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CHECKOUT • by Sonia Suedfeld

For just a moment we stood parallel to one another in checkout lanes four, five and six at Henry’s Foodmart, our grocery carts lined up in front of us in perfect rows.

Three women getting a little shopping done for the weekend on this late Friday afternoon in August. Three very different women, if looks were anything to go by.

I stood in the middle, a forty-three-year-old real estate agent in a slim charcoal business suit, black heels and real diamonds on my earlobes. The woman on my left was nearing her eighties, but looked a good decade younger. Tall and thin and elegantly coiffed, she was thumbing through a Better Homes & Gardens, pursing wrinkled red lips and flicking matching manicured nails. The woman on my right was young, younger than 25, but she was short and fat and stood with shoulders stooped, her cart overflowing with groceries and three small, squirming children all whining at the same time.

I wondered about them, these two extremely different women standing on either side of me, waiting like I was for the lines to move ahead so we could unload our cans of soup and bags of cat food and jugs of milk only to load them up again on the other side of the scanner. So I waited and I wondered.

I named the woman on my left Estelle because it is a graceful, old-fashioned-sounding name and seemed to fit her perfectly. I watched Estelle return the magazine to the rack, her wedding ring glinting in the bright overhead lights, and I wondered if she was one of those old ladies who still wear their wedding rings long after their husbands have passed on and who insist on being called Mrs. Harry Smith their whole lives, as if they have no given names of their own. Poor Estelle, I thought. She was probably quite well-off but lonely, living all alone in a house that was so big it echoed with silence.

The short, fat one with the kids I named Patricia because it is a frumpy-sounding name, especially if it is shortened to Patty. Or more likely, Patti, these days. She is trying to keep her kids quiet, but the baby is wailing at the top of her lungs, tears and snot running into her mouth. Patti’s other two kids are boys, about two-and-a-half and four years of age, both dressed in hand-me-down jeans and dirty t-shirts with pictures of dinosaurs on them. She takes the baby out of the seat and jiggles her up and down on her hip, hissing at the boys to put back the chocolate bars they have been busily pulling off the rack. The smallest of the two starts to whine again and soon his brother is joining in. It strikes me all of a sudden that none of the kids look alike. Three different dads, each a bigger deadbeat than the one before? Poor Patti, I thought. She had probably dropped out of school and lived on welfare in some shitty little apartment, alone with three kids to raise.

I was starting to feel sorry for both of them. Estelle, because she was a lonely old widow with nothing but a couple of hours of bridge to look forward to every week. Patti, because she was a struggling young mom with no money and nothing but whiny, snivelling kids to look after all day.

The nights must be the worst time for both of them, I thought. Estelle, because loneliness wouldn’t let her sleep, and Patti, because her children wouldn’t. I imagined Estelle wandering the halls of her drafty old house in the wee hours of the night, her face white with fatigue. I imagined her stopping to gaze at photographs hung on the walls, her finger caressing the outline of her dead husband’s smiling face through the glass. I imagined Patti trying to put her kids to sleep, the baby crying, the boys still running around well after eleven o‘clock. I imagined she cried herself to sleep when her kids finally went down for the night, too exhausted to get undressed or even brush her teeth.

Both of them knowing tomorrow would bring nothing but more of the same.

How could people go on day after day with so much pain in their lives, I wondered. Tears sprang to my eyes and I had to look down into my cart to get myself under control.

When I looked up I caught Estelle staring at me, a puzzled look on her lined face. Was she wondering about me, I wondered, and glanced over at Patti. She, too, was looking at me, the baby now asleep on her shoulder. What were they thinking? Were they both wondering about me like I wondered about them? Had they picked out a name for me? Imagined what my life was like?

Well then, I thought, they probably named me Susan because it sounds business-like and stuck-up, a little. They probably thought I worked as a lawyer or an account executive, clocking in 70-80 hours a week and coming home every night to an empty apartment. They probably figured I had never been married, never had children and probably never would, being a middle-aged workaholic who only had time for my career. They probably imagined that I was lonely and drank too much and that sometimes, I even picked up strange men in bars and took them home to my bed.

There we were, three women in three different check-out lines in a grocery store on a late Friday afternoon, our carts perfectly lined up in front of us. Three very different women. And yet, we were all the same.

On the inside.

Three women trying to make the best of it. One day at a time.

Just then, all three check-out lines started moving ahead. Averting our eyes from each other, we all stepped forward at the same time and started unloading our carts.
 


Many of Sonia Suedfeld‘s short stories have won awards and prizes, placed in contests, and been published online and in print. Her work has appeared in two of the Tall Tales & Short Stories anthologies, on spinetinglers.co.uk, fishpublishing.com, firstwriter.com and in Frontier, an anthology of new Canadian fiction. Visit her website at www.soniasuedfeld.com.

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CHECKOUT • by Sonia Suedfeld, 5.0 out of 5 based on 2 ratings
Posted on June 14, 2009 in Literary, Stories
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  • http://users.beagle.com.au/peterl P.M.Lawrence

    “Patricia… is a frumpy-sounding name”.

    And here I am thinking it is rather patrician.

  • Paul A. Freeman

    A fine read, this piece.

    Rather judgmental, though.

  • http://adladspad.wordpress.com/ Ad Lad

    I’m not really sure what this is trying to say, although it’s clearly trying to same something.

    I thought it would show that you shouldn’t judge a book by it’s cover and then I thought it showing us not to judge people by our own standard, but then it seems to a feminist call to arms.

    Not really convinced if I’m honest.

    A few specifics. How does the narrator know Grace is nearing her eighties?

    Why is she so sensitive? Maybe that’s where the story lies.

  • Roberta SchulbergGoro

    It’s amazing how perceptive some people are just by gazing wonderingly at a woman’s lipstick. There are those who know all about a stranger’s deadbeat husbands just by concentrating hard on assessing a woman’s manicure or weight. The writer has shown with sensitivity the sensitivity of such claivoyant talents who are understanding and forgiving of the misjudgements of others who cannot possibly guess so accurately what she, the clairvoyant herself is like. My guess, as I read, was that she was a farmer, was a little crooked in a side business, had a monogamous lawyer husband who felt constrained because she spent so much time with the kids (possibly for other reasons) and he therefore went for VERY long walks sometimes. But the author has kept it open-ended and that is probably the right ending for this amazing tour de force of clairvoyant talent.

    Keep up with your writing. I found this one a laugh.

  • gay

    A lovely read. I like this. Observations by and of others are open to interpretation. That’s what fiction is all about. Thanks for sharing yours, Sonia.

  • Bob

    If Estelle is in her eighties but looks a good deal younger, then why wouldn’t “Susan” just assume she’s in her sixties or seventies? That bit doesn’t make any sense. She may as well say “Patti is a thin woman but looks a lot fatter.”

    That quibble aside, this story has some potential, with a little tightening up. It gets repetitive with “Susan” dwelling on Estelle and Patti’s lives, but we never really learn anything about Susan. For all we know, Susan is exactly the person she imagines Estelle and Patti see her as, so the impact of the story is weakened.

    In the end, the story is all about Susan’s observations, with no connection to the real lives the three women are living. A missed opportunity.

  • http://teenangel.netfirms.com Jim Hartley

    A character sketch, a look into “Susan’s” imagination, but hardly a story. It doesn’t go anywhere (moving the baskets forward doesn’t count). If we had a much longer story or even a novel titled “Psychoanalyzing Susan” this could easily be a scene, but by itself …?

  • http://jfjuzwik.blogspot.com Joyce

    Interesting observations–judgmental ones–but, observations still. No story here.

  • http://conversationsfromlandsedge.blogspot.com/ Alan W. Davidson

    There really isn’t a story arc here, but it is a piece that makes the observation about how quickly we can judge one another upon appearances alone.

  • Margie

    It seems like Susan is judging other’s by her own discontent.

  • Roberta SchulbergGoro

    Joyce and Jim Hartley
    According to Dictionary.com, the word “story” denotes:
    1) a narrative, either true or fictitious, in prose or verse, designed to interest, amuse or instruct.
    5) a narration of an incident or series of events or one example of any of these that is narrated, such as an anecdote, joke, etc.
    6) a narration regarding the existence of a thing such as “the story of medicine”
    7) a report or account of a matter such as, “The story goes that he rejected the offer.”

    That covers a lot of “story” territory including a narrative which describes the dreams of unique omniscience by someone standing on a checkout line.

  • Jen

    I agree with Bob that this is really about “Susan’s” feelings about herself that she’s [rescriving onto the two other women, but I don’t think that makes it any less of a good story. After all, people often do this kind of thing in real life.

  • http://teenangel.netfirms.com Jim Hartley

    Re: Roberta SchulbergGoro and Dictionary.com

    Unfortunately, you left out the definition

    4. the plot or succession of incidents of a novel, poem, drama, etc.: The characterizations were good, but the story was weak.

    which is the one I would select as most relevant to this discussion. By this definition, “Checkout” was not a story. I will, in general, tend to judge pieces posted here by this criterion, this definition, but I know others will not.

    Some want plot and movement, others are swayed by beautiful words, descriptions, and characterizations (this often turns up in comparisons of “genre” vs. “literary” fiction, it’s pretty obvious which side I’m on). I guess we can just agree to disagree.

  • Edward Caputo

    I was mixed on this one – I was caught up in the flow and description, but as others have said, the lack of confirmation of what’s fact versus supposition makes it hard to decide what just happened.

    It feels like a 3rd-person POV story trapped in a 1st-person format. If it were in 3rd-person, some of the observations could be presented as fact while others could still be attributed to “Susan” (and so confirmed or rejected as needed).

  • Sharon

    Maybe Susan should spend less time staring at people.

  • Celeste

    I really liked the feel of it. With some drafting, it could make a fantastic story. Great subject and sensitively told.

  • Roberta SchulbergGoro

    Edward Caputo – Imagine a sci-fi written about a world in which any facts at all are entirely absent. Anyone up to trying it?

    Jim Hartley – Plot – “What happened”: After the nameless Susan finished sizing up the others they all checked out. An interesting idea – What in depth could happen in the length of time of standing at a checkout counter? “Genre” are categories within literature. There is a new trend toward a new genre listing, “Literary,” which generally means not easily adaptable, translatable into a movie; not action packed. Demarcations of genre are not altogether rigid. In general my comments are not directed for or against a work, whether I like the work or not, but toward discussion for my own purpose of coming to a greater understanding of it. All our comments are sharings of insights with the others.

    Sharon, that’s good social advice. But on a supermarket line no one would notice since everyone stands looking ahead and staring.

  • Roberta SchulbergGoro

    Edward Caputo – Imagine a sci-fi written about a world in which any facts at all are entirely absent. Anyone up to trying it?

    Jim Hartley – Plot – “What happened”: After the nameless Susan finished sizing up the others they all checked out. An interesting idea – What in depth could happen in the length of time of standing at a checkout counter? “Genre” are categories within literature. There is a new trend toward a new genre listing, “Literary,” which generally means not easily adaptable to being made into a movie; not action packed. Demarcations of genre are not altogether rigid. In general my comments are not directed for or against a work whether I like the work or not, but toward discussion for my own purpose of coming to a greater understanding of it. All our comments are sharings of insights with the others.

    Sharon, that’s good social advice. But on a supermarket line no one would notice since everyone stands looking ahead and staring.

  • http://itsnutsoutthere.blogspot.com Jerry Constantino

    Just a really nice capture of characterizations. Which of us haven’t done something similar. EDF is supposed to give us a few minutes of enjoyment every day. You did. Thanks.

  • http://itsnutsoutthere.blogspot.com Jerry Constantino

    Damn! I meant ‘hasn’t.’

  • J.C. Towler

    Vivid imagination, this “Susan” MC has. Nicely captures how we project on others and the unusual “twist” of wondering how others project themselves on us.

  • http://www.erinmkinch.com Erin

    This was an interesting story. I liked the narration and the way that “Susan” imagined the other women and how it affected her. Interesting that she turned the same gift on herself. I am really curious as to what the real truth was — especially about Susan. I was hoping for a reveal at the end.

  • sn wright

    Very well done. Good read. Thanks

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