“Bottles and Books” / A Story by Tom Evans

The young man began working in the college library that fall. Arriving early for work on his first day, he went upstairs and checked out the literature section, as was his custom in libraries and they were all there. First, the Americans: Thoreau, Whitman, Emerson, Dickinson, Melville, Hawthorne. Next, the Russians: Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, Turgenev, Gogol. Not one of their books were missing, either, they were all there. Others he would discover later. To change things up a bit, he settled for a book about T.S. Eliot, The Invisible Poet, by Hugh Kenner. So began his career as a reference librarian.

One particular day the young man began to inhabit the bodies of the patrons he served. A young woman came to the desk and spoke to him and he realized it was himself speaking. An older man came to the desk and began writing on a piece of paper and the young man realized it was his own handwriting. One patron paused at the desk to peruse a book he had just borrowed and the young man realized it was he reading the book, and further, he had written the book. It was as if no one else had spoken, written, or read a word that day.

Well, the day had a very musical quality about it. Yes, it was like a great piece of music, a vast symphony to which he was waltzing with several beautiful partners. There was warmth and sound and touch and taste all around and he was a fibre woven through a beautifully wrought tapestry.

Until he ended up in a bar where his attendance record was perfect. His composure was gone as he walked in out of the cold. He began to regain it little by little as he looked at all the bottles lined up behind the bar. No one is going anywhere tonight, he thought. There is plenty to drink and even some food should I want it and everyone is here and no one is going anywhere. He took comfort in this, in the beautiful bottles with their brightly colored labels, in looking out the steamed up windows of the bar, where he could just see the billowing snow, and the cars crawling through the snow furrowed streets.

The jukebox was playing a favorite song, one he’d often played over and over himself, the archetypal rock ballad, with its maudlin lyrics backed by ass-kicking music. Many thoughts came to him, some from the sad past, some about the null future, mostly impinged upon by those of the horrible present. His head began to ache and that familiar scared, nauseous feeling swept over him…the golden girl from the west who turned out to be unfeeling and unfaithful…

The old man sitting next to him was rambling on about the old days, waving his cigar like a conductor a baton, how this very ground upon which the bar stood, all the way to the University, was open field, where he and his friends had played every day as kids. He didn’t seem sad about it, strangely. I know you, old man, with all your talk of bachelorhood and lechery, you must be lonely in your old age, though you would never admit it. You’ve told me this story many times, but you have a good heart and I suppose I can humor you and make the usual replies…his father, of his death and how he hadn’t been there when he died, through unforgiveable willfulness…

He saw a man with a beautiful face sitting at the bar, it was the face of a long-lost friend, a brother, a lover. He realized he had known this face all his life (even longer), yet it had no name unless he remembered it. Of course when the face spotted him and asked what he was staring at the young man was devastated because he didn’t know the face at all, it could be anyone…his abusive childhood, the foster homes prior to that, who were his parents…

He looked around the bar and saw the collage of faces and bottles. Books have titles, bottles have labels, people have faces. Bottles and books, he thought ruefully, I know bottles and books. He left soon after that, and, out in the cold night, drunk and in tears, he noticed how bright the sky had become, a false dawn. He promised to do better, to somehow put his life (such as it was) back together, and made his way to where he slept.

A year later, after things began to work themselves out (as they will), the young man was walking home from work late one autumn evening, and when he saw his sky-blue house nestled in the leaves in the distance, he thought, with a start: They haven’t found me out yet? When I began paying my bills again I thought they must. I am a well-oiled cog in the system, able to survive at last, and a lot of energy emanates from my little house.

What he really thought was: Is this my house, is this my life?

 

THE END

©Tom Evans 2016

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