In this episode, Jeff walks into the Village Market after his encounter with the sinister-looking, wheelchair-bound old man, who appeared to be a shape-shifter of some kind.
He asks the proprietor of the store for assistance, but the old man can no longer be found...
In a different frame of mind, I might have chosen differently. I might have been able to write off the old man’s momentary shift in appearance as an illusion. But this was coming on the heels of the ghost boy’s hideous transformation yesterday. I was still confused about the reality of the situation; but I knew that I was not going to step within lunging distance of the old man in the wheelchair.
And anyway, I thought. How could the old man have driven here with no legs? The scene strongly suggested that he had arrived at the store in the maroon Oldsmobile—a Cutlass sedan that had probably rolled off the assembly line when JFK, or maybe even Ike, was in the White House. But how could the old man have driven it?
After a few more paces I turned my back on the man, and headed through the door of the Village Market.
I was immediately greeted by Gene, the proprietor of the Village Market. Gene was in his normal place behind the cash register. Gene was an older man who had jet-black curly hair (probably dyed) and the bulbous, blood-vessel cracked nose of a lifelong drinker. He was a tall, shuffling man who wore bifocals and “grandpa” sweaters. Gene spoke in slow, phlegmy syllables, punctuated by frequent coughs.
I don’t think that I even returned Gene’s greeting. I immediately said: “There’s a man out in the parking lot who needs help. He has no legs.”
“What?” Gene asked. He might have thought that I was talking about a recent accident victim.
I shook my head. “No. Not that. His legs have been—amputated. He’s by his car in a wheelchair. He dropped his groceries.”
If the man had indeed purchased goods in the Village Market, I would have expected recognition to dawn on Gene’s face at this point. But Gene still seemed perplexed and maybe even a bit dubious of my story. He stepped from behind the counter and said: “Okay. I’ll go check it out. Don’t you kids steal anything.”
This is the right thing to do, I thought, as Gene pushed open the sighing door of his store, and its little bell jingled. Helping that old man wasn't my responsibility, after all.
It seemed proper to wait for Gene to return, so I simply stood there. The St. Patrick’s students who had crossed Route 125 with me were now beginning to queue at the counter with their purchases. The inside of the small, cramped store was cool from the electric beverage coolers that lined the walls. Some of the coolers contained beer, but the St. Patrick’s students didn't bother with these, tempted though they might have been. Gene had been known to sell the occasional pack of cigarettes to a St. Patrick’s eighth grader when no one was looking, but not beer. The Playboy magazines behind the counter were also strictly off-limits.
Gene walked back inside less than a minute after he had stepped out, shaking his head in mild frustration.
“There’s no old man out there,” Gene said. He took his accustomed place behind the counter and began typing the first of the student’s orders into the cash register. He typed in each item manually, after looking at the code on the price tag. Barcodes existed in 1980; but Gene’s was a small store and he had not yet adopted them.
“But,” I protested. “He’s driving an old car—an Oldsmobile. And he’s in a wheelchair.”
“Nope,” Gene said, without looking at me. He announced the first student’s total charges. “Take a look for yourself.”
I did as Gene suggested. I leaned out the front door, and looked across the expanse of the Village Market’s parking lot. I could see the adjacent business establishment (a seasonal fruit and vegetable market) and the row of trees behind the store. But there was no old man, and no maroon Oldsmobile.
Had he left? Had someone else helped him?
And then the thought that I didn't want to consider but had to: Had he even been there at all?
“I think you’re a little crazy from the heat,” Gene suggested, not unkindly. “Why don’t you cool off with a Pepsi or something? I’ve got a sale running: thirty-five cents.”
Not knowing what else to do, I did as Gene advised. I walked down the aisle along the far wall, across the green floor that always seemed to bear a light coating of dust and sticky residue. I opened the soft drink cooler and withdrew a can of Pepsi.
To my relief, the other St. Patrick’s students were gone by the time I returned to the front of the store with my purchase. I wondered how much they had overheard of my exchange with Gene. If they were paying attention, I must have looked pretty silly.
Without further discussion of the old man, I paid for my Pepsi and stepped back outside into the golden yet slightly shadowy glare of the late October sun. It was that time of year, as Mr. Snyder had said, when the world was different....