More from “Withholding”–Discount Book City, Part V.

Andy was named Assistant Manager. For some crazy reason I applied for his old job. I have no idea why, since this would have basically assured that I’d stay in Aggieland longer. Fortunately, Billy, who’d been kissing Rita’s ass by showing a great interest interest in displays, got the job.

*******

The store was filthy. I’d get to work in the morning, put a couple cans of Coke in the refrigerator, come back a few hours later to get one when it was cold, and discovered that the edge of the can tasted like all the food that was rotting in the fridge.

After lunch one day I checked the schedule, found I had a free hour, asked all the staffers if they had anything in the fridge, then dumped all that rotting, stinky crap into a trash can, and scrubbed the insides out.

*******

Two things I witnessed while working the register:

I was looking down at something under the front counter when I heard a screech and a crash come from out on the street. I looked up, right through the glass of the front door, just in time to see a man doing somersaults down the middle of Texas Avenue. It took me a few seconds to realize that he was a motorcyclist who had gotten into an accident with a car and was thrown clear of his bike.

Another time I was talking to Billy when we saw a young brown dog run out into the street. Cars were honking at him and he kept dodging them, but he didn’t seem to understand what was going on. Billy and I were both sickened and horrified by this, and I made him run out of the store and out into the street, to try to run the dog back into the neighborhood from which he’d come.

Billy would chase the dog, the dog would run off, then he’d emerge from behind a store and go back into the street, so I was standing in the doorway of our store, yelling to Billy, pointing out where the dog had re-appeared. Finally, Billy chased the dog a couple blocks back into the neighborhood and the dog stayed put.

*******

Regina’s young son Brandon I dubbed “The Little Prince” because he was so spoiled. He referred to me as “The Evil, Evil Man.” This was probably because Billy and I had once grabbed him by his wrists and ankles and attempted to throw him in the dumpster.

*******

Summer 1997. I arrive to work and walk into the Stock Room. Bert is standing beside the Buy Counter:

–Your mother called yesterday to say your grandfather passed away.

He waited a few beats, then threw in a little passive-aggressive dig:

–I thought about going by your apartment and telling you, since you have no phone, but I know you’ve stated you don’t like to have visitors.

I nodded.

–That’s okay, Bert. You did right.

*******

Bert was having more and more trouble getting to work on time. Sometimes he was getting in 30, 60, or even 90 minutes late. Yet he had the gall to bitch at us when we walked in three minutes late.

One Saturday or Sunday morning I was to open with Bert and another staffer. Bert didn’t trust non-managers with keys, plus he was too cheap to have copies made.

My co-worker and I sat on the front stoop of the store for 90 minutes, waiting for Bert to show up. Customers drove up and said,

–Isn’t the store supposed to be open by now?

–Yes. We’re still waiting on our manager.

Rita spoke to Bert about his chronic tardiness. It got to the point that on some nights he just stayed in the store, sleeping on the floor with a pillow, blanket, and alarm clock, because that was the only way he could be sure he’d get up in time to open.

*******

I hated the job so much that I stayed very far away from the store on my days off. I never got curious and decided to drop in and see what was going on.

One morning I swaggered in the back door after having two days off in a row. Several of my co-workers were gathered in the Stock Room, as was Bert. Somebody called out,

–Hey, B____! How’s it going? How were your days off?

–Profitable. I even arranged for the store to do a book donation to Tempura House.

Bert had a fit.

–GODDAMMIT, J____!!! I THOUGHT I TOLD YOU THAT NO EMPLOYEE IS TO MAKE ANY KIND OF DECISION LIKE THAT ON HIS OWN! EVERYTHING SHOULD BE CLEARED WITH ME FIRST, ESPECIALLY IF IT HAS SOMETHING TO DO WITH DONATING STORE PROPERTY! I THOUGHT I MADE THAT CLEAR!…BUT…JUST…WHAT THE FUCK IS TEMPURA HOUSE ANYWAY?

–Oh, that’s a shelter…for lightly-battered women.

Everyone started laughing. Except Bert. He realized he was the only one who didn’t get it, so he made an awkward, uncomfortable attempt to smile.

*******

I was working in the history section when I heard the crash. Forty-five seconds later Preston came rushing over to me. Some little kid had pulled a shelve of books onto her head, but seemed fine. He said I needed to go over to the Children’s Room and fix the shelf, though.

I went over there. The mother was squatting next to the child, getting in her face, acting very alarmed, shaking her, and asking if she was all right. Preston came by and looked at the scene again, just as the child began to scream and cry hysterically. I put the shelf back into place and re-shelved the books. The mother told Preston that the child was fine.

Over a month later, the mother, probably prodded by a friend or neighbor, now decided she was angry about the incident, and wrote Bert a letter. The main thing that pissed her off was…

–…[t]he one employee, who was clearly more worried about the store getting sued than he was about the welfare of a crying child. He didn’t even bother to ask me how she was or attempt to comfort her! What kind of a person refuses to comfort a crying child out of fears of financial loss?!

Bert was livid, and naturally, blamed me. Preston, who had witnessed more of the incident than I had, defended me, and said the child was perfectly okay until until the mother got all melodramatic and decided to whip the child into a frenzy. Clearly the child was crying not because she’d been injured, but because her mother was scaring her. I had merely stayed out of the way of all that and attended to the pressing problem of making the room safe.

Bert demanded that I write a letter of apology.

–Apology? What for? I’m not sorry about anything!

–YES, YOU ARE, J_____! YES, YOU ARE!

–THE FUCK I AM! I DIDN’T DO ANYTHING TO THAT KID! I WAS ON THE OTHER SIDE OF THE STORE! THAT SHELF WAS AS SECURE AS ANY OTHER IN THIS STORE! IT’S NOT MY FAULT THAT STUPID KID PULLED IT DOWN ON TOP OF HER HEAD OR THAT HER GODDAMN MOTHER WAS TOO PREOCCUPIED TO PAY ANY ATTENTION TO WHAT HER CHILD WAS DOING!  

–J______, YOU’RE GOING TO WRITE THAT WOMAN A LETTER OF APOLOGY AND SAY YOU’RE SORRY!

–LOOK, I KNOW YOU CAN FORCE ME TO WRITE A GODDAMN LETTER, BUT YOU CAN’T FORCE ME TO FEEL GUILTY OR SORRY ABOUT SOMETHING I DIDN’T DO!

Well, I wrote a letter. And I worded it so carefully and watered it down so much that I doubt anybody could’ve construed it as an apology. The most I offered was that I have no experience being around children, am uncomfortable around them, and find that the best policy for all parties concerned is for me to avoid them altogether.

*******

The strange shape of “Titanic”-mania: an eleven-year-old boy tries to convince his mother to buy him a rather vague children’s atlas. Its chief gimmick was a tiny globe pop-up in the middle of the book.

–If I buy it, will you even use it?

–Of course, I can use this globe to look up where the “Titanic” sank.

*******

People would sell us the strangest damned books. There was one about foreskin restoration—a process which I think involved medical tape and lead weights. The second part of the book was devoted to how-to, while the first part consisted of men whining, angry that their parents had cut off part of their willies. The quote that stuck in my mind was

–I’m jealous of my dog.

Well, I’m jealous of dogs because they can lick themselves, not because they’re uncircumcised.

Another book, “Tissue Cleansing Through Bowel Management,” featured graphic color photos of impacted stools that had been removed from human colons. I had this unpleasant mental picture of someone standing beside their toilet, holding open the book and comparing their own movements with the photographs, attempting a home diagnosis.

*******

I was asked to make a Halloween display. I gathered rectangular pieces of Styrofoam and finally fulfilled one of my fantasies: I made tombstones for everybody on the staff. In honor of Edward Gorey’s “Gashlycrumb Tinies” I carved one headstone,

J____ S____ B______
Died of Ennui

As for the Manager, well, I decided to take a swipe at his chronic tardiness:

THE LATE
BERT EDMUNDS

*******

Bert was really beginning to unravel. The other staffers and I had an unspoken understanding that we’d have to take up Bert’s considerable slack if we were to keep the store open and save our jobs.

Bert was having temper tantrums, kicking and throwing merchandise around the Stock Room. Once, when he was having trouble repairing some shelves in the Front Room, he started yelling, “GODDAMMIT!” and “MOTHER-FUCKER!”  Finally a customer went over to Vincent at the register:

–I’m sorry, but I’m afraid I need to speak to your manager.

Vincent nodded his head to the left.

–That is our manager.

–Oh….I’m sorry.

*******

Bert and I were no longer on speaking terms. We spoke in context of work–”Please hand me that price gun”–but not at all otherwise.

Billy compared the goings-on at our store to the embattled Clinton White House, which was then dealing with Whitewater scandal and other controversies:

–Bert is like Bill Clinton, trying to stay in charge even though everyone knows he’s the captain of a sinking ship. Andy is like Al Gore, standing on the sidelines, getting ready if he has to take over.

–What about me?

–Oh, you, B_____, you’re Ken Starr, making every day of Clinton’s life a living hell.

–I’d have it no other way!

*******

I had problems with explosive diarrhea the entire time I lived in Bryan/College Station. Sometimes I had it as often as three or four days a week. Not surprisingly, this made me even more miserable and short-tempered.

Since before human beings even learned to walk erect, they knew that the first rule of survival was to find a place to live where the water was potable. But the fuck-wits who founded Bryan/College Station failed to remember this most basic principle.

You couldn’t drink the water in Aggieland. It killed house plants. It made dogs and cats sick. It was so hard that if you took a shower it was a two-part process: Step One—wash off the dirt and grime you’ built up during the day; Step Two—wash off the grease, oil, and scum that accumulated on your body during Step One.

The joke was that the reason the water in BCS was so oily was because former Senator and Aggie professor Phil Gramm used to swim in the reservoir.

All I knew was that the hard water added one more inconvenience to life in those benighted twin cities—the added expense of distilled water. And I assumed the bad water was the cause of my diarrhea.

After I’d been at the store for three years the diarrhea really began to take its toll. During one of her visits my mother took me to lunch at the Olive Garden. I felt so nauseated and gassy the next day I called in sick.  

I was in such severe pain I was doubled over as I stumbled into the bathroom. I hit the seat, and I exploded. And it just kept going. And going. Then I felt nausea coming up somewhere else, a second strand of it, so to speak, and it was developing an identity of its own. I realized that I was about to vomit.

But I still felt too sick to get off the toilet. And I wasn’t about to kneel over a toilet full of shit.

So I leaned over to the left and vomited into the bathtub.

The only problem was the explosive diarrhea was still blowing out in a seemingly endless stream. So I wound up filling the bathtub with vomit, and spraying diarrhea all over the toilet seat, and half of the bathroom wall and floor.

My diarrhea problem became so severe and I was missing so much work because of it that Bert accused me of faking it. I said,

–Well, by God, I’ve got health coverage through this job. I’ll go to a fucking doctor and prove to you I’m sick!

The doctor talked to me awhile, and grew concerned when I told him my grandfather had been operated on for colon cancer late in life. He then sent me to the lab. The lab guy said,

–You’ll never believe what I’m gonna ask you to do!…I need you to provide me with stool samples…in these. Some are empty and some have liquid in them.

He produced about six or eight plastic bottles, about two or three inches tall and an inch-an-a-half across.

–What’s the procedure exactly, doc? Do I just take a general aim and hope it lands in there?

–No. You have to catch the stool as it comes out. Some people use bedpans for this, but if you wanted to go the cheap route you could probably stretch some cling film over your toilet seat. But leave a little give in the film—you want to catch the stool without rubbing any on you. Also, you need to be careful not to let any of your urine mix in there.

–And then?    

–Then you have to take a plastic spoon and scoop up some of the stool and put it into the bottle and make sure you close the lid tightly. And ideally, if you could provide us with different consistencies of stool, that would be really helpful for us.

–Doc, I can’t really control that. I never really know what it’s gonna be until show time, or afterwards.

And so, for the next few days, I shat into cling film, hovering over the toilet seat like a jockey, clutching my genitalia so as not to get any piss into the mix.

After I filled all the bottles I went back to the lab. The gal at the front desk was not giving me her undivided attention, and she couldn’t find any record of my case. She started murmuring into the phone:

–Well no, I have no record of him….  

I set my samples on top of her counter. She kept murmuring:

–Um, I’ve got a bag full of bottles of stool samples sitting on my desk now. What am I supposed to do with it?

I brightly announced:

–Well, my work here is done!

And I walked out the door.

A few days later the doctor called me back in. He said I had tested negative for colon cancer, but I did have stress-induced Irritable Bowel Syndrome. It was pretty easy to figure out the cause of that. I took my leave, and swaggered down the street singing Lou Reed’s “Perfect Day” at the top of my lungs.

*******

There was a children’s literacy event held at the Bush Presidential Library one Saturday. Bert, Cathleen, and I were scheduled to work the Discount Book City booth all day long. Cathleen and I mostly ignored Bert and made fun of the general public.

Barbara Bush walked through, big as a linebacker. Children grabbed books off the Barnes & Noble table and asked Bar to autograph them. When one girl shoved a copy of “Charlotte’s Web” into Bar’s face, Cathleen commented,

–Wouldn’t it be funny if she signed it “E.B. White”?

George H. W. Bush walked through. Cathleen had another crazy idea. She began singing Bob Marley’s “Buffalo Soldier” in Bush’s nasal voice, then imitated Barbara wailing the chorus.  

*******

A friend of Preston’s got divorced. Preston moved in with him. And apparently love bloomed. A few months later Preston announced he was resigning. I was sure he had so much overtime and back pay saved up he could live off that for years.

I never thought I’d see the day. Once I would’ve loved nothing more than to see him quit, but now, he was no trouble at all. Once he’d been the chief source of the misery in my life, but now I wished him well.

One afternoon I was walking Fred one street over from our apartment.Preston and his friend were standing out in their front yard. Preston laughed, smiled, and called out a greeting. He was happy.

The last I heard of him he’d visited Pittsburgh, decided it was the city of his dreams, and moved there.

*******

…Shortly before my grandfather became too old and infirm to drive, he bought a brand new pick-up truck, presumably intending to give it to me. I am terrified of driving, have no license, and didn’t want the trouble and expense of owning a vehicle, so my parents drove it once in awhile. Now that my grandfather was dead, my mother gave me the option of taking ownership of the truck or letting her sell it and taking 50% of the profits. I opted for the latter. This got me $5,000, with which I planned to finally make my long-awaited escape back to Austin….

I’d had my share of troubles at this [apartment] complex, though. A sideways rain storm made my ceiling leak. Three times neighbors tried to flush their maxi-pads down the toilet and caused my apartment to flood. And when I told the landlady about how I’d had to put out a bush fire in the complex with a garden hose the previous night, she laughed and made a Moses joke.

With the help of Cathleen, I prepared a new resume and drafted some cover letters. I began a major job-hunting assault on Austin. I took a week off, then Matt came down and took me and Fred (we left Poose behind with lots of water and food) to Austin, putting us up in his grandmother’s apartment in Round Rock, while she was vacationing in Ireland.

The stars were smiling upon me, because I found two part-time jobs and an affordable apartment within forty-eight hours. I would be a librarian at a private K-through-12 school, and a clerk and book scout at a children’s bookstore. I would be making significantly more on my two part-time jobs in Austin that I had been at Discount Book City, and I’d be working half the hours.

I returned to Bryan/College Station in joy and triumph, submitted my resignation for the end of the summer, and amazingly, the diarrhea stopped—at least for the rest of my time in Aggieland.

*******

Rita liked to vacation in Red China. This exposed her to all sorts of funky diseases. She eventually contracted something akin to Chronic Fatigue Syndrome—only more exotic and dangerous. Eventually she became so debilitated she had to retire from the company. Shortly thereafter, the Bryan store was re-categorized, moved from the Austin sales region to that of Houston. All this meant we got a new Regional Manager.

The new Regional Manager seemed a nice enough guy, but it was hard to tell about him so early. He came around a few times. Then we had our semi-annual evaluations. The staffers sent in their anonymous evaluations of Bert. Mine was eleven pages long.

The new Regional Manager began to suspect something was not quite right in Bryan. Too many staffers complained. Too many staffers complained about the same things. The new Regional Manager started coming around more often.

One day the new Regional Manager took Bert to lunch. He told him he was firing him. Bert began crying, right there in the restaurant:

–BUT ALL I WANNA DO IS SELL BOOKS!

Bert made such a scene and caught the new Regional Manager so off-guard that he said,

–Okay, okay. I won’t fire you. But you’re no longer Manager. You’ll be a regular bookseller—that’s it. And if you’re late for work three more times you’re fired for good.

Andy became Manager. The store began to right itself. The staff felt somewhat relieved, and set about their duties with a sense of renewed purpose. But there was one last scene to be played out.

Bert was late one day, and then another. A few weeks passed.  

Finally, two weeks to the day before my last day with the company, Bert was late a third time.

Bert came running into the back door, explaining all the different mishaps that had befallen him that morning, and insisting that because of all this, technically speaking, he wasn’t late. But Andy just looked up and told him he was fired.

Trying to blot out what he had heard, Bert scurried out into his sections with a price gun and started doing mark-down. He seemed to think that if he just pretended hard enough that things were okay, then  they would be. But after Bert had farted around for thirty minutes, Andy came over and said,

–Look man, those aren’t your sections. You don’t work here any more. You need to pack up your stuff and go.

Sadly, I had the day off and missed all the fun. I didn’t even get to go “Waaahhh” in Bert’s face. But I was glad I’d outlasted my two chief enemies at the store.

*******

About a week before I left the store Andy took me aside and said,

–Before you leave I want you to bring back all the Dairy Paks you took home over the years.

I was completely broadsided.

The company bought millions of these boxes, manufactured by a firm called Dairy Pak, and used them to ship books. They were a nice, uniform size, and stacked up well. I knew the company paid for them, but I was sure they didn’t pay much, and I was also sure they wrote off a percentage of them, knowing they got damaged and destroyed over time.

Either way, I thought a few boxes every few weeks was the least the company owed me for all of the injuries it had inflicted upon me. I knew I wasn’t supposed to take them, and a few bosses had told me not to, but I continued to sneak them out. I needed hundreds of uniform-sized boxes to store my huge collections.

Still, I wasn’t expecting Andy to call me on this.

I did not have the time or inclination to unpack all my stuff, take back all those goddamned boxes, and buy new ones, and then re-pack everything so close to my moving date.

He knew that my new apartment was three blocks west of the main Discount Book City store in Austin. I made a suggestion:

–Why don’t I just drop these boxes off at the Guadalupe store after I move?

–Because I don’t trust you.

Wow. Where had that come from? We’d gotten along so well all these years. I was a guest at his wedding. Was this what he really thought of me?

I made another suggestion:

–Okay, how about this? I move to Austin. I unpack. I take all the Dairy Paks back to the Guadalupe store. I call you when it’s done. You call them to double-check. If I don’t return the boxes, you don’t have to mail me my last pay check.

He agreed to that, and for the next few days was his old self. His parting gift to me was a video-tape of “Boogie Nights.”

I was good as my word, and took those fucking boxes to the store in Austin and called Andy, but he didn’t seemed bothered by it. I talked to him a few times over the phone over the next few years. Then, about a decade after I returned to Austin I ran into him at the Discount Book City on Lamar Street, where he was now working. It was like old times….We stayed in touch, and I started attending concerts of his new bands.

Now I spent my last few weeks in Aggieland “mopping up.” I toured the Bush Presidential Library. I photocopied entire books that I’d checked out from the Evans Library, then returned them.

During Finals Week at the University the Library was open twenty-hours a day. In the wee hours of the morning, there were few students or Library staffers around. I commandeered a book cart—something I could never have done with staffers around—and loaded dozens of old bound periodicals onto it. I took them upstairs to a photocopier that had plenty of paper and toner, and finally finished all the photocopying I’d been trying to do in that library for four years. I’d been slowed down partially by the weight of those damned bound periodicals, but now there were no obstacles.

Before I left Bryan Cathleen called me and said she’d been in the Library around 10 or 11pm one night during Finals Week, in the Reference Section on the First Floor. A sound had emerged from the top of the stairwell, way up on the Sixth Floor. Someone was screaming his head off, like he’d finally just lost his mind.

The sound got louder. Fifth Floor. Fourth Floor. Third. Second.   

Then he emerged, running down to the First Floor.

He was a young white guy. Completely naked except for the ski mask pulled over his face.

He continued to scream, and ran out the front door and out into the night.

After a few awkward seconds and exchanged looks, everybody on the First Floor burst into laughter.

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