The next customer returned her smile. His red hair made a halo around his face. He made her think of a tall poppy. She chased that idea, tried to focus on the task at hand. She ran the cash at the supermarket. She tried to always be personable and efficient. She felt that showed best her professionalism. He had put his purchases on the conveyor belt, peanuts and other assorted nuts, chocolate bar, tortilla chips, bananas. She’d seen this before, customers buying snacks and a fruit to give themselves good conscience. She said, smiling “Quite the party you’re having”, because really, who could eat all that by themselves. She wanted to show she cared.

The customer looked at her and said slowly, meanly, “I’m not one to drown my sorry with Ben&Jerry. My lover left me, if you need to know. Not that I owe a perfect stranger an explanation for my purchases.” She had rung up his “grocery”, if you could call it that. She replied, “Nobody’s perfect,” indicating her name tag at the same time. It could be construed as an apology for her lack of discretion, but what it was is that she had taken offence at being called a perfect stranger. She resented the name tags, a pathetic gesture to personalize the interactions, when really, nobody ever bothered to say her name. Her name was Evelyn, as was proudly displayed on her tag, though everybody at home and even her friends called her “Ev”. He paid and left, without another word.

She sprayed some cleaning fluid on the little plastic window in front of the reader. She was not allowed to smoke or do her nails, not allowed to chew gum or wear perfume. The list was too long to commit to memory. She listened absent-mindedly to the music and then came ten o’clock. They dimmed the lights and turned the music off. This was a new thing – they had been primed to serve customers that were easily overwhelmed by sensory overload (she had learned the lingo to impress her relatives). Her uncles had asked what strange creatures would come out of the wood works. He was crass, but she was curious nonetheless. As soon as the lights dimmed, she saw people emerging from their cars, like zombies in the apocalypse. They staggered towards the dimmed store and suddenly she felt a bit exposed.

The crowd was quiet, subdued. She had expected a mad dash, as happened on Black Friday. She was observing the customers. They actually looked like normal people except they smiled more and talked amongst themselves, as though they now could see each other better. There was a kinship as happens during snowstorms, an acknowledged vulnerability that brought them closer. The customers took their time. They were there for real, doing their weekly grocery. The owner was walking amongst them, shaking hands and talking to them, playing the nice guy when he imposed so many rules on the cashiers. Oh, look smart, here comes a customer. She straightened and wished she had chewing gum to give herself a countenance. She missed working as a waitress sometimes, though she didn’t miss the assholes that came to the joint.

An old man came first, positively glowing. “Isn’t this marvelous? I wear hearing aids and the music and announcements just resonate in my skull. I usually dread coming here, but today was amazing.” He was gushing! She totalled his bill. She’d often seen him. Today, he’d treated himself to some goodies, probably to encourage the owner. It was good business, she thought unkindly, then chided herself. “I sound just like Uncle Bill.” She forced a smile and a nod. “I’m happy this new initiative worked for you. Is there anything more I can do for you today?” They had been prepped to sound compassionate. She would’ve liked to be an actress, had the looks and the brains, but not the cash. She swallowed a sigh. “Sure, I’ll take a winning lottery ticket.” “Good luck,” she said, kindly this time.

Behind him was a lady she knew with her strange child. He wasn’t clingy today nor “spastic.” He usually did this thing with his hands, waving them in front of his eyes, his mom looking away stoically. Today, he was looking around, almost relaxed. “How was your experience today?” she asked by herself, genuinely curious now. Tears glistened in the lady’s eyes. “Night and day. I am so grateful you’ve done this. Do you think you’ll do it again?” “If there is enough interest, we will. I’ll make sure to tell my boss. He wants to hear from all the customers.” “God bless,” added the lady as they took their bags. Now that she didn’t expect.

There was a steady stream of customers now, but no one seemed to be in a hurry. She felt as though they were travelling back in time, with actual conversations, unhurried and friendly. She realized she’d felt a bit stressed at first, but was happy now. The customers’ good mood was contagious. She didn’t see them as zombies anymore. They themselves walked straighter, no longer skulking in corners but fully inhabiting their space. She was observant, part of her training to be an actress. You had to continually research characters. The owner greeted the late comers. “We will be resuming normal operations in 15 minutes. The dimmed lights and absence of music are on purpose.” Most people knew. They had been featured on the local news and in the paper. Some were just gawkers. She blushed when she saw Uncle Billy walking in.

He was staring at the customers, with a superior grin. Nobody paid him any mind. After a few minutes, he stopped his circus and made a purchase. He stood in line at her cash, waving excitedly as though she hadn’t spotted him miles away. There was a soft announcement over the PA system. “Dear customers, in five minutes, we will turn the music and lights back on. Please make your way to the cash if you need to do so at this time. Thank you for coming today. we hope you had a positive shopping experience.” Her uncle’s presence annoyed her. She could feel his gaze on her and didn’t appreciate the interactions with the other customers fully because of it. When it was his turn, he’d bought a loaf of dark rye bread, his favourite. “I seem to have missed all the weirdos,” he said loudly. She stared him down. “They’re at my cash right now, Uncle Bill.” It was his turn to blush and fumble for his change. He slunk away. The lights came back on. She took a bow.

The Shipwreck

The sun lay prone today, eyes open, lost in thought. The winds had abated after yesterday’s fury. The water had carted long grasses from faraway shores. From the corner of my eye, I glimpsed a long-lost shipwreck. It vanished if I looked too closely, but the cries of the birds echoed the ones of the deck hands, none of them swimmers, all but one sinkers. This one hung on to a barrel for dear life. He fastened a rope around it that he tied to his waist. It was a long night, surrounded by the howling winds and the lashing waves. Morning came and he paddled to where the debris were more abundant until he crashed to shore, his barrel slowing him down now, the weight of his dead comrades.

His collapsed mass was brought to a hut by beachcombers. They tried to force a hot beverage through his salted lips. He vomited the sea, small fish, fear and terror, the howling winds and the seagulls’ laugh. They did not hold it against him. They understood his need to expunge the sea from his belly.

When he rose, his body wracked but intact, white birds detached from tree limbs, afraid at this ghostly apparition. His minders had laid out clothes for him and they hung on him as limp sails on a windless day. He stuttered to the sea’s edge, cursing his fate. He’d been too stubborn to die and he must now live on, crowded with spectres, day in, day out. He used the last of his strength to shake his fist to the heavens then went back to bed to recover some more.