Gendelman kept refusing every offer for the shop.
A peculiarity of the lease rendered him untouchable, though the landlord’s heirs hoped Gendelman’s bereftness after Dina might end their misery. But he came of an older stock that goes on.
Some people shrivel with grief; Gendelman seemed larger to me, containing an immensity of longing. He only let show his humor and his grace.
“Idiot!” said Merlensky, surly because his own place across the street wasn’t the object of anyone’s lust. “Now the buyout is half!” But Gendelman hadn’t cared about the money.
“What is the point?” Merlensky howled. “Who goes in there?”
I did; it was a place to linger, and Gendelman didn’t value customers by what they spent.
“For him,” Dina said, “the right match is everything.”
Gendelman would laugh, but he savored books more than he sold them; he preferred them to go to good homes.
A warmth of sensibility infused the whole place. Gendelman had not cared for fluorescent lighting — an abomination, he said, to those who delight to read.
The back room looked like a family parlor, huge sofa in counterpoint to Gendelman’s big old desk.
The shop held some battered bookrests, too, and a miniature lectern, and Dina’s favorite — a small glass case full of elderly fountain pens. But those weren’t walking out with anyone.
They never spoke of life beyond the shop, but Dina was sometimes not there.
“Busy with other things,” Gendelman said. That’s an answer that stops more questions.
Then the shop was shuttered for a week, and when Gendelman reopened, he replied heavily, to all inquiries, that “she has gone now.”
He still managed to twinkle at me, and I got over feeling helpless and tongue-tied every time I stopped by. “I know!” he said once, squeezing my shoulder, and though the offering of comfort seemed going in the wrong direction, he’d known exactly what I needed.
I was too tired, one gray wintry Friday, to grant myself even a few minutes browsing through wonderful things, but Gendelman’d kept an eye out and hailed me.
“Ah! he said, “today you are not in heart! Never mind! But come tomorrow, five o’clock.”
I was never much in heart these days. I stood up for myself at the miserable crappy job I couldn’t afford to leave, but something in me diminished a little more each day.
“So!” he said. “You remain gloomy!”
I’d put my nice smile on but it must’ve slipped a little as I walked down the street. Maybe the sleet knocked it sideways.
“Never mind!” he said. “Everything will be to rights shortly.” He pulled me inside, big square hand closing around my wrist. “To the back!” he said. “We are having a little party.”
He’d set out a splendor of Old World delicacies. An electric samovar bubbled on a corner of his desk.
“Well,” I said, “thank God you skipped the borscht.”
“It is only because you have never truly known winter,” Gendelman said, “that you scorn beets.”
But he patted me with approval; the sight of the walnut cake and its layer of raspberry jam had perked me up nicely.
“So,” his voice rumbled at me. He refilled my glass with a thick dark smoky brew. “It is time I join my family now.”
“This is a strong tea that you are not used to,” he said. “Soon your head will clear.”
“What a deep voice you have, Mr. Gendelman!”
“Yes!” he said. “The old stories never lose their power! Not like this empty junk they try to fill the children with today. Be careful!” he said, leaning close, his eyes growing larger and larger, “books can take you anywhere! Anywhere you choose…”
I didn’t know I’d slept til I woke up, long after midnight, a thick blanket tucked around me. The radiator was hissing softly and the desk lamp had been switched to its dimmest setting. A thermos and mug sat next to the unplugged samovar. The rest was cleared away, including Gendelman.
On the carpet was a neat little stack of books.
The thermos was brimful with hot cocoa. I poured myself a mug and picked out a handful of titles from what Gendelman’d left for me, and then I fell asleep again over one of them…
Merlensky’s grandson came in, stamping off the snow, with a bull-eyed little girl by the hand. She had more of the family resemblance.
“My niece,” he said. She’d been squalling and was just in the midst of replenishing her lungpower.
“Couldn’t in conscience buy her any more candy,” he said, “but she disagrees with my moral values.”
I hunkered down to her eye level. “Candy,” I said, “has a really bad habit of disappearing forever when you eat it.” She stared at me.
“But a book, now — you can devour the same one over and over again. Forever.” She didn’t quite understand the verb, but it sounded rapacious enough to suit her temperament.
“You follow me,” I said, “and let’s see if we can dig out the one that’s been waiting here just for you.”
Sarah Crysl Akhtar’s shtetl forebears gifted her with the genes that impel her to make much from little. So of course she writes flash fiction, cultivates orchards on her windowsill and bakes fabulous shortbread. Her son gives her what’s immeasurable — the best of all possible worlds. (Less miraculous fruit of her labors has appeared on 365tomorrows, Flash Fiction Online and Perihelion SF Magazine; her posts on the craft of writing keep materializing on Flash Fiction Chronicles.)