Photo by Karen
One dollar. Theo had tried to think about moving, about rejoining his brothers in the city or his sisters in the suburbs like they swore he must, but each time he’d tried, each time he’d laid his book down and walked to the dresser by the window to pack, he’d seen it.
The sign: All the Great Books You Can Carry–$1 Ten years into his grand adventure, his great escape from the hustle, the relentless roar of ambition that ricocheted around him, that menacing world his parents and teachers and siblings insisted was the best and only path in life, that sign still made him swoon.
All the Great Books You Can Carry—$1.00
Oh, what a feast it had been, a banquet, a fete. And wasn’t it still? Never mind what they said, what his sisters and brothers proclaimed as the truth, about money and meaning and the real world and all. Why can’t it go on, he thought and rethought, this banquet of stories, for the rest of his life? Theo looked again at the certified letter that had arrived that morning from his sister’s lawyer. “You are hereby mandated to appear…,” it said and summoned him for a “Compulsory Psychological Evaluation” at such and such a date and time and place. And there, taped to the envelope was a note from his landlady: “What does this mean, Theo?” she’d written in her wobbly hand. “Are you in some kind of trouble?” He felt faint and slumped down in front of the sagging mahogany drawers, filled with the corduroy pants and T-shirts and sweaters he’d worn all these years. He closed his eyes and lay flat on the floor the way he had as a boy when the world was too much with him then as it was now.
His stomach churned as it used to do in the libraries of his childhood, and he curled his knees up under his chin. He’d done it again, he realized, forgotten to eat. “Now Theo,” his mother used to scold him. “Put that book down and eat. A growing boy needs real food, son, not just food for thought.” “Not now, Mom,’ he’d tell her, the high seas pounding his ears, Quequeq’s coffin bobbing before him. “Not now, I am Ishmael, just let me be!” His stomach growled again, and Theo opened his eyes. There, stacked against the walls behind the box of letters from his family and jammed under the dresser in his sparse furnished room were his treasures, his prizes, keepers of all knowledge, his true and only friends. Borges and Rumi, Pushkin, Camus, Austin and Orwell, Maugham, Angelou. Gently, he slid a stack out onto the expanse of the floor. Nestled behind them, in neat, perfect rows were their brethren—Goethe, Gibran, Baldwin, the Brontës, Achebe and Dante, Toomer and Homer and Woolf.
“I can’t do it,” he whispered, his heart again burdened. So much sorrow they’d been through, he and his heroes. So much strife and betrayal. War and rebellion. Redemption and love. “I can’t leave you,” he said, stroking their spines. He sat and looked through the letters, pleading with him over the years to stop his bookish nonsense and come back into their world. “Dear Theo,” the letters always began. “Enough is enough, bro,” his brother Ian had written. “You’re squandering your college,” wrote his sister Maureen. “Think of your mother,” his father had begged him. “Come home, my sweet Theo,” his mother had implored. “We’ll find you a lovely real job.” “Don’t make us do it,” his sister Jeannie had said, her bossy-big-sister voice coming through in her words. “We will meet with that lawyer. We’ll do it. You have got to come home.”
Theo thought of Ivan Denisovich in his Siberian gulag, clutching his crust of bread, taking joy in the smallest of pleasures: the butt of a cigarette, a small bowl of kasha, a moment of sleep, and Theo knew his family was wrong. They were all wrong. Here, Theo thought, in this room, it is warm, is it not, and he gave a sweet, silent thanks to the old man and old woman who swapped him this room and his meals for some labor, such as it was, mowing grass, chopping wood, hanging wash. Simple work, simple life. He thought of the diner where he swept up off and on, for a dollar or four or a hot Cup of Joe at the counter to crack open a new book.
What more could he need? He breathed in and thought of the blind poet Borges and his labyrinths, and of Tillie Olsen standing there ironing. Of Toomer’s women living alone in the thin strip of land between the tracks where the pines sing to Jesus. Of Virginia Woolf alone in that room of her own watching the death of a moth, and his heart ached the ache of a thousand stories held close while the wind hurled itself against the night and the sparrows sought refuge in the splintered wood outside his window. He closed his eyes and Whitman, leaning and loafing at his ease, summoned him to lie down among the blades of summer grass. “The beautiful uncut hair of graves,” Theo muttered and knelt on his knees. He slid the yellowing stacks of paperbacks back under the dresser, lining them up in quaint even rows like potted pansies. “Tenderly will I use you curling grass,” he whispered, and fumbled in his pocket. There, crumpled between a matchbook of spent matches and an Indian penny he’d found on the road was an old dollar bill, change from the five-spot he’d made Monday sweeping the diner’s front porch.
“One dollar more,” he said, rising to his feet and checking the clock on the wall. One hour before the bookstore closed. One hour. One dollar. For all the knowledge in the world. Theo ripped up the summons, put on his jacket, and headed for the door.
DC-based native-Texan writer/theatre artist Elizabeth Bruce’s debut novel, And Silent Left the Place, won Washington Writers’ Publishing House Fiction Award and distinctions from Texas Institute of Letters and ForeWord Magazine. She’s published in Gargoyle, Bare Back Magazine, Lines&Stars, Gravity Dancers, Long Short Story, and The Washington Post; upcoming publications include Inklette and Firewords Quarterly. She’s received grants from DC Commission on the Arts & Humanities, Poets & Writers, and McCarthey Dressman Educational Foundation. With Michael Oliver and Jill Navarre, Elizabeth co-founded Sanctuary Theatre; her work has won Carpetbag Theatre’s Lucas Award & has been produced at Capital Fringe Festival, Adventure Theatre, & Sanctuary Theatre.