Guest Blogger Michael Mohr- Author & Freelance Editor
Michael had the following prompts to choose from:
The Loss of Michener
Tim Warner took one step into Bart’s Books and nearly collapsed: there, in front of him, was the hottest woman he’d ever laid his twenty-three-year-old eyes on.
Bart’s Book, in the tiny hippie-dippy town of Ojai, California, was nearly defunct. It shouldn’t have been alive still. Books in shelves outdoors, taking in literary sunlight—Tim always thought of books needing darkness—Bart’s was an unusual bookstore in that it contained an open maze of sweltering literature.
Mysteries and cozies and 1950s hardboiled detective fiction—Ed McBain and Ross McDonald, perhaps—intertwined with the finest of work by Trollop and Poe and everything in between.
It wasn’t fair. Seeing this woman. Tim was visiting his parents; he’d grown up in Ojai and was now living in San Francisco—the “big city” according to anyone living in Ojai.
Tim had walked four miles from the East End—where his folks lived on a prime piece of real estate—and was genuinely hoping for a good few hours of rest, solitude, and non-reality. Non-reality was the term he used for when he was carried away by a good narrator. For hours on end, he could waste away the day by traveling into the world of a good author. Who would it be today? he’d thought, before entering the open archway of Bart’s Books. Truman Capote, perhaps? A little In Cold Blood…
But those trivial thoughts had all occurred prior to walking inside the bookstore.
It was six-forty-five P.M. Bart’s closed at nine. So, either way, he only had two hours and fifteen minutes to peruse.
She was working behind the counter. Already beginning to get dark (Tim was home for Christmastime, it was late December, when the days were short), the sun was a fluid orange and yellow wax thing descending behind him, to the West, where, thirty miles down Highway thirty-three, the Pacific Ocean lay.
She sat on a stool behind the miniature counter, which was lined with thin paperbacks, presumably from the 50s. Pulp. The kind of stuff that had been looked at by the literati of the time (and probably still today) as…well…distasteful, to say the least.
She had all this makeup on—that’s what confused him the most. In bad porno movies, it would have been the stereotypical, hot librarian chick with thick glasses and red, red lipstick. That’s what she looked like. Seriously.
But it was when she stepped around the counter, her little white hand clinging to the register while she did, that Tim’s eyes grew. Her dark, curled hair bobbed this way and that. But it was the whole picture which stabbed Tim. Beige high-heels; that gasoline-colored mascara with the red lips. Jesus Christ, Tim gulped.
Nearly tripping on his own feet, he moved toward the “Mystery” section. A good crime novel would do him just fine. As he breezed past her (he hoped to God almighty it seemed like he didn’t care), she did the worst thing possible: she glanced over at him and smiled.
But it wasn’t just some stupid, innocent little smile. Oh, no. She did this thing with her mouth. The red-lipped mouth of hers kind of…how do you say it?—it sort of bent up and then down right away, like a smile/frown trying to decide which one it truly wanted to be. Whatever it was, it forced a surge of desire up within Tim, like upwelling in the ocean, bringing up the cold, bottom water to the top. The waves in his heart or soul or—was it something else?—brain, pounded.
Pretending to look through the mysteries—McBain and McDonald; why not?, he liked the “M’s”—he kept looking back at her, hoping, praying that she’d glance his way again.
But she didn’t. He watched her as she rang a few customers up—one old man who was stooped over almost halfway, with a huge gray beard, and was buying some mammoth art book—and as she began to count the receipts for her shift. The light had faded nearly completely. Lamps stationed around the maze of Bart’s started flickering on.
After ten minutes of browsing, he lost track of her, and stopped thinking about it. Focusing instead on books, he picked several up and began to read. He started with McDonald, but soon found himself engrossed with James Michener’s “Mexico.”
That’s when it happened.
Out of nowhere—really loving the first page of “Mexico”—he felt a presence. It came from behind him. Then he felt a sensation not unlike what he imagined an angel touching you in heaven might feel like.
It was the counter-girl’s hand, brushing up against his side. Immediately, she brushed past him, not looking back. He gulped but quickly assumed that she had simply bumped into him.
But then—five minutes later—she came back. She moved past him easily, but reached out and placed something next to him on the shelf. It was a note. The note was right in front of Henry Miller’s “Tropic of Cancer”—an old, battered original or reprint from the 40s, perhaps.
Terrified, nervous beyond all measure, Tim walked over a few paces and snatched the note. He scanned around, three-sixty, making sure no one was looking. No one was. The store was almost empty. One old woman—must have been in her mid seventies—patrolled around still, a cane in one varicose hand, breathing audibly, seeming confused. Tim wondered if she could even still read.
Turning away from the old lady, he opened the note—which was folded in fourths—and read it.
I have a boyfriend. But, that being said, I think I’d like to risk it, anyway. I like your…energy. I can’t explain it. The manager just showed up to finish out the night. He’s working the register until close. However, I still have to remain here until then to close up the books. Meet me, if you’re interested, in the back of the Hemingway section, behind the “Mysteries.” It’s my secret spot.
The truth was, he had a girlfriend. Amanda. They’d been going together for six months. The train had been moving nicely up the tracks, so to speak. He was ready to move to the next level. But, this woman: he couldn’t resist.
But what if they got caught by the manager? What if that weird old woman popped her head into the Hemingway section—unlikely, the sexist pig that Ole’ Hem was—and saw them? There were too many open possibilities, too many strings attached.
But did he possess the power to walk away from this? He felt the pounding in his chest. His legs, tight blue jeans around them, staggered. Oh, God.
Tim turned and spied the counter. Indeed, a man was now behind it, in fact ringing up the old woman. At least now she wouldn’t be an issue. Thank God for small miracles.
Tim Warner took a deep breath, closed his eyes, and said a quick prayer. Then he placed McDonald and Michener back in their respective slots. He regretted the loss of Michener. But this was bigger, more important than any James Michener novel, goddamn-it. Truth be told, it was more important than reading.
Clicking his fingers on the spines of the old books, caked with light dust, he maneuvered, slowly, toward the Hemingway section. The manager looked up right as he slid past, eyeing Tim with what he felt was contempt. Another damn kid slinking around his bookstore.
Taking another breath, exhaling, he did a partial turn and located the “Classic Fiction” section. From here he could see what appeared to be an outdoor cave. A literary cave, he thought. He almost smiled. But no, this wasn’t a smiling time. This was serious.
There was a moment of pure fear. Frozen, he heard a footstep behind him. The manager? The old woman? The police? He laughed at this last one—surely he was just being paranoid now.
He swallowed and continued. There was zero light. Probably, there was a light that was supposed to be on. There must be light somewhere. There simply must be some kind of—
A hand clutched his shoulder. He leaped. It was her. Using a miniature flashlight, she pointed the light at her face. She was cupping her hand around her mouth, trying to stifle a laugh. Close up, she smelled like an angel. That “woman” smell that men could never figure out. How did they smell so good?
Daphne placed her hand on his shoulder and guided him past her, further into the Bart’s Books Cave.
After a few seconds, they hit a wall. She turned another light on by pulling a chain. A sickly yellow hue appeared, hardly blotting out the darkness. But it was enough. Her red, red lipstick was alluring, more so than any book he’d ever read—because this character was real, right here, in front of him.
Tim shivered. It was cold out. Nighttime in Ojai. The cold, gigantic, snow-peaked mountains a few thousand feet up were probably colder than the Pacific Ocean in the middle of January, Tim thought.
“Shhhhh,” she said, placing a white index finger against her red lips. “It’s not important.”
Tim swallowed and stood absolutely still. She stepped forward. It was silent. Her lips came to his and they kissed. She placed her hand up to his chest and rested it there—he was sure she could feel his hard beating heart.
Her tongue danced with his. Was this real? Was he dreaming? No—it was real. Real life.
They kissed like lovers. They massaged each other’s tongues like characters in a Hemingway novel. How could that sonofabitch have put both barrels of a shotgun in his mouth and pulled the trigger? Tim wondered.
Suddenly, her hands were moving all over him. Then his, all over her. They were embracing. Before he knew what was happening, they were removing each other’s clothing. Holy Christ, he thought. A near panic took hold of him. This was too much. What if they got caught?
Naked, she smiled and slipped her tongue in his mouth. She turned, placing her hands against A Moveable Feast and A Farewell to Arms. All at once he was inside her, from behind. They rocked and moved and tried to stifle their moans. This was ecstasy. This was crazy. This was…Christ…insanity times a million!
They both released their pleasure upon each other. Kissing, they got dressed in a hurried, awkward manner. Tim sniffled and cracked his neck. Daphne smiled and got beet-red in the face. She slid her hand along his shoulder, kissed his cheek—as if she were stabbing him with her mouth—turned, and left.
He knew he’d never see her again.
As he slowly walked out of the cave, a feeling of ultimate loneliness and sadness overcame him. He’d cheated. He’d done a wrong. Plus, she’d done another man somewhere a wrong. They’d committed a wrong together. All he’d wanted to do was read. Read. What a simple thing to want to do, right?
Stepping past the surly-looking manager, Tim attempted a weak smile and wave. He realized he hadn’t bought anything—a first for him in a bookstore. But today had been a day of firsts, that was clear.
Exiting Bart’s Books, he headed to Main Street, which would take him back to the East End, where his parents would be waiting. How’d the bookstore go, they’d say, big fat smiles on their helpless, middleclass faces.
As Tim Warner walked, hands in pockets, past the Ojai Movie Theatre, past all the kids dancing around—with their whole lives ahead of them—he thought about the things that he’d been avoiding thinking about for so long, since he’d moved back to California.
Maybe it was time to be honest. Tell Amanda how he really felt about their relationship. He wasn’t happy. The truth was, he wasn’t happy with his life. Maybe he could start over, re-build. Begin from Square One. Move back to Oregon, even. Who knows.
One thing was certain. It would be a very, very long time before he forgot about Daphne. A very long time, indeed. Perhaps he never would. Perhaps he’d get older, find his chosen career, marry, settle down, have kids. One day, thirty years from this one, he’d be bouncing his grandchild on his knee, and the kid would ask, Grandpa Tim, when was the first time you fell in love?
He would gulp and feel his heart beat. He’d look around the room. He’d then look in the child’s eyes, hard, stern.
“Have you ever read Hemingway?” he’d say.
They’d look at him with a confused stare, curious, wanting to know more. The twinkle would return to his own eyes. And then it’d sizzle out. When his wife returned. Her never knowing even the faintest bit about what had happened in Bart’s Books that night so many years ago.
He’d keep it secret. He’d keep it in his memory.
Forever. Like a novel.
Michael Mohr is a Bay Area author. A freelance editor—for editing services email a query and the first chapter (via word.doc attachments) of a novel or nonfiction to: Michaelmohreditor@gmail.com—and new social media hound, you can find Michael on Facebook, Twitter (Michael_Editor@Twitter.com), and Linked-In. Michael’s published work can be found in Flash: The International Short Short Story Magazine; The MacGuffin; Gothic City Press; Alfie Dog Press; Milvia Street; and others. He is literary agent Elizabeth Kracht’s assistant (Kimberley Cameron & Associates). Please visit Michael’s weekly blog on writing; the literary agent’s world (what works and doesn’t for writers trying to get an agent); and publishing. His blog is: Michaelmohrwriter.com.