The Bookseller

I peek into the bathroom. The fixtures are light green, shiny and chrome-accessorized. The long vanity has two sinks and a gold-flecked white Formica counter. The vanity is composed of blond wood cabinets that gently taper downward and inward toward the wall, such that the vanity is deeper at the countertop level than it is near the floor. The tiled floor is a fresh mosaic of mint green, pink, and white. I have no idea if I’m in Denver anymore, but if so, this certainly is not old-time Platt Park, where nothing new has been built since before the war.

Examining myself in the mirror over the dresser, I half expect to see some entirely different person—who knows who this Katharyn is? But I look exactly like myself. Short, buxom, with exasperating strawberry-blond hair that cowlicks itself over my forehead and frizzes everywhere else, no matter how often I go in for a wash-and-set. I put my fingers through it, noting that on the ring finger of my left hand are a sparkling diamond and a wide gold wedding band. Well, naturally, I think. And how optimistic of my brain to have invented a husband who can afford a nice-size rock.

Foraging in the closet, I find a navy-blue quilted bathrobe that fits me perfectly. Belting it around my waist, I enter the hallway, on my way to find the oddly named Lars and his unwell child Missy.

On the wall directly in front of me, clearly positioned so that it can be seen from inside the bedroom, is a large color photograph. It shows a mountain scene: the sun sunk over the horizon, the peaks backlit with pink and gold tones. Ponderosa pines rise the length of the photograph on the left-hand side. I’ve lived in Colorado my entire life, but I have no idea where this is, or even if it’s the Rocky Mountains.

I’m trying to decode this mystery when I am tackled around the waist on my right side. I struggle to regain my balance and keep from falling over backward.

“Ouch!” I say as I turn around. “Don’t do that. Remember to support yourself entirely. You are too big now to lean on other people and expect them to hold you up.”

What in the world? Who is this woman saying these things? It can’t be me. These words don’t sound like anything I’d ever say, or even think.

Looking up at me is a small boy. He’s got Lars’s piercing blue eyes and a neat, short haircut that nevertheless can’t hide a reddish-blond cowlick over his brow. His peaches-and-cream face is scrubbed clean. He looks like he could be in an advertisement for milk or Popsicles. Yes, he’s that cute, and I find that my heart melts a bit, looking at him.

He releases me and says he’s sorry. “I just missed you, Mama,” he says. “I haven’t seen you since yesterday.”

I am speechless. Then, reminding myself that I am, after all, asleep, I smile at the boy. I lean down and give his shoulder a squeeze. I’m just going along with this dream now. Why not? So far, this is a pleasant enough place to be.

“Take me to your father and Missy,” I say, grabbing the child’s soft, plump hand.

We walk down the hall and go up a half flight of stairs. At the top is a girl’s bedroom, with carnation-pink walls, a little white wooden bed, and a low bookcase filled with picture books and stuffed animals. Sitting upright in the bed is an equally angelic child, a female version of the boy who holds my hand. Her expression is forlorn and her cheeks are flushed. She is about the same size as the boy. I am terrible at deciphering children’s ages, but I’d guess they are around five or six. Twins?

“Mama’s here!” Cherub Boy says, climbing onto the bed. “Missy, Mama’s here and you’re going to be fine.”

Missy whimpers. I sit next to her and touch her forehead, which feels distressingly warm under my hand. “What hurts?” I ask her gently.

She leans toward me. “Everything, Mama,” she says. “My head especially.”

“Did Daddy take your temp?” I can’t believe how easily these words, these motherly actions, are coming to me. I feel like an old pro.

“Yeah, he’s washing the ther-mon-eter.”

“Thermometer,” Cherub Boy corrects her. “It’s a ther-MOM-eter. Not a ther-MON-eter.”

She rolls her eyes at him. “Mind your own beeswax, Mitch.”

Lars appears in the doorway. “One hundred one-point-six,” he reports.

I am unsure what that means. Oh, I know it means her temperature is 101.6 degrees Fahrenheit. But I do not know what it means in terms of medication, bed rest, staying home from school.

Because I do not have children. I am not a mother.

I don’t mean to imply that I never wanted children. Quite the contrary. I was one of those little girls who loved baby dolls, who fed them pretend bottles and changed their pretend diapers and pushed them around in a tiny doll-size pram. An only child, I begged my parents for a sibling—not because I wanted to be a big sister, but because I wanted to be a little mother to somebody.

For a long time I thought I’d marry Kevin, my steady during college. He left for the Pacific theater in ’43, along with just about every other young man who hadn’t already gone. I remained faithful to him—girls in those days did that, remained faithful. Kevin and I exchanged letter after letter. I sent him care packages of cookies, socks, shaving soap. In my sorority house, we stuck thumbtacks on a map of the South Pacific, marking our soldier boys’ progress. “It’s hard to wait, but it will be worth it when they’re home,” we girls told each other. We sobbed into our hankies when we got word that someone’s fellow wasn’t coming back. But we also sent a little silent prayer of gratitude to heaven that it wasn’t our fellow, not this time.

Much to my relief, Kevin returned from the war intact and seemingly unchanged, eager to resume his studies as a premed student and attain his goal of becoming a doctor. We continued dating, but he never did pop the question. We were invited to wedding after wedding, where everyone asked when it would be our turn. “Oh, you know, someday!” I’d say, my tone overly gay and nonchalant. Kevin simply changed the subject whenever it came up.

Year after year passed. Kevin finished medical school and began his residency; I worked as a fifth-grade teacher. But as far as our relationship went, one year was as static as the next. Finally I knew I could no longer put off an ultimatum. I told Kevin that unless he wanted to make our relationship permanent, I was through.

He sighed heavily. “That’s probably for the best,” he said. His good-bye kiss was brief, perfunctory. Not a year later, I heard he’d married a nurse from the hospital where he worked.

Well, clearly, in this dream world, none of that—those wasted years, Kevin’s callous rejection—matters at all. In this world, I landed myself a winner somewhere along the line. Good for you, Kitty, I can hear my Delta Zeta sisters congratulating me. Good for you.

The thought strikes me as absurd, and I stifle a laugh. Then I put my hand to my mouth, mortified. This is a dream; nonetheless, there is a sick child here. I ought to behave appropriately. I ought to be suitably, maternally troubled.

I look up from Missy’s bed, and my eyes meet Lars’s. He’s staring at me with admiration and—could I be reading this correctly?—desire in his eyes. Do married people truly look at each other this way? Even in the middle of a kid-has-a-fever crisis?

“What do you say?” Lars asks me. “You always know what to do when these things happen, Katharyn.”

Do I? How interesting this dream is. I glance out the window at what appears to be a winter morning, the windowpane frosty and snow falling lightly.

And then, suddenly, though I cannot explain it, I do know exactly what to do. I rise and walk across the hall to the bathroom. I know precisely where on the medicine cabinet shelf I will find the tiny plastic bottle of St. Joseph’s Aspirin for Children. I pull a paper cup from the dispenser attached to the wall and run a bit of cool water into it. Opening the bathroom’s linen closet, I remove a facecloth, hold it under cold water, and squeeze it out.

Walking purposefully, I carry the medicine bottle, facecloth, and cup to Missy’s room. I apply the cloth to her forehead, gently pressing it against her warm skin. I hand her two aspirin tablets; these she swallows dutifully, using the water to chase them down. She smiles gratefully at me and leans back against her pillow.

“Let’s let her rest now.” I settle Missy under the covers and fetch several picture books from her shelf. She begins paging through Madeline’s Rescue—a volume in that delightful children’s series by Ludwig Bemelmans about a Parisian boarding school student named Madeline and her eleven classmates—the house covered in vines, the girls in two straight lines. Missy’s fingers trace the words on each page as she sounds them out in a whispery, throaty voice.

Lars comes forward and takes my hand. We smile together at our daughter, and with our adorable son beside us, we quietly leave the room.

But then, as suddenly as it happened, the dream is over.

My bedside alarm clock is ringing sharply. I reach over, eyes shut, and press down hard on the button that stops the alarm. I open my eyes, and the room is yellow. I am home.

Chapter 2
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