station was filthy, but that was to be expected in a city with a
population of this size. An amount of people put out a given amount of
waste per person; when there weren't enough forces to clean up after
them, the result was a dirty station, to say nothing for the rest of
the grimy sprawl.
think that there were people that actually had to live on the filthy
streets. Adrian leaned back in his chair and sighed, running his hand
over his balding head. He was getting old, wasting his life away in a
derelict pawnshop in a dilapidated strip mall across from the bustling
station. It was getting dark, or maybe that was merely the smog-smoked
glass playing tricks on his aging eyes again.
picked up his novel again. It was written by one R. Lee Harris, a
prestigious literature author who had won several literature awards.
The radio feed was broken by static, it was on a variety music channel
which played things from the past few decades. That was what he liked,
variety. The ceiling fan went round and round in an erratic, buzzing
chime on the door clinked against the glass as somebody entered. Adrian
sat the novel down on the counter and looked at the new entry. A
younger man with a shoddy beard, neatly dressed with a baseball cap on.
The cap rather ruined the effect, Adrian thought. Perhaps he had just
come from a game?
"Looking for anything in particular?" Adrian stood up behind the
counter, and prepared to come in front of the case, though there was
hardly room for it in the already-cramped store.
uh... I was wondering if you had any sunglasses." Sunglasses? That was
a new one. "There might be a pair in the junk bin, up on the second to
top shelf there. I doubt it though, we usually don't have stuff like
that." The junk bin was a translucent plastic container. There was a
piece of pink posterboard with "junk bin" written in Adrian's
block-letter scrawl taped to the front. Inside were various odds and
ends. And, evidently, a pair of cheap sunglasses.
much?" The man looked them over casually. "50." The man grunted in
acknowledgement, and tried the sunglasses on. Black plastic with
reflective rainbow lenses, they looked rather silly. Went with the cap
more than the clothes, Adrian mused. He was evidently pleased, because
he placed the proper coins down on the counter and walked out without
taking his receipt. Where was he in such a hurry to go to? Maybe his
date was waiting somewhere, and he just couldn't meet her without the
proper plastic sunglasses.
Adrian sighed as the coins clinked in the drawer of the register, and
ripped off the automatically-printed receipt from the adding-machine.
The top copy (white copy), normally given to the customer, he tossed in
the metal wastebasket in the corner by the door to the back
(warehouse/living quarters). The yellow carbon-copy was spiked onto a
metal skewer with the previous sales of the day, to be counted up and
was not looking forward to that. The radio had a bout of static again.
It was always in the middle of the songs he liked, too. It didn't
matter anyways, because the train's loud whistles (letting off steam)
made the effort of the music futile. He stretched, and sat back down.
R. Lee Harris' novel was waiting as the crowd outside shuffled onto the
loading platform to catch the train.
the front of the pawnshop there was a 25 machine. It was thus named
because one put in a 25 piece, turned the handle, and something would
come out. This particular one was a model with three compartments.
There was a metal top on each, a rectangular glass panel on the front,
and the same red-painted metal covering the box-structure on the sides.
The bottom was where all three of the boxes were connected together on
a single metal shelf, which was in turn held up by a
perpendicularly-placed metal pole in the center. At the bottom, there
was another metal piece like the shelf. This was bolted to the floor.
left compartment was half-filled with square pieces of gum with hard
candy coating of multiple flavors and colors. Adrian supposed they
would stay good forever. It had been nearly a year and half since he
had bothered filling it. Not many customers bothered with the gum, but
out of those few none had gotten sick from eating it. If they had, they
hadn't bothered to complain.
middle box was usually filled with toys in small plastic containers.
Currently, there were rings made of cheap metal with translucent
plastic "stones" set into them. These had been popular; there were only
a few left. It was almost worth the effort required to individually
place each ring into the plastic container. This did not sound like a
daunting task, but when one considered the tedious business of snapping
the lids shut sixty something times in a row...
right container sat empty. Adrian had not been able to think of
anything to put in it. There was a crack in the glass from something,
and he was wary of spending the money to put something edible into it
in case the crack should defer customers from getting anything. Perhaps
some sort of toy? But what, was the question.
Adrian was deathly bored as he considered this. Having finished his
novel in the late hours of the previous day (there had not been time to
get a new one) he had almost nothing to do. Everything that could be
had been polished, dusted, or shined up had been. Gum sounded good,
then he really should work on the finances.
Using a coin from the register, he received a small assortment of
gum pieces. There were three orange, two peppermints, a spearmint, a
banana, three cinnamons, one pink (he never had been sure what flavor
the pink ones were). Best to eat the orange ones first. Popping those
into his mouth, he pocketed the other ones.
Before he got back to the desk, the door clinked. He turned around,
pressing the gum to the roof of his mouth. "Anything I can help you
new arrivals were a middle-aged woman and a young girl. "I noticed your
gumball machine here." Gumball machine? Oh, the 25 machine, he realized
as she gestured to it. "Is it alright if I take a picture of it?" The
girl was poking around at various things in the shop, the two pigtails
her curly dark-brown hair was tied into bobbing as she moved. Cute kid.
picture of the 25 machine? Go ahead. If I may ask what for?" The woman,
who had the same dark hair and round face as her daughter, was
rummaging through her purse for something. She produced an older-model
I'm a pop culture expert. My name is Jean Harris." A pop culture
expert? If only he had such an easy job... But he wouldn't give the
pawnshop up for anything, he knew. The pawnshop was his life; job,
income, and housing. He shook her hand firmly when she extended it. "My
current project is a book on... 25 machines. Can you tell me the
history behind the machine, and your shop?"
"Well, the machine was already here with the property when I bought it.
That was, oh... ten, twenty years back now. This used to be a
barbershop, here. When I bought the place, I turned the back," he
gestured to behind the counter, "into an apartment. That's where I
live." He went on rambling for a while, and she wrote things down in a
purple memo book. Her daughter was remarkably well behaved, thankfully.
He had had experiences with children who... weren't. She seemed
fascinated by the place and went on looking around all while they were
finances would have to wait. There were pictures to be taken: of Adrian
himself, of the shop (interior and exterior), and of the machine in
question, and an interview to be given. "A lot of it wouldn't make it
into the book, but it's always nice to have extra information," she
told him. She seemed to be a practical woman. Also, there was a legal
consent form to be filled out; you couldn't do anything without the
proper legal form these days.
other customers came in to see what the fuss was about, to Adrian's
disappointment. (The station seemed to draw all the focus of the area
like a black hole- it was almost the color with its iron framework and
grit. He had been told people came from around the country to see it
and wondered why anyone would waste their time, but was thankful when
tourists stopped by.)
woman apologized profusely over taking his time and his business, and
thanked him readily for the information. They had spent a full 500 in
the 25 machine (for research), and the girl had found a stuffed toy for
another 200. After seeing them off, Adrian decided to close up for
today. He turned off the neon sign in the door and headed back into his
private quarters. It was a full hour and a half early before closing
time, but if anybody desperately needed anything they could pound on
the glass door until he heard them. He was ready to call it a day as he
went over to the faucet and had a quick drink, then went to the couch
for a nap.
Lunch today was a pre-packaged salad; the lettuce was thin and not
overly crunchy. He'd taken out the tomatoes, and added some egg,
bacon-flavored bits, and croutons from a box. It still wasn't overly
good, but the light Italian dressing helped. The salad was in a plastic
bowl, a lime green one. That was one advantage of living in a pawnshop:
One never ran out of dishes.
sat behind the counter as he ate. The finance book glared at him. He
ignored it. It had been a slow day so far today- the only customer had
been a teenage girl who got something out of the 25 machine, a ring (he
was getting low on those now) who had seemed to disappear after leaving
the store. Odd, but perfectly explainable, he was sure he had merely
blinked and she zipped off somewhere out of his line of vision.
radio was on, as staticy and crackly as ever. Summer was slowly winding
down, almost so slowly it wasn't noticeable, as the days drifted away
lazily. It was getting to time for the new session of school to start.
Well, not a new session per se since everywhere around had gone to
all-year programs, the time when students advanced a level. New
supplies would be needed; he would have to make his display of
organizers and stationary more prominent.
store wasn't really a pawnshop since it was rare people came to turn
things in for money. Those who did usually sold minor electronic
devices; sometimes jewelry but not so often as precious metals were
getting rarer. It was easier just to take them to a re-fashioner and
get them in the newer styles, unless you needed the cash. There was
talk about stopping production of metal money. What, then, would happen
to the next generation without 25 machines?
was stalling. The finances needed to be done; it was almost the end of
the month when his rent would come due. Utilities too. He had been
eating in a lot lately, and as a result using the dishwasher probably
more often than he should. But if he let the dirty dishes sit after he
finished eating, they'd pile up... Better the dishes pile up than it to
have it get so he can't pay the water bill though.
Tomorrow was Saturday; the shop would be closed. Saturday was
traditionally the day when all the denizens of the suburbs gathered
their junk and set it out for sale on tables in their yard. Usually one
could get deals on a lot of various things if one had the will to wake
up early and stay out long- a typical Saturday consisted of going out
from 6 to about noon or 1, then returning to appraise and price all of
the new finds.
the better to do the finances now before he had all of the stuff
tomorrow to worry about as well. He walked over and set the empty salad
bowl on the kitchen counter in back, then went outside to check the
mail. It wasn't here yet. He closed the lid on the black metal post box
that was mounted on the brick wall of the storefront and went back in.
Now, where had he put the gas bill and the water bill... The
electricity bill and the trash pickup were already on the counter, by
No customers came in for the rest of the day. It figured, the
time when he wanted an interruption he couldn't get one. With all the
utilities (Shouldn't they be covered in the rent? What a rip-off...)
and the rent together, he was almost a full 200 behind. He hadn't
checked the 25 machine yet, but that would yield 5, 10 at most. He
sighed as he turned the sign to ‘closed.’ The sun was
setting, and he could see the colors behind the framework of the
stepped outside, breathed deeply, and coughed as the polluted air
filled his lungs. The sunset was beautiful, even seen through the hazy
atmosphere. Above, the sky was that bluish purple color one can only
find at twilight, and the clouds were candy-pink. There was nobody on
the sidewalk for a while either way, he seemed alone, even with the
busy sounds of the crowd in the station. He went back inside, locked
the door, and tried not to think about finances.
4: The 24 hour convenience store, closed world, and the station
alarm woke him up all too early on Saturday. He groaned and hit the
snooze button to stop it and buy some time to actually wake up. Five
minutes later, it went off again. Adrian gave up and sat up, turning it
off properly this time. One morning routine later (change out of bed
clothes, resist temptation to go back to sleep, drink a cold glass of
water and wonder why he wasn't going back to sleep, wash up and shave),
after taking a minute to locate his shoes and the keys to the shop, he
was out on the sidewalk breathing in the cool morning air.
destination was the corner of the block, where there was a small
convenience store and newspaper stand. He walked past the cleaners,
which was still dark inside, and wondered where Telly was. After all it
was almost... he had forgotten his watch. He knew there had been
something he forgot.
Reaching the convenience store, he walked inside. There were several
displays of newspapers from around the city and books of various genres
(he would have to check the book rack; he'd had trouble getting to
sleep since finishing his last novel). There were dozens of shelves
arranged neatly in aisles, with various food products and household
items. Between this store and the cleaners' next door, Adrian only had
to leave the strip mall for clothing that he could likely find at yard
sales. That was really the only reason he did leave this comfortable
little strip, and the reason he couldn't give up his Saturday routine.
Let's see, he would need something for breakfast... a candy bar, with
bittersweet chocolate, caramel, and peanuts; and a package of spearmint
gum for later. Now, about those books. On the rack there was a mystery,
two with spaceships on the covers that were by the same author, and one
with a picture of an island on the cover. The rack creaked as he turned
it to make the island book more accessible. Paradise by Edward Mundt.
He glanced at the back and decided it would do, grabbing a copy of
Saturday's edition of the newspaper as well.
his purchases in tow, he walked up to the counter. The clerk on duty
today was Bryan, a teenager who had been recently hired. He seemed
friendly enough, but he was quiet and reserved. As he totaled up the
prices, he absently ran a hand through his short-cut mousy brown hair.
"The total comes to 4 and 42." Adrian handed over the money, which was
put into the register with a practiced, efficient motion. Bryan ripped
off the receipt and put it into the brown paper bag with the rest of
the items, then handed them to Adrian with a "Have a nice day."
There were more people about now. Adrian checked his money supply; it
was still sufficient for his customary automobile rental once he got
off the train. All he carried was cash; he'd seen credit cards ruin
many people. A lot of the things he took in nowadays were from such
people in deep debt. He checked his watch. 7:12, about twenty minutes
since the morning train then. After crossing the street at the
crosswalk as was proper, he moved to wait in the queue of people
waiting to get tickets.
Since he'd invested in a Train Pass years ago, he had no need to pay
for tickets. Pass or not, you were required to get a ticket to board
the train. Some lawyer had probably thought that one up so you couldn't
use being on the train at the time as an alibi without having a ticket
stub as proof. Or maybe that sort of thing only happened in cheap crime
novels; he wasn't sure.
line moved faster than he'd expected. The generic station worker of
choice today was a glasses-wearing woman with dyed-blonde hair in the
navy blue official station uniform. He showed her his pass, and she
sorry sir, but your pass is expired." Expired? That was new. "See, here
on the sticker? The date was for last Tuesday." He was going to
protest, but she had the fierce determination of a newly hired employee
and he simply wasn't awake enough to deal with it.
"How much does it cost to renew it?"
one year, it's 50 and three is 100." Grudgingly, he brought out his
wallet. The man behind him in line muttered something that sounded like
the word senile to the next person, whom Adrian couldn't see. He didn't
hear a response.
Adrian counted out five 20-unit bills and handed them over. She had a
sheet of stickers ready, and fixed a shiny new sticker onto the spot
where the old one had been. "Here you go," she handed the card back to
"Where are you off to today, then, sir?" Adrian looked at the card and
returned it to his wallet, which he then put away back in his pants
pocket. "North station, suburb side," he answered. She typed something
onto her register, and it printed out a blue rectangular piece of
paper. After she also handed that over, he checked it and it was
"Thanks," he said. "Have a nice ride," she replied, smiling. He looked
at the new sticker again. Hm. Well, that had used up pretty much all of
his funds for today. That was not good, because he wasn't sure how much
he had left. He checked his watch. He had eight minutes left until the
train came, so he had best be quick about finding out.
Saturday had been productive. After catching the train, he'd gone to
the inner city- the suburban area. The train tracks were the barrier
between the inner and outer cities, and the four major stations were
the only way to cross between inner and outer. The tracks were a wall
as sure as the great wall around the city itself was, and as sure as
the wall between the inner city park (which was nearer the center than
the suburbs, the next "ring" in, in fact) the and the walled city's
nucleus- the Central Administrative District.
There, he'd leased a car out from the agency from the afternoon. The
car was a little white Hally Fiald hatchback from a decade or two ago,
slightly dinged and battered but it worked and had the storage space,
so he was fine. It wasn't like there were that many other cars around,
people mostly got them just to haul stuff or they could take out a
longer lease if they liked going out.
found some nice stuff: a few glass bottles of various colors and sizes,
some journals and planners which were always good even though they sold
rather cheap, and a few other odds and ends. In the end he didn't even
need the car for hauling, but it made getting around a lot easier. He'd
been able to carry his finds back to the shop after the ride back to
the station- the location was convenient if nothing else.
Sunday afternoon, he was still pricing up his finds. The phone rang, a
loud electronic trilling, and refused to stop until he picked it up. It
irked him when the thing rang and interrupted his work.
"Hello, pawnshop," he said with perhaps less enthusiasm than he should
have. In the background there was a woman's muffled voice, but other
than that, silence. "Hello?" The woman was insistent about something,
but it was a young man who spoke.
"Hello, yes, is this the pawnshop across from south station?" "Yes it
is," Adrian replied. At least it was customers, instead of annoying
telemarketers. "Do you have any- yes, what, oh, excuse me sir," then
the phone went quiet and there was a muffled argument or giggling or
static coming through from the other end. They were probably students,
he decided. If this was some sort of prank, he would...
"Sorry about that. I was calling to ask if you had any (what was it
again), any electronic game consoles of any sort. Especially older
ones. We're, er, collectors," the woman's voice burst out laughing.
Adrian was annoyed almost to the point of anger, but tried to keep calm
as he replied. "Yes, I believe we have a few right now. Would you like
me to check which types?"
no, sir, that isn't necessary. We'll be by in a few minutes. Thank
you." There was an abrupt click, and the line cut off. Adrian sighed
and tried to get back to pricing things. Hadn't he picked up a few
electronic game discs yesterday while he was out? Or had he passed them
up... He bent down and rummaged, and came up with three discs in cases.
Now, what was a good price for these? How about... 600. That seemed
fair. He took off three more brightly colored round stickers and wrote
6 on them, then stuck them accordingly.
Minutes later, the door chimed. Adrian looked up expectantly at the
newcomers: a tall-ish male with glasses (rectangular frames? how odd)
and a woman with dyed-red hair in a black tee shirt and jeans. They
were definitely students, by the look of things. Pretty well off ones
too, for there was a small silver car outside.
were the ones that called about the electronic games a little while
ago, can you please point us in their general direction?" Her voice was
pretty, but it had a slight tone of condescension. It was probably
nothing personal. The mass of red hair she had tied up in a ponytail on
her head bobbed as she spoke.
"Yes, they're over there in that bin, the bottom shelf there." She
thanked him. At least they were polite. They treated the merchandise
well too: the young man was looking around as the redhead dug through
the game bin.
made a muffled noise of surprise and beckoned him over. Adrian watched
with interest as there was a hushed conversation in what sounded like
disbelieving tones. Maybe he'd been lenient on pricing?
put two of the cases back in the basket, but brought one up to the
counter. There was a picture of a dragon on the front, and a title
printed in a hard-to-read script that also said something about
dragons. Hm. Interesting. It looked like the sort of fantasy books he
used to read when he was a student. He really should try to dig some of
those out again.
Almost glowing, the redhead handed over the correct change. "I can't
believe you had this here, I've been looking for it for ages! And
priced so cheap, too!" Adrian smiled as he handed her the receipt.
"Glad you found what you were looking for. I usually bring in new stock
every Sunday. I can't guarantee I'll get more of these, but call and
I'll tell you if I get some in."
"Thanks," she said as she took the bag. "I'll try to remember to do
that." They got into their car and drove away. Adrian watched. Yes, he
would definately have to dig out some of his old fantasy novels. He'd
almost finished the book he bought yesterday. It was decent, but he was
getting tired of the same old real-life novels.
Almost as an afterthought, he pulled two more stickers off the sheet,
and wrote 750 on each of them. After removing the old stickers as best
he could, he affixed the new ones in place. Yes, electronic games like
these always sold well. He would have to watch out for more in the
uneventful week went by. Adrian sat, ate, slept, and slowly made his
way through Paradise; the trains kept coming and going, along with the
customers. It was Sunday again. With the weather cooling, there had
been remarkably little to find yesterday; even less worthy of purchase.
It had been an easy chore to price it up this morning, and there was
almost an hour until the shop opened at noon.
was waiting it out behind the counter. The radio was tuned to a
classical music channel, and Adrian leaned back in his chair and picked
up the book. It was pretty good, but the plot had gotten needlessly
convoluted. He had best read the last two chapters over again before
getting into the final three; otherwise he would be hopelessly lost.
Despite the author's tendency to ramble on, he was rather enjoying the
book. The radio crackled with static.
Roughly a half of an hour later, somebody banged on the glass. He
ignored it as somebody just passing by, but the noise persisted until
he switched off the radio, put down the book and came out to the front
of the store to see who was there. It was a man roughly his own age
with fading reddish hair and a younger girl. The man looked familiar,
but Adrian was at a loss for his name.
"Adrian! Let us in!" The man knew him, and continued to bang on the
door. Antisocial or not, there was no way he could get out of this.
Maybe it was for the better anyways; it had been too long since he had
meaningful human contact. Ever since his daughter had gone to study
abroad; no, before that, back almost to the time of the divorce. He
fished in the back pocket of his pants for the key and unlocked the
"What's the matter, don't you remember me?" The man brushed his coat
off as he came in, and the girl hung back and was quiet. The voice, the
tone, and the gesture served to jog Adrian's memory.
"Christy?" The man's face lit up in a smile. Christian Baker; one of
Adrian's longtime friends from his days of schooling. It had been years
since he'd seen Christy. This girl had to be his daughter; when had
Christy gotten married? He vaguely remembered a wedding invitation from
before, around the time of the divorce- he shoved that out of his mind.
There was no need to spoil a happy reunion with thoughts of such
things. "Come in, come back behind the counter here and stay for a
while. Can I get you something? Coffee, tea?"
no. The wife's waiting back at the in-laws', along with my son Ritchie.
This is my daughter Leslie. Leslie, this is Adrian, a friend of mine
from years ago." The girl hesitatingly held out her hand, Adrian shook
it gently and smiled. Oh, he wanted to see his daughter again. It had
been a while since her last letter, maybe he should call her campus...
but she was probably out for summer still, with her mother and
step-father. Step-father. Marie's second husband...
just stopped in at the convenience store down on the corner, and
happened to see you." Adrian noticed Leslie was carrying a paper bag
from the store and wondered what was in it. "See, we're visiting my
wife's family this weekend. They live a short while away, just down the
street. Now that I know where you are, I'll have to stop in for that
cup you promised earlier," Christy said, grinning. "How about next
Sunday, about this time?"
"Sure, that would be nice. It was nice meeting you Leslie, and good to
see you too, Christy. Give the wife my regards, and your son too." They
went out the door. "Tell your wife and daughter I said 'Hi' too,
Adrian." That stung, and almost brought tears to Adrian's eyes as he
saw them off and waved as they went down the street.
needed to catch up with Christy; he had all but broken off contact with
the man after missing his wedding. It was amazing that he wasn't angry
about that, but then, Christy had always been easygoing and never one
to hold a grudge. Even with the memories it brought back, Adrian was
glad to see him again. It would be nice to have somebody to talk to.
Thoughts of his wife and their daughter and her new husband milled
around in his mind. He turned the sign to open; still twenty minutes
before noon but he needed some distraction- it may as well be a
customer. He went over and turned the radio back on, then picked up the
goods from yesterday and set about finding places for them. Paradise
lay forgotten next to the cash register.
week went slowly. Adrian spent a good deal of time thinking, about his
family and friends he'd left behind over the years. Tuesday he finished
Paradise. The ending was unsatisfying, and he wasn't sure he liked the
book as much now. There was nothing else good to read in the
convenience store; just a few romance and mystery. Friday the redheaded
student girl came back. She looked around and checked the electronic
games, which he'd started looking out for, but left empty-handed. He
wondered where the boy she'd been with went as she drove off in the car.
Saturday he went out, armed with Saturday's newspaper's listing of yard
sales in the Hally Fiald. Words milled around in his head; he tried to
think of what to say to Christy. There were even fewer sales today. He
bought a warm-looking jacket and put it on, and picked up an electronic
game and a few paperbacks- including what seemed to be either a sequel
or a prequel to Paradise, called "Utopia." He turned the Hally Fiald
back in and rode the train back to South Urban.
Sunday came, and Adrian waited anxiously; he had quickly stuck price
stickers on the game and the two of the paperbacks he didn't intend to
keep. Utopia was better than its predecessor, and seemed to be a
sequel, but his heart wasn't in it as he leafed through the second
chapter. The jacket hung on the back of the wall behind him, in his
living space. A train had arrived across the street. Christy should be
here any minute; he should make some coffee. Christy had liked coffee,
Before he had a chance to get up, Christy himself appeared at the door,
alone. He motioned that the door was unlocked, and as the man came in,
asked, "Where are your children, and your wife?"
decided to spare them the boredom of two old men talking. I could ask
the same about your daughter and wife." Adrian sighed, and absently
massaged a spot on his forehead. "Christy, we have a lot to catch up
on. Let me lock the door, you can go into the living room back there
and make yourself comfortable." This was going to be hard. Harder than
even he expected; he hadn't told this to anyone before.
Christian was waiting when Adrian came back, on one of the tattered
chairs (they'd been bargains; he couldn't bear to part with either of
them even though this was the first time in twelve years both had been
used simultaneously). "Would you like something to drink? Coffee, tea,
water...?" Cristy sat with a thoughtful look for a second, then
replied, "Coffee, please." Adrian nodded and motioned that it would be
just a minute. The coffee machine was set up in a corner of the space,
on the counter where the sink was. The wall was shared with the
cleaners' next door, and as a result it shared the water line with the
washing machines. Washing machine coffee, delicious.
sat and chatted for a few minutes about Christy's family. Adrian was
still unsure how to begin when Christy asked the inevitable question,
"So what's been going on with you? It looks like you live alone here.
What happened?" Adrian swallowed and steeled himself. "Marie left me."
Christy's expression was one of shock. "Or, more accurately, we decided
don't hold it against her, understand. It wasn't an unfriendly
separation. Twelve years ago, right about the time of your wedding- six
days after Melissa's seventh birthday, June 18th- the factory laid me
off. Like so many other low-seniority workers, I'd just made enough to
get by. There wasn't much in savings. She was working at the delivery
service, which was our only source of income.
"There was no way she could support us both and our daughter. Over the
next few weeks, I tried to find another job, but I didn't have the
qualifications for anything other than assembly line work- and those
jobs were all held onto dearly by those lucky enough to have them. Our
savings began to run out, she couldn't make enough to match what we had
to spend to get by on meals, utilities, and the rent.
friend of mine from the factory told me about this place. It had been a
barbershop of his friend's friend or some such, who had decided to give
it up. I used up the vast majority of my retirement money to put down
on it. She was furious. As soon as she calmed down, we came to the
decision that we couldn't go on like this. It wasn't good for either of
us, or for Melissa to see us like this. I opened the store, and for a
year or two they came to visit, but the visits got to be fewer and far
between. She had gotten promoted and they were living comfortably, the
last time I spoke with her. That was about five years ago, now."
Christy had finished his coffee. The empty, dirty cup clinked as he sat
it on the table. He looked straight at Adrian, who did not meet his
gaze. "You need to go back," he said. Adrian didn't answer. "I can take
you back in my car, we can go now. Or if you have some stuff you need
to finish up, I can wait a week or so."
"Christy, you don't understand. This shop is my life now. I can't go
back. I wouldn’t be able to get a job, still. Rent is a lot
higher in a big city like Metracoast, I couldn't cover the costs
running a small place like this." And he rather liked his comfortable
routine, working the shop through the week, reading during the slow
periods, going out Saturday, pricing new finds Sunday. And the people
he'd met- Jean Harris and her daughter, the redheaded girl student, the
few other "regular" customers he had. He couldn't leave all of this
behind, it was too much to ask. "Metracoast is a city for the young,
not for someone as set in their ways as I am."
"Adrian... Since when do you consider yourself old?" There was a
sadness in Christian's voice that hung in the air after he said his
words. Then, characteristically, he broke it. "It's almost noon. I
promised my wife and the kids I'd bring lunch home, do you know
anywhere good around that lets you take out?" Adrian racked his mind;
it had been months since he had last eaten out.
few blocks west or so there's a little diner with pretty good food. I'm
not sure if they do take out or not, I've never tried, but there's a
few other small places there as well." Christy thanked him and took a
piece of paper out of his pocket with a telephone number and address,
presumably his own, on it and handed it to Adrian. As he went out the
door, he said: "Consider my offer. I'd be glad to take you back to the
city any time you want." Adrian waved, and watched him leave.
the next three hours afterward, the shop was quiet. Two people came in
to browse. One bought a gold necklace with an emerald pendant, and the
other bought nothing and just looked around while Adrian sat behind the
counter in his metal folding chair and read Utopia to the soft music of
his usual classic music station. Sunday was always one of the busier
days. A few times he got bored, set the book down, and leaned back in
the chair; eyes closed and thinking. He thought of Christy and his
family, including Christy's wife and son he'd never met; as well as of
his own wife and daughter. He thought of Christy's words- "since when
do you consider yourself old"- and tried not to.
chance he thought of Jean Harris, the "pop culture expert." What had
become of her and her book? Also, the author R. Lee Harris. R. Lee
Harris, Jean Harris. Harris must be a pretty common name; or perhaps
they were related. If he ever saw the woman again he should ask her.
was during one of these periods of deep thought that a car door closed
outside and a man with a bushy black beard in a black suit entered,
with a black leather case and a large, thin paperback book under his
arm. He wore an old-styled black hat with a wide brim that shadowed his
upper face, emphasizing the beard even more. Adrian resumed an upright
sitting position and watched as he looked around, seemingly waiting for
something. After a few moments, when it seemed the man could not find
what he was looking for or waiting for, Adrian resolved to ask him if
he was looking for something specific.
"Ehm. I am a dealer and a collector of metal currency, specializing in
rare pieces. I was wondering if you had any such items on hand." A coin
collector? He hadn't had one of those drop by in ages. "Yes, just a
minute. The case is under the counter here." Adrian stooped down; his
knees creaked ever so slightly as he fished in his pocket for the keys
to the door to the counter's cabinet. The door slid open, got stuck,
and slid again. The glass case with the coins pawned was there, as was
another one with jewelry and the like. Adrian fiddled with the keys and
found the correct one to unlock the case.
he stood up again, case in hand, the man was waiting patiently. Adrian
sweated and froze; he thought his heart would burst from his chest as
he saw the pistol held in the man's right hand. It was unreal, and
mechanically Adrian finished the half-completed motion of unlocking the
"Don't make any move to use the phone, or I will shoot." He reached
inside the suit jacket and pulled out a white plastic grocery bag.
"Please empty the contents of the cash register drawer into this bag."
The money from the necklace he had sold earlier, a sizable sum that
could have paid a third of the rent, was within. He had been relying on
that money to get him through the month, but his life was more valuable
than any sum (he still had to see his daughter again, one last time).
He couldn't risk the man shooting, so he loaded the money into the bag
as he had been instructed to do, in a fog of shock.
you have any jewelry in your possession now?" The gun pointed at his
face, Adrian nodded. He bent down to get the case and bumped his knee
against the small table on which the phone was sitting; the receiver
fell off of the cradle with a mechanical ring. Initially, the dial tone
was drowned out in the shot, which hit the wall about seven inches left
and two above Adrian's head. The man cursed and ran, taking the bag of
cash but leaving the now-empty coin case behind.
ran into Rudgar Telmach, owner and operator of the cleaners' next door,
who was red-faced and out of breath. The robber's hat fell off, but
Telly was unable to catch the man himself. Adrian, still in a daze,
hadn't gotten a good look at the man's face. People from the station
drifted over to the store to see what was going on, a woman offered her
car as a ride to the police station or the hospital. Adrian tried to
tell Telly that the phone was still off the hook as he drifted away
Telly accepted the offer for a ride to the hospital while somebody else
remained behind to call the police. At the hospital, they thoroughly
checked Adrian over. Because he still showed signs of shock, the doctor
forced him to wait at the hospital and undergo a checkup before going
to the police station and answering questions about the robbery. It was
the late afternoon before they released him, only after careful
inspection. The doctor said he had no major life-threatening health
issues, which was probably the best news of the day.
Robberies were fairly rare in the Walled City, especially armed ones.
Adrian was interviewed by the newspaper and a radio broadcaster, as
well as by the police at the station. It seemed that nobody had been
able to catch the man; witnesses said that there had been a car waiting
around the corner. The car registered as being on travelers' loan, but
the man that was supposed to have it didn't match the description of
the robber. The police said that they should be able to catch the
robber, especially with the testimony of all the bystanders, but
carefully worded their statement so that there was no guarantee.
Thankfully, all of the fingerprinting and evidence had been gathered
while Adrian was at the hospital. The sun had gone down sometime in the
mess. Telly offered to treat Adrian to dinner, and he accepted. The
food was somewhat bland and the conversation sparse, but Adrian did not
at all regret going. This did not mean that he wasn't glad for a moment
alone after Telly dropped him off at home. He turned off the light and
went to sleep, deeply tired, and unable to get much rest.
Christy called long distance from Metracoast in the morning. It took a
while to make him thoroughly satisfied that Adrian was fine, but
eventually he had to go. Adrian turned the window sign to open and
picked up his paperback copy of Utopia. Nothing had changed, except
that there was a bullet hole in the wall and Adrian's finances were
more uncertain- at least the thief hadn't gotten away with the jewelry
few customers came in, curious about the stories of the robbery. Some
bought things, some didn't, and the Monday morning passed into
afternoon. One thought and one thought alone passed through his mind,
over and over again, distracting him from tidying, customers, and
reading all together.
could have died, he thought to himself. If that shot had been just a
little bit lower... I could have died yesterday. I could have left this
world without seeing Marie again, without seeing Melissa again.
Melissa... She must be 20 now, he thought. I've sent her presents every
year, and she writes letters about what's going on, but it's not the
same as seeing her...
shook his head to clear it, and walked out of the store to check his
mail. There was a thick envelope in the box, and he could feel
something hard and heavy under the bubble-wrap. He checked the return
address, but didn't recognize it. He opened the envelope and slid out
the contents: a slim paperback book. He turned it over to see the cover.
"Walled Culture, Metraculture: Trends in the First and Second Cities,"
read the title, set in definitive black against a collage of pictures
of various garish company logos from the two cities. Metracola, Aman's
restaurant, the Walled City Transport Administration, Hally Fiald, and
countless other emblems. He glanced down at the author's name, though
he was pretty sure who the book was from. Yes, Jean Harris. He opened
the front cover and a thin piece of paper slipped out; it was a note
from Jean personally thanking him for his help. The note said that she
expected the 25 machine book to come out in the summer next year, and
she would pass along more information as he got it.
First good news I've had in a while, he thought, scanning the reviews
on the first page. One referred to Jean as the "daughter of author R.
Lee Harris," and he smiled. Well, that was one wild guess confirmed. He
tucked the book back into the envelope for safekeeping; he would look
at it later, to give himself something to look forward to after he
wrote out the finances.
he got back in to the shop, the answering machine had picked up and was
recording a message. He walked over to the counter and set the mail
down next to his paperback copy of Utopia, listening and trying to
judge if he wanted to talk to whoever it was.
"...is Marie," the message said. "I heard about the robbery yesterday,
and I just wanted to make sure you were all right." Marie, Adrian
thought, Marie... "I'm sorry for not calling in so long, a lot has
happened since we last spoke. John and I got divorced, I don't know if
Melissa told you in one of her letters... I don't really know what to
say, Adrian, please call me back." She hesitated, and then left her
phone number, and then said "I miss you," then there was the click of
the phone. Adrian blinked, suddenly aware that tears were forming in
his eyes. I miss you too, he thought, I miss you too...
sat down and wiped his eyes with the back of his sleeve, then picked up
the phone. There had been so many near misses lately, and he just
couldn't deal with it any more, couldn't live like this any more, he
thought as he dialed the phone number. An answering machine picked up.
So many near misses... He cleared his throat and spoke clearly into the
"Christy, this is Adrian, I think I'm going to have to take you up on
that ride home..."