Between the Covers

Best of the Boards
Allen McGill

Between The Covers, the used bookstore on East 12th Street in New York, was like a magnet. I could not pass it without taking at least a cursory glance at the selection on the tables outside. Then, that accomplished, I was invariably drawn inside.

A pleasant smile from the elderly woman behind the counter was the greeting I’d grown accustomed to.

“Hi, Mandy,” I’d call with a wave.

“Afternoon, William,” she’d say. Before I’d have time to say anything else, she’d add, “I know, I know. You haven’t any time and will just stay a minute.” Her lips would purse into a knowing smile. “You are always welcome.” She’d then return her attention to the inevitable pile of books before her, reading glasses perched near the tip of her nose.

The slightly musty smell of old books drew me through the long, dimly lit aisles. The paper and bindings, the atmosphere of being surrounded by written expressions of thousands of minds made me feel as if I were wallowing in the tangible air of intellect. Mesmerizing.

New arrivals were piled daily on trolleys along the back wall of the shop. New old books. The concept was irresistible. I waved my hand slowly over the aligned ends of the bindings, reading titles. If observed, it would have appeared as if I were conjuring a spell to have the book of choice rise to place itself in my grasp.

How silly—until it happened.

I blinked and laughed, convinced I’d imagined it. But the book was in my hand, a hand-tooled leather cover with lettering so worn that I couldn’t read the title. The flyleaf, when I’d carefully turned to it, read: Lost Horizon by James Hilton.

A smile came inadvertently to my face. This had always been one of my favorite books. To me it was a magic portal to so many wonderful imaginings. The book itself seemed old, though, older than its original publication date. I searched for the printing information, but found none. What I did find, was that the entire book seemed to have been hand lettered, not printed. I’d never seen anything like it.

As I held the book by the binding, it opened naturally to a spot about halfway through, as if it had often been kept in that position. What seemed like a bookmark rested along the fold. A parchment, as it turned out, with precise curlicues, ink-brushed lettering of a sort totally alien to me, that surrounded a delicately painted flower.

I sat at a nearby reading table to look at the flower more closely, holding it as lightly as I would a cobweb. As I drew it closer to my eyes, a pale light emanated from its heart, growing brighter. I couldn’t look away, but my eyes began to close, weighted, with my thoughts.

A breeze sprung up, washing my face with cool air. I struggled to straighten up, to look for the source of the wind. After long minutes, I opened my eyes.

Before me, as I’d imagined it, rose the city of Shangri-La, with its soaring walls and gilded roofs, its cascading gardens and encompassing mountain peaks.

It couldn’t be, of course. I knew that, but reason was unimportant. I was there on a pathway with other people who were strolling in a realm of unbelief, yet, believing. They seemed as much in awe as I.

Many males wearing the saffron robes of Tibetan monks glided silently past, seemingly on their way toward the high-gated entrance of a central temple.

I held up my hand as one of them neared, wanting to ask—something. “Pleaseā€¦”

“Are you still here, William?” Mandy’s voice broke through my reverie, through the time and space in which I’d traveled. “It’s time to go,” she said, laying a hand on my mine. “I’m sorry. I know you’d rather stay.”

She reached for the book.

“No,” I exclaimed. “I want this book.”

Her smile was sympathetic. “I think you know that you can’t have this one, William. This is one of the Special Books. It is meant only for people who can truly appreciate it. For you, it will be here always, whenever you wish it or need it. But it can never be taken away, or it will crumble to dust.”

Rationally, I shouldn’t have believed her. But I did believe her. My chest felt heavy as I handed the book to her, and started along the long aisle that led to the exit. I felt as if I’d lost a world, although I’d not been away from the bookstore. An involuntary sigh rose to my throat.

“William,” Mandy called from behind me. I turned. “There are many special books that are for the likes of you. All you have to do is hold out your hand. Have you ever read Siddhartha by Hermann Hesse?”

The young Buddha! Elation infused my body and mind. I virtually worshipped Siddhartha. I’d read it regularly, once a year, since I was a boy. “I’ll be back tomorrow,” I called, almost with a giggle. “Early. I won’t go to work. I’ll come straight here.”

“All right, William,” Mandy said gently. “For a while, that will be just fine.”

How would I get through the night, I wondered, as I left the shop. The bell over the door tinkled with the lightness I felt. Tomorrow. I reached for a subway token in my pocket and realized that I still held the bookmark with the flower in the center. I turned to go back, but the lights were out in the bookshop.

“Please don’t turn to dust,” I said. “Please.”


Originally from NYC, Allen (aljons[at] lives, writes, acts and directs theatre in Mexico. His published fiction, non-fiction, poetry, plays, etc., have appeared in print as well as on line: NY Times, The Writer, Newsday, MD, Flashquake, Herons Nest, Cenotaph, TempsLibres, Autumn Leaves, Poetic Voices, Bottle Rocket, Frogpond, Modern Haiku, many others. His flash fiction story, “Reconnections,” was published in the March 2003 issue of TC.

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