In the following excerpt from ‘Nathan Burgoine’s short story “Struck,” his character Chris, an assistant manager at a mall bookstore, has no idea that a stranger’s predictions and increasing hostility from a bad manager could possibly culminate in a whole new life for him–one that might even include romance.
“I’m going to fix your life!”
Chris balanced a dozen copies of the latest teen hardcover in his left arm. The customer who’d spoken had just walked by his boss Laurali, who was at the cash registers leafing through a magazine. Why customers avoided obviously free staff to ask questions of the employee with his hands full was one of the mysteries of working at Book It.
“Is that the title?” Chris asked.
“I’m going to fix your life,” Chris repeated. The books were getting heavier by the moment. It was probably all the angst.
“No,” the customer said. “I am.”
“Pardon?” Chris tried not to stare at him.
The customer was trim, blond and had eyes an impossible shade of blue—Chris could see the contacts. He was tanned and sporting a skintight blue shirt the precise shade of his contacts, as well as a deep frown.
“Oh!” the customer said. “You think I’m looking for a book!” He laughed, as if he’d just gotten the joke.
This is a bookstore, Chris wanted to say. Instead, aware that Laurali was now looking at him—Chris could feel her “disappointed” stare burning a hole in the back of his head—he said, “How may I help you?”
“No, no,” the blond repeated, chuckling now. His teeth were so bleached they dazzled. “I’m here to help you, uh…” His eyes glanced down to Chris’s name tag. “Chris.”
Was he being scouted? For a brief instant, Chris allowed himself the fantasy. This blond was going to swoop in, hire him to be the manager at a beautiful gallery somewhere incredibly warm all year round—it would have to be, given the blond’s tan—and…and…uh. Maybe a beach?
Oh my god. I’ve lost the ability even to fantasize about a better life.
“Okay,” Chris said, coming back to reality. More likely the blond was about to offer him a personal connection to Jesus Christ. If Jesus Christ would take the damned teen books out of his arms, Chris would consider it.
“I’m Lightning Todd.”
“Okay,” Chris said, wary. Maybe this was a joke? Lightning Todd? Oh god. He’s a stripogram. I’m going to get fired.
Lightning Todd frowned again. “Don’t you know who I am?”
“Lightning Todd?” Chris said gamely. The back of his head had to be smoking by now. He could hear Laurali sighing theatrically at the cash desk.
The blond nodded. “The one and only. So, here’s the thing. I’ve tuned in on you, which, as you know, is totally awesome.”
“Totally.” Chris shifted the books from his left arm to his right. Tolstoy didn’t weigh this much. Shouldn’t classics weigh more than teenaged hormones? “Listen, I’m really flattered, but I’m at work right now.” He offered his best smile.
“What?” Lightning Todd frowned again. It didn’t seem to take much to confuse him. “Oh!” His eyes widened. “Oh my god, no! I’m not hitting on you. You’re old!”
Chris’s teeth clenched. “I’m thirty-six.”
“Really?” Lightning Todd peered at him. “I wouldn’t have said more than thirty-two. Well done.”
“Thank you.” Chris felt his face reddening. “Listen, I need to get these dealt with.” He lifted the hardcovers slightly. “So if there’s nothing I can help you with…”
Lightning Todd shook his head. “You’re not open to it right now. But listen, after the coffee issue and the zipper thing, I’ll come back, and we’ll chat again, okay,” Lightning Todd paused and glanced again at Chris’s nametag, “Chris?”
“Sure.” The coffee issue and the zipper thing?
Lightning Todd nodded and walked past him. Chris could have sworn he heard the blond mutter “Thirty-six!” under his breath with something like disgust. When Chris got to the cash registers, Laurali was scowling at him.
“Friend of yours?” she asked. Chris reminded himself that she was only a temporary problem. Laurali was covering Tracey’s maternity leave. Tracey was the greatest boss Chris had ever had. Laurali, Chris was sure, had been sent by his own personal devil to make his life as miserable as possible. She had the worst sense of “business casual” Chris had ever encountered—today her blouse was leopard print—and she wore faux glasses that didn’t have a prescription because—her words—“people equate glasses with management.”
“No,” Chris said, putting down the books. His arms felt light and rubbery. “Customer.”
“He couldn’t have been a customer,” Laurali said. Her voice was singsong upbeat. That meant trouble.
“He wasn’t a friend,” Chris repeated. Laurali hated it when the staff had friends drop by. Unless they were hers.
“But if he was a customer, you didn’t convert him from a browser to a buyer.” Laurali looked over her glasses—and down her nose—at him. She held up a finger. “Remember the mantra: Conversion is King! You may be only an assistant manager, but if you don’t model the behavior, how will the rest of the staff buy into it?”
“We’re the only two people on shift.” And you’ve been reading that gossip magazine all morning.
Laurali shook her head. “This is the attitude problem I was talking about at our last rap session.”
“I need to put these on the display,” Chris responded before he said something else that he’d regret.
He grabbed the books and turned sharply, slamming into the customer who’d appeared with ninja stealth behind him. The coffee the woman was carrying went all down Chris’s front, covering his vest, shirt and half the hardcovers.
“I’m so sorry,” Laurali said. She sounded positively cheerful. “He’s such a klutz.”