I spend my days stocking shelves and scanning fruit in a grocery store. My home is a miniscule Iowan hamlet containing a measly 2000 people and the store is the only one of its kind in town. Everyone knows everyone and I see the same customers day after day.
The local football coach comes in with his young daughter every week. He tells me to tell my father he said hello. A talkative woman from my church comes in every other day and always strikes up a conversation with me. Each time I see her I tell her I’ll see her Sunday. Once a month, a mother with four young children comes in pushing a cart overflowing with food. I keep a mental tally of how much these monthly food trips cost, waiting for the day she’ll break her record.
On the rare occasions when my family members come to the store, I am sure to act incredibly polite for them. Not polite in the way that I am for normal customers. No, I act incredibly polite, referring to them with the type of respect one normally reserves for royalty. It annoys them, which makes me want to do it even more.
A man in his sixties comes in every week to buy cigarettes. He always buys the same thing, a ten carton of hundreds size Blue Eagle 20’s. I pity him and hate myself for doing so.
A customer wearing a tracksuit plops a box of beer down on my register. Before I can even ask, he shows me ID. Specifically, a passport from Bulgaria. I stare at it for a moment, trying to remember where Bulgaria is. Is it in South America? No, that’s Bolivia. Bulgaria is the place by Russia, the one that Krum from Harry Potter is from. Probably. I briefly reflect on the quality of my public school education.
This isn’t the first time I’ve had a foreign customer. Once, a man with a thick Nordic accent forced me to explain what no-boil lasagna was. Still, most people in this tiny Iowa town are American. The only consistent customer who wasn’t born on US soil is a Filipino man I know from church and can barely understand.
The customer is getting impatient, so I quickly scan his beer. Then it hits me: the customer hasn’t said a single word yet. Does he even speak English? What do they speak in Bosnia? Russian? Hell if I know. Once again, I curse the American public school system.
I glance at the monitor, which reads out the customer’s total. I place my finger on the screen, right under the price. “12.96,” I say slowly, like I’m talking to a child.
The customer hands me a twenty and I pass back his change. A small receipt pops out from the printer. I grab it and hold it out to him. “Would you like your receipt?” I ask.
“No thank you,” he says in an American accent.
Every year, there’s this massive bike ride across the state of Iowa called Ragbrai. It’s the largest biking event in the world, with more than twenty thousand riders traveling across the state. The route changes each year, but the riders always stop in small towns for food and rest. Today it has come to my town and I have to work.
The last time the bikers came to town happened before I was born. Supposedly, it happened on a day with 30 mph headwinds that made it nearly impossible to move forward, especially up the hills north of town. Countless farmers had to help carry exhausted bikers into town using pickup trucks.
The bikers wisely swore to never come back to my hometown. But, after twenty-three years of pleading, we finally managed to convince them to go back on their word. Every business in town has stocked their shelves, hoping for the surge in profits the horde of bikers will bring.
I live in a house a few miles out of town, so I see the bikers when they first arrive. Hundreds of them packed onto a small stretch of highway, riding through the morning dusk into town. My dogs, who are normally fearless, cower under our porch.
An ice-cream salesman who is a friend of a friend of a friend convinces us to let him set up shop in our driveway. A crowd of people forms on our lawn. I walk through them, passing out business cards with information about my writing. I stop when I realize that they clearly aren’t interested.
Before long, it is time for me to go to work. Somehow, we make it into town. I walk into the store and see the biggest crowd I have ever seen in three years I’ve worked at the grocery store. All three registers have fifteen bikers behind them and a makeshift fourth register has been assembled in the back of the store. I’m put on the third register and begin what feels like the longest shift of my life.
I never get a spare moment to catch my breath as the endless stream of customers flows in and out of the store. By the time I go on break, I can barely come up with a coherent thought. And, before long, I’m forced to return to the endless horde.
None of them buy more than a few items; usually things like water, chips, or beer. At first, I try to card each one, following store policy. By the end of the night, I am exhausted and have ceased caring. I let each biker purchase booze without question. Before I give up, I see licenses not just from Iowa but from across the county. Licenses from Washington and Georgia and Vermont. I even see one from Hawaii, which confuses me.
The most common item they buy, strangely enough, is bottles of chocolate milk. Supposedly, it’s a good drink for restoring stamina after a long day of biking. I take their word for it and sell dozens of crates of dairy.
By the time the store closes the sun has already set. The streets of town are still crowded with countless bikers, spread throughout the streets like anchovies in a can. I silently wish that another twenty-four years will pass before they return, or at the very least enough years for me to find a different job.
There is a duo that comes in a few times a week. A man in his fifties and his much younger wife. That night, I’m stocking shelves, which means I also have to help customers carry groceries to their cars. That night, there is also a sale in the butchery. Ten pounds of ground beef, shaped into a large log, for twenty dollars.
The couple comes in that night, buys a lot of food, and I am assigned to carry their food to their car. As I’m putting various products into their trunk, the old man says “Put that log in the trunk.”
“You can put your log in my trunk,” his young bride says.
And then a part of me just kinda dies.
An old man walks into the store and sets some items down on my register. He’s been in the store a few times before. I know he’s an old farmer who’s deaf in one ear and incapable of understanding modern technology.
I ring up his items and read off his total. He stares at me confused. I repeat his total again, slower, louder, and while pointing at my screen. He gets the message and pulls out his debit card. He swipes it and nothing happens. “It isn’t working,” he says.
“We’ve switched to a chip system, sir,” I say.
“What?” he asks.
“Just stick your card into the slot,” I say while gesturing towards the chip reader.
He places his card in and immediately pulls it back out again. “You have to leave it in until it tells you to remove your card, sir,” I say.
He places his card in the slot again. Two seconds later, he rips it out once more. “It told me to remove my card,” he says as I once again explain that you need to leave your card in.
The card reader has been installed for months, so I know for a fact that it takes twelve seconds to read a card. Presumably, the old man misread the text saying DO NOT REMOVE YOUR CARD. “I’ll just pay with a check,” the old man says.
As the old man searches through his pockets, I notice a man in his twenties standing behind him in line. The younger man is clearly annoyed at being forced to wait. The old man begins writing his check. “What’s the name of this store again?” he asks.
I end up having to write out the old man’s check. As the old man walks away I see the younger man smirk. “God, I hate people like that,” he says before the old man is out of earshot.
If I wasn’t working I would call him an asshole.
It’s late at night and the store is empty. Working til closing isn’t hard, but the lack of customers after the sun goes down is incredibly boring. I grab a rag and a bottle of cleaner and scrub down my register.
My register never gets too dirty. I constantly clean it, more out of boredom than necessity. The only items that really make my register dirty are the onions, which dry out as they sit on the shelves and leave flakes of their skin everywhere. When the register is clean, I grab the bottle of hand sanitizer sitting on the counter and scrub down my hands.
I dig around in the drawer beneath my register and grab a piece of scrap paper. I start writing down ideas for stories, letting my imagination run wild. As I fold the piece of paper up and place it in my pocket, I accidentally cut my finger.
Not wanting to get my newly spotless register dirty, I decide to clean my hands. I reach for the bottle of hand sanitizer and squirt a drop on my finger. It burns for the rest of the night.