“Good morning, Stuart. How are you today?” Mr. Shin’s voice greeted Stuart as he entered the cool yet brightly-lit interior of the local supermarket.
“Uh.” Stuart stalked past the glassed-in booth where the manager’s actual head was visible, bent over a blue-glowing computer screen.
All he wanted was a lousy quart of milk, and he wasn’t in the mood for small talk right now.
It had been a long day. He didn’t want to be up half the night without any milk or food in the house, and he was concerned that maybe tonight would be an insomnia night. Although he hoped not, it kind of looked that way.
“Would you like a cart, Stuart?” The stock clerk’s irritating voice came.
But Stuart only wanted a quart of milk. The only place that was open this late at night in the whole town was right here, a mile and a half out on the Golden Mile Parkway, and he didn’t need a cart for a quart of milk. Theoretically, he could go to the Nine-Twelve Gas Bar and pay two bucks more for it. Two bucks is two bucks.
“Argh!” He grunted at the thing as he sauntered past.
“Hi, Stuart, it’s been a long time.” The butter on the end of the dairy case had a bright, cheery voice. “When was the last time you picked up a pound of dairy-fresh butter?”
Stuart just shook his head at this question, as he’d just had a big blow-up with the car over the parking position. The vehicle was arguing that he could park a ways away, as he could use a bit of a walk, while Stuart would have preferred to park it right in front of the store, as it looked like a spot of rain was on the way. And it was late at night after all. The parking lot was empty, there were plenty of spaces for all, and when was the last time you saw a disabled guy who could afford a car anyway? Not that he was planning to take one of the disabled parking-spots, but there you have it.
But the talking butter display reminded Stuart of an important point, which was that one often thought of a few other items while in the store. Spinning around on a whim, he went back and got a cart.
“I told you so.” The stock-clerk had a note of triumph, and he growled at it in response.
Stuart walked down the aisle, and wished he could turn all this stuff off, as one-hundred-and-fourteen cheeses bid for his attention. As he moved along, each product had a range of about two metres, in which it would activate by motion sensor or body heat or something and then it would go into its spiel, trying to outbid all the other products on the shelf for his attention.
“Mister Jones! Mister Jones!” The cottage cheese yelled.
“Stuart! Stuart!” The Monterrey Jack Cheese by Kraft had something it urgently wanted to draw his attention to.
“They’re fun for your tummy, Stuart.” The process cheese slices clamoured as he proceeded past.
“Argh.” Stuart groaned as he went by.
He wished he’d never accepted their ‘points’ card, the one with a little radio ID chip in it, but he had thirteen thousand points saved up, almost enough for a trip to New Guinea that he was promising himself. Only another two thousand points to go, and only a month and a half before the deadline. At that point, he would lose the first five thousand. But he couldn’t let that resentment stand in his way…one quart of milk would be five more points.
All he really wanted was a quart of milk.
Not that it wasn’t a good cheese or anything like that, but at some point one tired of all the racket. Just then his phone buzzed, and he pulled it out of his pocket, pushing the cart along one-handedly while his attention was momentarily diverted by the pictures on the push-handle mounted video display screen: the Sports Illustrated Annual Swimsuit Edition was out, and Stuart reminded himself to grab one at the checkout. The display on the phone indicated that an automatically-generated e-mail from the auto-dealership where he had bought the turkey, the lemon, had arrived. The last time he had taken the car in for a free recall repair, he walked out with a bill for over ten thousand dollars.
'A few other little things' were found wrong with the car upon, ‘a casual inspection.’
None of them were covered by the original warranty on the two-and-a-half-year-old car.
He shoved the phone absent-mindedly into his pocket again.
“Ten cents off a half-dozen eggs, twenty cents off on a dozen.” Yackitty-yack went the eggs. “If you forgot your coupon, just ask at the checkout.”
But Stuart just wanted time to think. He knew he needed a quart of milk, and surely there was at least one other thing. He’d driven all the way out here with a mental list of three, or maybe four little things. At least two of them had been crucial, one of which was the milk, but for the life of him he couldn’t remember the others. And yes, a bag of chips would be nice, and something else as well—if only he could remember that one other thing. He was pretty sure it was just the four items.
“We can beat that.” The next product display spoke matter-of-factly. “While the sizes may vary as pictured in this week’s flyer-insert, our eggs in the five and ten-packs are only a dollar ninety-nine and three-forty-nine. And you don’t need a coupon.”
“Why in the hell would anyone make a five-pack of eggs?” Stuart was mystified as to where the world was headed sometimes.
Was the whole world going insane? Or was it just him?
“Originally, increasing demand led to a slightly smaller pack than a dozen, i.e. ten eggs. Then one thing led to another, and we ended up with a half-sized pack, of five eggs. But people of a certain demographic group love the trendy and upscale asymmetrical packaging.”
“Who in the hell would buy five eggs?” Would the madness never end?
“New Age, the twenty-five to forty-year year-old segment, college or university-educated, mostly lesbians, many of whom only eat one egg at a time. Or they eat two and serve three to a friend. Or maybe they each eat two and save one for mixing up a batter of some sort or another.”
“I’m sorry I asked.”
“Most of our clients have a tattoo. We get that from all kinds of surveys. Do you have any tattoos, Mister Jones?”
“No!” Stuart wondered whether to take the car in for the recall, or just ignore their e-mails.
Milk, chips, pop…was it pop?
“Well, you probably don’t want any of our eggs, then.”
“I already knew that.”
Was it pop that he wanted? It was milk, chips, pop, and one more thing. Was that it?
Lunchmeat? Bread? Pickles? None of these items jogged his memory with any conviction.
“Would you like to participate in a survey?”
“Argh.” Stuart moved on, finding no peace as he sped up abruptly and zipped along towards the other end of the aisle where the milk was kept.
“Orange Juice! Margarine! Poppin’ Fresh Breakfast Buns!” Their words blared and blasted and sang and murmured and muttered and buzzed all along beside him as he went.
Dozens of voices called out to him as he traversed the hundred feet or so till he got to the refrigerator he sought.
He slowed there, gripping the push-handle of the cart and grinding his jaws.
“And how can we help you today, sir?” The fridge greeted him in vacuous cheer as he approached.
“I just want a quart of milk, a fucking quart of milk. And I don’t want no fucking back-talk from you!”
“What size of milk are you looking for? Our two-quart jug of two percent is thirty cents off.”
“I want one God-damned quart of milk. One God-damned quart, just one fucking quart of milk. One quart. Where is it, you son-of-a-bitch?”
“Our line-up includes one-quart plastic jugs, and one-quart waxed cardboard containers."
“Argh. Just tell me where they are.”
For some reason he was blinking at a high rate, completely uncontrollably. For weeks now, he had been under stress at work, and at home, but just knowing it did no good. He wondered if it was all coming to a head, and if he was having a nervous breakdown. All that commuting at a high rate of speed to save time…racing from traffic back-up to traffic back-up, stoplight to stoplight, waiting endless minutes at a standstill in the coffee shop drive-through…
“Milk.” Stuart snarled resentfully, as he ground his jaws back and forth. “Just give me some fucking milk, before I smash your ugly display into a million pieces.”
“Two metres further down to the right, sir.” The machine muttered quietly to the still hulking and tension-ridden figure of Stuart.
Stuart, who just stood there, holding on to his cart with both hands for dear life.
“Is there a problem here?” The store’s security-drone floated directly ahead of him, it was right in his way.
“I just want some fucking milk! Get the hell out of my way.” An ashen-faced Stuart Jones seemed unable to move on.
He had just about had enough of this place.
For some reason this place was always better when it was crowded, then the hum of real human voices, women, kids, infants, store employees, all two of them in this eighty-thousand square-foot retail space, drowning out the bedlam of the artificial ones.
“There’s no need to create a disturbance.” The machine chided him in its metallic, officially-oriented voice, like a Canadian news-caster speaking through a tin horn.
“Argh. I just want some fucking milk. Why can’t you turn all this shit off? I’m tired of all these voices, voices. I just want you to shut them off!”
“But they are so pleasant and helpful to our other customers. We have to think of their safety and convenience as well.”
“You don’t have any other customers, I’m the only one in here!” The outburst brought only more reproof.
“Sir, if you cannot behave in a civil and socially-acceptable manner, then store security will have to ask you to leave.” The thing had flipped over into its neutral, non-judgmental tone.
“I don’t know how to interpret your response, sir.” The machine floating there in front of him had an air of regret. “Perhaps it would be better if you were to just leave now, sir.”
“Argh. All I want is a fucking quart of milk. And why should I be polite to a fucking machine? Fuck you. I want a quart of milk.”
“I’m sorry, sir. Police are being notified, and I will have to ask you to leave peaceably.” The floating cop-thing spoke in its imperturbable fashion.
“All I want is a quart of fucking milk!” Stuart manfully shoved the hovering machine aside, which took a surprising amount of force.
Brushing past the hellish thing, he headed for his destiny.
He remembered a report on TV that said these things were gyro-stabilized. He gave it another shove, and then forced his way forward with the cart. He could see the milk, his prize, awaiting him just two feet away…suddenly his body stiffened and convulsed, and before his numbed brain could comprehend what was happening, he was laying on the floor, as another bolt of lightning flashed through his body.
“Please leave quietly. This establishment is private property…we have rights.”
“Argh! Argh! Argh!” The machine hit him with blast after blast of Taser energy.
“If you continue to resist arrest, you will be subdued using sufficient force.” The cop-thing regarded the squirming blob of protoplasm that had once been a fairly rational human being, Stuart Jones.
“Argh!” Stuart moaned and cried, his tears leaving a wet path, and lubricating the floor under his limp torso and abdomen as he tried to crawl away from the freezer case.
Unfortunately, blinded by tears and rage, anger and resentment, Stuart crawled in the wrong direction. He was headed for the back rooms, by all factual indicators, and the cop-thing Tasered him again, while Stuart cried, shouted, gasped, choked, gagged, and puked on the floor, his limbs, no longer under rational control, still moving reflexively, still struggling to get away.
It was mercifully over. Strong hands gripped him under the armpits.
“Fuck.” Then a short, sharp blow to the head stunned him into a silence that he stubbornly decided to maintain against all assault.
He watched with a corner of his mind as the cops, real, flesh and blood ones this time, dragged him out to the parking lot. As he slid along, he noted the blood dripping from his head, or facial area, leaving bright, flower-shaped spatters on the highly-polished flooring of the store.
“Up you go." Then Stuart heard a big ‘thunk’ noise, a light flashed in his head, and his world went black again.
Stuart Jones woke up in the back of a police cruiser, and slowly became aware that they were still sitting at a standstill in the parking lot of the shopping center. The security drone hovered outside the car window as an officer in the driver’s side engaged the thing in conversation, and another officer took notes from the other side of the front seat.
“Whoa.” Stuart groaned in disbelief.
“I’ll have to ask you to restrain yourself, sir.” The female cop in the passenger seat warned Stuart.
Unable to help himself, Stuart bent over at the waist and began to vomit into the floor well, shoving his feet over against the door, and trying to hit the far side with the sudden upwelling of stomach contents.
Suddenly the fire of fifty-thousand volts shot through his body from a hundred short, sharp metallic electrodes in the seat and back bolster of the car seat.
“That will teach him.” The pretty blonde female cop smiled as Stuart screamed and screamed and screamed.
Finally she pulled her hand off the little yellow button on the dash, complete with its little logo, ‘Taser International.’
“Are you going to behave?”
“Oh, God, oh, Jesus Christ.” Stuart's bad back had just been sent into a spasm, and suddenly he began vomiting again.
“Ah!” Stuart’s screaming rose again as the female cop zapped him with another ten or fifteen seconds of high-voltage.
The tasering only stopped when Stuart was little more than a blubbering, sobbing, broken thing, no longer recognizable as a man or as a human being. Finally he was able to speak.
“What are you doing? Why are you doing this?” He gasped and sobbed uncontrollably. “All I wanted was a fucking quart of milk!”
The cop-bitch’s hand was hovering all over the yellow button as he said all this, so he stopped. With a mean glance at her victim, she waited for a moment of silence, then slapped the button again, sending Stuart into a paroxysm of fits, starts, seizures, and forlorn attempts to get up and stay off of the seat. Finally, he was unable to sustain it, and fell back onto the seat with a little groan, and then apparently went unconscious.
“So what did this turkey do?” The male cop asked the security-drone for more details.
“He was causing a disturbance.”
“Did you receive any complaints? Like from other customers?”
“No, not really, but he was bothering our employees.”
“And how many employees were on duty at the time?” Stuart’s cracked and almost psychotic voice came unexpectedly from the back seat. “Can you tell me that, you stupid and immoral machine?”
“You’ll get your day in court, Buddy.”
Stuart was rewarded by the sight of the female cop’s hand on the button again, and another jolt of electricity was sent sleeting throughout his body.
“He assaulted a store employee.”
“You don’t have any employees.” A berserk Stuart shouted from the back seat.
“Another fifty thousand volts for the rude person in the back seat.” The female cop, a certain Rodericka von McGuinty, known far and wide, and even in this stinking little shit hole of a town, as, ‘The Bitch in Blue,’ hit the button with reckless joy.
“I’m sorry, I have decided to withdraw all charges, and am irrevocably wiping all details of this incident.” The drone, for no apparent reason, began backing away from the car.
“What up with him?” The male cop, a certain Steven Culvert, was quite mystified by this.
Turning around, he was slightly bemused to see what had once been a living, breathing, human being, albeit one with a few issues, maybe…or what was left of him, smoking in the back seat.
Jake looked at Rodricka for a moment, then shook his head in resignation.
“We can only kill so many people before someone somewhere begins asking questions.” He gently reproved her. “They can’t all be mentally ill—we have to shoot a criminal once in a while or it doesn’t look too good.”
Still, one had to admire her stand-up attitude regarding issues of access to justice for the poor, the mentally ill, the disabled, the working poor members of this here community.
With Rodericka, zero-tolerance meant just that.
Still, if the information was properly presented to the media, the situation might work out to their advantage.
Steve could visualize the CTV News Channel coverage now: “Mentally-ill terrorist subdued by brave, courageous, self-sacrificing, noble, unbelievably honourable, terribly underpaid, quick-thinking city cops…”
Yes, that would do very nicely, and here in Canada, the media was carefully trained not to ask any questions.
Steven Culvert looked at his watch.
“Well, this is all very upsetting. How about grabbing a bite to eat?”
“What about him?” She indicated the figure in the back seat with a jab of her thumb.
“I don’t think he’s very hungry right about now, and if we’re going to dump him in the usual place, then I prefer to do it on a full stomach.”
All in all, it was looking to be a pretty uneventful shift. The best days were the ones where absolutely nothing of any real importance happened. Any cop will tell you the same thing.