I remember the old man from work. His hearty bushel of white across the upper lip, his tanned skin, his heavy glasses. The curious thing looked quite like a walrus.
The old man from work used to stalk me. Between the rows and rows of books and magazine stands, he'd suddenly appear not unlike a Cheshire cat. He'd stop dead in his tracks, deliver a wink, and then pull back his lips slowly into grin. Quite disconcerting to a vulnerable young morsel such as I, you know. He'd ask if I had found a girl yet. He always asks if I had found a girl yet. Innocent bystanders would be forgiven if they thought he were running a rather public girl-trafficking operation. And there he was, collecting his quota from an anxious, impoverished small-timer who hadn't caught any today or yesterday. Quite unacceptable, sir!
The explanation for all this is rather innocuous. Disappointingly so, perhaps. You see, the old man, let us call him Walrus, was quite bemused with my state of affairs. First time Walrus and I met was at the children's section. I was busy piling bargain items on some wooden platforms. These items can only be succinctly described as large, bright-colored contraptions parents would offer as sacrifices to their small, atavistic children. Walrus, who was attending to his duties nearby, caught sight of me, strolled over, and introduced himself in his thereafter signature fashion.
Walrus asked me many questions. My name, my age, how long I had worked there, where I was from, what I had studied, and whether I had a girlfriend. My answer to the last was inestimably devastating to his weave of consciousness.
What?? No girlfriend?? No female to smooch in the dark and between the covers? A boy at your age? No, it's quite impossible! You jest with me, boy!
No, I'm not kidding. Nope. Nada. Nyet. No second degree burns on my johnson, I kid you not.
Thus began his animated crusade to goad me into attaching a female to myself. Whenever he saw me, he'd pounce his girl question on me. Sometimes he'd just unfurl his hands, his palms and say, "So?" It was understood. There was an unsaid understanding between him and I that he was a sort of extortionist, perhaps a bully with a heart of gold, and I was to produce a girl, somehow, lest my moral and existential standing in the world be permanently diminished.
At first, I played the part of extortionee reluctantly, as you'd imagine, but then with some enthusiasm. I'd parry the metaphorical ball back into his court by coyly insisting he find a girl for me instead. Predictably, he'd laugh it off and suggest I prey upon the many young bachelorettes who enter the store each day (Nevermind the fact that they'd fire my ass if I tried). Soon there was a second unsaid understanding between us - that he was a sort of laissez faire-ist with a strong aversion to intervention lest everyone be looking for handouts. A bit like God, he'd likely say.
But Walrus gradually endeared himself to me. To be sure, his pestering was annoying. The sort of thing they should hang once-a-year-seen aunts and uncles for. Still, I was secretly appreciative that Walrus, blest with his mad animal mind, seemed to believe that I could have a girl-love of my own. Wracked with innumerable insecurities and having the heart of a small rodent, I hadn't dream to dare. But Walrus believed and believed vigorously.
Walrus never had a trace of irony in his voice.
Perhaps I'm projecting.
But I don't think walruses are capable of irony.
One day, I was haphazardly assigned to the information desk. An intimidating place where many questions are asked like, where's a section? where's a book? may I book a book? And if the hapless individual behind the desk doesn't faint under the weight of all this Guantanamo-like interrogation and is fully knowledgeable in the arcane mysteries of bookery, all. goes. well. Supposedly. I found it exhilarating in an absolutely terrifying sort of way. The sort of blood-curdling exhilaration one gets from watching a horror film, taking a ride on a roller coaster, or being chased a mile by a crazed man with a fire axe.
Because my mind is such a shameless beast.
There was a girl who approached the counter. Voice like little bells. Inquired about "Gypsy Morph" by a Terry Brooks. So I tippity-tapped-tapped the computer, read the location of the book, and went off for it. Fetched it back. She didn't want it, she said. Not this cover. She was quite apologetic for all my trouble. It was then only that I got a good look at her. And those little bells sang like a choir of animated fairies in my ear.
I was quite smitten. Swooningly so.
She was slightly diminutive, some inches less than me. Twenty-ish, I would guess. She had apple-red elf cheeks, their color warmly accentuated by the smile she drew. She gently pushed the book back. It's okay then, she said. She sang those words! Pretty prettier prettiest bells. They chortled like wind chimes against a gentle breeze. Champagne glasses clinking amongst themselves, compelling its liquids giggle and claw at the walls. Of my chest. Bloated, ready to burst out like a horrid seppuku experiment.
I was taken aback. Taken hostage by boyish catatonia. I, frothing at the mouth, you could see it in my eyes. I wrung my hands and wrung them and wrung them. Below the desk, out of sight. I wrung them like the stubborn syllables of to-mor-row. They wouldn't go away, they couldn't make themselves useful.
She, let us call her Belle, could sense that I was troubled. Terrified to the 't'. I wasn't the proverbial deer caught in her headlights, retinas slowly melting away to a nice vanilla glaze. I was something smaller. A beaver, perhaps. Or a ferret. And she backed away as if painfully aware that she had frightened the little thing. As if she knew if she stayed or pressed the issue, I'd immediately descend into spontaneous cardiac arrest. Probably true. Got a weak heart, you see. Too little fat, too much young, foolish blood.
So she left. Or began to leave, as her pace slowed considerably in my dreadfully faux movie mind. I then noticed two individuals who were her escorts. First, an intimidatingly tall man-creature who had clumsy hands molest her bare shoulders and neck. She had a tattoo of a skeletal wing perched high on her back. Not particularly impressive (or original for that matter) but still I swooned like the forgotten fool who discovers crayon could be applied to skin.
Belle had another companion, an elderly woman of similar height. Had an almost perfectly round head of brilliantly white cotton, the sort young children are goaded to stick on paper as 'clouds'. One imagines her either to be Belle's grandmother or a cleverly disguised cauliflower. It didn't help that such a fluffy manifestation brought memories of Barbara fucking Bush. That dazed woman who shat out a President who shat on the world and himself.
Suddenly the three were gone. And I swear I could've heard poor, bitter Walrus sneering behind a rack of fishing manuals that I let another one go. Another oyster, gone! Escaped! Poof! If he ever asks, I wouldn't say that Belle's man-creature companion terrified me. No, certainly not. Not his impressive athletic build, likely put to tearing into young ferrets for their tender meat. Or strangling elderly beavers, then stripping their hides for use as a sort of ritualistic underwear for alpha males. Nope.
I'd tell Walrus that Barbara Bush was the issue. Genes, I'd say. The little bastards that make you and I and your eminent bushel of white. Suppose Belle and I had a litter of human-lings and they surreptitiously came to say things like "nu-cu-lar". They'd never be respectable physicists like their papa wants them to. That just wouldn't do. Just wouldn't. Walrus would of course scoff at first, scrunching his 'tache like a disapproving wizard. But Walrus would understand.
His animal instincts would eventually overwhelm him, you see. And he'd be back, behind every rack and magazine stand, waiting to pounce on any hapless bachelor boy. This is the essential, unchangeable nature of walruses.