He was in a hurry. Sometimes he works on Sundays. He was low on gas and out of food to take to work with him. He had a plan – an efficient plan. Get exactly what he needed from the grocery, directly. No fucking around. He knew exactly what he needed and where it was at. He understood the shortest distance between two points is a straight line. He understood that walking fast gets you to where you want to be quicker than walking slow. He understood that walking and talking are two separate things – one involving gross motor skills, the other more of a cognitive process – so there’s little reason for one to affect the other. So he got what he needed and went to the self-checkout corral to scan it out nice and quick. He stood in line thinking, next: gas, then highway, then work. If it all went well, he should have made it on time.
But there’s always some nitwit poking around. This one was a fat, flabby-armed son-of-a-bitch too fucking stupid to pull 3 or 4 bags of bread out of her basket all at once – all together – and then scan them all real fast. Instead, she leaned over the bascart to grab one, then scan. Then bag. Then lean over again, grab another bag of bread. Then scan. Then bag. Repeat ad nauseam for a cart stuffed with cookies and bananas and a box of ice cream sandwiches and a raw pork butt and bottles of barbecue sauce and cranberry-apple juice and a sack of cat litter and cardboard cartons of various varieties of canned sodas and a jug of liquid laundry detergent.
He’s not an angry man but he can’t help but think this bitch has gone through this act dozens of times before so why hasn’t she learned a goddamned thing? Her leisure in the act infuriates him.
Being surrounded by all this stupidity is a curse. And this can’t be her first time. Has she nowhere to go? Nothing better to do? Doesn’t she want to be better than this? Can’t she see there’s 3 of us in line already, waiting to be somewhere other than this fucking store?
But for some, their lives, like most everything else, are a mostly leisurely affair.
In professional wrestling there’s this thing called building heat. The good guy or babyface strives for something and at the instant he’s about to attain it – a pinfall or a tag to his partner – the heel or bad guy, by some nefarious act, takes it away. Stifling the babyface gets the crowd hot. It makes them want their hero to attain his goal even more and for his nemesis to get an extra helping of his just desserts.
For our hero, it’s moments like this where life builds heat. It’s at the grocery store trying to get in and out efficiently. It’s people in the passing lane not passing. It’s people in a crowded store or mall clogging up an aisle by walking at a snail’s pace because they’re engrossed in a conversation about nothing. It’s all these things and thousands more. It’s pressing too many goddamed buttons just to pump your goddamned gas when it’s -4 degrees outside. It’s taxes and medical bills that get fucked up when he knows he’s done everything right. It’s things at his job he’s told to do and not to do, depending on different but vaguely defined circumstances. Its managers and supervisors who do a piss-poor job at their jobs, mostly due to a culture and bureaucracy that nourishes incompetence, while he tries hard to do his best.
And it’s knowing he exists mostly as the mark for some shitty product or another or some shitty set of competing beliefs. It’s knowing his conscience, even in the unconsciousness of sleep, is prey to the heel psychologists employed to figure out how to get him to buy more and more of the shit that keeps us stupefied in the supermarket by all the choices and brands and labels and Lower Prices and Super Values. It’s knowing that magical hair potions don’t regrow hair and that, even if they did, the real reason we’re not getting laid has very little to do with a full head of hair. It’s knowing that using a cell phone at all or on Friday night or not isn’t the difference between heaven and hell. It’s knowing that only a fool convinces himself that any of that nonsense is real. And it’s knowing of the whole other brand of fool who convinces himself that nothing’s real either.
It’s knowing that since we can’t trust the heel psychologists, we’re mostly left with the babyface psychiatrists who are there to stupefy us with their medications when we realize – either consciously or by feeling – that we’re broken and that buying a bunch of shit or living in a world of religious or political fantasy isn’t going to fix us.
He watched Fatty pull out a box of cereal. She was down to the final stretch. She looked at the top of the box and the front and back of the box and the sides of the box before discovering the barcode on the bottom. She scanned it, then put it in a bag. She pulled out another box, a different brand of cereal. She looked at the top of the box and the front and back of the box and the sides of the box before discovering the barcode on the bottom. She scanned it, then put it in the same bag.
Absolutely nothing learned!!!!! A chimp or a rat learns quicker while this idiot’s gonna get into a car and drive home at 65 miles per hour.
With the cereal, Fatty-Arms had excavated the bascart of all her shit so he thought it was finally time to move forward in the queue. He stood there nervously like a racehorse in a starting stall, itching for the opportunity to prove itself.
But first she had to fumble around in her purse for her shoppers card. She finally found it and scanned it and then put it back in its slit in the billfold. The machine asked if she had any coupons. She realized she did so she opened up her purse again and fumbled around for those. She found them and told the machine that, yes, she did have coupons. This called the vested shelf-check referee to come over. Instead of a whistle around her neck, she carried a handheld scanner. She scanned Fatty’s coupons and pretended to inspect that she had, in fact, purchased what those coupons discounted. The referee said, “Thank you” and Fatty-Arms said, “Thank you, too.” Then the machine asked how she’d like to pay. She wanted to pay by credit card so she told the machine that. It told her to insert her card so she opened her purse for a third time and fumbled in her wallet for that card. She put the card into the machine and it started to beep so she took it out and put it in again. It still beeped so she swiped it, even though it was one of those readers for cards with chips.
“It’s a chip reader machine,” the referee said.
“I know,” Fatty said, “But it’s not working.”
“You can try swiping it,” the referee instructed.
So she swiped it again and the reader just cried.
“I already tried twice and swiping it doesn’t work either,” she said.
“Wait a second,” the referee said. The badge dangling from the lanyard where the whistle should have been identified her as Abby, but hardly anybody, including our hero, would notice or care.
For fuck’s sake!!!!, he screamed to himself. He wanted to kill someone. He thought about killing that idiot with the fat arms and stupid brain. He thought about killing himself. He wanted that self-check referee to step to the middle and announce, “If you’re too fucking stupid to understand the rules of this game, you don’t get to play.” He wanted the referee to publicly shame Stupid Brain out of ever fucking people over like that again.
He looked up at the sign marking the area. It read SELF CHECKOUT.
Self-checkout, motherfucker. It couldn’t be more plain. Check out how fucking stupid you are. For fuck’s sake, you’re spinning around in a goddamned circle, wasting twenty steps before you ever take a single step forward.
The referee, Abby, took Fatty-Arms’ credit card over to her podium and started punching in numbers while our hero thought it’s not the mass anxiety from the loss of jobs or the psychoactive drugs fucking up our minds that, in turn, lead people to mass murder. It’s this shit. It’s this necessary condition of existence to be stuck in the playpen of the stupidity of everybody else.
He wondered how the self-checkout referee handles so much stupidity for 8 hours a day at little more than minimum wage.
She’s either a saint or even more of a fool than the rest of us. Or she has a cat or a dog to go home to that makes it all better. Or a vicious or just as idiotic family that seems mild compared to all this nonsense. Who knows.
The referee returned the card. Fatty’s receipt spat out. She tore it off, then made sure the digital coupon download gave her a dollar off the cat litter. There was a lot of shit listed on the receipt so it took a minute to find the litter and decode all the numbers and minuses on the slip.
Just step away to read the fucking receipt so that somebody else can get on with their life!!!!, our hero fumed.
Satisfied with her discounts, she put the card back in its slit and the receipt in a different compartment and, though she had two fat and warbling arms, she loaded the bags into her cart one at a time, then finally left.
If this was a real game, there needs to be a second corral for the Special Olympics nitwits like her and the people who know what the fuck they’re doing. And it’s up to the referee to decide who belongs where. Blow the fucking whistle on this moron someday, please!!!!!!!
With his nemesis gone, our hero finally gets his shot on the starting line. He’s had time to estimate the cost of his purchases so he whips out an appropriate amount of cash along with his shoppers card. He scans the card with a flash across the reader. He scans his items quicker than a real cashier – a professional – on Thanksgiving Eve. He takes pride in his swiftness and forethought. His efficiency would impress any gambler at the track making a last second bet before the bell. Or the best bartender slinging drinks on a busy Friday night. Or the guy on a slaughterhouse line who hangs thousands of chickens on his shift to be killed.
Our hero, intoxicated by his scanning competence, barely notices the mother and daughter next to him. The little girl’s in some kind of soccer or softball outfit. She looks at him, drawn to his seriousness and swiftness. He scans his items abruptly and without compassion, throwing them in a sack almost aggressively since there’s no reason to be dainty. He attacks buttons on the screen impatiently. He forces his bill into the money acceptor. He notices the girl looking at him, thinking maybe she’s awed by his self-scanning skills. He looks over to acknowledge her but her stare is one of confusion more than awe. She continues to stare so he flashes her a serious smile no more sincere than the referee’s “thank you” to Fatty-Arms for her coupons. The girl doesn’t return his smile, she just stares. Their exchange is broken when the money machine dumps his change. He grabs the bills and scoops out the coins while the girl remains fixed.
The mother notices her daughter staring at the man. She does a quick assessment of him. Nothing seems too out of place.
“Stop staring,” the mother whispers, so the girl does. The mother doesn’t apologize to our hero for the awkwardness of her daughter’s staring. The girl turns to watch as her mother scans. She watches as her mother puts their sack of organic avocados on the scanner and her mother types in just 5 when the girl knows there are 6, for the girl’s the one who counted and bagged them. If it was an honest mistake by her mother, the girl might have pointed it out. She might have corrected her mother. Her mother’s a good woman. The little girl knows that. But still, she doesn’t point out the error because she can’t be sure if it was an honest mistake or not.
The man grabs all his stuff and makes a hasty exit but gets delayed by two guys at the sliding doors carrying on a conversation about deer season.
“Excuse me,” the man says curtly, wondering why anybody blocks an exit to chit-chat.
“Sorry,” the man in camouflage overalls says.
“What’s his problem?,” the other asks as our hurried hero passes between them.
“Asshole,” the camouflaged one says.
Shortly, the mother and daughter exit between the two men, still discussing deer season. The girls sees our hero, parked in the same row as them.
“There’s that guy,” the little girl says, pointing at the man in a striped polo shirt.
“What was that all about?”, the mother asks. “Did he do something?”
“He was just weird,” the little girl says.
She’s a cute kid, it’s true. She’s been told that by nearly everyone and she’s especially cute in her soccer gear. She’s come to expect some recognition of that, either with sincere smiles or comments made aloud or beneath her mother’s posts of the two of them on Facebook. But this man’s smile was abjectly false, so false that even a little girl couldn’t be fooled.
But little does this girl yet know that after you’ve seen thousands of cute kids and cute dogs and cats and beautiful women and beautiful asses on women that are beautiful or not, they all start to seem the same. And then one day you realize most of the magic in all those things are gone. And from there you can keep on pretending that it’s there or you can decide to accept that the magic’s gone and it’s time to look for it somewhere else – if it even exists anywhere or anymore in anything.
“Weird? How?”, the mother asks. “Did he say something?”
“No. He looked at me and didn’t say anything. Or do anything.”
“Yeah. I guess that is weird,” her mother says.
“I don’t think he’s like Dad,” the girl says.
Her father shaves every morning. Her father always blows the grass clippings from their sidewalk and kills the weeds in the cracks and keeps the wheels on all their cars shiny. He reads all his emails at work thoroughly, knowing that most are just bullshit. Her father always smiles at infants and little kids and always makes excuses for old people doing stupid or shitty things because they’re old – never stupid or shitty – even when that’s what they were before they were old. And he’s overly generous and cordial to the elderly and kids not because he’s a creep, but because that’s what he’s supposed to do as a father and husband and respectable neighbor and employee.
The little girl watches the man getting into his SUV much like their own. The brand doesn’t matter. The year and model don’t matter. Theirs are mostly the same except his is blue and theirs is white.
“There he is,” the little girl says. “Look at his car, Mom. Isn’t it weird?”
Her mother is too busy unloading and reloading their sacks of groceries to look.
“Weird? How?”, the mother asks.
“It’s just so plain,” the girl says. “And dusty.”
Their vehicle is shiny with a sticker proclaiming what school she goes to. She likes that sticker and ones proclaiming what kind of dog the owner of a car likes. His vehicle doesn’t have any bumper stickers or decals proclaiming what he is – nothing to announce where a child goes to school or what team they play for. There’s no stick figure family or nothing announcing his preference in hunting equipment or commitment to Dodge or Ford or Chevy or which PSALM resonates with him the most. Nothing to announce his support of a free Tibet or a local university or which professional team or which law enforcement organization he supports. There’s nothing to suggest which party he votes for or if he supports gun ownership or the gays and lesbians or not. There’s nothing but some brake dust on the wheels and a light film of dirt all around.
“I don’t know. He just seems weird,” the girl says.
The mother finishes loading their groceries and returns their cart to the corral while the girl climbs into the passenger’s side. The mother goes around to the driver’s side. There’s a cart resting on her front bumper.
“Fuck,” she says.
She pulls the cart off her car. There’s no dent or scratch. She parks the cart on a mulched island under a tree, propping its front wheels over a curb, then climbs into their car.
“What’s wrong with people?”, the mother asks.
But her daughter, too busy wondering about the eccentricity of the man who’s just tossed his groceries onto the passenger’s seat and driven to the back of the lot to get his gas, doesn’t reply. As mother and daughter pull out, the girl seems him at a pump reaching for his wallet, set to attack both with the same ruthless efficiency as before.
It all works out for the man and he gets to work on time. He’s relieved and a bit satisfied that his plan, with only minor bumps in the road, worked out.
He clocks in and greets all his co-workers that he likes. He ignores the one that ignores him and everybody else and gives a dishonest address to the one that he and not much of anybody else like because of a laziness that’s chronically and pathetically and predictably concealed within a flurry of fake distractions and meaningless activity.
Overall, our hero recons himself a likable enough guy and it’s probably true. He wears khakis and polo shirts to blend in. He buzzes his balding head short because that’s how you accept such things. He allows his grass to grow higher than most, but not too high. Nobody recognizes him as an angry or bitter man, which he mostly isn’t, even though the ones that know him best figure there’s a bit more to him than they know. Maybe what they don’t know about is the anger. Or how the anger and pity and frustration and fear that they don’t know about – how they all get directed into something else they don’t know anything about.