Free Books, Free Love
by Alan Carl Nicoll
Copyright 2017 by Alan Carl Nicoll, All Rights Reserved
Janice had learned on her first day out that few people were interested in free books. This was an unpleasant surprise that completely baffled her understanding. During her two-hour walks pushing her wire cart she typically got rid of a dozen or fifteen books on Sundays, and less during the week, out of the hundred-plus that she wheeled around. Books not salable on Amazon tended to pile up.
However, it was good exercise, got her out of the house, and allowed her to meet new people. Once a month she pushed the cart to the Goodwill Industries store to donate whatever was left.
Janice McCready herself was small, with grayish-brown hair and eager brown eyes. She was vain enough to pamper her skin, which as a result looked younger than her sixty-two years, but not vain enough to put on more makeup than just the “raspberry sherbet” lipstick she wore every day. She considered herself the least fussy of women.
It was warm and sunny in Bakersfield as she pushed her cart out the front door. She was wearing a print dress in a faded green-and-yellow leaf pattern. Hanging behind her head by a string around her neck was a broad-brimmed straw hat that originally had been decorated with hideous plastic fruit. It was 7:20 AM on a Wednesday in July and the sky was blue and cloudless. The sun was low over the distant, invisible, Sierras.
After walking east fifty feet, Janice reached for the leather strap that was buckled to the push bar and ran down, attached to the old and worn-looking brass bell. The first clang of the day always made Janice feel self-conscious, but of course she always did it.
Clang! “Free books!” she called. She always waited until she had passed the house of her first neighbor, a cranky old man named William. Her first time out he had yelled at her, and she wasn’t willing to risk that again.
In the fourth block a husky blond man came out of an apartment building and waved at her. She stopped in the middle of the empty sidewalk and waited as he walked up. She had not seen him before.
“Really?” he said. “These are free?”
“Yes, as many as you like.”
“Do you have anything on golf or computers?” He looked over the books in the top rack and pulled out a science fiction novel. “Or chess?”
“No, I don’t think so.”
He looked her in the face with pale blue eyes that quickly slid away from meeting her gaze. As he continued scanning the titles he said, “How often do you come by here?”
“Most Wednesday mornings. It depends on how hard I’ve worked, buying and selling.”
“Great. This is awesome. Where do you get all these books?”
“Yard sales and library sales, mostly.”
Squatting at the side of the cart, he pulled out another book. She’d had the cart made to her plan, welded by a friend.
“I don’t want to be greedy,” he said. He looked up at her with a boyish grin. “Is this all right?” He held three books in his left hand.
Janice had to laugh. She didn’t know why, but something about him seemed very young and innocent. “You can have as many as you can carry. The sooner I get rid of these, the better I’ll like it.”
“Well…” He studied the cart again. In the top rack he found something by Bertrand Russell with a broken binding.
“You read serious stuff.”
He nodded. “You read much?”
“Me too. You play golf?”
Janice’s hackles rose. Why was he getting so personal? Not really personal, but—
“It’s just I don’t have anybody to play with right now, I just moved to Bakersfield for my job. Computer programming.”
“No, I don’t play.” Why wasn’t he at work on Wednesday morning?
“I’m pretty much a beginner, anyway.” He turned to her and held out a hand. “My name’s Leonard, but I prefer Leon.”
She shook his hand. “Janice McCready.”
He didn’t let go. He was looking at her intently and he hadn’t let go, and Janice felt a sudden flutter of excitement, anxiety—his mouth, white teeth, a bit tense…pretty boy.
“Janice,” he said softly, releasing her hand. “I’ll remember. Next Wednesday.” He smiled.
“You don’t…don’t like Lenny?” Her heart was pounding. Ridiculous. He could be her grandson. Why had he held her hand?
He shook his head. “Do you take donations?”
“Oh, that’s not necessary, Leon. Where were you living before?”
“L.A. I was living with my parents—”
Oh, dear. But then—
“Saw an ad on a job website—” he reached into a pants pocket and pulled out a wad of bills.
—lots of kids are doing that. He handed her a dollar and stuffed the rest back. “You should have a jar,” he said. “For donations.”
She took the dollar. “You know the Beale Library?”
“Is that the big one over on…” He gestured.
“Yes. They have a book sale every three months, more or less. Big, good sale. One coming up in a couple of weeks. Don’t know that you’ll find much in your specialties, though. Probably some golf.”
There was something girlish about him. Non-threatening. Mouth and eyes… “Made any friends yet?” Eyelashes.
“No.” He looked off into the distance. “You wouldn’t know about a chess club in town, would you?”
“No, sorry. Try Google, though I suppose you know about that. There are book discussions at the library, though. One meets this Friday, seven PM.”
“Oh? What’s the book?”
“The Stranger. Camus.”
“No way, I love that book.”
Ulp! “Really? Wow, I sort of hate it.”
“Well, I can see that. It’s very bleak. But the human condition seems pretty bleak to me too, sometimes.”
“Not all the time?”
“No,” he said, looking intently at her. “Not all the time.”
She met his eyes briefly. When he didn’t look away, she had to. The flutter came back, maybe hadn’t left.
“Will you be there?”
She nodded, feeling quite confused in a way she hadn’t in, well, decades. He’s flirting, she thought. Why? Why?
He was backing away. “I’ll see you there, then.”
“Good. Nice meeting you, Leon.”
“Thanks for the books.”
“Thanks for the do—” But he was gone. Girlish eyelashes! Attractive mama’s boy. Looking for mama! Ridiculous. Why did I say I’d be there?
She pushed the cart and rang the bell, thinking thinking thinking about the shocking ridiculous wonderful charming chemistry she’d felt with him, that had no future, absolutely no future, no future at all.The Beale Library is four stories tall and shaped like an angular donut, and the elevators make no sense. There are three public elevators, only one of which stops at all the floors, and that one is hidden in a back corner. She despised that. The useless space in the hole of the donut made getting around tedious, though it looked nice, with lots of green.
Janice entered the library on Friday and turned left to enter the auditorium for the book discussion group. An arc of twelve plastic chairs was arranged on the floor in front of the stage, and only three of them were filled yet. Leon wasn’t there.
The faces were unfamiliar; Janice rarely attended the group. She sat down at the right end of the arc, next to an empty chair, and put her purse and book down on the chair to hold the seat. She was fifteen minutes early.
Her heart rate was up. She waited, with increasing anxiety and impatience, for ten minutes. In the two days since meeting him she had reread the book twice (while thinking of him), and had skimmed a couple of articles she’d found on the Internet (while thinking of him), all in preparation for this evening, but now she wondered at herself: was this young stranger worth so much effort to impress? Surely she was a fool. He must be involved with someone—must be involved—
Abruptly, she got up to leave. Hoping now to escape before he arrived, she hurried to the front door while looking through the windows toward the parking lot. Not seeing him, she stepped through the nearest door and pushed it open. Stepped out.
The clicking of a bicycle ratchet drew her attention to her left. It was Leon, riding a ten speed, looking right at her. Caught!
“Janice,” he said, stepping off the bike. “You’re not leaving?”
“Oh, don’t!” He pushed the bike into a rack she’d never noticed before. “I wanted to see you again.”
Again? Had we “seen” each other? “I was…” She had no finish.
He locked the bike while she decided to neither lie nor explain. “I’m happy to see you, Leon.” Feeling suddenly calm, she stepped to him and kissed his cheek, moist and cool. A motherly kiss, she thought. Fool, she thought.
“Good!” He grinned.
The discussion was led by a librarian named Melinda, a brown-skinned young lady of obscure ethnicity and substantial vivacity. She had each attendee introduce themself and “tell us how you liked the book.”
When it was Leon’s turn, he said, “Hi, I’m Leon Carter, and The Stranger is maybe my favorite novel. I’ve read three translations and I like this one best. I started with the Gilbert when I was twelve and thought it was very weird. The novel, not the translation! I’d never read anything like it, I was mostly reading what I’d now call junk, and this book opened my eyes to what serious writing—a novel addressing serious questions could be like. It seemed very strange and frightening that a man might shoot another, a stranger, for really no reason at all, and so destroy himself without even thinking about it. Anyway, I like Ward’s translation the best, I’m glad it was picked for this group.”
Melinda said, “Thank you, Leon.” Then she nodded at Janice.
“I’m Janice McCready and I really dislike this book. And I don’t understand it. I mean, Meursault says that it doesn’t matter that he’s going to be executed, yet he stands panting at the door to his cell waiting to hear the approaching footsteps. Obviously it matters very much. And the ending. Why does he want to be greeted at the scaffold with cries of hate? I can’t make sense of that. Yet I’ve read it four times.”
“Thank you, Janice. The ending is a question I hope we’ll get to the bottom of.”
Janice and Leon kept the discussion lively by disagreeing on many points—he advanced theories and she countered with contradictory evidence, eventually arguing that the book, and Camus’s theory of the Absurd, were both deeply flawed. By the end of the hour, Janice felt so energized as to be almost jittery.
As they left the auditorium, she said to Leon, “I’m sure I must have made a complete fool of myself. I—”
“—don’t know what got into me.”
“Everything you said made perfect sense.”
“But you didn’t agree with any of it!”
He shrugged and smiled. “Wouldn’t that have been boring.”
“We’d better get out of here. We’re drawing disapproving looks from the Head Librarian.”
Leon snorted a laugh. “All right,” he said with elaborate care. He nodded toward the front door.
Outside, they lingered together on the sidewalk. The night was warm and humid and surprisingly quiet. “It’s the shank of the evening,” Leon said, and Janice laughed. “Want to go dancing?”
“Leon! I haven’t danced modern dance since, I don’t know, the Monkey or the Twist or something. I’d look completely ridiculous.”
“Okay. How about—um, have you had dinner?”
“Yes. We could go for coffee.”
“Sure. Know a place?”
“Yes. We can put your bike in the car.”
As she drove her nine-year-old Honda she said, “So how come you ride a bicycle?”
He sighed and rubbed his face. “Because my wreck is a wreck and I’m too much of a flake to get it fixed.”
“What’s wrong with it?”
He shrugged. “It doesn’t run. I think I ruined it moving up here. I should’ve rented a truck. Long drive from Pasadena, four trips. I thought I could do it in three, but—”
“I’ll get it done eventually. Unfortunately, I maxed out my credit cards on dental work. Root canal and crown. What a pain in the ass.”
Janice smiled, refraining from the obvious joke.
The place was called “That ‘60s Cafe,” and that’s how it looked. Yellow linoleum floor, black-and-white posters of pre-1960 movie stars, red vinyl bench seating, and jukebox controls at every table. The waitresses wore white aprons and tiny white hats, but gum chewing and blonde beehive hairdos were optional. In response to your order they said, “Groovy!”
The menu, however, was California Modern, with lots of avocado and sprouts, and the salads looked full of weeds.
Leon said, “Cool place.” He ordered cherry pie ala mode and coffee, she ordered lemon meringue and hot chocolate.
“Caffeine interferes with my sleep.”
“What are you reading now?” he said.
“A Moveable Feast.”
“Yes? I read that one. How do you like it?”
“I’m very impressed by the first chapter.”
“Ah. I don’t remember it.”
“He talks about going to a café in Paris to write.”
“Ah, his clean, well-lighted place.”
“What did you think of it?”
“I didn’t like it much. Seemed like a lot of unsavory gossip about Scott Fitzgerald. I don’t like Hemingway anyway. I mean, his books are okay, mostly, but you know, if you have to kill yourself, it seems pretty nasty to blow your head off with a shotgun. It’s a huge ‘fuck you’ to whoever has to clean it up.”
“What, did he do it in the house?”
“I don’t know. I suppose if you did it in the woods or something…still…just imagine, flies and maggots—“
“Please. I’d rather not.”
“Is that all?”
“What, the suicide? No, it’s his macho bullshit, slaughtering animals with some kind of cannon. If he’d used a spear, like a Masai boy, that’d be something. Still, his Macomber story is brilliant, you remember it?”
“Very well, yes. How does it end? ‘Say please.’ Or was it ‘You didn’t say please.’”
He shrugged. “It was a good line, though. Changes your view of the whole story. But short stories just never do much for me. I mean, Macomber is a great piece, but…here’s our food.”
She found him charming, but above all he paid attention, flattering attention, to her, barely glancing at their buxom, twentyish waitress.
Her lemon meringue was eight inches or more thick in the center. She laughed at his astonishment. As they nibbled and sipped, she said, “So, who do you like?”
“Not that much, really. At the moment—ah.”
She was holding out a piece of pie on her fork. He took it in.
“Mmm. That’s good.”
“Isn’t it. You were saying?”
“Yes. Ah…a manga called Nausicaä of the Valley of Wind. Do you know about manga?”
She nodded. “Never read any.”
“I’m not a big fan, but this is really special. It’s been compared to War and Peace.”
“Favorably or unfavorably?”
He smiled. “I think in scope, probably by somebody who never read Tolstoy. It’s quite amazing, though.”
“I love War and Peace.” She grew thoughtful as she savored a sour-sweet-lemony bite. “There’s so much that’s beautiful and memorable. Have you read it?”
“I never read anything I can’t lift.”
She laughed, delighted with him, with this night, in this clean, well-lighted place.
“I lied. I took a Russian Literature course at PCC—Pasadena City College—and it was required. You remember when Natasha and Sonja dress up as hussars?”
“The sleigh scene, yes, it’s wonderful.”
“I fell in love with Natasha then.”
“It took that long? Yes, it’s a wonderful book.”
“Mmm,” he said. “But, you know, the horrors of war? I don’t seem to remember much of that.”
“Well, there’s some. Brothers Karamazov?”
“No! That was extra credit. We read Notes from Underground. And now I’ve exhausted my titles of classic novels, I think.”
“How about his Confession? I read that, oh, before the Civil War.” Now, why did she have to go and say that!
He smiled at her, meeting her eyes, and she remembered how he’d held her hand, rudely but wonderfully, and her heart thudded now, as his eyes, his blue eyes with the girlish lashes, held hers, too long. She looked down at his hands.
He said, “You must have been very young then.”
She laughed and almost teared up. He’d gone her one better, and she thought it a most charming reply. She looked at him again. “I could kiss you!”
He cocked an eyebrow at her. “You already did. But I think you might…have…another.”
Ah, the joys of flirting! The quickened pulse, the senses sharp, the wit sharper too, one hopes.
“You look quite beautiful, you know.”
She stifled a laugh. “I can’t take that seriously.”
He shrugged. Defeated so easily!
She said, “I surrender.”
“Mm? I haven’t stormed the castle yet.”
“The drawbridge is down.”
“I might not respect you in the morning.”
“Morning?” she asked innocently. “What’s that? Well, anyway, do you respect me now?”
“Mm. Perhaps. It’s not often that I encounter a mind so eminently respect worthy.”
She tipped her head in acknowledgement.
“In a very attractive woman.”
“Flatterer! Tell me more.”
“I would, if I could remember something from something.”
She chuckled. “Improvise, rhapsodize. I’m quoting my favorite play.”
“If I had a computer I’d Google it.”
“Cyrano de Bergerac.”
“Ah, the nose.”
When his knee pressed hers under the table, and stayed pressed to hers, her body responded with long-forgotten intensity. Had it really been four years without a man?
She said, “I told you the drawbridge was down. Why do you stand knocking?”—at the gate? In Macbeth? No no no—
“Once burned, twice shy.”
“Ah, indeed. You sense danger, with me?” She laughed, looked at his somber expression, then laughed again as she patted his hand. “Just get a look at me in the morning, honey—“
“I hope to.”
“—and you’ll see that you have nothing to fear.” He’s going to kiss me in the car, she thought. Twenty-six and sixty-two, one the reverse of the other. What would a numerologist say? Twice his age, plus ten. Ouch. She dismissed these calculations as she’d done a thousand times. She looked at his mouth, his hands, as he flipped pages in the jukebox controller. His blond, fine hair, hair most women would pray to have. Thank God he doesn’t grow it long, he’d be more beautiful…well, eat, drink, and be merry with this gorgeous, smart hunk, you’ll never be this lucky again. He surely will break my heart if I end up loving him, but a one-nighter, surely, surely it’s worth that—
She remembered a line from Fields, approximately, “There comes a time, my dear Og, when you have to take the bull by the tail and face the situation.” Feeling reckless and afraid, she said, “I don’t have a bed. I sleep on the sofa. But we could do it on the floor!”
“I have a double,” he said, and it was as simple as that.
He paid the check, since he’d invited her, he said. “Cheap date,” was her comment, but she thanked him, too.
He did kiss her in the car, a single, gentle, brief kiss that disappointed her—to make me hungry for more? she wondered. Like I’m not already ravenous?
While she circled his block looking for a parking place, he put a hand on her thigh. She wished she’d worn a dress.
She found a space that was a tight fit, but she parked in it with little fuss. “Bravo,” he said. “Or brava, I guess. I doubt I could have done as well myself.”
She smiled, then leaned over and kissed him just as he had done, and slipped out of his reaching arms.
In the entryway of his building, then again in front of his door, they continued what Janice was thinking of now as a kissing tease. Peck and run.
Inside his apartment at last, Janice said, “Now, let’s have a proper kiss.” She stepped out of her low heels and onto his insteps, and they shared a long, gentle kiss with her arms around his neck and his hands cupping her butt and lifting her, then carrying her like that to the bedroom and depositing her on the edge of the bed. The room was fussily neat.
She said, “Can we have the lights on?”
“I’d like to do something shocking.”
He looked down at her with a smirk. “I guess I can take a little static electricity.”
“C’mere.” She unbuckled, unbuttoned, and unzipped his pants, pulled them down, then fondled the bulges in his boxers. Her body was silently buzzing.
He sat down next to her and kicked off his shoes and pants. Breathing deeply and smiling, he said, “I don’t feel shocked yet.”
She waved his words away. “Lie down,” with a push. Then she tugged at his tented boxers, pulled the down, and felt a bit shocked herself. She thought his genitals magnificent. Not huge, though larger than Carlos’s; but beautiful and irresistible. She worshipped with hands and lips and tongue, wallowing in intense delicious sensations for thirty seconds, then paused and said, “This is okay? You like—”
“Good.” She resumed her enjoyment of his body and, practically delirious, would not stop until he was satisfied.
Feeling a bit drunk and with a soundless purr inside, she crawled up next to him and gazed down at his face. Stroked his hair.
“I’m not really shocked, you know.” He was smiling with his delicious mouth. “Astonished, delighted, grateful—”
She shook her head. “Not grateful. That was for me.” Her eyes rolled up as she closed them, remembering with vivid intensity. She grunted a “Huh. I couldn’t help myself.” She smiled into his eyes. “We’ll let you rest a while.”
After a half-hour nap he woke her and “fucked her like a bull,” she thought, though, thankfully, from the front.
Satisfied and supercharged, she wanted to leave but he asked her to stay. “I told you,” she said, “you really don’t want to see me in the morning.”
“See you? I don’t know. Fuck you? Hell, yes!”
“I don’t have a toothbrush.”
“You’re in luck. I bought a new one just this afternoon.”
She looked at him with a cocked eyebrow. “What a coincidence.”
Lying snuggled against his left side, she thought about this. And slept.