Andy Powell thought things might have to change after the big argument at the library. He had misplaced the DVD of Richard Linklater’s 1991 classic “Slacker” for over a year — how fitting he swore he heard the library clerk with the lisp mutter — and he expressed shock, outrage, and disappointment, in that order and all to no avail, at the woman’s insistence in keeping the 40-dollar lost fee on his account. Misplaced for more than one year is deemed lost not late, she told him, in his view with all the icy certitude of a serial killer passing judgment on his hundredth victim.
He was not oblivious to the unfortunate reality that costs were accelerating at an insane pace (all costs, for everything, with even free samples of bourbon chicken at the mall food court seeming smaller and with decidedly less alcohol). His income of course had remained stable near zero. And he was all too aware from years of watching Meathead’s wife that forty dollars could still feed someone somewhere for a year. Yet every seemingly simple matter of money was always at its heart a matter of principle and he was never shy about principle.
How incredibly arbitrary! What if the Mormons in Salt Lake City who got their daughter back from that lunatic after all those years took that position?
If you’re referring to Elizabeth Smart, I believe she was missing for only nine months.
Only nine months?! And I suppose she was merely late to you?! I additionally suppose that if Jim Morrison were to show up here today and request your permission to play an acoustic Light My Fire on the library’s front steps that you would casually inform him, sorry, you’re lost?
Respectfully, Mr. Powell, this is the library’s policy.
Well, it is just such a discriminatory policy that fails to distinguish lost for more than a year from lost for more than five years, perhaps even lost forever!
He hated that word forever. It was scary to him and inevitably started him in on the rather difficult task of deciding if there was a god and whether time travel would be available to the average American in the 30 years he figured he had left without it. He so regretted even mouthing the word now and was determined to fight back thoughts of Mayan gods and Nietzsche while the lisp lady tapped her fingers on the checkout desk. He wanted to ask for a supervisor — in similar stands by telephone he had learned to keep hitting 0 and to immediately ask for the grand supervisor of all supervisors — but a prior supervisory encounter over an ill-fated attempt to scalp his library-validated parking pass had made him nervous.
What the hell was a library anyway other than a giant book club without coffee, middle-aged women and four or five people who hadn’t had time to read the book but came anyway? They should have thanked him for all the books and movies he did return on time, even early on occasion, rather than nail him for some 20-year-old film that had found its way to the sixth dimension between his mattress and his box-spring. Didn’t they realize that anyone interested in seeing Linklater’s masterpiece was perfectly content to wait till whenever came around?
Fifty-five years of this. More than five decades of logic, of earnest effort and good intentions, and yet there she was, tapping her fingers impatiently like there were more than seven people on the line behind him. Sorry Obama, this world was never going to change. They sang songs about it, wrote poetry and long and short stories, all about the world’s inability to change. Enough was enough. Andy would have to take matters into his own hands. He said good-bye, and added good luck and have a nice day for emphasis, and headed for the door. He tried whistling on his way out but he had never tried before and the Kander and Ebb song quickly morphed into a silent trickle of saliva that ran down his shirt. No matter, change wasn’t going to be easy, and he would not be easily deterred.
He liked to blame whatever problems he had on the fact that he was an only child. If only he had been blessed with a younger brother to beat up, or an older brother to be beaten up by, he was sure things would have been different. Loneliness did things to people. In his youth, he always believed that his parents had engaged in detailed nightly discussions for years about a second child but had been disheartened, something that didn’t do much for his confidence. Both of his parents worked long hours, so he was raised by Merv Griffin, Mike Douglas, and Dinah Shore. He was the first and only kid he knew to shout What’s Your Point? at What’s My Line? He always wished he knew a language so he could talk trash about people to someone without anyone knowing. And when he had discussed this with Sara Goldfarb, his first almost girlfriend, and even tried to teach her part of a language he himself created, she stopped taking his calls and then had her younger sister tell him she was in the shower which seemed plausible the first 60 calls but a bit strained after that.
He saw the FOR RENT sign above the coffee shop and wondered if moving out of the house he had inherited from his folks would be necessary for real change. Living above a successful coffee shop — with hundreds of people grabbing a cup of joe on their way to inventing new devices to transmit OMG the older guy from the health club with the four-pack who looks like a cross between Ashton and the guy who won Idol last year is sitting right next to me...five feet away...should I invite him to senior prom???? — that had to be the closest thing to working other than actually working. He would revisit the idea later; change was good, too much change all at once probably not so good.
There was a HELP WANTED sign in the front window of the coffee shop. He remembered how his father had brought him into the New Brunswick office one entire week that 1969 summer, showing him off to the folks in the short-sleeved white dress shirts and awesomely wide ties, in those halcyon days before yet another idea was ruined by institutionalizing it for one April day every year. 1969. That was the year for change. Men walking on the moon in July had been impressive enough but so was a half million young people at Max Yasgur’s farm in August for nothing but three days of peace and music. And in the fall, when Tom Seaver and Tommie Agee took it from worst to first, shocking the Baltimore Orioles, the ticker tape parade through Manhattan on Channel 9 that followed seemed to make all change and all dreams possible.
Somehow, some way, body counts from Asia on the seven o’clock news would cease, black and white men would learn how to get along, The Man would grow old and die off. And the eighth grader then experiencing a different kind of change would have another 10 years to figure out how to avoid the 7 to 7 soul-sucking ambush his father had wandered into.
That August, like always, his father had been unmoved and not the kind of guy that the man on his left and the man on his right were, the kind who paid 15 cents for a black coffee and a quarter for a buttered roll and got to hear how ‘bout those Mets? from the diner operator at the cash register. His father had warned him to keep up from the moment they exited the warehouse parking lot until he found his place at the extra desk in his father’s small office, the one Andy never thought of it as a desk, covered as it was with rolled-up plans and papers marked Inter-Office Memo and blue mimeograph paper with ink that took three days to fade from your fingers.
By the end of that week of show and tell for his father — this is my son, Marvin, he might be replacing you next week — he was anxious to return to the relative tranquility and hopefulness of middle school, despite the gift of a slide rule he never did learn to use from the big boss Schwinger. I should have told Schwinger to screw off when I had the chance (which along with your mother and I used to cut quite the rug at Roseland back in the forties before you were born were his father’s two most commonly stated memories later in life).
He stared back at the coffee shop sign, thinking that maybe everyone should wear a HELP WANTED sign as a necklace or maybe some fancy t-shirt design. Coffee shop worker was a real possibility but he worried that any job which involved interfacing with the public would inevitably involve interfacing with the public. He knew he could never tap his fingers with an air of false patience like the lady at the library or even more basically ask how can I help you? when a customer arrived. Just who would he have to be to think that he could help anyone, whether to a spinach and egg croissant and coffee from Sumatra or with larger, more complicated issues? There was too much arrogance to the question and any of the other substitutes (welcome...are you a member of our consistent customer club?....who’s next on line?) that his new employer might encourage.
He turned to walk back up the boulevard, lost in thought. The best job he ever had, not even close, was his few years as a professional line sitter. He had always loved lines, loved the feeling that he was ahead of somebody, for something that somebody besides himself actually wanted. And to actually be paid for it, well that was almost too much good fortune. Back in the ’90s, he’d made pretty good money at motor vehicles, at the bank, at the unemployment line (where he could pick up his own check as well), but technology had come along and his gravy train of sturdy legs and extreme patience was gone.
Thinking about jobs was almost as depressing as all of those thoughts he had about careers decades ago. Talk about being trapped. He was an idea man, after all, still spitting them out at quite a rapid pace even as his body aged and he found himself spending more time than ever staring at birds and children in the park. Andy was one guy who didn’t see the big deal about executing on the ideas. Anybody could do that. Lately he had been giving some serious thought to Andy’s List, a website where people could go to muse. The world needed more musing, that much he knew.
It had been a rich life and he liked to tell himself as often as he would listen that he was still young and his best days lay ahead. He had written graphic novels for a while that nobody read, thus missing out on his superhero creation, Afterthought, a young man bitten by his wife on his honeymoon under a full moon who became invisible most nights and weekends. He had created an adjustable bra that nobody bought, thus missing out on the possibility of going from B cup to D cup and back again, all at the same social function. And after studying religion, all of them, one by one, one year fasting on every religion’s day of fast and losing twenty unwanted pounds, he had created his own religion that nobody believed in, thus missing out on the possibility of eternal bliss and eternal damnation on alternating days of the week.
Changing was as tiring as ever. He hurried past the coffee shop towards the library. With any luck, it would be back out on the shelf. There it was, Linklater’s “Slacker,” amazingly still available in the 30 minutes he had taken to assess things. He eagerly cradled the DVD in his hands and spotted the lisp lady back at her perch. He smiled and took his place on the line. He would show her the true meaning of lost this time.
Peter Brav, a Princeton resident since 1995, is the author of “Sneaking In,” a young adult novel about the 1999 Yankees championship season, and his newest, “The Other Side of Losing,” a novel of friendship and drama set during the next Chicago Cubs championship season. To order the books, go to Amazon or www.peterbrav.com