Summer 1985, early afternoon — the slow time. Dwayne and I are the only employees in the store. I’m fresh out of high school, he is thirty-five with a bachelor’s in history. Dwayne is tall, soft in the middle, thick glasses and a Mondale haircut — very soft-spoken and Christian in that quiet yet devout way. This is a good time of day to alphabetize the cassette wall and make new labels for the album dividers.
Dwayne outranks me so he has control of the turntable. He’s playing classical, which is within the corporate guidelines for mornings. After noon we’re supposed to be selling with the turntable, casting Mr. Mister, Marillion, ‘Til Tuesday, and Godley and Creme like musical lures for the elusive shopping fish swimming past our door. An old-timer walks in, about Dwayne’s age, but his heavy shoulders and sunken eyes add another fifteen years. He’s maybe 5’8″ but his full body slouch drops him another four inches, easy. He wears his thinning black hair shoulder length and parted down the middle, requisite matching Seventies moustache drooping slightly at the corners. Blue jeans, thick leather belt, tee-shirt. He looks a bit like Frederic Forrest’s character in Valley Girl.
We ignore him for a few minutes, Dwayne busily alphabetizing while I click-clack away on the Dymo gun. Eventually corporate responsibility kicks in. Dwayne cues up Russ Ballard’s “Voices” and I put down my label maker.
“Hey, you finding everything okay?” I ask Frederic.
“It’s A Beautiful Day.” His eyes are so brown they register as black in their deep sockets.
“Yes, sir. Shame to be stuck inside.”
“No, man, It’s A Beautiful Day.”
These are the most uncomfortable moments in retail, these Abbott and Costello routines where I play the helpful but clueless clerk who suddenly can’t understand simple English. I once spent twenty minutes leading a customer around the store in search of the “nattypigginwecka” he so badly wanted. Finally we found it in the comedy section: Redd Fox’s Uncensored. Nasty speaking records.
“It is a beautiful day,” I repeat. The odor of alcohol finally bridges the short gap between us.
“You don’t know what I’m talking about, do you?” He laughs. I give him an embarrassed half head shake. “All you know is this New Wave shit I bet. Why’d you turn off the Vivaldi? I was digging that.”
“You a classical fan? I can show you our classical section.”
“No, man. It’s A Beautiful Day. The band, man. Do you have that?”
“What kind of music is it?”
“Beautiful music. You have a beautiful music section?” I meet his cheap whiskey laugh with a cheap sales laugh. “Hey, you’re all right, man. I’ll turn you on.”
We walk the album bins, past Afrika Bambaataa and John Cafferty, Devo, Echo and the Bunnymen, and Freur; past General Public and The Hooters, let our fingers do the walking through the bin cards in the “I” section. I don’t know It’s A Beautiful Day but I know Maxfield Parrish, and that’s what the album cover reminds me of with its blue sky, puffy clouds, and fresh scrubbed beauty in wind-blown dress. He pulls the album from the bin with reverence and weight, as if he has stumbled upon the Dead Sea Scrolls.
“We listened to this a lot.”
“Yeah, man. We didn’t have too many records anyway but we all liked this one.”
“I grew up kind of poor, too,” I say. He looks confused. “So is this, like, really old-time stuff from the early 1900’s?”
He is laughing at me now. “This was a big hit. How can you work in a record store and not know this album? You even have it in stock.” He hands me the record. “Go put this on.”
“I’m sorry, I can’t.”
“We can’t open records to play them. They only let us play new stuff. Corporate policy.”
He looks even smaller, even older. “I haven’t heard this since I got home,” he says.
“You’ve been on a trip?”
He draws down on me with his brown-black eyes, bloodshot and watery. “Vietnam, man.” He takes the album from me, fixes his stare on the perfect, static moment rendered on its cover. His watery eyes cloud over, give way to heaving sobs. He’s making a scene in the middle of Camelot Music. I am frozen in place. Dwayne cannot pretend anymore that he is alphabetizing the cassette wall.
“Hey, are you okay?” He asks Frederic, his voice quiet and calm.
“I don’t know.”
“Why didn’t I die?”
“God had other plans for you.”
Frederic looks up at him, flourescent lights glittering like halos on the rims of Dwayne’s Coke bottle lenses, gentle smile on his lips. “Were you there?”
Dwayne points to his face. “No. Eyesight.”
“Maybe God had other plans for you, too.”
Dwayne smiles. “Maybe he did.”
“Will you play this record for me?”
“I’m sorry, I can’t do that. I would if I could.”
Frederic is smiling now. “It’s A Beautiful Day, man.”
“Yes it is,” answers Dwayne, and then he turns to me. “Why don’t you two walk down to the food court and get some coffee? We’re pretty slow here. I can handle it.”
When I got home that evening I grabbed my paints and tried to put together a quick portrait of Frederic: His brown-black eyes; his obligatory Seventies moustache; his sadness. Jarod laughed when he saw it. “You’re trying too hard. It’s too cliché.” That was twenty-six years ago. I hope this time I did a little better.