A seemingly insignificant experience taught me that right and wrong are elastic ideals.
|I stood behind my register, staring at the top corner of the small black screen where the time continuously mocked me. When working the night shift at a grocery store, the first lesson one learns is that the clock is the enemy. Try as I might to avert my gaze, my eyes were inevitably drawn back to those small blinking numbers. Almost an hour had passed without a customer, no other soul to distract me from the five hours left of my shift. As my eyes unconsciously sought the clock again, I decided that the night would go by more quickly if I prevented myself from tracking the time.
I backed away from my register, the big grey prison that I called home for eight hours a day, and moved to the candy rack, where I straightened packages of bubblegum and chocolate bars for the third time that night. After making a few minute adjustments to the Kit Kat display, I stood back to survey my work, hoping to find some small imperfection with which to waste a few more seconds correcting. A small laugh escaped my lips when I noticed the tiny bit of red plastic peeking out from behind a full box of M&Ms. Carefully, I reached past the box and removed the intruding candy. It was a small bar of chocolate, wrapped in red and green, a long forgotten remnant of Christmas.
There I stood, looking at the candy bar and wondering what to do with it. I knew I could not simply walk over to its home shelf and place it with others like it. The Christmas candy, fruit cakes, and stocking stuffers had long been sold or packed away. There was no place for this particular piece of candy to go and no one to notice if it was gone. As I held my internal debate about what to do with it, I realized how hungry I was. I hadn’t taken a lunch break because the other cashier had called in sick and there was no one but the night manager to relieve me. I thought to myself, what would it hurt if I ate a candy bar everyone thought was already gone? We don’t even have these in stock anymore. No one could prove I didn’t bring it to work with me. On that note I quickly pushed the chocolate down into the pocket of my smock.
“Excuse me,” said a voice behind me.
I jumped, let out a small frightened squeal, and tightly grasped the pocket of my smock with both hands. I turned to find one of my regular late night customers. She was a willowy creature, tall and stick thin with long wavy brown hair, big pale blue eyes, and pillow-like lips. She was the kind of woman who could be beautiful if she only cared enough to make the effort. Usually she came in after work, wearing a dirty Taco Bell uniform. Tonight, she was dressed in a hooded sweatshirt 3 sizes too big and an old ball cap pulled down to partially conceal her face.
“Sorry,” she mumbled under her breath.
“It’s okay; I just thought the store was empty. Guess I didn’t see you come in.” I said.
“Yeah, you looked kind of busy with the candy.” She reached up to pull her cap farther down.
“Yeah, um, did you need help with something?” I said, my face reddening.
“I was just wondering if you could tell me how much I have left on my food stamps.” She said as she brushed a small piece of hair from her face, drawing my attention to her eyes. She had tried her best to conceal it with her hat and make up but I could see the right side of her face was swollen and bruised. Our eyes met for a brief moment and she realized that I had seen.
“Uh, no, I mean I can, but you have to buy something first.” I said. Eyes downcast, she nodded and walked towards the back of the store.
I took a deep breath, reached into my smock and grabbed the candy bar. For a few short seconds I considered stuffing it back behind the M&Ms where I had found it. I knew the candy bar would most likely sit back there for months, only to be thrown away when someone else eventually found it. I thought of the starving children in Africa mothers always bring up when attempting to guilt their children into eating all their dinner. Yes, I decided, better for the candy to be of use, even if it was dishonest.
I stood drumming my fingers against the counter, waiting on my lone customer to return. Finally, I spotted her moving my way, cradling an 80₵ bottle of off brand cola. She gently placed it on the conveyor belt, just far enough out of my reach to make it necessary for me to turn it on. The loud hum of the machine filled the strained silence for too brief a moment. I quickly scanned and bagged her single item.
“That’ll be 88₵.” I said. She slid her card, entered her pin and waited. Finally the bolded words TRANSACTION DECLINED popped up on the screen.
“Sorry,” I said, “but it says here you only have 17₵ left in food stamps.” She bit her lip, revealing stained teeth and nodded.
“I… I can’t afford it then. You want me to put it back for you?” She reached for the bottle. I suspected that if I handed her the cola it wouldn’t find its way back to the shelf.
“No, that’s okay; I’ve got nothing else to do.” I said.
“Oh… okay,” she said as she took her card and turned towards the door. As I watched her go I couldn’t help but feel a twinge of guilt. Here I stood with a candy bar in my pocket that cost the same as that cola, but I felt little remorse about taking it. I wanted to stop her, tell her to take the damn cola, I’d pay for it, but I didn’t. Just as she got close enough for the automatic doors to slid open, she stopped. She hesitated on the threshold for a moment before retreating back inside the store. She glanced at me, looking to see if I noticed that she had stayed, obviously hoping I had not. When her eyes met mine, she ducked her head and quickly moved to the back of the store.
Knowing she had no money I was immediately concerned. If she was caught stealing and I said nothing, I could lose my job. On the other hand, if I did tell my manager and she had seen me pocket the candy bar I was also in trouble. So I waited and I watched her move from aisle to aisle, occasionally glancing up to see if I still watched her. She lingered on the toy aisle, gazing longingly at dolls. I watched her hold their hands and lovingly stroke their brows. I wondered if she had a daughter or was there some simple remnant of childhood innocence that drew her to them? I was pulled from my surveillance by an all too familiar voice on the intercom.
“Jessie to the front office please, Jessie to the front office,” rang throughout the store. I rolled my eyes and grumbled under my breath as I took the few short steps to the office. After a pointless conversation about the night manager’s possible upcoming promotion, I returned to my register and glanced down the aisles, searching for my customer. I found her making her way toward the door with her head down and arms crossed. It was obvious that this thin woman had added quite a bit of bulk underneath her sweatshirt since she entered the store. Instead of following the procedures I had learned in my training and alerting management, I moved to confront her myself. There I stood blocking her way. She looked up at me, tears threatening to spill from her eyes, struggling to keep whatever was hidden under her shirt concealed. I reached for her and opened my mouth to say something but nothing came out. Then I remembered the candy bar in my pocket and the measly 17₵ on her food stamps. I looked at her, bruised and broken and I reached into my pocket.
“I have this,” I all but whispered, “I don’t think I want it. Would you take it?” I held the chocolate out and watched her expression change from defeat to confusion.
“Okay,” she said and she took the candy from my hand.
“Well, I hope you have a very nice night.” I turned and made my way back to my register as she hurriedly slipped through the automatic doors and out into the night. I couldn’t help but smile, knowing that my candy bar might finally see some use.