Wednesday, July 1, 2020

The Flounderer, S.F. Wright

Ken Caprese lived on the assumption that a dream career and life lurked a heartbeat away and that his present existence as a Barnes and Noble head cashier was just an inconvenient stopgap.
            When Drew met Ken, the latter was enrolled at Bergen Community College. But shortly thereafter Ken stopped attending because he said that he wanted to become a lawyer and that it was better to go to a four-year college for that. Drew thought this logic questionable, but shrugged and nodded, as though to suggest this wasn’t a bad idea. He’d learned that was the best way to deal with Ken.
Ken was a strict head cashier who enjoyed “letting customers have it” when he thought they were in the wrong, a tendency Drew attributed to Ken’s venting some of his own bitterness and frustration. All a customer had to do, though, was ask for a manager, who’d always let the customer get his way. Still, it was fun to watch Ken try.
            Occasionally, though, Ken could be unnecessarily rude—even over something petty. One time, he rather nastily told a teacher at Drew’s register that she had to go out in the rain to get her school I.D. from her car in order to receive her teacher’s discount, even though she was buying ten copies of Lord of the Flies. The woman got her I.D. but left irate, and the whole transaction made Drew uneasy.
Ken then told people he no longer wanted to be a lawyer; he wanted to be a computer programmer. But he couldn’t go to school now for a number of reasons: time, money, family—which Drew understood. Yet he felt that you shouldn’t talk about doing something until you were actually doing it.
Drew was made a lead, which meant he’d work on the salesfloor more and less as a cashier. He found that as long as he didn’t have to listen to Ken daily, he was a tolerable guy.
After seven years, Drew inquired into becoming a manager. He was told that the first step would be to make him a head cashier.
            This promotion obliged him to work with Ken, who was, Drew found, the same: still trying to finish college, still speaking about the career he’d soon have in computers. Also, Ken’s hair had gone gray, and he had a paunch.
As Drew worked more regularly with Ken, he became privy to another of his grievances: his wife. Mrs. Caprese had a decent job and had been supporting Ken; she’d even paid for his stints in college.
            It also became apparent why after the store closed Ken lingered outside smoking cigarettes and talking to other employees instead of going straight home.
When Drew finally got his degree at twenty-eight, Ken shook his hand.
Good for you. I hope to get mine soon, too.
            You will. And thanks.
            But the unspoken truth embarrassed him. Drew should’ve gotten his degree long ago instead of floundering around, going to school part time, living at home, and working at Barnes and Noble. As for Ken, Drew didn’t think he’d ever get a degree—or leave the store.
Drew went to the wedding of Christina, another head cashier. He saw Ken’s wife, who was obese. The woman was nice enough, Ken acted genial. But if one observed him closely, one discerned misery.
Ken announced he was quitting. At a job fair, he’d found a new position, selling software. Drew wasn’t sure he believed him. But Ken gave his notice, and during those last two weeks, he was happier than Drew had ever seen him.
            On Ken’s last night, they went to Applebee’s. Sitting in a booth and drinking a Captain and Coke, Drew reflected on all the times he’d come to this Applebee’s. Watching Ken—whose wife wasn’t there—Drew felt glad, but jealous. He never imagined Ken would leave the store before he did.
            At home, Drew sat in his room drinking Evan Williams and Coca-Cola, making pledges that he, too, would leave Barnes and Noble.
For a few weeks, he didn’t hear anything about Ken. But one afternoon, Drew spotted him hurrying out of the store. He didn’t stop to say hello. Drew mentioned it to Christina.
            He was asking for his old job.
            She nodded. He couldn’t hack it at that place. She put a stack of twenties on the money counter. I think he just finagled his way into it, and when they found out he couldn’t do the work. . .
            Is he coming back here?
            She shrugged. Maybe. But I don’t know. Catherine said since they’d already made George a head cashier, all they could offer Ken was something part-time, which he didn’t want.
            Drew considered this. So what’s he going to do?
            Christina counted a new till. Try to get some other job, I guess.
He never saw Ken again. But a year after Drew left the Barnes and Noble, he heard that he’d returned to the store to work in the receiving area.
            Ken also left his wife. Drew was glad for him, even though the divorce was messy. The last he heard, Ken was renting a room in a friend’s house and again talking about becoming a lawyer.

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