What they didn’t understand was how arbitrary it all was.
Most of them did try to understand the fragility, I could give them that credit. Many could even name the day they realized that death was not just for pet goldfish. They saw an ending in their futures and then proceeded to overcompensate—filling up their lives with a longing to be missed, conscious that their handwriting would far outlast their minds. These were the ones that made an effort to truly live because they knew that living could be over without warning.
Still, try as they might, they couldn’t see the intricate web of their lives, the interwoven chain. The tragedy was that they could never guess which random link was the load-bearer. Break it and the rest crumbled. A pause to look for their wallet before leaving the driveway. A task they decided to put off until later. The friend who sat next to them in high school who introduced them to their vice. All so illogical. Each a choice with no thought and disproportionate consequences. How could they ever predict which breath, which path, which detour mattered? How could they possibly guess?
I looked at them and I knew. It was my job to know. If I tried, I could find the weak link, the one that was about to snap and bring the rest of the chain with it. It took practice. But I had the time.
Today, I wandered through the grocery store, my empty cart pulling doggedly to the left on a sticky wheel. It was crowded this afternoon, full of people who didn’t pay attention to me or anyone else. I made a lap around the store, watching them, studying, seeing with more than just my eyes, and then started filling my cart.
In the first aisle, a young mother was stolidly ignoring her child as they threw a violent tantrum in the confines of their seat. While she compared the prices of paper towels, I removed the packet of red grapes from the back of their cart and placed it in my own because the child was going to choke on one on the car ride home.
In the produce section, I distracted a middle-aged couple with a question about how to choose a ripe melon. While the woman demonstrated the proper method, holding a cantaloupe in well-worn palms, I took away the dishtowels they were planning to buy. Her partner would accidentally leave one on the lit stove and they would go up in flames along with their house.
I took a jar of peanut butter from a young man whose stance and stash of energy drinks marked him as a college student. He hadn’t had an allergy attack yet, but he would.
When I came to the mother and daughter, I paused. The daughter was about fourteen, and she slouched against the shelves as if she were incapable of holding herself upright with her own spine. She had headphones in her ears and her fingers tapped against the screen of her phone. All the mother wanted was her daughter’s attention. She tried in vain to get her daughter’s opinion on which brand of pasta they should buy. There were only two things in their basket—a pack of batteries and a can of tomato sauce. Neither of those things was what was going to kill the mother.
I felt a bubble of stolen despair under my breast bone because no amount of stealing from shopping carts was going to save her. Her load-bearing link was already rusted.
I left my cart and approached them. The mother noted me but didn’t react until I reached forward and pried the headphones from her daughter’s ears.
“Excuse me!” the mother cried. She would have made a physical move, but her basket was between us.
The daughter merely looked surprised, her eyes wide, her fingers stilled.
“What’s your name?” I asked her.
“Kim,” the girl answered before her mother could command her not to tell me.
“Kim,” I repeated. I took the phone from her hands, a feat only possible because her distraction had loosened her grip.
“Hey!” Kim exclaimed, annoyed now that I had her toy. “Are you crazy?”
“Ma’am, you need to walk away.” Kim’s mother had made her way around the basket. Her hand was on my shoulder.
I took Kim’s fingers with one hand and removed her mother’s hand with my other. I placed their hands together and squeezed them so that they were forced to hold on to each other.
“Kim,” I said, holding her eyes. “All your mother wants is to spend some time with you. She didn’t bring you here so you could play with your phone in different scenery.”
The mother glanced at me, and then down, as if embarrassed. I held my attention on Kim, watching as she slowly took in my point. Clearly, she had never considered it before.
“Appreciate your mom,” I continued. “She won’t be around forever.”
This too was something Kim had never considered. Her dismay was obvious, her sixth sense a discovery I was sure she’d rather do without.
I held on for a beat longer, and then let them go. I handed Kim’s phone back to her. She put it in her pocket.
I walked back to my cart.
The mother’s hand was back on my shoulder. I turned to her. Her eyes were bright, more intense than the moment should warrant.
“Thank you.” And then she broke. She did it softly, quietly, keeping her back to her daughter. “How did you know?” Her barely audible voice was quivering, her eyes wet.
I grabbed her in a hug because she needed one far more than she needed an answer. I held her just long enough for her to compose herself before going back to her daughter.
Then I released her, grabbed my cart, and exited the aisle with a hollow feeling of helplessness in the pit of my stomach.
There was nothing else I could do for the woman. Her web was frayed, and soon it would snap. She may have felt momentarily comforted, and maybe Kim would take my point to heart, but I only felt guilty and sick.
I decided to find the other mother and her child and make sure she hadn’t picked up any more grapes.
I kept my fingers wrapped firmly around the handle of my basket so that I couldn’t give in to old habits and rub my wrists.
Sometimes, I really hated my job.