Whispering Encyclopedia

James sat on the floor of his father’s deep closet tucked in between shirts on wire hangers, his back to the wall. Shoes and slippers were mounded around him. He could still smell his father’s warmth in the clothes.

The light in the closet was off, but the door was cracked open just a bit which let in a slight glow. None of the doors in this old apartment building ever closed properly. The closet door needed a little push with your hip before the latch would click. Closing the door completely from inside the closet was next to impossible.

Two tall, narrow bookshelves just inside the closet door were carefully filled with books — poetry, mysteries, books of history, dictionaries, atlases, cartoon collections from The New Yorker. Some books were old and dusty, some new and unopened. Faux leather bound sets sat boxed in their thin plastic wrappings. Ancient looking volumes had real leather spines that were cracked and falling off. A Kindle encased by a blue leather cover was slipped in between. His father’s cane leaned against the bookshelf.

James’s eyes were closed, his knees were pulled to his chin, and his arms were wrapped around his legs. Clothes pressed against his face and ears. And while the fabric caught his tears, there was not enough to smother his grief or muffle the sounds coming from the living room.

Was that laughter in the apartment? Was someone laughing today? It was inconceivable that someone could laugh today, the day of his father’s funeral.

James listened for it again. It was his cousin Carole. He could tell by the way she snorted then gasped for air when she laughed. Carole was much older than James, more like an aunt really. His father loved Carole because she “did not tolerate fools,” as he used to say. What could she possibly be laughing about, James thought. Doesn’t she understand that his father will never again sit at the dinner table with her, with anyone, with James, to talk and laugh at the day’s absurd events?

“Laughter is life,” whispered a clear, thin voice.

James opened his eyes. Where did that come from, he wondered. The voice was close by, almost in his ear, not in the living room.

James heard a snippet of conversation that was from the living room.

“I could never get Bill to agree that . . .,” the rest of the sentence faded into the hum of other voices but James recognized the voice of his father’s friend, Jack. Jack would never get his father to agree to anything now, thought James. There would be no more loud discussing from opposite ends of the political spectrum. James did not understand how Jack and his father had remained friends for so many years. They never seemed to agree on anything and spent hours doing it.

“I may not agree with what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it,” whispered that clear, near voice.

Who said that? thought James.

“Voltaire,” said the whisper.

James’s eyes had adjusted to the dim light of the closet. He put his head out from the shirts.

“That’s not what I meant,” said James to the closet. He thought, my father used to say that but who just said it?

Another whisper, “Say what you mean and mean what you say.”

A quick picture of a school essay covered with red ink from his father’s editing pen came to James’s mind. He leaned forward and looked up at the books. The apartment was filled with books. There were shelves in every room. But these shelves were in the closet. Is that odd? James had never thought so, but now he wasn’t sure. He put his hand on the books on the bottom shelf.

The rich, savory smell of something coming out of the oven found its way into the closet. His mother and her friends were making sure everyone was fed. James did not think he could eat anything today, or maybe ever. This was not a day for enjoying food, thought James.

“Live everyday as if it were your last. For one day, you are sure to be right,” said the voice. It was coming from the books.

“Breaker Morant,” said James as he stood and stepped out of the shirts.

“Correct,” the voice whispered in response.

James started looking at each title. He’d seen them many times before but now he was searching them. James was tall, not quite as tall as his father, yet. The bookshelf was taller, but James could reach the top shelf. He ran his hand across the row of bindings. They were all flush with each other. Smaller books were pulled forward to be even with the larger ones pushed all they way to the back.

He started touching the books on the next shelf down. All flush. He felt the next row. All even. No, they weren’t. There was a bump, a slight protrusion. The shelf was just above eye level. In the dim light, James could not make out the title. He pulled the book free from its neighbors.

The Encyclopedia of Living. It was small with a green cover, soft bound. He flipped through the pages. There was not enough light to read.

“Hello, James,” the encyclopedia whispered. “Go get something to eat and say ‘Hi’ to your cousin Carole. The best of your father is in the living room. Come back when you need to find the best of your father that is in you.”

James put the encyclopedia back exactly as he found it, slightly out of line. He turned, pushed open the closet door and walked to the living room.

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