I went down to the Piggly Wiggly the other day to get some Gogurt and I don’t know what all kinds yours sells but mine carries vanilla and strawberry and one with that Sponge Bob character all over the packaging. I didn’t ever find out what that one’s flavor was either because I know better than to go and buy something like that when there’s other options.
I don’t have a grandson but if the Sponge Bob Gogurts were the only ones the Pig carried, I’d have lied and told the checker they weren’t for me, that they were for this boy who did not exist. I don’t know that I could cop to buying something with a cartoon sponge on it when I don’t buy real sponges to clean my counters and bathtub.
I stood in front of the cold case deciding between strawberry and vanilla. The bright, pretty colors and cartoon logos screamed out for young children to drop everything; step right up, the packaging called, all who stand under a certain height and age are welcome. I stood there, unwelcome, for far too long before grabbing strawberry and taking the package up to the counter. Sitting it on the belt.
I waited on the girl to finish up with the customer in front of me. There went my Gogurts, inching closer and closer to the end of their ride and I figured myself lucky, there being others to purchase besides the Sponge.
I’d not thought the checker older than sixteen but as I get older it gets harder for me to judge kids’ ages. I’ve got excuses for why that is. They all act and dress older than they are these days. I don’t have anyone in my life to compare them with, no grandchildren to say, okay—Jackie is this old. Harold, that. How old is this checker compared to them? And then, with the girl staring at me, scanning my Gogurt, I got to thinking about the names I’d just dreamed up. Harold. Jackie. I felt old as limestone when I said, “They’re for my son.”
She popped a bubble. Pink gum. I knew she knew I was lying and I couldn’t find my debit card, so I took out my checkbook but she didn’t have a pen at her station because, of course, she wasn’t expecting anyone to write a check. Who does that? Why in the hell would you want to go and do a thing like that? I know that’s what she was thinking when she came back from borrowing the pen from the boy a few registers down. I apologized. She was quick to tell me it was no big deal. “Happens all the time,” she said. There were others waiting behind me and I half-nodded to them as apology before tearing the check from its book.
She took it from me and slid it through that fancy deal they have now and I thanked her. I didn’t think it was clear I was thanking her for the effort she went through to get the pen, so I added, “for the pen. The effort to get it. Thank you.”
She smiled at me and looked down at my check before slipping it through the slot in her drawer. She handed my bag out to me. As I walked away, she said, “It’s no problem, Mr. Thompson. I hope your son really enjoys the Gogurt.”
I stopped and turned back to her. She had already greeted the next man in line and was scanning groceries that did not include Gogurt.
“You know I was lying, don’t you?”
The man with the non-Gogurted groceries looked to me, and the checker looked at me, and the spiked-haired woman in the cigarette cage looked at me. About the only person who didn’t look at me was the checker who the girl had gotten the pen from.
“Excuse me?” The girl said.
They all stared now, even the boy checker and his customer, a little chubby kid with a mop haircut trying to buy a Yahoo and a chocolate bar. A Yoo-hoo. That’s what he was buying. Not a Yahoo. I was the Yahoo and I don’t know why I did it, why I ever opened my mouth. I was a little self-conscious and on edge, but I’ve spent my entire adult life that way. Maybe it was her so blatantly calling me on my lie that caught me off guard. Or pissed me off. I don’t know. But, by that point, I was in too deep and too damn old to run away like some goddamn child.
“The Gogurt,” I said to her. I guess that’s all I thought necessary.
“What about it?” She said. The whole grocery store process had ground to a halt. The belts weren’t churning their items forward. There were no high pitched scanner sounds. No thank yous. No you saved this much with your Piggly Wiggly Rewards Cards. No enjoy this weather while it lasts. Just an old man, seeming much older by the second, his metaphorical pecker in his hand.
“You caught me,” I said. I held my hands straight up into the air as if she’d turned a gun on me. The Gogurt in the bag bounced against my chin.
I took a step forward as if closing the distance between us would help her understand. I’d lowered my hands by this point and taken the Gogurt from the bag. I thought if I could hold it out to her and she could see it and me at the same time, she’d recognize what I was talking about.
The guy whose groceries she was checking stepped in front of her thinking I was dangerous I guess, and look, I know I was the one who ratcheted the whole situation up a notch when I could have just taken my Gogurt to the truck and popped one on the drive home, but this guy going all terrorist-pact-I’ll-charge-the-Jihadst-with-the-box-cutter-once-I-know-we’re-already-dying-anyway was a little much. He’d offended me with his appraisal of the situation and my Gogurt was already liquefying. People were taking mental notes of what I looked like in case called down to the station later, asked to describe me to a police sketch artist or pick me out of a lineup.
But I didn’t leave. I said, “There’s no reason to move in front of the girl like that. It’s just a misunderstanding between me and this girl here and no one—”
“That’s two times,” my checker said and she pushed the man aside. “I gave you the first one but that second’s the last time you call me girl. You got that?”
She was three feet from me when she blew another bubble. It felt like it popped an inch from my face—a cotton candy exclamation mark on her point.
“I didn’t mean it like that,” I told her but she’d already turned back to the guy at her register.
“And I don’t need saving,” she said to him. He looked at me, I guess, to avoid making eye contact with her. I smiled because, if nothing else, I was satisfied in knowing hero boy was made every bit the asshole I was.
I put my Gogurt back in the bag and watched for a second as everything chugged back to life. It started with the hefty boy handing out a bill to the male checker. I took this return to normal as the end of the scene I’d caused and figured I was free to go. As if I’d been held against my will the entire time.
When I got outside it was still daylight and I was surprised. I don’t know how long I thought I’d been inside or how long I stood there adjusting but it couldn’t have been that long because the boy with the Yoo-Hoo and the candy bar walked past me and opened his drink. The sound was like gum popping, like the checker’s gum popping. He picked up his bike and swung one leg over.
“You want these, kid?” He eyed me suspiciously. He’d seen my act inside. “No, really,” I held the Gogurt box out to him, “I don’t want them anymore.”
He kept staring and I wondered if he was deaf, mute. I wondered how long it would be before someone called the police and whether or not I could explain any of my behavior up to that point.
Thankfully, it didn’t come to that. He reached for the box and I stepped just close enough to hand it to him. I did not want to scare him. I turned and left them there, the boy and my Gogurts. Walking to my truck, I secretly hoped for that Mean-Joe-Greene-Coca-Cola-commercial moment where I’d play the boy and the little fat kid would play Joe and he’d holler out, “Mr. Thompson,” because he’d heard my name inside and I’d turn around and he’d toss me a Gogurt. I’d have said, “Thanks, Kid,” or something smarter and we’d have gone our separate ways, content with how we’d left that parking lot if nothing else in our lives. But he didn’t holler at me and I didn’t get to drink down a warm Gogurt on my way home.
–Art by Kaia Pieters