I Walked into a Bookstore

You never really know someone till you ask.

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1. I Walked into a Bookstore

I heard the tinkle of the little bell above the door as I pushed it open. The cool air brushed over my face bringing the dusty smell of books and the scent of rich coffee. I closed my eyes and took a long breath before looking around.  Light filtered into the quaint shop through the grandiose windows that framed the store front. The warmth from the sun filled the entire shop like a blanket. I saw rows and rows of bookshelves filled to the brim and, toward the back of the store, some giant arm chairs--you know the kind that can swallow your body whole and still have plenty of room for a stack of books. Then a wispy voice interrupted my thoughts.

“Good morning, Sir. How can I help you?” The man was strangely short and old. His height, however, was a mystery only for a moment because I then saw the reflective metal of a wheelchair underneath his blanketed lap. He had the most ancient skin that looked as though it was draped over his bones. Except, there was a tight white scar that stretched across his forehead just above his pale brown eyes. His wrinkled hands clutched at an equally wrinkled copy of The Hobbit. I smiled at the sight of one of my favorite books. Then I remembered to reply.

“Oh! No… I’m just new around here and I kinda saw your… uh… store and… well… I just love to read so I wanted to come in and… er… you know… browse.” I cringed even as the words left my mouth. Glancing toward the safety of the shelves, I gave him an awkward smile, “But thank you though!” I finished as I darted toward the books desperate for the conversation to be over.

“Well what does a young man like you like reading? Maybe I can recommend you something,” The old man said kindly.

“No… That’s okay! I just want to look around…” I assured him then finished my dash for refuge among the books. Once out of sight of the old man, I plonked my head against the stacks of books with a sigh. After a moment of anxiety, I shook the memory from my head with another deep breath and turned my attention the rows of brightly colored book spines. My finger slid easily across them as I scanned their titles. Every once in a while, a certain book would catch my eye and I would pry it off the shelf to read the back. After selecting a few books, I moved to the next isle and then the next. I took my time, reluctant to leave the forest of shelves, and accumulated a small mountain of books. They weighed heavily on my arms until I managed to set them on the floor next to the smallest giant chair. I took the top book off the top of the stack and sank down into the chair. The book was one of my favorites. My head rested on the arm of the chair as I opened it to the best part. Before I knew it, though, I was sitting on the edge of the cushion. The villain is holding the hero’s love hostage. His gun is poised to strike at her forehead. The hero runs as hard and as fast as he can to save her. He’s not going to make it in time. His breathing is hard and ragged, but he can’t stop now! He sees tears running down her face. I’ll save you I’ll make it in time! The hero throws his body in front of her quivering form, tottering the line between love and death. The villain’s finger squeezes the trigger prepared to shoot. CRASH! AHHHHH!!!

“Oh, goodness! Are you okay over there?” the old man gasped, picking up the stack of encyclopedias that fell over. My heart felt like it wanted to jump out of my chest and I couldn’t quite catch my breath. My throat even burned a little bit from screaming. I pushed myself off the floor and back into my chair.

“Oh… uh… Yeah. I’m good. I was just a little zoned out.” I muttered shakily.

“Are you sure? You look a little white there.” His face reflected concern as he rolled over to me.

“I’m-I’m good.” I stuttered and blushed, embarrassed that I had been so captured the book that I fell off the chair. The old man chuckled deeply like there was thunder in his chest.

“It’s okay kid. It’s not like it’s never happened before.” I assume he was trying to make me feel better, but his gracious smile, for some reason, only made me feel more embarrassed. I dropped my eyes to my lap then, realizing that my book had gone flying when I fell, I scanned the floor for it. But he found it first. He adjusted his body in the chair and bent over to pick up the book.

“No, no… it’s okay! I’ll get it.” I rush toward the book, but his strong arm grabbed my shoulder.

“Son…” he looked me in the eyes, “I can pick up a book.” I nodded, sitting back into the chair. He got the book and handed it back to me. “Besides, it’s my legs that don’t work so good.” He smiled and chuckled lightheartedly.  I accepted the book and laughed with him. That was funny! “You know, you remind me a lot of myself when I was young,” he commented offhandedly. Now I’m curious. That’s never a good thing.

“How long have you been in your wheelchair?” I blurted out. My gut twisted like a wet towel. Oh, no… Did I just over step my bounds? The old man must have read the panic on my face because he laughed again. His laugh was different though. It sounded like the big bell in my church back home: loud, clear, resonating. I assumed you could hear it for miles.

“It’s alright! I’ve had a wheelchair forever. I’ve never lived without it.” He reassured me. I relaxed a little bit, enough to think of another question.

“Why are you in a wheelchair?” I wondered aloud. He grinned, recognizing my thirst for understanding.

“You see, I was born with a condition called Spina Bifida which means split spine. It’s pretty common in America but no one really knows for sure what causes it. It developed in the first month of my pregnancy, before my mom even knew she was pregnant. I had some surgeries but I still ended up with this,” he said twirling around in a circle, “I’m just lucky I didn’t have any mental issues. A lot of kids with SB do… Well, it has not stopped me yet. And I don’t plan on letting it any time soon.” The old man finished with a smile. His answer only partially quenched my curiosity.

 “Is it hard?” I say cautiously, “You know, to do stuff?”

“Well, son… You’d have to define ‘stuff’ for me. I have never done things the ‘normal’ way so it’s not like I know what I’m missing. Plus, elevators are fun. However, in a much different sense, I had a hard time growing up. People had a hard time accepting me, especially because I couldn’t play with them. Without bikes and football and soccer and all those things that kids enjoy, I didn’t have much in common with them and they picked on me because of that. That’s why I really started reading. It was mostly to escape. Fiction is much kinder than reality.” I sat there drinking in the wisdom this man had. I just wanted to hear more. More of his stories, more of his life, more of his struggles… just more!

“Do you wish you didn’t have to use a wheelchair?”

            “No.” He declared boldly, “I don’t. This wheelchair, while others see it as a handicap, I would not trade it for the world.” He breath suddenly became heavy and, strangely, full of sorrow. “If I had not been in this chair, I would never have found my passion for reading,” another deep breath, I waited patiently, “And I would never have met my wife.” His eyes locked onto mine. Whoever said that eyes are windows to the soul was right. When I looked through his pain filled eyes, I saw straight through to his tortured soul. But suddenly he pulled closed the curtains of his eyes and started to turn away. I threw caution out of my mind and uttered, “Your wife?” This stopped him in his tracks. He turned back to me. His eyes abandoned.

“My wife…” beginning slowly, “My wife is the most beautiful woman in the world. She’s brilliant. She could have been a doctor if she hadn’t met me.” Shaky hands pressed against his face and with a painful smile he continued, “She said that I was the only person she needed to take care of. I told her she deserved better than me: she’s a lot smarter, prettier, and more caring than me. But she loved me. And I loved her.” The story paused as he looked around the shop, “We met here. In this book store. I had already read all the books from the school library and was looking for something new. She was working—making coffee—she loved the smell. She turned around and caught me glancing at her. I was a blathering mess… but we managed to talk about my favorite thing: books. Eventually that turned into a relationship.” The face of the man before me broke my heart. He was smiling, but there was a defined shadow over his features. I knew that face. It’s the same face I make when I know the ending of a sad book. I felt tears pool in my own eyes, but I made up my mind to push just a little further. The story needed an ending no matter how sad.

“Where is she?” I meant for it to sound a little more bold but sadness choked my throat. The little restraint the man had left broke when I asked. His trembling hand wrapped around his wedding band, twisting it on his finger and tears leaked through the corners of his eyes.

            “She died. Two months ago.” He croaked. I finally let the tears fall from my own eyes. I was so full with love and grief for a man I had only met today. The man before me, tormented and grief-stricken, cradled his face in his hands. With a wet face and burdened limbs, I fell to my knees next to him and laid my cheek on his knee and sobbed with him. Our cries filled the heavy silence of the store, the setting sun peeping through the windows and casting threatening shadows on our bodies. Eventually our sobs turned only to sniffles and the occasional tear. The silence returned and filled us both with a strange anxiety. Neither of us felt it was right to say anything else. So we didn’t. We sat and let out exposed souls return back to the spaces, familiar and safe, inside us. Finally, I whispered to him.

            “I’m sorry.” For everything. I didn’t have to say it. We both knew what I meant. The man only sighed in response, but that was all I needed to know that we were both okay again. Not really okay, but okay enough for now. I looked again to his pale brown eyes as I stood up to return to my chair. Although they were guarded, a glimmer of hope shone through the curtains.

“That book is one of my favorites,” he commented and pointed to the book sitting next to me on the sofa.

“Mine too,” I replied, smiling up at him, “Could I borrow it? ... I’ll return it tomorrow.” His spirits lifted at the promise of my return.

“Of course. I’ll make a pot of coffee. You do drink coffee, right?”

“Yes! I love coffee.” I stand up with the book held to my chest with both arms.

“I guess I’ll see you tomorrow.”

“I can’t wait.” I heard the tinkle of the bell once again as I left the small shop. I really was excited to go back. I didn’t even learn his name…

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