By Douglas James Troxell
The glass pickle jar seemed to shatter in Jon Zanneti’s hand, crack into two rows of tiger’s teeth spitting green saliva all over his wrinkled green smock. A muffled laugh rang out on the far end of the aisle and then quickly died. Someone had seen! Jon ran a hand through his salt-and-pepper hair, breathing deep once—twice. He tried to silence the snare drums raging in his head, but a crowd had formed at the end of the aisle in his mind, and he couldn’t convince them to disperse—Nothing to see here, folks—and return to the recesses of his psyche from which they had come.
A shout rang from the registers, but it was a name Jon did not recognize so he ignored it.
Instead he focused on the label on the intact pickle jars on the counter. When most people picked up a jar of pickles they saw nothing more than a bunch of pickled cucumbers in a glass container, but what Jon saw were—possibilities. Change the color of the label and he could create a completely new product, change the font of the lettering and a completely different socioeconomic demographic would be targeted, change the shape of the jar and the product would be transformed from everyday pickles to a gourmet burger enhancement—all without ever changing the pickles inside.
He felt the snare drums fade into the silence of his subconscious. When he turned to the end of the aisle, he found only the endcap display of squeeze cheese watching over him.
A shriek, louder this time, rose up from the registers near the front of the store and rode the stench of ammonia down the aisle to where Jon stood staring at the pickle jars. This time he recognized the name as his own—not his given name, but the name he acquired shortly after starting his job at the store.
The obtrusive screech shocked him back into his green smock. He grabbed a jar of St. Joe Valley and power-walked to the front of the store, doing his best to ignore his compulsive desire to face the shelves along the way. He knew somewhere behind the store—probably near the loading docks—the stock boys were yucking it up while they puffed on cigarette after cigarette, ignoring their stocking and facing duties.
Jon rushed back to lane three and handed the jar to the waiting customer, a man in his early thirties wearing a cheap JC Penny suit and paisley tie and speaking loudly intohis phone. The man took the jar without so much as a nod while Jon reclaimed his position at the end of the lane.
“Geez, Winter, took you long enough,” Amy, the teenage cashier, said. “What were you doing? Growing the pickles back there?”
She snickered at her own joke. Amy was a long, lanky wisp of a girl with an overbite and freckles that covered her face in a pattern that reminded Jon of stars in the night sky.
“Sorry,” Jon said. He smoothed out his smock. “Someone put a broken jar of pickles back on the shelves again.”
“Yeahyeahyeah. Just bag, Old Man Winter.”
She scanned the pickles and slid the jar down to Jon where the other items waited, piled on top of one another. In his absence, Amy hadn’t bothered to bag anything.
Most of his fellow employees at the store called Jon “Winters,” after the stock boys had christened him “Old Man Winter” during his first week of employment. He was easily the oldest employee at the Save Lots by at least a decade.
The customer stopped talking on his phone long enough to say, “Hey, you in the apron. Make sure you double bag in plastic. Last time the bottom nearly busted.”
Jon wanted to inform the gentlemen that it wasn’t an apron; it was a smock, but instead he nodded, kept his head down, and kept his hands moving. He learned early in his bagging career that dealing with customers was a lot like dealing with feral dogs: you never look one directly in the eyes.
Jon hadn’t always been a bag boy. For the first twenty-six years of his working life, he had been a big shot at a mid-tier advertising agency called Catalyst Marketing supervising their print ad department. Two terrible disasters happened that sent him tumbling down the economic food chain; one of them was universal, the other quite personal.
The universal disaster was the recession that made many businesses, including his employer, panic and start cutting costs, which wouldn’t have been so bad except for the other disaster: the celebration of his fiftieth birthday.
Jon had no idea turning fifty would be such a death knell until his coworkers and clients started treating him like he had just been diagnosed with stage four cancer. Clients stopped asking for him. They said they wanted someone to help give their products’ image a hip and fresh makeover, which was apparently something a forty-nine year old could accomplish but not a fifty year old. When the company finally cut its print department in favor of web-based ads, Jon got cut with it.
Jon surveyed the customers waiting in line. They stood almost six deep. Lane four next door was five deep. The only other open lane, lane seven, stood completely empty of customers and a cashier. The light above register seven had been busted for nearly three weeks now, and Sharon—young, buxom and twenty—had a monopoly on the register since she gave the manager, Tom—a skinny little pervert of a man—a continuous view down her blouse. The only problem was that Sharon never remained at her register so no one ever thought it was open. She spent most of her time at the customer service desk talking to her friend, Margo.
Jon tried to wave the customers in line over to lane seven, making broad hand signals like someone directing airport traffic, but most customers merely glanced over at the dimmed light and empty register, and stayed put.
As he prepared himself for the torrential downpour of customers, he spotted three hooded teenagers disappearing into the produce section, their hands shoved deep into the pockets of their sagging jeans. He adjusted his smock and put on his plastic smile.
“Paper or plastic, ma’am?”
Jon waited the mandatory ten seconds before easing open the door to Tom’s office. Tom sat slumped behind his computer, his fingers dancing across the keyboard and flashes of pixilated steel reflected in his glasses. A beastlike growl crackled over the computer speaker. All the employees knew their boss was a fantasy role-playing addict, but it kept him out off everyone’s back and off the floor so no one ever complained about it.
Finally, after an extended awkward silence, Tom said, “What can I do you for?” without looking up from the computer screen.
“I was wondering if there’d be any cashier positions available anytime soon.”
“Jesus, Jon, I told you yesterday, I’ll let you know the second one becomes available.”
“It’s just I’m looking for something a bit more challenging with maybe a few more hours.”
The twang of a foray of arrows being unleashed replaced the clash of steel.
“Times are tight, and I can’t squeeze anymore cashiers out of the budget sooo—”
He clicked frantically at the keyboard while he held the o in the last word of the sentence.
Jon backed toward the door. “Thank you. I appreciate your time.”
“Hey, Jon!” Tom finally looked up from his computer screen. “Maybe let’s not do this tomorrow. My answer’s gonna be the same and I hate disappointin’ ya.”
Jon’s hand squeezed the door handle. “Thanks, Mr. Harding.”
He left the office, closing the door firmly behind him. As the door clicked shut, a shout rang out.
“Somebody stop them!”
The three hooded teens sprinted past Jon, nearly knocking him to the floor. Bags of Jolly Ranchers and Swedish Fish and Sour Patch Kids poured out of the kangaroo pouches of their hoodies as they sprinted toward the exit.
Jon was more surprised than anyone when he felt his legs pumping mechanically beneath him and the distance between himself and the three hoodies closing. The distance completely vanished by the time he reached the automatic doors. He grabbed the hoodie at the back of the pack and threw him into a display of Diet Cola twelve packs. The hoodie and the cola crashed to the floor. Jon leapt on top and held the hoodie down.
He ripped the hood off the assailant’s head, but the eyes he found beneath the hood were his own hazel pearls. They belonged to Jason—his son.
“What the hell were you thinking?”
Both father and son sat on Jason’s bed, surrounded by the wallpaper that had adorned the room since Jason’s birth—faceless baseball players in blue and white uniforms. Both father and son still wore their own respective uniforms, Jon his green smock he had forgotten to remove in the chaos and Jason his favorite gray hoodie, the official uniform of fourteen year olds everywhere.
“How was I suppose ta know you were workin’ there?”
“What does it matter whether or not I was working there?” Jon asked. “You were stealing.”
Jon said the word slowly, sounding out each letter as if it was a word Jason had never heard before. His son placed his hands under his thighs and shifted his weight from the left to the right and back again over and over.
“You didn’t tell me you got fired,” Jason said.
“Yes, my department closed so I was let go.”
He tried to concentrate on the conversation, but he found the room very distracting. The room seemed too childlike for a teenager. He had never thought that before, but he thought it now. He couldn’t understand why he and Sheila hadn’t remodeled it years ago. Jason didn’t play baseball, and, as far as he knew, his son didn’t even like baseball.
“But this isn’t about me,” Jon said, refocusing. “This is about you and what you did.”
“I took some candy. What’s the big deal? You lied about your job! I thought we were going to St. Croix this summer.”
“Well we’re not going to St. Croix this summer and you’re probably not going to get that new iPhone you wanted for your birthday either.”
Jason suddenly shot off the bed, grabbed his pillow, and tossed it across the room.
“This sucks! I don’t wanna be poor!”
“Jason, sit down—”
“I don’t have to listen to you! You’re wearing a fuckin’ apron!”
He darted out of the room and the bathroom door down the hallway slammed shut. Jon thought about giving chase, decided against it, and instead simply remained seated on the bed, surrounded by the faceless baseball players.
Eventually he retreated to his bedroom where Sheila busily ironed her scrubs for her night shift at the hospital, a shift that would earn her a much-needed extra dollar an hour. She paused for a second—maybe two—upon his entrance, but she did not turn around. Then she returned to her ironing.
Entering the walk-in closet, Jon flicked on the light and removed his smock, hanging it on a hanger next to his last Valentino business suit—a two-button charcoal chalk striped beauty that set him back over $500. Before his stint in bagging, he had once been the proud owner of a legion of suits, but he had sacrificed the others to help make ends meet. Sheila had begged him to sell the last Valentino, but he couldn’t force himself to part with it—not yet anyway.
He ran his hand along the sleeve of the suit and smiled, remembering how the material seemed to wrap around his body like a sports car hugging a speedway track. He saw it hanging there next to the dress shirts and slacks he had picked up at Walmart to wear to the Save Lots, and it reminded him of a queen standing on a street corner amid a gaggle of prostitutes. He pitied that suit. He pitied it because it belonged to him, a man who now spent the majority of his time wearing a green apron.
“How did the talk go?” Sheila asked without turning around.
“You should have told him earlier.”
Jon had seen it coming. He knew somehow his wife would make this entire ordeal about him. Lately, everything was his fault, but he understood her frustration. She was essentially the sole bread-winner of the house, a burden unfamiliar to her in their twenty-three years of marriage. She had had to switch to night shift for the extra money, and it had obliterated any sembleance of a normal schedule. Now if she was home, she was sleeping or reading one of her books in solitude because she was too tired to do anything else.
He wanted to apologize for not being able to support the family, but he had already apologized so many times, the idea of apologizing again just seemed hollow. He turned and watched her iron in nothing more than her socks and underwear. He followed her long, muscular legs all the way up to her white cotton panties. Sheila had been a runner in college, and she still had those thick yet feminine legs only female runners seem to have. He realized this was the most he had seen of his wife since losing his job.
Sheila finished ironing her scrubs, and Jon quickly turned back to the closet so she wouldn’t catch him staring. She dressed and left without saying good-bye, leaving Jon with nothing to do but get his clothes ready for his shift at the store the next day.
He pulled out an anonymous pair of khakis and a tan polo, but he couldn’t stand the sight of them. He threw them back into the closet and slammed the door. He leaned his back against it, knowing that his smock was waiting for him, clawing at the door. Gathering his resolve, he opened the door, but it wasn’t the smock that drew his attention. No, it was the Valentino, hanging there amidst his pauper clothes, reminding him of what he once was, looking regal and reeking of all his past success. He smiled at it like an old friend coming to visit and he felt like his old friend smiled back.
The automatic doors of Save Lots slid open and in marched Jonathan Zanneti, bagboy, dressed in a $500 Valentino suit and a $60 silk solid slate blue tie and $200 wingtips. He wore his salt and pepper hair slicked back like he did in the old days and he cast a trail of White Crystal cologne behind him, the cologne he swore never to wear again except for weddings and funerals since it was so damn expensive.
He marched straight past the registers to Tom’s office.
“Is that guy from corporate?” Amy asked Paulie, a bagboy with a stutter.
Paulie answered with a shrug.
Jon did not knock, nor did he wait the mandatory ten seconds before entering. He and his suit simply marched in. The sounds of elves and orcs crossing blades greeted him. Tom scrambled to pause the game, nearly toppling backwards in his chair.
“Hey! You knock before you enter this office,” Tom hissed.
“I have a request,” Jon said. His voice had changed. It was deeper, more baritone than the previous day. It sang.
“Wait—Jon? I told you yesterday, I don’t have a register for you. You’re not getting an interview today. Nice suit, though.”
“I’m not interested in being a cashier. I’m going to be managing the store today.”
“Managing the store? Are you insane? You’re a bagboy, for Christ’s sake!”
“Sit down,” Jon ordered without shouting. It was the suit that said it. Tom sat. “Now you will sit in this office and play with your elves and dwarves or whatever godforsaken creatures exist in your fantasy world, but one thing you will not do is step foot onto that floor. That belongs to me today. I see you out there and you watch how fast I call corporate and tell them to come visit you in Middle Earth during one of your eight-hour marathons, understand?”
A single finger moved to the keyboard to silence the sounds of battle. Other than the click of the keyboard, the room remained silent. Tom stared wide-eyed at the Valentino suit, but he did not speak again.
Jon left Tom in his office and marched onto the floor. His first stop was lane three. He turned to Paulie. “Paul, you mind putting in an extra shift today?”
Paulie was a notorious hours sponge. As expected, Paulie nodded eagerly, more than willing to soak up another seven hours of bagging bliss.
“Winter, is that you?” Amy asked.
“My name is not Winter. It’s Jonathan Zanneti. Today you will refer to me as Mr. Zanneti. Understood?”
Amy nodded. Anyone wearing that suit couldn’t be anyone but Mr. Zanneti.
Jon’s next stop was the loading docks. He threw open the heavy door leading to the docks, abruptly interrupting the laughter of the stock boys, the cigarettes dangling from their mouths and their hands shoved deep in their pockets.
“Gentlemen, I want these shelves stocked, faced, and looking immaculate. Now!”
The cigarettes, lit or unlit, hit the pavement and every stock boy filed into the store. Whether they recognized Jon or not was unclear. The only thing that was clear was that they couldn’t ignore the suit’s orders.
Jon and the Valentino returned to the front of the store carrying a new light bulb from the supply closet. He replaced the old bulb in the light above register seven with his own hands, even though the job seemed far too undignified for the suit.
The suit accompanied Jon over to the customer service desk, where Sharon and Margo were having an engrossing conversation about possible locations for a new tattoo. He stood directly between Sharon and Margo, instantly grinding the conversation to a halt.
“Sharon, we’re going to need you back at your register.”
“Who are you? Where’s Tom?”
Margo leaned over the counter and squinted hard into Jon’s face. “I’m pretty sure he’s that old bagboy, Winters or whatever—”
The girls seemed to resist the suit’s power.
Jon adjusted his tie. “Tom’s off today. I’m running the store.”
“But you’re a bagboy.”
“We’re going to need you back at your register, Sharon.”
Jon had broken out an old managerial chestnut before he even realized he was doing it: conversational diversion and name repetition. If the conversation with an employee veers in a direction you don’t care to travel, simply repeat what you want the employee to do and use the employee’s name as much as possible.
“If a customer gets into line, I’ll walk over there.”
“Not good enough, Sharon. We’re paying you to work the register, not socialize. Now we’re going to need you behind that register, Sharon.”
Sharon felt the authority of the suit bearing down on her, but she continued to resist. She turned to face Jon head-on and leaned forward, offering him a view down her low-cut blouse, a view that only a twenty year old can offer.
Jon took the bait, glanced down long enough that Sharon knew he was looking, then returned his eyes to hers and smiled.
“So back behind the register then, Sharon. Thank you.”
Then he winked and walked away, knowing the next time he saw Sharon, she and her perfect rack would be behind register seven.
With all three lines occupied, lighted, and equipped with able baggers, Jon had the store running on all cylinders. He roamed the lines, directing customers into the shortest line and had the wait-time down to five minutes for most the afternoon. He even bagged when he needed to, which impressed several customers—a man of his standing humble enough to ask “Paper or plastic?” and inquire whether or not customers would be interested in eco-friendly canvas bags.
By the end of the shift, the stores were fully stocked, faced, and looked immaculate—just as Jon and his suit had demanded. The only hiccup during the entire day came when Jon removed a customer from the store for refusing to hang up his cell phone during his interaction with the cashier. As the man disappeared through the automatic doors, Jon and his suit were met with thunderous applause from the other customers. Several regulars commented on how glad they were that the store was under new management.
Before he left for the day, Jon walked the cash drawers back to Tom’s office himself, the drawers pressed tightly against his Valentino suit. He didn’t bother to knock before he entered and Tom didn’t bother to pretend he wasn’t playing his role-playing game. Jon set the drawers down on Tom’s desk, the change ringing out the end to a profitable afternoon.
“See you tomorrow,” Jon said, smiling.
“Hey!” Tom called after him. “I get why you did this, but I still don’t have a register for ya. Your little stunt today doesn’t change anything.”
Jon stopped and turned on his wingtips, squeaking the soles against the tile. “Didn’t expect it to.”
And as suddenly as they arrived, Jon and his suit were gone.
When the suit arrived at the Zanneti household, it delivered the same order twice, with different results each time.
Jon marched the suit down to the basement where Jason sat sprawled out on the wraparound sofa playing his X-box. Jon pressed the power button on the gaming machine, sending the soldiers disappearing into the void of the AV abyss.
“Bed—now,” Jon said.
Jason turned, ready to argue, but when he saw his father standing there wearing the Valentino, his face softened and he simply obeyed.
Jon found his wife in the living room curled up on the recliner with an Agatha Cristie novel. She didn’t even look up when he entered the room.
“Bed—now,” he told her.
“I’m reading,” she said.
Then she looked up, saw the suit, and let the book fall into her lap.
She, too, obeyed.
The next morning Jon walked through the automatic doors of the Save Lot fifteen minutes earlier for his shift. He had transformed back into his former self, dressed in his green smock and $20 tennis shoes. He walked casually to the back into the employee hallway, punched the time clock, and then walked back out onto the floor to relieve Paulie of his bagging duties.
Surprisingly enough, Tom had apparently decided to ignore the Forests of Fantasy for the day. He walked along the storefront, greeting customers as they entered. Sharon, too, was surprisingly absent from her usual post at the customer service desk and stood below her well-lit cashier’s sign, awaiting customers.
Jon worked Amy’s line, standing quietly until the first customer of the day lumbered into line with her cart full of merchandise. The customer was an elderly woman, mid-seventies, who glanced over at Jon and offered a friendly smile.
He smoothed out his green smock and returned the smile.
“Paper or plastic, ma’am?”