Cost of Love by S.E. Winters – Romance

A woman, dressed in a grey pantsuit and heels, walked up to the glass doors of a grocery store. She passed the carts lined up outside and proceeded inside to the stack of hand-carry baskets and snatched one from the top without missing a step. Her shoes clicked along the floor as she double-timed it to the frozen food aisle.

“Frozen chicken, Veggies, Pizzas…” she said each section out loud as she searched.

“There you are.” She snatched open the cold door and reached into the columns of microwave lunches. Each day of the week was ticked off inside her head as she planned her lunches for the next workweek. She glanced at her watch, then looked up and to the left while she tried to remember if there was anything else she needed while she was in the store.

“Ramen noodles!” she shouted to no one. Her feet click-clacked their way over to the noodles and she grabbed two 6-packs of ramen noodles. She began to walk away, and glanced down at her basket and caught the word ‘Beef’ on the package. “Crap, he’ll never eat that,” she said as she stopped, turned around, and walked back to the shelf. She put back the two packages and searched for the chicken flavor instead. Finally finding them, she looked down into the basket where she was about to place the shrink wrapped bundles, and paused. Someone had left a receipt in the bottom of the basket, most likely moved around as she was taking the beef noodles out of the basket.

She set the noodles on the shelf and grabbed the receipt, intending to crumple it up and throw it away, but curiosity was always her weakness and she decided to read what someone else may have bought before her. She opened the slip of paper and realized there were printed words on both sides. Unusual, receipts are only printed on one side.

She inspected the proof of purchase, noticing that one side had a list of items as expected, but the other side had been used by someone to write… no, to type words. She pulled the paper closer and squinted over the top rim of her glasses. Yes, it was a typewriter. She chuckled to herself. It had been ages since she had seen a typewriter anywhere. She didn’t even see them at garage sales anymore. She ran her thumb over the letters, feeling the ridges where the keystrokes had made an imprint in the sheet.

Her eyes travelled to the top and began reading. As she read, her face became more serious, taking in the words and feeling them tumble through her head, becoming engrossed in the message. When she got to the bottom, she raised her eyes, but her focus wasn’t on anything in particular. Rather, she was thinking. Contemplating the words and their meaning, feeling as though somehow this paper was made to be in her basket for a reason. Her eyes floated around as she thought, and as her focus began to come back, she realized she was staring at the ramen noodles in front of her. She took a quick breath and snatched her cell phone out of her pocket. 

She held down the number one on her phone, activating the speed dial. “Hello? Hi honey, no no, it’s not an emergency. I’m sorry to bother you at work, but… do you have a minute? I promise it will only be a minute. Yes… yes, I can wait a few seconds.”

She stood in the aisle with the phone pinned between her ear and shoulder, shifting her weight and propping the shopping basket up with her hip. She reached out and fingered the letters on the ramen noodle package. She glanced at the receipt in her hand and twirled it around. There was a crease where it had once been folded. Placing it on the shelf next to the noodles, she pulled it back and forth over the edge, trying to iron out the wrinkle.

“Yes?” she spoke into the phone again, her attention floating away from the paper. “Hi, honey. No, nothing’s wrong. I just… what would you say to going out to eat tonight? Instead of heating up ramen at home? After work?” She held her breath. There wasn’t a reply on the other end of the phone yet. “I’ll leave early, and I’ll turn my ringer off through dinner,” she offered.

“What do you say? It’s been so long since we’ve spent time together.” She bit her lip, waiting for a reply. “What? Yes? You will? Where do you… the new place? Do we need reservations? You’ll leave early, too? Sure. Sure. Uh huh. I think so, too.” She began walking down the aisle toward the checkout registers, her steps slowly ticking off the moments until the end of her work day.

In the cereal aisle, Tiffany was skipping toward the Chocolate Frosted Cookie O’s. She stopped in front of them, looking at the bright star stamped on the front with a picture of a big question mark.

“Prizes!” she yipped. She stepped up on the bottom shelf and put her face into the file of cereal boxes, shoving them around to find a box that hadn’t been creased or crushed. She didn’t like cereal boxes that didn’t look brand new when you opened them.

“Tiffany Renee! What are you doing! What did I tell you about rummaging the grocery shelves!” Her mother came rushing down the aisle, pushing the overflowing cart as deftly as she could with the wobbly wheel. “Stop it this instant! I swear! You’re pushing my buttons today, Missy! Get over here. Right now. Do NOT leave my side.” She pointed down to the floor on her right and stared down the little girl.

Tiffany climbed down and her chin dropped. She shuffled her feet over to her mother and grabbed onto her pant leg.

“I just wanted some Chocolate Frosted Cookie O’s, Mommy, but all the boxes looked wrinkly.” Her mother sighed.

“Tiffany, if we are going to afford to eat every month, we have to buy food places that might have imperfect containers. How many times do I have to go over this? The box doesn’t affect the food inside. I’ve told you this. You have to get over this thing you have with wrinkles!”

“Sorry, Mommy,” Tiffany whispered toward the floor. Her mother continued on to the next aisle, opting to grab the plain Cookie O’s instead as she passed them. As they silently made their way through the grocery list, Tiffany again began looking around the aisles to see what she could toss in the cart. As they rounded the corner into the next aisle, Tiffany spotted a piece of paper on the floor with printed letters on it. She let go of her mother and ran over to pick it up.

“Tiffany!” her mother shouted irritably. The day had come with more trials than usual, and the mother was down to her last ounce of patience. 

“I’m just picking up the litter, Mommy. Here. See? I found this paper! It has words. Can you read it? What does it say? What is it?” Her mother held out her hand in a futile attempt to stop Tiffany’s barrage of questions. She opened up the folded paper, and looked at it, then flipped it over, slid her fingertips across the surface and then flipped it back.

“What is it? What does it say?” Tiffany continued. The mother gave a simple shush and followed the words with her eyes, holding her finger out to Tiffany in hopes that it would stop the questions.

When her eyes reached the end of the paper, she raised her eyebrows and then took a deep breath. It certainly wasn’t what she was expecting, but might have been just what she needed. She placed her hand on top of Tiffany’s head and twirled one of her pigtails. She looked down at her daughter and her crow’s feet grew deeper.

“Mommy? Did you figure it out? What is it?”

“It’s a coupon,” her mother said with a smile.

“A coupon for what?”

“A coupon for a kiss. Someone must have dropped it before they could cash it in. Hmm.”

The mother looked up and tapped her chin with her fingertip. “I wonder if I could cash it in?” she said, and then glanced down at Tiffany.

“Ooh! Ooh! Me me me!” Tiffany shouted, hopping up and down, her pigtails bouncing like slinkies from her head. “I’ll cash it in, Mommy!”

“You will?” her mother replied. “This must be my lucky day! Here’s my coupon! Now where’s my kisses? It says it’s good for ten of them.” Tiffany took the coupon from her mother and held her hands up. Her mother whisked her up into her arms and proceeded to get covered in slobbery kisses all over her face.

“One! Two! Three! Four!” Tiffany counted off the kisses as her mother’s giggles began to morph into laughter. “Five! Sixsch!” Tiffany was kissing so fast that she was saying the numbers into her mother’s cheeks. “Seven! Eight!” her mother joined in, finally counting up to ten and hugging Tiffany, spinning around in a circle in the middle of the pasta aisle. Tiffany grabbed her mother’s neck as tight as she could, letting her body flop backwards with the inertia of the spin, high pitch squeals echoing through the store.

As she spun, Tiffany’s foot caught a box of rotini pasta and sent it flying across the aisle. They stopped the spin and Tiffany stared at her mother with pouty lips.

“I’m so sorry, Mommy. I didn’t mean it.” Her mother’s heart broke. She could tell that she had been taking Tiffany for granted lately because life had gotten stressful after the divorce. To see her daughter go from glee to sadness so quickly broke her heart. She hugged Tiffany tight, kissing her shoulder and nuzzling her neck.

“It’s okay, baby. Really, it’s okay. Everybody makes mistakes. Even Mommies. But hugs and kisses make everything a little better, don’t you agree?” She leaned back and smoothed Tiffany’s stray hairs back from her face. Tiffany nodded and settled her head on her mother’s shoulder. The mother squeezed her once more before putting one hand on the cart handle and steering it forward to the next aisle.

Myra walked down the aisle of the grocery store, staring down at her cell phone as she headed back up to the checkout registers. She was nearly to the end of the aisle when she kicked a box of pasta that had fallen to the floor.

“Seriously? Doesn’t anyone pick up after themselves anymore?” She quickly looked around to make sure she was alone, as she didn’t want anyone hearing her quote her mother in public.

She bent down to grab the box and scoop up some of the rotini that had spilled out. When she slid her hand under the bottom shelf, she felt a receipt that had fell on the floor. She shook her head and scooped up the pasta into the pocket of her “Quickie Mart” work scrubs. She scrunched up the receipt and shoved it the opposite pocket to throw away when she got back to her register.

“Hey Timmy,” she called out to a man rearranging an end cap display of salsas. It had a large sign at the top with a picture of a pepper wearing a sombrero and wrapped in bright red and green text that said ‘Let’s Taco-bout Cinco de Mayo’. He turned to look at Myra with two jars of guacamole in his hands.

“What’s up?” He continued loading the jars onto the shelves while his eyes followed her to the checkout aisle that she always used. She flipped the light on above her register and turned the ringer off on her phone, stowing it away on the shelf under her station.

“Will you bag for me?” she asked. He nodded and put the last few jars on the bottom shelf. The store was a ghost town and there weren’t any customers waiting to check out, but Myra didn’t like being stuck at the register alone. It was boring, and Timmy always agreed to help, even when it was obvious he wasn’t needed. He quickly took the empty box and walked it over to the service desk, tossing it onto the pile he had started early that morning.

“That’s strange,” she said.

“What’s that?” asked Timmy as he walked up to her aisle.

“My trash can’s gone. I swear it was here before my break,” she said as she looked around her station.

“Why, do you have something to throw away? I’ll take it for you,” he offered, holding a hand out for her. She continued to look around, as if the trash can would suddenly reappear.

“Yeah, I mean it’s just this old receipt. Nothing big. It’s just weird that the trash can is missing. I bet Rita took it yesterday on her shift. She’s always messing up my aisle.” She reached in her pocket and pulled out the crumpled paper, holding it out while she still looked around her.

“That’s a receipt? That doesn’t look like the same printing as our registers, is it?” Timmy hesitated to take the paper from her until she checked it.

“That’s weird, it’s on our receipt paper,” she said as she uncrumpled it, “but you’re right. The print is–” she stopped. Her hands smoothed out the paper and she looked at one side, then the other, and then the first side again. Her eyebrows furrowed and she looked up at Timmy. “It’s a receipt from our store all right, but the back of it has something else typed on it.”

She looked over the lines typed onto the back of the receipt, each line parallel to an item from the store on the back, all the way down to the bottom.

“Typed?” said Timmy. “You mean printed.”

“No.” She shook her head. “Like, it’s typing on it. You can feel the impressions of the typewriter letters on it. Feel it.” She handed it to Timmy who ran his fingertips over the letters, then took it back from him almost immediately. She looked at it again and read the words.

Myra placed her hand on her heart, blinking away a tear that pleaded to be set free. It was a poem. Beautiful, heartfelt, and thoughtful. How she wished someone would write poetry for her. She pretended to itch the corner of her eye to catch the wetness that had gathered there.

“What’s it say?” Timmy asked. He stepped closer, lightly touching her back as he tried to read it over her shoulder.

“Here, you can read it.” She handed the paper over to him and busied herself straightening up her station while he read the poem out loud back to her.

The last line of the poem was tabbed over slightly so that it was typed directly over an amount at the bottom of the receipt, below the total sales, where the store had designed the stub to display the customer’s savings from their rewards card. Timmy could faintly make out the reversed words showing through the paper, lined up next to the last line of the poem. He hadn’t typed the poem, but he knew exactly how the author must have felt. He had that same feeling for someone, too. It wasn’t that long ago that he questioned whether it was worth it to keep on living, and then Myra had been hired at Quickie Mart. He looked up at Myra and touched her elbow. She looked up from the conveyor belt where she was diligently spraying the sticky spots with cleaner. He held the poem out to her and met her eyes. He opened his mouth, having so many words to say, wishing the words he read were ones that he wrote. Wishing that she knew he meant each and every one of them, even if they weren’t typed by his own fingers.

She reached her hand out and touched the receipt, but didn’t take it. Instead, she held it between them, prolonging the connection. He felt his fingers drawn to hers, as if being pulled by a magnetic force. The tip of his thumb brushed against her skin so slightly that she wasn’t sure if it was his touch or a breeze.

Suddenly a large bag of dog food slammed down onto the conveyor belt next to her register. It cleared the fog out of her head and brought her back to the moment. She looked up at a man, probably late 50’s, wearing a flannel jacket and a scowl on his face. Timmy quickly turned and walked to the end of the aisle and started preparing a grocery bag for the man’s few small items, stuffing the receipt up the sleeve of his work shirt to save for later. Myra entered her employee ID into the store’s register.

“Hello, Sir. Just this today?” she asked while she brandished her best customer service smile.

“Do you see a cart?” he asked curtly as he pulled out his wallet. Customers found some creative ways to answer that question from day to day. That was one of the least creative. She shook off the rudeness and reminded herself that once he paid, he would move on his merry little way and out of her sight.

“Can I get change for a five?” the man asked as she opened her drawer to take his money.

“But all in quarters.” Myra looked at him for a moment. “I need quarters for the car wash,” he explained testily. “Do you have quarters or not?” Myra counted out the quarters in her drawer and emptied them into his hand.

“Just enough to make five dollars. Guess I’ll need to go get some more change from the manager for my drawer, but luckily there’s enough for you!” she said with a smile. He huffed and took the change. “There you go, have a great day!” she said, encouraging him to continue on his way. Timmy handed him the bag and smiled at the surly old man who simply nodded his head as he walked out of the store.

“I wonder if he even has a dog,” Timmy wondered aloud.

“What the heck would he do with dog food if he didn’t?” asked Myra.

“Who knows? Maybe he likes to use it in his chili?” Timmy said with a shrug. “Or maybe he uses it to attract stray dogs and them catch them with a giant trap and send them off to the pound. He could be one of those ‘Get off of my lawn!’ kinda guys.” He scrunched up his face and waved a fist in the air, trying to imitate the old man. Myra chuckled.

“You’re one of a kind, you know this, right?” she shook her head and took a twenty- dollar bill out of the register to go make change.

Outside, the man with the dog food threw his groceries into the passenger seat of his car before walking around and getting into the driver’s side. He turned the car on, frowned at the advertisement blaring over the radio and pushed buttons on the dash until he found a station playing music instead of chatter. He looked in his rear view mirror and sighed. He moved his hand to the gearshift, but then reached for the grocery bag instead.

Lifting it by the bottom, he flipped it upside down, emptying the contents onto the seat: a package of beef jerky, a roll of cookie dough, one container of chicken lunchmeat, a bag of bacon flavored dog treats, and two receipts. He creased his eyebrows and picked up both slips of paper. He felt the imprinted letters on the second receipt and grabbed the package of beef jerky. 

He opened it, sticking a piece between his teeth, and then resealed it while he compared the items purchased on the two receipts. One was obviously his, but the other somehow had fallen into his bag by accident. Flipping it over, he saw that there were words that had been typed on the back.

The dour old man’s expression softened a tiny bit with every line that he read. With the jerky still clutched between his teeth, he followed the words all the way to the bottom of the receipt. He sighed as he looked out the window and up into the clouds. He yanked the jerky out of his mouth, chewing on the tough meat he had separated.

“Looks like I’m not the only one who understands the cost of love, Margaret,” he spoke softly to the sky. He glanced down at the large bag of dog food on the floor of the passenger side of the car. “That damn dog you left behind is eating me out of house and home. I’ll be lucky if he lets me eat any of this jerky once I get home.” He gnawed the bite of jerky a bit more, scowling at the bag of dog food. He yanked another fragment off the jerky in his hand. “Damn dog is a pain in my ass. ‘Let’s rescue a dog,’ you said. ‘It’ll be cute,’ you said. Did you have to pick a Great Dane?” His eyes raised back up to the sky. He wagged his finger at the clouds. “You realize he takes up over half of the bed? I barely get any of the covers!” His voice was angry, but a smirk appeared on his weathered face. He looked back down at the dog food again, then at the receipts.

“I wish I’d had more days with you, Margaret. But the time I did have was worth everything I’ve ever had to pay,” he said, smiling at the bag of dog food and touching the dog treats, “…and will pay.” He took a deep breath to clear the moisture from his weary eyes. “Your smile saved my life, dear. Without your smile, my life would have been worthless.”

He blew a kiss toward the sky, and then checked his rearview mirror before backing out of his parking space.

Find S.E. Winters on her website!