But she hustled over. Tough to get a job in Haggard these days. Especially for a high school drop out with nothing to offer but a smile and quick hands. She grabbed a paper sack from a stack at the end of the second conveyor belt and loaded the customer’s groceries. The customer slid his card into the credit machine and typed his secret code. Her supervisor asked him, “You want big bills, or little bills?”
“Twenties’ll be fine,” said the customer.
Her supervisor counted out five and handed them over, along with the receipt. The customer grabbed his eggs and bananas. He didn’t hide his effort to peek into the bag girl’s button-down dress shirt underneath her apron. She grinned, played along. She eased her hand into her back pocket and worked the keypad on an ancient BlackBerry phone—Bears jersey, khakis, boat shoes, dbag.
The next customer’s wardrobe must have come off the bargain rack at Walmart, a t-shirt with a bald eagle on it flying over the words, Don’t Tell Me How To Freedom!, and grease-stained jeans tucked into cowboy boots. On his hip, he wore a holster and handgun, just like those tea party dorks on television. When he spoke, he barely moved his thin lips, like being civil to another human being demanded too much. She asked him if he wanted his six-pack in a bag.
“Do your job,” he said to her.
She stuffed the beer into a paper sack and handed it to him as he walked by her. He didn’t look at her, didn’t ogle her cleavage. No matter. For the moment, the man meant nothing. He’d paid for his Budweiser with coins he’d dropped from a coffee can cradled under his arm.
Time crawled while she whipped groceries into bags and said, “Have a nice day,” like a robot. The automatic doors to her right opened and the guy in the Bears jersey stumbled into the store, holding his blood-stained hands to the side of his head. He spilled into two rows of shopping carts, fell on his knees and wept.
Her supervisor scratched at a Cuba-shaped meth scab on his forearm. He said, “Dammit, not again!”
Her boyfriend used the money to score a baggie of vikes. They each popped two and plopped down in front of his old fashioned, humpbacked television. The news talked about the hits at the super market. Three nights over the last two weeks. She’d only been with her boyfriend for a month when he’d come up with the plan. He’d found prepaid BlackBerry phones at a Quick ‘N’ Go outside of Pawpaw Grove. “This routine won’t last long,” he’d said. “Soon as the pigs catch on, we crack the phones and ditch them in Lake Arthur.”
The first time they’d tried the scam, she’d doubted they’d pull it off. If her boyfriend got caught, she’d slip the phone into a customer’s bag when they weren’t looking. But things went smooth. Several customers shrieked from the parking lot. The cops showed. Then an ambulance and a fire truck. All for a normal guy who’d taken two shots to the face from a solid steel meat tenderizer. Yes, it cracked his skull a little but, you know, so what? He had money. She and her boyfriend didn’t. Her boyfriend had been stealthy, moved in from behind the security cameras, dressed in black, wearing a ski mask. He smacked the guy twice with the metal mallet, reached into his back pocket, and ripped out his wallet. He’d been gone before anyone noticed the normal guy slumped over, bleeding onto the trunk of a cream-colored BMW.
That night, they’d celebrated, big time. Their man sold them some Oxy and they crushed and snorted it. Everything went fine until they tried to have sex. Her boyfriend’s penis lay still, like a bored slug. She said, “That’s all right, I understand.” For whatever reason, this infuriated him. He punched the wall and shouted at his crotch.
He said, “You piece of shit!” She suspected he’d meant to cuss at her. The wall, even, might have been a stand-in.
They stretched the first guy’s money for almost a week. Then they had to pull another hit. Similar target—Clean haircut, wedding ring, golf shirt, square face, smug expression of superiority when he glanced down the bag girl’s shirt as he took his groceries. She didn’t feel bad when he’d collapsed on the sidewalk, just outside the store.
The haul from the second guy didn’t match the first. They tried to make the pills last as long as possible. As the baggie emptied, her boyfriend’s temper blossomed. She did her best to get him going in bed. He must have been on dope a lot longer than her. His thing refused to respond. She only wanted to help. He finally shoved her to the floor and called her a bitch. “You see the fucker won’t stand, don’t you?” Like it was her fault.
The news report suggested the Lake County sheriff’s department would establish a task force to catch the Supermarket Bandit, a name decided upon by the normal people of Haggard. She said to her boyfriend, “This is getting serious.” She suggested they take it easy for a while.
“That makes no sense,” said her boyfriend. He grabbed her hair and jerked her head toward him. “I need you to think,” he said. “Don’t get goofy on me.”
She said, “I don’t want to do it anymore.”
At this, her boyfriend’s pockmarked face stilled. He said, “You walk away, I’ll rat out the both of us.”
She understood, then, her inability to plan ahead formed the foundation of all her problems in life. In high school, she’d partied and screwed around, as opposed to staying at home and studying, like normal people, the ones who now lived in houses, had children, new cars, mortgages, all the things normal people were supposed to have; When she’d started using pills every day, her conscience told her it might not be a good idea. She’d tried to quit, once. No way she’d go through that hell again—walls closing in, like the trash compactor scene in that stupid Star Wars movie normal people gushed on about. One of the boys she’d snagged in high school had, despite his good looks, been on the chess team. He explained to her how chess and life were the same. He said, “Every move you make, you must consider every possible counter. If you don’t, you’re dead.”
The bag girl and her boyfriend gobbled the vikes over the next four days. Then her boyfriend told her, “We’re going to need to borrow some more money tonight.”
She attempted, once more, to convince him it might not be a good idea. “They got cop cars prowling by every five minutes,” she said. “At least twice an hour, the pigs park in front of the store, get out, and stroll through the parking lot. It’s totally uncool.” Of course, she’d said the same thing every night since the task force had been created.
“I think we can get away with it,” he said. “You just send me customers. If shit looks cool, I’ll take care of business. If not, I’ll hang back and wait for your next message.”
“I really don’t think it’s smart,” she said.
Her boyfriend’s chest, covered in half-finished tattoos, heaved to an exaggerated rhythm. He looked like a man about to speak his final words. He said, “Is this going to get ugly?” His hands transformed into fists, his giant, walnut-sized knuckles doing what his penis couldn’t—stranding firm. Something in his neck creaked and popped as he turned to face her. The bridge of his nose wrinkled.
She said his name. She said, “Please don’t make me. . .”
Before she finished, he grabbed her hair and twisted her sideways. His free hand, still closed in a tight, shaking fist, hovered over her. “Bitch,” he said, his thin lips pursed like the redneck in the store with the gun on his belt, “I’m tired of you thinking you got some kind of choice.”
She wished she could have summoned the strength of the gods right then and blasted her boyfriend in the mouth. The more she resisted, the tighter he gripped her. His other arm trembled, as though building steam. She didn’t want him to know he’d scared her. She said, in halting, choking words, “Okay, okay. . .”
When her boyfriend let her go, she said she needed to get ready for work. She’d been with jerks before, but none of them had anything on her, not like this one. How long would she go away for? Would she be able to score dope in prison? What sort of awful shit would the bad girls in jail make her do for a fix? She ducked into the shower and wept as she ran a paper-thin piece of soap over her body. She lathered up the rest of the soap and used it to wash her hair. She tried dressing in the bathroom, alone. Her boyfriend insisted on keeping the door open. He leaned against the wall and stared at her. She wiped steam from the mirror above the sink with the cardboard tube from a dead roll of toilet paper. She spoke to her boyfriend through the mirror. She said, “What?”
He didn’t say anything, just bored into her with his half-open, bloodshot eyes.
Friday night. Normal people came into the store angling for fresh money from their bank accounts. Almost every other customer opted for cash when they ran their debit cards. Eighty bucks here, a hundred there, over and over. She offered her boyfriend one sacrificial yuppie after another. None returned with a bloodied face and empty pockets. Every time she glanced outside the giant window at the front of the store, a squad car either rolled by in the street or crept through the lot. On her break, she squatted near empty fruit crates behind the store and smoked a cigarette. One of her coworkers, a crumbling meth junkie who resembled a straggler from Dawn of the Dead, talked on his cell phone. He finished his conversation and went back inside. From the shadows between spotlights mounted on the roof of the store, her boyfriend snaked up and hissed at her. “How about sending me something when the place isn’t crawling with pigs?”
She shrugged. “What am I supposed to do?”
He wrapped his crooked fingers around the top of her button-down shirt. She dropped her generic cigarette as he hoisted her to a standing position. “You think you can survive an empty night?” He didn’t let her speak. “We both know the answer.” Maybe she sneered at him. Whatever look came across her face, it compelled him to tap her cheek with his monster knuckles. He said, “I’ll make this simple for you. You pay close attention to the lot and give me a goddamn customer when things are obviously cool. You take care of this real soon, or I’m going to call the cops and tell them I saw the bag girl texting someone before the last hit.”
This stunned her worse than the back of his hand. She said, “I’m on it. I promise.”
Closing time approached and she still hadn’t found a good prospect in conjunction with a cop-free parking lot. Plenty of normal people asked for money, like they hadn’t seen the news, like they didn’t know what could be waiting for them outside. She wondered if her boyfriend would be bold enough to march into the store and confront her. She imagined him pacing the alley separating the store and the nightclub behind it. Maybe he’d punched the nightclub’s brick wall a few times. Or maybe he’d used the meat tenderizer to chip away at it, thinking about the horror of sweating through the night without a fix. Around eleven-thirty, a normal guy in one of those musclehead shirts, the kind with ornate writing nobody could read, swiped his card and collected a stack of ten-dollar bills. Hardly any cars in the parking lot. No cops anywhere. The bag girl reached into her pocket, ready to text. Then she heard coins, rattling in a coffee can. The man with the gun on his belt counted out change for a six-pack three aisles down. He’d worn his gun again. His Walmart t-shirt, this time, said, I Loves Me Some 2nd Amendment! The bag girl made sure she described the man’s cowboy boots and his dirty jeans as she texted her boyfriend.
The next customer in her line, a normal woman in a tank-top and shorts showing off her perfect, unblemished thighs, told her to keep her yogurt and celery separate. The bag girl said, “Sure thing, ma’am.” Five pops, like firecrackers, erupted outside. She didn’t even turn her head as everyone else in the store, including the normal woman, craned their necks to see what had happened. The bag girl dropped the BlackBerry phone into the normal woman’s paper sack, right next to her yogurt. As the normal woman passed, refusing to make eye contact with her, the bag girl said, “Have a wonderful evening.”