Carroll Palmer glides among the tables of books like a phonograph playing a record. His fingers touching every book on every table. He likes this stall at the flea market. They display the books spine up in empty cardboard soda can pallets. Each row book ended with a neatly stacked pile of books. His eyes run along the rows glimpsing portions of titles just ahead of his more through touch. He knows what he’s looking for but expects to find it only rarely.
This flea market meets Saturdays, Sundays, and Mondays. He comes all three days if he can, but not every week. In two years of attending he’s bought three sets of crew socks, an arrangement of silk flowers, and a swivel seated barstool rescued from a diner, but no books. No, no he did buy that spine broken John Jakes novel; he’s a sucker for Historicals and a first edition, though book club edition, of Stranger in a Strange Land in pretty good shape. All of this before his author died of shame.
Karen dabbed the last bite of her funnel cake in the powdered sugar still on her paper plate. Professor Palmer was late.
“Karen,” Professor Palmer tapped her shoulder from behind. She turned her surprised jump into a folding of the plate and a throwing of it away. (eesh)
He held up his arm to show off his digital watch. It was a sports watch and it looked new except for the display which read out a splash of characters that looked Cyrillic or alien. In one corner, the liquid crystal had popped, the ink expanded out.
“I have a charm I do that usually gives me three months before they die. But I had this one running on [jarbly] time for a project I’m working on.”
“Guess they don’t mix?”
“I’ll have to tweak the charm next time.” He opened his arms for a hug and to offer a further apology for being late. Karen hugged him back warmly.
“Can you teach me?” she asked.
“The tweak? No, no. I’d need to teach you the charm first. That [jarbly] tweak wouldn’t make sense without it. Oh! But that’s what you meant. Sorry, sorry. Having my watch lie to me about the time throws me all off.”
Karen smiles back at him and throws in an quick second hug. “Why are we here?”
Professor Palmer claps his hands together and rubs his palms like he’s getting down to business. He presses his clasped hands to his lips and draws a preparatory breath. He let’s is out again. “What? What did you ask me just now?”
“Why are we here? Are we looking for something or have we found it already?”
“I love how your brain works. You’re all figure-ground. Solid-void. Then you reverse it like Rubin could: ground-figure; void-solid.” The Professor’s head drifted to the right in other thoughts, “God, I miss Edgar. Huff, oh well. Why are we here today you asked.”
Karen licks a tantalizing bit of powdered sugar from the corner of her mouth. It’s sweet but you can only take so much of it.
“We’ve found this flea market so the finding’s covered, but we’re also looking for something else so we’re at both ends here. Books.” He points a finger-gun over her shoulder past the concession stand. He pops his lips. “Allons-y.”
Karen stuffs her funnel cake trash in the Rubbermaid bin and follows after the old man.
The Professor moves quickly to their goal. As he navigates the unordered strollers she’s certain he’s unconsciously casting charms to slide the human obstacles out of the way but she’s not seeing any gestures or hearing any invocations. It’s one thing to know a person is a master it’s another to see it—or not see it—in use. She keeps quiet the whole way down the lane past socks, luggage, and stuffed magenta monkeys.
Karen spies the stall just before they arrive. He’s parted the crowd before getting there and pauses a moment to look. He clucks his teeth with his tongue like an owner would call a cat. The few remaining patrons depart the book stall. He looks back.
“I like it to myself,” he gives her a wink and a cluck. They stroll under the tent’s arch and into the sun lit stall.
Books stand on their edges in cardboard soda pallets, spines up. They have the energy of race horses clamoring in a gate waiting on a gun’s crack. Boxes of National Geographics and TV Guides bookend each table. The vibrancy of colors and scattered rhythm of sizes would be dizzying if the humid musk of wood pulp weren’t already intoxicating. Large square hard bound picture books congregate with and blend into cookbooks of similar sizes. Fat yellow dictionaries give way to brown clad Bibles. On another table several class sets of Catcher in the Rye, Romeo and Juliet, and Animal Farm are arranged in replacement bundles. Along the back of the U-shaped stall the near noon sun floods in warming the repeatedly sold paperbacks. Index cards helpfully call out the alphabet to aid purchase. The aroma of paper in this part of the stall is like the last sip of a cocktail: all liquor.
Karen realizes only the two of them are under the awning. The seller has gone with the patrons. “Shouldn’t we…” The Professor waves a hand dismissively.
“…I’ll bring him back when we’re ready. If we find anything. This looks like the same stock from a month ago when I was here in the rain.”
“What’s the title of the book?”
“OK. What kind of book are we looking for?”
“Magic of course.” She knows he’s playing with her. He’s never not teaching.
“Is it big or small?”
“Today it’s not one answer for the right question, it’s the right questioning for the one answering.”
“You’ve been working on that line. I don’t think it makes as much sense as you think it does.”
“It probably doesn’t. I’ll have to fidget the wording a bit for next time. Come here.” Karen joins Professor Palmer by the big books near the entrance. He’s holding a red chamois that looks suspiciously like it’s been borrowed from a filling station. “Put you hands out. Palms up.”
Her hands are clean—sugar brushed off on here pants—so she doesn’t expect the severe scouring the get under his strong hands. Just when she wants to complain and pull them back he folds the chamois carefully and purposefully wraps it in another thing of some kind that would make sense and I wouldn’t have to rewrite if I were allowed to take the time to write it right in the first place. Basically this action will come back in the end, but I don’t know how or why.