A short story inspired by actual events
Audio Version available here
Mariam glances at what seems to be a never-ending queue of customers waiting to pay for their purchases. She’s tired and her feet hurt from standing for so long. The cash register spits out receipts one after another until the last person in the queue is before her. He points to his ear.
Mariam asks, “How can I help?”
The customer points to his ear again, then to his wedding ring. Mariam quickly realizes that the man is hearing impaired. She realises that any words he might otherwise be able to extract from the movement of her lips are smothered behind the black fabric covering her mouth and nose.
Mariam perks up, rising to meet yet one more Covid pandemic challenge. Suddenly, her brain is jarred out of its hypnotic state from rotely scanning the seasonal items being purchased. Suddenly, her feet are not as sore.
Fortunately, the store is quiet for the moment, allowing Mariam to deliver the attention she feels the man might need. Grabbing a receipt that a previous customer had tossed aside, Mariam turns it over and prints, Would you like me to help you find a gift for your wife? The man reads the scrawl and nods.
Mariam leaves her station behind the till and guides the man to ornaments and other curios she thinks would appeal to him, things that could make a suitable gift for a loved one. They spend a few minutes together. She lifts an item or two, responding to his nods or head shakes. He eventually makes his choice, settling on a rather expensive pair of earrings. He points to the till, then makes his way to pay what is owed.
Arriving at the counter, the man taps the sign saying that gift wrapping is included with a donation to a local charity. He nods insistently.
Mariam’s smile is veiled as she holds up three tubes of wrapping paper. The man points to the gold flecked one.
Mariam wraps the boxed earrings, attaching a small gold bow on top. She points to tiny gift cards that are free with the purchase, her hand gestures inquiring if he would like one. He shakes his head, and points to the rack of greeting cards along the wall next to the cash register.
Mariam watches as he reads the various sentiments, finally picking one she thinks is particularly loving and beautiful. He moves away from the rack, but Mariam waves her hand to catch his attention. Startled, his eyes pop open wide, their wrinkled lids swallowed up under his bushy brows. He wonders what the problem might be. Mariam pulls envelopes off the rack that will fit the greeting card… a white, a red, a gold, and a green. The man’s eyes soften. He chooses the white.
Mariam and the customer return to the till. As Mariam rings in the cost for the gift, she sees that the man qualifies for the discount offered to members who hold a Customer Appreciation Card. She holds up a blank plastic membership voucher. The man shrugs his shoulders.
Mariam considers all possible meanings of the man’s shoulder shrug. I don’t think he’s a store member, but maybe he is and left the card at home. Frustrated that she can’t remove her mask and give him the opportunity to lip-read, frustrated that the Plexiglas shield supposedly protecting her from the dangerous virus now separates her from further helping this customer, Mariam ignores store policy and slides the membership card’s strip through the till, registering it without all the necessary forms and paperwork. The man receives the 10% discount.
The sale complete, Mariam slides his receipt through the Plexiglas barrier’s cubby hole. Her masked smile meets the customer’s beaming eyes.
The man carefully places the receipt inside the bag holding his purchased treasures, then pauses. Facing Mariam, he nods while gesticulating ‘thank you’ in sign language. He places his hand on his heart, nods again, and disappears.