Saturday, March 31, 2012

Nadastra Snivaras

     The stark white tin of the roof of the van replaced the black inkling stars of the early morning sky, as Nadastra Snivaras woke at the ungodly hour of 3 AM. First things first, he thought, rolling up his sleeping bag and heading inside to his little shop, and lighting 
a stick of incense, he placed it at the altar and began his puja.

     It had been some sixteen years since he had slept with his wife, who still mended his clothing, and now did her own share of work in the shop with him. It was cheaper than hiring more workers, who only had to have things explained to them. Some were fast learners, but if they showed any signs at all of not being attentive- if, for example, they were intellectually trying to solve something other than the matter at hand, he would impatiently drive them forward with immediacy and determination.

     Maybe he hadn’t always been this way, since his conversion thirty some years before, when a traveling swami lecturer came through his town, and was rounding up disciples. “My guru,” sighed Nadastra, with an exhalation following, “Om, Shiva.” His guru was half a world away, now milking a cow in the ashram, then distributing the pot of milk to the many village children who called him Bapu.

     Nadastra blew on the incense, waved it before his guru’s portrait, supplicated himself to the statue of Shiva, and placed fresh flowers in the vase beside it. Once upon a time, his name had been Timothy, but that was before he became enlightened. Once upon a time he had been in the service, but that was a lifetime away now also. He couldn’t hack it, they had all called him a sad sack then, but he was going to show them, the stupid morons. He’d gone into university soon after his dishonorable discharge and got himself teaching credentials as an astronomy and mathematics professor. He knew what was what.

     What he knew now was all so different. He would need to consult his Vedic astrologer for a little more information about the current aspects. The business was going to be in hot water soon. Soon he’d need to lay off more of his worthless staff, if they couldn’t come up with more sales. It was all their fault. Inventory never seemed to get displayed properly, our advertising isn’t good enough, our customers are demanding payment, rather than the deferred credit options that he preferred. After all, it was easier to pay people in play money for what he couldn’t afford to spend on anyone other than his wife and daughters, and having a son in law on his way from overseas now, he needed every dime he could get, in order to cobble a good story up for the Immigration and Naturalization Service.

     As for the inventory, half of that was crap, anyway, he thought. I have to keep items here because I never know when that one person who believes that item was made just for them is going to walk in. He hated the new wave of atheistic, tattooed yuppies who made up two thirds of the customer base now. But he always wanted them to be mollified, and maybe it was his karmic lesson, to learn to need to satisfy those people he would have despised, in any other situation.

     His wife showed up at close to 9:30 and began her usual daily routine, working in the back room. Her job consisted of toiling diligently all day with a can of lighter fluid and a razor blade, scraping hour by hour to clean price stickers from past sales off the various comics and magazines the store bought to resell. Other items that needed cleaning were also sent past her. Dolls, jack-in-the-boxes, puzzles, games, stuffed animals. Snivaras couldn’t give a damn if she sucked up carcinogens all day long, and she seemed not to mind much either. He’d much rather be exposing a member of his own family to this than some actual employee, who someday might instigate a lawsuit, should they become cancerous even indirectly. Scraping by by scraping. It wasn’t all so bad.

     For Nadastra, there was absolutely nothing but the business that mattered. He could never openly show his contempt for those he employed, that would have been bad policy. Instead, he hid it all behind a cover of “striving for harmony. Our business is not to make money but to spread harmony” he’d say. Of course, the fact he paid little money out of hand for health insurance- even managed to hold off offering any, until absolutely required to under new federal regulations, didn’t bother him, nor did the idea of even entertaining retirement accounts for his employees ever mean a thing, either. The only people who’d be able to earn anything off his enterprise in retirement were he and his partner, and the two of them together believed employee austerity was a far better business model than employee profit sharing. There would be none of that in his little kingdom!

     So his day was beginning easily enough, until Craith showed up. Craith was the office gofer, the chief cook and bottle washer, the man without whose expertise in used comic books Snivaras would have been totally at sea. He had been there the longest of all the other employees, and he had worked hard for Snivaras. In fact, there were many, many things about the daily operation of the store he was on top of before Snivaras ever had a clue- that was how good he was.

     On plenty of occasions, Craith had saved Snivaras’ ass, of course, and even those occasions went right past Snivaras. The time the fire marshals had breezed through, looked the joint over, and written up a thirty-three point citation. Craith had handled that directly, and had set a couple of the other workers to busy correcting the problems before Snivaras even knew the Fire Department had been by. It had been three weeks before he received a letter, informing him that the store was not in compliance.

     “Ask them to come by again,” said Craith. When the Inspectors came through again,on the very afternoon, this time they were quite pleased. No longer were the stacks and shelves topped off with another row of books, reaching to just inches of the ceiling. No longer was the asbestos fiberglass in the attic of the store drooping from the roof and contributing to the general fire hazard. Of course, a store dealing in comic books, old phonograph records, and magazines, would be bound to be a tinderbox for any suspected arsonist. But those matters had been handled under Craith’s diligent eye, and for now, at least, Snivaras knew he could depend on another great write-up from the Chamber of Commerce.

     Craith never liked interrupting Snivaras. Sometimes it was indeed necessary, as when the delivery truck, which took many of the newly bought comics and records off to the online center where his partner worked, didn’t show up on schedule. The truck not being there might mean a huge backlog of transport cartons and banker’s boxes would pile up in the rear entry hall – another situation the Fire Marshall would be unhappy about. The backlog could sometimes take a week to clear out, in that case, since the store continued, daily, to buy more and more material. Some of it would go immediately out to the shelves, some of it would immediately be sorted for the online, and a lot of it ended up in the back room, where Mrs. Snivaras scraped and scraped.

     At precisely ten o’clock, the next of the dedicated crew turned up- two elderly ladies, who had supported the store from its inception, and Pandanus, another one of the more experienced hands. Pandanus had spent a great deal of his younger life working as a musician, although for now, he found the comic store all-consuming. It was also gaining him friends, and that was another benefit. Besides being able to borrow and read any new comics, or listen to any new (used) records, the store afforded him a social life he could neither beg, borrow, or steal on his own efforts. Pandanus was something of a humble geek, in other words. He didn’t possess the self-assurance of Craith, nor the ability necessarily to hide out his own flubs from Snivaras. Snivaras’s eagle eye, of course, could spot a miscue from around a corner and behind a blind wall. It had to be that way, of course.
     The two of them, Pandanus and Craith, spent a great deal of time chatting each day with the two elderly ladies (Joann and Pisces). Pisces had spent her childhood in Argentina and loved the memory of the wild, free flat pampas, flinging a bolo at escaping grouse, hotting and hollering like a true gaucho. Joann came from the Rocky Mountains, where her own childhood had been spent shooting rattlesnakes and mountain lions. She was nobody's fool, either. They had both, however, become a part of the religious order to which Snivaras belonged, and through it, had become his employees. So they served with impressive loyalty and were probably the most well-remembered point of contact for the store’s many regulars.

     The regulars were a cast of characters deserving a story all their own. But to serve this one, we’ll only mention two or three, the most problematic, perhaps, from the point of view of the clerks and owner, but also the ones who had contributed primarily to the welfare of same as well, due to their addiction to the comic trade.

     Perhaps one of the most vexing was their friend Tracy. Tracy was paraplegic, and so, was precluded from actually visiting the comic book store personally. So he would call, four times a day at times, to ask if they had the most recent Batman the Twilight Avenger, or X-Men, or just whatever it happened to be that he had been reading about online. Almost every phone call he made to the store, Tracy would mention how he was reading a blog that mentioned (said comic) and so he was interested if the store had it yet. Pandanus would roll his eyes – usually, no one had let go of the recent releases- rarely anyone ever did until they were at least six months old. So Pandanus was often the one the other clerks would turn to if Tracy was calling. Generally if anyone knew that something was in or not, it might be Pandanus.

     Craith had his own problems at the moment- one of them was, are we going to be paid on time again, or not? More often than not, no, the paychecks would be delayed again, for up to two weeks. Craith wondered how Nadastra expected anyone to survive, on a regimen that paid out only once per month, demanded that each employee budget on to the very last penny three weeks ahead (if not two entire months) and did not cash out advances, either. It was as though they were all little chicks chasing after the big mother hen who might dash them a grain of corn, if they were lucky, but otherwise forced each of them to peck willy-nilly for whatever crumbs they could fathom on the edge of the pen.

     Craith slammed the door after the last discussion with the book keeper. No, of course not, there was not enough money in the tiller to pay everyone on time. Now, each clerk would need to wait until a pre-specified day to cash a check that wasn't worth the paper it was written on- until that day. Uniformity was apparently another essential business function that had been relegated to the medieval business model Nadastra and his partner had made their own.

     Some of them were lucky actually, to have a cult to belong to, which coincidentally allowed them the luxury of being assured a roof over their heads. For at least two others, the surety of a loving wife, and her substantive income, was all that held them apart from the various homeless who would sometimes camp out on the benches outside the store.

     So it was just such a day. Craith was pissed off. There was not going to be a payday for him for the next eleven days- and this was the seventh straight month in a row that Nadastra was not paying out on schedule. “It’s all late again!” he muttered to Pandanus. Pandanus would just shrug and say, “Oh well…”

     Of course, if one asked Nadastra exactly why pay was late, it would generally be some lame excuse such as, well, we didn’t have it budgeted exactly (thank you, Mrs. Bookkeeper!) or ‘your section isn’t performing up to standard. I want to see you step it up and improve the display” or something guaranteed to switch the blame to the employee, and get it off his own back.

     Of course now, Nadastra was a pillar of his community. The religious cult he and the elderly women belonged to asked him each year to lead their biggest festival, the Diwali. But there was going to be a wrinkle in it all this year. Since the bookkeeper had not budgeted for the store’s IRS bill this year, Nadastra and his partner both were going to be forced to work overtime for several months, put most of the stock out on discount tables, and nobody was going to be getting any raises this year, either, by the way. Worst of all, he wouldn’t be able to lead the congregation in the Diwali bhajans. Horrors!

     “It’s been a long time since I was even able to feel grateful I had a job at all,” Craith completed the idea. To that, Pandanus returned another shrug.

     Now, it never really occurred to Nadastra what-all fiscal responsibility to his employees might mean. As mentioned before, employees were a necessary evil, hired only when the staff just couldn’t take another camel-straw, and as easily let go as the ones who really could not stick it out under the harsh once-a-month pay schedule broke on the rocks of their self-dignity.

     That was why it was up to Pandanus to mop the floors and scrub out the toilets every day before customers arrived, and to vacuum the rugs across the entire square footage. This had to be done each day, of course, lest customers get the idea that nobody cared about appearances. The fact the rugs were at least as old as the store itself didn’t seem to make a difference either, so long as they were clean. So often, Pandanus might spend fifteen minutes to clear a long string of rug from between the vacuum’s rollers. Adding to the frustration might be the fact that sometimes the vacuum would have had a similar problem when the night janitor used it, and they’d set the drive belt back in, backwards. Such were the petty problems. Nadastra liked to apply himself to the bigger questions.

     And so, the petty questions, the smaller things that were the glue that held his store together, were mainly handled by Cratih, Pandanus, his wife, and their younger daughter. Craith sometimes wondered what made a cool chick like that stick around. Apparently there was some family loyalty that went beyond growing up a second-generation converted Hindu vegetarian. But that was a question he just couldn’t answer. It all seemed at times to be too much to bother with. He tried to focus on the things about the work he actually enjoyed- such as, the opportunity to see books others wouldn’t, first crack at a good read, and the ability to borrow any work he wanted to. And sometimes, the odd incoming item that would prove interest above and beyond the call of shelf life.

     Such an item turned up one afternoon while Nadastra was off visiting his partner at the online office. It was a… very special comic book. The cover, for one thing, showed the very back counter where Craith and Pandanus were sorting the new used items. And there was Nadastra, sitting behind his computer as was his usual way on a weekday afternoon.
     There behind the counter, engaged in a conversation- were Pandanus and Craith, drawn very meticulously accurate, and Craith looked up at the seller and smiled.

     “How many of these in production?”

     “I believe we ran a thousand to begin with. We’ve sold a lot, actually.” Craith also recognized the face before him at the counter. It was Daniel Harmoneras, a well-known comic artist and a local character. He didn’t question why Harmoneras might have been in line on this particular day, as he skimmed the pages, he noticed… things about the comic that made it… rather more interesting, the further he went.

     Meanwhile, Harmoneras stood waiting for his ticket to be written up. Tales From A Crypt was but one of a stack of sixty comics he had brought in- all of them still pristinely packaged in slipcovers, most all of the in mint condition. Harmoneras had brought in, it seemed, his entire 1960’s-70’s underground collection-rarities such as Air Pirates Funnies, Dirty Duck, Dan O’Nelll’s Bodkins… the list went on- many Crumbs, Craith noted… also a lot of Gilbert Shelton and Kitchen Sink. This would be an expensive ticket.

     Nonetheless he wrote him up. Harmoneras needed the cash. Again, Craith didn’t ask questions. He handed him the slip. Harmoneras nodded. $175 might be a little low for some of these titles, but he had to take into account the store needed to profit by the purchase.

     As Harmoneras left to cash the slip in at the front register, Craith called Pandanus over to have a look.

     “My my, said Pandanus. It appears we’re going to be famous! Will you let me borrow it after you're done?”

     Craith nodded. Meanwhile, after another short skim and looking over, he stuck the comic in his backpack for reading at home that night.

     It wasn’t very flattering, he found, but at least, Harmoneras hadn’t made him the target of his pen. Apparently Harmoneras and Snivaras had had dealings in the past. Harmoneras didn’t feel that good about things, and each page of the comic (it was a four color press) showed Snivaras in ever increasingly critical situations. Apparently Harmoneras had some sort of third eye, some extrasensory perception, as each panel seemed to depict something that Craith absolutely remembered vividly as an incident that had either upset or annoyed him, as to some aspect of Snivaras and his personality.

     It was a lot like being inside a disappearing Chinese hall of mirrors. Nevertheless, he found it clever, inspiring, and absolutely riveting. By the time he had finished the comic he had made up his mind.

     When he dropped the comic with Pandanus the next morning, he also left a note inside Nadastra’s inbox. 

     “Sorry to do this, sir, but I am taking an indefinite leave of absence.
I am sure you will find suitable replacements for my services.” He smiled. There would be a lot of hard work ahead, but he knew- he didn’t feel like living in that disappearing hall of mirrors another day.

     Snivaras did strike some people that way. The Dickensian manner in which he had managed the shop had not only alienated his most serviceable employee, it had stranded the most tenured ones. For the afternoon that Harmoneras had visited, he had given pink slips to the two old ladies. They had sat with him for two hours afterward, crying in their handkerchiefs. “But – this will destroy my life” said Pisces.

     “Now… if I have a choice between destroying someone’s life and saving my business, well, there’s no question for me, I’m going to save my business” he answered. Apparently beneath his holy and righteous exterior he hid an inner Macchiavelli- willing to kick over anything and anyone that got in his way- the end justifies the means- who were these people, these annoying drains on his personal profit, these tax liabilities, these expenses of medical insurance he often fudged on reporting because of his contempt for federal regulations? And there was plenty of crap on the shelves- fully half of it is crap, he thought, and he made no secret of it. But still, he needed every copy of every comic book that came out, just in case that one person would walk in who needed that one book-

     Pandanus pulled his jacket down at the end of his long shift. He had read the new comic over his lunch break. He considered leaving a note, himself. But no. Instead, as he turned out the lights, he left the comic sitting on the stool where Nadastra would find it in the morning. And then, he was turning out the light, and locking the door behind him.

     For Nadastra, it would be a lonely future.

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