Going Out of Business
By: James Rumpel

Every once in a while, late April decides to give a perfect day. The sun sits a bit higher in the sky and bombards the Earth with its brilliance and warmth. The birds sing louder, and the grass looks greener. It's impossible not to have a little extra spring in your step. Everything is good. Today was not one of those days.

In fact, today was the exact opposite. For the third consecutive afternoon, a layer of dark, low-hanging clouds obliterated any hope of even the slightest glimpse of the sun. The temperature hovered just above freezing but tumbled to new levels of discomfort with each biting gust of wind. Intermittent rain showers threatened to switch over to snow or, at the very least, sleet at any second.

By the time I pulled my car into the tiny gravel parking lot, my mood matched the weather. The afternoon in the office had been painful and frustrating. Arguments between coworkers oscillated between awkward silence and boisterous confrontations. It seemed that every topic was a launching pad for verbal warfare. Tom refused to wear a mask and proudly proclaimed that he was protecting his freedom by doing so. Angie was quick to call a majority of the employees racist and sexist. Even mild-mannered Paul had exploded with a barrage of obscenities when he couldn't find his stapler. The situation was made even worse by the fact that it had been like this every day since the Governor and the CDC had given the green light for people to return to work as long as they followed certain guidelines. Rules that Tom was quick to point out were Fascist and unnecessary.

I was so frustrated by the time I climbed in my car that I decided to just drive around for a while to let my head clear. That, in itself, was probably a good idea. Unfortunately, listening to the radio was not. The five-minute news update was like a gigantic albatross being hung around my neck. There was another school shooting in rural Kansas. The economy was due for a downturn based upon the sudden increase in gas prices. Racial tensions were nearing the breaking point in many regions. The virus, of course, was still in the news; the brief report made note of the current death totals. Even sports offered no reprieve from the malaise. There was a major brawl during one of the baseball games last evening and my favorite football team's quarterback was demanding to be traded.

I wasn't aware of how long I drove or where I was going. It was the three loud beeps and the sudden illumination of the "Low on Gas" light that finally grabbed my attention. That was when I stopped in front of a run-down store on a lonely road somewhere out of the bustle of the city. The GPS on my phone informed me that I was over an hour from home and that the nearest gas station was twenty miles away. My car's odometer informed me that I could still travel fifty miles on the remaining fuel. I prepared to restart the car and begin my journey home, though I didn't want to. All that would accomplish is putting myself in position for another miserable day.

It was then that I noticed the sign hanging above the door of the store. A sheet of plywood with the painted message "GOING OUT OF BUSINESS SALE" covered the store's name though a smaller neon subscript informed me that "70 X 7" customers had been served. Perhaps I was intrigued by the quirkiness of the sign or by the mystery of what this particular establishment sold. More likely, I was just looking for an excuse not to go home. Either way, I decided to check out the store.

The building was about the size of an old-school gas station, not one of the modern convenience stores with aisle after aisle of food and drinks but one that would be lucky to have a single cooler of soda and a small selection of candy bars under the cash register.

Bells chimed when I opened the door and I was immediately greeted by a short, bespectacled man wearing brown slacks, a white shirt, and a black tie. A tag on his left shoulder proudly proclaimed his name to be Gabe and that he was here to assist me.

"Welcome," he said in a voice that was just loud enough to be annoying. "Please have a look round. Everything is 50% off or more." He gestured toward a rack of vinyl music albums.

It didn't take me long to figure out that this wasn't a music store. The selection of music consisted of hundreds of copies of a single selection. Every album in the bin was something called "Celestial Hosts Proclaim."

Moving on from the music section, I noticed a shelf filled with porcelain figurines. Most of them were tiny statues of religious characters or depictions of biblical events. A spinning display racks was located next to the shelf. It was filled with St. Christopher medals, car key chains with bible quotes, and old-fashioned prayer cards.

I turned to leave only to find Gabe blocking my path. "Please don't go," he said. "I thought you would prefer this selection, but if you want Hindu, Buddhist or Jewish merchandise, I can get that for you right away."

"No, that's okay," I said, confused by his offer. "I just thought I'd have a look around. I'm not interested in anything specific."

"Please, don't go," he repeated. "I need to make a sale. Things haven't been going well lately. The man upstairs is pretty upset with my lack of production."

"Well, you don't exactly have the best location," I suggested.

"The location isn't the problem," replied Gabe. "We're always located exactly where we need to be. The problem is people just don't look to us anymore."

"Your selection is rather limited," I said as I tried to make my way past him and toward the door.

"Oh, I have much more. Do you want me to show you the really good stuff? I normally save that for my regular customers, but I haven't seen any of them lately. There are some amazing things in the next room."

Something about his tone, a tenuous balance between excitement and desperation, struck me. "Sure, why not?"

"Oh, thank you so much. You won't be disappointed."

Gabe pulled a large iron key out of his pocket and lead me to the solitary door at the back of the store. He unlocked it and swung it open. He extended his arm and directed me to enter.

I froze the second I stepped into the next room. I was shocked by the size of the chamber. It was as large as a high-school gymnasium. There was no way that this room could fit inside the little building I had entered earlier. Something strange was happening here.

My amazement over the room's dimensions was quickly pushed aside when I focused my attention on the items within. A large golden calf stood to my left. To my right was an ornate box that looked just like the Arc of the Covenant from the Raiders of the Lost Arc movies. Directly in front of me was a life-size statue of a woman in an uncomfortable-looking pose. Her body faced one direction, but her head was twisted as if trying to see behind her.

I took a step toward the statue but was interrupted by Gabe.

"Be careful. She's made of salt."

"Why would anyone want a statue made of salt?" I asked.

"There's a lot to that story," replied Gabe with a slight snicker. "I tell you what," he continued, "why don't I show you the items I think would be best for you?"

Gabe kept me moving so quickly that I didn't think to question him about the odd merchandise his store carried.

He led me to a display next to one of the side walls. A couple of folding tables had been set up with assorted products spread out along the top. A hand-made sign, written on posterboard with red magic marker declared "You break, you buy." Whoever made the notice had run out of room and the letters diminished in size from left to right, the last "y" was inserted below the "u."

The first thing Gabe showed me was a walking stick. "This is nice," he said. "Do you have a long commute to work? Do you have to cross any rivers or lakes? This baby could save you quite a bit of time. You do have to be careful though. If you drop it, it might just slither away on you."

"Honestly, the longer it takes me to get to work the better. Heck, I don't even know if I'm even going to bother going back. It's too depressing."

Gabe nodded. "I understand. Things are pretty tough for …"

"How about these?" I interrupted. I had no desire to rehash all that was wrong with the world. I pointed to a pair of framed wall hangings. Each frame contained an embroidered message. Upon closer inspection, I noticed that the first was faded to point of being nearly unreadable. After moving in close and squinting, I determined that it said, "Peace on Earth." The second was easier to read. It said, "Goodwill toward Men" but the glass was broken. A large crack ran from the top left corner to the bottom right.

"Oh, I'm sorry. I can't sell that particular piece at this time," announced Gabe. "You see, one of our previous customers broke one of the pieces. That's why I had to put up the "You break, you buy" sign. We didn't have any posters like that when he broke it and he's refused to pay for the damaged item. We are going to take him to court, but he's got a few other suits against him that need to be settled first. So, we're just waiting."

I continued to move down the table. The next item was a clay chalice.

"Oh, that used to be very popular," said Gabe. "There was a time when everyone was looking for that."

I started to reach for it, but Gabe grabbed my hand. "Now that I think about it, I have just the thing you. Follow me."

He led me to the far end of the display area and pointed upward. Suspended from the ceiling was a tiny light fixture, no bigger than a LED flashlight.

"What is it?" I asked.

Gabe smiled. "It's a ray of hope."

"What does it do? It doesn't look like it gives off much light. I doubt you could even read a book by it."

"I believe you could," answered the salesman. "Here let me turn it on." He clapped his hands together twice and a thin beam emerged from the fixture. The light dissipated quickly, not even reaching the floor.

"See," I said, "that thing would be useless." I had reached the point of giving up on the idea of finding anything worth buying. The place was interesting, and Gabe seemed like a nice guy, but this entire visit was proving futile.

I was turning to leave when Gabe bumped into me. I staggered back. Here I had started to like Gabe and he turned out to be another jerk. I caught my balance and avoided falling but when I looked up, the light from the ray of hope was shining onto my forehead.

I was going to berate Gabe for his rudeness when I decided that our collision might have been an accident, a simple mistake. I didn't need to always assume the worse about people. Everyone has good in them.

Maybe most of my problem with the world was my own fault. I needed to give people a chance. I could do more to try and make the office a better place. I started thinking of ways to get people to start communicating and dealing with their disagreements.

"I'm sorry," said Gabe. "Are you okay?"

I told him I was fine and thanked him for showing me around. I apologized for not finding anything I could buy in this section and told him that I needed to be going. I had plans to make before work tomorrow.

He smiled and said, "No problem. I was happy to be of service."

He took me back to the first room where I purchased an inspirational refrigerator magnet and a pack of Necco wafers. I even paid the full price. I promised to tell my friends about the store and shook Gabe's hand before I left.

The drive home was much more pleasant. I even noticed that not all the news was bad. Good things were happening in the world, I just hadn't been listening.

I can't wait for tomorrow. I'm going to call an office meeting and we are going to discuss and deal with our differences. Things are going to start getting better.

THE END

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