A Scary Halloween Story

by Howard Mittelmark

I needed to replace my printer in a hurry, so I went to the Best Buy on Union Square. I’d done my research and figured I’d be in and out lickety-split, but they didn’t have any of the printers I’d read about on www.cnet.com, so I looked around for somebody to help me. It was just like people say. All the salespeople were either talking to each other or making themselves scarce. When I finally got one young guy to help me, he proceeded to read out loud the specs from the same signs I’d just read myself! He was no help, and I still didn’t know which of the printers was better than the others. I left in disgust.

But I still needed a printer, so I crossed Fourteenth Street and headed into the Staples on the other side of Union Square. Maybe I’d have better luck there.

At first, it was just like at Best Buy. I couldn’t find anyone to help me. So I started reading through all the signs again, trying to look things up on my smartphone, and I’d finally decided on a Brother black-and-white laser printer, on sale for $79, when I heard somebody say “Can I help you, sir?”

He was a slim, neat, middle-aged guy, with a name tag that said “Sam,” and an accent that might have been from somewhere in Africa by way of England, but what do I know? I’m no expert on accents. Anyway, he sounded classy, and he wore his red Staples shirt with, I don’t know, a bit of dignity. There was something about him I liked right away. And, boy, did he know his stuff. He told me all about my options, and steered me away from the Brother. He recommended a slightly more expensive Canon unit, a multi-function model also on sale. I hesitated, because who needs all those bells and whistles? Who even uses a fax anymore? But he told me about a customer who had bought one of these last week, for his office, and had just come in yesterday to buy another for his home, and then he started on another story about another satisfied customer, and I put up my hands and said “Okay, okay, you win, I give up.” He grinned at me, and I grinned back. He had this sparkle in his eyes that said “I know you know I’m hustling you, but I’m so good at it we’re having fun, right?”

He went in back and got me my unit, I bought the thing, we shook hands, and I took it home.

It took me a couple of hours to set it up, and when I started to gather up all the packing materials, I realized that I’d kept a pen he’d given me to use when I was paying. It wasn’t one of those Staples stick pens from the counter, either, it was a pen he’d taken from his shirt pocket, nothing too fancy, but it was the kind that clicked in and out, and it had a little heft to it. It was a nice pen. I’d really liked the guy, so a few days later when I was walking through the farmer’s market in Union Square I popped into Staples to return it. He’d been really helpful.

When I got there, I asked a young guy with messy hair if Sam was working that day. He told me there wasn’t anybody who worked there named Sam. “That’s impossible,” I said. “He sold me a printer just the other day, and I came in to return his pen.” I showed him the pen.

He took it from me and said, “Wait just a minute. I’ll go ask my manager.”

I watched him walk toward the back of the store, where he approached another guy in a red Staples shirt, a slightly older guy, and said something to him and pointed toward me. The older guy took the pen from the kid, and as he looked at it, his eyes widened and his face grew pale. He walked toward me. I watched him come, confused by the deep sadness that replaced the shock in his eyes.

“Sir,” he said, when he reached me, “there used to be a salesman named Sam here. But he transferred to the Thirty-Fourth Street store three years ago.”

I didn’t know what to say, and so I left. All this time later, nobody’s ever explained it to my satisfaction. Mostly I just don’t talk about it anymore. But there’s one more thing. That printer’s always worked perfectly, and I haven’t had to replace the toner cartridge yet, and it’s lasted a lot longer than you’d normally expect one to last.

Howard Mittelmark is the author of Age of Consent and How Not To Write A Novel.