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Suzy Sal

By James Montello


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            Every working stiff I know hates something about their job.  For me, it’s the complete and utter absence of women.  Occasionally, of course, a member of the fairer sex visits my little corner of Main Street, but usually she’s an overwrought Den Mother who’s been shanghaied by a gang of mutinous Cub Scouts.  No, my clientele is predominantly male, fathers and sons, and frequently the only way to tell those groups apart is by noting that fathers are usually taller and more mature.  Usually. 

                Years ago, back when this was my after school and weekend job, I met the first and still the only “regular” female customer I’ve ever known this store to have.  Her name was…Sue, Suzanne, maybe Sally.  Her father always called her Suzy Sal.  Neither of them ever invited me into their joke, so I never knew what the Suzy Sal might have been short for, or long for as far as that goes.  They came in every Saturday, right about 11:30, like clockwork.  She always had her blonde curls stuffed through the hole in the back of a baseball cap, and her dad followed her around like he was Secret Service.  She was his princess—his pride and joy.  When the weather was warm, Suzy Sal invariably appeared with a chocolate ice cream cone in hand.  In cold weather, it was a cup of hot chocolate. 

Her father was always polite, well dressed even on the hottest summer days, and she adored him.  They’d step in from the sunny sidewalk hand in hand, and patiently the man let his little girl lead him.  Up and down the rows, past faces of heroes and villains alike, until she’d zeroed in on the book she wanted.  “This one, Daddy,” she’d exclaim when something finally caught her eye.  I never once heard them bicker about the price of a rare book.  Dad’s answer was usually yes, but when it was no Suzy Sal (forgive me it’s the only name I know) would cheerfully and carefully return the comic to its place on the shelf.

About the time I decided to buy this place, Suzy Sal began to buy comics “with her own money,” earned for doing chores and babysitting her younger siblings.  One week—she must have been 11 or 12 by this time—she said there was nothing in the store she really wanted.  “It’s okay, Dad.  I’d like to save my money,” was her story.  I thought she might just be getting too old for comic books, that she was spending her money on clothes or makeup or other things teenage girls treasure.  I remember thinking, “How sweet.  She still comes to the comic book store with her old man every Saturday.”  For nearly 3 months the routine was the same.  Her father still bought a book or two occasionally, but Suzy Sal left the store empty-handed every time.

I was surprised one Friday in June when she came into the shop by herself.  She walked straight up to the case in the back, and pulled a gallon jar of change out of her backpack.  I walked over to see her pointing at a very expensive book.  “I want to buy this for my dad,” she said.  “You tell me how much I need, and I’ll start counting.”  I asked her why this particular comic.  I was pretty sure her jar didn’t hold that much money.  “My dad has always wanted this one.  It’s the only missing issue from his collection.”  Suddenly she looked frightened.  “This is enough money, isn’t it?  Maybe I’d better count it.  I haven’t bought anything—not even a soda in months.  I even picked up extra chores every week.”  She had started to cry, poor kid. 

So I leaned across the counter and I said, “that jar looks just about perfect.”  She sniffled and smiled.  I gave her my handkerchief to wipe her eyes, and I put the treasured comic book in a bag.  I didn’t even count the change.  Actually, I took it to my apartment to use as ante on poker nights.  It was my first big loss as a businessman, but I figured what the hell.  She and her father had spent hundreds, maybe thousands on books since I’d known them.  In the grand scheme, I could afford to eat one comic book, however rare.

Her father asked me the next time they came in how she’d managed to pay for the book.  I’m sure he didn’t think she stole it, but it was quite a purchase for a kid.  I told him she brought me a gallon jar of change that had just covered it.  He didn’t believe me.  His eyes, well they just screamed that I was lying, but he returned to the side of his princess, and never mentioned it again.  After that the ritual weekly book purchase was never the same.  It’s a terrible thing, when a kid realizes they can live without their comics, without the heroes they emulate and the villains they thrash in backyards and basements around the world.  But it happens to all of them, sooner or later.

By the time Suzy reached Junior High she had discovered clothes, and makeup, and (pity her father) boys.  The old man continued coming to the store.  His appearances grew less frequent with his age.  It seemed, in his later years, that this place broke his heart some days, because his little girl still lived here.  Then, he stopped coming in altogether, and I naturally assumed the worst.  I couldn’t even check the papers; he had always paid in cash and I knew his surviving daughter wouldn’t be listed as Suzy Sal.  Eventually, they both slipped into the fog of memory and the endless sea of customers.

Yesterday, Suzy Sal came into my shop at 11:30 sharp.  All grown up, she looked beautiful, professional, poised.  Like years before, she walked directly to the display case in the back.  When she spoke, her eyes brimmed over.  “This one, please.”  I followed her gaze to a Superman book, Superman’s death. 

Your father?”  I asked and she nodded.  “I always thought he was a truly good man.  I never really knew him, but, I know he thought the world of you.”  I offered her my handkerchief.  She accepted.

“He was everything to me,” she replied.  Composing herself, she reached into her purse.

“Please.  It’s on the house.  Your dad was one of my best customers.”

After much debating, she relented to take the comic book.  But when I cleaned the store that night I found a hundred-dollar bill stuffed under the cash register, with this note:

When I was a girl this place taught me the value of a dollar.  Today you taught me the value of an old friend.  Take this, with my love and my gratitude.  Never give this place up.  It’s the last piece of home kids like me will ever have.

She had signed it Suzy Sal.

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