Sunday, December 6, 2009

The Supermarket

I'm happy to share a new memoir piece, recently published in Crosscurrents, the annual literary publication of the Washington Community College Humanities Association. Because this publication has limited distribution, and because this edition is not yet on-line, I've decided to share the piece here. To learn more about WCCHA, please go to

The Supermarket

The supermarket was shiny – newer, bigger, fancier than anything my sleepy hometown had ever seen. A farm girl, I knew little of supermarkets. With nine kids, Mom shopped alone whenever possible. How could a woman shop with nine kids trailing behind? We’d fill a whole aisle, even one of the long aisles in the new supermarket. No, I rarely went shopping with Mom. But now that I was in junior high school, I could walk down the hill after school to the new supermarket off Front Street to wait for a ride home with Dad on those days when I stayed late.

I loved the new supermarket. The bright lights and colorful packaging. It was clean and neat and full of abundance. On cold winter days, I was pulled towards the delicious aroma of the bakery, pretending I was in the kitchen at home and Mom was baking cookies just for me. On warm spring afternoons, I wandered the frozen food section, dreaming of huge ice cream sundaes with thick chocolate syrup and peanuts on top.

It was late spring. School was almost out and my afternoons of exploring the long aisles of the supermarket would soon end for the summer. Living eight miles from town, summers were spent doing farm chores or playing in the woods. Trips to town were rare in the summer. Only for church on Sunday, and those trips didn’t involve a stop at the supermarket.

I was alone, walking up and down the long aisles, my long dark hair in what Dad called squaw braids, large coke-bottle glasses weighing my nose, so tall and skinny my older siblings called me String Bean. My ill-fitted hand-me-down clothes hung off my scarecrow body – high water pants and a baggy T-shirt. To the eyes of the supermarket manager, I suppose I looked needy, hungry, and in my shyness, a bit shifty.

I had no backpack. Kids in the sixties didn’t carry backpacks. I carried a paper grocery bag full of library books and homework assignments. A sweatshirt stuffed in on top.

“You there. Stop right there.”

I heard a harsh male voice. It was a voice I didn’t recognize, so I ignored it, intent on my dreamy wanderings, reading labels, trying to figure out what all these strange and exciting items stacked high above me on each side of the aisle could possibly be used for.

“Hey, you there. I told you to stop.”

Again, the voice. Then a hand. A hard, tight hand on my shoulder spinning me around.

“Come with me, young lady.”

The man released his hard grip on my shoulder, and I followed him in obedient silence to the front of the store. I’d been taught to obey authority. Adults were authority. Especially big, tall men with loud, harsh voices and strong hands.

The man stopped near a cash register at the front of the supermarket. “Now young lady, what have you put in that bag?”

I was stunned. It was one thing to be ordered around by the store manager. It was a totally different thing to be called a thief, and despite my silence, I was smart enough to know who this man with the name tag pinned to his broad chest was and what he was calling me.

I broke my silence. “I haven’t put anything in my bag.”

“What’s in it then?” he demanded.

“Just my school stuff.”

“Show me.”

I couldn’t believe it. I heard the words, but I didn’t understand, and I didn’t react. The next thing I knew, the store manager pulled my bag from my arms and dumped the contents on the checkout counter. I watched in silence, willing myself not to cry as I felt the curious eyes of strangers watching the show. With all my might I prayed to be invisible, to disappear. I prayed that nobody would recognize me. In such a small town, that was a mighty prayer.

The store manager fingered through my books, notebooks, pencils and sweatshirt. Finally, satisfied that there was nothing of any worth there, no unpaid for candy bars or gum, nothing that I had shoplifted, he shoveled it back into the torn bag and pushed it into my arms.

“Okay, it’s clean. But don’t you be wandering around in here, young lady. We don’t take kindly to shoplifters.”

I could only look into his dark angry eyes. Words wouldn’t come. I couldn’t defend myself against this bully. At the very least, I knew he owed me an apology, and I knew just as clearly that I would never get one. So, I hurried out the sliding glass front door of the new supermarket and sat on the curb waiting for my ride home, tears of anger and frustration streaming down my young face.