I handed the girl my books and my discount card. She looked the titles over as she rang them up–a bit too much attention for my taste. Then, yes, a remark; I was tuned to its inevitability and tightened up a bit. I don’t remember it exactly: “I love this one. Jane Eee-ree. Have you read it?” My discomfort was then instantly doubled, and I choked out something like: “It’s on my daughter’s summer reading list.” She made another comment as she handed me my receipt, but I had withdrawn my attention at that point, and her curious speech patterns had garbled it anyway. I was dizzy with awkwardness. Was it a response? Something new? Taking it further? I smiled and offered a placating nod as I headed for the door.
O the thoughts I had. O the comments I formulated. O the irony I mustered. And of course it was a chain store, a floating ship of corporate mega-death. And so on.
It’s been three days and I can’t forget her smile. It was ceaseless, endless. It was present, fixed, from the moment I saw her see me approach the counter. It was, to use the formerly fashionable post-structuralist phrasing, “always already there.” And it was obscenely authentic. Not polite. Not professional. Joyous. She seemed happy to be there doing what she was doing. Happy helping me. Happy to talk with a stranger about books.
She loved Jane Eee-ree. I have no way of knowing what reading is for her. Because, for one thing, I didn’t ask her, even though I had the opportunity. She spoke of love. I offered distracting excuses for being there. Something about her radiated a truth about bookstores and why people read and why reading is a way to love. I’m the one who wanted the corporate exchange: just give me my empty abstract product and leave me alone.
I told myself she was in some way a “special needs” person, as if I needed to give myself a satisfying and condescending explanation of why I was so uncomfortable. But, really, after three days to think about it, I’ve stopped plugging up my feeling with that kind of explanation. She was memorable. Fiercly memorable. I can’t forget her smile. Her profession of love. Her Jane Eee-ree. And as my misery wells up I tell myself other things. I can’t leave it alone. I know she is too happy with what she does and with her Jane Eee-ree to ever start wars, cheat people out of their money, snub, back-bite, hold a grudge. A philosopher and sage had the good sense to hire her for that job. On and on I go with the things I tell myself. I know I’m still being condescending, but guilt does that. Not really fair to her. Truth be told, all I really know is what she told me: she loves Jane Eee-ree. That prompts me to offer one last truth: I have never actually read Jane Eee-ree.