People talk about following their bliss, but if you're stubborn, unobservant sods like Jack and me, your bliss pretty much has to beat you over the head until you see things in a new light.
We had often daydreamed about running a bookstore “someday,” a used one that would have beautiful hardwood floors and lots of windows, “in a town with tree-lined streets, where there's lots of foot traffic so people walk in on impulse. Everyone will love us as colorful local characters. You can wear a baggy Mr. Rogers sweater and push your glasses up your nose and talk about Scotland, and I can write the great American novel.”
“It will have high ceilings with old-fashioned wooden fans.” Jack liked to stick with physical descriptions.
“And a unicorn in the garden.” Two can play at that game.
“Of course! It can keep the elephants company.” My husband is a go-with-the-flow kind of guy.
The 5,000-square-foot personification of this idle pastime appeared without warning at a most inconvenient moment. We didn’t arrive in Big Stone intending to run a used bookstore. Two years before, we had moved from Scotland to the States so I could take up position in The Snake Pit. (That’s not its real name, in case you were wondering.) That move landed me in a high-power game of snakes and ladders in a government agency—except we played with all snakes and no ladders. One fine day I woke up seeing clearly, gave two weeks’ notice, and walked away.
Now we longed to return to a gentle life with friendly people who had less to prove and more honesty in how they proved it. When I was offered a low profile job in the tiny town of Big Stone Gap, we packed our bags and shook venom from our shoes.
A few days later, the realtor pulled up in front of a five-bedroom 1903 Edwardian that sat near two intersections, edging a neighborhood of sturdy brick homes and leafy bungalows. The place felt snug and cozy the moment we walked in, despite its voluminous size.
“Squeaky floors,” my husband frowned, rubbing one rubber sole across the scarred hardwood.
“The pocket doors stick,” Debbie sneezed, wrestling oak panels from their hiding places amidst a shower of dust.
“That's a lot of windows for somebody to wash.” I pointed at the floor-to-ceiling panes adorning three open plan rooms, stretched across the southern-facing house front.
Rickety wooden fans hung from high ceilings, wires exposed. The second floor parlor with its peeling wallpaper overlooked the town's tree-lined ancillary street one block from where it intersected the main road. My husband and I stared at each other with lust in our eyes, thanked Debbie-the-Realtor, and left for lunch.
Little Mexico, a signature Big Stone Gap restaurant, sits at the top of a hill next to Wal-Mart, and the parking lot affords magnificent views of the surrounding mountain peaks. The season’s flowering power—rhododendron pink, mountain laurel white, cornflower purple—displayed its full glory in the midday sun. Inside, we dipped tortilla chips in fiery salsa and eyed each other through sangria glasses. We couldn't afford to buy a house without getting a mortgage, and given the nose-diving economy and my esoteric Ph.D. in Ethnography, that didn't seem wise. It was madness to even think along unicorn-in-the-garden lines. No, the word “bookstore” would not come out of my mouth.
Jack crunched a corn chip. “That big white house would have made a perfect bookstore, had it been in a bigger town.”
I knew it! “Oh, did you think so?”
“Aye. Not to mention, we don't have enough money.”
“Or energy. Pity to see something so nice and not be able to take advantage of it, but the timing is so wrong.”
Jack waited a beat, then said thoughtfully, “But if we were to stay a little bit longer, there is a college nearby where you might teach . . . well, not that we're thinking about that.”
My heartbeat accelerated. “No, not that we're thinking about that.”
“We'll set up a bookstore someday.”
We crunched in silence, then Jack drew his sword and slew the dragon. “What if someday is today?”
Not even a gentle “pop” resounded as the cork flew from our bottled-up lives. But the wait staff seemed startled when I leaned across the table, stomach grazing the chip basket, and kissed my best friend long and hard on the lips.