Excerpt from A Dollar a Piece, the novelette by Dawn A. Fuller.
Martin determined many years ago that he could quite happily spend the rest of his days discovering invaluable, rare treasures in the middle of absolutely nowhere for mere pennies.
The only treasures worth having were books.
Old books. Paperbacks. Hard copies. Out-of-print books. Signed books. Limited editions. First editions. First UK editions.
Disneyland, bah! According to Martin, the happiest place on earth was a poorly-marked bookstore that smelled of yellowing pages covered with sweet vanilla ink. Where it was didn’t really matter much. How could there be any place better in this world than a rundown used bookstore? Exotic, sunny locales offering frosty, fruit-filled drinks; fancy, black-tie-only restaurants that serve too-small portions; candlelit beachside cafes on balmy summer nights—you can keep ‘em. Any day of the week could be made better simply by visiting an independent used bookstore.
Martin spent many tedious hours updating his hand-drawn map—pinpointing his favorite used bookstores on the dusty outskirts of remote desert areas. He was positive no one but him knew that these book “hot spots” existed. They couldn’t. Otherwise, the grabby pigs would be flocking to them at all hours of the day and night. The line would be out the door. The greedy guts would buy them all up. There would be no books left. The world as he knew it would cease to exist. Martin worried about this very thing from time to time.
Martin spent most weeknights watching Jeopardy, updating his book notecards, organizing his endless bookshelves, and re-reading his favorite books—reading copies only, of course. He dare not sully a rare edition by opening a book too far and making an accidental crease, or leaving a sugar-coated fingerprint on a pristine page.
Martin carefully planned his weekend shopping route in the order of where he found his most recent treasure, and by which bookseller he liked most, or least. There were only a handful of “mosts,” and the last two booksellers he liked least were both dead now.
In Martin’s mind, three kinds of booksellers existed: There were old, distinguished men who loved books and authors better than anything else. They knew everything there was to know. These booksellers were like walking and talking wooden card catalogues from the old brick library down the street from Martin’s childhood home. Then, there were retired old fools with too much free time on their hands and the novel thought of a “sweet little book nook” for friends and family to “come ‘round for a ’cuppa tea and a chat” in their golden years. These simple dunderheads had no idea what they actually had and couldn’t care less. Such people didn’t deserve to own a bookstore. Finally, there were selfish, obsessive hoarders who would rather die a scurrilous death than part with even one book out of thousands, for any price.
Saturday afternoons, Martin roamed aisle after aisle in the grainy, cool catacombs of sleepy, used bookstores. Sometimes, a random ray of warm sunlight shone through the smudged and scratched store windows. At just the right angle, a sunny laser beam chocked-full of hurling dust motes pointed straight at a beautiful used book. Martin inhaled deeply. He breathed in all that was good about books. It was times like these that Martin felt like he was the last man on earth, captured by a spiky, iron-clad, Mad-Max-like overlord—with loads of gel in his standy-upy hair—who set before him a do-or-die scavenger hunt for rare or missing books in order to keep his very life. Martin was always up to the challenge.
On this particular Saturday, Martin went to his favorite bookstore, Last Chance, located on the lonely, forsaken edge of Palm Desert. The bookseller at Last Chance was of the third hoarding-and-non-selling variety. From the looks of it, the bookseller’s brain was just as chaotic as her overflowing, disorganized piles that hardly left enough room for a stick figure to walk between. Martin thought the bookseller herself was like many of the books Last Chance offered—a worthless ex-library book no one would ever want masquerading as a signed first edition of To Kill a Mockingbird. Shiver. Horrible.
Secretly, Martin got an exhilarating thrill out of haggling with Last Chance’s bookseller over the crappy books she had to offer. Her absolutely outrageous prices for something as detestable as a ruffled Goosebumps paperback with scribbled-up and torn-out pages made Martin’s blood boil. It also made him “tisk-tisk” aloud.
Martin always approached the cluttered Last Chance counter where he could barely make out the messy head of the bookseller behind enormous, ancient piles of National Geographic. He always approached the cluttered counter with the same strategy—snottily explaining why the price of a particular book was beyond ridiculous by illuminating the poor book quality and obvious flaws. He pointed out that the book would surely sit on the bookseller’s disintegrating shelves for years and years until the entire bookshop collapsed around her. Martin would offer her what was—in his humble opinion—an undeniably fair price for its worth. It was then the bookseller’s turn to bark, “No!”
Martin kept rubber-banded 4x4 index cards covered with his spidery scrawl in his shirt pocket at all times. On the faded cards, he kept detailed running lists of books he needed to complete a series, books he wanted to find a second readers’ copy for, or rare books that no one in the world seemed to have. Each time Martin found a missing book for his collection, he concealed his excitement by purposely displaying the same sour face he made when he was served gulyás by his angry Hungarian ex-wife, Margaréta. On the inside, Martin was doing the gleeful Snoopy dance from Charlie Brown. He had perfected the act.
This particular Saturday, Martin could hardly believe his eyes when he saw it.
A SIGNED FIRST EDITION OF HEARTS IN ATLANTIS
(Signed by the Master himself, Stephen King)
Martin imagined that his euphoric brainwaves would be off the charts if tested by Johns Hopkins neurologists at this very moment. He gently patted Hearts in Atlantis several times with great affection as he would an unruly pet that finally did as he was told. Martin made a perfect red check mark on his index card.
The stars were surely shining down on Martin. As quietly as he could so he wouldn’t seem weird, Martin sang both Maria and the Captain’s parts in “Something Good” from The Sound of Music. He liked living life on the edge. He was good at it.
Martin left Last Chance carefully clutching his nubby cloth sack that read “Dance is My Bag” tightly to his chest while fighting the urge to click his feet together three times. This magical find was cause for grand celebration, and only a heartburn-inducing chili size with a large side of extra cheesy fries at Pappy & Harriet’s fine eatery would do.
When he arrived home, stuffed and content from his feast, Martin set his pirate’s booty carefully down atop the growing pile of unfolded clean clothes on the Barcalounger. He stuck his stolen Denny’s mug from his wilder college years in the microwave for a quick reheat of his cold coffee. He thoughtfully shelved Hearts in Atlantis between Gerald’s Game and Insomnia on the “K” bookcase. Every book had its place.
Martin took a loud slurp of his stale coffee, turned on Jeopardy, redeposited the heaping laundry pile onto the sofa, and half listened to Alex Trebek. Smiling, Martin glanced over at Hearts in Atlantis. He could barely stand to look in the general direction for fear he might rip the book off the shelf and start crying all over its pages.
“This time, with about eighteen thousand dollars in cash as well as those two Daily Doubles, here are the six categories you can choose from: National Landmarks, The 60s, Mythology, Literary Facts, Royalty, and Foreign Cuisine,” said Alex Trebek, taunting Martin.
“Literary Facts for 500, Alex,” Martin muttered while trying to avert his eyes from the bookshelf.
“The so-called ‘hub of commerce’ in Steinbeck’s Cannery Row,” said Alex Trebek.
“Mere child’s play, Alex. What is Lee Chong’s General Store?” Martin said blithely as he looked over again at Hearts in Atlantis. The suspense was killing him. He couldn’t take it another second.
Martin rubbed his hands on his shirt, and even though he was alone and no one was watching, tiptoed over to the bookshelf. He fingered the spine of Hearts in Atlantis and stood thoughtfully for a long moment. He re-shelved part of his Terry Pratchett series in the “P” bookcase, sat back down again, and put his feet up.
"Thank you, ladies and gentlemen, for tuning in today. Until next time, I'm Alex Trebek, and I hope to see you soon on Jeopardy!"
Fifteen minutes later, Martin felt himself in a trance, staring at Hearts in Atlantis again. That was it. He couldn’t bring himself to read the inscription. He knew the book was much more valuable with King’s autograph, which was part of its allure. However, Martin also viewed the author’s personal messages to other readers like he did new lovers insisting on disclosing their sexual history straight away just because they wanted to hear yours—damaging, to say the least. He didn’t want to know there was anyone before him. Martin wanted to be The One. He refused to think about it—ever. His women didn’t have histories—neither did his books. Unbearable. It was only him, now and always.
Martin turned to page six.
“Bobby looked at him in fascination, his empty belly temporarily forgotten. He loved the idea of time as an old bald cheater—it was absolutely and completely right, although he couldn't have said why . . . and didn't that very inability to say why somehow add to the coolness? It was like a thing inside an egg, or a shadow behind pebbled glass.
'Who's Ben Jonson?'
'An Englishman, dead these many years,' Mr Brautigan said.”
“Too true. Time is an old bald cheater. Too true,” Martin said as he tenderly set the book down on the floor next to him, folded his hands behind his head, and dozed off, dreaming of undiscovered desert bookstores on lunar landscapes.
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About the Author
Dawn A. Fuller is a Hungarian-American writer who grew up in the desolate, desperately hot, and nearly-forgotten Imperial Valley. She currently lives in Pasadena, California. When she isn’t writing, she enjoys shameless hours book collecting and spending time with her best friends—her mom and dad. Dawn’s work has been featured in Adanna Literary Journal, Black Fox Literary Journal, Boyne Berries, and more. She is completing her first novel, Tuomb Beoir, due out in 2019.