“I Will Light Your Way,” by Joe Baumann
When Gala and I try to leave the hardware store, we cannot find an exit.
“I swear the doors were right here,” she says after we’ve paid, pointing at a long, creamy brown wall of concrete just past the cash registers. “This is where we came in. It should be where we leave.”
We sit down on some lawn chairs on clearance, oversized price tags dangling from the wicker like flattened Christmas ornaments. Other customers start to grumble about the missing doors, their arms weighed down by straining plastic bags filled with hammers and outlet covers and watering cans. One man wields a pair of fluorescent bulbs like nunchakus. A crowd begins to mass. Carts bump into one another. A woman holding birdseed sets the bag down, letting go too early. The bag splits, a mound of pellets tumbling across the slick floor like a field of flat marbles. She begins to cry, so another woman rifles through a leather purse and hands her a travel pack of Kleenex.
Gala holds up the small clay pot we have bought. We are going to start growing our own catnip. “What about home and garden? The outdoor section?”
She says it loud enough for those around us to hear, and we start an exodus for the other side of the store, Gala leading the way. When we arrive, she slumps down on a palette of fertilizer when she sees that those doors, too, have vanished. “We’re trapped,” she says.
“There are some vending machines by the not-doors. We won’t starve,” I say. “Or go thirsty. They have Coke products.” I reach into my pocket and jingle some change. “Let’s go get a Snickers bar to share.”
“How are you so optimistic?”
I shrug and look up at the high ceiling, the far away light glimmering against the chocolate-colored walls like the edges of a runway. “Why are you so worried?”
“Because there are no doors.”
An older couple is poring over garden hoses, seemingly unaware that we are trapped. I sidle up next to them and suggest the scrunchy kind because it saves so much time on rewinding. The woman smiles and thanks me for the advice, and the man tosses one in their cart.
“We just bought a house together,” he says. His hair is white and wavy, thin on the crown so I can see his mottled scalp.
“First time for both of us.” She squeezes his slouchy bicep and smiles, the wattled skin on her neck trampolining up and down. I nod and return the smile, and they continue their shopping, heading off toward the appliances, perhaps to look for a toaster or microwave oven.
“You don’t know anything about hoses,” Gala says. “But that was nice of you.”
“They were cute,” I say. “And those hoses never kink or knot. You want that Snickers?”
Gala sighs and hops off the fertilizer bags. “I guess so.”
When we reach the vending machine, I pump in the quarters but let Gala press the buttons; she’s always mesmerized by the metal coils as they turn and release candy and chips and dehydrated fruit in wrinkly bags, pressing her forehead to the glass while the machine churns. It’s a fiery momentary panic, she says, when you wonder if you’ll be one of the unlucky ones where the machinery doesn’t work and your snack is suspended in front of you, mocking you.
But our candy bar thunks down with no problem.
We start a long, lazy counterclockwise lap around the store, passing the bored toilets and blazoned rows of lamps and ceiling fans. The flooring section is abandoned.
“I could use something salty now,” Gala says when we finish the candy bar.
“It had peanuts in it.”
“Let’s get some chips.”
Past the checkout lines where cashiers avert their eyes and count their cash drawers over and over, an assistant manager is trying to calm the crowd, whose rising panic is tangible, voices mingled in a grumbling, harsh wave. The store has grown humid and sweaty-sticky, peoples’ voices throatier and gnarled, the air tinged with the sour, rank smell of body odor and anxiety. Someone is yelling about their rights being violated.
“We’re working on it,” the manager says, his bright red shirt stained with sweat under his arms, his fuzzy army-cut blond hair matted and slick. “We’ve called the police and the fire department. They’ll get this figured out.”
“See?” I say, popping open our bag of chips and holding it out to her. She pulls out a handful of flaky crisps, shaking her head all the while.
“Shoot,” she says after she swallows. “The flower pot.” She holds out her hands, upturned palms shiny with chip oil, as if to prove that she doesn’t have it. I press mine to hers and feel the slick salt on her finger tips.
“That’s okay,” I say. “Let’s go find it.”
“What if the lights go out?”
“Why would that happen?”
“Why would the doors disappear?”
“Well, we can just get another one. Or maybe we could get a gardening hose. I could find those again, I bet, even in the dark.”
“Or maybe none of it will matter because we’re going to die in here.”
“We can always eat potting soil,” I say. “Or worms from the fishing department.”
“You’re disgusting,” Gala says, but she gives my hand a squeeze, and we march back to the home and garden section, the sounds of shouting, scared customers fading into a burble like a far off waterfall. I grab a cart that someone has abandoned in the paint supply aisle, filled with a pack of lightbulbs and a screwdriver and a brass bedside lamp. I wonder where its owner has gone, and what they had planned. Given enough time, I think to myself, I could use these things to turn that lamp on, push back the darkness, and brighten up our path, light our way.
About the Author:
Joe Baumann possesses a PhD in English from the University of Louisiana at Lafayette. His work has appeared in many journals, including Jelly Bucket, Cleaver Magazine, Tulane Review, Hawai’i Review, and others. He is the editor-in-chief of The Gateway Review.
This piece was selected as part of the “Dis/appearances” theme, guest edited by Matt Tompkins, author of Souvenirs and Other Stories and Studies in Hybrid Morphology.
Image Credit: © Perysty – stock.adobe.com