The father ahead of me kept glancing toward the back of the store while Sandy scanned his items. His son stood at the back of the cart looking at the vast number of purchases. I waited to buy toothpaste, facewash, some cereal (the alternately healthy-sweet Raisin-Bran Crunch and Cinnamon Toast Crunch), a 12-pack of Cherry Coke Zero and a traveling toothbrush holder for the trip to North Carolina tomorrow night for Josh’s wedding. I admit, my supermarket line choices have always been suspect, at best.
The father to the son: “Tell her we have to go. Doesn’t she know that? Tell her we’re already up here paying for things.” This kid who’s maybe 13 whipped out his cell phone to deliver the message. Progress. When I was his age, I’d have had to go searching for my mother through the aisles, inevitably distracted by some basketball cards or the magazines – I remember an affinity for Sports Illustrated for Kids – and by the time I’d returned to the check-out line, my parents would be standing there waiting for me now, my mother having found whatever towels or salad-dressing or unappetizing food I didn’t want to eat that she’d been looking for a minute ago.
The father seemed really impatient, and I felt kindof sorry for the boy, in his black-white-and-red basketball shoes/blue basketball shorts/slightly-different-toned blue LA Clippers t-shirt. He’d clearly dressed himself in as close to an actual basketball uniform as he could. His unfashionable insistence on preserving the mono-chromatic symmetry of short-and-jersey made me feel a particular kinship with him. He was probably frustrated by anything that kept him from playing basketball, but that could be a nostalgic projection, too. The father picked out a three-pack of multi-colored Fruit-of-the-Loom boxer-shorts from the conveyor belt as it inched forward in tiny spurts. “Not these,” he said to Sandy, like she’d sneaked them into the pile. He handed them to the boy. “Go put these back. Just put them…anywhere.” I wondered if he coached the boy’s junior league basketball teams or if he was the kind of no-nonsense father who thought sports were a waste of time. I didn’t see where the boy put the boxers.
Up walked the mother and she immediately started loading the mountain of the store’s filled official red-on-frosted-white plastic bags back into the cart. She looked at me like it had been a really long day already, and it was only about 3:30, which the father announced like they were behind his official-and-implied-but-probably-unstated schedule. “I’m sorry about all this,” she said.
“No, it’s fine.”
“We just had a fire and we lost everything, so.”
“Oh no! You know, I used to work for an insurance company. I used to handle this type of thing all the time.”
“Oh yeah?” she said and kept loading bags, while the father asked whether that was the particular clothes iron they wanted to get or not. The boy had been looking at the trinkets they always have near every checkout, I think he knew he had been relieved of duty now that the mother had come. He came and stood at the side of the cart. “We even had to buy him a new PS3,” she said. “We’ve never bought this much stuff before.” The total was something around $324, and I’m not sure if they bought the iron, which the father said was either about $49 or else $79, I don’t remember.
“How’d it start?” I asked.
“We don’t know,” the mother said, her eyes searching. “The fire department just said it was accidental.”
“Is your insurance company taking care of you?”
“Yeah, they are! They gave us $10,000 today to start. The fire happened yesterday. We’re staying in a hotel, now.”
I’d heard her exact tone so many times before, working for insurance companies. Few situations feel more helpless than a massive fire. It’s a little different when they know the cause. There’s a sense of understanding, that there’s a defined reason for what happened. The fuse-box shorted or the toaster malfunctioned while the children were using it or it was a grease fire or someone left the candles burning near the drapes. Having a reason starts to restore a sense of control over your life, it gives you a picture in your mind of what went wrong and what you can, if nothing else, hope to avoid in the future. I can’t imagine how infuriating not-knowing would be, I’ve just heard it over-the-phone. On April Fool’s Day of 2008, back in Kansas City, I handled a five-level house-fire in a claim that went on for over a year. The cause of the fire was highly suspicious, and the owner kept trying to get us to pay to remodel his whole house, instead of rebuild it. It was a total fucking nightmare of estimates and revisions and multiple contractors and unending contents and storage units and revisions and supplements and finally, when he kept asking for more money and extended deadlines, my supervisor and I made the guy and his contractor come into our office, sit down, and explain to us what he’d done with the money we’d already paid him. It was one of the few times me and that particular supervisor were in complete agreement. He was a nice guy, though.
“Good, I’m glad they’re treating you well,” I said.
The mother smiled and loaded the last of the bags. They conveyor belt slid my things forward, and Sandy scanned them. I haven’t done insurance in almost a year, but tomorrow I have an interview for a full-time position with a company I was a temp for, for eight months last year. I saw the family-of-three in the parking lot, and I almost went over to them to remind them to keep all of their receipts and to be as detailed as they could possibly remember on their contents list. They were almost done loading everything, and the father was hurrying them along and already getting in the car, himself, so I let it go. I hope everything works out for them, and I hope the boy gets to play basketball again sometime soon.