Sleetmagazine.com

Volume 12 • Number 1 • Spring - Summer 2020

S.F. Wright

The Couple

They were a mother and son: she was in her early fifties; he was around thirty. The woman was dumpy and had long dyed brown hair; he was even shorter and had a paunch and a baby face. His hands were those of someone who’d never worked a hard day in his life. But it was his eyes that were his most singular feature: bright blue, darting, yet queerly penetrating—or maybe they just seemed to be but were, in fact, only reflecting the turmoil in his head.

Drew didn’t like either of them, but he particularly disliked the son, whose name was Aaron. Drew helped Aaron Arson and his mother, Marie, at least once a week, although helping basically consisted of retrieving books Aaron Arson had ordered—usually hardcover pictorials on the Chilean mountains, the Australian outback, or the English countryside. However, neither Aaron nor his mother ever bought any of these books; in fact, apart from Marie Arson’s purchasing a nightly cup of coffee, and a scone or cookie for her son, neither mother nor son bought anything. Aaron Arson would peruse his books at a café table, where he’d be joined by his mother, who’d have with her ten or twelve arts and crafts magazines. At the end of the night, upon the manager’s making the closing announcement over the P.A. system, the Arsons would get up, leave their pile of magazines and books, and go home.

Can’t we do anything about them? Drew once asked the store manager. And Jan sighed and said, We can’t tell them they can’t order books. She then said, I’ve notified corporate of it, and they told me to keep ordering books for them, but they’re aware of the situation, so. . .

She shrugged.

But Drew had worked for Barnes and Noble long enough to know that there was little if any hope of anything’s being done, and that most likely he and his coworkers would have to order books for Aaron Arson indefinitely.

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One evening, Drew had just finished assisting an elderly woman find a Nora Roberts book when he returned to the customer service desk to find Aaron Arson waiting.

Drew grimaced inwardly.

Aaron Arson had a list of travel pictorial books, which was nothing new—he had Drew look up a handful of these books every week and usually ordered one or two. Tonight, though, Aaron was ordering every book on the list, which so far consisted of three hardcovers whose prices ranged from forty to sixty-five dollars, and a seventy-five-dollar coffee table book on Italy.

Now, he wanted to order an eighty-dollar photo-essay book on Austria.

Drew glanced at the list in Aaron Arson’s hand; it contained at least fifteen more books.

Is there a problem?

Drew felt like smacking the guy; instead, he said, Hold on, and picked up the phone.

Aaron Arson watched him. What’s the problem?

Cupping the mouthpiece, Drew told Jan that he was putting together a large order and wanted to check with her; the books were coming to the store (so weren’t being paid for) and were expensive. Jan told him she was coming; Drew hung up and told Aaron Arson it would just be a minute.

What’s the matter?

Drew pretended to do something on his computer. I just need my manager to approve it.

Why? Why does a manager have to approve it?

And right then, Marie Arson appeared.

Aaron? Is everything okay?

Her son gestured at Drew. He says he can’t order my books. He says he has to call a manager.

Marie Arson fixed her gaze on Drew. Why can’t you order my son his books? We order from here all the time.

Sighing, Drew said, I didn’t say I couldn’t order them. I need a manager, though, because some of these books are very expensive.

Marie Arson rolled her eyes. That’s absurd. We order books here all the time, and we’ve never—

Hi there, Jan said, standing by Drew’s side.

As Marie Arson remonstrated with Jan, Aaron Arson cast baleful looks at Drew. Jan said that before ordering these books, she had to check if any were nonreturnable; if a book was, she couldn’t order it unless it was prepaid for.

This news prompted more clamoring.

Drew was curious to see what happened—the Arsons still complained while Jan looked up the books—but it was nearly eight. So, casually, half apologetically, he said, It’s, um, 7:59, and—

Go ahead, Jan said, as she looked up another book. I’ll take care of it.

The Arsons still grumbled as Drew removed his name tag and headed to the punchout clock. But by the time he got his coat on, he’d forgotten all about them.

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Two weeks later, Drew learned, at a four o’clock shift meeting, that the Arsons were banned from ordering books unless they prepaid for them. Two days earlier, Aaron Arson had tried to order four expensive, unreturnable travel pictorial books, but was told by a manager that he couldn’t unless he prepaid for them. Aaron and his mother then approached another employee. The girl was new; she hadn’t known about unreturnable books and placed the order.

This is from corporate, Jan said. So, if the Arsons come in tonight, he can look at the books he’s ordered—I think he has three up there—but neither he nor his mother can order any more books unless they are prepaid for. If they argue, call Nat or Dave, who are closing.

That night, at the customer service desk, Drew kept an eye out for the Arsons. He wanted to be the one to tell them that they couldn’t order books anymore unless they prepaid for them.

Around eight, the Arsons appeared. Drew was with a customer; Dan helped them. But all Aaron Arson wanted was to look at his books, which he took from Dan brusquely.

Later, though, Aaron Arson returned to the customer service desk, list in hand. Drew and Dan were helping people. As Aaron Arson waited, Drew felt furtive excitement. But he figured Dan would be the one to help Aaron, as his coworker seemed almost finished with his customer. However, the old woman Dan was helping asked Dan to look up two more books at the same time Drew finished ordering a Ted Williams biography for his customer.

And then, Aaron Arson was walking up to Drew, clutching his list.

I want to order these books.

His heartbeat increasing, Drew said, I can order them, but you have to prepay for them.

Aaron Arson looked at him in disbelief, and then vexation. What do you mean, have to prepay for them? I never had to do that.

We were told that we can’t order books. . . Drew debated saying, For you, but then said it anyway: For you anymore unless you prepay for them.

Aaron Arson’s face colored.

I can call a manager if you—

But Aaron Arson turned around and shouted, Mom? Where are you? Mom?

And then Marie Arson was marching down the aisle, zeroing in on her son.

Drew picked up the phone.

As he explained the situation to Nat, mother and son talked heatedly, casting reproachful glances at Drew. After he hung up, he said, My manager will be right here.

What is this? Why won’t you order my son his books?

Dan glanced over, a suppressed smile on his face. His customer also watched.

A manager will be right here. Drew affected to look at his computer screen.

Finally, Nat came. Can I help you?

The Arsons railed at Nat, who told them the same thing; and when this didn’t appease the Arsons, Nat provided the corporate customer service number.

Still, they wouldn’t go away.

Marie Arson said this was unjust and absurd, while Aaron shook his head irefully. Nat told them that some of the books they’d ordered were very expensive—one book on Italy, in fact, was eighty-five dollars—and also unreturnable; and since these books hadn’t been purchased, the store incurred a loss if it didn’t sell them. Marie Arson said that the book on Italy wasn’t that much—it was only about twenty-five dollars—while Aaron Arson nodded vehemently. Nat said he’d look up the book’s price.

And even though instinct told him to keep out of it, Drew said, That book was eighty-five dollars.

Aaron Arson glared at Drew. You stay out of it! We’re dealing with him.

Marie Arson also glowered at Drew; Drew looked down, affecting to suppress a smile, albeit he was somewhat unnerved: Aaron Arson had discombobulated him, and Drew, in that moment, hated both Aaron and his mother.

It actually was eighty-five dollars, Nat said.

The Arsons argued and carped more; but shortly thereafter, Marie Arson held up the piece of paper with the corporate customer service number, declaimed that she was going to get all the managers fired, and stormed out, Aaron Arson trailing behind.

Nat, shaking his head, punched Drew on the shoulder. Drew, still somewhat flustered, said dryly, They weren’t pleased.

Nat guffawed and slapped Drew on the back. A heavy teenager appeared at the desk. Drew told her he could help her, and was politer and more courteous than usual.

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For days afterwards, his coworkers asked him about the scene; anyone who’d dealt with the Arsons disliked them, and briefly Drew was a quasi-celebrity. People enjoyed the story of the Arsons’ being told no, especially Drew’s version. In his retelling, he was impervious, aloofly amused. He didn’t include the part of Aaron Arson’s disconcerting him, or of feeling foolish for chiming in about the book’s price. But after a week or so, his coworkers stopped asking him about the incident; and as time passed, people ceased talking about the Arsons, who’d stopped coming into the store. Drew, however, still thought of them: they’d come to mind when he reflected on things that made him feel shameful, incidents that caused him to grimace and close his eyes.

S.F. Wright lives and teaches in New Jersey. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in Quarter After Eight, Linden Avenue Literary Journal, and Elm Leaves Journal, among other places. His website is sfwrightwriter.com.
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