I walked into the supermarket, and I got the attention of an employee.
‘Hello mate, I’m after Barry, the Store Manager.’
‘You’re after Barry? Follow me.’
I was taken to an office out the back of the shop. The employee went in and he came straight out again.
‘Alright,’ he said. ‘Barry’s ready.’
‘Hello, ergh . . . Tom.’
There he was, that man of mystery I’d been in correspondence with for the last few weeks.
‘Take a seat Tom.’
‘Pleased to make your acquaintance sir.’
‘Yes Tom, and please, call me Barry.’
‘Umm . . . okay.’
‘So you’re looking for a job? Says here you’d like to start a career with us. Bit young, no? You must be fresh out of school.’
‘Yes, just finished. I should say that I’ve always wanted to own a supermarket. I thought it best to start young, and to work my way to the top.’
Barry looked at me for a second, and then he laughed to himself. ‘Good to see you’re an aspiring young man.’
‘Thanks Barry, I’ve always wanted to serve the local community, be a sort of cornerstone.’
‘You live locally?’
‘Just around the corner.’
‘No trouble getting to work then.’
‘No, no, of course, but really I’d love to play a positive role in the community. I’d like to maintain my shop as a sort of core spot. People here can bond, get the lowdown on the local news, get a heads up on local events and gatherings.’
‘Get on close terms with the staff members, get support if need be.’
‘Yes, yes . . .’
‘Sell their wares, their homemade crafts and jams and . . .’
Barry continued. ‘Don’t get too far ahead of yourself mate.’
‘Sorry, I just feel really passionate about . . .’
‘The community, life, living, love, all that shit. I get it mate. Look, I’d give you the job here and now but regulations state that we must get through the course of the interview. Now, I’ve got a busy day ahead, so I don’t want to hear another of your monologues. Just remember that part of our brand stipulates our community focus. We encourage our staff to be great people and we encourage good customer relations.’
I looked at Barry for a second and I felt reassured. With a company motto like Good Food, Great People, how could I not?
‘Alright Tom, let’s begin the interview proper.’
I looked in anticipation.
‘Why do you want to work for our company?’
I frowned. ‘Didn’t I just tell you that?’
‘Oh, yep, yep.’ Barry worked his keyboard, mumbling as he did so, ‘To play a positive role in the community.’
‘Next,’ he continued. ‘What drives you?’
He looked up at me and he sighed deeply.
‘Everything alright?’ I asked.
He laughed to himself.
‘Tom!’ The Grocery Manager was yelling at me again.
‘You’ve been working here now for what, two weeks, three weeks?’
‘Something like that.’
‘Can you see the problem here?’ He was pointing to the drinks fridge. It was technically part of the grocery department, but we on front end had to fill it.
I looked at the fridge as hard as I could, but nothing looked amiss. ‘Seems fine to me.’
‘Fine?’ He looked me in the eye. ‘Is that fine?’ He pointed to the display of Sprite bottles.
I gave him a blank stare.
He counted the rows. ‘One, two, three.’ He pointed at the label beneath. ‘How many spaces between this label and the next?’ He counted them with his fingers. ‘One, two.’
‘Is that an issue?’
He counted the two separate rows again. Again, again, again.
‘Come with me.’ We walked off the shop floor, to the grocery desk.
Angus got a book out the drawer. ‘This is the 2014 Grocery Handbook.’
He flicked through the pages, one after the other, one after the other, one after the other.
‘Here.’ His finger landed on an excerpt. ‘Companies pay for their instore display positions. The labels below the products indicate the allowable space to allot each brand.’
As if from some sort of stress response, his voice got aggressive as he read the last bit. ‘Never in any circumstance may the product locations be compromised. The labels are there to guide the filler in correct filling procedure.’
‘I’m sorry,’ I said.
He looked really tense. ‘Plus, it’s confusing for the customer. You work on front end: you should know a thing or two about customer service.’
‘Yes, I won’t do it again.’
‘Don’t forget, we’re here to make the customer’s experience the best it can be.’
We walked back onto the shop floor.
‘Hey mate.’ A lady approached Angus. She stunk; she was emaciated; she had pasty skin and a flaky scalp. ‘I was just fackin after yer Sprite. You got the six hundreds but I wanted a two liter.’
‘Yes, yes,’ he said. He disappeared.
I looked twice at the lady and I recognized her. ‘Mrs. Jeffries?’
She stared at me for a second. She looked really down and out.
‘Remember me? Tom? I was friends with your son in pre-school.’
‘Long time ago now mate.’ Her eyes lowered. ‘I haven’t seen my son in years.’
‘He ran away, living now somewhere in the western suburbs.’
‘Why do you think? Drugs mate. Fucked on drugs.’
‘Mrs. Jeffries, I’m so sorry to hear.’
‘No, seriously. If you need to talk about it, please tell me more.’
‘What could you do?’
She shook her head. ‘No, no. They have professionals for that sort of stuff anyway.’
I put my hand on her shoulder. ‘Really Mrs. Jeffries, I knew your son. As much as you need to tell someone, I need to know the details.’
‘Who said I need to tell anyone?’
I could see that she’d been holding her emotions in. I found it hard to fathom how this could have been so, years after her son had run away. Had anyone like me actually approached her like this? Had such a simple demand never been put to her? I knew she was bitterly lonely. Even when I was friends with her son, even then she kept to herself. The father had disappeared before he’d even been born, and I remember the son telling me that his mum was the only person he knew out of school.
I looked into her eyes. ‘Mrs. Jeffries, you don’t remember me, really? Your son and I were such good friends. I remember going over your house, sleepovers. And surely you remember my fifth Birthday party? I know you and your son came round. I know you got on well with my parents.’
She gave me a serious once over. ‘Tom?’
‘Yes, Mrs. Jeffries, it’s me.’
‘I’m sorry Tom, I do remember you.’
We smiled at one another for a moment.
‘You know Tom, it’s been a long time since I talked to anyone. Perhaps, maybe . . .’ She looked at the ground.
‘Yes?’ I prompted.
She looked up. ‘Perhaps . . .’
I jumped in surprise. I looked around to see Angus coming with a box of Sprite.
‘What are you doing now? Have you just been standing here these last few minutes?’
‘I . . . I . . .’
‘You what? Pick up your game mate. Get back on the registers. You’re here for customer service, and customers aren’t being served.’
Mrs. Jeffries was looking down again. Angus gave her the Sprite and she disappeared out the store.
A man came to my checkout.
‘How is your day travelling mate?’
I gave him a thorough look. He seemed distant. ‘It’s funny that’s the default response. Just good. I for one am sure that most people’s days are a lot more complex. Do you not think that life is too complicated to just be described as good?’
The guy responded with a polite laugh.
‘Good seems to be the automated response.’
‘Anyway, that comes to fifty-five dollars and thirty cents.’
He held up his card. ‘Pay Wave.’ He waved it over the machine, he took his groceries, and he walked off.
Barry came up next.
‘Barry,’ I smiled. ‘How’s things? Keeping the store afloat?’
He looked at me. ‘Yeah mate, it’s what I do.’
‘Going on your lunch break now?’
‘Yep, lunch comes again. Same shit, different day.’
‘Maybe we should mix things up. I thought the store could put on a sausage sizzle sometime.’
‘A sausage sizzle?’
‘Yeah, like out the front. Throw up signs on the street, get the community to come down for a snack.’
‘You like these sorts of things, don’t you Tom?’
‘Yeah! A great opportunity for a get together. The pensioners would love it. Plus, I know some local boys who would definitely play for a bit.’
‘A band. They’re into blues. Twelve-bar improv sort of stuff, you know?’
‘Blues? Band? What? No!’
‘It’s only an idea.’
‘Seems completely bizarre to me. How much organization would that need? Permit for the band, all but impossible. And as for health regulations . . . well, that there is a whole other story.’
‘Health regulations? Permit? What are you so afraid of that could possibly go wrong? It’s a sausage sizzle and a bit of music.’
‘Don’t get smart Tom. Don’t forget who owns this store.’
‘No, of course I don’t own this store. It belongs to the company! You’d need approval from higher management, which in itself seems too much.’
‘You can’t know until you try. Action cures fear.’
‘Action cures fear? What? No, it’s not happening Tom, end of story.’
I finished Barry’s transaction and he walked back into the store with his lunch. As he went past the magazine stand, he stopped to move the magazines into their correct places. I noticed his movements were fast, skittish, seemingly very deliberate. His face was red: he seemed agitated. I didn’t know why.
As he about faced to move on, he tripped over himself and landed on his knees. His lunch went flying. His yogurt hit the floor and his heat-up meal broke apart on a customer’s shoes.
‘Oi mate, what the fuck is this? That’s my missus’ shoes you spilt your curry over!’
From the floor, Barry looked up at his aggressor. From what I could see, he seemed to be suspended in a state of shock.
‘I’m . . . I’m . . .’
‘You’re what? Hey!?’
The two looked at one another for a second.
The aggressor continued. ‘Clean her shoes. Now. Don’t get off the ground. Keep on your knees and wipe them down. Then you can kiss them and apologize.’
Barry looked scared stiff. ‘Is this really . . . really . . . necessary?’
‘Do it, or I’ll report you to your senior.’
‘I am the senior here. I am the store manager.’
‘Store manager? Hah! What does that even mean? You don’t own this place. You work for some enormous publicly traded corporation. You are nothing. You’re just the caretaker of someone else’s store, a warden at best.’
‘May as well be a janitor.’ The woman with the dirty shoes had a go.
‘You’re a cockroach. You can just as well lick her shoes.’
Barry looked lost for words.
‘Go on, do it!’
I couldn’t take any more of this. I stormed over and I intervened.
‘Look mate, we’re all sorry your partner’s shoes were dirtied, but this performance of yours is totally uncalled for!’
‘Who the Hell are you boy?’
‘No, what we’re going to do is simple. Your partner is going to give us her shoes, and we’ll go out back and wash them.’
I gave Barry a reassuring look. He got up to his feet and he patted down his knees. I could have just as well removed a gun from his head.
‘Well well, look at the hero.’
‘Don’t be ridiculous mate. You’re blowing this way out of proportion.’
‘What are you going to do about it? Get in the way? Last I remembered, Mr. Store Manager here still needs to lick my missus’ boots.’
‘Okay mate, you’ve got an ultimatum. Either we clean her shoes the proper way, or we kick you out the store.’
‘We? We who? I come in here all the time, and I see you people running this place like mindless worms. You wouldn’t have the guts to kick a spider out.’
‘Is that so?’
I grabbed him by the collar and I dragged him through the store. It was surprisingly easy, and not only because he was a dweeby little meth head. He seemed to take pleasure in the fact that someone had kicked him into line.
I got to the store exit and I turfed him out.
He rubbed the back of his head as his partner caught up. ‘Good to see someone here knows what it means to have a bit of spine!’
I walked back into the store. Barry was standing by the magazine rack. His face was blank.
‘Close one.’ I said. I was expecting some gratitude.
He looked at me and he looked away again. He didn’t say a thing.
‘Alright!’ I rubbed my hands together. I’d been asked to do a few shifts in the deli.
I was to work alongside Peter on my first shift. He was several years older than me, somewhere in his mid-twenties.
‘Hey Peter, what’s going on?’
‘Come over to the deli, have you?’
‘Yeah man, pumped.’
He gave me a weird look.
‘You’ll have to show me the ropes.’
‘The ropes? There’s really not that much to it.’ He started pointing. ‘There’s the roast chicken oven. There are the display fridges. There are the slicers.’
‘Doesn’t take a genius to work out.’
He ran over to serve a customer, a yuppy-looking lady in her forties.
He came back over to me when he finished. He was shaking his head.
‘You know something Tom? Work here long enough and you’ll come to hate your fellow man.’
‘That’s a bit negative.’
‘You don’t know what it’s like kid. You’ve been in this store, what, a month at best?’
‘That’s irrelevant. If your customer is having a shit day, or if he generally seems like a bastard, you don’t need to let him bring you down.’
‘They all generally seem like bastards.’
‘Maybe to you. Maybe it’s just all in your head.’
‘What are you trying to say?’
‘Look Peter, if you can’t make an effort to be sociable with them, why should you expect them to make an effort to be sociable with you?’
Angus walked past the front of the deli. ‘What are you two doing standing around? Do you think we pay you to talk?’
Neither Peter nor I responded.
‘Well? Why do you think you’re here?’
‘To work,’ I said.
‘So why aren’t you working?’
‘I was just showing him the ropes,’ Peter said.
‘I don’t believe you.’
‘What else can I say to that?’
‘You can apologize, and you can tell me that you won’t do it again.’
Peter stared at Angus for a long while.
‘Well?’ Angus prompted.
‘I’m sorry for budging time Angus. I won’t do it again.’
Angus looked at us both for a moment, and he walked off.
‘Fucking wanker,’ Peter said under his breath. ‘You’re just a fucking dog mate, you and the rest of these pricks here. Incapable of positive encouragement, or constructive criticism. Incapable of any decent social skill. Incapable of nothing but your mindless, shitty, dead end job.’
‘You finished yet?’ I butted in.
Peter gave me an ugly look. ‘Angus is damned to rot in this store, damned to live the rest of his days in misery.’
‘Bit harsh, don’t you think? And what else do you do with your time anyway?’
‘None of your business.’ He spat on the ground.
‘You can’t spit in the deli!’
‘Can’t I? Fuck this place!’ He kicked the back wall and he cracked a tile.
‘Umm . . . ahem.’
I turned around to see a customer waiting. She had a look of fear in her eyes.
‘Can I help you?’
‘Yes . . . ah . . . just two hundred grams of that.’ She pointed at the chicken loaf.
It took me about five minutes to get it together for her. Peter had disappeared and I was clueless about what I was doing. All the while I heard the lady tapping her feet. I could hear her muttering under her breath, ‘come on . . . come on, and come on.’
I finished wrapping her chicken and I thanked her. She grabbed the package, avoided my gaze, and scurried off.
‘Hello Mrs. Webb.’
‘How was your weekend away?’
‘Good Tom, good.’
‘Good to see the Grandkids again?’
‘Always!’ She lit up with a big smile. ‘They are a wild bunch.’
‘What kids aren’t?’
‘Oh Tom, these kids are especially wild.’
‘Must be in the genes then.’ I gave her a wink.
‘Don’t be silly Tom. I’ve always been a calm, collected old lady.’
I finished processing Mrs. Webb’s shopping and I gave her the damage. ‘That’s thirty-three dollars and sixty cents.’
I waved Mrs. Webb goodbye, and I got shouted at from behind. ‘Tom!’
It was Lindy, the Front End Manager. ‘Yes, Lindy?’
‘You never asked for her member’s card.’
She started to count her fingers. ‘Didn’t ask for member’s card; didn’t ask if the customer wanted cash out; didn’t ask if she wanted a receipt; even just assumed she wanted bags.’
‘You’d hope she’d want bags with thirty-three dollars’ worth of shopping.’
‘Don’t be smart Tom.’
‘Go easy Lindy.’ Dave butted in from the opposite register. ‘He’s a bit too hip to want to . . .’ Dave gave the inverted commas gesture with his fingers. ‘Conform to the policies of the store. Really, it seemed out of place he wanted to give the lady her plastic bags at all. I would have sooner expected him to bury them.’
‘Piss off Dave. You know some of us are capable of independent thought.’
‘Settle Tom . . .’ Lindy butted in but Dave drowned her out.
‘Tom, you’re a true visionary. You’re gonna change the world man.’
‘And you’ll live your days in a mindless stupor.’ I really didn’t like Dave.
‘Yeah, good one Tom. You’re a little poser with fanciful ideas.’
‘Fuck you man.’
‘Ooo, let’s build a real neat community.’ Dave shook his hips from side to side. I got angry.
‘Let’s have a sausage sizzle!’
‘Fuck,’ I thought.
‘Remember when you wanted to have a sausage sizzle Tom? Hah!’
‘Why don’t you get back to work Dave.’
‘I remember the look on Barry’s face. And then you tell him that it’ll bring the community together. Hah!’
‘At least I try.’
‘Try with what? What community? What people here? We all don’t give a fuck. We just don’t care.’
‘That’s not true.’
‘It is true Tom. We don’t give two hoots about your sausage sizzles and your locally sourced jam. You’re a prancing little hipster, and this ain’t the place for you.’
‘This is the place.’ I pointed at my chest. ‘This is my place!’
‘Yeah, well it’s ours too, and we like to think differently. We take no care for your dumb little ideology, your fairy ambitions. We all think the same, you know?’
‘Yeah . . . what do you think Dave?’ Tears were welling in my eyes.
‘We all think you’re a walking joke.’
I jumped the register. I heard nothing from Lindy behind. She must have been shocked.
I jumped over Dave’s opposing register and we both rolled to the ground. The Pay Wave machine was dangling by its chord. I grabbed it and I bludgeoned Dave’s head.
He punched me in the stomach and he knocked the wind out of me. He grabbed me by the collar and he lifted me to my feet. He started to punch me in the face. I launched my heel at his shin and he let go of me. I opened up the cash register and I took out the till. I kneed Dave in the kidney and I smashed the till over his head. Money flew everywhere.
I had him on the ropes and I whacked his head with the empty till. He was dazed but so was I.
‘Fuck . . . this . . . place!’ With every word I smashed the till against his cheeks. ‘Fuck . . . you all . . . you dropkick . . . scum!’ Back, forth, back, forth. Left cheek, right cheek, left cheek, right cheek.
I blacked out and I fell to the ground.
I woke to find myself slouched in a chair, sitting in Barry’s office.
I saw Barry at his desk. His eyes were glued to the computer but he was looking at it distantly, as if in shock.
He looked at me for a time, as if completely lost for words.
Then, ‘Come here.’
I went around to look at the computer screen. There I was on CCTV, bashing the shit out of Dave. His head dropped onto the conveyor belt and it bled profusely. The belt rolled round and round, spreading his blood everywhere.
‘We had to evacuate the store.’
‘Are the police coming?’
‘Of course they are. Dave came to and he seems alright, but still this is a serious issue.’
I grimaced at Barry. The way he had said that, it seemed dry and disconnected, like a scientist reading from a paper. I’d just assaulted one of his employees, damaged one of his tills, and scared the shit out of his customers, but Barry seemed intent on removing himself from the situation.
‘Are you going to do anything about it?’
Barry looked uneasy. ‘Umm . . . yeah, I already called the police.’
‘No Barry, are you going to do anything about it? Are you going to confront me properly and do the dirty work yourself?’
We stared eye to eye for a moment.
‘You know what?’ I continued. ‘Fuck this. You know why I got into a fight? Because I chose to work here, where everyone’s life purpose is to repress reality.
‘You have your stupid fucking store motto. You have your rules to make things better. You say you serve the local community, but it’s all a load of shit. You idiots don’t know what community is. You live in a fantasy land with people as robots. You worship the idea of making things rationally better. You look to these stupid fucking images around the store, with smiling bozo customers and employees that actually look like they enjoy their job, and you think you’ve built Heaven on Earth. You’re so heavily alienated from reality, it begs total disbelief!
‘Everything in your world can be made easier, right? Employees get in a fight: let the police handle it. Customer can’t be patient: stress yourself silly about getting extra staff to the tills. Grape spills on the floor: wipe it up, quick!
‘Do you think these things actually improve the fundamental quality of life of your customers? Do you think a permanent state of happiness in a world of sterile order is achievable?’
I gave him a long hard look. ‘Well!?’
‘I . . . I . . .’
‘Tell me Barry! Stand up and be a fucking man!’
Barry broke down in tears. ‘What have I become? What the Hell happened to my life? Three decades in supermarkets, all a downhill slope!’
‘Damned right,’ I said. ‘I came here to work for the community. I never expected this.’
Barry was hyperventilating. ‘No community . . . no . . . no nothing.’
‘I don’t know who your generation was Barry, or what they liked to believe in, but I can tell you they really fucked things up.’
‘As far as I’m concerned, it’s definitely not normal to have such a twisted sense of what’s important. I bet your parents knew better than you.’
‘We destroyed everything.’
‘It wasn’t like we had another choice.’ He looked at me in the eye. I saw desperation. I saw a man who’d been forced along a path his whole life, and who had, on one unconscious level or another, known all along about its course toward inevitable catastrophe.
‘The community is dead now, and the people are alienated. All we can do is rebuild.’
Barry gave me a look of hope. ‘Rebuild?’
‘What else can there be?’
Barry composed himself, and for the first time I’d ever seen, he actually looked alive. ‘Come with me.’
I followed Barry out of his office. The store was empty save for the department managers, and the police had just showed up outside.
Barry approached the managers. He wore an air of confidence.
‘He’s gone to get stitches,’ Lindy said.
‘Okay, no matter.’
‘What do you want us to do?’
‘I want all of you to go home. Now.’
‘What’s happening?’ Angus asked.
‘Don’t you worry. You’ll see tomorrow.’
The managers dispersed and the police came up.
‘Is this the assailant?’ They pointed me out.
‘Yes,’ said Barry. ‘But don’t you worry. I want the company alone to deal with this.’
‘Are you sure? You know we’ll pursue this regardless, should the other party want to press charges?’
‘That’s fine. I’ll have a chat to Dave and I’ll convince him not to. Otherwise, I guess I’ll see you another time.’
The police left the store pretty quickly. When they did, it was just Barry and me.
‘All we can do is rebuild. That’s what you said Tom.’
‘You know Tom, I’ve actually dreamt about seeing this place go up in flames.’
‘You’re not suggesting?’
‘God no.’ He looked around for a second, as if distracted. ‘Do us a favor, will you? Go to aisle seven and fetch a couple cricket bats.’
I did as he said.
‘You see that picture on the back wall of the deli?’
‘The one of you and the customer?’
‘Yeah, I’ve always hated that.’
He walked over and he pounded it with the cricket bat. It took up about six square meters of space. He knocked through the entire drywall until only the skeletal structure remained.
I felt very uneasy.
When he finished, he was breathing heavily. ‘Oh my God, oh my God!’
‘Okay, now!’ he continued. ‘Tom! Tom! You see the company logo at the top of the wall of the produce department? Get me a ladder!’
I did what he said, somewhat hesitantly.
He smashed the logo in.
‘Hah-hah! Isn’t this great?’ He looked crazy.
When he got off the ladder he smashed it to the ground. He ran to the service counter and he picked up the store’s glass awards.
‘Best Delicatessen, 2013.’ Smash. ‘Best Customer Service, 2009.’ Smash. ‘Greatest Community Involvement, 2010.’ Smash. ‘Best All Round Store, 2008.’ He picked this one up and he looked at it for a second. He threw it as hard as he could and it disappeared in aisle two.
‘Come on Tom, what are you doing!? You’re missing out on the fun!’
He ran off into aisle three and I heard an awful lot of noise. I felt a bit disturbed.
‘Come on, come on!’ I heard him say. ‘Destroy, destroy! Rebuild, rebuild! Everything. Everything! Kick it all down!’
I stood there and I shook my head. I exited the store.
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