Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Je te Felicite Pour ton Zele

“Excuse me, I have to check your receipt.”

He stood like the Colossus of Rhodes astride the harbor of worn, dirty tile, flanked by a bank of doors to the left and a cart corral to the right. The yellow marker he wielded as a sword, stabbing at receipts in the name of Justice. His clipboard, his shield, with which he feinted at the old ladies and brash college kids who tried to slip past him as he checked receipts against the content of bags and carts with a precision that would make Charles Babbage envious.

Ever-polite, but never copping out. The words “I’m just doing my job” never crossed his lips. No package of gum went unchecked. Thieves and murderers were in the midst of his noble co-workers. He was the shining knight, battling the forces of Evil.

“Everyone has their niche,” the man from Corporate told him once, on a visit to the store best-known for stopping shoplifters. “You have found yours.”

Michael Partridge, wielder of clipboard and marker, beamed.

He performed no heroics. Corporate said he was to identify shoplifters, not apprehend them. But with a cell phone and a willing local constabulary, he had police in the parking lot, zooming in on a suspect, less than a minute after they passed through his doors, suspicious, nervous, twitching wrecks.

No one got by. His mother did not get by without opening bags, showing the receipt, as Michael Partridge quickly scanned the merchandise, comparing what was in the cart to what was on the receipt. He prided himself on his ability to tell the difference between tomatoes and peaches through two layers of translucent plastic bagging. And reveled in his ability to scan an entire cart, bulging with foodstuffs and socks and bargain DVDs, in less than a minute.

He had an assistant, less able, present at peak times. The only time he was not on duty was during the holiday rushes; Black Friday, the Saturday before Christmas, because that was when complaints about the slow lines at the checkout and the bottleneck at the door increased to a cacophony that even the laid-back manager could not handle.

Michael Partridge noted with consernation that it was at those times the store’s loss rate spiked. He loved his customers. But to love a customer requires constant vigilance.

He started in elementary school, his mother told her friends. He kept track of his marbles, never lost them carelessly. And if he lost them legitimately in a game with friends, he wrote down in a little notebook who had what, and insisted, when he won the next round – even weeks later – that he get his own marbles back first. He could sort a rolling shelf of library books properly in about fifteen seconds and help his librarian mother put them into their proper places on the stacks in five minutes or less. Under his bed he had shoe boxes full of Legos, sorted by color and function; the instructions kept in numeric order in a binder. He had the neatest sock drawer of any fourth-grader at Wipporwill Elementary. At age six, he ironed his own underwear.

He drove a late-model Honda, kept it neat, changing the paper mats on the floor once a week, keeping the carpet and upholstery pristine.

When he took the personality test as he applied for a job at Bil-Stor – his mother needed the money to supplement the librarians’ pension they lived on – he answered every question with unfailing loyalty to the company that undoubtedly would hire him.

He worked as a stockman and kept the bolts, screws, picture hangers. Light bulbs and cat food in his departments orderly. Five years later, when shoplifting began to be a serious problem, management moved him to the front door, where he quickly amazed the local populace by checking receipts against cart content in seconds, and often saved them money they hadn’t realized they’d missed because of an incorrect price that showed up on the receipt. A few complained that he blocked the doorway when they wanted to leave, in a hurry, anxious to be on their way. But his lop-sides smile, Rain Man demeanor and quick eye won over all but the loudest of critics.

He read people well. He could tell the loud but innocent from the loud and guilty. The silent from the slinking. He demanded Justice from all. If the company screwed up, he made it right, though it pained him to see the infallibility. If a customer sneaked out without paying for a six-pack of socks, the police were notified.

Shortly before Black Friday ten years after he checked his first receipt, Michael Partridge disappeared. His Bil-Stor co-workers put up posters. Tongues in town wagged as the assistant receipt checker, lax in his duty, tried to fill the missing man’s shoes. His mother died three weeks after he disappeared. He was not at the funeral. Many assumed he was dead. Many assumed, jokingly, the local band of shoplifters – those who stole gum, toilet paper, DVDs and Doritos – had him done away.

Corporate never asked after him, even as the store’s loss rate climbed. The champion, it seemed, was unmourned.

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