Simon wonders if anything will be left after the storm flattens this place; if any of what he has created here will make it through.
For that matter, he wonders if he’ll make it through. In his little studio there is a glimmery, shiny pile of sequined fabric that’s almost something but not quite. He really should have taken care of the transmission on the Toyota last week. Now everyone has hit the coastal evacuation route and Simon figures he’s just going to have to ride this one out.
Simon loves his little shop.
He left the city five years ago with a trunk full of feathers, enamel, little boxes of seashells, glitter, macramé rope, stencils, pipe cleaners, felt, grommets, paint brushes and an indescribable, bone-deep need for something that he was never going to find in Miami. So he packed up the Toyota and left. On the seat next to him was his secret: a massive series of stories within stories that flattened out into sneaky fourth wall compromises before curling back into an intractable narrative that sneered at structure and refused to arc.
Simon knew he wasn’t a writer.
But he was a voracious reader who started this monster a year out of grad school and had no idea how to end it or where it was going. It was enough to just lose himself in it night after night. But Miami was sucking the fantasy out of his soul and it had been months since he’d written a word.
His rent for the little storefront with two rooms in back on Rickman Street was a dream. He set up shop, creating cunning little whatnots for the tourists at night and dozing behind the cash box throughout the day. And, wonder of wonders, the words came looking for him again. Here, in the long humid nights, the wares he fashioned with his hands and the words he conjured from his head entwined with strangely shaped finger puppets appearing on the page to expound on string theory and the best recipes for a perfect buttermilk biscuit while delicately stitched words slid almost unseen along hems and up seams. In time, he met the local earth mother who owned a kiln and fell in with a small circle of post-modern fiction readers, meeting monthly to argue.
Then, over the course of a couple of years, Rickman Street began to morph into some kind of tourist mecca. His rent increased so he had to raise his prices and buy a copy of Quickbooks. Pretty quickly he realized that most of the things he loved to make just did not sell. So he made the things that did. The magic began to get thinner; then the words stuttered and fell off as well. The enchantment eroded and he found himself going to bed earlier and earlier, worn out, frustrated and discouraged.
And really he needed to go to bed earlier because early in the morning he had to go over his accounts with as clear a head as he could manage. One line of merchandise, in particular, had turned out to be extremely popular: a series of irregularly shaped coffee mugs that sported the local alligator named Biff. He’d throw clay at night, paint and enamel in the afternoon and on Sunday drive another batch over to Leona’s to be fired. The stupid things sold like crazy. He even began charging fifteen bucks for them and still couldn’t keep them in stock. It got to be tougher and tougher to find time to make other things (and forget about writing) and, really, why bother when the macramé plant hangers and seashell lined picture frames just sat there gathering dust?
It all got worse when he began fashioning Biff refrigerator magnets.
One Friday night he sat down to throw clay for more Biff crap and just couldn’t do it. He hated those stupid mugs. He hated the refrigerator magnets. He hated how much time he spent fucking around with Quickbooks. He got a beer and went out onto the front stoop. It was still, humid and breathlessly hot…just the way he liked it. He slugged the beer, nodded at the kids passing in a haze of pot and wondered what to do. This was why he’d thrown everything into the car and split the city.
Then the most bizarre and seductive solution arose and twirled around for his consideration.
Without really thinking it through, he got up and went into the shop where he stripped the little price tags off of everything in the place. Then he went back to his studio and painted a new sign that he hung in the front window right away while the paint was still wet. That night he slept without one single dream about calculating sales tax.
People were suspicious at first.
In fact, the giant rainbow sign that proclaimed All Merchandise Is Free seemed to keep people away. But a gaggle of excited Asian tourists (who couldn’t read English) turned the tide. Word blasted up and down Rickman Street and then penetrated the town. First to go, of course, was all the Biff garbage and once it was gone that was it. Simon threw not one more lump of clay at Biff. Instead, he found himself happily tooling away deep into the night, creating new, completely useless and utterly beautiful things.
The words weren’t coming yet but he knew they would and was content to wait.
All the palm tree potholders and Spanish moss Xmas tree ornaments and ocean blue hair barrettes and dolphin bookmarks and surfing kitten thank you notes went quickly. The feathered masks were also popular. But the sinuously sequined curtain valances and cunningly braided………what were those anyway?…….got picked up and turned over and over and returned to the shelves.
Simon’s day of reckoning was fast approaching and he knew it.
By end of the season, he found himself with a store fully stocked with colorful, lovingly crafted things that no one wanted even for free. The first eviction notice appeared and then the second. He figured he could drag this out for another month or so, but wasn’t sure it was worth it.
That wind was really starting to get serious. He left the Open sign up and propped the door of the studio open so he could see into the shop while he worked. He had to focus to keep from freaking out as the radio kept barking out instructions about mandatory evacuation. He changed the station and hummed along with disco hits of the seventies plying his needle through a long winding strip of muslin. If it came to it, he could always go over to Vic’s next door and hunker down in his semi-sunk wine cellar.
“Anyone here?” The voice boomed deep and dark and Simon about jumped out of his skin.
He peered out into the shop at a hulking guy with his baseball hat on backwards who was scratching his ear.
“Hi, what can I do for you?” Simon came out into the shop where his offered hand was ignored.
“You the faggot giving away useless shit?” the big guy said this in such a matter of fact way that Simon decided no offense was intended and so he took none. It was pretty useless shit after all.
“I’m Simon and, yep, I’m the faggot in question. Want anything?”
“I’m Figaro and your cute little joint here is going to be flattened in about two hours. Time to hit the road.”
“No shit. My transmission’s shot or I’d already be gone.” Simon paused, “Want anything?”
Figaro looked around. He took off his Seminole’s cap and twisted it around in his hands. Then he walked over to the bin of delicately embroidered dresser scarves. His roughened trucker’s hands moved slowly through the fabric and he lifted several to inspect the colors and the stitching.
“Where do you get this shit? It doesn’t look like the crap from China that usually gets pushed down here on Rickman.”
“I make it.”
“All of it?”
“How come you’re giving it away?”
Before Simon could come up with a short, clear answer the wind dropped. The men looked at each other.
“We got to get this stuff out of here.” Figaro turned towards the door. “You got boxes? I got a truck out there.”
Simon stood there, stupid with surprise, and watched Figaro’s broad back disappear out into the creepy new stillness of the night. Then he roused himself and got to it. It was the eye of the storm. Simon had been in Florida long enough to know what was coming and he flew around the shop, throwing everything into quickly gathered boxes. He and Figaro had the store emptied out in fifteen minutes.
Figaro was in the cab with the engine revving and Simon was just opening the passenger side door when he remembered something. He lifted a finger at Figaro who roared something about there being no time, but Simon was already flying back into the shop.
He sped through the mess that had been his precious, little oasis for the past five years and wondered again if any of it would make it through the storm. Back in the room where he slept, he got down and pulled the box with his manuscript out from under the bed. He hoped it was all here, but didn’t have time to check.
He glanced at his computer and knew he was out of time.
“You’re one lucky fucker, ya know that?” Figaro grinned as they pulled out onto the now nearly empty evacuation route. The wind was picking up, making the truck feel like a too small boat out on a too big ocean.
“What the hell are you doing around here now anyway?” Simon was holding on as the truck swayed. “You know how bad this is; why weren’t you out of earlier?”
“Oh, you know who I am.” Figaro nodded at the box under Simon’s feet. “I’m the ghost in the machine.”
Simon sat back and thought about this. “You mean the god from the machine, right?”
“Oh, I’m no god, buddy.”
“And you are a ghost?”
“In a manner of speaking, all of us get to be ghosts for someone if we’re lucky and play it right.” He glanced over at Simon, “You, too, ya know. If you haven’t been someone’s ghost yet, you will be.”
Simon was pondering this when he saw flashing lights up ahead and Figaro slowed a bit.
“This is as far as I’m taking you, buddy. These fine servants of the community will make sure you and your box are safe but I expect they’ll need to scold you like a bunch of old ladies first.”
Simon stared at Figaro.
“Wait. What about my stuff?” He jerked his head toward the back of the truck.
“What about it? You were giving it away for free, right? Go on now, I got places to be.” Figaro turned his hat around frontwards again and smiled. “Thanks a lot, buddy.”
A state trooper was making his way towards the truck and Figaro was clearly ready to be out of here, so Simon climbed down from the cab of the truck and hauled his box out. The rain was just starting, but the wind was the real authority here and it was hard to stand upright. He got clear of the truck and shoved blindly towards the cop, bent into the wind. Behind him, he could hear the gears grinding as the truck backed up and swung around. There was no talking out here, so he just followed the trooper back to the cruisers, clutching his box close to him to protect it.
Just before ducking into the car, Simon looked back in time to catch a last glimpse of his ghost and his wares disappearing into the storm.
And right there just as the trooper launched into a stream of invective, Simon felt them. Tasted them. The words were piling up, spilling over and dancing in loosely held together paragraphs that tingled down to the tips of Simon’s fingers and up his spine.
He rested his hand on the box and was ready.