I saw a play in three acts at the grocery store today. It was almost like dinner theater, except instead of eating dinner I was shopping for it. I was so intent on watching I almost forgot to buy groceries.

I saw a play in three acts at the grocery store today. It was almost like dinner theater, except instead of eating dinner I was shopping for it. I was so intent on watching I almost forgot to buy groceries.

Act One: A father approaches from behind me, calling the name of a former president. It's his daughter's name too, or at least the name of the child about 10 years old pushing the shopping cart past the rows of apples and grapes and zucchini and radishes. I presume she's his daughter. For one thing, they resemble each other, and for another, she calls him "Daddy."

Come back here! Let's get some fruit! her father calls. She returns, embracing the rim of the cart with her long slender arms.

How about peaches? her father says. Do you like peaches? The girl points to some black plums, and her father, holding a plastic produce bag, shrugs agreeably. He reminds me of Dick Van Dyke as Rob Petry, though he doesn't look like him at all. Maybe it's the boyish lankiness.

Do you like plums? he asks.

Why doesn't he know this stuff already? I wonder idly as I choose plums and peaches of my own. Has this child just arrived for her annual summer visit with her dad? Or is he a dad enjoying a vacation day with his daughter, willing to do the family shopping but a little vague on his girl's likes and dislikes?

Either way, it doesn't matter, I decide. The father is attentive; he calls her by her name and also by several terms of endearment. She calls him Daddy in a way that makes me know he is one, whatever their circumstances.

When I leave the produce area, they're leaving too. Shoppers who enter a store together tend to see each other everywhere they go: in cereals, in bread. By the time they meet in the check-out line, they feel like exchanging addresses, so they can at the very least send Christmas cards.

Anyway, as I say, father and daughter are heading to the natural foods department, the daughter still purposefully pushing the cart, as I set out for the yogurt case. As she sails down an aisle to my right I catch myself entertaining a wisp of regret: I almost never allowed my now-grown daughters to push the grocery cart. I was a mean, mean mom. I always imagined that they'd slam head-on into an elderly shopper or perhaps into a display of ...

At this precise moment, I swear, I hear a crash and the sound of falling objects. A glance over my shoulder tells the story: The girl's shopping cart has toppled a stack of cans and something else I can't see from this distance. The nice father is coming to her aid as I force myself to face forward again and - with just a small splash of relief that I might not be such a mean mom after all - go on my way.

Act Two: I'm almost ready to head to the cash registers when in the Frozen Treats aisles I come across a mother and two children. The girl, about 10, is wearing a short plaid skirt what we used to call a "skort" back in the days of hula hoops and "Leave It to Beaver" and the boy is talking in a loud, excited voice

" my favorite kind!" he's saying when I get within earshot, which is to say when I appear at the far end of the aisle.

He's discussing, it becomes clear, frozen pizza.

"And after I eat it, you know what I do then?" he shouts. I have a feeling I don't want to know what he does then, so I try to drift quickly and inconspicuously past them while humming in my head.

"Hey, I think we're almost done!" the children's mother chirps. She sounds a little like an activities director on a cruise ship and a lot like a mother accustomed to deflecting her son's startling announcements.

They pass me and continue down the aisle, the girl turning and twirling and doing pirouette-y steps the way lithe, long-legged girls seem to do, the boy caroming off the freezer doors, the grocery cart and his mother, or maybe just seeming to. The mother herself remains calm, like a strong lamppost around which these two cavort like a couple of heat-crazed moths.

Act Three: The scene is the parking lot. I've put the last of my groceries in the back of my car and I'm climbing into the driver's seat when I notice a man in the car facing mine.

It isn't strictly speaking a car; it looks like a cross between a Hummer and an aircraft carrier, and it's bright green. The man is already behind the wheel, so all I see is his large round head.

Then I spot, trailing in his wake, two little girls. One might be 6; the other's not a day over 4. They've been shambling along behind, the way children will when someone doesn't take them firmly in hand, and they've only just now reached the car. Or whatever it is.

Whatever it is, the back-seat door handles are extremely high. The older of the two girls manages to open the door, but she might need a ladder to climb in.

Meanwhile, the smaller girl has gone around the car to the other back-seat door. She can't begin to reach the handle and it seems that both little girls will be standing in the parking lot for a while when I notice their father - and this is the absolute truth I'm telling - checking his teeth in the rear-view mirror.

I do drive away, because confronting a man with a large round head and an enormous armored vehicle seems way too risky for all involved. Perhaps these two little girls get in and out of this tank all the time, I think.

Nevertheless, I feel uneasy. Not because I think the two children won't get into their father's car. I'm uneasy because I think they will.

On the way home, I remember the very end of Act One, the sight of Dad and daughter coming toward me in the pet food aisle. This time Dad is pushing the cart.

It'll never win an Emmy, but it's a great audience show.

Margo Bartlett is a ThisWeek staff writer. E-mail her at mbartlett@ thisweeknews.com