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DOWN AISLE TEN
By Daniel Friedland
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DOWN AISLE TEN is a fictional history of Universal Simultaneous Anxiety Collapse Disorder, an incapacitating disease that arises from the abundant fears that surround us in the modern world. The first sufferer is Harold Greensmeyer, who contracts USAC while at the supermarket. He is soon confined to a mental hospital, where he encounters a cast of curious characters – the compulsive psychiatrist who tries to treat him, a woman convinced that she and Harold are fated to marry, and a befuddled cop who believes Harold is a mystic. When USAC spreads and the hospital is quarantined, they escape together in search of answers, love, and a cure.
IT WAS AN OTHERWISE NORMAL TUESDAY in late July when Harold Greensmeyer became the first person to experience Universal Simultaneous Anxiety Collapse Disorder. Squirrels were dancing around tree trunks, traffic lights were directing cars through intersections, and a soft summer breeze swayed branches across backyards and parks. In the first nine aisles of a new upscale supermarket, shoppers browsed through the store’s vast inventory without incident. In aisle ten, pushing a reluctant cart across the tiles, Harold Greensmeyer’s search for his favorite cereal was interrupted by a dramatic departure from the routine.
The onset of USAC disorder, it’s now known, occurs without warning. In this sad case, Harold had the misfortune of noticing a package of chicken on the floor, dropped or discarded by another shopper and far from its place in the frozen section. A puddle was forming as it thawed. It was also unlucky for Harold that the chicken reminded him of a report he’d seen on the local news about the dangers of poultry, salmonella, and unwashed cutting boards. His thoughts turned to the grill he kept outside on his balcony and he recalled that it hadn’t been cleaned in several weeks. Likewise, his apartment hadn’t been tidied for some time. Dishes filled the sink, clothes sat in piles on the floor, and pizza boxes, garbage bags, and other residential flotsam clogged the narrow hallway to the front door. It was a real possibility, Harold surmised, that his greasy grill could ignite a fire that his clutter would prevent him from escaping.
Before Harold realized what was happening, his thoughts spun free from his control and he began to have serious concerns about third-degree burns, smoke inhalation, the availability of skin grafts, carbon monoxide poisoning, deforestation, global warming, extreme weather, and that summer was passing too quickly and would soon be over. His eyes danced wildly, he shouted to nobody particular that “WINTER IS COMING!” and he collapsed to the ground. White froth began to form around his mouth. Harold had become the first to cross what doctors now refer to as the “anxious dread event horizon” into full symptomatic USAC disorder. Shoppers crowded around him and a security guard approached.
“What’s wrong with him?” someone asked.
“Maybe it’s a stroke,” another shopper suggested.
If only it were true.
From the information that has since been unearthed, we know that before “taking a trip down aisle ten,” as being stricken with USAC is often called, Harold had been an average man approaching the end of his shopping list. It has been wondered why USAC first afflicted someone so unexceptional. Harold was forty-four years old, unmarried, and childless. He was okay looking but nothing special, with dark features, a short nose, a crooked smile, and close-cropped hair that was receding from front to back, especially at the temples. Harold was an accountant who didn’t enjoy math, and he spent the majority of each workday waiting for the clock to reach 5:00 PM. When it did he felt only mild relief, and he returned home to his messy apartment to watch television or browse the internet. Most of his free time was occupied in such fashion, except on Tuesdays and Sundays he took his elderly mother to dinner, and one night each month he played poker with high school friends he no longer liked.
Though it’s difficult to judge people from a distance, it’s safe to conclude that the first forty-four years of Harold’s life had been something of a disappointment. He’d made few close friends, never been anywhere interesting, didn’t possess one real skill, and hadn’t been singled out for any kind of commendation, either in the workplace or at school. He had a kind heart but a lonely life, and was propelled forward mostly by inertia, the exigencies of the day-to-day, and the faint hope things might one day improve. It wasn’t clear when or why his personal trajectory had become so flat, only undeniable that it had flattened. The sole bright spot in his life was Denise Lavelle. Though they’d been dating for only a few weeks, Harold was sure he was in love.
“She’s the one,” he’d told his mother.
According to popular wisdom, true character can be revealed in a crisis, and however ordinary and uninspiring Harold seemed, he was in one way remarkable. In almost all cases, the onset of USAC disorder is fully incapacitating. Sufferers weep, froth, and crumble to the ground, where they remain indefinitely. There are few credible accounts of people with USAC doing anything of note after they’ve crossed the event horizon. It is therefore astonishing that Harold was able to stand up, stagger past the security guard, and exit the store. He somehow found his car in the orange section of the parking lot, opened the door, locked himself inside, and started the engine.
We still don’t have any idea how he did it.
As the shopping hours of that otherwise normal Tuesday dwindled, the hum of the parking lot faded. The cars reversed from their spaces, the horns fell silent, the stars tried to shine through the neon, and an employee corralled the last wayward cart. Inside the lone remaining vehicle, Harold struggled with the rigors of USAC. He cried, foamed, and balled himself into the fetal position. At 1:54 AM the final drops of gasoline were consumed and the car shuddered twice before accepting its fate. The engine died, the air conditioning stopped, and the deep voice of DJ Desmond Octavius fell silent before announcing which song he would play for the lovers.
The night passed slowly.
Morning arrived and brought the growing heat of another summer day. As the hours passed, the sun beat upon the roof of the car and warmth from the asphalt created tiny twists in the air. The temperature climbed higher and Harold began to howl. By early afternoon, several customers reported that there was a man sobbing in the parking lot and making animal noises. The security guard approached, recognized the same frothing man he’d seen in aisle ten the night before, and reported back to the supermarket manager, who phoned 9-1-1 for assistance.
There are many cruelties inflicted by USAC disorder, many ways in which it frustrates, disables, and destroys. Among them, perhaps even worst among them, is the loss of the capacity for rational speech. As a general rule, it’s better to be silent than to sound like a lunatic, but USAC doesn’t present such an option. Instead, it crosses the wires of speech and impulse, distorting the pathways that connect thought to expression so that no matter what someone wishes to say, they are able to repeat only a single word or phrase, most often at maximum volume. The “mantra,” as everyone now calls it, always relates to something imprinted deep in emotional memory, usually originating in childhood or adolescence.
And so the only thing Harold could say when he saw a police officer walking toward him was “COOKIE!” Though he surely intended to shout something like “Please help!” or “Get me an ambulance,” appropriate requests given his circumstance, he instead screamed out the first name of Cookie Franklin, whom he’d last seen more than thirty years earlier. Harold had secretly pined for her in middle school, drawn to her straight blonde hair, early maturity, and the casual way she determined what was cool and what wasn’t. At the encouragement of some sadistic pre-teen girls, he’d worked up the courage to dance with her at a party, but following the quickest of assessments, Cookie Franklin pronounced that Harold “moved like a rusty bicycle.” She dismissed him with a rude flip of her hand and turned her attention elsewhere. Over the ensuing decades, he was unable to forget the sting of this rejection and hadn’t visited a dance floor since.
Officer Dwayne Donaldson tapped on the window.
“Alright, sir. Please step out of the vehicle.”
“COOKIE!” Harold yelled.
“Excuse me, are you saying ‘Cookie’?”
“COOKIE! COOKIE! COOKIE!”
It so happens that Cookie had also been the name of Officer Donaldson’s childhood dog, due to the brown, chocolate chip-like spots dotting her fur. She was loving, playful, never bit anyone, and the two of them were once as close as dog and boy could be. Though Cookie had been gone for several decades, she was still the subject of recurring dreams and the officer often wondered why his beloved friend had been taken from him so soon.
He reached for his radio and called for backup. He didn’t take his eyes off Harold until the other squad cars arrived.
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