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Road Calls Me Dear

Mammoth Book of Tales from the Road, Maxim Jakubowski (Editor), M. Christian (Editor), Carroll & Graf

Two things inspired me to write this: Ian McDonald's Klingklangklatch, a graphic novel that is a tribute to Tom Waits, and Tom Waits' Asylum Years LP. It has all my favorite stuff: alien visitors and popculture trash.

Within a month of my taking over, the river Junque had provided me with a whole new wardrobe. I sold off anything that didn't fit, and what was left might have been tailored for me. It was pretty mismatched, coming from all over the world, bright and shiny and with designer labels. If I wanted to, and I did, I could wear a new high-fashion outfit every day. The only thing that stayed constant was the big jacket; I'd pulled it out of the river thinking it was a joke or something. But no, it was an exquisitely tailored blue sharkskin sports coat that was made for a man at least seven foot tall, and as big around as a beer keg. I had to roll up the sleeves, and the tails hung down almost to my knees, but I liked it anyway. The pockets were big.

Then it was time to open up. I dragged the sandwich board out to the river-bank and propped it up so that it faced the road: MR CORNUCOPIA'S BAZAAR OF EXQUISITE JUNQUE IS OPEN FOR BUSINESS!!! TOYS! CLOTHES! ELECTRONICS! GIMCRACK AND GEWGAW SUPPLIER TO THE STARS! BY APPOINTMENT TO HIS EXALTED MAJESTY, THE KING OF ZA�RE! I didn't know that Zaïre had a King, but it didn't matter; I liked the sound of it.

I kept the padlock keys with my money belt, and that money belt went where I did. I undid the three padlocks (the alien hadn't provided those, those I bought in town) and slid the metal doors up. I flicked on the cash register and pressed play on the CD player. It had a twelve-disc carousel; and I changed them from time to time, but usually I just forgot about it.

Opening up shop was a ritual for me. I did it all in the same order, every morning, and by the time I was finished, the methodical sameness had calmed me into a state that made it possible for me to face the day.

The first customers were type threes. The kid had started the classification system, and he kept a curling piece of paper taped to the wall behind the cash, with his illegible handwritten notes. Some of the classifications were easy to understand: White trash couple in a crappy Jap car, they buy stupid stuff. Some of the others I hadn't understood the difference between until I'd actually met them: Fat guy with little dog and Fat guy with big dog seemed pretty arbitrary, but once you saw them you knew there was a real difference. Some of them I never will understand: Guy who talks like the first Darren on Bewitched and Guy who talks like the second Darren on Bewitched.

Type threes were Old fart parents with pissed-off daughter (cute). Type fifty-eights were the same but daughter (ugly). I guess he didn't think to add fifty-eights until much later.

These threes looked like they were from somewhere in the midwest, him with a genuine red neck and beety cheeks, her wiry and hard, with chapped hands and pursed lips. Their daughter looked like the poster girl for Hillbilly Hussy, with cornsilk hair in a long loose braid, jeans cinched tight by a wide leather belt between flaring hips and flaring bustline, all firm and pouty. Her lips were inexpertly smeared with Harlot Red #8 lipstick.

The man went to the rack of guns, knives and porn videos I kept closest the counter. The woman pawed through dusty shelves full of ugly designer kitchenware. The daughter went to the electronics rack, like the kids always do, marveling at the compact sound-reproduction equipment that looked like racing cars. Her chewed fingernails brushed the eggshell finish of a top-of-the-line Sony Walkman, and she turned it over. Then she gasped at the price.

I love to watch their faces when they see the prices. They either look sly, figuring that the stuff is hot, or they look sly, figuring that I'm too stupid to know what I've got, or they look sly, figuring that they can screw their parents out of the money for whatever it is. I always look sly, because I know the truth: the stuff isn't hot, it's magicked here by an alien under torture by a crazy old man.

The threes left with the Walkman (half a c-note), a triangular chrome teapot (a fin), and a four-and-a-half-inch .22LR pocket pistol (a sawbuck). The money went into the till. Ka-ching!


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