Sat Me Down and Said
Illustration by Erin McPhee
I lift my spectacles and rub the bridge of my tired, old nose. The room is warm, smelling of woodsmoke, well loved books, and black tea.
I live with all my friends now. Orwell and Austen and Eliot and the Brontë sisters. Maybe I only talk to the milkman and that skinny girl who brings the newspaper, but I have Steinbeck and Dickinson and Poe and Shakespeare. And maybe they’re all dead, but here they are in my library, in my kitchen, chitchatting in the parlor. They’ve been there for years.
When I was younger, my mother sat me down at the kitchen table and said, “Leonard, these books are going to consume your life. Someday, you won’t have anyone left but those books.”
She was right; her mistake was thinking that it would be a bad thing.
The doorbell rings, pulling me away from Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson and another clever puzzle.
“Bloody hell,” I grunt and tuck an old newspaper clipping into my book.
When I was maybe as old as five, I folded down a corner of that very book, and my grandparents sat me down, in tandem, at the kitchen table and said “Leonard, you must never dog-ear a book. Never. God will punish you for that, Leonard.”
And though I may have since thrown religion to the wind, I have never doubted that my dear friends would never forgive me for bending their pages.
There’s the bell again. Why can’t people ever leave you in peace?
“I’m dead,” I call. “Succumbed to Spanish influenza decades ago!”
I take a swallow of my tea. So warm and comforting. It smells like my father reading on the porch in the early morning; he liked to read poetry before breakfast to start the day off right, and the tea tastes of that day in early June when my sister sat me down at the kitchen table and said, “Leonard, it’s time you acquired a taste for the finer things in life.” And there, there at the kitchen table in early June when my sister was in her British phase, there began a love affair with tea.
The bell rings. Nobody ever seems to know when to bug off. I grope for my cane and shuffle through my library, down the stairs—unable to skip the third, the creaky third, like I did when I was small. I pass the kitchen table, and I can almost see my mother, smell my grandmother’s lavender perfume, hear my grandfather’s harmonica. He used to sit on the porch outside the kitchen door.
I see my sister on her wedding day and when she got divorced and when her second husband died. She smiles by the window; she rages through the door; she weeps, head down on the table.
I hear Edith call our daughter in to set the table. And later, I hear Josephine, older now, say, “Daddy, I’m going to college,” and my younger self doesn’t know what to say but wants her to be happy. Then Josephine—older again—says, “Daddy, this is my fiance. Her name is Calpurnia,” and my younger self still doesn’t know what to say, but he still wants her to be happy.
And I have to open the door that leads out of this kitchen that smells of lavender. I have to leave the harmonica and my sister and my wife and my daughter through the years, and I have to answer the door.
I let my caterpillar eyebrows sink into a scowl and jerk the door just so to make it open. It sticks; it likes company as much as I do. On the doorstep, I see a scrawny, freckled boy. Too old to be selling cookies; not old enough to be peddling religion.
I push my spectacles up on top of my head. Encyclopedia dealers do not deserve to be seen.
“Are you Leonard Anderson?” he asks.
“No. He’s dead,” I lie and start to close the door.
Stepping closer, he stops my attempt with an oversized foot. He reeks of coffee. I hate coffee. Coffee smells like death. There was too much coffee at my father’s funeral. Everyone drank it, and the smell clung to the walls—to the books, even—for days after. It still lingers in the crevices and far reaches of my library. At Edith’s funeral it was intolerable—the coffee, the stench of it.
“I’ve come to ask about—”
“No,” I tell him.
“Might you be interested in—”
“Edith Williams was—”
“You really loved her,” he says, eyeing the way my aging hands have swollen around my ring.
“Love,” I correct but don’t answer his questioning look.
It was October when she died. One of those horrid, cold days when steam rises off the roof tops, and your fingertips turn blue, and the ground crunches under your feet from frost and dead, dry leaves. She used to love those days. We used to love those days. Now they make me sick.
“I won’t talk to you.” I spit the words, kick aside his offending foot, throw the door in his impertinent face.
He has soiled the lavender scent of my kitchen with the smell of coffee, and a horrible silence lingers in the corners. The absence of her jokes and only one plate for dinner. So few dishes, I barely have to wash them any more.
“Edith was beautiful,” I tell the kitchen table. “Beautiful and brilliant.”
I hear her laughter coming from the parlor as she plays her favorite Bach Minuet on a poorly tuned piano. I taste her banana bread, fresh from the oven. I miss that taste, but my own attempts don’t do the recipe justice.
But I smell the gingersnaps my grandmother used to make for my birthday. My father hands my mother a meticulously wrapped gift, and Josephine—across the years—plays in the yard. Edith smiles, watching her.
And as I climb the stairs—wishing to skip the creaky third—I smell my tea, and my friends are waiting for me. On one of those horrid, October days, she sat me down and said, “At least you’ll always have those books, Leonard. At least you’ll always have those books.”