Issue 22 | Summer 2019

Geppetto’s Workshop

On the ride in from the airport as they passed through the western suburbs, Byrne fought down the urge to touch the driver on the shoulder and tell her to turn back. He’d changed his mind. As it was, he wasn’t at all sorry to be stuck in rush hour traffic—anything that kept him from truly arriving was just fine. The whole thing was a colossal mistake, one he hated to even think about. Eventually, he consoled himself by looking forward to his first view of the city. The sudden panorama had been made famous in film, even when they were pretending it was a city other than Pittsburgh; the long shot of speeding through the tunnel, the vague claustrophobia, the flashing lights, and then, voila!, the cityscape exploding into sight, a magic trick revealed.

All he’d been hearing was that Pittsburgh was the new Portland, the new Brooklyn; it was artsy, it was culinary, it was ripe because it was politically progressive and a hipster couple could still afford to buy property here. Byrne was unmoved. His first reaction, even as he’d walked through the airport, was that he didn’t know why he had come back. When his business was completed—this was how he continued to refer to it—he promised himself he’d never set foot in America again. Never mind this city’s alleged ascendance. Waiting to board the Aer Lingus flight, he’d had himself convinced that he was looking forward to seeing Kristina. And he was. He’d even taken heart from the other Americans on the flight, most of whom were nicely dressed and generally well behaved. But now, the city spread out before him, he felt empty.

The hotel was new and expensive and possessed an exotic-sounding name; he had chosen it because he felt it was important to protect himself from the ugliness of life here—the plastic and the cartoonish and the easy, everyday vulgarity. Far more important, he wanted to protect himself from nostalgia. A disease he was susceptible to. In his middle fifties, he’d reached the age where his daydreams were dominated by regrets, feelings he usually shook away with work and a certain briskness of manner. And today with the fantasy of a beautiful, expensive hotel—the interior of which suggested residence far away from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

The desk clerk had his reservation ready and was busy delivering a dissertation on the features of the hotel and the amenities of his room.

“It looks like you’re with us for several weeks, Mr. Byrne.”

“I have business in town—I’ll be staying until it’s completed.”

“That’s wonderful.”

“Is it?”

Byrne knew it was a stupid thing to say, that he and the clerk were engaged in a polite choreography, one in which deviating from the steps just made everyone feel foolish. He simply couldn’t help it. He felt he was being pulled back into something against his will and it was making him ungracious.

“Of course, it is,” he said, smiling. “Wonderful.”

“I’ll have someone help you with your bags.”

“Thank you.”

Installed in his room, Byrne plugged in his laptop and spent a few minutes reviewing a set of images he’d prepared for his meeting in the morning with Kristina. Then, knowing it was important to stay awake until at least 9 pm, he took a shower, dressed, and went downstairs to the bar. There he ordered a little food, just a salad and some soup, and sat with a drink. The soft lighting, the jazz trio in the corner, the presence of a nice crowd, all conspired to make him believe he was once again thirty years old with all of life’s rich possibilities ahead of him. At some point, with this feeling still intact, he drifted back up to his room, arranged his wake-up call, and fell into a deep sleep.

A few minutes before ten o’clock the next morning, Byrne rode the elevator down to the lobby and found a comfortable chair from which to wait for Kristina. He wanted to create a certain kind of impression on her, this girl who was now a young woman, who was not his daughter because he had never married her mother, but who might as well have been. The impression he wanted to give was of a former American, now European man of a certain age, who knew who he was, who was relaxed and confident. Back in his room where he’d eaten his croissant and black coffee alone, he’d checked himself carefully in the mirror. His clothes were neat and clean and expensive—though not flashy. Considering all that Kristina had been through, he thought, she deserved someone in her life who at least looked sensible and kind.

When she entered the hotel’s revolving door, he stood up and they embraced. Kristina gushed over how good he looked and how wonderful it was to see him, and then kept the enthusiasm of this first moment at a high pitch when she explained how grateful to him she was for his help, for traveling all this way, for everything really. The speech sounded a little rehearsed, but the hug she gave him was sincere.

“We’ve missed you,” Kristina said. She was taking in the beauty of the hotel lobby, its quiet air of efficiency. “This place is nice.”

“Yes, it is. Should we get a table in the restaurant and some coffee and you could tell me how things stand?

“Straight to it, huh?” she said laughing. “Enough with these pleasantries. Let’s get to work.”

“Well, it’s an exciting project.”

Kristina and her partners had already made the most important decisions about the bookstore—Geppetto’s Workshop. That’s what they planned to call it. Byrne was wanted for branding. It was a term he despised. The group had their ideas, but couldn’t come to an agreement about the look of the shop—what it stood for and how that idea was communicated to the world. Through his work he had visited some of the most famous bookshops in the world, had stood in them and breathed their air. Kristina thought he could help to clarify things. She wanted nothing left to chance.

“We want to lead them to something good,” she said, “to something they didn’t even realize they wanted until they step inside and discover it.”

“Can your group meet today? Is it possible to see the space?”

“No. But everyone is free tomorrow.”

“Good. Get them together. Let’s meet at the shop, and let them know I’ll put together a little presentation.”

“You don’t want to know what our ideas are first?” Kristina laughed.

“Good lord, no,” he said. “Other people’s ideas are so boring, ultimately.”

“Even mine?”

“Especially yours, no doubt,” he said, which kept Kristina’s laughter going. It was a sound he had missed.

 

What concerned Byrne was that Kristina and her friends had romanticized the idea of owning a bookshop. They were all so young—he smiled as he opened on his computer an image of Marks & Co., the fictional bookshop from 84 Charring Cross Road, starring Anthony Hopkins and Anne Bancroft—and didn’t yet realize the only thing that could create the dusty old bookshop teeming with hidden treasures was time. On the screen the bookshelves were painted a flat gray. On a table just inside the door were stacks of new arrivals and on another table neat piles of illustrated prints. The interior space was a hodgepodge of architectural oddities: seemingly random support columns, a glass wall that provided a view of the manager’s office, an Edwardian-era Information Desk that was jammed up against a dusty radiator, the rows of old books that brought the whole place to life.

He had never been one to trample on peoples’ dreams, and certainly not now with Kristina. He would show them the images of famous bookshops he’d brought with him, exteriors and interiors, describe what it felt like to be there at different times of the day and night, and then he would inspect their space and try to make a connection that inspired. What he would not say was that simply being open for business didn’t make for a great bookshop. Always there was some intangible element—would we know Shakespeare & Company if Sylvia Beach had not lent books to Hemingway or undertaken to publish Joyce? Would we give any special notice to City Lights if it had not been founded by Ferlinghetti? And Pittsburgh was not Paris, Pittsburgh was not San Francisco. God bless it.

More importantly, Byrne no longer believed his country had the soul worthy of a great bookshop. Or really worthy of anything other than indifference. He had come to help Kristina, and once he had done what he could to successfully launch her business, he’d be on the next available international flight. Perhaps it was simply age, but he’d whittled the things he cared about down to only a few essentials: his career, the little flat he’d purchased, and the friends he met and talked with in the afternoons at his local. He’d relinquished all politics, all care about History, certainly any attachment to the concept of nations. Some places simply made him happier than others. America, as far as he was concerned, was a train wreck. If Kristina wanted to know why he felt that way then he’d tell her. He’d like her to know, but he had decided he wouldn’t press his ideas on her. He wouldn’t let himself get angry or despondent—and he would never forget how lucky he was to be able to simply walk away, not when there were so many who wanted to but couldn’t.  Yes, they’d have a wonderful time doing some work together and then, as he said, he’d be off—thinking only of the future.

 

Byrne thought of them as friends now, and that was mostly true, but in the beginning, they were simply the staff and regulars of the Dog and Duck, the pub two streets over from his flat in Swords.

Deirdre had been behind the bar working the taps when he came in looking for a drink after his interview at the university. He liked the way that she talked to people, her gift for taking whatever was said to her and finding something of interest in it. He also admired her tireless work ethic, her wit and intelligence, and he even found in her a kind of sturdy attractiveness. She had a particular way of putting down a pint of beer in front of you, reverent, he often described it to himself, as if it were a carafe of holy water. More importantly, it was Deirdre who told him the best place to buy his groceries and to have his suits cleaned. She knew he was from America, but hadn’t made a big deal out of that—not that there was any reason why she should.

It was on the night when her daughter’s divorce had become finalized, and she was celebrating the news, that he and Deirdre had become friends. The son-in-law had been a “fecking cliché”—couldn’t keep a job, was cruel about the daughter’s religious feelings, and was subtly abusive in half a dozen other ways. She was well rid of him and Deirdre was buying drinks for everyone. Anything they wanted, save champagne, which she didn’t keep in the Dog and Duck. Byrne hadn’t had a martini since he’d moved to Ireland and so asked for one, partly because he thought it would go down nicely just then and partly to see what she’d say when he asked for it.

“Is this James Bond I have standing at my bar?” she said.

“Ah, no.”

“Oh, I think it is,” she said. “And will that be a gin or a vodka martini, Mr. Bond?”

“Vodka.”

“Dry?”

“Just the barest whisper of vermouth.”

“Just the barest whisper. Yes, sir. And dare I ask, would you prefer that shaken or stirred?

“Surprise me.”

“Oh, Lord!”

The martini would become famous between them, both because of all the silliness but also because halfway through the drink Deirdre had become maudlin, saying how they shouldn’t be celebrating, that no matter how well rid of him she was, no one would ever wish the end of a marriage on someone, least of all a beloved daughter. At least there were no children and, at this, she began to cry. That’s when Byrne had taken her hand and spoken in a kind voice, one he’d had long practice with, and described for her the things that might be true about her daughter’s life. That she would discover new things about herself, a richness and a depth to her personality that she may have suspected were there, but which now would be self-evident. How she’d be free to follow her faith without ridicule, and that would bring her comfort. But above all, that walking away from one idea of herself didn’t mean she was lost, only that there was a chance to see a different woman develop. A new chance. He said he thought it was a beautiful idea. He’d staked his own life on it after all.

This moment need not have led to friendship, but only half knowing what he wanted from her, he started to do what he could to help her. At first he brought Deirdre small gifts—a pack of cigarettes, a bar of chocolate—always with the idea that he had extra and was happy to share. Then, he started to invite friends from his department out to join him for a drink at the Dog and Duck. In no time, there were eight or ten of them, a mixture of colleagues and post-graduate students, who met every Thursday evening. They started calling themselves the Canine Quackers Club and they spent a lot of money. After a few months of this, Byrne often stood in the doorway at closing time to help usher his friends out the door, to shake hands and give a few beery hugs, and then wave them all away. At first, he had turned back inside only to help clear away the glasses and plates from the Quackers’ table before saying goodnight himself, but little by little, by simply failing to leave, he stayed to clean the place and share one final pint after Deirdre locked the door.

It was during this time of sitting in the darkened bar, Deirdre on the customer’s side for a change, their heads sometimes close together like conspirators, that they truly became friends. Of course, Deirdre talked about her daughter, giving him updates about how she was doing, where she’d found a job, and who she’d had supper with last weekend. But she rarely spoke about herself directly—certainly not about whatever hopes and dreams she might be harboring for her own life. Deirdre’s personality seemed only to radiate outward, toward others, which was why it began to come to rest on him.

“What are you really doing here, in Swords of all places? It’s not even properly Dublin.”

And so, he told her about the circumstances of his emigration. How he’d happened just by chance to be in New York in March of 2003 on the day when the United States began the invasion of Iraq. How he’d woken up in his hotel room to CNN screaming “Shock and Awe,” and then gone out onto the street to find a restaurant to have breakfast only to discover National Guardsmen on the sidewalks carrying M-16s. He had never seen the military deployed on American soil—of course, it had been at various times in the past, he knew that, but he’d never seen it. Not with his own eyes. And something broke in him at the sight—the feeling, he said, was surreal. What was this country that needed to deploy troops on the streets of Manhattan? He didn’t recognize it. Later, he delivered a paper at a conference—his reason for being in New York—and afterward, all the talk was about the invasion. Byrne had become angry and described America as sad and adolescent, a bully who got sucker-punched and was now lashing out indiscriminately at anyone who might have a little lunch money to steal. The group he was with was generally anti-war, but there was one man who took him aside, his hand gripping Byrne’s upper arm, and whispered hotly in his ear, “If you hate your country so much, why don’t you fucking leave.” It hadn’t been a question.

Byrne laughed as he recounted this for Deirdre, even pretending to imitate the man’s whisper. “The thought had never occurred to me before. America was where you came to…for freedom. The notion that you could declare it a failed idea and walk away? I pushed the guy’s arm aside and started to laugh like a hysteric.”

He’d stayed in the city to participate in the protests that were flooding the streets, helping to make signs that said “How Many Lives Per Gallon?” “Drop Bush, Not Bombs,” and simply, “Please God, No More War.” Then one night he went with a friend to an Irish bar near Rockefeller Center. It was meant to be authentic, a real Irish bar staffed with genuine Irish immigrants. He’d never been to Ireland, but with a name like Byrne there was always a part of him that identified with the old country. It had never seemed important, but it was always there in the food his grandmother had cooked for him as a child, in the St. Brigid’s cross hanging on the wall in his mother’s hallway. “I have to tell you, I walked into the bar that night and looked around at all the staff—the hostess, the bartender, the servers and manager—and had a little bit of a revelation. Deirdre: they all looked like me. I thought, here are my people! I hadn’t known I had people.”

They both laughed.

“It was all more complicated than that,” he said. “Likely there was a woman involved somewhere too.

“Of course! But here you are.”

“Here I am.”

“Well, welcome home,” she’d said and kissed him.

Byrne walked out of his hotel until he hit Grant Street, then turned in the direction of the Strip District—famous for its fish market, its vegetable stalls, its cheese counters and chocolate shops—to the Emporium. It was in name a restaurant supply company—a warehouse, really, a junk shop—filled with every conceivable table, chair, fixture, and sign. All of it used. He thought he might see something for the bookstore, something quirky and unusual that customers would come to associate with the shop. No one greeted him when he opened the door. He remembered there was a back office somewhere, smelling of cigarette smoke and decorated with old pin-up calendars and a wall clock in the shape of a Steeler’s logo. Someone would eventually appear. In the meantime, he let his eyes adjust to the dim light and took in the uneven rows of merchandise.

There was no hurry and so Byrne took his time, feeling the thrill of a treasure hunt. Against one wall were piled a mass of neon signs, their wires tangled together: the ubiquitous red lips, a green cricket wearing a top hat and carrying an umbrella that he remembered adorning the front of a now long-defunct gentleman’s club, a red and white Budweiser sign. Here, he thought, was the real America, its genuine art. Childish neon representations of love and sex and alcoholic escape. There was none of the secret joy of cynicism to these thoughts, just the sudden memory of the despair he’d felt before he left. The same despair he suspected Kristina and her friends wanted to fight off by opening a bookshop: a little oasis, a small touch of culture and idiosyncrasy in the otherwise bland landscape.

He pulled out the top-hatted cricket with his umbrella, untangled its wire, and plugged it into a nearby wall socket. The little man blinked to life—only three small segments in need of repair. He imagined the sign recharged and mounted on the wall behind the front counter or in some unexpected corner, totally incongruous, making no sense at first, and then making the best kind of sense of all to anyone who remembered Pinocchio. It might be especially striking if the rest of the shop looked Old World and traditional, something out of Dickens or Flaubert, doorways and moldings edged in reclaimed wood, stained dark, just waiting to be layered in dust. And in the midst of all this, a slightly lugubrious neon cricket.

The door to the back office opened and two women passed through to the warehouse floor, the first of whom he noticed particularly because she was laughing. It was a high-pitched sound, almost ugly, but also wild and fond, that suggested you were a fool if you didn’t find yourself laughing along too. She was probably still in her twenties, blond-haired with dark eyebrows, and she wore a gray hoodie that read The Emporium in gothic letters. She was hurrying the other woman along, clearly with a destination in mind, and the impression she gave was of someone who knew every item in the warehouse, its location and price and history. A person who loved her job.

Wanting to talk to someone about the cricket, Byrne trailed distantly behind them. The Emporium woman put one hand on the other’s arm and leaned in to whisper something in her ear, then pointed to an object on a nearby shelf and they both burst into laughter. There was at that moment such an easy camaraderie that the first woman put her arm around the shoulders of the customer and leaned the side of her head against the woman’s head. Then she plucked an object from the shelf in front of them—a tarnished silver candelabra—and gave it to her new friend, whose reaction was to hold it reverently and shake her head in seeming disbelief.

Byrne hadn’t been eavesdropping exactly, but as they turned in his direction, he ducked into an aisle to hide. He felt ridiculous, as though he’d nearly been caught doing something vulgar, when all he’d actually done was patiently wait his turn to make a purchase. But he knew what had happened. It was not déjà vu, nor was it a palimpsest—not exactly. The woman’s laughter had simply brought to Byrne quite vividly a memory of being in love. Save the blond hair, she did not look at all like Jennifer Carlisle. Jennifer’s face was rounder and the tone of her skin richer, Latin in some way. And Jennifer was a small woman, five feet tall with her heels off, and elfin in appearance especially around the eyes. But she had a way about her—an easy intimacy that made you feel you knew her or that, very soon at least, you’d become good friends. She made people feel noticed, wanted. An unkind person might have diagnosed her behavior as attention-seeking or narcissistic, but it was possible to know her for a long time before any of that became clear, and in the meantime she was full of joy and great, great fun.

It should not have surprised him so to have seen all these things in the voice and gestures of the young woman at The Emporium. And yet it had. And yet it always still did. Because even though he knew that Jennifer, only in her late fifties, was already “in care” at a facility north of Pittsburgh, he had always thought that Jennifer was perfectly, wonderfully, horribly, but always only herself. That there could be in this world no one else like her. Clearly, this was wrong. And if these ghost sightings were to be a regular feature of visiting America, then he could add yet another reason to the growing list of why he hadn’t returned before now.

 

In the morning he arranged for an Uber driver to pick him up and take him to the site where the bookshop would be. He worked hard to keep his mind focused on the task at hand; his little presentation was no big deal, but he went over the details as though he would be talking to 500 people rather than five and that it was his money—his dream—at stake and not theirs. He’d been having fun imagining what the space might become—so different from his academic work. Here was a chance for his ideas to be made real. To both imagine them and then to stand in the space and touch it with his hands. Still, even with this excitement, he found himself distracted.

Byrne was not a man who often remembered his dreams, and this morning had been no different except for the unsettled feeling of knowing he had been dreaming, the remnants of something rising away as he fumbled through the toilet and the shower and the brushing of his teeth. By the time he’d eaten his breakfast in the hotel restaurant and worked things out with the Uber driver, all sense of having dreamed was completely gone—except the desire to have been dreaming. This remained as they sat stuck in traffic along the Boulevard of the Allies with a view across the river to Mt. Washington where for six years he and Jennifer had shared an apartment. Oh, how they had disagreed about that place, he thinking it was too expensive and she standing on the little balcony and looking across at the view of downtown and the three rivers. When he’d seen her face though—the high color in her cheeks and her eyes brimming with suppressed emotion—he knew he’d lost.

In fact, he had spent years “losing” to her, which for a long time had felt very much like winning. There was in her life a great drama and energy—an exuberance—that came out in endless talk, most often to do with whatever new article or book she was writing. The talk went on at every possible opportunity, but especially at night, tucked away in bed after a couple of cocktails each at a place called the Electric Banana. She had been so funny then, obscene with the alcohol, always playfully calling him names, “you fucker,” being the most common. And then she would fuck him, biting him, sometimes punching him, always screaming with joy. Afterwards, in nice weather, they sat outside on the little balcony, having one more drink and looking out at the city lights. This was the dangerous time when things might turn because beneath all Jennifer’s high spirits were the uglier, more difficult things that showed up in her work. Her writing nearly always used her own life: the first book about her famous alcoholic father, then a series of well-published articles about her cocaine-fueled undergraduate career, next, a new book about her love affair with bars. This last had been her project when they’d lived together. The interiors of bars as aesthetic spaces, as anthropological sites, as home. How many times had Jennifer sat beside him in a beautiful bar—dark woods and leather and glass and ambient light—turned to him, the first sip of a drink having just passed her lips, and said, “I’m in love with this place, Sean, absolutely in love. It feels like home.” If he only paid attention to the sound of her voice in those moments, it was easy to smile and sip his own drink and feel in love with a woman who could conjure up that kind of affection in her voice. But of course, he’d also paid attention to the words themselves and then followed them through to a series of possible conclusions about Jennifer and her life, some of which had frightened him. And yet despite his fears, he had for a long time allowed the joy, the exuberance, the very sound of her voice, to persuade him. It was what he’d wanted it to do, and so it had.

The success of Jennifer’s career and her relationship with Byrne had convinced her ex-husband that it was all right for Kristina to stay with them on the weekends. When this new arrangement had become known among their friends, everyone had been so pleased, assuming that the three of them together represented a new level of fulfillment in all of their lives. But this was not the case. Because for all of Jennifer’s beautiful words, her thoughtful understanding of people and their lives as they showed up on the page, she was not a parent—by which he had always meant that she was not a reasonable, responsible person to whom someone’s general welfare could be trusted. If sitting at the bar in the evening with a drink was “home,” being trapped in an apartment with an eight-year-old was exile.

But those awkward weekends ended quickly. When Kristina was gone, they became free again to follow their own desires. Jennifer had physical appetites and she taught him to have them too. She needed to be desired, to be grabbed and pushed and pulled at. If he had been more experienced, he wouldn’t have thought this so remarkable. But everything with Jennifer was a new world, and lying in bed in the dark, holding onto each other for dear life and breathing into each other’s mouths, had been the most remarkable thing in his life. In these moments all doubts were swept away, all future evils forgiven.

He understood that a different man would have sent her for help, to Alcoholics Anonymous or to a therapist. But he didn’t really have that in him, it wasn’t who he was. Sean Byrne wasn’t a reformer. Partly it was a rejection of hubris—the idea that he, or anyone, knew what was good for another person. And partly it was selfishness. He loved Jennifer wild. Her appetites impressed him. He also felt strongly that his own life needed attention, especially his career about which he cared deeply. No. The life they lived together had always felt fast and exciting—it wasn’t anything that he had ever wanted to bring back down to earth. Most exciting of all, he would have said, was the way she trusted him with her work, relied on his opinions. Sometimes it was just an idea she wanted to talk out, but often she wanted him to approve of her language, even down to particular words. Valetudinarian. Pulchritude. Liminal. There were times they stayed up deep into the night debating the metaphorical possibilities of a word like liminal. He had loved those nights, those discussions, most of all—the talk and the sex mixing together to make happiness.

The Uber driver had pulled into the little parking lot adjacent to the bookstore, but Byrne was momentarily oblivious. Lost in the past.

“What’s this going to be?” the driver said.

“A bookshop.”

“Well, isn’t that nice.”

“It might be. We hope so.”

There were handshakes and smiles as he was introduced to the future staff of Geppetto’s Workshop, Kristina repeating what she’d already told them about Byrne’s career studying the history of bookselling, having traveled to England, the Continent, Buenos Aires, even to Istanbul, on a kind of book-lover’s pilgrimage.

“There’s not much here to guide us, is there?” he said, looking around at the mostly blank canvas.

Kristina had set up a small projector that could be plugged into his laptop and shown against one of the blank walls, and in a moment the lights were dimmed and the first image appeared in crisp definition.

“I’ve arranged the images according to the important elements that will comprise the shop: shelving, front counter, signage, etc.”

One of the group, a young man in a cardigan nearly shouted, “Oh my God, I’m so excited I’m going to pee my pants!”

Byrne didn’t say anything, just looked at the man until he and everyone else stopped giggling. There was an awkward silence.

“Go ahead, Sean,” Kristina said. She cleared her throat and went on. “Explain to us what we’re seeing.”

Byrne waited another moment or two then began. “The first image is from a fictional bookshop in Charing Cross, in London, called Marks & Co. You’ll notice the shelving is a hodgepodge of styles made uniform with paint. You’ll also notice that they don’t have a single front counter with a cash register, instead they’ve arranged a series of tables in different locations around the space that might be used for various functions.”

“Won’t people wonder where to pay?”

“Maybe, but then you’re provided with a chance to interact with the customers differently. Besides, it’s not as though this space is the size of an airplane hanger.”

“That could work for us.”

That is why I’m showing it to you,” he said.

By lunchtime, they were through, and Byrne was pleased—everything had gone over better than he’d thought. They were, all of them, kind and thoughtful and grateful for his advice. He’d mentioned what he’d found at The Emporium, and Kristina had shown around a photo of the cricket to much laughter—especially when Byrne had told them where it used to live. Already they were on the hunt for bookshelves of almost any kind and had plans to visit the paint store.

Kristina rode along in the Uber with him back to his hotel, and he could sense in her a growing feeling toward him, some of it no doubt based in nostalgia and some the result of the work they were doing together. Beside him in the back of the car, she looped her arm through his and rested her cheek against his shoulder. Then she closed her eyes. It was a move straight out of her childhood, the official position she’d taken when he read to her.

“Would you like me to read you a story?” he asked.

That evening he had arranged to meet with a contractor, a carpenter, whom Byrne had known for decades. The man worked mostly alone and only took on jobs that interested him in some personal way or when it was something for a friend. His name was Lucas and Byrne had always liked him in part because he looked nothing like you’d expect a contractor to look. He was short and thin, with small, round steel-framed eyeglasses—like some kind of foreign intellectual, a political dissident perhaps. A Czech professor of physics who had been forced into manual labor. He looked completely out of place in the lobby of Byrne’s hotel. Working on the bookshop was a job that interested him; he was sympathetic to the idea. Plus, later, he’d be able to visit and show off his work to others—in all likelihood a woman. Byrne could imagine him pulling up to the curb in his rusting Volkswagen van, holding the door for his friend, and escorting her inside to admire his handiwork. Lucas began to pay special attention when Byrne described what was wanted—mainly trim work using reclaimed wood, something to make the shop look like it had been there for decades. Except for a couple of interesting features the space was generic, functional. They were relying on him to make it special.

“You’re excited by this project,” Lucas said. “Does this mean you’re back?”

“Oh, no. I have my university position in Dublin. Just visiting, thank you.”

“Still thinking the grass is greener.” The shake of his head was pure derision.

“Lush and thick and green,” Byrne said, putting on a fake Irish accent. “Oh, aye.”

His last day with Jennifer came to him, in all its horror, as he sat in the bookshop and watched Kristina opening boxes of books and arranging them near the shelves where they would go. There was a certain quality to the afternoon light shining in upon them, dust particles being lit by the sunshine, and it must have been this and the presence of the girl that had him remembering again. He had regretted his decision to leave even as he had been making it, and perhaps even more so now thinking of Jennifer wasting away in that facility and unable to take care of herself. But that afternoon. That afternoon he’d been sitting with Kristina on the couch and reading The Adventures of Pinocchio when Jennifer came in the apartment reeking of alcohol after not coming home the night before.

He’d always thought that for Jennifer there was a line in the sand, the right side of which she’d been living on for most of the years of their relationship. In fact, the story they told themselves was that being together, the little life they’d made on Mt. Washington, had kept her in a mostly good place—drinking, yes, but with some sense of control. One day something had changed. He wished that there had been an event that could be pointed to, but there was not. Perhaps he had bored her at last—his secret fear. She had stopped making love to him and started drinking out alone, leaving him on the weekends to take care of Kristina—a thing he realized he enjoyed once he’d given himself over to it. On that weekend, she’d gone out on Saturday night and never come home.

He remembered sitting on the couch and had just told Kristina to turn the page when the door opened. She was a wreck: her hair everywhere, mascara running beneath red eyes, smelling of gin and cigarettes, and unstable on her heels. She kicked the shoes against the wall and then all but ran into their bedroom and slammed the door. They could hear her throw herself onto the bed

He looked at Kristina and said, “I better go see if she’s okay. You keep reading.”

When he opened the bedroom door, she was lying face-down on the bed sobbing uncontrollably. Almost howling and then gasping for breath.

“Jennifer…hush. Kristina can hear you.”

“Go away.”

“Jennifer,” he’d said and sat on the edge of the bed. “Just tell me what’s happened.”

She clamped her lips together and shook her head violently.

Tell me,” he said. “I can’t help you if you don’t talk to me.”

What she had told him was this: that she’d been drinking at Electric Banana and met a man. When the bar closed she’d followed him to his car in the parking garage, and sitting on the leather seats of the Range Rover, she had blown him. She had wanted to do it, had felt this intense desire to please him. Had totally given herself over to it, and having done so expected at the very least that he would appreciate her effort. But he had not. Instead, he zipped up, looked at her a little cruelly, and asked if she’d get out of his car. She’d never been treated like that before—or not in a long, long time.

It took a moment, but Byrne realized she wanted to be comforted. To be reassured that the horrible things she was thinking about herself on that Sunday afternoon weren’t true. And that, to his surprise, was exactly what he did. He helped her get out of her dirty clothes and into her pajamas and then held her under the covers for an hour, pressing his face close to hers and murmuring the words she had needed to hear until she fell asleep.

“What’s wrong with Mommy?” Kristina asked him when he’d returned to the living room and sat down beside her again.

“She just had a bad night,” he said. “That’s all. She’ll feel better tomorrow, but right now we’ll just let her sleep.”

Then he’d made the girl a grilled cheese sandwich and watched the clock until 6pm arrived and her father appeared to pick her up. When they’d gone he sat down on the floor with his back against the door and made his decision. The next day he would leave, pack a suitcase with some clothes and a book or two and stay with a friend whose door had always been open to him. He’d not taken with him a single photograph or memento. Later he’d have movers come in and pack up his belongings and bring them to a new place—one that he’d not yet imagined but that would eventually, after a couple false starts, turn into his little flat in Swords just outside Dublin.

And still Jennifer had not made it easy to forget her, publishing so often and so well. The book about her love affair with bars had been enriched beyond her own experiences to include French philosophy, especially Gaston Bachelard’s The Poetics of Space, and was well reviewed in America and in Europe. Suddenly, she was conceived of as a figure of pathos—a drunk, maybe—but an intellectual, a woman who could look at a thing, whether it was a drink, a public space, or the life of the woman sitting in it, and know what was important. From across an ocean, it looked like the world belonged to her. Byrne felt he knew better.

The worst moment was when Kristina had called to tell him that her mother had gone on another bender and had a stroke. He might have been useful, he thought, might have been the one to know how to talk to Jennifer. Perhaps all he could have done was hold her hand and spoken to her in the voice she would have recognized. He never imagined he could have stopped her from harming herself, but he could have done some good.

“What are you thinking about?” Kristina said. “You have the strangest look on your face sitting there in the sunlight.”

“I was thinking of Geppetto,” he said, “and of children who are brave and truthful and unselfish.”

“Welcome to his workshop,” Kristina said, raising her arms and gesturing to the bookstore.

 

It was a small mercy then when things got busy, and there was little time to think about Jennifer and regret. He was up early every day with the work. The point-of-sale system had to be sorted out, the database and catalogue, all the details of the rest of the interior, which was understood to be his responsibility. Everything felt exciting and ambitious, and the whole staff worked closely together. He was proud that Kristina loved books and would open this little shop, and pleased that maybe he’d played a role. Soon the bookshop began to acquire a definitive look. Packages arrived in the mail almost daily: clocks, music boxes, damaged violins that would be hung on walls or arranged in displays among the books. They’d been hunting them online and when they arrived removing them from the packaging like treasure. For the moment, they were all arrayed on a broad table in the middle of the shop. Often he stood in front of them for long minutes with his arms crossed, not even thinking, not really, just reaching out with something inside him to see how they made him feel. Byrne was surprised by just how beautiful they all were—each object so wonderfully strange and particular. Often he lightly touched the silent hands of the clocks or opened a music box to admire the gears and wheels. It was their overall effect that worried him. At what point did all these objects turn into kitsch? That effect needed to be avoided at all costs.

“You look green,” Kristina said. “You’re not going to be sick, are you?”

“Everything has to be perfect,” he said.

She winked. “It’s just a bookshop.”

“Sure, it is.”

 

With only a few days left before the Grand Opening, the moment had at last arrived to put the books on the shelves. Everyone pitched in, including Byrne. The staff, almost giddy, could look around them now and see what they’d created. Last night, he’d had dinner with Kristina in the hotel, and together they’d confirmed the final plans. Feature writers from both major newspapers, the free weekly, and the city’s culture magazine had been in to see the bookstore and interview Kristina. The website worked. Cautiously, Bryne felt optimistic.

Within the hour, Lucas arrived in his Volkswagen van to hang the cricket. The old fellow had been cleaned up and his neon recharged. The bookstore’s buyer, the excitable young man who’d been ready to pee his pants on the day after Bryne’s arrival, was now walking around the shop telling everyone in a voice dripping with innuendo that the time had come to “mount the cricket.” Now Lucas was setting up his ladder and climbing the steps. Bryne and Kristina handed up his power drill and then a few minutes later, not a little reverently, the cricket himself. They ran the cord through the back of the wall and into the stock room. When it had been plugged in, Lucas invited Kristina to climb up the ladder and throw the switch. Everyone had stopped what they were doing to gather around. “Are you ready?” she shouted and the sign flickered to life, the glow gaining in strength from one moment to the next. The staff broke into applause. Kristina beamed.

As everyone went back to their work, Byrne noticed a woman in a wheelchair being pushed into the front door of the shop. At first he didn’t take any great notice. Staff members’ family and friends had been wandering in all week to have a look. He shelved a few books, but then felt someone brush past him moving fast. Kristina. She stood over the woman in the wheelchair talking excitedly with her hands and then bent down to give a hug. Suddenly, Bryne realized. He stood watching, but quickly dropped the book he was holding to the floor and walked out of sight to the stock room.

There was a small restroom in the back and Bryne closed the door behind him. For another moment, he stood there in the dark with his eyes closed. The busy sounds of work continued around him. My God. He turned on the light and approached the small sink and mirror. His fifties had brought changes to his face that he almost didn’t recognize, especially puffy little bags of skin beneath his eyes. Byrne touched them now carefully, a fingertip tracing their outline. He ran cold water in the tap, washed his face with it, gargled a little, and then combed his hair with wet fingers. He looked largely the same as before but felt a little better—all anyone can really hope for. Then he left the stock room and walked to the space beside the display table where the wheelchair had been parked.

“Hi, Jenny,” he said. “How are you?”

One side of her face had lost its elasticity, but her eyes were still bright and alive. It was impossible not to imagine that the young woman he’d known was in there. He looked away from her. First outside the windows and then down at his shoes.

“It’s all right,” she said. “Why don’t you bring over a chair and sit down.”

Byrne did as he was told.

“Now that’s better.” Her voice was soft at the edges, kept from being slurred only by great effort—one that required her to take deep breaths. This was followed by a pause where she worked her lips and then dipped her chin and raised it, as though to force the next words out into the world.

“You’ve been helping Kristina.”

“Yes. We’ve been having fun.”

“That’s very kind of you,” she said. “To come all the way from Ireland.”

“I’m not teaching this term—it was easy to arrange.”

“That’s not what I meant.”

“No, of course not.”

Jennifer’s companion from the care facility joined them. She reached out her hand and the woman took it.

“This is him,” she said, “the one I was telling you about.” She seemed delighted to be able to introduce him. As though she’d been telling everyone that she had a former lover who now lived in Ireland and no one had believed her. Here was her vindication.

“Jenny’s been very important to my life,” he said. “She’s taught me so much.”

“What I taught him,” she said, “was that life is full of sad and fucked up people.”

“No.”

He tried to put in his voice all the things he’d ever felt about Jennifer Carlisle—the love and despair, the kindness and futility—all of the complexity into a single word. She deserved to hear it. Later he would remember this and decide that everyone deserved such moments of reckoning in their lives, though we rarely get them.

“He’s been helping Kristina with the bookshop.”

The companion nodded and smiled. “Isn’t that nice,” she said.

“We’ve been having fun,” he repeated.

“She wishes you would stay, you know. I think she has this idea of the two of you running the shop together. The two of you reading books together forever. She’s always loved you.”

For a moment, they simply looked at each other. The nurse drifted away from them, and suddenly Byrne was aware of the sound of books being shelved and of the talk and laughter going on among the staff. Then he heard Kristina’s laugh in particular. There was very little that could be said. He was glad to see her, to have had this little moment and to know that Jennifer cared for her daughter and hoped for her happiness. All the love and pain that had gone on between them was now just a rich taste in the mouth. Satisfying. Indescribable.

“I’m so happy to see you today,” he said.

“I encouraged her to write to you—I couldn’t have done it, but I said if she wanted you here then she should ask.”

It had been a private joke between them, “One can but ask,” delivered in any number of situations, meaning show up, meaning let the world tell you no—it usually did. Nevertheless, one can but ask. Sean repeated the line for her now.

It made her laugh. “You remember,” she said.

“I remember all of it, everything. Every single moment.”

Jennifer looked at her hands and nodded. She seemed suddenly tired. It was as though she’d said what she’d intended to say and now it was so easy to spoil something. He stood and almost immediately the nurse was back with her hands resting on the handles of the wheelchair.

“I should be helping them shelve these books,” he said.

“Better you than me,” Jennifer said. “We’re going home.”

Kristina had seen that her mother was getting ready to leave and joined them. For a moment they were all together.

“I’ll walk out with you,” Kristina said.

Byrne bent down and kissed Jennifer’s cheek and felt her lips brush against him as well. “Goodbye,” she said.

When they’d gone out the door and then out of sight, he sat down in the chair and ran his fingers through his hair, rubbing at the scalp. Then laced his fingers behind his neck and exhaled. He’d been holding his breath.

In a moment, Kristina returned. “Well, that was a surprise,” she said.

“Yes, it was.”

He stood up and looked around the bookshop. “Shall we shelve some books?”

Kristina said they should.

“She didn’t say anything weird, did she? Something to upset you?”

“Not at all.”

“She isn’t easy.”

“No, she isn’t easy,” Sean said. “Nothing of value ever is.”

 

Filed under: Fiction

Jeffrey Condran Author

Jeffrey Condran is the author of the story collection, A Fingerprint Repeated (Press 53). His debut novel, Prague Summer (Counterpoint), was published in August 2014 and received a 2015 Independent Publisher Book Award’s Silver Medal. His fiction has appeared in journals such as The Kenyon Review, The Missouri Review, and Epoch, and has been awarded the The Missouri Review’s 2010 William Peden Prize and Pushcart Prize nominations. He is an Assistant Professor of Creative Writing at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock and co-founder/publisher of the independent literary press, Braddock Avenue Books. His new story collection, Claire, Wading Into the Danube By Night, will appear in Spring 2020.