After Michael was gone, Eric kept remembering things. Memories would pop into his mind unexpectedly, like the sudden flash and fade of flame from a match. Moments of conversation, things they’d done together, the slightly musty, incensey smell of the bookstore. The smell was the worst, because it took him right back there, to all those lazy afternoons they’d spent working together – Michael, sunk so deep into that ratty old armchair behind the glass-topped counter that his head was barely visible, and Eric rambling around aimlessly picking things up and putting them down, wishing they could break the No Smoking rule. There’d be something like Elvis Costello or Dave Brubeck playing in the background, and they’d always be talking about something completely deep or meaningless, like Kant’s notion of the sublime or what kinds of superpowers were best. Memories like these made Eric wince with pain and loss. Poor Michael’s Bookshop. Poor Michael.
And then there was the day Michael had asked him this, out of the blue, like it didn’t have any kind of deeper meaning: “What would you do differently if you were running this place?”
“What?” Eric had asked. He’d been bouncing a little rubber ball against the wall and the springy thumping sound it made had overpowered Michael’s soft voice.
“You know…if this was your store – if you weren’t just the employee and it was Poor Eric’s Bookshop – what would you do differently? How would you change things?”
“Ha.” Eric had started throwing the ball upwards instead of bouncing it, so he’d been looking at the ceiling when he had answered, glibly. “I dunno. Get some customers, maybe?”
They’d both laughed at that, but now Eric wondered if a shadow had passed across Michael’s face at the mention of slow sales. It was true that Michael’s business, this little used bookshop on the edge of downtown, had never really prospered financially, but now Eric wanted to punch himself for having even joked about that. Because now Michael was dead, and maybe Eric saying that stupid, stupid thing had just pushed his friend closer to the point where a bottle of pills seemed like the only solution. He could never know, of course, but he wondered. And regretted.
Whatever. It had happened. That wouldn’t change. And now Eric stood in front of the store with the keys in his hand and tried to force himself to go inside. Because it was his responsibility now. That is what happened when you were left an entire business in someone’s will. You became responsible for it, and you had to start acting like an adult instead of the goof-off schmuck that you had been all your life up to that point and accept that this responsibility was some kind of twisted gift you’d been given. And you had to accept that gift, even if you didn’t want it and would never ever fucking want it, by opening the door and going inside, and somehow turning it into Poor Eric’s Bookshop.
But that would be like admitting it was true: that Michael was gone, that he was gone in some kind of complete, final way that meant he would never again be standing where Eric was right now, shuffling around in the dirty snow outside the store and trying not to look in the window in case something caught his eye and reminded him and made him get angry again. People didn’t fucking realize that if they were going to fucking end their own lives, that other people, like their fucking friends or something, might, you know, fucking CARE or something, and maybe want to figure out WHY THE HELL, or what they could have done to stop it, or –
The truth was, though, that if Eric just thought about it without getting angry, he was really not that surprised that Michael had done something so extreme. Normally, Michael was (no – had been) normally so reserved, shy even – so soft-spoken that it was difficult sometimes to actually hear the insightful things he was saying – that it was a shock to see the other side of him, the one that could be so manic, so consumed by something he’d discovered or heard or thought of that he’d talk of nothing else for days. When he was in one of these phases, it was as if someone else had taken up residence in the Michael shell, and this new person was kicking around in there, knocking shit over and making non-Michael movements come spilling out of his body. And then the crash would happen, when he’d just kind of… stop, in every way, and then he’d be barely functional for a few days – shuffling around the store, not answering the phone, sometimes just sitting and staring at nothing for hours – until everything kind of balanced itself out inside. Until, of course, it didn’t.
Eric remembered the first time he’d seen this transformation happen. He was working in the store because Michael had gone to some estate sale or something out of town, on the search for interesting books. As usual, business had been Poor, and apart from yet another old guy calling to find out if they had a copy of Beecham Trotter’s A Horseman and the West (why so many people wanted that book Eric could never figure out), there was not much going on. Then some kind of jerky, frantic marionette burst in. Michael acted as if he’d been mainlining coffee or coke or both all day and it was just now taking effect. He was waving a book around above his head, and the words were coming out of his mouth almost faster than he could say them:
“Look look look. Look at this! Look. Can you fucking believe I found this? It’s a fucking goldmine, man! Check it out! Look look!” His arms were flailing so much that it was hard to focus on whatever it was he was so excited about. “It’s a fucking FIRST EDITION T. S. Eliot! It’s fucking SIGNED, man! It’s the Poems, the 1925 poems. Holy shit, how does some, some farmer in the middle of fucking Canada even GET something like this? I don’t even… I can’t… I don’t even think it’s REAL.”
Michael had slumped down into a chair and was caressing the book on his lap like it was a rare and precious animal. From what Eric could see, it looked like nothing special – just a small leather-bound volume with the word “Poems” on the front. He didn’t dare ask to see it more closely.
“It’s all the best ones – Prufrock, The Wasteland, The Hollow Men. He, Eliot, he made this, got them printed himself, just to, like, give to friends or whatever. There’s only, I don’t know, I don’t know, hardly any copies around anymore. Like ten, or something. I can’t fucking believe it. And I paid, like, a coupla bucks for it. That’s IT! Fucking unbelievable, man. This is…it’s…it’s the best thing ever.”
Michael was holding the book up in front of him now, and looking so intently at it that it was as if it had turned into some kind of talisman, the words inside containing magical powers that could speak to him, instruct him, save him somehow. Eric stood watching in silence because he didn’t know what else to do. Then Michael was on his feet again, and the monologue continued:
“Men and bits of paper whirled by the cold wind that blows before and after time wind in and out of unwholesome lungs time before and time after.” He recited this rapid-fire, looking around wild-eyed and waving his arms to take in the extent of the store – of the world, even. “That’s us! That’s…this! Men and bits of paper. Men and bits of paper. That’s all there is.” He ran towards Eric, grabbing him by the shoulders and shaking him. The precious book almost fell to the floor. “Men and bits of paper. That’s us. That`s it. And the cold wind, the cold wind. There’s nothing… nothing else.” He stopped suddenly, still holding Eric’s shoulders, looking at him but not really seeing him. “He knew, man. He fucking knew.” They stood like that for what seemed like a long time. Eric didn’t speak. Then Michael’s arms dropped and he turned away.
“Unwholesome lungs, ha,” he said, hugging the book to his chest and looking out the store’s front window at the fading afternoon. A pause and then, softly: “I should quit smoking.” He stood there for the rest of the day, not moving, not talking, not responding to any of Eric’s tentative attempts at communication. When closing time came, he revived just enough to mumble a goodbye and to shuffle out the door. That was the first time. It just got worse after that.
The T. S. Eliot book was still there in the store, Eric was sure. It was locked in the glass display cabinet that also served as the retail counter, and if Eric actually did force himself to look in the window he knew he would be able to see a corner of it next to the old Remington typewriter that had belonged to Michael’s grandfather. Once Eric had found out just how valuable the book was (in the four digits, at least) he had tried to convince Michael to put it somewhere more secure to make sure it was safe – and whether it was valuable or not, the book obviously meant a lot to Michael, so shouldn’t he at least put the thing in a safety deposit box, or, hell, even under his mattress or something? But Michael didn’t think books should be “exiled” because they were valuable. If it got ruined somehow, he had said, well, then that’s what was supposed to happen, and no amount of protection would prevent it. Thinking back on those words now, and about how Michael had adamantly refused to get any kind of help for whatever it was that kept tormenting him, Eric wondered ruefully about double meanings, and about hints that he hadn’t picked up.
But, again, thinking like that wouldn’t help now. He should just go in the damn store. It was getting cold. OK, soon, he promised himself. Just one more cigarette first. Eric patted his coat pockets to find his Marlboros, thinking (not for the first time) that he should probably stop smoking, too.
The inside pocket of his overcoat held his cigarettes, but when he pulled out the almost-empty pack there was something attached to it. Annoyed, Eric tried to shake off what looked like a stray piece of paper, but then he realized it was a photograph. He stood there with an unlit cigarette in his mouth and looked at the picture, thinking how strange it was, in this digital age, to accidentally discover a snapshot like this. It seemed like a quaint little souvenir from the past – kind of like a used bookstore was, in a way. The picture had been taken this past summer, on the first anniversary of the store’s opening, when they had had a cheesy little reception to celebrate this milestone. After closing time the “reception” had devolved into a raucous party with just a few of their closest friends, and they had spent most of the night in the store, downing bottles of wine and yelling passages from their favourite books at each other. At the point captured in the photograph, both Eric and Michael had had a bit to drink and they were standing, bright-eyed and flushed, in front of the display counter with a wall of books behind them. Men and bits of paper. Michael was reaching out towards the camera with intent, as if he had some kind of urgent message for the photographer. He looked happy. It was devastating.
Eric slumped down to the ground with his back against the bookstore’s front door and sat there shuddering with grief. This was it: he was losing it, finally crying, out here in the street in this frozen afternoon, with the cold wind seeping through his coat and into his bones. He couldn’t stop it. He would just have to sit here looking like some kind of crazy homeless person, clutching a package of cigarettes and a crumpled photograph and sobbing all over himself while people skirted him warily. There was nothing, nothing else to be done.
After a few minutes, he took some deep breaths and wiped his face with his scarf. Then he risked another look at the picture. And as Eric looked once more at this image of his friend, captured back on that idyllic summer evening, he had a strange sensation that the moment of urgency in the photograph, the message Michael had wanted to deliver at the moment the shutter had clicked, was meant for him specifically. Then for no reason at all a fragment of the poetry Michael had recited that evening appeared in Eric’s head. T. S. Eliot, of course – not from the famous valuable book, but from another poem that Michael had often quoted. Four Quartets, it was called, Eric thought, and the line was something like “to make an end is to make a beginning. The end is where we start from.” He looked at Michael’s face in the picture, and thought about friendship, and endings and beginnings. And then he stood up, fished the bookstore’s keys out of his pocket and turned towards the door. It was time to begin.