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Ready ... Fire ... Aim!
Posted on Apr 14, 2011
By Mr. Fish
She extended her hand and introduced herself with a smile as Heddy Markel, chief of security, from the Barnes & Noble corporate office in Manhattan. I recognized her name immediately, having heard it spoken in paranoid whispers by fellow booksellers over the previous three years—ever since being hired, in fact, back in 1994—as if it were a rain forecast. I’d also remembered seeing it mentioned occasionally in the Barnes & Noble weekly newsletter, a stack of which was delivered into the employee break room every Monday morning and thrown away in a stack that was roughly the same size every Sunday night, although I didn’t immediately recognize her face. That would’ve been the case, I’m sure, with anybody from the corporate office, especially without seeing either her front teeth blackened in or a drawing of a cock and balls roosting next to her mouth like an oversized microphone.
As a matter of fact, without the qualifying vandalism etched hard into her face I found her difficult to look at, sort of like seeing Quasimodo without the hump or Woody Allen in contact lenses. With her middle-aged face splattered with enough freckles to suggest a stain consistent with carnivorous animals and an orange, topped by a Dutch boy haircut complete with the fascist bangs of Moe Howard, there was something impolite about looking directly at her. It was as if her attempt to maintain a look that she should’ve given up when she was 11 years old would eventually become so extreme that, in 15 years, she would be just as pitiful to look at as Harpo Marx was when he was nearly 70 and trying to be childish on the “I Love Lucy” show, his gray and sagging skin set beneath a brand new wig that was so dense with shiny synthetic curls that demonstrated a contrast so violent it made one’s teeth hurt to look at it. It was pedophilia somehow without the sex, just the telepathic groping and the desperate grab at happiness that was so indecent and clumsy that it came at the expense of everybody else’s.
I shook hands with her and bent my pity into a boomerang of a smile, just as embarrassed for her white-knuckled grasp on what little youth she had left as I might’ve been had she just come off stage at the Newport Jazz Festival after blowing into the wrong end of a trumpet for 45 minutes, and, following a gesture that she cast like an invisible Frisbee into an empty chair at the center of the tiny office, began to sit down as the door was closed behind me.
“How long have you been stealing money from the registers?” she asked, as matter-of-factly as if she were asking me how many Polacks it took to recognize Adolf Eichmann. Having segued from such a cordial hello, her words fell slowly into my comprehension, like they’d entered my head out of order, as I lowered myself into my chair with all the deliberate confidence of a man being offered a cigarette and then asked if he minded smoking it with his hands bound while wearing a blindfold and hearing the Lord’s Prayer shouted at him from a safe distance.
“Huh?” I said.
“How long have you been stealing money from the registers, Mr. Booth?” she said again, attempting to bully me into taking ownership of her question’s content by attaching my name to it, her sentence spoken with just enough of a Southern accent to seem oddly adorable.
Not wanting to dignify her question with an answer, especially since I wasn’t entirely innocent, having been stealing magazines and newspapers, I said, as if reading from a cue card, my nervousness threatening to short-circuit my vocal cords, “What are you talking about?” I looked over at my boss, Alan, a sweet, thin, small-boned man with a strawberry blond complexion that was fair enough to freckle in candlelight and to burn under a rainbow, who didn’t look up from his desk, ashamed to meet my eyes. As usual, his mind was somewhere else, no doubt 20 miles away in his bedroom closet, and then under his bed, and then in his underwear drawer, frantically searching for his college transcripts to see if he’d taken enough science courses to be able to manufacture cyanide. I looked back at Heddy Markel and said again, “I don’t know what you’re talking about.” She smiled, picking up a manila folder from my boss’s desk and took out a cash refund receipt and handed it to me. “Does that look familiar to you, Mr. Booth?” she said. Twang twang went her accent. It looked like a cash refund receipt, complete with a list of three returned books, the customer’s name, the customer’s address, and the customer’s telephone number, plus, at the bottom of the receipt, on a line asking for a supervisor’s approval, my initials, and below that another line asking for a cashier’s initials, which, for reasons no more salacious than apathy, contained my scribbling of the cashier’s initials. In other words, I supposed that it looked as familiar to me as any small piece of paper meant to remind me of what a fucking bone-crushing waste of time my 20s had been, particularly the last three years spent working in retail.
“No, it doesn’t look particularly familiar,” I said. “Why?”
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