Nestled between two identical brownstone buildings was a small, unassuming bookshop. Oz Books had been founded and was owned by an elderly couple, James and Mary Oz, who had made a small fortune in the real estate business some twenty years prior. Having found this building towards the end of their long and illustrious career, they had decided to settle down and spend their twilight years spending their time surrounded by books in a little corner of the city nobody visited very much. They were, on the whole, nice people, if a bit old-fashioned. Neither of them had much experience selling books, and selling books hadn’t really been their passion, but owning books without sharing them was something for other people.
As they got on in years, it had become necessary to take on extra help. Not a lot of people were particularly interested in working in the small shop, out of the way as it was. However, as they also offered the small apartment above the store at low rent, they had quickly found a candidate. After a year, James and Mary Oz spent very little time still in the bookstore, letting their only tenant and employee run the place mostly on his own, eccentric as he was.
And to a couple as traditional as the Ozzes, Max was indeed very strange. Max was not even the name on the lease, but he insisted on the use of the nickname. He was also largely a recluse, spending a lot of time, if not hidden in the bookshop, then hidden in his apartment, which was sparse, almost spartan, in its decoration. Max, James Oz had long ago concluded, was a troubled person, but a person whose troubles were not his to fix. Mary had initially come to a similar conclusion, but had insisted on fixing Max tea and the occasional baked good as a thank-you for running the store. Max had always thanked her profusely, but she had given up on trying to cheer up the quiet young man after one too many failed attempts.
So Max worked the store, ordering books where needed, sending old ones back to publishing houses and restocking the shelves, most days content to simply sit behind the front desk and read all kinds of books about monsters, dragons, princesses and knights. Occasionally, a customer would come in, and Max would do what he could to make sure they left satisfied, although lately his ability to muster up the enthusiasm to sell much of anything had been lacking, especially when confronted with particularly difficult people.
“I’m telling you,” the woman with the bob cut said. “It had a red cover!” She wasn’t yelling. Not exactly, and Max was sure that the only reason this was the case was because of the sanctity of books. Max had always found libraries and bookstores to be delightfully quiet, and taking refuge in them had helped him through a lot of his formative years. Most people subconsciously respected the innate sense of ancient wisdom that emanated from words older than them, and found themselves quiet in the face of them. Working in the bookstore had given Max the ability to hide behind those words when needed -- and wield them like a scalpel (or a hammer) if the situation arose.
“Ma’am,” Max said with the kind of smile that infuriated middle-aged women, “There are exactly six-hundred and forty-three books in this store that have a red cover. You’ll have to be more specific.”
“It was about a guy, with like… it was really good,” the woman said. “My cousin Casey recommended it to me!” she added, as if that was pertinent information. Max swallowed a glib comment. The woman was, he reasoned, just here looking for a book. She wasn’t here to be mouthed off against, or made fun of, and this scenario was going to be frustrating for him anyway. There was no reason, he felt, to make this woman’s life any more difficult than it probably already was. She had a Live Laugh Love tattoo; he’d seen it peek out of her shirt sleeve. Clearly, she was going through some things.
“Is it a new release, maybe?” he tried, hopeful. The woman’s eyes glazed over as if he’d asked her for the square root of pi, and he feared she was broken when she didn’t respond for a second. Suddenly she took out her phone, looked at it for a moment, and then put it away again. Then retrieved it. And put it away again. Max forced the smile on his face to remain exactly as fixed as it was, clasping his hands together calmly and trying to resist the urge to turn around and scream into the cushion of his desk chair.
Finally, the woman seemed to come to a conclusion. “Yes,” she said, and that was the whole of it. Max managed to keep his eye from twitching and took a deep breath. He actually had some idea of what the book might be. He didn’t know Cousin Casey, but he figured he knew the kind of woman the person in front of him was, and he wasn’t sure why the book had been recommended. With a polite gesture, he motioned to a table that had several new releases on it. He was acutely aware of himself as the woman eyed him up and down. She was easily ten, twenty years older than him and he didn’t enjoy being looked at to begin with, and the woman’s look of scorn made him powerfully uncomfortable.
He picked up the book in question, a dramatic novel by a popular serial novelist with a beautiful wine-red cover, and offered it to the woman. She took it out of his hands without looking at it, and Max briefly considered taking it out of her hands and putting it away again if she wasn’t going to show the pages their due deference, but stopped that line of thinking quickly, reminding himself that he had no idea what kind of day she’d had.
“What’s it about?” she asked him, her lips a thin line that was slightly paler than the skin around it, their outline an uncomfortably dark hue.
“There’s a synopsis on the back, bu--” Max began, ready to explain to her the plot quickly and concisely. Not everyone had the time to read before purchasing, after all.
“I don’t read,” she said. “I want to hear from you what it’s about.” Max opened and closed his mouth several times over, absolutely baffled at this woman who didn’t read in a bookstore. He tried not to look at her the way he wanted to.
“Well, it’s a kind of controversial new book of hers that deals with a lot of heavy themes. At its core, it centers queerness in the black community, and blackness in the queer community. It’s all told in her usual style of prose, but she’s stated outright that the protagonist is a stand-in for her own experiences with transitioning. By coming out about her experiences like this, she’s gotten a lot of flak, and I think she’s incredibly brave to--”
Again, the woman interrupted. “Oh. It’s about gays?” Max gritted his teeth. Internally, there was a titanic struggle between his innate desire to be a good person and salesperson, and his now much more present desire to maybe do some more of that screaming he didn’t get to do earlier.
“Y-es, although, like I said, it’s more about her exploration of gender and--” Max had to bite his tongue when the woman found it again necessary to interrupt him.
“Whatever, why do you care so much, anyway?” she said, looking up at him down her nose. “Are you one of them?”
“Excuse me?” Max managed, narrowly avoiding stuttering or keeping his eyeballs from popping out of his head.
“A gay. Or a transgender.” Max felt the knot in his stomach tightening. He’d been asked that a few times before in his life, usually after he’d gone on a tirade about queer rights. He’d always responded with indignance. He was offended at the implication that only people who were part of a disparaged community could stand up for it. He wasn’t gay, though he’d often felt somewhat connected to the queer community’s expressions of isolation and otherness. He had always felt powerless in his own life, like something was deeply wrong. When he was younger, he had framed this as exceptionalism. He had only ever so narrowly avoided wearing a fedora. He’d failed to not wear fingerless gloves, however. All photographic evidence of those painfully embarrassing six months had been systematically hunted down and destroyed.
“I’m not,” Max said through clenched teeth. “I still care about people’s rights, however. The queer community is one of the most discriminated against, especially trans black wo--”
“Yeah, yeah. Save it for your boyfriend,” the woman said. “How much for the book?” Max looked her in the eye, and she returned his gaze with a look of defiance that invited him to say something back. She looked like she was entirely ready to make a scene. Max took another deep breath.
“One moment, ma’am,” he said, and went over to his desk. The woman waited diligently, clearly expecting him to look up the price. Instead, he picked up the labeler and walked back to her, setting the numbers as he did. He took the book out of her hand, and labeled. “It’s thirty-nine ninety-nine, ma’am.”
“What?!” she raised her voice properly, now. “Not even new books cost that much. You’re ripping me off!”
“You’re right, ma’am, my mistake.” He turned the dial on the labeler. “Forty-nine ninety-nine,” he said, the smile on his face now frozen in a mask of malicious compliance and customer service.
“Fifty-nine ninety-nine,” he said.
The woman clamped her mouth shut. Max stood absolutely still, frozen in place. He was fully ready to be yelled at, and the knot in his stomach tightened. He was glad to have the labeling machine in his hands to keep them from visibly shaking. But his smile remained rock solid. With a huff, the woman put the book down and stormed out of the store, muttering obscenities just loud enough to be heard, interspersed with slurs and the kind of hate speech Max had heard his queer friends mention. When she was gone, he walked back over to the desk and deflated in the office chair. His entire body was shaking, and he didn’t really know why. This happened every time someone disparaged queer people around him, but he’d always felt like he had to say something. His entire body tingled and he was acutely aware of its discomfort. His clothes fit him better than his face did, sometimes.
He fished the over-the-counter anxiety medication out of his bag, a shoulder bag his friends had gotten him. He’d been uncertain about wearing it at first, but it was useful, and its weight was often a comfort. His mother, back when they still spoke, had compared it to bags worn by the likes of Indiana Jones, that it made him look cool, that it didn’t detract from his masculinity. That had made him uncomfortable as well, the idea that his masculinity was so fragile that it needed protecting. Swallowing two of the pills, he hoped for dear life that his scalp would stop itching. Throwing the customer out like that had been satisfying, to a certain extent, but he couldn’t help but wonder if the anxiety that came with it was worth it.
It had been the slightest expression of power in a world where he felt he had almost none, and that expression had come with fear, anxiety and the knowledge that it was entirely possible it would come to bite him in the ass. But not doing or saying something would have made him feel just as bad, in the long run. Sure, he wasn’t nearly as ostracised as queer people, his life didn’t compare to theirs and would never be as hard, but he wanted to be the kind of ally he would want if he had been queer.
He picked up his book and, with shaky hands, tried to force himself to go back to reading. It was hard, but after a while, he could focus on the book again, losing himself in the fantasy, a story about clever witches outsmarting vampires, and he briefly enjoyed the mental image of imagining himself as one of them, throwing out his customer like the bloodsucker she was, and he smiled at the ridiculous idea of him wearing the tall pointy hat. Then the fantasy took another step forward and he forced it back aggressively before it made him uncomfortable, going back to reading.
He had things to do, administrative and practical work, but right now all he wanted to do was decompress, calm himself down, relax for just a moment. Which is why, when his phone rang, he let out an almost inaudible little scream and briefly considered how many times his phone would bounce if he threw it full force at the nearest wall.