She was sleight of frame but strong in form. Her sparse long hair, the same drab color as mine when without highlights, hung down her back in a thoughtless ponytail. She asked me if I was "about ready to check out?" I supplied the openness she was looking for when I replied, "Why, yes, I am. Why do you ask?"
She produced a Kroeger gift card with 20.43 scribbled in black ink on the front of it. "I was wondering if you could use this card to pay for your groceries, so I could get cash to put gas in my car." Here I was, with a cart half full of cereal boxes and baby shower non-necessities.... how could I say no to a woman whose only need at the moment was gas in her car?
"Um... sure... how does it work?"
"Here, I'll take you through the line and show you."
"So wouldn't it just be easier if I traded you the card for the cash?" I uttered foolishly as I opened my wallet and searched out the lone twenty buried within a dozen smaller bills.
As I handed it to her and received the gift card in return, I offered her an extra dollar to cover the remaining 43 cents. She declined, and mumbled something about maybe getting a bottle of water with it.
She then led me like a lamb to the self-checkout slaughter, and proceeded to pretend to be interested in bagging my excesses. She must have been viewing me with that particular combination of envy and disgust that has forged and fed most every revolution in history.
I continued to occupy myself with a temperamental self-checkout station ("Please scan your Soopercard now." "Please remove the last item from the bag." "Please place the item on the scanner.") which I had made even more cumbersome by having the audacity to bring two of my own shopping bags, which required an intercessory prayer to the lone clerk (who, I'm sure, deals with the idiocies of inept humans all day, and yet still manages to smile patiently) who did something mysterious to the scales and added two 5-cent credits to the little screen in front of me.
In the middle of all this chaos, my middle-aged con-woman excused herself to the restroom, saying she'd "be right back", but that she "really had to go", and that she would help me check out when she returned.
It was then, of course, that the doubts tiptoed into my dreadfully unmindful mind, as I struggled to look up cucumber codes, keep an eye on my purse, play bagging Tetris with my scanned items, and try to stop thinking about all the time I was wasting when people would be arriving at my house for Elise's baby blessing in less than an hour!
Lo and behold, she showed up again magically at my side to help organize the last of my goods into the two bags I had brought, and begin the check-out process.
Let's just skip the details and asides for now, shall we, as we arrive at the inevitable: the gift card had a balance of zero. She didn't appear to be too mystified, and actually said, "Well, I just kinda found it and figgered it had the money on it that it said." Then she asked the clerk if there was a way to check the balance. He asked for the card, and said he could make a phone call. While he was dialing, and before giving me time to process this new revelation, she asked our clerk where the water was, as she was quite thirsty, and disappeared, 20 dollars richer, down a brightly lit aisle that could have just as easily been a dark alley.
I would wait for another four or five minutes, as the kind clerk made his phone call that confirmed the zero balance. After he returned the card to me, I related my story, embarrassed though I was, to him. He reviewed aloud with me her appearance, so that he would be able to recognize her in the future.
In my mind, of course, I believe she had it all planned out, every single detail of the operation, beginning with the spotting of the ideal victim and ending with $20 in her pocket. And so I have to applaud, really, her resourcefulness. She made in ten minutes what most panhandlers make in several days. Was it dishonest as hell? Yes. Did she intentionally want to hurt me or make me angry? I don't think so. I told the clerk before leaving, "Well, I think I'll just chalk that one up to my naivete, and let it go."
Once again, what Odysseus pronounces in The Odyssey proves to be true: "All-seeing Zeus takes half the good out of a man on the day when he becomes a slave."