I don’t normally like shopping. One might say I find it repellent. It’s not that I don’t see the point in it; it’s more along the lines of: I’d rather do something else with my time.
The point is that the store completely threw me. The lobby—interior, really—looked like the sales floor of a cell phone store: sparse display, a few red podiums laden with objects, a couple workers on the grey sales floor, and two or three people behind a red counter scowling at customers. The walls were blue, and on a couple of them, there were some advertisements. Soft quasi-Muzak leaked out from wall-mounted speakers. From time to time, a voice would interrupt and announce a number—at which point, a customer would approach the counter and walk away with a shrink-wrapped this, that, or the other.
The objects on the podiums were these massive multicolored catalogues. Imagine the Sears catalogue multiplied by three. The only browsing was flipping through these catalogues. You would choose your item, pay for it at a self-serve kiosk or at the counter with the scowling people, and then, a few minutes later, your item would appear at the counter via a conveyor belt. There might have been places like this in the States, but not where I’m from.
We walked into the store and, as you’d expect, our reactions varied. The Traveler darted straight for a catalogue and, as I learned, to the camping section. The Student went, “Huh, interesting.” Then he, too, went to a catalogue. The Drunkard put on a huge grin and snuck a drink from one of the flasks in his jacket. (I had heard that there was a special way one was supposed to drink absinthe involving everything from a silver spoon, to sugar cubes, to, from one man who insisted he was a sorcerer, the blood of an eagle. I assumed The Drunkard knew what he was doing.) “Finally,” he said. “They took away the salespeople.”
So far, through the semester, I’ve realized that I overreact a lot. I didn’t drop to the floor, cursing man’s predilection for destroying time-honored traditions such as the sales floor. I didn’t Brooklyn out—thank God. I did, however, have a minor panic attack. What would happen if they didn’t have what I needed? Could I ask workers for their recommendations? What sort of connections did they have with products that they never saw? Just what in the hell did they think they were doing?
I did, however, manage to calm down, take a deep breath, and follow my companions’ leads. I jammed myself between The Traveler and The Student and said, “What do I do? What do I do?”
“Calm,” said The Traveler. He took a slip of white paper from a blue box next to the catalogue, took a golf pencil from another box, and handed them to me. “You choose what you want and write the number here.” He pointed to black squares separated by a couple of dashes.
“That kind of takes the joy out of searching, doesn’t it?”
The Traveler cocked an eyebrow. “You want this should be having to hunt through stacks of boxes, searching for one particular item only to find that it’s out of stock? If so, we can go to ASDA and—”
“What’s ASDA?” I asked.
The Student leaned back, looked at me, and said, “You’ve been here two months and you don’t know what ASDA is?”
“Did I commit a crime?”
“Essentially,” said The Drunkard, a podium to my right. He flipped through the pages manically, never settling on one for more than a couple of seconds before emitting a tiny squeak and moving on.
“What are you doing?” I asked.
“The ants,” he said. “The ants are everywhere. Can’t stay on one for long, or they’ll crawl.”
Yep, he’d prepared the absinthe.
The Traveler sighed. “What?”
“Nothing,” said The Drunkard. He’d broken into a sweat. He rubbed his forehead with his jacket arm, took off his baseball cap, scratched his head, and hummed some unnamable tune.
The Traveler turned to me and whispered, “What’s he got in that flask?”
“Er,” I said.
“Will it get us landed in jail?”
“Motherfucker. I knew this would happen. I fucking knew it.” He closed his eyes for a moment, nodded, opened his eyes again, and said, “Okay. I need you to write down this number,” he pointed to a blue sleeping bag, “and bring it to the counter. I’ll pay you back when you get back to the car.”
“What are you going to do?”
“I’m going to nip this in the bud.” He walked over to the Drunkard slung his arm around his neck.
“What are—” The Drunkard said before crumpling to the ground.
A hush passed through the store and a couple of workers ran over to check on The Drunkard.
“No,” said The Traveler. “It’s okay. I’ll take care of it.” He pulled The Drunkard up, slung his arm around his neck, and said, “You okay, buddy? We’ll head back to the hostel.” He shuffled out of the store, The Drunkard moaning on his shoulder, and winked at me on the way out.
The Student, oblivious as usual to all of the preceding events, watched the two move out of the store, turned to me, and said, “What was that?”
“The Drunkard,” I said in a whisper, “has a few flasks of absinthe in his jacket. Since we left the pub, he’s been sneaking drinks from them; he started hallucinating and The Traveler did some ninja move on him.”
The Student processed this information with a raised eyebrow, shrugged and said, “This’ll be an interesting few days.”
“Oh,” I said, “he’s also got a few mason jars of moonshine.”
“An absolutely fascinating few days, I should say.”
I picked cheap sleeping bags for myself, The Traveler, The Drunkard and went to the counter to pay. Soon, The Student followed suit, and we looked through the catalogues. It was, definitely an interesting array. Right next to sleeping bags, you could purchase an eight hundred quid charcoal grill. Diamond rings. Video game consoles. Many, many other things.
I began an interior monologue addressing the wonders of the modern world, and was only interrupted by a computerized voice intoning my number. I shook myself out of my reverie, walked over to the counter and was presented with three shrink-wrapped blue sleeping bags the size of small pillows. “No way I’m fitting in one of these,” I said.
“’Sat, mate?” asked one of the red polo-clad men behind the counter.
“These. They’re tiny.”
He studied my face. “They expand, mate.”
I smacked myself in the forehead and said, “Ah. Of course they do.” I took my items and passed by The Student.