Congratulations to T.C. Powell of Springfield, Oregon, the June 2015 recipient of the Penn Cove Literary Arts Award.
Natural Forces at Work
by T.C. Powell
The adult video store was the size of a 7-11. Floor-to-ceiling shelving units were crammed into the small space, leaving the barest of walking paths, and those units were stuffed full of colorful DVD cases promising every perversion under the sun. It was a deviant bazaar, and I was the bumbling tourist trying not to make an ass of myself as I nervously browsed the inventory.
There were a few other patrons. All men, all older than me. They did not seem to have any shame at being in the store, or in being seen here. It was as though they were the natural inhabitants; that you could come by at any time, day or night (the store was open 24 hours, to satisfy those 3am urges) and find these same gentlemen here, endlessly roaming the store’s Byzantine passages.
Could you find them in any other place? The man with the scruffy half-beard and bulbous gut stretching out a plain red tee — would you see him walking his dog in the park, being ushered to his seat at the opera, or waiting in line at the post office to send out a package? You would not. He lived here among Ass Blasters #3 and Cum Garglers #7. Anywhere else and it would strike you that he was startlingly out of place. “Don’t you belong back at the adult store?” you would ask. “Isn’t it your rotation?”
I was a student at the University, a junior. I majored in European history, minored in lit. This wasn’t my scene. Sure, I masturbated. Sure, I watched pornography. It’s free, it’s everywhere, who doesn’t? But to leave the dorms, to travel across town in the bus, to spend the little spending money I had after buying textbooks…? This was supposed to have been a way for me to feel proactive after breaking up with Susan. Taking back my sexuality or something. It was supposed to be an indulgence. A growth experience. I wasn’t prepared to feel so out-of-place. I wasn’t prepared to feel… wrong.
“Need help finding something?” a voice asked.
I whipped around like I’d been caught doing something I shouldn’t. Standing before me was a clerk. He was apparently the only one working, and he’d come out from behind the register to stock one of the few gaps on the shelves with fresh inventory. He was around my age. Probably a student at the University, too, though I didn’t recognize him. Maybe he went to the Community College.
“No, I’m fine, I’m fine,” I said, trying to keep my voice level. Why was I upset? There was nothing wrong with my being here: this store had legal wares to sell — had been selling them for years — and I was a patron, looking to buy. Where was the crime? If no crime, why guilt?
The clerk nodded absently and went back to putting new product out. I felt like I’d just wet the bed. “That movie,” I said, pointing to the one he held in his hand. “Any good?”
I had asked before I’d even looked, but now I saw that the DVD in his hand was covered in pictures of naked elderly women cavorting with little people: “Midget Loving Grannies,” as the title had it. I didn’t know whether to be more offended at the title or the content, or whether it was appropriate to be offended at all. Who was I to tell older women or little people how to live their lives?
“Hard as it is to believe,” the clerk said, “I haven’t seen every movie in here. I don’t watch this kind of gross shit.”
“Me neither. I mean, I wasn’t trying to say… not that there’s anything wrong with… I’m supportive of every kind of sexuality. I try to be.”
The clerk stared at me for a second, then shook his head and knelt down to fill the bottom shelf.
I struggled to find a way to redeem myself. I couldn’t leave our conversation like this. I wasn’t the same sort of asshole the clerk was used to dealing with, and I wanted him to know it. Looking for a conversation starter, I noted again how full the shelves were. Claustrophobically so.
“Boy,” I said, trying to find a light tone. “I bet this place is just awful after an earthquake.”
The clerk finished putting out the last of his DVDs and stood up, dusting off his jeans. “Original,” he said. “No one’s ever made an earthquake joke in here before.”
The hell? His tone was sarcastic. Abusive even. What had I done to deserve it?
“I’m sorry if I said something to offend you–?”
“Look, I don’t need any new friends. If I did, I wouldn’t find them here. Just buy a movie if you’re going to buy one, okay?”
“I’m sorry,” I said again, feeling numb.
I grabbed a movie almost at random from the shelf. It had been my intention to look for something a little more refined, if that makes sense for porn. Something with production value and an honest-to-God script. But I wound up with some random smut featuring Latinas. The clerk didn’t care what I bought. He didn’t care who I was. He rang me up like anyone else and didn’t even meet my eyes when he handed back my change, or thank me for my business.
Grateful for the black plastic bag the store provided, I took the additional step of stuffing the video under my shirt as I left. I couldn’t risk anyone guessing.
I returned to my dorm room and took the package out from under my shirt. Without removing it from its bag, I opened the bottommost drawer of my desk and I shoved it inside, under my old graded papers. It remained there, unopened and unwatched, until I packed for summer break, when I bundled it with the rest of my garbage and pitched it into the trash.