**Chapter 7: Shopping **
Angela ran up and down the aisles, shrieking gleefully at each brightly colored box of food that she did not recall being there the week before. Melissa pushed the now overflowing cart behind her rambunctious daughter, ignoring the disapproving stares of the store employees and other customers. She’d grown accustomed to them over the years.
“Can we get this, please?” Angela asked, throwing yet another box into the cart before turning around quickly and running back to grab more useless products, pony tail bobbing happily. Melissa sighed again. If she could get paid a nickel, or even just a penny, for every sigh she’d uttered since Angela’s birth…
Melissa could hardly wait until Angela was old enough to start dating. That hellion would eat a boy for breakfast! Melissa nearly laughed out loud at the thought of some boy seeking Angela’s affections, standing at the door with flowers, nervous upon meeting his date’s father. Melissa chuckled again. Someone frightened of Lawrence , ha! Whatever boy wanted to date Angela would be in for a surprise, that was for sure. If he could handle her, then the rest of the family would be a piece of cake.
Melissa shook her head sternly as Angela rounded the corner with a new box in her hand. A shadow fell across the five-year-old’s face. The fun and games were over, it seemed. Melissa motioned with her finger, maintaining the stern expression on her face.
“Come on, Angie. I told you you had to settle down, and you haven’t. Come on, up in the cart.” She motioned towards the toddler seat in the overloaded cart.
“But Mommy, I’m not a baby anymore,” Angela replied, putting on her best pouting face. She looked pitiful, but Melissa was not falling for the act. Lawrence might, but she was tougher than he, especially when it came to their daughter.
“Well, you certainly seem to act like a baby, so I think you can ride like a baby. Come on, up you go.” She lifted the girl and placed her in the seat. Angela crossed her arms across her chest and forced her frown to become even more pronounced. It was comical. The entire store seemed to erupt in silent applause at the site of the annoying blonde trapped in the toddler chair.
Melissa pushed the cart along each aisle, silently replacing each item that Angela had placed in the cart, ignoring the small whimpers escaping her mouth at the loss of each incredibly important item. The rest of the excursion would transpire in silence, since Angela’s method of retribution when wronged was to keep her mouth shut. Lawrence hated it. If he’d made her angry, he’d spend the next hour trying to get her to talk to him, but Melissa simply ignored her. Making her angry was often the only way to get her to shut up anyway.
At last the final one of Angela’s contributions to the day’s purchases was replaced on the shelf, and Melissa double checked her short list to ensure that she had found everything she needed. The cart seemed sparse after removing all the superfluous items, but she had everything she needed. Surveying the surrounding aisles quickly for any last-minute things she might have forgotten, she turned the cart briskly and strode towards the checkout lines, which were overpopulated with customers.
“OK, Angela, you can have one small thing – just one. What do you want?”
The girl didn’t respond. Apparently she was still angry. Melissa shook her head and sighed. It was her loss.
She peered around the register lanes, looking for Ned, the nice man who always helped her to the car and always said something kind to Angela. There he was, ringing up a constant stream of customers, as usual. The wait in his line would be worth it. She could use a pick-me-up today.
Ned was back in his groove. The brief break earlier had really rejuvenated him, and he’d been visited by several of his regular customers already today, which kept him feeling good. The pain in his knee had grown duller, and while still present, was bearable.
He was scanning items more efficiently than he had in awhile, passing item after item quickly over the glowing red bars of the UPC scanner. He had explained once to some of the other cashiers how the scanning machine worked. They all were amazed at his knowledge, and for a brief shining moment, he had felt like he was himself again. A smart, respected engineer, whose knowledge of mechanical and electrical machines was belied by his soft eyes and quiet demeanor.
Of course, Bob had quickly disbanded the small group of listeners to Ned’s explanation, somehow turning a UPC scanner into a major character in the latest episode of his corporate kiss-ass saga. Holly had been kind enough to listen to his further explanation during one of their mutual breaks. She had seemed genuinely interested, though Ned knew she had promptly forgotten everything he’d said. It didn’t matter. She’d given him the chance to feel smart and useful again, and that was what he needed.
Ned often spent his breaks chatting with Holly when he could. They often sat out on bench in the parking lot, while Holly smoked a cigarette. She never failed to offer one to Ned, though he always declined. Truth be told, he found the habit disgusting and repulsive, but Holly was interesting to be around, and her presence offset the acrid smell of the smoke. In fact, there were several things that Ned disapproved of about Holly, and if she had been his daughter, they certainly would have a lot to discuss. But she wasn’t his daughter, and as their work relationship turned into a true friendship, he found that the eyebrow piercing and smoking habit defined their relationship less and less.
He was constantly astounded by her generosity. She often invited the beggars standing outside to join her for a snack, and always listened to their stories of heartache and longing. That was her real gift to them, whether they realized it or not – the gift of a listening, interested ear. Anyone could give them a piece of pizza or the loose change in their pocket, but Holly’s genuine concern for them and inquiries about their well-being lasted longer than both the food and the loose change.
Ned knew that many of the homeless men and women that frequented the area surrounding the store were residents, either permanent or otherwise, of the St. Ives shelter. He had mentioned to Holly that she should consider volunteering there or something, but she seemed reluctant. She always just smiled and said, “Yeah, Ned, I know,” but to his knowledge, she never had even set foot in the shelter.
He shot a glance to register 7, where Holly was now busy ringing up her own long line of customers. She caught his glance and smiled. He smiled back. He might hate his job, but at least he had to opportunity to become friends with good people.
“Thanks a lot, Ned. I’ll see you next week.”
“You too, Mark. Be careful on the way out, it’s a bit slick by the door,” he replied, referring to the small puddle of soda, remnants of an overactive bottle of Sprite.
He looked up to identify his next customer, and groaned inwardly as he saw Melissa and Angela. Melissa was nice enough, but her daughter was a brat. Ned had seen the way Melissa and Lawrence doted on her every whim, and it made him sick. If _she’d _ been his daughter – well, he was just glad she wasn’t. He’d have picked Holly over her any day.
“Hi, Ned! How’ve you been?” Melissa inquired cheerfully, her smile contradicted by the obvious tension and exhaustion in her voice.
“Oh, I’m fine, fine. And your husband?”
“He had to work today. It’s just me and Angie.”
“Ah, I see. And how are you, little miss?” He smiled, eyes peeking over the edge of his nose at the girl who looked very angry, arms crossed defiantly across her chest.
“Fine,” she replied, not looking up.
He began to scan the items on the small conveyor belt. He knew that would get Angie’s attention. She was always intrigued by the speed at which he loaded the bags, so much faster than any other cashier.
Today was no exception. As the beep, beep, beep, of the scanned items reverberated in the echoic store, Angela became transfixed on Ned’s hands. They seemed to blur as he scanned and bagged each item with lightning speed.
Ned grinned at her, willing his arms to move even faster, mentally confirming that every item had scanned by carefully listening for the confirmation beep. He was going fast today.
Unexpectedly, his hands faltered. The jar of peanut butter, fortunately plastic, flew from his fingers and clattered loudly on the tiled floor. The store seemed to freeze; the all of the customers’ attention was focused on him, and him alone.
The silence was broken by Angela’s childish laughter. She clapped her hands with glee, apparently deriving some sadistic pleasure from Ned’s mistake. Ned, speechless at this unexpected development, knelt down silently and picked up the jar. He scanned it again and continued, moving more slowly and del iberately this time.
The rest of the store reanimated itself, and Ned glanced up again to see Holly still looking his direction. Her eyes asked, “Are you OK?” He nodded back at her and painted his smile back on before looking back up at Melissa.
“Well, will there be anything else for you this morning?”
“No, Ned, that’ll be all. How much do I owe you?”
“Well, you owe me a smile, but the store will want $87.13.” Ned joked back, trying to shake off the embarrassment he felt at having dropped the peanut butter. Melissa grinned.
“Well, here’s your smile, and here’s the check for the store. Can I trust you to make sure they get it?”
“But of course,” he replied. “Would you like some help getting out to your car?”
“Well… Actually, yes, that’d be great.”
Ned glanced around, looking for one of the young cart collectors to help Melissa, but there were none to be found. Oh well. “I’ll be right back, everyone.” He flipped the light on his register off and limped along behind Melissa to her car, ignoring the faces Angela made at him as they walked. He’d be glad when they were gone, especially the little brat.
Melissa opened the trunk and Ned quickly loaded the bags into it with his strong arms, oblivious to the sound of sirens as they passed along the street in front of the store.