Little Castles

I was being beaten by a 10-year-old in what may have been the most challenging chess game I had ever played in my life.  But it wasn’t the fact that the kid was only a decade on this earth that bothered me.  Nor was it the fact that I was losing and losing hard.  Nor was it that he was my son.  It was more about the fact that we had only been playing for three moves and it was obvious I was going to lose.  Three moves in and I had lost the damn thing.  When, in life, do you get that kind of warning?

“I’m gonna move my little castle,” Gary said.

“The little castles,” I said, “are called rooks.”

“I’m gonna move my rook.”

“You know en passant  but you don’t know rooks,” I said.  That was when I knew I was screwed.  Two moves in he had pulled an en passant on me–a special pawn capture which can occur immediately after a player moves a pawn two squares forward from its starting position, and an opposing pawn could have captured it, had it moved only one square forward–and I was still slightly bitter.  Ten years old.

The bell rang in the shop downstairs.  Trying to run a rare bookstore in Los Angeles is akin to opening a whorehouse in the Vatican–you’re really setting yourself up for failure.  It was a family business.  Apparently.  My father, the romantic, had left it to me.  An impressive feat since I didn’t know him my entire life.  He had been keeping tabs on me, as fathers, even absentee ones, tend to do.  His philandering lifestyle had been cut short by a sudden onset of inoperable cancer.  So, he sold his house, his car, borrowed from several banks and money lending institutions of varying degrees of respectability and opened a rare book shop and decided to fritter away his days–a leathery old man surrounded by leathery books.  

I got the shop when he died and the mountain of debt that went along with it.  A smarter, more realistic individual would have dumped the money pit as soon as possible.  But, like father, like son, my philandering had left me with Gary, a child out of wed-lock, his mother Esmeralda (Essie, for short) and no viable career options that didn’t require a name-tag and lots of listless stares into middle-space.

“To be continued,” I said to Gary and pushed myself off the living room carpet.

“But we just started,” he whined.

“Continued means we’ll get back to it.”

Gary got off the carpet and flopped on the couch.  He wasn’t the type of kid to be surly and toss of a “whatever” or something equally dismissive.  But he had ten years of me and knew the game was pretty much over.  There’s nothing more heart-breaking than a child who has realistic expectations of his parents.

The narrow staircase gave way to the storeroom, dusty and stocked with books that would never find it’s way to the main room.  Through the bead-covered doorway, I saw a woman, and as I got closer I revised my definition.

She couldn’t have been older than 15.  Her overstuffed bookbag–black, one of those ones that look like it would be better suited for crossing the arctic tundra than weathering a semester of Mod Civ–practically overtook her tiny frame.  She wore an oversized green bomber jacket and had rolled up the sleeves and safety-pinned them down in clumps around the area of where her wrists might be.  Problem was, she had obviously done this pin-job in a hurry as her left sleeve was clumped around her palm and her right was midway up the forearm.  Her blond hair could be described as “dirty blond” but not in that convenient hair-coloring way.  It was literally blond and dirty, tangled and mussed, like a street urchin from a Dickens novel (or so I hear).  

“Can I help you?” I asked, pushing the beads aside and stepping from the musty storeroom into the still-musty-but-better-lit-at-least main room.  The girl raised her head.  She had been digging into the cavernous pockets of her bomber jacket for something.  Her face was also dirty, with blooming patches of acne around her chin.  She wore giant coke-bottle glasses that magnified inquisitive jade eyes.  With the green jacket, the bulky backpack, and bug-eyes, she reminded of a homeless turtle.

She smiled a sweet enough smile, not showing any teeth and arching her eyebrows ever so slightly.  It looked to be the sort of smile that kids her age gave all adults my age (35), especially when the social niceties between the two parties remained unclear.

She hitched thumbs under the thick black straps of her book bag and walked over.

“Sarah Stride, sir, nice to meet you.”

She extended her right arm completely and the clumped up sleeve slid to her elbow.  I shook her hand.

“Martin Trudeau,” I said.

“And you are the owner of Trudeau Books.”  It wasn’t a question, but seemed as though it sought confirmation.

“That’s what it says on the sign,” I said, immediately regretful.  I took very little pride in running the shop, but in truth the same Quixotic quest that inspired my father’s need to open the shop, urged me to continue running it.  Surly is not my primary nature.  Her face registered no hurt or indignation, but I attempted to recover nonetheless.  “Yes, this is my shop,” I said as warmly and professionally as I could.  “How may I help you?”

“I seek a book.”  She said it in the same perfunctory manner and it struck me that perfunctory might just be be her default mode.  “A rare one.”

“You’re in the right place.  Do you know the title?”

“No.”

I looked at her again.  She wasn’t going to volunteer any more information.

“How about the author?”

“I don’t know who wrote it.”

“Okay…  How about the publisher?”

“No.”

“Key words?”

“No.”

“ISBN?”

“No.”

“Right.”

The two of us stared in silence and I wondered if this turtle girl really was a crazed homeless street urchin.  Perhaps she was digging for a shiv in the pockets of her jacket.  Tomorrow’s headline would read: “Person of no consequence has throat slashed by throat-slashing turtle girl” with a picture go Essie and Gary crying underneath it.

“Can you tell me… anything?” I asked.

She pushed out her bottom lip and plunged her hands into the deep abyss of her pockets.  When they emerged, she grasped something tightly in her fist.  She plunked it down on the wooden counter and I noticed the caked dirt under her fingernails.

It was a lock.  A strong, iron lock, with a tiny keyhole in the center.

“The book needs to fit this lock,” she said.

It was a heavy lock, the kind that would normally be used for foot lockers during one of the great wars.

“Do you have the key for this?” I asked her.

She tugged at a string around her neck and from the folds of her jacket came a small key.

“Look,” I said, “a lot of these old books have… fasteners, I guess, but not locks.  I mean these fasteners are flimsy and old and this,” I picked up the lock to feel the weight, “this is some heavy duty shit, quite frankly.”

I saw her business-like eyes melt in their sockets, drown in a fast rising tide of tears.  As the first thick drop streaked down her face, she slipped off her backpack and it fell to the shop floor with a heavy thud.

I stood there like a lummox having literally no idea what to do.  “Is there someone I could call?” was the best I could manage

She cried and wiped and sniffled and wiped, her bulky bomber jacket sleeves serving as de facto Kleenexes.

“I’m Sarah Stride,” she said again, her voice choked with phlegm and emotion.  “I’m Sarah Stride.”

It suddenly dawned me on that I should know the name, but didn’t.

“I’m Sarah Stride,” she said forcefully.  “Of course, there’s no one you can call.”

“Why not?”

“Because I’m Sarah Stride, girl detective.  Girl detectives don’t have people you can call.”

Suddenly the headline read: “Person of no consequence has throat slashed by schizophrenic turtle-girl.”  I felt bad for thinking that.  I felt bad for being scared.  Sarah stood in front of me, crying her inquisitive, jade eyes out and all I could think of was that somehow she’d hurt me, despite the hurt she was clearly experiencing.

“You’re Sarah Stride, girl detective.  And you need a book.”

“Where I come from,” Sarah said not meeting my gaze, “they aren’t just books.”

“And you’re from…?”

“Parachute Falls, Pennsylvania.”

“And books aren’t books in Parachute Falls, Pennsylvania?”  I couldn’t tell you why I kept humoring her, but I honestly felt like I wasn’t.  I felt like she was on a quest, an impossible one, just like me and this rare bookshop that was maybe a year away from repossession.

Sarah met my gaze.  The inquisitive look that had given way to a flood of tears had now given way to determination.  “Books aren’t books anywhere, Mr. Trudeau.  Even here.  What are books filled with?”

“Words,” I said, feeling as though I was suddenly a grubby, 15-year-old turtle boy, and Sarah was the 35-year-old with a disappointed child upstairs.

“Ideas,” Sarah said sternly.  “Ideas that can be good or bad.  The good ones are allowed out in the world, flowing through collective subconsciousness of people.  Those are the ones that are worth talking about.”  She took a step forward.  “But the bad ones, Mr. Trudeau, the bad ones aren’t allowed out.  The bad ones,” she slipped her finger through the metal loop at the top and dangled it in my face, “the bad ones need to be locked up.  In that way, Mr. Trudeau, books aren’t books.”  The lock disappeared back into her coat pocket.  “They’re prisons.”

I felt younger than 15.  I felt 7.  “Are there a lot of these… bad ideas?”

Sarah took off her glasses and her green eyes flashed with purpose.  “Too many.  They’ve gotten stronger.  There used to be only a few, but now they gush from too many people like too many warped fountains, streaming bile and intolerance into the collective.”

My mouth was dry and I didn’t know why.  But I did know that I wanted to go check on Gary.  I wanted to play chess with Gary and he would win, because Gary was smarter than I would ever be.

“Who… who are you?” I asked.

I hadn’t seen her put back on her backpack, that clumsy, overstuffed thing, but it was back on.  Her face was dry and she had rearranged her coke-bottle glasses.

“I’m Sarah Stride,” she said defiantly, as though the world, with all it’s bad ideas, had come so close to winning, “girl detective.”

The bell tinkled and I was left alone in the main room.  It was four in the afternoon and my posted hours said I wouldn’t close for another hour.  I looked at the books my shelves.  Rare books.  None of them had locks or even fasteners.  Nothing could hold back what was inside.

I jumped at the shrill ring of my cell phone.  I fumbled it out of my pants and flipped it open.

“Dad, we’re out of orange juice,” Gary said.  He knew to call the cell when I was with a customer.

“I’ll… I’ll get some later,” I said.

“Okay.”

I moved to the door and flipped the sign to CLOSED.  I flicked the deadbolt and turned off the lights.  An hour till closing, but I didn’t want anymore customers.

Back through the storeroom, up the narrow staircase, onto the landing.  Gary was lying on the couch, his feet propped up on an arm rest.

He was reading.

“You want to come with me to the store?” I asked.  Never before had I hoped he would say yes.  The chess pieces on the board hadn’t been touched.  Three moves in and I had already lost.

“I’m kind of into this book,” he said.

I almost hesitated to ask.  “What’s the book?”

He flipped the it shut and looked at the cover.  “It’s about this girl.  She’s super rich and stuff.  These people break into her house and burn it down.  Her parents die, but she lives.  She goes to live with her rich uncle who has this big-ass,” he stopped when he realized he shouldn’t swear.  “Oops, sorry, Dad.”

“Go on,” I said.

“Anyway, her uncle has this really big library and she, like, teaches herself a whole bunch of stuff about, like, everything in the whole world.”

“And then what does she do?”

“She solves crimes.”

“Can I see it?”  He handed me the book.  Sarah stared back at me, but it wasn’t the turtle-girl from downstairs, although the face alone was all I needed to see to know: it was the same girl.  The Sarah Stride on the cover wore sleek glasses, her hair wasn’t dirty, but neat and the color of yellow wheat.  She wore prim clothes, replete with Mary Jane shoes and a smart cardigan.  She looked like Nancy Drew, if Nancy Drew had been sponsored by Abercrombie.  But the eyes.  Those fierce, determined, jade eyes stared back at me from the cover and I knew.  It had been her.

I felt better seeing Sarah Stride as she was meant to be seen: the girl detective, in full bloom.  She had rolled the dice and come to me–a random book shop owner–in search of a book to lock away the bad ideas of the world.  I couldn’t help her.

But that’s what Sarah Stride was there for.  To find the bad ideas, imprison them, and protect us.  The girl detective would succeed, I somehow knew.

I gave Gary back his book and bent over.  I grasped the pawn and moved it up the board.

“I told you ‘to be continued’, didn’t I?”

Gary sat up and moved a piece.  It was a brilliant move and I knew, once again, there was no way I would win.

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