I went in through the loading dock. Asshole was coming towards me from the walk-in. I punched my time card and put it back in the slot, feeling him rush past as I headed into the office.
I sat at his desk and counted the money in my cash drawer. When he came in I kept my eyes on him without blinking since I know he doesn’t like that.
“You’re late again, Max.”
“Yeah, I’ll be on time tomorrow.”
“You know you ‘re fucking up around here.”
“No I’m not, man. I was just a little late, that’s all.”
“WeIl…” He cleared his throat. I’m gonna have to write you up.”
I took the cash drawer out front to register two. Miller was on register four.
“Okay, this one’s easy,” he said, dropping right back into last night’s talk at the bar, waving a finger at me, crooning, “Like a summer with a thousand Julys…”
“Um. Miles Davis — ‘Bitches Brew?’ ”
He shook his head.
“Billie Holiday. Also Marlene Dietrich.”"
“Ah, fuck it, I’m still back in the punk rock days.” I nodded toward the back of the store and said, “He’s pullin’ my chain again.” Miller made a snorting noise: “Well, fuck him. It’s Sunday.” Miller smiled and made a goofy face and disappeared down one of the aisles.
This place used to be an A&P. Now it’s a natural foods market, an expensive place with a produce section, bulk goods and vitamins, a deli and a bottle shop. The big windows give a view of the parking lot out front. The store stereo is tuned to a modern rock station, music to shop and sleepwalk by. Miller had come in at nine. Leslie and Susan would be in at eleven. Asshole would probably take off in another half-hour or forty-five minutes. Then we could relax. With the arrival of the rebel women the potlatch would begin.
Sunday is Employee Theft Marathon Day. The loyal dogs don’t have to work today. After the store opens the owner is gone till Monday morning, so the four of us make off with as much money, food and alcohol as we can rationally expect to get away with. We tap the till a little on every shift, but on Sundays we pull out all the stops. It’s a game, a friendly competition to see who can grab the most without the losses becoming obvious — intelligent planning, that’s the key. Miller usually wins. He’s far more industrious than the rest of us. Last night at the bar he showed me his shift under-rings; a thick wad of bills rolled up with rubber bands. A lot of his swag is plastic. Miller has this gift for sleight of hand, and he likes to shave a little off those high-end gold and platinum credit cards.
He is a fiend. I can’t keep up with him — he’s a regular work ethic motherfucker! But when I try to move like him I more than double my cash income, and that doesn’t include the to-go items: the microbrews and Belgian ales, organic juices, gourmet cheeses, deli items, fresh pasta, and crystal vitamin C. I love that $22 a pound Nova Scotia Lox, and the elegant way it melts in your mouth, and I’ve cultivated a discriminating taste for high-end velvety Merlots and Alexander Valley Cabernets, wines that with the first sip create a galaxy of bouquets on my palate. I’m so spoiled that I just can’t go near the cheap stuff anymore. There are certain vintages and wineries that I favor, and might even recommend — but I’m not into making commercial endorsements. We’re not stingy about sharing the wealth, either, I mean, I’ve tried to spread it around, but these Volvo-owners just don’t want to play along. Just yesterday some old man got all indignant when I tried to undercharge his ass, snarling at me through his tiny sharp white teeth. I don’t like the people in this neighborhood, anyway, so fuck them.
The first of the day’s shoppers came in: a man in Italian clothes and a clinging female with a haircut that made her look like Woody Woodpecker. I watched them, blurry images in the anti-shoplifting mirror lining the upper back wall, the man’s voice indistinct, the woman laughing, a fatuous “Ha!-ha-ha!” booming down the aisle; the sound of rental property owner who goes to Paris or Milan every summer to buy new shoes. They came to my register with one item, a Pinot Grigio. I gently tilted the bottle by its neck, keyed in $15.99 on the register and asked, “What’s this like?”
He pulled a crisp twenty dollar bill out of his wallet and purred, “Gorgeous.”
I hit the ‘Clear’ key, re-keyed in $1.99 and hit the ‘Sale’ key, the register opened. I added the tax in my head, made change quickly and bagged the wine, knowing he wouldn’t ask for the receipt with her on his arm. He smiled at me and they took off.
That twenty in the register was mine. After under-ringing the difference with another sale or two the bill would leap into my pocket. Then Asshole appeared at my register, frowning.
“Let me back in there.”
I stepped aside. He hit the ‘No Sale’ key on the register and the cash drawer opened, bumping to a stop against his gut. The incriminating twenty fluttered, like it was waving to him. When he counted the cash in the till and compared it to the register tape I’d be nailed. looked around. Miller was gone, off in the back somewhere. I was glad for that at least. I didn’t want him to have to see my downfall.
In the old days it would have been Ultravox or Gang of Four, but now I thought of a line from a blues-song:
“All the doctors in Wisconsin sure can’t help her none…”
I puzzled over who wrote that, getting really stuck on it for a second and got a feeling like a headache at the back of my neck. I remembered a bandit in this Russian story; in the hands of the law the valiant thief proclaimed his innocence until his death at the end of a rope. It all ran through my head in a second or two; no more downing with the gang. I’d miss the busy Christmas season, when friends and neighbours show up for. big bargains; prices for certain special customers will be reduced to absolutely nothing. The angry burning sensation lifted. More than the loot I’d miss this little community of theft that I’d formed with my co-workers. I was mad about it, but I also felt a strange clarity and freedom at that moment. I’d had a blast robbing this place, and, waxing philosophical under stress, I told myself a bad conscience is my enemies’ weapon, and guilt is for the weak.
He just stood there, staring at the bills in the drawer. Then he opened the plastic door above the register tape, took the spool out and slowly unrolled the tape, comparing it to a piece of tape from the previous nights’ shift.
“You were on this register last night, right?”
“What’s with all the double zeros?”
“I don’t understand.”
“You’re opening the register without making sales.”
“Yeah, so? People want change for the paper –”
“I don’t buy that. There’s some kind of devious bullshit going on here. You’ve been hitting the ‘No Sale’ key when you should be ringing up sales and taking money out.”
“No way. That’s for people who want change for the ‘Times’ or the bus. People come in here and they ask for change, that’s all that is. Man, that’s the truth.”
I looked away from Asshole, and that old guy with the teeth from yesterday was standing there, gaping at me. He’d heard what I’d just said, and we stared at each other for one long cold painful moment.
Asshole looked at me like I was on trial, then at the old guy, then at me, and he called out with a new warm music in his voice, “Miller, Mister Bergen would appreciate some assistance –” Miller appeared and led the old man away down the bath-and-body aisle.
Asshole spooled out the tape until it reached the floor, looking it over, then spooling it up and unspooling it and looking at it again. But he still didn’t get it. Those double zeros were places where I’d made change for people, like I said. I’ve always rung up a minimal purchase when I’ve opened the register to pocket cash. I’ve subtracted the minimal purchase from my take. Doing these equations in my head has helped me survive the reign of boredom in the store. It’s added excitement and happiness to my workday — until now. I kept my eyes on him, away from my twenty in the drawer.
“Okay, you’re not supposed to be making change for the newspaper boxes.”
“Yeah, but the racks are right out front –”
“Bullshit. I don’t make dick out of them. That shit’ s not mine, and I don’t make change for them and you don’t make change for them and I don’t want to see you opening this register unless you’re making a sale”
“When I don’t give them change they get pissed off at me, they get pissed off at you, and they get pissed off at the store, they leave and they don’t come back.”
He shut the register drawer and handed me the spool of tape. Quietly he said, “You can make change for a paying customer, but not for anybody else. I don’t want you or anybody else opening a register in this store without a sale being made, or a pay-out.”
“All right. I understand. I got you.”
“Good. Have a nice day.”
And he forgot to count the money in the till. The next thing I saw he was in the parking lot, getting in his SUV. Two of the usual Sunday morning shoppers came in, and we exchanged polite greetings as I fumbled to roll the register tape back on the spool almost juggling with it as I did. I took a breath and made a little nervous sound that I don’t think I’ve ever made before, a combined laugh and sigh of pain, and looked around me, and everything was how it had been fifteen minutes before, with Miller floating around and making noise in the back somewhere, and customers bouncing through the doors with their wallets full of plastic. Then the kick I got from not getting fired was gone. It hit me. I still had to work for him. Something is getting taken from me that I can never get back; we could strip this place down to the wiring in the walls and it still wouldn’t make up for all he steals from us.
Miller came back to his register, beaming, the old guy tailing behind him with a shopping cart. Miller strummed an invisible guitar, singing,
“She’s got EIgin movements from her head down to her toes
Breaks in on a dollar ‘most, anywhere she goes…”
I pointed at him. “Robert Johnson!” Miller was a mind-reader, or we were now both humming on the same wavelength. In front of the store that Jeep Cherokee with the “Greenpeace” bumper-sticker peeled out like a muscle ear, speeding east toward the freeway, carrying our employer to his health club or a football game on TV or whatever other way he bullshits away his Sunday afternoons, and I laughed. It was going to be another high volume sales day after all.