IV

Belly of the Beast

Together with the dawning apprehension we all experience when we realize radical change is imminent, the accomplishment of getting a job can sometimes be reward enough in itself. That little period of time between receiving the good news and your first day are the purest of well-earned vacations. A time to feel most honestly justified in whatever the hell it is you want to feel justified in.

So, what did I do? I read books. I walked aimlessly about my town. I spent time in the parks, and I spent time in the libraries. In other words, more of the same. With one exception: one day I resolved, perhaps more on whim than anything else, to take $200 into one of the used computer stores on Shattuck Avenue. I used this money to purchase an Acer Notebook laptop. I took it home in its clean white plastic computer bag. I set it on the floor, and I pushed it out of the way, under my desk with my foot. I felt strangely liberated by this action. And yet at the same time I knew I was not yet quite ready for it. There are a lot of implications in purchasing yourself a laptop, an internet connection, a lifeline to the modern world you have never joined fully before. I was not sure yet that I was ready.

I felt the approach of something else during this vacation, something I hadn’t felt in years: confidence. That fleeting, wonderful power, a gift from the heavens not to be treated lightly.

Yet when the job itself actually began, I soon recalled that oh so cruel reality: jobs themselves, they suck. They are miserable, life-crushing experiences that bother you even further in how little choice you have regarding participation within them. But I should stop this line of reasoning before I reach its logical conclusion. Conclusions of this sort can be hugely dangerous things.

One day into my third week, I’d just returned home and I changed out of my uniform, and headed for the kitchen to fix myself some food, as was my wont. There I found my neighbor, Carmen, a Latina woman in her young middle ages, washing dishes in the sink.

“Oh, hello Carmen,” I said from the doorway. There was limited space in the kitchen. Carmen had never been very nice to me. I didn’t relish the thought of sharing close quarters with her.

She looked over her shoulder at me. I noticed that her eyes were different from how they usually were. Mexicans usually look at me either as if I’m from another planet, or as if they are considering robbing me for my teeth fillings. Not today though, not Carmen. Today there was a brightness in her eyes. I didn’t like it.

“Oh hey, Johnathon, I’m almost done here,” she chirped. For some reason I could always hear the ‘h’ in my name (that wasn’t there) when Carmen spoke it.

“Don’t worry about it.”

“No it’s fine. Just a minute and it’s all yours.”

She turned back to her dishes, flecks of soapy water spraying out from her hands.

I figured, “why not.” I shouldn’t be intimidated by them any more, those judging people who had observed me in my shameful period. I walked in past her. I got a plate out of the cupboard, and a knife and fork out of the silverware drawer. I got bread and turkey, tomatoes and lettuce, mustard and mayonnaise from the refrigerator, and I started to make myself a sandwich. Carmen kept on scrubbing at those dishes, but there was a tension to her scrubbing that made me a little uncomfortable — she would speed up when I got closer to her, and when I went about my business, she would stop abruptly, as if drawing attention to herself.

When I was done, I equivocated a moment between eating at the dirty little kitchen dining table, or taking my food back to my room. The light in Carmen eyes had seemed like it meant to be friendly. I believe that she meant to speak with me.

I sat down at the table. I regretted it immediately.

She finished the last dish and she turned off the water. She started drying with a white dish towel we had tucked into one of the cupboard handles. Then she turned towards me, and smiled with that same quality of pointed brightness.

“Well, look at you!” she said, beaming all white teeth.

I tried a smile back, and told myself not to care that it was forced.

“Where have you been recently? I don’t hear you here as much.” she asked.

“I’m working over at the Cal bookstore.”

“Oh yeah? At the UC?”

“That’s right.”

“Wow! Good for you!” she said enthusiastically.

“Yeah, thanks.”

It seemed like she was patronizing me, but that wasn’t it, not with that demonstrative smile, not with that air of superiority.

“How’d you get a job like that?”

I shrugged. “I applied. I went in a couple of times, one of the supervisors noticed me and seemed like he liked me. He told me how I could talk to the manager.”

“Yeah. Oh yeah, it helps when they know you,” she nodded

“Yeah, it does.”

“Uh-huh,” she kept nodding, like a backseat chihuahua.

There was a silence. Her smile stayed the same. The light in her eyes. An element of searching, but also an element of self-consciousness sinking in the longer she lingered. Not like she wanted to rob me. More like she wanted to belittle me. As if I, intrinsically, now represented a different sort of target. As if she couldn’t quite reconcile such a fact, knowing who I had been only a few short weeks earlier. After all, Carmen herself was in the same boat. Or, more accurately, a far worse boat. She had two kids, and I suspected a highly tumultuous relationship with their father, who was around from time to time, had once been around a lot more often. These days the kids were living with her in the same sleeping room. I’d heard she and the landlord engage in many a shouting match on their account. I realized now, looking at her, that her clothes had grown increasingly wash-worn and tattered over the years that we’d shared a floor. I realized now, I had no idea how she was taking care of herself or her family. I’d never been on food stamps or welfare. I wondered if they were sufficient to maintain her lifestyle.

Funny. I’d always assumed that those around would just be proud of me.

“Well,” she said unhappily, catching the recall in my eyes, the pity as her motivations sunk in. “I’ve got to get back to my kids. They probably tearing up the place already.”

“Okay, see ya,” I said.

“See you, Johnathon. Mister career man. I’m so proud for you. It’s so hard finding work these days,” — she emphasized “hard,” and gave this little nod of her whole body while she did so — “lot of people out there don’t catch no breaks. Lot of people.”

“I know. I know.”

“Cal. Man. I know they never let me set foot at no Cal, haha,” she laughed. And then she seemed to become embarrassed, or insulted, or darkly proud. As if she’d seen a part of herself that she only knew too well.

“Well. Take care,” she said again, and waved with a back and forth flick of her wrist like she were shooing away a fly.

“Bye,” I said, and she walked fast past me, sharp footsteps down the hall, her door open, the brief sound of Spanish-language TV, then cut off again. 

I had a moment to wonder. Would things between us be different from now on? How curious. I didn’t like this feeling. This hollow feeling. It was scary, imagining that besides my own life, even other people might change.

And shit. I didn’t even like this job.

I finished my sandwich. I wondered if it had been the same when I’d gotten my earlier jobs, and I just hadn’t noticed it. Perhaps it was the economy. Perhaps, these days it made me a target. I saw now that people do not take pleasure in their brother humans’ accomplishments, even when their brother humans do not consider them as such. 

I wanted to get out of the kitchen, it felt like hostile territory. Taking the plate and the remains of my sandwich with me, I felt a palpable unfriendliness in the air when I walked past Carmen’s door. Now I was angry, and when I locked myself into my room, the walls seemed close and small, pregnable and lonely.

And here I’d thought I was re-entering the world. No, not yet, only my relation to it had changed.

Fuck her. Fuck her. What right did she have to make me feel guilty?

I sat down on my bed. I considered the books on my lovely, smooth wood bookshelf, pushed up against the wall to the left of my desk. My repository of hopes that weren’t my own. Authors and pages and memories from everywhere in the world, all in one place.

Books books books.

Why was it always books?

Anyways, it was a period of adjustment. You can’t expect anyone, especially anyone like me, to jump from total disconnect to partial re-connect without at least a little bit of a shock to the system. I had a lot to learn, and re-learn. A lot of quirks about the world and about human nature that I had forgotten, or had never noticed before. Books make it all seem so easy. In a book, it all makes sense. After all, you are seeing a carefully re-constructed reality, conceived in the mind of a single person, the writer, so if it makes sense to them, it makes sense to you. But when you’re out in the world, you’re dealing with a completely different reality every time you pass a person on the street, every moment that you live. In the moment, how could anyone hope to make sense of it? No one is that quick thinking, and no one ever will be.

My biggest surprise, re-connecting, was the little things people did to themselves to be able to survive. The little things that were expected of me. The deference, the presentation. The compromises. You wake up in the morning and you make yourself breakfast. You drink coffee to wake yourself up. You wait for a bus, and you expect nothing more from your fellow riders than that they allow your space for as long as you are forced to tolerate each other’s company. Then you arrive at work, and you engage in a series of activities and interactions, few of which could be counted as honestly pleasurable, and almost none of which have any bearing, whatsoever, on your own, well-lived life.

It’s really pretty funny the things we do, and the importance we place on them, the meaning we derive from them. I was stocking shelves for an over-priced bookstore at one of the greatest universities in the world. But all the genius kids who shop here could really just go to the library and get their books for free — and the thing that gets me, is I’m sure they know it.

So, I ask you. What’s the point?

Thank God these kids are lazy. Or me and all my fellow Bears’ workers would be out of a job.

And one morning about three weeks into it, I’m walking through the front door and there’s Trevor behind the counter, regarding me with a smile beneath his friendly sharks’ eyes.

“Morning, Jonathon,” he said.

“Morning, Trevor,” I answered.

“‘Berto wants you trained up on the registers. Go put your things down and come back up front. Clarissa and Tom are on the floor and Joseph’s in the back. So you’re with me today.”

“Okay,” I said. No that was too terse. I hastened to add a shaky and awkward “sounds good,” for which I received no response.

Hunched a little forward, I studied the speckled linoleum floor on my way back through the store and I arrived at the employee locker room, a little closet sharing space with a desk, stacked with binders and notebooks and pens and records, and three security camera monitors fixed into the shelf above. I stuffed my sweatshirt into my customary locker. I tucked in my uniform and ran my fingers through my hair. I’d gotten a haircut a few days ago. I looked like a lemming. My head still felt cold and the back of my neck still felt itchy.

Trevor watched me as I approached the registers. I dropped my gaze. Since our first conversations we’d barely spoken to each other. We hadn’t shared a shift until my second week, and when I saw him again his friendliness had all but evaporated. I wasn’t sure what to make of this.

I arrived at the cash register, took my position, and Trevor started talking:

“Okay, so first thing we’re gonna do, before we even open up, is count the cash. You’ve worked a register before…?”

When he let the sentence go uncompleted, and I noticed his eyebrows raised inquisitorially, I realized it was a question and I hastened to answer.

“Yes I have.”

“Okay, so let’s go. See this note here?” he asksed, indicating a slip of receipt roll paper folded in under the $20 bill slot. “This number here says how much is supposed to be in here, how much Rachel counted out last closing.”

“Okay.”

“We count by bills,” he said. “So start with the largest bills, write down the figures, and add up as you go.”

“Okay.”

I followed his instructions. I was good at counting, and it didn’t take me long. I got the right number, and a nod of approval.

“Okay, good,” Trevor said. “So we’re set and ready here. You’re gonna shadow me most of the day. You’ve worked a register before, right?”

“Yes.”

“Great. There are a few things you’ll have to remember. For instance, we put fifty bills and up underneath the cash drawer, like so,” he said, lifting up the plastic cash tray and revealing a small stash of miscellaneous notes and office supplies. “We keep the twenties on top, we get a lot of twenties here.”

“You do cash drops?” I asked so as to keep myself engaged.

“We do, twice a day, at noon and at three. ‘Berto comes down, and you’re to have the bills counted and ready for him.”

“I see.”

He paused, stood there stiffly. I scratched my head, nothing to say.

“Sometimes when it’s real busy you have to call him down early,” he added. “That doesn’t happen all that often though. You’ll see. Only on the really busy days. A lot of students use credit cards to buy their text books.”

“Oh, I see.”

More silence. Trevor took a disapproving step away from me, as if it were now my responsibility to break the silence. I tried. I stood there and I thought. My mind started to spin, and I forgot that actually I sort of had a job to do. But damn it, everything had already been said. We didn’t have that much common ground yet, Trevor and I. It would take time, I was sure of it. Meanwhile I wondered if he was judging me, if this were his reason for his abrupt diffidence. He surely wouldn’t be interested in hearing about my crummy little apartment or the bus ride up Ashby.

So, I improvised:

“It must be pretty predictable,” I said.

“Predictable?” Trevor asked, raising an eyebrow.

I struggled to turn this into a pedestrian comment:

“Well, I mean, you know when school’s getting in, and that’s probably when most the textbooks are sold, right? You know when the vacation days are, when people come back to school, when most of them take lunch. You must get to know pretty fast when it’s gonna be busy and when it’s gonna be slow. When the kids need to buy textbooks, I guess that’s the only time you really need to know about books, right?”

“I wouldn’t call it predictable,” he said, with a laugh just a bit too jocular to be genuine. “And most of the business we do in the meaty part of the year don’t have to do with textbooks at all. At that point we’re just where a lot of students go to buy everyday items. Sunscreen, notebooks, Cal gear, the like. Lots of Cal gear. Football days are huge. No, this isn’t about the school, you know? This is a retail store, and it just happens to be in a school. Retail experience is a lot more important than school experience here.”

“I see.”

“And a lot more important than book store experience,” he continued, and then turned his head towards me and gave me a forceful look. I withered. He got me. Books. He knew me for what I was, and he had given himself advantage. Was it within my rights now to show him that, in my heart of hearts, I truly felt that I shouldn’t have to care?

“Not predictable at all,” he went on, and turned away. “You’ll see. When we get our first rush, you’ll know that ‘predictable’ just ain’t the right word to describe it.”

“I won’t describe it that way any more,” I said.

Trevor gave no sign that he had heard me. Maybe he hadn’t. Over the coming months, I would find that Trevor could make himself surprisingly opaque at unexpected times. This was another strength of black people that I always sort of admired.

This time, our silence proved impenetrable, and he took another step away from me. I tried not to panic. I tried to own my dissatisfaction. Honesty honesty honesty. Staying true to yourself is the true challenge for every working professional. It’s your only hope, really, to be yourself. But not too much. Sometimes it was like walking a tightrope, but you never knew how long the fall is. Do not worry if they judge you. You cannot control it if they do. And, me being me, of course they will.

We waited for business to pick up. For most of the afternoon, it did not.

“Well, it seems like it’s just starting to pick up now,” I said, some time later, after a small group of customers came in through the door. But I must not have sounded convinced, or convincing. Because Trevor sniffed, and didn’t answer, and it was the closest we came to casual conversation for the rest of the afternoon.

Just after I got back home, after I’d eaten and taken off my shoes, sat down on my bed and allowed the day to drain out of me, I stood up, and knelt down in front of my bookshelf. I ran the fingertips of my right hand over the multi-colored, multi-sized, multi-textured bindings. I selected a slim, elegant little paper back: What We Talk About When We Talk About Love, Raymond Chandler’s celebrated short story collection. I turned off the overhead lights, and took the book back to my bed. I lay down and turned on the little bedside light. I always liked reading by that light. Warm and small. It helped to make me feel at home.

It took me a couple hours to read the whole book (more impressive than it sounds — What We Talk About is only about a hundred pages long altogether, and a lot of those pages have significant white spaces). When I finished it was 12:30 in the morning. But I still wasn’t ready to go to sleep. I had to wake up early the next morning, but I hadn’t even begun my nightly ritual. I had a whole stack of old magazines by my door. I picked them up from the library when they were done with them. I hadn’t yet looked through them. I had a short stack of VHS movies I hadn’t watched yet. This too had once been part of my routine. I hadn’t finished with my routine yet. I hadn’t become bored of being bored. I suppose by most people’s frames of reference this would be a good thing. Working full-time means you have less time to be unproductive with. But for some reason right then, I felt that spending some time unproductive could be just about the most productive thing I did. I can’t explain it other than that.

And so, I remembered (really, I had forgotten) that I’d recently purchased an Acer Notebook laptop. It was still in its box on the bottom shelf of my bookshelf. I did not know what to do with it yet. I didn’t have internet in my place. I hadn’t made the phone call yet. I suspected that some of my neighbors did, but I hadn’t yet asked either.

I knew how to use a computer. My mom, way back when, she’d had a computer. In fact, that was what I had become accustomed to writing on. I hadn’t written anything of note on paper, not since she’d moved away, since I’d moved out, or whatever it was that had happened. Back then, back when I had friends, back when I was in school, back when I knew how to do what made me happy, just for that reason because that reason was enough.

So, I opened this box, and I took this laptop to my desk. I turned it on. This would keep me occupied for some time, I reckoned, I was sure. Yes, this was a wise purchase. This was an important step towards reconnection. I knew that the world had moved online while I’d been away.

When I’d finished the setup, there was not all so much more to do with this machine. I knew my way around it, it was not so different from the computers at the library. But it was clean and sleek and it was mine. I could feel possibility shining out through it. Somehow, somewhere, I could feel a window opening. I could feel myself on the cusp of something new. Something within me was stirring and was finally ready to get out.

And so, because I hadn’t else to do, I opened a Microsoft Word Document, blank and white and blaring. I put my hands on the keys. Once upon a time, writing had been a calling of mine. I remembered it, back in the years. I used to write a lot, in fact. I used to have a whole stable of short stories, and the friends I used to have would read them, and usually they said good things about them.

What had happened? Why had I stopped?

In all honesty, I couldn’t even remember.

Perhaps I didn’t quite yet feel qualified to say. But if I chose to write about it I would probably have been up all night.

I stared at the screen for some time. Then I stood up and went into the kitchen. I prepared myself a glass of ice water, and I took it back to my room, through the dark hallway, the faint sound of a TV from somewhere within one of my neighbors’ rooms.

Back in my room. The screen open. The screen blaring.

I sat down.

I put my hands back on the keys, and I told them to just start moving, to just go with that first thought that I had in my head. Because I had a lot of them. Yeah, I did. And when I started, they kept on coming, and just as it had in those years past, something within me began to feel glorious.

It was 3:30 in the morning when I closed the Word Document. I was able to put myself to sleep soon thereafter.

I was the first person to arrive at the Bears’ Lair the next morning. I sat on the steps in front of the glass doors and put my elbows on my knees and my chin in my hands. ‘Berto arrived about ten minutes later. He unlocked the door and let me in, then he powered off to his back office without a word. He was always a man on a mission. I would come to learn to discretely stay out of his way.

I began the long walk back to the locker room. I liked the sound of my soft tapping footsteps on the speckled linoleum, the only sound in the store. Past the tables of over-priced best sellers, past the wall of magazines, and the parallel stacks of shelves filing off back into the distance, fiction and textbooks and required reading. Countless lifetimes of knowledge in this one little store, packaged and prepared, presentable and dear and useless to all who wouldn’t or couldn’t access it.

On the wall just outside the locker room, I flicked on all of the store’s lights, then I entered in and tucked my backpack into my locker. I returned to the main floor. Up front the doors were still closed, and I was still alone.

And before I took another step, I felt something in the bottom of my gut. That faint, familiar stirring in the small part of my lungs. Whenever I first become aware of it, it instantly begins to grow rapidly, betraying the fact that it’s been building for some time already. It makes me hot in my clothes, and spastic and twitchy, and I know that if I were to look in a mirror right then, I would see a bright red flush creeping up from beneath my shirt collar. The subtle roar of hot pumping blood in my ears, powerful and irrational, becomes impossible to disregard. An itch not to be scratched. A primal compulsion not to be tamed. Even despite everything else, like a long lost friend, the urge was still with me.

Allowing little more to thought, I darted into the closest aisle. Arts history on one side, literary studies on the other. Books and books and books — (why was it always books?) — I pulled out the biggest, thickest, most expensive one I could find, and took it back into the locker room with me, sliding the security strip smoothly from out of the binding as I went.

When I came back out, Trevor and Clarissa had arrived, and were shuffling blearily about like irritable zombies. Clarissa gave me a little smile as she passed. Trevor too said “Good morning,” and, oddly enough, it sounded like he meant it. I responded in kind, and, I’ll admit it, gratefully. I was glad to think that Trevor was getting to like me. But that wasn’t quite it. It was that he already thought that he knew the truth about me. He believed that beneath my neuroticisms, my good intentions, my esoteric skillsets and my useless knowledge, I was, in truth and fact, little more than a lost cause waiting to be appropriately categorized. I think he liked this about me. He liked that I couldn’t help but be me.

If that’s the case, wait ‘till he finds out what I’ve got in my backpack. I think it’s safe to say that he’s got no frickin’ idea.

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