by: T.E. Cowell
Gripped by a slacker mentality, a love of literature helps squander the bothersome hours of the day away…
The phone rings. I stop reading and answer it. It’s my uncle. He says, “Make any sales?”
“A few,” I say. “It’s pretty slow.”
“What’d you’d sell?”
“A pair of sandals and a hat. A few t-shirts.”
“The ones with the bottle opener on the bottom.”
“I’m not sure. Twelve, I think.”
“Well go check. Then see if there’s another in that size in the back room. Do the same thing with the hat and t-shirts you sold. You’ve been working here what, three years now? I shouldn’t have to keep telling you these things. You sell and restock, sell and restock – that’s the nature of retail. If you can’t restock you make an inventory list for me of what we need and I order it. Got it?”
After my uncle hangs up I go back to reading. I figure there’s no rush in seeing if I can restock that sandal, hat, or the t-shirts. It’s the winter, and in the winter, business is especially slow. It’s for this reason and this reason alone that I prefer the winters to the summers. Winters I can sit on my ass and read a book or magazine all day long and get paid to do it. It can get boring doing this, sure, but in my opinion it beats having to work hard.
I’m still reading when my uncle comes in the front door maybe an hour after he called.
“Hey,” he says, “put that book down. I’m not paying you to read. Have you restocked what we talked about?”
“I was just about to do that,” I say and put my book down.
My uncle, not for the first time, looks at me like there’s something seriously wrong with me. Then he shakes his head and purses his lips. “Well get on with it already. Geez.”
I come out from behind the counter and go over to the sandals. I look for the size that’s missing and learn that it is in fact a twelve. I go into the back room, find the right box of sandals, dig through the pile in search of a twelve, and finally I find one.
I bring the sandals into the front room and hang them on the rack between an eleven and a thirteen.
“What size was it?” my uncle says.
“A twelve,” I say.
“Any more twelves in back?”
“I don’t know. Didn’t check.”
“Didn’t check? Geez! What am I paying you for?”
I return to the back room and search the box for another twelve. “No more twelves,” I say when I’m back in the front room.
Standing behind the counter now, my uncle’s scrutinizing the sales receipt for the day so far. “Write it down,” he says without looking up at me. Then he turns my way and says, “First though, check if there’s another of the hat and t-shirts you sold. Then, after you start making your inventory list, you can clean the sunglasses’ lenses, at least the ones that need it. The fans could also use a dusting, and I bet some of the racks need to be scrubbed with the wax paper. Also, the sidewalk could be swept again, assuming you did it this morning like you’re supposed to. I saw a good number of cigarette butts out there.”
Without another word, I turn and return to the back room. Sometimes, I’ve found, it’s better not to say anything. I come back into the front room a minute later with the hat and one of the two t-shirts, as I couldn’t find the other one. My uncle’s no longer in the store. I feel a sense of relief that he left and I can get back to my reading. I put the hat where the hats go and the t-shirt on the t-shirt rack, and then I get behind the counter again. On a yellow pad I write the brand name of the sandal with the bottle opener and the size there’s only one left of. Then I make a mental list of the things my uncle wanted me to do before I look for my book.
I can’t find it anywhere. I step outside and look down the sidewalk for my uncle. Then I go back in the store. I feel worked up. Angry. I imagine my uncle walking the few blocks back to his house with my book in his hand. Maybe he dropped it in a trash can. I can’t imagine him doing such a thing, dropping my book in a trash can, but then again I never would’ve thought him capable of doing what he’d just done.
I wait ten minutes, the time I imagine it taking him to return home, then pick up the phone and call him.
“Hello?” he says.
“You took my book,” I say.
“You’ll get it back,” he says, “when you prove to me that you’re not a slacker.”
I laugh, say, “Are you really blackmailing me? Do you really think this’ll work?”
“To be honest, I really don’t know if it’ll work or not. It was a spur-of-the-moment decision to take your book. But if it doesn’t work, what do I have to lose? Remember who works for who here.”
I shake my head, start to say, “I can’t fucking believe this,” but my uncle hangs up.
Begrudgingly, “half-assed,” as my uncle would call it, I do all the things he asked me to. I clean the sunglasses’ lenses, dust the fans, scrub some of the clothes racks with wax paper, sweep again outside. A few people come in the store during this time, all regulars. One buys a button-down shirt, another a leash for his surfboard and a bar of wax. I go into the back room, find another identical button-down, put it on a hanger and then on the rack. Then I go back behind the counter and call my uncle again.
“Hello?” he says.
“I did all you told me to and more,” I say. “Now I want my book back.”
My uncle laughs. “You really think you’re getting it back that easy? You haven’t proven anything to me except that you can take orders. That is if what you’re telling me is the truth.”
“It is. Come back here and see for yourself.”
“I don’t want to come back there. I’m relaxing now. I’m drinking a beer and reading your book. It’s actually pretty good. I’m on chapter three already. Moves quickly, engages the reader from the get-go. Maybe, if you’re lucky, I’ll give it back to you when I’m done with it. But only if you prove to me by then that you’re not the slacker I peg you as. Make any more sales?”
“If I did I won’t tell you,” I say and then hang up. It feels good to hang up on my uncle. Really good. I think he might call back and have some choice words for me, but he doesn’t.
Without anything to read now I look out the windows and wait until it’s time to close up for the day. I think about closing early to get back at my uncle, and then I do just that. At fifteen minutes to six I bring in the nine-foot tall soft-top surfboard that, from a cardboard sign tacked to its front, advertises rentals at ten dollars an hour, twenty-five for the day. With the surfboard inside, I pull the front door shut, lock it, then secure the squeaking metal gate and lock that too. Then I finish up at the cash register. I print out the day’s receipt, take what little cash is in the register besides the ten, three fives and ten ones that always stay there, put the receipt and cash in a paper bag and stick the bag on the shelf below the register.
I step out from behind the counter and turn out all the ceiling lights except for one row. Then I go into the back room. I stand on the worn carpet and wonder what I should do with the rest of my evening. I could go over to my uncle’s house and demand he give me my book back, but if he did give it back I’d probably read more of it tonight and it’s almost better that I save it to read only when I’m bored out of my mind at work, which during the winter is basically always. If my uncle doesn’t give me the book back before the weekend I’ll go to the used bookstore I bought the book at and see if they have another copy. I doubt he’ll finish the book by then, as it’s a big book, almost as thick as a dictionary.
I have a dozen or so other books in my duffel bag, the one I brought down here three years ago soon after I dropped out of college, but they’re all still more or less fresh in my mind. Tonight though, before I go to sleep, I might fish one out and start rereading it. I need to have some kind of entertainment, and without a TV or a computer, books are all I have.