How to Fall in Love in Chardon: at the Library
In a booth at Chardon Tavern, Homer Fielding, 80, slumps behind the News-Herald awaiting the arrival of a half tuna melt on rye, a side of coleslaw and a cup of coffee – an order not placed yet long since merged with the kitchen’s opening checklist. His companions, as usual, include a polished chrome four-pronged cane and Drew Carey on The Price is Right on a large screen over the bar. Homer notes the date on the paper’s front page above a headline about texting and driving. He groans with the vexation of a man to whom such things hold significance and shrugs deeper into his threadbare burgundy cardigan. Today marks the 10th anniversary of his wife’s - Nancy’s - passing; the day his life became a closed book.
His coffee, black, is delivered by a young waitress on her way to a neighboring booth. Homer is distracted by the ensuing conversation - the recognition of a ring adorning the waitress’s left hand and the story of the couples’ fated meeting. She attributes her luck in love to the supernatural gift of a local librarian who prescribes books with life-altering powers. “And,” she adds, “I don’t mean figuratively.” From behind the Herald Homer strains with his good ear to discern this librarian’s description - a woman, average build, hair about to here, glasses, a pleasant face with a warm smile and kind eyes. She’s very enthusiastic about reading, naturally.
Homer’s thoughts return to Nancy and her dizzying collection of books - canvases painted with words she’d said once - which at the time he believed innumerable yet now realizes were too few. He thinks conversely of his father, Homer Sr., comforting him at Nancy’s funeral, not attending his own until ripe old age of 98. Eighteen more years of waiting. And for the first time he wonders if - while waiting - there might be something remaining for him in this world, perhaps even someone. Homer feels - he hasn’t in ages - a curiousity begin to take root like the tender shoots of his once prolific garden.
* * *
Through double doors Homer shuffles his way toward a large curved desk, toward a woman standing behind it.
“Are you the librarian?” he asks. Still a ways off the question comes out as cannon fire. He’s got everyone’s attention.
“Why, yes,” the woman answers.
“The one who prescribes special books?”
She smiles, warmly.
Upon reaching the counter he braces himself, winded from the walk uptown.
“Well then, how does this work? Should I tell you what I’m looking for?”
She leans forward with narrowed eyes, searching his. She, too, is braced against the counter practically looking through him, through his bifocal lenses. He’s surprised by the intimacy of the moment.
“I know just the thing,” she says and instantly she’s off, like a cork from a champagne bottle. Homer loses sight of her immediately.
Just as quickly she materializes carrying a book whose stark black cover is emblazoned with a pair of outstretched hands cradling a glossy red apple.
“This?” he asks when she presses it on him. “Are you sure?”
“Oh, quite,” she says, wide-eyed, nodding.
Around 1:30pm, seated on a bench near the gazebo, Homer opens the book’s cover. No sense in carrying it home if it’s no good. When his stomach growls just after 5pm he pushes up from the bench shuffling home with the cane in one hand, book in the other. On this evening he skips his customary TV programs, instead eating a reheated square of Stouffer’s lasagna in the wing chair by the bay window beneath a tall brass floor lamp, reading for hours until his eyes become heavy and he drifts off to sleep.
Black coffee in hand the same young waitress arrives at Homer’s booth and pauses upon sight of a book she instantly recognizes - a suprising choice for a man, let alone one his age. The Herald is spread open in front of him, it’s furthermost edge slowly sagging at the loosening grip of his wrinkled fists where they rest on the table. She realizes he’s snoring - that in fact, he’s sound asleep - and attempts to place the mug gingerly on the wooden tabletop. Homer wakes with a snort and reflexively dabs at his mouth with a monogrammed handkerchief.
“Good book,” she says, touching her index finger to the cover. Homer stares at her blankly, disoriented.
“Edward or Jake?” she asks.
Receiving no reply she blushes and walks away. Ten minutes later she delivers a half tuna melt and side of coleslaw placing the plate in front of him as he folds the paper.
“Miss,” he calls to her retreating frame. The young waitress turns around.
“Jake,” he says and smiles. A first.
* * *
The librarian hums softly while scanning the barcodes of a tall stack of books. Approaching her Homer is washed in the aromatic scent of lilacs, the brightness of oranges.
“Back so soon?” she asks, continuing to scan. She pulls the trigger without so much as glancing at the target yet hits bullseye every time. Ding.
“I read the book. Now what?” Ding.
“Well, it often takes more than one.” Ding. “This is far from an exact science you know.” Ding.
“I suppose.” He sighs, taking in her pleasant face, the deep hue of her eyes; kind eyes. Ding.
She pauses. “Wait here.”
Homer observes as she makes for the stair door, disappears behind it. Ding. He whips around with the speed of his 80 years astonished to find her behind the desk yet again and out of the corner of his eye notes the closing of the elevator door. Ding. She slides a thin hardcover book across the counter - The Cozy Minimalist Home: More Style, Less Stuff.
“Now hold on there - did you just scan that?” Homer appraises the book’s cover, skeptical. “This can’t be right.”
“Trust me,” she replies and places her free hand lightly atop his. Homer feels its warmth, soft as a baby’s blanket he imagines though he cannot say with certainty.
In the wing back chair by the bay window, Nancy’s chair, Homer thumbs through the book’s glossy pages focusing on nothing in particular - everything white, pale, faded, leather, wood - until he reaches a chapter on wall art. This is where he begins.
Homer’s been up five hours when Hannah arrives at 9am to do her weekly cleaning. She’s surprised to find Nancy’s studio doors swung wide and Homer standing in their threshold, his silhouette framed by the heavy walnut molding, a pair of beveled glass french doors. She recalls her first day at this house not long after Nancy had taken ill; how she’d been instructed to always keep these doors shut even while cleaning the room. She didn’t know why but decided it must have something to do with regret.
Hannah retreats to the hall, smooths the front of her blue cotton dress and adjusts the white strings of her kapp. Homer’s gaze is fixed on a painting, Nancy’s favorite - lavender fields in full morning sun. Her favorite time of day to paint, he remembers; when colors seemed truest. He attempts unsuccessfully to lift the large, unwieldy canvas. Hannah takes hold of a corner and follows him into the living room where together they lean it on the mantle of the stone fireplace.
Homer steps back and stands next to Hannah. They look up.
”We can leave the doors open from now on,” he says. Then, “I’m going to lie down a while.”
* * *
Having woken well past lunch Homer embarks straightaway for the library. His disappointment is palpable upon entering, upon noting the absense of the librarian. He inquires after her and he learns she’s gone home sick.
“Wait a minute. Are you Homer?”
“She said you might come by. She asked me to give you this.”
It’s Picnic in Provence and inside the book a handwritten note marks the page of a dessert recipe: I’m sorry to have missed you.
Homer arrives at Chardon Tavern thirty minutes before opening and peers with cupped hands through the tinted windows. Hooked on one elbow is his cane and on the other, a weighted canvas tote. The young waitress, upon exiting the kitchen, sees him - he’s quite the picture - and unlocks the door.
“Do you have vanilla ice cream?” he asks.
“I think I could find some.” Odd but whatever.
“Two bowls,” he says. Then, “It’s Jenny, isn’t it?”
“Yes,” she replies. “And you’re Homer.”
Jenny returns with two bowls and finds Homer unrolling two sets of silverware from the utensil caddy on the table, one set laid opposite him in the booth. He motions for her to sit and pulls a jar resembling liquid amber from the tote bag.
“Have you ever tried lavendar honey?” he asks.
He dips a spoon into the jar drizzling it down the side and over the ice cream before resting the honey-laden spoon in her bowl.
“I bought this at the farmers market but I used to make my own.”
He smiles at her. Again.
“Tell me, where are you going on your honeymoon?”
Jenny tells him she and her fiancé, Ben, are paying for the wedding on their own; that they can either have a honeymoon or the wedding itself so they’ve decided to wait a couple of years and save for a trip.
“You’ve got to go to Provence. Nancy, my wife - we spent summers there. She’d paint and I’d walk for hours to nowhere in particular.”
“Sounds wonderful,” Jenny replies.
”You really should see it.” Someday, maybe.
* * *
From an empty patch of dirt where a garden once grew Homer surveys his expansive yard: the dappled shade of a nearly century-old oak, neat lines of hedges framing a thick green carpet of grass, and beyond, a pergola heavy with wisteria creates a canopy above woven wicker seating. He kneels, feeling the soft granularity of the soil beneath his knees and running through his fingers.
“You’re early!” she says.
“I’m in need of a book.” Homer grins at the librarian, and removing his leather-banded straw hat, holds it in front of a tailored button-down vest. “What do you have on backyard weddings - elegant ones?”
The librarian steps from behind the desk, positions herself alongside him and offers the crook of her arm.
“Come with me,” she says.
Leaving his cane at the counter Homer hooks his arm through hers.
“I like your hat.”