Disclaimer by the Editorial Board: The following story, No Good Deed… is a work of fiction by Billy Lee. Events and persons depicted in the story exist only in the imagination of the writer and have no connection to living persons or actual events.
The old woman ahead of me in the check-out lane at the grocery sat in a battery-operated three-wheeler and struggled to move her purse off her wrist and into the front basket. She couldn’t do it and gave up. She was grossly overweight; she couldn’t maneuver—her fat arms were black and blue right down to her fingernails. Diabetes, I thought.
I wondered if I should help, but she soon stopped and let the purse dangle where it was, on her wrist. It was a bad angle. It would be awkward for me to reach for it; and besides, it was her purse, a personal item she might try to defend. It was a good bet she fought this fight every time she shopped. No big deal. Let it go.
It was her own cart that she sat in, from the looks of it. She probably had used it for years. Held together by duct tape and bubble gum, it was dirty; a yellowed eggnog color; depressing to look at.
The cashier at the register—a black college-aged girl—finished the tally; the old woman sitting in the beat-up cart fumbled unsuccessfully to open her purse; the line of shoppers behind us continued to grow. It was busy. It was Christmas. I was in a hurry. What the heck… I reached over to the card reader and inserted my card. I’ll get this, I said. Merry Christmas.
The old lady looked up at me and said, thank you.
You look like you have enough to worry about, I said, beaming. We’ll make it one less thing.
Yes, she said. I worry about so many things these days. She fell silent and looked down. Something drippy fell from her mottled face into her lap. The eyes of the young black woman working the cash-register grew large and began to sparkle from tears, which she tried to hold back. She would tell me later she had just immigrated from Ghana, Africa. She has stories, that girl, I would think to myself. The African regained her composure and gathered the old lady’s items.
As the cashier and myself exchanged a sympathetic look, the old woman with the black and blue arms and drippy face reached for a button on her cart and sped away. She didn’t remember to collect her receipt. I don’t think she felt embarrassed. Maybe she thought I might change my mind; make her pay for her own groceries, or something.
The cashier rang up my stuff. It was all good. I started to get that warm glow one gets when they’ve done something for someone, especially a stranger.
A melodic accent from somewhere out of Africa interrupted my reverie, Oh, look! Here is a bag of things. Are they yours? I think I forgot to give them to that person.
We checked the contents against the old woman’s receipt. Yup, they weren’t mine.
The cashier grabbed the bag and ran down the long aisle of the store to search for an old woman driving a beat-up mobility scooter with a missing bag of groceries. The folks in line behind me started to stir. A few threw unfriendly looks in my direction. My warm feeling turned to heat, then dread.
The cashier returned; she hadn’t found the customer. Since I had the receipt, I decided to take the groceries. If the old lady returned, she would be unable to convince anyone the groceries were hers, I reasoned.
I began to worry. It was Christmas. Undercover cops—temporaries with little training or empathy—lurked pretty much everywhere. They loved to patrol the parking lots, someone once told me.
What if store security decided to stop the old lady in the busy lot? What if they intercepted her before she could rendezvous with whoever was driving her home? Maybe she lived alone nearby, and there was no one to escort her. Minus the receipt, they might arrest her for shoplifting.
They might already have her in a little room somewhere, hidden from the public, to interrogate her. That’s why we couldn’t find her. I loosened my collar as my mind began to race. I felt sweat bead on the top of my head.
She would notice—under the intense pressure of questioning—one bag of groceries was missing. And she couldn’t produce the receipt. He took it, she’d realize. It was the old man! I could hear her screaming. She was cursing me—the old codger who had stood behind her and had the audacity to jump into her business for no good reason.
Of course she had the money to pay for everything, she screamed at the SWAT team as they held her down; as they restrained her. Of course she did. She didn’t need that smelly stranger’s credit card. And he stole a bag of her groceries! Arrest him! It was he, the grey-beard, who robbed her; it was he who took her receipt; it was he who confused her—and the cashier! He got her arrested. It was he, he, he—an old FART!—not her!
I imagined her anguish. By now she must realize that she would spend Christmas in prison; behind bars; isolated; alone; cold; away from family and a warm fire in the hearth—for I just knew she had no money for lawyers or bail.
I thought I could hear her weeping. I could hear her, but I would never be able to find her. No one else could hear her cries for mercy, no one would ever step forward to defend her and confirm her story. Take her out of here, I heard the arresting officer boom. Thief!
A few minutes later, as I drove my car out of the crowded parking lot, quickly, furtively, I cast a side-long glance into my rear-view mirror. No flashing lights. No siren. Just an old red van with a tree tied on top.
It was Christmas; the most wonderful time of the year.