The Grocery Peril of Bagged Cereal Mascots
by Aaron A. Polson
I looked through the tall plate glass windows as dusk spread a thick blanket over the September sky, thinking about how all the cute girls really went for pirates. The blanket, by the way was wool, not cotton or any synthetic. A hot night. Inside the store, fluorescent lights cast a harsh wash over rows of cattle chute check stands, and weary customers pushed carts of brightly colored frozen dinners and slightly faded produce. Damn if that light didn’t make them all chickens. I stood at the end of one of the chutes, counting the number of blank cereal bags I’d found that night. “One, two. One, two.” Just as the repetitive beeping of the scanners settled into a nice, hypnotic drone, I snapped back to the present with the high crowing of the blue-haired chick standing next to me.
“I said paper! I don’t want plastic. The plastic bags are cheap. The handles break. Stop that infernal counting!” She dropped some feathers as she screamed. The cashiers would clean that up. I had bigger fish to filet.
“Oh. Yeah,” I responded, but my mind worked on strategy. I quickly moved cans of creamed corn, beans and a jar of pickled beets into a brown paper sack. Pushing the green button—the Larry’s Market policy line, “May I carry that out for you,” button—I handed the bag to the blue-hair. Her face twisted into a slight frown as she cradled the bag in both hands and turned to the automatic doors. For a moment, I figured she would give me a good peck, but she strut through the exit instead.
I looked up, saw no further need for my services in the front of the store, and hurried into the narrow aisles. The blue-hairs could delay my duties, but ultimately I would have to face the symphony. At just over six feet tall, I could almost see over the aisles, and I kept my eyes on the scan for any sudden burst of cartoon blue. My red polo shirt was faded and pilling, and my nametag with a block print “ANDREW” was pinned askew on left side of the shirt. I liked wearing it at an angle. It distracted the mascots that way—they weren’t all that bright, and I worked every advantage I could get.
I strode through aluminum doors leading into the stock room with a dull gonging crash. Nathan, a skinny boy with gaunt face and a tuft of dry grass on top of his head, busied himself loading a beaten and dented green cart with boxes of sale items. He was pretty squeamish that night, knowing who was on the prowl. Nathan would make someone a nice chicken someday.
He glanced up with an almost inaudible “um”. I helped lift boxes of tomato sauce and potato chips onto Nathan’s cart; all of the weekly specials were stacked in a designated location along the back wall of the storeroom. He mumbled “thanks.”
“Don’t worry, I’ll find them.” Our eyes met in a moment of co-worker bonding before he pushed the overloaded cart to the doors leading out into the bright store. It was one of those moments John Wayne used to dream about. I knew they’d be easy to spot in the store, and I had a feeling those damn generics were camped out in the dimly lit wasteland of boxes.
Before I charged into the breach, I needed a plan. The freezer usually worked best. I could toss the AWOL mascots inside the heavy steel doors, lock them down for the night and call it good. Let the full-time employees deal with rabid cartoons, this wasn’t my bag of tea. $4.23 an hour wasn’t enough to jack with the jackrabbits.
Only two tonight, lucky. Some nights, the whole lot of them run free, and on those nights nothing will work but a bottle of tequila and porn. They like porn, but it tends to offend the customers. Nick—the assistant manager—always liked to remind us, “the customer is the one who spends money.” I liked money. So tonight was going to be porn-free. I only needed to wrangle Major Marshmallow and Loopy the Kid. Damn that kangaroo could kick hard. What the hell kind of pirate has the word “marshmallow” in his name?
My wheels were clicking pretty good when Nathan screamed. I underestimated the mascots’ fluorescent light threshold—one of them had caught him on the sales floor. I scurried out of the storeroom.
I found Nathan lying on the floor, sprawled in the health and beauty items aisle, with the kangaroo on top. Loopy’s big feet held down Nathan’s arms, and the poor guy screamed. That god-forsaken kangaroo was brushing his teeth. He’d littered the floor with toothbrush packages until he found one with stiff bristles, and blood dribbled out of Nathan’s mouth.
Nathan spotted me and started waving his hands around, desperate for some help. I shook my head. His eyes watered. “Major Marshmallow,” I said, turned and wheeled toward the front of the store. Now that I knew where Loopy was, I could focus on the pirate. Nathan had a pretty high pain threshold, anyway.
Just then “Alan, to the front” came crackling over the intercom, and I know it’s a blue-hair, cart loaded, ready for me to smash her bread and crack her eggs. The shoppers have shifted into low gear, so I quickly dropped a wet floor sign at either end of the aisle in which Nathan is occupied, and marched to the check stands. I didn’t need them leaving feathers in his blood and slobber.
Carolyn, this middle-aged curly fry, bent over her intercom and preached another sermon. “Alan, carry out please, Alan,” she barked into the little box. I flashed her my middle finger and sidled up to the chute.
“My name’s Andrew.”
“Okay, Alan. This…er, needs some help.” Carolyn bobbed her head at the blue-hair.
Hadn’t I been there before? I learned my lesson, and start dumping her tuna and baked beans into a paper sack. She stamps her foot, sending a few of those fluffy little feather’s careening to the floor. “Yes?”
“I want plastic! Can’t you see I have no arms!” She gives a good flap with those stubby little chicken wings, I nod, and shove the paper sack inside a plastic one, hanging the whole thing around her neck.
“I hope you choke,” I said as she clucked out of the doors. Then it hit me like a rogue bowling ball; I knew what needed to be done. Major Marshmallow was a sucker for a good bedtime story, and all I needed was a good tuck in and he would be out for the count. Shambling over to the sliding doors, I poked one hand into the woolen sky and yanked down the blanket.
“Alan, carry out please, Alan,” Carolyn crowed again, but I wrapped the blanket around my head and played dumb. The blue-hair didn’t look too amused. I made a mental note to speak with the manager about my name, and worked my way back to health and beauty.
Nathan still lay trapped against the gleaming tile, and his mouth had become a wash of bloody foam. Damn stiff bristles. Loopy looked up from his scrubbing for a moment, spotted me, and winked. “You’re next,” he muttered, but since he spoke cartoon kangaroo language, all I heard was, “you’re next.”
“Later, gator. Nate, can you keep this one busy for a while?” He nodded, just a head full of bloody foam. His eyes held a little fear, but nothing a good six-pack wouldn’t clear up after work.
Major Marshmallow liked the ladies, and Megan worked video that night. Ah, Megan: the cherry stem in my limeade. She was an easy target for pirates, always sucked in by their eye patches and wooden legs. Oh, what they could do with those wooden legs. I’d caught the Major gushing all over her before, and knew that night would be par for the game.
She leaned across the video counter, giving Major Marshmallow an eyeful of cleavage. For his part, Marshmallow had screwed off his wooden appendage and sat balanced on it like some baseball bat/stool combo. He scratched the stub with his hook hand and made origami rabbits with the other. For a moment, I thought about knocking him to the ground, but he would probably splat, and I didn’t want to dust off the mop.
Creeping up behind the pirate, I tossed the blanket across his shoulders and scooped him up like a baby. He started cooing like a pigeon, waving his wax mustache in the air. Megan’s lovely eyebrows knit together Manga-style, and she scribbled “Oh” in a word balloon.
“Do you know ‘Silent Night’?”
She started singing, “Silent Night…”
I waved her off with a free hand. “No, in German.”
I looked at Marshmallow, and see he is out like a pair of peacenik bellbottoms. “Thanks anyway.” I rushed the pirate into the freezer and tossed him in, blanket and all, with a flourish. “One down…” The break area was a great place to pace, so I did.
Current law disallowed the sale of hard liquor in grocery stores (God love you, Carrie Nation) so I didn’t have any tequila on hand, but the spices and baking supplies aisle had the next best thing. I scurried to the store, gathered what I needed, listened for a moment for more of Nathan’s painful moans, and hurried back to the break room.
Nathan always liked to play Boy Scout, and I knew one quick call on the intercom would force his feet into motion. I opened each bottle of vanilla extract, even some of those extra large Mexican bottles, and arranged them on the table. The odor reminded me of Megan’s sweet perfume. If I was only a pirate.
“Nathan, to the break room, Nathan,” I said over the intercom. Like a well-oiled horse, my bloodied but resilient co-worker crashed through the aluminum doors a minute later with Loopy draped over one shoulder like a broken canoe.
“You need something?”
“Him.” I pointed one of the big bottles at Loopy. The kangaroo dropped his bloody toothbrush and took a few tentative hops toward me. “Have a sip, buddy?” Like water-colored lightning, Loopy snatched the bottle, poured out a quick libation for his fallen homies, and tossed it back. “Plenty more where that came from, fella.” I crossed my arms and smiled. Five minutes later, Loopy was immobile on the floor. I easily scooped him into a dust pan and deposited him with the pirate-on-ice. The clock read 9:50. Ten minutes to closing.
In the time it took for me to wander from the break room floor to the freezer, Nathan vanished. “Probably hitting that six-pack,” I muttered. Someone dropped a jar of mayonnaise—a distinct sound, I assure you—in the store room. I couldn’t leave the mayo on the ground for the lifers. Beside the door to what the employees called the meat locker, I nearly tripped over the broken jar of mayonnaise like some squat amorphous Buddha.
“Shit,” I muttered aloud. I found an almost empty box standing on a tower of precariously balanced cartons of canned vegetables, added its contents to the tower, tore off the lip of the cardboard, and used this to scrape the white mess into the now empty box. “Good enough,” I thought as I admired my reflection in the slightly damp concrete.
I carried this box with the now liberated-from-its-jar mayonnaise down the hall to the trash bin, a small corrugated metal hut attached to the back side of the loading dock. Nathan, still invisible, let his presence be known with a few empty cans of Coors Light on the floor.
Something shuddered inside the trash bin. I flicked on the light, dropped the mayo-box, and yelped with a sharp pain in my left thigh. Joey, Loopy’s kid. I forgot the hell-spawn kangaroo had a kid. The little ‘roo had taken a banzai-leap across the bin, and embedded a broken yogurt container in my leg. Damn, plastic can be sharp if you file it enough. The blood soaked through the denim, a beautiful, blooming rose.
Joey heaved and panted on the floor in front of me, his backward facing ball cap dancing in the breeze. The jump had taken everything he had. I easily snagged his feet and tossed him across my shoulder. Dragging the throbbing limb behind me, I stuffed Joey in the produce sink, and washed him down the drain. He left a little crayon stain, but went without much fight.
Nathan banged through the doors, brandishing a wooden bat. “I heard something.”
I looked at the bat, my leg, the bat. “Is Megan still up front?”
I closed my eyes, wiggled the offending leg back and forth just beneath the cut until it snapped off. “Hand me the bat. It’ll make one hell of a pirate leg.”
Aaron A. Polson is a high school English teacher and freelance writer who dreams in black and white with Rod Serling narration. He currently resides in Lawrence, Kansas with his wife, two sons, and a rather tropical fish that refuses to die. His short fiction has appeared in various places, including Reflection’s Edge, GlassFire Magazine, Big Pulp, Johnny America, and Permuted Press’s upcoming Giant Creatures Anthology. You can visit him on the web at Frozen Robot.