[19.12.06] [Utahna Faith]
Getting AIDS From A Used Book: Fiction by John Thorson
"The puddle of gasoline at Peter's feet was starting to soak into the carpet. A few more seconds and it would be gone. From somewhere near the auto-biographies Gene let out a triumphant hoot. What an asshole. Choosing a bookcase within arms reach, Peter swept an entire shelf onto the dissipating spot of floor he had prepared. He sloshed on a little extra fuel for good measure, struck a match, and lit the mess. The pages caught fire in an instant. Peter gasped. He had to step back. It was glorious. The light and heat. It was a miracle.
Getting AIDS From A Used Book
by John Thorson
Peter found the book in the used section of Novel's Novels. He was attracted to its cover. Blood red, with a texture like scabbed knees. The book had lost its dust jacket, but Peter didn't mind. The uncovered cover had enchanted him so completely.
Before selling the book to Peter, the store clerk told him, "Even though books can't give you AIDS, this one can and it will." Fake, thought Peter. He bought the book anyway and skipped the rest of his errands and drove home to read it. How could a book give him AIDS, Peter had to find out.
It was an easy read. The pacing was quick and the author obviously knew a lot about guns. The story had twists and turns and rising action, but it finished poorly. Its conclusion was abrupt and unexpected. When Peter read the last line he assumed he hadn't, turning the final page only to un-turn it immediately. Shocked. The ending came from way out of nowhere. What happened to the puppies? Peter moved to a brighter lamp and reread the closing sentence, checking and double checking for another. The extra light revealed nothing. The book was finished. Its ending was unsatisfying. Although Peter now had AIDS, he still didn't know why or how. Feeling cheated, he resolved to return to Novel's Novels the next morning.
Peter arrived as the shop was opening. He marched to the rear of the store. He dropped yesterday's purchase on the sales counter. He crossed his arms. There was a different employee working. His name was Gene.
Gene took a sip of coffee and glanced at the book and then took another sip of coffee.
"What did you expect?" Gene said, with a real smartass attitude.
"I expect a full credit refund." Peter knew this was the store's policy. He would have preferred cash, but he didn't want any trouble. He had misplaced his receipt and wasn't sure how things would play out if that became known.
"Fuck you," Gene replied, taking another sip of coffee. This was exactly what Peter had hoped Gene wouldn't say.
"No, fuck you, you fucking cocky piece of shit"
"I bet you'd like that, faggot."
Gene was the faggot. The argument was going all wrong.
"Gene is a gay name, everybody knows that. So you're the fag and your book gave me AIDS."
"You think I give a shit about fags, or their books, or this job?" Gene pointed at Peter as he said this. "I'll burn this place to the ground. I'll burn this whole goddamned building to the ground." Peter had been a second away from threatening that exact thing, and the coincidence gave him pause. He had a spare tank of gas in the back of his truck.
"I do too," said Gene. He tossed Peter a book of matches and they both ran to their trucks.
The smell of gas was nauseating at first. The store's low ceiling trapped the fumes and the vapor stung Peter's eyes. Peter began to question his actions. Maybe he was making a bad decision.
The puddle of gasoline at Peter's feet was starting to soak into the carpet. A few more seconds and it would be gone. From somewhere near the auto-biographies Gene let out a triumphant hoot. What an asshole. Choosing a bookcase within arms reach, Peter swept an entire shelf onto the dissipating spot of floor he had prepared. He sloshed on a little extra fuel for good measure, struck a match, and lit the mess. The pages caught fire in an instant. Peter gasped. He had to step back. It was glorious. The light and heat. It was a miracle.
Peter shoved another row of books into the flames, and another, and another. When he ran out of books he moved to a fresh section and started a new pile. When he finished that pile, he began another. Peter got faster, more efficient. No genre was safe. The adrenaline was taking over.
Gene danced around the store like a pagan, waving rolled up magazine torches and chanting at the flaming mounds of published material. He kept his voice loud and deep, like a death metal frontman, like a benched linebacker cheering on his team.
Peter was inspired. He stopped drop-kicking and karate-punching his books into the fires, and began forcefully casting them downwards with both hands; their impact was much louder this way. The noise was meant to be substitution for a drum, and Peter tried his best to keep rhythm. The effect was like a thousand bees all thinking independently for the first time.
Peter could feel his heart growing. His pulse expanded. His awareness extended. Peter entered a cardiac world filled with impossible spices. His heart was the heart of all things. It strained with each existential pump. Just as the muscle was about to explode, a jingling of sleigh bells broke the spell. A customer entered. The chanting ended.
For a moment the newcomer stood frozen in place at the store's threshold, dumbstruck by the literary conflagration, then his stare focused and his expression softened and it looked as though he wanted to join the brotherhood, but Gene told him to fuck off. The excitement in the customer's eyes turned to horror and he fled. Gene locked the front door behind him, giving the handle a firm tug to make sure it would stay shut.
"No more interruptions," Gene said as he tore down the open sign and threw his set of employee keys into the small fire Peter was stoking in the aisle between Relationships and Business/Management.
After a point, the smoke became too thick to avoid. Peter took off his shirt and tied it around his head. It masked the lower half of his face like a bandit. Gene began breathing the carbon monoxide like it was air.
"This place doesn't have a sprinkler system. Isn't that fucked, Peter," Gene shouted over the roaring flames. It was fucked, but Peter couldn't respond because his mouth was full of paper. He had been eating the pages of some romance novel, he realized as he tried to speak. The book was still in his hands, but he couldn't make out its title. He had eaten its cover.
By the time the police arrived, Gene was mostly naked. When he noticed the cops banging on the windows he bounded off towards the back of the store. The dense smoke swallowed him. Peter spit the inky pulp out of his mouth. Gene! And Gene reappeared. The smoke parted for his entrance. He was coughing into one hand, but his other hand was raised high above his head clutching a copy of Fahrenheit 451 like it was the cure. He had found it.
Peter began to clap.
Gene sauntered straight up to where the cops were knocking, moved the novella to his crotch and began dry humping Ray Bradbury's cautionary tale with exaggerated cowboyesque thrusts. He waved a pretend lasso over his head and laughed when the policemen ran away.
"Yeehaw," Gene yelled. "They're going to call for reinforcements," Gene gestured towards the rear of the store with his lasso hand. Peter knew it was time to leave.
The alley behind Novel's Novels was filled with fresh air. Peter leaned against a dumpster, panting to catch his breath. He watched as dark billows escaped from the store's open back door. Gene must be dead, Peter thought, and the building was nowhere near burned down.
The bottom of Peter's right pant leg clung to his ankle. It was wet, so was his shoe and sock. An artery of liquid extended from beneath a nearby lump of garbage bags, seeping down a slant of uneven pavement. The fluid had pooled and collected in a pothole that Peter was half standing in. It was trash water, and Peter thew up.
In the distance, sirens could be heard. A couple different types. Peter coughed out the remaining vomit and wiped his mouth with the sleeve of his windbreaker. In his other arm, pressed close against his body, he held the AIDS book. He had rescued it on his way out. He had rescued it, but now it seemed too heavy to take with him. The sirens were getting louder. Peter had to go.
Keeping a careful eye for any witnesses, Peter hefted the lid of the dumpster and lobbed in his book. It landed with a squeak and then began to cry. Peter peered into the dumpster. The book wasn't making the noise. The sound came from the burlap bag it had landed on. Peter took out his flashlight and saw that the bag was squirming. There was something alive in it.
The sirens had stopped and Peter's jeans were dry. He plugged his nose and retrieved the sack he had injured, setting it carefully beside him on the alley's floor. When he was ready, he opened it.
At first, Peter saw their white fur and black spots and mistook them for dalmatians, but they were kittens. Peter took a quick inventory. 18 kittens, all of them alive, although he could tell some were hurt.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
John Thorson lives in Vermont.