James Stafford remembers a forgotten veteran.
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. Dwayne is tall, soft in the middle, thick glasses and a Mondale haircut — soft-spoken and Christian in that quiet yet devout way.
We’re making labels and alphabetizing cassettes. Dwayne outranks me so he has control of the turntable. He’s playing classical. After noon we’re supposed to be selling with the turntable, casting Godley and Crème and ‘Til Tuesday like musical lures for the shopping fish swimming down the mall.
An old-timer walks in, about Dwayne’s age, but his heavy shoulders and sunken eyes add another fifteen years. He’s 5’8″ but his full body slouch drops him another four inches. He wears his thinning hair shoulder length and parted down the middle, matching Seventies moustache drooping 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,” he says. His brown eyes 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 doesn’t understand plain English. “It is a beautiful day,” I repeat. The smell of alcohol bridges the short gap between us.
Frederic says, “You don’t know what I’m talking about, do you? All you know is this new wave shit I bet. Why’d you turn off the Vivaldi? I was digging that.”
“Oh, you’re a classical fan? I’ll show you our classical section.”
“No, man. It’s A Beautiful Day. The band, man. Do you have that?”
We walk the album bins, past Afrika Bambaataa and John Cafferty, 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,” Frederic says. “We didn’t have too many records anyway but we all liked this one.”
“So is this, like, really old-time stuff from the early 1900′s?”
He laughs at me. “This was a big hit. How can you work in a record store and not know this album? Go put this on.”
“We can’t open records. They only let us play new stuff,” I say.
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,” he says. He grabs the album, fixes his stare on the perfect moment rendered on its cover. His eyes cloud over, give way to heaving sobs.
Dwayne can’t pretend anymore that he is alphabetizing the cassette wall. “Hey, are you okay?” He asks Frederic, his voice quiet and calm.
“Why me?” Frederic asks him.
“I don’t know.”
“Why didn’t I die?”
“God had other plans for you,” Dwayne says.
Frederic looks up at him, fluorescent 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,” Frederic says.
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 tried to put together a quick portrait of Frederic: his brown-black eyes, his seventies mustache. All I caught were hollowed out details, not his hollowed out story. That was thirty years ago. I hope this time I did a little better.
Originally published on Why It Matters.