Every Thursday morning an older guy with rotten gums and stained teeth gets in my line and plunks down two dollars for a pack of spearmint gum. On those rare weeks when we’re out of stock, he shakes his head and sighs, like it’s the biggest disappointment of his day.

“Try the tropical fruit.” I shrug. “It’s got a lot of pizzazz.”

“I didn’t come here for pizzazz,” he always tells me, pushing past my register and out the door.

“No skin off my nose,” I mutter to his retreating back. He’ll be here next Thursday, feening double for his fix of spearmint gum. Maybe he chews it for his breath.

“Maybe he comes for you, Ma?” my daughter Callie snickers when I describe the Guy- With-Bad-Teeth to her, part of my weekly Customers-That-Keep-Me-Laughing update. “I bet he’s got a crush on you.”

“Me? Not this old broad,” I snort like some dorky sidekick from an 80s sitcom about a hardworking family who argues about late curfews and bad haircuts and missed homework for twenty minutes until the foul-mouthed mother with a heart-of-gold lays down rules everyone can agree to. Each episode ends as they all settle in front of the TV, passing a huge bowl of buttered popcorn. As a kid I knew problems couldn’t be solved so easily, but I loved knowing everything would be back in place when the end credits rolled.

What will be left when this virus ends? Who? Where’s that tough mother reminding people not to stand too close in the aisles? I watch them bump into each other when they reach for cereal and their favorite tea. You’d think that during Senior Shopping people would keep their distance. I can’t nag everyone from behind my register. 

 People like this guy in a home-made mask, almost knocking into a woman leaning into her walker as she reads the labels on hand soap. The guy’s moving too fast. Is he planning a stick up? If so, he’s really bad at his job. Who robs a grocery store wearing a Minnie Mouse bandanna?

Approaching my line, the guy waves at me. Great. This pandemic’s making all the loonies crazier.

“Hey,” I say, wiping down the register. “Who’d you go to Disney with? Your grand kids?”

“No,” the guy says, tugging down his bandanna. It’s the Guy-With-Bad-Teeth. “Don’t you recognize me?”

“Sure,” I say. Now he’s smiling real big I see that mouth, filled with rot and metal. “Sorry, we haven’t had a gum shipment since last week when some numbskull came in and bought out all the spearmint,” I smile, keeping it light.

“That’s all right,” he stands by my register. “I just came in for a six pack and some Marlboros,” his damn fingers twitching all over the conveyor belt. I reach for a disinfecting wipe.

“Oh yeah?” I say. “That’s a switch.”

“I’ll say,” he grins. “Got a Zoom date with a hot new gal. If I get lucky,” he pulls out a twenty, “I might get some pizzazz.”

“Have fun,” I say, dropping his change from my gloved hands. “Make sure you’re wearing protection.”

Phebe Jewell lives in Seattle, where she chews spearmint gum on a daily basis. Read her work at

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