This man wearing a “Crazy Cat Lady” t-shirt and a sticker that says “HELLO My name is . . . Albert” (the name printed in shaky but legible letters) marches up to the counter, tosses Mein Kampf down, and says, “Hitler. Adolph Hitler,” in a James Bond sort of way. I stare at the white bushy eyebrows looming over his thick-rimmed glasses. A bead of sweat is making its way toward one unruly brow. If it misses its target, it’ll drop on the counter, onto one of the Lindt truffles that are there to encourage impulse buying.
It’s Friday afternoon, so there should be odious kids screaming for Junie B. Jones or Harry Potter, rewards for making it through the school week. And there should be shifty teens with purple hair and plaid prep school skirts sitting in the New Age section, perusing the witchcraft books. Instead, though, the bookstore’s nearly vacant, abandoned. A fusty emptiness hangs around the bookshelves, as if someone disappeared in a hurry and only the scent of his or her dirty laundry remains. It’s so quiet in the store that I can hear the murmur of the computer, loud as my own breathing. Even Chris, the homeless dude, is missing—maybe hospitalized again.
It’s been this way since 9/11. Too close to D.C., I guess; and, now, just as business is picking up again, the Beltway Sniper strikes. So, it’s mostly just the diehard Harlequin romance readers who come in these days. And the mallrats—when they run out of change for the arcade next door.
He massages the cover of Mein Kampf with such intensity that he almost knocks the box of truffles to the floor. I pick up the box and move it to the counter behind the registers, next to the book Random Acts of Kindness, also meant to encourage impulse buying and, perhaps, some goodwill.
“These counters are really not big enough,” I say, faking a chuckle, and then continue to smile, a painful, dutiful smile. Albert is staring at his book the way one might stare at a paramour. Sweat has darkened the fabric under his arms and is wicking outward. Spit is bubbling at the corners of his mouth, a stench of sour milk emanating from the orifice.
I want fresh air, but that’d mean going outside. Which isn’t appealing anymore. Not when there’s a sniper out there randomly hunting people. Even walking to my car after work daunts me. And when I get gas, I set the pump and sit in my car until I hear the clunk telling me that it’s done. It’s called survival.
A man wearing an oversized trench coat large enough to shoplift the whole Mystery section walks in. A cowboy hat shades his eyes. He walks straight back to Science Fiction/Fantasy. I should’ve figured.
“I, uh, need to scan this,” I say, pulling the book out from under Albert’s sun-spotted hands. I think about telling him to change his shirt and mind his oral hygiene, but my boss won’t accept any more customer complaints about me. So, instead, my mouth aches from smiling. Another form of survival.
When Albert hands me his check, I notice that he’s written “Adolph Hitler” in the memo portion. I verify the amount for accuracy, just as the man with the cowboy hat walks out of the store. The sensor alarm doesn’t sound, so he must have just stolen some paperbacks without security tags.
“Hitler changed the world,” Albert says. I freeze and study his eyes. He’s not looking at me though, only through me.
“For the worse, obviously,” he adds.
“Obviously,” I repeat. I tender the check in the register. It seems like it should be impossible for one person to change the world like that. It seems like it should be impossible for just one or two individuals to stimulate so much fear in another person that she is afraid of going outside, of walking across a mall parking lot in the middle of the day, or of filling her car with gas.
“You’re what, eighteen, nineteen?” Albert asks.
“Uh, twenty-three,” I answer. I imagine how easy it is to become famous. Like Ted Bundy. Or Jeffrey Dahmer.
“Stay away from salt,” Albert says. “If you do, you’ll live to be a hundred.”
I nod. The bead of sweat hits its target, but two more drops are lingering on the edge.
“And change your shoes every four hours. If you do, it’ll feel like you’re taking little naps.”
I nod again. One bead of sweat lands where the box of truffles had been.
“I’ve lived in the same place for over forty years,” Albert says. Spittle shoots from his mouth when he says “forty.” I imagine a chipped front tooth, yellowed or rotted.
“But you shouldn’t trust me,” he adds.
I nod. I hold his receipt out to him, waiting for him to claim it.
He continues: “You shouldn’t trust anyone nowadays.”
He pauses, takes his receipt, and wipes the counter with his arm in a large swoop, perhaps as end-punctuation.
He leaves. Once he’s out of view, I place the box of Lindt truffles back on the counter, right where my boss wants them to be: the spot to best elicit impulse buying.
Jessica Klimesh once considered herself primarily a poet and has had several poems published throughout the years. Currently, though, she is in the process of rediscovering her zeal for writing fiction, particularly flash fiction. She teaches English as a Second Language (ESL) at the University of Iowa and has also been an independent technical writer/editor for many years.