I really, really, really, really like this one. Just saying.
Caldwell’s shelves don’t seem so tall anymore.
I remember the very first time I walked into Mr. Caldwell’s store, how the shelves loomed over me, and the books were so high up they could not be reached by my grasping hands. I remember mom dropping me off while she and dad went to see a counselor, asking the quiet man behind the counter to watch over me while they were gone. I remember him looking just as confused as I felt, looking like he had no idea what to do with me. And so he nodded toward one of the many huge shelfs, at the colorful books that rested there. I remember having to drag a chair from the other side of the room in order to reach the colorful books, the ones with the drawings, on the lowest shelves. Having to jump as high as my short legs would allow me so my chubby fingers could reach the bland, thicker books with the dull covers and no drawings to speak of (those books were to be avoided at all costs). Having to drag back the chair to where I found it after Mr. Caldwell would raise his eyebrow at me, the colorful book lying safely on the seat.
Later on, I didn’t need the chair to help me reach for books anymore, though I still had to jump most of the time. I could now stand on my tiptoes and stretch my arm as far as it would go, my fingers brushing against the spine of the worn down books. I still reached for the colorful books, and used the boring ones as a seat, so I could sit comfortably with my new book on my lap. Mr. Caldwell never really told me not to. I spend most of my time there, since the counselor visits seemed to happen more and more often. So often, in fact, that I had read through most of the colorful books. And so I kept a countdown of how many unread books I had left. Six. Five. Four. Three. Two. One. And then ten more books appeared. And every time I got six, five, four, three, two, one books left, ten more would appear. It was like magic.
And then later, the books where not what interested me in that store. No, it was the shelves themselves. To me, they were still so tall, they still towered over me. They provided shelter and a sense of security. I could go hide behind the one in the very back, the one filled with books in another language no one seemed to understand, since nobody ever went back there. I would lean back against the giant wooden shelf and its shadows would hide me from prying eyes. I could go there when life got hard, when the divorce felt like it was all too much and impossible to handle. I could shed my tears in solitude, worry in peace, and brood in silence. I could stay there for hours and not be found; people would walk past me and not see me, noticing instead the many shelves surrounding us. The only one who seemed to be able to find me between the shadows of the shelves was Mr. Caldwell, who never said a word, instead just handed me a book, one of the colorful ones, and walked away, silent as ever.
It was many years after that when I finally stopped siting on the dull books and opened one of them instead. It was by mere chance that I did. Mom had dropped me off and gone to work, my weekend bag hidden behind the counter as I waltzed around the bookstore, waiting for dad to pick me up. I was climbing the shelves for one of the colorful books that had mistakenly been placed in between the greys and browns of the boring ones at the very top shelf when my hand slipped from where it was grasping the wood and down I went, my hands wildly grabbing at anything they could reach in order to avoid me falling. It did not work. Instead, my fingers found a grey book, one of the big ones, and it fell right alongside me. I hit the ground first, the book second, though only after bouncing off my head first. I remember sitting up and glaring accusingly at the book, as though it had been its fault that I found myself on the ground. It wasn’t until I looked up that I noticed Mr. Caldwell standing frozen a few shelves away, his hands suspended on the air, as though he were reaching for a book. He didn’t say a word, unsurprisingly, though I could see him fighting to suppress a smile. I turned my accusing glare his way. It wasn’t until then that he lost the battle and he smiled. And then he was gone, walking away from me with the book he had gone to get held firmly in his hand. With no one else to glare at, I turned back to the book, and found it was open on the ground, its white and black pages staring back at me passively. That was when I noticed it. The picture. The dull, bland, grey book had a picture, too. I was hooked.
And now, those days of distinguishing the books as either colorful or dull are far behind me. At least that’s what I tell myself as I browse the shelves, looking for the books whose covers are different shades of grey and black, and bypassing the ones with bright covers. I don’t use the grey ones as seats anymore, either. Instead, I sit on the plush carpet that I’m almost certain Mr. Caldwell got just so I would stop sitting on his grey books, and surround myself with them, immersing myself in their stories and pictures. I study for my college classes from the grey and black books, all of which somehow seem to appear on the shelves not long after I tell Mr. Caldwell which classes I’m taking that semester. And every once in a while, when I feel like pulling my hair out and throwing the books across the room, Mr. Caldwell will hand me a colorful book without uttering a word, and I will roll my eyes at him but read it with as much enjoyment as I do the grey books. I don’t need a chair, or to even jump in order to reach a single book on any of the shelves. Instead, I walk on the plush carpet, eyeing the books on the highest shelf, and remember the times when I would jump to reach the books that I now have to bend down to reach, the times when the foreign language bookshelf was my safe haven instead of my research facility, and I realize something.
Caldwell’s shelves don’t seem so tall anymore.