He took his place within the check-out line,
A loaf of bread, some milk, and batteries
Cradled against the paunch beneath his ribs.
His eyes rest vaguely where they fell on rows
Of chocolate, gum, and mints that lined the counter.
But, just behind, came some sharp click of tongue—
Briefer, but otherwise much like the sound
A plowman makes to coax his nag along
As it drags homeward through the roughened fields.
It startled him from patient thoughtlessness,
The drift from wrinkly foil to bright orange wrapper
And glossy pill box, whose shapes occupied him
But which he viewed with no hint of desire.
He blinked and turned to see where it had come from
And there, not far away, just down the aisle,
Her head cocked back, distracted from its business
In searching through the cans of chicken broth,
A woman met his eyes. She met them, yes,
But without recognition, as if he
Were one among the stacks of labeled items,
Or, maybe, some great bulk that’s strangely packaged,
Of doubtful provenance, but somehow sunk
Amidst the clutter of another’s cart;
A lump one notices on accident,
And doesn’t mean to, but, on instinct, thinks,
"That’s not the sort of thing I’d buy for us."
So much she seemed to say, while he stood suffering
Her gaze, a cold descending through his gut,
Until, expressionless, she turned away
And spotted what it was that she had sought.
She lowered down, in fawn skirt and tall boots,
While one hand pressed the cloth against her thighs.
He watched her then. Her hand reached out and drew
A can from somewhere lost within the shelves,
And turned its papered sides within her palm,
And ran a painted nail along the text—
With such a studied care, with such an interest—
To learn exactly what was held inside.
James Matthew Wilson is the author, most recently, of The Strangeness of the Good (Angelico, 2020). He serves as poetry editor for Modern Age magazine, series editor of Colosseum Books, and as director of the Colosseum Institute. He is the director of the MFA in Creative Writing at the University of Saint Thomas.
October 16, 2021 @ 6:45 am Cynthia Erlandson
This vignette has such strong imagery, as well as insightful characterization of the two people. But its strongest aspect is the gut-punch at the end (after having briefly focused on the man’s gut near the beginning) which brings the reader to realize something we have likely all experienced — and also have subconsciously done to others: looking right through them, forgetting that they are human beings.