Sunday, March 17, 2013

What Waits In The Calendar Shop? by Ken L. Jones

What Waits In The Calendar Shop?
Ken L. Jones

( For Marl Lee Roberts, 1951-2010)
(Just this simple epithet and nothing more, he was my truest friend)

The old man had taken new rooms. He took them because he wanted to get away from people and it had been a good move for him. High above a not very busy thrift store nobody bothered him that he didn’t want to and on top of that he had a nice view of the street below from the kitchen table where he spent most of his conscious hours nursing cup after cup of coffee while he composed the poetry and stories for which he was known. There was only one storefront across the street and it was empty when he had first moved into his new digs but two months after that somebody new opened up shop there. From the sign they raised above it he was able to ascertain that it was a place that dealt in calendars maybe exclusively. Now he thought that was very weird at first because most people bought their calendars right around Christmas if they bought them at all because lots of people got them as Christmas presents from someone so what would such a place do to keep the store open the rest of the year?
            Since it was well past the Christmas season now and the place seemed very busy every day he decided that maybe people came there to have custom calendars made. With this thesis in mind he paid greater attention to the comings and goings of the patrons of the place and was somewhat astonished to notice that every one of them seemed to be bringing calendars with them and then exiting later were missing them. After ascertaining this he started noticing that some of them only brought a single page from a calendar or in a few cases a clipped out day or two from a single page.  Now being naturally curious by nature he vowed to get to the bottom of all this and he probably would have but he had several deadlines to meet and a very time consuming family genealogy that he was working on for his grandchildren’s edification.
 It was during this time of searching out his family tree that he came across a TV commercial for a company called and he decided to try out their free trial period. While it wasn’t as great as they ballyhooed it to be it wasn’t totally worthless either and he was able to gather quite a bit of the info that he was looking for there. During the course of doing this an idle thought occurred to him. What if he could use it to trace someone he had lost track of someone he considered to be the best friend that he had ever had?   Unfortunately as he searched for the person in question one Marl Lee Roberts he came to find out that he had recently passed away.  The news shouldn’t have surprised the old man because Marl had never been a particularly healthy specimen but somehow the impact of learning this struck him a devastating blow and as he read the printout of the coroner’s report of his best friend’s death he felt sadder and more oppressed than he had about anything since his own father’s passing. The impact of all this brought his work to a screeching halt and he found himself obsessing about all the things he had always planned to say to Marl when he reestablished contact with his lost best friend and somehow the idea that this could now never happen shook the old man to his very core. 
            The only thing that seemed to distract him from this was his all consuming curiosity about the strange calendar shop that he had now spent so many hours staring at. Finally hoping to shake himself out of these terrible doldrums he resolved to actually go down there and explore the place for himself hoping to get to the bottom of whatever secrets it might hold. He waited a long time in its line and even though he attempted to strike up several conversations with the people in front of him and in back of him he was unsuccessful in doing so. As he looked up and down its long length he couldn’t help but notice that he was the only one there who wasn’t clutching some calendar page or a fragment of one.
Finally what seemed to him to be hours later he was inside the store itself and he could barely suppress a gasp when he stepped over its threshold. First of all the place was cavernous even though it didn’t appear to be from the outside of it. Most of it was an endlessly deep warehouse illuminated here and there by skylights in the ceiling whose shafts of light were golden and full of dust motes. Most of the place seemed to be taken up by what appeared to be library shelves upon which sat wire baskets which were each carefully labeled. By squinting to look at the baskets closest to him he could see that they were crammed with calendar pages and parts of ones. Stranger than that were the people who were working there for there were lots of them but they only seemed to be of two different types.  The men more than somewhat reminded him of the famous male model Fabio but they were even more muscular and handsome than he was. The women were also identical looking and resembled nothing so much as the most perfect blonde haired blue-eyed Playboy bunny of the year that Hugh Hefner had ever airbrushed into existence. The one hundred or so of them were all identically clad in what resembled long blue and white choir robes, tight fitting powder blue pants and soft black boots and they all seemed to smile softly to themselves as they went about their business. He had a feeling that all of them were watching him even though none of them ever made direct eye contact with him. He might have looked at them longer had it not be for the clearing of a gravelly mucus rich voice in the shadows behind him.
            “What have you got for sale?” the unseen voice inquired.
            “Nothing.” The old man replied.
            “Then why did you stand in line for all of that time?” growled the voice as the unseen man moved forward in his chair and was illuminated by a stray shaft of light.
            The old man was freaked out by how much this person resembled the great character actor Ed Asner. He was chomping on the butt of a cigar and had on a pair of plaid suspenders.
            “I live across the street and I was just curious about your place. I assume you sell calendars here or something like that don’t you?”
            “Yeah, something like that at least sometimes under the right circumstances. What’s your name?”
            The old man told him his full name even though he wasn’t sure why he did so then the other man disappeared into the shadow’s depths again. The old man then heard the sound of pages being turned as the other man mumbled to himself.
            After a long while he said, “Yes, you’re here and right on time. We have exactly what you need. It will cost you all the cash you have on you and here’s how it works. We are going to give you something in a minute and tonight before you go to sleep take the calendar page or portion thereof and place it under your pillow. This works out best if you start out real slow and you really should begin with the first day that you met Marl Lee Roberts… that is why you want to do this isn’t it?’       
            The old man just nodded yes, stunned by how surrealistic and unexpected all this was.
            “If it works for you, you can come back for more. You’re preapproved according to my ledger here. Now how much cash are you carrying on you today?”
            The old man took out his wallet and retrieved the hundred and forty-seven dollars that was in it and put it on the shadowy desk in front of him.
“Yes, this is more than enough to get you started.” He said then he got on the fuzzed out loud speaker in front of him and called out for Marhariel and one of the Fabio clones came forward and led the old man deep into the warehouse where he retrieved a complete calendar page and three partial sections too.
            Marhariel put his hand on the old man’s shoulder and smiled in a sincere way when he handed them to him. Too stunned by all this to think straight the old man floated out of the place on numb feet and somehow without conscious thought found himself back in his sequestered rooms. Being exhausted he immediately prepared the calendar pages on his bed as the other man had instructed him to and fell upon it still fully clothed. As he drifted off something about the segue into the past reminded him of the same rush and thrill he got whenever he watched his DVD of the musical version of the Phantom of the Opera as directed by Joel Schumacher where the disfigured crooner sailed through the Paris sewers on his gondola boat. The past of course turned out to be the past and what it once was and will always be but it was also at the same time pulsatingly pristine and brand new to him as he relived it all once again.
            The first day naturally enough that he re-experienced was when he began work at Knott’s Berry Farm. Now he had been hired for minimum wage to work less than fulltime at night guarding the amusement park’s parking lots and making sure that fence jumpers did not get into the place for free. The work was alternately way too boring or way too exciting for his taste but since he had just gotten married and what he had majored in at college didn’t translate into too much in the real world he had to make a living. He liked a lot of the other guys that he worked with doing this but one in particular seemed to gravitate to him. He was exactly his age, was married and had a small baby daughter and was moonlighting at this job from his fulltime work in a hospital laundry. Unlike the old man he had been hired because his mother-in-law and brother-in-law were both long time employees of the place.
At first the old man hadn’t know what to make of this rotund little man from Texas with the bad teeth and glasses and wiry hair and mustache because he really had never been very sociable even as a child and had never had any very deep or long term friendships with other men or boys but there was something about Marl Lee Roberts that won him right over and made him come to regard him as the brother he had never had. For one thing they pretty much seemed to like all the same things. Then there was the fact that he found that he was comfortable in saying anything that came into his head to Marl who acted like he was honestly interested in hearing it and so he wound up taking him into his complete confidence and telling him things that one would only tell their own priest or minister.
 Then there was the fact that Marl was honestly the most generous person he had ever encountered. He literally would do anything for the old man to help him out at anytime and at any place and he never asked for anything in return or even brought it up after he did it. Because of all this the old man and his wife and the Roberts family became very close very fast which was especially fortuitous since about six months into all this the old man’s wife became pregnant un-expectantly with their first child. All of that was very disorientating to the old man and he literally couldn’t have gotten through it without Marl’s constant encouragement and many acts of helpfulness through it all. This relationship burned brightly for about six more months after his first son was born and then needing better employment for his growing family the old man went fulltime doing roustabout work for the state school district and as happens despite either side not wanting it to the two fast friends drifted apart due to lack of proximity. 
A decade passed during which another son was born and due to extreme dissatisfaction with the school district work the old man pursued his real passion which was to be a writer of comic books. He was just in the earliest stages of making this come true when one day he took his family out to Disneyland where they had year round passes and they by chance met on Tom Sawyer’s Island there Marl and his family who had also added a son to his kin. All was wonderful once again and it was if they had never drifted apart and Marl became instrumental in helping the old man make his writing career happen including driving him hundreds of miles sometimes to meet people and go to such places as the San Diego Comic Con and Disney and Paramount Studios, which was both vital and deeply appreciated as the old man never had driven a car nor ever would.
 Then another five years flashed by during which the families were inseparable and during which the old man drove himself so hard and fast achieving his writing goals that he shattered his health. During this time of sickness and confinement the ever active and gregarious Roberts clan drifted on to new concerns and as the old man’s family moved further away from where Marl lived in his mother-in-law’s rented house they once again lost touch.
This time being so distracted the old man didn’t give much thought to it and kept thinking that they would come back together again as they had in the past but his thoughts of Marl’s friendship were never far from him on a daily basis and as he graduated from writing comic books to writing short stories and poetry for publication a thinly disguised version of Marl crept into a series that he wrote on a regular basis about an occult detective in the 1970’s.The old writer’s children grew up during his time and moved on and at some point after that his wife grew tired of him and so he found himself single once again.
He tried living in a couple of different places then settled into his current address where he occupied most of his waking hours producing his literary endeavors while pretty much cut off from the rest of the world. Through it all he was hoping for one more reunion with Marl and would have settled even for a simple phone conversation with him but somehow despite the old man’s best efforts that never came to be and then with the accidental discovery of Robert’s death certificate online all hope of that was forever erased this side of the other side.  Something about learning this had a very bad physical effect on the old man and his health and it literally became as if he felt himself slowly fading from existence. Now each new day he felt like he was becoming more and more of a ghost and he actually embraced the idea of that. Through it all he even more intensely sought out the comfort of the calendar shop and the pleasant memories of his friendship with Marl in better days that were available there.
            It was in the coldest part of that winter that he realized that his end was near but that didn’t hold much fear for him. He took great solace in how kind and caring the old Ed Asner look alike was and then one day “Ed” came out from behind the desk and put a fatherly arm around him. He escorted him away from the front of the building into a golden buttery shaft of light and whispered quietly into his ear, “I think you’ve known for a long time who we really are and what this place really is. Tonight you will pass over in your sleep. I think that you might want to go into one of these calendar days and stay there forever. Correct me if I’m wrong about that.”
            The old man who could barely talk just nodded yes. He now realized that he could only travel back into the past via calendar one last time and that he would never be able to return again to the real world after he did so. The basic idea of that didn’t bother him much and his recent reunions with Marl during which they had relived the totality of their deep friendship had been more then satisfying the second time around. But yet which of those many good days would he want to be encased within forever? Then it dawned on him and he went and spent his last dime in the world on a calendar square that said January 8, 1983. Like he had done before he placed it under his pillow and went to sleep only this was a deeper and even more profound sleep than any of the others or of any other sleep he had ever experienced or had ever heard of before. He awoke in his and his wife’s bed back in the apartment that they and their young sons shared. All was as it was back then. Donna and his sons had already gone visiting her parents and as he well knew Marl was already on the way to pick him up so that they could go aluminum canning together. The old man pulled on some scrougey old work clothes and ate a handful of bologna and American cheese which he washed down with Royal Crown cola which he drank from the large bottle in their refrigerator and then Marl arrived. The old man brought along his homemade can picker which was two interconnected steel tubes that could be telescoped out from one another and which ended in a long bent out coat hanger. He also brought along several large red potato sacks that were perfect for keeping cans and deposit bottles in. Marl and he had decided to check out a far away beach to see what treasures lay there because everyone had told them that it was chockfull of such items. All the way there they had chatted happily about everything under the sun especially their future plans as they listened to the oldies station K-Earth 101 and grooved on the good old rock and roll from the fifties and sixties that it played.
            Now none of Marl’s cars was ever much to look at and the one he had that day was no exception but it felt to the old man like he was riding in the finest of stretch limos. Before long they were at the beach and it was a perfect salty gray day there and the place felt tangy and bracing. The delicious smells of the previous evening’s barbeque pits made the air pregnant and mouthwatering. The cawing of the seagulls was in perfect synch with the rhythm of the pounding surf. Marl and the old man were like kids again. All their cares were far away from them as they picked up bottles and aluminum cans and odd bits of bric-a-brac that caught their fancy. In a very short few hours they had almost more than Marl could take away in his car. On the way home the old man knew with every cell of his body that they would stop for simple fish sandwiches, malts and onion rings at McDonalds and then would visit several used book shops and comic book stores. Then they would go back to Marl’s funky rented house where both their families would be waiting to join them for an evening of Marl’s “burnt bernie” hot dogs cooked on his scorching  portable barbeque. This would be followed by a night spent watching newly released VHS’s that their wives had rented for them.
All seemed right with the world because there was still so much time ahead of them, time to have fun time before they would have to grow old, time to accomplish all that they hoped to achieve and as Marl’s mother was often quoted by him as saying “And it was good” as good as anything could be and truly all of this was Heaven for it would now never have to end and would keep on recycling itself through all of eternity like an aluminum can picked up on a perfect beach by the two best friends that there ever were.

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