Here's the story: This old man came up to Customer Service. He had a pack of pinochle cards. He wanted regular playing cards. I told him the regular cards were out on Register 15 - about 20 feet away and within sight of Customer Service. His answer? "That's too far to walk." So I had to go get the cards and bring them back to Customer Service for this contrary old fart.
Now, here's the story as if written by Stephen King.
Previously: Jane Austen | Old Testament | Gabriel Garcia Marquez | What's going on
The last thin rays of the feeble winter sunlight shone off the gleaming glass doors of the suburban mega-store. The black asphalt parking lot seemed to stretch on for miles.
George Wilson shuddered, pulled the edges of his leather bomber jacket closer and tried not to think how the thousands of rows of straight lines of painted parking spaces resembled teeth in the mouth of a giant parking lot monster – and how far he was going to have to walk right down the middle of those rows of teeth to reach the doors.
“Nothing to do but start walking,” he thought.
“MISTER, HEY MISTER, LOOK OUT.” George could hear the screaming somewhere behind him. He broke from his reverie and looked back just in time to lunge to the side and avoid a whole line of shopping carts that had broken free of their machine and taken off, as if with a mind of their own, across the lot toward him. CRASH
Someone with a black Honda Accord was going to be very unhappy very soon.
“Hey, are you OK Mister? Them carts get loose sometimes. We tie a rope around them but sometimes it comes loose.”
“I’m fine. I’m fine. I just need to return something.”
“OK then. I’m real sorry Mister.”
George considered his narrow escape, gritted his teeth and continued walking.
Upon reaching the entrance, George was struck by how monolithic the building was, how it dominated the landscape around it, how it seemed to exert an inexorable pull on the shoppers to enter the maw of the sliding doors and spend, spend, spend.
Slide, chop, slide. Slide, chop, slide. Slide, chop, slide. Slide, chop, slide. Slide, chop, slide. George watched in fascination as the automatic doors slid open, then closed. Open. Closed. Three of them side by side by side – like the triple heads of hell hound Cerberus – devouring the livelihoods of all those who dared enter.
“Nothing to do but keep going,” he thought.
Once inside the triple doors, George saw that it was yet a few more yards to the actual entrance, where a blue-smock-clad worker stood guard over the store, murmuring to the oncoming swarm, tagging the people coming in and verifying the paper of the few able to scrape together the cripplingly penurious fees required to exit the mega-store.
It’s like the gullet on a creature from the deepest hells, George thought, you pass through the mouth and slide down right through to the stomach.
CLANG CLANG CLANG CLANG. George nearly jumped out of his skin at the sound of yet more carts coming into the store. The sound brought to mind the gnashing of teeth, or the grinding of jaws of some inhuman monster of the dark gnawing the bones of the unwary.
“Nothing to do but keep going,” he thought.
George lurches forward, drawing his jacket tighter about him. The blue-smocked worker begins to speak and George decides to strike first, before any destructive spell can be cast. “I JUST WANT TO RETURN THIS.”
The worker looks taken aback, but nods and shoots a sticker from her gun onto the pack of playing cards in George’s hand and points toward the Customer Service counter further down the store.
Taking a deep breath, George steps onto the shiny white tile surface and into the cacophony of aural, visual and olfactory pollution that is a suburban mega-store.
The assault on his senses was deafening in every way.
The bright florescent lights shone down from above, from points perched somewhere in the cavernous ceiling and only slightly less strong beams splashed back up again from below, reflected off the shining white floor.
The noise threatened to deafen him. A thousand beeps from dozens of cash registers. Shrieks from babies, screams from wronged customers, cries of hapless employees and the endless drone of buggies sliding across the floor combined to dull the senses and cloud the mind.
“Nothing to do but keep going,” he thought.
George jerked himself forward with effort, lunging toward the Customer Service counter. It was a predictable chaos. A double wedge of buggies sat like stone gargoyles guarding (or confining, George wondered) a single harried clerk.
There was a rogue’s gallery of customers with a white elephant selection of merchandise waiting for a return. Dead rosebushes. A watermelon. A live chicken.
One of the buggies standing guard reared up on its back two wheels and edged closer to the chicken, causing the crone with the chicken to deliver a hard smack with her staff.
George wondered if he had slipped past sanity into a waking dream. Surely he had not seen a live chicken nearly be devoured by a shopping cart – only to be fought off by a witch.
He shook his head and looked again. There was an old woman in a cornflower-blue pants suit holding a cane and white sweater folded over one arm. George could see that she had craft supplies, likely skeins of wool – in her shopping bag.
The line edged forward. George could hear the clerk talking to customers now. “Return or exchange?” “Sign here. PLEASE HELP ME! DELIVER THIS MESSAGE TO SOMEONE OUT ON THE FLOOR.”
George looked up, but a middle-aged woman returning some shoes was only signing her return receipt. It must be the ventilators causing George to hear things. “That’s it,” George thought. “I bet a place like this has huge air ducts. I’m just hearing the pipes rattling.”
The line inched forward. The man at the counter was arguing about returning a pack of pinochle cards. Although old, he appeared to George’s eyes to be perfectly healthy. He wasn’t in a wheelchair and had obviously walked from the parking lot to the store and into Customer Service without the aid of so much as a cane.
The clerk was becoming visibly frustrated. “Sir, I can’t go out and look for you a new pack of cards just because you want me to. There are many other people in line. It isn’t fair to make them wait because you don’t want to walk thirty feet over to Register 15 to get a new pack.”
The old man was resolute. “I’m not moving. I’m old and I’m tired.”
In his eagerness to hear the unfolding drama, George did not notice store employees adding more carts to the dozens already lining the walls of the Customer Service bay. The harried clerk finally snapped in his argument with the crotchety old man, slapped his hands down on the counter and said, “Look. You’re just going to have to wait. I’ve got to call someone to come help me out. I can’t make all these people wait because you’re old and stupid.”
Inwardly, George cheered. He saw the clerk pick up the telephone to dial for assistance and then saw a look of sheer terror mask the features of the clerk’s face. George turned and saw only three more employees adding yet more carts to the area surrounding Customer Service.
Carts now surrounded customers on all sides. Anyone wanting to return something had to pick their way through shopping buggies with all the care taken by soldiers picking their way through a minefield.
George thought this was rather careless and inconsiderate of the employees, but realized this was a low-wage, low-training dumping ground for the least well able to function of society’s wage slaves. He renewed his resolve never to shop here again after returning the items in his hand.
The line edged forward. A young mother with a toddler in an infant stroller and shopping bags hung off the handles rolled up to the counter. “I’d like to return my daughter, please.”
The harried clerk nodded unhappily.
George recoils in shock and shakes his head sure that he’s heard wrong. He looks again sees only that the woman has taken the child out of its stroller because it is crying and sat it on the counter. She is fishing for something in a shopping bag. “That must be her return,” thought George. “I really need to get my ears checked.”
The child began to howl louder. The screams covered up the sounds of the grinding of wheels as the buggies in the area began to push closer, trying to completely encircle the area around Customer Service.
Customers in the main store area were completely oblivious. SCAN. BAG. SCREAM. THAT RANG UP WRONG. SCAN. BAG. DISCOUNT. COUPON. SCREAM. YOU’RE DOING IT WRONG. SCAN. BAG. SCREAM. YOU SQUASHED MY BREAD. SCAN. BAG. SCREAM. I WANT A MANAGER.
George swept his gaze side to side. The entire Customer Service bay was a mass of buggies. It seemed like half the merchandise of the store was here instead of on the shelves.
Were the buggies edging closer? George didn’t want to believe it, but he didn’t remember that rusty cart with the wonky wheel from five minutes ago. It must be the heat. These big box stores never have good heating systems he told himself.
Up ahead, George could hear the clerk asking “Ma’am, do you have a receipt for this baby?” George dug his finger into ears in an effort to clear a non-existent blockage, desperate to believe that he simply didn’t hear the word “outfit” on the edge of that sentence. The child was starting to calm down now, although the mother seemed to be getting more emotional.
“We just can’t afford it,” George heard her tell the clerk. “We work all day and still can’t afford another one. Can I return the stroller and the diapers too?”
“If you have a receipt,” George heard the clerk say begrudgingly.
George thought to himself, “I hope I’m never that poor that I have to return baby clothes.
“Ma’am. This receipt is from last July. The return period on babies is 15 days. You’ve had little Carrie here for eight months. I’m sorry, but we can’t take her back.”
“WHAT DO YOU MEAN YOU WON’T TAKE HER BACK. I’VE GOT A RECEIPT. SHE’S IN GOOD CONDITION. YOU WILL TAKE HER BACK. I WANT A MANAGER RIGHT NOW.”
The clerk leaned over the counter. “Ma’am. Seriously. You need to calm down. Bad things will happen.”
“I’M NOT GOING TO CALM DOWN. I WANT MY MONEY BACK FOR THIS SHITTY BABY THAT SHITS ALL THE DAMN TIME AND DOESN’T EVEN TALK YET AND YOU’RE GOING TO GIVE IT TO ME.”
George couldn’t believe he was hearing this. He looked straight ahead, transfixed by the scene that was playing out. Then he heard a cluck-cluck. It was a chicken. The old woman in front of him really DID have a chicken.
She was talking to George. “Dearie. Dearie. I say dearie. You need to pay more attention. We need to back up. There’s about to be a scene here. Can’t you see the buggy-horde getting ready to attack? Dearie? You don’t’ look so well.”
The buggy-horde. It was real. It was very real. What was once a pack of purchase conveyances was now a metal mass of grinding wheels and razor-sharp teeth transformed instantly into a living, breathing killing machine.
“But …” George sputtered. “But what about …”
“Come dearie. We’ll go over to the café and have a coffee. The old man and the mother are history. Once they start to make a scene they’re a goner. There’s nothing you can do. Those are the rules of the returns at the House of the Wahl. Satan is a manager. Hitler works in grocery. Now. Can you hold my chicken? I need to clear a path through the buggy-horde.”
Wordlessly George reached out to grab the chicken’s feet. The old woman brandished her cane with the skill of a hockey pro, sweeping a path through the ravenous metal creatures.
Behind him, George began to hear screams. First a loud wail from the mother, then a high, thin scream from the old man with the pinochle cards. The screams continued for a while, then nothing.
The next thing George heard was the tired, oh-so-tired voice of the clerk “Maintenance to Customer Service with a blow torch and a mop. Maintenance to Customer Service with a blow torch and a mop.”
Welcome to the House of the Wahl. Do you have your receipt?