96 Days

August 7, 2012
Custom User Avatar
More by this author

Two things happen on the forty-seventh day: 1) the man wears an indigo blazer with faint periwinkle pinstripes and 2) during her lunch break, June comes to the plausible theory that, judging by how often he comes in here, the lining of his jacket could be torn-out pages from travel guides. She watches him with practiced eyes from her perch behind the cashier’s counter. She watches him every day, watches the pale wrinkles on his forehead knit into the most spectacular form of concentration and contentment. For the last forty-seven days, as the hands on the clock tick to thirty-six minutes past twelve, he has walked inside the glass doors of Bear Pond Books with slow, deliberate steps, an iron man walking on a floor of thinnest glass.

He wears a crouched comma of a spine and walks on rice-paper bones, but he looks self-assured, like he could never crumple. No, he would not crumple—but there’s something sad in his face, tucked beneath the horn-rimmed glasses.

Unlike most his age, he navigates the store with assured certainty, and she feels it would infringe on some unspoken rule of solitude if she were to intrude with a, “Can I help you find something?” or a, “Would you like me to hold that for you at the register?”

He goes for the back corner every time, the Travel section—with the Frommer’s Guides and the Fodor’s Guides and the Rick Steves pamphlets, all blue and yellow with saturated scenes of emerald oceans and rocky cliffs. The man works in a meticulous order—scooping one book up, sitting down to read it, and repeating the cycle the next day, perhaps rereading one he’s picked up twenty times, maybe a new one in their (quite limited) selection.

It’s painfully obvious that he wants to go places. But June isn’t seeing him going anywhere but this cramped little shop.

It’s been forty-seven days, yes. June has kept quiet for forty-seven days, but there’s no denying she would like to know this man. She wants to know the reasons behind the smartest clothes on an elderly man she’s ever seen—bright, solid-colored bowties and pinstriped sport coats and porkpie hats set at an angle on his head of spider’s-silk hair. She wants to know why Travel is the only section he ever visits. She wants to know why he always comes in alone, why there’s never been a pair of joined hands, blue-veined and wizened, when he comes in at 12:36.


The thing is, there isn’t much else to do in this shop but observe him. It’s a small store, heavily perfumed with aged books and aged women, and cramped with tall, neat stacks of paperbacks on the floors and tables. She’s been working here for two years and she feels more pathetic with each passing day. She loves books—of course she does, they were the only things that kept her sane through her years of schooling—but not like this. She’s out of college. Her friends have careers now, or at the very least, internships with big important companies that she never bothers learning the names of—and she wonders what she has to show for her years of toil at school. A diploma, a meagerly-paid cashier job in a creaky old bookshop, and a cockroach-infested apartment beneath a Jazzercise enthusiast who insists on practicing as June tries to sleep.

Everything has remained frustratingly stagnant for the last two years—so she’s latching desperately onto the one thing that’s keeping her watching.


On December 19th, the man enters with Vermont snow on the brim of his hat. June peers at him from behind the Spycraft & Espionage section and approaches him the only way she knows how to approach a stranger here.

“Can I help you with something?” she asks cheerfully. She couldn’t for the life of her tell you why she was so nervous. The man lifts his eyes from Frommer’s Italy 2012 and stares at her with a confused furrow of his wiry gray brow.

“I think I can manage, thank you.” It’s quiet and polite.

“Are you sure? I see you come in here every day. That’s not to say that you don’t know what you’re looking for, of course you do…I just…” she trails off, the ends of her sentences vanishing into stale, paper-scented air.

“Miss, I don’t mean to be rude, I really don’t, but I am eighty-six years old. I am not a cripple, I am not senile, I am aware of my mind and myself and my body, so if you please…” the man says curtly, opening his book again.

“I find you extraordinarily interesting.” June lets it fall from her lips without any thought. And the man looks up again, his face bewildered. June opens her mouth to apologize, but decides against it. It would be the farthest thing from genuine.

“And why is that?” the man says, settling his hands inside the yellow silk-lined pockets of his bright blue blazer.

“Well, I mean…you come in here every day at the same time, make a beeline for the Travel section, and then stay there for hours. And you’re always by yourself. And I find you interesting. That’s all.” June says, shoving her hands into her own pockets. There’s a thick silence that involves June’s many attempts to dodge this man’s horn-rimmed glances at her.

“Well, if you must know—”starts the man.

“No, you don’t—I mean, I don’t need to know…you don’t have to tell me—”

“If you must know, my wife has passed. Two years ago. We never traveled much, but she always wanted to go to Italy. We both did. So I figure, I’ve been retired for twenty some-odd years, what else do I do with my life but read about it for her. Maybe try to get there someday.”

“That’s...that’s really sweet.” June’s sort of at a loss with what else to say. “Oh God, I’m sorry. I’ve forgotten my manners. Along with a…host of other social decencies…” she says uncomfortably. “I’m June Ackerman, the stranger who has probably just asked you too much about your personal life.” She offers her hand.

“Julius Berlinsky.” he says, shaking her hand, the youthful smirk melting into an aging, faded-pink smile.

“It’s very nice to meet you.” June says, unsure of where to go from here.

“You as well.” Julius replies after a heavy pause.

June’s had this problem for a while, this overwhelming sense that people don’t actually want to talk to her. She becomes aware of her twitching fingers and her tightened throat, and makes false excuses.

“Well, um…I think I have to get back to work, but…um…I look forward to…meeting again soon.” June says, wringing her hands with her knuckles cracking in the process.

“I’d….yes. I would like that.” Julius says politely, his eyes a bit taken aback.

June turns to leave and Julius closes the book he was reading. It’s been a while since someone other than Henry, the register boy at Uncle Mike’s Deli, spoke to him.


At 12:36, the shop’s bells ring with a mellifluous chime as the door opens and Julius steps in, wearing a bright white blazer with a pale green bowtie arranged neatly on his throat. He adjusts his glasses and glances June’s way, tipping his hat in acknowledgment, then walks on deep green wingtips to his usual back corner.

Sixteen minutes pass before June decides to meander over to the likes of Travel and talk to Julius again. She shuffles next to him and fiddles with her thumbs, watching him from the corner of her eye for a few seconds.

“Why did you talk to me? Why did you….tell me all that, I mean.”

“Why do I continue talking to you, I think you mean.”

“I…I guess, yeah.”

“Well, miss, I don’t have many people to talk to, if any. All my friends are either dead or bound to hospital beds. I’m the youngest of four brothers; they left me a long, long time ago. My wife was my real best friend, and now you know what’s become of her, so…I’ll take what I can get.”

God, she really should have known, shouldn’t she?

Julius will not look at June—not her tangled, dry ponytail of red hair, not her densely-freckled nose and cheeks, not her thin lips or pale orange eyelashes.

“I’m…God, I’m sorry.”

“Don’t be. You’re young. You shouldn’t have to think about that. Not for a long time.” Julius says, waving his hand dismissively.

June still doesn’t know how to act around those who have suffered a loss. Whether she should lace every sentence with a tragic sigh or whether her eyes should turn foggy, whether her hand should constantly be on the person’s shoulder. Funerals are where she is at her most uncomfortable—either the words get lost in her throat or she wants to throw a fist in her mouth for saying the wrong thing.

Her grandfather’s funeral was the worst—the grandfather who didn’t bother to get to know her, the grandfather who was alive for seventeen of her years and said perhaps five sentences to her for the entirety of those years. And everyone was so melancholy, and everyone told stories about his tremendous heart and his unwavering legacy and June had wondered if that was all bulls*** or if she just never knew that big heart. In the pews, she had sat with her hands folded into her black velvet lap, the nerve endings in her cavernous heart scraped cleanly away. Her chest was hollow. Evidently, so were everyone else’s, but for different reasons than hers.

So she doesn’t know what to say—she settles on something simple, something she feels entitled to know.

“What was her name?”


“Pretty.” June says under her breath.

“She was. She was beautiful.”

“What did she look like?”

“When I met her, a bit like you, actually. She had your red hair, at least. Always wanted to do the…the Jean Harlow curls with that hair. She had the skin like porcelain, the red lips. Just…gorgeous. And the thing is, when you get older, you always see that person you first met. She never got any less beautiful, for all those years we were together.”

To June’s ear, Anna sounds a bit like a film star. Maybe she was, maybe she wasn’t—perhaps the almost painful press of a person on your heart, the staggering force of being in love could make anyone sound like a film star.


“What’s up?” she says, stepping behind him.

“The rent.” Julius says without glancing up from his book. June tries to think of a suitably dry response, but it dies dry in her throat and the moment passes. On the backdrop of travel guides and language books of deepest reds and greens, his face looks especially pallid, ashen with age.

“So how’d you meet? You and Anna.” She says to him, startling him with the lack of preamble. Julius’ face is strange and unreadable—somehow simultaneously smug, pleased, and baffled (as he so often seems to be).

“College. Middlebury class of ’48. We were in the same Art History class and she always shot up her hand about Caravaggio and Masaccio and Donatello, all those Italian Renaissance characters. She was a real smart girl; I remember I liked that from the start.”

And the wistful mist of years past weaken the greens of his eyes—black and white photographs in the college yearbook, hot-roller red curls and greased-back Humphrey Bogart hairdos, rainy afternoons in dormitories with The Mills Brothers on vinyl.

Julius straightens his scarlet pocket square, takes a sighing breath, and continues.

“And I asked her why she knew so much about those guys, because it seemed like such an oddly specific field to know so much about. She told me she always liked the culture and that she was in an Italian class. And I had never met someone with such a passion for something straight away. You could feel it when you talked to her. She just lit up. It was…unbelievable. Then to impress her, at no small feat of mine, I tried to learn some Italian. In fact, I asked her to be my date to the Winter Carnival in Italian. Butchered the hell out of it, but she agreed and we were married six years later.”

Sii la mia data di—per favore, per favore, per favore.
(Be my date—please, please, please.)


“Why is it always 12:36?” June questions Julius on the fourth day of their incipient friendship. He’s sitting in one of the big, enveloping bookshop chairs that swallow one up and nearly refuse to let go.

“My days run on a highly exact schedule. I’ve always been heavily obsessed with precision. It’s perhaps a fault of mine, but too late to change it now, I suppose. I wake at 6—I get restless. I make myself muesli with milk, banana, raisins. Terribly bland stuff, but my doctor wants me to have the fiber. I finish my breakfast around 6:23, read the paper and do the crosswords. The crosswords, of course, vary in difficulty, so my time changes, but I’m always finished by 7:30. I spend my mornings reading. I’m trying to read every damn book in my house. Keeps my mind off things. Then I allow for time to go to the deli to get my things for lunch if I’m out of it, but every afternoon I make my hot pastrami on rye—coleslaw, Russian dressing, the works.”

June must look surprised because Julius gives a light chuckle and nods sheepishly.

“It’s dreadful as all hell for me, but I’ve been eating it for decades. My own little middle finger to the doctors who tell me I shouldn’t. By the time I finish, it’s 12:29. I live right down the road from this shop, so it takes me about seven minutes to get here. And then…”—Julius inhales a breath, eyes wide and overwhelmed, and exhales out of wavering lips—“12:36.”


On the fifty-eighth day, June abandons her register post entirely and sits cross-legged in between Fodor’s Rome and Naples and the Amalfi Coast. Yesterday, Julius had promised her the story of their last Valentine’s Day when he arrived the next day.

“You’re here early.” Julius says simply, smoothing the invisible wrinkles in his shirt as he walks up to her.

“Wanted to hear the story. And I didn’t want to work.” June says with a slight shrug, staring up at him from the ground.

“All right, all right. So the last Valentine’s Day, that would be three years ago next February, yes—we went to the Winter Carnival at East Montpelier Elementary.”

“Like your first date.” June murmurs.

“Precisely. I suppose they assumed that we were someone’s grandparents. I’m not sure, but they let us in right away. Security was extremely lax.” Julius laughs. “And we went on the hay ride, watched the silly little puppet show for the kids, went to the bonfire.”

“A safe distance from the hay ride, I’m hoping.” June says, her eyes wide.

“Of course, dear. And then on our way home, we bought those shiny red heart balloons, the talking pink teddy bear that says ‘I love you’ when you squeeze it, the most expensive, extravagant box of chocolates we could find, and a big old heart-shaped wreath of roses. All that Hallmark nonsense, you know.”

“And she said ‘Well, we had sixty-six years of Valentine’s Days without all of this, so why not have it all right now?’”

Julius had tried not to hear “while we can”. But he had known that was what it was—it was written into the deep valleys on her pale face, into the screeching-long seconds in between the time her walker touched the ground and when her feet took the step, into the fluid lining her trembling lungs.

It was living while they could.

“And she took a bite of one of those chocolates and smiled at me, and she had this little bit of chocolate on her lip.” Julius says, running a wrinkled finger down the spine of 24 Great Walks in Venice.

On any other day, Anna had been crackling in her happiness, but this was a weak smile, a ticking time-bomb of a smile. Julius had lost his appetite and waved his hand to deny the candy—seven days later, she was gone, leaving the gold-plated chocolate box on their bedside table.

Julius leaves that part out.


“So why was Anna so into Italy? What started that?” June says, pretending to arrange books on the shelf as her boss passes. “Was it the romance of the place?” she drawls sarcastically.

“Oh, the story’s not romantic at all. It started as something really silly. When we got older, we probably projected the romance onto it, but yes, she started becoming interested in it in quite a ridiculous way.” Julius replies, chuckling.

“Well, come on then, what is it?” June claps her hands impatiently.

“She had this grandmother, I remember, she was an awful, awful woman. Never stopped gossiping, spread the worst kind of rumors you ever heard about a person. Her temper was unbearable, and she was the worst cook you would ever meet. And Anna always used to say she wanted to go to Italy, since everyone’s grandmothers there were supposedly the world’s best cooks.”

June lets out a laugh, clear and lilting like bells.

“We had dinner with her once, this grandmother—she made this heinous, rotting old casserole with things she may as well have picked from her garbage can. Anna and I were pushing the food around the plate, the way you do when you want to look like you’re actually eating something, and this old witch slams her plate on the table, it breaks into a thousand little pieces, and she starts hollering at us for being ungrateful. Crazy old broad, she was. Never stopped hollering.”

“So the grandmother’s the only thing that started it all?”

“Yes, actually, silly as it seems. When she got to college, she started taking more classes pertaining to it—it fascinated her. And then of course, when I started courting her, I was essentially required to learn about it, too—and then the same fascination happened with me.”


“You want to go to Italy.” June says the next day.

“Is that a question?” Julius replies.

“Not at all.”

“Yes. I do. You know that.”

“So go.”

“I’m afraid it’s not that easy.”

“Why not?”

“There’s—there’s things.”

“Yeah, the world is full of things. You get past the things and you go and get what you want.”

“Getting what you want isn’t that easy.”

“Why not?”

“Is this what you want? This job? This shop?”

“No, but—”

“So you see. It’s not that easy to get what you want.”


“I’m sorry I was short with you yesterday. You didn’t deserve that.” Julius says, his eyes locked to the floor.

“I’m sorry for…idealizing things. I don’t really…get it, I guess.”

“No, you do. You had my best interests at heart. I was being stubborn. I’m…I’m scared, I think.”

And he looks it—eyes shut tight, hands wringing madly, lips pressed in a thin, fixed line. She doesn’t know where the fear lies, or why it’s there in the first place, but then again, she doesn’t know his life apart from flickers of foggy vignettes.

“What are you scared of?”

“Doing something this big without her. Doing something this big in the first place.”

“You shouldn’t be. Wasn’t this what she wanted her whole life? Don’t you want to be able to…do that for her?”

“Of course I do. When you put it like that, it just makes me sound silly not to do it, right? She’s not going to be proud of me for walking around and going to the bookshop every day, right?”

June doesn’t feel entitled to make that kind of decision for Anna—from how it sounds, Anna would be proud of Julius if all he did every day was eat hot pastrami sandwich after hot pastrami sandwich while folded into his bedsheets, just as long as he didn’t forget her—so she keeps quiet.

“I’ll do it.” and it is the sun melting January snow and the first drop of rain on the desert and everything she never knew she needed.

He smiles and June sees the college yearbook photo that she never actually saw—his clean-pressed suit, his head turned so his jawline shows up sharp, his slick coif of brown hair. He is buoyant youth again, holding Anna’s porcelain hand, her nails red and buffed like Rita Hayworth’s, on their way into the Winter Carnival together.

Julius feels her phantom lips kiss him—fleeting—once more, and there’s a red lipstick mark on his spotted skin.


Julius comes in with an elaborate schedule—tightly scrawled, inky black scribble on a yellow legal pad, absurd in its complication and painstaking in its detail.

“What do you have here?” June asks lightly.

“You didn’t think I read all those books without learning anything, did you?”

“I guess I never really…thought about it.”

There’s a pause where all Julius does is bare two rows of teeth in a wide, childish smile. His bowtie is bright yellow today, and June can almost feel the yellow radiating off of him in golden beams. To Julius, it feels as if no mottled purple-red has ever bruised his bones, as if no bitter-white snow has ever fallen on Vermont soil, as if her fingers were still laced tightly within his own, steadfast and eternal.

“Bought the ticket last night.”

June puts a hand to her mouth and laughs out loud, giddy with it—with all of it.

“That’s so great, oh God, wow, that’s so great.” June says, breathless. “I’m going to hug you now, is that okay?”

Julius laughs.

“I’ll hug anyone and everyone today.”

She hugs him and his bones feel brittle, his body gaunt, but he’s getting what he’s wanted for fifty years. Soon his skin, ashen from years of Vermont snow, will be under a Roman boil of a sun, and his feet will take him on cobblestoned roads and his hands will be running along ancient buildings he’s not supposed to touch but does anyway.

He will get what he has wanted and she will be there the entire time, her hand on his shoulder and her heart in his chest.


“The second day I’m there, I’m going to the Chianti wine region in Florence. I’m going to go to all those tiny little wine towns, go to the vineyards, go to some tastings.”


“Can you believe it, I’m not going to have to eat my vanilla Blue Bell for two weeks. I’m going to have pistachio gelato. And lots of it.”


There are fireworks burning gold and magenta and emerald in his eyes.


“And real pizza! I’m going to have real pizza!”


“And then on the fourth day I’m going to the Orto Botanico di Padova. World’s oldest academic botanical garden. Man, that’s going to be…something else.”


At 12:36, June looks expectantly at the door so she can hear more of the things Julius plans on doing when he gets to Italy. She knows she shouldn’t, but she feels partially responsible for making this happen. She knows he and Anna had planned it for years, but she claims a small part of the victory for herself. Just in her mind.

It’s 12:37 and the bells above the door have yet to chime.

For the last seventy-four days, this has never once happened. He has never missed his precise cue. He has never come in a second after 12:36 and June is scared.

Because he was frail when she hugged him and his plane doesn’t leave for another week.

June rushes with rapid footfalls to the register and kneels on her knees to open the cupboard underneath the display of trinkets and tchotchkes that everyone becomes convinced they need while buying the latest John Grisham. She pulls out the Montpelier yellow pages, dusts off the lack of use, and searches frantically for “Berlinsky”.

She suddenly remembers why nobody uses these books anymore.

June finds the B’s, the Be’s, the Ber’s—the Berlinsky, on Whitman Avenue, and she wonders what to do. Her shift ends in an hour and a half, and she’s not so sure she can stay still for that long.

Lying to her boss is out of the question: her conscience has always been her biggest betrayer, and her work performance as of late has been so (admittedly) dreadful that June is sure he would not appreciate a midday work ditch.

So she stays still for an hour and a half, feeling in her stomach that hollowness that everyone else was feeling at her grandfather’s funeral.

At 2:00 in the afternoon, she clocks out and turns on her car, her fingers trembling with the thousand angry wasps thrashing underneath her skin.

Julius’ house is a modest, well-cared-for white one-story, thatched with dark green on the windows and roof shingles. The door is bright, bleeding yellow. She jabs her finger to the doorbell, unrelentless, a thousand times. The pauses build up in her brain like water to a dam—there is more silence and more water, more silence, and she yells, “JULIUS!” and the water crashes through the feeble, rotting wood and she’s drowning in it.

She knows his schedule—she knows he’s always at home in the afternoons after he visits the shop. She knows he does his crosswords and goes on his walks in the morning, and never at any other time.

There are no plausible places he could be that she can think of. There is one, but it’s dreadful and terrible and everything she does not want to be thinking right now.

So she goes.

Central Vermont Medical Center is nearest his house and entirely horrible in her reasons for going. The receptionist looks to be in her mid forties and bored, only looking up from her grocery-store romance novel when someone talks to her. Sometimes not even then, June notes as she waits on a scratchy loveseat while people that are not her file in and out.

“Hi, I need to know if my friend is here or not.” June says in a single breath.

“What’s the name?” drones the receptionist. Her name plate reads “Martha”.

“Julius Berlinsky.” June says, the intonation at the end almost making it sound like a question. Martha types into her clunking computer and clicks a few times.

“Yeah, yeah, he’s in 602.”

June honestly doesn’t know what she’s feeling—relief or terror or heartbreak or suffocation.

“Thank you.” she chokes out, low and throaty, before rushing to catch the elevator. Crowded between sweating, anxious humans, she feels the blood rushing violently to her ears and her head going fuzzy and gray.

When they reach the sixth floor, June inhales a long, trembling breath and suddenly realizes the rashness of what she has just done. She did not call—but she had no way to. He may have other visitors—but from what he has told her, there’s not a single person left in his life. All things considered, she just did something rather bizarre and she’s not sure how Julius is going to take it.

If he’s still alive.

She raps on the door of 602 faintly with her fist.

“Come in.” It floats weakly to her ear from inside the room.

He is alive. He is speaking. He is here.

“Oh…oh my.” says Julius when she peers into his room from the doorway.

“I’m sorry. I overstepped. I apparently have a history of overstepping with you. But…you weren’t there and I panicked. So…”

“No, it’s…fine. It’s good. Thank you.” Julius says, his voice hoarse and raspy.

In his mechanical bed, remote-controlled and rigidly wrapped in bleached white sheets, he looks boyish and small. The hollows of his face are sunken and his skin is colorless. The room smells of disinfectant, the horrible kind of clean, and everything is white and blinding.

“What… happened?” June says quietly.

“Stroke. Is…ischemic…stroke, I think they said. My father had one, my cholesterol’s high. I should have expected it, really.”

“Are you going to be okay?”

“I think so…I hope so. They put me on medication that’s dissolving the blood clots that caused the stroke and then some more medication that’s helping to prevent more blood clots from forming. If I need it, I might have to have surgery. Carotid end…arter…ectomy? I think that was it. Anyway. I think everything’s okay right now. I’m going to have to be here for a while, though.”

“How long is a while?” June says, her breath catching because it can’t be more than a week, please, no, not a week, he can hold on, let him out, let him go. Let him go.

“They said around…three weeks.” Julius says, tipping his head back to hit his starchy white pillow. He presses his lips together in a thin line, fuming and tragic.

There’s something vile and thick rising in her throat, an angry black swelling that’s beating and biting.

“So…” she croaks out.

“…can’t go.”

And there’s a thunderclap in her heart, a shudder, a violent, fanatical earthquake. And his face of eighty-six years is the most miserable it has probably looked since that day two years ago.

“I’m so sorry, God, I’m so sorry. This is just...”

“An enormously terrible situation.” Julius fills in, twiddling with a loose thread on his bleached white sheets. He won’t meet her eyes, like he hasn’t so many times before, but this time June’s a bit relieved. She’s not so sure she would be able to meet his eyes this time. She desperately does not want to see him cry. When saltwater fills the cracks on his face, it will be the shattering of her self-control and the clubbing of her composure.

June pulls up a wobbling wooden rocking chair and sits with him in silence until she sees a yellow-spined book on his bedside table. She doesn’t know what it is, but she reads it to him until he’s sleeping, sound but furious.

His bedroom is red and gray and white, colors that Anna chose when they first married. They lived in this house for sixty-two years, and it should be falling down. Maybe it is. Julius wouldn’t know—everything still looks like her. His bones feel weak, his skin foreign, his blood sluggish and slow. More than ever, he feels shaken, like someone stuck him in a new body with electricity flesh and catacombs for lungs. There’s a leak from the ceiling—the paint looks to be rotting a bit, wet white paint on the wet white wall. Perhaps this rickety old place, standing since 1915, is more worn-out than he thought. On the bedside table are his clear orange bottles of red and white pills and his book that spits dust with each closing and the gold-plated box of chocolates, missing a single piece. And he picks up the box with crushed-velvet hands and it is Pandora’s Box or the holy box or the most beautiful box that he has never had the valor to open.

He plucks a chocolate, the one directly to the right of the one Anna took two years ago, from the box and places it on his tongue—never before has stale cocoa and caramel carried such a potent taste of crashing loss. He bites down and swallows, then falls asleep, folded into the sheets on her side of the bed.

Post a Comment

Be the first to comment on this article!

Site Feedback