Chapter 5: Black Coffee vs Black Sabbath
“I need to sit down for a bit, Rats. We can’t keep looking like this.”
“Black Sabbath tee-shirt. That’s what you need to be looking for. Not a chair.”
“Rats, Peepex is gone. We came four hours late. Four! No one waits around for that long. Just look at this nice chair, Rats. Just see how comfy it is. Let’s just take a break.”
Retirement and caffeine somehow do not mix the same way youth and black coffee used to. Last night I fell asleep at the table, my files still spread out, my mouth still open, my saliva still running. I have no recollection of when the coffee mug fell and shattered on the floor. I have no recollection of when I made a fourth mugful and decided to leave it in the kettle.
Thankfully, CC did not come home last night. Staying over for work is what she told me, but I knew better than that. She is simply beating herself up for something that is not her fault. But maybe I was fortunate last night precisely because she was not all those months ago. It is not a reality I welcomed easily, but it is one that is probably keeping me safe now.
Realities are so subliminally fluid these days. They change and they change me without any notice or notification. I have to accept, at least at this point, if not before, that the romance of rigorous research is wasted on the withering. There is a point in life past which the soulful elation of adventure is unmet by an equal music of a willing body.
“You messed up and your body is screaming. Stop glorifying it so much. No one writes like that these days.”
Rationality was wrong today. People still did write like this. It was a completely different matter altogether that they did so at the cost of not selling a single copy of their work. But they still wrote this way.
“Are we seriously going to debate that? Don’t we have a more pressing matter at hand?”
“Peepex is not here, Rats. We both know that. It is only wishful of me to imagine that we will find this person in the lobby or in some aisle. And we both know where we stand with this body.”
“Yeah, your neck’s hurting, your back’s bitching, your head’s shouting off at full volume and somehow you sound more rational than me right now. But that’s it, isn’t it? You just sound more rational. I still got the goods on this one. Look at me, look at me. If you give this up now, you are going to create for yourself a nice little pool of despair where you will keep taking swims every other hour till the water practically stinks of your piss. You might like that, but I am definitely not up for it.”
Reality was fluid. I was usually the optimist and he the naysayer. And yet in a day and a half the roles had reversed, the perspectives had flipped, and I was not entirely confident if I was comfortable with it. It was easier, of course, to let Rationality take charge. It was easier to let him lead me on. But that was not why I created him: he was supposed to be the one who would not let me follow the rabbit down to wonderland. And yet, in a spin of the hatter, here we were. If I let him hold my hand, who would pull me back from danger?
“Pull you back from danger? To do what, may I ask? To continue this uneventful, unnecessary, un-nerv-ing life of yours where every single day is just like the day before and the day before that?”
Rationality, Rats, my alter ego, my own persona that I created out of my own mind was taking a life of its own. It was rebelling against the boundaries of reason I had so carefully put on it. CC had warned me about this so many times. She had warned me about not letting another character take over me again. And here I was letting Rats overpower me.
“‘We are all prone to the malady of the introvert who with the manifold spectacle of the world spread out before him, turns away and gazes only upon the emptiness within.’ That’s Bertrand Russell for you. Even he is telling you to get up from that chair and start looking for Peepex.”
My eyelids were shutting down again. My body was shutting down again. What was that trick that CC’s doctor friend had taught me? Observe my body? The feet were hurting — no, I had to be more specific than that. The heels experienced a sharp pricking pain, and the toes were tingling like a thousand tiny needles. The arch of the foot was…
“Sir? Are you alright? Sir? Just hold on a minute. I will get you some water.”
Rationality did not have a woman’s voice. That much I had made sure of. This was someone else. And this someone else was now holding a glass of water out at me, insistent.
“You were passing out.”
She was in her forties, maybe early fifties. Maybe even older. Women these days did not age the way we men did, and they knew how to hide the little telltale signs of age.
She was not wearing Black Sabbath.
“Thank you,” I said.
“Will you be able to walk down to the cafe? I am sure a little food in there will help. It always helps, doesn’t it? I can tell.”
Is she someone I had created in a moment of panic? Was she my response to Rationality going rogue? What characteristics had I given her?
“Sir? Do you want me to leave you be?”
No character of mine would volunteer to do that. I designed them to stick around in minds — in my mind, in my readers’ minds, in the minds of the people who wanted to make a movie out of the story but did not know yet how to show internal thought.
“Umm…let me see if I can smuggle something for you past the guards. You sit tight, okay? I will be back in a couple of minutes.”
No character of mine would ever ask to leave. She was a real person — someone who saw an old man passing out on a chair and cared enough to stop. Someone who would probably not even come back now.
But I could wait the two minutes she had asked me to. That was the least I could do, given that earlier in the day I had made another person wait hours on length.
Who was Peepex anyway? I did not know if they were a man or a woman. Or a child, for that matter. I had one chance to meet this person and I had blown it. They would probably never agree to meet me again.
Maybe it was just right that this happened. I was being drawn into something I did not know the depths of. What was it really that drew me in? Was it the concept of the paperplanes carrying letters? Was it the language of the letter itself? Was it the strange familiarity I felt towards the woman who had written it? Was it the melancholy of unfulfilled romance? Or was it just the intrigue of a love story gone wrong?
It was important I figured out what had baited me. I had to protect myself from a future eventuality that could take me in like that again. I had to go back home and shred those files and clean up the shards of a broken daydream from the granite floor of reality. I had to close the doors on the face of the writer-researcher and open the window to a retired English teacher’s late sunshine.
“Here. I smuggled a sandwich.”
She was back and she was offering me a napkin-wrapped submarine sandwich. What do I tell this woman if she asks me difficult question?
“Okay. I am going to leave it on this chair here. Help yourself whenever you feel like it?”
She was smiling at me, but I could see that she was a bit disappointed with my response to her generosity. Her smile faded into a quick nod, a quick glance away and a soundless clap with which she broke the little moment of tension that was building.
“Thank you,” I managed again.
She nodded again. “Any day. You would have done the same for me, wouldn’t you?”
I was not sure if I would have. I have had several occasions to help people in need and I had simply turned my way and left. I did not have a reason to believe that I would have acted any differently if this obviously sweet lady was in distress.
I nodded, nonetheless.
“Right. I’ll be on my way, then. Unless you want to talk about this.”
I did not. And this was as good a chance as any to let her go away without any further awkwardness. But something about the way she looked at me made me pause and reconsider. She was about to break eye-contact again, when I stuttered, “You don’t happen to have a Black Sabbath tee-shirt, do you?”
I am sure no library in the world would have minded the sound of her echoing laughter. People looked at her, but did not say a word. They did not even stare in the firm, formal way people do when you break their fortress of silence in a library hallway. A couple of them even smiled.
She caught herself, though. With one hand over her mouth, she pulled a chair beside mine and took the sandwich in her hands again.
“No, I don’t have any such thing. I am a library person. Let’s split this?”
Have you noticed how certain remarks tend to have the report of a slap embedded into the space between their words?
“What do you mean by a library person? Do library people have an inherent antipathy to rock music?”
“Touche. You want half the sandwich or not?”
And have you noticed how an immediate admission of defeat from the other person infuriates you even more? With that “Touche” she had robbed me of the opportunity to lecture her on simultaneity of interests and cohabitation of seemingly diametric art forms within the same mindspace.
“So, what happened? You still look a bit dazed.”
“Hunh? Oh…weakness, I guess. Comes with the age, you see.”
She nodded. She was not convinced by the answer, but she seemed to decide against pressing. Instead, she changed tacks.
“And what’s with the Black Sabbath tee-shirt? You can buy one online, you know?”
“I don’t want one. I was supposed to meet someone wearing a Black Sabbath tee-shirt. But I came late — very late — and probably missed them.”
“Hmm…traffic was it? Always getting the best of us into trouble these days.”
“I overslept actually.”
“Does that come with the age too?”
“I thought old people find it difficult to sleep.”
“Did you call this Black Sabbath lady? She might still be around.”
She? Could it be a woman?
“I don’t have her phone number. It was supposed to be a business meeting, you see. I only had an email conversation.”
“Oh, business. Okay. Don’t tell me more. That way if anyone asks, I won’t have anything to give away.”
Did this woman just call me an old perv?
“I won’t talk to anyone. It’s okay.”
“I am neither a pervert nor a purveyor of prostitution.”
“Prostitution? I thought…I thought you were here for the stuff. What with Black Sabbath and everything. Chemicals.”
“And now all Black Sabbath people are druggies?”
“Good for you. My daughter got into it pretty bad a few years ago. The chemicals, I mean. Not the band. Haven’t had a good taste in my mouth since.”
“Oh…sorry about that. I didn’t mean to…”
“Ah, don’t be. You will probably be wondering when I would hand over my laptop to you?”
“You need to send an email to your Black Sabbath friend, right? Apologising for being late and everything.”
“You don’t mind?”
“Just open up an incognito tab.”
“Here. Let me do it.”
Who was this lady? Why was she giving me her laptop without even knowing my name? Should I be wary of her? I would have had to if were logging into my regular email account. CC had warned me about logging in from someone else’s computer. But I was not going to open my regular account anyway. I just needed to open Treasure Aisle.
“You sure you don’t mind? I tend to write long emails and I take my time.”
“As I said, I am a library person. I can sit still and read a book till dawn tomorrow.”
“But don’t you have to go back?”
“To whom? There’s no one there. Hence, library and everything. Hence talking to you.”
She smiled again, this time letting a little pain lace it around the corners.
“Okay. I will make it quick.”
She laughed her sweet laugh again, but this time people did mind. She masked her mouth with a hand again and continued to writhe with laughter.
“Is that what you tell all your women? ‘I will make it quick’? No, no. I am just kidding. Just kidding. You carry on.”
I only nodded this time, not trusting her with any of my words again. Hers was a slower computer than the one I had back home. Or was it the WiFi in the library? I could never tell what was due to the computer and what due to the WiFi. Whichever it was, it was slow.
When the screen did load, I noticed how my heart was beating against my neck. I had a new email.
“paperplaneexplorer You didn’t show up”
I looked at the woman whose laptop I was using. She was trying to find the correct dog ear in a paperback novel. She was not snooping in.
You bailed on me, bi*ch. Two hours and you didn’t show. If youre gonna say the traffic, spare it. I am not buying that.
Anyway, I was bored, so I did something that you’ll thank me for. Though i have no clue why at all I bothered, when you couldn’t even be bothered to show your face.
So, basically, I folded up the letter prints into paperplanes just like the originals. To give you the real touch. Then, I traced down the books where these letters were kept and kept these duplicate paperplanes in them.
If you are really doped up about this, you just need to follow the paper trail. You can figure other things out on your own. Don’t contact me until you have gone through those letters.
In the tradition of long emails,
Treasure Aisle is a new original fiction series. In this story spanning two literary decades, the books in a public library will guide a retired one-hit-wonder-writer on an impulsive quest for finding a reason to love again.
The next chapter is already out. You can read it here.