So it’s seven forty-five on a Friday in the Pick n Pay’s liquor store. They close in fifteen minutes, and today is payday. The staff must be tired. I realise, for the first time, that you can tell a lot about people by the alcohol they buy. Each one of these patrons has an unwritten short story in their evening and the prologue starts right here. I can only try to infer how each of them will be written.
There’s the old woman, sixty something… maybe fifty something with her age dragged through the eye of a bottle. She’s paying for her bottle of gin. Nothing else. She smiles too eagerly at the cashiers and quips about what employee discounts they must get for working there. They barely acknowledge her, asking whether she has a smart shopper card and whether she’d like a plastic bag. She does and she would. Her eyes pinball between the rest of us, I wonder what she thinks as they touch and bounce on each of us. She disappears into the fluorescent bustle outside.
Then there’s the girl buying a bottle of shot-bound booze. She’s pretty. The friend next to her is beautiful. I imagine they’re both painfully aware of this unspeakable fact. But I’m male. I’m curious about, but will never fully understand, the subtle dynamics there. What’s that like for them? The platonicity they share, mixed in with drops of envy and fantasies that they probably can’t relate to one another? She pays for the bottle and responds to the cashier’s plastic-bag-smart-shopper-card script by joking that she sometimes feels like a plastic bag. The cashier doesn’t respond, she stares. “Yes I want a plastic bag,” the girl finally says. She pays, and begins talking to her friend in a slow walk in the aisles beyond.
Next is a boy in his late twenties. He’s wearing a cap and a tired expression. He has a bottle of merlot. Nothing about him suggests a predisposition to red wine. I wonder how routine this is, whether there’s any spontaneity in him buying this to go with some romantically themed pasta. Do people drink wine with pasta? I’m sure they do. There’s a reciprocal uninterest between him and the cashier. His eyes keep falling on the two girls who are slowly drifting away. He gets a plastic bag, and leaves.
The frenetic energy coming from the next customer seems almost out of place. His cologne smells fresh. He’s buying a bottle of tequila. “Now there’s a night” I think. He gets his plastic bag and he’s on his cellphone before he’s even cornered into the aisles. I consider him until he’s lost in the crowds.
Finally, a ghost enters. With two days’ worth of five-o-clock shade stubbling his face, he drifts his familiar route from brandy to coke to counter. He doesn’t seem to occupy any of the space he’s standing in. And the only sound he makes is a guilty sniff as he gives the cashier his money. He has to dig around for the balance and finally finds two golden rimmed five rand coins to seal his way. They glint in his dead eyes. He doesn’t grab the plastic bag so much as he drags it from the counter and puts his purchase in with an arm only one degree above limp. This generic “someone’s uncle” leaves, and in an instant it’s like he was never here.
The cashier looks at the clock, then looks at me. I wake up and approach. Her name tag reads “Sharon”. I catch myself bursting out an incredulous breath of laughter. I pay and I leave. No bag in hand, I carry mine slackwristed to my car.
And in my car my thoughts go to you, as they so frustratingly often do these days. I’m transfixed by what you taught me of van Gogh, and I wonder how he would’ve painted that fluorescent Styx. Everybody pays their passage and some wish nothing more than to jump ship and sink to the memoryless depths. This place is the weekend’s waiting room.
I think of you and I think of unreachable dreams of chain-link knots. The Chinese puzzles my subconscious made of them and what all of this means after a week of apexes and agonies.
I get home.
If the act immortalises an evening, this one point in time, then truly tonight I sat in Limbo with breathless souls.