After a week or so, I was able to rip them off without wincing. Somehow it had become my weekly task, that summer after I graduated college, to destroy books so that the tobacco-slash-magazine shop I worked in could get credit for not selling the unwanted volumes.
They weren’t ancient classics like The Aeneid or Oedipus Rex; they weren’t even modern classics like The Moviegoer or Wuthering Heights. But it still hurt to rip the faces from the books of mystery and adventure and forbidden love. And the dragons. My weakness, and my consistent reward for my dirty, destructive work each week, was a coverless copy of any book I chose, and I always chose the fantastical world of Anne McCaffrey’s Pern.
In that in-between summer, before I had a plan, before I had a future, I escaped to a world I had first known many years before. It felt familiar and safe and young and carefree. So, while others chose gossip magazines (the porn was off-limits) or bodice-ripping novels to gobble during that summer, I worked my way through Moreta’s adventures in time travel and the cultural hierarchy of Dragonriders and Harpers and Lord Holders. After four years of sanctified canons, my mind mellowed and roamed with the pleasure of easy reading.
Relaxed as I was, I finally noticed the people around me. As a college student, I had never really lived in this town; I had lived near it, around it. Now, selling sweet-smelling tobacco from wooden barrels, I met pipe-smokers and blunt-rollers who shared spots for swimming and hiking that the locals kept for themselves. I watched middle-aged women play fifty dollars worth of scratch cards, rejoicing in the five dollars they won back. I cocked an eyebrow and half-smiled as I slid magazines named Rear View, Barely Legal, and Hustler into plain paper bags for the same customers, week after week.
With my friends off starting internships and taking European vacations before Life dragged them down, I made coffee dates at the State Street Diner with the people from the shop. And I babysat the kids of the Scratch Card Ladies while they took off for a night of friends and beer at The Chanticleer. I even worked a food booth for one of the Hustler regulars to make some extra cash. They were all such interesting people, and they seemed to like me, too. “You’re not what I expected from South Hill,” one of the middle-aged mothers told me. She lived close to The Dugout, and she was used to college students puking on her steps every Tuesday night. Dimies (ten tiny cups of beer for a dollar!) was the most popular night of the week back then.
By the time mid-August arrived, I had gotten the call from residence life at the SUNY nearby that made graduate school affordable, and my immediate plans were set. When I quit my job at the tobacco-slash-magazine shop, the casual good-byes hurt no less than ripping off those first few book covers.