[I originally posted this on December 4, 2009, on my now-defunct LiveJournal. This version is slightly revised. --G.]
It's a late-fall afternoon at a supermarket in rural Maine. A man arrives at the express checkout carrying a three-gallon container of spring water and two packages of shredded cheese. There's a couple ahead of him in line; the woman is checking out while the man stands next to her looking bored. She's buying eight of those prepaid American Express gift card things and has a fistful of cash, apparently just withdrawn from a bank, with which to pay for them.
The cashier must scan each of the Amex cards across the UPC laser, then consult the back of each one and punch a long code into the register, then another. She is a skilled numeric typist and makes few mistakes, which is fortunate, since any error produces a loud noise and requires that card to be re-scanned, after which the code entry must be started over. When she's finished with this, she turns to the customer and tells her the total price. This does not agree with the sum of the face values of the Amex cards. The customer points this out and is told that, well, yes, there's an activation fee (something on the order of $4) for each one. This presents the customer with a problem, since her calculations did not take this possibility into account, and the money she holds in her hand accounts only for the face values of the cards.
"I don't have another $32," she says.
"That's a problem," the cashier replies, and then explains that once the cards have been scanned, they can't be canceled from the transaction. The only way forward at that point is for someone to pay for them.
The woman turns to her companion and asks him if he has any money. He complains loudly and at some length about how the money he is carrying, which is sufficient to her needs, is earmarked for another purpose, and that it must say on the backs of the cards that they have this activation fee, and that if she'd just plan ahead and pay attention to things for once in her life they wouldn't be having this problem. She replies that yes, he may have a point, but this is perhaps not quite the moment to investigate the root causes of the crisis. He relents and—slowly, grudgingly, counting out each individual bill—forks over the required amount. The transaction is completed.
At this point, having been fed the cash it was demanding, the register responds by printing a small receipt. And another. And another. And another. The cashier notices this happening and recalls that oh, yes, each one of these cards, now activated, has a unique activation identifier, each of which is being printed on a separate receipt. The receipts must be paired with the cards to which their code numbers refer in order for the cards to be spent later on. The customer requests clarification. Does this mean that each card must have a receipt with it when given as a gift, or must each one have a particular receipt along with it? The latter, says the cashier. If each unique receipt is not paired with its particular card, chaos and disappointment and bitter recrimination will ensue when the lucky recipients attempt to spend their holiday hemidemisemi-credit.
The puzzle-solving phase of the evening has thus begun, as the cards—not arranged in any particular order on the after-scanner conveyor belt—must be carefully scrutinized and paired with their correct receipts.
"Would you like some gift envelopes to put these in, so that you can keep them all together?" asks the cashier.
"Will that take longer?" asks the customer. (She doesn't really. I made this line of dialogue and the following two up. The events really happened, though.)
"Yes it will," says the cashier, noting that each card must be found, paired with its receipt, and the two coaxed into an envelope barely larger than the card's pegboard hanger backing; this procedure, iterated eight times, will doubtless occupy several more minutes.
"Then let's do that," says the customer, and the cashier reaches underneath her counter, rummages around, and comes up with a plastic bag full of gift card envelopes. The express checkout now begins to resemble the envelope-stuffing table at a political action committee rally.
By now, the man with the water and cheese has passed well beyond irritation and into a sort of Zenlike state, in which it no longer matters that his cheese has nearly reached room temperature and that he can no longer feel the arm with which he is holding the water (three gallons of which, you will remember from physics class, weighs roughly 25 pounds circa 68° F). Not one but several people have arrived behind him, given up, moved on to other registers, checked out, and left the store with their purchases in the time he's been waiting, but he feels strangely compelled to see the matter out at this point. During the envelope-stuffing, the customer notices him, realizes he's been waiting this whole time, and gives him a slightly wan smile and a mumbled, "Sorry about this."
"Nothin' to be sorry for," says the cashier calmly, matching another receipt to its card.
When, some time later, he is finally able to leave the store, the man with the water and cheese sees two women standing next to the open hood of the car parked next to his. "Do you have jumper cables?" one of them asks him.
As it happens, he does own jumper cables; but, alas, they are in his own car, which is not the one he came to the store in. His car is at home, because it's raining and his car, a convertible, has developed the annoying habit of leaking in the rain—but only when driven; left standing in the driveway, it maintains a dry cabin quite handily. Only when the car is moving does water drip—nay, rain—in some cases pour—from the joints and latches on the inner frame of the roof. This is better than it could be, but still annoying, and so he has brought his mother's car to the store today, and his mother does not have jumper cables.
"Well, do you have a cell phone?" the other woman asks, seeming faintly exasperated that he hasn't got jumper cables. (In the back of his mind, he entertains the notion that she doesn't believe him, because he almost said he did before remembering that he didn't have his own car, thus giving his "Sorry, I'm afraid I don't" an unintentional ring of insincerity.) Still, here's his chance to redeem himself. Surely he has a cell phone. He reaches into his jacket and finds the pocket of his T-shirt empty. He has left his cell phone sitting on the kitchen table at home. Now that he's reached for it he can see it there, sitting on top of the book he brought out of his bedroom with him this morning, next to the bottle of orange-flavored fiber supplement tablets.
"I'm sorry," he says. "It seems I've left it at home. I guess I'm destined to be completely useless today." He remembers something that might be helpful. "Oh! They have a pay phone inside the store, though. I could give you a quarter." The woman looks at him scornfully; apparently she thinks he's patronizing her. She and her companion turn away and walk off across the lot to ask someone else for help.
Sighing, the man with the water and cheese trudges over to his mother's car, opens the hatchback, and stows his purchases. As he is closing the hatch, an elderly lady appears out of nowhere and asks, "Do you like your car?"
Unsure how to take this, he hesitates for a moment, then said, "Er, well it isn't really mine, it's my mother's. But yes, I like it a lot."
"I bet it gets good gas mileage," the elderly lady speculates.
The man tries to remember what sort of mileage the Mini gets, but he can't, because—how unfashionable is this?—he really doesn't give a damn about such things, and the car doesn't have one of those computers that gives a damn for you, like his own car does. Still, he's reasonably sure it does, so he's about to make some noncommittal but generally positive reply when he remembers an important detail the elderly lady might like to know if she's in the market for a Mini of her own: "You do have to put the expensive gas in it. But it doesn't burn it very fast, so it sort of evens out."
"Hmph, I might've known," says the elderly lady disdainfully. "These Japanese cars are all like that."
The man's inner pedant pipes up that the lady should really be disabused of this absurd notion—the Mini is built in the United Kingdom by a subsidiary of a German car company, and the engine is French; no part of it, as far as he is aware, has any antecedents on the Pacific Rim at all—but he sternly advises it that it's already caused him quite enough trouble today and if it doesn't shut up at once he will go straight home and drink two Newcastle Brown Ales instead of the one he's already planning to have. Instead, perhaps inspired by the Mini's French engine, he produces a Gallic shrug of resignation—Zut alors, Madame, what can one do?—and takes his leave.
On the way home he is informed that the local McDonald's no longer carries sweet iced tea. It is, the drive-thru operator informs him with vague asperity, a summer item. But they have just begun serving their festive seasonal egg nog flavored milkshakes if he's interested.
He isn't. He goes home and has a beer.
Benjamin D. Hutchins, Co-Founder, Editor-in-Chief, & Forum Mod
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