The clerk in charge of his register had the contrived bearing of Everyteen: sullen yet amused. He was taking an inordinately long time with the couple and their purchases, jawing with them spiritedly about some over-budgeted disaster flick. Save it, kids, Jack thought. Spare your wallets and guard what’s left of your brains. But he kept quiet; only his shuffling feet belied his air of insouciance.
Then he noticed a box of Skor Bars on the candy rack. Man, how he loved those things. He’d thought they’d gone out of circulation years ago, but obviously not; maybe this place wasn’t as contemptible as he’d judged it to be. In any event, he really wanted a Skor Bar now. His weakness for chocolate perturbed him, but he sometimes submitted.
Jack chanced a subtle glance over his shoulder, scratching his neck to mask the maneuver. He edged toward the candy rack and casually extended his arm toward his prey, keeping his eyes fixed on the clerk. His fingers played blindly over the candy bars for a moment, then snatched up a Skor Bar, which he quickly deposited among his other purchases. There had been a maddening rustle of wrappers when his candy bar was plied from its fellows, but the deed was done. He exhaled again. Bouncing on his toes, Jack whistled a few strains along with the Muzak before looking back once more.
Shamu was still staring. Her eyes were beady and porcine; her countenance – haughty, vapid and accusatory in the manner of a lifelong dreg – as hopelessly flawed as the rest of her. Yet she looked imperious. Jack was reminded of an intimidating grade-school teacher, and the memory – and the unsettling effect this bloated cretin was having on him now – galled him. Several other customers were now lined up behind her. All of them seemed to be looking at him, too. Inspecting him.
Jack swiveled to face Shamu directly. “Don’t count my items,” he snapped.
The woman, surprised but too blank of intellect to show it, tore her eyes from the cover of the People magazine on the rack behind Jack and regarded him warily. She had a faint mustache, and several dark spikes protruded from her mandible as well. Jack leaned in just so and hissed: “Your chins alone are four items, so lay off.” Shamu, nonplused, recoiled, clutching her bag of rolls against her ample bosom.
Jack turned forward. Dammit if Shamu, bent on laying bare his trivial sin for the entire horde of shopper-cretins to observe, judge, and punish, hadn’t gotten to him. He hankered for his Skor Bar; he considered tearing it open and gobbling it on the spot, but quickly canned the idea. In Jack’s world, such a bald lack of self-restraint was inexcusable; here, such a sociopathic display would only worsen a grim situation. He fought to reclaim control of himself.
His cheeks mottling with anger, Jack assessed his fellow customers, assigning crimes at a glance. Both members of the couple in front of him sported earrings and ponytails: reeferheads. The inbred-looking woman with two wailing kids, bruised legs and cut-off jeans: welfare leech. The surly, hairy-necked man in a black sleeveless tee-shirt: wife-beater. An elderly, grinning, knock-kneed guy buying live bait: unwarranted handicap sticker. Jack was still certain that all of them were glaring right back at him. His jaw tightened.
Jack told himself their sullen stares were a consequence of his position at the head of the line, where he was nominally a natural focus for their impatience. Their irritation stemmed from the heat, the wait, the sensory abominations of the place. The simple misery of their lives. But he was undeniably nervous. He was perspiring. If the store had air conditioning, it had been installed by encephalopathic chimps.
The clerk was finally ready for him. Jack, the picture of commercial efficiency, had already laid out his items in a neat phalanx on the conveyor belt; his order would consume far less time than the others in his lane, numbers be damned. And since he had no intention of bantering with the pimply doofus overseeing this transaction, he’d be especially quick, and that was good; he was suddenly in an even greater hurry to leave.
His eyes met the clerk’s. “‘Afternoon.”
The kid fixed Jack with a baleful stare. His eyes flitted from Jack’s face to his neatly arranged cluster of groceries, then back again. Christ on a pogo stick.
Vexing as it was to be at the mercy of the “before” representative in a Clearasil ad, the kid’s behavior was a call for action. “Look, friend,” Jack said to the clerk, lowering his voice to a conspiratorial murmur. “Just ring this stuff up, please? We’re all in a hurry here.” He gestured grandly at the line behind him.
“Yeah.” The kid’s tone was jaunty, but underlain by a queerly self-indulgent measure of reproach. He didn’t move. The store had seemingly grown more quiet…the air heavier. The Muzak track was between songs, or had stopped altogether. Jack felt dozens of pairs of eyes piercing him, avidly processing this pathetic tableau. Then he felt the stirrings of an erection.
His physiological response to his own inner unraveling defied all reason, and with all the looks he was getting, someone was bound to notice his member (often a source of lopsided pride, but not now) rising into the fray beneath the thin fabric of an already damaged pair of shorts. This was insane. With rivulets of rank perspiration seeping into the underarms of his starched shirt, he tottered on the edge of surrender and his lips almost moved: Okay I’ll choose another line damn you damn you all but I’ll do it –
But before Jack could say a word, the clerk began pulling his items over the UPC scanner, not looking at Jack anymore but still exuding detached and bemused contempt. Jack’s phallus began to wilt and his heartbeat slowed. Not more than ninety seconds later, his items were paid for and safely stowed in two plastic bags. Throwing a final glance in the direction of an uninterested and somehow even fatter Shamu, he strode away. The store’s automatic double doors parted as his foot tripped the treadle mechanism. Beyond, sunshine waited. He was free.
When he was safely settled behind the wheel of his Lexus, he pawed through the bags in search of his Skor bar. It was nowhere to be found.
Jack sat behind a titanic SUV as he waited for his car’s air conditioning to kick in. The parking lot’s exit mandated a right turn, and the road beyond looked clear, yet the idiot in the Explorer wasn’t budging. More time spent needlessly in line, and this time he had no control over the outcome. He spat out a curse, closed his eyes and rubbed his chin, the picture of all-American disgust. When he looked forward again, the son of a bitch in the Explorer had deployed his left turn signal. Christ in a gin mill.
Predictably, two or three cars had lined up behind Jack’s. Given the interminable flow of traffic traveling to the left, the moron at the helm of the Explorer stood to waste the next ten minutes of several lives in flaunting the NO LEFT TURN sign about three feet from his face. He wished there were a way to blast the SUV into the stratosphere. Failing that, he considered stepping out of the car and banging on the Explorer’s windshield, but one never knew when a gigantic and felonious gun-toting Negro might be on the other side of it. So instead he honked his horn three times in rapid succession, punctuating each bleat with a bit of verse: “Move – your f*ckin’ – ASS!”
On the heels of this ineffectual moment of revolt, Jack gauged the gap between the right flank of the Explorer and the curb. There was room to spare. Piss on it. Jack threw the Lexus into gear, eased around the SUV, and shot into the clear right-bound lane.
He looked back in the hope of spotting the offending driver and adding to his subconscious catalog of societal misfits just in time to see the cement truck. So huge. Just in time –