By Judy Brackett
Leaning against the counter in the bookstore, Grant is painting the sign he will hang above the door. It’s been a bookstore for a year, but the ancient sign hanging outside still reads Arthur Murray Dance Studio, with a faded arrow pointing to the upstairs, and Manzanas Hdwe & Genl Mdse.
The new sign is an ellipse, the background soft gray, the letters forest-green. He closes his left eye and chews his tongue as he pulls the brush through the tail of the g with a steady hand. Slow Dancing, the sign reads, a fleur-de-lys dots the i.
The bell above the door rings as May from the bakery down the street comes in. “Good morning,” she says. “Soap. Hot out there. ‘Bout time you changed the sign.” She crooks her head to look at it. “Classy, but I don’t know why a person would want to call his bookstore that.”
Grant says, “Good a name as any. Kind of honors this old place, don’t you think? Guess I could have called it 'Books and Soap.' Sooner or later, though, the soap’ll be gone. Then what?”
May says, “Here’s a bagel for you. Whole wheat and raisin, hot off the press.” She sets the napkin-wrapped bagel on the counter. “That’s a really nice S. S’s are hard to do, I bet.”
“There,” Grant says, laying the brush on a rag. “Three bars?” May nods.
He picks up the long snatcher—the claw, Aaron calls it—from the corner, walks back to the travel section, and deftly plucks three bars of Fels-Naptha from the ten-foot-high shelf just above Alaska. “Getting low,” he says. “Not to worry, there’s a couple more cases in the back.”
May is just about the only one who ever buys Fels-Naptha. He tells her she’s set for life. May always tells him, “Mama says it’s the best for work clothes. Sheets and towels, too. You just shave some off with a paring knife into the hot water.” May’s mother is ninety-three. The first time May came in to buy soap, Grant tried to give it all to her, but she wouldn’t take it. One of these days, he’ll try the soap himself.
She hands him three quarters and turns to leave.
“Tell Ivy her mystery came in,” Grant says.
He takes the brush again and touches up the serif on the l, nodding, pleased. He cleans the brush and eats the bagel, moving through the aisles, straightening books.
The bell dings again, and Aaron comes in and heads for the children’s section at the end of the counter aisle.
“Your hands clean, Aaron?” Grant asks.
“Yeah,” Aaron says, pulling Maniac Magee off the shelf and flopping to the floor, feet turned out to the sides. He says, “Page fifteen,” and begins to read silently, moving his lips and pushing his finger slowly across the page.
Aaron is almost eight. His father drowned in the Yuba River six months ago. Aaron comes to the store nearly every day, sits on the floor, and reads Encyclopedia Brown or The Great Brain or Maniac Magee or anything about dinosaurs. Slow Dancing has lots of books about dinosaurs. Last month, Grant even sold a couple. Aaron was in Miss Herrera’s second grade class last year. Miss Herrera—Lesley—also comes into the bookstore nearly every day.
Grant is forty-two. He’s been a teacher, a carpenter, a forester (the job that brought him to Placer County eight years ago), a grocery clerk, and a telephone repairman. A year ago, he bought the old hardware store cum dance studio, boarded up since 1957, the old-timers told him, and moved into the dance studio space. It took him four months to clean up the place, paint the walls, put in a little kitchen upstairs, and rebuild the shelves downstairs to hold books. He held a weekend sale that was more trouble than it was worth, hauled truckloads of stuff to the dump, and spread the leftover merchandise along the top shelves: Argo starch and kerosene lanterns above Biography, galvanized buckets above DIY, boxes of mousetraps and gold pans above Nature. And more: light bulbs, hand-crank meat grinders, enameled blue-speckled coffeepots, Fels-Naptha soap. In the back room are bins of nuts and bolts and plumbing parts. Occasionally, an old-timer wanders in and digs through the bins looking for an odd-size or obsolete something. Hardly anyone who goes through the bins stops to look at books, much less buy one.
The bookstore feels right to Grant, though. There are still readers in the foothills; the store pays the bills most months. Grant has a fourteen-year-old daughter, Cissie, who lives with her mother and stepfather in Vacaville; Cissie spends weekends with Grant. He’s thinking about asking Lesley to marry him. He might say, “I know I’m kind of a remainder myself, but...”
The bell dings and a customer walks in, looking for a cookbook. “For my daughter-in-law,” she says. Grant points to the far wall and says, “Under the coffeepots.”
The woman, not a local, brings two books to the counter—Mexican vegetarian and Greek—and studies the still-wet sign as Grant bags her books. “Funny name for a bookstore, isn’t it?”
Grant smiles. “Best one I could think of in a hurry,” he says.
He likes to open the boxes of new books, fan the pages, mark the titles off his order form, and shelve the books. A book is a wonder, he thinks, even the not-so-good ones. A world on paper, a place and time, a life, a mind. Caught and held between the covers, immutable.
He likes to sweep the old wood floors with the oily-smelling sawdust compound. It’s exactly the smell of the bookstore he remembers going to as a kid with his father, who always bought the latest Saturday Evening Post; Grant waited every month for All Star Comics.
He likes to watch the customers browse, their heads tipped sideways to read the titles, pull books from the shelves, and thumb pages. Grant has to stop himself from scolding the customers who stand there and read the first and last pages of novels.
An older couple wanders in, weaves through the aisles together, whispering to each other. They buy a book about cocker spaniels from the remainder table. Grant walks back to Aaron and sits on the floor, cross-legged, facing him. He says, “How can you sit like that? Your legs are a W, see?"
Aaron, eyes on the page in front of him, pulls The Bat-Poet off the shelf and hands it to Grant. “Page forty,” he says. “We left off on page forty.”
Grant waits until Aaron finishes the page and carefully closes the book in his lap. Grant reads aloud: "The chipmunk shook his head and said wonderingly: 'You bats sleep all day and fly all night, and see with your ears and sleep upside down, and eat while you’re flying and drink while you’re flying, and turn somersaults in mid-air with your baby hanging on, and—and—it’s really queer.' The bat said, 'Did you like the poem?''
They have read this book four or five times; it’s their favorite. Aaron listens dreamily as Grant finishes: "His eyes were closed; he yawned, and screwed his face up, and snuggled closer to the others.''
"The end,” Grant says, closing the book.
“Wait,” Aaron says. “Read the poem again. Page thirty-six.”
Grant turns to page thirty-six and reads:
A bat is born
Naked and blind and pale.
His mother makes a pocket of her tail
And catches him.
The bell dings, and Lesley calls out, “Anybody home?”
“Back here,” Grant says and continues reading.
Their sharp ears, their sharp teeth, their sharp quick faces
Are full and slow and mild.
All the bright day, as the mother sleeps,
She folds her wings about her sleeping child.
Grant stands, stretches, and puts the book back on the shelf.
Lesley is wearing faded jeans and a red tank top, her black hair pulled back in a messy ponytail, sunglasses perched on her head. “Hi, there, Aaron. Ready for third grade pretty soon?” She pats his shoulder.
“Hi, Miss Herrera,” he says shyly.
“I’ve been getting my classroom ready. Want to help?”
“Maybe later.” He looks at Grant. “My legs are a M,” he says and picks up Maniac Magee again.
Grant shows Lesley the sign. “All finished. Just have to let it dry overnight then spray on some polyurethane and hang it up.”
“That’s a beautiful S,” she says. “Would you do a ‘September’ for me? Time to get the bulletin boards ready. You know, every year about spring break time, I get so tired of the classroom I could scream. But,” she pauses, “come August first, I’m raring to go again. Rebirth and all that, do you think? Or arrested development. Maybe I’m just not ready for third grade.”
Grant says, “I lasted only two years in the classroom.” He props the sign up against the window.
“Tell me about the name,” Lesley says. “Really.”
“Well, I didn’t want to call it ‘Grant’s Books’ or ‘Chapter One’ or some other boring name. I did think about ‘Manzanas Books and Hardware,’ then ‘Slow Dancing’ just came to me. Isn’t it a nice name? Peaceful, safe.”
He hoists himself up to sit on the counter. “My parents used to dance. Embarrassed the heck out of me and my sister. We were scared to death some of our friends would come over and witness that insanity. Picture this,” he says, spreading his arms. “They’d push back the coffee table and put on some music. Tommy Dorsey, Glenn Miller, and they’d two-step around the room, up the hall, and through the kitchen where Greta and I were arguing and doing the dishes. My father would lead for a while, tight little circles, around and around. Pretty soon my mother would say, ‘My turn!’ and she would lead, trying all these fancy steps. They’d get tangled up and crash into the wall or fall onto the couch, laughing, their faces red.”
“Sounds nice,” says Lesley.
“Yeah, now it does. Say, can you hold down the fort for half an hour or so? I told Aaron we’d kick the soccer ball for awhile.”
Aaron and Grant jog a slow jog to the field next to the playground around the corner. They kick the ball across the dirt and the dry August grass, running up and down the field from the swings to the trees and back again.
Aaron clumsily dribbles the ball up the field, daring Grant to take it. Grant slips his foot behind the ball, pulls it away, and takes off zig-zagging with Aaron in pursuit. Grant feints left, turns and kicks the ball high. Aaron dives, arms outstretched, and snatches it. He somersaults, hugging the ball, and jumps to his toes, grinning. He says, “My dad says I’m gonna be a good goalie.”
Finally Grant says, “I’m bushed, Beckham. It’s all yours,” and sits on the grass next to a tree. He leans against the trunk and watches Aaron running wildly—a dervish, his sweaty brown hair and his thin arms flying.
In a few minutes, Aaron flops down next to him, wipes his face with his shirt, and brushes his hair from his eyes.
Grant says, “You need a hay-cut, boy.”
Aaron says, “My dad cuts my hair.” He squeezes the soccer ball between his knees and traces the edges of the black pentagons with a dirty finger.
Grant says, “Before your dad died, he used to cut your hair. I could cut it for you. Or you can go with me to Dave the Barber. I could use a haircut myself.”
Aaron asks, “Did you ever see a bat? My dad says bats have rabies.”
Grant watches the empty swings rocking in the warm breeze. “Yeah, some bats do have rabies. Probably a good idea to stay away from bats.”
Aaron says, “My mom says they get in your hair. There used to be bats in dinosaur days. I seen them in the books. Big ones!”
Grant says, “Pterodactyls, maybe, but those were reptiles.”
Aaron says, “Pterobats! I wish I was a bat.”
Grant says, “You know your dad is dead, Aaron. He’s not coming home, not tomorrow, not next week. Not ever.” He reaches over and ties Aaron’s shoelace.
Aaron says, his voice soft, “I know.”
“My daughter’s coming up this weekend to go backpacking. You know Cissie. You want to come along? Maybe Miss Herrera will come, too.”
Aaron stirs the dirt with his heel. “No,” he says. “Well, maybe.”
Grant says, “You ask your mom. I’ll give her a call. Maybe we’ll see some bats.” He stands and pulls Aaron to his feet. “C’mon. Let’s go find something cold to drink.”
Back in the bookstore Grant hands Lesley a Dr Pepper then goes to the sink in the back room, splashes water on his face and hair, and washes his hands. Aaron leans against the counter, drinking a grape soda. Lesley asks him, “You going home now?”
“Got to finish my chapter,” he says.
Lesley says, “Wash your hands first.” She is tidying the Local Writers shelves. The store is cool, the oak blades of the old ceiling fan hum, and the breeze feels good on the back of Grant’s neck. He watches the dust motes swirling in the strip of sunlight falling from the window across the counter and the remainder table to the floor at the far wall.
Lesley says, “I sold sixty-eight dollars’ worth while you were gone. Do I get a commission?”
Grant kisses her shoulder. “I’ll paint your September,” he says, grinning at her. He takes her hands, places her left hand on his right shoulder, his right hand on her left hip, and dances her across the floor. “Sing,” he says.
“What?” she shrieks.
“Sing!” he orders. “We need music!”
“Sing what? I only know second-grade songs. Ouch, that was my foot.”
“Sorry. Sing something. Anything.” Grant leads her sideways down the Fantasy, Science Fiction, Mystery, and Western aisle.
Lesley sings, “I come from Alabama with my banjo on my knee. I’m bound for Looz-iana, my true love for to see. Oh, Susanna, don’t you cry for me.” She laughs. “I’m not much of a singer. Never danced to that one before!”
“Sounds good to me,” says Grant, twirling her around the remainder table, through the fan’s breeze and the strip of sunlight. “Next verse!”
“Ummm. It snowed—no—rained all day. No. Oh, dum dum de dum de dum de dum, the weather it was dry.”
Down the Children’s aisle, they swerve around Aaron who’s watching them with a quizzical grin. Grant says, “Don’t worry, Aaron. Miss Herrera gets these little spells from time to time. She’ll be all right again in a few minutes.”
“I’m getting dizzy,” Lesley says. “My turn!” She pushes Grant straight up the aisle toward the front, singing, “Don’t you cry for me for I’ve come from Alabama with my banjo on my knee.” She twists them around, twirling under Grant’s arm, making him stoop and turn under hers. The buckets and the blue-speckled coffeepots are rattling.
Aaron, standing now at the door, joins her singing in a sweet off-key alto: “It rained all night the day I left, the weather it was dry. The sun so hot I froze to death, Susannah, don’t you cry.”
Grant joins in, and the three of them sing a final refrain, Lesley and Grant laughing and panting. As they finish, Aaron opens the door, dinging the bell and letting in another slice of August sunlight.
Judy Brackett has published short fiction and poems in journals and anthologies from About Place to Untidy Season: An Anthology of Nebraska Women Poets (Backwaters Press). She has taught creative writing and English composition and literature at Sierra College. She has lived in the northern Sierra Nevada foothills of California for many years.