I watch the full grocery cart as it all but runs away from the dark little bow-legged old woman in the Whole Foods parking lot.  Her low braid dances down her back as she hurtles behind it.  She is rolling it to a car, w-a-a-y over there as indicated  by the broad wave of an arm, the one with the key — the arm of the trim, contained woman directing her, whose voice can be heard through one, two, three lanes of cars.

The car owner, her hair gathered into a low ponytail colonial style, minus a ribbon, needs color. Gray tufts at her hairline overwhelm the dark honey tint, turning it harsh and brittle. She has taken the trouble to tease the crown of her head, but possibly not this morning. She is a lady, even if a little off.

She thinks she is chattering for the sake of the elderly Indian woman, but it seems to me that it is really for herself, to make the vast gulf between them and the awkwardness she feels about the deal they have struck a little easier to endure. She takes it as a point of honor that she is a person who is kind to her inferiors.  The chatter belies her contempt.

She is babbling on to level the field, to push away feelings that make her squirm. We are the same, she wants to communicate, although neither believes it.  Within the terms of this brief transaction, there is little common ground with this worker:  older and poorer than she, probably thankful to have a job although exhausted by it, weary from the labor and long hours and the two buses it takes to get to this rich neighborhood where she racks up shopping carts and takes bags to cars.  She doesn’t answer.

The first woman’s  prattle embarrasses me, imagining as I do how little it soothes the worker and how flummoxed, how uncomfortable she might feel being spoken to like this.

Having reached the car, the owner pushes a button on her key set to pop the trunk. Then she stands by as the worker lifts the heavy bags and places them into the trunk, with nowhere to put her discomfiture. The lady grabs one or two and puts them in, smiling fetchingly as if to show her they are a team. She hands her a tip, with an overblown expression of gratitude. The Indian turns, impassively, and pushes the empty cart back up to the store.

Shelley Singer lives in Bethesda, Maryland and Manhattan. She graduated from NYU in 1970 and earned an M.A. in French Literature from The George Washington University. After several years in book publishing, she launched an event management company that became her work for over twenty-five years, first in New York and then in the DC metro area. She has been writing, quietly, for a long time. Now things are starting to get louder.

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