The Old Book
by David Cain
The title had come up in conversation. It popped into my head as I spoke. There was real delight in finding the entire course of the novel still fresh in my thoughts, each character and scene emerging from the mists of memory like an old friend. I resolved at once to try and find a copy of this book I had left behind so long ago. But the novel I sought was out of print and generally inaccessible. It was not the kind of writing which would generally find its final resting place in the noble crypt of a library. I had no choice but to begin digging in the graveyards of forgotten books – used bookstores.
I was driving through the other side of town when I spied one of those venerable shops. I parked my car and entered the old store. I didn’t ask the proprietor for help, reluctant to make too straight a line toward disappointment. The regularity of continually failing to discover the object of my quest led me to pretend I might be shopping for any good book which caught my eye. I began wandering the maze of shelves, looking high and low for some book which might be interesting, perhaps even the one that I sought..
There were picture books and treatises, texts and tomes, gnarled once-best-selling paperbacks and majestic timeless volumes bound in fine Moroccan leather. I moved along the lines of non-fiction to fiction, past poetry, through literature. I turned the corner of mysteries and at once caught a glimpse of the book I had been searching for. An attractive woman held it open in her hands, reading the yellowed pages with a smile.
Ordinarily, I would have been too shy to say anything to the woman more communicative than a nod, but I had been searching for that book for so many months that my courage was roused. I couldn’t let her take my grail right out from under my nose without making some effort to keep it.
“Excuse me, Miss,” I said. She looked up, started slightly and then cocked her head to one side. Her fine hair flowed like liquid over her shoulders.
“Harry?” the woman asked. “Aren’t you Harry Anderson?”
Surprised, I nodded my acknowledgment and then suddenly caught a vision behind the veil of changes.
“Melanie?” I said in a sudden state of shock.
“How are you, Harry?” she asked tenderly. The years had been good to Melanie. If anything, she looked better than she had before, maturity agreeing with her as it filled out her somewhat bony figure with more feminine curves. The forever buoyant energy of her youth seemed to have given way to a cool and playful steadiness.
I struggled to tell her briefly all the highlights of the decade that had passed since the last time we parted, quickly giving her a fair rundown of where I stood at that time. I politely asked about her.
“I was married for a time, but not anymore,” she began coyly. Melanie told me about her job, and her trips to Europe and South America and her brother and her parents. Her words amazed me. I had known her so well at one time in my life, and it seemed so strange that I could simply forget it all.
“So, you looking for anything in particular?” I asked.
“Me? No, I was just browsing, hoping something would catch my eye.” Her long floral skirt swung loosely as she gestured down the long shelves of paperback novels around us.
I quickly confessed to her my earnest quest for the sacred book she still held in her hand. Melanie laughed, a joyous explosion of mirth, so familiar in my distant memory, so terribly lost in the rushes of time. With every passing moment, I wished even more that I hadn’t forgotten her.
“Are you virtuous enough to receive this holy object?” Melanie asked.
“Probably not,” I admitted with a grin.
“Well then, good sir knight, I’m afraid you must undergo the test. As the Lady of the Stacks, it is my solemn duty to protect the holy books from the corrupt hands of evildoers.” Her smile betrayed her immense pleasure in formulating her little game. Melanie’s tone grew softer as she asked, “Are you very busy? Can you come over to my place for a drink? I just live a few blocks from here.”
I agreed to her proposal. Melanie bought the book I had been searching for and we walked together to her home.
Melanie brewed some tea and then opened some wine and for hours we indulged ourselves in remembering old times. As she reminded me of the day her brothers and I had been caught spying on her and her friends, of the ruse she had concocted to spare us from punishment, my heart filled with longing for this woman. I’d forgotten how much I enjoyed her company. Her pretty smile brightened all my thoughts.
“You know, I don’t remember why we split up,” I said, hoping that this line of inquiry wouldn’t open some old wound and imperil my chances of receiving my bounty.
“That’s because we didn’t,” Melanie said solemnly, pushing a long strand of fine hair behind her ear. “When the summer ended, you took a new job and I moved in with Sally and we just drifted apart. Besides, Harry, I don’t think we were really going together, so there wasn’t anything to break up.”
“But we had so much fun together.”
“Yes, we did.”
“And we just let that slip away?”
“It was my fault. You were so shy back then,” she said. “I stopped pushing you to come out and play and our lives just drifted apart.”
“But,” I said. I couldn’t think of anything to say and so I leaned over and kissed her. Melanie fell into my arms. It felt so familiar, the taste of her breath, the press of her lips, the feel of her there, held against me. Passion for this fond memory come alive suddenly enflamed me and I willingly surrendered to all my desires. My hands caressed her back as we kissed, pushing the cloth out of the way to feel the warmth of her soft flesh.
We made love in a tangle on the couch in her front room. Ten years had slipped by us, but her body still seemed perfectly familiar to me. I suckled her breasts as I had long ago. I kneaded her legs and kissed her soft toes. The sound of her moans as she reached for her climax sang like an old lullaby, so soothing in its excited familiarity that I quickly came myself. We fell in a heap on the floor, laughing and sighing.
“Oh, Harry, I’ve missed you,” she said tenderly.
“More than I knew,” I replied with a kiss.
When so many hours had passed that we couldn’t avoid parting any longer, Melanie handed me my book.
“You’ve proved your virtue, good sir knight.” I took my prize and drove home in a daze, happy to have found Melanie, hoping my new found delight would never come to an end.
I laid down in my bed, my heart pounding. I swam in the intoxicating swirl of reminiscences of our past and dreams of our future. Finally, I picked up the book I had searched for so long. I opened it, leaned back against my head board and started to read.
The old book was better than I remembered, better still by far.