Tom had an ugly voice. It sounded like gravel being poured down a funnel. The consonants grinded against the vowels. He didn’t speak his words, he spat them, hawked them up like phlegm. He spoke in short, terse sentences, minimizing the syllables. When he spoke, people thought he was mean. When he kept quiet, they thought he was a nice guy.
His coworkers thought he was nice. The other cashiers were impressed that the old-timer had caught on to the self-checkout machines, and that he could keep up with the rushes of customers. His knobby fingers, swollen with arthritis, would dab at the touch screens with ease.
“My mom can’t even work her cell phone,” Jake said. He was 19 and often worked the closing shift with Tom. He changed careers every month. Tom envied him a little. Not so much his age, but the options. Jake could change his life in any direction he wanted because he had the luxury of time.
Tom would only change one thing. He wished he would have steered the great ship of life slightly off course, and take Liza to the doctor sooner. She would’ve protested, but then the cancer would be caught in time, and he wouldn’t be working at a SuperMart five days a week, holding onto something he was sure he imagined.
His wife’s voice was in the machine.
Her voice was a foil to his. Her voice was smooth, gentle, soothing. Liza had said: “I love you” in that voice for 35 years. That voice had laughed, yelled, joked and scolded him for most of his life.
Now, it told customers to: “Please take your change.”
He picked up every shift he could. He took hours from college kids who needed to study, from teenagers who wanted to go to a concert, from middle aged women with sick kids. The four self-checkout lanes hummed when he was working. No errors, no crashes, no freezes. Management would call him when the machines stopped accepting cards, or refused to give change.
The Liza registers preferred him.
It was crazy and weird and made him think that maybe his kids were right. Maybe he should stay at a nursing home. Relax in a waiting room for death.
Today, he clocked in and strode to his station. It was a Tuesday, and the last rush of the afternoon was hitting the checkout lines. Polly, the girl who he relieved, had gathered a horde of irritated customers at the self-checkouts. All around him, Liza spoke to the customers:
Remove bags now.
Unknown item in bagging area.
Tom, I love you.
Would you like coupons?
If you have a shopper’s card, swipe it now.
Tom worked through the crowd, typing in access codes, resetting the machines, fixing the rolls of receipt paper.
“Oh, thank you,” one woman said. “I’ve been in line for hours, that other girl couldn’t get them to work.”
He smiled and went back to his station.
The customers thinned, then disappeared. There would be a lull until 11pm, then a slight burst as the people who worked afternoons got off and stopped to pick up groceries.
Tom had two hours with his wife.
He pretended to straighten the candy rack next to one of the registers. “Our son called me today. Says he’s up for a promotion at work. His wife is almost done with law school, did I tell you that yesterday? I suppose I did…”
It was like talking to her grave. An animated, responsive version of her grave. He tapped the screen. “Hello,” Liza said. “How can I help you today?”
A customer with a cart full of soda walked over. Tom frowned and drew away from the register.
At shift end, Jake helped him shut down the machines. They moved methodically to each register, running the security scans. It made Tom feel like an executioner on a battlefield, stalking over to each fallen soldier and driving a spear through them for the last time.
“I guess SuperMart is pushing out a software update for these things. Gets installed in two weeks.” He patted the register. “Increased security, better customer service, and a new voice. That will be cool. I get tired of hearing the chick that’s on there now.” Jake started to shut it down, but Tom moved in front of him.
“You can clear out early, if you want. I’ll shut the rest down.”
“Really? That’s awesome dude. I was gonna try to catch a movie.”
After Jake was gone, Tom kneeled and pretended to tie his shoe. “I don’t know if you’re really in there, Liza, but I guess we have to say goodbye again.”
Feeling more weariness than sadness, he shut it down.
He put in his notice, planning on leaving before the update could go through. But Jake had gotten the timetable wrong: the update installed while Tom was on the clock.
A technician came in and crouched near each machine, fiddling with the inner workings. Tom glared at him, but the technician didn’t notice.
Each register monitor went black, and they slowly booted back up.
“Hello,” said the new voice. It was deep, bland, and male. Tom thought it sounded sinister, like a barely concealed devil. “How can I assist you today?”
“That should do it,” the technician said.
“What about that one?” Tom said. The register on the far end was flickering in and out.
Tom walked over, aware that his heart was beating dangerously fast. A high pitched whine was coming from the speakers. He thought it was an electrical problem at first, but as it grew louder, he recognized the voice.
His wife was screaming inside the machine.