One day soon, she knows three o’clock on a Tuesday will pass and the bell above the door won’t chime. The shop’s old floorboards will not creak under his weight, and she won’t look up, because there will be no reason to.
He won’t come bearing coffees from the Starbucks up the street, smelling of crisp cold air and espresso beans. He won’t reach into his jacket and pull out the ten or twelve sheets of neatly printed writing he pulls out now.
Carmen will have finished her part. It will be over.
* * *
The first time he came to the little shop where she worked selling books and proofreading for a fee, he strolled around, looking at the shelves, as if the books on them would give him some indication of her competence. He didn’t speak to her then. She only remembered his pale, thin ivory hands. The skin was so white and the fingers so long, it reminded her of the hands she’d seen chiseled in stone, crossed upon the breast of some long dead maiden in a graveyard.
The second time, he had a dark, beautiful woman in tow, and a little girl dressed in a pink leotard. They parted at the door to her shop, and he stepped in, making the bell tinkle.
“I heard you do proofreading.”
“I’m working on something. I need some help with it.”
“I’m not an editor,” she said, still seated at the massive, dilapidated writing desk, that served as both a counter and a work area.
“I can’t afford an editor. And,” he said, tilting his head and giving her a self-deprecatory look, “I’ve no idea whether it’s worth an editor’s time.”
“What kind of writing is it? I don’t take on anything requiring specialized knowledge. If it’s highly technical, I know a few people who do that.”
“No.” His eyes roamed around the shelves, a little embarrassed, she thought. “It’s a novel. At least I hope it will be.”
“Why don’t you finish a first draft, and then get it proofread? Then you’ll know how much it will cost. I charge by the word. Most of us do.”
“How much do you charge?”
“A cent a word, but I can bring that down for a long work.”
He smiled at her. “A cent a word. How old fashioned. What else can you buy for a cent these days?”
She shrugged, and then smiled back. It was hard not to. He had a mouth like a cherub. So at odds with the hard, bony lines of his face, the angular skull, with hair clipped so short it was almost shaved. It covered his head like an ashen, velvet cap. He was handsome. And very married and off-springed, she added mentally.
“My base charge is $10 for 1,000 words. Past 80,000, I’ll bring the price down. So, when you’re finished, please come back.”
“That’s not how I’d like to do it,” he said, leaning on the desk and looking directly into her eyes. “I’d like to bring you a chapter a week. That way, I’m forced to produce a chapter a week.”
For all its pragmatism, there was something about the way he delivered the proposition that sounded, for no reason she could put her finger on, like a proposition. There was something in his phrasing, in his tone: a lazy sung quality, a teasing inflection. And something in the proposal itself, as if he were making her complicit in a perverse discipline he wanted to indulge in.
“What do you say?” He stepped back, straightening and tilted his head childishly.
Or not. She was reading too much into the words of this strangely attractive man. “Bring me the first thousand words and we’ll see how it goes from there. How about that?”
He nodded, pushed out his lower lip and shoved his hands into the front pockets of his jeans. “Sounds good to me. What about next Tuesday?”
He turned to go. Reached the door and rested his hand – that strange, white appendage – on the handle. “Does anyone ever come in here and buy books?”
Carmen laughed. “Occasionally. But we do most of our business with schools and private libraries.”
“It’s quiet. I like it here.”
Before she could think of a response, he was out the door and walking up the street. It had begun to snow.