Bringing Home the Books by Allison Joseph

2nd Prize Winner of the Central Coast Writer's Contest, Fiction

Today my father is bringing home the books. His store, Black Man’s Books, has gone belly up, failed, shut down for good. The Westchester Avenue storefront, with its bustling bargain shoppers and homeless men hustling out front for spare change, is shuttered. The cash register has been sold; the file cabinets, full of receipts and account statements, are now stowed in the back of our garage with the folding chairs and the ancient suitcases. But the books—the books are headed upstairs, to our living room. An inventory yesterday; now, today, an instant library for me.

I hear my father groan and curse as he hoists another box into his arms, trudging up the narrow stairs to the top floor of our house. I can't wait to dig through each box, to see what treasures remain, what wasn't sold in the final days of Black Man's Books. "Move," my father commands, angry with me for dawdling when I could be doing something useful. Yet he doesn't want me lifting anything, claims my spindly arms and legs would snap under the weight of these boxes of paperbacks, hardcovers.

I try to stay out of his way. I'm always trying to stay out of his way. My father, though not a big man, has a big voice, a booming one he's quick to use in anger when annoyed or irritated by me—my gangly awkward legs, my girly giggles when I should be quiet. He doesn't like the noise I bring into the house: my music, which he calls yelling, the jingly phone—my friends calling at inopportune times—during dinner, for instance, just as he was lifting his fork to his mouth, my mother's stewed chicken growing cold on the pointy silver tines.

He sets a box down by the sofa, right near the coffee table. Mom won't like the fact that he's packing her living room with dirty taped-up cartons. She makes me vacuum and polish this entire room every weekend—every end table and each piece of bric-a-brac, every ashtray and decorative plate. She likes a clean house, a tidy living room in case we have visitors. We rarely do, but this room, along with our tiny rectangular kitchen, is her domain.

But here my father comes with his boxes of books no one wanted to buy. I look at him and see the whole front of his shirt is sweaty; he's breathing so hard he can't speak. He steps toward me, but then doubles over, hands on knees, back bent. He looks up but cannot tell me what he wants. His brown face is ashen, as if his color's draining from him, just like all the promise and profit drained out of Black Man's Books.

"Ann Marie," he croaks. He wants to yell, to curse at me for standing there. "Get me a drink," he manages.

Should I get him water? Or sweet, sugary Kool-Aid? I can never remember what to bring him when he gets this way, when he hasn't had his insulin. Or is it that he's had too much? I don't understand his disease and I don't know what to do to help him. He's still panting, sweat rolling down his forehead and cheeks.

"Soda?" I ask. "Kool-Aid?" He's shivering, though it's warm outside. Black Man's Books went under on a sunny July day, a day when the other kids on the block are outside playing—jumping double dutch, riding bikes and Big Wheels, playing pick-up basketball.

"Kool-Aid," he manages to gasp. I go to the refrigerator, open it to find our big yellow Tupperware pitcher. It's full of the candy-colored cherry Kool-Aid Mom made yesterday. I remember she poured cupfuls of sugar into it, sweetening it so that it wouldn't taste like colored water. It was supposed to be for us, not him.

I grab the pitcher, pour the sweet liquid into a plastic tumbler. I'm careful not to spill, because this stuff stains and I don't want him yelling at me because I ruined the carpet with Kool-Aid splotches that won't come out.
"Ann Marie!" He calls for me again, his voice sharper, stronger. Good, it's not that bad, I think. He's yelling again. I find my way back to the living room, a few short steps usually, but now a path made treacherous by the cardboard boxes that line the hallway.

I hand him the cup. He takes it and looks at me, not with gratitude, but with frustration and disappointment. He gulps down the sticky cold drink, gulps and swallows like a greedy little kid. Except he's not happy or excited, like the kids are on the commercials. I like the ones with Mr. Kool-Aid, the big cartoon pitcher who happily dispenses the drink to hordes of cheering thirsty children. But I'm the only kid here.

My father takes his last swig from the plastic tumbler. He breathes slower; his face has color again. He leans back against a carton, mopping his face with a handkerchief from his pants pocket. He shoves the cup in my direction, but before I can get a grip on it to take it from him, it falls to the living room floor, a few stray drops spilling on the greenish-gray carpet.

"Clumsy," he sneers. "Good for nothing."

I want to cry, but don't. He's mad right now, but he won't stay mad. His sugar's messed up. These books are too heavy.

"Dad, maybe you should go lie down. Mom will be home soon." I say this, but I don't know if she will. If she takes the long way home from the train station, stopping off to buy milk or bread or something to eat for dinner, who knows how long she'll be.My father straightens and walks past me, brushing me out of his way as he goes to his bedroom. He shuts the door with a slam. I pick up the cup and head to the kitchen. There, I rinse it carefully, not using too much dishwashing liquid, just enough to get it clean.

I dry my hands on the front of my jeans, and go back to the living room where the haphazard cartons of books wait for me. I choose the smallest box I can find, the one on the floor, and I open it slowly, peel the tape away with my fingernails. I try not to make any sound, no noise that would rouse my father.

After I've peeled back the box's dry sticky tape, I reach inside. It's a box of sooty paperbacks, dust so thick on them I sneeze as I sort through the box. I wipe off the covers so I can see their titles. I put them on the carpet around me, one by one, until I am circled by these paperbacks my father couldn't sell. I begin to read, turning pages and pages in each one until all the words in them start to glide together—revolution, Africa, Garvey, slave trade, Guyana, Jim Crow, Malcolm X, voting rights, Montgomery, freedom. I sound out the words silently, knowing something about them made my father stronger. I want to be strong too, to deal in revolution and freedom. I don't want to be scared or frightened, so I need to know what in these books gives my father courage. If it comes from these pages, I'm going to stay here and read and read until my mother comes home and needs me to carry her grocery bags up the flight of stairs, trusting me with the paper sacks full of tonight's dinner and tomorrow's breakfast. Until she comes home, I am going to sit here turning these pages, these sooty books making my fingertips turn black, dirty from the dust of a store no one can find any more.