Word by Word
Seeing the dismal book choices in the prison library, if you would call it a library, I think of the old man. I can almost hear him sneering and shaking his head in disapproval.
The books are in tatters, with frayed spines and water-stained covers. They are all the same moralising tales, same censored swill meant to extinguish any desire to kill or thieve. I rummage through the pile and come across Dostoyevsky. I smirk, the old man must be here in spirit, laughing at me. The book cover is the same seasick colour as the old man’s copy in his bookshop. The same book could fetch approximately eight dollars on the outside. I once told him, he couldn’t pay me enough to sit through reading such a brick, but look at me now. Life has a way of playing these tricks on us.
The summer I was fifteen, I needed money and I hadn’t discovered petty theft yet. My father wasn’t around to take me to his worksite for a few dollars. I preferred to be out of the house and out of my stepfather’s hair, so I roamed the streets until something purposeful caught my eye.
I could sell books. What did I know about books? Nothing. I hated school, dreaded returning the following year. My writing was appalling, an assault to the eyes as one teacher put it. Yet I wandered into the bookshop, hands in pockets and full of adolescent bravado.
The old man was reclining in his chair. The radio played his jazz tunes and he languidly smoked his pipe, immersed in a book. Despite the scorching heat, he wore a suit, his pants bore a sharp crease and his collar was white and crisp. He looked impeccable, unlike anyone in my neighbourhood. My stepfather didn’t own a suit and my father only wore his at funerals.
I can’t say what he saw in me, perhaps it was companionship or the need to mould me into someone with a purpose. He didn’t pay much, but then again the job wasn’t that difficult. For a few hours in the afternoon, I’d sort the shelves, dust, check inventory, and assist with any inquiries. The old man was there to correct me. No, that’s not how you spell the author’s last name, no that doesn’t belong on that shelf, move it. To him, books were salient things – who would have thought I’d use one of his big and fancy words? “People will disappoint you and abandon you, but books never will. You’ll never be alone if you read,” he said. I didn’t believe him at the time. I regret not finding out his story. I was curious, but I was shy and proud to ask him questions.
Business was never great, but he had enough money to live on and throw a few dollars to me. He seemed content, brewing his coffee on the stove, listening to old world music I couldn’t decipher, twirling his worry beads in his leathery hands. He talked with a lilting accent, deep and harsh. He’d open a Russian volume of Tolstoy or Dostoyevsky and he’d pull a blank sheet of paper. He’d read a sentence in Russian, pause and write it out in English, his lettering neat and graceful.
“Um, there are English translations of that book,” I’d shake my head.
“I am aware, but where is the fun in that?”
“So you are going to translate the whole book, how can you be bothered? It will take you forever, you are not getting any younger.”
“I’ll get there, step by step, word by word, page by page. Patience is a virtue, friend.”
He didn’t force books upon me. I learnt what sold and what didn’t; I learnt what was trash and what was treasure. There were times when I watched the old man and envied the joy he felt when he read. He’d retell me the story, but I’d snort and pretend not to care. When he’d leave for dinner, with a carnation habitually attached to his lapel, I’d sit in his chair, smoke some of his cigarettes and rummage through his belongings.
I never took anything from him. I just opened his favourite books, the ones which were not for sale and were kept hidden behind the counter. Taking a breath, I would power through, first a paragraph, then a page and then a chapter. There was history, philosophy, poetry, Dickens, Victor Hugo, James Joyce. When the old man returned to lock up, I’d run away from his spot and feign indifference. What I regret most is not telling him how much I appreciated the books I sneakily devoured and how much I appreciated him.
I can’t remember how my employment ended. Summer ended, I returned to school, got preoccupied by other shenanigans and pushed away the people who reached out to me.
One year, when I was in my blurry twenties, I heard the bookshop burnt down. The old man survived, but I never saw him again. I never found out where he moved to. Why didn’t I ever try to find him? Today the bookshop has been rebuilt as a Chinese takeaway shop.
In my cell, all I have is time. My hand caresses the cover of The Brothers Karamazov, I smell the dusty smell of the yellowed paper.
“You must be feeling brave, if you are about to read all of that. I haven’t touched a book since primary school,” my cellmate smirks.
“Got to keep the mind sharp, I’ll get there. I’ll read step by step, word by word, page by page. Patience is a virtue, friend.”
I find myself repeating the old man’s words. Wherever he is, in that moment, I feel the old man close to me.