Dear sales rep for a textbook distributor,
Sorry for lying to you on the phone.
This was in 1990-a full twenty years ago now. So I’m not sure you’ll remember. But maybe you will. I was a freshman at Connecticut College, which is located on a picturesque campus overlooking the Long Island Sound in New London, Connecticut. I had gotten a job at the school bookstore’s textbook annex, which was located not, unfortunately, in the nice old post-office building in central campus, where the regular bookstore that sold mugs and college sweatshirts and stuff was, but rather in the basement of Hamilton dormitory, one of six particularly unattractive buildings that had been built at the north end of campus in the 1960s.
The cement-brick walls in the annex were painted a dull yellow, and my boss, a woman named CJ who wore her gray hair in a thick single braid that reached almost down to her waist, liked to keep most of the lights off because the brightness of the fluorescent bulbs bothered her eyes. So it was dark, and, as you can imagine, pretty quiet: textbook stores see a week-long rush at the beginning of each semester, and again at the end, when students can return used copies for half their price back or something.
During the months between, though, most of my shifts passed without a single customer coming in. This was okay with me. CJ was pleasant company. She was around my mom’s age, and spoke slowly, and in extremely gentle tones, and not a lot. But she told me once that she loved New York City because on a visit there when she was younger, she noticed a spider web in a crack in the side of a building and when she looked closer, it was like she could see the whole world inside this tiny tableau: life flourishing in the most seemingly inhospitable environments. She’d play cassette tapes of whale songs on a box radio on her desk while she processed professors’ orders for upcoming syllabi and I took inventory or stacked or emptied shelves. It was kind of like the chill-out tent at a rave.
As the semester wore on, CJ started trusting me with different jobs. I learned to use the cash register, and would ring up the rare customer. I would write down the code numbers for books we needed and place orders with distributors, like the one you worked for. And sometimes CJ would leave me alone in the place when she had to go out for some reason. This was the case when you called.
It was late in the afternoon, and I was tired and bored and looking forward to meeting my friends at the dining hall after my shift. I don’t remember where CJ was. I was sitting by the cash register when the phone rang. You were calling to check on some order we’d made-make sure we’d gotten the code right, maybe there was a discrepancy with a past order or something. You told me the book and the code number. I knew about it, maybe I’d placed the order.
“Yeah, I think that’s it,” I said, probably sounding tired and bored.
“You wanna double check?” From the sound of your voice, you were older than I was. Thirty? Forty? You were a grown-up, a professional.
“Nah, I’m pretty sure that’s it,” I said. I was pretty sure.
You sounded a little annoyed. “All right. Maybe double check and call me back if there’s a problem. You wanna take down my number?”
I did not want to do that. I looked around the cash register; there was no pen. I looked over to CJ’s desk. There would be a pen there. But it was so far across the room, so unreachable from the chair that I was sitting. “Umm,” I said. “Okay.”
“Got a pen?” You said. I must have really sounded like an idiot.
Jesus! I resented your forcing me into an explicit lie. Still, I had already decided against getting up. “Yup.”
You told me your area code.
You said the next three numbers.
I remember I actually pantomimed writing them out, so as to the get the timing right. I’ve always been a shitty liar. “Uhhh huh. Go ahead.”
You read the last four numbers.
“Okay,” I said, “Got it,” already the pulling the receiver away from my ear to hang up.
“Wanna read that back to me?”
I hoped my gasp wasn’t audible. But it probably was. I didn’t know what to do. The thought of just hanging up occurred to me. But that probably would have just made the situation worse. We did need you to send us these books, after all. I giggled-a nervous, reaction to getting busted that had served me poorly many times in the past-and felt myself blushing, ridiculously, sitting there alone in a half-lit basement with whale songs playing.
“Ummm, yeah,” I said, hoping that you might laugh along with me, which you didn’t. “I didn’t actually get it all down. The whole thing. I don’t actually have a pen after all. If you’ll hold on a minute, I’ll get one.”
You weren’t surprised. You’d known all along. But your sigh was definitely audible.
Sorry about that.