Sometimes in life, no matter how much you love something, you have to let it go. That is today’s unfinished story, which I am releasing into the wild. Go in peace, little buddy. Go in peace.
Perhaps you’ve been focusing too much on saving.
(LEARN CHINESE – Egg roll. Chūn juǎn)
The plaque on the far wall directly in my eyesight each and every day says, EMPLOYEE OF THE MONTH: ALICE SHAND, accompanied by a girl’s blond-haired, blue-eyed visage staring sullenly at the camera. It’s not me. I’ve only been working here for three months.
Alice has been dead for seven. Still, employee of the month.
“This coupon is expired,” I say to the lady.
“It can’t be. I just got it out of the Daily Mailer.”
“You might have, if it was 2006,” I tell her, then point to the date.
Her eyes center on the print, which even I have to admit I have had a hard time reading. “That says 2008.”
I toss the coupon in to the trash bin under the counter. “And yet three years too late for this discount on kitty litter.”
Behind the lady at the next check out lane Dorsey rolls his eyes at me and makes an obscene gesture in plain view of the several cameras that are aimed at us. Sometimes I wonder how people can forget that they’re constantly being recorded. How do you forget? Every afternoon on my break I go into the security booth and Randy plays the latest in America’s Dumbest Shoplifters for me.
I can never forget I’m on camera. It feels like ants on my scalp.
“You have to stop picking at that.”
I stop scratching at my head, which is more habit than anything else. I’m not even on camera. From here, I can see almost the whole store—every aisle, every checkout lane. The front entrance in black and white, the grainy darkness that is the empty loading dock at night.
“Show me the thing again,” I ask Randy over his shoulder, his hair brushing my cheek. Randy smells like Axe Body Spray and Lysol. His eyes run over the fifteen screens in a pattern that he uses, he says, because it’s quickest. He says that he finds himself watching TV that way at home, too—glance at the top corner of the screen and move in a concentric circle. Makes football funny. I think they taught him that at security guard school, or wherever security guards learn to security…guard.
“In a minute. Check this one from last week,” Randy says, cueing the tape. We watch a man in the health and beauty section stand in front of the topical analgesics. “Let’s read the back of the Preparation H, up no, not what I want.” Randy finishes his Red Bull and tosses the can in the trash instead of the blue recycling bin because it’s closer. “Now I’ll look at the arthritis stuff. Hrm.”
“Fast forward,” I say, leaning over his arm to press the button.
Randy slaps my hand, and yanks on the Twizzler in my mouth. “No look, dumbass.”
The man glances about, picks up a container of Mineral Ice, a counter-irritant. I know because I use it on my knees. It doesn’t cure pain, but it hurts more than the fucking knees and that’s distracting.
The man opens the jar and smells it. Then he looks around (they never remember the camera), then dips his fingers in. He firks out a huge dollop, replaces the cap and jar, then right there, sticks his hand down the front of his trousers, and quite obviously—
“Yeah,” Randy says, “He put that shit on his junk. It gets better.”
He’s had his hands down his shorts for about fifteen seconds when his body stiffens and his mouth opens in a shocked O. Then he starts to run. More like a limp, like a hobble, he staggers down the aisle into one of the larger cross aisles, his hand still in his pants. He goes about three aisles before he runs into someone, classically, a woman about eighty-nine with a walker. She goes down, and he falls backwards.
I’m not sure when real life slapstick turns into tragedy. On America’s Funniest Home Videos they used to show all these clips of little kids accidentally hitting their dads or uncles in the jibblies. I just think that if those kids were whacking their mum’s in the twat or in the boobs, it wouldn’t be on TV.
On the other hand, when the man tries to get up with his hand still in his pants, and he tumbles backwards into a giant display of 5000 Flushes, I have to admit, this is fucking funny.
“Shecky caught him in the bathroom with his pants down and his dick under the spigot. He was on the fucking sink, and when Shecky went to pull him off, the whole thing came out of the wall.”
I watch the man disappear into the bathroom, and then a minute later Shecky runs on screen and follows him. Randy turns the tape off and ejects it. I watch the live feeds to see three teenagers draw all over the lipstick displays with the tester tubes. In the meat aisle some lady is dumping packages of cut chicken into her cart. She’s a regular.
“Dan,” Randy says into his shoulder radio, “chicken lady’s here.”
We watch chicken lady steer her cart to produce, then begin to weigh each package of chicken on the produce scale. If they are off in weight, she corrects the sticker with her magic marker, then recalculates the price.
Dan, a portly man in his thirties who always seems to be out of breath, comes around the corner, and we watch the scuffle as chicken lady tries to keep weighing her chicken, and Dan pulls the marker from her hand and wheels the cart full of chicken away. Chicken lady grabs the back of Dan’s belt, but she’s way too little to make a difference, so he just drags her behind him, her bedroom slippers skidding on the lino. It’s like a demented water skiing act.
“We should set this shit to music,” Randy says, digging through the piles of tapes. He finds the one he wants and pops it in. “This what you’re looking for?”
I check my bag of Twizzlers: still twizzlin’. “Hit me.”
Alice Shand is small on the screen, and the camera isn’t interested in her, because she’s not even in the center of the shot. But there she is, counting out change and tucking a strand of hair behind her ear. I have the gestures memorized—first she counts out three fives, then a one, and a quarter, then four pennies. She hands them to the man, and he nods at her. She shrugs and shuts the drawer.
Dorsey turns from his stall, barely visible, but he says something to her, and she bends down under her table to search for the bags I know he’s asked her for.
On the other side of the screen, the man with the stepladder in the extra large cart rolls towards Alice’s lane. It’s hard to watch the thing and not get a tingle at the thought that this time, this time, it will turn out differently. The black and white graininess of the recording makes it feel as if it’s happening in real time. The bags fly up and over Alice’s counter as she yanks them out and throws them towards Dorsey’s lane. They fall way short, and it’s easy to watch them instead of the ladder being slid onto Alice’s conveyor.
The ladder zips along when the man shoves it, but it catches on something, the bend in the conveyor. The man gives it a good hard push just as Alice is coming up from behind the counter. All it takes is a second, and the top of the step ladder is in her face, and her arms come up like an excited umpire screaming, ‘Safe!’
The force of the ladder pushes her from her haunches to the floor, and the man at the counter grabs for the ladder. He’s saying something, probably an apology. Dorsey drops whatever he’s scanning and rounds his counter towards Alice, who is lying on the floor. You can’t see her face in the camera, but I know that the ladder almost pushed her nose all the way into her head.
Dorsey flips the fuck out. He’s flapping his hands and looking around. You can tell by the swell of his chest that he’s screaming at the top of his lungs for help. The man drops the stepladder on the conveyor so that he can run around to help, but the conveyor is still on, and the ladder rolls right to the end, falls into the bagging pit, and onto Alice’s shins before flipping and falling on the rest of her.
The rest of the tape is damage control. Paramedics, police. Boring.
“Just like Jayne Mansfield,” Randy says, pulling the tape out of the player.
“Saw it on A & E.” Randy ejects the tape. When he moves, this chair squeaks a little bit.
“Why do you still have that, anyway?” I ask.
Randy’s fingers play with the tape cover. “The police made a copy. Store policy to keep originals. I was supposed to turn it in with the monthlies.”
“Why didn’t you?”
On one of the screens we watch a woman shove a frozen turkey up her skirt into what looks like her pregnant belly. I thought people only did that in nineties rock videos.
Randy sighs. “I don’t know. Sentimental reasons.” Then he opens a can of Red Bull.
“Aren’t you going to nab that lady?” I watch her run her fingers over a display of creamed corn cans.
“Are you kidding? They don’t pay me enough to stick my hand into that bitch’s cooch.”
“You ever notice that we don’t have a store brand?” Dorsey asks when the night is slow. Randy announces when he goes on smoke breaks in the middle of the night, so we can swipe something from the candy rack and scarf it down before he gets back. The tape is literally unmanned and recorded over by this time the next day.
“Do we need a store brand?” I ask, peeling the wrapper from a Kit-Kat bar.
Dorsey shrugs. I wonder if a serious thought ever passes through his head. Like, a serious thought, like global warming, or teen suicide, or what he’s going to do when he’s forty-seven, living in a shit apartment, and has no benefits program or 401k. Does he think about health insurance? Does he even have it?
“Man, if I ran this place, I’d make a store brand, buy all that shit from China.” A woman walks to his checkout lane and he flips the light off just as she starts to unload her cart. “I’m on break.”
“But your light was on,” she says, brandishing a bag of Oreos.
Dorsey stares at the light, and I can see that he’s thinking about what he can say that won’t get him in trouble.
“Are you sure?” he asks, and I realise he’s going to go for the Star Trek approach, seeing as how Randy is burning one on the loading dock.
The woman pauses and blinks. “Yeah, it was on. You turned it off after I got here.”
There’s one of those Mexican stand-offs, Dorsey smiling and chewing, the lady holding her package of Oreos. The front doors open in a gust of wind when someone walks through, and an empty plastic bag tumbles past our lanes. I finish my Kit-Kat and flick my light on.
“My drawer is closed,” Dorsey says. “I literally can’t open it until my break is over, so I can count out.” He presses the button on the top right that never does anything but beep. “See? Can’t do nothing.”
The woman lowers her package of cookies and hesitates. There’s no point in getting into an argument that you can’t win because a computer won’t open a drawer. I wish I could say that most people come to this conclusion, but most of the time they argue, even when it is true and not an elaborate asshat maneuver.
Her eyes flit from Dorsey to her cart and the things she’s started to put on the conveyor. Then her eyes go to his light and the switch on the stand. At this moment she thinks that if she turns the light on, this register will magically open. It’s tempting.
“I’ll take you over her, ma’am,” I hear myself say, and then wait as she reorients herself over to my area.
Being a checkout cashier is Zen, actually, you slide the things across the scanner, weigh things on a scale and enter a code the computer already knows, ID people when they want alcohol, and scan all their coupons. Somewhere in the middle of every cart I hit a moment when there’s a rhythm to the beeps. When I’m bored I treat it as if I’m making an electronica album.
A kid skids into the lane with a box of frozen Popsicles. “Mom,” he says, shoving the box at her, “I want these.”
I slow down the check out, so that they can converse about the Popsicles, and she can dig in her pocket for coupons. No matter how ready you are to check out, it always feels like you forgot something. I get it. Dorsey is peeling the wrapper from a Baby Ruth and waving it. I know he’s trying to communicate that the candy bar looks like a big turd, because that’s what he says every time he eats one.
The lady finally takes the Popsicles and glances at them, slapping her coupons on the moving belt with her other hand, and it’s all I can do to stop the conveyor before they go under. “Oh, no,” she says, handing the box back to her kid, “we’re not getting those.”
“Put them back.” And the discussion concludes as she turns back to me. Her kid just stands there, box of Popsicles in his hand.
“Fifty-three forty-four,” I tell her, ignoring Dorsey doing the Macarena. Randy has to be back from his break by now. It’s too hard to tell. I don’t know when I’m being watched just by feel. I have to know in advance, which is reassuring, right? That means you’re not psychic, or crazy or something. Psychosomatic, maybe.
Life has gotten easier for cashiers since the invention of the debit machine, and the lady does the inevitable plastic slide so I can bag the rest of her stuff. Out of the corner of my eye I notice the kid still has the Popsicles. His mom stuffs her wallet back into her purse and then notices too.
“I told you to put this back,” she says, and then she takes the Popsicles from her kid’s hand glances in my direction, and then drops them onto the bottom of the check out shelves, under the ancient bags of Corn Nuts.
On her way out the sliding doors, I see her hand scratch her head.
Three days later, Dorsey gets caught lifting 35 mm film from the photo department. I’m in the check out lane, processing a nice dude who apparently has the need for AAA batteries, spermicidal jelly, and a copy of The Rocketeer at two in the morning.
It’s a dumb thing to do, shoplift film, really, in the age of digital cameras. When they haul him back into the security office, he’s screaming about how he doesn’t even own a camera. I don’t know anyone who owns a film camera. Sooner or later they will stop making them. I am also waiting for the day when no one ever gets prints of pictures anymore. We sell little keychains you can load a hundred fifty pictures on, and they display on the LED screen in random order.
When I see Randy at lunch, he tells me that Dorsey had been stealing shit for ages. He tried to look the other way because it was always random shit that no one really cared about, and he figured the guy had a disease. Once he watched Dorsey stuff a boxed douche in his pants. He told me that he figured that Dorsey was probably better off where he was, and if the worst he stole was feminine hygiene products, then no one was the wiser.
But on the day that Dorsey lifted the useless film, Randy’s supervisor had been doing his yearly inspection, and Randy couldn’t let it go. He’s called Shecky on the walkie-talkie, and they’d had to drag Dorsey back into the security booth like a common criminal. Which, you know, he rather was.
I am having a silent conversation with Alice Shand from my check out lane. Every time I scan an item, the beep that comes from the computer is her reply. One beep for yes, two for no.
Alice says yes a lot.
I have things I want to ask her, but now isn’t the time and place. I want to ask her, What did it feel like?, and What do you regret?, and Is it just me, or is Dorsey a fucktard? Not many of my questions can be answered with a simple yes or no, except that last one, and so this form of communication isn’t very useful.
“I have a coupon for that,” the lady across from me says, and I wonder when people who use coupons will remember that they’re supposed to give them to me at the end of the order. I scan a package of toilet paper.
Did it hurt? I ask.
Is there a heaven?
Are you there?
Is there a meaning to any of this?
“You scanned that twice,” the lady says, and I look at the deodorant in my hand, and then at the screen. There it is, Arrid XX, Arrid XX.
“Sorry,” I say, punching things in the computer and removing the extra charge.
The lady pops a stick of gum in her mouth. “It’s okay. These things happen.”
Things are quiet in the night without Dorsey. My new checkout companion is a sour faced woman named Madge, who wears moisturizer gloves and says that she has psoriasis. Hand psoriasis. She doesn’t like stealing the candy bard when Randy is on break, and she makes faces at me when I do. Madge doesn’t shut down her register for fun. She doesn’t have ideas about starting a store brand, or whether Herman Muenster eats Munster cheese.
Madge does have opinions about things, and one of those things is Jesus. As in, she loves him. She has never met Jesus in the flesh, she says, as none of us have, because he walked the earth thousands of years ago, but he is going to be coming back soon, and she wants to be ready for him. That is why she sneaks tracts into the bags of customers, but only if they look like they don’t know about Jesus, meaning that they dress improperly or wear hijabs.
Madge is also convinced that bar codes are the mark of the beast, so it’s rather funny that she’s making a living handling so many of them.
“They’re going to give everyone a bar code under the skin,” she tells me one night. I am staring at Alice Shand’s photo. My head itches, but only on the side where they took out the tumor. I pick at the scabs I’ve made there, and half-listen to Madge as she polishes her register. Madge likes things to be disinfected and shiny.
“And the bar code will have all your information on it, and you won’t need anything like credit cards or insurance forms or a driver’s license anymore. When you go to the store, you’ll wave your have over the scanner, and it will deduct it right out of your bank account.”
“That sounds pretty neat,” I say absently. “I won’t have to carry a wallet anymore.”
“It’s enslavement,” Madge says, throwing away her Clorox wipe. “The mark of the beast.”
Randy steps put of the security booth, because the door opens and he slides out, waving at me with two fingers. I take my time staring at the candy bar selection. Today feels like a Kit-Kat day.
“I thought the mark of the beast was supposed to be like, a mark,” I say. I don’t really care about this conversation. It’s something to fill the space in between the noises that I hear when I’m chewing a candy bar.
“That’s what they want you to think,” Madge says patiently. “But see, the mark of the beast is just an instrument to enslave the masses without their knowledge.”
I don’t tell her, but I think television might be the mark of the beast. The candy bar is the best thing in my universe right now, and I think that I the future I will not mind swiping my hand over the scanner to buy one.
Under the crackle of the wrapper, I can hear the hum of the scanner in front of me, the roll of the conveyor belt, that I have taken to not turning off, even though after what happened to Alice, all employees are reminded regularly that an empty rolling belt is a hazard. My grandmother used to have a wringer washer that had two roller you fed clothing through to squeeze out excess water. Sometimes I want to put a wet paper towel on the conveyor just to see if the belt would squeeze out the water on the way around.
“If we all had chips in our hands,” I said, watching for the same grease mark to come back around on the rubber belt, “then there wouldn’t any more unidentified bodies.”
Madge frowns at my stolen candy bar. “That’s one of the defenses they’ll use when they push for it in Congress,” she tells me,. She has thought this out. She has a whole thing. This is her life dissertation, and I should probably leave it alone.
But I can’t. “You could just chop off your hand.”
“That will be illegal.”
“Why can’t you just say no? Like some people don’t have a bank account or anything.”
“They’ll eliminate paper money.”
“I think that’s unlikely.”
I am not sure if Alice agrees with me or not. It’s not like I can ask her now. Or ever, really.
The store is having a sale on school supplies. Randy had joked about wearing riot gear, though there had been something in his eyes that said he wasn’t joking. Madge has only been here for about three weeks, and I have only been here for about four months, so perhaps what he’s said has merit, I think as I watch the shopper roaming the extra aisles, stocked with pencils and folders and pocket calculators. Already today the theft alarm at the front door has gone off five times, once for a computer wedged into a woman’s purse, and four other times by mistake. Rather, what were assumed to be mistakes, but which were probably thieves who were too clever for us to find anything on them.
I am sliding my fiftieth case of pencils across the scanner when it just goes batshit, scanner being stuck on a permanent beeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeep. I smash a few buttons on the keyboard, and that doesn’t do anything. The man across the counter from me starts, and then claps his hands to his ears.
“I didn’t do anything!” he yells.
Marc, the shift supervisor, comes around the counter to smack at my scanner. It’s one of those old school ones with the red asterisk-looking lights under the glass. His palms leave grease parks on the surface as he whacks away at it, because as we all know, hitting computers is the best way to fix them.
Madge’s eyes are wide and she turns to us to watch what is going on,. Everyone is in fact staring at me, at the machine, at the supervisor exercising expert control with his bludgeoning.
I am about to tell him to give it up when he lifts his hand up to bring it down again and the beeping just ceases. The screen scrolls the price and waits, cursor blinking patiently. $666.66.
“They’s three for ten dollars,” the man offers helpfully. The supervisor voids the transaction and I rescan. Everything is in perfect working order.
“It’s a sign,” Madge hisses at me when he walks away.
On the way to my car that night I hear noises from the dumpster. The dumpsters at these box stores are veritable cornucopias of wealth, if one comes at the right times. I have been known myself to pick through the top layer and retrieve a few boxes of barely-expired Hot Pockets.
There are cameras trained on the dumpsters for just such reasons. There’s a whole group of people that dive the dumpsters about town, reclaiming perfectly good garbage, dried goods, wilty produce, eggs that have just passed their sell-by date but which are probably still good if it’s winter and you like Russian roulette. We’re supposed to chase them away when we see them, but it’s really not worth the effort. They seem to think that the trash is their sacred birthright, and I’m not about to get into it with them.
On the other hand if they find something good, I might want some. I tuck my vest in my bag and round the corner to the back of the store.
The floodlights are in full bloom, painting large awkward shadows on the asphalt. Only one of those shadows is moving, a rounded hump inside the dumpster itself, an arched back, an ass cresting over the dumpster rim like a rising human sun. A large box of frozen soft pretzel bites sails over the rim of the dumpster to land near a haphazard pile of artifacts: three bags of cheese doodles, a slightly damaged box set of Quincy, M.E seasons 1 and 2, twelve skeins of yarn, and about ten foam pool noodles.
“Hey, man,” I say, loud enough to be heard over the thumping and rustling of moving trash bags. There shouldn’t be many trash bags in there—we only use them for restroom and outside garbage—but their contents alone would make me not want to be digging about in there just in case one o them broke open. Just recently Shecky caught some guy shitting in all the urinals. That would be a nasty bag to accidentally rip open.
“Really, you shouldn’t be out here. They’re gonna send someone out here–” I stop when Dorsey’s head appears at the lip of the dumpster. There’s a Dora the Explorer sticker plastered to his forehead.
“Hey man,” he says in greeting, then holds something up. “Found a six pack of Fanta.” The bottles hang from his fingers like orange grapes on steroids. “Wanna?”
I lift my hand in a catch gesture, and Dorsey peels one of the bottles out from the plastic rings, shakes it up with a big grin, and tosses it. I stare at the label and wonder why it was in the dumpster. Does soda expire?
“You know they’re gonna come out here and toss you,” I say, stiffing the bottle into my hoodie pocket. I’ll gve it time to settle down.
Dorsey shrugs. “Whatever.” He climbs over the edge of the dumpster and then swings his legs around, so that he’s perched on the edge. His ass hangs off the metal like over-risen dough in a too-small pan. He’s unwrapping Tootsie Rolls and tossing the wrappers into the dumpster behind him. I stand there and finger my keys in my posket. Just out of idle curiosity, I try to find my house key without looking at them; it has three holes in the top.
“You ever wonder what happened to Alice Shand?” Dorsey drawls around a mouthful of expired Tootsie Rolls. He swings his feet so that the heels of them bang on the side of the dumpster.
“I know what happened to her,” I tell him. “I saw the tape.” I don’t tell him that I have seen the tape about a dozen times.
Dorsey chokes on his mouthful, or he laughs and sounds like a barking seal, someone with whooping cough, maybe. “You saw the tape, yeah,” he says, not really asking a question. “Punched in her face like a bag of dicks.” He hits the rim of the dumpster and loses his balance, falls backwards.
The weather is a little chilly, and I don’t have a coat. I turn to go when I hear him pull himself upright in the dumpster, slightly wheezing with the effort.
“What if what you saw was a lie?” he asks. He is haloed by the lights so that I can’t see his face, just his form, dark and formless, like a ghost trapped in a black tarp. “What if that didn’t happen that way?”
I back away. Randy will be out here soon to kick Dorsey off the property, and I don’t want to have to be here for that, don’t want to have to fill out paperwork; there’s always paperwork. “I saw the tape, Dorsey,” I remind him. “It’s pretty much all on there.” I don’t think much of turning my back on Dorsey. It’s in the dumpster, still, and he’d have to climb out to even get near me. Not that Dorsey is the violent type anyway.
“The conveyor wasn’t moving when he put that thing on it,” Dorsey calls out. “It started by itself.”
That does make me pause, and I think back to the conveyor in the video. Had it been moving? Or had it started before the ladder hit it? After? The conveyors are trained to stop when something hits the sensor at the edge, right before the scanner. Even if it had gotten caught on the scanner–
“The guy shoved it,” I say.
“Did he.” Dorsey sounds smug, as if he has discovered the secrets of the universe.
“Yeah, he did,” I say. “You’re insane, Dorsey.”
But in my head, I play the tape all the way home.
“This is unhealthy,” Randy says, tossing away a can of Red Bull into the recycling bin. “Seriously, man, it’s like Jeffrey Dahmer sick or something.”
I ignore him and instead slow down the tape, watching the graininess of Alice Shand’s movements on the screen. It isn’t even that the image is grainy. It’s that it’s far away. I can see Dorsey in the checkout lane next to her, waving.
The conveyor is difficult to see clearly. It’s blocked by the credit card machine and that little fucking platform everyone puts their coupons on and then expects me to see.
AND THEN I SORT OF LOST STEAM AND CARING.
THERE WAS THIS:
I take the photo of Alice from the frame and stare at it. Then I stick it in my back pocket. Under Alice’s photo is a collection of all the photos on previous Employees of the Month. There’s Randy and Dorsey, A half-dozen people I don’t know at all, two people who are still here,. And one guy from the stock room who they apparently made Employee of the Month once when he passed his monthly drug test for the first time. Last night I sold him about fifteen bottles of pseudophenedrine, so I am guessing he’s not on the straight and narrow anymore.
I wedge Dorsey’s ass shot behind the plastic and screw the nuts back down to clamp it in place. My scalp feels like a parade of insects is running across the surface, and I clench my fingers reflexively. The overhead music is something soft and reassuring, MC Billy Joel or DJ Barry Manilow.
AND THEN I REALLY LOST IT.
REST IN PEACE ALICE SHAND.