By R. P. Singletary
The pale, reading man had never entered the bookshop.
“Rich! Places for rich folk!” his grandmother had said every time they shuffled past the shop’s door on the way to market or church and then when headed back home. “Places for rich people, lazy people, people who can read, civilized folk!” She shouted at the boy once in the foulest of moods ages ago. On that particular day, he could remember his grandfather looked at him to add, “Them places for people think they better, us folk.” His grandfather spoke in an odd way, far out of character for the silent man, frightening. “Thinkin’ people, they go in them places and they read, destroys their minds, turns ’em into things we not, real people!” As the grandfather talked, he took off his hat and hit the grandson hard, knocking the little fellow’s own hat off in the process. The boy caught it, and the day’s memory stuck.
Decades later, it remained, like a sore on his head. For these and other reasons, the now-grown man avoided this – and most — bookshops. Oh, he’d gone to university, libraries something different for him, and he could read, unlike his forebears. By then, he could even write. He’d written books, seventeen to be precise, but until today, he’d steered clear of this particular bookstore, and no longer a boy, he knew men make decisions for themselves, unlike lost spirits on a street.
The damp day shook him to his core, as he removed his brushed-wool hat before entering. Shame touched his soul as he lingered over the battered threshold, cold metal of doorknob shivering him.
“What a perfect place for a ghost,” he said to himself, wondering if anyone heard him, but he didn’t bother to look around, so amused by what he was finally doing all by himself.“Enough to raise the dead to keep me out of here.”
He snickered like an old kid. Then his eyes gaped.
Walking in for the first time, he thought of his grandparents, their hard-scrabble lives, if they’d meant what had been said, those harsh Old-World admonitions against book–readin’, book-learnin’ too evil for them. Dead a half-century, but the pale man still felt them near and strong, a lot today in fact. He glanced out the store’s big display window, then around, his eyes unable to take in all the literary delights. The window’s light filled almost the entirety of the long, narrow sliver of its bookstore. Panes of glass rose two full stories of books, showcasing fantasy worlds full of words old and new, an endless sky of hoped-for opportunities for all. The man imagined an elevator riding straight up to the heavens, nothing but pages and pages of books full of riches not to be stolen. A car horn tooted out on the street. He turned to stare, the honk so near he thought the vehicle would hit him inside the place. Grandmother? He swore he saw her face in the passing car.
“Thank you so much for comin’ in today, sir,” a voice broke the scene.
Her warmth touched him. The unknown woman’s freckled hand turned his hand on the tarnished doorknob, forcing the door to a creak’s close.
“It’s just always so drafty in this narrow hall of a store. Just open the door and all the world’s secrets just flood in or out. I never know which. Maybe all the town’s ghosts rush back in, hahaha maybe that’s it, I just don’t know.” She laughed at her own words as if from another world herself. “We need some secrets left in the books, or we just can’t sell them, right?” She said the word just a lot, as if a subconscious call for unspoken justice long overdue back home.
The man chuckled along with the pretty store clerk. He wasn’t sure, was she flirting or sensible, but he enjoyed the joke, even if at his own expense. He’d not bought or sold anything as of yet.
“Don’t you agree, sir?” she said, pausing before adding almost as afterthought, “did I just frighten you?”
“Oh, certainly,” the man said, shifting his hat from hand to hand, his nervous trait around attractive women.
“Oh, I’m sorry I just frightened–”
“No no, I meant I agree about the air, the door, the draft.”
“We had a grandmother in here just this mornin’,” she ignored the man’s reply, “or was it yesterday? Days just blur together in here, older we get, time stops altogether around these books, must be just the dust, all the mites, hahaha.”
She fiddled with books to lighten the room’s mood for the holiday.
“Well, this granny, she had a scared-shy little boy in here with her, just right over there, maybe not old enough for school was the reason he in here, and the boy, say, you don’t have kids, do you, sir?”
The man wanted to smile, but didn’t. He didn’t speak. He just shifted his hat in his hand.
“No matter just that,” the woman entertained herself. “He kinda looked like you, now that I think to it, had a little hat like that there.” She pointed. “Yes, a little hat just like that there in his hand too, but what do I know about geriatrics, I mean genetics, I’m no scientist, doctor, not even librarian, they just let me work here, hahaha.”
The man did not smile.
“What made you think of those people?” he asked.
The woman sped away to fiddle more with books on display in the large window by the door. She looked at her watch.
“Oh, it’s just the draft,” she lowered her voice. “I have to look to be adjustin’ these books upfront every hour on the hour, or boss-man….” She looked around the tiny shop, no boss-man. “Nobody touched a word up in here all last week, just mind you.”
She pursed her lips and shook her head. The pale man admired the clerk’s attentive detail, a quality he liked in his own profession. He reconsidered the woman’s intent.
“I just moved here from the States years ago,” she spoke up, “but the body misses those Caroliiina cliiimes, you ever set foot to Cha’leston, kiiind sir?” She strained to milk her I‘s and swallow whole that city’s sole R, imposing her nativity upon the worshiping stranger from afar.
“Oh, so I left the door open too long, you’re saying, I’m so sorry,” he responded back on track to some supposed question, posed long ago by that point in the morning’s conservation.
“Iiiiiiiiii-ah did not saaaaaay-ah thaaaa-aht, suuuhr,” the woman said in the most defective of Southern drawls. She batted her eyelashes. She cupped hands and held them to her chin. “Iiiiiiiiii-ah would never be so rude to a gentle-man. Hahaha.”
The man embarrassed himself he laughed so hard. He forced a smile, unusual for him.
“Beautiful teeth, you got there, just beautiful teeth,” the woman said, before disappearing as fast as she’d appeared.
The man touched his face for proof of his teeth, then stopped his smile. He looked around. Several other people examined books. A man decked out like a retired university professor petted a thick tome of poetry in the literature aisle. A pregnant woman patted her tummy as she fingered a table of children’s books marked “reduced for quick sale.” The pale man overheard German and looked in that direction. Behind a high shelf, he spotted a young gay couple with U.K. travel guides. He knew a little German and hoped they’d look up to make eye contact, so he could show off: ein bisschen Deutsch, the phrase on the ready. They were en route to Edinburgh, he understood that much.
All of a sudden, a wind blew open the shop’s heavy front door. Emerging as if from thin air, the woman shopkeeper barely beat the man to the door’s knob. This time, for a moment only, his hand lay atop hers. He jerked away.
“Pardon,” he said in softness.
“Your hand’s just so cold, feels like the metal doorknob itself, brrr, just calls for tea time, we need to warm you up, sir. May I offer you a tea, not sure you from around here…back in Cha’leston, we just always drink tea day and night, hot or cold, sweet or very, but these days with all the diabetes, unsweetened brewed tea or Grandmother’s half-‘n’-half, just one-half sweet and the rest un-, ever hear of such nonsense?”
The mention of her grandmother carried the man back to the car that had almost hit him from outside. He was certain–
“My goodness, your spine just frigid!” The clerk had felt the man up, in a most uncertain of manners. “Did you sleep out-of-doors all last evenin’, sir?” She started to giggle, then thought better. “I meant to harm, no harm, I meant no harm. That sweater’s just mighty nice, just toasty and warm I reckon. How about some tea, just follow me back, follow the leader.”
He smiled another time and left the grandmother on the street in his mind.
“Those teeth must just glow in the dark.”
She motioned to herself, in charge of something, a kettle on a hot plate behind the till.
“Oh it’s OK, never mind that doorknob touch, workin’ around these books, so many quiet bookish people just don’t like to talk, much less be touched, some won’t touch the books they read, kinda nice though just the human touch, don’t you think, what with far so much technologies these days and just gettin’ worse for the wear by the minute, you need to talk more, sir you just scare me! Goodness, the kids this Halloween messed my mind, have me scared all out of my wits, just round every corner this village, boo this boo that.”
The quick kettle sounded. The talkative clerk jumped into a ring of silence for a half-second repose.
“I believe your people exported your overdone version of Halloween back to Europe,” the man said.
“Yes and to here the U.K., these Brits say thank God for that Channel, keepin’ European customs at bay, the sugar’s here dear and if you just need cream–”
“No thank you.”
“I think you’re sweet enough,” she added.
He didn’t acknowledge, and she didn’t blush.
The man resembling a retired university professor brought several books of early twentieth-century poetry up to the counter beside the conservation.
“If I’m intruding–” the retired man began.
“We just chit-chattin’,” the woman answered for the both of them, prompting the pale man to step aside.
“Just leave me be, take my tea and I see I see, just leave with Grandmother’s ancient tea cup, I just know your type,” she said, playful to the pale man.
“Are you talking to me, ma’am?” the retired professor said.
“Of course not, silly.”
She nodded at the pale man who toyed again with his hat in one hand, before fading up the aisle.
“Books make me talk to myself, too,” the retired professor said.
The clerk didn’t hear – or at least acted so. She talked to herself about childish memories and drafty houses, about grandmothers and their teas. The professor fumbled through his wallet, eager to leave.
“I asked if I were interrupting, but I don’t see the phone you’re speaking into, ma’am–”
“Goodness man, we were just joshin’,” the woman said, pointing to the pale man who’d stepped away, but now she didn’t see him. “That fella stone-cold, we just joshin’. I was flirting.” She pronounced the last empty word with full consonants slow and added an –ing. “Flirting,” she said again. She talked down to the man.
The retired man exhaled a worn noise, unsure if the clerk were playing a game on him or what.
“Would you like a tea also? I’m just so sorry, didn’t mean to be rude, just that man stone-cold, you feel a much warmer spirit, oh and you like poetry too, warm heart indeed, I just never got into that stuff myself, if you don’t mind me to say.”
The professor man looked around. He only saw the pregnant woman in the store. The Germans had read what they needed without purchase and left. A shorter person or two could be in the far back, but he hadn’t heard anyone new come in, he hadn’t seen anyone go out, had he? The professor readied himself to be home, feet propped up before warm fire, his pipe and black coffee (not tea or cream), and his books of poetry all lined up at his fingertips for the remainder of the day and night. A colleague had suggested he stop in at the shop; he wasn’t sure he’d return, such a weird spirit about the place, he thought to himself.
A wisp of cold air blew up the aisle, rattling open the front door, but this time the door’s bell jangled. The pregnant lady, nearest the door, rushed to try to close it, dropping several children’s books in her haste.
“A lot of commotion in here this morning,” the retired man said to the clerk as he took his purchase and nodded thank-you. She shrugged her shoulders twice and raised her eyebrows. Her glasses bounced around her face to reveal empty thoughts. He headed for door, clerk following on heels, draft always of chief concern to her.
“Heard you discussing the holiday. What was your Halloween costume this year?” the pregnant woman chirped at the clerk.
“Oh, I just don’t believe in that tomfoolery, do you?” The clerk almost pushed the man out, ensuring the door tight. “Where my tea cup?” the clerk blurted out, scanning the store. For heightened vantage, she rushed to step up on a stool an aisle away from the door.
“Did anyone see that fella? He looked just like that little boy from yesterday, him and his mean grandmother, both in hats, my goodness I thought that little boy stole that Pooh Bear book, tel père tel fils, didn’t stay long, didn’t buy as much as a bookmark, just downright sassy and cheap!, and now his father’s just gone and stole my tea cup, brought here all the way across the water from Cha’leston, from your colonies hahaha, I just thought you Brits better manners.”
With that, the expectant lady dismissed her question of Halloween costume. She loved the scary holiday long past October, and she was curious about costumes for next year with her new child, though her mother had suggested she avoid fright until delivery. Without purchase, she thanked the clerk with one word.
“Rude,” the tea-server replied to the door.
Hours later at close, the bookshop’s sole clerk thought she switched off the hot plate with the tea kettle. All afternoon after her lunch break, myriad last-minute Christmas shoppers had so bossed her, she’d forgotten about the tea cup and the pale man she’d shared tea with that morning. She’d forgotten her afternoon tea, bone-tired, most of her energy drained by past memories of Christmas.
“Oh no mind,” she sassed herself as to why.
She always rinsed out her grandmother’s tea cup first chance of the morning, so she thought nothing of leaving it there on the counter before switching off the lights. She turned the metal doorknob and shook the heavy, wooden door snug into the old lock. Her cold, naked hand froze on the frigid metal. She shook. She admired the picturesque view, a reminder of why she tolerated the weather of her new country home. The streetlamp shone through the shop’s over-sized display window, showcasing best-sellers and her grandmother’s china tea cup, brimming with black tea, piping hot steam rising. She must be imagining a morning. She wiped her eyes and her glasses, blinked, looked again to see books full of words waiting to be read on the morrow.
“Always too much work this season,” she muttered, before turning to head down the side street home in the dark. “I just need a holiday.” She looked at the lighted wreaths lining the street that did not respond.
Moments later, a milky hand switched off the hot plate behind the till in the rear of the bookstore. A pale figure glimmered through the big front windowpane, chilled. A calmed hand set a brushed-wool hat beside a perennial best-seller. No longer nervous, the other hand removed Milne’s classic from frigid coat pocket. Although evening, tea time once more, reading hour for civilized folk. An ageless pale bookworm sipped from Grandmother’s cup, then opened the little, worn book before falling back deep into pages, unafraid of draft or fear for a lazy secret let out.
About the author: R. P. Singletary is a lifelong writer and a native of the southeastern United States, with work appearing or forthcoming in Bumble Jacket Miscellany, CafeLit, Ancient Paths, Flora, Ariel Chart, Syncopation, Last Leaves, Stone of Madness, Written Tales, The Chamber, Wingless Dreamer, The Journal, and elsewhere.
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