They breezed in one Sunday afternoon, wide eyed and cheerful. Both must have been in their late 70s or early 80s. I watched as they casually walked the floor, browsing and whispering to one another. The one thing that immediately struck me was that they were holding each other’s hands. I remember thinking about how lucky it must be to get to that stage of life and not only be with someone you love, but also want to hold their hand.
She wore a crazy purple hat, with a wide brim. It would have looked silly on a younger woman, but somehow, it suited her just fine. He wore beat up jeans and a button-up shirt. Not tucked in. Loose and wrinkled. She dropped her bag and he bent to pick it up. He handed it to her and she gave him a sweet little kiss on the cheek. Again, I thought, “lucky.”
They made their way into the kids section and stopped short at the spinner rack. We’ve always kept an old fashioned spinner rack in the window, stuffed with all manner of kids comics. We keep it all mixed up so the kids have to hunt for what they’re looking for. “The hunt” is what’s missing these days.
She spun it around and laughed the whole time. He watched her and lit up right along. After awhile, they came to the counter and plopped down a stack of comics. “Archie,” “Betty & Veronica,” “Jughead.”
“Did you find everything you were looking for?” I asked.
“I wasn’t really looking for anything,” she said, “but I sure found something. I wasn’t aware they still made these!”
“Why wouldn’t they?” I said.
She paused for a moment, then threw her head back and laughed. It was a hearty laugh that didn’t befit her age. If you closed your eyes, you’d think she was a woman in her 20′s.
“Are you the owner?” she asked.
“I sure am.”
We exchanged pleasantries. Her name was Rose. His was Ben. They lived just a few blocks away and had done for the last 20 years. They took the same walk up and down the boulevard every Sunday for most of those 20 years and were surprised to see a new store open in our location, much less a comic book store. I welcomed them to the shop and they welcomed me to the neighborhood.
They came every Sunday like clockwork. Same time every week. Same youthful exuberance. Rose wore a new hat, each one more colorful than the last. Red to suit her name, yellow, green, pink, lavender. Ben wore his usual jeans and sneakers. Sprightly and tough for a guy his age.
Every week, they made their way to the kid’s section, raiding my spinner rack for everything “Archie.”
The conversation was always wonderful. They’d just celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary. 50 years! They met during the Golden Age. What a time that must have been. She spoke of comics back then and we quipped about the usual fortunes everyone would have made had they all kept their comics instead of tossing them away like newspapers.
Ben said,”Back then, we called them “funny books.” We rolled them up and stuck them in our back pockets. It was a different time. We didn’t know about how to collect things and take care of them. I mean really take care of them. When you’re that age, you don’t think about the future and what things will be worth. You’ve got all the time in the world to figure that out.”
I replied, “But, you sure did have a lot of fun reading them, didn’t you? Having fun is all that counts in the world of comics.”
Again, Rose’s laughter filled the shop. I began to realize that Ben only laughed when she did. When she looked forlorn (which was a rare event), his mood followed. He shadowed her, physically and emotionally.
All I could think about was how lucky their grandchildren were to have these two spry old folks pelting them with Archie Comics every week. It made me want to call my grandmother. So, I did.
We started placing large reorders of Archies. Heck, we’d never ordered that many before. But, Rose was eating them up on a weekly basis and I had to keep up with her. I suspect Ben had the same problem.
They came in on Sunday, as usual. Only, this time they came a bit later in the day than their normal visit. And, the mood was altogether different.
Rose still wore her signature bright and outrageous hat. Ben still looked beat up and worn out. But, I noticed his hand on her arm. I noticed how she seemed to be almost leaning on him. We exchanged our “hellos!” and “how are yas!” and they took up their place where the comic books spin. They stood there for a long, long time. Long enough to make me wonder.
They came to the register and Rose set down her usual booty. I stared at her and made no move to ring her up or make polite conversation. It was rude and presumptuous, but I did it anyway.
She knew right away what I was thinking and winked at me. There’s something wonderful about being on the receiving end of a wink from a colorful old woman. Makes you feel like your entire life has been lived correctly. Like you made the right choices and she’s the only one who knows.
She reached up and gently pulled the hat from her head, letting it slide onto the counter.
The tufts of hair were few and far between. The rest was bald, and not by choice. The Cancer was doing its work and doing it well.
“Oh, Rose. I’m so sorry. If there’s anything I can do, please let me know.” I said sheepishly.
Rose put her hand on mine and said, “Sweetie, you’re already doing it. Now ring me up for these “Betty & Veronicas”! I need to get home and see who wins this time!”
The following week, Rose seemed a thousand times better. She was bright and chipper and wore a rainbow colored scarf instead of her signature hat. Ben, however, wore a brand new baseball hat. It was out of character and oddly humorous.
They brought their books to the counter and I began to ring them up.
“How you feeling today, Rose?” I asked.
“Feeling great! How about you?” she replied.
“Not bad for a Sunday. How you doing, Ben?” I said.
Ben took his hat off and smiled. “Bald,” he said. “Damn bald!”
Eighty years old and he’d shaved his head in solidarity. This was dedication on a grand scale. This was bravery beyond borders. This was love.
Six weeks passed. The Archies piled up.
Ben came in alone one Sunday. He wore no hat and made no pretense of his bald pate. I unashamedly left the customers I was helping to greet him.
“Hey Ben. How’s Rose doing?” I asked.
He replied, “Not so good, kiddo. She took a turn and couldn’t shake it this time. She’s tough, though. She’ll fight it off.”
He didn’t seem to want to talk about it anymore, so I didn’t push. He grabbed all that he could from the spinner and brought it to the counter.
“Do you have any more?” he asked.
“Sure” I said. “How many more issues do you need?”
“Every one you’ve got” He said.
I realized then that I had no idea what their lives were about. That I had no place in imagining I knew these people and what their life was like outside of my doors. The “Archies” and “Betty & Vernonicas” and “Jugheads” that she piled up on the counter weren’t for her grandchildren at all. Hell, they’d be grown by now. They were for her.
It’s not the cover that counts. It’s the stories inside.
Ben told me they were the only things she could focus on. That besides their Sunday walks, she hadn’t really gone out in almost a year. That during the times of the most savage pain, she held the comics in her hands because they comforted her. He told me that he read to her at night from them. From Archie Digests! A bald old man, acting out all of the roles and finishing every punch-line. I can only imagine how much joy that gave her amid her anguish.
He cried a little at the counter until he realized people were looking.
“Just ring me up.” He said.
“Not today, Ben.” I said. I bagged all of the books up and passed my hand over the register. “Today, they’re on me.”
He shook my hand hard, thanked me and he left.
I never saw either of them again.
Lots of things happen inside a comic book store. Especially a small one. You get to see more and you get to see it up close and personal. People come in and you become immersed inside their lives. Or, at least what little you really know of them. It’s all a moment in time. As if they bring in pieces of the outside world, but not all of it. The rest is manufactured and made real by the time you ring them up. If you pay attention to people, you see all of their truths. All of their strengths and weaknesses. Or, you go blind and they become whatever you imagine them to be.
I imagined Rose holding out for awhile longer, then passing peacefully away. I imagined Ben tying up loose ends, then joining her not long after. I imagined their family going through boxes of their things. A lifetime of personal treasures. Treasures “collected.” Treasures “taken care of.”
And, at the bottom of one, a tremendous stack of “Archies” and “Betty & Veronicas” and “Jugheads.” All well read and enjoyed. All filled with memories of a Golden Age when they were both young and scared and had all the time in the world.