It’s not like I really needed the money. Ninety-nine weeks is a long time to get chunks of money for free, at least it seems that way when you’re only on week forty. But I was getting worried at how easily and naturally I’d fallen into this inactive stupor I was currently mired in, and how indifferent I was to pulling myself out of it. It had been a long process. Gradual and with little complaint. Like settling into a warm mud bath, except this bath wasn’t a spa, more like some fetid, twisted swamp, with flies buzzing about me, shifting sand under my ass, and snuffling animals pawing through the underbrush. It was a thundering, terrifying, sort of comfortable, sinking further and further into the familiar. The longer you wallow, the harder it is to get yourself out, and it gets to a certain point that you don’t even want to, that you know that if you try you’ll only fail and the next time will be that much harder. And even if you succeed, you’ll only be out of the bath, but still in the swamp. Once you’re there, dripping mud and slow of movement, that’s when the animals notice you, and you’re still too slow to run.
Still, you’re a person. A living breathing thing. So you have to do something to keep your mind alive. Everybody does. So I’d walk around my city. I’d spend time at the parks, listening to the trees and the birds. I’d go down to the waterfront and watch the father-son fishing teams walk back to their cars at sunset. I’d go to the libraries. I indulged, and bought myself notebook laptop, and I taught myself to surf the internet. I played chess online. Sometimes I even looked for a job. And, of course, I read. I read all the time. It was what I did when I wasn’t doing anything else. I read to live. I read to stay connected. I read to keep alive that spark within me that not too many years ago had been a fine and functional fire.
But here’s the kicker. Here’s the milestone that forced my sub-conscious to intervene:
One day I realized that I’d forgotten how to read.
Yep, that’s what happened. I don’t know how else to put it. Not that I just suddenly forgot how to put together letters and words. No, I could read ‘Help Wanted’ just fine, for instance. But I forgot how to read it all together, how to make sense of it. I had been reading for so long, with such increasing desperation, that what I was reading became beside the point. I no longer had a reason to do it, other than as a way to maintain that sick comfort of the mud bath.
A week before the Bears’ Lair, I read Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina in one week. Day in, day out, turning the pages, one after another. Wake up in the morning, pull the shades, and the light would brighten my room. Pick up the book and turn up the corner, as that always identical block of sun traced across the floor. 200 pages a day, sitting on my bed, hours and hours and hours. One, two, three, four days in a row. 900 pages of dense Russian God-knowledge, just like that. And this wasn’t the first time. I’d been doing this for weeks. Months maybe.
When I finished the book, closed the cover and dropped it on the floor, I realized with a sigh that I hadn’t retained a single word. Except for the near final scene, except for Anna’s suicide. That’s what it had taken to shock me out of my stupor. A suicide. From one of the best books ever written.
I didn’t dare pick up a book after that. After that, my sub-conscious got to work. I had to get out of my apartment, and at least around people again. But the libraries were over-familiar. Border’s, no, I couldn’t go there. I had to find somewhere else, to at least see again what life was like for those people who expected it to get better.
So I guess you could say, as so many other have, that Anna Karenina changed my life. Such is the power of books. You don’t even have to read them. Sometimes their reputation is enough.
When I returned to the Bears’ Lair a few days later the Help Wanted sign was still on the door.
Trevor was behind the front counter. He didn’t see me when I came in, and I fled to the back of the store to gather my courage. I recalled that managers like job applicants to know something about the position going into it. Okay, so I would observe my surroundings. I would prepare my pitch, my prior experience. I’d spent a lot of time in my middle school library, way back then. I worked at the Border’s in Emeryville before it closed down, and I’d spent so much time in Barnes & Nobles that, for a period of time, I might as well have been an employee. I’d worked at Target in high school. I really was a good match — as long as they didn’t find out why I was banned from Barnes & Nobles, or why I was fired from Border’s, which, admittedly, was potentially still a pretty big problem. No sense in denial. I would have to keep myself under control this time. But I could do it. I could do it.
I wandered the floor for maybe half an hour. Book stores really were pretty amazing places. You could spend a thousand lifetimes absorbing the knowledge contained within their walls. I wandered the shelves. I passed my hand over their bindings, slowed to a stop, picked out a large artbook of Van Gogh prints. The pictures inside alive and glowing in colors vibrant, glossy and bumpy to the touch like the original paintings. The famous reliefs of the tortured artist’s apartment, ensuing pages of detail insets, the chair with the cast off shirt, the window to the outside world and the stray wisp of cloud caught passing through it. The fruits of a lonely imagination. A book that could always teach you. A thing of pure positivity.
And that’s when, sure enough, as I’d known I would eventually, I felt the urge, powerful yet subtle, like a case of heart burn. The book in my hands became an object of possession. It lost its weight, the paintings lost their coherence. A strange, selfish and muffled frustration flooded the back of my throat, subsuming all other concerns and tertiary observations.
I looked both ways down the aisle. I was alone. I checked the ceiling, furtive and embarrassed, for cameras. I didn’t see any. I opened the book fully and sighted down the spine for security strips. There were none. It would fit under my shirt. I was wearing jeans and a belt and I had a loose-fitting hoody in my backpack. I could do it easily. And then I could walk out, and have something new to be proud of, something else to pass the long, dull nights lying on my bed, listening to the walls and the traffic out my window. It would make such a great addition to my book shelf. I could already see it there, lovely and expensive and mine.
I closed the book violently. It made a clapping sound.
No. No. No. No. I couldn’t. Not again. I had to get out of the mud bath. I had to get out and there was nobody else to do it for me and there were only so many times that you can pass up your opportunities, the strong hands and branches reaching out that maybe you can grab hold of if you reach.
I set the book back on the shelf, then I left the aisle in a hurry. I marched directly towards the front of the store, towards Trevor, towards my destiny.
In the bright and orderly front of the store, where they sold the Cal merchandise, the flip flops and suntan lotion and Bears sweatshirts, the lines at the counter were thin. A pretty brown haired girl in sweat pants and a tank top smiled at me as she walked by, pulling my attention after her for a moment. I blinked.
Trevor was standing at the cash register closest to the door, with a small clutch of girls gathered on the opposite side of the counter from him, appreciating his banter and his confidence. I had to remind myself not to get dispirited if they didn’t act the same towards me. Girls have a very keen nose for neuroticism. At least I’d dressed well today.
But I wouldn’t allow myself to think about these useless things, these pointless distractions. The urge had come too close. It was still fresh in my mind. I realized with something like an epiphany that it would be a shame to waste. Maybe it had a use after-all.
I approached the counter.
When Trevor saw me, he made an expression of slight recognition.
I cleared my throat and said “Hello.”
“Hey…” Trevor smiled warily and pointed at me, extending index finger from raised thumb. “John? Right?
“Right, Jonathon, how’s it going?”
“Yeah, Trevor,” he grinned, big-toothed, disarming. “What’s going on?”
I hesitated to answer. His girls considered me suspiciously. When they saw I was on to them they turned away.
“Well,” I said, shaking them off. “I was wondering. Did you ever figure out where it was that you knew me?”
Trevor shook his head.
“Cause I was thinking, how long have you been in Berkeley?”
“About six years.”
“You’re in grad school?”
“Masters in chemical engineering.”
“That makes sense,” I swallowed. “You’re a few years older than me. I grew up in Berkeley, I’ve worked all over the place. Did you ever go to the Borders in Emeryville?”
“You mean before it closed down?” he smiled. Borders had only been closed down a few months. Trevor was trying to make a joke. Trevor was nervous.
“Yeah, before it closed down.”
“I guess I did,” he said.
“Okay, I used to work there.”
“Uh-huh.” I swallowed again. “I’ve also worked at Target, I volunteered at the library in middle school and I’ve landscaped with a professional gardening crew. I like retail. But I really like books. I like bookstores, libraries, places like that.”
Trevor nodded. He itched the cleft of his chin and cocked his head. He saw it now, why I was here. I kept my head up and my back straight. I waited for his answer.
“Okaayy…” he said.
“I saw the sign on the door,” I continued.
He looked over my shoulder.
“Excuse me, Jonathon,” he said, giving somebody a raised nod.
I scurried to the side, I’d been holding up the line.
I took the place the girls had vacated at the counter to Trevor’s right. I waited for the well-scrubbed kids to make their purchases, and I tried my hardest not to look like an unemployed local.
When the line died down again, Trevor taking an over-long time fiddling at the cash register, I stepped forward and he spoke to me without looking up from the register:
“So why’d you stop working at Border’s?”
“I don’t know,” I said. “I was in high school, I guess I got bored.” (Half truths are the best foundations for a good lie.)
Trevor closed the register and turned half towards me, half towards the girls, who were watching us with interest. Could be that they’d never seen a job interview before.
“I really like bookstores,” I said. “I like being around books. I know a lot about them.”
“Are you asking for a job here, Jonathon?” he asked without looking up.
“Yes. I am.”
“Have you ever worked in scholastic environments before?” he asked.
I shook my head. “But I’ve worked in retail. I know how to work a cash register. I know how to stock shelves, use a price gun, and read a stock list. I can even shrinkwrap. Also, I know a lot about books.”
“Yeah, I remember I could tell that,” he said, and I knew right then that I was doing good, I knew right then that he liked me.
He kept one hand on the register and tapped a rhythm on the hollow metal.
“Let me get an application,” he said, and knelt down into the shelf beneath the register and produced a single double-sided sheet of paper with the regal UC Berkeley coat of arms in the upper right corner and a plethora of lined spaces and boxes to fill in beneath.
“It’s only part-time,” he said.
“Okay, just fill this out,” he said.
“Alright, I can fill it out here.”
“You need to list your references and your work experience.”
“That’s fine. I remember them.”
“Phone numbers? Addresses?”
He laughed. “Well go ahead then, I guess. But maybe you’re overqualified.”
I took the paper from him. “I’ll just go take one of these chairs and use a book to write on. Can I borrow a pen?”
“Sure thing,” he handed me one, then he leaned towards me, that disarming grin grown familiar and a little more honest.
“But listen,” he said. “Don’t give it to me just now. I’m not gonna be making the hiring decisions. I’m the floor supervisor, but the manager’s not in today. Come back tomorrow, and ask for ‘Berto.”
“Dagoberto, he goes by ‘Berto.”
“That’s the best I can do for you. If you make a good impression you might have a chance. But we’ve been getting a lot of applications.”
There’s no way to gauge a stranger’s sincerity. Trevor knew this. After offering that hint at alliance he drew back. He’d given me an inside track, and he’d given me his attention. But he hadn’t yet given me his endorsement, and I had no way of knowing if he would. This much, he held back. His honest smile became a slit-eyed grin. Even he who took pride in his magnanimity could not help but draw pleasure from the power of the employer. Probably there are few who can.
“Thanks,” I said. “I mean that.”
“Oh that’s alright. I could tell you were a book person soon as I saw you.”
“I’ll just fill this out.”
“You do that.”
I nodded and retreated before he changed his mind. I went back into the shelves, despite what he’d said about coming back tomorrow. I was ready. I would fill it out now. This was the perfect place for it.
I selected an appropriately sized hardcover book, and I found a reading chair. I sat down, crossed an ankle up on my knee, and rested the book on the joint of my knee and thigh. I smoothed the application out steady on the book. I started to fill it out. Just as I’d known they would, the names, addresses and phone numbers of my prior workplaces unfurled out from my hand and down through the pen scratching across the paper, easy as water downhill, and when I blinked and looked up, the store seemed to have emptied, and the application was complete. I put it in my backpack, and I left.
When I returned the next day, I was wearing my best clothes. A pale blue collared shirt, tan slacks, and black imitation leather wait shoes that could’ve passed for dress shoes, at least by my reckoning. I’d combed my hair, maybe for the first time since I’d had my last job. I’d showered and shampooed, and I’d even used a neighbors’ conditioner naively left in the common shower for the taking. It felt good to look good, like wearing a clever disguise. I might as well have been a student.
Trevor wasn’t at the counter. There were three cashiers, and they were all women, and probably none of them were named Dagoberto.
I didn’t want to my application over to them. That would ruin my only edge. But I didn’t want to linger either. I didn’t want to lose my sense of purpose, my tenuous hold on normalcy.
So I stutter-stepped and started back into the bookshelves. What else could I do?
Over the last couple days, and for no reason that I could strictly pin down, I’d come to really want this job. I had to own this want. I told myself it was good. I told myself it was normal. I told myself to work it like I would the urge, with intelligence and savvy and a sense of excitement. Of real danger, because, when it comes down to it, that’s where I was, in danger. Life is like that. There is always danger, and I’d lived with it for long enough.
An hour later I’d read about 30 pages from a book I’d randomly selected. I left the book in the lap of the reading chair. I went back to the front of the store. And sure enough, I saw Dagoberto: A shortish man with pale copper skin and black-gray hair tied into a short ponytail, standing at the front counter, off to the side and removed from the cashiers, propped up on one straight arm and hand flattened on the counter, considering some papers in his other hand. There was no mistaking the solid, imposing carriage of the retail floor manager.
I opened my backpack, and produced my application, neatly paperclipped to a crisp and clean manila folder. I steeled myself, one last time, and I approached.