The shopping mall began to fill about 6:00am. By about 8:00 the old men had finished walking. They gathered on one side of the food court, where they pulled several thermos bottles and Styrofoam cups out of a couple of backpacks. Their hats and manners suggested that a good number of them might have last names of Epstein, Goldstein, or Rubin.
A number of women of the same age had gathered after their walk and settled for several tables a short distance away. They were waiting for the Starbucks to open so they could get their Latte's. They often found some excuse to go over to the "Old Men's Sector" to ask for an opinion or help for something. It was no use, however, because they were gathered for the daily show in front of "Van Zant's."
It was like a bunch of seven year old boys watching a magic trick for the eighteenth time. You could have thrown a brick through a plate glass window, and none of the men would have turned their heads away from the show.
Gabriella Van Zandt usually arrived early to open her little shop that opened onto the Food Court. She had inherited it from her father. She had her large leather purse slung over her right shoulder and a large plastic shopping bag in each hand.
She had come back a weekend trip to visit the Clinton Library in Little Rock. She was wearing one of her trophies of the weekend. She had gone to one of the art galleries along the river front. She had found a Stetson hat. It was turned on a lathe out of wood. The hat had been made of green wood. It had been turned to about 1/8" in thickness and allowed to dry. The wood had been coated with tongue oil to keep it from drying out completely. It was surprisingly light but also extremely fragile. The "hatband" had been formed with a series of drilled holes; drilled at an angle so they looked like scales of an iguana. The iguana was beautiful.
Gabriella had long, high-heeled lizard skin boots that zipped up the sides and stopped just below her knees. The boots were invisible because her boot cut Levi's were worn outside and flared to just the bottom of her high heel boots. The fabric was the newer "skinny jeans" stretch fabric that fit like a glove.
Her starched, blue oxford clothe button collar shirt had been custom tailored with darts along the inseam so there were no wrinkles. Her medium size melon shaped breasts were not big, but seemed to cantilever beyond belief for non-surgically enhanced expectations.
They knew she was coming even before she turned the corner. They had grown accustomed to the familiar "clip-clop" and timing of those high-heeled shoes. Sometimes she wore a silk pant suit; sometimes she wore a summer dress. It didn't make any difference. The men recognized the sound and cadence like the Pavlov dog.
They sat with all chairs turned to watch the spectacle. This forty-year-old woman did not bounce or wiggle when she walked. It was more like a cheetah or jaguar gliding across the room. Her butt-cheeks seemed to clench and loosen like an animal stalking a gazelle through the grass.
She smiled at them and gave a slight wink as she put one plastic bag in her mouth and pulled out her keys. She had to bend over to unlock the deadbolt at the bottom of the chain-link gate to her shop. The men were always too dumbfounded with her to have the manners to help. Besides, they did not want to miss the rear view as she unlocked the gate.
After Gabriella had raised the gate, the men filtered into her shop. It was really an autograph store. The memorabilia covered almost anybody one could think of. There were letters to and from presidents. One of the prize mementos of the store was a photograph of Cochise. It had been taken when he had been touring with a circus. He had learned to make the letters to his name. He had written his name vertically, with one letter above the next down the side of the photograph.
This was the main feature that kept people coming into the store. She was not about to let it go, so there was a price of $40,000.00 on it. She had two more at home in her safe, but they were the darkest secrets in her life.
The men sat at the long glass dining room table just inside the coiled chain link gate. They made small chit-chat as Gabriella filled the Museum Quality Espresso Machine with filters. When the coffee was ready, she put two white boxes of glazed donuts on the table and served them coffee.
At several thousand dollars each for Autographs, there were not a lot of them sold every day. On the other hand, she could always attract lots of people in and sell a lot of coffee for $2.00 per cup. The arrangement was too good to pass up. The bad economy had decimated the mall with closures. She had been offered the small space for nothing because they could not rent all of it. It was better to have somebody fill a space on a monthly lease basis than have brown butcher's paper along the vacant spaces. Besides, Gabriella had received national attention periodically for some unique autographs and the celebrities who came into town to see the place.
One of the displays that almost nobody noticed were the puppets. On a shelf behind the cashier's counter was a row of puppets. They were not for sale. Women just seem to have a way of adding sentimental items to everything; whether it is a doll in their car; seashells in the bathroom or pillows on the bed. They want something to make everything feel like home.
Gabriella's father and mother had been part of the French resistance during the war. He and his wife had carved and clothed these puppets and put on shows throughout France as a cover for their travels. It was a way of covering long distances and meeting all sorts of people during the war. The seams had been sewn and re-sewn as a way of concealing different coded messages. These items were not for sale at any price.
Once the men had their coffee, Gabriella pulled a deck of cards out of her purse and stood at one end of the long table. As she opened the deck she smiled and said: "I had a stiff neck and had a hard time sleeping last night. I was almost late this morning because I went to see the doctor about it. He said I had a Viagra stuck in my throat."
She shuffled the cards, and gave the deck to one of the men to shuffle further. When they were all satisfied with the shuffle, Gabriella spread them all out in a long fan. With a flourish of her hand, she turned the cards all face up to show they were in no order.
She told one of the men to cut the cards into two piles. She told another man to further cut each stack into two more piles. She asked another man to point to one pack of cards.
Gabriella took out her cell phone and passed it over the back of the card and said: "seven of hearts."
She asked another man to point to another stack. Again she passed her cell phone over it and said: "five of spades."
The sequence continued until she had the top card of each stack called out. After naming each card, she picked the card up and held it in a packet in her own hands. After the last card was identified, she slipped the last card onto the bottom of her packet as she moved the cards to the table and flipped them over.
There on the table were the four cards in the same sequence she had called out. The men clapped and smiled. She could have cut a doughnut in half and gotten the same applause, but it was a very deceptive trick. She always had a new one whenever she came in.
It was a good way to get more people into the shop and get people talking about the place to their friends. There was always a group of people who came in to see the autographs, get a cup of coffee or watch the latest trick.
While the men were laughing, Gabriella looked up to see a tall black man leaning against one of the columns at the side of her entrance. He was about six-feet four and 220 pounds. She recognized him right away as Mariano Ramos, the team's first round draft choice at the beginning of that summer.
She had sent him a letter once she knew he would be joining the team to explore the possibility of an autograph. There was a disturbing resemblance they shared. The 6'-4" giant had shaved the sides of his head and the remaining thick dark hair had been braided along the top and down to the base of his neck.
Gabriella had her reddish-brown hair done into a French braid that kept her hair up and out of her face. It cascaded down to just above her waist. They also had almost matching Levis. Both seemed extremely long legged and neither had any fat.
Gabriella had seen pictures of him jumping up to grab a $100.00 bill off of the top of a basketball backboard. She wanted that picture with his signature.
"Good morning Mr. Ramos. I am so happy to see you. Can I get you some coffee? I have a fresh bag of 100% pure Kona Coffee. It's on the house for you." There was a round of boos from the old men who had paid full price for their coffee. Never the less, they were doing it in a teasing mood because they all knew she had a business to run.
"Let's see those cards." He said. He shuffled them and passed them around for others to do the same. The switch was subtle and clever.
"Somebody give me a number between one and 52" he said.
"2.1416" came the reply. Everybody laughed. "Pick a whole fucking number." He said with a big smile.
"Sixteen" came the reply from the man he was pointing at.
"I'm going to riffle through the cards. Tell me when to stop."
When the "stop order" came, Mariano cut the deck to the indicated card and placed it on the table. Somebody turned it over. It was the Jack of Hearts.
.... There is more of this story ...