By Noelle Sterne
I should have been happy, or at least grateful. My family had gathered cozily around the Christmas tree, and my eight-year-old niece, the official gift dispenser, had just handed me a small monogrammed ivory envelope. I recognized my aunt’s initials. She sat uncomfortably near, scrutinizing my every facial nuance. When I pulled the card out, I barely managed the requisite surprised delight. It took all I had to hide my dismay at seeing the $50 gift certificate to a vanishing breed, one of the major bookstores.
Maybe you’re shocked at my response. Who doesn’t like presents, especially gift certificates? And for books?
Well, barbaric as it may sound for a writer, I don’t read books. Sure I dip into The Joy of Heart-Healthy Positions now and again or browse through Staying Thin in a Fat, Fat World. But to choose to read a whole book? No thank you. I’ve got good grounds. Throughout my entire uninterrupted tenure from advanced placement pre-kindergarten through my Ph.D. in English and Comparative Literature, I had no respite from reading. The moment I thought the chapter on books could finally close, I got a job teaching college literature—and had to read more. This cruel irony, and the fact that I stuck out teaching for two whole years before retiring to become a writer, pushed me over the line. Ever since, I’ve been in Reading Recovery. Hence my reaction to my aunt’s thoughtful gift. Fingering the envelope, faux smile still pasted across my face, I had a brilliant idea: maybe I could redeem the certificate for cash! At least that way I could then hit the Lauder counter at Nordstrom’s for that new shade of eye shadow I really needed. I called the bookstore. A woman answered pleasantly, announcing the promotion for the latest paranormal-romance-dystopian-walking undead-intrigue novel. Sounding sincere, she asked, “How may I help you?” A Hemingway sycophant, I wasted no words. “Can I get cash for a gift certificate?” Her voice sliced like a paper cut, her single word laden with the disapproval I’d thought only mothers had perfected. “No.”
But as a writer, I was used to rejection and formulated an alternate plan. I’d go to the bookstore with my friend Susan. She was always game to go anywhere. And she read books. Just to make sure, I’d bribe her: pay for her gas, buy her lunch, get her anything from the certificate as the Christmas gift I owed her. All I wanted was some cash.
Susan accepted without hesitation. “You know,” she reflected, “maybe you’ll find something after all. Bookstores carry lots of other things besides books. In fact, I could use some notecards.”
Notecards! I needed them too. And what about calendars? I’d been coveting the Seven Hundred Secrets of Simplicity calendar for months. We made a date.
At the bookstore, we pushed through the double doors, and the entrance guard glared suspiciously at our large handbags. Innocent of nefarious tools, we made it through the security arch.
I stared out at the expanse of aisles. Feeling wobbly, I grabbed Susan’s arm. The high shelves stretched for miles, a megalopolis of books. I almost felt an allergic rash erupting on my page-turning hand.
I groaned. “How will I ever spend $50?”
“Come on.” Susan steadied me. “Let’s find the note cards.”
She steered me to a circular stand on which swiveled several tiers of slim volumes covered with floral chintz. A small sign said they were diaries. Could the note cards be far behind?
We wound around the stand. Behind it, on a table that should have held boxes of alluring cards, were piled stacks of discounted paperbacks. I shrieked. Ignoring me, Susan craned to survey the store. “The note cards must be somewhere else.”
A salesman overheard her. “Oh, we haven’t carried those in years.”
Undaunted, Susan led the way. Several aisles later, we stumbled onto a large table of calendars, arrayed haphazardly. I dove in with both hands, searching for Simplicity. But all I unearthed were cuddly kittens, bridges of the world, and Sierra Club cacti.
When I emerged, Susan had disappeared, and I made the mistake of trying to find her. Not knowing which way to turn, I began to wander, from Romance to Children’s, Cookbooks to Fitness, Financial Strategies to Exotic Getaways, Everything in the Galaxy for Dummies. Midway through Mindless Meditation, I stopped, headachy and blurry-eyed.
Susan spoke gently in my ear. “I found a paperback mystery you can give me for Christmas and an art book on sale you’ll like—mostly pictures.”
“I want a calendar.”
She laughed. “Do you know how many people would eat the Times Book Review for your gift certificate?”
“Okay, okay,” I said. Her words brought me back and I figured fast. “If we get those books, we’ll have about $20 left. Would they dare refuse us a few bucks?”
On the checkout line, Susan browsed in the art book, but I looked straight ahead and thought about my current short story. At the register, I held my breath as the cashier announced the total. Tax included, $29.91.
“Credit card?” she assumed.
I slapped down the gift certificate.
She examined it closely and then stared at the register screen. “We can’t return cash. Is there something else you want?”
“Mercy,” I croaked.
From the next register, the manager glanced over. “It’s all right,” he said, smiling.
“Give her the cash.”
I could have kissed his bookmarks.
Noelle Sterne is an author, editor, writing coach, workshop leader, and academic mentor. She has published over 600 stories, essays, writing craft articles, spiritual pieces, and poems in literary and academic print and online venues, including two books. Currently, Noelle is working on a second novel, with more writing clogging her files.