Exercising the craft—October 7, 2013

By Ekta R. Garg

Life is stressful. How our characters handle–or don’t handle–stress reveals much about them. Write a scene in which your protagonist is stressed due to a death in the family, a financial crisis, or an unraveling relationship. Place your protagonist in a grocery store at the express lane for customers with fewer than 10 items. Have a lady, pushing a cart full of groceries, jump in line just before your protagonist. “Sorry, but I’m in a hurry,” she explains. Write six hundred words.


Jan felt pressure propelling her toward the checkout area of the store.  The pressure came from her mother-in-law’s nagging voice in her brain.

My poor son works so hard all day, Marion had stated two days earlier with a dramatic sigh.  I think he deserves one decent meal.  I understand you must have something important to keep you busy.  But it isn’t too much to ask you to cook a nice meal once in a while, is it?

“When is she going to let up on me?” Jan muttered.  “I’ve been dealing with this for twelve years!  Mike tells her about one crappy salad, and she’s on my case like I’ve never stepped foot in the kitchen.  If she’s so worried about her baby boy, why doesn’t she leave her hip retirement community in Florida and come up here to cook him a few meals?”

She glanced at her watch.  After dropping Jessie at her dance class, Jan had raced to the nearest store.  Thank goodness for smart phones that could help her find easy five-ingredient chicken recipes.

Why can’t she understand that I’m trying to balance everything here?  She’s always had issues with me working, Jan thought as she scanned the lanes.  And it doesn’t help that Mike keeps his mouth shut when I need him to support me in front of her.

Jan felt pinpricks in her eyes as she thought about the fight she and Mike had the previous night about Marion’s interference.  The fight had lasted a lot longer than their usual routs, and Jan had spent several hours lying alone in the dark questioning everything—her professional goals, her personal self-worth, and her ability to do anything right.

Blinking back the threat of tears, she focused her attention on the checkout lines.  She spotted an empty express lane and pushed her cart in that direction, happy that she’d get back to Jessie’s dance class on time.  Hopefully by then the new client she’d patiently wooed for the last two weeks would have sent her an email giving her the green light to take over the graphic designing of his newsletter.

If Mr. Friedman gives me the project, maybe this day won’t be a total loss.  It would be nice to end the day on something good for once.  I need this job on my resume; it’s been way too long since I’ve had a substantial project on hand.

Just then a well-heeled woman in her early sixties came clack-clack-clacking in front of Jan and managed to maneuver her full cart into the narrow space between the conveyor belt and the display of gum and candy bars.

“Sorry, dearie, but I’m in a little bit of a rush,” she said with an ingratiating smile.  “You don’t mind, do you?”

Jan blinked in surprise but managed to recover long enough to say, “I’m sorry, ma’am, but this is the express lane.  It’s ten items or less.”

“She’s right,” the cashier called from behind her register.  “You’ll have to go to another line.”

“But all of the other lines are so long,” the woman said airily.  “I really have to get home as fast as possible.  I’m hosting a very important dinner.”

Something about the woman’s manner rankled Jan.  After a few moments she realized why: this woman sounded just like her mother-in-law.

“Ma’am, you really shouldn’t be in this line,” Jan said a little more forcefully.  “And I’m sure you’ve got a lot to do, but you’re not the only one who’s busy.”

A few customers stopped out of curiosity and eyed the woman with mild annoyance.

The woman began putting some of her items on the conveyor belt, unperturbed by Jan and the other customers.


“I told you,” she said, not bothering to look at Jan, “I’ve got an important dinner tonight, and I can’t be any later than I already am.”

The cashier shrugged helplessly.  Jan inhaled and let out her breath long and slow.  She’d already given in to one overbearing woman this week.  She would not do it again.

She stepped forward and gently took the woman’s items off the belt.  She placed them back in the cart, ignoring the obnoxious customer’s protests.

“I have a daughter waiting in dance class, a husband who’s been on call for the last three days straight, and a mother-in-law who won’t let me run my life my way,” Jan said, leveling the woman with a look.  “More than that, though, you have too many items for this lane.  My dinner is just as important as yours, and I would appreciate it if you let me get through the line on time so I can take care of my family and you can escape all the nasty things all of these other customers are going to say behind your back.”

“Well, I never!” the woman exclaimed.

“Maybe you should once in a while.  It’s good for a person.”

The woman turned forcefully and shoved her cart through the end of the lane, guiding it back to another lane.  When one of the cart’s wheels began to wobble, Jan heard chuckles from the onlookers.

Jan felt her heart race.

I can’t believe she actually left!  If I stood up to Marion more often, would she—would she leave me alone too?

“Ma’am?  Are you ready to check out?”

Jan shook herself out of her thoughts and began placing her items on the conveyor belt.

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