A Novel

(Chapter 10, 8 Pages in Typescript)

                "Give me a word for 'a store detective.' Can you think of another word for 'a store detective'?
                Uncertain at first whether the question were being addressed to him, he put down the boxed set of coasters he was holding and looked at the woman behind the counter. It was snowing and the Good-as-Nu Thrift Shop seemed all the brighter for the monotone gray sky, the greasy ribbons of perspiration on the windows.
                "'Store detective,'" he mimed.
                A young woman wearing a knapsack blustered in, trailing gusts of snow. For a moment there was the sound of cloying music from the Salvation Army band down the block.
                "Uh, how many letters?" he asked.
                "Let's see. One, two, three. . .eight, nine, ten. Ten." He fiddled with a battered tin coffee pot on the table next to him, and an old radio missing one of its knobs.
                "Oh, I have it!" she said. "Counterspy!"
                She bent forward over the counter and inserted the word into her puzzle.
                "Is this one a particularly difficult puzzle?" he inquired.
                "No. It's fairly easy. Sometimes I get puzzles that keep me busy for days on end. But let's see. That takes care of twenty-seven down. Oh, here's another one that's stumping me. 'Fishing buddies.' 'Fishing buddies.' It's, uh, nine letters."
                "I ought to know that one," he said, "because I'm involved in a fishing expedition myself."
                "Oh nothing. How many letters have you got so far?"
                "Well, there's a 'g' in the middle, let's see, one, two three, the fifth letter in. And seventeen down is 'trap,' so that means the last letter is 'p.'"
                As was his practice these days, he had come here for refuge, to be among, and find consolation in, humble, anonymous things. And the things just at this moment were calling to him; he wanted to disappear among them in order to think. If he hadn't been scheduled to appear for another questioning, he would have gotten on a bus and gone somewhere where he could concentrate, somewhere, perhaps, where puffy white clouds floated dreamily across an endless sky. He imagined himself getting on the bus and handing his ticket to the driver. It's important that I go somewhere and think! he would say. He imagined himself filling out an application at a rent-a- car agency, and announcing to the agent: I have to go somewhere and think! There would come a moment, however, when he would have to stop for gas, and in chatting with the service station attendant he would realize he had not gotten far enough away. I have to go somewhere and think, he would remind himself. After that it would be a state trooper from whom he would ask directions, and in doing so he would remember he had still not put enough distance between himself and the world. Still, he would eventually arrive at a campground or state park, and on the way in he would stop at the attendant's booth. I'm here to think! he would announce. Finally he would be in the woods where he had all the solitude he needed. He would pitch his tent, unpack his gear, and build a fire. He would sit before the fire gathering his thoughts, when suddenly he would realize that squirrels and chipmunks, bolt upright on the forest floor, were staring at him. He would have no choice but to extinguish the fire, repack his gear, and trudge off deeper into the woods. For he had to go somewhere and think.
                "'Fishing buddies,'" she repeated. "It's nine letters."
                While he pondered, he surveyed the things around him. Eventually he realized he was looking at, but not seeing them; they were hard and palpable, all right, but the turning and roiling in his mind, his anger at the way the detectives simultaneously courted and insulted him, kept him from registering them. There was something fishy about the two detectives, something fishy about their line of questioning. He gazed out over the stubbly fields of stuff, and a voice said there are winners and losers, and everyone loves that fact. He looked up from the sagging tables, and suddenly everything seemed tinged with brown, bronzed on top like ripe corn. This is the cloaca maximus, a voice said, a Roman sewer outlet. He glanced at the woman at the counter, then, like a spelunker at a cave entrance making sure his partner is doling out the line, moved deeper into the store. In a situation like this, one's understanding of the real is only as good as one's understanding of the surreal. What was he going to tell them, who protested that they only wanted facts, but were incapable of hearing the one fact of which he was certain? He inspected an electric pencil sharpener, then heard the jingle of the bell over the front door. An elegantly dressed lady entered (too elegantly dressed, a voice said) and as she meticulously removed her gloves, the woman at the counter placed her puzzle on a shelf beneath it. Mrs. Too-Elegant said something about ordinarily shopping "in better places"—albeit in a tone that suggested she had acquired everything she owned in stores exactly like this. Everyone is making everythings up. All the time, a voice said. He moved toward the rear of the store, and noticed a curtain-covered door with a NO ADMITTANCE sign over it. Through a gap in the curtains he could see a stack of cardboard boxes topped with bulging paper bags. No wonder she takes so much pleasure in her crossword puzzles. They're her defense against the world, her defense against all this stuff. The process of gettinq each letter in its box, each row and column filled, is her revenge on chaos, her antidote to the shop's—the world's—clutter. The puzzles are cerebral and self-contained, the world is vast and unruly; the puzzles are finite, the world infinite.
                He moved away from the storeroom to a shelf full of pots and pans and kitchen utensils. But does she ever complete them? She's always being interrupted, she's always having to direct people to the dressinq rooms, or watch for shoplifters, she's constantly having to field people's questions, comments, and complaints. She's practically everyone's psychoanalyst. In the future, a voice said, every fact about the world, and the name of every person in it, will be recorded.
                Then it came to him.
                He walked back to the front of the store, and waited while Mrs. Oh-So-Elegant haggled over the price of a fur stole. The Crossword Lady said she realized it wasn't real mink, which is why she thought the price she had on it was fair. While the woman persisted (in the process making it clear she was not to be trifled with), something in her manner suggested she had already made up her mind, she had decided she must absolutely, definitely, and without question have the stole. At last she capitulated. She paid for it grudgingly and in a huff of self-righteousness, stormed out.
                "Pier group," he said
                "What ?"
                The Crossword Lady was placing the sales slip on a spike by the cash register.
                "Pier group. The word—actually it's two words—you were looking for."
                "Oh, that's right! Of course!" The woman reached under the counter and removed her puzzle. "Yes, that's it, that has to be it!"
                The bell over the door jingled again. A man with a beard and shoulder-length hair, wearing a long white robe and sandals, entered. What was a man doing in sandals—and what appeared to be a white bathrobe—on a cold day like this? And how had he kept the bathrobe so clean, when the sidewalks were filled with slushy snow?
                He moved to the side in order to observe the man, and noticed that he was studying the objects on the shelves with dreamy, disinterested pleasure: apparently not with the intention of buying them, but as if taking an inventory, merely checking up on them. From the way his eyes caressed the objects, it was almost as if he owned them; he gazed down the walls and across the cluttered store, then, seemingly satisfied with what he saw, smiled a smile of bemused pleasure. As though his work were done, he now gathered his robe around him and shuffled toward the front door. He gripped the handle, then paused and turned back.
                "I know they mean well," he said in a tone of great world-weariness.
                "Who's 'they?'" said the lady at the counter, discreetly disguising her irritation at having her puzzle work interrupted.
                "The people playing that music down the street. I know they mean well. But so much gets done in my name for the wrong reasons. Sometimes I fear it's I who am to blame."
                There was a tone of infinite resignation in the man's voice, a weary tolerance for all he saw and felt.
                "But suffer the little children to come unto me. . .for we live in a manufacturing economy."
                And with that he opened the door (a gust of snow swept in behind him) and went out.
                "What was that all about?" he asked, when they were alone again.
                "Oh, I get all kinds," she answered. "They're always looking for ways to improve their get-ups. Sometimes I think of this as a costume shop. At one time or another I've had, oh, let's see, powdered wigs and spiked hats. sombreros, wooden shoes, leotards, black capes. Cutaways and sequined dresses. People come in and try on different things, and play at being people other than who they are. I get politicians and policemen, statesmen and generals, but" (she leaned forward and peered out the window, trying to catch a final glimpse of the man)" I can't say I've seen that one before."
                Outside, sloppy wet snow was falling on cars and storefronts, stoops and lintels. Going to the streaked glass windows to see how the man was faring among the mud and slush, he could see the Salvation Army band down the street. Against the dismal white wetness all around, their uniforms were very black.
                "Why, I once even had a toga! And something I think was a hair shirt! A man with a scraggly beard came in, one time, and expressed an interest in the hair shirt. But he didn't have any money, and frankly I wasn't going to let him have it for nothing. I didn't feel I ought to give it to him. Then, just last week, a man came in who called himself by a name that sounded Greek, who—I swear—was all bundled up in white sheets, apparently new from a department store. He picked out a few things and I let him pay for them with coins with curious faces. I put them out on that table over there."
                He went to the table to which she pointed, where some cheap jewelry, tie tacks, and cufflinks were displayed. There—with nicks in the edges—he found what looked like two ancient Greek coins.
                "I put twelve dollars each on them," she said. "Do you think that's too much?"
                "No, I don't think twelve dollars is unreasonable at all," he replied, as he held them to his face and inspected them.
                "Good, I was a bit worried. I don't like to price things so high they don't sell. By the way, you've been in the shop before, haven't you? In fact, you've been in quite a few times."
                "Yes, I bought this coat from you several months ago," he said." I really love this old coat. It gives me insulation. I couldn't live without it."
                "That. . .old coat? You bought it here?"
                She squinted at the garment suspiciously.
                "Well, I've got some nicer ones on the rack now. That is, if you'd like to replace it."
                There was a pause.
                "By the way, my name is Rebecca, Rebecca Friddle. What's yours?
                What's my name, a voice said. For I remember posset pots and rope beds, banjo clocks and fuddling cups. I remember Malta-Vita, Helmbold's Extract of Buchu, Wishart's Pine Tree Tar Cordial, Barry's Tricopherous, Innerclean Herbal Laxative. But what's my name?
                "Uh, Marvin McCandless," he said.
                And for some reason he felt the necessity of repeating it:
                "That's right. Marvin McCandless."

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