Call it a bad omen. As I traveled along I-71, I saw it, creeping out of the horizon in a butterscotch mass of grizzled fur: a cocker spaniel in its final resting place along the side of the highway. The family dog probably. Surrounded by medians, he must have fallen out of a car.
That doesn’t happen in normal times, I thought, eyes wide. In normal times, you watch him just a little bit closer.
“I have a conscience,” I mumbled to myself. “I shouldn’t do this.”
But I did. I kept on driving. The seeds of guilt were already sown in my mind from earlier that week.
“It makes me feel bad,” my girlfriend Audrey had said. “I feel like we’re taking advantage of them.”
“Ha!” I replied. “Places like this are always ripping us off, so it’s time we got ours! And they need to get rid of all that stuff anyway.”
But now, having arrived, I wasn’t so sure.
Hello, Circuit City Cincinnati. I’m trying not to feel bad for you, your going out-of-business sale and the fate of your giant electric-plug looking building. We entered.
Bargains — which I later read were marked up — abounded. Here, 20 percent off a Jonas Brothers CD. There, Kentucky Fried Movie for about $5. Everywhere, people. A chattering miasma of bargain-gobbling scavengers.
My animal instincts kicked in, and I joined them, elbowing and grunting. How much off the Wii games? Shortness of breath. You get a percent off iPods, too? Digital cameras? Fluttering hearts, sweaty underarms.
Admittedly, this euphoria isn’t new to me. I bought a car at the end of the year after my Ford Escort gave up, and I like to think I got “a damn deal,” as the salesman said.
I bought two towels when the Kenwood Linens-N-Things went under and even managed to avoid eye contact with the cashier.
I dined on sandwiches and waffle fries after a co-worker stumbled upon a stack of Chick-Fil-A freebie coupons. (He habitually got extra food and took it home for dinner.)
At Circuit City, I felt mostly bliss until Audrey mentioned that we were, in some ways, kicking everyone while they’re down. But — and here’s what throws me off inside, what tears me up in all this modern guilt — it’s a beneficial and necessary kick. Someone has to do it. Someone has to help move all that swag.
Unable to find the right device in the store, I left empty-handed and a little bitter. The perfect deal had eluded me.
On the way home, we decided on Steak n Shake — $4 meals, a new deal — and passed a homeless couple on the way there. “Lost Job,” their cardboard sign read.
I ordered three meals, Audrey raised her eyebrows and we turned back toward Circuit City. I spotted the people with the sign, just on the corner past the stoplight. That’s when the bellowing started.
“What time is it?” roared a lady in the street to my left, wielding a massive “Going out of business!” sign.
“What?” I replied, rolling down the window. “What. Time. Is. It?” Her sign swayed in the cold wind.
I yelled out the time and she shook her head, looked at the ground and held the sign up once again.
I pulled past her, called over the “Lost Job” people and passed a bag of Steak n Shake food through the window.
For a minute, it felt OK. It felt good. I’d done a good deed.
But something still seemed off, and I couldn’t put my finger on it.
When I stopped to pick up a cup of coffee, I overheard some people discussing a banker who’d killed himself. He was dead, they mused, but he didn’t leave a suicide note. Not one!
They couldn’t get over it. Why, they pondered over and over and over, didn’t he?
They’re wrong. He did leave a note. He left a more detailed note than anything that could ever be scrawled on a Post-It. It’s there, a lost mass of numbers: It’s the stock market.
I got curious and went back to Circuit City a few weeks later, expecting everything to be gone. It wasn’t. Somehow it seemed there was more stuff.
Thirty percent off Hannah Montana DVDs. Twenty percent off Xbox 360s. Even 30 percent off the energy drinks by the door.
I thought about the sign-holder, the lost-jobbers and all the soon-to-be-unemployed store employees, and the pangs of doubt from last time became clear: To whom should I really have given the bag of Steak n Shake?
When the family dogs start turning up on the side of the road, it’s hard to tell what’s right and who’s the most fucked.
We all breathe in shorter gasps of air, minds teetering back and forth like seesaws, wondering just who actually lets their dogs tumble onto the road and why they never turned around to pick them up and bury them in the backyard.
I like to think they were just too distracted to notice until later, when it seemed like they’d just moved on and disappeared into the night, following some scent trail, gone forever, painlessly. And I like to think such distraction really is possible.
Who knows? Jonas Brothers CDs and energy drinks are going awfully cheap these days.
CONTACT ZACHARY PETIT: firstname.lastname@example.org