One way Thrift Aisles kept prices so low was by letting customers bag and carry their own groceries. Sandy didn't necessarily enjoy that—especially when she had Saury on her hip, but she could scarcely afford to shop anywhere else with the household budget Stephen X had allowed.
One night Stephen X got up during a commercial and jabbed a cigarette into the ashtray he kept by the fridge. "Did you ever look at this, Sandy?" he called out, sounding distracted.
"What is it?" She came in from the laundry room.
"In here." He held the cupboard open and waved her over. "Check it out."
She looked in the cupboard and brushed a loose wisp of hair behind her ear. "I don't understand."
"Potato chips," he said with authority. "A seven-ounce bag of potato chips."
"Do you want me to fix you some? Do you need a bowl?"
"I never eat potato chips." He sighed. "Sandy, I thought you agreed to work with me on this."
"I don't know what you mean."
"You've forgotten last week when we talked about the budget? You said you understood then. If you have any questions, I'll be glad to explain it to you. I try to save you from worrying about all this shit, but if you want, I'll tell you how taxes are shooting through the roof. Do you want to hear how inflation is eating our lunch? Do you want to know how hard it is for me just to keep my head above water when there are spies in my own office? Do you need a detailed explanation of why we can't afford to keep these goddam potato chips around here all the time?"
He threw the bag on the floor so hard it popped. He stomped on it and sent crumbs shooting in every direction. Reflex pulled Sandy back beyond arm's length. She winced and judged the distance to the door. But Stephen X calmed down as abruptly as he'd flared.
"We just have to cut back to the essentials now, Sandy. When we turn things around, we can have chips and soda pop. We can get Saury more of those plastic dinosaurs he likes. But right now, we have to pull in the belt."
Shopping at Thrift Aisles didn't seem so bad when Sandy thought about countries where a baby could still starve at its mother's breast.
And one good thing about a tight budget was that she could seldom afford more than two sacks of groceries. That was about all she could manage at Thrift Aisles in any case, because another way the store held costs down was by scrimping on shopping cart maintenance.
The wheels twisted and jammed and screeched over the scarred linoleum in a bent-metal ballet. Sandy couldn't tell from the carts' mad circles whether they needed an engineer or an exorcist. After half an hour of veering into shelves and plowing through produce, she preferred to carry her groceries through the parking lot, rather than tempt disaster.
Sandy didn't see the little guy come up the first time he offered to carry her bags. She was too busy keeping an eye on the new girl at the register. There was always a new girl at the register at Thrift Aisles. The store paid as little as it could and squeezed its employees until they became numb or quit.
Today's girl had a face as round and pale as a mushroom. She pinched Sandy's ginger root and held it up between two fingers. "Eeewww!" she gasped. "Look what I found in your basket."
"I like to fix Chinese some nights when my husband won't be home," Sandy explained.
"Yuck!" The girl tossed the ginger into the trash basket beneath the register. "They just never clean those carts," she said.
Sandy was too surprised to say anything. She watched the girl pick up a cucumber and begin flipping through the laminated price sheets, squinting at sketches of fruit and vegetables. Finally, the cashier crinkled her nose and looked up at Sandy. "Is this a zoo-chinny?"
"Pardon me?" Sandy leaned closer to hear better.
"Did you see how much this cost?"
"They were three for a dollar."
The girl looked at the items that remained on the conveyor belt. "But you only got one." She whipped a calculator out of her apron and punched a long sequence of keys. "It doesn't work out," she announced at last.
"Let's call it thirty-four cents."
The girl glanced over her shoulder for the manager and then rang it up. "You won't tell, will you?" she asked, smoothing her apron. "Arnie would kill me for this.
"I owe you one," Sandy sighed. Maybe this was some sort of honesty test, with someone taking notes behind one-way glass. That's the kind of thing that could happen at ATI. She looked around and saw the little man standing at the end of the counter, not two feet away.
"Paper or plastic?" he asked in a reedy voice and waited eagerly for her answer.
Sandy was confused. "I've always had to sack my own," she said.
"That's the exact difference between yesterday and today. You won't have to do that again for as long as Uly Bondarbon IV is here to help," he said with something that wasn't really a smile. "And that'll be for the rest of your days on this earth. That's a dead-set guarantee, ma'am."
Sandy didn't want to discourage any primitive customer service overtures from Thrift Aisles. Maybe they would even include greasing the shopping cart wheels in their next five-year plan. But it occurred to her that she could handle the bags better than this frail kid.
Uly Bondarbon couldn't have measured out to more than five feet and ninety pounds between thick soles and his swirl of hair. At first glance, Sandy thought he was maybe fourteen years old. Then she noticed his face had the flat, dry skin that the sharpest razors leave.
He took a couple of bags in each hand, shrugged and leaned back to get clear of the checkout stand. "Which way's the car, ma'am?" he asked.
"That's okay," she said, reaching out. "I'll take them from here."
"Oh, ma'am! You do my heart damage." Uly took a step back, as if reeling from the blow, but he almost toppled over backwards as the bags swung away with his balance.
Sandy felt the stares of the mushroom-faced girl and the large, severe woman who waited for her to clear the line. She realized that none of the other registers had bag boys.
"Really, it's okay." She wanted to sound convincing so she could get out of there. "I've carried them myself my whole life."
"And this is how a whole new life begins, ma'am," Uly said. "Looking for new ways to do things is what sets us apart from the apes in the trees. That's the only way we can get over the hurdles our parents laid out for us."
Sandy looked at Saury who eyed the candy rack behind them. "Look, I need the exercise," she said, feeling her foot begin to tap the ground.
Uly grew impatient, too. "Then catch me, ma'am!" He lurched, with the bags skimming the floor, and stumbled into a jog for the door.
Sandy ran two steps after him, then backed up to sweep Saury into her arms. She made chase, but broke her stride when the electric door hesitated before letting her out. She looked around the parking lot frantically and found Uly leaning against her car.
"What do you think you're doing?"
"Some folks just like to even the score a little," Uly said as he caught his breath. "You had your burden. I hadn't any. It all works out now, don't it?"
Sandy gave up and unlocked her trunk. "I didn't even know Thrift Aisles had bag boys," she said.
"Now that's one thing I never seen," Uly said. He took a deep breath and hoisted the bags into the car. "Like to put me out of business."
"What do you mean?" Sandy hitched Saury back up her hip. "What do you call yourself if you're not the bag boy?"
"Me?" Uly leaned against the car and surveyed the parking lot. "I'm an independent contractor. I see a need and fulfill it. I do whatever calls me to be done." He rocked forward on his toes. "That way I always know people 'preciate me, if you understand what I'm saying."
"You mean you don't work for Thrift Aisles?"
Uly shook his head and grinned. "No future in that, is there, ma'am?"
Sandy felt her face drop. "So—what? You want a tip now? Is that it?"
"Oh, ma'am, we've only just met and you've hurt me twice in the one day." Uly hid his hands in his hair. "The first time I help you, that's just for free.
"The second time I do something for you, that's when we can work something out." Uly nodded. "And I can do all kinds of different things for the right kind of person."
Sandy huddled Saury into the car and closed his door. She climbed in and fumbled with the seat belt. "Thanks," she said, praying that her fingers would work.
"Just remember me now, ma'am." He waved his match-stick arm. "Uly Bondarbon IV."
Sandy pulled up to the light at the corner before she wondered how he'd known which car was hers. She looked in the rear view mirror and saw him still waving his arm slowly over his head.
Go back to Chapter 1 of Stress Test.
Read the next chapter.
Complete novel is available on amazon.com.