A food store clerk makes an acquaintance of a woman who changes the way he sees the world.
| During my college years, I worked in a small grocery store located in a little town a few miles from my school. Every weekend I would make the twenty-minute long drive to Hollowdale and park in front of Gates Street Grocers, where I would spend eight whole hours of my day. It was no dream job—the mundaneness of it often left me in a sour mood. The store had only one cash register, and I was its only cashier; my only company was my manager, Dave, a senior from my college, but Dave was a bit of a simple guy, and his conversations never interested me much—he only ever talked about senior girls, college sports, and frat parties.
So since Dave never provided much entertainment, I turned to the customers as a source of conversation. The only problem was that everyone in that small town seemed to be caught in a constant cycle—a never-ending loop. I could set my watch by these people: the old widow Mrs. Wilson always came in on Saturday mornings at eleven o’clock to buy fresh apples, Mr. and Mrs. Hale bought ready-made salads everyday for lunch, Clara Casey purchased whole milk for her grandma Sundays around three o’clock, and little Timothy Kennedy wandered in each day before closing to spend this week’s allowance on candy. There were a few others here and there, but seeing as the supermarket two blocks away was bigger and cheaper, we didn’t get many customers, which meant I was stuck conversing with the same few Hollowdale residents. These people were even habitual in their conversations—every weekend I would hear old Mrs. Wilson babble about her son’s successes in the medical field, Mr. and Mrs. Hale discuss their open marriage, Clara Casey complain about high school and field hockey, and little Timothy ask multitudes of questions about how college was and if I had a girlfriend and what it was like to not live with mommy and daddy anymore. Not surprisingly, I got bored of this routine rather quickly, and I feared I might even fall into the Hollowdale rut if I did not change my situation soon.
I had resolved to quit that Sunday after I was finished with my shift—I couldn’t stand the thought of becoming a fixed piece of furniture in this grocery store. It was a normal, mundane day. I had just finished ringing up Clara Casey when the little bell above the entrance jingled, alerting me that I had another customer. A young woman walked in. I didn’t recognize her, which was odd since I knew nearly everyone who came through those doors. As Clara thanked me and walked out, I followed this foreign girl with my eyes, watching as she passed through each aisle. It wasn’t that she was strikingly beautiful—in fact, she was rather plain with her limp brown hair, small green eyes, and pale face—but she was new, she was different, and she piqued my interest.
I watched this mystery girl wander around the store for ten minutes. Every now and then she would turn toward me, as if she was aware I was looking at her, and I would have to pretend I was busy counting the cash in the register to avoid looking like a textbook creeper. She took so long to fill her small basket with groceries that I was about to leave the counter to ask if she needed help finding anything, but just as I resolved to assist her, she came over to pay.
“Did you find everything you were looking for?” I asked.
She nodded, placing each item in her basket on the counter for me to ring up. I scrutinized her groceries—half a dozen apples, a container of strawberries, a head of lettuce, bottled water, five cups of light yogurt, and a jar of almonds.
“So are you some kind of health addict?”
“Oh, no,” she said, seeming surprised that I had struck up a conversation with her, “I’m just trying to lose a few.” She patted her stomach twice. Discreetly, I checked her out; I couldn’t see why she thought she needed to shed weight—she seemed thin to me.
“I don’t think I’ve ever seen you in here before,” I said. “Are you new in town, or just passing through, or what?”
“I was born and raised in this town. It’s just that I usually shop at the supermarket. My neighbor, Mrs. Hale—you might know her; she told me she comes here a lot—she suggested I buy my groceries here when I told her about my diet. She said you guys have the best produce for miles.”
“Well, she and her husband seem to really love our salads.”
The young woman nodded, shuffling as I continued to ring up her groceries. I could feel the air of awkwardness growing between us, which was odd because I normally couldn’t get the customers to stop talking to me. I felt the need to keep her talking, to find out more about this foreigner who had wandered into my workplace. As sad as it sounds, she was a new and exciting creature in my humdrum life, and I needed to know more.
“Do you mind if I ask you your name?” I realized immediately by her expression that I had surprised her again, so I quickly tried to turn down the level of creepiness by saying, “I’m on a first name basis with nearly everyone who walks in here. You don’t have to tell me if you don’t want to, I just—”
“It’s Holly,” she interjected. Then, catching sight of my nametag, she smiled. ”Clark the grocery store clerk. That’s funny.”
“I know, it’s like I was destined to work checkout in a food store since birth.”
Holly giggled and the smile that lit up her face made her look almost pretty. Still, although it wasn’t a beautiful face, I felt genuine pleasure in making her lips curl up in laughter. She did not seem like the kind of girl who smiled often.
After I finished scanning and bagging her groceries, she paid me, smiled again, said, “I’ll see you later, Clark the clerk,” and walked out. A part of me almost wished she had stayed longer—I dreaded returning to the boring routine.
I did not quit my job that day. After meeting Holly, the rest of my day was much more bearable—I hummed whatever tune was playing on the loudspeaker while I stocked the shelves, I engaged myself in a silly yet enjoyable conversation about college football with Dave, and I happily rang up little Timothy and even bought him a few extra pieces of candy than he had the money to pay for. I wasn’t sure why my mood had improved so dramatically, but I felt that the daily cycle had been broken, and it made me happy.
Holly returned to Gates Street Grocers many times after that. Unlike everyone else in Hollowdale, she did not seem to be stuck in the constant rut—she came into the store as she pleased, never at the same time or on the same day; some weekends she didn’t come in at all. I could never predict when I would see her, so whenever she did chance to do her grocery shopping, I kept her in conversation as long as I could, desperate for the variety she brought to my routine. We never became friends, per se, but we were always friendly. We would make small talk, chat about people in town, and joke here and there. She always laughed—or at least smiled in amusement—at my jokes. I don’t know why, but bringing that expression of happiness to her plain and sometimes sour face made me feel good, like I was doing something charitable.
Each time Holly came into the store, I noticed that her appearance changed for the worse. The previously plain face became downright unattractive, even ugly. Her light brown hair seemed to grow thinner and limper, her eyes were constantly bloodshot, her pale skin became ghostly white and sallow until it looked like tissue paper stretched along her cheekbones. Her face was tinted a sickly yellow color. She looked small and haggard and ill.
“You look . . . tired,” I said to her one Saturday as I scanned her groceries.
“Is that a nicer way of saying I look like shit?” she asked, half-smiling.
“No, not at all! I didn’t mean—”
“It’s okay, Clark. I know what you meant. I’ve just been kind of sick lately, that’s all.”
“Oh.” I could tell she wanted to say something, or maybe she wanted me to say something. She looked at me expectedly, her mouth half open, but remained silent. Feeling the need to fill the silence, I asked, “Have you gone to the doctor yet? Is it serious?”
“Mm, I’ve been to a few doctors already. It’s just not really the kind of thing you can cure with a pill.”
Oh, God, I thought. This girl has cancer. Here I am telling her she looks “tired” and she has freaking cancer. I’m such a jackass, oh my God.
“Is, uh, is that why you’ve been buying less?” It was a stupid thing to ask, but it was the only thing I could think to say. She had been buying fewer groceries lately—that day, for example, she had decided to purchase only three apples, a bottle of water, and a bag of celery.
“Yeah, what I’ve got makes it hard to keep food down. It’s no use letting such good produce go to waste by buying it and not eating it.”
“Ah, well . . . I hope you feel better,” I said, handing her the bagged groceries and taking the money from her hand.
“Me too, Clark,” she murmured. “Me too.”
Flashing me a tiny smile, Holly exited the store, leaving me to loathe myself because of the stupidity of everything I had said to her—here she was with what was probably a terminal illness and I was telling her how terrible she looked and commenting on the amount of groceries she was buying. I resolved to apologize the next time I saw her, and I prayed that it would be soon.
Luckily, Holly returned the next day, having forgotten to buy a container of cashews. She smiled at me as she walked up to the register, which meant she wasn’t angry about the moronic questions I had asked the previous day. I was glad.
“Hey, Clark, have you restocked aisle four yet?” came my manager Dave’s husky voice just as I was about to apologize to Holly.
He approached the register. I shot Holly a quick look, but she simply shrugged, giving me the cashews to scan. My apology would have to wait until next time.
“No, not yet,” I said. “I’ll do it as soon as I ring her up.”
Dave nodded, watching as Holly handed me the money for the cashews and I gave her the change. Her mouth twitched in something like a smile and she waved goodbye to me. I waved back, and she turned to leave.
“Man, have you seen Mrs. Hale lately?” Dave asked me in a low voice, chuckling. “I mean, of course you have. Who could miss her? There’s practically two of her now. If her marriage wasn’t so shaky I would think she’s pregnant. I guess that open relationship thing isn’t working out for them—it’s gotta be hard to find someone who’ll jump on top of that. Still . . . if she asked me I probably wouldn’t say no.” Then, making a groping motion with his hands, he added, “Her stomach isn’t the only thing that got a lot bigger, you know.”
Holly had walked four steps from the register when she stopped dead in her tracks. Her frail and tiny body became rigid, and for a minute I thought maybe there was something wrong with her, but then I remembered that Mrs. Hale was her friend and neighbor. The tension in her body scared me so much that I turned to shoot Dave a warning glance. I had grown used to Dave’s ignorant and offensive remarks about other people, so much so that they barely bothered me anymore, but Holly was unaware that every word that spewed out of this man’s mouth was some sort of idiotic insult. She whipped around to face him, her cheeks red with the heat of anger and an ugly scowl across her face.
“What was that about Mrs. Hale?” she hissed, each word sounding like a threat.
“Oh, come on,” said Dave. “Relax, would you? It was a compliment.”
Holly laughed, but it wasn’t her normal laugh—this laugh was full of malice. “A compliment? You think that by saying you would ‘jump on top of that’ even though Mrs. Hale gained a few pounds, you’re flattering her in some way? Let me tell you something—”
“Oh, come on, sweetheart. I didn’t mean—”
“Don’t interrupt me,” Holly snapped. “Let me tell you something. Mrs. Hale is the best damn woman I’ve ever met. She is sweet and smart and gorgeous, thirty pounds heavier or not. You act like because she gained a little bit of weight that makes her ugly, and somehow that makes her less of a person and gives you the right to treat her like shit. Just because she isn’t your definition of attractive doesn’t make it any more appropriate to criticize her. You make it seem like a woman with a bigger mid-section is offensive to you, like it’s a crime to have to look at her because she isn’t as thin as you would like her to be. This may be news to you, but women weren’t put on this earth to please you. Shocking, I know, but it’s true. Mrs. Hale has other concerns than impressing the manager of the grocery store that makes her salads, believe me. And if you’re going to continue criticizing other people based on their appearance,” she said, looking Dave up and down, “you might want to take a look at yourself first, because what I see on the outside is just as repulsive to me as what’s on the inside.”
Holly turned and proudly sauntered to the door, holding her head up and her shoulders back. Dave was dumbstruck. He blubbered moronically, trying to formulate an argument before she walked out of the store. Words failed him. Finally, he uttered a shaky insult.
Holly stopped just before the door, and I saw her body tense again in that frightening way, but she did not attack. Instead, she turned and cast a long glance at me. I simply stared back, unsure of what else to do. After a moment, she emitted a long sigh, then walked out, letting the door slam behind her.
Not a day went by when I did not feel guilty for not defending Holly against Dave’s words. I waited and waited for her to return, but three weeks passed and I did not see her sickly face once. I figured she had probably gone back to shopping at the supermarket. I didn’t blame her, really; no one should have to put up with such an ignorant store manager. Although I did not blame Holly for not returning, I hated Dave. Seeing his stupid face frustrated me beyond belief. I could no longer speak to him—each time he addressed me I would reply with some sort of grunt or gesture, because that’s the only response he deserved from me. I think even Dave started to hate Dave. Every once in a while, I would walk by his office and catch him looking dejectedly at the mirror, touching the rolls on his stomach with a frown.
Two more weeks passed, and I had all but lost hope of ever seeing Holly again, but I didn’t mind. She had removed herself from my life to save her pride, and I could live with that. Still, I was thankful that I had made her acquaintance, and I only wished I could have apologized to her for Dave’s behavior.
At the lunch hour, as usual, Mr. and Mrs. Hale came in to buy their daily salads. Upon seeing Mrs. Hale, Dave shut the door to his office and hid, as was his usual routine now—he wasn’t sure if Holly had told her neighbor what he had said about her, but my guess was that she hadn’t, since Mrs. Hale continued to shop at Gate Street Grocers. I was glad that the husband and wife were engaged in conversation already; I wasn’t in a talkative mood. Still, while I was scanning their lunches, I happened to listen to what they were saying.
“They don’t seem to be handling it too well,” said Mr. Hale.
“I mean, can you blame them?” said his wife. “Their only child with such an awful illness. I can’t imagine the pain. Such a sweet, sweet girl. Remember when she was a teenager? You never would’ve known she was sick. Never. Such a strong girl—strong people like that know how to hide their pain, that’s why we never saw it. Bless her, poor Holly.”
The mention of the young woman’s name startled me. “I’m sorry to eavesdrop,” I said, but did you say Holly?”
Mrs. Hale nodded.
“How has she been? Has her sickness gotten worse?”
The Hales stared at me for a moment, and then exchanged uneasy glances. I looked at each in turn, waiting for an answer and growing more apprehensive with each second that no one spoke. Finally, Mr. Hale addressed me.
“Clark, Holly died last week.”
I nearly dropped the scanner in my hands. Holly was dead? How was that possible? I had just seen her a month ago. She had stood in front of me, sickly sack of skin and bones as she was. How could she been gone? How could she have vanished from this earth entirely. It didn’t make sense.
It took me a minute to form words, but finally I murmured, “It was the cancer, then? It killed her?”
The couple exchanged another confused glance.
“Holly didn’t have cancer, Clark,” whispered Mrs. Hale. “She had body dysmorphic disorder. She was anorexic. She starved herself to death.”
“She had been suffering with it since she was fourteen. It came as a surprise to us too. Her parents tried all kinds of therapy to make her better, but nothing worked. I suppose she’s at peace now. Poor, sweet girl. She’s at peace now.”
I could say nothing. My mind was a jumble of thoughts that did not make sense. Mr. and Mrs. Hale, sensing my distress, paid for their salads and walked out without another word. It took me twenty minutes to place the money in the register.
I finished work for the day in silence. In those few hours, Clara Casey came in to buy whole milk for her grandma around three o’clock and little Timothy Kennedy wandered in around closing to spend this week’s allowance on candy. It was strange, almost unnatural, that these people’s daily routines could continue while Holly lay stone cold in a box somewhere. After I cleaned up and emptied the register, I hung up my uniform for the last time, got in my car, and drove back to my dorm, feeling only numbness.
I cried for Holly that night. I don’t know why. We were not friends, merely acquaintances who had spoken several times in the past few months. I barely knew anything about her—I had no idea what her favorite color was or her greatest fear or what she wanted to be when she was little. I felt that I had no right to mourn for her, but I did anyway, because she had been here and now she was gone, and I would never see her again. I would never get the chance to apologize for my insensitivity toward her sickness, or Dave’s rudeness, or the fact that I had not defended her when he had called her a fat bitch. I mourned because I could have stopped it; she had reached out to me, I had been aware of it, and yet I had done nothing. She had asked me for help again and again through her actions, but her signs had fallen on blind eyes. She had wanted me to notice, to see her anguish and her pain, but I hadn’t paid close enough attention, and I had failed her. She had slowly withered away before my eyes, dropping pounds until she was no longer an object that held mass, but a body of energy that had passed on to wherever it is that souls go.
Holly had existed in such a small portion of my life; I had not even known her for half a year before she removed herself from this world. As I laid curled up in my bed with hot tears staining my cheeks, I wondered at the transience of life. How many others were there like Holly? How many miserable people walked this earth crying out for help with silent voices? If this young woman could be taken from my life so quickly, then nothing in this world was safe from death’s reach.
It is easy to forget our own mortality, but we must remember that we are all toys of Misfortune, being carelessly tossed about like playthings by the childish hand of Fate. While it is impossible to know why tragedies such as that of Holly’s death befall us, I am now, upon many years of reflection, inclined to believe that they are meant to serve as a reminder that our human light may be extinguished at any moment, and we must fill our lives with happiness and rid ourselves of regret before it is too late. Otherwise, what is the purpose?