43:: instructions? :: 5/11/01
It's a slow evening at Tympanum (a Monday). Denise is on register. A few of the normal types that come into the store are scouring through the bins, each according to their own particular method. As for what those methods might be, Denise couldn't care less. She leans on the counter and watches them from behind her sunglasses. One guy. A second guy. Interchangeable hipsters. She looks at the poster hanging across from the register: there's Stephen Malkmus, formerly of Pavement. He looks shaggy and tan like a surf bum. This job has taught her the details of his face.
Here's another guy, approaching her. This one looks like what she imagines photojournalists look like: thirtyish yet boyish, tall. Brown leather coat. A somewhat stunned look in the eyes. As though they once saw a thing that reached in and twisted the soul. A child stepping on a landmine and being blown upwards, blasted right out of the world. Meat and mist where once there was a human. She plays her game with him, Guess the Catastrophe, and she sees him sitting in a foreign hotel room with a gun in his mouth, plagued by beckoning images of the dead.
Excuse me, he says.
She is wary. She pauses for a moment. What.
Could you, he says, and then he screws up his face and bites his lip. He reaches out and touches the counter with two fingers, as though to establish balance. Is it daytime?
It's not daytime, he says. Is it? Your glasses.
No, she says. She's not sure if this guy is just pulling her leg or what. It's evening. I just like wearing sunglasses.
It's bright here, he says. He looks up at the track lighting, squints. It's because we're inside. It's evening. He says this as though seeking confirmation.
It is a simple thing to provide. There is no danger in it. Yes, she says.
I'm sorry, he says. I'm not normally, I mean, I just, I get confused sometimes.
I understand, she says. And she does. There have been times where she has felt so out of step with the world that she has held her own perceptions in doubt. She thinks something like that might be happening with this guy.
This place, he says. He says this very quietly and with his eyes closed. She has to listen closely to hear him.
What is it?
It's a CD store.
CDs. He says this with a kind of relief, as though the word is coming back to him from a far way off. He opens his eyes. There's a stack of CDs on the counter near them and he glances over at it. Are they, he says, then he breaks off. I'm sorry, he says, after a minute. I'm just having trouble right now. I know what it looks like. Normally I'm not
It's OK, she says, needing to say something.
He's still looking at the stack of CDs. They're, he says, they're instructions of some sort.
Instructions? she says.
But I can't, I mean, I'm having trouble figuring out what they're trying to say. I mean, what they want me to do. I'm not sure what I'm supposed to do.
He clenches his eyes shut. For one moment she feels as though he may begin to cry.
No, she says. They're not instructions. They're just music. People just and she's at a loss for words for a moment they just listen to them for fun.
But what am I supposed to do? he says.
You're not, she says, you're not supposed to do anything. I mean, you can do whatever you want to.
He opens his eyes, looks across the counter at her. She can tell he's looking at her sunglasses; she can see an inquiry rise to the surface of his face. She knows it's about the daytime / evening / inside / outside thing again, and she can see him stifle the question; he seems to remember that he's already asked it even though he no longer feels certain about the answer. Give the guy a break, she thinks. You're clearly not helping him. She closes her eyes, reaches up, and takes her sunglasses off, setting them on the counter between them. When she opens her eyes again she can see that a certain confusion has gone out of his face.
There are no instructions, she says. She is trying to explain a design that is much larger than them. The only instruction is that there are no instructions. That's, she says, that's what makes it so confusing.
He nods sadly. That's right, he says. I remember that. It's like a puzzle
Except there isn't a puzzle, she says.
That's right, he says. That is the puzzle.
Yes, she says, and she truly believes that she understands what he means.
OK, he says. Thank you. He looks straight at her when he says this and there is a plain look of gratitude on his face. It is not an automatic politeness. It is not inflected with irony. His face just opens to her. Something passes invisibly between them. She can feel it with physical certainty, as though it were a wave of heavy bass, thumping up against her chest.
It's no problem, she says. She wants to draw him to her. It is the first time in a long time that she can remember wanting anything.
I should go, he says.
Um, she says. In part she doesn't want him to. But what she wants more is for him to do what feels right. OK, she says. See you later.
Thanks again, he says. The bell on the door clangs as he exits.
She watches as he goes, thinks. After a minute she looks away from the door. Her eyes return to Stephen Malkmus. Her hands find her sunglasses and the sunglasses find her face. And her world approximates its previous order.