George Choundas's fiction and nonfiction have appeared in over fifty publications, including The Best Small Fictions, Alaska Quarterly Review, Boulevard, Harvard Review, The Southern Review, and Subtropics. His story collection, The Making Sense of Things (FC2), was awarded the Ronald Sukenick Innovative Fiction Prize, as well as shortlisted for the Robert C. Jones Prize for Short Prose, the St. Lawrence Book Award for Fiction, and the Katherine Anne Porter Prize in Short Fiction. He's a winner of the New Millennium Award for Fiction, a former FBI agent, and half Cuban/half Greek.
Yet in Thy Key Food Shineth
Two years I was at Scottleigh’s Key Food. Register and restocking the olive bar. Olive bar was my realm.
There was the guy they called Mister. He lived on the bench outside Playa Bowls and showed off his phone,
big-tap typing, so everybody saw he had a phone, except it was a hand mirror. The high schoolers called him
Mister Mister and sat on the bench and posted photos with him because high schoolers are ass-wipes.
Mister liked to come in the supermarket and pick things out and put them in his cart very careful. What he did not like is paying. When he got to Register, he’d just stand there, looking down, his hands on the cart. He wouldn’t put anything on the belt. He wouldn’t answer when you said You going to pay for these? and then You have to pay for these and then They going to make you leave if you don’t pay for these, but he’d look up every time, which is why you thought he’d answer, but he never did, and he’d look down again as soon as you finished talking, and finally, after you realized you had to stop saying things or else he’d stay and keep looking up and watching your face, you did what he did, just stand there, and he’d turn and leave.
People said he was crazy. I say people are full of shit. Like paying is their favorite.
Hakim the day manager never let him near Register. They said Hakim got the job because he was married to the owner’s daughter and when she moved out the daughter told her father to fire him and Scottleigh said you find somebody as good I’ll fire him. Scottleigh and the daughter didn’t talk after that, is what they said. Hakim always spotted Mister on the way in, or latest by Aisle 3. Mister was easy to spot because when he got to the end of an aisle he pulled this thirty-three point turn to haul himself around and went up the other side of the same aisle. Basically he was easy to catch because he was thorough. The only times Mister made it to Register, Hakim was out, and it was Laura on point, and Laura was busy talking grandkids.
That Christmastime, we were all getting in the spirit—Barbara from Deli put up decorations, there was a food drive barrel near the exit, a Salvation Army was bell-ringing and singing carols like opera and nobody knew if she was being funny or just trying hard—and the new stockboy spotted Mister coming in. I already saw Mister that morning, when I was walking from the bus. The high-schoolers, extreme ass-wipes, now they were pretending to take photos with the hand-mirror.
Laura was at Register, and the new stockboy gave her a heads-up, all whispery and side-eyed, like Her Majesty’s Shitbird Service. Meanwhile Mister was doing his snake with a sunstroke thing up and down the aisles. By the time he made it to organics, Hakim was at Register, too.
Laura, seeing Hakim, started to say I know. But Hakim put up a hand, all serious. A few minutes later Mister brought his items to Register, and Laura scanned and bagged and told him a total.
Mister said I don’t have the money.
It was the first time any of us heard Mister speak. Maybe it was because the two of them there at Register looking at him. Then one of them, because Laura just looked down.
Hakim just said: Merry Christmas.
Mister pushed his cart away. He was moving slow enough that the cart tugged and veered to the right every couple of feet. Almost out the door, he stopped. He lifted the two bags out of the cart. The new stockboy, who was like shadowing him, did a pro-wrestler thing with his shoulders like he was going to keep him from tossing the bags on the floor. But Mister ignored him. Mister turned the opposite way. Away from the stockboy, toward the wall. Toward the food drive barrel. He set the bags down inside the barrel. Very careful.
Nobody said anything for a long time after he left.
Then the stockboy said, Well, shit.
Laura, bless her, she said, It’s Christmas, watch your fucking mouth.