By Mike Sutton
“You know, I worked for an admiral once,” Ms. Christy would always say, tugging at my arm. I know, Ms. Christy, I know. You’ve told me a hundred times.
“Is that right?” What the hell, I’d let her have a little fun.
“Oh, yes. Fine man. He used to ask me for advice. I was honest. He liked that.”
Ms. Virginia Christy was one of a kind. She was 70-something at least but had all the fire of a woman in her 20s. Her skin was pale and stretched thin over her frail frame. She couldn’t weigh more than a hundred pounds, but she was strong. She was feisty. I’d met plenty of interesting people working at a bookshop in Hot Springs — Arkansas’s Spa City — but Ms. Christy was my favorite. Truth be told, there wasn’t a close second.
Ms. Christy always stopped by the bookshop at least once a week before noon. It was part of her regimen. She snagged a stunted buggy after slipping through the door and filed her way through the narrow aisles, filling her cart with hardbacks and paperbacks, no rhyme or reason. She read faster than anybody I’d ever met, by a long shot, almost as if those veined hands absorbed the contents through osmosis, just siphoning it up. Sometimes, I wondered whether she was just lying. I wondered whether she bought all those books because she needed something to take up an hour every week and burned them in her fireplace late at night.
Ms. Christy would hobble through the door, survey her kingdom, and set out to find me. It didn’t take her long to wave me down from the drive aisle. She always beamed, every inch a lady. A quick hug always followed, and then she’d pat my back hard like she needed to check to make sure the framework was sturdy. I was raised to respect my elders, to give them a little extra license and a heaping serving of patience, so I played along with Ms. Christy. She’d lead, and I’d follow.
We’d always head straight for the “Mystery” section. There was an unspoken order to her world, and Ms. Christy knew it by heart. It took me a time or two, but before long I learned. It starts somewhere in “Mystery” and ends with coffee. I usually didn’t play the personal shopping assistant for people walking through the door, but if you were looking for a book, I was your best bet and happy to help. Ms. Christy was different, though. I’d stick with her down every aisle until the mission was done.
She’d flick the paper bricks around and glance at the synopses printed on the backs. She’d tell me about how old people don’t sleep, and she’d ask, “Have I read this? Can you remember?” I almost never could. She read too much for even me to keep track, and hell, she’d been reading since before I was born. We would make our way out of Mystery, and past Romance. She never touched a single book in Romance, never, but she still insisted on perusing. She never asked. She never demanded. She just led, and I followed. Something about her always made me want to stick around, almost like I’d miss out on a golden nugget of wisdom if I slipped back behind the cash registers or started stocking books.
One day, somewhere in the middle of Fiction, she asked me whether I had a girlfriend. I remember shaking my head with an exaggerated frown.
“Oh, you’ll find the one,” she said. “Any girl would be lucky to have you.”
“Tell them that.”
“Are you kidding?” she laughed. “I’d tell the world.” I knew it was true, and even worse, I knew she’d be stopping customers in the store hunting for my one true love. She had another mission, and she’d follow through. Those simple summer days were filled with warm conversations and the soothing peace of good company.
A few weeks later, we broke the routine. I remember how Ms. Christy rounded a corner, cutting off a big man wearing overalls, and pressed ahead without a care. She never stopped to consider whether she’d intruded, she was on a mission to somewhere in the Ds. I trailed behind her, as usual, when I decided to break the news. I told her I’d be leaving for a while because I was joining the Air Force. I told her it would be good for me. She agreed, but underneath I knew she hated it. She’d miss these visits to the bookshop. She’d miss telling me her stories and about the admiral.
“Well, good for you,” she said. “That’s just great.”
“You should be,” she smiled and picked up another book. “You know, I worked for an admiral once.” There she went, never waiting for me to respond.
“I was his secretary. Back then, there was a whole pool of secretaries that typed everything. There weren’t any copying machines. No computers. Everything was done on one of those Remington typewriters. Clunky old things now.”
I nodded and smiled, even though I wondered whether I could tell the story better than her. I didn’t mind.
“He used to ask me for advice. I was honest. He liked that. He used to call down to the pool of secretaries and ask for me. I’d report up to his office, and we’d just talk. Half an hour. An hour. Just talking.”
“What did you tell him?” I asked.
“The truth. Most people are scared when they’re talking to somebody like him. He’s the admiral. He’s in charge. Not me. I was never scared, and he knew it. That’s why he liked me.”
It was the same feistiness I loved. I was no admiral, but if Ms. Christy was half the lady she was in that bookshop, I understood why the admiral liked her so much.
“You better write to me,” she said, looking over the brim of her glasses with a glare that could cut solid rock. “I mean it.”
“Yes, ma’am. I will. I promise.”
I left town for the summer heat of San Antonio and Air Force Basic Training not long after, but before I did, I crossed paths with Ms. Christy once a week before noon. We followed our usual routine, but now she capped off the visits with her demand that I write.
“You better write me,” she’d say, staring over those glasses and wagging her finger. “I mean it.” For a while there, I thought I was doing Ms. Christy a favor. I thought I was being kind, walking around with an old lady who was lonely and just wanted someone to listen. I was wrong. It was the other way around.
I did write. A few times I sat down and wrote out little notes by hand, stamped them, and sent them on their way back to Ms. Christy and home. I never heard back. Not once. When I came home half a year later on leave, I stopped by the bookshop. I asked some of my old friends whether they’d heard from Ms. Christy, but they hadn’t. No one had.
The internet keeps no secrets. She was gone. Passed a week or two after I’d left town. She never got those letters I promised I’d write. She would never get them. There was no way to send them to her now. Even though I can’t see her or write to her, every time I walk through a bookshop I can hear her: “You know, I worked for an admiral once…”
“Is that right?” I ask.