Excerpts

Chapter One

June 1951

Sara Johnson loved Mr. Springer’s bookstore. The pungent smell attached itself to the numerous old tomes like wet cats’ fur, mired out of pulp paper or dirty rags hundreds of years old. Inside those old books Sara perceived the tantalizing breath of characters who spoke, ate, and braved extraordinary adventures.

Outside, on Southwest Boulevard, it was summertime. Elm trees arched green canopies above noisy automobiles, buses, and delivery trucks lined up like ants on a track. Business moved on the busy street and people walked or ran in one direction or another, their purpose and destination to consider, or deliveries to make.

It was inside Springer’s Bookshop where young Sara sensed distance ceased to matter and imagination was the only criterion for the movement of life. These ideas didn’t form all at once in her mind, but she knew something was different, something made her feel good here.

Sara couldn’t describe these deep feelings to her best friend Nathalie, but she didn’t need to. What was important was the bookshop was their place, and special. She had passed this place on her way home from school since she was six years old and never suspected how wonderful it would be to go inside the black French doors.

Perhaps she wouldn’t have discovered Nathalie or the bookshop had it not been for a hot steamy day two years ago and pavement that burned her bare feet. Sara had ducked inside to stand on a cool wooden floor.

Sara had let her eyes adjust to the dim light. She saw Nathalie standing behind a tall counter: a small girl with jet-black hair and Crayola-blue eyes. Nathalie’s eyes spoke to Sara before a single word was exchanged.

“May I help you?”

“Why do you talk so funny?” Sara asked.

The eyes sparkled back at her. She answered simply, “I’m French.”

“I’ve seen France on the globe in the library.”

A smile. “Would you like just to browse, perhaps…?”

Sara was curious. She needed to know more about the dark-haired girl with such pretty eyes. “So when are you going back to France?”

The French girl’s forehead wrinkled a tiny bit in a slight frown. She raised her hands, palms together, like a person in prayer, but her blue eyes stared straight into Sara’s. “I don’t know where my family is. They are lost since the war. So, I live with my aunt and uncle now.”

Sara understood. “Oh. My daddy is missing, too. Missing in Action. We have a letter from the State Department and a General Somebody.”

Sara peered down the long aisles, at bookshelves stacked with books. It reminded her of an entrance to a cave. Over her shoulder she said, “Missing in action doesn’t mean he’s dead though.”

“Of course not.”

“It was in the Kansas City Star last year, a story about a soldier missing in action. He was alive all right. In a hospital in Hawaii. He’d lost his memory. It could happen to anybody.”

“Do you think they will find your papa in a hospital?”

“Maybe.” Sara paused. “But I really think he escaped to some island after the Japs got him. I’ve looked at Iwo Jima on the globe, too. There’s a whole bunch of little places out there. I think he’s on a deserted island. It’s probably not even on a map or anything. Someday a fishin’ boat or a big ship will find him.”

“I hope he’s alive,” Nathalie said. “I used to think my parents, and my brother, Jacob, would survive the war, too.” Her eyes glistened. “But lately, after so much time, I’ve begun to think they must be gone.”

“You shouldn’t give up,” Sara said.

She smiled at Sara. “I’m Nathalie.” Said as she came from behind the tall counter to stand in front of the younger girl. She stuck out her hand and Sara solemnly shook it.

In that moment thunder from an approaching rain shower made both girls jump. Then laugh.

“I’m Sara Johnson. Nice to meet you.”

“Maybe you’re right, Sara. I’m not going to give up.”

“Good!”

The two girls talked for half an hour. Sara left Springer’s Bookshop and ran down the Boulevard toward the church, her feet barely touching the hot cement. The elm trees could have given relief, if she’d paused beneath one, but there was not a minute to lose.

Trinity Presbyterian Church was a solid red-brick structure: square, its portico an appendage attached without architectural intent. Its founders wanted to be sure the church would leave the right impression, nothing gaudy or pretentious. A Presbyterian church needed to be simple, unadorned. Someone must not have heard, because Trinity was an imposing church both inside and out. Inside, because it held a very special pipe organ, one of the earliest in the Midwest. Outside, because in spite of what the church leaders may have originally wanted, the church looked important, standing as it did a full fourteen feet above Southwest Boulevard. There was a grandeur to Trinity even the larger, Catholic church, Holy Cross, two blocks away didn’t capture.

Sara ran past the front of the church, big raindrops falling on her head and on the sidewalk. The drops made halos on the cement and watered green moss and lichen trying to grow between root-bound cracks. She turned the corner onto Seminary Road, then down several steps to the basement entrance at the side of the church.

The Trinity Ladies Circle, eight women of various ages and sizes, looked up from their hems on a mountainous stack of white cotton. They acknowledged the small storm of a girl who blew in from outside.

“Good grief, Sara. What a sight!” said George Ann Staples.

Sara’s Grand­mother, Emma Johnson, smiled, put down the sheet on her lap, and offered her arms for a hug.

“Be careful of the material, dear,” the widow Doughtery admonished, “We don’t want to have to wash it all again, do we?”

“I need to talk to you. It’s important, Grand­mother.”

Mercy Bean clucked, “You’re so lucky to have her, Emma. I miss my grandchildren so much since they moved to Dallas.”

George Ann jumped in, “There’s a big difference between playing with your grandchildren for a week versus having to raise them, you know.”

“George Ann, why do you have to sound so sure of everything you say being right?” It was Betty Heatherly.

She turned to Betty. “Because I usually am right. I know I’m right about this, anyway.”

“Maybe you are, and maybe not,” Mercy said quietly. “I still miss them. I think you’re very lucky, Emma. I really do.”

Emma hugged Sara once more. “Me too. And besides, we all know your mama is home with us whenever she can be, don’t we dear?”

Sara couldn’t ignore George Ann Staples’ expression, her eyes rolling at everyone. Then she turned to her Grand­mother and said, “I gotta tell you something. It’s so important, really.”

George Ann frowned. “Did you see the face your granddaughter just made at me, Emma Johnson! Hummph! Someone should put a brush to…at least her hair, and maybe somewhere else while they’re at it. That’s all I have to say.”

“My sister’s boy was exactly the same as Sara,” offered Betty Heatherly. “Drama. All the time. I’ll bet she has imaginary friends, too.”

“If I do, I wouldn’t tell anyone.”

Betty nodded her head and smiled at the women around the Circle.

George Ann added, “Well, if you want to know what I think, she’s got all that drama from you, Emma Johnson.”

“George Ann, I’ll take that as a compliment.” Emma folded the material in her lap, then rose from the circle of chairs and placed it in a tall cabinet against the wall. “I’ve sewed enough for the Chinese orphans today. Get my umbrella, will you, Sara?”

They walked the short distance from Trinity down the Boulevard to where the Johnsons lived. Emma held the umbrella while Sara spilled out her discovery of Springer’s Bookshop and a French girl named Nathalie.

“Nathalie and I are nothing alike, Grand­mother. She’s much older, in junior high. I’m only nine. And she’s from France. She doesn’t have Christmas, either. Isn’t that weird? And, she sounds funny when she talks. I like her though. I like her so much!”

“Of course you do. Don’t be surprised at that, dear. There’s so much more to friendship than just looking alike, or being in the same class at school.” They stood at the front door and Emma shook out the umbrella. “I’ll bet you and Nathalie will become wonderful friends.”

Her Grand­mother had been right. Two years now, and wasn’t she closer to Nathalie than any other living soul?

Sara and Nathalie sat today on the floor, in a corner at the back of the shop, undisturbed, because few people explored the cavern-like aisles stacked with used books.

Nathalie had explained it all to Sara, that most of her uncle’s customers wanted newer offerings, novels or biographies, which were prominently displayed near the entrance. Other customers browsed among the selections of magazines, or just popped in to pick up one of the daily newspapers, The Times and The Kansas City Star.

It seemed to Sara, and Nathalie agreed with her, when anyone tried to explore the rest of Springer’s, they faced a daunting task. A search for a book began under dim natural light nearly all derived from a single large window at the back. Customers had to search shelves packed with titles where even two naked light bulbs were an insignificant aid to seeing much without squinting.

The aisles were narrow, with floor-to-ceiling bookcases crammed full of the proprietor’s prizes, of every description, and little organization. Joseph Springer could put his hands on some things; he had made a stab at keeping thematic subject headings for a while. But the problem he faced was the value he placed on books with fine bindings. For years now he had shelved these beautiful books and multi-volume sets next to each other, regardless of subject matter.

Joseph Springer said, “My bookstore is a sanctuary, a safe house for these jewels. Somebody must protect them. They are irreplaceable works of art.” Nathalie winked at Sara. The small bearded man, his yarmulke atop graying hair, handed Sara a copy of Isaac G. Rosenberg’s poems, Night and Day. She tried to look impressed. Joseph smiled and replaced the prized book on a shelf. “If people want to find a gem, it will take them awhile to do so. They must earn the right to own a beautiful book.”

Today, at the back of Springer’s, Sara and Nathalie had a huge volume propped up between them. Their special place was also a perfect spot to read. Out of a single window above them, gauzy sunlight mixed with dust particles flickered across the floor.

Sara stared at the drawing on the page of the old book.

“This is what a ‘changeling’ looks like, Sara.”

Sara studied the faded illustration in Grimm’s Household Tales carefully. “What a monster!” she whispered. “It’s a desperate beastly thing.”

Nathalie smiled, then read on: “A mother once had her child stolen from her by the elves. They took it out of the cradle and placed in its stead a changeling with a large head and staring eyes. The Mother took the changeling into her kitchen, boiled some water in two egg shells…”

“That’s so weird,” Sara laughed. “Boiling water in egg shells.”

“I know. But she did it because if she could make the changeling laugh it would be all over with him.”

“How?”

“Listen. ‘As she put the egg-shells with water in them on the fire, the little gnome-child said, “I am old as the woods but from ages of yore, I never saw shells used for boiling before.” And with that he began to laugh. While he was laughing a company of elves came crowding into the kitchen, bringing with them the Mother’s own child, and they took up the changeling and disappeared with him.’”

“They wanted him back if he laughed. But why do you suppose the elves brought him in the first place, Nathalie?”

“You mean why did they change him with the mother’s own child?”

“Yes.”

Nathalie looked at the words on the page, rubbing the old English style printing with her fingers. “It’s such a beautiful book, so old. You know what? I like feeling these old things sometimes as much as reading from them…” She read ahead to herself for a moment and looked up. “It doesn’t say why they took the baby, Sara.”

“Well,” said Sara, “maybe the mother wished for a new baby one day, you know, when hers was crying or cranky or something, and then when she woke up the next day…” Sara stood up suddenly, and bent over, crept toward another stack of books. Taking her cue from the picture she pursed her lips into a gruesome smile. “So the next day…she got what she wished for – but they gave her a beast!” Hands waving, Sara lunged after an imaginary baby in the crib, then tucked it under her sweater like a football and made to run away, while making a throaty, menacing sound, her hazel eyes shining.

Nathalie laughed, as Sara ran against the shelf, knocking a number of the books from their already precarious resting places. She jumped up and tried to catch some of the falling books. “Oh, no!”

Sara fell, books flying in all directions. “Yikes!” she said, attempting to untangle herself from an eleven-volume set on English “Costume.”

“Shh. Shh,” Nathalie giggled through her fingers.

“I heard falling books. Are you hurt?” Joseph Springer asked, as he peeked around the corner.

“We had a little accident, Uncle Joseph. Sorry.”

“What a mess,” Sara said. She felt silly sitting in the middle of a pile of books.

“We’ll get them, Uncle Joseph,” Nathalie was already replacing the books on their shelves.

“Good,” he said, and turned to Sara. “Your papa loved the old books, Sara. Like you.”

Sara stacked. “I didn’t know that, Mr. Springer.”

The old man stooped to pick up a few books and replace them on a shelf. “Oh yes. I think you are just about his age now when your grandparents moved to their house down the street.”

“I turned eleven in February, Mr. Springer.”

“The same – and your papa liked to read. Yes, he did.” He smiled. “That is, when he didn’t have a game of marbles going on in the vacant lot next door.”

Sara looked down at the book she held. Had her dad read this one?

Joseph continued, “You knew that about your papa, didn’t you, Sara?”

“No.”

Joseph looked at his watch. “Nathalie, after you finish here it’s time to help your Aunt Beatrice with Sabbath.”

Nathalie retrieved the last of the books off the floor, “Is it as late as that, Uncle Joseph?”

“It’s almost five o’clock.”

Sara jumped up from the floor. “Oh! My mom’s flight already landed!”

The three walked in a single file, between the close stacks of books, toward the front. “Mom has promised me a surprise. I don’t want to be late.”

“A surprise?” Nathalie asked.

“I think I know what it is,” Sara whispered to her friend. “I’m supposed to put on the sundress Grand­mother and I bought two weeks ago at Peck’s. I bet anything we’re going to the Starlight Theatre.”

Nathalie clapped her hands. They had often spoken of the new outdoor musical theater in Swope Park that opened only a few days ago. “Oh, wouldn’t that be lovely!”

“I’m sure that’s it. On my birthday Grand­mother said we’d make that part of my present, but we had to wait until it opened.”

“Sara, I hope that is the surprise. Will you come tomorrow?”

They had reached the front door of the bookshop. “I can’t. Grandpa said he wants to go to Olathe Lake. He promised to give me a driving lesson if I’d fish with him. But I’ll see you on Monday, for sure.”

Sara turned to Joseph, counting receipts at the register. “Mr. Springer, did my mom like the books too? I mean, like my daddy?”

“Your mama came in much later. To tell you the truth, Sara, it wasn’t the books she came for, but your papa, I think. Once I found a love note he left for her.” He chuckled.

“Really? What did it say, Mr. Springer?”

“I put it back into the book once I saw what it was. It was a poem about the moon I think.” He chuckled again. “I think they exchanged notes more than once that way.” He smiled at Sara. “Maybe you’ll find one someday, Sara. What do you think?”

“I hope I do, Mr. Springer. I sure hope so.”

“Be sure to tell your grandparents and your mama hello for me, will you do that?”

“Oh sure, Mr. Springer. Good night!”

Sara heard the deadbolt lock on the door. Joseph smiled at her as he turned the “open” sign over to display “closed.”

Sara felt the sun on her bare arms. Her mom and daddy. They fell in love in that very place. Did they hide back in the corner behind the stacks of books and kiss each other? Of course they did, she thought. Sara could imagine it. Wouldn’t she like to ask her mother about it. But she knew she wouldn’t.

Her mother didn’t seem like she wanted anyone to mention her daddy’s name. Hadn’t she tried to tell her about the article and the soldier from Pennsylvania who woke up from amnesia? Her mother had just stared at her. Finally she said, “That’s not going to happen, Sara. Why do you have to fill your head with ideas like that? I hope it wasn’t your Grand­mother telling you that.” Then she walked away.

Sara reached up and touched the silver locket shaped like a heart her dad had given her before he left for the war. Inside was a picture of him in his Marine uniform. He wore a big smile that seemed to cover his whole face. Of course it wasn’t Grand­mother telling her that. Nobody made up the story. It was in the Kansas City Star.

Sara walked past Denton Smith’s grocery with its two faded green-and-white striped awnings over a pair of vegetable and fruit bins. He still had customers inside. Sara checked to see whether the proprietor had his back turned, then stuck her hand in the Coca-Cola box next to the door and pulled out a piece of ice.

She looked for Mrs. Smith, too, but she wasn’t there. Sara’s Grand­mother had told her, “Mrs. Smith carries a great burden.” Sara wanted to know what it was. Her Grand­mother shook her head, “It’s better to leave some things unsaid, dear.”

Next door, at Benito’s Italian Restaurant, several tables had customers. White tablecloths looked as stiff as Mrs. Benito’s two sons, Dante and Pete, waiting tables. Sara waved at Mrs. Benito. Grandpa said she stood guard at the cash register every night. The small woman waved back. How strange it is, thought Sara, Mrs. Benito doesn’t know any English, except “Spaghetti good and thank you very much.” Sara hoped they would have supper at Benito’s tonight before the Starlight Theatre.

In the window of Yang Li’s Laundry two customers stood at the counter. One was a man whose back was turned, the other was Grand­mother’s friend, George Ann Staples. Sara didn’t stop to look but hurried on to the corner. Once she crossed Iowa Street she could see her house in the middle of the next block.

Tonight they would be at the Starlight Theatre to see The Desert Song. Sara had no idea what the musical was about, but she had made up a story; a beautiful girl, a hero, too. They would fall in love, but not before they faced some terrible ordeal together so their love could be forever true.

Sara sang, keeping one eye on the cracks in the sidewalk, “Mary Bell, Mary Bell’s the bread to eat; Mary Bell, Mary Bell, It’s so good it can’t be beat.”

On the other side of the Boulevard across from Sara’s house was a large commercial bakery, Mary Bell Bread. Her Grandpa walked across the street almost every morning to buy day-old bread – for a nickel a loaf. “Yesterday’s bread has more life in it,” he told Sara, “especially when your Grand­mother puts butter and sugar and cinnamon on a slice and sticks it in the oven. Oh my, that’s good!”

Sara agreed.