Jack Beecher’s eyes, twin green pools sparkling with intelligence but hooded with ennui, charted a bumpy course over the dozen checkout lanes in Hall’s Market. All of them were clogged with the singularly maddening obstacles of the supermarket milieu: bloated, ponderous carts lined up insipidly like bovines awaiting slaughter, young children scampering under and around these de facto cattle with the aimless avidity of flies, glad-handing cashiers and baggers in braces and clip-on ties – the lackluster cowboys and cowgirls of this wingding ranch.
He glanced at his imitation Rolex and frowned, his hopes of a hasty exodus from this loathsome bazaar fading. It was Wednesday; why the supermarket was as crowded as a frat-house bash was a mystery. A rare day off from his duties as a collection supervisor had become a series of misadventures: a popped button on his snazziest shorts, a tearful call from his manic-depressive secretary, a massive pile of excrement — the cheerful endowment of his neighbor’s Mastiff — on his well-manicured front lawn. Now, with the help of the rabble, he’d managed to expand a quick stop at the grocery store into an honest-to-goodness shopping trip, frittering away resources of money and time. He simply wished to go home, roam the Internet, and crash for a spell before taking in an episode of South Park and launching a few well-earned Heinekens down his throat.
Jack shifted the weary plastic market basket from hand to hand, appraising its heft as its metal handle cut into his palm. It held a dozen eggs, four boxes of macaroni and cheese, a six-pack of beer, a roll of paper towels, a razor, a stick of deodorant, and a can of Hormel chili. After a moment’s pause, he slid into the shortest and fastest-moving checkout line, one marked by a self-important sign: SEVEN ITEMS OR LESS. Jack glanced indifferently at his purchases. He had, after all, only one basket. He didn’t need to spend the rest of his afternoon in the clamor of this enervating establishment for the sake of an arbitrary dictum.
In front of him was a young couple buying a sack of dog food, oversized garbage bags, a package of condoms, and a single can of Coke. Naturally, they were financing this exorbitant spree with a credit card. While the clerk, a kid with luxurious sideburns that did little to hide his roiling acne, began ringing up their order, an improbably fat and dour-faced woman, cloaked in a pale green sun dress and skin as tallow as candle wax, stationed herself in line behind Jack. Favoring her with a sideways glance, he saw that she carried only a bag of bakery rolls. She was looking at him as if he were something she’d swat with a rolled-up newspaper, feigning interest in something over his shoulder. Sensing her cool examination of his basket, he gave an unconscious grunt of irritation and positioned it in front of his waist, shielding it from Shamu’s view.
Jack exhaled through pursed lips. Seven items was the stated rule; one basket, even an overstuffed one, was the unwritten, common-sense standard. And he very seldom broke rules. Jack had a keen sense of right or wrong in all his affairs. He paid his taxes and had never received a traffic ticket. He had no bounced checks, illegitimate children, forays into prostitution, or illegally placed bets in his history. He obeyed the law even when no one was watching.
Moreover, he had a social conscience. He didn’t burden the health-care system with frivolous office visits simply because his generous health plan allowed it. He didn’t call in sick when he was well – which, since he took care of himself, was most always – just because he could, eight times a year, be paid for sitting at home. He wasn’t going to smoke himself into a wrinkled heap of gasping protoplasm and expect either the tobacco industry or Uncle Sam to assume either the blame or the cost. Rules were rules; failing these, anyone could chart a course with plain good sense. But years of watching his fellow earthlings flail through life with rapacious disregard for basic responsibility had rightfully rendered him a jaded soul.
Now firmly committed to his checkout lane, Jack cast his gaze down the row of registers again. He drew satisfaction in noting that most were backed up three or four carts deep. Toddlers made yowling entreaties to beleaguered moms for cheap, brightly-colored toys in strategically placed bins. Dullards pawed through tabloid publications in an effort to discover where Elvis and JFK were summering. Aging bag-boys, presumably the mentally-ill denizens of halfway houses or parolees plotting their next misdeeds, made a mockery of the process, lading canned goods atop perishables and stuffing bags to the point of tearing and spillage, offering toothless, apologetic grins in exchange for customers’ amnesty. The cacophony of electronic register burps, Muzak, and squeaking carts was awful; the smell of the place — cloying flowers layered on gently rotting cheese was evidently the flavor of the day — was insulting. The gestalt suggested the entire New York Stock Exchange on a Thorazine-and-crack cocktail.
Jack spotted the sign hanging over the adjacent register, which sported an especially long line. TEN ITEMS OR LESS, this one admonished. In spite of his practiced detachment, he could not help but notice that most of these customers had exactly ten items. Or less. One, a pretty brunette housewife type, had only six – evidently she’d dropped out of remedial math class to marry a surgeon, for choosing her line over Jack’s would cost her several minutes.
Then Jack spotted a tall, bearded guy in cycling garb who had thirteen items, including four bulky bunches of bananas, laid out on the register’s conveyor belt. Touche, Jack thought. But as this character looked back at him, Jack read the meaning in his detached yet smug glance; he was like a convicted drunken driver sizing up a serial rapist: I’m wrong, but not in your league, pal. Jack scowled.
He thought of the futility of it all. Seven items, ten; why not have signs for nineteen, twenty-three, and fifty-seven items or less? They could all spend more of their precious time counting and less of it shopping, working, living, while media mavens continued to feign wonder and outrage over America’s economical and industrial overthrow at the hands of backwater countries.