Little Boneless Blackbirds

It would have been a pleasure to burn; Jonah Everly knew it. As he stacked discarded books on the squatting table in the store’s backmost corner, he imagined the curl of black paper left behind by fire. Maybe the ink on the page turned the smoke shades of yellow like salamanders. Each sheet would light one by one until there was nothing but memory and soft ash. How pretty it would have been, the fire so bright and so clean.

But it was too dangerous. Fire was indiscriminant and felt no loyalty to good literature. It could not be controlled. The flames would eat all: the store, the shelves, and every book. The bad would burn, but so would the brilliant. How shameful that the likes of Bradbury and Chekhov, Steinbeck and Carver had to share shelf space with row after row of hatchet-men and hatchet-women who called themselves writers. It almost warranted a purging fire. Almost. Instead, he watched over the sacred and protected them as best he could. Besides, fire terrified him.

“Hey, guy, do you work here?”

The kid, eighteen or nineteen at the oldest, sat in one of the two upholstered chairs facing each other across the scarred table. In the store’s deepest corner between the gardening wall and the row of regional cookbooks, there was just enough room for the furniture. It became a vortex, the place where books were abandoned. They piled onto the table until the yellowed surface only peeked from between covers. They stacked on the floor and leaned into the chairs for support. They ended up in the depths of the cushions. It never stopped. There were always more disregarded books to put away.

“Do I work here?” Jonah asked. He stood from the table where he had three towers of books standing like a cityscape. He pointed at the nametag dangling from his neck that read “Beatty, Stoneman & Black Bookstores” and “JONAH” beneath in capital letters printed over the ridiculous owl in reading glasses that served as the store’s mascot. “No. They pass out these nametags at the door. In fact, why aren’t you wearing yours?”

The kid’s face went a little loose in the cheeks and around the eyes. A short silence gave way to his laughter.

“Right,” he said. “Good one.” It was a joke then, some playful sparring between pals. Genuine and free of sarcasm. When someone was this thick, what would it take to make him go away? “I’m just about done with On the Road, and I couldn’t find any more of Kerouac’s stuff in the biography section. I heard he has a few other books. Do you guys carry those?”

Of course it was goddamned Kerouac, the literary idol of every American man-boy too stupid to know better. Every day some kid just like this one walked into the store wet with the desire to be the newest groupie of literature’s oldest hippie.

“You didn’t find him in biography because he isn’t in biography.” He started toward fiction without bothering to see if the kid followed. In a row that looked like all the rest and just above Kesey, another favorite of American man-boys, was a shelf filled with Kerouac’s books. “Here they are,” Jonah said with a shapeless wave as he turned to leave.

“Which one would you recommend?” the kid asked. “I’ve heard The Dharma Bums is good.”

“Yeah, sure, try that one.”

“Did you ever read On the Road? I haven’t been able to put it down. It’s amazing. The road, the life, no money, no worries. Kerouac had it figured out, right?”

“Oh, Jesus Christ,” Jonah said. “Jack Kerouac was an elitist who made his reputation and money off of masquerading as a vagabond. He went to Columbia for God sakes, on a football scholarship no less. He didn’t give a shit about the road or the journey or the sad little clinger-on Beats like you. If I know one thing for sure, it’s that Jack Kerouac would not have liked you.”

“Jonah? May I speak with you in my office please?”

The voice at Jonah’s back, Weddle’s, was naturally higher pitched and unbecoming for a man in a position of authority. When Weddle got nervous or excited, his voice climbed another octave until he sounded like a teenage girl.

“Sure thing,” Jonah said to Weddle. “Enjoy your book,” he said to the kid.

*   *   *

Weddle’s office had just enough room to count as an office. It reflected its occupier well. The walls were decorated with framed documents thanking BSB Store #2939 for its sponsorship of various youth softball and soccer teams. A poster behind the desk showed a close-up on a pair of hands with criss-crosses of creased skin running from side to side through the palms. At the bottom of the poster in slippery cursive read the words “We must become the change we wish to see” courtesy of Mahatma Gandhi. Weddle hurried to his chair behind his desk after closing the door.

“Did you know that Gandhi’s first name was Mohandas?” Jonah asked. “Mahatma is a religious title kind of like Cardinal or Bishop.”

“Jonah?” Weddle said. He leaned onto his desk and clasped his hands into a pile of bones and fingers. “I’ve never known anyone with more knowledge of literature than you.”

For such a thin man, Weddle was a terrible sweater. His flop sweat required him to keep a handkerchief in his pants’ pocket to soak up the trickles that ran toward his brows and the bridge of his nose. He pulled out that same handkerchief now to pat his stretched forehead dry. Maybe that’s what happened to the hair that used to be on top of Weddle’s head. Whatever fire burned inside had scorched the top of the skull leaving behind nothing but skin and sweat.

“You know all about authors you don’t even like. I’m assuming we can add Jack Kerouac to that list. But we aren’t in the knowledge business. We’re in the business of selling books. And every time you have one of your…episodes, that’s another sale gone and another customer we’ll never see again.”

“I’m sorry, but you should have heard this kid.”

Weddle was a competent store manager, but that didn’t save him from being the kind of fraud that would have made Kerouac smile. Weddle crunched numbers, gave short and awkward motivational speeches before the store opened in the mornings. He couldn’t have recognized actual literature if it ran into the corners of his eyes like the sweat that leaked from his bald head. Knowing literature didn’t concern him, selling books did.

“What he said isn’t important. We can’t tell our customers what they can and can’t read. If we try, they’ll find someplace else to buy their books.”

“I said I was sorry.”

“Jonah, you’re brilliant when it comes to literature. But this customer service with a sledge hammer is not working out.” Weddle again folded his hands onto his desk, the corner of the sweat soaked handkerchief peeking over the knuckles, and huffed out a breath. “How long have you worked here?”

“Seven years in September.”

That number still felt unnatural. The math didn’t make any sense. He took the job right after college as a way to make rent until his writing career kindled. Time snuck away like threads of smoke. He stopped paying attention, and then it was seven years.

“Is there anything you can say to me right now that will make me want to keep you here to see your seventh anniversary with BSB?” Weddle asked.

I keep the literature that matters safe, Jonah thought. Weddle, a man who sold books for a living without differentiating the transcendent from the trash, would never understand. Jonah said nothing.

“You’re not leaving me much of a choice, are you? Well, in that case, I’m sorry, but it’s time we let you go.” Weddle stood and extended his hand. “This place won’t be the same without you. Good luck,” he said. Jonah shook Weddle’s hand.

Who will protect them when I’m gone?

Jonah left the office, yanked on the swaying nametag that came loose with a crisp pop at the back of his neck. Seven years at the same store. Nothing changed. The history section led into sociology which became politics, true crime, biography, fiction, on and on for over half a million items according to the most recent inventory.

How much kerosene would it take?

Jonah breathed smoke and walked out the front doors with a head full of thoughts burning bright.

*   *   *

The fireworks popped and sparkled outside the living room window of Jonah’s one-bedroom apartment. Each red, white, and blue burst was serenaded by the oohs and aahs of the gawkers who didn’t have a hot dog stuffed in the mouth. Shifting three shelves on the A-E bookcase allowed for a few Dostoevskys and two new Dickens to fit. Another pop outside and another round of applause. The Fourth of July was only one absurd holiday among many, and each had become its own little Christmas. Halloween was the Christmas of candy. Thanksgiving was the Christmas of gluttony. And the Fourth of July was the Christmas of setting things on fire. Blue fire, green fire, noisy fire, spinning fire. How sickening. Not so much the fireworks, but the cheering.

Jonah stepped into the kitchen over a box full of Tolstoy, Vonnegut, Wilde, and Woolf awaiting space in the T-Z case he had to keep in the bedroom. He needed another bookcase. Boxes were no places for books.

The oven door squeaked when it opened. Tonight’s TV dinner, meat loaf and mashed potatoes, included a square of brownie scorched at all four corners. Jonah buried the fork beneath the potatoes and made his way back to the small couch in the living room, the only seating in the apartment. The fork hadn’t been washed. The potatoes tasted like yesterday’s frozen macaroni and cheese, and maybe even a little like Wednesday’s fish sticks, but it didn’t matter. The food he set onto the misshapen nightstand that served as a coffee table. The coverless book he picked up from the arm of the couch had brittle pages like late November leaves.

“Lucky number thirteen,” he said. With a bite of meat loaf flavored by a hint of old cod, he started the first chapter entitled “The Texan.”

“It was love at first sight.” Such a perfect first line. “The first time Yossarian saw the chaplain he fell madly in love with him.”

The alarm clock sitting on the floor near the base of bookcase K-O read 9:32 p.m. With focus and limited bathroom breaks, he could finish the novel before sunrise. After all, tomorrow was a big day. A single bite took care of the brownie with cracked edges and a sloppy, squishing center. Heller’s Catch-22. Now there was a novel worth buying.

*   *   *

The north-side BSB, store #2961, stayed open just as late as Jonah’s did. At a quarter to eleven people still browsed tables inside and lined up in the café. The store’s layout looked similar, but it felt all wrong.

Why was the antique and collectible section at the front of the store? What a waste of space. Get fiction to the front, draw the customers in.

He stroked the book of matches in his pocket with the fingers of his sweaty right hand. At least the customer service desk was in the middle of the store where it belonged.

“Hi. Welcome to BSB. Is there anything I can help with tonight?”

The girl behind the counter was short, pretty too. Her straight teeth framed a lipstick smile. The pink and white of her face and the yellow of her hair made her look young. Humbert’s little Lolita.

“Yes,” he said. “Could you direct me to the romance novels?”

Jonah leaned elbows onto the desk to read the nametag just below the curve of her breasts. Whitney.

“Sure. They’re right over here.”

Lolita who was Whitney led the way. After a short walk, she gestured with two open palms at the bookcase that began the romance section.

“Looking for a gift for your wife?” she asked. When he did not answer, her lips gave up their pink smile. “It’s just that not many men ask for romance novels is all.”

“I see,” he said. “I’m looking for the worst novel I can find. I figured if it would be anywhere, it would be in romance.”

She laughed out loud and used small hands to cover her mouth. Another joke then.

“You’re probably right,” she said. “If you need help with anything else, let me know.”

“Thank you. I will.”

She left, and Jonah watched to be certain she was gone. Then he started looking.

He didn’t know the title and he didn’t know the author, but he knew the book was here. He ran his fingers over the spines feeling for the right one. A couple of them felt warm enough to make him pause. They tricked him three times before he found the right book and pulled it from the shelf.

The title didn’t matter. Nothing did, not with a cover this perfect. A bare-chested Highlander, in the requisite kilt, with sweeping black hair swirled by the storm thundering in the background. Huge muscled arms led to powerful hands gripping a woman by the wrists. Her white skin looked all the paler for her curly red hair that weathered the storm better. She tilted her head to best expose the flash-white flesh of her neck and breasts barely contained by the overmatched dress. Perfect.

“Did you find the worst book ever?” Lolita Whitney asked as he passed by the desk on his way to the registers. He held up the novel and gave it a small shake.

“Right where I thought it would be.”

She laughed again without bothering to snuff it with her little hands.

“Is this everything for you tonight?” the cashier asked at the front register. She was much taller than Lolita Whitney, much uglier too. He didn’t bother to read her name tag. She was Charlotte Haze.

“Do you have a BSB Book Lover’s Card? You earn points toward free books with every purchase.”

“No, I don’t. This is actually the first time I’ve ever been in here.”

“Could I interest you in one tonight?”

“I don’t think so. Maybe some other time.”

“Okay, then.”

She handed over the change from hands that stretched fingers too long and too narrow.

“Thanks for stopping in,” Charlotte Haze said. “I hope you’ll come back soon now that you got your first visit out of the way.”

“You know what?” he asked. His right hand in his pocket, and the pads of his fingers played with the matches. “I think I just might.”

*   *   *

The one baking sheet Jonah owned, cooked black years ago, waited on the nightstand for a new book. The romance novel had burned so well after he had finished his preparations. All boxes and stacks of books had been pushed into the safest corners. He had dug a Styrofoam cup out of his overstuffed garbage, filled it with water, and set it on the floor near the nightstand. Curtains closed, door locked. The batteries in the hallway smoke detector hadn’t worked for months. Still, he climbed onto the second shelf of the P-S bookcase and exposed the smoke detector’s insides before pulling out the two dead batteries to be safe. After all that, he had burned the book. How pretty the fire had been. But now came what mattered.

Anyone can burn trash.

Slow steps took him to K-O where he slid Nabokov from the shelf. He had read Lolita seven times.

On the couch, he pulled the nightstand closer to put Nabokov on top of the ashes of the first book. His hand trembled as he took the book of matches from his pocket again. Chords of phlegm thick like clotting blood strung his mouth as he tried to swallow. He pulled free a single match with a fleshy, pink head.

Just Lolita first.

Jonah struck the match.

The trembling of his fingers spread to his arm and shoulder. The match twitched, and the flame couldn’t grab hold of the pages.

The strength in his hand failed and he dropped the lit match onto the baking sheet. He watched as the orange-yellow flame stood up straight and slid left to right across the matchstick. Jonah eased the book up against the tiny fire. A twist of smoke like thin hair spun into the air of his apartment.

Lolita started to burn.

The flame began small, a little clone of the one on the match. But the book pages offered more. Corners curled and broke free, floated away on the spiraling smoke like little boneless blackbirds flying for the first time.

All at once Lolita blazed. He jumped back into the couch. The romance novel hadn’t burned like this.

This is the difference. This is what happens when the works that matter burn.

His horror squeezed tighter as the flames took Lolita. Then it felt as if the fire burned behind his face. His eyeballs simmered in their sockets, and he could feel them boiling like a waking limb. His urine warmed the crotch of his pants as Lolita ceased to be a book and became fire. It burned until there was nothing but charred flakes cracked through by orange embers that whispered and died.

Fire will decide, and then everyone will know. They needed to know.  

He would burn Atwood and Austen then. He would burn Faulkner and Fitzgerald, too. Hemingway, Joyce, McCarthy, Orwell, Poe, Twain, and Wharton.

Fire will show them all.

Jonah stood from the couch on legs whose bones had turned to water, the mess of his pants soaking through in a spreading wet stain.

“Play the man, Master Ridley,” he said as he walked to the bedroom to change.

***

Jeremy Broyles received a Master’s in English from Northern Arizona University. In May of 2011, he finished his MFA in Fiction at Wichita State University. His published work has been most recently published in The MacGuffin.

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