Monday, January 18, 2016

A Penny For Your Thoughts

A Penny For Your Thoughts

The romaine lettuce rolls down the conveyor belt behind a handful of cherry tomatoes, a cucumber, a celery, a toady-looking red pepper, and a bag of various weird sprigs of leaves. For me, all the makings of a great salad, and tonight's dinner.

The checkout cashier, an ancient sprout of a woman with blue-white hair held on top of her head with what appears to be a giant twist-tie, whips each item into an open bag as her arthritic right hand nonchalantly rings in a series of prices. Everything happens so fast that the cash register flashes with the fury of a Vegas slot machine. For a moment, I am transfixed, frozen in expectation and waiting for bells and whistles to explode in the air in the manner that such machines announce a million dollar jackpot. Instead, as the conveyor belt stops, there is only a uneasy silence.

The eerie quiet lingers far too long. I look across the counter at the cashier. She looks back at me. Neither she nor I move, as if we are enacting some inane mime tableau or as if someone has hit the pause button on the remote control of life. Somewhere, off in Aisle 4, I think, someone farts. It is loud and bubbly, and I hear muted laughter followed by a hysterical voice that whoops, "Oh, my God." The exchange breaks the dead air at the cash register and I confess, I chortle with some delight. The cashier, however, remains locked in the fog of her dementia, and stares at me with a steady glare from beneath her furrowed white eyebrows. Her peepy blue eyes seem locked on my face, or to be honest, just to the left of my face. A chill crawls up my back, and I shiver involuntarily.

"Coupons?" she snaps suddenly with a voice that mimics the crack of a bull whip.

"Pardon me?" I mumble as I fish around in my pocket for some money.

"Coupons? Do you have any coupons for your merchandise?"

"No," I bleat, my face reddening slightly in the shame of being couponless.

"Price match?" she snaps again.

I'm befuddled. "Price match?" I ask back. "I don't ...."

"Price match?" she repeats, then adds. "Any flyers or advertisements that beat our prices?"

"Uh, no. No flyers. So, no ... no price match."

"Total is $15.01, then" she barks.

I fumble through my pockets, and pull out a number of old receipts, a lottery ticket from months ago, and a chalky, generic-brand aspirin, which I carry in the event that I feel a heart attack coming on. For a moment, I quake with embarrassment when I suspect that I have no money at all. Then, as I peel through the contents of my pocket, I find three five dollar bills wrapped in a receipt from Wal-Mart.

"I have a three fives," I say thankfully as I hand her the bills across the counter. "I'll owe you the penny."

"Nope," she deadpans like she's in a comedy routine from the days of burlesque in the 1920s. "Total is $15.01."

"I'm only short a penny ...."

"Total is $15.01," she repeats like the endless refrain of "Hey Jude."

I stare at her in disbelief. "Are you kidding? I'm not asking you to absorb the national debt. It's a penny ..."

"Void?" She spits out the word from between her pearly false teeth as her thin lips curl into a gruesome smile.

"Void?" I whine. "No, no void. Don't void me. Not for a penny."

I quickly look around for someone who might lend me a penny, but apart from some commotion near the deli counter at the back, the store is all but empty.

"Listen," I say in my most seductive voice, "How about if I give you a thought or two. That would equal a penny. You know, like 'A penny for your thoughts' sort of thing?"

She almost smirks from beneath her blue bonnet of starchy hair. "Void?" she repeats blandly.

"Stop," I groan. "Don't void me. Take back a tomato, take a stalk of celery for your lunch, but for goodness sake, don't void me for a freakin' penny."

Her face softens, becomes almost maternal, and I suspect she must be having a change of heart and realising the stupidity of quibbling over a penny. The smell of victory drifts from the cheese cooler, even as she reaches for the telephone handset, lifts it off its cradle, and blurts across the store intercom for all to hear, "Manager assistance on 4 for a void. Insufficient funds. Manager assistance on 4 for a void."

At wit's end, I decide enough is enough. "Void me, then," I growl angrily, and I rush away from this heartless, unyielding throwback to the Great Depression to leave the store in disgrace. Embarrassed, bemused, indignant, and distracted beyond words, I almost run over a small, red-haired boy who has a twist of licorice in his hand and who has seemingly popped up from nowhere. He sidesteps me in the nick of time to prevent being flattened, and as I pass, he calls to me, "Hey mister, I'll give you a penny."

I stop and look back at him. He seems familiar but not quite recognizable. "Thanks," I say as calmly as possible, "but I'm being voided."

He pulls out a penny from his jeans pocket. "Here," he insists, "it's my last one, but you can have it."

"It's OK, son," I answer reassuringly. "You keep your penny for yourself."

His round eyes are a wash of blue as he looks up at me with an oddly sad expression. His head shakes almost indistinctly from side to side, while his small fingers curl over the copper coin, which he slips it back into his pocket. Then, as abruptly as he has appeared from seemingly nowhere, he blurts, "You shot the monkey, didn't you, mister?"

The words hang in the air, reverberate and bounce around in my mind as if such a peculiar question has some deep, deep meaning for me. Time stands still, as I look with a sense of wonder at the boy, whose hair now seems almost on fire as he waits for my answer.

Without really knowing what I'm saying or why I'm saying it, I hear myself speaking almost in a whisper. "No," I say, as a wave of uncontrollable regret overcomes me. "No, I didn't. That was someone else."

The automatic doors swing open, and I trudge out to my car in the parking lot. In the eastern skies, I notice that a thunderstorm is taking shape, and flashes of chain lightning ignite a mass of towering black clouds.



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