didn’t until I get in front of you. That may be my struggle tomorrow. There’s going to be a struggle going in front, behind, and to the side of you. If I am being completely honest, you might just be someone’s struggle yourself. And, you know what? If I do hold up your line, or if that man behind you sneezes too hard in your direction or bumps the back of your Chacos, or if the choosy older couple in the meat department ends up taking the last package of bacon before you can grab it, I am pretty sure you will survive to see another day of falling prices and express line abuse. Yeah. I know you will. You will live. See you soon!