by Cici Grove
a hot toddy
I stood in Cam’s Craft Emporium, scanning the crowd and the magnitude of merchandise with a growing sense of alarm. The place should have been called Cam’s Den of Deception, Desire, and Despair. The advertisement had read, “Cam’s has the products you need for home decor, framing, scrapbooking, and more! Shop and save at a store near you!” I did need an item they carried, I wanted to save, and Cam’s was just a stone’s skip away. It had all made sense. But facing row after row of shelves reaching upward towards the high warehouse ceiling, crammed with crafty packs and knickety-knacks—it was a superabundant display for the unsuspecting shopper. Even a well-intentioned tightwad might lapse and find themselves purchasing wood scraps and sealing wax.
Ostensibly, my purpose for being in the store was practical. I was there to purchase a writing tablet and to note the behaviors of other shoppers in pursuit of my professional goals: those of a published writer. Given the proper notebook and study time, I could create a whole community of characters and perhaps even a surprise ending. If I put my mind to it, I would write my way to the stars.
My purpose was not simply a professional one; it was also personal. I was in no rush, alone for the day and into the evening, and the next day would be the same. Surviving the short, dark days as they crept towards winter was necessary, so it was logical to join others in a large, bright building after sunset. Why not trap two birds in one cage and move my writing career forward while getting through the darkest of days?
I took the business of observing behaviors seriously, and I found it in my heart not to judge. I did notice, however, that people were dropping useless products into their carts without a thought––and this, during the holiday season! As if Christmas was an excuse for overindulgence. Hadn’t they heard? “Lead us not into temptation?”
I did not understand the shopping behaviors I was witnessing. One shopper used her arm to sweep a whole shelf of merchandise into her cart. In one fell swoop! Then she set her eyes on me. What did it mean? Were she and others evaluating my unruly hair?
I decided to match that lady’s gaze to let her know how it felt—how rude it was. But, as it turned out, she was peering past me, locking her eyes onto a poorly constructed wooden box. Its bent hinge dangled by a single screw.
As I was considering this scenario and debating whether to point out the issues with the crappy box, a man with a gumball in his cheek caught my attention because it caused him to “shpeak like jish.” At first, that was what I thought it was, a single gumball. Then I saw the many colors of multiple gumballs mixing and tumbling behind his crooked teeth. He paced the aisle and popped in one more, a lovely cobalt blue.
The man needed professional help. His glucose levels were spiking for sure, as he appeared restless—desperate even—while a woman, likely his wife, pondered potential purchases. I figured I could show the gentleman compassion by saying something like, “Life can be one shticky messh.” You know, to assure him that others understood, spoke his language. But then I reassessed. Perhaps he didn’t regard his gumball situation as a problem, and who was I to dub it as such?
I considered the role of the gentleman’s wife, who likely spent much of her time interpreting his special gumball speech. She must get headaches from the concentration required, but her smile was inscrutable as she admired a bouquet of plastic sunflowers. I felt lucky in comparison to these people who faced real challenges, when for me it was just a matter of my untamed hair.
I continued down each aisle, from the left side of the store to the right, and after spending the late afternoon and evening hours in Cam’s Craft Emporium on Independence Way, I carried my shopping basket containing the writing tablet—the one with the soft black cover from aisle four—in the direction of the checkout line. I caught bits of conversation as I went.
“Do you work here?” one customer pressed, not noticing the sales associate’s red shirt and name tag: “I’m looking for paste and purply-pink yarn.” Then, from an older gentleman whose life seemed to have been sucked out of him by the shopping experience: “Where is aisle six?” The store was laid out for the precise purpose of finding one’s way around, with signs at each row’s end. I’m not sure what the confusion was about. Maybe people became overwhelmed by the bright lights, the magnitude of nonessentials. Perhaps they lost track of time and skipped meals; perhaps their brains began to malfunction, leaving them cognitively dull and disoriented.
As I joined the back of the checkout line, which wove through more merchandise, I overheard a woman at the entrance advising the preteen girl who accompanied her, “Don’t put your face on the door.” Then she continued to talk, as if there was no need to take a breath, and more instructions followed. The girl’s expression was glum, and she appeared lopsided, as she held her cellphone between her ear and shoulder. I hoped she would be able to register the helpful tip through the ear that was pointed up. It was sound advice about the door, and the girl was lucky to get it. With the proper shopping etiquette training, the girl might cease pushing doors open with her face and improve on other senseless practices as well.
The line moved forward a few feet. From the other direction, a man’s voice boomed as he commanded a child, who seemed a few years younger than the lopsided girl, “Put it back on the shelf. Now.” Clear and effective. The boy stood, gripping a box with plastic windows that showcased something shiny. A design to lure the innocent, I thought. The boy, desperate, with furrowed brows and several missing front teeth, pleaded, “But Dad…” Then, recognizing the futility of it all, the boy reluctantly placed the box on a shelf. Ahh…the concept of self-control.
People were dealing with a lot these days; some were unable to find their way around when shopping, while others were contending with impulsive greed or trying to do right by their kids. Areas in which I lacked experience. I did admire the earnest efforts of others to do right, and a morsel of Christmassy hope began to swell: a teeny nugget of good cheer that I wished to somehow share.
As the line continued to inch forward, my attention shifted from the conversations around me to a large bin on my left. I peeked in, and there I saw something wonderful. All that was around me—sounds, merchandise, people—drifted away as I sharpened my focus on the object.
The wonderful thing was round, smooth, and black, just smaller than a tennis ball and made to squeeze. And there it sat: a little black bat, alone in the bin. The last one left. It looked at me with its yellow eyes, baring its white fangs innocently, for it was just a baby. I picked it up and gave it a squeeze. It fit perfectly in my palm and was just the right weight. I gave it a few more squeezes. Then, admiring the little wings on each side of its round little body and its two perky, pointed ears, I placed the bat in my basket, gently, facing up.
The impulse made me giddy. No one seemed to notice my new discovery. They were eyeing other items along the checkout path. I continued to progress through the line, holding the little bat’s gaze. I smiled at it as it looked at me, peeking out from a corner of the basket. Echo, I thought. A bell sounded at a register. I paid and exited the store.
Then, like a Christmas miracle, we were all out in the cold winter darkness: the swiping-arm lady, the gumball man and his smiling wife, the boy without a toy and his no-nonsense father, and even the lopsided girl with the breathless woman. All of us stood in the parking lot under the stars that shone bright beyond the street lamps, like we had all just been freed from the same ugly experience and now rebirth was possible. Now there was peace.
I neared my car and gave Echo one last squeeze. Then, instead of reaching for the door handle, I wound up like a baseball pitcher, pulled back, and launched the bat high and wide. We watched it soar up towards the stars—the north star. My little Echo was free, free as a baby bat should be. “Merry Christmas!” I called out to the little fella, and the words echoed: “Merry Christmas, Merry Christmas, Merry Christmas.” Not quite sure if the words were mine, Echo’s, or those of my new friends in the lot, I offered just a few more: “Peace on Earth. Goodwill to all!”
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