A local writer, a frequent visitor to our shop, arrived early in the evening last night. He stood at the front of the store, staring out through the window. I stood at the counter, watching him, waiting for him to wander away into the stacks. Instead, he remained there, saying nothing, watching the sidewalk. At last, he seemed to sense that I was watching him, and turned to face me. “What?” he asked with annoyance.
“I wish you wouldn’t do that,” I replied, equally annoyed.
“Do what?” he asked.
“Stand by the window. I don’t like when people can see that there are customers inside the store. It makes it look entirely too inviting.”
He looked at me, exasperated. “You know, most people who own stores understand that having customers is a good thing. Well, just so you know, I’m having a couple friends meet me here.”
“So there will be THREE of you here?”
“Oh, come on. It won’t kill you to have three people in the store. Besides, if everything goes according to plan, I’ll be leaving soon after they arrive. Which reminds me…” He suddenly looked slightly sheepish. “I might need a favor from you.”
Apparently the look on my face was enough to make him realize that I was not really in the mood to grant him a favor. He sighed. “OK, look: You remember the Dickens book I bought here a few weeks ago? The one from 1874?”
Of course I remembered, and his reminding me did not improve my mood. “I’ve told you before that I want that back. I asked Crowley to watch the store for five minutes. I didn’t tell him he could sell anything.”
“Fine, let’s make a deal. You have another Dickens that I’ve had my eye on. It’s the one from 2010. Much less valuable to you, right? You like old books. If you sell me that one – and if you do this favor for me – I’ll bring back the other one.”
I considered this for a moment. I truly did want the old Dickens, but the 2010 edition was quite lovely, too. He sensed my hesitation, but waited.
“Fine,” I said, finally. “What do you want me to do?”
“There are going to be two women showing up here in a few minutes. I need two things. First, act human. That means: Don’t shout at them. Don’t rush them out of the store. Don’t be rude. Don’t bother them. Just let them stay here as long as they like. And the second thing: Very soon after they get here, I’m going to suggest that they go to look at the books upstairs. As soon as we start up the stairs, you slip out of sight, and call my phone. You don’t have to say anything. I’ll fake a conversation. And then I’m going to leave. Once I leave, just stay down here. Don’t go upstairs. Don’t bother them. They’ll leave eventually, don’t worry. Deal?”
“I don’t have your phone number.”
“The hell you don’t. You left me fifteen different messages, asking me to bring back the Dickens.”
“Oh. I suppose I did.”
He glanced out the window again. “OK, the first one is here! Do we have a deal?”
“We do,” I replied, and at that moment, the door swung open. The woman who entered was breathtaking: She had long, flowing dark hair, and the most beautiful eyes I had ever seen.
“Rubi! Great to see you. You look terrific! But I have to admit, I miss the blue hair.”
The woman greeted him with a hug, but immediately look past him. Her eyes were drawn to the books. “Oh!” she exclaimed. “This is fantastic! I thought it was going to be just a small little store.”
“And there are more upstairs, too,” he said. “And rumor has it, there are some in the basement, too, but…” He shot a glance in my direction. “Azi’s never let me down there.”
“I wouldn’t keep books in the basement,” I snapped. “It’s too humid. That’s a terrible way to treat a book.”
“You do so have books in the basement,” he replied. “You’ve talked about finding weird stuff down there before.”
Before I could reply, the door opened again. Another young woman entered. She, too, was lovely. I guessed that she was Japanese, though I could not be certain. She was holding something next to her chest. I realized that it was a drawing pad.
“Quin! You made it!” The writer smiled broadly. “I hope you didn’t have too much trouble finding us?”
“Not too much,” she answered. She had a slight accent, and I sensed that English was not her first language.
The writer gestured around the store. “What do you think? A good place for drawing?”
She nodded quickly. “Yes, very much!”
“Oh! I’m so sorry, I haven’t introduced you yet!” He extended one hand toward each woman. “Damn, I just realized, not only did I not introduce you, I don’t remember if I even told each of you that I was inviting the other.” He shook his head, as if annoyed with himself. “I’m so forgetful. I didn’t, did I? Oh, well. Rubi, meet Quin. Quin, meet Rubi.”
The two women shook hands.
Now, at this point, I must confess: I am not the most astute observer of human behavior. Nonetheless, I believe that I saw something in each woman’s eyes, something that was warmth and openness and happiness… but something else, as well. How can I explain? It was something like an awareness of possibilities.
“I have a feeling that you might know each other’s work,” the writer said. “Quin, Rubi’s a writer. And Rubi, Quin’s an artist.”
Rubi’s eyes (the beautiful, beautiful eyes) widened. “Wait, Quin?? Are you the one who did the drawings of – ”
Quin began laughing. “You are Rubi? Who wrote the fics that I like?”
Both women laughed, and they suddenly embraced, like long-lost friends.
The writer leaned toward me, looking very pleased. The women were still laughing, and he whispered to me: “This may be easier than I thought. OK.” He pointed a finger at me, stern: “Keep your end of the bargain. Don’t bother them, and tomorrow, I’ll bring you the book. Now get out of sight, and call me. Quick!”
I ducked away behind the counter.
“Hey,” the writer said. “We should go upstairs! There are some amazing books up there. And it’s nice and quiet.” He started up the stairs. “Come along, Pond,” he said.
“Pond?” asked Quin.
“Never mind, just something I say sometimes. Come on up.” Both women headed toward the staircase. I began to dial my phone.
“You’ll love this,” he said to Quin. “There’s sort of a reading area. You should draw it.” He turned toward Rubi. “And it would be a great setting for a story,” he said. “It could be about… oh, hell, I don’t know what. Maybe it could be about time-travelers. Or aliens. Or maybe something about… I dunno, maybe an angel and a demon who are friends, or maybe even…”
The writer’s phone rang, and he cut himself off. “Hey… what’s up?” He turned toward the woman. “So sorry, hang on.” His face took on a look of great concern, and he turned his attention back to the phone. (Who knew that writers could be such skilled actors?) He spoke with interspersed pauses:
“Oh, are you serious? … Where are you now? … Near Greenleaf? Let me think … OK, it would take me about a half-hour to get there … Oh, the one on Lunt? … OK. I will. I’ll call you back in a few minutes, OK? All right … OK, bye. Talk to you soon.”
He slipped the phone back into his pocket. Both women were looking at him. “I feel terrible about this! I think I have to leave. A friend is having car trouble. I need to pick him up. I don’t know how long it will take. But look, you’re both here. You should stay for a while. Browse around. Enjoy yourselves.” He looked at Quin and smiled. “Keep each other company,” he said. “I’m sure you’ll have fun.” He looked at Rubi. Did he actually wink at her? Surely not.
Both women assured him that it was fine, and that they were not upset.
“I was really looking forward to spending some time with both of you. I guess we’ll have to meet up another time. I feel sorta depressed that I can’t stay,” he said. “But I dunno. I’ll just put on some nice, cheerful music in the car. Maybe some Calypso music. Oh, what’s that one song?” He looked directly at Rubi. “It goes like, ‘It don’t take a word, not a single word…’” He snapped his fingers. I remember now! He began heading down the stairs, singing (very badly, I might add).
“'And you don’t know why
But you’re dying to try
You wanna kiss the girl…’”
The woman named Rubi turned bright red. The woman named Quin simply waved at the writer. Then, she took Rubi’s hand, and they walked up the stairs together.
On his way out, the writer tapped on the counter. “Azi! Remember that book we talked about? I’ll bring it tomorrow.”
“Very well,” I said.
He nodded and headed toward the door. “You like music, Azi? Crowley told me you listen to Queen. Not what I would have expected, and I never know if I can trust Crowley, but hey, you never know what people like, right? All we can do is try to help them find something that works for them. I wonder how you’d feel about some of Michael Jackson’s old stuff?” He didn’t wait for an answer. He headed toward the door, and began singing another song:
“'I said you wanna be starting something
Got to be starting something
I said you wanna be starting something
Got to be starting something…’”
He disappeared out the door, still singing.
I hope that he returns my Dickens. But I suppose if he doesn’t, it isn’t the end of the world.