Apparently, I don’t multi-task when I write. This month, I dove into what I thought would be a fast and dirty tussle with the entirely formed concept of my next book, imagining that on April 1, I would have the sh*ty, first draft completed. Imaging that I would simultaneously continue my posts. And develop my author platform. And do chicken patrol, cat spectator sports 101and flute dusting 202. But here we are, more than half-way through March and reality has struck. I don’t know what I was thinking. It took me seven years, on and off, to write Bittersweet Manor. I’m distractible. I complicate things. With this next book including such pearls as global climate change, a children’s story, and life off-grid–to be written while all the while living that life–I have a lot of braiding of ideas to do. Add to that the upheaval of my new website, (which I am still adjusting to, are you?) and the result is, my weekly posts have gone to hell in a handbag.
I’m sure it has nothing to do with the fact that I’ve also been in denial about my upcoming book launch for which I am supposed to be developing the above mentioned author platform. Sounds like a vulnerable place, doesn’t it? Authors–also known as writers, moi–typically work in private. Whereas a platform is a place to stand on, from which to leap into the public eye and, if the platform is big and strong, watch the books fly off the preferably independent stores’ bookshelves.
The problem being, if I’m writing posts, as I am this one, or the one I wrote last week that I posted and then took down because it was counter-productive, of which more in a moment. If I’m writing posts, I use what little focus I have each morning on the post, rather than on the book, and this next book is–on my good, positive, delusional days–going to save the world. (Though maybe not the homo sapiens species. I’ll try but I can only do so much, and our species is making a damned good try at pursuing its own extinction.) In short, saving the world by writing a book is a rather significant and time consuming feat. And hadn’t I better get to it? I should have it done by now. The clock is ticking. Why am I writing this post?
To avoid that too familiar overwhelmed and panicked feeling, I’m slowing myself down. In the words of Anne Lamont, Bird by Bird. Which is to say, chapter by chapter, idea by idea, page by page, word by word. Inevitably, by the time I’ve slowed down enough to gain traction, it’s time to go say hello to the chickens, and to consider thinking about starting to perhaps develop my author platform.
Which brings me to last week’s post. I almost posted an old short story. “Chain Material”. I wrote it back in the 1990s. But it was critical of a bookstore that used to be a behemoth but now is dwarfed by Amazon and seems almost like an independent bookstore because what a thrill to see a store with books! Lots of books! And even if, in its day, it did cause the closing of countless independent bookstores, time has mellowed that outrage. To the extent that it is where I will be having a book reading in Burlington, Vermont exactly two months from today.
I have to say I am tickled to think that I have a book reading! Can you believe it? I hardly can. I wonder what will go wrong. Will I embarrass myself at the reading, say the wrong thing. Won’t putting on my blog a short story in which a chain book store does not come off well be a slap in the face of the store that is so kind as to host me? Maybe they will cancel the reading. Is this, in fact, a self-sabotaging move on my part?
And yet I could suggest another way of looking at it: There are themes in “Chain Material” that I still puzzle about today. Certainly, there are aspects of our society that existed then, that ring ever more true and loudly today. Thus, this story is outdated and a bit musty and yet it holds the seed that I still carry with me, that I tend to in my writing. Themes that twist and wind through Bittersweet Manor–loss and regret, paths not travelled. And themes that will flourish in my next book as I write it, in between posts and chicken events and the building of a grey-water treatment Bus Stop Greenhouse. . . ..
“Chain Material” got honorable mention, in 2001, in the Lorien Hemenway Short Story Competition.
Please forgive its flaws. On real pages, it is ten pages/3000 words.
A model for natural selection, I have just lost my job. Oliver, the man who would be king but instead is manager, called me in, and now I ask: what does one choose when one has lost heart: extinction or survival? There are so many four-letter words. Fear, loss, need. I am prey to them, and yet I breathe. Against my will, I survive. And so perhaps, it is not a matter of choice. Which means I should have fallen on my knees and begged. But to grovel? My wife would not approve.
The American Health Care system being the contradiction that it is, I had to return to work after a year’s retirement. My wife’s medical bills had eaten up all our savings. From a nine-to-five desk job, I went to my front porch’s rocking chair, then the hospital, ending up in a “flexible” minimum wage job without benefits. I work . . . ed for a chain bookstore, a monstrous centipede with leg filaments in every town and city. Myself, I shop at small stores. I believe, correctly, that if we neglect the Mom & Pop store owned by the grouchy man who has a daughter with a lovely smile that a person might fall in love with and marry, ending up with grandchildren for company instead of cable television, the little store will go out of business. With competition killed off, prices go up, and product selection goes down, which is not affordable anyway because everyone has been downsized out of their jobs. Society down the tubes. Thanks, Big Business. So, although I worked at a chain store, I did not condone it.
Clerk was my title. I shelved books. Answered customers’ questions. Watched their children pull books from the shelves, rip the pages, talk through story hour, run around the store bumping into elderly shoppers and me, and we, the employees, not allowed to reprimand them. Store rule number one (the customer is always right), sub-clause D (don’t tell customers how to raise their children). They know best. Me, me, me, and who is more right? Who will teach their children to be the most brutal and uncaring? Because the fact is, we pretend to have evolved into a higher species but, really, we are no different from antelope and lions, though with the added benefit of prehensile thumbs. Our primitive natures dominate under an artifice of civilization. To survive, we must be selfish, cruel, and I wonder at people and how they survive their circumstances. And at others, how they live with themselves after doing what they did to survive.
My wife, if she were alive, would interrupt me. In other words, Ed puts up with rules and customers, she would say. He’s feeling sorry for himself, too. Then she would kiss me on the forehead, and I would take a deep breath. She always smelled faintly of rose perfume. We have rose bushes outside our house, which are blooming right now. She planted them on our tenth anniversary. She died on our fifteenth. Three months ago. Last week, I sat in the back room of the store ripping off the covers of paperbacks and trying to remember. . . her voice. I could almost hear it over the deadness of that back room with its buzzing fluorescent lights and books of fiction, history, philosophy. Books of words. Words, and more words that serve no purpose other than to distract one’s useless heart by filling the mind. She was telling me to weed the garden, and a cloud blurred my eyes as if the smoke from her daily burnt toast had stung them. I thought: we used to get bored. Night after night, we cooked dinner, filled in the Sunday New York Times crossword puzzle, watched television, talked. We’d start projects: cleaning out the basement, forcing orchid bulbs, making up our own crossword puzzles. We did not have many friends. We didn’t need them.
Complacent, not bored. We assumed we would keep what we had. People assume so much, never thinking of the little things we might lose. An arm. A leg. A life. When she got sick, I even began to appreciate breathing. It’s so simple, automatic, isn’t it? Until you are so sick that every breath becomes suffocation. In the back of the store, I tried to make up for those years of non-appreciation: of the roses, the burnt toast, her hair, strawberry-blond, that fell almost to her waist. It felt like a bird’s feather. I can almost feel it now, and it wasn’t hard to believe I was touching it that day, when there was nothing in my hands but the cover of a bad romance novel.
“You aren’t working up to my standards.”
I looked up, startled to see Jack, the assistant manager. I’ve no idea how long he had been watching me. And, perhaps, I had, for a moment, stopped ripping the books. Because I missed her. Because I had always thought that I would be the one to die in her arms, not the other way around. That’s how it is supposed to be. Women are supposed to live longer than men.
“We have certain standards here, old man,” Jack said. My wife, who met him only once, had disliked him. Pubic hair beard. Eyes that, try as she might, would not meet hers. She said he is what the hellion children running around the store will be in ten years: selfish, rude, obsequious when it is in their best interest. The big stores groom this style of twenty-year olds. In just six months, Jack brown-nosed his way to a promotion from Oliver. Now the two conspire together, thinking up rules such as no personal phone calls, a rule consistently broken by Jack who is a hypocrite on top of everything else. He was on the phone with his girlfriend when Nappy’s wife called from the hospital. Jack didn’t put the call through. An emergency and Jack barely remembered to give Nappy the message at the end of the day. Nappy’s wife might have been dying. In fact, she was giving birth. Six and one-half pounds. A girl. Erica. Nappy missed it because of Jack, who interrupted me, calling me old, which in chain-speak means useless, unwanted. Go die. No one will miss you. Not even your wife.
“If you leave me the fuck alone, Jack,” I replied, “I’ll continue to work at my usual pace which, in the past, has been acceptable.”
He stamped off and the stack of books towering over me swayed. If they had fallen, I could have sued the chain for a lot of money. Instead, they just towered and never got shelved because we clerks were too busy being helpful to customers who wanted books that were still in boxes because Oliver and Jack were so concerned with making rules that they had no time to interview new staff and so there were not enough cogs in the wheel to help it turn and get done what had to be done.
I returned to ripping books, and my memories.
Sal walked in. She’s a good girl, Smart, artistic, a tad pregnant. We started here on the same day, with the same proving grounds, though at opposite ends of the age spectrum.
“Bozo looks miffed,” she said, grinning.
“I told him to leave me alone,” I shrugged. Sal tilted her head at me.
“How are you today?” she asked.
“Today, I am one of these coverless books,” I replied, tossing the book in my hand into the trash along with the others.
“They want you to cover lunches. Come on.”
She took my arm, and we walked out together. She knew I disliked working the registers. It gave me no meditative time. The constant interaction left me rattled and out of touch with what I really wanted–my wife. When I think about my wife, I am close to her, comforted and bolstered. But those bleeps from the cash registers, and questions from the customers, and requisite speech and movement on my part enervate me. I become drained, over-stretched and resentful because I am trying to do it all and still have half my mind with her. As I stood at the register that day, my knees felt like buckling under me, as hers had, weeks before, when she insisted on doing the dishes. She had had a point to prove: that she was still among the living, able to do the simple things. So simple: to stand at the sink and run hot water over dirty dishes, letting it stream over translucent palms. She held a puddle of soap in them. She loved to watch the froth and bubbles and steam and she waved me away with a wasted, dripping hand.
“I’m fine,” she said.
Her hand. My knees. Equally wasted by pain and she had fallen and hit her head. A bump formed that never healed, no matter how many times I kissed it.
But it’s impossible to remain in one’s fantasy world when people keep interrupting.
And then that jowly woman, who comes into the store every day at three and whom Sal and I nicknamed Nixon and Shar-Pei, presented me with a check rather than her usual gold card.
“Don’t be ridiculous,” she said. “You know me.”
“Madame, of all the hundreds of customers that I have waited on, you do not stand out,” I lied. “It’s store policy to check I.D.s.”
“I’m an exception.”
I smiled at her naiveté and because Jack was watching me from the information booth. He was looking for reasons to report me to Oliver. I had to be perfect. I must have wanted to be. With Jack in the background and the memory of my wife’s bruised forehead, I must have wanted to live and the job would help me do that because the routine of the job held a connection with our life together. For instance, lunches. They used to be the high point of my day. I could open my paper bag and, right away, have my wife with me. I would unwrap her sense of humor in an alphabet lunch of apples, bananas and chocolate, or her thriftiness in a fried potato-from-the-night-before and tomato sandwich. And while I ate, I could think of the stories I would tell her that night, of the customers and manager’s foolery. So, for a moment, I played the part of perfect employee, knowing if I did not, I would lose what little edge I had on life. If I did not have a job, no one would know me. No one would know if I were alive or dead. Without my wife, my existence did not matter. I might become a Shar-Pei, who goes to the same store at the same time every day so that, maybe, if she doesn’t show up one day, someone might notice.
Wasn’t that selfish and cruel of me? I denied Shar-Pei’s existence when I said, in my own little fight to survive, “There are no exceptions. I have to present an I.D. myself when I pay with a check, ma’am. I’m sorry. I’ll get into trouble if I don’t have the correct information written down. Would you like to talk to the assistant manager?”
She did. He did. She left. Jack told me Oliver wanted me in his office. I followed him there, thinking about crossed arms and false smiles and how you can’t trust what’s going on without eye contact.
“So?” Oliver asked me when Jack shut the door behind us. “What have you to say for yourself?”
“I thought it was store policy: no check without identification.”
“Interesting that you’re willing to follow store policy after this morning’s incident,” Oliver said, leaning back in his chair. It’s striking how a simple movement–getting comfortable in opposition to another’s unease–can show a person’s indifference.
“Incident?” I asked.
“You swore at Jack, Ed. Your superior. He asked me what recourse to take and I called the regional office. You’re suspended without pay until we can settle the matter.”
“You called the regional office because I lost my temper?” I turned to Jack. “Would it have been so difficult to ask for an apology?'”
“The fact is, Ed,” Jack said, looking at my eyebrows rather than meeting my eyes, “You were not conducting yourself in a manner consistent with our standards.”
“Exactly,” Oliver said. “You’ve no one to blame but yourself.”
I thought about that. I thought, if I were Jack, I would tell Oliver about the phone calls that Jack makes. But I am not Jack, and Oliver would think, correctly, that I was being vindictive. And yet maybe that would have shown me to be harder, stronger, more what they are looking for.
“I’ll call you when the case is ready to be heard,” Oliver said.
I left the office and headed to the back room. I could hear her breathing, those last days of respirations, tortured and choked. They sounded as if someone were trying not to cry, and I had to take a moment to sit down on a box of books because I felt the same panic as I had the hour she died, when I held her hand and watched the vein in her neck pulse, slower and slower, knowing that when it stopped, she would be gone, and being unsure if I were ready to be alone. I held her hand and watched the vein and wanted to talk to her, have her console me, say that, of course, I’d be all right. She always said the right thing, even if she said nothing. She used to remind me of the hot water heater of our house, always burping, tsking, humming, keeping me warm. The house has been silent since she died.
Four-letter words. A person does not choose to live with them. A person has to fight to survive them. I fought. I spent the three days of limbo thinking up retorts, defenses, ways to avoid the humiliation of begging for my job. I thought about Dreyfus, falsely accused of a crime because he was a Jew. People knew he was innocent, and yet did nothing. They would do nothing for me, either.
I suppose my case isn’t so drastic. But I feel torn from everything I have known and loved, and powerless to get it back, no matter how desperately I recreate it in my mind. Flies caught in spiders’ webs. Chickens running around the pen without their heads. Greyhounds chasing false rabbits. What gratification? What choice? We are all powerless against these twists of life, and yet we cling so desperately.
“Come in, Ed,” Oliver smiled and motioned to me to sit down. “How are you?”
“I’m glad you’re back. It’s good to see you.” I sat down, stared above his head at the sign, “United We Stand.”q My wife and I believed that. Even our worst fights stood on the belief that we would get through it. Oliver noticed my glance.
“That’s our motto, Ed.”
“Of course it is.”
“Why do you think that is?”
“Everyone working together gets the job done.”
“Exactly. We put it into the metaphor of a chain. What do you think of that?”
“A nice thought.”
“It’s more than a nice thought, Ed. Can you tell me what you think of when you think of a chain?”
“Hardness. Metal. Prison.”
“Is that what you think of when you think of working here?”
“Oh, you mean like a bookstore chain.” I stopped to think of grouchy, old men sitting in their corner stores selling newspapers and milk. Of competition and downsizing. Of society.
“I think of plumbing,” I said.
“You’re fooling with me, Ed,” Oliver said.
“No, I have to check the bathroom every time I come in. Be sure it all runs smoothly.”
“A chain is unbroken,” Jack interrupted.
“Exactly,” Oliver smiled. “It is interlocked, each piece dependent on the others. All of them have to be….”
“United,” I said.
“The individual working for the whole.” Jack topped me.
“Sounds communistic,” I replied.
“But the individuals are important. Each link has to be strong, dependable. Chain material, Son,” Oliver said, looking at me, twice his age. My wife would have wanted to slap him. “We need to know what to expect from each link. The other afternoon when you told that woman that she had to show identification. That showed you have it.”
I hoped here. I took the time to hope that, perhaps, something good might happen. I might stay. Maybe a promotion. “But what you said to Jack? The two together shows a lack of consistency. Ed, I have to be sure my employees follow the rules. I know how important each individual is, and I have to keep them in line no matter how hard it is because if there’s a weak link, the whole chain might fall apart.” Oliver leaned forward, his chair squeaking. “Do you want your job, Ed? Do you think you’ve got what it takes?”
“You’re wrong. You’re a weak link, Ed. That’s why you’re fired.”
Isn’t it odd how it makes a difference when you think something is your choice, and then you find that, perhaps, it was never even an option?
When I left Oliver’s office, I felt shamed. Like a teenager with an awful complexion who is afraid to raise his head for no other reason than embarrassment for something he can not help. He has no heart or energy to look people in the eye. Not even that sweet girl, Sal. I left without saying good-bye.
Chain material. Fired. Molten lead. Forging. Survival. There is no choice when it comes to survival. We fight however we fight but, in the end, we die. End of story. Extinct.