It starts with a casual bump and shove. The second bump it gets a little personal, the shove back harder. Outside on the steaming asphalt there's a retaliatory slam in the cart return chute about four o'clock when the middle-schoolers are cutting across the parking lot with their saggy pants and bad haircuts, skulking to McDonalds for fries and acne. Bad that there are so many witnesses. Now the grocery carts' friends get involved. There's taunting. A cart gets run through a discarded stinky Pamper. Sun bakes the leaked meat and fruit juices to a sticky skin on the metal bars of the carts.
The mentally-challenged grocery bagger girl who looks like a linebacker comes out of Albertsons with the tiny ancient bagger man from an impoverished unknown country. They collect the disgruntled carts in an enormous conga line, and somehow push them up the hill and into the store. Nothing is said, but this business isn't over. Carts aren't bright, but their memory for slights is long. There's gonna be a rumble, a poundin'*, as soon as the shoppers leave. Get them out of there. The employees, too!
The butchers and pharmacists left hours ago. The deli counter woman with her permanent odor of fried chicken and sweat, and her big right arm from slicing the Virginia baked ham on special for $3.99 a lb. went home to her latchkey kids. The guy whose job seems to be breaking one egg in every dozen caught the last bus on 15th Street. Crickets gather mostly outside the doors adding their static sound. Starlings, grackles and martins are standing room only on every wire at the intersection, raising the heat index with their din and droppings.
Lights go down in Albertsons, thermostats are set higher. Soggy rolls of paper towels are left by the coolers and freezers to absorb more leaks and create tomorrow's atmosphere of chronic low-level depression. A ring of quivering fluorescent tubes lines the perimeter of the store. Memory scents from the days of the live lobster tank seep up from the tired linoleum.
At first there's feigned friendliness. The carts trawl the carnival midway and freak shows, the chips aisle, and the drain cleaners.
There's a fiftyish woman sitting wedged in the basket of a cart, knees crammed under her chin. Not sitting in the flop-down seat for toddlers--even in a dream that would be impossible. She's tired and cranky, and she's been sitting in that uncomfortable wire basket ever since Charlie Hamilton managed the Safeway on Cotner Blvd. She doesn't have a penny for the gumball machine. She doesn't have a dime for the horsie ride. She has a twitch above her right eye. She's wearing light-up shoes with Velcro straps.
The carts begin playing bumper cars. It's fun at first; a little dark; shrieking; a little scary; increasingly jarring. It's battle-of-the-playground-bullies dragging the other carts in their posses into the fight. Round and round the store, a jaded roller derby of carts slamming each other, faster and faster, knocking down the cans of Rotel tomato and pepper, tearing cases of Ramen noodles four for a dollar.
Midway ride becomes demolition derby. The carts need to settle the score. The noise is deafening. The cops pull up out front, cherries flashing ugly pink light. Get out! Get out! The carts push out the automatic doors, roll and crash out of control all the way down the hill to Custer Street, slamming into each other.
The woman's head is throbbing. She wakes up and can't get back to sleep. She takes an Aleve for her aching shoulder, but it doesn't help.
It's 2:28 a.m. Do you know where your grocery cart is?
*As we called it at Millard Lefler Jr. High in the late Sixties.
© 2007 Nancy L. Ruder