“So, you have a lot of books.” The old man from the bookstore–Kaszalo, perhaps?–was watching her. His eyes clear and bright, but narrow as if he was studying her. Trying to look deeper. Beyond her pauses. Past her silence. Into her soul.
“I don’t know.” She stared at the floor. Wondered what time it was.
She stood in the bookstore. Although the day was dark, the clouds gray, the sidewalks were dry. She’d turned a lot of corners to be here, her route more circuitous than direct. The hesitant, wide circling of a plane reluctant to land. The target known and sighted, but the end of the journey still in doubt. Decisions still being made. Possible routes still being planned. Escapes still being plotted.
Until, having landed, she stood once again in a valley, shadowed by towering shelves of dusty spines and faded pages.
“Not a reader?” he said after a brief pause.
“Oh no, no, I am.” She raked her fingers through her hair. A nervous tick, the old guy creeping her out despite her having been there for less than five minutes. “But it’s all Kindle. A lot easier that way.” She chuckled.
He did not.
“But those aren’t books,” he said.
“Of course they are.” Raising her head, she caught his eye. Challenged him.
Why was she here? She found herself considering how to leave. Politely.
He grinned. “What I mean is the life is different when the body, the book, is, what, a computer tablet? A teeny-tiny phone?” A long sigh. “Pages, real pages, have a hunger to them. A need that isn’t answered when you push a button or, well, whatever it is you do with a whatchamacallit.”
“Right. A Kindle. Books are greedy to be read. They’re desperate. That electronic stuff?” He shrugged. “It doesn’t have the feel of the page. It can’t feast on your senses. Your hopes. Your dreams.” A pause as he watched her. “You see?”
She didn’t, really, but she nodded anyway. A book was a book. Paper, electronic, whatever. Words were words.
“You know, I think I may have something,” he said, standing from the bookcase. “Here, follow me.” Angling past her, he rushed down the aisle.
“I’m good,” she said. She turned toward the exit. “I really should be going.”
Ignoring her, he marched. “It’ll just take a moment.”
Impatient but intrigued, the absence of a book in her still smarting, and with no one else to see and nowhere else to be, she followed.
They turned a corner, and then a second, passing one bookcase after another, her balding, stoop-backed sherpa guiding her through one canyon after another. Bookcases, in some, standing so high the shelves at the top faded into shadow, the stories they held abandoned to the dark, no matter how greedy and desperate their pages.
Then, turning a final corner, the dark thickets of a final valley navigated, they stopped.
They were at the back of the store, the space much longer than she’d first thought. Before them, tucked between two immense bookcases, was an entrance, a small room of books waiting. A clearing, she thought, in this world of canyons and valleys and towering stacks.
“Your recent stuff?” She stuck her head in. Looked around.
“Not as used or as old,” he said. “But more interesting.” He paused. “You can go in, if you like.”
It called to her, the room. The compact space feeling as large as a luxury walk-in closet, the walls, were she to stretch her arms, fingertip to fingertip, spanning out of her reach. The pale leather of the books felt familiar. The low shelves safe. The gentle lighting kind.
This is a room desperate to be calm, she found herself thinking. And failing, an odd feeling in the air reminding her of a half-captured scent warning of danger in the distance but still somehow near. Only this feeling, this scent, masked an unseen chaos. One she couldn’t put her finger on but knew existed. In the margins, running off the pages, tucked in the corners. Out of sight.
Ignoring the tenuous obvious, she stepped through.
He remained, standing, heels in the aisle.
As she noticed earlier, where the shelves in the outer, more public rooms overwhelmed with their size, these did not. The ceiling low, the books sat at eye level, beginning not on the floor, but right below her knees. The sconces at the door not tarnished but burnished bright. The room lit with nothing but their glow.
She moved close, scanning the sallow spines, one looking much like the other. Raised a hand. Paused.
“You fear not having a book in you, yes?” A gentle smile from the man watching from the door.
Saying nothing, she scanned the shelves. Lingered on the bone-white glow of the books. Some slender, hinting perhaps at quiet lives sharing easy stories half-told. Their slender spines dwarfed by their wider neighbors. Width, perhaps, promising more within their pages. Of louder lives teeming with breathless sagas and lessons well-learned.
“It’s a common fear, that.” He took a step into the room. “Especially with those who appear quiet at first glance but live their lives loudly on the inside.” A small smile. Another step. “Oftentimes, and this is what I’ve found, visiting someone else’s story can give one the courage to find their voice. To share their own tales.” He clasped his hands in front of him, the fingers laced into fists resting below his hips. “To write their own books.”
Reaching to a shelf, he lifted a book. Neither heavy nor slender, he cradled it for a moment, his wrinkled fingers–flesh the color of Margo’s creamer, knotted knuckles swollen and blushing pink–splayed spine to edge making her think of a ravenous spider.
He handed it to her.
“Take this home,” he said, his palm hushing her. “Flip through the pages, see what catches your eye. See if it catches you. See if it nudges you to put pen to page. If so, return it with gratitude, knowing these stories have done their job. If not, return it with gratitude, having done your best to find yourself in these pages even if you fail.”
“And what happens if I just disappear? Like, totally not return it?”
He laughed. “In all my years, that has never happened to me.” A smile, his eyes gleaming. “I will see you again. And soon.”
The book nestled in the crook of her elbow, she opened it. Ran her fingers over the pages. Felt their thickness. Their heaviness. Marveled at how luxurious it would be to sit, legs crossed under her comforter, the night windy and wet outside her window as, safe inside, she slowly turned these pages, hot tea with honey within reach.
She tried not to smile.
“Yes,” he’d said, his voice wavering in the silence of the small room. “This is where you’ll find what you need.”
“Thank you.” Reaching in her pocket, she brought out her cellphone. “I, uh, I have class,” she lied, glancing at an alarm that didn’t exist. “Forgive me.”
“Until next time,” he said, the words a gentle purr that sent a shudder up her spine. The words, though kind, somehow feeling odd and ominous. “When we shall discuss your book.”
Nodding, she turned and, brushing past him, careful and polite, headed for the door, bone-white book in hand.
COMING MARCH 26th