Barcode by a l e x f r a n c o i s H
er black Gucci pumps glide across the vinyl floor which is white and ingrained with the fallout of past commerce. She wears red lipstick like the dame in an old detective movie, the kind so red it pierces the TV screen even in monochrome and is only parted by the occasional exhalation of cigarette smoke. Her lips are unable to caress a cigarette here as the store enforces a strict no smoking policy, but I would make an exception for her. She flutters around the checkout counters as if treading water. This is the part they struggle with, the refusal to accept that their Wal-Mart experience must come to an end. She surveys the checkouts. The elderly woman at my register is intent on finding a 20 cent milk coupon and has been searching for the last 30 seconds. If I can dispose of her before Jason’s lane is free I know she’ll come straight to me. There’s no threat from Janice, a large family with two carts looming over her conveyor belt. One of the kids sneaks a candy bar into the cart whilst her mother is attempting to silence a crying newborn. The old woman has been talking to me, I think I laughed. Claris shops here daily, only buys enough to carry her through the night. The store is central to her routine, her sanity. She talks a lot. Cousins in Wisconsin, her nephew the research scientist, how kids are too loud, her blind cat, and how she used to know Barbara Stanwyck. She finally leaves, talking to no one as she exits through the sliding doors. A gust of wind finds an opportunity as they open, for a moment I catch the scent of pine, but it is quickly assimilated into the warm air of the heating system. Six. The number is suspended above my head at full mast. She glows under the fluorescent lights as she approaches the counter and begins to unload her basket. “Hello ma’am, how are you this afternoon?” This is the thirty-eighth time I’ve used this phrase today. She smiles and says nothing, the white light painting her skin almost translucent. I lure the conveyor belt towards me, ensnaring a carton of milk in the lights of the scanner. Half and half, fat-free. She doesn’t need to lose weight, I wish I could tell her. Maybe I could forget to bag it, then run after her in the parking lot. You forgot your half and half. I noticed it’s fat-free, I just want you to know that you’re not fat. In fact you’re perfect. I can change it to full-fat if you want. I have that power. She would probably reject the offer, she’s far too modest. She’d smile and that slender vein would fill her cheeks with a crimson blush. Her manicured hand would reach for the carton, making contact with mine as it passes hands. My hair stands on end. Would you like to… this is stupid, she wouldn’t look twice at a guy like me, and yet… one of the children drops a pickle jar at Janice’s register. It shatters into large shards, held together by the label. Would you like to go for a drink some time? Linguine, 16 ounce. We’d go out somewhere classy, like Lombardi’s on Main St. She’d order the Linguine alle Vongole, extra parmesan. Ragu pasta sauce, 10 ounce. I’d order the Cotechino in Potato and Parmigiano Crust, the same dish cooked by Iron Chef champion Mario Batali in his 2007 battle with Andrew Carmellini. Mineral Water, liter. No wine as I’m driving her home. The night was perfect, she’d let me know this as we’re parked outside her apartment. Fair-trade Ground Roast. Yes, I’d love to come up for coffee, sex. A rush of excitement runs through my body, hidden by the waist-high counter. I swipe a bag of cotton swabs past the scanner several times before keying in the barcode, making the red L.E.D. read 99 cents. Heavy items first, always first.
Wonder Light, 16 ounce. She’d bring me breakfast in bed, or at least what constitutes breakfast for her. She makes no claim to being a great cook. Smucker’s Goober’s Peanut Butter & Jelly, 18 ounce. The bread is thick and tasteless; a sweet mass clings to the roof of my mouth like napalm. She hands me a cup of coffee to wash it down and sits on the edge of the bed, her slim frame barely disturbing the mattress. The newborn in Janice’s lane resumes its protest; the anger in its voice can be heard through its wailing, anger at being ejected into this world against its will. Her eyes gesture towards me and then the baby, I smile. You don’t have to be crazy to work here but it helps. There would be no suggestion of dating, it would just happen. The kind of mutual appreciation two people share for an event or a landscape that needs no vocalization. Like a visit to the Grand Canyon without a fucking tour guide pointing out how breathtaking it is, or how many football stadiums it could fit inside. She’d stare at me for hours whilst we lay in bed. My hand pulses as her body is pressed against my forearm, my heart struggling to pump blood past her delicate neck. Heinz Ketchup, 14 ounce. Her parents live in one of the large houses on Lynchfield Avenue. I gaze through the car window at the ’02 Dodge Ram that sits in the driveway. She turns to me. ‘Are you feeling nervous?’ she places her hand over mine. ‘Nervous? No of course not, why would I be nervous?’ I have no reason to be nervous; her parents are going to love me. They’ll tell her not to let this one get away, they’ll compare me to the long line of jocks she’s been dating since high school and comment on how it’s about time she found a decent man. Her mother was raised a housewife and performs her occupation to perfection. The placemats are set around the table in an identical fashion, the floral pattern framing the bloody steak and heap of mashed potatoes that sit on my plate. Betty Crocker, 6.1 ounce. Her father served a tour in Vietnam and he’s impressed with the knowledge Discovery History has bestowed upon me. He asks if I’ve ever been hunting before. I respond honestly but express how I’ve always wanted to, causing his eyes to light up with the excitement of a child at Christmas. ‘Now you’ve got him started!’ Her mother exclaims, pouring steaming coffee from a silver cafetiere. He leads me to the garage, leaving the women to converse in the lounge. The room smells of labor, this is a man’s sanctuary. The fluorescent lights flicker on, revealing a huge mass of steel piping and aluminum panels. It’s a top drive hunting rig. I’ve seen these things in magazines before but not in person. I’m aware of how they function but I let him explain regardless. He passionately details every inch of the contraption, how he had it custom made and shipped from a specialist in Three Rivers, Texas. It fixes to the roof of the truck, adding a self-contained open-air top deck. The gear shift, steering and brakes are all attached to their respective counterparts so the truck can be operated from inside the rig. It’s a triumph of American engineering and even contains a beer cooler; after his daughter it’s his most treasured possession. Next Saturday? Yes, I’d love to go hunting. Beef Cold Cuts. The rig is great, like hunting from your own living room. He even brings a portable TV which sits atop the cooler. We could easily pick off deer from here but he insists we go on foot to give me a taste for the hunt. The rifle shakes as my hands tremble with excitement and my nostrils sting from the sharpness of the air. I walk slowly, turning dead leaves into dust
under the combat boots her father has loaned me. His face is a picture of concentration, as if he’s back sweeping the jungles for VCs. I stalk towards the animal which stands elegantly, framed by the divine beams of light that pierce the woodland canopy. “Okay, here’s good. Steady, keep steady. Aim for the shoulder or the neck. Nice and steady. Okay, go for it.” The buck is dead in my sights as I squeeze the trigger so hard it hurts. The gun kicks like a mule and the muzzle flash sends me deaf and blind for a second. I didn’t see the round enter but the animal silently drops and lies motionless on the ground. I experience an unfamiliar high a thousand times better than sex. I feel I should be running over to the carcass and sinking my teeth into the flesh, feeling the warm blood run down my throat. Her father walks over to confirm the kill whilst I kneel frozen in my sniper’s posture. He smiles, thumbs up. Duracell Ultra, 4 pack. A man forms a queue at my checkout, his flustered face a red beacon distorting my attention away from the vision of perfection he stands behind. “There’s a free checkout further down sir.” The fat fuck sighs and waddles off like an emperor penguin cradling a six pack, Miller. We stay in for our first anniversary; she loves it when I cook. I found a recipe online for salmon parcels. She lies on the couch watching adverts as the potatoes gently sauté. Because you’re worth it. Only two places in town sell the bok choy needed for the parcels, Franklins of 4th and the Chinese supermarket on Warren Street. “You don’t need to make anything fancy, don’t be silly, I don’t want you to spend any money on me.” She knows I will and she wants me to. She tells me she’ll wear them forever, Tiffany jade earrings that hang from her ears like teardrops. We watch The Notebook, she cries, I think of the buck dead in my sights and the warm blood. I hold her in my arms. Maybelline Makeup Remover, Oil-Free. I awake to the soft hiss of steam rising from the iron. I admire the way she moves around the apartment in the mornings. She treads like a ballerina, making every effort not to wake me with her swift movements that are so light the air surrounding her barely parts. She brings in my work uniform and gives a gentle smile to ease me into the day. Today will be the day I ask her to marry me and she will accept. My hunting excursions would continue once every two weeks in season, my grip growing firmer and my accuracy deadlier with every session. Her father’s various friends would also attend, men of high standing in society all remarking at the speed at which I was improving, becoming a master huntsman. By the fall I would have 16 bucks under my belt. “Are you ready for the big game?” he asked as we were driving back one night. “Elk?” My reply caused him to erupt with laughter. “Grizzly,” he answered. The state has strict laws against hunting bears, the key being that it is prohibited, but I didn’t raise this point as he was completely aware of this. One of his hunting group was a senator. We were above the law. Coca Cola, two liter. Double-bag it. A man begins to survey the checkouts. He’s young and handsome, cradling his items with one arm, no need for a basket. I’m panicking, desperately looking for an empty checkout to direct him towards but it’s too late. He forms a queue behind my love, rubs his chiseled jaw with his free hand and glances down