“I’m so sick of this place.” We are standing sixty feet apart and our line of vision is blocked intermittently by passing shoppers, but I can see Prateek’s lips moving as he says this. The sound of his voice lags an imperceptible moment behind. “These people, these products,” he says. “The whole thing makes me want to off myself.”
This is our job: wear royal blue, store-issued polo shirts and pleated khaki pants while standing imposingly at opposite ends of the store entrance’s massive bank of sliding doors.
A man in a puffy green vest passes between us.
If the security alarm goes off, we are to verify that the merchandise in the offending customer’s bag matches his or her itemized receipt. Ordinarily only one person is assigned to door duty, but there are two of us today because the store is on high alert.
A man with a handlebar mustache and his sleepy looking wife pass between us.
While we stand there and look imposing we talk to each other through wireless devices attached to our collars. Our voices ride invisible waves into the outer atmosphere and return to Earth sounding different in ways that can’t be quantified.
“I was already at my end last week when Haney was on my ass about not smiling enough,” Prateek says.
A woman in a shockingly red coat passes between us. I smile. We are under strict orders to smile at each passing customer while still looking like we mean business.
“By the time the Centaur came wheeling through here threatening to burn herself alive in Housewares,” he says, “I pretty much wanted to die.”
The Centaur is a nickname given by employees to the store’s most notorious customer. She roams the aisles on her personal motorized three-wheeled device, looking for ways to defraud the store. Her refund schemes are juvenile, transparent to even the newest cashiers, but she still manages to succeed roughly half the time due to loopholes in store policy.
“I mean, I literally thought about walking over to sporting goods, grabbing the baddest looking hunting rifle I could find and putting myself out of my misery,” Prateek says. “Or a crossbow. Crossbows are primitive. I’d like to die primitively.”
The Centaur’s suicide threat is why the store is on high alert. Her three-wheeled device is painted a dull metallic red and covered with bumper stickers whose slogans aren’t worth repeating because they reveal nothing of who she really is deep down, beneath the stained sweat pants and fur-lined bomber jacket she wears, other than the obvious fact that she doesn’t really know of any good way to express herself.
“A mace would do the trick, too, I suppose,” Prateek says. “And by mace I mean a spiky metal ball on the end of a club. Not pepper spray.”
Or maybe she does know how to express herself. Maybe the three-wheeler is its own form of self-expression, a physical manifestation of the many unoriginal ideas that, together, make her unique.
“Anything blunt, really.”
The radio emits a staticky chirp whenever one of us finishes talking. I’m bored with our conversation. I’m thinking about how I need to improve my posture. I can just barely see the Centaur on the perimeter of the parking lot. She’s hunched over on her three-wheeler, smoking a cigarette, talking to one of the protesters. They are exchanging animated gestures.
“What’s her deal anyway?” I say.
“What do you mean what’s her deal?” Prateek says. “You know her deal. She’s unbalanced. She’s a lunatic.”
The protesters gather daily on the sidewalk just outside of store property. Management has abandoned efforts to remove them. No one understands exactly what they’re protesting, but most of us secretly admire their persistence.
“Okay, so she’s a lunatic,” I say. “But what’s she after, really? She spends enormous amounts of time here trying to scam the store. For what?”
The protesters hold crude signs and chant robotically and walk in circles with less conviction than you’d expect. They are like sleepwalkers or death-marchers. Most of the time the only way you know they care is that they bother to show up.
“She’s in it for money, probably,” Prateek says. “More money equals more bumper stickers.”
“That can’t be it.”
“Why not?” Prateek says. “Money is a motivating factor for lots of people. It motivates me. If it weren’t for this fucking recession I wouldn’t be standing here. I’d be working a real job, making decent money, shaping young lives.”
We’re not sure why, but the Centaur has been trying to rally the protesters lately. She was banned from the store following the suicide threat, a decision that was universally lauded by employees. Since then she’s been hanging around on the sidewalk. She doesn’t wave a sign or chant or fall in line with her three-wheeler, but she seems to have been accepted by the group.
“She can’t possibly make enough money doing this for it to be worth her while,” I say.
More people than I can process as individuals pass between us all at once.
“You’re overthinking this, Hector. She’s a lonely, disabled widow with nothing better to do than make us miserable.”
“She was married?” I say.
“Absolutely,” Prateek said. “Have you never heard her talk about Peter? She does it all the time, especially when she gets pissed. Wait until Peter hears about this, Peter told me this would happen. Peter will have something to say about that.”
“No no no no, “I say. “She’s talking about Saint Peter. She means that when we, us store employees, die, we’re going to answer for our collective injustice toward her.”
“Nope,” he says. “She told me all about Peter one time. She was flipping through her little book of coupons, mumbling something over and over to Peter. And I just came out and asked her.”
A man in a jean jacket and his two daughters pass between us.
“Asked her what?” I say.
“Who this Peter is that she’s always talking about. And she said he’s her husband who died in a military training accident two weeks before he was supposed to ship out to Vietnam. He was supposed to be part of the Tet offensive, but he never made it.”
“I’m not buying it. I’ve heard her talk about judgment and Heaven’s Gate,” I say. “She’s talking about Saint Peter.”
A handful of giggling teenage girls passes between us. Prateek’s eyes track them for longer than anyone would deem appropriate.
“Her husband is Saint Peter,” he says. “In her head. She thinks that after the guy died he joined the judgment panel or something.”
“I’m serious,” Prateek says.” This is what I’ve been trying to tell you about with this place. Nothing here makes sense. I used to feel a part of the planet, but the humans that are walking around here these days, the ones I see tromping through these aisles, are completely unrecognizable to me. Truly.”
“It’s not that bad,” I say.
“Okay, right, Mr. Zen. It’s not that bad. You think I went to college for this? Did you go to college for this?”
“I don’t know why I went to college.”
“Well let me tell you why I went,” Prateek says. “I went to college to get laid and read obscure books that would in no way increase my marketability but would still somehow make me a better person.”
A woman in a fiery pants-suit who looks like a television news anchor passes between us.
“But still I figured I’d be able to get a decent enough job so that my wife wouldn’t threaten to leave me every other week,” Prateek says.
Judging by the Centaur’s age, if she did have a husband, they must have married young. I can’t help picturing the two of them blissful, dancing at their wedding to Etta James or someone, with not even the faintest idea of how things would turn out. In my mind the young Centaur is thin, maybe even beautiful. The technology behind her three-wheeler probably didn’t even exist back on her wedding day. The raw materials it’s made of were still buried in the earth somewhere.
“Now let me offer you one reason why you might have bothered to go to college,”Prateek says. “How much money did you make selling houses all those years before everything went to shit?”
A grown man wearing a football jersey passes between us.
“I made enough,” I say.
“Enough,” he says. “So you don’t need me to tell you that all of this is light years away from being enough.”
I’m not sure why Prateek is complaining about his wife. Mine actually did leave. She took the kids to live, temporarily, she says, with her parents on the other side of the state. Our house is cold and desolate. I sleep on the couch every night with the television on mute.
“I didn’t need to go to college to sell houses,” I say.
Prateek watches with disgust as a freckled boy spills a massive jug of cola on the white tile floor near the Lotto machine. He doesn’t even consider going over to help the kid’s mom clean up.
“I mean, I never thought my teacher’s salary would buy me a mansion,” he says as the janitors swarm the scene. “But I had a reasonable expectation, I think, that I wouldn’t end up at a place like this. What the hell are they doing out there? Some shit is about to go down outside, I think, Hector.”
I catch myself slouching and stand up straight. I’ve been doing that lately, trying to be conscious of my breathing, my body. I’m discovering that posture is important. Not intrinsically, but because of what it means to pay attention to it.
“I once read a book about this Russian spiritual teacher,” I say. “He’s long dead now. He was running around 1920s Europe with his followers.”
“Hold on,” Prateek says. Someone has set off the security alarm. He checks the lady’s bag, smiles with sufficient force, lets her go.
“So…” he says. “Czarist Russia.”
“Right. Well, post revolution, but yeah. This guy and his followers were constantly on the run through the countryside, living in farmhouses all over the continent that had been abandoned during the war.”
“On the run from what?”
“I’m not really sure, actually. Maybe no one. The important thing is that they thought they had someone to run from.”
“Seriously, Hector, the protesters are up to something. I think they’re going to come in here.”
“So this group spent all their time meditating and seeking, doing their thing,” I say. “And part of the regimen was, you’d be out doing your chores, bailing hay or whatever. And the spiritual leader would ring this really loud bell without warning. And when he did you had to stop whatever you were doing and freeze.”
A beautiful woman with purple eyes, I swear, passes between us.
“Yes, like freeze-tag when you’re a kid,” I say. “Someone tags you, you freeze. Don’t move, doesn’t matter what position you’re in. Only in this case you freeze when you hear the bell. It’s supposed to be a self-awareness thing, to snap you out of the kind of trance we all get in when we’re doing everyday things that don’t require much of us.”
“Like this job, you mean?” Prateek says. “You’re saying the security alarm has spiritual value?”
“Let me ask you a question,” I say. “What if God or someone equally powerful came to you—”
“I don’t believe in God.”
I’ve become addicted to silence lately. Posture and silence. These are things I need. There are pockets of silence to be found on this planet, even in a Godless place like this one.
“That’s why I said someone equally powerful. Could be any deity,” I say.
In particular, there is an eerily quiet section in Housewares, near the dated sofa pillows that no one ever buys, ruffly little things that even the frailest of old ladies pass up. It’s the only place in the entire 120,000 square feet of the store where the acoustics are such that you can’t hear the ever-present Muzak.
“Let’s just say someone all-knowing and all-powerful jumped off a fluffy cumulus,” I say. “And they land on your doorstep and rap on the knocker a few times and when you answer they say to you, look, I have it on good authority that your secret ambition is to be an astronaut, or a linebacker for the Seahawks, or the ambassador to Tanzania, or whatever your secret ambition is.”
I go to Housewares and pretend I’m performing baroque inventory procedures. I point one of the handheld inventory machines at the shelf and push the button and pretend it isn’t working, so that I can stand there in the quiet and act like I’m fixing some insurmountable problem. Occasionally a shopper rolls a cart by and wonders why I’m muttering to myself. They think I’m deep into my work when really I’m just relishing the silence.
“Tanzania is a shit hole, I hear,” Prateek says.
“That’s not the point,” I say. “The point is that everyone has a secret ambition, something they believe they should be doing with their life but for whatever reason aren’t.”
People on fire have impeccable posture.
“The point is,” I say, “what if that deity said to you, hey, I know you think you should be playing linebacker for the Seahawks, but actually you’re doing just the right thing, working at that megastore, guarding the door, hassling shoppers whose merchandise through no fault of their own has triggered the security alarm.”
Bodies on fire are alive with a pain that won’t allow them to shrink. They move like children dancing.
“So don’t go beating yourself up,” I continue. “Relax. Be assured that your station in life is in no way related to your value as a human being.”
An old man on fire is suddenly young again, his limbs shed their stiffness, are made limber by the flames. His face transmits unnamable emotions.
“What would you think if that happened?” I say.
Fear, agony. Disbelief. They’re all part of the burning man’s equation. But there is also something else, an expression that straddles the line between a smile and a scream, an ecstatic neutrality, a release of force that refuses to travel the usual channels, to ally itself with the world of ordered things.
“Seriously, what would you think?” I repeat.
This is the most thoughtful pause I have ever seen from Prateek.
More people than I can process as individuals pass between us. I will never know any of them. Their stories will forever be unknown to me.
Finally he responds. “I would think the deity was being paid off by Haney or some douchebag at corporate.”
Photographic proof of what happens to a man on fire is glued to the picket signs the protesters are waving emphatically now as they follow Centaur toward the store’s entrance. Cars are honking at them as they cross the parking lot. The man in the photo is running through a street, aflame, amid a crowd of protesters. The people around him in the photo have stopped what they are doing. His act has diminished the value of their acts at that moment. Their acts now seem trivial by comparison. There is no reason to keep chanting or pumping fists. There is nothing to do but look.
“Do you have any idea how cynical you’ve become?” I say.
Beneath the photo of the man, the protesters have scribbled slogans that don’t really explain their cause. The handwriting is that of someone who cannot help but write like a child. Prateek shrugs. Outside the mob is getting closer. They are almost to the door now. We’ve both noticed what’s happening but for whatever reason aren’t talking about it.
“Just being honest,” Prateek says. “This place is stifling. Something has to give, something has to happen.”
He nods toward the door. The Centaur is unquestionably leading the pack. She’s holding a long slender object that could be a torch or some kind of incendiary device. Or it could just be a decorative cane. It’s hard to tell.
“Nothing ever gives, not in any lasting way,” I say.
I find myself thinking for just a moment, without my own consent, that if the Centaur does burn herself alive I hope she doesn’t do it in Housewares. That place is sacred for me. The thought makes me ashamed.
“Now who’s being cynical,” Prateek says.
The doors open. The mob passes between us. They’re chanting something I can’t understand, something about fairness, I think. I look over at Prateek and see that he’s smiling, this is funny to him. Neither one of us tries to stop them. This is not our fight. We are guardians of a thing that does not need us.
It’s not clear what the mob’s plan is but they are all panic and vitriol, more than human, or maybe less, but whatever the case they are bent on achieving some sort of goal. The Centaur is as animated as I’ve ever seen her, which is saying something. She rolls to the front of the pack and turns her scooter left, like a madwoman, she’s trying to do a one-eighty so she can address the crowd but she turns too sharply and catches an edge and the thing jerks to the side violently, throwing her to the ground.
The Centaur is sprawled face down on the filthy tile floor. The crowd stops chanting, it’s a horrific thing to see this mobility impaired woman in such a vulnerable position. Everyone freezes. No longer a mob, they’re just a bunch of befuddled individuals gathered in a circle around their fallen leader. A few of them try to help her up but she shoos them away. And now the bystanders are assembling, the man with the puffy green vest, the man with the handlebar mustache and his sleepy wife, the woman with the red coat, the man in the jean jacket and his two daughters, the giggling teenage girls, the woman in the fiery pants suit, the man in the football jersey, the kid with freckles who spilled the cola and his mom, the woman with purple eyes, the volumes of people who were coming too fast for me to register – all of us are here, watching, you can no longer distinguish between the mob and the onlookers, like it or not we’re all in this together.
I can see now that the thing the Centaur was holding is a tiki torch, the kind you plunge into your flower bed when you’re having a barbecue. Like the Centaur, the torch is laying on the floor, just out of her reach, its lamp oil now seeping across the tile. She lies there on her stomach for a long time, rolls of fat protruding from the bottom of her bomber jacket. Soon the rolls are trembling, that’s how we know she’s sobbing, and then she finally manages to roll herself over so that she’s lying on her back, looking up at the cavernous ceiling, at bank after bank of fluorescent lighting. I notice that the Muzak has inexplicably stopped, it’s the quietest I’ve ever heard this section of the store, there’s no talking, just the sound of scanners beeping over at the registers as we all close in on the Centaur to get a better look. Her cheeks, red and tear-stained, reflect the sad glow of the lights above. She opens her mouth and I can tell that whatever she’s about to say will be the most truthful thing she’s ever uttered, but before she can speak the Muzak kicks back in, followed by Haney’s voice crackling through the intercom, it’s business as usual for this man, who is hidden away safely in his office, oblivious to what’s going on out here among the commoners. He’s too busy informing shoppers of the unbelievable deals currently being offered in Housewares to notice this whole place is on the edge of flames, if anyone wanted it bad enough it would happen, just flick the lighter and touch it to the floor and all of us standing around watching maybe wouldn’t consider it such a bad thing.
Chad Schuster‘s fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in Glimmer Train, Hobart, Gulf Stream, Literary Orphans, Juked, and elsewhere. He lives near Seattle with his wife and two children. Find him at www.chadschuster.com or on Twitter @Chad_Schuster.