By Chris Dungey
Maybe it was the gas points that made him loyal. Hector Fritch’s favorite supermarket chain had its own gas station. They gave him a dime off per gallon for every hundred dollars of business during the month. Yeah, there was that. But what he enjoyed most was finding Manager’s Specials. It gave him the same satisfaction as spotting change in the parking lot of the Credit Union, or bottle deposits along the road to his home. As with those treasures, Fritch’s eyes had become attuned to the orange flares of the markdown stickers. Days before their expiration dates, Kroger marked down milk, low-fat yogurts, and various lunchmeats he could use.
Fritch stopped at the Kroger supermarket nearly every day—it was right across from Starbucks. He checked out the meat specials on Monday. On Tuesdays and Wednesdays, they slashed the dairy. He shopped in the morning when the place was nearly deserted. And he always bought twelve items or less. Armed with coupons they sent in the mail, he might have been the quickest, most economical shopper in the history of packaged food, if it wasn’t for the damned automated checkout.
The automated checkouts had been installed to get rid of employees, and Fritch understood this. He eased his conscience with the clumsy rationalization that he still paid his bills by check and through the mail instead of e-banking. That was the same capitalist deal going on, and he had doubtless saved many clerical jobs. Anyway, neither of the Express checkouts was manned when the store aisles were deserted. Because Fritch had given in to using the devices, his principal complaint became that the machines were always suspicious of his canvas totes. Well, if saving grocery jobs was inconvenient, he could at least help save the planet by rejecting plastic. Besides, there was a nickel credit for each bag he provided. It added up, except that he couldn’t seem, ever, to complete his business without the machine notifying the attendant to assist him. This delay was likely to occur, even after he had assured the machine that he was using his own bag. So what parameters were the scales going by? Did his sacks weigh too much? What feather-like items could he possibly hide in there before putting it on the scale? Would an old receipt provoke scrutiny? Sometimes the “attendant” was over at the cigarette kiosk unlocking a carton for another customer. Fritch had to wait then, and not without growing irritation.
On a humid Monday in late August, Fritch paused across the street to drink a French press of Komodo Dragon. He read a few pages of George Orwell’s Down and Out in Paris and London while he sipped the eye-opener. Wow! His baristas sure had life easy compared to those plongeurs humping the greasy pots and pans in the bistros after World War I. He poured the dregs of his French press into a travel sipper, told the girls, see you tomorrow, then drove across to the Kroger parking lot. He took his heavier green tote off the floor in the back seat. It had been sewn by abused women in Ghana, and he bought it at church. At least the automated checkout would recognize its presence. There was one flimsy sack in his stable that didn’t even register. It added insult to injury when he had to call the attendant over before getting started.
Kroger had their AC jacked up to full force. The frigid air smacked Fritch like an icy towel. Well, that was a good thing when you thought about foods approaching their expiration dates. He placed his tote in a sawed-off mini-cart and headed for the Reduced bin at the end of Dairy.
It looked like the blueberry Greek yogurts with additives meant to support feminine regularity weren’t catching on. He picked out a 4-pack. The quart-sized bottles of 2% milk weren’t a bargain since he preferred skim. And he didn’t trust the one carton of cottage cheese because it wasn’t Low Fat. Large curd was a deal-breaker anyway. He wheeled around the corner where none of the milk in the glass-front case had been stickered yet. “You can run, but you can’t hide,” he mumbled. “See you tomorrow.”
Fritch pushed on, past the frozen meats. Never anything in there. Great shelf life in there. Now he came to full alertness in front of the long bins and shelves of processed meats. Of course, eating a lot of that stuff probably wasn’t good for him—all the fats and nitrates. But after all, he was almost poor himself, on the pension of a nearly bankrupt auto factory. What if it were winter and the economy crashed again? What if inflation took off for some reason? The whole history of homo sapiens was one of struggle to find and consume enough protein. Successful, advanced societies were those that were able to procure… Anyway, Fritch would have a freezer full.
Whoa, now! What have we here? “Score!” he said aloud. Some pouches of flavored chicken breast, conveniently pre-cooked and sliced for salads or stir-fry, were adorned with the orange Manager’s Special tags. They must have just been reduced, too. A Meat Department gal in a maroon smock was just ahead of him, inspecting, stocking, aiming her scanner and then the sticker gun. Southwest flavor. How could Southwest flavor ever make it to the expiration date? Teriyaki or Hickory Smoked, he could understand, but…Don’t ask! He put three in the cart. Two for the freezer.
After snagging a bag of salad greens (no rust yet; only slightly wilted) for $.99 (reduced from $2.69) and a couple tins of gourmet offal for the cat, Fritch headed for the inevitable confrontation at checkout. Neither of the Express lanes was open for the six or seven customers wandering the place at that hour. The two regular checkout lines with clerks present were filled by customers with full carts. The one guy with two carts must have been provisioning for a group-home or a Boy Scout camp.
Fritch dug out his Kroger card to earn whatever additional discounts and coupons might be in effect and to legitimize those gas points. He chose an empty scanner closest to the attendant’s register, just to cut down the walking distance when the person had to come help. He placed the tote on the rack and acknowledged the machine’s query, tapping the touch-screen. Yes, he was using is own bag. Quite unexpectedly, the transaction continued without the usual call for an attendant. He swiped the Kroger card.
The automated voice became immediately friendlier, welcoming him as a faithful and regular customer. “Yeah, yeah,” Fritch grumbled, hanging car keys and barcode cards back into his front pocket. Wouldn’t it be nice if the thing could read his tone? His skepticism at the anticipated encounter? The voice, however, remained level and accommodating, inviting him to scan his first item.
He began with the packages of chicken. Now a lanky young man in the blue smock of a checker joined him, peering over his left shoulder.
“How’re ya doing?” Fritch said. He drew the orange-tag barcode over the clean, fish-eye glass of the reader. The machine chirped its approval. The revised price appeared on the screen.
“Great,” the kid said. “And how are you this morning?” A ridge of the young man’s hair, running down the middle of his head, appeared to have been recently trimmed and flattened. Now the sides were growing back in a soft stubble. Condition of employment, perhaps?
“So far, so good.” Fritch swiped another Southwest chicken.
“Yeah, I’m just watchin’ to see how this goes. First day on these babies.” The kid eyed the monitor on his own mini-scanner. “They told me the specials don’t scan right sometimes. I already cleared your bag.”
Fritch sighed. “So that’s what happened. It usually flags me.” He whisked the yogurts across the glass, then the cat food. He looked up and read the attendant’s nametag. It was a temporary Trainee badge, written in black Sharpie: Zack. Of course.
“Isn’t that annoying? Bernice warned me. Hope don’t nobody bring in their own bags all at once. Late afternoon, she told me, we get all backed up.”
“Nah, that won’t be me,” Fritch said. “Well, no good deed goes unpunished, right? Ever hear that one?”
“That’s cool. That’s about perfect. Can I use that?”
“OK, by me. I don’t think there’s a copyright.” Fritch held the bag of salad greens in both hands, pulling the plastic taut before laying it facedown over the barcode reader.
“Ben Franklin or somebody, huh?” Zack chuckled then wandered over to a second shopper who’d appeared. Fritch glimpsed him tapping more preemptive codes into his device, smoothing out the process.
Fritch touched Finish and Pay, then Cash. “Please insert coins first, before inserting bills,” the recorded voice reminded him.
Here was another irritation that Fritch was often tempted to challenge. What if…? Say, he thought he had enough bills, but ran out while still responsible for more balance due. And suppose he must then resort to a pocketful of change? But maybe another time. Better just give the damned thing what it wanted today since the routine seemed to be moving along hassle-free. The machine waited for the nine dollars and sixty-five cents, the breath of its internal AC blower sighing low. Fritch sensed himself to be in the presence of a certain patient condescension as he dug under the car keys to see what he had in his front pocket.
It turned out to be quite a fistful, so he might as well unload some of it. He started with nickels, sifting his palm with a pinky. Next, there were eight dimes. A hefty collection of quarters followed. He was about to deposit the last one when the whole transaction ran off the rails.
Though he had deftly deposited every coin but one, Fritch’s final aim somehow failed him. His knuckles bumped the credit card reader just below the slot. The millimeter of inaccuracy that resulted was enough to stub the quarter wide of the mark. It popped up and tumbled like a referee’s pre-game flip. He snatched and missed, heard it clatter into the metal sleeve protecting the precious credit card cable. He still owed the machine four bucks.
He looked around. Sure enough, the kid had abandoned his post to retrieve smokes for the other U-Scan customer. Fritch peered into the steel pocket. He could see his quarter there, perfectly lodged between the flat, black bundle of high-speed filaments and the front of the cabinet.
While a wary voice at the back of his mind cautioned him to go ahead and finish with singles, the forefinger of his right hand tested the width and depth of his coin’s captor. He could get two fingers in, alright, and even wiggle them a bit, but his thumb wasn’t long enough. Though one finger was touching the pinioned quarter, the two tips could not pinch it. The scraping of one nail alone could not seem to dislodge it from behind the cable.
“Lose something?” Holding his scanner in the familiar adolescent present arms of perpetual texting, Zack returned his attention to Fritch.
“Well, that blows,” the attendant sighed. “Pardon my French.”
Fritch shrugged. “Forget it. I was thinking worse.” He leaned in and examined the hostage coin again. He hadn’t budged it. “What I need is, like, maybe a tweezers, or…like, some needle-nose pliers.”
Zack, too, peeked at the quarter. He frowned and hung the scanner console in the front pouch of his smock, replacing it with a ring of keys on a lanyard. Then he hesitated, hands on hips. “See, the problem is…” He scratched his former mohawk with a free hand. “I don’t think the cabinet door will tip up enough to spill it, even if I…And it’s stuck.”
Fritch shifted his weight from one foot to the other, his right hand now on his wallet. “Well, you could just open it and get me a different quarter. I mean, technically…well, you can see my quarter is in there.”
“Oh, sure. Sure,” Zack nodded. “No question. It’s just that…” In frustration, he tried to insert his own longer bony digit into the metal sleeve. “Like I said…well, I’m kinda…what they call a…well, a probationary, actually. I was stocking in Dairy before. Midnights. I don’t really wanta…I’d need my trainer or the boss to open it.”
Fritch drew out the wallet. “Really? They’d hold this against you?”
“It’s just that…No, it’s not like that…well, totally. They just like it if you can solve problems. And this should be simple. Should be.”
With the heel of his hand, the kid bumped the cabinet above the protective pocket where the cable emerged to plug into the card reader. Then he tried to wiggle the cable, which turned out to be quite rigid. “Crap,” he muttered after looking in again.
“Listen,” Fritch said, pulling singles from the wallet. “Why don’t I just go ahead and…”
“Hey, though! You know what?” Zack laughed, pointing at the purchase screen. “I never gave you your bag-credit!”
Fritch studied the running total. There was, as of yet, no bag-credit showing. “You cleared it through though, right?”
“Yup. I enabled the machine, but I didn’t give you your credit. Ooops, my bad! But, now see. I can balance this out!” The kid took up his scanner once more and began to tap.
“But it’s only the one bag.” Fritch saw the twenty-five cent credit appear on the screen.
“Yeah, so it’s like…it’s a minor miracle.” The boy darted a glance toward the Customer Service counter and the Manager’s Office behind it. “No worries. I don’t think Bernice’ll figure it out when she comes in.”
The machine murmured like a starving epicure as it pulled in Fritch’s first dollar. “OK, well…Hope you don’t get in any trouble.”
The kid bit down lightly on his lower lip. Again, he looked over at Customer Service, but no one seemed to be monitoring his performance. An Assistant Manager printed a money order while its recipient waited. “I think we’re good, sir. It’s all good. Solved my first complication. When Bernice gets that quarter loose, I’ll put it in and…I wonder if they’ll chew me about an overage.”
Fritch took his receipt, noted the addition of gas points, then dropped it into the tote. The kid made a tour of inspection, tugging the first bags open from each bundle at the six machines.
“…and thank you for shopping with us,” the U-Scan told Fritch as he scooped out the fresh change it had dropped. He headed for the entrance, waiting for the thing to say, And don’t let the door hit you in the ass on the way out.
That never happened, but Fritch thought it would be cool. If it were his store, customers might expect a U-Scan to say something like that. They might even enjoy a good dialogue of cursing with an inanimate object—cathartic stuff they’d never tell a manager. Or even Zack.
Fritch plunked the tote into the cargo space of his hatchback. Then he remembered that he wanted to get his hair trimmed. He should have done that first. He knotted up the handles of the tote, but that wouldn’t keep the cool in for long. Items nearing expiration had to be treated differently. He put on his shades and checked his hair in the rearview. He raked a few strands behind his ears. Tomorrow would probably be soon enough. Those yogurts had to go home.
Chris Dungey is a retired auto worker in Michigan. He feeds two wood-stoves, rides his mountain bike, sings in a Presbyterian choir, camps at sports-car races, watches too much English football, and spends too much time in Starbucks. “Bag Credit” is his 51st published story. 2015 has seen his fiction appear in Marathon Literary Review, Madcap Review, whimperbang, Literary Commune (UK), and Door is a Jar. His first collection, The Pace-Lap Blues and Other Tales from the Seventies, is available on Amazon and Kindle (cheap!).