[flash creative nonfiction]
I juggle the groceries in my arms: a box of granola bars, a chunk of ginger, an onion, a carton of eggs. I only came in here for the eggs. Ahead of me, a woman juggles her own groceries, plus a ruddy-faced toddler screaming for sweets. The registers in the self-checkout line are all taken.
A handful of hard hats ring up deli-wrapped sandwiches, sodas, and chips, thick fingers fumbling on the touch screen. I realize I have been staring when I make eye contact with one of the men; I shift my gaze to their steel-toed boots, willing them wordlessly to swipe faster, pay quicker, so that we can all be on our way. The mother in front of me, the businessman behind me—we all have places to be, places more important than this self-checkout line. We have done what we came here to do—select our purchases—and our goal now is to pay for them, get in our cars, and move on to the next item on our agendas. On mine: sending a package at the post office, returning a pair of pants that don’t fit right, picking up a book of poetry on hold at the library.
That’s where we are, caught in the in-between.
My uncle Eric, a European computer programmer who speaks fluent English, French, Flemish, and code, attended a conference in France about internet privacy. During a conversation over dinner, Mark Zuckerberg asked him why the French were more reticent about adopting Facebook than Americans. My uncle offered his explanation. The French language is built on two verbs: ETRE and AVOIR. To be and to have. All other verbs rely on these. English, on the other hand, depends on a foundation of action verbs. While the French value ‘being’ as the ultimate action, Americans protect their right to do above all else. Waiting in the self-checkout line, we—the mother, the businessman, and myself—are stripped of this fundamental right.
I watch intently as the construction workers retrieve their receipts and lumber towards the exit. The mother and child ahead of me and I take hurried steps to occupy the empty registers. Relieved to be freed from the fetters of waiting, I ring up my groceries with relish. Eggs. Beep. Granola Bars. Beep. But it is while searching for ginger in the system that a strange sound makes me stop mid-swipe. It is a voice, and the voice is singing.
I twist my head to the left, to the right, to the left again, but I find nothing out of the ordinary. I stop and listen. The voice is still singing. It is coming from behind me, this honey-soaked song, a dark spiritual amongst the cacophony of commerce. I turn my body and find its maker.
She is wearing the guacamole-colored apron required of all the grocery store employees; a black visor with a lime green ‘P’ sits atop her close-cropped curls. Her hands are gathered quietly on the podium in front of her, and her eyes watch her hands. Her lips are barely moving, but it is she, without a doubt, who is singing.
The hinges of my jaw soften. My hand forgets the ginger it holds. It is not a song I know, but it’s not a song I don’t know.
There is nothing to be done but to stare and listen and wonder: How often does she sing like this, in the self-checkout line? Did her grandmother teach her this song? Does she sing it to her baby at night? Will her boss reprimand her for this?
My gaze sweeps the faces around me for confirmation that what I am hearing is real. The businessman wearing a crisp dress shirt and navy tie does the same. Our eyes meet for a startled second before our bodies return to the machines demanding our attention. I continue my search for ginger, but my pulse slows. I feel my cells rise and fall, following the intoxicating lilt of this strange woman’s offering, a lullaby made of milk and bone that holds its own against the metal clang of shopping carts and the harsh clatter of cash tills.