Fiction | ‘Ted’ by S.F. Wright | Issue 34 (Sept, 2020)

Because his sister hadn’t been hired when she applied, Drew concluded that it was difficult obtaining employment at Barnes and Noble. As it turned out, his sister just applied at a bad time—or he applied at a propitious one. 

He hadn’t wanted a job; but his parents had been complaining about giving him money, and Drew’s using that money for beer, vodka, and cigarettes. If he wanted to waste money on that, he’d have to earn his own to do so.

So, he applied at Tower Records. And because he passed the Barnes and Noble on his way home, he stopped there, too.

At the customer service desk, he asked the elderly woman behind the counter for an application. He filled it out there, and when he returned it, the woman, to Drew’s surprise, said, Hold on; maybe someone can see you, and picked up the phone.

So, Drew waited. A few minutes later, a sturdy, somewhat hulking man walked up to the desk, took the application from the woman, and, glancing at it, approached Drew.

So, you like books? The man read the backside of the application.

Yeah.

And you like to read?

Sure, Drew thinking, If I like books, why wouldn’t I like to read?

And you can work nights?

Drew hesitated. On . . . certain days. Not, like, all the time.

But the man didn’t seem to hear him. 

All right. He looked at Drew. He had thin brown hair and blue eyes. His physique reminded Drew of a linebacker gone to seed. We start off employees at $7.75 an hour. 

Drew nodded, knowing that was a couple of dollars above minimum wage but also wondering what Tower would pay him. 

Our next orientation is tomorrow night at seven. Go into the break room—that’s through the swinging doors to the left of the restrooms—and someone there will tell you where to go. Then, as though it were an afterthought, the man said, I’m Ted Lange, by the way.

Drew shook his hand. He expected a hearty, powerful squeeze. But Ted Lange’s handshake was distracted and limp, as though he didn’t have time for it.

Uh, thanks.

Ted Lange nodded. Taking Drew’s application, he walked away.

***

The next afternoon, after he got home from his sociology class, Drew got a phone call.

Drew Wells? This is Marvin Callihan, manager of Tower Records. . . 

Marvin told him that they’d be happy to interview him, and before Drew could get another word in, Marvin went into detail about holiday hours, shifts, training, and their starting off employees at $5.50 an hour.

$5.50?

Yeah, Marvin said. So, it’s not bad at all.

Um, thanks. But I don’t think I’m going to take it.

***

That afternoon, Drew began drinking vodka and tonics around three. He paced himself, or tried to, as he had to go to the orientation; but he figured he’d just wear cologne and suck on Lifesavers—while another part of him didn’t really care if he blew this job opportunity.

He was quite buzzed—if not a little drunk—by the time he left. He knew it was unwise to drive, but he felt delusionally protected from anything’s happening, as though his quest to the orientation were under a phantasmic providence that rendered any hindrance, legal or otherwise, ineffectual. Whatever the case, he got to the Barnes and Noble safe and sound.

Ted Lange ran the orientation. Three new hires were present: a heavy young man, a lithe woman in her late twenties, and a willowy teenage girl with glasses. They all sat in the store’s back area, which resembled a warehouse. Ted gave a brief history of the company, during which the movie You Got Mail came up (That was us! Ted said. They say it wasn’t, but that was us.). Afterwards, they went to the break room to fill out paperwork. 

By 8:30, Drew had a name badge and a schedule for next week.

When he got home, he told his mother and father he got the job. 

They were pleased.

He then repaired to his bedroom and made a vodka and tonic.

***

Despite his rather reckless behavior on orientation, Drew never showed up to work drunk; the worst he ever did was come in hungover. And he would—though he’d never have imagined it at the time—keep his job at Barnes and Noble, in various capacities, for the next nine years. 

And despite the fact that he’d work for and around Ted Lange for some time and occasionally talk to the man, Drew never got to know Ted Lange better. Ted remained the same polite yet preoccupied, amiable yet inscrutable man he was on the day he looked at Drew’s application.

Which was not to say that Drew didn’t like Ted: He was a fair guy who stuck up for the employees and was adept at dealing with customers. There were managers who weren’t pleasant to work with—notably the store manager, Kay—who made Ted look angelic. When Drew came in and saw that he’d be working with Ted that shift, he was relieved—pleased even.

One interaction with Ted in particular Drew would remember. He and Ted were alone in the break room, eating during a closing shift. Drew was reading The Fellowship of the Ring.

Fellowship, huh? Ted said, looking at Drew over his chicken and rice—and Drew remembered seeing Ted peruse the science fiction/fantasy section more than once after Ted had gotten off; Drew had once even seen Ted buy a few George R.R. Martin and Brian Jacques paperbacks.

Yeah. Drew said, You’ve read it?

Ted shook his head. And I’ve read so much other fantasy stuff. He stared at the table. But for some reason, I’ve never read the big one.

Drew nodded. Huh.

Someday, Ted said, and continued eating.

Shortly thereafter, Ted quit, without giving notice. Though specifics were never given, it was understood that he’d had a falling out with Kay, which had, apparently, been coming to a head for some time.

***

Ted Lange would still occasionally come into the store thereafter. Often, he’d be in the company of his fiancée, a roly-poly, pleasant-looking woman. Usually, Ted would peruse the science fiction/fantasy section. Once, Drew passed him by, and said, Hi Ted.

Hey there, Ted said, but nothing more, and Drew wondered if Ted Lange had even remembered his name.

***

But Drew was somewhat affected—surprised and even sad—when he learned, less than a year later, that Ted Lange had died. He’d gone to sleep one night and never woke up—heart failure. He was a big guy, but he seemed to eat healthily; he even rode his bike to work.

As time went by, Drew would still think of Ted Lange, though only in passing, and even less so after he left the store. Still, when recalling his days at Barnes and Noble, he’d occasionally think of Ted, if only because the man had hired him. Drew would remember a vague face, thinning hair, and blue eyes; the sturdy build and friendly if bland expression and demeanor. But mostly he’d think about that evening in the break room; and Drew would wonder if Ted had ever gotten the chance to read the big one, the Tolkien series, before he left this world.

***


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

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