The Kroger Highway (The Midwest Version Of Julio Cortázar’s ‘Southern Highway’)

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. 

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