We Are Inevitable, Page 2Gayle Forman
“We open at nine.”
“Could we come in now?” Ira replies. “I’m an old friend of Linda’s.”
“Linda Coleman. Owner since nineteen seventy . . .” Ira points to the sign, the words dying in his mouth as he sees the placard beneath the Coleman’s sign that reads UNDER NEW MANAGEMENT.
“Oh, yeah, they sold the store,” the guy tells us.
“To your family?” Ira asks unsteadily.
“To Furniture Emporium,” he replies.
“Does your family own that?” Ira asks.
“No, it’s the chain. They kept the name, though, because people know this place. But it’s really a Furniture Emporium now.”
“Oh,” Ira says. “I see.”
The clerk is friendly enough. After he unlocks the door and flips on the lights, he says, “You can come in early.” He opens the door. “Browse if you want.”
Set loose, Ira is adrift. He jogs up and down the aisles, swiveling left and right like a lost child in the grocery store.
“How about this one?” I ask, pointing to an oak shelf that looks vaguely like the one that broke, in that it is large, wooden, and reddish.
“Okay, okay, good, good,” Ira says, speaking in duplicate as he does when his anxiety spikes. “How much?”
I peer at the price sticker. “On sale for four hundred and forty-five dollars.”
I have no idea if that’s a lot for a shelf. Or if we can afford it. Though I technically own the bookstore, Ira still takes care of the business end of things.
“We’d like the red oak shelf,” Ira calls to the clerk. “Delivered.”
They start filling out the paperwork. When Ira gives our address, the clerk is not familiar with our town. I show him on my phone. “Oh, man, that’s far.”
“Linda always delivered for us. Steve used to drive the truck himself. Charged fifty dollars.”
“Delivery that far is gonna be . . .” He types into the computer. “One fifty.” He looks at Ira. “You’d be better off buying it online. Get free shipping.”
Online? You’re better off telling Ira to sell his kidney. Which he wouldn’t. Give it away? Yes, but not sell it.
“Ira,” I try. “He has a point.”
“I won’t buy online. From a chain.”
“But this is a chain.”
“But this is where I’ve always bought my furniture.” He nods to the clerk, who tallies up the total.
“Four forty-five, plus tax and delivery. That comes to six thirty-four.”
“Six thirty-four,” Ira repeats in a reedy voice.
“Maybe we should forget it,” I begin.
“No,” Ira says. “We need a shelf.” With a shaking hand, Ira counts the bills in his wallet. “I have two hundred in cash. Charge the rest,” he says, pulling out a credit card.
“Where’d you get that card?”
“Oh, I’ve had this one for years,” he replies.
Before I can point out that he must know I know this is bullshit, the card is declined. “Try this one,” Ira says, forking over another one.
“How are you getting all these cards?” When Ira and Mom transferred ownership of the store to me on my eighteenth birthday and then declared bankruptcy a few months later, it was supposed to wipe out the debt than had been sinking us. And it was also meant to wipe their credit clean. Ira’s not meant to be eligible for new cards.
“They’re in my name,” Ira replies, his breath growing ragged as he hands over yet another card. “They won’t hurt the store. They won’t hurt you.”
“They? How many cards do you have?”
“It’s not a big deal. Sometimes you have to borrow from Peter to pay Paul.”
When the third is declined, Ira bows his head. “Linda used to let me pay on installments,” he tells the clerk.
“Sure,” the clerk says. “We can do that.”
Ira looks up, a painful smile on his face. “Thank you. Is it okay if we pay two hundred now?”
“Yep,” the clerk replies. “The balance is due before we deliver. We’ll hold it for ninety days.”
Ira blinks. His mouth goes into an O shape, like a fish gasping for air.
“Ira, he means layaway. Not credit. You have to pay before you get the shelf.”
“O-oh,” Ira stutters. His breathing picks up and his eyes bulge. I know what’s coming next.
“Excuse us a moment.” I lead Ira to a bench outside and help him to take deep, slow breaths. “Let’s just forget the shelves.”
“No!” Ira’s voice is raspy, desperate. “We can’t.”
“Fine. Then let’s order online.”
“No!” Ira hands me his wallet. “Just go get something.”
“But Ira . . .” I begin, the frustration twisting in my stomach. Because sometimes I just want to shake him. Why can’t he see it? A shelf won’t magically transform us into a bookstore like the one in this shopping center. It’s over for us. Time to accept our extinction. Like Linda Coleman apparently has.
But then I look at him: this broken man, who has given me, all of us, all of him.
“Fine,” I say, closing my fist around the wallet. I go back inside and slap two hundred dollars out on the counter. “What will this get us?”
What it will get us is metal shelves.
This turns out to be important.
Too Loud a Solitude
The next morning, Ira drops a stack of books on the counter beside me and announces, “First of November. Time to begin a new unit.”
“Great,” I say, forcing a smile. “What do we have this month?”
“Central Europeans. Communism and kinky sex.”
In case it’s not been made abundantly clear, I was the nerdy book kid growing up, which in our town was like having leprosy. Luckily, there were a handful of other lepers in town, smart, brainy people who didn’t regard reading a book as a sign of sexual impotence. They’ve all left, obviously. Off to college, like I was meant to be. But senior year, we were in the middle of a messy bankruptcy and property transfer, which made applying for financial aid impossible. So I figured I’d take a year, apply again when things were settled.
A lot can change in a year, though. Just ask the dinosaurs. By the time college applications came due again, Sandy was gone. Mom was gone. And Ira, though still physically here, was also gone. Leaving was an impossibility. And besides, by then I owned a bookstore. Job security for life, Ira told me without a speck of irony.
Ira, who had been halfway through a PhD program when he fell in love with Mom and dropped out, insisted I continue my education, college or not. So I now attend the University of Ira. It’s an unaccredited school, and offers only one major, but you can’t beat the tuition and the professor’s so distracted most of the time, he barely notices that his student isn’t reading all of the books. Or any of them.
“This is one of my favorites,” Ira says, tapping a book on top of the pile called Too Loud a Solitude by Bohumil Hrabal.
“What’s it about?”
“A garbage collector who rescues books from dumps.”
“So, basically, your memoir.”
“Ha, ha. It’s slim but packs a punch. I think you’ll like it.”
Ira stands there, watching, so I open the book. For thirty-five years now I’ve been in wastepaper, and it’s my love story, it begins. The font is tiny and the words skitter across the page the way they did when I was learning to read.
“Good, huh?” Ira is so genuinely excited to share another miracle with me that it makes me feel all the shittier when I reply with a completely insincere: “Tremendous.”
Satisfied that I’m ful
ly hooked, Ira returns to his corner and picks up his book. Once he’s engrossed in his, I put mine down. I will never read it. I’ll peruse some reviews and pull out some quotes and bullshit well enough to make Ira think I have. Two years ago, he would have seen right through me. But if a lot can change in one year, the world can end in two.
* * *
Bluebird Books once had a small but devoted group of regulars. These days, we have two. Grover, our mail carrier, and Penny Macklemore, who stops in about once a week.
“Good afternoon,” Penny drawls. “And how are we today?” She speaks in the cadence of a kindergarten teacher and wears a sweatshirt emblazoned with slogans like PROFESSIONAL GRANDMOTHER. But don’t be fooled. Penny is a shark with blue-tinted hair that she has set twice a week at the only salon in town, which she happens to own. She also owns the hardware store, the liquor store, the ValuMart, and the used car dealership, where her late husband worked for forty years.
“Doing well, Penny,” Ira replies. “And how are you?”
“Fine, fine.” Penny stumbles over the pile of fallen books teetering next to the split shelf. “Didn’t you say you were getting a new shelf yesterday?”
Yesterday. It feels like ten years ago already. By the time we got home, Ira and I were both so dispirited it was all we could do to drag the flat-pack box to the basement. “Just need to set the shelf up,” Ira says.
“Well, do it soon,” Penny replies. “This place is a lawsuit waiting to happen.”
“Who’s going to sue me? You?” He laughs, like it’s a joke, and Penny laughs along too. Though I wouldn’t put it past her. Penny has made no secret of her desire to own a building on Main Street, a jewel in her small-town Monopoly crown. She’s also made no secret that she’d like our store to be that jewel. We are smack-dab between C.J.’s Diner and Jimmy’s Tavern, prime real estate Penny says is wasted on a bookstore. “I mean, does anybody read anymore?” she asks.
“Storytelling is as old as language, so presumably yes,” Ira replies when she poses that question again today.
“Well, if it’s stories you’re after,” Penny drawls, “Netflix has sixteen seasons of Grey’s Anatomy.”
Ira starts to lecture Penny about the primacy of the printed word. Of the particular transportive experience of ink on paper. How, when you watch, you are a spectator, but when you read, you’re a participant. “Can Grey’s Anatomy do that?” he asks, with the authority of someone who has never seen a single episode of that show.
“If you ask me,” Penny says, “what people want . . . no, what they deserve”—she points out the window to a few such people: a grizzled group of out-of-work lumberjacks on their daily pilgrimage from C.J.’s, where they spend the first half of their day, to Jimmy’s, where they spend the second half—“is something useful.”
“Every town deserves a bookstore and nothing is more useful than reading.” Ira gestures to a fading poster of Frederick Douglass that promises Once you learn to read, you will be forever free.
“People learn to read at school, Ira,” Penny says. “And this is America. We’re already free.”
“So I’m told,” Ira muses.
Penny gathers up her things. She’s halfway out the door when she stops, turns around, and, in a voice that sounds almost sympathetic, says, “Ira, I know you think every town deserves a bookstore, but you ever consider that not every town actually wants one?”
Ira sighs. “Every day of my life.”
* * *
Our second visitor comes in a couple hours later. Grover used to deliver us boxes of books, copies of Publishers Weekly Mom would pore over, thick catalogs full of the next season’s offerings that I’d always crack before anyone else, inhaling the papery scent, tabbing books I thought looked good. Back then, Grover would linger, leaning against the porch swing with Mom, gossiping—between the two of them, they knew everything: who’d gotten engaged, who’d been arrested, who was pregnant. These days, he drops the mail like a hot potato, apologizes that he’s late, and gets the hell out.
“Anything good?” I ask as Ira leafs through the mail.
“Just junk,” he says, dropping everything into the recycling bin. “How’s the Hrabal?”
“Great,” I reply, even though I have not made it past page four.
After Ira settles back into his easy chair, I stealthily pull today’s “junk,” and all the rest of the junk beneath it, from the recycling bin and bring it back to the counter to take a look. There are several credit card statements. The first one is maxed-out, with a balance of more than $2,700. I open another one, also at its limit. Same with the third. All three are snowballing astronomical interest charges because Ira has only been making the minimum payments.
My throat closes and I taste them: strawberries, sweet and rotting and right on my tongue even though it’s been years since I ate one. I used to gobble them up by the basket, but when I was twelve I popped one in my mouth and my throat went scratchy. I popped in another, and suddenly I couldn’t breathe. I was rushed to the ER in anaphylactic shock. It turned out I’d developed what’s called a latent allergy. “What a shame,” Mom said. “He loves strawberries.” To which the doctor had replied, “Unfortunately, sometimes the things we love can also kill us.”
No fucking kidding.
I open an IRS notice next; it’s in my name, threatening a penalty because apparently I have not filed a tax return. The bank statement brings more bad news: a balance decidedly low on digits. I look at Ira, calmly licking his finger as he turns the page, as if we were not at this very moment on the precipice of financial ruin.
How could he have let this happen? No, that’s not fair. I know how Ira let it happen. The question is: How did I?
I gather the bills and shove them in my waistband. Only when the bell over the door rings does Ira look up. “Heading out?”
“Yeah. To see a friend.”
Had Ira been paying a mote of attention, he would have known this was bullshit. I no longer have friends. The ones I once had are at college, and when they come back, if they come back, they don’t call me. I can’t really blame them. We’d always joked it was easy to separate the winners and losers in our town because there were no winners over the age of eighteen. By staying, I guess I joined team loser. The tragic irony of this is that to the people in our town, I’ve always been team loser.
I jog down Main Street, passing Jimmy’s as the lumberjacks spill out at five, which is when happy hour ends. I turn left on Alder, the only other commercial street downtown, which is where our accountant, Dexter Collings, has his office.
“Aaron,” he says as I pound on the door. “I was just closing up.”
I thrust the papers at Dexter, breathing hard.
“What’s this?” he asks.
“More debt,” I reply. “How? Wasn’t the bankruptcy meant to wipe that out? And how did Ira get these credit cards?”
Dexter gestures for me to come into his office, which is a little like stepping into a Texas rodeo hall of fame, even though Dexter was born in Bellingham. There’s a longhorn bracketed to the wall, a row of cowboy hats on hooks, a bronze statue of a rider with a lasso. He sits down into his big tufted leather chair and thumbs through the bills, humming as he goes.
“The hospital bill appears to come from after the bankruptcy, so it was not included in the settlement.”
“So we owe that money?”
He nods as he lays that bill down.
“And the tax return?”
“I told your father he had to file. I guess it got away from him.” He flips through the credit card statements. “Hmm.”
“These appear to be recent. It’s been a year, so your father was able to apply for new cards. They all have low maximums, at least.” He squints at the fine print and whistles. “And high interest rates.” He pulls out
a bank statement. “How’s your cash flow?”
“More like a cash puddle.”
“Are you making enough each month to cover expenses?”
I shrug. “We don’t sell much of anything in the store but Ira says he’s been selling off his rare books collection.” I try to remember the last time Ira had a shipment for Grover. I can’t recall one.
“See this?” Dexter asks, pointing to a deposit on the bank statement for $800, and a charge on the credit card for the same amount. “It looks to me like Ira has been taking cash out of the cards to cover the business expenses.”
“This is not sustainable,” Dexter adds, as if this is not abundantly obvious.
“What do I do?”
“Find a way to increase your income.”
“Trust me, we’re trying. Can I get another loan or something? To cover us? Borrow from Peter to pay Paul?”
“The property’s pretty leveraged,” Dexter says, leafing through the papers, “and because of that, and your age, you’re going to have a hard time accessing credit even with the store as collateral.”
“Speak English, Dex. I don’t know what that means.”
“It means you can’t borrow from Peter to pay Paul when Peter’s broke too. And even if you could . . .” He shuffles the papers together and hands them back. “You’d just be delaying.” He trails off. Dex is a nice enough man. He doesn’t want to tell me we are dinosaurs, post-asteroid. But I already know that.
“The inevitable?” I finish.
Dexter nods. “I’m sorry.”
Sometimes a Great Notion
The store’s closed when I get back from Dexter’s, so I quietly let myself in. I wander over to the case where Ira’s rare collection is housed. It’s locked, but he keeps the key in one of the cubby drawers. When I open the door, the shelves are empty.
The starchy odor of pasta cooking upstairs wafts down, but instead of heading up to the apartment, I unlock the basement, flick on the fluorescent lights, and descend the splintering, rickety stairs.