Like most places serving home cooked meals, Balbino’s Pizza and Pasta had a certain type of magic in the air. When she was little, Ivy had been convinced that the shop actually was magic, for the hanging lights were full of an ethereal sparkle that could only have come from the stars itself, and the waiters twirled around each other in a pattern that must have been made for a dance floor.
And though the store traditionally sold Italian goods, there was something about Balbino’s that brought in a very specific clientele.
The story bar had been an idea dreamed up by a classically creative little girl. According to her parents, Ivy had barely turned five years old when she sat down and drew the infamous sign that now sat on proud display.
TeLL A StORy
foR a FREE slice of PIZZA :)
It was written wobbly and timid, as if trying to stand bold and strong was too big of a task to ask for from crayon drawn letters. She had stood on her tippy toes to place it atop the bar that stood in the center of the shop.
Over the years, almost every customer had fallen for the bribe. They would come and sit on the worn and faded story-seat, and craft visions from their wildest dreams. And though Ivy had heard all kinds of tales, (whether it be the wayward unicorn or the crazy girlfriend that had killed all eight of her goldfish), the window shopper’s tales would forever be her favorite.
The first time she saw him, the man came in without a drop of water on him. Under most occasions, this would have been a perfectly normal occurrence, but tonight a dreary downpour of water lay just beyond the warm lights. It started hours before, and seemed an impossible miracle that anyone could survive even a second in its downpour.
The man went straight for the story-bar, his feet marching an uneven gait, tracking a path that if Ivy had been sure she had never seen him before she would have thought he had walked it several times before.
“Are you here for a story?” she couldn’t have been more than six when she had asked the question, staring up into the man’s tired eyes with endless hope.
Did she imagine that his eyes darted across the room, grazing on the faces of the other customers in the store? Did she imagine the shudder in his body when he said those words? She must have, for when he continued his voice took on the tone of dark chocolate, the magical ring of creation.
“I will tell you the tale of the window shopper,” he said, eyes falling to her freckled face as his dirty fingers fumbled with his ragged jacket that rested on narrow shoulders.
Ivy’s face shone like a beacon of hope, a soul filled with fairy dust peeking out from her emerald eyes. “The tale of the window shopper?”
“I am a window shopper.”
“What does that mean?”
“It’s not like the kind you know of. I do not shop for clothes or jewelry or furniture. The thoughts of such an object have never once crossed my mind.”
“Then what are you searching for?”
“It’s simple really,” a pause in which a slice of steaming pizza was slid onto the counter before him. “I am searching for people. The love of my life, my last friend, a formidable enemy, and maybe a little someone to keep me company in between.”
Ivy blinked slowly, her brain whirling. “Have you found them yet, these people that is?”
“Slowly, I am finding them. Having the power to choose the most important people in my life is not something I take lightly.”
For some reason, this idea, this novelty of choice, this was the epitome of excitement. So she learned forward, the fidget of her feet giving away her passionate intrigue. “Who have you found?”
“I have found the love of my life,” the man said, a sad half smile slipping onto his wrinkled face.
“Who is the love of your life? How did you meet her?”
“She is someone I have never met.”
“Someone you have never met?”
“I had a dream about her once, when I was still in the early phases of adolescence. It was something I like to call a prophecy. The second I saw her, I knew I would not fall fully in love with anyone but her.”
“What is she like?”
“The times I’ve seen her, she has always been dancing. Dancing to a tambourine that never seems to leave her hand. The melody she carries is like an unfinished swoop of paint across a canvas, the twisted beat of a disjointed song. She is a cigarette burn on the side of an old chair, hair singed with bits of red and gold, the ends hanging loose by her swaying hips.” The man had stopped fiddling with his jacket, as caught up in his soulmate’s description as Ivy herself.
“When she plays, her pointed nose turns up to the sky, and her mouth slips into a smile by the end of the song. And while freckles lie on her cheeks like dusted snowflakes, they evade her body: which is a place pale and stark, as if she has never seen the light of sun.”
“Where did you find her?”
“I only ever see her in glimpses, as if she is falling through space, or weaving through time. It seems every day she appears on a new corner of town, inside a new window, in another rundown bar or overhyped coffee shop.“
His eyes are almost sad now. “I have never even said hi to her.”
“You have never talked to the love of your life?”
A small smile.
“It breaks the first rule of window shopping: actually entering the store. Window shoppers are browsers of convenience, browsers of entertainment. It is the simplicity of the art: everything inside can be left behind in little under five steps.”
The next time the man came back the rain had long faded and was now replaced with the warm, sticky air that coated Ivy’s umber skin like honey.
Ivy had rushed up to the man, pulling on his arm, tugging him to the story-seat. “Who did you find, who did you find?”
“Ah, little girl, I must ask for a slice of the world’s famous pizza first,” he said, winking at the chef behind the counter.
Once the hand-crafted piece was handed over he began.
“My new best friend lives in the window on South Crystol Street, in a small building overflowing with plants. He is a man made out of distracted proportions: his hands are too big, his lopsided nose too small. Never have I seen him without dirt stuck to his hands, and the mustache that rests on the top of his lip looks as if the wind could steal it away if only it blew hard enough. He is a man marked by mistakes: the stain of water that always drips down the front of his green apron and the warped scars on his legs give him away as a piece of art exclusively labeled as human. And like art, he had a core feature: a flower, pink or golden, sits unwaveringly behind his left ear.”
“Is it always his left?” Ivy jutted in, crayons quivering in her hand, itching to draw the window-shopper’s best friend.
“Always. These are the flowers that draw the attention of young ladies, or men in search of bouquets to cover up irreparable mistakes. He should be thought of as a master, for the ability to pick a flower specific to a person is a trait rarely coveted in modern society. And though he owns almost nothing, the store contains no sense of failure. It is a wonderful skill indeed to fall free from the constraints of ‘successful’ occupations.”
Ivy agreed, in the naive way of childhood interactions. “Do you think he could give me any flower I wanted?”
“There is no doubt in my mind. Remember, dear girl: do not dissuade the beauty of simple tasks. They are more important in this world than we know.”
Her seventh birthday had come and gone, the only lingering relic stray pieces of the piñatas confetti stuck to Balbino’s floor when the window shopper finally returned.
“Who did you find this time?!” Ivy asked, on the edge of her seat before he had even sat down. Her cheeks looked flush from the excitement of a new story, from the prospect of a new prize that the window shopper had acquired for her.
“My dear,” the window shopper said, the bell on the door ringing in the distant background. “I have been desperately searching for someone to call my enemy, and though these streets have an abundance of windows, I have finally settled upon the winner.”
Ivy, mouth full with the infamous pizza whispered, “What did he do to you?”
“To me? Nothing. You know the rules of window-shopping. I do not break the barrier between myself and my treasurers. But: I found him at the clock store.”
“A store with only clocks?!”
“Yes, strange as it may sound. It seems he is the keeper of the building, the sole resident in a pawnshop designed to count down time. I can hear them from the outside, the constant tick-tock, the pounding drop of an hour.”
Ivy laughed, mimicking the sound the window shopper had made. “Tick-tock, that’s the sound of clocks!”
“It is indeed, and this is the metronome that follows me around long after passing his window. For me, he is the countdown of demise, the reminder that every second I watch him is one second closer to my end.”
The man then started, as if realizing that a small child was the sole receiver of his story, before changing course.
“He sits at the front of the store, in a stale metal chair that drowns out the sounds of the clocks in an orchestra of shrieks. Almost exclusively I have seen my foe do three tasks: repair his machines, devour plain Krispy Kreme’s, or smoke a horribly rolled cigar. It is this smoke that seems his constant companion, the protector of his secrets. The fumes it carries reach me before I can even hear the melodramatic whirl of clocks, running its hands down my body, its wobby fingers through my hair.”
“That is quite an enemy,” Ivy agreed, eyes flickering in the dim lighting.
“I agree, dear girl,” the window shopper said, pulling her closer, breath stark against her flushed cheeks. “And can I tell you a secret?”
“Yes,” the little girl breathed.
“I spit on the sidewalk in front of his window when I pass, a small fight against a larger-than-life monster.”
The strange thing was, Ivy only ever remembered the arrival of the man that told her strange tales in the story-seat, for the window shopper seemed to have mastered the art of fading away.
The next time he came she ran straight to him: the time between tales forever too long.
“Whindowshoper!” she cried, bouncing on the balls of her feet.
“I have a new story to tell,” he said, smiling at her.
She grabbed hold of his calloused hand, and though she was significantly smaller than the man she forced his legs to bend, to sit in the chair she now considered his.
“I have broken the only rule a window shopper must follow,” the man started, not even noticing the slice of pizza resting in front of him in exchange for his tale.
Instead of gasping, or even frowning in disgust however, Ivy smiled wide, the freckles on her cheeks marking the trail of her joy.
“Did you finally talk to the love of your life?”
“No, it was not her.”
“Your best friend? You enemy?”
“I have still not even tried,” he said, running a hand through his hair, the air of missed opportunity high on his list of failures.
“I broke my rule by accident. You see, I used to love looking at the window of a small pizza shop… the door is crusted with green and gold, the brims elegantly lined with red and white stripes.”
“You used to watch Balbinos window?” she exhaled the words coming to life infront of her widening eyes.
“I used to pass by this window, the store was always busy and bright, run by a little girl with eyes still unable to look above the tabletops. I would watch this place with the awe of an observer: realizing the possibilities of life’s existence in a world full of single perceptions. I watched the little girl first draw the sign that attracted thousands. Far and wide, these people came: a task, a trade, as large as it was small. And finally, I decided it was time to allow myself a small victory too, to enter a place and tell someone all I knew.”
“You came to tell me your story.”
“Yes. Window shoppers, we learn a lot. We judge through outward perceptions, through first glances and candied traps. We are lured by eye-catching entities and larger than life figures.”
A laugh, a huff of air. “How does a little girl know so much? They are indeed, dear girl. And though my hobby is addictive and hardly rewarding, I thank you for the smallest of reasons, for allowing me to see there may be more than what meets the eye behind my treasured finds.”
Her large, guileless eyes batted once, twice, as he continued.
“Bring the light, bring the magic little girl. Never forget the power of words, and never allow yourself suspect to the fear that comes with surface perceptions.”
Ivy didn’t remember him leaving.
And life without the window-shopper went on. Pizza was made, pasta was served. The little green door’s paint chipped, and the crayon-draw sign crumpled. But still, whenever someone came up to the chair, eager in hopes for a free slice of pizza, she would sit and listen. Listening for what, she didn’t know. After-all, there was more to people than what they showed only in their windows.