John Updike

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Three girls walk into the A&P in their bathing suits, as Sammy rings up the groceries for a woman in her fifties. Distracted by the sight of the first girl who catches his eye—a "chunky" girl in a green plaid bathing suit, with a nice tan—Sammy accidentally rings up a package of crackers twice, causing the woman to complain. Sammy fixes the mistake for her and sends her on her way.

By this time, the girls are in the bread aisle, and Sammy observes them, describing each of their appearances. There's the girl in the green plaid bathing suit he saw first, and then another tall girl, who Sammy describes as the type of girl who other girls find "striking" though they know she'll never make it—and then there's the leader, Queenie. The leader walks deliberately in a pink bathing suit with her straps down, and Sammy admires the smooth plane of her chest and the rim of pale skin that her bathing suit exposes when she wears the straps looped loosely around her arms.

Sammy believes that Queenie can sense that people are watching her, but she pretends not to notice, turning slowly to confer with the other girls as they walk down the aisle toward the meat counter. The sight of the girls surprises the other shoppers at A&P, but they return their gazes quickly to their own shopping baskets. Sammy comments that someone could set off dynamite in the A&P, and the "sheep" would continue unfazed, looking at their grocery lists. However, a few "house-slaves in pin curlers" do turn to give the girls a second disapproving look.

Stokesie, another clerk, also ogles the girls and jokes with Sammy about them. At twenty-two, Stokesie is just a few years older than Sammy, but he already has a wife and two kids. He aspires to become the manager of the A&P one day.

The girls reach the meat counter and ask McMahon something, and he points them on their way. As they walk off, McMahon sizes them up, and Sammy begins to feel sorry for the girls. "Poor kids," he comments, "…they couldn't help it."

Since it's a quiet Thursday at the store, Sammy doesn't have much to do except wait for the girls to reappear between the aisles. When they emerge again, Queenie is still leading the way, heading for the cash registers with a jar in her hand. She considers Stokesie and Sammy, but an elderly person reaches Stokesie first, so Queenie heads for Sammy's register. She hands him a jar of Kingfish Fancy Herring Snacks in Pure Sour Cream and pulls a folded dollar bill out of her cleavage, a gesture Sammy finds "so cute."

Then, the store's manager, Lengel, walks through the door and notices the girls. He reprimands them, saying that A&P "isn't the beach." Queenie blushes loses some of her composure and replies that her mother told her to buy herring snacks, causing Sammy to imagine the type of high-class gathering her parents might be holding, with cocktails and herring snacks, and contrasting it with the mental image of his own parents' parties, at which guests drink lemonade and beer.

Lengel tells the girls that they should dress decently when they enter the store, and Queenie regains her self-possession, announcing with some defiance that they are decent. Lengel responds that he doesn't want to argue and advises them to cover up their shoulders next time, as it's the store policy.

Sammy absentmindedly rings up Queenie's jar of herring snacks, and as the girls hurry out of the store, he quickly announces, "I quit," in time for them to hear. However, the girls continue on their way, paying no attention. Sammy takes off his bowtie and apron, laying them on the counter, as Lengel reminds him that he doesn't want to do this to his parents and will feel the repercussions of his actions for the rest of his life. Although Sammy feels that there's truth in Lengel's words, he continues outside, where he looks for the girls. The girls are gone, however, and as Sammy looks back into the storefront, he sees Lengel in his spot at the cash register. Observing Lengel's gray face and stiff back, Sammy's stomach drops as he realizes how hard the world will be to him in the future.