Toonie ($2 Canadian dollars)
(a short story)
The two walked down Rue St. Jean in the old city of Quebec under a bright blue sky filled with a panoply of candescent cumulus nimbus clouds. He took the road side to protect her without her knowledge. The folded map rested in his back pocket. He didn’t want to have to take it out again.
“How do you think you’ll do on your diagnostic French exam?” he said.
“Don’t really care,” she responded. “Hey, I don’t think we can even get lunch. I think I only have equivalent to about 7 dollars, Canadian, I think.”
“Two lunches? Well, it’s Sunday and tomorrow’s a holiday–what for the queen of England, her birthday or something, so everything is going to be closed,” he said.
“Maybe we can try to use your card?” she said.
“I forgot to call the bank yesterday morning before so I don’t know if it will work,” he replied.
They continued walking and noticed a church with its sets of double doors wide open. They stopped and tried to figure out what was going on as it was readily apparent the Eglise had been made into a second-hand book shop with racks and racks of old used, books stuffed on shelves and piles laid out, stacked on long rectangular tables. The taxi driver from the airport had said they city was transforming buildings, even churches into multi-use facilities, churches as apartments, grocery stories, bookstores, and the like. It was a strange image to suddenly see a church vacant of pews with shelving and what would normally be tables full of a pot luck buffet, now housing a makeshift, pop up library.
They crossed the threshold pass where the baptism water would have been along two columns and went in.
The smell of foisty water was everywhere and reminded him of his cement walled basement as a child. There was always a dampness, and droplets of water seeping through the walls at various junctures.
“Must have been some kind of problem with the roof?” she said as they both looked up at the gothic archways and sculptured ceilings. Figures of angels and knights as well as bucolic landscapes still looked clean. The frescoes still held you for moments once you had scanned the glass-stained, Christian symbols and familiar story images along side both sides of the expanse of the church.
A workman was still mopping the floor behind one of the shelving units. Nothing was in order, just books upon books, some layered on top of one another, some in rows, others in stacks, uneven columns though hard and soft back books had the distinction of being opposite sides of the room.
A few people were milling about the shelves. Many of the books in boxes or on shelves looked waterlogged, or slightly wet while others seemed perfectly fine. The pews had been taken out, it appeared some time ago, and the only remaining vestiges of the church were these murals above, a handful of sculptures, two basins, and the stained glass.
The two went their separate ways through the shelving. In the distance you could hear someone playing a saxophone to “Summer time when the picking is easy, ” probably with an open case in front of him.
John looked over the books, all in French, and noticed some of the shelves actually had descriptions: “history, biography, politics…” There had been some attempt. He remembered collecting his first set of books, some thirty, in the French language some 30 years before. At 55, he couldn’t believe so much time had passed. He had only gotten through a handful of them: Les Miserables, Voyage au centre de la Terre, Vingt mille lieues sous les mers: Tour du monde sous-marin, a book of short stories by Maupassant, and L’Etranger.
He was glad to try to rekindle his knowledge of French with this week long class and knew his wife would be in the upper class and he, the lower but it didn’t matter, as it had been 30 years since their time in Brussels together when all of it started.
Among the romantic novels and adolescent novels he found sitting there as if waiting for him, a book of poetry, in beautiful heavy white paper, the kind of book that will have been created in the first half of the century in the French style, sat there discriminantly, as if wanting to be picked up and placed there especially for him. He had wanted to be a poet. Wrote poetry. Published a little poetry but the score of rejections early on took a toll on him. He always reached out to literature and it seemed to always reach back to him even despite his nondescript job working for the state back in the U.S.
The tome sat on top of a cardboard box with a sign reading “$2 books.” He leafed through the pages which had a hint of wetness, but the book wasn’t soiled or had drips of any kind. In fact, it was quite pristine in color, like the whiteness of sheep or fresh cotton. It felt somewhat rough in his hands, bound in the old style with stitching down the binding. The cover, different to the paper inside, was smooth while the interior had been constructed with a surprisingly heavier stock. Titles were in a beautiful red, lipstick colored type; the writings in a font similar but not exact to a typewriter font.
He tried to read a few poems. It would be a very interesting endeavor to discover and try to understand poetry in a different language especially as so much poetry is metaphor.
The writer’s name was Emile Nelligan. The book appeared to have some 300 pages, quite a collection, and he was surprised at the prolific life he must have had. The date of his bio read–December 24, 1879 – November 18, 1941. From Quebec, a Francophone, much of the poetry seemed to have been written if not in the sonnet style with a verve and style reminiscent of such a style for many poems seemed to be 14 to 20 lines at most though he didn’t have time to count.
It was odd that the book seemed to be waiting for him here in the center of the church: here standing under a bell shaped ceiling with space all around him, images frolicking, pointing, and staring at him from every perspective. Was he on a pedestal?
Emile was from Quebec. This was his descent, his culture, his environs, his life. His church?
After more attempts at deciphering lines here and there, John took it to his wife as she was walking also towards him with a book of her own.
“I found this book on Quebec walks. What do you think?” she said.
“Well, we have the map with three four hour walks already laid out, what do you think?” he responded.
“What have you got there?” she said.
“It’s an interesting book, poesie and from a Quebecois. Local.” he said.
“Why don’t you buy it? The guys over there still mopping but go ask him. How much?” she said.
The two walked over between the back shelves. John wanted to use his French.
In French(“It is a pity, all this water here,”) said John.
The man stopped mopping and placed the mop in its container and leaned on the handle slightly.
In French. (“Yes, it is,”) said the man in the one piece, gray overalled suit.
In French. (“I am American, and a writer of sorts, well, not exactly a published writer…)
In English (or famous one for that matter, you speak English?)
In French (…but I like to write and I found this book,”) holding it up to him.
In an English accent, (“Yes.”) he said as if we were irked but the question.
In French, (“How much is it?”) said John.
“$4? Well, it was in a box that read $2.”
“That’s for the small books.”
“It is …” and he searched for the word for wet but could only come up with dry, ‘sec’. He looked to his wife.
“The book is wet,” she said she said in French. “Not entirely wet but it has some water in it, you can feel it.”
In an English accent, (“$4. The book is $4.”) He responded without the least bit of interest.
“But,” said John continued, and was a little taken aback since the entire place had been damaged.
She looked at him then her husband and said in French, (“Nevermind,”) and walked away.
She looked to him to leave and motioned to not bother with it , seemed a little miffed too, given the circumstances and was jockeying for position. They stood in silent in accordance as couples so often do in such circumstances, a temporary meetings of the mind until one makes another move. The workman had begun moping again.
“You go ahead,” he told her politely, nodded for her to go ahead to which she gave a slight smirk of frustration. “Whatever” might have been her thought.
John composed himself and went in again and the workman.
In French. “Listen, thank you for your consideration but the book is used, old, wet, and has been shoved into a box, forgotten for all of time for all intents and purposes. I will buy it for $2. In fact, I am happy to buy it for a Toonie. Imagine what I will learn about you culture? your art? your history? your people? your views on love, relationships, maybe even learn about corridors in the old city as if I were reading a book about the Left Bank in Paris or Piccadilly Square in London.”
In an English accent. “The book is $4.”
John thought for a moment he could try to use some sales techniques, another piece of rhetoric, humor always worked well, but logic should work better. So he began:
In French. (“A bird in hand is worth two in the bush”) but he didn’t know the word for “bush” and instead followed with the word for “tree” in French. He looked up and closer to see if he got a smile from him from the broken metaphor. Nothing. He continued, in French. “You have a sale here. How many books like this have you sold today, this week, this month?”
(In French). “Not many.” he replied.
John then said in French, (“Exactly,”) and this was a superb word to say in French rather than English, so he said it a second time, (“Exactement!” and I imagine if you do sell some books they will not be poetry. How many people come in any book store and ask for poetry? In this day and age and perhaps any day and age for that matter, how many people on earth care about the sentiments of another who is trying to tell a story of the soul? of romance? the life of a city? a culture? Can you? Will you please?”) and he thought the last plea could have sounded like a command, plea for help, or too customary as if out of a French 101 Chapter One lesson, so he again refined it, (“Is it possible that if could be made available for the price of a Toonie because I think that is what it is well worth it at this moment?”)
He didn’t take a moment to think but just stood more upright with his right elbow now on his mop as a rest. In an English accent he responded. (“It came in a box that read $4 and someone must have taken it out of the box and left it in the $2 box.”
“I don’t know. I found it in the $2 box.”
He was silent and leaned less on the handle than before, just to keep it upright in the bucket with rollers. He did think for a moment.
And John continued now for he felt the additional need to go for some sense of humor as the conversation was becoming rather stale now, and sadly moving towards anger for it was clear he had work to do and he was stopping him from his job, and he could sense his wife was now waiting for him at the open doorway and then all this might arrive at a place where only bitterness resides…
“And the funny thing is that I don’t know French that well, so I will only be able to read half of it anyway which brings us to the Toonie figure,” he said with a smile. It only took a moment, a wrinkle of a nose. It didn’t go far.
“Well, the book will earn more, the more you understand and when you are done, it may become inestimable, sans prix,” said the workman.
“Priceless” was what he was looking for and it took some time to comprehend what he was meaning, but once it sank in, John was taken aback by the profundity of retort and it still took a little more time to settle in as he stood there.
“Okay,” John said and he tried to make one last attempt. He knew it was too far gone and it was over but the understanding of value was now a factor so he made one last attempt to offer:
“You know, you are right. We all try in life to find value in things: experiences, relationships, in material things, gifts, cars, houses, and yes, if we are so lucky in a loved one and any offspring for such a relationship if we should be so fortunate–all in the hopes of being “inestimable”(sounded in French) as you say, what is the prix of a memory of a lifetime, a concept, idea, image that will reoccur forever in one’s mind for you feel, one feels it has an overabundant worth… If I read this book I will have a chance to speak to someone and listen to someone who has been dead for almost one hundred years. He holds a key to my imagination and if he is good enough, if he is talented and gifted enough, he will unlock my imagination in a unique way, in only the way that his life and soul were able to speak across time and space, and I will also be able to unlock his. We will communicate to one another. Imagine that. It might be the most interesting of conversations that I will be able to share with this gentleman, Monsieur Nelligan, maybe over coffee in some cafe nearby as I sip and read. Maybe in the evening with an open window out to the St. Lawrence. And he, by chance is also Quebecois. I will have the occasion to understand Quebec and its people, and this culture in a way that would be entirely new to me. Are you going to give me a chance to have this unique conversation with a Quebecois and break bread with a Canadian poet?”
“I am not going to give you this book for free,” he said.
John wanted to shake his head. He was getting a little upset now but didn’t want to show it.
“You know the American dollar does not compare to the Canadian. You know a beer here costs almost three times as much, $8 in most places for just one beer. In America, it costs $1 to $3.”
“It is $4. It is pretty clear, isn’t it,” said the man in the jumpsuit.
“Sure, certain. I understand. Nevermind, I am sorry to keep you away from your cleaning.” He felt the last word might have sounded flippant and didn’t want to come off as an ugly American, “…your job. Have a good day, Monsieur.”
He reluctantly walked back to the $2 box and placed the book on top of the others but didn’t jam it into the corners as some had down to some of the other books. He moved quickly without looking back and exited the church doorway out into the bright light where his wife was waiting on a bench just one house up the street.
“How did that take so long? No luck?” she said.
“So stupid. With all that crap in there, the guy can’t sell me a lousy book.”
“Well, I looked into my purse and counted the coins and we only have $1.50 anyway…”
They both smiled heartily, grabbed one another’s arms, and continued on their walk down St. Jean.