Bike Lady

Note: I wrote this a long time ago, forgot about it, then found it last week when I was going through some folders on my computer. It never got published anywhere but I still kind of like it, so here you go.

Photo: “Endless Winter” by Chuddlesworth on Flickr

The woman with the baby doll in her bicycle basket was possessed, that’s what Sharon said, every time she saw her wheeling up to the automatic doors under the Big Y sign. “Possessed!” Sharon hissed. “Satan!” She held her pointer fingers against her forehead.

I didn’t believe her. Not for any specific reason. I just thought she was wrong about the woman being possessed. What would Satan want with a lumpy woman in sneakers and a sweatshirt? Sharon watched the woman’s back as she shopped and I ignored both of them, straightening the cash in my register. This made Sharon furious, so we stood in silence while the woman handed me some crumpled bills and took her bag of canned peas, milk and bananas and left. Tension lingered in her wake until the Muzak version of “I Want It That Way” came on the speakers, making us laugh.

One night I asked my father what he knew about the woman with the baby doll in her bicycle basket. He was washing the supper dishes and he hitched his shoulders up toward his ears. Dunno. What was there to know? She rode a bike. There was a baby doll strapped inside the basket. The doll had been faded by the sun and its blank blue eyes were open. Everyone knew that. No one knew anything else. The woman had always been there on her bike with her doll. She was like the river and the smoke from the chimneys and the clouds over the mountains and the weather in October; she slipped past and was gone. What was there to say? There she is again.

“She killed her baby,” Sharon told me the next time the woman pedaled through the leaves blowing across the Big Y parking lot, a slow day after the Thanksgiving rush. “She murdered it. Her hands were covered in blood and she ran down Oak Street past the library, screaming. Satan made her do it. This was like thirty years ago.”

I rubbed the toe of my sneaker along an ancient stain on the floor.

“Satan,” Sharon repeated. “One of the librarians was working late shelving books and saw her running. Blood dripping all over the place. That’s what I heard.”

The doors slid open. The woman didn’t bother looking at us, even though at three in the afternoon we were the only people working the front of the store and no one else was shopping except a couple of old men squinting at cans of soup. She shuffled over to the bananas. Sharon watched.

“Stop staring,” I said.

“I don’t trust her.”

“Come on.”

“You don’t know anything about people and what they can do.”

“It’s your turn to ring her up,” I reminded her. “I did it last time.”

When the woman headed toward the checkout, with a bunch of bananas in one hand and a loaf of bread in the other, Sharon flashed a big smile. “Sorry, I’m going on break,” she said, “but that register’s open,” pointing to me. The woman changed course, veering left around the magazine rack, and I heard Sharon’s keys jingle as she fumbled with her cash drawer. “Be right back,” she chirped, waving her Newports and her lighter over her head.

When the winter came in full force the bike lady’s trips to the grocery store were less frequent. If there had been a storm, if the roads were coated with ice, we might go a week and a half without seeing her, and sometimes when she came she bought three packs of tuna instead of one. Because the baby doll occupied the front basket she had fashioned panniers for the sides of the bike. These were made of mismatched backpacks secured with bungee cords and they made the bike wobble as she rode through the snow, especially when they were laden with groceries. I worried she might capsize.

Sharon saw me standing by the front windows. “Stop staring,” she said.


The store was busy at Christmas and again at New Year’s (frozen turkeys, stuffing mix, cans of ham). There was a blizzard and the whole world piled up, the mountains white mounds, the clouds white mounds, the roofs white mounds, the drifts. My father carried extra wood from the shed and woke half an hour early so he could give the car time to start.

Sharon was ecstatic because her boyfriend Steve had managed to save enough money for a ring, after all those months of ultimatums. He made the presentation on the first day of the new year, in front of her mother, her brother and her brother’s friend Jeff, and everyone applauded and drank a toast with sparkling wine. Sharon began bringing books of baby names to work, to plan ahead. She read the names out loud, twisting the diamond chip around her finger.

“Alanna,” she said. “Alexa. I like that. Alice. Alicia. Alison. Alyssa. Amanda.”

“Oats,” I said. “Sugar. Canola oil. Maltodextrin. Corn syrup. Lecithin.”

“Shut up.” She grabbed the granola bar. “Fine.”

The doors dinged and let in a gust of cold air. The woman had pulled her bicycle under the overhang where the shopping carts waited. I caught the baby doll’s mute gaze. The sky was spitting snow.

Sharon craned her neck. “Don’t start,” I told her.

“If I get pregnant,” Sharon said. “When I get pregnant. When I have my baby, which will probably be a year after the wedding, I’m not going to bring it in here. I don’t want her to see me with a real baby. She might kill me. Or it. Kill us both from rage.”

“I don’t think so.”

“No?”

“No.”

“Yeah, well, you can’t be too careful.” She pushed the book onto a shelf.

The woman was walking toward us in her winter gear, sweatpants tucked into mud boots, a blaze orange beanie that hid most of her weathered hair. A long time ago Sharon and I had agreed to take turns ringing up her purchases, but this rule kept getting broken. I had done it the past six times. Once again Sharon was crouched below her station, rummaging through the vinyl deposit bags and the clipped coupons. I could tell she was faking.

“Sharon,” I said, and it was too late, the woman was unloading her groceries onto my conveyor. Cans of tuna, carrots, a jumbo jar of store-brand peanut butter, white bread. I did my usual. “Hi, do you have a Big Y savings card?”

The woman fished her card from a zipper pocket in her parka. I swiped it and passed it back to her. She never met my eyes, exactly, but she also never looked very far away. Her lips were thin and chapped and set in a thin line that meant nothing. It made me nervous.

“Thanks,” I said. “Any coupons today?”

She shook her head. I knew that, but I had to ask.

“Your total today is thirteen-oh-four.” Sharon had surfaced. She was trying to make me crack up, crossing her eyes and making pig snouts.

The woman counted the bills one at a time. She took off her gloves and rested them on the check-signing ledge, and it occurred to me that her hands were old but not frail, sturdy, strong and capable. Then I thought, capable of what?

“Ninety-six cents is your change,” I said, and she stretched out her palm to receive the coins. “Twenty-five, fifty, seventy-five, eighty-five, ninety-five, ninety-six.” I counted loud and slow, to spare her the trouble of doing it again when I was done.

The woman pocketed the change and wrestled with her gloves, the bag dangling from her forearm. To avoid the awkwardness of watching her I turned back to my register and put bands on the ones. By the time I told her to have a nice day the woman was already at the door and Sharon was moonwalking past the bottle return, sticking out her tongue.


Spring started strange, icy and uncertain. Some years the thaw comes fast and the air softens in a day, the sun dropping down like a cartoon. That year the snow lingered too long. It melted in the rain then froze into a thick crust, the trees bent into black slashes overhead. My father had started working a late shift at the plant, so instead of riding in with him I walked to the supermarket alone, carrying my purse in a plastic bag in case it rained. I walked on the shoulders when there wasn’t sidewalk, or I tried to, but the roads were still lined with heaps of leftover snow, brown sand and dead leaves and twigs pushed in by the plows. When I walked on the pavement most people swerved to avoid spraying slush on me, most of the time.

Sharon’s register was a mess. The assistant store manager pulled her aside one day and said she had to clean it up or else. She had dozens of bridal magazines and baby books stacked on the shelves where the employee manuals were supposed to go, but sometimes she forgot and left them on her conveyor. She stole the orange PAID stickers we put on bulky items and used them to mark pictures of dresses. After the assistant store manager finished growling at her in the corner by the clearance candy, Sharon came back to her register and picked up a magazine like nothing had happened.

“You all right?” I asked after a minute.

“You can be in it,” Sharon said, not looking up from the page. She was fiddling with her ring again. The diamond was like the tip of an icicle melting.

“In what?”

“The wedding. I need bridesmaids.”

I tried to imagine Sharon in a white gown instead of a maroon apron and tan pants, walking down the aisle of the First Methodist Church, her face covered with a veil. I couldn’t picture her without her hair pulled back. Since third grade she’d had that ponytail. “Okay.”

“I’m picking out your dress, though. I get to decide what the bridesmaids wear. You and my cousin Ashley.”

“Sure.” I didn’t know if I was supposed to thank her or if she was supposed to thank me. I figured I should err on the side of politeness. “Thank you.”

“Whatever,” she said.


By the time the ground was bare all the cars in town were camouflaged with mud and bleached with salt. The floor at the Big Y was disgusting, no matter how many times we mopped. The stupid assistant store manager put up signs with a mopping schedule, every hour on the hour, everyone’s names listed in rotation. Even Jim the butcher, who only left his workstation in the back to smoke, had to mop. When we mopped we put yellow plastic triangles along the aisles, CAUTION WET FLOOR, a cartoon picture of a man falling backwards with his legs in the air.

I was on mop duty late one night, the last mop before closing, fifteen minutes left so no customers to get in the way, just me and Sharon locking up. I was finishing the corners along the dairy cases when I heard a scream and something crashing to the ground. I dropped the mop by the yogurt and ran. When I got to the front I saw Sharon hugging the bike lady’s chest from behind, pulling her away from the candy rack that had fallen. At first I thought she was doing the Heimlich. Then I realized the woman was trying to free herself, her hands clawing at Sharon’s wrists.

“Police!” Sharon yelled. “Call the police!”

The woman’s hat had been pushed back in the scuffle and her hair stuck up everywhere. Sharon had done it, she’d finally done it. For weeks she’d been saying she wished she could catch the bike lady confessing to her crime. All she had to do was overhear something that might count as an admission of guilt. She could make a citizen’s arrest. Sharon and Steve watched a lot of cop shows.

“Jesus Christ,” Sharon said. “Stop standing there. She’s shoplifting. Call the police. Hurry up!”

There were two candy bars on the floor at the woman’s feet. I bent down and picked them up. PayDay, Almond Joy. I lifted the rack back where it belonged. The woman stopped struggling. Her chest moved up and down but her face seemed stuck.

“Is that all you took?” I asked. My voice surprised me, how crackly it sounded.

The woman nodded.

“Let her go, Sharon. Come on.”

“No! You have to check her pockets.”

I reached over and patted one blue parka pocket, then the other. Something soft. A wad of tissues. “She doesn’t have anything,” I said. I couldn’t look up. It was bad enough that I felt her breath on my neck.

“Pants pockets,” Sharon said. I jerked her elbow, hard, and she let go.

I half expected the woman to bolt, to run through the automatic doors and into the night, but she didn’t. She shuffled out like she always did, as if nothing had happened. I heard the clank of the chain as she rode across the parking lot.

Sharon smacked my shoulder. “What the hell?”

All of a sudden I was so exhausted I couldn’t think straight. “Let’s just lock up and get out of here.”

“Are you fucking crazy? She could’ve robbed us blind. She could’ve had a gun.”

“I don’t think so.”

“She could’ve killed us.” Sharon’s eyes were bugging right out. “She’s an insane person. She should be put away. We’re in here alone with a crazy murderer shoplifting in front of us, and you act like it’s nothing. What is wrong with you?”

I didn’t say anything. I walked back to the dairy case and picked up the mop. We finished closing in silence, the music turned off.

Outside Sharon pulled a pack of cigarettes from her purse and lit one while I punched in the security codes. She turned away from me and waited, her left arm tight across her stomach. I took my time with the alarm panel, checking it twice, watching for the light to go from green to red. When it beeped Sharon started toward her car, trailing smoke, walking fast. She didn’t look back to see where I was going, and she didn’t offer me a ride.


We never talked about the bike lady shoplifting. We didn’t tell the assistant store manager or anybody else. I knew what had happened, but after a while I couldn’t think of a reason to remember.

I was glad Sharon had the wedding on her mind because it was an easy topic of conversation, a stream that never ran dry. On her day off she had seen a show about budget weddings. It gave her ideas. She was making her mother sew tiny lace bags for guest favors. “You get a tub of potpourri,” she told me. “Then you fill the bags and tie them with ribbon. She got three yards of lace for four bucks at the fabric store.”

“That’s nice,” I said. “It’s nice of your mom to do all that for you.”

Sharon rolled her eyes. “Well, who else is gonna do it? Steve’s dad’s stupid girlfriend? My brother? That’s what moms are for.”

“I guess. I don’t know.”

“Oh, my God.” She covered her mouth. “I’m so sorry. I forgot. I mean I wasn’t thinking. Are you mad?”

“Don’t worry about it.”

“Oh God.” Sharon came around to my register. For a second I thought she was going to hug me, but instead she leaned on the conveyor. “Listen, when you get married, I’ll make the favors. I’ll help you try on dresses and pick colors. I promise. That’s a promise, okay?” Her face was solemn, like something important was happening.

“Okay,” I said. “Thanks.”

“I promise,” she said, patting her name tag. “I never go back on promises.”


One Tuesday afternoon we’d rearranged shifts, so Jeremy came to take my station as soon as he got out of school. Jeremy wore oval-shaped glasses with thin wire rims and had black hoops dangling from his ears. He was sweet, I liked him. Sharon said she’d heard he hung out with some kids who performed bizarre rituals in the overgrowth behind the abandoned lot where Sullivan Tire used to be. When he stepped aside to let me leave the register I could see a thin white film of pimple cream across his chin.

I’d picked up a box of spaghetti from aisle three and a jar of sauce from aisle six — customers complained that we didn’t keep spaghetti and sauce in the same aisle, but they’d always been separate, ever since anyone could remember — and as soon as I got home I put a pot of water on to boil. When I heard voices on the television I knew my father had woken from his nap. We served ourselves and moved to the living room without turning on the lights.

I had overcooked the pasta but not by too much.

“How’s the store?” My father kept his eyes on the screen.

“Not bad,” I said. “It’s fine.”

“They still giving you the hours you want?”

“Pretty much.” He made a sound, at me or the man who was reading the scores.

“Sharon’s getting married,” I said. “At the end of August. I’m in the wedding.”

“The Morrissette girl?”

“Yeah.”

The sauce left watery pools on my plate. I decided when my father went out to work I’d see if there was a movie on. Maybe something funny.

“I’ve been meaning to tell you,” he said. “There’ll be some spots opening up at work in the fall. Not many. I can put your name in.”

“Oh wow,” I said, and I thought about the big Lockwood plant in the center of town, the shadow it threw across the street, its rows of narrow windows and the loading docks pocked with black gum marks and cigarette butts. I’d been inside with my father when I was little but I didn’t remember much except the noise and the mint-green metal stairs that shook when you climbed them. I remembered watching the heels of his boots as he jogged ahead of me.

He put his fork down. “Think about it. You get in the union. You got some security, as long as they keep the place going.”

People on the television were cheering. I couldn’t tell if it was a game or a commercial. My father stood and yawned, took his plate into the kitchen and let it clatter in the sink. “Think about it,” he said again, and a few minutes later the door closed behind him.


Once the details of the wedding were in place — the church, the favors, me and Ashley in mint-green dresses made by Ashley’s mother from a specialty catalog pattern — Sharon seemed calmer, more focused. She gathered all the magazines from under her register and put them out with the trash. She wasn’t asking for gifts, she said, because Steve lived in an apartment over his dad’s garage and it was small so there was no point trying to fit more things in it. They could wait for the dishes and casserole pans until they found a bigger place, which would be soon because she didn’t want to delay the pregnancy.

“The thing is,” she said one night while we were locking up, “if I can get both babies out of the way by the time I’m twenty-five, my body will bounce back. If you put it off till you’re older you stay saggy forever. My mom didn’t have my brother until she was twenty-nine so believe me I’ve seen what happens. Besides, if I’m done at twenty-five I’ll still have my whole life ahead of me.”

That night after Sharon dropped me off at home I tried to calculate how old my mother had been when I was born. Her last birthday was thirty-eight, or was it thirty-seven? I was nine but then I turned ten. Thirty-seven minus ten, or nine. Or thirty-eight. Which? I knew we had a Bible with her newspaper notice folded inside but it wasn’t on the bookshelf, and I did not want to dig through all the cabinets and junk drawers.

The next day Sharon didn’t come to work and there was no one at her house when the assistant store manager called, wheezing fury into the answering machine. Jeremy ditched his last period class to come in early, which I thought technically might have been an illegal request on the part of the assistant store manager, but I was not about to be the one who said so. The day after that Sharon was an hour late for the morning open, and when she finally showed up and unlocked her register, she slammed the cash drawer so hard it almost broke.

Steve was in jail. He’d been on probation after fighting with his ex-girlfriend, the one with whom he’d cheated on Sharon last summer. Sharon had known about the cheating but not the probation, because according to Steve the ex-girlfriend was gone, moved to Florida with her new boyfriend. This was sort of true, in that the ex-girlfriend was planning a move to Florida with her new boyfriend in the spring, but she had spent the entire winter at her sister’s place in Albion, just thirty-five minutes away, and one night she and Steve had an encounter that led to screaming that led to a punch being thrown that led to fourteen hours in jail; that was the weekend Steve had told Sharon he was in Greenfield helping his buddy whose truck broke down.

All of which meant that the odds were stacked against Steve the night before, when after several hours of drinking at the Eagle he tried to unlock his car door and got angry at a friend who tried to stop him. Two cops were circling the block in a patrol car, probably waiting to pick up anybody they didn’t like the looks of, and sure enough there’s Steve landing a punch. In the end it took a backup patrol to wrestle him into the cruiser. Shards of glass still lay scattered across the cracked blacktop behind the Eagle.

Sharon recited these facts in rush. She did not seem frightened or sad but there were circles under her eyes like she hadn’t slept or she hadn’t washed off her mascara or both. “He only got one call,” she said. “Just like on TV.”

“He called you?”

Tears dripped into the corners of her mouth. “He called Tony, and Tony called his brother and his brother called his dad and his dad called me.” She gulped a long, shuddering breath.

“He’ll get out,” I said. “Right?”

“I guess. They have to get him a lawyer. It’s the law.”

The assistant store manager walked by and Sharon turned so he wouldn’t see her crying.

“Well, look who decided to come in today,” he said.

“She was sick,” I told him. “You can’t be handling people’s food if you’re sick.”

He kept walking. “You can’t be keeping your job if you don’t call in when you’re sick.”

When it was time for our break we went outside and sat on the curb by the soda machines. “Want a drink?” I asked. I got up and bought us Pepsis, regular for me and diet for her, because of the wedding dress.

It was eleven and a few cars drifted into the parking lot, people who came to shop after the first shift, people who needed something to do after the momentum of waking up had worn off.

The real light felt good on my skin after the fluorescents in the store. If it weren’t for the abnormality of Sharon not talking, it would’ve been a perfect day, that boundless almost-summer kind of day that makes you think that maybe anything could happen.

We watched as a woman towed three children into the dollar store across the street, the only place left in the little strip mall that used to have a pizza place and a video store and a laundromat. I could hear one of them crying.

Sharon twisted the ring around her finger. “Do you think it’s even real? I bet it’s a fucking zirconium. I bet that’s all I’m worth to him.”

I took a swig of Pepsi so I wouldn’t have to answer right away.

“Those fucking cops.” She threw her cigarette butt onto the pavement. “They could be out looking for actual criminals. Rapists. Murderers. People who steal from stores, for example. But they’re too lazy. They’d rather drive in circles downtown trying to make a big deal out of nothing. A stupid fight outside a bar.”

“Yeah.”

“What about the guy who sells pot out of his car on River Street? You know the guy I mean?”

“Yeah.”

“Everybody knows that guy. Why aren’t they arresting him? Maybe he pays them off.”

“Maybe they buy pot from him too.”

She laughed for the first time all morning. “Yeah. They do. That’s why they always want doughnuts.”

I laughed too.

“Someone should arrest the cops,” she said. “Arrest them for ruining my life.”


When Steve got out of jail he hitched a ride to the Greyhound station and bought a ticket to Florida so he could find his ex-girlfriend — to apologize, he claimed later, to clear up the original misunderstanding that had been festering since the winter. He’d had time to think in the forty-eight hours it took for his cousins to obtain bail money by pawning a motorcycle and leaning on their grandmother. It was the right thing to do, to go in person and ask forgiveness. That’s what he told Sharon when he called her from a payphone in North Carolina, and then he said he was sorry, he would call from Florida, he had to go because the bus was leaving the rest stop soon. “I love you,” she said, but he had already hung up. That was the last she heard from him. If his relatives knew where he was, they said nothing, and eventually she stopped asking.

I thought of Steve every time I walked past the refrigerator case, the orange juice cartons printed with bright fruit under smiling suns. Maybe he had found work in an orange juice plant. Maybe he was pulling a lever that squeezed oranges that made juice that got funneled into a carton and rode north on a truck all the way to Massachusetts. Maybe the sky in Florida was always turquoise, even in the winter.


Sharon stopped wearing the ring. I never tried to find out what happened to it but one day she said she’d sold it for a hundred and ten dollars, the most she was able to get for it. Apparently the band was not gold, only gold plated, and the diamond was real, but of an inferior grade. Her finger had looked strange with a ring and then it looked strange without a ring, and then it didn’t.

“The wedding got canceled,” I told my father one evening as he sat on the porch, smoking a cigarette and resting his eyes. “Sharon’s wedding that I was in.”

He nodded.

“Her fiancé ran off.”

He looked up. “Who was it?”

“Steve Boucher.”

“Mike Boucher’s kid?”

“Yeah.”

Smoke leaked from the sides of his mouth. “Not surprised.”

“It isn’t funny.”

“All right,” he said. He turned to reach for the ashtray and the curve of his shoulder in the gray t-shirt was so familiar it made me dizzy- I was six years old and the school bus was pulling away from the driveway, I was seven years old and my left shin was wet with blood, I was eight years old and there was a plastic angel on the Christmas tree, I was nine years old and he was alone at the kitchen table, oblivious.

He shifted in his lawn chair and lit another cigarette.

I went inside, mixed a glass of iced tea, came back to the porch.

“They’ll want to talk to you in a couple weeks,” he said.

“Who?”

“Guy who does hiring at the plant. I took care of it for you.”

“What about the Big Y?”

“If you get it, you can quit.” He pointed across the road in the general direction of the smokestacks. “But keep your mouth shut until you know for sure. If you start bragging about getting a new job, your boss’ll fire you, and then if you don’t get it, you’re screwed. No new job, no old job. You understand?”

“Okay,” I said. The iced tea was sweet and cold, a little gritty. The artificial lemon flavor made my teeth ache but I drank it down fast anyway.

“Okay,” he said. He stood up. “And don’t go in there cocky because you’re my kid. That only gets you so far. You have to do the rest yourself.”


And then it was summer, real summer, bugs buzzing in the morning summer, and the days stretched themselves out long and hot into evening shadows, and tourist cars sped through on their way to the lakes. Normally in good weather the bike lady came into the store once a week, most often Thursdays but sometimes Wednesdays. Sharon and I had stopped talking about her. We no longer played games about ringing her up. She bought frozen peas, ears of corn eight for two dollars, bananas, packs of cheese singles, loaves of sliced white bread; she pedaled slow loops around town with the baby doll’s plastic head gleaming in the sun, she ducked her chin down and never made conversation, she was just another customer. To say otherwise felt dangerous, not because I was afraid, but because the time for those stories had passed.

People stood in front of me with their jars of pickle spears and asked how I was and how my father was. They said isn’t the weather beautiful and thank God, at last, after that winter we had. They said we survived, as though we had been fighting a war. I did not tell anyone that I was waiting for a phone call from the plant. I knew Sharon could not keep secrets if she knew they were secret. When I changed the paper in my register I wondered if my fingers could forget how to thread the edge of the roll through the teeth.

Mr. Mitchell called on a Friday afternoon, just as I was opening the front door. I caught the phone before it stopped ringing and he asked if I could come in for an interview Monday, and I said yes. He said all right and I said thank you and then we hung up.

The next day I worked the afternoon shift with Sharon, and when I took the register Jeremy said it would be a quiet one, everybody had already come in that morning. Sharon took magazines from the racks and told me which celebrities were dating, which were getting married, which were getting divorced, which were getting back together. A little rush started, people who wanted to make supper and discovered they needed a few things, and we had to put the magazines away and bag chicken legs and coleslaw mix. Neither of us noticed that the bike lady had come in. She walked toward me with her basket, but I was ringing up Ms. Claudette from the beauty salon, and she had a fistful of coupons that had to be scanned one at a time.

Sharon’s line was empty.

“I can take you over here,” Sharon said.

The bike lady shuffled over, obedient.

Ms. Claudette was saying something about her garden and the lack of rain.

Sharon swiped the bike lady’s Big Y card.

I put bottles of barbecue sauce in a bag. I put the lettuce and mustard on top. I put the chips and hot dogs in another bag. The two-liter soda bottles I double-bagged. Ms. Claudette had pink fingernails with blue tips and a line of glitter down the middle. I said yes, we have been lucky, about the lack of rain.

“Your total today is nine forty-six,” Sharon was saying. The bike lady pulled two fives from her pocket. All Sharon had to do then was count two quarters and four pennies from the change compartments, but she did not turn toward the register, and the woman, waiting, looked up and directly into her eyes. I braced myself for the flash of animal fear or something resembling guilt. A betrayal of recognition, at least. Instead her expression was soft and helpless, her face as empty as the moon. Sharon rocked back on her heels and in a swift sickening moment I realized she could take off running, leaving the groceries unbagged and the cash drawer hanging open for me to close, a catastrophe I would have to acknowledge and explain.

“Sharon,” I said, trying to sound casual. I stifled an urge to leap over my register, spin her around and shake her. The woman’s gaze did not waver. Sharon did not run and she did not say anything. I held my breath but nothing happened, nothing at all, except the two of them stood locked in their unmoving silence for what seemed like a very long time, as though neither of them could break away, as though they would go on standing there forever, the conveyor sliding in its infinite loop between them.