The Perfect Gift
When the little brass bell over door to the shop rings, it’s usually someone boring: the Midwestern tourist coming to gawk, the professor looking for a rare tome, or the overly-invested boyfriend on a quest for a first edition of “The Velveteen Rabbit.” They all flock like a gaggle of unwanted geese to Dr. Borgen’s Book Shop. But with every dull clanging of that little bell, I hold my breath and my stomach gets that creepy sensation that it’s filled with bugs because it might just be someone with something to sell. And sometimes that something is just a first edition of “The Velveteen Rabbit,” but sometimes it’s a tsantsa from Ecuador or a wild hog with flamingo wings made by a Florida taxidermist.
I’m standing at the old walnut counter running my finger nail into the well-worn grooves, when the door creaks and the bell gives a brassy clang, clang, clang and a gust of October air thrusts into the shop. I glance up quickly, but my guest isn’t a seller. I can tell by the way his eyes widen at the rows of books broken here and there by a specimen jar or dusty glass display case. He pulls his brown corduroy jacket a little closer; it’s cold and dry in here. The pop of my bubble gum makes him jump. I push my obsidian-black hair out of my face and smile a too big grin in a way that makes him glance at the door behind him, but he must really want something because he gives his head a small shake and pushes his shoulders back before walking up to the counter.
“Hello.” His voice is quiet, but steady and smooth like the voice that you think should belong on a motorcycle-riding chemist, not a slightly balding middle-aged white guy.
“Hey. Welcome to the shop,” I answer, cracking my gum in just the way that would make Dr. Borgen cringe and glare at me if he was here. But he’s not.
I can almost hear Baldy’s heart hammering in his decently muscled chest and a slight blush is creeping up from his blue button down shirt and covering his neck and ears. I lean forward and slip into my natural smile, the one my step-mom always tells me to use. I can’t wait to hear what he’s looking for.
“Can I help you find something particular today?” Dr. Borgen would have loved that. It’s the closest thing to customer service ever out of my dark berry-stained mouth.
“Yes. I would like to get a present for my wife.”
Crap. My shoulders sink. He’s a velveter after all.
“First-editions are in the corner.” I don’t even bother to hide the disgust in my voice, or point out which corner.
“That’s not what I want,” he says defensively.
I look up at him through my lashes. He’s biting the inside of cheek, which makes him look like he has dimples when he smiles. I raise my eyebrows waiting for what it is that he does want. He stares at the cabinet behind me.
“Are those voodoo dolls?” he asks.
“Yep. 18th century. Not generally the type of gift that says thanks for being my wife though.”
“Right.” He almost laughs and I catch a glimpse of slightly grayed teeth. “But what if I didn’t want to thank my wife?”
“Um, then you why would you be getting her a gift?”
Baldy leans in and whispers, “I want to leave something for her when I die. Something to make her think of me.”
“Are you planning on dying soon?” I ask in a stage whisper. Baldy looks me up and down with squinty brown eyes.
“Oh, crap. Sorry.” I swallow the lump in my throat. “Cancer?”
“No, poison.” Baldy sighs heavily.
“Like on purpose?” Suicide doesn’t seem like Baldy’s style.
“My wife is poisoning me.”
“Hardcore. Really?” I’ve never met anyone who was being murdered and knew it.
Baldy just nods.
“So tell the police, don’t buy her a stupid book!”
“This is better. Trust me.” I back up from the counter. If Baldy is a crazy person I’m going to be pissed that Dr. Borgen never had a panic button installed. Baldy slams his hands on the dark wood counter. “Listen, what if I tell the police and they don’t believe me? She gets away with it and has a pretty good excuse to divorce me without anyone judging her for it. What if the police do believe me, but they can’t find evidence or they mess up and the case gets thrown out? There are a million things that could happen and she would walk away with a clean conscience.”
“Sure, but she could go to jail,” I offer. He slams his hands down again and stares into my eyes.
“It’s not good enough!”
I study Baldy a moment, the slight sheen of sweat on his face, the clenched blue-tinged fingers on the counter, the angry passion burning in his bloodshot eyes. If he wasn’t dying and way older than me, Baldy and I could totally be friends.
“So, revenge?” I ask, coming around the counter. He nods. “Did you have something in mind?”
“Maybe… no… um…” his sighs. “I just want her to have a piece of me so that she knows that I know it was her.”
“I know just the thing,” I say clapping my hands. “Follow me.”
I take Baldy to the back of the store and point out a small dark brown leather book in the case.
“I thought I said no first-editions?”
“This is not just a first-edition, sir. This is the court proceedings of a murdered who was hanged and drawn and quarter for his crimes,” I explain.
“It’s bound in the murderer’s skin.”
“Human skin?” Baldy leans in closer and his breath fogs up the glass.
“I could do it. I know how.”
Baldy is still bent over the case but he looks at me and raises one eyebrow.
“You know how to tan human skin into leather?”
“Every girl needs a hobby.” I toss my hair over my shoulder and cross my arms. Baldy stands up and laughs.
I nod. Baldy looks me over again. I wish my dark-wash jeans were a little cleaner. There are rust-colored speckles dancing around the raveling hems.
“That’s a pretty crazy hobby.”
“So, what do you say? Want to become the cover of the book that tells all your wife’s sins?” I ask eagerly already thinking of where I’ll cut the flesh from his bones.