Little Things Mean  A lot


Lenny Levine

Bob Stanton drove around and around the crowded parking lot, thinking, not for the first time, how often things seemed to conspire to bust his chops. It was almost as if they were choreographed, like some sadist up there was looking down and saying, “Okay, he sees the empty parking space down the row. Cue the woman with the stroller.”

Because there she was, blithely emerging from between two SUVs, wheeling her little kid along, making Bob slow down to a crawl behind her while another car came up the opposite way and grabbed the spot.

He did not lean on the horn. He felt no anger, at least none that he was aware of. At this point it all had a kind of grim humor to it.

A spot finally opened, as far from the entrance as you could possibly get. He pulled into it, extricated his large, beefy frame from the Toyota, and did not slam the door, although he was tempted.

He trudged toward the supermarket, bucking a stiff head wind, hands thrust inside the pockets of his down parka, his fingers encircling the shopping list Cynthia had left for him. It was a long one.


Grocery shopping on a weekday was something new for him. The plumbing supplies company he worked for was cutting back its employees’ hours, so now he didn’t go in on Thursdays and Fridays. This meant the loss of 40 percent of his income, but at least he hadn’t been laid off. The way things were going, though, it might just happen anyway.

The weather service had predicted a blizzard for tomorrow, which was why the supermarket was so frantically busy. There was not a shopping cart to be had, as he stood by the empty rack and looked around for strays.

It took a few minutes before he spied one being abandoned by a guy loading up his minivan. Before he could get halfway there, a mother and her teenage daughter swooped in and glommed it.

Had stuff like this always been happening to him, and he was only now starting to notice? He didn’t think so; it seemed to be a new phenomenon. Did it have some deeper meaning? Were these stupid, little annoyances signs of even worse things to come? He hoped they weren’t; he really, really did.

Ah, finally, something was working. Here came one of the checkout kids, shoving a whole string of empty shopping carts ahead of him and filling up the rack. Bob thanked him and quickly grabbed the end one, which was jammed into the others and immovable.

Jiggling it was futile. He leaned over the top to dislodge it and saw that it was just beyond his reach. He stood on tiptoes and lunged at it, scraping the top of his index finger as he took hold of the grating and pulled it free.

Shaking his head, he examined the finger as he wheeled the cart into the store. The cuticle was pulled back and a flap of skin was loose, but at least it wasn’t bleeding. Just a hangnail.

The first few items on the list were from the deli counter, packed solid with customers as two employees tried to serve them all. You had to take a number, and, of course, a woman got to the dispenser just ahead of him.

He took the next number—53. According to the sign, they were now serving 37. He figured, instead of waiting around, he’d take care of some of the other things on the list, then double back.

As he moved up and down the aisles, he observed how people seemed to randomly gravitate to the most inconvenient places. Like the elderly couple staring at the shelves, with their cart positioned just enough in the aisle to make it impassable.

And “just enough” meant no more than a fraction of an inch. His job made him very good at things like that, matching the sizes of pipes, hoses, brackets, filters, various plumbing tools. That shopping cart, he could appreciate, was blocking the aisle with uncanny precision.

“’Scuse me,” he said, trying to sound friendly, as the couple continued to be fascinated by the canned goods. He repeated it louder and they looked up, mumbled an apology, and moved the cart to the side.

The next aisle was fairly clear, but by the time he located his first item, it had become a maze of perfectly placed people and carts that turned him into a veritable “’scuse me” machine before he could get out of it. Then there was the guy in front of him with the twin toddlers in the kiddy cart, who changed his mind and suddenly wanted to turn around in a narrow display area.

When he made it back to the deli counter, they were serving number 55. Crumpling the now-useless scrap of paper, he turned toward the dispenser as yet another woman nosed in there just ahead of him.

This time he took no chances, cooling his heels for over 10 minutes. When they finally called his number, they were out of two of the three things he needed.

It went on this way. At every stop he’d be a second late or an inch short. And he had to admit, it was starting to get to him.

As the ordeal was nearing its end, he spotted a checkout lane with only two people and he took it. Each of them turned out to have a slew of coupons that had expired and a ton of questions about sales dates and the price of everything in their carts. At one point the manager had to be called over. All around him the other lines were smoothly moving right along. He stood through it, immobile. He said nothing; he did nothing. He just gazed darkly ahead.

As he drove home through the midafternoon traffic, he tried to get some perspective on it. Why, he asked himself quite reasonably, should I waste my time and energy getting pissed off about petty bullshit? Compared to the real problems in life—his disappearing job, the variable-rate mortgage that was about to kick in in a big and ugly way, the fact that they had to put their two daughters through college in a couple of years—this was nothing. Not worth one bead of sweat or flicker of aggravation. And yet…

He turned into his snowy driveway, pulled into the garage, and unloaded the groceries. It took three trips to get it all inside, but now he was in the kitchen, putting the stuff away.

The clock on the microwave said “3:15.” Carolyn, his oldest, had cheerleading practice today and would be coming home late, but Pam, the 13-year-old, should be here any minute. Cynthia, of course, wouldn’t be back from work until six, so he had plenty of time to get dinner together.

The phone rang.


It was the nurse from his doctor’s office, saying Dr. Hastings would like to talk to him if he was free. He told her he was.

A minute or so went by, and then the doctor came on.

“Hi there, Bob.” His voice held the same breezy confidence as always. “Your blood work came back today, and I was a little concerned about the PSA level. It’s quite a bit higher than the last reading—dramatically, in fact—so I wondered if you’d come in sometime next week, and we can do a biopsy on your prostate.”

The doctor went on, saying it would only take about 15 minutes and he’d hardly feel a thing, but Bob was only half listening. He was thinking instead about how even the cells in his body were now working against him, just randomly happening to move in ways that were not good.

If this was God punishing him for something, maybe he could ask for forgiveness, and that would help. But, deep down, he knew it wouldn’t. It felt like he was trapped in some giant pinball machine, being bumped and bounced and flung around, until eventually he’d drop into a black well and it would be over.

He told Dr. Hastings he’d call back on Monday and arrange the appointment, then hung up the phone, his index finger, the one that had gotten scraped by the shopping cart, brushing against the side of the base. He felt a sharp, stinging pain.

He looked down. The flap of skin had been torn back and was now bleeding. His eye couldn’t help but notice the positioning of his finger and the width of the groove between handset and base. If he’d held the phone just a millimeter differently…

A low moan tore from his throat, and he slammed his fist down on the counter. Then he did it again. And again. And yet again. Specks of blood flew in the air, some sticking to the cabinet above the sink, others landing on the dishes in the drainer.

He saw those first and moved his arm in a wide arc, sweeping them off the counter and onto the floor, where they shattered. It only made him more furious.

He grabbed both sides of the blood-specked cabinet and tugged with all his strength, sobbing, as the cabinet started to come loose from the wall. The doors opened and glasses and cups cascaded out, bouncing off his shoulders and smashing on the kitchen floor.

“Why?!” he wailed, over and over. “Why?!”

A tiny, frightened voice seemed to penetrate his rage. “Daddy?” it said tremulously.

He turned around in shock. Pam stood in the doorway in her yellow winter coat, her mouth gaping, her eyes wide with terror.

What the hell was he doing?

He had to try and calm her down, reassure her somehow that everything was okay. He attempted a smile, as he held up his bloody finger for her to see.

“Hangnail,” he said sheepishly.




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