Paralyzed by Disbelief

A young man cashiering at the express lane in the grocery store. A well-dressed, middle-aged black couple paying for six cans of cat food. A white man with long, scraggly, gray hair and clad in clean jeans and leather shoes holding a basket with a few items. And me, holding a loaf of French bread. The woman explains to the cashier that the cat food isn’t ringing up correctly. That according to the sign on the shelf, it is on sale. She speaks with a non-Bostonian accent, one farther away than Iowa or Georgia. An accent originating from across an ocean or a sea..

The young cashier is confused. The back of the long-haired man starts a disgusted fidget. I breathe. It’s a late Sunday afternoon at the grocery store.

The discussion continues between the woman and the cashier. The long-haired man solidly, yet in a monotone matter-of-fact voice, states, “The price is whatever rings up. Just pay and get out of here.”

The young cashier’s head drops so his eyes lock onto the cat food.

I cringe and freeze, not wanting to exhale. If I don’t breathe, maybe this moment won’t be real.

The black woman tells the scraggly-haired man to mind his own business.

Her husband turns to the man and explains in a kind and apologetic voice that the price isn’t ringing up correctly.

“Just pay and get out of here.”

The husband’s rational words are meaningless. Wasted breath.

I’m locked in place but thinking I should be moving. Interrupting that hate-filled word snare that crossed over his lips into public space. I want to catch it and hurl it back into his face. But I remain motionless and silent, while my brain engages him. “What would your mother say if she heard you talking like that?” Really, I didn't want to know what that answer might be.

The black woman tells the cashier she will take the cat food to the customer service desk. She turns and confronts the man face to face. Once again, telling him to mind his own business, via, “Who the hell do you think you are?” Her arms are wide open with closed fists, one around her purse and the other around the bag of cat food. She’s fierce and indestructible.

As the man turns to the cashier, I see his profile. Probably late 50’s. He has a gray beard and mustache. He pays and leaves. I pay and go find the couple.

I ask them if they are alright. They thank me for my concern. I don’t know what else to do. Her strong eyes of a tiger lock on mine, those of a mown over sheep.

I leave shaking and in tears, knowing who the man is even though I’ve never met him.