I can’t tell if Mom’s messy penmanship is because she’s left-handed, like me, or because of the yellow pills that make her tired. She blames it on the teachers who smacked her small knuckles with a ruler when she was in the first grade. “They wanted me to write with my right hand,” she said. As a result, on the first day of school Mom came in with me and talked to my teacher. “She’s left-handed.” And that was that. I never got hit with a ruler, and Mom never came back into my classroom that year. Instead, she naps during the day, and that’s why I battle my way down the narrow path behind our house, carrying a torn piece of paper towel. On it, eight items are listed in Mom’s shaky handwriting.
I hold the list tighter, avoiding the small oaks that reach out with sturdy limbs, grabbing at my list and me, while I run down the dirt hill like a champion. I wish I could keep running, through the parking lot of Sintros Market, past the front door and far away from the third register. Instead, I hit the pavement and stop. Bright yellow letters spell out NO PARKING PLEASE. I hop on each one, reciting the items on the list. Tomato paste, onion, spaghetti, bread. I jump on the last letter with both feet, ending my ritual before I turn the sharp corner. Long brown hair falls over my face, covering my dark brown eyes. My legs are short for an eleven year-old, but my memory is not, and I hate what I have to do. I round the corner and pass Plunket’s Market. In there you can get any kind of candy bar you want. Large racks span the width of the prescriptions counter, advertising products with bright colors and cheerful names. My friend, Erin, always gets a Chunky, but I prefer the Marathon bar. One of those can last for an hour if you eat it right. Sometimes Mr. Plunket lets me take one while I wait for Mom’s medicine: the yellow pills that help her sleep during the day.
Today, the parking lot in front of Sintros is empty, and I realize that it’s Monday. Most people shop on Thursdays, but I hate going to the market then, except once a month when my father’s pension check comes in the mail, and Mom comes with me. We walk together, and I push the carriage. The man behind the deli counter knows my mother by name and always gives me a slice of cheese while we wait for German bologna and
Polish ham. After that, we head down the cereal aisle, and I get to choose one with kids’ faces on the box and a plastic prize inside. But today, Mom’s sleeping and out of cigarettes, and I’m at Sintros by myself.
I rehearse the list one more time before opening the door. It’s easier to have the items memorized and not to have to keep looking at the list. Esther Macavitch is standing at the first register. I’m happy to see her, but I look away before she can say hello. She knows about the third line. I walk down the produce aisle, checking the list again. The faster I get through the aisles, the better chance I have that Esther will still be at the register when I’m done. I’m about to pick up an onion when I hear a familiar voice from the next aisle. The girl says something else, then laughs. It’s Shelly Anderson. She also shops at Sintros, but with her mother and her younger sister. Both girls wear matching clothes and bright bows that hold back their loose curls. I can’t let them see me with my list, all by myself, so I duck behind a cardboard cutout of a green giant advertising vegetables. I wait.
From the back of the store, I watch the Andersons walk through the first line, out the front door, and across the parking lot. Now, I have to move quickly. Mom will wake up soon, and she’ll be looking for some of the things on the list. I wonder if she’ll also be worried about me. Sometimes she is.
Bread is on the other side of the store, but Hunt’s Tomato Paste is in one of the middle aisles. I forgot the onion. Spaghetti tonight. Why can’t she put things in order? Two packs of Parliaments. I’ll get those at the register. I grab the loaf of Wonder Bread. It feels soft in my hands, which are too small for everything I need to carry. I should have taken a cart, but that takes time and time brings attention. When I go back for the spaghetti, I recognize the boy putting prices on boxes of pasta. He’s one of my brother’s friends. I ignore his awkward smile and grab any box with my free hand. I hope it’s the right one, but I don’t care enough to check. The loaf of bread falls on the floor, and the boy and I bang heads as we both go to pick it up at the same time. Blood rushes to my cheeks, making my face feel hot.
“Sorry about that.” His voice cracks.
I juggle the half gallon of milk under one arm while picking up the bread. Get the onion and go. I make my way toward the registers and see that Esther is gone.
The pimply-faced boy continues pricing pasta as if none of this mattered. The corner of the spaghetti box is pressing hard into the inside of my left arm, but I don’t dare put anything down until someone comes to the register. Please be Esther. The boy looks over at me with a Can I help you? look, and I avoid eye contact. He doesn’t know about the third line. Nobody does at first, until the store resonates with a loud announcement: “Manager to the front please.” That’s when I usually become petrified, standing in the
middle of the aisle with too many items in my exposed arms, while the manager explains to the cashier that I can have the food on credit.
The boy starts walking toward me. Please keep pricing. I want to drop everything and run up the path to my sanctuary, but my mother’s cigarette addiction keeps me trapped in the moment. She needs the Parliaments. The boy heads toward the first register; the items feel weightless in my arms. I look down at the pale gray floor, then back up again. The boy motions for me to put the items on the conveyor belt. I’m about to say the two words that are both humiliating and humbling, and for some reason I’m not mad at Mom for making me do this, just at him for being there.
Before I finish, Esther Machavich appears, like a descending lifeboat, from the cosmetic aisle, rescuing me from my internal tempest. “I’ll ring her up, Bobby.”
Bobby shrugs and goes back to pricing, while Esther moves some broken boxes of cereal and opened cleaning products from the third line conveyor belt. This line is used for two things: storage and customers who can’t pay. Although there must be others like me, I’ve never seen anyone else use it.
“How are you today?” Esther asks. Her soft voice is relaxing. Rumor has it she’s never been married and has no family. She spends most of her days at Sintros Market, and I’m happy for that because she understands that Mom is just tired today. After she finishes totaling the items on an adding machine, she writes the amount on the back of a register receipt.
“Oh… umm…I forgot… two packs of Parliaments,” I say, without looking up at Esther. How could I forget them? They’re always on the top of the list.
Esther nods and grabs the cigarettes from the case behind her, adding one dollar to the $7.95 already on the paper from the adding machine. She places the receipt on the conveyor belt for me to sign then reaches under the register.
“Thank you,” she says, handing me a lolliop.
I smile back at her and head for the exit sign. Carrying the brown paper bag on my left hip, I am another paying customer, just like everyone else. In a couple of days, maybe next week, or next month, I’ll be back here with another list and no money, but today, I got through the third line without the Anderson girls seeing me, and without having to explain to a confused clerk that I can’t pay for my groceries. I toss my list in the metal trash can on the way by.
My sneakers sink into the soft dirt as I climb the hill back toward my house. I imagine Mom will be awake when I get home, maybe groggy, but it doesn’t matter because I got all the items on the list. And it doesn’t matter that the Anderson girls have shiny hair and matching bows. And it doesn’t matter that they hold hands with their mother in the parking lot. None of it matters because today I didn’t have to say “third line.” A large yellow sun burns through the white fluffy clouds, generating just enough warmth for assurance. I hold onto the white stick poking out of my mouth while the sweet flavor slides down the back of my throat. Cherry is my favorite.
Kassie Rubico is a Writing Instructor at Northern Essex Community College. Her work has been published in Insight Academic Journal, Parnassus Literary Journal, and River Muse: Tales of Lowell and the Merrimack Valley. Kassie lives in Chelmsford, MA with her husband Tony and their three daughters.