Issue 9: Horizontal vs. Vertical
A Publication of the USF MFA in Writing Program


Skittish

Al Riske

            This is the low point of my life so far. I'm 29, almost 30, and I'm working in a bookstore in Bakersfield—a chain that has strict rules about what we can have on our shelves and how long it can stay there before we send it back and get something else. Something someone will buy.

            I spend my days tearing the covers off paperbacks and mailing them to various publishers. Just the covers. Saves on postage. The depressing part is that I'm left with all these faceless books that have to be destroyed. It's against the law to give them to anyone, and who would want them? I mean, technically, you should still be able to read them, no problem, but I've tried it and it's no good. Like talking to someone who has no face.
            Even if you're a good person it would be hard to talk to someone with no face. You'd avoid it if you could.
            That's not why this is the low point of my life, though. It's the low point for a lot of other reasons. The big one is that Jerry, my boyfriend—ex-boyfriend, I should say—comes into the bookstore tonight and just starts talking. No hello or anything.
            I walk away but he follows me from aisle to aisle as I put new books on the shelves and rearrange old ones, the ones browsers have moved to random places, to get them back into alphabetical order. In biography, I'm momentarily confused until I remember that, here, the books are arranged by subject, not author.

            I suppose the real reason I'm out of sorts, though, is because I don't want to hear what Jerry is saying. Certainly not here. I'm a private person. I don't want to have this conversation in a bookstore with half a dozen quietly browsing (and listening) customers.
            We end up across the sales counter from each other. For a long time we say nothing at all, and finally I blurt out, "Jerry, I told you I don't want to talk about it." Which is kind of funny because we weren't talking about it anymore.
            I notice my coworker, Paul, off to my right. He looks down at his inventory sheet.

            Jerry backs away, smiles.

            "Okay," he says. "See you later, Sasha."
            His voice sounds all sweet and he smiles again and waves, but I just narrow my eyes. I pretend my face is made of stone. I give nothing away.
            Once he's out the door, I turn away, fold my arms and stare at the floor.

            "What was that all about?" Paul asks.
            I try to stay tightlipped about the whole thing, but there's hardly anyone in the store now—just a teenage boy in the photography section and a shopgirl by the magazines—so a couple of gently prying questions from Paul is all it takes. He's really nice and kind of cute. (Too bad he's so young.)
            "He came in to tell me he has my dog and is planning to keep her."

            "What?"

            "He didn't say anything to me beforehand—just went to my place while I was gone and took the dog."

            "Who does he think he is?" Paul wants to know.
            Paul, named for the apostle, is a practicing Catholic and seems to genuinely care about people. I was a Catholic myself once, but only briefly. I don't do mass or confession anymore, but I know God is inside me. There's no other way to explain how I'm able to get up each morning.
            "It was his dog to begin with," I say. "He gave her to me."
            Then I have to explain about me and Jerry and the dog—a beautiful retriever/lab/setter mix Jerry had never really wanted. That's why he gave her to me. He said he wanted me to have Jules because he could see how much I loved her, but the truth was he could no longer be bothered to walk her or feed her or do anything but kick her when she got underfoot.
            "I love that dog," I say. But I hear no emotion in my voice, which is weird, and I find myself staring at the floor again. Jules is my dog. She loves me.

            "Maybe I should let him have her," I say finally. "Then I'd never have to see him again."

            "From the sound of things, the dog is this guy's last hold on you," Paul says.
            I nod dumbly. He doesn't know how right he is. I'm moving next week and haven't told Jerry or anyone else where I'm going.
            Paul is still talking. "He probably has no real interest in the animal; it's just something to hold over your head. Like: I've got her now; what are you going to do about it?"

            "I don't want to hassle with him anymore. He's a prick, an asshole, a shit-for-brains…" When I can't think of any more names to call him, I stop. Then I add the ironic kicker, "He says he still loves me."

            In my mind I can still see him smiling and waving. He gets away with so much because of that smile.

            When I blink, I see Paul shaking his head, so I say, "Hard to believe, huh?"

            "He has a strange way of showing it."

            "I know. He seemed so sweet at first. Still does at times."

            It's that smile of his. And I guess I went for the muscles as well. He works out all the time and is very strong, which always made me feel safe…until it didn't.

            "Don't," Paul says.
            "Don't what?"
            "Don't try to work it out."
            I shake my head and notice my hair is falling all over the place, so I pull it back and replace the scrunchy. As I do, I catch Paul watching me, but just as quickly I pretend not to notice. I don't know what it is about my neck. Guys are always kissing it or wanting to kiss it. It's my best feature, I suppose.

            "Still," I say, "I hate to give up the dog. He'll only mistreat her."

            I can still see Jules, the day I first met her. She kept circling around me, wanting to be my friend, but staying just out of reach. If I stretched out my hand she would scamper back three steps, then slowly start circling again, afraid of being caught, afraid of what might happen then.

            "Better the dog than you," Paul says.

            He's right, I guess, though that doesn't make it any easier.

            Paul touches my arm. I move away.

 

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