i confine myself to shopping at locally-owned stores as much as possible. when my phenomenal local bookseller stopped carrying magazines, i had to give in and go to books-a-million.

i find it an okay store for magazines—they normally have all the british music stuff i can pay for. i found a new video games magazine with a metroid review, the new harper’s with an article by george mcgovern on why one should be a liberal, and the slim little magazine that would prove my undoing:

the devil in the woods.

the devil in the woods.

i’d never heard of the little—kind of ugly—music mag, but it had a cover article on bright eyes and the saddle creek crew and a neat name. that’s worth four bucks, i reckoned, and after reading a few stunningly bad issues of what passes for superman these days, i headed for the checkout.

such an apt title. how was i to know?

there was a short blonde normal girl checking out customers—her nametag blared “MELISSA.” i always talk to checkout people, because i had the job myself when i was younger. i was always a big talker, and—probably to many people’s horror—purchase commentor.

you know, “hey there, wow! buying a lot of blank video cassettes, huh? wonder what YOU’RE up to??” insert strangled laughter and sweaty brow from customer. i’m not sure why i evolved this horrifying behavior, but i did: probably to escape from the deadening hate i felt for my job, my boss, and my co-workers at the big ‘b’ back in alabama. if i was miserable, everyone else was gonna be, too. “six cans of black olives, huh? wow! whatcha gonna do with that?”

no one could beat me. and it was a battle: a small one, but desperate and needed. it was for my soul. if i could best these chattel—why, perhaps i wasn’t so pathetic. maybe i wasn’t confined by that bright blue apron, that dull boxcutter, the assistant manager that called me “kemo sabe.” i was somebody.

so i sympathize with talky clerks, and always banter with them. i let them win, mostly. i give in and smile and chuckle when they make stupid jokes. i feel their pain. and after years of wearing things that make people talk to you—bracelets, leather jackets, band t-shirts, buttons on shirts and shoulder bags—i’m also used to talking about things i like. sort of.

i started out the normal indy-rock stammerer-excuse maker. “what’s the button stand for?” “uh, it’s just a thing from a band.”

it was kind of out-of-whack with how i am normally—an evengelist for whatever book, band, or philosophy i dig. so i changed.

“what’s that button mean?” “oh, well, you see, it’s a song by x-ray spex, this really great british band that really only put out one album, one proper album, and it’s a great song about perceptions and the media. . .”

i like myself better when i do this. and i think i respect myself more, too, than dodging the rather obvious question of what all this junk all over me is. so—melissa was a talker. a big talker.

“you like video games, huh?”
“uh, yeah! yeah i do.”
“ooh! what is this? a music magazine?”
“sure. yeah, it is. i’ve never read it.”
“so you like. . . you like alternative music?”

there’s the word. there it is. i hate that word. i hate hate hate it—with all the beck-hating, nirvana-shame, 120 minutes loathing in my heart. hate it. but. . . i accept it. breathe. zen. you’re grown. breathe. and, of course, overreact.

“yes! yes, i love music. i love . . . alternative music.”

god. i’m like a bad violent femmes remix. but then i should have known what was coming: surely as a slap on the head of german shephard brings biting and tears—she was going to ask The Band Question.

the one where she goes have you ever heard of. . .? or, i know you’ve never heard of this band, but i love . . . or, worse, something about the red hot chili peppers.

the thing is, i know all the bands. all the bands in the world. maybe i really don’t anymore—and i’m stumped more often than not nowadays with some of the smaller labels and anything from great britain—but i know absolutely everything your normal clerk in books-a-million will ask me. even on their best day. yes, i know the yeah yeah yeahs. yes, godspeed you black emperor. of course, interpol. sahara hotnights? before the hives knew them, even.

but worse than those questions are the ones you can’t anticipate—the bands you have no practical way of knowing. the boyfriend’s band that’s never played, except a few years ago, with a different name, and different singer, at that bar in oxford that’s now that place on the square, do you remember?

no. no i don’t. and if it’s a christian band, i don’t know and don’t care, any less than i care what’s going on in star trek fan-fic between deanna and riker. i just don’t care.

that’s what i got: the superobscure. dammit. my achilles’ heel! this melissa must be some sort of talky clerk genius. she found my weak spot—my blank video casettes, my six cans of black olives. the chink in my armor.

“have you ever heard of . . . i have to tell you, they’re awesome. they’re such a cool band. they played here a couple of weeks ago.”
“uh. . .who?”
“this great band named BLIND GUARDIAN. they’re so great. they’re pretty metal, i guess. . . have you ever heard of them?”

oh my god. of course i haven’t. blind guardian? oh my god. i’m starting to. . . yes, i am. i’m hyperventilating. she’s beaten me. i’m already dead—she just doesn’t know it yet.

“uh, no, uh. . .”

and here it comes: if she were rocky, it’d be the roundhouse punch that sent drago tumbling to the mat. if she were patton, it’d be normandy’s bloody success. if she were kevin shields, it was a . . . hell, i don’t know, a yo la tengo remix or something. i guess it doesn’t take much for a kevin shields victory these days. but she was winding up for something, and i could feel it:

“all their songs are DIRECTLY insprired by lord of the rings! isn’t that something? i mean, it really takes a lot of talent to do that! don’t you think? ‘the once and future king’ and all that. . . ”

what?? oh god—i’m gasping—and i can’t feel my legs—lord of the rings, did she day? there are spots all over my . . . what?

the once and future king? that’s not tolkien, is it? i thought that was . . . god, i can’t feel my LEGS . . .

“sir? are you okay? sir?
“i’m . . . i’m fine. . . ”
“you looked a little funny there for a moment. anyway, if you should ever get a chance, check them out! they’re awesome! don’t forget—blind guardian.”
“oh, i won’t . . . i won’t forget. . .”

and i won’t. i really won’t.