approached the bus stop on the morning that his life took a right angle turn,
Joseph Camby cursed the dark skies that were spitting down rain on him. Then he
cursed himself for not checking the weather forecast before he left home. Not
that he much liked carrying an umbrella. You were certain to forget the damn
thing somewhere, and then you’d have to go back for it only to find that some
jerk who didn’t have his own had gone and taken it.
sort of thing, lapse of memory, was happening with increasing regularity in the
last few years, if Joe was willing to admit it, and he wasn’t. His wife
frequently claimed that he was losing his recall as part of her general
strategy to undercut him in their various arguments. To concede the fact, the
alleged fact, that his memory was truly going would be to grant her a small victory gratis. And you don’t just give away points in the
long-running battle that people politely referred to as marriage. No sir,
points had to be earned and at some considerable cost to the opposing player.
All part of the game.
early for the bus for once--on a rainy day, of course. The wind was blowing the
gray sprinkle sideways and the bus stop’s scant little roof and Plexiglas sidewalls offered no real shelter from the elements. There was a Starbucks down
the street that was open early (there was a Starbucks or two down any street
these days) but he’d be sure to miss the bus if he tried to hold up there for a
few minutes. And that would be just his luck too. He’d wind up being late for
his doctor’s appointment, and they might just insist on rescheduling as they
already had once before. Then the whole trip would be for naught. And he needed
to hear the results of the test. They had refused to tell him over the phone
and the tension had cost him a night’s sleep already. Nope, running over to
Starbuck’s was right out.
shop he was standing in front of was open, though, and before eight in the AM,
which stuck him as a little odd. How much business could you really get this
time of the morning with no foot traffic about at all? Funny, he’d never really
noticed the place before. Its sign, painted in lime green with white outlining
on the big, plate glass front window, was done all in Chinese characters. At
least he thought they were Chinese. They were supposed to be pictures that
communicated words. Logograms they called them. To him the first two characters
there looked like a bear eating a TV antenna. Seriously, what the hell was that
supposed to mean?
that same window, around the Chinese writing, he could see an odd collection of
items inside. A fishing pole, an electric typewriter, some coats, a wicker
basket full of men’s watches, a leaf blower--all used stuff it appeared. He
supposed it was some kind of pawn shop. Jesus, who pawns a leaf-blower? That
must have been a hell of a hard luck story there.
last thought piqued his curiosity and he decided to nip inside out of the rain
and look around. He could keep an eye out the window for the bus, due in about,
oh, six minutes now. There was time. He tried the door and it was indeed open.
He went in to the sound a bell jangling above the transom.
warm inside and that much was certainly nice. He felt his body begin to
unclench. The place had that smell that’s unique to secondhand stores: the
stale aroma of hundreds of lives layered on top of each other. Musty, dusty, a
little acrid, with the fading memory of sweat and cigarettes and Swanson’s TV
dinners all comingling uneasily. The air itself felt tired and heavy. If withered,
old, dried up dreams had a smell, he thought, then this was surely it.
youngish black man stood behind the counter neatly dressed in a dark suit and
tie, and Joe immediately thought of a funeral. He was attending them at a
pretty regular clip these days. Soon he’d be at one and not even know it. His
own that is. That was your big prize in the Crackerjack box of life. You die,
and everything you ever owned goes into a bunch of cardboard boxes that end up
... who the hell knows where? Some place like this perhaps.
black man was smiling warmly and he met Joe’s eyes with a welcoming nod, but he
said nothing by way of greeting. He was bald, and too young for that to be hair
loss, so it must be that he shaved his head--something that had become fashionable
these days for some reason. Joe had considered doing it briefly, but he’d grown
accustomed to his comb over by now. And then too that was another battle he
wasn’t quite ready to concede.
here must work for the owners, Joe figured. Unless there were Chinese blacks,
like American blacks or Canadian blacks. Joe had seen a black German once
talking on the news and it had thrown him for a second. That is, before he
remembered that it was a different world now than the one he’d grown up in.
Immigrants everywhere you turn. All of them scratching
and fighting for a piece of a pie that was too damn small already.
The quiet had dragged on long enough to make Joe uncomfortable. He cleared his
throat and said, “Miserable out,” with a jerk of his head toward the door.
inside, miserable outside,” the man behind the counter replied, still smiling
didn’t know what to make of that cryptic comment, since it was certainly a lot
more dry and comfortable inside here than outside there. Whatever. Maybe it was
some kind of ancient Chinese wisdom he’d picked up from the owner. And that
thought brought to mind an old TV commercial for some laundry detergent or
fabric softener or something.
the man said without changing his expression.
Joe felt the hairs on the back of his neck suddenly stand up.
the TV commercial,” the man said. “You know, the man at the cleaners says the
laundry’s soft because of some ancient Chinese secret. But it’s just Calgon fabric softener.”
just a second Joe wondered if he was dreaming. He shook the thought away and
said, “How’d you know I was thinking about that old commercial, of all things?”
“Just a hunch.” The smile was still there, but it seemed to have a barb in it now.
Anyway aren’t you a little young to remember that? What was
that, the seventies? You couldn’t a been born yet.”
older than I look.”
ya?” It was true of blacks in general, on account of the sun not aging their
skin as much. This was something Joe had noticed but never said out loud.
“Black don’t crack,” the man said.
felt instantly uncomfortable, and glanced down. He saw that he’d dripped some
water off his overcoat onto the black and white tiled floor and felt a pang of
guilt and oddly of fear too. “Well, anyways, I just came in to get out of the
rain, if you don’t mind.”
all, but are you sure that’s all you were looking for?” The man’s smile was
gone now and it had been replaced by a look of care, like you might offer a
child who had just informed you it was lost and couldn’t find its parents.
you could try to sell me,” Joe said, “and I could pretend to be interested
until my bus comes, if you want to play that game. But honestly, I’m not
looking for anything.”
even happiness? Everyone’s looking for that.”
snorted. “Do you have that there in one of your bins? Someone pawned their
happiness for a quick buck, did they?”
you’d be surprised how often that happens. But yes, if it’s happiness you want
I can set you up, Joe.”
was his name, of course. Joseph Camby. But this guy didn’t know his name. True,
his memory wasn’t the greatest anymore, but he would have remembered it if
they’d met. The fellow was kind of odd--he’d have left an impression. And
anyway how he had said it reminded Joe of the war, and the way the shopkeepers
and whores in Korea used to call all the US serviceman “Joe.” Short for G.I. Joe.
And that’s what had just happened here, surely. This guy just used “Joe” as a
placeholder. That’s all.
was standing, had been the whole time, and now he placed both his palms on the
counter and leaned forward. “So, are you interested, Joe? In happiness?”
glanced at the door, then back at the man. “I don’t know what your game is,
friend, but like I said, I’m just in out of the rain here if I’m being honest.”
could make you a very attractive offer. Ten years of happiness, say.
tried to laugh it off, but what came out sounded like a dry cough. And he began
to suspect the man behind the counter was serious. Nuts, of course, but
serious. He should just turn around and exit the place without another word
before it got any weirder. Maybe the rain had let up. He turned again and
looked out the front window. If anything it was coming down harder. That’s when
he decided to just humor the guy. Have a little fun. What could it hurt?
I’d be crazy not to ask,” Joe said. “What’ll it cost me, this ten years of
the thing with an arrangement like this is that it’s zero sum, you see. That
happiness has to come from somewhere. In this case it would be your wife.”
nodded as if he were actually buying any of this. “I see. A trade off.”
being happy would make her miserable.” Joe smiled. “Well, that’s not much of a stretch.”
we have a deal?”
stalled. “Well, I’m not ready to sign anything today.”
need. A handshake will suffice.”
glanced at his watch. The bus would be here any second. He could just turn and
go. But instead he felt his feet carrying him to the counter. Not against his
will, but more like it was all a movie he was watching. And when he reached the
counter the man offered his hand.
took it. And shuddered. The other man’s hand felt wet, slick. He let go
quickly. One pump. He immediately glanced down at his own hand and stroked his
thumb across his fingertips. Bone dry.
bus arrives in thirty seconds,” the man said.
didn’t reply, he just nodded and turned away. The bell jangled again when he
exited the shop. The cold drizzle actually felt good on his face now. Like it
was waking him up from whatever had just happened or not happened in there.
thirty seconds later the bus arrived.
news at the doctor’s was good. The lump was benign. On the way home Joe debated
with himself on how to tell the wife with maximum drama. She would shrug it off
and say he had just worried for no reason. That of course it was nothing,
because nothing of any importance ever happened to him and nothing ever would.
found her on the floor in the kitchen. She was breathing, but what they called non-responsive in the TV medical shows.
doctor said it was a brain hemorrhage. Sub arachnoid, he called it. Three of
them, all at once. Miracle that she survived at all. She was going to need
round the clock medical care for the rest of her days, which were
indeterminate. The doctor said she could have another hemorrhage any time. Then
he said something that made Joe shiver. That she could just as easily live
another ten years. Ten miserable years, he thought.
Joe brought her home from the hospital, the Publisher’s Clearinghouse people
came to the door. The wife would never know it, but they were rich.
* * *
him four weeks to get up the nerve but Joe finally went back to the little
Chinese pawn shop. He half expected it to be gone when he pulled up in his new Cadillac XTS sedan. It was still there.
behind the counter seemed to recognize him the moment he entered.
Joe said without any pleasantries. “How is it possible?”
other man looked confused. “I’m sorry?”
deal. How did you do it?” Joe approached the counter and stopped about halfway
there. He didn’t want to get any closer. “The happiness. The good thing. You
made it happen. And ... the other thing too.”
smiled. “Oh, yes. So something happened did it? Are you actually happy now?”
hesitated, but then he figured there was nothing to hide from this man, or whatever he was. “I don't know. I mean, the money is great and all, but I
don’t really know what to do with it. I got a nice car. Then I sort of ran out
of ideas. I don’t like to travel and we never had kids. And my wife...” He
didn’t know what to say about her because the emotions were extremely mixed up
when it came to that department, so he just repeated, “How did you do it?”
hesitated. “I shouldn’t tell you, really, but it’s a magic trick. Mentalism.”
wasn’t at all what Joe had expected to hear and it took him a moment to process
it. “What do you mean, a trick?”
that. You see, I’ve made that little deal with hundreds and hundreds of people
over the years. I do it to amuse myself. It gets pretty boring in here when business
is slow. I figured if I told someone he’s going to be happy and his wife is
going to be miserable, once in a while something great is going to happen to
the guy by pure chance, and the wife too. It’s just the law of averages. Sooner
or later for someone I talked to, someone who doesn’t know about all the
others, it’s going to look like he made some kind of deal with the devil. A Faustian bargain. And that just tickles the hell out of me.”
you’re not ... you didn’t?”
other man smiled that barbed smile that Joe remembered from before. “I didn’t
do anything but show you a part of yourself that you knew was there, or
should’ve known, but you never looked at it closely. Because, to be honest, who
would want to? Right? And in case you’re wondering, it’s about fifty percent.”
shook his head. “What is?”
often the husband takes the deal. Or the wife. I’ve played it both ways, of
course. The more times I can do it, the more often pure chance is going to make
something like this happen. Funny, isn’t it?”
felt sick. And in a strange way naked. This fellow was just, well, he was just
a man. A kind of a con man. Or what’d he call it? A mentalist. And he knew
something about Joe now. Something truly horrible. That he was the sort of
person who would trade his wife’s happiness for his own.
don’t believe you,” Joe said.
what you like,” the man replied. “But you’re wasting an opportunity here. You
got analyzed for free. No charge. Why don’t you just accept the fact that
you’re an awful person, and then start trying to make a change? You know, it doesn’t
alter the facts that you know what they are--it just gives you a chance to do
something about them.”
no reply, even to having just been called an awful person, and realizing that
he turned to go.
raining again today, as it had been the day he’d first walked into this godawful place. As he reached for the door it opened outward, pulled
by a frowning, middle-aged man holding his newspaper over his head like a hat.
outside,” the man said as he passed Joe, shaking water off his paper.
inside, miserable outside,” the man said from behind the counter.