Hard to Find
E. Christopher Clark
Eddie stood in front of his comic book store, his trench coat scarfed about him, and watched through the big picture window as Ashley rung up her last customer. The boy she was waiting on stood eye-level with her chest and was grinning ear to ear as she, seemingly oblivious—but not oblivious at all, Eddie knew, not at all—counted out his change. Outside, Eddie found himself grinning too.
This was why he employed only girls to run his register. Selling comics was about selling fantasy, and not just the fantasy of the comics themselves, but the fantasy that at least part of that fantasy wasn’t really a fantasy at all. A hot girl behind the counter of the local funny book shop? And one who let you stare at her tits without a reprimand? That wasn’t supposed to happen in real life. And yet, here she was.
Eddie slipped into the shop as the customer slipped out, and he gave Ashley a nod in greeting as he stepped behind the counter to join her. Then he started in on emptying his pockets. First came his wallet—empty now, except for a maxed-out MasterCard, an expired Massachusetts driver’s license, and a half dozen receipts. Next came his worn spiral-bound notebook, the one meant for figuring the store’s finances, but which had become his doodle pad. And then, finally, came a broken padlock.
“All gone, huh?”
“I don’t know,” said Eddie. “Probably. I didn’t bother to hoist the door once I saw the lock.”
Ashley nodded, then crouched down to retrieve something from the small fridge they kept behind the counter.
“You get my dinner?” asked Eddie.
Ashley nodded again, setting in front of him a chilled bottle of chocolate milk and an eighty-nine cent package of Hostess Donettes.
“Thanks,” said Eddie.
“You know,” said Ashley, “you could splurge once in a while. This hunger strike you’ve been on since she left—”
“Not really a hunger strike,” said Eddie, cutting her off as he popped one of the miniature donuts into his mouth.
“Well, whatever this is,” said Ashley, “it needs to stop. You’ve got the money to treat yourself better.”
Eddie shook his head, then reached into the inside pocket of his coat. He set the folded letter down in front of her, nodded at her to read it, and then waited.
When she was finished, she looked up at him with weary eyes, eyes sadder than her eighteen years entitled her to. “How?” said Ashley. “Are you really that far behind?”
“But we do better business than Hot Comix and Greg’s combined,” she said. “What the hell am I doing wearing this low-cut shit all the time if not to keep the store in the black?”
Eddie shrugged, then stepped away from her. At the window, he stood and watched the traffic backing up along Alpine Lane, cars waiting to turn left or right to join the hustle and bustle of the main drag. The automobiles speeding along Chelmsford Street seemed united against those lined up on Alpine, and Eddie enjoyed watching soccer moms stuck in front of his store growing aggravated. He watched them clutch their steering wheels tighter, watched the swears form on their lips as they looked to their backseats to make sure their children were asleep. They cursed the town that would not install a traffic light here, despite this little side street being home to not only the post office but the best bakery around. But Eddie, he loved it when cars jammed up right outside his door. It’s why he did better business than the guys across the street: if traffic was backed up bad enough, kids dragged along with their moms on errands needed only to peer out to the right, point at the sign for The Splash Page, and say, “Mom! Please?!?”
Behind him, Ashley was apologizing about something as she gathered up her things.
“Don’t worry about it,” said Eddie.
“Somebody’s got to worry about it,” said Ashley.
Eddie turned around to face her. “That somebody ain’t you,” he said. “At least not anymore. You and your chest have done your duty for king and country. And now you’re free to peddle your wares—”
“And to wear only petals,” she said.
He snorted back a laugh. “That’s right,” he said. “Over at Mac’s, the guys’ll be lining up for you now, not Superman. And you’ll finally be getting the money that you deserve.”
“You’ve always paid me what I—”
He set a hand on her shoulder and she stopped talking. “It ain’t your problem, Ash. Okay?”
But she said nothing. Instead, she reached up with her own hand and squeezed his.
They stood in silence for a moment before Ashley asked “What’s happening to the money?” She ran her free hand along the top of the glass display cases that formed their counter. “You’ve sold so many of the big ticket books. You should be all set,” she said. “I mean, that’s part of why I’m leaving. I thought you were all set.”
“I’ll be fine,” said Eddie.
Ashley held up the letter he’d given her.
He stalked away from her like it was kryptonite.
“You’re being evicted,” she said. “You are not going to be fine. Where are you going to go? I mean, this isn’t just your shop now.” She pointed to the table of long boxes which occupied the center of the store, to the skirt of the burlap tablecloth. “You’ve been sleeping under the Goddamn table too, ever since Alice went back to her dad’s.”
Eddie grabbed Ashley’s leather jacket from the coat stand and tossed it at her. Then he said, “Don’t worry about me, kid.”
“Fine,” she said, putting on the jacket. But just as soon as she’d put it on, she was taking it off again.
“What?” said Eddie.
Ashley pointed over his shoulder toward the window. “The Talker,” she said. “He’s coming.”
Eddie turned around and squinted. Then he sighed. Sure enough, there was the old bastard now, making his way past Skip’s Restaurant, his unmistakable orange wool cap bobbing up and down as he waddled this way.
If you’d ever jockeyed a grocery store register in Chelmsford, you feared the Talker. It didn’t matter if you worked the Market Basket on the Lowell line, the Shop and Save over on Drum Hill, or the Purity Supreme in the center of town—this codger got around. The best you could hope for when he came into your store was that he picked someone else’s register, not yours. Otherwise, you were shit out of luck.
Eddie had thought he was done with the old fool when he opened his own place, a place where food wasn’t sold at all. But the Talker, it seemed, liked comic books too.
A typical conversation with him wasn’t a conversation at all; it was a monologue, and it went something like this: “What, uh, what, what, what grade are you in there? Do you, did that—did that ring up properly? Are you sure that’s the right price? Oh, uhm, OK. Uh, here you go. Here you go.” He’d dig into his pockets and hand you a crumpled up wad of ones and fives, quarters and dimes. And then, before you had a chance to say anything, he’d continue. “That’s the money,” he’d say, pointing. “That’s the money for my order there. Is that enough? Is it enough? I have more if you need it,” he’d say, gesturing toward his socks.
A couple of years ago, the Talker happened upon Alice’s register at the Market Basket. It was before the comic book store, before the wedding, before the evening in her father’s basement that made the wedding a necessity. Back then, Eddie was just the bag boy checking her out while she checked out the customers. Just a kid who should’ve been in college (but wasn’t), admiring the ass of a high school girl in a mini skirt. Inspecting her merchandise while she passed produce back to him to pack absentmindedly into plastic bags.
“I’d like paper inside the plastic,” the Talker told him. “You know how to do that, right? Do you need to call someone to show you? I can ask the manager, if you like.”
Alice smiled at Eddie as she slid a box of Little Debbie Zebra Cakes over the scanner and down onto the conveyer belt.
Eddie smiled back at her and said nothing to the Talker, who went back to watching prices ring up on the tiny LCD screen above the register. “Do you,” the Talker began again, “do you, do you know which way it is to East Chelmsford? My cousin’s over that way. I need to get there. Do you know the way? Which way is it to East Chelmsford? You know the way, don’t you?”
Alice turned to Eddie as she rang up the last item, a two liter of Coca Cola Classic. “You know which way that is, Eddie?”
Eddie turned to the Talker and said, “No hablo ingles, señor.”
Eddie watched Alice try to hold back a smile as she totaled up the Talker’s order, as the Talker told her, “He should speak English. You should get him some lessons. They teach English over at the university. Do you know Spanish? You should tell him that. Tell him to take some lessons. You should—”
Alice cut him off then. “That’ll be four dollars and ninety-five cents, sir.”
And that was where it had all begun for Eddie and her, in the suppressed laughter they shared that afternoon, in the commiserating they did on their lunch break later on, and after the movie he took her to that night, at the Route 3 Cinema across the street. That was where it began. Eddie supposed he should be thankful to the old bastard, but Eddie did not do the things he should have done.
The Talker toddled into The Splash Page, and for once he said nothing. He ignored Eddie and Ashley and went straight for the racks on the far end of the store. He plucked the latest issue of The New Warriors off of the shelf and began to read it.
“Crisis averted,” said Ashley.
“For now,” said Eddie. “When he’s done, he’ll—”
Ashley tapped at her wristwatch, cutting him off. “You’re almost closed. Let him read till then, then shoo him out.”
“You make it sound so simple,” said Eddie.
“Yeah,” said Ashley, sighing. “Bad habit of mine.”
Eddie grabbed his notebook and began to doodle.
“You know,” whispered Ashley, “if she’d kept it, it might have ended up like him.”
“Kept what?” asked Eddie, not looking up from his drawing.
“She told me the technician found all sorts of anomalies during the exam.”
Eddie continued to sketch. “What are we talking about?”
“You know damn well what I’m talking about,” she said. “And you know damn well what I’m trying to say.”
Eddie put his pen down and looked at her. “I’m not sure I do,” he said.
“She had no choice!” said Ashley, raising her voice now.
Ashley shook her head at him. “There are five stages of grief, Eddie. And she’d come back if only you’d get past the first.”
“And the first is?”
Ashley slipped her jacket on again. “The first,” she said, “is not just a river in Egypt.”
Eddie snorted back a laugh. Then he composed himself and went back to his drawing. It was only as Ashley made her way toward the door that he spoke. “You know,” he said. “You’re wrong.”
On the other side of the store, the Talker giggled at the book he was reading. Eddie stared at the back of the old man’s orange hat as he spoke, imagining a smaller version of it on a smaller head.
“Even if I did stop denying whatever it is that I’m supposedly denying,” said Eddie, “she still wouldn’t come back. You don’t know her like I—”
“That’s bullshit,” said Ashley.
The Talker coughed and then, under his breath, without looking away from his comic book, mumbled, “Language, language, language.”
Ashley returned to Eddie’s side. “You think I haven’t seen the tears?” she said. “I’ve seen what she’ll suffer to be with you.”
“What about what I suffer to be with her?” he said. “What about that?”
Ashley stared at him for a moment, and he stared back, trying to see what she was trying to see. But then came the shock and the pain of her slap, the sting. He closed his eyes and focused on the throbbing of his cheek. And that was how he never saw Ashley leave. He barely even heard her go, the closing of the door behind her so unlike the slam he expected that she might simply have vanished through the door without opening it at all.
“Tsk, tsk,” said the Talker. “A kiss can be a comma, a question mark, or an exclamation point. But a slap is a period, always a period, always the end. The end, the end, the...”
Eddie opened his eyes as the old man trailed off, waiting for what would come next.
“And in the end,” the Talker warbled. “The love you take—”
“You shouldn’t come in here anymore,” said Eddie, cutting him off.
The Talker looked at Eddie, blinked twice, and then when back to his reading.
“Did you hear me, old man?” Eddie shouted. “I don’t want you in here.”
Eddie waited, but the Talker did not talk.
“Don’t you live somewhere?” said Eddie. “East Chelmsford, right? That’s where you’re always headed, right?”
The mere mention of that place made the Talker pause. He closed the book he was reading and set it atop the table of long boxes. “My, uh, cousin’s over that way,” he began. “Do you know the way? I thought you only spoke Spanish. You listened to my advice, didn’t you? You remember when I gave you advice? Back when you worked at the grocery store? You remember that, don’t you? I said you should speak English. Which store was that?”
“If your cousin’s in East Chelmsford,” said Eddie. “Why are you always asking for directions? Shouldn’t you know your way by now?”
“I forgot,” said the Talker. “I forgot. I, uh...” He shook his head from side to side, first with a gentle sway, then with more violent force. He swayed backward and forward, trembling all over. But then he picked up his comic again and flipped it back open and his hands shook less.
Eddie looked up at the Super Friends wall clock. “We close in five minutes,” he told the Talker. He stared at the old man, waiting for some sign of recognition, but none came.
Instead, the Talker began to talk again. “What happened to your wife?” he asked. “Did you hit her?”
“We argued,” said Eddie. “But I never hit her, no.”
“It’s wrong to hit a woman,” said the Talker. “You know that, don’t you? You’re a good man, Charlie Brown. I can tell.” The Talker paused, looked over at Eddie. “What were you fighting about? What was it you were fighting about?”
“None of your business.”
“That’s the thing people say to me the most,” he said. “When they say anything at all. People don’t usually talk to me, you see. People usually don’t say a word.”
Eddie scoffed, “Maybe that’s because you never stop talking yourself.”
The old man waddled across the store. As he drew closer, Eddie thought to pinch his nose, so potent was the pungent stench of dirty laundry and unwashed armpits. But he dared not do anything that would invite further conversation. The Talker tapped his finger on the glass display case, pointing at the last book left within it.
“What?” said Eddie. “You wanna read it?”
The Talker nodded.
“It’s not for browsing,” said Eddie. “That book’s from 1962.”
“Sometimes the girls let me look at it. When you’re not here.”
Eddie inhaled slowly, deeply, trying to calm himself down after that news. But he held it in for longer than he should have, and it hurt when he opened his mouth and let it all out. “If you’ve got the money, honey,” he said, “they’ve got your disease.”
“Oh, they never charged me. No, sir.”
Eddie nodded. “Must’ve thought you were cute.”
“My cousin had that book,” said the Talker, ignoring Eddie’s last words. “He called me on the phone the day he got it, told me how wonderful it was. He got on his bike to come show it to me, all the way from East Chelmsford, and he was reading it again while he rode. That’s when the car hit him.”
“The what?” said Eddie.
“He’s dead now,” said the Talker. “Roadkill. Like a skunk, only he didn’t stink as much.”
“I…” Eddie stuttered. “That’s…”
The Talker tapped on the glass again. “May I see it now? May I see it?”
Eddie stared at the Talker, wanting the old man to look at him, hoping for some sign in that wrinkled face that would tell him if this was a good idea or not. But the Talker did not look at him. Eddie looked at the old man’s hands, his fingers. They were cleaner than he’d expected, but there was still dirt under the fingernails. Under each and every one, except for the thumbs. Did the old man still suck his thumbs? Eddie wondered. He was a child in so many ways, after all. It was a stomach-churning thought, that thumb in that mouth, that tongue digging underneath that fingernail.
But then his stomach stopped churning, and a single sentence from a green pamphlet scrolled across the big screen of his mind like a piece of breaking news: Thumbsucking has been documented at 7 weeks from concepti—
Eddie squeezed his eyes shut to stop this, but it didn’t help.
“Are you crying?” asked the Talker. “Are you crying, Charlie Brown? Did Lucy take the football away again?”
Thumbsucking has been documented—
“My cousin used to clip Charlie Brown out of the paper. Kept them all in a cigar box we stole from our fathers. Poor, old Charlie Brown. You never got to kick the football.”
“SHUT UP!” said Eddie, slamming his fists down upon the countertop, glass shattering as he did.
The Talker shook his head as he backed away. “They should have let you kick the football. They should have. Just once. Even just once,” he said.
Eddie cleared the glass off of the book the old man had been pointing at and handed it to him. “Take this,” said Eddie. “Take it and don’t ever come back.”
“I...” the Talker stuttered. “I don’t have it. I don’t have the money to pay you. Maybe if I get out to East Chelmsford, I can ask my cousin for a loan. I spent all my allowance on Hershey bars today. Will you save it for me? Will you save—”
“I don’t want your money,” said Eddie, forcing the book into the Talker’s hands. “I just want you to leave.”
The Talker looked down at the comic book, rubbed his dirty thumbs over its polypropylene sleeve. Then he looked at Eddie, gave him a nod, and waddled off.
Once the old man was gone, Eddie filled his pockets. He grabbed the lock, the wallet, and what was left of his dinner. He grabbed the keys. And then he opened the register. From beneath the cash drawer, he took the bank book he’d labeled “College fund.” And then, setting the drawer back in place, he flipped up the plastic weight that held the twenties down and slipped a folded photograph out from underneath the small stack of bills. He unfolded the black and white picture and stared at it.
“Where are you?” Eddie asked the photograph, searching its murky lines for that pea-sized something he’d never been able to find on his own. “Where are you?” he asked again. “Where did you go?”
There was a knock at the door. But before he could answer, the person on the other side opened it.
“Are you hurt?” asked Ashley. “I was watching from across the way.”
She came round the back of the counter and examined his knuckles as he sank onto his stool. Then he wrapped his arms around her and pulled her close, his head pressed against her stomach.
She ran her fingers through his hair as he wept.
“Why?” he said. “Why can’t I—?”
“Some other time,” she told him. “Some other place.”
Her fingers were on his neck then, then caught between his slick skin and the back of his loosened collar.
He loosened his grip on her, confused, and looked up to see what she was up to. Her fingers on his neck felt like some sort of invitation, like she was ready to console him with more than words. But it couldn’t be that. Not with everything that was going on.
Or could it?
He shook his head, a victim of her spells for the first time in all the time they’d known each other.
“Maybe you should go after your wife,” she said, taking hold of his hands in her own. Taking hold of them, and squeezing them, but not moving them away from their place on her hips.
He stood, holding onto her to steady himself, wondering how she’d interpret the gesture. Wondering how he wanted her to interpret it. But she did not move. They stood nose to nose, and only when he withdrew his hands did she make her move.
She kissed him on the cheek and made her way out, leaving him there.
“Go get her,” she told him as she lingered at the door. And then, finally, she was gone.