“Can I help you with something?”
I peer up from a dark corner of the bookstore, tucked somewhere between the “Reference” and “Classics” sections where nobody lingers for longer than a few moments. Huddled snugly in my cocoon of tomes gathered from across the Philosophy, History, Literature and Religion aisles, I’m surprised—even a little disappointed—someone’s managed to find me.
The person addressing me is a slight, sinewy man dressed head-to-toe in black. His name tag sports only two initials “S.J.” and since he’s dressed differently from the rest of the staff, I deduce that he must be the manager, presently concerned over this obstructive catalog of books piled around me.
Bald at the top, SJ’s oval-shaped head is encircled by a dark crown of hair that joins up with graying sideburns and a goatee. There’s a sort of weather-beaten quality to his appearance, as if he’s traversed mountains and lakes to reach me at this exact spot in the bookstore. With protruding eyes and an aquiline nose, he would come across as severe were he not smiling in such a kindly manner.
“Are you looking for any particular sort of book?” he asks again. From his accent, I can immediately tell English isn’t his native tongue, and from his olive complexion and slight stature, he looks to hail from somewhere in the Mediterranean.
“Thanks, but I’m good actually,” I say with a smile.
I watch his eyes thoughtfully scan the curious selection of books I’ve assembled—1066: The Hidden History in the Bayeux Tapestry by Andrew Bridgeford; Thomas Merton’s Seven Storey Mountain; The Confessions of St Augustine; TS Eliot’s The Waste Land; Dante’s Divine Comedy; and at a discreet corner, Shakespeare’s Henry V—and wonder if he’s silently judging me, or my (taste in) books.
“Right then, will let you get back to it,” he says with a nod, followed by a playful wink. “But if you’re looking for something more specific and need any ideas, I’ll be around somewhere.”
“Yeah of course,” I say, impressed by the extra attentive service in the bookstore this day. And with that, SJ turns to leave.
With his back to me, I notice all the sharp angles about his bony frame and am astonished at how very thin he is. He also walks with a slight limp, though I can’t be certain if that’s just his natural gait. It then occurs to me that I’ve never before seen SJ in this very bookstore that I so often frequent. Probably just the new store manager, I reckon.
As he disappears out of sight, a nagging feeling is welling up within. I wonder if I should’ve have just taken him up on his offer; if he might’ve recommended me a really cool book or two. But he also did say that was provided I had something specific in mind—and my mind is presently drawing a blank.
No matter, I’m anxious to locate SJ and pick his brains. So I gather my books and head for the information counter.
“Yes, ma’am?” blinks a pretty bespectacled girl helming the desk. She eyes the stack of books in my arms and looks ready to direct me over to the cashier’s.
“Oh I was wondering if I could talk to SJ, your colleague.”
“I’m sorry, who?”
“SJ,” I repeat myself. “One of your staff? He’s dressed in all black.”
She cranes her neck to assess the non-existent line behind me but it’s not a typically busy day and I’m her only customer at the moment. “Do you mean Ashton?”
I shake my head.
“It was a man,” I clarify. “He was a wearing a name tag and we were just talking awhile ago, over there.” I point to the exact spot where I was sitting amid my heap of books.
She drums her fingers on the table and gives me a sort of look that suggests mild irritation. “Let me just check with my colleagues. Excuse me for a second.”
After several minutes, she re-emerges from a back office with a tall man in a brown suit. We shake hands and he introduces himself as the store manager. In a sympathetic but firm tone, he explains that there isn’t a staff he knows of (and he knows all his staff) that goes by the name of SJ. Perhaps I am mistaken. (Or hallucinating. Or crazy.)
“But if there’s anything else we can help you with?” he offers, turning his attention to my armful of books. “The cashier’s right around the corner.”
“I think I’ll look around some more, if that’s OK.”
No longer in the mood to read, let alone purchase, any of the books, I’m ready to call it a day. At this point I feel not so much embarrassment as complete befuddlement. I’m certain SJ was real and I’m not losing my mind; moreover, I concede that it’s entirely possible he’s simply a cunning imposter with too much time on his hands. Still, I reason, he never actually claimed to work here, and I’d simply assumed. Mea culpa.
As I meander through the various aisles returning the books to their rightful shelves, random nouns, verbs and adjectives seemingly jump out at me from the covers of miscellaneous books and magazines.
None of these make any sense to me—in fact, everything about this day feels like a huge puzzle whose pieces seem neither to fit nor belong. I don’t believe I have the answers, nor do I want to begin to try to figure things out. Though this much I know—if SJ’s real, I’m going to see him again, and he’s going to show me a really great book.
[to be continued]