When you’re having fun

Audrey estimated there were two hundred and ninety-nine shoppers in Costco besides herself. All trying to check out at the same time. All ahead of her.

Synchronous behavior, group think, group dynamics, herd mentality, lemming mentality… Audrey had gotten in line all the way back in the cracker aisle, wondering why she didn’t just turn around and shop some more until the crowds had gone. She’d be there just as long and spend more money, but at least she wouldn’t be stuck in one spot. It’s like seeing the freeway all jammed up ahead of you, she reasoned, so you take the nearest exit just to get off. It takes just as long to get home because you’re on the surface streets, you get stuck at traffic lights and probably use more gas, but you feel more in control. You’re in motion.

Pam Wells/The Pullets

Some people are better prepared for interminable waits than others, Audrey observed. They chat with other people in line, and maybe they’ve brought someone along to amuse them for this very reason: a contingency friend. Or they talk on the phone, check email, send email, go online—could you stand at the back of the line with an empty cart, order your groceries online and have them ready for pickup by the time you got to the register? Probably not.

A man next to the granola bars was reading a book. Now, that was smart. There was a time Audrey never went anywhere without a paperback in her purse. Then something had happened… kids had happened. Woe to the mother who stands in a checkout line reading a book if she’s brought her kids along. On the other hand, instead of tearing out her hair, she might be an island of calm, lost in a Southern courtroom or an Egyptian tomb, while little Dooley and little Dudley were playing street sweeper with mummy’s new hairbrush. And maybe Dooley and Dudley would find their own little islands of calm…

As Audrey crept forward in line, her thoughts drifted to another of Phil Margolin’s books, After Dark. Something the main character said in an early chapter was bugging her and she couldn’t wait to find out if it was a clue to anything later on. This character, a young attorney named Tracy, compares law to mathematics, saying that law imposes order on society the way that math imposes order on science. Uh, hello! Law might impose order on society, but math can’t impose order on science or influence it in any way. Math describes science, helps to understand it. This Tracy character says lawyers are guardians of the law. Does that make mathematicians guardians of math? What does it mean to the story? Will Tracy’s faulty thinking get somebody killed?

“Ma’am, any boxes today?”

“Sorry?” Audrey came out of her reverie.

“Do you want any boxes?”

“Yes, please.” She began to unload her cart onto the conveyor. “I didn’t expect the line to go so fast.”

On the way home, Audrey stopped at a red light and watched the orderly progress of traffic. Maybe law happens naturally whenever people live together and don’t want to run into each other. Who needs lawyers? It was harder to imagine a society without mathematicians or writers.

©2010 Pam Wells

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Olive wars

April 8, 2010

The poor man stood in front of the olives—greens, blacks and purples, and lots of them–for several minutes, shuffling a step this way or that, bending down to peer through the sneeze glass at the olive anthology. Audrey rolled her cart up next to him.

Photo by Pam Wells ©2010

“Where’s the vermouth?” she asked.

“I’ve got the vermouth,” he said. “Where’s the gin?”

Audrey laughed. She rarely saw people she knew at the grocery store, let alone her next-door neighbor.

“Felder, you look positively befuddled.”

“Olives used to come in cans.”

“I’m pretty sure they still do.”

“The kids’d put ’em on the ends of their fingers, and somebody would always zing one across the table when you weren’t looking. Those are olives.”

“So why are you bothering with all this?”

“It’s my daughter.”

“The pilot?”

“Yes… Melinda… she’s landing on my doorstep tomorrow for a couple of days.”

“So you’re stocking up on olives.”

“More like I’m stocking up on apologies,” he said. “Melinda sent me one of those big baskets for my birthday, you know, full of brandy sausages and cheeses and fussy little jars, and I suppose I wasn’t very gracious when I told her no thanks. What kind of gift is that, anyway, for an old guy like me?”

Audrey nodded. “I get it.”

“I wish you had. Anyway, I thought I’d try to make up for it, you know. Buy a few things.”

“Would you like some help?”

In another life, Felder’s smile would’ve set Audrey afloat.

They found toothpicks and little tasting plates on one end of the service island. Audrey convinced Felder that olives were good food, even for an old guy like him. Besides her favorite kalamatas, she liked the small purple gaetas. Felder decided the little green picholines would do just fine in his martinis.

©2010 Pam Wells


Secret shopper

January 15, 2010

Audrey drove into the Costco lot. I want to park in the first row, she thought. There will be a space by the cart return. She drove down the first row to the end. I want to park in the second row, and kept going. I intend to park in a convenient space next to a cart return somewhere in this lot. She found it about half a mile from the Costco entrance. Thank you.

Audrey was a latecomer to The Secret, the self-help phenomenon by Rhonda Byrne based on positive thinking. Audrey didn’t seek wealth or fame or esoteric conversion or a better lover. She liked her life. But maybe there’s more to it…

Photo by Pam Wells © 2010

She’d found a worn copy of the book at a garage sale last summer. A minute later she was holding a reddish-brown Bauer mixing bowl—one dollar!

“Are you sure about the price?” she had asked the pale young woman running the sale, knowing the bowl was a vintage piece probably worth fifty dollars.

The young woman had shrugged. “Fifty cents, and I’ll throw in the book.”

Inside Costco, Audrey put a package of farmed salmon into her cart, then threw it back; she’d wait for spring Chinook. Today was about stocking up on canned goods and bulk staples for natural disasters.

She stopped in front of the cat food, and it struck her that pets should have emergency stockpiles, too. Her throat tightened as she remembered Lucy, her little tabby who had died just two weeks before. Her mind leaped to her kitchen where Lucy had always come running at the sound of a can opener. Audrey had never given Lucy canned food, not once, and it didn’t matter what it was, diced tomatoes or pineapple in its own juice or cannellini beans. Whoever had owned Lucy as a kitten would be answerable in the Great Beyond for instilling her with can frenzy. And if there is a Great Beyond, I want to park in the first row.

Audrey rolled through the exit bay door, her receipt marked by the exit bay doorkeeper, and tromped through a light rain to her car. There she unloaded toilet paper, olive oil, pasta, canned vegetables, Deschutes Black Butte Porter and a twenty-pound bag of cat food. Just in case.

© 2010 Pam Wells