by Kathe Koja and Carter Scholz
The line in the bookstore snaked through Cooking and Self-Help, past the cash registers, almost into the street. Davies queued at the end of it, heart sinking. There were scores of children, some running, some squirming, voices shrill and demanding, so unlike his Krissy, his quiet girl, at her mother’s now, waiting for him to pick her up at six. Karen had been reluctant, but for once he had pressed and won, and Krissy was his for the weekend.
Her pre-birthday weekend, he had it all planned: first a movie, then D’Amici’s for dinner, an eight-fifteen reservation, he would present her gifts there. Quarter to five now, it would take him twenty minutes to cross town to Brookline, no, more like thirty on a Friday rush hour. Half an hour should be enough. He heard the edge in Karen’s voice whenever he was late: You can’t call, Gerald? last month when he missed by, what, barely an hour, stuck in traffic, the cell’s battery dim then dead but no point in telling her that, explaining, she was beyond his explanations now, her own soured to constant low-grade accusation: I just don’t want to see you disappoint her.
How could he disappoint her, when it was her choice to live in Brookline with her mother, a two-room apartment where she slept on a department store futon in the living room, went to public school, ate fast food for breakfast but It’s what she wants, his lawyer had told him, her shrug not quite regretful; shapely shoulders, expensive linen suit, a calm professional. Davies had kept the house in Newton, sure that Krissy would change her mind, want to return, for the continuity of school and friends, for him, but she hadn’t. Not yet. Her mother’s been fairly generous with visitation, his lawyer had said. It could have been a lot worse.
He checked his watch. Ten minutes, and the line had barely moved. A tubby girl in a blue hoodie was in front of him, fighting with her equally-tubby brother, whining about the delay, about her book, her book, her book, until the father headed for the front of the line where a glossy three-color placard announced Dragondreams: War! above the table where, unseen, author S.R. Appleton was presumably signing his product.
Krissy’s favorite author, her favorite books, anyway, Karen had said so. Heroic teenagers who turn into dragons and save the world, kept on saving it in a series of novels each dumber than the last, amazing that kids could enjoy such junk but to an eleven-year-old it was all fresh, and she had read dumber books before. Big Blue Bear, remember that one? The bear goes into the woods, the bear comes out, the bear eats porridge and goes to sleep. But still Read me, read me! that piping little voice, she was what then, four, five? and Davies coming home from work long after dark, exhausted, Karen silently sliding a plate of microwaved leftovers at him—but first, always first his pilgrimage upstairs to perch on the side of the narrow bed, the warm pool of the night light, Krissy’s happiness. Read me! Karen might feed her, take her to the park, to school, but Davies always read Krissy to sleep, the two of them at least had that.
Twenty minutes. The store was overheated against the weather, Davies was starting to sweat. The father behind Davies returned, carrying two copies of Appleton’s book, its garish cover even worse up close. “This is yours, Harris, and this one’s for you, Mariah. No, Harris, they’re exactly the same, give hers back—” Davies wondered if the books would hold out, if he should go forward and get one now. He could just see the table: Appleton, a compact man, half-glasses, braces and vest, red bowtie. And next to him another table with a much smaller sign, hand-lettered with a Sharpie: Michael Dunbar. A small pile of books, a few propped open, more dragons apparently, maybe a local author tacked onto the star’s tour. It didn’t seem to be working: Kids passed his table incuriously on their way to Appleton.
It could have been a lot worse, but he didn’t see how. The empty house, the ruinous alimony, didn’t Karen have a job? not to mention the child support, very generous child support, he was working harder than ever and he was lucky to see his daughter twice a month. He couldn’t keep up. Like the business last week with the jacket: One of those fake rabbit-fur jackets, with the leather cuffs, what all the girls are wearing, that’s what she wants.
Fake fur? Why fake?
Gerald, slow and chiding, like he was the child. What she meant was, you moron, you know how she is about animal rights.
But the cuffs are leather, that’s from an animal —
Look, if you don’t want to spend the money—. Which was completely unfair, just like Karen: Davies had never stinted his daughter anything: the support, the music and dance lessons, anything. He was paying enough that Karen could have found someplace better than that dump in Brookline, but he didn’t want to get into that, he was learning slowly so If that’s what she wants, that’s what I’ll get, his own voice as dry and artificial as his control. Junior size three, Gerald. At Bullock’s he spent even more than he’d guessed, and the wrapped box sat all week on the bed in Krissy’s room until this morning, when, lifting it to carry to the car, the abnormal tidiness of the room struck him. On Krissy’s last visit, she’d said, I’ll put my stuff in the bedroom, and his pained smile: It’s not “the bedroom,” Kris, it’s your room. But she was right, it wasn’t her room any more, no more than the fake fur jacket was his gift. Krissy would see through it in a second, and it would be as if he’d got her nothing at all. So, worrying through the day, until the happy chance at lunch, spotting the ad in the paper, Today, Author S.R. Appleton, at BookMax, signing his newest Dragondreams book, 4:00-5:30. Perfect. Anyone could buy a coat off the shelf. This was special.
The store’s PA cut now into the din of the kids: “S.R. Appleton will be here until five-thirty, signing Dragondreams: War! Please do not ask Mr. Appleton to sign anything else. Mr. Appleton can only sign his name in Dragondreams: War!”
The line barely moved. Davies opened his coat, felt the thin film of sweat at his sides. Two girls at the front now, beaming, squirming, flirting, oh for Christ’s sake come on and “Harris, leave your sister alone.” The boy protested, the girl whined. The line crawled forward. At last Davies was near the front, near enough to secure a book. He needn’t have worried; there were boxes and boxes still under the table. Krissy would be so happy when she saw it, saw that her father had stood in line for thirty, Jesus, over forty minutes, going on an hour, to have it signed specially for her birthday.
The other writer, Dunbar, was signing a book for a boy who had pressed through the Appleton line. John’s Last Ride. “Who should I sign it to?” Dunbar asked.
“To John,” said the boy. He was thin, dark, abashed, excited. “That’s my name too. John.” Dunbar signed the book, the boy left. Dunbar folded his hands, watching as the other kids pushing past him. Blond hair, acne scars, nondescript blue jacket, he could have been a shoe salesman. For a moment Davies wondered if Dunbar made a living by this. A minor writer, in kiddie dragon lit, how much disappointment could a person absorb?
Now Davies felt a push from the boy behind him: “It’s your turn, hurry up!” and there was Appleton looking up at him over the half-glasses, sallow face, bags under the crisp blue eyes, wispy comb-over going gray. Davies felt absurdly tall among the children and Appleton seemed to catch something of this absurdity, and smiled as if to himself as Davies pushed the book across the table. Another calm professional.
“It’s for my daughter,” he said. “Can you sign it to Krissy on her birthday? ‘Her father’s favorite girl’, can you write that too? To Krissy, K-R-I—”
“Mr. Appleton can only sign his name. They said.” Behind Appleton a tall skinny girl with nervous hands leaned forward. “He’s only here until five-thirty, and the line—
“I know about the line,” said Davies firmly. “I’ve been in it for an hour. ‘To Krissy, on her birthday, her father’s favorite girl’.”
The boy behind Davies pushed again. “Come on, hurry up!” Davies half turned, stifling a welling rage. Appleton opened the book. His pen moved quickly over the title page while at the next table Dunbar, hands still folded, gave Davies a wry look that seemed to encompass the wait, the importunate boy, his own position as wallflower at the edge of the party. Appleton closed the book, slid it to Davies, and turned to the brother and sister surging up behind.
At least the register lines were moving. Davies had his credit card out, twenty-six forty with tax, then he was moving into the cold, into breathing room, crossing the parking lot—Jesus, it was already getting dark, some cars had their lights on—stopping at his car finally to read the inscription in tight, needlescratch hand: To Chrissie—S.R. Appleton.
Chrissie: oh for Christ’s sake what good was this? No Happy Birthday, no message, even her name misspelled, he stood in line an hour for this? Hadn’t he specifically spelled her name out? Hadn’t he done everything right?
Splinter of a headache pulsing hard in his temple, and back into the store, the heat, he was really sweating now, to the first register by the door: “Excuse me,” loud, trying not to be, “I’m afraid I have a problem. This book I just bought—”
“You’ll have to wait a moment,” the clerk said, and the woman she was serving added, sharply, “There’s a line here.”
“I know there’s a line, I was just in the damn—”
“What’s wrong with your book?” brusque from the clerk.
“Nothing’s wrong with the book, it’s the signature—”
The clerk pointed to the line at Appleton’s table.
“Look,” said Davies, “I’m not going through that again.”
“Well, I can’t do anything about it here,” said the clerk, turning to the next customer.
Appleton’s line was no shorter, a seemingly endless stream of kids. As Davies approached, the nervous girl announced that Mr. Appleton was about to leave but “Everyone past this point,” hand on the stack of books, “will have the opportunity to buy one of the books Mr. Appleton has already signed. Those books are at the front counter --” and, with the crowd, Davies for a moment turned his eyes that way, then back, to take from the stack before him a second unsigned copy of Appleton’s book. He pulled his credit card from his wallet to display it against the book’s cover, as an earnest of intent, but it was too late, the tall girl was murmuring in Appleton’s ear, he was capping his pen, rising, pulling on his jacket, oblivious to the children still waiting, oblivious to Davies, the crowd dissolving and someone edging past him—“Excuse me”—acne and blond hair, it was the other author, Dunbar.
Davies said pointlessly, “I was in line.”
Dunbar paused. “Oh sure. It’s a madhouse, isn’t it. Seldom a problem for me, but—”
“But don’t you think,” said Davies, with a note of appeal, “don’t you think that if you stand in line, it should count for something? Don’t you think standing in line for a whole hour should—”
“What, didn’t he sign it?”
“He did, but he misspelled her name, it’s Krissy with a K, so I came back for another—” showing Dunbar the second book. “But now—”
“Let’s see.” Dunbar took the book from Davies. Smiling, pen in hand, he opened the book and leaned it against a tall shelf, SELF-HELP. “Daddy’s girl, right? Isn’t that what you said before?”
“Her father’s favorite girl,” Davies said, as if by rote.
“Is it Krissy with a y or ie?”
“With a y,” said Davies. “What’re you—”
“Sometimes you have to play clod to a pebble.”
“Blake. William Blake? Songs of experience? ‘Love seeketh...’ Never mind. Here,” handing the open book back to Davies. “Now it’s right, isn’t it?” To Krissy, happiest of birthdays to her father’s favorite girl. Sincerely, S.R. Appleton. His writing all sprawls and messy loops, nothing like Appleton’s tight hand.
“It’s not, I mean thank you, I appreciate the gesture, but it’s—”
“Not his signature? How will she know?” Still smiling, Dunbar turned to go. Davies couldn’t decide if Dunbar was generous or cynical. All he wanted now was to get out of the goddamned store.
The register line moved more slowly this time, with the crush of disappointed Appleton fans and their presigned books; by the time Davies paid it was almost six. Late again. Well, he wouldn’t give Karen the satisfaction of calling. Anyway, traffic would be lighter now.
It wasn’t. It was past six-thirty when he turned up the dead end street and parked by Karen’s building. The movie had started, the evening’s plan was a ruin. But how could he have known? That the line would be so long, that Appleton would be so—what? Unaccommodating? Unfair?
Streetlight fell palely on the two books, one a mistake, one a lie. Neither was right. So give her neither. But then all his effort would be for nothing—the wait, the heat, the noise, the rude and pushing children—he would have only the fur jacket that was Karen’s idea and he couldn’t bear that. What was he supposed to do? He looked at the building, looked at his watch again, but now it was too dark to see.
About the Authors
Kathe Koja is a Detroit native whose novels for adults include The Cipher, Skin, and Under the Poppy (forthcoming from Small Beer Press in fall 2010, with a stage adaptation to follow in 2011), and Headlong, Kissing the Bee, and Buddha Boy for young adults. She lives in the Detroit area with her husband, artist Rick Lieder, and their three rescued cats.
Carter Scholz lives in California. He is the author of Palimpsests (with Glenn Harcourt), Kafka Americana (with Jonathan Lethem), Radiance, and The Amount to Carry.
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