The Bookshelf

They had been walking on the beach all day, hypnotized as the waves sloshed over their bare feet. Now and then a crab would scamper in front of them leaving tracks in the smooth sand. The sun burned their necks and shoulders, the wind frazzled their hair.

He had come upon her at mid morning, in the middle of his daily walk. She had been dawdling along the shoreline ahead of him, a slim blonde in a billowy red cotton dress she clutched around her legs. He slowed his gait to keep from passing her. He didn’t want to talk to anybody. He had found refuge in the advice of his social worker: “When you get depressed or angry, think about something good.” So he was thinking about making a bookshelf for his kids. Wood, saw, hammer, nails. Solid, predictable objects, not like people. Not like the woman ahead of him.

She appeared to be enjoying her feet, acquainting them in turn with freezing ocean, hot, dry rocks, crunchy sand and freezing water again. She created footprints and studied them. In his black mood he wondered what would happen if she let go of that goddam dress and let the wind take it. Or maybe he could just tear it off her. “Stop that,” he told himself. Wood, saw, hammer, nails.

He let his stride reach its normal length, hoping to pass her without a word. But she heard his approach and turned, unleashing one of the most powerful weapons on earth: a smile. His black mood vaporized instantly. She was pretty: a ski jump nose, big eyes and a small chin that gave her an elfin look. He revised his estimate of her age. About 40. A few years younger than him.

“Hrah. Rrrr.” he declared, his rusty vocal chords unable to form words.

“Hello.” She adjusted her step to match his. He was confused. People usually left him alone, especially women. She was half his size.

He kept a little distance, wanting her to feel at ease. He huffed and hemmed again, to rouse his raspy voice. “Mmm-hmm — from around here?”

“Just visiting,” she said. He stared at the ground, giving her time to check him out.

“Me too. Just got here today. New job so I’m playing tourist before I start. Just driving around the Island.”

He watched her face as she absorbed the information: that he was alone, employed and successful enough to have a vehicle and a vacation. And that he wouldn’t be around long.

She bathed her face in the sun. “I love this place. I come here every summer just to walk on the beach. Sometimes I stay the whole two months.” Was she alone? She hadn’t conjured a boyfriend. A school teacher? Who else would have two months off?

They were held together as they walked more by the lack of any other figures on the beach than by mutual agreement. He hadn’t talked to anyone in a long time, not even to himself. People like him didn’t get caught talking to themselves. That’s why his voice was rusty.

He watched as she splashed her feet in the water. He faded behind her and crossed to her other side, where the water was deeper, and he could get a look at her left hand. “Ooohk!” he yelled as a rogue wave drenched him to mid thigh. She giggled and he kicked a tiny bit of water in her direction. She retreated demurely, raising her skirt, a small smile on her face. He caught a glimpse of her left hand. No ring.

He was a mechanical engineer, he told her, most recently a consultant for MacMillan-Bloedel, which took him to sawmills and pulp mills they owned all over B.C. He loved machinery and he loved being outdoors where he could watch it work. That’s how he’d noticed the downtime needed to change knives in wood chippers. He’d sketched out an innovation that a welder would have been able to create with steel plate and sheet metal. It would have dissipated the heat created by the knives and lengthened the time between knife changes. But the foreman had merely turned away from him and refused to listen. “That’s the way we’ve always done it, and that’s the way it’s going to be.” They had quarrelled. Corporate notice was aroused. “They liked my idea but said I should have gone through channels. They gave me a letter,” he said, tapping his shirt pocket where he had been carrying it.

She was an elementary school teacher who hugged her kids in defiance of policies set by the administration. “They sit in their offices and push their pencils. They don’t know what we’re dealing with. There are too many kids— way beyond school board guidelines. The big kids are out of control and the little ones are afraid. So, do you know what we do? We order crayons by the truckload and make them colour all day. Classrooms are like sweatshops, but the kids are quiet, and the school board never complains.” There was anger in her voice.

He levelled a gaze at her: “Best thing I ever did was have kids, though I don’t see them much these days.” They were teenagers now and lived with their mother. He was allowed to see them under supervision. He hoped they’d like the bookshelf.

She glanced up at him. She’d never had kids. Her husband had been loving in public but prone to angry outbursts at home. He blamed her for his failing career. He felt trapped by marriage. He didn’t want a family, not even a cat. One day she left a letter on the kitchen table: “my sister will put me up until I find a job. I just need some time to think.” A taxi took her to the airport.

Only now was her husband paying attention to her. “He’s pissed off because he thinks he owns me. I get these calls at 3 a.m. He’s drunk and the pub’s are closing. He wouldn’t like it if he knew I was talking to you.”

She had moved closer. “There’s a little tea house ahead,” she offered.

He was a good listener. He had always listened more than he talked. It was amazing how self absorbed people are. He had developed a test for such people. “When I first got cancer….” he would interject, and then trail off. If his companions didn’t take the bait he wouldn’t pursue the conversation. Sometimes his gambits varied: “when I was in prison… when I talk to Jesus… after my sex change…”

He listened to her in the tea house. He had a loner’s curiosity about how people lived. She fed him details: the hyperactive Bulgarian kid whose settled down after she arranged for him to get drumming lessons. The home economics teacher who sandbagged union meetings with her dogeared copy of Roberts Rules of Order. Her plans to build a cabin in the woods with wildflowers all around. How much she loved her young students, especially the four-year-old who hugged everybody and wouldn’t let go. “I even thought about kidnapping her. Her parents wouldn’t miss her. I could … I could give her what she needs.”

Her voice quavered. He offered her a paper napkin. She dabbed her eyes. He asked if she’d like dessert. They held the menu between them. His fingers touched hers, and it seemed she let hers linger for a moment. It had been years since he’d actually touched a woman. Her hand seemed so small.

She walked closer to him on the way back, their hands brushing occasionally. Somehow he got the nerve to put his arm around her shoulders, squeezing gently. She relaxed into his embrace. He devoured the sensation. His body was stirring. He was glad she was pretty. He would be patient this time.

They were holding hands by the time they reached her little B&B, a three-story house on the waterfront. A archway with painted flowers marked the entrance. They hesitated outside. She said she was tired and wanted time to think.

“Sure, he said. He held her at arms length, one hand on each shoulder. “I’m so glad we met.”
He said he’d call the next day. They could drive somewhere. Have lunch, or whatever.

“Whatever,” she said with a mischievous grin. “Let’s do that.” She stood on her toes and brushed his cheek with her lips. He cupped her head in one hand, stroking her cheek with his thumb. “Okay,” he whispered softly, a catch in his throat. He walked away through the gate, his eyes shining.

When he turned back to wave, the B&B had disappeared. His feet were crunching on frozen slush. He crossed his arms over his chest hugging the memory of her. This was a rough part of town and he needed to keep his wits about him. He was a big man. The two thugs in the doorway ahead wouldn’t bother him, but he nodded his head in his tough guy greeting anyway. They nodded back.

He didn’t want to go to the shelter. He didn’t like sleeping with men. There was a back alley nearby where the light had gone out and a dumpster sheltered the entrance. He entered carefully, peering at the dark shapes in the corners and listening. He moved to the dark side of the dumpster away from the street. There was some fresh cardboard inside it. He spread some over the pavement in a shallow alcove formed by a steel door. He looked around then urinated against the opposite wall. His knees creaked as he knelt over the cardboard, slowly coming to rest on one hip. He sat watchful for several minutes. At last he lay down, his back to the wall, the dumpster shielding him from the street. He drew his heavy winter coat around him. The walk had made him drowsy.

He gazed into the dark and felt himself sinking under the logic of his engineering mind. He’d never get a job, not after beating that foreman nearly to death in a murderous rage. And his kids wouldn’t want to see him, nor his wife. They’d never answered his letters from prison.

He thought of that new building across the street. He had visited it several times. It was under construction, a concrete skeleton without doors or windows. It was easy to slip inside and climb the rough concrete steps five storeys to the roof. Then one more step. He’d never feel a thing. But maybe not right now. He had something else on his mind.

Wood, hammer, saw, nails. The social worker had been right. He had been able to think of good things, like the bookshelf, the beach and the girl. She had been a very good thing. He would walk with her tomorrow.