The law gives him a fifteen-minute break every four hours, the cashier tells the supervisor (who engineered bridges for the US Army in his country of origin), and bathroom visits don’t count.
“This is America,” he says, and stops scanning the loaded conveyor belt of bulk items to hiccup more bile from last night’s Yuenglings and Kools into the back of his throat. His stomach has never been so desperate for a ginger ale, a pretzel from the food court with the salt rubbed off.
“I tell you already,” the supervisor says. “You go when the other cashier comes back. Where he go anyway? Vacation?”
“Where did who go?” the cashier says despite knowing full well who the supervisor’s referring to: the other cashier who talked about quitting even more than he did. No small feat.
Here, the supervisor faces a decision: With the cashier’s line getting longer, the shoppers will soon back up to the aisles and begin occluding foot traffic. He sees shopping carts full of perishables abandoned, complaints filed.
So, after another moment, the supervisor takes the scanner from the cashier’s hand, says, “Back in fifteen. Find that other cashier while you’re at it.” And as the cashier trudges off toward the food court, he begins scanning the items of an impatient-looking Hasidic woman.
The supervisor aims the scanner at the barcode of her bulk package of hamburger meat, pulls the trigger. Briefly, brains splatter across the woman’s wool coat then dissolve. He parachutes a plastic bag, pulls his lips into a smile, and slides the package inside. Continues.
Meanwhile, the cashier tears off scraps of salt-less pretzel with his teeth in the food court, stares up at the jaundiced ceiling, three stories overhead. He grunts as he chews. Crumbs tumble down his unshaven chin, over his paunch, and onto the dull concrete floor where a dusty sparrow waits to peck them. He swigs some ginger ale, says, “Fire in the hole!” Then belches the finest belch of his life.
This sparrow flits off toward the registers at the sound—through the congestion of shoppers and into Electronics where a bank of 4K televisions are all looping the same cruise line commercial, past a mock living room where the Hasidic woman’s husband sits in a plush armchair, fiddling with his hearing aid—up, up, up—until lighting on a rust-blemished rafter beside two other pretzel-fat birds.
The sparrows turn their tiny heads, rattle their feathers at the new arrival. Then look back at what they had regarded a moment before: the other cashier who, not a half hour ago, had scaled the five tiers of shelving and discretely, unnoticed, wedged himself between two plastic-wrapped pallets of diapers.
His plan? Wait for the lights to go out, roll a stocking he stole from woman’s underwear over his head, climb down. Steal the cash from the safe in the back room with the passcode he gleaned over the supervisor’s shoulder a few days earlier while feigning interest in one of his “back-in-my-country” stories: 69694.
In the meantime, the other cashier can only wait, attempt to remain still and not rock the shelving. He closes his eyes as the sounds of lapping oceans, sea gulls, and ukulele drift upward from the orchestra of high-def surround-sounds, and daydreams of the vacations on which his score would take him. Of the exotic food and women he’d know once he got there.
The other cashier worries a finger into the taught plastic of one of the diaper pallets while a daydream whispers this dirty joke he’d once heard from his Uncle Eugene. A dark-skinned bikinied woman sipping from a coconut. She erupts with laughter. Her breasts heave and her seashell necklace jingles so beautifully his finger bursts through the plastic with an audible snap. And this snap joins the crush of looping cruise line commercials and the insect whine of the Hasid’s uncooperative hearing aid and the squeal of rusty shopping cart wheels and the audible grinding of an impatient shopper’s teeth and the supervisor’s beeping scanner, the cashier’s endless attempts to belch away his dread back in the food court.
And the sound of finger through plastic proves one decibel too many—the rafters begin vibrating with the absurdity of it! To quiver and shake! Until emitting a low-frequency moan! One that fills the store, and although barely audible, causes the shoppers to glance about! For babies to howl, phones to drop service bars. To creep an itch up and up the sparrows’ feet, forcing them off the rafter, one by one.
Then, in a squadron, these sparrows soar—through the plush living rooms and diamond-skittering flat-screen oceans, past the mildly panic-stricken shoppers whose carts bulge with bulk packages of delicious food, past the supervisor still executing a conveyor belt of bulk items with an unwavering smile (foot traffic flowing steadily now, thank God) until finally landing in the food court where, not twenty minutes later, the cashier still sits belching. From the chaos, a starchy accumulation of paradise at his feet—
And on his chin. And on his shirt. And in his now-calm stomach. And on the floor, too. Paradise being tracked out the door in the crevices of a shopper’s shoe. And into the parking lot. Down the heavily-trafficked, oil-slick thruway and past the clustered developments and billboard signs. Paradise spilling for miles and miles all around, as far as the eye can see.
Image courtesy of Wikipedia