Whatever Happened to Mr. Saguaro?
by Carolyn Weisbecker
Kneeling before the crumbling wall like a repentant sinner rested a row of dusty mason jars filled with flowers. The pink carnations had long dried out, their brown skeletons clutched together in its glass burial tombs. Seeing the wall, Darren dismounted his bike and hoisted it over the curb because of the bears. Yes, bears. Not the kind of bear where one would escape but the kind one would, instead, embrace. Perched beside the mason jars, the bears’ sodden tummies bulged while laden heads lowered in defeat. One bear wore a plaid vest of yellow, red, and black with a matching bowtie. The second bear clutched a pink satin heart. An aura of misery and melancholy grasped Darren’s chest as he stared at the bizarre scene laid out before him.
The feeling hung over him like a stormy sky that whispered of abandonment, of death, a hole that only grew deeper and wider as the minutes passed. He wondered about it all. Had his dad mentioned something about this from his daily peruse of the Tucson Times? A child riding his skateboard or bike before the screech of brakes and inevitable whack that led to this roadside memorial? He winced. The thought of a life snatched away bothered him. But then, everything bothered him.
As the unpleasant feeling persisted, he turned away to hug the Santa Catalinas, a towering mountain range north of Tucson, Arizona. Darren decided that if he had to spend the summer with his dad, he would find comfort in the mountain views, desert landscape of cactus and bush, and the quiet of the star-scattered nights at Mount Lemmon Sky Center; Tucson—so unlike his home in Chicago—surprised him daily by its authenticity. The city’s lack of pretentiousness beckoned Darren to wander music, book, and thrift stores; clerks of all ages greeted him with smiles and gave him the freedom to shop without idle chatter or worse, a barrage of suggestions regarding an imminent purchase. Darren’s thoughts scattered, and as the minutes gained speed, a series of beeps rose from his smartwatch. He ran one rough hand through his damp hair. “Shit.” He was late. Again. Grabbing his bike, he pedaled, careful to avoid giving anyone a reason to add another memorial to the existing one.
Fighting the wind, Darren forced his legs to pump harder through the hilly streets. But the bike was old with splotches of rust and a chain thirsty for a few squeezes of oil, so it needed extra prodding. Despite the work required to pedal, he liked the bike’s faded red paint and the shiny new tires, although he wasn’t exactly sure Mrs. Norris, the thrift store lady who seemed one step away from a nursing home, was entirely truthful about the bike’s true condition. He could tell by her small eyes that darted from the bike to the ceiling and back; not once could he recall her gaze reaching for his in a gesture of humanity. No enthusiasm. No encouragement. And least of all—that which he really craved—engagement. But the fact remained that thanks to Tucson being a college town, with the University of Arizona just a few blocks away, decent used bikes were a tough find. So, after a bit of stilted haggling, pregnant sighs from Mrs. Norris, and a trip to the ATM, Darren handed over his last twenty bucks to the old woman who neither thanked him or offered a receipt. Not even a goodbye.He hated that he cared.
The bike resisted him, so he pedaled with a ferocious heart until the Old Tucson Book Store loomed into sight. There was a reason for the word, old, hethought as his tires went bump-bump-bump over the gravel surface that led around to the back. The one-story building, like many along the weathered street, whimpered for a drink of fresh paint, indicated by its cracks, peeling stucco, and remnants of graffiti the store owner ignored. Still, the building wasn’t all bad. Probably its best feature was the bright orange door that beckoned customers to enter; but once inside, the gray walls and uneven floor—oh, and the remnants of marijuana smoke and microwave popcorn—made even the most curious customer leave.
After leaning his bike against the garage wall, Darren entered the building’s rear door on soft feet. The shop sighed when he stumbled, mimicking its long-time owner, Mr. Saguaro—Darren never knew his real name—who usually only muttered whenever Darren arrived while his eyes made love to the artwork hung on three of the four walls. All Saguaros. The east wall highlighted Saguaros stoically keeping watch over its underlings—small cacti, unkempt shrubs, and a smattering of Joshua trees. The west wall proudly boasted Saguaros that held the mountains upright—the thick cacti arms opened wide to catch a tumbling rock like a mother who catches a tumbling toddler. But the ones that deserved special attention made their home to the north.
The north, known as the celebrity wall, where Mr. Saguaro—called Mr. Sag, for short—hung select Saguaro artwork—the ones that got headlines or held the title of biggest, largest, oldest, like the Saguaro deemed the Grand One from Tonto National Forest that towered at 46 feet; next rested a print of Old Granddaddy from Tucson’s Saguaro National Park with fifty-two arms and the title of “oldest known cactus in the world.”
And then there was the one that mocked the rest because, well, according to Mr. Sag, it deserved the honor. The one and only oil painting with a gold wooden frame. The one and only oil painting he had actually purchased from an art studio and not a discount store. The one and only oil painting where Mr. Sag had mounted a picture light he found in a dumpster to show the world—or at least his customers—that number one, he was an art connoisseur, and number two, he was—but without the financial support—a patron of the arts.
The one and only oil painting was the crested Saguaro. Its fan-like tips resembled giant waving hands, and Mr. Sag referred to it, with bated breath, as his one and only favorite.
“It’s a crested Saguaro. Very rare,” Mr. Sag would say to whoever glanced in the painting’s direction.
With the Saguaro shrine behind him, Darren’s shoulders relaxed as he approached the main store area. I’m in luck, he thought. Mr. Sag must’ve gone out for a coffee.Humming at the pleasant thought and the realization he truly alone, Darren strolled over to a pile of books that needed sorting. Then, his humming faltered. Then stopped. Darren gulped as Mr. Sag’s weathered body stood up from the chipped wooden chair he kept in the corner. Today, the old man wore a tie-dyed purple and yellow tee shirt along with his standard worn jeans. A silver Cuban link bracelet slid down his bony wrist as he lifted a palmful of popcorn to his lips. Darren waited while Mr. Sag finished chewing, but before he could utter, “I’m sorry I’m late,” Mr. Sag lifted a tattooed arm.
“You’re late again, so you’re fired, boy. Now get out of here, and don’t come back!”
Darren sniffled, not from emotion, but from a cloud dust. Being Tucson, and being an old building, and being the windows were old and not fitted properly, dust did a slow dance around anyone who stood long enough to notice. He coughed to buy time; he knew he needed this job. Wanted this job. Because as shitty as the pay and his treatment by old Mr. Sag, Darren had nowhere else to go. Nothing to do until his mom picked him up in August to return home and then maybe he’d be back to spend a holiday. That’s what happened when his parents got divorced; his dad moved across the country for a fresh start, and summers and occasional holidays were the only times Darren got to see his dad. He accepted it.
Not a sound was heard except for the heavy tick-tock of the huge black clock that hung above the cash register. Mr. Sag’s dark eyes never left Darren’s as he continued shoving popcorn into his greedy mouth. Finally, Mr. Sag cocked his silver head. “Are you deaf, boy? I told you to get out. I’m sick of you being late. I’m running a business here. This is my livelihood. My life. This ain’t no hobby for me like it is to you.”
Darren watched his heart plummet to the floor and collide with a colony of dust balls. He blinked. “But Mr. Sag, I still need to dust the floor and all the shelves. Then I was going to set up that computer and printer you bought to get you into this century.” Darren’s eyes rested on the small table by the counter where an ancient drip coffee maker rested. “And then there’s that!”
Mr. Sag’s eyes flickered with curiosity as he followed Darren’s gaze. “You mean the coffeemaker? What about it, boy?”
Darren nodded. “There’s something you need to know, Mr. Sag. You might want to sit down for this.”
The room waited while Mr. Sag remained rooted to his spot, arms folded, his lips curved downward. Darren coughed again and scrambled for an idea to prolong his imminent departure.
“Well, it’s like this,” he said. “You claim you’re running a business, that this is your life, but it’s not true.”
Licking his lips, Mr. Sag gazed down at his now empty popcorn bag, and Darren knew the old man wondered if he should pop another bag. “What you talking about? Besides, why you still here? I told you to git.”
Darren’s legs melted into the floor. “You’re not running a successful because you’re not giving people what they want.” He marched over to the coffeemaker stand. “People want coffee—good coffee—when they browse for books, and this old machine can’t make it. I’m guessing the inner parts are worn out.” He opened the coffee machine lid and let it drop with a thud. “Wasn’t it used when you bought it?”
Mr. Sag scratched his head. “You know I buy all my appliances and what-nots second hand. Otherwise, I’d be out of money in no time, and the misses wouldn’t like that!”
Darren nodded. “I understand, but it doesn’t make decent coffee.” A line appeared between his brows. “You know, if the coffee was good, people would drink it. And while they’re drinking it, they’d be looking at the books and maybe even buying some.” His eyes flew around the room, and although his glance was fast, Darren noted everything. The creaky ceiling fan that shuddered every five minutes. The mismatched bookcases—some without shelves—painted in various shades of blue, yellow, and green. But most disturbing of all, Darren felt the shop’s fear; its sadness oozed from up from the tired floors, and tears dripped from the walls by the humidifying unit. Even the coffeemaker let out a big sigh whenever Darren turned it on.
Mr. Sag glowered at him. “What do you know about coffee? You’re just a punk. What are you, fifteen?”
Darren jutted his chin. “No sir. I’m seventeen. I start my senior year in the fall, and I know plenty about that deep complex nectar we fondly refer to as coffee.” His words sounded hollow, even to him, mostly because he’d never drank coffee. He preferred pop.
Mr. Sag scratched the sliver of belly that peeked out from under his shirt. “No one else gives free coffee away but me. You would think that incentive would flood the place with customers. You’re trying to make me keep you here, but that’s not going to happen. Now, for the last time, get out of here before I toss you out myself.”
Whatever courage Darren had slithered away, and he headed to the door. But the hand of courage wouldn’t hear of it, and instead, whipped him around. “You’re wrong, Mr. Sag!”
Mr. Sag’s forehead puckered. “What ya mean, boy?”
A slow smile eased onto Darren’s pudgy face. “What I mean is that you’ve got competition, which might explain why it’s a ghost town here.”
Mr. Sag yawned. “Competition? You talking that internet thing?”
“Forget online shopping. I’m talking about the new book store just a few blocks over. I stopped by the other day and saw all kinds of customers drinking coffee and buying things. It was a real community thing, people laughing and talking. Said they loved the book selection and how nice and clean everything looked. Overheard some of them saying they loved the coffee and would be back.”
Mr. Sag lifted an eyebrow.
Darren continued. “It smelled real good, too, not like that nasty stuff that comes out of your machine. It’s too bad you fired me because I had a big surprise for you.” He shook his brown head. “Your loss.”
Mr. Sag couldn’t help himself. After all, he loved surprises, especially since he never got any. He rubbed the stubble on his chin. “Maybe I’ll let you stay. Depends on what the surprise is. I’ve got high expectations, you know.”
Darren’s mouth lifted into a smile. “You see, my dad manages a business supply store in Oro Valley. I told him about the sad state of your coffee machine. He said he’d get you a top-of-the-line coffee maker for a fraction of the cost. You know, as a courtesy because I work here.”
“Top of the line?” Mr. Sag repeated.
Darren nodded. “That heavenly coffee aroma from your new machine will pluck people right from the street, and before you know it, this place will explode with business. Think how happy that will make Mrs. Sag.” Darren grinned. “What do you say, Mr. Sag? Can I stay?”
He narrowed his eyes. “Fraction of the cost?”
“Yes, sir. My dad will give a cheap price. And, I’ve got some other ideas, too, that will bring in more customers than you can handle.”
As Darren talked, Mr. Sag thought while his eyes took in the dank smelly couch, chipped side tables, and stained area rug. He wasn’t stupid. He knew his shop needed a boost, something exciting that would draw customers through its faded orange door. He needed to offer more than books. Like Darren said, he needed to offer a sense of community. Coffee could do that. His mind filled with the image of a shiny new coffeemaker dripping like a song while his customers lined up for a cup, books tucked under their arms and thoughts of what to buy next.
I’ll move the machine up toward the front so everyone can see it before they check out. The idea pleased him, and before he could catch himself, his lips eased into a smile. “Sure, boy. You can stay.” For now, he thought.
It only took mere seconds for Mr. Sag’s smile to dissolve into a dark pool that dripped to the ground and formed a puddle around his feet. No one possessed the power for his transformation except one person—his misses. For at that very moment, the much-younger, much bigger, and much smarter Mrs. Sag stormed through the door, not caring that the slam led Mr. Sag to groan.
“My god, woman. What did I tell you about that?” His eyes rotated from one wall to the next, making sure his treasured Saguaro paintings remained intact.
She followed his eyes then turned her attention to inspecting her nails. “Screw your paintings. I’ve been stuck all week with that girl, and now it’s your turn.”
Darren caught his breath at the sight of her hot pink mini-skirt and plunging black silk blouse. Turquois earrings stretched from each ear. Her matching pink lips gleamed like fresh paint. As he stared, she read his thoughts by pulling a tube of lipstick from her Louis Vuitton bag. “What girl?” Darren asked, but what he really wanted to know was this: what in the world did a hot-looking woman like her see in old Mr. Sag? Was he a millionaire or something?
The Sags grunted the name, “Rainbow!” in unison then glared at one another.
Mr. Sag coughed. “Rainbow is my step-granddaughter from my second marriage.”
Mrs. Sag rolled her painted eyes. “Second marriage baggage should remain in the second marriage, not rolled into the third.”
Mr. Sag opened his mouth, but the sound of a shriek sliced through the air. Darren led the way as the three rushed out the back door. “What the heck you screaming about, Rainbow?” Mr. Sag asked.
“I just wanted to see how far my voice would go.” The girl before him fluttered her eyelashes at Darren. “Who are you? You’re cute.”
He thought the girl must be about ten or so.
She twirled a single dark braid that hung past her shoulders. “I’m hungry, glorious Grandma. When’s that pizza kid going to come?”
Mrs. Sag sighed. “I told you to call me Grandma Gloria, not glorious Grandma. Why don’t you play out here with Darren, and I’ll let you know when it’s here.”
Darren straightened to his full five-foot, four-inch height. “I’m sorry, ma’am, but I’m no babysitter. Besides,” he glanced at Mr. Sag, who remained planted by the door. “The boss here has work for me.”
Rainbow stuck out her lip, folded her arms, and pouted. “But I want him to play with me! Now!”
“Darren.” Mr. Sag’s voice held a warning. “As my newly appointed assistant manager, I want you to play with my sweet little Rainbow, so starting now, she’s your responsibility.”
Darren gulped. “Assistant Manager? But who’s the manager?”
“Me, dummy.” Mr. Sag smiled at Rainbow. “I’m the owner, manager, head honcho … I’m everything. Congratulations, you just moved up from chore boy to my assistant. So, get to work boy, and play with this child.”
Darren’s eyes flew to Rainbow, who tapped her foot while she waited. Once the Sag’s backsides disappeared through the door, he turned to his new responsibility. “Okay, kid. What do you want to do?” His brown eyes swallowed the dismal scene around him. “How about I find you a broom, and you can sweep while I pick up this trash that’s blown about? Your grandpa would like that.”
She shook her head. “Nope. I want you to find me a kitten to play with. A sweet, cute, tiny kitten who will sleep on my bed and dance around the house with me.”
Darren rolled his eyes. “I don’t have one.”
Rainbow sighed and tapped her lip with one pink-painted fingernail. “Well, then. I want to play pet rescue. I’ll be a poor, abandoned puppy dog you found by the garage here, and you have to get me to trust you by being nice to me.”
He bit down on the word ‘that’s stupid’ before they oozed from his mouth. “That’s no fun.”
She blinked—long and slow—a wisp of a girl who suggested fragility but in truth, possessed determination, grit, and unfortunately, resourcefulness. “You either play like I said or else…” She met Darren’s eyes before throwing herself to the ground. “Ow! That hurt!” As quickly as she fell, she jumped up and brushed off the pebbles from her knee. “I’ll tell my grandpa and my glorious grandma you pushed me down!”
Anything Darren might have said at that moment disappeared as a small, rusted car roared up the drive and stopped at their feet. A tall, gangly kid of about Darren’s age emerged holding a white slim box.
“Pizza!” Rainbow shrieked and ran in circles.
The pizza kid yawned. “You’re brilliant.”
Rainbow stopped and held out her hands. “Give me!”
Wiping his forehead with the palm of one hand, the boy muttered, “That’ll be $18, plus my tip. I’m sure you’ll be generous.”
Rainbow’s hand flew to her pocket. She pulled a wad of bills from her shorts and counted out loud. “Five, ten, fifteen, twenty, twenty-five, thirty, thirty-five, forty.” A sly smile eased onto her small face. “How much did you say?”
Tired and hungry, Darren snapped. “Just give him a twenty.”
She wrinkled her nose and shoved the bills back in her pocket. “I’ll give you a good tip if you play with me first because Darren is boring. And stupid.”
The boy moaned and looked at Darren. “What’s this oddball talking about?”
“Look,” Rainbow said. “I’m a poor, abandoned puppy dog someone dumped by the garage here, and you need to rescue me. Then I’ll give you a twenty-dollar tip.”
The pizza kid straightened. “Twenty-dollar tip, huh?”
She nodded and looked around the littered yard. “Darren, fill up that hubcap with water, and bring it into the garage. That’s where poor abandoned puppies like to hide. And, you, pizza kid, I want one slice now and a ride around the garage.”
A flash of doubt crossed the boy’s face. He tossed the pizza box onto the hood of his car and lit a cigarette. After taking a long drag, he nodded at Rainbow but spoke to Darren. “Is she for real?”
Darren strode over to the hubcap and picked it up. “I’m afraid so.”
The garage stood silently a few feet away, just a shell with missing slates and no door. The pizza kid peered inside, and seeing nothing but boxes and a pile of old clothing, he threw down his cigarette butt and stomped on it with one black boot. “Okay, fine.”
Rainbow raised an eyebrow. “Pizza?”
The boy yanked a slice from the box. “I’ll give you three minutes.”
Rainbow clapped her hands and grabbed the pizza. Shoving half the slice into her mouth, she mumbled. “Let’s go!”
While Darren rinsed and filled the hubcap, he wondered if he should alert Mr. Sag to all of this but decided it wasn’t worth bothering him.
The pizza kid turned around and kneeled to one knee. “Okay, oddball. Climb onto my back. Your ride awaits.”
As soon as they entered the garage, the kid—with Rainbow squealing on his back—jogged around the building’s perimeter three times then dumped her onto the ground. She whined in response until he shoved the hubcap toward her and ordered her to drink.
“You’re a puppy, right?”
“Then lap the water like a puppy.”
As the pizza kid sped away—his twenty folded into his shirt pocket—he cranked up his music, and the sound of rap floated away with graveling flying from his tires. Darren nudged Rainbow’s shoulder. “Come on, the game’s over. I’m going inside. I’ve got work to do.”
She sprang up. “Where’s my pizza?”
He turned and glanced at the trashcan by the rear door. “Sorry. I didn’t know you wanted more.”
Rainbow stiffened. “You ate the whole pizza?”
“I was hungry. Besides, the pizza kid gave you a slice. Remember?”
“You think one slice is enough? You’re a moron!” She pulled a long chain out from under her shirt, and seeing Darren’s eyes widen, she held up the chain’s gold skull and kissed it. “That ride didn’t last three minutes. I don’t like people who cross me.” She shoved the skull back under her shirt. “I’m telling my grandpa you ate my pizza.” With one last sniff, she marched into the store and slammed the door in Darren’s face. “Grandpa! Glorious Grandma! Darren ate all my pizza!”
Seeing nothing else he could do, Darren turned on his heels and fled.
Darren arrived at the shop early the next morning. In his left hand he held a cup of coffee from Mr. Sag’s favorite shop, and in the right, a small white bag that held a fresh blueberry muffin—Mr. Sag’s favorite. When he reached the back door, he shoved the bag under his left arm and turned the knob, but nothing happened. A heavy feeling filled his stomach. He wondered if he should go home because obviously Mr. Sag was still upset about him devouring all of Rainbow’s pizza. Deciding to try the handle once more, he tilted the coffee and yelped as the lid popped off and scalding liquid exploded, splattering his white shoes and socks.
“Shit!” He shoved the lid back on. Anger simmered in his brain and traveled down to his legs. If Mr. Sag hadn’t locked him out, this would never have happened. He jogged to the front entrance. The door knob turned easily in his hand. He blinked. Except for the lamp behind the counter, darkness invaded the shop. He flipped on the overhead lights. “Mr. Sag?” No answer but the buzz of the black clock. His shoes made a swooshing noise he never before noticed, but he welcomed it for it gave the quiet room a bit of life. Stepping behind the counter, he set the half-empty coffee cup and muffin down then froze. “Whoa!”
Quarter size droplets of blood dotted the desk behind the counter. One, two, three, four deep red circles. A knife rested nearby, and when he squinted, he saw a streak of red smeared down its shiny blade. His eyes lowered to the floor where more drops congregated. What the hell happened? he thought. His eyes flew to the clock. Eight thirty. The shop opened at nine. Where was Mr. Sag? And why was the front door unlocked? Whispers rose from the shelves that bulged with books; the characters ached to tell him what happened but couldn’t. Panic danced around him, and he backed away until a hand grabbed his shoulder.
Darren cried out and yanked free. Whoever killed Mr. Sag had returned.
“Darren, calm down! What’s wrong with you?” Mrs. Sag stood before him wearing tight blue jeans and a lacy red blouse. Diamonds sparkled at her throat. Her long fingers rested on her ample hips as she waited for Darren’s reply.
Blinking several times, he fought back the urge to run from the shop. And from her. But he couldn’t. She blocked the narrow space between him and the door.
Gulping, he found the words he needed to say. “Someone killed Mr. Sag!”
She smiled. “Don’t be silly.”
He pointed to the desk. He pointed to the blood. He pointed to the knife that looked even bigger than it had before. “Look!”
Her eyes—with too much mascara and eyeliner—loomed like black holes. She turned to the desk and studied it with great interest. “Whatever happened to Mr. Sag?”
Darren squeezed past her. “I don’t know. I came in early today, and the front door was open. I went to turn off that lamp, and that’s when I saw the blood.” Darren’s mind raced with ideas. He wondered if she killed him and then came back to clean up the mess. Did her bronze face mock Mr. Sag as she plunged the knife into his heart? After he collapsed, she would’ve dragged his body out the front to shove into her new Cadillac Escalade—ironically, a gift from Mr. Sag because he said she needed a larger vehicle to haul things. Like dead bodies, Darren thought.
Mrs. Sag brushed past him. “I stopped by to look for his cell phone. Rainbow was playing with it yesterday.” She straightened her fingers and gazed down at her nails—long and painted red, like blood. “That girl is crazy. Did you know she ran into a car last month on her skateboard?” She nodded at his blank look. “You know the intersection of Speedway and Country Club? Dumb girl skated off the sidewalk right into the street. Thankfully, all she got was a few bruises, but by the look of all the teddy bears and flowers people left, you’d think she got killed.” She drew in a breath. “I hate those roadside memorials. So depressing.”
Darren swallowed. “I’m glad she’s okay, but what about Mr. Sag? The blood? Where is he?”
She glanced at her watch. “The old man probably cut himself doing something foolish and went home to clean up.” Her eyes flickered. “You like working here?”
His eyebrows drew together. “Well, now that you bring it up, yeah. I like it here.” The question moved him; maybe because no one ever asked—not his mom or dad or even Mr. Sag—and spurred by her interest, he found himself explaining how his parents divorced and his dad moved to Tucson, leaving Darren and his mom behind in Chicago. “My parents decided I’d spend summers here with my dad. And, it’s been okay, I guess. I’m just glad Mr. Sag lets me work here. Otherwise …” He left it at that.
She listened while fingering her gold hoop earring, and when Darren finished, she tilted her head. “I like you, Darren, and I’m glad my husband made you manager. You deserve it.”
“What? No! You are the manager. And, I’ll tell Mr. Sag that when I see him.” She fanned her face with one hand. “I’m making the decisions now.”
He straightened. “Wow. Okay. Thank you.”
“Tell you what. It’s about opening time, so why don’t I clean up this mess, and you take care of business. After all, you’re the manager.”
“But what about Mr. Sag?” He gulped and glanced at the knife.
She gave a huff. “Don’t worry about him. I’m sure he’s fine. Now, get to work while I clean up.”
Darren watched as she strutted to the back for a cannister of sanitizing wipes before flipping over the door sign to read ‘open.’ While Mrs. Sag scrubbed away the blood, Darren dragged out the vacuum from the closet and pushed the heavy relic across the room in search of an outlet. Matted gray fur—courtesy of the stray cat Mr. Sag allowed inside under the pretense of catching mice—clung to the carpet along with the dirt clods that caught a ride on someone’s shoes.
Tufts of dust spewed from the vacuum’s cannister. Grunting, Darren pushed the cleaner across the floor and hoped the effort would pay off by giving him bigger guns. Crackling and groaning, the cleaner wasn’t used to so much work, so it began to ignore the dirt and dust until Darren kicked it as a reminder of who was boss. That accomplished, he returned to the now-cleaned desk where a pile of new books waited to be catalogued and priced. No blood. Not even a trace, and in fact, the desk, with its orange laminate surface, never looked so good. Or clean. Still, Darren wondered about the blood. And, Mr. Sag.
“Maybe you should call him. Mr. Sag, that is, to see if he’s okay,” Darren said. “Something’s not right. He left the door unlocked. And then there’s the knife. I’m kind of worried.”
At the mention of the knife, she held it up and admired it under the overhead light but then shoved it into her bag. “Oh, I would, but …” She patted her pocket and grinned, showing bright white teeth. “I got his phone right here, so that won’t help. Besides, I’m sure he’s fine. I mean, why wouldn’t he be?”
Darren shuffled from one foot to the next. “I’ll be here until three today, but I can stay longer if you need me. But I’m sure Mr. Sag will be back by then.” His eyes locked with hers. “Right?” Silence prodded him to repeat himself. “Right, Mrs. Sag?”
Laughing, she slung her bag over her shoulder. “You’re a sweet kid, Darren. Why don’t you plan to work the full day? And since you’re not in school this summer, how about you work full-time? I mean, I’m not exactly sure when Mr. Sag will be back.”
“What do you mean?”
“I think it’s about time he took a vacation.” She nodded. “Yes, that’s it. A long, relaxing vacation somewhere with palm trees and a pool. When I see him, I’ll talk him into taking a vacation.” She straightened the large silver and turquoise cross that had tangled with her diamond necklace. “While he’s gone, I’d like you to think up some ways to make this place better. We haven’t had a profit for too long, and you are the manager now. I believe you’ve got what it takes to make this old place a success. After all, you’re young and strong and smart.” Her mouth resisted a smile. “Unlike that jackass I married.”
She killed him, he thought. Or, did she? She seems pretty nice.
After Mrs. Sag left, Darren wandered the shop with purposeful steps. He winced at the dust coated windows that filtered the light and made him think of allergies and altered senses. Reverting his vision to the four stucco walls, his eyes clutched the monuments of painted and printed Saguaros, the rows of shelves stuffed with books hopelessly abandoned and dismissed due to either too-high prices or unpopular content, the beaten-down sofas and wing-back chairs with electrical taped arms and wobbly legs, and last, the old mean coffeemaker that on any given day, vomited streams of tar and black steam. Would Mrs. Sag agree to replace it?
A flood of doubt washed over him as he thought about his abilities and how she expected him to turn things around. She’s wrong, he thought as he emptied the coffee’s filter basket into the trash. I don’t have what it takes. His thoughts bullied and mocked him until he saw no other option but to leave. She’ll get someone else to help her, he thought. But then he heard the slam of the door. Whirling around, he saw him. And smiled.
“Hey, man. I know you!” When Darren caught the high pitch of his voice, he forced it lower. “You delivered pizza here yesterday.” Seeing another kid lifted Darren’s mood. Desire for company and curiosity overwhelmed him, so he took a few deep breaths—hoping the kid didn’t notice—and said, “You here to buy a book?”
Consternation dug into the pizza kid’s face; his eyes protruded like he just spotted a tarantula on Darren’s shoulder. “Book?” He erupted into laughter. “You’re funny.” Sweeping his hand from side to side, he said, “Who buys these relics you call books?”
Darren stiffened. “Why are you here?”
The pizza kid pulled a pack of cigarettes from his back pocket. “I can’t find my skull. Have you seen it?” He lit a cigarette, took a drag, and eyed Darren as he waited.
“Is this a joke? By the way, we don’t allow smoking.”
Before the pizza kid could reply, he saw a tiny gray mouse scamper across the floor behind Darren. He grinned. “You need to get a cat, bro. But, no joke, Einstein. I was wearing a chain with a gold skull yesterday when I brought the pizza. Now I can’t find it.” He glanced around the room. “Is there someone with some authority I could talk to? Because you don’t seem too swift.”
An image of Rainbow holding up the skull to kiss it flashed across Darren’s mind. He clamped his lips shut and wondered what to do.
“Well?” The pizza kid tapped his foot. “Are you deaf or just stupid?”
Darren felt his lips twitch, and he struggled to push back a smile. “Hardly. I’m the manager. Why don’t you and your stinking cigarette go outside and look around there, Einstein? Maybe it fell off out back by the garage while you were playing with my boss’s granddaughter.”
The pizza kid stubbed out his cigarette on Mr. Sag’s laminate desk. “I already did that. Maybe that little girl found it. Is she around here? Maybe sniffing glue behind the desk or licking stamps for fun?”
“Nah, she’s not around today. Even if she was …” The two boys locked eyes.
The pizza kid dropped his gaze. “Look, I’m sorry I’m being an ass. My grandpa gave me that skull years ago, and it’s special to me.” He took a step and held out his hand. “You seem pretty cool. I’m Liam.”
Darren gripped Liam’s hand as hard as he could. “I’m Darren. I’ll ask Rainbow—that’s the little girl—about your skull.” He shrugged. “She might be able to help. You could stop back later next week if you want.”
Liam’s shoulders relaxed. “I will. By the way, where’s that crazy old man who’s usually in here?”
“That would be my boss, Mr. Sag, but that’s not his real name.” He couldn’t stop talking. “He loves Saguaros, so that’s why he’s called Mr. Saguaro, or Mr. Sag, for short.” His stomach churned at the thought of the blood knife and blood drops across the floor. “Mrs. Sag, his wife, said I could take care of things until he returns.” Remembering Mrs. Sag’s words, he added, “I think he’s on vacation.”
Liam sauntered over to one of the shelves and peered at the row of books. He gave Darren a pointed look. “You know, I’ve stopped in here a few times after school to look around, but …” Yanking a book from the shelf, he handed it to Darren. “When was this printed? The 1920s? By the way, that old guy wasn’t too nice, especially when I asked him who buys these books? They’re old and outdated, man. Way overpriced. You say you’re the manager? If that’s true, you’d better start managing things, or this place will crash and burn—if it hasn’t already.”
Darren nodded. He felt an unfamiliar pang in his chest that became stronger as his excitement grew.
Mrs. Sag said she needs me, he thought. If I try, I can make this place successful.
“Did you hear me?” Liam frowned. “I said this place will crash and burn if you don’t do something soon. And that would suck because it’s pretty cool. Like, retro cool. All it needs is some love and labor.”
Finally, working here felt right. “I’ve got some ideas that will make this place awesome. In fact, Mrs. Sag said I could do whatever I want to improve things.”
Liam looked down at his scuffed black boots. “You know, no one would guess by looking at me that I love books. I was a 4.0 student until … well, I did a little juvie time, but that’s over.” He paused. “I’m not delivering pizzas anymore either, so maybe I could help.”
Darren rubbed his chin. “You’re not going to rob me, are you?”
Liam laughed. “Of what?” He fished his cigarette out of his pocket. “I’ll be back in the morning, but until then, take my advice—get a cat. And not one of the fluffy little kitties from the pound or a tom. Get a female cat. They’re badass.”
The next morning, a reluctant sun struggled to stream through the windows of the Old Tucson Book Store. Darren arrived shortly after with a mop and bucket clutched in each hand. He attacked the front window first, the one that stretched across two sofas and a chair, and scrubbed inside and out until his sponge matched the black liquid he knew as water. Three bucket refills later, he looked up from his work to see Liam standing over him, an orange tabby cat nesting in his arms.
“Hey, kid. I brought you a cat. She hangs around the pizza parlor parking lot, and I’ve seen her carry off a rat or two, so I know she’s a hunter. Anyway, I knew if I didn’t take her, my ex-asshole-manager would probably poison her.”
Darren tossed his sponge down and stood. “So? What am I supposed to do with it? I’m not running a shelter, and frankly, she doesn’t look like much.”
Liam gently set the cat down, and immediately, her nose and tail twitched. “Look, don’t let her cuteness factor fool you. She’s a killer. She’ll get rid of the mice you’ve got roaming around. No one wants to see mice when they shop. Do they?”
As the weeks unfolded, Liam helped Darren revamp the shop. Each of the long, rectangular windows of the small bookstore sparkled. Whatever carpet and wood once covered the floors was ripped out and gone, replaced by red terracotta tile installed by two guys from Tio’s Tile down the street. The boys had emptied all the shelves of books. They repainted the bookshelves yellow then sorted, catalogued, repriced, and tossed the current inventory, and with Mrs. Sag’s permission, purchased a slew of new books from the wholesaler Mr. Sag once used. Liam even invited a local historical author to give a presentation and to sign his latest book.
“It’s definitely an improvement. Still …” Liam paced the room; his sharp eyes took in the stained and tired couches and chairs from every angle. “Let’s talk to Mrs. Sag about new furniture. Like I said weeks ago, we don’t want customers to leave. We want customers to sit, look at books, buy some, and stay.”
Darren agreed. The darkness that hung over him at the beginning of summer had—little by little—disappeared. He knew why. He found his place—in Tucson, Arizona, on a block of crumbling buildings with blue, yellow, green, and red graffiti that bounced off the stucco walls into the eyes of everyone who passed; he loved the delectable aromas of spicy chorizo sausages, chili peppers, simmering salsas, marinating pork carnitas, and tangy barbeque that drifted from nearby cafes, and the friendly, cheerful neighbors who brought the boys food and cleaning supplies ever since Darren replaced the open sign with one that read: closed until September 1st for fix up.
Things got done. The store reopened with lots of new things but missing one old—Mr. Saguaro.
Three couches—one in red, blue, and green—sat in the middle of the store between the open aisle bookshelves and check-out counter. Between each couch sat a white tiled rectangular table, and a matching table hosted the new, state-of-the-art Bunn coffeemaker that Darren’s dad sold Mrs. Sag at cost. Mrs. Sag arrived late one afternoon while Liam and Darren worked on setting up a new computer and accounting system. Her wide-set eyes popped as she gazed around the room. She folded her arms and smiled.
“I see you’ve spent Mr. Sag’s money—I mean, my money well.” She pranced around the shop and nodded; her red-framed sunglasses slid down her forehead and bumped her nose, so she yanked them off and shoved them into her bosom. “All I can say, boys, is without the life insurance I got recently from …” She shuddered and paused. “From mi tia—she made the sign of the cross and whispered, “God rest her soul”—none of this would be possible. I’m sure Mr. Sag would be pleased. But more important, I’m pleased. And that’s all that really matters.”
Four days before the grand reopening, Darren tried again to find out what happened to Mr. Sag.
Frowning at the question, Mrs. Sag said, “Forget Mr. Sag. I’m your boss now. Poor Mr. Sag decided to pursue other things. But I’m sure his curiosity will entice him to stop by one day. Now wipe that frown from your face, and get back to work.”
Darren cleared his throat. “What about the blood and knife? Was he injured, or … ?” He raised his eyebrows and waited.
She scowled. “Didn’t I already tell you what happened?”
He shook his head.
“Well, the old fool used that butcher knife to cut himself an apple. The knife slid, and he cut his finger to the bone.”
Liam and Darren gave one another a furtive look.
“Well, of course he rushed home for a bandage. I found him whimpering and bleeding all over my kitchen when I got home later, but don’t worry.” Her eyes sparkled. “I took care of him. Now can we move on already? Before we open, I want you boys to get rid of all those damn Saguaro paintings. Throw them in the dumpster or whatever. Then second, repaint everything a golden yellow—the shade of a Harvest moon.”
Instead of throwing the paintings out, the boys quickly packed the Saguaro artwork into boxes and stacked them in the renovated garage. Sweat rolled off Liam’s face while Darren’s face glistened from fear.
“You know, Liam.” Darren’s voice lowered as he glanced around. “I think she did it. I think she killed old Mr. Sag. And, I think we should tell someone.”
Mrs. Sag demoted Darren to assistant manager while giving Liam the manager job. Darren understood. Liam had graduated from high school last May, and for the time being, had no plans for to go college.
“I never liked school. I lied when I said I was a 4.0 student,” Liam confessed. “It’s a miracle I made it as far as I did.” He swept his long, bony arms in a dramatic gesture. “Besides, this is the only education I’ve ever wanted.” The boys rested on the new picnic table out back, a gift from Mrs. Sag so Liam could have a place to smoke while Darren chugged his can of coke.
Liam took a final drag of his cigarette then crushed the lit end against the side of the table. “Have you talked to your parents anymore about letting you stay?”
Darren drained his coke; his eyes never left Liam’s face. Wiping his hand across his mouth, he sighed. “It wasn’t easy. Mom had all kinds of reasons why I should go back to Chicago—you know, finish school, be with my friends, continue my violin lessons. Blah, blah, blah.” He looked off in the distance. “That shows how little she knows me. I hate my old high school, I have no friends, and I suck at playing the violin.” A warm breeze stumbled past and wrapped its arms around Darren in a hug. “Anyway, yeah. I’m staying. I’ll be going to the same high school you just left. Besides, Mrs. Sag needs me here.” He nudged his friend. “And, you do, too, since I’m your assistant manager.” Feeling a bit awkward, he scrambled off the table, tossed his can in the trash, and reached into his pocket. “Here, dude.” And with that, he tossed the chain with the gold skull in Liam’s direction.
Darren didn’t want to lie, but he also didn’t want to be honest about the skull, specifically, Rainbow’s part in it. When he confronted her several days earlier, she pursed her lips and clammed up; that is, until Darren opened his backpack to show her the sleeping cat Liam had brought him. Rainbow threw her hands up and squealed; before Darren could stop her, she lifted the cat from the bag and nuzzled it under her chin.
“I love her! What’s her name?”
Darren rolled his eyes. “Mouser?”
“No. I’ll call her Angel because she’s my little angel cat.”
Darren watched for a moment, then he held out his hand. She didn’t hesitate. Rainbow pulled the chain and skull up over her head and dropped it into his palm.
Once a month on a Saturday, the shop hosted a group of young guys who played mariachi music. The shop bustled with book and music lovers alike who tapped their feet, swayed their hips, and hummed. Liam rushed around the room to answer questions, find books, and offer suggestions, while Darren worked the counter. As the afternoon slowed down to a crawl, Darren took a deep breath and sat at the stool behind the register. He pulled out his cell phone to check for messages when Liam rushed over to him.
“Hey, man, I need your help with this guy.” Liam pointed to the back. “He’s hogging the coffee machine, and people are getting pissed. I’d help, but I’m working with a customer.”
Darren’s shoulders slumped. “I just saw Mrs. Sag come in. Can’t she handle it?”
Liam shook his head. “She said to get you.”
Darren marched over to the coffee machine and glared at the man’s back. He tapped his shoulder. “Excuse me, sir? Is there something I can help you with?”
The man laughed, a deep and throaty sound that vibrated his body. He turned. “Well, well, boy. It’s about time you came over to say hello.” He grinned at Darren’s blank look. “What’s the matter? I wasn’t dead, dummy. I was getting detoxed. Damn booze.” Glancing around the busy room, his eyes darted until they rested on his wife, absorbed in replying her lipstick. “Now don’t go around telling anybody. The missus wants to keep it quiet.”
Darren grinned. “Glad you’re back, Mr. Sag.”
Mr. Sag smirked. “Nice job, kid. Except for one thing—what the hell did you do with my Saguaros?”
Carolyn Weisbecker earned her Master of Arts in English & Creative Writing from Southern New Hampshire University. Her fiction has appeared in the Penmen Review, the Binnacle, Mark Literary Review, and Adelaide Books included her short story, “Bo and Arrow,” in their 2019 Children’s Literature and Illustration Anthology.