The Lover

By Chris Campbell

Alpena Mallphoto © 2009 Elissa | more info (via: Wylio)
Through the grimy windshield of his rusted-out Chevy Monte Carlo, Sam studies the entrance to the Rosedale Mall, trying to steel himself for the mission at hand. He wavers between going inside to get it over with and getting the hell out of there before someone recognizes him.

If that happens, he’ll be forced to enroll in one of those science-geek magnet programs where instead of homecoming and prom night, the student body rallies around the finals of the Upper Midwest Robot Skills Competition. He’d electrocute himself in the tub with three hairdryers if it came to that.

Heart hammering in his throat, he debates the wisdom of having devoured the ham omelet, three sausages, and hash browns for breakfast; his stomach is churning like a garbage disposal with a chunk of concrete jammed between the blades.

The parking lot begins to fill. If he had gone in as soon as the mall opened, he’d be home by now. But no. He is a spineless, weak-kneed dolt.

Cursing himself, he unclamps his fingers from the steering wheel, opens the door, and flails about in a patch of tacky oil after the seat belt reaches out and grabs hold of his foot. If anyone is looking it would appear as if he is practicing his breakdancing.

Idiot!

He marches through the parking lot, scraping the sludge off his hands on the rear bumper of some loser’s yellow Hummer and pulls on the mall door with Chuck-Norris-like determination.

Sadly, it takes a few moments for Sam to realize the door pushes open.

He winds through the men’s department of JC Penney and enters the mall proper. Although his destination is on the second level, he circles the first level five times to build up his courage; he keeps his head low and hands jammed in his pockets.

He avoids the dopes hawking hand held massagers, miracle shampoos, wooden Made in America! toys, and hair extensions at the kiosks scattered throughout the mall, but is nearly attacked by a fleshy woman who springs out from behind a pillar and shoves a clipboard in his face. “Would you care to take a mall survey and receive a free T-shirt?” Sam veers around her gelatinous stomach and mumbles for her to stick it.

The third time he passes the same zitty employee staring glassy-eyed from the entrance to Gymboree, he decides he doesn’t want to be mistaken for a mall walker and heads for the escalator.

Nearly noon now, the mall is filling with moms pushing babies in strollers, seniors hobbling along in their Velcro Hush Puppies, and clusters of kids hanging out at the food court. The longer Sam procrastinates, his greater risk of bumping into a kid from school, or even worse, one of his teachers.

My God, if I run into Mrs. Schlotsky, I’ll have to take a header off the balcony.

Focus. It was the same mantra his soccer coach used at halftime to regroup the team when he was little, although nobody paid attention to the guy because they were just kids and all they really wanted to do was eat Dilly Bars and watch cartoons instead of kicking a stupid ball around on Saturday afternoons.

Hot Dog on a Stickphoto © 2005 pingping | more info (via: Wylio)
He sits on a bench opposite KarmalCorn and repeats the chant in his mind. Focus. Focus. Focus.

He closes his eyes. Slows his breathing. Relaxes his shoulders.

Focus.

Deep breath.

A Zen-like calmness flows throughout his body. He is a lotus flower wafting in the warm breeze above a koi pond.

He is an orange brush-footed butterfly fluttering daintily over a honeysuckle bush.

He opens his eyes and stares at a pair of hoochie-mama shorts riding up the butt of a redhead leaning over the KarmalCorn counter.

While his groin rather enjoys this vision, his brain blasts a warning shot to the neurons in charge of thinking about baseball and meatloaf and puke and hair stuck in shower drains and clogged toilets. He doesn’t want a pup tent in his pants.

When he is able, he makes a B-line to his end game: Barry’s Pharmacy.

Ladies and Gentlemen, look on in wonder as Sam Witherspoon enters Barry’s with a head of steam and passes cosmetics, hair supplies, and lotions in aisle one, vitamins, supplements, and first aid in aisle two, cough syrups, allergy medications and eye drops in aisle three, diabetic foot creams, nail-fungus ointments, corn and callus removers in aisle four…uh, laxatives, stool softeners, and irritable bowel capsules in aisle five, and finally, as the gears of time grind to super slo-mo, witness Sam’s eyeballs explode as a chorus of angels sing and heavenly light illuminates the mother lode.

He faces the colorful array before him, mindful that at any second someone could turn down his aisle and catch him with his hand in the proverbial cookie jar. His eyes dart from one package to the next.

Photo courtesy of Oliver Hammond (flickr.com).

He had no idea there was such variety.

It’s like trying to figure out whether to get Fruity Pebbles, Count Chocula, Fruit Loops, Cocoa Pebbles, Frosted Flakes, Trix, Lucky Charms, Honey Nut Cheerios, Honey Smacks, Apple Jacks, Honey Comb, or Cinnamon Toast Crunch. Of course, if there was a Toy Story 3 anatomically correct, glow-in-the-dark Jessie the yodeling cowgirl action figure inside one of the packs, the choice would be a no-brainer.

He damns himself for failing to research the product before coming to the mall. But with his luck, he would’ve forgotten to delete the browsing history in the family computer and he’d find himself sent to a sex addiction program in Skagway, Arkansas.

Scanning the text on the boxes does nothing to assist his decision. In fact, he becomes more confused. Fire and Ice? Ribbed? A six pack? Twelve pack? What if his girlfriend calls him a pervert for bringing back a 24 pack of ultra magnum flavored ones? What the hell does he know?

This is a seminal moment in his young life. He doesn’t want to curdle the milk before it even goes to market. If he screws this up, his love life is over—he might as well stop bathing and change his name to Goober McNasty.

He nearly has an aneurism when his cell phone vibrates in his front pocket. His warbling shriek could easily have been confused for that of a stuck pig, although the closest ungulate farm is thirty miles outside the Twin Cities area.

Pharmacyphoto © 2007 Clean Wal-Mart | more info (via: Wylio)
He race-walks to the end of the aisle and pauses at an end cap of Pampers Cruisers that would have come in handy moments before.

Caller I.D. breaks the news that great-grandma Nanna Scoggins is on the line. The last thing he can afford to do at this critical juncture is spend the next half hour reaffirming that yes, he and his parents are planning to attend the special casserole festival at the home, so he lets the call go to voicemail.

He jams his phone back in his pocket, furious that the entire world is conspiring against him.

Focus.

The items are right down the aisle. All he has to do is grab a box. He has removed many products from store shelving in his seventeen years: deodorant, toothpaste, socks, chips. Why should this be any different?

He is about to head back down the aisle when a middle-aged woman with an enormous black tattoo of a screaming skull on the back of her shoulder saunters past him, pauses at the merchandise, and grabs a box like it’s the most natural thing in the world. Sam stalks her as she approaches the checkout, sets the package on the counter, and pays with a credit card. The entire transaction takes less than a minute.

There is a moment after she leaves the store that Sam thinks of tailing her to the parking lot and offering her twenty bucks cash for her purchase, no questions asked. But the bald-headed psycho in the “I eat pieces of shit like you for breakfast” t-shirt that French-kisses her for an hour right outside the establishment gives him pause.

From deep within, something nudges Sam. His head tingles as if his subconscious is trying to send him an important message. What can it be? Nazis? A rabid hamster? A disgruntled employee ready to shoot up the store? He crouches, ready to escape certain death. He’ll survive, but there’ll be no nookie tonight.

Then it hits him—the employee at the register.

The male employee at the register.

Score!

It occurs to him a female cashier would have doomed everything. A female would roll her eyes and taunt him: “You can’t impregnate your hand, Dingleberry.” Or she’d do a price check just for giggles.

But a male cashier will understand. He’ll nod his head imperceptibly or touch the side of his nose in an unspoken sign of solidarity and before he knows it Sam’ll be pimpin’ his way home, radio blaring Marvin Gaye’s “Let’s Get It On.”

No time to waste. Sam races back and snatches a blue 12-pack from the shelf. Ribbed. Might as well live on the edge. He peeks around the corner just to be sure the guy is still at the register. And to add gravy to the mashed potatoes, there is no line.

His lips twitch in a smile. After two deep breaths, he approaches the checkout.

Cashier: “Hey.”

Sam: “Hey.”

It might have worked out splendidly if not for the sudden appearance of DORA—ASST MANAGER (according to her nametag) who sidles up to the counter. “Why don’t you go on your break, Tony,” she says.

The bastard abandons Sam. Doesn’t even put up a fuss. No “Let me take care of my customer first” counterstroke.

Mother. Fucker.

Sam reacts how any other lucid, well-balanced teenaged boy would have under similar circumstances.

He bolts out the door.

Teen arrested at Rosedale

Rosedale police arrested a seventeen year old St. Paul teen in a bizarre incident yesterday at Rosedale Mall. According to the police spokesman Lt. Vera Hopper, a loss prevention officer observed the suspect run out of Barry’s Pharmacy with unpaid merchandise.  The officer chased the teen to the first level when the suspect was tripped by a mall employee.

“I saw that young man earlier in my shift; when I asked if he’d take a mall survey, he made a rude comment. He made me angry so I tripped him,” Susan Hayward, 79, said.

The teen crashed into a Best Buy display of 3D plasma television screens. Damages are estimated at over eight thousand dollars.

The teen has been cited for theft, disorderly conduct, and criminal damage to property.

The stolen merchandise in question, a box of condoms, has a retail price of $10.69.

Chris Campbell enjoys plopping his young adult characters into asinine situations and watching with glee as they struggle to surface for air. His characters have been beaten up and vomited on, have had body parts amputated, and in one case, tackled by a Hummer. Chris recently earned his MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults at Hamline University in Minnesota. You can read his scintillating writing blog on at http://gordonssuckysummer.blogspot.com/

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4 Comments Post a Comment
  1. jim says:

    Loved the story – funny as hell!

    This is from a sexually repressed generation member who had to ASK THE PHARMACIST for the “rubber” kept under the counter instead of in plain sight. God, it’s great to see how far we’ve progressed in 56 years!

    p.s. – never did have the nerve to “ask the man”.

  2. Thanks Jim and Melissa; kind words. I appreciate it!

  3. Chuck Schultz says:

    Just finished The Lover and it rings so many bells. I’m from the generation that would not even ask the male pharmacist for a condom. Never happen. No way.

    Thanks for the laughs. I do admire your writing.

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