The following is from Eric Puchner’s story collection, Last Day On Earth. Puchner is the author of Music Through the Floor and Model Home, and is a finalist for the PEN/Faulkner Prize. He has won a Pushcart Prize and an award from the Academy of Arts and Letters. His work has appeared inBest American Short Stories, Zoetrope, Best American Non-Required Reading, Tin House, and Granta.
It all started when Rogelio staple-gunned a flyer to a guy’s chest at Being and Books. Or maybe that was the end of things, I don’t know. It’s been a strange year, full of love and despair.
Here’s what happened: Customer wanted a book. Customer approached Employee and asked for a recommendation for his teenage son, who “likes Star Wars books and stuff like that.”
Employee: Science fiction?
Customer: Yeah. Maybe.
Employee: Is he more of a sword-and-planet guy, or is he into cyberpunk?
Customer: Swords, I think.
Employee: So science fantasy?
Customer: Uh-huh. Maybe. Also, catalogs—he likes looking through those.
Unbidden, Customer explained that he was divorced and feeling estranged from his son, with whom he hoped to connect “on a deeper level.” Instead of stating the obvious (e.g., “your son’s a moron and you’re better off keeping the level where it is”), Employee spent fifteen minutes looking for the perfect book that would save Customer from heartbreak while also kindling in his son a lifelong love of reading. And did Employee find it? Of course. A science fantasy about—you guessed it—a father-and-son dragon-riding team. Only together, reunited at the edge of time, do they stand a chance of defeating the Emperor of Flurg. In hardcover, no less, so Customer’s son wouldn’t take him for a cheapskate. And what did Customer do?
How did he thank Employee for his time? Whipped out his smartphone and looked the book up on Amazon and then . . . he ordered it in the fucking store.
How do I know this? Because I’m the employee. I spied on him from behind the Staff Picks. That’s when Employee—I—went over and told Rogelio what had happened. He was working with Lalima, hanging up a flyer for an Isaac Babel lecture, meaning Lalima was holding the flyer against the wall and he was leaning into her back to staple-gun the corners. Lalima was basically the reason Rogelio and I’d found to keep living. Plenty of beautiful young women read David Foster Wallace, but how many walk around with Middlemarch in their purses? How many love cheap beer and listen to Merle Haggard records and have freckled noses even though they’re of Indian descent? The three of us were best friends until one lonely afternoon a week before Rogelio’s meltdown, when she kissed me in the Being and Books bathroom. It was a small kiss—more speculative fiction than dirty realism—but Rogelio sensed something in the air and immediately began to make his move.
Now he pulled away from Lalima and looked at me, his bony shoulders winged back as if he were preparing to clock me in the face. He’d worked at Being and Books since college and didn’t take kindly to “collaborators,” as he called them, though usually his hatred was seasoned with a dash of pity. There was no pity in Rogelio’s face now. His nostrils actually trembled. On the sound system the Modern Lovers were singing “Roadrunner,” one of Lalima’s favorites. I’m in love with modern moonlight.
Then he turned and marched through Cultural Criticism and found the guy smiling at his phone, shaking his head at something on the screen. Rogelio lifted the staple gun. It was a serious instrument, one of those heavy-duty numbers, and he brandished it like a pistol. In the other fist was a flyer he’d grabbed from his stack. The song ended and a strange silence, deep as space, filled the store. When the man failed to look up, Rogelio slapped the flyer to the guy’s chest and then stuck the gun to him like a defibrillator and in one swift, bold, surprisingly elegant motion pulled the trigger over his heart.
You know those old cartoons where someone’s mouth opens so wide it eats the back of his head? The guy screamed without screaming. Then his voice switched on again and he did his best to make up for it, running around the store and yelling bloody murder, a red stain seeping across Isaac Babel’s face. To be honest, it was a pretty good advertisement for his prose style. Rogelio and I watched in a kind of trance. Thank god for Lalima, who had the presence of mind to call 911.
* * * *
Needless to say, the incident didn’t help Being and Books with its struggle for solvency. The guy pressed charges against Rogelio and threatened to sue, but that’s not the worst of it. Hersch, the owner, had no choice but to let Rogelio go. It broke Hersch’s heart to do this, I could tell. We were like a family: a triracial, incestuous, downwardly mobile family, but a family nonetheless. Lalima and I waited in New Releases while Hersch talked to Rogelio in the back. When they emerged, Hersch wouldn’t meet my eye, his normally pink face looking gray and old. His ponytail had come loose from its band. I didn’t know who I felt worse for. It was Hersch who’d taken us in after college, who’d given us work and encouragement and a sense of belonging—who’d seen in Rogelio, especially, a possible heir.
There’d been a rift between them lately, it was true, about how to save the store. For Hersch, it was the artisanal angle. He saw hope in the gourmet donut shops, the pop-up clothing stores, the handcrafted axes being sold on the Internet.
“What do you want to do?” Rogelio said. “Change Used Books to Heritage Books?”
“I’m just trying to compete,” Hersch said. “People want beautiful things.”
“Walt Whitman? William Butler Yeats? That’s not beautiful enough for them?”
Hersch looked at him. “When’s the last time we sold a book of poetry?”
Hersch’s idea for the store was to hire local artists to make handmade sleeves for literary classics: no two would be the same, and of course Amazon wouldn’t be able to undersell them. “So you want to turn Dostoyevsky into coffee-table art?” Rogelio said incredulously. He was still upset when we went to lunch, muttering to himself on the sidewalk. Lalima did her best to talk him down, draping her arm over his shoulder as we walked to the taqueria. Maybe I thought this was a bit much. Maybe I thought she was overcompensating. It was a warm afternoon, not a hint of June gloom, and she was wearing a dress that showed the faint down on her spine. Our bathroom kiss had been the day before, and I guess I felt like any arm draping should involve me.
I should clarify something: Rogelio, for all his brilliance, had never had a girlfriend. For one thing, he’s very skinny. His nickname in college was Stick Man. Girls pretty much ignored him, but he didn’t seem to mind all that much. Books were his true lovers. He dumped a fair number of them, in anger or betrayal, but had long, steamy affairs with the ones he loved: Lipstick Traces, Pale Fire, Pedro Páramo. When I met him on the third day of freshman orientation, during a game of Capture the Flag, he was carrying Against Interpretation around with him, wearing a secondhand suit jacket too big in the shoulders. He looked like he was going to a scarecrow wedding. Like me, he despised Capture the Flag. He didn’t see the point in running after something just because other people were. We hit it off so well, I think—became best friends—because we were happy to sit around reading while other people did the capturing.
I was an ignoramus compared to Rogelio, and sometimes I think it was my lack of knowledge, or maybe taste, that bound us so deeply. He taught me which writers to love (Woolf, Borges) and which writers to hate (Wolfe, Kerouac), as if he were a soccer captain choosing teams. There was never any middle ground. Sometimes I’d read something he’d recommended—a Rilke poem, say—and it would mystify me, or at least its greatness would elude me, but then Rogelio would sit down with me and excavate its meanings, explaining why it was precise and mysterious at the same time, reading from it in his public-radio voice, so rich and biblical it sounded unreal. We spent many nights like this, huddled against the wall while our dormmates went to keg parties and brought girls (or boys) back to their rooms. Even later, when I started dating girls myself, Rogelio acted like he didn’t care, like he preferred spending his Saturday night with Alyosha or Kinbote or whoever he was seeing at the time.
So when Lalima came along, it threw us both. Rogelio had been against hiring her at first—too “midlife crisis,” he complained to Hersch, though I think he was just worried she wouldn’t give him the time of day—and yet here was a woman who seemed to like both of us, someone smart and funny and almost as well read as he. Someone, in other words, worth capturing. We had great fun together at the store. Lalima hated “lyrical” prose—it was her pet peeve—and liked to read from egregious offenders in an evil genius voice that made us laugh. On days off we walked the streets of Silver Lake, pretending we’d stepped out of Steinbeck and couldn’t understand what had happened to California. We liked to call iPhones “walkietalkies,” asking people if we could radio our mothers. We kept a list of “Useful Words & Phrases,” things we’d overheard on the street: “Let’s bucketize our thoughts” was on there, as was “Fuck, I screwed up my foam art!” This last one we’d heard at a café, while someone was Instagramming his cappuccino. It had turned into a running joke: if one of us—Rogelio, say—was having a crappy morning, he’d frown and mutter “My foam art,” and Lalima and I would nod and squeeze his shoulder.
I mention all this only to explain why Lalima’s arm around Rogelio interested me so much. It was a complicated arm. I looked forward to seeing it return to her side at lunch. When we got to Taqueria Sanchez, though, it was no longer Taqueria Sanchez. It was a place called Comida para la Vida. There were dairy-free horchatas, soy chorizo tacos, something called a Kale César salad.
“Where’s the cabeza?” I asked the cashier, a white guy with tattoos sleeving his arms.
“We don’t have that anymore, sorry.”
“No cabeza at all. It’s under new ownership.”
“Where’s Mr. Sanchez?” Lalima asked.
The cashier looked at her, then glanced back at a man grilling a green quesadilla and wearing an apron that said TACOS ARE GOOD FOR YOU. The world continually finds new ways to make you sad.
“Say a prayer for cabeza,” I sighed, bumping Lalima with my ass. I’d never done anything like this before; if you’d asked me a second before it happened, I would have denied being an ass bumper of any kind. I glanced up and Rogelio was staring at me, looking like he’d stepped in something.
“What’s this with you and cabeza?” he said. “You always talked about how disgusting it looked.”
“That doesn’t mean I wanted it to go away.”
Rogelio curled his lip. We went to a Thai place on Sunset, but he refused to speak to us, staring into his drunken noodles while Lalima and I sat across from him in the booth, our legs nearly touching under the table. I caught his eye once, between slurps, and it looked like someone was tightening him with a winch. He was the best friend I’d ever had—the person, maybe, I most admired in the world—but suddenly I was fed up. Why did it always have to be this way with him? All or nothing? It wasn’t my fault that Lalima had kissed me in the bathroom, just as it wasn’t Hersch’s fault he needed to appeal to hipsters. Rogelio wanted life to be precise and uncompromising, like a great novel. But life wasn’t a great novel. It was vague and incongruous and poorly plotted. You compromised all the time.
I was hoping things would go back to normal at the store, especially because Lalima was helping Hersch run some numbers, but Rogelio went off by himself to process some returns. It was a slow day—most days were slow ones, to be honest—so I decided to surprise him with a round of Highly Specific Yet Obscure. This was a game we used to play. One of us would pretend to be a customer and come up with an outrageous request, the harder the better. It was good practice for the Christmas season. Rogelio, the reigning champ, had never once been stumped.
Now I thought I’d give him a chance to best me at something. A peace offering. If our friendship collapsed, it wouldn’t be on me.
“Do you work here?” I asked him.
“I don’t feel like playing,” Rogelio said, bent over an invoice.
“I’m looking for a gift.”
“Leave me alone.”
I sighed. “I’ve been to twelve different bookstores. You probably couldn’t help me anyway.”
He looked up at me then—he never could resist the challenge—and narrowed his eyes. And as soon as he did, as soon as his eyes narrowed in their cocky, all-knowing, invincible way, something snagged in my chest. I wanted more than anything to beat him. I tried to think up something preposterous: a request from hell.
“All right,” he said. “What is it?”
I cleared my throat. “A dog ate my face off and now I have the face of a dead person, you know, a donor’s. She donated her face before she died.”
“Well, I need to buy a book for the dead person’s daughter, to make her feel less creeped out that I have her mother’s face.” I smirked at Rogelio, waiting for him to look flummoxed.
“I’m in a bit of a rush,” I said.
“Come this way.”
“I don’t blame you for being stumped.”
“Come this way!” he shouted.
First he led me into Psychology, where he grabbed R. D. Laing’s The Divided Self. Clever, but not enough to shake my confidence. Still, Rogelio was just warming up. In Asian Lit he handed me a book called Losing Face and Finding Grace, which made me smile despite myself. I waited for him to smile back, to acknowledge the absurdity of my challenge, but he wasn’t done, this was his reason for being, to make little cities out of books, each one a bridge to the next, and so he swung without breaking his stride and ushered me to Pet Care, where he tossed me Feed Your Pet Right: The Authoritative Guide to Feeding Your Dog and Cat, and then on to Cooking to pull out The Omnivore’s Dilemma. I laughed—I couldn’t help it. By now Lalima and Hersch had caught wind of something, and they emerged from the back office to watch. I explained my request on the way to Children’s, where Rogelio handed me Are You My Mother?, which led him to That’s Not Your Mommy Anymore: A Zombie Tale, a book I’d never even seen before, and then into his bread and butter, Used Fiction, where the books came fast and furious: The Anatomy Lesson, The Double, Family Resemblances. He was surfing the bookstore, making connections a computer couldn’t, and it was beautiful to watch—we were his audience, his apostles, led further into a kingdom of his making. He pirouetted into Crime, where he grabbed The Talented Mr. Ripley before doubling back for The Scarlet Pimpernel, a pairing that baffled me for a second before I turned with my tower of books and explained that they were both about impersonation, and Hersch and Lalima grinned, we were all weirdly triumphant, for Rogelio’s quest had become something else, a paean to Being and Books, to the promise that you could piece together a life story with books, with our books and our knowledge and our pure, glorious skill, and glowing with pride Rogelio veered into Lit Crit and topped my stack off with The Power of Thetis: Allusion and Interpretation in the Iliad, which stumped me until he said, “Thetis, the immortal mother of Achilles,” and it was like he was describing the bookstore itself, our immortal mother, which would live on and take care of us forever, no matter what she looked like.
* * * *
And then, of course, Rogelio was fired. It’s my fault, my fault. Some part of me knew—when I approached him about the customer ordering from Amazon, saw Rogelio turn to me with the staple gun—that no good would come of it.
But what I’ll never forget about that day is what happened before he walked out of the store. He’d spent the afternoon at the police station and smelled like Tums and B.O. Rogelio stopped at the staff pick table and straightened a stack of Lucky Jims. “Let’s go,” he said to me in that improbable voice, the one that could make an owner’s manual sound like music. “We’re off the menu.” It took me a second to realize he wanted me to quit my job, to follow him out the door the way I’d come in. I glanced at Lalima, who was staring at the carpet, and I didn’t move.
It’s been six months now and no lawsuit has materialized. Being and Books is still hanging on. Hersch made a halfhearted effort to talk to some artists, to get them interested in his book-sleeve idea, but so far nothing’s come of it. Even so, customers wander in, sipping their lattes. The bell on the door jingles. We had a strong Christmas this year, enough to get us through the summer.
Still, it’s not the same without Rogelio around. He was the pneuma of Being and Books, the breath that filled its lungs. Sometimes, Lalima will read something in her evil genius voice that makes me laugh and I’ll glance around for Rogelio, forgetting for a second he isn’t there, and my heart will slip a notch. He won’t return my calls. When I go by his apartment, no one’s ever home.
“Does Hersch seem okay to you?” Lalima says to me one day at lunch.
“What do you mean?”
“He seems old. His eyes are starting to look old-guy watery. The other day I asked if we had Tropic of Cancer in stock, and he asked me who it was by.”
We’re holding hands at the table, waiting for our food. We’ve started going to the taqueria down the street, the one that serves soy chorizo tacos. Though neither of us will admit it out loud, the food’s better than it used to be. When our tacos arrive, Lalima puts the plate in her lap and leans back against me in the booth.
That’s when I see him, Rogelio, through the open window. He’s walking down the sidewalk with his face in a book. God knows what it is: Calvino, maybe, or Pynchon, or Highsmith. He’s skinnier than I’ve ever seen him—which is very skinny—and his hair looks greasy and disheveled. People have actually stopped looking at their phones and are moving to get out of his way. He clears a path down the sidewalk—probably he has no idea where he is—and there’s something beautiful about him, something rare and slow and possessed: a man lost inside a book. I open my mouth to call to him, but I don’t. I don’t. I just miss him when he disappears.
From LAST DAY ON EARTH. Used with permission of Scribner. Copyright © 2017 by Eric Puchner.