Each customer creates a new melody. I’ve rigged an old copper chime behind the glass; it’s one of the few sounds that I never tire of. Also, it sets a calming spell upon the panicky people that search out my store.
I hear familiar chimes and take the last sips of chai with the final few sentences in Interventions: A Life in War and Peace. The line to savor: “Literacy is a bridge from misery to hope.” In this time, hope is a crumbling bridge on the verge of collapse.
They call me cleric, but I’ve never received any degrees. Studied in the back of my parents’ shop, sitting on a stockpile of knowledge my father called “essential reading.” A stack that shrank as I grew taller. While many of my peers enjoyed the pleasures of screens, online gaming, and virtual adventures, I poured myself into turning pages, reading the printed text , but also the volume of words hidden between the lines.
“Cleric, come quick!” A woman with luminescent hair extensions stands by her daughter who cradles a man with dazed eyes, grey shut-down screens for pupils. He’s sitting in a Bog Buggy, although he’s way too fresh-faced for such a contraption, and his legs dangle over the edge in an unforgiving heap.
His mind appears fully jet-lagged from whatever electronic binger he’s been on.
“We’ve tried reviving him with injections”—the woman rocks the buggy as she speaks—“the expensive electrolyte shots from the local pharm, but he’s been vegged all day.” She continues to rock as if she can awaken her partner with a steady pushing and pulling pattern. Her hair a nightlight to greet him should he stir.
The daughter holds her father’s hand, squeezing and releasing it in a similar pattern as if to administer CPR through touch.
“Any idea the types of electronics, I mean trons, the man’s been on?” It helps to have specifics to find the perfect antidote. People get hooked on all sorts of feed loops these days.
There was a long pause. I hear the wheels of the oversized carriage come to a stop on the ceramic tiles. “He’s hooked on reality gang tv.” His wife speaks without making eye contact. “More violent the better.” Many of the virtual addictions are cathartic and often embarrassing.
“I see.” I visualize the books I’ve used before to revive tron junkies, and begin to roam, letting my hands rise and fall over the patterned fingerprints of bindings. There are books I know by touch or smell; each volume holds its own aroma. Their collective musk makes my shop more like a perfumery at times.
I feel a tug on my USAF tartan blazer and see the daughter has been trailing me through the Melancholia section. Her face pockmarked, solar lentigos speckle her cheeks. A forearm tatted with the constellation Aquila motions for me to stand close.
“Something else you should know.” She hesitates, her voice egg-shell thin.
“He’s got spassy ‘ttacks.” Her eyes are amber, remarkably clear for her age, with little sign of screen darkening. I picture her rolling her semi-catatonic father like a boulder onto his side to keep his airway open during a seizure. The Bog Buggy, in this case, not for plastic surgery recoveries, but for the exhaustion that lingers after each epileptic fit.
“Very useful, indeed.” I meet her eyes with warmth. “All is not lost.” I leave her to return to her mother, passing through the Broken Relationship section of my shop.
In Read-Aloud Remedies, I pull the picture book, The Wretched Stone by Chris Van Allsburg, for the family to read to their dad at bedtime. As his vision improves, the images of the sailors experiencing the ill-effects of electronics will linger in his subconscious.
But it is at the bottom of a neighboring shelf that I find it: the antidote. A title I will never forget. The boy on the cover of the paperback is made from a fragmented page, charred around the edges. In the background, there is a vast scene of devastation.
“Ah ha! I’ve found it! The Last Book in the Universe!” I’m giddy and bouncing, metallic derbies like energetic planets.
It’s a book by Rodman Philbrick, and how appropriate. The perfect world to stimulate this man back into reality. It’s a future where technology is the drug of choice, but the main character is unable to partake due to seizures.
When I reemerge, I find the three of them flocked in the circular foyer, keeping as much possible distance between themselves and the sample shelves. Their nest fidelity is not uncommon as the printing of books was banned decades before. Most of my clients have never touched a book, fearing perhaps some passé oils may rub off on them.
I sidestep a stack of J.K. Rowling that I keep handy in the main lobby. So many everyday ailments can be solved with a dose of Potter.
When they see my grin, they loosen their postures. “Friends,” I begin, “you’re in luck.” I lean to face the father. “By Jove, have I got the book for you!” I turn to see their worry lines slacken. “Actually, I’m recommending two books given the depth of his vegetative state.”
They follow me toward the cash register. I sense the daughter’s curiosity to explore a circular rack of Passion Paperback;, her head swivels to a battered copy of J.G Ballard’s The Crystal World.
The register itself is a relic made of brass with pie tin punch-outs in the pattern of a star. I keep it for nostalgia, as all monies must be exchanged on the feed. Still, I like the sound of the bell, and the drawer that extends, where I store my ephemera which reads: Eclectibles–May you find in words the treasures you seek.
I write my price on the top right corner and hand one to the mother. It’s a sizable payment, but fair given that I’m offering rare readers, which could likely be the last printed copies of these titles.
I sense no hesitation in transferring funds to my feed, monies that would mean months of digital labor. But where there is hope, there is rarely a need for anything else.
I remind them that they may return the books for resale, and delicately wrap them in recycled cloth, hoping my beloved children will return to my shop someday. I slip The Crystal World paperback in the parcel for the daughter.
Their exit through the door creates a brighter melody, a harmony that warms me as I recall my favorite line from the antidote, “The only real treasure is in your head. Memories are better than diamonds and nobody can steal them from you.”