BY SUZETTE BLOM
Copyright is held by the author.
Joseph was exhilarated by the suddenness of normalcy. After almost two years hiding at home from the pandemic he was Christmas shopping. A cornucopia of choice nearly overwhelmed him. The crowds of shoppers charged through the snowflakes, their arms overloaded with bulging shopping bags. The failing light of the early evening enhanced the colored halos made by the Christmas decorations adorning the store windows.
He was surrounded by a delightful cacophony. He stepped aside to avoid being jostled by a group of chattering school girls in tights and kilts. The tinkle of a Salvation Army volunteer’s bells reminded him to rummage in his pocket for change. Cars honked their horns at each other in the bumper-to-bumper traffic.
Like a guest at a buffet he wanted to sample all the wares, stop in every store. He would run his fingers over soft wool sweaters, wriggle his toes in furry boots. He would make himself sick inhaling the scent of every perfume on offer in the glitzy cosmetic departments, and marvel over fascinating smart appliances in the kitchen store. But most of all he would wander the stacks at the bookstore.
Months of ordering books on line had left him hungry for the thrill of the “find.” The book he never knew existed that would change his life. The one you could only discover by wandering unhindered by algorithms. Of course it was not just a selfish longing to be transported by transcendent themes of plot and definition of character. He would buy books as gifts for everyone in his life. He expressed his affection through literature.
He stood by the entrance to the bookstore enhancing the experience with the anticipation of what it would feel like when he finally entered. For a few moments he gathered himself as he watched the patrons linger in the gift ware department of the store. He could not help but be enchanted by all the items that seemed to go with the sale of books: slipper socks, lava lamps, fuzzy throws and coffee mugs with odd sayings on them. He imagined himself among the carefully curated objects sitting by a fireplace in flannel pajamas drinking hot chocolate. Certainly that was the best, if not the only way, to enjoy Herman Melville, James Joyce or even Proust.
At last Joseph could stand it no longer and took his first steps into the store. Slowly, he began to wander around the tables with their signs announcing the best sellers in paperback, through the self-help and the crafts sections toward the stacks of literature categorized by author in alphabetical order. With each step he transcended the physical world into an ethereal paradise.
Reality and gravity struck as he almost tripped over a young woman seated on the floor, her back leaning against the stack, a hoodie draped over her knees, her book carefully propped up in her fingers.
“So sorry. I hope I didn’t step on you.”
She looked up at him over a pair of large horn-rimmed glasses that were too big for her face and shook her head. He noticed her mask was streaked with tears. They ran down the smooth white cheekbones around her eyes sockets in little rivulets inundating her blue mask, incongruous in this place of joy. To his mind it wasn’t appropriate for a gentleman of a certain age to speak to a young lady he had not been introduced to, but this surely was an exception.
“Are you all right? Can I help you in some way?”
She shook her head dismissively.
He looked down and saw the title.
“The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter! I read that book many years ago and its characters are still in my mind.”
“It’s very sad.”
‘’Yes, but the story it tells is a beautiful tragedy.”
She removed the horned rim glasses, wiped the tears off her face and looked directly into his eyes. “There are no beautiful tragedies.”
He thought for a moment. “Well, that is the human condition.”
She caught his eyes for a moment and turned back to her book.
Unable to stop himself he peered at her as the tears continued to trickle down her cheeks.
“Where did you find that book? I’m looking for some American classics myself.”
She swallowed some tears before answering. “On the other side of the aisle. There are lots of books there if you want to read something that wasn’t suggested by an algorithm.”
Joseph nodded. He had fought the battle with algorithms for a long time, sometimes selecting a Netflix movie he was not interested in just to have the menu change.
He stepped over her as he made his way to the other side of the aisle.
He heard the beginnings of Liszt’s piano concerto number one and realized someone in the bookstore was actually playing the piano. He followed the sound through the stacks. In the centre of the store before the coffee shop a grand piano had been set up. A young man sat hunched over the piano, his dark hair falling into his eyes as he played. His fingers moved deftly over the keys, drowning out the frenetic sounds of Christmas shopping all around him. Joseph stood still and let the music penetrate him. He felt as if he was melting into it, transformed if not transported.
The young man stopped and retrieved some sheet music from a well-worn knapsack at his feet.
“You are very good. I didn’t know they hired a pianist at this store.”
“Oh they didn’t. The sign just says anyone can play if they want to.”
Joseph looked over the top of the piano at a sign propped up at the far end. It read “please play.”
“Did you want to play? I’m just fooling around.”
“No. Please continue! That is the most beautiful sound I have heard in a long time. I’d like to know what you sound like when you are not ‘just fooling around.’
“I’m a student at the RCM. They have concerts sometimes. I’m sure they will this year now that we can play live instead of online. No more canned music.”
“I’ll be sure to look for it.”
Across from the piano was a wall of magazines. Joseph was awestruck by the sheer physicality of the glossy covers. His scanned the rows of architecture and design magazines. He lingered near the hobbies and leisure section, his eyes lingering over the elegance of the architectural digest and finally selected a travel magazine with enticing photos of a magnificent fishing lodge in Patagonia that he dreamed of travelling to.
“Ah, so nice to think of holidays again!” The thick Russian accent caught his attention. A squat round woman in a puffy brown coat stood at his elbow.
“I know! It is so exciting we can travel again.”
“Ah, where do you want to go?”
“I’m not sure. It would be nice to go away in February when it is cold and dark here.”
“Ah, Canadians! We love our country but we always want to escape the winter.”
She chuckled, her eyes sparkled in a nest of wrinkles above her mask. There was something pleasant and solid in her manner.
“I complain all the time when I’m here wishing I could go somewhere and when I do I complain until I come home. The pleasures of being old.”
Joseph began to chuckle too. He had had that experience.
“I love magazines. So nice to see them here for us to look at rather than just pictures on line.”
“I agree. Reading a magazine on line is like eating a tasteless meal.”
He looked at her eyes again and took comfort in the wisdom reflecting from her bright eyes in the nest of wrinkles above her mask.
“It is nice just to stand here and dream with other dreamers,” he said.
“It is indeed.” She stood on tip toe and strained to reach to the top shelf way above her head. She looked as if she might topple over. Joseph reached above her and handed the magazine to her.
Joseph moved into the line-up at the bookstore’s Starbucks hoping he would hear the music again while he drank his coffee. A young woman in a green elf costume with striking lavender eye make-up offered him a small paper cup of mulled cider and a cookie in the shape of a Christmas tree covered in pea green icing. Joseph nodded happily. He dipped the cookie in the cider and took a bite. Even doused with cider the cookie tasted like gingered cardboard. Yet to Joseph it was as miraculous as the virgin birth. It had been 18 months since he’d stood in a line-up unmasked and ate a cookie. Even processed cardboard could be like manna from heaven.
As the lukewarm cider trickled down his throat Joseph realized there were people all around him. The line-up swarmed around the wall toward the stairs with people eating their Christmas cookie while waiting for their turn to order coffee. His heart began to pound. The soothing piano music was indistinct among the multifarious conversations around him. His heart thumped in his chest. His scarf against the back of his neck felt prickly with sweat. His stomach churned with the spiced taste of the mulled cider on his tongue. Why were these people standing so close to him? Weren’t they supposed to social distance? His hands began to shake, spilling the cider out of the little paper cup.
“Hey!” A young man with ear phones like winter muffs turned to face him. “Watch what you’re doing.”
Joseph couldn’t hear him over the thunder roaring in his ears. His breath came in short gasps. He felt his knees buckling. He landed on the floor with a bone crunching thud. His vision became a black sea with darting pinholes of light.
He felt an arm lift his head and a soft voice saying something he could not quite hear.
He realized that faces were hovering over him with looks of concern in their eyes but he could not make out who they were.
“Is it a heart attack?”
“More likely a panic attack.”
“How do you know?”
“I’m a paramedic. This happens a lot to people who aren’t used to crowds anymore. We’ve had more 911 calls than ever because of it.”
“So he’ll be all right?”
“Hard to say. He looks pretty bad.”
Joseph thought someone was crying. Maybe the girl in the stacks reading The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter. He wanted to comfort her. Think of how nice this is, he wanted to say. Think how long we have waited to be here in this store. Think of all the books we have to read, all the people we have yet to meet. He thought he heard someone say “It’s the human condition.” His face felt wet. He wondered why and then he knew the tears were his own.