My uncle’s hair sticks out of his head like wiry cotton balls over his workbench. The top is littered with tools I remember from countless Christmas presents. In our family, you might want coloring sets or toy cars, but you got book binding supplies: supple brushes, powdery glue waiting to be mixed, even sharp exacto blades no matter how young you were.
“We start young,” Uncle Gus reminds me. He is really Gustav, not Gus, because all of us are named after long dead relatives with old fashioned names. “We start young and we remember the rules.”
He expects me to repeat them, and so I do. “Never more than then a few pages, never sooner than a month, and never, ever, work on your own diary.”
“Good.” He nods, talking to himself more than to me. “So it should be good. I wouldn’t leave you like this but it’s a government job and they never take no for an answer. It’s an emergency really, no one else can do it. Besides, I’ll be back in a few days.”
The lock on the bookstore door fights me, but once I get inside the scent embraces me. It’s vanilla, old pipe smoke, paper, glue, and ink. The smell of my childhood summers, spent here in Seaside, the smell of my life before I went off to college. The shop is small but orderly, used books in three rows, well aired and tenderly loved antiques in another. Our money doesn’t come from those. It comes from the square sign in the window ‘Expert Diary Repair’. I’ve never actually done it, not on a real diary, not alone. I’ve practiced with newsprint books, I can smear the cheap soy based ink with the flick of my wrist, but words written in a spidery crawl worry me.
Then again, in the end, it’s just a book, no matter how much family treats it otherwise.
My first customer comes in wearing a stylish coat in a size too large. Fine wool, monogrammed, and the letters match his name, so a wealthy man and maybe he’s lost weight. There’s not too much you can judge just by looking at him. Only that his perfectly bald head shines under the shop lights.
“I was looking for Gus.”
“He’s away on a job.”
He doesn’t trust me, doesn’t reply.
“He’ll be back in a week, maybe two.”
He fingers the pages of his book, red leather, the initials stamped on the front. He’s counting the pages, flipping them slowly while his head barely nods. Every diary in Seaside is the same, a new day always starts on the right hand side, the date in top right corner. The pages are never numbered.
“I don’t know about two weeks, a week maybe…” His eyes turn up to me. “I need more.”
He thrusts the diary out for me. Someone made this well, with space along the spine for additions and the leather cover slotted in snuggly. No pages will fall out of this book. I think I recognize Gus’ hand in it, but it’s only a guess.
“How many pages?”
“A hundred, no two. At least two.” It’s a big decision for him, but not for me. At the work bench I put the pages in with no trouble, then flip through the rest. I’m not reading, just… looking. We never read. It’s a third unspoken rule. We keep secrets, and we only have one of our own. My father tried to tell me once, what it meant to do what we do, but he was dying by then and the words didn’t make it out. I’ve always been too ashamed to tell anyone, so I finger these pages, trying to see why some pages were glued together, others not.
The man returns, anxious for his diary back but then no one comes in all day. I search the internet for the dates, there’s a car accident, an obituary, and nothing. My family’s secret stays hidden.
The girl comes in three days later. Her hair falls past her shoulders in a cascade of deep brown color. She’s the same age as the girls at college with me, but with a ring in her nose and a look that tells me she wouldn’t share their views. She’s not local but she knows Gus.
“He and I talked about music. I’m a bit of a musician. I work in the music shop down the way. Do you like music?” Her hands are moving, picking at the skin around her finger nails. One of them starts to bleed and she puts it in her mouth for a second.
“Doesn’t everyone like music?”
The finger leaves her mouth, a smile. “Leslie.” She starts to hold out her hand, but then draws it back. I take it anyway, a quick shake just to touch her palm.
“It’s a family thing.” I try to make light, not to let her know how odd it is to be a family that coverts only books and gives only book tools as presents. I think of my mother surrounded by printed words and how Leslie would cringe at the stacks and stacks of books.
“Gustav told me.” She smiles, bright and sweet like the sun in the spring. “He and I were talking about something, and I’ve decided but he’s not here. Can you help?”
“I’d like to but you haven’t said what you need.”
“Oh.” A blush climbs into her cheeks, it’s adorable but I can see her nerves. “There’s a song, I heard it about a month ago. It’s stuck with me, like a broken record. The notes ascend, and then they blend and go down.” She sings for me, not words, just tones, then catches herself, maybe a little embarrassed. “When I try to write my own music, I end up writing that. Every time.”
I’m not sure I can help with that. I know about music on the radio, about the classical concerts everyone goes to in grammar school, but I’ve never written a note.
“I thought… you glue the pages together right?”
Her unsure voice changes my world. We glue the pages together. An obituary. A car accident. Blur the words and glue the pages together, make it a secret.
I nod, wondering if that’s what my father meant to tell me. “What’s the name of the song?”
“King and Queens, by Samantha Jett.” She pulls the book out of her bag. Moleskin, mass produced, the cover stamped with musical notes on a plum background. Nothing custom made, nothing showy. She’s too young for that, but not so new to Seaside that the dates and days don’t line up as they should. “I heard it on the fourth.”
Her finger marks the page and she tells me she’ll be back tomorrow morning. It’s on the tip of my tongue to ask her out, to learn more about her, but now isn’t the time. When she leaves I lock the shop and head to the workbench. Her fourth of March is in front of me. She went grocery shopping, and heard the song in a store, called her mother, thought about buying clothes but worried over her budget.
My hands shake, letting the glue powder plume into the air, then I mix it too thick. I’ve done this with newspaper pages, blank pages, with practice books, but I never knew what I was practicing for. The brush quills are white, tipped with gray. They soak up the glue like they’re eager. The first words I blur are the date, dragging the brush from the left to the right, eventually covering the whole page in a thin film.
There’s guilt when I take away the call with her mother. Was there something important there? But she’s asked me for this. It’s not a choice I made on my own. I realize the power as I do, and know I will never make that choice on my own. To do it once would be to open a cell and let the monster out.
She’s back the next afternoon, all her anxiety gone. “Sorry I’m late. I’ve been fiddling with a new song on the guitar. I sorta forget everything else.”
“Oh?” I try to keep the thrill out of my voice. “What’s it like?”
“Chords, notes, you know.” She pays me while she thinks about it, her eyes moving off to the side. “What’s any song like?”
I pause to consider my next words, to wonder if I’m about to undo all my good work. “You know that song, what’s it called? Kings and Queens? By Samantha somebody? I can’t remember the last name.”
“Sorry, I’ve never heard of it.” Her eyes remain free of recognition.
“Well, don’t it’s not that good of a song.” Her book goes into her pocket. The secret is glued together forever, the words blurred until they don’t exist. And if there’s no entry in your diary, no record that a thing happened, did it happen? “Have you eaten lunch?”
“No, I… when I’m working on something, I forget.”
“Let me take you out.” I push open the shop door, leading her to the café. I’ll write about her in my own diary tonight, page after page. Enough that no one can ever glue them together.