Cuts at the Inner Groove
Strom was thinking of the
Bowie album, but not the single.
He wouldn’t touch those lyrics.
A summer weekday at the
Inner Groove, set in the curve of
the boomerang mall. Quiet at the record store after the stutter of the
staplegun. He’d spent an hour posting Patti Smith LP sleeves helter-skelter over
the bin of the poet-rocker’s albums, sale priced with PSG rolling into town for
a concert. Strom slapped a yellow legal pad down on the glass-topped case next
to the cash register—under the glass, an assortment of tape head and record cleaners,
incense burners, rolling papers, and pipes. For Tobacco Products Only on
cardstock. Strom’s degree was in English, American Lit, class of ’78; now he
used a legal pad to write pop song parodies, the latest a tweak on a Simon and
Garfunkel song: “The Only Living Boy in Madison.”
The past year, post-grad,
he spent scuffling from one
minimum wage job to another. To his parents, he was a contrarian. He dug the
song “Misunderstood” from Pete Townshend and Ronnie Lane’s Rough Mix; it
had been his theme song, no apologies, to the age twenty-three. Damn it, it fit:
he’d never planned on being out of school, that BA stuffed in his back pocket, forget
a teaching certificate. Being misunderstood. Strom sent the leisure suit guys
from HQ around the bend when he made an obscure, he thought, British folkie’s
LP—it was Ralph McTell—a number one in-store hit. Misunderstood—until he no
longer wanted to be.
There had been a summerlong
flirtation to no end. The
irregular pop in by a pre-med student, never buying, who called herself Chatty
Cathy. The white cross she’d pass along for free. Then she picked up with a
former boyfriend. Strom was sorry to hear that. People moved on in their lives.
He apparently didn’t.
Before diving into another
verse, he did an owl-head spin of
the store. One customer, a woman killing midday time, flipped titles in the
cassette tape gallery, row after row of plastic cases locked in by vertical
rods. She click-clacked down the gallery, riffling through a twenty-foot-wide,
Strom snagged the tape key,
would’ve preferred lunch, but
the manager—dubbed Frampton Plant because he considered himself the alchemized son
of Peter Frampton and Robert Plant—was out with the leisure suits.
He walked over with the
key, maybe the woman found a cassette
that interested her. A man walked in: dress pants, blazer with a name badge on
the lapel—an area bank—white shirt, tie. Call him a teller manager.
The woman glanced at Strom,
shook him off.
The newcomer in business
dress gave off a prickly vibe. Strom
was in jeans and a wrinkled Inner Groove t-shirt. I’m cool nods as they
passed each other. The newcomer continued to the cassettes.
Spot-checking the LP bins—errant
asses slipped Foreigner
into the Dan Fogelberg bin, Rolling Stones with Roxy Music, Beatles with
the Stones—Strom lifted an eye. The teller manager dropped to his hands and
knees and was peeking up the woman’s cotton shift. She continued slowly through
the plastic pages. Click. Clack.
“What the fuck—”
The peeper, unrushed, looked
back, got to his feet, brushed
off his knees, and walked out, just as Frampton Plant returned.
“Did you see that?”
Frampton Plant strutted
behind the counter. After an “Immigrant
Song” wail, he replied, “No, man. I just got back. What?”
A week later, Strom picked
up lunch from the Golden Inn, the
restaurant at the end of the mall. Walking in the drool-inducing sesame chicken
and egg roll wave, he bopped down the mall to the store, the heavier elements
of Neil Young and Crazy Horse’s latest reverbing through his skull.
Thinking lunch, Neil’s
“Powderfinger” exploding in his
head, it took Strom by surprise, seeing her emerge from the Your Hair Designed Salon,
pulling straight ahead of him. The cassette browser. He considered stepping up
alongside her, apologizing for what happened, but then again, she might not
have been aware. She’d left after the peeper, didn’t buy anything. He let it go,
following her back to the record store.
Frampton Plant split as
soon as Strom arrived. “Lunch date.
Hold down the fort, man.” A nod, a wink, he was gone. The woman was back in the
He was dipping the egg roll
in a small plastic cup of Chinese
hot mustard when the teller manager walked in. Strom checked the mustard-daubed
appetizer halfway to his mouth. Like old times, the teller manager, glancing
back at Strom, dropped to his hands and knees behind the woman. And he peeped.
Strom dropped the egg roll
and charged down the gallery. He’d
never in his twenty-three years been in a fight. The peeper bounced up, laughing,
and dumped him into the cassettes. Click. Clack. He walked away, unhurried.
The controlled rasp of the
woman’s glance couldn’t spill Strom’s
mouthful of apologies. She shifted her purse strap, moved past him, and was
He decided: get her safely
to her car. At least give her a
fistful of Inner Groove coupons. Strom could be a hero.
He slid the glass-paneled
doors shut, locked the store up
tight. Shrugging at three teens with money to burn and what-the-fuck attitudes,
he said, “Be back. Emergency.” He made for the parking lot.
The sun was high over the
mall. Heatwaves curled serpentine
from the blacktop and baking cars. He scanned the lot with an Eastwood squint.
There they were, less than
a block away.
The peeper, the woman, embracing
by a Firebird, its doors open,
AC likely blasting. They were kissing.
He walked back into the
Not a hero. Not even for
Esterholm’s work has previously appeared in Yellow Mama, as well as
in Akashic Books’ Mondays Are Murder, Beat to a Pulp, Crime
Factory, Mysterical-E, Mystery Tribune, Shotgun
Honey, and Tough. The Council for Wisconsin Writers and Wisconsin
People & Ideas, formerly Wisconsin Academy Review, have
recognized his work in years past. He, his wife, and their goldendoodle pup
live in Wisconsin, at the head of the Great Lakes.
KJ Hannah Greenberg captures the
world in words and images. Her most recent poetry collection
is Rudiments (Seashell Books, 2020), her most recent essay collection
is Simple Gratitudes (Propertius Press, 2020), her most recent short story
collection is Demurral: Linens, and Towel and Fears (Bards& Sages
Publishing, 2020), and her most recent photography collection is 20/20, Eye on
Israel (Camel Saloon, 2015).