First Job/Worst Job: Scenes From Grocery Store Hell

“Smile now, dear,” he whispers. The tuna fish-scented breath mixed with stale booze wafts into your ear as his scaly fingers pinch your cheeks into a smile

Another Awful Saturday, 4 PM

“Slackers to the front, all slackers to the front. Come on down, guys, and give these luscious ladies a hand. These groceries won’t pack themselves.”

Ha Ha. That’s the choking-up-a-hairball-voice of “Lounge Lizard” Les L’amant, Assistant Wrangler, grating like sandpaper over the P.A. system. The grocery boys – a collection of Fudgee-O cookie stuffed, lazy wombats – abandon the car magazines and sidle up to the giggly, nauseating girls working the registers alongside me in their two-sizes-too-small, squeeze-me-tight uniforms. The big oafs wink and grunt as they load up the customers’s groceries, trying to get the attention of our more nubile colleagues.

Saturdays are the worst: Standing for eight hours in cheap, hard, white shoes and a flimsy cashier uniform offering little protection from the frigid grocery store air and the roving eye of our sleazy, slimy supervisor, M. L’amant (“But call me Les” – wink!), up on a ladder, leering through binoculars at ‘his girls’ or pretending to adjust the Sale! Sale! Sale! signs overhead.

You all laugh and yell “Cereal Killer” when “Loser Les” Captain Crunches himself into the Fruit Loop display below. But at least you can chalk it up to clumsiness – the real mess is when he corners you in the break room with whispered invitations to his RV resort/trailer park or sneaks up behind you at cash to stick a wilted red rose into your hair. You sneak away from the mess and back to your till…

Oh no. It’s “Lumpty Dumpty,” AKA Bob Loblaw, Manager of USF – ‘Upton’s Savoury Foods,’ technically, or ‘Unethically Sourced Foods’ as you like to call it – creeping up from behind. His pasty grey complexion perfectly matches the hue of his sparse teeth and grubby dress shirt.

“Smile now, dear,” he whispers. The tuna fish-scented breath mixed with stale booze wafts into your ear as his ice-cold scaly fingers pinch your cheeks into a smile. Eeeww. He greets customers with a big, fake, “Hallo and welcome to USF,” as he stuffs runaway oranges, bloody, dripping meat packages, smushed, white Wonder bread, and a miscellany of other fake foods into single use plastic bags. “Don’t be a stranger,” he wheezes to the departing customer, rubbing against me as he leaves the cash area. You feel sick.

Saturday, 5:55 PM

“I’m off now – remember, keep smiling.” Bob’s spotted Rippin’ Rosie, Head Cashier – an old crow swooping down from her elevated office perch – and scurries away like a quaking mouse about to be snatched up in her talons.

Rose – now, there’s a misnomer if ever there was one. Unless you’re thinking ‘thorny.’

“Close off.” She growls at you from deep within her coke machine frame, her nicotine-stained rat-teeth protruding from her scowling, fuchsia lipstick smeared mouth.

Gratefully, you comply, slapping down the plastic “Cash Closed” sign on the filthy conveyer belt that hasn’t stopped moving since 9 AM. Your shaking hands collect your final customer’s pennies – “Thanks for takin’ them off my hands, dude” – before they fall into the metal monster, and then shift back to packing this broken hipster’s order.

“Double bag that milk you simpering soup sack,” Rose hisses into your ear. Her black eyes flash red alert anger behind the cobalt-blue eyeshadow highlighting her crow’s feet. Your face flames and your mouth dries. Just in time you remember to thank them for shopping at USF.

“Move.” Rose shoves you away from the cash and pounds repeatedly on the Total button. Each assault produces reams of paper with mysterious numbers that will offer conclusive proof of your lousy cashier skills.

You wait outside the office while Rose returns to another terrified cashier within. You count change. Next the coin rolls. Then the bills – largest to smallest, heads all facing the same way as Rose likes them.

“You done yet, crap-fer-brains?” Rose’s voice booms from the fluorescent-green lit room as the new girl escapes, a mess of gushing tears and streaky mascara. “Well? Get in here. I don’t got all day!”

You advance cautiously, sweating profusely.

“Put it down.” Rose flips through your cash and starts hitting numbers on the old adding machine with inhuman swiftness. Your heart pounds and your stomach tightens. The ancient machine spews its final damning total.

“Six dollars short,” Rose growls. She balls up the slips and throws them in your face. “Get out there and find it.” Her eyes scrunch up. “Or are you stealing from us? Huh?”

You scurry out, desperately wracking your brain, trying to figure out where the money went.

Back at your darkened cash station you scratch around the dusty paper bags under the counter, but all you find is your half-eaten Mars bar lunch.

Great, here’s Les – eager to help and offering to buy you a drink after work. Does he honestly forget you’re 16 and just another helpless victim of a long Saturday in a store full of losers and dimwits? You wonder if it’s too late to take the job at ‘Bird, Barf and Beyond’. How much worse could it be?

Author’s Pick

All the Rage (book by Brad Fraser), The Heart’s Invisible Furies (book by John Boyne), Fingersmith (book by Sarah Waters)

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S.M. Purcell
S.M. Purcell

Sherel writes travel pieces for USA Today and others. She has just started publishing short, mostly autobiographical pieces and photography in literary magazines.

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