He waited for an hour. In the rain. Without an umbrella. He tucked the school supplies he bought for his daughter Bessie in his windbreaker. The plastic bag was already wet and clung to the notebooks. Baxter Winkler knew he was giving his ex-wife yet another reason to think of him as a poor schlub who couldn’t get anything right.
He had made a promise to his boss Jerry, who was in the hospital with a bad heart, that he would meet some guy at the corner of Washington and Harold Streets at 4pm on Wednesday and pick up a package Jerry needed.
If it were anyone else, Baxter would have given it 15 minutes. Now 75 minutes had passed and the rain was steadily streaming off Baxter’s long, thin nose. He turned on his heels and started to walk the three blocks to his apartment when he heard gutter water splash and brakes squeal, and then, “Winkler. Over here.”
Baxter turned around and walked to the dark sedan. A man leaned across the passenger seat and waved him forward. “I got the thing for your boss.” He was older, gray-haired with silver glasses perched at the edge of his nose, cheeks sagging with age.
“How come you know my name but I don’t know yours?” Baxter asked, suspicious.
The old man shrugged. He handed Baxter what felt like a hefty book wrapped in brown paper. Baxter nodded and tucked it into his jacket. The old man waved and drove off.
What book would Jerry want? Baxter wondered. When the New Confederacy took control of the country, they began banning books. Each month, they distributed a list of approved books in newspapers. They held huge rallies to burn the remainders. For months during the first year, a smoky layer hung over towns and cities. All those words, lifted into the sky as embers, burning out like meteors. Millions of books. Trillions of words. Centuries of knowledge— theorized, tested, debated, analyzed—now became fodder for the black market, currency of the underground, or most often, ash.
As soon as he got to his apartment, Baxter pulled out the school supplies and placed them on his kitchen table, one by one. Notebook, lined paper, three pencils and a case, a narrow watercolor set, small box of crayons. He let them breathe, hoped they would make Bessie proud. School meant more to kids these days, now that enrollment was a lottery and only one-third of them were accepted. Once they were in, they were in through college if they kept up with their classes. The other children had to rely on parents to teach them at home and hope for a lottery child’s failure to open a spot in the school.
But Bessie was smart. She passed her first two years of school easily.
On Thursday morning, Baxter took the subway to Mercy Hospital, in the northern suburb of the city. He remembered how the houses were once middle class, arranged in sub-divisions named after trees: Aspen Circle, Walnut Way, Maple Meadows. Now half the homes were abandoned and the other half were occupied by squatters, the streets turned to crumbling blacktop, mailboxes tilted at 45-degree angles.
Jerry was awake when Baxter walked in the hospital room with the package inside his coat. “Where should I put it?” Baxter asked. Tubes knotted up Jerry’s arms.
“Under my legs,” Jerry said quietly.
“Really? Won’t the doctor find it?”
“It’s for the doctor. It’s my payment. He’s keeping me alive.”
“It’s a book, right? What is it?” Baxter looked at Jerry and wondered how much life one book could afford.
“The Origin of the Species. Darwin,” Jerry murmured. “One triple bypass is now on the menu and that’s what I’m ordering.”
“Survival of the fittest. Gotta love the irony,” Baxter laughed. Then he grew serious. “Hey, the guy who delivered the package? He knew my name. Makes me a little nervous.”
“Aw, don’t worry,” Jerry said, waving his hand. “Go on home.”
Riding the subway back to the city, Baxter felt a pair of eyes following him. As he made his way out of the station and down the alley to his apartment, he sensed it was more than a hunch and he found himself negotiating with God or whoever in his head. Please, just let me see Bessie.
Baxter felt the shot blaze through his chest. As he fell, he pictured the paper, pencils, crayons, aligned neatly, ready for brave words.