The Line of Judgment
As I put the last clothes in the suitcase and look at the time, I realize that I’ve once again procrastinated on getting this chore known as packing done. It will be a typical business trip: go meet with the big shots of the company, stay at a four-star hotel, and dine at the restaurants with the best local magazine reviews. But I know it will be just as dreadful as the many other business trips I have taken in the past.
As midnight approaches, I confess to myself I must get to bed soon. My flight is at 8:00 AM, which means I have to wake up at 5:00 AM so I have enough time to arrive at Dallas Love Field and make it through the god forsaken security (which I am obliged to partake in every single time). I honestly don’t understand the logic behind the taking off the shoes. What fool decided for us to undo our shoes and put them in a rubber container to get them scanned for safety precautions? I really savor seeing the middle-class with their non-designer shoes—you know, your typical department store shopper, who probably wrestled with another middle-class citizen over his shoes during a sale at a local Sears, and afterward congratulated himself. They stand there untying their shoes. They realize when I approach what someone with money and class wears, and they judge me. But honestly, I can’t help that I make more money and can afford a pair of Prada Apron Toe Bluchers.
I zip up the main part of my suitcase and proceed to finish getting together my toiletries. I start going through the checklist in my head and I realize that my deodorant is completely out, not to mention my toothpaste is running low. I can’t begin to describe the frustration I feel when I realize that now, nine hours before my flight these items are out. You would think that this morning I would have made a note to myself while brushing my teeth or putting on my deodorant that I needed to make a stop by CVS on my way home from work. But of course, as soon as that dreadful alarm goes off to wake me for another day of obligation, a million thoughts rush through my mind. Maybe I should just wait till I get to my hotel and see if they have a convenience store in the lobby or hopefully nearby. After awhile of contemplating the best solution to this irritating problem, I decide to just get them now. It will be one last thing to worry about when I land. I get my keys and wallet and head downstairs (longing for this night to be over).
I pull out of the driveway. Make it half way down the alley; then I think did I remember to shut the garage door? I reverse back. I see it’s closed after all. I rest my head back on the headrest, almost going into a soothed sleep. The leather of the car feels cool and almost refreshing to me. Making my way down the deserted streets, glancing at the dark houses, I feel envy knowing that the people inside are in a deep sleep. I pull out the neighborhood, and I realize I haven’t thought about where I’m going. The CVS in my neighborhood closes at 11 PM. I start going through a list of stores that might still be open. Then the most disturbing thought comes into my head - the only place I know that is open twenty four hours a day and will have the few items I need is Wal-Mart.
To most people Wal-Mart is probably not such a big issue, but to me it is the most painful experience. I try to stay clear of the stores if I can. Even in college, I would choose anything over Wal-Mart. I mean those stores are designed for the lowest of lows. The clientele that shops there probably live off social welfare, which invariably comes out of my paycheck. Which I work extremely hard for, and they sit around just waiting for it to arrive almost like a dog waiting for its food. Having to drive a little farther than I anticipated, because of course, I do not live near a Wal-Mart, I tell myself just get in, retrieve the few items you need and keep my head down the entire time (not like anyone I know would ever be there). I start thinking about the trip I will be taking and how important this deal is to the company and me. If I make this trip a successful one, which I know I will, because honestly I refuse to come back empty-handed, there will be a promotion coming soon.
The car slowly approaches the last light before I make that dreaded turn to the right. I watch the light, hoping it never turns green and realize that my social standards are falling short. The moment comes and the provoking light changes green. I turn into the parking lot seeing the ghastly sign of Wal-Mart in its bright blue letters. I look for a spot under a light, so at least my chances of being robbed by some bum are somewhat low. But the odds aren’t good. I turn off the engine to my car and start opening the handle, hoping it won’t open (it does). I get out, and hit the press the lock key twice. I think to myself - has a car of my status (a Lexus) ever been in this parking lot?
Walking towards the automatic glass doors I remind myself – just get in and out. I step in and get a basket (I know I will have to wash my hands a dozen times to get rid of the germs). Of course, at this time of night it’s the stocking team is out, refilling the shelves and getting ready for another typical day of customers destroying the store. Looking at the signs hanging from the ceiling, I realize I am on the complete opposite side of the store from where I need to be. Of course, all the toiletries are located by the groceries. I make my way down and pass the closed McDonalds and nail salon. I chuckle that people actually eat here and then get their nails done. Man, what a great way to spend a day at the spa. I pass all the stock associates - their pants barely able to sit on their bodies. I will never understand that style, what person actually thinks we the public eye wants to see their pants or shorts practically down to their ankles, showing off their boxer shorts?
Making my way to the grocery aisle of this horrible place, I finally see where toothpaste is located. I look at the grand selection; I try not to bump the associate stalking them. A young woman with brown hair in a bun stares at me with a half smile. She has an air of loneliness about her. She turns her head back to her boxes and starts cutting open the remaining boxes and restocking the shelf. I decide to just grab Crest (all whitening). One item down, another to go. Now looking for the deodorant, I can see everything but what I need. I decide to stop playing this stupid charade and just ask an associate where it’s located, so I can be on my way. I see a lanky, tall black boy pulling a slate of paper towels down the main aisle, with some headphones on and totally in a world of his own. I call to him, but obviously he can’t hear me. I go to follow him, and what do I see? The typical Wal-Mart logo on the back of his uniform - the classic, “How may I help you?” Well how may you help is by taking off the headphones, telling me where the deodorant is, let me pay so I can get home and wake up at the crack of dawn, so I may be on my way to Chicago to close an important deal - that’s how you can help! With my frustration building by the second, I go to track him down. Getting closer to him, I reach my hand out to tap him on the shoulder with a stern touch. He turns almost goofy-like, pulls only one earphone and says, “Yeah?” I ask politely, “Can you point me in the direction of deodorant aisle?”
Almost a full minute passes before he answers me with a look of confusion. You would think I just asked him to solve an algebra problem or better yet to write his name down. Finally, with a low voice he says, “Well last time I saw them it was by the toothpaste.” I replay, “I just got off that aisle and I didn’t see any.” He takes a long pause almost annoyed that I broke him away from the music he was listening to. I finally break the silence, “Is it possible that they were moved to another location? I really don’t have the time to go up and down these aisles.” He stares at me with a look like I owe him something. Just to be annoying, he steps a little forward showing he is the dominate one here. I think to myself that he better think twice about what he is about to do (if he only knew who I was). He yells, “Nikeya.” A large black woman, with jean
Capri’s that are too small for her and the typical Wal-Mart shirt. Comes strolling down to see what we want. “Yeah?” She says. “Where the deodorant at?” he asks. With his improper use of grammar, she stands there with her lips pursed looking around, just as clueless as the boy. I think to myself - I could have found it by now instead of going through this pathetic customer service. She says, “Honey, they have been moved to aisle three with the shampoo and such.” I give a fake irritated smile, nod my head and turn to get to aisle three, not thanking them, because after all, that wasn’t even customer service.
Making it to aisle three I grab the first deodorant I see and head to the cashier, so I can get out of here. As I approach, I see two lines full of customers in each. I let out a loud grunt. How is it that at midnight there are this many people standing in a line like it’s a Saturday afternoon? I wonder why, in this store with twenty-five cash registers, there are only two cashiers working. As I get in the first line, I look at how far away I am from the cashier - about six people ahead of me, with baskets full of junk and me with only two basic items. I cross my arms and stand waiting for this line of death to commence. I start looking at the other customers in the next line over and what they have in their baskets. I see a pregnant young Hispanic woman, possibly my age (maybe even younger) with three small children - two boys and a girl. She has a basket full of food and children clothes and diapers. The baby girl, who can’t be over the age of two, is of course crying. The mom is tying to quiet her in Spanish. The two boys are pulling the candy off the shelves close to the cashier and begging their mom to buy them the candy bars. I think to myself - how is a young girl, with three children and another one on the way, at Wal-Mart at this time of night? The children start opening the candy packages before their mother has paid for them; she is still trying to control the screaming child. Behind her in the line is an older man sitting in a Hoveround with a basket secure at the front. The old man has on a white shirt with stains on it, almost not even showing the true colors of what it is. He wears black sweat pants barely big enough to fit his body with an over-sized stomach falling over the waistband. He has on a military baseball cap that looks like it’s from the Vietnam War. A small portable oxygen tank is sitting on his left leg with the clear tubes going into his nostrils giving him the oxygen he needs to survive. I wonder how he let himself fall apart like that. I look at the sm!
et at the front of the Hoveround with nothing but junk food, frozen pizza, chips and a small case of beer. Then I actually can’t believe my eyes when I see a bulk package of cigarettes at the bottom of the basket. This is why I can’t stand Wal-Mart - first the associates that work here are complete idiots, then you wait forever to be checked out, and the customers are nothing but trash.
I look ahead at my line not wanting to see any more customers and the pathetic choices they made during their lifetimes. The woman in front of me has a basket full of food, from frozen dinners all the way up to almost every kind of fruit. I let out a sigh showing that this is truly ridiculous. She turns to look at me knowing that the sound I made was directed at her, hoping she will let me pass her, because again I only have two items. She looks at my basket, almost does that same smirk as me and turns. I stand there with my blood almost rising to the surface. I feel that any minute I am about to explode. I can’t believe I am standing in this line, in this awful Wal-Mart, with all these idiotic people. For crying out loud, I have a Master’s degree! I shouldn’t be doing this right now! I mean I live a life that these people can only imagine.
I feel the presence of another person behind me in line. I turn slightly to see what other low rent person it can be. It can’t be. Diane Sowell, wife of Andrew Sowell - vice chairman of Hunt Oil. Why in the world is his wife standing in a Wal-Mart line at this time of night? My back begins to get tense. I almost begin to perspire. I honestly can’t believe Diane Sowell is here at Wal-Mart of all places. I mean, she could have a maid of hers come here any day and get the stuff in her basket for her. I start to get another glance of her, but I stop myself - I can’t let her see me. I mean, yes, we did only meet couple of times at local charity galas (theatrical events and most recently at their Christmas party where we ate off Tiffany China). Thoughts rush through my mind - if she did recognize me for that split second, what things are going through her mind and what could she say to her friends? What rumors would spread about me? I can’t let this happen - I have to ensure my name. I decide I must turn around and say hello. I’ll tell her some lie that these items are for a homeless man that I often help and I remembered in the middle of the night that he was low on these few things. That is it. I take a small breath and decide to turn.
I’m now face to face with Diane Sowell. I give a smile not showing my teeth and say, “Hello.” You can tell she doesn’t really know who I am but she has seen me before. I look at her face, it seems like it has aged very quickly since the last time I saw her. There are wrinkles on her forehead where it used to be very smooth and her hair, which was such a rich brown, now has gray streaks. I introduce myself again like it was the first time we have met, “Hi Diane, my name Daniel Henn, I was at your Christmas party a couple a months ago.” It registers on her face, but in a way of shock and almost embarrassment. She replies, “Hello, it’s good to see you again, Daniel.” She looks down not wanting to make eye contact with me. I notice her clothes seem much worn and not the kind she used to wear at all. I mean the woman could be wearing a mink coat right now, but instead she’s wearing a shirt, which seems a size too big, with jogging pants and flip-flops. She stares back at me and I make sure my face isn’t showing signs of judgment. I break the uncomfortable silence by asking her if she is picking up some last minute item as well. I decided not to tell the lie I first had planned in my head (I mean, I don’t want to go straight to hell). She says, “Sure.” I can tell something is troubling her. I ask, “How is Andrew doing, is everything good at work?” She looks around, almost not wanting to answer the question. She looks at me in the eye with a look of frightfulness and says, in a very soft tone, “Andrew is in the hospital, he has been ill for quite sometime now. She pauses. “He he’s not working for Hunt Oil anymore; they let him go.” I stand there shocked at the news. Is what I’m hearing true? Andrew Sowell, vice chairman of Hunt Oil – fired? I thought I would have heard this news sooner than now. “I’m so sorry to hear that.” She gives a very small smile, acknowledging my response.
I look down at my watch noticing how late it is getting. “Is he recovering all right?” I ask making sure this question is not crossing a sensitive subject. Diane says, “Well to be honest with you, no he is not, Daniel, things have not been going well for us. We no longer live in the house we once took for granted everyday, and we now live off food stamps and welfare.” I stand so very still, my hand start to tremble as they hold on to the basket. She goes to say, “Let’s just say that our friends, well, who we thought were our friends didn’t really want to be with us anymore once everything was gone and our family doesn’t have much to do with us, since in the past we’ve not had much to do with them.” A small tear runs down her face. “You see, Daniel, my husband and I truly thought all these things would bring us happiness, the big house, all the designer clothes and luxury trips. We cut so many people out of our lives. We thought we were so superior to everyone around us. Over time it does catch up with you, you know. And in our case it did with vengeance.” I stand still in disbelief. The only words that can come out are, “I am so terribly sorry.” Which I know can’t make this situation any better. She looks at me in the eye again and says, “Thank you, I will let Andrew know you are thinking about him. If you would excuse me I forgot something I must get.” She turns to get out of the line, which has made some kind of progress. I see I am finally next in line. She says one more thing to me, “You know life is a very funny thing, one minute you are living it the way you thought it was intended and the next thing you realize what truly matters.” She grins at me hoping this message will sink in. She turns and walks down the main aisle pushing her basket.
I turn to face the front again like a solider that has just been told to do so. I stand in a trance, with all these feelings rushing in my mind. I realize the kind of life I live and how truly pathetic it is. I live for the material things. I barely speak to my family. I judge people by their status instead of who they really are. I look at the girl still trying to calm her child down from crying and her young boys eating the candy they have just opened. This time I see a young mother, who works during the day to provide what she can for her children. She lets her young boys eat the two pieces of candy, because these will be their only indulgences for a while as times are tough. She tries to soothe the baby girl, even though she wants to cry herself, because she barely sees her daughter during the day, as she’s trying to make ends meet. The baby girl almost doesn’t even recognize her own mother; it’s as if she is a stranger to her. I see a provider in her.
The older man behind her is sitting in his Hoveround. It’s his only means of getting around for his legs barely work. This time when I look at him I see a man who has served our country in a war he may have not even believed in and to this day is still recovering. A man who knows the consequences, but eats the food not intended for his body and the cigarettes that made him hooked to this oxygen tank, because to him, these small things don’t really matter - for his eyes have seen what truly matters in this world and the real harm it can do. I see a man of defiance.
“Hi Miss Alice, it’s good to see you again.” I’m pulled out of my thoughts and realize the woman in front of me is paying and is talking to the cashier like they have known each other for some time. “Hi, Eddie. It’s good to see you.” They bid farewell to each other and she pushes her basket along with all her groceries. The man says, “How are you doing this evening?” I reply, “Good, thank you. I can’t help but ask have you checked that lady out before?” “Oh Miss Alice? Sure, almost every other night she buys tons of groceries and gives them to the food kitchen downtown. A fine women right there.” I give a half heartedly smile thinking how I was going to use this as an escape clause if Diane did recognize me and I feel a deep sickness in my stomach. I pay for my items and proceed to the exit. I walk to my car realizing how Wal-Mart has opened my eyes. A small laugh comes up when I think about all the material things I worried about in the past. I turn the engine on. I pull out of my spot to head back to the house, which I have never really appreciated and the neighbors that I never taken the time to know.
I finish with my packing. I take a hot shower, hoping the hot water might wash away some of the guilt I feel. I lay in bed staring at the ceiling making one last note in my head, when I land in Chicago, the first thing I will do is call my parents and tell them how much they really mean to me. I close my eyes and start to fall into a deep sleep. I think how glad I am that my toothpaste and deodorant were out.
All rights belong to its author. It was published on e-Stories.org by demand of Cody Smotherman.
Published on e-Stories.org on 07/13/2009.