By Alex Luft




I just so happened to be shopping in a Cost Choppers location near my home last week, and I know that you are likely to receive dozens of applications that claim similar experiences, but I must say that it struck me that working at Cost Choppers would undoubtedly offer me an opportunity to not only excel as a worker but also to gain some personal redemption, and so I’ve attached this extra sheet to my job application to make entirely clear what I mean when I say that working at Cost Choppers is not only a vocation but really a calling, at least for me, and I am going to keep this brief, but to tell the story convincingly I have to go back to one afternoon almost two decades ago, when I accompanied my mother to the grocery store, one that I will hesitantly admit was not a Cost Choppers, and when Mom asked me to help her take the items from the grocery bags and place them in the various cupboards and cabinets populating our family’s kitchen, I made quick work of the task, moving so quickly in fact that my mother watched agape as I built perfectly conceived stacks of canned vegetables on the far side of the cupboard, and then I had to explain the system, because while it made perfect sense to me, my mother didn’t immediately catch on that I was putting the oldest of the cans on the top, and she even told me, “Mickey, I can’t say I’ve ever even noticed there are dates on the cans of green beans,” to which I could only reply that there are expiration dates on all of the cans, not just the green beans, an obvious fact to someone in your position at Cost Choppers but not to my mother, I suppose, because she was there claiming to have never thought twice about it and also to have never seen someone quite so capable of stacking and sorting dry goods, and even while she was talking I was busy reorganizing the collection of stove-top noodle mixes and ready-to-make rice dishes that she insisted upon keeping in abundance in case of hungry teenaged visitors, who rarely showed up, truth be told, because I simply wasn’t a very popular member of my high school community, as I seemed always to be saying and doing things that slightly aggrieved my peers, including wearing jogging suits daily, attending publicly to bodily habits, raising my hand in fourth period algebra, and running for Class Treasurer in 1992, but this supposed void in my social life allowed me plenty of time for my hobbies, which already included chess strategy and also kites, and which would now include my new love, sorting and stacking grocery items, as my mother’s amazement at my latent grocery abilities was perhaps surpassed only by my satisfaction with a job well done, and it was like a firecracker going off, that moment, when I realized what it was that I should truly be doing with my life, and before I knew it I was taking the intercity train on every other weekend to work with the regional chapter of the National Grocers Association Best Bagger Competition, a group of young people as devoted as I was to the principles of precision and orderliness, real standouts in the field of competitive grocery work, all of which were employed at their hometown grocers and usually enjoyed quite few perks in these positions, such as a nominal quarterly bonus or their pictures displayed on posters near the restrooms, and you can see that they indeed helped to plant the “seed” that might bloom into a job at your Cost Choppers, and as competitive baggers are a bit of an offshoot social group themselves, they accepted me for who I was, I think, until the day of the Midwest Regional Meet of the National Grocers Association, when our team entered as relatively unknown underdogs, pitted against the veteran squads from Quincy, Illinois and Rochester, Minnesota, and all of our families were there, but we competed well along the way, excelling at the pricing races, the cart retrieval relay and the written portion covering the basics of customer service, and they all led up to the final competition, the highlight reel of all competitive grocery, the paper-bagging competition, in which baggers are given a limited number of paper bags and no foresight as to which items will be sent down their conveyer belts, and they are timed, and they are judged based on the sound logic used in their packing, and so of course it was an event at which I excelled, and with our squad behind by just 2.5 points going into the final competition, my team members turned their attention on me, suggesting that I was the only one with a shot at edging out Eddie T., the hall-of-fame-bound bagger from the Quincy team, and so I was left with no choice but to step up to the register, where I was greeted by the judge, who in this scenario was also acting as if she were a cashier, and then the carts were brought out from behind a veiled section of the competition space, and if you can imagine a half-dozen pubescent boys all practically salivating as they survey the stacked groceries and begin rearranging them in their minds, their thumbs and fingers idly caressing the brown paper bags placed before them, then you can imagine exactly how nervous everyone was, and of course I was no different, so when the buzzer sounded and the scanners began their beeping, when I saw the line of food products rolling toward me, when my brain started to think about where the apples and the 2-liter bottle of pop belonged in relation to the eggs and the foot powder, something inside of me just hit a sort of snag, stopped moving, caught in slow motion, and the next thing I knew, there were dozens of items collecting on the belt in front of me, juice boxes and bananas and a frozen pizza and a pound of flour and more, and the judge/cashier was staring at me sideways, and all of the other competitors were too engrossed in the rapid hand-eye coordination to notice I hadn’t moved, but my teammates, my poor teammates, were yelling my name from the bleachers, and then they were yelling more than my name, things like “move, for Christ’s sake!” and mixed obscenities, as it was increasingly clear that I was about to lose the competition for myself and wreck things for the team, and realizing this only made its effect doubly powerful, and I stood in absolute shock, and the judge/cashier asked me if I was okay, and she started looking around for a superior or perhaps for medical staff, and in 2 minutes and 26 seconds it was all over, the entire ordeal, and I hadn’t bagged a single item, and obviously my team finished in a distant sixth at regionals, and this cost us any chance at advancing to the big show, the national competition, where Eddie T. would eventually lead his team to a title, and right then and there I had to give up the grocery game, knowing that I had cracked, knowing that whatever joy I’d once found in the sorting and stacking would then forever be haunted by the memory of my great failure, for which the majority of my teammates vowed to never speak to me again, leaving me somehow even more alone than I was before the entire fiasco, and I could go into detail more about this, but I don’t want you to hold this one event against me in deciding whether I can join the Cost Choppers team, and for the sake of brevity I will skip instead to a day in just the past two weeks, when in need of a packet of onion soup mix, I proceeded to my neighborhood Cost Choppers, and after I’d found it in aisle 7A, on the left hand side, I continued to the check-outs, and I chose the one with the shortest line, register 6, where an old acquaintance was manning the register, and though it took me a few moments, I recognized him, Eddie T., from the old days, and you can imagine me fighting the urge to ask for his autograph, as shell-shocked as I was, and I was content, or even overjoyed, to watch him ring up my few items, and then he shut off his light and announced he was going on break, and at the risk of sounding obsessive, I’ll admit I dawdled a bit while returning my cart to the vestibule, so that on my way to the parking lot I passed by Eddie T., who was smoking and leaning against the front of the building, and I don’t mean to tattle on him for this impropriety, but it explains how I had the opportunity to tell him he looked familiar, feigning a casualness usually beyond my powers, and he said I probably recognized him from his days on the pro circuit, and then I asked if he had by any chance been at the 1993 Midwest Regional Meet of the National Grocers Association, and he said yes, and my mentioning that competition must have clued him in, because he narrowed his eyes and seemed to recognize me, and he asked if I was the kid that “went all catatonic” in the final competition, and I said indeed I was, and this was enough to strike up a conversation, and he let me stand with him, and he said he’d been a bagging pro his whole life, but that there was no easy way about it, and that he’d gone through a divorce or two before landing on his feet at the Cost Choppers, and then he said, “well, that’s my fifteen, so I’ve got to get back in there,” and then he was gone, but after he left I couldn’t stop thinking about how it used to be, all the sorting and stacking and pricing and, of course, the bagging, and I have set my sights on a job at Cost Choppers, and to my mind this is the perfect opportunity for my redemption, not only in the eyes of Eddie T. but also for my personal relationship with groceries, and I hope that you can see that in some way, my entire life has been slowly building to my completion of this job application. Also, I am available nights and weekends. 


Alex Luft's fiction has been published in The Adirondack Review, Midwestern Gothic, Sequestrum, The Coachella Review and elsewhere. He is currently pursuing a Ph.D. at the University of Illinois-Chicago. 

© 2015