Paul A. Toth
Nothing in the Crystal Bookshop cost much, and James barely nickeled a profit in Southeast D.C. Still, liquor stores sandwiched the shop, and his accounts were bolstered by drunks who, moon-eyed and wobbling, spent their dollars on get rich candles. The kids liked voodoo stuff, casting hexes on parents. Women favored love sign statistics, Virgo versus Taurus, Sagittarius meets Scorpio, like Japanese movie monster showdowns. The men preferred protective jewelry, bullet-proof wristbands and rings to ward off stabbings, Dungeons and Dragons for the street.
James wrote another epigram. The words came to him like smells from the fish store down the street, saturated fat molecules in the air, snatchable.
The Universe rebel
works new systems
through imagination vessels,
infinity in off-keys,
comes mythologica paranoid.
Authority moves inside,
a deputized dweller
in the cracked,
He was almost done, number sixty-three of sixty-four. The Ghetto I-Ching. "You throw three dimes or pennies, whatever you got," he'd explain after publication, "and then you check this chart. It shows which one to read depending on how many heads or tails you get. That'll tell you something, possibly something you desperately need to know."
He closed up shop, hustling out the non-buying drunks who giggled at the sparkling crystals hanging from the ceiling by string, making a happy pattern when the men had enough alcohol in the blood and a nerve center disaster when they didn't. They shuffled out, muttering, elbowing each other about the blonde new age models on the cover of the books.
He walked fast to the station, took the train back to Dupont Circle, then hurried to his upstairs P Street flat. Along the way, his mind worked on the last epigram, but it probably wouldn't come to him until morning, in rough form, first draft from the subconscious, ready for editing.
Gay men strolled past, eyeing him. Like the flashlight stares ghetto boys shined him on his way to and from the store, he no longer registered B&Es into his psyche. He was a superhero, shielded, and he carried in his pocket the solution to the underclass crisis.
His epigrams would seem relevant when deciphered and applied with the same desire for coherence which customers brought to astrology and tarot decks. "Tell me," their expressions signaled, "something, anything." The way they slumped, their drop-down trousers, as if the world was sliding off their bodies, suggested they forever verged on nakedness. When he scouted new age shops in wealthier parts of town, especially shopping centers, he saw the same wandering search for treasure maps and secret keys and above all protection from naked vulnerability. Liposuction hadn't solved anything, but yoga might: "Gimme a 'G' for guru."
He watched Cops. He ate a sandwich. He counted his take for the day. The store wouldn't last much longer. Then what?
His room was free of the spiritual, barren of all but the television and kitchen appliances. Home of the brave. He stared it down, this glacier, so lonely. Yasmine. Yasmine waz mine, he thought, in the way she might have put it. She was a Capricorn, he a Virgo. The love sign books claimed they had an excellent chance at lasting love.
Corny bullshit. Would they buy his? Ghetto I-Ching: stupid. Of course they wouldn't.
Outside, snowflakes. Somewhere, a crackhead licked the flakes, thinking the sky was snowing coke, until his tongue stuck to a steel fence post as other junkies walked by and laughed. But they were staring at the flakes, too. He had seen this happen.
"I am the guru," he told himself. "Whitey with a third eye. Cracker Confucius."
He hated the boredom of loneliness but knew relationships inflicted their own monotony; no woman wanted to sit around his empty joint, least of all Yasmine. He once had to attend family barbecues where her relatives claimed no problem with the racial difference yet jibed and jabbed with intricate jokes about his ancestry and all that it had done to the world. Or he and Yasmine visited her friends who liked to snort a line, then pass the mirror. After inhaling, Yasmine talked and talked until the feeling wore off, and then she wanted more. He couldn't afford more. He needed a woman who enjoyed sitting around and biding time, with high-frequency sex and low-frequency conversation. There was no such woman.
But the alternative was this other boredom. After working all day at the bookstore, reading tired him. The window provided watch on a neighborhood of college kids, attorneys and the kind of people who attended neighborhood zoning commission meetings. He did possess a CD player, but not since Yasmine left had he listened to jazz.
"Fuck it," he said, scribbling the last epigram:
Vulnerable, deserted, in a corner.
The confident offend fear.
Work your way
to the subway.
He took the stack of sixty-four epigrams to Kinkos, typed them into a word processing program and printed them out. He had fifty copies made.
The next day, he set the stapled copies on the counter. Some of the customers stopped to take a look at this mangled publication which lacked the gloss of his other products.
"What the hell's this?"
"It's straight from Tibet," he said, "smuggled out. It's an urban fortunetelling device, meant for streets like these. They got the same problems over there that we do here, but they're wiser. I can't say how I got my hands on it. I don't need the cops coming here. Just keep it quiet, okay? Keep it low, don't say anything. The feds might show up."
"I won't say nothing."
The rumor had started.
Ten sold that day, at a profit of one dollar per copy. Ten customers returned the next day. "This shit works," one told him. "I landed on the same damn thing three times, and it was dead right."
The following day, twenty copies sold. The next day, thirty. On Sunday, when his store was closed, he returned to Kinkos. The clerk told him, "I'm not supposed to say this, but if you're gonna keep copying these, it'd be cheaper at a print shop. They could put it together like a real book."
"No," he said, "the cheap look's part of the sell."
Every customer claimed satisfaction. One woman insisted number sixty-four saved her life. "I was backed in a corner, just like it said, so I screamed, and that little punk ran right the fuck out of there."
Sales spread beyond his usual customers. Strangers arrived.
Then one Monday, as if someone had tipped her off that he finally had extra money -- and he knew someone had -- Yasmine appeared. She walked through the door looking almost as pretty as he had remembered her.
"I hear you're selling out some book," she said.
"I can't sell out. I print them myself. Smuggled the original out of --"
"Your apartment. Mind if I come over tonight?"
"I've got money now, right? You know when I get home."
That night, after the reunion sex, they dressed, went into the living room and turned on TV. Even after half an hour, Yasmine had yet to complain of boredom. After another half hour, she found her coat and dug into the pocket. She removed a baggie and a pipe, then smoked a rock.
"What're you looking at?"
"Moved up to the big leagues now, Yasmine?"
"NBA: National Base Association." She put the pipe down. "Show me how that book works."
"You got any change?"
She gave him three nickels. They sat on the couch, and he opened the book on his lap.
"Just throw the coins on the floor."
"You do it. My hands are shaking."
He tossed the nickels. He ran his fingers across the words as Yasmine read.
"Shit," she said, "you ain't no rebel. And who the hell's Thelonious?"
Thelonious Monk, he wanted to explain, was a man who altered time with piano keys. But she wouldn't care; she always made him turn off jazz. She couldn't stand it.
"You got any money?" she said.
"If I can have some."
"You? If I can witness that, I swear to God I'll listen to that shit you play on your stereo."
They returned two hours later with a hundred dollar baggie. They smoked, listened to Thelonious Monk and had sex three times. She hardly talked.
"How come you're so quiet?"
"You get past that in the NBA. You quit talking when the high turns off and sometimes even when it's on."
"How long's that take?"
In the weeks that followed, he converted. He believed in all of it, love signs, tarot cards, everything. Boredom was smoked out in minutes, the world fascinating and very bright. Down came the crystals, the store darkening, which only drew more customers. The book kept selling. He believed in what he sold, as if he were a minister chumping Bibles.
On good days, he worked new systems of time through imagination vessels, infinity in off-keys, Thelonious chords. On bad days, he saw authorities moving in, deputized officers of the D.C. Police, Drug Enforcement Agency, Secret Service and CIA. They moved in, but he smoked them out. At night, he and Yasmine lay naked and quiet in the fog of a collective unconscious as high in the sky as their minds.