The Reader: A True Story

She stood by her car in the wind in the parking lot of the movie theater. We had met there last time, and she suggested we meet there again, worried that we’d miss each other.

I parked beside her and took the job bag from the seat. As I got out, she approached.

“How are you?” I said.

She said, “Very good.” We had a little small talk, then I set the job bag on my trunk, and pointed out the printed instructions that showed through the clear plastic. The same as last time. One-hundred sixty pages. Front matter, guts, TOC, index, glossary.

“When do you need it? Friday? Monday?”

“Monday,” I said. “Take your time.”

She shifted some items to free a hand for receiving the work, and I saw a recognizable face on the cover of a book in her hand.

“A little James Joyce?” I asked.

“Oh,” she said, showing me the book. It was a glossy hardcover.

She had 25 years on me. She was easygoing and a little flippant, as one gets with age. She was shrunken but vivacious in her way, sometimes complaining, long in the tooth but smiley. There was a shy girl within her who had never aged. Now she smiled and sheepishly spoke.

“It’s a blank book—a journal.” She opened the book and held it out to my view. And I saw now that it had no title, no byline, no spine text. It was not just, but a lined blank notebook bearing his image.

The pages were filled with her penmanship, a solid old-school hand.

“I have all these journals that I wrote in,” she said mournfully.

She explained that she wanted to throw them out before she died. She didn’t want anyone else reading them. “And now that I have this shredder,” she said, “I’m shredding them. But I have to read them first!” She laughed and looked away. The shy girl.

“Wow, you’re going to shred them all?”

“Well, now that I have this shredder….” She looked down and to the side, as if looking at an imaginary companion. There was nothing there, and I looked around at what was there: a movie theater front, an empty lot. Places I don’t go, empty places.

The sight of my shelved journals flashed before my eyes. I thought of the time I spent in them across the years. All the key events in all their gruesome clarity. All my reactions chained one to the other. How many did she have? Wasn’t there someone who would want them? How has she felt reading her own life back, not able to edit a word, no deadline, no pub date encroaching, no audience anticipating?

But I didn’t ask that. That was not the nature of our meeting.

The wind blew. In this year of plucking more and more gray rogues from my brown hair, I looked at hers and saw the depth of its whiteness.