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Bookstore Problem

by S. F. Wright

S.F. Wright lives and teaches in New Jersey. His work has appeared in Hobart, Linden Avenue Literary Journal, and Elm Leaves Journal, among other places. His short story collection, The English Teacher, is forthcoming from Cerasus Poetry.

Drew was shelving half a V-cart of books. It was near nine and not a bad time to work, as it was quiet; there was little chance of being called up to ring; and he could just shelve books and answer the phone if it rang, while keeping his section straightened, so he’d have that much less to do when they closed.

            Caught up on re-shelves, Drew was at the computer looking up a book for himself when a woman appeared in front of the terminal. She seemed soberly alert—almost rattled.

            Can I help you? Drew was vaguely annoyed at being disturbed.

            The woman folded her arms. She leaned forward and murmured, We have a problem. Her accent was Eastern European.

            Drew looked at her. What do you mean? He hoped this woman wasn’t a nut case.

            Her voice even lower, the woman said, There’s a man, near the café, and he . . . She leaned in closer; Drew faintly smelled cigarettes and perfume. . . was showing himself to me.

            Drew couldn’t think what to say. Then he picked up the phone. I’ll call a manager.

  The woman nodded.

            Leonard here.

            Drew inwardly sighed. Then, as tactfully as he could, he explained the situation.

Leonard was silent.

            Hello? Drew said. The woman looked at him. Leonard?

            I’m here. Did she . . . Wait. I’m coming over.

            Then, Leonard appeared—and for once Drew was happy to see him. Drew nodded toward the woman; the woman quietly told Leonard what she’d told Drew; they walked away together.

            Drew resumed looking up his book.

He was shelving books again, having forgotten about the woman, when he saw, coming down the aisle, bearing down on him, Leonard.

            Come here.

            What? Drew was somewhat alarmed, but more vexed, as Leonard gestured for him to come with him.

            Reluctantly, Drew followed his manager past history, education, teen, and science fiction. By the J.R.R. Tolkien books, Leonard stopped. Do you see that man?

Down the aisle, a middle-aged man wearing tennis shoes, a tee shirt, and tiny running shorts affected to browse books; he’d pick one up and put it back on the shelf, hardly glancing at it.

            What about him? Drew felt uneasy. He stepped back, so that he was hidden by the side of the shelves.

            Go and ask if he wants help.

            Drew’s mouth opened. Why?

            Just do it, Leonard whispered.

            But why? Drew glanced down the aisle, saw the man affecting to look at a book, and ducked back around the shelves’ side. I mean, why don’t you ask?

            Because, Leonard whispered, I want to see how he reacts.

            How he . . . Drew again felt uneasy. Is this, now Drew whispered, the guy the woman said was flashing her?

            Leonard furtively looked down the aisle. Yes, he whispered. Now just go over and ask if he needs help. I’m going over to the main aisle so that I can watch him.

            Drew’s shoulders sagged. Man.

            Go! Leonard hurried away.

            Sighing, Drew walked toward the man. As he got closer, he saw perspiration on the man’s forehead. The man’s leg twitched. He kept running his hand through his hair.

            The man turned and looked at Drew. His eyes were like a cornered rabbit’s.

Drew didn’t want to ask the man if he needed help; he wanted to leave him alone.

The man put down the book he was holding, and hurried toward the main aisle.

            Excuse me, sir? Leonard’s voice was loud yet polite, imperious yet courteous: Can I help you, sir?

            Drew reached the main aisle. The man walked so quickly toward the door that he almost jogged; Leonard followed.

Sir? Can I help you?

The man was out the door. Drew half expected Leonard to follow.

            He’s gone? Drew said, when he reached Leonard by the window.

            Leonard pointed. Drew saw, in the distance, the man get into a Toyota, back out, and speed out of the parking lot.

Leonard nodded. Good work.

            But Drew didn’t feel like he’d done anything good. He wasn’t sure what he felt.

Someone called Leonard to the registers. Drew watched the cars speed by on the highway for a moment, and returned to his section.

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