It was a voice I recognized but hadn’t heard in a long time. It came from behind me.
Voices always seem to do.
I turned around and it was him; the young bearded man from the start of this nightmare.
“And now you are free”
He held his hand out and a blinding light flew from his palm. It was so bright that I squinted hard. I thought he’d fired a fire cracker at me. It went dark and quiet.
After some time, I opened my eyes. I was back in the shop. Customers were there, browsing. The bearded man was behind the counter, serving an attractive young lady.
“Hey, hey you” I shouted. People looked up, some gave me nasty looks. I didn’t care. I ran up to the counter.
“Hey, what the fuck is going on here. What was that for?”
The bearded man sighed and raised his eyebrows and put a book into a shopping bag and handed it to the girl.
“Sir, can you keep the noise down, this is a book store. I don’t have to remind you a second time and by the way, I’m serving a customer”
I looked at the girl. She had a pleasant face, large eyes and a mass of curly brown hair. She wore a little pork pie hat which was very fetching. She smiled at me, despite the brou-ha-ha I was causing.
“I’m sorry miss but I need to speak to this guy”
“That’s ok” she said. “I can tell it’s pretty important” she said. She turned to the bearded man.
“George, see you later at 8”
“See you later, Melissa”
George and Melissa? Those were the names inside the cover of that Norman Mailer book I’d found all those months ago, before my imprisonment. But surely, not, it’s a coincidence.
The man leaned over the counter.
“Why the fuck did you do that to me?” I said
“Do what to you? Are you crazy?” he asked.
“I was kidnapped and trapped over there in the back and forced to read all your fucking books, one by fucking one. I must have been there for months. You appeared. You spoke to me. You told me you were the spirit of the books. It was you. I recognize you”
He looked at me. “I’ve something for you. Wait there” I stood there, watching him leave the podium behind the counter and out the back into the staffroom. A little queue had formed. I was embarrassed about turning to whoever it was standing behind me. If they heard any of that, they would have put me down as a crazy man but this town’s full of crazies.
One more wouldn’t hurt them.
Time passed and the queue got longer and people were tut-tutting. The young bearded man still hasn’t returned. Then the staff door opened and a different young man came out. He took a look at the queue and looked aghast.
“I’m really sorry everyone, I’ll be as quick as I can” he exclaimed. I was first in line.
“I’m sorry to have kept you waiting sir, how may I help you?” he asked me.
“Actually, I am being served already?”
“Oh really, by whom?”
“The other young guy, the one with the beard and shoulder length hai. His name’s George”
“Yes, George” I said. “I know that because before me, he was talking to a girl and he called her Melissa and she called him George”
The young guy looked puzzled.
“Sir, I have these others customers to serve but can you do me a favour and wait here. I think we need to talk”
I nodded and I waited. After a while, the queue had dissipated and the young man stood down from the podium behind the desk and came to speak to me.
“Sir, did you say you were being served by a guy called George?”
“Sure, George, he went out the back into the staff room and never came back”
“And he was talking to Melissa?”
“Yeah, where the hell is he? I need to talk to him”
The young man twisted his mouth and felt his chin.
“This isn’t the first this has happened. How can I explain it. George was a guy who used to work here. Melissa was his fiancé. They died in 1968. Cops shot them outside the Democratic Party Convention. They weren’t even protesting. Just the wrong place and the wrong time.”
“But I’ve just spent the last several months trapped out the back, forced to read every book in here. George wouldn’t release me unless I finished my task, say what date is it?”
“July 3rd 2010 sir”
“It couldn’t be, that’s the date I came here at”
“Come here” He ushered me to the counter and picked up a copy of the Sun-Times.
“Look at the date, July 3rd 2010”
I never felt such relief.
“You’re not shittin’ me are you?”
“Why would I do that?”
“But I was trapped out the back over here” I pointed to the back. He looked over.
“All I know is that I saw you come in here half an hour ago and now half an hour later, you say you spent the last few months kidnapped out the back?”
“Yes, the books, they made me, they made me..”
But I let my sentence tail off as I became aware of how foolish I was sounding. I took a deep breath and thanked the young man for his time and I ran out the door.
It was Friday night. I asked several bystanders what date it was, just to make sure.
Same reaction each time. Reticent looks on their faces, eyes focused on my hands, making sure I wasn’t about to spring a gun or a knife. They would tell me the date and scurry off like spooked antelopes down the street.
I didn’t care. I took out my cell phone. It was back on full power. I phoned my hotel to make sure I was still checked in. It was. The lady asked why I was asking. ‘Just making sure’ I said.
I walked and I walked, sucking in the magic and liberty of the night air of a living city. Hours went by like this, grinning like I was high for I was high until I felt tired. I hailed a cab to take me back to my hotel.
When I arrived, I walked through the lobby.
“Sir, we hope you had a nice evening” said the lady
“You could say that”
“I forgot to tell you about our new amenity to the hotel”
“Sure, I’m all ears tonight”
“It’s the new hotel library, it opening tomorrow but we’re letting our guests have a sneak preview…”
“It’s ok, I think I’ll pass on that one, thanks anyway” I said.
“You’re welcome” she said.
I went to the elevator and pressed the button. I looked up. The digitized floor reading was changing swiftly. Then ‘Ding’ and the doors opened. I went in and pressed 4. The doors closed and up I went. Seconds later, the doors opened and I stepped out and walked down the long airless corridor back to my room. I slid my key into the lock.
“You sure you don’t want to read anything?”
I turned around. It was George.
In his right hand, a book.
In his left hand a gun.
I took my chances.
This story was inspired by my many enjoyable visits to the Myopic Bookstore, in the wonderfully boho Wicker Park/Bucktown district of Chicago, USA. It opens late into the night but not as late as I mentioned in the story (license my friends!) and is the most cavernous and well stocked second-hand bookstore I’ve ever been to and believe me, I’ve been to one to two!
I got the idea for the story when I started to contemplate the sheer volume of books there were in the store, and in the world to.
I started to wonder if all the books would ever been read again or would they be condemned to a life of dusty anonymity. This made me feel a little melancholic and thus, the seed of my story was planted. What if the books got fed up being ignored and kidnapped a hapless soul to make him read them and not let him go until he was done.
When this plot formed in my head, I beat a hasty path to the door and out onto the street.
PS : I have returned since.
If you ever want to visit and say hello to George and take some quality time out of your life, then you can find Myopic Books right here:
1564 N. Milwaukee Ave Chicago, IL 60622
Conveniently located near the Damen Blue Line CTA stop.