A picture of Nicolas stared back at me. It was pasted onto a poster, next to a display of his book. Seeing it was serendipitous. I had taken the sidewalk route since my usual walk, the park path, was covered with snow. He’s aged. I’m still a decade older than him, although that doesn’t matter as it did then.
I looked at the man in photo and saw the boy he had been, old at seventeen, or so I had convinced myself. He rose a foot above the heads of his classmates, and lacked their scent of the Missouri earth.
I turned from the bookstore window when a man, caved under a hood, and with a scarf wrapped up to his nose, bumped into me and mumbled something. He hurried along with other people who had places to go. The bitter lake wind blew clear to my bones, my glasses had frosted over, and the tips of my fingers had no feeling. I rubbed my gloved hands together and hustled into the bookstore.
Nicolas’s newest book, Heart of America, is long––600 pages. I chuckled to think of him pounding out that many keystrokes about life in the Midwest. He had been wild to leave it for places with exotic ideas and foods. Now, any flavor of ideas are available; the old ones along with the new, for better or worse, and even supermarkets carry frozen Pad Thai. Back then, his curiosity could not be contained in any one place, just as he seemed to outgrow his shirts and shoes before one’s eyes.
He lived in Union during a hasty intersection of our lives. His father had landed a job there selling insurance. The family remained vague to the locals. You would struggle to find someone in Union County that wasn’t provided for by agriculture, its equipment, seed stores, and coffee and egg diner where everyone knew whose kid had dumped a bottle of dish soap and red food dye into the town fountain.
The caption under Nicolas’s picture, on the back book jacket, gives his journalism and literary identity. He lives in London. The dedication is, “For Toshi.”
As I paid for the book, the clerk said, “Come back tonight to have it signed. This is his only Chicago stop, you know. Get here early if you want a seat.” She looked fresh, natural, except for the overly whitened teeth. She’s about the age I was when I knew Nicolas.
I stopped at Starbucks on the way home. The book is filling. After the second chapter, I was ready to surrender my seat to a standing customer who had more than glanced at my empty cappuccino cup.
At home, I opened the book again to the photo on the inside back cover. I could still see the boy who had approached me in the library. Other boys had sheepishly slogged up to the information desk to request help with a report due the following day, on, say, the French Revolution. Nicolas, however, stepped with confidant strides to the desk and requested that the library order Joan Didion’s Slouching Toward Bethlehem, and Eldrige Clever’s Soul on Ice. I ordered the books, and, later, others Nicolas suggested. Someone complained about the books to the Union Library Board. I was freshly cast in the role of librarian, so they considered it a naïve mistake.
I tackled Heart of America again, until the outside chill seeped into my apartment. I set down the book and started a fire. Well, I flicked a switch so the gas logs flared and I turned up the thermostat. I put on water for tea.
I probed the book for mention of Union, or his experiences there. There were none. In Heart of America, Nicolas took the pulse of the Midwestern area on how it has changed, or not, on cultural and political issues. I read the chapter titled Patriotism. It stirred up dust that was as old as an 8-track tape.
I had followed the commotion to the post office, the only branch of the federal government in the town, and saw Nicolas sitting on the steps. His guitar case propped a poster board that had a peace sign drawn with black marker. He sang an unremarkable rendition of Blowing in the Wind. Jake Johnson, who ran a grain elevator, yelled, “peacenik.” A few others took up the chant. Jake grabbed the poster board and threw it on the sidewalk. Nicolas continued his one man concert, as if the protesters of his protest were not there. A couple of guys stomped on the peace sign. Nicolas adjusted the strings on his guitar.
I knew Nicolas then as the voracious young man in the library. The situation made me uneasy. Without a second thought, I hopped up the steps next to him. “Hey, hey,” I said, a friendly scold. “Let’s all remember that peaceful dissent is a precious right in our country.” Those standing on the sidewalk, most of whom I knew, squinted with confusion. I saw how it looked through their eyes. Roger was serving in Vietnam. Roger and I had married the month before he left for that war. I quietly stepped down and walked away.
The kettle on the stove billowed steam. I set the book on the table, stood, and stretched my back. In the kitchen, the morning dishes were still in the sink. Oatmeal dried in a saucepan. In order to finish as much of the book as I could before Nicolas’ reading that night, I ignored the dishes and took the tea back to the chair next to the fake fire logs.
He guided the reader on the why and how of the current changes spreading through cities and towns, just as he could account for the influences that pulled the oxygen from a tired war all those years ago when we sat in my car. I had offered him a ride after I had passed him one day, sitting against a tree, tossing pebbles to the curb for no obvious reason. He appeared comfortably absent, either ignoring or not noticing the rain. Water dripped from his hair––long for Union standards––over his strong shoulders, and soaked his sandaled feet.
Nicolas was not interested in the drop in the price of soybeans, the McFarland farm foreclosure, or the football team’s loss to Hadley, which ruined an undefeated season that year. He could point out a dozen constellations in the night sky––not just the all-stars that everyone knew––but he didn’t know the names of the students who sat next to him everyday in physics class.
Will he circle back to Union as he travels on his book tour? Coming from England, it seems down the road even though it is still a million miles away. The steepled churches are not the ultra fervent variety, but they preserve a code of morality for the town. There is an unwritten rule of sobriety. Those who don’t follow it keep to themselves except Steve Stuckey who stands on the corner and rants about taxes until he crumbles onto the curb. When the deputy sheriff comes by, he drives him home. It is a tight community, which makes it difficult to keep a secret.
From the list of other books Nicolas has written, he has traveled to the capitols, and the fringes, of Europe, Asia, Africa, and South America. His dreams had not been illusionary. Nicolas and I could go on for hours about books, music, places we wanted to see, the kind of stuff that people now share with the world on social media, but back then revealed to someone intimate.
When Roger returned from war, our periods of silence stretched to uncomfortableness. Caught in his own memories, Roger apologized, assuming it was all on his account. We eventually conversed more, but not about what each couldn’t talk about. When Emma was born, she filled the space between us.
There was a determined ringing of my phone, interrupting my reading of Heart of America. It was Emma. She checks on me, as I did her when she was younger. She wanted me to stay inside until the weather heated up. I responded as she used to with my advice; I agreed, while knowing I would ignore it.
One evening, back in Union, with the wind chill down to sub-zero, Nicolas had shown up at my back door. By then it was not a surprise to see him there, but I had not expected him on a night like that. Puffs of fog exhaled with his breath. His teeth chattered like a wind-up toy. I wrapped him in a wool blanket and made cocoa hot enough to melt the marshmallow. It scalded his lips. While it cooled, he talked of places he’d rather be: Rio de Janerio, Bangkok, Cape Town.
When I told him about my dream of going to a Greek island, he sailed the blanket off of him. It buried the cat, but Nicolas didn’t notice. “Let’s go,” he said, swooping me up. “Take off. Travel.” He was forever fastened to unfeasibility.
I laughed and shook my head, even as, for an instant, I flirted with his idea.
“Don’t laugh at me,” he said and let go of me so quickly that I almost tumbled.
“Talking about taking off, as though it was simple,” I said, “I mean, it distorts reality.”
“Do you really think that?”
I raised my arms in the air in a gesture of freedom.” Running away, suddenly liberated!” I dropped my arms. “It ignores the way life really is.”
He looked at me as though I was giving up on life itself, and then he looked off, in that way of his that suggested he saw things no one else could. Just then, I might have been one of those nameless faces next to his desk in his physics class.
I got ready for Nicolas’ reading at the bookstore. I applied lipstick and chose the green scarf that enhanced my eyes. I sighed at my foolishness.
The bookstore clerk had said, “If you want him to write a personal message, print it out ahead of time. But keep it brief. We’ll need to keep the line moving.”
When I retired from the Union Library, the mayor and town council presented me with a crystal recognition award. Engraved on it, under my name, was, The Most Admired Woman in Union. After Roger died, and I moved to Chicago, I stuck the award in the trash. With the need to ‘keep the line moving,’ I would not have time to share that story with Nicolas, although it would give us something with which to communicate a raised eyebrow.
A climbing rose bush trailed the trellis above the back porch swing where we sat that first time the relationship pushed into new territory. He revealed that it bothered him that others did not understand him. He considered the misunderstanding was more on the part of others, but still, it bothered him. Putting my hand on his was intended to comfort, same as I would old Mrs. Bracken when she came into the library with her world of troubles: arthritis, the price of orange juice, and her only daughter’s move to St. Louis.
Emma called again, to see if there was anything I wanted from the grocery store. Seemed fine for her to go out into the polar vortex. I did not need groceries.
The temperature was close to a Chicago record low for the date. Parking near the bookstore required a car with the flexibility of a gymnast. I could walk. It was only a mile. My lungs had burnt cold during my morning walk. I continued self-debating while I caved myself as the man who had bumped me that morning had done. I slid a knit hat over my ears and tied a scarf across my neck and up to my nose, not the green silk scarf, but the gray wool one. When I stepped outside, I pulled the hood of my parka over my head.
My boots crunched on the frosty sidewalk. I pushed forward with my head down, lugging my guilt through the wintry night. The sidewalks were thinned of all but dog walkers. The pets hurried beside their people, without the meander of better days. Starbucks on the block before the bookstore was open. I ordered a coffee and let the steam rise up my nostrils.
I sat in the back row at the bookstore. The unfriendly weather had discouraged the standing room only, out-the-door, and around the corner turn-out that the clerk had predicted. About thirty people were there. Down coats slid onto the backs of chairs. Scarves fell to the floor. There was a murmur when Nicolas, large and lumbering, arrived, and then a hush while he was introduced. The woman who introduced him called him a courageous writer who had collected continents as others collected coins. Nicolas was greeted with generous applause.
He stood, slightly slouched, behind a podium. He looked around, and then above, the audience. A wrinkled shirt peeked out of his sweater. His hair and beard were unkempt, giving the impression that he couldn’t bother sprucing up for people who had spent $29 and many hours on his book. But his tone was polite as he thanked everyone for coming on that frigid night. His accent was far from the Midwest.
Nicolas read for half an hour, skipping to parts of chapters. His eyes left the pages a few times when he shared a statistic that proved a provocative point. The asides teased simple facts from the dense writing. Each time he did that, the audience buzzed in agreement. Nicolas nodded with them. He had found people who understood him.
He took a few questions. One man asked what solutions he had for the bitter division that the cultural changes have had, especially in less urban areas.
“Time changes things,” said Nicolas. “We can’t escape the past, but nor can we reclaim it. Everyone at some time must confront cultural challenges. Adapt, or move on.”
“Not everyone is in a position to move on,” said the questioner, a man who wore a neatly-trimmed goatee and James Joyce glasses.
Nicolas shrugged his shoulders as though that was not his problem. “Then they need to come up with their own solutions.” When his audience did not murmur in mass agreement that time, he held up Heart of America. “My role is to observe and report what is happening. I’m just the miner that digs up the material.” He still wanted to open windows for others.
His speaking time ended, with hands still raised, when the bookstore clerk stepped to the front and announced that the Q&A was over, so that people could get their books signed and go home before the temperature dropped to dangerous levels.
More than half of the the audience formed the book-signing line. I was in the middle. What on earth was I doing there? I had gnawed on it all day and still didn’t know what I would say, or what I was looking for. Absolution? Before I could ponder any further, the woman in line behind me tapped my shoulder and spoke as though we knew each other well. We had never met. She had finished the book late one night and had gotten up the next morning and started reading it again from the beginning. “He’s wonderful,” she said. “I’d follow him across the world.” She laughed. “I do, in his books.” She continued talking at me until I stood unprepared in front of the table set up with a stack of copies of Heart of America, and Nicolas barely glancing up. His face had been baked by those sun-drenched places he’d yearned for. I set my copy of the book on the table, opened to the title page as the bookstore clerk had instructed. I had removed the paper jacket at home, after I spilled tea on it.
“How would you like me to sign it?” he said.
I pushed out a breath that I didn’t realize I was holding. “Oh…to Claire.” I whispered, “Claire DeWayne.”
He looked at me, silver hair that had been burgundy, thick glasses I didn’t need when he knew me, and skin lined by sun and time. He squinted across the room to a bookshelf where the travel section is located, seemingly to find a place for the name. I did not offer him help. When his eyes shifted to the line of people standing with their books to be signed, he shrugged off the effort. His left hand held the pen as he wrote To Claire, and scribbled his signature. He pushed the book toward me. It all took no longer than a minute or two.
Stiffness slipped from my body. “Thank you,” I said, and smiled. “Good luck with the book.”
Mary Pat Musick’s short stories have appeared in Bartleby Snopes, The Pedestal Magazine, Summerset Review, The MacGuffin, The Monarch Review, and elsewhere. She lives in Santa Cruz, California.