Outside, the rain had just stopped.
The suitcase at Feller’s feet had one-thousand dollars in it. No one in the bus station could tell from looking that the boxy case held his future in neatly wrapped and stacked twenty-dollar bills. He was wearing his best suit for the first time in twenty years, and it still bore the tired smell of the prison store room.
Feller could do a lot of things with a thousand dollars. So many choices weighed on his mind that Feller hadn’t moved for the twenty minutes since the pale man had given him an envelope full of cash and had hopped on a bus back to Omaha. Feller smiled slightly every time he thought about the pale man. Twenty years ago he had shot a man for less than one hundred fifty dollars from a liquor store cash register, and now his own name had earned him a thousand dollars. Without even making eye contact, the pale man had handed over the cash, slid Bob Feller into a Plexiglas sheath, and re-entered the same bus that brought him.
People milled past Feller’s polished wooden bench, multiplying, dividing, and adding together like so many digits as they flowed up and down the worn flight of stairs. All of them ignored Feller and the future sitting encased at his feet.
The sight of the people and the features of the bus station were so vivid that they gave Feller a headache. After twenty years of numb imprisonment, he could find religion in peeling paint. Comparatively, the life that swirled around him was overwhelming.
Equally confounding, and no help for his headache, was the thought of what he would do with his money. There were more things a person could do with a thousand dollars than there were things a person could not do with a thousand dollars.
Feller had a sister in Houston. She sent him letters every Christmas while he was in prison. Every year he would get a different card. The only thing she ever wrote in the cards was her name. Twenty consecutive years and all he knew of what was going on in her life was what color ink she used. She never wrote a return address, but the canceled stamp always read “Houston.” If he could take a bus down and find her, she might give him a place to stay while he decided what to do with his money.
Earlier, just before his meeting with the pale man, Feller stopped in at a bookstore across the street from the bus station. He first noticed the bookstore because of the ornate iron bars draped rigidly over the windows and door, and when he saw the books inside, he felt as if he had been called in out of the rain. He had learned to read while in prison, but he had never set foot inside a bookstore in his life.
He could smell the old books before he got past the tiny foyer, and for an instant he thought he might vomit. He looked back outside at the bus station tower clock. The hands stirred in misery and died in slow terror within each second. He had some time before the four o’clock bus arrived and no reason not to go into the store.
The wooden floorboards groaned under Feller’s feet as he entered the squarish main room. It had been twenty years since he had walked across anything except dirt or concrete, and he felt self-conscious as he creaked toward the middle of the room. Book-laden folding-tables cluttered the central area of the store, looking as if they might collapse under the weight. Three of the walls were literally covered with books. The bottom row of books sat on the floor, and the top row nuzzled the tiled ceiling. Bird cages of all sizes, each holding a single bird, dominated the fourth wall. All of the birds stared at Feller curiously, none of them making noise. In the back corners, large iron candelabras lazily sweated white wax. The scent of the wax mingled with the smell of the books, and the smoke from the candles made the room seem slightly out-of-focus. Heavy ceramic busts of ancient men sat randomly amidst the piles of books, each trapped in a grotesque moment of resolve or reflection. Whenever he turned, at least one bust glazedly stared at him with smooth eyes.
Feller walked nervously to a wall and looked at the books. He had never before seen so many all at once, and he could not focus on just one. Glancing around him, he pulled a book at random from an eye-level shelf. He shifted his feet and the floor creaked.
He opened the book, listening to the floor. A childhood memory, so old and obscured that it might have been a dream, stuttered behind Feller’s eyes as he stared at the words in the book. He recalled climbing two flights of stairs in an ancient house to tour a private museum with his aunt. He could not remember what was inside the museum. All he could remember was that one corner of the museum was blocked off because the floor was too weak for people to stand on. It was a danger more curiously terrifying than he had ever before imagined in his young mind. His aunt kept him on the safe floorboards, but the groaning noises of the floor teased him with each step, telling him that the wood was just an illusion, that his next step might send him crashing through to the uncertainty below.
“Stupid!” came an amplified, childlike voice, jerking him from his thoughts. He took a step back and dropped the book. “Stupid!” came the voice again from below him. Feller looked down and saw a large, salmon-colored cockatoo with its head tilted to one side, staring up at him with one eye.
“I reckon my little store saved you this time.” Feller looked up and saw a woman standing behind the counter beyond the bird-cages. “You might be fooling around in that rainstorm if it weren’t for me and my little nook.” She smiled. Dull gray orthodontic braces covered her teeth. Feller felt his face grow warm as he looked at the woman’s mouth. The braces made her look like a sickly teenager. Embarrassed, he looked back down at the bird, which was still staring at him. “That’s Pericles. Don’t you mind him,”
“Stupid!” squawked Pericles.
“I don’t think he’s a very good judge of character,” the woman continued. “He calls almost everybody stupid. Even me. He’s forty years old. That’s six years older than me. I’d bet he’s seen more than me, too.” Some of the woman’s words didn’t sound quite right as they whistled through her braces.
Feller picked up the book he had dropped and returned it to the shelf. “All those on the wall are fiction. I arranged them using my own system. Nobody can figure it out. I bet you can’t either. That’s okay, though, because then people just ask me, and I can find exactly the book they want.”
Feller looked at the woman and wasn’t sure if he should say anything. She kept on talking. “My name is Nancy, and this is my store. I started working here when I was seventeen. I worked for an old lady named Cynthia for ten years, and then she died and willed the place to me. I live upstairs now, and so does Cynthia. She’s cremated and in a
vase. That might sound a little strange to you, but we have it cozy up there. I tell you, no one has anything until they settle down with what they got.”
Pericles cocked his eye over at Nancy. “Stupid!”
“Why isn’t this bird in a cage?” Feller said finally.
The woman seemed surprised by the question. “Oh, he won’t stand to live in a cage. Last time I tried to cage him he almost died to spite me. Wouldn’t eat a thing. Sometimes he even goes outside. He just stands by the door whenever he wants to leave. I have to let him out. If I don’t, he gets mad and shits all over. He ruined an old Russian Bible once. So I let him do as he pleases. He gets out more than I do.”
Feller stared at the woman, then looked over at the rainy, fathomless outside beyond the caged birds and the barred windows. For a moment, he was disgusted by her. He wanted to tell her to reach over and strangle the arrogant pink bird and walk outside with him and stand in the rain until they both collapsed of pneumonia.
Across the street, the bus station tower clock began to ring. It was four o’clock. At the sound of the first chime, all of the pensive little caged birds in the front window suddenly began to shriek and wrench themselves together, coming to life in a single, howling din.
Feller was startled and, in a moment, terrified. He lurched into the bookshelf, his mind blank. “Those damn birds have flipped their lids,” he shouted in exasperation. At the sound of the last chime, the birds abruptly stopped their shrieking.
“Stupid!” shrieked Pericles, who had been silent during the ringing.
“They didn’t flip their lids. They sing like that every hour when the clock rings. It keeps them sane, all locked up in their cages. You’d do the same thing if you were cooped up all day hearing that clock ring every hour.”
Feller was going to tell the woman that it didn’t sound at all like singing to him, but then he remembered it was time to sell his name at the bus station.
“Come back soon,” the woman had said as he turned to leave.
“Stupid!” squawked Pericles.
Feller thought of the arrogant bird as he examined the details of the bus depot. Guarding the bottom of the staircase stood two pale statues of wood nymphs, grinning closer and closer like drowning sleep. Tall and plain, godly fluted, they were lifeless save only for their beauty. They lorded over the bustling staircase and the destination of each passenger.
The nymphs grinned at everything. They grinned at the buses coming around and pulling out. They grinned at the tickets being purchased. They grinned at the men following stairs into blank holes. All the motion of the depot ran past the foot of the stairs like enciphered clockwork, smooth and perpetual. The nymphs found it terribly amusing.
Feller watched a man with yellow hair and a green jacket carrying a brown suitcase with a red handle. The man skipped two stairs at a time, fading into the shadows. Another man shuffled down the stairs with small, bounding steps. He wore a strange black tin-box hat and carried no suitcase. He grinned at the statues, as if he shared their joke.
Feller began to feel vaguely lonely watching the men walk by and the buses come in and pull away from the depot. He wanted to leave the large, crowded hall, take his suitcases outside, and wait for the rain to come again.
Feller wanted to grin back, to taunt the nymphs. For an instant, he thought that he might just buy a bus ticket at random and ride to some unplanned destination and take things from there. He closed his eyes and imagined himself riding on the bus. He could use the money to start over anywhere. He saw the bus moving with him inside. The trip was easy, over in an instant. But when the doors of the bus opened, Feller saw that they opened into the sky, and that the sky went down. He saw himself stumbling off the bus, his suitcase dragging him like a cinder block into the sky. The sky went down, and he was headed for the bottom. The bottom was everywhere.
Falling, his eyes closed, Feller could sense the nymphs tittering. They were mocking him. He did not look at them when he opened his eyes. He bent down, lifted his suitcase onto his lap and opened it. Neatly stacked and boxed inside were all of his possessions. Roughly half of them had been boxed up in the prison storeroom for the last twenty years.
Feller vividly remembered checking into the prison years ago, handing everything over to the indifferent storeroom clerk. The guards made him stand behind a yellow line five feet from the counter. He had to lean to the counter precariously and hand his personal items over one at a time.
“One tin-plated cigarette container, empty,” the chubby white-haired clerk said in a bored voice. “One ring of keys, assorted. One leather wallet, black, empty…”
The last item Feller handed the clerk before signing his name to the inventory form was a 1939 baseball card. The player on the front of the card looked vaguely concerned about something, and the caption read “Bob Feller.” Feller had bought the card from a friend in grade school for two cents. He didn’t care much for baseball, and he didn’t know who Bob Feller was, but he liked the idea of having his name printed out on his own card. It made a good joke when he showed it to people. It made his name seem like good luck.
After the liquor store owner died from the gunshot wound, Feller’s name was not so lucky any more. He rarely thought of the baseball card in prison. Earlier that morning, the storeroom clerk had caught him off-guard when he mentioned it.
“You gonna sell that Feller?” asked the clerk. The chubby, bored man had been replaced by a gangly kid with long, hairless forearms.
“Am I gonna sell what?” Feller asked.
“The Feller.” The clerk gave him a friendly, intent look. He didn’t seem to be in a hurry to start the checkout process.
The clerk gave him a jovial look of exasperation. “You forgot about that baseball card? It has our own name on it.”
Feller realized what he was talking about. “Why, do you want it?”
The clerk let out a snorting laugh. “You think I have that much money?”
Feller had not caught on, yet. “You don’t have any money?”
The clerk paused, eyeing Feller. “Not a thousand dollars.”
“That card is worth a thousand?”
“That’s what my price guide says. I called my brother about it this morning. He’s gotta huge collection, and he goes to all those conventions. I bet he’d buy it off you. Give you cash.”
Feller looked down at the yellow line on the cement. His prison investment had paid off unexpectedly. His name was good luck again.
“If I called my brother now, he could get on a bus and meet you in town by this afternoon. He’ll pay in cash.”
“Cash, mister. No strings or nothing. You want me to call him?” Feller shrugged. The clerk grinned and scampered off into the back room, leaving all of Feller’s possessions sitting unchecked on the counter. Feller stood silently behind the line, not sure what to do. A few minutes later the clerk leaned out, his baseball card price guide dangling in one hand. “He’s offering a thousand even. Cash.”
The clerk disappeared for a few more minutes and finally came back out, holding a scrap of paper. “He’ll be here this afternoon at four. All the bus information is on this paper. You know how to get to the bus station?” Feller shook his head, and the clerk scribbled directions on the back of the scrap of paper. “There you go,” he said, handing the paper to Feller. “You’re just a few hours from being a rich man.”
Feller put the paper in his pocket. “What about my things?”
The clerk looked confused for a second, then let out another snorting laugh. “I forgot! Here you go.” The clerk slid the box of possessions to the edge of the counter and plunked a suitcase down beside it. “All yours, now.”
Uncertainly, Feller kept his feet behind the yellow line and leaned for his belongings.
The nymphs grinned at Feller as he stared down into his suitcase. One corner of the suitcase was dominated by two black items of equal size which he could barely tell apart at a glance. One was a thick Bible, which he had read once he learned how. “God’s in there,” his cell-mate had told him once. Feller found no reason to disbelieve him.
The other item was a black Panasonic tape recorder, which he had bought in prison after saving up for several years. He didn’t have any music for it, so he used it to record his own voice. Nearly every day he would talk into the machine, recording his voice over and over onto the same thirty-minute cassette tape.
There wasn’t much to say about his activities, so he recorded his thoughts. He told the boxy machine about his past and his crime and his sins. He told it what he thought about the food and the other inmates and the things he had read in the Bible. He hoped to someday start writing down the things he had said on the tape, but he never got confident with his writing skills. His thoughts were trapped in the black machine, doomed to be erased and re-erased by new ones.
Feller talked to the tape recorder more than he did to any of the inmates. The boxy machine became part of a serene daily ritual for him. Each day he would reduce his universe into a rhythmic monotone and play it back. Any fear that entered his universe could simply be rewound and replayed until it bled familiar and wasn’t fear anymore.
Feller pulled the tape recorder from the suitcase, rewound the tired tape, and pressed the play button.
“Hello Robert Feller,” came a tinny-sounding, German -accented voice. “Goodbye Robert Feller. You and I, we know each other.”
Feller smiled. Karl, his cellmate, had left him a farewell message. The message ended abruptly, and Feller’s own voice suddenly came on, droning about cold air, the God that lived in the Bible, and breakfast. He pressed the stop button.
Karl rarely talked and was about as good a cell-mate as Feller could ask for. Karl was a tall German with a strange smell on his breath and a dark, wrinkled face. He had served in the German infantry during World War II, was taken prisoner by a U.S. division late in the war, and interned in a POW camp on the Nebraska plains. He decided to stay after the war, since his native Dresden had burned and fallen to the Soviets. Two months after his naturalization ceremony, he shot and killed three people in broad Nebraska daylight with a bolt-action rifle. He gave no explanation for his actions, and he had no possibility of
Karl stood stiff and straight at the front of his cell whenever the prison guards marched by, clicking his heels and saluting them. For this, they gave him a broom to sweep out the foot-tracks in the hall. Hardly anyone ever trailed any mud in, but Karl kept sweeping. The
guards gave him twenty-five cents in nickels every week for his work, and he would tell them of his plans to put a new roof on the guard house.
When Feller first moved in with Karl, the old German wordlessly presented him with a heavy gold pocket watch. Feller discovered that Karl regarded possessions with indifference. The only items Karl cared about were the old black and white pictures of Dresden that he kept taped to the wall. He stared at the pictures for hours, speaking in German. For him, the cell was Dresden, and Dresden was home. The modern European city that stood in place of Dresden was a kinetic snapshot that meant nothing to Karl.
Feller hit the record button on the machine, thinking he might say a few words about Karl. Nothing came to mind after a few moments, and he pressed the stop button. He put the tape recorder back into the suitcase and reached into a side pocket for Karl’s old pocket watch. Feller had never been able to get it to work properly. The hour hand had fallen off long ago, and it rattled around loosely under the crystal dome. The minute hand had stopped at twenty after the hour. The clock was predictable and safe, and gave the right time twenty-four times every day.
Feller slid the watch into the pocket of his jacket and closed the suitcase. He pulled a cigarette from the opposite pocket and stuck it into his mouth. He lit it with a match and blew a stream of gray toward the ceiling of the depot. He took the suitcase from his lap and set it back at his feet. Watching the activity around him, he sat and smoked, as free and dead as the fog. He wondered if the woman with the braces might give him a job at the bookstore. Even if she didn’t give him a job, he supposed he might be able to seduce her and live upstairs with her and the ashes of the old bookstore owner.
Feller came to the end of his cigarette and flicked the butt onto the depot floor. The tower clock began to ring, echoing like the fading shadow of sound through the bus station. Five o’clock. A cryptic fear in his stomach, Feller abruptly grabbed his suitcase. The nymphs grinned after him as he headed out onto the sidewalk.
The rainwater was already evaporating off the pavement, and the air hung heavily with humidity. Across the street, the birds were ending their hourly shriek as Nancy held the iron-barred door open for Pericles, who strutted out onto the sidewalk. Nancy looked up and waved at Feller. Feller did not want to look at the bird, and he went in the opposite direction.
The streets were nearly as busy as the bus station. Cars sputtered in the street, and people casually jostled one another on the sidewalk. As he walked, Feller noticed the deep red brick buildings and the glittering black asphalt and the clouds rolling across the sky. He
noticed women with children and women without children and women who looked more like men than women. He saw trees along the sidewalk and trees painted onto store signs and trees covering the hills along the horizon. He saw telephone wires and cars in need of repair and hotels with vacancies. He saw neon signs and empty shopping carts and spots of
blue in the sky that opened up like floorboards giving way under a great weight. Everything crowded past him so rapidly that he felt as if he were in a free-fall. He was headed for the bottom. The bottom was everywhere.
Feller stopped suddenly in front of a pawn shop. He shook the suitcase from his hand and pressed his palms against his head. Inside his palms, he sensed the tinny roar of the ocean. He closed his eyes and saw the waves breaking their way into the sky. He watched the water roll, rewind, and replay. He watched the bottom of the sky close in, and he saw what he was going to do with his money. Opening his eyes, he retrieved his suitcase and walked to the pawn shop.
Feller emerged from the pawn shop ten minutes later, a bulging paper sack clutched under his arm as he hefted his suitcase out the front door. Moving to the curb, he set the suitcase on the sidewalk and removed two flimsy cardboard boxes from the paper sack. Setting the smaller box onto the pavement, he bent down and opened his suitcase, placing the larger box, a colorful display case full of wax paper baseball card packets, next to his Bible.
He closed the suitcase, then opened the smaller box and took a dull silver pistol from the paper wadding. Feller removed the magazine clip from the grip of the gun. A balding man with a tiny rectangular radio pressed against one ear walked past, obviously perplexed, and stared at the pistol. Feller smiled when he saw the man’s reaction. He thought of Pericles and wondered if the pink bird might be watching him. Standing at the curb, he calmly loaded the clip with bullets he had slipped into his coat pocket back in the pawn shop. When the clip was full, he slid it into place, cocked a round into the chamber, and put the weapon into his pocket next to Karl’s watch.
Grinning like a nymph, Feller scanned the sidewalk up and down, watching the world roll, rewind, and replay into its blank holes. Leaving the empty gun box on the pavement, he picked up his suitcase and started to walk, hoping to make it home before it started raining again.
Photos courtesy http://www.cmgww.com/baseball/feller/photo.html