Another friend, Annette, once expressed disdain for enormous stores where one could stand in the center aisle and, looking down it, perceive the curvature of the earth. She said that to me about a thousand years ago, but I've always remembered it, especially after I've been trudging up and down that same center aisle for about ninety minutes, trying to cross items off my list with a ballpoint pen that ran out of ink five minutes after I entered the store. I think of it while murmuring, "Antacid tablets....toilet paper...a stapler....Windex.... bananas.... a bird feeder.... cheese.... a set of tires.... raspberry sorbet...." and criss-crossing the store, back and forth, back and forth, back and forth in some kind of minuet of doom.
Today, the girls and I were in Wal-Mart long enough for all three of us to become totally frayed as to patience, plus hot. In someone like me -- pumpkin-shaped, middle-aged and inclined to be snappish and moody when forced to shop -- the combination of hot and Wal-Mart is never a happy mixture. But then there are normal people like Meelyn, and the people like Aisling and my friend Beth, who claim to be always, always "Freeeeeeeeeeezing": When those people say they're hot, it must be bad.
So by the time we slowly pushed our loaded cart with our last little bit of remaining strength to the check-out line in the Garden Center, we were dragging. But not so slow and draggy that we couldn't take pity on the woman behind us. She was standing there with two items and a little boy of about seven. I felt sorry for her, knowing that she must be looking at our cart and the three thousand items and wondering if she'd make it out of the store by midnight, so I said to her; "Would you like to go in line in front of us?"
The woman did not acknowledged my presence by either a glance in my direction or a thank you, but I noticed that she stepped up very smartly and banged her two items down on the conveyor belt so that the cashier could ring them up. She maintained a withering silence when the cashier wished her a pleasant afternoon and barked a stern "SHUT. UP," at her son when he pointed out a bird that had flown into the Garden Center and alighted on a rafter.
"If I'd known she was going to make such a fuss about it, I would have just kept quiet," I whispered dryly to the girls. "Honestly, she's just embarrassing me with all her sloppy gratitude."
"I myself found it a bit excessive when she wanted to kiss your hand," remarked Meelyn as the woman stalked out of the store, hauling her son along by the hand.
Aisling sighed and said, "I don't understand why you feel you have to be so nice to people all the time. Why do you do it? Are you trying to set a good example for us? Because if you are, this one kind of backfired."
Stung, I replied, "I don't ask people if they want to go in front of me in the Wal-Mart line so that I can hear them sing my praises for being so generous, if that's what you're implying."
"Then why were you being so sarcastic just a minute ago?"
I thought about that for a moment and said,"SHUT. UP." But then added, "I'm sorry. I don't know why I said that. I think the atmosphere of Wal-Mart has a bad effect on me." I glanced around uneasily and looked up at that rafter for the bird, wondering if it had keeled over and fallen to the cement, as dead as a doornail.
"You know, we could always go to Meijer," Meelyn said helpfully. "Or Target. And don't forget K-Mart."
I thought that over. Why were we at Wal-Mart? Target and Meijer were both very close, less than five minutes away from where we were standing. K-Mart was less than ten. So why were we there?
This is what I've decided: Wal-Mart must have some addictive substance piped in through the air vents. The substance -- maybe something like crack? -- infects us and sets up a dependency that we know is bad and harmful, yet we just can't stay away. We have to come back for another fix, and incidentally rack up about $75 in impulse purchases because it is suddenly imperative to buy a new pillow for the bed in the guest room, even though the next overnight guests aren't expected until the week after Christmas. THE PILLOW, IT MUST BE BOUGHT. NOW.
That's my theory. I may be right, I may be wrong. Since I try to enter Wal-Mart four times a year, tops, it may take me a while to test this hypothesis. However, we may know that it's true sooner than I anticipate if I find myself suddenly being drawn there....