By Bennett Durkan
In aisle twelve—the General Mills breakfast cereals on one side and Pop Tarts and granola bars on the other—the child moans for his mother. Lana, the mother, stands two steps in front of him, one hand on a box of Wheaties, the other hand—the one wearing a thin-strap watch around a tanned wrist—rests on the bar of her shopping cart. The cart carries almond milk, high pulp orange juice, whole wheat bread, a bag of seedless oranges, and a few other groceries. She hears her child, the overused high-pitched, selfish sound, but chooses to ignore it. Lana has heard the moan before and thinks through her mental maternal notes, synthesized from books, personal experience, and whatever advice her mother saw fit to solicit. This particular note, she has examined, tells her that it would be in her son’s best interest to ignore him. She removes the Wheaties box from the shelf and drops it into the basket. The cart’s back wheels squeak as she pushes.
“But, Mom!” The child moans, a sound of desperation. “Why can’t I have this cereal?” The child holds a box of Lucky Charms. The leprechaun smiles under a rainbow filled with marshmallow candies. “You always buy the boring kind! Why can’t I have something fun?” He calls to his mother’s back as she pushes the cart down the aisle. His voice is pleading, something unintentional. He has never sat down in front of a recording device, or a mirror, or some other self-reflective apparatus in order to analyze the voice that comes from his throat or his ability to control it. Though, one time when it was his turn to recite the Pledge of Allegiance, he overheard his voice on the PA system. It took him a few seconds to recognize his own amplified words.
Other than the one child, the store is quiet. True, the wheels on the cart squeak, the stock boy adjusts his palette carrier loudly, and soft jazz music floats near the ceiling, but Lana can disregard these sounds. They drift into the background of the Kroger’s store. They are part of the ambient soundtrack to be found in any franchise establishment. And, due to the pre-noon hour, the sounds have a dreaming quality, as if the store itself were trying to sleep and the employees were figments.
Lana had a hard time sleeping last night. Her husband has been distant since his recent bit of unemployment. They have a savings and are financially stable. Still, it has been a while since he has made Lana moan in just the right way.
Lana, Mrs. Montgomery-Squires, continues pushing the cart. She holds her shoulders back and head up. If she keeps looking straight ahead, she can focus on the shopping list or think about cashiers running barcodes across the lasers while baggers unfurl brown paper bags. All those stupid candy bars—chocolate with a helping of high-fructose corn syrup, artificial dyes, and generous scoops of diabetes—waiting in front of each cash register. Her child may make a scene then, picking a bar or bag at random and wanting it because all of his friends with rotten teeth and unending baby fat have it. It will be more difficult to ignore the moans while the teenage cashier with an enlarged earlobe and a ring through the middle of her bottom lip watches, judging. “Just let him have some fun,” that look always says. Sure, I’ll let him have his way so he’ll grow up to be like you.
“You never let me do what I want.” Her child moans and stomps a foot. He crosses his arms while his mother pushes the cart, choosing to ignore him.
Over in aisle thirteen, Jim, the stocker, loads packages of Orville Redenbacher microwavable popcorn onto the shelf. He bends over to grab another two boxes from the palette and hears a child moan in a high-pitched, almost urging manner. Jim stands near enough to the end cap so that he can lean back and see the other aisle. One foot in the air and holding the shelf, he peeks down aisle twelve. He sees the mother, a tanned and tall MILF, walk toward him. Her features are scrunched in concentration, but Jim can see her high cheek bones, button nose, and rich blue eyes. Those blue eyes look at him, not just in the general direction, and Jim lets out a silent little moan. He pushed himself back into the privacy of aisle thirteen.
Yeah, she’s hot, Jim says to himself, though she may not be as crazy as Liz, who he watches as she absent mindedly rubs her tongue over her lip ring. Liz has tattoos under her shirt sleeves and a deceitful glimmer in her eyes that says she knows what she’s doing. Sometimes when they are alone in the break room, Liz will take off her nametag, scratch a tattoo, and give Jim that look. Oh man. Oh man! What if Jim could get the three of them together? Liz may lie about having experience, or maybe her experience is with the uninitiated, but this lady, with her confident stride and knowing the difference between a wink and a smile, knows what to do. Jim tries but fails to suppress a moan as he becomes erect.
Lana steps out of aisle twelve, two feet behind the cart. She turns toward the weak, mouse-like sound and sees the stock boy. The kid, six or seven years older than her own, has a distracted expression. There is a small upward turn to his lips, the obvious sign that his mind is focused on something other than the job. When the stock boy notices Lana looking at him, he blushes. He fumbles with the open cardboard package without accomplishment. When he manages to take the products out of the larger box, he holds them two to a hand and places them on the shelf while keeping his head down. Lana sighs, almost a moan, pushing her cart to the cash registers. Shopping early in the morning means beating the rush, but it also means dealing with the limited people resources of the school. That girl with the pierced lip is at the only open register.
Liz stands at her register, under the lit white number five that she had turned on by flipping the switch near the base. She lightly feels the switch and moans, the typical indication that she is bored. Sliding barcodes along the red scanner isn’t the most exciting or rewarding job, but it is something to do. Still, these early shifts are a pain. One day, she thought she would play a prank and not turn on her light, wait to see if any customers were brave enough to ask if her line was open or if they would act like automatons who couldn’t operate outside of the prescribed indicators. Light on meant passage was safe; light off meant chaos. But when she got bored after half an hour with no new customers coming through her line, Liz flicked on the light. The rest of that particular workday had been like any other un-particular workday. The manager hadn’t even said anything about it.
Liz drops her hand and shifts her weight. As her hips rock, the wrapper of the candy bar in her pocket crinkles. She only hears it because of how empty the store is. If there were more customers, more scanners beeping at barcodes, and more credit cards being swiped, then she would have to pat her pocket to remind herself that some chocolaty goods awaited. Do you know credit cards make a sound? They produce a soft, intimate sound as they are swiped. Liz learned this after hours of Visas and Master Cards being used to purchase groceries. The candy bar wrapper crinkles and Liz still pats the outside of her pocket. It is nothing special, just a plain Snickers. She swiped it at the beginning of her shift, planning to eat it during her break, maybe even in the break room. Petty theft has never really been her thing, not because she would have to watch the training video about product shrinkage, but because the victim just doesn’t seem to care. The store is big and impersonal. Stealing should be done among friends so that the fear, anger, and admiration can be seen firsthand. Hell, she may buy the bar just to make a sale. This boredom is too much.
Liz balances her weight vertically on her left heel. She scans the aisles and moans in disappointment when she sees the overly tanned, overly stiff mother approaching. Plenty of customers have gone through her line since that fall, junior year, when Liz started working. So many of these customers leave without an impression, unlike what happens when someone sits on a pen or pencil too long, but Liz remembers this lady, this humorless, ageless lady. The first time the lady came through the line, purchasing a few gluten-free power bars and some almond milk, she had moaned when Liz told her to “have a good one.” The lady rolled her eyes and let the low, disapproving sound slip, holding out her hand for the canvas bags. Was she upset that Liz had substituted “day” for the vague and general “one”? Was the use of a cashier’s vocabulary supposed to be a strict practice? The moving image of the lady rolling her crow’s-feet-surrounded eyes, stuck with Liz.
At the end cap for aisle thirteen, Jim watches the sway of the MILF’s hips. Her perfume still hangs faintly in the air. Her skirt pulls tightly around her. Jim can see the sliding of each cheek under the fabric. He looks up when he hears a second set of footfalls. He stands straight and slams the box of popcorn onto the shelf. This new box knocks over another, kettle corn style, which Jim manages to catch before it falls to the floor. He sighs, almost a moan, and grins at his display of reflexes. A couple months’ worth of stocking since the summer began has made him agile and has also toned his biceps a bit. When he sees that the second set of feet belongs to the MILF’s kid—the unwanted qualification necessary to earn the M—he sighs again. The little tyke won’t recognize that Jim is staring, or, if he does, he won’t recognize the object of Jim’s stares.
The kid forces his feet down. His heel, caused by the rubber soles of his Nikes, slips instead of producing the ground-shaking stomps that he wants. The sound travels a bit down the aisle but is lost somewhere else in the store. He frowns with equal force. His mother said frowning produces wrinkles. Both his parents have told him that he has his father’s face, but, that never made sense to him. His father is old and older. Maybe when frowning, both son and father look alike. His mother marches forward, not turning around despite how many times he huffs and puffs. She keeps walking and pushing that cart right out of the aisle, past the teenager’s ogling and to the cashier. Boy, the teen is really ogling his mom. It is almost as gross as the teen’s greased face.
What is so bad about some cereal? The kid keeps up his stomp-march. So what if it has a little bit of sugar, or, as it’s better known, flavor? Breakfast is the most important meal of the day. No way would they sell something bad for the most important meal. The commercial even says that Lucky Charms is part of a complete breakfast. The most important meal wouldn’t be complete with cereal that tastes like horse feed, not that the kid has ever sampled horse feed before. By the time his mother reaches the conveyor leading to the cashier, the kid’s feet are sore and tired.
Oh man. Oh man! Jim watches the MILF walk up to Liz and begin placing groceries on the conveyor belt. He watches the way each avoids the other’s gaze, like they share a sordid secret. This is just like one of his fantasies; one of the more recent ones. The two loves of his life, the two distinct and polar beauties meeting each other. One thing will lead to another just the way it does on TV. The only component missing from the scene is a bottle of suntan lotion. Jim shifts his weight and pulls up his belt. It hasn’t fallen but feels like it has. He sees the kid, back hunched and elbow’s locked. Jim’s grin fades. He thinks for the moment about the paradoxical nature regarding the M. He fixes the different boxes on the shelf.
Oh great, both Lana and her child think at the same time, but Lana thinks it the loudest. She pushes the cart between the rows of candy bars and copies of GQ, Cosmopolitan, and The National Enquirer. She keeps her eyes straight ahead. Nothing printed in those magazines weighs upon her. She doesn’t care about some movie star’s pointless, tangent-filled ramblings about the job. She doesn’t want to learn a false trick to please her man, as if the man who slides farther away each night is the one who needs the pleasing. She isn’t interested in any fictitious exploits of a former movie star. She can pass her sights over their glossy covers and smirk and she will be fine. The candy, however, is a different matter. If she were to even peek to her right, then her child would be further encouraged to look. She stops the cart and circles around to the front of the cash register. She keeps the candy bars behind her, looking either ahead or down.
“How are you doing today?” Liz says with the practiced cadence any other employee would use, including the stockers and baggers.
“Fine.” The mother opens her little beige purse and begins to sort through the contents. “Just fine.”
“Did you find everything you needed?” Liz unloads the rest of the groceries from the cart. They move down the conveyor belt until they reach the light sensor.
“Yeah.” The mother pulls her wallet out of the purse and undo’s the clasp. “Just fine.”
“How’s your day been? It’s been pretty quiet around here.”
“Fine.” Lana removes her Master Card from its specific pocket. She looks up and sees the cashier smiling that customer service smile, as false as plastic and preservatives. The smile wavers, and for a second, Lana sees the cashier’s eyes waver. Lana’s eyes moved to the right, towards aisle twelve. “Just fine.”
Liz scans the final items and starts to place them in the mother’s provided canvas bags. The mother pays, sliding her credit card, which produces that almost whisper. The receipt prints. Liz hands it to the mother, who folds the paper in half and places it in her wallet. No doubt, loose paper has its own specified compartment. Liz drops the bags into the cart and pushes it around the cash register. The mother stands behind the cart and the kid stands behind her. He isn’t much of a kid, looks small for his age, twelve or thirteen. He frowns, and his face is red. He holds his hands in tight, ineffectual fists. When he sees Liz watching him, he looks at his feet.
“Have a good one.” Liz speaks to the mother’s back. She pushes the cart containing the few bags. She could have but doesn’t return the sentiment. Her kid stays. He frowns and curls his hands back into fists. His mother, the tanned lady with toned arms, walks to the automatic doors. He moans, and Liz recognizes it as preparation to continue his angry act.
“Hey, kid.” Liz reaches over the counter to stop the kid. She reaches into her pocket and produces the Snickers, softened a little from her body heat. “Here, take it. It’s my treat.” She nods to the mother, then smiles. At first the kid stands wide-eyed. After he checks his mother’s progress, he snatches the candy bar from Liz’s grip and slides it into his pocket. He smiles, and Liz smiles.
The kid hurries, catching up to his mother. Liz turns from the register, to the magazine stand. Looking over it, she sees Jim slacking off. He looks lost, like usual. Liz steps around the register to the rack of candy bars. The sliding doors slide shut, something similar to the credit cards, and the store is hermetically sealed.
Bennett Durkan is a graduate of Stephen F. Austin, where he earned a master’s in English. His poetry has appeared in The Red River Review, FIVE2ONE Magazine, and Ikleftiko. His fiction has appeared in Sassafras, Scapegoat Review, and The Horror Zine.