Sitting in our bookstore at night, I can hear the stories. Or not hear them so much as feel them: the neat, round softness of Austen with its improbable, inevitable love affairs; the sprawl of Dickens with its meandering threads tying into coincidental knots. All the books have colors and shapes not just from the stories written but from the stories of the authors who’ve done the writing; from Steinbeck’s realism to Murakami’s cubism, a regular art museum of voices.
It’s different from the stores that sell new books, I think, with their splashes and shouts for attention. Because here when I sit at night in the worn armchair by the fireplace, I can also hear the stories of people who’ve held these books. Some of the first editions must have been read by generations; I imagine women in their petticoats and men in breeches looking for escape from sadness or dreariness. The books have seen plagues and wars--back when wars were still romantic--have been read by candlelight and oil-lamp light; it’s all written there in smudges and stains if you just know how to look.
And hidden behind it all? Is our story. Our once upon a time.
So. Once upon a time there was a girl named Chloe who lived virtually alone, in a cottage by the woods. Until her eighth birthday when she woke to find her mother already gone to work, without a good morning, a kiss, a birthday wish. Chloe had been forgotten. So, being a headstrong girl, she gave herself her own birthday present, skipped school for the first time of many, ate Lucky Charms (minus the marshmallows), and then biked out into the neighborhood to explore.
And there at the end of Bayard Lane, playing in the yard of the biggest house in the state, perhaps even the world, were two girls in pastel dresses and a boy in a pressed white shirt. They were the perfect family, too beautiful to be real, and of course the truth was that what Chloe had seen wasn’t actually real at all. But by the time she figured this out she’d already been in love with them for years and it hardly mattered. Because it was here with these magical children in this world so different from her own that Chloe’s real life began. On her eighth birthday, she was born.
Every day she came to play with her new friends as the weeks passed, and then the years. In time she’d marry the boy, give birth to and lose a son, open a store, and begin building an empire. Until the empire began to crumble and the boy grew haunted and disappeared. No fairy tale, no happily ever after; Chloe was alone again.
And in the new silence, the echo of untold stories was deafening.
Secrets. It was one of the ways we were a good match, because Nate loved secrets and I loved his surprises. We both believed one needed to be shocked out of one’s expectations in order to fully feel life.
The bookstore was both a surprise and a shock. He’d bought the house over twenty years before with the money his mother had left him and his advance for the book he’d just published. But I’d had no idea he was even thinking of moving from our apartment until the day he walked me blindfolded to the front door and pulled away the scarf. “Welcome to your new life!” he said.
And there we were in front of a Victorian mansion, all crumbling scalloped shingles and tall windows, two of which were boarded with plywood. It was an aged beauty queen, now with no hair, bunions, and missing teeth, and at first I had no idea what he was implying by bringing me there. We’d talked about opening a store, but only in vague “someday” terms, and one does not surprise one’s wife with houses in the way one might surprise her with roses. Unless one is Nate.
He opened the door and led me through what felt like a thousand walk-in closets, with scarred wooden floors and faded, peeling wallpaper, and an overpowering smell of stale black tea. “We’ll set up the store downstairs,” he said, voice rushed like a kid trying to explain the wonders of a video game or Harry Potter movie to someone he knows is much too old for it. “We’ll line the walls with wooden shelves floor to ceiling, attach sliding wooden ladders. And I realize right now these little nooks look like toilet stalls, but we’ll shelve them too, so finding the books there feels like a discovery, ancient treasures.”
He led me down the front hallway to show where we’d put the cash register, and a “reading room” for customers to page through the rarer books, searching for signs of foxing or bookworm holes. He’d already imagined it in minute detail: the cushy chairs with tufted ottomans, round end tables with green glass lamps, paintings of authors most wouldn’t recognize but that would give the most bookish patrons some self-satisfaction. “Look at that fireplace!” he said. “I think there’s marble under there if we just strip off that paint. We can light fires in the winter and set greenery here in the summer, put velvet armchairs here and here so people feel like they’re actually sitting in someone’s old library.” And then he led me upstairs to show me how we’d build a separate entrance in back, break down walls to turn a bathroom and two of the spare bedrooms into an open kitchen and living area. He made me see it all.
But Nate was a gifted storyteller. “Leave out the parts that people skip,” that’s a quote from Elmore Leonard when asked how he made his novels engaging. And Nate skillfully left out the debt that would take us years to tunnel up from, the months of hand-chapping, back-straining labor, the stink of the chemicals used to strip the floor and walls. The tedium of sanding fifty yards of dentil molding, bleaching out a century’s worth of grout stains and spackling a century’s worth of plaster cracks; Nate didn’t mention any of this, just made me see the magic of his story. And yes the magic was there, under it all. He didn’t lie, just left out some unromantic narrative detail. And in time our house, our bookshop, they did become our fairy tale. His story came mostly true, until the ending.
The note was on the kitchen table. I’d returned after a round of errands and the gym to find the shop unexpectedly closed; it was just six, and on weekdays we stayed open till eight. But I was only vaguely worried. It had been a hard year for both of us, and Nate had been fragile over the past few months, perpetually seeming on the verge of . . . I don’t know what. Breaking down, I guess, although those words sound way too simplistic and cliché. What do you call being perpetually on a knife’s edge? Feeling like your body has crystallized, so that something as innocuous as a “Do I know you from somewhere?” from a stranger who’s seen your story on the news can shatter you into sharp, serrated splinters? I’m a woman who loves words, but there are times there are no words.
Maybe Nate had just needed to get away, lie down and immerse himself in a book or the National Geographic channel, someone else’s world. And seeing the store closed, I thought I might have just the remedy.
We’d gotten a FedEx that morning, the first American edition of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland: octavo, red cloth and gilt edges, original dark green endpapers, meant for a Mr. Ernie Howell, who’d requested it for his ten-year-old granddaughter. Its pages were yellowed and stained, its spine sunned and frayed. And his granddaughter would probably think it was gross, thanking him politely before stowing the book in a back corner, having no concept of its true value. Ninety-five hundred dollars plus tax, to be exact. The cost of history, but to me putting a price on history felt crass.
We’d read the story together as children: me, Grace, Cecilia, and Nate on the Sinclairs’ brocade sofa, hanging off Mrs. Sinclair’s shoulders so we could see sketches of the hookah-smoking caterpillar and Cheshire cat teeth. And now for the few days the book was ours, Nate and I would sit together, turning pages and remembering.
On my walk home I’d been listening to my iPod, the Beatles, and thinking of how we’d spend the night, I was tempted to dance to the music. I would’ve danced if there’d been nobody around to see, but instead I just walked to the rhythm, adding extra steps where warranted, tiny hops on my toes. Almost happy. Tonight we’d congratulate each other over wine for our find, and maybe then we’d make love; it had been a long time. A very, very, very long time.
But Nate was gone. And in his place, seventy-four words.
Someone, I don’t remember who, said that life is like a beautiful melody with messed up lyrics. I never really understood that until just now. Something’s happened very suddenly, something truly “messed up,” and I need to go back to Redbridge tonight. I tried to call your cell but it must’ve been off. I’m not sure when I’ll be back. It may be awhile, but I’ll call as soon as I know more.
And that was it. At the time, I didn’t even wonder about how strangely it was written, the clipped sentences, the quote he’d chosen to explain his leaving or the vagueness of the word “awhile.” The only thing that had scared me was his return to Redbridge.
It was the town where I’d spent the first twenty years of my life, and so you’d think I should have twenty years’ worth of memories, as many good as bad. But instead all I could see was the nightmare of those last few weeks, a movie on an infinite loop perpetually goring and twisting. I tried not to let myself drift back further to life with Gabriel, the memories like slashes: watching him learn to walk by staggering between library shelves; at the park throwing a ball two-handed that inevitably ended up behind him, wearing a look of bewilderment followed by self-congratulatory applause. Even the places Gabriel had never been part of, like the front steps of the grammar school, or twisting trails through the Redwoods, were places I’d imagined taking him someday. And I couldn’t stomach the thought of seeing them again, knowing I never would.
We hadn’t been back since my mother’s funeral, and even then we hadn’t gone to the Sinclairs’ home, where his sister Cecilia, and now Nate’s father, lived. We talked to Cecilia every month or so, got updates on the meandering threads of her gratingly uneventful life. But Nate hadn’t seen his father for almost twenty-five years. Was one of them sick? Well that must be it, what else could it be? But then why hadn’t Nate just written that in his note?
It wasn’t till after I’d taken a shower that I thought to check my messages to see if he’d given more details and listen to the tone of his voice, make sure he sounded like he’d be okay. But although he’d said my phone had been off, I found it was actually still on, no messages. And when I checked missed calls to get a sense of when he’d left, it turned out there hadn’t been any. He hadn’t tried to call me.
And why not? Despite everything, we were still each other’s stabilizing force. Something happened to set one of us off balance, and we needed the other to get back on steady ground. Had things between us really changed so much?
No, he must’ve dialed a wrong number without realizing, left a message on someone else’s phone. And as soon as the thought solidified in my brain I grabbed onto it, became sure that it was true.
Because I was still living inside the fairy-tale shell he’d constructed to safeguard his secrets. Yes, Nate was a gifted storyteller.
Once upon a time there was a young man who’d loved a girl so deeply, so truly, that he left his family to be with her. Defying the wrath of his father and the imprudence of commitment at such a young age, they held hands and made a vow of forever. And they lived happily, or at least as happily as possible considering the circumstances. Until, they did not.
It started last Christmas. We had a number of odd traditions, me and Nate, the way I’m sure most couples do after years together. The bizarre Buddha bobble-head doll a customer had left in the shop, which we periodically, randomly, hid in places we knew the other would find him. The way, when eating potato chips, Nate would silently hand me each folded chip he found like it contained a secret love note. And then there was our Christmas Eve marshmallow fight. It had started fifteen years ago when I teased him about the string of toasted marshmallow hanging from his chin, the way he couldn’t eat anything gooey, pizza cheese or caramel sauce, without leaving a strand of it dangling from his face like a strange, lone whisker. He responded by pelting a marshmallow at me, so of course I’d pelted one back, and soon the living room was littered with them. Since then, every Christmas we bought marshmallows to roast in our fireplace and to throw, laughing like adolescents, often ending the night by making love amidst the sticky ruins.
But last year Nate had been preoccupied, in one of the moods that hit him sometimes where he seemed scraped raw, everything on the surface. Usually these moods only last a day or two, but this time he’d been edgy for almost two weeks. So to lighten the mood, after studying the burn marks on the marshmallow at the end of my tongs, I’d held it up for him to see. “It’s Jesus’s face!” I said.
He’d forced a smile, then squashed the marshmallow between his thumb and forefinger and studied it. “Now it’s a sheep.”
“We could’ve made a fortune off that, you jerk, eBayed it or kept it in a bell jar and charged admission.”
To which he’d responded, “Joel’s getting out of jail this week.”
I’d stared at him silently, a fist knuckling against my ribs.
“I’m sorry, I didn’t know how to tell you. I mean I realize this wasn’t the right way, but I thought you should know.”
“How?” My voice was pitched too high. “I don’t get it. How could they let him out?”
“He had twenty-five years to life, Chloe, and it’s been twenty-five years. He’s going back home.”
“But . . . Cecilia’s in your home. You mean he’s staying with Cecilia?”