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The drug store stretched out in front of Mark like a fun house, dizzying in its array of colors and textures and smells. Racks filled with Halloween candy, masks and plastic pumpkins sat in front, requiring shoppers to battle through their compulsions before finding the condoms, tampons, adult diapers and aspirin in the back. The new holiday displays went up last week, announcing the season of witches and ghouls even as the last heat waves of August brought summer to a close. 

Mark looked around at the half dozen familiar faces slowly milling about the store. They walked through the aisles like zombies, picking items up, examining the packaging before putting them back. The same group of regulars filtered through the store every day at the same time, loitering, wasting time, looking at the same things day after day on their way to the refrigerated section to buy a soda. Mark liked the company. He had been hard at work mentally cataloguing all the new bits of Halloween themed plastic and chocolate, memorizing their prices and exact position on the racks. There was a lot to look at. Behind thick, cheap glasses his eyes swam from left to right and back again. 

The door chimed and slid open automatically with a whoosh. An old woman crossed the threshold, clutching a flyer in one sweaty hand. She was a new face. Mark met her with a smile but regarded her entry with apprehension. The woman nodded politely, then licked her lips while studying the signs that hung over the busy aisles. 

Shoppers with flyers made Mark nervous. Flyers brought in new customers asking questions that Mark didn’t know the answers to. Invariably these new questions meant that Mark would be expected to navigate the computer system. With most items that his regulars brought up to the checkout all Mark had to do was find the bar code and run it over the magic glass. The machine would take over with a beep and then numbers jumped to life on the screen, like a teleprompter. Most customers paid with credit cards that are also handled by the machine. He had been trained to always check to see if they had a loyalty card. If they did, Mark would rub it on the magic screen and wait for the happy beep. The people in charge had done their best to limit Mark’s responsibilities to putting the items in a bag - a double bag if their purchase was especially heavy - smiling and reminding customers to “have a nice day.” That was the best way. Maximum efficiency. Anything that deviated from this routine made Mark nervous. The flyers, colorful and numerous and mailed right to people’s houses made Mark nervous. The last thing he wanted to do was disturb Stephanie. She had worked at CVS for eight years and knew how to use the machines better than anyone. Her job was more important now and she hated it when Mark couldn’t figure out how to figure something out. To her, the machines were so simple.

The old lady finished her survey of the store, picked an aisle and shuffled off with her crumpled paper. Through the security mirror mounted above the entrance, Mark watched as she stepped carefully around his idling regulars and navigated towards the back of the store. The chime rang out again as the door slid open. A waft of late summer warmth crept in through the opening before dying under blows from the store’s merciless air conditioning system. A fat man with a scruffy beard and a trucker hat ambled in on the breeze and looked around. 

“Welcome to CVS.” Mark greeted him with a smile. The man looked sharply at Mark and grunted in reply. Licking his lips he continued staring blankly across the store. His enormous gut pressed painfully against the waistband of his dirty jeans. Turning to Mark, he wiped his palms across a stained white t-shirt and burped one word, “beer?”

Excited that he knew the answer, Mark replied, “Yes sir, down past the toiletries, to the far left corner. All of our spirits are kept in the case against the wall.”

The man started off in a huff, wheezing as phlegm rattled through his lungs, protesting loudly against even moderate exercise. 

“Please let me know if you need any assistance,” Mark called after him.

He checked the security mirror again and found the old lady standing among the cough medicine and laxatives. She picked a box off the shelf, and held it up to the harsh fluorescent light, comparing it to the picture in her flyer. Mark drummed his fingers along the counter nervously and watched as she flipped the box around, tracing the list of ingredients with one shaky finger. On the opposite corner of the store the fat man stared at the wall of beer and stroked his beard thoughtfully.

Mind racing, Mark continued rattling his fingers nervously along the counter and turned back to the mass of orange and yellow Halloween paraphernalia planted in front of him. 

Extra large bag of candy corn - $1.75 or two for $3.00 with a CVS card.

Werewolf mask with bloody teeth and fake fur - $14.99

Plastic light up jack-o-lantern - $9.99

Grease face paint - $3.99

String of fifty light up fall leaves - $9.99 

All of it destined to be loved for weeks then left to rot for centuries. Little white skeletons with black eyes slowly fading, destined to dot the mounds of rotting vegetables and animal bones and diapers and bottles and needles and Christmas trees for generations to come. Each item an astronaut traveling through history, carefully documenting the course of humanity.

Mark’s nervous fingers found their way up to fidget with his thick, blue name tag. The tips traced the sharp lines of the “M” through the roundness of the “a” around the curve of the “r” before pausing for a second then restarting with the “M.” His lips moved subtly, whispering manufacturer suggested retail prices into the air. Movement in the mirror caught his eye. The old woman had made her selection and was heading towards the front of the store. Mark watched her approach, focusing nervously on the ever crumpling flyer held tightly in one of her ancient fists. In the opposite corner, the fat man opened the freezer door and pulled out a thirty pack of Natural Ice Light. His cheeks flushed deep red as his wounded lungs struggled to provide enough oxygen to keep his girth from surrendering to time and gravity.

Bearing down on Mark like an avalanche, the fat man and the woman converged towards the front of the store. The old lady paused to look over the selections of plastic pumpkins and ghouls. She fingered the fur on the werewolf mask absent-mindedly before quickly setting herself in motion again towards the register. Her delay gave the fat man time to catch up. That’s OK. Mark knew how to handle a line. He'd been trained to be courteous and efficient, to move people’s cards or cash across the machines and then move their bodies to the door.

The fat man noticed that there was competition, his eyes swam wildly in their sockets as he willed more power to be diverted to his struggling legs, carrying him past shelves filled with shiny lipstick and brightly colored blush. His chest heaved and lungs wheezed, turning his giant cheeks beet red as his body screamed for more and more oxygen to keep up with the growing demand put out by his lumpy legs.

They reached the front at the same time. The old woman looked over the hulk to her left, clutching his cardboard carton of cheap, watery booze, and smiled sweetly. He looked to Mark searching for some declaration of a winner, some way to break himself free of the societal norms imposed upon his gender. Mark stared back blankly waiting for the situation to resolve itself. 

A standoff. 

The fat man huffed loudly and took a subtle step backwards from the counter. “Go ahead,” he said to the old woman, annoyed.

The old woman nodded, her “thank you,” and stepped forward. Mark looked at her hands as a sweat broke out along the small of his back. She dropped two small boxes on the counter and placed the flyer alongside them, running her weathered hands across the paper, trying to smooth out the crinkles. She pushed a pair of small reading glasses from the edge of her nose up the bridge and peered at Mark’s name tag.

“Hi Mark, I got this in the mail that says Robitussin DM is two for $8.”

Mark took the boxes in his hands, he hadn’t heard about this sale. He wished they would brief all the cashiers every week about any specials. He examined the paper she had smoothed out on the counter in front of him. The sweat across his back reached a saturation point and began rapidly soaking his loose underwear. “Well, let’s see,” Mark responded with forced cheer as he ran the boxes’ bar codes carefully across the glass screen next to his computer. The machine beeped twice and popped up a total of $10.95. 

The old woman furrowed her brow and shook her head. “That’s not right.” The fat man groaned and shifted the thirty rack from one hand to the other. 

Panic hit Mark’s heart, he smiled and picked up the flyer, searching for some clue. He compared the picture to the boxes. They were both cherry flavored. They were both four ounces. They were both daytime, non-drowsy formula. From Mark’s perspective the boxes and the picture in the ad appeared identical. “Looks right,” Mark chirped. “Let me scan it again to see if the system picks it up correctly.” He voided the first sale and ran the boxes back over the magic glass for a second time. The machine considered the command, running the information through its endless algorithms and spit $10.95 onto the screen. The fat man took in a deep breath, rattling the air through his jowls before releasing it out of his nostrils in an annoyed stream. Desperate for some resolution, Mark held the boxes up to the light, comparing them again to the picture and description in the mailer. 

To the right of the registers was the Manager’s Office. Through the frosted glass, Mark could see Stephanie’s hunched figure, tapping away furiously at a keyboard, doing the heavy lifting that kept the store running. The light inside the boxy room distorted her reflection, adding a monstrous quality to her movements. Mark gulped and turned to the old lady.

“We’ll get this figured out,” he assured. 

Mark was a people person with a gift for gab. The last two years, he’d spent at CVS were the happiest he had ever been at a job. The constant stream of faces and their short snippets of life stories were a welcome distraction from an otherwise lonely life. Mark knew the names of his regular’s grandchildren. He had counseled people through which pregnancy test is the most popular, what allergy medicines worked the best. During the winter holidays and St. Patrick’s day he had raised hundreds of dollars in donations, documenting his achievements on festive paper turkeys, Christmas stockings and shamrocks that were then pasted across the front windows. During the slow times he liked to turn his back to the store and reread the names of those who had trusted him with their donation. At CVS, Mark felt like a vital part of the community, a throwback to simpler times when the local shop was more than an impersonal low-wage job, when it was an important hub for the entire town. 

“How is your day going? Are you feeling OK?” Mark asked the old woman, stalling as he tapped on the computer’s touch screen, searching the system for some sign of what had gone wrong.

“Good,” responded the old lady cheerily. “Just stocking up for cold and flu season. It’ll be here before we know it and I like to be ready.” Mark forced a smile across his deeply worried face. The system with all of it’s letters and numbers and prompts and commands was still as confusing to him as it was on the day he started. “$8 for two bottles is a good deal,” the woman added. 

Mark looked up and nodded, “It sure is. I’ll have to get some myself when my shift is over.”

The fat man groaned and looked around for another lane to open. Mark was the only one at the front of the store. “I’ll be right with you sir,” Mark said. “Thank you for you patience.”

The sweat had moved down his arms into his hands, making his palms clammy and unpleasant. Seeing no other option, Mark pressed the button on the store intercom and leaned into the microphone. “Can I have a manager to the front of the store? Manager to the front of the store, please.” He released the button and watched nervously as Stephanie’s distorted figure shuddered. Through the fogged glass he could see her shake her head in disgust. The shape pushed its mass vertical, away from the important work and towards the office’s small door.

“Thank you for your patience,” Mark repeated.

The door opened, dumping Stephanie out onto the floor of the store. She was short and round. Dark purple glasses pressed stylishly into her plain face. Brightly colored studs lined the cartilage in her ears from top to bottom. Mark was able to count them once while she was doing inventory. There were ten on the left side and eleven on the right. It always confused Mark why they weren’t the same.

Stephanie ambled behind the counter and looked angrily at him. “What?”

No matter how many times he’d been exposed to it, her instant hostility always made Mark uncomfortable, causing him to fumble even more, building her disappointments of him into a rolling snowball of hatred.

“Umm, this young lady,” Mark paused imperceptibly to make sure the compliment reached its intended target, “brought in this flyer that says we are selling Robitussin DM two for $8, but I can’t find it anywhere in the system…”

Stephanie cut him off, “Did you check under the circular specials?”

Mark blinked at her confused, “Ahh, ahh, no. I don’t…where is the special circle? I haven’t been trained on that, I don’t think.”

Stephanie sneered and stepped in front of Mark, cutting him off from the machine. “Open up another station and ring him through,” she commanded nodding towards the fat man holding his beer. 

Mark moved to his right and unlocked the next computer. “I can help you right over here, sir.” The fat man shuffled forward and plopped the beer down on the counter. “Thank you for your patience, sir. I really appreciate it,” Mark gushed. “Will this be all today?”

The man nodded and sucked some of the loose phlegm down his throat.

Mark scanned the box and read “$8.95,” from the monitor. “Cash or card?” The man pulled a credit card from his wallet and waved it in front of Mark. “$8.95 on the card. OK, very good sir, please go ahead and insert the chip. Again, thank you so much for you patience today we’re still getting used to the new system.”

“The system has been in place since before you got here,” Stephanie interjected as she flipped through her screen. “How many times did you try to ring these in?”

“Aah, twice, only two times,” Mark responded with trepidation.

Stephanie sighed loudly without looking in his direction, “You didn’t void these out right. This is why you make doing inventory so hard.”

“I went through the home screen and…” Mark said defensively, but Stephanie cut him off.

“I said you didn’t do it right.”

Mark’s new system beeped and he turned towards the fat man. “You can remove your card now, sir. Thank you and have a great day.” The man grunted, returning his wallet to his back pocket while hoisting the beer under his arm as he turned to leave. The door whooshed and let in another waft of warm, damp air as he exited.

Stephanie sighed exaggeratedly as she navigated the screen. “Come watch, I don’t want to go over this with you again.” Mark powered down his temporary station and took his place behind her, squinting as he struggled to follow Stephanie’s fingers while they whirred through a complicated set of movements. “See it’s right here on the home screen,” she chided. “We put it right here so that it would be easy to find. Honestly, I don’t know how you could work here for two years and not see this.” Mark winced at the dig and noticed the old lady wincing too. He decided to let Stephanie work and focus on what he did best.

“I appreciate your patience,” he said to her. “We’ll have this worked out and have you on your way in just a second.”

“That’s quite OK, I’m not in a hurry,” she reassured. They look and smiled awkwardly at each other as Stephanie navigated through the system like an eight-armed octopus. “Mark is a nice name. I named my son Marc but with a C. He lives in Massachusetts now and has two twin girls.”

“Oh that’s great. My name is spelled with a C too. Have your granddaughters picked out Halloween costumes yet?” Marc asked.

The old lady smiled sadly, “My son and I don’t talk much anymore. I do my best to keep up with my granddaughters on Facebook, but it’s…” Her eyes dropped and dragged across the counter, meeting Marc at his waist before climbing back up his chest. “Why does your name tag spell it with a K?” she asked.

Marc opened his mouth sheepishly but Stephanie cut him off, “We had an old employee who left and spelled it with a K, so Marc got his.” Her eyes never left the screen. “There,” she said, “now scan it again.”

“I don’t mind,” Marc said, picking up the boxes, dragging them over the glass again. The machine beeped and flashed $8.34. “That will be $8.34, including tax,” he read. 

Stephanie watched over his shoulder, breath dragon hot, as the old woman pulled a five and three ones from her wallet and began counting out change from her purse. “I have it exactly,” she said, passing the coins to Marc. “But I don’t think that’s right. They should spell your name correctly.”

“Oh, I don’t mind,” Marc repeated.

Turning her eyes to Stephanie, the old woman said, “Why can’t you get him a name tag that spells his name the right way?”

“I’m OK.” Marc interjected.

“No. The details of life are important. It’s the little things.” She sighed and stared heavily towards Stephanie. 

Stephanie, took a step back from the counter and stared combatively at the old lady, weighing whether to challenge a customer. Her mouth moved slowly, forming the correct words but filling them with venom, “We’re putting together an order for the new employees next week. We’ll add another for you Marc. Is that OK?” She spoke slowly, spitting the syllables out one by one.

“Yes, thank you!” Marc said ignoring Stephanie’s tone. “Do you need a bag?” he asked the old woman.

“No,” she replied, gathering the boxes into her oversized purse. She nodded towards Stephanie who quickly retreated back to the safety of the office.

“Have a great day,” Marc said.

“You too,” the old lady replied. She hesitated, opening her mouth to say more, but then closed it with a smile and stepped towards the door.

It whooshed open, the hot air rushing down the aisle across the Halloween chitz, ruffling the plastic skeletons before assimilating with the cold sterile air from the AC. Marc smiled and watched as the rest of the shoppers picked through the inventory. For a moment his mouth contorted into a frown as he realized he forgot to ask the last two customers to scan their CVS extra rewards cards. He shook off the minor mistake. He’d do better next time.




Jesse McKinnell


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