by Thomas Lee Joseph Smith
My wife, Mary Ann doesn’t often wear white. She was wearing white. As we walked down the department store aisle together, a man came up and offered us a chance to put our hands in a bowl and draw out a Sunday storewide discount nametag.
My tag said I could save 5 percent on any purchase. Mary Ann’s smile was big. I looked at the card she took from the bowl: thirty percent off if we spent 100 dollars.
“We just came for a few items,” I said. I looked at my watch it was 11:30.
The clerk pointed at me. “Aren’t you the guy who keeps tearing up the signs outside?” he asked.
“City says you can’t affix signs to lampposts,” I said.
“What do you care?”
“Not sure... no one else will do it.”
“That’s because everyone else is sane. I should warn you, Frank gets here at noon, I’d be gone if I was you.”
“Store manager... an ex-marine... he says he was kicked out because of his temper, and I believe him.”
“Hasn’t he noticed... that I’ve stopped? I haven’t been by here in weeks.”
”AND WE HAVEN’T PUT UP ANY SIGNS IN WEEKS EITHER!”
“Maybe Frank gave up advertising that way,” I said, very quietly.
The clerk laughed. “He says he’s bringing in something new. Coming in at noon.”
“We’re just here to shop.” Mary Ann said. “My husband won’t be doing anything stupid.”
“I think I left the lights on,” I said.
The clerk said, “You better run out and turn them off.”
I looked him in the eyes. “No one’s ever made me run.” I said. “Even the high school track coach couldn’t make me run.”
I went outside. My lights weren’t on. I knew they hadn’t been on. I just wanted to be outside. I thought about waiting in the car. Mary Ann could do the shopping and then meet me in the car. I started walking towards the safety of my grey Saturn.
The young kid gathering carts stopped me. “See those three men by the depot?”
“Where? The train depot?”
“No, the Home Depot.”
“They’re friends of Frank’s,” he said. “They’re there waiting for Frank.”
The three men looked at me. Glared at me actually. One of them checked his caulk gun. It was loaded with construction adhesives.
Without turning my back to them I went inside.
Shopping wasn’t easy. In some departments I stayed with my wife, in others we separated.
“Why do you guys hate my husband?” Mary Ann asked the bald guy behind the electronics counter.
He leaned towards her, speaking in a tone that carried equal amounts of contempt and pity. “Lots of reasons,” he said, “This place used to be busy. And, I’m not the only one. There’s plenty here who feels your husband has a come-uppance coming. You asked me so I told you.” He leaned back.
“Is there anyone here who likes my husband?”
“Mrs. Ramirez. In the jewelry department. She used to be a friend of Frank’s and now all she can talk about is your husband.”
Mary Ann pushed her cart to the jewelry department. Four hundred watches said it was 10:51. Mary Ann pretended she was looking at a watch, then she confronted Mrs. Ramirez. “The guy in electronics says you and my husband have been seeing each other.”
“Honey, I don’t even know your husband.”
“The one who keeps talking about the signs.”
“That’s his other phobia. Right now I’m talking about real signs, those signs in front of the building.”
“Oh, that. You have to understand: there was a time when a decent woman couldn’t leave her department alone and walk down the main street. The way your husband cleaned up those signs out front, means no one comes in and bothers me. I haven’t seen a customer in weeks. I like your husband, but I’ve never met him.”
“Most people like my husband... until they’ve met him,” Mary Ann admitted.
In the department that sold home appliances I caught up with my wife.
“Why do you have to bother people all the time?” Mary Ann asked as we looked at beach towels.
“It’s because I love justice; something I learned from my father. Did I tell you my father fought in the Pacific? And he would have been praised for doing so, if there had been a war going on at that particular time. My dad taught me how to motivate myself. I fight for what I feel is right. I try to do good in all things.”
I unfolded the beach towel we were buying and put six wash cloths inside, then re-folded the towel hoping to save a bit of money at the checkout.
Mary Ann put her hand on mine. “Tom, this store is just trying to make ends meet, like we have to do. You could help with that, help us make some income, help us with the car payments. I didn’t marry you so you could do one crusade after another.”
“I try to help with expenses,” I said, pointing at the beach towel.
We turned a corner. I spotted people going in a door. It was probably the break room. I held back while my wife went forward pushing the cart. I went in the door and found twenty employees. They were standing near a clock that said 11:18.
Mary Ann didn’t even notice my departure, she just kept pushing the cart. By the toothpaste isle she accidentally ran the cart into a man placing red boxes on the shelf.
He turned to face her. He looked like Brad Pitt. “You’re a good looking boy,” she said. “You have big broad shoulders. But it takes more than that to be a man. Do you have what it takes to be a man?”
“I do,” he said.
Meanwhile, in the break room I was facing down the working classes. “Does anyone know what’s going on with the signs?” I asked.
“What do you mean?”
“I’ve come to you for help. The guy in the parking lot says Frank has something planned for twelve o’clock.”
“He’s probably going to kick your ass.”
“Are you people going to stand by and let it happen?”
“Why should we help?”
“I was just trying to do what I thought was right.”
“Why didn’t you help when they cut our health care benefits, or when they put a stop to our employee discounts? All you really wanted to do is rip up some cardboard. I think you might have actually damaged our business. That’s about what a child would consider a social movement.”
“It’s against the law to put signs on the lamp posts.”
“Lots of stuff is illegal. Why don’t you jump in the river and swim around, make sure the barges aren’t exceeding the speed limit.”
“If some of you would just stand behind me out on the parking lot.”
“I will.” It was a very old man. He had on the right vest and the khaki pants and a string tie over his white shirt, but he only had one eye and was on crutches. His name tag said Geezer.
For just a second I considered asking him. That’s how badly I needed some help. I was scared and alone. Doing what I thought right, but doing it without anyone else in the world helping me. “Thanks, old timer,” I said. “If I need you, I’ll let you know.”
A voice from next to the water fountain called out. “I wouldn’t go out there, Geezer; you’ll be seen in the office.”
“How’s that..?” He asked.
“The security cameras. They used to be INSIDE the building, now they’re all OUTSIDE pointing at the street,” the man near the water fountain pointed at me, “because HE keeps vandalizing the parking lot. Shoplifting in here has gone up fifty percent. Everything from Kenmore Superflow Washers to Dundee Palatial Washcloths just seems to disappear.”
Mrs. Ramirez had one last question for my wife. “Why does your husband hate advertising?”
Mary Ann said, “I don’t know. It’s a long story. It goes back years. Way back to the Carter administration. During the Carter years there was an oil embargo. Where the Arab nations cut off our oil. During the oil embargo Tom just went crazy. It’s because during the oil embargo a lot of businesses did things Tom didn’t like. They often had the lights in the parking lots turned off, but they still had their advertising lights turned on. I tried to tell him it was probably for a reason; maybe they had a contract that made them keep the Miller Light sign burning over the coolers.”
“You’re his wife; how do you feel about advertising?”
“I guess I’m a pacifist on this issue. I watched as my grandfather’s hardware store was harmed by misspent advertising money. It didn’t matter that his prices were right. And my brother once owned 19 pizza places and I watched him lose everything over a misprinted coupon. It was supposed to say; free 59-cent 12 ounce can of Pepsi with the purchase of a 48-inch meat lover’s supreme for $20.19. Only it said: 59 free pizzas and 12 free cans of Pepsi with every purchase. Offer good till 2019.”
I met Mary Ann by the checkout lanes. It was 11:38.
The lady in front of the man in front of us, was trying to use a three-party out-of-state non-transferable unprinted payroll check and she also had a letter saying her purchases were tax exempt. It took a long time for her to buy anything.
Now the man in front of us had items that weren’t tagged. I looked at my watch: 11:51.
Now it was our turn. Mary Ann asked if the three-foot tall bag of popcorn she was buying had been popped in corn oil (11:53). Then she asked about the return policy on food items (11:54). The cash drawer was out of quarters (11:56). Our cashier was due for break, so someone else took over (11:58).
At exactly 11:59 we were done and heading for the doors.
Frank walked in. Blocking the doorway with his big frame.
He pointed at me. “YOU!” he said.
“Yes,” I said.
He took me by the shoulders and turned me so I faced outside.
Outside men were on ladders, putting signs up high on the lampposts.
“Those are 18 gauge stainless steel. The bottom edge is twenty feet up. You couldn’t tear them if you tried.”
I struggled free of his grip. I turned and looked at all the people buying things. There were hundreds of people. They didn’t care about making the world safe.
I tore the 5 PERCENT OFF nametag from my shirt. I threw it down and it landed near my feet. I walked out to the car. The car was gone. I walked home through some very lonely streets. No people. Signs everywhere.
Copyright © 2006 by Thomas Lee Joseph Smith