Open Letter To That Unexpected Item In The Bagging Area

Dear Unexpected Item In The Bagging Area,

The BEEP of a properly scanned item followed by the rustle of a plastic bag had lulled me into an ambrosial trance at the self-checkout. My shopping trip, blessed by unforeseen discounts and a pleasing lack of other customers, was wrapping up seamlessly.

I was all but hailed the Patron Saint of Errands when everything went to hell in a squeaky-wheeled shopping cart.

Your presence, or the self-checkout machine’s detection of your alleged arrival, incited a volcanic eruption of panic. The machine robotically announced your existence on a loop while flashing the register’s red light and halting my transaction. Other customers glanced suspiciously in my direction, clutching their wallets and coupons a little tighter. An employee exhaled emphatically and trudged toward the scene of my disaster.

Except the disaster wasn’t mine at all. I scrutinized the bagging area with my eyes, and then I did so again with the help of my pocket magnifying glass. The only items present had been placed there by my own two hands — every visible thing in the bagging area was irrefutably expected.

The employee punched in a magic code, and the panicked machine quieted back to normalcy. With downcast eyes and drooping shoulders, I scanned my final items, clicked “Finish and Pay,” and completed the transaction.

As I distributed the bags’ weight evenly between each arm and began the long walk home, I couldn’t get you out of my head.

You do not possess a physical form. You cannot be identified by any of the five human senses. Even so, you have the power to disturb my reality in such a concrete way.

Perhaps you are a figment of a bored machine’s overactive imagination. Maybe the self-checkout just needed attention and excitement, like a kid pulling the fire alarm to break the day’s plodding, wearisome routine.

But part of me believes that the machine wasn’t bored or attention-starved: something unexpected really was in the bagging area. While this item was invisible to me, it had a presence palpable enough to be electronically registered. 

Is it possible that the machine’s sensors detected my crippling regrets and debilitating anxiety at living another day in this cruel world?

If so, I suppose it is unexpected for such existential burdens to appear in a bagging area that contains humdrum merchandise like dental floss and that bath mat I’ve been meaning to buy for eight weeks.

When I approached the self-checkout lane, I maintained a facade of sanguine nonchalance. Nonetheless, screaming doubts (How often do I skip flossing merely because it’s grotesque? How did I live for 56 consecutive days without a bath mat? Who allowed me to become a member of a civil society?) were transforming from intangible abstractions to tangible ones.

So tangible, in fact, that a computerized scanner detected them and had a full-scale panic attack in my honor.

This could be the case. It’s very possible and highly probable. If this is what transpired, I owe you an apology because you originated from the dark labyrinth of my own mind.

With Uncertainty and Fear,

Questioning Everything I Ever Knew

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