"Ma'am, here's your receipt," said the Wal-Mart clerk.
The octogenarian in front of me in the checkout line stared at the extended slip of paper like she'd never seen a receipt before. She reached for it, more out of courtesy than understanding, and turned away.
"Ma'am," called the clerk. "Your bag?"
The shrunken, white-haired old lady again looked confused but took the plastic Wal-Mart bag. She ambled away, as if not knowing where she was headed.
I plunked my Toby Keith CD down on the checkout counter, shook my head at the twenty-something boy behind the register and uttered the fateful words, "Man, I hope I never get old."
Uh oh. As the words left my mouth I felt the all-seeing Karmic Eye whip my way.
"You didn't hear me say that!" I said in a rush.
The clerk nodded as if I were talking to him instead of trying to sneak out from under the trench coat of trepidation that had just thumped down on my shoulders.
I felt the Eye's probe and panicked. Maybe if I got out of the store quickly, it wouldn't follow. I took my change and left.
"Sir," called the clerk. "Your bag."
Oh hell! Instant Karma bit hard! I felt the Eye turn into a magnifying glass and the skin between my shoulder blades began to heat up. I grabbed the package and made for the door.
As I passed through the subliminal-message-implanting "buying-from-WalMart-is-good-for-America" security gate, the alarm sounded. A swarm of security men materialized out of the floor as well as a State Trooper who just happened to be leaving the store at the same time.
Oh, God! Strip search coming up! I was suddenly surrounded by large growling men while tot-toting mothers pointed me out as an object lesson. I stood very still. The security men's faces expressed disappointment in not being able to use me as a resisting arrest object lesson, and grudgingly ok'd my receipt. With a sharp gesture toward the door, they melted back into the merchandise like the Mudmen in the old Flash Gordon serial.
A brisk headwind swirled around me in the parking lot and I hoped it was enough to keep the Eye in the store. The hot breath of scrutiny hissed in my ear and I knew I hadn't yet escaped. I hurried my steps.
A good deed. I needed to do a good deed! I spied an overweight woman struggling to push a six-foot-wide piece of furniture into her five-foot-wide SUV and rushed over.
"Hi. Can — " I stumbled over a concrete parking divider. My car keys shot from my hand like a big-league pitcher's fastball and slid under her car.
The woman cast me a hard glare then slid the piece of furniture in like it was on greased grooves. "Y'all should be more careful," she said, then added, "bless your heart."
Now I've been in the South long enough to know what "bless your heart" means. It's a Southerner's way of saying, "You stupid idiot." I got down on the ground and stretched my arm under her car but couldn't reach my keys. I rose to my knees and looked into eyes that had yet to express sympathy.
"Um, I can't reach them," I muttered.
"Just move out of the way and I'll back out," she said. "I'm leaving anyway."
Good. Maybe she was the Karma God in disguise. Hopefully having me on my knees feeling stupid and shamed would be enough and the Eye would find another transgressor to pummel. She backed out and I retrieved my keys, receiving yet one more withering "idiot" glance from the woman as she drove away.
I needed a safe haven and a strong cup of coffee. I drove to my favorite coffeehouse and felt like I was escaping from the Eye's target zone. The God of Karma must live in Wal-Mart, possibly subletting space from the God of Avarice.
Arriving without incident, I felt a little more at ease. Ordering my usual — a pecan roll and a cup of coffee — I stopped at the coffee bar to microwave my roll and fill my cup. I ripped open three packets of sugar and proceeded to miss the cup entirely, dumping the white granules onto the dark counter. The pile of sugar formed a bulls-eye that screamed, "Here! He's over here!" A deep chuckle sounded in my ear and I knew I'd yet to pay full penance.
I prepared my coffee then realized the microwave was still running. I had hit one-minute instead of ten seconds. Yanking open the microwave door, I stared at the fused-to-the-napkin-sorry-looking lump while a burnt odor lanced my nostrils. I removed the mess and hoped the Karmic Lesson was over.
While carefully carrying the melt-blob and coffee to a table, I noticed a smear of caramel sticky-stuff on my sleeve.
What had I done that was so wrong? The thought barely flitted through my mind before the answer slapped me with shame. That poor elderly woman needed understanding, not judgment from someone who didn't know her circumstances. She certainly didn't need condemnation.
Everyone, if they're lucky, will get old, and those fortunate folks will not escape the ravages of time. The smart thing to do is accept it with dignity, understanding and the wisdom learned through all those years of continued breathing.
A dark-haired man across the aisle broke my contemplations. He was loudly berating his four-year-old son for slopping his milk. His thunderous scolding drew everyone's attention and the boy's eyes cast downward in embarrassment. The man withdrew his scolding finger and his sleeve caught his protruding coffee spoon, tipping the cup and gushing coffee into his lap. With a loud curse, he stood, wiping briskly at the stain. He glanced up at the many faces turned toward him, then down at his pants. With face flashing crimson, he sat down rapidly.
I reached carefully for my own cup of coffee and noticed that the pressure on my back was gone. I rooted around for the Eye but didn't feel its presence.
Cheered that the Eye had left me, I glanced back at the dark-haired man. As he bit into his raised sandwich, the innards squirted out the back of the bread and landed on the table with a squishy plop.
Oh, yes. The Eye had left me — and I was pretty sure I knew where it went.
"Ma'am, here's your receipt," said the Wal-Mart clerk.