“Will your family come here for Christmas or will you go to them?”
George peered at me over his cup of Earl Grey tea and waited for my answer. We’d spent the morning filling Christmas orders, making up gift baskets that I’d designed in conjunction with Sara in the video store, and James fine gifts and stationary store three doors down from us. George sat behind the counter watching me put together the baskets at a small table I’d set up at the front of the store. My intention was that window shoppers would be greeted by the enticing sights and smells of scented soaps, gourmet coffee, gleaming boxes of dark chocolate truffles, see the baskets being created and be inspired to stop in and order one for that hard to please person on their list. Thus far, my inspiration had resulted in three new orders, which wasn’t bad. I had not counted on George’s interest in watching me through the entire process. I’d hoped he’d take a sick day, instead, I’d been subjected to hours of probing questions blanketed in idle conversation and studied gazes when he thought I wasn’t looking. To deflect his latest question I dug my hands deeper into the burgundy shredded paper that filled the bottom of the basket I was currently arranging.
“Hmmm?” he persisted.
No, I wasn’t going home for the holidays; I hadn’t been home in years. I kept my eyes on the basket, giving him a non-committal shrug and acting as if I were searching for diamonds amongst the paper. It wasn’t that I didn’t want to discuss my family with George; it was just that conversations like this started out innocently and had a bad way of going in directions that were unexpected and often too revealing. Since the moment I’d found the journal in the boxes of Mrs. Corman’s estate, I’d kept the ensuing events from George. Until the moment I’d asked him to hide the journal in his safe. That decision made me all the more committed to keeping George’s attention focused elsewhere.
George responded to my rudeness with an impatient humph, which evolved into a bout of ragged, wet coughing. What had started out as a cold quickly became walking pneumonia which George refused to acknowledge, despite his doctor’s assertions that at his age, it would be fatal if not treated seriously. George was not treating it seriously. It wasn’t that he didn’t trust me to manage the store alone. It was that for him to stay home, alone, to succumb to the limitations of his age, was a form of death.
I understood this about him. I admired it as well. We were two of a kind in many ways. Yet, as I looked at him now, my admiration was overshadowed by concern.
“What about you, George?” I asked, throwing his question back at him. “Are you going anywhere for Christmas?”
He shook his head. “I don’t have any family left. I’ll go to midnight mass on Christmas Eve and maybe have a drink with the priest afterwards.”
“So you’ll be able to come to my dinner party beforehand. I’ve invited a couple neighbors. We’re all going to Midnight Mass afterwards, so you can ride with us.”
“I’m not much for parties,” he said.
“No one should be alone at Christmas,” I argued. “I’ll pick you up and then bring you home whenever you like. You don’t have to stay long. Just an hour. You’d like my friends.”
“What about your family, Thea?” he asked. “Will they be there?”
I put down the book I was holding and looked out the window at the passing shoppers. “No, they won’t.”
“They have other commitments,” I said, and picked up the book and placed it into the basket. I walked away from the table to the section of the bookstore where we shelved the cookbooks. My fingers ran across the well-worn spines and finally rested on a slim volume of chocolate recipes. I pulled it out and carried it back to the basket, where I tucked it in next to the box of dark chocolate truffles James had sent from his shop.
“Why don’t you go to them?” George asked.
“Because I want to be here,” I answered too curtly.
“With all the close friends you’ve cultivated in the past three months,” George chuckled.
“Don’t smirk at me, George. You’re one of them,” I replied.
“You’ve picked a place full of second home transients, where it’s fairly easy to remain anonymous. Don’t overestimate your store of friends.”
“That’s cynical, look how long you’ve lived here. Or, the Corman’s they were here for years.”
“We’re like rocks in the stream,” he said. “This place isn’t the same as a small town where people come to raise children.”
“There are schools here.”
George started to counter but was suddenly overcome with another coughing fit. He bent forward as his body was racked with a series of wet gasps and wheezes and his lungs struggled to use the little air they were supplied with. Eventually he sat back in his chair and closed his eyes.
“George, this is ridiculous,” I said, wringing my hands at how this illness had weakened him. “You need to go see your doctor, then go home.”
He waved away my directive. “I’m not going. That doctor wants to put me into the hospital, no way I’m going there.”
“George,” I said softly. “If you don’t take care of yourself, you won’t have a choice, they’ll take you in an ambulance.”
“There’s a pleasant thought,” he grumbled.
“I’m sorry, but if you won’t take care of yourself, then I need to.”
“Bah,” he spat. “Enough, already. I think you better make plans to go somewhere for Christmas before I’m forced to fire you for insubordination.”
“Alright,” I conceded his point. There was something else on my mind. “George, I’d like to retrieve the book you placed in your safe.”
He blew his nose and peered at me over his handkerchief. “Is it yours?”
He made a grand show of wiping his nose and tucking the handkerchief back into the pocket of his cardigan. “Are you sure?”
I was startled by this. The hairs on the back of my neck rose. Had he actually read the journal while I was out?
“Of course, it’s mine.”
“Wasn’t it among the books from Mrs. Corman’s estate?”
How would he know, he was up front when I found the journal. I thought back to my actions that day. I’d placed the book in the pocket of my apron, then slipped it into my purse. I’d taken him home right after that. But had there been a moment when I’d walked away from my purse, or had he seen me put it in there and then recognized it when I’d handed it to him to put it in the safe?
“It’s my journal,” I said.
“Thea, you’ve always given me a list of the books that you want to buy from our estate sales. That journal wasn’t on your list.”
“Because, it’s mine.”
“Had you let Mrs. Corman borrow it before her death?”
“Then how did it come to be in the box with her things?”
“I don’t know.”
“A journal is a very personal thing. I would hate for it to get into the hands of someone it doesn’t belong to.”
“George, I kept the journal when I lived in
“But the name inside the cover isn’t your name.”
“You shouldn’t get involved in this. Please, just give me back the journal now.”
“If you are in danger, then the safest place for it is where you don’t have access to it.”
I swallowed hard. “George, you are in danger if you keep it.”
“I’m not worried.”
“You should be.”
“Would you hurt me to get it back?” He asked with an arched brow and a considered tilt of his head. I was taken aback by his cool tone, it was as if he was asking a purely academic question, not whether his life was in danger.
“George, not me, you know that.”
He nodded his head, though he didn’t smile. “Tell me again what you did in
“I worked for the Embassy.”
He smiled briefly, “And you kept a journal of your experience there?”
“Perhaps you wrote about things you shouldn’t have.”
I would not be lured into this. “George what did you do before you started this bookstore?”
He chuckled and picked up his cup and carried it to the cash register. “I moved around a lot.”
I shivered, knowing he was lying. “You owned your own business, didn’t you?”
“Yes, a small import / export firm.”
“Did you ever live on the east coast?”
“I had a nests in a few cities. Even overseas.”
My heart sank. I’d loved this place from the first moment I’d walked in, months ago, my lungs filled with the comforting smell of books and their bindings, paper and ink. Spines closed and facing outward, beckoning with the promise of stories untold, if you would just pick them up and open the door. This store was a refuge. The job had been a salvation from my spiral into a reclusiveness that would ultimately pull me into the abyss of depression and isolation. I’d sensed a kindred spirit in George. To protect myself, I pretended that he had no other life than the one he’d created here. Frankly, I hadn’t been interested in his history because I didn’t want the complication of providing my own. I gave him what I’d given myself. The protection of the eternal present and non-existent past.
I was wrong. No, not wrong. Just postponing the inevitable. I knew this moment would eventually come, I simply hadn’t anticipated the context.
“What brought you to
He laughed. “I’m too old to play this game, Thea, and you’re too young to take on someone with my experience.”
I stopped fumbling around with the basket and looked toward the front door. Outside, faded remnants of the late afternoon sun were gradually losing their battle against the encroaching early winter sunset. Inside, the warmth had been sucked out of the room. I looked from the door to George’s face. The years had slipped away and I saw something cold and hard in his eyes.
I whispered, “George, did you read the journal?”
He fiddled with the handkerchief that he’d taken from his pocket and feigned ignorance. He crumpled the soiled linen and stuffed it again into his pocket and then turned his attention to some catalogues that had arrived in today’s mail.
“It’s my journal, George.”
“What about you, George?”
“what about me? I’m an old man who recognizes someone who’s in over their head,” he said, not looking up but turning another page in the catalogue.
“Give the journal back to me, please,” I said in measured tones.
“Have you figured out why Mrs. Corman had your journal?”
I shook my head. “She must not have known that it belonged to me. As you said, my name isn’t in it.”
“What is your real name by the way? It’s not Thea, is it.” Briefly he raised his head to consider me, then lowered it again toward the pages, “On second thought, never mind. So, how do you think Mrs. Corman got it?”
“Maybe it never was in her house, maybe it was planted among her books after her death.”
“Those boxes were sealed when they arrived here, weren’t they. If they wanted you to have it, there are more direct methods.”
I threw up my hands and my eyes filled with tears. “George, I don’t know how my journal traveled from
“This is the first time I’ve seen you shown any real emotion since this whole thing began. You should be careful with that, frustration leads to rash actions.”
“You don’t realize what’s in that journal,” I said looking away from him. “Even if you read it, you wouldn’t understand.”
“I wouldn’t be so sure of that.”
“No!” I cried. “Just give it to me now!”
“You asked me to keep it in my safe because there’s someone that you don’t want to get it. Unless that’s changed…”
“If he wants that journal bad enough, neither you nor your safe are going to keep it from him,” I sighed. “I don’t want you to get hurt. This isn’t your concern. I made a mistake in giving it to you in the first place.”
“No, you didn’t.” he said quietly. Then he untied his apron and placed it on the hook behind him. “I’m going home now. I’m tired. Will you close up?”
“But…” I stammered.
“And no, I’m not worried about you trying to break into the safe,” he smiled. “First, you’re not the type. Second, you couldn’t even if you tried. Neither could your friend.”
Dumbfounded I watched him leave. His comments were a revelation, not about Mrs. Corman or the journal, but clearly I’d underestimated the old man. I was no match for him, even at his age and impaired health. Still, I breathed a sigh of relief with his departure. I needed time to figure out what to do next. George was right about many things, the most important of which being his admonition that I not act out of frustration. As I was feeling right now, I’d just as soon get in my car and drive down the mountain to the
At closing time, I locked the front door and went to the back room. I stood in front of the safe with my arms folded. I looked at the heavy steel safe. I walked around it, peered behind it. Touched the dials and spun them a few times. I turned the handle and felt it resist my force. I walked across the room and began moving boxes that had arrived this morning from an estate sale in
I worked until the entire safe was hidden behind the boxes.
Then I pulled a chair over to the three remaining boxes from the Corman estate. I sat down, pulled my box cutter from my apron pocket and sliced through the tape of the first box.
I picked up a first edition of Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath, and for the first time that day, smiled with satisfaction as I put the book under my chair. There were other first editions in the box, but I wasn’t greedy. I didn’t want the books simply to own something of value, something parlayed into treasure. I only took books that held meaning for me, those authors I admired. Through the pages of the library I painstakingly collected and then read, I’d constructed the rooms of my interior life, a life that held my insatiable curiosity. I culled the yield of greater minds. I was a connoisseur of beautiful language, of grand ideas, of those who convinced me that the language of mathematics and the subtle laws of physics were as breathtaking as a poem, of cherished, naïve optimism that a better life lay in the discovery of the next new thing. I nurtured the pursuit of elusive evidence of God in the output of those blessed with the compulsion to join the Creator in creating.
The second box was less interesting. It contained a number of books that must have belonged to Mr. Corman. There were histories, theories of economics, business management for success. Real world stuff that didn’t appeal to me. So with a sigh, I opened the final box. Amongst the remnants of an interesting woman’s internal mind, was the clue I’d been looking for. It was something of hers that would provide me with a crack in the door. I slipped the item into my lap and then picked up the Steinbeck and prepared to leave for the evening.
I paused at the doorway and looked back at the monument I’d erected. Clearly, the boxes in front of the safe would be little more than a time-consuming frustration for Tom if he decided to come here. On the other hand, given George’s current weakened state, they might constitute enough of a deterrent to keep an old man from getting at the journal. I was only doing it for his protection.