I spend most of my time alone. For a good many years, I thought I was a bad man, antisocial and perhaps even misanthropic because of my desire to be by myself. Nowadays, I just enjoy the time, thinking more than dreaming; because dreams are meant for the young, and I’m no longer young.
Old-fashioned bookstores. These days a man must tag them independent. Mega-corporate enterprises, ruled by folks who own no appetite for the written word, have chewed and swallowed most of my fondest memorie di biblioteche. Still, these places can be found by intrepid loners.
Buried under, and enveloped by, a small forest of shadowy trees and flowering bushes, in a town inhabited, for the most part, by wealthy male doctors, lawyers and their well-coiffed wives is John Cole’s Book Shop. Theodor Geisel lived not far from this shop’s original location. He visited the place, and on occasion autographed his books while there.
On most mornings one enters the shop to discover the proprietor’s old aunt, Maria, sitting in a wooden rocking chair, close by the checkout counter, a smile on her face and always a story on her tongue to tell for the asking. This kind of company — relaxed, thoughtful and delicious — is the only kind I relish.
I must travel six hours’ worth of highway from my castle to visit this book shop, and the miles of dreary traffic between home and there seem to pass by quickly, because I want to go the distance just to see Maria, hear her stories and browse her bookshelves. I oftentimes consider that one or the other of us will pass away soon. I think I’m not alone in wanting to die before my friends and loved ones win that haphazard race, even though I want to live as long as I am able. This is a contradiction familiar to all of us who find courage enough to entertain such insoluble puzzles of existence in a universe more vast and complicated than our little minds can calculate.
Inside the book shop I negotiate narrow aisles and make my way in slow fashion to a back room without windows. I breathe in deep the aroma of yellowing paper and fading ink. I search the slots, compartments and tabled piles where biographies and histories yet survive the modern world outside these walls, and I gather a stack too tall and bound to slip and slide long before I’ll find opportunity to read each and every volume. All writers know this game; all avid readers know the same. The more books that line my study’s walls, the more hope I hold of a future sunrise that will arrive with the rich possibility of another person’s wisdom lying beside me between unopened covers.
Just this morning, by the way, I listened to a man describe his vision of himself as a sun, dark and rimmed with shooting flames, explosive and yet contained. As I listened to this man struggle with his own sense of poetry, I promised myself to record what he said to me; and so there, now I have done so.
The inside of Castello Toscano is not fancy by any person’s measure. I am not a fancy man when it comes to shuffling objects, angles, furniture, plates and silverware. Instead, I concentrate on what runs the endless race inside my mind as I move my hands from keyboard to sideboard in order to grab a bite of food. And then I brush the crumbs onto the floor until I own some time for sweeping up the mess.
And yet, I sometimes take pleasure in the artful display of a friend’s or relative’s home and especially the supper table. My sister-in-law, Melinda, still, and perhaps forever somewhere inside her heart, the wife of my dead brother John, arranges an exquisite, understated and harmonious design of colors and textures that vies with the delicate taste of the food she prepares.
White walls as a backdrop. Pale-pink, sheer draperies that permit no more than a subtle hint of sunlight to enter. Complementary shades of pink picked up again by way of flowers and candles. Cut-glass goblets that ring a tinkled note of music when two people touch them together to signify friendship. Salud, sweet lady; I hope to see you once again whenever you feel ready to hear my voice, the same voice that my brother owned when we sang together. Meals can be painful, even as they remind us of the melodies we share.
As sunset approaches I sometimes like to watch the Earth turn from a safe and snuggled perch inside the corner of a living room. Lamplight should be dim, and draperies opened only when the fiery brightness will not sting my tired eyes. I sit with a cup of herbal tea on the tabletop beside me, memories of the pages I read earlier that day inside my head, vague and hesitant footsteps toward the words I’ll write tomorrow lingering between now and then, a gentle contemplation of humanity flowing like warm water through my aching muscles. I lean backward in my chair, and I hang my head until my chin touches my chest in order to release the tension that has built up for hours as my thoughts thrust and parried with each other in the afternoon.
Sometimes my hands squeeze against the chair’s armrests, my hips attempt to push my body up and out of the seat, and nonsense jobs call for immediate completion. But for this half hour or so my mind insists that my body should rest, and with the slowness of a stubborn lakeside ripple I fall asleep. Later, an appetite for food will wake me, a popped and gurgled reminder that my stomach craves Sicilian spices. Would that I were one to set a gentle table.
The press of steam through fine-ground and dark coffee, liquid life trickled right into a double-sized cup. Cup set into the center depression of a ceramic saucer, twist of lemon on the left side, tiny teaspoon on the right. Fresh-washed, old man’s face. Wet hair going fast to grey. Knees stiff. Silly suede slippers on his feet. The metallic slide of glass windows on their runners top and bottom. A short, stumbled step from the sweat-drenched interior atmosphere of his bedroom to the fresh breeze blowing through his garden. Wrought-iron chairs, uncomfortable, but persistent in their task to startle him with the reality of yet another morning.
First sip, and fragrant steam warms his protuberant Italian nose. Long breath outward, then back inward to fill his lungs.
A blinked eye opens wider, his head rotates on his neck, and the colors of the garden that surrounds him instigate a smile. Perhaps a second cup, and then on to Chapter Two, always a mystery to him, because he is not one to outline what’s yet to come.
Whenever the writing threatens to fail him, he takes himself for a walk. Always aimless by his very nature. His destination wherever his camera’s eye leads him. The smell of rotting leaves reminds him of love, romance and most of all sex; and he wanders at a long and tireless pace, until he finds himself back at the keyboard.
Here, where both he and I belong. This is the most pleasant place of all that we have visited.