On March 26, 2021, nearly two weeks after my husband died and two days after trying to celebrate my first birthday in 46 years without him, I made a conscious decision to spend the day in gratitude. I’d spent so many days frazzled and crying, starting when Gary entered the hospital on February 10th to struggle for three and a half weeks to survive against numerous odds. When all hope to save him had been extinguished, he returned home to spend nine days before he died. Each of those days was overlayed with sadness which hollowed me out, left me defeated and tired, so dreadfully tired.
I needed a break, if only for one day.
I expressed gratitude for the amazing family we built together, that Gary was no longer suffering, and I didn’t have to watch him suffer, for our excellent health insurance, that it was a bright, warm sunny day. . . and on and on and on.
A friend who lives in Mendocino invited me for a walk. I added “grateful for friends” to my list. On the way to meet her, I stopped at the Dollar Store. Easter loomed, and daughter Jenn and I had promised Gary we would decorate his urn—a vintage Folger’s coffee can—for each holiday. I quickly found two items—a headband with bunny ears and a bunny head.
Only one checkout stand was open and the waiting line long. Then again, most lines seemed longer at that time given the Covid restrictions of respecting a six-foot social distance. As I took my place at the back, a reinforcement checker was summoned. She appeared to be mid-fifties, early sixties—who knows? All I know is she didn’t look happy. She looked like she’d been pulled prematurely from a cigarette break and, as a result, plotted a capital crime of revenge, like arson or murder. I recognized that look, having a time or two entertained such thoughts myself.
I noted another gratitude item—I don’t have to work at the Dollar Store.
I followed the elderly gentleman in front of me to her checkout stand. With a pinched face and cold competence, she completed his transaction. She asked, in a threatening manner, “Do you want a bag?” As if he would take the bag only to later casually toss it into the garbage, adding to the earth’s already overflowing landfills.
He barked, “Yes, damnit, I want a bag!”
I felt a tingle of anticipation. This had the potential to develop into something interesting, to spice up the monotony of standing in line. I was disappointed when he left without incident.
The clerk looked at my two items on the conveyor belt and snapped, “Two dollars and eighteen cents.” She hadn’t even scanned them, yet knew the price. Of course, she did. She works at the Dollar Store where everything’s a dollar. It probably isn’t that difficult to memorize the tax due on a simple purchase. Still, I was impressed. I handed her a twenty-dollar bill.
“Do you have anything smaller?”
“Pardon?” Between the mask and the plexiglass separating us, I hadn’t heard her.
“I SAID, DO YOU HAVE ANYTHING SMALLER?”
I certainly heard that. “I’m sorry, I don’t,” I said with an appropriate measure of shame.
This seemed enough to completely ruin what I suspected had started out for her as a terrible day, perhaps even a miserable life. Did her husband recently die and she didn’t have the luxury of spending time to properly mourn him before going back to work at this shithole?
“Do you at least have eighteen cents?” She scowled.
I did not. I only had two twenty-dollar bills in my wallet.
The woman behind me piped up, “I have twenty cents.”
I pointed to the woman. “She has twenty cents.” Behind my mask, I smiled at the benevolent stranger, grateful that we had a potential solution to the clerk’s dilemma, tail wagging like a puppy eager to please its grumpy master. I sincerely wanted to make the clerk happy, someone who is forced to work at the Dollar Store while I am not.
“Forget it,” the clerk growled. “I hate having to give up the change in my drawer.” I imagined this was the first and only time a Dollar Store employee had uttered this sentence.
As if everyone in the store needed an explanation as to why I didn’t have a measly eighteen cents, I said to the woman behind me, “After coins build up in my wallet, I put them in a cup to roll later and deposit in my savings account at the bank.” The woman cheerfully said, “I do, too. We either have a bunch of change or we don’t have any.”
“Exactly!” I was thrilled to have found an ally and looked at the clerk for a flicker of understanding. She glared as she ripped bills and coins from her till.
As she reached to offer my change, I opened my wallet and held it out her. I was not in my right mind—had not been for several weeks. The only explanation I have for this behavior is I was trying to prove that I didn’t have any change, that I hadn’t deliberately intended to make her day worse.
She looked at me as if I was addle-brained and let out a heavy sigh to indicate I was to stop this nonsense, take the change, and get out of the goddamned store.
On another day, I might have been offended by her behavior. On this day, I walked out, got into my car, closed my eyes, tilted my face upwards while taking a deep breath, determined to continue with my day of gratitude.
I started the car and the Cat Stevens song, “Trouble,” came on the radio.
Oh trouble set me free
I have seen your face
And it’s too much too much for me
Oh trouble can’t you see
You’re eating my heart away
And there’s nothing much left of me
I bawled all the way on the 15-minute drive to Mendocino.