Express Lane

By Scott Jagow

A tiny mouse lives inside my brain. Usually, he spins around on his little mouse wheel, powering me through the day, keeping the operation running smoothly. But sometimes, he gets stuck and starts to nibble at one particular idea - one of life’s troubling little mysteries. He chews on it and chews on it, slowly eroding my capacity to think of anything else.

Lately, we've been wondering why there are no rules for the grocery store's express lane. Yeah, it says "12 items or less", but what’s an item? How do we count a six-pack of beer or one bag of three tomatoes? Fourteen bottles of the same hot sauce? In a buy one, get one free scenario, does the second one count toward the total? The supermarket people should give shoppers some guidance. Otherwise, feelings get hurt. Fights break out. Well-meaning shoppers wind up on the "People's Court."

Nibble, nibble, nibble. Gnaw, gnaw, gnaw.

The other day, I'm standing in the express lane, and this woman in front of me has a cart full of Meow Mix. Like 10 bags. Then, she starts unloading a hand-held basket packed with yogurt, the kind where the fruit sits on the bottom.

I realize this is my opportunity. To test the system. To stop the nibbling. To get the tiny mouse back on his wheel. "Excuse me, but I think you’re in the wrong lane." Her head swivels like an owl. "See the sign?"

"I only have two." She has gobs of makeup on. Gobs. In the circus clown or Tammy Faye vicinity. Her curly hairdo is bright orange.

"No, you see, I have two items. A jar of mustard and a package of condoms. You have ten bags of cat food and twenty containers of yogurt with fruit at the bottom. That’s thirty items."

The woman turns red and shakes a Dannon at me, but the checkout girl butts in.

"Hold on. Can’t we settle this calmly?" She’s about 17, Italian or Hispanic. "On" comes out "awwwn."

"It's two o’clock in the ehhhfternoon, plenty of empty lines. Since I already started ringing this lady up, sir, why don’t you scoot over to lane six there and be on your way."

I steeple my hands. "Look, I'm not trying to cause trouble, but she’s violating the most basic of grocery-shopping tenants. What if there were no empty lanes? Would you reprimand her for flouting the rules?"

The cat lady rolls her eyes. The checkout girl smacks her gum. But I am unperturbed. It’s not often you sense you’re making history at the time you are making it. As I fortify my position between the Twix bars and the tabloids, I realize I may be the first shopper in history to take a stand against an express lane violator. It’s one of those situations you dream about, when you are absolutely right, and everyone else is absolutely wrong. And no matter how many slings and arrows may be aligned against you, you are going to fight to the death.

"This is how society slips," I say. "One transgression at a time. Sure, this seems insignificant now, but what if, across America, people pull up to the express lane with carts full of cat food? Or all the nation’s grocery clerks look the other way when someone counts thirty-seven cartons of low-fat cottage cheese as one item? The next thing you know, people will use four dryers at the Laundromat to dry three sweaters and a pair of jeans. They'll talk loudly during movies. They'll park their SUV’s in compact spaces. Then where will we be?"

A few shoppers and a manager-looking guy gather around us, emboldening me further.

"People already do those things," the cat lady sneers.

"See, it's already begun. Do you really want to be the joker that topples the whole house of cards?

"Who you calling a joker?"

The manager guy glides in. His eyebrows could be planted in my front yard. "What's the problem?"

I clutch his shoulder, check out his name tag. "The problem, Sid, is she has enough cat food to feed a zoo full of cheetahs, enough yogurt for a squad of cheerleaders. I'm simply stating the case, for the millions of silent shoppers, that this is unacceptable."

The gallery claps. I swell with pride.

"I see your point, sir. But since Maria’s already ringing up this customer, can I take care of you over here?"

It's obvious, and a little disconcerting, that Maria and Sid have been studying their Xeroxed guides for dealing with difficult customers.

Suddenly overcome by frustration, I reach into the back of my jeans and pull out a Glock 9. I wave the gun, speak German. "Auf dem Boden!! Auf dem Boden!!" On the floor!! On the floor!!

Okay, I'm making that up. I don't have a gun, and my German is rusty. I might say "Lick the Floor!!" or "On the cucumber!!" or something.

What I really say is: "I have a better idea, Sid. Why doesn't’t Maria check me out first, since my shopping cache is within the legal limits. And you can check out the cat food lady in the regular line where she belongs."

Sid flattens his comb-over, huffs. "Fine." He puts his arm around the cat lady, offers some Friskies coupons or whatever. Her defeated expression makes me want to do an end zone dance —you know, wiggle my knees, point to the sky.

I feel hands patting my back. "Way to go, guy." "Power to the people!"

Maria smacks her gum. "Cash or charge?"

I slap a ten down. She glances sideways. "There are twelve condoms in that package, you know."

I wink, scoop up my bag, wave to the customers as I stroll toward the automatic doors.
The sun is a spotlight, brilliant and high. I don my sunglasses, take a deep breath. I am sublime.

As I turn the key in the door of my Honda, a huge SUV pulls into the next space, marked "Compact."

Nibble, nibble, nibble. Gnaw, gnaw, gnaw.

~ * ~

Native Shore Fiction

Word Smitten's
TenTen Award
for Fiction
Title: Express Lane - 2002 Honorable Mention
Short Story


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