Thursday, December 28, 2006

"From a starship over Venus to the sun..."

Larry was another of our mentally challenged regulars. I’m not sure how much of his disability was inborn and how much of it was foisted upon him by his overbearing, stiflingly repressive, weird mother, but he definitely had some issues.

Larry always had a happily dazed look about him, as if he was watching a fireworks display for the first time, and since he was only 4’9” he was forever looking upward anyway. Skyrockets in flight.

As with most of our mentally challenged regulars, Larry was very malleable when it came to parting with the money he made as a trash man, or as he liked to call it, a “waste manage corn ater.” He’d come shooting through the door at top speed, already halfway through a scrambled sentence by the time he screeched to a halt in front of the tape counter. Larry always bought tapes. He never seemed to care what he bought as long as he was assured that it was “a Hot One.” He was very concerned that his taste reflected those of the masses. He’d ask us what our top sellers were, then he’d ask us to read off the top ten Billboard albums of that week. If something we were selling jived with the Billboard chart, he wanted it. No matter what the genre—although it has to be said that he didn’t really care much for rap and metal—he’d still buy it, because it was “a Hot One.”

Sometimes he’d barrel into the store and rush to the tape counter, slap his palm onto the glass showcase and proclaim, “Metallica. It’s a Hot One!” And yes, we’d agree, Metallica was a Hot One. “Whitney Hoosen! She’s a Hot One!” Again, we’d agree that Whitney was indeed a Hot One. He’d be so excited to be on a roll that he’d start to laugh, and Larry’s laugh sounded to a certain extent like Peter Lorre’s. He’d nod his head in abject excitement, his pointy teeth protruding from a gigantic grin as he chanted “yeah, yeah, it’s a Hot One!” Even funnier was when he missed the mark and called out the name of something that was definitely not a Hot One. “Huey Lewis! He’s a Hot One!” and we would shake our heads, to which Larry’s head would automatically swivel from a nod to a shake and he’d mutter “no, no, no, that’s not a hot one.” Then his face would light back up and he’d proclaim, “But he used to be hot!” and we’d agree.

As his reading level was that of your average seven year old, his mispronunciation of artists was legendary around the store. Paula Abdul was Paula Bull. The Fine Young Cannibals were Five’n’Pineapples. A Tribe Called Quest was Time Q. (no, I have no idea what brought that one on) Milli Vanilli was, of course Milli Vanilla. Primal Scream was Pride and Stream. And to this day, I still refer to a certain country singer as Billy Ray Cypress. (as an aside, we also had a customer who referred to Whitesnake as Wotsnok, but that’s another kettle of fish entirely)

Although Larry enjoyed talking with us and reveled in his pseudo-celebrity status at the store (there were times we all applauded when he burst in, and he’d wave like Queen Elizabeth), he felt we’d led him astray once or twice. For instance, I had persuaded him to buy Psychocandy, which he hated, and Reynolds talked him into a Jellyfish tape once, which he might have actually enjoyed had it truly been a Hot One, but it wasn’t—so usually he was keen to let Billboard mandate his choices.

Regardless of his intellectual failings, he could occasionally come up with nuggets of abject brilliance. He once combined chart topping singles by Kylie Minogue and The Beach Boys when he requested the song “Kokomotion.” Another time he was standing at the tape counter when someone walked in and asked for Anita Baker, Milli Vanilli and Neneh Cherry. Larry turned to me without missing a beat and said, “Vanilla, cherries, baker. Someone wants a pie!” And then he’d laugh like Peter Lorre.

Now behind his back the staff referred to him as “Shorty.” Mainly this was because we couldn’t bring ourselves to refer to him as Hot One Larry, and we needed to differentiate between our other Larry regulars, one of which we referred to as Leisure Suit Larry, not because he wore a leisure suit, nor because of the video game of the same name, but because he only ever bought remixed 12” dance singles, which reminded us of Saturday Night Fever, which equated with 70’s polyester threads. Hell, it turned out later that Leisure Suit Larry wasn’t even called Larry, but the name seemed to fit and we continued to refer to him as such, even after we found out his real name was Felix.

For a few weeks each year, Shorty attended some sort of camp for the challenged. He always came in a day or two prior to leaving so he could stock up on the Hot Ones and impress his campmates. During one summer camp he managed to get himself a girlfriend, and he brought her into the store one evening on a date and introduced her. She had the same diminutive stature as him, had the same moon-faced dazed expression, and was something of a shrinking violet—the perfect foil for Shorty’s overblown excitability. It was clear they were made for each other. Despite our cynical nature, we all found it irresistibly sweet to see them wandering around the store, holding hands, as he pointed out the hot ones to her.

Somehow he managed to keep the relationship secret for a few months, but eventually his domineering old cow of a mother found out and put the brakes on the relationship. Although he was obviously quite broken-hearted he made it clear to us that he didn’t wish to tangle with his mom, so we quietly dropped the issue and stopped asking about Violet.

We all truly enjoyed seeing Shorty, and genuinely liked him, even if he could sometimes overstay his welcome. I think the longest he ever hung around asking about Hot Ones was 4 ½ hours. It wasn’t like we were working on commission, so we didn’t really mind that he hung around, but sometimes he got in the way when we were busy. Unlike some of the other regulars who didn’t know when to leave, with Shorty we could simply tap an imaginary watch and say, “Larry, it’s getting late.” He’d snap a Hot One from the perusable pile, peel off the cash and off he’d go on his merry way, out the door with a wave and a grin.

Every now and then Shorty, who was nothing if not a victim of instant gratification, would decide that he wanted to special order something. Mainly I think he did it because he saw other customers doing it, and therefore it was the hot thing to do. But there was the odd time or two when he was very sure that the Hot One he wanted was worth waiting for. In his mind I think he reckoned the item was so hot we couldn’t keep it in stock, which meant that he HAD TO HAVE IT. He’d stop in every day thereafter until the coveted Hot One had arrived. Which was fine by us, because none of us wanted to risk having to phone his house to let him know the cassette was ready for pick up. This was because he wasn’t allowed to answer the phone, so we had to deal with his scary mother, who would screech and snarl and accuse us of paving a path to hell for her little boy. Larry was, at the time, in his mid-30’s. Sometimes she’d ring up the store looking for him, and if he was there she’d cut loose as soon as the receiver was passed to him, or she’d feign some urgent illness that needed his immediate attention, and if he wasn’t there when she rang she’d cut loose on us, just for good measure.

Although he couldn’t read above a second-grade level and had a relatively child-like outlook on life, Shorty held a driving license, which just goes to show that anyone can get a driving license in America, because he seriously shouldn’t have had one. He could barely reach the pedals for a start.

And it was the combination of that license and his tyrannical mother that caused the accident. Shorty was doing his garbage round when dispatch radioed in that his mom was having yet another of her many episodes. Apparently this one sounded serious enough that dispatch had gone ahead and radioed the information to the truck, instructing the driver to swing back and drop Larry off at the yard so he could go home and tend to her. By the time Larry reached his car he had worked himself into a hyperventilating frenzy. He raced toward home, never even noticing the stop lights along State Route 725. The car he t-boned was carrying a young newlywed couple, both of whom were pronounced dead at the scene. Larry suffered severe injuries and was out of commission for nearly a year. Philbert tried once to visit him in the hospital, but Larry’s mother chased him away.

Once recovered, we saw very little of him. His driving privileges having been revoked, he resorted to walking everywhere, and because our store wasn’t convenient to get to from his house, and because his mother had frightened him into believing that riding a bus would send his soul to the devil, he stopped his weekly visits. When he did stop by, he told us he could no longer buy his beloved Hot Ones, because his wages were being garnished toward the settlement of the dead couple’s estate.

But on a snowy cold December evening last year, Larry was one of the regulars who proudly showed up at the funeral home to pay his respects to The Sav. It was a six mile round trip, on foot, in the snow.

Now that’s a loyal customer.

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