By Steve Land
The door opened like all doors do, allowing entry or exit. The hinges moaned as if relieved to have discovered the key to a puzzling memory and the wind chime suctioned to the glass dusted the air with a bit of music…a reward, perhaps, for the hinge’s epiphany. Heat bled into the room and mingled with the sound, but the owner of Overman’s Used and Rare Books, Elvie Overman, noticed neither the sound nor the heat, appeared concerned with the singular task of categorizing the paperbacks before him.
His back shone to his visitors, of which there stood two, together but apart, their relationship similar to the one that now existed between Elvie’s hands and head. For seventeen years he’d sorted, shelved, arranged and rearranged, so much so that his mind drifted as his hands accomplished his work seemingly of their own volition. The work his hands accomplished was tedious, though it was work he loved…work designed to first give customers enjoyment and second to earn Elvie income. Of late, neither had been accomplished.
Because of that, the sound of the chime should have garnered Elvie’s attention. And on any other day he’d have chided with false malice any patron leaving too long open the door. Patrons he needed and they’d been scarce this miserable summer what with the recession and the heat. Still, the chime had always meant possible sales and so Elvie should have jumped at the sound, jumped and put on his best salesman hat, for the shop was in dire need of dollars.
But Elvie did not jump. He continued sorting, relishing the heft of each book that passed through his hands, breathing the aroma of them–the scent of age, the scent of life itself.
His nose had always been in a book. And why not? He’d lived thousands of lives through them, sailing oceans in search of treasure, running for his life from spies and werewolves, lying in beds with women too beautiful for words, and so much more. Of late, however, books bore no pleasure and they failed to help him escape his troubles as they had in the past. Of late, old memories pounded his brain, demanded his attention.
“Elvie,” called a voice from the present, sounding like a voice from the past. Elvie wondered if he’d heard anything at all as he stacked Peter Straub atop Whitley Strieber. Probably just another memory, he guessed, maybe even a memory of the sort that had kept him awake all this torturous summer. Had he got some sleep, he’d not have missed so many opportunities at sales. There existed nine days this year that he failed to unlock the shop’s doors. Had he, he wondered, lead such a terrible life that he deserved his painful nighttime recollections? He surmised he had not.
The voice called again, “Elvie?”
Elvie did not turn toward it. Instead, he allowed his hands to catch up on their work, while his head buzzed with weariness.
The visitors at the door exchanged a glance, as they appeared to be ignored by Elvie. The man, his name was Herschel Milligan, glanced at the boy who had followed him into the store. Herschel raised his hands, shrugged his shoulders. He dropped his hands back to his sides as he looked into the child’s eyes and suffered a moment of recognition that sent a tingle tracing up his spine. He shook off the tingle, tried to discern the familiarity he noticed. It couldn’t be, what he thought he saw, but he thought he recognized the boy’s blue eyes as someone else’s. How could it be that familiar eyes resided in an unfamiliar face? Nah, thought Herschel, he’s just a little boy with a book for Elvie. That was strange, too, though, as most folks brought Elvie books by the box. This kid, this little red-headed boy that Herschel had not seen before had but a single book, bound in black leather.
Herschel turned back to Elvie, beckoned again, and was again ignored. He walked to the counter, where among various debris including a framed photograph of Elvie’s Mother, a receipt book, a pen-filled coffee mug that read “If you can dream it–You can achieve it,” and a cash register originally produced in 1956, rested a silver bell. Taped to the counter next to the bell was a note that read: Push once for service. Herschel used three strides to reach the bell, and with each stride he thought only of the child’s eyes. What was the familiarity? What exactly was it that was different with the child…for something certainly was different? Unable to solve the riddle, Herschel pushed the bell once for service.
Elvie jumped, knocked over the stool upon which he sat and stumbled over it as he turned toward the counter.
“Oh, Herschel,” Elvie said righting the stool, “scared the devil out of me.”
“Sorry, Elvie, figured you heard me come in, but couldn’t catch your attention.”
“Well, you got it now,” Elvie said and smiled. Though Elvie believed Herschel was here on business and not as an old acquaintance–an old acquaintance that happened to own the building in which Elvie’s store resided, he smiled. It was good to see Herschel. A couple of months had passed since he’d last shown up at the store and the lines in his face seemed to deepen in just that little time. Maybe the heat and the recession wore on him as much as they did anyone else…or maybe this was how time worked as one approached fifty and the years fall away as once had days, passing in ever-increasing velocity and hurling you toward a predestined–
“Elvie,” said Herschel.
–conclusion leaving you mere memories, ones to relish and ones to haunt, before snuffing you out like a candle flame between thumb and forefinger. And why the haunting, jeering memories? Why those? This part of life, this last ten…twenty years should be spent remembering the good that happened prior to the inevitable snuffing. Surely, these years were not meant for dwelling–
“Elvie, you o.k.?”
“–Dwelling on the worst…times,” Elvie said, and then covered his mouth with a trembling hand as the warmth of embarrassment spread across his face. “Haven’t been sleeping too well, lately, Herschel. Sorry for the…lapse.”
“Hey, look, Elvie. I hate to say this while ya got other folks around,” he said lowering his voice and gesturing at the boy behind him with a tilt of his head, “but I got a guy could move into the warehouse back there with a small manufacturing plant. Now, I don’t want to–you been here for fifteen years now…. But it’s been two months and times are hard all around.”
Elvie looked at the boy. Where the heck had he come from? He didn’t recognize the kid, and figured he probably should have as he knew most of the folks in town and a few from as far away as Ludington, which was a good hour or so. An hour. A blink of an eye, surely no more now, as the momentum built toward the inevitability. As inevitable as were the nighttime tortures that waited and turned seconds to hours and hours to years, force feeding wicked memories into a brain that tried to eat only the good.
“You don’t seem well, Elvie.”
“I’m…good,” Elvie said, realizing that he’d drifted away for the second time in this conversation.
“I’ll give you two weeks to come up with this month’s and the past two, Elvie. Best I can do.”
“And I’ll do my best,” he said through the panic-laced sadness that stole into his soul even as Herschel did his best to be fair. But life wasn’t about fair. Elvie knew that…was content with that. Still, he’d worked hard over the past decade and had done well…and expected to continue doing well. Then those damned memories rolled in with the summer. Fair or not. “Are you, uh, will you let me keep the apartment? I mean if I don’t get the money for the store?”
“No harm there,” said Herschel, who until that moment had worn a sullen expression, one that showed his dismay…his shame at having given Elvie an ultimatum. “No, I reckon that’d be just fine. Makes me feel a lot better. But I do hope ya come up with the money. Lots of folks in town like this little shop.”
“Just about makes it all worth it, Herschel. Just about….”
“Let me know how it goes,” Herschel said. He pulled the door shut as he exited, leaving Elvie alone with the boy.
The boy took one tentative step toward the counter. He stopped, looked up at Elvie from the leather-bound book he clasped in both hands. Then he glanced back at the door, as if, Elvie thought, deciding whether to leave or continue. Or maybe he was checking to make sure no one else was entering….
“Are you looking to trade or sell, son?”
“Neither,” said the boy. He arrived at the counter, placed the somewhat thin book upon the glass, and looked up at Elvie who noticed a strangeness in the boy’s gaze. There was something amiss with the boy’s eyes, but what that exactly was, Elvie could not be sure. Elvie reached for the book.
“I’ll lend you this book, Mr. Overman,” said the boy. “But I need it back tomorrow. It…it will help you sleep.”
With those words, the boy turned and left. His motion was swift…evasive. He breezed out of the shop like the wisps of a dream upon waking, leaving Elvie wondering if the boy had ever been there at all. But then Elvie’s hands still rested upon the book. One that would help him sleep…according to little boy gone.
What words could dispel the funk that surrounded him, Elvie wondered? What story could drive away the nighttime demons? He doubted such a story existed upon the pages
beneath the cover of…of…a non-titled book? Elvie bent closer. He rubbed the leather as if it was dusty, which it was not. Still, he rubbed. He blew upon it, rubbed a little more and then his fingers discerned some ridge definition.
Elvie picked up the book and carried it to the picture window hoping the sunlight would better illuminate the cover than would the store’s overhead fluorescents. And it did. Words, two of them, swam to the surface of the leather. As Elvie tilted the book this way and that in the sunlight, he read the words: Write Away. He could see no information about the author…perhaps that had been rubbed away with time. No matter, a quick glance at the title page would solve that riddle.
Elvie took the book back to the counter, opened it, and gasped. The book bore no title page and as he lifted the pages and let them breeze across his thumb he found that they contained no words at all. The book was filled with nothing more than paper…plain white, yellowed at the edges. That was all.
“Yes, well, there’s a story that will help me sleep.” He dropped the book upon the counter and something within it rattled. The sound was metallic, but it was not what interested Elvie.
No, it was the title that drew his eye. Write Away. Write Away. Yes, there existed a play on words, but the meaning was clear. What lay before him was a book of plain white paper with a title that served as an instruction. Write Away. And why not? Reading had not stopped his vicious memories. Alcohol worsened them. So, why not Write Away?
Elvie left the book. He walked to the door, turned the sign from “open” to “closed.” Today would be the tenth day his shop would not be fully open for business. But it all might be worth it. If he could write away his memories, there might be a chance to save his store. If this worked, if he could get some rest, he’d be more alert, better able to imagine creative ways to sell, and able to get his door open every day for the next two weeks. He locked the door.
Back at the counter and the book, Elvie wondered why he had not thought of this before. Writing was one of the most cathartic exercises he’d known. Heck, he didn’t even need this book to accomplish catharsis; any old note pad would suffice. Still, since it was here before him, and since the boy needed it back tomorrow….
Elvie opened the book, heard it rattle. He ignored the sound, but somewhere in his mind he knew the noise had come from the large and rounded…cylindrical…spine of the book. Elvie grabbed a pen from the mug and scribbled upon the first page. Nothing.
“Damned pen,” he said, grabbing another. He scribbled once more and was met with the same result. “Seriously?” Pen in hand, he grabbed a receipt book, scribbled upon it and created what might result from a first grader’s attempt at rendering mountains. “Yes,” he said and put the pen back upon the pages of the book only to find that no mark could be made. Elvie cast the pen back into the mug and slammed shut the book.
This time the clinking sound within the spine demanded his attention. What the heck was in there? Elvie tilted the book and saw a ridge atop the spine where there should have been a gap containing nothing more than air surrounded by bent leather, as if the spine were capped…as if he might be able to wedge a letter opener or nail file into the gap and open the spine of the book. What a notion, he thought. Surely whatever made the rattling sound was not part of the book. He’d never heard of, nor had he seen a spine such as this and books were his business. Still, he lifted the book, gave it a jiggle, and heard that metallic tinkle.
Elvie wedged a letter opener into the gap at the top of the spine amazed that he’d even spent the effort to retrieve the tool and certain that the spine would not open. A gasp of surprise escaped him when, with the least effort, the cap popped free and clinked upon the counter where it spun a couple of times before settling to a stop. Then, with shaking hands, Elvie tipped the book to allow out whatever was in the spine. And out it came.
A quill pen formed from what appeared to be silver slid from the spine and lay upon the counter. Of course, he thought, of course the book required its own pen. Vine-like…perhaps web-like engravings twined around the barrel and although Elvie liked a smooth surface on his pens, this pen felt like home between his fingers. Now, for some ink. He knew a vial or two lingered from his past somewhere around here, so he reached beneath the counter, catch-all that it was, scooted aside some books that needed shelving and an old single cup coffee pot and came out with a one ounce bottle of black ink. Was a time Elvie had been a somewhat gifted calligrapher. He had spare pens around somewhere, but the pen he needed was obvious.
That pen, the beautiful silver one, induced an itch in his fingers, created a sense of longing in his heart…mind. In his hand, where the pen now rested, there lived contentment, as if the pen belonged where it was, as if it had been sent from the past, perhaps, to him in the present for just this purpose. He dipped the tip into the dab of ink he had poured onto the cardboard backing of the receipt book; put the tip of the pen to the paper within the book called Write Away…and found not a mark upon the page.
“Imagine that,” he said to the shop. He slapped the pen atop the counter. He slammed shut the book in disgust, thinking all the while of burning the damned thing. What good was a book that one could not read? What good were blank and beautiful pages upon which one could not write? “None,” he said…and noticed the tip of yet another metallic something protruding from the book’s spine. Hmmm…must have jostled loose when I slammed the book shut, he thought. Elvie slapped a hand to his head. How could he have been so obtuse? Of course the spine held something…else, a metallic something else. A silver pen would not clink against a leather spine. It would not clack against a paper and glue interior. As he’d done to release the pen, Elvie tilted forward the book. When he saw what had been released, the use of the book became clear. He knew now why ink could not mark the paper. Ink was not required. The gleaming arc of the scalpel glinting in the sunlight informed him of at least that.
Cup’A'Joe faced Overman’s Used and Rare Books and it was from within the coffee house that Elvie looked upon his own shop as one might look upon an old, long-missed friend. He breathed across the top of a Styrofoam cup to cool the Colombian Supremo within and found that he enjoyed his store’s appearance. It was what he had imagined when endeavoring to start his business. The windows with their hand-painted letters, the door with its open/closed sign–one that he’d bought at a garage sale on Cherry Street fifteen years ago–and the awning of green and white stripes that currently fluttered in the summer breeze, a breeze that may have been the only breeze this summer had known. His storefront was quaint; his product benign. Yet, upon the counter of his quaint and benign little book store rested a book of hope, a beautiful and somewhat old…perhaps antique…writing implement, and an instrument of death. He’d decided to get a cup of coffee upon seeing said instrument, as his hands had been shaking, his mind whirling.
The coffee served not to calm, but it did waken him. He felt alert and aware for the first time this summer. He’d been confused as he crossed the street after seeing the scalpel. Was he even considering cutting himself in order to write? No, he wasn’t. He considered cutting himself in order to sleep; he thought and sipped his coffee. He considered cutting himself in order to save his shop. Looking at his shop now, the sun illuminating the shelves close to the window and catching a corner of his counter, his decision was made. Besides, what was a little blood between friends? Elvie felt that the cutting would be the easy part; it was the memories that worried him.
Elvie placed the six pack of Pabst Blue Ribbon on the counter. There was no need to put it in the refrigerator in the back room where he sometimes watched baseball in black and white on his fourteen inch television set. The beer would stay cold enough where it was and it was needed. He popped the top of his first, took a swig. Then he did go to the back room for a salt shaker. He returned, salted the beer, sipped the resulting foam, and said, “Ah,” as his gaze found the scalpel, its scrolling identical to that on the pen…the two were a pair and meant to be used in conjunction.
“Yes, the scalpel. But first,” he said and grabbed the mug that read “If you can dream it…You can achieve it.” He dumped the pens and pencils, letting them roll to wherever they chose. He blew into the mug and watched as bits of paper and slivers of graphite and wooden splinters puffed out and danced upon the motes of sunlight. “That should suffice,” he said and grabbed the scalpel.
The blade entered the skin of his left palm. Blood welled up without pain and glistened as Elvie moved the mug beneath the cut. There, the mug caught exactly seven drops of blood. Elvie figured he’d need quite a lot more, but this amount should serve as a good test.
He dipped the pen tip into the blood, opened the book, and drew a squiggle that might have wanted to be a heart. Then he exhaled. It worked. He’d figured it out, but now wondered if he needed to title each page–each memory–or if that mattered at all. He decided that it didn’t matter, but he chose to title the first memory “Mom” and he wrote that one word at the top of the first page in the book. He chose that memory because it seemed to be the point where the bad memories started, not that his mom was bad, just that this one memory of her was.
Elvie drew more blood, more painless blood, and wrote:
Though it was my birthday, the ninth one, morning chores needed doing. I’d milked three cows, Jenny, Mona, and Trudy. Trudy was my favorite, a big and tall Holstein with a cheery disposition. Her milk came easier than that of the other two. Because of that I saved Trudy for last, for when my hands were tired. That morning she gave as if she knew it was my birthday and I was thankful. I hauled the milk to the back door where Mom could get it and do with it whatever it was she did.
I didn’t know what that was; as I was always off with Dad or by myself doing chores. I hadn’t seen Dad yet this day, but I knew he was busy…he always was. Farming was nothing more than constant work. And still this morning before my birthday lunch I needed to gather the eggs from the chicken coup, change Mona’s bedding which involved a pitchfork and forty pound
bales of straw, and fetch two pails of water from the well for Mom. I didn’t mind that last as she was making my favorite meal for lunch: Beef stew with extra carrots. I doubted I’d receive much else for my birthday than the stew, but that was fine by me. Then after lunch, I’d be back out helping Dad in the barn or the fields. Still, if I was lucky I’d maybe get a new book to read. I hadn’t had one in a long time.
I gathered the eggs, sat them at the door. Then I brought the water for Mom. It was the first I’d seen her that day.
“Mornin, Elvie,” she said and smiled. “Happy ninth, son. You’re growin up just too fast.”
“Mornin,” I said as Mom gave me one of the tightest hugs I can remember. I watched her in the gloom of the kitchen as she walked back to the sink where she was washing the potatoes and carrots that I’d dug last night. Her dress was worn, might have been blue at one time and swayed as she moved. I thought she was beautiful.
“Done with your mornin chores?”
“You just gonna stare at me for the rest of the day, then?” She said without turning her head as she stood before the kitchen sink. Still, I heard the smile in her voice. There was always a smile in her voice when she spoke to me.
“Well, no, just for a little while longer…that’s all.”
Mom chuckled, and then said, “Since you’re done early, why don’t I show you how to peel these potatoes. Then you can do that while I chop the carrots. Never too early for a boy to learn to cook.”
“Ok,” I said. “Are you gonna make the carrots into little circles?”
“Just for you,” she said. She usually cut the carrots in half long ways, then made diagonal chops that created carrot chunks but I liked my carrots as little circles.
She showed me how to peel the potatoes, which I did after I washed them. Mom set to peeling the carrots. We stood there before the sink, me on a stool, chopping and peeling, occasionally glancing out the kitchen window to see the sun shining on the trees across the wheat field. It was a beautiful day for my birthday and I was happy to be beside my Mom until she said:
“Oh, you little bastard!”
I froze, having never before heard my Mom use that type of language. “Mom?” I could not imagine what I had done to anger her. I stepped off the stool and retreated a couple of steps. Mom did not answer me, didn’t even glance in my direction. She just kept chopping, clump, clump, clump. My heart thumped in my throat in much the same rhythm as her chopping.
I stared at her, aware now that I was not in trouble. But troubled I was. What was wrong with her, I wondered. Something was wrong, and not just her words. Her back seemed peculiarly arched, hunched beneath her dress. Her head appeared tilted to the right, slight but nonetheless askew. Even her knees seemed bent too far forward, apparently diminishing her, shrinking her. It seemed to me that she had grown old in mere seconds…she had grandma’s posture. Then she looked at me.
My eyes widened as I stared back at her. It was Mom, it was, but her face had changed. Still, to this day I can’t put my finger on what was wrong with her face…but something was. Perhaps it was her expression that had changed…or her demeanor having its way upon her flesh…. Or her eyes? They had to be hers as they had not fallen to the counter top to be scooped up and plopped back into their sockets at some later time, but I couldn’t spot the difference.
“I can’t seem to cut this goddamned carrot,” she said and sneered. She turned back to her cutting board. “Perhaps if I cut it at the knuckle first….”
Cut it at the knuckle?
“Elvie, get me the cleaver out of the top drawer over there.”
I did as she bid, noticing the sheen upon the edge of the cleaver. This blade was sharp. I’d watched Dad grind it out in the barn, sparks flying from the grinding wheel. Once it was sharpened, Dad took the cleaver and ran a piece of straw down its edge. His motion was quick and the straw was cut in half after sliding down a mere inch of the blade.
I handed the cleaver handle first to Mom.
“Thank you, Elvie,” she said and rustled my hair. I felt better after her touch, my heart slowed, blood flowed from my face back to wherever it was intended to flow. Then, as Mom lifted the cleaver with her right hand, I was allowed a view of the cutting board and the carrots. The carrots sat in a neat little pile and I pictured them cooked and salted and mixed in the stew and my mouth watered…until I saw my Mother’s severed finger laying beside them, blood, what appeared to be gallons of it running over the cutting board, pooling around the neat little pile of carrots and beginning to drip off the edge of the counter.
Then I watched as Mom grabbed the severed finger with what remained of her left hand. She turned it parallel to her, just as she would have done with a carrot. My heart picked up its pace, quickening in order to keep up with Mom’s chopping. Clump, clump, clump. She chopped the finger into little circles…just the way I liked them.
“How ’bout those, Elvie? Those pieces look ’bout the same? Fairly even?”
I ran for Dad.
“Yes, I did,” said Elvie. He placed the pen with reverence next to the book, wiped some sweat from his brow and reached for a beer. Even as he did, he felt the pen calling to him, as if it missed him…or, perhaps, it was the book beckoning. Elvie popped open his third Pabst. “Three? Well….” Thinking about it now, he realized that he did feel a bit light headed, “buzzed” as the kids say. The feeling was good, had given him courage and opened up a door in his mind.
And what had been behind that door? Well, the words he now gazed upon in the book called Write Away. Blood was better ink than he’d thought it would be and the letters were dark and even. “Took less than I thought it would too,” Elvie said. Then again, he thought, I hadn’t noticed opening and drinking another beer so what’s to say I didn’t make another cut or two? Elvie inspected his left hand and found at least one more cut than he remembered making. Then it occurred to him that his palm would be leaving a stain on the paper beneath it, the paper upon which his hand rested. He looked back at the book and found no such stain. Maybe any mark he made needed to be put there by the pen? That was it. Had to be. What else could explain the lack of blood on that page? Ballpoint pens didn’t scribe, nor did the beautiful pen when dipped in ink. Still, the cuts were there…and deep. He thought there should be a stain.
“If ‘ifs’ and ‘buts’ were candy and nuts,” Elvie said, giggled and picked up the pen. He knew where he was going next, but remembered that on his ninth birthday, which was celebrated two days later due to his Mother’s…circumstances, that he’d received a calf that his Father had been delivering as his Mother had been chopping into little circles her left index finger. The calf had been one of Bell’s. He’d also received a guitar, this, he figured, was a guilt present meant to dispel the memory of his Mother’s…episode. He named the calf Gretchen. And in taking care of Gretchen, Elvie found hope that he might one day forget the strangeness in his Mother’s eyes, though even as he wrote, he remembered seeing similar eyes…and seeing them in some recent memory.
The guitar I’d gotten on my ninth birthday soaked up much of my spare time. It was a challenge to get my fingers to do what they were supposed to do, but by age eleven I was getting on fairly well. I knew five or six songs, each one picked up from church or Sunday school. I could play “Onward Christian Soldiers” and “Amazing Grace,” as well as “Jesus Loves Me” and “Kume Bah Ah.” And each song sounded best in the barn, especially in the evenings after chores. I’d snuck away a few to times to play during the day when I was supposed to be working, but each time I felt guilty…besides I’d have to sing and play quietly in order to avoid detection. The calf I’d gotten on that same birthday soaked up the remainder of my spare time.
Gretchen had been a sickly calf, who’d needed bottle feeding for many months. She had grown, though, much as had I and she was standing in her pen, the bedding of which I changed more regularly than that of the other cows, one evening while I played. The sun was setting, but bright even as rain moved in from the west. The rain, sprinkles at first, pounded upon the tin roof within minutes and threatened to drown out my playing.
I continued nonetheless. Gretchen didn’t seem to mind the rain or the music…if what I played could be called such. I must not have been too bad, for sometimes Mom and Dad would come out to the barn and listen to me. They’d turn over a couple of pails, sit, sing here and there and tell me I’d done good after each song I played.
On this night, I had seen neither Mom nor Dad, and I was supposed to be brushing Gretchen who had lain in the mud for the past couple of days. The rain had turned muddy the entire barnyard and the low spots in the pasture. The cows, it seemed, liked the mud, probably cooled them for though the rains had been steady so had been the heat. I’d led Gretchen into the barn earlier in the day so she could dry out and I could remove the mud with which she was caked. She was dry now, but my guitar had been sitting in the corner and I guessed a couple of songs wouldn’t hurt before I brushed her.
I was playing “Onward” when Dad found me. He walked into the barn, his hat and shirt soaked. He shook his hat, flipping water this way and that and said, “Hi, Elvie.”
I returned the greeting but felt guilty.
“Brush your baby yet?”
“Well…no…not yet,” I said and rested my guitar against the wheel of the Farm-all tractor beside me.
“Hey, it’s alright,” said Dad. “You just keep playin, son. You done a lot of work today and I don’t guess a little music’d be too bad for you. I’ll brush out Gretchen.”
Elvie put down the pen. He knew what happened next but wasn’t sure he wanted to write it. Sure or not, he swigged some beer and reached for the scalpel…his mug empty. Elvie cut his palm, collected the blood, and swooned. A wave of dizziness threatened to separate him from his stool. When the sensation passed, he vowed that after this night he’d drink no more. He suspected that the cutting contributed to his wooziness as well, but, still, no more alcohol…after…tonight.
Elvie shook his head, cleared his mind, and picked up the pen. He had to write it out–had to, to sleep, to save his shop. He didn’t want to, but what was the difference? Life wasn’t fair and sometimes people had strange eyes. This memory was going to visit him when he tried to sleep anyway, so he might as well get it out now.
Dad led Gretchen from her pen to the stanchion. He closed the rack upon her neck, but Gretchen was comfortable in the stanchion. As a calf she had balked at entering the rack and I couldn’t blame her. The rack was meant for the cow’s protection and to make it easier to comb them, but it was a little scary looking. I know I would have been worried if someone was to lock my head between two pieces of metal. But Gretchen, like the other cattle, got used to it, knew nothing ill would come of the device and so she entered willingly.
Later, I would wish she ran.
“Learn any new ones, lately?”
“Well, Pastor Johnson’s teaching me ‘Jesus Loves the Little Children.’ Want to hear it?”
“Why, sure,” Dad said.
I strummed my guitar, struck the “G” chord wrong and was flooded with nervousness. Playing was easy when I played alone, but when anyone watched, even Mom and Dad, I got flustered. And, though two years had passed since Mom had sliced her finger into little circles, I had not forgotten the look in her eyes. Yes, I was playing my guitar when Dad found me, but I was thinking of Mom, of Mom and of what might have been wrong with her. To this day I don’t know, but it seemed to me then that the problem was more mine than hers. She didn’t even feel any pain. It was as if something out in the universe wanted me to remember that particular day, as if it created an episode so terrible that I could not forget it. Why I would deserve such hostility from the universe I could not say, but it did seem as though the whole episode was a production that would later be used against me… (Which is why I am thankful for this book, he thought but did not write.)
I put to bed the conspiracy of the Universe and played the song while Dad brushed the dirt off Gretchen. The rain pounded the tin roof, dust flew from Gretchen’s hide, and I sang loud as I could…still wondering what had been wrong with Mom’s eyes on that long ago day. I thought I’d played well, thought that my singing had been ok, so when Dad turned to me and flung the curry comb to the ground I wondered why his face shown scarlet.
Before long I realized that it was once more the Universe wanting to give me something I’d never forget. Dad’s shoulders hitched up to his neck, his tongue flicked out and receded back into his mouth with the velocity of a serpent’s tongue…or an insect’s proboscis. Dad’s back, like Mom’s, hunched diminishing his stature, but enhancing his aggressiveness. He scurried toward me, scurried as would a six legged creature…or perhaps a centipede. And malicious intent glowered in his eyes.
Elvie took a swig of beer, noticed it was his fourth. He glanced out the window of his shop and saw the sun descending over the town’s skyline. It was as beautiful as it had been on the day he was even now describing. Something in the memory, something in his own mind wanted him to stop writing.
Clearly, the book and the pen wanted him to continue. There was, however, a thought nagging him, one urging him to cease his endeavors. And it was this: he’d seen the eyes of his parents recently, though they had both been dead for years…his Dad, in particular, for decades. Where had he seen those eyes, the ones that wanted him to remember them? Oh, sure, women made those eyes to men and men made them to women, but those eyes were not remembered. Those were common glances shared across dance floors and barrooms, in bedrooms and offices. Those eyes were not quite what he had seen in the past and not quite what he had seen of late. Those eyes, the ones in barrooms and bedrooms were old but not as old as the eyes he had seen. The eyes he had seen bore no rings around the iris, no limbal rings, he thought they were called, a line of pigment around the iris that was indicative of youth and that faded with age. And those eyes had been more than old, they’d been ancient. And that was why he thought he should quit writing…because whatever had attached itself to his life wanted more than he was willing to give.
Still, his head swam. Whether it was the beer or the blood loss, Elvie could not say. What he knew was that he had many stories to write. Stories of Jennifer, his once-engaged and how her eyes had gone blank and lost their limbal rings. She had beaten him bloody before the law arrived and stopped her. The act was unlike her, but it was another memory that he for some reason needed to remember. Oh, Christ, and how could he forget the woman who had stood beneath his bedroom window, serenading him before she withdrew the pistol and ate the bullet from its barrel? Her eyes had been the same as his Mother’s…as his Father’s.
Elvie was thirsty. So, he drank. He drank and wrote.
“Just keep playing your pretty little gospel song, son,” he said as he took the guitar from my hands. Not sure what to do, I kept singing. Dad carried my guitar away, looking more and more like some sort of insect from behind, his head dwindling, just peaking up from his thorax, his suspenders mocking wings upon his back. Somehow he had grown smaller, smaller and ugly, his back hunched, his arms thin, his knees bent as if born with an inherent ability to scrabble away from predators as would a cockroach. And I realize it now, now as I write, that Dad’s eyes shown no ring around the iris. He could not have been more than thirty-five at the time and there should have existed dark rings around his irises, like the ones that existed in mine, but something had stolen them…and had done so if just for the moment. My dad had been replaced.
I believe now that it was the replacement that wanted me to remember, for my Dad would not have done this, even though I saw him do so.
Guitar in hand, Dad turned toward Gretchen.
“That’s a pretty girl, now,” he said and lifted the guitar.
“No. No, Dad,” I cried to no avail.
“Pretty girl been layin up in the mud…that’s all.” And then he brought the guitar down upon Gretchen’s head. She lowed, pain in her voice.
“Quiet now,” said Dad. “That’s…a…good…girl.”
And he slammed my guitar against Gretchen’s head…over and over; he bashed it into her skull. The stanchion shook with her terror. Her eyes rolled back in her head. And though she tried to flee, she was trapped. I cried as blood stained the air and shards of wood from my shattering guitar flew like blood-filled pages of writing torn from the borrowed book of a child bearing no rings around his irises, from a child who was no child at all. Pieces of the guitar, both wheat and scarlet, drifted down around me as would the pages of a book torn to shreds at the realization of its deception.
Of fair…of retention of good alone
A scribbled line trailed after the final word. Memories swam in Elvie’s mind…and they would never be recorded anywhere but there. Darkness descended outside the bookstore and the street lamps woke casting shadows upon the sidewalks. Darkness, too, found Elvie, leaving his final beer to warm and sweat upon the counter. Unconsciousness overcame him and he rocked forward, his head falling upon the pages of the book, his right hand still clutching the scrolled pen, his left still lying upon the page.
Elvie didn’t hear the door open or the tinkle of the wind chime, nor did he watch the sun rise as it once had over a field of wheat. He heard nothing. The child, one with no rings circling his irises, who entered Overman’s Used and Rare Books, knew such would be the case. The boy saw his prize waiting beneath Elvie’s head…and he ached for that prize having worked so long for it, working night and day, season upon season for decades. Of course, he’d chosen the easiest of vocations, inducing good memories would have been such a chore. Besides, people just loved to remember the bad…which were what he figured the book held. He’d have eaten the good, but the cultivation of that was more an endeavor of love than an inherent quality.
The boy pushed Elvie’s lifeless head aside, collected the scrolled pen and scalpel. He slid the pair back into their spine, capped it and pulled the book off the counter, almost dropping it, forgetting for the moment the book’s increased size…its new weight. He took the book that belonged to him, lifted it to his lips…and squeezed. Rings materialized with patience, encircling his irises, darkening with each needy gulp. He drank what Elvie had given, as opposed to what Elvie had lived…a toast to the past; a hope for the future.No tags for this post.