It was deep winter when a young writer walked into a secondhand store. The outside noise of car tyres slopping through slush and blistering wind was muffled by a raggedy carpet and shelves stuffed to the brim with people’s previous lives. The original broiler warmed the shop and the writer’s limbs from the biting cold.
He took off his tuque and brushed his sandy hair aside, glancing at the old woman reading a Lifestyle magazine behind the till. She flipped the page as the writer waded through boxes and piles of objects which formed a maze of winding trails and dead ends throughout the place. He had to scale some steps crowded by bags of discarded teddy bears and pillows to reach the clothing racks.
Warmer attire than he brought with him was needed in this new city, so he picked out the better flannels and a pair of corduroy pants. Plus a few sets of wool blend socks knitted by the local grandmother’s guild. Although they were only a few dollars each, the writer still had to choose wisely in order to cover the cost.
As he gathered his loot and turned to go pay his eye caught the spine of a fine leather book. Small and black, it was, and being crushed at the very bottom of a pile of books as tall as himself. He tugged on it, hoping to slip it free, but the whole tower swayed dangerously.
The writer started to unload the upper books five or seven at a time. He put them wherever there was a bit of space on adjacent shelves or floor—some toppled and fell from sight—until finally the little book was freed.
As soon as it was in the writer’s hands a surge of happiness warmed his cheeks. It was a beautiful book full of possibility, its pages hand stitched and milky. He searched everywhere for a price sticker but there was none.
As he made his way to the till, the writer thought hard to decide which item of clothing he would leave behind so that he could afford to take the book with him.
The old lady eyed him from behind her thick reading glasses as she manually entered each label into the ancient cash register. She took special care with the socks, smiling. Then the writer finally handed her the book.
“I couldn’t see a price on this one,” said the writer.
He stuffed his hands into his pockets and fiddled nervously with the coins there.
The lady smiled and put the book straight into the bag with the other things and patted his hand.
“You have that one, dear,” she said. “It’s probably been here as long as this shop. If you don’t show it some love I doubt anyone ever will.”
The writer thanked her deeply, paid, and stepped triumphantly into the cold. The bitter wind cut into his face but he didn’t even feel it.
Happiness was a difficult feeling to hold onto as he reached his apartment block and marched up echoing stairs to the fifth floor. The front door got stuck as he tried to open it and only by ramming it with his shoulder did it come loose. The cigarette smoke, detectable from the hall, punched his nose when he stepped inside. The tiny apartment was hazy and the kitchen hadn’t been cleaned in weeks. Dirt and dust was accumulated against the baseboards and crunched between his shoes and the delaminating floor.
An unkept man, the landlord, was sprawled wide-legged on the couch playing video games. The coffee table was crammed with bottles, cans, old takeout, ashtrays, and cigarette buds, spilling onto the floor.
The writer crossed the apartment to reach his room, and without a glance the man barked, “Where’s the rent?”
“It’s not due yet,” said the writer as he escaped into his room and locked the door.
“Get me the rent!” the landlord yelled after him.
The writer’s room was small but clean. Despite the cold he always left the window open to air out the fumes. The bed and the desk almost touched. And his dresser was home to his clothes as well as an electric stove, a kettle, and a set of crockery. The bottom drawer was dedicated to instant noodles.
He threw his bag onto the bed but kept his coat on for warmth. His work chair squeaked and sank three inches when he sat in it. Then he opened a new document on his computer and stared at the blank page, fingers hovering above the keys.
Occasionally, he glanced at the gilded certificate framed on the wall above him, hoping for inspiration. Silence prevailed.
He tried to squeeze out sentences, hoping that they would catalyse into a better idea. But then the dog across the complex started barking, and the landlord shouted in frustration and threw his controller at the tv. His girlfriend came home shortly after and they began to argue. The writer gave up and fell into his creaky bed with a heart-heavy sigh.
He drew the old book to his chest and that sensation of boundless imagination tickled him again. As he absorbed the smell of times long passed his mind reclined, and he began to imagine distant landscapes and far away shores.
Quite suddenly, like a clear ringing bell, he got an idea. A brilliant, wonderful idea. It rushed into his head fully formed as if it had always been there. He leapt out of bed and hurried to his desk.
But not two sentences into typing, the writer’s grip on his inspiration slipped. And by the third line he couldn’t remember the idea. He reread what he’d written over and over, but it was gone like a snowflake to a candle. He picked up the little black book, and in moments the idea rushed back.
The writer found a pen at the bottom of a drawer and drew it across a scrap paper until the ink ran freely again. After a moment’s hesitation he wrote on the page, and the story spilled forth. There was no separation between thought and action, each word arrived as he needed it without pause or worry. It was as if the book hungered for his story, and it had waited so long that now it was ravenous.
The writer felt his hand speeding up, but he couldn’t maintain pace and soon his fingers began to cramp. Spelling mistakes and thick crossed out lines outnumbered legible words. Without thinking he tore the page out, crumpled it, and flung it sideways.
A flutter drew his eyes and instead of the one piece of paper there were several papers spiralling towards the ground. He gathered them gingerly, and saw that they were hundred dollar bills. His eyes flitted between the book and what used to be the torn page. He suddenly felt light-headed and not quite in his body.
He tried tearing out a blank page next, but nothing happened. Then he tore out a page of his writing, and before his eyes it transformed into paper money. His stomach plummeted as he inhaled sharply.
He shoved the bills back into the book and slammed the cover shut.
For days the writer stayed in his room writing in his little black book until the very last page. What it contained was nothing less than his best work.
He reread it over and over, and each time it felt like reading someone else’s work; one of the greats, someone to be admired. The book became his first thought when he awoke, and his last before sleep. He felt like an imposter and worried that publishing a story of such caliber would expose him as a fraud. And all the while the money which he tucked out of sight at the back of the book further contaminated his joy.
For a while he resisted going public with his story, until the constant rejection from publishers, papers, and magazines was too heavy to bear. But when he tried to transcribe his story from the book to his computer, the writer found his fingers inexplicably frozen above the keys. He tried to narrate the story to his phone instead, but as soon as he pressed record his throat seized when he read the words. It seemed the book had a mind of its own, and it held the writer’s story hostage.
The writer threw the book in a box under his bed and tried to forget about it. But mounting financial burdens grew heavy like an elephant standing on his chest.
He found himself reaching for the book because he didn’t have any money for food or public transport. Later, the sole of his left shoe delaminated and he couldn’t afford a new pair without the book. He kept tearing pages, and kept throwing it back under the bed promising never to do it again.
One evening, the writer accidentally opened mail intended for his landlord. His brow furrowed at the official document which declared what was owed on the mortgage that month. His heart sank to his feet and then his neck prickled with angry sweat as he realised that he was paying for half of it.
“You said we would split the rent evenly three ways,” cried the writer, confronting the landlord in the kitchen.
A steaming kettle on the stove was about to roll into a boil.
“I never said that,” the landlord replied, slurring his words. “You sleep in one room, me n’ Nat share the other room. So that’s your fair share!”
The writer stood his ground, but the other man decided he was more in the mood for fists than verbal sparring. The writer hit the floor hard, his chin aching horribly.
Limping back to his room, he reached under the bed and pulled out his precious book.
Once he started ripping, he didn’t stop. Page after page he tore violently and without remorse until only the binding remained. Scattered about the writer’s lap was a giant pile of paper money; twenty thousand in total.
He started packing immediately. Not one second more than was necessary would he spend here, now that he had the means to escape. Suitcases bursting, backpack cutting into his shoulders, the writer stormed out of the dingy apartment and into the lamp-lit streets towards the closest motel. His tears froze to his face, and at first they came from anger but then relief swept through him and carried him
His luck turned the next day when, working at the coffee shop, he struck up a conversation with a customer who offered him a better living arrangement. She was a mother suffering empty nest syndrome with two children off at college. When she learned of the writer’s predicament she wouldn't take no for an answer.
On his next day off the writer settled his student debt. He was unapologetic as he counted the notes in front of the bank teller and slid them across the bench. With the remaining amount he bought a new computer, and sat down in his new room to write.
He told the story of a little black book and its gift, as well as its curse. Then sent it off to several publishing companies and forgot about it. Days later he was offered a job as junior editor for Lifestyle magazine, though he had never applied directly with them. The writer figured that somehow his story had been passed around and impressed the right people.
And though life was good, the writer sometimes longed for his lost opus. He continued to write impressive stories, but he could never replicate the pure creation that little black book had gifted him.
His guilt did not linger for long. He was already starting to forget...