Perched on my ladder, high among the Ye Olde Booke Shoppe shelves, I leaned carefully sideways to see the customer who’d just come in. It was a Wednesday afternoon about 5:30, and Mom had left me to watch the store for a couple of hours while she went off to garage sales to buy old books.
“This place stinks, Mark,” said a familiar voice.
“That,” I responded tranquilly, “is because you just came in.”
A red and black juggling bag sailed out of nowhere and smote me heavily on the left shoulder. My ladder wobbled.
“Come closer, Guy,” I said, “so I can squirt a shot of Lemon Pledge up your nose.”
Guy Messerschmidt, my best friend, strolled around a bookstack corner carrying two other juggling bags. He picked up the third from beside the ladder’s legs. “You’re the one who ought to be calling 911.”
“This place smells like a gas chamber.”
“Don’t blame me.” I sprayed a puff of Lemon Pledge in his direction. “Mom’s on a clean kick. She says people love old books, but they don’t like to buy them off dusty shelves.”
Guy dodged the Lemon Pledge and asked, “Got a copy of Mark Wilson’s Cyclopaedia of Magic?”
“The big hardcover,” I said, “but you can get the paperback at Barnes & Noble for less.”
“Let me see yours.”
“Gonna add tricks to your juggling routine?” I asked, rumbled the rolling A-frame ladder over to the Hobbies and Games section. The church school Guy and I attended was going to have a talent show fund-raiser after the March spring break.
I mounted the ladder, worked the Cyclopaedia loose, and handed it down. “It’s middle of February, so you’ve got at least a month to practice.”
“Busy afternoon,” Guy murmured, his nose already buried in the book.
The newcomer was a girl of about Guy’s and my age, which is 12 and a half, give or take a few months. She had
darkish skin and hair, and huge, bright brown eyes, and came quickly over to us and asked me a question I now realized must have been something like “Habla usted español?”
Guy and I stared at her.
“Say that again?” Guy asked. “Did you lose your spaniel?”
She repeated the sentence.
I shrugged my shoulders helplessly, and asked a stupid question. “Can you speak English?”
She looked blank, and then gave a confused a little grin.
Guy said loudly and very clearly, “Can . . . you . . . speak . . . English?”
“She’s not deaf, Guy.”
The girl rolled her eyes. Then she said something very rapidly, making opening and shutting motions with her hand.
“She wants a book,” Guy guessed.
“What . . . kind . . . of . . . book?” I asked her.
Guy asked me, “Don’t you always carry around some sort of notebook with you all the time? Maybe she could draw a picture of what she wants.”
I reached into my back pocket and pulled out the little brown notebook I’d bought last week at the bookstore at the community college where my dad is an English teacher.
“Here.” I opened it to a blank page and handed it to her, along with my gray Papermate Flexgrip pen. “Draw.” I made drawing motions.
The girl looked down at the notebook, then up at me, and smiled uncertainly.
“Maybe she doesn’t know how to draw,” Guy said.
The girl looked at us helplessly one last time. Then she turned toward the door. “Adios,” she said.
“That’s Spanish,” said Guy. “She’s probably an illegal immigrant. Adios,” he said to her.
“Adios,” I said, experimentally. It was the first time I had ever said a foreign word to someone who couldn’t speak English.
She glanced over her shoulder, smiled at us, and waved.
* * *
“I’m back, Mark,” Mom called from the back rooms. (Mom is otherwise known as Georgina Krueger, owner of Ye Old Booke Store, and my personal slavedriver.) Guy had gone home for supper, and I was up on the ladder polishing shelves again. “You’re using too much Pledge.”
“You said people didn’t like dusty bookshelves.”
“They don’t like Pledgy-smelling books, either. Just spray some on the paper towel, and wipe the shelves with that. Did Dad call?”
But five minutes later Dad bonged his way through the front door, a strange and adventurous glint in his eye. He came over to my ladder and began to wiggle it thoughtfully back and forth.
He let loose of it, and said in a low voice, “You think you’re in trouble now. You’ll have more exciting things to think about in a minute,”
“Peter?” Mom called.
“Right here,” he said. Then he lowered his voice again. “Mark, my man. Listen close.”
Mom appeared beside us. “Let’s go,” she said. “I’m hungry.”
Dad gave her a long, thoughtful look. “Okay, here’s the situation.”
Her eyes narrowed warily. “Here’s what situation?”
Dad paused, then looked at me. “Mark. Got any plans for spring break?”
“Want to come to El Salvador with me?”
“Hork,” Mom hiccuped. After a few agitated coughs she finally was able to gasp, “Peter, what are you talking about?”
“Didn’t I tell you? I’m going on that El Salvador trip.”
Mom’s eyes showed shock and fear. “Peter. No. Whatever gave you–wherever did you get the idea you wanted to go to El Salvador? Of all places?”
“It’s that seniors’ trip,” he said. “You know, the one where the some of our church’s seniors are going to go down there and build an orphanage.”
“I knew they were going to Central America, but I didn’t know it was El Salvador. Peter, El Salvador is death squad country. You know that.”
“Nahhh, there’s nothing to worry about.”
“How do you know?”
“They’d never send seniors down there if there were any problem. There’ll be a lot of people there, not just from our church but from other places too.”
Mom was still staring at him like he was from outer space. “And why you? What do you have to do with all this?”
“Two things,” said Dad promptly. “This has all come together this afternoon, which is why you don’t know anything about it. Brad Hartford’s got some slightly outdated 486 computers loaded with Microsoft Office which he’s going to donate to the academy down there where they’re going to build the orphanage.”
“He was planning to go, and take his daughter Julie with him, but a couple of big PC makers suddenly launched a sales drive, and he’s got to be here to take advantage of it. I’ll be using his ticket, and since Julie doesn’t want to go by herself–and had her heart set on visiting her grandma in New York City anyway–Brad offered hers to me for Mark. He’s a very generous man.”
Mom opened her mouth like she was going to offer her own opinion about Mr. Hartford’s generosity, but all she said was:
“Georgia. Georgie-girl.” Dad was cooing like a male pigeon. “There’s a second reason I’m going down. They teach English to their academy students there. I’ve got some background in ESL, English-as-a-Second-Language. I could find a local translator and do an intensive workshop.”
“The seniors are staying for three weeks, but our stint will be just for a week and a half. It’s over spring break, so Mark will only miss a day or so of school.”
“No. You are the only two men in my life, and I’m not going to lose you both at once.” Mom’s face and voice were calm, but there was a tear-sparkle at the edge of one eye.
“Can we just think about it?” Dad asked desperately.
“Talk it over some more tonight?”
Mom was silent. Then she said, “I’m hungry. Let’s stop at Mongolian Grill.”
“Why not Taco Bell?” asked Dad insinuatingly.
“If you think a seven-layer burrito will get me thinking the Latin way, you’ve got another think coming.”
Dad shrugged. “Well, it was worth a try.”
Just before we left, in a moment when Mom wasn’t watching, I sauntered over to World History and slid four books on El Salvador into my backpack, to read that night in bed.