America’s Least Wanted
By Roland Goity, Aug 18, 2008

The photos are there. Mug shots, amateurish ones. Taken by me.

They’re there above the time clock we punch. Aside the listed duties to which each of us booksellers are assigned that day. Photos of bookstore dwellers who’ve infringed upon the rights of others. Ne’er-do-wells to whom my sympathy (or is it empathy?) often lies. Perhaps that’s pushing it.

Our indie bookstore has an undeserved reputation as a hip and smart purveyor of words on the page, as attune to the vanguard of the day’s literary movement as we are to its progressive politics, a tradition that harkens back to our sixties heyday when the sharpest minds and most hell-raising activists would convene here nightly. A period when the store founder was more concerned with enlightening the community than turning a profit. He’s long since dead, of course, and so is any semblance of his vision.

We’re about maximizing profits now and little else. Cha-ching, cha-ching. Our coddling to the Harry Potter phenomenon had us pre-selling Rowling’s latest to loyal patrons and then selling out their coveted copies moments after arrival to any bag of bones that carried a pulse and a credit card. An employee rammed his head full-speed like a middle linebacker into the crippling end of a hardwood stack after trying to explain such a policy to a rightful owner who ultimately left sans Potter book.

I’m not sure how I ended up working at this place, although somehow or other I think it related to my dream of being a writer. But I haven’t written even a postcard since I’ve been working here, the pay’s miserable, the so-called management staff is a consortium of cunts, dicks, and assholes, and the affluent customers mosey about the place like it’s the lounge area of their country club and we employees are here to serve at their beck and call. Which, I guess, we are.

Why don’t I quit for something better? When you barely meet the rent in a shared, rundown apartment, even with the occasional peddling of illicit substances on the side, there’s little room for error before ending up on the streets. Plus, I’m a codger. The economy sucks, and I can’t abide spending time trying to better myself. Not when leisure time is so precious and the odds are against me.

The store’s barely been open an hour on a Sunday morning. I’m mindlessly shelving novels and memoirs along the back wall where we stock our dwindling selection of literature. I’m in the Ws, my favorite nook of the store, pleasantly ensconced among the great Wolves of whatever spelling. Tom and Thomas, Tobias and brother Geoffrey, troubled Virginia, and notable others. I’m digging at book spines with my fingertips, trying to part space between A Man in Full and Look Homeward Angel, and guessing Moses had an easier time with the Red Sea. Finally I make room for a new edition of You Can’t Go Home Again, and insert it comfortably. I wonder about the genius behind such a novel, and whether I’ll ever display an iota of such writing talent, when a woman calls over my shoulder: “Excuse me, but there’s an odd man in aisle 4. 4-A, really.”

Hmm. Aisle 4—Spirituality and Religious Studies. 4-A—Christianity.

I hop off the wheeled step-stool I’ve been using and turn around to see and an attractive brunette in librarian attire, mid-forties I’d guess, with an impish daughter beside her, who appears to have seen the devil himself. Not what they needed just after church.

The woman quietly explains how a young man, who appears “out of it,” has found comfort for his hands in the deep recesses of his baggy clothing, mostly inside the front of his pants. He’s moaning, too, like the awakening of Frankenstein’s monster from the way she describes it.

I tell her to rest assured, that I’ll handle it. Zigzagging my way through the book stacks I come upon the aisle and encounter the fellow. He’s holding a book in one hand, and indeed pleasuring himself with the other. He’s so blatant about it he seems to possess a proud defiance, daring anyone to stop him. I approach methodically and clear my throat, and when he looks my way, he raises the book he’s holding. It’s the King James Bible, such and such edition, and what could possibly be erotic within its pages I can’t even imagine.

“What are you doing?” I ask, and the guy tells me, mumbles really, that he’s “not up to nothin’,” and drops the book to the floor and steps back. He’s wearing a faded velour jacket, covered in dandruff, fallout from his long greasy hair. Dark puffy semi-circles below his eyes attest to his cloudy state. “You’ve been cluttering up the aisle,” I say, but he just gives me a dumb smile and turns back to the stacks, fingering through books shelved under Contemporary Christian Studies.

Not sure what the procedures are, but having an inkling my photography skills will soon be required, I head for my cube box in the break room and my digital camera. On the way I tell the on-duty super, Brad, an older ex-hippie sort, kind-hearted but overly passive, about the situation at-hand. He says that my instincts are good, and once I have the camera he’ll have my back when I explain what’s what to the aisle-four meat-beater. A minute later, I’m confronting the dude and he raises his lip and bares his teeth, like a pit bull on whose territory I’ve tread. I turn back for Brad but see him backpedaling, spotting a random customer supposedly in need. The churchgoing mother-daughter tandem is still milling around though, and I’ve taken it upon myself to see that—despite my own preferences—they have an opportunity to explore at their leisure whatever books they choose, even ones from aisle four.

“Look, you’re going to have to get out of here,” I say, walking in as tight as a baseball manager arguing an umpire’s call. So close I can smell his halitosis.

His response includes commentary on his medication—or lack thereof. He needs a refill but the pharmacy’s closed and his social worker isn’t answering her cell phone. Well, go ahead then, grab a bible, pull that pecker out of your pants and have at it! Is that what he wants me to say? But I show him the camera and tell him he’s lucky I’m taking his picture and not calling the cops.

He seems flattered by the idea and positions himself against the stacks and swings to the side a slick tuft of hair that had latched onto his perspiring forehead. I take the shot and eagerly motion to Bob, my arm moving repeatedly back and forth like a member of the ground crew directing an airline to its gate. Then we escort the guy out of the store and tell him to catch the bus, head home and get some sleep. “And don’t come back!” I say. “We got your picture. We know who you are!” But he just looks at me with the blank expression of a puppy dog that didn’t know it’s not all right to shit all over the kitchen floor. And I hope, for his sake, that he gets his medication—and gets it fast.

I head to the ordering department, in the back, where there’s a PC I can use. In no time I hook up the camera, download the latest ne’er-do-well’s picture, and throw a sheet of glossy photo paper in the ink jet. Once it prints I trim the surrounding excess along the page, leaving only the photo. I glance to the wall and notice we’re running out of room above the time clock. It’s as cluttered with photos as my high school yearbook.

“Got another one,” I announce to the worker bees in ordering, but all I get are a few resentful glances, as if I’d just reeled another lunker to shore, while where they sit the fish aren’t biting.

I tack the photo to the wall, and look at the store’s “Most Wanted” lineup; really, in this case, it’s the Least Wanted. There’s the sunburned, bubbly face of the Catholic priest from Ireland on a visiting fellowship at a nearby high school. He exposed himself in the periodicals section to a trio of girls pawing through issues of Seventeen. There’s the wrecked visage of the woman barfly, who, “flirting” with a couple of guys working checkout one night, thought it a good idea to run behind the counter for a little ass grabbing. There’s the ashen-faced junkie we found passed out in the men’s room. He lay splayed on the floor with a needle in his arm. Then there’s the tormented shot of the young redheaded girl, which we really shouldn’t keep around. Her mother dragged her back in the store after discovering she’d snatched a few books in the Magic Tree House series and made a big scene about teaching her daughter “a lesson she’ll never forget.” Although it’s arguably among my best work, I hated taking the shot and wonder why it’s up. Alongside of these are another dozen or so representing a wide spectrum of the community, people of all ages, races and backgrounds. Losers of every stripe.

And now there’s the medication-deprived masturbator, joining the “Who’s Who” of the unwelcome. When I pin the photo to my satisfaction, I take a moment to admire it, both individually and as part of the collective montage I’ve assembled. Kudos to me on this one; it benefited from just the right shutter speed and aperture. Maybe my true calling isn’t as a writer but as a photographer.

I get an idea, and look at the time clock. It’s now 10:48. Just a little more than an hour until break, when I can head to the mega pharmacy in the mall and fill out an application. I’ll work in their one-hour photo section. It’s only a block away in distance, but I’m sure it’s worlds away in everything else. Plus, it will get me out of this bookstore once and for all and that’s what’s important.

And once I’m gone, I ain’t ever coming back.

Roland Goity lives in the San Francisco Bay Area. His stories appear in Fiction International, Underground Voices, Watchword, Scrivener Creative Review, Talking River, SUB-LIT and elsewhere. He is fiction editor of the online journal LITnIMAGE.