Daniel Talamantes is a writer and journalist from Folsom, California. He attended the University of California at Santa Cruz for a BA in Lit/Writing and is working on his MA in writing from the National University of Ireland at Galway. Daniel has many poems and short stories published and has monthly feature at Tract/Trace.
By Daniel Talamantes
This particular day a man in his autumn years walked in through the door. Judging his character, discerning—as all salesmen tend to do—what approach I should take with him, I instantly regarded him as a man of wisdom. He gazed patiently at the objects around him and nodded confidently, broadcasting a warm smile.
He immediately approached the cash register, clearly looking for a conversation, wanting to make a pleasurable experience out of an often forgettable purchasing scenario. The opposite usually employed by guarded, sullen, anti-social, or indifferent characters. No blame on them though, sometimes you just want your product quickly so that you can move on with the rest of your life. These people tend to have a simple tactic: veering left to the side of the store furthest away from me, denouncing my greeting with indifferent gestures.
He was wearing a no-logo grey baseball cap, square framed glasses that gripped firmly on his slender Mediterranean nose, a light blue t-shirt with a serene cartoon mountain range, light blue jeans that wore comfortably about his legs and waist, and some well-worn hiking boots.
He appeared to be a traveler or someone not in any labor intensive field of work, but not a business city dweller either. These are often fragile judgements but after working in sales for so many years you begin to unconsciously bracket individuals into categories. It’s nothing to be proud of, but as it often goes, the more utility you find for things the more you lose the humanity in them. It takes a special character to break that spell.
“How are you doing sir?” I asked rocking in my chair, grinning with ease.
“Oh! I am just doing wonderfully today. How about you?” He responded in a paternal fashion, sort of like the father of a friend.
“Not bad. Just another day at Red Wings,” I claimed.
“Well, we’ll see that it only get’s better.”
I smiled, reconciled by the notion. Standing up from the chair I went to meet him. I don’t stand often.
“Well, what are you looking for? I can help you narrow down your search.”
“Sure, well I am definitely interested in something like a hiker here. I spend most of my time walking around. Looking for something light-weight, yet durable. Nothing like these boots here.”
He points to the black loggers, which are reserved for firemen, tree-cutters, and the occasional hipster goth. I laugh, “Yeah unless you intend on walking through the mountain, I wouldn’t recommend those.”
He laughs as I continued, “Those are waterproof boots there, they have a direct attach sole so they will function more like a tennis shoe rather than the stiff platform of a stitched boot. Lightest boot in store.”
“Sounds great. How about size 9?”
“Yeah, let’s start with that.”
Walking into the aisles of properly ordered shoeboxes in the back room, I move mindlessly to the section where his boots rest. Pulling the box from the rack, the next size up sides into the slot automatically. Transitioning through the backroom to the front—ignoring the changing of light, volume of sound, new pallet of smells, and dilation of space—I hand him the box.
Leaning on the counter I observed Laurel street out the hygienic, large glass window. Cars frequented en route to Downtown Santa Cruz or onto the hazardous Highway 17, passing so quickly I could not distinguish anything but a vague size, maybe a model or basic color shade. Across the street was a small drive-thru cafe with an unattended patio, one single orange umbrella exploring wave signs. Adjacent to the cafe a crowded parking lot hosted cars and people swelling in and out of a numb, thoughtless rotation. The landscape had the impression of being deceivingly flat, in that there was no obscurity in shape, a manifest form of dull perception. There were daily-deal signs on wooden fixtures near the entrance of Whole Foods. This time it was crab season. Tomorrow an anniversary or new beer selection. The pizza joint was empty at this hour. A few strangers walk by, neither of them talking, just looking forward and hustling to that determined spot on the horizon.
“Nice weather out there huh?” He said lacing his boots.
“You a student at the university?”
“Graduated about two years ago.”
“What did you study?”
“Literature, Writing and Philosophy,” (philosophy was a lie). “Guess that’s why I’m here selling boots.”
No matter who I am talking to, or where I am, whenever I reach this point of the conversation I always buckle in shame. It’s a guarantee that this conversation will happen at least once a week, no matter how I try to divert it. But there is no way possible to avoid a stranger’s curiosity in the end. Assuming that I should be better prepared and practiced for the question, I routinely fail, losing all of my confidence when confronted with this illusory concept of success.
“Well, I had a few good opportunities right outside of college, but I was more interested in taking time to explore and spending more time living, and eh… eh…just didn’t want to jump right into a full time time desk job, suddenly finding myself with a family and a mortgage, a dog and pool, finding exploration only in a two week vacation where I am only concerned, out of habit about my work, not even having a moment to relax. I don’t know,” I spewed incoherently as he watched smiling, patient, like a man who couldn’t feel pity because he understood completely the anxieties of my position.
“Hey, you got to find a job somewhere. Hell, most of my friends after college were in the same position as you are now. I assume you are looking to travel and perhaps go to grad school later…”
“Yeah that is exactly right.”
“I don’t blame you at all. It’s real—the unnecessary pressure we are putting on your generation.
“We didn’t have it ourselves, you know?” He continued. “We were the rise of the technology era and I think we have a hard time accepting other lifestyles by now. We have also messed up a lot too, and we are hoping that you may come in and repair a lot of the damage done. But to repair this damage it may take a mind or a perspective that we cannot understand. See, when you go so many years under a certain view, it is hard to remember that other options exist.
“Don’t stress about the major’s you chose. I’d say that you’ll be well equipped for something important if it is in your interest. You see, there are all these kids succeeding, but if you really look at they’re succeeding in, you’d see that they are following the same formula. They are successful because they don’t want to challenge anything. Which is fine. They have importance too. But, they simply want to succeed and belong in something that is already set out for them, no matter the damage it does, or no matter how corrupt it may be. Other times it’s not though. Sometimes someone just fits perfectly in time. They were lucky to have found an interest in a field that is useful to someone else at the moment. Many of us have to rigorously work to make ourselves appear useful to others.
“There are plenty of jobs out there for liberal arts majors like you. But believe me, no one is going to want you out there upsetting and questioning the way that society is working now. Nothing is going to fall on your lap if you want to continue in that mentality. Which in my opinion, is far more rewarding and will bring you closer to happiness.
“I myself did not start traveling till I was thirty-five. I ruined my marriage and had to spend a long time regaining my children’s trust after the years I spent degenerating into a removed and jaded individual. Even after pushing everyone away, it wasn’t until I had an ulcer and woke up in the hospital a week later that I knew something had to change. The doctor said I could have died if the maid hadn’t come back to pick up her check from me. A check, that for whatever selfish reason, I didn’t feel she deserved.
“Go out and experience the world, because you are not going to take any of your money earned, your car, your television, your city apartment, your material with you when you go. These aren’t the things you want to pass on to your children. You’ll pass on your stories and wisdom.”
I sat there astonished, in a rare somnambulism. Shaking my head in wonder and revelation, I couldn’t find any words to say. So I said, “I’m Daniel by the way.”
“Jim!” He stood up and shook my hand.
Grinning reverently, he slapped the box, and said, “I’ll take the boots!”
Walking over to the counter, I asked for his last name. “Conner.” CONNER I typed.
Embarrassed, I looked down, feeling the fever of shame for forgetting his name. But it returned from hell. First, JIM, I typed.
Address: “That’s always changing,” he winked.
He handed me a few twenty dollar bills and I gave him his change. Standing up to shake his hand I struggled the words thank you which seemed to have originated somewhere else besides my lungs. He nodded and gave me a firm handshake.
Just as he was walking out the door he turned around and said, “Remember, there are planes leaving every day, at every hour, any where you want to go.”
Now, I didn’t have money enough to take a plane anywhere. Nor would I have much of chance surviving if I spent all my cash on a flight. But there was metaphor there. One to measure out the possibilities of my given situation. How long do I continue this job? How long do I stay in this town? What good is it to know that these hours pass by unnoticed? What good is it that most people I meet will come and go as if they never existed at all?
I watched the traffic out the window again, the parking lot, the empty cafes and restaurants contemplating the obscurities of obligation, sustenance, and freedom. There has got to be a balance in there. There has to be a way to retake the life given to you by birth and slowly stripped away by age.
My first move wasn’t anything exceptional. I locked the doors, put up a sign indicating that I’d be back in an hour. I exited out the back, into the street, and over to the cafe. There was a barista there leaning on the window expressing her boredom.
“Can I get two americano’s?” I ask.
“Sure thing,” she unenthusiastically replies.
As the instruments hiss and steam, she pounded expresso beans into a container. Fixing it into a machine that slowly fuses hot water with the powder, she waited for the dark liquid to pour into the cup. And for the first time I was amazed by it.
I asked, “How are you doing today?”
“Just another day at the drive-thru cafe.”
“Well, we’ll see that it only get’s better.”
Unimpressed, she handed over the two cups and asked for four dollars.
She asserts, “You might be a little late if you are a starting with two americanos at this hour in the day.”
“Well, only one is for me. I was hoping you’d help me with the other.”
She declined. I took a seat on the patio with my two cups. A pod of pelicans skated across the skyline and as if all my anxieties were attached to their flight I felt a release. Under the orange umbrella exploring wave signs, I sat staring through the rising steam of the americanos.