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Here you can read my serial novel mix ix and learn about other writings. Presently introducing my young adult espionage novel Shibboleth.

Chapter Five: Rayne

Chapter Five: Rayne

Where is human nature so weak as in the bookstore?

                                                                                                      Henry Ward Beecher


     I woke up a little after seven craving coffee and that got me out of bed, dressed, and out the front door. The sun was up over the bay, doubled in intensity from its reflection off the shimmering water. To the south a yacht moved along at a leisurely speed. Going in the opposite direction, a small plane fought the wind northward, its engine sound sawing through the otherwise silent morning. On my street there were some old people doing their normal morning walks, some with dogs, some with canes.   

     It took just over fifteen minutes to walk up Chandler Street, over the bridge, and down several streets to the coffee shop. Graham’s Sandwich Shop has the best coffee and bagels in town. I haven’t found out what kind of coffee they use and I’m afraid to ask and be demystified, find out it’s something I can buy at the grocery store. And I’ve never met the eponymous Graham, but I think it is he lurking back in the kitchen, slicing bagels and stealing glances at his clientele as more sociable teenagers take your order. There are a few small tables for eating in, but the place is really for take-out. They give you a cup and you get your own coffee from a pump thermos. At that point there was nobody else there; it gets busy around eight o’clock and on weekend mornings the line is out the door.

     I carried my everything bagel with cream cheese and coffee outside and looked for a place to sit. There were many benches to choose from. The park in front of me had plenty, or I could have found one overlooking the bay two blocks away. But the aroma of the toasted bagel had me under its spell, so I went to the closest bench. I made sure the white slats of the bench weren’t wet with morning dew, sat down and put my coffee next to me. I unwrapped the wax paper and took a huge bite of that bagel I’d been thinking about having for the last week. Delicious. I crossed my leg, blew on my coffee and sipped it while looking at the town gearing up.

     It’s a nice feeling being up and out early on summer mornings. The sun was warm and I could feel how hot it was going to be, but for now it was mild. Cicadas were starting to buzz up in the tree and squirrels were traversing the grass in front of me, one of them freezing to check out me and my bagel with one dark eye.

     Then a truck delivering supplies to Lavar’s Crab House parked practically in front of me. The driver turned off the engine and he and another guy got out, came around to the back. They sent up the rattling rear door and were banging about with hand trucks. Of all the benches, I picked that one. I didn’t want to seem like a dick and get up and move to a bench with a better view so I watched what I could see. That’s when I spotted her.

     She was a block up, walking in the grass toward the gazebo, walking slowly, gazing about like I had before my view got blocked. Was that Rayne Gavarrete? Her long curly dark brown hair must have been what caught my eye. Probably something in her gait. I did what people normally do when they think they see somebody they know. My brain told me: that’s Rayne, but my reasoning immediately took over and corrected me. No, that must be somebody who looks like Rayne.

     She walked up to the gazebo and put her foot on the first step, but went no further, suspended as if indecisive or overcome by an immense indolence, a lack of motivation to even lift the other foot. I thought maybe she had encountered persons unseen by me already occupying the gazebo and she was going to turn around. No, that wasn’t it. She turned on the stairs and faced my direction, leaning back on the railing as if posing for a photo, her head tilted upward. She had sunglasses on, but even then I was having trouble finding anything in her appearance that would indicate it was not Rayne.

     I wasn’t taking my eye off her, still chomping away at the bagel, ready to take the last bite. She stayed like that, her arms spread out along the railing, now rocking back and forth slightly, watching the sky or the trees or something. This was very un-Rayne. Rayne was focused, practical, no-nonsense. This person was odd, a bit off in some way.

      She turned her head slightly downward, over in my direction and I swore she looked right at me. I released my lock on her, pretended to busy myself with the coffee lid. Then she slowly climbed the few stairs and sat down with the same bemused quality.

     The question was how to get a closer look without being creepy; that is, how to stalk without looking like a stalker? There weren’t that many people out and about at that hour. Any given person got noticed by the few other early strollers.

     If it was Rayne I figured my dress served as a disguise. We mostly interacted at work or directly after so she probably never saw me out of my work clothes. Now I was wearing a ball cap, running pants, and a t-shirt. But then again, I spotted her and she wasn’t dressed like she did for work. She was all in black, as if going out for the night: tight black pants, black shirt and some kind of little vest jacket. Shoes with heels. She looked like a hip vampire that had been lurking about the town all night and was now overdue for the coffin.

     I put the last bite of bagel in my mouth and made my way up the sidewalk trying to look as casual as possible. I busied myself with my phone, flipping through some screens mechanically, not registering any of it. As I got closer I paused to sip my coffee and snuck a glance. She was still sitting in the gazebo, but I couldn’t get a clearer reading on her, just a dark form with a face. I told myself to forget it, keep walking and go home and read Moby Dick. It probably wasn’t her and there was no easy way of approaching her without it being really weird. I decided to keep going, walk past her, avoid the whole uncomfortable situation. I continued onward and she and the gazebo passed beyond my peripheral range.

     I came to the end of the block and paused for a car to pass in front of me. Couldn’t resist another glance back and she was up and moving. I didn’t cross the street but openly stared because she was facing the opposite direction. It had to be Rayne. She had a certain glide to her walk and a tilt to her head that had to do with the way her hair fell to the left. No doubt about it, it was Rayne. Now I wasn’t worried about awkward encounters with a stranger, accusations of stalking. Certainty was on my side.

     I bee-lined diagonally across the park toward her, feet swooshing in the grass, going by the gazebo. A squirrel took off up a tree with a scratching sound.

     She crossed the street and was going down Loeb. When I crossed I used it as an excuse to jog a bit so by the time I was on the sidewalk behind her I had closed the gap considerably, maybe ten feet. I could see the curls in her hair the texture of her jacket. Right height, right hair, legs, butt. Everything said it was Rayne. Then a whiff of her perfume caught me and there was no doubt.

     I called her name, “Rayne.”

     She stopped, turned with a jolt of surprise and stared at me from behind the big sunglasses. Even then for a microsecond I thought I could have gotten it all wrong. Then she smiled, showing her ultra white teeth.


     “I thought it was you.”

     She was still taking it in, “What are you doing here?”

     “I come here every summer. What are you doing here?”

     “I’m, uh…I’m with my sister.”

     She laughed at our chance encounter, put her hand over her mouth, “I can’t believe it. Cliff Chambers. Here. I never would have thought…”

     An awkward moment was upon us. Two acquaintances from work, known each other for years, plunged into a drastically different context without the normalizing protocols, an experience not unlike a teacher-student encounter at the supermarket. I imagined I was even more awkward because of that inner one-sided romance I’d been having with her for years.

     She stood there with a fist on her hip in a pose of appraisal, mouth slack with can’t-believe-my-eyes shock. Then she hesitated for only a second and moved in for the hug. I was happy to reciprocate and happier that she held it longer—and seemed to get closer—than the requisite lean-in of social niceties. For a long second my face was in her hair, intoxicated by her scents. We pulled back and faced each other. I felt my face redden slightly, feared I was smiling like a smitten fool. We had never hugged before.

     She said, “We must have come down at the same time.”

     “Yeah,” I agreed, trying to avoid the riding-my-bike conversation. “So what are you doing?”

     She looked around as if to reorient herself, shrugged slightly, “I dunno, just walking around.”

     “Do you want some coffee?” I gestured with my cup to Graham’s across the street.

     “Yeah, I’d love some coffee.”

     On the walk over we reiterated our surprise at finding one another, recalled our own reactions, warmed up to one another by laughing over it. I was playing it super relaxed but I had a knot in my stomach over the whole thing. Rayne was literally the stuff of my dreams. Countless times I fantasized about us in various scenarios—admittedly some of them sexual—but quite often it was going places with her, having deep talks, traveling to European cities, corny shit like holding hands on the beach. Now here we were, I had the object of all my longings, my ideal partner, in a vaguely date-like situation. I was trying to keep it going like one would a luxurious dream, trying not to mess it up by coming on too strong or seeming needy or making her feel besieged. I didn’t want to mess this up.

     The girl at Graham’s looked intrigued by my return with this black-clad woman. Graham even gave us a smile.

     Outside Rayne sipped her coffee, “Mmm, this is good.”

     “I come here almost every day. They must put something in that coffee, it’s so good.”

     “I didn’t even know about this town until my sister brought me here.”

     “Want me to show you around? I could be your tour guide.”

     She smiled, didn’t take me seriously, then did a small double take at my sincerity, “Do you really want to do that?”

     “Do you have something else planned?”

     “Not a thing.”

     “I won’t show you everything today. This place has a lot of history, it would take more than a day. I’ll show you my favorites.”

      “Okay. Let’s do it!” She turned dramatically toward the park—toward the same gazebo where I had first spotted her ten minutes before—and spread her non-coffee-bearing hand before her, struck a pose of the mock aesthete, “A tour of Fowl’s Point with your host Cliff Chambers. Brought to you by Graham’s Sandwiches.”

     I laughed, then she laughed with her shoulders buckled in and shaking. She kept laughing as we stood there looking at one another. I thought it was odd. She never did goofy things like that. At first I thought she might be drunk but she didn’t smell drunk. Was she sleep deprived? There was definitely something up. It was Rayne but it was a different Rayne. Could it be a giddiness over summer vacation? Maybe she always let her hair down for three months, went crazy. That’s what we all try to do, but I’m not sure how much we ever achieve it. Rayne always had a certain reserve to her, an uptightness you could say. That’s what had melted away. She was all giggles and playfulness.

     “Well, lead the way tour guide,” she said.

     At first I pointed out some things ironically and she reacted likewise, making overly serious faces which collapsed into snickering, but that soon ended and she got quiet. We were on the shady side of the street and she lifted her sunglasses onto her head and looked up at me. To at last see her green eyes enfeebled me.

     “This is really nice, Cliff. I’m glad I ran into you.” Then she took hold of my upper arm and walked close to me. I played it cool although I was trembling inside, had to remind myself to breathe. After half a block I suspect her hold on me started getting too self-conscious so she released me to approach the window of a darkened handmade jewelry shop. I peered in next to her, our heads close enough that our circles of steam on the glass formed a Venn diagram.

     At that point a barrier between us had been broken and we had moved on to a new space in our friendship. I felt—and I think she did—that this was going somewhere. I told myself again to play it cool.  

     The tour continued, stopping in little shops as they opened or appraising sympathetically the historical ramshackle residences. By then Rayne took the tour seriously, stopped to read each historical marker. Two history geeks enamored with the past. I showed her the diving bell monument near the docks, the remains of a canal lock and a place supposedly stayed at by Edgar Allan Poe.

     Finally we stopped at the old cemetery down Church Lane. It was well-maintained and protected by a fence to prevent onlookers like ourselves from getting a better look and ruining it. It was small, as if the town grew up and hemmed it in faster than the mortality rate of the time. Some of the headstones tilted one way or the other and many were thin, eroded by age, with shallow letters barely readable. Most of the legible dates spanned much of the nineteenth century. Family names repeated, some were children, infants, their names added at the bottoms like footnotes. For minutes neither of us said anything. Then I pointed out my favorite detail: a section where a fat tree—itself damn old—had grown up and around the rungs of the archaic black iron fence, had oozed out into the sidewalk and made ragged its bricks. Rayne maintained a silence I took for reverence, deep thoughts. We moved on and as we turned the corner I was disappointed to see a section of the wall had some stones missing, recently it seemed.

     “Wow, I love cemeteries.” She laughed, “Sounds morbid, I know, but… you really know what I like.”

     I indulged in a little psychological fist pump at my win.

     I said, “Got another place to show you that I know you’ll love.”

     Betwixt and Between Books was up the block. I had planned our route to end up there. It was an old-school used bookstore, the kind that gets sunk in the internet age unless it cooperates. This one stubbornly kept its head above water—or maybe it didn’t and simply existed in deficit. A dated sign out front bragged of its 30,000 books.

     Sleigh bells on the door rattled when we opened and closed it. Immediately the smell of old books set off a neural fireworks of deja vus, emotions and yearnings. Rayne stood in front of me taking in the place.

     The grumpy owner whom I’d seen at least once a year gave me and her a mildly interested once-over and said good morning with a croaky voice. He had a big yellowed beard and a cynical lack of eye contact. Each time I had been in there I tried to make conversation with the guy but he wasn’t interested. Maybe it was because I wasn’t a local.

     I knew his type, or at least I could see how he got that way. This is a new world and such repositories of books have lost their value. A collection of out-of-print titles is obsolete and the treasure hunts for them are no fun anymore. Shops like this have been picked through and what remains is unwanted. With a click you can order on Amazon every title found in this place and every one like it. If bookstores conform to the ways of the new world they put their titles online for purchase; if they didn’t, they ended up like this place or ceased to exist.  

     The old man probably had an attitude about it, some tired, self-defeating idea about how books should be bought and sold, some bibliophile mom-and-pop shop ethic. Back in the day it was a unique pleasure to browse these places hoping to get lucky and find that special title you were looking for, but that time has gone. Face it, pop.

     We stalked its tight aisles, its annexes, its nooks, first downstairs then upstairs. We rummaged in a morbid silence, a fascination at the total loss before us, the clear impossibility that it could ever recover from its abandoned state. It had died a decade or two ago and stayed that way, no attempts at innovation, reconfiguring. In areas there were clotted cobwebs hanging down like pull-strings. Rayne couldn’t help but be skeeved out, kept combing her fingers through her hair. In one back area there was what appeared to be pellets of shit—bat shit was my guess—deposited across the tops of books. Dust everywhere, a thick grimy coating. On every shelf were detailed subject and author labels from when the place was viable, now brown and rotting like most of the books. Anything worthwhile had been bought and anything you might consider picking up was overpriced, the cost not much twenty years ago when the title was relatively new, but compared to what you could get it for online—including shipping—it was preposterous. Twelve dollars for a Stephen King hardback from the early nineties?    

     We were upstairs, taking random courses through the maze of aisles. We intersected near the travel section. I was flipping through a curling Fodor’s Italy from 1998. She whispered, “I could spend hours in here. It’s like a time machine.”

     “Same. My foster father used to bring me to bookstores a lot when I was a kid. Hated it at the time but now I have nothing but positive associations.”

     Rayne turned from the books and looked at me, “Foster father? Were you adopted?”

     “Yep. Little orphan Cliffy.”

     She clamped down, fearing she’d hit upon a raw nerve. It’s a reaction I’m familiar with. To let her know it was okay to talk about I continued, “Spent most of my life with a foster family. The Salzmans. They were really religious in that rural Lancaster way, having foster kids was kind of a mission for them. My dad was a really good guy. Simple, you know, but always tried his best. I’ve always considered him my dad.”

     I looked over and she was all ears, big sad eyes tearing up, her lips parted. Then she did something strange. She took two steps forward and placed her hand against my cheek and looked at me with her wet eyes. Faces close enough that I felt her hot breath. I was sure we were going to kiss, but she only ran her hand down my face in a caress, turned and walked away.

     We said nothing for a while. Then I approached her in the new age section and said in a lowered voice, “I’d love to own this place. Clean it up, purge the junk, get things up online.”

     I was trying to restart a conversation we’d had a couple of years back when I got her alone at the teacher drinking hole. One of our common pet fantasy topics, the thing that brought us closer when I thought we really hit it off: opening our own bookstore coffee shop.

     She turned her head quickly to face me, entirely serious, frowning, tightened lips, the bottom one pulled inward, nibbled on. I didn’t know if she was aghast or thought it was the most profound idea ever.

     “We should totally do it,” she said. “Really. Do you think this guy is selling?”

     Wow, she had jumped ahead a bit. I was only looking to indulge our fantasy, not really buy this shithole.

     I laughed a little, pointing downstairs, “I would not advise asking that man if he’s looking to sell.”

     She seemed confused, “Why?”

     Did I really have to explain? I shrugged, “Guys like him have these attitudes about outsiders coming in, buying things up. He’s likely to throw us out and tell us to never come back.”

     She looked around herself at the post-apocalyptic state of the place, “He really wouldn’t want to unload this place?”

     “I doubt it. You’d be surprised at how stubborn people are about these things. He’s still here doing it for a reason and it’s not because he’s making money.”

     Rayne didn’t seem convinced. She walked away, sustained by the same thoughts, unswerved by my arguments.  

     When we made our way downstairs I was worried she was going to ask the owner about selling. I subtly kept myself between her and the counter where he read, intended on interrupting if she started speaking. I started the overtures about us leaving. She was looking at the spines of old picture books on a windowsill, her head tilted sideways, hair hanging. I came up to her and put a hand on her shoulder, was going to lean down and whisper that we should get out of there. Instead she spun around at my touch and nuzzled against me, her face close to mine like she had upstairs. My hand had remained on her shoulder and now embraced her. I wanted to kiss her so badly and I had no doubt that she was willing. But that was not the time and the place, not in that moldy corner, not with the moldy guy lingering over there. I was going to be disciplined, I was going to do this right and not fuck it up.

     I’ve always had the tendency to move too fast with women, to show how desperate I am for a girlfriend. Things I have done in the past are unthinkably embarrassing, especially when I was younger. A perfect example that’s so pathetic it tends to be funny rather than humiliating comes from my college days. There was a bar everybody went to on South Street in Philly because you could get served underage. I and a few of my buddies got talking to a crowd of non-collegiate girls that probably lived not far away. They seemed like party girls, girls that did drugs, went clubbing, maybe slept around. They were okay-looking.

     I got bullshitting with the one girl and when they had to leave she gave me her phone number. Beth was her name. No girl had ever given me her phone number before. I got incredibly excited, flattered that somebody was interested in me. I thought about where I could take her on a date, hoped she would be able to do it that weekend. I can’t remember what other thought processes went on, but I ended up calling her the next day around noon. It wasn’t she who answered the phone but another girl who had obviously been woken up. The phone got passed across a room of annoyed late-sleepers until she answered with a rough and sleepy voice. I said it was Cliff from the night before. She had no idea who I was. I explained it again: the guy with the scar on his eyebrow, the one who talked about philosophy. The guy at the bar with the dartboard, around midnight? With his three friends? Finally she said something about “seeing me around” and got off the phone.

     As soon as I hung up with her I saw how stupid I had been, how pathetic. I was sick with embarrassment. Not only did I never call her again, but never went to that bar or others around it for fear we’d see each other. There are other stories as humiliating, but that one serves to show my tendency in the past to jump the gun.

     I’ve attributed this neediness, this insecurity, to being an orphan, to not feeling loved as a child. Abandonment issues. A formula like that works well to explain how I got this way  At the same time I have renounced those models, moved beyond them, have come to see myself as a person who creates himself, who makes his own destiny and is not a slave to his past. Problem is the insecurity remains. I can say a man makes his own life, that he ultimately chooses his path, but when I’m almost forty, still single and preoccupied with the gaping hole in my life, the philosophies don’t matter.

     I must have read in some pop-psychology article, or gleaned from movies or TV that the key to capturing a woman’s heart is to act like you’re not interested, let them come to you. Play hard to get. It sounds cynical, sleazy almost, but I figured for me it might be the correct counterbalance to my tendency to come on too strong. So how should I act now that Rayne is throwing herself at me? Literally putting herself into my arms. It was not a scenario I’d ever expected to be in.

     She was smiling and looking in my eyes and I did the same to her. We were going to kiss, there was no other thing to do. She tilted her head and looked at my lips, then kissed me. It felt natural, it felt good but I had to tell myself to close my eyes because I was still looking at her in shock. A nice warm kiss among the shelves bowing with coffee table books. It wasn’t a devouring passionate kiss, but it was definitely filled with desire, and it went on for half a minute.

     She backed off, smiled at me and said, “What are you doing tonight for dinner?”

Next Chapter: The Date


Chapter Six: The Date

Chapter Six: The Date

Chapter Four- Interlude: Aimee Braun

Chapter Four- Interlude: Aimee Braun