Mr. Penumbra s 24 Hour Bookstore 4

  “We made these,” he says. “Rented a 3-D body scanner, custom-tailored each shirt. They fit perfectly. Like, perfectly.”

  Neel is in amazing shape. Every time I see him, I cannot help but superimpose my memory of the chubby sixth-grader, because he has now somehow attained the preposterous V-shape of a comic book superhero.

  “It’s good branding, you know?” he says.

  The snug T-shirt has the logo of Neel’s company printed across the chest. In tall electric-blue letters it says: ANATOMIX.

  In the morning, when Penumbra arrives, I broach the subject of a friend buying entry into the Waybacklist. He shrugs out of his peacoat—it is an epic peacoat, finely made, with wool from the blackest of sheep—and sets himself up on the chair behind the front desk.

  “Oh, it is not a matter of purchase,” he says, steepling his fingers, “but rather of intention.”

  “Well, my friend is just curious,” I say. “He’s a total bibliophile.” This is not actually true. Neel prefers the movie adaptations of books. He is continuously indignant that no one has ever made movies out of The Dragon-Song Chronicles.

  “Well,” Penumbra says, considering, “he will find the contents of these books … challenging. And to gain access to them, he must agree to a contract.”

  “So, wait—it does cost money?”

  “No, no. Your friend must simply promise to read deeply. These are special books”—he waves a long hand at the Waybacklist—”with special contents that reward close attention. Your friend will find that they lead him to something remarkable, but only if he is willing to work very hard indeed.”

  “Like philosophy?” I say. “Math?”

  “Nothing so abstract,” Penumbra says, shaking his head. “The books present a puzzle”—he cocks his head at me—”but you know this, my boy, do you not?”

  I grimace and admit it: “Yeah. I’ve looked.”

  “Good.” Penumbra nods sharply. “There is nothing worse than an incurious clerk.” His eyes twinkle at that. “The puzzle can be solved with time and care. I cannot speak of what waits with the solution, but suffice it to say, many have devoted their lives to it. Now, whether it is something your … friend will find rewarding, I cannot say. But I suspect he might.”

  He smiles a crooked smile. I realize that Penumbra thinks we’re using the friend-hypothetical here; that is, he thinks we’re talking about me. Well, maybe we are, at least a little bit.

  “Of course, the relationship between book and reader is private,” he says, “so we go on trust. If you tell me that your friend will read these books deeply, in a way that honors their authors, I will believe you.”

  I know that Neel definitely will not read them that way, and I’m not sure this is something I want to sign up for, either. Not yet. I am intrigued and creeped out in equal measure. So I simply say: “Okay. I’ll tell him.”

  Penumbra nods. “There is no shame in it if your friend is not yet ready for the task. Perhaps it will grow more interesting to him with time.”


  THE NIGHTS FALL one into the other, and the bookstore grows quieter and quieter. A week goes by without a single customer. On my laptop, I summon up the dashboard for my hyper-targeted ad campaign, and discover that it has delivered, so far, exactly zero impressions. There’s a bright yellow message from Google in the corner of the screen suggesting that my criteria might be too narrow and I might have specified a customer base that does not exist.

  I wonder what it’s like in here during the day, during Penumbra’s sun-dappled shift. I wonder if Oliver gets a rush of customers in the evening, after everybody leaves work. I wonder if this silence and solitude might actually be damaging my brain. Don’t get me wrong: I’m grateful to have a job, to sit in this chair, to quietly accrue dollars (not that many) that I can use to pay my rent, to buy pizza slices and iPhone apps. But I used to work in an office; I used to work on a team. Here it’s just me and bats. (Oh, I know there are bats up there.)

  Lately, even the Waybacklist borrowers seem to be missing. Have they been seduced by some other book club on the other side of town? Have they all bought Kindles?

  I have one, and I use it most nights. I always imagine the books staring and whispering, Traitor!—but come on, I have a lot of free first chapters to get through. My Kindle is a hand-me-down from my dad, one of the original models, a slanted, asymmetrical plate with a tiny gray screen and a bed of angled keys. It looks like a prop from 2001: A Space Odyssey. There are newer Kindles with bigger screens and subtler industrial design, but this one is like Penumbra’s postcards: so uncool it’s cool again.

  Halfway through the first chapter of Cannery Row, the screen flashes black, freezes, then fades. This happens most nights. The Kindle’s battery is supposed to last, like, two months, but I left mine out on the beach too long and now it only goes for about an hour unplugged.

  So I switch to my MacBook and make my rounds: news sites, blogs, tweets. I scroll back to find the conversations that happened without me during the day. When every single piece of media you consume is time-shifted, does that mean it’s actually you that’s time-shifted?

  Finally, I click over to my new favorite: Grumble.

  Grumble is a person, probably a human male, a secretive programmer who operates at the intersection of literature and code—part Hacker News, part Paris Review. Mat emailed me a link after he visited the store, guessing that Grumble’s work might resonate here. He was correct.

  Grumble manages a bustling pirate library. He writes complicated code to break the DRM on e-books; he builds complicated machines to copy the words out of real books. If he worked for Amazon, he’d probably be rich. But instead he cracked the supposedly uncrackable Harry Potter series and posted all seven e-books on his site, free to download—with a few changes. Now, if you want to read Potter without paying, you suffer fleeting references to a young wizard named Grumblegrits who studies at Hogwarts alongside Harry. It’s not so bad; Grumblegrits gets a few good lines.

  But it’s Grumble’s newest project that has me mesmerized. It’s a map of the locations of every science fiction story published in the twentieth century. He’s plucked them out with code and plotted them in 3-D space, so year by year you see humankind’s collective imagination reaching farther: to the moon, to Mars, Jupiter, Pluto, to Alpha Centauri and beyond. You can zoom and rotate the whole universe, and you can also jump into a little polygonal spaceship and cruise around in the cockpit. You can rendezvous with Rama or find the Foundation worlds.

  So, two things:

  1. Neel is going to love this.

  2. I want to be like Grumble. I mean, what if I could make something this cool? That would be a real skill. I could join a startup. I could go work at Apple. I could see and interact with other human beings under the warm glow of the daystar.

  Lucky for me, Grumble has, in customary hacker-hero fashion, released the code that powers the map. It’s a whole 3-D graphics engine written in a programming language called Ruby—the same one we used to run the website at NewBagel—and it’s completely free.

  So now I’m going to use Grumble’s code to make something of my own. Looking around, I realize my project is standing right in front of me: I’ll learn 3-D graphics by making a model of Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore. I mean, it’s a tall, skinny box full of smaller boxes—how hard can that be?

  To begin, I had to copy the database from Penumbra’s old Mac Plus onto my laptop, which was actually not a trivial task, since the Mac Plus uses plastic floppy disks and there’s no way to get one of those into a MacBook. I had to buy an old USB floppy drive on eBay. It cost three dollars, plus five for shipping, and it felt strange to plug it into my laptop.

  But now, with the data in hand, I’m building my model of the store. It’s crude—just a bunch of gray blocks slotted together like virtual LEGOs—but it’s starting to look familiar. The space is appropriately shoe-boxy and all the shelves are there. I’ve set them up with a coor
dinate system, so my program can find aisle 3, shelf 13 all by itself. Simulated light from the simulated windows casts sharp-edged shadows through the simulated store. If this sounds impressive to you, you’re over thirty.

  It’s taken three nights of trial and error, but now I’m stringing out long lines of code, learning as I go. It feels good to be making something: a fairly persuasive polygonal approximation of Penumbra’s store is spinning slowly on my screen, and I’m happier than I’ve been since the fall of NewBagel. I’ve got the new album from a peppy local band called Moon Suicide piping through my laptop speakers, and I’m just about to load the database into—

  The bell tinkles and I clack the mute key on my laptop. Moon Suicide goes silent, and when I look up, I see an unfamiliar face. Usually I can detect instantly whether I’m dealing with a member of the world’s weirdest book club or a normal late-night browser. But now my spider-sense is jammed.

  The customer is short but sturdy, in some thickening limbo of middle age. He’s wearing a slate-gray suit with a white button-down open at the collar. All of that would signal normality if it weren’t for his face: he has a ghostly pallor, a stubbly black beard, and eyes like dark pencil-points. Also, there’s a parcel under his arm, neatly wrapped in brown paper.

  His eyes go immediately to the short shelves up front, not the Waybacklist, so maybe he’s a normal customer. Maybe he’s coming from Booty’s next door. I ask, “Can I help you?”

  “What is all this? What is the meaning of this?” he sputters, glaring at the short shelves.

  “Yeah, I know it doesn’t look like much,” I say. In the next breath, I intend to point out a few of the surprising highlights of Penumbra’s tiny inventory, but he cuts me off:

  “Are you joking? Not much?” He throws his parcel down on the desk—whap—and stalks over to the SCIENCE FICTION AND FANTASY shelf. “What is this doing here?” He holds up Penumbra’s single copy of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. “And this? Are you kidding me?” He holds up Stranger in a Strange Land.

  I’m not sure what to say, because I’m not sure what’s going on.

  He stalks back up to the front desk, still holding both books. He slaps them down on the wood. “Who are you, anyway?” His dark eyes are flashing, challenging.

  “I’m the guy who runs the store,” I say, as evenly as I can muster. “Do you want to buy those or what?”

  His nostrils flare. “You don’t run this store. You’re not even a novice.”

  Ouch. Sure, I’ve only been working here a little over a month, but still, there’s not much to it—

  “And you don’t have any idea who really does run this store, do you?” he continues. “Has Penumbra told you?”

  I’m silent. This is definitely not a normal customer.

  “No.” He sniffs. “I guess he hasn’t. Well, more than a year ago, we told your boss to get rid of this junk.” He taps the Hitchhiker’s Guide with each word for emphasis. The cuffs of his suit jacket are open at the last button. “And not for the first time.”

  “Listen, I really don’t know what you’re talking about.” I will remain calm. I will remain civil. “So, seriously, do you want to buy those?”

  He surprises me by digging a crumpled twenty-dollar bill out of his pants pocket. “Oh, absolutely,” he says, and tosses the money onto the desk. I hate it when people do that. “I want evidence of Penumbra’s disobedience.” Pause. His dark eyes glitter. “Your boss is in trouble.”

  What, for peddling science fiction? Why does this guy hate Douglas Adams so much?

  “And what’s that?” he says sharply, pointing to the MacBook. The model of the store is stretched across the screen, rotating slowly.

  “None of your business,” I say, tilting it away.

  “None of my business?” he sputters. “Do you even know— You don’t.” He rolls his eyes as if he is suffering through the worst customer service experience in the history of the universe. Then he shakes his head and composes himself. “Listen carefully. This is important.” He pushes the parcel across the desk with two fingers. It’s wide and flat and familiar. His eyes level on me and he says, “This place is a shit show, but I need to know I can trust you to give this to Penumbra. Put it in his hands. Don’t put it on a shelf. Don’t leave it for him. Put it in his hands.”

  “Okay,” I say. “Fine. No problem.”

  He nods. “Good. Thank you.” He scoops up his purchases and pushes the front door open. Then, on his way out, he turns. “And tell your boss that Corvina sends his regards.”

  In the morning, Penumbra has barely made it through the front door before I am recounting what happened, saying it too fast and out of order, I mean, what was that guy’s problem, and who is Corvina, and what’s this package, and seriously, what was his problem—

  “Calm yourself, my boy,” Penumbra says, lifting his voice and his long hands to quiet me. “Calm yourself. Slow down.”

  “There,” I say. I point at the parcel like it’s a dead animal. For all I know, it is a dead animal, or maybe just the bones of one, laid out in a neat pentagram.

  “Ahhh,” Penumbra breathes. He wraps his long fingers around the parcel and lifts it lightly from the desk. “How wonderful.”

  But of course it’s not a box of bones. I know exactly what it is, and I’ve known since the pale-faced visitor stepped into the store, and somehow the truth of it is freaking me out even more, because it means that whatever’s happening here is more than just one old man’s eccentricity.

  Penumbra peels back the brown paper. Inside, there’s a book.

  “A new addition to the shelves,” he says. “Festina lente.”

  The book is very slim but very beautiful. It’s bound in brilliant gray, some kind of mottled material that shimmers silver in the light. The spine is black, and in pearly letters it says ERDOS. So the Waybacklist grows by one.

  “It has been quite some time since one of these arrived,” Penumbra says. “This requires a celebration. Wait here, my boy, wait here.”

  He retreats through the shelves into the back room. I hear his shoes on the steps that lead up to his office, on the other side of the door marked PRIVATE through which I have never ventured. When he returns, he carries two foam cups stacked one inside the other and a bottle of scotch, half-empty. The label says FITZGERALD’S and it looks about as old as Penumbra. He pours a half inch of gold into each cup and hands one to me.

  “Now,” he says, “describe him. The visitor. Read it from your logbook.”

  “I didn’t write anything down,” I confess. In fact, I haven’t done anything at all. I’ve just been pacing the store all night, keeping my distance from the front desk, afraid to touch the parcel or look at it or even think about it too hard.

  “Ah, but it must go into the logbook, my boy. Here, write it as you tell it. Tell me.”

  I tell him, and I write it down as I go. It makes me feel better, as if the weirdness is flowing out of my blood and onto the page, through the dark point of the pen:

  “The store was visited by a presumptuous jackass—”

  “Er—perhaps it would be wisest not to write that,” Penumbra says lightly. “Say perhaps that he had the aspect of … an urgent courier.”

  Okay, then: “The store was visited by an urgent courier named Corvina, who—”

  “No, no,” Penumbra interrupts. He closes his eyes and pinches the bridge of his nose. “Stop. Before you write, I will explain. He was extremely pale, weasel-eyed, forty-one years old, with a thick build and an ill-advised beard, wearing a suit of smooth wool, single-breasted, with functioning buttons at the cuffs, and black leather shoes that came to sharp points—correct?”

  Exactly. I didn’t catch the shoes, but Penumbra has got this one nailed.

  “Yes, of course. His name is Eric, and his gift is a treasure.” He swirls his scotch. “Even if he is too enthusiastic in the playing of his part. He gets that from Corvina.”

  “So who’s Corvina?” I feel funny saying it, bu
t: “He sends his regards.”

  “Of course he does,” Penumbra says, rolling his eyes. “Eric admires him. Many of the young ones do.” He’s avoiding the question. He’s quiet for a moment, and then he lifts his eyes to meet mine. “This is more than a bookstore, as you have no doubt surmised. It is also a kind of library, one of many around the world. There is another in London, another in Paris—a dozen, altogether. No two are alike, but their function is the same, and Corvina oversees them all.”

  “So he’s your boss.”

  Penumbra’s face darkens at that. “I prefer to think of him as our patron,” he says, pausing a little on each word. The our is not lost on me, and it makes me smile. “But I suspect Corvina would agree wholeheartedly with your characterization.”

  I explain what Eric said about the books on the short shelves—about Penumbra’s disobedience.

  “Yes, yes,” he says with a sigh. “I have been through this before. It is foolishness. The genius of the libraries is that they are all different. Koster in Berlin with his music, Griboyedov in Saint Petersburg with his great samovar. And here in San Francisco, the most striking difference of all.”

  “What’s that?”

  “Why, we have books that people might actually want to read!” Penumbra guffaws at this, and shows a toothy grin. I laugh, too.

  “So it’s no big deal?”

  Penumbra shrugs. “That depends,” he says. “It depends how seriously one takes a rigid old taskmaster who believes that everything must be exactly the same everywhere and always.” He pauses. “As it happens, I do not take him very seriously at all.”

  “Does he ever visit?”

  “Never,” Penumbra says sharply, shaking his head. “He has not been to San Francisco in many years … more than a decade. No, he is busy with his other duties. And thank goodness for that.”