Ever since the new Wal-Mart opened by the interstate, there wasn’t much for us to do except throw rocks at the old sock factory. Someone tried to get an Anklebiter football team going, but no adult we knew had the time or inclination to volunteer—since working the night shift at Gas-N-Go takes a toll on a body.
“Maybe your stepdad could coach?” I asked Marcus.
“Nah. All he does is smoke and fuss at the dogs. Besides, I don’t think he’ll be around much longer.”
Marcus had been my best friend since I could remember. He’d had several stepfathers, each one meaner than the last. But the latest version was tolerable, and families in our town were flexible that way.
Marcus and me had an assortment of older siblings who worked fast food, snuck beers from the fridge, and ignored us entirely. We both had sad-eyed mothers whose beauty had faded in high school and cantankerous grandparents who complained that we should be in church. There were many places we wanted to go—but church wasn’t one of them.
When Marcus and me rode our bikes downtown to Dollar General, we saw a banner along the way, strung across a papered-up storefront. The remaining tenant in the strip mall, Bailey’s Bail Bondsmen, had shuttered, leaving only a small convenience store that had overpriced candy, dented cans of soup, and dirty bathrooms.
“What’s the second word on that thing? Can you see it?” Marcus asked, pointing to the banner.
“Of course I can see it,” I said, squinting at the huge yellow letters on the sparkly black background. “It says: The Bibliophagist’s Magic Shop — Coming Soon.”
“That sounds like a weed shop. You think it’s gonna be a weed shop?”
“If it is, your sister will be first in line,” I replied. Marcus punched me in the shoulder as hard as he could—deservedly so.
“Bibliophagist! That sounds like devil stuff.”
“I don’t think so. They’ll probably just sell marked decks of cards and loaded dice and sleight-of-hand tricks. Maybe smoke bombs or Chinese finger traps? Definitely not devil stuff.”
“Well, it’s not God stuff. God don’t need magic.”
“What do you think miracles are?” I sped off, the early fall leaves scattering in my wake.
🜋 🜋 🜋
A few weeks later after school, we biked downtown to see if the magic shop had opened. From a distance, it appeared the banner had been taken down, and the storefront now glittered with a dazzling display of lights, illuminating grinning skulls and stuffed crows and large cutouts of playing cards.
“C’mon!” I yelled to Marcus, as we pedaled faster.
The strip mall looked spruced up, with curbs newly painted and trash cans lined and upright. We skidded into the alleyway and propped up our bikes against the brick wall.
At the entrance to the magic shop, we paused, looking at each other.
Was this devil stuff?
Shaking off the heebie-jeebies, we opened the front door, a tinkling bell announcing our arrival.
“Gentlemen.” A tall woman appeared. Her hair was stark white, combed back into a tight bun. She wore black clothes and red lipstick. “We’ve been expecting you,” she said evenly. “But then again, we expect everyone.”
We looked around the room and strongly thought about leaving as quickly as we’d come. However, the room was oddly welcoming, in its own unnerving way. Painted a deep scarlet with black trim, the room boasted framed pictures of all sorts of men and women, names etched in gold lettering. There were cozy couches and high-backed chairs and assorted tables, angled to ensure one’s privacy, with cozy lamps on side tables, inviting one to linger longer.
“This is a magic shop?” I cautiously asked.
“It is,” she replied.
“It don’t look like magic,” Marcus frowned.
The woman turned. “What do you think magic looks like?”
We both pondered her question.
“Well,” I replied, “magic makes things special. It makes the impossible possible.”
She nodded in full agreement.
“Come with me.”
The tone in her voice made it impossible to do anything but follow her down a few aisles, stacked with books of all shapes and sizes. When she got to a certain place in the stacks, she spun on her heel and stopped. She held up her hands, high overhead.
“Right now, pick any place in the world that you would like to be transported to,” she commanded.
“Egypt!” Marcus cried out.
Egypt? Of all the dumb places, I thought. If this magic witch was going to send us someplace, he could have picked Disney World or Mars or Acapulco.
“I want you to close your eyes,” she firmly instructed.
We did. We heard her rustling around, but we were too nervous to peek.
“Ready? Now open your eyes in one—two—three!”
We opened our eyes to see picture books showing majestic pharaohs, sacred tombs, tightly wrapped mummies—even the Great Sphinx!
“Is that King Tut?” Marcus whispered, outlining the boy king with his finger. He seemed lost in his own reverie, far away from the magic shop, far away from our small town.
“Yes, it is. This is a translation of the Egyptian Book of the Dead. If you want to read some magic spells, there are lots of them in here. Who knows? They may help you on your own journey through the afterlife.”
Mesmerized, Marcus became lost to me, 6000 miles away in the Valley of the Kings.
“That ain’t magic,” I scoffed. “It’s just a bunch of old books.”
She arched an eyebrow, and I felt cowed by her disapproving silence.
She finally spoke.
“Where do you wish to be right now?”
“Nowhere,” I said, flopping down on an overstuffed chair.
Arms crossed, rubbing her chin slowly and thoughtfully, she carefully considered me.
“If I could conjure up someone from the past for you to meet, who would it be?”
“That’s easy,” I said. “Babe Ruth.”
“Ah,” she grinned. “The Great Bambino. The Sultan of Swat. Close your eyes and I’ll see what I can do.”
I did as she asked.
“Ready? Now open your eyes in one—two—three!”
When I opened my eyes, it was springtime, the sky a dazzling baby blue under a perfect yellow sun. I stood on a baseball mound wearing a New York Yankees uniform.
“Hey kid, you going to throw me a ball?”
My jaw dropped. Babe Ruth!
When I looked towards the dugout, I saw other ballplayers file out, each coming over to shake my hand. Ty Cobb. Willie Mays. Ted Williams.
As I turned the pages of one book after another, I listened to my idols banter with each other over slugging percentages, No. 42, The Iron Horse, and Rick Monday rescuing the flag. I sat wide-eyed, as they lamented the end of chew, dip, and snuff on the field.
We played catch for hours while they showed me how to pitch and when to choke up on the bat.
“Boys,” she announced. “It’s time for the Magic Shop to close.”
In an instant, Lou Gehrig, Stan Musial, and Mickey Mantle disappeared in a cloud of smoke.
I found myself sitting on the floor with a half dozen books around me.
Dazed, Marcus carefully closed one of his larger books. He’d been staring at the floorplan of the Great Pyramid of Khufu for a good twenty minutes.
“Can we come back tomorrow?” he asked.
“Of course,” the older woman replied, escorting us to the door. “And bring your friends.”
🜋 🜋 🜋
On the way out, Marcus and me saw a white van with the logo for “Highland County Public Libraries” on the side. When it pulled in front of the magic shop, two people hopped out to unload bins of books from the back.
“Bibliophagists are librarians?” Marcus wondered. “I thought it was devil stuff.”
“Not devil stuff,” I replied, mounting my bike. “Miracles…”