Watchlist , our anthology of surveillance-themed short stories, is out now. To mark the publication of the book, we asked a few of its contributors to perform their own real-life act of surveillance — and to write about what they saw.
1. Two pair children’s jeans, fifty-pack of doilies, three Jan Karon novels.
Cashier: “You can never have enough doilies. I know you’ve heard it before but it bears repeating.”
2. A pile of large kitchen knives (carried to register in an Easter basket. Basket was not purchased.)
Cashier: “Don’t mess with you on the wrong day!”
The man buying the knives, who has a Chicago accent, tells the following story: When he was young, he sold Cutco knives door-to-door. He did this in “the neighborhood.” He put on a good show, cutting pennies in half for housewives. He would dice up tomatoes real fast, like this. He was the top salesman in his district. This won him a trip on a riverboat cruise, where he gambled away his earnings at the blackjack table—oh no, right?—but he met his wife at the Spirit of the Mississippi bar while drinking away his sorrows so, hey, it all worked out.
3. Table lamp with no shade, Trapper Keeper (Lisa Frank design), Webster’s dictionary, broken watch, cutting board in the shape of a fish, Cookie Monster cookie jar with chipped lid.
Cashier: “I dated a guy named Frank once, and his daughter’s name was Lisa. He never thought that was funny. He didn’t laugh at much of anything, actually.”
4. Abstract painting in reflective golden frame, mint-lavender tones, with tiny splashes of red.
Cashier: “This feels like a dining room piece to me.”
(Woman buying painting unsure whether it’ll end up in the guest bedroom or the den.)
5. A little boy, about four, comes in with a woman who, judging by their matching thick brown hair and long faces, is his mother. They turn into the women’s clothing section.
The boy looks bored, ducks under the clothes and pops up in the next aisle.
The boy carries a Cold War-era plastic fire truck to the counter and carefully says to the cashier, “Excuse me?”
“Where’s . . . where’s the remote control?”
“I don’t think it has one, darling.” She gives me a look. I look away; I am surveilling, not participating. I don’t care what quantum mechanics has to say about the observer paradox.
His mom joins him. “See, it has this switch here—” she pushes a tab and a light comes on in the driver’s seat—“so you can turn it on. But just, what else does it do?”
She’s wearing a brand of exercise pants that make her butt cheeks look like two distinct circles. They are a Venn diagram that barely overlaps.
6. Paperback books (King, Clancy, Koontz.) An electric guitar with no strings.
The cashier and the customer seem to know each other. She asks how he’s been. He’s says he’s fine, ya know, in a way that makes it clear that fine is relative and maybe not very good, that probably his baseline for fine is pretty low. Then he raps the glass countertop twice and says, “I don’t know about if you know about my birthday.”
The cashier’s eyes convey that she doesn’t.
“My mom died. Then the next year I got evicted. Then this year I go for a job interview and my car craps out on the way. Needs a new catalytic converter. When it’s all said and done I’m seventy dollars away from three grand to fix a ten-year-old Honda Civic with a hole in the floor. I could’ve sold it for fifteen hundred and paid that plus the three grand and got a four-and-a-half thousand-dollar car, which is really the dream right now.”
7. A stack of old postcards. Some have been written on. Customer: me.
My favorite is an advertisement for plush Dobermans that says come feel them on the back. There’s also one from Michigan, with a purple Abraham Lincoln 4 ¢ stamp:
I loved your letter honey + so did the whole dining room for you didn’t put my name on it + the People of the Seminar had to ask after opening it, “Who is ‘dear Mom’ to Miss Myra Lockard from Athens, Ohio?” This is the other lodge where most of the man + married couples are—Love, mother.”
Crammed sideways along the edge is the line: A good laugh is good for digestion.
I open the Facebook app on my phone and type in “Myra Lockard” and send a woman with gray hair and high privacy settings a friend request.
The cashier apologizes for the cost of the old postcards—75 cents each, which she feels it too high—and asks how I liked the rocking chair. I could say it was horribly uncomfortable, didn’t rock very well, and would never sell for eighty bucks. But as always in these situations, I watch myself reach for a laugh instead, and I tell her it could really use a remote.
W atchlist: 32 Stories by Persons of Interest, is available now from Catapult Books.