Sally took a quick look at her watch. She couldn’t remember why she had volunteered to take this extra shift. Right now, she felt like she had been standing here behind her register for an eternity. The conveyor belt was relentless in its demand of her time and energy. Ring it up, bag it up, take the money, made the change, hand off the receipt, then do it all again. It was hard to keep smiling. Her back hurt, her feet hurt, her head hurt, but with Christmas so close, this would go on for hours, days, maybe forever.
Children were tired and cranky. Why were they here at this time of night? Shouldn’t they be home tucked in bed? When her children were that age, she made sure they got to bed on time. They needed their rest. She needed her rest. Looking at the eyes of the parents, she thought they needed their rest. So why don’t they go home and get their rest, their children’s rest? They should be glad they had children that needed rest. Sometimes she wanted to tell them how lucky they were. She wouldn’t though. She was just the old woman at the cash register. What did she know?
Occasionally there came the teenager, trying to be much older than her years. She’d be accompanied by a boy fighting that same battle. Too young in years and too old in experience of life’s blows. They never looked her in the eyes but seemed to be watching everything and everyone around them. She knew they were hiding some items they hoped to get out of the store without paying or being caught. It was always hard for her to press the button under the counter to alert security. But if she didn’t things in their lives could get a lot worse. Maybe this was their first time and they would realize how bad a path they had began walking. Maybe not. Maybe there was more to their story, but she couldn’t ask and to be honest didn’t want to know. It would be just one more burden for her to carry and she already had enough to last her lifetime.
She could tell the ones who had found the perfect gift, their excitement, the sparkle in their eye, the warm smile they gave her as they watched the electronic eye tally their items. She wished she could actually feel some of their warmth, their joy. Maybe as she slipped their precious items into the bag, it would magically infuse her tired body. But sadly, that never happened. Their happy voices as they wished her a Merry Christmas helped a little. And her answering reply was truly meant.
Sometimes the grumpy father dug out his wallet with obvious disagreement with the choices the children had made for their mother and their friends. The best part though was when they insisted, he turn around while they quickly added one more item and indicated it should be bagged separately and quickly. Their dancing eyes and giggles showed the importance of this gift. She quickly double bagged the item and made sure it was handed to the oldest girl with a wink. That helped the hands of the clock jump forward.
Once in a while there came the ones that tore at her heart. The kids with the one special gift for a parent not with them. They carefully counted out their pennies, nickels and dimes and when they nearly cried as the total on the register was just a few cents more than what they had, she gave them a wink and slipped the extra coins out of the pocket she kept filled for just that reason. These gifts were the important ones, not very big, but so full of love. She hoped the parent receiving that gift knew how special it was. Something to be treasured always to be held not just in their hands, but in their heart. Something to hang onto forever.
And there were the women who came through the line dressed to be warm, not fashionable. Their few items showing small circle of family and friends in their life. Their gnarled fingers slowly pulling the wrinkled dollars from their grubby coin purse. Taking their time to carefully count out the exact change. They ignored the impatient grumbles behind them. So did Sally. She smiled and gave them the warmest smile she had in her tonight. She knew they wouldn’t have that many more shopping days left, not just for this Christmas, but in the future.
Next would come the impatient, snarling husband and wife. Neither happy with what they were buying nor who the gifts were for. To them this was just a unwanted break in their rush to climb the ladders of success. Their hurry that didn’t give time to stop and take a breath and see what they were missing in their speeding down life’s fast lane. Looking at their purchases, she could tell, there was some family, even a child or two, but these gifts were about money, not love and caring. Sally knew they would be beautifully wrapped and put on display beneath a gorgeous tree, like something out of a magazine picture. And there would be just as much love as that flat picture held. She would be willing to bet; the celebration did not last into the evening. There would be other more important things to be done. And they would never realize they were losing the most precious gift of all.
Her own shopping was already finished. Not much to it now days. No kids, no husband, only a couple of friends. That’s why she had taken this job in the first place. Something to fill her days; her mind. Instead of all the anger and loneliness. She had made her choices, and this was one of them. She would stand here and work the extra shift, so those with a home filled with family could have the evening off. It was a small price to pay. A very small price. She owed so much more than one evening behind the cash register. And there was no way she would ever be able to pay it all.