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Exercise Wednesday: Slow People

March 30, 2011

Last Friday, I was in a hurry. I had a list of things that had to get done by a specific time. Which meant, of course, that everyone else was decidedly not in a hurry. More to the point, they were not in a hurry between me and what needed to occur.

It started with the older gentleman at Publix who stopped–completely–in the entry way. And stood there. For a long time. Without moving. Then, when he did move, his shadow actually passed him on the way into the store.

Then there was the cashier who needed to stop–dead–and talk to me about how wonderful the Publix fabric grocery bags are. So much better than plastic, except for when I forget them  in the car. I hate that because then I have to go back and get them but it’s really worth it because of how great the bags are and they’re really sturdy, too, have you noticed that. (Laugh.) Oh, I thing they’re just the greatest thing in the world.

I got in the express lane because I wanted some extra time to chat with her while she wasn’t ringing up the grocery (singular) that I bought.

And so it went.

Today’s exercise is to live a day in the life of a character. It can be yours or someone else’s. A very frustrating day. A day in which everything conspires to help them not get anything done. A day filled with guys who stop in the doorway and stand there and women who talk your ear off when they should be bagging groceries and people who cut you off so they can go fifteen miles an hour below the speed limit.

  1. Chris Hamilton permalink
    March 30, 2011 10:03 am

    Jack Reacher’s First Failure, with apologies to Lee Child.

    Jack Reacher is a former Army MP, who travels around without belongings, righting wrongs and helping people. Sort of like The Fugitive without the one-armed man and some cop chasing him. This is the story of one mission that didn’t go the way he intended.

    Reacher slid the Glock into the oversized pocket on the hooded sweatshirt. It was creamcycle orange, the color of the old Buccaneers, and featured a heat-applied old-style Bucs helmet. It had obviously been through the wash several hundred times, because the graphic was peeling to the point where you couldn’t see the pirate’s face. But it was the only sweatshirt the thift store had that fit him, which made it perfect.

    Twenty-four minutes. More than enough time to get what he needed, get back, and set it up. He figured eight minutes at the Publix, six minutes back to the house, and seven minutes of prep, well within the margin for error.

    He strode toward the front door, not hurrying, but not taking his time. There was no real confidence there. Confidence now would be like confidence tying his shoes. He’d done this before enough times to know it would work out. He’d thought through every possibility and eliminated those too unlikely to happen.

    He’s spotted the elderly man and his shuffling gait from the time he stepped out of the Mercury. No problem. They guy was going fast enough to allow Reach easy entry.

    Until the guy stopped dead in the middle of the doorway.

    And stood there.


    Reacher stopped short, nearly plowing into the man. It was okay. He had time. Three minutes of slack. When the guy started to move again, he’d only used up half a minute.

    He needed clothesline, lighter fluid, and matches. Three items, in and out.

    He pulled the lighter fluid from the display at the front of the store. One down, two to go. Six and a half minutes left.

    The clothesline was where he expected it, about halfway across the store. For whatever reason, the groceries were always the closest to the exit, followed by the non-groceries, with the snacks, sodas, and beer on the far end. The meat was usually in the back. There were minor variances, but the pattern was close enough to plan for.

    Reacher found the clothesline halfway across the store, in the same aisle with the pet food, filters for air handlers, and stationery. A young kid, maybe nineteen, was stocking shelves off a cart, ear buds insert firmly in each ear, though Reacher could hear something about a teenage dream coming out of the phones. Kid wouldn’t be deaf, but if Reacher had listened to music that loud at that age, he’d have lost the hearing that helped him stay a step ahead.

    “Excuse me.”

    The kid fiddled with a box opener, trying to get it open. If he knew Reacher was there, he didn’t let on.

    “Excuse me. I need to get clothesline.”

    The kid shook the box opener, which only caused him to drop it.

    “Excuse me.”

    The sound waves traveling from Reacher’s mouth to the kid’s ears couldn’t penetrate the noise close up, with a direct line. They’d do even less when they had to travel further and get past the boxes on the cart.

    Reacher waited for the kid to stand up. He still had time.

    The kid was almost standing when he dropped the box opener again and bent down to get it. Then he realized his shoe was untied and tied it in a double knot. Four minutes left.

    When he stood up, he saw Reacher and jumped back, dropping the box cutter again. He bent down to pick it up. When he stood again, Reacher made sure he was in the kid’s line of sight. He had spare time, but that didn’t mean he wanted to use it here.

    “Dude! What the hell?”

    Reacher felt the weight of the Glock against his stomach and cursed himself silently for his lack of discipline.

    “I need clothesline.”

    The kid turned and pointed. “It’s right here.”

    He’d dealt with people this stupid as an MP. Usually infantry. Often officers.

    “I see that. I need some.”

    “Let me move the cart.”

    Reacher started to tell him not to, but the kid didn’t listen. As he pushed the cart, one of the boxes fell off and the kid picked it up. Reacher stretched and pulled the clothes line from the shelf and was halfway down the aisle by the time the kid turned to tell him he could get the clothesline.

    One minute.

    The matches were in the next aisle. Behind the woman and the kid who was jumping up and down screaming on the floor. Reacher didn’t like children. They were too much like a lot of the colonels he knew. That’s why he’d quit the military and worked for himself.

    “You can’t have a toy,” the woman said calmly.

    The child screeched something that might have been “I want it!” He stomped his feet in a way that would have qualified for PT when Reacher was in the Army. Suddenly Reacher had respect for the stock boy’s choice of ear accessories.

    “You can’t have it.”

    The child settled down to listen, then performed the same dance with the same screech as if it had never happened before. The woman repeated, “you can’t have it.” And the kid started again.

    “I need to get matches,” Reacher said.

    “Do you mind?”

    Reacher smiled as he tried to forget about the Glock just inches from his right hand. “Actually, I just need some matches. I’m in a hurry.”

    That was an understatement. He was now into his buffer.

    “You can wait.”

    Reacher smiled, then reached into her purse, got her cell phone and slid it twenty feet down the aisle.

    The woman’s face contorted and the child screamed even louder. “I ought to call the cops on you. Where do you get off? That’s my purse. You’re an evil, awful man.”

    Reacher reached forward and moved his arm back, sliding her away from the matches, and grabbing a box.

    He was now one minute behind.

    Fortunately, there was no one at the register when he got there. The cashier was chatting with another employee. She was older, maybe fifty and the other employee was about her age. Their manner was relaxed and perhaps a little flirtatious.

    She talked with him another minute before she turned to Reacher. The bill should come to $11.76, give or take because of the tax.

    “How are you today?”


    “I’nit a lovely day outside? I just love this time of year, don’t you?”

    Reacher said nothing.

    “In a hurry, are we?”

    Reacher nodded.

    She nodded back and slid the first item across the scanner. Two minutes over.

    “You know what, would you like a Publix fabric bag. I love them. They’re just the best thing in the world. I have a dozen of them. I use them for everything. And I have them for every holiday, too. They wear forever. Would you like one?”

    Reacher shook his head.

    “They’re only a dollar.”

    Reacher said nothing.

    She shrugged and pulled the second item across the scanner. Three minutes over. Slack gone.

    “Oh, that price isn’t right. Let me get the manager.”

    Reacher tried to catch her, but was too late. She was gone.

    Two minutes later, the manager came over and looked at the tape. “This price is wrong. Matches are less than this.”

    “I’ll just pay whatever.”

    “No, no, we can’t have that. I’ll be right back.”

    The manager walked to where the matches were. Six minutes over. That left him one minute to set up.

    The manager returned a minute and a half later. “I’m sorry. That was the right price. Sorry for the inconvenience.”

    Reacher said nothing. He had no time left. Instead, he smiled at the cashier and walked away from the register and its items. He got in the Mercury and drove it to the bus station. An hour and nine minutes later, he was on his way to Atlanta.


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