Word Count 1475  Lexile Level 1490

Checkouts

By Cynthia Rylant

Her parents had moved her to Cincinnati, to a large house with beveled glad windows and
several porches and the history her mother liked to emphasize. You’ll be lonely at first,
they admitted, but you’re so nice you’ll make friends fast. And as an impulse tore at her
to lie on the floor, to hold to their ankles and tell them she felt she was dying, to offer
anything, anything at all, so they might allow her to finish growing up in the town of her
childhood, they firmed there mouths and spoke from their chests, and they said, It’s
decided.
They moved her to Cincinnati, where for a month she spent the greater part of
every day in a room full of beveled glass windows, sifting through photographs of the life
she’d lived and left behind. But it is difficult work, suffering, and in its own way a kind
of art, and finally she didn’t have the energy for it anymore, so she emerged from the
beautiful house and fell in love with a bag boy at the supermarket. Of course, this didn’t
happen all at once, just like that, but in the sequence of things that’s exactly the way it
happened.
She liked to grocery shop. She loved it in the way some people have to drive long
country roads, because doing it she could think and relax and wander. Her parents wrote
up the list and handed it to her, and off she went without complaint to perform what they
regarded as a great sacrifice of her time and a sign that she was indeed a very nice girl.
She had never told them how much she loved grocery shopping, only that she was
“willing” to do it. She had an intuition which told her that her parents were not safe for
sharing such strong, important facts about herself. Let them think they knew her.
Once inside the supermarket, her hands firmly around the handle of the cart, she
would lapse into a kind of reverie and wheel toward the produce. Like a Tibetan monk in
solitary meditation, she calmed to a point of deep, deep happiness; this feeling came to
her, reliably, if strangely, only in the supermarket.
Then one day the bag boy dropped her jar of mayonnaise, and that is how she fell
in love.
He was nervous—first day on the job—and along had come this fascinating girl,
standing in the checkout line with the unfocused stare one often sees in young children,
her face turned enough away that he might take several full looks at her as he packed
sturdy bags full of food and the goods of modern life. She interested him because her
hair was red and thick, and in it she had placed a huge orange bow, nearly the size of a
small hat. That was enough to distract him, and when finally it was her groceries he was
packing, she looked at him and smiled, and he could respond only by busting her jar of
mayonnaise on the floor, shards of glass and oozing cream decorating the area around his
feet.
She loved him at exactly that moment, and if he’d known this, perhaps he
wouldn’t have fallen into the brown depression he fell into, which lasted the rest of his
shift. He believed he must have looked a fool in her eyes, and he envied the sureness of
everyone around him: the cocky cashier at the register, the grim and harried
their breaks. He wanted a second chance. Another chance to be confident and say witty
things to her as he threw tin cans into her bags, persuading her to allow him to help her to
her car so he might learn just a little about her, check out the floor of the car for signs of
hobbies or fetishes2 and the bumpers for clues as to beliefs and loyalties.
But he busted her jar of mayonnaise, and nothing else worked out for the rest of
the day.
Strange, how attractive clumsiness can be. She left the supermarket with stars in
her eyes, for she had loved the way his long, nervous fingers moved from the conveyor
belt to the bags, how deftly (until the mayonnaise) they had picked up her items and
placed them into her bags. She had loved the way the hair kept falling into his eyes as he
leaned over to grab a box or a tin. And the tattered brown shoes he wore with no socks.
And the left side of his collar turned in rather than out.
The bag boy seemed a wonderful contrast to the perfectly beautiful house she had
been forced to accept as her home, to the history she hated, to the loneliness she had
become used to, and she couldn’t wait to come back for more of his awkwardness and
dishevelment.
Incredibly, it was another four weeks before they saw each other again. As fate
would have it, her visits to the supermarket never coincided with his schedule to bag.
Each time she went to the store, her eyes scanned the checkouts at once, her heart in her
mouth. And each hour he worked, the bag boy kept one eye on the door, watching for the
red-haired girl with the big orange bow.
Yet in their disappointment these weeks, there was a kind of ecstasy. It is reason
enough to be alive, the hope you may see again some face which has meant something to
you. The anticipation of meeting the bag boy eased the girl’s painful transition into her
new and jarring life in Cincinnati. It provided for her an anchor amid all that was
impersonal and unfamiliar, and she spent less time on thoughts of what she had left
behind as she concentrated on what might lie ahead. And for the boy, the long often
tedious hours at the supermarket, which provided no challenge other than that of showing
up the following workday . . . these hours became possibilities of mystery and romance
for him as he watched the electric doors for the girl in the orange bow.
And when finally they did meet up again, neither offered a clue to the other that
he, or she, had been the object of obsessive thought for weeks. She spotted him as soon
as she came into the store, but she kept her eyes strictly in front of her as she pulled out a
cart and wheeled it toward the produce. And he, too, knew the instant she came through
the door—though the orange bow was gone, replaced by a small but bright yellow flower
instead—and he never once turned his head in her direction but watched her from the
corner of his vision as he tried to swallow back the fear in his throat.
It is odd how we sometimes deny ourselves the very pleasure we have longed for
and which is finally within our reach. For some perverse reason she would not have been
able to articulate, the girl did not bring her cart up to the bag boy’s checkout when her
shopping was done. And the bag boy let her leave the store, pretending no notice of her.
This is often the way of children, when they truly want a thing, to pretend that
they don’t. And then they grow angry when no one tries harder to give them this thing
they so casually rejected, and they soon find themselves in a rage simply because they
cannot say yes when they mean yes. Humans are very complicated. (And perhaps cats,
who have been known to react in the same way, though the resulting rage can only be
guessed at.)
The girl hated herself for not checking out at the boy’s line, and the boy hated
himself for not catching her eye and saying hello, and they most sincerely hated each
other without having every exchanged even two minutes of conversation.
Eventually—in fact, within the week—a kind and intelligent boy who lived very
near her beautiful house asked the girl to a movie, and she gave up her fancy for the bag
boy at the supermarket. And the bag boy himself grew so bored with his job that he
made a desperate search for something better and ended up in a bookstore where scores
of fascinating girls lingered like honeybees about a hive. Some months later the bag boy
and the girl with the orange bow again crossed paths, standing in line with their dates at a
movie theater, and, glancing toward the other, each smiled slightly, then looked away, as
strangers on public buses often do when one is moving off the bus and the other is
moving on.