Saturday Stories

The Last Bookstore

Charlotte stumbled upon it quite accidentally. Lifting herself off the sidewalk, she examined her hands for scrapes and cuts. Bright speckles dotted her flesh. She made a silent vow to scold the owner of the disintegrating doorstep she had just tripped over on her way to the bus stop. The screech of brakes and the swooshing sigh of the bus door told her she had missed her ride. She sighed, swiped at her dusty knees, and gazed at the sign above the shop.

Oh, I might as well, she thought. I’ve got nothing better to do.

The bell above the door rang, but stopped halfway through its swing. It hung slightly under perpendicular, giving the appearance of a dangling apple.

Or a broken neck. she decided, cracking her own from side to side and scanning the store for the manager with the dangerous threshold.

Wonder stopped her. If the vanilla-almond scent of aging paper hadn’t caught her attention, the stacks and stacks of leather and cardboard bound tomes did. One their sides, standing like soldiers, or propped to brace others, books of all heights, widths, and thicknesses filled the shelves inside, on top, and next to. If her stinging hand wasn’t reminding her of reality, she might have thought she had entered another world.

“Hello?” she called.

A raspy cough and an “oomph” answered her. From behind the counter, a man straightened himself as much as his rounded spine allowed and rubbed the back of his balding head. He straightened his wire-rimmed glasses and squinted through the peace-sign crack in the right lens and the diagonal one in the left. “Help you?” he croaked as if the may-I stuck in his phlegmy throat.

“Your step outside…”

“Yes, yes,” he said, waving away her unfinished complaint. “Happens all the time. People not watching where they are going. Rushing here and there.”

“Trying to get to the bus stop,” she proffered.

“That too! Blasted reroute! Why can’t they have left my corner alone and kept the stop on Third and Branch?”

“Either way you should…”

“Yes, well, that isn’t a cheap endeavor, my girl. What brings you in?”

“This!” She lifted her hand now covered with spreading bloody drips.

“Oh!” he cried.

She scowled at the rustling beneath the counter. He shuffled out with a stained rag in his hands. She recoiled, wondering what infectious disease riddled the cloth. But, her mouth dropped open as the man crouched on the floor and dabbed a crimson stain still wet on the grimy floor.

“What do you mean coming in here dripping yourself everywhere?”

“I mean to…” What did she mean to do? What could be done at this point, except… “use your washroom.”

“End of the hall to the right. Put pressure on it.”

“Yes, I know.”

“So, you keep it from dripping on my floor.”

She stifled a response and headed as he’d directed. Hearing a scraping noise behind her, she glanced back. He was still working the spot. She noted her footprints in the dust.

 

After rinsing her hand in the iron-stained sink and wrapping it with a stiff paper towel, she re-entered the shop. The owner was scuffling somewhere amidst the stacks. Not wanting to reengage and hoping to catch the next bus, she called out an unfelt, “Thank you.” She adjusted her grip on the paper towel and grasped the antique brass doorknob.

“Wait!”

Though she figured it was a vain attempt at control, she gripped the doorknob harder. He peered around the third shelf from the door. “No admittance without purchase.”

“Excuse me?”

“No admittance without purchase.”

“I simply came in because I missed my bus and…”

“Used the facilities.”

“Because I tripped on your bloody step!”

“Watch where you’re going next time.”

“Next time I’m taking my own reroute. The least you could do is let me use your washroom after I injured my hand.”

“The least you could do is peruse the shelf and put a few coffers in my till for bothering me during inventory.”

“What’s the point of doing inventory if you have an empty till?”

He considered for a moment, clicking his dentures. “No admittance without purchase.”

“Ugh! I haven’t got time.”

“That’s the trouble. No one does. No one has time for the simple pleasure of sitting in a chair, turning the pages of a book, and enjoying a cup of tea.”

“You may have books filled with pages, but I don’t see a chair or a tea kettle.”

He pointed an arthritic finger to something behind her. She twisted the knob slightly as she turned her head. In the corner near the smeared window stood a red brocade chair and a side table with a steaming rosebud teapot and matching cup.

“Look, I really…”

“No admittance without purchase.”

“All right. One cup.”

She released the doorknob, readjusted her scratchy dressing, and made a dramatic flounce on the chair. A plume of dust enveloped her and sent her into a coughing fit. While she recovered, the man ambled his way over to her. He poured her tea—steeped to perfection, she noticed—and slid a three-legged stool in front of her. The stool wobbled as he balanced his stooped frame. She made a move to switch places, but he held up his hand in protest and nodded to her cup. He lifted a small stack of books onto his lap.

“Which one?” he asked.

She surveyed the titles. She knew them. She’d read them on her phone or her electronic reader while riding the bus. She’d liked them. Mostly. But, while their structure, character development, and themes were strong, she didn’t want to live in those worlds. She didn’t want to worry about places like this one becoming obsolete because all the books were burned. She didn’t want a regressive, repressive life with reduced rights, where she might be forced to walk in pairs and birth children for others. She didn’t want to consider the possibility that a lottery casting children into a survival war with one another could save their families and assure them of daily bread. She certainly didn’t want a world redeemed by the impossible: magical beasts, child warlocks, and resurrected wizards.

She wanted something possible.

“Been there, done that,” she said.

“Hmm…you looked like the type. Never fear,” he said, “I have just the thing.”

He hobbled away and returned with a volume in trademark, Harvard-Classic binding. “More to your liking?”

She fingered the cloth-woven cover, lifted it, fanned the leaves, rested her nose in the bindings’ crease, inhaled. She knew the title and author before reading it. “Yes. Much better.”

“I’ll leave you to it,” he said.

She curled herself into the chair. “There was no possibility of taking a walk that day.”

But, she did as her eyes walked over lines and phrases that returned to her like a long-lost friend. She survived with Jane the frightening night in the red room, the destitution of Lowood, the loss of her best friend Helen, and then the redemptive exodus only to find herself at mysterious Thornfield with its roaming lunatic, winsome orphan, and burdened master.

“Reader, I married him.” In that moment, Charlotte as Jane did, too.

She closed the book, sighed, and laid her head against the cushion.

“Closing time,” said the shopkeeper.

She raised herself from the chair and made her way to the stacks. Finding the right one, she followed the sequence to the correct letter. She drew back. In the place where a gap for the volume in her hand should be was an exact copy. She slipped it from the shelf and compared them. Tucking the volume she had just consumed under her arm, she cracked open its twin and did as she had done with the first. It even smelled the same. Baffled, she shook her head and turned back to the shelf to put the book back in its place. Yet, there was no gap. A third volume of the same everything filled it as if nothing had been removed.

“No admittance without purchase.” The old man stood at the end of the row, a smirk lifting his peace-sign-covered eye into a wink.

“But, I can’t put these back,” she said.

“No, you never can.”

“But…why?”

“They’ve been purchased.”

“How? I never gave you money.”

“That isn’t the rate of exchange, my dear.”

“I don’t understand.”

“Don’t you?”

She looked at the volumes in her hands. The words returned and scurried through her like a speed-read. Though nothing was skimmed or skipped. The mossy, fusty smell of moor permeated the room.

“No admittance without purchase,” she murmured.

“And now you have,” he concurred.

“But, this one…”

“You’ll know what to do with it.” He checked his pocket watch. “Closing time,” he said and clicked the watch lid down like a snap.

She didn’t remember grasping the ancient brass doorknob, yet here she was back on the broken sidewalk. Someone bumped her from behind. She was in the bustle of the crowd, shifting to somewhere in a blinding hurry. They all missed it—the spot where she had tripped in front of the store. No one fell.

Then suddenly, someone did. Almost. By instinct, she caught him, the book—which one? Hers or the one from the shelf?—pressed to his chest. His hand covered hers as he straightened. She eased her hand away until he held the cover on his own. His gaze was dazed as he looked at her, tried to process what had almost happened. She smiled at his decidedly homely face. Yet, it felt homey with all the scars of living seeping through the natural signs of age and—maybe—the creases of an inadvertent smile or two.

“Charlotte,” she said, extended her freed hand.

“Edward,” he replied, keeping the book over his heart while taking her hand with the other. She tried, but couldn’t stop staring at his fire-scarred flesh. “My name is Edward.”

 

 

Saturday Stories

The Interview

This week’s Saturday Story is also inspired by a writing exercise from Josip Novakovich’s book Writing Fiction Step by Step.

 

The Interview

Tad Tyson tugged at the bottom of his broadcloth jacket and straightened his black tie. His shoes, shined and buffed, hid the scuffs of a rag-tag errand boy.

He never expected they would keep him on. Why should they? He was not refined enough for Father’s role of butler. He knew no gray grew at his sixteen-year-old temples.

But, there was another reason.

They had been friends, too. Father and the Master Lampkin knew each other’s patterns. Already it was plain that the Master’s own health was deteriorating because Father wasn’t there to tend to his whims. It was often said Father knew better than Madame what the Master needed. It would have been a preposterous thing to say, except that Madame had said it herself over tea with friends.

Tad heard many things through the window while sitting in the lilac bushes. He had for years.

Yet, he knew there was reason that might keep him there.

She would never allow him to leave.

Not Madam. Mistress.

Whitley Lampkin.

She despised him, but he didn’t know why. It didn’t matter what he did, she found some way to criticize him. He brought her oranges from the market, and she cast them in the fire. If he shined her shoes, they came out too bright. Buffed them, they were too dull. She was the one who sent him running here and there.

Yet, he doubted she would ever release him from that duty for something greater. He suspected she enjoyed taunting him far too much to do that.

His only option seemed to be to release himself.

He checked himself in the hallway mirror before knocking on the parlor door. Yes, he looked good. Enough. And not nervous. He rapped three times.

“Enter.” Her lemony voice made his mouth pucker just to hear it.

He pushed open the mahogany door. There she sat. And that was it.

He fell in love again.

She wore chiffon to match the color of her voice, and white lace fluttered around her creamy, dimpled chin. Her lashes flicked over icy eyes that saw through every flaw. Slender fingers fanned and flipped a sheaf of letters with stealthy ease. She sighed and flung them onto her writing table, sending a few scattering to the floor. One landed just short of Tad’s foot. He bent to pick it up.

“Leave it.”

Tad stepped around the strewn envelopes and stood next to the chair in front of the desk.

“Sit.”

He sat.

“So, you’re leaving.”

“I thought…”

“You thought?”

“I mean, you must think…”

“Now you know what I’m thinking?”

“Of course not, Mistress.”

“I thought not.” She smiled a little at her own joke. “You are leaving.”

“Yes.”

“What if I told you that I forbid it?”

He stifled a smile at his forethought. “You would forbid it?”

“I might.”

“Might you?”

“He indentured you, you know. Your father. To pay his debts.”

He had no words. Not that many came to him whenever he spoke with Whitley Lampkin. Debts? Indentured? Father confided everything in him. He never spoke of this. Why let Tad hear it from her? Was it even true?

“You don’t believe me?”

“I didn’t say that.” He hadn’t said anything.

“You don’t need to. I can see by the look on your face that you don’t.”

“It’s just that my father…”

“Told you everything.” She smirked. “I hardly think so.”

She was enjoying his discomfort. It fascinated and frustrated Tad all at once.

“It doesn’t matter if you believe me or not. I have the paperwork to prove it. In any case, we need a butler.”

“But, I’m only…”

“Sixteen. I am well aware.”

“But, Madame…”

“…is too busy with my father’s failing health. She never had any business sense anyway.”

“Your father?”

“Respects all my decisions.”

As much as Tad respected Master Lampkin’s? He would stay if Master wanted it. If only she would simply ask.

“Would you reconsider?”

Any frigid response Tad might have given toward her coolness melted away at her request.

 

 

This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents are either a product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, business establishments, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.

Copyright © 2017 Penny J. Johnson. All rights reserved.

Saturday Stories

The Obituary

I’ve been playing with the idea of writing a short story or posting a chapter from my novel each weekend. If I see many positive responses (or even some constructive criticism), I shall continue these posts.

The original writing prompt for this short story came from Josip Novakovich’s Writing Fiction Step By Step.   As many writers do, I tweaked it more and more into the story below. Enjoy!

The Obituary

His name in black and white under his picture sent a repulsive shudder through me as if I had relived a bad dream. In truth, Clementius Wigg had haunted my thoughts daily for more than forty years. His voice sounded in my head reminding me of my darkest moment. Yet, when he stopped talking to me—in real life—a euphoric gleam entered my life. It was like my bedside lamp that remained unused because I thought the oil had run too low when all that it needed was a new wick. All for a simple change. No longer having him in my life was like that. Only it also caused illumination. Suddenly, I could read before bed again for more reasons than the obvious.

The artist captured well the windblown mane and scraggly beard of a madman. The hard-line of his mouth—as if he had eaten too many prunes (and who knows that he could have because intestinal tie-ups often plague the high-strung)—still made me swallow as if the pit had transferred to me. He did that to people. He passed on his tasks and obligations. Perhaps it was his right as we were all sailors on the ship he captained.

For my part, because I was the only one who could read (thanks to my mother’s instruction before she died in childbirth along with my stillborn brother) I served as ship’s doctor. A poor physician at that by my own admission. I wielded a meat cleaver as well as the ship’s cook, and we had a standing wager on who cut the cleanest shank. That was all well and good, for my work brought well-being to the gangrenous as much as the cook’s did to our gullets.

It was Wigg who caused wounds to fester and innards to churn. His gossip spread like scurvy through the group until it was palatable. He lured followers with promises like buried treasure. They obligingly dug at his command. Little did they know he stood ready to cast them into the holes they excavated and stole all the glory for himself.

I suppose my fault was I cried mutiny. Once.

The rally he organized trying to get me to jump ship was impressive and oppressive. Still, I remained steadfast in my assertion that he was the one who deserved to be cast out. The amazing thing was, I also choose silence as my weapon. I let him set his sails against storms only he could stir up himself. I bided my time. Only when others wanted to make a leader out of me did I finally speak again.

An emphatic “no” was my reply.

So for all his accusations that I demanded control, nothing could be proved.
At the next port, he abandoned us for another ship, a coward’s act by any captain’s standards. His first mate went along at the first. I heard years later they parted ways, but not until reading the details for the obituary knew why. I assumed that Wigg had done more harm than any good. Yet, now I wondered at the harm done to him.
I surmised he was survived by a wayward wife or one he had dismissed. Then I noted in her second husband’s name the familiar one of Wigg’s former first mate. The son, an actor, remained a bachelor. Though the billings revealed he preferred the women’s roles. His daughter had a last name different from her three children and no current spouse listed.

I felt bile rise with the elation. Because I did and didn’t want to know about his pain.

I knew his life would come to all this. A small part hoped I might be wrong.

“What do you have there, Sims?”

I turned to face Sherwin Rakestraw, the newspaper’s senior editor. I had joined his staff a year after Wigg jumped ship, exchanging my scalpel for a pen. The change had served me well. Rakestraw also proved to far superior to Wigg as a leader. Both Rakestraw and I had made names for ourselves. Yet, I was grateful for a byline rather than the responsibility the editor carried. Until now.

“The details for Clementius Wigg’s obituary.”

“Ah. Your former captain.” He clapped a hand on my shoulder. “Give him justice, Sims.”

“Hmm.”

“Tristin.”

“Yes?”

“Give it to him.”

“Right.”

“And you know you have it.”

“What?”

“The right.”

I did. Rakestraw spoke the truth. I stared at the information before me. I carried my own secret about Wigg buried behind my left jacket pocket. Rakestraw knew. I told him the night he saved my life. That night I made him vow to take it to his grave. I planned to do the same.

I guessed he meant for me to break that vow now that Wigg had entered his.

I considered it. Then I took up my pen and wrote my nemesis’ obituary.

But, I wrote what I could live with reading.

I wrote with mercy.

 

 

 

 

This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents are either a product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, business establishments, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.

Copyright © 2017 Penny J. Johnson. All rights reserved.