January 17, 2021

By now, I’ve learned to recognize the signs: restlessness, listlessness, a sense of impending doom. These may, I think, be the same signs as those of clinical depression, but it isn’t that. It’s month eleven of a universe upended, for which the only remedy is to put on shoes and real pants, get in the car, and drive. Today, it’s through the woods and over the river to the eastside Powell’s, the runt younger brother of the behemoth downtown, which I still can’t bring myself to visit. I am only slowly able to accept how much the city has morphed, and today, it isn’t the graffiti or the slickly built chain stores that sour my stomach: it’s the “for sale” sign on Hawthorne Theater. I’ve never been inside it, but there isn’t a night I can remember when there wasn’t a crowd, lining up to be let into a show. Now we line up to be let into Powell’s, neat little squares taped to the sidewalk. I came prepared, zipped in the warmth of a new winter coat, but I’m let right in. “Just one?” the employee-turned-door-monitor asks. I might say yes or just nod or say nothing at all, the ache of “just one” pushing into my bones. At any rate, I’m given a lime-sized dollop of foaming Purell and told they’re not currently accepting cash or checks. Okay, okay, I think, just let me look at the books. It’s something I learned after my father’s death: when the world becomes a different world, do not expect broad swaths of normalcy. Look only for small pulses of comfort. I walk up and down the aisles, reading titles, pulling them off the shelves, if only to hold them with my sterilized hands. I get to the Ts, locate War and Peace, pick it up and put it back, then pick it up again. I’ve been thinking it’s time—that if I’m ever going to take this on, it’s now—but I can’t bring myself to admit it’s come to this: that I have the space to digest 1,200 pages of Russian literature. I put it back. Give me a couple more months, Leo, I think, and instead go up a few aisles and happen upon a collection of the letters of C.S. Lewis. I take it to the counter, greet the woman behind the plastic partition, pay with my plastic card (more hand sanitizer), then slip the book into my purse. “Thank you,” the door monitor says. “Have a good day.” I walk out into the bustle of a busy street, the winter sun playing tricks behind the clouds. “Better” is not a word I use anymore, but I feel a bit lighter, the weight of a book on my shoulder, my feet, for these moments, knowing their purpose, as I walk with fogged glasses back to my car.

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