Round and Round Parts 1-6 tell stories from the earliest days of the old bookstore several decades ago. In these stories the bookseller met, became business partners and married Priscilla.
Round and Round Parts 7-13 bring the stories to 2019. In these stories, a former employee, Dera, is introduced.
This short story takes place in the early 2000s—when Dera—who appeared in #12 and 13 was employed.
“I wish we’d had children,” Priscilla whispered. Her voice choked a bit on the words. A lone tear spilled from the corner of her eye and rolled down the side of her face toward her neck just below her ear.
She lay in her bed at home. The hospice people had set things up so she could spend the last months there.
The bookseller sat on the bed next to her and held her left hand. Her right hand was tethered to an IV tube which stretched up to a plastic bag of liquid suspended from a stainless steel pole above and toward the top of the bed.
The bookseller bit his lip so hard he tasted the iron (or is it copper?) of blood on the tip of his tongue.
This happened pretty often. It was the only way he found he could stifle a sob or avoid even a burst into tears sometimes when he was with his wife.
The tears would come—somewhere out her earshot, perhaps behind the wheel while he drove to the bookstore. Or, perhaps, he would hurry into his office and close the door behind him. There, out of sight and hearing of anyone, he could break down completely; weep unabashedly; allow the purge of tears to dampen the papers on the desk below him.
The sobbing, the heaving of his chest, and then when everything was out and he was a rag, he could reset. His feet would be back on the floor. His head back to this time and place. His consciousness would be under control as to what must be done for Priscilla and the strange twilight world they were in now.
But before those office meltdowns, he would look up at the gold ring hung upon the wall above his desk. He would look at it and curse it as if it was responsible for Priscilla’s impending doom.
“We’ve helped raise many, many children,” he said softly. “Just think how many The Little Princes we have placed in little hands over the years.”
He had always loved the Saint-Exupéry story. Mentioning it had brought a quote to mind: “It is such a secret place, the land of tears.”
“We were so close. He was here, and then he was gone,” she whispered.
He bit his lip again and the organic metal leaked so slightly upon his taste buds.
“That was so long ago,” he replied reflecting on that loss they shared.
She squeezed his hand softly.
“Not so long,” she whispered, paused and added, “You will be alone soon.”
She was still so beautiful. Around her eyes, the skin was a bit darkened. Her cheeks were a bit hollow. Gone was the peaches and cream complexion her face had when they’d first met.
“I brought you a book,” he said.
She smiled wanly as he bent and lifted a book from the floor.
“A Rackham,” she said. “O, how excited we used to get when one of his would come into the shop.”
She drew up her knees and rested the big book against them. It was a little awkward with the needle in the back of her hand, but she was able to open it and gently leaf through it.
It was The Rhinegold and the Valkyrie. A quarto in nice shape. It was the first trade edition. All the tipped in plates were brilliant.
He smiled down at her. Her eyes had not changed. They were as bright as they had always been.
“It is so beautiful. Thank you.”
She closed the book and reached over and grasped his hand.
“I am so tired,” she sighed.
“I can leave and let you rest.”
“No,” she said a bit urgently and then continued quietly, “No. Please don’t. Stay a bit before you have to go.”
She squeezed his hand again. In a few minutes, she closed her eyes. Her face softened as the muscles relaxed. Her hand grew limp in his. He slipped his hand out of hers and then rose. He bent and lifted the book from her lap and set it on the bedside table. This book would be too heavy for her to lift with one hand. He must bring a lighter book next. Perhaps a slim volume of poetry. Frost. Maybe Frost.
He rose and left their bedroom. Down the stairs and out the front door. The hospice person would be there soon to help Priscilla. He drove to the bookstore and pulled up to the front porch.
Dera, his store manager since Priscilla had gotten more ill, was arranging the carts between the front steps and the front door.
“What on earth are you doing, Dera?”
Seven of the four-wheel six-shelf wooden carts that were loaded with books the store was trying to clear for a dollar were arranged parallel to the front door. They were each offset so one would need to zigzag between them to get across the porch.
“Customers will look at these carts more if they need to walk through them. It is called ‘Retail Exposure.'”
“That’s fascinating, Dera. We’ll try it for a while. Next time ask me before you institute changes. You forgot to turn the OPEN sign around.”
The bookseller simply walked around the cluster of carts and pulled the front door open. The silver bell above it chimed a bit sadly. The bell had seemed to have lost its brightness in the last few months. The long wooden sales counter was almost covered with haphazard stacks of books.
‘Dera…’ the bookseller thought. ‘What a mess. I should…No. I don’t want to get into it today. There are enough problems. I’ll stock them myself in a while.’
He stepped into his office and closed the door behind him. The first thing he saw was the gold ring hanging from the wall above his desk. It glowed warmly. The office was only lit by soft diffuse late morning light filtering in through the windows. The little statuette he had found in a box of books years before was silhouetted atop a low bookcase before a window. It had come from a deceased elderly bookseller’s hoard. He had found it in a box of books that had been in the old man’s office—pushed far under the desk. It was such a huge collection it took the bookseller years to get to this particular box. Was it ancient? Or was a tourist knock off from the early 20th century or before? It looked like it could be Minoan. It was near black, but that could some kind of paint or other coating. It was quite heavy for its size. Someday he would get it checked out to see if had any value. But who would he take it to? It had stood in his office for years. Was that a cat atop her head? The snake in each hand. What was that about? And her massive chest…what was that all about? Priscilla disliked it. She had asked him to put it somewhere else lots of times.
He sat down in his desk chair and looked up at the ring. Hatred and anger boiled up inside him as he stared at it. It just glowed softly in the dim office light.
He crossed his arms and placed them atop the sprawl of papers on his desk. He put his head on his arms and sobbed uncontrollably. It lasted…until there was nothing left inside him.
Then he rose and robotically moved to the door and propped it open. He switched on the lights and returned to his desk to catch up on the paperwork. He had been away most of the last few days. When he had visited the store, it had only been for an hour or two. That was just enough time for him to catch up the things that demanded his attention. The books and their needs.
Dera stuck her head in and said: “I wondered where you went. How’s your wife?”
He had dealt with the public for so many years. He was used to people who were crass or tone deaf. He learned to deflect anger towards them. He recalled his mother and her Alabama mannerism about people like that. She would say:
“Poor thing. She can’t ‘hep’ it. Bless her heart.”
“She’s the same. Thanks for asking. Dera, you haven’t made a bank deposit yet this week, have you?”
“I’m saving them up. It’s more efficient to make one trip instead of five,” she replied.
The bookseller groaned inwardly and sighed a soft “Ok.”
He stepped out to the counter and looked at his phone messages. Most were requests for house calls. He set those aside to ask Dera to call back and politely decline. He returned a few calls to bookseller colleagues who were asking about Priscilla. It was always the same conversations:
“… She is at home. Hospice comes every couple days for a couple hours. I’m home with her most of the rest of the time. Her sister, Theodora, comes a few hours every few days so I can do what I have to.”
They’d reply: “I’m so sorry. Hospice…that means…”
“…She won’t get better. The doctor says one month more. Maybe two…”
The memory of that last conference with her doctor would flood back then, and he would taste iron…or was it copper…as he bit his lip to hold it all together. That sterile near colorless room. Priscilla seated on the examining table. The doctor below her on a stainless steel stool on wheels so she could spin as needed. The bookseller on a vinyl covered barely padded wooden chair.
“…In many ways it is a merciful disease. There’s not much pain. You will just get tireder and tireder as time passes and the toxins build up in you,” the doctor had told her flatly. “You will have all or most of your faculties almost til the end. Then one day they will go from you. You won’t be aware of anything from then on… After that it will be over in a matter of days.”
They both asked the same question several times using different words. The doctor patiently answered them over and over. She could only estimate, but she thought Priscilla had a couple months, maybe three. The tests and X-rays were 100% conclusive. They left that office in a quiet daze. They went to their favorite restaurant. The Old Tollhouse. It was unchanged except that the aged Rowena had retired and her niece Regina had taken over a few years before. They sat across from each other and held hands across the gingham tablecloth. He looked into her eyes and held them though it was so difficult not to turn and hide from it all.
“I love you, Priscilla.”
She smiled and nodded up and down twice very slowly. Her eyes flashed a soft gray-blue for a second and then returned to hazel. They had not done that for many years.
He had snuck a book in under his arm. He handed it across the table to her.
She smiled and clutched it to her chest. A tear rolled down her cheek.
They talked about the book and other good things. They lingered and shared a slice of cherry pie until they saw Regina had sat at the bar and put her hand down upon it.
The next morning, the bookseller had begun buying books from bookselling friends and colleagues. It held keep his mind occupied.
Priscilla continued working the store for a few weeks. The time she could spend there got less and less until she told him she couldn’t do it anymore.
He had already hired an assistant who had a great resume and talked confidently about marketing and promotions. She was a booklover but didn’t have any bookstore background. He didn’t have much choice. Her name was Dera.
…the phone messages… Their friends all asked if there was anything they could do. He told them they could call her. She liked that. She didn’t want any visits except from a few of their closest friends. She told the bookseller she didn’t want to be seen like that.
After he had tossed the last phone message into the paper recycling, he went to look at the problem shelf. There were a couple dozen books there with slips of paper protruding from them. Each was in Dera’s heavy hand. She pressed the ballpoint pen onto the paper so hard the words were embossed onto it. At least she didn’t do it with a book under the paper or her words would be immortalized on the cloth boards. The questions were the usual range:
“This book has no price.”
“Customer asked if we could discount.”
“Where do I stock this?”
“Can I buy this?” (i.e. Would you mark this down drastically?)
…and so on…
When those were taken care of, he went through the motions pricing some of the books Dera had bought from customers. He would never permit her to do any pricing. Her buys were not dreadful. He had given her a strict budget on how much she could spend per day. When that was exhausted, she would have to stop. Or she could call him if something exciting came in after the budget was gone. He could talk her through it. She rarely did that. He could tell she hated asking his advice. She had an attitude of “I know better” even though she had only worked in the bookstore a few weeks.
So, the store stock was getting a little stale. He didn’t care. He didn’t care about anything. But Priscilla.
After a couple hours, he would go out into the store and find Dera. One time he found her seated cross-legged on the floor with the pricing gun stickering LPs.
He’d asked her: “Are you pricing them?”
“No. I’m putting the same price over the old sticker. I don’t think these should be culled. If I put a new date on them, they’ll have more of a chance to sell.”
He just shook his head and walked away.
He didn’t care.
Today was just another day like that. Hospice would be leaving soon and he didn’t want Priscilla home alone for very long though she insisted she could reach everything she needed. He went back to his office and scanned some of the new arrivals—better books—that he was keeping in the office. These were the kind of books he would actually inventory and describe accurately online—when he had the time. He ran his forefinger along the books’ spines until he saw what he wanted.
Mountain Interval by Robert Frost.
He slipped it into his canvas tote and put the bag over his shoulder.
He found Dera out in the stacks. What on earth was she…he didn’t want to know.
“I’m heading home. Call me if anything important happens. Please get the deposits together so you can take them to the bank when I’m in tomorrow.”
He took a few steps, then stopped and turned back to her. “A separate deposit for every day. Ok?”
He’d had the vision of her lumping many days into one deposit for “efficiency.”
He went home and set the book on the kitchen table. Up the 17 old steps to the landing and across it into their bedroom. She was napping. He sat on the overstuffed chair beside her ornate carved Victorian vanity and watched her breathe.
Some time later, her eyes fluttered open.
“How long have you been there?” she asked softly.
“Dunno…I must have dozed off. Can I get you something? Soup?”
After she had a little soup, she asked him to lie next to her and read something from The Oxford Book of English Verse.
“Keats?” he asked.
“No, Wordsworth. Something from Intimations of Immortality.”
He found the poem and scanned the lines til he found where her wanted to start.
She put her head on his shoulder, and after about ten minutes, he could tell by her regular breathing she had fallen asleep.
He rose and walked around the house. Going into one room after another. He didn’t know why. He would pace around and leave the room and go into another. When could no longer keep from sleeping, he crawled in next to her.
The next morning, he helped her do what she needed. He puttered around the kitchen. He avoided doing the dishes for days at a time. Then he would think how much Priscilla would not like the mess even though she’d never know it was there.
He would then feel guilty and go through the motions of doing the housework.
He then picked up the book from the kitchen table. He climbed the 17 steps and went into their bedroom.
“I brought you a book,” he said as he crossed the room and sat on the edge of the bed.
She lifted her left hand reached for it.
“Oh! Robert Frost.”
She opened it.
“It’s signed,” she said. “How beautiful.”
“It has a poem you like in it. The Road Not Taken.”
“Oh, everyone likes that poem. Sit and read it to me, please.”
He flipped through the slim volume until he found it.
“Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth;
“Then took the other, as just as fair,
And having perhaps the better claim,
Because it was grassy and wanted wear;
Though as for that the passing there
Had worn them really about the same,
“And both that morning equally lay
In leaves no step had trodden black.
Oh, I kept the first for another day!
Yet knowing how way leads on to way,
I doubted if I should ever come back.
“I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.”
“And that made all the difference,” she reprised. “What if you had never come in to the newspaper to place the ‘Found Ring’ classified ad?”
“I’m so glad I took that path that day. It has made all the difference.”
“You seemed so disorganized. I thought right away I should take you under my wing.”
“Love at first sight? I still am disorganized.”
They spoke softly for a while until she dozed off. He went downstairs and then headed for the bookstore.
Dera was in the parking lot. A customer had backed up to the porch. It appeared he was selling boxes of books. Dera had about a dozen boxes on the ground. Each was about half empty. The other half of the contents was sprawled all over the ground. She had simply pulled books out and tossed them onto the pavement.
“Good morning, Dera.”
“It’s after noon,” she replied.
“So it is,” he said looking at his watched. “12:31. Anything interesting in this collection?”
“It’s not a collection. It’s a mess. These are all junk.”
The tiny old man who was selling the books stood nearby. He shifted uncomfortably on his feet.
She was squatting before a box and pulling out one book after another and tossing them onto the ground. The bookseller looked down at her. Her hair was unbound, wild and pretty much sticking out in every direction. Her forehead had beads of sweat upon them.
“Can you do this? I can’t deal with this shit today. I’m in the middle of a project inside. I’m putting a lot of the art on the top shelf so I can face out more of them.”
“I can’t wait to see that, Dera,” he replied. “Certainly, I’ll be glad to help this gentleman with his books.”
She stomped up the steps and pushed a couple of the book carts she had aligned out of her way.
He turned and addressed the little man whose eyes were bulging with…was it fear?
“Are you moving or downsizing?” the bookseller asked trying to put the fellow at ease.
“These are my wife’s books. She passed away last spring. I haven’t had the heart to bring them in until now.”
‘Great!’ the bookseller thought fuming ‘Dera…’
He took the bookseller’s position of adoration—upon his knees and bent to look in to the nearest box.
Barbara Pym, MFK Fisher, Nan Fairbrother, Vita Sackville-West. He rose and bent over another box. Nicely bound Brontës, Austen…
He moved from box to box, and the results were the same. Good authors in hardcover and all in good shape. He looked at the books that had been tossed haphazardly onto the pavement and frowned.
“These are actually quite nice. Your wife had good taste. I’m sorry for your loss. I can make an offer on everything if you like. It won’t be very much per book.”
“I’d be glad the books get a good home. My wife would have been too. She loved these books.”
The bookseller named a price, and the man agreed.
The man asked: “Would you like me to help you repack these on the ground?”
Soon the boxes were filled again. They both stepped up onto the porch. The bookseller pulled open the door. The little silver bell that hung above it sadly rung. He wrote a check and thanked the little old man who said looking around: “Maybe I’ll start collecting books. I don’t have much to do anymore.”
“You should come here and help us,” the bookseller replied.
“Let me think about it. I didn’t learn much about books except the subjects I read.”
“That’s no problem. I can teach you, and the books pretty much sell themselves as long as they’re in the right places.”
After he left, the bookseller went out to find Dera. She was in the Art section. She was climbing a stepladder with an armload of big art folios. He looked and was aghast. She had already put a couple hundred big art books on the top shelf stacked high on their sides.
“Dera, that’s not safe. And how could anyone shop those books up there?”
“These are slow movers, anyway. Look at all the face outs. That’s ‘Retail Impact’!”
“You’re going to have to bring a lot of them back down. If a stack got pushed off from the other side, it could hurt someone. Those books are heavy.”
Her hair seemed to get wilder of its own accord. And if one can stomp down a ladder, she stomped down the ladder. She stood and faced him. Her eyes were wide and seemed to be looking through him.
“I put a lot of work into this.” She brushed some sweat off her face with her forearm.
“I told you: you need to run your ideas by me before doing them. I have some tall bookends you can use for the ones you stand up on top. Before that, would you take the handcart out and put that man’s boxes in the storage shed?”
“You bought them?!”
“Yes. They were all pretty good. The kind of authors you can never have too many of.”
“How much did you pay?”
He told her.
“That’s ridiculous. No wonder you can’t pay me more.” She stomped down the aisle toward the front.
The bookseller watched her retreating figure and shook his head. He looked up at the art books looming on the top shelf above him and shook his head.
The next weeks progressed pretty much like this. Priscilla’s sister Theodora was now coming over most days. She often stayed til early evening. Priscilla slept more and more.
On the 29th day of the 11th month, the bookseller climbed the stairs. He found Priscilla struggling to climb out bed. She had pulled the IV from hand. She was very agitated.
“I’ve got to go to the bookstore!” she said breathlessly. She was crying. “I’ve GOT to!”
“No, Priscilla. You don’t need to go in today. We’re covered. Let’s read something together.”
He put his arms around her and gently laid her down.
She looked up at him and just for a second her hazel eyes flashed sky blue. She put her arms around his neck and struggled to pull herself up to him. She kissed him with her dry cracked lips. She fell back onto the bed, and her body shook violently. She writhed a bit and then lay still. The bookseller leaned over her with one hand upon her face and the other holding her hand. Tears welled up and spilled down his cheek.
He felt something brush along his cheek. He followed its trajectory toward the window. There seem to be a small ball of shimmering light heading away from him. Tiny rays of many colors sprung from its perimeter. It passed outside and disappeared skyward. He rubbed the tears from his eyes and turned back toward his wife.
Her eyes were open and rolled back in their sockets. Red veins shown throughout the whites. Her jaw was set and rigid. Her arms were straight and her hands clutched tight in fists.
He had been here before. He had seen this scene exactly as it was now. Him seated on the bed. His wife in a seizure. Her eyes conveying she was no longer there. It was just a body. Animal matter with no soul.
He had seen this tableau the last time he had slipped that ring onto his finger a few years ago. Her pulled the ring off his finger immediately and cast it across the office. It bounced off a bookcase and rung dully each time it bounced upon the floor. He turned back to his desk and saw a photo of the two of them on the desk where his hands had lay. Priscilla came into the office. She was bright-eyed and spritely, but when she saw him she stopped abruptly.
“What’s the matter, dear? You looked like someone stepped on your grave!”
The bookseller replied. “Nothing. Nothing. Just some heartburn or something.”
“Well, go take something, silly. We’re going out tonight to the Tollhouse! Rowena is making us one last roast turkey and a cherry pie. She’s retiring and turning the place over to her niece. I hope she doesn’t ruin the place. Rowena made her promise not to get rid of the gingham tablecloths.”
He sat on the bed and held both her hands. He looked around the room where they had shared so many years. The top of every bureau, bookcase, table and chest of drawers along the walls had books upon it. Almost all were face out. 91 books. He had brought one home every day since that last visit to the doctor’s office. He had begun calling bookseller friends and colleagues that very day. He’d asked what the most wonderful books they had in stock were. He searched others on the fledgling internet. Until they started arriving in the mail, he chose some that he had put aside to give her for Christmas or other special occasions. He knew this Christmas was too far away now. As long as she kept working at the store, he made it a point to intercept the mail.
For 91 days he surprised her with a beautiful book. The best he could find and afford. Each day she had been surprised and delighted.
He sensed someone in the room. It was Theodora.
“I felt something brush my cheek downstairs,” she said. “I knew I should come up. It’s happened, hasn’t it?”
“Yes,” he said softly and paused. “She’s gone. Like the doctor predicted her body’s in pain, but she can’t feel it. I’m going down to get the morphine dropper. They said to put 5 drops under her lip, and it will help her body relax.”
He left the room. When he returned, he gently bent her lower lip out and dropped five drops behind it. In a few moments, Priscilla’s rigid body relaxed. She turned onto her side and curled up into the fetal position. She would remain that way for three more days.
He felt Theodora’s hand on his shoulder. He turned and she presented him with a kind of scrapbook.
“She’s kept this a secret from you. Each day you gave her a book, she wrote some of her favorite lines or impressions in this scrapbook. She showed me. There are 90 pages with entries on them.”
“I’ll have to write the last one in,” he said.
He opened the book to the first page. There were three rustic drawings on post its.
Below them were the words:
“Draw me a sheep.”
The first book he had given her was The Little Prince. It was the signed edition. The bookseller had spent a small fortune on it. They both loved the book so much. It was to be their Christmas present.
Below the sheep Priscilla had written these lines: