The teenage boy who was stacking books stopped to watch the old man in the travel section. It was normal for customers to pull books from the shelves and read the jackets or check the cost, but not this man. Hands planted in the pockets of a thin brown jacket, this man just stood unmoving, staring at the shelves, for five, ten minutes, maybe longer. Finally the boy left his station and walked to where the man was standing. “Sir?” The old man didn’t move. The boy tried again, a little louder: “Sir?”
Harry jerked up, startled; he hadn’t seen the boy approach, and had no idea how long he had been there. “No, no thanks. I’m ok,” he said, and watched the boy wander back to his duties. He turned back to the books. Coming here was a bad idea, he muttered to himself.
As a young man he dreamed of exploring the world. He spent countless hours pouring through his parents’ encyclopedias, studying all of the countries and continents and bookmarking where he planned to go. Plans have a way of falling apart. Harry joined the Army to see the world, only to find himself stationed in Kansas for three years. After that, he moved back got married, had children to support, a house to pay for, and a lifetime chain of other responsibilities. The idea of traveling became a luxury, a frivolousness he couldn’t afford.
Now, newly retired, it was too late. A miniscule pension and arthritic feet weren’t going to take him anywhere.
But we’ve gone places, Evelyn likes to say. We’ve been to Cleveland. And remember when we visited my cousin in New Jersey?
The books, new and crisp, stood up on the shelves and mocked, a shrine to dead dreams. Travel guides, lined up in alphabetical order. Afghanistan, Aruba, American Samoa… Harry longed to dig his toes into the remote white sands of Ofu Beach, and swim the clear waters in Pago Pago Harbor.
His eyes scrolled left to right across the paperbacks. China, where Marco Polo befriended Kublai Khan and lived among the Mongols. Egypt, where royal tombs and archeological treasures are still buried, awaiting discovery. Peru, home to howler monkeys and 17-foot long anacondas that roam the Amazon. Spain, land of Salvador Dali, the flamenco and running with bulls. Tibet. It was 29,029 feet to the top of Mount Everest, a fact he committed to memory as a youngster. One day he was going to join Edmund Hillary and they’d climb the deadly north ridge. One day.
Remember when we visited my cousin in New Jersey? Harry sighed. He could sense the boy’s eyes still on him. Embarrassed, he picked up a book at random and went to the cash register. Yes, I found everything I was looking for. No, I don’t need a membership card, thank you. He swiped his debit card, and the cashier handed back his purchase in a small plastic bag.
Only after the doors slid closed behind him did Harry open the bag to see what he had bought. My Travels Through Africa. He tossed the book into a garbage can and walked to his car.