Sam had always felt comfortable in a bookshop ever since he was a little boy. He felt like he could hide in there. He loved the walls of stories closing in to create a maze of corridors that could obscure someone among the stacks. He coveted libraries with ceiling high shelves. When Sam was out in open spaces for too long, he felt anxious and desperate for those stacks. He craved the confining tightness of bookshelves with thick old books, heavy with cardstock, burdened with different voices calling out silently throughout the dimly lit yellowy arenas.
The used bookshop by his childhood home was a castle. The stacks stood like guards with their swords in a salute. The shelves tunneled in, as if trumpeters were about to announce the royalty. Sam imagined that the aisles between shelves were like red carpeted pathways leading to the throne, the raised platform of the cashier, who looked over the wooden pedestal from beneath white fine hair and dusty glasses. He himself was a used character from a used book, a storybook king who had already spun his yarn and know sat waiting for the other narratives to wrap it up so he could go to sleep.
Sam had taken Denise to a bookshop as part of their first date. They had gotten coffee and it was uncomfortable and awkward and sweaty, so it had gone pretty well. Sam felt out of place as he escorted Denise down the street, until he saw a bookshop. He suggested they walk through, and she found it charming. Sam found a few things he was looking for and Denise called him the next day to ask him for drinks.
The bookshop on fifth was particularly nice and dusty. Sam loved it and went there once a week, just to browse, on his way to work. The lady behind the counter said it would close soon and that made Sam nostalgic inexplicably. The bookshop on fifth was way older and emptier and less hipster funkified than the one he had taken Denise to. Denise had never come to the one on fifth. Maybe she had without him, with a girlfriend, with her mom when they went out to brunch, but never with him.
When Abigal (he made up a name for the girl behind the counter; it seemed to fit) told him the shop was closing, Sam decided to try to patronize it more, to help them out. Abigail said it was a lost cause. She smiled at him with chapped lips and pet her cat that jumped from the top shelf to her shawled shoulders without misstepping.
Sam asked if he could buy this book he was holding and she said he could just have it.
Denise hadn't bought anything that night of their first date. She was still in the middle of reading something and didn't want to get seduced by a new story and neglect the old one. New things attracted her. She loved figuring out puzzles and riddles. As soon as the plot of a book was obvious, she would speed read through the end so she could start something new, delve into a new world, start a new adventure, struggle to surprise herself.
Sam didn't surprise Denise. He was quiet and mild mannered. They watched television together and sat at coffee shops and worked or read the paper together. They didn't go on walks in the autumn leaves like he had always wanted to, and like she had always wanted to but never told him. They watched movies in the theater. They listened to live music at bars. They filled their ears and brains with everything except the others' words.
The book Sam bought was tiny and green. There was only a black outline of a man taking off one of his shoes on the cover, no title. Sam started reading it as he walked home. He could read while walking. He had a plethora of wonderful qualities.
Denise had curly brown hair and an impish nose and wore 1920's fashion with little bucket hats and pump heeled shoes. She had librarian glasses and spoke eloquently while holding herself with perfect posture. She had used to be a dancer, but she rarely danced anymore. Sam hadn't known. Sometimes when she was home alone, she would put on music and dance until she was sweaty and panting. And then she would button back up her shirts and resume her persona.
The book was full of nonsequittors and short stories that formed a bigger idea that was huge and empty simultaneously. The structure of the writing was so that Sam found it pretentious and then he got used to it and then he liked it. It was like a long narrative poem, a sonnet, a love letter to loneliness.
His shoes grew damp, saturated in the puddles. He wasn't watching where he was going and his pant legs soaked upwards. The streets grew darker, and he squinted, pulling the pages closer to his face, blocking out the world he walked through. The book sang to him, and it was pretty enough to drown out the screaming of the wind and the angry sobbing of the trees, bawling onto the pavement with recycled rain water as tears.
Abigail watched him walk out the door and then checked her watch. She pet her cat and began to count the register. It was time to close up the shop and Sam had been the only person she had spoken to all day. Soon she would forget how to use her vocal chords. Her voice grew smaller daily as it became covered in cobwebs of disuse.
Sam opened up the door to his apartment and poured himself a big cup of milk and a beer. Denise would have found this combination disgusting had she been there, but probably not vocalized it. Sam curled up on the couch, turned on the news, and sat there absorbed in his book, behind the shelves of rain that poured around him life safe bordering walls.