Lord of his demesne, the bookstore proprietor fixes me in his gaze as I fill out the form. More accurately, he watches my hand, scrutinizes its every movement. This is an intense man covered in tattoos, an unlikely combination. You’d think that someone who can take a needle in the eyelid might have a more placid bearing. But then again, maybe his friends did this to him as a prank after one of his late-evening post-binge blackouts.
The pressure is getting to me though. I can feel the onset of spontaneous arthritis, my joints stiffening in response, and I will soon be forced to flail my arm about in a futile attempt to dislodge the pen. Here I am, right on the verge of this, and the tattooed man has no idea. I glance up and see his forehead lined in concentration. He’s staring so intently at my pen hand that he doesn’t notice me watching him. Meanwhile, I’m on the edge of panic. Under his unwavering attention my letters unravel themselves. Lines that are usually straight become jagged with effort, and loops are left open, allowing the air to escape. My tongue emerges from between my teeth as I finally complete my first name.
“There,” I say, unable to conceal my sense of accomplishment. “Almost done now.”
Finally, the next line: Date. What’s the date? I lift my left wrist and read the digits on my watch. 20th of March. And I dutifully write, “Mar-”
“It’s March 21st,” interrupts the proprietor, hurrying me along. But he’s wrong. He’s given me the wrong information, and now he expects me to write it down.
“Oh,” I argue, but he fails to see what I’m driving at. He does not reconsider. He makes no move to correct himself. And as a result my pen hand has frozen in time, somewhere between the 20th and the 21st.
This is the very worst thing that could happen right now. If being self conscious isn’t bad enough, now I must come to terms with the consequences of my decision, whatever it may be. I know to the core of my being that it’s the 20th of the month, but do I risk raising the painted man’s ire by committing my conviction to ink? Would it be rude of me to write the correct day without first giving voice to my intention to do so?
I imagine the scene as he sees the second digit emerge from my whitened knuckles. “What’s that? Is that a two and a… a zero?” he reaches from behind the counter to rotate the form so he can see it. “March 20th. Interesting,” he says, and looks up at me as he takes a pull from his snifter of cognac. “Well you’ve just unleashed the fucking fury, haven’t you?” Then the flash of blades, and red foam, and cold linoleum on my teeth.
How can I be expected to function at all under his unrelenting stare is beyond me. I’ve never responded well under pressure. Back in school I would forget how to walk several times a day at the mere possibility that someone was watching me, judging my gait as I stumbled from class to class. My autopilot lever would flip to manual, and each of my joints became a plaintive voice in the din, “Where do I go now? Am I bending? Am I bending now?” And in my mind’s eye I would see my legs lifting mechanically like a prancing Clydesdale as I consciously kept my extremities from coming unhinged altogether, my very bones rotating in their sinuous webbing like the planks of a Jacob’s Ladder.
The pen now slick, I’ve completed the first digit the same way I did it in preschool, with stop-motion care.
Or maybe my adversary, the proprietor, has told me the incorrect date intentionally just to see my will buckle. “Write ‘coriander’ for the date,” he could just as easily say. “Do it now! C. O. R…” And I would do it, and afterward I would hand over my spine in a long, black coffin-shaped box.
As my pen touches down on paper even I don’t know what I’m going to write next. I realize that it all comes down to what’s important to me. Do I want to be right? Or do I want to fit in? It’s a basic question. Should I, through my actions, seek to enlighten, thereby improving the world? Or should I play along, keeping my righteousness a secret and fostering the grand illusion merely to avoid social distemper? And then what about the moral-
I quickly write “1” before I have a chance to ponder the questions any further. The proprietor snatches the form from me and heads into the back office to retrieve my parcel. So I am a marionette–I am a happy marionette. Or at least relieved, now freed from either decision or consequence. Chooose your battles, right?
And it’s a good thing that I didn’t put up a fight, because when I get home I realize that my watch is twelve hours and five minutes off.