A grizzled, flannel-bedecked old man wandered into the local small-town dollar store, lit cigar still smoking and clenched in his teeth. He squinted, stood on the store’s rubber welcome mat, arms akimbo, and slowly looked side-to-side. As he surveyed his meager, dingy surroundings, a la General MacArthur, I mistakenly caught his eye as I moved between aisles. I knew he saw me as (also mistakenly on my part) we made eye contact.
Yellowed, blood-shot blue eyes met nervous, clear hazel ones. I kept moving. We both turned into the party supply aisle simultaneously from opposite ends. I selected two thank you cards and he picked up a giant pink bow. I left the aisle the same way I had entered. I felt rather than heard his footsteps fall in behind me. As I turned to the office supplies, I quickly found the scotch tape I needed and tossed it in my hand-basket and kept moving. When I reached the cold and allergy medicine, I was forced to take a few moments to make my choice carefully. You don’t want to pick up the wrong decongestant, as I have found that doing so may cause an average of four to six hours of excessive dry mouth and alarming hallucinations, which may or may not be better than the stuffy nose and sore throat you started with.
As I stood in front of frankly too many choices of cold medicine, reading Latin, scientific, medicinal, or Yiddish terms, trying to select the least hallucinatory relief, I caught a whiff of smoke. Cigar smoke. Grizzly Pete (as I had begun thinking of him) was there. He must have found what he needed in another part of the store since I hadn’t sensed him in awhile. I surreptitiously glanced at his cart as he stood next to me. A coil of rope/laundry line. Four cans of Progresso soup. A large bag of Twizzlers. A mega roll of Duct tape. And now he was holding two bottles, reading the labels. I recognized one as being Nyquil and the other a generic nighttime substitute.
Not thinking of myself as generally paranoid or given to flights of fancy, I found lots of dark thoughts creeping into my consciousness. Was the rope/laundry line really for laundry? In a Pennsylvania January winter? Did he really have a cold and need soup and Nyquil? Or did he plan on using the medicine and rope to subdue his captive, which I was by now pretty sure he had stowed somehow in the cab of his rusty old truck which I spied through the store window between sales posters, and then take her to his mountain shack which is very much “off the grid?”
I turned and kept walking. Not too slow, so I could finish my errand quickly. Not too fast so I wouldn’t draw attention to myself. In the tissue aisle, where I picked up some travel-size packs of Kleenex, there he was again, right beside me, dropping a three-pack of Puffs in his cart. My heart was actually beating a little faster. He wasn’t following me, right? We just both had colds and needed some of the same items… right?
Next, I walked to another section of the store where I was sure I could lose him. Even though I didn’t currently need them, I went to the tampons shelf and made a selection. I stood for a moment. Waiting. Listening. As I released the breath I hadn’t realized I’d been holding, I caught a whiff… yes, of cigar smoke. You guessed it. Grizzly Pete was back. I turned around slowly and found Pete less than a foot away from me. He slid his cigar to the corner of his mouth with his tongue. His tongue even looked yellow and grizzled. Up close, I saw his pupils had dilated until they took up most of his eyeball. His eyes began to change shape as he squinted and I realized he was smiling at me. Or leering. Wasn’t sure yet. He grumbled “’Scuse me, missy” and lifted his hand. I quickly stepped aside and he grabbed a large tube of KY from the shelf near me. And then, honest to Pete, he winked at me. I’m not sure why, but I felt my feet rooted to the speckled linoleum. I couldn’t move. I was unsure of myself and what to do next. I managed a half smile/grimace just to be polite. As I roused myself to move forward, he stopped me with “It’s nippy out, huh?” “Yep,” was my brilliant reply. “It shore is purty with all that snow, huh? ‘Specially up the mountain,” he continued. “Uh huh,” from me with all my wit as I started walking toward the check-out which had somehow turned into a line of more than a half dozen people in seconds.
As he joined me in the line and stood a little too close for comfort, I tried to look very interested in the myriad gum and candy choices. But Pete hadn’t given up striking up a conversation. “I like the sweet ones,” he gestured to the gum and mints on the second shelf. “Lemme guess, missy, you like the spicy ones and the nutty ones.” He chuckled menacingly (is that possible? Yes, it is.) Did the lights actually flicker or was that my imagination running to previously unthought-of flights of fancy?
I was at a loss. I can usually talk to anybody, anywhere. Something about this man unnerved me. Was it the Duct tape? The way he looked at my hips and ass as if measuring me for birthing possibilities? The lit, smelly cigar that defied social conventions and threw common courtesy out the window? I looked at his large, hairy, grizzled (have I used that term too much?) hands and saw they shook a bit. How old was he? 50? 60? 70? Hard to tell with his stubbled, leathery face, greasy baseball hat, salt-and-pepper hair sticking out over his ears. His frame was lean but towering. I think it was his eyes that bothered me the most. Something just wasn’t right there.
So here’s where I pause in my story to ask what type of an ending would you prefer? Remember the “Choose Your Own Adventure” books? Where you could pick an ending? Let’s try it.
A) So we were in line at the dollar store, Grizzly Pete and I. He pushed in closer even though the person in front of me hadn’t moved. I could feel his breath on my neck. The cigar had disappeared. At least there was no smoke coiling around anymore. We both moved up a spot and then another. Finally, my turn! There’s nothing like the feeling of depositing your purchases on the little conveyor belt and paying a frazzled cashier with an empathetic smile. Somehow that spot of friendliness makes you feel like a better person.
As I grasped the handles of the plastic bags (forgot my usual cloth ones – forgive, me tree-huggers!), I felt a sense of relief. I was free to leave, safe from Pete’s wiles, only a few yards to my car. I pushed the door open and turned slightly to glance with my peripheral vision and instead of seeing Pete with the cashier, there he was, reaching around me to push the door open! I stumbled slightly and a small gasp escaped my lips and I began moving in earnest towards my car. He continued to walk closely behind me. Too close. I felt that time somehow began to slow down as I felt him grab my elbow and push me towards his truck. This is absurd, I thought, as he opened the creaky heavy door. I can push him away. I can scream. I can something. I was unable to do anything as I was shoved in his cab and punched in the stomach, the wind knocked out of me. As he quickly ran around the truck and slid behind the wheel, he looked me in the eye and hit me hard in the face.
Leaving the parking lot, leaving town, leaving paved roads behind, were all a blur. I must have passed out. When I awoke, I couldn’t tell what time it was or where I was. It was dark and there were trees all around. The truck bounced and weaved along a dirt road. I couldn’t think of one thing to say. He was silent, but had another lit cigar firmly in his teeth again. He glanced at me from time to time. I tried to focus on the scenery, looking for a clue to where we were, but it was hard as I realized one of my eyes was swollen shut and my other was filling with tears.
Grizzly Pete abruptly turned onto a narrow road and drove for a few minutes. When we slowed down and finally stopped, I saw that we were parked next to a small metal shack.
“We’re home,” were the first words he growled out. “Don’t try to git, you’d never make it. We’re miles and miles from anybody. Just do what I say and you’ll be fine.”
I knew I’d never be fine again.
Or maybe you’d prefer another direction for our story?
B) So Grizzly Pete and I were in line at the dollar store. He pushed in closer even though the person in front of me hadn’t moved. I turned and made eye contact with him as I stepped to the side a bit. Finally, it was my turn to pay and get the hell out! I took the plastic bags and walked quickly to the door. As I pushed it open, I glanced and saw Pete talking to the frazzled cashier. He looked to me and winked. I left as quickly as I could and got in my car.
It sounds melodramatic, I know. But I felt that twenty minutes at the dollar store was probably the closest I’ve been to possible death and torture in my life. I don’t think he was a lonely old man in town for polite conversation and a few drug store items. I think he was a grizzled mountain man who drove into town in his rust bucket in search of a new sister wife or something for his shack located way off the grid.
As I left the parking lot, I wasn’t even sure if I got all that I came for. As long as I left with what I needed, I knew I’d be fine.
Now, which ending do you prefer? The dark one? The happy one? What does your choice say about you? What does it say about me that I had much more trouble coming up with a happy ending?