Erich Fromm once said,” I told the cats, “‘love is the only sane
and satisfactory answer to the problem of human existence.’” Weesie,
the black-and-white tuxedo, sniffed my fingers approvingly. “But
then,” I said, “we must remember what we learned from J. Geils Band.
‘Love stinks.’” I waited for the cats to soak in the deep,
profound truth I’d just imparted. Love stinks. “Who are you going to
believe?” I asked them. “Who...are you going to believe?”
J. Geils Band. That’s who.
Okay, so I was bitter.
Every morning, I walked east from my apartment, on Manatee Road, to
Manatee Park where tourists gather to gawk at said sea cows in the
lagoon, then up Mangrove Street to the back of an abandoned storefront
on the south side of downtown. The cats—seven left in the
colony—lived there. Used to be sixteen. But I trapped the buggers and
had them spayed, neutered, and what-not. They loved me for it. Okay,
fifteen of them loved me for it. Samson never forgave me. But he still
took food from my hand for a year before he took up with my cousin
Carrie; he’s a proper indoor cat now.
There used to be, I’m told, a sewing machine repair shop in the
building. It’s separated by a six-inch alley from the Strawbridge Art
League. Next to that is an attorney’s office. And next to them,
Trudy’s Treasures—an old house converted into an antique store.
Those other buildings back up against grass lots, but the owner of the
building that housed the sewing machine repair shop had a concrete
parking lot put in along Mangrove Street. Now...I don’t know how many
years later, it was cracked, weed infested, and crumbling. At the
building’s eastern edge, where the grass lots began, there drooped an
aged and tired oak struggling to shade a warped and splintered picnic
table. I’d taken a few large plastic bins, had Hugh saw half-circles
on one side of each, and upended them by the building, near the alley,
so the cats could get away from the rain. That was where my darlings
lived and I did my best to keep them happy there, so they wouldn’t
feel the need to prowl over to the park, where they were, according to
the Strawbridge City Council, not wanted.
The building’s been for sale for as many years as I’ve been feeding
the strays, but it finally got an offer last month and I’d like to say
I handled it well. The thought of somebody renovating it, which let’s
face it, would have to be done, and scaring off my darlings, dispersing
them throughout the area, possibly lost forever, nearly drove me insane.
I might have been shrieking when I accosted Madaline, the realtor, about
it. But she told me ‘no problem.’ Shoe shop, she said. Quiet reno,
easy move in. And they love the idea of having some stray cats out back
by the picnic table. Who wouldn’t? I mean, really? What sort of person
wouldn’t love to have seven adorable cats in her backyard that someone
else takes care of? Still, when she told me the good news, she was
giving me that look—the one a lot of the people downtown still gave
me. It’s the ‘let’s not upset her’ look. The ‘we don’t want
her freaking out and jumping into the lagoon again’ look.
It’s not as bad as it sounds. I wasn’t trying to kill myself. God, I
hope I’d do a better job of it than that. And I hadn’t lost my
marbles and tried to ride a manatee—you get arrested for that sort of
thing around here. Honest to all get out, I dropped my friggin’ comb
into the lagoon and before I considered, maybe...buying a new one, I’d
jumped in. Fully clothed. And some of the tourists fished me out
again...by the feet. Like I was a dead mermaid. Lucky for me, there were
some kids there with their phones, taking video and posting to
Instagram. Thanks, children of Strawbridge, a whole hell of a lot.
I’m telling you: cats understand.
“Gotta go.” I gave Sugar, the brown tabby, a quick pet and stuffed
the small bag of food and the now empty half-gallon water jug into my
big book bag—the one with the Margaret Mitchell quote on it: In a weak
moment, I have written a book—and headed to Bookish.
I’ll give you the quick version, because frankly, I’m over it. I
don’t even really want to think about it anymore. I’m done with it.
So done. It’s like this: Cal. I loved him. For two years, I loved him
more than life itself. I told him I loved him. Three times. First time,
he said, “Oooh, babe. A little soon, don’t ya think?” The second
time, he said, “I’m flattered.” And the third time he said, “I
love...Lydia.” Lydia lived across the landing, nearly my best friend.
We were so close, a bunch of her stuff was in my apartment, hence my
stalking out and finding myself along the lagoon at Manatee Park
throwing those things into the wat—er, I mean, trying to comb my hair
when I tripped and fell in. She doesn’t live across the landing
anymore. Nope. Now she lives with Cal.
I crossed Mangrove to the little alley next to Fiona’s, into the
breezeway, exiting onto the main street, Strawbridge, and sucked in a
breath, ready to brave the walk downtown, all the way to the other end,
to Bookish, where I worked with Gramps. It was a gantlet I had to walk
every day. The people downtown—I don’t mean to snipe but, they’re
nosy. Cal just loved them. Every weekend, part of our dates had to
include a walk through. He charmed them all. Had Mrs. Simmons eating out
of his hand. Told Octavia she was a goddess. (Not that Octavia isn’t a
goddess, but do you want your boyfriend kissing other women and saying,
“My goddess you’re a goddess?” Nobody wants that. Except Octavia,
apparently.) He even had Officer Palmer smiling and that’s something
you don’t see every day. After he dumped me—I shouldn’t say that,
it makes him sound too good—after he slithered away like a palmetto
bug and left me with seven hundred dollars in credit card debt because
he handily forgot his wallet when it came time to pay for his car’s AC
repair (and from the look of my bill, I also paid for a necklace for
Lydia), I couldn’t walk the street without everyone asking about him.
Truth: I ran away crying the first time someone mentioned him. And the
second time. How long would it take for things to go back to normal?
Normal being that time before Cal existed. Oh, my, god. I was bitter,
I marched along with my copy of Unraveling Oliver in front of my face as
if I were reading it. Of course I wasn’t. It’s not possible to walk
downtown while reading. If Officer Palmer doesn’t tap you on the back
with his chalk stick and warn you against the shortsightedness of it,
you’ll at least find yourself on your butt in a planter. But so far as
the downtown population was concerned, I, Sophie Childers, could read
and walk the sidewalk at the same time, without hitting any sunburned
tourists, without walking into a jutting storefront, and without ever
bumping into a fancy light post. Because I was always faking it.
I smelled Stogies before I got there and looked up to see Mr. Booker,
standing in front of his store, a cigar notched securely between his
jaws, looking at his Kindle. If Octavia was a goddess, Leland Booker was
a god. Blond wavy hair floated around him like a halo. His face was
chiseled out of marble. True, he was old enough to be my father. And
sure, he smoked cigars. But he had to. You can’t own a cigar store and
not smoke the things. He smiled and nodded at me as I approached,
holding up his e-reader like it was a prize. He pulled the cigar from
“Love That Dog,” he told me. “Just downloaded it.”
He laughed. “Have a listen—”
“Wait until Friday.”
“Aw,” he said.
“And we had a deal,” I said as I walked past. “No e-readers.”
There were a few people downtown who didn’t tsk when they saw me. Mr.
Booker was one of them. He never liked Cal; I could tell. I think it was
because Cal didn’t get poetry. No matter how much I told him there was
nothing to get—just read it, I’d tell him—he couldn’t let a poem
run past without snorting and rolling his eyes.
Next up was Sweet Suite. Barb, or Kate, or both never let an
acquaintance pass by without calling out to him. “Hoot, Sophie!” I
couldn’t tell which one it was. They were both plump and brunette,
though one was lighter than the other, don’t ever remember which. I
lifted my eyes from my book, smiled and walked on. I got all the way to
Namaste without another encounter but there was Benjamin lighting the
day’s first stick of incense in their burner out by the always-open
door. “Tangerine,” he cooed, waving a hand toward me, trying to wash
me with odor.
“You know I’m allergic,” I said.
“Not to tangerine.”
Cute as an inchworm on a daisy, Benjamin was twenty at best. Thin,
small, sweet, his hair in one of those tower cuts that lifted itself
straight off the top of his head. And he always had a cotton rag or
piece of silk as a scarf wrapped loose as a lazy drape around his neck.
He smiled as I passed him by. I made it to Burgers before I had to smile
again. Not too bad. But it was Monday, so there you go.
When I finally got to Bookish I was exhausted. It’d been six months
since the lagoon incident. Six months. I just wanted to get back to
being me. Before Cal, most of those downtown people didn’t know my
name. And I liked it that way. Before Cal, it was all books. Rows and
rows of towering bookcases were my lovers. Before Cal, I spent my days
and evenings in Bookish with my grandfather, sorting, shelving and
re-shelving, dusting, organizing, selling, reading, and smelling books.
And I was finally getting my life back. I was finally going to be happy
again and if I never met up with another Cal—another man—that was
fine with me.
As soon as I pulled open the front door of the little shop and the bell
jingled, there was Hugh.
Okay, Hugh doesn’t count. He was a man, in the most basic sense; true.
But he loved books, too. He was in Bookish nearly as often as I was. I
didn’t have a problem with a man who had books on his mind.
“Hey, Sophie,” he said.
And that was that. The hallmark of our relationship. That was how I
thought a good man-woman relationship ought to be. If I thought Hugh and
I could marry, and spend the rest of our lives together, and the only
contact we ever had to have was saying “hey” to each other and
swapping books, I’d have done it.
“Gramps,” I called out. “I’m in.” I took the beeline to the
back, dumped my stuff off in the back room, and wandered the maze of
shelves to the front again.
When you walked into Bookish, the cashwrap was to your right and to the
left, a wonderful bay window, in which we displayed...books. Duh. In
front of the window, we put a lounge where you could relax and look
through a book or out the window at passers-by (or at Gramps who spent
most of his time—do not tell him I said this—behind the cashwrap,
either staring out the front window or reading). The front half of the
left side of Bookish was new books, and our local authors’ shelf. The
rest housed my paradise. Old books. Used, tattered, read and read again.
The shelves there were blissfully stuffed and needed constant attention,
a condition I never wanted to change.
Gramps was hiding in the history section, down on one knee, his bouffant
of gray hair like a hat on his head. He looked up at me and smiled. We
both heard the bell, and Mr. Cornell.
“Childers! She’s done it. This time, she’s really done it.”
“Oh, dear lord,” Gramps said and I heard his knees crack as he
struggled to stand. “What’s she done this time?”
“Trudy painted her window again,” I told him. “It says ‘Best
Antiques in Town.’”
“Where are you, Walt?” Mr. Cornell called.
Mr. Cornell owned Geezer’s Stuff Antiques next door to Bookish. He and
Gramps were both gray but two sides of a coin. My grandfather was a
distinguished, polished, proper sort of man—the sort you’d think was
a college professor, complete with thick, dark-rimmed glasses. Billy
Cornell? Wild man of the Andes. Except British...with an American
accent. He wore round, wire-rimmed glasses that sat crooked on his face.
He had a pale mole, above and to left of his right brow, that was hard
not to look at. Gramps’ hair always looked as if he’d just come out
of Glam it Up!, with a curly whip at the top, and his beard and mustache
were neatly trimmed. Mr. Cornell looked like an old hippie, his hair
falling like string to his shoulders and his face covered with splotches
of beard—as if he often began, but quickly lost interest in, shaving.
But they were the best of opposites-attract friends.
I’d become aware of all the other bodies in the store. You can’t see
them, the tall shelves traveled the floor in a maze of spines, print
paper, and glue, hiding cozy nooks and bins of poetry and science. But
you felt the air thicken when the store was full. People other than Mr.
Cornell didn’t talk loud in bookstores; they’re respecters of sacred
spaces. But the silence wasn’t so loud it roared in your ears, no. It
was a peopled silence. Whispers and sniffs and pages turning. I found
myself smiling as I pulled a bunch of used hardcovers off our roller
cart to shelve, way up top along the wall, as overstock.
Mr. Cornell was complaining about Trudy and her sign. “It’s an
outrage,” he said. “And a lie! A damned falsehood.”
Gramps shushed him.
I balanced the stack of books in my right arm and pulled myself up the
ladder with my left hand. Loved the ladders on wheels that traveled
along the outer walls of our store. Loved stepping onto the first rung
with one foot and pushing off with the other, rolling down the aisle
when the store was empty. Don’t tell Gramps. I smiled a hello, without
making eye contact, to the bodies eying the biography section as I made
my way up, higher and higher—this was why I never wore dresses to
work*—until I reached the shelves above the bookcases and as I was
about to transfer the stack to the middle shelf, Mr. Cornell let out a
roar. Something about that godforsaken woman and her cheap knock-offs. I
fell back a bit and let loose the books. They toppled out of my hands
onto a body below me and I turned to grab at them. Silly I know. It was
a lot like the way I grabbed at Lydia’s stuff as I threw it into the
lagoon—with a feeling of regret...too late. The books rained down and
I fell with them, onto the body. And the two of us staggered into the
shelf of memoirs.
Excerpted from "Bookish Meets Boy" by Dianna Dann. Copyright © 2015 by Dianna Dann. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher. Excerpts are provided solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.