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Four-Letter Words

The little girl sat at our children’s table two or three times a week. Sometimes, weekends. Her mother would fit herself into one of the tiny chairs, purse in her lap, reading a Spanish romance novel. The girl would build a small stack of Archies and Tiny Titans and keep them within arm’s reach. She read quietly, a stray giggle occasionally escaping her lips.

I had stopped attempting conversation some weeks back. I guess you could say that there was something of a wall between us. I could feel their hesitancy. Maybe it was anxiety. Maybe shyness. Maybe even fear.

After twenty, thirty, forty minutes, her mother would tap her watch. Reading time was done. The little girl would put everything away, neatly arranging all of the books on the table. Her mother would nod her head in my direction, the girl would stare at her feet and out they’d go, joining the world passing by.

Enter, sit, read, tap the watch, tidy, nod, exit. Week after week. Repeat and repeat.

One quiet afternoon, reading time in session, I was surprised to hear a tense conversation between the little girl and her mother.

“Go talk to him!” her mother said.

“No!” whispered the little girl.

I slipped behind the front counter, wanting to be closer in case I was needed, but not too close to scare them away. Her mother gave the girl a nudge and she stumbled in my direction. She inched toward the counter and looked up at me, eyes bright and beautiful. I thought, what a shame it is that the ground is the only one that gets to see them.

“Excuse me,” she said sheepishly. “Do you buy comic books?”

“Maybe.” I replied slowly. Then added, “Whattaya got?”

Betty and Veronica.” she said.

I considered her reply, letting her see I was taking her seriously. “I like Betty and Veronica. Why don’t you bring them in next time you visit and we’ll see what we can do.”

The little girl paused, nodded her head and slowly backed away, a tiny gunslinger, ready for the draw.

Her mother stood, took the little girl’s hand and gave me her weekly nod.

“Hey!” I cried out, startling the little girl. She stared at me with those big eyes, wide as saucers.

“I don’t do business with anyone unless I know their name.”

Was that a smile I spied beneath the curtain? A hint of movement at the corner of her mouth? Someone’s in there, I thought.

Her tiny voice shook loose from her throat and she responded, “My name is Maria.”

I replied, “Nice to meet you, Maria. I’m Jud. See you soon, okay?”

After they’d gone, I made my way to the front window. I watched them walk down the street, hands clasped, an animated conversation in progress. Maria turned her head and glanced back. I held my hand up. She did the same. Patience. I thought. Patience.

Two days later, Maria stepped through the door. She came in slowly, but for the first time, instead of hiding behind her mother’s skirt, she led the way. Today, her hands were full and she had some business to conduct.

She approached the counter with just enough confidence to get her to its edge. And then, she froze, staring at the floor, shifting her feet. She’d been planning this moment in her mind, but now that she was in it, she forgot what to do next.

I looked down at her from behind the counter and said, “Hi, Maria.”

She courageously raised her head, took a deep breath, let it out and said “Hello.”

“You remember my name?” I said.

“Jud.” She said, pride in her voice.

“Well done!” I said. “What’s that you’ve got in your hands?”

She reached way up to the counter, small arms just long enough to reach the top. She opened her hands and plopped down three crumpled, creased, torn and water-damaged Betty and Veronica Digests. She took two slow steps back and began chewing her fingernails like a starving tiger.

I took a long pause. I shot a look over at her mother, who quickly looked down at her purse, pretending not to notice this whole exchange. I let the quiet sink into the room and then I said, “Are you sure you want to part with these, Maria? They’re pretty special. They’re what we call ‘well-loved’ comics.”

Maria began nodding her head, unable to stop.

“Okay,” I said. “How about we trade? I get these and you get to go over to the comic racks and pick out what you want in exchange.”

Her head continued nodding ferociously and a small squeak escaped her pursed lips.

“What’s that?” I asked.

She opened her mouth and shook the words free. “Yes.” She said. And then again, a little louder. “Yes.”

I passed my hand over the counter and she flinched. Her arms flew to her chest and she leaned away from me. Yes, fear.

I’ve made a life of reading people. It’s what I do. Tens of thousands of human beings. Every age, every size, every shape, every gender. I see them all and I read them as thoroughly as the books that I sell.

This lovely child had been through something. Something that made her cast her eyes away from life. That brought them low to the ground. That brought distrust to the words and deeds of others. Of adults. Of men.

“It’s okay,” I said quietly. “I’d just like to shake your hand so I can be sure we made a good deal.”

She looked over at her mother, who had inched to the edge of her seat. Her purse was on the floor, her hands gripping her knees so tight that her knuckles had turned white.

“Mama?” she said, with trepidation.

Her mother almost sang the words that came next. I thought of my mother and nighttime lullabies that made me feel safe. Protected. Loved.

“Si preciosa hija. Esta bien.”

Maria turned to me. She took a few steps forward and reached out for my hand. I tucked it carefully inside my own as if she were my own daughter. I had no doubt that this child had seen a different sort of man’s hand before. Perhaps one that closed at the fingers. One that delivered a different sort of deal. One that wasn’t negotiable.

“Gracias, Maria.” I said softly, wrapping my other hand around hers. A circle of intimacy. An offering of peace.

“Now go pick out your books!” I said with a smile.

She turned and threw herself toward the kids’ racks. She sat on her knees, digging through the piles of comics in search of the perfect one. One she could take home and give a place of honor in her room. One that she could make childhood memories with.

Because that’s what comic books are, aren’t they? They’re memories. Sure, they sit in boxes in our closets. Sometimes, years go by without us taking them out and flipping through their pages. But just like the photographs in the many albums on our shelves or on our hard drives, we don’t need to look at them to remember what they represent. Like our beloved comic books, we recall who we were when we took them. What clothes we wore, the girl in the red sweater we had a crush on, the Huffy we rode to the corner store to buy chewing gum. We look at the covers of these comic books and the wonder inside. Story, art, advertisements. And we’re taken back, lost in the memories of those four-color photographs. These books don’t just bring comfort. They bring what we all so relentlessly seek wherever we can in this life. Peace of mind.

Maria’s mother stared at her, head tilted. Such a lovely smile. It most certainly hid itself away, but it also most certainly ran in the family.

Maria suddenly stood up. She said no words. She didn’t look over at her mother, which brought me a surge of pride. She stared right in my eyes and held up her copy of Adventure Time high over her head, hands tightly grasping the paper on both sides.

Say Anything, I thought. Throw in some Peter Gabriel and this is just about the perfectly captured moment.

 “We’ve got a problem.” I said to Maria, serious and stoic. Her arms fell to her sides, her comic book sliding down to the tips of her fingers. Her mother turned her head toward me, panic in her eyes.

“This isn’t a good deal at all!” I called out to her.

There was a long pause, the air disappearing from the room.

And then? And then, I threw that little girl the biggest smile in my arsenal. The one I reserve for those times when I think no one’s looking.

“I’ve got three and you’ve only got one!” I said.

A fire burst into flame behind Maria’s eyes. A smile broke out on her face that made mine pale in comparison.

I pointed to the stacks of comics and said, “Two more for you, Maria. I insist.”

She fell back to her knees and dug her fingers into the paper. Beautiful, beautiful paper that holds so much magic. Magic we spend our lives desperately trying to hold onto. This was her moment. She owned it and I was honored to watch it happen.

Maria’s mother stood up. She straightened her skirt. She left her purse behind and approached my counter with a regal sort of stride. She extended her hand and I gladly took it.

“My name is Alma and I’d like to apologize to you,” she said.

“What on earth for?” I replied.

Alma stared at the floor, a sort of shame washing over her as her hand slipped out of mine. She looked so much like Maria. Maria looked so much like her. Their eyes a shared window to their souls.

“We come into your beautiful store every week. We sit at your table, Maria reads all of your books and we never buy anything. It’s just…”

Her voice trailed off and tears welled up in her eyes. I could tell she didn’t want Maria to see this.

I glanced over and saw that Maria was deep in thought, debating the merits of My Little Pony and Squirrel Girl. I nodded my head at Alma, letting her know it was safe to speak her mind.

“I’m a single mother. Maria’s father was…he wasn’t a good man. Wasn’t a kind man. I made him leave and it was good for us both. But I haven’t been able to get work. I don’t have the money for these kinds of things. But she loves them so much. She loves reading. She loves her books. She loves it here.”

Words. They can do so much or so little. It all just depends on the truth of them, doesn’t it? And sometimes, saying them out loud brings freedom. If we’re lucky, relief.

Four walls. A floor. A ceiling. A couple of doors and a light switch. A box. What do we put inside? What do we fill it with? What is here for you? Comic books? Graphic novels? Power totems?

No. We fill ours with love. The books are just the conduit. A means by which we send our message. And hope that message leaves our box, our walls and makes its way to the beautiful world outside.

We all have a calling. When we deny it, we find ourselves discontent. Resentful. When we embrace it, the earth spins in all the right directions.

My calling is not the selling of paper. Of stories. Of totems. My calling is the gift of safety. The gift of a very public joy. The gift of unconditional love.

“Don’t ever apologize to me, Alma.” I said, making sure our eyes met.

I pointed to the large plate-glass panels that make up our storefront. “Do you see those panes of glass?” I said. “There are no posters on that glass. No flyers. No signs at all. It’s bright and open and I wipe it clean every day. Why do I do that? Because I’m a selfish man, Alma.”

She shook her head, confused. I walked around the counter, put my arm gently on her shoulder and strolled with her to the front of the shop. She knew I was toying with her, but she smiled and went along with it just the same. We stood at the front window, looking out. Folks strolled by on their cell phones, caught up in their own lives.

“Imagine you were out there walking down the street,” I said. “The sun is shining. There’s a nice breeze in the sky. You look to your right and you see something wonderful. You see a lovely woman, sitting in a tiny chair. You see her smiling and relaxed. You see her watching a lovely little girl who looks a heck of a lot like her mother. The little girl is lost in a sea of comic books. The mother is happy, the little girl content. If you were out there looking in and you saw all of that, what would you want to do? Well, you’d want to stop your life in progress and come inside. You’d want to get a handful of whatever it is these lovely people are getting. Alma, you two are the best free advertising I could ever hope to get.”

We both shared a laugh and Maria looked over at us, rolling her eyes and digging back into the books. Patience, I thought. Patience.

I put my hand on Alma’s arm. An open hand. A kind hand.

“You are both welcome here. Always. Every day. You are welcome to sit. You are welcome to read. You are welcome to enjoy this place. There are four walls and we share time in them together. I have no expectation of either of you. Stay as long as you like because I’d like you to stay.”

She spoke Spanish to me then. It sounded like poetry. Warm and lovely. I have no idea what the words were she sent my way, but somehow, I knew exactly what she was saying.

Maria joined us, presenting her choices to me. Adventure Time and two wonderful comics about two wonderful girls just like her. One a Squirrel and one a Moon.

I kneeled down, slid in close and said, “Good trade.”

She smiled and repeated my words back to me. “Good trade.”

“See you soon?” I said.

Again, my words came back. “See you soon.”

I stood and nodded at Alma. She nodded back. We’d said all of the words we needed to and we both understood every one of them.

A few days later, I stood behind my counter doing the things I do and the door flew open. A little girl exploded through the frame, eyes lit up, a vast smile on her face.

She stopped in her tracks, looked right in my eyes and waved. “Hi, Jud!” she called out. “Hi!”

There she is, I thought. There she is.

And then? And then, from behind her, three other little girls appeared. Maria ushered them over to the kids’ area in the window and began to give them the grand tour.

“Here are the regular comics!” she said proudly. “And here are the books. We call them graphic novels.”

“Oooh!” said the girls. “Aaaaah!”

“There’s the Kermit and Yoda painting. They’re fishing! Isn’t that funny? Guess what it’s called? Guess?” She spoke a mile a minute. No punctuation, barely a breath.

“Easy being green it is not!” she said, giggling. The girls all laughed, hiccupped, chirped. These are the most welcome of all sounds inside a comic-book store. What a gift.

Alma stood at the door, watching this improbable scene unfold. We shared a long look and then she walked to her usual seat. She sat down in the tiny chair, she put her purse on her lap and nodded in my direction. I nodded back and got back to work. There sure is a lot to get done in a book store. And a lot to see.

I shared all of this with my partner the next day.

“It was an amazing transformation!” I said. “All I did was give her a few comic books.”

“No, you didn’t,” he said. “You gave her our shop. For free. And she gave it to her friends. For free. That’s what we do.”

There are so many words in retail. A great retailer once told me that the most powerful four-letter word we can use in our business is “Sale.” I disagreed with him then. Still do.

Yes, there are many four-letter words to choose from that describe what happens within each of our four walls. A ceiling. A floor. A light switch. A bright pane of glass and the sidewalk in front of it.

Kind. Warm. Help. Safe. Heal. Hope. Give. Love. Free.


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