An Encounter with the Terror of Existence in Café Target

When you look into the cafe in a Target, the cafe in that Target looks back into you. That impression might just have sprouted from the dead-eyed gaze of Jerrold, behind the counter.

His name tag marks him out as Jerrold, another emanation of the same chaos of the universe that has determined I would languish in Target for a season. In previous generations, men sought damnable creatures to kill them. Dragons, demons, sea monsters. Men have done battle with sharks, armed with mere knives. The sharks rolling their eyes back in their heads. Jerrold’s eyes droop. Compelling adversaries don’t have physical traits you can describe with the word “droop.” They dart, they stare with cruel intensity, they lash out. Jerrold barely woke up. His lids sagged like worn pockets.

I’ve sat here for who knows how long. Twenty minutes? I’m equipped only with a book and a tin of Altoids. I don’t have a phone anymore.

Last night, in the hotel, in the ecstasy of viewing Home and Garden Television, after five slices of pizza and three-quarters of a bottle of wine, when it was confirmed that I’d guessed the couple’s choice on House Hunters correctly, and that my wife guessed wrong, I threw my hands up in triumph and flung my phone out of the window, onto the pavement two-stories down. I don’t have a phone anymore.

When I first arrived here in Target, I decided not to get nachos. I’ll admit this to you, I had the brief thought that getting nachos might be a balm to me. Nachos can’t ease much, but perhaps the harsh yellow of both the chips and the cheese, would give me a focus point, like staring at the sun. I could contemplate yellowness and salt and be fully present. I approached and stood a little off from the counter so the cashier wouldn’t feel he had to engage me yet (I had not yet encountered this Jerrold, read his name tag, felt the vacuum of his being).

He had long limbs, a pot belly like a cauldron strapped to his front, curly brown hair, hanging lips you could almost swing on. The nachos were $2.49. I reasoned within myself. My wife needed two hours in Target. Then we would go to lunch. $2.49 could go toward a beer at lunch. Current me wrestled with future me. I felt myself step toward the counter.

In that moment, a nobler me pressed forward. No nachos. I did not need nachos.

I made a sort of awkward step toward the counter, but as I’d decided not to get anything, I lurched right and away from Jerrold and the counter at the same time. I didn’t engage Jerrold with my eyes, I looked away. But it looked like a feint, like I was drawing the foul. Like I intended to buy something from Jerrold and then didn’t. I turned toward my seat. But behind me, I could hear the low slur of Jerrold saying, “Asshole.”

Saying that to me, for the minor inconvenience of accidentally attracting his attention, meant that Jerrold was willing to bring a Colt .45 to a Super-Soaker fight. I sat at the table and stared at the cover of my book and crunched through a handful of Altoids. I mentally endowed each placebo with calming properties and after 12 of these, my pace slowed, my breath sang, and my anger passed.

I willed my heart open. Open to Jerrold, although I did not yet know his name. Open to the world. Open to the woman with three kids entering the Cafe Target. I’m not sure if I did it right.

I challenged my malaise to conquer my new optimism. My malaise pointed out that the woman was unattractive. I replied that I saw only the indomitable spirit of a woman who’d decided to bring three children to Target. But the kids are whining, my malaise offered. And see how she bears it, I said—her expression does not falter. But the four-year-old girl’s shirt says “Boy-Crazy” and the two boys’ shirts bear the likeness of Al Pacino as Scarface, my malaise said. What do you want from me? I said to my malaise, because I didn’t know what to say, because I started to feel like my malaise had a point.

I heard the woman ask Jerrold for a cup of water. Much of the rest of the conversation I lost in the noise of the kids and the woman hushing them. But it appeared that Jerrold would not give the woman a cup of water. The woman holds the boy crazy four-year-old on her hip, and her posture stiffens. Jerrold has turned floppy, and I think at first that the floppiness means that he’s flustered by the confrontation. But it’s not that. His face bears a frog’s smile, the lips all flat and gushed up like that. Jerrold’s flopping movements convey not distress but enjoyment. And then his body twitches and he shouts, “You can’t have a cup of water, bitch.” I feel like when he said it, he snapped his fingers violently.

I wouldn’t have thought that hearing a human use the word bitch to refer to another human would get to me much, but I hadn’t heard Jerrold call a mother of three a bitch and smile and love saying it and mean it and mean it to hurt. He pulled it like a knife on that woman.

The soul-suck of Target had put me in a reckless mood. When you encounter the precipice of existential dread in what is essentially an upscale K-Mart, you’re ready to react against injustice. For this reason I imagine that many acts of heroism take place in our nation’s soul-crushing temples to commerce. Per capita people are probably doing more acts of good in Targets and Best Buys nationwide than places that allow the human spirit to at least pretend to stretch its legs.

But then I have a moment where I don’t know what to do, which might sound crazy. But I didn’t hear the entire conversation. I don’t know, maybe the woman was being a bitch. She seemed nice, regardless of what she let her kids wear, but I don’t know what she said to him. Maybe she brought up his spidery limbs radiating from his spherical, pot-bellied body, or his froggy, droop-lidded, face. There was stuff to work with. She could have zinged him.

I’m also suspicious of my motives. Though I’ve opened my heart to Jerrold and the world (see several paragraphs previous), some compartments of my heart have not opened, and house a tangible dark, and I haven’t been able to flush those shadows out in the time between my moment with Jerrold and this lady’s. As I think about it, phrases like “it’s concern for other people, someone needs to do something about this Cafe Target tyrant” pave over the fact that I’m pissed at Jerrold and think I owe him something.

Because I can identify those intentions in there alongside of altruistic impulses, the concern to befriend and defend the weak, I feel like some kind of inverted Hamlet. Hamlet chose not to kill Claudius while he was at confession, lest his shriven spirit fly light to heaven, unencumbered by murder and incest. I feel like I shouldn’t pit myself against Jerrold, until after a season of fasting and prayer.

Then I see Jerrold fill a cup with water and pour it on the ground, and I’m about running to strangle that amphibian-looking son-of-a-bitch.

Actually, I stand up a bit shaky and feel suddenly fat as I step between tables, like there’s a spotlight on me.

I’m considering the words I’ll use. I sort of want to use the classic, “Is this gentleman bothering you, m’am?” and even though I understand that it’s a classic for a reason, it feels a bit hack to me, and doesn’t make absolute sense in the current context, since he’s responding to her. “What’s going on?” would get the job done, but not with any éclat. And then I realize I’m already there and I go with what’s loaded.

I say “What’s bothering you?”, which splits the difference between my two options, but sounds like I’m being passive-aggressive with her.

The woman looked at me like she had a kink in her neck, she was so tightly wound. Jerrold stared at me from the puddle of water, still holding the cup.

“This weird bastard is giving me crap about getting a cup of water for my kids,” she said.

Jerrold didn’t jump in to defend himself. He’d gone back to his dormant state.

“Jerrold,” I said, reading his nametag for the first time, “why can’t . . . “ I waited for her to supply her name.

“Lillian,” she says, eventually.

“Why can’t Lillian have a cup of water?” I asked, and looked directly into Jerrold’s eyes, which had less of an amphibian sheen up close. Lillian made a move to talk. I held up a hand to stop her. She lunged to speak again.

“Hush, Lillian,” I said.

We waited on Jerrold.

“We don’t give water away. We’re a business. We sell water. We sell these bottles here.”

He pointed towards a case with water bottles, but the gesture was so vague and floppy, that it honestly could have been the breeze.

None of Jerrold’s words sounded like they wanted to come out. Or they sounded like they’d escaped, but their time inside had left them changed. They held no power to push out into the wider world.

I pulled back and looked at the menu board. I prepared to pay for a cup of water for Lillian. We’d have to revise our definition of a victory over Jerrold to include getting him to give us a cup of water, regardless of free versus pay. A bottle of water cost $1.50. A small cup of soda cost $1.00.

I passed my hand over my face to mask the anticipation of what I was about to say.

“Jerrold,” I said and looked him in the overripe plums that were his eyes, “I want to buy a cup of soda for Lillian, except instead of soda, I’d just like some of that good Cafe Target water.”

My chest grew warm, and its fire flickered a smile onto my face.

Jerrold looked like a statue that’s just realized it’s a statue. But only for a second. He punched numbers in on the cash register.

“Okay. That’ll be three dollars.”

My expression changed against my will, and you could tell that, observing my face, Jerrold felt something like what we humans call pleasure.

I pointed up at the menu board.

“It says $1.00 up on the board,” I said.

“That’s for a soda. It costs more when you make a substitution.”

He punched a few keys on the cash register.

“It costs $3.50 now,” he said.

“Why would the price go up, Jerrold?” I asked.

“I don’t know. Market forces. Inflation. Hard to say. I guess the simple reason is supply and demand.”
Jerrold put his weight back on his right foot and tapped his left foot in the puddle of water.

The indignities of being human include this. At our current cultural moment, many theories compete for pre-eminence about what we’re exactly made up of—I believe that we’re matter and spirit together, that the union of those disparate elements accounts for a lot of what we do. But if that’s true, it means that I’m an immortal soul, an eternal consciousness, fighting over a cup of water with Jerrold. That I’m spending part of my life doing this.

I pulled out a twenty dollar bill.

“Jerrold, please give me four cups of water. I’m sure that the demand has driven the price up to five-dollars a piece by now, so we’ll call it even with that twenty.”

I refused to demonstrate that this was a victory. Obviously, it was a victory at a substantial price. But we got the waters. Jerrold had to serve us. But once I realized what this all meant, that I’d reduced myself to a financial operator, that I beat another human by throwing money at them, I felt ill. I know that Jerrold acquiesced at this point because he knew he could easily change out the twenty and pocket most of it, and spend it on the Xanax, or weed, or whatever it was that kept him in that state of pseudo-consciousness. But it didn’t matter what he spent it on. Jerrold doing what I wanted him to do for money, actually made him more pathetic than Jerrold messing with a harried mother of three for no reason whatsoever.

I sat at the table. My wife’s head bobbed into view in the checkout aisle. She’s tall. I realized I’d have to tell her I’d spent most of our lunch budget on waters and complete existential despair.

An Encounter with the Terror of Existence in Café Target

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