I’m just the manager of the gift shop in the museum, though it’s a pretty decent job for someone my age. The gift shop and the coffee shop are the only places where you don’t have to wear period costume. Still, the tourists do always seem a bit disappointed when they realize it’s the twenty-first century again. They enter blinking, as if from a dark room. One day in the fall, I’m on my break and I walk across the museum grounds to the coffee shop. Stewart, the grounds manager, has just left and I’m pleased to be spared his whiny, “Jonathan, you know outside is period costume only!”
I join a long lineup of tired tourists. In front of me is a woman with her child, who’s swinging around a bag from the gift shop. It’s knocking his mother on the leg and, sometimes, me. After a couple of good whacks to the thighs, the mother finally grabs the bag from him. She stage whispers, “I don’t know why you wanted this cheap crap, anyway” and I feel a small flush of embarrassment. Our stuff is kind of cheaply made, and I feel like a jerk sometimes for hawking those flimsy replica arrowheads made from plastic.
A coffee shop can either be cool or uncool. The cool ones are always downtown, with some intelligent name that references trees or buildings or exotic locales, with wireless access and employees who don’t hide their tattoos. This one, the one at the museum, has a punny name and a dress code. And it’s in a museum where people dress up in period costume. So it isn’t a surprise when I see someone new working behind the counter yet again. She’s pretty, with brown hair that’s twisted up into a messy knot. She’s got a black leather cuff bracelet on one wrist. She looks too hip for this place. She really should be working at one of the coffee shops downtown.
I never order anything fancy, just a regular coffee, sometimes a brownie, but I’m nervous about making her feel nervous. I decided to forego the brownie and keep the order light.
I say hello to her in what’s supposed to be a bright and friendly tone, but comes out squeaky. Embarrassed, I plow ahead with my order, and then I just sound like Woody Allen, so I decide to say nothing further. At least she’s smiling, and not laughing at me. I leave quickly, amazed when I don’t trip and take out a row of tables in my wake.
The next day it’s rainy and cold, so the museum is dead. One of my employees and I make dull small talk all morning about her Chemistry class. She’s in Grade Eleven, and I get the feeling she thinks I can help her out. But trying to remember a class I took so long ago is taxing. Anyway, it’s annoying to think of high school when all your friends are in university in faraway places, and you’re the manager of the same gift shop that was fun to work in when you were sixteen, but is now just dull and depressing. So I’m close to ecstatic when my lunch break rolls around and I can escape.
This time, I go to the coffee shop the way I’m supposed to, through the employees-only entrance and down the snaky hallways in the main building, passing unseen behind the mill, the one-room schoolhouse, the blacksmith and the mayor’s cottage. I feel a little flash of happiness when I see the girl from the other day is working again, and she seems a little more confident behind the register.
“Hi. Medium coffee again?” she asks. I order a bagel too, toasted, with chive and onion cream cheese. Something I’d definitely order in a coffee shop downtown.
“So, you work here? You’re not wearing a top hat or whatever.” She says.
I tell her I’m the manager of the gift shop, and she nods like she approves.
“Cool. I haven’t been there yet.”
“Well, you should. Who doesn’t need another snowglobe, right?”
She laughs, a little more enthusiastically than I was counting on. I feel pride and nausea at the same time. She’s still smiling this great happy smile as she tells me her name is Jane. I tell her my name too, and once I’m sitting down with my bagel I realize we’re both wearing nametags anyway.
After a few minutes she’s there at the table in front of me with a mug of coffee. I frantically feel my teeth with my tongue for embedded sesame seeds.
“I’m on my break. Do you mind if I sit here?” She asks.
“Oh, uh, no. No, of course not.”
“Are you sure? You’re doing that stuttery thing again.”
God, who was this girl? One day and we already have an inside joke? She’s smiling. She’s got this almost disarming self-assurance about her and my throat goes dry. I had planned out my bagel order, but that’s it. What can I even talk about with a girl like this?
“So, how do you like working here?” I ask. It’s my favourite strategy. Let the interesting person do all the talking.
She shrugs and glances out the window. “It’s okay. It’s trippy watching people walking by dressed up all crazy. How long have you been working at the gift shop?”
“Four years. Started out as a summer job. I graduated last year and I figured I might as well stick with what I knew.”
“You didn’t go to university either?”
“I’m a writer. You can’t learn that stuff. You just have to know.”
“That’s cool. I like writing. I write too, but songs. I suppose you could say I’m a singer-songwriter.” She laughs and waves her fingers in the air as she says it. “That’s what I’m going to do. I don’t need university for that either.”
“We’re in a club.” I say.
“A ‘We Don’t Need No Stinkin’ University’ club.”
God, what’s wrong with me?
Again, against all odds, she laughs and raises her mug. “Cheers to that,” and we clink. She gazes out the window again and there’s a silence. I sip my coffee and try desperately to think of something interesting to say. I see her smile slowly leave her face.
“My parents kicked me out because I told them I wasn’t going to be a doctor.” She says. “Can you believe it? Me, their smartest kid. I moved out with my boyfriend, though, and it’s okay.”
“Oh, your boyfriend?” I ask, sounding a little too interested.
She glances at me, then looks down at the muddy swirling of her coffee.
“Yeah, but it’s not like that. We have separate bedrooms. I’m too young for that shit. I’d like to live completely on my own. I want to paint my walls yellow and have plants and a cat. Not take care of his dumb baby. I mean, not that he has one now, but I’m thinking long-term.”
I try to relate to this, to imagine this green-eyed girl waking up in the morning and walking into a living room crowded with magazines and cigarette butts and old food, with walls that are beige and maybe a landlord who leers at her when she goes to pay the rent.
I live with my parents. I have a cat. I cook dinner on the weekends. What I really want to do is grab her hand and give her a job at the gift shop so she can make even more money and live on her own like she wants to. Again, she breaks the silence.
“Listen, you should let me read your stories sometime. I think they’d be really good. I can tell. Oh, maybe I could play you one of my songs. You can give me your professional opinion on the lyrics?”
“Sure. Thanks. Sure.”
“Oh, fun! Let’s do it soon! I’m not working tomorrow. But Friday?”
Friday is a gorgeous day. Sunny and full of birds. Tourists are out in numbers unprecedented for the time of year. My shift goes by so fast that I don’t have time to work myself into a frenzy over meeting Jane. I surreptitiously check out my hair in the wavy mirror above the rack of sunglasses, and walk to our pre-arranged meeting point near the loading dock, where it smells like hot garbage and cigarettes. She comes around the corner holding a guitar around the neck like a dead pheasant. She looks excited and gives me a big toothy Hi and then we sit down on the grass.
“So this is a song I wrote last summer when I realized how miserable my best friend’s life would be because she was going to piano school or some bullshit when she didn’t want to, just to make her parents happy.”
She starts strumming the strings in fast little motions. I’m surprised to hear her singing voice. It’s powerful and clear. She sounds like a real singer, the kind I sometimes go to see in bars downtown, where people actually listen to the music and clap at the end.
The sun warms the top of my head and shines down on her knees and her fingers. I watch her face as she sings, opening her mouth wide at the chorus. Her lyrics are sweetly, painfully intelligent. Even her guitar playing is great, and I feel like there’s no way she just learned that stuff on her own.
After work I go home and look around. I feel suddenly unformed, like a walking, talking lump of wet clay. I have my own bedroom. Big deal. I think of Jane, of this girl with the spray of freckles across her nose and that voice that comes from everywhere inside her, who’s going to easily slip into any kind of life she wants to, without really trying.
I open my laptop and read the short stories I’ve been torturing poor literary magazine editors with. They’re terrible. So predictable and trite, and I used to think they were great. I want to write something new. Something a person like Jane will appreciate.
It takes me a week to write that story. I call in sick for two of my shifts and I write it, and it isn’t the best I’ve done but it’s different from anything I’ve written before and something about it feels large and important and like I am breathing underwater.
Jane isn’t at the coffee shop the next time I go in. I walk through the museum grounds, flagrantly defying the rules, but she isn’t anywhere. Her manager grumbles and tells me she quit two days ago. Then he shoves an envelope at me, with my name written on it. He says it’s from Jane, and glares at me. Now I am connected to her betrayal, and I am his nemesis too.
I walk outside onto the lawn and the sun is bright, like the day of the song. I blink over and over. Jane’s envelope is clenched in my sweaty palm. I see Stewart’s face in a window, angry that I’m standing there nametagged and polyestered in full view of the tourists. I pretend not to see him, and I sit down on the grass, and I smooth the creases in the envelope.
Hi Jonathan. Sorry I had to leave here in a rush. I found out that one of my favourite guitarists will be teaching at the U of T, and I think I’d hate myself for the rest of my life if I didn’t go for it. It’s probably a sign, right? This could be huge for my career.
I’ll call you at the store and give you my address, and you can mail me your story. Thanks for listening to my song. Stay gold, Ponyboy.
I send her my story, in a brown 9”x12” envelope, like she’s a literary magazine. I don’t hear from her, not ever. It’s kind of embarrassing. I mean, who did I think I was?
About the author: Samantha Garner writes from Toronto. She was most recently published in Storychord and is working on a collection of short fiction. You can visit her online at samanthagarner.ca.
Story song: "Me and My Friend" by Julie Doiron