Contest #25 shortlist ⭐️

The Old Ennui: Or, The Refusal to Enjoy Anything

Submitted into Contest #25 in response to: Write a short story about someone in the self-help aisle of a bookstore. What book do they pick up?... view prompt

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Funny Contemporary Fiction

Cole is pleased to admit that he’s never before found himself in the self-help section. Never needed it. Would hate to stoop so low, he thinks, dragging a superior eye over those brushing their fingers over all those bright-coloured titles. 

He’s not here for self-help. He’s here for help. Because just being in a bookstore will help. The culture of it all. The majesty of the written word, finely curated. He’s lucky he reads. Unlike all those sheeple out there who’ve forgotten how. 

Poetry, Cole thinks. Surely. 

This is his regular bookstore. The nice old one with the creaky wood floors down the street from work, not that new one with its industrial-chic thing and open-concept floor plan. Bookstores should be cramped and cluttered. That’s how Cole knows they’re any good. 

Though this is the bookstore he uses exclusively, his feet don’t carry him straight to the poetry section, and after a jilted moment he realizes it’s because he’s never been there. Lately it’s been new releases and things that sound a lot like George RR Martin but aren’t. 

A brief stroll around the perimeter reveals poetry, tucked in between local interest and stationery. Cole gazes appreciatively at all his favourites; Whitman, Plath, Neruda. He’s not that into poetry, but he’s sure he’ll like it once he gets around to reading those big names. He will get around to it. 

He slips a little volume from the shelf because it’s blue and hardcover and looks profound. Opens it up. Giant blocks of text. Shuts the book. Re-shelves it. 

Poetry is not something one can consume on a whim, Cole decides. The mind must be ready for it. His isn’t. Hence his problem. 

It’s been a long time coming, this particular bookstore visit. Cole’s been plagued for weeks. Months, perhaps. He’s tried everything—bikram, veganism, journaling, 80s movies, meticulous beard care. Nothing did the trick. 

Cole looks up and finds, to his disgust, that his aimless feet have carried him to the self-help section. 

What a joke, he thinks. How fitting. I’m a joke by now, too.

He can neither bring himself to actually read the spines, nor can he walk away. He remains stuck in a haze of colour-block covers and wordy titles and pictures of sunrises and over and over the word you—you, you, you, you, you. 

“You hate that you’re here too?” comes a voice. 

Cole blinks. A blonde woman sitting on a rock by the sea smiles at him from her glossy paperback and promises that he can be his best self. Cole grimaces and looks away. 

His fellow self-loathing help-seeker leans listlessly back against the shelf, peering at Cole with mild interest. He’s taller than Cole, and wears a newer pair of the same boots Cole does. He’s got longish hair swept rakishly back, like he just can’t be bothered to deal with it, yet also very clearly takes impeccable care of it. He carries a corduroy bag. 

Maybe a corduroy bag is the answer, thinks Cole. 

“What are you looking for, then?” asks the stranger. 

Cole glances disdainfully at the books before him. “Not these. I just wandered in here.” 

Corduroy Bag nods knowingly. “I can never find the right thing either. They just don’t make ‘em.” 

“You’re right.” 

“What’s your deal, though? What’s wrong with you?” 

Cole fiddles with his leather watch strap. He lets out a long-suffering breath and leans back against the shelves to mirror Corduroy Bag. What’s wrong, indeed. Only that which, at one time or another, plagues all men such as he.

“Ennui,” Cole says. 

“Ah.” Corduroy Bag gives Cole a sage look. “A conundrum not so unlike my own.”

“What’s yours, then?”

“Tedium.”

“I hear ya.” 

“Absolute doldrums. Just the pits.” 

“You’re right, they don’t make self-help books for guys like us.”

“Nope.” 

“I tried poetry,” Cole says with a jerk of his head in the direction of the shelf he’d come from. 

“No luck?” 

“Nah.”

“What do the poets know?” Corduroy Bag says, crossing his arms over his chest. “Over-inflated. Anything’s a poem if you don’t add punctuation. Poets never felt the way we do.” 

Thank you,” Cole says, deciding firmly that he hates poetry. Unless he reads some really good stuff some day, then he might come around to it. Whitman for sure. (Something about grass?)

Corduroy Bag sneers at another blonde-woman-emblazoned book and stalks out of the aisle. “This is a bookstore. The epitome of culture. The answer is here somewhere.” 

“That’s what I was thinking!” blurts Cole, hurrying after him. “Somewhere in here, right? There’s the right book that will crack it all open. Life.”

Corduroy Bag, whose name turns out to be Jennings, has very long legs and walks inhumanly fast. He leads them in tight curls around stacks and through narrow rows. “Somewhere, Cole, there’s a book that will chew up your ennui and spit it back out.” Cole wonders if perhaps Jennings could do it himself out of sheer determination.

They stop at literary essays and spend fifteen minutes or so pulling books off the shelf and reading the descriptions to each other and noting that they sound interesting. Nothing catches. 

Defeated, Cole and Jennings peruse poetry one last time, feeling shameful and fraudulent, and finally sag against the clearance shelf full of notebooks and candles. 

“Another day lost to the tedium,” Jennings laments. 

“Another day lost to ennui,” agrees Cole. “I’ll try again another day. Maybe have more luck.”

“Sure. Guess I will too.”

Cole sighs. He ponders where he could acquire a corduroy bag. Perhaps at the place where he got all his beard oils, that day when he thought—not for the first time—that he’d found the answer. 

Jennings rakes his hair back again. Clearly he knows it looks good. 

Cole elbows him. “If you go searching again—let me know? Whatever cures tedium might help ennui also.” 

Jennings grins a little. “Sure. Let me give you my address.” 

“Maybe your contact info?” Cole asks, holding out his phone.

Jennings shoots him a glare. “Don’t tell me you text. My address is my contact info. I believe in old-fashioned, pen-to-paper communication.” 

Cole thinks perhaps he’s met a genius. First the corduroy bag, now this. “You want me to write you letters?”

Jennings levels him with a look.

Cole glances up at the stationery shelf and grabs a set. Paper and envelopes with little books on the corners. Cute. “Guess I’ll need these, then,” he says. 

Jennings buys a book of crossword puzzles so he doesn’t have to leave empty-handed, and Cole pays for his stationery. He asks if they sell stamps here, and they don’t. He’ll have to visit the post office. Where the hell is the nearest post office?

They step out into dusk traffic and lament that this city, it’s too big, too dusty, too blah. If only all those buildings weren’t there, they could see the sky colours. Alas, they have to make do with just what’s overhead, and the reflection off the mirrored buildings, off puddles and wet pavement, off every windshield and storefront and mirror. Everywhere, tiny skies, soft and purple. The real thing must be nice. 

They don’t say goodbye, because that would be weird. Jennings gets on his bike—not really antique, but you’d never guess by looking at it—and Cole heads to the train station. And they both hope earnestly that another bout of malaise will strike quickly. It surely will.

January 24, 2020 05:08

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