90 Deg. 5 H. II – III

I think you’re lost.

Ahead, the consuming luminescence of ‘Buy Zone’ beckoned. The name stood in 2-metre tall soft-font neon red lettering above the wide rectangle of the white-walled entrance. They dragged themselves towards it like half-dead fish coughed up by a jaundiced tide. The black and white checkerboard tiles covering the floor were interrupted by a winding Alice-in-Wonderland road in scuffed marble. Speakers assaulted them from all sides with a storm of random adverts all independently paid for by independent outlets. In theory this meant they could target specific bits of the store where they thought their most relevant audience would congregate. In reality it translated to a perpetual cacophony of overlapping marketing jargon and colliding calls to action. The most purchased item in Buy Zone was probably aspirin.

Most days he’d just shuffle half-hazed along the chess board path from point A to point B. Today he’d spent the morning making out with the side of a steel box, so he took a stroll into the tangle of silver steel shelving, primary-colour packaging, and glaring crimson ‘sale’ signs.

Rows of stacked bowls and vases lined the “welcome!” shelves towering above. A harried bald man with a pencil moustache prodded at a tall cheap cup. He shuffled on and then stopped for a moment to examine a crystal glass decanter “of value!” Caleb lost sight of the old guy as he weaved around a faded plastic warning sign in the spirits section “… try your luck…” where a woman in a bleach white coat sprawled on the floor. A bottle of whiskey rested on a display case nearby. Someone in uniform advanced on the spill, mop in both hands. Glass pedestals “… unmissable performance of…” dotted the kiosk like red-carpet stalagmites, on which bottles from a dozen different distilleries presented themselves. The booth next to it was draped with faux fur and fake ivory “… on your way up!” and insisted that he should buy, of all things, a compass. There was something absurd about wilderness survival outlets in the middle of urban sprawls. The air in the perfume “… hot!” section could have knocked out a shark and smelled like a pungent manifestation of nothing in particular. He found himself standing beside a glass pedestal hosting a tiny blue bottle, blinking under an interrogation-bright lamp, headache building, trying to remember “… escape today…” what he was looking for.

From there he drifted at random through a sea of shelves and kiosks and displays. He picked up a packet of aspirin, a bottle of water, and roamed in what he hoped was a forwards direction, until he found what he’d really come for. He breathed a sign of relief at good timing and closed his hand around the last remaining packet of wet wipes on a ransacked shelf, smiling to himself. Then he turned and found himself smiling into the blood-streaked makeup-smeared face of the woman who’d run ahead earlier.

She wiped a matted brunette lock off her brow and held out a hand. The hair left a thin line of rust behind it. He looked at her hand. She beckoned. He made to move past her. She stuck her other hand out and barred his way. He frowned at her. She looked back, impassive. He held up his own hand, thumb and fingers rubbing together. She shook her head. He shrugged. She huffed, spread her hands palm up. He looked at the price tag, gave her one three times as high.

She raised an eyebrow, scowled. He shrugged again. Two guys joined them. One was a tall man with a face made for modelling squeezed into an overpriced ill-fitting navy suit like stuffed toothpaste. The other a guy with the kind of boyish good looks and dangling blonde fringe, slouching effortlessly in a loose black and yellow plaid shirt over a pre-distressed faded vermillion t-shirt.

“Any more?” asked the first, jabbing a manicured finger at the wipes with one hand and trying to smooth the wrinkles out of the suit with the other.
Caleb shook his head.
“That’s just great.” said the second arrival.
“Does anybody have a piece of gum?”
“I’ve got a mint”
“Well, you’re in the right place to buy some.”
“I prefer gum.”
“I’ve only got mints.”
“I’ll probably buy some, but I don’t want to wander around for a million years.”
“Where’s the section for that, anyway?”
“Hell if I know.”
“What gum do they have?”
“They’ve probably rearranged everything again.”
“All the usual brands?”
“I hate it when they do that.”
“Probably near the checkouts somewhere.”
“You think?”
“Yeah, it’s a sales thing.”
“How about Artillery Chew?”
“A sales thing?”
“I hate that.”
Somewhere nearby laughter started to pour out of a speaker.
“Maybe? I don’t know, I don’t work here.”
“Did anybody see the drunk woman?”
“What do you mean?”
“Psychology – you’re more likely to buy gum if it’s next to the counter to influence the tendency towards impulse buying.”
“I did.”
“Of course there is. There’s research on everything…”
The speaker was still cackling.
“Mad, huh?”
“Someone was mopping her up when I walked past.”
“Oh, that’s good.”
“Anyway, whatever, are you going to give me the wipes or not?” asked blue suit.
“I was here first.” announced the woman to the two men.
The navy suit examined a watch, “And?” Small white stones glinted on the wristband.
“And he’s going to sell them to me.”
“No. I have a performance review and I can’t turn up like this.”
“Who cares, nobody giving a performance review is going to care. I’m meeting my boyfriend’s parents – you should definitely sell me the wipes.”
The laughter finally subsided.
“Trust me, they care. Have you ever worked in the city? Don’t answer that. Point is, every advantage is crucial. I just got this suit back from the dry cleaners and it’s already wrinkled. Fucking pods. I’m taking a taxi next time.”
“Well, not only was I here first, I need to look good for an interview, and that means I need to try to…” she trailed off, waving a hand at her face “fix this mess because of all that!” she finished, jabbing the hand back towards the conveyors.
Caleb looked from one to the next. “Bidding starts with the lady…”

In the end it went as expected. The big city boy paid better than the others and he got the wipes. The woman and the other guy left, disheartened. Caleb snatched a flannel from another shelf, a bottle of mineral water, a tube of nutrient paste, and a travel-sized bottle of mouthwash, and headed for the checkouts. He thought about stealing a chocolate bar, but tossed the thought aside, paid for his items, shot-gunned the nutrient paste down his throat, and headed towards a bathroom.

The bathroom was overly bright. Along a row of sinks one guy was shaving and another guy was washing his feet. A bathroom attendant stood in front of a double row of cheap perfume bottles and barked out sales lines like an automaton. “Freshen up! Freshen up! Freshen up!” yelled the bathroom attendant.

Caleb chose the sink furthest from the guy washing his feet, which was too close to the guy trying to sell cheap perfume. He scrubbed the blood off his face with the flannel, sloshed some mouthwash and gargled. The series of minor cuts on the inside of his mouth and tongue made the mouthwash feel like barbed wire. He spat it into the sink, ignored the slim ropes of red mixed into the watery saliva and ran his tongue around his mouth. Pleased that the taste of sour vomit had gone, he took a couple of aspirin with some of the mineral water. “No splash, no gash!” proclaimed the bathroom attendant. The guy shaving swore, pressed his fingers to a freshly bleeding cut. The guy washing his feet paid no attention.

Caleb went back to examining himself. The idiot in the mirror looked somewhere between an asylum patient and a gang ambush victim. His face was a discoloured mash of bruising beneath a wild tangle of matted hair. He threw some water onto his head, tried to smooth it out. The effort was in vain. He prodded along the ridge of his nose the way an old man hobbles through a cold morning, wincing every so often, but he decided there was no major damage. He spat more bloody phlegm into the sink and grimaced. The back of his nose slithered with the thickened clogged sensation of clotted blood. A plug of rubbery slime. He blew his nose. More blood, but it didn’t help. “No spray, no lay!” enthused the toilet attendant. Caleb wiped his face again and rinsed out the sink. He threw the flannel in the bin and headed back towards the hall.


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