The woman was strange looking, almost cartoonish. She stood a few feet in front of me with an oversized shopping cart, her daughter in a matching purple sweat suit by her side. The line to the register had been overwhelming at the Astor Place K-mart electronics department. It stretched 20 people long, the end reaching into the men’s underwear aisle.
In my hands was my single purchase, a 10-pack of DVD covers to package and send off my editing reel. The woman’s shopping cart was full.
I learned much about the woman standing behind her and Victoria, her daughter. It was Victoria’s birthday last week and she was cashing in on her mother’s promise of a K-mart shopping trip. Her father had given her a boa constrictor. It was a small one, but the woman promised Victoria that “Lucy” would soon grow to be big and strong.
Victoria was 12 and excited to “practically be a teenager.”
Their purchases totaled $389.56 and the woman paid with her credit card. The cashier asked the woman for her zip code, who turned and asked Victoria if she knew it.
Victoria scrunched her face and stretched her right arm up and over her head, deep in thought. After a few seconds, her face relaxed and she admitted she had no idea.
“Teenagers know their zip codes,” the woman said and recited the number to the cashier.
The bags were passed across the counter, the credit card returned and as the woman bent over to place the bags into the cart she noticed something, stopped, and said calmly, “Oh Victoria, the mouse got out.”
“Oh no!” shouted Victoria.
I leaped back, bumping into the couple standing behind me.
Together, we watched in disbelief as the woman shoved her hand into one of the plastic bags and frantically jerked around, knocking out some of her previous purchases. Suddenly she stopped, removed her hand slowly, fingers clenched together, a small white mouse dangling by its tail.
I took another step back, this time the couple moved with me. The security guard walked over to the woman cautiously and stood silently, not knowing what to do.
“Victoria, open up the box,” the woman said as the mouse flailed around in the air inches from her face. The box was in a bag tied tightly, and Victoria frantically struggled to get it open. She resorted to sitting cross-legged, back pressed up against the counter, trying to pry it open with her teeth.
The mouse made one final attempt to free himself and caught the woman’s finger in its teeth. The woman screamed and flung the mouse up in the air. It landed on the floor stunned and tried to scamper away. In an instant, the woman kicked at the mouse, her red high-heel connecting with its tiny body and sending it flying.
The mouse smashed into a shoe rack and fell limp to the ground.
Victoria scampered over and poked it with a tiny pink fingernail.
“I think it’s dead,” she said.
“We better get it home quick,” the woman said, nursing her now bleeding finger. “Lucy won’t eat it if it’s cold.”
She crossed to the mouse, picked it up, and flung it down into a shopping bag. She wrapped it tightly and placed it inside her purse. Victoria pushed the cart over to her and together they disappeared into the shoe department.
The spectators that had gathered in a small semi-circle mumbled to themselves and walked away.
I stepped up to the register and handed the cashier my package of DVD covers. She made eye contact with me as she rung up my purchase and said finally, “That was pretty weird.”
“I didn’t know they sold live mice at K-mart,” I said.
“We don’t. It must have been from somewhere else.”
Late that night, I did some Internet research and found that boa constrictors grow to between five and 12 feet and live for 20 to 30 years.
I wondered what would happen when Lucy turned 12, not yet a teenager, and ventured out to find her own food. Not knowing her zipcode, she would become lost, unable to find her way home. The woman and Victoria would desperately try to find her, and stray dogs all over New York City would go missing.
[This column originally ran on October 4, 2006.]