By James Heaton
Treasures are hidden all around us. In our rush to experience life and find happiness we sometimes overlook the very things that can change our lives. Things that are sitting amongst us, people who we see every day and don’t give a second thought about not seeing them again. It isn’t until we lose that object or that person that we truly appreciate how important it was. The stories we heard as children about pirates burying treasures in obscure places like remote islands never happened. Pirates who stole large amounts of coin or jewelry divided it amongst themselves and rarely hid it in chest on some desolate island with a map that marks the spot. But those stories we heard as children made us believe that if something was truly worth having we should hide it away. But what I have learned is that those things we treasure, those things that bring us happiness, should be in plain sight every day. We should celebrate those people we love and cherish. I’ve lost some very special people in my life and looking back I realize that I should have spent more time with those people, those treasures that I adored in my life. Regret is the true enemy of man, above everything else. History has taught us so much, but we are stubborn and refuse to see that love is the greatest treasure of them all.
My story begins in the fantastic and peculiar city of Savannah, Georgia. In my thirty-six years, I have traveled miles across America, visited countless cities and towns. I have ventured outside the borders of America into other countries and seen many brilliant and strange things, but no place on earth can come close to Savannah. She is a mysterious city with a torrid past and an astonishing collection of residents that can’t be matched. From the early days of British occupation to the days of cotton and slavery, Savannah has thousands of stories tucked away in her river front and her squares. Buildings that still stand after two hundred years of people coming and going. She is the oldest city in Georgia, and over the years she has seen a cast of characters unlike any tale that has ever been told. The city is just a collection of historical buildings, but the heart of the city is the people. I moved here five years ago, and nothing could have prepared me for the people I would meet, the people who would change my life.
Just across from the DeSoto on Harris Street, there lies a quaint little bookstore. Easy to miss if you blink, it sits hidden behind three very tall palmetto trees.
The bookstore was my daily stop on my way home from work. It was everything a bookstore should be, warm and inviting and of course it had that smell that every collector loves. The smell of aged paper and old leather or aging fabric that just smells better with time. I’m sure someone has made a candle that smells like old books, but I love the real thing. And it’s very different from the smell of new books, I tend to judge a bookstore by the smell. And the first time I walked into Eliza’s store I knew it was a place that I would love and cherish as long as I lived in the city. One of the beloved things about living in the historic district was being able to walk to work. For me, sitting in a car day in and day out, never seeing the tiny details that make up the city, seems more like punishment, than convenience. The sidewalks, the people, the back alleys are all part of what makes a city. On occasion I tend to vary my route throughout the week, that way I can see different views of the city. One of the perks to working third shift was having the afternoons to myself. I got off at nine in the morning, this allowed me time to walk to the diner, where I could stop for breakfast and be done in time for the bookstore to open.
The diner was long standing and famous, it had even been in a few movies. Over the years Hollywood has used Savannah like a movie lot, everything from Forrest Gump to Bagger Vance, and who can forget the movie, Glory. This meant there were always tourist stopping by and reliving their favorite scenes from their favorite movies. But I didn’t care about the movies. The real thing was much better than anything Hollywood could create. I always order the same meal, eggs, bacon and grits with biscuits and a glass of orange juice. The waitress never forgets the packets of honey for the biscuit. Tiny details make a place special. My favorite part of the restaurant was the stained-glass front door. The colors were so vibrant, and the little hummingbirds were my favorite part of the artwork. In contrast to the basic white walls and wood floors, the stain glassed door was the only lively thing in the entire diner. I imagine I’ve eaten breakfast here three days out of the week for the last several years. I’m a creature of repetition and comfort, doomed to repeat the things that bring me comfort. The three days I work at the hotel I always eat breakfast on my way home and then stop by the bookstore to see Eliza.
I arrived in Savannah about five years ago. My hometown was about six hours away, in a minor town that was growing into a major town. There is something magical about growing up in a nice area that I could ride my bike to school most every morning. It was safe back then; everyone knew you or you knew them. It wasn’t uncommon to know everybody’s name on a street. Their kids grew up with my parents, and everyone knew each other. The part of town I lived in slowly deteriorated as the main street areas grew and developed. The developers loved the areas of town that were located off the major highways and interstates, they build shopping centers and restaurants, and everyone flocked to those areas. They left the smaller towns for the hustle and bustle of neighborhoods with homeowner’s associations and community swimming pools. And eventually the smaller towns that made up the city began to die. Buildings sat in disarray and the grass grew and covered the parking lots. The paint flaked off the houses and the streets were empty.
My hometown was situated in between two very large southern cities on a major stretch of interstate that ran across the three states. In the early days it was a nice stop for people driving from Charlotte to Atlanta, but something happened that made the town decide to compete with those two major cities and blossom into an equally large and overwhelming collection of high rises and busy streets. It just wasn’t the city I grew up in, it had lost its magic. I no longer knew my neighbors or anyone on my street, we were all strangers to each other. One day I had enough and packed my stuff in to a rental truck and moved here to the city of Savannah.
Back home there weren’t any good bookstores left. Sure, we had the big corporate bookstores that every city has, but it’s hard to find obscure, rare books that really make your collection. There was one used bookstore in town, and it was mostly secondhand trash that nobody wanted. They closed the small branch of the main library that was minutes from my house and opened new, larger branches in other parts of town. That library was the place I feel in love with books.
As kids we were rewarded in class by having a day when the old A/V carts were rolled in, and a movie would play in place of a lifeless boring teacher who read from her lesson plan. Most of the kids would fall asleep during the movies, but I loved the old black and white movies that offered a less than accurate rendition of a story from a classic book. I knew somehow that the story in the hour-long movie was just a small portion of the actual book. I don’t recall anyone ever telling me this, I just somehow knew. I would stop after school at the library and ask the librarian about the book that the movie was based on. This library was in a very small strip mall. There were maybe six stores in the entire strip mall. On either end of the brick buildings were the anchor stores. The four stores in the middle were an accountant, a music store, and a locksmith. The library held one of the anchor spots and the other was a small diner that later turned into a bar and then into a Mexican convenience store and finally into a vape store.
Over the years the only change to the building has been painting the trim in a brighter green and yellow combination. The library had maybe 1000 square feet in combined area. It was a one-story cube with two windows and a door in the front. It was made in the late 60’s and like a large amount of the brick structures in that area that came from that time, it was a sand-colored brick. There may have been a few of the bricks that were either lighter or darker than the common color. Originally the trim on the strip mall was a dark burgundy, that over time had faded and eventually fell apart from dry rot.
But that library had some of the most interesting books compared to the main library which was located about four miles away from my house. As a kid, it was too far to ride a bike eight miles round trip. So, I would sort through the oddities that were basically stored in this particular branch. The librarian knew my mother somehow, and that meant she knew me as well. This kept me aware of some of the things I wanted to check out might get a raised eyebrow. For the most part I would check out books based on the movies from school.
Most of the titles I would check out would be from the thirties and forties. There were a few of the books that had to be delivered from the main branch and it might take a few days. But they had a nice collection of famous writers, but it was always the most obscure book in that authors catalog. But that little library opened my world to Hemingway, Steinbeck, Dickens, and Mark Twain. So, this view I had of the authors work leaned more to the worst novel of the catalog spectrum. It gave me a warped view of what good writing was, and that led me to fancy more bizarre novels over the most popular choices.
When that library was closing the doors to that branch they sold all the weird little books to fund the new main library that was being built. I bought about twenty or so books. I was able to get a few first editions that had beautiful wear. From there I developed a thirst for some of the earlier editions that used obscure cover art, or a weird fabric to cover the books in. The appearance of the book mattered more at times, than the content. So, over the years I’ve grown quite an interesting collection of books, but I have had to limit my purchase of anything from the current era. I simply do not have the room to store a large collection. So, the collection I have has three main books that I would never part with, and the other thirty books I would reluctantly part ways with.
Eliza’s bookstore reminded me of that little library down from my childhood home. It had the je ne sais quoi that made it feel like home.
But I do love to stop into this quaint little bookstore in downtown Savannah, Georgia. The sidewalks are the original bricks from the early days, and there are three large palmetto trees by the front door. The owner, Eliza, was a close personal friend. I enjoyed her rants about how everyone who visits Savannah writes a book about their visit. And then she is forced to get a letter from every one of those people wanting her to showcase their book in the store. She only had one book about the city in her store, and that was a signed copy of Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil by John Berendt. She had told everyone that this was the only real book about Savannah and its sometimes-strange ways. Eliza called them quirks. But Eliza was getting up there in age, she wasn’t the young woman she tried so hard to be. I have watched her over the last few years as she has begun to slow down. It’s amazing how much a person changes in five years. The biggest change I noticed from her is how she slowed down and lost interest in chasing the rare books. When I first met her she would drive two states over to buy a deceased persons library. I even went with her a few times to pick up a collection from a family. If the collection was worth five thousand she would low ball them and offer fifteen hundred.
These trips, these book adventures that we occasionally took, were very special to me. Hours in the car with Eliza, talking about her life and her love of books. She was the only other person I ever met that adored books as much as I. She would tell me stories about her husband and his writings, and she would recall her childhood with her sister, Agnes. But Eliza’s favorite thing in the world was her niece Ellen. Over the years I had heard hundreds of stories about Agnes’ daughter, Ellen, but had never met her face to face. Eliza would often talk about how she wanted to pass the bookstore on to Ellen, but she was afraid that Ellen wouldn’t love it as much as she did. Ellen was 4 years my junior and I had longed to meet her.
I had dropped off about six books with Eliza for her to look over and make an offer on. I would buy books online and occasionally come across some amazing treasure that Eliza would be interested in. I kept a rotating credit at the store from constantly trading out books with her. She told me how she had about five customers who were like me and would rotate their collection around from time to time. Several of the books have traded hands with all of us at least once. This was the “secret book club” that Eliza spoke of often. She was very secretive about the members and never revealed their names to me. I often thought it was a huge lie that she fed me for some absurd reason.
Legend has it that one of the members actually owns Ernest Hemingway’s own personal copy of Huckleberry Finn, which was among his favorites. Since I was introduced to this secret book club, I have been told the legend of Hemingway’s Finn. As the story goes, the Hemingway copy of Huckleberry Finn only had 31 chapters because Hemingway once said,
“All modern American literature comes from one book by Mark Twain called Huckleberry Finn. If you read it you must stop where Jim is stolen from the boys. That is the real end. The rest is just cheating. But it’s the best book we’ve had. All American writing comes from that. There was nothing before. There has been nothing as good since.”
This quote inspired an extremely limited edition of just one book, printed in the same style as the first edition of the book with a green cover, and having only 31 chapters. This was done at great cost as a gift to Hemingway from a mysterious celebrity fan. The dedication page is written by this mysterious fan. Nobody who has ever seen the book has ever revealed who the fan was. Somewhere in this city is one of the rarest books of all time, and Eliza knows all the details, but refuses to tell anyone. This includes me.
It’s important to note that I am far from wealthy. I work night shift at a fancy hotel downtown. I work three twelve-hour shifts a week and in my off time, I write science fiction novels, mostly about dystopian societies. I have a small following and my books sell well but could always sell more. Four days out of the week I spend writing and editing and three days working as a night clerk at a hotel. The hotel job pays my rent. The writing pays everything else. I’ve always been afraid to rely solely on my writing to pay for everything. And honestly the hotel job takes maybe four hours of work per shift to actually do the job, the rest of the time I spend updating my websites and promoting my books. But in order to save enough money to one day buy the Hemingway Finn, I keep working the hotel job. I live a frugal life and never buy fancy things. All the furniture in my apartment is second hand, and I drive an old car that I bought for a thousand bucks when I moved here.
So today I will try once again to find out from Eliza who has the book. But it never ends how I hope it will end. Regardless, I enjoy my daily visits to the bookstore to see Eliza and catch up on the newest gossip.
As I reach to open the door to the bookstore a striking young lady is coming out at the same time I was trying to go in. She stopped, stepping side to side, directly in front of me. We proceeded to play an embarrassing game of who will get out of the other persons way faster. She smiled and I stood still so she could go around me. I had never seen her here before; this intoxicating beauty was unlike anyone I had ever seen in my entire life. Her eyes were large blue marbles glowing but falling second to her bright pink hair. It looked so natural on her, and she was trying not to laugh at our encounter. She reminded me of some of the pictures Eliza had shown me of her niece, Ellen. But it couldn’t be Ellen, this young lady was simply breathtaking.
“I’m sorry, I’ll stand still and let you decide which way you want to go.” I said in a humorous tone.
“I don’t know what I’m doing, I’m so sorry.” She said, going to the right around me. As she passed by me I smelt her perfume, it was floral but with a hint of citrus. It suited her, it lingered as she walked by.
“Have a nice day.” I said as she passed beside me.
“You also.” She said softly as she made her way across the street to her car across the street.
I turned to see what car she was getting into. She reached and opened the door to a grey SUV, turning and waving back at me. I politely gave a wave to her as she pulled out onto the road.
I had hoped to see her again. There was strange feeling that I knew her, but I hadn’t met many pink haired fairies on the streets of Savannah. At least that’s how I saw her, a beautiful pink haired fairy that smelt like flowers and oranges with eyes as blue as the Caribbean Sea.
I turned and made my way into the store. Eliza was standing on a step ladder putting books on the upper shelves. The ladder, which was older than me, was shifting side to side on the hardwood floors. I rushed over to steady it.
“Good afternoon Eliza. Anything new in today? Anything rare and obscure that would make me empty my bank account? Maybe something once owned by Hemingway?” I touted in my most sarcastic tone.
“Like I tell you every time you come in here, Jason, no… I do not have any books owned by Hemingway.” She said as she climbed down from the ladder. She carried the empty box to the back room. I made my way to the “just in” section. There were a few leather-bound books, but they didn’t catch my eye away from any of the other less interesting books on the shelf.
“So, who was the pink haired book fairy that I ran into a minute ago?” I continued to scroll through the newer books.
Eliza stuck her head around the corner from the back of room and raised her eyebrow. Her blond hair now white, pulled up in a bun on her head.
“Jason, I will warn you one time and one time only, do not show any interest in my niece. She just moved into town and will be working here starting tomorrow. Leave her alone.” She grabbed my arm and looked at me with an intense stare. She wanted to make sure I was paying attention.
“Wait, that was Ellen? I always pictured her younger. But she is only four years younger than me. I have no intentions of anything with your niece. I’m just waiting for the day when you tell me who has the book. Did you give them my last offer?” I picked up a little burgundy book that appeared to be written in German. I scrolled through looking at the illustrations. Such amazing detail and precise drawings. It was difficult to make out the date from the front.
“The owner said she would take it into consideration. But don’t hold your breath, she’s not hurting for money.” Eliza continued to stack books, carefully stacking according to size and title.
“So, you’re saying this person is a she and she is rich. So out of the five members of the book club, who is female and rich?” I continued to irritate Eliza, but I was perpetually losing interest.
“Jason dear, I’m the only one who knows the members of the club, and I’m not telling you her name. She is a very private person. You wouldn’t like it if I outed you to the club and gave them your name, would you?”
“Honestly I don’t care, the entire cloak and dagger game is annoying. How can we be a real book club if we never meet and discuss books. It’s not a real book club, it’s a few of your best customers who trade rare books back and forth with each other.” I said with a slight irritation, but Eliza knew it was just banter and the ravings of a very tired night auditor.
“When are you going to finish that new book? You’ve been editing it for over a month. Isn’t it time for you to release it? I’ve had a few people asking about your next big book.” She shouted from the back room.
“It’s close, I want to re-read it a few more times before it goes to the publisher. You know me, I like to take my time.” I brought the little German book up to the counter.
“You can take that; I must have accidentally put it on the floor. I meant to toss it out.” She said as she stacked more books.
“Thank you Eliza, tell Ellen I send my best wishes.” I placed the little book in my bag and headed for the door.
Eliza looked up from the stack of books, eyeing me over her glasses. She raised her finger and pointed at me and offered a smirk that turned into a smile.
It was time for me to leave, I was growing tired and needed sleep.
I hugged Eliza as I made my way for the door. She enjoyed giving me a hard time, but I knew that she loved me. She has been like a mother to me since I moved to Savannah, from the first time I met her in the bookstore she has treated me more like a son than a customer.
I made my way to my apartment, longing for a good day’s sleep. I found it necessary to outfit my apartment for day sleeping when I started working at the hotel. I bought special curtains and covered my bedroom windows with cardboard. Living on third shift opened my eyes to the bizarre nightlife that existed in Savannah. Over the last few years, I have met a few “vampires”. People who work the night shift and who exist in the city and sleep all day and live their nights visiting the locations that stay open twenty-four seven. I like to jokingly call them vampires, but I suppose I am one also. I do enjoy the daytime though, and love visiting the beaches of Tybee Island. So, to them I am referred to as a day walker. We are all a unique blend of people who exist and operate while everyone else is sleeping. We get a view of the city that no one else has. The nighttime in Savannah is so bizarrely different from the daytime that it seems to be two different cities.
The city is laid out in a system of grids with squares positioned throughout the historic district. These squares have their own special groups at night. The police try to deter people from gathering in the squares late at night, but we just wait for them to leave and then go back to our business. The city is home to the largest Art School in America and with that being said, there are some very strange kids roaming around at night. They take over the city during the school year and then usually go home for summer. These groups of students range from the hippies to the punks to the anime crowd. I’ve always enjoyed seeing the students at night, and for the most part they are friendly. River Street comes to life at night and is a gathering place for tourist as well as the locals who visit some of the many bars on the river. But the night is beautiful and mysterious in the city, with the old brick streets and back alleys. It can be dangerous at times; true locals have all been mugged at least twice.
I have a few friends to speak of. Some I don’t know their name but see them in the bars or in the squares. One couple I met, James and Beth, have been in the city for many years and have families that have grown up here. It’s rare to find people who have always lived here, most of my friends are a collection of people who have relocated over the years. We all call this place home and even in the worst times we love our city.
I arrived at my apartment and walked down the sidewalk to the last building on the right, my apartment was on the top floor and in the corner. I have never met my neighbors and sometimes I wonder if I’m the only person in the building. I occasionally hear talking from across the hall, but I have yet to see anyone come or go. I’ve been in this building five years and sleep through the days and leave for work at night. For me this is normal, but I accept that for most people this is backwards. But my entire life I have loved obscure and strange books, I adore old black and white movies that lack the punch from the latest Hollywood blockbuster. I prefer people who have a mysterious side and dress a bit differently than everyone else. And it all started with that little library down the street from my childhood home. That strange little library created the person I am today.
Maybe that explained the attraction to the pink haired fairy that swept into my life today. I couldn’t stop thinking about her, the entire walk home I kept picturing her face in my mind. Trying to not lose the memory of her eyes and her cheeks. Going over and over in my head the color pink that caught my attention. But it was her eyes that scared my heart, those amazing blue stars that looked like the planet Neptune. I had never seen blue eyes like those before.
I made my way inside of my apartment and locked the doors. My bedroom was incredibly dark and inviting, it had been a long night at work and now I was ready for a good day’s sleep. I took a quick shower and put on a pair of athletic shorts and curled up in bed. The clock read 11:30 am, if I fell asleep now I could get a good seven hours sleep before work. I turned on the television and started my favorite movie, Abbot and Costello meet Frankenstein from 1948. Since I was a little kid, I have always loved this movie. It helps me sleep and always seems to infect my dreams.
I loved to dream of old black and white movies and avoid the ever present, lurking nightmare of my family life. Growing up in a small town in the south, I was always at odds with my parents. My ideas and values contradicted their view of how a kid should be. Let’s just say racism and ignorance were not the values a kid should be exposed too. I chose my personal life and left their toxic life behind me. Part of what I loved in Savannah was the racial diversity and over the years spending time with my Black friends has brought me so much happiness. This city is flooded with culture and history, but it was built by Slaves and over time their descendants have transformed this city into a land of rich heritage.
I fell asleep within minutes of starting the movie. Hours passed as I dreamt of Dracula and Frankenstein’s monster roaming the castle with Abbott and Costello. It was a good sleep, the kind you long for when you are exhausted. I made it a point to always shut my phone off after work, to have a full day of uninterrupted rest. The world could be coming to an end outside of my apartment and I would have no inkling of its demise.
My alarm went off at 7pm, and I made my way through the apartment to the kitchen. I stuck a plate of leftover meatloaf into the microwave and opened a can of green beans and potatoes and tossed them into a bowl. I sat down at my kitchen table and ate my food while perusing my phone. I had a few missed calls and a text message from Eliza. The message was short and read, Call Ellen at the bookstore tomorrow.
I didn’t think too much about it as I finished my meal, then I washed off and put on my work uniform. I dressed and grabbed my backpack with my laptop and some books and headed for the door. It was a twenty-five-minute walk to work from my apartment, which left me a few minutes to stop at the convenience store to get some drinks and snacks for my shift.
As I walked to work I passed the bookstore and saw the light in the back still on. I pulled out my phone as I walked down the sidewalk and called the bookstores main number. It rang a few times and then a soft female voice answered, “Hello?”
“Hey, this is Jason. Is this Ellen?”
“Yeah, did you get Eliza’s text to call me?”
“Yeah, but it said call you tomorrow. I just walked past the store and saw the light on. Is everything okay?” I continued to walk past the buildings to the hotel across the street.
“Eliza fell off the ladder and broke her hip. She is in the hospital. She wanted me to tell you.”
I was shocked, but not surprised. Eliza had been a bit shaky lately. She has been less mobile in her older age, but I was very alarmed.
“Okay, are you alright? Is there anything I can do?”
“Well Eliza wanted me to have you stop by tomorrow and show me around the shop. She had intended to train me over the next couple of weeks. But now that she is in the hospital I am all alone. I have a list from her of things to do but she said you knew how everything was run.”
I was floored at the idea that Eliza would leave this responsibility to me, but I knew that she trusted me. And she had always treated me like family.
“Of course. Today is my last shift for the week, so I will stop by tomorrow morning and help out. I can stop by after I grab breakfast. If you need anything, you can call me.”
“Thank you, it was nice meeting you today. Eliza speaks highly of you; I feel like I’ve known you for years. I will see you tomorrow morning.” She said softly and hung up. The elusive pink haired fairy and I would be spending time together tomorrow. I was reminded of Eliza’s warning, but did she really mean it? Or was it her way of pushing me closer to Ellen? I never could tell with Eliza; did she mean what she said or was she playing some reverse psychology with me.
As I ended the conversation I was left to wonder how everything was going to come together. A little voice deep inside whispered, what if Eliza doesn’t pull through this? It was a broken hip, but she was older and not in the best shape. What if she wasn’t able to continue her reign as queen of the bookstore? Where would I be if that happened? I honestly wanted the best for Eliza, but I had to prepare myself for the possibility that she might not always be there for me. This was just selfish thinking on my part.
But I had to be realistic, for once in my life I had to consider what her death could mean to my world. Eliza had been like a mother to me for several years, I had come to rely on her as an important part of my life. As much as I wanted to dismiss the possibility that anything could happen to her, I needed to be open to what my life would look like if she wasn’t part of it.
The bookstore was my refuge, my secret garden. I needed that, I needed her in my life. I knew that I needed to be with Eliza at this moment, that I needed to go to her.
I made a few phone calls to work and got the current shift to cover me for a couple of hours so I could visit Eliza. I called for a taxi to pick me up from downtown and take me to the hospital.
Forty-five minutes later I was at the hospital walking to the third floor where Eliza was. I hated the smell of hospitals, the lingering presence of death and disinfectant. I knew that Eliza hated hospitals as well, and I could only imagine how much she was complaining.
The nurse had directed me to room 327, Eliza’s room. As I walked down the hallway, trying not to look directly at the patients in the room that I passed, I could hear Eliza’s voice. It was loud and she wasn’t happy. I peeked around the corner of the door to catch a glimpse of Eliza yelling at a nurse.
“Hey Eliza, is this a bad time?” I said with a hint of concern at the sight of Eliza barking at the frail little nurse who was obviously just trying to adjust the covers of the bed.
“Jason! It’s good to see you. I was just telling this nurse that I don’t want any more blankets on my damn bed.” She was literally swatting at the nurse, who was just trying to tuck in the corners of the bed.
“Just let her do her job Eliza. Relax, this isn’t the bookstore. You can’t hit the nurses!” I had to restrain her from hitting the nurse. The young woman made her way out of the room, leaving me with the chore of dealing with Eliza.
“What the hell, Eliza. She’s just trying to help you.” I said as I pulled up a chair beside the bed.
“I know but I just want to be left alone, why can’t they just stay at their desk until I die, then they can come in and nitpick every part of the room.”
I adjusted the blanket and took her hand. Her skin was cold and frail in comparison to the energy that she was putting into the room. She acted tough and angry in an attempt to cover up how vulnerable she really was. I had always known this about her, and that was probably the reason I tolerated her the way I did.
“What happened? How did you break your hip? I thought we talked about you taking it easy. You know, like not climbing ladders and acting like you are in your twenties.”
“Oh, take that bullshit outside and leave it the fuck away from me, Jason. I’m not an old woman who can’t take care of herself. I still have thirty years left before Death comes calling for my old dead body.”
She was the feistiest woman I had ever met, but it was all an act.
“Seriously Eliza, calm your ass down. Poor Ellen isn’t ready to run the store just yet. You haven’t even trained her and now she is left to run the entire store all by herself.”
“Aren’t you supposed to be at work? Please tell me you didn’t call in sick to work just to sit with me.”
I laughed at the thought. At least I had her laughing, even if it was at my expense.
“No, I love you but not enough to lay out of work all night. I need the money so I can buy the Hemingway book. Remember?”
She scoffed at the mention and swatted at me. Her long hair still had some of its original blonde color, mixed in with the white and silver strands. In her day she was a beautiful woman and had her share of men in the Savannah area. She had long given up on dating, considering it beneath her.
“Seriously Jason, be good to Ellen. She isn’t like us. She is fragile and easily broken. I want you to teach her how to run that store. You know it better than anyone and I need you to do the right thing.” She cleared her throat, as if something was keeping her from taking a deep breath.
“I will, I promise. You’re going to be fine. It will take a while to heal but we can get you a fancy wheelchair to go with your Cadillac. We can move things around in the store so you can wheel around without knocking things over.”
She smiled and then cleared her throat again. She was definitely having a difficult time breathing. She began grabbing at her chest.
Then she began coughing, embarrassed by it, she held up her hand as if she was asking for a minute. She was in pain from the convulsive moments of the couching. I sat by her side, trying to comfort her. She caught her breath and smiled, and for a second, she was content. Looking down I could see there was blood on her hand.
“Oh no, you’re bleeding. On your hand, that’s blood.” I pointed to her hand. She gazed down and spotted the dripping blood rolling down her wrist from her palm.
I pushed the nurses call button, while looking for a cloth to wipe her hand with.
“Jason, I don’t feel very well. I need to tell you something.” She was starting to lose her color, I wet the rag and placed it on her forehead.
“Jason, I need you to find the boat. The book is behind the boat. Promise me you will take care of Ellen. Don’t break her heart.” She was beginning to faint; I lowered the bed so she could lay down. And just then a nurse came in.
“Is she okay, what happened?” She asked as she rushed around the bed.
“She was coughing, and she had blood coming from her mouth. Then she said something and passed out.” I moved out of the nurse’s way, as she hovered over Eliza. I was panicking as more nurses came in and pushed me outside.
I clung to the wall outside of her room, confused and alarmed by everything I had just witnessed. For the next twenty minutes I waited in the hallway, listening to all the nurses working with Eliza. Her doctor had entered the room shortly after she passed out. I tried to listen to the doctor and nurses but there was too much noise from all the commotion. I decided to call into work and tell them I had a family emergency, luckily someone could cover my shift. I also called Ellen and she told me she would meet me as quickly as she could get a ride.
For as long as I can remember I have hated hospitals. And saying that in my head sounds ridiculous, because hospitals are supposed to be where you come when you are sick and want to get better. When I was young my mother dragged me to the hospital to say goodbye to my grandfather. I was terrified and wanted no part in watching him die, but he was always kind to me and gifted me with books. I was too young to have a proper relationship with him, and he was my last living grandparent. I sat outside his room at the end of the hallway and listened as he struggled for his last breath. The noises he made as he took his last breath were terrifying. Maybe that is why I have always hated the smell of hospitals, the feeling that they were a place to go and die. Life was so fragile, and it seemed that a person could be fine one minute and dead the next. The prospect of death was like a science fiction story to me, I had never been able to wrap my mind around its concept. How could a person be so alive one minute and gone the next? I was terribly worried for Eliza, and it sounded like things were extremely serious.
Ellen appeared at the end of the hall, where the elevators opened onto the hallway. I had been leaning against the wall just outside Eliza’s room, looking at the elevators as they opened and closed. Every time they dinged I looked up to see if it was Ellen. She could see me from down the hallway, and she walked quickly to meet me.
“What’s happening? I thought she was fine. Have they told you anything?” She was a bundle of nerves, shaking and questioning everything.
“The doctor mentioned that they suspected a blood clot had broken off from the surgery and was travelling toward her heart. They have been working with her for almost an hour now. You are the only relative of hers that I know.” She had taken my hand and looked into the room. All we could see was the nurses and doctor working behind the curtains.
“The only relatives are me and my mother. But my mom is on vacation in England right now. I tried to call her, but she wasn’t available. Her other brothers and sisters are all dead. My mom was her younger sister, by ten years. I guess I am all she had here, besides you.” She glanced up at me and gave a kind smile as if to thank me for being close to Eliza.
“I don’t talk to my family; Eliza has been the only family I have known for several years now. Ever since I moved here, she and I have had a special bond. I can’t imagine this city without her.” I said as I tried to be humble and not act possessive over Eliza, but it was hard. She was my closest friend in the city and had looked out for me from the moment we first met.
“I think the reason she likes you so much is because you remind her of her husband. Have you ever seen the pictures she has of him before he died? You two are very similar.” She began scrolling through her phone, looking for a picture.
“She had mentioned him before, but she always said it was too painful to discuss him. I never pushed, I felt that she would tell me if she wanted.”
Ellen held up her phone, with a picture of Eliza and her husband when they were younger. I did admit that her husband and I were very similar. We both had short curly hair and thick eyebrows. We even had the same smile.
“Uncle Robert was a writer. He and Eliza were married in the summer of 1961. It was right before he was shipped off to Vietnam in 1962. He went to college up north and had a degree in English. He went to Vietnam as a war correspondent for the Marine Corp, he reported to the pentagon and wrote about the conditions and welfare of the soldiers. And when he came home, he wrote several books. He was the reason Aunt Eliza opened the bookstore. She wanted a place to sell his books after he died of a heart attack in 1985. He was only 45 when he died, Eliza always said it was from the war. She believed that the chemicals they had used over there contributed to his death.”
“I had no idea, she never talked about that to me. She told me she grew up in Savannah and met her husband here. And she told me he died in 1985, but she never mentioned more than that. She did mention that your mom was born ten years after she was born. She said your mom was a surprise baby and that they weren’t as close as she would have liked. But she talked about you. She even warned me to stay away from you.” We talked for a while in the hallway about our common love for Eliza.
Moments later the doctor came out from the room. He asked if we were family, and Ellen said yes, she was her niece.
“We did all we could, the blood clot broke off from the surgery site, and travelled to her lungs. For what it’s worth, she wasn’t in pain. She died in her sleep. If you like you can see her now. I am truly sorry.”
The doctor made his way down the hall to the nurse’s desk. Ellen collapsed in my arms and began to cry.
I stayed with Ellen until it was time to leave. She filled out what paperwork she could and released the body to the mortuary. Ellen and I walked out to the parking lot together, both exhausted from all the formalities of death. I walked her to her vehicle, and she offered me a ride.
“To be brutally honest I don’t want to be alone tonight. Would you come back to my apartment with me and stay with me for a while. I don’t know that I can handle this by myself.” She asked with a tender innocence. How could I say no to her.
We drove away from the hospital, and it felt eerily morbid to just leave Eliza there. I couldn’t accept that she was dead. Ellen drove to her apartment which was very close to my own apartment. She pointed out the apartment building where she lived and invited me up.
“You live very close to me.” I said as we made our way up the steps to her apartment.
She opened the door and motioned for me to come inside. There were boxes stacked all around and the only furniture was a enormous brown couch, a old chair and a television sitting on a oak wooden entertainment center.
“I haven’t unpacked, I’ve been sleeping on the couch. Eliza was going to take me shopping for a bed later this week.” She said as she sat on the couch. I sat beside her and offered my shoulder for her to cry on.
We sat on the couch for what seemed like hours, her crying slowly stopped and turned into sleep. Before I knew it we were both curled up on the couch, asleep. We were both exhausted from the hospital and needed rest. It was a bizarre entanglement of laying on the couch with the pink haired fairy, but now she was this sad broken person who had lost the only family she had in town. My heart ached for her. Laying on the couch curled up with her felt absolutely natural, as if we had always been together. Over the years I had a few intimate connections in the city, but I never felt close to any of them. It was different with Ellen. I felt like I had always known her and sleeping felt comfortable beside her.
I awoke to Ellen making coffee in the kitchen. The light from the window illuminating the apartment with a beautiful yellow glow. I was confused at first but quickly remembered falling asleep on her sofa with her leaning on my chest last night.
“Good, your awake. I finally got through to my mother in England. She is flying home tonight. I made us coffee.” She sat down a mug in front of me.
“I’m sorry I didn’t mean to fall asleep and stay here all night. We should get down to the bookstore and put a note on the door or something.” I said as I ran my fingers through my hair.
“Don’t be silly, I asked you to stay with me. I’m glad you were here. This is too much to handle all alone.”
She sat in a chair across from the sofa with her mug of coffee. She had changed into a pair of sweatpants and a t-shirt.
“Can you remember what you and Aunt Eliza were talking about when she got sick?”
“We were actually discussing you. She was excited about you working at the store. And she mentioned something after she started coughing. Something about the book.”
“What book would that be?” She asked softly as she sipped her coffee.
“I don’t know if you know the story about the Hemingway copy of Huckleberry Finn. Has she ever mentioned that to you?”
“Yeah, its legendary. And she use to tell me about all her rare books. She told me you were trying to buy it, but she loved dragging you along with clues.” She smiled as she remembered her aunt.
“You just said, her rare books. Are you saying that she owned it? All these years she has been telling me about the secret book club. I was under the impression that someone else owned it.” I inched forward on the couch.
“I don’t know anything about a book club, but she told me about the Huckleberry Finn copy years ago and said she had it locked away.” Ellen explained as she walked back into the kitchen for another cup of coffee.
All these years she has been telling me about this book and she had it all along. This was typical Eliza behavior. Part of me was angry, or irritated. But the other side of me was laughing at how Eliza had strung me along all these years. And there was no way I could be mad at her. But I still couldn’t figure out how or why she would make up the story about the book club, and where did she keep these amazing books that she would trade with me throughout the years. Maybe it was fun for her to keep me on edge over the years, or maybe it was her way of keeping me returning to the store day after day. I just wish I could tell her that she didn’t need to do that to keep me around, I would have stuck around without the book.
“So, Eliza told you that there was a secret book club? Where are all the other members? And what were some of the books?” She asked as she poured more coffee.
“She mentioned a first edition Dumas, and a rare Moby dick. And every couple of months she would take me to the stock room and show me some rare book that she said was from one of the members of the book club. I hate to think that she felt the need to lie to me to keep me around.” I said as I walked to the large picture window that overlooked the courtyard of the apartment complex.
“I’m going to head home, thank you for letting me crash with you. I enjoyed your company. Just let me know if you need anything, you have my number.” I gathered my things and took my coffee mug to the kitchen.
Ellen walked over to me as I was heading to the door. She gently grabbed my right arm and pulled me around to face her. Then she grabbed me with such force, it surprised me that a lady so small could have so much strength. Her head full of pink hair just under my chin, I held her as tight as she held me.
“I can’t believe my aunt is gone. She loved you Jason, as much or more than the rest of her family. And even if she never said it, she considered you to be family. Thank you for being here for me through this. I couldn’t have made it without you.” Her head resting on my chest, I leaned over and kissed her forehead.
“I’m not going anywhere; I will always be here for you. She was like a mother to me, and even though she warned me not to break your heart, I will always be here for you.”
I left her apartment and walked the short distance to my own apartment. It had been a long twenty-four hours and I needed to rest. I had so many things in my head, and I just needed to have a drink and think about everything.
The next day I received a text message from Ellen asking me to stop by the bookstore. She told me Eliza’s funeral would be in two days and she had something for me. I have never been a fan of people telling me they needed to talk to me, or that they had something to give me. It made me anxious to know what they had to tell me. But I supposed it was important enough to her to speak to me directly and not over text. I was still processing the death of Eliza and couldn’t really find the strength to care about anything besides Ellen or the bookstore. In a few days my entire world had been turned upside down, and I was full of regret. Regret about not visiting Eliza more than I did. I had regret about not putting her higher on my priority list, she should have been at the top of my list. I should have taken her out to eat or spent the day at the park with her, but that wasn’t the type of person she was. She needed to be working all the time, obsessed with that bookstore. And it was her demise. Her stubbornness was her undoing.
Later that day I walked to the bookstore to meet Ellen. She had placed a wreath on the front door, and as I entered I could see numerous framed photos of Eliza around the store. I took a moment to take it all in, the smell of the books, and the smell of Eliza’s super strong coffee still lingered. Ellen had cleaned the entire store, and the hard wood floors were shining for the first time in years. I looked around the bookshelves, running my finger across the spines, I could feel Eliza’s presence. At the counter Ellen was talking with an elderly woman about Eliza. I could only imagine how hard this was for her, having to revisit the pain all day long with the customers who wanted to share their pain of losing Eliza. As I walked around the shelves I came across a new display at the front, with a sign that read, Local Authors. There were books from Eliza’s husband and beside them were all of my novels. I glanced over at Ellen as she continued to talk to the little old lady, her eyes met mine. I held up my book and smiled at her, and she returned the smile and I realized that I saw a little of Eliza in her smile. I don’t know how long I stood there smiling at her, lost in the warmth of her eyes. Her entire face was glowing, framed in the beautiful pink hair. As the little lady grabbed her bag of books and made her way out of the store, I walked to the front.
“Nice display, what inspired you to put my books on display?”
“Well, it was part my idea, but it was on a list that Eliza left me. I didn’t realize you had so many books for sale in the store. Eliza always wanted to feature your books, but she didn’t want to give you an over inflated ego. She said it made you work harder if she didn’t tell you how good you were. I have something for you.”
She reached down under the counter and pulled out a worn copy of my first book, Beaches of Saturn. It had well-worn edges, some tears on the jacket and many of the pages were marked with little slips of yellow paper. I thumbed through the pages that were marked and many of the paragraphs were highlighted.
“She marked her favorite passages, she almost highlighted the entire book. She loved that book. She said it was your best work.” Again, with that soft smile, her headed tilted slightly and her eyes glistening in the fluorescent light. I looked up at her, meeting her eyes. My own eyes were watering, overwhelmed by emotion as I suddenly realized that Eliza was a true fan of my work.
“Why would she hide this from me? All these years I just thought she tolerated my writing. I never gave myself credit because I felt like she didn’t think highly of me. And to see this, this book, marked with her favorite passages. Why would she keep this from me?” The emotions from all the years came flowing in, for the first time in my life I was proud of myself. I was proud of my work because Eliza loved my book.
“Maybe this is why she never told you. She wanted you to keep pushing yourself. She didn’t want you to relax by knowing she approved of your writing. She wanted you to feel like you needed to keep pushing the envelope, to keep being… you. She sent me a copy of all your books over the years. Always with a note that said, you are going to love this! And I did, everyone of your books. I read them all and they all moved me. The only bad thing was when I finished, I wanted more. You need to give yourself credit; you are an amazing writer. Eliza loved your work, and I love your work.”
She stepped from behind the counter and walked around to me. She took my hand and looked me in the eyes. She embraced me and held me, and I felt completely loved by her. I had been searching my entire life for unconditional love, for acceptance and here it was. I took her delicate chin in my hand, looked into her soft blue eyes, and kissed her. We stood there, completely absorbed with each other. Her lips were as subtle as silk, and her hands held me like my life depended on it. Then the bell from the door chimed, we stepped away from each other. She wiped her face and walked to the front to greet the customers; I made my way to Eliza’s office.
I stood in the doorway looking at her tiny office. She refused to have an overhead light and relied solely on her desk lamp. She had kept her husbands’ wooden desk and his leather chair. I remember how she had it refinished with new leather, as her husband had worn a few holes in it over the years. Pictures on the desk of her and her sister, and pictures of Ellen as a little girl. And on the wall a picture of Ernest Hemingway’s boat, The Pilar. I remember the day I bought her the picture. I had it framed and wrapped it with a beautiful purple ribbon. It was her birthday, and I wanted to give her the perfect present. She and I had always had an unhealthy addiction to all things Hemingway. He spent all his free time on that boat, naming it Pilar from the character in Whom the Bell Tolls, and also after his wife, Pauline. As I stood there lost in memories of the day I gifted Eliza the picture, Ellen walked up behind me. She slid her arm around me and asked if everything was alright.
“There are a lot of memories here in this little room.” I said as I turned to look down at her.
“Was it okay that I kissed you? I don’t want you to think I was taking advantage of the moment.”
She smiled and looked up at me. I think she knew the power she had over me, with her eyes.
“I would have been more upset if you hadn’t kissed me. I’ve always had a thing for you. I feel like I know you so much more after reading your books and hearing Aunt Eliza talk about you. We can take it slow while we sort through this. Eliza’s death is untimely, but it doesn’t change how I feel about you.”
“Why Miss Ellen, I do believe you have bewitched me.” I said in my best southern accent.
She laughed and walked back to the front counter.
“I’m going to go to work. Can I see you tomorrow?” I said as I followed her like a little dog followed their owner.
“I would like it if you picked me up for the funeral, and then we have the reading of the will on Friday. Eliza made a list of who was to attend the reading, and you were on the list.” She reached out and touched my hand, gently squeezing it to let me know that she felt something for me. I squeezed back to let her know that I also felt that something, whatever it was, I felt it and didn’t want it to end.
Over the next few days, we texted and called each other. We shared a lunch at Huey’s on River Street. For as long as I could remember my favorite restaurant on River Street had always been Huey’s, they made the best bloody mary’s and you could sit on the outside and watch the freighters sail past. The hundreds of tourist who came to Savannah and only visited River Street and a few of the tourist attractions in the historic district were the saddest people to me. They would never see the true magic of Savannah. From the beautiful graveyards to the squares and the mysterious homes, to beaches of Tybee Island. There were so many amazing spots to eat, and you would miss out if you ignored the glorious soul food that filled the edges of the historic district. Savannah had so much elegance and diversity and it was definitely a place to expand your palette. I wanted to share all of this with Ellen, I wanted to show her the Savannah that Eliza and I shared. Over the years, Eliza and I had eaten at every mystery spot in the city. We kept a running list of our favorites and a list of the worst.
Somehow I had forgotten those last words that Eliza had said to me. After the funeral I took my bicycle through the Colonial Park Cemetery for an afternoon ride, I tried to recall what Eliza had said to me. It was something about a boat. Or was it about a book? I had asked Ellen to meet me at the playground behind Colonial Park Cemetery. I road through the cemetery, looking at the aged tombstones and grave markers. The tourist were rough on the cemetery over the years, no respect for the dead. I had always ridden to the cemetery when I needed to get out of the apartment and think. On the days I got stuck writing I would always bring my notebook and sit on the benches near the playground. For so long I found it strange that there would be a playground near the cemetery but as Eliza said, if you have to ask why something is the way it is in Savannah, you aren’t from Savannah.
I parked my bicycle by the fence and sat down on the bench. This was the very spot where I met my friend, James. He was the first person I met when I moved to Savannah. He had told me the story about his friendship with an elderly lady named, Elizabeth and how he had known her for years until her death. He ended up marrying her granddaughter years later. They owned a gallery off of Liberty Street. That to me was the essence of Savannah, how you could just meet someone on a park bench, and they would tell you their life story. I think that is what kept me here in this town, the people, and their secret lives. It was a mysterious and beautiful town. But the stories that permeated the backbone of this town, the stories that were told between friends, those were the truest parts of Savannah I had come to know.
A group of girls from the local Catholic School were playing in the playground as I sat writing in my journal, waiting on Ellen to arrive. The girls wore blue plaid skirts and blue polo shirts, and their hair pulled up in braids. They didn’t realize how good they had it, they were growing up in the most beautiful magical city in the world. But to them they were just at home. I hoped that one day they would realize how lucky they were.
“Are you hanging out watching kids play in the playground, that is on the edge of a cemetery?” Her voice caught me by surprise. I turned to see the pink haired beauty pushing her bike to the bench.
“It’s sort of weird when you say it out loud. Not many towns have playgrounds with their cemeteries.”
She laughed as she sat beside me. I leaned over and kissed her and held her hand.
“Are you putting the moves on me Jason? Is this the bad boy Eliza warned me about?” She smiled a sultry smile and kissed me back.
“I really don’t know why Eliza had such reserve about me. I have only dated one lady the entire time I have lived her, and that was only two dates. I don’t understand why Eliza thought I would be so bad for you.”
“She always told me you were a writer and writers are only focused on one thing.” She said as she pulled her legs up onto the bench leaning on my shoulder.
“Seriously? One thing? Why would she say that. I never gave her a reason to think I was some sex crazed womanizer.”
“No, not that thing, she meant writing. Writers are only focused on writing. She knew from personal experience. The only way you will ever be truly happy is if you are in the middle of writing a book or researching another book. Uncle Robert was always writing, and he didn’t always focus on Eliza. He would get lost for days in his office, writing for hours on end. Sometimes he would forget to eat, and she would have to make him a sandwich and take it to him.”
It was true, I would get lost for days. I would be lost in my story and before I knew it hours had passed. But I could never treat Ellen like that. How could I be focused on anything but her?
“I’m sorry, but I would never do that to you. When you walk in the room, you light up the place. Maybe it’s the pink hair or those amazing eyes. But I could never ignore you.”
“Please tell me about my eyes. What is it about them? From your writer’s mind, what would you write about my eyes?”
I turned to face her, pulling up my legs onto the bench, terribly close to her. The little girls were yelling and shouting as they played but my mind was focused on Ellen. I laid my arm across the back of the bench, softly touching her hair.
“I remember as a child visiting the planetarium, and it was a really big deal, because living in a small town we didn’t have many of the big experiences you would find in the larger cities. It was when I was in sixth grade and our teacher had planned the trip when Neptune would be visible from Earth. The entire visit was centered around being able to get a direct view of Neptune.”
“Okay, so I’m Neptune?” she said jokingly.
“No, but this was a very important trip for me. It was the same year I read my first H.G. Wells book, The Time Machine. It was the reason I became a science fiction writer. And there was an allure to Neptune. It was so mysterious, and beautiful. Out of all the planets, it has always been my favorite. When you look at it through a high-power telescope you can see all the different hues of blue. It doesn’t even look real; it looks like a beautiful painting in space. Somehow the edges looked purple and there were all these little storms that looked like white streaks of paint. Its seventeen-times as big as Earth, and looking at it as a young kid, I just got lost in my imagination. I thought, what would the people look like? Living on an ice planet in the depths of space, I imagined the inhabitants to be a race of beautiful giants that were cloaked in fur and that the entire surface was this amazing blue sea of ice. And the first time I saw it, it was glowing. The Sun was reflecting off of it and it was the most beautiful thing I had ever seen. It filled my mind with such bizarre ideas and visions. Its beauty opened up my mind and allowed me to take all those bits and pieces of childhood dreams and form this amazing utopia.”
“That’s really beautiful. So, what are you saying? Why Neptune?” She pressed for more, intrigued by the description.
“You are like Neptune; your eyes are so amazing and enticing. When I look at them my mind goes to places that I haven’t visited since that time as a child. The different shades of blue, the sparkles and glints of light that twinkle when I stare at them. It’s like you have an entire universe in your eyes, and there is no limit to how beautiful they can be, there is no limit to potential. I get lost looking into them, and inside is you. This amazing, pink haired fairy that has intoxicated me with her eyes of Neptune.”
She pulled her bottom lip in, biting it softly. Her eyes glistened with the tears that built up around the edges. Her cheeks burned as pink as her hair, inflamed with the overwhelming emotion that was building inside of her.
“You shouldn’t say things like that. You should be more careful; be more careful with the things you tell me.” The two sat inches away from each other. The sun had begun its nightly journey past the horizon. The cool of the night had set in, the children were all gone home, and Jason and Ellen sat face to face on the bench.
“Why? Why should I be careful? It’s what is in my heart. I am only speaking the truth.” He said as he ran his thumb gently along her cheek, down to her chin. He touched the edge of her ear with his finger, pushing the hair back.
“You shouldn’t say beautiful things to a girl. She might believe you and fall head over heels in love with you. You wouldn’t want to say things that will cause a person’s heart to open up if you have no intention of being with them forever.” She ran her finger along his thigh, her hand warm and inviting.
“I mean everything I said. Your eyes are like Neptune and if your heart is open, I have every intention of curling up inside and spending the rest of my life there, if you will let me.”
She slowly drew closer, their lips meeting. They kissed heavier until she turned away to catch her breath.
“Did you mean that? Am I someone you can love? Are you someone who will stay?”
“Of course. I will never leave you, my pink haired fairy.”
The sky grew darker, the moon hovering just over the edge of the buildings. It was a full moon, beautiful and white. It lit the sky with its radiance, shining down over the tombstones. The couple held each other seated on the bench.
We kissed for what seemed like hours. The cool wind of the cemetery blew gently through the trees that lined the wrought iron fence. Ellen stood and holding my hand she led me to the tall metal slide in the sand of the playground. She pushed me to sit on the slide, my legs hanging off the edge with my feet in the sand. She sat on my legs, her hands running through my hair. I knew at this moment that I loved her. I knew that I would always be with her. I wanted to remember this moment for the rest of my life.
Time all but stood still as the moon lifted high into the sky, with a faint row of clouds drifting by over the lovers.
The two eventually made their way back to Jason’s apartment where they collapsed into the bed and into each other. The now was forever, and all that would ever be. They floated across time and space in each other’s arms. All the emotions from the last few days slipping between them; love, hate, fear, mourning and lust. For hours they held each other with only the purest words traveling between them. Jason holding Ellen’s stomach, with her back against his chest. They knew each other the way only two lovers could know each other. Lost in each other’s arms they slept through the night.
The next morning Ellen woke to the sound of fingers tapping on a keyboard. She pushed the sheets away from her and walked to the window pushing the curtains back. The sun light burst through the dark room, illuminating the dark. She grabbed a robe from the chair and slipped it on over her bare skin. It was a Chinese silk robe with dragons embroidered across the back and the front pockets. She tied the belt loosely and walked through the apartment, following the sound of the keyboard.
Jason sat at his desk, listening to soft music, writing on his computer.
“You’re up early Mr. Writer. Whatcha working on?”
“It’s a story about Neptune.”
She laughed faintly as she wrapped her arms around him.
“I made us a dinner date for tonight. Is that okay? I want you to meet my friend James and his wife Beth. They met in Savannah a few years ago. I think you will enjoy them.”
“I love that, but don’t forget we have to meet the attorney this afternoon to settle the estate.”
He turned his chair to the side and Ellen climbed onto his lap, kiss him lightly on his cheek.
“Why don’t we go get breakfast. I want to take you to my favorite diner.”
“Do they have bacon?” She asked.
“Of course, you can have all the bacon you want.”
Later in the afternoon, Jason and Ellen pulled into the parking lot of the attorney. Holding hands, they walked in the front door. Ellen’s mother was already there, along with a few of Eliza’s closest friends, some who Jason suspected of being in the book club. Over the years he had met many of Eliza’s friends who he suspected of being one of the five secret members. They checked in with the receptionist and sat with Ellen’s mother.
Ellen and her mother shared a smirk and smiled at each other.
“Eliza always knew you two would be together.” Ellen’s mother said gently to Jason.
“I was the last to know this, ma’am.” Jason said to Ellen’s mother. They smiled at each other.
The attorney opened the door and invited everyone into a conference room. There was a large oval table with chairs surrounding it in the middle of the room. At the far end of the room a television that sat on the mantle, above a very ornate fireplace. The walls were bookshelves with hundreds of law books.
“Eliza wanted all of you to gather here together to hear her last wishes, together as family. I know some of you are actually related and others are friends of Eliza’s, but she considered you all family.”
He walked over to the television and used the remote to turn it on. He placed a flash drive into the side of the television and used the remote to pull up the USB directory.
“Please hold your questions to the end, we will listen to the entire reading of the will before providing you with the items that Eliza left for each of you.”
He started the video and retired to the back of the room.
On the screen was Eliza sitting at a desk, it was from her study in her home. She was looking over a piece of paper before raising her eyes to the camera.
“Well damn, you could have told me this thing was running.” She said to a person off camera, the room laughed at her response. It was classic Eliza, foul mouth and annoyed at everyone.
“Well, if you are all here, I’m dead. I hope it was a good death. There is nothing worse than a bad death, if you know me then you know I want to go out with a bang. I hope my death came after an amazing night of sex and drinking, but I probably won’t be that lucky.”
Every eye focused on the video, hinged on Eliza’s words. How bizarre it was to see her like this for the final time. Jason had disengaged from reality during the funeral, as a way to cope with the pain. But he was here in this moment, focused on seeing Eliza’s face one last time. Hearing her voice for what was probably the last time ever.
“For my sister Agnes, you were my best friend. I’m sorry you married that loser Harold. The only good thing he ever did was get you pregnant and give us Ellen. Otherwise, he was a waste of flesh and never amounted to anything worthwhile. I’m glad you divorced his ass years ago. Agnes, I’m leaving you my Cadillac, although at your age you shouldn’t be driving. I’m leaving you the bulk of my estate; I hope you do some traveling.”
Agnes dotted her eyes with a tissue and smiled at her sister’s retort.
“Martha and Harriet, I’m leaving you both several boxes of books and all my plants. I loved those plants like they were my children, please don’t let them die. And yes, you two are the only other remaining members of the book club. With George and Gertrude dead and gone the book club is officially disbanded. Along with Jason, you two have maintained this elusive club for years. I hope you old bitches love these books as much as I did. And don’t go selling them, I have treasured these books more than I have most people. They deserve respect and care. Keep them in a climate-controlled room for the love of God.”
The two women laughed and broke out into tears. Dressed in the best Sunday dresses and hats, they were all that remained of the once secret book club. They both had matching handkerchiefs, with their initials embroidered on them.
“And now for the last two people on my list. Ellen I truly hope you and Jason develop a friendship with each other. I hope that you two fall hopelessly in love, but I have no control over that. Ellen I am leaving you my house and all the contents. As for my store, I need you to understand that it was my life, I never had children and I never wanted any. My books were my entire world. That store saved me from a horrible life of boredom. So, for the deed to the store, I am leaving it to Ellen and Jason. You two were the closest I ever came to children, the closest I came to being a mother, and I love you deeply. If you don’t want the store or the responsibility, then close it. It would break my heart if it went to anyone else but you two.”
Ellen and Jason were both tearful and smiling, holding each other.
“Eliza would be so damn happy.” Martha whispered to Ellen.
“And last but not least. Sonny, give Jason the envelope.” Eliza said and waited for a moment while the attorney handed Jason an envelope. Jason opened the envelope and inside was a small square of paper with the numbers 72199 written in ink.
“Jason, I hope you are finally happy. It’s up to you to figure this out. Honestly it’s more fun for me this way. I have given Sonny instructions to tell you what these numbers are for if you are too stupid to figure it out. But you’ll have to wait two months, because if I guess right, you will know within a day. And I would much prefer that you figure it out on your own. You’re an amazing writer and I know you can solve this mystery. I love you like you were my own son, and I hope that you and Ellen stay very close. I hope that the bookstore brings you both as much joy as it has brought me. Now I need for all of you to go get drunk and celebrate my goddamn life! Turn this damn thing off Sonny.”
Sonny walked over to the television and turned it off with the remote.
“As you all heard, Eliza was very specific as to who gets what. I trust you are all happy and we will now provide each of you with the items deemed to be yours by the estate.”
Ellen looked at Jason who was studying the numbers.
“Do you have any idea what that means?” Ellen questioned.
“Yeah, its Ernest Hemingway’s birthday. July 21st, 1899. But I have no idea what to do with it. She said something the night she died, about the boat and the book. I just don’t know what she was talking about.” He said frustrated.
“Well, if you don’t figure it out the attorney will have to tell you in two months.” They both laughed and Jason slipped the number into his pocket.
Later that night Jason and Ellen met the couple James and Beth at River House Seafood on River Street. The waitress seated them around a large table. The restaurant was an old 18th century cotton warehouse, with brick walls and hard wood floors from the early days of Savannah. Seated amongst the roomful of tourist, Jason and Ellen felt out of place.
“So, this is James’ favorite restaurant in Savannah.” Jason explained to Ellen.
“James I understand you and Beth have quite the love story, how did you guys meet?” Ellen asked as the waitress brought a round of iced tea to the table.
“Beth tells it better than I do, I have never been a good storyteller. I leave that up to Jason, he’s the master storyteller.” James said with enthusiasm.
“It was a few years ago, I had moved into my grandmothers’ home on State Street. She had passed away the year before and I had taken ownership of her home. One day James came to the door, looking for my grandmother. They had been friends for a few years while he was in college here in Savannah.” She explained while enjoying her tea.
“Yeah, Beth’s grandmother, Elizabeth, had befriended me while I was in college. She always called me Jack. I just thought she got my name wrong, turns out Jack was her son, who had passed away. We were very close.” James added.
“Yes, he and my grandmother had this amazing relationship for years and all the time she was convinced he was her son Jack. When she died she left him part of her estate. We fell in love, and it was his idea to use her estate to celebrate her life. We opened several galleries with all the art she had accumulated over the years. We didn’t even know she had so much, until James came back to visit her one last time.”
“That’s an amazing story. It’s beautiful that you had such a special relationship with her.” Ellen said to the couple.
“She changed my life. And I met Jason shortly after Beth and I were married. We’ve been friends ever since. We met one day at the cemetery, Elizabeth loved to visit it and watch the kids playing on the playground.” James exclaimed.
“Say, Jason, did you ever come across the book you were looking for? I had the privilege of meeting Eliza many times. She was an amazing woman. She reminded me a lot of Elizabeth so much, with her energy and that snappy attitude. Savannah women are the most amazing women in the world.” James added as he looked at Beth. The two were obviously very close, finishing each other’s sentences and gazing at each other like high school sweethearts.
“Not yet, seems Eliza had the sense to make me work a little harder for it, she left a clue. I’m challenged with finding it.” Jason smiled at Ellen.
Jason continued to talk as he looked at the painting on the wall. He had eaten here many times and always admired the large oil painting of the Schooner. He studied it closely as James and Beth continued to talk with Ellen. In his mind he could hear Eliza.
“The book is behind the boat.” Her words echoed in his head. He continued to stare intensely at the painting. Ellen had noticed him staring, lost in deep thought.
“Jason, is everything okay?” Ellen said quietly to Jason.
Jason stood up and awkwardly walked over to the painting. He stood in front of it repeating, “the book is behind the boat”.
Then it hit him, he knew where the book was. All of it made sense, Eliza’s words, and the numbers on the piece of paper.
“I know where it is! I know where the book is!” He said excitedly.
“Where is it? How do you know?” Ellen mirrored his excitement.
“James, I hate to do this, we will make this up to you and Beth. I know where the book is, we have to leave. I will call you.” Jason grabbed Ellen and headed out of the restaurant.
“You remember when we were like that?” Beth said to James.
“Remember? Honey we are still like that. Those two are just like us. I hope he finds that damn book.” James said with loving eyes, looking at his wife.
“Yeah but I hope he realizes the real treasure was sitting beside him the entire time.” Beth said as she unrolled her napkin.
Outside the restaurant Jason and Ellen made their way over the large cobble stones that made up River Street. The rocks had originally been the ballast stones in some of the ships that first landed in Savannah in the 1700’s. Hundreds of years of traffic had made them smooth, but they were a nightmare to run across.
Jason and Ellen made their way to the car and drove back to the bookstore.
“Babe, tell me what you’re doing. Where are we going?” Ellen said as she tried to catch her breath.
“I know where Eliza put the book. The painting in the restaurant, before she died she told me the book is behind the boat. I know where the boat is.”
Jason drove quickly around the squares to the bookstore. Zipping down the streets, avoiding tourist as they crossed from side to side.
They pulled in front of the bookstore, parked the car, and ran inside.
Jason rushed to Eliza’s office and opened the door. He pointed at the picture of the Pilar on the wall.
“I gave this picture to Eliza for her birthday. This is Hemingway’s boat, the Pilar. The book is behind the boat!”
He grabbed the picture, but it wouldn’t budge. He ran his fingers over the edge of the frame. He could see two screws recessed on the sides, holding the frame securely to the wall.
“It’s screwed onto the wall. Get me a screwdriver!” Jason shouted, sending Ellen running to the back storeroom. Ellen fumbled around in the storeroom until she found a screwdriver and rushed back into the office. Jason unscrewed the two screws on the edge of the frame and removed the picture. Behind the picture was a wall safe.
They both stood staring at the safe, and then at each other. Amazed at the presence of a hidden wall safe, that neither had any clue existed.
“We don’t know the combination Jason.” Ellen said.
“Yeah we do. Its Hemingway’s birthday.”
He pushed the buttons, 7-2-1-9-9, and the safe clicked.
“It was here the entire time! It was behind the boat.” He pulled the door open to reveal a stack of five books.
He took the book from the top; it was Huckleberry Finn. On the cover it read, The Hemingway Edition.
He laid it on the desk and looked up at Ellen.
“Well open it, this is what you’ve always wanted.” She said with excitement.
And then in his mind he remembered the first time Ellen came into the store. He remembered how they laughed at their first encounter and how amazed he was at her the first moment that he saw her. In his mind he travelled through all the moments they had been together. The first kiss at the counter, making love in the playground, their breakfast at the diner. And then he recalled Eliza’s voice from the video, “I hope you two fall in love.” This is what she wanted all along, Eliza had planned this from the beginning.
The only thing she hadn’t accounted for was falling and hurting herself.
“The book was never the treasure.” He said softly.
“What do you mean? Of course, it’s the treasure. This has been a big treasure hunt, and now you have it! Its right in front of you, don’t you want to know who gave it to him?” She said with enthusiasm.
“Yeah, but I want to kiss you first.” He put the book down and grabbed Ellen, he pulled her close and then kissed her like he did the first time at the counter. She wrapped her arms around him and ran her fingers through his hair.
He pulled back and looked at her, “The book wasn’t the gift from Eliza, you were. You were always the hidden treasure.”
“I love you Jason, and that is the sweetest thing you have ever said but open the damn book. You have me for eternity. But I want to know who gave Hemingway the book as much as you do.” She all but commanded him.
He smiled and opened the book. Carefully touching the pages, imagining the first time Hemingway had opened the book. He turned the first page and under the dedication it read,
To the man whose words have touched my soul. Thank you for all journeys your books have taken me on.
They both took a step back and looked at each other. All these years waiting to uncover who Hemingway’s admirer was and now it was right in front of them.
“It was Marilyn? She was the secret admirer?” Ellen asked.
“I can’t believe it even exist; all this time Eliza had the book in her hidden wall safe.” Jason repeated as he pulled the other books from the safe. He placed them on the desk, Jason could see the names on the spines; Steinbeck and H.G. Wells, Mary Shelley and Eliza’s’ husbands first book.
“Do you know how many times Eliza and I sat in here for lunch? She would have me bring her hotdogs and fries and we would sit here at the desk and talk for hours and the entire time, the book was right here.”
“What’s that in the back?” Ellen asked as she pulled a small leather box from the back of the safe.
“It looks like a jewelry box.” Jason said as Ellen opened the box.
Inside was a ring, a sparkling diamond set in white gold. Ellen pulled it out of the box and slid it onto her finger. She looked up at Jason and smiled softly, showing him the ring on her finger.
“It was Eliza’s wedding ring. She had kept it all those years.” Ellen said.
“I think it belongs to you now.” Jason said as he took Ellen’s hand.
Outside the moon lit up the Savannah skyline, hovering over a little bookstore with a brick sidewalk and three palmetto trees by the front door. The city is magical at night, full of stories and treasure.
Where one story ends, another begins.
You never realize what is really important in life until it is gone. For years I longed to own the book that had eluded so many treasure hunters, but it sits under lock and key, locked safely away from prying eyes. The secret will remain with Ellen and me for the rest of our lives. Back then I didn’t realize there was a large piece of my life missing, not until the day I ran into the pink haired fairy. After that day, the book really didn’t matter anymore. Eliza helped me see what was really important. The book was everything I had hoped it would be, but in the end it was just a book. Finding the other half of yourself in a sea of strangers is a better story.
And our story is just beginning.
Copyright 2021 all rights reserved James A. Heaton