At the Food Lion south of town, at the express checkout, the clerk’s name pin reads “John.” In his thirties, thin, in black pants and a blue polo shirt, the store uniform, John has a shaved head and a scar that runs from his left ear up over the crown. The scar is deep, like a furrow. It makes me wonder what happened. A horrific road accident? Open-skull surgery?
I remove my items from the plastic handbasket and place them on the black conveyer belt. I add my canvas shopping bag from the Skaggs Alpha Beta grocery store that no longer exists. The printed logo has faded, and the canvas has frayed, but the green nylon handle straps have held up. Once a year, I throw the bag in the washer. If it rips, I don’t know what I will do.
Instead of scanning my items, John looks at them and shakes his head sadly.
“Chef Boyardee, a bottle of cheap white wine, and a Little Debbie cake?”
“It’s a balanced diet.”
“I’m not using food stamps to pay.”
“I can make my own choices.”
“Your order includes alcohol. I have to get approval from the manager.”
“I’m old enough. See this gray hair?”
The roving manager leans in, swipes her card on the scanner, and moves on. She doesn’t say anything or acknowledge me, though I am a regular customer. John stands there.
“Now what?” I ask.
“We need to pass this by the resident nutritionist.”
“Since when does Food Lion have a resident nutritionist?”
John has a wicked smile. His teeth are white and even. Maybe he is younger than I thought.
“I’m just messing with you, man.” John scans the can, the bottle, and the lump of cellophane. He scrunches my canvas bag like a sock before you put it on. He inserts the items and pulls up the straps.
“Presto!” he says.
John scans my MVP Customer card and totals the purchase. I give him a twenty-dollar bill.
“Is this the smallest in your wallet?”
“Enough prevarication! This is the express lane, not the exact change lane.”
“Every little bit helps.”
“You criticize my diet, you doubt my age, and you spurn my money. See if I ever invite you for lunch!”
“If this is what you eat, man, I’m not coming to your house.” He gives me the change.
“So, John, what’s with the scar?” I hoist my bag.
“You had to ask, didn’t you?” he sighs. “I had a brain transplant. Eleven years, and I’m still getting used to it.”
Robert Boucheron is an architect in Charlottesville, Virginia. His stories and essays appear in Bellingham Review, Fiction International, Saturday Evening Post, and online magazines.