Fraud, Cheat, Lie, Thrill

Sissy was just closing up shop when the telephone rang, it was an old friend saying don’t lock the door, leave it open another half hour because I’m only in town for a while and I’d love to see you.

Since the only sale she’d made that day was a copy of The Book of the Book by Idries Shah, staying open had more than one virtue to recommend it. The rent was due soon and when it was paid there wouldn’t be much left over for buying unless something like food was cut out of the budget. She smiled to herself, the grim leer of a public figure shot with a loaded question on television. “Well,” she thought, “I can always go back to streetwalking if this doesn’t work out.” Closing up usually meant counting the till and making out a deposit slip, too often unnecessary.

A secondhand book store wasn’t always a paying proposition. But parents die and windfalls are good excuses to quit your stupid goddamn fucked up job and take it easy for a while. Sissy had always loved browsing through these little treasure chests in out of the way corners, looking for the rare and forgotten jewel. Some out of print work by Stirner or Proudhon, in fine leather binding, available for a song. Now running one she fell in love with every oddball who came in asking after a name that she and the buyer shared a secret, a wall that the romances and western and mystery consumers would never cross. These people weren’t buying books, they were buying warm glasses of milk to help them fall asleep at night, and a curse on the culture that makes me cater to them just so I can afford to stock real gems. Imagine a jeweler doing the bulk of his trade in costume jewelry!

At a few minutes after five a flood of people came through the door, speaking French. One came to the counter and asked about where they could find more bookstores once they had finished here. Sissy shrugged. “I’m all there is,” she said.

They busied themselves in one corner, inspecting titles and pulling loads off the shelves, with little sighs and exclamations. Sissy perked up, since they were likely to buy. She saw one of them drinking quite openly from a flask, and noticed from the corner of her eye that several more customers had come in. The crowd began to get boisterous, with actual shouts of surprise. “No one has this book!” “Look, look here!” and so on.

The old friend came in with some beer and Sissy drank with her, soon found herself drinking alone when the friend edged off toward the shelves with an excited gleam in her eye. She had started off simply enough, asking if there was a copy of Dubliners anywhere laying around. The place was packed, there wasn’t room for her friend to squeeze back, she must be busy browsing.

Sissy opened another beer, and accepted a shot from the flask when its owner came to pay up. All she had was a coffee cup, and the shot was more like a scotch on the rocks with no rocks. “Drink, drink with us,” the man shouted, “yours is the best store we’ve seen in ages!” He raised his arm, swung it out, and shouted over the uproar. “A toast, a toast to the finest of the fine!” Everyone seemed to have a drink in hand. Music was coming from somewhere, the overture to Der Fliegende Hollander, some Wagner or something.

More and more people came in, Sissy could hardly tell how many because she was busy making change for the ones who wanted stacks and bags full of books. There didn’t seem to be any order to it, the Frenchmen were buying anything and everything, it didn’t matter, they must have gone crazy for American books. Sissy found herself feeling drunk, and the lights were going on in the streets outside. Someone even wanted to buy the painting on the wall behind the counter, crows in a cornfield by some unknown.

Sissy’s old friend came back and laid her purse on the counter next to the phone. “Would you take over for a minute, Ariadne?” Sissy asked. “I’m getting tipsy, I can’t count any more.”

“Sure, why not?” Ari giggled. “Why don’t you eat something, here,” she reached in her purse, drew out a pomegranate. Sissy took it and ate it even though it was hard as a rock. She passed out, then, the sound of the gabble of voices rushing and roaring in her ears.

When she woke up Ari had fallen asleep on the floor and people had been making their own change. The shelves were empty, but a pair of lovers lay in one corner, busy with each other. A few stragglers came up to pay, and all they had to offer was old lead bullets. Opening the drawer, Sissy found it full of lead. She screamed at the last people, get out, take what you want, I’m yours now, you win, get out. A manic leer split her face and she ran out into the street, threw a rock at the glittering neon sign of a store nearby; it vanished in a puff of smoke.

Originally appeared in Inside Joke #16

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