A polite young man from the San Fernando Valley phoned the shoppe one rainy morning and held it up. Rain kills business, so they say, and so it did, all morning. Which is not to say it was a particularly bad morning. I do enjoy the quiet time, savoring the potpourri and thumbing through my Reader’s Digest. A woman eventually did come in, a tad severe in her demeanor, but I didn’t judge. She walked directly to the glass case beneath the register, to our most precious of Moments, the newlyweds and graduates we keep under lock and key.
“I’ll take this one,” she said.
“The little boy with the chocolate smeared on his face! How lovely!” I climbed down from my chair and opened the case. “Would you like this wrapped today? Why don’t you try some of our biscuits there and I’ll get this all wrapped up.”
“Thank you, I will.”
“This must be for someone very special, I can—”
“Jeanette! Jeanette!” Lisa, our newest part-timer, came running out of the back office with the phone. “There’s someone on line one who wants our money!”
“Lisa, I’m with a customer at the moment, it’ll just be a sec.”
“He says it’s a stickup and we need to send him all our money!”
“These biscuits are good,” said the severe-looking woman.
“Aren’t they? That’s real apricot—take another. Lisa, could you wrap this figurine for me?”
Lisa came over, sweating more than I’d like, and I took the phone. “Rosebud Gifts, this is Jeanette, could you hold for one moment? Lisa, the bows are in the drawer. That’s it, the blue one. Yes?”
“Send me all your money.” The words were direct enough but the voice was soft, shy, inviting of a conversation even if the young man on the other side didn’t seem to want one.
“My, oh my! Who may I ask is calling?”
“Nevermind who’s calling. Send me all your money.”
“Yes, sir, of course. I’ve never been held up before so—hold on a sec. Thanks for coming in! Enjoy your miniaturette! Sorry. I’ve never been held up before so you’ll have to walk me through this. Although I did imagine if it were to happen, it would happen in person.”
“I’d get caught if I did it in person.”
“Yes, I suppose you would.”
“And now you can’t call the police ‘cause the line’s tied up.”
“Go get an envelope.”
“Ok. A business-sized envelope?”
“The biggest you’ve got.”
“Lisa, go into the back office and get one of the manilas.”
“Wait—is there someone else with you?”
“Yes, I always work with Lisa on Thursdays.”
“Well, tell her to get down—and with her hands behind her back.”
“Lisa, the young man wants you to lie down. If you could just grab one of those manilas and then lie down—and with your hands behind your back.”
“Now empty your till.”
“Let’s see, I’m not sure how to enter this in. Shall we just say it’s a No Sale and I’m getting you quarters?”
“Just take out the money!”
“Right, I’ve got the envelope.”
“Good. Put all the money in it.”
“All of it? Gosh.” I had Lisa hold the manila above her head while I shook the drawer into it. “Alrightey, it’s all in there.”
“Seal it up. And address it.”
“Will do. Just have to find a pen. I’m addressing this to—who am I addressing this to?”
“To—damnit! Evan Kowalski.”
“Evan! I almost named my son Evan.”
“24 Orange Grove Place. Woodland Hills, CA. 91302.”
“Wood…land…Hills. CA. CA? That’s in California!”
“That’s the other side of the country!”
“I can’t hold up a shop in my own town!”
“No, but California. Wow. Where in California are you?”
“The San Fernando Valley.”
“Well I’ll be. You know I have a son-in-law comes from that area. I’ve never been myself. Is the sun everything they say it is?”
“Did you address the envelope?!”
“What do you do down there in the San Fernando Valley?”
“…I’m a student.”
“Oh, how wonderful. What is your area of study?”
“Fascinating! And do you know what you want to do after you graduate?”
“Well, that’s fine. You know, I didn’t know what I wanted to do when I was—”
“My health insurance runs out.”
“—your age and everything worked out just fine so don’t you worry.”
“My health insurance runs out.”
“When I graduate, next month, there’s no more health insurance.”
“Oh, companies normally take care of that sort of thing. I remember when I—”
“Do you know of any openings for a botanist?”
“I get sick all the time. They’re about to kick me out on the street and I’m gonna get sick!”
“There must free clinics in the San Fernando Valley.”
“I’ve been coddled and mollycoddled and now it’s skid row, the cold nights, the whores, the hypodermics, and all without health insurance!”
“No, that doesn’t sound good.”
“Not to mention the shelter and food I used to get. Where is it now? I need money!”
“Have you thought about teaching?”
“Don’t try making up excuses and giving me advice.”
“All this future living, it’s blind tightrope walking! They gave me a line, it moves forward and forward, over and ever forward and suddenly, at the drop of a hat, they’re taking the net! I’m falling and the only thing provided is the cement floor that turns my body into a half-inch layer of blood and crushed bone! And no health insurance!”
“I’m sorry.” I was touched
“Put it in overnight,” and the young man hung up.
The electronic chimes went off and another woman, not as severe as the one before but similar capris, came into the shoppe. “I’m looking for a figurine,” she said, “it’s a little boy, his face is covered in chocolate?”
Dazed, I said, “What? Chocolate? Oh no, I’m afraid we just sold that one.”
“Shoot. That’s too bad. Why is that woman on the floor?”
“Hmm? Oh, Lisa, get up. Run this envelope through the postage machine. Is there any thing else I can help you with today?
“I’ll take a quick spin around.”
“Jeanette! The envelope’s too big, it won’t fit!”
“Just put stamps on it!”
“All of them!”
“Are these soaps handcrafted?” asked the woman.
“We’re out of stamps!” screamed Lisa.
“Soaps? Uh, yes, I think so. How can we be out of stamps?”
“You two sure are busy today.”
“We were robbed. Um, can you go to the post office?”
“Robbed! Did anyone get hurt?”
“No, he did it over the phone.”
“There’s no time for the post office! He’ll call back!”
“I don’t understand. Over the phone?”
Lisa was jumping up and down. “What do we do? What do we do?”
“Yes,” I said. “From California.”
“California! Well, don’t send it!”
“He’ll come to our windows at night!”
“And he was so polite! We have to send it!”
“He’ll look at us through our windows at night!”
“Suit yourself. I do like these soaps.”
The electronic chimes went off again. A woman dragged her sons inside. They started running around, touching things. I looked to Lisa. She still had the package in her hand.
“Excuse me,” a woman approached me, “I saw a card in here a couple weeks ago. There might have a dog on it. Do you still have that one? Douglas! Did you-? If my boys break anything, what is your policy on that?”
Lisa slid the envelope under the counter and bit her lip. I bit my lip. We walked onto the floor and helped our customers—so much for the rain.
We take the phone off the hook now. The envelope is still under the counter. Our till is filled with new money. But something is missing. The shoppe moves on, over and ever on, but something like the floor is missing.
-What did you do in your previous occupation?
-What do you and your wife do for fun?
-What is the best advice you have ever received?
-Good things come to those who nap.
-What advice would you have for your employees?
-Each deed procrastinates the next. There is nothing more ridiculous than effort.
Two stout bottles of physic when Frank of Reference opened his mirror. Both of equal shape and size, both topped with stained, upturned cups, but the stains of each of different colors; one a sunny orange, the other a nightshade green. Frank, confusing the image of the two bottles with the prior of his face, reached out and unscrewed his eye—his green eye.
Dorothy rose to the counter after hiking up her grandmother’s stockings. Nearly grandmother-age herself, the stockings had a tendency to curdle. “Hello, Thomas. How are you this morning?”
“Hey! Where’s Frank?”
Dorothy swiveled to the hand lotion, worked the squirt into her palms, and searched for a title on her computer, all the while able to engage Thomas without speaking directly to the knobby buzz cut only just clearing the counter. “I don’t think Frank has come in yet, Thomas.”
“We were supposed to play our game!”
“The library doesn’t allow Marco Polo in the stacks.”
“Frank lets me!”
“I know you ask him every morning.”
“We were going to play today!” Thomas sat up on the chair beside the counter. He looked around at the homeless, jobless, and foreign slowly filling the library. “Tell me when Frank is here,” he said and stumbled off towards his daily books and computers.
Frank’s bedside phone and not the noonday sun finally woke him.
“Good morning, Frank. This is Dorothy at the—”
“Dorothy—what time is it?”
“It’s twelve-thirty. I was just looking at—”
“Dorothy…” Frank attempted to prop himself up on the headrest but fell back into his pillow. “I think I’m gonna have to call in sick today. Do you mind handling the desk by yourself? I’m feeling really…tired.”
“No, it’s ok, Frank. I was just looking at the schedule and it says you’re slotted for Ask-A-Librarian duty anyway. So as long as you have your computer on, have a nice afternoon.”
“Ok. Wait. What’s Ask-A-Librarian?”
“You were at the last meeting. It’s a feature on the website where people can ask a reference librarian questions from their home or work computer.”
“All right then, I’ll see you tomorrow, Frank.”
“Ok,” but Frank was mostly back in sleep by then. The receiver slid down his chest and off the bed, tipping the bottle of original flavor Nyquil from his nightstand. It landed on the carpet and began its slow drip-drip, the final drop joining the puddle hours later.
Frank woke of his own volition to see his alarm clock inching towards four. He felt unusually rested but the guilt caused by that first sight of clock sank in and threatened to unrest. The days were short that time of year and four meant end, not tea.
He swung his legs over the side of the bed, hoping the brisk movement would counter the guilt. He smiled, resolved not to waste daylight on a shower and mustache-trimming, not even a proper dress, and rounded quarter-to down to half-past, effectively changing four to three.
He greeted the kitchen yawning “Carpe diem,” slippers squeaking and the untied ties of his bathrobe trailing behind.
“Oh no,” he said, noticing a houseplant he was particularly fond of, the only house plant in the house, stuck in the shade. He thought the kitchen would have been a perfect spot for the plant to receive sun. But this being his first afternoon at home in the thirty-some years he lived there, he had never been around to notice the repercussions of a northward- facing kitchen.
He took the plant out of its dark corner and carried it, whispering an apology, to the study, where a fulsome pool of sun was collecting on the floor. He primped a few leaves and patted the soil, but a beep—quite unlike the usual ones—suddenly let out from above. He followed the beep to a new window displayed on his computer, on top of the regular library website.
The window resembled a chat room, something Frank was familiar with from late nights chewing fat with likeminded science fiction fans. At the top of the page, from a gigglypuff98, “Marco!”
Frank smiled, typed, “Afternoon Thomas. Hope you’re staying out of trouble.”
He was surprised by his child friend’s inordinately nimble fingers when—before he could even give a second glance to his favorite houseplant—a reply was posted. “Currently drowning in bad research for an expansive novel I’ve been planning for years, historical fiction, and need desperately any and all material relating to eponymous explorer Marco Polo. Only I am homebound, stricken with a terrible case of fatigue. But if you could reply, with call numbers and, of more importance, directions to those numbers on your shelves, I will gladly retrieve the books as soon as I am halfway awake.”
Frank read the post over twice. “Thomas?” he eventually replied.
“Doctor (née Tank Engine),” was the immediate response.
The plant was then sadly absent from Frank’s at first groggy and now groggy and puzzled mind. He compared the prolix post with the juvenile name and considered the impossibility of little trend-diagnosed Thomas ever composing a consistent sentence.
Frank typed: “You’ll find all non-fiction material concerning Voyage and Travel in the early to mid 900’s. We also shelve biographies in that general area.”
“Which general area is that?” popped up.
Frank replied, “All non-fiction is stored on the first floor, the 900’s—” but another post came up before Frank had finished typing.
“This is the Jefferson branch, correct? I’m afraid I live too far away from the main library (though my kid makes me drive out there enough).”
The kid would explain the screen name, Frank thought. “That is correct. The old building off Main Ave.”
“Is that before or after the Cold Stone Creamery?”
“Before, if you’re coming from the south.”
“I’ll be driving from the north.”
“In that case, the library will be on your right, just after the Cold Stone Creamery.”
“And where in the library are the 900’s?”
“All non-fiction is stored on the first floor, the 900’s are in the southwest corner of the building. They occupy the last shelving unit before the artificial ferns.”
“Would the materials be on my right or my left as I enter the aisle between the shelves?”
“Coming from the side of the ferns or from the windows?”
“That’s the windows that look out onto the river?”
“The windows that look out onto the parking lot.”
“The left. And you’ll have to crouch. The Marco Polo material will run the length of the bottom shelf of the first column.”
“I have a bad knee. Will there be anyone at the library who could pull the books for me?”
“Yes. Anyone at the reference desk would be happy to help.”
“Where would I find the reference desk in relation to the southwest shelves?”
“Directly behind you.” Frank cracked his knuckles and looked down to his plant. The sun had left in favor of a sliver of wallpaper on the opposite side of the room. Frank turned on the light beside the computer, and returned to the keyboard. “We also have several picture books on the life and travels of Marco Polo in the children’s section, if that would interest you.”
“Where’s the children’s section?” predictably.
“Second story. Look for the B’s, B for biography—after, that is, the J for Juvenile. Alphabetical by subject.”
“No. I don’t think I’ll be making it up there. Bad knee.”
“We have elevators. Second right after the ferns.”
“Thank you very much. This is quite a service.”
“Good luck on your novel.”
“If I can ever get out of bed…”
“How long have you been tired for?”
“Feels like always.”
“I’ve been drowsy all day today. I’m actually typing this from home. Slept sinfully in, I’m afraid.”
“No harm done. What’s the culprit?”
“Woke with a sore throat but took Nyquil instead of Dayquil.”
“Dayquil’s the orange stuff.”
“Yes. But I enjoy being at home.”
“It’s a different world, home in the business hours.”
“The sun’s gone done.”
“This would be close to my bed time, after a long day of work.”
“I did. Does that mean the day is over?”
“Over and done with and out.”
Dorothy’s stockings bunched around her toes as she ran alongside a group of security guards, policemen, and firemen over thousands of toppled books. Patrons were huddled in a frightened circle beside the newspapers. The computers were consumed in flames and had set the sprinklers off. Thomas was high on the shelves, laughing, pushing them over and onto the guards as he leapt from one to another. He teetered over the edge of the last shelf, fake ferns far below him. He looked to the right, at the windows and the parking lot. He looked back to Dorothy, gaining on him. He ran head first into the window, making it halfway out before a cop jerked him back by the foot. The glass cut into his chest and blood ran down the policemen’s arm. Still, Thomas laughed, and kicking his feet and punching the glass, screamed, “Polo!”