“The Asshole in the Express Lane,” by Suzanne Roberts

May 13th, 2020 | By | Category: Nonfiction, Prose

From the beginning, it was clear that there were more than 15 items in her basket, more, even than 20. I know this because I obsessively counted them while I put my own items on the conveyer belt, which was difficult to do because she was hogging the whole thing with her canned tuna fish, her iceberg lettuce, and her generic spaghetti sauce.

I had been sick with the flu for a week, and my provisions had run out. I used to think the common cold and the flu were similar—not anymore. I had tried all my usual home remedies—garlic, onions, jalapeno peppers, ginger tea, and oranges—nothing, it seemed to be working. I needed zinc lozenges, Theraflu, chicken soup, and chocolate. Badly. It was a winter weekend in my ski town, so I would have to brave the snow-bro dudes, the bachelorette parties of snow bunnies wearing tuck-in-the-boot ski pants, and the clueless tourist families at my local Safeway.

After six days at home alone with my dog (who seemed like the only person who wasn’t afraid of catching my bug), I admit, I was feeling a little on edge even before the lady with the extra items in the express lane cut me off—well, she didn’t exactly cut me off, but let’s just say she hurried up a bit before we met at the line, so she could cut off a sick person with her ten items and position herself and her 27 items at the front of the express line. Not that I never hurry up to get in front of someone else, which is why I recognized this move, but I was too sick that day, so it took me a while to haul my ass around the Safeway in the first place, so when I saw her speed up, I wasn’t onto her the way I usually would be. Besides, it was clear she had way too many items for the EXPRESS lane.

Once we got there, I considered breathing on her.

As she unloaded each item onto the conveyor belt, I counted them. Then I re-counted, and every time, I swear to you the number got higher. First it was 25, then 26. When I re-counted and got 27, I could think only, “That’s almost double!”

I looked over at the clerk, hoping he would reprimand her, but his eyes were glazed over, like he’d been a zombie for forty years. I knew my mother had once put a curse on a woman, and I wondered how she’d done it. She wouldn’t tell me, she said, because it worked. Then I practiced all the things I could say to her. They went something like this:

“Didn’t you know this was the express lane?” I would emphasize the word express.

“I think you have more than 15 items there.” I would point to the sign above her head.

And my most clever one: “Can’t you count?”

But mid-practice, the woman looked at the digital check-out screen, put her hand up, and said quietly, “Oh, I’m afraid you will have to stop there. That’s my limit.”

Here’s where I re-assessed her goods—in my frantic need to account for the number, I hadn’t noticed her conveyor belt of staples—nothing extravagant, no fancy cheese or wine, like my usual order would have contained if I hadn’t been sick. She counted the cash in a little macramé wallet, which is when I noticed that she was older than I thought. Her blonde hair was brassy, with patchy white roots. She smiled at me, weakly. And her teeth were bad. Not meth-addict bad, but no-dental-insurance bad. She wasn’t a tourist on vacation, but a fellow local.

And then I realized this: I am an asshole. I am the bad tourist in the vacation-land of my hometown, which is full of locals who can hardly afford to live there.

Don’t even start in with the whole, But you were sick and no one should EVER enter the express line with more than 15 items. I already tried that, and still came up with this conclusion: I was still an asshole. If only in my mind.

Though I give you this: no one should ever enter an express lane with more than 15 items.

For the record, I had 11 items, but really 10 if you counted my two oranges as one thing. I said to the checker, “I’ll get her last three items.” They were a box of cereal, a jar of peanut butter, and a jug of juice. My mother would say, Frozen is cheaper, so why didn’t she have frozen? I buy frozen. 

Being an asshole didn’t come from nowhere.

But I didn’t want her to go without breakfast even if frozen juice is cheaper.

She turned to me and said thank you again and again. She also told me I was kind, which made me want to cry because really, I was just making up for being an asshole.

I was wearing dark glasses and a wool hat on account that I hadn’t showered in two days and looked like shit; I had already tried to hide from a colleague in produce but his daughter spotted me. Later, her mother told me that she had seen me and asked her why I looked like a bag lady at the Safeway.

I just waved at Miss 27-items, and said, “It’s okay.” But she insisted on repeating her thanks, and the woman behind me with three giant bottles of chardonnay let out a big sigh because now the whole production was taking even longer than expected.

Have a heart, I thought, now that I was the nice one.


Suzanne Roberts is a travel writer, memoirist, and poet. Her books include the 2012 National Outdoor Book Award-winning Almost Somewhere: Twenty-Eight Days on the John Muir Trail (Bison Books, 2012), Bad Tourist: Misadventures in Love and Travel (forthcoming from the University of Nebraska Press in the fall of 2020), and four collections of poetry. Visit her at www.suzanneroberts.net


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