Tuesday, May 31, 2005

Taylor House, chapter 8: "Routine"

Middle-March became middle-May. As it often does, the time passed silently and without incident. Louis quickly grew into his position at the bookstore, and within only a few weeks had mastered the basic skills of shelving and pricing. His employer was impressed with his ability to learn and adapt. By the middle of April, Borokov began mentioning in passing that Louis would soon take on a new set of responsibilities at the store. Not quite a promotion, but certainly an entirely new area of the bookselling business: acquisitions. Louis had made it clear that he was willing to do whatever was required, so the Russian gave him several books and manuals to study. Some were basic guides to the care and restoration of antique books, while others were on the evolution of the printing business. While he couldn’t see the immediate relevance, Louis complied and read everything that his mercurial supervisor handed him. Soon, these books replaced the novels and notebooks that once filled Louis’ ubiquitous canvas messenger bag.

On his lunch breaks, Louis would grab a sandwich and a cup of coffee from the shop across the street. The spring months warmed slowly, so Louis would always sit on one of the benches on the sidewalk, in front of the shop’s wide windows. After lunch, he would return to the bookstore, and would spend his afternoon hours pricing and shelving the previous day’s leftovers. Around four o’clock every day, Trent would come in for the evening shift. Borokov would leave as soon as Trent arrived, leaving him in charge.

Louis and Trent’s working relationship was easy and pleasant. While Trent was technically the most senior employee, he realized that Louis was becoming more valuable to the proprietor in terms of utility, and so he treated Louis as almost an equal. Louis, unsure at first, took to this dynamic soon enough. If one of them had something to take care of during their hour together in the store, the other knew enough to leave him alone. When neither had pressing business, they would often sit at the wide counter, recommending books back and forth. It became a game of sorts, each trying to stump the other. It didn’t take long to prove that Louis was outmatched in the area of semi-obscure literary figures. Trent may not have finished college yet (a fact he was not proud of, but was trying to remedy, one class at a time), but he had certainly read more than Louis had.

This was often true of books that Louis thought he knew. While discussing one of the many upcoming Hollywood blockbusters, Trent referred to one of the film reviewers as a Pangloss. When Louis didn’t acknowledge the reference, Trent shook his head. “Come on, college boy, I thought you would have studied Voltaire in that big-city school of yours.”

“We studied him. Wait--what are you talking about?”

Trent made a big show of rolling his eyes. “Voltaire. Candide. Pangloss.”

“Oh, right, right,” Louis said, shooing away the barb with a waved hand, trying to play off his misstep. “I knew that. I was thinking of something else.”

Trent stopped. “You did read Candide, didn’t you?”

“Of course I did.”

“All of it?”

Louis squirmed. “Some of it.”

“Don’t tell me you’re one of those ‘Cliff’s Notes’ types.”

Louis held up a hand. “Please—there’s no need to be insulting. My philosophy was that if I didn’t have time to read it, I didn’t read it. And I refused to read summaries of any kind, especially ‘Cliff’s Notes’.”

Trent nodded. “The moral high ground, in other words.”

“Exactly. Of course, that meant I only read about 3 chapters of nearly every book we were assigned.”

Trent shook his head as he picked up a stack of romances and headed to the back of the store. “Education is wasted on the lazy!” he laughed.

Louis called after him, “I’m not lazy—I’m an English major!”

Louis’ relationship with the other clerks was polite, thought not quite as chummy. He and Dan regarded each other with a mutual respect, but rarely shared more than pleasantries. Brendan, the teenager in the Clash tee shirt whom Louis “met” on that first day, was the regular weekend clerk. As such, he and Louis didn’t interact much, though when their paths crossed, he always greeted Louis with a nod and a “Dude.”

About a month into Louis’ employment, Trent invited him to come see Brendan’s band play a gig at a small club in Houston. What Trent failed to mention, and Louis failed to ask, was that Brendan was the bass player in a thrash-metal band, and Louis wasn’t prepared for the experience. While he could appreciate the skill required for such an enterprise, he stayed in the back, near the door, trying to avoid the melee that ensued as soon as the band hit the stage. Louis had done a bit of moshing at various times in college, but never in a group of people covered in metal spikes and studs, nor in a group as violent and chaotic. When the madness spread back as far as Louis’ tenuous perch, he stepped outside.

About 20 minutes later, people poured out of the club in various states of medical distress. Some were helping their limping comrades back to their cars. Most were still screaming and cheering. Finally, Trent emerged, sporting an already swollen and darkening bruise on his jaw, a black eye, and a few superficial cuts. Louis asked, “Are you okay?”

Trent grinned. “Sure! This is nothing. You should have been here last time.”

“Are we going to wait for Brendan?”

“Nah, he’s got another gig uptown in an hour. You up for it?”


Trent laughed. “Fine. Let’s go, college boy.”

While Louis’ days were spent in Borokov’s dim bookstall, his evenings were often spent in Taylor House, in the sitting room upstairs, curled up on the chaise with a book. He had brought so many books with him from Chicago, read and unread, that he had yet to go through his grandfather’s vast library. Truth be told, he hadn’t even set foot in there more than twice since the day Mr. Salvador read Linus Taylor’s will. Most of the time, the door between the library and the downstairs hall remained closed, though Louis would sometimes spot Mr. Cross passing through it, carrying cleaning supplies.

Louis called up his parents once a week, usually on Sundays. His mother would fill him in on all of the latest neighborhood gossip, which Louis endured, as a good son often does. His father would discuss business or local sports. Once spring training arrived (“true spring,” his father would call it), their conversations invariably centered around the misfortunes of their beloved Cubs—a topic not quickly exhausted.

As the months passed, Marie spoke more and more of her siblings with Louis. On one April afternoon, she told Louis that she was afraid for Linus, Jr. His firm was making personnel cutbacks, and it looked like he was one of the unhappy few whose vocational heads would roll. During a later call, Marie recounted her previous conversation with her eldest brother--the desperation in his voice, the palpable bitterness in his inquiries about her son. As for the other Taylor children, Louis’ Aunt Janet had not spoken with Marie since the day of the will; this wasn’t all that surprising, considering how she had barely said a word to her since their mother’s funeral. Of course, Marie hadn’t heard from Howie, either; but, as per family practice, Howard Taylor was almost never spoken of, anyway.

At the end of every phone conversation, Louis’ mother would tell him how much she and his father loved him, and how proud they were of him. She would remind him to keep abiding by the terms of his residence in Taylor House, and to stay in touch. He would promise to do so, “of course,” tell her he loved her, and then hang up, immediately burying himself in a book without a second thought.

So Louis fell into a comfortable life. He worked full-time, went out with the other clerks, read voraciously, and, once the temperature crept up enough, went to the beach almost every weekend to read and let the tide roll over his pale, bare feet. Mr. Cross took care of the household chores, made dinner for the two of them more often than not, and provided a formidable chess opponent.

Life, for Louis, was contented.

Which, of course, was the worst possible thing that could have happened to him. Because March became May, and even by the beginning of his fourth month in residence at Taylor House, Louis had yet to begin writing his promised novel—the first and most important condition of his living arrangement. After the first week or so, he had barely given it a second thought. Like so many, Louis lived under the delusion that he had time enough to do everything he wanted or needed to do. But time was exactly what he did not have.

Not that he noticed.

March melted into May, and the unwritten novel hung over him like a shadow he couldn’t see, a spring storm cloud that approached without warning, dark with rain. It was thus his good fortune (or perhaps the good grace of a thoughtful Deity) that Louis’ pleasant but unproductive existence was interrupted by the ringing of his doorbell.

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