Everything about Mr. Ramirez next door was offensive. His general attitude, his colorful yet demeaning way of speaking to his wife, and the snide (though completely unoriginal) "blind leading the blind" jokes he made in reference to his new neighbors. On top of everything, Matt was pretty sure he was a bad tipper. With some people you could just tell. The most offensive thing about this poor excuse for a man, however, was the trail of perspiration left behind everywhere he went. The guy reeked. It was hard to say whether he was aware of this himself or whether he just didn't care. His sporadic showers and infrequent change of underwear were part of the problem, and his own distinct physiology probably didn't help. Suffice it to say that some people just don't metabolize garlic very well.
While the smell of him had yet to seep through the walls separating their two homes, it was hard to escape once outside the front door. Even Milla noticed it, and to Matt, their neighbor's stench hovered in the air above the garbage can next to theirs for hours every time Mr. Ramirez took out the trash. Although, with the obvious lack of respect he had for his wife, it was quite surprising that someone like him would even bother taking out the trash at all.
With Christmas just around the corner, Matt decided to get into to the spirit of the season by introducing his hygienically challenged neighbor to the concept of the deodorant. With any luck, he might actually use it. In the event that he didn't, giving a man who had most likely been a bully his entire life a taste of his own medicine would have to do.
While Matt was quite familiar with the general layout of the drugstore on 10th Ave and 51st St, he didn't go there very often. As soon as he walked in the front door, he remembered why. The air was thick with every kind of odor imaginable. Aside from the expected, such as the scent of detergent, perfume, mouth wash, shampoo, potato chips and Pepto-Bismol, there were definite traces of what some kid had been throwing up in aisle three. He was sure it was a kid, the smell of formula was unmistakable, though not quite as certain that the aisle in question was really number three. The signs hanging from the ceiling, carrying the number designations of each aisle, were a little out of his reach, and not all places followed the same system. Taking a moment or two to sort through the onslaught of every chemical compound known to man, he started moving towards the section at the back of the store that he knew carried the kind of product he was looking for, passing the make-up section, which occupied an entire wall, on the right.
"Excuse me, sir. Can I help you find something?" There was a woman on his left. She was most definitely a sales clerk, and most definitely wearing half of the products featured on the wall to his right. Simultaneously. The smell of the kind of cakey powder he thought women had stopped wearing in the eighties was oozing from her face. He didn't much care for it. Then again, he was hardly the intended audience for these kinds of esthetic enhancements, and for all he knew, maybe she really needed it. Her heartbeat had picked up at the sight of him, and she was clearly nervous. Whether it was because of the cane . some people got a little spooked around the "differently abled" . or because she recognized him from the tabloids was hard to say. But, considering the events of the last couple of years, it was probably the latter.
"No, thanks. I'm fine. But thank you." He turned towards her just as she started walking away while popping the bubble of the chewing gum she had probably being working on all morning. The mint had become so faint as to be almost imperceptible in the sea of more powerful odors.
Moving on, he caught a whiff of a familiar scent which he would have noticed a block away under more favorable circumstances. It, together with an equally familiar heartbeat belonged to the shape he perceived roughly forty feet ahead, a certain Peter Parker. What the heck was he doing here? In the men's deodorant section no less. As he moved closer, he sensed Peter quickly turning around.
"Matt?" He sounded genuinely surprised, and a little caught off guard.
"Peter." A moment of silence, then "Come here often?" Matt tried hard not to smile.
"Well, uhm, no. I was just in the neighborhood, and. You know."
"No, I really don't." This time he didn't even try to hide the fact that he found the whole situation highly amusing. There was nothing inherently funny about it, but Peter was, for some strange reason, acting as if he'd been caught with his hand in the cookie jar. Matt heard Peter screw the lid off whatever was in his hand, and an explosion of musk, sandalwood, and something floral quickly followed. It wasn't exactly high-end stuff, but you didn't expect to find anything high-end in a drugstore anyway. This smelled like something the high school football team would put on after a post-game shower.
"Should I go for something else maybe?" Peter had noticed how Matt recoiled a little at the smell coming from the bottle of the Axe deodorant stick he was holding. For some strange reason, it mattered to him whether Matt liked the smell of him or not, and that realization bugged him a little. Matt was a nice enough guy. He was also like the slightly older . and slightly cooler . cousin someone like himself might want to impress in order to gain access to his video games. Or something like that.
"No, Peter. You pick whatever you like. I don't really care, and I'm not the right guy to ask. For lots of different reasons." Matt tried not to make it sound too harsh. Saying that he didn't really care when Peter had asked for his opinion, might have come across as a little cold, but he didn't mean it like that.
Focusing again on his own reasons for even being in the store, he realized that while Peter was here, he might as well put him to good use. The fact of the matter was that he wasn't really sure what he was looking for, and the overwhelming smell of the place didn't help. Besides, reading the labels of each bottle by touch would not only be highly suspicious, it would also be quite time-consuming. He listened while Peter put back the deodorant on the shelf and reached for a different one.
"So, Peter. While you're here, can I borrow your eyes for a second?"
"Sure, what are you looking for?" Peter was a little surprised, but more than happy for the opportunity to get on Matt's good side.
"Well, do you see anything that says .ultra strength' on it?"
Peter quickly scanned the supply. Half of the stuff had something like "maximum strength" or "ultra strong" on the label.
"Well, lots of this stuff seems to be .ultra strength.' Are you looking for heavy-duty medicated stuff or what?" He couldn't help but wonder. Did the Man Without Fear have issues with B.O.?
"The stronger the better, as far as I'm concerned."
"Really?" This was getting better by the second.
"It's not for me. It's for a friend."
"A friend, huh?"
"Oh come on!"
"It's not for me, is it? I mean, I always try to wear fabrics that."
"What makes you think we're friends?" Matt quickly interrupted him.
"I, uhm, I thought."
"Look! I'm kidding okay? But it's not really for a friend. It's for my neighbor."
"Yeah. Well, he's a really nasty guy. In more ways than one. I just want to stick it to him, and if he actually ends up using it, that's even better."
"I hear you. You should get him something that has an aluminum compound in it. It works as an anti-perspirant"
"I don't remember the exact name of the one I'm thinking of, but it supposedly clogs the sweat glands. It's the second best thing, next to surgery."
"How do you know this stuff?"
"I read a lot. Okay?"
"Fine. I'm sorry I asked." A pause, then "Are you saying there's surgery for B.O.?"
"Yeah, I think they do it by paralyzing certain nerves of the autonomic nervous system."
"Huh." Another thing to add to the list of things they didn't teach you in law school.
Taking another look, Peter found a promising-looking box that said something about aluminum zirconium tetrachlorohydrex "I think I found something." He handed the box to Matt who brought it to his nose for closer inspection.
"I know this smell. It's not that strong, but it's definitely familiar. I just never knew the name of it." He quickly and inconspicuously read the back of the box. Not that he would be likely to remember the name, it was quite a mouthful.
"I think that's the only brand they have. Is that what you're getting?"
"Yeah, this will have to do. How much is it?"
Peter glanced over to the edge of the shelf. "It's $15.99."
"Not too bad. Not that I wouldn't pay a lot more to get that guy, and his stench, as far away from me as possible."
Peter took a quick look at his watch. "I should probably get going." He really wasn't in any rush to get anywhere, but this personal shopper gig was getting really old, really fast.
"I'll let you go in just a second. First, we are going shopping for wrapping paper."
"Well, presentation is everything. I know where they keep it, but I need you to assist. I'm sure you have impeccable taste." Matt folded his cane and grabbed Peter's elbow. The body to which said elbow was attached went a little stiff, as if Peter was unsure of what to do next, and Matt reminded himself that he should probably spend more time with him out of costume. Not that that was particularly high on his list of priorities.
"Wrapping paper, huh?"
"Yes. Now, let's go. It's straight ahead, and then the second aisle on the left."
The paper aisle was an oasis of relative scentlessness in an otherwise nearly overwhelming environment. It wasn't that paper didn't have a distinctive smell; it most certainly did. It was just that compared to everything else in this place . and by now Matt was pretty sure that someone had just spilled a bottle of Windex two aisles over . the paper section wasn't that bad. They stopped in front the shelf that carried individual sheets of wrapping paper, and Matt reached out to touch it. The more expensive paper often had a definite texture to it and heightened senses weren't necessary to get a feel for it. But he wasn't looking for the fancy embossed stuff with glitter all over it. What he was looking for could probably be found on the floor to his right where he sensed a box-shaped container of some sort with thinner and longer cylindrical shapes coming out of it. Lightly tapping his now unfolded cane against it, he turned towards where Peter was standing.
"This is the cheaper stuff here, right?"
"Yeah, I think that's some of it, but there is more around the corner, if I'm not mistaken. The ones in the box seem to be on sale though."
"Well, I want something really silly-looking. Do they have anything with, say, Muppets on it?"
"Muppets?" Matt must have either been on something or that stint in prison did more damage than Peter realized.
"Well, it doesn't have to be Muppets, specifically. It was just an idea. If I'm going to do this, I might as well have a little fun with it. Okay?"
"No offense here Matt, but do you even know what Muppets look like?"
"Yes, of course I do. They're the little blue guys with the white hats, right?
"No, man, you're thinking of the Smurfs." Before he even finished the sentence, Peter noticed how hard Matt was trying not to laugh. Yeah, he'd walked right into that one.
"I know, I'm just pulling your leg. Trust me, I can tell you every sordid detail of the love affair between Kermit and Miss Piggy. I wasn't always blind, remember? Geez, Peter." Matt shook his head. Considering how brilliant Peter was, he could be a little slow at times. "Besides, just forget about it. Just look for something that strikes you as humorous or a little on the cute side, and that will be fine."
Peter sorted through the plastic-covered rolls of holiday-themed wrapping paper, and finally settled on one with a repeated pattern featuring everybody's favorite reindeer.
"Okay, here's one with Rudolph on it." He handed the roll to Matt, and got back into a standing position. "It's got a green background and looks very .Disney,' if you know what I mean."
"Yeah, I know what you mean." Matt tore off a piece of the plastic and ran his fingers over the paper. Like so much of the glossy cheap stuff, it felt completely smooth to the touch. He would just have to take Peter's word for it. "Thanks, Peter. I really appreciate it."
"No problem. I hope your neighbor gets the message." Peter took a closer look at Matt, noticing how tired he looked, and was suddenly reminded of the hell this guy had been through. "Hey, I'm glad everything worked out okay for you. Well, all things considered. It's good to see you back."
"Well, we'll see how things go from here, but it is good to be back. And it's good to see you too." Matt managed a smile. "Well, I'm going to go pay for this. I guess I'll see you around. And thanks again."
"Sure. No problem."
For no real reason at all, Peter decided to stick around outside for a while, even though he knew that Matt would know immediately that he was still snooping around, probably before he even came out of the store. He watched Matt step outside and quickly move out of the way while reaching for his cell phone. Peter listened as Matt talked to someone on the other end of the line:
- Hey, Dakota?"
- Yeah, it's me.
- I was wondering if you could help me out. You see, I need to make a special delivery, and I just wanted to know how deep your connections really go.
- No, I'm talking about a something like a singing gorilla-gram.
- What? No, it's kind of a long story.
- So, you do know a guy? That's great.
- Yeah, I know.
- Okay, I have to get going. We'll talk more later.
Peter watched as Matt hung up the phone and noticed how he made a nod in Peter's direction, giving him that knowing smile that had become something of a personal trademark. If he didn't know better, Peter could have sworn Matt was looking right at him. A gorilla-gram, huh? The guy had really lost it this time. Peter smiled to himself as he walked away, suddenly realizing that he had completely forgotten to buy that deodorant. Oh well, there was probably another drugstore up the block.