By Mark Kodama
I own a used bookstore off of Hollywood Blvd. It is not much to look at but it is mine. There always seems to be customers in my store even on a Friday night, well into the early morning. But even if there were no customers, I am never alone. I have the company of authors throughout the ages.
Sometimes, the different denizens of the night- a homeless man, a runaway, a streetwalker- wander in for a coffee, hot chocolate, sandwich or pastry or just to talk. Some of the streetwalkers used to tease me – I am an old guy – offering me a free one if I could still get it up.
I am married but live alone. My wife left me many years ago. She was going to be a starlet – be in motion pictures. I have not heard from her in decades. The last I heard she was a cocaine freak – I never made that kind of money.
I own my little building and live in an apartment upstairs. I have my cat Marilyn Monroe – who comes and goes as she pleases. And, of course, my books. There are books by the philosophers, the great novelists, the poets, the scientists and the historians. In the wee hours of the night, they speak to me.
Although I attended community college, I never obtained a college degree. Things always seemed to get in the way. Finally, I began working at this bookstore for Old Man Peterson who treated me like his son and left me his bookstore when he died.
One day, Bobby the Pimp came in with the two newest members of his stable – Linda, a black runaway from New York City and Angel, a young white girl from the Midwest. It was early December, sometime after Thanksgiving.
Bobby was in his early twenties, a barrel-chested kid, with a black cowboy hat with a gray and silver feather. The girls’ heavy make up could not conceal their young age. Their bravado masked their fear. The young black woman was nosily chewing her gum.
Though it was sunny, the wind made the thermometer fall to near freezing.
“Hey, old man, a couple lattes, here,” Bobby said to me. “You want salted caramel with whip cream?” he said to the girls. They nodded.
“Salted caramel with whip cream and a couple of turkey sandwiches here. I’ll have a large coffee.”
Bobby pulled a small stack of new twenties from his wallet and held them in his raised left hand. He loudly snapped two crisp $20 dollar bills and handed them to me. “Keep the change,” he said, expecting me to grovel in gratitude.
“Say old man,” Bobby said, looking around. “Do you actually read these books?”
“Some of them,” I said.”But I mostly sell them.”
“I’m educated too,” Bobby said. “I graduated from the school of life.”
One night Angel came in with a young Asian girl. It was raining and business was slow. “Hey mister, how about a couple of hot chocolates?” Angle said. Her makeup did not cover the dark circles under her eyes.
“Sure, coming up,” I said.
“And a couple of turkey sandwiches.”
“Would you like to try a club sandwich?”
“What’s that?” Angel asked.
“Well, they have turkey, plus lettuce, tomatoes and bacon with mayonnaise in a double decker sandwich.”
“How much are they?” Angel asked opening her purse.
“On the house tonight. How about some milk?”
“Milk is for kids.”
“How about a fruit smoothie then?”
“What kind do you want?”
What about you friend?
“I’ll have a banana smoothie.”
“I’m Phoebe,” the Asian girl said.
“I’m Hank,” I said. “Pleased to meet you.”
After the girls finished eating, they looked around the book store. I put their empty dishes and glasses in the sink.
“Well, Bobby’s going to be looking for us,” Angel said. She opened her purse and handed me a five-dollar bill. “At least let me leave a tip.”
“Cool,” I said.
“We’ll see you again,” Phoebe said.
“Bye, Hank,” Angel said and stuck out her hand.
Afterwards, Angel and Phoebe would often stop by, sometimes with Bobby and other times alone. I introduced them to different kinds of sandwiches: a Bahn Mi from Vietnam, a croquet monsieur from France and gyros from Greece.
“You know a lot about things,” Angel said one day.
“Not much really,” I said.
“Well you certainly know a lot about sandwiches,” she said as she and Phoebe sipped their hot chocolate.
“Do you know who invented chocolate?” I asked.
“The Americans, of course,” Phoebe said. “I’ve been to Hershey Pennsylvania with my parents.”
“Actually, the Mexicans invented chocolate,” I said. ‘They mixed it was sugar, vanilla and alcohol. The Mexicans were very advanced farmers.”
“Do you know who invented gunpowder and the compass?”
“The European explorers,” Angel said.
“No, these innovations were in fact invented by the Chinese.”
“Did you know if you traveled at the speed of light, time would stand still for you but would progress for other people?”
“That can’t be true,” Phoebe said.
“It is in fact true,” I said. “All these things you can learn from books.”
On afternoon, an old well-dressed man stopped in the store and bought a series of classic Greek and Roman books that I purchased at an estate sale. He paid a couple thousand for those boos and others. He asked me to ship them to his house in Beverly Hills.
I bought Dodgers tickets for Bobby and the girls for a Sunday game. Bobby came to pick me up from the shop in his old Cadillac. He was like a little boy again. “Say, Hank do you smoke week?” he aside me.
“No, Bobby. The most I will have is a beer now and again but that is it.”
He handed me a bong. “C’mon Hank, do a bong load.”
“No, Bobby, do what you want to do. I just want to enjoy the game. But why don’t I drive so you and the girls can enjoy yourselves.”
So Bobby stopped the car and let me drive.
When Bobby passed the bong to Angel she also declined.
“I’ve never been to a real baseball game before,” she said.
Linda also declined. “My dad used to take me to see the Yankees play.”
“Suit yourselves,” Bobby said.
When we got to the game, Bobby was surprised that we had premium seats by the third-base side.
“Man, I always wanted to sit down here,” he said excitedly. “When we went to games, we always sat in the nose-bleed seats, way up there,” he nodded toward the upper deck. “My brothers and old man always liked sitting up there but me . . . I always wanted to sit down here.”
Bobby pulled out an old transistor radio with a now yellowing plastic earphone. He grinned. “I never could really enjoy a game without Vin Scully calling it.”
“The Dodgers have a new announcer now,” I said. “Vin retired last year.”
“He did? Ah, man.”
“Did you play baseball?”
“Yeah, I played but that seems like a million years ago. I pitched and played short. Batted third too.”
I had to use the restroom so I went before the game started. I bought Dodger caps for Bobby and the girls.
In turn Bobby bought us all hotdogs and cokes. The Dodgers were losing most of the game but came back in the bottom of the ninth with a walk-off homerun.
We sat on the edge of our seats as the first batter walked. The second batter reached base on an error. And then one of the rookies hit the ball into the seats.
I cheered as loud as I could but could not hear myself that crowd was so loud. Strangers were high fiving each other and arm bashing. I don’t think I enjoyed a game more in all of my days.
“Man, that was really amazing,” Bobby said.
“You watch enough games, you see not only the improbable but the impossible,” I said. “That’s baseball.”
One day, Bobby came in to my book shop. He seemed agitated. He smoked one cigarette after another. He asked if I had The Book of Five Rings by master swordsman Miyamoto Musashi. I pointed to the martial arts section and he purchased a copy and left. Later in the week, he asked me to help him prepare his taxes.
One day, Linda the young black woman from New York City, came to my bookstore. He eyes were all swollen from being beaten up. She was crying uncontrollable. She asked me if I could hide her. I told her she could stay upstairs in my apartment for a few days.
She asked me if I would buy her a bus ticket to New York City and if I would loan her the money for traveling expenses. She promised to pay me back when she returned to her family. I agreed and I sent her to union station in a taxi cab.
The following day, a furious Bobby came to my bookstore with a leather truncheon. He demanded to know why I had helped Linda.
“Because she asked for my help,” I said.
“God damn, you,” he said. “I should break every bone in your body.”
“Why would you want to do that?”
“It’s about respect old man,’ he said. “This is none of you business.”
“What is none of my business?”
“If people come to me and ask me for help and I can help them then I help them.”
“Well, the joke is on you,” Bobby said. “You’ll never see your money again.”
One night, the police were all over the neighborhood, their red and blue lights were flashing. There had been a shootout between rival gangs. Later, the girls came in to tell me that Bobby had been shot in a drive-by shooting and he had died in the hospital that night.
A rival gang had taken over the neighborhood and Angel and Phoebe could no longer work the streets. They feared for their lives and needed a place to stay. So I let them stay up in my apartment with my cat Marilyn Monroe.
I made a bed and slept in my office downstairs. Phoebe moved to San Francisco with some friends of hers but Angel stayed. Angel agreed to work at the coffee bar while I managed the book store.
Our customers liked her so much that I had to hire a second person to help her at lunch and at dinner. She suggested we remove some of our books and replace them with tables. We soon were making more money from the café than the bookstore.
When the store was slow, I taught Angel how to speed read and basic mathematics. I even taught Angle how to hit a baseball. We did so well that I hired a UCLA college student to manage the store so Angel and I could sneak in a Dodger game now and again.
Soon the UCLA student Jason and Angel were dating. Angel took me aside and asked me how she should explain our relationship.
“Just say I’m your uncle.” I said.
“You aren’t my uncle,” she said.
“Well, what then are you going to tell him?” I asked.
She thought for a moment. “What do you think he would do if I told him the truth?”
“I have no idea.”
“Do I have to tell him the truth?”
“That’s up to you,” I said. “But sooner or later he may find out.”
“Will you tell him?”
“Only you can tell him.”
“Why don’t you wait to see where all this goes,” I said.
“That’s probably best.”
When Angel told Jason about her past life, he was furious. He called her a tramp and a whore and he immediately quit his job at the bookstore.
Angel cried and cried, holding me tight. “Well, darling, see what happens,” I said. You can never change the past but you can change your future. Why don’t you go to college?”
“How am I to pay for college?”
“We will find a way, honey,” I said.
“I’m just a tramp,”
“No you aren’t,” I said. “You are a good person, better than most.
“You don’t know me,” she said, crying bitter tears. “You don’t know anything about me. You don’t even know my real name.”
“Don’t let others define you, Angel” I said. “You must define yourself.”
Angel enrolled in community college and then transferred to a university where she graduated with a degree in business.
My doctor could tell that something was wrong with me by my blood. I felt very tired and oftentimes could not rise from bed. My doctor sent me to a hematologist for a biopsy. They stuck a large needle into my pelvis and confirmed I indeed have bone marrow cancer
When my doctor called me to make an appointment to see him I was so tired that Angel had to drive me there. When the doctor told me I was terminally ill, I was not surprised. But Angel was and she cried all the way home.
“We’ll get you the best treatment,” she said. “I know people at UCLA Medical Center,” she said. “They will help you.”
I want to see my attorney Fred Armstrong and he prepared a trust for me. I left everything for Angel although if my wife ever surfaces again I suppose she may have legal claims to my estate.
And Linda, the runaway from New York City, sent a certified bank check in the mail that I received today for $2,000. I think we will close up shop for the day and catch the Dodgers.