Wednesday, August 17, 2016
On a long drive, Christian’s right (passenger) rear window froze open. After a business meeting that concluded in late afternoon, Christian decided that he would drive for an hour and cross the state border, before stopping at a fast food place to get a sandwich for supper. It was very cold and a storm was harrying him. He saw dark clouds in his rear view mirror and, sometimes, specks of snow trembled in the air. At the drive-through, Christian fumbled with the power-window and, accidentally, rolled down the window on his side behind him. When he reached the counter where he was supposed to pay for his order, he couldn’t get the window next to him to roll down – it was frozen shut. Christian opened his door and had to hand his money to the girl shivering behind the window after putting his car in neutral and half-stepping out of the vehicle. At the next window, he had to repeat this procedure to receive his burger and fries. Pulling to the side of the queue of cars, Christian tried to roll up his back window but, now, it was frozen too and he couldn’t get the power window to close.
The storm was close behind and, on the radio (broadcasting with preternatural clarity and volume, it seemed) there were warnings about the intensity of the winds and the falling snow and the lethal cold accompanying the tempest. Christian drove swiftly to the ramp onto the freeway and continued his way home, but now it was very cold in his car and the wind boomed in his back seat and stray invoices and bits of food wrapper whirled around behind him, confounding his periodic gaze through his rear-view mirror. After driving 20 miles with this persistent and icy windstorm in his car, Christian’s ears felt numb and the tips of fingers were frozen. He decided that he would exit from the freeway again and find a discount store where he could buy mittens and a stocking cap.
It was dark and the cars pushed their headlights resentfully ahead of them and, at the intersections, the traffic lights swung like bells chiming in the wind as the storm gathered. Christian couldn’t tell whether the flakes of snow whirling around in the air were falling from the sky or simply lifted wind-borne from the drifts heaped alongside the road. The storm throbbed and howled in the groves of bare trees.
He saw an immense parking lot and the featureless side of a Walmart. The lights in the lot vibrated like tuning forks. Christian hurried from his car into the store. A fat woman greeted him from a mechanized wheel-chair and, as he entered through the automatic doors, the cold carried its lances inside and stabbed at the crippled lady so that she grimaced. The advancing storm seemed to have induced some kind of panic in the shoppers in the store – they shoveled merchandise into their carts and, then, pushed them in irregular zigzags along the aisles colliding with the carts of other shoppers so that, there were loud quarrels and children squealed and glass bottles shattered. Clerks with brooms and dust-pans wearily advanced toward the spills and there was chaos at the check-out stations, debit cards were being rejected and people brandished cash in greens fans as if it were a weapon and some kind of brawl had erupted in front of the customer service counter.
Christian found a cheap, but heavy woollen stocking cap and raw-looking yellow snowmobile mittens. He carried these items to an express check-out station where a sign said that transactions were limited to 12 items or less. But an African family was gathered in front of him, cart heaped with food and clothing. The clerk wore very thick glasses and was missing part of his nose and it seemed that he was almost blind – nothing would scan properly and the Africans were indignant challenging the man time and time again about the price of items shown on the screen. Christian was irritated and so he hummed a little tune to himself, something catchy that he had heard on the radio and, then, he whistled that tune as well and looked along the line of cash registers – each station was mobbed with lines of people, most of them immigrants it seemed, buying provisions not just for the week, but, possibly, for the month or the year.
As he waited, a man wearing a tie emerged from the Men’s restroom across from the express check-out. At first, Christian thought that the man seemed drunk – he reeled a little, spinning on his heel, and glaring, in turn, to each of the four directions in the store. His balance was affected and he stumbled, catching himself, and Christian could see that his eyes were wild. The man fished a walkie-talkie out of a utility belt that he wore like a corset and muttered something into the radio. After a moment, he turned and ventured into the rest room again, edging around the corner as if he didn’t want to be seen by someone inside the toilet. Then, he retreated to the front of the door, now propped open by his booted foot. This time, he shouted something into the walkie-talkie. A voice on a loudspeaker said: "All associates, come to customer service, come to customer service immediately." The clerk with the disfigured nose and thick glasses turned away from scanning items on his conveyor. He paused for a moment, shrugged, and, then, returned to what he was doing. A couple of women in store uniform ran toward the customer service desk and some managers, apparently taking a break at the Subway franchise in the store, stood up and walked quickly along the front of the check-out stations – the floorwalker with the radio by the Men’s restroom signaled to them. The managers pushed him aside, hurried into the toilet, and, then, staggered out a moment later, clapping their hands to their mouths and shaking their heads helplessly.
The clerk with the ruined nose and bad eyesight finished with the Africans and, after some misadventures with their debit card, they paid him. He gestured helplessly at Christian and, then, turning away from the check-out station, limped toward the Customer Service desk. Christian cursed the man and the store and the weather and, then, put gloves and hat in a plastic bag and, without paying, marched to the door opening onto the parking lot. Vortices of snow were now haloing the parking lot lamps. The greeter in the wheelchair was gone and no one challenged him as he left. Christian went to his car, tried again, unsuccessfully, to roll up his right rear window and, then, drove back through town to the ramp onto the freeway. Thin white fingers of snow were skittering across the concrete road, but the highway surface was still dry. Christian drove another hundred miles always only a few minutes ahead of the blizzard and, with his stolen hat and mittens, reached home. He pulled his car into his garage and there discovered that he had somehow inadvertently triggered the child-proof lock on the power windows – once, he slid the lock into its "off" position, he had no difficulty rolling up the back window in his car.
Two years later, on a summer day, Christian was returning from a meeting in the city just beyond the state line. He recalled his previous travel in that area – the advancing blizzard and the idiotic problem with his car’s windows. He exited at the town where he had taken the hat and mittens from the Walmart and thought that he should go to the customer service desk and, if possible, offer to pay for those items. In the bright sun, the streets had a different cast from the way they had looked on that winter night two years earlier. The lawns and trees were green and, in a park, he saw a swimming pool where wet children were standing beside the blue water and silver diving decks. The intersections looked lazy to him, traffic moving only fitfully, and some old men were sitting on benches in the shade of the trees. For some reason, he wasn’t able to find the Walmart from which he had taken the apparel. At the edge of town, there was a high cyclone fence wrapped around a big pit cut into the earth. The pit looked like a quarry, cut down into the bedrock and it had sheer, grooved sides of yellow limestone. A little pool of green water occupied the lowest part of the pit.
Christian stopped at a gas station. He asked the girl at the cash register about the local Walmart. "It had to close," she said. "Where was it?" Christian said. "Right over there," she said. "Where they had to dig down." She pointed to the quarry protected by the cyclone fence. Christian noticed that whorls of barbed wire adorned the top of the fence.
"What happened?" Christian asked.
"The place had to be closed and we never got a new one," the girl said. "If you want to shop at Walmart, you got to go to Sioux Falls."
"Why did they close it?"
"You’d have to ask someone else. I don’t know." she said.
"I know mister," someone said. Christian looked over his shoulder and saw a man with thick-coke-bottle lens glasses. The man was missing a part of his nose.
"I can tell you," the man said. He was eating a glazed donut and sitting at a table with a cup of coffee.
Christian sat down next to him. "It was like this – " the man began.
Although the forecasts were for rain, Mr. Schmidt did not believe them and, so, left his apartment without his umbrella. Those fragments of the sky visible between the skyscrapers were blue and clear as he walked to the train station. High humidity cloaked the perspectives down the great, straight streets in grey mist. The traffic lights of distant intersections shone faintly like cloudy and remote stars.
Mr. Schmidt’s morning was busy. Customers called him by phone and he confirmed their calls by short emails. He scarcely had time to go to the toilet and worked through the lunch hour.
Around 1:30, Mr. Schmidt decided that it was time to take a break. He felt slightly light-headed. There was a Dunkin Donuts place a couple blocks away and Mr. Schmidt thought that he would go there for a cup of coffee and a sandwich. Two old Black man were regulars during the afternoon and, it was their habit, to sit in a booth discussing sports. Sometimes, Mr. Schmidt sat with them. The Black men called Mr. Schmidt, "Smitty." A grandmotherly old Black woman also frequented the place, sitting at the counter, usually with a big shopping bag in front of her – she knew all the Filipino workers and called them by their first names. Mr. Schmidt looked forward to seeing these people and so he walked swiftly along the sidewalk, notwithstanding the humidity. Grey had come between the skyscrapers now and intersections even a half-block away were shrouded in mist and the people around him were like phantoms. When the air was heavy, the drains in the gutters exuded a dense, clinging stench.
A police car and ambulance were double-parked in front of the Dunkin Donuts. Yellow tape twisted between a fire hydrant and a no parking sign blocked the sidewalk. Across the street, a group of people were standing on the curb waving their hands in the air and pointing. Mr. Schmidt couldn’t see into the Dunkin Donuts – the window was glazed with water droplets and reflections.
Mr. Schmidt decided that he would have some pad thai for his lunch. There was a little café called the Siam Kitchen down one of the side-streets. He set off in that direction.
After walking a couple blocks, Mr. Schmidt decided that he had gone the wrong way. The structures and businesses next to the sidewalk were unfamiliar to him. It was an old neighborhood where the buildings were made of black cast-iron. Dark and immensely heavy, the cast-iron facades menaced the street. It began to rain – at first, a few warm big drops like tears, then, a drizzle falling straight out of the sky between the iron store-fronts. Thunder boomed. Mr. Schmidt turned around and looked for a place to take refuge. Across the street, a sign in cursive neon told him that a place was "OPEN". The rain began to fall more forcefully, splashing up from the asphalt to make a pale mist that hovered about two or three feet in the air.
The "OPEN" sign marked a tavern and grill located a half-dozen steps below street level. A tattered placard in the window told him that "Restroom facilities are available only to paying customers." Mr. Schmidt pushed through the door, shaking the rain from his shoulders.
It was dark in the bar and the air smelled of rancid grease. Some people were sitting at tables with bottles of beer in front of them and four or five shadows hunched over the stools at the bar. Mr. Schmidt sat down at one the tables. Either the floor was uneven or the table was untrue – it wobbled when he put his hand on it. The customers at the tables looked at Mr. Schmidt quizzically.
A pale waitress with a crooked face appeared next to the table.
"Is there a menu?" Mr. Schmidt asked.
She paused: "I’m sorry, but we can’t serve humans."
Mr. Schmidt wasn’t sure that he had heard her right.
"No humans are allowed," the waitress said.
Mr. Schmidt looked around the tavern. The rain outside was now falling in volleys.
"I’m not hearing you right," Mr. Schmidt said.
"Just let me check for a moment," the waitress said. She went to the bar rail and said something to a man with an enormous face standing between the beer-pulls. The man waved her aside.
She came back to Mr. Schmidt. "It’s okay," she said. "I guess it’s okay."