A Transient Visitors Teaser Tale by David O’Boyle
A foghorn-voiced dramatist blared about a father and son trudging through a blizzard of radioactive ash. The Road played on Royce’s audio app, but only for a moment. Preservation of low iPhone battery power outweighed listening pleasure. The last three hours of the fictional Road would have to wait until he finished the real road before him.
For now, he’d have to fake it.
He put on his headphones, disconnected them from his iPhone (he did not have wireless headphones because he hadn’t found the right ‘deal’) and listened to silence. Normally this tactic was implemented for purely anti-social purposes. Today, however, his actions had dual motivation. Royce needed to avoid tag talk.
Yes, tag talk, the phenomenon whereby pedestrians flock to anyone with a tag on their clothes to alert the tag-wearer of their fashion faux pas. Normally doing this is a well-received gesture. Few people want to broadcast their body sizes or the amount they spend on clothes. It is less well-received when one intends the tags to be there. Royce, for instance, hadn’t erred with his scissors. He knew all about his tags. They were still attached to his Jenson Fuller jacket because they needed to be. The store’s draconian return policy demanded it.
‘No return after prior use’ put it lightly. At Jenson Fuller’s, employees are trained to examine all exchanges with the scrutiny of a coroner, forever searching for impropriety. Despite this fact, Royce deemed it too inconvenient to bring another coat into the equation. Maybe in a warmer March with a shorter walk involved. But for a thirty-block journey in a month that came in like a lion and was leaving like one, he was not wearing one coat and carrying the Jenson Fuller. Instead he’d take his chances at the customer service desk. While he anticipated an inquisition, he felt it was one he could win.
The store was caddy-cornered at an intersection where cars and people weaved in and out in exquisite organized chaos, like designs on a Navajo loom. Across the street, and presumably beyond the view of eavesdropping employees, Royce shed the Jenson Fuller coat, reducing his outfit to a t-shirt and jeans. A revitalized winter wind retaliated. When the pedestrian sign flashed a walking man, Royce beelined toward the store entrance. Halfway through the crosswalk the gusts had gotten so strong he had to barrel through like a fullback on a gridiron, low-backed, low-shouldered, clutching the coat like a football, reaching toward the entrance to Jenson Fuller’s like it was a goal line at Lambeau.
The unexpected counterpull from the locked main door nearly smashed his face onto the window glazing. The security guard inside the vestibule grinned. Here, hunched on a high stool that he mistook for a throne, was the Jenson Fuller enforcer, deputized to oversee a one-customer in/one-customer-out ingress/egress policy.
When Royce didn’t immediately move, the security guard puckered his lips funny, then twitched his face to the left, indicating a line of people that snaked down the sidewalk opposite from where he came.
Royce looked back at the security guard, who was kind enough to give another face-puckering motion, this time towards the sign above their heads.
“Max occupancy 10 shoppers at once. ID + proof of COVID VAX required”.
On his way to the end of the line, Royce noticed that fellow customers were giving him similar peculiar looks. None of it made sense until he wiped his runny nose with his t-shirt.
Geegypoiq was the reason for their looks.
Last Christmas, while working on the roof repair of a gingerbread house with his three-year old niece Julianna, Royce made up a story for her about the culprit of the cave-in. The graham cracker roof had shattered due to the lumbering landing of a dragon-like beast with wings, goat horns, a stegosaurus tail and sugar on its mind. Its name? Geegypoiq. Its purpose: raid gingerbread houses for free candy, then fly away undetected until next year’s holiday season. Thrilled by the tale, Julianna drew a picture of Geegypoiq, as she said, so they’d ‘know him when they saw him.’ At Royce’s instruction, she also added a “WANTED” title to the drawing. That way if someone came across Geegypoig, they could bring him to justice.
After Christmas, when all the gingerbread houses were digested, Julianna gave Royce custody of the “WANTED Geegypoiq” picture until next year’s holiday season. To honor her efforts and to show his thanks for the honor of safekeeping such a special document, Royce custom-printed the Geegypoiq drawing on a t-shirt. Julianna had yet to see Royce’s efforts come to fruition. She hadn’t even heard about what he was doing. After the coat exchange at Jenson Fuller’s, Royce intended to change that. Assuming he didn’t freeze to death first, he planned to see his niece tonight and surprise her with his wardrobe.
Bad news for Royce. Even from his distant place in line, the security guard, vested with the power to revoke his right to return, kept eyes on him. Under these circumstances, Royce couldn’t risk wearing the coat on top of his Geegypoiq t-shirt. For now, the coat had to stay clumped over the crook of his elbow like a matador muleta, unable to serve its true function.
Temperatures fell with the sun. By the time Royce reached the front of the line his fingers were so freezing they suffered a paradoxical burning sensation. To battle boredom and cold, he made a game of following the customers inside Jenson Fuller’s and guessing, based on their shopping behavior, who was closest to checkout. An older woman trailed her slender cadaverous fingers up the hem of a male mannequin’s snowpants. Theorizing that such play came at the end rather than the beginning of a shopper’s journey, Royce put his money on her as the next person ripe for checkout. He was right. In a moment, with purchases processed and bagged, she walked towards the exit where the security guard held the door for her with a strained smile.
Weeooooweeeee. The alarm sounded.
A huge hand slammed the door shut in front of her.
“Receipt!” the security guard demanded with a demeanor switching from servant to master. Royce lipread his words from the other side of the door, the tease of warmth fading faster from his face than a disrupted daydream.
Interrogation and examination followed. The verdict? No wrongdoing. The security guard unlocked the door and granted the old woman passage.
Weeeoooweeeee. The alarm sounded again.
She paused on the door sill, one bag still in the vestibule, the other already outside. The security guard motioned her back with a finger. She obeyed. In doing so, the door closed, and Royce, like a spring snowman, stopped thawing and went back to freezing.
Besides squinting a little harder at the same receipt, the security guard repeated the same process as before…and again returned the same result. The alarm was crying wolf.
Her first step outside as a free woman intersected with Royce’s first step inside as a warmer man. When the two exchanged glances, the older woman looked more alarmed than when the actual alarm went off. A human icicle wearing a ‘“WANTED” Geegypoiq’ t-shirt apparently has that effect on people.
The security guard locked the door behind Royce. Finally heat. Warmth. The indoors
“ID and proof of vaccination please?” the security guard said, as listless as a poet in math class. Royce served up his ID. Then he reached into his pocket for his iPhone, where, in his camera app, he kept a proof of vaccination photo.
The cover image for The Road was front and center on his iPhone screen. Five minutes. That’s what the timer indicating remaining run time had left on the audiobook meter. How was that possible? Only one answer. Royce was unknowingly playing the audiobook on mute ever since he disconnected his headphones from his iPhone at the start of the walk. Before he could x-out of the necessary screens and scroll through his camera app, the phone went black. The Road had played his iPhone out of batteries.
The security guard’s ashy eyes smoldered. Key went into lock. Cold came in.
Out went Geggypoiq; out went Royce; out went the ‘unworn’ undersized jacket from Jenson Fuller’s.