(originally published in the Austrian erotic photo quarterly, Tickl)
“I’d like to return this, please,” he said, his voice just loud enough to be heard over the atonal metal riffs blasting over the shop speakers.
He placed the bag on the counter. Wearing a leather vest over a Harley-Davidson t-shirt, a red bandana and battered jeans, his look screamed biker dude but I had my doubts. For one, the hands that rested atop the red plastic bag were too clean, free from the grime of long hours atop a soot-belching bike. Also, his face was smooth and pale, far from the tanned and cracked patina earned through years of open roads and meth addiction.
A Hell’s Angel wouldn’t have been so shy. He would have barked his demand: “I want my money back!” and left his weathered hand upturned and expectant of funds. It was clear that this poor guy was unwittingly playing out a role that had been carefully marketed to him. With money earned from his white-collar job, he had bought into a manufactured mythos and turned himself into a caricature.
Returns could be tricky. The store carried a wide variety of “delicate” items, many of which bore a yellow sticker that read NO RETURNS in high contrast black type. The policy couldn’t be any clearer, but we tended to presume literacy, a presumption that too often proved ill-founded.
I reached into the bag and pulled out the item. It was a Tokyo Diva love doll, a top seller due to its twin vibrating “cyberskin” orifices. Still in the original box, it had been crudely repackaged. Where once a pair of rich, red action ready lips had lured loners through a cutout plastic window, there was now only an indiscriminate patch of fleshy vinyl. Due to the variety of bumps, folds and washable compartments, getting all of the air out of a blowup doll is a difficult task, one at which Biker Dude had not quite succeeded. The box bulged all over, no longer a rectangle but more of an egg — a telltale sign that the alluring Ms. Diva had been inflated for a night of pleasure.
I tried not to visualize the previous evening’s activities. But with Biker Dude directly across the counter and his plastic paramour crumpled between us, but failed. I saw Ms. Diva atop black satin sheets, flipper-like feet pointing to a mirrored ceiling. Her wrists squeaked loudly in Biker Dude’s grip as he pounded her battery-powered pussy. With each thrust, his full weight transferred to the helpless love doll, causing her head to rhythmicall swell and deflate; an effect that accentuated the airbrushed slant of her eyes and stretched her lips until they formed a brief but noticeable frown. Happy. Sad. Happy. Sad. I blinked hard and put an end to the image stream.
The receipt, taped to the box, showed the purchase had been made the night before. He’d barely given the poor girl a chance. Perhaps he found inflatable Japanese booty too demure? I noticed a bit of condensation on the plastic window — somebody had worked up a sweat. I tapped my finger on the yellow sticker.
“I’m sorry. This item is non-refundable,” I said as I slid the box back in the bag and pushed it back across the counter.
He looked at me in genuine surprise. “Excuse me?”
“We can’t take this back.”
I gently chastised myself for not having the balls to say “her” instead of “this”. After working for two years in close proximity to a harem of rubber women, I’d come to resent the reflexive dehumanization of these surrogate companions. Given his hasty rejection of the Tokyo Diva model, I wasn’t sure this customer would understand my empathy.
“For obvious reasons,” I added.
“All right then,” replied Biker Dude.
He walked toward the exit. I was relieved that he wasn’t going to cause a scene. No such luck. He reversed course and returned to the counter.
“Look, I have the receipt. I’m bringing it back,” he said.
This time his voice was bolder, his body language more appropriate to his assumed character. He shoved the bag and its contents toward my chest. Stepping back instinctively, I knocked into the wooden cigarette rack behind me, resulting in a cascade of Djarums, Dunhills and American Spirits. I tried to save the Zig Zag display, but it too came tumbling down from its perch. A coworker cast me a questioning look from his station near the water pipes and butt plugs. Angry with myself for having been so easily startled, I waved him off with jagged swipes at the air. I stomped back to the counter, kicking at the pile of death sticks.
“Bullshit,” I responded flatly. “No returns on sex toys. No exceptions.”
At this particular shop, the customer, who was often high, drunk or stoned was most certainly not “always right” and, as a result, direct talk like this was considered situationally appropriate. He seemed startled and deflated by the appearance of a spine on a shop clerk — a subspecies of Homo sapiens that is generally believed to be lacking in assertiveness.
“It was a gag gift, “ he mumbled.
I’d heard that one dozens of times before. It was sometimes true — our stock of cheap inflatable sheep were often purchased for office party amusement or as white elephant gifts. However, it was quite unlikely that anyone would throw away the money required for a deluxe love doll. Quality lovers don’t come cheap.
“My buddy gave it to me as a joke,” he lied.
“Then give it back to your buddy,” I suggested. “Maybe he can have fun with it.”
I resisted the urge to add a snide comment about sloppy seconds, but he must have read the disdain upon my face.
“I’ll bet your mom is proud of you, working here and all.”
I ignored his cheap shot. Both my parents thought I worked as a jazz buyer at a record store. Jazz. Jizz. Whatever. Both involved a lot of blowing.
“We’re just not in the business of selling pre-fucked sex dolls. If you’re into that kind of shit, go to Germany. They love kinky shit in Germany.”
He stared at me. I stared back. He fidgeted with his bandana, tugging it down low over his ears. His face had gone red. Whether this was from anger or due to the embarrassment of having the details of his solitary sex life broadcast to other shoppers, I couldn’t tell. I wanted to laugh at the absurdity of our positions. Instead, I moved a few feet to my left and dropped to my knees.
“What are you doing?” he asked.
“Changing the music. I can’t stand Black Sabbath.”
I was confident that he loved Ozzy and the boys as Harley riders, real or imagined, are of identical make: They dress like gay leather daddies at a redneck convention, listen to shitty 70s rock and fuck fake women. I took my time switching out the CDs, hoping he’d disappear into the void if I dragged things out. Instead, after a time, he played his final gambit.
“You understand my frustration, right?”
The perfect reply would have been, “No, I have a girlfriend.” But I didn’t.
“How about store credit? Can I exchange it for something?” His voice had softened. Biker Dude had vanished. I stood and found myself face to face with White-Collar Guy in a Ridiculous Getup.
“I’ll give you credit for having the gall to try to return a used blowup doll. And I’ll give you credit for almost getting her back in the box correctly.” I uncrossed my arms and pointed to the door. “Now why don’t you and your friend leave before I call the cops. Do you have any idea how embarrassing that conversation will be?”
“You wouldn’t call the cops. I haven’t done anything,” he protested.
“That box is filled with your spunk. I’m sure you’ve broken a whole bunch of public health laws by bringing it in here.” I made as if to reach for the phone.
“You don’t have to be suck a dick about it.”
White-Collar Guy was right; I didn’t have to be such a dick. I could have been nicer, gentler. I could have patiently explained why it isn’t okay or sanitary to return a cum-filled love doll. However, I’d done that a dozen times, and not once did the exchange result in a satisfied customer. At least I was straight with Biker Dude. I once convinced a spun out crankster of the existence of a hot online market for used sex toys, one that promised a substantial profit on his initial outlay. I watched as the jittery bastard scribbled the nonexistent URL on the palm of his hand. As his handwriting was nothing more than a tangle of black lines, I had zero concern that he would return to call bullshit. What mattered was that I succeeded in getting him and his fur-lined pocket pussy out of the shop with little hassle. I picked up the phone and pretended to jab at the keys.
“Fuck this. I’m outta here.” He turned and made his way to the door. The red plastic bag swung at his side. Tiny bells tied to the door handle announced his departure. A sharp staccato erupted across the room. I looked over and saw my coworker, Jason, clapping sarcastically, a witness to the entire exchange. I took a bow.
A cute girl who worked a few doors down at Tower Books approached the counter. I reached between my feet and grabbed her requested pack of American Spirits.
“Glad I’m not looking to return anything,” she said with a wink.
We laughed together. I considered asking her out but dropped the idea and her change into her upturned palm.