I saw her hovering by the door. She was obviously considering whether to step all the way in or drift back out into the night. The door kept opening and closing and folks rushed passed her on all sides, delaying her decision.
I was desperate to run over and rescue her, but I was trapped behind the register. It was the highest of holy days in comic-book land. It was the day we answer the question “why is this day unlike any other?” It was Wednesday, and I was without a manager.
There were two customers in line and many others milling about on the sales floor. If I could just ring them up quickly, maybe there was a chance I wouldn’t lose her. She had to be in her 60s and was most certainly unnerved by the buzzing around her. The window was closing fast.
The phone began ringing, and, of course, I couldn’t find it. I must have set it down somewhere on my travels, but hadn’t a clue where that might be. I can tell you which Superman issue the Parasite first appeared, but rarely have a clue regarding the location of my car keys (much less the phone that loves shouting at me).
I called out “Anyone seen my phone”? Some customers actually lifted their eyes from the four-color drugs in their hands and casually looked around.
Oscar called out, “Nope!” Colin chimed in with “It’s not over here.” “Why don’t you call it?!” chuckled Andy, not caring that he was the only one who found it funny. These are my customers and I love them, one and all.
Ring. “You’ve got to be kidding me!” Ring. “Have to reach it before the machine picks up!” Ring. “Where the hell did I put that thing?”
“Here you are,” she said, handing me the phone. “It was sitting on the shelf by the door.”
I thanked her profusely, answered the phone and rattled off the script as written. Three short sentences I’m destined to speak every Wednesday until the end of my days. By now, I can do it while eating pizza, spinning plates and reading Proust.
“Yes, the new books are in. Yes, they’re on the shelves. We close at 9pm.”
I looked up and found her drifting again toward the door. “Nope” I thought. “No way. Not this time.” I glanced at Philip, hoping he could wait a couple of minutes to be rung up. He was hopelessly lost in the latest issue of Captain America, oblivious to the world around him. Perfect! I dashed out from behind the register and cut her off at the pass.
“Can I help you find anything?” I said.
She sighed, surveyed the chaos unfolding around her, smiled sweetly and said “I need…I need to reconnect with my grandson.”
And time slowed down.
Her hand is soft and she smells like tomatoes. We’ve been to the fruit and vegetable market and picked a few for lunch. Nice and ripe. It’s a beautiful day. The breeze drifts in from the west, along Austin Street. Another summer spent walking the streets of Queens with Anne. My grandmother. My protector. My best friend.
She’s promised me an ice-cream cone (as she always does), and I spend the day in anticipation. She never makes a promise she doesn’t keep. My childhood is filled with daydreams of Carvel cones. I scream, you scream, we all scream for ice-cream. Rah! Rah! Rah!
“I’m sorry. You seem very busy and I don’t want to waste your time.” She said. She turned to go and I put my hand on her shoulder. “You’re right. I’m very busy doing very important comic-book store things. Now, tell me about your grandson.”
There are people who carry calm in the folds of their sweaters. People who breathe deep while others drown. Margaret was one of those people and you knew it right away. One day, I’d be asked to call her “Peg.” All her friends do.
Standing in the farthest corner of my store, between Modern Classics and A-Z, Margaret opened her heart. She told me about Aaron. How he grew up in her living room. How her daughter worked two jobs and how her son-in-law was hardly home, then not at all. It was hard, she said, but they were happy together and made a family of it. She and Aaron did everything together. They took long walks every day. She taught him difficult words and he told her how he dreamed of flying.
“If I was Superman, I’d fly here every weekend. Then, summers wouldn’t be so important.” I said, proud of my fantasy.
My grandmother replied, “Summers are always important, whether you’re here with me or not. You’ll find that out soon enough.”
Austin Street wasn’t nearly long enough to hold all of the stories she told me. It would have taken the entire island of Manhattan to capture the tales of wonder that came from her lips. Tales of war and guns, heroes and villains. Breathtaking stories of great escapes and lost love. And all the while, stressing fiercely the importance of memory.
“Some stories are happy. Some are sad. Some frightening beyond comprehension. You can choose not to listen. You can choose to look away. But, you must never forget.”
“Maybe you remember him?” said Margaret. “Nine years old? About this high? Dirty blonde hair?”
I did my best to smile and nod my head, but she’d just described nearly all the young boys who frequented my store.
“What did he like? Were there certain comics he liked more than others?” I asked.
She looked around the store, trying to grab onto an image that would add depth to her description of him. “You used to have something in the window. It’s what first brought us in here. It was life-size. It was…”
“It was Spider-Man” I said.
Her eyes lit up. “Yes! He would come in here and sit underneath of it. You would tell him to be careful and to treat it like an old comic book.”
“I remember him,” I said. “He liked to sit Indian style on the floor right in the window. He read comics from the spinner. He asked a heck of a lot of questions and he liked…chewing gum.”
Margaret’s jaw dropped. It’s hard to explain to a layman how the mind of a lifelong comic-book junkie works. It’s rewired in strange and wondrous ways. Certain things lose their significance in our lives, where others become paramount. It’s all a question of priorities. Stories and people are mine.
Margaret’s eyes began to lose their luster. “He’s eleven now and sprouting like a weed. You’d never recognize him.”
I gave a glance around the store to make sure everyone was ok. The racks were stuffed with great product that week. Lots of eye candy keeping them distracted.
I asked Margaret where Aaron was. She told me about the last two years and what he’d been going through.
“Jodie got offered a great teaching job in Iowa, of all places, so they had to move out there two years ago. I go out as often as I can, but it’s hard for an old lady to go back and forth like that. In the summer, I can stay longer. It was a wonderful opportunity for Jodie. But Aaron hasn’t responded well to the move. It’s isolated out there. Their house is far away from the nearest town and he still doesn’t have many friends. He used to tell me everything. We laughed and joked and enjoyed each other. But now, he’s withdrawn.”
She told me she’d just come back from a visit with them. Aaron had opened up to her about how much he disliked it there and how much he wished he were living with her again. And then, she told me why she’d come that night. Why that night was different than all others.
“I asked him what he missed the most about living in California. He said, ‘Besides you? My comic-book store. I wish I could go there every week.’ So, here I am. I thought maybe I could get him something. Maybe send it back to him in Iowa.”
And time slowed down.
“Why does California have to be so far away?” I asked.
“Why does the moon?” She said. Answering a question with a question was one of Anne’s specialties.
I was hurting and just couldn’t hide it. “I just wish I could live here with you and mom. It’s not the same with dad. He doesn’t understand me like you do. Nobody does.”
Sometimes, even ice cream can’t cure the aching heart.
My grandmother grabbed me up and hugged me hard. She kissed my cheeks and scuffed my hair. “We don’t have to live together to be together. Living in a mind and in a heart can be just as real as this kiss I’m giving you. If you think about me hugging you, then I am. If you think about me walking with you, then I am.”
I didn’t believe her then. Now that she’s gone and I’m a grown man, it’s still not something I believe. It’s something I know.
I’d been slowly moving us farther into the store, inching our way to the comic book racks. Colin had been listening in and traveling alongside us.
Margaret became immediately concerned. “Look at me going on! I sound like a batty old woman. I’m keeping you from your customers. Go ahead and take care of them.”
I replied, “You don’t understand, Margaret. It’s Wednesday. The idea is to stay as long as humanly possible before going home. Hey, Philip! You’re not in a hurry, are you?”
Philip just grunted. He had moved on to Daredevil.
I called out, “Hey Oscar, you have somewhere else to be?” Oscar called back, “Nope!”
I nodded to Andy, “You have to get home, buddy?” Andy smiled, “I am home.”
“See?” I said to Margaret. “No one here but us chickens.”
She’d entered a den of extraterrestrials. What’s more, she seemed to get a kick out of it.
“Margaret, let me tell you about the current world of Spider-Man…”
I told her about this new three-issues-a month idea that Marvel was trying. I told her about how you didn’t need to go back years in the past to understand what was going on in the current issues. I told her that Aaron could start anywhere and he’d probably be thrilled.
“Why don’t you get him a subscription?” Colin had been chomping at the bit to get in on our conversation.
“You can do that?” said Margaret.
“Of course”, said Colin. “You just give Jud your credit card and he can send Aaron his books every month. This way, he can get a whole storyline and read it all at once. He’ll even give you a discount!”
“Here’s the first story arc” said Oscar. It’s as good a place to start as any.”
“The beginning is the best place? What was your first clue?” Andy had entered the fray.
I stepped back and watched my loyal customers take care of this wonderfully emotional woman. And I mean stepped back. These guys practically brought her to the counter and rang her up. By the time they were through, they’d signed Aaron up for a year’s worth of Spider-Man and made me write personal notes to put in the packages.
Margaret thanked us all and left, comforted. We looked around at one another, at “our” store, proud parents all.
After I’d closed and turned out the lights, the phone rang. This time, I knew where it was. It was Margaret. She’d called to thank all of us for taking care of her and Aaron. She said she’d had no idea that a comic-book store could do those kinds of things. I told her that we weren’t unique. That all comic book stores operate under the same umbrella. Give the right stories to the right readers. And to the ones that need them most.
And then I asked her what she liked to read.
And time slowed down.
We stood outside of the little comic-book store on Austin Street, my grandmother and me. She’d been directing us there all along. My heart was beating in my chest. My limbs were like jelly. My mind was boiling with anticipation.
“Can I?” I pleaded.
“Of course you can” she said.
I turned to go into the dark cave and she touched my shoulder. She leaned down and whispered in my ear.
“Take your time. Don’t rush. We’ve got all day.”
There was no way I could love someone the way I loved her in that moment. I’m not sure I could recreate it if I tried. I’m not sure I’d want to.
Margaret (Peg) still buys books from me. For herself. She reads them on the plane when she visits Aaron. When she gets there, they take long walks together. She tells him about what she’s reading and talks about her visits to my store. His store. Her store. Their store. And he tells her about what’s going on with Spider-Man these days and how much he looks forward to the end of the month. And yes, things are getting better for him in Iowa.
Margaret. Aaron. Jud. Anne. Peter. May.