Time for a Joke

by Brian Dunn

When the grocery store door slid open and the young man slipped through it, he didn’t have jokes on his mind. He was there to buy beer and a basket wasn’t going to cut it, so Daryl ripped one segment free from the cart centipede in front of him. He was in the purgatory between the grocery store’s double sliding doors. On one side was a sweltering summer Tucson Friday night. On the other, the store’s fluorescent glow provided ambient light to shoppers picking out canned peaches and processed cheese. Sharing the middle with him was salt for priming soft watering systems and ice for chilling beverages.

Daryl gave the cart a push and passed through the second sliding door into the store, then paused to get his bearings. It’d been almost three years since his move out of the neighborhood, and the only reason he was back tonight was because some old buddies talked him into a reunion of sorts, promising a night of drinking and the strip club. The smell of overly fried chicken from the deli assaulted his nostrils. Aside from the floral department being swapped for a Starbucks and an extra layer of dullness and wear on what were once shiny surfaces, nothing had really changed.

Daryl realized he was on the complete wrong side of the store for beer, so he pointed the cart due north, pivoted on the heels of his polished Kenneth Coles shoes, and started walking through the bagging area at the end of the checkout lines.

The first three checkout lines were manned by female cashiers. Daryl smiled at each as he passed, but they were too busy scanning products or swiping debit cards to notice. The next five checkout lines were empty, but when he reached the end and turned the cart toward the food aisles, Daryl recognized the old man cashier. The cashier had worked at the grocery store ever since Daryl first shopped there five years ago, and he’d once sported a meticulous buzz cut where white wisps of hair now resided. The tight cinching of his green apron called attention to the cashier’s waistline: one that had morphed into flabbiness. But there was no mistaking a jaw so square it could double as a level, or the faded military tattoos decorating the cashier’s forearms. Daryl turned the corner, gave the cart a shove, and rode it all the way to the store’s main thoroughfare. He touched down with both feet and wondered whether the cashier still told jokes.

The beer aisle was number fifteen, on the grocery store’s outer reaches. The only aisles beyond it had shelves stocked with baby items, household cleansers, and paper products. Daryl pushed toward it, applying gentle pressure to the cart’s handle on the right side to correct its natural imbalance.

The jokes the cashier told were raunchy and filled with double innuendos and improbable sexual acts, the type heard any place where men gather out of women’s earshot, like barbershops or pitch-dark bars that reek of whisky and piss. The first joke Daryl heard from the cashier was about a double-jointed man who fell helplessly in love with a midget. The cashier used the word “midget,” too. Not “little person.” Odds are good that he actually said “little fucking midget.”

How in the hell had the cashier been stuck this whole this time, doing the same boring job, dealing with the same customers? Something must be wrong with the guy, Daryl thought. Moving up in the world was tough, but not impossible. He’d managed it with a favor from his buddy who got him on as a poker dealer at the Indian casino off the freeway. Six months of tips from dealing and scraping in general gave him enough money to get a studio apartment in a neighborhood where people don’t worry whether it’ll still be standing in the morning.

Daryl turned into the alcohol aisle and slowed down as he passed the premium liquor bottles behind glass. Their packaging and labels gave off an air of sophistication. The day he had a wet bar in his apartment stocked with some of those gorgeous bottles would be the day Daryl could feel he’d made it. There’d probably be a beautiful girlfriend in his life who treated him like a king and knew precisely how to pour his favorite drink. With luck, she’d be a redhead. Daryl pulled up when he reached the beers—a forest of ports and stouts, pilsners and IPAs—and licked his lips in anticipation of knocking back his first of the night. This wasn’t going to be a craft beer night. This was all about consuming mass quantities. He loaded five cases of beer into the cart. All domestic, all cans, with varying quality. They’d start with the better stuff and then move on to the cheap as they got drunk and cared less. Daryl loaded the last of it, hoping he’d bought enough.

The cashier didn’t tell his jokes to just anyone. Before he asked, “You have time for a joke?” he’d size you up with a quick up-and-down. Most customers didn’t pass the test. Daryl had seen many a soccer mom miss out on the one about the farmer’s daughter and the stuttering aluminum-siding salesman. To the humor-deficient, the cashier would ask, “Find everything alright?” But if you made the cut, he’d steal a glance to make sure the manager wasn’t around before launching into the one about the girl yoga student and the guru with a two-foot long beard.

Daryl pushed the cart to the checkout area, taking a quick detour past the magazine rack. He didn’t stop but did slow down enough to check out the models on covers of the hot rod and motorcycle magazines. When he was a kid, he’d steal his older brother’s issues of Chopper Magazine to stare at the leather- and bikini-clad girls until he could close his eyes and see every curve in his head. Daryl didn’t bother scanning the checkout lines for the shortest wait. Instead, he parked his cart in the old cashier’s line.

Directly in front of him was a mom who looked like she might have been a cheerleader years ago in high school, but looked too exhausted to cheer about much of anything except maybe surreptitious day drinking. She was managing to ignore her three-year-old climbing over her like an espresso-drenched spider monkey. No joke for her today, Daryl thought. That’s the price of having a shitty kid. Already at the register was an octogenarian man whose bowed back now rendered him a good six inches shorter than he’d stood in his prime. Daryl thought he looked like the kind of man who sleeps in a recliner every night. The man had probably been around long enough to hear every joke under the sun, but his old-fashioned hearing aids that nestled inside each enormous, hair-covered ear didn’t bode well for him getting one today. The cashier smiled and asked if he’d found everything alright. The old man either shook his head or experienced a slight palsy spasm. The cashier took that as a ‘yes’ and quickly scanned the items from the man’s hand basket. They fit into a single plastic bag.

After the cashier rang up the total, the old man’s liver-spotted hand began an excruciatingly slow dive into his pocket for payment. While Daryl watched with equal parts horror and amusement, he thought of a joke he’d been told recently about a man who rubs a lamp and releases a feminist genie. The genie tells him that whatever he wishes for she’ll give double to his wife. Daryl had laughed when he first heard it, and now he smiled as he retold it in his head.

(A man’s walking along the beach when he finds a genie’s lamp…)

The octogenarian moved on, making way for the mom to push her empty cart to the register. The shitty kid erupted with a high-pitched howl into her ear that she didn’t respond to, other than to switch the hip upon which said kid was hoisted. Daryl grimaced and hoped his future wife would be as barren as the Mojave Desert. He started loading his beer on to the conveyor.

(…and girl genie pops out and says, ‘I’m a feminist genie, and I’ll give you three wishes but…”)

The cashier looked up at the mom. “Find everything alright?” he asked. She nodded, and the cashier dragged the first macaroni-and-cheese box across the price scanner and dropped it into the plastic bag.

(…whatever you wish for I’ll give double to your wife. What’s your first wish?…)

A cute coed with a ponytail wrapped in a yellow scrunchy on the top of her head got in line behind Daryl. She wore white denim cutoffs so short that the lining of her front pockets peeked out of the frayed denim at the bottom. She had tan, fit legs all the way down to her white canvas Chuck Taylors. Daryl was too preoccupied to notice.

(…My first wish is for a million dollars. You got it, but I just gave your wife two million…)

The cashier scanned and bagged the mom’s Cocoa Puffs and Pop Tarts. The cute coed answered a call on her iPhone with a Louis Vuitton cover.

(…My second wish is for a brand new Porsche. Okay, but your wife now has two Porsches…)

Nail polish remover, Q-Tips, Lay’s potato chips. Scanned and bagged. Total tallied.

(…What’s your last wish? The man thinks about it for a moment and says, ‘Okay, I want you to–‘)

Suddenly, the boy unlatched himself from his mom’s shoulder and lunged at the gum and candy bar rack behind her. She anticipated the move, plucking him out of midair and switching him to her other arm, before hastily paying with a credit card and pushing her loaded cart toward the exit.

Daryl pushed his cart and came face to face with the cashier. The conveyor rolled his beer to the lip of the scanner. When the old man saw him, Daryl thought he’d been recognized, then quickly dismissed the idea. The cashier ran his fingers through the sparse strands of his hair and an epiphany struck Daryl. Before the cashier could say anything, Daryl blurted out, “Hey, have time for a joke?”

The cashier grinned. “Sure do. Have you heard the one about the wife who takes her husband shopping one Saturday? First they go to–”

“No, I mean do you have time for me to tell you a joke?” Daryl smiled, but the smile wasn’t returned. The cashier looked at him without answering, his hands on his hips where his apron string rested. A long sigh escaped the old man’s lips.

Daryl shifted his weight nervously from one shoe to the other. “Hey, listen. Sorry if I cut you off.”

The cashier rubbed his forehead with the back of one of his tattooed forearms, then dropped his hand back to his waist. He finally smiled. “No, it’s fine. It’s just that in all the time I’ve worked here, no one’s ever asked me that.”

Brian Dunn is a Phoenix, Arizona-based author, writer, and humorist. His short stories have appeared in The Oddville Press, Heater, and elsewhere. His humor writing can be found on McSweeney’s Internet Tendency and Splitsider. Follow Brian on Twitter (@briandunnwrites).