People leave bits from their lives in the books they read. I’ve found movie tickets, grocery lists, dry cleaning stubs, letters that were never mailed, restaurant receipts. Sometimes they even leave messages. Brief elliptical phrases scrawled in margins about what they just read or how they felt while reading it. Secret codes that build on the text of the story. Secret windows they open into their lives without even knowing what they are doing.
Inevitably, they discard the books. Some people leave their old books at the Salvation Army or homeless shelters or sell them for a nickel at the end of their driveway or pawn them off on used bookstores for credit that will be used to buy other people’s books filled with other people’s secret messages scribbled in margins or on the cover or the inside flaps.
I never buy new books. Not just because I can’t afford them. Also, I love finding other people’s secrets.
Today I found a phone number.
Let me go back to the beginning.
My day started at the little breakfast place down the street that offers coffee, one egg, and a slice of toast for one dollar and ninety-nine cents. How they make a profit, I have no idea?
After a few refills of coffee, I strolled across the street to the used bookstore. I wanted something new to read.
The phone number was written in precise-hand, along the top margin, on page two hundred and twelve.
I stared at it for a long time.
Any interest I had in the story faded away.
I had to call the number.
Shortly after I had to give up the car the cell phone went. Having a landline stopped making sense a long time ago. There is no phone in my apartment. The apartment I can barely pay for.
Only payphone I know about stands outside the Stop ‘n Go. The man behind the glass sells international calling cards at three-point-five cents per minute. He sells those cards to the men who stand out front of the hardware store waiting for someone to pick them up. They wait all day in the heat praying they will be chosen to do some form of backbreaking labor at a fraction of the cost they should rightfully be paid. They silently pray to an invisible god that they will be chosen for exploitation. It is a simple prayer. That way at night they can use the calling card to call a wife or girl friend or mother of their children to let them know how much money will be mailed that week.
I have found phone numbers before inside used books. Sometimes they were scrawled inside hearts. Sometimes they were underlined. But I never imagined dialing the number.
The sun had yet to burn-off the morning cold. Nobody was fool enough to stand outside the Stop ‘n Go. A pile of snow stood beneath the pay phone. The plow must have dumped it there.
On the third ring, a woman answered.
“Derek?” She said.
My name was not Derek. For a brief instance I wondered what she might say if I said yes.
Instead she kept talking: “It has to be you. I don’t know anyone else from that area code.”
I glanced around me.
“Are you there, Derek?”
The way she said the name it didn’t sound like she knew Derek very well, or perhaps a long time had expired since last they spoke. I wanted to say yes. I wanted to see what would happen if I said yes. But I couldn’t bring myself to say anything. I didn’t want the conversation to end. It seemed whatever I might say would disrupt the conversation. I wondered if I had anything in common with Derek? For a moment, I became more fascinated by the notions of Derek than the stranger on the other end of the line.
“Is this the call?” She said. “Is this the call you warned me about? Is that why you aren’t saying anything? That’s best. I totally understand. I’ve seen it on the news. Oh no, but I said your name. I didn’t know what else to say? We should have come up with a code. A secret word. Something only you and I would understand. You should have thought of that. Do you still have the book?”
I held it up next to the phone as though she could see it. I felt like a dope standing there with the phone in one hand and the book in the other.
“Did you ever read it?” She wanted to know. “I know that’s a strange thing to say right now, what with everything else going on in the world. I often wondered if you ever read it. There were nights when I lay awake in bed imagining you reading it.”
I looked at the cover of the book. I turned it over and looked at the back jacket. Inside the back flap I studied the writer’s face. He was about my age in the picture. My feet were getting cold in the snow.
“It seems very strange circumstances for a book recommendation. The strangest circumstances, perhaps. I know we didn’t know each other very well. I feel like I know you sometimes. But I don’t. I have to remind myself that you can’t really know someone only after a week. It does sometimes feel like it was much, much longer. But I can’t know you and I remind myself of that. I thought maybe if you read the book you might understand something about me. That’s one of those things about books, they tell you as much about the reader as anything. But maybe you don’t think about that kind of thing. I thought, if you did read it, maybe it might mean something. Maybe it might make that week mean something different from what it was. Maybe you have a lot of weeks like that. Or weekends. Or nights…”
I stomped my feet because someone once told me that was the best way to stay warm.
“I don’t have those kinds of night, Derek. That’s why I read so many books. They comfort me. That’s why I asked you to take it. I was giving you a small piece of me. I didn’t know if this day would ever come. You warned me. You impressed upon me that one day there would be a need for you to call me again. That something would happen and you would reach out. You would come for me…”
My hands trembled as she spoke. It wasn’t the cold any more. I had set something in motion. Perhaps something that never should have been started. I could hear it in her voice.