A Grocery Story

originally published in the Goose 2017

A Grocery Story

The giant steel box of Ronald Goffman’s Cash-Save Superstore dominated the block, rendering the squat brownstones on either side diminutive and powerless. Mrs. Ramachandran paused while the sliding glass doors waited, expectant. The scents of bleach and synthetic lemon assailed her from within, but she thought of her grandson’s tears, his hitching sobs, and went inside.

The store was bright orange, lit by dozens of round fluorescents high in the ceiling. Hidden loudspeakers piped dull music over the din of clanging carts and voices, punctuated by arrhythmic beeps and chimes from the registers. She pressed through the steel arm of a turnstile and came into the produce section. Ronald Goffman’s giant smiling face, with its wire-brush moustache and double chin, was plastered onto the wall. Under a marquee of on-sale items, it greeted her with a speech balloon that read, “Welcome to Ron’s Cash-Save!” The frozen smile, captured years ago, seemed to bear more malice than warmth. A camera, like a globule of oil, hung over the face. Amid the vibrant stacks of produce, customers squeezed and smelled each piece, leaning over one another’s shoulders to find the best and freshest ones.

Mrs. Ramachandran shuffled through the throngs of customers to the aisle with a hanging sign that read “Ron’s Cash-Save: Baking”. Hundreds of glossy boxes and bags, splashed with primary colours, clamoured for her attention. Making her way down the aisle, her eyes ranged over each in turn, seeking her prize in all the dizzy variety.

A stockboy stood in the aisle, lank and tall, with a pale, pockmarked face twisted in perplexity, tapping at a price gun with one narrow finger. It beeped at him with a simple, authoritative tone.

“Excuse me, sir,” she said, looking up at him. The difference in their heights was such that he held the price gun level with her head. He flinched at the sound.

“Huh?” he said, blinking. “Sorry ma’am, thought you were my boss for a second. Something I can help you with?”

“Please,” she said. “I am looking for tapioca powder.”

“Tapioca powder?” He ran a hand around the back of his neck, glanced at the floor.

“Please. It is for a dessert for my grandson, to cheer him up.”

He crouched to the very bottom shelf, eyes skimming the tags. “Looks like we’re all out,” the stockboy said.

“You are certain?”

“Well, maybe not.” He thrust a long arm deep into a hole in the wall of goods. He felt around, eyes squinting as though he were solving a complicated puzzle. “I thought this is where it should be,” he murmured into the empty space. Removing his arm, hand dusty but empty, he fished the tag out of its plastic slot in the shelf and showed it to her. “We never seem to have this stuff in stock.”

“Perhaps you could check your device,” she said, nodding at the price gun.

He tapped, it beeped, and he said, “Very weird. It says we should have a bunch left. This thing is screwy.”

“Perhaps,” she said, looking at the tag.

“What did you say you needed it for? Toast?”

“Toast?” She gave him a quizzical look.

“Yeah, the boss here, Mr. Goffman, he puts that stuff on toast, like, all the time.”

“I have never heard of such a thing.”

“Yeah, it smells gross. But he likes it, I guess.” The stockboy replaced the label in its slot. “Sorry we don’t have any, ma’am,” he said. “That stuff is hard to get.”

Her eyes flicked up to a camera, blankly staring from its perch above a rack of eggs. “Thank you for your help, young man,” she said. “Before I go, may I use your restroom?”

“Actually, the public washroom is out of service right now. Leaking pipes or something,” he added in a whisper.

“I see. I hate to trouble you, but I would not ask were it not urgent. When you get to be my age…” She trailed off and the stockboy’s face reddened.

“Uh, sure, ma’am. I’ll let you into the back. You can use the employee washroom.” He glanced quickly around him, but the other customers took no notice. “Just be quick, okay?”

“I will be as fast as I can be,” she said, and smiled.

He led her through the back aisle, and unlocked a red door marked “Employees Only.”

“Thank you again, young man. Mr. Goffman is lucky to have an employee such as you.”

The stockboy grinned and thanked her, and in a flash he was gone. Mrs. Ramachandran slipped through the red door and closed it soundlessly behind her. The back room was dark and cluttered with stacks of rough blue pallets and cardboard boxes. Uneven steel plates made up the floor, and the place smelled of old dairy. To her right was a closed plywood door with a plastic restroom sign, and just beyond that, a particle-board computer stand with a CRT monitor. On a hook hung an orange uniform shirt. A deep vibrato hum came from inside the gaping maw of a trash compactor.

A black iron staircase, wrought like a fire escape, lit by a flickering fluorescent that snapped and buzzed like a bug zapper claiming victims, went down into darkness. Two girls’ voices and the popping of bubblegum came up the stairs, growing more audible as they approached.

“I can’t believe he’s making you work a double.”

“So not fair.”

Mrs. Ramachandran crept over the creaking plates and grabbed the shirt from its hook. It was oily to the touch and smelled of rank produce but she draped it over her forearm, flattening its deepest wrinkles, and smiled as the girls came into view. They could have been sisters, with frizzy hair practically pulsing with static, reaching away from their skulls. They wore Cash-Save orange with sleeves rolled up to their shoulders. They saw her and their talk stopped. One blew a big, pale blue bubble, popped it.

“Hello girls, could you please point me to the changing rooms?”

They stared for the duration of another bubble blown and burst. The one without the gum said, “You’re new here?”

“Yes, dear,” Mrs. Ramachandran said, offering the soiled cloth on her forearm as proof. “I am Sita and it is pleasant to meet you both.”

“So not fair,” Bubblegum said. “Ron hires more people and I’ve still gotta work a double.”

Her sister rolled her eyes. “Downstairs,” she said. “Through the kitchen.” The girls started away, and she added over her shoulder, “Nice to meetcha.”

Mrs. Ramachandran took each step in turn, the rich drone of the metal stairs echoing in the small space below. Her left hip began to protest with its too-familiar grating squeak, but thoughts of poor Ajay drove her forward. She came into a hallway crammed with tagged lockers, bent and battered. To her left was a door, slightly ajar, marked “Manager,” and to her right, the hallway opened into the staff kitchen, cramped and furnished with third-hand folding chairs and a plastic patio table. She heard an angry, reedy voice berating someone who didn’t reply, but her eye was caught by a glimpse through the “Manager” door: on a card table next to the desk stood an ancient toaster oven, covered in petrified black bubbles, like a frozen, sooty froth. She pushed the heavy door open and stepped inside. The mounds of sediment gave off an acrid odour. The little office shuddered from the motor of a walk-in freezer above, and water stains crept down each wall from the low panelled ceiling. The floor steadily thrummed along with the stuffy air.

Beside the toaster oven stood a stack of plastic-wrapped cases, each bearing a dozen jars of Halnisam’s tapioca powder. The case on top was savagely torn, the plastic warped and wrung like scrap from a car crash, and a few jars were missing. Taupe powder was sprinkled all over the case, smeared by eager fingers, left to settle where it would on the floor.

Mrs. Ramachandran took a sealed jar from the case, dusted the powder from it, ignoring the sticky note that read, without the proper apostrophe, “RONS!” She noticed then the round camera above, an unblinking Cyclopean eye. She peered up into it and said, “My grandson, he is crying,” and headed back upstairs.

As she rounded the bend in the staircase, the voice from below called out, full of frustrated rage, “I said back to work, Louisa! Back to work!” A door banged. She kept climbing, reached the floor of the back room, when she heard, “Hey, who took one of my tapiocas? Louisa, hey! Hey!”

Mrs. Ramachandran hurried across the dim room, hip shrieking, and let herself into the employee restroom as a fuming Goffman rushed up the stairs two at a time, heavy shoes clunking. She clicked the door shut behind her, and drew a deep, quiet breath of fetid sewage. She kept the light off and stayed motionless, the thick stench cloying, groping at her skin, her clothes, her hair.

Goffman banged four times on the plywood door, filling the rancid room with noise, but Mrs. Ramachandran didn’t make a sound. She heard the red employee door slam behind him.

The old dairy smell came as welcome relief when Mrs. Ramachandran emerged from the restroom. She shut the door and fell back against it as her heart rate slowed and the spinning in her head settled down.

Somewhat more collected, she stepped out of the back room into the glare of the store, each orange shelf shining, each item begging for her attention. She moved with the flow of the crowd, until she found herself in a winding queue toward the checkouts. Each of the frizzy sisters was staffing a lane, chatting with customers, so she chose the one operated by a fat boy with glasses and dangling, spaced earlobes. He checked each item in a daze, without awareness of his actions.

Mrs. Ramachandran caught sight of Goffman behind her, puffing in his orange shirt, stalking through his clustered customers, looking into carts and baskets to spot the missing tapioca. To obscure his view she moved closer to the tall, elderly man in line ahead of her, who wore a boxy beige coat covered in pockets, shuffling with the line as Goffman came nearer. She counted out exact change into her palm while Boxy Coat paid for his oatmeal and soy milk. When he was gone, and Mrs. Ramachandran exposed, the cashier passed the tapioca over the scanner without a second look, and handed her a receipt. Goffman pushed past the people behind her, saw the jar in her hand. His face bloomed red and his eyes flew open, impossibly wide, fine webbed lines weaving through the milky whites. He stammered a few consonant sounds, chins quivering, as Mrs. Ramachandran turned to smile at him.

“Oh, Mr Goffman, yes? I would like to thank you for a wonderful shopping experience. Your staff is rather knowledgeable. I am sure you will be happy to hear that I am a very satisfied customer.”

Even the comatose cashier cracked a smile. Mrs. Ramachandran didn’t wait for a reply from the flustered Goffman, and walked through automatic doors into warm autumn sunshine.

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