His walking stick preceded him. It was the size of a small tree. He didn’t seem to really use it, but it made him look regal. Majestic. His red-haired queen followed closely behind, keeping her place. She was in her early forties, he in his late. Both were well-groomed and dressed in immaculate fashion.
When someone makes an entrance like that in a small retail store, you immediately know you’re in for a wild ride. Tom knew how to make such entrances and during his era at the shop, “wild” was indeed an appropriate description.
“Good evening, sir!” he bellowed.
“And a good evening to you!” I replied.
He studied the four walls. It was our first year in business, so I was still filling out the shelves and putting the puzzle pieces together. He looked me straight in the eyes and announced, “I heard whispers about a new store on the boulevard, so I had to come and see for myself. Looks like you’ve made a very nice start so far. With a few adjustments here and there, this place could achieve greatness!”
Bewildered, I looked over at his wife. Sheila stood quietly by the door. She looked up briefly, then turned her eyes away.
We chatted for a good long while, getting to know one another. Tom told me about his history with the other retailers in the area. He’d been shopping at another store close by, but found himself disenchanted with the service there. While he spoke of his passions for Batman and Thor, he quietly piled one item after another onto the check-out counter. Sheila still looked at the ground, making herself small.
Sheila wore a bit too much make-up, applied an excessive amount of hairspray and adorned herself with flashy jewelry. But beneath the façade lived a naturally attractive woman. The two of them made quite a pair.
I rang up Tom for $300 in product and looked forward to learning more about this strangely fascinating couple. I would come to find that some knowledge is not always welcome and some of the darkest comes “not single spies, but in battalions.”
He spent extravagantly that year. Tom wasn’t content with one of anything. Only multiples would satiate his hunger. Of course, I was only too happy to oblige and ordered everything he desired. And ordered. And ordered. And ordered.
His deep-rooted obsession with the Dark Knight dominated his buying habits. Statues, action figures, graphic novels, memorabilia. If Batman was involved, he bought it. Twice. Our monthly order meetings were dominated by the constant mention of Tom’s name.
“How many of these statues should we get?”
“Three for Tom” I’d reply, before even thinking about our other customers.
“Does Tom want the entire set of these figures?”
“Four sets,” I’d reply, “to start.”
Tom and I spent many hours in the store talking about our personal lives. He’d been quite a well-respected and highly paid doctor for many years. He’d met Sheila when she was very young. She was an administrative assistant back in their hometown. He’d swept her off her feet and taken her to the big city. She no longer had to work and became a doctor’s wife. An idyllic story for a successful man. Until he came down with an illness. One that none of his colleagues could diagnose.
He showed me photos of himself taken only a year before. Emaciated in one photo, enormously heavy in another. To go from one hundred to three hundred pounds, then back to a normal weight in a matter of months was a frightening transformation.
“The pain was excruciating,” Tom told me. “If not for Sheila, I certainly wouldn’t have survived the experience.”
Sheila smiled sheepishly, blushing at the acknowledgment.
“She nursed me back to health,” Tom continued. “She fed me, bathed me and made sure I took all of my medications, even when I refused.”
“No one forced you to take your meds, Thomas!” she growled. “You took them the way you take everything in your life. By the handful!”
With that, she graciously excused herself and walked out.
Tom watched her go, mouth agape. He cleared his throat and quietly confided, “It’s been hard on her the last few years. I almost died and left her on her own. To this day, I still fight the tremendous pain. Without the medication, I wouldn’t even be able to leave the apartment.”
It occurred to me that I’d often seen him taking medication in my store. He’d usually put a pill into his mouth as he entered and sometimes, he’d turn away mid-conversation to administer his dose.
As usual, I helped him out to his car with his many boxes. Sheila sat in the passenger seat, quietly fuming. As I headed back inside, she rolled down her window and grabbed my hand.
“I apologize for my outburst,” she said. “It was wrong of me to do that in your store. It won’t happen again.”
“Nothing to apologize for,” I cheerfully replied. “We’re all humans with strong emotions. We don’t just leave them at home when we go out into the world, do we?”
Sheila’s eyes filled with tears. She let go of my hand and rolled up her window. In the driver’s seat, Tom stared ahead, stoic. I left them there in the parking lot, dreadfully sure there was more of this to come.
Tom and Sheila began to change. She became more vocal about what he purchased and his irritation with her grew.
He’d reply, “Do you ever not get the things you want?”
She’d roll her eyes and scoff, holding her tongue in public.
Eventually, as is usually the case with these types of scenarios, they would stand at my register and hear the words I’ve so often spoken in my time in retail.
“I’m afraid your card’s been declined.”
They would whisper to one another, shrug it off and hand me a different piece of plastic that would work. Or not.
Their outward appearance also changed. He took to wearing the same exact clothing every time I’d see him. Not dirty, by any means. Just exactly the same. Sheila’s outfits had become far less regal and far more casual. The jewels had been shed.
Their communal visits were becoming unbearably tense. So Tom did what he needed to do in order to keep himself happy. He began coming alone. Late at night, he’d drift in, popping a pill and chewing it down quick. He’d pile up the counter with product and stay for hours on end. His sentences became long and drifting and made their way from one random topic to the next. It was difficult to keep my focus in the face of his condition.
When he ran out of credit cards, he began to bring in his own rare collectibles to sell or consign. He had a marvelous collection and he demanded I take it in trade. So the journey into year three of Tom’s visits was littered with scatological conversation, an influx of rare product and a dark foreboding of something altogether inevitable.
“I have to talk to you in private.” Tom whispered. “You’re the only one who’ll understand!”
His eyes were wild, his hair askew. Small pieces of yellow pills were wedged into the crevices of his teeth. He looked behind him as if he were being stalked.
“Who Tom?” I asked. “Who’s watching you?”
“I don’t know yet. They’ve been following me. I think they let out the air from my tires. All of my doctors don’t believe me, but there’s something in my blood. Something trying to get out. I think maybe they put it in me to experiment and see what would happen. But I’m working on a cocktail of vitamins and minerals that’s going to get it out of my body. They know I’m onto them and don’t want me to reveal what they’ve done. If you knew what I knew about what’s going on, you’d be as afraid as I am!”
I was afraid all right. Here was a delusional man, chewing morphine on my shop floor and confiding in me as his only true friend in the world. There are limits to how far we can venture into the personal lives of our customers. Communicating about ourselves on the shop floor is one thing. Becoming intimately involved in someone’s fractured fantasies and tenuous relationships is something of a taboo in retail. It’s a slippery slope and rife with danger.
I told him he needed to leave. To go home and get some rest. I ushered him out as calmly as I could and hoped he would be okay. The very next night, Sheila came into the store.
She wore torn sweatpants and an old t-shirt. Her face was devoid of make-up, her eyes were red and swollen and she looked utterly exhausted.
“I’m so sorry for coming in like this,” she said. “I know it’s not right, but I have to talk to someone who knows him. I have to know if it’s just me.”
I closed a few minutes early, locked the gate, got some tissues and listened to a woman on the brink. A woman who’d been struggling for quite awhile in silence.
“He used to be such a strong man. Everyone respected him. We went to functions and ate at expensive restaurants. Then he got sick and everything changed. They couldn’t figure out what was wrong with him. He was in so much pain and the medications they gave him weren’t helping. So they gave him more and he started to take twice as much as he should have. I was his nurse for a whole year. We never left the house. Never. Do you have any idea what that does to a marriage?”
It would have been easy to be dismissive. To detach myself and say, “I’m just a comic- book retailer. You should talk to someone else.” Easy for others. Not so for me.
“He can’t stop taking the pills,” she continued “And the more he takes, the more delusional he gets. He thinks someone is following me and filming me in the shower. He shouts and rages and accuses me of being involved in some plot to kill him. He’s up all night and barely sleeps at all now. I don’t know what to do.”
Sheila told me what I already knew. They were in dire financial straits. She’d taken a job as an assistant at a bank for some extra cash. She said that it actually empowered her and reminded her that she had a life and a mind of her own.
“I’m going to leave him,” she said. “but I’m afraid of what he might do to himself. Just tell me this. Do you think he’s insane?”
“I think…I think he needs some help,” I said. “Just not necessarily from you. Maybe you could use some help as well. Just not necessarily from me.”
Sheila thanked me, apologized a hundred times and went back to her life of emotional distress. Her husband had become someone she no longer knew. What’s more, he’d become someone to fear. Someone to avoid. Someone to escape from.
“They’re turning her against me!” Tom cried. “They’ve put cameras in the walls. I found the holes. They’re filming her when she’s naked and they know I know! They’re making her divorce me!”
One of my customers passed by and brushed his shoulder.
“Tom” I replied, “That’s one of my subscribers. He’s shopped with us for years. He’s an accountant.”
Sheila left Tom that year. She got her own place and her own life. As part of their divorce agreement, she was to get half of his entire collection. They needed someone to appraise and purchase it as soon as possible. Of course, they came to me.
We purchased Tom’s collection. It was enormous and, of course, included four years of product we’d sold him. We gave them a fair price and wished them both well.
Tom continued to stop in. Some days his eyes looked clearer than others. He still spoke of a medical conspiracy bent on destroying the world.
His vitamin elixir was apparently a success. It now rolled back time and made people younger. He was working on it in the room he rented from a friend. He was experimenting on himself and the results, to him, were dramatic.
The last time I saw him, he told me he’d discovered the secret of how the “real” world works. He told me he could control other people’s thoughts and make them do whatever he wanted them to. He believed he was at the forefront of ushering in a new age of humanity. He believed his wife never understood how special he was. He believed he had finally become what he always knew himself to be. A superhero.
He thanked me for believing in him. He thanked me for being his friend. Then he disappeared.
Most of what I do as a retailer (besides selling product) is wrapped up in the personalities, histories, relationships and idiosyncrasies of my customers. I spend very little of my time actively involved in your lives but most of my time hearing about them.
I see your highs and lows. I see your babies born and families grow. I see your jobs and loves, both won and lost. I see your lives grow and blossom over time. And I also see them unravel and can do nothing at all to stop it from happening.
I stand behind my counter and wait for you. I wait for the door to open and your stories to step in with you. I am the watcher. I am the listener. But mostly, I am the witness. To both the good in you and the bad. I see the things that you yourself cannot. And often, very often, I see it all and say nothing.