IT WAS rare for Charlie to find himself with an entire afternoon to himself. Between his work at the high school and his work at the prison, he usually found himself under a mountain of paperwork. But that afternoon, the stars had aligned, the fates had smiled favorably on him, and he was walking along the storefronts, wondering what kind of frivolous purchases he could make. He’d spent so many years depriving himself, going without, that he looked forward to these afternoons when he would pull out his credit card and allow himself to walk up to the counter with items he didn’t really need and pay without a second thought.
Of course, if he was honest with himself, no other stores interested him besides the Currie Bookshop. The building wasn’t exactly new, and the owners had been there every time he’d come in for the past twenty years; he and Jesse had discovered it when the area had started to experience renewed interest from the baby boomers who had slowly taken over the area. The chic boutiques and the specialty shops catering to cooks, artists, readers, clothes hounds, and exercise fanatics had begun to dot the landscape of this particular section of town just shortly after Charlie and Jesse had made the commitment to live together. Charlie had never really known about this section of town, but since he’d been the one to vacate his tiny one-bedroom apartment in favor of Jesse’s beautifully kept three-bedroom bungalow, he had made many such discoveries.
Moving in with Jesse had also allowed Charlie to see more of his income become of the disposable type. But after a lifetime of scrimping and saving, of making do with two meals instead of three, and of learning to live with the embarrassment of paying for items with handfuls of coins instead of bills, Charlie had not given himself over too easily to that newfound disposable income. When it came to Jesse, however, Charlie was more than willing to part with his hard-earned money. That willingness had been the source of an argument or two between the two men, especially when Jesse would be his usual practical self and explain that he didn’t need a humidor—since he only smoked cigars once or twice a year—or that he would never need a complete leather-bound collection of John Steinbeck novels. Charlie stood in front of the bookstore where he’d ordered the collection and smiled as he remembered explaining that Jesse could always return them… but Jesse had never managed to bring himself to do so.
As he entered the store, inhaling deeply the smell of all the books he’d never find enough time to read, Charlie went, without any hesitation, to the shelf of new releases, scanning the S section. He had read on-line about the new release from an author he was becoming quite fond of reading: James Stettler. As usual, the author bio was vague and nondescript, and there had been no photo with the first release, but Charlie was hoping to get a good look at the man—if it was a man—who could write so vividly, so perceptively, and so emotionally. And with any luck….
Finally! Charlie sighed out loud, the elderly man beside him looking over with a mix of scorn and confusion on his wrinkled face. Charlie reached down to the bottom shelf and picked up the book he’d waited four months for: Sharing the Saddle. He didn’t know—until he opened the book to the first page—what the title meant and then couldn’t contain his laughter when he read the quote that had given birth to the title. “It takes more love to share the saddle than it does to share the bed. ~Author Unknown.” He flipped open the book and read the first few paragraphs of the first short story. Oh, who am I kidding? Charlie grinned as he closed the book and headed to the counter; he could be home and reading within twenty minutes.
“Hello, Catherine.” Charlie approached just in time to see the statuesque owner settle herself on top of the stool, the gloss of the varnish on that stool having been rubbed off years before from Catherine perching there to look over her half-glasses and wink or smile or make an unsolicited recommendation. “How have you been?”
“Been better.” She smiled warmly.
Charlie heard the sharp intake of breath into his own lungs. “Oh no, what’s wrong?”
“Oh, nothing serious, sweetheart,” Catherine chuckled dryly. “Just been having some issues with the help.”
“The help?” Charlie was confused; he’d never seen anybody else in this store but Catherine and her husband, Derek. “I didn’t know you had any employees.”
“We don’t.” Catherine sighed. “That’s the problem.”
“Catherine,” Charlie admonished, “you scared me. I thought something was really wrong.”
“Nothing a good hammer to the back of his head wouldn’t fix.” Catherine was laughing along with Charlie now. “Apparently, there’s some football game on today.”
“Enough said,” Charlie offered with a sympathetic eye roll. “I remember how everything would come to a halt—even if it was only half-done—because of sports on the television.”
Catherine punched a few buttons on the cash register, and Charlie handed over his credit card; he couldn’t think of any other place that saw that card as often as this bookstore. Catherine had often joked that she handled the card so often, she should have the number memorized by now, and she would lament a missed opportunity to head much further south and shack up with a cabana boy named Raoul or Enrique.
“Sorry?” Charlie felt his face flush at being caught daydreaming.
“I asked how you were doing, honey?” Catherine handed back his card and let her long, warm fingers settle on his wrist.
“One day at a time, you know.” Charlie shrugged. It was amazing how quickly the old, pat responses to the usual questions never really disappeared; they were always there, lurking just below the surface, as if he was Pavlov’s dog and the condolences and sympathies—even two years later—were all the bell he needed.
“I still think about him almost every day,” Catherine smiled, her fingers coming up to pull her glasses a little higher up the perfect nose. “Especially when the game is on.” Catherine didn’t need to tell the story again, having told it so many times, even in front of Jesse, that Charlie wondered if it was the only memory she had of him. Of course, Charlie’s better sense told him that she probably had plenty of stories, better stories, of Jesse, but she did always seem to tell the one when Jesse had left Charlie standing out in the bookstore to go back and check the score on the television that Derek housed in the store room. After a couple of hours of browsing and reading, Charlie had checked his watch and raced frantically to the front to ask Catherine if Jesse had left. She’d laughed and walked him back to the storeroom, where Charlie had found Jesse munching on junk food and screaming at the television screen. Apparently, his team was losing by a sizeable margin.
“Well.” Charlie lifted his purchase, safe in its small paper bag and with its own new bookmark, and smiled for Catherine. “Thank you. I’ll let you know if it’s worth reading.” He exited the building, feeling the warm sun on his face and took the book out of the bag, too impatient to wait until he got home.
There was nothing Charlie loved more than to find a favorite passage of a book and read it out loud to Jesse when they were settled in for the night. Jesse, always so patient with these little interruptions, would put down his paperwork or his book or the Sports section of the paper and listen intently. Occasionally he offered feedback, but more often than not, he would nod or smile or just go back to his own reading. Charlie often wondered what Jesse would have made of this new author.
As he reached his car, his eyes hurting from the constant strain of looking up to see if he was in danger of tripping on something or bumping into something and then refocusing on the page so he could read another couple of sentences before having to check his path again, he remembered to check for an author picture. Nothing. As he drove home, he realized it was probably a good thing; nothing ruined a fantasy more than seeing it fulfilled.
Safely ensconced in his favorite overstuffed armchair, Charlie devoured the stories; he loved the first story, wasn’t sure he understood the second, and was already three pages into the third when the phone rang.
“Charlie, it’s Beth.”
“Hi, Beth.” Charlie smiled; Beth could always hear him scowling. That is what Beth called it when he concentrated on reading something.
“Not the time for twenty questions?” Charlie sighed and looked at the book in his hand.
“Oh Christ,” Beth huffed, “you’re reading, aren’t you?”
“How…” Charlie looked around his dimly lit living room. “Are you outside? How did you know I was reading?”
“When I interrupt you,” Beth gave an upward lift to the last few words, making it sound like a question, “and you get pissy about it, it’s always because I’ve interrupted your reading.”
“Beth.” Charlie sighed again. “I’m not pissy. I just want you to tell me what you want so I can go back to finishing my story.”
“Well.” Beth giggled. “You’ve got an hour to finish it, and then Michael will be there.”
“Michael?” And with the terribly inconvenient clarity that came with remembering something he’d completely forgotten, Charlie threw the book down on the coffee table and almost hung up the phone before he forgot that there was someone on the other end. “Sorry, I forgot. Beth, I’ve gotta go.”
“Leave the door open,” Beth yelled as the phone got further away from Charlie’s ear, “I’m coming over to dress you.”
“It’s open already,” Charlie said and then warned, “and no, you’re not. Bye.”