A funny thing about flashbacks: they come unbidden, and at the most unexpected times.
One moment I was standing in Walmart, and the next moment I was not: I was a twelve-year-old boy again, crouching beside the outer wall of a darkened house in a long-ago suburb, hoping that the shrubbery to my right and my left had adequately concealed my presence. A malevolent creature was intent on taking my head. He—or it—had an entire sack full of them.
That particular flashback is always especially vivid. When it overtakes me, I can feel not only the pervasive, all-consuming fear of those eternal minutes, but also the little details of my surroundings: the cold, damp ground beneath me, the scratchy feel of the barren shrubbery of late October.
This is one reason why I still believe that it really did happen—even after all these years. A delusion wouldn’t include so many little details.
And then, in the next second, the flashback is gone: I’m no longer that crouching, quivering twelve-year-old boy. I’m a grown man in my mid-forties—solidly into middle age by any yardstick. I’m no longer crouching in the dark: I’m standing yet again in the fluorescent glare of the Walmart near my home in Cincinnati, shopping for a calculator.
Although I knew that I would come back (I always do!), it’s good to be back, nonetheless.
The calculator that I’m looking for is not just any calculator; it’s a TI-89 graphing calculator, one of the models that Texas Instruments designed especially for engineers. Don’t ask me how to use the thing, or about its features. I would have no idea. The calculator is for my daughter, Lisa. Lisa turns twenty on the third of November, during the week after Halloween.
Lisa is a student at the University of Cincinnati, and an engineering major. She’s a lot smarter than her dad, I don’t mind saying—even though her dad hasn’t done badly for himself, all things considered. But Lisa gets her smarts from her mother, who has always been good at math.
Lisa has a younger sister, Hannah. Hannah graduates from high school next year. Hannah takes after her father more, which is to say she’s not so good at math. But she’s creative and more of a “people person” than her older sister. I look for Hannah to major in business administration or political science. Something like that. We’ll see. She has a year to decide.
Last week Hannah and I were talking about the future, and she shared her anxieties with me. It’s so competitive out there nowadays—nothing like the days of my youth, when any college degree would enable you to blunder your way into some sort of a professional career. And Hannah has always felt that she lives in Lisa’s shadow. Her older sister was always the one with the straight A’s—the one with the academic awards. Throughout grade school and high school, hardly a one of Hannah’s teachers failed to remember and mention her “gifted” older sibling.
“Maybe I’ll end up selling insurance with you, Dad,” Hannah said. She said this in jest, but it’s not a half-bad idea: My State Farm agency has brought in a good living over the past seventeen years. (I drifted into insurance sales after several false starts in other fields.) “Maybe you will,” I said. “Your old man would be glad to have you.”
Who knows? Hannah’s still in high school, and her preferences might end up channeled in one of any number of directions. But it’s something for us both to keep in mind.
I’m walking toward the Walmart’s electronics section when I catch a brief glimpse of the head collector in the rear area of the store—through the double doorway marked “Employees Only”. He’s standing there by a bare cinderblock wall, near one of the warehouse area’s fire extinguishers. The fire extinguisher enables me to gage his height: seven or eight feet, just like he’s always been.
I pause to rub my eyes, and look again: The head collector is gone, just as I knew would be the case.
It’s not uncommon for me to see the head collector at this time of year. I only see him briefly—and never up close. If I saw him up close, well, that might be enough to drive me over the edge. Far away, he’s an anxiety that I can live with.
Keep calm, I tell myself: I focus on Hannah and Lisa, and my wife of twenty-two years. I focus on purchasing the calculator for Lisa’s birthday.
Halloween is often a difficult time for me, though the flashbacks are only this vivid every third or fourth year.
The atmosphere inside the Walmart isn’t helping matters. There are only a few days remaining before October 31st, and the store is filled with every conceivable trapping of Halloween: There are cardboard black cats with arched backs and erect tails. Near a display of trick-or-treat candy, a mechanical life-size plastic witch with green skin and a jutting chin and nose twists back and forth. And everywhere there are jack-o’-lanterns: plastic hollow jack-o’-lanterns for collecting candy, inflatable jack-o’-lanterns to be used as lawn decorations—even some jack-o’-lantern-shaped candles.
My individual traumas aside, I note that Halloween doesn’t change much. Well over thirty Halloweens have passed since what I consider to be my “last Halloween” in 1980 (the Halloween that I’m going to tell you about shortly); but the basics of that dark holiday don’t change much, do they? Halloween is impervious to the Internet, to the vagaries of politics and pop culture. Halloween is dark, eternal, and yes, strangely inviting. (That was why Leah and Bobby and I decided to indulge in that “last Halloween”, even though we were really too old for it by then. We didn’t want to let Halloween go—not quite yet.)
I finally reach the electronics section. It has been my observation that Walmart’s “everyday low prices” are at least partly achieved by minimizing the number of sales clerks on the floor at any given time. But I’m in luck: there is a salesperson behind the electronics counter. She’s a young woman about Lisa’s age, maybe a few years older.
“I’m looking for a TI-89 graphing calculator,” I tell her from memory. (Again, I am absolutely clueless about such things.)
“Well, sir, we have that model in stock.”
It doesn’t take long for me to select Lisa’s calculator and pay for it. The total comes to $146.78 with tax. Throughout our brief interaction, the sales clerk calls me “mister” and “sir” any number of times, pointedly reminding me of my age. Not that I mind. There is only one woman for me: my wife; so I don’t care if the young sales clerk thinks I’m an old guy. And if being called sir is the price of having two wonderful daughters, then may the whole world call me sir.
That done, I collect my purchase inside its white plastic Walmart bag, and head for the main exit. On the way out I pass another sales clerk. She’s a bit older and rather on the chubby side.
As I’m about to push one of the glass doors open I hear her say, “Hey, you’re going to lose your head!”
I whirl around, my heart suddenly beating rapidly. The head collector, I think.
But she looks at me innocently.
“You dropped your receipt,” she says, pointing to a small strip of paper on the floor. Now I understand: What the clerk had really said was, “You lost your receipt”—or something very similar.
I stoop and pick up the receipt.
“Thank you,” I say.
I’m out in the parking lot, glad to be done with Walmart and all those Halloween decorations. I think again about the head collector, and how I caught that brief sight of him in the back of the store. Would he follow me out here?
The skies above me are overcast and grey; but it’s a little after 10:00 a.m.—broad daylight. (Another perk of self-employment: You can do your shopping at 10 o’clock on a Tuesday morning, when the rest of the world is otherwise engaged.) The head collector wouldn’t follow me out here. That is not his way.
I start my car, a pearl white Toyota Avalon. Yes, it’s a middle-aged man’s car. Hannah jokingly refers to it as my “Avillac”. You get it? A combination of Avalon and Cadillac.
I drive home, thinking mostly good thoughts: My two nearly grown daughters, my wife. Maybe I’ll make love to my wife tonight, I think. (I may be a middle-aged man, but I’m a long, long way from being too old for that.)
But inevitably, I find myself thinking of the past, too. I think about Bobby and Leah. I think about the head collector, of course.
And I think about Matt Stefano. Yes, I really hate to think about him.