I don’t know what I need, but I need a lot of it. And this is an opportunity. The store wasn’t here yesterday. There was a complex of car dealerships abutting one of those sprawling Phoenix strip malls where spray mist over the pathways so shoppers don’t get heatstroke. But now, somehow, inserted between the two of them is a new big box.
Inside, the murmur of the crowd combines with the hum of air handlers into soothing white noise. Fluorescents bathe the store in shadowless bright light.
An old man in a blue vest greets me just inside the entrance.
“Welcome to—” The rest is garbled. Maybe it’s him. Maybe it’s me. I’ve been so tired lately.
I glance at the ceiling. Dark shapes flitter among the rafters. Before I start shopping, I want to make sure I know what I’m dealing with. “Birds?” I ask the old man, pointing up.
“Spirits. Customers who expired in the store. Some from old age or illness. A couple of heart attacks. A few from door-buster sales.”
“I fully understand.”
I push my cart toward the back of the store and commence shopping.
In Electronics they’ve got some laptops with runic keyboards, some with hieroglyphs, some with figures that seem to change every time I blink.
Do I need my devices to be even harder to use? I just upgraded my computer at home and the operating system is a riddle. No thanks. But a display case of timepieces attracts my eye. There’s a watch you can stop to freeze a perfect moment in your life forever. I pass it up because I don’t trust my judgment to know when that moment would be. I’d miss preserving the best instant of my life thinking that a better one would come along. Also, I’m just not really a watch guy.
I come upon an aisle congested with shoppers and carts. Must be a good deal. Squeezing in, I take a look at shriveled hands grasping inside cardboard boxes with cellophane windows. Mummified monkeys’ paws. “Comes with Free Wish,” it says on the boxes.
I know about these things. My mom grew up in a country with banyan trees and ghosts, and she became an adult in an America when mom-and-pops lined Main Streets, weird little shops tucked between a bakery and a shoe store that stocked the exact item you needed, but when you came back because your magical thingamajig turned out to be cursed, the shop would be gone, no gap between the bakery and the shoe store, as if it never were.
Mom kept a doll locked in a safe in a dark corner of her basement. She wrapped the safe with chains and locks. I’m a careful shopper.
An employee with dark circles under her eyes struggles to maneuver around shoppers to restock the shelves.
“Busy day, huh?” I worked retail in college, so I have sympathy.
“Must be nice, though, working around all this magic?”
She doesn’t even pause to look at me. “I make minimum wage. I work through most of my breaks. They cheat me on overtime.”
Ah, yes, I remember that. “But you get a good employee discount?”
Now she gives me a stare that could burn my cheeks with frostbite. She forces out a “Yeah.”
“So, what’s the price on these monkey paws?”
“The price is a world without monkeys.”
I think about it for a minute while another shopper uses their forearm to sweep boxes of monkey paws into their cart. It occurs to me that, if I’m going to pay the price of a monkeyless world whether or not I buy a paw for myself, I might as well stock up on a few. I could wish for health insurance. I could wish my kid gets into a good college and somehow pays for it and is happy and not crushed in a vise of debt. I could wish the same thing for myself.
They’ve got love potions in Cosmetics and Personal Care. The price is the memory of your first kiss. That’s not a bad deal, because, honestly, my first kiss wasn’t very special. It was on the middle-school quad between classes, being egged on by my friends and hers, and our mouths didn’t quite connect so it was more jaw than lips. Less a first kiss than a first miss.
My third kiss is the one I remember. Her name was Lilac. We were at the top of the Ferris wheel on the pier, and the view was endless blue sea, deep and roiling, and her lips tasted of cotton candy.
Losing the memory of my third kiss would be a steep price. But since it’s just the first kiss I grab a family-sized gallon bottle. I’m kind of done with relationships, but you never know.
In Housewares I find a mirror that shows you at your most flattering. My hair looks fuller. My jaw, strong. My cheekbones, well-defined. I see a mouth that’s never lied and eyes that have never betrayed. The cost is that, one out of every thirty days, it shows you your most brutal truths without the distortions of time and memory and self-delusion. It comes wrapped in plastic with cardboard corner protectors for safe transport. Into my cart it goes.
You can’t turn a corner without finding another good deal:
A pillow that prevents you from dreaming but still gives you REM sleep so you don’t crack up. I have bad dreams, so the pillow is mine.
Shoes that free you from back pain except for thirty seconds a day when you feel a day’s back pain all at once.
Chewing gum that stops you from saying stupid things out loud to people you know but makes you say them to strangers you’ll never see again.
Pants that shave six inches from your waistline and every time you wear them shave four hours off your life.
These prices! They’re so great!
And then I find fitted bed sheets that magically fold flat and square without effort. But for every hundred sheets they sell, one prisoner somewhere in the world will hang themselves with a sheet in their cell.
That seems a little steep. Reluctantly, I push my cart away.
Magic is always unpredictable. It’s always dangerous. It’s never cornflakes and toilet paper. But what’s wrong with magic people can afford? I try to put monkey extinction out of my mind. I try not to think about employees getting their overtime pay stolen to stock the shelves. I try not to think, and I get in line.
The line isn’t long, but it somehow stretches back into places that may not be in the store. That may not be in the world. Maybe it’s an optical effect. Reflections in a freshly buffed tile floor.
In any case, I’m going to be here a while. I glance up at the spirits flitting near the ceiling.
“You know, you can order everything in the store online.” It’s the greeter in the blue vest. “Just go to—” I think he’s giving me a web address, but what comes out of his mouth aren’t words that I recognize, or even sounds. He sees my lack of comprehension and tells me to hand him my phone. I surrender it and he touches the screen a few times, returns it. My icons are gone, replaced by a deep, howling vortex.
The phone goes back in my pocket.
I should just return everything in my cart to the shelves. Just walk away, out into the sunshine. But I won’t.
I don’t know why my mom kept her doll locked away in her basement, or why she needed it in the first place. We need things. We all do.
I need to fill the hollows.
I need relief.
I need a job that doesn’t make me feel like someone else’s machine.
I need my kid to be okay.
I need nourishment.
I need to survive.
I need another third kiss.
I need fitted sheets, even if they’re expensive.
(Editors’ Note: Greg van Eekhout is interviewed by Caroline M. Yoachim in this issue.)
© 2019 Greg van Eekhout