On Tuesdays, old Appalachian men swarm the Kroger parking lot. In pairs, the old men wear polo shirts or plaid button-ups in primary colors. They tuck their shirts into mud-colored chinos short enough that you can see their white ankle socks and brown shoes. Some chew on an old toothpick. Others cough. They pour little cups of coffee from their thermoses. They buy crackers and peanuts and the smallest cans of Coke.
At the grocery store, in the parking lot, a woman in a faux ermine-trimmed parka holds her daughter’s, or granddaughter’s, hand. Their little grocery cart is piled high with plastic bags, and she looks at the stream of old men and says, baby, that wind will cut you like a knife.
In the store, all kinds of people pass through the automatic doors, and, today, they’re all sick: the old man in his too-short pants coughs, and the brown-haired cashier rubs at her red nose with a wad of tissue, and a swaddled baby hollers like a siren. Today, six of my students emailed me their runny noses, their joint pain, their fevers. I keep fighting tiredness and the rawness of my own throat. A stocker sneezes into the bin of russets.
In the canned goods aisle, under the cool cascade of the overhead lights, an older woman with white hair adjusts her cats-eye glasses. She arranges the cans of peas so that all the labels line up straight, and I wonder about her cool hands, and for what her eyes were scanning.
At the produce department, I sift through a choice of mushrooms: white or portabella, sliced or whole. The two men next to me stock greens and talk football, the Steelers. I measure the weight of two identical cardboard packages of sliced button mushrooms in the palm of my hand, and one man says to the other, “It helps to be wider than what you have to cross.”
At the grocery store, in the checkout line, the woman ahead of me leads her family in a sweater set. I watch as she roughly unloads a cart. She announces that the frozen dinners, the crackers, canned soup, and dish soap are all for her husband’s mother.
“I’m retired, but you wouldn’t know it,” she says.
Her mother-in-law is at least 80, shawl-frail, and clutching two carts. The man who must be both the husband and son dials a phone and leans against the empty check-out line next to the women. I watch the daughter-in-law handle each item in their cart: chicken thighs and red bell peppers, asparagus and spring onion, redskin peanuts and cans of Coke.
The woman at the register points at her mother-in-law and says, “We buy her more food, but ours is more expensive.”
I unload my cart slowly, watch the woman pay for her lot with the practiced swoop of her credit card. She signs the electronic pen-pad with the rubber-tipped stylus almost tenderly.
“I used to love writing a check,” she starts; the cashier and bagger hurries her items into plastic bags.
The woman’s husband coughs. Her mother-in-law shuffles down to an abandoned line and stands in the middle of the aisle. Crowds pass her: a stone in their shopper’s river. I watch the husband blush, grab for one cart, and his wife pulls the receipt from the cashier’s hand. She takes hold of the second cart, thumbs at her husband’s mother.
“I have to cook for two people, and she don’t cook at all.”
At the Kroger, people come and go: blood cells pumping through the store’s cool ceramic arteries. The cashier in the nylon vest will wave and smile at them as they stream in and out of the set of double doors, even as she keeps her eye on the self-checkout registers, which replaced six jobs last year. She waves, she smiles. At break time she’ll head outside into the fresh air.