Thunder rolled softly in the distance as Annie McDougal exited the train terminal onto Jackson Boulevard. She had just arrived from her home in Arlington Heights and was on her way to Chicago’s Loop to buy herself a birthday gift, one of the few self-indulgences she allowed herself.
As she crossed the Canal Street Bridge, she inhaled the negative ions of the approaching storm and felt an exhilaration she had never experienced before. When mist from the approaching rain began to touch her face like tiny cold fingers, she headed for shelter at the nearby ladies’ apparel shop but changed her mind when she noticed The Olde Book Shoppe across the street. Traffic was light as she dashed across the traffic lanes and entered the bookshop at the very moment large raindrops cascaded down from the gathering clouds.
High winds began to gust and whip the rain into a frenzy as she pushed the door shut against the force of the wind. The little bell above the door, caught in the gale, rang ferociously and then quieted when the door was securely shut. Annie gave a sigh of relief as heavy rain assaulted the display windows of the shop while unprepared pedestrians scurried by with inadequate umbrellas flapping in the wind. The storm had arrived.
As she pushed her windblown red curls back into place, she heard a pleasant greeting from another part of the shop. “You made it just in the nick of time, young lady.”
Annie turned in surprise and saw an elderly man smiling at her from behind a counter. “Yes, I did. I’m so happy you were open or I would most certainly be drenched to the skin by now. I neglected to bring my rain gear with me this morning.”
“Well, you just make yourself at home until the storm passes. You’ll find tea over there on the little table. Please, help yourself.”
“Oh, how lovely. Yes, I would indeed love a cup of tea.” As she walked toward the little table, “Are you the owner?”
“I am, indeed. My name is Morris. I’ll be in the back room if you should require assistance.”
“Thank you, Morris. I think I’ll browse for the time being.”
“As you wish, my dear. Good morning.” Morris moved to the curtain divider.
“And top of the mornin’ to you, Morris. Thank you.” She made herself a cup of tea and wandered about, admiring the vast collection of books lining the walls from ceiling to floor. The staircase leading to a loft was intriguing; she wondered what treasures might be hidden up there. But it was the round table at the center of the room which drew her attention. The beautiful Tiffany lamp shade above focused light on a solitary book which lay open on the table. A pair of white gloves, laid neatly next to the book, bespoke its value. She moved closer.
The calligraphy on the left-hand page was obviously executed by an experienced hand, but it was the illustration on the right-hand page which captured her attention with its three-dimensional quality. She set her cup of tea down.
A tingle traveled up her arm as her fingers traced the edge of the book. She wondered what kind of book this was as she lifted the left-hand side of the volume and folded it over. The Magic of Fairy Tales glittered in gold leaf against the fine leather binding. She smiled as she laid the book flat again and contemplated the possibilities of what it may hold.
Her memory drifted back to when she was a child and the joy she found in her favorite fairy tale book, the one with the black cover bordered in red with the illustration of an elegant, brightly lit staircase, a glass slipper, and a frightened Cinderella, in her rags, running away. She hadn’t thought of that book in years and wondered what had become of it. She remembered the comfort the book brought to her, the comfort she missed as she grew older. Perhaps there was something within this volume which lay before her that would enable her to experience that comfort again if only momentarily. She slipped on the cotton gloves and began turning pages.
Flashes of lightning and a loud crack of thunder startled Annie. She looked up as the light above the table flickered and went out. More lightning flashes cast surreal patterns through the skylight above, conjuring up ghostly images throughout the darkened bookshop. She sat down and waited for the storm to pass.
A sudden breeze assailed her, flipping the pages of the book in front of her back and forth in a wild frenzy, then abruptly stopped. She thought the front door may have come open, but no, it was shut. It rattled loudly as the persistent winds beat against the storefront. Perhaps a back door came open. That was it, Morris was in the back room and had contained the situation.
The light flickered on, dimmed, and went out for a second, then flared forth with its usual brilliance. The winds outside began to subside. The storm was moving on. As soon as the rain stopped, she would be on her way.
As the Sun peeked through the breaking clouds, illuminating the interior of the bookshop, Annie began to remove the white cotton gloves then stopped. Her breath caught at the sight of a different illustration which lay before her, brought about by that breeze ruffling the pages. It was almost the identical scene from her beloved fairy tale book of Cinderella running from the Palace in her rags, the glass slipper lying to one side, the clock tower showing the midnight hour and the shadow of a man at the head of the stairway running after Cinderella.
Annie got up from her chair as the illustration became animated and Cinderella began to move. She backed away when she heard the distant voice of the running man, “Cinderella, don’t go. Stay with me.”
The sound of shuffling shoes in the back room roused Annie. She looked up as Morris emerged from the back room. “Well, my dear. It appears the rain has stopped.”
“Yes, it has.” She looked at her watch. “I must be on my way.”
“I hope you enjoyed your visit.”
“I did, Morris … very much. Thank you.” She exited the bookshop into the welcomed sunshine and hurried away as the impact of what she had just experienced began to register in her consciousness. When she reached the corner, she paused and looked back. Her breath caught again when she saw that The Olde Book Shoppe was not there. It was gone. Only the blank wall of the parking garage remained. She shook her head, blinked her eyes and proceeded across the street toward the Loop.
As she turned the corner from Jackson Boulevard onto Lake Street, her heel caught in a grate and broke off. “Oh, damn.” She bent over and tried to retrieve the heel with little success. It was stuck fast.
As she heaved a sigh of exasperation, another hand reached down.
“Permit me, madam.”
Annie stood up as the man dislodged the heel, stood up and handed the heel to her.
“Oh, thank you. You’ve been most kind.”
The man smiled, “Not at all. Now, you have four choices.”
Annie looked into the very handsome face of this stranger and began to laugh, “And what might those choices be?”
“Well, let’s see. You can proceed with one good heel, and limp along, I can break the heel off of your good shoe, but walking would still be awkward or … you can go barefoot.” He smiled.
“And the fourth choice would be?” She was enjoying the banter in spite of her predicament.
The young man looked at his watch. “Ah, it’s almost time for the mid-day meal. The fourth choice would be for you to be my guest … over there.” He pointed toward The Lola Palooza Soup and Sandwich Bar.” He continued to smile as he waited for Annie’s response.
Annie could hardly contain herself. “It looks like I don’t have much of a choice … do I? The sandwich bar it is, but you’ll have to help me.”
“It would be my pleasure.” He extended his arm which Annie leaned on as they moved to the entrance of the food shop.
“One small change, however.”
“And that would be?”
“You will be my guest … for helping me.” She raised her hand, “And there will be no debate.”
“Ah, very well. I admire the independence of strong American women. I am at your service.”
“Your accent. Where are you from?”
“Oh, how lovely. What part?”
“I am from the Southern Province of Cadiz. It is on the Mediterranean.”
“I’ve never been to Europe, but the Mediterranean has such a mystical reputation. There’s so much ancient history there.”
“There is, indeed. You must come to Spain and I will be your guide.”
“You move right along, don’t you? Annie grinned at his playfulness. “I would need to know your name first.”
“Yes, of course. I am called Marco. And your name is?”
“I’m Annie. Glad to meet you, Marco of Cadiz, Spain. Shall we?”
Marco smiled and pulled the door open.
Claudette, the barista, saw Annie hobbling in and motioned her to two vacant seats. “Where did you break it?”
“Oh,” Annie laughed. “Over near the corner … caught the heel in a grate.”
“Do you intend to have it repaired?”
“No, it’s an old pair.”
“If you like, my dad is in the back and can break off the other one so you can move without going barefoot.”
“Sounds like this has happened before.”
“It has. There’s another grate at the other end of the block. I’ve tried to have the grates changed, but so far, no luck. Give me your shoe and I’ll be right back to take your order.”
“Thank you, Claudette. You’re a lifesaver.” She turned to Marco, “At least I can get home without hobbling or going barefoot.”
“And where is home may I ask?”
“Arlington Heights … it’s a suburb. I came in by train.”
“I would be so pleased if you would permit me to escort you to the train depot when we have finished our meal.”
Annie hesitated as her street-wise experience cautioned her against what he might be up to, then she smiled, “Ok, that would be very nice, thank you. Are you sure you have the time?”
“Oh, yes, that is no problem.”
Annie secretly marveled at the demeanor of this obviously well-educated man who was so chivalrous in assisting her. She had never met a stranger she felt so comfortable with. But he was a stranger, so caution was required. However, in the back of her mind, she realized this would probably be the only time she would experience something like this. She decided to enjoy it while it lasted.
They spoke of many things during their meal but avoided personal topics. The only thing she would like to have known, but did not find out, was how long he would be in Chicago. Obviously, it would be short term. He was either visiting or vacationing and would be headed back to his home in Spain.
She was pleased he did not resist when it came time to pay the bill. Claudette returned her other shoe, minus the heel and they laughed over the shoe incident. Annie promised to be back for another meal in the near future – with a proper pair of shoes on her feet. She left a generous tip and departed the shop on Marco’s arm.
He hailed a cab and before she knew it, they were approaching the coach Annie would be traveling in. He helped her up the steps and made sure she was seated comfortably.
“And how will you get to your home when you arrive in your suburban hometown?”
Annie smiled and held up her cell phone. “I’ll call my sister. She’ll pick me up.”
“Ah, you have a sister. How very nice.”
“I have five sisters and two brothers.”
Oh, Dios mío, you have a large family.”
“Yes, thank you.”
“What about your husband?”
Annie was surprised but pleased with the question, “Oh, I’m not married … yet.”
“Yet? You are engaged?”
“No, Marco, I was kidding. You must excuse my humor. Thank you very much for what you’ve done for me. I’m so happy to have met you.”
“Likewise.” He smiled sadly and took her hand, “Adios por ahóra.”
She wasn’t quite sure what he had said, but she smiled warmly as he left the coach.
He waited outside and waved as the coach moved out of the depot. Annie twisted in her seat so as not to lose sight of him until the last instant. And then he was gone. A faint melancholy washed over her when she realized she would never see him again. It was silly and juvenile but she couldn’t help herself. She had never met anyone like him before. She laughed to herself when the thought of ‘love at first sight’ popped into her mind.
She took her shoes off and looked at the broken heels, realizing she would never have met Marco if her heel had not caught in that grate. Perhaps it would have been better if the heel had not caught. She would have bought the birthday gift for herself. Perhaps had a pleasant lunch somewhere and returned home. She leaned back, sighed, and tried to relax.
Upon arriving at her home, she hesitated from throwing the shoes in the trash bin. Instead, she put them in her closet with her other shoes – a lingering reminder of their meeting. A silly reminder but still, a pleasant one. She purposely did not mention the meeting to her sister. There was no point. She did not need any sympathy at the moment. She felt lonely enough as it was.
As the days went by, she was unable to shake the memory of this man, Marco. She realized it was foolishness on her part, but there was nothing she could do about it. If only she had someone else to be with, it may have helped. But she didn’t. She was alone – that was the problem she had successfully ignored for far too long. Now it clung to her like a millstone about her heart.
The memory of those few moments when that illustration in the fairy tale book came to life and seemed so real also persisted. What was that all about? Perhaps a visit to The Olde Book Shoppe would help put things in perspective, provided the shop was there. Its disappearance flummoxed her. And if the bookshop wasn’t there, she could always visit The Lola Palooza Soup and Sandwich Bar. It would be pleasant to see Claudette again. She decided that’s what she would do next Saturday. She would take the early train. At the very least, she could buy a new pair of shoes, and that birthday gift she had promised herself, making the trip worthwhile.
She stepped off the early train and practically ran to the Jackson Boulevard exit. When she reached the Canal Street Bridge, her heart sank. The bookshop was not there. She walked slowly to the spot where it had been and paused, “Oh, Morris, where are you?”
She finally gave up the idea and decided to buy those new shoes, have lunch at the sandwich bar, and go home. It was a beautiful fall day; her sojourn in the city would be a pleasant one.
She thanked the clerk in the shoe department for her assistance, took her package and got on the escalator to the first floor. Since she was already in Marshal Fields, perhaps she would have a bite to eat in the Walnut Room, then take a taxi back to the train station and put an end to this nonsense about Marco. She hesitated as she reached the main floor and decided to go to the sandwich bar after all and see Claudette. She exited Marshall Fields, crossed State Street and walked toward The Lola Palooza Soup and Sandwich Bar on Lake Street.
The Lake Street Elevated rumbled overhead as she approached the entrance to the sandwich bar. She opened the door and was barely inside when she heard Claudette call her name. “Annie.”
“Claudette, hi. I’m surprised you remembered me or my name.”
“Honey, I remember a lot more than that.”
“What do you mean?”
“Marco has been in here a dozen times hoping you would be here.”
“No, I’m not and that’s not all.”
“A man with an accent, I think it was Spanish, was in here twice inquiring about you. I finally pinned him down as to what he was up to. He turned out to be some kind of a private detective.”
“A private detective? For me?”
“Yes, no question about it. Hey, what would you like for lunch?”
Annie paused, looking up at the menu. “How about the chicken sandwich and pea soup?”
“Comin’ right up. I’m so happy you’re here.” Claudette moved to the chef’s window.
“So am I.” Annie’s brain whirled around the new possibilities. She moved her parcel of new shoes over as Claudette returned with her order.
“New shoes?” Claudette chirped with a smile.
“Yes. I kept the ones with no heels as a reminder of what might have been. I’m finding some solace in these new ones … but not very much I’m afraid.”
Claudette placed Annie’s order in front of her. “That’s very romantic.”
“Yes, I do.” Claudette smiled and excused herself to assist another customer.
When she returned, Annie had finished her soup, was wiping her mouth with a napkin and admitted. “I know I’m being silly … I hardly know the man. In fact, I don’t know him at all.”
“Doesn’t matter, sweetie. If there’s chemistry, go with it.”
“Well, I’ll have to admit he’s been on my mind. But I never thought anything would come of it. I figured he’d be back in Spain by now.”
“Evidently not. Now, the problem is … how to get the two of you together.”
“Oh, Claudette, I don’t know.”
“Annie, it looks like Kismet to me. If it is, you’d be foolish to let it slip away.”
“I suppose.” She looked thoughtfully at Claudette, “I could leave my name and phone number with you. Would that be all right?”
“Yes, of course.”
Annie wrote her name and phone number on a napkin, left a tip next to her plate and laughed as she handed the napkin to Claudette. “Here … take good care of this in case he should drop by. If he should appear in the next few minutes, tell him I went thata-way to the train station. I’m going home.”
They both laughed, “I will, I promise. Bye, Annie.”
Claudette was cleaning up used dishes from the bar when the front door opened, “Hola, Claudette.”
“SHE WAS JUST HERE! She left five minutes ago, headed for the train station. She went that way.”
“OH, DIOS MÍO! GRACIAS!” he shouted as he rushed out of the shop.
Annie was sauntering up Jackson Boulevard toward the train station when she thought she heard her name being called above the traffic din. She thought about turning around but continued walking, thinking it was her imagination. When she heard it again, she stopped and looked behind her.
Before she could completely turn around, Marco was standing in front of her, “Marco!”
“Annie, don’t go; stay with me.”
“I’ll miss my train.”
“Miss your train. Miss all of your trains. Stay with me, please.”
“What about that private investigator Claudette told me about?”
“AY, CARAMBA! My mother.”
“She found out about you and sent an investigator to find out if you were a good woman.”
Annie began to smile, then broke into laughter. “But I am a good woman.”
“No, you are a wonderful woman. Stay with me and let’s see if there is love possible.”
“I can’t do that. I’m a good woman and intend on staying that way until I’m married.”
“Yes, yes, of course. I didn’t mean that. I just want to be with you in every other way. If love comes then I will ask you to marry and live with me, and we will have many children. Do you like children?”
“You take my breath away.”
“You don’t like children?”
“I do like children.”
“How many? Six or seven perhaps?”
Annie laughed. “How about twelve … an even dozen?”
“Yes, that would be perfect.”
“But, where? In Spain?”
“Anywhere you like.”
“But I only speak English.”
“You can learn, can’t you?”
“Yes, I suppose so.”
“If you don’t care for me, I will leave you now.” Marco backed up a few steps.
“Marco, don’t you dare leave me. I thought I’d never see you again, and I’ve been very unhappy.”
“May I kiss you?”
Annie was startled at the question, but then began to smile when she thought of kismet. She dropped her package of new shoes and opened her arms. “Yes, Marco, I would like it very much if you would kiss me.” She thought Marco would rush, grab her, and kiss her lustily on the mouth. To her utter surprise, he didn’t. He moved closer to her, never taking his eyes from her eyes. Then slowly, he placed both of his big hands on each side of her face and slowly drew her forward. He did not close his eyes but continued to search her eyes. He kissed her lips tenderly and slowly withdrew. Annie was so taken aback by his tenderness she felt faint.
He moved to her side and took her arm, “Come with me, mi hermosa.”
“We must present ourselves to Claudette.”
Annie began to laugh, “Yes, that’s a perfect idea.” As they began walking away, “My new shoes!” she turned and stepped back to retrieve her package. “I bought these as solace when I thought I’d never see you again.”
“Then, you must never wear them.” Marco could not conceal a devilish smile.
“Why not, for heaven’s sake?”
“Because I am here, and I will never leave you unless you send me away.” His attempt at maintaining a deadpan expression only lasted a few seconds.
“Well, that’s not very likely.” She gripped Marco’s arm and pulled him closer, “How do you say ‘I love you’ in Spanish?”
“Why do you want to know?”
“Because the moment I know that I truly love you I want to tell you in your mother tongue.” She stopped and looked at him, “Wouldn’t that be proper?”
Marco said nothing, he smiled and nodded. Finally, “The words are ‘Te quiero.’” And then he softly added, “My heart will sing with so much joy when I hear those words coming from you … you’ll never know.”
“Yes, I will.”
“Of course, and I’ve changed my mind about having a dozen children.”
Marco stopped and moved an arm’s length away with a fearful expression.
“I think four would be enough.” Annie laughed and pulled Marco to her.
“You had me worried!”
“I will never give you cause to worry, my friend.”
“You consider me your friend?”
“Of course I do. I wouldn’t let a stranger kiss me. Would you like to do it again?”
Marco stopped and turned. “I would, indeed.”
Annie had all she could do to keep the tears from spilling out of her eyes. She moved close to Marco. Here, hold these.” Marco obediently took the parcel. Annie took Marco’s face in her hands and slowly moved in, smiling. She kissed the tip of his nose then touched her lips to his. She withdrew, smiling.
“Los Dioses han sido amable conmigo.”
“Okay. Now, tell me what you just said.”
“Come on, Marco. Tell me … please.”
“I said, ‘The Gods have been very kind to me.’”
“Oh, Marco, that’s so beautiful.”
They entered The Lola Palooza Soup and Sandwich Bar.
“Marco! You found her.” Claudette practically jumped over the bar when she saw them enter together. “Come sit and tell me everything.”
“He stopped me and made me miss my train. I don’t know how I’ll ever get home.”
”You are not to be concerned. I will take you to your home. Please excuse me while I make a call.” Marco took his cell phone from his pocket and walked to another part of the restaurant.
Annie looked at Claudette with a surprised expression.
“I didn’t tell you everything when you came in earlier.” Claudette leaned on the bar.
“I got to talking with the private investigator. Turns out Marco is in the diplomatic corps. He travels the world. His mother is widow to an ambassador who was in high standing. Here he comes.”
“My car will be here in a few moments and then I will drive you to your suburban home. But first, I want you to meet my mother.”
“Marco? Isn’t this rushing things a little?”
“Oh, no, it is quite proper and expected. She is a great lady and will make you feel most welcome as my friend.”
Annie looked to Claudette for help.
“Kismet, Annie. Go with it.”
Annie smiled, “Do I have a choice?”
“No.” Marco and Claudette answered in unison and laughed.
As Marco and Annie moved to the front door, Claudette called out, “Annie, your new shoes.”
Annie laughed, “You keep them. I won’t be needing them.”
As she and Marco were being driven out of the city, she recalled the similarity between the scene in the bookshop with the Prince running after Cinderella, pleading with her to stop and stay with him, and Marco stopping her on Jackson Boulevard and making the same request. The glass slipper, her pair of shoes with broken heels, the new pair of shoes, and Claudette’s penchant for the word Kismet.
“You know, Marco. You will have to meet my brothers and sisters. They are very protective of me and will probably give you a difficult time.”
“I am ready, mi hermosa.” He took her hand and kissed it.
She had no fear he would charm them into accepting him. She sighed and moved closer to Marco as her thoughts drifted to the disappearing bookshop, and the magical fairy tale book, and then she thought of Morris. She saw him in her mind’s eye smiling at her over those gold rimmed glasses perched on the end of his blessed nose. Her heart whispered a heartfelt thank you to this mystical man … wherever he may be.