Last Chance Sale
By Alicia VanNoy Call
I'm tired. That pileup on the freeway took hours to clear. The last place I want to be is here, but it will only take a few minutes. I pull into an empty space away from other cars. Warm asphalt under my work pumps, I lock the doors and shove my purse over one shoulder. The moon is full over the vast parking lot. The sky is clear. Illuminated windows shine from the cathedral across the street. A line of cars waits in the McDonald's drive-thru nearby.
In and out, I think. In and out and then home to bed.
A grizzled, grey-bearded man stands on the corner. He holds up a sign that reads: The End Is Nigh!
He calls out: “Behold, the end soon cometh! Put away your wide-screen plasma TVs and your recreational vehicles and come unto me, sayeth the Lord! Soon it will be too late!”
He turns toward me as I approach.
“Beware!” he says, one hand high. “High-interest revolving credit is not of me, sayeth the Lord, but of the Devil!”
“Thanks for the tip,” I tell him.
He steps in front of me, the warning hand held at arm's length and I stop. His eyes are wild. I notice that he has no shoes.
“Cease thy blind consumerism!” he says.
“I just need trash bags." I step around him.
He catches my arm. “Beware, child,” he moans. “Beware!”
I pat his gnarled hand. “Everything will be okay."
He releases me and turns back, brandishing his sign.
Double doors slide open, circulated air laden with the scent of produce, twin-pack DVDs and some-assembly-required furniture. I pull a cart from the interminable nested row. The front right wheel screeches as I push it through the theft detectors.
“Welcome to Wal-Mart,” the aged greeter says to me, peering through horn-rimmed spectacles. “Everyone's in Hell today.”
I stop. “I'm sorry?” I ask.
“Everything's on sale today.” The greeter beckons me into the store.
I browse through greeting cards. I didn't come to purchase greeting cards, but I will doubtless leave with no less than five. I pick up one with a photo of a nun on the front. The caption reads: Eat, drink and be merry. I open the card. The text inside finishes: I'll pray for your depraved soul tomorrow. I chuckle.
I wander through the seasonal aisles.
It's only August, I think, examining bags of Halloween candy.
I pass the costume aisle and sees a group of seven black-robed shoppers gathered around a large cauldron. The cauldron bubbles greenly and emits a cloud of smoke. I think that it's a pretty impressive decoration. I wonder how many other people try on Halloween costumes right in the aisle. The black-robed shoppers chant something and one of them holds out a wailing baby. Light gleams off of something silver held in another's hand. I shake my head, moving past.
Imagine bringing a kid to Wal-Mart at midnight. What are these parents thinking?
I push my basket through Crafts. I can see four old ladies on motorized carts driving in my direction. A shopper three aisles up slips and falls as the ladies pass.
They should really make sure the floors are clear, I think.
I move to the side of the walkway so that the ladies can pass. Instead of passing, they direct their chairs to my side of the aisle and stop in a semi-circle around me. One of them is dressed in a white housecoat, her white hair pinned in silver curlers. The next must be a member of the Red Hat Society. She wears purple pants and a knitted red blazer, along with a large red hat pulled low. In one hand, she waves a silver-tipped umbrella. The third is draped in a black lap-blanket, the knotted veins in her arthritic hands a deep shade of blue. In her basket are a postage scale and a set of measuring cups. The last is barely covered by a pale green hospital gown, an oxygen tube running to her nose from the tank she is pulling along behind her. There is a hole at the base of her throat.
The lady in red speaks: “The hour is nigh,” she says through a dentured mouth smeared in scarlet lipstick.
“I think this Wal-Mart is open 24-hours,” I say.
The one in black speaks: “A measure of wheat for a penny. A measure of barley...”
“Try baking goods,” I point. “But I don't know what they sell for a penny.”
The emphysemic holds out a pack of cigarettes, offering one held between skeletal fingers, her oxygen tank hissing.
“No thanks,” I wave the pack away. “Those things'll kill you.”
A voice sounds over the intercom: Clean-up in aisle seven.
The lady in white looks at the others, milky eyes wide. She leers through toothless gums, “The Seventh Seal!” She lifts one shaking hand to indicate the way they came.
The others cackle and all four turn their carts back down the aisle and disappear into Grocery. I can hear a song by R.E.M., It's the End of the World as We Know It, on the speakers overhead.
I pass through Electronics, a DVD display catching my eye. $5.00 Rollback! I can only find three discounted movie titles: The Day The Earth Stood Still, Armageddon and Apocalypse Now. None of them are widescreen.
Must have been an overstock, I think.
I pass aisle seven in Grocery on my way to the frozen foods. The shelves are dripping red. Two attendants smear mops across the floor. I wonder if a shipment of tomato sauce burst. I hear a high-pitched squeaking and turn my head to catch a black shadow dart past above. Nine bats flit back and forth among the ceiling beams.
Time to call the exterminator, I think.
I stand in line, wait for an open register. I pick up a copy of The Inquirer to kill time. Nostradamus' Secrets Revealed! the headline claims. I thumb through the pages, looking for my horoscope.
Sagittarius: Things are about to change. Make sure your house is in order. I snort and put the magazine back on the rack.
The overhead lights begin to flicker as I load my purchases onto the conveyor belt. The checker stares at nothing as he scans each item. BEEP... . BEEP... . BEEP... .
"That'll be thirty pieces of silver," says the checker in a monotone.
"Pardon?" I say.
"Thirty dollars on the button," he says, his eyes blank. An employee-of-the-month pin winks on his vest.
Something rumbles outside.
Must be the trucks bringing new shipments, I think as I dig in my purse.
I push my cart past the greeter.
“You are damned,” the greeter says.
I stop. “Excuse me?”
“Come again,” the greeter says.
I push my load of Wal-Mart merchandise through the double doors and out into the night. Seven spaces away, I can hear something that sounds like maniacal laughter. A spat of raindrops falls from a clear sky. The swollen moon is an angry, pregnant red. A man surfs past me in a rolling shopping cart, arms out.
“Woohooo!” he calls.
A murder of crows circle the cathedral tower in a black cloud of harsh squawking voices. I notice that an entire city block is blacked-out, the eternal Golden Arches of McDonald's dark for once. I look back at Wal-Mart's double doors. They still emit their white, welcome light. Fireworks explode over the mountain in the distance. Overturned carts scatter through the parking lots.
I see the grizzled man sitting on the curb at the bus stop, his bare feet in the gutter. He doesn't seem to notice me this time.
“Where's your sign?” I ask him.
He looks up at me, forlorn. “It's out of date,” he says. “I need to get a new one.”
“What will it say?” I ask him.
“Free car wash.” The righteous light has gone out of his eyes.
I put the bags in the trunk, shoo three hairless cats off the hood of my car, and slide into the driver's seat.
I shake my head. Next time, I think, I'm shopping at Target.