I Met an Angry Lady at the Check-out Line Today

Happy Anniversary, Angry Lady! Five years ago this month (July 2016), I posted on my previous website an encounter I had at a grocery store that became the most popular story that I have ever shared. The story took several weeks for me to write, so the original readers received the story in three parts. Here is the full story in one post.

Fran the Angry Lady. I met her at the check-out line. We had a conversation. This is our story.


Part One: Darla Overhears an Angry Lady at the Von’s Check-out Line

When I arrived at the mall, I found a parking spot close to the grocery store, a feat which confirmed this truly was a glorious, work-free, weekday morning.

I entered the store and worked my way down the aisles. A bag of cat litter. A jug of water. A pack of gum. Done. I pushed my cart towards the “Express” check-out. There must have been ten people waiting.

So I steered my cart to Checkstand Four, which had one person waiting. Much better.

The woman in line had a full basket, so I prepared for the wait. I opened my purse to get my phone, but the words I was hearing distracted me. Angry words from an Angry Lady.

A Super-Loud-With-Her-Angry-Words Lady.

“I can’t believe the management at this store!” Slam item onto the counter. “Why don’t they get another checker?!” Slam item onto the counter. “It’s always like this in here!” Slam. Slam. Slam.

She wasn’t talking to anyone directly, and no one was talking to her. All I heard was anger, slams, and the beeping of the grocery scanner.

I noticed the orchid in the Angry Lady’s cart — so delicate, so beautiful. Quite a contrast from its soon-to-be owner.

She looked at me. I smiled at her. The Angry Lady was nicely dressed and her make-up was just right. She had wrinkles that revealed her age despite the sandy-brown hair color. She looked at the items in my cart, looked back at me, and said, “Why don’t you use the express lane?! Fifteen items or less!”

“The line is pretty long over there,” I said.

“That’s what I mean about this place. They need better management. And I hate waiting in line. The service here is awful.” She stopped slamming her groceries and proceeded to tell me about all the things she had to do, including the Spanish class for which she would now be late.

“I don’t mind waiting in line,” I said. “Things could be worse. We could be standing in line waiting for our first and only meal of the day.”

The clerk looked at me. The customer at the head of the line looked at me. And the Angry Lady looked at me.

“Humph!” she said. “Well, I wish I could have that attitude.”

“You can.” I provided a number of other bad situations for which she could be standing in line. Funeral. Clothing handout. Place to sleep after a fire. Little things like that. “Plus, you can practice being patient for a time when you really need it. I love to do that while standing in line.” I chuckled.

She took a step back and frowned. “Here.” She thrust her arm towards me. “Rub some of that attitude on me!”

So I reached towards her and rubbed her arm. We both laughed as she continued loading the belt with groceries. I noticed the amused expressions of the store clerk as well as the customer ahead of the Angry Lady as he paid and left.

“Well, they could at least open another checker, don’t you think?” Her tone had softened.

“I bet they would if they could. I always imagine that there is a good reason for it.”

She looked at me with a smile that teetered on frustration. Then she said, “Okay, okay! I’ll try to look at it that way.”

“Excellent,” I said. “Patience is a virtue. What’s your name?” The Angry Lady didn’t look so angry anymore. She told me her name — Fran* — and I told her mine.

“Darla. That’s a pretty name,” she said. Of course I had to tell her the story of my sister Lynne and how I got my name. Sensing her true age, I knew Fran would recognize the Our Gang character. “That’s a wonderful story, Darla. Yes, I remember watching that TV show.”

Our conversation continued as the clerk quietly checked the grocery items. Fran told me that she had only lived in Santa Barbara for one year. She came here from New York.

I felt even more compassion for her after hearing that little fact.

New York, she explained, had better customer service. Not like here, she assured me. The clerk stood waiting and I nodded to let Fran know that it was time to pay.

She slid her card through the payment machine. “How does this thing work? What am I doing wrong?” She tapped the number pad and kept sliding the card, back and forth. I gave the clerk a “Please help her” look. He did. I glanced behind me. Traffic jam at Checkstand Four.

Finally, with her payment made and her groceries bagged, Fran was ready to go. “I do feel better, Darla. I do! Goodbye!”

I waved to her. “Nice to meet you, Fran. Have a great day.”

“I will! You, too! Hope I don’t get to my class too late. No, no, I don’t need any help out.” She shooed away the bagger, steered her cart, and headed for the exit.

Finally, it was my turn. The clerk scanned my three items. He didn’t say a word about Fran. I didn’t say a word about Fran. We both grinned. When I handed him my cash, he asked me if I had a store card. “That’ll save you some … three dollars,” he said. Yikes. I had forgotten to enter my information and I was glad he had reminded me. Tap, tap, tap, on the number pad.

I saw the woman, next in line, frown. 

* Fran is not her real name. Other upcoming details about her life have been changed as well to keep her privacy.


Part Two: Darla Spots Fran Loading Groceries Just Steps From Her Car

Give me a slight breeze and seventy-two degrees and I will choose gardening. My yard is a mix of projects completed, in session, or forgotten. A never-ending mess that I love. The backyard is covered in a weedy grass that can only be killed by Kryptonite. I have tried, tried, and tried again — mulch smothering, Round-up poisoning, boiling water scalding, the California drought. Nothing has been able to beat it.

So, after paying for my groceries, I left the store with visions of weed wars in my head. I could not wait to get home and take on the enemy, another sweet battle that I would temporarily win. I had already spent more time in the store than I had planned. If it hadn’t been for …

Fran?

There she was, loading her groceries. My car was right across the lot from hers and a few spaces up. Her back was to me. I could have passed her by and been on my way to gardening joy.

I got closer to my car, my mind doing that Tom and Jerry thing where the angel would be on one shoulder and the devil on the other: Garden. Fran. Garden. Fran. You already spoke to her. But how can you pass by without saying something? The woman feels better now. She told you so! Oh, stop being selfish and say something to her.

The angel won. Instead of sneaking away, I called out to her as I got to my car. “Goodbye, Fran.” She turned to me and I waved.

“Oh! Donna. Look at this orchid.” She held up the plant. “I love orchids. I buy new ones every few months.”

I considered correcting her on the name fail, but I decided against it. “Orchids are so beautiful. Don’t they look like they’re smiling at you?”

“Yes, they do. And I see that you have a cat.” She walked over to me and pointed at my cart. “I saw the cat litter. I have a dog. I rescued her. Sweetest thing. Never would leave my side. Now she has all the room in the world to run, from the ocean” — she swung her arms back and forth — “to the mountains. Not like in New York. Here, I thought she would run away, but she still won’t leave my side.”

I tried to convince her that cats rule, but she wouldn’t buy it. “I’m too independent myself,” she said with a wave of her hand. “Anyway, nice talking to you.” She walked back to her car.

“Take care, Fran.” There. Duty done. I opened the hatch to load my things.

“I wish there was another place nearby that I could shop for groceries, but I live too close.” She yelled to me from across the lot. “I hate this store.” She pointed at it to make sure I knew which one.

“That is some strong language, Fran.” I turned towards the store. “This one is my favorite. I drive across town to buy my groceries here.”

“You’re kidding! Let me tell you something.” She walked back over to me. “This doesn’t happen in New York. Businesses know how to treat their customers. There’s too much competition for them to treat people like they do here. Treat the customer like that and they’re out of business the next day. Really!”

“I don’t doubt that, Fran, but, well, um, you know, this isn’t New York.”

“I don’t care!” She threw her hands up. “It’s business. Everybody should treat their customers right.”

“I agree.” I admitted to Fran that I encountered the “I’ll help you when I’m good and ready” attitude many times in Santa Barbara. I shared a bit of history and what I had seen over my fifty-five years in this town, especially the early days when local families owned all the stores and restaurants.

“Humph. How old are you?” Fran asked.

“I’ll be fifty-six this year.”

“I’m seventy-eight. You’re my daughter’s age.” Fran’s eyes had lost their fury. “My husband died and I remarried. That’s why I’m here — to be with my new husband. He’s a CEO for a worldwide company. I told him he had to retire.” She grinned. “If you want to marry me, I said, you have to retire.” She leaned in closer to me and lowered her voice. “This man is the best. He treats everybody like they’re special. If they call him, he’s there. It doesn’t matter what time of the night or day. Everybody loves him. But I told him he couldn’t have me and work every single day. Retire or forget it.” She stepped back, looking victorious.

“And he did?” I didn’t doubt it, but I was dying to hear her tell the story. This woman was thoroughly entertaining. The garden could wait.

“No.”

“No?!” I was stunned. How could this man resist Fran?

Fran crossed her arms. “We compromised. He said three days a week. I said okay.”

I laughed. “I guess that’s better than seven.”

“Actually, after a while, I told him to go back to seven. Having him home those four days, it was” — she shoved me — “driving me crazy!” Her voice was shrill. Her delivery was perfect. She laughed like it was the first time she had heard the story. After getting over the shock of her shove, I joined her. Absolutely hilarious.

What more could this woman do or say to make our conversation better than it had already been?


Part Three: Fran Asks a Heart-Wrenching Question

The day before I met Fran, a police shooting had become the talk of the nation. Many people were furious about what they saw as a race-motivated killing of an innocent man. I did not watch the video that was passing through the Facebook community, but I did read about the incident. Years may pass before I have an “Oh, that’s right! I’m black!” moment here in Santa Barbara, but the focus on skin color was back to high alert in my life.

As I stood in the parking lot with Fran, it occurred to me that she must have read and reacted to the same event. Black people. White people. Citizens. Law Enforcement. Innocent. Guilty. These lives and those lives. Yet here we were, with opposite skin colors, and the subject never came up during the entire conversation.

“My husband is one thing,” Fran said, “but his family, well…” She drew out the word, wrinkled her nose, and did that “So-so” gesture with her hand. “They’re all so coddled.”

Coddle: Treat in an indulgent or overprotective way. “How so?” I asked.

“It’s a very wealthy family, Donna.They get handed whatever they want. Not me. I worked for everything I have. Not these people.”

“But they welcomed you, yes?” I gave Fran a thumbs up, hoping to bring the conversation back to a positive.

“Yes, they did.” she said. “They’re nice people. Very nice. Four daughters. And he has three siblings. All coddled. But I won’t go for that. They don’t get any coddling from me.”

“And I would expect nothing less from you, Fran, but now you have a chance to show them another way of living. Seize the opportunity!”

“Humph.” Fran didn’t seem so sure of my suggestion. “Anyway, I opened a little shop so that I can stay busy.”

While Fran described her business, I imagined her yelling at her employees and throwing vendor invoices into the trash because none of them could do anything right.

“I hate to cook!”

Not being quite sure from where that outburst came, I could only answer, “What?” The woman was starting to remind me of the Energizer bunny on four cups of espresso.

“Cooking. I hate it. Do you like to cook?” She had a look of disgust on her face.

“Not really. Only for family gatherings. Frozen dinners are my best friends. I don’t think there is any food in my refrigerator right now. Maybe corn tortillas.”

“But I do like to clean. I’m a neat freak! Drives everybody crazy. Are you married?”

I froze. Ugh. I hate that question. Ask me anything else: “What is the meaning of life?” “Your hair is SO cool — can I touch it??” “How did your colonoscopy go?” Anything.

“No, I’m not married.” I thought about ending it there, but something about Fran’s expression caused me to continue. “Unfortunately, I’m divorced.”

And there was silence. The first real pause of our conversation.

I looked away from her so that I could collect myself. To this day — seventeen years after the fact — hearing the word “divorce” still stirs up within me the shame, humiliation, and sadness of my failed marriage.

Fran leaned in towards me and said, “How in the world did you ever handle something like that?” She asked this with such wonder, care, and concern that I almost hugged her.

“Not very well, Fran. It was not my choice.”

She stared at me for a few seconds.  I sensed that Fran was struggling with something herself. And then she said this, so softly, so gently: “I asked if you’re married because I think you would be a great person to live with. That good attitude and all.”

I cannot describe adequately how I felt at that moment. It was a combination of things: Knowing full well that “great” does not describe me, accepting the sweetness of her words as a gift, and realizing that I was seeing a Fran whom I never would have seen if not for a bit of patience at a check-out line.

Fran. Compassionate Fran. Only a short time ago you were a nuisance to all who were in your presence. And now? You’re the giver of a soothing gift to a hurting soul. I wish I could have had those words to say to her then. (Of course, she may have slugged me for the “nuisance” part, but I would have deserved it.)

“I don’t know about that ‘great to live with’ part, Fran. I’m just Darla McDavid. Nothing special about me.”

Right then, I saw Anne and Lillian, two elderly sisters, one in her late 70’s and the other just starting her 90’s, whom I’ve known for years. “Hi, Darla!” they each shouted. I waved back to them and we exchanged the usual pleasantries.

“Are they your friends?” Fran asked.

“Yes. We attend the same church.”

Fran stepped back and looked at me curiously. I’m still wondering if that is the point when she realized she had my name wrong. Maybe it was my mention of “church.” Whatever it was, she kept it to herself.

“Well, I gotta go. Time for my Spanish class!” Fran walked back to her car and took hold of her cart.

“And I have to get back to my gardening.” I felt a twinge of sadness as she walked away, as if I was letting go of something precious. “I hope we run into each other again soon.” I turned to my car and lifted the heavy bag of cat litter into the back.

“Me, too, Darla. Here. Let me take your cart back for you.”

Fran came back for my cart and pushed it into her own. Her huge smile showed how pleased she was with her act of kindness as she rolled the carts towards the grocery store. But before she could get too far, a couple approached Fran and offered her the same favor.

“Yes! Thank you!” She turned to me. “See, Darla?! I was going to help you” — she pointed at me — “and then they” — she pointed wildly at the couple — “helped both of us. Isn’t that great how it works?”

I nodded, speechless. Yes, it is, my friend.

And there it was. The circle was complete.

“Goodbye, Darla.”

“Good-bye, Fran.” I really want to give you a hug. 

And she got into her gorgeous, luxury sedan and drove off.

Fran the Lovely Lady. I will never cease to be amazed by the ways God teaches me about who He is and what He wants from my life.

I sat in my car and thought about the transformation I had witnessed — an ugly, angry lady becoming as lovely as an orchid. Patience helped reveal a gem. If I ever see her again, I will not hesitate to give Fran that hug.

Your turn. Go out and let a Fran find you. ∞


NOTE: When I started writing this story, I thought it would be a short one, but that didn’t happen. As I wrote, I remembered more and didn’t feel like I could leave out one detail about the fascinating person I had met. Fran left her mark on me, and I hope I did the same for her.

June Story of the Month: Ain’t Nothing Like the Real Thing

There are potato chips all over the rug, and I think about how brave Dad is not to care about the mess he’s making.

Crazy. I’m afraid to make Mom mad like that. She’d come and get at me behind my knees with a switch.

Dad’s not afraid. He’s taking his time on the Soul Express, that radio show he likes where the deejays yell and laugh and blow whistles all the time.

“It’s tiiiiiime for the Mighty Ten Ninety, Dee Dee!” And he just goes with it, dancing around the living room, stepping on anything in his way: that bag of chips, paper plates, comic books, the newspaper, his jacket. My sister’s cut-outs, too. She worked really hard to make those clothes for her paper dolls, but I see her smiling while Dad does his thing.

It’s like he’s in a dream.

Mom is at work. I watched her leave wearing the pink and gray uniform with her “stand all day” shoes. I don’t think she heard me yell goodbye to her from my bed because she didn’t say anything back.

Dad works at night as a janitor. He cleans the junior high school, and his picture is even in the school yearbook. He is the best-looking one of all those men who make that school shine. No one is better looking than my Dad. I checked all the pages of that yearbook. Nope. Not even the principal.

First weekend of Christmas vacation! Having Dad home and awake is my favorite thing. He plays cards with us and cooks really good breakfasts. And because it is Saturday, he won’t get drunk until later. He is wearing that brown V-neck pulled over his light-green turtleneck sweater. It’s my favorite thing for him to wear.

“Look out! Misto is comin’ and goin’!” He dances across the rug, his right arm out to the side, and his left hand across his belly, acting like he’s holding a fine woman real close.

Here he comes my way. I’m up against the side of the hi-fi with a cup of Kool-Aid, legs crossed, with my cat book open on my lap.

Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell start singing, and Dad says, “It’s my man! Turn it up!” He moves quickly to the hi-fi and fills the room with the song.

I begin to sing along. “Ain’t nu-thin’ like the real-thing-bay-beh.” Eyes closed, fingers snapping, rocking side to side.

“Stand up, girl!” I look up and he’s grinning. I love his mustache. It’s like those fuzzy black caterpillars that turn into pretty moths.

I jump up and take his hands. I place my feet upon his. He holds me up and stomps around as we sing the duet.

Dad makes silly faces when it’s my turn to sing, and I try not to laugh so I can do a good job.

“I got your picture hangin’ on the wall

It can’t see or come to me when I call your name

I realize it’s just a picture in a frame.”

Dad looks right at me while he sings, and I just know he means it, every single word.

“I got some memories to look back on

And though they help me when you’re gone

I’m well aware nothing can take the place of being there.”

The song ends, and I step off his feet. “You are good, girl,” he says. I tell him his voice is better than Marvin Gaye’s, and he laughs. He goes off to the kitchen, his body moving to the radio’s beat. I go back to my spot and think about being a on TV.

When he returns, Dad has a can of beer in his hand. “Dee Dee, get something and clean up the rug before your mama gets home.” He turns, opens the door to the backyard, and I don’t see him again until dinnertime.

We’re having beans and cornbread again, but I don’t mind. Mom spices the beans just right and puts enough sugar in the bread to make it taste special.

Dad tells my brother to say the usual family blessing:

“Thank you for the world so sweet, thank you for the food we eat, thank you for the birds that sing, thank you, God, for everything. Amen. Jesus wept.”

The TV set is close enough for us to see and hear the six o’clock news. My brothers are talking about this morning’s cartoons and what will happen on Sea Hunt tonight. Dad says he’s going to see a movie with our neighbor. His eyes are shiny, and I wonder if he hurt himself again. Mom looks mad.

One by one, we ask Dad to excuse us from the table after we’ve eaten everything on our plates. That is the rule in our home. Don’t even think about getting up from the table before Dad says you can.

I get my permission and join the others on the living room floor in front of the TV. My sister turns up the TV so we can hear the show and not the yelling going on in the kitchen. Dad comes through the living room, whistling and doing his dance steps. He grabs his jacket from the floor and almost trips over my brother on his way to the front door. He winks at me as he’s closing it.

Right then, I make up my mind to be a singer when I grow up. I tell Mom, and she says that Dad isn’t coming back.

That’s okay. I’ll tell him in the morning.


“Ain’t Nothing Like the Real Thing,” © 1967 Jobete, BMI

STORY NOTE: One of the treasured memories I have of my Dad is this incident — singing a duet while I stood on his feet. Writing this story as creative nonfiction was a way for me to relive the memory, and also to roll a bit of my family life into one day. Ten-year-old “Dee Dee” — his nickname for me — adored her Dad despite the things he did or did not do. Whenever I hear “Ain’t Nothing Like the Real Thing,” I think of my dance with him, how he moved away a few years later, and what a father’s presence and absence can bring out in his child. Three days before he died at age 73, I had a chance to tell Dad to his face, as he lay dying in his bed, that I loved him, I forgave him, God forgave him, and I would see him in heaven.

We Don’t Want Perfect Fathers

We do not want,

should not expect,

and will never have

perfect fathers.

All we want is for them

to make their God-given responsibilities a priority:

to teach, guide,

protect, provide for,

and love in His ways

the children He has given to them.

I do not think that is too much for a child to ask.

I do think that is too much for a father to carry

on his own.

God’s plan is a wife; she, his treasured helper.

But the great submission of man

is to yield to and depend on

the Heavenly Father.

A father will never be perfect,

but he can look to the One who is.

Too often, a father will finally bend

when the sweat of death lies on his brow.

I saw my father’s release at that divine exchange:

too late for a child

but a gift tearfully received

by a long-suffering me.

We don’t want perfect fathers.

We only want them.


Ephesians 6:4

Fathers, do not provoke your children to anger,

but bring them up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord.

(Father’s Day is celebrated in the United States every year on the third Sunday of June.)

A Seed in the Hand of God

Throughout Spring 2020, I was too concerned about COVID and my health to walk into the local gardening center. I ached for the day when I could roam the crowded and too narrow aisles once more. Never again would I complain about the long lines. And when I finally did go in for my Spring shopping spree a few months ago, I didn’t have a single thought of discontent. Though no one could tell, I was smiling behind my mask as I swiped my card through the machine because I purchased more items than were on my list, as usual.

Gardening is my special pleasure.

There could be no food in the refrigerator, a toilet that needs scrubbing, six loads of dirty laundry, taxes to be filed, 115 emails, and 216 text messages, and I’ll be thinking, “Just a few more minutes of gardening.” Then, six hours later, I go into the house, exhausted, and tell myself that I’ll get to those chores later. Sometimes I do. Sometimes I don’t.

What matters is that I feel good after my recreation. Energized. Relaxed. Tired but happy. Filthy dirty. Spatters of soil on my t-shirt and jeans, burrs in my hair and mud in my shoes, and wounds on fingers from misguided shears.

And I bring in the thoughts I had about God and his creative wonders that will never be outdone or undone.

I place a seed under a half-inch of soil, add water, and let the sunshine in. The seed splits and lets out its green growth after days of forced patience. What is my thought? “God allowed me to participate in a miracle.”

That’s what gardening is for me.

And, oh, the wonder of it all as I begin to compare my life to a seed in the hand of God. There I am, covered in dirt for a while as the Master Gardener sets the right time, the best conditions, the perfect growth plan for me.

Earlier this week, I pulled a cosmos plant from its spot in a flower bed. A gopher had found itself in a nearby trap, and I had to remove the cosmos to retrieve the critter. I whispered “I’m sorry” to the cosmos as I left it in a plastic tray until the dirty work was done. Its roots were out of the soil, packed into a cell that could no longer contain it, exposed to an environment that could not sustain it — full of discomfort and probably asking, “Why?”

So it goes for a time when God has a hard work to do in my life. I don’t like it, I feel removed, and I have questions. In the end, though, God’s work always turns out for his glory and my good.

Today, the cosmos plant is back in its spot and thriving.

In the garden, I learn a lesson or see an example of God’s love, care, or greatness. I look down at the innumerable insects and bugs living in the dirt. I look up to see soaring hawks and cooing doves. I look around: Roses protected by thorns. Wildflowers that simply show up each year. Bees, lizards, weeds, and stones. All of it points to an awesome, powerful, and creative God who saw fit to make a garden the first living space for man and woman.

In the garden, I see my Lord Jesus. “He was in the beginning with God. All things were made through him, and without him was not any thing made that was made (John 1:2).” I think about what gardens will look like in heaven, a place I will live one day because of my faith in him.

In the garden, I imagine God watching me. I wonder if he is pleased with the plant arrangements and the colors. I wonder if he is pleased with me.

Then, I see the tiny leaves of something I’ve planted breaking through the soil, and I am reminded of when I was a seed in his hand. I recall the words, the people, the good times, the terrible times, and the Savior that he used to take me from being covered in dirt to becoming his child.

The garden is a gift.