At sunset, acrid-smelling air from the lake puffed along the empty streets of Montario, Idaho. With the air appeared clouds of sharp-winged yellow flies; they smashed against the windshields of cars in motion. The drivers strove to clear them away with their wipers. As the street lights lit up Hill Street, stores began to close until only the drugstores—one at each end of town—remained open. The Luxor movie theater did not open until six-thirty. The several cafes did not count as parts of the town; open or shut, they belonged to the highway, US 95, which made use of Hill Street.
Hooting and clacking and sliding along the northernmost of fourteen parallel tracks, the Union Pacific sleeper appeared, passing from Portland to Boise. It did not stop, but at the Hill Street crossing it slowed until the mail car appeared to be a dingy-green metal building among the brick warehouses along the track, scarcely in motion, with its doors open and two trainmen in striped suits hanging out with their hands dangling down. A middle-aged woman, wrapped up in quilted wool to keep warm, stepped forward at the sidewalk and deftly handed several letters up to one of the trainmen.
The wig-wag signal bonged and the red light flashed for a considerable period after the last car of the train had gone off out of sight.
At the lunch counter in his drugstore, Mr. Hagopian ate a small fried hamburger steak and canned string beans while he read a copy of Confidential taken from the rack by the front door. Now, at six, no customers bothered him. He sat so that he could see the street outside. If anyone came along he intended to stop eating and wipe his mouth and hands with a paper napkin.
Far off, running and whirling about to run backwards with his head up, came a boy wearing a Davy Crockett cap with tail. The boy circled his way across the street, and Mr. Hagopian realized that he was coming into the drugstore.
The boy, hands in his pockets, his motions stiff and jerky, stepped into the store and to the candy bars all intermingled under the sign, 3 for 25¢. Mr. Hagopian continued eating and reading. The boy at last picked out a box of Milk Duds, a package of M & M chocolates, and a Hershey bar.
“Fred,” Mr. Hagopian called.
His son Fred pushed the curtains aside, from the back room, and came out to wait on the boy.
At seven o’clock Mr. Hagopian said to his son Fred, “You might as well go on home. There won’t be enough more tonight to make it worth both our time.” He felt irritable, thinking about it. “Nobody of consequence is going to show up and buy anything the rest of tonight.”
“I’ll stick around awhile longer,” Fred said. “I don’t have anything to do anyhow.”
The telephone rang. It was Mrs. de Rouge, on Pine Street, wanting a prescription filled and delivered. Mr. Hagopian got out the book, and when he looked up the number he found that it was for Mrs. de Rouge’s pain pills. So he told her that Fred would bring them by eight o’clock.
While he was making up the pills—capsules of codeine—the door of the drugstore opened and a young man, well-dressed in a single-breasted suit and tie, stepped in. He had a sandy, bony nose and short-cropped hair; by that, Mr. Hagopian recognized him, and also by his smile. He had good, strong white teeth.
“Can I help you, sir?” Fred said.
“Just looking right now,” the man said. Hands in his pockets he moved over to the magazine racks.
I wonder why he hasn’t been in here for a while, Mr. Hagopian thought to himself. He used to come in here all the time. Since he was a kid. Has he been taking his business up to Wickley’s? At that, the old man felt growing indignation. He finished up Mrs. de Rouge’s pills, dropped them into a bottle, and walked to the counter.
The young man, Skip Stevens, had brought a copy of Life up to Fred, and was rummaging in his trouser pocket for change.
“Anything else, sir?” Fred said.
Mr. Hagopian started to speak to Skip Stevens, but at that moment Skip leaned toward Fred and said in a low voice, “Yes, I wanted to pick up a package of Trojans.” So Mr. Hagopian delicately turned away and busied himself until Fred had wrapped the package of contraceptives and rung up the sale on the register.
“Thank you, sir,” Fred said, in the business-like tone he always took when somebody bought contraceptives. As he left the counter he winked at his father.
His magazine under his arm, Skip started toward the door, very slowly, eyeing the magazines and shelves to show that he did not feel intimidated. Mr. Hagopian caught up with him and said, “Long time no see.” His indignation made his voice rattle. “I hope you and your family have been well.”
“Everybody’s fine,” Skip said. “I haven’t seen them for a couple of months. I’m living down in Reno. I have a job there.”
“Oh,” Mr. Hagopian said, not believing him. “I see.”
Fred tilted his head, listening.
“You remember Skip Stevens,” Mr. Hagopian said to his son.
“Oh yeah,” Fred said. “I didn’t recognize you.” He nodded at Skip. “Haven’t seen you in months.”
“I’m located down in Reno now,” Skip explained. “This is the first time I’ve been up here to Montario since April.”
“I wondered why we hadn’t seen you,” Fred said.
Mr. Hagopian asked Skip, “Your brother still off back east at school?”
“No,” Skip said. “He’s out of school now, and married.”
This boy isn’t living down in Reno, Mr. Hagopian thought. He’s just ashamed to admit why he hasn’t been in. Skip shifted about from one foot to the other, obviously ill-at-ease. He obviously wanted to leave.
“What line of work are you in?” Fred said.
Skip said, “I’m a buyer.”
“What kind of buyer?”
“For C.B.B.,” he said.
“Television?” Mr. Hagopian said.
“For Consumers’ Buying Bureau,” Skip said.
Skip said, “Something like a department store. It’s a new place down on Highway 40, between Reno and Sparks.”
With a strange look on his face, Fred said, “I know what that is. Some guy was up here telling me about it.” To his father, he said, “It’s one of those discount houses.”
At first, the old man did not understand. And then he remembered what he had heard about discount houses. “Do you want to drive the retailers out of business?” he said loudly to Skip.
Skip, turning red, said, “It’s no different from a supermarket. It buys in volume and passes the savings on to the consumer. That’s how Henry Ford operated, producing in volume.”
“It’s not the American way,” Mr. Hagopian said.
“Sure it is,” Skip said. “It means a higher standard of living because it eliminates overhead and the middleman’s costs.”
Mr. Hagopian returned to the counter. To his son he said, “Mrs. de Rouge wants some more pain pills.” He held out the bottle, and Fred accepted it. “I told her before eight.”
He did not care to talk to Skip Stevens any further. Competing with Chinese and Japs was bad enough. To him, the big new discount houses seemed worse; they pretended to be American—they had neon signs and they advertised and they had parking lots, and unless you knew what they were they did look like supermarkets. He did not know who ran them. Nobody ever saw the owners of discount houses. In fact, he himself had never even seen a discount house.
“It doesn’t cut into your business,” Skip said, following after Fred as he wrapped Mrs. de Rouge’s package. “Nobody drives five hundred miles to shop, even for major items like furniture.”
Mr. Hagopian made out a tag while his son wrapped.
Skip said, “It’s only in big cities anyhow. This town isn’t large enough. Boise might be.”
Neither Fred nor his father said anything. Fred put on his coat, got the tag from his father, and left the drugstore.
The old man busied himself with sorting different articles that had been delivered during the day. Presently the door closed after Skip Stevens.
As he drove along the unlighted residential streets of Montario, over the gravel that served as pavement, Bruce Stevens thought about old Hagopian, whom he had encountered now and again all his life. Years ago, the old man had chased him away from the comic books and out the front door of the drugstore. For months Hagopian had simmered in silence as the children, scrunched down behind the shelf of mineral oil bottles, had read Tip Top Comics and King Comics and seldom if ever bought anything. Then he had made up his mind and gone at the first child who next put in an appearance. It had been Bruce Stevens; Skip Stevens in those days, because of his bright round freckled face and reddish hair. The old man still called him “Skip.” What a heck of a world, Bruce thought, as he watched the houses. I made him sore then, and he’s still sore. It’s a wonder he didn’t call the police when I bought the box of Trojans.
But the old man’s outrage toward the idea of him working for a discount house in Reno did not bother him, because he knew how the little retailers felt; they had felt that way when the first supermarkets had opened just after World War Two. And in some respects their animosity delighted him. It proved that people were beginning to buy from discount houses, or at least were beginning to be aware of them.
It’s the coming thing, he told himself once again. Another ten years and nobody’ll think to pick up razor blades one day and soap the next; they’ll shop for everything one day of the week, in a place where they can get any kind of thing there is, from phonograph records to autos.
But then it occurred to him that he hadn’t bought his package of contraceptives back in Reno, but here in a small drugstore, at full retail price. In fact, he did not even know if the discount people for whom he worked stocked contraceptives.
And a magazine, too, he realized. To hide his actual intentions. Whenever he had bought contraceptives he felt embarrassed. The clerk behind the counter always gave him a bad time. Dropping the little metal tin so people would glance over to see. Or calling from the length of the store, “Which did you ask for, Trojans or—” whatever the other brand was. Sheiks or something. Since his nineteenth year, the first year he had started carrying contraceptives around with him, he had stuck to Trojans. That’s America, he said to himself. Buy by brand. Know your product.
His trip up from Reno was to end in Boise, but passing through his home town he had decided to stop off and perhaps drop in on a girl he had gone around with, the year before. He could easily get back on the road the next morning; Boise was only fifteen miles northeast, on US Highway 95, up from Nevada. Or, if things didn’t work out, he could continue on tonight.
He was twenty-four years old. He liked his job at C.B.B., which did not pay too much—about three hundred a month—but which gave him a chance to get out on the road in his ’55 Merc, and to meet people and bargain with them, to snoop into different establishments with the keen inner urge for discovery. And he liked his boss, Ed von Scharf, who had a big black Ronald Colman mustache and who had been a sergeant in the Marine Corps in World War Two, when Bruce had been eight years old.
And he liked living by himself in an apartment in Reno, away from his parents and away from an essentially farming town in a potato-growing state that had lettered on its highways: don’t be a guberif, which meant “don’t be a firebug,” and which always infuriated him when he drove onto one of them. From Reno he could get easily over the Sierras into California, or the other direction to Salt Lake City for whatever that was worth. The air in Nevada was cleaner, lacking the heavy brackish fog that rolled into Montario carrying the flies that he had stepped on and inhaled all his life.
Now, on the hood, bumpers, fenders, and windshield of his car, hundreds of those same flies lay squashed and dead. They had fouled the radiator. Their thin hairy bodies dotted his field of vision and made the finding of Peg’s house that much harder.
At last he recognized it, by the wide lawn and porch and tree. There were lights on inside. And several cars were parked nearby.
When he had parked, and was stepping up onto the porch to ring the bell, he heard unmistakable sounds of music and people from inside the house. There goes that, he said to himself as he rang.
The door flew open. Peg recognized him, gasped, raised her hands, and then slid aside and drew him into the house. “What a surprise! Of all people!”
In the living room a number of persons sat about with drinks, listening to the phonograph playing Johnny Ray records. Three or four men and as many women.
“I guess I should have phoned,” he said.
“No,” she said. “You know you’re welcome.” Her face sparkled, small and round and smooth. She had on an orange blouse and a dark skirt, and her hair was fluffed up and soft-looking. To him, she seemed quite pretty, and he longed to kiss her. But several of the people had craned their necks, smiling tentatively in welcome, so he did not.
“Did you just drive in right now?” she asked.
“Yes,” he said. “I got on the road about seven this morning. Made good time. Around seventy, mostly.”
“You must be real tired. Have you had dinner?”
“I pulled off for a while around five,” he said. “I never feel too hungry when I’m on the road.
“Don’t you want something now?” She led him down the hall, past the living room and into the kitchen. Spread out on the tile drainboard were a bowl of ice cubes, bottles of ginger ale and bitters, lemon rind, a full bottle of cheap bourbon. Opening the refrigerator she said, “Let me fix you something hot to eat; I know you only get a sandwich and a shake when you’re driving. I remember.” She began carrying dishes of food to the table.
“Honestly,” he said. “Listen.” He stopped her. “I’ll just shove along. I have to make Boise. There’s some business I have to conduct there, tomorrow.”
Halting, she said, “How’s your job?”
“Not bad,” he said.
Peg said, “Come on in the other room and let me introduce you to people.”
“I’m too tired,” he said.
“Just for a few minutes. They saw you come in. They’re just friends who stopped over. We ate in Boise. We had a Chinese dinner. Noodles and duck, and pork chow mein. They drove me home.”
“I don’t want to intrude.”
“You’re just being a martyr. You should have called me.” Shutting the refrigerator she came toward him with her arms out, allowing him to take hold of her and kiss her. “You know how long it’s been since we had time to be together. Maybe I can get rid of them. They’ll probably leave soon anyhow. Stay for a little while, and I’ll sort of start talking about work tomorrow.”
“No,” he said. But he let her lead him down the hall and back to the living room. She was right; it had been a long time since last time, and in his eight or nine months in Reno he had not yet met a girl and gotten to know her well enough. That well. So in that eight or nine months he hadn’t had any. Now, after kissing her, and feeling her small damp warm fingers wrapped about his wrist, he began to require it. It was one thing merely to be without it, and another thing to have it before him, available.
At a glance he recognized the people as clerkish types from the office building at which Peg worked. They had that thin, indoor look, and at the same time what he thought of as the Idaho Look. By that he meant a kind of slowness. A lapse of time between hearing and understanding, a measurable interval. Watching them, he could see the gradual course of response. They just plain did not get with it. Even the simplest things had to be mulled over, and the hard things—well, the hard things had never gotten up into Idaho and never would. So it was no problem.
“This is Bruce Stevens,” Peg said, to them in general. “He just got in from Reno; he’s been on the road all day long.”
By the time she had introduced him to the last person he had already forgotten the name of the first one. And by the time she had fixed him a drink, bourbon and ice, he had forgotten all their names. They had gone back to listening to the phonograph, so it made no difference. A conversation went on, too, something that had to do with Russian attempts to reach the moon, and were the planets inhabited. He seated himself with his drink, as near Peg as possible.
The thin, indoor clerks chatted and ignored him. He kept his eyes fixed on Peg, wondering if and drinking his drink. And, while he did that, the door to the bathroom opened at the far end of the house, and a woman came along the hall and into the living room. He had not seen her before; evidently she had been in there since his arrival. Looking up, he saw a dark-haired older woman, very attractive, wearing a white scarf around her neck and great ring-like earrings. With a swirl of skirts she seated herself on the arm of the couch, and he saw that she had on sandals. Her legs were bare. She smiled at him.
“I just got here,” he said.
“Oh, Susan,” Peg said, coming to life. “Susan, this is Bruce Stevens. Bruce, I want you to meet Susan Faine.”
He said hello.
“Hello,” Susan Faine said. That was all she said. Ducking her head, she joined with the others in their conversation, as if it had been going on when she had left the room. Probably it had been. He watched the way her hair, tied back in a ponytail, swung from side to side. Besides a long skirt she wore a leather belt, very wide, with a coppery-looking buckle, and a black sweater. On her right shoulder a silver pin had been pinned. Studying it he decided that it was Mexican. And the sandals, too, perhaps. The more he looked at her, the more attractive she seemed.
In his ear, Peg said, “Susan just got back from Mexico City. She got a divorce down there.”
“Oh yeah,” he said, nodding. “I’ll be darned.”
He kept on watching her, holding his drink glass up so that he appeared—or hoped he appeared—to be inspecting it. Her hands had a strong, competent manner, and he guessed that she did something manual. Beneath her black sweater he could see the straps of her bra, and, when she bent over, a bit of bare back between the top of her skirt and the sweater.
Suddenly she turned her head, conscious that he was watching her. She looked at him so intently that he could not stand it; he ceased to watch her and let his gaze wander off blankly, feeling his cheeks flush at the same time. Then she went back to talking with those on the couch.
To Peg, he said, “Miss or Mrs.?”
“Her,” he said, indicating Susan Faine with his glass.
“I just said she got a divorce,” Peg said.
“That’s right,” he said. “I remember now that you did. What’s she do? What line is she in?”
“She runs a typewriter rental service,” Peg said. “And she does typing and mimeographing. She does work for us.” By that she meant the firm of lawyers that employed her as a secretary.
Susan Faine said, “Talking about me?”
“Yes,” Peg said. “Bruce asked what you do.”
“I understand you just got back from Mexico,” Bruce said.
“Yes,” Susan Faine said, “but that’s not what I do.” The people took that as funny and laughed. “Not exactly,” she added. “In spite of what you may possibly hear.”
She hopped down from the arm of the couch, then, and went off into the kitchen with her empty glass. One of the thin clerkish-looking men arose and followed her.
As he sipped his drink, Bruce thought, I know her. I’ve seen her before.
He tried to remember where.
“Don’t you want me to hang your coat up?” Peg said to him.
“Thanks,” he said. Preoccupied, he set his drink down, got up, and unbuttoned his coat. As she took it and carried it to the hall closet he followed after her. “I think I know that woman,” he said.
“Do you?” Peg said. She fixed the coat around a hanger, and while she was doing that one of those things happened that no man can anticipate and few can live through. From the pocket of the coat the box of Trojans, in its Hagopian’s Drug and Pharmacy bag, fell out and onto the carpet.
“What’s this?” Peg said, stooping to pick it up. “So small.”
Of course Fred Hagopian had wrapped the tin so that it came easily out of the bag, visible to all. Seeing it, Peg got a weird, frigid expression on her face. Without a word she returned the tin to the bag and the bag to the coat pocket. Closing the closet door she said, “Well, I see you came prepared.”
He wished he had driven on through to Boise.
“You always were so optimistic,” Peg said. “But they last, don’t they? I mean, they’re good any time.” Returning to the living room she said over her shoulder, “I don’t want you to have wasted your investment.”
“What investment is that?” one of the dull figures on the couch asked.
Neither he nor Peg said anything. And this time he did not trouble to sit near her. Certainly, it was hopeless now. He sat drinking his drink and wondering how to leave.
Copyright © 1985 by The Estate of Philip K. Dick. All rights reserved.