Monday, January 2, 2012
The Bibliophile (short story)
By Teri Coley
The old man walked into the room. It was freezing. He blew out and his breathe crystallized into vapor the way it once did in his childhood in
. Those were cold winters. This.. not so bad. But still, it would be nice to have heat on. Damn electric company couldn’t wait three more days until his Social Security check came, could they? No, they just turn the shit off and don’t care that an old man freezes his wrinkly balls off. And he was an old man. There was no getting around that. He hated the sound of “senior citizen”. You didn’t call a young person a “teen citizen” or a forty something-year-old frump a “middle citizen”. Where in the hell did that word come from anyway? Ohio
He went to the refrigerator and opened it. He cocked his head in puzzlement over the darkness inside then remembered for the hundredth time that the lights were out. The little light thingy in the fridge wouldn’t work. He reached for a carton of yogurt, hoping it wasn’t out of date, peeled the tin lid back and carried it into the living room where he spooned it up with a long handled silver ice cream spoon that had once belonged to his grandmother. The candle on the worn end table next to him was flickering into a waxy puddle. He’d better look in the drawer and see if he had more. Thank God Edna had stocked up on things like that before she died three years ago. Back then he had bitched and moaned about Edna’s hoarding of batteries, candles, jugs of water.. now he was grateful. It was if she had been able to see the future.
Edna had been the one to handle the money, the bills. He hated the same ole same ole of responsibility. He’d rather be writing a paper on Shakespeare and his contributions to the English language, or tending his African violets. Bills? Screw them. After Edna’s death, the old man’s oldest son had taken over the bills and had them set up on an automatic bank withdrawal system that the old man didn’t quite understand. So every month the account went into the red. Even when his son had taken the debit card away, the old man used a dusty old checkbook that he had found shoved in one of Edna’s junk drawers. It was for the same account they had had for over forty years. So far, the son hadn’t figured out why the payments still bounced.
The upstairs bedroom was filled with shopping bags of books, books, books from Barnes & Noble. The old man had almost had an orgasm when the chain bookstore had opened a spanking new store in the shopping mall not a mile from his house two years ago. Once his son had bought him a computer and arranged for internet access, and his granddaughter had taught him how to order online, the amazon.com boxes piled up too. The old man could order books any time, and often did at three or four in the morning when sleep evaded him. The UPS man was his most frequent visitor, often arriving with four or five cardboard wrapped books. The old man owned so many books that he could never read them all if he lived another fifty years, which was highly unlikely anyway.
Books, books, books. He loved them. He worshiped them. The feel of them. The smell of them. The very existence of them. They contained everything: wishes, dreams, adventures, horror, tears, sex, longings, fears- everything human under the sun was held in the pages of some book somewhere. This world was stale. The real one had never held much for the old man. He merely tolerated the world the way one tolerates waiting in a doctor’s office for a yearly physical. Not pleasant, but not exciting. On the other hand, life in books was more real, more tangible than anything in the so called “real” world.
Edna has never complained about his constant reading. She knew when she had married him that he was a college literature professor. For thirty-five years she chalked up the long hours spent reading to his profession, but when he retired and the reading encompassed almost all his waking hours, she had merely sighed and starting traveling alone to visit out of town relatives and old college friends from bygone days. The old man couldn’t be bothered. Only once, when a cousin’s twenty-something year-old son had died in a sudden, bloody automobile accident had the old man given in, left his precious library, and boarded an airplane. He’d only taken one book and had finished that one during the funeral home visitation the next evening. He’d much rather read about places than actually go to them. But he had attended the cousin’s son’s funeral because it had been so horrific, so unexpected. It had seemed like fiction. And Southern fiction too, since the accident and funeral had taken place in a small
town. At the long drawn out funeral the old man had kept an eye peeled for any Faulkner looking characters. He never did see one. He only spied a little wrinkled lady that might have been Faulkner’s older sister; the resemblance had been uncanny- the same beak-like nose, the same overdramatized eyebrows. But alas, no drama, no falling on the ground. No heart retching weeping, no fainting. The funeral had been sparsely attended. He left disappointed, and upon arrival at the airport had promptly made a beeline for the airport book store and paid seventeen dollars, a ridiculous sum for a paperback, for Tess of the De’Abervilles- the most depressing author the old man could think of-Hardy himself. Mississippi
But the lights were out. The house was cold. And the old man was hungry. The yogurt had been half spoiled, he suspected. He stood up, standing in one spot for a moment until the light headiness passed, then he reached down and picked up the green saucer to which the candle was firmly attached. The candle gave off a weak glow, barely enough to cast a dim light a foot in circumference. The old man made his way to the stairs and mounted them slowly. He rarely went upstairs anymore except to throw the bags and packages of books in the bedroom that had once been his daughter’s. The stairs creaked in protest. The old man breathed out and the vapor fog drifted in front of his face like cigarette smoke. In the dead of winter when he had been a child and had had to walk to school, he would roll up a bit of white paper into a thin tube, put it to his lips, and then blow out in imitation of his chain smoking father. His father who had had died at the age of forty of lung cancer. So it goes.
He reached the landing of the second floor and opened the door to what he now thought of as the “book room.” Books upon books upon books. Piles of stories, adventures, horror, mystery.. Soft cover, hard cover, first editions, used and smudged editions, thin books, thick books, crisp new books. They were all here. He breathed in and the smell of paper and ink hit his nostrils. He smiled and the cold of the house didn’t seem so cold anymore. He walked to the middle of the room and knelt down on one arthritic knee. He caressed a towering stack of books and held the candle higher. He could just make out the farthest corner. The books rose waist high there. He sighed. His legs went out from beneath him and he thumped with a jolt on his butt, hitting so hard that his upper dentures almost leapt out of his mouth. He teetered for one brief moment and then fell face first onto an obscure little edition of a Dickens’s novel, The Cricket on the Hearth. The lit candle stub tumbled from his hand. He tried to curse and found he could only utter a deep guttural sound. His right hand was numb and didn’t feel like it belonged to him. He tried to raise it to pick up the candle and found he couldn’t. The candle sputtered against the dry paper of the books nearby. The old man felt a moment of panic and then inexplicitly he relaxed. The flames caught and rose as they licked the edges of the books. The books flared into shades of red, orange, yellow, and blue. The old man felt the heat rise. The colors were extraordinary and mesmerizing.
The old man was growing warmer. The heat felt good. He knew the fire was spreading, but couldn’t seem to summon the emotion to care. He closed his eyes and remembered all the words. All the words he had read. He breathed in the acrid smoke, the stories. And they gathered together into one giant heat before blowing into his mind and dispersing in ash memories. In a final movement, he reached his left hand under his semi-paralyzed body and struggled to clasp a thin volume that was trapped under his body. He managed to maneuver the book until it was nestled directly beneath his feeble and stuttering beating heart. The old man breathed the sharp sting of the flames deep into his already smoke singed lungs as the fire bellowed out into a roar of satiated hunger and finality..
Posted by Liti