Red towered over me as I slouched, pen in hand, ready to sign the petition.
“A murderer is about to be let out on parole. I can’t let that happen.” She crossed her arms over her chest and waited.
There I was, a hapless bird, flying straight into the nose of a speeding train. I forced the pen in a series of up and down strokes. The resulting line of jagged teeth was not an actual signature. I handed back the petition and pen then hurriedly finished scanning my order. I slipped a hundred dollar bill into the cash slot, my trembling fingers retrieved the change. No time now to redeem the dollar off coupon, so I stuffed it in my pocket. Eyes straight ahead toward the automatic door, I pushed the cart forward.
Red stepped in front of me. She held out the petition and pen.
“I need you to sign this again. It has to be a legible signature.”
I looked into her cool eyes, then squared up my shoulders and said, “I’m sorry. I don’t want to sign that petition.”
The rising fury on her face was as palpable as the lump in my throat. Half a heartbeat later, I pushed my cart outdoors into safety.
Silly of me to agree to sign the petition before knowing the issue at hand. I assumed it was about a store policy change regarding a school rewards program. Then, when Red blurted out the purpose behind her petition, I felt unable to reverse my decision.
I pushed the cart to my SUV embarrassed and mad. Damn mad. Mad at myself for not saying exactly how I felt before I drew the jagged teeth and mad at Red for stepping out of bounds in the unspoken contract between customer service person and customer. In this case, me, the customer, who apparently left her spine in the milk cooler.
The thing is, I want to be liked by the people around me. I make an effort to get along with my neighbors, the teller at the bank, my dental hygienist, and even the voice coming through the speaker in the fast food drive through. Yet, in my zeal to be liked, I had just made a fool of myself in that self checkout line.
Not only did I think the petition was about another issue, but casting a vote to rescind parole would take more time to decide than just a few minutes in a checkout line. I was in such a state of despair over my action of pretending to sign while not signing that I couldn’t explain myself at all to Red.
You see, I admired her. She is one of those people who exudes confidence like a puppy jumps for morning kibble. Attentive and sharp, she is ready to salute at a moment’s notice. She has red curly hair fashioned in a tight pony tail, never a strand out of place. Naturally tall and thin, her clothes are clean, neat, starched and just a smidge out of style. I liked going through her line, be it the self checkout or full service because she always had a smile and a quiet intelligence that made my experience of buying groceries easier.
The next few months in the store, when Red saw me approaching, she turned away. I avoided her too. I even considered shopping elsewhere but if I changed direction every time I embarrassed myself by the foolish little things I always seem to do, I’d be forever looking for another grocery.
Then, one day, I was pushing my cart down the main aisle. The store was undergoing yet another massive renovation. My frustration mounted because none of the hand written signs told me where the raisins were. I needed to ask. Red was stationed in the middle of the store thoroughfare, answering questions from many of the patrons like me, unable to find anything.
She stood taller than most of us, her hands comfortably behind her back, only to appear when pointing the way.
I pushed my cart toward her, just out of her peripheral vision and in a loud voice said, “Can you tell me where the raisins are?”
She said, “Yes! The raisins are in aisle eight.”
As she was lifting her arm to point, her mouth in a smile, she turned her head to look down at me, the customer who just asked the question.
When she saw it was me, her brows descended and her forehead crinkled, then her smile left her face but only for a moment. Her confident, professional facade was in full force and to cover her lapse, she said, “The store is a mess right now. I’m glad to point the way.”
I gave her a hearty “Thank you!” and pushed my cart toward aisle eight secretly chanting with glee, “Made you look. Made you look.”
For Red, I had a black mark. But I felt as if I had just won some sort of victory. I could tolerate being that person who in someone else’s eyes was not exactly respected. I knew that one incident didn’t define me entirely. I was just someone who made mistakes and moved on despite them.
One spring day, my husband Jeff and I were together shopping for a party. After we had loaded up our cart, we headed toward the checkout. I saw Red standing behind her register. I turned to Jeff and said, “Let’s go to that line there.”
We filed into Red’s line and as soon at the conveyer belt allowed, we began loading on our groceries. It had been nearly a year since the original petition incident and this checkout would be my and Red’s most prolonged contact yet.
I had two things in my favor. First, I had a cart full of cookies. Only a clerk with a steel trap mind could keep from inquiring. And second, I had Jeff, a friendly and funny fellow who has a knack for making most people smile.
Jeff provided me with a new dimension. No longer was I just the woman who faked signed a petition, but I was a woman who had a friendly, outgoing husband and a woman who bought cookies by the cart load.
Jeff told Red we were having an anniversary party for our employee who had worked for us the past ten years and Red confided she had worked at the grocery store for nine years.
“I doubt I’ll get a party when I’ve been here ten,” she said.
She and Jeff chatted and laughed. When the order was complete, the bags packed into the cart, the bill paid, Red handed me the receipt and told me about an online survey. I half listened like I tend to do, grateful for the smiles and absence of anxiety.
When she completed her spiel, I said, “Okay, thanks.”
We left with a wave, pushing out our cart of cookies. Jeff with his usual bounding energy and me with a grin, a reflection of my reprieve.
I’m sure I will always be, to Red, the one who fake signed her petition. Time, however, had removed the sting of anger from her face.
This is a true story from 2013. I still shop at the same grocery and have never been asked again, thank God, to sign another petition.
Happy New Year!