Originally published in The Worcester Journal on March 16, 2016
The last handful of nature essays toppled on their sides as the fat hardcover encyclopedia of insects that had been acting as a bookend was swiftly grabbed and tucked away. Julian liked the nature section. It was small and squashed between science and travel, and even though he knew nothing about particles or marshlands or Buenos Ares or bumblebees, he liked to read the names of books in his journey down the alphabet, and think of things he’d never thought of before. Words like “quantum” and “archdruid” and “invertebrate” filled his head, empty and meaningless and curious sounds. Metaphysics, he thought, stopping to look at a metaphysics book. I’ve never considered metaphysics before, and I may never again. And he continued down the row.
Nothing was quite as satisfying for Julian as a calm day at the bookstore, when he could leisurely push carts across the carpeted floor without clumsily meandering through clusters of lost husbands, trinket-finding seeking kids and book club mothers. He could hide for a while in each section, and flip through the books to see what font they used. (Dante, Baskerville—Garamond was his favorite. He even saw Cochin once.) There was a special kind of calm on Mondays, after the frantic herd of weekend shoppers completed all their spending goals, asking for books that didn’t exist and refusing sales pitches for discount cards. Sunday night was weary and relieved, while Monday morning was quiet and still. No one wanted to disrupt it first.
Entertainment was a disaster. Television, music bios, screenwriting, dance—they were all a mad jumble along the wall perpendicular to art (which had been systematically destroyed long ago—there was no hope). Julian often tried to find time in his shifts to sneak away to the music and arts corner of the store—at the far end, by the scant collection of CDs and pop vinyls—in vain attempts to alphabetize, but it was no use. (He nearly finished the section once, and was dismayed to find it in ruins again two days later.) Truly artistic people surely won’t care, he tried to convince himself, compensating for his own small failures. They’ll appreciate the long journey to finding just what they want. They probably prefer things not to be organized. He still tried, nonetheless.
“Um, excuse me?”
Julian turned away from the dishearteningly disorganized shelves to a girl with freckles, dimples, and glasses. She was shorter than him, and there was a cynicism in her eyes and maturity in the way her hair fell around her frame. He coughed.
“Yes, can I help you find something?” Julian asked. He hoped he sounded uninterested.
“Yeah, I’m looking for maps. Like road maps.” She kept buttoning and unbuttoning the left sleeve of her green flannel. Her fingernails were painted green.
“Okay, those are actually at the other end of the store by science, um…” Julian hated walking the length of the floor with customers, but he saw no other reasonable option. “Just—come with me.” He never knew whether to lead or walk beside people, but for the sake of avoiding small talk, he chose to lead, and took a brisk pace down the aisle.
“I need something for the Southwest, in particular.” Julian was at once disappointed and nervously excited to see that she was taking especially long strides to keep up with him.
“Yep, everything we’ve got will be down here,” he said. He stared straight ahead as they marched past psychology and science fiction, health, relationships and fantasy, but he could see her looking expectantly at his profile. Now feeling obliged to keep some sort of conversation alive, he added, “What are you doing in the Southwest?” He could see Quentin behind the café counter, stolidly ringing someone up for a mocha frappuccino. His long fingers always managed to look elegant, even punching $3.29 into the register.
“I don’t know yet,” the girl said. She smiled bashfully. “I’m hoping I’ll figure it out on the drive.”
Plastic knives snapped. Straw wrappers crinkled. The blender whirred. Smells of coffee and cream and caramel flavoring bled from the confines of the café counter. They swept around the sore feet of customers posed casually at little round black tables by the home and garden magazines, filling the air with dusty bits of dark chocolate, raspberries, and cinnamon. Julian pushed a black wire cart towards the microwave where Quentin always put the go-backs, wondering whether he would miss this someday. A slice of blueberry pie had just finished heating up, and the terrible whining alarm beeped loudly amid the nearby chatter of impatient tutors and students, parents, associates, and the rustle of a New York Times from the hands of an old man in the corner. Julian stopped and heard the collection of sounds, then spotted a small stack of magazines lying on the counter. He felt his phone vibrate in the front pocket of his apron, but ignored it. As he picked up the assortment, Quentin came wandering out of heavy metal double doors that led to the kitchen. He had recently dyed the front of his bleach blonde head a vibrant magenta, accentuating his blue eyes and the ring through his eyebrow, and causing Julian to do a double take almost every time he saw him. The microwave stopped beeping.
“Hey,” said Julian, placing the magazines in the cart one at a time in order to catch all the sections. Golf, regional, technology, games. Golf, regional, technology, games. Golf, regional, technology, games. He thought it several times while Quentin unhurriedly extracted the slice of pie and moved it onto a cool plate.
“Hey,” said Quentin. He never said much.
“How is it over here today?” Despite the café and the bookstore being in the same building—indeed, part of the same chain—making the trip behind the counter always felt like an exotic field trip for Julian.
“Not bad.” Quentin gracefully sprayed a puff of whipped cream over the pie and brought it to the pick-up side. “Blueberry pie with cream?” he asked the general area indifferently. An old woman with white sneakers claimed it, after a few moments of uncertainty. Julian wheeled his cart back onto the open floor. Turning around to instinctively check that he hadn’t forgotten anything, he saw Quentin looking absently after him. They briefly saw each other and then both looked away.
It was overcast and crowded. It was a bad day.
After spending nearly a half hour with one woman who fervently wanted an original copy of Edith Wharton’s first book on interior design (it was impossible), Julian was desperate for his lunch break. The flow of irritable or otherwise unremarkable customers had been nonstop since eleven, and he found it a bit exhausting to be so completely unappreciated sometimes. A microwavable meal with lukewarm water always made the day a little better, though.
In the break room, Skip was already immersed in a new mystery book, waiting for his leftover Chinese to cool down. He didn’t look up as Julian crossed the scuffed tiled floor to reach his ramen noodles. Skip read more than anyone else in the store—teen fiction, biographies, military history, bestsellers, cult classics—nothing was outside his realm of interest, and he had a suggestion for everyone. Julian stood by the microwave as the timer went down, absentmindedly taking out his phone. Three new messages from Clare. The door opened again, and Julian quickly put his phone back as Quentin came through. He nodded at Julian, then briskly went to the fridge.
“Your hair looks really cool, by the way,” said Julian, realizing he had never actually said anything about it despite the frequency with which he noticed it. Quentin’s smooth blank face was buried in the refrigerator light, but when he surfaced he was smiling. The microwave went off. Julian reached in for his Tupperware of noodles, but quickly withdrew. It was too hot.
It was nearly time to close, but the graphic novel section was still full with the usual crowd of pale, skinny, manga-reading kids with dyed hair and black outfits who looked rather like anime characters themselves. Julian didn’t mind that they sat in the store and read manga all day because the books were too expensive to buy, but he dreaded the end of the night when he would have to crawl through their small haunts, picking up the abandoned volumes and finding space for them in the tightly-packed shelves. He went out back to grab his cigarettes and tell Pete he’d be taking his last break.
Outside, the air was cool and almost smelled of October. Julian dug through his pockets for a lighter, wondering how long it would be until the true October smell washed over the sky.
“Hey, I know you.”
Julian looked up. He almost didn’t recognize the freckled, dimpled, bespectacled girl who stood before him once again. She was smiling. He coughed.
“Oh—yeah—Southwest girl! Road maps. Right?” She nodded happily. Julian took another drag, and hoped he looked cool. “So when’s the big trip?”
“Tomorrow, actually,” she said. He might have imagined it, but it seemed like her smile started to fade.
“No kidding,” he said. “Lucky you.” He exhaled and watched the smoke float off.
The day was winding down, and the children’s books were everywhere. Julian was hardly surprised to see that Carla, the curvy brunette who wore her hair down, was taking her time picking them up. She was always looking for an excuse not to be on register.
“Can you believe shit like this?” she asked, flicking her brown eyes up at him. “Sometimes I just can’t believe shit like this. Like, pick up after your fucking kids, this isn’t a goddamn daycare.” Carla had a monotone, husky kind of voice, ideal for complaining and passing on gossip in low tones (which she often did, between the far-left territories of Westerns and romance). Julian knelt to pick up a stray Elmo behind her.
“When are you done?” he asked, tucking the plush red puppet back on the shelf with Big Bird and Grover.
“Fucking forever ago,” said Carla. She threw a copy of Goodnight Moon onto a pile of baby bathtub books with excessive aggression. “I was supposed to be out at eight, but fucking Pete always takes fucking forever to count the registers. I actually had plans on a Saturday night, believe it or not.”
Julian looked around, past the neon pink activity section for girls and out to the main doors. There were no clocks in the entire store, and without a cell phone to risk getting caught looking at, one had no choice but to gauge the time of day based on what little natural light came through the front windows. Julian estimated it to be around nine o’clock.
“Hey, aren’t you leaving soon too? Like for real?” Carla looked up from her place sitting crisscross on a rug shaped like a frog’s face. “When’s your last day?”
Julian was shuffling towards a woman who looked vaguely lost by the new fiction display. “Monday,” he said, turning back for an instant.
The store had been closed for thirty-six minutes when Julian finally finished vacuuming and cleaning the bathrooms. He was scheduled to open tomorrow, and so went through each closing ceremony with a bittersweet tenderness because he knew it would be the last time. This is the last time I’ll spray this eco-friendly surface cleaner on this bathroom mirror, he thought, spraying the eco-friendly surface cleaner onto the bathroom mirror, wiping it away with sad satisfaction. He looked at his fresh, lemon-scented reflection. His shaggy black hair would surely be cut before the journey back to school, and the dozen or so freckles around his nose would fade with the summertime. He switched the lights off and wheeled the mop bucket through the staff entrance to the kitchen.
Spending the last twenty-four minutes of his shift wandering through the rows of fiction, Julian absentmindedly pushed books back and forth, straightening the titles and front-facing the ones he liked best. The tired alternative-pop music rang through the empty space above the shelves and in between them.
“Wasting time?” Quentin appeared from behind the Dickens and Dostoevsky.
Julian laughed. “There’s not much else to do,” he said, front-facing a Junot Díaz book. Quentin stuck his thumbs in his back pockets.
“Word on the street is, you’re outta town soon,” he said, looking at the floor. “Are you coming back for Christmas?”
Julian had untied his black apron and started the big move across the store and towards the break room. Quentin followed suit. “I’m not sure yet,” said Julian. “Will you still be around?”
“Hell no,” said Quentin, rolling his eyes. “If I’m still here at Christmas, kill me.”
He laughed a little bit, and Julian did too. Another pop song came on. A microwave went off. A new and tired life started somewhere as the sun went down, but neither of them noticed anything except the smell of the books, and the sound of each other’s sneakers hitting the thin blue carpet.