WARNING: This story contains explicit sexual matter. If you are under 18, or live in a jurisdiction in which such matter is illegal, please stop reading now.
This story may be archived on free web sites but is not to be distributed without the name of the author, changed in any way, or sold. Please do not re-post without consulting the author. Copyright 1998 by Jane Urquhart.
NOTE: This story is one of several in a series, starting with "Janey's January." Each story is meant, however, to stand alone.
I own a mostly antiquarian bookstore in a Boston suburb. Just off the main drag in this commuter town. Most of my business is mail-order, of course, and in the past year or so I've been on Bibliofind, a Web Site, and business is good. Not that I'm getting rich; nobody gets rich in the retail book business.
The front of the store looks pretty nice, because I want it to. It could look terrible and it probably wouldn't make any difference to the business. But I like it when the locals wander in, and I know a good many of them. As you move toward the back things get a little sloppy. I think books generate their own dust.
Anyhow, this morning around nine-thirty this woman comes in. Not another soul in the store. I only opened up because I was bored. Mostly I open at about eleven-thirty, so I can catch a few customers on their lunch hours. All the new best sellers--mostly lousy in my opinion--are on racks near the door, discounted heavily, of course, and I keep a good stock of trade books and high-class paperbacks up front where they can catch the browsers.
This woman, though, I know her. She's going to head for the mystery shelf, or maybe the contemporary fiction. Fairly lightweight stuff. At least she's got good taste in the genres she likes. I know for a fact that she's got the complete works of Margery Allingham in hardback. I sold them to her; not first editions, not a set--she just likes big solid books, I guess. And she reads romances by people like Joanna Trollope and Mary Wesley and Katie Fforde, not that Harlequin crap.
She also likes medieval French poetry. She even taught me to like it. Me! Reading poems in French that I can barely understand. What happened was, she smiled at me one day when she bought this old beat-up book she found in the foreign language section. I asked her if she could read it--dumb question, but something made me want her to stay a minute. She told me, sure, she could, and asked if I could. Cheeky broad. I told her I could read modern French, so she gave me a lecture on the fabliaux, said they were funny and sexy and just wonderful, they weren't too hard to read, and damn if I didn't get another copy and go at it. I'd probably have read the book if it were the Marquis de Sade, if she told me to. The funny thing was, I kind of liked it. And the next few times she dropped in she was willing to explain the phrases I couldn't understand. I think she got a kick out of translating the sexy parts.
OK, I know I shouldn't be talking about what she reads. For all I know Ken Starr could be in here demanding to go through my sales slips. But I don't think so. Ms. Urquhart is no bimbo. She almost never comes in except in the summer. She works someplace in Boston most of the year. I see her going by early in the morning headed for the train station. She always gives me that great big knockout smile when she sees me. And she talks to me. I like her a lot. Nice lady. Just a little smile today, though.
"Hi, Abe," she says. "How's it going?"
"Fine, Ms. Urquhart." I smile back. She's past the mysteries and headed for the little room off to the right where I keep the poetry. Knows what she wants, I guess.
All right, I stare at her when she's not looking. Can't help it. She's not a doll, you know. Big. I mean tall, solid looking. Roman nose that catches your eye. Curly hair. Not a sitcom type. But I look at her. Something there. The tan. She gets outside, somewhere. Beautiful skin. Not as dark as last summer, though, probably because it's been raining so long we're going to need an ark. Wearing a sweatshirt and jeans under her raincoat.
She's been in the little room for ten or fifteen minutes when she pokes her head around the corner and says, "Hey, Abe, can I dump my raincoat somewhere?"
Coat in one hand, a small book in the other. I recognize the book--people take it off the shelf all the time, read a few minutes, put it back. Sylvia Plath. The Bell Jar.
"Sure, Ms. Urquhart," I say. "I'll take it and hang it back here." I walk over and take the coat from her. Another little smile.
"Thanks," she says.
"You want a chair?" I say, standing holding her coat. What the hell, she can stay as long as she wants, read all the books. But I'd rather see her read Dick Francis than Sylvia Plath. Even Judith Krantz.
I stick my neck out a mile.
"You OK, Ms. Urquhart?" I ask. I don't call my customers by their first names, and I don't ask my customers things like that. Maybe the old ladies, but not big, handsome shiksas like this one.
"I'll take the chair, Abe, thanks."
I hang up the coat and haul over one of those brown metal folding things. Best I have. She shakes it out and sits down. She looks up at me, the book in her lap, marking her place with her finger. Fucking poison, that book, I don't know why anybody reads it. I read it two years ago, right after I got divorced. Maybe people read it when they feel miserable already and want to feel worse.
"As a matter of fact, Abe, I'm not, really," she says. No smile. "How'd you know?"
"You always smile a lot," I say, "but not today."
"Well, I thank you for asking." She opens the book where her finger was and starts to read. I figure that means, "Go away." But I don't.
Now I just dive in. I've got no sense at all.
"What's the matter?" I say. "It can't be that bad."
She looks up, but she keeps her finger in the book.
"You really want to know?"
"Yeah, I do," I say. I mean it. It's a tragedy when a woman like her looks like this.
"Lots of things, I guess," she says. "Some of them are stupid--really stupid--and I won't tell you about them. But I'll tell you a few. The bastards are after me again to give my son Ritalin, and I get so sick of fighting. I always win, but why can't they just let the poor kid alone? There's nothing wrong with him, he gets good grades in things he likes, he doesn't break things, he doesn't hurt people. He just doesn't like to sit still for hours. So that gets me down, sometimes. Also, I guess I'll just throw in that I'm thinking of getting a divorce, and that makes me sad. And I don't seem to be able to write any more. And the other things I won't mention."
Well, I asked for it, didn't I? Got both barrels. You tell me: what do I say to that? I'm not what you'd call a sensitive New-Age guy. I pick up on the one that seems least dangerous.
"I didn't know you were a writer."
All of a sudden she smiles, big, like I love to see, and then she laughs like hell.
"Well," she says, finally, "I probably shouldn't have mentioned that. None of my books here." She laughs again. "I write stories and publish them on the Internet. And I never, ever, tell anybody I do it."
"Why not?" I say. "Nothing wrong with that."
She puts on a big act of looking both ways to see that we're alone--we are, I mean, nobody else has come in, the place is a morgue--but she goes all conspiratorial and whispers, "I write sex stories."
"You mean romances, maybe?"
"No, I think I want to write those, too, but so far it's only sex stories. Erotica. Porn."
I don't think at all. I'm shocked out of my shoes.
"No shit?" I say. "You?" I must have some kind of funny look on my face, because she goes into gales of laughter, I mean gales, just like they say in those nineteen-thirties English novels.
Then she's still laughing and big tears are coming out of her eyes and rolling down her face and she puts the book on the floor and starts fishing in her pocket, for a handkerchief, I guess, and shakes her head.
"I'm sorry, Abe, I'm a mess."
I stand there like a dolt for a minute, then I rush over to my desk and bring her my box of Kleenex. She grabs a handful of them and starts wiping down her face. I'm in agony. You know. Woman crying. I don't know about other men, but it always makes me feel like an asshole, even when I didn't do anything at all to cause it. You can't just slap a patch on it, like a leaky pipe.
"Hey, sweetie," I say, "no way you're ever going to be a mess."
She looks up, moves the hand with the Kleenexes in it off to one side a little, and grins. I ask you. She laughs. She cries like a sprinkler system. She grins. Makes mercurial mean something like molasses. I don't know what to do. I smile; why not see if I can catch that grin and paste it on so it stays?
"If you're going to call me sweetie," she says, "you probably ought to call me Janey instead of Ms. Urquhart." She grins again. "Little Janey, that's me." She starts sobbing. Oh, hell! I ought to call 911. I squat down alongside the chair and put my arm around her instead. Well, it feels good to me, maybe she'll like it.
"Hey, hey," I say. "It'll get better."
Her head snaps up and she snarls, "Like hell it will, you asshole! It'll get worse."
.... There is more of this story ...