The River

Friday, August 15, 2003


I was, what, 26. Adulthood. I wasn’t adjusting too well.

I’d had a journalism job, my first. It was for a weekly rag on the South side of town – local sports, county board meetings, school news. But that got old fast. Besides, I was living in an apartment only a few miles from my parents’ home. These outlying bedroom and strip mall areas of Atlanta were fine for old people raising families, but they were no place for me. I had to be with my kind. So I quit my job and moved to the big city.

I had no plan. A career, as far as I was concerned, was for people obsessed with money and status and two-car garages. I merely followed two strong impulses. One, to get the hell out of dodge, and the other more vague – but something pulled me toward bookstores. I felt at home in them, and reading contemporary literature helped me realize that many adults were like me -- fucked up; struggling with a rich variety of personal issues (although I’d never have phrased it like that back then).

A cultural mecca for me, on my trips into Atlanta, was Oxford Bookstore, a large independent with books in every available space, magazines from every corner of society, and a small loft café. The energy there, the strong smell of coffee and newsprint. I still find that aroma powerfully intoxicating, and I have yet to set foot in a bookstore that could duplicate it.

They were building a new store not five miles away in former car dealership. This is the part of Atlanta gathered around Peachtree Street as it snakes north of downtown, full of trees, shopping, restaurants, and money. As soon as I saw the construction for the new store, I knew where I’d enter my application.

I got hired, after an interview with an old woman in a wheelchair as strange to me as a Saturday matinee villain. Starting pay was something like $6.50 an hour. I could live on that. Make rent and a payment on an Japanese econobox. I could buy all the beer I needed, and I drank plenty.

Yeah, life had come apart. A long relationship severed. College daze over. My “calling” stalled and unsatisfying. I needed change.

Enter Oxford. Enter Atlanta. Enter cheap apartment with fellow – and still – journalist.

“Zines!” that’s how we answered the phone in the magazine department, where I came to work each day to straighten the shelves, stock the new issues, and rip off the covers of the outdated to send back for credit. And people were calling all the time. It was a busy store. We, the staff, were all young, educated, hip yet not self-conscious (overly), enjoying our limbo and the doomed agony of it, getting jazzed on the strong coffee from the café by day, drunk and stoned, raving and voluble by night.

We would hide out behind the store, safe from the clamor and demand of the masses, smoking cigarettes, dissing the customers. “We could run this place flawlessly if it wasn’t for the customers!” we liked to say. The gathering spot was right behind my walled-off and chaotic hallway of a magazine work area.

What stands out most from that time is a voice and a person. I hadn’t been working at the store long. I think she may have rung up a few of my purchases. So we’d exchanged pleasantries. But I hadn’t heard her voice like this. I was inside. The door leading to the back, the dumpster and the smoking area was open. It was a conversation about Jack Kerouac.

“Kerouac couldn’t write! I read The Dharma Bums. Shit, I could write that.”

“Hey, Kerouac was a genius. He only wrote The Dharma Bums to satisfy his publisher. They wanted something quick to capitalize on On the Road.”

Jack Kerouac! On the Road! That was one of the books that got me through college, along with those by Ken Kesey and Hunter Thompson. And I loved The Dharma Bums, too. This was exactly why I’d changed everything up. No, I didn’t jump outside and mix it up on behalf of Jack. That’s not my style. I’m quiet, reserved. But that confident, passionate, and intriguing voice defending Kerouac belonged to one hell of an interesting woman. Of that I was sure.

I got to know her, a little at a time. We talked about an art show at the High Museum, maybe we could go see it together. Something happened and that didn’t work out. I kept stocking shelves, feeling her presence, knowing, as much as this mule-like retail job impinged on my ego, that I was in the right place. She was at the register when I bought a film magazine with a photo on the cover of Matt Dillon in Drugstore Cowboy. She told me how much she loved the film. I went to see it, by myself. Yep. It was great. (It still is.)

She moved to the new store in the former car dealership. It was finally opened and needed staff. I asked for a transfer and got it. She was hanging out in the video rental department when I brought some movies back there. I dropped some and made her laugh.

Later, I saw her stocking videos. It was a lower shelf and she was on her knees, bent to her work, her dark hair falling across half her face. I loved her then. We still hadn’t had our first date.

Finally, we agreed we’d meet one night in a bar. We’d both get there early and save a table for some other friends from work. That afternoon, I told a friend of my plans for the evening. He asked, “is this a date?” I said, “No, it’s better than a date. We’re going to meet a group of friends, so there won’t be any date pressure.”

It was an Irish bar. We found a table, and we drank, beer for me, Irish whisky for her. And we talked, and the bar and the friends and everything fell away. We drank our drinks and we drank each other’s words and we felt the rhythm and the pulse and the beat of something on the soundsystem. The Waterboys, Fisherman’s Blues. “This is from my favorite CD of last year,” she said.

She still has it. It sits on our CD rack in the den, just behind the play area we set up for our two daughters.

Just yesterday, Leigh went into basement of our split-level -- just outside the orbit of the big city, but close enough for plenty of cultural forays -- to look for the title to a car we’re selling. We’ve got boxes of papers and books down there, more than a few, since our shelving, present in most rooms of the house, is filled to overflowing. She came upstairs in tears. We’ve had a wet spring and summer, and our basement had grown damp. Many of her books – for they’re mostly hers down there, she’s much better read than I – were moldy, rotting away.

Now our garage is full of books, spread out and drying. We’re going to trade some in, and, wouldn’t you know, those are in fine shape; it was the prized possessions, such as the multi-volume The Story of Civilization by Will and Ariel Durant, that suffered the most damage. I helped her bring up the boxes. I idly opened one, and there on top was On the Road.

Neither of us has read Kerouac in years. She told me to read Desolation Angels in those younger days, but I couldn’t get through it.

I’d be lying if I told you our relationship has been as constantly strong as when we first drank it all in. We’ve both struggled through some rough patches, felt the stiffening of unbidden walls. We’ve got too much stuff, both physical and psychic. We’ve got issues.

And we’ve got books, lots of books. We’ve got to get rid of some, and we’ve got to clear some space on the shelves in the house. We brought those crumbling, sagging boxes out of the basement together. We saved most of the books just in time, but we can’t leave them unattended anymore.

It’s bottles of wine now, with a home-cooked meal or maybe a gourmet pizza, after the kids have gone to sleep. The bookstore is gone, both locations. The owner went too far into debt in an attempt to grow too fast. We’re still here, still talking, 13 years down the road. We still have each other.

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