Manny was taking a stroll. It was a thing; he could stroll. The Little Book of Calm told him to do it. He paused, took a deep breath, and surveyed the peaceful winter street, as The Little Book also instructed. A squirrel scampered up and and nosed at his ankle. Manny jumped, looked around, and ran to the pub down the street, scarf whipping behind him.
It was that squirrel again. This time of year, it was always the squirrels. He found Fran.
"Hello, Fran. Where's Bernard?"
“He’s already had his two and a half hours," Fran said. Bernard's record for staying in a public space without being drunk was four. Even a place that served his favourite thing, alcohol, had too much "concentrated stupidity" for him to handle. "But why are you here? I thought you said you were going to start taking long walks at this time of day."
"I had to come in. It's the squirrels. They're watching me. The five year anniversary of my cousin's accident is coming up. It's like they know. They’ve even found the bookshop."
"That's ridiculous Manny. How would squirrels know what day of the year it is? Have a drink." She waved what Bernard had left in his face. "New Years is coming up, and I have decided I will turn over a new leaf." A resolute finger in the air, followed by the waggle of a black, racquet-shaped bag. "I have decided to take up sport. I will become active and social and a New Fran. I've even brought an extra racquet so you can play with me."
“Too many family comments over Christmas dinner?”
Fran ate a peanut and pretended she hadn't heard him.
When they got back to the shop, Bernard was halfway through a hardcover copy of Master and Margarita. He didn’t look up as they walked in.
“Bernard, this shop is awfully dreary. Where’s your end of the year cheer?” Fran said.
“Fine, if you insist.” He waved his hand at them. “Manny, go stand outside. And don’t move. It shouldn’t take too long for a snowman to accumulate.” He gave an ugly laugh.
“You may think that’s funny, Bernard, but the cold can be very dangerous, you know,” Manny said.
“What, does something ridiculous happen to you at a low temperature like that thing that didn’t happen to you during the heat wave?”
“Humans are delicate creatures of homeostasis! There is no reason they should be put in extreme temperatures! I will be in my room with the space heater.”
The snow was falling in fluffy, white drifts the next day as Fran walked out the door and the ten steps it took her to get to Black Books. The sky was grey and the ground looked like sludge. The three and a half hours of sunlight for the day were almost finished. She gripped the neck of the bottle of Riesling a little tighter.
Bernard was in his usual slouch at his desk, his face a mask of irritation, a book in hand. For someone crabby and drunk for the majority of each day, he was a voracious reader. But he had nothing to prove to anyone and allowed these great stores of knowledge to rest in the back of his brain. Maybe if eau de old book were a thing, he would like people more. If he could smell anything past all of that cigarette smoke and the pine tree air fresheners Manny had taken to hanging everywhere.
Why had Bernard left Ireland in the first place? Fran had never asked.
She tapped on his desk. "I brought lunch" - she proffered glasses seemingly from air and set them on his desk. They stuck a little and she wisely decided against asking about it.
“How should I know!”
Manny was, in fact, at that moment, engaged in a territorial battle. There was a green sock tied round his head, another on his arm, and he had a plate of muffins nearby. His eyes didn’t leave the window.
His target was in sight.
He hefted his muffin and eased open the window. Cold air curled into the room. Whap! He hit it in the tail and it skittered its tourist-fed, obese form away.
“Ha! No squirrel can best me!” And now for a triumphant slam of the window against its pane.
Except the window was stuck. Upon closer inspection, there was brownish ice around the frame, as if someone had coated the sides with a layer of water…and peanut butter. Manny staggered for the door, but it seemed to move farther and farther away as he felt sleepier and sleepier.
Fran and Bernard drank their way through Fran’s bottle of Riesling, and another. The snow outdoors piled higher. And higher. And higher. The level could be seen in the window. It would appear that they were snowed in.
"Have you got anything to eat, Bernard? I'm starving."
"What!" Bernard gave a zombie jerk. "Oh yes, yes, let's have a look."
As it turned out, they hadn't. Well, other than oats - "I didn't know you were such a hippie, Bernard" - and a jar of some brown...stuff that had the world “Skippy” on the front with a picture of a cartoon squirrel. Interesting. She unscrewed the cap.
“What on earth is this, Bernard.”
“It’s – peanut butter.” His face underwent a spasm of disgust. “Manny’s cousins are Canadians.”
“They sent him a care package? I think that’s sweet.”
“It’s not sweet, it’s disgusting. What are we supposed to do with it, other than use it as glue?” A brief, shifty look crossed his face.
They found a jar of dolmathes and opened the second bottle of wine as the snow continued to fall.
The first time Fran had met Bernard, she had been ushered into a sitting room that had a table covered in folded socks. She had assumed he was gay. Bernard had assumed nothing, but rather had been trying to avoid calling the booksellers for new stock. It was only later, when she saw him interact with other people, that she had any idea of how misanthropic he usually was.
A bobbing head appeared above the snow. A well-groomed, brunet head.
“Look! It’s one of those Jesus fellows,” said Fran.
“Who?” Bernard frowned about like an angry gopher. “Oh, it’s just Richard.” The head of Richard continued to bob by as Bernard contemplated the warmth of his chair.
But then the dark memory of his rainy night as a homeless person crept upon him. He got up and opened the door. “Hey, you!” Richard had the startled look of a doe or something equally knobby, dainty and spaced-out looking. “What – what are you doing out there? Come inside, come inside.”
“Oh! Um, hello again.” He gangled his way into the room, the snow on his overcoat dandruffing onto the floor with each movement. Anemic but nice, was Fran’s assessment.
“Richard! You don’t call, you don’t write, where have you been?” Bernard was undeniably drunk but Fran could see the words were sincere. Since when did Bernard have friends?
“I stop by when I'm in the neighborhood, but the sign on your door always says the shop is closed. I didn't want to intrude.”
Fran muffled a laugh with her hand and made a face behind Richard’s back.
And then the most astonishing thing happened. Bible guy introduced himself to Fran and the customer sitting in the corner – how long had he been there? – and then sat down and had a glass of wine. They ended up talking about curling – the one sport Bernard approved of – and the stock exchange. Everything, somehow, was normal.
Except that it wasn’t, because it was very, very cold.
“It is freezing. Why is it freezing.” Fran glared at Bernard, who looked faintly smug. “Did you leave something open?”
“I don’t know, maybe it was Manny.” He suddenly looked to the left. “Hey, you! Corner man! Put down that X-Files book and go close whatever is open.”
Corner Man reappeared a few minutes later to inform them that there was a man asleep on the floor in Room Two whose window had been frozen open. There was a squirrel curled up, asleep, across his collarbones.
A deck of cards appeared and Fran cheated at Go Fish because Bernard should have told her he had a friend. He could have called Richard instead when she had to look after his shop on the day of her brother's wife's baby shower. There was a lot of alcohol there she could have been drinking!
They eventually fell asleep on armchairs around an impromptu fire kindled from their least favourite books. By the time Fran woke up at noon the next day, only Bernard and she were left in the shop. Although, judging by the loud snoring coming from outside the room, Manny was around somewhere.
She found a window and peered out. The snow had melted a little bit and Fran decided she would slog through what she must to get home. She gathered all of her things, except –
“Bernard. Bernard!” A groggy look. “Where are the racquets that were just over there?”
He looked up balefully. “The ones in the trash bag in the corner? Richard mentioned he had to leave early this morning. An important life, up and about and all that. So, I took the racquets from the trash and made him snow shoes.”