“A Half-Read Book”
by René Wells
Who knows what would have happened if the television hadn’t been broken. But broken it was. All his own fault too, he had to admit. Then again, if that damn second-string quarterback hadn’t thrown away the game-of-the-year, then he definitely wouldn’t have thrown his football at the TV.
At least it was an old set. He’d been looking for a good excuse to upgrade to a big, fancy, new flat screen and finally he had one. But still, he’d have to wait until his next paycheck before he could really consider buying one. He knew when he walked into the store he’d end up wanting a model with more features then he needed, but, well, who knows what features one might find useful unless one plays with them for a while?
The first evening home the day after the loss-of-the-year was disorienting. His standard routine after work had been pretty much the same for the last couple of years ever since his wife left him. He remembered the first time he came home from work and she was no longer there. He’d sat down in the kitchen for about five minutes just staring at the empty table. He’d thought that he ought to feel sad or depressed or angry or something dramatic but his emotions had long been spent before she finally left for good. Relief is what he’d felt even if it was a relief that had more to do with not having to exert any energy rather than anything explicitly emotional. Of course, he didn’t analyze it much after those first five minutes alone in the kitchen; he wasn’t the analytical type. All he knew then was that he could now do what he pleased.
The first thing he did was to kick his shoes off in the middle of the kitchen. Then he grabbed a bottle of beer, popped the top, and left the opener and cap lying on the counter. It was refreshing not to have to worry about how she might react to such things, especially in ‘her’ kitchen. After taking a refreshing swig, he went into the living room and switched on the TV. He’d never watched much TV before, perhaps because she’d always been watching some show or another that didn’t really interest him. Or, perhaps, he just hadn’t felt like spending too much time with her for a whole host of reasons beyond the kitchen policing.
Whatever the reasons, the TV more or less replaced her absence in the house. He wasn’t happy that she was gone but he wasn’t exactly unhappy to be alone either. The TV was a good companion – if you don’t like the company you can always change the channel.
He’d started to leave it on more and more. It became part of the scenery of the house. He’d go about his business of doing one chore or another, taking out the trash or balancing his checkbook or whatever, but always in between stopping to throw an eye at what was on the box. Late at night, when he couldn’t sleep because his metabolism or hormones were raging from too much of one thing or not enough of another, he’d sit and flip channels for hours.
So the first night home after the football fiasco was a jolt to his system even though he’d never have admitted it. The house was so quiet. Strangely, even though she’d also watched so much TV, he thought of her in its absence. The house made noises he’d never noticed before, small creaking sounds as if it was settling in for the night. He tried putting on some music, a couple of his old albums, but every song seemed to unearth some forgotten memory he had no interest in remembering. And the radio wasn’t any better. It just made him feel old to hear all the new music, not that he considered it even music to his ears in the first place.
After about an hour of these experiments, he’d had about all he could take and he decided to go to The Last Call, the local bar down the road. He usually only went on Friday nights as he didn’t think it was a good idea to go out drinking during the workweek, but he figured this was as good as an exception as any. Besides, they had a giant TV – the people looked bigger than in real life.
He had to laugh, though, when he got to the bar: apparently he wasn’t the only one who had thrown something at a TV due to that second-string quarterback. So there was no TV at The Last Call either but at least it made for good conversation. Usually people talked about what they saw on TV, not what they didn’t, much less broken TVs. And the jukebox hadn’t seen that much action in ages. The owner of the bar began to think about not replacing the TV. It brought in lots of customers on game days, but after the last game, all bets were off.
On the way home from work the second night, he stopped off at Wal-Mart to see how much the big flat screens cost. He stood there for about an hour, trying to understand why some TVs had clearly worse picture quality than others – who would ever buy them? A salesman tried to explain to him that everyone sees differently and that color and sharpness were very subjective. Then he thought that maybe it was just a marketing trick: put a couple of crap TVs between the models that are super expensive so customers end up shelling out three times as much as they actually need to. And he was pretty lost with all the tech-talk of the salesman. TVs used to be simple. Black and white or color, and size – those were all the choices. Nowadays you need a degree in electrical engineering if you want to make an educated purchase.
Regardless, the size he wanted was only possible with next month’s paycheck if at all. He’d have to wait or buy something smaller. This took another hour of debate but at least he got to watch TV. God knows how long he would have taken if he’d gone to that new Mega-Media-Market. They had ten times as many TVs but he pretty much trusted Wal-Mart to be cheaper. In the end he thought he ought to sleep on it. Certainly he could handle waiting a bit. No need to rush things.
The third night was the hardest, though. After about twenty minutes of staring at the broken screen of his old set he knew he had to get out of the house again. He decided to take a walk. He couldn’t remember the last time he’d taken a walk but it felt good to be out and about and moving. It was a nice night, the summer heat fading as fall took over the evening breeze. He headed towards the city park. Maybe there’d be a ball game he could watch.
As he rounded the last corner before the park, a new building caught his eye: a municipal library. Strange that he hadn’t noticed it before. It must’ve been built in the last couple of years. Had it really been that long since he’d taken a walk in the park? They used to go to the park a lot . . . But that was a long time ago.
As he stared at the building, another thought struck him: when was the last time he’d been in a library? Or read a book for that matter? He blinked a couple of times and drew a blank. He’d never been much of a book person. He used to like it when his mother read to him as a child. She was really good at making voices and playing different characters. After she died, well, books just weren’t the same. They were just for school and learning and looking up facts. And now that he had the internet at home, he didn’t even need books for that anymore. Why thumb through a dusty out-of-date encyclopedia when you can Google it in a second? He figured encyclopedia salesmen must hate the internet but he would bet that they had it at home too.
He wondered if libraries even had encyclopedias even more. Curious about this, and since he had nothing better to do, he entered the library. He was self-conscious as he went in, looking over his shoulder, wondering if one of his work buddies might see him. What would they think of that? Libraries are for kids and know-it-alls, they’d say. But this thought faded as he walked into the foyer. There were all kinds of people, old and young, upper class, lower class – you could tell a lot about people just by looking at their shoes. And all of them were busy looking for something: information, entertainment, enlightenment? That was actually the interesting thing. He could look at a person’s shoes, clothes, appearance, and make a guess about their place in the world, where they belonged or fit in, but he could never guess what they’d be reading.
A girl with green hair and a pierced nose was reading a fat book titled The Economics of War in the 19th Century. At the same table, sitting across from her, was an old shriveled man reading a flashy magazine called Hip Hop Revolution. Then again, maybe they were both just putting on a show, wanting other people to think that they were into those things to make them appear more fascinating. Or maybe they really were reading what they appeared to be reading, maybe they really were that fascinating.
He drifted through the building. It was a light, open space. It wasn’t like the library he remembered from school. This place had a lot of color. And a lot more than just books. There were banks of computers and a whole area full of CDs and DVDs. He had to walk farther in before he saw a bookshelf containing actual books. At least the deep, musty scent of wood pulp and leather and the hushed hum of page flipping and whispers were the same as he remembered from long ago. Until a mobile phone rang. He looked back to see the girl with the green hair glaring at the old man as he fumbled a phone out of his pocket and turned it off with an embarrassed smile. The girl didn’t smile back and refocused on the tome in front of her.
He turned and wandered deeper into the library. Different sections announced themselves with names and numbers: Psychology 911-969, Philosophy 800-820, Religion 721-755; and then Math, Physics, Languages, Art and so on, each with their own numbers mixed with occasional letters. He knew how to locate a book but he couldn’t understand what the numbers and letters meant. Some sort of secret librarian code, he figured. Not that it worried him, just a memory from high school. And her, come to think of it . . . But he didn’t want to think of it, of her, so he concentrated on finding an interesting book.
There wasn’t anything in particular he wanted to look up or learn so he ended up in the fiction section. He walked between the tall metal shelves full of titles vying for his attention: The Autumn Leaves, Victory Lost, Broken Windows, One More Smoke, The Empty Bin – none of which grabbed his attention. He turned the corner at the end of a row of shelves and was about to turn back up the next aisle when a book lying on a table nearby caught his eye: An Honest Mechanic. It wasn’t the cliché’s irony that got his attention but rather the irony that he happened to be a mechanic, an honest mechanic at that.
The book was lying open on its pages as if someone had stopped reading the book about half-way through. Nobody was around, though, so he picked it up and turned it over to the open page. His eye fell on a sentence which read, “He couldn’t remember the last time he’d been in a library.” He blinked and read the sentence again. Now, if that wasn’t odd . . . He frowned and looked back at the cover again. There was a drawing of a motor under an open hood. He recognized the car at once even though all there was to see was a pair of greasy hands digging into the bowls of the beast: a 1977 Pontiac Trans Am. The size and shape of the carburetor were unmistakable – how often had he tuned his?
This unexpected recognition of the familiar gave him pause. What was this book and who wrote it? The author’s name made him laugh: John Smith. But his laugh wasn’t the kind of light laugh you make when you’re amused, no, it was a quick, hard laugh from the gut, produced by disbelief and surprise because his name was none other than the overly-common and laughable John Smith.
He stood there a moment just staring, not knowing what to make of the book in his hand, the unbelievable reality at hand. Here he was, John Smith, an honest mechanic, holding a book called An Honest Mechanic, written by John Smith. His mind had no answer or idea as he asked himself for an explanation. The only thing to do, as any good mechanic knows, was to examine the seemingly inexplicable more closely. He sat down and looked at the greasy hands depicted on the cover and then at his own hands – the similarity was unmistakable.
He turned the book over and read the blurb on the back cover: “He could fix almost anything, and his policy had always been honesty if he couldn’t, but he didn’t know how to face the truth of a broken heart . . .”
His jaw clenched and his throat tightened. He looked up from the table, suddenly certain he was being watched, the victim of an elaborate joke, some hidden camera show. But he was all alone in the corner of the library. All alone except for the book seeming to mock his life in his hands.
Was she behind this?
He flipped the book over and opened the cover to search for the copyright page. First published in 1970 in New York . . . Just like him, born 1970, in Manhattan. The publisher was Random House, like his birthplace: a random house on the lower East-Side where his mother happened to be babysitting for a friend when her water broke a month too soon. Turned out that in her panic she broke the phone and then the door lock, so the family joke came to be that John came into the world to fix things.
He turned the page and stared at his name on the title page. Slowly, he turned the next page, half-fearing he would be confronted with a table of contents summarizing his life. He was relieved just to see bold letters stating, “Chapter One”. He couldn’t help but continue and read the text that followed, “John Smith came into the world to fix things, in fact, it all started in a random house . . .”
He had no idea how hard he gripped the book – his fingernails went white and his fingers red as his eyes tore through the story of his life. It was all there, his birth, his mother’s death, living with his grandmother, his first successful repair job at the age of three when he noticed his father hadn’t put a distributor cap back on correctly. And that was all in the first chapter. He read on, devouring text like he’d never done before. One memory after another danced before his eyes. His successes and failures were paraded before him mercilessly; so many things that had seemed so important at the time yet were now long forgotten.
After about five chapters, the unreality of reading about his reality started to fade, and without noticing, he slipped more and more into the natural state of reading, of observing and playing audience to the story in front of him. He began to question the choices made by the main character, like the time he ‘borrowed’ a client’s car to impress a girl, only to end up totaling it – what a fool! Or missing his best friend’s wedding because he forgot to pay a credit card bill on time and then couldn’t buy a plane ticket. And then the part about her . . . His wife. And then ex-wife. He scoffed and chided as he read, his dissatisfaction with the meandering plot and the weak protagonist becoming almost unbearable. He was about to toss the book aside when he abruptly found John Smith in front of the local library thinking, “He couldn’t remember the last time he’d been in a library.”
He looked up from the book, his eyes dry and red, his fingers numb, his back stiff, throat dry. The aisles around him were darker; the sun had set and the library was quieter than before. He didn’t need to look at his watch to know it must have been nearing closing time. He looked back at the book in his hands. He laid it down, open in front of him and put his hands in his lap. He was about half-way through the book. About half-way through his life? He shuddered. How would it end? All the unanswered questions and unfinished business of John Smith’s life cascaded through him.
So far the book hadn’t been a comedy. Or a romance novel. Or a thriller, or much of anything really. Mostly a lot of foolishness and self-defeat. If the John Smith he’d read about so far was anything to go on, then his life wouldn’t amount to much of anything in the end either. It was obvious how John Smith would have to change if he were to have any hope. But would he? Life isn’t a novel where characters learn from their mistakes and the error of their ways and turn over a new leaf, is it?
But here was his book. His life apparently already complete, already written by some power beyond his comprehension. Was it all there for him to read, to see his future, his destiny? What if John Smith didn’t change? What if the ending was a sad one? His curiosity surged but so did his fear. If he read the rest now and didn’t like it, would he be able to change it? Or would it become a self-fulfilling prophesy? Or what if it had a happy ending? Could he be sure it would come true? Would he expect good things to happen and then they wouldn’t because he wouldn’t actually do what needed to be done to make them happen?
His eyes fixed on the remaining unread pages. Were there more than the pages he’d already read? Was he past the half-way mark? He felt the ground beneath him start to fall away and he gripped the edge of the table to steady himself. He inhaled deeply through his nose, expanding his lungs more than he thought he possible. He held his breath for a moment, his insides on the point of bursting, and then exhaled and stood up, leaving his emotions behind him in the chair.
With precision, like a mechanic, he steadied his hands, picked up the book, turned it over, and placed it back on the table, just as he’d first found it. He stared at the cover for as long as he could until he blinked. Then he turned and walked away, leaving John Smith’s life, a half-read book, lying on the table.