By Randy Osborne
The old lady comes up short, but she didn’t budge, failed to budget, couldn’t fudge it. She with her Camels and six-pack of beer and chips who stares at the checkout screen with eyes of disbelief, or what she wants Register Man to believe. Need’ll make you fake things.
She mutters to Register Man, who replies the total again, blank-faced. Nods past the old lady at me, as if to signal: Sorry sir, you’re next. Though I have no purchase, am not in line yet. About my age, the old lady, let’s just say.
The standoff: She fingers her envelope—CURR. scrawled on it (Register Man, take this dog by the ears!), and CHANGE scrawled on it (our only certainty), with rows of meager totals. Silver hair shags out the back of her baseball cap. Imagine her school pictures in forgotten shoeboxes. The small round face, peg teeth, beaming into the future. This one.
We have a problem, each of us edgy for slightly different reasons, but mostly it’s our possible sad destinies standing in front of us smacking her pockets in faux astonishment. Or the old lady has a problem. Register Man only seems to, really. He owns the place.
Last week he scolded me, shrill: Why you not buy case wine, ten percent discount! You in here almost every day, buy wine. You like Whitehaven so I add supply, boxes in behind for holiday, I am overstock!
I scan a row of jars. Gourmet pickles, truffle paste, rare Italian beans. How did she find her way here? Our neighborhood swarms with youth. They slog to dreary, high-paying jobs—an equation: the more numb your soul, the fatter your paycheck, they learn to accept—and avert their gaze from stray elderlies, the ones I pretend I’m not. As I do right now, and to escape at least mentally, I get on my phone and call Joyce. A few blocks away, she doesn’t pick up. Stirring dinner.
As a kid I once hurled a telephone to smithereens. One of those runkenclatter rotary-dial apparatuses, so unlike the wafers children of today tap and smile into, hefty with the promise of serious plaster damage, which it delivered thereon. To me, the possibility that one person could talk to another not within sight or earshot seemed deeply, even infuriatingly wrong. That I caught myself up in trying, worse. Maybe you think I’m crazy to feel this way still.
The silly cell-phone burble repeats in my ear. Pick up, pick up. No Joyce.
And then it starts again—a different kind of ring.
The diagnostic term, tinnitus, reminds me of that light tap of stick on cymbal that drummers sometimes do. Unlike the noise in my head, where a jet engine revs, whines. Or locusts drone in trees. Or a uniform tone beeps long: this is a test of the Emergency Broadcast System. It arrives at the oddest moments for no apparent reason and subsides the same.
I consider paying for the old lady. Not because I am an exemplary person. Not because of the season, this pageant of do-goodism looming over us a week before the 2015 calendars flip. I consider paying for her because of reprieve. For the old lady, who wants only to recline in her distant hovel with suds and smokes. For Register Man, who knows that if she blocks the flow of commerce a few minutes more he must give her the heave-ho, and nobody wants to haul a crone out the door screaming this time of year. For me, of course, phone still clamped to head as I pretend to listen and converse. I actually say a few words—to nothing.
Now I am outside, under the strung lights. Now at the street. Cross.
Three nights ago, on the fifth floor of our gated complex’s parking deck, I peered over the wall (an easy climb) to the cement below. Could happen fast. Up and over. Air whistling past my ears, the delicious impact.
Briefly I left myself.
Back in the body. How long passed? No more than a few seconds—amazed, I saw my foot drop from the ledge where it had waited for the rest of me to follow. Half over, like bounding a country fence. How the deed gets done when it does. A moment of inadvertency.
The near-George Bailey episode followed a night of trying to write through the confluence of agitations become chronic. At my keyboard, all the world’s clamor. Pop-ups and videos, Facebook ever hailing. The full internet of tags and links, chains draped, hung off my invisibly distributed personhood, not anywhere.
Now, almost home. Outside the tall-paned bar I pause to examine the women, fresh, much hair-toss and throat-show. Gust of wind chafes my face, a filthy looker, and suddenly I realize that if I don’t go back and help the old lady, I’ll fret hours over my inaction. Another clog in rusted wheels.
I turn. Cross.
To find the scene unchanged, as if time stopped. Incredulous old lady. Register Man with fists on hips. A second queue open, twitchy adolescent handling the overflow.
My voice comes out how much. What does she owe? Register Man, whom nothing surprises, says $3.27. What about the tax on, I say, there’s tax on, tax on—a fool stammer, I throttle—everything. At last I step in. Swipe the card. We’re almost touching. Let the fossil be gone, into the dark.
I want to chase her down the street, deranged, and grab her by the knob shoulders and shake answers out. I want the grand epiphany, balm. I want to know that everything I believe I understand is more than a stuck-on symbol.
Instead, I’ll let the elevator hiss-groan me to the top deck again. Trace the city skyline with bent finger. Dream what’s nearing from beyond, if there even is.
RANDY OSBORNE’s work has appeared in many small literary magazines online and four print anthologies. It was nominated three times for the Pushcart Prize, as well as Best of the Net. One of his pieces is listed in the Notable section of Best American Essays 2015. He lives in Atlanta, where he is finishing a book. He’s a regular contributor to Full Grown People.