I regret to inform you, dear reader, that this is a true story.
On a chilly morning about a week before extended family was due in town for Thanksgiving, I had quite a memorable visit to Midwest City. First I ran seven easy miles at Regional Park. Then I stopped at Winco for the final push of groceries for our massive feast. This was a day I had been eagerly anticipating: The well organized purchase of all the loveliest and most perishable Thanksgiving Day supplies, including of course the centerpiece turkeys, plural because we planned to feed at least twenty four people.
Dressed in running tights and a now damp sweatshirt, a black wool coat covered with blonde and grey horse hair, and muddy running shoes, I wheeled my grocery cart all through the raw kale and firm pears, the walnuts and the butter, the heavy cream and lemons and bags of stale bread. I zipped happily through my menu and shopping list then ventured over to the frozen meats. There, I was thrilled to see a sign boasting, “Free turkey with $125 purchase!” I can spend that much money just driving into the parking lot of any grocery store, so I did not bother tallying up my treasure. I just selected two frozen turkeys, grabbed a few more needed items, and made my way to the registers.
I slid easily into an empty space attended by a cashier who was new to me. We exchanged pleasantries, and I asked her if either of my turkeys could be included in the $125 minimum for a free turkey. She thought so, sure, but would happily confirm. She speed walked over to her manager, they conferred for several minutes, and she glided back to me beaming. “Yes! No problem!”
She was the picture of efficiency, relaying my Thanksgiving groceries from one hand to the next, scanning prices, her fingers flying to input produce codes, making effervescent small talk with me as she worked. Yes, very excited for Thanksgiving, oh my gosh yes, the weather forecast is beautiful so far! Are you hosting? yes, yes, it’s my favorite thing. And wow this is the perfect time of day to shop. No one is here! So nice.
I looked around, just enjoying the spaciousness of the store, admiring the extremely well stocked shelves and symmetrical displays, wondering how many people it takes to keep so many chrome and glass surface that shiny.
When she reached the end of my massive order, she cocked her brunette curls to one side and kind of clucked. The total was only $121 and some change. I was surprised because, as I mentioned, it is normally so easy to spend that minimum and then some. No one was waiting behind me. So she encouraged me to grab another item or two to reach the required $125 for, in case you have forgotten, the free turkey.
I abandoned my groceries and did that stupid ball-of-your-feet jog people do when they are trying to look like they are running cooperatively across a street in front of a yielding vehicle, searching without my list for any items I might have neglected. Canned soda, yes. Okay a couple of packages of brown-and-serve dinner rolls, too. That should do it.
I rounded an aisle that becomes a straightaway to Efficient Brunette Curls, and my heart sank. In those few moments since I had polite-jogged away, three groups of shoppers had accumulated behind my now unattended cart. I saw a well dressed woman about my age driving a cart with a similarly generous arsenal of ingredients; in front of her was an older black woman, dressed in a loose gown and wearing a scarf around her recently set hair, leaning against a cart that held only cranberry juice, a bag of oranges, and a few boxed pantry items; and in front of her was a young couple. They were both festooned with tattoos and wearing cropped concert tees, black combat boots, and vividly colored hair. I squirmed past each shopper, whispered my awkward apologies, and presented those spontaneous purchases for adding to the goal.
This is where the story really begins.
Efficient Brunette Curls cheerfully rang up my new items, took a pleasantly deep breath because this transaction was almost done, and then cocked her head again, clucking again. The total was somehow lower than before.
I am no scientist, but it sure seems like adding more items to a total should increase that total. Are we all in agreement on this?
Something deep inside me set off awareness in every physical sense. The shiny surfaces were shinier. The space between the aisles became oceanic. Neat towers of boxed products swayed like unstable skyscrapers, at risk now of toppling. The music playing in the distant speakers was like a booming, scratchy concert. I could smell the refrigerant in nearby coolers.
I glanced briefly over my left shoulder, mouthing inaudible apologies to the four people probably waiting for me to get on with my stupid life. Everyone shook their heads sweetly and dismissed the niceness, it’s fine it’s fine, no worries.
Efficient Brown Curls had already taken the matter into her own perfectly manicured hands, clicking and clacking her heart out until she felt she had reached an impasse. “I don’t get it.”
“It should be enough,” I said, never able to resist stating the obvious.
“It should be enough, yes.” An ally.
The woman last in line, the one with the ample grocery haul like mine, stage-whispered through the small crowd, “Are you trying to get the free turkey? I am too! What’s wrong?”
Okay, maybe this is actually where the story begins.
Curls explained to her surprisingly rapt audience the mystery of the diminishing grocery total, and I made sure to interrupt her a lot by saying how sorry I was to delay them all, and also trying to justify my immense collection of kale and oranges and walnuts and butter and, you all might have noticed, two turkeys! Because it is our parents’ fiftieth anniversary year, and the whole family will be in Oklahoma for Thanksgiving, and we need it to be really perfect. My body flooded with whatever hormone keeps you from being able to shut up but makes you want to run away as fast as possible.
But I had $118 worth of reasons for staying put. Which meant I needed to spend another $7 or $8 to get a free turkey.
Here, I should point out that the turkey I was hoping to get for free was only about $14. My husband is in charge of our finances overall, just to rest you assured.
Okay. Efficient Brunette Curls tapped a few more keys on her Magical Grocery Machine and marched with purpose away to the manager’s bench. She approached. “Your honor, I object,” is probably how she started. They wagged their heads at each other a few times, exchanging points of view beyond our hearing. Curls, now our fearless leader, returned to us.
“You just have to get to $125. It should work.” We had made no meaningful headway.
I was completely unwilling to do that stupid polite jog again, especially in front of people, especially in front of people who had been waiting for me already, so I panicked. And friends, I mean, I panicked.
I let my head pivot freely on my neck a few times then spotted the bottle of 100% real cranberry juice in the older woman’s cart. It was not the juice cocktail; it was the real stuff. Pure cranberry. My brain saw it as a gold mine and said to my body, “That’s it! That’s the solution. Buy her juice, it will fix everything!” So I did, and she smiled and said, “Thank you Jesus!”
What happened next really truly makes no sense.
The grand total did not go up, not ever by one cent. It actually went down.
I added a not cheap grocery item to the order, and the total diminished again.
By now, the young couple, the juice loving lady with the recently set hair, and the Thanksgiving hostess in back were all four gathered close, drawn together as if by an invisible thread, the common thread of either concern or wonderment. What is happening? We all needed to know.
If moments ago my body wanted to flee, then now it now wanted disappear entirely. The whole scene felt like a hidden camera television experiment. A What Would You Do kind of situation. As Curls worked furiously on her Magical Grocery Machine, my gaze expanded again to the store overall. Has it always been so clean? Is it normal this well stocked and tidy? And what about my overly accommodating neighbors… Each of them seemed suddenly like caricatures of themselves, like they were cast by a director to play very distinct parts, unlikely neighbors in a supposedly spontaneous public moment. I knew it.
Everyone was crowded now around the keypad where I would have donated blood right then and there just to pay and be gone.
The young couple, the two women, and me in my horse hair covered coat and sweaty running clothes.
Curls half-demanded that her manager come help. I gulped.
The manager arrived wearing an annoyed expression and, I kid you not, a nametag: Karen.
Karen did a Mike Tyson-punch at three or four buttons on the store side of the keypad and took one of my turkeys in hand. She asked me is this is the one I wanted for free or NOT. My eyes could not have have blinked shut even with great effort. Yes ma’am, please. OK THEN and she bowled that frozen bird all the way down the otherwise vacant conveyor belt so that it crashed into the metal end. The girl behind me gasped. Karen said nothing and stomped away.
The grocery total went down even more. I felt dizzy.
“It’s okay! I will just buy the turkey, it’s not worth it. Please let me pay.”
“Absolutely not. This makes no sense.” The world’s most patient and meticulous cashier suggested we undo the entire order and ring it up all over again. An audit, if you will. “There has to be a reason,” she insisted. And she seemed unfazed by her manager’s small tantrum.
The gasping tattoo girl behind me had since noticed some fine print in a small sticker near the keypad: “This offer does not include alcohol, tobacco, lottery tickets, or milk.”
Ok, milk! Yes, I had purchased half a gallon of whole milk because my little brother wanted a certain kind of mashed potatoes. Okay, that is a few bucks. What should we do? My body asked my brain.
Well, my brain suggested that we panic in new and better ways.
I looked at the items Gasping Tattoo Girl held in her artful arms: A plastic baggie of green onions, something in a box, and an enormous pumpkin pie from the bakery.
BINGO! My brain said this in Cousin Eddie’s voice. Obviously.
I literally took the pumpkin pie from her hands (without verbally asking permission, just with my eyes, because, that is just how this new and better version of panic manifested) and thrust it at Fearless Leader: “TRY THIS!”
Gasping Tattoo Girl hissed a happy, affirmative yyeesssss and threw her hand up in a heavy metal wagging gesture I am pretty sure was invented by Ozzy Osborne.
Now. Everybody guess what happened next.
The total went down again.
I really was beginning to consciously believe that a team of cameras was positioned in hidden spots all around us. This was too uncanny, too weird, too uncomfortable and hilarious. But I could not laugh yet; in fact I was on the verge of crying.
“No no no, don’t worry honey,” the Cranberry Juice Lady said in a warm, oracle kind of Oklahoma accent.
Hostess Lady agreed, “I need to see what happens, I need my free turkey too!” She even tried to rally a group cheer, pumping her slender LL Bean arms in the air and chanting all alone, “TREAM FREE TURKEY!” I tried to join her in this cheer but wow that felt self congratulatory, so it fizzled almost immediately. I felt bad for her, but she was laughing.
“Yeah no worries,” Ozzy Fans both said, “Let’s see how this plays out.” She petted her now paid for holiday dessert like it was a kitten.
Everyone leaned in towards the keypad, all of us aimed at it with such intensity.
The intimacy of space and purpose with these unlikely strangers really took my breath away.
We continued to chat. At some point, our group research stumbled onto the possibility that each customer was perhaps limited to one turkey. Like maybe the system refused to ring up both of them due a limited supply. Curls was so intent of getting me my turkeys as promised that she jokingly said, “I should just let you have it, how will the system know?” I begged her not to do that, please don’t get in trouble, and I glanced fearfully at Your honor’s bench in case she could somehow intuit our long distance conversation.
What finally happened is pretty anticlimactic. By removing one turkey from the order, the subtotal was enough to get one turkey for free. Then I just paid for the second turkey. Plus the half gallon of real cranberry juice and a huge pumpkin pie, which each went to their respective homes. In all the chaos, I did resist the urge to tell the young Ozzy Girl that it would have been much cheaper to bake the pie from scratch, but after that bizarre display, I doubt she would listen to any home-ec advice from me.
I paid for the big order. I paid for the a la carte turkey. I said my goodbyes and thank yous and wished my five new friends a very wonderful Thanksgiving. Then I hightailed it past Your Honor Karen and out of the too clean store before the hidden camera crew could catch me and ask for a signed release. I kind of regretted not waiting to see if LL Bean got her free turkey. She was rooting for me so hard.
By the time I reached my car to unload these precious feast supplies, my heart was racing and my eyes still had not really closed. I texted my husband, “You are not going to believe what just happened,” and I drove back to the farm.