Every night at closing, there’s always that customer. The one who dawdles past the “take your purchases to the register” announcement, who seems oblivious to the concept of time as a whole. No matter how many shelves the clerks noisily clean, or how many times they vacuum past that customer’s feet, these assholes never seem to figure out that they’re the only one left in the store. Deshaun has worked at the flagship Barnes and Noble in Topeka for six years, long enough to be promoted to store manager, and it happens every damn day.
Tonight’s asshole is lingering in the “Human Sexuality” section. When the guy strode through the doors an hour before closing, Kelli had asked if he needed help finding anything. He’d dismissed her with a firm no, thank you and a wave of his hand. At twenty past ten, Deshaun sends Kelli and Sara home, because they definitely don’t need to be around when he confronts this creeper. He’s slightly taller than Deshaun, but not particularly big, and Deshaun is certain he can handle whatever this guy throws at him. Even so, since it’s only the two of them left in the store, he keeps his cell in his hand as he approaches.
“Hey man, we’re closed and I’ve got to lock up. I’ll help carry your selections to the register, if you’re ready to go?”
The customer whirls around, six books stacked in one arm and a harried look on his face. He’s wearing a weird black and white priest’s vestment, maybe from one of those orthodox sects.
Finding a priest in the “Human Sexuality” section seems like the setup for a bad joke. Deshaun sends a prayer to whatever deities might be listening — associated with this guy or not — that this conversation won’t register a ten on the weirdness Richter scale.
No gods are paying attention tonight, and his silent plea goes unanswered.
“Why are there so many books on this one subject?” the man asks, as if accusing Deshaun of having something to do with this state of affairs.
Deshaun decides the guy is in the correct section of the store, because he can’t imagine anyone looking more stressed out and overwhelmed, and like he definitely needs to get laid. Judging by his accent, he’s English — those aren’t the celibate priests, are they? Not usually, anyway? He looks middle aged, but maybe he’s just a late bloomer.
“I’ll carry those to the register, if you’d like, and ring you up,” he repeats, reaching for the books. The man dumps them into his hands, like the stack is a loaded bomb and Deshaun is the only one who can defuse it.
“Are humans as a whole really in need of so much guidance? Shouldn’t all this be” — he sputters, searching for the right word — “instinctive, as a matter of species survival? How am I supposed to know which pieces of information are most essential?”
He earnestly searches Deshaun’s face for answers, as if he hasn’t just phrased his barrage of questions in the weirdest way possible. This guy is radiating undeniably odd vibes, but Deshaun decides that he isn’t a creeper. Deshaun really should’ve gotten his master’s degree in psychology instead of literature, because working at a bookshop is like conducting a series of counseling sessions, trying to meet each customer’s emotional needs with Brontë or Okorafor or Szymborska or Neruda.
Or, in this guy’s case, maybe some Chuck Tingle.
Deshaun may not be religious anymore, but he has fond memories of the robe-wearing preacher at the Methodist church his Gran took him to as a kid. And if this priest is from some kind of strict, celibate orthodox sect, maybe he really is in need of some basic help. He looks so genuinely baffled, so adrift, that Deshaun decides to take pity and help him, instead of forcibly escorting him out the door.
“These are a good place to start, for general information,” he says, pulling Sex for Dummies and The Joy of Sex out of the pile and handing them to him. After a moment’s consideration, he also hands over the Kama Sutra. “And this one’s for later. Is there any specific information you’re looking for, in terms of your partner? Nonbinary? Woman? Man?”
“A human woman, yes,” the guy blurts out.
“Holy shit, man. Sure. A human woman.” This isn’t the sort of customer-focused language that corporate encourages, but right now Deshaun is swimming miles past anything covered in his last required HR weekend seminar. He plucks a book about female orgasms from the shelf. “Here you go.”
The man’s relief is palpable. “Thank you.”
“You’ve really got to pay, though. I’m closing up.”
At the register, as he’s ringing up the books, the guy asks, “Do you happen to have any data-stamps — ah, I mean video recordings to go along with these?” He says the phrase video recordings like it’s some exotic specimen of dinosaur, extinct and difficult to pronounce.
“You mean like documentaries?” Deshaun hesitates, but this whole interaction is already so weird, he decides it can’t get any weirder, so he finishes his thought: “Or … porn?”
“Whichever would be most instructive,” the man replies.
“Corporate eliminated our in-store video section a while back. Here’s a brochure with our web address, you can check to see if we have any Blu-Ray documentaries to order there.” Deshaun pauses again, common sense whispering in the back of his head that he should shut up and get this guy out of the store as quickly as possible. But his urge to help, drilled in from so many years of customer service, wins out. “Or you could just, y’know, google the word ‘sex’ with the content filter disabled in your browser. But if you want some Blu-Rays tonight, the kind that aren’t documentaries, there’s a shop down the street called Sindie’s, in the green-colored strip mall. They’re open late and can help you.”
The man gives a businesslike nod, obviously pleased to make a mental note of this information. When Deshaun tells him the total is $76.23, he reaches into a hidden pocket in his vestment and pulls out a thick gold coin. “This ought to be enough.”
Deshaun picks it up, squinting at the embossing on both sides. The heavy, undeniably solid coin is a goddamn Krugerrand, minted in 1967 and absolutely pristine, like it came off the press this morning. He’s pretty good with accents, he would’ve sworn this guy is English, but maybe he’s South African instead?
“Listen, I can’t take this — it isn’t legal tender here, in America.”
“Are you sure? I thought precious metals were an acceptable form of currency during this time period.”
During this time period? Is this guy under the impression that because it’s 10:42 on a Tuesday night, he can pay for goods and services with solid gold coins, instead of dollars?
Before Deshaun can decide whether or not he’s being secretly filmed for a YouTube prank channel, the man frowns and reaches into his robe again, pulling out twelve more Krugerrands. They jingle loudly as he drops them on the dingy laminate countertop. Each must be worth thousands of dollars. “I haven’t anything else, but I really need these books. Where can I convert these into legal tender that you’ll accept?”
“The banks are all closed,” Deshaun chokes, staring at the glittering display and straining to form coherent sentences. “Anyway, if they’re real, they’re worth way more than you owe.”
“Oh, that hardly matters. Will you keep the extra, as a favor to me? I have to get rid of these before I go home, and you’ve been quite helpful.”
“Are they stolen?”
“Goodness, no! Obtained entirely within the law, I assure you. But it’d be unseemly if I was caught with them.”
“Unseemly sounds like a euphemism for illegal,” Deshaun counters.
“No, it isn’t a euphemism, it’s just embarrassing. But I’ll hold onto this one, to pay for the data-stamps at my next stop,” the man says cheerfully, taking a single Krugerrand from the pile on the counter, along with his four books. He glances at Deshaun’s nametag. “Thank you for your assistance, Mister Deshaun. I’ll mention your name, when I speak to the shopkeep at Sindie’s.”
“No, definitely don’t do that!” Deshaun calls after the man, as he sweeps out the front door and into the night, disappearing like some kind of retail exhaustion-induced hallucination.
Deshaun stares at the Krugerrands for a while, waiting for them to disappear along with the weird priest. They stay put, stubbornly glittering in the store’s fluorescent lights. Eventually he takes out his wallet, places $76.23 of his own cash into the register, and closes out the sale.
He picks up one of the coins and puts it between his teeth — not because he knows what he supposed to discover from this maneuver, but because it’s a thing people do in the movies and on the Olympic podium. The metal is cold, heavy, and flavorless, and feels as solid as a rock when he bites down on it. With a quick glance around the empty store, he pockets the gold coins. After finishing the last few shut-down tasks, he steps out the back door into the alley behind the shopping center, and finds Kelli and Sara waiting for him.
“Oh thank god! We were about to call the cops, we thought maybe he’d taken you hostage or something.”
Deshaun’s face lights up as Kelli comes over to give him a quick hug. “You’re okay?” she asks.
“I think I’m fine. Actually, I’m great,” he replies, the gold coins heavy in his trousers. He’s glad he wore a belt today. If these things are real, he’s going to be able to pay off his car, and help his Gran with her mortgage. “Thanks for waiting.”
A quiet, unearthly sound wails in the distance, something like groaning machinery and screeching metal, and yet not like those things at all. All three humans ignore it, because the city is full of strange noises, especially at this time of night.
“You’d have done the same for us,” Sara replies. “We’re going for drinks, if you want to join.”
He grins, shoving his hands into his jacket pockets. “Tell you what — they’re on me, tonight.”