Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Please wait here

The white haired man totters past me as I stand in line to buy my book. He is oblivious to the sign that says “Please wait here”.

There are two clerks at Barnes & Noble and one busies herself in a manner that clearly communicates, “I’m busy doing nothing, but all the same, I’m not going to help you.” The other clerk is petite and I imagine her wrists will hurt at the end of her shift from reaching up to punch the screen and tear off receipts (if they even tear – maybe their receipts glide out nicely, pre-cut so the coupon dangles from one limp corner).

I am irrationally sensitive to what I deem subconscious injustice.  I’m sure that the stranger who didn’t make way for me in the travel aisle, her eyes searching the rows for some foreign country, was purposefully blocking me, planning to snatch the book I’d set my sights on (even though I had no destination in mind).  Just as I’m sure the ‘busy doing nothing’ clerk would wait on me if I looked like I had more money to burn on books, or a Nook, or looked like I would agree to the Barnes & Noble membership.

So, obviously, the tottering old man saw me, chose to ignore me, likely associating me with the ‘Japs’ he fought in World War II, who moved to his country and took his grandchildren’s jobs, who doesn’t respect her elders (wearing such a short sundress and all), who is surely buying frivolous paperbacks about sex and fashion.

I heave the heaviest sigh I can gather, starting at the pit of my darkening spirit, traveling upward past my wounded pride, expanding my constricted lungs and pouring out my nose (like a cartoon horse, smoke lines shooting from his nostrils).

The petite clerk notices my billowing breath and smiles a tiny smile, one that says, ‘sorry’ in lower case with an ellipsis trailing meekly after the y.

The white haired man rests his hands on the counter, supporting himself as he pulls out his weathered wallet. I swear I hear the counter complain.

“I’m tired,” he says to the clerk as he hands her a pretty greeting card, purple flowers delicately scattered across rough cream paper.  The clerk smiles awkwardly and says, ‘Time for coffee!’ She says this as cheerfully as her opening shift allows. Reaching up, she taps at the computer screen and I notice the crease in her wrist.

“It’s my medicine,” he says. “I take medicine at night and it makes me sleepy.”

“Oh,” she says, with that same ‘sorry…’ smile.

“And it makes me sad,” he says.

All three of us seem to stand up straight for a second, making room to take this in. I don’t know if he meant to say this out loud. It wasn’t an invitation or an expectation – just words that fell out, like a dollar or a tissue falls out of your pocket when you reach in for something else.

The clerk makes shapes with her lips, searches for something to say. She reaches up for the receipt. It is one of those machines that neatly delivers, pre-cut, with a coupon dangling.

The man takes the receipt and greeting card from the clerk’s hand, and I notice her sparkling engagement ring. I know that I will ask her about it, ask her if they’ve set a date, if she wants a big wedding or a small one, where they will go on their honeymoon, and I know she will answer. All the while, we'll both know we're talking about the old man and his medicine and how it makes him sleepy and sad.