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Three teenage girls, wearing only their bathing suits, walk into an A&P grocery store in a small New England town. Sammy, a young man working the checkout line, watches them closely. He appraises their looks and notes even minute details about the way they carry themselves. He also speculates about their personalities and their motivation for entering the store dressed the way they are. Sammy is particularly interested in the most attractive girl, who appears to be the leader of the group. This girl, whom Sammy dubs “Queenie,” has a natural grace and confidence, in addition to her beauty. As the girls roam the aisles of the A&P, they create a stir. As Sammy points out, the store is in the center of town, nowhere near the beach, where the girls’ attire would attract less notice. Sammy’s coworker Stokesie ogles the girls as well, joking around with Sammy as he does so. Sammy jokes along with him, but he feels the contrast between himself, still single, and the married Stokesie. Stokesie is resigned to a life of working at the A&P, whereas Sammy, although admitting that he and Stokesie are much alike, seems to feel that such a future is beneath him. As yet another of his coworkers begins to admire the girls, Sammy feels a twinge of pity for them for having compromised themselves this way, most likely without realizing it. This feeling is quickly supplanted by pure excitement as the girls choose Sammy’s checkout line to make their purchase.
Lengel, the store manager, approaches Sammy’s checkout lane. Lengel chastises the girls for entering the store in bathing suits, citing store policy. The girls are embarrassed, and Queenie protests that her mother wanted her to come in and buy some herring snacks. In this statement, Sammy gleans insight into Queenie’s life. He imagines her parents at a party, everyone dressed nicely and sipping “drinks the color of water.” He thinks about his own parents’ parties, where people drink lemonade or cheap beer.
As the girls begin to leave the store, Sammy suddenly turns to Lengel and quits his job, protesting the way Lengel has embarrassed the girls. Sammy hopes the girls are watching him. Lengel tries to talk Sammy out of quitting, telling him that he will regret the decision later and that his quitting will disappoint his parents. Sammy, however, feels that he must see the gesture through to its conclusion, and he exits the A&P. When he reaches the parking lot, he sees that the girls are long gone. Sammy is left alone with his ambiguous feelings and a growing sense of foreboding about what life has in store for him.