Art by Laurie Harden
by Gigi Pandian
Enid Maddox gripped the cream-colored envelope tightly before pressing it into Tamarind’s hand. Embossed with the image of an oversize skeleton key on the front and sealed with a hearty dollop of thick, blood-red wax on the back, this was no ordinary envelope.
“Hold onto this carefully,” Enid said with an enigmatic smile as she let go of the mysterious letter, “and break the seal of the envelope once you’re home.”
Tamarind laughed, but Enid didn’t join in.
The expectations of her new job confounded Tamarind Ortega. As a big-boned woman who sported a different hair color every couple of weeks and was equally comfortable at a midnight show at the Bottom of the Hill or giving a lecture on the history of public libraries to high-end donors, Tamarind was used to people being bewildered by her. Not the other way around. It was a disconcerting feeling. She’d been hired to be the head librarian at San Francisco’s new Locked Room Library, a small private library and museum devoted to classic mystery novels, but hadn’t yet figured out the mystery of her new boss.
Dressed in an ivory blouse with puffy sleeves, plaid A-line skirt, and peep-toe pumps, Enid looked as if she’d stepped straight out of one of the library’s many novels from the early 1940s. Her brown hair was even tied in a colorful headscarf with a bow on top. Tamarind knew this wasn’t how Enid dressed in normal life. Not that Tamarind would admit to Internet-stalking her new employer. Though really, wasn’t it a perfectly sensible course of action when considering a new job?
“Guard the envelope carefully,” Enid whispered. “Keep it safe until you arrive at home.”
“Sure.” Tamarind forced a smile. Or maybe it was a real one. She couldn’t be sure. “Have a good night, Enid.”
Enid returned the sentiment before turning on the heel of her peep-toe pumps. Tamarind caught a glimpse of two more envelopes tucked into the book in Enid’s hand. She was strangely disappointed that she wasn’t the only person to be receiving the skeleton-key envelope.
Tamarind grabbed her plaid coat and tucked the envelope into one of its oversize pockets. Wait until she got home? Hell no. As soon as she rounded the corner on her walk to the bus stop, Tamarind ripped open the blood-red seal on the envelope’s flap.
For the unveiling of a once-in-a-lifetime discovery, the cryptic missive in her hands stated, arrive promptly at 9 o’clock tomorrow morning.
A once-in-a-lifetime discovery? She peeked into the envelope again. That was it. A single sheet of paper with one vague sentence. Tamarind groaned. She wished Enid would spend as much time learning the importance of a functioning card catalogue as crafting mysterious messages and looking for evidence of a library ghost she swore she’d seen. The library hadn’t yet opened to the public, and there were dozens of logistical items on their list to finish in the next few days.
Tamarind couldn’t stay upset, though. The owner of San Francisco’s new Locked Room Library was being generous with her new inheritance. Enid could have turned her passion for classic mystery novels and stories into a museum and charged an entrance fee, or scrimped on hiring enough people to help run the library. Instead, in addition to hiring more out-of-work contractors than necessary to renovate the ground floor of the Victorian home she’d inherited, she created three full-time staff positions to help her run the modest 1,500-square-foot library. In a few days, the library would open its doors to the public.
Those were going to be a very long few days.
By 9:10 the next morning, Quentin still hadn’t arrived, and Enid insisted they wait for him. Tamarind wished she hadn’t skipped coffee to arrive on time.
“Let’s do some rearranging while we wait for him,” Enid said to Tamarind and Piper. “What do you two think of putting the raven in this spot?” She placed a stuffed black bird, which looked eerily alive, atop a centuries-old oak bookshelf she’d found at a consignment shop. Stepping back, she nodded in satisfaction.
“Shouldn’t a talking raven be in the Poe section?” Tamarind asked. The librarian side of her cared about consistency, and the post-punk postfeminist side of her didn’t like the creepy bird perched where you couldn’t escape his cold eyes watching you. Either way, the beady-eyed bird didn’t belong in such a prominent spot.
Piper shook her head so furiously at Tamarind that her blond ponytail flicked her nose. “The Poe section is too far in the back. Enid is right that Voldemort needs to be centrally placed.”
“Valdemar, dear,” Enid corrected gently. “This raven’s name is Valdemar.”
Piper was not a librarian. Nor, Tamarind learned, had she taken a single library-science course in college. She’d gotten the job because she was Enid’s niece. The newly graduated Piper had been an American Lit major. Apparently not a very good one at that, if she didn’t know the name of one of Poe’s characters. READ MORE
Art by Eli Bischof
by Richard Helms
I’m the Invisible Man.
You’ve probably seen me many times, but I’m still invisible. I’m the wretch standing in the median with a cardboard sign. I’m the pair of legs sticking from behind a Dumpster as you pass an alley. I’m the guy sleeping in the subway station while people hustle by on the way to their trains. I sit on the bench at Hudson Park with two huge black garbage bags. You sneered at me when you walked by and I was taking a dump behind a cardboard-box screen. I’m the woman down on Christopher Street, standing in the middle of the road and directing imaginary traffic. I’m the guy who washed your windshield the other day, and you stiffed me.
Remember me now?
Of course not. Too busy. Too frightened. Too embarrassed. Too heartless. Too self-absorbed. Too close to one paycheck from being homeless yourself, and you deny those of us who have already fallen through the cracks, as if homelessness were contagious.
Sure. I get it. Please. Don’t apologize. I know you don’t mean it, anyway. You’re just not used to invisible men suddenly becoming visible. You want me to vanish as quickly as possible. That’s how it is with people like me. You can stroll past, see me without acknowledging my existence, walk on to wherever you’re headed, and forget me half a minute later.
Surprise. I’m still here. I haven’t gone anywhere just because you made me vanish in your head. A day after you’ve forgotten me, you’ll probably walk by me again, without recognizing our prior relationship. That can hurt. One does like to believe that one leaves an impression on the earth.
Who am I kidding? The great majority of us are destined to strut for a few short years before being consigned in every possible way to oblivion. Only one in a million leaves an impression on this planet that lasts beyond the lives of his grandchildren. Don’t believe me? Tell me everything you know about your great-grandfather. I’ll give you fifteen seconds. You want to toss a quarter in my direction once in a while, we’ll be jake. I’m way too busy surviving to give a damn whether you recognize me. A minute after you’ve forgotten my face, I’m still wondering how I’m going to eat today.
Presuming I’ve settled the issue of eating versus going hungry, there’s the matter of where I’ll lay my head for the night. It isn’t a foregone conclusion. There are only so many bridge overpasses, even in a big city, and there are buttloads of invisible men and women. One must be creative, especially during the extreme seasons.
We all have stories, you know. For most of us, we are the protagonists in our stories. The invisible are no different. We’ve fallen on tough times, or we drew the smelly end of the sanity stick, or there’s simply nobody left who knows us or cares whether we live or die. There are as many stories teaching us how to fail as there are failures. Nobody ever looks down at a cooing baby, only weeks out of the womb, and says, “Gonna make a fine bum someday!” Nobody aspires to homelessness. There’s no future in it. If we’ve hit bottom, we all believe it’s only temporary. Things have to get better. Right?
Every social stratum has its own structure, its own hierarchy. Within every socioeconomic status, there are those who have, and those who want. I remember one of my old college professors—
What? You’re surprised I went to college? Stick around. You might learn a thing or two.
So, this professor used to say, “This is the way all social interaction works. You have all the money in the world. I have a fifty-caliber machine gun. Sooner or later, that money is gonna change hands.”
Suppose you not only don’t have all the money in the world, but barely have two nickels to rub together? What if all you have to your name is a devoted little dog? Or a pair of shoes without holes in the sole? Or a warm blanket without any rips? There are all kinds of currency in this world.
It was late summer. I’d spent the day on a temp job clearing a lot where a house had burned. I’m a big guy, and I try to keep myself up, so when day-labor recruiters show up at the local home-improvement store looking for help, I’m usually among the first picks. They fed us a decent lunch, which was a nice change. I made thirty bucks. I didn’t have to worry about eating for two or three days if I kept it cheap.
My wardrobe was filthy and shopworn, so I dropped by a thrift shop and bought a new bag of underwear, a lightweight cotton sport shirt, some socks, and a pair of khaki cargo shorts with the tag still attached. Hard to imagine some people donate stuff they never even wore. Total outlay: $3.85. I paid another quarter for a pack of disposable razors that would last me a month.
There’s a hostel nearby. It’s a nice flop for budget-minded travelers, international tourists, and Ken Kesey addicts taking their act on the road. I did some favors for the owner back when I was on the job, so he lets me use their showers. Sometimes, if business is slow, he lets me flop on one of the bunks. I always offer to pay. He always refuses. Both of us know I couldn’t afford it anyway. READ MORE