The man who was looking for the Bruno Shulz book returned less than a half-hour later. He was still anxious, and his eyes scanned the titles along the various bookshelves as if he were looking for a friend among strangers.
“My name is Richard, and I will tell you why I want the book if you promise you will get it back for me. Will you agree to this?”
“I will try. As I said, Richard, I am not even certain who bought it.”
He took that as a yes and continued.
“I grew up in Hamilton, where my family lived after emigrating from Holland when I was seven. My father worked a press at the Hamilton Spectator, at least up until the time they stopped using them. He’d go to work in the dark, a plain steel lunch pail containing a pocketbook tucked under his arm, a blue-collar vampire, and he’d already be asleep when my sister and I went off to school the next morning. Weekends he spent at a club with other expats, so Marie and I only knew him from the dinner table. He doted on her— she reminded him of his own sister— but I was always made to feel like a mouth to feed. My mother had died before she could become a Canadian, so he made sure the woman who replaced her was. He tried to teach me about cars, but I was a slow learner and not mechanically inclined, at least not then, so eventually I was left to my own devices. At seventeen I left school, got into some trouble with a gang I hung around with, and was out of the house before I was nineteen. When I left, he made sure he told me that he thought I would never amount to much. Over the years, I did not contact him, although I kept in touch with my sister. I worked at an oil rig in Alberta for a bit, until I moved to Thompson to be a miner. That’s where I was when I got word he had cancer, and maybe didn’t have long. Even with that, I pushed it. Gave him a little extra breathing room before I went home. Let him experience the joys of a life without offspring around to berate a little longer.”
He took a sip from his coffee. It had to be stone cold by now. I offered to put it in the microwave, but he did not respond.
“When I rang the front doorbell, my non-Mother answered. We acted like I had only gone to the corner store to pick up a bag of milk. She told me he slept in the basement now, that he had made a room filled with memories of his dead wife, that on those rare occasions when he came upstairs, he would ask her if she could still love someone whose skin was turning yellow. I sat and had a coffee with her in the kitchen before I went down. I believe it was the longest sustained conversation we have ever had. It took a man dying in a basement room for me to experience something in that house that seemed normal. She was talking about God and the colour she was going to paint the kitchen afterwards interchangeably, and it took a while before I realized to her it was the same thing.”
Richard got up and walked over to the science fiction section.
“I never read sci-fi. Probably cause my dad did.”
His eye was caught by a particular book.
“I know someone with a dog named Dune. Could never figure out why.”
After he sat back down again, he drained the cold coffee from the cup.
“As I walked down the stairs, I began to imagine the dire setting of the room he slept in, but this was not the case. It was a pristine museum, and all around me were artifacts from my mother’s life, and their life together. He was not in the bed when I entered, but in a worn leather chair I think I remember, staring a tv that wasn’t on. He looked like a dried fig. We did not speak for a long time. Years disappeared, and the barriers between us crumbled, and then just as quickly, arose again. ‘Do you like the room?’ he asked me. ‘This was your workroom.’ I recalled. ‘Don’t need tools anymore. Sold ‘em.’ Again, a long bout of silence. I could see that his breathing was laboured, and he was trying to hide it from me. He was having the same success a drunk has when he tries to appear sober. ‘See that bag of books over by the doorway?’ ‘Yes.’ ‘I want you to take them to the address on the paper inside. It’s a used bookstore. Trade ‘em in. Get something you want to read instead.’ It occurred to me that that was why he never had a library, although he was already reading. He leaned forward slightly and spoke in a conspiratorial whisper. ‘And if you’re ever in a used bookstore, and you pick up a book that has a circle around a page number, it was one of mine. That’s the age I was when I read it. Sometimes when I was in a store, and I saw a title I had read, I’d pick it up and flip the pages to see if it was mine. Found a few over the years. It’s like running into an old friend. But there’s a few rules with books. You don’t put your name in them. And you don’t underline anything. I never did, until this last one. You just make one tiny circle, and then send it on its way.’ All this was too much for me. I told him I had to go, but I’d be back. He said okay, that he’d like to see me. That’s when it really came back, all of it. When I got to the doorway, I turned back, met his eyes, and said simply ‘So this is what not amounting to much looks like, is it?’ I left him, and the books, behind.
Richard turned his head away, suddenly interested in a book in the poetry section. I waited until he looked back for him to continue.
“I went back to the hotel, thought I’d wait a couple of days before I went back to visit. And of course, that’s when I got the call from my non-Mother. After the service, I went back to the room and took the bag of books he left for me. As an afterthought, I picked up the one that was still on his bedtable and threw it inside the bag. The one with the circle on page 76, the one with the yellow highlighting throughout, the one he was reading when he died, ‘The Street of Crocodiles’. I took them all to a used bookstore in Brampton and traded them in for a handful of Westerns.”
He clenched his teeth.
“So do you think you’ll be able to get my father’s book back for me?”