Tuesday, September 19, 2017

Reading his heart

Mitchell loves his books and his child but can't express his deepest feelings. Then a lonely young woman enters his life. …

Mitchell's daughter, who was 12, accused him of loving his books but hating his customers. He didn't hate them. He just didn't like having to chat with them or lead them to clearly marked sections while they complained that nothing was arranged by tide.

His daughter loved the customers. Every Saturday, she sat behind the counter at the cash drawer, writing up receipts in an illegible imitation of his: own microscopic hand and chatting like an innkeeper. She was too tall and too sophisticated for a Maine preteen. She made him uneasy.

"Isn't he the most reticent person you've ever met?" she asked Kate, who was his only other employee. His daughter had recently learned the word and used it on him constantly.

"Maybe not the very most," Kate said, not looking up from her pricing.

"But he's--"

"That's enough, Paula," he said. Then, feeling an unexpected pulse of blood to his cheeks, he fled to the stockroom in back. Just before he shut the door behind him, he heard Kate gently reprimanding his daughter: "I think as a rule people don't like being spoken of in the third person."

HE'D HIRED KATE THREE MONTHS ago. She'd recently moved to Portland from San Francisco for a man named Lincoln. Despite her strong resumé, she had unexpected gaps in her knowledge of books. She was a reader (she borrowed and returned as many as ten novels a week) but not a speller. She let the pencils run out of lead. She had thin, sometimes dry lips, which he would have liked to kiss.

Wanting to kiss Kate was like wanting a larger savings account for Paula's college education or one of those computerized postal scales for mail orders. It was a persistent, irritating, useless desire.

He'd been on two dates since Paula's mother left. The first one, over five years ago now, had been a setup, a friend of a friend. They'd gone to an Italian restaurant for pasta puttanesca. She'd picked out all the capers and put them on the lip of her plate, explaining that she was allergic to shellfish. Then she wanted to talk about his wife's departure. The story--his college buddy Brad coming to visit from Australia and leaving a week later with a box of live lobsters and Mitchell's wife--seemed to arouse her. He couldn't bear to take her out again and lost the mutual friend as a result.

Mitchell stood at the stockroom's one window and watched three gulls flap restlessly above the harbor. Thick broken slabs of ice, the size of mattresses, had been pushed to the shore by the tide. Out farther, the open water shimmered a luminous summer blue. In these kinds of cold spells, everything seemed confused--even the gulls seemed lost.

Later that afternoon, Paula said, "Kate speaks Spanish." Kate demurred, but Paula overrode her. "She does. Did you know that, Dad?"

"Mmm-hmmm." He was going through a mildewed carton of books that a student had just brought in to resell.

Paula said, "I was thinking. Kate could help with my Spanish conversation."

Kate approached the counter as if she were a customer. "I'm not a teacher. I just lived in Peru for a couple of years."

"Are you fluent?" Mitchell asked.

He could see from her face that it was a rigid question. "By the time I left, I could say pretty much anything I wanted. But it's been six years now."

She would have been living in Peru when his wife left. He hoped, with an uncomfortable swell of feeling, that she had been happy there; that if his and Paula's life had been swamped, Kate's had somehow been lifted. Full of this fervent thought, he headed, for a reason he'd forget, to the anthropology section.

Paula found him there, staring blankly at the spines on the shelf. "She said she could come on Tuesday evenings to tutor me. Can she?"

"If you think it will help."

"I've told you Mr. Camargo never lets us speak."

He did not say that she'd never mentioned this before.

To the store, Kate wore faded, untucked shirts and jeans slashed at the knee. To the first Spanish lesson, however, she walked up the path to his door in wool pants the color of cranberries. Perhaps she'd had a late lunch date with Lincoln. Worse, she might have had a job interview. It was an easy thing to find out. She was the type who could not take a compliment. If he told her she looked nice, she'd give the reason instead of saying thank you. But he was the type who could not give a compliment, so he just said hello and let her in.

Paula called from her room, and he directed Kate down the hallway. The door clicked shut, and he heard no Spanish, just peals of laughter, for the next half hour.

He'd planned to do some paperwork before starting dinner, but when he sat down at his desk, he pulled out Kate's application and checked her birth date. Just as he'd remembered. She was plenty old enough to be Paula's mother. So what was she doing in there, giggling like a seventh grader? Kate's birthday was coming up, he realized. She might expect a gift, or he might want to give her a little something and she'd take it the wrong way.

They emerged from Paula's bedroom rosy cheeked and watery eyed, speaking gibberish. He quickly slipped the application back in its file.

In Spanish, Kate told Paula she'd see her at the store on Saturday. "Entonces, nos vemos el sábado, ¿no?"

"¿Sábado? Sí," Paula answered. They passed his desk without noticing him.

"Bueno. Hasta luego, Paula." She added an extra half syllable to his daughter's name.

"Adiós, Caterina."

They kissed on both cheeks, as if in Paris.

He waved from his chair, not wanting to break the flow with the clunk of English.

When Kate came to their house the next Tuesday, she wrote down on a slip of paper from her coat pocket her new address and phone number. She was moving closer to the store.

"With Lincoln?" Paula asked, and Mitchell for once was grateful for her prying.

"No," Kate said, as if she might say more, then didn't.

Long after she'd gone, he got up from his reading to start supper and realized the slip of paper was still crushed in his hand.

Mitchell's second and last date after his wife left was with a woman who worked in the insurance office next to his store. Sometimes she'd come in when she got off work, and even though she talked too much and only looked at oversize coffee-table books, he agreed to go to the movies with her when she got up the nerve to ask him. They chose a comedy, but she kept whispering in his ear right before every joke, so that everyone in the audience was always laughing except them.

After the movie, he couldn't wait to get back to his car in the store parking lot and drive away. But she was in an entirely different mood. She nearly twirled down the street, swayed not too subtly against him, and asked if he'd like to get a coffee. He said no, without excuse.

HE LISTENED TO KATE'S NEW MESSAGE: Hi. I'm not here. Say something funny, and I'll get back to you. Her voice was not hopeful; it was the voice of someone stuck in Maine for no good reason.

The only time he ever got any information about Kate was on Tuesdays and Saturdays. The rest of the week, without Paula, they worked together as if she'd never stood in his living room or giggled in Spanish with his daughter. He often hoped that Paula would bring up Kate's name in the evenings, let something slip about her he didn't know, but she never did. She spoke instead of teachers, friends, projects, the concert she wanted to go to.

On the third Tuesday, as Kate was leaving, the phone rang. Paula ran to answer it. It was for her, of course, so Mitchell walked their guest to the door alone. She was dressed up again; she had put her coat on carefully so as not to wrinkle her soft ivory shirt. Again he wanted to say how nice she looked but instead said that he hoped she was keeping careful record of her tutoring hours. She nodded that she was and told him he didn't have to keep reminding her. He was embarrassed that she remembered he'd said this before. It was his default line; it came out of his mouth when he wanted to say other things to her.

"Kate has a date," Paula said, catching him in the act of watching her car disappear around the corner.

"Lincoln?" he asked hopefully, more comfortable with an old rival than with a new one.

"They're over. With some guy she met at the store."

"My store?"

"She just said la tienda, but I think so."

"She told you this in Spanish?"

"That's why she's here, isn't It?"

"Sí," Mitchell ventured uneasily.

The next day, he told Kate she'd have to start addressing flyers for the sale he had every spring.

"I don't mind at all," she said, "but you do know it's a little early."

"There are over a thousand to send out," he said, "so we should get started on it."

He set her up in his office in the back and waited on the thin stream of customers himself.

"Call if you need help," she'd said before he shut her in.

"I will." But he knew even if there was a line ten-deep, he wouldn't call.

Around two, a young man in a dark-green parka came up to the counter. Mitchell knew he was going to ask for Kate, and when he did, he explained that she was busy at the moment. Unperturbed, the young man asked where the art section was, then slowly made his way toward it.

Mitchell could see Kate looking at her watch as she came out of his office. He couldn't think of any way to keep her from coming forward.

She looked down all the aisles until she found him.

"Hey," Mitchell heard her say.

"How're you doing?" the young man said.

"A little disoriented." She flexed her hand, the one that had been addressing flyers for the past five hours. Her friend didn't ask why, and Mitchell was pleased that he shared that information with Kate alone. "Let's go," she said. Mitchell's spirits plummeted.

She hadn't mentioned leaving early. She had to stay until six. She came around the counter to get her coat and scarf. "I'm going to grab something at Westy's. Want anything?"

He'd forgotten all about lunch. "No," he said, even though he was suddenly starving. "Only mushroom soup."

It was a very small joke they had. Once, about four years ago, Westy's had served, for one day, the most delicious mushroom soup he'd ever tasted. They'd never offered it again, but he'd never stopped looking on the specials board for it every time he went in. Occasionally, he put in a request, but the teenager at the register clearly had no say over soups.

He watched as Kate and the young man crossed Commercial Street until they opened the door to Westy's and disappeared. They'd probably eat at one of the booths. He couldn't very well complain if once in the three months she'd been working here, she ate her lunch there instead of bringing it back.

He could hear a couple whispering in fiction in the far room. He'd been pricing a stack of books he'd just bought from a composer, but now that Kate was gone, he'd lost his concentration.

"HEY, WHERE ARE YOU?" IT WAS KATE, pulling on his sleeve. "I got it! Mushroom soup!" She held up two containers. She was smiling as wide as he'd ever seen. "It better be as good as you promised."

Hadn't she already eaten? Where was the guy in the green coat? How much did he owe her? Questions swarmed but stayed behind the tight knot in his mouth.

There was always one stool behind the counter and another that he used to prop open the door in summer, which now stood by the coatrack nobody ever used. He'd wanted the store to be a homey place, where you came in and hung up your coat and stayed awhile, but it never had been. Kate found this other stool and dragged it around back, so that the two stools were now side by side, with a bowl of mushroom soup on the counter in front of each one.

He felt as if he would burst. He'd read about this feeling in novels, but he'd never experienced it. Customers, as always, lingered absentmindedly in the aisles. When an elderly woman finally made it out the door, Kate grunted, imitating the way he had responded when the woman thanked him for finding her a book.

"It was Middlemarch," he explained.

"Which is a great book."

"I know it's a great book." He was aware of how much like Paula he sounded when he whined. "But shouldn't she have read it by now?"

"She could be giving it to her granddaughter." Kate seemed amused, entirely uninterested in changing him. He knew it was like that at first, with anyone. He also knew it might mean that she didn't care about him at all.

Just before closing, a customer came up to the counter and asked if they were related. "You two have the exact same kind of eyes," he told them. He was drunk, and the comment was preposterous--Kate had thick-lidded, warm brown eyes, while his were a narrow, suspicious green. They watched the man lurch out the door, careful not to look at each other's eyes.

That night, he saw on his calendar that Kate's birthday fell on a Tuesday, the fifth Tuesday of Spanish lessons. He tried to think of how to mention, offhandedly, to Paula that Kate's birthday was approaching. But as usual, she was three steps ahead of him. "I completely forgot to tell you," she said at dinner. "I asked Kate to stay for dinner next Tuesday. It's her cumpleaños."

"Her birthday?" He feigned uncertainty.

"Have you been listening at the door, Dad?"

He wished he had the nerve.

"What should we get her?" Paula asked.

"How about a brooch?" he suggested.

"A brooch? What's that?"

"You know, a sparkly," he put his fingers on his chest, "pin thing."

"You aren't serious," she said.

"Then make her something."

"Like what?" she asked.

"I don't know. A drawing. A necklace. Or what about doing what you used to do to the gravel?"


Mitchell, remembering the hours Paula had spent with her rock polisher, lamented the loss of the driveway as a source of entertainment and gifts. He knew he'd have to take Paula to the mall.

When they walked into the mall that Sunday to pick out a gift, they caught sight of Kate in the food court. She was eating a burrito, alone. Both he and Paula had the same irrational impulse to conceal themselves and shadow Kate through the shops in order to discover her preferences. After lunch, she went to the perfume counters in Filene's. A saleslady offered her some powder on a brush, but Kate shook her head and said something that made the woman laugh. Mitchell's chest contracted slightly at not being able to hear the words. He and Paula watched Kate weave through the smaller stores. "She seems sad," Paula said.

Mitchell was relieved that she'd noticed. He thought it was just his own wishful thinking. They watched Kate exit the mall, scan the parking lot for her car, then head toward it. There was nothing outside--not above or below or in the woods beyond the mall--that wasn't some shade of gray.

Kate sat in her car for at least a minute before starting the engine. She was born in Swanton, Ohio. She didn't like green peppers or people in costumes or the novels of Henry James. She had a mole on her head, just where her part began. With only this handful of facts, Mitchell admitted to himself, as Paula drew hearts in the clouds she breathed on the plate glass window, he'd begun to truly care for her.

They bought her a brooch and went home.

Mitchell's wife had left because she claimed he was locked shut. She said the most emotion he'd ever shown her was during a heated debate about her use of a comma in a note she'd left him about grocery shopping.

There was no reason why he would be able to make anyone happier now, he thought miserably. Still, on the fifth Tuesday, as Mitchell made dinner during Paula's lesson, the lasagna noodles quivered in his hands as he placed them in the pan. He wondered where the expression "nervous as a schoolgirl" came from. He had never seen Paula behave this way. "Nervous as a 47-year-old bookseller" was how the saying should go.

Kate had arrived with a small box of chocolates, which Mitchell had set on a table in the living room. He'd been so startled by the gift, he hadn't taken in the rest of her. He tried to picture her in Paula's room, sitting at the foot of the bed where they always sat. Every now and then, as he went about preparing dinner, Mitchell glanced through the doorway at the box of chocolates.

He was just putting the lasagna in the oven when Kate flew past.

"Where're you going?" he said, unable to conceal his horror as she flung her coat over her shoulders without bothering to fit her arms in the sleeves and reached for the door.

"I'll be right back." The door slammed shut, and he heard her holler from the walkway, "She'll be fine."

He went to his daughter's room. The door was open, but she wasn't in the room. On her quilt, there was a dark-red stain and a few pale streaks. Her bathroom door was shut. He stood in silence before it.

"I'm OK, Dad." She sounded like she was hanging upside down.

"You sure?" He couldn't control the wobble in his voice.

"Kate's gone to get some stuff."

He actually already had "stuff" in his bathroom; he'd bought it for her years ago, just in case. "That's good," he said.

He felt pleased that he hadn't overreacted, that he knew right away what had happened. He was holding the quilt in his arms. He didn't remember taking it off the bed. It was a quilt his mother had made and he had slept beneath as a child. The mottled stains seemed like warnings. Soon Paula, his child, would begin complaining that he didn't understand her, didn't appreciate her, didn't love her enough, when in fact he loved her so much, his heart often felt shredded by it.

"How do you feel?" he ventured.

"All right. Kinda weird."

"Your mother used to get terrible cramps." He waited for the clutch that came with talking about his former wife, like someone had grabbed him by the chest hair. "She got headaches sometimes too. She took extra iron. We probably still have some. They're green, in a white bottle." He waited, but the clutching feeling never came. "And she had a bullet birth when you were born, you know. Thirty-five minutes, I think. We barely made it to the hospital. Not that you want to be thinking of that right now." Sweat prickled his scalp. Shut up, he told himself.

"Do you miss her, Dad?" Paula said through the door.

"No." He was astonished by the truth of it.

"I don't either, anymore. I feel like I should miss her. All I really remember is her walking me to school and holding my hand and giving me big hugs at the door. But I always knew the minute she turned her back, I was out of her mind completely. She wasn't like you. I knew you were thinking about me always."

She was revising now, creating new memories out of what she was left with, but his eyes stung anyway.

When Kate came back from the pharmacy, he retreated to the kitchen. He could hear her coaching Paula, first in the bathroom and then through the door. At times her voice was serious and precise; other times, they were both laughing. After a long while, Kate came in the kitchen. She caught him standing there in the middle of the room, doing nothing. She touched the quilt in his arms. "If I run cold water on it now, it won't stain."

"I'll do it." He went down the narrow back hallway to the laundry room with the big basin, and she followed. He never expected her to follow.

He turned on the faucet. "You may have to undo some stuff I told her while you were gone. I babbled on about iron and pregnancy and probably scared the daylights out of her."

"You babbled? I thought you were the most reticent man in the world."

"Every 47 years or so, I babble."

They had to do the quilt bit by bit, wringing out one part before starting on another. He wished, as in a fairy tale, the cloth would never end, and they could spend the rest of their lives washing and wringing. He heard the timer buzz, then the oven door squeak open.

They hung the quilt on the fishing line he'd strung up years ago. When they were done, he could do nothing but look at her. She looked carefully back. Paula called them to dinner, but they made no move toward the kitchen.

"Why do you think," he asked her, "that man said we had the same eyes ?"

"Maybe he saw something similar in them."

"Like what?"

"Fear." She looked away. He'd forgotten how disappointing these conversations could be.

"Desire," she added quietly.

Love, he thought. It would come out soon enough. Words and feelings were all churned up together inside him, finding each other like lost parts of an atom. He didn't try to push them apart or away. He let them float in the new fullness in his chest.

She brought her hand to his face. It wasn't the face other women had touched. The skin wasn't the same. His nerve endings had multiplied. He could feel each one of her fingers, their different sizes and temperatures. His stomach made a long slow twist in anticipation of all that his lips would feel.

He pulled Kate close, but Paula came around the corner then, and they jumped back. His daughter took them each by the arm and led them to dinner.

She'd lit a candle and poured apple juice into wineglasses. She'd put the box of chocolates by his place and the box containing the brooch next to Kate's. Lasagna sizzled in the center of the small table, and Kate was smiling. Mitchell felt that a long conversation was just beginning, and, if only for this moment in his kitchen, if only for this one evening, he had a lot to say.

By: King, Lily, Good Housekeeping

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