Hold On, We’re Going Home
I’m stuck in traffic on the 355 below an electric sign that reads “398 Traffic Deaths In Illinois This Year. Drive Safely.” I stare at the sign and the number blinks and comes back “399.” Another one bites the dust. I’ve never seen it change before; it’s surreal, like my gaze caused the death. A chill sweeps through me. I wonder if anyone else on the road saw the number change. I wonder if anyone else feels responsible for it.
I feel like I should take a moment of silence, turn off the music, put my hand on my heart, and - and what? Pray? I don’t pray. What would I even say? Honestly I just hope their funeral is crowded.
I don’t feel bad about the death, but this makes me feel worse than I probably should. I wonder what the accident was like. Was it an early morning drunk? A sleepy commuter? Or just a negligent texter? I start to speculate on the means of the death as I continue my way to work. I picture disembodied heads, glass pierced limbs, and cars turned into accordions.
Truth is there are hundreds of ways to die on the highway. It could be black ice, oil spill, drunk drivers, teenage texters, road shrapnel, the list goes on. It’s a wonder any of us are still alive. Every time I drive a little piece of me believes it might be the last time. I know I won’t die of old age.
Nervously I check my blind spot through my side view mirror. I read a notice on my mirror that tells me objects may be closer than they appear. You can’t trust anyone. Turns out even mirrors lie.
There’s a UFO that resides underneath a patch of forest off the side of the highway. It takes a keen eye to see it, but it’s there. The aliens are out there, somewhere. People have always treated me like an alien, and when I think about the UFO under the forest it feels like a way home. I imagine someday the UFO will pick itself up out of the patch of forest and leave this place.
I get to work 20 minutes before my shift. The air is stale and the building is silent. It feels like a mausoleum.
People like to believe that used bookstores are romantic. They impose memories that fill you with nostalgia. But the books are full of dust and mold and after six months, all they do for me is make me sneeze.
A customer comes in the store with his basement packaged in boxes to sell.
You can learn a lot about a person by the books they own. You can piece together their lives. I go through this man’s belongings and find books on fishing, parenting, pregnancy, how to manage unruly teenagers. As I continue the story gets darker. I find books on managing drug addictions. AA manuals with the Twelve Steps. Books on grieving. These books are puzzle pieces that make up one singular story.
Fifteen minutes later I call the man back up to announce his offer of $10.
“What? You’re kidding right? For all these books?” His pulse quickens and the veins in his forehead throb. I can tell it’s still fresh. I try to remain indifferent to the memories he’s throwing away. Every person wants their memories, even their bad ones, to be worth something.
Every customer does exactly what he does in this situation; he stares at me across the other side of the counter and sizes me up, judging whether if he jumped onto my side and tried to fight me how well he’d do. All I want to do is hug him and tell him it’ll all be OK. Instead, I bow my head and hand him his money.
Later in the day more coworkers arrive. There are two kinds of people who work at the bookstore, simply put, the bitter and the optimistic. There are the ones like me, young, in our 20’s, fresh out of college, saving up money to pay off student loans that feel like the National Debt and save for cars and our ways out of town. We have untraveled roads in our eyes that shine like diamonds. Then there are the old, the ones who’ve settled into their lot in life, working in a used bookstore, living beneath the poverty line, eating Kraft dinners.
The bitter ones scare me because they show me what I could become. I don’t think any of them thought they’d be here for the rest of their lives when they started. Maybe they were just like me and saw it as merely a stepping-stone to the next big thing. At what point did they simply give up? A part of me feels like I’d rather be dead than just give up like they seem to have.
One of my coworkers, a divorced middle-aged man with hair graying at the sides, and a chain-smokers laugh, greets me at the counter. “Hey Isaac, how’s it going? Any hot chicks come in yet?” he cackles and it sounds like two lumps of coal grinding against a chalkboard that fell on top of a screeching, dying duck.
“Nope,” I respond, looking down away from his gaze. He wears glasses that hide the sad in his eyes, but I can still see it; the little man is trapped in a cage that he’s no longer trying to escape from. Now he just lies there with a slumped head, silently crying.
He grunts dissatisfied and slinks away to the backroom.
Cheryl likes to monitor me while I work. She thinks I’m still a rookie, despite the fact that I’ve been here for six months and we’re paid the same. Cheryl’s been here for five years. This job has lasted longer than all of her marriages combined.
She’s only in her forties, but her back is slouched, and the beginning of a hump has developed on it. Her face is a mixture of defeat and bitterness.
I wonder if being watched has ever made someone work better. When Cheryl watches me I drop books and stumble over corners. She scoffs at me each time as if saying, “I knew you wouldn’t be any good.”
“You know, I had a dream recently you got in a car wreck and died,” she says to me.
“Oh?” I say, trying to ignore her.
“Yeah, it was real bloody too, your head was flung 20 feet from the car.”
Cheryl claims she’s a psychic and does readings for people as a night job. I wonder if she’s ever made someone else wealthy or successful or happy.
“Well, let’s hope not,” I say. I want to say, “Well, good thing you’re not a real psychic.” I want to see those words burn their way into her, but I’ve never been able to bring myself to consciously hurt someone, not even when they deserve it.
A few hours later the phone rings and I pick it up. The voice on the other end begins before I can even say a word.
“Hi, I’m Cindy, I was wondering if you have a book.”
“Uh, sure, let me check. What’s the book?”
She mumbles something incoherent.
“I’m sorry, can you repeat that?”
“Of course,” she says and then continues mumbling incoherently.
I pretend to type something into the computer. “Nope, doesn’t look like we have that.” I anticipate this being the end of the conversation and ready my hand to slam down the receiver.
“Oh, that’s quite alright,” the woman says. “By the way, have you heard of the movie Rise of the Guardians?”
“Um, no, I don’t think I have.”
“Oh, well it’s a fantastic movie!”
“Do you want me to see if we have it for you?”
“Oh, no that’s quite alright.”
I ready to hang the phone up.
“It really is a great movie,” she continues. “In the movie there’s all these mythical creatures. Well I don’t know, are they mythical? I don’t know. In the movie they’re all real!”
“It’s really fantastic. Do you have kids or grandkids or anything?”
She answers herself before I can say anything.
“If you have kids or grandkids you should show them this movie! Do you teach them to believe in Santa and the Easter Bunny, and the Tooth Fairy and all them? You really should!”
I look down at the phone monitor; this conversation has gone on for 10 minutes now.
“My daughter-in-law is sick. I don’t know if you can hear her behind me, but she’s so sick!”
“Oh, I’m sorry to hear that.”
“There’s this awful bug going around. You heard of it?”
I recall hearing something about a stomach virus spreading in six states, a news report claimed its dangerous and urged people who are sick to seek treatment immediately, but I don’t want to stay on the phone. “Nope, never heard of it.”
“Oh well it’s just fucking awful. Ooh! Sorry about that. I’m 72; sometimes I say bad words. Anyways, it’s awful. First she was just sneezing and having headaches, but now she’s just puking everywhere!”
“Well that’s not good,” I say trying to sound empathetic.
“It’s not good at all! Do you know about flu shots? Should I get a flu shot?”
“I feel like I should get a flu shot. Maybe then I won’t catch what my daughter-in-law has, but I don’t know. I don’t like needles, and it always seems fishy getting a flu shot, y’know?”
“Hm-hm.” The phone monitor now says 17 minutes; I don’t even talk to my family for this long.
“Well, I feel like I should let you go,” she says. I perk up, excited to be let free. “Well actually…”
When I finally break free the monitor reads 26 minutes. I can still feel the imprint of the receiver on my ear, hot and moist.
An hour later I’m standing at the register. I stare at a teenager rummaging through our DVDs. He’s wearing a hoodie and sunglasses. It’s 87 degrees outside. He glances up every once in a while to scan the store. I make myself visible to him, but this doesn’t deter him. I see him place a few DVDs in his sweatshirt pocket. Company policy is I can’t accuse anyone of stealing.
“Excuse me, sir?” I look up from the thief and see a girl around my age. She has red hair and the kind of face you know belongs to a girl who isn’t used to being pretty.
“Yeah, what’s up?” I ask.
She lifts up one of our little knick-knack items, “How much is this?” she hands it to me. “I saw this one for $4.99 but then I saw a few others of the same thing for only two dollars.”
I inspect it, the price tag clearly reads $4.99, but I’m bored, and she’s pretty. I grab a price gun and retag it to two dollars. “Now it’s two dollars.” I smile and hand it back to her. She blushes, brushes a wisp of red hair behind her ear, and takes it.
I notice her key lanyard has the Northwestern University logo on it. “You go to Northwestern?” I ask.
She looks confused at first but then sees her lanyard, “Oh, uh yeah, just finished my first year.”
“It’s a good school, you like it?”
She nods, unsure of herself, “Yeah… it’s difficult.”
“I’m sure. What are you going for?”
“Business.” The way she says it I can tell it’s not what she wants to do. I want to ask her what she really wants to do. I want to preach to her about throwing caution to the wind and following your dreams, but I followed my dreams and now I work in retail with student loans that weigh more than a house. Who am I to preach?
I hand her the change and say goodbye. She smiles shyly and begins to walk to the exit. Suddenly the door opens with a burst and a large young man walks in. “Natalie!” he yells, “Do you remember me?”
I don’t have to see her to feel the uncomfortable shudder reverberate down her spine. I stare at them through the sides of my eyes. He has on a stretched out, stained white t-shirt with a large gut straining the seams. His head is balding and he has a shaggy layer of unkempt stubble.
After a while she finally responds, “Oh, yeah, hi.”
“Yeah, we had History together, junior year. Remember? I sat behind you!”
“Yeah, I remember.” I can hear her brain struggling to recall a name.
“How’ve you been? It’s been so long!”
“I’ve been good.” I see her try to side step him out of the store, but he steps with her.
“That’s great! I’ve been doing good too! Well, I had to leave school, and I lost my job, but other than that I’m doing great!”
“You look great by the way!” I can tell he strained his courage to get that sentence out of his mouth. It sounds like an accident, and the words float awkwardly in the air between them.
After ten minutes of uncomfortable conversation I’m unsure of whom to feel worse for. On one hand this guy is clearly trying hard for this girl. He knows he doesn’t have a chance, but still he holds onto hope.
On the other hand it’s hard to be a pretty girl in a small town where you’re remembered as just that plain chubby girl with braces who sat in the corner of the lunchroom with just a couple other quiet friends. Most people will always see her that way. Memories are a damning thing.
Finally she gives up her attempt at being polite, “Y’know, I really have to go, I’m sorry.”
“Oh, well we should hang out sometime.”
“Yeah, totally.” It’s the tone I’m all too familiar with, the tone of insincerity, the tone that says, “The moment I walk out of this door I will never see you again, and I will be happy.”
“Well let me get your phone number.” He reaches into his pocket for a pen but she’s already gone. He looks up at me and I dart my sight away. The split second that our eyes met I felt as if I was staring at myself. This is who I used to be. Sometimes when I look into a mirror I still see him. Just one or two different choices and him and I would still be the same. His heartbreak is my heartbreak.
I walk away from the sound of his shattering heart. This bookstore is full of broken hearts, sitting in shelves and walking down aisles. You can hear the broken hearts sing out ghost stories if you listen close enough. All I hear anymore in this store are their songs.
Towards the end of my shift I’m standing at the counter with two other coworkers. The store has begun to die down.
“I heard a rumor we might go out of business,” Sarah says while stacking books. She has long black hair in a ponytail and it wobbles from side to side, brushing her bare white shoulders.
Nick grunts in response.
“What do you think you’d do if we closed down?” she asks.
Nick shrugs. “I don’t know. I got my degree in architecture.” Nick wears a shirt from University of Illinois and he moves in squirrely little twitches.
“Shit, seriously?” she asks. “Why are you working here?”
“Ran out of options, had to start paying loans back.”
“You think you’d try to get a job doing that?” Sarah asks.
“If I can, I couldn’t before.”
“What about you, what would you do?” Nick asks.
“I want to get the hell out of retail,” she says with a laugh. “Retail is the pit that sucks away souls.”
“I want to work for a not for profit,” she says, serious now. “I don’t know, I just want to help kids lead not so shitty lives.”
Nick nods in admiration as they continue to sort books.
Sarah and Nick talk as if I’m invisible. It’s like there’s a wall, like they know I’m there, but they can’t see me. I imagine what I’d say to their conversation. I’d leave. I’d go somewhere where no one knows me, where I can start completely fresh. But I feel if I spoke these words they’d sound like some kind of alien gibberish. I withdraw down into a shell and dive under the water of visible critique. Down there it’s safe.
They become silent and in the silence I can hear the ghosts’ songs.
When my shift ends the sun begins to set over the Super Wal-Mart across the street. I’ve always felt like this was the most American image you could possibly see. Vibrating reds and purples, oranges, and blues splashed together in the sky like a mad painter’s canvas fading away over that polished blue entrance. Bring out Ol’ Glory.
I drive back to the highway. My air conditioner is on full blast and it feels like the outside wind but devoid of the humidity that fogs my glasses. A splash of dust climbs through the vents and it makes me sneeze. Suddenly a feeling of guilt rises through me. What if, by telling the old lady I’d never heard of this new virus, I’d condemned her daughter-in-law to death? What if by karmic punishment I contract this virus and die in a fiery car accident with my head punted 20 feet from the car?
I begin to panic, but my body calms me reminding myself of the ridiculousness of it all. Cheryl is no more a psychic than I am an aphrodisiac. The streetlights place spotlights on my car as the sun sets.
While I drive, my music vibrates the windows and I think about the man I used to be. I think about the man who threw away his memories. I think about all those broken-hearts and their ghost stories that I hear sang throughout the store and echoed off the walls. No matter how loud my music goes I can never stop thinking about these things. They play in a loop over and over again: the man I used to be, the man who threw away his memories, the broken-hearted ghost stories, the man I used to be, the man who threw away his memories, the broken-hearted ghost stories…
At night, the UFO becomes visible. The streetlights along the road light up the edges of the spacecraft, shining metal gleams underneath trees. I hope someday the UFO will pick itself up out of the forest and leave this planet for good. I hope they take me with them; this world has never felt like home. Maybe then things will finally start making sense.
Above me an electric sign reads, “412 Traffic Deaths In Illinois This Year. Drive Safely.”
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