by Nick Scorza
This is a story about Martin and Alice falling in love, or falling into something that resembles love. As is usual for this type of story, it is also about other, less obvious things—the kind of things we hint at when we use a word as hazy and vast as love.
Martin and Alice work in a Large Chain Bookstore and Café, one of many across the country that is characterized by identical elements slightly reshuffled. It is a labyrinth of genres, special displays, knickknacks and espresso. In the front books are stacked with loving detail, their pages crisp and still smelling faintly of glue. In the back the books approach a disordered stack—pored over and loved or abused and forgotten, mixed with discarded latte cups and concealed pornography from the magazine section. It is a universe of ideas given solid form and price tags.
Alice works the day shift with the tides of parents with their bored or screaming children, the shuffling browsers, and taut wail of the shoplifting alarm.
Martin works nights with empty corridors, endless stacks of shipping crates to unpack and titles to stock, in the throbbing hum of caffeine energy and the sick glow of fluorescent light bulbs after midnight.
They see each other for one hour every day.
Alice’s eyes are dark-brown and heavy-lidded, eyes that cause strangers to ask if anything is the matter. She always answers, no, everything is fine, even if it is not. She is long-limbed, milk-pale even in summer. Her hair, a drab brown, is dyed midnight-blue-black.
Martin’s hair is the color of bleached straw. He has lost the chubby face and acne that plagued him in adolescence but carries himself as if still marked by both. Something in his slack gait and timid gaze suggest that he is apologizing in advance.
Alice and Martin, both readers, are forbidden to read at work. Stacks of titles cross their eyes every day, but they cannot linger, cannot part the fresh white pages of new books to see what they contain. They are always being read by their supervisors, their intent and efficiency constantly assessed.
Alice’s supervisor is a girl her age named Anne whose tattoos are well concealed by her staff shirt and whose smoke breaks are always exactly five minutes. Anne tells Alice they have so much in common and can be great friends. Then Anne catches Alice reading or finds a display stacked unevenly.
Martin’s supervisor is a short taut-muscled man named Dwayne who declares every night that he doesn’t care about this goddamn job and that the whole place can burn down for all he cares. He gives Martin hell every time he catches him buried in a book.
Martin and Alice have shared few words beyond the usual hello’s and how are you’s that, for good reason, never appear in stories. Meetings are an awkward emotional striptease in slow motion. Still, that one hour of the day that passes more quickly than all other hours, they catch each other looking from across the room, eye to eye, before the distractions invade.
“What do you read?” Martin asks Alice one day.
Alice is too embarrassed to mention the new-age spiritual-guidance narrative that wraps her in promises of dreams interpreted and fulfilled every night. Instead she describes the more impressive-sounding books she likes but never has time for or never seems to feel like reading at the right time.
“Emily Brontë, and you know, stuff like that.”
She turns the question back on him.
Martin stumbles, says he’s between books and maybe he’ll read one she recommends. Maybe Emily Brontë.
Martin likes books from the genre hinterlands of fantasy, science fiction, and horror, sequestered at the back of most Large Chain Bookstores (hic sunt dracones), stories where shy young men discover great destinies in castles or among the stars, stories read largely by shy young men.
Martin is ashamed of the implied escapism. Really, he is ashamed to be someone who needs escapism- who spent his fat asthmatic childhood inside with his mind in Middle Earth and Narnia, Arrakis, and sunken R’lyeh. At guilty moments he wishes he were someone who could find real life more interesting, so that the imagination could be superfluous, so that all the wonder of one hundred lives could be distilled into a few real lived moments. He thinks this, even as he looks down on people who seem to have this ability as shallow and fundamentally boring.
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