Filed under: Chapter 03 | Tags: Chapter Three, Good News, Josh Bates, Kevin, Kevin Wilder, Personalized Pens, Philly cheese steaks, Some New Trend
GOOD NEWS :: BY KEVIN WILDER
I’M IN BED EARLY, READING A BOOK from the public library about French design, having reached a chapter entirely dedicated to Jean Nouvel. And after finally approaching a point of near-relaxation over tomorrow’s plan, Stephanie walks in without knocking.
“If you’re looking to get a ride somewhere,” I tell her, “I’m afraid you’re a little late.”
She crosses her arms, takes off her giant headphones and asks, “Why have you been spending so much time in here?”
“What do you mean? It’s my room. I’m allowed to hibernate on occasion, aren’t I?”
I pick the book back up, and Stephanie exits. But before I can read another sentence, she’s back again, sitting with a toothbrush in her mouth and stretching her legs across my Navajo rug. She finds one of my clipboards and uses it to fill in some blanks on a job application. I don’t ask questions.
“It’sh about a girl, ishn’t iht?” she says.
“What? I can barely understand you.”
“Shorry.” She spits out her toothbrush to stick in the pocket of her pajama pants, as if this is normal. I almost gag watching her swallow her toothpaste. “This has been going on a while, Josh.”
“How’d you know?” I ask, feeling violated. The only records I have of my feelings are internal. Oh, and then of course there’s Will.
“Nevermind that. I’m your sister.”
I let Stephanie stay, but pretend to have little interest in hearing her thoughts.
“Seems to me you already have way too many emotions invested in one girl,” she says. “Which, just so you know, probably means you should find another one.”
I sit up and stare at her—this strange girl who looks like she could use a bath, with soap. Another girl? Who could she possibly mean? I don’t always get Stephanie. Less than a year ago she had braces on her teeth. Heck, I can remember holding her as a baby, and now she’s spitting Freudian theories at me. What can a brother do but listen?
“Or you can just make a move on her. Don’t wanna get stuck in what I call the Law of Diminishing Crush Return.”
“It’s simple economics,” she explains, “but applied to crushes. As more investments are made, like in your thoughts regarding someone, the overall possibility of return on that investment will increase at a declining rate.” She coughs. “Which means if you waited too long to act on this crush, your return could be virtually nonexistent. Or worse.”
“Like as in not getting the girl?”
“Basically, yes.” Her eyes look tired. Still, this seems to almost make sense. I’d have to consult an economist to know for sure. And then I remember what little we learned in Mr. Calbert’s class. People aren’t fixed variables. They’re all different.
“Thanks for the advice, sis.” I bookmark my page, pull the chain of my steel lamp, and roll over. “Now get outta my room.”
My Poster Ladies have vanished.
Did they know of my plans for leaving too? Either way, they never said goodbye, and have left me a stranger in this mysterious world of bras and panties.
First we unbox the lingerie, then hang it, and after that comes the most shameful part of all: dressing the lifelike mannequins.
I’m ashamed to say it, but the department has grown on me in ways. From the very beginning, my placement was supposed to be temporary. But after weeks of hard work, people stopped asking questions. I kind of wish they would. Every now and then an elderly lady might wander in and blush while asking for help uncovering a particular bra size, but for the most part people accept it.
Of course I was reluctant to consider myself a citizen of Intimates. But the land befriended me, and now I must bid it farewell. After sentimentally unboxing items for a good long while, I decide it’s best to go ahead and confront my manager.
Todd’s a bizarre guy. Could be his acne scars, or his stale coffee-flavored breath, or the pleather vest he wears on decidedly casual days. The sum of these characteristics has made my forty-something boss a bit of a Wild Card, if you catch my drift.
“Absolutely not,” he’s telling me when we’re face to face. He’s inches from mine. Todd’s a foot taller than I am, but it can feel like two at times. Three if we’re arguing.
“Well then… how about for just one day?” I plead. “I’d really like to try my hand at something different.”
“Why switch?” he says. “Love it or hate it, who gives a rat’s whiskers. You do fantastic in Intimates and everybody knows it.” He does have a point. “Plus, you’ve not been properly trained.” This part’s debatable.
Todd shakes his head like a horizontally-moving bobble toy. The silver chain around his neck wiggles with the movement.
“Alright Todd, look. I never told you this, but did you know I’ve got more shoe knowledge than everyone in my entire school?” He looks at my worn Converse and raises an eyebrow. “I mean, my sister must have a baker’s dozen in every variety.” I result to lies. Stephanie’s near-goth aesthetic forbids shoe worship.
“Well then why don’t she try gettin’ a job here?”
“Her?” I laugh at the thought. “She’s sixteen.”
“I’d better check the top floor,” he says, irritated. “Those’re the folks concerning me.”
“Understood,” I say, moving on to Plan C. “Guess I’ll just stay here, alone with these awful allergies.”
He stops in his tracks, does an about-face. “What… did you… just say?”
I rub my nose. I’d like to attempt a fake sneeze, except I don’t know how. “My allergies.” I kick the ground. “Say. Ya think I could run up to CVS before we open, maybe grab some eyedrops?”
Todd walks toward me with his famous limp. Don’t let him fool you though—he’s a powerful force. All except for the spiked haircut that recedes behind his wrinkled forehead.
“Just being this close to the perfume counter doesn’t help my breathing patterns and—”
“Josh.” The room falls silent at the sound of my name. Or maybe it was already this way, since the Muzak doesn’t get going until we open. His voice deepens like thunder. “My mother died of allergies, you know.”
Of course I know this: suffocation due to throat inflammation. And in case you’re wondering, I don’t have any allergy problems related to my department, even though it borders more than seven perfume counters. I’ve learned to deal with the fumes, but this is part of my plan.
Todd let me in on this handy information on the day of our interview. His line of questioning eventually led to the telling of Mother stories, which in turn led to him fleeing the room in sobs. After twenty minutes of sitting in his office, I loosened my necktie, hearing Mick Jones in my head singing over and over, Should I stay or should I go?
I fold my hands and say, “Sorry to hear that boss, except I don’t think—”
“Mother was a great woman,” he says. He repeats the words “great woman” a couple times, his voice getting softer each.
“Yeah, my mom’s pretty cool too.”
He sighs, then slaps his forehead. “Gosh. Gosh oh gosh oh gosh.”
I want to remind him it’s pronounced “Josh” and not “Gosh”—a joke to help lighten up the mood—but it doesn’t seem like a good time.
“I tell you what,” he says. Bingo. “How ‘bout you try shoes, for jus’ one day.” He holds up his finger and repeats the words “one day” twice more. Clearly he enjoys repeating things. “And then we’ll go ahead and see if we can’t get those, um.. the uh…”
“Allergies?” I say, waiting for tears to fall. This is a completely dirty scheme. And it’s working amazingly.
“Yeah. We’ll see if you don’t… react as bad over there.”
“Thanks Todd. I think it’ll help.” I give him a thumbs up, and feel corny about it. “Won’t let ya down, boss-man.”
“I know you won’t,” he says, smiling to reveal a gold tooth. “You got an excellent track record here.” He gives me a crispy high-five and says “Peace brother.” As he makes his way over to the escalator, I observe him drying his eyes and wiping his nose with the same Kleenex. And then he drifts up slowly, out of sight.
I’ve made it to Shoes now. And our woman in question has just arrived.
They say scuba divers sometimes have trouble returning to the surface after a dive. This is how it feels watching Bryanna Summerson walk in. She’s never looked lovelier before now, at school or at Twin Pines Mall, even though she’s been trying on shoes like every Friday for several months. It feels as if I’m drowning in her beauty, struggling to breathe, and jetting to the surface with a big tank on my back—of uncertainty, rather than 3000 psi of air.
I told myself you might not come in after all, but here you are. And it’s definitely hitting me that I have NO IDEA WHERE TO GO FROM HERE.
I fix my hair and attempt gaining composure.
Bryanna Summerson is standing merely feet from me, lifting a bronze gladiator sandal on display. She tilts her head to one side as if admiring the rugged, yet sleek and simple design. I wonder what her feelings are regarding the exotic ankle strap. Does she understand the overall comfortability of the leather? Does she notice the employee of about her age hiding behind the towering sneaker shelves?
She lowers the sandal and yawns.
Let me accustom myself to this rare excitement. I’ve seen you from a distance, but this close? Only once.
After a few lengthy miserable moments, I make my way toward the girl with the ponytail and the sundress. “Can I help you?” I ask, armed with nothing more than a shoehorn in my fist, and realizing the limitations of my so-called plan.
“Hmm. That’s okay,” she says with a half-smile, ready to vanish forever, along with my Poster Ladies.
“You’re checking out our sandals I see.” My voice cracks when I say this, leading me to consider one of many methods of backing out. It’s not too late. After all, approaching you is like approaching a sculpture: all glorious untouchable beauty. You’re an idea of a person I only pretend to know.
Wait. The Law of Diminishing Crush Return.
I catch her arm and lead her to another wall display. “You should check out our hot new shoes for the summer season,” I say. This makes her laugh. I’m not sure if she’s picking up on the sarcasm.
She rubs her chin and twitches her nose. After a few moments I ask, “Anything jumping out at you?” But when she only makes mumbling noises, I realize we’ll have to work harder.
“Try the blue pair,” I mention. “They match your eyes and stuff.”
This sounds Hallmark-ish, but it’s true! It’s the only color I’ve never seen you wear.
She picks up a different shoe, a Mexican sandal—otherwise known as a huarache, something I learned from another customer in the last hour—and unbuckles it easily enough. I grab it from her hand, and run to backstock on a quest to find the correct size. “Six will fit,” she tells me.
She squints, and asks, “Don’t we know each other? Like from school?”
“Depends. You a student a TPH?” She nods. “Then yes. Except I dunno if we’ve ever actually met.” We extend hands to shake. This feels goofy too, but touching her in any manner is a big step, so I’m not sweating it.
She falls into a seat, slouches, and starts checking her phone. After I go fetch the box with the other shoe from backstock, she allows me to slide each sandal on her feet just as a shoe salesman might’ve done a half-century earlier. I’m not sure if my fellow employees use this sales technique or not, but it feels rather appropriate now.
“Nice,” she says, and gets up to walk over to the mirror. She must do this daily. “I want ‘em. And I should do what makes me happy, right?”
“Heh,” I say. I’m unable to take my eyes off of her legs which are really fit, and really tan.
She reties her hair and calls out, “Thanks for your help.”
While we walk to the register, she shakes her shoulders and hips a little to the Fleetwood Mac song playing. Could this be what heaven is like? A prolonged silence occurs while I’m swiping the Amex and bagging the shoes.
“Let’s hang out,” I say, in a high-strung voice, putting an end to the small-talk from earlier. Her head jolts up, eyes become wide. I look down at the register. “Like I mean, whenever you’re not busy and stuff.”
“Okay,” she says. It sort of sounds like a question.
And why should she be excited? But I rip a piece of thermal register paper anyhow, and slide it toward her on the counter. Take it or leave it. I look for a pen but she goes for one in her purse. It’s purple.
I blush. “Ah. A Bic Round Stic. My fave.”
“Huh?” she says. And then, “Oh, I got this from Personalized Pens.” I nod hesitantly.
She explains, “Kinda lame, but it’s a Kiosk on the second floor. One of my friends used to work there, and had the hookup.”
If you think that’s lame, just wait. “Don’t make my way up there too much,” I say.
“Well you should,” she says, yawning again. “Lots of great deals.”
I’m watching with unbelief and she’s writing her number down. I pray to God it’s not a phony. Moments later I’ll need to sneak into the Fitting Room and program it in my Verizon wireless, in case the paper disappears.
As I hand her the bag we both just stand there. Surely there’s got to be something to say, but everything that comes to mind just seems wrong. If only I could return to my bed, where the covers can be pulled over my face.
“See ya later,” she tells me, and walks off almost tauntingly. When she turns around I can’t tell if she’s winking at me or if her eye’s itching.
She heads in a loop toward the mall entrance, swinging her plastic bag. Her ponytail swings too.
If nothing else, she’s bought some new shoes. And this is good news for the proof of my existence indeed. It means I finally have a purpose of being here, in the life of Bryanna Summerson.
Like clockwork, Will rounds the corner. Also like clockwork, he’s sweating.
“I don’t get it,” he says, looking at the new sign above me, the one that says Women’s Shoes. “Now you’re here?” I smile. “It’s like my whole world’s been thrown off balance.” He looks around at every assortment of shoe. “I need oxygen.”
I answer a business call, and he keeps talking, “At least you got your bloody transfer.” He sits, picks up a nostalgic-looking foot-sizing tool to meditate on, and begins flicking the lever mechanism that slides to adjust for different sizes of feet. “Although technically, this department’s just as bad.”
I should tell him not to play with it, but I’m too excited. Someone needs to hear the Good News. I hang up the phone and whisper, “Guess whose number I got, with success?”
He leaps from the chair, can’t believe his ears. “B.S.”
“No, I’m telling you, it really happened.”
“I believe you. I was spelling out her initials.” He looks as if he’s just seen a ghost, or more fitting, Keith Moon reincarnate. He lowers the tool because clearly this is more interesting than touching where other people’s feet have been. “So you’re serious, huh? You really did it.”
He comes closer. “Details, dude. Right now. Give ‘em to me.”
I grab my wallet from under the cash wrap and put it in my back pocket. “Not yet,” I say. “We’ll catch up over lunch.”
We roshambo over who picks the eating location. We could always order food at different places, but if there’s lines we’ll run the risk of Will missing crucial details before break is over.
On our first throw my rock matches his. The game generally begins like this. “Best outta three,” Will says intensely, stating rules both parties are fully aware of. “1.. 2.. 3.. shoot.” Two scissors.
We use Rock Paper Scissors for decision-making pretty much daily, as it aids us through all of life’s questions. RPS can be particularly helpful when one is faced with important matters, such as choosing between episodes of Curb Your Enthusiasm, or Tim and Eric. And subsequently, a made-for-TV sci-fi flick, or one of Will’s dad’s spaghetti westerns on VHS. Last month while carpooling, Will’s rock settled a major argument: his post-punk mixtape would get us through an hour-long traffic jam, trumping the Italian prog comp I’d ripped the night before.
Suspense builds with some brief yet fierce eye contact. We throw a third time. My paper administers defeat on his rock.
I make a rock of my own and punch him in the gut: an amendment to the game we added somewhere along the line. He holds his stomach in agony.
“Get over it,” I tell him. “I was gonna choose the same place you were.”
“Now I know you’re lying,” he says, literally rolling on the ground for effect. “You hate Philly cheese steaks.”
“Not today,” I say, grinning wide. Surely he’s aware of my reason for choosing his favorite restaurant. There can be only one. I already got something I wanted. And what kind of person would monopolize all the world’s happiness?
“Need proof,” Will says impatiently.
I hold the number up for him to see, then stuff it back in my pocket before he can touch it. He offers a nod of approval. We stand there for a moment, sniffing the air.
“It’s a good day, isn’t it?” he says, grabbing hold of my shoulder.
“It is a good day,” I say, and brush his hand off. I punch the computer screen’s ADP Timesaver clock so we can leave.
A kid runs by and almost knocks over our table.
“Careful,” his mother says gently, hurrying behind him. Clearly the baby mall rat is leading her and not the other way around. They’re headed for the carousel, where the bulk of the Food Court area noise is coming from.
“That boy needs a leash,” I say, taking a sip of my lemonade.
“I’m sure he’ll grow up to be an outstanding member of society.” Will stuffs his face with french fries. “Banker, lawyer, Macy’s department manager—”
“I mean, kids have got to relax. I don’t see what the big deal is with carousels. They’re annoying, if you ask me. Traveling in a circle, sitting on a stupid animal, goin’ up and down. Don’t they get dizzy?” He wonders this aloud. “They should. I hate carousels. Never rode ‘em when I was a kid.”
“Like hell you didn’t,” I say.
“Didn’t know what they were. I don’t recall our town even having one at the time.”
“Do we have to talk about carousels?” I interrupt. “I’d prefer to enjoy my lunch.” I pick up my cheese steak and realize this might be impossible. I’m no doctor, but swear the food is poisoned. This could be tragic, considering some bites have already settled deep down within my stomach. Or is that just the feeling one gets knowing they’re on the verge of calling someone important?
“Get this,” Will says, devouring the last of his fries with a final chomp. “Did I tell you the story of how I ended up with two copies of Odessey and Oracle?”
“Both vinyl?” I ask.
“Stereo or Mono?”
“Originals or repressings?”
“I dunno, jackass, you’re the expert. Why don’tcha come over and take a looksy?”
I imagine the bass line and vocal harmonies of “Care of Cell 44” pumping through Dad’s living room Magnavox speakers. “You know what this means, right?” I say. Will shakes his head. “It means you’re totally entitled to gimme one.”
He thinks for a moment, takes off his glasses and says, “Hand over the poster and we’ll talk.”
The poster in question is one I’ve had for a while now, that took great measures to obtain. It’s taped to the door of my room—a rare colorful chart that can only be found in the CD section of Christian bookstores. It has two columns: the first, in a modern alternative rock font, says, “If You Like This Band,” the next, “You’ll Love,” and after that there’s an arrow pointing downward into the abyss.
“Abyss” is another word for a lengthy list of mostly horrible music.
The chart suggests that, naturally, when one becomes a Christian, they’re expected to replace their former good music preferences with ones far more mediocre in quality. And lest one be tempted to poke fun, I’ll have you know a handful of these bands have been known to mimic subgenres quite well.
I grew up listening to my share of edgy religious rock until I realized no right-minded art collector would hang a Van Gogh knockoff in his gallery. The best part of the X leads to Y chart is that it gets the equation completely wrong 95% of the time. The chart tells you, if someone likes Dave Matthews, they’ll flip over the sultry sounds of Sixpence None The Richer. Fans of the Red Hot Chili Peppers can be expected to toss their scratched bootlegs and immediately replace them with Carman’s post-80s catalog, holiday albums notwithstanding. The chart gets a small amount of credit in some instances, though, for getting the equation head on, probably for playing it safe. Like, there’s no reason a Violent Femmes lover shouldn’t give classic MxPx a spin.
I bribed my dad for the poster, and Will’s been after it since. He might not have gotten it if he knew of my evil ulterior motives. How could my dad recognize that the chart would be subject to hours of ridicule, or that my heathen best friend would be tempted to steal it? (This would mean he’d be influencing the breaking of The Eight Commandment.) My dad’s in good with the workers at Lifeway, always shopping there for books of sheet music to find inspiration for his own compositions.
“Florida people are s’pposed to keep the a/c on max,” Will says. Once again my friend is covered in copious amounts of sweat. Will’s a Georgia native—I forget which town exactly. His family moved here a couple years back, and they’ve been disapproving of Floridians ever since.
“Just take your hoodie off,” I suggest.
“Can’t,” he says. “Fashion before function.”
The baby mall rat from earlier hops off the carousel. He yells something at his mother about the Build-A-Bear Workshop. Some people get everything they want.
“So when you gonna call her?” Will asks, wiping his mouth with a napkin already covered in grease.
“Dunno,” I say. I lift my tray of food. It’s barely been touched, for other reasons besides its inedibility. Good thing Mom packed me a bag lunch.
The clock above the fountains is beckoning me back to work.
When closing time rolls around, I try to get ahead on dust-mopping the floors.
Before long I catch myself nodding off from a long day of efforts: arguing with Todd, conversing with Bryanna, and discovering the ways helping women find shoes is different than helping them search for undergarments.
I take out the number. It’s scribbled in the most elegant handwriting known to man. I stare at it a while, waiting for the next plan to come to me. Maybe I’ll hide in the Fitting Room and call Will for advice. But I reconsider, remembering how most of his intelligent schemes are rehashed from popular movies.
I wait for a conclusion, but none comes. Seems like there’s nothing to do but keep waiting and waiting…
And then I take out my phone and text message her anyway.
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