Re-Entry

Wayne stands in line at the service desk of his local box store. He bounces from heel to toe as he waits and fidgets with his mask, then remembers he shouldn’t touch it and rests his hand at his side.

The lone woman working the service desk chomps gum (perhaps thinking her mask hides it?) and leans toward the plexiglass nodding as the woman at the window drones on. Service Desk Lady’s eyes are obscured by the glare off her glasses and then the glare off the plexiglass partition.

Canned Christmas music blares down from overhead. Carts jangle across the inlaid bricks in the produce section behind him, and towering pyramids of fake Christmas presents and huge ornament balls glitter and sparkle at the end of every register aisle— each of which is full of people.

Christmas Eve, Wayne thinks—if he were a dog, his ears would roll back in alarm and annoyance. Why did I put it off until Christmas Eve?

His neighbor, harried by a week of Christmas festivities and the need to pack before her trip to join her family, mentioned earlier in the week that she needed town trash bags. At the time, Wayne thought: Oh! I could get those for her. But then one day rolled into the next day and then the next. Wayne only recalled his intention after opening his own cupboard this morning to pull out the last of HIS town trash bags.

Just as the Chatter leaves the window and the near-sighted Service Desk Lady looks up to call Wayne forward, someone barrels by with a cart and tweaks Wayne on the hip.

“Ouch!— Hey!” he pirouettes, but the hit-and-run artist disappears into the press of people milling among the baked goods.

Wayne eyes one man, who is double-masked and wearing sunglasses and a ball cap, with some suspicion. He approaches the service desk rubbing his hip.

“Should have got a plate number,” says the Service Desk Lady.

“What’s that?” Wayne shouts as if hard of hearing, but really he just hates to repeat himself. Unfortunately, the masks and plexiglass have made repeating himself a permanent condition.

“You should have gotten a plate number!” The woman tilts her head as if to look out of the bottom of her glasses, and Wayne sees that her lenses are completely fogged up. She blinks at him from shadow eyes.

“Yeah, well…” he rubs again at the tweaked hip. It doesn’t hurt, but he’ll make a show of it anyways so that that masked bandit can see. “Two rolls of the city trash bags, please! The large ones!” He pantomimes something expansive lest the plastic and the cheerful tunes from overhead (and those awful rickety carts on the bricks in produce) swallow up his words.

“Sure thing!” says Service Desk Lady with far too much enthusiasm. She ducks down and disappears below the countertop.

Wayne casts a glance over his shoulder toward the bakery where his attacker vanished. One lone lady— brazenly unmasked— glares at him, perhaps concerned he is staring at her readying to police her violation. Wayne shrugs at her and turns back to the counter as Service Desk Lady reappears and pushes two bundles of neon blue bags across the counter toward him.

“Forty-five dollars,” she says.

“Hmm.” Wayne punches his card into the reader and spears the key pad with a thick finger. He is suddenly annoyed that he forgot his neighbor’s bags would cost money.

“I really like your mask!” says Service Desk Lady.

Wayne raises bushy eyebrows and touches the mask again, trying to remember which one it is. Donuts, he thinks. Blue donut mask. “Thanks,” he says, grabbing the rolls of bags. “Have a Merry Christmas.”

The woman’s shadowy eyes crescent behind the fog of her glasses. “Happy Holidays.”

Wayne wanders with starts and stops back through the front of the store. He weaves his way through the waves of cart-bearing humanity as they all try to squeeze through the one tiny exit door. Released to the cold outside, he passes the Salvation Army kettle and the bell ringer with her one glassy eye. She rings the bell against her pant leg and says, “Merry Christmas” at ten second intervals regardless of whether anyone new has appeared or not.

Feeling good about his own Good Samaritan-ness, Wayne decides he should add to his account and fishes a few rumpled dollars out of his coat pocket.

“Thank you,” the Bell Ringer says. “Merry Christmas.”

“Merry Christmas!”

Good gravy, before he knows it, he’ll be as pointlessly enthusiastic as the woman at the service desk. But it isn’t every day anymore that Wayne gets out of the house, and today the sun shines, the weather is warm enough to unbutton his coat— he’s no longer in debt to his neighbor for the cookies she made him over the weekend.

He whistles to himself as he strolls with the crowd between stopped cars and flustered looking cart attendants. Down the aisle, someone lays on their horn as someone else swings into a contested empty parking spot.

“Putz,” Wayne says, pulling his mask off as he nears the rear of his own parked car.

A sleek, black Tahoe has pulled into the spot next to him while he was inside, and the driver of the over-inflated beast has left only a sliver of room alongside Wayne’s driver’s door. He squints for a moment down the length of both vehicles and grumbles to himself: “If you can’t park it— Grr—Grr—Grr— People can’t even have a little common curt— Oh hell!”

He gives up trying to sidle between the cars and rounds over to his passenger side. He wrenches open the door and folds himself inside, pretzels one leg over the gear shift, bends his neck double while pressing the side of his face against the roof and wedging his butt along the center console. He stays here for a moment breathing hard and looking like a contortionist. With a small push, he bumps down into the seat with a jolt and pretzels his other leg up and over the gear shift.

Wayne sits puffing for a moment staring out the windshield at a blue-white winter sky.

“Christmas Eve,” he growls to himself as he tugs out his seatbelt and discovers his car keys deep in his pants’ pocket.

The Tahoe blocks his view of traffic coming from the upper part of the parking lot, so he sits for a moment watching car after car pass in either direction.

“Stupid Christmas Eve traffic… Such a dumb idea.”

Finally, a break comes and Wayne inches the car out of the spot. He clears the Tahoe and looks to see if anyone is still coming. A white truck at the top of the aisle taps on its horn, and the driver frowns at him as he continues to drive by.

Wayne waves. “By all means, sir… Leave me half hanging out, blocking traffic from the OTHER direction. I mean, you’re only one car, and there are three waiting for me on the other side. But by all means. Your roast turkey awaits you, you impatient moron.”

Straightening out in the aisle, Wayne thinks of the smile he will get from his neighbor for this Christmas kindness. He won’t owe her anymore for the cookies, but more than that— he will have come out of his COVID chrysalis and done something kind for someone— eased her week perhaps.

Wayne thinks all of this while creeping along the aisle, and he doesn’t notice a reddish Subaru with it’s backup lights lit until the nose of his car passes the rear of the other car. Only as he draws even with the car does he see in his peripheral vision that they are backing up. He has half a second to think: “That car is—” before thunk!

And then he thinks: “Did that really just happen?”

By the time he realizes IT DID HAPPEN, he is ten parking spots away. He stops, puts his own car into reverse, traverses three spots, thinks better of it, pulls his parking brake, and hits the button for his hazard lights. He hops out and circles his car, ignoring for the moment the slack-jawed indignant expression of the long-haired, knit-cap wearing bozo who just backed into him standing at the rear of his own Subaru.

 Surprisingly, Wayne’s rear quarter panel only looks dirty; it doesn’t even look scratched.

“Boy’s pretty lucky,” he grumbles and turns to approach the other man. “You all right?”

The slack-jaw retracts itself, and the man’s eyes beneath the fringe and cap shift uneasily. “Well, a scratch— I think.” He rubs at the offending bumper. “Maybe a dent there.”

Wayne frowns at the spot where the Subaru has taken away some of his white paint. “Well, we probably ought to exchange insurance. Wait a minute. Let me get my car out of the way.”

Wayne moves his car into yet another parking spot, and as he rifles through his glove box, it occurs to him: How cliche! Getting hit in the parking lot on Christmas Eve. This is exactly why he avoids all stores on days like today. He doesn’t know what he was thinking.

Wayne carries his insurance card back toward the boy who stands at the bumper of his car flipping through his phone. Wayne sees that the kid hasn’t bothered to pull the car back into the space but has left it hanging out in the aisle so that passing cars and people have to dip into the busy opposite lane.

If Wayne were a dog, he would lay his ears back in annoyance.

“What’s the best way to do this then?” Wayne says, conscious of the minutes spinning past him now as drivers move by flashing glares out their windows. “You have a pen? I don’t seem to have a pen.” He jangles through his pockets and fishes out his phone. “How about a picture? Let’s just take a picture of each other’s cards.”

Knit-cap Man looks up, distracted and harried. “I can’t find my current cards,” he says.

Oh great. “Listen, kid. I don’t care. Let me take a pic of whatever you’ve got now. You can send me the current ones later. I’ll give you my phone number. This isn’t a good day for me to get bumped into in the parking lot.”

Knit-cap Man’s eyes flash up against Wayne’s face for the first time, and a cold gleam slithers beneath his feathery mane. “You mean, it’s not a good day for you to be HITTING someone in the parking lot.”

Wayne lowers his brandished phone and snorts. He then draws himself up to his full height (which is more than Knit-cap Man’s height), and he gives the long-haired sniveler a look that would wither grass.

“I don’t know if you know anything about traffic laws, but those driving down the center aisle have the right-of-way. It is therefore your responsibility, as someone backing OUT of a parking space, to make sure no one is BEHIND you. Now! If you had had your butt wiggling out of the spot as it is now and I had struck you with the FRONT of my car, THEN you could have license to say that I hit you. HOWEVER you were not backing out of your spot until I was behind you, which tells me you didn’t look. And if you DID look, then you hit me with malicious intent, which could be interpreted as reckless endangerment. 

“Now, look at the mark on your car, and look at the mark on my car and tell me which judge or jury is going to be convinced by those points of impact that I HIT YOU?”

Knit-cap Man blinks at Wayne with all the surprise of an owl and none of the wisdom.

“Give me your damn insurance card,” Wayne growls.

The kid hands the slip of paper over without a word.

“Is that your cell phone number?”

“Yes.”

“I’ll text you my card… Make sure you look behind you.”

Wayne glowers as he returns to his car and slams himself into the driver’s seat. The two neon blue rolls of town trash bags glisten in the weak gleam of the winter sun on the passenger seat beside him.

Wayne rolls his eyes, snaps himself into his seatbelt, and tries again to leave the pandemonium of the parking lot. He doesn’t breathe again until he drives up the hill and parks in his driveway. He takes a moment to sit and frown at the front of his house. He thinks of picking up the extra roll of town trash bags and chucking it onto his neighbor’s front porch like a newspaper.

Merry Christmas! Don’t bake me cookies. 

Wayne sighs instead and picks up one of the rolls. He trudges across their front yards and creaks up her wooden front steps. He taps his usual pattern into her video doorbell even though it only ever rings once. (Darn it.)

It takes about thirty seconds for the girl to come to her front door. She smiles through the storm door at him and cracks it open. “Wayne! What are you up to?”

“Just brought these over.” He waves the trash bags.

Her smile dims in confusion.

“I remember you said you were out.”

“Oh?… Oh! Right! Well, that’s really kind of you. I picked up more during the week though so you didn’t need to do that. But thank you.”

Wayne feels all of his optimism drain through to his toes ad out all over the porch boards. He thinks of the cookies and the parking lot and the craziness inside the store. He has no wish to go through any of that again to fix his balances. He shoves the rolls at her.

“Well, here then. You’ll be stocked for the whole year.”

His neighbor spots the glint in his eye and decides it would be silly to argue. She accepts the bag with a smile. “Well, that’s very sweet of you, Wayne.”

“For those,” Wayne says, “I was like a salmon swimming up the river of sweetness.”

His neighbor raises her brows in question.

“Merry Christmas,” Wayne says. “Enjoy your trip.” He slumps down the creaky front steps and thinks how nice it will be to not have her staring out at him for a week.

He crosses his yard and draws the door shut to his COVID chrysalis once again.

©️ 2022 Katie Baker


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