Sort Of Like How The Name "Ethel" Is Getting Popular Again
Volume II, Issue II - Nov. 2011

There is a problem in the express lane at the supermarket. I regard my two boxes of cookies and think, "Why didn't I just stay in the self-check line?" Now there are people behind me, so I feel trapped, feel committed to this path. A thin old man in round tortoise shell glasses, bermuda shorts, and a Hooker's green button shirt fusses with his quart of milk and sundries, quietly insisting that the sundries were marked 50% off. For it is the end of the summer, after all; even the summer itself is seeming passé as fall fashions strike the covers of the September magazines. Finally, the manager comes with the code. And then, the man asks for a pen. And then; I begin to realize something marvelous is taking place as the man fusses with the pen and says it doesn't seem to be working. He isn't just signing a credit card receipt.

This man is writing out a check.

To be clear: to pay for his quart of milk and discounted end-of-season sundries, the man in tortoise shell glasses, bermuda shorts/green top is writing a cheque in the amount of nine dollars and nineteen cents. It is beautiful and it is sad and somewhat horrible. He smiles and looks at me sympathetically (and, it seems maybe for a moment, a bit sportively) as he wisps, "I'm so sorry. And this is supposed to be the express lane."

Still startled by the exchange taking place (milk + discount sundries = small written parchment), what can I do but smile and insist, "Oh, it's fine — please, don't worry about it. It's fine." I'm surprised the cashier even knows how to scan the paper through the check-scanning device before depositing it in the register's receiving slot.

I pay for my two boxes of cookies with cash. (And here I thought I was going to be the old-fashioned one.)

The next day: I have scheduled a face-to-face information session for students in my two online classes. It's optional; I tell them online, "I thought it might be nice for us to meet in person just once at the beginning of the semester." I've been teaching online classes for a few years now. My mom insists: "Eventually all higher education will be online. Except for the rich kids who will still be sent to the finishing schools of Harvard and Yale before going back to their trust funds. For everyone else: online classes." It might be true. We might not even need teachers then: just self-correcting, multiple choice assessments. Students can teach themselves; take the tests; get a degree. Whether or not they actually learn anything will be incidental.

I set out my two store-bought boxes of cookies on a desk and wait.

Ten minutes later, one girl arrives.

Her: "Hi!"

Me: "Hi!"

Her: "I'm Delia!"

Me: "I'm Professor Russell!"

It's always a little awkward, meeting an online student for the first time. I was desperately hoping there would be at least a few other students here.

"No one else showed up!" I explain, apparently still speaking in nervous exclamation marks.

"Oh," she says. "I thought I was late."

She sits down.

"Would you like a cookie?" I offer.

"What kind?"

"Chocolate chip or iced oatmeal raisin," and she chooses the oatmeal raisin, and I say I'm going to have the same. We kibitz about the class (Online Creative Writing II) and about what to expect and about how she had signed up for my friend's traditional (in-person) Creative Writing II class before that section was cancelled at the last minute.

"My friend is very sick," I explain. "She's not teaching this semester."

Delia and I become quiet a moment. I ask her what she's studying, and she tells me "Communications," and I say "Oh, that's nice" — because what else does one say, really? Then I ask the inevitable follow-up: "What do you want to do with that?"

"Book publishing," she says, and she quickly looks down at the desk, as if ashamed.

"Oh, Delia..."

"I know. I know! And they closed the Borders. They closed all the Borders! We don't even have a bookstore in this county anymore! Not even a single bookstore! The closest thing we have to a bookstore is the adult bookstore in Egg Harbor City! And I want to go into book publishing. I just don't know what else I'm interested in, though."

She starts to tell me about different editions of books she has: how she carefully notes the publishers of each book, each edition. How she still sneaks into her hometown library, even though she's moved a few towns over, but they don't know and (anyway) she still has her card.

"When I first moved to Vineland, one of the first things I did was go to the library and get a library card. And then I asked where the closest bookstore was. And they told me it was the Borders, which was about thirty minutes away. The books on the shelves there look different than the ones you buy online. Have you ever noticed that? I don't know how, but they just do. I can't buy books online for that reason."

I should just note here that Delia is a young woman in her twenties, not some octogenarian spieling nostalgia. But Delia still believes in library cards and bookstores. It hurts my heart a little; like watching the man write out the check for his milk and sundries; like the very word sundries.

When she quiets down, I tell her the same thing I told my friend when I found out she was sick. "It'll be all right," I tell her. I'm not sure either one of us believes it, but it's what is required. We write out that check, because we know we must — just as a few weeks earlier I had written out that sympathy card for another friend whose dad had passed away.

"I know you had a difficult relationship," I had written. "I'm so sorry for your loss."

A few days later she texted: "Thank you so much for the card."

Back in the classroom, Delia and I sit there for another half-an-hour, eating our store-bought iced oatmeal raisin cookies, laughing and kvetching like two old biddies just enjoying each other's company — just for a moment longer before we are forced back to our respective positions behind the computer screens.

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