Monday Stories

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Tag: 1990s

The River: An Epilogue

September 4th, 1998

A long sultry day had finally given over to a rapidly cooling night. That was one of the perks of living in a mountain desert like Boise: you had blisteringly hot days, but the nights were cool.

Chris and Sienna had spent the evening at a little mini-fair set up on a farmer’s property out west of town. It had all the trappings of your typical state fair: fried foods, bored teenagers, and rides that could be put together and taken apart in a matter of hours.

Normally Chris would enjoy this setting. He loved Americana, although if called on it he would try to act like he only enjoyed it ironically. He loved the twilight hour when the lights on all the rides were turned on, but before it was dark enough for them to illuminate anything other than themselves. Normally he would love the whole sonic landscape, practically unchanged from the state fairs his quasi-beatnik parents would have avoided going to. But tonight everything was stifled by the fact that Sienna was going to break up with him.

He didn’t blame her; she should never have been with a guy like him to begin with. He had been hopelessly devoted to her all through junior high and high school while she had had a series of increasingly dramatic relationships. Chris had spent the past eight months trying not to think that the only reason she was with him was because her latest break up had happened the night they had graduated, at a party Chris attended. Chris had been wandering around the outskirts of the party, slightly wearied by people but still wanting to participate, when he heard a squeal of tires close to where he had parked. When he went to check on his car he found Sienna sitting on his car’s rear bumper, crying quietly. He sat next to her and she explained what had happened.

Chris put an arm around her and held her close for a few moments, then invited her to come walk with him by the river, along a little part of the Greenbelt that he loved. She said she was hosting a party and Chris told her she was more important than any dumb party.

“You really believe that, don’t you?” She said, and somehow that was enough to promote Chris from the Friend Zone to full-fledged boyfriend. They walked and sat and talked beside that river, and from then on it had been “their spot”.

And that’s where Sienna wanted to go now, as they left the carnival. She wasn’t holding his hand, or walking arm in arm with him. She had been physically distancing herself from Chris all evening. Idly Chris wondered if she was doing it intentionally. Sienna seemed to live almost entirely on the surface, which wasn’t to say she was shallow; Chris knew her far to well to ever call her shallow. Sienna felt things deeply and understood people just as deeply. She just never hid her feelings. If she was angry at you there was no way she could hide it. But she loved a scene. Chris knew her well enough to know that, and well enough to know that in her mind, breaking up with him alongside the river was a “perfect ending”. She seemed to cultivate those.

For a moment, just a moment, Chris thought about saying no. About driving her home, and making her break up with him, no, making her dump him, on her front porch, where her roommate and her roommate’s boyfriend that Sienna hated, would see the whole thing. But he couldn’t. He was never good at confrontation. In some way he still loved her enough to want her to be able to break up on her terms. He didn’t need anything special. In fact, he felt like he was only half-there. Part of him was there, going through the motions, driving to their spot along the river, but it felt like the real Chris was sitting in his room, going through his CD collection, listening to his favorite music.

This was all falling apart because they didn’t speak the same language, Chris thought. Take the phrase that relationships are built on: “I love you”. Chris had said that to one person, ever, and that was Sienna. His parents felt that it was too trite, too common, and had trained him to express his affection in other ways. But to Chris it was the ultimate expression; a statement of deep, permanent, personal connection.

To Sienna it was on approximately the same level as “Good Morning!”. It wasn’t that she was insincere when she said she loved someone. She just loved everyone, and assumed, not without justification, that everyone loved her.

“In other words,” Chris thought, “To me love is forever, to her love is for everyone”.

And now they were at that spot, the place where they had started dating. Sienna took his hands and started saying things. She was leaving him. She still loved him, but things were different now. She needed him to be her friend, not her boyfriend. She said there wasn’t anybody else, and Chris knew it was true. Even if she no longer wanted to be his girlfriend, she was a good enough person that she’d never cheat on him.

But Chris was only partially listening. In his mind he was sitting back and deciding between Toad the Wet Sprocket and R.E.M. for the next hour. This whole breakup was just something in a book. What did this guy think he was doing with a girl like that anyway? Try again, author, nobody’s buying it.

Sienna had stopped talking, her eyes glistening with genuine, but unshed tears. Chris said all the right things back. Of course he understood. It hurt, but all he really wanted was for her to be happy. Of course they would still be friends.

She hugged him, told him how great he was, and they walked back to the parking lot while “All I Want” played in Chris’ mind. Chris hadn’t noticed it when they arrived, but Sienna’s car was waiting on the other end of the lot. That was more forethought than she usually put into things. He should probably be grateful; that drive home was going to be awkward.

She hugged him one more time, thanked him for being so understanding, and then drove away. Chris watched her go, angry at himself for being so understanding, for not fighting for her. A few years later, when he first heard “Fight Test” by The Flaming Lips he would think of this moment and realize he wasn’t the only one who felt like this. But for now, his head full of music, Chris walked back down to the river.

Author’s Notes

I wrote the first draft of this story in 1994 or 1995. My Creative Writing teacher at the time got mad that I called it “Epilogue” when nothing came before it.

I haven’t seen the original draft in a few…decades now, but the story is sparse enough and simple enough that it stuck with me.

Chris is part of a larger series of stories that I’ve been working on. I had made a promise to myself that I would post stories about him in chronological order, a promise I have just broken.

Black Friday and Christmas Eve

Note This story comes from a series called “Booksellers”. I’ve been working on it off and on for years, and might even publish it someday. Basically I’ve been taking my memories of working in a bunch of different bookstores, mashing them together, and trying to turn them into something entertaining by ignoring the boring parts. You know. Things like “what actually happened”.

November-December, 1994

There are two days that all retail employees dread: Black Friday and Christmas Eve.

A quick word about Black Friday, by the way. That name is ours, not yours. If you’ve never worked a sales floor or restaurant when hoards of people, most of them trying to escape the in-laws, descend on you in a frantic retail-therapy mass you don’t get to call it that. All that crap about “Black Friday is the day that your retail establishment finally gets into the black” is idiocy. If you’re only turning a profit the last six weeks of the year you don’t open the other forty-six. It’s called Black Friday because it’s the day salespeople die. I don’t know who the marketing genius is who thought they could take that name and turn it into an…an event, but I hate them.

So, clearly, as a bookseller Black Friday is a day you should dread. People come in, get hopped up on espresso and start bargain hunting. Anything to make them forget that they have to go back to Mom’s house and try not to kill their idiot brother who still hasn’t moved out.

And don’t worry, they will tell you all about it. Booksellers are a lot like bartenders, apparently. The actual barista in the cafe don’t even get as much random self-confessional as the guy trying to put books away out on the sales floor.

“It’s not that I don’t love my brother, I do, but he’s…well, he’s killing Mom.” A lady was telling me. She introduced the subject by asking me to help her find Arthur C. Clarke’s Childhood’s End.

“I see.” I said.

“Mom won’t ever push him out the door, is the thing. She’s afraid that he’ll get into real trouble if he’s on his own.”

“Could be,” I mumbled. I had a large stock of absolutely non-committal phrases.

“But how is he ever going to find out, if he doesn’t take a chance? You can’t just stay in your room all the time and suddenly be ready to be a professional businessman or…or a doctor. What’s this?”

“Childhood’s End.”

She looked at the cover, dominated by a huge spaceship over a city. “Do you think he’ll like it?”

“It’s a good book, but not really everyone’s cup of tea.”

“Why not?”

“Pretty much everyone dies at the end.”

She nodded thoughtfully. “Do you think my brother will like it?”

You’ve read every word she said to me, you know her brother as well as I did. “It’ll be a good read for him, I think.”

She nodded. “Thanks.” And walked off to the registers. And there it is. I was an accessory to one of the most passive-aggressive gifts of 1994.

But Christmas Eve! It’s a whole different story. Manic? Absolutely. Busy? Definitely. And exhausting. But you have one big advantage:

People are out of time. On Black Friday people have a whole month ahead of them. If you aren’t willing to wheel and deal they’ve got time to find something else. On Christmas Eve they want the first thing that looks thoughtful. And here’s where you get to see how good you actually are. Anybody can sell the latest Oprah’s Book Club choice to a guy looking for a last-minute wife/girlfriend gift. We had hundreds of the things up at the registers. On Christmas Eve the real booksellers challenge themselves in one of two ways. The first is for customers who are jerks: how high can you jack up their final purchase? The second is for the nice customers: how perfectly can you fit the book to their loved one?

All modesty aside, I was better at the second. My friend Chad focused on the first. “I just sold a complete Feynman Lectures to that guy. His son’s an engineering major.” he told me as his customer walked out the door.

“That’s like, what, $200? Nice!” I said.

“Thanks. And you know the best part? He came in looking for A Brief History of Time in paperback”. (Retail price:$14.95)

My victories were harder to brag about, but better for me.

“Um,” a tall man in a Carhartt jacket and worn blue jeans walked up to me as I was shelving some books.

“Can I help you, sir?”

“Yeh. I’m looking for something for my wife. She likes readin’.”

“Okay! Well, you’ve come to the right place. Did you have something in mind?”

He shifted uncomfortably. His hands were huge, scarred, and calloused. My hands have often been called “decidedly feminine”. He looked down at me. “What would you get?”

“Well, let’s see. Maybe if you can tell me a little about her I can help you find something she likes.” Again, this is where you see how good you are. You can judge this guy as a Neanderthal who knows he’ll be sleeping on the couch until New Years Day if he doesn’t get something. Or you can try to make tomorrow a great day for two people; one you’ve only met once, one you’ll never meet.

“She likes them old books. Jane Austin and stuff, but she’s already read all them Pride and Prejudice ones,” he said, looking a little lost. “And she likes going outside, campin’ and hikin’ and stuff. We both do, really.”

“Okay, sir, that’s really helpful, I think we can find something…”

“An’, an’, she’s kind, but life ain’t all that kind to her, ya know, an’ she been puttin’ up with a lug like me for a long time…”

I fell silent.

“Anyway, you got somethin’ that would be good?”

And now it’s personal. I’m getting this guy something good for his wife if it takes me an hour.

We looked at books of poetry, and he thought she might like Whitman’s Leaves of Grass. We looked at journals, something she could take camping, and picked a good spiral bound one that was on sale. We found her a CD of Bach in the music department that I thought she’d like. I wrapped all of these things, each individually, each in different paper, each with two colors of ribbon wrapped around the gift in different patterns. Finally I omitted the “Star Books” foil stickers. These are from her husband, not from us. He was out the door in under $30, but with some good choices.

“Thanks. I mean, I don’t always know how to find things like that an’…” he trailed off as I put his purchases in a bag and handed him his change.

“Merry Christmas, sir,” I said.

“Yeah. You too, er…” he squinted at my name tag, then muttered something about not having his “readin’ glasses”. And then he offered his hand. I shook it, and he left, smiling a little bit.

“Hey, Chad.” I said as he finished ringing up his customer.

“What’s up?”

“I win.”

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