Paper Bags of Hot Air
A Short Story by Doug Dean
Written using the suggestion "Paper"
Originally featured on 02-15-2007
As part of our series "Anniversaries"

I look down the conveyor belt as boxes of cereal approach. They are led by a bunch of bananas. I’ve been doing this job for so long I’m really starting to lose it.

Normally, I use my price gun like a percussion instrument. The rhythmic beats as I swipe and then scan help my mind to keep functioning. I pick my beat based on a quick look down the line at the customer’s face as they approach. A frustrated face, which I certainly see my share of, prompts a slower beat. An angry face prompts the slowest beat, kind of like, “One-Two-Three-BEEP, One-Two-Three-BEEP” in four-four time. Once I”ve established the beat at which I’m going to check out a customer, I never ever deviate from it. That isn’t just my rule, either. If someone persists in asking a question while I’m checking, I’ll finish out the beat before answering and starting again, much slower. If interrupted again, I’ll finish and then go into what I like to call ‘rigormortis’ mode. It involves slow checking, of course, but also involves a fake back injury that causes me to groan and pause between each item. Rigormortis mode also requires a price check on one out of every three items to performed by my friend and co-worker, Carl. Carl is morbidly obese and takes about five minutes to get to my checkstand. He also has a terrible memory. So, Carl regards every product like he would a long lost relative. His expression usually shows a familiarity, but no idea where it came from. As Carl wanders off towards aisle 8 when he should be headed for aisle 2, I’ll wince, and then hold my back and say, “Sorry he should only be a minute.” It always takes Carl at least ten minutes.

After the scanning is over, I find out what kind of person I’m dealing with. I ask a question that seems to be almost obsolete in the checking world. “Paper or Plastic?” The norm seems to have become that if the customer does not specify then they receive plastic. I fault checkers everywhere for this gross assumption which is leaving Paper, our forgotten forefather, out in the cold. Don’t worry, I’m not an environmentalist. Fuck the environment. But why should Plastic just win? Paper bags, like checkers, help make up the pack of underdogs running in the Grocery World. With the advent of self-scanning checkout aisles, checkers face obsoletion on a steadily approaching horizon. But checkers did the same thing to Paper Bags!

But I’ve gotten off track. I was talking about judging the customers based on whether or not they choose Paper, not the failings of my colleagues in recent history. So I ask, “Paper or Plastic?” in such a way that I’m very clearly sympathetic to Paper and despise Plastic. My tone of voice is similar to if I was asking, “(Do you want to be) Given Gold or Eaten by Alligators?” Then I stare.

If they say Plastic anyway, I say “What?” as if I didn’t hear right. I couldn’t have heard right. Right? The ones who change to Paper at this point don’t gain my respect. But they do spare themselves what comes after if someone insists on Plastic despite my clearly presented preference towards Paper. I mean, I’m your fucking Checker! If I obviously want you to use Paper, I must have a pretty good reason! I wouldn’t tell my dentist what kind of oral surgery to perform. So why, when presented with a choice and given the professional opinion of a veteran checker would anyone stick to Plastic? Why!? I’ll tell you why. It’s because people don’t respect Checkers anymore. That’s part of it. And the other part is that people are so sickly in love with plastic anything. I think it’s because it’s strong and flexible like an umbilical cord. And all these babies just want to go back to the womb. The human condition is currently not exemplary.

So when they insist. I make it every bit as difficult as it should be. Ignore my advice? Fine!

Then I point to the Paper bags and I say, “Look at those paper bags. Just look at them for a second. They’re alone. They’re sad. Have you ever felt alone or sad in your life? Please, do yourself a favor. And take a couple.” I say it with just the right tone of voice where it seems like I’m kidding around but also reminds them of a time they were alone. A lot of times this works. If it doesn’t, it’s almost always some PTA mom. But I don’t beat myself up. Even Christ couldn’t convert the Devil. So, I just key every minivan I see.

I look from the bananas to the face of the approaching customer. He’s a white, middle-aged, skinny guy. He frowns at me. I think I’ll make this a Polka beat. I reach for the bananas, BEEP, TWO, THREE, FOUR, then the Wheaties, BEEP, TWO, THREE, FOUR, then the Cheerios, BEEP, TWO, THRE-

“Hey you’re aware that there’s a special on cereal, right?” His nasally voice refuses to be shut out of my ears. Then the-

“Hey, kid! I said the cereal is on special. PLEEEEASE make sure you scan it all correctly. I know that High School Mathematics isn’t what it used to be and I’m in a rush.”

My face is flush. I’m hot. I lost the beat. I’m going to have to bring in Carl.

“Oh, is the cereal on special? I’ll just run a price-check so you get the best-“

“NO! You friggin’ idiot. I got the coupon right heeere. It’s two Cereals for 3.99! Look! Look, you idiot! It says it right there. I gotta go. Come on!”

I take two big breaths. As I stare, I think of where on his shirt I should grab him to pull him over the counter and start beating him.

“Hello! This is no time for a daydream! Just check out my last two things and get me outta here!”

Confused, I start bagging the bananas and cereal before finishing the checking. I have to control myself. I flinch.

“KID! I TOLD YOU I’M IN A RUSH! Finish checking my milk and graaannnola bars before you bag the stuff!” He looks down. “Whoa! Whoa! What are these, PLASTIC BAGS! You didn’t ask if I wanted these? I want paper bags. Do you hear me? PAPER! You think I want to wreck the ennnvironnment!?”

My hands are shaking. I look over my shoulder. Carl is standing behind me. He’s terrified. I turn. All the checkers’ eyes are on me. Paper folds and plastic stretches. But I’m the checker and can’t do either right now. The yelling makes him sound like he’s robbing me. I reach for the paper bag.

“That’s it. That’s it. Just grab a paper bag from right there. Good.”

Quickly, I grab the milk. I scan it. BEEP.

“Jeez, no wonder those self scanning things are replacing you. Hurry up!”

I grab the family size granola. I put it in the bag. I hit total.

“Alright, can I swipe this? Yes!?”

“Yes.”

He pounds his debit card code into the keypad. He takes off towards the door before I give him a receipt. I put it in my pocket. As I untie my apron, I watch him run through the door and set off the alarm. He keeps running. Bruce, a two hundred and fifty pound security guard, sprints out after him. The manager looks at me. I shake my head.

“Nutjob! Call the police!”

He picks up the phone. I need a break.

Read More By Doug Dean

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Portland Fiction Project

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