The gray-haired woman shuffled back and forth between the parking lot and the supermarket doors.

She moved with some difficulty, yet she never paused to rest. Back and forth she went, peering into abandoned shopping carts along the way and into the shadows that formed as night deepened.

“What am I going to do?” she asked repeatedly in a frail and broken voice. Sometimes she said it to a passing stranger, sometimes she said it only to herself. “What in the world am I going to do?”

A blue-smocked store employee came to the doors and spoke to her briefly. For a moment, the woman’s eyes lit up with hope, but a second later she looked crushed again. Overwhelmed. Terrified.

“What am I going to do?” she asked the clerk, even as he walked away.

Then she shuffled back toward the parking lot, moving at a pace that was nothing short of astonishing, given that the woman appeared to be closing in on 90 years old.

Earlier in the evening, she had come to the market with all of her earnings from a part-time job. She had made her way up and down the aisles, shopping frugally and seizing on sales to fill her fridge and cupboards.

She had paid for her purchases, wheeled the goods across the lot to her little four-door car and trundled it all into the trunk. Another day, another trip to the market, another ride home for rest.

Only there would be no rest for the nameless woman on this night. Somewhere along the tedious chain of shopping and paying and trundling, the little old lady had parted ways with her pocketbook and everything inside it.

The remainder of her cash from the part-time job. The credit cards, the checkbook, the driver’s license; all those things that travel faithfully — all day, every day — under a woman’s arm.

She hadn’t noticed that her bag was gone, the woman told me, until she had arrived at home. It wasn’t in the trunk of her car. It wasn’t in the front seat and it wasn’t lost in shadows in the back seat, either.

So, she returned to the supermarket, asking herself the entire way what she would do — what in the world she would possibly do if her pocketbook and everything in it was gone.

And it WAS gone. Presumably she had left it in the shopping cart after loading the groceries into her car. Presumably some scoundrel had happened upon it and had made the cruel choice to take it, cash, credit cards, license and all.

A few things occurred to me as I watched the lady search the empty shopping carts over and over again while muttering her bleak questions.

When a younger man or woman loses a wallet or a purse, it’s a nightmare. Canceling credit cards, dealing with the Bureau of Motor Vehicles, replacing insurance documents, permits, courtesy cards and about a thousand other things that won’t occur to him until later. That action will ruin your day.

For someone who was born around the time Hitler came to power — and who might be living check to check — it’s a nightmare in a more literal sense. Navigating the frustrating world of banking voicemail systems. Squinting at online forms that seem to go on forever. Trying to speak to the nice lady at the credit card service who turns out to be a machine.

And all the while pinching pennies and wondering if she could make that last batch of tuna helper last for a week.

It also occurred to me that you’ve got to be lower than dog poo in Kennedy Park to steal an old woman’s purse.

I picture the thief panting over the pocketbook with dark glee like it was a gift from the devil himself.

Did he have a look at the woman’s driver’s license — those tired but avid eyes smiling out of a face lined with 80 years’ worth of joy and  sorrow — and decide to keep it anyway?

Did he give any thought at all to snatching the cash but leaving the purse behind as a small gesture of humanity? Did he (or she) at any point think of his own mother? His granny, memere or auntie?

Pointless musings, really. The nature of the wretch doesn’t affect the outcome of his deeds. Maybe the thief was a poor, desperate soul with children at home to feed. Maybe he or she was hopelessly addicted to dope or booze and that evening fix tasted like purse shame.

Much more likely, the old woman’s pocketbook was taken by just another heartless opportunist who was presented a gift from the devil and who accepted it without a single glance inward.

I doubt any of that matters to the old woman in the parking lot. By the time the police officer arrived to speak to her, the bag was still gone, the store was closing and she had started to cry.

Mark LaFlamme is a Sun Journal staff writer and a compassionate soul. Email him at [email protected]

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