The Outsider Ch. 16bycaligula97236©
Chapter 16 - Black Friday
During the four days she spent in Salinas over Thanksgiving break, Ruthie got very little rest. She spent a good portion of Thanksgiving Day looking after Rosa and trying to make sure she didn't get a hold of any more Tequila. Ruthie plied her with water and Coke, trying to get her to sober up before she went to sleep. She became very angry at her cousin, not only for being drunk at a family gathering, but also for her decision to join the military. Still, Ruthie realized that dealing with Rosa gave her something to do for the rest of the day, something to keep her occupied and away from her family's other problems.
At sundown Ruthie figured that her cousin was sober enough that she could be safely put to bed. Rosa stumbled into the bathroom one last time, and then passed out on her bed. Ruthie was both worried and disgusted, never having seen her cousin so drunk before. She lay down on top of the room's other bed, but had a hard time getting to sleep because of the noise from outside. Besides being bothered by the noise, it was hard for her to get comfortable because she was not used to sleeping in her clothes.
Ruthie knew that she needed to get as much rest as she could early on, because at 2:30 am her mother woke up both younger women and told them to get into one of the cars. They groaned in protest as Doña Lisette shook them awake. Rosa still was hung-over and Ruthie dreaded the day that lay ahead.
A few minutes later, two carloads of Ruthie's family and an extra pick-up truck joined a long line of cars moving towards the Watsonville Mega-Center. Yes, indeed...Ruthie had been drafted by her mother to participate in the most disgusting holiday spectacle of all, shopping on Black Friday.
Ruthie had gone through Black Friday shopping enough times to know what to expect. There would be a two-hour wait in line in a dark parking lot before the doors opened at 5:00 am, then the mad dash to the electronics section to try to get sales items "while supplies lasted", then the endless pushing and grabbing in the clothing department, a stop at the Christmas decorations, and finally a stop to buy cartloads of food. The whole day would consist of standing in line and jostling other people. For someone like Ruthie, who tended to be claustrophobic in restricted crowded spaces, Black Friday shopping was pure torment.
The family took their places in a very long line that wrapped around the Mega-Mart. She looked at her cousin's pale sick face, then listened to several people ahead of her group argue whether or not it was "fair" for a person to leave the line and expect to get back in. She listened to unhappy children whining or crying, and to several arguments in both English and Spanish.
Rosa was in a horrible mood from her hangover, Ruthie was in a horrible mood because she did not want to be anywhere near a Mega-Mart at 3:00 in the morning on Black Friday, and the older women were in bad moods because they felt their daughters were being ungrateful and uncooperative. Ruthie looked around. Already there were thousands of other uncomfortable and irritated shoppers lined up in the parking lot. The mood of the crowd was not pleasant at all.
The minutes dragged by and the line behind Ruthie's family grew ever larger and ever more restless. Shoppers jostled at the building's entrance and began pushing to better position themselves to get in quickly. Ruthie started having a bad feeling about what was going to happen the moment the Mega-Mart employees finally opened the doors. She wanted to beg her relatives to give up on the shopping trip, but the only person she felt she could talk to was her cousin. Rosa replied:
"When we get in there, the only place I'm going is the bathroom."
"Rosa, I don't like this. Too many people...and they don't have any security out here."
Rosa waved off her cousin's concerns.
"We go through this shit every year. It's always the same. Nothing's gonna happen."
A half an hour later the doors opened and the crowd surged forward. There was a crush as the group pushed towards the entrance. Bodies pressed ever more tightly against Ruthie and Rosa. It became hard to breathe and Ruthie lost sight of her mother. She could tell that Rosa was frightened by the sudden pressure on her body from the crowd. Ruthie was apprehensive as well, but she was not surprised. Her pessimistic outlook had prepared her to expect that something could go very wrong once those doors opened.
The next few minutes were some of the scariest of Ruthie's life. As the crush of bodies tightened, she found breathing increasingly difficult. She also realized that she and Rosa would be in very serious danger if either of them tripped. The crowd swayed back and forth and her feet constantly were bumping up against the feet of her neighbors. Once Rosa did trip, but Ruthie held on to her arm and with all of her strength managed to help keep her on her feet.
Finally Ruthie and her family made it through the door, but the crush of bodies only seemed to get worse. Shoppers continued to push through the door, but the crowd no longer was moving forward. To her right she heard someone shouting:
"Get off! Get off!"
A group of people next to her fell suddenly. Just as she lost her balance and was about to fall, Gerardo grabbed Ruthie's arm and pulled her to the left. More people fell and started to scream. Gerardo grabbed Ruthie again and pushed her towards the window. A second later Rosa stumbled against her. Gerardo shouted:
"Keep moving! Away from the door!"
Ruthie grabbed Rosa's hand and pushed through a cluster of people that slowly were moving forward again, towards the pharmacy. The crowd emerged into an open area of the store and thinned out. Once they got past the danger, many people ignored the disaster and started running towards the coveted sales items. Ruthie and Rosa stepped back towards the window, waiting for the other members of their group to come out. Ruthie saw the top of Gerardo's head in the mob. Gerardo emerged with his own mother a second later, along with another family friend. He pushed several panicky people aside and extracted the final member of his group, Doña Lisette. Ruthie's mother was gasping for air and had a thoroughly horrified expression on her face. Her purse was gone and a shoe was missing, but otherwise she was OK. Ruthie hugged her.
Ruthie's relatives moved past the checkout area, along with dozens of other dazed shoppers. There was no time to think about running towards the "while supplies last" deals, because it was obvious that things were terribly wrong near the main entrance. Security guards were frantically trying to disperse the crowd and get to a group of people who had fallen. The scene became increasingly chaotic as more and more shoppers were pushed through the doors and fell on top of the ones lying on the floor. There was screaming, yelling and cursing. Alarms in the store went off, but the noise only added to the panic among the crowd. Ruthie looked through the window, noticing shoppers still outside pushed against the glass. Those people were only a few feet away from her, but there was not a thing she could do to help them. Anyhow, the only thing on her mind was staying close behind Gerardo and not letting go of her mother's hand.
The family continued moving away from the front entrance in the midst of dozens of other frantic people. Gerardo shouted at the others to go to the gardening department at the back end of the Mega-Center. The crowd surrounding Ruthie had dispersed, but the screaming coming from the front of the store seemed louder than ever. As they exited into the fenced area containing gardening supplies, Ruthie's family could hear sirens in the parking lot. Firemen and paramedics came in through the back of the store and rushed past them. They heard loudspeakers announcing that the Mega-Center was closing. That announcement was accompanied by shouts of anger from many of the shoppers who had already made it into the store and had picked up sales items. Ruthie heard several things inside breaking. She correctly assumed the crashes were from disappointed shoppers smashing things they had picked up but would not be allowed to buy.
They exited through the gardening center, after being checked by a Mega-Mart security guard to make sure they were not carrying any merchandise. Ruthie's family walked around the back of the building, passing the loading docks to return to their cars. Everyone was badly shaken up. It was clear that Rosa no longer needed to use the restroom, because her jeans were soaked. Ruthie's mother still was missing a shoe. Her aunt had twisted an ankle and needed to be helped as she walked. They were a forlorn group as they slowly made their way in the pre-dawn fog towards the front of the store, their shopping trip a total disaster.
It took hours to get out of the parking lot. The exits had to be blocked off to give priority to emergency services. Ruthie and her relatives noticed ambulance after ambulance leaving. Later Ruthie's family would find out how lucky they were, given what had happened only a few feet from where they had come in through the entrance. The tragedy started when a Mega-Mart employee was pushed to the floor by the first wave of shoppers entering the store. For several seconds the people coming in managed to step over him, but then a woman was pushed over the employee and fell. Several more people fell on top of her. Eventually more than 100 shoppers and employees lay piled on the floor, eight of whom died and 60 others who were seriously injured. Another man had a heart attack when he was pushed against the front window and his pace-maker quit working. Among the people pressed against the window there were several other serious injuries. Gerardo told his relatives that he was standing right next to several shoppers who fell and that it was only by pure luck he did not go down with them. There was another piece of good fortune. Gerardo's wife planned to accompany the group on the shopping trip, but at the last moment felt sick and changed her mind. No one wanted to imagine what would have happened if a woman who was eight months pregnant had been with them during the stampede.
It was well past sunrise, but finally the three cars of Ruthie's group turned onto the highway going south, to return to Salinas empty-handed. Doña Lisette chatted incessantly about the need to be grateful to Jesus for having spared them. Ruthie sat quietly in the back seat, viewing the experience from a totally different perspective. As she sat listening to her mother rattle on about Jesus and smelling her cousin's piss, Ruthie resolved that she would never set foot in a Mega-Mart again. She always had hated the store anyway, but she "went along" to avoid an argument. Well, now she had a perfect justification for not "going along" anymore.
As much as she'd like to avoid it, she would have to tell Mike what had happened. Undoubtedly he would hear about it on the news and wonder if she had been at the store. She'd have to fess up and admit that yes, not only had she been at the store, she had been right in the middle of the stampede. His reaction would be predictable: he would say that Mega-Mart brought out the worst in people because it was the world's worst manifestation of rampant capitalism. He was right, of course, because the company's sales tactics, designed to bring hoards of panicky shoppers to the store to be the lucky "winner" of a wide screen TV that was being sold at a loss, fed on greed. As Mike would always say, greed will turn any person into a demented savage. He now had nine deaths and 60 injuries to back up that statement.
Greed will turn any person into a demented savage.
Mike and his family never went anywhere near a store on Black Friday. Instead they went for a drive towards the Napa Valley and had a picnic with the remains of the previous day's turkey. It was a chance to forget the present and pretend that the more pleasant years family's past had continued uninterrupted. Mike's sister was, as usual, a bit uneasy, but even she was able to set aside her worries and just relax. The family did not bother to let anything serious enter into their conversation...they kept to light subjects such as the various points of interests in the valley. It was dark by the time they got back.
Upon returning to his room, Mike had a message on his cell phone. It was a call from Ruthie, telling him that she was OK and her family was safe. They had a bad scare at the Mega-Center, but they got out unhurt and were safely back in Salinas.
A bad scare at the Mega-Center? Mike immediately turned on the TV. Sure enough, the headline news was the morning's tragedy at the Watsonville Mega-Mart. There was footage of columns of ambulances leaving the parking lot and interviews with witnesses. There also were interviews with company officials, whose responses ranged from blaming the shoppers for being careless to praising the "great American consumer" for being so determined to shop, no matter how adverse the conditions might be.
"This incident, while unfortunate, shows that American capitalism is the best system there is and how people are looking for value in their purchases...The American consumer is the most determined consumer in the world...Nothing will stop the American consumer, not even an unfortunate tragedy like what happened today..."
Mike stared dumbfounded at the news report, horrified that the woman he loved had been right in the middle of all that. He called her, but she seemed somewhat irritated:
"It's like I told you, Mike. I'm fine. Everyone here is fine. I mean...we're a bit shaken up...but we're all fine. I'll tell you about it when I see you on campus. I don't wanna talk about it over the phone. I'm fine. Really..."
Mike hung up, a bit bewildered. Obviously Ruthie was traumatized and not "fine". However he knew that it would be better to wait and talk to her in person...as she had requested.
That night, Mike finally got around to reading Ruthie's favorite book, "Pedro Paramo". It was one of the most depressing narratives he had ever read, but from the beginning he could see why the story had been so influential in Latin American literature. And to think, that no gringo, apart from the ones who made it three years into a Spanish major, had ever heard of the novel or its author Juan Rulfo.
More importantly for Mike, by reading "Pedro Paramo", felt that Juan Rulfo was giving him a good glimpse into Ruthie's unhappy soul. The hot, desolate, abandoned setting of the story matched her perceptions of how the future of the world would play out. As for an insight of how she viewed herself, Mike read the following:
"I don't know, Juan Preciado. After so many years of never lifting up my head, I forgot about the sky. And even if I had looked up, what good would it have done? The sky is so high and my eyes so clouded that I was happy just to know where the ground was. Besides, I lost all interest when Padre Rentería told me I would never know glory. Or even see it from a distance ... It was because of my sins, but he shouldn't have told me that. Life is hard enough as it is. The only thing that keeps you going is the hope that when you die you'll be lifted off this mortal coil; but when they close one door and the only one left open is the door to Hell, you are better off not being born ... for me, Juan Preciado, heaven is right here."
"And your soul? Where do you think it's gone?"
"It's probably wandering like so many others, looking for living people to pray for it. It probably hates me for the way I treated it, but I don't worry about that any more. And now I don't have to listen to its whining about remorse. Because of it, the little I ate turned bitter in my mouth, it haunted my nights with black thoughts of the damned. When I sat down to die, my soul prayed for me to get up and drag on with my life, as if it still expected some miracle to cleanse me of my sins. I didn't even try. 'This is the end of the road', I told it. 'I don't have the strength to go on.' And I opened my mouth for it to escape. And it went. I knew when I felt the little thread of blood that bound it to my heart drip into my hands."
Mike read through "Pedro Paramo" in a single sitting. It was 3:00 in the morning when he finished. The book's bleak message of hopelessness deeply moved him, because in that story he saw Ruthie's soul. He got up and put on a pair of shorts and a jacket. He wouldn't be able to sleep and he couldn't stay in the quiet house. He'd have to go out.
Mike walked around the decaying neighborhood, more aware than ever that he was part of a United States that was passing into memory. The middle class, suburbia, the work ethic, small businesses, and the independent spirit that had been central to the United States was fading out, the spirit of its people crushed under the indifferent phenomenon of corporate globalization. Mike was part of that past. Even though he was only 20, he knew that he had been born to live in world that no longer existed. The planet of the future, the world being consolidated under Mega-Town Associates, was not a world that he could, or would, want to live in. Ruthie's right about that...there's no hope. She knows...
Mike walked along the deserted sidewalks in the chilly pre-dawn darkness. He passed several "for sale" signs, including ones that had the added description "bank owned". "Bank owned"... foreclosure properties...the fruits of a credit-based economy.
The majority of the houses that were still occupied had SUV's sitting in driveways. SUV's...the past decade's most prominent symbol of an era of debt, wastefulness, and conspicuous consumption that had finished off the hope that the US could look forward to any future other than a painful decline.
Mike's thoughts returned to the desolate words of "Pedro Paramo". Just like the fictional Comala of Juan Rulfo's novel, the suburb of Mike's childhood was becoming ever more abandoned...ever more lost and hopeless. He was reminded of a passage from Ruthie's book:
"From that day the fields lay untended. Abandoned. It was a sad thing to see what happened to the land, how plagues took over as soon as it lay idle. For miles around, people fell on hard times. Men packed up in search of a better living. I remember when the only sound in Comala was good-byes..."
Mike's thoughts turned to his girlfriend. He reflected that exactly 24 hours before; she had been at the Mega-Center waiting in line with her relatives. Hopefully at the moment he was thinking about her, Ruthie was safely in bed...not standing out in some godforsaken parking lot. He badly wanted to see her...because he loved her more than ever. Through spending a night reading her favorite book, he felt that he really understood her. Her soul was much darker than he had imagined, but in that darkness was the real truth behind life. She understood that life had no meaning, and there was no hope. The only meaning he would find in his own life would come from the time he shared with her.
Over the next two days Doña Lisette gave her testimony in church, thanking Jesus for the miracle at the Mega-Center and the blessing that spared her and her daughter from the clutches of Satan. The fellow church-goers loudly concurred with "Amen!" and "Praise Jesus!" Of course, Ruthie had to stand next to her mother as she spoke as a living testament of Jesus' generosity. She held her tongue and played along...forcing a smile and trying to be patient. Her mother needed to have her moment...even if it was her cousin Gerardo, and not Jesus, who deserved the credit for saving them from being trampled.
Ruthie's relatives did not try to do any more Christmas shopping that weekend, much to her relief. The Mega-Center re-opened on Saturday with the same long lines and hoards of shoppers pouring into the store in the pre-dawn hours. The store hired more security and had better crowd control, so the panic from the day before was not repeated. However, Doña Lisette had no desire to "test the Lord's patience" by repeating her trip to the store; while both Ruthie and Rosa flatly stated that any new foray to a Mega-Mart would have to be made without them.