Safe from the storm for now, there is still something ominous and foreboding going on. However, there's a nice joke about "Heinz Spotted Dick Sponge Pudding," that's well worth your time.
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I took the biggest candle and stopped in my tracks when I realized it was just me and the dark. Then I went back, untied Thing, and dragged her along with me. At first I thought she was spooked by something; then I realized she just didn’t want to leave Fine Foods. I grabbed a bag of fancy potato chips to bribe her with and somehow managed to rig a handle for the stockroom door, the dog tugging on the leash and trying to snatch the chips the entire time. After that we headed toward the office in back.
Sure enough, one of those rechargeable flashlights was plugged in next to the desk. It still held a charge. While Thing hovered around the unopened bag of potato chips, I glanced over the desk top and searched through the drawers. There was a desk calendar, more office supplies, and some batteries. I guessed the cash was either in the safe or nonexistent, shipped to another store. Shuffling through the paperwork I found a memo dated from last February that mentioned employee transfers from “prospective magnetic cold spots.” Sounded like the head office thought this whole Chicago-North Pole shift was going to be temporary.
Of course it neglected to mention how they knew this. It also neglected to mention that the last time this happened, a couple-hundred-thousand-years ago, nobody had been around to leave an eye witness account—so how the hell would anybody know? After the fact, it was pretty obvious that the Corporate Office had neglected to put a chapter on Shift Changes and the Polar Shift in the employee handbook.
I checked the stockroom shelves, hoping to find more food or clothing. Most of it seemed to be furniture: future firewood. Pillows, kitchen accessories, more beanbag chairs, wine and coffee beans.
The ladies’ room was back by the office, while the men’s had been on the sales floor. Guess they didn’t trust the men with the stock. I actually knocked on the women’s door before I went in, as if some lady might still be inside putting on her makeup. Candy wrappers from pilfered stock and toilet paper were strewn all over the floor, indicating that the women weren’t to be trusted either. The plumbing worked, but it didn’t look like anybody had bothered to find that out. Maybe when the electric eye went out, they didn’t know how to flush it manually. Kids these days. I’d get Wes to show them how.
On the south side of the building a door led to the loading dock we’d seen from outside. The dock was designed like a big garage to keep the stock people from having to unload outside. Inside, there was room enough for two shipping trucks. The garage door on the opposite side was the same one we had seen in the alley. It struck me that if we needed to build a fire we could do it on the dock. The inside door would keep us from getting smoked out, and the outside door would, hopefully, keep the escaping smoke to a minimum so nobody would notice us.
I rechecked all the exits and led Thing around by holding the bag of chips just high enough in the air to pique her interest. She followed me back to the front, where I pulled the wire out of the stockroom door so it would lock again, then I stacked a box of glassware against the inside of it to act as an alarm. You couldn’t be too cautious, and breaking glass worked regardless of electricity. Seemed more our style, anyway.
I had expected the gang to still be engaged in the manly art of conversation when I got back, and figured by now they had created entire new galaxies in which to house their legendary he-man members. Instead, Jack and Frostbite were both laying back in their beanbag chairs with their eyes closed. If they weren’t asleep, they certainly weren’t conscious.
Wes held up his bottle as if to say, Hey. Then set it down gently, and curled up using his coat for a blanket. Thing evaluated the scene for food potential, and proceeded to walk around in circles, sniffing, until she found the best spot on the floor.
I blew out the candles and laid there in the dark staring at the inside of my eyelids. A while later I decided I couldn’t sleep.
I picked up another Jones Cola and reminded myself I couldn’t drink alcohol. I didn’t know what flavor the soda was, even after I tasted it. From what little I could see, it was that weird shade of cobalt blue that has no relation to any actual, existing, real food. But it didn’t taste half bad.
If I couldn’t sleep at least I could rest I told myself, and actually believed it for a little while. Eventually though, it felt like time had stopped. I needed to find something to do.
When I got up and started wandering around, so did the dog. The only thing they had to read was cookbooks, and I really didn’t want to even think about food. Those Gummi Bears and sardines weren’t mixing too well. A small shaft of light beamed through the front window. I used that to steer myself into a comfortable leather chair, just far enough from the front that I could see out without anybody else seeing in.
I might have even fallen asleep, because the next thing I remember was opening my eyes. I looked over at the dog, and she was sitting down next to me looking outside like she had seen God. I suddenly realized the intensity of the light on the dog’s face—it was changing in brightness, and color.
At first, I thought maybe I was dreaming and she was watching TV or something. But the shifts in light didn’t move abruptly enough, and it didn’t feel like a dream. The frost on the window was real. And through it, I could see bright colors and shapes moving in the dark. Beautiful shapes, like liquid lasers.
Right in front of me, the sky filled with streams of milky green light, like banshees waltzing over a dead city. Thing nudged my hand with her nose, and when I looked back up it was as if a green and red plasma wave whipped over the street.
It startled me. For a second I was convinced the aliens were picking up natives in a tractor beam. I waited, unmoving, surprised to find that nothing had exploded or disintegrated.
I watched the light waves hover over the electrical wires down the street and remembered the first time I had ever seen the Corporation of America Blimp when I was a kid.
The Blimp had circled over my parent’s house on its way to a Sox game. It was nighttime and all I had seen were the advertising lights. Scared the shit out of me. Every dog in the neighborhood was barking. I ran into the living room, out of breath and not real sure of myself, and told everybody a flying saucer was outside because I didn’t know what else it could be. Everybody laughed, and I was afraid the aliens had already brainwashed them. Finally, they told me that my “spaceship” was in reality a blimp. I had to wait until I saw it for myself before I’d believe them. Then, my sense of urgency deflated, along with my confidence. I went to bed dying of embarrassment ten minutes later.
But tonight, through the frosted windows of the import store, I simply kept watching the light drifting and waving over the wires. An intelligent man would’ve gone back to bed, but remembering the alien invaders of my youth, I couldn’t have slept even if I’d wanted to. Not because the lights were too bright, but because I couldn’t figure out what they were. I started to stand up, and another green ghost danced up over the horizon and swallowed the sky. It would’ve been a beautiful way for the world to end.
That’s when I realized the dog wasn’t whining or acting afraid at all. Hell, she looked amazed, if not emotionally moved. No, these weren’t my aliens. These were Jack’s radioactive cosmic storms, the ones that kept us from traveling at night.
And Jack’s radioactive storms were something else completely.
The dog and I spent the rest of the night staring at the lights in the sky, just like our ancient relatives probably had for ages. We were Kings of the North Pole until the sun finally peeked from behind the brownstone across the street. I hadn’t slept a wink, but I hadn’t had a drink. I think I felt okay.
I checked on the guys and they were all still passed out, so I decided to try and figure out how to make some coffee. I knew grinding the beans was no problem, even without electricity—all you have to do is wrap them in a cloth and bash it with a hammer. If the store didn’t have a hammer, I knew they had a meat tenderizer. I’d made coffee for myself this way many a time before, only then I’d used a t-shirt and a brick. And I’d used the same t-shirt for a coffee filter. Even in those days my wardrobe was always functional.
We lucked out, and nobody had to drink anything strained through my shirt. I found a French coffee press on one of the end-cap displays. I’d never used one before but how hard could it be? Coffee, water, press.
I wired the stockroom door open and went out to the loading dock. There was plenty of bare concrete there, so I built a fire using pieces of unassembled furniture for wood, and used packing paper to start the sparks. It took maybe half-an-hour, and the entire loading dock was full of smoke, but at least there was nothing else there to catch on fire. Soon, the dog was enjoying a bowl of British orangeade while I sipped on a mug of Colombian coffee. We took a pot of it up front and went to see what was for breakfast.
That first morning in the store was like a dysfunctional summer camp for depraved children. When everybody finally woke up, Thing and I had prepared a breakfast of smoked salmon on a variety of crackers and coffee. Wes and Thing had most of the salmon and after that the dog went to sleep.
Wes found a stereo, but we still couldn’t get any reception on the damned thing. He swore he was getting a station when he turned it on in the stockroom, but I suspected that maybe his medication wasn’t working too well with the alcohol—if he was taking it at all. Jack agreed, but the truth was, Wes was the only one that would know. Maybe he did hear something. Or maybe he was still crazy. You do the math.
Of course I took offense when Jack suggested perhaps I ought to keep an eye on my own diagnosis since I’d stayed awake all night. Then he continued to try to tune the radio by hitting it with the palm of his hand and bitching about magnetic waves.
“Speaking of magnetic waves and my diagnosis,” I said. “I think I saw one of your radioactive storms last night.”
“Yeah?” he said. “Was it all green and blue and red lights, shooting around way up in the sky?”
“Mostly green,” I said.
“How long did it go on?”
“Pretty much all night,”
“That’s some scary shit, ain’t it?”
“Yeah, it was at first. Then I realized I was just jumpy. It reminded me of something, though,” I said. “You used to live in Holland for a while, right.”
“And Holland is Dutch, right? Isn’t that the same as Nordic?”
“Ya, dat’s close,” He said in a fake Swedish accent. “Dat und the whole Sveedish, Scandinavian area. Even Germany, I think.
“So you spent a year-and-a-half with all these freaking Norsemen—the first guys in history to invent an entire mythology wrapped around the Northern Lights, and you never once heard anyone tell any stories, or noticed anything that might imply, maybe, some sort of connection between your ‘Radioactive Storms’ and the Aurora Borealis?”
“Oh man! Are you kidding?”
“The Northern Lights, Jack! They’re the Northern Lights! Even Canadians know that shit.”
“Fuck. You know, I never even thought about it.” Jack smiled. “No shit? Wow.”
I fully expected him to say “Duh,” out loud, but he just kept playing with the radio and muttering, “No shit,” every once in a while. After he got nothing on the radio, he looked up and said, “We’re going to have to watch those tonight—The Northern Lights. Wow. Y’know, I think they are cosmic rays? That’s radioactive, isn’t it?”
“I don’t know. Nice lame excuse, though.”
Since I was the only one to have more than one cup of coffee, I was the only one whose caffeine intake I needed to worry about. It was hard not to join in with Wes, Jack and Frostbite as they spent the morning exploring the multiplicity of imported beer and wine on hand. There was a lot of drinking going on that first day, but everyone remained on the cautious side of intoxicated, nursing their buzz, daring the other guy to fuck-up first. Need I remind you, we’re not talking about amateurs here. These were professional alcoholics. Bozos, but professional bozos.
I knew. I was one of them.
You nursed that drink because you were afraid of when the next one would be. Or because it might be the one that killed you. Or the one that sent you over the brink. You had to pace yourself. If you didn’t drink too fast in front of people, then no one would notice—until you moved. I’d been choking on my fear of fucking up in front of people for years. Your average bozo would never do that to himself.
I somehow managed to stay away from the drink, keeping myself occupied with supplies and looking for things we could use. Eventually, I started playing with some Styrofoam gliders and rubber band powered airplanes I found in the toy aisle. Every time somebody stuck their head up, they were being dive bombed by a miniature airplane or giant insect.
Thing wouldn’t fetch the little model planes, or catch them in the air, but preferred to wait until they hit the ground before she devoured them into tiny piles of non-biodegradable waste.
We ate nonstop. We played marbles. Seriously, we played with marbles, something I’d never even seen a kid do. Jack showed everybody the rules, and Frostbite kicked everybody’s ass. Probably because he had to work with his remaining thumb so much. I tried playing the ukulele tuned up like a guitar until Wes finally smashed it up. Can’t really blame him.
Back in the kitchen area we found a barbecue chimney starter, and put that on top of a wok. Using them as an oven and grill, we had big German sausages with beans and sauerkraut for lunch. Seemed like I’d be eating beans for a century no matter what.
The guys drank while I ate part of a lemon cake. Then we settled down to play cards for the rest of the afternoon, starting with poker, then gin, then spades, well into the night. We bet poker chips, crackers and then foods that nobody was familiar with.
“Okay, Jack, this one’s so good I am not even going to gamble with it,” I said.
“No no. Close your eyes.”
“C’mon,” Jack said.
“No, close your eyes.”
Jack finally put a hand over his eyes but I knew he was looking between his fingers when he let out one of those deflating groans that substitute for laughter after a bad joke.
“Just for you.” I placed it in front of him, and unveiled my secret bid from beneath a scarf. “A can of ‘Heinz Spotted Dick Sponge Pudding!’ I don’t know if that’s where it came from or that’s what it’s for, but there’s some more back there if you guys need it—what with your manly members being so gigantic and all.”
“Kid, you are ill,” Frosty said, picking up the can and checking the label.
“Why,” I said, grabbing the can and holding it up like a commercial spokesman before announcing in my cheesiest voice, “What’s wrong with ‘Heinz Spotted Dick Sponge Pudding?’”
It made me all warm and fuzzy inside knowing that none of us were too mature for a good spotted dick sponge pudding joke. For the next day all I had to do was hold the can up and get some sort of reaction. It was like having a license to annoy.
By evening, dinner was a smorgasbord of whatever anybody wanted to eat. And beans.
The bathroom in the wine department was busy, so I went in back to use the ladies. Somebody else must have been using it too, because there was more trash on the floor. And they still hadn’t learned to flush without the electric eye.
“Hey, did any of you guys use the bathroom back by the office?” I asked when I got out front again.
“I didn’t know there was one,” Jack said.
“I ain’t been in no ladies room,” Wes said, like he was defending his honor.
“Yeah, I didn’t figure it was you because it wasn’t flooded. Frosty?”
“You use the bathroom in back?”
“Just when we was cooking back there.”
“Oh. Well, it’s no problem or anything. Just make sure you guys flush. I don’t want to get stunk out of here.”
“I always flush,” Frosty said. “Maybe you just got some of that dick sponge stopped up in it.”
“I always flush,” Frosty said. “Maybe you just got some of that dick sponge stopped up in it.”
Jack finally got a big garbage can out of the back to fill up, and the trash that didn’t fit in there we threw in boxes. The place was almost livable.
“What this place needs,” Jack said, “is a woman’s touch.”
“What I need is a woman’s touch,” Wes said, grabbing hold of a bottle.
“‘He who caresses the bottle too much, may never caress the woman,’” I said. Somebody had said it to me in Mexico one time.
“Thanks, Yoda,” Jack said, lighting a cigarette. “But I don’t think we’re gonna have to worry about that tonight.”
“Or like for the last year,” I said, and fell back into my beanbag chair.
“Just don’t nobody roll over in your sleep,” Wes said.
“You think you guys got it bad? I got to have a woman.” Frosty said. “Think about it, I got one finger on my right hand. You ever try to play with yourself with one finger?” After that it got quiet for a little while.
“So the hardest thing isn’t buttoning your clothes, huh?” Jack said a few minutes later, pulling a blanket around himself.
“Don’t roll over,” Wes said again.
“Hey, Jack, as long as we’re testing your memory,” I said, “Your brothers going to be here when?”
“Three days. High noon. I got it marked on the calendar in my backpack, and today is…” He pointed at the date on a digital Casio, “9-9.”
“So, tonight, and then two more nights?” I counted on my fingers.
“And you know he’ll be there?” I said with my usual positive flair.
“Hell, yeah! He’s my big brother. The guy’s nervously, neurotically, pathologically early. He’s so damned punctual it’s scary. I think he’s missed one appointment in his life, and that was on purpose.”
“Let me guess,” I said. “A court date?”
“Close,” Jack said. “Boot camp.”
“They lock him up?”
“No, section eight. How can you fight a religious war if you’re God?”
“Oh perfect. He’s crazy, too.”
“No, just smart enough not to get drafted in a corporate war. Besides, if you were going to make an appointment with anyone in the world, who better than somebody with a God complex? He has to be there. He can’t lie.”
“Besides, he’s everywhere, in everything.” I said in a brainwashed sounding voice.
“He’ll be there.” The way Jack said it I almost believed him.
“What was that?” Jack jumped up fast for a guy with a buzz on.
The dog had figured out how to knock down a display and chewed through about eight boxes of cookies before I tied her back up. Within an hour everybody but me had passed out. Looked like we weren’t going to be watching the Northern Lights tonight.
I still wasn’t sleepy, so I took one of Jack’s little white pills. I think I dreamt I heard something in the stockroom.