Sarafina wasn’t a name you hear up in Massachusetts, Horace thought. Last week was the second time he’d seen her, heard her addressed by Ralph at the desk. “Hey, Sara-fine, got a special on mysteries,” Ralph had said.
Intriguing. She didn’t look like her name, which should have been Meghan or Heather or Maureen befitting people in their late 20s. He knew he looked like a Horace, the kind of person people pass by without notice. Would his life have been different if he’d been named Casey or Mark?
Horace wheeled his book cart around a magazine rack to get closer. The customer’s appearance was uptown. Tailored. Not over-dressed, but her red jacket, black skirt, and tall boots were too cosmopolitan for Cambridge’s Huron Avenue. Even her makeup was too perfect, down to the brows that formed circumflex punctuation over cobalt blue eyes. Not a Sarafina at all and not a gal who’d be interested in Horace.
“I’m a ghost writer,” the woman said to Ralph, digging into her pocketbook.
“You write, like mysteries? Ghosties and spirits?”
“No, I ghost books that are published under another person’s name. Cookbooks, memoirs, apologias by businessmen voicing regrets and hopes before they die. Those chefs you see on the TV? You don’t think they write their own books, do you?”
Ralph was an asshole, Horace thought. Part-time student at some film school and full-time jerk-off. “Let me see her receipt,” he ordered when the woman left. Ralph handed over the strip of paper showing the young lady had chosen a trade paperback of Jack Finney’s Time and Again. “Who was that woman?”
Ralph picked his nose. “Dunno.”
* * *
Horace was coming out of the coffee house across the street that afternoon, switching his steaming latte from one hand to the other, when teenagers thronging the sidewalk pushed a pedestrian into him.
“Sorry,” he said. “Didn’t mean….”
The woman had the same hunter-red jacket and black skirt as Sarafina. He glanced quickly at one blue eye and then the other in a ricochet assessment. She was from the other side of 40. Somehow, she had looked younger in the store. Still no wrinkles or character lines. “Didn’t I see you in the bookstore?” He nodded backwards.
“Do you think so?”
“Sarafina, right?” he said. “I overheard your name. I’m the sales manager, from 10 a.m. to 5 o’clock.”
“You look industrious. I’m sure I would’ve noticed.”
Was she being sarcastic? “Listen,” he said, feeling some urgency, “you don’t have a daughter…or sister, do you?”
Her mouth corkscrewed into a formation he didn’t quite understand. “I’m not married.” There was a pause. “Or a mother. I guess you have to qualify things nowadays.”
“Why are you interrogating me?” she asked. Her question wasn’t a challenge, as much as a peevish comment on his assumptions. She turned and strode up Huron toward Harvard Square.
When she was 20 paces away he was startled by something he’d failed to notice when her nose was in his face. Sensible shoes had replaced the tall boots, and her hair was shorter. In the sunset she bore a startling resemblance to the quick glimpse he had once seen of the Grey Lady.
* * *
Books were salvation for agnostics. Not to haunt bookstores was to declare apostasy. Book repositories had been Horace’s home since childhood, when he haunted the Willard Library after school and on Saturdays in his hometown of Evansville. The Victorian Gothic structure held the lives of explorers and adventurers, romantic lovers and nefarious brigands. These witnesses to other times and places helped him transcend the loud and illogical world of adults and classmates. He had seen the Grey Lady in the Children’s Room when he was 11. His mother had laughed when he told her, and said, “Oh, Horace, there’re no ghosts. You read too much.”
Dad muttered, “Nose in your goddamn book all the time.”
He believed the legendary Grey Lady haunted the library because she too was fond of books. Perhaps reality — in life and then death — disappointed her.
Horace spent the afternoon going through receipts for the past two weeks, looking for Sarafina. “You sure you gave me all the receipts?” he asked Ralph. “Can you remember if she always paid cash? What she bought?”
“You’re weirding me out, Hor-ace.” Ralph turned his back and went outside to smoke a cigarette.
It really pissed Horace the way Ralph pronounced Horace as though he was a loser, a joke, a nonentity. Then, he turned back to the clunky computer to Google “Sarafina” and “ghost writer.” Sadly, he saw the search engine would yield nothing this Sarafina had ghosted. She had been dissembling, putting Ralph on about being a writer. Horace dismissed Sarafina as a classy stuck-up from someplace like Beacon Hill. Not for him. Metaphorically, he could take pâté and caviar, but nothing beat a fried hamburger washed down with a cold Budweiser.
Horace snapped his head up to see Ralph standing in the office doorway, just staring.
“You got a thing for this broad who looks like any old lady?” he asked. “She’s no reason to become a stalker. People are just like a pile of spy novels or crime capers. Look different except they’re the same. Jesus, Horace. And you call me names.” He walked to the door, leaving it ajar.
Horace searched for the appropriate emotion, frustrated that he couldn’t find one.
It had been hard enough for him to come to Cambridge, find a job, and rise to manager through attrition. This city of Thoreau and Emerson had been his magnetic north compass point, a place where he could escape and leave the world behind. The best-seller lists published on Sunday were his constantly revised catechism; and seeing Jonathan Franzen or Harold Bloom rise a notch spelled out the moral ascension of mankind. His world was precisely ordered with the geometry of habit and ritual. What he did not need was riddles, ambiguities or challenges from Ralph. Or Sarafina, the young —perhaps older — lady.
Ralph shouted across the empty bookstore, “You know your problem? People who obsess over books send a signal, Horace. They’re saying that humanity is less rewarding that some goddamn book.”
Horace ignored Ralph. People flowed by him like corpuscles in a throbbing vein. Sometimes the cacophony made his head throb. But there was no acceptable alternative to the circumscribed life he had created. Imagine, though, just imagine if he could possess this Sarafina and put her in a bottle on his bookcase. She would be a Tinkerbell to entertain him. His secret sprite.
* * *
His finger whisked rhythmically over the screen of his e-book reader while he sat on a bench along the Charles River. Horace had a Nook and a Kindle with digital books, plus a collection of short stories on his Palm Tungsten. The Introduction to Psychology on his reader called this “approach-avoidance,” reading digital downloads even though he knew e-books were sapping the flow of customers coming into his store to run their fingers over book spines. His behavior was, perhaps, slightly traitorous.
Then he noticed his finger scrolling the screen looked vaporous, not quite solid. He scrutinized his forefinger, silhouetting it against the gray river. It definitely was oddly insubstantial. What would a doctor make of it, if he knew of a doctor in the neighborhood?
Sarafina startled Horace by tapping him on the shoulder. “The bookstore manager, right?”
Horace put down his reader, feeling faint. This was a mature, older woman wandering the riverside in the middle of the day, wearing the same red jacket. He nodded. A chance encounter in this big city didn’t mean he should be wary, but it wasn’t out of line to be very, very alert.
“Who’s minding the store?” She didn’t laugh, as though dismissing her clichéd wit.
Perhaps she was shy, Horace thought. He could tell her to drop the red jacket and act her age if she wanted to get social and pick up a man her age. He didn’t look at her face. He might look at a person’s eyes once, but then he had to find a neutral place — perhaps an ear — to focus on.
“Red and black.” He pointed to her clothes. “Strong contrast.” The words were meant to fill the vacuum. That’s what conversation was supposed to be. He’d heard plenty of conversations between his mom and dad.
She shrugged. “I have several similar outfits. Saves me having to make useless decisions on what to wear.”
Horace cocked his head, trying to place her accent. Hers was the kind of Middle American spoken by network newscasters. She had his accentless speech. “You know someone name of Sarafina, a young lady?” He couldn’t believe this tactless question had burst out.
She sat down. “Yes. Nineteen eighty-six.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
“Nothing, I guess. Or everything.” She stared at a college rower plowing up the river, possibly thinking of something to say, or maybe nothing. She had said “Nothing.”
Horace was confused. This was the first woman — really, the first person outside of Ralph and the store’s owner — he had talked to in the city except to say “Thank you” to cashiers. It wasn’t that he was shy, but that the world in his head was more entertaining. A party filled with kings and courtiers, romantic heroes, occasionally someone like Huck Finn as comic relief. Books delivered mannered romance and social archeology, even advice if he ever encountered situations that called for a verbal rejoinder or body language to indicate emotion.
It was easily understood why someone would wear the same clothes every day. Certain things in the outside world shouldn’t intrude, had no meaning. Horace placed people in that category. Psychologists, like the one on his Kindle, called it face blindness. Prosopagnosia — not recognizing people you should know. He’d read two books about the subject.
“Would you like…?” he started to say, and she turned to face him. This time he concentrated on looking at her blue eyes.
“Why ‘What I’d like?’ What would you like?”
He took the question literally and his mind turned to the most outrageous thing he could imagine. What would the young Sarafina look like naked, supine on his bed in his apartment, her brown hair fanned out on his pillow, in a pale body— if there was one under the red jacket? He felt his cheeks redden.
“I don’t know. Nothing. Nothingness.” The words came out slowly.
* * *
Ralph was leaning on the counter, chin on his folded hands. “Hey,” he said. “Your friend came in while you were out. Is that existentially right? She was in and you were out.”
“Ralph, what in Heaven’s name are you saying?”
“The lady in the red jacket you’re so hot on. She said to tell you…. Wait, let me think. She said, ‘Nineteen eighty-six. The Grey Lady’s made up her mind. She’s waiting.’”
Horace faced Ralph, feeling the cold creep over his shoulders. Eighty-six was the year he was 11. Sarafina Grey. The Grey Lady was the apocryphal ghost back in Evansville. No coincidence. The cold crept down his arms, to his hands. He looked at his right hand, which was becoming translucent. He could almost see through it.
In unfocused fear, his eyes turned to the dusty window opening out on Huron Avenue and past the books lined up to attract customers. He saw Sarafina looking back at him, all skin and bones now, smiling, becoming more solid as Ralph and the store became increasingly evanescent.
He was overwhelmed by the dread that soon no one would be able to see him.
Except Sarafina, when she had possessed him.
Would anyone remember him if he disappeared, or if they did would it be like a browser momentarily touching a volume in a bookstore like this before moving on to the next shelf?
And would anyone care?
Bio: Walt Giersbach’s genre fiction has appeared in Bewildering Stories, Big Pulp, Corner Club Press, Every Day Fiction, Gumshoe Review, Liquid Imagination, OG Short Fiction, Over My Dead Body, Pif Magazine, Pulp Modern, r.kv.r.y, the Story Shack, Short Fiction World, The World of Myth, and, of course, Short-Story.Me. Two volumes of short stories, Cruising the Green of Second Avenue, are available at Barnes & Noble and other online booksellers.