Kelly Murphy Mason,

Two Days Till Christmas:
       Why do I invariably expect the worst? There was unprecedented good cheer in the shop today, nothing like the crushing desperation I’d anticipated enduring. Or maybe it was there, and we were all too punch-drunk on adrenalin to notice. During a brief lull at lit info, I drilled J. on the Russian texts he’d put on temporary display. He was a translator when the former Soviet Union was still the Soviet Union. Now he stocks untranslated lit, lit crit, and poetry. (He and C. are wild about language poets.) “What this?” I asked, in a toddler’s rapid-fire staccato. “What’s this?” I asked, flashing another title in Cyrillic.
       “Iambs,” he said.
       “That’s it? The title in its entirety?” On closer inspection, the word does resemble “Iambs.” Inside are small poems with small lines. “Are they any good?”
       “You haven’t read iambic poems till you’ve read these.”
       “So how’s it selling?” I joke.
       “We think it’ll move with a discount.”
       I looked at the sticker and laughed. The chapbook costs $2.50 already.
       Earlier, one of the managers challenged me to sell Philip Roth’s American Pastoral “by hand,” to a customer, cold. Like everyone else at the main desk, I declined. We’ve sold about a dozen to date, and his stack hasn’t dropped in a week. Regardless of how many awards he wins, Roth’s still laughing stock to us. No print meritocracy exists. After a person’s sold Don’t Sweat the Small Stuff … And It’s All Small Stuff in armfuls, she can testify to that.
       In my graduate program, I was told not to complain until I’d had my 10 years in hell. I’ve felt reluctantly bound by that, and I keep wondering whether this will be Year 2 or 4. I have to believe the couple of years in school count. What I tried to teach my own students was that human beings love things that offer them no percentage. I mostly failed. For a variety of reasons, I question whether I’m fit to preach the gospel anymore.
       My biggest fear this season has been that one of my students will find me in the store. They would worry for me, as I worry for them. They want to know where I will teach next. Because I don’t know, I cannot bear their concern. I can’t bear anyone’s, these days.
       One of my editors asked me if I’d stolen any books yet. He’s a funny, funny man, though I don’t think he understands why. “No,” I said, half-miffed. “I don’t steal.”
       “You will,” he promised. He leaned near for emphasis. “Look: You should.”
       Lately, I’ve been polling some friends as to exactly how I should sell out. “But it has to be big,” I insist. “It has to be worth my while.” On public radio this morning, I heard another report on the booming economy. Most Americans think their quality of life has never been better. This perplexes me. Few of my peers juggle jobs. They’re at the age where they have careers or spouses or houses. When they talk about their lives, I hear a ringing in my ears. I’ve noticed myself spending less time in front of mirrors. I can’t stand the look of my brave face.
       Today I searched and searched for the Encyclopedia of Letters. A call-in customer said it was the last gift on her list. I put her on hold more times than I could count. She was exceedingly patient. I guessed after a while that it couldn’t be had, but refused to give up the ghost. I just wanted her to have everything wrapped up, everything squared away.