J. Scott Shields
Whenever strangers asked Naomi when she was due, her answer would always be, “In mid-August.” It was just easier that way. Never mind that it had been over six months since her fourth son was born. He was a tiny boy who’d barely lasted a week in the neonatal ICU before his lungs finally gave out for good. Naomi had stayed with him the entire time, holding his hand and feeling his fragile body weaken day by day. Meanwhile, after the baby’s funeral, the family moved on--as they had to. There were hospital bills to be paid and mouths to be fed. But unlike her previous three births, Naomi’s belly didn’t flatten out this time. It bulged like a small basketball, and her face and neck remained full.
Naomi did her best to smile around her boys, and with two of them now in school, there was only the eighteen-month-old to take care of during the day. So together one Tuesday afternoon, they stood with their cart in the grocery store check-out line while an old woman ahead of them loaded a stack of canned vegetables onto the motionless conveyor belt. The old woman looked back just as Naomi’s son was snatching a candy bar from the check-out lane shelves.
“I’ll bet he’s a handful,” said the old woman as Naomi took the candy bar away. The child screwed up his face and started to cry.
“Oh, he is,” said Naomi. From the corner of her eye, Naomi noticed other customers approaching.
“My boys were, too,” said the old woman. “They’re all grown now, with kids of their own.”
Naomi didn’t really want to continue this conversation, but she did her best to act polite. She could see the old woman eyeing her belly. “Here it comes,” she thought. But before the old woman could speak, Naomi felt something hit her hard from behind. The impact pushed her forward into her own cart, which in turn caused hers to collide with the old woman. The old woman lost her balance, and in an effort to regain her footing, she fell sideways toward Naomi. Naomi pulled her cart back to get it out of the old woman’s path, but in the process, Naomi’s flip-flop caught the sharp edge of a magazine display rack, causing her to stumble to the floor.
Naomi glanced up from the bottom of the check-out lane into the skeletal face of a teenaged boy. With his dirty and tattered clothes, he looked like someone that people on the street would either give a handout to or a very wide berth.
“Whoa, lady...watch out,” the boy mumbled, his bloodshot eyes detached and distant.
By now, the store manager had scrambled out of his office to join the cashier in checking on the old woman. “I’m okay,” she kept repeating. “I just tripped.”
The boy surveyed the situation for a moment--particularly Naomi’s opened purse in the shopping cart. But when the manager started asking the old woman what had happened, the boy darted away from the scene and out the front door.
In the meantime, customers from the other lanes had also come over to assist. After moving the carts away from the check-out lane, a stout-looking lady dressed in purple hospital scrubs helped the cashier lift the old woman to her feet. Then she glanced down at Naomi. “How are you doing, sweetie?” Naomi could see the lady eyeing her belly with professional scrutiny.
“I’m fine,” she said. “I just banged my arm.”
“Are you sure? Let me see.” The lady took Naomi’s wrist and lifted it so she could examine her forearm and elbow. Next came the inevitable question. “How far along are you?”
Naomi really did not want to have this conversation in front of a crowd of strangers, but the lady continued. “What, are you about six months? Seven?”
“Would you like us to call you an ambulance?” asked the cashier.
“No, I’m fine.”
“That’s not a bad idea,” said the store manager. “Cindy, go grab my phone from the office.”
The cashier dashed away.
“No, really, I’m alright. I don’t need...”
Naomi and her husband were already swamped in an ocean of debt, so the last thing they needed was another medical bill. Even now, she could hear her husband’s voice scolding her beneath the baby’s anxious cries coming from the shopping cart a few feet away.
“Now sweetie, you don’t want to take any chances,” said the lady. Naomi noticed she wore a white nametag on her hospital scrubs with the name “Brigit” etched into it. “Do you feel any pain? I work downtown at Saint Theresa’s.” She then proceeded to feel around Naomi’s belly, pushing here and there the way doctors do. After a few seconds, however, she stopped and looked Naomi straight in the eye. A wave of tears clouded the image of Brigit’s kind--but knowing--face. She gave Naomi a smile and a small, nearly imperceptible nod and whispered, “it´s okay. Now let’s get you up.”
Brigit helped Naomi to her feet, and as she did, Naomi could see the manager talking to someone on his cell phone. “Never mind about that ambulance,” Brigit shouted in an authoritative tone. “She’ll be alright.”
They stood together at the cash register while Naomi paid for her groceries. Then, after Brigit had given her a long, gentle hug, Naomi pushed her shopping cart outside where the bright noonday sun soon dried the teardrops running down her cheeks.