I'm in HEB, my local supermarket. I've just ridden twenty miles so my legs are aching. I've bought chicken stock and now I need milk. I'm near the chiller cabinet when she accosts me.
'Can I help you?'
I lower my camera because I've just taken a photograph. 'No, I'm fine, thanks.'
'You can't take photographs in here.'
I've just taken a photograph so this confuses me. She must realise that I've just taken a photograph. I feel stressed and even a little angry. I press the button on the back of my digital camera so as to fill the tiny screen with the picture I've just taken.
'You want me to delete this now? Is that what you're saying?'
She has no reply but is squinting at me with that face which generally means the hard-drive is rebooting, having crashed at the sound of words spoken in a patently non-Texan accent. As the silence remains I consider that I'm in a fucking supermarket next to eggs and margarine, not furtively snapping some secret experimental Batman plane on a military base; and what the hell is she going to do anyway? I don't press the delete button but instead slip my camera back into its holster on my belt.
'Well, here's the thing,' I say. 'I was in here yesterday, right here,' and I explain how I was ripped off for five dollars by some stranger. She was small with bright blue eyes and reminded me of Pennsatucky from Orange is the New Black. She was animated, fidgety. She jumped up and down as she spoke, although this is almost certainly just how I've remembered the encounter.
A month later I read an online article about a pseudo-hypnotic technique called neuro-linguistic programming in which a speaker partially duplicates the mannerisms of his or her subject and presents conflicting or bewilderingly vague information in order to influence them without their quite realising it. It sounds easy, and it sounds like what happened to me, particularly the references made to Australia presumably being based on my little buddy having falsely assumed that to be my nationality, as is a common mistake around these parts.
In the mean time I'm explaining this to a slightly sun-dried version of Warden Figueroa from Orange is the New Black. She's some sort of store supervisor or manager or something, and I am vaguely aware that I probably sound crazy. I've already tried to explain that I want a photograph of the store for the account I am writing of my being hustled by someone who resembles Pennsatucky from Orange is the New Black. I didn't take a photograph of the woman who ripped me off so I've taken one of where I was stood as it was happening.
'You know how when someone talks so fast that you can't think,' I hear myself struggle to explain, 'well, that's what she was doing.'
'Was this an HEB employee?' Warden Figueroa asks concerned. Either she hasn't been listening, hasn't understood, or doesn't give that much of a shit.
'No. It was just some woman off the street.'
Warden Figueroa visibly relaxes. It wasn't a member of staff so it isn't her problem.
'Do you have security guards here?'
'Yes.' She looks puzzled, maybe worried. She doesn't seem to understand why I'm asking.
'I mean, if that happened again, could I call for a security guard?'
'Well yes, but—'
'Does it happen much in this store?'
'Does what happen?'
'People being ripped off like what happened to me yesterday.'
She doesn't seem to know how to process any of this, and the exchange degrades into noise with me walking off.
'Never mind,' I tell her. 'Don't worry about it.'
I'm no longer even quite sure what has pissed me off, but it's probably the insinuation of my having done something wrong when I was the one who got ripped off for five dollars, coupled with Warden Figueroa's apparent inability to cope with an unfamiliar accent or a conversation about something other than the location of the aisle with all the barbecue sauce.
Next day there I am again, because I stop off at HEB on what is usually a daily basis, thus avoiding the burden of a single massive grocery shopping expedition every weekend. As I enter I immediately see Warden Figueroa berating one of the aged greeters who is usually at his post by the sliding doors.
'Oh fuck,' I mutter under my breath, 'not you again...'
She doesn't seem to notice me, instead concentrating on giving the old guy a hard time about a cheap t-shirt which has fallen from its rack. I already had the impression of the woman as a bit of a dummy granted a modicum of power, someone who takes pleasure in exercising what little power she yields because historically it's been her on the receiving end, the one who is told to pick up the fallen t-shirt. The old guy always says hello to me as I enter the store, but not today because he's been given an order, and so my initial impression of Warden Figueroa seems justified.
I buy cat food, then wander to the end of the aisle to see if they have feed corn. Each morning I've seen people feeding the deer in McAllister Park, and I want to try it for myself. The deer seem very friendly, and it's fun to watch them hoovering up the corn. HEB stocks only cracked corn, which is meant for birds I guess, and I notice Warden Figueroa walk along past the end of my aisle checking something on her clipboard.
She's there yet again as I buy milk, and again as I look for olive oil. What a coincidence.
I place a bag of flour in my basket and exit the aisle, and there she is fiddling with the display at the end of the shelving. HEB is a big store and we're now several hundred yards from the door by which I came in. As an experiment I double back on myself to a shelf marked seasonal goods, which is where they have the Christmas stuff or Halloween candy or whatever, depending on the time of year. Warden Figueroa glances down the aisle towards me as she passes yet again.
Warden Figueroa stands casually discussing something with another employee as I look at the bread; then finally around to fruit and vegetables. I stand by the chili peppers and wait for her to appear, as indeed she does. I stare directly at her to let her know that I'm very much aware of being under suspicion. It's kind of a challenge because I've decided that I don't like her very much. Aside from anything, such ham-fisted surveillance insults my intelligence. She hasn't actually pretended to read a newspaper with two circular holes cut from the front page so she can look through, but we're not finished yet.
I pay up then go out to where I've locked my bike, and there she is again, stood where employees nip outside for a cigarette, pretending to play with her phone.
Fuck you, Warden Figueroa, I think.
I try to work out what the problem could have been, as she presumably saw it. Maybe she expected me to whip out a camera and start filming. Maybe she didn't know what the hell I was going to do, but I had asked about security which had maybe suggested ill intent on my part. Maybe she just thought I was a bit weird and probably up to no good.
I avoid HEB for the next few days because I haven't actually run out of anything, but it hurts. HEB is as much of a social life as I have these days. When I eventually go back I have the confrontation rehearsed. I've shopped in this store for the last five years, almost daily, spending a sum getting on for six hundred dollars a month. I know half of the cashiers by name, and at least two of them are my neighbours; and you, Warden Figueroa, I've never fucking seen you before last week. I don't even know who you are.
It doesn't come to that. I shop unmolested.
I see her again weeks later. I'm crossing the parking lot and she's coming towards me when I hear someone call hello. It's Jennifer, a cashier who somehow resembles a little Mayan princess, and who I used to speak to fairly regularly but haven't seen since Christmas.
'I've been on the counter,' she explains, referring to the place where checks are cashed, or whatever it is they do.
'I thought you'd had enough and packed it in.'
'No,' she says. 'It's nice to see you.'
I glance across to Warden Figueroa and think a triumphant fuck you because now she is the one who doesn't fit in.
Another couple of weeks pass and my last sighting of Warden Figueroa is as she fills bags at the tills. I guess they are short on people. I guess she isn't quite the big shot I imagined she thought herself to be.
She probably just didn't understand my accent.