Erta stood in the
checkout line at the Food House. Business was back to normal, as trumpeted by a huge
paper banner stretched across the front window:
OF COURSE WE HAVE PAPER BAGS!
"Will there be anything else, ma'am?" the checker asked as he reached
for the last itema can of Double Q salmon large enough to make far too many salmon
Erta glanced at her shopping
list, then at the magazine rack in front of her. There was no Weekly World Scene.
Normally this wouldnt have made any difference, for the tabloid had never been on
her shopping list before. But that was before her sister-in-law Doris had called that
"I just heard the
news," Doris said as soon as Erta picked up the phone. "Is it as bad as they
"Is what as bad as they
say?" Erta asked, wondering what ever happened to opening a telephone
conversation with "Hello, how are you?".
"Didn't you read the
"The Scene, of
course," Doris said as if the answer was obvious to anyone with even a lick of
"I guess not."
"Well it made the front
"The story," Doris said
impatiently. "Aren't you listening to me?"
"The robberies. Don't you
even know about the robberies in your own town?"
"Of course I know about
them," Erta said. "What does the...what paper did you say it was?"
"The Weekly World Scene."
"What does it say about
Doris took a deep breath and
started in. "It says there's been a bunch of robberies that don't make any sense
and the town's in an uproar over themI can't say as I blame everyoneand
an FBI psychiatrist says whoever did it might be part of a satanic cult and that
heor she, though I can't honestly see a women doing irrational things like
thiswon't stop unless he gets what he wants, but even he's not sure just what
it is he wants. The FBI! Can you believe they brought the FBI in on a crime that happened
right there where you live?"
"I mean, it's just so
exciting," Doris plowed on. "Why can't anything like that happen here?
Everything around here is just so dull and boring. Day in, day out, it's always the
same old same old. Nothing ever happens out of the ordinary around here."
"Face it, it's an exciting
day if one of the children forgets to take their homework to school and I have to
drive up there to bring it to them so they don't fail. Do you know how embarrassing
that can be? But I've got to do it, after all, not many children that age get left
back and I sure wouldn't want to be the cause of some lifelong trauma just because I
didn't feel like driving up to the school one morning."
"It's not that its so
far, really. Do you remember when I used to walk them to school? I'd walk their
homework to school now too except you know how much trouble I've been having with my
feet lately, or didn't I tell you?" Erta was silent. "The foot doctor says it's
because of my shoes, but heaven knows I wear sensible shoes. I've always worn
sensible shoes. You know as well as I do that I've never been a slave to fashion. Let
those other women run around killing their feet in those tight, pointy high-heels;
comfort is the name of the game in my book. Sensible might as well be my middle
name." She paused long enough to take a deep breath, the first one she'd had in
several minutes. "Erta? Are you still there?"
"Yes, I'm here," Erta
"You're being so quiet I
thought maybe we got disconnected, or heaven forbid you slipped and had an accident
while we were on the phone and I didn't even realize it so I could call an ambulance.
Or maybe the devil robber got you."
"Sorry, dearie. Just a
little joke. Look, I'd better run. I just called to make sure everyone was okay. You
know how concerned I am about all of you. I guess it's just the mother in
meyou know I've always thought family is the most important thing in a woman's
lifebut I can't help but be interested in other people. And heaven knows I
always like hearing all the news from your neck of the woods." She stopped for a
quick breath. "Give my best to Jackson Robert and the boys, now."
Erta looked at the receiver
curiously. She never knew quite how to handle Doris. After all, this was a woman who faced
lifes frustrations by trying to bury them. Literally. Once a year, almost as if it
was marked in red on a mental calendar, Doris tried to commit suicidetried being the
key word. While each attempt was slightly more elaborate than the previous, none
were particularly creative or successful. The culmination was her seventh
effort, when she closed the door to the kitchen, blew out the pilot lights on the
stove, turned the gas up full blast, downed the better part of a bottle of aspirin,
chugged half a bottle of Mogan David Concord Grape wine, put her head in a noose made
from a dirty bedsheet which she attached to the ceiling light fixture, and slit both
of her wrists with a Schick twin razor blade.
When her children came home from
school expecting to find her in the kitchen preparing dinner, they instead discovered her
lying on the tile floor. The doctor at the emergency room was astonished, to put it
mildly. It seems Aunt Doris had neglected to close the kitchen window, had taken just
enough aspirin to ensure that she wouldn't have a headache for months, pulled the
light fixture out of the ceiling, and managed to slash the tendons in each wrist
without so much as nicking her arteries. But as anyone who has tried it knows, the
half bottle of Mogan David Concord Grape wine left her with one hell of a hangover
that even all that aspirin couldn't begin to touch.
Erta replaced the phone in the
cradle and went into the kitchen. She wrote "Weekly World" on her shopping
* * * * * *
"I'll be right back,"
Erta said to the woman standing behind her in the checkout line. "I just need to grab
something real quick."
She squeezed past the woman and
looked down the next checkout line. No Weekly World Scene. She hurried to the next
line. None there either. She looked back at her line; both the checker and the people in
line were getting noticeably irritated.
She spotted a copy in the rack at
the next line. "Excuse me," she said, trying to ease herself past a huge
man who was shaped like the Giant Mutant Pear From Beyond Venus.
He pushed himself up against the
conveyor belt as Erta sucked in her stomach and tried to sidle past him, her back to
the wire rack displaying candy, cigarette lighters, and film.
"Excuse me," she
The man pushed towards the
conveyor as hard as he could. His huge stomach rolled over the waistband of his pants and
lay on top of the conveyor belt. Erta tried to move past him but was wedged tightly
between the man's mammoth ass and the wire rack, the metal rods holding the small
bags of Brach's candy and Kodak film stabbing her in the back.
"Move lady," the man
"I can't," she said.
"Well, do something."
The checker looked up, her eyes
staring right through Erta as her fingers continued punching the keys on the cash
register. She was on autopilot. She reached for a can of Vienna sausages while
stepping on a small pedal to start the conveyor moving. The belt rasped against the
bottom of the man's stomach, vainly trying to carry his excess fat to be checked out
with the rest of his groceries.
"I'm gonna get rubbed to
death," he said.
"I can't move," Erta
told him. "I'm stuck."
"Well get unstuck!"
The woman who was next in line
was oblivious to the predicament, pulling groceries from her shopping cart and placing
them on the belt. One by one they glided along the black rubber carrier until they
ran into the man's stomach. A rump roast, two half gallons of chocolate milk, and
four grotesquely huge cans of Campbell's Pork and Beans piled up in a mound as
the grocery gridlock pushed into the man's stomach. A can of V-8 Tomato Juice Cocktail and
a ten pound bag of new white potatoes hit the logjam, toppled over, and fell to the
floor. A bottle of Welch's Grape Juice followed suit and shattered.
"Stop the fuckin' thing
already!" the man yelled to the checker.
"You don't have to cuss
about it," Erta told him.
"That was my grape juice you
broke," the woman said.
"Fuck your grape
juice," he said, "look at my God damned stomach!"
"I'd rather not," she
said, suddenly feeling anorexic even though that very morning the doctor had told her
she was twelve pounds overweight.
"I'm being stabbed in the
back," Erta said.
"Oh my God! She's been
stabbed!" the checker yelled.
"Who's going to pay for my
"Shove your fuckin' grape
juice!" the man said as he tried to push away from the moving belt, pushing Erta
harder into the wire rack.
"My back!" she called
"Someone help her!" the
checker yelled as she stopped the conveyor. "She's been stabbed in the back!"
"Someone help me!"
the fat man yelled.
"Will someone please get a
mop?" the woman called out.
Whitey Heppelwhite, the store
manager, heard the commotion and came charging down the condiment aisle, plunging through
the line like the star halfback he'd always wanted to be in high school, knocking the
defensive line of shoppers out of his way with ease.
"Well, excuse me
," the woman said as Whitey shoved her out of his way.
He put both hands on the side of
the man's stomach. "Start the belt," he called out to the checker. He
pushed as hard as he could, his hands sinking deep into the flesh and fat. Putting
one foot against the wire rack, he shoved as hard as he could against the man's
stomach, his hands sinking deeper. Desperate, he kicked hard, his hands disappearing
in the mans stomach until he thought they would burst out the other side. With
a loud pop and a hard sucking noise, the man burst free and fell to the floor,
rolling onto his back and listing from side to side while his arms and legs
impotently flailed in the air. The momentum threw Whitey sprawling across the
conveyor belt, knocking jars and cans and bags to the floor. Erta collapsed on top
"Stop the belt,
already!" he called out to the checker.
"Now you've broken my
applesauce," the woman complained loudly.
Erta stood up, straightening her
dress. She reached over and plucked a tabloid from the rack.
"Sometimes life can be so
difficult," she said.
* * * * * *
On the way out of the store with
her five bags of groceries Erta would never get over how much it cost to
feed her familytwo neatly dressed men in navy blue suits approached her.
"Good morning, Miss,"
one of them said, "please take this and read it at your leisure." He
dropped a white sheet of paper in one of her grocery bags.
"I'm sure you'll find it to be of great interest," the other said
pleasantly before turning and walking towards the fat man who was waddling away, the
two grocery bags perched on his huge hips filled with potato chips, Hostess
cream-filled cupcakes and the like.
As Erta put the paper bags in the
back seat of her car, the flyer the men had given her fell unnoticed to the ground.