Do You Read?

By Melissa Marni

Dixon knew the exact moment when he crossed the county line. The deflated tension, the automatic exhale. Cops in Desperado were slow as the town they rode through on old horses or rusted police cars. Here rock and roll meant windswept stones and lonely tumbleweeds. Here time was a vagrant passerby with no place to wander. Here he would be safe. 

To say Dixon killed someone would give the act no justice. What he did was elaborate mutilation, precise and to the point. A man was left disembodied, his head detached from his being, his fingernails and toenails clipped off then chewed, his hair sheered to a buzz, the fallen strands left sliding across the Río Zobre. When it was over, nothing remained but an ordinary Friday afternoon. Still, it was a new, murkier world Dixon the Murderer had entered and as he stepped inside its fatal haunches, he felt something close to freedom. The electricity that had once zipped through Dixon’s blood cooled to occasional tremors and a mildness of spirit began its quiet mutiny inside his mind. Even breathing became easier now that he was gone.

“Do you read?”

He searched his freshest memories but had no recollection of leaving his car or walking inside this empty, used bookstore—Libros de Ocasión—and wasn’t sure why a young, bespectacled girl with a too-long neck was speaking to him. She was the kind of girl you could tell your secrets to, even if he probably never would.

“Do you read?” She asked again, scratching at the back of her elbow then pointing to a small plastic pin just below her left shoulder. “Assistant Bookkeeper,” it read. No name, just that. She tapped the pin twice and Dixon wondered why the sound was louder than it had any right to be. Killing a man caused quite the headache.

Tap. Tap.

With a neck fit for an adult swan, the girl gave off the appearance of an awkward teenage bird standing against rows of faded books. Her hair was the distinct amber shade of fish sauce and Dixon could only think she was just three or four years shy of beautiful. In time she’d find an elegance that would cause men to take up reading used copies of Miguel Cervantes or Isabel Allende. In time …

“Guess not.” She shrugged but continued to stare at Dixon with eyes hidden behind the shine of her glasses.

Dixon guessed he didn’t much look like someone who spent his days trailing fingers along dusty bookshelves of the Libros de Ocasión. Years ago, maybe, when he came to this same old bookstore—the girl wasn’t there then—wide-eyed and eager to jump into shadows cast by his father, the rapscallion Spaniard known as El Malo. Dixon was always the bait in the Desperado scheme, El Malo Junior. No one suspected that any man with an adorably small boy in tow, sometimes carrying a large lollipop, sometimes a heart-shaped helium balloon, could possibly rob a bookstore. Or a shoe shop. Or a bank. They never noticed the man’s hat was tipped just a hair too low on his face, or that his hand was clamped a little too tightly to a back pocket of jeans they never thought might just contain a gun.

“So, if you don’t read, why are you here?” The girl craned her neck toward Dixon as she spoke.

He would have to respond, if only to skirt suspicion. Why was he at this bookstore? “I’m looking for a present.”

There. A present. That sounded normal enough. Everyone bought presents. Dixon never did but he guessed it wasn’t an unusual thing for other people in Desperado to do. He went to bite at his thumbnail, a habit long used to assuage the pain of thievery but remembered he had cut off every one of his nails this morning—even ripping away the thin cuticles—so only bright pink skin remained. He set his hand down by his side.

“Oh, a present. Nice,” said the girl, almost on a whisper. “I’m pretty good at picking out gifts for people. If you need some help, let me know.”

She spoke with noticeable hesitation, as if trying to uncover some lie he hadn’t yet told. “Who are you buying a present for, anyway? A new girlfriend? A distant uncle? A strange cousin?”

Dixon should’ve answered her but he couldn’t. He wasn’t even sure she had asked the questions or said anything at all. Every noise in the Libros de Ocasión became jumbled by the fat cuckoo clock on the front counter clucking too loudly and the floorboards—including the missing ones—laughing too cruelly with their stupid wooden creaks. Even the silence between sounds seemed to mock the poor excuse for a man who just this morning had killed without regret.

He could come up with only one explanation: The clock and the floorboards and the girl, they knew.

My son, secrets are ticking time-bombs from the moment they’re made, El Malo used to say. It was why his father never kept anything from Dixon and why Dixon had to kill today, so he could bury his final secret beneath the Spanish summer sun.

In the moments that followed, a shift occurred between Dixon and the Assistant Bookkeeper. The air split apart, giving way to the wise musk of years-old literature. The girl’s neck seemed to grow longer. The glass of her readers appeared to glow with harsh sunlight from some unseen window. And was it raining inside the Libros de Ocasión? Dixon could feel heavy droplets running down his spine.

At first Dixon thought it was a sudden boldness that overcame the girl, causing rain to fall and her neck to elongate but no, rain wasn’t falling (it was his sweat) and the girl wasn’t crying from being so bold; she was afraid.

“El Malo Junior,” the girl murmured between tears. “That’s who you are.”

Dixon sighed. She understood nothing. “No,” he said, passing a hand through his newly buzzed hair, wondering if the rest was still drifting down the river. “My name is Dixon.”

“You look just like El Malo Junior. I can see it. Except you have different hair and wear a different style of clothes, and you’re maybe a little less … wild.” The girl paused, rolling this last word around her tongue. “But if you’re not El Malo Junior, who is?”

Yes, that Dixon could reveal. El Malo Junior was gone because Dixon decided he should exist no more. The time had come to be someone new, someone a little less bad and a little more alive. And so, with a wave of his nail-less hand, Dixon spit out the truth: “No one. He’s dead.”

[This tiny tale was inspired by “Do You Read?” an image taken by Sergio De Luz, a fashion, commercial and still-life photographer from Spain.]