Nina willed herself to say nothing. She piloted her emptied grocery cart to the collection area and launched it into the rusted corral. Squeezing her eyes shut, she tried to erase what she’d seen.
A woman in her early twenties had been entering the market as Nina left, and their paths had crossed for an awkward moment before Nina straightened her cart’s wheels. The woman was dressed in monochromatic oversized clothing and sneakers; a Red Sox baseball hat crowned red-rimmed, exhausted eyes. An infant carrier straddled the metal edges of her cart’s top shelf. Fabric covered the overhang and protected the baby from the cold.
Nina wished she could have seen the infant’s face. Shopping was a chore, but the sight of other people’s children was a joy, and one that soothed her newly empty-nested soul. Her second thought plagued her. The slick plastic surfaces of the carrier seemed precariously balanced on a rickety cart which, even when it was new, had no business holding a baby.
She and her Samantha had been lucky, but she’d live with the cries of her child tumbling backwards over a slick metal panel for the whole of her life. That, and the triangular scar above Sam’s left eye, a delicate geometry that had saved her vision. The surgeon had been sympathetic, but Nina never forgave herself. Though she had meticulously researched the baby gear she bought, she had blindly trusted a grocery store contraption. Familiarity bred assurance.
Nina went back to her car. If her kids had been with her, they would have pleaded that she resist the impulse to interfere. Paul would have told her that, statistically, the child would be fine. But statistics meant nothing if you drew the short stick, even if you had no idea you were gambling.
She found the woman in the meat aisle, heading towards the hamburger.
“Hi,” Nina began. “I hope you don’t think I’m crazy. I just wanted to warn you about these grocery cart deals. They’re really not approved for this kind of thing…” Nina gestured toward the baby. “There are a lot of problems with kids being injured when carriers slip off the front section, and I hope you don’t mind, but I just wanted to mention it. Most folks just assume that they’re safe because why else would stores encourage it, right? But…”
Large double doors behind them opened, and a white-uniformed man emerged from the back of the supermarket with packages of wrapped beef that he placed in the freezer in front of the two women. The blast of cold air that came with him lifted the infant carrier’s flimsy protective flap.
Nina stared into the carrier’s interior. No baby. No baby, but several jars filled with the store’s brand of strained carrots, diapers, and some cans of evaporated milk.
Stepping between the butcher and the woman’s cart, Nina reached out and pulled the thin fabric covering back over the front of the carrier and pressed its bottom corners against their worn Velcro fasteners. She looked up to find the young woman’s eyes on hers. They rested there, a benediction. And for Nina, a release.
She smiled back before retracing her steps down the aisle and out the door.