My best friend Celena and I made up code names for boys we wanted to talk about without others knowing. There was “The Algebra Problem,” that, thinking back on it probably wasn’t the best name choice because since when would I ever choose to talk about Algebra? “Purple Hat Boy” was the name we chose for a boy who – shocker – always wore a purple baseball cap. (No one would ever know who Celena and I were talking about.)
One day Purple Hat Boy came into Pan’s, the grocery store I worked in one summer. He was hanging out by the produce and if this anecdote were happening today I would pull out my phone and text Celena: “PURPLE HAT BOY’S HERE!!!!!”
She’d text back: “OMG! WHAT’S HE DOING? WHAT’S HE WEARING? DID HE SEE YOU!?!?!”
But it was 1991 and in those days when something happened that you felt compelled to tell your BFF about you did two things: 1) begin to write a note to be folded in a triangle and given to her later. 2) Nothing. You would sit there (or stand if you were, say, manning a cash register) and let the story unfold while you punched in codes for bananas and swiped Nilla Wafers. When your shift ended, you’d walk home along Harrison in the summer’s evening heat and you’d think even the “el” seemed to move slower in this humidity. You’d call Celena and see what she was up to. You’d meet up later – at the movies you’d never go into, at the pool, at the Hole in the Wall. Maybe you’d tell her about Purple Hat Boy or maybe you’d decide the event wasn’t much of a story.
I was thinking about Purple Hat Boy and Celena the other day while I was standing in line at the grocery store while the girl in front of me was taking a ridiculous amount of time purchasing Trident, a case of Diet Coke, and a pair of flip flops.
The cashier boy, who was running her items through at a snail’s pace says (and I kid you not), “Do you come in here a lot?”
I almost cracked my eggs on the conveyer belt when I heard that. Are you kidding me with that question? You can’t come up with a better line than that?
“Yeah,” she tells him in that supremely affected tone girls of a certain age are allowed to have. She goes on to tell him all the times she’s been here: to buy water balloons and ice-cream for the kid she babysits, once to return a bag of shredded cheese for her mom. “Because, it was like, the wrong kind,” she tells the boy. “Or maybe it was moldy.” They roll their eyes at a mom’s ridiculousness while I roll my eyes at the obvious truth: she’d probably just gotten her license and was dying to drive the car and her mother gave her an errand to run. You know the girl jumped at the chance to roll down the windows, blast the radio and return the moldy cheese. I bet she was hoping this boy was working, but I bet she took the long route because driving by yourself with the windows rolled down and the music blaring trumps any chance you might run into a boy.
“I know I’ve seen you before,” the boy says and he has completely stopped checking out her groceries. The two of them are just standing there, smiling at each other.
For crying out loud, I think as I look at the headlines on the magazines. They’re all the same: something to do with trimming your belly, something about the butt of one of the Kardashians, something about a movie star having two minutes to live, something about a casserole, something about 250 easy Valentine’s/Christmas/Easter/Halloween crafts you can do with your kids.
“Dude!” another boy, who’s bagging says. He points to the case of Diet Coke. “That’s hers, too.”
“Right,” the boy says and the girl giggles.
And because there’s nothing left to do, the boy says, “See ya ’round,” and hands the girl a receipt.
“Yeah. See ya,” she says and walks away. Both boys, the bagger and the cashier, watch her go. They watch and they watch and I wonder if either of them remember they’ve been hired to do a job when a third boy, this one with a flannel shirt and headphones on, comes running up.
“Dude! I did it! I got her number!” He’s shaking his phone triumphantly.
“Just now? You got her number just now?” the cashier asks, in shock.
“Yeah, dude. Just,” he jumps and criss-crosses his legs then turns, “now.”
For Pete’s sake.
I should say something but it’s the first day of Spring and it’s sunny and almost sixty degrees out and I’m thinking of that John Updike story about the high school girls who walk into the grocery store on a summer day. Nobody can do anything but look at them.
“Dude,” the bagger says, nodding towards me. “Check her out.”
The cashier boy looks at me hopefully, and then with shock, and my cheeks could fry the eggs I’m trying to buy. The bagger realizes how what he said sounded. “I didn’t mean,” he stammers, “I just meant…I’m sorry, m’am.”
M’am. It can’t get any worse.
“These carrots have no color,” the cashier tells me. “You want a different bag?”
“They’re parsnips,” I say.
“What are parsnips?” the cashier asks turning the bag over.
“I guess they’re like carrots,” I say.
“Carrots with no color.”
I laugh. “Yeah.”
“What do you do with them?” he asks.
“I’ll toss them with olive oil, salt, and pepper. Maybe a shallot. Maybe some fresh thyme.” Stop talking, I think. Stop talking now.
The cashier nods and rolls my parsnips down to the bagger. “What’s wrong with these carrots?” the bagger asks.
“Dude. They’re not carrots,” the cashier tells him. “They’re parsnips.”
The cashier scans my eggs then puts a rubber band around them. “Do you think he’ll call her?” he asks.
“Yup,” the bagger says. “I would.”
“That’s cold,” the cashier says rolling my Garnier Fructis Disorder Wax towards the bagger. It was an impulse purchase. I always go down the beauty aisle when I’m grocery shopping by myself. When we were in high school, Celena and I frequently met each other at Walgreens on a Sunday afternoon, the store’s ad from the Chicago Tribune in hand.
“I love this place,” she’d say as we scanned the many colors of nail polish, picked up bottles of Sun-In, and ran our fingers through glittery hair elastics.
“Me too,” I’d say standing with her in our flip flops in front of Cover Girl or Revlon sipping Diet Cokes.
“Look what I did!” the bagger is talking to me now, smiling. “I bagged your groceries using five bags even though I could’ve done it in three!”
“Good job,” I say.
“I saved you money!” He’s so proud of himself because for every re-used bag a patron uses, she gets a nickel. I earned ten cents today.
“Thank you,” I say and roll my groceries out to the parking lot.
I can’t remember where I parked. This always happens when I’m by myself. When I’m with Hadley and Harper I remember, but today I’m standing in the middle of the lot twisting my head from one side to the other, completely at a loss.
An old, creepy looking man is watching me. “You need help, young lady?”
Ew. “No, thanks,” I say and make like I know where I’m going.
He is wearing a purple hat.
This time, I think to pull out my phone and text Celena. “Remember Purple Hat Boy?” I begin composing in my head. “I saw him today. He hasn’t aged well.”
A few weeks ago Celena and I discussed good books to read. I told her flip flops were on sale at Target, and that I was thinking about writing a book. She told me she bought a turtle for her kids and a how things were going for her at work.
I decide against texting Celena as I place my groceries in the car, and laugh because one of my bags has a bunch of bananas in it and that’s it.
She probably doesn’t remember Purple Hat Boy, I think as I drive home. It really wasn’t that much of a story.