by Liam Scheff
4 of 15×15
“Just walk up to her and say, ‘The guy over there.’ No, ‘The manager recommends…’ No. ‘Wants you to have this, compliments of the house.'”
“Deck, I’m alphabetizing.”
“Just do this one thing – this one thing for me.”
Ray exhales. He knows somewhere inside that he’s going to be part of this transaction, but he’s going to make Declan earn it for a change.
“Deck, why is the travel section arranged alphabetically?”
“What? How else should it be?”
“By country, Declan. Haven’t you ever fuckin’ been anywhere?” Ray doesn’t say it angrily, but with an intention to instruct. Declan gets down on his haunches and listens as Ray holds court. He’s going to earn his favor. Ray pulls a book off the shelf. “Indonesia.” He holds up ‘The Insight Guide to Indonesia.’ “Makes sense to have it next to another book on?” He grabs the next book, “Indonesia. Lonely Planet. Same place, different emphasis.”
“Okay,” says Declan, following along. “What’s the big deal?”
“Patience, mon frère. Now, what’s next?” He points to the next book to the right. “India? Now, what’s wrong with this picture?”
“It’s out of order. Is this what you’re spending two hours on? People will find it.”
“Will they? Okay, it’s out of order, so we stuff it to the left..no, doesn’t fit, so on the shelf above. India. Indonesia. All better?”
“Sure, I guess, yeah.”
Ray gestures with “Indonesia” as a pointer and taps each book in the row as he says, “Wrong. Wrong, wrong and entirely wrong.”
“Jesus Ray, you really make a production.”
“Okay, Deck, let’s say that one day you save two pennies and manage to take a trip somewhere other than Flynn’s.”
“And you want to go to, oh…Chicago. You want to go to Chicago to see where Led Zeppelin stole their first and second album.”
Declan laughs. “Okay, I want to go to Chicago. So, I look it up.”
“Here, Illinois,” he grabs it from the shelf just to the left of “India.”
“Okay, and while you’re there in the middling west, you want to shoot down to St. Louis, to see where Monsanto began its world-wide purge of human beings.”
“Fuck. Okay,” says Declan, smiling as his friend turns their common political interests into personal amusement. “St. Fucking Louis. And while I’m there, I’m going to fuck the St. Pauli Girl and take a riverboat to New Orleans. And get drunk for a week.”
“Big surprise,” says Ray. “Now, where do you find these cities of legend?”
Declan looks around the shelves. “North America,” he says. “No. The United States.” He pauses for a moment and Ray stares at him flatly. “Shit,” says Declan. “Why is the whole travel section — ”
“Alphabetical?” They say the same time.
“Right,” says Ray. “Travel sections go by country. Not by letter. They go by letter inside of countries. But Boston should not be next to…”
“Bhutan,” Declan answers, pulling out the book and looking at it.
“So you see this wall of…” Ray does an impromptu count, “8 shelves high….35 books per….5 shelves. Shit, that’s a lot of books. Call it, 2,000 books — ”
“It’s not 2,000 books.”
“Is it 1,000?”
“Probably, probably more.”
“Okay, thirteen hundred and five. Is that okay? I have to sort through this giant vertical pile of thirteen hundred and five… point six books, and arrange it all into sections by continent, country and region of the world. Which means that I am –”
“You’re not –”
“You’re…Okay. You’ve made your point. Now, genius, will you take this book over to the girl in the striped shirt…”
“Ah, okay. Where?” asks Ray.
They two men angle their heads and upper bodies to get a glimpse behind the row of bookshelves that line the café. “Right….there.”
“Wow. Not bad, for an eighth grader.”
“Okay, she looks like… maybe an undergrad. You can’t be interested.”
“I can’t?” Declan weights the “I” with a dripping irony of self-awareness. It says, “You know me, you are my best friend in this place, and you know I’ll fuck anything legal that will have me.”
Ray pauses, “Okay. You would.”
“Dude, you would, too. I know about Strawberry Shortcake, don’t forget.”
“Shit. That was a horrible… ugh. What was she, 22? God that was awful.”
“Hey, don’t let your insecurities ruin a friend’s good time.”
There was some truth in it. Ray had trouble with young women – they seemed to be speaking a different language. At 29, he felt he was experiencing the beginning of a permanent generation gap. He didn’t understand them, their preoccupations, their social habits.
And he found them, often, boring. They hadn’t read anything. They didn’t know anything, but they acted important. And they butchered the language with ridiculous slang. Terms invented from internet shortcuts were now…words? He was beginning to hate them, as a class of people. The new college girls. But at 29, he was easily turned on by the very presence of the brighter ones. “Fine. What’s the book.” Declan hands over a thick paperback. “Oh, you gotta be fucking kidding me.”
“Just… give it to her.” Declan can’t help the joke, “Not that way.”
“Yeah, fine. And I say again? Courtesy of the house, milady? The gentleman with the crooked teeth and questionable personal hygiene –”
“What, I’m just kidding. Fine, what do you want me to say?”
“Do you think my hygiene is –”
“No, I’m kidding. I’m sorry. I’m just yanking your chain because you’re having me pimp for you.”
“Okay. Tell her that the manager wants her to have this, courtesy of the Infinite Om.”
“Courtesy of… wow. Do you think Benjy will mind hearing that?”
“He’s not going to hear it.”
“He’s the owner.”
“Exactly. He hears what I tell him. I’m the manager. And you’re my best buddy,” Declan mimes an exaggerated show business smile and puts his hands up, framing it like a vaudeville performer.
“Wow. You’re a clown. Okay! Off I go. Courtesy of the Infinite Om.”
“You’re the best, man,” Declan says with surprising sincerity.
Ray gets up with the book, walks over to a table filled with Boston University undergrads. Good looking girls, dressed well, spending their parents’ money on the tarted-up food the cafés serve on Newbury street.
He approaches the table smiling. “I’m very sorry to intrude,” he begins. “The manager wanted you to have a copy of this book.” He puts down on the table “A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius.” The young woman in the striped yellow top takes it, and quickly makes an appreciative purse of her lips and smile. Her friends seem impressed.
“Oh my God,” she says, making Ray’s ears ring with the predictability of her thoughts, “I was just .. .weren’t we just totally talking about this? That is like….wow.”
“Yes. Indeed,” says Ray, with a humor so brittle and dry that no one except his closest few friends would get the joke. “It’s kismet.”
“That’s totally cool of you. Can we read it here?” she asks, leaning into the answer.
“No, I haven’t been clear,” he says, with his strange, serious formality, “It is a gift, courtesy of the Infinite Om.”
The girls are so silent that the ambient noise seems clear for the first time; the plates rattling in the kitchen, the other patrons talking, waitresses taking orders.
“Woww. That is…”
“So cool,” finishes one of her friends, a medium-built, shiny, Chinese-looking daughter of privilege, who looks up at Ray and smiles very warmly. “So, cool,” they all agree.
“Enjoy it,” says Ray. “You can always thank the manager on the way out. He’s good at knowing what people want.” He wrinkles his nose slightly as he says it and smiles. It’s Ray’s internal joke to himself. He’ll tell Declan about it later and they’ll both fall apart laughing.
“Well,” says Ray, walking by Declan in the book aisle, “somebody’s getting laid tonight.” Declan claps his hands together and rubs his palms appreciatively. “And it’s not going to be me,” says Ray, now laughing mirthfully.
Declan trots off to position himself at the cash register by the entrance. The bookstore-cafe is narrow but deep and there is only one exit. He’ll meet his quarry there as she leaves, and accept the phone number which she’s already written on a napkin.
Back in the travel section, Ray is pulling out books into growing piles. “Now, where were we? Alaska. Andalusia. Antarctica. The Andes. Australia. Banff. Boston… Jesus, what a mess.”
– – –
This is Story 4 in 15×15. A story written and edited in one to two hours with no major revisions.