Jeremy walked through the main entrance of The Literary Yankee, the tiny bookstore located at the northwest corner of Vermont Wool Commons. He found himself taken aback by his surroundings once again.
Even after spending so much time not just at the bookstore, but in the building in general, the changes made to the old woolen mill over the years still caught him off guard once in a while.
It seemed like mere months had passed since the massive brick structure was filled with everything from wool-processing machinery to an employee chapel to a small school for child workers. But more than months – more than years – had gone by. It had been decades of constant, unyielding change.
A tiny bell rang as someone opened the door behind him, and Jeremy turned to see who it was. Nobody he knew. He never saw anyone he knew anymore. No one from the glory days of the mill ever came around.
Not that Vermont Wool Commons would attract the hardscrabble crowd that used to keep one of the biggest wool operations in New England running. Except maybe the rich folks, the office crowd that sat behind mahogany desks in plush, leather chairs. Never getting their hands dirty, their limbs torn off, their backs broken.
Jeremy imagined Mr. Williamson, the mill’s former owner, and his family feeling right at home at that fancy Bridge View Bistro down on the mill’s bottom level. Or maybe shopping at those pricey clothing stores on the third floor. All places Jeremy rarely went.
When he felt like hanging around, Jeremy would show up on the Vermont Wool Commons’ second floor. Usually spending his time on one of the memorial benches in front of the big windows at the south end of the building. One of Jeremy’s few remaining bits of pleasure was looking out over the Winooski River. It was a magnificent sight year-round, and he relished the time he got to spend taking it in. Jeremy was there so much, in fact, that he heard quite a few Commons visitors refer to his spot as Jeremy’s bench.
As much as he liked sitting there, though, Jeremy wished the operation was still up and running, as vital now as it was in the old days. Aside from photographs in the entranceways and a couple of modern sculptures commemorating times gone by, the only evidence of the once-thriving wool processing enterprise was the walk-through museum display of machinery outside the Bridge View Bistro.
No longer anyone’s livelihood. Just a museum. No more grinding of machinery. No more frantic workers rushing back and forth. No more satisfaction of a job well done. Just imitation velvet ropes and “Do Not Touch” signs.
Change is a constant, but good rarely comes from it, Jeremy thought. He remembered how father, trying to make the best of their impoverishment, used to tell him that one man’s trash was another man’s treasure. Jeremy considered how the same applied to change. One man’s progress is another man’s retreat.
A thunderclap of laughter snapped Jeremy from his gloomy thoughts, and he looked to see a young couple by the checkout counter, pointing past him at a little girl in the hallway who was stuffing candy in one side of her mouth as even more candy fell out the other side. He realized he was just sort of drifting aimlessly at the front of the store, and he moved on to find a book to keep him occupied for the night.
It was a Monday evening, about twenty minutes before closing. A little busier than most Mondays, which Jeremy liked to see. The Literary Yankee was the only spot in the mill besides his bench where he felt any sort of peace. He frequented the new and used bookshop to the point that it seemed he’d read nearly every book there. Excepting Romance and Children’s Books, of course. And Self-Help.
Jeremy never saw the point of self-help books. In his day, if a man needed help, he’d ask for it, plain and straight forward. Man to man. And if it was a problem that needed taking care of on a personal level, he’d figure it out for himself. Without a book or anyone else needing a say. Certainly not some fancy psychologist.
Looking for something new to read, Jeremy discovered the pickings were slim. That was the problem with popping in on Mondays, he learned after the first few months of business. New books arrived on Tuesdays, so there wasn’t much he hadn’t been read by the start of a new week.
Growing up, books were the ultimate luxury for Jeremy’s family, and he cherished them still after so many years. When he was a child, he often fantasized about spending his days with nothing but books to read.
Jeremy shook his head at the memory. It’s not all it’s cracked up to be, kid.
As he had been so often lately, Jeremy realized he was in a melancholy funk still, wrapped up once again in how things used to be. He meandered through the various sections of the store, looking for a title that grabbed his attention.
Local History was always a safe bet, but the past year or so had seen a significant lull in new material. Plus, Jeremy had a good assortment of titles from that shelf in his space already. Mostly smaller books about Winooski and the mill. Stuff he could peruse whenever the feeling hit, whenever he needed to look back and try to make sense of what happened.
In a distant corner of his memory, Jeremy heard a deep rumbling sound, and he remembered the way the floor shuddered beneath him that day. How there was suddenly steam everywhere , followed by a loud, metallic PING! And those poor kids working nearby, there just to do their jobs, same as the adults.
Now the machine was on display for all to see downstairs.
History. Very local history. In very bad taste, too, a much-too-small handful of people said.
Jeremy felt his mood sour further, garnished with lemon like one of the Caesar salads from the Bridge View Bistro. It was time to move on.
He considered something from Science Fiction & Fantasy, but the only titles that interested him this evening were Burroughs’ John Carter of Mars series. Jeremy remembered his days as a teen, borrowing and reading the newest serialized adventures of Carter, a Civil War veteran caught up in drama and adventure on the red planet.
Jeremy considered maybe re-reading the fifth book in the series, The Chessmen of Mars, but it fell to the floor as he tried to pick it up. He was more tired than he realized. As he looked down at the book, Lili, the store manager, started down the aisle.
“Oh, Jeremy,” she said, looking at the book and speaking with a delighted lilt in her voice. “When did you sneak in?”
Jeremy started to speak, but she cut him off.
“Don’t worry about the book, ok? I’ll pick it up later. You just take your time.”
He sighed, frustrated at his clumsiness. He didn’t give the dropped book a second thought, though. He knew Lili didn’t mind picking up after him. Besides, did he really need to read any John Carter books again? He could recite the stories by heart at this point.
He searched genre after genre.
Occult & Paranormal. There was a good one. Good for a laugh, anyway. A few decent books mixed in with what Jeremy considered the be The Literary Yankee’s real Humor section. Just plain ridiculous stuff there.
There was nothing, though. Not a single publication that matched Jeremy’s dour mood. He rounded the back corner where the Graphic Novels were displayed, catty corner to the shelves of Philosophy, Religion, and Self-Help.
Self-Help. That was the last thing he was in the mood for. But whatever. He’d just float right past it, not giving it a second thought.
As Jeremy approached, though, he noticed a book on the floor, face up. It was a well-worn copy, whatever it was. Its spine was well and truly cracked, pages blossoming upward like a flexed accordion.
Self-Compassion: The Proven Power of Being Kind to Yourself by Kristen Neff, Ph.D.
A Ph.D. That’s about right, Jeremy thought. Not worth the paper it’s printed on, I’d wager. He moved past, but as he did, a breeze caught the front few pages and flipped the book open. Despite his best efforts, this caught his attention, and Jeremy turned back to see what the book was so eager to say.
Near the top of the right page, an equation was printed in bold. It was an equation made of words instead of numbers, which piqued Jeremy’s interest. As a chief mechanic at the mill, he was forever buried in calculations and adjustments, trying to keep the machinery running properly.
Not trying hard enough, though, based on how things worked out.
Jeremy read the equation: PAIN X RESISTANCE = SUFFERING
What the hell is that nonsense? He began to head toward the front of the store to leave, but his thoughts trapped him in place.
Pain. Jeremy knew it well. Most of his life, actually. Watching father struggle to raise him alone, no money or support to speak of. The bone-crushing work to keep the mill running. And the day of rumbling and steam. The last day the mill operated. The last day for a lot of things.
Resistance. Another familiar trait. Resisting the loss of his mother. Denying the deaths of those kids. Fighting the relentless undertow of changes that followed.
Suffering. Sitting on his bench. Visiting the bookstore. Wandering the mill. It was everywhere he went.
Jeremy began to pull away again, but part of him relented. How much longer could this go on? How many more years? Decades? Centuries?
He drifted to the floor and read. Pages turned, and he consumed the words in a way he never had before.
Lili appeared behind him and saw the pages turning.
“Jeremy. Looks like you’re still here. Ok, then. I’m locking up for the night. Make yourself at home. I’ll leave a light on for you.”
Jeremy didn’t turn to acknowledge her. Not that Lili would have noticed. He kept his eyes on the pages in front of him.
The store emptied, the door bolted shut, and Jeremy read on.
This story was originally posted at https://blog.reedsy.com/creative-writing-prompts/contests/25/submissions/7163/.