Edgar slid through the door of the bookshop minutes before Lady Randolph would flip the sign from “open” to “closed.” Wintergreen and cigarette scented air huffed out between her loose lips as he walked past the counter. He rubbed his cold hands together and nodded hello. His shift at the hospital ended at half past six, and the bus dropped him off twenty minutes later. Months ago, Lady Randolph had stopped complaining about his last minute arrivals. Since then, they limited their conversation to nods and goodbyes.
She sat on a high stool, her back as straight as the mop he wielded at the hospital, a dark green muumuu dotted with red flowers draped indefinitely over her bony shoulders. Her short hair was permed and dyed a garish blond, gray inching up at the roots. Pink lipstick iced her mouth as thick now as it probably had been that morning. Edgar grimaced. One thing he didn’t miss about marriage was kissing lipstick. He plucked at his front teeth with his tongue, almost tasting it.
At the back of the store, softcover books lined sturdy oak shelves from floor to ceiling, the overflow stacked neatly in boxes. Two twenty-five cent books to get him through the night, to help him forget. That wasn’t too much to ask, was it? After returning home from the war, he had taken a bottle of bourbon to bed every night, but his wife and his liver never adjusted to it. In the end, even sober, his wife couldn’t adjust to him, post-war, at all. He understood; most days he couldn’t either.
A fresh batch of Louis L’Amour waited for him. Edgar bent low and searched through the box for unfamiliar titles. Clean books with near perfect covers this time, as if they had been read only once. His limit was two, or he would read through the night. If his luck held, tomorrow would bring new books or a few of these would remain. He bought two books every day, except weekends. On Saturdays he bought four, because the shop was closed on Sundays. What did Lady Randolph do all that long day? He tried to picture her sitting in a church pew, but couldn’t conjure the image.
Some days it was easy to pick two. Some days there were only two books he wanted to buy. Other days there were none, but he bought two anyway and read them. Usually, the words were a balm. Occasionally, a punishment, firing too close to his vest, but he bore them anyway. Atonement. Just like his job mopping up spills in the operating rooms at the hospital. Atonement. He could still, four decades later, see the little girls’ faces after they stepped on the landmine, the one he had wired and buried and been secretly proud of. He still saw their scooped out faces in his dreams. He still — No, not here.
On days like this one when there were too many choices, Edgar’s task was super-human. To pick two and let the rest go, chancing never to meet them again. He never read the backs. Their descriptions would make his decision too hard, make the choosing too personal. How could he turn down a book once he knew what it was about? He couldn’t, so he didn’t. He relied on covers and titles, reminding himself that most of the time in life, all you ever saw were covers anyway.
Tonight, he lingered, his two books in hand. Lady Randolph was tidying as she did every night, wiping down the counter, pushing books back from the edges of shelves, retrieving strays. She had already turned the sign. He heard when she shuffled to the door, heard the muted bell as the sign brushed against it.
Reluctantly, he returned to the front. As always, she read his titles and skimmed the back covers, nodded, as if she knew every book intimately. Nodded, as if she were sending another one home. He always avoided her curiosity, carved a scowl onto his face so she wouldn’t read any further than the books. Neither spoke as he paid his nightly amount.
What did she do after he left? He knew she lived alone above the shop. Faded blue curtains hung from the windows that faced the street, but what did her rooms look like? Did they mirror the decade when she had moved in, like his mother’s house had, cracked green linoleum and rough tweed couches? Or more like the house where he rented his room: fragile end tables with crocheted doilies, tinged yellow and spotted with knickknacks that made more dust than sense?
“Do you cook supper?” The words slid off his tongue before he could stop them.
Behind thick horn-rimmed glasses, Lady Randolph’s eyes widened and locked on his. “Yes.” She answered slowly as she nestled his books in a brown paper bag. “I cook supper. Pork chops tonight, and collard greens. White rice because it’s cheap.”
He nodded, grabbed his bag off the counter, and hurried to the door.
“And I’ll read two books before I turn down the light.”
Two books. Edgar froze in place, his hand anchored to the cold doorknob, his inner world rocking at its base, reminding him of the four Richter earthquake he had felt in California during week three of boot camp.
“Two books, you say?” He couldn’t look at her, but tasted the hopeful syllables on his disobedient tongue. He felt her nod before he opened the door and walked through it.
The bell clanged a warning — don’t look back — but he didn’t obey it. Instead, he stood next to the door and watched Lady Randolph lock it. She studied him, her eyes squinting, her long bony fingers pressed to the glass. Edgar raised his hand to wave, but saluted instead. Her mouth shifted, curved. Ever so slightly, his lips curved back.
Von Rupert lives in the suburbs of Washington, D.C. where she homeschools her children and carries far too many books home from the library. On the web, she’s a writing mentor at Writer’s Village University and F2K.