Shop ‘Til You Drop

As he eased the Dodge Caravan into the crowded We ‘B’ Kidz parking lot, David Wellstone tried to tune out the fight his two sons were having in the backseat. The dispute had something to do with six-year-old Billy’s need to use training wheels on his bike. Scott, at age nine, was glad to remind his brother what a pathetic loser he was and always will be.

Susan Wellstone, in the passenger’s seat, had finally had it. She turned and yelled at them, “Cut it out, you two! One more word and we’re going right back home. Then you can forget about those new bikes, and you’ll have only yourselves to blame.”

I wish, David thought, as the boys momentarily stifled themselves. To him, the only thing worse than taking them shopping on a Saturday was doing it at one of these superstores. But it was cheaper than going to a bike shop, so there they were.

“What did I do with that coupon?” Susan murmured to herself, rummaging through a bunch of them as David slowly drove up and down the filled parking aisles.

Coupons were another thing that vaguely bothered him. He didn’t want to look for discounts, or be a preferred customer. His idea of shopping was: know what you want, get it, get out of there.

“This might take some time, you know,” Susan warned him. “Don’t be impatient.”

He grunted in reply as he turned up the next aisle, where it looked like there might be a space at the far end. In the backseat, the boys, at Scott’s suggestion, were playing a game in which the first one who spots a red car gets to punch the other one in the arm.

“Red car!” Scott yelled, delivering a sharp right to a cringing Billy, who let out a howl of protest.

“Stop it!” Susan screamed at them.

The space turned out to be real, so he took it.

He turned off the engine, slid open the doors, and the kids clambered out. Then, huddled in their parkas against the headwind, they all trekked across the parking lot.

Inside the busy store entrance, people were being approached by employees and asked if they’d fill out a survey at the end. “All you have to do is drop it in the mail at your convenience,” a teenage girl said to David, “and you’ll get a twenty-dollar gift certificate.”

“No, thanks,” he said as Susan reached across him and took the survey from her. “Do you know where the bike department is?” Susan asked.

“I think it’s somewhere near Aisle 47,” the girl said uncertainly.

“That’s okay, we’ll just find it.”

David looked to see what the boys were up to and saw only Billy. An icicle of fear formed in his stomach. “Where’s your brother?” he said.

“I dunno; he just walked away,” Billy muttered, gazing at his sneaker tops.

“He just walked away? Did he say anything to you?”

Billy shrugged.

“Scottie?” Susan called out in a panicky voice as she scanned the crowd of parents and kids.

David bent down to eye level with Billy. “Which way did he go?”

“That way,” said Billy, pointing to his left and starting to cry.

“Stay here,” David told Susan as he moved off in the general direction. He swung his head from side to side, trying not to crash into people as he looked up and down each aisle. There was no Scott.

In one of the electronic game aisles, he saw some kids gathered around a Zombie Zappers of Zanzibar demo. There was Scott in the middle of them, operating the controller. Amazing, David thought. The first time he’s ever been here, and he found this in, what, twenty seconds?

He insinuated himself among the pint-size spectators and moved behind his son. “What do you think you’re doing?” he said.

“Dad, can I stay here and play this?” Scott’s eyes never left the screen.

“No, you can’t.” David wrenched the controller out of his hands. “What’s the matter with you?”

He put it on the counter, where another kid gleefully grabbed it.

“Awww,” said Scott.

“Do you want a new bike or not? We can go home if you want to play video games.”

“Why can’t I just stay here while you’re buying the bikes?” Scott asked. He looked longingly at the screen.

David suddenly felt tired. Susan could do this so much better than he could.

“Let’s go,” he said, taking Scott by the arm. “And don’t wander off like that; what’s wrong with you?” He conducted him back through the crowd, toward the others. “You’ve got your mom scared to death. Maybe you don’t deserve a new bike. Maybe we should just get one for your brother.” He knew that would do it, even as he felt shitty for saying it.

“Nooo!” Scott wailed.

“Then behave yourself.”

They reached the entrance, where Susan and Billy were. Billy had stopped crying and was now staring in fascination at two robot crabs, fighting with each other on a nearby counter display.

“Where were you?” Susan unloaded on Scott, her face inches from his. “Are you trying to ruin my life? Is that it?”

David thought it was entirely possible.

“Listen,” he said, “let’s just find the bike department so we can get out of here.”

Susan switched her glare from Scott to her husband. “Getting out of here isn’t the idea,” she reminded him.

“Right,” David sighed.

They grabbed the kids’ hands and made their way toward Aisle 47, which turned out to be Legos.

“Ooh!” the boys cried. “Can we stay here? Pleeease?”

“No,” Susan and David said in unison, glancing around for something, anything, that would indicate bikes.

“I think there’s a sign over there,” David said, pointing two aisles over. They moved toward it, and, sure enough, it was the bike department.

“Okay, where’s that piece of paper?” Susan said, searching her bag. David didn’t need a piece of paper; he had it memorized. A 16-inch Road-Racer Special (with training wheels) for Billy and a 24-inch Superbike SmartRider for Scott. Total cost, under $300, according to the We ‘B’ Kidz website.

There were over a hundred bikes in front of them, chained together side by side on platforms that went on for the next three aisles. It was hard to tell one brand from another, but at least, they were arranged in sizes.

“Let’s find Billy’s first,” Susan said, since they were right near the small bikes, getting a whine of protest from Scott.

“Why does he always go first?”

David stepped up onto the platform to join four other parents, a mother and three dads, who were sorting through the bikes as their families looked on.

“Do you know how we’re supposed to try one of these out?” a man asked him.

“I guess we’re supposed to find a salesperson to unlock the chain and take it down for us,” he said as he moved each bike aside and tried to see which one was the Road-Racer Special.

“Yeah, right,” the man snorted.

It took several minutes, but David finally found the bike. He checked its price tag. “One hundred five dollars?” he said incredulously. “Didn’t their website say it was ninety-five?”

“After rebate,” Susan told him.

He had to shake his head. Sure, it was only ten dollars, but they keep it for at least six weeks before they send it to you. If you figure the interest, times the millions of customers, plus all the people who never even bother to send in the rebate form…

He had to stop thinking about it.

“I wanna get on, I wanna get on my bike!” Billy was almost beside himself, jumping up and down.

“You can’t, honey, not yet,” Susan said, taking his shoulders and forcing him to look at her. “We have to go and get the guy first. To take it down.”

“Get the guy, get the guy!” Billy implored her.

“I think we should find Scott’s bike before we do anything,” said David. “Then we only have to get the guy once.”

“Nooo!” Billy sobbed.

“Stop it!” Susan yelled at him.

They moved on, David dragging Billy, until they got to the 24-inch bikes. There were many more of these, as well as many more parents sifting through them.

David jumped up onto the platform and began the search. Fifteen fruitless minutes later, punctuated by whines from the boys and rebukes from Susan, there was still no Superbike SmartRider.

“Okay, now we really do have to get the guy,” said David, hopping down from the platform and wondering where to start. “They’re probably all at the entrance, giving out surveys.”

“I thought I just saw someone go by,” Susan said, pointing down the aisle.

“Stay here,” David said and went to check it out.

There was, indeed, a salesperson around the corner. He was a teenager with a buzz cut, holding what appeared to be an iPhone on steroids. He was talking to a mother and father with a toddler, who was snaking back and forth between their legs.

“We’ve got those on back order,” he was saying as he consulted his handheld device. “It doesn’t say when they’ll be in.”

The man muttered something, the woman scooped up the toddler, and they turned away.

“Excuse me,” said David, narrowly beating out another man who’d just arrived. “We’re looking for a Superbike SmartRider, and there doesn’t seem to be one up there.”

“Oh, I’m sorry,” said the teenager with a smile. “Let’s just see…”

He punched a few buttons on the device and they both waited. “The computer is kinda slow today,” the kid explained. “It’s having trouble handling all this volume.”

“Nothing like getting a lot of business to really screw things up.”

They waited some more. “Ah, here we go,” said the kid. “It looks like they’ve discontinued the Superbike SmartRider.”

David was stunned. “You advertised it on your website.”

“When did you see it?” asked the kid.

“I don’t know, sometime last week.”

“Well, they must’ve pulled it this week, because it’s discontinued.”

He threw up his hands in frustration. “That’s just terrific!”

“But I see here…” the teenager went on, looking at the screen, “that we’ve got a MagnaWheel Milemaker, which is virtually the same as the SmartRider, just a different brand, and it’s on sale for one seventy-nine.”

“The SmartRider was one fifty,” said David.

“Well, this one’s usually two hundred, but it’s on sale.”

“Wow, what a deal! I can save twenty-one dollars, and all it costs me is twenty-nine.”

The teenager gave him a blank look.

“Excuse me,” said the man, who’d been trying to catch the kid’s eye. “Can you help me? We’ve been here for over an hour.”

“Sure, just as soon as I’ve helped this gentleman.” He looked at David. “Do you want to see the bike?”

“I think I’d better.”

“Okay, let’s go get it.”

He started down the aisle, unclipping a large key ring from his belt. David followed, but not before glancing back at the man, who looked homicidal.

“Sorry,” he muttered over his shoulder.

He had to hustle to keep up with the salesperson, who, at least, acted like he knew what he was doing. The act came to an end when they got to the rows of bikes. “Okay…” said the kid, consulting the handheld device and trying to compare the image on the screen to all the models.

Susan was telling Scott to stop pulling the fringes on a pair of nearby handlebars, while Billy was on the floor, trying to see what was under the platform. David went over and filled her in on the change of bikes and the extra cost, trying not to sound pissed off. Susan took it calmly.

Minutes went by as the teenager moved each bicycle aside. David figured they’d probably be out of this bike too. Then they could sell him yet another one that was virtually the same but, somehow, more expensive.

“Ah, here we go,” said the kid as he unchained one of the bikes. He lifted it up and placed it down on the floor.

“Who gets this?” he asked Scott and Billy.

“I do! I do!” Scott shouted as Billy sulked.

Susan helped Scott up onto the seat and held the bike steady as he tried to find the pedals. “We have to make sure his legs are long enough to reach,” she said, looking around the crowded aisle for any space at all that Scott could ride in for even a few feet. There wasn’t.

“Let me know if you need anything else,” said the kid as he started to leave.

“No, no, wait!” they called after him, as Susan almost lost her grip on the bike and Scott nearly tipped over. “There’s another one you need to get for us,” David said.

He grabbed Billy’s hand and led the salesperson toward the Road-Racer Special. This time he didn’t have to drag Billy because, like a horse sensing the stable, Billy was dragging him.

They got to the place and found a mother and son already there, examining the bike. The salesperson asked the woman if she wanted him to unchain it for her.

“Sure,” she replied.

“That’s my bike!” Billy howled. “They’re taking my bike!”

“No, they’re not; calm down!” David told him. He explained that this was only a show model, and the store had lots of bikes just like it, while silently hoping to God it was true. Billy managed to stop crying.

“Okay,” said the salesperson, “just chain it back up again when you’re through.”

He started to leave and was immediately glommed onto by the man David had beaten out before. He’d been following them and seething on the sidelines this whole time. With much arm waving and frustrated invective, the man led the teenager up the aisle.

The mother was very particular. She fussed over every inch of the bike, while her boy intently followed her progress. David had to keep telling Billy to quiet down. Finally they were finished, and the woman handed it over to him.

“Do you happen to know if they have training wheels that fit?” she asked.

“It says they do on their website, for what it’s worth.”

The woman gave him a tired smile. “Good luck,” she said as she took hold of her boy’s hand and they both moved on.

He had Billy get up on the bike while he held it steady. As with Scott, he made sure Billy’s feet could reach the pedals. They seemed to.

“Does it feel all right?” he asked.

“I wanna ride it,” Billy complained.

“It doesn’t have training wheels, and even if it did, there’s no room, so this is the best we can do. Does it feel all right?”

“I guess so.”

“Don’t say, ‘I guess so.’ Are you sure?”

“I guess so.”

David took a slow, deep breath. “I guess so too,” he said.

He helped Billy off the bike, lifted it back onto the platform, and chained it up, as instructed. They made their way to Susan and Scott.

“It’s fine,” he reported. “Now what?”

“We get the guy again and we buy them.”

He told Susan once more to stay there, and then began the quest. His original teenage salesperson was, of course, taken, with two other sets of parents now waiting their turn. He went up one aisle and down another for nearly ten minutes. Whatever salespeople he saw had customers hanging all over them.

Then, miraculously, there he was, a teenager, talking to only one customer, a father, about tires. A bored little girl looked on.

David waited, as he wondered why it took so much effort just to be sold something. He remembered that other man, so pissed off he was almost in coronary country. At least, I’m not like him, he thought.

And then he was.

“Come on,” the father said, leading the teenager away, “I need you to explain something to me.” They disappeared around the corner.

He tried to contain his rage, as he caught up with them and glowered, while the father and the kid discussed the subtleties of steel-belted versus otherwise-belted radials. The little girl looked at him with concern.

“That’s not what the offer was,” the father was saying. “It’s right on that sign of yours; I’ll show you.” He began to lead the teenager back to where they’d just come from.

All reason shut down. He clenched his fists, gritted his teeth, and stalked after them. The concern on the little girl’s face blossomed into fear.

“Daddy,” she whimpered, pulling on her father’s sleeve, trying to alert him, “that man is…”

And then, an astonishing sight. Walking toward him was a salesperson all by himself. It was like a mirage, but there he was, a young man with spiked orange hair, holding one of those mutant iPhones.

“Thank God!” David said as the kid gave him a wary look. “We want to buy two bikes. I’ll show you right where they are.”

“Sorry,” said the kid, “I’m on a break.”

With a lethargic shrug, he moved on down the aisle, as a red haze formed in front of David’s eyes. He stood there a moment, his pulse pounding, the faint taste of bile in his throat. Then he turned and ran after the kid.

“Wait!” he said, reaching for his wallet, not quite believing what he was doing. He took out a twenty-dollar bill.

Instantly, the kid covered it with his device, and David could feel the twenty being removed from his hand. “I shouldn’t be doing this,” the kid whispered.

“No,” David whispered back, “I shouldn’t be doing this.”

He led the kid through the aisles, back toward where the boys and Susan were waiting. He figured Susan must be semi-ballistic by now. A number of customers tried to grab the kid as they passed. “Sorry,” he kept explaining, “I’m helping this gentleman, then I’m on a break.” If he took enough breaks, David thought, the kid could make a fortune.

They arrived to find Scott on the platform, rattling the bikes and trying unsuccessfully to tip them over, while Billy was turning slow circles in the middle of the aisle.

“For God’s sake, where were you?” Susan snapped at him, her eyes blazing. “I thought you’d run off.”

He surprised her with a kiss on the cheek. “Not yet,” he assured her as he climbed up on the platform.

He showed the kid which bike it was, and the kid scanned its bar code on his device. Then he did the same with Billy’s bike, plus a bunch of extra numbers for the training wheels.

“You can pick them up at the front counter in about fifteen minutes,” he said, “unless you want them to be assembled.”

David was halfway down from the platform. He froze. “They’re not assembled?”

“No, but if you can’t do it yourselves, we can do it for you. It’s an extra fifty dollars per bike.”

Once again, David had to shake his head. “How hard are they to assemble?” he asked, sensing the stupidity of the question.

The kid smiled. “Do you have a degree in mechanical engineering?”

David took yet another deep breath and then told the kid they’d like the store to assemble the bikes. The kid entered more data on his device, which made a “nyeh, nyeh” sound and disgorged a strip of paper. It was like the machine was sticking its tongue out at them.

“The good news is, you don’t have to wait fifteen minutes now,” said the kid. “You can just go up to the front counter and pay.” He tore off the strip of paper and handed it to David. “They’ll let you know when you can come back and pick up the bikes.”

“They can’t assemble them now?” Susan said.

“You need to make an appointment,” said the kid apologetically, but with a hint of amusement in his eyes.

“Nooo!” cried Scott and Billy.

“Stop it,” Susan warned them.

“We want our bikes! We want our bikes!” Scott chanted, lustily joined by his brother.

“STOP IT!” Susan shrieked at them, as other customers turned and stared in their direction.

“Look, let’s just do this thing,” David said wearily.

“Oh, wait, I have a coupon,” Susan remembered as the kid started to leave.

“Show it to them at the front,” he said over his shoulder, never breaking stride as he excused his way through yet another family, vainly trying to get his help.

They took hold of the boys and made their way to the front, where they waited in line. They finally reached the counter, where David handed the slip of paper and the coupon to the young girl. She used a scanning device on the slip of paper but frowned at the coupon.

“This doesn’t apply to sale items,” she said.

“What?” said Susan. “Where does it say that?”

The girl pointed to the bottom of the coupon, where it did, indeed, say that.

“One of the bikes isn’t on sale,” David told her, “the small one, the Road-Wrecker Special, or whatever it is.”

The girl pointed to a near-microscopic sentence at the top of the coupon. “Non-sale items have to be at least a hundred fifty dollars. But if you wanted to buy an extra set of training wheels, that would do it.”

“No, we can’t afford to save any more money,” said David. “Just tell us the damage.”

The girl consulted her screen. “With tax, it comes to five hundred twenty dollars and nineteen cents.”

“Whoa, wait a minute!” David said, looking over her shoulder at the screen. “Wasn’t Scottie’s bike, the MagnaWheel Moneymaker, or whatever, supposed to be one seventy-nine, not two hundred?”

“After rebate,” said the girl.

He looked at Susan. “This is ridiculous. Let’s get out of here.”

“Nooo!” the boys wailed. “Nooo!”

Billy threw himself to the floor in tears, while Scott shouted, “Why did you make us come here? I hate you! I hate you!”

Susan didn’t even bother yelling at them. “You know we have to go through with this,” she told David. “You know that, don’t you?” And, of course, he did.

He took out his credit card and handed it to the girl, who asked if they’d be interested in adding a service contract for another twenty dollars per bike. “It’s good for two years,” she said brightly.

“No,” David said.

“Would you like to join our ‘Kidz Klub’? You’ll be eligible for special promotions.”

“Please stop. I’m begging you.”

“Sure,” said the girl. “When do you want to come back to pick them up? I’m afraid the earliest we have is next Saturday at nine a.m.”

“Perfect,” said David as he signed the credit slip.

***

            “When you go back to get the bikes,” Scott said from the backseat, “could you buy me a Zombie Zappers of Zanzibar game?” It was the third time he’d asked.

“Could you buy me the two fighting crabs?” Billy put in.

“Cut it out, you two,” Susan told them.

“You never get us anything,” Scott complained.

Susan went back to filling out the survey. “‘Were our employees courteous?’” she read aloud.

“Absolutely,” said David. “The same way cops are, when they cover the perp’s head so he won’t hurt it while they’re forcing him into the police car.”

She squinted through the windshield. “Slow down, I think it’s coming up on our right.”

“Listen, I don’t know if I can do this,” he muttered.

“Sure you can. Man up!” She squinted some more. “There’s the entrance.”

“Why do we have to go here?” Scott whined.

“Yeah, why?” Billy echoed.

“Stop it!”

With a deep sigh from David and groans from the boys, they pulled into the parking lot of the Kids’ Kolosseum of Klothing.

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