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Time is money. Ruth-Ann Bitterman preached it because Ruth-Ann Bitterman believed it. As she hustled through the grocery store, her system was working. Kim was going to be sorry she ever criticized it.
The grocery list had been created with a skillful knowledge of the location of every item in the store. It began with dairy, in the back right of the store, then moved to dry goods in the next aisle over. As she worked her way back among the aisles, she would obtain everything she needed by the time she got to the cash registers, without a single step taken to retread over ground she’d already covered.
That was nothing but raw efficiency. Ruth-Ann's wife had smirked and rolled her eyes when Ruth-Ann had mapped out a schematic of the grocery store based on a website's description. But that ten minutes of research had saved her at least fifteen minutes of aimless grocery store wandering, which was a net time savings of five minutes. Five minutes she could use to do whatever she wanted.
“Who’s smirking now, Kim?” Ruth-Ann said to no one in particular. A bearded man standing in front of the soups raised an eyebrow at her. But Ruth-Ann didn’t have time to be embarrassed, so she shrugged and continued on down the aisle. She grabbed three cans of chicken and dumpling, then made her way toward the cashier line at the front of the store.
The first hiccup she found was that the self-checkout lanes appeared to be non-functional. None of the numbered signs above them were lit up. All six of them, dark and unused. Two men in vests were standing around, pointing at one of the self-checkout machines, frowning.
Ruth-Ann had planned on using the self-checkout, so this would certainly cost some time.
The second hiccup was that she had eighteen items, more than the fifteen allowed in the express checkout lane. She studied the forty-something white woman currently stationed as a cashier in the express line, and weighed her options. Maybe she could get away with the eighteen items. But, if she tried and they called her out on it, that would be more time lost. Sent to the back of the line as a cheater.
This left her with four non-express checkout lanes. Two of them she could rule out immediately, because one had a line five deep, and the other had only a cashier and no bagger. Lack of bagger meant the cashier would have to bag the groceries, which was another large time cost.
Two lanes left. One was four customers deep, the other, only two customers. No contest. The choice was made.
Ruth-Ann slid into the checkout line behind two other people, and she made a quick inventory of the items in their carts. Seemed reasonable. About thirty items in each. She expected a total of two minutes per customer. Of course, if either one of them pulled out a fat stack of coupons, that would wreck the timetable.
It was a gamble, but one Ruth-Ann had to take. She checked her watch.
The first customer made it through the line in two minutes and ten seconds. Paid with a credit card, one of the old non-chip ones. That saved at least ten seconds right there. The chip cards were such a stupid waste of time, having to stick them in the machine and wait forever for it to read the thing. What was so bad about swiping the card? Quick and painless. Efficient.
Now that Ruth-Ann was only one person away from her turn in line, she studied the cashier and grocery bagger. Both of them male, white, and in their mid-twenties.Both with brown hair. That was good. Blond men were more likely to cause delays. More likely to want to chit chat. If she didn't get out of here without salvaging at least some of that five minutes, she'd hear it from Kim, for sure.
As the shopper in front of Ruth-Ann held out her Super Savers loyalty card for the cashier to scan, she smiled and said, “how about this weather?”
The cashier opened his mouth to respond, but Ruth-Ann gave a harsh clearing of the throat and glared.
The cashier stopped and observed her, as did the bagger and the shopper. At first, all of them gave her puzzled expressions, until Ruth-Ann held up her watch. They all averted their eyes. The woman paid for her groceries as the bagger swept them into plastic bags for her. Quick, simple, timely.
This bagger was skilled. Heavy items on the bottom, dairy and produce in separate bags. Good. Ruth-Ann didn’t have time to have to instruct the bagger on how to do his job. Only seventy seconds left to beat the five-minute time frame.
The woman collected her bags and wheeled her cart away. Finally, it was Ruth-Ann’s turn. She was ready with her credit card in one hand, her loyalty card in the other. She set them both down on the credit card signing pad in front of her. Pointed at the loyalty card, and the young cashier held the scanning gun out to read the number.
“How are you today, ma’am?”
“Fine, thank you.” A quick check of her watch said she only had forty-five seconds until the five minutes of time savings would be gone forever.
She shot her eyes at the bagger. “I need these items in paper, please. No plastic bags.”
"Can do," said the bagger, with a grin that threatened to overtake his face. Upon closer inspection, he was younger than mid-twenties. Barely out of High School, looked like. His sandy-brown hair hung down in his eyes, which were a striking green. The kind of green that would have revved her engines when she was younger and more confused.
Ruth-Ann eyed her watch. Thirty seconds. The cashier still had six items left to scan. She might not make it. Her mouth dried up like an old creek bed.
The bagger slid her gallon of almond milk into the bag, a little too forcefully. As he withdrew his hand, she heard a scritch sound, and her heart stopped.
He’d torn the bottom of the bag. A spiky ring on his finger had caught, slicing through the paper.
“Oh, crap,” he said. “My bad. Let me get you a new bag.”
“Not necessary,” she said. “This bag will do just fine.”
The bagger and the cashier shared a look. Both of them seemed frozen in time, unsure what to do or say. The bagger stammered, thumping a foot on the floor.
“What’s the problem?” she said.
“Ma’am,” the bagger said, “I’m, like, not supposed to send you out of the store with a torn bag. It’s against policy.”
She glanced at her watch. "I don't really care about your store policy because I'm in quite a hurry. This torn bag will do fine. Let's move along, please, we're almost done here."
“But if it tears on the way out, you could spill the milk.”
Ruth-Ann gritted her teeth. “I don’t care about the milk, young man, just keep putting the groceries in the goddamn bag. I said I’m in a hurry.”
The cashier turned his head and whispered something into a walkie talkie. When he turned back, he was wearing a guilty grin.
“What was that?” she said. “Who were you talking to?”
As if he’d materialized out of thin air, a pudgy and bald man with a tie appeared to their left. Hesitant smile on his face. With his hands on his hips, the tie cascaded over his belly, the end of it hanging in space. “Hello, there, ma’am. I’m Todd. How are you today?”
She squinted at his name badge, which indicated he was an Assistant Manager. “Well, Todd, I’m in a hurry. This pothead here tore my grocery bag and insists on giving me a new one, which I am not interested in.”
“Pothead?” the bagger said. “I’ve been clean and sober for, like, three whole weeks.”
Todd, while nodding at Ruth-Ann, took a step toward the bagger, blocking him off from her. Todd formed a protective barrier, and Ruth-Ann scowled at the way these three now seemed to be colluding against her.
“Okay,” she said, “let’s be reasonable. These kids won’t let me leave because it’s a store crime or something to have a torn bag, and I could not care less. In ten more seconds, I will have lost the five minutes of time savings I gained by mapping out the store. While I appreciate that it’s not important to you, I just know Kim is going to rub it in my face, and I don’t mean that in a good way.”
The three men all cocked their heads a little, baffled.
Ruth-Ann smacked the credit card machine. “Give me my damn groceries, now!”
The cashier cringed. The bagger folded his arms across his chest and ducked his head. Todd put his hands out in front of the bagger and the cashier as if he were trying to prevent them from flying through the windshield in a car crash.
“There’s no need for that sort of language,” Todd said.
“I think this is exactly the right situation for such language,” she said. “Give me my groceries now and let me get the fuck out of here.”
From somewhere above their heads came the blaring chirp of an alarm, only for a split second. A red light above the checkout stand began to flash.
A large door next to the produce section opened, and six men in black army fatigues rolled out, each of them carrying assault rifles across their chests. Like a single organism, their boots thumped across the shiny floor, toward the checkout line.
“What is this?” Ruth-Ann said.
Todd gulped and shook his head. “You shouldn’t have done that. Oh, ma’am, you really shouldn’t have done that.”
The cashier dropped to his knees, put his hands over his head, and ducked underneath the cashier stand. He snatched a plastic bag and held it in front of his face.
Ruth-Ann stared in disbelief as the armed men jogged toward them, assault rifles clattering against the handcuffs on their belts.
The bagger looked left, right, and then tried to make a break for it. He dashed to his left, but Todd grabbed his arm. “No, son. I’m sorry, but you need to be here for this.”
The armed men came to a halt in front of the checkout stand. Five of them fell into a uniform line, while one stepped out in front of the others.
“Todd,” said the man with aviator sunglasses and a blond buzz cut, gray framing the hair just above his ear. “It is Todd, isn’t it?”
Todd wiped some sweat from his brow. “Yes, Admiral.”
The Admiral removed his sunglasses, a shark smile revealing bright white teeth. “Todd, what seems to be the trouble here?”
Todd hitched a thumb back toward Ruth-Ann. “No trouble, sir, we’re just sorting out a bagging situation. Everything is under control, though. I can assure you, I’ve got it all worked out, and there is absolutely no need for any military intervention in this instance.”
The Admiral checked the faces of everyone around, then addressed Ruth-Ann. “That true, ma’am?”
“I just want to get my groceries and go,” she said. “I’m late. I’ve already missed my five-minute window.”
The Admiral nodded. “I understand, ma’am, and I’m very sorry for your trouble. Is there a torn bag here? I believe I saw a bag being torn when some milk was placed in it. It’s hard to know for sure on those surveillance monitors, though. The resolution isn’t great.”
The grocery bagger's knees buckled, and Todd helped him stay on his feet.
Ruth-Ann nodded. “Yeah, this pothead tore my bag. He was trying to get me a new one, but I really don’t care. I just want to go.”
“I do understand, ma’am, and again, I apologize for the trouble.”
The Admiral sniffed, cocked his head to one side, then drew his sidearm and shot the grocery bagger in the chest. The close range of the bullet blast made Ruth-Ann’s ears ring.
All around the grocery store, people screamed and cried and ran for the front door.
The grocery bagger collapsed in Todd’s arms, gulping for air. His eyes darted left and right. Mouth moving wordlessly.
In a few seconds, the bagger’s breathing slowed, then stopped. Blood seeped out of the hole in his shirt. A red circle quickly spread from the center out, marking most of the front of his shirt.
Todd, tears streaming down his cheeks, passed a hand over the bagger’s face to close his eyes.
“Excuse me, Todd?” The Admiral said, anger on his face. “Can we get this woman a new bag or not?”
“Certainly, Admiral,” Todd said as he jumped to his feet. With a snotty nose and tears dampening the collar of his shirt, Todd snatched a new bag to transfer the groceries. He was shaking so much, it took him four tries to unfold the bag.
The Admiral stepped over the bagger’s corpse and cleared his throat before he addressed Ruth-Ann. “Ma’am, I sincerely would like to thank you for your patronage today. I know that, since the war, things have been a little topsy-turvy in this part of the country. But, I hope you know, regardless of the current political climate, you can always count on Super Savers for all your grocery needs.”
She pursed her lips and said nothing. The tension of the close proximity to the gun blast had left her shoulders in knots. Eventually, she nodded.
Todd kept his crying to a minimum as he moved the bags from the checkout stand into a grocery cart. Without meeting her eyes, he wheeled the cart over to her, then he stepped back and away, hunched over, wringing his hands together.
The Admiral beamed. “We hope you have a good day, ma’am.”
Ruth-Ann took hold of the cart and checked her watch. Only three minutes behind schedule. That wasn’t so bad, really. She could probably make it up on the car ride home.