Autumn is on it's way. I feel it. The days are hot and muggy, the mornings start at 70 degrees, and yet . . . it's there. Inevitable.
At the store, wild Back to School displays stand as incongruous wardens with their explosion of primary colors. I move through sections of pencil sharpeners and notebooks and lunch boxes to cheap, rough bedding and coordinating plastic dishware (in sets of four) to blenders and desk lamps to microwaves and mini refrigerators. Everything from kindergarten to college, from red, yellow and blue to pink, green and . . . more blue.
Banners hang from the ceilings, and moms shuffle kids through the store with their carts vomiting colors. New clothes, new backpack, new this, new that. I hear ecstatic cheers and depressed groans . . . it's all around me, and yet . . . I'm not a part of it.
I'm done with school. I don't have kids. I'm there to pick up cat litter and dog food and a few grocery items. Skipping by, decked out head to toe in Twilight, tweenage sisters add to their mom's cart and dash away before she notices. Walking swiftly, I sneak a peek at their sneaky loot and smile: matching hooded sweatshirts, in pink. Tired mom doesn't seem to notice, she's checking sizes and cooing to the toddler in the cart, swinging his legs and shrieking "Eee, eee, eee!" repeatedly.
Does she hear him?
I continue with my empty cart toward the pet aisle, in my quiet colorless world. Outside it's hot, but the air conditioning in the store is too cool by contrast and goosebumps snake their way up my arms and down my back. The wire of my cart is stark and seems to radiate cold. I pass more families, more moms with their kids, all doing their back-to-school shopping and choosing items with vibrant colors and straight lines. Rulers. Pencil cases. Crayons for the kids, for the teens a set of blue and red and orange pens . . . nope. Orange isn't allowed. Settle for black.
I smile at the argument ("Everyone else is going to have the same one!"), and continue down the aisle, thinking about stowaway sweatshirts and not my own neutral list. Autumn is on it's way, and this year I'm not even looking forward to it. I've always said that Autumn is my favorite season, and I don't think anything will ever make me change my mind about it being the most beautiful, but as the years go by the homesickness is getting worse.
Is it because my memory of details and the specificity of the seasons has started to fade? In September, when the sky is a particular shade of blue, I wonder: did it look the same or different in Oregon each September? I don't recall.
Standing in line, 10 items or less, I see the mom with her loaded cart waiting in the regular line next to me. The two pink sweatshirts are still amidst the notebooks and backbacks and lunchboxes . . . all matching, all in duplicate. Her girls are nowhere to be found, but the toddler is stretching a chubby fist toward the brightly wrapped candy bar display and grunting, "Uh, uh, uh, uh!" She ignores him, appears to be looking over the school supply list--or perhaps a list of inspirational quotes, who knows?--and I can't help but wonder if she told the girls to go pick out sweatshirts or if she is really that oblivious.
I start loading my 7 items on the counter and her girls at last appear. She smiles at them absently--have any of them spoken this entire shopping trip? The toddler is drooling copiously and bouncing up and down impatiently on a padded, squishy bottom, candy bars forgotten as he nmns toward his sister instead.
I sign for my items and walk away slowly as the little family starts transferring their load to the conveyor belt. The sisters glance at each other as one of them picks up the sweatshirts and adds it to the pile, most helpfully. The mom's eyes focus suddenly, calculating. Her thoughts were so plain I was embarrassed for her. Embarrassed that she gave them up so easily:
Is it worth a fight?
I stopped to shift my bags, look over a last-minute display of batteries and gum, and flip through a magazine . . . anything to delay actually walking out the door because I had to know. Was it worth the fight? The sisters weren't breathing--nor was I!--and the toddler was reaching toward the candy bars again. His grunts had escalated, tears and snot were now accompanying the drool on its slimy way down his chin, and creating a large dark spot on his blue t-shirt. We wait.
The mom's hawk eyes watch the sweatshirts inching ever closer toward the bored cashier with Sheila on her name tag. Sheila grabs things at random and the steady "Boop! Boop! Boop!" of her scanner clashes with the toddler's squawk. We all watch Sheila's lips move when she picks up the folders and counts them silently. The booping of the scanner waits, we all wait, until Sheila types in the quantity and picks up speed again.
Still, and discounting the toddler's unbelievable array of noises, no one has spoken.
The mom doesn't look back at the sweatshirts but instead grabs two candy bars at random from the display, throws them willy-nilly onto the advancing belt, and the entire parade troops up to the cashier to the rhythmic, high-pitched beat of the toddler's shrieks of glee.
Outside it's still hot but one of the trees surrounding the parking lot has started to turn. Although I know it must have looked like that when I went into the store, I hadn't especially noticed, and now it feels like in the space of one short shopping trip the entire world has suddenly shifted.