An artist as well as a writer, Kurt Cole Eidsvig received an MFA from the Creative Writing Program at the University of Montana and has been published in journals like Slipstream, Hanging Loose, Borderlands, Main Street Rag and The Southeast Review. A featured columnist on BigRedandShiny.com, and a regular contributor to sites like Examiner.com and ArtAmerica.org, his work won a Warhol Foundation / Creative Capital Fellowship, a Massachusetts Cultural Council Fellowship, the Edmund Freeman Award, and a University of Montana Teaching Fellowship. Eidsvig's writing has earned semi-finalist awards from The Sawtooth Poetry Prize and Zone 3 Books, as well as finalist recognition from the Elizabeth George Foundation. Media outlets such as The Boston Globe, The Improper Bostonian, Boston Neighborhood News, and The Weekly Dig have featured Kurt and his work. He maintains a website at Www.EidsvigArt.com.
Victor Cashew was a dummy.
Once a week for a string of nearly fifty-two weeks Victor walked in the front door of Borders Bookstore at Downtown Crossing in Boston, went to the second floor and stood in front of the rack of bright yellow paperbacks. Shopping in the Self-Help and How-To sections were Victor’s favorite part of the week.
He had already purchased Feng Shui For Dummies, Adobe Photoshop For Dummies,
Investing, Texas Hold’em, and Juicing & Smoothies For Dummies. He wasn’t especially
interested in Comparative Religion For Dummies, or Surviving The Holidays For Dummies. This week he lifted Online Dating For Dummies off the shelf, both proud and anxious someone might see.
When Victor Cashew became anxious, as he was at the prospect of this next volume of his life, he often felt a slight tingling sensation at the tip of his penis. While this didn’t always mean Victor needed to urinate, the feeling intensified enough to lead him to a bathroom.
Victor felt particularly qualified to be a connoisseur of the For Dummies collection. He literally was a dummy, even if the condition was a self-inflicted wound. While locked up in a psychiatric ward after his second breakup with Cindy, and suffering through a diagnosis of
PTSD, schizophrenia, and a psychotic disorder, Victor was told he had a phone call.
“You hanging in there squirt?” his father asked. The greeting made Victor a little misty eyed.
Victor stood at the community payphone in his hospital johnnie and assured his father he was doing okay. He wiped his eyes and searched for a place to sit down. Victor assured his father he had never felt better. He assured him the food was good, the nurses were nice. He assured his father everything would be fine. Assured him the earth might not be round, assured him he’d received accurate premonitions of the future, and assured him he’d gone to mass and eaten crackers even though he wasn’t Catholic.
“Son,” Elliott Cashew’s voice came through the receiver of the payphone. “You know I love you, right?”
Victor Cashew did know this much, which was nice.
“You better listen to me then,” his father said. “It’s time for you to dummy up in there. I know guys like you who did too much talking to the wrong doctors in the wrong places and
ended up locked up inside Bridgewater for life.”
Victor knew all about Bridgewater. Jose, the copy shop attendant who yelled obscenities in group sessions, often talked about his previous stays at the state mental hospital.
“I’ve been to Bridgewater,” Jose would say, usually after getting agitated at one of the
nurse’s questions. “And there ain’t no bridge and there ain’t no water.”
“Okay Dad,” Victor said.
He hung up the payphone and tried unsuccessfully to straighten his mussed-up hair in the reflection from the shiny metal box. The biggest difference between the Palmer 5 unit on the fifth floor of the Deaconess Hospital, and other hospitals he’d been to as a visitor over the years, was the lack of handles on the insides of the doors. Plus, they wouldn’t let him go outside to smoke.
Anytime he asked, the doctors and nurses in Palmer 5 shook their heads, no. They were afraid he might be of harm to himself and others.
I’m not, he envisioned himself saying to the Head Nurse, deeply missing his Marlboro
Days before, when the intake person at the Emergency Room asked him, Have you been thinking about hurting yourself? Victor was surprised. He said, What?
This was proof Victor hadn’t given up much in his decision to follow his father’s
Have you been thinking about ending your life, child? She’d said.
Even though he hadn’t been, Victor sat in the uncomfortable chair at her desk, and
wondered why the idea never occurred to him. The intake receptionist typed away at her
One more thing his father said while Victor held the payphone:
“You know what I always say Victor? Just because I’m a Cashew, doesn’t mean I’m
This cracked his father up. The laughter coming through the payphone escalated into a coughing fit.
Victor stopped talking unless absolutely necessary in the psychiatric ward, and it worked. His reassessment team decided to let patient Victor Cashew out less than a week later, suggesting regular follow-up counseling with a practitioner on the outside.
Every day between the phone call and his release Victor walked the hallway many times stopping to look out the window in the hall. He stared down toward the courtyard and thought of cigarettes he couldn’t smoke.
After exiting the Deaconess Hospital and entering the world outside Victor continued practicing his father’s suggestion from the payphone. He decided to give up talking entirely.
Victor Cashew found he didn’t miss it at all.
Victor Cashew’s father—Elliott Norman Cashew—died of Stage Four lung cancer less
than a month after Victor was released from Palmer 5.
“Victor, are you there?” his stepmother said through the phone.
Sitting very still, he looked up at the world through the small rectangular windows in his basement apartment. Before hanging up the phone he exhaled a long stream of blue-gray smoke past the receiver.
The next day he went to the Borders in Downtown Crossing and bought the book
Quitting Smoking For Dummies—the first in his collection.
Victor left the fifty-second choice of his collection outside the door to the Men’s Room, according to the directions printed on the door. No Merchandise Beyond This Point, it said.
Besides finding talking overrated, Victor had also acquired the habit of inspecting doors and doorknobs very carefully since his departure from Palmer 5. After setting down his book on the small table, he opened the door, peered in, and checked the other side. He made sure there was a doorknob there before entering the bathroom and locking the door behind him.
Even though he’d used this same bathroom many times during his weekly trips to the
Borders bookstore, Victor Cashew felt you couldn’t be too careful when it came to doors and
“What if? If my aunt had balls, she’d be my uncle,” Victor’s father used to say.
Unfortunately for Victor, he was so excited in the bookstore he neglected to properly
shake his penis after doing his business at the urinal. So Victor Cashew ended up exiting the
bathroom with a wet spot on the crotch of his jeans.
With one hand dabbing at his accident with a folded-up piece of brown paper towel, he grabbed gratefully at the doorknob with the other. Victor opened the door to the bookstore, peered over at the table where he’d left the newest book in his collection.
Online Dating For Dummies was gone.
Victor Cashew knew he wasn’t particularly bright. Just last week when his stepmother called to check in on him, Victor had to look all over his apartment for his smart phone before leaving for the bookstore only to realize he was holding the thing up to his ear and listening to her speak. The night before, Victor stared into his refrigerator for what seemed like forever. He’d forgotten why he opened the door as he looked in at the light.
In addition to his enduring muteness his life was filled with great examples as to why
Victor felt uniquely qualified to be an avid reader of the For Dummies series.
Victor’s father used to say, “I’m not always the brightest crayon in the box.”
Even then, Victor was pretty sure he’d left the book there on the table.
Preparing for Valentine’s Day, Borders bookstore was awash with teddy bears and
greeting cards, candy hearts and compact discs playing love songs through the floors. Victor had hardly noticed when riding the escalator up the first time. He hardly even noticed as he walked back to the shelf where the bright yellow books rested in a row.
Online Dating For Dummies wasn’t there. All the books looked remarkably similar with their police tape yellows and deep dark blacks. Victor checked again. Online Dating For
Dummies still wasn’t there.
He walked over and checked the table outside the bathroom again. He checked the
Victor rode the escalator down. He rode the escalator up. Victor didn’t see the bright
yellow and black book anywhere downstairs. He didn’t see it anywhere upstairs either.
Back at the For Dummies shelf, and it still-still wasn’t there. The bathroom either.
The table. The escalator. Victor got tired, wandering in circles around the biggest
bookstore in downtown Boston and the Valentine’s Day sprawl was becoming harder and harder to ignore. Victor Cashew smelled stale Valentine’s Day chocolates everywhere he went, and the scent made him nauseous.
Upstairs he’d heard Michael Bolton’s “How Am I Supposed To Live Without You?”
Downstairs there was “Love Story” by Taylor Swift. The muzak in the bathroom took
Victor a moment to identify. It was the song “After All” by Peter Cetera and Cher, without the
vocals, playing through a speaker above the stalls. Cupid was everywhere.
Victor grabbed the familiar doorknob and left, again.
Victor’s father used to say:
“If you want some romantic advice, you should always break up before Christmas, their birthday, and Valentine’s Day. If it’s really meant to be, you’ll get back together.”
Victor’s father said this one time a little over a year earlier to try and cheer him up on the Christmas when Cindy left the first time. Victor was blue-gray smoke on the other end of the phone.
The second time Cindy left Victor’s father said: “Listen, kid—Women are like buses.
There’s another one coming in ten minutes. Just wait.”
The day after their talk Victor Cashew walked through the front door of the Deaconess Hospital and got locked up in Palmer 5.
The employees who worked on Thursdays at Borders knew Victor by sight, as Thursdays were the days he made his purchases for the week. A few of the women who worked behind the long register bank even knew Victor Cashew’s name from his frequent use of a credit card.
These ladies wore ribbons around their necks with tags announcing names like Florence and Dorothy. Near the Fourth of July Florence’s nametag had a sticker of Uncle Sam pointing back from it. She said, “Thank you, Mister Cashew.”
Victor smiled and left.
Dorothy, with a black cat pinned to the ribbon on her nametag, said, “I’m sorry, Victor— could I see some I.D.? This signature’s worn off here.”
Victor fumbled through his wallet, found his driver’s license. Smiled. “Have a Happy
Halloween,” she said.
On another Thursday, Florence wore a hat with reindeer antlers sticking out from each
side. She said, “You must really love these books, huh?”
Flipping the book around, she inspected its spine and looked carefully at the cover, She said “Gosh. Maybe I will have to check one out for myself.”
Victor nodded, helped the woman push his new book into the thin plastic shopping bag. Her reindeer antlers bobbed in outrageous ovals as she handed him his receipt. Victor left.
“Merry Christmas,” she said to his back.
If Victor hadn’t been so anxious, or had cared even a little bit, he might have heard
Florence and Dorothy discussing him as he wandered around the store in a daze, nauseous from the love music. Bright red cutout hearts, and the enduring scents of overpriced candy, were everywhere.
“What’s wrong with Chatty Cathy?” Florence nodded across the store.
Dorothy watched Victor ride up the moving stairs, again. “Poor guy looks lost,” she said.
“He should ask for help,” Florence said. She snorted.
“Florence!” Dorothy said.
The new girl, Angela, was crouched behind them and didn’t want to ask. Gathering
returned and unwanted books from behind the counter, she heard herself say, “What are you two arguing about now?” and regretted it immediately.
Florence said, “I think Dorothy here has a crush on Escalators for Dummies.” “He’s half
my age,” Dorothy said. “But he seems, well, like a lost soul, I guess.”
The three women watched Victor Cashew ride the escalator down, dabbing at his crotch with a folded-up piece of brown paper towel.
“Actually,” Florence said, “he looks like he peed his pants.”
Angela Herald had decided working at the bookstore was definitely not all it was cracked up to be long before Thursday afternoon. Crouched down in the restock shelves, while quietly admonishing herself for even getting the bitties started, she attributed her sourness to general boredom and corporate malaise.
When applying for the part-time gig at Borders, Angela had actually been excited at the prospect of going to work in a place where she’d be surrounded by her favorite things. After practicing interview answers to questions like, What’s your favorite book? And, Is there a protagonist in American literature you most identify with? The questions never came. Even then, when the assistant manager told Angela she was hired, there was a feeling that came over her like a snowbound Bostonian being issued a ticket to Key West, or like a traditional believer spying The Vatican in the distance. Borders Bookstore in downtown Boston was a cathedral to reading. The two story open space expanded upward to hold volume after volume of the characters, ideas, and storylines Angela Herald considered as important as arteries and veins in shaping who she was, and in keeping that entity going day after day.
Part of her discouragement likely came from being forced to start at the bottom of the bookstore food chain. As Angela loaded up her cart behind the bank of registers and the check-out line, how could she be anything but frustrated with the holiday returns and the constant chatter of Dorothy and Florence. They couldn’t stop talking about the good looking guy who was wandering around like a crazy person now.
Charged with restocking books in every section of the store, as unhappy holiday present returners came in and looked for something else, Angela started resenting customers and their literary idiocy.
“Who returns Moby Dick?” she said from her crouch behind the large ladies. “Walden?
Are you kidding me?” she held the paperback version in her hand for a moment of disbelief
before stacking it on the rolling cart with the others. Nearly every returned item was a tragedy of consumerism.
Angela heard Florence’s voice behind her. “Hold on. Here she goes again, Dorothy,” she
The beep, beep, beep of someone’s books being scanned electronically played against the Valentine’s Day soundtrack in the store. Not only was the music a smorgasbord of syrup and indigestion, the playlist was on a loop. Sonny & Cher’s “I’ve Got You Babe” was about to segue into “I Will Always Love You” by Whitney Houston, a repetition that occurred every hour and seventeen minutes according to Angela’s tracking.
“Take it easy on the poor girl, Florence. She’s got to handle all the returns,” Dorothy
Dorothy turned from her register to face Angela, bent over and wrestling with stacks of books. She said, “Would it help to put a sticker on that nametag dear? I have a few extras here.”
Angela mumbled, No that’s okay, but was drowned out by Whitney’s singing voice.
“God, I love this song Florence, don’t you?” Dorothy said. This comment was something
that also happened every hour and seventeen minutes as far as Angela could tell.
“Here,” Dorothy said.
Angela felt the sticker press against her forehead, Dorothy said “Oops.” And “Oh my
gosh, I’m so sorry. I was trying to put it on your nametag and you squatted down again, and…”
Florence talked about wanting Kevin Costner to be her bodyguard, and her valentine, and turned from her beep-beep checking out of a customer to see Angela standing up cross-eyed and looking up at her own forehead, as if to make out what the heart-shape sticker said.
“Be Mine!” Florence burst into laughter. Dorothy chuckled too, and every customer
waiting in line smiled, or tried not to, or nudged the person beside them.
Angela peeled the sticker off her forehead with as much dignity she could muster. She
took the candy heart shape and placed it next to the price tag on a copy of The Catcher In The Rye in her book cart some misguided illiterate had returned.
“What’s that, darlin’?” Dorothy pointed at one of the yellow How To books in Angela’s
restocking cart. “Did somebody return that?”
“I have it organized. This shelf is returns. And here—this shelf is the misplaced or
misstacked. Somebody must have set this book down someplace. Hard to believe, huh? Online Dating For Dummies was almost a Nobel Prize winner from what I understand.”
Angela’s other issue: She believed she was the only store employee who actually read the books. Dorothy had this glazed-over look on her face. She blinked.
“That poor boy,” Dorothy said, looking over at the escalator.
Angela watched the handsome guy the bitties had been talking about—Victor— riding
the escalator up again. Only this time he was walking too, taking the stairs two at a time.
Dorothy said, “He must be just about to lose his mind.”
He’d been wishing so much to find Online Dating For Dummies—a book he now had his heart set on—Victor barely noticed the cart exiting the freight elevator as it smashed into his shin. Not that he typically paid much attention to the staff, but Victor didn’t recognize the girl he almost levelled. She ran from behind her huge cart of books.
“Sorry,” the girl said. “Sorry, sorry, sorry,” she said. “I’m so sorry,” she said.
Victor voicelessly rubbed his shin. He hopped on one foot to try and wished the pain
As his father always used to say: Wish in one hand, shit in the other, and see which fills up first.
Angela watched the guy hop on one leg all around the elevator landing on the second floor. The oddest part, besides the fact he’d been doing crazy laps around the store for however many cycles of the endless Valentine’s Day soundtrack, was the only sound he made came from the thud, thud, thud of his single sneaker landing repeatedly on the shitty carpet. He didn’t moan or yell Ouch! He didn’t swear or sigh.
Further evidence Borders was driving her crazy: Angela heard herself say, out loud, “It’s like watching television with the sound off.”
There was a thud, a thud, and a thud. Victor Cashew straightened. His face was bright red and wrinkly from holding back whatever sounds her cart full of unwanted books had tried to propel from him.
She watched his face start to relax. Victor placed his hurt leg and foot on the ground.
“Sorry?” she said.
For a moment Victor was overtaken by the vision of the woman. His eyes cleared the blur of rage and pain, and there was her black hair the color of the sky outside his apartment windows at night, and her eyes reflecting the blue of Flathead Lake in summer behind a pair of hipster eyeglasses. The girl, Angela from her nametag, smiled uneasily, before reaching down to straighten her books and the cart Victor had nearly knocked over.
The elevator doors were insistent in their attempts to close, only to stutter against the cart stuck in their way, over and over again. He watched Angela, a girl he guessed to be only a few years younger than him, beautiful in the smell of watermelon chewing gum, roll the cart out of the way. The doors closed successfully and Victor heard the elevator whir.
“The woman…” she said. “The lady at the counter…”
Angela held Online Dating For Dummies in her left hand. She offered it stretched out in Victor’s direction.
She tried again. “The lady at the counter thought you might be looking for this?”
From the open space in the landing, Victor and Angela could both see Dorothy staring up at them from behind the cash registers on the first floor below. Dorothy grinned big and waved. Florence rolled her eyes.
“Or maybe this instead?” Angela held out another book: Archery for Dummies.
“That,” Victor said. He had more trouble pointing, it seemed, than talking. Actually, he was struggling with both.
Angela smiled and nodded.
Pointing at the Online Dating version of the For Dummies collection, Victor tried again. “That is mine,” he said.
Angela handed the book to Victor who stared down in some sort of disbelief. Maybe at his words, maybe at the book, maybe about the amount of pain a book cart can cause a shin.
She said, “And this is mine.” She grabbed the cart’s handles and rolled it down the hall.
Victor heard Angela shout over her shoulder as she walked away:
“You’re welcome,” she said.
Victor mouthed the words Thank You. And then did it again. Thank you.
“Thank you,” he said, out loud this time.
Angela was gone.
Outside the elevator, a small paperback lay on the floor, part of the leftover carnage of book car and shin. Victor leaned down to pick it up.
The cover read The Catcher in The Rye. A heart-shaped sticker was there, next to the
price tag. The sticker read Be Mine with the words printed in bright pink letters. Some of the
letters were smudged from the sticker being peeled up and stuck down too often.
Be Mime, it may have said. He traced the letters with his eyes all the way through the
bookstore, down the escalators, through the line, and to the registers.
Standing in front of Dorothy and her register, Victor handed her one of the books to place on the returns stack.
He said, “I won’t be needing this.”
As the scanner beeped, tallying his selection, Victor Cashew put some extra weight down on his leg. And then on the other. Nothing hurt at all.