I sat in the same overstuffed chair, placed a new pile of books at my feet, next to the bag of movies I’d just rented next door, and George brought another pot of tea.
“So you’ve decided to take my job offer?”
“No, just adding to your bottom line,” I replied, nodding toward the books.
He didn’t look at the books, but continued to regard me with a knowing interest. “How do you like living alone?”
I looked at him and then stared at the counter across the room. From my experience, there were always people you met who would know the answers to the questions they asked before you answered. So, why did they bother to ask? To test your veracity, to test your response reaction, were you the type who made a quick snap or a measured reply?
“Sheryl says you’ve rented about a hundred movies in the past month, she thinks it’s some kind of record.”
I continued to stare into the middle-distance, not surprised that the two shopkeepers compared notes on frequent shoppers. In a town of this size, where there was only one bookstore and one movie rental store, it wasn’t difficult to keep track of customers. I didn’t want to make too much of it.
“Your tastes are eclectic. Actually Sheryl thinks you’re some kind of intellectual since you rent a lot of foreign films. She says you’re probably from New York.”
I smirked, cast an arched look at George as I leaned over to refill my cup.
“I figure you’ve got two choices,” he said. “You can either go to work for her and get a discount on those rentals, or come work for me and get a discount on the books. Either way, I think you need to get away from whatever you’re trying to hide from at home.”
Now I looked at him. I started to deny his assertion, but my mouth closed and I simply nodded.
“Did you tell her what kind of books I buy?”
George struggled up from his chair and walked over to the counter. “Nope. None of her business. Reading is a private concern. The books my customers choose tells me a lot about what they’re thinking. I treat them with the same privacy I’d expect from a doctor, or a priest, or a psychiatrist.”
I looked down at the books I’d chosen. “I think you’re making too much of it.”
“Nope. I’m not. But that’s my opinion…which means that nobody has to believe it except me.”
I looked out the front window, over the tops of the stores, at a glimpse of sky. It was painfully blue, white and streaked with yellow. So different. “When does it start snowing around here?”
George followed my gaze, “Probably sooner than the place you’ve been thinking about.”
I nodded and gripped the mug a little tighter. Yes, that was true. I’d checked the weather there and they’d already had their first snowfall. I thought of how different the sky looked there, so grey, closed in even when the clouds broke. But still I missed it, wondered what they were doing now. “How many hours a week would you want me to work?”
Now I turned on the radio that sat on a shelf behind the counter. Notes from the local classical radio station drifted softly through the room, creating an atmosphere that encouraged lingering. I’d started off working two days a week, four hours on each day. I spaced out the days so that in between I could continue my rituals at home. I did however stop renting as many movies from Sheryl and occasionally took up the offers for dinner and drinks with the neighbors. I was determined to put a healthy face on my existence in this town, the better to remain incongruous.
Over the past three months, I gradually increased my hours at the shop until it became another of my daily rituals. Most of the time, George arrived before me. We’d talk, but he never again referred to where I’d been before coming to Lake Tahoe. Instead, we talked about books, about local gossip.
This morning, I walked to the back of the shop and found the bag of Christmas decorations I’d bought at the Target store down in Reno. George had told me they weren’t necessary when he first saw the bag. I assured him that I wouldn’t bill the store for my purchases, and said that it was a gesture of nostalgia on my part rather than part of a new marketing strategy.
I spent the rest of the day decorating, first hanging golden beaded garlands and tiny white fairy lights around the window. I draped swaths of red velvet over the milk crates I’d ‘borrowed’ from the local grocery store, to create a platform to display the books. Then I went to the back and pulled the Wizard of Oz volume that had been left for me, and placed it on the top of the platform. Around it, I placed copies of A Christmas Carol, Little Women, Jane Eyre, Treasure Island, Tom Sawyer, and a volume of Hans Christian Andersen’s Fairytales. Oh how these classics made me smile as I carefully arranged them in the window. The display in fact took longer than it should have as I stopped frequently to gently page through the volumes, gazing at the carefully etched ink sketches, to read a favorite passage.
In the other window, I placed a copy of Babar’s Adventures, Tin Tin, and The Little Prince, and a collection of Hemingway’s short stories next to a weathered old globe. Would these books inspire some lucky young child to leave the familiar behind and venture into the wider world? I hoped so. Behind these three, I’d set up another platform. On it I continued the theme of travel with Around the World in Eighty Days, Voyage to the Center of the Earth, and a book of paintings by Winslow Homer, next to leather bound edition of Moby Dick.
I stepped outside and looked at both of the windows. I wasn’t entirely happy with the results. They were good but not great. My goal was to sell the books by reminding the older shopper of the joys they’d experienced reading these books as a child. That was obvious. But I wanted to send another message, less obvious.
The Wizard of Oz had been placed in the window as a challenge to the intruder. But I needed more. I put my hands on my hips and stared at the windows again. Should I put the journal in the window?
“You should have Turgenev next to the Melville.”
I jumped at the sound of the Russian accent behind me. I turned and looked into the eyes of Stepan.
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