“Hey,” said Ray. “Where do you keep the cable ties?”
The store keeper, stood at the far end of the aisle, barely acknowledged Ray’s question, scribbled something on a clipboard, then simply walked away.“Jesus,” Ray muttered. He didn’t want to call after the dude, that would be rude. In the same way pretending to not hear someone and walk away was. He went back to scanning the racks, up and down, left and right. Impossible to know if this was where the cable ties should have been. Or not. There was no discernible system to how the shit in this store was sorted. No signage overhead to say if this was the aisle for hand tools or plumbing supplies.
Place was a mish-mash, nothing in its right place.
Ten minutes he’d burned here already. Could have been at Walmart or Home Depot by now, the way he’d originally intended, up to his neck drowning in all manner of neatly categorized cable ties. But no, this place he’d been routinely driving past for years, that it was safe to assume had been put out of business even more years before by said Walmart or Home Depot, was suddenly open. Hey, maybe it was because he had the day off work. Maybe it was the type of operation that only opened from 10am to 3pm, Monday to Friday, that perhaps didn’t need to open at all. Maybe this old shit was widowed and retired, only opened up to have something to do with himself from one end of the week to the other.
“Should take up fucking customer service if he’s at a loss,” said Ray, strolling off. Maybe if he forgot about the cable ties, didn’t intentionally look for them, they would pop out. This morning he’d spent an age looking for a claw hammer in the garage, only to realize the thing had been staring him in the face the whole time. The harder you look for something, the harder it is to find.
The next two aisles were much the same story, no rhyme or reason to how anything was classified. Then in the third aisle, something else he had not yet seen here: other customers. In fact, unlike the deserted area of the store he’d just come from, this section was positively swarming with people.
Maybe he’d stumbled into the bargain basement zone to begin with. Would explain the random, jumbled-up nature of the displays around there. Except when he took note of what was stocked here, the story seemed to be the same.
And the customers, well they looked the same way he felt. Confused. Staggering about like blind cattle, bumping into one another and picking up whatever items came to hand, hardly even registering what was in their clutches before returning them to the shelf.
“To hell with this, I’m out of here,” said Ray, reversing back along the aisle and stepping on someone’s toes. “Shit, sorry,” he said, turning to find himself face to blank, expressionless face with the storekeeper.
“That’s okay,” replied the man. “No harm done.”
The storekeeper wore a knee length overall with a pocket protector, protecting a pocket on to the front of which was pinned a name badge. It bore the moniker: RAY.
“Hey, great name,” said Ray.
The storekeeper just smiled. “What is it you’re looking for, Ray?”
“Cable ties. Not the skinny little ones though. The thick, heavy-duty bad boys, if you’ve got them.”
The shopkeeper shook his head and rocked back and forth on his heels.
“You don’t have the thick ones… or you don’t have cable ties, period?”
The shopkeeper said nothing.
“Okay,” said Ray. Fuck this. “Not to worry. Thanks for all your help.”
This was a half hour of his life he was not getting back.
He arrived at the point he was sure he entered the store, only to find it, well, gone. Not so much as a doorway. Just a solid wall. He moved along said wall, checking to see if maybe he’d moved across more aisles than he’d thought, but no. The way he came in was nowhere to be found. And there seemed to be a whole lot more aisles than he remembered there being to begin with. In fact, he couldn’t see the far end of the store. The aisles looked to stretch off into infinity. Which was kind of crazy. To put it mildly.
He didn’t hear the approach.
“What is it you’re looking for, Ray?”
He whirled around to find the creepy storekeeper standing far too close.
“I told you before. Goddamn cable ties. But right now, the exit would do fine. How the hell do I get out of this dump?”
“There is no exit.”
“Then the entrance, where did I come in?”
“Through the front door, of course, the same way we all did.”
“Are you being funny?”
The storekeeper smiled. “If I seem that way, it’s only because I’m happy. Because my shift is coming to an end.”
“Your shift? Has this place not just opened?”
“Oh no, it’s been open some time,” said the man, his smile widening. “Cable ties. They were not what brought you here,” said the storekeeper, starting to unbutton his shirt. Thankfully, he had a t-shirt beneath. He removed the shirt carefully and folded it over his arm, running his fingers over the name badge. “This is where all those in need of something greater find themselves. Sometimes, those who become customers here are not even aware they have that need. It’s up to them to browse the shelves, peruse the wares, and discover that which they are in need of.”
“I need the exit,” said Ray, patience starting to run thin. “If you can’t help me with that simple request, then I’d like to speak to management.”
“And they would like to speak to you, I’m sure,” said the storekeeper, holding out the shirt to Ray with the name badge facing him. “They’ve never promoted anyone so quickly to tend the flock, least of all on their first day. They must have big plans for you.”
“Okay, I’m lost,” said Ray.
“Now you are found,” said the man, wiping his hands on his t-shirt. “Tell me, what year is it?”
“Uh, 2017, same way it was yesterday.”
“2017. Well I’ll be,” said the man, stuffing the shirt he’d just removed into Ray’s hands and pushing past.
Ray spun around to find the former shopkeeper gone, and the shirt he’d been given no longer in his hands but wrapped around his torso. He tried to take it off but the buttons wouldn’t budge. It was like he was sewn into the thing.
Overhead, some stone age public address system crackled into life.
“Could Ray please come to the management office. Ray to the management office, please.”
The customers, “the flock”, as his predecessor, it now appeared, described them, stepped out from the lines of shelves and then parted, flanking him left and right, each one of them a beacon to light his path there.
Even as he set off, on the one hand seemingly accepting his fate as one foot put itself in front of the other, Ray couldn’t help thinking that, truthfully, all he really wanted was those cable ties.