The Book Stall

imag0962  he liked his stories

It took awhile until Sy Teverstein found a man who could take care of his book stall business every Tuesday. When he did he thought how excellent; he could now visit his frail mother without fretting so much. The guy had been a regular customer over the past year, buying a monthly gardening magazine. Sy thought that odd since it was clear the customer lived in the neighborhood and there was no land for gardening around there. But, hey, it might be the window box sort that he enjoyed looking at, or maybe there was a rooftop the man had the privilege of filling with a square of plantings. It could be a whole vegetable garden feeding a family of ten for all he knew. He enjoyed speculating.

But Sy knew next to nothing about such things. He was the book seller, had been since his fifty-second birthday which gifted him with a lame ticker. Went from fat cat accountant to skinny book seller with pacemaker. It was a most simple job. The magazines were contracted by an outside publishing service. Books were courtesy of (for a fee plus agreements signed and sealed) a chain bookstore by the river walk. You’d think the store would be grateful for the chance to sell them on the street but they wanted it the other way around. Sy did okay. People liked to buy coffee at next door and then get reading materials. Sy took their money and got to know people. He still liked it at the end of most days.

But about that garden lover. The two of them got friendly over time. His name was divulged some time after Sy’s comment on the cover of his new gardening magazine.

“Nice picture, all those flowers.”

The man openly sniffed the pages and Sy appreciated that: new paper and ink. “Yeah, looks good, don’t it? Wish I had a backyard like that. A big fountain like that would keep me company at night, too, ya know?”

Sy’s eyebrows wiggled up and down. He hadn’t heard that idea before. “I suppose so.”

“I don’t sleep well,” the man said by way of explanation. “Water, it calms.”

“Ah. Me, neither. Wife snores like a banshee. Or a man, take your pick.”

It was the man’s turn to raise eyebrows. “That so? My wife has her own bed. Can’t manage us both. She’s a real good size. I miss her at night… ”

So it went each month, a little of this and that talked over, a few laughs, until in late June Sy stuck out his hand and introduced himself properly.

“Sy Teverstein at your service.”

“Harlan, Harlan Z.”

“That it? Z? Okay, Harlan Z.”

“Well, the Z part is much harder for folks to say. I started to leave it off; it’s worked out fine.”

Sy thought that was an efficient way to handle it. They got to talking about weather, horse races and living close in city center. Harlan was semi-retired, a machinist who was relieved of his job earlier than planned. He was looking for jobs but not much had turned up.

Sy got the idea shortly after. He had to travel a couple hours to and fro to see his mother in the suburbs, one of those decent, bland retirement places. She was heading toward eighty-five at a speed he wasn’t prepared for, at all. In fact, he feared her imminent death. She had been a good mother, not easy but well-meaning, with a flair all her own, not always around. But still. He badly missed her just thinking of her leaving for good.

The problem was that he hated to leave his book stall and he also didn’t like to give up his Sunday afternoons–the one day he had most of the day free since he closed up shop around eleven. So when Harlan seemed like a reliable sort, he approached him with his idea.

“I would just be gone until around two o’clock. I spend the morning and take her to lunch if she can manage. What d’ya say? Or if you want, I’ll give you the whole day. I’ll pay fair. Say, you can count money alright, yes?”

Harlan nodded vigorously and didn’t think twice. The deal was completed with a handshake and a plan for the following week.

It went well despite Sy’s wife berating him for not doing a background check. His mother was visited each Tuesday and he was relived the book stall was manned by a regular sort, a person who liked print and liked working even one day a week. The weeks went by. No one complained. In fact, some of the customers said the change was refreshing and found it commendable he was tending to his ancient mother. Sy thought, who wouldn’t do that if they had any heart at all?

Then one August Wednesday morning, Mr. Calhoon stopped by earlier than usual for his daily newspaper. He seemed in a rush but bent toward Sy with his ice blue, heavy-lidded eyes. A familiar scent of expensive aftershave wafted into Sy’s nose and made his eyes water but he smiled at him, grateful for the routine one buck tip.

“Say, Sylvester, I think there is a problem. Your man, Harlan. He can’t actually read.”

Sy’s shook his head to get it clear of fancy fumes. “What d’ya mean, can’t read? Of course Harlan can read. He loves books and magazines, gets his own here. That’s how we met.”

“So you said. But I’m telling you, you are in error. I asked him for a certain title, if it had come in yet, and he looked and looked. I spotted it near the back and pointed. He still couldn’t find it. I said, ‘The one with the blue and black cover, it will bite you if you get any closer!’ He finally put his hand on it after I described it in detail. I nearly went back there and grabbed it myself.” He opened his hands wide. “He is illiterate.” He folded the paper. “Bad for business.”

“Wait a minute, he just couldn’t find it.” The thought horrified him. Had he been duped? His wife would let him have it for this one.

“Suit yourself, see you tomorrow,” Mr. Calhoon said as he loped away.

Next Tuesday morning Sy stayed back. He decided coming straight to the point was best. He shared the complaint and waited for Harlan to respond with a laugh and good explanation.

Harland half-hung his head. “I read a little. Not so much, really. I never went to school after I left at thirteen. I had to work on the farm. I know a lot about llamas, for one thing. I do my best work with my hands, not my head. But I get by.”

Sy considered the man. Harlan had taken off his cap and held it by the brim. He looked down at the sidewalk, his round face pink with embarrassment.

“But what about the magazines you buy?”

Harlan lit up. “Oh, I love the pictures. They remind me of growing up in the country. We had gardens, not fancy but kitchen gardens. I helped my ma cook for years after my sister died. But flowers, too. I love to look at them. My best memories, if you need to know.”

A customer came up. Afterwards, Harlan asked if Sy was going to see his mother or not.

“Have I lost my job or what?”

Sy wiped his brow. It was blasted hot already. He looked across the street, at kids already running out to enjoy the last days of summer, at a fire hydrant at the park spraying cool water on a stray dog, garbage men doing their work like they did every week. He waved at the woman, Thelma, who always sat on her stoop watching.

“You like it here? Good, I like you being here. I’ll be back by four.”

Harlan watched him go, bald head shining in cheerful morning light. He thought Sy Teverstein was a good and more than fair man. Harlan chatted with a customer, counted the change carefully, then realized bundles of fresh new magazines were due in that afternoon. He looked forward to it.

DSCF1171

(Another good fiction prompt from Patricia Ann McNair’s blog.)

Where Life Begins

changing-hands-book-store-001We were wending our way through the bookstore, when out of the corner of my eye I noted a bold sign with an arrow stating: Life begins here. I kept on, thought how remarkable, then stopped and turned. Of course the sign didn’t say that, but it was worth tucking away for a pensive hour.

It was instead the start of a line for customers toting boxes and bags of well-used or unwanted books for possible resale. They might have needed quick money (though I would like to think not) or more room in a smaller habitat. Perhaps there was an ended relationship and the now-unshared books were thorny reminders. An expansive estate sale may have rendered more yellowed pages than desired. Or better yet, perhaps their cargo was meant to be circulated the world, offered to those who may not have had the pleasure of delving into a wealth of poems by Muriel Spark or escapades shared with Rumer Godden’s wise, slyly humorous characters. I had stood in that line many times feeling somewhat traitorous (weren’t these lovely books? didn’t I need a re-read?), yet relieved to hear: “Cash or store credit?” This meant I could wander the aisles more freely again.

That sign was only a directive for orderliness. Simple, yet it was a mind trick, one of those moments when language flip-flops from eye to brain and the information is altered.  In this case, I thought as I headed to the blue room (literature) and then the red room (non-fiction), the skewed interpretation made sense. I was in one of my favorite places-a bookstore-and I had changed direction in my life, having left my job.

I found myself thinking of the incident for days, starting with the line to sell books, a favorite material good of mine.

bookshelf

Books were a significant addition to the foundation of my early years. I don’t recall a good-sized bookstore in the small Michigan city of my childhood and youth, though there must have been. We didn’t buy books very frequently; we checked them out at the library. But though I can vouch for the fact that our home did not have an overabundance of books, there was a floor to ceiling bookshelf in the living room that was packed with volumes, mostly about music and composers; history such as ancient Greece; travel; scholarly studies of the Bible; a collection or two of famous art.

And Kon Tiki by Thor Heyerdahl. I recall the last as I read it several times, mesmerized by his seafaring vessel and distant lands. (I think I fell in love for the first time looking at the brave author’s picture.) My parents read to us at bedtime when they had the time. Dad liked to read interesting paragraphs aloud at the dinner table that engendered discussion or a good laugh. My mother, not so inclined to sit and read for long, entertained us with her own stories, and I later learned she sometimes wrote them down in spiral notebooks.

Grace A. Dow libray

I may not recall a bookstore but I do recall the Grace A. Dow Memorial Library. It was considered very modern, all sharp geometry with brick and much glass defining its lines. Built in 1953, it was designed by Alden B. Dow, a noted, homegrown architect. The moment I entered the heavy double glass doors, whatever was not right with the world was transformed, or at least quelled. The clean-lined, open floor plan invited me; there was a huge wall window at the back that looked out over lush landscaping at the edge of Dow Gardens. It encouraged dreaming. Stairways took me to ever-intriguing rows of knowledge. I took the books into my hands and my mind entered realms that challenged and fulfilled my desire to learn. There was always one more page to read, one more quiet nook to poke around. Whether for research or recreation, the books in this library enlarged and underscored the present, and heralded a future that had few bounds. I took notes for schoolwork but that wasn’t the main reason I spent hours there.

This sanctuary, which housed endless rows of bound pages almost intoxicating upon opening them, helped refine my  own fledgling stories and poems. I was another neophyte on a quest. I was a guest in a  place whose primary inhabitants were books. When it was time to leave, I was reluctant, and counted on the next chance to lean into the modern leather and metal chairs and investigate things.

It was intellectual freedom, as well as emotional, that I was given. I tried to use it wisely. The books that informed my life were a gateway to adulthood. From Kierkegaard and Sartre, to Hermann Hesse and Sherwood Anderson (whose Winesburg, Ohio is still with me); from Kurt Vonnegut to Denise Levertov’s O Taste and See: they confounded while also defined ideas and longings. Books ignited hope, assured me I was not alone, demanded a better intelligence, gave me good reasons to laugh.

Windesburg, Ohio

“Line begins here.”I have stood in these lines, arms full of worthy, seemingly necessary books. I spend a good part of my budget on books. Not all authors’ words have enthralled. Some have shown me how not to occupy my mind, how not to put pen to paper. But ignorance is not preferable to an occasional error. Besides, I can bring those shabbily written tomes back to some stores. Then I am on the hunt for more, whether in bookstore or library.

“Life begins here.” Not an original thought, yet the message stuck because I suspect my one true life–the one that gives me a thrill of discovery, the fortitude of knowledge and helpful clues for my soul’s well-being –did begin with language I could hear, speak, read, write. For some it might be another memory of earliest years, a scent or sight. I recall being held and sung to, words buoyed by lilting melodies. There were my mother’s true, astounding farm life tales at bedtime, then my own books read under cover with a flashlight or a diary written in ’til fast asleep. Most of the family took books to the table until my mother decreed no more. There were conversations in our household that originated and ended with words on paper, as well as words held aloft by our attention. Language, spoken or written, was important. It charged the mind and cradled the heart. It made bridges between people, found solutions and provided entry to secret places.

And so I have once more concluded that in order to live authentically, deeply, I have to jump in and fully utilize the language I gather and adore. I am taking back my right to this passion for  writing (and the reading, too), every day or night. It has required leaving work that mattered to give myself to the wonders and conundrums of better learning the trade of wordsmith. It’s a risky thing. But I have time for risk and its outcomes, not for inaction.

A book is a myriad things to those of us who love them, including  language given room to romp and breathe. Those words are nothing less than alchemical. They alter our sense of being and our place among others within the universe. They are keys to an internal destination we choose. At the very least a story, a book, is a meandering walk down the road, where anything can happen. Where life scintillates with the slow turning of a page.

back window wall at library

(Room with wall-sized window overlooking trees and gardens at my childhood library. Thanks, Alden B. Dow.)