Looking for something to get you over the hump? Looking for poorly written speculative fiction by yours truly? Well then read on, my friends. Mental Gymnastics is my attempt to clear out the cobwebs and jump-start my moribund creative process. New every Friday.
The glass doors part. I take a deep breath and step forward.
“Hi! How are you today?” It’s my best smile, carved into the muscles of my cheeks. Lots of teeth.
The woman in my line of fire, a bland featured, lank-brown haired, mid-something dressed in the latest 50%-off t-shirt rack (where, it seems, ironic My Little Pony graphics were in fashion last month), looks up quickly from her phone, runs both eyebrows up the mast, and quickly shifts right to reestablish territory.
“Fine.” she says in a voice that reads “anything but.” She gives me a wary once-over, lingers on the nametag for a second, then lurches forward, away towards diapers and junior fashion.
I watch her until her urban camouflage kicks in and I lose her among the other shoppers in the racks. I exhale. Shoulders drop for a second before my peripheral vision picks up movement outside in the parking lot. Big guy this time. Taking strides across the dust-gray asphalt lot like everyone and everything he comes into contact with said something about his mother. And, by GAWD, he wasn’t going to let that slide.
Everyone has about 1.5 feet of what they consider personal space. As a “Deluxe Greeter,” I’m supposed to abuse that “zone of discomfort” on a regular basis, kicking in a natural flight or fight response. As humans with supposedly evolved brains, we don’t like being reminded that all those centuries of learning can be totally subverted by a stranger who steps too close. As a rule, people don’t like me; but then I’m not paid to be liked.
Momma’s little boy is at the first row of cars now…my God, he’s making that freaking Escalade look small.
Early 2010, Walmart was coming off a bad quarter, the worst, really. Radical things had to be done in order to maintain profits and keep the lights on. That was when the “Cash Cold” was conceived.
Back to that “zone of discomfort,” it’s not exactly the same for everyone. There’s a part of your brain, the amygdala, that tells you when something’s violating your space. Turns out, if that’s damaged, that zone, that supposedly intrinsic part of the human psyche, just goes away. You can walk right up to someone, nose-to-nose, and they don’t flinch. Sure, they might think you’re a bit off; but they’re not worried that you’re about to carve them up and eat them.
You know that panicky feeling you get when you’re pissing away your last $100 bucks for a new camera or a cute pair of black pumps? Or how you wrestle with whether or not it’s prudent to drop the only $10 in your wallet on the Final Four Bracket competition your office put together? That’s your amygdala talking too. Turns out, you damage that teeny-tiny part of the brain and return on investment doesn’t matter all that much anymore. No more mental justification gymnastics. Just grab it and cash out.
That’s the kind of action Walmart wanted in on. So they did what every corporation does in every science fiction work since Weyland Yutani sicced the Alien on Sigourney Weaver, they found out what they had to do to get the results they wanted (flu strains with ridiculously high fevers) and pulled the teeth out of it so that those infected would live to spend.
His size 13 feet are on the front sidewalk now, the first doors are open and I can feel the 92 degree heat and 99% humidity pushing through the second doors in front of me.
The Cash Cold worked, mostly. The entire East Coast was in bed for a week. Not everyone made it and H1N1, Strain E was considered the greatest health threat of modern society. Of course, Walmart was at the forefront of the effort to vaccinate and eradicate the virus (with a toned down Strain F that cut the fever a little, but was still just as effective).
Deluxe Greeters came into being a month after the swelling subsided.
The Monolith hits the second doors and I make a quick gamble. Smile on, coupons raised, step forward: “Hi! How are you today?”
He doesn’t flinch. I’m close enough that I can see where he dribbled soda on his workshirt and inhale the burnt-plastic insulation smell that surrounds him, melted wiring from the Louie the Lightning Bug work van outside (“We get the lights back on! 24/7!”). He cranes his neck down so that he can look me in the eye. I get the ball rolling.
“Have you heard about our Scratch-off and Win Big! game?”
“What’s it cost?”
“That’s the great part! All you have to do is buy a new TV over in electronics today and you get a card!”
He still hasn’t moved, we might as well be sitting in a coffee bar and having a chat across the table at each other. “What can I win?”
“A new TV!”
“You mean like the one I have to buy? That one?”
“No, no – a different TV, a better one.”
His brow wrinkles like a basset “But I came in to get gum.”
Uh-oh, maybe I miscalculated. My weight shifts backwards as I get ready to swivel out of the way. “Hey, you don’t want a free TV…”
“No!” a little too loud. “No.” Softer this time. He follows me as I step back. “I want to play – where’s the TVs?”
My face is hurting from holding the smile too long. “Middle of the store, sir. Just past the Lotto booth.”
“Lotto you say?” He perks up even more, reaching back for his wallet and making a path through the other shoppers, bumping through them like they weren’t even there.