Fifteen or Less

A sign hangs like a man convicted by two weak chains over a butcherblock counter.  Its intent is to inform the ignorant, and its design is cleanly processed to attract the eyes of those unaware: bright red friendly letters across a gently curved white fiberglass frame, partnered with medium-gray drop-shadows and gradient speed-lines that lend the clean art-deco motif of late-nineties service.  The Safeway is a museum to that decade of mediocrity, a surgically clean factory of consumer ecstasy, and I’m waiting for my turn to crank the gears of the All-American Everyday.  My gaze wanders briefly over the last-minute snack stand.  Visual and salivary impulses all question whether an airtight package of five minutes’ indulgence is a fair reward for joining the shuffling ranks of patriotically obese, for whom the nearby automatic doors are more revolving than sliding.  The overhead sign is a symbol of their coming epitaphs, a summary of the lives of shoppers in the express lane.  It mocks the accomplishments of the ceaseless and faceless passers-under: “FIFTEEN ITEMS”, it commands.  The “nevermore” of a plastic raven.  In subtitle, a smaller sign hangs by smaller chains beneath, adding in machine-perfect cursive script, “…or less!”  The sign’s squandered fast-food aesthetic doesn’t bring much comfort, but it’s all I have right now, and I need it.

Because in front of me is a dick.

I don’t mean my dick.  I mean, that’s always there, and I try not to pay attention to it when I’m at the Safeway.  The dick in front of me is a man, and this man embodies all of the negative implications of the word “dick”.  This man wears a too-small button-down Hawaiian shirt, and is thin enough that at a certain angle you can make out the recess between his sternum and his gut from four wasted years in an ancient time serving body-shots to girls whose affection ran out just before the parking meter.  He’s bald, except where jagged black sideburns shaved into lightning bolts cling for dear life, desperately trying not to run down into the frat goatee he never shaved.

The problem, though, is this: in front of me, directly below the damning sign, is this asshole’s shopping cart.  In his shopping cart are twenty-seven Butterball and four Foster Farms frozen chickens.  The drooling checker sees nothing at all unusual about this, seizing one shrink-wrapped corpse after another, slamming them down on the barcode scanner with a dead thud, and shuffling each in succession with the sad wet gurgle of settling preservative juices toward the bagger.  The checker’s fiberglass smile faded after the first hour of wage-slavery.  She’s on hour four. Now she’s a part of the machine: conveyor, scanner, register and girl in one convenient unit.  And she keeps slamming chickens, one and another and another and another and another.

I wait until fifteen chickens pass to tighten my fists.  The conveyor moves in jerks and false starts, spastically closing the gaps between each pair of dead birds.  Behind them all, and behind a filthy plastic separator bar advertising a dead dental firm, is my purchase: caffeine in five forms, liquid and solid.  It keeps me from the nerves.  At first I falter when I notice the potential dragon’s hoard of birdmeat in the cart ahead, wondering if the world has gone mad enough to accept this affront to grocery etiquette.  But it’s been at least eight minutes, and four shoppers have come and gone in line before this monstrosity of chicken wheeled up.  I’ve come far in this line, and the only block to the killing satisfaction of my caffeine is this test.  It’s a test of myself, my spirit, my patience, my inner strength and a thousand identical bullshit concepts that boil down to how patient I can be before I seize a chicken and club anyone in arm’s reach into bloody unconsciousness.

It’s probably better for my criminal record if I pass this test.

So I stare at the sign. “FIFTEEN ITEMS…or less”, the irony hangs in the air over the frozen meatstash like a guillotine.  It’s remarkable how your imagination runs when your mind needs the preoccupation.  The blade of a guillotine is hanging over the balding motherfucker in front of me, its informational decree a conviction of his crime.  I imagine the chains cut, and the blade neatly tracing its grooves straight into the folded neck of the express lane convict.  A satisfying rushing sound; air and metal.  He splits right down the middle, like a cartoon.  I step over the halves and sweep away the remaining chickens to present my addictives.

What’s even more remarkable than the imagination is the way reality seems to look to it for the occasional cue.  I’m pulled back to attention as a rusted link in the real chain gives up its struggle.  It happens.  The smaller sign, that addendum, snaps from its links and falls.  It turns on its end in the air just before the delinquent shopper’s skull breaks its descent.  My heart jumps, a little in delight at the coincidence, a little in disappointment: he doesn’t split in two.  But there is a neat knocking sound, like an axe into wood, as plastic wedges into bone and the man crumples like an abandoned marionette.

With a sweep of my arm, I bury the fallen in what remains of his bounty.  A pile of meat falls onto a pile of meat.  With a patronizing smile, I push my items to the checker.  She takes them, and, machine of her motions moving ever forward, slides them on to the bagger.  She never flinches at the fall of an overeager consumer.  Why would she?  The girl has seen death before–frozen food section, aisle twelve.  She punches the keys in a steady rhythm to ring me up.  I hold up a finger to stop her: the process pauses while I find my discount card.

(c) 2009

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