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Two Cents Worth by David J. Schow

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GARAGE SALE, read the sign. I saw the chromium-yellow tagboard, with its big black cartoony arrow, on my way back from the bus stop, stapled to a much-stapled phone pole. The address on the sign was dead between my building and the phone pole. Ever since de-zoning, re-zoning, or whatever other catastrophe acceptable to the City Council’s bribed lackeys had befallen this former “neighborhood,” the residential blocks had been carved, sliced and diced to please the developers until some bloated fat cat with a cigar in his mush, incipient cancer and a string of embezzlement acquittals had pronounced it “good,” like Frankenstein’s Monster sucking watery soup. Basically, wherever two adjacent lots could be bought, the houses on those lots were demolished to make way for cellblock-like apartment complexes, thrown up (that’s the correct term) with astonishing speed from cheap materials, featuring security doors, electronically-gated basement parking, and all the amenities suitable for isolating oneself from fellow creatures. Very few people in my building knew anyone else in the building. Elevator rides were endured in library quiet. Occasionally there was a half-hearted attempt at a laundry-room courtship. Co-habitants–they really couldn’t be termed neighbors–nodded politely at the bank of mailboxes. All this para-social nonsense added up to the pretension of civility with which we deluded ourselves on a daily basis, just to get by.

Gradually, each street had mutated into a warren of such apartment buildings, chockablock, of equal height, in differing colors, as the few remaining houses were systematically leveraged and eliminated. Generally, anyone could score an equal-opportunity apartment with a splendid bathroom window’s view of someone else’s bathroom window, about ten feet away, on the next lot. Very few houses held out–mostly older residents, subsisting on Social Security, paying low property taxes and seasonally fending off ever-more-lavish offers from the developers who never stop needing to swallow up that last square foot of unexploited ground. Usually the old residents cave in for the money, or die, at which point their heirs cave in for the money. Nail any of their offspring on the street after the realty sign goes up and you’ll usually hear a tale of woe about how they don’t wish to sell but “have to” because of debts, or other responsibilities they’ve averred. It’s not the sale I mind, it’s the attitude. There goes the neighborhood. Then guys like me move in because they can’t afford anything better.

Munster Drive was not a proper drive, more an avenue, named after some forgotten city father or local booster who had no idea his name and memory would be completely overridden by a hysterically bad television show. The residence featuring the garage sale was one of only two bonafide houses left on the block, in an honest-to-cinderblock garage, packed to the rafters with old furniture and dusty cardboard boxes. A vague, antique-shop smell hinted that there was at least one abandoned rodent nest, somewhere way in the back. A terminally bored thirteen-year-old girl was doing her best to beat a Gameboy. She was sitting on a metal folding chair and wearing gigantic shoes with five-inch-thick rubber soles. Her hair was lank and streaky blonde, there was a minor skirmish of microdot pimples on her forehead, and her attitude broadcast that she was dying for some stranger to notice her nipples so she could tear into a him with choice, properly outraged invective. She popped her gum as a way of acknowledging my presence; she was good enough at that skill to produce a sound like a small-caliber gunshot in the confined acoustics of the garage.

“Hi there.”


“Mind if I have a look?”

She rolled her eyes, stark eyes, the kind of frank brown that look really smart with blonde hair. Was I an idiot? Was she sitting here, obviously under duress and protest, for her health? Couldn’t I read the goddamned sign? She crashed into some sort of scoring crisis on the Gameboy, which began emitting distressing little noises, and gave up on attacking me for ruining her afternoon. She inclined her head to indicate I could enter the musty darkness. “Whatever.” Then she vanished into the game.

Old kitchenware. A blender that would look attractively retro if it were polished and the cord replaced. A crippled rocker, much scarred, probably broken by the growth of one or several kids. Maybe the gum-popper had climbed on this chair as a tot. Maybe she could smile. A vanity with no mirror and a missing drawer was haphazardly piled with books. The books weren’t arranged or turned spine-out so the titles were perceivable; most bargain-hunters who had ventured this deeply into the garage had been more interested in the vanity.

It was a sight you used to see in used book emporiums: Haphazard interbreeds of cheap book club editions and savaged paperbacks; bargain reprints of public domain masterworks in their billionth printing; jacketless hardcovers, runaway library copies, outdated dictionaries, useless travel guides. In every stack, everywhere in the world, at least one copy of last year’s best-selling blockbuster. I picked up one. It was a paperback with a spine four inches thick. It still smelled the way paper mills do, which isn’t pleasant. Some of the older books scattered in front of me smelled differently.

Because certain vintages exude specific bouquets, it is possible to become a connoisseur of books. Foxed paper can possess pedigree. And those hiding, deep within the convolutions of their brains, the secret love, the almost-forbidden passion for books, can sometimes rely on dead reckoning, on the magnetism books provide for those who pause to be attracted. It’s like a spiritual divining rod at the moment it selects a direction. Bingo–a little red paperback spine declared itself to my eye.

It was a copy of a Ray Bradbury book that had come out more than thirty years ago, part of a uniform reissue of Bradbury’s work. Golden Apples of the Sun. It looked like it had survived a bombing. It looked like an orphan. It looked like it wanted to go with me.

Most of my personal library had bitten the street years earlier, in a charming bureaucratic tragedy I like to call the Great Shitcanning. It involved credit card numbers and the storage locker into which I had filed too much of my life for far too long. By the time I learned that the locker was no longer under my name, and its contents had gone for landfill or used-store credit at the hands of employees unknown and untraceable, management of the storage establishment had rotated its usual five or six times and the misdeed was buried in ancient history, which was to say, more than one year ago. Along with my clothes, which had become moth-riddled, and my kitchenware, which had become obsolete, and my desk, which had grown senile from rot, had gone all of my books. I had put them where they could remain safe until I could decide about new living arrangements in another state, and they had been mugged en masse while I was out of reach. To rebuild was impractical, out of the question, absurd. I had already invested effort and love into the books which had died, or been executed, and my heart just wasn’t into the idea of recapture until I opened one of those books at the garage sale and the smell hit me.

The trim edge of the ravaged Bradbury was so soft that it invited my thumb to ruffle the pages. It felt worn-in and comfortable. It appealed directly to the tactile centers of my brain.

“How much for this?” I held up the book.

The young miss squinted sourly at it. “A penny.”

It had to be a trick. “You mean a penny, as in one cent?” I could go on about coppers and Lincoln heads, but that would make me a geek trying lamely to play suave, or worse, a grownup trying to dazzle her.

“You got it.”

“One single penny?”

“Including tax. The whole box cost us like a dollar, so it’s no big.” Her eye lent the book in my hand what I could only call less than half of a once-over.

I guessed she meant a whole box of books, which had found their way to a pile on the vanity back there in the darkness. “God, I don’t even know if I have a penny. People who have to give you four cents in change usually just throw you a nickel.”

“Yep, or you leave ’em in those little bins by the cash register, you know–if you have one, leave one, and if you need one, take one.”

“I don’t think there’s anything you can still buy for a penny.”

“You can buy that book.”

“Sold.” There was exactly one penny among all the change clogging up my pocket. Perhaps it had found its way there for a reason. All my life I have preferred to believe minor superstitions like that, trusting in their reliability and basic harmlessness. I’d picked a penny from the sidewalk just yesterday. Perhaps this one.

She dropped the penny into a bustle of bills and change rattling around inside of a cigar box. I thanked her but she said nothing else.

Back inside my apartment, third floor, with a “balcony” about the size of placemat providing a splendid view of the building across the street, I got myself a drink, sat down with the paperback, and finished reading it cover to cover in less time than it would take to watch a movie. Sometimes, when you’re starving, you eat like a goat.

I work as a traveling senior process engineer for a company you’ve never heard of called CortCom. I work with a lot of people who possess a pile of important physics degrees, and basically we make sure the metal plating process for microchips works the way it’s supposed to. If you’ve ever been near a computer, home or otherwise, CortCom is a big invisible part of your life. Most of the books I see these days are tech manuals, or bindered report folios. Not until I sat down with the paperback from the garage sale did I stop to realize I’d pretty much given up reading for pleasure–with the usual excuses involving too little time and too many things on screens, begging my notice.

This is difficult to explain rationally. I fell into that little book. I was engulfed by it. It was like an old film I’d seen of a writer, actually writing. The film had been digitally enhanced and colorized, but it was clear that it had originally been in black and white, and shot on actual film stock. Someone long ago had decided to make a movie of a writer at work. Big mistake. In nearly ten minutes of footage, the writer types out maybe a single line on his old manual typewriter. The rest of the time, he sits with his back mostly to the camera, staring at a blank sheet of paper rolled into the machine. The fancified version I saw was a download from some now-forgotten website, and the first time I saw it, I thought it was the most boring waste of time I’d ever endured. But it got saved to one of my desktops and eventually I watched it again. And it got more interesting, the more I watched it.

The writer is a guy about 30 (I guess), wearing a white dress shirt several sizes too big, but tucked in and belted as if that was the fashion and not merely a haberdashery mistake. The way the shirt moves and drapes, you can tell it’s hot in the room. The light is a single incandescent bulb in a hooded gooseneck lamp, very noirish, harsh enough to form an occasional hot spot in one corner of the frame. The man is smoking as he works. Rather, he’s not smoking. His cigarette burns in the ashtray the whole time he’s staring at the paper. The man–the writer–gets perhaps one puff off it before it’s dead.

He stares at that empty page, seeing something I cannot. It has absorbed him, and elapsed time means nothing except the slow, sinuous meandering of smoke toward the ceiling. No cursor prompts him. What he does, with little motion, with exacting concentration, is burn up enough energy to pop a sweat on his brow. It’s not just the heat. I can sense the closeness of that room, and wonder where it is, or was. What you might see if you looked out his window.

It’s not a commercial film; no brand names or product placement are visible. If this were done today it would be simple enough to optically insert the right merchandise in the right places, so the idea of this film is not to sell anything. The frame for the image itself referenced an internet link that no longer existed.

There’s a calendar on the wall in front of the writer, to the left, but the data is indistinct. The picture on it was a cityscape at night, too vague for me to tell exactly which city. I blew up the image and tinkered with the playback for clarity, and still couldn’t read the calendar. I sort of began to wish I had that calendar, which you could tell had become like a tiny window for the writer. When he wasn’t gazing into the blank whiteness of the paper, he was looking at the calendar, abstracting into the picture there, maybe imagining himself somewhere else. That was when he took the only useful drag on his smoke. He holds it in a long time, perhaps pretending that the night skyline he sees is right outside his tiny room, maybe trying to pick out stars against the urban upglow. The smoke trails out of him contemplatively. Could be a city he once lived in, or aspired to.

Sometimes I wished, more than anything, that I could read the line this mysterious, unidentified character finally decided to write. That longing, that unexpected and unexplainable emotion, was similar to what I felt not as I was reading the paperback I’d just bought, but after I had finished it. I put it on the mantel for my fake fireplace. It looked absurd, like an armoire holding up a single inadequate book. I returned to the garage sale the next day.

I did not take the book whose blurb proclaimed it to be by the best-selling writer of suspense in all history; I tried later to find that author’s name on a database and all my searches returned zero hits. I wanted the orphans, the obscure and lost books, and eventually selected a weak-spined Book Club edition of a novel titled Mad Horizon, by L. Clark Stevens.

It cost exactly one penny.

The chair was now occupied by a young boy, eleven-ish, who made it abundantly clear that removing his headphones to speak to me was a nuisance.

“Are all the books a penny?”

“I guess.”

“Where’s the girl who was here yesterday?”


“Is that her name?”

“What do you want to know for?” He narrowed his eyes; they were the same color as his big sister’s. “She’s probably off getting pregnant or something.”

“Why are the books only a penny?”

“Because that’s what they cost.” He rolled his eyes.

“That’s what they cost you, or that’s what you’re charging for them?”

“Can I help you?” A new voice joined us, in a stern tone that indicated annoyance, possible danger flags, and that help was a dishonest word to use. The woman who interceded had to be the mom; she fulfilled no other stereotype.

“I was just asking your son why the books only cost a penny.”

Now her eyes narrowed. They were algae green, and stormy with suspicion. “What makes you think he’s my son?”

I tried to force a conciliatory smile and it felt like fish-hooks, reeling my lips back, all bloody. “I was just curious about the price.”

Mom held her distance. She had a very militarized concept of personal space. I swore that she was preparing to say, why were you curious, but instead she looked around, as though assuring herself this was no ambush, or a big gag featuring hidden cameras, then spoke more personally, less like a tape cartridge was madly spooling off fight-or-flight responses inside her skull. With a dramatic sigh, she said, “Them books are a penny because Keisha asked me what to charge for them, and I didn’t have no idea so I says, just charge a penny because nobody’ll want them anyway. Hell, I just put them back there to make that vanity look more, you know, attractive.”

“You didn’t think that was a real bargain price?”

She watched me, sidelong, like a creature of cold blood fancying a strike. “No, I didn’t think that,” she said. “Who reads?”

I read Mad Horizon all at once. When I noticed my TV screen was dusty, around midnight, I laughed out loud.

The following day being Monday, the sale signs vanished and the garage was padlocked when I walked past it. On sheer impulse I decided to knock on the door and make a pre-emptive offer to take all the remaining books off Mom’s hands. Through burglary bars, an aluminum-framed door window, a dirty screen, and even dirtier scalloped drapes, I saw the kid from the previous day recognize me. Instead of answering the door he ran to fetch Mom. She stayed fortressed inside even though she recognized me, too.

“Now, what could you possibly want?”

“I thought I’d stop by and ask about the rest of those books in the garage. If it’s not any trouble–”

She overrode me. “Mister, don’t come around here. I ain’t got the time and I don’t want to talk to you.” Her eyes were distressed, as though the world had horsewhipped her one time beyond the day’s limit, or perhaps she had merely lost the remote control to her TV. She wheeled and stomped off as though I was a Jehovah’s Witness. It’s the kind of rude you expect in the city.

The boy was watching me from a side window. When I turned to look back at him, he vanished behind Venetian blinds. When I had walked to the entryway of my building, I glanced back and caught him standing on the sidewalk, still staring. He lit into his house.

Tomorrow, perhaps, I could catch him or the girl, Keisha, outdoors and out from under Mom’s fascist umbrella of influence. Most likely, the entire remaining pile of books could be obtained for free, or a pittance.

I did some work at the desk but my heart wasn’t really in it. The little icon for the strange playback of the writer, writing, beckoned. I decided to re-read a little of the Bradbury when I was buzzed from downstairs by someone identifying himself as Detective Weinstein, who showed up at my door moments later in the company of a uniformed officer. He asked if I’d mind a brief interview.

All of this struck me as weirdly, unnecessarily formal. Every cop in the city possessed a code card that would grant them instant access to buildings like mine, and since all the gun control hysteria the police had rarely had to ask permission to do anything. The first place I had ever seen cops wearing the exterior body armor–that is, outside the blouses–had been in Mexico City, but it was a fashion the LAPD was born to love. The armor came with all sorts of rigid little nylon pockets and tabs and slots for pens and cuffs and a special badge-mount and snaps to support the standard-issue sidearm belt, which pulled a lot of weight off the policeman’s waist.

Detective Weinstein’s gaze went directly to the paperback in my hand. “Doing a bit of reading?”

I shrugged. “That’s not a crime, yet, right?” I forgot, as most thoughtless people do, that levity with the police is always a rotten idea.

“Lady up the street says her daughter is missing.”

“Would that be a girl named Keisha?”

“Now, how would you know that? The mother gave her name as Victoria Jasmine Marina Wilson.”

“The girl told me her name was Keisha.”

Weinstein strolled over to my so-called balcony, leaned out, and pointed. “See that house?”

It was the garage sale house. “Is that where Mrs. Wilson lives? I didn’t know her name.”

“She sure seems to know you.”

“I don’t see how. Other than being amazingly rude to me.”

“Mrs. Wilson thinks that you may know something about the disappearance of her daughter. She directed us to this address.”

With the help of her piggy-eyed son, I thought.

The officer, whose nameplate read Sternberg, held up the copy of Mad Horizon from my fake fireplace mantel. “Here’s another one.”

“Video it,” said Weinstein. He pointed to the book in my hand. “This, too.” Sternberg recorded images with a little hand-held camera. Weinstein squinted at the cover illustration. “Guy looks like the Devil. And what’s Mad Horizon? Sure doesn’t sound like a bestseller.”

“You actually read this shit?” said Sternberg, replacing the other book as though it might have slimed his glove.

The need to be alone, and free of these two, rocked me like the wave of disorientation that slaps a drunk who tries to stand after one too many. No sane person wants the scrutiny of the police on them for any reason. I tried to steer this abrupt little nightmare back toward rational thought. “Okay, let me just get this in focus: Mrs. Wilson finds her daughter has taken off and she aims you guys at me.”

“You were seen talking to the daughter day before yesterday. You returned the following day, and again this afternoon. Why?”

“I got these books at a garage sale at that very house. I went back to see if I could get the rest of the books since the sale was only over the weekend.”

“You went there three days in a row to get books, and you didn’t even know which books?” The acid in his tone could have dissolved a tooth in a glass, overnight. “Pardon me if I say that sounds incredibly lame.” To Sternberg, he said, “Did you see any books at Mrs. Wilson’s?”

“No sir.”

“They’re in the garage,” I said.

“We looked in the garage,” Weinstein came back. “Zero books.”

“Well, then, she got rid of whatever didn’t sell.”

“Got rid of them how? Books like these, nobody would buy, so how come we didn’t find them in the garage, as you say?”

This was getting frustrating on a level that transcended mere aggravation. “Are you looking for books, or for Keisha?”

“Why do you keep calling her that?”

“Because that’s what she told me her name was.”

“You two seem to have had quite an intimate little conversation. Did you touch her or initiate any form of improper physical contact?”

“No, I–”

“Did you proposition her or make any sort of lewd commentary?”

Sternberg muttered into the mike Velcroed to his shoulder and came back with, “Couple of jaywalking pops, one arrest when he couldn’t produce proper ID.” I realized he was talking about my record.

“Look, I don’t know what this crazy woman told you, but I saw the girl once. I bought this book. The next day her brother mentioned that ‘maybe she went off to get pregnant or something.'”

“That’s a peculiar thing to remember.”

“That’s why I remembered it.”

“Sure it’s not like a fantasy you had, about getting her pregnant, maybe?”

“You’re the one having the fantasy,” I said, forgetting that where humor is a bad idea, sarcasm is a catastrophe.

Weinstein’s eyes went flat and metallic. “You better watch your fucking mouth.”

“Sir,” Sternberg said. “Better have a look at this.” He was standing next to my computer. He had already clicked on the little image of the writer, writing. I kept my lip zipped with the expected line about private papers; Weinstein would no doubt ask, what papers?

Instead he just stared as though witnessing a live donkey act. “Now what the hell is this supposed to mean?” He swiveled his scorn toward me. “What, do you jerk off to this?”

Sternberg held up one of my business cards. “He’s some kind of tech guy.”

“Oh, outstanding.” Weinstein rolled his eyes. “Some internet pervert. Here we got a local weirdo with a clear view of the subject residence, ritually repeated contact at the same time every day, a house full of books and some sick shit on the computer. Log it as a speed bench warrant and search this dump and I bet you find a pair of binoculars and some porno.” He dropped both the books from the garage sale into a plastic evidence bag whipped from of some inner pocket, like a magic handkerchief.

Sternberg collected my wrists and I heard cuffs jangle. Brusquely.

“You get to take a ride with us,” said Weinstein. “Seem more like a fantasy, now? You’re not going to make any more comments about how you know your rights, or how you pay my salary?”

When the cuffs were snapped, I knew what I thought, and what I might have said.

“Want to know what part of your story sucks?” Weinstein continued as I was hauled away, and people who I didn’t really know poked out their heads to watch, most with relief. “That crap about your going back to buy books, not bestsellers. Nobody actually reads those other things, anymore.”

They held me for three days and finally had to release me when Keisha turned up as a runaway. Needless to say, my “evidence” was never returned, and I was sprung on my own recognizance, which means probation, which means doing the egg-walk. You can still find books if you’re willing to look for them–“books” being different from “bestsellers,” as Weinstein pointed out–and are prepared to weather the social stigma of actually possessing them. It’s like smoking used to be. It was bad for you, but people did it anyway until it became illegal, and they still kept lighting up after that, but fewer and fewer. That’s evolution.

Preparing to open another crumbling book, from a disreputable source, will make me feel like I’m igniting something that will kill me. But I’ll probably open it anyway, wondering who is watching me as I do it. At the computer I try to diarize my feelings into words that peter out after a single, pathetic line:

How much longer before what I’m doing evolves from misdemeanor to felony?

And before I slink back to my reading, I stare at the blank wall of my apartment, visualizing the anonymous cityscape, trying to see the stars.

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Posted by on Thursday, December 15th, 2005. Filed under Fiction. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0. You can leave a response or trackback to this entry