Browsing a used bookstore downtown, a personal favorite, I stumbled across a woman and her child. A few years younger than me, 12 or 13, perhaps. She was out of place, misplaced of her own account, for she seemed so asunder among the rest of the admittedly few patrons – either old, wizened men or the occasional youth who sat at their feet and gazed in bewilderment at the way the shelves seemed to sway and oscillate in a subdued chittering.
I spend a great deal of time in these bookstores, for the air is silent and tastes of dusty, entombed knowledge. Mounds and mounds upon piles of lost volumes and classics and learning. Moreso, I love them for their calamity and agelessness. I wander the creaky, powdery shelves and feel as a child again, reminded of how large this universe is and how young and small and inexperienced I truly am. It reminds me of modesty and of lost humility – it reminds me that living life is not enough.
I was reluctantly, wolfishly, torn from my scanning of titles by the abhorrent cry of the mother’s dastardly pink cell phone, and then again, as she flipped it open with a bubblegum crack.
I muttered incorrigibly under my breath as her mundane, worldly heckles slathered themselves upon the shelves, displacing years of dust and humanity as the slime dribbled and slopped from classic volumes of Psalms and priceless, hardcover copies of Thoreau.
Yes, yes I know Sarah, I just went shopping with him the other day. He looked adorable – yes, yes, what’s that? Of course, don’t be silly. Mhmm..mhmm…yes, yes. Well he’s a good boy, takes after his father – father’s a lawyer didn’t you know? You’re so cute, Sarah, of course – what? Oh, yeah, yeah. Like I said, I met his father at my cousin’s wedding…yes, Annabella you know her right? Of course, of course you do. And he was ever a darling, although dear Anna looked awfully horrid in that dress. Yes, don’t you agree? Mhmm. Navy blue with those horrid frills, what was she thinking?
As the mother rambled on, the boy’s gaze settled upon my darkened form, huddled in the corner nursing a copy of Walden. I tilted my head slightly, sending a chagrined smile his way, and watched as his eyes sparkled and head drooped forward in a bewildered nod of his own. The boy kindled in me some terrible familiarity, the same prehistoric kinship the businessman feels upon unraveling his tie for a week and remembering he breathes the same musky, putrid air as the squidgee boys who clean his windshield every week at the intersection between red and green. I held up my current venture and shot a crooked smile his way: have you read this? – I mouthed silently. He shook his head, and I pulled another yellowing tome from my bag and held it to his line of sight: how about this? This time his eyes sparkled the way mine did all those years ago upon discovering that I was not alone in the universe, and nodded an affirmative: yes, last summer, he mouthed back. My smile faded and was replaced blossomingly by another feature – a smile this time, but with more melancholy, a more intense wimbling of commonality in a shared disease. Did you like it? – I asked silently again. The boy paused for a moment, and returned my piercing gaze: did you? I shook my head – no, it made me very sad. He nodded, and whispered aloud this time: “Me too, but all my friends thought it was cool”.
The boy’s reply struck a resonating chord within my adolescent consciousness – off pitch, but nearly there, as I recalled escaping the schoolyard bullies many years ago with the same book clutched against my chest. Heaving, perspiring, sweat dripping onto its pages but leaving it nonetheless raw and dry with ancient reverence. It made me wonder if he had to run from the same bullies who chased me around and condemned me for my lack of conformity.
Sparing a quick glance towards his mother still heckling on her cell phone, he crept silently in my direction until his slight frame was within metres of the corner in which I was huddled. My friends actually found some parts of it to be really funny. Y’know…all the sex and bad words and things, he whispered. Yes, I grimaced, I can see why they would find it amusing. But you don’t, do you?
The boy’s shoulders visibly reclined upon my admission, and shook his head slowly, his eyes boring into mine searching for the same look of reproach and scorn with the same intensity I remembered bearing myself as I faced my schoolyard tormentors for the first time. It made my heart ache for the troubles our kind are mounted against, and wondered to myself how many more years he would be able to take until he broke. No, your friends think it’s cool because they don’t get the point. The narrator’s trying to be cool, but he’s actually hurting a lot.
I closed my eyes briefly at his words, and when I reopened them his gaze had softened, the same crooked smile now beaming again from his young face. Yes, I said. You’re very right. The narrator is hurting a lot. The whole book seems to be weeping. Upon his nod again, I continued. I read that book when I was your age too, I was 12. I was so glad that I had read it, but after I put it down, I never wanted to read it again.
The corners of his mouth scrunched in a puzzled frown, as he shifted from foot to foot uneasily. Then why do you – the boy’s question was interrupted by a sudden trembling in the rickety shelves around me, and he became silent. Gregory! Don’t bother strangers, come here!
Without glancing back, he scrambled over mountains of hardcovers and resumed his position by his mother’s left hand, bleached arm looped around a tacky, silver slingover. Sorry Sarah, what? Oh yes, yes, that was just my son. He’s 13 this year, starting highschool…mhmm. Oh you’re so hilarious, Sarah, of course he’s having fun. He’s such a handsome boy…fun, fun of course. Don’t you remember highschool? Yes, yes, oh I can’t believe Alex got married to that ugly bitch of a girl…Eliza, wasn’t it? He’s probably…yes. He’s loving it…yes…aren’t you Gregory?
The mother’s faulty gaze traveled rapidly toward the boy’s face, her eyes narrowed in impatience, voluptuous, vulturous hands resting on his shoulder. Isn’t it, Gregory? She held the receiver an inch from his mouth and patted his head. It’s not going so great, mom. At his response, she swept the receiver back up and let out a high-pitched giggle – oh no, Sarah, he’s just being silly…of course he’s having so much fun. Bit of a bookworm, but he’ll grow out of it. He has such darling friends, he doesn’t get along with some boys, but oh, yes? Oh, you’re so right…we simply must get together some time.
At the mother’s brief, invalidating response to such a raw, desperate statement of admission, I gripped the arms of my wooden chair with such rage, such unadulterated, ubiqtuitous, seething wrath that broiled the entrails and set the gut aflame; fiery sulphurous comeforths of hatred; fiendish, wicked, sudden, uncontrolled sensations of liquid heat, bursting sickeningly from the chest; simmering, sickling, slubbering thrusts of volcanic anger – oh, that I would feel such rage assault me so!
I watched as the light in the boy’s eyes died, snuffed out, and stilled. His young head drooped onto his chest, and he stared at his shoes, unmoving.
It soon became clear to me as I watched him, that today a brilliant, childish potential had been savaged; a great, spirited beast had been silenced and its throat slit, and I was not so sure that it would ever rise again.