“Aliza, could you give me a hand with these?” Bernard asks.
“Sure.” I help Bernard stock the shelves with a fresh collection of used anthologies. “It’s kind of nice how quiet it is today. Do you think it’ll get busy again in the afternoon?” I say.
“It is nice, gives us some time to get back on our feet, but I’m not sure if we’ll get another surge this afternoon,” Bernard says.
“Do you think it was true, what they said?” I ask. In my best radio voice I quote, “Riveted Reader, the last place in Pittsburgh to buy classic editions of Chekhov.”
He chuckles. “It was certainly an exaggeration then, and now it’s an outright falsehood.”
“At least, we had classic editions of Chekhov.”
“I’m sure the other second-hand stores must’ve had some too.”
“Well, it’s their loss. Clearly we were featured because this is the authentic bookstore experience. Happy birthday, Anton.”
“This bookstore even comes complete with a fossilized owner. It doesn’t get more authentic than this.”
“Oh, you’re not a fossil. You’re my dad’s age, and I’m not ready to consider him a fossil yet.”
“You sure know how to reassure a guy.”
“I try,” I tease. “Anyway, all the books are up. Do you want me to put away the boxes?”
“No, that’s quite all right. I’ll handle that.”
“‘Kay, then I’m heading off for lunch.”
“Of course, off you go.”
As I walk towards the door I see Chris, Bernard’s other employee, on the way in. I greet him, against my better instincts.
“Hey, off to lunch?” he says.
“Same as usual.”
“Enjoy yourself,” Chris says. He slaps my ass as I pass him through the doorway. I spin and give his back a death stare. I don’t want to reward his audacity by making a scene, but I do try to slam the door on him.
At the trattoria I read a draft I wrote last night between bites.
“Not happy with the draft?” Clarissa asks. I’m one of her regulars.
“How’d you know?”
“You know, you were rolling your eyes at it and stuff. Or maybe you’re reading someone else’s stuff?”
“No, it’s mine. The heartache in it is so trite, I can’t stand it.”
“Aw, but I bet it’s still good even if you don’t like it.”
“I don’t know, maybe it is.”
“Can’t you just, you know, write something else if you don’t like it?”
“Write what you know, they say. I don’t want to. But it turns out, I can only write what I am.”
“I guess so. I pushed a great guy away, because I was still hung up on something from a long time ago. So I feel bad about that, both for me and for him. You make it look so easy, you’re never lonely.”
“That’s just because I don’t get lonely, just, you know, horny.”
I laugh. “Must be nice.”
“Not really. I burn through, like, four of these assholes a month.”
“So you are bound to meet a nice guy eventually, it’s inevitable with those odds.”
“I dunno, I don’t, like, attract anyone worth it. You get much nicer guys after you than, you know, a lowly waitress.”
“Right, because used bookstore clerk is so many rungs higher on the crappy jobs ladder. The only guy I have after me is Chris.”
“Shuuut up. The same Chris that was in the time I came to visit? He was cute as, like, puppies.”
“Well, you’re entitled to your opinions. When I was coming over here today he copped a feel.”
“Were you pissed?”
“Sort of, but I didn’t want to give him the satisfaction of annoying me, so I just tried to slam the door on him.”
“Did it work?”
“Good? It was a damn shame.”
“If you don’t like him, just bring him over here sometime, okay? He’ll be taken care of.”
“Alrighty then. I just need some way to take care of my writing problem now.”
“You can’t change your loneliness by writing, you know”
When I get back I ask Bernard if anything happened while I was out.
“I did severely admonish Christopher. If he gives you any more trouble, just tell me, and I’ll fire him.”
“Oh, no, don’t do that. Chris is working through college, and I bet he needs the money.”
“He had the gall to suggest the story about my father’s café made me hypocritical, as if I was doing it myself or some such nonsense.”
“The story about the café filled with beautiful baristas? Tell me that story isn’t the basis of your hiring practices. Because if you find Chris attractive, then I’m not sure we can be friends.”
“No, no, heavens no,” he guffaws. “Like I told Chris, the café story is a condemnation of my father’s character, not an endorsement of his techniques. It was cruel really, having to grow up there.”
“Do you have any idea how hard it is to be surrounded by pretty women who all dote on you because you’re their boss’s son?”
“I must not, because that doesn’t exactly sound like hardship,” I say.
“Oh, but it was. I spent my entire childhood developing painful crushes on these women. It screws you up as a kid.”
“I’m sorry. But you seem to have turned out fine?”
“No. I’ll never forgive my father for what he did.”
“What was that?”
“One effect of that environment is to drive a young boy to become witty, if not charming. Eventually they doted on me not just because I was my father’s son, but because I treated them well and made them laugh.”
“So you got a lot of practice.”
“Yes, eventually it became a simple thing to talk to a stunning woman. When I was seventeen I fell in love with a new waitress named Kasia, and she with me.”
“And was it a long fulfilling relationship?” I tease.
“It could have been. We married when I was eighteen, in secret.”
“Oh, I didn’t know. That you had a wife, that is.”
“Wouldn’t be much of a secret, if you did.”
I smile uneasily. “I suppose not.”
“When my father found out, he was furious. He fired Kasia, forbid me from seeing her, had our marriage annulled by a priest he paid, and then sent me away from Poland to study in America.”
“Were you able to bring Kasia with you? Or did you go back to get her?”
“No, she wasn’t able to come. And it was eight years before I could afford to return to Poland.”
“Were you able to write to her?”
“After she was fired she had to move, and I didn’t get her new address before I left. She probably tried to write to me, but knowing my father he wouldn’t have told her my address if she asked.”
“What happened when you returned?”
“I wasn’t able to find her when I got back.”
“I’m so sorry.”
“It’s okay. I’ve had quite a bit of time to think about it. The pain is different now, more of a dull ache. Just like getting old, I suppose.”
I know that pain, but I want to let it go. Jonas wouldn’t want me hurting for him if he were alive. “I hope I wasn’t prying,” I say.
“No, not at all. Thank you for listening.”
“You know me, I’m always collecting stories.”
“Yes, but I want this one to make it into your book.”
“I’ll try my hardest to get the book written, then, and include it.”
“That way you can skip the time I almost destroyed my inventory by setting off the fire alarm.”
“I already said I wasn’t going to write about that.”
“Of course. One other thing, a young man came in looking for you while you were at lunch.”
“That’s curious,” I say. I don’t want to get my hopes up. “Who spoke with him?”
“Where is Chris?”
“I think he is upstairs sorting books.”
I find Chris sitting amidst several piles of books. He’s categorizing the books we bought off several people unloading their science fiction collections. Heinlein has the tallest stack so far.
“Hi,” I say.
Chris looks up. “Hey, what’s up?” he asks, like nothing happened earlier. His confidence is grating.
“Bernard said someone came in today looking for me.”
“Yeah, what about it?” he says, continuing to sort while talking to me.
“He said you talked to him for a while.”
“Yeah, what about that?”
“Did you, by any chance, get his name?”
“Conradinorator, or something like it.”
“Something like it?”
I draw a small breath. “Did he ask you where I was?”
I wait, expecting him to go on. Instead, he starts a Carl Sagan pile. I should have known, the one time I want to get his attention he’d ignore me. “What’d you tell him?”
“That you were out.”
“Did you tell him I was at lunch?”
“Of course not, that would be being helpful to a customer.”
“Aliza, you’re not a book.”
“Oh, that’s right. I got a bit mixed up for a moment, because you keep ‘judging’ my cover.”
“Yeah, you’re bitchier than you look. Guess the old saying was right.”
“Hilarious. You know where I eat lunch, so why didn’t you tell him?”
“I know how seriously you take lunch. After all, you never let me eat lunch with you.”
“Just because… oh, forget it. Did you tell him when I’d be back?”
“Nope. Look, how do you know this guy isn’t a stalker? He seemed plenty creepy to me.”
“I would know.” Chris is probably just trying to eliminate the competition, but still, it has been over a month since I last saw Connor. Maybe I missed something. “How did he seem creepy?”
“He’s going around looking for you? I mean, that’s pretty creepy right there—”
“Yeah, maybe you’d think so, but that’s a thin line. I’m sure he was making things up when I asked him—”
“Jesus, you were interrogating him?”
“Chillax, there wasn’t any water boarding going on.”
“What were you asking him?” I sigh.
“For starters, why he thought you worked here.”
“How did he know I worked here? Wait. You said ‘why’. You were pretending I didn’t work here?”
“Until I could confirm he wasn’t going to murder you, yeah.”
“So he knows I work here, right?”
“Nope, I wasn’t able to confirm.”
“Amazing, I can’t believe you. So fine, why did he think I worked here?”
“Allegedly he got a phone call from some guy called Richard, and this guy told him you worked here. Sounds suspicious.”
“No it doesn’t. I talked to Richard during my trip to Seattle. I told you about him. Stockholme. The writer. You are a fan.”
“Yeah, right, now you are trying to tell me that Richard Stockholme called up this creep and told him where to find you? I didn’t even believe you when you said you talked to him on the train.”
“Well, apparently he did.” That is the problem with confiding in writers, they can’t stop telling stories, and in this case, changing the story. He probably looked Connor up in the phone book the moment he got home. “So, great, what else did you bother him with?”
“You know, you really should be more grateful that I’m looking out for your safety.”
“I guess I should be, because you’d be an enormous help if I were ever in danger.”
“Did I already tell you I was taking karate classes? But get this, I asked him how he knew you and it set off alarm bells. First he was really shifty about it, like people always are when they are trying to make something up. And then he came up with this totally ridiculous story. Like, you wouldn’t even believe how stupid this story was.”
“Let me guess, he said we met each other randomly very late one night when we were both out walking, and after that we started meeting regularly at night.”
“Yeah! And you want to know the most unrealistic part? He said you guys would spend the entire night together and he wasn’t banging your brains out.”
I choke on my own spit and cough harshly.
“That’s just totally unbelievable, I mean if I spent that long with you at night I’d—”
“Don’t! No one needs to hear that. And damn, would you stop projecting?”
“Gawd, sorry. So how’d you guess correctly?”
He must be deliberately dense at times like these, and I’m getting impatient. “Really now? Because it happened, is how I guessed.”
“I don’t buy it.”
“I’m past caring at this point. Were you able to scare him off forever?”
“Actually, he wanted me to help him find a book, since he was here already.”
“What book was it? Did you actually help a customer for once?”
“Of course I did. What kind of employee do you take me for? Anyway, he was looking for Lolita. I’m telling you, creepy dude, creepy book. But look, stop asking me questions. I’m just trying to protect you.”
“Okay. Well, I’m going now.” No point in continuing this charade if he’s being coy.
“Wait, don’t you want to know the rest? Why he wanted to find you, what he thought of you, that kind of stuff?”
“Not really.” My turn to act disinterested.
“Awesome, see you later,” he says. I scrutinize him. He seems relaxed now. If he was deliberately withholding, why would he be relaxed? Does he actually know something he doesn’t want me to know?
I stew for half an hour downstairs. Maybe I’m overcomplicating things. Chris isn’t so complex, if he sees Connor as competition of course he’ll react belligerently. Maybe trying to protect me. From what though?
“No, I shouldn’t tell you.”
“Please?” I’m beginning to feel too tired for exasperation.
“Nope. He was quite adamant that you not know.”
“Come on, please.”
“Swear it, he said. Swear you won’t tell her.”
“Just, come on. I know you don’t care about that.”
He smiles, like he’d just done something clever. “Okay, fine, I’ll tell you.”
“Thank you.” I say with a deep breath.
“He said he came to get even with you.”
“No, he couldn’t have.”
“He said that you were a horrible bitch, and he couldn’t stand it.”
“No, no way, please tell me you’re making this up.” I’m feeling faint.
“After it set in, what you’d done to him, he couldn’t believe how you’d strung him along and then dumped him just like that. He’s been looking for you ever since, to tell you how wrong you were and how shitty you made him. I hope you’re happy now, you made me break my vow.”
“I’m not happy.” I turn away, so he can’t see me crying. That’s what I get for letting my hopes up.
“I’m sorry, but I warned you,” Chris says.
I walk down the stairway very carefully. I feel unsteady, on an intoxicating mix of weariness and grief. I keep having to stop and wipe my eyes. I hide behind the counter with my cash register and sit, hugging my knees. I’m getting my skirt wet with tears. I’m trying to be quiet, but my knees only muffle so much.
“Aliza? Are you all right?” Bernard asks.
I wipe my eyes and look up. I try to smile, but the corners of my lips rebel. “I’m great. Fine.”
“No you aren’t.” He sits down next to me. “Tell me what’s wrong.”
“Bernard, what if a customer comes in?”
“They can wait. You need attention. What are you thinking about?”
“Your story, I guess.”
“I’m sorry if it upset you. I’ve gotten better, really.”
“Not that much better. You don’t need to sugar coat it for me. I was in love with a boy once. We started dating when I was sixteen. I stopped reading romance novels then, because what we had was better than anything I’d read. But he passed away.”
“I’m very sorry. How old were you when it happened?”
“It must have been hard on you at that age.”
“It would’ve been hard at any age. I quit attending class for a semester before I could get a hold of myself. And even then, well, you know me as reserved, as does everyone nowadays.”
“Was Chris saying something insensitive?”
“Of course, but he was only the messenger.”
“But what was the message?”
“The guy who came in, Connor, is the only person besides you to have heard this story from me. He’d expressed feelings for me, and I wasn’t ready at that point. I couldn’t just brush him off, you know? So I told him the story, and I tried to explain why it was too soon. I told him I never wanted to see him again.”
“So Connor’s who you’ve been looking for after your trip to Seattle?”
“Yes, that’s right.”
“But he came here, so what’s the bad news?” Bernard smiles broadly.
“He came here looking to get even with me, and I deserve it.”
“What? That’s odd, that’s not how he seemed to me.”
For a moment my hope returns. “Did Connor buy a book while he was here?”
“He did, in fact.”
“You rang it up?”
“Was it Nobokov?”
“Yes, it was.”
Again, I’m such a fool for optimism. I bury my face in my skirt again.
“He bought a 1979 translation of An Invitation to a Beheading.”
“What, not Lolita?”
“That’s exactly what I asked him too. He said he likes reading an author’s lesser known works. He thinks an author’s most significant work is never their best known work, because their most known work has a universality of experience that makes it accessible to a wide audience. Whereas their lesser known works people can have trouble relating to. They are more personal, less universal, and more specific. They carry the most significance to the author—”
A sob turns into a laugh, I’m grinning now. “My God, I should have known Chris was lying. It’s so absurd now. You’re describing the Connor I actually know.”
“Does he always theorize like that?”
“Yes, and I rather like it. He’s very contemplative. But did I interrupt you? I’m feeling much better now.”
“He was saying the fine point of being a writer is balancing personal significance with universal motifs. He said the most powerful story you’ll ever read is one most directly addressing your existence. So he’s reading every author’s most personal and specific writing to see if any of them will connect with him, by chance. And if one does, it’ll be the full experience.”
“I miss the conversations. Did Chris scare him off? I can’t imagine Chris was being very helpful.”
“It’s okay, I wrote a note and stuck it in the book. I told where to meet you for lunch next week.”
“Thank you so much, I owe you.” I hug him tight.
He pats my back. “Not too hard, dear, I’m glad you are so much better now,” he gasps.
“Thanks. Now I need to go have a talk with Chris.”
“Chris.” He’s still sorting out the stacks, but Asimov is winning now.
“You look better, did you get over him finally?”
“No, but I realized what you did.”
“What did I do, exactly?”
“Lie to me.”
“Sorry about that, then.”
“Why’d you even say that he bought Lolita? That’s stupid. You know reading that book doesn’t automatically make you a pedophile, don’t you?”
“It seemed like a better idea at the time. Was it all that gave it away?”
“Well, no. Okay, fine, yes.”
“You don’t have to look so embarrassed, I’m a theater major after all. I’m supposed to be good at that.”
“You fooled me.”
“I know it. Hook, line, and sinker.” He grins.
“But in retrospect, you were acting unbelievably dense.”
“But it was believable. You believed it. I knew you’d be pissed at me after I felt you up, so you’d be ready to assume the worst of me. Acting like a moron just played into your annoyance at me, heh.”
“You’re an asshole.”
“Damn straight. But I’m no idiot.”
“Why the fuck would you do that to me?”
“Chillax. Look, I saw Bernie stick in that note, so you’d figure it out eventually. Possibly he’d give you a heart attack when he showed up at lunch. That would have been worth it alone. I wasn’t being a dick to him. I did check him out, and he seemed cool, so I talked up what a great chick you are. You know, I know you could probably have me fired at any moment. Either you’re a masochist, or you don’t want me starving. That’s nice.”
“That still doesn’t explain why the hell you would screw with me like that,” I say, but my voice has lost its edge.
“Why not? Look at you people. You go through your lives making them into fiction. You take unrelated events in your lives and you invent causality and explanations, and suddenly you have significance. You delude yourself about why things happen, and you build yourself a beautiful drama. I figure, screw that, I’m going to make fiction out of other people’s lives. The stories they come up with suck. I could introduce way more drama. Tension. Emotion, turmoil, resolution. Think how boring it would have been if Connor just came in, and you missed him. Missed connections, they happen every day. The cute girl on the subway looks me in the eye and then steps off the train into space. That’s a triviality. I made your triviality memorable.”
“You’re sick, I hope you know that. It isn’t right to toy with emotions like that.” I turn toward the stairs.
“Why? Because I dare to craft in people what you only manage to write with words? Isn’t that what you are trying to do, anyway? Manipulate emotions with your words? Cause people to feel what they aren’t feeling?”
I’m halfway down the stairs. I shout behind my back, “What I do is share myself, not steal something belonging to someone else.”
“Enjoy your fucking lunch!”