THE BOOKCASE - A MEMOIR
Mom, I’m really hungry,” Wendy says, the growls from her mid-section providing testament to the hunger that pervades her eight-year old little body. Mother, who’d spent the last five or ten minutes fumbling through cupboards, pushing aside plates, glasses and cups in a futile attempt at finding something, anything to feed a child, looks tearfully at Wendy and says, “I’m sorry but all I find is a bottle of mustard.
“Can’t we just go to the store?” Wendy says. “Can’t we go over to the Fresh Stop and get some peanut butter, cookies, stuff like that?” I wish we could Wendy, but I don’t have any money.”
Wendy sits down, her legs dangling above the bare, scraped up linoleum. I watch her thin fingers, tapping nervously upon the old table. Minutes pass, the growls grow louder. I wish there was something I could do.
A storm cloud of disenchantment hovers about their faces, spirits wandering helplessly through the fog. Mother and young daughter, fragile both, oh, how I wish there was something, anything I could do. But there just isn’t. And so, I retreat, go back to the bedroom where I’ll exchange my reality for a dose of fantasy. I take from the bookcase shelf Huckleberry Finn. After a while I realize it’s of no use. I just cannot join Huckleberry on his adventures, not when my baby sister’s in the kitchen, starving to death. I close the book and slip it between The Grapes of Wrath and The Great Gatsby.
On my way back toward the kitchen I hear Wendy saying to Mother, “What about those coupon things?”
“What coupon things, Wendy?”
“Those coupon things you get from the gumberman.”
“You must mean the government,” Mother says.
“Yeah, that’s what I mean.”
“And if you mean the food stamps, I had searched my purse three times and they’re just not there.”
I enter the kitchen. Mother acknowledges me this time and asks, “Had you seen my food stamps?”
“No, but maybe Chet did. I saw him go through your purse this morning and he told me that he was just looking for a cigarette. Maybe he knows.”
Mother’s face reddens. She scrambles over to the rotary on the wall. “You’re sure, Ricky?”
“That bastard,” Mother says. She shakes her head and then dials the number. I know this number, it’s been dialed a million times before— two half turns on the rotary, followed by a quarter, then a three-quarter, followed by two one-quarters and ending with an eighth. A few long moments pass, then an answer.
“Hello George, this is Janet,” Mother says. “Is Chet there?”
It’s loud at the Dew Drop, so loud that Mother pulls the receiver off her ear. You could hear the blare of the jukebox, the clashing of mugs, the loud voices of fathers and grandfathers, jokes and war stories.
And then, George asks: “Is Chet here?” A few more seconds tick away. A voice, that of Chet answers. “Tell her I’m not here.” In which George does and now Mother is crazy with anger, she slams the phone down so hard it cracks another piece off the handset. Mother screams at the top of her lungs, “That bastard! That lousy bastard,” and runs off into her room.
Wendy jumps off the chair, her mood now darker than her hunger would allow. Seeing Mother in such a startling fit of anger is unsettling. Who knows what Mother’s capable of when she’s in such a dire state? Wendy falls onto the floor, her face plied in the clefts of linoleum. She’s crying now, uncontrollably. I fall onto my knees and beg for some mercy, any kind of mercy and try to think of a way to cheer Wendy up. But I fail, once again. She tells me to leave her alone. But I won’t give up so easily, no I mustn’t. For goodness sake, she’s my baby sister.
Wendy,” I say, “can I tell you another Big Bear story?” No, she doesn’t want to hear it. “How about the time up in Wisconsin when—”
“Ricky, leave me alone!”
I return to the bedroom. I lay upon the bed, my thoughts askew. Hearing Wendy’s pangs of hunger echo through the house and Mother’s diatribes against her boyfriend seeping out into the neighborhood, my emotions begin to play havoc with my thoughts. I, too, want to cry but I’d been learning lately not to. Maybe it’s easier that way, I don’t know.
Time creeps into a new hour, the sun higher in its trajectory. I want to sleep but I can’t. I want this day to end but it won’t. So, it’s a book. Maybe, just maybe a few words from a good book will dispel from me my worries, my concerns. I grab from the bookshelf The Tale of Two Cities. A breeze sets in through the half-open window, and with it, the happy voices of the children outside, strangers all, and play on me much too hard. I hear the laughter and the frolic and the strength of the neighborhood kids, fed and well positioned for a typical Saturday in my atypical world. I take the book to the bed and open it: It was the best of times; it was the worst of times and before I could get any further Lenny comes rushing in and throws a bag down on the floor. He’s in a confrontational mood, he’s saying under his breath, “Is reading all Ricky knows how to do?” I try to ignore him but each second of my silence prompts him to say it louder.
“No, that’s not all I know how to do,” I say. I set the book down and look up at him. Scabrous and hulking, who is this imposter? Surely couldn’t be my brother! Not the brother I used to know, seemingly now, a long time ago. Just to be sure I ask, “Lenny, is that you?” He bustles over to my bookcase.
“You’re a real geek,” he blares.
“What did you call me, Lenny?”
“I called you a geek. Whatcha gonna do about it?”
“Ignore it,” I say. But he won’t have that, no, he must impose his wrath on me, and before I can do anything about it, he flips my bookcase onto its side. I jump out of the bed. I charge toward him but this morning he’s got more strength. He pushes me back onto the bed.
“Books, books, books, that’s all you seem to care about,” he bellows, confident as a bullfighter who just downed his foe.
“That’s not true, Lenny, but behind your fancy clothes and fancy jewelry you may really be somebody someday but without my books I’m a nobody.”
“Then you’re a nobody!” He takes the bookcase and throws it across the room, my prized collection dispersing in every direction. I watch helplessly as the bookcase crashes into the wall, splintering apart in a million pieces. I jump out of the bed again, this time in an attempt to salvage what’s left of my collection. Injured is my Moby Dick. Maimed is Charlotte’s Web, its pages daggered with splinters of wood.
“What’s wrong with you, Lenny?”
“Nothing’s wrong with me,” he yells back. “At least I’m not a nobody like you.” And then, just then, Mother charges into the room, almost falling to her demise as she trips over a couple of the books, dispensing gin upon the torn carpet.
What the hell’s going on in here?” she hollers. “What’s with this mess on the floor?”
I know better not to tell her the truth. She wouldn’t believe me. I just know she wouldn’t. Her Lenny’s too perfect. And I’m starting to remind her too much of my father, the man who she’d come to hate. Maybe I can’t blame her. I know it’s been awfully hard on her since Father had disappeared into the night and now hundreds of nights later, he had not returned and by the looks of things, he may never return.
“Mother,” I say convincingly, “it was an accident!” But she doesn’t care either way. She takes a gulp of her gin and stares at me like I am some type of criminal or something, suspected of vandalism.
“Clean this mess up,” she demands. “And if you don’t I will. And I’ll throw all this junk in the garbage. Do you hear me, Ricky?”
“Yes, Mother.” Mother turns toward Lenny and he’s smirking and smiling and all of a sudden happy as a clown at the circus. He rolls up his sleeve and reveals to Mother his new watch, all shiny and pretty. A proud owner is he and I wonder how much he had paid for it. But it’ll be kept a secret I’m sure, just like all of his other secrets, buried deep in his burgeoning wardrobe.
“Do you like my new watch?” he says to Mother.
“It’s beautiful, Lenny.”
Lenny takes the bag off the floor and removes a new shirt, an expensive looking getup. He shows it off and Mother tells him how proud she is of him. Says, “My Lenny’s going to be the best dressed kid in the neighborhood.” Lenny then shows off his new shoes, fancy and leathery. Followed by a pair of dress-up pants. Mother’s nodding in delight, her Lenny’s a big man now, though only sixteen, he’s now hanging with the big boys. Those guys drive around in their fancy cars through the rundown neighborhoods selling their wares and Lenny’s been tagging along, I just know he has. Mother interrupts his fashion show.
“Lenny, can you lend me a few bucks for food?”
“I wish I could, Mother, but I just spent all I had shopping.” Mother seems to understand, hugs him and assures him it’s no big deal, and then turns to me. “Ricky, clean this mess up!” I nod and then watch her as she staggers out of the room. I look at Lenny and he’s shaking his head at me like I’m some type of lower life form. Just because my clothes are tattered and not new and fancy like his doesn’t make me a bum, does it? Just because I like to get good grades at the school and learn about the world doesn’t make me a geek, does it? And look at him, my big-shot brother, selfish and selling the pot and stuff to kids like me. Oh, how I wish I were his father, I’d try to straighten him out I swear I would. But there’s nothing I could do.
“Well, I gotta run!” he says. On his way out he tramples over Dickens, Steinbeck and Tolstoy. He kicks aside Hemingway and Fitzgerald and Faulkner. He steps on Jefferson, Lincoln, Paine and Franklin.
After he’s gone, I return to the bed, too tired, too hungry and too upset to do much of anything but stare at my beloved books scattered about the room. Oh, how I used to think they were all so pretty. But now, they’re not so pretty anymore. Maybe they’d look prettier somewhere else. Not only that but maybe, just maybe I could do something really good, make Mother proud, help out and give Wendy some hope too. Thoughts run quickly now through my brain. And then . . .. Downstairs, in the basement, there are empty boxes. I remember seeing them piled to the ceiling, probably saved for emergencies. This is an emergency.
The old wagon on the back porch, rusted red and crooked and missing a wheel but perhaps good enough for a boy with good intention to tug down the city streets hauling his precious cargo. It takes the most of me to load the two big boxes into the wagon and even more of me to pull it down the stairs, every once in a while getting snagged on a piece of broken board or ignorant nail. Clip-clop, clomp and clonk, I am headed for disaster but thankfully, miraculously I make it down to the solid ground, where I stop to catch my breath and listen to the sparrows and the squirrels, all in good cheer, frolicking about the yard, which is groomed and neat and harvested of rhubarb.
Mister Jones will bake his rhubarb pies and maybe, if in good temperament, come down and offer us a slice or two. The last time he tried that Chet scared him off with his drunken talk and swaggering bravado
Mister Jones had kept himself scarce the last month or so, making it a point to do his yard work before the sun rose, a safe enough time he figured to do it without bother.
How I could hear him though, talking to himself and his dead wife while pulling a rake or pushing a mower. And every once in a while he’d act his own cheerleader, prodding himself along: “I won’t give up, I won’t give up, I won’t give up.”
I’d peek out the window and watch his silhouette of seventy-five-year old bone and sheer determination and in some ways; he’d be my only inspiration.
There were times when I would offer to help but Mister Jones would have none of that. He was perhaps too proud, too stubborn of a man; besides, his yard was the only real thing he had left. Can’t deny a man that and if Chet ever again tries to steal another piece of rhubarb or pull apart another vine of tomato I swear I’ll do something. It’s just not right. It’s bad enough we’ve got a few of the neighborhood kids coming through the yard some nights, trampling on Mister Jones’s proud accomplishments. Thank God he’s not a violent man or a truly angry man like that old Mister Buck who lives on the corner.
Stay clear of Mister Buck’s yard unless you wouldn’t mind a bullet or two in the butt. Not me, though. That old football I accidentally tossed in there could stay there for all of eternity, rather that than taking the chance of getting shot.
The sun is slipping behind the clouds now. I pull the wagon alongside the house, below Mother’s bedroom window. She doesn’t hear me. I suspect she’s passed out. I hope so. Wendy, too, may be sleeping. I hope so. It’s easier fighting hunger while asleep, this I know. The hard part is getting to sleep though. It seems your body’s being yanked in a thousand different directions while your head is pounding to a drunken drummer or perhaps an overly zealous bugle boy. Sometimes it’s like a jackhammer and that’s the worst. Then it’s impossible to fall asleep and so what choice do you have but to lay there, stripped of peace and quiet, something a lot of other people take for granted I suppose.
The wagon falls off the sidewalk, now jammed in a clump of mud. I wish, oh how I wish I had more strength. But I don’t. I start kicking at the clump, trying to dislodge the stubborn axel. I kick and I curse and that’s not something I ordinarily do. I hate it, really do. There’s too much cursing nowadays. Chet, especially when he’s drunk—F that, F-this, F-you, F-you Janet, F-you Lenny, and God forbid he says that to Wendy, I’ll knock him out, oh I swear I would. I almost did last week. Woke up to Wendy crying and screaming and yelling at him to leave Mother alone. Thank God I woke up. I run out into the living room and there he is, got Mother in a headlock. And calling her names, bad names.
“Chet,” I say, “let go of my mom.”
He looks at me like I’m crazy and let him think what he wants; I don’t care, just let go of my mom. “She started it,” he says. And then he flips her onto the couch. She’s drunk, they’re both drunk and now she begins laughing and he joins her and they both tell Wendy and me to go back to bed. And what am I supposed to think—false alarm? What if the next time it’s more serious, how would I know? Should I just stay in my bed and listen to Wendy cry and scream?
“Come on, Wendy,” I say. She takes my hand and I lead her away from the craziness. I put her back into the bed, tuck her in, and tell her Big Bear stories until she falls asleep.
I’m back on the road now . . . and the wheel-less axle is scraping along the pavement, sparks flying and the little kids across the way are enjoying the show, laughing and cheering and having a good old time watching their neighbor boy pulling a stupid wagon past them. I must be one spectacle but I don’t care, not now. Someday I’ll drive past them in a station wagon car, maybe like the one Father used to drive.
The breeze is picking up now and it’s too bad because I’m pulling into it, making it harder on me. If only I could hitch up a team or something, like the pioneer people. That’ll be pretty neat.
Sometimes I wish I could go back in time. Be a real settling kind of man, and build a little house in the prairie. And take a wife, oh Leah. I miss her. I wonder how she’s doing. I wonder if she’s still helping her momma at the restaurant, serving food to the hungry farmers—big juicy cheeseburgers with French fries and soda pops.
Oh, I got to stop for a minute and rest. I pull the wagon in front of the old boarded up house. The wind is knocking on the rusted shutters: whoosh—clunk, whoosh—clunk, whoosh—clunk. I sit down upon the bottom step, knowing that the steps behind me leading up to the old house once transported a family, a real family. They’re gone now. I had heard the story. All killed during a camping trip, two kids and their parents—a mad man with a hunting rifle. I can’t sit here any longer, I’m sad and I want to cry. No, I must go on.
I get up and brush myself off. I must look somewhat businesslike when I go into Claire’s. Claire and me, we can do business and then I can go over to the Fresh Stop, heck, maybe even the Jewel Food Store.
I pull and tug and then try to push but the wagon is becoming more stubborn, a prolonged journey. I hope Wendy’s okay, hope she doesn’t wake up until I get home. I wonder how Trish is doing. I hope she’s having fun in California. I hope she has lots to eat and I hope Bryce is treating her good. I miss my big sister, really I do.
There are a group of bigger kids ahead of me, and they got those football jackets on. Maybe they’re the jocks Lenny used to make fun of. As I get closer, I want so much to go to the other side of the street. But then it may look like I’m trying to avoid them or something. Don’t want to appear unfriendly or worse yet, afraid.
They’re kicking a can and laughing. As I struggle up the street they begin teasing each other and play fighting. My heart’s beating faster and I want to stop and rest but I can’t. Claire’s will close for lunch and then I’d have to wait another hour for her to reopen.
The big kids see me now, I hear them talking about me. “Who is the weirdo with the long hair coming toward us pulling a junky wagon?”
”Jonathan, is that your brother?”
I want to turn around but I can’t, I must go on.
“Hey, I wonder if he has any money on him.”
“I doubt it. He looks like a bum.”
I feel as though I’m riding into a storm, the sky’s darkening and the winds are blowing fiercely now. I think of Mister Jones. “I won’t give up! I won’t give up” I’m whispering to the wind and the dead spirits, maybe to the courageous soldiers who had died in the war, fighting for our freedom. “I won’t give up, no I won’t give up.” The wind picks up more, blowing dust and dirt into my eyes. I close them and blindly tug my wagon toward the end zone. Before me a hefty tackle awaits. The voices merge into one, a cacophony of wind and spite and scraping axle. I swerve but it’s too late, I’m tripped up and fall to the ground. I open my eyes, look up and there’s two hundred pounds of sophomore staring down at me. “Whatcha got in the wagon?”
I can’t speak. I’m deaf. I sign that I’m deaf and I can’t hear what he’s saying and can’t read lips too good.
All of a sudden he acts as if he’s feeling sorry for me. He extends his hand. Beyond it I could see his simple eyes, blue and expressive and his forehead is furrowing in forgiveness. “I’m sorry, didn’t know you were deaf.” He turns to his defensive linemen. “He’s okay.” And then lifts me up off the ground. I dust myself off, sign them a thank you and continue on, hoping that I make it to Claire’s on time.
Finally I turn onto Austin Boulevard, a main street with buses and carloads of family—little kids with happy faces and Mommas and Papas and the occasional family dog, barking out the car window at the strange boy with the loud, rambunctious wagon.
Down the way I see it, the sign, the big, beautiful sign: Claire’s Used Books – we buy and we sell. I gather strength, wave back at the passing kids; let them know that I may look stupid pulling an old crooked wagon but I’m on a mission. And let Lenny say what he wants about me, he’s just in a bad way nowadays, too much pressure and maybe jealous too. And I don’t know why. Sure, I may be a lot better than him in school and get really good grades, my A’s to his F’s, but that doesn’t make me any more special. And look at his art, his amazing drawings and sketches, something I could never do. I’m lucky if I could draw a stick figure. I just wished he would do more drawings and stuff and not quit school but I guess he’s too busy now, acting like a big shot with the fancy clothes and going out with the bigger people and making business deals on the streets and sometimes the schoolyards, mostly the high schools and the junior colleges. And if that weren’t enough, he likes to get high with the pipe and sometimes pop a few pills that make him real stupid, no wonder he’d only manage F’s at the school.
The sign is getting bigger, my resolve stronger. I pull the wagon as if it’s nothing. I can almost see Wendy’s face. She’ll brighten up and be the happiest little girl in the entire world. Maybe I’ll take her out to the matinee, maybe a double feature and after that, go get some ice cream, maybe a malted and maybe, we’ll have our chance to be children again.
I get to Claire’s in time before she puts the sign on the door, Out to Lunch. I know I may soon be doing the impossible, selling my entire collection of books, good books but salvation sometimes comes at a price. Maybe someday I’ll have my own library and kids that will never go hungry and, and, and…
Claire comes to the door and opens it up, eying up curiously the wagon. She could smell a good book and with the leather-covered Moby Dick and the mint-leaved Grapes of Wrath she knows I’m about to uncover a bounty.