She doesn’t know it yet, but she needs his help.
The special kind of assistance only he can provide.
He’s in a used bookstore, pretending to browse. She’s behind the counter, pretending she hasn’t noticed that her favorite customer has graced her with his presence. Which would be difficult, seeing as he’s the only customer here. He was the sole customer here last time, too. And the time before that.
He wonders how the hell this place manages to stay in business.
It’s called Brownlow’s Book Emporium, which makes it sound like something straight out of a Dickens novel. Not that Mr Fuzzypubes or Ebenezer Scrotum or whoever would seem out of place in an antiquated dump like this. Listen carefully and you’ll swear you can hear the scratching of ink-dipped quills on parchment.
The tiny store is squeezed incongruously between a Laundromat and a massage parlor, here on East Tenth Street. Farther along the street there’s a place offering tarot reading. The owner of Brownlow’s might be well advised to drop in there for a quick peek into his future. Alternatively, he could compare the present with the past by turning the corner onto Fourth Avenue. The stretch running from Astor Place up to Union Square was once known as Book Row. In its heyday it offered a home to something like four dozen bookstores. Now they’re all gone, which says something about the book trade. And when even the big players like Borders are struggling with the recession, how the hell does the owner of Brownlow’s Book Emporium even manage to pay the staff?
The man wonders if there is something about the book-buying business of which he remains blissfully ignorant. Some special time of day when a plague of frantic bookworms descends and purchases every dusty volume on the shelves. Maybe he should ask the girl.
She’s looking at him.
Even when she’s not looking at him, she’s looking at him. She’s one of those people who can keep their head in a fixed position while their eyeballs roam around and take in the surroundings. Like a gecko or chameleon or some other creepy reptile.
Not that she’s repulsive. She wouldn’t shatter a camera lens. But on the other hand she’ll always be a stranger to the catwalk. For one thing, she has no bone structure. Her contours are buried beneath a thick layer of pallid flesh. And a million freckles congregate around the bridge of her nose like they’ve come to hear the sermon on the mount.
These things he could overlook. He could easily while away a few hours talking to a girl whose primary drawback is a spherical dotted head.
But the sniffing, no. Not the sniffing.
She does it every few seconds. She does it so often it’s a wonder she isn’t dizzy with oxygen overload. It’s probably the reason her face looks so inflated.
Stop the sniffing, girl. Let some of that air out so we can see your cheekbones.
He guesses she’s not aware of the habit. That it has never occurred to her that her frequent snorting just might be a source of intense irritation to others. That maybe it’s one of the reasons she’s stuck behind the counter of this dingy little bookstore in the East Village.
Nonchalantly, he reaches at random for a book.
Speaking of which. .
No, that’s too cruel. She’s not fat. Not even especially overweight, in fact, although she could do with a little more muscle tone. She should try hefting a few of these books around instead of sitting there scribbling in her little notebook all day.
He opens the first page of his book and reads.
What is my name today?
It needs to be something with a hint of mystery, an undercurrent of danger. A name a spy might have. Or the hero in a cowboy movie. Something like John Rambo or James Bond.
He feels her eyes on him.
They’re her redeeming feature, those eyes. Huge and wide and wet, they make Bambi look shifty in comparison. She doesn’t realize what an asset those peepers are. She should use them to her advantage a little more often.
Her tits too. That’s quite a rack she’s got there. If she unfastened a couple of buttons she’d have guys eating out of her hand and drooling into her cleavage.
He looks across at her and she bows her head even further. She brings pen to paper, pokes out her tongue in mock concentration. But he knows that in another few seconds her head will tilt slightly upwards and her eyes will roll around in their sockets until they can lock onto him again.
She’s smitten, is what she is.
He’s not surprised by this, and he acknowledges it without arrogance. Girls go for him. They find him attractive. Years ago he went to live in Paris, France. The only thing he was good at was languages — science and technology just never interested him — so moving somewhere where his forte might actually come in useful seemed a potentially fruitful idea at the time. He ended up teaching English at a girls’ school.
It began with the suggestive remarks. Passages of text would be deliberately mistranslated to give them lewd overtones. Some of the girls would exploit any opportunity to sit next to him, sidling up close and sucking on their pencils, one too many buttons unfastened on their virginal white blouses. Others would jockey for position at the front of the classroom, affording them an optimal view of the shadowy region beneath his desk. They would sit there, whispering and giggling and constructing their fantasies.
He let it all pass him by. He knew what they were doing, but was never tempted to succumb. He saw them initially as childish, later as faintly ridiculous, later still as irritating and even despicable. They held no attraction for him.
Not those girls, anyway.
There were others, however. The less than beautiful ones. The quiet ones. The girls who would sit at the back of the class, hiding their faces and their fears and their very presence. The vulnerable ones. They were the ones who fascinated him. He would go out of his way to talk to those girls, much to the chagrin of their more assertive and voluptuous classmates. When he could do so without inviting criticism of his motives, he would chat to them in private. And what he quickly discovered was that he had a talent for getting them to open up to him. It was as if he possessed a magic key which, when he turned it, released a flood of emotions and tales of personal woe. His secret was to listen intently, with an interest that was never feigned, and he knew that they relished the attention from this dashingly handsome teacher. This was when he first became aware of his ability to help life’s unfortunates.
Like the bookstore girl.
He decides it’s time.
He tucks the book under his arm, picks up his sports bag and starts toward her. She continues her pretense of being unaware, but he knows that his every footfall is the first beat of a whole bar in her fluttering heart.
When he reaches the counter, and any further denial of his presence would be so obvious as to be rude, she looks up at him and blinks myopically.
She gets off her chair, smoothes down her skirt, affixes a warm smile. He notices how round-shouldered she is. Throw ’em back, he thinks. Stick that chest out. You wanna shift some of this paper, then give the public a reason to come through the door.
‘Hi,’ she says. ‘Found something you like?’
He wonders if this is meant as a
He drops his bag, holds the book up so that she can see the cover. ‘I’m trying to work my way through all the books I should have read when I was younger.’
‘That’s a worthy ambition. You shouldn’t speed-read them, though.’
The book he bought the last time he was in here. Two days ago. Obviously he made an impression.
She reddens as she wrestles with her answer. ‘I, uh, I have an excellent memory when it comes to books.’
Good recovery, he thinks. Now my turn for a plausible response.
‘My mother took the Steinbeck. Saw it in my hands and thought it was a gift. Yanked it from me so fast I got paper cuts.’
He laughs and she joins in. Which makes it even funnier to him because she doesn’t appreciate the real joke. Not yet, anyhow.
‘Maybe you should put on gloves next time you visit your mom,’ she says, trying to continue the humor.
He stops laughing. That’s not funny. It’s just stupid. It’s such a lame riposte that he finds himself feeling embarrassed for her.
She looks confused now, out of her depth, so he gestures toward her spiral-bound notebook.
‘You mind me asking what you’re writing there? You seemed really lost in it.’
‘This? Oh, it’s nothing. Just a little poetry. Helps pass the time.’
‘Poetry? Really? I love poems. Could I hear some?’
He doesn’t want to hear any. He suspects they’re shit. But when people need your help you sometimes have to make sacrifices.
She grabs up the notebook, clutches it to her ample chest, flutters her eyelids at him, sniffs a couple of times. ‘Oh no, I couldn’t possibly. It’s way too personal.’
He finds it hard to maintain a smile. He knows what she wants him to do. She wants him to plead to see her outpourings. She wants him to keep on asking so that she can keep on saying no, no, no, until he just wants to rip the fucking pages from her hand.
But he manages to hold on to his civility. ‘What, you mean it’s hot stuff?’
She looks shocked. ‘No. What do you. . No.’
‘I’ll bet it is. I bet I’d never be able to look you in the eye again once I’d found out what goes on in that head of yours.’
‘Well, you’re just going to have to keep on wondering, aren’t you?’
He studies her. Watches the way she tilts her head to one side while she beams her wouldn’t-you-like-to-know smile.
‘Tell you what. If I guess your birthday, you have to let me read your poetry.’
She considers this. ‘My birthday? The exact day of the year?’
‘Give me a sporting chance. Allow me two days either way.’
‘All right. You’re on.’
He folds his arms, looks her up and down. She seems to enjoy the scrutiny. Probably the most rigorous inspection she’s had in a long time.
‘First of all, I’d say you’re a Pisces. Am I right?’
‘That’s pretty good. How’d you figure that one out?’
‘Pisces people are creative and imaginative. You’d need that for the poetry.’
They’re also weak-willed and gullible, he thinks.
‘Okay,’ she says, intrigued now. ‘Go on.’
‘I’d say. .’ He pauses for effect. David Blaine, eat your heart out. ‘I’d say March rather than February.’
She’s shifting from foot to foot now, like she’s about to pee herself.
‘The tail end of the star sign,’ he intones. ‘Yeah, right toward the end.’
She lets out a tiny squeal of excitement. He thinks she’s easily entertained. He thinks that if he gets this right, she’s going to have an orgasm.
‘March the. . the seventeenth.’
Anti-climax. She lets out a puff of air in disappointment. Her face says,
‘Close,’ she says, holding her finger and thumb apart like she’s commenting on his manhood. ‘It’s the twentieth. That was pretty impressive, though.’
He smiles. Not at the compliment, but at how far a deliberately wrong guess can get you.
‘So I suppose I don’t get to see your poems then?’
‘No. Not this time.’
Oh? A hint of opportunities yet to come? How daring of you, young lady.
‘In that case,’ he says, ‘you don’t get to see mine.’
Her eyes bulge. ‘You write? Poetry?’
‘Fiction, actually. Short stories mostly, although I’m trying my hand at a novel. It doesn’t come easy to me, though. You know what somebody once said about writing? All you have to do is sit at a typewriter and open up a vein. That’s kind of how I’m finding it.’
‘I know what you mean,’ she says dreamily, like he’s her newfound soulmate. She doesn’t know he hasn’t written a single line of fiction since he graduated from school.
She sucks up another deep lungful of the musty air. ‘Maybe we could do a trade. One of your stories for one of my poems. Next time you drop in.’
Here we go. .
She blinks. ‘What?’
‘I’m not in this area too often. I live upstate. But maybe. . well, I was just thinking. . if I could call you or something. .’
Her mouth opens and closes like she’s a landed trout. ‘I. . I’m not sure. .’
‘That’s okay. I understand. Why would you give your number out to a perfect stranger? Tell you what: I’ll give you my number. If you want to call me, that’s fantastic. If not, then, well, I understand.’
He fishes a pen from his inside pocket, makes a show of looking for a piece of blank paper. Before she can find one he points to her arm. She’s wearing a woolen sweater with sleeves that reach only to the elbow. Perfect.
‘Give me your arm. Come on, that way I know you won’t lose it.’
She hesitates, but only for a second. Smiling, she lays her arm on the counter. What harm can it do, right?
He clicks his biro, scribbles a number in blue ink across the inside of her wrist.
‘No washing until you call me, okay?’
She laughs as she glances at the number, then follows this up with a frown.
‘What?’ he asks.
‘I, uh, I don’t even know your name.’
He motions for her to surrender her arm again. ‘Close your eyes,’ he says. ‘No peeking. You can look at it when I’m gone.’
‘Why? Is it that bad?’
‘It’s. . unusual.’
She sighs, then sniffs, then does as she has been asked.
He looks down at the column of white flesh with its network of blue-green veins. Like marble.
It’s the moment. His plan has worked. He’s surprised at how easy it’s been. Perhaps it’s because, even though she’s not conscious of it, her soul is crying out for help.
It’s okay, he wants to tell her. I’m here now.
‘What’s taking you so long?’ she asks with a giggle.
He does it then. One swift motion.
Her eyes pop open. He sees the total lack of comprehension in them as her brain struggles to switch context, to make sense of this unexpected phenomenon.
Because what she sees is a geyser of blood spurting from her wrist.
And when the pain strikes home and her brain realizes that something is seriously wrong here and she opens her mouth to scream, he tightens his grip on her wrist and strikes again with his scalpel. And again, and again, moving higher and higher up her bare arm.
And when her hand becomes so slick with her hot blood that she is able to wrench it out of his grasp, he steps around the counter and continues his methodical onslaught. The screams continue as he slashes at her face and neck, at her full, ripe breasts, and when she finally spins away he stands and watches as she whirls and crashes into walls and bookshelves, the blood spraying from her body onto all those books, all those words.
When her heart has almost nothing left to pump and her brain has decided the fight is over, she collapses in a corner of the room. The blood leaks more slowly now from the gaping mouths in her flesh.
He walks over to her, looks down at her twitching figure.
Hell, I practically told you why I came here.
He knows the precise moment when life leaves her. He’s witnessed it before. It’s as if every cell of the body sighs with the lifting of its burden of coping with the world.
For a couple of minutes he absorbs the peace of it all, allows the calm to percolate through his system.
He surveys the scene. Messy, very messy. But it had to be this way.
He’s drenched in her blood. It’s on his face, his hands, all down his nice white shirt. A drop of it trickles down his cheek and onto his lips. He licks it away.
He walks over to the front of the store, his shoes squelching on the carpet. He turns the lock on the door, flips the sign to ‘Closed’, then moves back to the counter and retrieves his bag. Carrying it into the small office at the rear, he strips, washes himself down at the sink, then changes into the clean clothes he brought with him. He puts the blood-soaked garments into the bag and retraces his path to the front door.
When the street seems momentarily clear, he unlocks the door, steps outside and walks without hurry to his car.
As he fires up the engine he takes a last look at the bookstore. It looks so small, so dull, so lacking in energy and adventure. So absent of life.
God knows how they stay in business, he thinks.