Chapter 76 of The Empty City

By Andrew Looney

Jim went over to the shopping center. It being the first week in January, the mall was now a quiet, sleepy place. The frantic weeks of sales leading up to Christmas were over, and the casual days of cleanup and recovery had mostly passed.

Very few people were out shopping this evening, but even so, Jim was hanging around in hopes of meeting someone. It was a new scheme of his.

Jim had been without a love life for the past four months and was rather sick of it. His various attempts at meeting someone he found attractive and interesting and who found him attractive and interesting had all been failures.

He had tried going to bars, the classic way for people to meet, but had hated it. He wasn't much of a drinker, and the atmosphere was always wrong. Too strained, too sleazy. He always felt awkward and uncomfortable, and could never bring himself to hang around for very long. Further, he never felt that he'd meet anyone worth bothering with at a pickup joint. He wanted to meet someone sincere and intelligent, and who, most of all, wanted a long term relationship, and not just a one night stand. It was of course possible that the woman of his dreams was in fact at such a place, hating it every bit as much as Jim, and Jim realized this... but he couldn't bring himself to wait around and see.

He'd tried playing the personals game, but that had been a disaster so far. Nevertheless, he continued researching the ads every week.

He had looked up every old friend and acquaintance he had, but found no one who wasn't either uninterested, uninteresting to him, or unavailable.

He'd asked his various friends to help him out, to introduce him to anyone they knew who they thought he might like and have a chance with, but nothing had come of it.

Then one night, after a conversation with his housemate Pauline, he'd devised a new plan.

The conversation in question had occurred late one night in the kitchen of the Asylum. Earlier that evening, Jim had tried visiting a couple of bars but had ending up just aimlessly wandering the streets. Finally, around midnight, he'd gone home, where he'd found Pauline sitting on the floor in front of the stove.

"What are you doing?" asked Jim.

Pauline yawned. "Well, the stove's kind of screwy, you know. I think its thermostat is shot. Sometimes it gets way too hot." She got up on her knees, cracked the oven door open, and peered in. "I'm baking some chocolate chip cookies. If you just let them cook for the normal time, they burn. You've gotta keep an eye on them, and get them out of there as soon as they're ready."

Jim sat down at the kitchen table, ready to mooch cookies when they were done. He sighed heavily.

Pauline looked at him with a motherly sort of expression. "How you doing, Jim? You look depressed."

"Well, it's just, you know how it is. My love life needs some help, that's all."

Pauline nodded sadly. She took another peek at her cookies, and concluded they were done. As she scraped cookies off of the sheet with a big spatula, Jim poured two tall glasses of fresh, cold milk.

They sat at the table to enjoy the classic treat, cookies and milk. Pauline said, "Well, Jim, let me give you some advice. The key to meeting someone is to look like you aren't looking. Even if you're single and on the prowl, you will often get scared off if you meet someone who looks really desperate. Of course, this isn't easy. If you are looking, it's hard to act like you aren't looking and make any progress at looking. It's a hard line to walk. You have to seem available without looking desperate."

"Any suggestions on how?" asked Jim, somewhat cynically.

"Well, I've found that the best way of meeting guys is to bump into them in public places. I don't actually mean physically bumping into them, I mean seeing someone and finding a way of striking up a conversation.

"So, for example, if you're in the grocery store and you see a nice looking girl, find an excuse for doing shopping right near where she's doing shopping. Then, strike up a conversation. The grocery store is loaded with conversation starters. Say 'Excuse me, but do you know if these chicken pot pies are any good?' or 'Oh, don't buy Minute Maid orange juice, the Tropicana is much better.' Then, arrange things so that you get into line right behind her. Keep the conversation going. Maybe you can even help her carry her groceries. Follow through with a casual inquiry as to her name, and then ask for her phone number.

"It's a good way of meeting people because it's not as stilted as, like, going to a singles bar. It makes it seem like it's Fate, or something. The grocery store is particularly good because you can learn a lot about your target by casual examination of the food she's buying. Just remember to check out her hand. If you see a wedding ring, it's time to move on."

Jim felt as though he was being told the secret of life from a guru in the Himalayas. He nodded gravely as he listened to the sage's words of advice and consumed the sage's chocolate chip cookies.

After she'd finished, Pauline got up, put the remaining cookies into a chipped pottery cookie jar, and piled the dishes up in the sink. As she did this, neither she nor Jim said anything, each keeping their thoughts private. Finally, Pauline picked up the cookie jar and wandered off. "Well," she said as she walked down the hallway, "I hope that helps. Goodnight."

"Goodnight," said Jim. He had stayed at the table for a long time, slowly drinking the rest of his milk and thinking about the things Pauline had said.

Over the days that followed, Jim had done a great deal of grocery shopping. Even so, he had failed to make any contacts. He then decided to broaden his scope, and had gone to the bigger marketplace of the shopping center.

This evening, the mall was quiet. Jim wished he'd had Pauline's wisdom a month ago, when the stores were crowded. Jim wandered through the record store, but saw only a rather hideous punk rocker. He went through several clothing stores, but the only women he saw there were far too fashion conscious for his taste. He saw only men in the stereo and appliances store, and the only person in the candy store was a pleasant little gray-haired lady who reminded Jim of his grandmother. There, he bought some fudge.

And finally, he came to the bookstore.

Standing at one of the fiction racks in the bookstore was an attractive young woman. She had round wire-rimmed glasses, large dangly earrings, and a small mole on the left side of her nose. Her hair seemed long but was wound up in a tight braid which was bobbypinned to her skull in a bun. She was wearing a full, gray woolen skirt and a white sweater over a tie-dyed shirt. Though her clothes were rather shapeless, she seemed to have a slim, shapely body. She stood there, reading a book.

Jim strolled as casually as he could up and down the aisles on either side of the one in which the woman stood reading. He was excited. She was attractive and intelligent! He braced himself to wander near her, but then lost his nerve and went back to the magazine racks.

He stood there, staring at magazines he didn't care at all about. He was keenly aware of the present. He felt that he had one chance, that if he didn't make some kind of move, she'd disappear and he'd never see her again.

He wandered around the aisles again, and this time managed to walk down the one in which she stood. She was blocking the way, and as he approached, she rotated to give him room to pass. He hesitated, and then spoke, trying not to sound too nervous.

"What are you reading?" he said.

She looked up at him and laughed, and waved her hand to dismiss his question. "You've never heard of him," she said.

"Oh, come on, try me," said Jim.

She closed the book and held it up for him to see. It was a collection of short stories by Donald Barthelme called Sixty Stories.

Jim was very surprised. "Barthelme!" he said. "I love his stuff!" This was true. Barthelme was a writer of abstract fiction whom Jim greatly admired. His nervousness washed away.

The woman looked at him skeptically. "Really?" she asked. "I thought he was fairly obscure."

"Maybe he is," said Jim, "But I really admire his work. The first thing I ever read by him was 'Porcupines at the University,' and it really blew my mind. You see, I'm a writer myself, and when I discovered his stuff, it opened up a whole new world for me."

Now the woman was interested. "Really?" she asked. "Have you gotten much published?"

Jim looked sheepish. "Well, no, not really. One story I did was printed in a little magazine called The Midnight Xerox. But I haven't tried very hard to get my stuff published. I'm still, you know, learning my craft."

"Hmm," said the woman.

In the brief lull that followed, Jim remembered Pauline's advice and snuck a peek at her hands. No rings at all. Good! But then the silence expanded and became awkward, and Jim feared the encounter might flop. He suddenly spoke up, sounding a bit too panicky, "Would you like to read some of my stuff?"

This sudden outburst startled her, and she stepped back. "Um, sure! Have you got it with you?"

Jim was becoming flustered. "No, no, I don't have it with me, no. But I could mail you something."

The woman smiled and tilted her head. "Sure, OK." She set the Barthelme book down on the shelf and started digging around in her purse. She came up with a scrap of paper and a pen. "I just love having strange men mail me things," she said, as she wrote her name and address on the scrap of paper. Then, "Here you go!" as she handed it to him.

Jim took it, and started backing away from her. "OK, thanks, um," his voice trailed off as he looked at the paper, "Thanks, Lisa! I'll put a story in the mail for you tonight."

Lisa chuckled and shook her head as she picked up the book. She looked at it for a moment, and then strode with it over to the cashier to buy it.

Jim skipped away through the empty shopping center, clutching the slip of paper as it if were the winning ticket in a million dollar lottery.

When he got home, he dug through his files, trying to decide what to send her. At last he settled on "The Empty City." He wrote a brief note, and attached it to the story. The note said, simply, "Hope you find this interesting." He signed it, and underneath his signature he wrote his phone number. Then he put the whole works into an envelope and took it to the mailbox. He was a happy man.

Copyright © 1991 by Andrew Looney.

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