Friday, November 02, 2007
Can I Help You?
The pad switch embedded in the asphalt isn't working. The switch that makes a beep and activates the connection between the microphone in the lit sign and the headset of the woman inside has ceased working correctly. It believes a car is on it when there isn't one. In my walking to the grocery store, the woman's voice could be heard, offering assistance. But there isn't anyone wanting her assistance, as there isn't any car, though the switch insistently tells her this. Inside the grocery store, many people are standing in line. Some are holding bags. Some are carrying babies or pushing carts filled with things. They polish the oil off the displays of their cellphones. It looks as if they are waiting to board a plane, or a bus. They hold their identification ready. Credit cards. Newspaper clippings. The scanners call out their single short note to each other, bat it back and forth under the mercury vapor lights. Someone's plastic pumpkin won't scan. She holds it over the smudged square of glass with both hands, swaying it diligently. A movement filled with uncertainty, ceremony. The scanner will not respond, will not call out to the other scanners that a connection was made, that the pumpkin should be placed on the metal table that knows how much the item weighs before she sets it down. A series of people come, touch the screen with one finger, carry the pumpkin away. I pick up my own items, the weight of which the metal table has successfully predicted. Crossing the dark parking lot, there are people pumping gasoline into their cars. There are patches of oil. Flattened cans. Can I help you? Can I help you? The drive-through sign softly illuminates the empty area of asphalt under which the faulty switch is buried. The woman inside asks again: Can I help you? Makes another offer. Her intonation growing more urgent, more as one would ask it after rushing to someone found lying down on the ground in an unusual spot, like a street, or a sidewalk. She asks again as I climb the steps to my front door. No cars in the lot; the sign shining softly.