His name was Luther Malone, but everybody called him the book man. He was an odd little fellow whose salt and pepper hair was balding in the familiar horseshoe pattern, and his favorite attire was an almost worn-out pair of paint splattered overalls. He could have most likely afforded to buy a new pair of jeans, but chose to spend his extra cash on books.
Well known by all the tellers, once a month he would visit The Bank of Paper Money, and ask for his “usual.” His son had set it up so that his bills would be paid as soon as his social security check had been deposited, which gave Luther the freedom to, as he said, “not have to write nothing.”
He was a friendly man who never failed to offer a smile, and throw up a hand when a neighbor was walking or driving by. Children, riding their bicycles, waved and said, “hey book man.” That was a highlight of his day, but not as much as finding books.
Every weekend at the crack of dawn, he would get into his old fire engine red Chevy pick-up, and begin the hunt for the books he called his treasures. After he went to all the local garage sales, he headed to the thrift stores. He was even known to dumpster dive behind the Salvation Army Family Store when it was closed. His efforts were always rewarded and he would bring back sacks full of books after every outing. His favorite companions were a tattered, almost threadbare fabric wallet, overstuffed with one dollar bills, and a ratty, badly stained pillowcase.
He wasn’t prejudiced when choosing his books. He didn’t care if they were soft cover or hardback. He didn’t care if they were penned by a famous writer or a forgotten one-book author. He didn’t care if they were thick or thin. He didn’t care about any of those things because to him, all of them were things of beauty.
Old man Barnes lived up the street and had a little Jack Russell terrier, named Rufus. The neighborhood had dubbed him, “the little Jack Russell terror” because he was fiercely protective of his master. For reasons nobody really understood, the book man was the only person Rufus would let come anywhere near old man Barnes.
One day, old man Barnes on his daily stroll with Rufus, stopped and looked at the books in the back of Luther’s truck. He shook his head and said, “well, book man. How many did you bring home today?” Luther smiled and said, why don’t you come over here and help me count? Old man Barnes started unloading them, carefully putting them into the paper bags and said, “it looks like you have 38.” Luther smiled, winked and said, “you don’t say?”
“That’s a record, isn’t it?” asked old man Barnes. Luther said, “I think it might be.” Old man Barnes said, “I reckon you’ll be busy making more shelves.”
When not out looking for books, that’s what Luther spent most of his time doing. He wanted to have the entire basement of his house full of shelves from floor to ceiling, but those shelves would have to wait this week.
Luther had been a widower for five years. He had a son named Cole, who was married and had two little girls, who Luther called “his little darlings.” It had been almost three years since he had seen them, and he had never even met the youngest. There was notable excitement in his voice when he told old man Barnes that Cole and his family were coming for a visit the next weekend. “I keep the house right neat” he said, “but I’ve got to get the yard prettied up for them.”
He spent the next week pulling weeds and trimming hedges. He had already chosen the flowers he would pick to adorn the kitchen table, and he had wrapped gifts for his granddaughters that he found down the street at a sale two days earlier. The neighbors had come to know Luther well, and were always obliging when he said, “I left my glasses at home, and I can’t see the price. How much would you let this go for?”
The next week, old man Barnes stopped and asked how the visit went. Luther tried to hide his disappointment when he said, “well, something came up and they couldn’t make it.” His voice had an almost hopeful lilt when he said, “but Cole said they’d try to get here in a few weeks.”
He kept up his spirits by being ever vigilant in his quest to add to his vast collection of books, and he had become quite the expert at building shelves. He was not one to settle for plain planks held up by brackets. His shelves boasted beveled edges and a dark mahogany stain, finished with two coats of wax.
Christmas was coming and the weather was turning cold, but it was no deterrent for Luther. There were fewer garage sales, but the thrift stores were always filled to the brim with second-hand items, including an ever-present array of books. Thrift stores generally commanded a higher price than garage sales, but to him, his treasures were worth the few extra dollars. The workers at the thrift stores were also familiar with “the book man,” and would often help him count out his dollars, after he told them that he had forgotten his glasses.
Once again, a visit from Cole and his family was promised. Luther hadn’t put up a Christmas tree since his wife Arlene died, but this year, in anticipation of his upcoming visitors, he went to a tree farm, tattered wallet full of dollar bills, and picked out the most beautiful tree he could find. He got out the old lights and ornaments that had long ago been relegated to a resting place in the dark, seldom frequented attic.
Opening the boxes, one by one, he smiled as he looked at each ornament, which had been so carefully wrapped by Arlene in happier days, when Christmas and family meant so very much. As he he unwrapped each one, those happy memories of days gone by came flooding back, and he found himself almost giddy with excitement.
He re-wrapped the presents he had gotten for his little darlings before, and put a tag with Santa Clause making his way down a chimney, on each one. He bought stockings for them, and hung them on the fireplace mantle. They were filled with chocolate marshmallow trees, peppermint candy canes, and a little bracelet made of candy was tucked deep into the toe of each one.
It was going to be such a special Christmas, he thought as he plugged in the lights on the tree, sat down and basked in the soft glow of the tiny blinking bulbs. As he drifted off into sleep, he dreamed that he opened his eyes and saw Arlene. “Hello, darling,” he said. “I’m so glad you’re here. Our boy and our little darlings are coming to visit.” As her image faded, he begged her not to go, and awoke.
To be continued______________________