Becoming a Robot
By Josh Joseph
Pepsi. Windex. Ritz crackers.
Area rug. Antivirus software. Seltzer.
No one can be summarized by their groceries, but as they filed past, Will couldn’t help but draw conclusions.
After all, in assessing the hundreds of customers who kept his register busy from noon to midnight, there wasn’t much to go on. “Hi, how are you?” he’d say in exactly the same manner as each new face approached the conveyor belt. Usually, they’d say “Good, and you?” or just “Good.” Sometimes both Will and the customer would say the same thing in unison, locking eyes for one awkward second before he reset the small talk with a “Good, and you?” of his own.
That certainly left much to be desired. Therefore, inspecting items as he hastily bagged them became his pastime.
He found patterns. Moms bought at least two bottles of juice. Older women didn’t. Younger girls bought beauty products. Younger guys bought Xbox Live gift cards.
His mental dichotomy of customers was stimulating and satisfying. He wasn’t interacting with a person as much as he was interacting with a member of a well-defined group. The gamer, the furniture-buyers, and the 2-cart-purchasers were all archetypes that passed by him repeatedly. Easier on the mind, he thought to himself.
One or two older couples rose from this sea of normalcy, perhaps in adoration of his efficiency at the register. He had no clue what exactly he was doing to lure them back, but they actively hunted for him during each and every grocery store trip. That may have been an exaggeration. The roots of their magnetic attraction to his lane weren’t ambiguous. They weren’t even human—they were entirely logistical. Just as he’d grown comfortable flashing something close to a smile at every passing face along his grueling shifts, they’d grown comfortable filing themselves down aisle five, trusting that his gears wouldn’t break down, that he’d operate on command.
His entertainment was derived entirely from his role. He had to type in gift card access codes, so he made a game out of typing gift card access codes. He had to bag, so he made a sport out of bagging. He had to input the cash he received, so he made a science out of inputting the cash he received.
To know him in this state was to know a cashier. He was the sum of his duties: no more, no less. The moment he clipped the magnetic name tag to his feebly pressed button-down, he distanced himself from the name he bore.
Here came another one. He glared down the aisle.
“Hi, how are you?”
“I’m good,” he said for the 34th time that day.
Gears whirring, he attacked the conveyor belt, grabbing, swiping, waiting for the audible beep, and bagging. If only he had more arms to scan with.
This customer was happy and luckily not perturbed by Will’s disposition. He continued to vaguely smile long after Will stopped the act, face deep in paper towels and clearance polo shirts.
Bags balanced and unceremoniously handed across the register, an outstretched arm offered two dollars and seventy-three cents more than it should have. That was easily corrected; in less than five seconds, the change was regurgitated, and a receipt appeared with a familiar dot-matrix hum.
“Have a good one!” he exclaimed with another attempt at a convincing smile.
It was break time.
The light above Will’s register went dim, and he insecurely absconded from his post. Looking to his left, he saw another cashier at work beside him. Her drooping eyes endlessly searched for UPC codes. Her neck was extended forward and down, providing an eerily accurate view of her upper vertebrae.
Was that what she looked like? He reached back and felt a particularly sharp pain in his neck. That was exactly what he looked like.
He never liked breaks. They were absolutely necessary, but simultaneously even more draining than his job. Forty-five minutes of uninterrupted HGTV reduced him to an immobile lump atop the metal fold-out chair in the break room. He saw new hires quiver in and out, avoiding his table, eyes glued to their phones. He saw veterans like himself somehow sleeping through the incessant chatter of the television. But most notably, he saw the clock tick off each of those forty-five minutes. The break was done long before he was.
Getting up was difficult, and so were his ordinarily easy duties. He felt sluggish and hated. Lacking lubrication, he couldn’t whir up to full speed. However, the customers didn’t seem to mind. That was a relief, he thought.
Sometimes customers just stopped showing up. 6:14 PM on December 12th was one of those times. Vexed by boredom, Will mentally culled fragments of songs from all of the turntables, Walkmen, and CD players of his younger days. One grim cartoon on a 1982 They Might Be Giants demo cassette floated across his mind. He began to mutter aloud:
Here’s hoping you don’t
Become a robot
Clang! Clang! Clang!
Whoops! Too late
He snapped out of his daze. A chill went down his spine as he stared down the self-checkout counter from fifty feet away with an almost predatory gleam in his eye. I have to get more sleep, he told himself.
As the end of his shift approached, Will turned off his light again. Indifferent to the angered customers who stormed off after learning they wouldn’t be helped at register five, he whirred away at the last few remainders. He threw his break card in the small garbage can and shuffled away from his former position.
His shift was only truly over when his coat was on and fastened neck to waist. Punching out was a relief but this visual transformation was far greater. His cogs were hidden, no name tag in sight. No laser-precise questions poked through the veneer of his wool shield. He passed through the automatic sliding door, unknown.