Ramsey had exactly four dollars and thirty-three cents in his pocket. He knew because he’d just counted it out, to make sure he hadn’t dreamt a fifty tucked away in the far corners of his Levi’s. But no fifty; just the four crumpled singles, plus the loose change. And a seashell, small, striped, and whorled. Ramsey tried to recall why he had the shell—and where the rest of his money had gone.
His fingernails were grimy, and he needed a shave. Or maybe a shower and a shave. And if someone offered him a paper cup of coffee at that moment, he wouldn’t have turned them down.
Those were his thoughts at twelve-thirty that morning. The time he knew for a fact because the bank across the street from where he stood said so, in a blinking green display. The bank’s ATM beckoned him, an oasis to replenish his meager pocket of money, if only he had something to withdraw.
Ramsey crossed the street anyway, drawn to the lighted cash machine. This was not a good place to hang out at that hour, on that street in Philadelphia, a dim array of storefronts shuttered for the night. The alleys sometimes echoed with the moans and cries of unknown deals gone bad. He always passed them quickly, keeping to the shadows when he could.
Next to the bank’s ATM, on the building just to the left, a smaller, illuminated sign advertised: Books. Ramsey didn’t see any books in the windows of that narrow slice of real estate. A grid was pulled down over them, protection against random thievery. He turned away, but stopped when an interior light blinked on. A chain rattled behind the door, and the entrance opened.
A man a few inches taller and a few years older than Ramsey had one hand on the door handle. His dark eyes observed Ramsey beneath bushy eyebrows. Stepping back, he gestured for Ramsey to enter. A ring on his hand glittered a ruby red. “I’ve been watching and waiting for you,” he said. His words rolled over Ramsey like waves crashing at the Jersey Shore.
“Me?” Ramsey’s voice squeaked into falsetto range. His hands trembled.
“Please come in, Mr. Ramsey.” He waited for Ramsey to pass through the door, then shut and locked it. Again with a gesture, the man indicated that Ramsey should follow him. The room smelled of dust and crumbling paper, the walls lined with bookshelves from floor to ceiling, the lights high above them shining faintly onto stack after stack of books.
At the rear of the shop, the shopkeeper, or Ramsey assumed it was the shopkeeper, slipped behind a massive chrome and glass counter. Ramsey faced him across the expanse and wondered why he was there.
“Reade,” the man said, and pushed a paper cup of coffee toward Ramsey. “Conlan Reade. Do you take cream or sugar?”
“Just black,” Ramsey managed to say. He stared into the cup, the tint of the dark brown liquid mirroring the sepia quality of the shop. “Thank you.”
“A special Colombian blend,” Conlan Reade said. “I hope you enjoy it.” He smiled as Ramsey took a sip.
It tasted of dense jungle growth and the wild brilliance of tropical flowers.
“You’re open kind of late,” Ramsey said, savoring the coffee. It had been how many days since his last cup? Looking down at his jeans, he noted that they were as grimy as his hands felt. Was he sleeping on the street these days? Why couldn’t he remember?
Conlan Reade set down his own cup and spread his hands. “At this hour, I’m only open for you, Mr. Ramsey. As I told you at the door, I’ve been waiting. Your book came in.”
But Conlan Reade had stepped away from the counter, leaving Ramsey alone with his thoughts. And try as he might, he could not recall ordering any book anywhere. He had no home anymore, he knew then, no comfortable, quiet place to read.
“Here it is,” Conlan Reade said. He placed a thin, hardback volume on the glass of the counter.
Ramsey put down his cup and reached for the book, then pulled his hands back before touching it. His face flushed. “I’m kind of down on my luck,” he said, wiping his hands on his jeans.
“Don’t worry about it,” Conlan Reade said. He handed him a towelette from a container that Ramsey hadn’t noticed. “I think you’ll like the book.”
After cleaning his hands, Ramsey once again reached for the book. Another Life to Live. He leafed through the pages, curious as to why he would have ordered that title. He remembered how little money he had with him, sighed, and put the book back down.
“Thanks for ordering this,” he said. “I don’t think I can afford it right now, though. I’m so sorry.” Again his face flushed.
“It’s surprisingly inexpensive,” Conlan Reade said. He punched a few keys on a small calculator. “Only four dollars and thirty-three cents. I’ll wrap it up for you.”
Ramsey laid out the money, folded the receipt and slipped it into his now penniless pocket. He felt the seashell and pulled it out.
“I might as well give this to you, too, Mr. Reade. I have no use for it.”
Conlan Reade examined the shell, using a magnifier he placed over his right eye. He handed it back. “You’ll be needing this,” he said. “Hold it to an ear when you are in need of direction.”
Not wanting to argue, Ramsey pocketed the shell. It was small, after all; no trouble, really.
“Good luck, Mr. Ramsey.” Conlan Reade walked him to the door of the shop and shook his hand.
Two blocks later, Ramsey turned a corner and halted under a streetlamp. He removed the wrapping from the book, and tossed the paper into a nearby receptacle. Tipping the cover to the light, he read the author’s name: A.L. Ramsey.
Once upon a time, he’d answered to Arthur Lewis Ramsey.
Ramsey opened the book and began to read.
I botched it.
I am swimming back to the pier where I somersaulted off moments ago. Three people wait for me: Tunis, Vi, and Wally. They could have followed me into the water, but my stumble as I approached the pier’s edge must have spooked them. I was all arms and legs desperately searching for balance.
Ramsey had exactly four dollars and thirty-three cents in his pocket. He knew because he’d just counted it out, to make sure he hadn’t dreamt a fifty tucked away in the far corners of his Levi’s.
The first rays of the sun reached Zoë’s backyard shrine. They bathed the structure in slanted, golden stripes, as light filtered through the branches of the maples.
The devil is in the details—not only when moving forward with any plan—or with life, but also when working to make a novel, short story, or even narrative nonfiction come to life for the reader.
Stories that will sweep you away . . .More info →
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