So I’m in the supermarket, and I open the cooler to get some milk. I’m not a huge fan of the stuff, but it tastes good in my morning coffee. (Along with a generous splash of Irish whiskey. Mmm. Part of this nutritious breakfast.)
I reach for a carton in the very back, because the milk in back is freshest.
“Hey! Hey!” a voice yells from the back of the cooler. And all of a sudden a gloved hand grabs my wrist, yanking me forward. My nose hits the cooler’s top shelf, and my glasses break in half. (Which sucks for me, because now I can’t read the expiration dates on all those cartons of milk.)
“What do you think you’re doing?” the voice snarls.
I squirm and yank my arm, but I can’t escape. The gloved hand squeezes my wrist, and I yelp. My bones feel like they’re going to break. (Which, incidentally, is why I drink milk: for strong bones. So right now, my milk-drinking habit is probably the only thing saving my wrist.)
“Let me go!” I scream, twisting and turning. I can’t pull my arm away. “You’re hurting my wrist — and your hands are cold. Help! Help!”
“I know what you’re up to,” the gruff, menacing voice says. “You’re trying to bypass the older milk, reaching into the back like that. Aren’t you? You think you’re so smart.” He squeezes my wrist harder.
“Help! Please, help!” I scream, thrashing harder. I can’t get away. Where’s a supermarket associate when you need one? Probably outside collecting carts, that’s where. Or maybe they’re announcing a cleanup on aisle four. How dare they, especially when we need them to bag groceries and ward off these crazy shelf-stockers.
“Everyone does it, you know,” the voice says. “Everyone reaches for the milk in the back. They think they’re outsmarting the supermarket and getting some sort of deal. As if we’re just going to let the old milk expire. Trust me, we won’t let it go to waste. We can’t. If we have to, we’ll sell it on Manager’s Special at a drastically reduced price.
“Oh, sure, we’ll take a loss,” the man continued. “Every time we have to sell a carton for less than full price, we take a loss. That’s why we put the freshest cartons in back, where they’re harder to reach. We need to sell as much of the older stuff as we possibly can. It’s how we keep the lights on and the refrigerators cold.”
The man yanked on my wrist, and I screamed, my face striking the cooler’s shelf again. My arm felt like it was going to pop from its socket.
“Let me tell you something, you greedy, penny-pinching, milk-guzzling bastard, you,” the man said. “When the store loses money, I lose money. Every carton of milk we sell at a discount gets deducted from my pay. So when cheap asshats like you reach into the back, you’re plucking money from my pocket. And nobody — I mean nobody — takes money from me. It doesn’t do a body good, let me tell you that.”
I was crying now, both from the pain and the fear. My entire arm was on fire … which was counter-intuitive, considering it was trapped in a cooler.
The man squeezed my arm even harder, and something snapped. He said: “Do you want to tell my kid that Santa Claus isn’t coming this year? Do you?”
“N-no,” I stammered.
“Do you want to tell him that he’s got no college fund, and no future, because his old man’s a worthless bum who stocks shelves?”
“No, sir. No!”
“Or what about my wife?” he went on. “Do you want to tell her that she’s go tot keep washing dishes by hand, because we can’t afford to replace the pump in the dishwasher?”
“My arm,” I said, sobbing. “Please.”
“Shut up!” he screamed. “Why don’t you tell my wife that she married a useless derelict who can’t afford to buy her anything nice? Tell her she wasted the best years of her life playing housewife to a filthy moron who can’t put food on the table. She should have listened to her mother and married Johnny from high school — Johnny the prom king, Johnny the hot-shot scholarship winner, Johnny the big-wheeling bastard who’s now a high-powered, fancy-pants attorney. Tell my wife she should have married Johnny!”
The man burst into a terrible sobbing fit.
“She left me last week,” he said, blubbering. “Took the train right out of town. She left a note saying she couldn’t be with a man who earned nothing, and who came home with icicle snot dangling from his nose.”
He continued to sob — and mercifully, he let go of my wrist. I slumped forward against the cooler, spilling a couple of cartons of milk. But I didn’t cry over it. Instead, I was crying from the pain — and from the man’s gut-wrenching story.
“I’ve wasted my life,” he said, letting out a low, guttural moan. “I’m not even a man. I can’t provide for my son. I have no skills, no future. I can’t even drink this stuff, because I’m lactose-intolerant. I have nothing. Nothing.”
He withdrew his gloved hand, retreating into the darkness.
As for me, my right arm hung limply at my side. My wrist throbbed in time to my pulse. I could use high doses of calcium and vitamin D right about now.
I used my good arm to grab a shelf so I could pull myself to my feet. Puddles of milk pooled on the floor.
“Go,” the man said, his voice echoing within the stark, chilly confines of the cooler. “Just go. Take your milk. Go ahead — take the one that doesn’t expire for another two weeks. Just leave me in peace.”
I didn’t say anything. The only sound came from the steady drone of the cooler’s motor — as well as the awful elevator music playing on the P.A. system.
Silently, I selected a carton of milk — one from the front of the shelf. As I adjusted my broken glasses, I saw this carton was due to expire in two days. But I figured it was the least I could do to help such a miserable, distraught soul. Life had given him a bitter dose of curdled milk. What he needed now was a gesture of kindness. (And perhaps a new career path.)
“Thank you,” the man said, retreating farther into the darkness. “Now I won’t have the loss deducted from my pay. Maybe now my son and I can afford to have the power turned on. Thank you.”
And then he slipped from view entirely, entrapped as he was by the sterile walls of the walk-in refrigerator, and also by his dismal life with its fruitless future. I couldn’t begin to imagine his despair. It probably had the rancid taste of unpasteurized, disease-ridden milk.
But how else would he feel? I thought. Sad and alone, that’s how. And hopeless … as if nothing in the world mattered anymore. Not even healthy teeth and strong bones.
I sometimes think about that encounter, and when I do, a pain shoots through my arm. It often lingers with a dull, throbbing ache — an ache that travels from the tips of my fingers to the very essence of my heart.
And miles in the distance, I’ll hear the forlorn whistle of a downtown train. Its lonely, faraway sound leaves me with a feeling of empty stillness … as well as the repulsive taste of sour milk.