Look, there he is. His hair flowing in the air, or at least the half mullet that’s sticking out from underneath his baseball cap, as he rolls down the hill on his Persian green bike, a Peugeot. He’s on his way to … well, nowhere to be honest. He just hopped on his bike and rode around for a while, and here he is now, a walkman clipped to the waist of his shorts, listening to music and taking in a perfect summer’s day. Just as comes to the edge of town and rides by the car dealership he’ll buy his first car from a couple of years later, he hears computer making beeps and bleeps.
He puts his hands back on the handlebar and turns up the volume. He’s never really listened to the song before.
“Good evening. This is the intergalactic operator. Can I help you?” “Yes. I’m trying to reach flight commander P.R. Johnson, on Mars, flight 2-4-7”
Since I was a writer, it was easy for me to put aside some time to solve the mystery. I called it “research” to silence my guilty conscience, which wasn’t that guilty to begin with. After all, I was “between projects”, the creative term for being unemployed.
Now, when I said that he was always at the mall during Christmas, I was using the phrase in a casual way. I obviously meant that he was there every time I was therebut surely he couldn’t have always been there. It was a shopping mall, he couldn’t live there.
Sollentuna is a 15-minute commuter train ride from downtown Stockholm, Sweden, with a population of about 70,000. We had everything: fancy restaurants, middle-of-the-road restaurants, pubs, a mall, public swimming pool, gyms, grocery stores, teams in all sports divisions, trains and buses to – and with the arrival of the old man, a celebrity.
A celebrity that didn’t seem to like publicity, as it was. The next time I saw him was a year later when he set up his table and chairs in the middle of our mall and traded stories with people until Christmas Eve. Then he disappeared – only to return a year later.
What you’re about to hear is a true story, but at the very beginning, I didn’t know that. I didn’t even know it was the beginning of a story. You never know when a story begins.
I was on the treadmill at my gym, in Sollentuna, Sweden, a suburb of Stockholm, staring down through the large windows that opened over the mall, trying to outrun my writer’s block. In case you’re wondering: you can’t outrun a writer’s block. And you can’t outrun a bill collector who’s after you because you can’t pay your therapist. The one you need because you can’t work – because you have a writer’s block.
I know some people think that video store clerks are losers, that they’re kids, or punks, with basically no lives or friends, and that they walk through life dressed in clothes that push whatever movie is being pushed at the time and speak in movie quotes.
Fine, right now, I’m wearing a black T-shirt and a baseball cap with “The Heat Is On!” printed on them because we’re pushing Beverly Hills Cop.
The slogan’s particularly funny right now because it’s minus-25 outside. How cold is minus-25? It’s so cold that when you stand at the bus stop and don’t blink for a while, you don’t seem to be able to shut your eyes anymore. It’s so cold that when you inhale through your nose, your nostrils seem to get glued shut.
Both things happened to me when I walked from the bus station to work to our store just a few blocks away.
Once upon a time, she had been a wunderkind. An overachiever, a go-getter. She had graduated from high school a year ahead of time, and then joined the foreign office as a 20-year-old, and in another time, she would have been on track to become the youngest foreign minister in her country’s history, and probably, the youngest prime minister, and possibly, the first female prime minister.
But not in the Seventies, maybe not even in the Eighties, although after Thatcher in the UK, there were some rumblings – in the circles that were in the know – about her becoming a cabinet member, but by then, she was too far into her diplomatic life overseas, and loved it too much to put in the effort to make it happen. She had her supporters, of course, but not enough of them at the very top.
Also, she had always been one of those people who saw the whole world, not just one country, as her domain, and when she at the age of 24 got her first foreign posting – an undersecretary in Asia – she saw it as a stepping stone to … something.
He knew it right away, the second he got out of the taxi and saw the footprints in the snow. He had expected to see footprints in the snow, yes, because his wife was walking in front of him – while he carried their luggage.
He didn’t like seeing his wife’s footprints in the snow, either, but he had stopped raising the issue a long time ago. She just didn’t think it was important, not like he did. On the other hand, he didn’t think vacuuming was important. She did. For example.
“We don’t laugh because we’re happy, we’re happy because we laugh.”
― William James, 19th century American philosopher, doctor, and psychologist
Patient Zero was riding the subway. Well, her name was Jessica Serow and she was neither sick nor very patient. If anything, she was impulsive which is why it was surprising that the whole chain of events started with her reading a book. A book! That alone would make anyone who knew her laugh, but it wasn’t what made her laugh. No, what made her chuckle was something she read. She was alone that day which is why she was reading in the first place. She knew better than to read in company.
(What it was that she read has been speculated wildly. Some say it was P.G. Wodehouse, others talk about an IKEA catalogue.)