On the days I visited the care center, I’d walk past this used bookshop on a quiet sidestreet. There were these four books in the shop window that always caught my eye. Other books would come and go but not these four. They stood on their own little shelf in the middle of the window, like treasures somebody might want rather than the landfill-in-waiting they were. Every time I passed the shop I couldn’t help checking to see if they were still there. I hated those books.
The Competitive Lawn Bowler. Let’s Surf the Net! The Esther Williams Story. Something called Prairie Looms: An Oral History. They were yellowed and dog-eared and bent out of shape from being propped in the window since forever. The covers were so bleached from the sun they looked like half-developed photographs. Week after week there they sat, looking more washed out each time I went by. And I thought, if I make enough of these trips one day the covers will be totally blank, like the flags the astronauts left on the moon that are white and stateless now from solar radiation. Then I’d imagine the same thing was happening to the words inside. The printed letters fading out, disappearing, so that eventually the books would be empty, inside and out. Just anonymous paper bricks, and no one would ever know what they’d once contained.
Still here, are you? I’d say to the books under my breath as I walked by. I should buy you. I should buy you so I can throw you in the trash, which is where you’re headed anyhow.
Last Monday morning the books were gone. All four. In their place were four different, much newer-looking books. Their covers so bright and colorful I flinched and turned my head.
It bothered me the rest of the day. There isn’t much in the way of distraction at the care center. My wife can’t really hold a conversation anymore, and I don’t know what we would talk about anyhow.
On my way home that afternoon I stopped in front of the bookshop. The interlopers were still in the window. I stood there for a full minute, breathing hard, my jaw clamped. Then I went in. The place was poorly lit and smelled just like I thought it would, like dust, mildew, and futility. A thin, papery man in a cardigan who had to be the owner stood behind the book-cluttered counter with a woman talking to him, or at him. The owner was nodding and apparently listening, though his eyes were closed. The woman’s back was to me so that all I could see of her was a frizzy nebula of colorless hair. She didn’t look around when I came in but just kept talking.
I went straight to searching for the missing four. There was no way someone would have bought all of them at once. They had to be back on the shelves, but I wasn’t going to ask.
The woman was telling a story about a charity walk she’d taken part in, when she was a teenager by the sound of it. She and a bunch of other school kids had apparently trudged around a gymnasium for hours to raise money for some worthy cause.
“Yeah, it sounds boring,” the woman was saying, “but it was fun at first and I felt like I was part of something heroic, you know?”
While she talked, I was scanning the titles on spines in the sections where I thought the books might be. The woman’s breathless, almost urgent voice made it hard to concentrate.
“There was this one little gang of guys and girls I ended up walking with a lot,” the woman went on. “They weren’t kids I knew, they were from another school, we had no history and they just accepted me. They’d given themselves a name, like a sports team: the Super Troopers. One of them was a boy who looked like Westley from the Princess Bride. The movie had just come out that summer and everyone was quoting all the funny lines. You know, have fun storming the castle and all that. Anyhow every time I fell in with the boy and his friends, he would give me this cute crooked grin, and well, you can imagine what happened to fifteen-year-old me. Whenever I was near him I felt like I was floating. Like I could walk around that smelly old gym forever.”
As I listened to the woman’s story, I felt myself getting more and more angry. I was way in the back, searching the packed sale shelves, where the most hopeless cast-offs had been left to molder. I pulled out a book at random and mashed up its first few pages in my fist. Just crushed them. Then I shoved the maimed thing back into its place. Now that I live alone I’ve got more time for reading. But I don’t read much anymore.
“So, I’d walk with the Super Troopers for a while,” the woman was saying, “then I’d walk on my own for a while, then join up with them again. I mean, I could have just stayed with them, with the boy from the Princess Bride and his friends. But I didn’t. I still think about that a lot. Well, by now it had been a few hours of marching round and around and the physical toll had started catching up with me. My feet were aching and my brain was going numb. I sort of sank into my private misery and just shuffled along on autopilot, like a zombie. I don’t know how long that went on, but all of a sudden I remembered the boy who looked like Westley and it was like I snapped out of a deep sleep. I looked around for the Super Troopers but didn’t see them anywhere.”
As I listened, I kept taking out more books, crushing and tearing their pages, then putting them back. I don’t know what books they were. I was doing it without looking now.
“I was nearly in tears,” the woman said. “Why hadn’t I made the most of the time I’d had when I had it? I didn’t know the boy’s name and if he’d already left, I might never find him again. Just then I was coming up on the rest station at the side of the gym, where kids who dropped out of the walk could recover and rehydrate. And it was like grace from above: there he was. Hunched on a cot, looking exhausted. He hadn’t seen me yet. My heart started hammering. I knew what I had to do. This was my chance. My redemption. I would veer off, out of the circle, maybe stagger a bit to show everyone I was on my last legs and calling it quits. I had every right to, I’d lasted this long and no one could blame me for giving in now. I would flop down beside the boy with a big theatrical sigh, and we would talk and laugh about what we’d gone through together, and my life would change forever.”
There was a silence. The woman’s story clearly wasn’t over. I went still and listened. I’d been careful to work quietly but maybe she’d lowered her voice so that I’d lost something to the sound of crumpling pages. Finally, I heard the shop owner mumble some words in a tone that sounded like a question.
I waited to hear more. An answer. A see you later. There was no more. After all that talk, nothing. In my hand was a book I’d just mutilated. I looked at what I’d done, then I slid the book back carefully into its place.
When I emerged from the back of the shop the woman was gone. The owner stood behind the counter, writing in a ledger. I asked him about the four from the window. He gestured: they were sitting right in front of me on the counter. He’d taken them down but hadn’t gotten around to reshelving them yet.
I bought all four books for almost nothing. The owner showed no surprise and didn’t comment.
At home, as I was tucking the books away on one of my own shelves, I realized I had given the woman my wife’s face.