Lisa Maguire Fiction

Famous Canadians

“Randy Redfield. She was Princess of the High Diving Board. I saw her almost every day that summer at the Mamaroneck town pool, and she never once looked me in the eye. That started me on my path of under-achievement. I blame her.” Brian was wiping down the register buttons with a pink rag and a spray bottle. We were telling stories of how we came to work at Parade of Books.

People came in off the street to sell us their used books. We rifled through them before they went on the shelves, after haggling over fifty cents or a dollar. One-of-a-kind books–forensics on gunshot wounds, photo essays on Santeria rites, the poetry of Kim Il Sung or Mickey Spillane–these disappeared behind the counter. “The paperbacks are practically worthless,” Frank would say, looking over his half glasses at the trembling man in the greasy nylon jacket, who was shifting his weight from foot to foot. Frank would every so often toss one in a separate pile. None of us had a collector’s interest. We were consumers of printed matter: pictures, stories, how-tos, word games, anything to kill the time. These momentary interests distracted us from the stink of unwanted books.

A book called You Are Going to Prison had caught Frank’s eye. It had useful tips for life behind bars. So far this afternoon, we’d already read aloud the passage on how to craft your own handmade shank, and how to make prison wine out of sugar, raisins, and water from the toilet bowl. Also prison etiquette: you never asked anyone “what are you in for?” which had got us talking about how we ended up at Parade of Books.

Frank said that he’d never been able to take orders from anybody. Independent thinkers, we all nodded in agreement. We took orders all day from people who wore plastic name tags and made $3.40 an hour more than us, but that somehow didn’t come to mind.

Parade was a union shop. We hauled boxes, swept, stacked books, ran the cash register, and trying to look busy when a manager walked by. If not, you might get sent to the loading dock, or worse, sent to guard the paperback carts on the sidewalk, where there was no place to sit except the pavement.

Rodney said that he’d “seen what the Man can do to you.” We were already familiar with Rodney’s views on both the Man and the System, a jumble of Black Panther agitprop and queer theory. We knew that his mother, a lawyer, was paying for his analysis and rehab. When he wasn’t in the shop, he frequented the West Side piers seeking out troubled boys, who, he said, “needed a brother’s help,” or stood on street corners handing out copies of the Final Call.

Kathy said she worked at Parade of Books because she liked books. This attracted a chorus of hisses.

Felix, the daytime security guard, had finished his patrol of the best sellers and had taken up his position by the front door. His big body was in its state of repose, feet braced apart and holding his belt with both hands. He was peaceful now, but earlier this morning there had been an ugly scene. The bag-checker had not shown up for work, and one of the floor managers told Felix to take his station in front of the wooden cubbies, exchanging bags for numbered clothespins. Felix had hotly refused this indignity. The floor manager then forced Brian to sit in the bag-checker box until Brian, bored and missing out on the conversation at the registers, eventually drifted back to his regular place behind the counter. No one manned the bag check.

Felix had started working at Parade earlier that summer. He rarely spoke. His silence, and his face, that of an impassive bronze Buddha, fascinated us. After four o’clock, when his shift ended and he’d left for the day, there was a brisk market in Felix- lore, gleaned from whatever we’d been able to observe. Kathy told us that before she went across the street to McDonald’s for coffee, she’d asked Felix if he wanted any, and he had peeled a dollar bill out of a bankroll of hundreds from his pants pocket. Frank reported that someone in shipping told him that Felix had been a semi-pro ball player in the DR. Then someone else saw that Felix kept a bat in his locker, and Brian kept insisting that the very next slow afternoon he would dare to ask Felix to bring it out to the floor and demonstrate his superior swing.

In July, Felix started showed up early for his shifts to wander the aisles, often browsing in the poetry section. Frank found him a bilingual edition of Neruda. Felix apparently committed many of the poems to memory; he’d been overheard declaiming in the men’s room in a small, sweet voice.

At this time of day, when there was almost no one in the store, we’d stand with our backs to the registers, watching the street. The store had a plate glass window on which, many years before, some unknown person had lovingly painted a series of smiling chubby little books, their noodle arms pumping and noodle legs high stepping as they marched across the window. Although they were now half peeled by the elements, the books still smiled as they marched, framing our disgruntled faces as we watched the street. Brian, so framed, commented on the bodies of all female passersby until told to shut up. Rodney pointed out all instances in which the logic of commodities was achieving ideological autonomy from the process of their production until Frank put on his half glasses and asked what he meant by that. Rodney rolled his eyes and disappeared into Philosophy to look for a copy of Debord’s Society of Spectacle, which would explain everything.

By this time, one of the floor managers would usually have come to the registers to send one of us to re-alphabetize Chinese History, a stack deep in the store where there were no standing fans. The victim was usually Brian, whose polyester Hawaiian shirts put him in their crosshairs. Sometimes Kathy was banished to the floor, her yellow buzz cut seen in the stacks where the picture books of the Royal Family were shelved. She always denied reading them.

Today the managers were lounging at the information desk, reading and chatting on the phone. The Mister Softee truck appeared on the corner.
“Lemme hold a dollar,” said Rodney. Kathy squeezed her fingers into the pockets of her cut-off shorts, and lent him the last of her change. Rodney loped across the street, his long pipe cleaner legs coming to a stop in black socks and half-laced combat boots. His broadcloth shirt, something a younger Rodney might have worn to an Upper Manhattan parochial school, was wrapped around his shorts like a sarong. “That Rodney,” Brian said to Kathy, “is a schnorrer.”

“I’m told those ice cream trucks deal drugs,” said Frank, mopping his brow. During the summer at Parade the heat and dust recreated the atmospheric conditions of the planet Mercury. Frank suffered the most. Whenever he was asked to get up on the rolling ladder to show a customer the complete set of OED on display above our heads, his great expanse of forehead would immediately turn pink and start to bead with sweat.

“I only gave him enough for a Missile Pop,” said Kathy.

“Does this count as his 15-minute break?” asked Brian. “Because I really think it’s outrageous how he walks outta here whenever he feels like it and doesn’t punch out. You guys are always stepping outside for a smoke, and Rodney constantly disappears, but me, the only one here with no vices, I sit here and—“

“I would get a vice,” said Frank. “Other than laziness. That’s what logic would dictate.”

“Yeah, to each according to his vices,” said Rodney, back behind the counter with his popsicle. He let Kathy have the first few licks, since she’d paid for it.

“Let’s play a game,” said Kathy.

“Famous Canadians,” said Brian.

“Man, you just fill your head with trivia. I can never beat you at that game,” said Rodney. “I want to read more from the prison book.”

“I’ll play with you, Brian,” said Kathy. “How about Pamela Anderson? Did we count her yet?”

“You always give me, like, the same four people,” said Brian.

“Atom Egoyan,” said Frank, still leafing through You Are Going to Prison.

“Who the hell is Atom Egoyan? Come on! If I don’t know him, he’s by definition not famous.”

“You are by definition ignorant,” slurped Rodney, lips and tongue purple from the missile pop. “Film director. Dig that name. Who would call their kid ‘Atom’?”

Frank looked up from his book. “You’re not old enough to use a word like dig without irony.”

“You know what is really bugged about this game?” asked Rodney. “So we all know Canadians are total pod people. No one knows they’re Canadian, unless they tell you. They can pass. They are passing all around us, as we speak.” Kathy looked around.

“We are all trying to pass as something,” said Frank. He picked up his sodden handkerchief and folded it according to its original creases, like a map, and then placed it flat in the back pocket of his chinos. We wondered if he’d been in the military. At the end of each day, he bicycled away in the heat, his canvas newsboy bag across his back. He said he didn’t have a driver’s license. Once, he noticeably avoided the question of where he lived.

“This game is getting way too easy,” said Brian. “Let’s call it Famous Jewish Canadians.”

“Leonard Cohen,” said Frank immediately. “Saul Bellow. Lorne Greene. Morley Safer. The Warner Brothers. William Shatner. Will you please stop these idiotic games?”

“Leonard Cohen is Canadian?” squeaked Kathy, surprised.

“Captain Kirk is Jewish?” squeaked Rodney.

Frank heaved a sigh.

“Speaking of musicians, I need a new name for my band,” said Brian. When he wasn’t winning this game, he usually tried to change the subject. Brian’s band’s names — Killer Klowns, the Bar Mitzvah Boys, Fucked-Up Youth, the Speech Impediments – appeared on flyers around the vicinity of Parade, each time a different name, appearing at a different bar. Nobody ever felt any temptation to go. “I can see the album cover, in big smudgy courier font: ‘TEEMING MILLIONS.’ Whaddya think?”

“If you spent half as much time practicing as you spent coming up with names, you’d be signed,” said Rodney.

“If you spent half as much time studying as you did running down other people, you’d have your GED,” snapped Brian.

“Fuck you! I have a Master’s degree from NYU!” shrieked Rodney.

“Children, children…can’t we—“ started Frank, when suddenly there was a crash and the sounds of a bodily struggle in Art.

“Stop!”

A skinny boy in a black t-shirt, jeans and high tops ran out of the stacks clutching a shopping bag. He tripped, and large, heavy, shrink-wrapped art books tore through the bag, spilling onto the floor. His burden relieved, the boy sprinted past the registers, out the door to the street. Felix charged up the aisle, a meaty brown hand choked up on the bat. We abandoned the registers and followed the action out to the sidewalk. The skinny boy had a good lead, but Felix could run surprisingly fast for a big man. When they reached the cube at Astor Place, Felix’s free hand grabbed the collar of the boy’s t-shirt and with the other he brought the baseball bat down on his head. Again, and again, and again.

When the bat came down, we froze, as if according to the rules of a children’s game. None of us took a step forward from the store; it was home base.

“Shit,” said Brian.

“Oh my God, can’t someone…“ Kathy put her shaking hands on her head, “there’s, like, a hundred people over there, can’t…”

In the distance, we saw some men pull Felix off the boy.

We looked for Frank, but his back was to us. He was stepping back into Parade. We followed him.

“You all just saw that, he said, lifting the wooden counter and slipping in behind the registers. “Try to remember it as clearly and honestly as you can. They’re going to ask you.” We saw his broad back lean down to retrieve his satchel tucked under the time clock.

The managers and customers were still on the sidewalk, watching. We stood at the registers, staring into the empty aisles.

“Wow,” said Kathy, to no one, after an uncomfortable amount of silence.
“We don’t have a guard right now. Good thing there are no customers. No one to shoplift,” said Brian.

“Just us and the books. Wasn’t that always your dream? To be left inside the bookstore all by yourself? Like maybe locked in overnight?” Kathy tried to smile.

“It was never my dream to work, or be locked up, in a bookstore,” said Rodney.

“No, I mean to just be in the bookstore, you know, just you and the books, left alone, not having to share them with anyone else?” Kathy’s statement had become more of a question.

“No way, no how,” said Rodney.

“What about you, Frank?” Brian asked.

Frank was putting the keys to the register in an envelope and tucking the envelope behind the credit card swiper. Then he rearranged the flaps of his satchel, and placed the strap over his head. He didn’t look at any of us when he walked out of the store. He didn’t punch out. The door closed, making the same soft ‘whoop’ it always did.

“What’s up with Frank?” asked Rodney.

“Is he coming back?” asked Kathy of no one.

“When the cops come, we’ll have to identify ourselves. Maybe he doesn’t want anyone to find out he’s really Canadian,” said Brian, who picked up You Are Going to Prison.

“Yeah, he was always suspiciously good at that game,” said Rodney. “Is there anything in there about avoiding prison, like how to evade capture?”

“No,” said Brian, opening the book.

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