Not as Sweet as You

They’ve opened an aisle just for me, apparently. That’s really very kind of them. The girl who guides me over to it is sweet but, you know…

It all happened at once, the way things do in those made-up stories sometimes. We were walking down into town on a Saturday afternoon. The little box was burning its usual hole in my pocket, and you had news to tell. Good news. Great news.

You’d got a gig. After all the months of waiting, auditioning, hoping, and praying, you’d finally got an acting gig. Better still, you’d kept it a little secret from me, and you’d gone and done it and got paid for it. You produced a cheque, an honest-to God old fashioned cheque with a full and amazing four digits before the decimal point. You didn’t know if you could pay it in at the cash till. You’d never had anything to pay in before, but you sure as hell were going to try.

You laughed and I laughed back as we ambled along and there was this slab of paving with a tiny edge sticking up proud from the footpath and you caught your foot on it and you tripped and fell, and your head hit the edge of the concrete kerb stone. It was nothing, really. In the movies, people get thrown off buildings and waylaid with crowbars all the time and they just get up and fight on. They wince and they rub the sore spot for a moment but that’s all. On they go.

You didn’t go on though, did you? Not really, anyway. They kept you breathing for a time. They kept you warm and sustained. But you were gone, really, weren’t you? When they eased you off the machinery it was a blessing, they said, a pure blessing.

I couldn’t really see it that way.

I should have asked you about the gig you did. You had worked so hard, waited so long. Acting degree, audition after audition, working for free whenever you could. Anything, anything to get on. I should have taken the little box out of my pocket and asked you then and there. You might not have tripped then; you might not have died.

Whenever I go to the supermarket now, I try to buy the minimum. There’s only me now to feed, only my clothes to wash. I try but I inevitably get too much. I either think or hope you’ll be there when I get home.

They have new checkouts in store today. Automated. Everywhere else has had them for years but they’ve finally arrived here in my little place. Three of them in a row. That suits me. I don’t need to see anyone in person these days, I don’t need to be discussing the weather.

I place my basket on the left side of the checkout and scan my first item, placing it over on the right. I know how it works from the bigger supermarket where I go on the weekends to buy too much stuff.

“Have you scanned your loyalty card?” the machine asks me.

I laugh.

“Gosh, no,” I reply, a sudden unexpected smile running across my mouth, “I almost forgot.”

I fish out my wallet and search for the card. Give it a quick scan.

“All of your points add up.” the machine says.

“I know they do,” I say, “I know it.”

I stop. Stare.

“Is it you?” I ask.

The machine doesn’t say anything. I must scan some more things.

I scan and scan. The machine says nothing more. It just beeps once with each item I send through. Too much stuff. Far too much.

When everything is scanned, I press ‘Pay’ on the touch screen.

“Select payment type,” she says, in her lovely voice.

“Is this the gig you got? The voice of the checkout?”

“Yes, isn’t it cool?”

“I’ve missed you so much.

“Please select payment type.”

The queue behind me is growing. People are looking at me with odd sideways glances. I select ‘Pay by Card.’

“Follow the instructions on the keypad.”

“I will. I will. But first I want to show you something.”

I fumble in my pocket and pull out the tiny box. I open it, the contents colour and sparkle in the high lux glare. I lay the box gently on the scanner.”

“Surprise.”

“Item not recognised. Pleased enter the code or select item from directory.”

“It’s not that big of a surprise, I think.”

“Enter the code or select item from directory.”

I pick the little box up and place it carefully on the right-hand side, along with my milk and my butter. I ease myself down on one knee, as we joked that I someday might.

“Will you please marry me?”

The machine beeps.

“Unexpected item in the bagging area,” she says.

"I know it’s quite sudden. I know it’s a bit na├»ve."

“Unexpected item in the bagging area.”

“It’s just that I thought I’d lost you.”

“Assistance is on the way.”

“And here you are.”

“Assistance is on the way.”

The assistance has arrived. The small crowd parts to let her through. She puts her hand on my shoulder. I think she might know my story.

“Walk over here with me, John. We have a place.”

They’ve opened an aisle just for me, apparently. That’s really very kind of them. The girl who guides me over to it is sweet but, you know…

… not as sweet as you.

 

 


Footnote:

It would be wrong to let this little flash fiction piece go out without name-checking the great Harlan Ellison, who has been an inspiration to me since I found first found ‘Shatterday’ on the library shelf, when I was aged thirteen or so.

His short story ‘Laugh Track’ from the collection ‘Angry Candy’ was an obvious influence for this tiny effort.

6 comments:

Marc Paterson said...

This is a beautifully crafted tale, Ken.

Ken Armstrong said...

Thanks very much, Marc.

Roberta Beary said...

so well done! i can see this one as a short film too. winning lots and lots of awards.

Ken Armstrong said...

Thank you, Roberta :)

Jim Murdoch said...

I’m not as well-versed in Ellison as I am in, say, Asimov or Dick. I really only know him for A Boy and his Dog and the apparenty-bastardised version of ‘The City on the Edge of Forever’. I never avoided him but others kept drawing me in. Your story reminded me of something Ray Bradbury might’ve contrived. His ‘The Pedestrian’ is probably my favourite science fiction story of all time. This would slip seamlessly into any of his collections. Like most sci-fi shorts what I like is its open-to-interpretationess. Lovely work.

Ken Armstrong said...

Thank you, Jim. Imagine me slipping seamlessly in anywhere! Very kind words. I appreciate them and I appreciate you taking the trouble to drop by as you do, whenever you do. No pressure, as you know. I'd prefer if you were writing a new poem. :)