At first, the man with the case of Bud Light and the half-gallon of milk had insisted on keeping track of the time, but the girl with the birthday cake didn’t care anymore. Anyone could look at their watch, but it was as if time was something that mattered only to outsiders, those who hadn’t made the blunder of trying to get groceries on a Sunday afternoon in Southern Indiana, and had to circle from the registers to the back of the store, having seen the enormity of the collection of customers clogging the main artery where transactions must be completed, just past the meat department, coming to a halt near the pastries, walking a few inches, then hours later a few more, not sure if a purchase had been finalized and the line was moving, or whether another exasperated shopper had simply given up, or whether the collective shuffling of feet had yielded a hopeful (but deceptive) little distance to travel, observing with some envy the toddler buckled into the front of the cart playing happily with her mother and buried in snack foods that she couldn’t open, then the tired-looking old man with the mask under his nose reading the same section of a Field & Stream magazine for the 13th time, and the woman with the pierced septum and the AC/DC tattoo looking around for attention of any kind, from anywhere.
Word of the cause of the delay traveled from the front of the line, but by the time it reached the middle of the store it had morphed into something so unreliable that it no longer created a stir. An increasingly fantastic justification came every 30 minutes or so: Half the U-scans were broken, all of them were broken, there had been a COVID outbreak requiring a quarantine of all cashiers for at least 14 days, no one wanted to work, the president was requiring proof of vaccination to buy milk, the country had been invaded by Chinese or Cuban communists with an obsessively bureaucratic approach to food distribution, and so on.
A clerk at the cheese counter half-shouted a story about a similar line that took five hours on a previous Sunday, but at first the story seemed too preposterous to believe, and by the time it became apparent that this wait would be even longer, everyone was too invested, too hungry, too demoralized to leave. The shoppers could tell through the small glass rectangles in the ceiling that the sun was going down, but night never came, the world remained flooded with a hideous brightness that tinted everything green. Three tones and a cheerful, crackling voice came from the ceiling every few minutes to reassure them that there was order, someone was in charge, they hadn’t been abandoned. So they stayed.
The man carrying the case of Bud Light shifted his weight from side to side, asking over and over if it was 8 p.m. yet. When the answer was finally “yes,” he was utterly defeated, not yet comprehending that alcohol sales would resume in just a few hours. He could not return the box of beer to its shelf, of course; no one was so foolish as to step out of line and risk losing their spot, so he held onto it, carrying it like a dead infant at first, then scooting it along the floor with his feet a few inches at a time. In the morning they moved a little, enough to give them hope that by the afternoon they might reach an open register. By that time, the end of the line was no longer visible, so it would have been silly to leave just to start all over again, this time from the outside, where you could get mugged or die of heatstroke. And anyway, everyone in the line near the pastry section had consumed at least some of what they had intended to purchase, so it was quite impossible to leave now; they had to pay for what they ate.
After the third day of enduring the flirtatious jabber of the Bud Light man with the woman with the pierced-septum, the old man in the mask rolled up his magazine and climbed in the cart after mutedly asking the mother of the toddler to give him a push if they had to move before morning. Each line segment had established an elaborate bartering system by then; a box of Cheerios was worth three Fruit Roll-ups, a can of condensed milk could get you as many as five granola bars, stock in peanut butter was going up but the value of fresh produce was rapidly depreciating.
Some weeks later, the snack food surrounding the toddler had become a knoll of plastic wrappers. A lady with hip-length hair in an ankle-length denim skirt gave a disapproving look as the child, blushing with scurvy, tore into the whitening flesh of a seedless mandarin. That night, or perhaps some other night, the old man sleeping in the cart stopped moving, and then stiffened on top of a pile of disintegrating frozen dinners. The girl with the birthday cake, now wishing she had kept track of the time, delicately lifted the lid to the cake box to remove candied letters spelling “QUINCEAÑERA.” She bit the ‘I’ in half and used its remaining fragment to turn a number ‘15’ into ‘16’ without smudging the frosting too much.
They hadn’t traveled more than 10 feet by then, a fact everyone knew but didn’t speak aloud. No one wanted to face the possibility that the line would never move, or that they didn’t want it to move, that they might rather be standing there forever, fluorescent lights drying up the photoreceptors in their eyes, than to pay what they owed.