The snow was gritty and gray and piled into oily berms at the edges of the grocery store parking lot. It was one of those nights between holidays, between snowfalls, when winter isn’t beautiful at all, just cold and dreary and difficult.
I sent my youngest daughter into the store with a list and a few dollars while I waited in the car. We didn’t need much. Milk and some fruit. Bread. And I needed a few minutes to answer an email and return a call.
I was so involved with what I was doing I was startled when she opened the door and got back into the car. Putting down my phone I put my hand on the key to start the car. But at that moment I noticed a woman and a man standing in the parking lot just outside the entrance of the store. She was carrying a plastic gallon jug of milk in one hand, the other rested on the duffle bag that was strapped across her chest. She looked - at first glance - like a mother who’d stopped by the grocery store on the way home from work. A woman like me.
The man had one hand on her shoulder and the other against the small of her back, his fingers wrapped around the strap of the duffel bag.
I couldn’t hear what they were saying but there was a certain theater in the language of their bodies. He stood quite close to her, his head bent down so he could speak to her, his hand tight on her bag. She looked up him - he was much taller than she was - and her eyes were open wide.
At first, I assumed they were a couple. I was puzzled by the way he held onto her, gentle but insistent. I mentioned it to my daughter.
“I think she took something,” she said when I commented on them. “He followed her out.”
I realized immediately that it was true. The man who’d followed her out of the store, hurrying to catch her before she got into her car, was a store employee. Or someone from security. Looking at her again, I could see that she was in shock. She was slightly stunned by her capture.
They turned and walked back to the entrance of the store still close, his hand still at her back, on the strap of her bag. She kept looking up at him, like a child being led by an adult. Then, just inside the store, she stopped. So did he. And, in a tiny movement, she deflated. Her shoulders drooped. She dropped her head.
Silently, I turned the key and drove away.
All though the holiday season the woman crossed my mind at the oddest moments; when I made dinner, when I poured a glass of milk, when I stopped by the store at the end of the day.
I don’t know her story. She could be a serial shoplifter; there was that duffle bag after all. Or, she might be someone who gave into an impulse and suffered the consequences. But it was obvious that what had started out as a whim, or a dare or perhaps the desperate act of a woman who had no money to put food on the table, failed. She was caught.
I don’t blame the store. They can’t let people steal. And the gentleness of the man touched me. But there was something in the way the woman looked as they led her away that makes it hard to condemn her.
I guess it was just one of those things you see. When right and wrong meet in a parking lot on a cold winter night. Just one of those things that happen every day.
Cheryl-Anne Millsap writes for The Spokesman-Review. Her essays can be heard on Spokane Public Radio and on public radio stations across the country. She is the author of “Home Planet: A Life in Four Seasons” and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org