Category Archives: Short Stories

The Denver Omelet

“One Denver omelet, over medium, please,” Charlie said, sitting back in his chair, hands on the table, loosely clasped beside his cup of coffee.

“Sure thing, Charlie,” Monica answered, smiling.

Gratified, Charlie smiled back.

“Two strips bacon, extra cream cheese on the home fries. English muffin, butter on the side, and a bowl of fruit, extra honey dew.”

“Sure think, Charlie.”

“I forget anything?”

“No, you did not,” she laughed, and Charlie winked.

She picked up his menu, turned smartly on one heel and walked away. She’d always liked Charlie. He was one of her favorite regulars. He was polite and patient. He’d never pushed the flirtation thing too far, and he usually left a good tip.

When the cooks finished with his plate, she added an extra wedge of orange, because she remembered from idle conversation that he liked orange, though he had never asked for it special.

“Here you go, Charlie,” she said, setting the plate on his table. “Denver omelet over medium.”

Charlie had one hand on the base of his throat, like he was trying to clear away a stubborn piece of phlegm.

“You okay, Charlie?” she asked.

He raised his eyes to hers. It looked like he was trying to tell her something. But he was usually so obsequious.

Even though she was busy, and she had food out and more on the way, she stopped at Charlie’s table. The restaurant buzzed around them like a meat and china beehive.

“What is it, Charlie?” she asked.

Charlie closed his eyes. He opened his mouth, and a sound came out that made Monica think of a hippopotamus. Then he collapsed face-first forward into his Denver omelet.

Monica screamed.

If it had been eggs over-easy he might well have drowned.

Luckily a recent pre-med graduate was dining at a nearby table. After dialing 9-1-1 and working Charlie’s neck, arms and shoulders to get the blood flowing, he reassured the crowd gathered around them that the poor guy was going to be alright. Except for Monica, everyone applauded.

The paramedics arrived a few minutes later. The pre-med student asked Monica for her phone number, and she gave it to him, though she didn’t feel very good about it. She’d realized that she’d hoped Charlie would ask her, one of these days. But, as it turned out, she would never see Charlie again. Over-medium or no, that was the last Denver omelet Charlie would ever order.

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Knocking at the Door

It was the California take on the shotgun shack: a squat, adobe-style bungalo partitioned from the sidewalk by a ratty fence and a cement lawn.

The door opened before he had knocked three times, which meant Mr. Julius had been right there waiting for it.

“What can I do for you, officer?” he asked, smiling wide.

“Are you Hanover Julius? The owner of this property?” Officer Jefferson asked.

Mr. Julius nodded.

“A woman placed a 9-1-1 call from this address.”

Hanover Julius held the door open with one hand, barring Jefferson’s view. His smile withered. His eyes lowered to Officer Jefferson’s shoes.

“Do you have a wife, Mr. Julius?”

Mr. Julius did not answer.

“Are there any women living here, Mr. Julius?”

“Ain’t nobody here but me.”

“Do you mind if I take a look around?”

“There is no emergency here, Officer.”

“I am obliged to search the premises, sir.”

“Look, this just ain’t none of your business.”

“You are legally obliged to let us onto the premises, Mr. Julius.”

Mr. Julius did not let go of the door. His other hand was behind his back. Officer Jefferson’s hand strayed to the plastic, rubber-gripped handle of his taser, holstered to his belt. He reminded himself how rarely his instincts failed him.

“Officer, just leave me be. Leave us be. This is my house. I’m not gonna say please.”

“Open the door, Mr. Julius.”

“I won’t.”

“You are refusing the orders of a peace officer.”

“I am.”

“You hurt your wife, didn’t you?”

“It ain’t your damn business.”

Officer Jefferson clicked on the mic attached to his collar, and radioed for backup. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Hanover Julius make a sudden movement. He might have been closing the door, or swinging the hand behind his back forward.

Officer Jefferson raised his taser and pulled the trigger. Hanover Julius reeled back into the house and fell to the floor, taking a coatrack loaded with hats and coats along with him.

Officer Jefferson stopped in the doorway. He found himself confused, at the ringing in his ears and the smell of gunpowder in the air. He began to wonder whether he had seen all of this before, or, alternatively, whether he had seen it coming.

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The Bears’ Lair, Part 3: Belly of the Beast

Aside from the slow-dawning fear we all feel when a radical life change is imminent, the accomplishment of landing a job is almost reward enough in itself. All that time spent scrounging, hunting, sniffing, scratching, tearing yourself up, it all becomes justified. You weren’t just spinning your wheels this last period of interminable exile from society, were you? Those first days, the week or two between when you get the good news until when the job actually starts are the purest of well-earned vacations. A time to feel most thoroughly justified in whatever the hell you want to feel justified in.

Well, I guess this doesn’t quite apply to me. I didn’t really do any job hunting. I hadn’t really gotten to the place where I was even looking for a job, where I even wanted one. Getting this one had really been something of an accident.

So, what did I do with my two weeks of heaven? More of the same. The difference? I enjoyed it, because I knew it was coming to an end.

It’s great to get a job. But, as soon as the thing itself actually began, I was most brutally reminded of that oh so cruel reality: jobs themselves, they suck.

But I should stop this before it goes any further, not while I’m still at the place I’m complaining about. It’s dangerous to indulge these sort of thoughts to their logical conclusion. Definitive conclusions are dangerous things. Often times you can tell what you would rather not know long before you actually know it. And really, who was doing who a favor here?

It’s not that I didn’t enjoy my first days at the Bears’ Lair. It’s just that it was a shock. And when each day came to an end, I was always so relieved. Always with the feeling like, okay, I’ve made it through one more day. Despite the odds, I’d kept myself away for that much longer. One more day in which, through effort and effort and some kind of thing pulling on my mind like a rottweiler on a leash, I hadn’t blown my cover. But since it was so hard, since every time I said something I wasn’t sure that I’d said right, well, you could forgive me for not being sure how long exactly I could keep this up.

But, fortunately, there is another good thing about having a job. It is the being home. It is the daily, tired and triumphant return to your place of respite. Now I could walk a little bit heavier up the stairs of my apartment building. I could close the door to my room a little louder, and watch TV or search the web, or whatever the fuck I wanted to do, with just that slight extra degree of infallibility. I’d been justified. I’d spent the whole day justifying myself. What I did with the rest of my time, now, need only make sense to myself.

One day into my third week, just returned home, I went into 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 in the doorway.

There was limited counter 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. Her eyes were different from how they usually were. Like most Mexicans, she usually looked at me either as if I were from another planet, or as if she were considering robbing me of my teeth fillings. Not today though. Today there was a brightness in her eyes. I didn’t like it.

“Oh hey, Johnathon, I’m almost done here,” she chirped.

“Don’t worry about it.”

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

She went back to the dishes, flecks of soap flying out from her hands.

I figured, “why not.” I shouldn’t be intimidated by them any more. Those judging people who had scorned me in my embarrassing periods. 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 out of 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 at odd times, as if drawing attention to herself.

When I was done, I equivocated a moment, between eating at the dirty little dining table we had in the kitchen, or taking my food back to my room. But there had been a light in her eyes, that seemed like it was supposed to be friendly. I probably was supposed to stay here and speak with her. I believe that she meant to speak with me.

I sat down at the table.

I was uncomfortable. I regretted my decision immediately.

She finished the last dish and turned off the water. Then she started to dry her hands with a white dish towel we had tucked into one of the cupboard handles. She turned towards me, and she smiled with that pointed brightness in her eyes.

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

I tried a smile back, and told myself not to care that it was forced. I was feeling a constriction in my throat. I didn’t like this. I felt under attack.

“What are you all dressed up like that for?” 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 smile, not with that air of superiority about her, more pronounced than it had ever been before.

“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. I guess that helped.”

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

“Yeah, it does.”

“Uh-huh,” she nodded and kept nodding like a car-mount plastic 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 the longer she lingered. Not like she wanted to rob me. More like she wanted to belittle me. Like she wanted to. As if I, me myself, 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 had been in the same boat. Actually a far worse boat. First of all, she was older than I was. Second of all, she had two kids, and they all three shared the same sleeping room. I’d heard she and the landlord engage in many a shouting match in the hallway. I had the feeling that her kids were there of a somewhat tenuous arrangement, and they weren’t there all the time. I realized now, looking at her, that her clothes were wash-worn and tattered. Compared to the students at the Bears’ Lair, she looked a pauper. I had never realized before how pronounced the difference was, how casually noticeable when that’s what you’re looking for.

Funny. I’d always assumed that those around me would just be proud that I’d gotten a job. At least somebody had, right?

“Well,” she said unhappily, catching the pity in my eyes 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,” she said, crumpling the dish towel and dropping it on the counter. “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, walking past me — “lot of people out there just don’t catch no breaks. Lots of people.”

“I know. I know.”

“Cal. Man. I know they never let people like me set foot at no Cal, haha,” she laughed.

I didn’t answer her. I took a bite of my sandwich.

“Well. Take care,” she said again, and waved quickly with one hand, a back and forth flicking motion as if 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 that feeling. It felt hollow. Funny thing was, I didn’t even want this job.

I finished my sandwich. This was the first time I’d realized that success, far from bringing me in, would also set me apart. People do not take pleasure in their brother humans’ accomplishments, even when their brother humans do not consider them as such. They just wonder at the unfairness of it all that allowed it to happen to someone other than themselves. They have a point.

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 so close and small, so paltry, so lonely, so thin, pressing in.

And here I’d thought I was re-entering the world.

Fuck her. Fuck her. What right did she have to make me feel afraid? I wasn’t priveleged. Fuck her. I was no different. She had no right to look at me differently. I deserved what I got. I needed it. And shit, I didn’t even want it.

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 best friend and repository of hope. Limitless storage house of comfort, dreams, dog-eared, well-thumbed, multi-colored stories.

Books books and books.

For me, it was always the books.

 

The next morning, walking through the front door, there’s Trevor behind the counter, smiling beneath his friendly sharks’ eyes.

“Morning, Johnathon,” Trevor said.

“Morning, Trevor,” I answered.

“‘Berto wants you trained up on the registers. Go put your things down and come back up front. Clarissa, Tom and Elliot 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.

My shoulders slumped, I watched the speckled linoleum floor on my way back through the store to the employee locker room. I took off my sweatshirt and stuffed it into one of the lockers just to the left of a cluttered desk, over which a set of grainy security cameras peered out over the empty bookstore. I tucked in my uniform shirt and ran my fingers through my hair. I’d gotten a haircut a few days ago. My head still felt cold and the back of my neck still felt itchy.

Trevor looked back at me as I approached the registers. I dropped my gaze. I was hiding myself again. This wasn’t a good sign.

I started to think back to old jobs, to Borders’, to the landscape crews and our work in the hills, in Lafayette, out in the simple and companionable sun. Had it always been like this? I was sure that it hadn’t. No, in fact I had categorizable memories to prove it. I could remember at least three distinct moments of laughter and ease. I remember eating lunch with people, talking to them and standing with them while they smoked cigarettes. I remembered getting along with people. So what was different now? What had changed? Why did every step here feel like a battle? It couldn’t just be the economy, right?

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, haven’t you?”

“Yeah I have.”

“Okay, so let’s go. See this note here?” he asksed, indicating a slip of receipt 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 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 tray of cash and revealing a small stash of office supplies, rolls of blank receipt paper, a a little zip-loc bag of rubber bands, a couple empty, official-looking envelopes. “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 and debit 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, and I had nothing to talk about. He surely wouldn’t be interested in my crummy little apartment, now would he?

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 text books 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.”

“Yeah, we do. But you know, 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 gave me a piercing look like an accusation. Books, that magic word. Trevor knew me for what I was. It was now my responsibility to whither beneath his superior gaze.

“Not predictable at all,” he went on, turning away. “You’ll see. When we get our first rush, you’ll know that ‘predictable’ just ain’t the 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 be quite unexpectedly opaque. 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. Staying true to yourself is the true challenge for every working professional. It’s your only hope, really, to be yourself. But it’s walking a tightrope, because you can’t be yourself too much. If you were that who would ever want to work in a college bookstore?

“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 sat up on my bed with my back against the wall. I 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 altogether, and a lot of those pages have significant page breaks). 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 hadn’t played any online chess games. I hadn’t hunted out a current events article to read. 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 me, that’s often felt like my time best well spent.

So I sat in front of my laptop, with its battered keyboard and its internet. Its openings to the multitude of private infinities. A window into worlds and worlds of perfect drifting.

But I was sick of surfing the internet. I had nowhere to go. I’d done plenty of that over the last few months, and I only rarely felt good about the time spent doing so.

And so, because I hadn’t else to do, I opened a Microsoft Word Document. 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.

What had happened? Should I write about that?

I would be up all night if I did. And what would be the point?

I continued to stare at the screen. 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. I heard my neighbors through the walls, wondering what I was doing. I ignored them. I would not worry about them. Just like it had when I was younger, something within me began to feel glorious.

It was 3:30 in the morning when I closed the Word Document. I was able to go 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. We hadn’t exchanged more than a passing salutation since I’d gotten the job. I would come to learn to discretely stay out of his way.

I began the long walk back to the locker room, soft tapping footsteps on speckled white/gray linoleum, past the tables of over-priced best sellers near the entrance, past the magazine rack, and the parallel rows of shelves of 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 afford it. What a strange thing bookstores like these are. Profit might well have been the furthest thing from the authors’ minds when they created the fruits of others riches. If they were anything like me, they just couldn’t help themselves. They had nothing else to do. And here in this store, young children who know nothing of how the world works are coerced into buying them out of the strictures of higher education. How strange it all was.

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. I was alone.

And before I took another step, I felt something in the bottom of my gut. That faint, familiar tickle in the small part of my lungs. When I notice it, it grows rapidly, and I realize it’s been building for some time already. Makes me hot 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 faintest visual hint to the subtle roar of hot pumping blood growing louder within me. Powerful, irrational. Even despite everything else, like a long lost friend, the urge was still there, compelling 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.

When I came back out, Trevor and Clarissa 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. I could see that Trevor had already made up his mind about me. He believed that beneath my neuroticisms, good intentions, and esoteric skill sets, I was, in truth and fact, little more than a lost cause waiting to be appropriately categorized. I couldn’t help it. I was who I was. I think he liked this about me.

Wait ‘till he finds out what I’ve got in my backpack.

I think it’s safe to say he’s got no frickin’ idea.

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The Bears’ Lair, Part 1: Help Wanted (2 of 2)

Well, I’ll admit it. The sign got me thinking. Maybe it was because I hadn’t seen one in so long, the California economy being what it was.

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?

“Jonathon.”

“Right, Jonathon, how’s it going?”

“Trevor.”

“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.”

“Did you?”

“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 nodded.

“I see.”

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.

“That’s fine.”

“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?”

“Uh-huh.”

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.”

“Roberto?”

“Dagoberto, he goes by ‘Berto.”

“Okay.”

“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.”

“I’m sure.”

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.

The Bears’ Lair, Part 1: Help Wanted (1 of 2)

“Hey. Hey, buddy.”

I didn’t respond. I hoped the voice wasn’t directed at me.

“Hey,” the unfamiliar voice said again, closer now. “Hey. Hey, buddy.”

I looked up, the book open in my hands.

I was greeted with a disarming grin, beaming from the face of an individual I vaguely recognized, an individual my age. He was black (black people are the masters of disarming grins). He was clean-cut, with a close shaved head, standing tall and bright and alive in crisp blue jeans and the distinctive Cal Bears long-sleeved shirt that was the bookstore’s uniform. A laminated photo ID hung by lanyard from around his neck. His grin told me that I had nothing to fear.

“Hey,” I said.

“Um. Do you need help finding anything?” he asked, but still with that no-harm-meant grin.

“No,” I shook my head.

A couple kids our age shouldered past us. The college kids, the kids who were supposed to be here. I tried not to notice them.

“You sure?” he asked, his grin taking on a strangely intimate element of concern.

“No, really,” I shook my head again, a little too vigorously. “I’m just, you know, looking.”

“You aren’t a student here are you?”

“No,” I grunted.

Jig’s up. Let the orders to vacate commence.

But no, I was wrong. His grin stayed strong and bright, almost as if he were expecting this.

I wasn’t sure what to think. It honestly seemed that right now he wanted nothing more than to know more about me. As if I were an unusual scientific specimen that had wandered onto a petri dish.

He nodded at the book.

“What’s that you’re reading?”

I closed it so I could show him the cover, though out of habit I kept my thumb marking the page I was at. Not that I was going to finish my reading. Sadly, this was pretty much a foregone conclusion. Even if he did decide to let me be, there was no way I’d be able to relax enough to resume activity.

Ernest Becker’s The Denial of Death,” he read. “Huh.”

I watched him. His grin faded slightly, left a shadow of careful understanding in its place. I’d seen that sort of understanding before, too. Usually it didn’t survive the first major confusion.

“Why you reading that,” he asked, “if you don’t even go to school here?”

I shrugged.

“It’s interesting,” I said.

“You like reading textbooks?”

“Some of them.”

“Funny.”

“Well.”

“Something particularly fascinating about this book?”

“Well,” I shrugged, and I gave him the first answer that came to mind, though it wasn’t strictly the truth: “Not really.”

For some reason, this made him laugh, and his grin became genuinely genuine.

“The reason I came up to you…” he went on, “is I recognize you from somewhere.”

“You do?”

“You live in Berkeley?”

I nodded. Was it so obvious? Not a student, neither by look or admission.

“I thought so. I think you were a customer somewhere else I worked.”

“Oh.”

Now I too was curious. I wanted to know where he knew me from, and why he seemed intent on sharing with me his good nature. So now I felt some pressure, because now I had to reciprocate:

“Where else have you worked?” I asked.

Sure enough, he withdrew and his grin wavered. I’d gone too far. I always do that.

“Well, I was waiting tables over at Homemade Café for a while last year, last summer,” he offered, a perfectly normal response, a perfectly popular restaurant.

No, that wasn’t it.

“I also worked at Barnes & Nobles on Shattuck,” he continued. “Before they closed it down.”

That must be it.

“That’s it, isn’t it?” he said.

“It’s possible.”

I said no more. Yes, that was quite as far as I intended to pursue this particular story line. I was probably one of the only people in Berkeley to have been relieved when the Barnes & Nobles had closed down. There had been a period of time, a few years, to be honest, where I couldn’t comfortably walk down that stretch of Shattuck Avenue. A sense of impending embarrassment would douse me in cold sweat, only to relieve when I turned the corner or crossed the street. If this guy recognized me from Barnes & Nobles, I was in for it. I tried not to give anything away, but he must’ve noticed something in me:

“Why do I recognize you?” he persisted, his grin in danger of disappearing altogether. “Were you a regular?”

“I’m… Well. Yes. I mean, I’m a big reader,” I managed, “and I like bookstores. I like books. I don’t always buy them, but I like to read them.”

“So I saw you in there?”

“Yes.”

“Huh. You must have stood out.”

“I guess cause I was browsing so much. Eventually they told me that I couldn’t come back.”

His smile pulled inward and his eyes slitted. He shook his head, ever so slightly. A silence held and became awkward, and he turned briefly away from me, craning his neck over the bookshelf as if he’d heard something. Then he looked back at me, his grin renewed.

“Most Berkeley-ites don’t usually come to this store for browsing,” he said.

“You can’t find textbooks like this anywhere else,” I said.

“That’s true,” he answered, then he laughed. “I guess that’s cause nobody wants to read them.”

I flushed.

“Well,” I said.

He smiled again. He took a few steps back.

“Well,” he said, amiably, “I hope you have a good day, Jonathon. Take as much time as you need.”

What? What? What?

Gratefulness washed over me like a dash of water.

“Okay,” I said. “Thanks,” I said, and I meant it. This was one of the nicest things anybody had done for me in a long time. It felt strange. I didn’t know what to do with it.

“Don’t worry about it.”

“Okay.”

“My name’s Trevor,” he said, and extended his hand.

I looked at it. I looked at him. His disarming grin was back, wide as it had ever been. This was strange. This was encouraging. He didn’t think I was so bad. He saw me as someone not beyond compassion, not beyond repair. Black people often have this initially accommodating quality. It was understandable. They could probably rattle off half a dozen people way worse than me. But then again, they usually didn’t get to know me so well either.

I reached out and shook his hand.

“And what’s your name?” he said slowly, emphasizing “your.”

“Jonathan. Jonathan Billings.”

“Okay,” he said and laughed again. “Have a good day, Jonathan. You seem to be an interesting cat. It makes me feel good to do right by an honest book lover. Maybe next time you come in you can buy something then.”

He clapped me on the shoulder. Companionable and manly and wholly un-homoerotic. What a great gesture. What a cool guy.

I looked over my shoulder at him as he passed, and indeed, he walked fast and assured and turned the next corner in the stacks with just as much assurance, his mind already resetting to whatever challenge his freedom-packed life would offer him next.

A student. I could see it in his walk.

Huh. How about that.

That had been unexpected. Maybe I was alright after all. Maybe it was okay that I stood out so obviously.

I stood a little longer with the book. I even considered opening it up again. It really was a good book. I really was getting something out of it.

But then I saw another lanyard-wearing employee approaching, and I realized it was time to make myself scarce.

I replaced The Denial of Death on the shelf, and I left, with a slight welling of irritation at this stupid Trevor for preventing me from fully enjoying my chapter of this book.

And yet, later that week, by some unfamiliar combination of motivations that I’ll choose not to closely analyze, I chose to return to the Bears’ Lair Books.

This time of year, when the school year was right around the corner, a store like this would be at its busiest. Outside, University and Telegraph Avenues were thick with bright, clean, fresh-faced freshmen, as was the campus itself. Groups of ebullient youngsters, like me in age alone. Walking packs of grins and laughing innocence. You couldn’t help but resent their recognizability.

We’re not all hippies, we Berkeley-ites, not by a long shot, though supposedly we’re one of the only places in the country where the genuine article still exists. I know I look the part, but it’s not intentional. My appearance modifies itself. I have nothing to do with it. Sure, I can make myself presentable when I really try, but it never lasts. I can watch where I step, wipe my shoes when I walk through a door, change my shirt every day and shower every morning. I can color-coordinate when I dress, and I can make sure that my jeans are washed once a week. But I inevitably let my guard down. The cuffs of my jeans become worn and threaded. Long-sleeved flannel shirts become my choice of default. My hair, well, I haven’t combed it in years. I cut it myself, mostly the back, just so I don’t look like a girl, which my childhood classmates used to accuse me of, back in the day, permanently scarring me. The image I cut, shambling along with my dirty old backpack, my messy mop of hair, my dirty jeans and threadbare shirts, I know it’s the kind of thing people who don’t know Berkeley might stop and marvel at. They might wonder what I do to pass my days, how I could have got like this, why I don’t clean myself up and get a job. Well, most of the time I’d be hard pressed to answer. What can I say. It’s just who I am. Even crossing over into Oakland or El Cerrito feels like entering a foreign country (or how entering a foreign country must feel for regular people — I don’t even want to speculate).

How strange then to find myself drawn so strongly and decisively to the beating shining heart of the one place in my city I feel the least comfortable. Maybe this was my subconscious, having run out of all other options, finding one last way to kick-start me. People always talk of the subconscious as if it’s smarter than the person, outwitting us at every turn and making us guess. I guess it is. According to Ernest Becker and the rest of the psycho psychologists, it knows something we don’t. Even when we hate it, we would always do well to respect it. You never know what it’s going to do.

In the bookstore’s freshest of freshmen crowd, I was reasonably safe. As long as I avoided eye contact they would probably allow me my space relatively un-judged. For these first few days, they were the intruders, not me.

I wandered. They walked by me and around me. I found a textbook on European art history. I found a reading chair by the wall and I took a half an hour and I read a chapter. I even thought of buying it. More like I thought about what it would be like being able to buy it. Because no, this wasn’t an option. I have enough to get by, but I don’t spend easily. I probably could buy it, if I really wanted. But then, there goes about half of that week’s unemployment check.

After about an hour, I stood up. I was feeling my oats. I’d been watching the crowd, and you know what, they weren’t so bad. Sure, they were rich, sure, they were innocent, sure they had the world at their feet and they didn’t even know it. But you know what, I have something that they don’t. I have experience. I have authenticity. I know who I am, I know what life is like. They have no idea. If I wanted, I could eat each and every one of them for breakfast.

Anyways, I’d had enough.

I put the textbook back where I’d found it, and I headed for the exit.

And there, taped to the glass doors with the bright sunlight shining on beyond them, (somehow I must have missed it on the way in), there was a sign. A sign that until not too long ago used to be a fairly common sight, but was now a testament in itself. I’ve seen it. Even those who have jobs. These days, everybody pauses a moment at these signs, turn their heads to read as they walk by on their way.

I did too.

I stood at the door, and I looked at the sign.

Orange block lettering, black background, white border. Blank white strip underneath where the details for the position should have been, but weren’t.

‘Help Wanted’ is what it said.

Help Wanted.

Isn’t it always.

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