Martin wasn’t quite sure why he had decided to go back to work. Maybe retirement was a little more boring than he’d anticipated; perhaps he was lonely. But whatever the reason, when he saw the ad in the paper looking for people to give away free samples at the local supermarket, he thought, why not? As long as he didn’t have to work with any new machines, he was happy. Martin hated anything high-tech; that was part of the reason he had decided to retire from his company early.
He received a green apron and about five minutes of instructions when he showed up at the store late Saturday morning. Then he was shown to his “station” where he’d be dishing out frozen pizza rolls. When someone would walk by he was supposed to say “Would you like to try some pizza rolls? They’re on sale this week” and then hand them a coupon.
Martin was a little nervous at first, particularly after he burned the first batch, but once he figured out how to use the microwave, he actually started enjoying himself. Most of the customers were polite and friendly and there were a lot of cute kids. He laughed when an older Asian woman who obviously didn’t speak a lot of English very hesitantly tried one of the rolls at the urging of what was probably her granddaughter. Her look of trepidation quickly changed to delight when she swallowed one small bite.
Occasionally someone would come back for another sample but Martin didn’t mind; he was getting paid whether one person or one hundred people ate them.
But then Tubby showed up.
Martin actually smelled him first before he saw him — the strong aroma seemed to be a mix of various foodstuffs. He was probably about 17 or 18, gangly, wearing a pair of gray shorts and a striped blue shirt that was at least two sizes too small. His face was red and shiny and his black, Brillo-like hair looked like it hadn’t been introduced to a comb in months.
“Oh, pizza rolls!” he exclaimed in a gravely voice when he noticed the table. “I love these things.” With his sausage-like fingers, he snatched one and then quickly grabbed another; Martin could tell he thought he was being slick about it.
“They’re on sale this week,” he said and held out a coupon.
Tubby ignored him and after another longing glance at the remaining rolls, waddled off.
Later, on his way back from the frozen aisle with a few more boxes, Martin saw Tubby approach the table. Except for an empty box and napkin, it was bare. Tubby greedily grabbed the box and peered inside, then he lifted the napkin. When he didn’t see anything, a look of annoyance filled his face and he quickly walked away.
About a half hour later, he returned.
“Oh, pizza rolls!” he said again, reaching towards the tray. “I love these things.” This time he grabbed three.
He must think he’s clever, Martin thought, pretending this is the first time he’s been here. He didn’t even bother offering him a coupon this time.
Later, with his shift almost over, he set up his last batch of rolls. That’s when he saw Tubby again. Martin couldn’t understand why he was still in the store; he didn’t have a cart or basket with him and wasn’t carrying any items. But he quickly started heading his way again.
Determined not to let him have anymore, Martin really started peddling the samples. “Pizza rolls, try some delicious pizza rolls,” he said loudly to everyone passing by. A couple people took some but by the time Tubby got there, there were still a few left.
“Oh, pizza rolls. I love these things.”
Before he could take anymore, Martin grabbed the tray. “I think you’ve had enough, son.”
For the first time, Tubby looked at him; an intense expression of disgust covered his face.
“What? Aren’t these free samples?”
Martin nodded. “That they are but you’ve already had five if I’m not mistaken.”
“So what? I don’t see a sign saying how many you can have.”
“Nope, no sign, I’m telling you you’ve had enough.”
Tubby’s hue deepened to almost magenta. “I want a pizza roll,” he snarled.
Martin shook his head.
By now a few people had stopped what they were doing to look at them. The store manager, Mr. Andrews, who Martin had briefly met earlier, approached them. He was a twitchy middle-aged man wearing a wrinkled shirt and brown tie.
“Um, is there a problem?” he asked.
“No problem, sir,” Martin said.
“There is a problem,” Tubby said. “This guy won’t give me my free sample.”
“Is this true?” Andrews asked.
“No, sir, it’s not. He’s already had several.”
Andrews took a couple steps towards them. “Now Tubby-“
“Toby! It’s Toby! How many times do I have to tell you that?!”
“Um, Toby, maybe you should go, I think they’re sampling fried cheese in aisle 13.”
“I know, I’ll be heading there right after I get my pizza roll.”
A tiny old woman with bluish-gray hair had crept up behind Martin and stood next to him. She was wearing a green apron and he recognized her from his training that morning. She smiled and nodded at him.
“So, old man, are you gonna give me my pizza roll or not?”
Everything became quiet; the muzak was suddenly silent, as was the regular store chatter.
“Um, I don’t think one more would hurt,” Andrews said softly.
Martin gazed at him and then down at the tray.
“Don’t do it,” the old woman next to him whispered.
Martin squinted and leaned towards Tubby. He was instantly hit with that familiar food odor, but now he smelled something different, something kind of metallic.
“No,” Martin said.
Tubby’s eyes widened. “Give it to me!” he screamed and lunged for the tray. Martin quickly moved it to the side and Tubby crashed into the table, his head collided with the microwave. He hurriedly stood back up and started shaking violently.
“Sample…me…give…sample…need sample…eat,” he sputtered and dropped to the floor. A young woman nearby gasped. Suddenly there was a loud popping noise and what sounded like an air leak.
Martin crouched down and put his face next to Tubby’s mouth. “We need to call an ambulance, he’s not breathing.”
“Never has,” Andrews said, suddenly looking much more relaxed.
A thin stream of smoke started coming out of Tubby’s left ear.
“Free Sample Bot,” Andrews said. “He’s been bugging us for weeks. You’re the first sample person to deny him any. Nice job.” He patted Martin on the back and then walked away.
“Free Sample Bot?” Martin asked, looking incredibly confused.
“Lives on free samples,” the old woman said. She kicked Tubby in the stomach; it sounded like she had kicked a car door. “You killed it.”
“I don’t understand.”
“C’mon,” she said, placing a liver-spotted hand on Martin’s shoulder and leading him away. “I’m giving away vegetarian dumplings in aisle six, I’ll tell you all about these damn new machines.”
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Portland Fiction Project
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