The card stated that it was good for one free sample, but it was very vague about what substance would be sampled. Judging from the overwhelming use of the color green on the advertisement, I had a good idea of what the makeup of the sample would be, but no idea what form the sample would take.
I walked into the shop with the card in hand. Instead of a bell, analog or digital, a bright flash surprised me as my picture was taken. Behind the counter, a large screen showed my ingenue expression as a second screen beside it declared that I was permitted to exchange money for goods at this fine establishment.
Behind the counter, a young white man with a green dyed goatee waited for me to approach him. He kept pinch-stroking the goatee and rubbing off the unfixed dye onto his fingers. He was trying to portray an air of calm ownership, but came off as a near desperate showman trying to make his first sale of the day. He gave no indication that he was aware of the dye staining his hand more than his face.
“Would you like to redeem that card, Miss?” He pointed with his stained hand and finally noticed the transfer of dye. He panicked a bit, grabbed an alcohol wipe from the cleaning station behind him, and tried to rescue the sale, his dignity, and his penmanship by calmly scrubbing his hand with the rough wipe.
“Maybe. There’s a lot of small print that I wasn’t able to make out, even with the use of a magnifying glass. Would you explain the terms and conditions to me?” I laid the card on the table where it expanded from its original three by five inch size to a sheet of cardstock about the size of a sheet of homework paper. The text completely disappeared and I made a great show of examining the resized card so not to embarrass the man further.
“Well. Um…” His attempt to clean off the dye only spread it to both hands and the surface of the counter. Finally, he gave up and donned a pair of clear gloves before placing another large card over the stained counter. He leaned on the covering card and attempted to portray himself as in complete control of the situation. “If you purchase five of these, then you get an individual’s portion of any others in the store as your free sample.”
“These” were large, premeasured and sealed containers of various types of a green and purple plant. I didn’t recognize them at first and wanted to quip that I had entered a nursery for basil aficionados. Each container was the size and shape of a plastic-wrapped brick. Even I, in my ignorance, could tell that each container held enough to supply some folks with a lifetime’s worth of indulgence, and he was expecting his customers to purchase five?
I looked around the store and saw that some of the offerings were available in individual portions, sealed and barcoded for immediate purchase. Behind the counter was a sign that declared wholesalers were welcome and a discount would be applied for bulk purchases.
“Ah. My apologies, it seems I had received a card meant for a retailer. I am inquiring for personal use. I see that you have individual portions available…”
“NOT FOR SALE!” His vigor surprised us both and his anxiety expressed itself as a coughing fit. “Ah. I’m sorry.” He coughed again. “I didn’t mean for that to come out so strong. What I meant is you are not eligible to purchase the individual packs, yet. You have to have purchased a number of these wholesale packs first.”
As I allowed him to direct my attention back to the wrapped bricks, I noticed two other white men on the far side of the shop watching me. One had a blatant smirk on his face, and the other was staring without emotion.
The youth’s voice cracked as he placed several wrapped bricks on the counter. He turned them so that the shop’s lighting emphasized the purple hues. I noted that the placement also made the government required labeling hard to read.
I picked up a brick and turned it so I could read aloud the mandated labeling.
“This item not priced for individual consumption or storage. If this item is meant for the personal use of the purchaser, additional taxes and fees will apply. It is against the law to falsify the purpose of purchase. The purchaser agrees to be audited at any time and to produce records of consumer purchase upon demand.”
The youth contracted another coughing fit as I calmly read the notice. I placed the brick on the counter in the same flattering position as I did before and waited for him to recover himself.
“So. Five of these?” He nodded. “Five of these for personal use or for reselling?”
Before the youth could respond, the two men came from the other side of the shop. The smirking one was now openly leering. The dour one was now downright sour. “You have a problem with our shop?”
I turned towards them and noted where the front door was in relation to my position. “Hopefully not, but I do have some questions. I’m not a reseller, not by any means. I understand the coupon doesn’t apply to my circumstance, but it seems I have entered a shop that is for retailers only and not open to the general public.”
The dour man pointed to the door. “Buy a brick or leave.” The smirking man pushed his arm down. “Ignore him. He forgot to take his vitamins this morning.”
The smirking man came closer and leaned on my side of the counter like he was going to promise me a good time. “We do have a policy about purchasing for individual use. You see, we make so little profit on it, that if we were to be known as having individual packs available, we’d be drowning in customers and completely smothered by debt. So we make our individual packs available only to those retailers who have demonstrated they are willing to make, and keep, wholesale contracts with us.”
“Now, that makes sense.” I smiled and nodded at the smirking man, who smiled and slid a little closer. “If that policy was stated up front, I would have left peaceably. As I said, I am not a reseller, and if I were to purchase just one brick for personal use, the additional taxes and fees would make that purchase completely unreasonable!”
The smirking man took in my appearance from my breasts to my feet, then from my feet to my lips. He never actually looked me in the eyes. “However, we can make samples available… under limited circumstances.”
Instead of answering him (or kicking him in the nuts), I looked at the dour man. He just grunted as his words grumbled out of his mouth like falling gravel. “She’s going to give you nothing. Her kind don’t give, only take.”
As the two men began arguing with each other about the thinly veiled demand of sex for goods, I looked at the youth behind the counter. He came as close as the counter allowed and whispered to me. “They won’t let me sell to anyone not white. I’m supposed to make it as costly as possible so even if you did buy, they’d make a fuckton of money off you. It’s good stuff… but it’s not worth it for you.”
I didn’t look at him, but just nodded as shallow as possible. Without any further words from or to me, I just quietly turned around and left the shop. As I left, I saw a poorly covered graffiti mark. Even though I knew nothing of tags, I was able to recognize it as a warning that the people inside were untrustworthy. I nodded at the mark. Somehow that act of acknowledgement empowered the mark and it burned through the thin white paint that failed to cover it. The mark stood out in plain sight again.
Frustrated, I took to just walking down the street to sort through my thoughts. I became lucid and wondered what was burdening my subconscious to the point where that scene would be created as its expression.
The sun moved in spiral motions across the sky as the moon wove a new fabric of space and time into the horizon. I wandered through fields and forests, abandoned villages and thriving cities. Without a purpose for dreaming, the dream seemed not to know what to do with itself and just went about playing with scenery and time because it could.
I stopped, and the roulette wheel of scenery stopped with me. I found myself in a summer’s morning on a dirt road somewhere in the American South. A white clapboard church stood a little way off. Loudly sung spirituals and hymns shook the timeworn windows as the morning’s service was coming to an end. The sound shook the dust of the field into the air and as the dust settled, it came to rest on cars I had not seen before.
“Hey, you may want to get behind me. Service is about to let out and they’re gonna come straight here.”
I turned around and saw… a person. Their appearance kept changing as if the dream was actively attempting to find a presentation suitable for their role. Sometimes tall, sometimes short. Sometimes old, sometimes young. The hue of their skin could only be described as “ruddy”, but not in the meaning that I have heard it used in “modern” times.
I knew what it meant for me, and as a result, they had my full and complete attention.
They laughed and reached for my shirt sleeve. “Move! Really! You can stare at me later. When that church lets out and all those people come here for their purchases, they will have no care for who they walk on to get what they want.”
I allowed them to move me to behind their roadside sales stall. I bumped into another person, a tall black youth who caught me and apologized for his rough handling as he kept me from falling. He placed me in a safe spot as around me bags of purchased goods shook themselves out of the swirling dust.
Across the street, the singing stopped and I heard the old wood doors complain about being roughly opened. I watched as black folk wearing their Sunday Best™ exited the church. Some went immediately to their polished (and now lightly dusted) high class cars to make a slow and high class exit from the dirt lot as if to show how pious and restrained they were.
I laughed, deep and heartily.
The youth glanced askance at me for a moment before going back to the business of handing the still indeterminate person bespoke bags of purchases as some of the churchgoers walked quickly across the lot and the road to the stall.
I answered his unspoken question. “Dude. I’m dreaming. I already understand the context of the scene I had left. But this? These black folk who are too good to be seen doing something so common and pedestrian as purchasing… whatever it is you have in these bags… These folk are straight out of the churches my mother would take me to as a kid. Gawd. So dressed up in their finery as if each polished pearl would distract you from their everyday, all damn day cruelty. The wider the hat, the greater the sins hidden beneath it. The sharper the hairline, the deeper the cut into their victim. I just don’t get why.”
I looked at the constantly shapeshifting person completing sales either with people who had walked over, or through open windows of cars that drove over. “Unless, the use of scenes that I already know and am comfortable with are to highlight what I don’t and aren’t.”
The person looked over their shoulder to me and winked. “Just a bit more, then we’ll talk.” They turned back to the long and shiny black car with silver trim that had just pulled up. Instead of the gaudy and ostentatious accumulations of sparkling, gold colored, and animate options, the owner of this car chose to display their wealth with a black polish that had not even a mark of wear and silver trim that seemed to reflect light as a scythe. For a moment, even I appreciated the appearance of the vehicle.
Then the door opened, and a large and bountiful black woman in a feather trimmed dress that was one shade too pink to call it white with a matching hat, gloves, and clutch stepped out. She swept her gaze across the three of us behind the sales table, clearly expecting some time of acknowledgement.
The black youth dipped his head in greeting. “Ma’am.” The ruddy person (still changing shape) held her gaze without movement, but still greeted her with a soft “Ma’am”. I neither moved nor spoke, but held her gaze softly.
A shadow of rage crossed her face as she realized I was not going to genuflect in word or deed. I broke the examination to look at the ruddy person instead. Without speech I resolved to follow their lead in this encounter as this is their sales stall after all. I didn’t want to cause them to lose a sale by being here.
The ruddy person leaned their head almost imperceptibly towards me and shook it with the tiniest of motions. I understood that to mean to continue acting independently of them. I turned back to the upper class black woman and resumed my soft examination of the tropes I left behind so long ago.
After a few seconds of me contemplating how much such a feathered neckline would tickle and her contemplating how much would it take to break me to her satisfaction, she withdrew from the competition first. “If you are going to have additional assistance at this stall, it is my suggestion that you find someone with manners.” She held out her hand to receive the bag in the ruddy person’s hands.
The ruddy person didn’t hand it over once the upper class black woman’s hand opened. “If you are going to make additional purchases of my wares, it is my suggestion that you find your way off that pedestal before you fall instead.” The upper class black woman’s eyes grew large and her hand slightly clawed as the ruddy person placed the handholds of the bag in the twitching hand. “Acceptance is never once and done, it is a constantly renewed contract. Attempting to rewrite the terms without consideration of the consequences is the same hubris that has felled angels and raised demons. Enjoy your purchase. Have a nice day.”
I didn’t need to face the ruddy person to know they had that particular “retail smile” on their face. I have no idea how I kept my own facial expression neutral, but I was very grateful for the dream allowing me to have more self-restraint than I normally would when awake. I really did not want to fuck up the sales for the day, even though I still had no clue what was in the bags.
As the last car drove away, the white clapboard church faded into the forest line which advanced onto the dirt lot to the point that it was now the only thing across the old dirt road. Tire tracks and footprints were consumed by dust. No further bags of purchases remained to be claimed. The fold-up table was empty of offerings. Only the ruddy, shapeshifting person, the tall black young man, and I remained under the suddenly transparent pop-up tent.
I watched the stars emerge in the sky as the sun curtsied to the moon and scattered in pieces to the horizon. The ruddy person looked up and watched with me as night took watch. “Yea, it’s awesome, isn’t it. To just watch the universe doing as it does without any need or requirement of mankind to get up in it.”
“Yea.” I was still lucid, still aware that I was dreaming. That did not stop me from appreciating the setting of the scene around us. I brought my sight down to face the ruddy person who was still changing shape but was now consistently about my height. “Forgive me. I feel like I should know you, but I don’t recognize anything about you except your ruddy complexion, and even that is suspect.”
They laughed. “Yea. I look differently to different people. It also depends on the circumstances that I am encountered in. But I’m glad you see me as ruddy, that’s definitely a step in the right direction for the work between us.”
The youth moved two chairs so the ruddy person and I could sit facing each other on the same side of the table. I was going to ask where he was going to sit, but he faced me, bowed deeply, and dissolved into dust that blew away on an unfelt wind.
Immediately all the dust around us settled and low green grass flooded the land under and around us.
Immediately I understood what I had observed. “He was the dust…” The ruddy person laughed again at my wonder. “He is your servant, and he is the representation of… dust… wait… you’re… ruddy.”
They clapped their hands and gestured for me to sit. As we both took our places, they spoke. “Oh, it goes deeper than that, but this will do for now. You see, I am older than you, older than your kind, older than your species. We have met before, once in person but under circumstances where you had been terribly tricked, and again through a proxy because of your justified fear. But now I would like to meet you in person again, without trickery or guile, and with your eyes open and your understanding willing to be opened further. But! Only as far as you are willing to go. I will not force your hand.”
I could not remember a single instance where I had met this person before. “Would it be arrogant of me to ask you to settle your shape into a stable one? And explain to me when we had met before?”
They nodded and became a human woman of indeterminate ethnicity, still with the deep and ruddy complexion. Her hair was twisted into large fist-width locs that was pulled away from her face and held by a simple woolen strip of cloth tied just so. A baggy brown sleeveless shirt hung loosely on her thin frame and even baggier trousers covered her sandal-shod feet.
To call her a hippie would be the most surface and shallow read I have ever made in my life. I was being shown something old but at the same time, something everlasting. I was frustrated that I did not know the context of what I was seeing.
Hazel eyes laughed soundlessly at me as she waved and brought my attention to something on the table. I recognized the items from having come from a previous relationship. “Here is the trick. He knew your tolerances and experiences. Of course he did, he cultivated it very carefully so that this would completely upend you.” Her androgynous voice was both amused and angered. “But instead of just allowing you to wallow lost needlessly, I allowed [others] to [take care of some things to your benefit].”
I understood the reference and completed the story of that incident. “And then you told me never to seek you again. And I have complied by that directive.”
She took my hands. “You understand why, don’t you. I mean, as much as I would love the stories you would write for me, it was not good for you to do so at that time. Look at all you have done since! Knowing me bodily then would have prevented those accomplishments.”
Her hands were soft. I reminded myself that I was dreaming and that maybe this was just my subconscious coming to terms with what happened then. “Wait… by proxy… the other shop dream!”
She nodded. “If I came to you directly, you would remember the directive and flee. My invitation stands. If you are willing to meet with me, I am willing to meet with you. On your timing, and to the depth that you are willing to go.”
We sat silently under the canopies for a moment, watching the stars chase each other like fireflies. Quietly, I broke the contemplation. “But… why? There are others with easier access to you, others who are devoted to spreading your cultivars across the planet, others who would be in a far better place to receive and to give… why me?”
She drew her attention and sight back to me. Her eyes sparkled with flashes of deep purple. “Why not? But I know that will not suit you. A wound in your soul still requires justification for any act of kindness towards you, so I will tend to that wound. I want to help you. But I will not force my help upon you. Yes, there are others who fancy themselves to be my priests and others who fancy themselves to be my controllers and other who fancy themselves into a position that they never had but are too busy smelling their own shit to even observe that, but this conversation is not about them!”
“This conversation is about you.”
“I want to help you.”
“When you’re ready and willing.”
She stood and stretched. As she did, the sales table and her chair faded away. “Stay here as long as you need. Remember this place. It is where we will meet again.”
She turned and walked out from under the transparent canopy and away from me. Her form fully disappeared by her third step.
I sat in full lucidity under the transparent canopy as the forest grew and surrounded the tent. I saw shadows moving in the trees and realized the trees gave a scent of cedar and pine. Mountain ranges could have risen and fallen to my ignorance as the forest blocked all lateral sight.
“Well, I guess I better go now.” I stood up.
The dream ended.