The gravity of the situation hasn’t come to Norm Schaller as he sits in the hall, flipping through a backdated copy of Modern Science while his wife, Delores, is fitted to the machines.
When they call to him, he takes great pains to put everything back in order before he slowly walks down the corridor. It isn’t because he is a neat freak or rather as the term most popular today goes: obsessive-compulsive. It isn’t age, his doctor cleared him a month earlier on his fifty-seventh birthday with an “exceptionally clean bill of health.” He needs these extra moments to summon up his mental blinders shielding her pain from registering in his brain and an invisible mask pushed over his face to prevent her from seeing his struggle.
It’s not worth the time or trouble. He knows as much. Thirty-four years with her, most of his entire adult life together through better or worse; things can’t be hidden. And this, of all they‘d endured together, had moved into the number one slot under the “worst” heading.
She smiles feebly yet brilliantly despite the pallor of her taut, dry skin and the dullness in her crisp blue-green eyes. His smile rushes forth like a toddler greeting his mother at the end of the day.
“Read to me,” her voice sinks invitingly into the chair beside her, nestling comfortably around the hardback tome like a warm, fluffy lap blanket. He nods, plucking up the book nimbly as if it weighs less than a cotton ball and eases down into the thick padded chair. Between them on a stainless steel moveable cart are two chilled bottles of water. Hers in a passion pink coolie with “I WILL SURVIVE” stamped on the side, his left to sweat into a puddle at the base of its nakedness. He breaks the seals, hers first which he offers then recaps when she shakes her head, then his from which he takes a long pull before setting it, uncapped, back. He slides the book open, removes the mark and feeds it between the cover and his thick fingers and begins to read.
They’d met in college at a book faire she helped organize. He hadn’t planned on stopping off at the row of tables piled with a miniature library’s worth of books because he was a doer, not a reader. Reading bored him. He spotted her as he came out of class, his last of the day, eager to get to Lincoln’s before they started charging cover at the door and doubled the price of their drinks, but couldn’t stop himself from offering to help her transfer a stack of books off a cart onto a nearby table. He wound up taking home three books, all of his beer money’s worth, and left them on the coffee table to collect dust along with affording him a visual serving of rump kicks. He seriously could have used those beers.
She was pretty, but more interesting to him, was her wit. She teased and cajoled him playfully and won when he handed over the small wad of bills and she patted the paperbacks into his arm.
“You’ll enjoy these,” her smile promised.
“And if I don’t?” He cocked his brow, a wry smile pushing at the corners of his mouth.
“Then bring them back next month and trade them in for three others.”
He’d almost forgotten about her promise, almost missed the day of the next faire, but curiously enough, his keys had been left atop the books and as he tried to remember if he’d been the one who’d set them there, pushed the stack into his backpack in hopes he’d see her again.
He hadn’t seen her when he passed the first time on his way to his economics class, nor when he slowed as he neared the horseshoe arranged tables on his way to physics. Even between classes held in the same building, he peered out the windows to see if he could spot her. Heart fallen, he slunk into statistics and let his pen record the class notes as he thought about her.
Feeling silly about the whole thing, he strode toward the booth deciding he’d return the books and ask for a refund, then head off to the bar to spend it all, like he should have done the first time. He’d been bent over a corner of a table, rummaging through his pack when he heard her.
“Well? Was I right?”
He looked up and saw her standing on the other side, delicate rose petal hands resting across the books. He grinned.
“Actually, I was hoping to exchange them,” he handed her a book. She looked at it for a moment then settled her gaze on his face, a slight flush to her cheeks. “Problem?”
“Well, kind of,” her cheeks reddened fiercely. He stared at her for a long moment, then looked down at his hand. He’d been holding his roommate’s paperback copy of Hustler Secrets.
“You take donations, right?” He couldn’t help but laugh when she rolled her eyes. He quickly slid the book back into the backpack and produced the three she’d sold him the previous month.
“Did you even read these?”
“Well,” he shifted uncomfortably. “No.”
“Then,” her hands crossed in front of her. “You can’t exchange them.”
“Have you read them?”
She eyed him evenly, her small lips pushed together as a soft wind played with her layers of auburn hair that fell about her shoulders. He was struck with the movement. Most girls’ hair flapped instead of flowed because of the hairspray they used. This tantalized him because every girl he’d been with always smelled like aerosol; a heavy, wind sucking scent that made his tongue roll into the back of his throat and start gagging. And when he had bent his head into the crook of each of those girls’ necks, he would taste the spray, chemically devoid of the more pleasurable natural scent and flavor of a human. He wondered what it would be like when he nuzzled her neck.
“What do you think?” her hands fluttered to the stacks below her and worked along the spines, pushing them into straighter towers as if given the opportunity and the means, she’d push the leaning tower of Pisa back upright.
“I think you have. So tell you what, why don’t we talk about this one over dinner? You can give me the Cliff’s note version and then next week, after I’ve read it, we can meet again and see what I got out of it. Sound fair?”
Her eyes flitted away, looking out past his broad, square shoulders. A slow smile teased up her face, then a nod as if there was some sort of invisible string tugging lips to cranium. “Sure, why not,” she shrugged. “When and where?”
Panicking because he hadn’t planned any of this and suddenly realized he was practically a pauper yet again, he worked his brows trying to come up with an idea.
“Starving student?” she asked without accusation. He nodded sheepishly. With a delicate wind chime chuckle her hand reached out and touched his. “I understand completely. So, my turn to counter-offer.”
“I’ll cook. And after, I’ll tell you about one of the books while you change the oil in my car. Sound fair?” She really was jumping to conclusions but she guessed right, he knew how to change a car’s oil, so he agreed.
“Next time,” Delores says as he pauses to take in some water and check the tubes running into her. He cocks his thick graying brow and peeks out of the corner of his Alaskan blue eyes at her quizzical face. “Next time I’ll bring some poetry. I adore hearing you read poetry to me.”
His rugged soft hands caress her white-hot parched cheek lightly in passing as he reaches her water to her lips. “Deal,” he smiles gently. “And after, you can change the oil in my car.”
Kathie Leung (c) 2007 All Rights Reserved