SLACKJAW by JIM KNIPFEL
July 20, 2008

Day of the Dalton

 

I had a dream two nights ago in which I ran into a former boss on the street. She invited me to her suburban home for lunch, where she explained that she was starting up a new business and wanted to offer me a job.

            Although I was as jobless in the dream as I am in waking life, the prospect of working for this woman again made me terribly nervous. She’d just made me lunch, after all—how could I just say “Hell no!” and run screaming out the front door? Fortunately, I awoke before it went any further. It’s always a relief when that happens.

            Mary was her name, a short, thick, bespectacled woman who was the second manager at the B. Dalton’s where I worked while in my teens. She wasn’t a bad boss, as bosses go—just very uptight and nervous all the time, bordering on the frantic when things didn’t go according to plan. She was also in dire need of a sense of humor.

            No, it was more than that—she was one of those people who didn’t understand the very concept of “humor.” You’d crack a joke, and she’d just stare at you for a moment as her brain churned away, trying to make sense of how the sentences you just spoke fit together. It was as if you’d just uttered something in a foreign language. And when you finally broke the uncomfortable silence and explained that it was a “joke,” she’d bark out a nervous, dry, coughing laugh (though she never smiled while doing this, thus nullifying the effort). Then she’d get back to business.

            Most people, to hear them talk, are under the impression that their workplace is chock-full of wacky characters. I’ve certainly worked in character-rich places—the Guggenheim and the early days at the New York Press come to mind. But I’ve also worked at places, hoo-boy, in which I was hard-pressed to detect the tiniest spark of personality among my co-workers.

            That little B. Dalton’s on the second level of the Port Plaza Mall, though, had more than it’s share of personalities who could spice up any novel.

            Before Mary, there was Lorraine. She’s the one who hired me. Lorraine was very smart and energetic—an aging, well-read hippie chick with long straight hair, round glasses, and terrible skin. One big flaw from my perspective was this obsessive need she had to humiliate any young boys she caught trying to sneak a quick peek at a Playboy, or lingering too long in the Photography section.

            Her basic technique involved sidling up quietly behind the culprit while he was deeply engrossed in trying to grab ten seconds of healthy lust. Then she’d ask, in a voice that was way too loud for the question, “Finding everything you’re looking for?” Then she’d give him her wicked “I know what you’re doing” grin and walk away. Without fail, it sent the red-faced kid running from the store.

            She left Dalton’s about a year after I started in order to take a job with the CIA. She had a degree in Russian, and so it seemed like a good career move. She kind of jumped the gun there, however, learning at her final interview that she didn’t get the job.

            Then there was Margie, God bless her. I don’t think she’d take offense if I called her a broad or a dame. She called herself both, as I remember. She was a haggard, chain smoking drunk with bleach blond hair, a thick rasp of a voice, and a leathery, year-round tan. But everyone loved her. She was funny as hell and didn’t give a damn what people thought. She lived in an enormous, beautiful house on the bay (received in a settlement with one of her ex-husbands). She flirted with every man who came into the store (including me), and though she was well into her fifties, still picked up one or two guys a week at the local bars.

            Sandi was another flirty one (come to think of it, we probably had the flirtiest bookstore in town). Sexy in a soccer mom sort of way. Think Pat Benetar in her mid-forties, living in the suburbs. There was always a little innuendo in everything she said, and her specialty, book-wise, were the smuttiest of the monthly romance novels. (I had a bit of a crush on her when I was seventeen, and she could probably tell.)

            Jack, one of only two other men who worked at the store, was a grad student in philosophy at the local university. He had glasses, blond hair, a beard and rotting, crooked teeth. He walked with an odd half-limp, as if he’d suffered from childhood polio. He was also a little nuts, swinging between mellow and angry several times over the course of the day, but always passing through “horny” during each swing, stopping whatever he was doing just to watch the girls pass by. He was involved in a strange triangle I never fully understood involving a bald schizophrenic and a high school classmate of mine. When the schizophrenic wasn’t in the store (which he was whenever Jack was on duty), he sat outside the store on a bench, underlining his Bible. And when he was in the store, he told crazy stories in a gibberish only Jack was able to comprehend. Jack thought the man was a genius—albeit one who saw angels and heard alien voices in his head.

            In between the girl watching and the crazy talk, Jack didn’t get much work done. Last I heard, he was working in a car wash—though he did manage to write and self-publish a book that he thought outlined the one and only solution to the arms race. (In retrospect, he kind of lifted the whole idea from Dr. Strangelove, but that’s okay).

            Michael had also received a philosophy degree from the same local university. He was a tall, handsome fellow, elegant in style, cultured, a real smooth talker. Customers would come in just to flirt with him. I thought he was cool because he hosted a late-night avant-garde radio show, and was always passing along tapes of things he thought I might like. I still have those tapes, in fact—David Thomas, Laurie Anderson, Residents, Philip Glass. It was my first introduction to a lot of interesting music.

            We got together a few times outside of work, but I always left embarrassed. He wanted to talk philosophy, history and music, but I was seventeen at the time, and didn’t know nearly as much as I thought I did.

            Things got weird, though. Michael, see, had a taste for young girls. Not illegally so, but a little creepily so. He began dating this classmate of mine—the same one, in fact, who was somehow involved with Jack and the schizophrenic. I’d known her since we were in kindergarten, and now she worked at the Hole-in-One Donut shop on the other side of the mall.

            Thing is, not only was Michael twice her age, but he was married at the time to a beautiful young woman who tended bar at a fancy downtown tavern. Then he dumped his wife to move in (at least part-time) with my classmate. For some reason I got the impression that no matter how old he got, he would get involved with a teenage girl, keep her around until she was twenty-three, then dump her to take up with another teenager.

            I could be wrong about that, but that’s the sense I got. None of my goddamn business, though.

            Oh! I forgot—there was one more guy who worked there. Randy was his name, a short, high-energy leprechaun, complete with the foul mouth and a little red fringe of a beard. Working with a leprechaun is always an adventure, and always a lot of fun. Unfortunately it didn’t happen more than a few times—he was fired after an entire day’s till mysteriously vanished one night after he closed up.

            I missed him after he was gone. He would always find the weirdest books in the store, and spend an entire shift riffing on them, as only a leprechaun can.

            They were good days, those Dalton days. No matter how miserable and suicidal I was the rest of the time, the folks at that half-size bookstore always found a way to distract me. What more could you ask for in a minimum-wage job?

 

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