The Bookseller

Before leaving the bedroom, I take a good look around.

The first thing to catch my eye is the large wedding portrait on the west wall. In the unlit room, made even dimmer by the snowy day outside, the photograph is in shadow. The picture is black-and-white—not hand-colorized as older photographs sometimes are, and not filmed with the color film that you see so much nowadays. Just a simple black-and-white photograph that looks as if it were intentionally taken a bit out of focus, as if to soften the image. Yet I can definitely make out my thirtyish self, along with a younger-than-now Lars—a little more hair on top, a little less girth around the middle. My white dress is simple, with capped lace sleeves, a fitted waist, and a full, tea-length skirt. Lars is standing slightly behind me, his arm around me, his hand placed lightly on my hip. I hold a bouquet of light-colored roses, perhaps pink or yellow, with sprays of baby’s breath among the blooms. I cannot make anything of our whereabouts. Apparently we were posed for this portrait with a plain background, one that highlights the bride and groom but gives no clues about where the picture was taken.

Next to the wedding portrait is another black-and-white photograph, this one a street scene in what can only be Paris. I’ve never been to Paris; I’ve always wanted to go, but as of yet, my travels have not taken me that far from home. Unless you’ve spent your life in Siberia, however, Paris in a photograph is instantly identifiable. As in so many photographs of that city, there is a café in the background, a Metro stop, narrow streets. A bicycle with a large, flower-filled wicker basket attached to its handlebars leans against a wrought-iron fence. Stylishly dressed men and women cross the street, looking as if they are in a hurry to get somewhere both amusing and exotic.

Did we honeymoon there? I wonder.

I turn to the long, lean dresser. Stealthily, I open one drawer after another. They are filled with women’s clothes, but they are not my clothes. As I’ve gotten older, my taste in clothing has gotten quite a bit more eclectic and—how shall I put this? Haphazard, I can hear Frieda filling in for me, oh-so-helpfully. My blouses are colorful, my scarves and jewelry plentiful. I wear slacks as often as skirts, though sometimes my customers—not to mention my parents—frown at this. “It’s nineteen sixty-two,” I tell my folks. (Of course, I would never say such a thing to a customer.) “Women are changing. Everything is changing.”

However, in this 1962—if indeed it is 1962 here—my tastes are decidedly conventional. I run my fingers over delicate cashmere sweaters in shades of taupe and burgundy. Gingerly, I lift the neatly stacked rows of stockings to see if anything more interesting is buried underneath the nude and tan hose. Nothing is particularly jazzy or creative, but it looks as though I spend a good bit of time, not to mention money, on my wardrobe. Everything is well made; everything is neatly arranged in the drawers. When I open the closet’s double doors, I find the same sense of organization on the racks. Rows of dresses, blouses, and skirts greet me, in order by color and degree of formality.

I envision the tiny bedroom closet in my duplex on Washington Street, the explosion of dresses and skirts and slacks hung any which way I can get them to fit in the too-small space. Every morning I go through the same ritual of digging through the closet to find a desired item, tossing aside everything else, and leaving a jumble of garments on the bed. I often come home from work to find Aslan curled in a cozy, purring ball amid my rumpled clothing.

This wardrobe, in comparison, looks as though nothing is ever out of place. With a closet as large and thoughtfully arranged as this, certainly one could find items to match any article of clothing, perfectly and appropriately, for any given occasion.

I slip on the blue bathrobe, which is comfy, as I noted last time I was here, but a bit subdued for my tastes. Belting it about my waist, I quietly open the bedroom door.

The house, as far as I can surmise, is a split-level. It’s modern, definitely built after the war, probably within the past decade. Our bedroom, Lars’s and mine (how odd that sounds!), is on the first floor, with our bathroom accessible only through the bedroom. You see that in these contemporary houses, a bathroom via the master bedroom. En suite, they call it. The sliding glass doors beside the bed presumably lead to a patio and the backyard. Peering out the bedroom doorway, I find a hallway to my left, with a door at the end that is ajar and looks as if it might lead to an office. To my right, I see the living room and the front door of the house. The walls are a pale gold and the door is aqua blue. Now, that’s more like it, I think; at least I appear to have some color sense in my interior decorating.

Somewhere in front of me, blocked from my line of vision by the hallway, I can hear Lars and the children in what must be the kitchen. I know from my previous experience that the children’s bedrooms are up the half flight of stairs just off the entryway. The stairs also go down a half flight, likely to a laundry or rumpus room, or possibly both.

Instead of heading toward the family and its noises, I slip down the hall to my left. The walls are decorated with photographs. All except the first one, the one that can be seen from the bedroom doorway, are pictures of people. That photograph—the mountain scene—still mystifies me. I step back to stare at it for a few seconds. But again, I cannot determine where it might be.

It’s then, however, that I realize the placement of this photograph is no accident. While the other frames hold pictures of children, ancestors, family gatherings, this photograph has intentionally been positioned exactly where it is. From the bedroom—no, not just from the bedroom, but from the bed—one would be viewing this scene. Not looking at photographs of children or grandparents.

Pretty clever, I congratulate myself—if indeed this arrangement was my idea.

I study the other photographs. Surprisingly, I do not see Mitch and Missy. Instead, these are all black-and-white, and look as if they were taken a long time ago. Perhaps Lars’s ancestors?

And then I stop and draw in my breath.

Midway down the hallway is a photograph that I know well. I cannot remember the actual event, though I am featured front and center. My blond hair falls in waves around my chubby face; my mother always said that I had the most beautiful curls as a small child. They only evolved into my maddening cowlicks when I entered my school years.

I am sitting on a picnic blanket, my parents on either side of me. My mother props me up—I couldn’t have been more than six months old—and smiles her beguiling smile. My father is seated next to her on the blanket, his long legs stretched in front of him. We are picnicking in Washington Park, not far from my childhood home on York Street in the Myrtle Hill neighborhood of Denver. These days, people call Myrtle Hill “East Washington Park”—but back then the neighborhood had its own name, distinct from the park itself.

I know—because she told me some years ago—that at the time this photograph was taken, my mother was pregnant. She was expecting the first of three babies that came after me. All of them were boys, and all were stillborn. “The doctors never could figure it out,” my mother said quietly, the day she told me this sad tale. “After it happened that many times . . . well, the doctors told your father and me that we ought to take steps to make sure we did not . . . that there was never another child.” She shrugged, her eyes downcast, and said no more.

I don’t remember her expecting the first two babies, but I remember the last one. I must have been about six or seven years of age. I remember my mother’s protruding belly, how it got in my way when I wanted to climb on her lap and practice reading from my primer, the way my teacher expected us to do in the evenings. I remember my father taking Mother to the hospital, and my aunt May—who was young and unattached then, not yet Uncle Stan’s navy bride—coming to stay with me. I recall that when my father came home, many hours later, his step was heavy. He sat on the sofa, wrapped his arms around me, and put his unshaven cheek against my smooth one. He told me in a very low voice that my baby brother had gone to heaven. “You mean the baby isn’t going to come live here and grow up with me? He’s gone forever?” I’d asked, keeping my cheek pressed to his scratchy face.

“Yes,” he’d answered hoarsely, and I felt the wetness of his warm tears on my skin. “He’s gone forever, honey.”

I remember feeling angry with my mother’s physician. He should have been able to save my baby brother, I thought. Weren’t doctors supposed to save everybody?

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