“All right,” Mrs. Martin said, “I want all of you to write an essay on what you want to do for a living.”
That assignment was easy. I wanted to produce rock music, so I wrote about that. A kid like me, though, who had taken piano lessons only a handful of times, needed brutal honesty. Besides, he also needed a certain level of clout. Not everyone who wanted to produce music could be Rick Rubin.
The students, one at a time, had to go up to the front of the class and read his or her essay. Most of the boys wanted to fight fires. An actual fireman once visited our class. He demonstrated how to protect oneself from an earthquake by either stooping under a doorframe or ducking underneath a desk. How simple was that. So the entire school building would’ve collapsed into rubble except for the desks and the doorframes.
“Mr. St. George,” she said, “please come up.”
So I read mine out loud. The students laughed. They thought I was joking; they thought this was another one of Paul St. George’s riles at Mrs. Martin. This coming from the same kid who once snuck a dildo into class.
“This is a serious assignment, Paul,” she said.
“Can I sit back down?” I asked.
“The question is ‘may I sit back down.’ You’re not helpless. And yes, you may.”
After school, I would ride my bike to a bookstore. The employees would stand around and do nothing except gab about films and literature; sit on bean bags and read books; speak of other countries they had been to. I pretended I was reading books, but I was listening to them. They seemed cool. None of them wore uniforms. I liked that about their job the most: their individuality.
This one dude wore different band t-shirts. Some afternoons it was The Clash; other afternoons it was the The Doors or The Misfits. He was so thin that his shirts hung and swung over his pants. I began dressing that way for school, wearing corduroys over a greasy pair of white Converses. The girls didn’t notice, but some of my friends complimented my shoes. I wore a Ramones t-shirt as well. They sang that song about being sedated.
The dude noticed it one day.
“Hey, I love the Ramones,” he said. “What’s your favorite album?”
“Umm,” I said. “I mean they’re all just so good.”
So he and I discussed music and writing. I’d tell Jesse the name of a certain writer or a certain rock band, and he would tell me which of their books or which of their albums were their best. I wanted to work in that bookstore, just so I could chat with Jesse. If I couldn’t produce music in Los Angeles, I could’ve always stocked shelves at the bookstore.
I went up to Mrs. Martin after class. She was at her desk, eating pickled olives out of Tupperware.
“I thought about what you said. And I’ve decided that I want to work at a bookstore.”
“What for?” she said. “Don’t you have any bigger ambitions than that? Give me a break.”
One day, Jesse wasn’t there on his usual shift. His Wednesday shift was always from 10 am to 6 pm. Something about the cold draft in that store told me he wasn’t coming back. The guy in his place wore a collared shirt and had it tucked tightly in his khakis.
“Where’s Jesse? Is he sick?”
“Jesse doesn’t work here anymore.”
So I was right.
He added nothing more to that. He kept his eyes on his computer, scanning barcodes like a machine.
“He’s teaching literature in Berkeley.”
“No, in Berkeley.”
Prepositions gave me headaches.
“Like, inside of UC Berkeley?”
“No, he’s teaching at ———–.”
The name of the college sounded so alien that I couldn’t even repeat the name. It had to be prestigious. Anyway, what a storybook life was Jesse’s: from a bookstore to a university.
My favorite section was the Erotica section. It was next to the Fantasy section. I would close my eyes and pull a random book from the shelf.
One afternoon, I pulled out Whose Muffins Are These? And I opened it to a random chapter. The scene took place at a bakery. One of the employees burned a batch of Boston cream pies. To keep her job, she had to bang the baker who mounted her against the freezer. In that world, sexual coercion wasn’t a big deal. The writer threw in his cache of culinary metaphors: a lot of kneading and rolling and tossing and sprinkling, some squeezing and basting….He shot his baker’s dozen into her sticky fritter. Stuff like that.
“You have an ID?” I heard.
Tim stared at me from the end of the section. I used the book as a shield against my chest.
He swiped the book from my hands and flipped through for keywords(?)
“Get out,” he said.
And I did, straight for the doors, trying not to run. Every person glared—the customers in line, the workers behind the registers, even the girls in the café with the fritters behind the glass—at me, this deviant who should’ve been bussed to reform school and kept away from anyone’s daughters. Those glares followed me to the parking lot, and back home no matter how quickly I pedaled my bike. The bookstore itself glared, too. The whole storefront resembled more and more of a face. I couldn’t show mine in there again.
Well, eight years passed like a dead winter. I committed much worse perversions than read bakery porn. I went to a fine arts school in Van Nuys. It was between a bail bonds and a massage parlor. By graduation, I no longer wished to produce music. I wanted to act in British comedies. I just needed the right clout.
Before the big break, I needed a job to afford my rent. Just three months after graduation, Al Qaeda decided to fly airplanes, and the job market plummeted.
I tried Home Depot. They wouldn’t accept me, not even for seasonal. That fine arts school was a curse. I was so desperate, I even tried the bookstore. They couldn’t have remembered me after eight years: the same employees, the same customers. Though when I stepped inside, the people looked eerily the same.
The manager who had swiped the book from my hands sat with me for the interview. He wore those same thin Harry Potter glasses. But he smiled kindly and delicately, and he told me about his retriever, and about the game Halo, and that he lived in Oxnard with his parents. He was actually decent. I had taken him wrong when I was 15. At that age, I didn’t know what a company man was.
The disappointing truth was, nothing about the bookstore shined and shimmered. None of the entry-level workers could work full-time. They all made minimum wage; they held second and even third jobs and still went to school.
And I was being ignored by women. In my early twenties they weren’t just a big deal, they were everything. A woman was the first customer in the bookstore whom I ever approached:
“Excuse me, Miss, do you need help?”
“Do I look like I need help?”
Well, she was in the self-help section.
One morning, Tim asked me to arrange the Erotica section. I couldn’t feel my hands. I could move them and stuff them in my pockets, but they felt numb.
“Paul? Are you listening?”
“Can you arrange the erotica section? I’ll bring over a cart.”
“If you’re not busy….”
“I quit,” I said.
“I said I’m quitting, I might quit, I might not quit, I don’t know.”
He got up close.
“Does it make you uncomfortable? Going to the Erotica section? If it is, I totally understand.”
“No, it’s fine, it’s not a big deal.”
Although the encounter made me prickly, his understanding did ease me down.
Someone had left behind a dirty diaper. Other than that, the erotica section was the most sanitized and organized section of the whole store—unlike the religion and self-help sections (those were more disheveled than the kids section). So the job was easy. I tightened the shelves, and Tim rolled the cart to me with all those books, all those possibilities waiting for me in all of those pages. Just hunker down and stock the shelves, Paul. Keep your eyes off the those books.
Oh, but the same book was there: Whose Muffins Are These? On the same shelf, too, right below my chin. So I hadn’t grown in eight years. According to a book of numerology, a new life cycle came every nine years, so I had about five years to grow. That was if a human still grew by that age.
The writer, Lance Chance, had written dozens of other erotica books. His picture was missing from the jackets. And what mother with that last name would call her son Lance?
Someone else joined me in the erotica section. He was one of the daytime regulars. The same cat would go to the video store across the street. It sold blaxploitation films for under a dollar. The video store also had a porn section, in the very back, with a yellow neon sign that read: ADULT MOVIES. The porn section was a room itself, separated from the rest of the store by a beaded curtain that hung down to peoples’ knees. Whenever he came out, the beads would clack together in a frenzy, and he would try to sneak out as if I wouldn’t notice. He would end up being my dentist, but that’s a different story for a later time.
With him there, I could relax, and I could revisit the same book from when I was in high school: the one in the bakery. In another random chapter, a customer didn’t have enough money to pay for a wedding cake that the baker had spent all weekend preparing. No matter what, people always seemed to let the baker down. He banged her in his office. Man, that bakery was full of sex.
“Are you on break?” I heard.
I looked over at the regular, but he was reading a book. Beyond him were the Harry Potter glasses. That Christian face looked as cold as it was eight years ago.
“Uh, I am.”
He stuffed his shirt farther down his khakis. My dentist left the section with a book. He had the right sense.
Alone with me, Tim scanned the shelves. He pulled a book from the top. It was a fantasy/erotica book called Pusseidon. By the look of its cover, the story involved mythological heroes copulating with mythological creatures (centaurs mating with sea monsters). Hard territory, even for me.
“Did you swipe your card?” he asked.
“Then try that one, let me know what you think.”
So he wasn’t a mean Christian after all.
Ever since that moment in the erotica section, we would hang out together at the information desk. In long periods of downtime, we would debate topics such as Christianity versus Atheism. I must’ve been agnostic. I didn’t believe God existed, but I also didn’t think God didn’t exist. I just loved being Tim’s contrarian, especially on the topic of suicide. Tim believed that if a man who killed himself he would fall straight to hell without a testimony. I believed that the ones who pushed him to kill himself would go to hell instead. He majored in Theology at Ventura College, so he could back hismelf with biblical facts. He gave me a book to read about the Mennonites. Well, the book didn’t involve sex, so I didn’t read it, but the name (Mennonites) did sound cool. There should’ve been a football team called the San Antonio Mennonites.
The company gave its employees a ten-percent discount on all merchandise. We could use the discount only once a week, so I had to be careful with what I bought. A cover had to draw me in. I did judge books by their covers, and most of those books were awful. I had been fooled too often.
The longer I worked there, the more awful books I read. After two years, the place bored me into neurotic complacency. A real paradox. I needed a deus-ex-machina, and it arrived in the form of a producer. He invited me to fly out to New Orleans for a movie part, but I was reading Kerouac at the time. I didn’t fly. The producer wouldn’t have paid for my plane ticket anyway. It was a small indie film, and my role wasn’t even a speaking part. I decided to quit the bookstore and drive to the East Coast.
Most of my family lived on that side of the country. I emailed them for their addresses, but none of them wrote me back. They had to live somewhere.
I drove through Iowa one windy afternoon. By twilight, this wicked cyclone spun in my rearview, tearing through crop fields, picking things up, throwing them aside. I flicked my cigarette out the window and stomped the pedal, escaping Mother Nature’s breath, weaving past cars and tractors down a one-lane road. Father Time was killing me gradually, but Mother Nature could’ve wiped me out instantly. I swerved around a diesel. Somehow. I dodged those monsters, and my family had managed to dodge me in Michigan.
None of my relatives that I knew of lived in New Orleans either. The producers couldn’t afford my lodging either, so I paid for a week at the Lucky 9 Motel.
One night, I stumbled out of a bar and fought my way through a thick downpour for eight blocks or more. The raindrops stabbed me through the whole way. The concierge watched me come in. He was young. He stood behind a thick graffiti of glass.
“Shouldn’t we hide in a bunker?” I asked.
“Don’t ask me. There’s a damn hurricane.”
One of us was dumb.
Regardless, the hurricane followed me into a nightmare. The waterline rose past the window. Fish bones and human skeletons drifted by. A tidal wave pushed through the door and flooded the room. I awoke before the nightmare would carry me to Babylon.
By sunrise, the hurricane had let up. The film wasn’t worth my life, so I fled town without a shower. The mouths of the sewers couldn’t swallow enough water for alligators. They scraped their bellies along the curbs.
I swore never to go back to Louisiana–nor anywhere on the East Coast. The film actually became a documentary about the making of it during a hurricane. It won a bunch of awards at film festivals; some of the actors (who played themselves as actors) moved onto bigger parts; some on TV shows that continued after ten years. If only I hadn’t skipped town….
I was like those alligators, crawling back to the bookstore.
One afternoon, my only friend in Los Angeles saw me in the café on my break. I hadn’t seen or heard from Les in a year. He said he was thinking of quitting standup.
“Why quit now?” I asked.
“It’s all about fashion. It’s who you’re friends with and what they can do for you and what you can do for them. It just gets harder, the older I get, and I’m forty. I think about quitting, then I change my mind, think about quitting, then change my mind. I did the Improv only less than a dozen of times in fifteen years, Man. Nothing’s ever taken off.”
I said we should’ve had a drink somewhere and caught up, but Les had quit drinking in the past year. He had also quit drugs, holistic remedies, fried foods, and red meat. Gluten, too. That café was the one place to hang out, where he kept eyeing the apple fritters.
“I’m driving back to Philly,” he said.
“I wouldn’t advise you to go back to the East Coast.”
“No, I’m just visiting my family.”
“You kept in contact?”
“Good for you. That makes me happy. For a wedding?”
“No, my uncle fell under a city bus.”
“Jesus. I’m sorry.”
“The funeral’s on Thursday. I can make it there in four days.”
“Why don’t you just fly there?”
“TSA won’t let me fly anymore.”
“Oh yeah. Well, just don’t drive through Iowa.”
“I’ll see you when I get back.”
He did get back, a week later, on the phone that is. Les never called, he only ever texted.
“I woke up.”
“The funeral woke me up. It’s important that I stay.”
“Did you think this through?”
“You’re absolutely sure?”
“I am. We’re at the age when relatives start dying off. I need a wife, Man, and you know I can’t get one out there. LA has nothing. I’m irrelevant. I’m too old, I’m too nice.”
“Just don’t quit what you do best,” I said.
So once Les moved back to Philadelphia, I really had no more friends left in town, except for Dan Dupree. He had gone with us to comedy school, but he was friends with Les and more of an acquaintance with me. I hung out with him whenever Les was around. The last I heard, Dan served drinks across the street from the comedy school, at the same bar where my ex-girlfriend had dumped me on my thirty-sixth birthday. That’s another story for a later time as well.
One morning in the kitchen, I heated a lasagna in the microwave, listening to AM radio. I never listened to the news. Jesus, either I was aging quickly or I was that lonely. It said that North Korea was about to strike. I would die without friends or family. The lasagna spun counter-clockwise in my microwave, going against time. My mother used to say: “don’t stare at the microwave. It’ll give you cancer.” But what the hell. I watched the artificial heat singe the lasagna’s organs–its meat, its cheese, and its layers of dough. It could’ve been the weed that I smoked that morning, but the lasagna had feelings, once rigid and stoic in the freezer. I couldn’t eat the lasagna with that in mind. Besides, why was I heating lasagna for breakfast? I threw it away and made a peanut butter sandwich instead.
A white flash shot through the kitchen. I couldn’t see. Followed by a fierce rumbling. It lasted for about a half a minute. Not until I regained my vision could I decide what it was. A nuke! I had survived a nuclear attack. My skin was the same color as before. All that black hair stayed there, too. The peanut butter sandwich was still there; so was the knife between my fingers. I still had work in an hour, if the bookstore wasn’t annihilated.
I couldn’t smell the trees. It was neither shirt nor sweater weather. Typical weather in Los Angeles. I wore a sweater, but I took it off after one block, only to put it on at the next block.
Across the street, a group of skaters passed a joint around. They stopped passing and looked squarely at me. Maybe the bomb passed through only my apartment. The sky was as pink as a raw chicken. I kept looking for any trace of a missile. If one person stared at the sky, another one followed along. If two people stared at the sky, soon three people would stare at the sky…..The number would eventually grow. And those skaters were stoned.
“What’re you looking at, bro?”
“A bomb. You didn’t feel the bomb?”
“I think I did, kind of, sort of….”
I drove away, and the skaters kept staring at the pink sky.
The commute to work took an hour, like always. I would’ve rather been nuked in bed than on the 101 Freeway. But what if I was crazy? What if I turned around and went back home? Tim would’ve written me up a third time for absenteeism, and that would’ve led to termination.
The AM station mentioned nothing about a nuclear bomb. A hurricane or a tornado could’ve destroy the whole city, but a nuclear bomb could’ve destroyed the whole country. Man could outdo Mother Nature. One announcer did report an 8.3 earthquake in Mexico, and a much smaller one had struck Los Angeles on the same day. I had never felt an earthquake, but I was certain that wasn’t an earthquake. No one at the bookstore said they felt it either.
Again, Les called me and didn’t text me. Tim saw me on the phone, so I went to the workers’ lounge.
“Were you hit?”
“The earthquake, Man.”
“I didn’t feel an earthquake. Unless the bomb was really an earthquake, and it made me blind.”
“I was just making sure you were all right.”
“It’s freezing over here.”
“Are you setting up any shows?”
“I haven’t had time, with debt and all. I’m parking cars like I did in LA, and still no days off. Parking cars here ain’t the same as parking cars out there.”
“I can bet,” I said.
“I wish I had the energy to write new material. I mean, they have open mics at a few places. Hold on,” he said.
His father hollered something in the background. All I could hear were “take out the trash,” and “help me get out of this frickin’ chair.”
“You there?” he said to me.
“Paul, I’m in love.”
“You’re in love,” I said. “In Philadelphia?”
“Yeah. I met this girl on the day after the funeral. Wouldn’t you believe? I forgot that girls could be so nice. LA must’ve made me too jaded.”
He met her off Tinder.
“Something about her is special,” he said. “It was like fate. I was so sad over Uncle Marky, and she just showed up on Tinder, like a goddess.”
So she was the reason why Les was staying.
“I’m happy,” I said. “I mean, I’m happy for you.”
“Thanks, Man. I also forgot that people mow their lawns. I haven’t seen one gardener.
They’ll wave at you when you drive by. And they’re honest, with you, with themselves. You can’t buy that. Don’t get me wrong: the people are uglier. But the rent is so frickin’ cheap.”
“Which makes sense,” I said.
“Yeah. I’m buying a house out here in the suburbs once I can afford to move out of Pop’s. You should move out here, too.”
“Come on, Man, the dream is over.”
He went on about Allison: how she was at the age of promiscuity and maternal needs and how that made her so horny.
“Yep, the dream is over, and I am so in love.”
A week later, I was walking down La Cienega. I had forgotten the reason why I was, but I kept going towards Third Street. He called me again. I usually didn’t answer phone calls, but Les had me worried. I answered it at the corner of Rosewood. I stood at the light.
Well, he wasn’t calling about a natural disaster, and he wasn’t joyful either.
“She dumped me, Man.”
“Yeah, the bitch.”
“All right, calm down.”
“She put me in the friend zone. Do you know what that is?”
“I know all too well.”
“She said she can’t date a guy who’s over the hill.”
“In those words?”
“She implied…. But I’m too old for the friend zone, Man.”
“Any man is too old for that.”
“How didn’t I see it coming?”
“I saw it coming,” I said.
“You did? So how can you let this happen?”
“Dude, I couldn’t let you down. You would’ve called me jealous and bitter.”
“Well, you are….”
“So I left all my shit in California for her, thinking I was starting all new, and here I am stuck in the thing about California that drove me away.”
His voice faded below a McDonald’s cup on the boulevard getting smashed by cars and swept into the air towards Third Street.
Across La Cienega was the Star Cabaret. It was open on Tuesday afternoons. I went inside and told Les that I had to go. Whenever I lost my purpose, I would sit in a strip club.
The host charged me $22 at the door—not $20, or else he couldn’t give me change in a bunch of ones.
“Just so you know, there’s only one dancer here, and she’s on her lunch.”
“And the admission isn’t refundable.”
“I guess I’ll wait,” I said.
The bartender demanded that I pay for at least two drinks. A scotch-and-soda cost ten dollars, but so did a bottle of water.
“Two scotch-and-sodas, please.”
There were no other customers. I felt kingly. When I was six, I used to dream about having Chuck E. Cheese all to myself. Any seat was mine. I sat at the table nearest to the stage. Red and purple rays of light bounced off the mirrors on the stage, and the ammonia from the brass poles burned my eyes.
The DJ announced the dancer coming to the stage. Her name was Cobra. She slithered out from the curtains. The DJ flipped on a smoke machine. She disappeared until she crawled to the front. Cobra looked beautifully brutal. She had a tattoo of a bloody dagger next to her left eye. She threw her bra at me and missed. It landed on another table. But she could stare through my eyes and into my soul without fearing what I would do. They changed colors with the lights. I began to have feelings, so I looked away.
The DJ left his booth and stood over me.
“Hey, Pal, you going to tip the pretty lady?”
He yanked a rubber band from his hair, and the hair fell to his shoulders.
“Yeah? I can tell you to get the fuck out.”
“Let me finish these $10 drinks first. Then I’ll get the fuck out.”
He went back to his booth.
Just to satisfy him and Cobra, I sat at the tip counter, and I tossed a few flimsy dollar bills to the stage. They fluttered back to me as if they were looking for my wallet. Cobra wrapped her legs around my head. Even with her crotch at my face, she could still look me in the eyes. I didn’t feel confident around strippers.
A small television was mounted right below the ceiling. It showed some tournament on the Golf Channel.
“What’s your name, Papi?”
“What happened to your nose, Paul?”
“Eww, that’s kind of sexy.”
In my periphery, she did this trick with her breasts, but I kept my eyes on the tournament.
The whole place shook. Cobra screamed. She pulled her legs from around my head, and one of the pumps knocked me in the baby spot. The DJ yelled: “shit, earthquake.” The place rumbled on as if a truck were pulling it away. Liquor bottles fell off the shelves. “Duck,” the host yelled. He crawled underneath one of the tables. Cobra stopped under the doorframe with the curtains. The DJ must’ve hidden under his turntables. I couldn’t even react. God could’ve existed and this was all because of him. Some of the Mennonites must’ve died in strip clubs as well; and the Ancient Romans, and the Aztecs.
Vijay Sangh sliced his tee-shot into a dark blue pond.
Oh yeah. I was supposed to go to CVS for a refill of Lamictal. I forgot I was bipolar (whatever that really meant).
A part of the roof came down, right on my head. I thought they were phone books.
The earthquake stopped at that. I saw myself in the mirror at the back of the stage—rather, my reflection. All that stucco made me look like a bruised and bloody snowman. So the next time when somebody would ask me what happened to my nose, I would’ve had another reason.
Vijay Singh ripped the ball from the rough, and the ball rolled off the other side of the fairway. He threw his iron into the water; his hat, too. What a rough day at the course for Mr. Singh, almost as rough as an earthquake at the Star Cabaret on La Cienega.
In the Fall, Les sent me an email. He had never sent me one of those before either:
…I have moved back to Phily for a reason. Everything happens for a reason. God has a plan for each of us indeed….
Sure, but was the plan good? Otherwise, why would Les have mentioned a bad plan? Why depress one of his friends? And how did God make the plan? Did he meet with the devil every quarter to discuss numbers? Was heaven bringing in too many worthy souls and was hell punishing not enough? And was the devil punishing the unworthy souls severely enough? They both needed human experiments.
Anyway, Les wrote about his first show in five years. Sure, he had given up and moved back, but he had booked himself a show in downtown Philadelphia. That inspired me to seek more auditions.
Les told mediocre jokes, but he could promote himself so well. Not only did he persistently post ads online and fliers that he had left at bars and coffee shops, but he also drove around town in a van with his name and face and his website all painted on the sides. He had sold the van just before he moved back to Philly and bought himself a Toyota Prius. Those cars always looked like running shoes on wheels.
Well, no one came to see him except for his parents. They weren’t invited. One of them must’ve seen his fliers. After all, they were both retired. They had nowhere else to be.
His brothers didn’t come, nor did his friends. No one in the shop even stopped by to watch. So Les performed his half-hour set in front of Mom and Dad. God must’ve planned that, too.
But at least the material was new. He said he was testing it for gigs in the future. One good thing about not performing in five years was: no one could say the material was old. Philadelphia wasn’t a mecca for comedians anyway. He wasn’t worried about comics stealing his material or bruising his confidence. He had to experience horror of another kind. His parents applauded after every joke. Those were the only times when the customers took notice.
After what he thought was six minutes, he cut the performance. He thanked his parents. They hugged him, kissed him, and praised him. I had never told jokes at a bookstore, but I had worked at one for over ten years. I understood his humiliation.
At a point in that eon, Tim quit the bookstore. He moved from his parents house to Israel as a missionary, to persuade Jewish people into being born again. I hoped he was still alive. He was replaced by a woman who was born again as well. He must’ve planted seeds before his departure. The longer I worked there, more and more born-agains sprung up.
The store had dramatically fewer books and compact discs than when I had quit the first time. It looked bare like the dying tree right outside. The erotica section was still there, and as clean as ever. But all of the Lance Chance books had gone out of print. I hoped he was OK, too.
One morning, this girl showed up wearing a shirt for the Insane Clown Posse. She had on pink hair and black lipstick. It could’ve been a wig. Whatever. I was in a terrible mood.
“Um, do you work here?”
“I do. The Insane Clown Posse CD’s are in the next aisle.”
“What makes you think I’m looking for that? Because I’m wearing the shirt? That’s, like, profiling.”
“You’re right, I’m really sorry.”
“And why did you point to the rock section, Dude?”
“It’s not Dude, it’s Paul.”
“So where’s the rap section, Paul?”
She followed me as if I were looking for an escape.
ICP filled a whole row. I watched her flip past the CD’s. She should’ve brought a metal detector.
“Just curious,” I said. “What do you like about ICP?”
“Because they’re dope, and I’m looking for the new Joker card.”
“The new Joker card? So that’s why you’re a fan? Because of some card?”
“So, it’s no longer about the music.”
“But you’re not a Juggalo,” she said.
“So Juggalos are your people.”
She popped her gum at me. It smelled like Ben Gay.
“Um, my people?”
“You know, their fanbase.”
“Dude, I’m going to the Juggalo convention this week.”
“Where’s the convention?”
“At Staples Center. They’re revealing the new joker card.”
“And you need to find another one in these CD’s?”
“Um, yeah. It’s like a special edition.”
“So this is an Easter egg hunt type of thing?”
“I’m, like, in a hurry. Can’t you just look in the back and see if you have any more, old man?”
My fists tightened up, but I could still control myself.
“Why is this so important?” I asked.
“I talk to Shaggy online. He said I could get free merch.”
“Is Shaggy a Juggalo?”
“No, stupid, he’s one of the dudes.”
“Don’t call me stupid.”
“But you are.”
“What if Shaggy is lying?” I asked. “What if he’s trying to get you to buy his records?”
“What if you work this shitty job for the rest of your life?” she said.
I slapped the CD right out of her hands.
“Hey, fuck you, Dude. That’s, like, assault.”
She kept yelling “assault,” and she yelled “go fix your nose, old man.” I went straight for the break room. My eyes must’ve turned red. Was I becoming a psychopath if I wasn’t already? I needed to punch a locker, so I punched mine, trying to get my fist through to the other side. The metal slats had broken the skin off three of my knuckles. I washed the blood off in the water fountain.
The manager came in:
“I’m quitting, I swear, I quit.”
“That young girl is yelling for security. What did you do?”
“It’s my lunch, I need a break. Those angry nerds are taking over the store. They take over the comic book section; they spit on the sidewalk; they’re like a civil rights group of oppressed nerds, and I have to see them every day.”
“You can’t help customers when you’re this way, Paul. When you’re like this, you’re better off staying home. Did you take your Lamictal?”
Why did I ever tell her about the Lamictal? I was too open. Besides, she was a born-again who didn’t believe in drugs. I shook so hard, I needed a cigarette, especially with her about to suspend me.
My cell phone vibrated. It glowed straight through my shirt pocket. She and I both waited for me to answer. I went to the bathroom, and I waited at a urinal for something to come out. There was an actual name for that phobia, in which I couldn’t pee in public. My cell phone kept buzzing. Someone was changing clothes in the next stall. He kept groaning as if he had sat on nails. I answered the phone with my free hand.
Dan had never actually called me before—just a text here-and-there about comedy school.
“Are you alone?” he asked.
“Walk somewhere. Tell me when you’re alone.”
The person in the stall wasn’t leaving any time soon, so I went back to the workers lounge where I thought I could be physically alone.
“OK, I’m alone.”
“Les is dead.”
“He’s dead. He let the car run in the garage.”
“But he drives a Prius.”
“I don’t know, Man. I just found out at the school.”
“He just called me the other day.”
Neither he nor I had any more words to say, so we hung up.
I sat at the lunch table and stared at one of the walls. It had this Escher painting of a bunch of staircases leading to a ceiling. Next to it was a light socket. It appeared to have worried eyes and a worried mouth. To the right of it was the Munch painting of that screaming yellow face. All three of them seemed to be screaming without a voice.
The manager came back in and refilled her jug in the water fountain. My blood had to have been washed away by then. She had managed the store for eight months, and what was her name?
“Paul, do you need to go home?”
“My friend died.”
“Oh,” she said.
“I think I’m going to faint.”
“You may go home, but please don’t forget to clock out.”
“You said ‘may’.”
“You said I ‘may’, not I ‘can’. You spoke proper English.”
“Paul, you should just go home and lie down.”
“And Dear, he’s not suffering. He’s in a better place.”
“He killed himself,” I said.
“Oh,” she said again. “I-I should go back out.”
That afternoon, Dan was working at the bar. He put down his broom and sat with me for a half-hour, or whenever the bartender would leave for cigarettes and weed. We shared a pitcher of beer with dill pickles at the counter, and we mourned our friend who would suffer eternal damnation. For some reason, I poured salt on the pickle. That was something I had never done. The beer was warm, too, so it burned my throat even more with the salt.
“Are you going to the funeral?” he asked.
“In Philly? I can’t afford that.”
“I could write my condolences to his parents, but that’s weird.”
“We’d never met. His parents had locked their Facebook accounts, so I’d have to make friends with them to send my condolences.”
Dan chewed the rest of a pickle, pushed his beanie farther down his eyes and poured himself another round.
“I’ll miss him for sure,” he said.
“I miss him already.”
“This town makes it hard to miss people. When they leave, I just shrug my shoulders and say ‘OK, good luck with that.’”
“He was always so passionate, but his decisions always got in the way. I should’ve told him not to move back for that girl, but he wouldn’t have listened.”
“Let’s be honest,” Dan said, “it was something deeper than that girl or him moving back.
But you’re right about his passion. He did save my life.”
“That’s right. You never did tell me why he drove you to the hospital.”
Dan rolled up one of his jacket sleeves and showed me three scars going up his wrist.
“You didn’t have to show me that.”
He looked around himself. We were alone enough. There were no customers, and the bartender was slicing cucumbers at the other end of the bar.
“You know the Tonight Show wanted me, right?”
“The Tonight Show on NBC?”
“Yeah. I crushed my set one night at the Improv. They even laughed at my favorite bit, the one about the horse and the school bus. Nobody ever laughed at that, even though it was my best material.”
It wasn’t his best.
“You know how crowds are. They laugh at your worst jokes. Shit, they laughed their hardest at my joke about Pop Tarts. I was going to throw that one away. It became my one hit song, so more people showed up for my sets. My name was on the marquee. Those big black letters: DAN DUPREE. TUESDAY NIGHT. Do you remember that?”
“I do. But why didn’t tell me that you were on the Tonight Show?”
“Because I never was.”
“Those assholes. They passed on you for someone else.”
“Nope. You see, I used to dream about going on Letterman. It was the whole reason I ever went into comedy. No other show would do. I bombed one night when his people were in the crowd. Supposedly. Maybe someone had told me that just to fuck with my head. You know how some comics are.”
Indeed. Les and I would drink whiskey together (back when Les still had a drinking problem), and Les would call Dan’s material a heap of plastic bottles. When I drank whiskey with Dan, he would talk the same about Les.
“That fucked me up,” Dan said, “that night. But Leno’s people saw me perform, just weeks after the Letterman people. Paul, I was fucking young.”
“I told them I needed to think about it.”
“Think about what? It’s the fucking Tonight Show.”
Dan swilled his Heineken so deeply down, I thought the beer would leak out of his pores.
“I turned it down,” he said.
Dan waved the bartender for two shots of Buffalo Trace.
“I told them ‘I’m sorry; I want to go on Letterman.’”
“Yeah. I couldn’t go on the Tonight Show if I couldn’t go on Letterman. I thought it was self-betrayal; I couldn’t sabotage my dream. When you have a golden opportunity, you better make sure it counts. The future really did look far away. Now look at us. It’s here.”
So young Dan waited around for Letterman’s people. Once Letterman retired, he accepted any show that would want him. He waited on them, too.
“Dan,” the bartender said. “I’m going out.”
My friend got up from his stool, grabbed the broom at the end of the bar, and left me there with his terrible ending.
That next week, I quit the bookstore and swore to myself never to go back.