I squinted as I stepped through the hissing doors. The lights were surgically bright, banishing even the hint of shadow. The place was packed with stumbling, mindless zombies, ambling from aisle to aisle, always seeking but never fulfilled.
It wasn’t the latest episode of The Walking Dead. I had returned to the nexus of evil, the ninth ring of Hell. I had been here many times before in earlier years, but it had been some time. The ferry man was the first to speak.
“Welcome to Wal-Mart.”
We’ve been living outside the United States – specifically Nassau, The Bahamas, for the last two years, and had just returned to the United States the day before. The Caribbean may be a visitor’s paradise, but living there is a challenge. The consumer climate is one of extortion, both figurative and literal. The stores contain few choices and what it does have is prohibitively expensive, not that it matters.
I stared at the floor ahead of me, focusing on my singular mission – to buy a cell phone. The tunnel of school supplies exploded into hundreds of options, the helpful sales assistant waving his hand over his wares like Satan himself. Only $25 a month for the next two years would buy me a device guaranteed to be obsolete as soon as it was paid off, but then I’d have to buy talk minutes and texts and data, all in the hopes I would stare at it while walking until I eventually plowed into a giant stack of fruit, sending apples and oranges rolling into the aisles. I would then post a selfie.
I’ll plug StraightTalk here even though they aren’t paying me (StraightTalk guys, if you want to pay me for this endorsement I’ll happily accept). Sixty bucks later I have a basic phone and more minutes than I’ll need to last the next month, and even a basic data plan, assuming that I can figure out how to access it. All I have to do is fill out the instructions on the little card that Satan gave me at checkout.
Sitting behind the wheel in the Wal-Mart parking lot, I excitedly dialed the number on the back of the card.
Uh, no kidding, that’s what I’m trying to do. I followed the steps a second time, expecting different results. It didn’t work. But I did have Internet access at my father-in-law’s house, and the spell’s instructions said I could go through the website. I put the phone back in my pocket, noting the time on the lighted display.
An hour later, I logged on to StraightTalk’s website and followed the instructions there. Again, nothing happened, but there were instructions for that.
If nothing happens after a few minutes, turn your phone off and turn it back on.
I’m paraphrasing, but it sounded simple enough. I did it six times. Finally, I picked up my mother-in-law’s smart phone. By the time I figured out how to make it dial (about five minutes and lots of swearing), my phone buzzed with a message as the activation finally came through. It was alive, but the time was still wrong.
“Doesn’t this thing adjust the time automatically?” I asked.
“I think you have to set it,” my wife answered.
I thumbed through the menu to no avail. There was nothing that resembled a clock setting, just a bunch of other stuff I didn’t understand. I was sure it would adjust as soon as I received a call, so I went ahead and dialed it from the smart phone again. It rang just as I expected, but the time was still stuck at 4:41 p.m.
I finally realized what the problem was.