The Realm of Last Chances

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Authors: Steve Yarbrough
Tags: Contemporary
or that his thesis advisee, the twenty-three-year-old daughter of a Visalia dairy farmer, would be going with him in the fall. The primary attraction to Cal, if she wanted to be honest, was that he initially appeared incapable of delivering any lines at all. When asked why he alone, of the many musicians who gathered at the crossroads grocery, never tried to sing, he smiled shyly and said he couldn’t remember lyrics. It took her a few years to discover that while he might be no good with poetry, even he could tell a story.
    “You asked me two serious questions,” she told Matt, “and I gave you two serious answers. I asked you one, and you gave me nothing.”
    They were out of Andover now. On this stretch Route 28 had only two lanes, and they’d fallen in behind a large truck with the Salvation Army logo on its rear door and were doing all of thirty miles an hour. The train might have been faster and less taxing.
    “Well,” he replied, “it’s complicated.”
    “Isn’t that what people put under ‘Relationship Status’ on Facebook when they’re seeing somebody who’s seeing somebody else?”
    “Maybe. I don’t know the first thing about Facebook.”
    “I don’t either. But I live in the world in the year 2010, and I have some idea of what other people are up to.”
    “I used to be good at books.”
    “Reading them? Writing them? Stealing them?”
    He drummed his fingers on the steering wheel. “I never stole a book in my life. You don’t steal what you love.”
    Rather than take issue with an assertion she considered suspect, she said, “So what did you
do
with books?”
    “I bought them.”
    “For yourself?”
    “No, for the Harvard Book Emporium. For years I ordered every work of fiction that came through the door.”
    Ahead of them, a traffic light was just turning red. Knowing he’d shoot right through it, she braced herself against the dash, and he didn’t disappoint her. “And?”
    “And then the complications started. I lost my job.”
    “I lost mine, too. That’s why I’m here.”
    “I’ll be damned. Really? What did
you
do?”
    “I didn’t do anything,” she said. “You might not have heard, but the country’s going through a recession? As always, California got ahead of the curve. We had cutbacks. My position was combined with someone else’s.” She should’ve held her tongue then, and might have if she hadn’t started her day by climbing aboard a bus to Lynn that sat in a spot marked BRADBURY . And ever since, people had been acting as if the signs and signals that were supposed to govern behavior had no meaning. “So what,” she asked, “did you do?”
    He didn’t answer right away, and she knew he was trying to decide whether to lie, tell the truth or change the subject.
    He finally said, “I didn’t have to work the cash registers, but I made a point of doing it for an hour or so every day. The staff loved it. You’ve got a very leftist workforce there, and for me to do something as lowly as ringing up sales … well, that created a kind of egalitarian atmosphere.
    “What I’d do once or twice a week was engage somebody in a lot of book chat while checking them out—usually, customers who were getting on in years, very often women, andonly when they were buying a number of big hardcovers—and then I’d immediately hit the RETURNS button and zero out the entire sale. Toward the end of the day, I’d take exactly that sum in cash.
    “I eventually made the mistake of canceling out a sale on the same customer twice. She was one of those Cambridge types we referred to as ‘the wives of dead professors.’ In her seventies, reasonably well off, not too much to do anymore except read. When she got interested in something, she’d research the topic and then come in with a list of titles. When she decided to bone up on LBJ, she wanted all the Caro books, Doris Kearns Goodwin, the Dallek stuff,
Lyndon Johnson and the Great Society, The Best and the

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