How All Those Decisions Added Up

August is Summer Reading Month in Daily Nutmeg. Please enjoy this excerpt from Brian Francis Slattery’s contribution to Bookburners (2017).

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Gabriel’s only regular visitors were two sisters from upstairs, Elena and Victoria, who came over every few days when they needed to escape their own parents, their own smaller apartment. They thought of Gabriel’s place as their secret castle. To them, its rooms were vast and unending, and they spent hours exploring them. The remnants of his parents’ lives were souvenirs from distant places. Elena and Victoria loved the collection of figurines, of angels and animals, that Gabriel’s mother had kept. They took them out and played with them on the dining room table while Gabriel made them a snack. Gabriel liked the girls, appreciated the company.

Gabriel kept the apartment, just barely, through a series of small jobs. He had been an office clerk. Then he was a cashier at a pharmacy. Then he became the manager of a movie theater. It was his favorite of the jobs he’d had, even though he knew there was no way it was going to last. The theater was falling apart around him—it was in worse shape than his apartment—while the street bustled with pedestrians outside. Almost none of them ever came inside.

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But he loved the movies. The owner had a taste for the surreal, which suited Gabriel fine. They played The Spirit of the Beehive once a month. They ran Buñuel. They ran Jodorowsky. Gabriel sat in the back, behind the three or four other people in the theater, and let those movies take him away. He knew they were supposed to be unsettling. They were designed to worm their way into your brain and lay eggs. Change you. But they didn’t unsettle Gabriel. He found them soothing. They were an escape.

At last, the theater’s owner decided to close down the theater for good and asked Gabriel to help him and some kids he’d hired off the street to clean the place out. The kids were from somewhere in North Africa. Gabriel didn’t ask where because it seemed rude. They spoke very little Spanish and worked hard. Gabriel gave them a couple of hammers, screwdrivers, and a crowbar, and got them on the job of removing all the theater’s fixtures—the counter, the lights, the carpeting—all of which the owner was hoping to sell. Gabriel went down to the basement to clear out the film canisters that hadn’t been touched in years. He was sure the film inside was ruined. It had to be. As much as the owner loved movies, he hadn’t taken care of the stock. So it was just a question of clearing everything out. Which was how Gabriel found the book.

It was on an upper shelf in a closet along with some old canisters and a rusty wrench. Gabriel had no idea how long it had been there. He slid it off the shelf and held it in his hands. It was big, big enough that he had to cradle it like a baby. A heavy baby. The cover’s thick leather was so wrinkled and textured that it looked like a mountain range seen from a plane. Gabriel brought it under the light of the naked bulb above him. There was the faint outline of a title. It had been legible once, maybe even gilded. But the gold was long gone, the lines that formed the letters worn away. As he was running his hand over it, he noticed that the book was warm.

He had the strong sense that he had discovered something he shouldn’t have. But he wanted it, anyway. He left the book in the basement when he dismissed the boys for the day so they wouldn’t see it. After everyone had left, he waited until the street was a little quieter. Then he carried the book home that night in his arms.

He had left the windows open in his apartment, and it was cold. He put the book down on the dining room table. The windows rattled as he closed them. The floorboards creaked beneath his feet. As he moved from room to room, he was, more than ever, aware of the bleakness of his surroundings. There was the threadbare couch he could remember from his childhood. It was long past used up. There was the braided rug on the floor, worn and faded. There was the chair he’d found on the street and dragged to his apartment. It took him two hours to do it, and he almost never sat in it. The dim, tiny kitchen; the bathroom with the chipped tub. All the photographs on the walls were pictures other people had taken; almost none of them included him.

He picked up the book. It still felt warm in his arms, even warmer than before. It occurred to Gabriel that he couldn’t remember the last time he’d had anybody over, besides Elena and Victoria. He didn’t know the girls’ parents at all, beyond the barest friendly acquaintance. And he knew no one else in the building. The apartments had all turned over since he was a kid, and he hadn’t met any of the newcomers.

He couldn’t remember the last time he’d been out, either, with other people. He wasn’t sure when he’d stopped calling his friends or returning their calls. They must have stopped trying to reach him after a while, but he couldn’t pinpoint the precise moment it happened. At the time, he felt like he was making tiny decisions. He’d receive a message, a voice mail, a text, something. Then he’d think, I’d just rather stay in tonight. But now he saw how all those decisions added up. He’d walked out of the crowd, step by step, over the years, and kept walking, and now he was alone.

He regretted all of that.

If I could be anyone else now, he thought, anywhere else, I’d be happier.

His bedroom was at the end of the long hallway. He went in and sat at the desk at the window. He put the book in front of him on the desk and opened it. It was written in a language he didn’t recognize, with letters he’d never seen before. Were they even letters? Was it some kind of code? It was impossible to tell. He started leafing through the book, thinking there might be some diagrams or pictures, something to tell him what the book was about. There weren’t. It was just page after page of indecipherable characters.

Then, under his fingers, the book got even warmer. The ink on the pages wriggled. The lines moved, rearranged themselves into words Gabriel knew, sentences he understood. He was in the middle of a story, a vast one, full of characters and action, too much to comprehend at once, too compelling to ignore. He flipped back to the beginning of the book, the first chapter, and read the first sentence.

“Gabriel,” said a voice close by.

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Bookburners by Brian Francis Slattery and others
Where to buy: Amazon | Barnes & Noble | Books-A-Million

Image, photographed by Dan Mims, depicts Brian Francis Slattery outside Skull and Bones.

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