"Is this the Shadow?" Jack said, holding up the cellophane envelope. "I mean, the Shadow?"
The sixtyish guy behind the counter—lank hair, three-day stubble, ratty brown cardigan—looked annoyed as he brought it close to his smeared glasses and squinted at the label. Jack wondered how he saw anything through them.
"If it says ‘genuine glow in the dark Shadow ring,' which it does, then that's what it is."
Attracted by the BACK-DATE MAGAZINES sign, Jack had wandered into this narrow, coffin-sized store off Times Square. The place seemed to specialize in Life magazine and had moldy issues piled to the ceiling. Jack had been curious to see if the place stocked any old pulps. It did, but only a few, and those had disconcerting titles like Ranch Romances and Fifteen Love Stories. None of the Black Mask types he was hunting for. But tucked in among the yellowed, flaking issues he'd found the ring.
The white plastic body was shaped like the Shadow on each side—Jack could even make out a .45 Colt semiauto in one hand—but the stone set in the top was bright blue and shaped like Gibraltar.
"But this looks nothing like the Shadow's girasol ring."
The guy stared at him. "Do you even know what a girasol is?"
This seemed to take him by surprise. "Okay. Point for you. What are you—eighteen?"
Jack didn't react. He got this all the time. "You're half a dozen short."
"Coulda fooled me. But still a kid. How does a twenty-four-year-old like you know about the Shadow's girasol ring?"
"Read a few old issues."
"That's the pulp Shadow. The character started on radio, sponsored by a company called Blue Coal. That blue plastic ‘stone' there is supposed to be a chunk of blue coal."
Jack was thinking it was just about the neatest thing he'd seen in a long time.
"And it glows in the dark too?"
"That's what it says. Never tested it."
"That'll be a bargain next year after the movie comes out."
"The Shadow. Gonna star Alec Baldwin, I hear."
Jack remembered him from The Hunt for Red October. Yeah, he had the look for the Lamont Cranston part.
"So if I'm tired of it next year you'll buy it back for more?"
"Can't promise that. Can't even promise I'll be here, what with Disney moving in."
News to Jack.
"Word is they're negotiating a ninety-nine-year lease on the Amsterdam."
"Donald Duck on the Deuce? No way."
"Everybody's scared shitless because it'll be proof that the Times Square cleanup every mayor since LaGuardia's been talking about is gonna happen, and you know what that means."
Jack pushed aside a vision of Minnie Mouse in hot pants saying, "Hiya, sailor."
"Rents through the roof. Guys like me forced out, moving over to Hell's Kitchen or farther downtown or just closing up and walking away."
"Oh, no! Where will people go for their copies of Ranch Romances?"
His eyes narrowed behind the grimy lenses. "You a wiseass?"
Jack could see the guy was genuinely worried. He thought about boxing up and moving all those copies of Life and regretted the remark.
"Sometimes the mouth runs ahead of the brain."
"People get in trouble that way."
"Tell me about it."
He forked over a Jackson. The guy slipped it into his pocket and didn't ask for sales tax. Fine.
Jack walked out with his treasure and slipped it onto his pinky finger. He ambled east toward Times Square, thinking not of the Shadow but of Disney instead.
What he remembered most about Disney World from the couple of times his folks had taken him there during the seventies was how clean it had been. Could that happen here? Times Square was anything but clean, and 42nd Street even less so. But grime and kitsch and porn and fringe people were part of the ambience. Take that away and replace it with a bunch of high-end chain stores and what did you have? You had a freaking mall. Might as well move back to Jersey.
As he crossed Duffy Square and headed up Seventh Avenue, he realized the writing had been on the wall for a couple of years now, ever since the state started buying up properties along the Deuce, especially the old theaters.
Plus ça change…?
Jack doubted it.
If the magazine guy was right about the Amsterdam, then change was sure as hell coming and, as far as Jack was concerned, not for the better. Well, better if you were a landlord, but no way for a small businessman. Things would not, as the saying went, stay the same. All the quirky little stores and all the quirky people who frequented them and all the quirky people who ran them were going to go the way of the Neanderthals.
His growing dark mood about the end of an era was blown away by the sight of a familiar face trying to hail a cab across the street from the Winter Garden. She was talking on a mobile phone as she waved her arm.
She turned and, for an instant, looked not-so-pleasantly surprised. Then she smiled. "Jack! How nice to see you!"
They shared a quick, slightly awkward hug.
He pointed to her phone—one of the new smaller versions. Unlike the older brick-size models with the big antenna, these could fit in a pocket. He noticed NOKIA under the oblong screen.
"Up with the latest technology, I see."
"I looove this thing! It's made my life so easy. No more looking for a pay phone."
He gave her a lopsided grin and cocked his head toward the Winter Garden marquee. "Going to see Cats?"
Their fling thing had lasted two years and during that whole period the only time they'd been to a theater was to see Penn & Teller. Cristin had ended it. She hadn't called it quits, per se, more like weaned them off each other. They used to get together every Sunday—every single Sunday—but last fall she'd started begging off with increasingly lame excuses until Jack got the message.
She may have engineered the actual parting, but Jack had been the reason. They'd gone into the relationship with the understanding that they'd get together one day a week and be friends with benefits, nothing more. Cristin had been very strict about not wanting strings and Jack had been all for it. At least at first. Along the way he became attached and started wanting more. But Cristin wasn't looking for more. She liked things just the way they were and wouldn't bend.
Jack had suffered through the process of attenuation, but after clearing the air at an official breakup lunch between Christmas and New Year's, they'd parted friends.
Seeing Cristin again for the first time in weeks made him realize he was still carrying a torch for her.
"You've let your hair grow," he said.
She had a roundish face, dark hair, blue eyes, and a bright smile that always made him want to smile too. She wore her fur-lined raincoat.
"Can I see?"
"You still getting off on that?"
"I don't know about getting off…"
She rolled her eyes, did a quick turn, and lifted her hair. She had one tattoo and it decorated her nape: a Sumerian symbol known as ama-gi.
He caught the briefest glimpse, and then she dropped her hair.
"I was heading for a late lunch…" he began.
"Oh, I'd love to, Jack, but I've got to get down to FIT. I have a class."
Years ago she'd dropped out of the Fashion Institute to work full time for an event planning operation called Celebrations. The job kept her hopping all over the city, but she still wanted her degree and took one course a semester to keep herself moving toward it.
"Tomorrow then? Or Thursday?"
He hoped he didn't sound desperate. He didn't feel desperate … he simply wanted to spend a little time with her.
She gave him a long look. "Just lunch?"
"Two old friends from high school sharing food and small talk."
She smiled. "That sounds great. Dutch, right?"
She'd always insisted on paying her share and, since Jack wasn't exactly flush these days, that was a good thing. Cristin, on the other hand, made excellent money planning events.
But where to eat?
Apparently she already had an idea. "I found a cool little French place on East Sixty-first called Le Pistou."
Jack made a face. "Really? What's choice number two?"
"But you like French."
"I do." He could eat just about anything, even snails. "But I don't know if I could eat at a place called Piss Stew."
"It's vegetable soup."
He held up his hands. "Stop. You're only making it worse."
"You'll never change," she said through a laugh. "Thursday's good. Meet there noonish?"
He hailed her a cab and one pulled over right away.
"But just for lunch," she said as he held the door for her.
"Of course. We broke up, remember?"
"I do. But you don't know why."
That took him by surprise. "I thought it was because I was getting too attached."
"No. I was."
She gave him a quick kiss on the cheek then slipped into the cab. He shook his head as he watched it weave down Seventh.
Cristin, Cristin, Cristin …
Despite her paranoia about strings, she seemed happy with where she was in her life. He didn't know anybody else like that. That didn't mean she was going to stay put. He knew she was three years into a five-year plan that involved socking away every extra cent for now and eventually opening her own boutique to sell her original designs.
She was also happy with who she was. Jack wondered what that felt like.
He'd read something from Wilde last year and his brain had attached it to Cristin: Most people are other people. Their thoughts are someone else's opinions, their lives a mimicry, their passions a quotation. Not because Wilde had been describing Cristin, but because it was so not Cristin. He didn't know anyone who thought like Cristin. She danced to her own tune and to hell with what everyone else was playing.
He missed her.
When her cab disappeared into the traffic crush he turned and continued his uptown ramble.
Okay, the week was looking better, even if it involved a French restaurant in the East Sixties. How bad could lunch be? Twenty bucks apiece? Thirty?
Yeah, his resources had dwindled. Perhaps he'd been too generous in his flush days. He didn't regret it, though. He lived a simple life. His two major expenses were rents: on his apartment and on the garage space for Ralph. Other than that, he lived on junk food and beer.
His fix-it business hadn't exactly taken off. He collected a fee now and again, but the jobs were sporadic. Nothing he could count on. So he'd been supplementing his income as a waiter in a hole-in-the-wall West Village trattoria that paid him under the table. Perhaps "paid" was a euphemism—a teeny fraction of minimum wage—but the tips were good. Everybody had heard Dylan's "Positively 4th Street" and all the tourists flocked to West 4th when they visited the Village. Trattoria Villagio waited there to provide drinks and light fare when they took a break from prowling the specialty shops.
He checked his watch. Lots of time to kill before meeting a prospective customer at Julio's. Maybe he'd grab a Whopper and train over to Brooklyn to check on an investment.
Copyright © 2014 by F. Paul Wilson