I duck my head into Jack Neely’s office. “Hey…” I begin, but he doesn’t seem to notice. He’s pointing a one-armed scissor at his computer screen and scowling at the wall.
I move on down the hall, past the plumes of smoke streaming from Joe Sullivan’s office, narrowly averting Barry Henderson’s glazed-over mid-cover-story stare. “Hey,” I say to Kevin Crowe. “I’m running to J’s. I’ll be back in a minute.” He looks up from his computer, though his fingers continue to type. His eyes are bloodshot from overexposure to 12-point fonts; his skin looks haggard and pasty beneath the flourescent lights. “I need a snowglobe and an ostrich feather,” he says blankly.
Mike Gibson is hovering over his shoulder, grinning maniacally and rocking back and forth on his heels. A copy machine is whirring somewhere in the background. He chimes in, “Can you pick me up a pink afro?”
I blink my eyes and proceed toward the elevator. Two account executives in rumpled ties roll past me like human tumbleweed, followed by the art director, who’s clutching a two-liter Mello Yello with a paranoid expression on his face. The elevator opens with a cordial ding and Molly Kincaid steps out, wearing oversized dark sunglasses. The corner of her mouth curls slightly, as if to say hello.
Six floors down, the lift spits me out into the bright sunlight of the outside world. I stumble down the Gay Street sidewalk, past the parked cars with their neon-orange tickets and the professional drinkers slurping beer on the Downtown Grill & Brewery’s patio. I miss the crosswalk, but an oncoming red trolley is kind enough to slam on its brakes.
For the uninitiated, J’s Mega Mart can be easy to miss. Located at 413 Gay Street, it doesn’t have much in the way of signage: just a red one-liner above the door and a modest window display of ratty wigs and ’70s-style hair-product posters.
Stepping inside, I’m greeted by the chaos of a store with a 40,000-item inventory. But like a mullet, its concept is easy to sort out once you get past appearances: business (faux-designer watches, cubic zirconium rings and other assorted shiny objects) up front, party (everything else) in the back.
As always, Vietnamese immigrant Jason Nguyen, who co-owns the store with Korean wife Jennifer, is seated quietly behind the counter. He stares intently at a computer screen that’s turned away from the customers, occasionally clicking his mouse. It’s unclear whether he’s playing Solitaire or monitoring the store’s security cameras. His sons Peter, 21, and Brian, 22, man the cash register. They’ve been working here since their dad took over J’s in 1994.
In the wake of downtown development, Jason says he’s gotten plenty of offers for the three-story building J’s calls home, and the upper two floors, which are currently vacant, will likely be turned into condos. “For now, I’m not planning on going anywhere,” he says, pausing before the ambiguous postscript, “but you never know.” Surprisingly, he sees the coming of Mast General Store across the street not as competition but as an opportunity to broaden his customer base. “We each have different merchandise. We will help each other. Everyone will benefit from what they bring to downtown.”
I move quickly past the refrigerator stocked with Jones Soda and Polska kielbasa, the rotating racks of cheap sunglasses and Jesus key chains, the shelves spilling over with press-on nails and plastic sun visors. I resist the urge to gawk over the saucer launcher, the mighty robot, and the laser stunt car. I’m not in the market for a backscratcher, or crotchless body stockings. A cardboard box of ostrich feathers nestled above a rack of rainbow-hued scarves catches my eye, but I’ll come back for them. I’m on a mission.
In aisle six, I almost trip over a young woman who’s on her knees, clawing through a box of butterfly clips while talking on her cell phone. She swoops up a yellow plastic hair accessory, studies it, and throws it down, clearly annoyed by the person on the end of the line. The context of their conversation, however, is unclear. “ That ’s what you need to be working on: your ugly-mug head, not your face!”
With a huff, she ends the call, picks up a can of Spam and studies its nutritional content. Schmaltzy elevator music wafts upward from a couple aisles down, and a renewed expression of calm washes over her face. In an effort to look like I’m not eavesdropping, I thumb through a rack of curly fake ponytails. One of them is fuschia colored, and I think of Mike.
A moment later, a hip-hop ringtone rakes its digital fingernails across the peace. The woman thrusts the phone to her ear. “What you want?” she hisses into the phone, hand on hip. “You know what I think?” she asks. “I think you’re crazy.” There’s a thud as the cell phone makes contact with the bottom of her gold-sequined pocketbook.
The phone rings again. “Quit callin’ me!” she screams into the receiver, voice now bordering on hysteria. I scuttle past her and around the corner, finding myself face to face with an aisle full of mannequin heads, each sporting a perfectly coiffed wig in various shades of blonde, brunette, black and red. Some of their eyes, vacant and rimmed with purple or turquoise shadow, seem to be looking at me. Moving down the aisle, I get the sense that their gazes are following me. I quicken my pace but stop dead in my tracks at the end of the aisle. Two gold-faced mannequins, gargoyles of fashion, stare down at me menacingly from a high shelf, daring me to continue.
I dart around the end of the aisle and look for an escape, but the next aisle over is a near carbon copy of the one from which I’ve just emerged. More faces, more wigs, more accusing stares. I break into a sprint and run past, startled by the sound of my own flip-flops clapping against the floor. My heart is beating like a discothèque. My underarms are damp with perspiration.
I turn another corner. More faces, each possessing the same coy painted pout. Some of them peer at one another through the corners of their eyes, as if they know something I don’t. Others sit with their chins lifted toward the ceiling, looking beautiful and vain. Some of their eyes are hidden beneath the brims of floppy, Kentucky Derby-style hats. One mannequin wears a blindfold. She smiles, nonetheless.
At once, the futility of my mission sets in. I’m trapped in a funhouse of floor-to-ceiling wigs and plastic expressions, swan-like necks and ample busts, a self-contained dreamscape of idealistic beauty, like L.A. There is no exit door; there is no fire escape. There are only wigs and painted faces, colors and silence, swirling around me like a day-glo snowglobe. I can’t even remember why I came here in the first place.
Suddenly, I feel a hand on my shoulder. “Hey, Leslie…,” a deep voice behind me groans in slow motion, like a tape recorder with almost-dead batteries. Around me, the mannequins’ smiles begin to melt into devilish frowns. Their cool, beady eyes grow narrow. Some of them begin to cackle.
Paralyzed and defenseless, I open my mouth to scream, but nothing comes out. I close my eyes, still terrified of the hand upon my shoulder but unable, perhaps unwilling, to turn around and find out to whom it belongs. It speaks again, in a stern voice. “Leslie…hey, Leslie…hey….”
Finally, I’m able to open my eyes. In front of me, there’s a blinding white screen, empty with the exception of a few random letters: skjfgkehwhlhlshlghskhk . It occurs to me that I’m sitting at my desk, in my office. I turn around to see managing editor Clint Casey standing behind me, looking concerned. I rub my cheek, which is a little red and sore from being smooshed up against the keyboard.
Clint raises an eyebrow. “How’s that Gamut on J’s coming?” he asks. “It was due, like, three hours ago, you know.”
I straighten my shoulders, nod, and mumble a response. “I’ll get right on it.”