Checkout by Benjamin Goodwin

Brian readjusts to suburban life after returning from a Peace Corps tour; by Benjamin Goodwin.

The last of the mom and pop general stores had been closed in the wake of the new massive superstore located in the next town over. It was just starting construction before Brian left for the Peace Corps and apparently did not take long to run all the other shops around out of business. It was a bit depressing to think about, so Brian tried to push it out of his mind on the way to the discount department store. His mom had asked him to pick up a few things for her whilst she was at work. Normally she would do this herself, but she wanted to give her son an excuse to leave the house. Brian was grateful for it.

It had been a difficult few weeks since he returned from Panama and the transition had not been easy. It wasn't so much the cultural differences as it was the climate change. Even the nights in Panama were hot. Although the 60-degree weather in Connecticut was unseasonably warm for early winter, Brian could never seem to get comfortable. At night he would cover himself with as many blankets as he could find, but the weight of it all made it hard for him to sleep.

Brian pulled into the massive parking lot, which used to be a plaza full of family owned shops. He wondered which one of them he parked his mother's Toyota on. He silently prayed to himself that he would not run into anyone he knew from high school. There had been a few run-ins with past acquaintances since he returned, none of which had gone well. It was never going to be the people he wanted to see. His old friends had mostly moved away and the only people he ran into were the kids he always avoided when he was at school. These people had become townies, perpetually stuck in the quicksand of easy-living suburbia. They went to community college and commuted from their parents' houses. They were everything Brian wished he wasn't and it was distressing to see them.

Brian gazed upon the towers of shelves in the seemingly endless row of aisles. He had never felt farther from Panama. He looked at all the people mindlessly walking their carts from row to row. They were on autopilot. Brian tried to turn his autopilot on, but couldn't seem to stop looking at the dazed shoppers. He walked down the paper products aisle and began his search for the lowest priced paper towels.

His decision to leave the country had not come easy. Throughout his final semester at college, Brian felt lost. He had made plans for his future, all of which had fallen through. The problem, was the plans all revolved around a girl who suddenly decided to end their relationship. He had dated Hallie for three years and had a great amount of difficulty reestablishing himself as an individual. They had been a couple for so long, it was a seemingly impossible task for Brian to be his own person. He missed the comfortable codependency and constant validation that came with being in a relationship.

He daydreamed about joining the army for a long time. He would burn the picture of her in his wallet and enlist in the service for his country. But ultimately, fighting a war he didn't understand seemed to be an empty gesture. He decided on the Peace Corps one night whilst doing some Internet research on teaching programs in other countries. He met all the requirements and was accepted without much hassle. He imagined that when he told Hallie about this, she would ask him to stay. She would admit that she was wrong to have ended things and beg to reconcile. This did not happen. Hallie wished him luck and left him at their favorite local coffee shop after giving him an awkward forced hug. He never burned her picture.

The shopping was done quickly and Brian made his way to the cash register. He hadn't had a conversation with anyone besides his parents in the last few days. He noticed the pretty cashier and started thinking of things to say to her. He wanted to say something witty and intelligent. If he could work into the conversation that he had taught children in Panama for two years, he wouldn't hesitate to do so. But by the time he reached the front of the "ten items or less" line he had not thought of anything interesting to say.

"Did you find everything okay?" the girl said with a polite smile.

"Yeah. No problem," Brian responded.

"Cash or credit?" she said.

"Cash." He reached into his wallet and took out a twenty. As he handed it to her, their hands touched for the briefest of moments that only Brian noticed. She made the change and handed it back to him.

"Have a nice day." She was already looking at the next customer in line.

"I will," Brian said. "You too."

When he walked back outside of the store, the cold met him again. He was starting to get used to it.


  1. is it good to be able to re adjust so quickly?
    in some ways no but maybe it is necessary, some sort of survival instinct asserting itself.
    however, well done for posing a number of interesting questions.

    Michael McCarthy

  2. I find it interesting that Brian returns to the very life and place he seemed determined to escape. Maybe in his quest to find himself he's come full circle?

  3. Hi, I think the character is constructed in a very interesting way with lots of memories and fantasies, right up to the crucial final moments at the end of the story where he can't seem to put a few words together. You could also read this story as the character has a problem focusing on reality, rather than as a story about the reality of adjusting to change, and it is a great plus for a story if it can be read in different ways, in my opinion.

    Garreth Keating

  4. I love pieces like this. Character driven and ambiguous. I am not really sure what to make of the main character, except that we have all felt like this some time in our lives: abandoned, out of place, stuck. I love how he has this really amazing story to tell the cashier, but he never is given the chance. It's like we are all taken at face value. Really great story which makes us all think, instead of telling us what to think. :)

  5. This story is pretty moving. I think we have all felt like this-needing a connection- someone who just validates that we are actually alive-even just visable. If not, than please make me totally invisable. Instead we are no more than a vague bit of background fill. There, but not with any meaning.

  6. "They were everything he wished he wasn't", that sentence stuck with me. He's right back where he started only things are worse, the town has lost it's charm and gained nothing in return but to maintain the crowd he hated, and now he's one of them. Bit depressing but great character study.

  7. This describes basically the same way I felt coming home from a military deployment. I've never seen anyone capture it this way before, but... it just feels so cold. Everything. You just wish you could just find some way to relate or do things the way you're used to doing them, but everyone is so far removed from everything you're used to, wrapped up in their little worlds. And you just feel alone.

    Thank you for this story. 9/10. It is a bit short, but it's the length it needs to be, I think. Very well written, quite evocative of feelings, enough details to be descriptive but leaving out unnecessary bits that make it TL;DR, and most appreciably (to me, at least) relatable where few others have found ways to relate things properly.
    For me personally, there was quite a bit of culture shock too- but you could argue the character here is having it as well, even if he argues he isn't.

    An intriguing read.

  8. I enjoy slipping into a character's life and that is just what this story allowed me to do. I thought the interior dialogue was
    genuine and powerful and so well crafted. What an intriguing slice of life! Thank you for writing it.

  9. What I found most striking about this story was the utter lack of mention of what Bryan was thinking of doing next. This of course was due to the obvious reason that he wasn't thinking of doing anything next, and in a way, though never stated, that's the most important point of the whole scenario. Writing style could use some polishing, but a great job of capturing the problems of identity with respect to time and space.
    --Abby Cember

  10. Brian is worldly detached and emotionally attached. The story is well constructed. Human reactions are well tailored. The ending leaves the reader imagining subsequent events. This is appreciable.
    Good effort, I must say.
    Thanks for writing.