…a lack of awareness of the dangers consequent of each action     

Oscar smiled.

Why was Oscar smiling?

We will have to look back over the last two weeks in order to answer this question.

There is a side to Oscar which doesn’t get looked into very much. He is, in fact, or can be, or might be in the future, or has been known to be, or has been considered to be, of some use to society. Oscar’s activities have, upon occasion, led to either an increased income stream or an appreciation of one equity or another. In short, Oscar has had in the past, does have, and is likely to have in the future, gainful employment.

At this precise moment Oscar is working on the floor of a very large bookstore. He has been working in this position for the last two weeks. His responsibilities include helping customers find books, doing searches and ordering books not in the store, stocking the shelves, keeping whichever area he is assigned to neat and tidy, playing an integral part in the store’s stock management system and being friendly and helpful. Oscar is more than capable of meeting all of these responsibilities, as could be witnessed from this scene on his second day of working at the bookstore:

Irate customer: Where the hell is the travel section?

Oscar: Next floor.

There are numerous examples of Oscar meeting the requirements of this position: he re-stocked the whole of the science fiction section himself, arranged a whole display on authors in translation, stopped a fight between two young girls whose rings got tangled in each other’s hair, found a rare book in the cellar, spotted a potentially damaging leak on the top floor, heard someone calling for help from a broken down elevator and called the engineer, shepherded a wet dog out of the best seller foyer, and secured a shelf which was close to falling on top of an old lady in a wheel chair who was hanging off the shelf in a vain attempt to reach a book which would always be out of her reach.

The point being that Oscar is in no way deficient when it comes to meeting his obligations as a member of a vibrant and growing economy.

There were a few aspects of his job which Oscar didn’t like. He didn’t like having to pretend that the store detective was just another customer. Not that he didn’t like to pretend. Not that he found the whole pretence laughable. Not that he objected to playing a part in such an obvious and laughable attempt at deception on the store detective’s part. Not because he hated the store detective (he did, for no reason he could put his finger on). It was just something he didn’t like to do. But he did it. Though not begrudgingly. He did it because it was part of his job. It was a matter of responsibility. It was his responsibility. People were counting on him. And Oscar didn’t disappoint them. Oscar did what was required.

So, getting back to the opening sentence – “Oscar smiled” – the reason behind this smile is at once simple and complex. Simply – Oscar was smiling the smile of someone who was pleased to be doing his job well. Complexly – Oscar had taken a vow of earnestness, a vow which precluded his habitual ironic relationship with life: his smug grins, his derisive shakes of his head, his cynical raising of his eyebrow, his derisive guffaws, his pointless statements, his apathetic shrugs of his shoulders, his withering looks, his everything about him, his manner, his every breath, his way of standing, walking, turning around, sitting down, collapsing onto a sofa, throwing books on the floor, throwing jam in the bin, mixing salt and pepper and sugar on restaurant tables, his opening of his eyes, his closing of his eyes, his every word, reference to the world, terse evaluation of the world, dismissive comment on the world. Oscar trained himself to smile at a job well done.

Of course, he wasn’t perfect. The one responsibility Oscar struggled in the fulfilment of was his taking part in the shop’s policy of making loitering readers uncomfortable.

Loitering readers were classed as either leaning grazers, shuffling grazers, lounging grazers or erratic grazers. Little could be done about erratic grazers. However, leaning grazers and lounging grazers could be made uncomfortable in any number of ways. Shuffling after a shuffling grazer was the only sure way of dealing with shuffling grazers. Eye-balling shuffling grazers was fraught with difficulty, so…

This policy wasn’t written down anywhere. But it wasn’t an unspoken policy either. It was actively pursued by the shop’s junior management – a group of ten to twelve twenty-something-graduate-literary-faux-intelligentsia-types who exulted in coining such terms as “shuffling grazers”, who exulted in each other’s witty remarks, rejoinders and ripostes, who exulted in lots of things. They exulted. That’s the best way to describe them. And in a vain attempt to be one who exults, Oscar frequently exulted in their company. But he hadn’t got it quite right yet – his exulting. He needed to refine his exulting. His exulting to date was a little flat. Each of Oscar’s exults still had a hollow ring.

Having to stand as close as possible to a stationary loitering reader, either a “leaning grazer” or a “lounging grazer” while you busied yourself noisily with a pile of books was a “textbook” procedure. Dropping books on or near them was more daring, but a “proscribed practice” nonetheless. The flatly stated “Can I help you?” was passé. Walking quickly past them several times was simply too troublesome and demanded too much effort, and “smacked of desperation”.

But in order to have something to exult about, Oscar swore to himself that he would overcome the problem that had recently been plaguing the shop: a glut of “erratic grazers”. These “erratic grazers” would paw one book after another, read the back of the book, read the first page, or some randomly opened page, the most brazen of whom would break the spine of a book, the most unwashed of whom would dirty the pages, pass sticky fingers over the page ends, lick their fingers, pick their noses and then turn to page seven. There was a rush of these “erratic grazers” each lunch hour during the week.

Today, Oscar was left in charge of the floor. The weight of responsibility on his shoulders wasn’t onerous – it was liberating. Oscar felt he was only moments away from legitimate exultation. He eyed a flock of erratic grazers pawing books in the best-seller foyer. He eyed them as one who takes matters very seriously indeed. This matter in particular. He readied himself for the assault. He breathed in once very deeply, and as he exhaled he was off, he was away, he was darting about the best sellers foyer in as erratic a manner as possible, expostulating, barking, kicking shelves, brushing past momentarily paused erratic grazers, bustling, coughing, clearing his throat and as a final attack, throwing himself down on the ground and acting out a very convincing epileptic fit.

He bowed to his collected audience of twenty-something-graduate-literary-bearded-intelligentsia-thinking-fashionable-literary-graduate-bearded-types, who found themselves incapable of exulting in anything with him.

But Oscar exulted nonetheless – sincere exultation.


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