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You’re in a crowded store considered by many to be the nexus of all human suffering, swimming against the tide of holiday shoppers because you’re there for a light bulb, not bags of cheap chocolate-like material, the kind wrapped as Christmas coins and bells, the kind that no one likes but eats anyway. You must confess to being a compatriot of these Christmas shoppers (around here, there is very little holiday shopping that is not Christmas-related), though, because you’ve detoured through the candy aisle on your way to the light bulb aisle and you’ve grabbed a box of 97-cent chocolate-covered cherries for sentimental reasons. Your dad used to love them at Christmas time, but the mere thought of them made you gag. Until he died too young, when you bought a box in his honor and discovered that you could not get enough of them.

As usual, there are more than a few kids whining and crying and parents yelling at them to knock it off or they’ll give them something to cry about. Not as usual, most of the cash registers are open and so the lines are almost manageable. Human nature being what it is, many of the people in line aren’t aware that there are other shoppers just as eager to pay for their Christmas lights and Circus Peanuts and get on with the rest of their days. Their carts are diagonal across the lane as they unload their censored CDs and giant tins of multi-flavored popcorn onto the conveyor belt, or they’re standing beside their carts, oblivious to the humanity teeming behind them, preventing that humanity from getting to the cash registers beyond the roadblocks they’ve created.

You stand behind a formidable-looking woman, a woman who appears none too pleased to be alive, a woman who looks like she could, and probably has, single-handedly, smacked down a pack of Hells Angels in a bar fight. Her cart is diagonal and she is standing beside it, and her young daughter, also none too pleased, is standing beside her, backing up traffic five carts deep while a cash register beyond her with but a lone customer goes begging. In the holiday spirit you give her a minute before saying “Excuse me,” sure that she’ll sense your presence first, apologize, and move the hell out of the way. She doesn’t, so, with the weight of customers with carts stacking up behind you, you calculate that you can squeeze past if the daughter moves just a few inches, so you finally say “Excuse me, sweetie” to the little girl.

The scary-looking woman turns around and stands straight, which is when you realize that she is more than six feet tall. You envision a T-shirt under her dirty, ratty sweatshirt that says, “Ask me if I fuckin care” because she looks a little like the woman you saw many years ago, with just such a shirt, waiting to pick up her boyfriend’s kids at your kids’ elementary school. But she’s not interested in you and turns to her daughter, who is not the entire cause of, but merely an accomplice to, the blocking of the cash register line. She turns half of her attention to her daughter, yanking her by the arm while yelling at her to “get the hell out of the way” and “quit being such a rude little shit.” The little girl would not have been in the way if her mother had not taken up the maximum amount of space possible by a shopping cart and attendant shopper.

That’s when you realize this is the little girl who was making such a fuss in the candy aisle. It was clear that this girl with the long-dirty clothes, the grubby face, and the uncombed hair that looked as if it had been whacked off by Stevie Wonder wielding a butter knife while standing in the middle of the kitchen, was done shopping, that she was worn out, and that she was used to not being listened to. That big woman was the mom who’d been telling her to shut up, who’d been yanking her around while she herself stayed in everyone’s way. In horror, you realize that your “Excuse me, sweetie” has contributed to the misery of this little girl’s life.