By T. M. Bemis
“I don’t know how you can eat those things,” I said, returning my tongue to a fleck of red pepper stuck between two teeth.
Ray gave me a sideward leer. “Some men prefer oysters,” he cooed, “and others prefer snails.”
“Well, I’d take anything over an anchovy.”
“Really? Then maybe there’s hope for you yet, boss!”
We’d reached the front of the store now, and I felt a familiar tingle as the automatic door swung open. Coming back from lunch had a certain queasy thrill to it, like jaywalking in traffic. One minute you’re nobody out on the sidewalk, and the next you’re the target of a dozen strangers who home in on you like hornets around a garbage can—and you’re not even wearing the I.D. badge. I used to wonder about that, about what they saw exactly that marked us as clerks. Because whatever it was, it clung to you on your day off. People would approach me in other stores and just start asking questions. It was our bearing, I think, a certain cynical cast we projected that made us stand out in a crowd. Plainclothes detectives had much the same thing. And mailmen. They said a dog could smell it on ‘em—
It was Doreen at the Courtesy Desk, a lantern-jawed bottle blonde with a short, tight perm and an attitude to match. When I looked her way, seven or eight faces gaped back at me, but hers shone among them like a beacon in the fog. If you worked in retail, only the other employees were real people; customers became ridiculous and two-dimensional, like cardboard cutouts.
“I need your authorization on a return, please,” she said. There was a problem; I could tell from the way she tapped her pencil.
“Want help?” Ray whispered, putting a hand on my shoulder. He always touched me when he had the chance.
“No thanks, man, I got it.”
Approaching the desk, I fixed each person on line with a withering glare. Several of them averted their eyes; one woman tried a tentative smile, and a pair of gaunt teenagers who could have been bookends gave it right back to me with naked hostility. Ah. These, then, were my adversaries. I nudged my way between them to reach the counter.
“What’s up?” I asked Doreen. She retrieved an item from the shelf behind her and set in distastefully on the Formica. It was a car radio, a Draco, the brand we sold. No box.
“This gentleman,” she said with pejorative emphasis, “wants a refund. He says he bought it here last week. He doesn’t have a receipt. He says it doesn’t work.” She adjusted her ruler-straight carriage slightly on the stool and awaited my pronouncement. I glanced at Frick and Frack, who were no longer eager to return my attentions. Instead, they stared straight down at their designer sneakers like they expected a caning at any moment. I picked up the radio—or what was left of it—and turned it over in my hands. They’d done their work crudely; there were gouges from a screwdriver crisscrossing the frame, and the faceplate was chipped in several places.
I addressed the nearest reprobate. “I’ll tell you what, Mr., uh—” The two of them looked at each other. Then the one I was speaking to said, ‘Johnson,’ none too convincingly.
“I’ll tell you what, Mr. Johnson. Why don’t you run along home now and see if you can scare up that box. And while you’re at it, bring me back the mounting bracket, six sheet metal screws, the antenna wire, and the other half of the power cord that you cut off here with a pair of dikes, and I’ll see what I can do. Otherwise, no refund.” I gave him the radio. He reacted like I’d handed him roadkill. Then he and his partner slunk off without a word.
It didn’t always end like that. Had Mr. Johnson been more conversant with our return policy, he could’ve gotten his cash, an abject apology and a complimentary boot-lick after about a minute’s whining. Not from me, you understand, but a department manager could be overruled—and the assistant store-manager, Gordon Beadle, seemed to live for nothing else. I decided to enlighten the others. “By the way, folks, they stole that radio out of a car. Probably one right here in the parking lot. It’s happened before.” There was an undertow of chatter as I made my escape.
I’d worked at Tulbar for three years now, and it wasn’t a bad job. ‘The Bloomingdale’s of the discount chains,’ was how they pitched it—they being Tulley and Barbara Squires, the owners. Get it? Tulley and Barbara? Tulbar? (We called it Fubar ourselves.) There were sixteen stores in the Tri-state area, and they were propagating like dings on a jalopy. Anyhow, I’d gotten the job fresh out of dropping out of college, and had clawed my way up the corporate ladder clear to the second rung. I was manager of the Hardware Department, which also included automotive accessories, paint, and plumbing supplies, and raked in about two million clams a year. For this they allowed me twice the minimum wage and a staff of eleven, most of them high school kids or retired part-timers. Lunch-mate Ray—six feet tall and age nineteen—was my full-time second-man. He was a dead ringer for Montgomery Clift, who also happened to be his idol. (I’d been told I resembled a youthful Bruce Willis, but that was by someone who owed me money.)
Oh yes, and I’d gotten one other thing from the company: wife Sharon, whom I’d met at the Milford store before transferring here to Brayton. Our marriage hadn’t taken, though; we’d been two antsy kids more focused on leaving the nest than any commitment we might be making. We hardly spoke these days when our paths crossed at all, which wasn’t very often with our screwball schedules.
“Is this the oil on sale?” I peered down at a creature the size of a leprechaun. In his hand was a quart of motor oil that he’d made the mistake of selecting from a tray where there was a leaker. In fact, as I watched the syrupy fluid make its way down his wrist to pool in the elbow of his cardigan (cardigan? It had to be ninety degrees outside!), I decided that, yes, this was the leaker.
“No, sir,” I told him, taking a stride backward. “This is the oil here.” I waved my hand at a mountain of razor-cut half-cases stacked beneath the DayGlo orange sign. As I tried to move around him, I found my way blocked by a baffled-looking, squash-shaped fellow. Other presences loomed suddenly right and left. Too late: I was surrounded.
“Stoplight for a 2004 Blazer?”
“Eleven fifty-seven. Next aisle, carded bulbs.”
“All the way down, across from the sandpaper.”
“Spark plugs for a Toyota—”
“Chart’s on the counter, sir. By the register.”
“Back wall, under the fuses.”
“Do you sell router blades?”
“With the drill bits. Two aisles over, second section back on your left.”
“'Round the bend, with the Stanley hardware.”
“This oil good for a chainsaw?”
“No sir. You need two-stroke. On the bottom shelf there, those green and white plastic bottles—”
“Could somebody help me with the paint?” A middle-aged woman in coveralls had posed the query.
“House or car?”
“Certainly, ma’am. This way, please.” I led her away briskly, ignoring the questions that flew at my back like Chinese throwing-stars. If you didn’t keep moving they’d pick you apart, poking and prodding till you lost your temper, or fell into a sort of gibbering trance, like a victim of battle fatigue. As I slipped past the aisles, I checked for my people. There were six of us working in Hardware that Saturday afternoon, our busiest time of the week. When I had gone to lunch, Kenny’d been stocking air filters, Eva was unloading re-packs, Mike was on the register and Jodi—pause, sigh—Jodi was straightening the chemical aisle. Now Mike and Eva were still on station, Jodi had gone AWOL, and Kenny—
“Look out!” yelled someone. Kenny came flying around the header, and I caught him in my arms.
“Hey!” I said sharply. “What’s going on here?”
“Can o’ spray paint on the loose!” Gesturing for the woman to stay where she was, I gingerly stuck my head out. Sure enough, a can of Tulbar spray—Aztec Blue, I wagered—was wind-milling along the floor tiles, hissing an azure mist over anything and everything. Finally it wedged itself under a baseboard and fizzled out.
In spite of all the blue, I saw red. We’d have to send back twenty gallons of interior enamel alone, just for the ruined labels. I was cursing like a drunken sailor when I remembered the woman at my side. Or, rather—who had been by my side; by then, she was in full retreat. “Oh, ma’am, I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to—”
“That’s alright! ” she sang over a shoulder. “I’ll be back! ”
Kenny exploded in laughter. He was a high school sophomore, thin as a twig with a mop of coal-black hair. He was also my best worker, and good with the customers, too—when he wasn’t fooling around, that is. Unfortunately, he and I shared a warped sense of humor and tended to be a bad influence on each other. My attention fell to his Tulbar I.D. badge, which he had altered illegally yet again. Today it identified him as Gary Indiana. Not only was Gary still chuckling, but fighting for air and turning a fetching shade of scarlet.
“So you think that’s funny, do you punk?” Heads swiveled. Kenny went pale. I grabbed him by the belt and collar and frog-marched him straight across the aisle and through the swinging stockroom doors. Once we were out of sight, I hollered, “I’ll show you funny!” and slapped an open palm on a case of motor oil. Whap! Kenny yelped on cue. “Ow!” We continued apace: Whap! “Ow!” Whap! “Ow!” till my hand went numb.
“Take a peek,” I told him, and he squinted through the constellation of holes in the pegboard wall.
“Two women,” he began—then convulsed in renewed hysterics.
“Come on.” We continued along the narrow stockroom passage to the corner of the building and turned left. “You’re gonna get me fired with stunts like that.”
Just ahead, Ray and Jodi were paging through a price book at my plywood desk. I came up behind them and peered through the little windows in the next set of double doors. It was the usual madhouse out there: half-a-dozen people on line at the register, and a cast of thousands milling about nearby. I drew back in the nick of too late. A pink face filled the glass, and the door drifted open until I blocked it with my foot. He stood there half-in and half-out.
“I have a question about the toilet seats.”
“We all do,” I said. Kenny began to giggle.
“You’ll have to wait outside, sir.”
“There’s no one out here.”
“Someone’ll be right with you, but you’ll have to wait outside.”
Kenny fell on the sword. “I’ll help him,” he groaned. I gave him a pat on the head as he sidled past.
“You’re terrible,” said Ray, smirking.
It was all I could do to keep my eyes off Jodi, even for a second. Then she said something, and I could stop trying. “What is this?” she asked, holding up a silver dingus. “It’s not in the book.”
“That,” I said, stepping closer for a whiff of her delectable perfume, “is a half-inch drive socket extension with universal joint.” She fixed me with those enormous doe-eyes and shook out her golden mane for a one-two punch. When she bent forward again over the printout, my gaze zeroed in on the downy white skin where the slope of her breasts began. There was a tiny blue vein there that I’d grown quite fond of...
“Well it’s not in the book,” she stated emphatically.
“That, my dear, is because you have the wrong book.”
I turned toward Ray and reached for the automotive binder on the shelf above him. He stood his ground so that we came in contact; I imagined I heard the smallest grunt of satisfaction. Opening this book atop the other, I leafed through its pages to Thornton Tools. As I drew my finger down the column, I became aware of Jodi’s warmth nestled against my right shoulder. I smiled at her and she smiled back. Then, returning to the price list, I detected a sibilant breeze upon my left cheek and glanced the other way. Ray was eyeing me like a cherry pie hot from the oven. He smiled at me, and I smiled back. Now when I looked at the numbers, they swam and shifted as the reality of the situation dawned on me for the very first time: I was going to have an affair. Or—Jumpin’ Jehoshophat! Maybe two of them!
* * *
You get to the point sometimes when you’re ready to snap like a rubber band. Dealing with the public will do that to you. And it doesn’t take an army of transgressors, either; a single wiseacre can handle the job nicely. Only today, for example, this cud-chewing moron in mirrored sunglasses had invaded my personal space and called me ‘chief.’ Now, I don’t know about you, but I don’t like it when people approach me indoors wearing sunglasses. It’s disrespectful, like shaking hands with a glove on. As is any sort of appellation like ‘chief’ or ‘boss’ or ‘captain,’ whose smarmy deference is clearly intended to be contemptuous. But I was ready. Reaching under the counter, I donned a pair of Groucho glasses (with the nose and mustache attached) before inquiring, “And what can I do for you, champ?” (I made sure it wasn’t much.)
Then I’m helping a woman decipher the headlight chart, when over her shoulder I see this guy tearing shrink-wrap from a set of ignition wires. He tugs out the spidery contents, gives it a Cro-Magnon ogle, then makes a half-hearted attempt to stuff it back in again. It won’t go, of course; they get machines to pack these things, Houdini couldn’t have done it. What bothered me more was what happened next: he put the mess back on the shelf, and picked up a new one to buy. I felt my blood pressure skyrocket as he sauntered over to join the line.
“Did you find it?” the woman asked me.
“That was a Ford, right?”
“A Ford Explorer.”
“I don’t make ‘em, mister, I only sell ‘em.” Mike Perotta was running the cash register at the far end of the counter. An ex-railroad worker who always wore his sleeves rolled up and the same black, clip-on necktie that barely cleared his nipples, he was diminutive, but feisty. I liked Mike.
“Nine double-o six, ma’am. Behind the speaker display, there, about three feet in on your right.”
She looked vaguely in that direction. “Do you think you could get it for me?”
Oh, sure, I thought, no problem. Except this guy wants a key cut, and that one needs chain, and the other fella—
“Void!” Mike chirped happily. This meant the transaction he was engaged in could not be completed, and he needed an approval (mine) to cancel it out.
“One second, ma’am,” I said, stepping over a puddle of gunk on the floor. It was reddish and viscous-looking, but gave off a pleasant, wintergreen aroma. Just then, Kenny emerged from the accessory aisle. “Ken,” I called to him. “Grab a double-o six headlight for this lady, please.”
“Thank you so much.”
I took the receipt from Mike, crammed it into a little manila envelope, and added one more illegible scrawl to the collection on the front.
“Customer changed his mind,” said Mike.
“You bet I did!” squawked a voice in my ear.
“You bet I changed my mind!” He was a rangy old coot in red suspenders and a fishing hat with bugs pinned to the sides. Suddenly he slammed something down on the glass countertop so hard I cringed. “How come they’re different prices?” he growled. He had two carded packages of brass cup hooks which appeared to be identical, but were from different manufacturers. One was marked seventy-nine cents and the other ninety-nine cents.
“They’re different items, sir,” I explained.
“I told him that,” said Mike.
“They are not different items! They’re the same quarter-inch hooks, six to a package!”
I knew it was silly, but I tried reason. “But they’re from different companies, sir. You see, this one’s from Home Shop, and the other one’s made by—”
“I don’t care who they’re made by!” he thundered, and banged the counter again. This time, even the fellow behind him gasped. “They’re the same thing, and I’m not going to pay an extra twenty cents for nothing. Every time I come to this store I—”
THWACK! Now it was my turn. I’d dug a quarter out of my pocket and slapped it on the glass. “There you go, Rockefeller. There’s your twenty and a nickel interest. Have yourself a night on the town.” (I knew I was losing it; it’d been a long day.)
Continuing behind the counter, I reviewed a gallery of stupefied faces. The last one rang a bell. “Excuse me, sir,” I said engagingly. “May I see that wire set for a moment, please?” I held out a mitt expectantly, and he forked it over. Then I walked briskly around him and headed down the parts aisle. In a flash I’d returned with the other package, its entrails drooping obscenely from one end. I thrust it at him. “This is the one you mangled, I believe.” His lips parted, but no sound emerged. I gave him a sneer and moved on.
My next step was dead-center in the gunk. “Ih-oo. Mike, what is this stuff?” I grabbed a handful of towels to wipe my shoe.
“STD Oil Treatment, I think. It was a glass jar—”
“Yeah, that’s STD.”
“And I need a break here, Peter. Don’t forget about me.”
“I won’t,” I promised, spreading more towels over the mess. “I’ll send someone over right away.”
* * *
Eva was closer to my age, twenty-two or three. She was also a big girl, taller than I was, with coarse auburn hair parted in the middle, and pretty blue eyes. Her speech was slow and mellifluous with a very slight lisp to it that was kind of sexy. She wasn’t my type, but I could understand how others might find her the cat’s meow, and there was often some tomcat in hot pursuit. Today it was Eric Taylor, the Housewares manager, a massive and intimidating golem of a figure. Fortunately, we got along well.
“Hey, Piper,” he said as I arrived.
“Just helping Eva sort out the knobs, haw-haw.” (She was filling in the cabinet hardware.)
“Oh Air-wick,” she admonished with a smile.
A grandfatherly figure was approaching us now with a sink trap clutched in a mottled pink claw. “Pardon me,” he said softly. “I wonder if I could—”
“CAN’T YOU SEE WE’RE BUSY?” roared Taylor. The man recoiled like he’d been horsewhipped; then shuffled away in a slow-motion run for his life. Taylor put on a self-satisfied grin. “That’s the way to handle ‘em, eh Piper?”
“You sure can turn on the charm, Eric. Eva, would you spell Mike at the register, please? He’s due for a break.”
“Oh, aw-wight,” she sighed. Putting down a carton of brass hinges, she adjusted her skirt, fluttered lashes, and sashayed off with a flourish of swaying hips. Taylor followed after her like a lap dog. I took up the hinges and searched for the appropriate peg hook; it didn’t seem to exist. Then I saw that she’d put the last few in the wrong spot. I rearranged them, hung the rest, and bent over to stuff the empty carton into a trash box. When I straightened up again, Jodi was there. Now it was my turn to play lap dog.
“What do you want me to do, boss?” she asked, arching her eyebrows innocently.
This girl was mind-boggling. Eighteen and flawless, like a spring blossom before the bugs get at it, with the face of an angel and silky blonde hair that beckoned to me with every movement like a champagne fountain in the desert. I’d tried to resist her when I first arrived, and for a week or two had actually succeeded. But then she’d twinkled those eyes and swished that hair one too many times, and my resolve had crumbled like a mud hovel in an earthquake. Now I was flirting with her shamelessly. It was stupid, alright, I knew that well enough. I was twenty-five and married and expected to be responsible, for Pete’s sake. But to be honest about it, I was lonely. And Jodi was the hottest chick this side of Pluto.
“What would you like to do?”
“How about I dummy-up the chemical aisle?” (This involved pulling all the cans and bottles to the front of the shelf to make it look neat and inviting—a job she’d already completed, by the way, so what she was really proposing was to do nothing.)
“Have at it,” I acceded with a kingly wave.
* * *
I was preparing to steal a Papermate from the Stationary Department when I noticed him. A man of about thirty, bald, in a work shirt and jeans, a few yards over in Menswear. He was crouching behind a rounder of fall jackets, and peering at something through a separation in the garments. Following his gaze, I saw a heavy-set woman fiddling with the handbags on a chrome display. So, switching tags, are we, dearie? Gotcha! I surveyed the area, and sure enough, here was another one: a young woman in a calfskin vest, thumbing through the CD’s as she eyeballed two delinquents in the next aisle. It was apparently our turn to host the S.W.A.T. Team, a corporate anti-theft brigade that traveled from store to store. Normally we had only Wally, a once-upon-a-time cop with a gut like Santa who limited his collars to the Polident Set. But every so often there’d be saturation coverage from a group of about a dozen professionals. They’d haul in the catch for a week, and then an article would appear in the local rag: Tulbar Shoplifting Sweep Nets Ninety. That was supposed to drive the kleptos over to Sears. I don’t know if it worked or not, but they sure were fun to watch. I put the pen back where I got it.
* * *
The coffee at the Snack Bar could have been brewed last week—with a sock in the pot. “Mmmm,” I commented to Millie, who stood grinning beside the pretzel rotisserie, rag in hand. She was one of the store’s ageless denizens; her purplish hair and amorphous figure beneath the flowered smock lending a kind of seedy hominess to the establishment. You just couldn’t imagine the place without Millie.
“You’re sick, Peter,” she observed. “I don’t know how you can drink that stuff.” (And this from the chef!)
“It’s all I deserve, Mill,” I told her, swinging around to the front registers. Half of them were still cranking, but no longer at full tilt. We were in the afternoon slump now, when the customers drifted home for dinner. I’d be among them soon myself. The funny thing was, I really didn’t want to leave. This was my turf, my ‘hood, my comfort zone. Out on the street, I was just some schmuck. But in here, here in my element, things were different. Here I had rank and standing. Gravitas. Folks respected me. Why, there were even troops at my command, after a fashion. (One particular, doe-eyed trooper leapt to mind...)
“Peter,” spoke the voice of God. “Could I see you in my office, please?” When I’d hit the ground again, I gaped up at Mr. D’Angelo, wondering how long he’d been standing there. The store manager was a tall, dapper, silver-gray gentleman in a pin-striped suit with boutonniere. He was already strolling away from me with that insouciant, long-legged gait of his.
“Uh-oh,” said Millie. “Are you in trouble again?”
“No way,” I demurred confidently. Though I suspected otherwise.
* * *
Mr. D was behind an imposing, white oak desk. At a cheap metal knock-off to the left of him sat Gordon Beadle, the assistant store manager, a pasty-faced bean-pole with retro sideburns and an ill-fitting, copper-colored jacket that looked as if it had spent some time in a donation bin. He was forever coming back to Hardware and giving me imbecilic merchandising suggestions that I would argue with him about until, aquiver with rage, he would finally stammer, “Just do it Peter,” and storm off in a tizzy. Then I’d call up Mr. D for an appeal, who would invariably end our conversation with, “Just forget about it, Peter.”
“Hey, Gordie,” I said to Beadle. There was no reply, but his body language snarled volumes. (I knew he hated to be called ‘Gordie’.)
“Sit down,” said Mr. D, gesturing to a faux-leather armchair. I dragged it closer and complied. He leaned forward to prop elbows on a green felt blotter. “I received a complaint today, Peter. From a customer. A Mister—” he referred to a paper on his desk. “Ezra Fielding.”
He paused there, so I endeavored to fill in the gap. “Yes, sir?”
Mr. D. regarded me searchingly. I noticed for the first time that he had a partial gold cap on one of his canines. “Mr. Fielding claims that you were rude with him this afternoon. He says that you raised your voice, that you referred to him disparagingly as—” his gaze fell again, ‘Rockefeller,’ and that at one point you tossed change onto the counter in what he described as a most insulting gesture.” I glanced at Beadle, who was all but drooling in the peanut gallery. Mr. D continued, “What I’d like to know from you is, is this true?”
“Oh, yes, sir, absolutely. Every word of it. Except for the ‘change’ part—it was only a quarter. You see, Mr. Fielding had discovered a price disparity on two items he was purchasing—not a mistake, by the way, sir, they were from different suppliers—and he was complaining about this to Mike, becoming obnoxious and abusive and banging on the counter, and when we attempted to explain our policy to him in as polite a fashion as possible, he just wouldn’t have it, sir, wouldn’t listen, you know how they get sometimes, these…these… people. Anyway, it’s possible that I may have been a bit brusque with the gentleman—but if you’d have seen him, sir, the way that he flew off the handle like that—Which in no way excuses my own indiscretion, of course, and I’d like to take this opportunity to apologize for any lapse of judgment on my part which may have reflected poorly on the company, and to affirm my steadfast belief that—”
He held up a hand. “Thank you, Peter. That’s enough. I have a much better understanding of the situation now. That’s all. You can go back to work.”
As I arose from the chair, Beadle jumped in. “But you said the next time this happened, he’d get—”
Mr. D cut him short with an icy glare. “That reminds me, Peter. There is one more thing. I would very much appreciate it if, in the future, you would try your utmost to remain civil to these…‘people.’ Let us remember who pays the bills around here.”
“Understood, sir. And thank you for the reminder. Catch you later, Gordie.”
* * *
Passing through the Toy Department, I did a double take: a man was lying face-down on the linoleum. Or no, not lying—poised on both palms, like he were doing pushups. An undercover operative, of course, scrutinizing some perp. In the next moment he was up on his feet like an acrobat and pussyfooting between the displays. I shook my head and continued on into Hardware.
“Car air fresheners?”
“Around the corner.”
“Yo, buddy. I need plugs. A nineteen—”
“On the counter, sir. Laminated chart.”
“All the way down.”
“Pints and quarts.”
“Excuse me, but where would I find a plumber’s snake?” Behind her, Kenny began to titter and make faces. I looked at him pointedly until he stopped.
“Three rows down, miss, in the plumbing aisle. At the far end on the left hand side.”
Once she’d departed, Kenny started in again. “Plumber’s snake,” he chortled. “Right above the mothballs.”
“You’re a depraved young man, Kenneth. I have a good mind to report you to your supervisor. Wait a minute—I am your supervisor.”
Jodi appeared now with a friend of hers from Garden—Jenny or Wendy, something like that. “Back in a flash,” she purred, and there was a brush of fingers across my stomach as the pair of them swept by. My heart skipped two beats. Kenny and I swung together to watch the dueling derrieres—until I spotted Ray. He was beckoning frantically from beside the car-wax header. I started over.
“We have a problem, Peter,” he said, keeping his voice down. (Oh, no, I thought. Here we go again.) “There’s this brute at the cash register, and he’s got these mats—wait till you see.”
I saw. He was brutish alright—and rather simian-looking—with a beetled brow, bristling jowls, and what looked like brambles atop his head. One of the pockets of his filthy flannel shirt was torn and dangling, like an eye punched shut. There were no other customers around anywhere, which seemed ominous. Mike and Eva had gone for the day, so it was just the four of us now in Hardware.
The man said something I didn’t quite catch as I went behind the counter. It wasn’t until we were face to face that I smelled the booze.
“You manger?” he spat.
“Yes, sir. How may I assist you?”
He slapped a paw down on a heap of garbage that may or may not have once been a car floor mat.
“(Gibberish) don’ fit,” he mumbled. “I got (gobbledygook) pair o’ mats. Kid there (babble) can’ do it.”
“He doesn’t want an even exchange,” Ray interpreted. “He wants those.” He indicated one of our deluxe, carpeted sets of floor mats, also on the countertop. The sound of Ray’s voice seemed to irritate the ogre, who raised his volume (though not his intelligibility) up a notch.
“I wan’ thish-un,” he reeked.
“Well, sir,” I explained, “what you have to do is to bring your old mats up to the Courtesy Desk for a refund. Then you can apply that credit to this other set. You can take them with you and pay up front if you like.”
He continued to stare at me blankly, the head slightly awobble. Behind him, I saw Jodi coming up the center aisle. She surveyed the scene at the counter, then made a detour to arrive next to Kenny off to my left. The two of them puttered with the revolving combination-lock display while they watched the show.
The rummy came to life. “I ain’t takin’ no (garble) back no (mutter),” he asserted loudly, “and I don’t give a—hic—wha’ you say.”
I covered my mouth and spoke sideways to Ray. “Call Security,” I murmured, as low as I could.
He whispered back. “What?”
I turned to him again and mouthed the same words. “Call Security.” This time he got it, skipped backward and disappeared into the stockroom.
I grinned winningly at Handsome. He leaned precariously across the counter and wafted
Eau de Lush in my direction. “I’m take theesh (jibber-jabber) out o’here, and no’by gon’ shtop me.”
There wasn’t much riposte to that, so I kept smiling while I furtively noted my escape route, should things get ugly. Then, just as I thought he might take a poke at me, he pulled himself back, scooped up his booty and let fly with a final tongue-lashing. “You pimple thinker sho high-mighty,” he declared, bloodshot orbs ablaze. “But ash me, you all bunch o’ duddle-fuggers!” Apparently satisfied, he rounded on rubbery pegs and lumbered off. I took a long breath and blew it out through pursed lips.
Ray emerged through the double doors and gave me a thumbs-up. I sat down on the counter and swung my legs over. “Let’s go,” I told the crew. It was after five o’clock now, and the place was dead; there was only a handful of shoppers left to be seen. Our man was making for the exit, plowing determinedly through empty air as if wading in molasses, seemingly unnoticed and uncared about.
Suddenly, they materialized. One of them came from the Snack Bar, and another pair from the Pharmacy; several departed the checkout lines like hounds to a silent whistle. There were married couples and gawky teens; bikers and bimbos and runners in sweats—six, eight, ten of them, all converging on the automatic door in perfect synchronization. Mr. Mat was outside the store now, trudging along with his unpaid booty under an arm. A challenge was issued and a gin-addled fist thrown, and then they were on him like a pack of hyenas, dust and limbs flying, and handcuffs glinting in the late-day sun.
“What are they doing?” Jodi asked excitedly.
“It’s a crash course in capitalism,” I told her.
Kenny burst out laughing. “This place is unreal.”
Ray was disgusted. “I don’t want to see violence, Peter. Can we go back to Hardware, please?”
“Let’s take a vote. All those in favor of going back to Hardware, raise your hand.” Three of them went up. I high-fived Ray, then Kenny, but something came over me when I got to Jodi. I took her hand in mine, and drew it slowly to my lips for a kiss in front of everyone. I’d pay dearly for that indulgence. Because surprisingly, the most astonished face of all didn’t belong to her, or Ray or Kenny, but rather to a person I hadn’t noticed in front of the Jewelry Department.
“Hey, Gordie,” I said to him.