Last week, Texas reached record highs for new COVID cases. The governor reinstituted restrictions on bars, restaurants, and large social gatherings. The mayor of Austin made it mandatory once again for residents to wear masks in public. There has been much discussion on how this would affect the Fourth of July weekend.

Today is Independence Day.

There are two middle-age men who sit on a bench outside our store, late thirties, white, sun-reddened skin, khakis, polo shirts with frayed collars. They look like a couple of suburban dads who recently fell on hard times. They talk in low, polite voices and sip from a receptacle inside a brown paper bag. I don’t know their situation, but they are on that bench every single day when I arrive at work. Today they are both huddled around a cell phone that is playing Jimi Hendrix’s Woodstock rendition of “The Star Spangled Banner.” One of them is crying.

It is like any other shift, except every third customer asks if I am doing anything for the Fourth. I smile and act as though it’s a logical question, but obviously I am doing this for the Fourth.

In the afternoon, a young Muslim couple comes in the store with their son. The mother wears a coral-blue hijab and a matching floral mask, and the son wears a Spider-Man t-shirt. The father shops the LPs while the mother and son look at children’s books.

The only other customer around is an elderly white man with a shaved head. He’s pulling a cart with an oxygen tank on it, the plastic tubes connected to the tank disappearing under a medical mask yellowed by cigarette smoke. He has a slightly manic look in his eye, and he keeps staring at the family.

He’s a little strange but seems harmless. I keep an eye on him, but he doesn’t cause any problems.

After twenty minutes, the family approaches the register with an armload of books. The elderly man with the oxygen tank gets in line behind them.

I start ringing up the books. The child is carrying a little Captain America key chain and cautiously places it on the counter next to the books, looking at his parents out of the corner of his eye.

“What are you going to do with this?” the mother says, picking it up by the chain and examining it like a dead mouse. “Do you have keys I don’t know about? Do you own a car?”

The kid bites his lip and looks away.

The father shrugs and includes the keychain in the purchase.

“Sucker,” the mother mumbles. But she’s smiling too.

“Happy Fourth of July!” the elderly man calls out behind them.

His voice is loud and a little startling. The father turns around and smiles.

“Thank you,” he says. “Happy Fourth of July to you, too.”

“It’s an important day! Independence! I know things are difficult now, but I still believe in this country!”

I thought the man was angry at first, but now I see he’s just emotional. His words are pleading, almost desperate. He starts to take small steps toward the family, pulling the oxygen tank with him, a left hand extended out, palm up.

There are a series of tape marks on the floor to indicate where to stand in order to keep six feet apart.

“Sir,” I say. “Please stay behind the marker.”

He seems confused by this. He looks down at his feet.

“We can’t give up!” he says, shuffling forward again. “People are angry! I know they’re angry! But we’ve been through difficult times before! It’s important that we stay united!”

The mother puts her arm around the son and gently guides him away. The father continues to smile and nod.

“Yes, sir,” he says. “Thank you. Yes, sir.”

He tries to pay faster, but the machine rejects his credit card and he has to start over.

The man continues to shuffle forward. “We’re a good country! We have a rich history! We can…! We can…fix this if we’re all together! I believe in this country! I believe we can fix this!”

Finally, the credit card goes through, and I print out his receipt. The father grabs his bag and moves quickly away from the shuffling man, continuing to smile and nod even as he makes his escape.

“We’re a good country!” the man calls after the retreating family. “We’re good! We can…be good! Happy Fourth of July!”

There’s an old adage in retail that I learned from an overweight boss when I was a teenager: “If you’ve got time to lean, you’ve got time to clean.” I have always hated that saying for three reasons: 1) it’s annoyingly passive-aggressive; 2) it suggests the employee should be dedicating every waking second on the clock to the needs of the employer, and if they take a moment to rest or take a deep breath after dealing with a surly customer, they are taking advantage of the employer’s precious time; 3) I hate sayings that rhyme. They’re annoying.

But like all cliches, there’s a smidge of truth in there, too.

In normal non-plague times, retail work is an exercise in monotony. Don’t let anyone tell you different. It matters not what you’re selling or how well you’re paid (although, let’s be clear, you will never be paid more than a subsistence wage). There is a mind-numbing ritual to the job that sinks into your bones and becomes part of your nature. You clean, you service customers, you balance the register, you clean. Then get up the next day and do it again.

Most retail workers learn how to shut off their brains. The job requires very little thought, so your mind is free to wander wherever it pleases. As a writer, this is one of the perks for me. I think about plots and characters and dialogue. To the untrained eye, it might appear that I’m scanning a shelf of books to update our inventory, but in reality, I’m a thousand miles away, battling aliens on a spaceship or watching two people fall in love on the subway. I’m there but I’m not there, if you know what I mean.

During a global pandemic in which you are forced to return to work at a time when health experts agree everyone should be avoiding contact with strangers, the retail job becomes a surreal exercise in what I have been calling panic-boredom.

Panic-boredom is a state of mind in which the retail employee performs the mundane acts of their job that usually produce an almost zombie-like state of mental torpor, except underneath every register transaction and pricing shift, there’s a layer of existential dread in which the employee imagines they are lying on a hospital bed because the customer in front of them refuses to pull his mask over his nose.

The job is still boring, but now it’s also dangerous. The space in the back of your mind that used to wander outside the workplace is now occupied with visions of death. You can’t relax. You can’t mentally escape. It’s exhausting.

Last week, a customer asked me how I was doing. She was a perky blonde in spandex yoga pants and a t-shirt that said It’s Wine-O’Clock Somewhere! She was buying a stack of self-help books with titles like Think Your Depression Away! and 7 Ways to Build a You That’s Better Than the You You Always Wanted to Make Better!

I told her I was fine because A) I didn’t want to have a long conversation with her about anything, and B) if I told her how I was really feeling, I imagine her head would have opened up and a bunch of little sad-face emojis would have floated out…and then I would have stabbed each and every one.

“You know,” she said, “it must be nice to have something to do right now. I mean, I’ve just been stuck in my house for the last three months, ordering takeout and doing puzzles with the kids. I mean, there’s nothing to do at my house. Nothing at all. We just watch Netflix all day. Can you imagine? I’m going bonkers! At least here you can be around books and people! Right?” She reached through the plastic partition dividing us and touched my arm. “Maybe I’ll apply for a job here! What do you think of that? We could be coworkers!”

She laughed, delighted with herself, and then bounced out the exit.

I nodded and slathered my arm in hand sanitizer.

If you’ve got time to lean, you’ve got time to clean.

I’ve had this recurring nightmare since I started back at work. I’m at my job and I’m trying to disinfect the counter. It’s filthy, and every time I wipe it off it just gets worse.

Customers keep asking me questions, and I stop to answer them but then I go right back to the counter. My arm is sore and beads of sweat appear on my head.

Just when the countertop is almost clean, it morphs into sidewalk. And then a slide that kids are playing on. And then a brick wall. I keep cleaning.

Finally, the surface transforms into a giant snake. I’m still trying to clean it as it coils around me, and then it opens its jaws and swallows me.

There’s a momentary sense of relief. Yes, I’m going to die, but at least I can stop cleaning now. It doesn’t last long.

Inside the snake, there’s a huge chain of workers that stretches as far as I can see. It’s like one of those old-timey assembly lines with a conveyor belt that constantly moves, pushing endless product past the workers. Everyone is wearing goggles, rubber gloves, and those thick industrial aprons, and they’re all frantically cleaning something I can’t quite make out.

Someone grabs me by the back of the neck and yells, “What are you doing! You’re going to ruin everything!”

I run to my spot at the end of the line, put on my goggles, gloves, and apron. I pick up a rag and a bottle of disinfectant. I look down at the conveyor belt. I still can’t see what I’m supposed to be cleaning, but I spray it anyhow and start to wipe.

I turn to the person next to me and ask, “What are we cleaning?”

He looks at me. His face is a flat shiny surface with no eyes or nose. It looks exactly like the countertop I was cleaning at my old job.

“You know,” he says. He has a raspy voice that sounds like a tire releasing air.

“No, I don’t,” I say. “This is my first day. What are we cleaning?”

“You’ve always known,” he says.

He points down at the conveyor belt, and it finally comes into focus. It’s lined with baby parts. Legs and arms and fingers for miles and miles.

“Clean,” he whispers.

The conveyor belt starts to move. I pick up a baby’s foot and begin to disinfect it. But I can’t get it clean. The more I wipe, the bloodier it gets. I look at the other workers, but they’re not having the same problem. I keep going. My gloves and apron are covered in blood. There’s so much blood that it starts to fill up the room.

Finally, a loud horn blares, and the conveyor belt stops. Everyone on the assembly line turns to look at me. The room is dead silent.

I try to make a run for it, but my boots are stuck in a thick puddle of blood and won’t budge.

“They’re going to call the manager,” he says.

And that’s when I wake up.

He was a large man in an expensive suit, and he was yelling into his cell phone as he walked through the entrance.

“Don’t tell me that! Don’t you dare tell me that! It was supposed to be done last week!”

He had on a Rolex watch, a spray tan, and no mask.

“Sir,” I said, preparing to give him the company spiel about safety protocol.

Without looking in my direction, he held up his index finger and continued to yell into the phone. Of all the fingers in all the worlds in all the galaxies, I hated that finger the most.

While he was standing there, a little old black lady slipped in the front door quiet as a church mouse. She wore a fabulous weave, a dress that looked like it was made from numerous doilies, and a handmade floral-print mask. She was so stooped over she looked like a human question mark.

“Thank you for wearing the mask,” I said. “We’re also asking people to observe social distancing.”

“Okay, baby,” she said. “I got you.”

I expected her to start shopping, but she just stood there behind the man in the suit.

Finally, he got off the phone, and I told him he needed to wear a mask in the store.

“I’ll just be a second,” he said. “I’m picking up a book for my wife.”

“I understand,” I said. “But we still need you to wear a mask. If you would like to wait outside in your car, I can get the book for you and bring it out.”

He gave me a smug look and said, “No, that’s not necessary, boss. I know where it’s at.”

“In that case, I need you to wear a mask.”

“But I didn’t bring one,” he said.

“YES, YOU DID!”

The man practically jumped out of his Armani suit. He spun around and found the black woman glaring up at him.

“It’s in your back pocket,” she said, pointing with a long wrinkled finger. “Right there.”

“Oh, right,” the man mumbled.

He put the mask on and started to walk off.

“And stay six feet away from other people!” she yelled after him.

We’re not allowed to applaud customers, but lady, trust me when I say we were giving you a standing ovation.

A friend recently told me I should keep a public diary of my experiences as a retail worker during these historic times.

“For posterity,” he said.

“For posterior?” I asked.

“Never mind,” he said.

But his words stuck with me. I imagined my diary one day being read in a Ken Burns documentary by a montone middle-age man, while banjo music quietly played in the background.

“Gadzooks, I’ll do it!” I said.

“Shut up! I’m trying to sleep!” my wife said.

“Gadzooks, I’ll do it,” I whispered.

So here goes…

June 10, 2020

Dear Ken Burns,

You have not asked for my story, but I shall tell it to you anyway. It is a story of love and loss, of challenges and hardships, of masks and hand sanitizer. It is a story of retail.

It all started when some people with large guns and bad haircuts began protesting on the internet for my rights. I didn’t ask them to do it, but they were adamant. They marched up and down in front of various civic buildings with signs that said the government should not be allowed to prevent me from serving them.

“That’s okay,” I told them. “I’m good staying at home and not contracting a deadly virus.”

“No!” they cried. “You have the right to put your life on the line for our convenience!”

The governor agreed, and the state of Texas was opened back up for commerce and death.

I work at a company that sells used media. Before the plague, people brought in boxes of books, CDs, DVDs, VHS, LPs, cassettes, magazines, eight tracks, laser discs, video games, gaming consoles, tarot cards, trading cards, photo albums, record players, puzzles, board games, comic books, and posters. My fellow coworkers and I would take these items out of the boxes, assess their value, offer money to the customer, and they would inevitably say, “For all this stuff?”

After explaining that we were a business that had to make money and their John Grisham novels simply were not in high demand, we would price the items we had just purchased and put them on the shelves for others to purchase.

As retail jobs go, it is more bareable than most. Also, you get first pick of the John Grisham novels.

As you can imagine, this type of business attracts a certain type of customer. The word “nerd” comes to mind, as well as the words “eccentric,” “hoarder,” “cheapskate,” and “what’s that smell?”

When COVID-19 hit, every used item became a potential biological weapon, and we had to change our policies in order to prevent employees and customers from, you know, dying.

Masks. We require them. It’s like that orgy mansion in Eyes Wide Shut except the participants are (normally) clothed and not as attractive.

There’s a message on our website that says you have to wear a mask in the store. There is a sign out front that says you have to wear a mask in the store. There are several signs on the door that say you have to wear a mask in the store. And yet at least twenty times a day, someone walks in without a mask and is shocked (SHOCKED, I TELL YOU) to hear about this policy for the first time.

“But other stores in town don’t require me to wear a mask.”

“Yes, but we do.”

“But it violates my constitutional rights.”

“No, it doesn’t. We’re a private business. We also require you to wear pants.”

“But I don’t have a mask.”

“In that case, you can tell us what you want, and we will bring it out to you.”

“But I want to get it myself.”

“In that case, you need to wear a mask.”

“But I don’t like how it feels, and it fogs up my glasses.”

“Yeah, I have to wear one for eight hours a day. You can handle it for twenty minutes.”

“But other stores in town don’t require me to wear a mask.”

And on and on…

Most people do wear the masks. Some people even thank us for requiring everyone to wear masks. We like those people the best. Others threaten to burn our store down. We don’t like those people as much. This happened to my coworker the other day. She told a man he had to wear a mask, and he countered with, “Maybe I’ll set this place on fire.” We did not like his counteroffer and told him to leave.

Another man called my supervisor something that rhymes with “trucking hitch.” We told him to leave. Another man came in the store with a mask on, took it off when no one was looking, and when he was told to please put his mask on, he threw an armful of books on the floor. We told him to leave. And, finally, my favorite: when a middle-age woman was told she had to wear a mask, she gave the Nazi “Sieg Heil!” salute and stormed out of the store. We told her not to come back.

There is more, but I am fatigued. These are difficult times and I must gather my energy in preparation for more arguments about masks. Our spirits and hand sanitizer are low. I will post again at a later date.

Unwillingly Yours,

Dale Bridges

The Upstairs Neighbor

March 31, 2020

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The night her mother died, it rained, and Caroline giggled when the warm, wet drops squeezed through the cracks in the ceiling and landed on her nose. She remembered the smell of ozone and damp cedar. She remembered the sound of leather suitcases dragging across the hardwood floor, and her mother emptying entire drawers of her clothes into them without folding. She remembered her mother saying in her Southern warm-honey drawl that they had to hurry.

 

Then her father came home, and the rain stopped.

 

The police said her mom’s death was an accident, but Caroline knew better. She didn’t fall down those stairs on her own. But no one believed a little girl who was born with no eyes. They thought she was simple. They thought she had an over-active imagination. They were right.

 

After the funeral, her father sold their house and everything in it. An estate sale. He said he wanted to start over, but that was a lie. He was haunted by what he’d done. He was running from her mother’s ghost.

 

They were halfway across the country before he felt safe again. He promised Caroline he was going to be better from then on. He would get sober and find a job. He would be a good father.

 

At first, he kept that promise. They moved into a new apartment in the city, and he purchased new furniture. He bought Caroline nice clothes and a little record player with a top that opened like a mouth. She fed it Loretta Lynn albums all day long. He started attending AA meetings. He didn’t shout at her. He didn’t hit her. He read her bedtime stories. He called her “my little angel.”

 

She knew it wouldn’t last.

 

The day he started drinking again, someone moved into the apartment above them. Caroline heard them dragging their leather suitcases across the hardwood floor. She smelled the ozone and damp cedar.

 

From then on, there was no peace. The upstairs neighbor was loud and never slept. They danced and they jumped and they laughed. Her father scowled at the ceiling and drank more. He started going out late at night. He lost his job and stopped attending meetings. He screamed at the upstairs neighbor and pounded on the ceiling with a broom. Caroline stayed in her room and played her records.

 

One night, the sky opened up and it rained so hard her father couldn’t go out. He sat on the couch staring at the ceiling while he slowly emptied a bottle of Wild Turkey. The upstairs neighbor laughed and laughed. Caroline played her records.

 

Finally, he jumped off the couch and broke the lock on Caroline’s door. He picked up her record player and smashed it against the wall. She could smell his whiskey breath and his sweat. Lightning flashed outside, and the upstairs neighbor began pounding on the ceiling so hard pieces of plaster fell off.

 

That was when her father lost his temper. He stormed out of the apartment, and Caroline heard his boots ring on the steps as he stomped upstairs. She heard him pound on the door above. She heard him scream at the occupant to show themselves. She heard the door upstairs open and her father shriek. After that, there was a single loud crunch and the sound of something new being dragged across the floor.

 

Then the rain stopped, and everything was quiet.

 

Caroline giggled when the warm, wet drops squeezed through the cracks in the ceiling and landed on her nose.

The Hands

March 28, 2020

hands

The night before her fifteen birthday, Amy Seagreen dreamt of trees, tall trees, beautiful trees, roots buried in fertile soil and branches reaching toward the sun. When she woke up, her hair was gone and there were hands growing out of her head. Six of them to be exact. Each one perfect. Six perfect wrists. Twenty-four perfect fingers, six perfect thumbs. Thirty perfect fingernails. The hands were not like Amy’s old hands. Two had black skin, one had brown, another was pale with red freckles, and each one had its own unique set of fingerprints. Amy marveled at them in the mirror, reaching up and touching each one, feeling the sensation in both her old fingertips and new.

 

When she went downstairs for breakfast, her mother groaned.

 

Oh, Amy. What have you done to yourself?”

 

Her mother was always saying things like that, as though Amy had nothing better to do than think of ways to annoy her. Every decision she made was a tragedy designed to destroy her mother’s life.

 

“I didn’t do anything,” said Amy. “I woke up like this. It’s not my fault.”

 

“That’s the problem with your whole generation,” her mother said, waving her spatula at Amy like a scepter. “You don’t take responsibility for anything. Global warming, college loans–I suppose you’re going to blame this on me too.”

 

“I’m not blaming anyone. It just happened. What do you want me to do? Stick my head under a lawnmower and chop them off?”

 

“Don’t be so dramatic,” she said dramatically. “Why should you pay attention to your mother? It’s only your entire future I’m concerned about. What will people say when they see you like that?”

 

“That my mother is an open-minded person who loves her daughter despite her physical appearance?”

 

“That you’re a freak! That’s what they’ll say. And who will they blame? Not you. No, of course not. You’re just an innocent child. Your mother, that’s who they’ll blame. The woman who gave you life. The woman who raised you. Are you taking drugs?”

 

“Mom!”

 

“Don’t ‘Mom’ me. I remember when you came home from that party last year with red eyes. You didn’t stop giggling for a week.”

 

“Yeah, Mom, smoking weed one time at a party causes hands to grow out of your head.”

 

“Don’t you back-sass me, young lady. Steve!”

 

Amy’s father was sitting at the table two feet away.

 

Steve! Do you see what your daughter looks like? Don’t you have anything to say?”

 

Her father cleared his throat and lowered the sports section of the newspaper. He raised an eyebrow when he saw the hands but then shrugged.

 

“A teenage girl’s body goes through changes,” he said. “You know, hormones. It’s just a phase. She’ll grow out of it. Do they hurt?”

 

Amy shook her head. Her dad shrugged and went back to his newspaper.

 

“Well, I think it’s disgusting,” her mother continued. “I just don’t understand why you can’t do normal things. All you kids these days, you’re all trying to become Youtube stars. ‘Look at me, I’ve got a ring through my nose!’ ‘Look at me, I have multi-racial hands growing out of my head!'”

 

Amy rolled her eyes. “Yeah, I wasn’t getting enough attention, so I decided to grow half a dozen appendages from my cranium.”

 

“Well, you can’t go to school like that,” her mother said, placing a plate of waffles in the middle of the table. “We’ll have to figure something out. Maybe I can make you a scarf or something.”

 

Amy grabbed two of the warm waffles and headed for the door.

 

“Sorry, no more sick days. Have to go to school. Great idea on the scarf. I like black.”

 

She slammed the front door.

 

Her mother’s muffled voice followed her outside. “At least wear a hat!”

* * *

Walden Academy was one of those artsy charter schools where they didn’t believe in homework and students called teachers by their first names. Amy liked it there, but she didn’t quite fit in. It wasn’t that the other students were mean to her exactly–they just didn’t seem to know she existed. At her old school, she’d worn black clothes and played drums in an all-girl punk band, and everyone thought she was a freak. She had an identity. At Walden, black was not freaky, it was boring, or worse (the greatest insult of all) unimaginative, and you couldn’t swing a leather jacket without hitting a punk band. Amy didn’t stand out.

 

But that all changed when she walked into class on her fifteenth birthday with six hands growing out of her bald head. The students crowded around her, asking questions, touching her scalp, shaking the hands, giving them high-fives.

 

Walden was the type of institution that prided itself on cultural sensitivity, and the teacher–a nervous young man who taught indigenous history and watercolors–didn’t want to offend anyone or risk being uncool. Therefore, when he saw Amy, he crossed his arms nonchalantly and simply said, “Amy, is there anything I can do to accommodate your…um… Do you need anything?”

 

Amy shrugged. “I guess I could use some more paintbrushes.”

 

And that was that. He gave Amy six extra brushes and they proceeded with the lesson:  South American colonialism in pastels.

 

By lunch, everyone had heard about Amy, and she was the center of attention in the cafeteria. She was like the sun and the other students orbited around her gravitational pull. She was so busy answering questions that she didn’t get a chance to finish her vegan sloppy joe. Everyone wanted to meet her and touch her. Boys she had been fantasizing about for years looked directly into her eyes for the first time and said her name. It was the best day of her life.

 

That weekend, despite the constant calls and texts, Amy chose to stay in and learn about her new appendages. They were curious hands, and they learned quickly. If Amy waved at herself in the mirror, the hands would wave back. If she gave herself the middle finger, there were eight ‘fuck yous’ staring back at her.

 

She discovered quickly that the hands were all very unique. For instance, the hand directly above her forehead was quick, nimble, and extremely athletic. It could catch any ball thrown in its vicinity and fling it back with a force that surprised Amy every time. The hand to the far right above her ear was artistic, and once Amy showed it how to use the materials, it drew a sketch of a dragon that took her breath away. The hands directly to the left of that one were musically inclined and those in the back had an affinity for sculpture. It was like discovering superpowers.

 

That afternoon, the band Amy was in, Just Die Already, had a weekly gig at a coffee shop where the lead singer worked. She’d explained the hands to her bandmates and said she thought they should cancel, but they’d told her to stop being such a loser and show up. So that’s what she did. Normally the audiences at these performances included whatever boyfriend the lead singer was dating at the time and a few homeless guys who had nothing better to do, but when Amy arrived with her drum kit, the shop was packed. It was standing room only all the way out the door.

 

“Did you do this?” asked the bass player when she saw Amy.

 

Amy shrugged. “I guess.”

 

“Who the hell cares?” said the lead singer. “This is the biggest crowd we’ve ever had. Get set up.”

 

So they played their entire catalog, which took about eighteen minutes, and then they did some Sleater-Kinney covers and finished off with Patti Smith. On the final song, Amy gave the drumsticks to her musical hands, and they pounded out an epic solo. The crowd went nuts.

* * *

The rest of the school year went by in a blur. One of Amy’s new hands painted a picture that won a state-wide competition, and her other hands created a sculpture that literally made her teacher cry because it was so beautiful. Just Die Already started booking mid-sized venues around town and developed an online cult following overnight.

 

Her mother was mortified by all the attention and made Amy promise not to talk to the media or go online. Of course, fans posted videos of the band, and despite Walden’s strict no-phones-in-school policy, several students uploaded photos of her on Instagram, but most people thought it was special effects. When Amy didn’t respond to questions, the internet lost interest.

 

Her dating life didn’t really improve. She received attention from a lot of cute boys, but mostly they were interested in the hands. They wanted to play catch or arm wrestle. When she did go out and things started getting heavy, at some point the hands would get excited and pull the boy’s hair or stick a finger in his nose, and that was a real mood killer. And the constant hand-job jokes were getting super annoying.

 

It had been an exciting year, but she was relieved when summer vacation came around. She spent the whole first week locked in her room, sleeping and reading and watching online videos. The hands were antsy and tried to get her to play, but she ignored them. To be honest, she was starting to get a little sick of them. They’d been fun at first, but now that the newness had worn off, they were starting to feel like competitive siblings who were always trying to outshine her. Sure, she’d never been the best artist or musician, but those talents had been her own. Now nothing she did seemed good enough unless it was accomplished by one of the new hands.

 

The more time she spent by herself, the more resentful she became. She hated to admit it, but her mom was right. How was she going to have a normal life? Everywhere she went, people would stare at her. Strangers would stop to take her picture without asking. Little kids would point and laugh, or even worse, start crying. That had happened with Tommy Evans, the boy she used to babysit down the street. He took one look at her and began bawling. According to his parents, he still had nightmares. She hadn’t even lost her virginity yet, and now she probably never would. Was it worth it?

 

After a week in isolation, Amy finally came downstairs in her pajamas and told her parents she wanted to have the hands removed. “I’m sick of them,” she said. “The sooner the better.”

 

Of course, her mother was overjoyed. “I knew you would come around. I just knew it. You’re a nice, normal girl, and you should have a nice, normal life. Didn’t I tell you, Steve. I told you she’d come around.”

 

Her father looked up from the sports page.

 

“Whatever you want, peaches,” he said.

 

They made an appointment with a specialist. She was a short, plump woman with long white hair and a birthmark in the shape of a moth that covered the entire right side of her face. When the doctor saw Amy for the first time, her eyes lit up. She asked Amy to sit down, and she did a thorough examination. She took every hands’ pulse and tested their blood pressure. She gently poked them with a tongue dispenser and laughed when they took it away from her. She taught the hands paddy-cake and allowed them to touch her hair.

 

When it was over, she sat in front of Amy and became very serious.

 

“I can remove the hands,” she said.

 

“Wonderful!” Amy’s mother exclaimed. “When can we do it? The sooner the better.”

 

The doctor asked her mother to leave the room, and then she sat down again.

 

“I can remove the hands without hurting you, but they will be gone forever. I won’t be able to put them back.”

 

“I don’t want them anymore,” said Amy. “They’re ruining my life.”

 

The doctor nodded. “I can see how they could get annoying. But they’re also very unique. I have never seen anything like this in my entire life, and believe me, I’ve seen a lot. I can’t tell you what to do, but I will say that I think these hands are part of you. People look at them differently because they’re unusual, but they’re still yours.”

 

“Then why can they do things my old hands can’t?”

 

“Maybe they’re connected to a different part of the brain. Maybe they have never been told they can’t do something, so they just go ahead and do it. I really don’t know, Amy. All I know is that if I remove them, they will be gone forever.”

 

“Then do it,” Amy said. “Because I just want things to be normal again.”

 

So the doctor set an appointment and a week later she removed all six hands from Amy’s head. There were no complications with the surgery, and after a few days in the hospital, Amy was allowed to go home.

 

Her head was wrapped in white gauze, and her mother changed the bandages every day. The doctor was very good at her job, and there was minimal scarring. When she went in for follow-up appointments, the doctor said there was no indication that the hands would grow back. The surgery was a success.

 

Amy’s hair did start growing back, however. It came in thick and chestnut brown, and it covered up the scarring. In a month, the stubble had become a soft, downy layer, and by the end of summer, she was able to style it into a pixie cut that looked surprisingly good.

 

Her head was lighter and she liked that. There was definitely a burden that had been lifted from her. Her life was her own again. But there was something else gone she couldn’t quite put her finger on. When she picked up a paintbrush, her hand felt sluggish and uninspired. She no longer wanted to draw or make sculptures. It was as though the sun had gone behind a cloud and now the entire world was a little less colorful than it had been before, a little more drab. She knew this feeling would fade over time, and it did. Eventually, she lost the memory of the more colorful world, and her gray existence became normal once again.

 

The kids at school were disappointed, and her bandmates immediately kicked her out. That was fine with Amy. She had decided she was done being a punk. In fact, she was done with Walden altogether, and soon enrolled in a nearby public school where teachers assigned homework and made you call them Mr. and Mrs. Some of the students at her new school had heard about her, but they figured it was probably a myth, and when they saw her normal head and her normal hair, they dismissed the rumors. She was the new girl, and she received enough attention from that.

 

Amy finished high school with good marks and enrolled at a nearby state college. By now, no one even remembered the girl with the hands growing out of her head, and Amy was completely anonymous. She majored in English, particularly enjoying the poems of e.e. cummings and William Carlos Williams. In her junior year, she met a business major, and they married six months after graduation. They found jobs and bought a nice house in the suburbs. Amy became pregnant one year after their wedding and gave birth to a beautiful daughter with the same chestnut-brown hair and worried blue eyes. Her daughter grew up healthy and loved, and on the morning of her fifteenth birthday, Amy crept into her room and sat on the side of her bed. She reached out and stroked her daughter’s hair until she woke up.

 

“Mom, what time is it?” her daughter said, stretching her arms.

 

“It’s early. Happy birthday, sweetheart.”

 

Her daughter gave her a dopey half-awake smile. “Do we have cake?”

 

“Yes, we have cake.”

 

“And will there be presents?”

 

“Yes, there will be presents.”

Her daughter rubbed her eyes and sat up. “Are you okay? You’re acting weird.”

 

“I’m fine, honey. I just can’t believe it’s been fifteen years. How do you feel? Is anything different? It’s okay if something has changed. You can tell me. I’ll always love you.”

 

“No, I feel completely normal. Everything is the same. Mom, why are you crying? Mom, everything is normal. Don’t cry.”

Signed Bukowski

September 29, 2019

p1010007I have decided to start posting some of the cool books we get at my work. I’m not doing it for promotional reasons. I don’t care if you buy these items or shop at the store where I work. It’s just a book-nerd thing.

This is the only signed Charles Bukowski book I have ever seen. It’s a collection of his letters, and it was published toward the end of his career, after he had received a bit of international attention. Black Sparrow tried to cash in his fame by issuing a limited edition signed copy of his crazy, drunken correspondence with various editors, writers, friends, etc.

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The Bear

June 27, 2017

It was 6:30 in the morning, and the bear was in the kitchen eating Jello out of the fridge. It was red Jello with chunks of pineapple in it. Ray hated red Jello with chunks of pineapple in it, but it was the last thing Sharon made before she left and he had been saving it.

He pointed his gun at the bear and said, “Get out of my house.”

The bear stood up on his hind legs and put his paws in the air. He was a black bear with a long snout and round ears that stuck out from the top of his head like a couple of satellite dishes, giving him a comically confused expression. There was a piece of pineapple on the end of his nose.

“Good morning,” said the bear.  “I didn’t know you were awake.”

“Well, I am,” said Ray. “And I want you out of my house.”

“Of course,” said the bear. His claws clicked awkwardly on the linoleum. He was small by bear standards, but he was still a large animal. Ray cocked the gun. The bear took a step backward. “Okay, okay, let’s not get carried away,” said the bear.

Ray snorted. “You break into my house and eat my food, and I’m the one getting carried away? I don’t think so. A man’s got a right to protect his family.”

The bear cocked his head. “But you don’t even like Jello with pineapple in it.”

“That’s not the point!”

“Then what is the point?”

“The point,” Ray sputtered, “is that you’re trespassing. This is my home. Do you understand that? My property. I own it and I have a right to privacy.”

The bear’s long tongue whipped out of his mouth and snatched the piece of pineapple off his nose. The bear chewed thoughtfully. “Well, to be fair, the bank owns the house. Isn’t that right, Ray? How far behind are you on the mortgage payments? Four months? Five?”

Ray clenched his jaw. “How did you know that?”

The bear looked down at his feet. “To be honest, I go through your trash. Just for table scraps, of course, but sometimes there’s mail in there and I can’t help myself. I like to read while I eat.”

“Jesus,” Ray said. “Is nothing sacred? Yeah, we’re a little behind. So what? This is still my property. I have every right to defend it. I could shoot you right now and no one would blame me. Hell, they’d probably give me a reward for stopping the killer bear.”

The bear rolled his eyes. “Killer bear? Please. At best, I’m the trespassing bear, which doesn’t have quite the same ring to it. I’ll admit I’ve overstepped here, but your reaction is a little extreme. You know this is why Sharon left you, right? Your anger issues. All this toxic masculinity. It makes you difficult to live with.”

Ray’s face turned red. “Toxic what?”

“Masculinity. It’s a result of the pressure put on men by society to adhere to various masculine stereotypes, like violence and risk-taking. You’re a classic example, Ray.”

“What the hell are you talking about?”

The bear chuckled. “You’re right. I’m off topic. Listen, all I’m saying is that you should learn to relax a little bit. Don’t try to solve everyone’s problems. Maybe see a therapist.”

“Right,” Ray mumbled. “Relax. Calm down. Be the cool guy who does yoga and eats kale. Maybe I’ll grow a ponytail. Meanwhile, I got some twenty-year-old kid riding my ass at work because I don’t know how to use the new computer system, I’m dipping into our 401(K) to pay the bills, my wife moved out, and a bear just ate the last thing she made for me!”

Ray began to cry. He tried to fight it, but that only made things worse. The sobs came in short bursts, accompanied by flying saliva and snot.

“Oh, man,” said the bear. “Oh, shit. I’m such a dick. I should have realized you wanted to save it. Ray, I’m sorry. I’m always doing stuff like that. Stupid, stupid, stupid.”

Ray sniffed and wiped his face with his sleeve. “Nah, don’t worry about it. I mean, you’re right. I hate  Jello with pineapple in it. I really do. The flavors don’t blend well together, and the pineapple leaves little pulpy bits in your teeth. She knows I hate that stuff. It was like her final ‘fuck you’ before she left. So in a way it’s probably good it’s gone.”

“Yeah, but that doesn’t make it right.” The bear lumbered over to Ray and put his arms around him. “Come here, big guy.” Ray buried his face in the bear’s chest. It was warm and soft, and he could hear the enormous heart beating deep inside his rib cage. The bear smelled like dirt and pine. Ray wanted to stay there forever.

Finally, the bear let go. “I have an idea,” he said. “Why don’t you come live with me for a while?”

Ray laughed. “Shut up.”

“No, I’m serious. You have a ton of camping gear in the garage. It’s spring, which is like…oh, man, you should see the woods in the spring, Ray. It’s awesome out there. It’s all just foraging and swimming in the river and catching salmon. You’d love it!”

Ray looked out the patio door. The property was in a suburb next to the mountains. There was the back deck, a covered swimming pool, a hundred yards of cleared land, and then the woods. It went on for miles, dark and damp and silent.

“Are you messing with me right now?” said Ray. “Because you know I’m in a fragile state.”

“You know I wouldn’t do that to you. This will change your life. I promise.”

“Isn’t it dangerous out there?”

“Not if your best friend is a bear, stupid. Come on. What have you got to lose?”

Ray slowly turned around, taking in the whole house. There was the kitchen island with the keys to his Subaru on it. There was the stainless steel sink with the dirty cereal bowl that had precipitated his last fight with Sharon. There was the chicken-themed potholders and decorative towels. There was the IKEA furniture and the Rothko print hanging on the wall. God, how he hated that painting.

“You know what? Let’s do it. I’ll go get my tent.”

“Yes! That’s what I’m talking about. Get some beef jerky, too.”

Ray started for the garage, but the bear stopped him. He nodded toward the gun in Ray’s hand.

“You know we can’t take that with us, right?”

Ray looked down at the gun. He suddenly realized how tight he had been gripping it. The muscles in his arm were strained, and his tendons felt like they would snap. Still, he couldn’t bring himself to put it down.

“But what if we get in trouble?” Ray said.

The bear put his paw on Ray’s shoulder. “That’s always a possibility. We’ll have to take our chances.”

Ray nodded and put the gun in the sink next to the dirty cereal bowl.

Jesus Camp

May 21, 2017

When I was a kid, every summer my parents would drive four hours to Estes Park and drop me off in the middle of the mountains with a bunch of strangers.

During the day Camp Como was like most youth camps. We swam in dirty lakes, ate charred marshmallows that had been roasted over open fires, and rode tired swaybacked horses around in circles. At night, however, we gathered together in the central cabin to sing praise songs and listen to sermons. It was a summer camp for Christian fundamentalists, but for the most part it was pretty tame. We didn’t burn  witches or nail anyone to a cross.

The camp counselors were twentysomething-year-olds in bible college. They had long hair and tattoos on their muscular shoulders that said “Got Jesus?” or “John 3:16.” Several were in a band that did Jesus-themed covers of romantic pop songs. The Bryan Adams hit “(Everything I Do) I Do It for You” was a popular one, as well as Whitney Houston’s “I Will Always Love You.” For the most part they were just excited young adults who enjoyed working with teenagers.

However, there was one counselor who was a bit more intense. His name was Gary and you could tell he was serious because he had a mustache. Gary was a marathon runner, and every day he awoke at 5 a.m. to run ten miles and puke. He never smiled and he did not often speak. Mostly he stood in the background with his muscular arms folded in a manner that made his biceps bulge. There were several rumors about Gary. One was that he was a Vietnam vet. The fact that the year was 1988, and Gary was like twenty three made this impossible, but his demeanor suggested he was suffering from PTSD of some kind. It was also suggested that Gary grew up in one of those liberal homes where the mother smoked dope all day and the father participated in various Satanic rituals. There was no evidence of this; it was just something we read in his mustache.

One night it was Gary’s turn to give the sermon. Gary clomped up on stage in a sleeveless t-shirt and combat boots. He stood up there for a full two minutes without speaking. We shifted uncomfortably in our seats.  Finally, Gary said, “Who wants to be in the Army of God?”

We all looked at each other.

“I don’t think you heard me,” Gary barked. “Who in this room wants to be a soldier in God’s army?”

We tentatively raised our hands.

“I don’t believe you,” said Gary.

We raised our hands higher.

I happened to be sitting in the front row.  Gary pointed at me and said, “You get up here.”

I stood up stepped onto the stage. My father was a preacher, so I was familiar with religious theatrics. This was a common form of play acting. You call someone up to the front and challenge their faith in front of the congregation to demonstrate what it’s like to publicly assert your religious beliefs.

“So you want to be a soldier in God’s army?” he said.

“Yes!” I said.

He looked me over with disappointment, like I was a poorly cooked meal he planned on returning to the kitchen.

“I don’t think you’re really committed to Jesus,” said Gary. “I don’t think you have what it takes to be a soldier for Christ.”

“I’m a soldier!” I insisted.

Gary’s mustache twitched. “Nah, I don’t think you’re ready. When Satan challenges you, I think you’ll just run away.”

My face turned red. “I won’t run away! I’m a soldier!”

Gary took a step closer. “Run away!” he yelled. “Go ahead! Run! Run from Jesus!”

“No!” I yelled back. “I’m a soldier!”

That’s when Gary reached inside his jacket, pulled out a gun, and pointed it at my chest.

“I. Said. Run.”

I gulped. The crowd was silent.

“No,” I whimpered.

He cocked the gun. “Run.”

“No.”

We stood for what seemed like an hour but was probably about thirty seconds.

Finally, Gary grinned. He took out the gun clip and showed everyone it was empty. He patted me on the back and said, “You did great. I’m proud of you.”

I thanked him and excused myself to the bathroom to throw up.

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