Checkouts Summary

Summary and Analysis of Checkouts by Cynthia Rylant

The short story, “Checkouts’ by Cynthia Rylant narrates the story of a teenage girl and boy infatuated with each other, dealing with the themes of parental neglect, abandonment, self-perception and insecurity.

American author and librarian Cynthia Rylant is an established writer in the field of children’s literature. With numerous works and accolades to her name, Rylant’s works explore various emotional, psychological, and developmental aspects of childhood and adolescence.

Checkouts | Summary

Narrated by a third-person omniscient narrator, the story begins with an unnamed girl and her family shifting from their old house to Cincinnati in a big house with ‘beveled glass windows’. The girl is evidently distraught by the move away from her childhood home, but her parents turn a deaf ear to her pleas, asserting that the decision has already been finalized, indifferent to their daughter’s emotions. For a month she is grieving and depressed from the loss of her old life and home, and, finally tired of the constant suffering, gives up on it and decides to give the new place a chance by stepping out of the house and falling in love with a ‘bag-boy’ in the supermarket. 

We are told that she enjoys grocery shopping, a fact that she hides from her parents as she does not trust them enough with knowledge about herself, and lets them think she’s just doing it because she is a ‘nice’ girl. The supermarket evokes an almost meditative, blissful calm in her, a feeling that she finds nowhere else. That fated day, the bag boy behind the cash counter accidentally drops her jar of mayonnaise while packing it, smashing it to bits in the process. We are told that his anxiety on the first day of the job, coupled with his sudden attraction towards the girl who, it is now revealed, has bright red hair and a huge orange bow on her head, leads to the accident, to his utter embarrassment. What appears to be a cause of embarrassment and distress to the boy, however, becomes the very reason the girl begins to be infatuated with him, his clumsiness endearing him to her. Unaware of the girl’s feelings, however, the boy spends the rest of the day in a ‘brown depression’, chastising himself for his inability to woo her with his confidence and wit, and envying everyone around who seems to be so utterly sure of themselves. He keeps hoping for another chance to renew his impression in front of her, looking for an excuse to get to know more about her under the pretense of carrying her things to her car. The girl, on the other hand, is lost in thoughts of his ‘long, nervous fingers’, the way his hair kept falling into his eyes, and the slight imperfection of his left collar. It is a ‘wonderful contrast’ to her seemingly perfect house, and the loneliness she feels within, making her long for meeting him again. 

Their next meeting, however, happens only after an interval of four weeks, their timings failing to match each other’s schedule. Every day, they keep waiting to see each other, only to be disappointed. The wait is painful, but also ‘ecstatic’, filling them with anticipation and excitement. Finally, at the end of four weeks, their wait is over as they spy on each other the moment the girl enters the shop. However, completely ignorant of the other’s feelings and worried that their infatuation might show, neither show any explicit interest towards the other, keeping their eyes glued to themselves, denying themselves the very pleasure they have longed for. The narrator comments on this behavior that is often observed amongst children and teens, who pretend that they don’t really care about something they particularly want, growing frustrated that their object of desire is not being delivered to them by someone else. Finally, they end up channeling that frustration to the object itself, hating them when they don’t come up and hand themselves over to the child who is unable to gather up the courage and approach the other. The same situation is observed in the story where both the girl and the boy end up hating each other without ever talking to one another, and after a couple of months, both are observed hanging out with different partners. 

Checkouts | Analysis

The deliberate omission of names of all the characters in the story, especially the boy and the girl, reflects the commonality of such experiences amongst teenagers across the globe. The unnamed boy and girl represent the scores of infatuated teenagers who, unable to muster the courage to confess their feelings to the other, grow frustrated at their own inaction, channelizing their anger towards the other until their infatuation dwindles and they move on to other partners. Another interesting aspect of the story is the utter lack of exteriority portrayed in all the characters, which is unusual in narratives with omniscient narrators. There is no objective, externalized description of the characters in the story, each of them keeps thinking of the others in their minds while not bothering to describe themselves. The complete absence of direct, unreported dialogues also heightens the interiorized structure of the story, keeping the reader from forming an objective view of the characters. Even when the physical attributes of the boy and the girl are described, it is filtered through the other’s thoughts and not a direct comment from the narrator. The characters are thus presented as constructions of their own minds, and others’ gazes, with no pervasive, objective view of them available to the reader, emphasising on the subjectivity of the self. 

The story also raises issues of parental neglect and indifference. The girl’s parents’ complete lack of empathy and consideration towards their daughter’s feelings in a major, life-altering event like shifting addresses, leaves the girl feeling insecure in her own house, unable to trust her parents with information about herself. The safety and peace that should be found at one’s own house are found in a busy supermarket instead, indicating evident and lasting signs of childhood trauma. Moreover, despite knowing that their daughter is aggrieved by the move, the parents are not even observed putting any kind of effort that might make the transition easier for her, denying her the special attention that she needed and deserved at the time. They leave her to her own means, embodying the age-old belief that due to their age, inexperience, and lack of maturity, children’s emotions are not as important as those of adults’, and are fit to be ignored while taking important decisions in life. Such attitudes create potentially lifelong responses to childhood trauma, as can be observed in the case of the girl.

Lastly, the story also presents an immaculate portrayal of adolescent anxieties and insecurities and infatuations, observed in the low self-esteem and nervousness of the boy while facing the girl; his obsession about everybody else appearing confident and smart a typical example of adolescent insecurities and self-perception.

Checkouts | Themes

Adolescence – The story portrays an accurate account of adolescence and the changes it brings about in the mind and the body, through the characters of the boy and girl, their obsessive infatuation, as well as the boy’s insecurities and anxieties about himself. The transience of teenage love is also another characteristic of adolescence portrayed in the story.

Parental Neglect – The girl’s parents’ treatment of their daughter with utter lack of consideration and respect for her feelings regarding the loss of her childhood home is exemplified through this theme.

Checkouts | Characters

The Girl – While there are no detailed, objective descriptions of the unnamed girl from the narrator, the audience can infer from the story that she is a young, sensitive teenager with ‘thick, red hair’ who likes to accessorize herself in striking ways e.g., the large, orange bow and the yellow flower. She is attached to her childhood residence and town and is mistrustful of her parents because of their lack of consideration for her. However, she is sensitive and emotional, swayed by the boy’s clumsiness, the way his hair drops into his eyes, and his upturned collar.

The Bag-Boy– The boy from the supermarket is the most significant portrayal of adolescent behavior in the story. Having a crush on the girl, he is nervous, flustered and clumsy in her presence, all signaling teenage awkwardness and lack of self-confidence. 

The Parents – The girl’s parents are an example of indifferent and neglectful parenting. They pay no heed to their child’s pleas, despite knowing how agonizing it is for her to leave behind the home of her childhood comfort and memories. They also spare no effort in making the transition easier for her, not bothering to explain to her the necessity of the move or spend more time with their depressed daughter. They also do not seem to know their daughter well, unaware of the fact that she goes grocery shopping because she enjoys it, not merely consenting to it as an obedient daughter. 






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