by Gina Scott

Birthday card

The line, four deep, seems daunting this late in the afternoon. Jenny asks herself if she really has the time to wait, and more importantly, if it’s worth the wait to buy the birthday card she has taken too much time to choose. What she wants and what she has are different, very different. She inches forward.

She observes a freckle-faced red-haired boy, just a head taller than the grocery belt, watching as the cashier swipes a brightly colored roll of gumballs across the laser grocery scan. 

“A dollar nine,” the cashier says smacking her own gum loudly, snap, snap, pop. With his mother standing by his side and reminding him to “count it out,” the boy plunks his coins down on the counter, bouncing a little as he drags each coin closer to the cashier. 

The sweet taste of bubblegum ice cream pops into Jenny’s head as she remembers proudly using her own allowance long ago, to treat her mom to an ice cream. Her mom had instructed her to do the same thing, “count it out.” Her mother’s voice echoes loudly in her head as she remembers the ice cream, which had melted, making her fingers sticky.

Next in line she eyes a man, not more than 21, with nothing in his hands. She finds it odd until she realizes that this is the line that sells cigarettes. Too bad for him, she thinks, as he saunters forward, pants hanging too low, to purchase his overpriced nicotine fix. He takes out a roll of bills and counts out eight one-dollar bills. She wants to scream. Wants to tell him that smoking kills, but keeps her mouth shut, tight.

The woman behind him is sick, cradling cough syrup and a box of tissues. Jenny locks eyes with the woman and is suddenly looking at her own reflection, sad with an emptiness that no amount of medicine can cure. The woman pulls out a plastic card, then her arm is a baseball mitt as it catches the cough that escapes her mouth.      

Jenny watches as the cashier begins to help the customer directly in front of her. She looks down at the card that doesn’t really matter in the big scheme of things. The grocery scanner’s beep is a heart monitor as the cashier moves three cans of Campbell’s Chicken with Rice soup across the laser, one at a time, beep, beep, beep. The tattooed kitten on the cashier’s arm is alive, moving quickly with every scanned swipe. The cashier waits for the customer, a heavily perfumed slightly hunched cotton-haired woman busy digging for her wallet. The old woman tries to complete the transaction with plastic, but after two unsuccessful attempts, she dives back into her purse. Flustered, the woman takes out her checkbook and shakily begins to write a check.

The generic brown checkbook cover is a sharp contrast to the brightly colored floral checkbook cover that Jenny had given her mom from her Hawaii trip. She smiles remembering her mom’s reaction when she said “Mom, if you’re still using a checkbook, you need to rock it with style.” Her mom had laughed. An unexpected tear breaks free as the memories play like a movie in her mind.   

Decades have passed right before her eyes as Jenny stands still, waiting. She longs for a moment in time when life was easier. She looks down at the carefully chosen words on the card hoping that her mother will be awake when she gets to the hospital and still be alert enough to recognize her milestone birthday, the important birthday that she had made reference to since Jenny was young. “When I’m 70…”

Jenny smiles as she remembers how many of her mom’s sentences began that way and experiences a sudden sense of panic. The importance of the card becomes a heavy weight in her hand, and she is now determined to give her mother this final gift that announces her 70th birthday.  

Noting the payment methods she has just witnessed, she realizes how quickly things change and how fast time flies. The cashier’s apathetic voice breaks through her thoughts and says, “that’ll be five ninety-nine.” She stares blankly at the cashier, then reaches in her purse, desperate to stop time.

Category: Featured, Fiction, Short Story