FICTION- 1,800 WORDS.
At a used bookstore’s open-air lot in Boston, the vertical lines were trying their best. Hundreds of book spines leaned left and right, but stood with their crowd. A simple wooden shelf, its back panel splattered with sealing foam, held the softcovers as upright as it could. The building’s streetside wall looked crumbled at its edge, but was strong. The wall’s bricks, uniform only in concept, were stuck one on top of the other, like a family of old origins. A nearby streetlamp tried in vain to stand up straight–she was working on her third century.
As we said, these vertical lines were trying their best. All sorts of them, on tiny, tightly-packed West Street.
The books were fluid. Thick and thin, soft and hard, they sat clustered together where they’d been shoved. Look at them: They would never be in this order again, their arrangement unique to this very second, and no one cared to ponder that thought. The books were perused by a range of people, the devote bookies, the mildly curious, and by the thoughtless, too. Every open day, every open hour, the old books were pulled out, and pushed back in again.
The thoughtless. Leaving their coffee cups on the shelving. Flipping through ancient pages without regard for the condition of the spine. Urinating in the back of the lot, not caring who’d see it, or smell it.
The devoted. Aware of the value of the paper book, seeking to buy more while never making enough time to read what they own.
The mildly curious. Waiting for a friend to hop off the Red Line commuter rail, thinking maybe to buy said friend a book, but would Redliner really want to carry it around, and what if she already had it or wasn’t interested?
All-the-while the books wondered: Which new owner will discover me? Or will the seller give up on any paltry income he might gain from my five-dollar sale? There was a three-tier price system in this space. The most expensive books cost five dollars. Others, stacked on carts in this same lot, cost three. There was a small section for a dollar each.
The price structure had an expiration period, and the books knew it. Five-dollar books that went unsold for so many months became three-dollar offerings. As such, they were moved off the high visibility wall and loaded onto carts. Every tag had a date on it, too, discreetly telling the world how long the book had been on the premises.
A few of the veteran books thought: New ones are coming in, we have to move out!
We are old ideas, with a price tag. In a new, free information age.
Who’s going to want us?
One said to another, “What happened to my owner? I was being read. And then I was slated to be read by a friend, with a common interest. Now I’m here, these aren’t my stacks, aren’t my genre. A box, a truck and then this. I don’t understand—we had plans.”
The other book replied: “I once graced a night table, a long time ago.”
“A night table?” several books said in admiration. The night table remained the books’ ultimate dream.
“Yes. And it had been agreed: I’d opened my ideas to my owner, who was willing to be open, too. We’d sit with some soft light. The lighting was perfect, y’know? To our right, slightly behind us.”
“Ooh, behind you.”
“Yes. Glowing on the page. A pretty table lamp, with a string chain. Gentle. Easy. None of this overhead light stuff. Not harsh at all. A lap cat conformed to my edges and my pages were devoured, one paragraph at a time.”
“Reading glasses?” one asked.
“Yes, the lady who owned me wore reading glasses.”
“Did she have music? Soft music?”
“Sometimes. But she liked it quiet. And she would sometimes read, and re-read, passages over again. She was a sigher. A thinker.”
“Were there any other books?” the crowd wanted to know.
“She had a revolving cadre.”
“Oh,” they admired. “Revolving.”
A thin maroon hardcover, published in the UK, said, “Lucky you. I was put away and forgotten. Forgotten. I sat for decades, forty years, unmoved from my space. My owner would walk past me all the time, in the basement, at the bookcase, in the spare room. Not even aware. I wanted to cry out, ‘Hello mate, you’d be interested to know. Look what’s right here in front of you! Pages of insight, with no visibility to your peers. There’s never a reason for you to be bored with me likes around.’
“I wanted to say, ‘It’s okay chap, I’m not one for a night table. You don’t need to brew any tea. Sod it! Just carry me, bring me with you, let me fill up a free moment and entertain you!’”
The books had a point. Between their covers were old thoughts that could be applied to today’s situations. Photographs which could never be created today, and weren’t on the web. A book was a means to house a delightful peace.
But here in this small city lot. On shelves that were locked up every night. Or covered with tarps when it rained. Sat the unsold used books.
Also present in this lot were three walls, which enclosed the books. The uneven bricks had stood for as long as anyone alive could remember. While the books came and went, the bricks could only be moved if the surrounding buildings were damaged. Most of these tiny red stones had stood in their position for over one-hundred years.
They had no worries.
Unlike the books, the bricks were very similar to each other. They were formed together, fired together, loaded and transported as a lot, too. They were set by masons on hot summer days, in an era when a work break was deemed a favor.
There was no entertainment value with the bricks. While each of the bookstore’s paper offerings hoped to travel, and enlighten, and survive, the bricks took a pass on the traveling, and enlightening. Their destiny was a long, sedentary, thoughtless life. And that was just fine for them. They were, after all, bricks. And they had one up on the poor books. They were already home.
About fifty feet up the street, stood a Victorian-era streetlamp. She took pride at being gawked at but didn’t like being thought of as an artifact. Like the books and bricks, she too was part of a group. Her kin were separated, posted block after block, often out of sight from one another, hidden around the corners of Boston’s tight interior.
Artifacts weren’t known for their utility. And damn it, she was useful.
This tall, black beauty provided a service—she lit the way for walkers and drivers—and had nearly seen it all. If she could talk (and, presumably, move) she’d be in municipal court every day, describing runaways, pointing out drug dealers, and identifying pickpockets.
Her sightline was straight down what used to be called the Combat Zone, in the 1970’s. In that era, sex and drugs were dealt openly. What she’d seen fogged her light at night, and bleached her patina in the sunshine.
She was, after all, old fashioned.
A few of her sister poles had been struck by cars and knocked right to the curb, their intricate acorn decorations broken and hurled to the gutter. Repaired and raised, or simply raised in broken form, the lamps were set to function again. Per city order, they must provide light, and from a good height.
Our particular pole, the one in charge of the block near the books and the rough-edged wall, was a somewhat bent streetlight, but she wasn’t bent for the obvious reason. She hadn’t been struck by a vehicle. Upon overhearing a pedestrian’s comment one day—she was a witness, after all—she found herself hung with the weight of sorrow.
Someone, in despair, had paused next her and thought: There’s no way to know there’s nothing.
And then he’d trudged on.
He’d moved, but the post didn’t. She couldn’t. How dare he leave her with that! She was stuck with his idea, couldn’t run from it, couldn’t replace it. And, she couldn’t deny the man’s reasoning, either. So she stooped a little. Matter of fact, the man’s thoughts nearly decimated her.
Why didn’t she fall? It would be easy to go down with that man’s words. Her weight hurt, his weight hurt, and her age didn’t help, either.
What kept her from completely collapsing were other thoughts. Remember, she’d seen much in her life. And so, she became aware that over the years many people had stopped by her pole and given pause. Given their thoughts.
And some of those people happened to be clutching old books.
The cast-iron pole knew that while what the sad man passed on to her was true—if the afterlife was indeed “nothing” then for sure we’d never know—there were other people whose perspectives ranged down a different path. And while their values could not straighten her thick trunk of metal, they could redefine her base.
On the day the pole realized she wouldn’t topple, she found she was not held up by a simple, small footprint. Her support was the thought that while there may be nothing in the great universe, there were at least an equal number of people who thought there was something, instead. Not as an alternative, or a counterpoint, but as a matter of course.
Our streetlamp had seen and heard a lot of people in her years.
It was a sunny day on West Street. A young woman bought two books on a whim, and upon glancing at the pages, changed her weekend plans and decided to stay home. She headed down the sidewalk toward Downtown Crossing, her nose in a passage. It was an account of Pacific islanders who had rebuilt their homes, villages and schools, twenty-four years after the war.
Right under this gal’s nose were words and pictures from 1969. Stories of how simple people with limited means dealt with starting anew, after terrible destruction. She had hundreds of pages before her. The woman would find no modern account that so captured the Islanders’ faces, and voices, at their particular moment in time. Hundreds of islands had to recover and each village had different degrees of ruin hurled at them, with no fault of their own.
Twenty-fours years in, here were their accounts!
The woman’s brief reading got her emotions into gear. How did these people survive and grow? What were their stories? All of this information was preserved quite well on the paper pages.
She paused at the corner of West and Washington, and was buoyed by the thought of the hours ahead. Their deeds and efforts were clear. The Islanders, like she, believed in something great in man, and in something greater, too. She swung around the streetlight, her smile breaking out like a child’s.
ABOUT: Ara Hagopian’s newest book– http://www.LeavesOfYouthTheBook.com