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Cafe Macondo

Megan Arkenberg lives in California. Her work has appeared in Lightspeed, Asimov's, Goblin Fruit, and dozens of other places. She has stories forthcoming in the next volume of The Apocalypse Triptych, edited by John Joseph Adams and Hugh Howey, and in the first issue of Aghast. Megan procrastinates by editing the fantasy e-zine Mirror Dance.

The scanner bips and gives a four-note ascending scale of disapproval. Item not found. I look at the package in my hand. "I'm sorry, ma'am, but this coffee's not in our system. It's from an alternate dimension's grocery store."
Her lips make a smacking sound like a magnetic coin purse. "Excuse me?"
"Café Macondo." I type in the eleven-digit code on the bottom. The package is deep, silky green with a chain of yellow butterflies across the front. The final vowel in the name is a steaming cup of coffee. "Our store doesn't carry this brand. It slipped in from our competitor--er, counterpart--on another plane of existence."
She rolls her eyes in the politest way imaginable. "I'll go check the price on the shelf."
"Yes, ma'am." I set the coffee aside and continue scanning her order.
It's not as rare as you might think, having an alternate dimension's food products wind up on my conveyor belt. It isn't always coffee. Most of the time it's perishables, or seasonal items from two seasons ago. Once in a while it's bulk grains. I know of only one instance involving produce--a bag of tiny, unidentifiable potatoes in March of 2001, which has passed into store legend--but new employees often claim there's been a recurrence to excuse their inaccurate PLU entries.
Our managers take it in stride. They'll ask where you found the product, check the prices of items around it, and charge you half of the average. Then they'll give me a knowing look and tell you to have a nice day.
I don't know what the managers in the alternate dimension do. It's not like they haven't found our merchandise on their shelves. The technical term is "shrink," and corporate blames it on shoplifters, but we on the sales floor know better.
In the alternate dimension's grocery store, it is understood that "paper or plastic" is not a question of preference. For years, customers believed that it was a koan, unanswerable, like the sound of one hand clapping. Then, on a June day in 1993, a grandfather with a cart of chicken soup cans stumbled upon an answer: "Whichever works best." I picture the customers in line behind him gaping, awed at his wisdom.
Since 1993, a few other answers have been discovered. "Both" works, in a sneaky sort of way. Cloth bags--"Here, I brought my own"--are more than acceptable. So is "None, I can carry it." Some people believe the correct answer changes with each order, and moreover that it is possible to determine the best choice through algorithmic calculations and meditation. Secretly, I agree with the first part of this answer, but I think the old man had it right--leave the difficult choices to the professionals.
The employees in the alternate dimension's grocery store look somewhat like the employees here. There's a cashier who looks a bit like me, except she's a little taller and wears an eyebrow piercing. And there's a boy in the grocery department who looks an awful lot like the cute boy named Noah who works in the grocery department here.
The cashier who looks like me and the boy who looks like Noah are in love. I like Noah a little, but we've only spoken once, here, about canned tomatoes.
Here are some of the things customers have said to me, and how the cashier who looks like me in the alternate dimension's grocery store responded to them.
Customer: Is this the right kind of flour for my recipe?
Cashier: I'm sorry, sir, but the tin foil in aisle twelve blocks your brain waves and makes it hard for me to psychically infiltrate your mind, seize your mental image of the recipe book, and note the exact type of flour it calls for. So, maybe. Paper or plastic?
Customer: Why are all your bananas green?
Cashier: Because they contain pigments that absorb all visible waves in the electromagnetic spectrum except for those measuring approximately seven hundred nanometers in length. Paper or plastic?
Customer: You're cute.
Cashier: Save it for the customer service survey. Alternately: Paper or plastic?
My answers, in order: I hope so. I apologize for any inconvenience. Stony silence.
We have one customer here who also shops at the alternate dimension's grocery store. She comes in Tuesdays and Fridays for bananas, bread, and milk, and she gives her change to the baggers. I'm not sure she knows that she occasionally shops in the other store, but every now and then, she starts walking down an aisle and disappears, only to turn up a minute later in an aisle on the other end of the store, her cart loaded with otherworldly groceries.
In the alternate dimension, everyone wants to be a supermarket cashier when they grow up. You can get a two-year tech school degree in Checkout Science, but most positions require a Master's. The cashier who looks like me is working on her Ph.D. People revere the cashiers for their superior wisdom and knowledge. They certainly never roll their eyes.
In this dimension, my friend who works the day shift is looking for another job. He says he doesn't want to become a lifer in this goddamn company, and I totally understand. At the same time, I worry. This job doesn't look impressive on a resume. Sometimes, I feel like my head is so full of PLUs and bagging tips that there'll never be room for anything else. I come home, put ice on my sore knees, and sort the bills I can't pay into precise stacks. I worry I'm going to spend the rest of my life hunched over a scanner. There's nothing else I'm good at.
In the end, the customer decided against the sixteen-ounce bag of Café Macondo beans. "It's too weird," she says, "that there aren't any others like it." I shrug and ask if she'd like paper or plastic.
At the end of my shift, I take the coffee to the back room. Noah is working grocery today.
"What's that?" he asks.
"Coffee from an alternate dimension," I say. He chuckles a little, and I toss it into the cardboard box labeled Damage and Returns. Interdimensional food products disposed of in this way always find their way home. In another day or two, Café Macondo will be in the coffee cup of a cashier who looks more than a little like me as she gets ready for work, waking from another world's dreams.
The End
This story was first published on Tuesday, October 21st, 2014

Author Comments

As one can probably guess after reading "Cafe Macondo," I used to work at a grocery store. The experience didn't do much for my faith in humanity, but it provided fodder for a surprisingly large number of stories

- Megan Arkenberg
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