“They can do anything they want,” Matt said, the dreadlocked rebel. “And they will.”
“How do you know?” Albert said, looking every day of his fifty-six years. “You’re what—twenty-two?”
“Twenty-four,” Matt said. “But I don’t have your handicap.”
“What’s that?” said Albert.
“I don’t believe white men. Especially rich ones.”
Albert flushed, but said nothing.
The strain showed in the store. Lively little Brad nearly burst into tears when a customer berated him. He argued that his beloved J.Lo should have stayed with Puff Daddy. Helen took that as a sure sign he’d snapped.
Stuffy Albert was rude and peremptory. Matt disappeared for two hours at lunch, which made more work for everyone.
Only gentle Mr. Davies remained unchanged, sitting in his nook in the back, reading his beloved books. He presided over the store like some literary spirit. Thursday night, Helen found Mr. Davies asleep over his paperback when the store closed. She woke him up.
“Oh, dear, dear, I’m so sorry. Did I hold you up? I know you want to go home.” He gathered his book and sandwich wrappings and headed for the exit.
Helen was back at the store at nine the next morning. She didn’t care that she’d had six hours of sleep. Today was Friday. Her beach vacation started this evening. She couldn’t take another weird late night.
Instead, she had a bizarre day. The first man at her register had coal-black hair, eyes like twin pools of tar, and a copy of
How to Cast Out Devils.
“I want to return this book,” he said.
Helen was afraid to ask why. She didn’t know which scared her more: if the book worked—or if it didn’t.
She gave him his money back without comment.
“Is this a full moon?” Helen asked Brad. Like most people in retail, she believed the full moon brought out the crazies. “We’re going to have fun today at the registers.”
“Not me,” Brad said. “I’ve got slush duty.”
“Poor you,” Helen said. She meant it. “Slush” was the staff word for the books people left all over the store. Art books heavy as paving stones were abandoned in the Children’s section. Mutilated children’s books were dumped like slashed corpses in Mysteries. Bodice-ripping romances turned up in Sports. Copies of the
wound up in the Pregnancy section.
The living room attracted the most slush. Old Mr. Turner had created “book nooks” for his customers. Brown leather wing chairs with comfortable reading lamps were scattered all over the store. In the center, sheltered by mahogany bookcases, he designed a living room with a beautifully worn Persian carpet, comfortable leather couches, and armchairs. Here, the slush gathered in three-foot heaps, until it was retrieved and reshelved by tired, footsore booksellers.
Brad, skinny and agile as a monkey, could carry an amazing number of books. He returned from the slush run with tomes stacked to his chin, and a wild look in his eyes. He dropped the books on the shelving cart and said, “Do you have anything I can use to clean the coffee table? Someone knocked over a caramel latte and covered it with a stack of Harry Potter books.”
“Are they ruined?”
“Four totaled, and the finish is coming off the coffee table.”
Helen rummaged under the register for paper towels, spray cleaner, and furniture polish and put them on the counter. She heard Brad say, “Thanks,” and stood up to face the sublime smells of hot grease and pepperoni. A delivery man was at the counter with a fragrant pizza box.
“Pizza delivery for Clemmons,” he said.
“We don’t have a Clemmons on the staff,” Helen said.
“It’s not for the staff. It’s for a customer. Large pepperoni and mushroom. He called on his cell phone. Said he’d be in the living room.”
Helen paged him. Clemmons turned out to be a muchpierced young man in a black T-shirt. Helen was used to people treating Page Turners like their home. They put their feet on the sofas, spilled coffee on the carpet, and left books everywhere. But ordering a pizza went too far.
“Sir, we have a café where you can buy food,” she said.
“Too expensive,” Clemmons said, taking his pizza to the living room.
Helen tried to keep above the chaos by thinking of her beach vacation. Rich was meeting her tonight at the motel. They had three days together on the romantic ocean, their first long weekend together.
These rosy dreams departed when Page Turner lurched in carrying a Bawls-and-vodka. He was not flushed and jolly this afternoon. He was plain drunk. He walked around the bookstore, annoying customers with his vulgar question. He even went back to Mr. Davies’ nook, held up his blue bottle, and said, “You got Bawls, buddy?” The old gentleman seemed embarrassed for Page. Helen was relieved when he finally stumbled off to his office.
Page’s wife, Astrid, called and said, “Can I speak with the son of a bitch?”
“Which one?” Helen said.
“The one who owns the store.”
Helen paged him, but he did not reply. Rather than keep the owner’s wife on hold, she went to his office. There she heard an angry woman insisting, “You are. I know you are. My mother said so.”
“Your mother’s crazy. And so are you. Get out.”
Helen knocked on the door.
“What?” Page said.
“Your wife is on the phone,” she said.
“Just what I need. Another crazy woman,” he said.
The door opened. The little psychic Madame Muffy stumbled out, clutching a bottle of Bawls with a bent straw. Where did she come from? Was she Page’s newest girlfriend? Muffy didn’t seem his type.
At four-thirty, Page called the staff together for an announcement. “The Wilton Manors store will close this weekend,” he said.
There was a shocked silence. Matt radiated “I told you so” vibes. Helen could almost see them flashing in neon over his dreads.
Why close that store so soon after Palm Beach? This was crazy. This was something a drunk would do, Helen thought.
“This store will receive no new books until further notice,” Page said, and hiccuped loudly. “That should make your job easier. Less to shelve. Because there will be less work, all hours will be cut. Full-time workers will be cut from forty to thirty hours a week, part-time from twenty to ten.”
Helen had just been whacked with a sixty-seven-dollar pay cut. Maybe if she didn’t eat, she could pay her bills. If the store closed, she would not get unemployment. She was paid in cash under the table.
She looked over and saw that Albert had gone lard white. He was clutching his chest. Helen was afraid he was having a heart attack.
“Does that mean we’re closing?” Matt asked.
“It means we’re not getting more books until I say so,” Page said. “That’s all it means.” He walked up the stairs to his office.
Albert began talking to himself. “What am I going to do? I’m fifty-six years old. Who will hire me? Where will I get health insurance?”
“I told you,” Matt said. “Never believe a rich white guy.”
The phone rang. It was Page’s private line. The ringing stopped and the light for that line went on.
Five minutes later Page Turner staggered out of the bookstore, holding a bottle of Bawls and whistling a happy tune. The staff watched silently until he disappeared from view. Then everyone talked at once.
“I’m going to be out of work again,” Helen said to Matt. She was almost in tears. “I’m going to have to look for another job. I hate it. I hate it.”
She remembered the petty humiliations, the endless forms to fill out, the interviewers who said she was overqualified, the worries about making the rent. A surge of self-pity washed over her. “I hate him,” she burst out.
“We all hate him,” Matt said. “Man doesn’t care what he does to people.”
Loyal Albert said nothing.
“I’ve got to cash my paycheck before the bank closes at five,” Matt said. “I’ll be back in fifteen.” It wasn’t his break, but no one cared anymore. They stood in a small, shocked group, trying to absorb Page Turner’s announcement.
Matt returned ten minutes later, his eyes black with rage. “My paycheck bounced.”
“There must be some mistake,” Albert said.
“There’s no mistake,” Matt said. “The bank said there was not enough money in the account to meet the week’s payroll. The man’s closing these stores for a reason. They’re losing too much money.”
This didn’t sound right to Helen. She was ringing up plenty of book sales. The Las Olas store had to make money. Where did it go?
“Page Turner and his family are worth millions,” Albert said.
“You don’t think the payroll comes out of his personal checking account, do you? It’s the store that’s broke, and he doesn’t give a rat’s rump.” Matt took off his bookseller badge.
“Where are you going? You have another two hours,” Albert said.
“Good-bye. This rat is leaving the sinking ship,” Matt said.
“You can’t just go.”
“I’m already gone. So long, sucker. I’ll get my things out of my locker.”
Albert looked stunned. “What will I do if my paycheck bounces? My health insurance is due this week. I have to pay Mother’s and mine.”
Albert never understood the careless cruelties of the rich. Helen, who had once made six figures, did. If you’d always had money, you didn’t know what people like Albert suffered for three hundred dollars. Page would order a threehundred-dollar bottle of wine to impress his author friends. But he wouldn’t bother to cover a three-hundred-dollar paycheck for a faithful employee.
Helen saw tears on Albert’s face. “Are you OK?” she said.
“If I can’t take care of Mother, I’ll kill myself,” he said.
“You’d be better off killing the man who did this to you,” Matt said as he headed out the door.
Helen found a solitary bagel in her fridge. It was speckled with green-black mold. She tried to scrape off the mold, then decided the bagel wasn’t worth packing and tossed it.
The low-fat mozzarella, which was supposed to go on the speckled bagel, was worth saving. It went into the bag of groceries, along with a jar of pasta sauce, half a stick of butter with toast crumbs, and the other discouraging contents of a single woman’s kitchen. Helen had to pack up everything edible in her apartment, even Thumbs’ catnip toys. Margery had warned her not to leave any food behind when the Coronado was tented for termites.
“All the food has to go, or it will be contaminated,” her landlady said. “Remove all your medicines, cosmetics, body scrubs, spices and herbs. The gas kills everything that breathes oxygen, so all the plants have to be out of there or they’ll die.”
Helen’s illegal cat and Peggy’s forbidden parrot also had to go. Helen understood now why Margery was giving the Coronado residents three days at the beach. The tenting preparations were time-consuming and tedious.
Helen checked the last cabinet. She threw out some stale graham crackers and stuck a jar of crunchy peanut butter in the bag. That was it. Her clothes were packed. Thumbs was meowing in his carrier. She lugged her suitcase, food bag, and cat carrier out to Margery’s big white Cadillac. Her own car needed eight hundred dollars in repairs. It could rust in the Coronado parking lot until she won the lottery— and Helen didn’t buy tickets.
Margery and Helen were the last to leave the Coronado. Her landlady was about to drive off when Helen said, “Wait! I forgot a suitcase.”
“And there goes the damn phone,” Margery said. “We’ll never get out of here.”
Helen hastily opened her closet and pulled out the old Samsonite suitcase wedged between the wall and the water heater. Inside was a discouraging bundle of old-lady underwear. At least, Helen hoped it would discourage any thief. Under that stretched elastic and snagged nylon was all the money she had in the world: $7,108 in cash. This was also where she hid the untraceable cell phone she used to call her mother and sister.
She was almost ready to leave when she remembered Chocolate, her teddy bear. She picked him off the bed, felt around inside, and pulled out eleven bucks. Chocolate was indeed a stuffed bear.
Helen threw the Samsonite in the backseat just as Margery came out. “Your boyfriend called. He couldn’t stay on the phone. He’s got emergency surgery on a Lab. The dog was hit by a car and it’s in bad shape. He’ll be with it all night.”
Instead of me, Helen thought. Whoa. What is the matter with me? I’m jealous of an injured dog.
The lights were just coming on at the Coronado. White lights twinkled in the palm trees. The pool shone like a sapphire. Floodlights showed the old building’s swooping curves.
“This is the first time the Coronado has been empty since Zach and I built it in 1949,” Margery said. “It was right after the war, when we were first married. We had such plans.”
That was about fifty-five years ago, Helen calculated. Margery would have been twenty-one years old. She tried to imagine Margery as a young bride.
“It’s a beautiful place,” Helen said, hoping Margery would talk about her plans and her long-dead husband, Zachary. But Helen could almost hear the door slam on those memories. Margery said nothing on the drive to Hollywood beach. The farther they got from the Coronado, the more she seemed to shrink and fade. The purple outfit she was wearing was so old and washed-out, it was almost gray. She didn’t light up a cigarette, either. That should have made Helen happy, since she hated cigarette smoke. But Margery didn’t seem the same without her dragon wreath of smoke. She didn’t even seem to notice Thumbs’ racket. The unhappy cat howled nonstop in his carrier.
When they turned off A1A, Helen saw the moonlit ocean. “It’s gorgeous,” she said.
Margery still said nothing. She pulled in at the Beach Time Motel, a 1950s two-story L painted pink and green. Plain, clean, and cute, it reminded Helen of the places she stayed on family vacations.
“We’re here,” Margery said. “If that cat carries on like that all weekend, you’ll be sleeping on the beach.”