by Laura Cody
WINTER STORM WARNING IN EFFECT
This little stinker of a phrase was responsible for me standing outside the double glass doors of Hucker’s Food Mart on a freezing Saturday morning in February at the ugly hour of 8AM – even though my shift wasn’t supposed to start until noon. But, oh no. Any hopes for a respectable sleep-in went down the toilet once the stupid weatherman gave his stupid snow warning, and Huck ordered all the check-out girls to come in early. In we trudged while Huck did a ka-ching, ka-ching dance around the aisles of his store, and the poor milk cartons huddled in fear on the refrigerated shelves.
We all knew it was going to be a day. And by that, I mean a lousy one. Already, cars were circling, jockeying for spots, dropping passengers off in front. People eyed me suspiciously as I stood outside the doors waiting for someone to let me in, like I was getting some sort of preferential treatment. Like I had a freakin’ backstage pass to a Taylor Swift concert, rather than a one-way ticket to all-day-stand-on-your-feet hell.
From the moment the store opened, it was game on. People came in droves, slogging through the automated doors, pausing just over the threshold while their eyes scanned side to side in Terminator fashion. Then, they moved to the milk because that’s what you did when you heard that a snowstorm was coming to suburbia. You bought milk. It didn’t matter that you never drank milk on non-snow days. It didn’t matter that there was a quart of milk somewhere in the back of your refrigerator already turning to yogurt at this very moment. The only thing that mattered is that you secured milk before it sold out.
My first check-out of the morning was an elderly bow-legged man in a ratty parka who race-hobbled to my register like it was the finish line of an Iron Man Triathlon. Winded from the exertion, he spent a moment expectorating, then grinned like the cat who’d just swallowed the canary and loaded a quart of milk, three frozen dinners, and a suitcase of Budweiser onto my belt. If I had to guess, I’d say the milk was just for show.
Next came moms with preschoolers, ladies in yoga pants, and retirees squinting over lists. The doors opened and closed in steady rhythm, and icy puffs of air trailed each shopper into the store, nudging them forward in this competition for survival. In suburbs like ours, it could take maybe 36 to 48 hours for all roads to get cleared after a big snowstorm (they were calling for 10-12 inches tonight), so the specter of imaginary starvation loomed large. This led to high anxiety and low patience. A rising cacophony of grumbles ensued.
First, a mob at the deli counter complained to Mr. Hucker that the new boy was taking too long on the slicer.
Then, a slightly hysterical woman began shouting, “Where is the almond milk? Where is it? My husband is lactose intolerant!” just like that freak-out scene Shirley McLane has in Terms of Endearment when her daughter needs the pain meds.
Next, a child shrieked uncontrollably for his mother (and where the hell was she, I’d like to know), drowning out the muzak soundtrack playing over the sound system.
At mid-morning, a delivery truck came in with more milk. Right on schedule since the roads were, amazingly, still passable. About twenty minutes later an announcement calling for a “cleanup in aisle six” interrupted the soundtrack after an overzealous customer triggered a milk jug avalanche that resulted in a frothy deluge. A woman in leather boots slipped, went down hard on her butt, and broke her tailbone.
The paramedics came. Huck stopped ka-chinging then.
At about 11:30 AM, a man in a hurry lost his shit when his cart revealed itself to have a bad wheel. He slammed it into a display of tangerines, and the fruit spilled across the scuffed linoleum. One bright orange orb got wedged under the pushcart of a tiny old lady, so tight that she couldn’t budge the wheel. This caused a logjam of carts in the copious flow off aisle two. Another shopper, hurling recklessly toward an open register, slammed into the unfortunate old dear, and she fell to the floor with an audible snap.
The paramedics came back. I don’t think they had gotten far.
Then the bread crisis began. Apparently, the only white left on the shelves was past-expiration, and where were the hamburger rolls? And what good was a hamburger if you couldn’t make it into a cheeseburger, and who could get cheese with that long line at the deli, anyway?
When there was no milk left to buy, people bought juice. When we sold out of apple and cranberry juice, they purchased bottled water. It was highly conceivable, after all, that the snow storm would lead to a shortage of potable water.
By 4:00, things were winding down because there wasn’t much of anything left to buy. The dairy case was empty, not a stick of butter or tub of sour cream to be found anywhere. A few lone yogurt cups still dotted the shelves, the ones in the flavors no one really likes, like lemon curd and pineapple kiwi.
The bread aisle was barren.
An unpleasant smell came from the produce section.
The deli counter closed down after the new boy succumbed to pressure to speed up and lost a chunk of finger on one of the slicers. When blood flowed into the pastrami, no one wanted it anymore. The paramedics came back again.
From my perch at the register, I watched my kindred snowstorm warriors drive off and prayed for their safety and Godspeed. The occasional flake of lazy snow still drifted in the streetlight haze, but the storm had – thankfully – come to an end.
All told, we got a little less than an inch.
Laura Cody is a forensic psychiatrist in New York. Some of her fiction has appeared in publications such as Lakeshore Review, Ponder Review, Coffin Bell, Bewildering Stories, and CafeLit, amongst others. She is currently working with a partner on a medical thriller that takes place in a hospital where no sane person would ever want to be admitted.