(about two-thirds of a ‘novel in progress’ – rough draft as of July 31, 2017)
(with handy footnotes)
to be written in conjunction with a play based on the same story.
In my state of mind
It was a sun bright morn on the ides of May when the FBI came and took my files away. Sounds better in rhyme than it was. I went too—though not in the same truck as the files. Nevertheless, to be taken away, like a character in a cold war novel is purposefully frightening. The purpose, of course, was to instill a proper fear and awe of this secular god of theirs, ‘The Government.’ But I’d been in fear of that particular entity since the day when I was sixteen and wrongly realized I hadn’t paid my income tax—had no clue at the time, in fact, about how to perform this act of subservience. I was already working for myself, reselling books found at yard sales and such (not so much different than I do today) but a friend of mine who had a job taking care of the gold fish at Woolworth’s enlightened me to the awesome fact that this was how they had finally nabbed Al Capone, and there my dread began.
In this more recent event, I was taken away by a ‘Special Agent’ named Mark Clifford and accompanied by an assistant who was never introduced, or even said a word that I recall. Clifford had little enough to say himself, and said all of it. “Are you Michael James McGeraughty?” He already knew the answer there. “You are being taken in for questioning.” Where had I heard that before? “No. You are not under arrest,” and “Yes, you are free to refuse to answer our questions.” Thus I had no right to a lawyer, you see. “But if you do not cooperate, you may be formally arrested in order to fully conduct our investigation and that may involve a great deal more of your time.” Helpfully he added, “the warrant covers both your business and your home.”
I told him the door of my apartment was locked.
He answered, “That’s been taken care of.”
I was reassured.
Mr. Clifford is more the sort of plain-faced man you would expect in such a job. Like Ms. Arendt’s banal Mr. Eichmann. Though clearly very fit, Clifford looks to be about twenty pounds overweight. My guess is, more muscle than fat. He is clean-shaven, with a close-cut cap of black hair and dark blue eyes. (That was important because he reminded me a little of my uncle Jerry, a prick if there ever was one.) Special Agent Clifford is about six inches shorter than Jerry and stands back far enough to avoid having to look up at me.
The assistant held a plastic zip lock bag toward me.
“Please tell us at this time if you have a cell phone, or any other recording device on your person.”
My cell phone was conspicuously laying out on the front desk by the register. I reached for it but he was closer.
“I’ll keep this for the time being.”
It was Mr. Clifford then who brought me to the Boston field office of the FBI, across from City Hall Plaza, and that is where I first met a Mr. Evans.
In contrast to his associate, Special Agent Douglas Evans is a thin man—wiry is the adjective there. And despite the vanilla aspect of his name, he has the dark and swarthy look of my friend Vito Paranesi who runs Vesuvius Pizza. Also akin to Vito, Mr. Evans has a baritone voice that moves his Adam’s apple in quick hops beneath a cleanly shaven neck. I’m positive his neck hair goes all the way to his chest, but he’s wearing a shirt and tie so that’s a guess too. By his tone, he is very serious and a bit too clearly concerned for my welfare as well as the matter under investigation. He also reminds me of an uncle—my Uncle Fred who used to sit on the porch and smoke cigarettes alone in the twilight so as to get away from the visiting in-laws. When I would sneak away from the gathering myself, Fred would say something like, “Go climb a tree, or they’ll catch you.” Always useful advice. (And I warn you now, I have many other uncles to use for reference. I come from a large and Catholic family on my father’s side.) I immediately understand that Clifford will be the ‘Mr. Hyde’ guy and Evans his ‘Dr. Jekyll’ counterpart.
I had the following conversation with Mr. Evans—
But first, to neaten this picture, I should also mention that I had left the bookshop in the custody of the lovely Ardis. She calls herself the ‘assistant manager,’ in any case, but this designation is humorous for the fact that there are just the two of us, really. The others are only part-time. And I did not realize when I told her to keep an eye on things as I was escorted from the premises that they would be taking her in for questioning as well. So that’s why the door to the shop was locked for the entire day. There was no one else to call to cover for us at the last minute because all the part-timers have other jobs, or they’re in school. My kids used to be the standbys, but they are long gone from the roost, on to more exciting work in better places, and their mother lives in Florida now, though she might be back soon enough. Then again, Margaret used to avoid the place as much as she could even before the divorce. So that was that.
I should also note, allowing for the fact that Ardis can speak for herself and usually does, from what I gather she said pretty much the same things to the agents that I did. She likely employed a bit more of the vernacular, however. It’s one of her bad habits—that, and humming.
Also, please appreciate that the room in which I was interrogated was small, but not quite a booth. You could have sqoze another chair or two in on either side of the table. But I felt a tinge of claustrophobia.
Mr. Evans begins by saying to me, “Now Mr. McGeraughty. Are you the head of this Republic of Books organization?”
Just like that. No preamble. No cautions. Nothing. I thought the question was clumsily worded. Impatient. As if, wanting to skip by the little stuff and get right to the meat of the matter. There is a recording device on the desk about the size of a pack of cigarettes. The red light is on. I’m thinking, aren’t they supposed to warn me that the conversation is being recorded? At least I’ve seen it done that way on television shows.
But I’m thinking the room is probably wired anyway, so this is just a bit of visual prompt. And I can’t spot the camera.
I ask, “How about, ‘you have the right to remain silent? Anything you say can and will be used against you in a court of law? You have the right to an attorney? If you cannot afford an attorney, one will be appointed to you?’ ”
Evans’ Adam’s apple danced. “You have been detained under Title 18 of the United States Code, sections 10, 12, 20 . . .” there were more such numbers but I was not writing them down (I did not have a pen or paper in hand, or I might have tried) at the time, though I assumed, if I was actually arrested, this particular nomenclature of the nomenklatura would again be offered to my lawyer in print.
I said, “I would like to speak to my lawyer.”
This was humorous to me, mostly because I don’t have a lawyer.
Mr. Evans assured me, “If you are formally arrested, you may request counsel. At present you are only being detained under the habeas corpus provisions in the Patriot Act.”
I countered with, “It appears you have neglected to consider the First, Fourth, Fifth, Sixth, and Fourteenth Amendments to the Constitution along the way.” I think I had got my own numerical nomenclature out about as quickly as he had said his.
He says, “I ask you again, are you the head of this Republic of Books organization?”
Now, I’m thinking what anyone would likely believe. It was better to cooperate as far as I could, and get this over with. I hadn’t done anything evil, and what civil codes, state law, city ordinances and traffic restrictions I had recently broken were likely petty.
So I answer, “It’s a business. I suppose that’s an organization of sorts. A small one, anyway. I’m the proprietor.”
“How long have you been in charge?”
“Since I started it. Thirty-seven years ago.”
“What is the purpose of your organization?”
“I sell books.”
“What is your objective?”
“To make an honorable living.”
“Why do you call it by that name?”
“It’s a conceit. The existence of the shop is dependent on the purchases of my customers—they are the voters—the citizens of the Republic if you will.”
“Does it have any other purpose?”
Of course it did. I had written at book length on the subject. More than once. But Mr. Evans did not appear to be interested in my bibliography or my philosophy.
“The name is an allusion to various other things, if that’s what you mean. Plato first imagined a Republic in his dialogues about justice over two thousand years ago. But I’ve always seen myself more as one of the ‘keepers,’ as suggested by Benjamin Franklin when that lady in the street asked him what kind of government it was that they had fashioned at the Constitutional Convention of 1787, and he answered, ‘A Republic, if you can keep it.’ ”
Mr. Evan’s face became deadly serious now. The ‘deadly’ aspect was in the expressionlessness of it and the sudden loss of any discernible concern for me. I wondered if he had ever practiced that face in a mirror.
“Mr. McGeraughty, are you now or have you ever been involved with any group or organization advocating the overthrow of the United States Government, or engaged in any activity to that end?”
What was I to say to that? The matter would require some thought.
Met with my immediate silence, Mr. Evans rose from his chair after posing his question—as if to emphasize the rhetorical weight of it—and not getting a response—he slouched back against the wall facing me, perhaps to say by posture that he had all the time in the world. But suddenly I found my speculations about his motivations to be a little trite. There was always the tendency to write a script out of any exchange. And for me, this was just too prime for that. So I took another moment to answer, considering my options. I decided upon a sober approach.
“Are you suggesting that I have advocated an armed insurrection against our duly elected government? Are you supposing that I support violent revolution as a means of furthering my own ends? No, I have not. And I do not.”
I attempted a straight face to compliment my answer.
He leaned forward from the wall to the open a folder on the table and shifted one of the pieces of paper inside toward me. The gesture was just a little bit dismissive.
“Could you please explain this then?”
This was a print-out of an essay from my own website. I knew it immediately because of the title ‘The estoppel of Government deceit.’
“I think it’s self-explanatory. At least I hope it is.”
“For me then, and any others who might be verbally impaired,” he gestured at the recording device between us, “could you try to explain this statement in other words?”
“I was calling for peaceful resistance to unlawful acts of government.”
“Unlawful, as determined by you?”
“No. As determined by the United States Constitution.”
With that, Mr. Evans pulled his chair out and sat down again as if to speak in a closer confrontational manner, but then quickly leaned back in it to regain the space behind. I was thinking he did not like being in my company. Which was funny, because I was just then beginning to enjoy the chance to speak to him. I was not sure why.
He says, “You are telling people not to pay their taxes. You are advocating that people refuse to sign up for Obama Care. Those are laws.”
“I am advocating resistance to illegal requirements enacted by bureaucracies. Article one, section one of the United States Constitution states ‘All legislative Powers herein granted shall be vested in a Congress of the United States, which shall consist of a Senate and House of Representatives.’ Those particular ‘laws,’ as you are calling them, were not enacted by the Senate and Congress. They were imposed by the President, or his minions in an unelected bureaucracy. The President cannot make law. That right is very clearly and specifically described in the Constitution.”
He came forward in his chair, eyebrows raised.
Perhaps I was not wrong in trying to script his behavior. These moves were just a little too stagy for my taste. He was hoping to provoke me.
“That may be, but I am not wrong.”
He gave me a good grimace for that, and waved the flat of his hand in the air between us.
“I am not about to debate Constitutional law with you, inasmuch as I don’t believe either of us is qualified to do that, but the Constitution—I believe it’s even in the first paragraph, before your article one, section one—states that it’s written to provide for the general welfare.”
Any pleasure I was taking in talking to him was gone now. I was certain his act was as staged as any second-rate bit of dinner theatre. He would only debate me long enough to get a reaction to fit his need.
But I said, “Clearly, you were shooting spitballs in class the day they covered all that. The first paragraph of the Constitution states, ‘We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.’ The framers had no delusions about ‘providing’ for the common welfare. But they did wish to promote it.”
Mr. Evans, raised both eyebrows again and spread his hands in the air above the table.
“Well, it’s the same thing!”
“No. Not even nearly. The words were chosen carefully. Debated at the time. As were all the words of the first ten amendments, which have been so badly mangled since then by the politically motivated philologists on the Supreme Court. If you ever get the opportunity, you really ought to read the Federalist Papers. You’d quickly see how important words and meanings were to those fellows.”
Mr. Evan’s eyes half-closed as he rearranged the open folder. I was now beginning to think that my script was all wrong. I was giving up much to much ground to this man supposing he had any idea of what I was talking about. He was more likely the sort given wholly to process and procedure; the heart of the administrative state. His kind had been captured well enough by Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables, in the character of Javert. The difference here was likely that Mr. Evans had never read that book or even seen the musical. His only reading of the Constitution was likely to have been to pass a test in the same class where he had refined his spitballs—a test on which he likely got a ‘B.’ ‘B’ for banal.
No? Perhaps not. He still didn’t strike me in the same way as his partner in legalized crime, Mr. Clifford.
But then, I was being insufferable, even to myself. All of this conjecturing was only an effort at self-defense on my part. I felt threatened. I was threatened. My livelihood was endangered. And my liberty, if they decided to put me in jail. My job here was to keep my own cool, not imagine his. All I could afford to do was be forthright. Had I said anything yet that might be considered a ‘cover-up.’ They were very hard on that, I knew. These days you could kill babies if you wanted to, so long as you freely admitted to it.
Mr. Evans flinched just a little, perhaps from gas, as he opened a second manila file-folder and then pushed another photocopied piece of paper across the desk at me.
“Does this reference to ‘The Keeper’ refer to you, then?”
I read it. The particular note was new to me. It was likely copied from an email but the name of the source was blacked out. It read, ‘I went to see The Keeper today. Got three good books to keep me busy while I’m gone.”
I shrugged. You have to practice your shrugging if you are going to do it convincingly. Given my usual and ready belligerence, mine felt stiff.
“It might. I don’t know. I’ve used that tag a time or two.”
“Do you know a George Reilly?”
“What do you know about him?”
“He’s a customer of mine.”
“Do you have any other relationship with George Reilly?”
“He’s a friend.”
“What is the nature of your friendship?”
“He is a regular customer. We chat when he comes in.”
“What do you talk about?”
“What does he like to read?”
“That’s none of your business.”
“This is a Federal investigation.”
“I understand. And what my customers read is none of your business.”
“That’s not for you to determine. I remind you, you can be arrested for withholding information pertinent to a Federal investigation.”
“I suppose. But I can’t worry about that. That’s something I can’t control. What new law the government has dreamt up among its tens of thousands of laws is not my business—well, not unless you actually interfere with my business, I suppose. Objecting to all those laws would take several lifetimes and I only have the one.”
“You should make it your business.”
“My business is selling books. And writing them on occasion. No, actually writing them all the time but only getting them published occasionally. I can’t help myself about that. It gets to be a habit, you know. The writing I mean. The bookselling too, as a matter of fact. Selling books to people interested in new ideas is addictive. If you are looking to buy a good book, I’m your man. But aiding and abetting the activities of a Federal authority which has far overreached its just and proper Constitutional mandate to protect the citizenry is not my business.”
Saying this aloud made the lie too obvious, I thought. The context was not ambiguous enough to hide that. And I was sure he knew it, even if he had perfected the spitball by his sophomore year.
At that point, I could not tell if Mr. Evans was humorless, or simply not entertained by my answers. But the interrogation went on in this boring fashion for several hours, spread through the remaining morning and the afternoon. The lunch they offered was a sandwich of white bread, processed cheese and warm, greasy baloney. I thought that was quite appropriate. But I didn’t eat it. I asked for more coffee and some ibuprofen for my headache, instead. At 6:30 there was a dinner. This was something like the sort of ‘Salisbury steak’ I used to see in restaurants when I was a kid in the 1950s—that is, basically, a thin hamburger without the bun, apparently fried in a meal of some sort, and served with a cornstarch gravy, carrots and mashed potatoes. I think it had been heated on the square plastic tray in a microwave. Again, appropriate. I did eat that, but in my memory, a Salisbury steak used to be a better thing.
I’m not sure why, but I was held for further interrogation until after nine o’clock. Again, still without a lawyer. I was assured several more times that I was only being ‘detained for questioning,’ another phrase I was oddly familiar with from watching far too much television in my misspent youth. At one point I inquired of Mr. Clifford, who had alternated with Mr. Evans and had made sure to ask each question again, if I was to be detained overnight—that my plants might need watering. And that was shortly before I was finally released.
But, other than my cell phone, I was in fact never made to empty my pockets, nor did they take my belt or shoelaces. Speaking of which, I had only spent two previous nights in a jail cell—once in Oklahoma and another time in Spain. This place was unlike those in every way. Still, I think this briefer incarceration should count for some bragging rights because I could not leave until they were finished with me. So, by my count, I’ve been in jail three times now.
Left alone in the room for a time with my baloney sandwich, I spent the half an hour looking for a hidden camera but couldn’t find one. There did not appear to be any one-way glass. The window looked out from the third floor onto the brick desert of the City Hall Plaza but would not open.
At nine o’clock I was handed the plastic zip-lock bag with my phone, and released, and so I went home; only a short walk over the top of Beacon Hill. I was already tired and the shop would be closed by that hour in any case and I figured to call Ardis and find out how she had fared alone as soon as I had a beer in hand and my own soft chair beneath by butt. Opening the phone, I saw immediately that she had tried to call me half a dozen times.
She answered pretty quickly. “Where were you? I was worried.”
“You knew I was arrested.”
“Did they arrest you?”
“Well, no, not precisely. Sort of. I wasn’t allowed to leave until half an hour ago. I’m sure they were digging all the while through all the files they took in the hope of finding something. How did things go at the shop?”
“We were closed. They took me in as well. But they let me out hours ago. Around six. I went into the shop, though there didn’t seem to be much point in opening up at that hour. Everything looked okay. I just fed the cat and locked up again.”
“Who questioned you?”
“An asshole named Clifford and a dick named Evans.”
I had the immediate image of the two men going back and forth between two rooms, asking the same questions over and over again.
I told Ardis that and said, “Their lives must be a living hell.”
She answered, “I hope so.”
For the moment, hell seemed like an inadequate punishment.
The FBI had groped my apartment thoroughly, leaving nothing to the imagination. The disquiet of sitting amidst your own stuff when you know others have touched everything is terrible. It is chilling. The anger welled, for awhile, and only subsided when my eyes began to close involuntarily from the exhaustion of the day—and the jigger of bourbon was empty.
But while sitting there in my comfortable chair, with the reading lamp casting its yellow illumination against the night, a fat Modern Library edition of the works of Tom Paine stared back, broad-spine, from the near shelf. Reading has always been my comfort and consolation. However, in this instance, I was not helped.
In Common Sense, Tom says, “Men who look upon themselves born to reign, and others to obey, soon grow insolent; selected from the rest of mankind their minds are early poisoned by importance; and the world they act in differs so materially from the world at large, that they have but little opportunity of knowing its true interests, and when they succeed to the government are frequently the most ignorant and unfit of any throughout the dominions.”
But there was no one to whom I could complain. My circumstance was certainly petty compared to far worse violations that happened everyday to others—but this particular injury was mine! The nation I lived in, and raised to love, was no longer intent on preserving even a semblance of serving the individual citizen, but rather catering wholesale to the rotting carcass of its bloated self, first and last! The police were not there to protect me, but to serve the authorities.
And there, and then, sitting in my comfortable chair beneath that cone of yellow light, I suddenly and completely felt the indignation which had before been subjugated by my own vanity during the questioning of Mr. Evans and Mr. Clifford. I knew at last that I was truly helpless, impotent, emasculated, neutered, Inadequate, powerless, enfeebled, and now wholly enervated. And it was from there that my exhaustion from the ordeal carried me to a shallow sleep.
I dreamt that I was adrift on a crude raft of flotsam by a seashore. I don’t look for hidden meanings in such settings. I love the beach and that is simple enough. But I could not actually reach this spit of sand because of the tide, and it was just far enough away to make me doubt my ability to swim the distance. Repeatedly, I paddled my way closer, only to be dragged back by the current. Frustration dreams are common with me—I suppose with everyone—just a way of working out the daily failures we feel more intensely. And as with most of my phantasms, I recognized many faces there at the waters edge. Margret among them, remarking critically on my stamina—aloud, no less. No subtleties in any of that!
But, said in such a public place as a beach where anyone I could imagine might hear, this was a nasty abuse given her own chronic lack of interest in such things—the ready evidence of our children aside. And there too, on the beach, were my children. The girls must have assumed I would make my way successfully, I suppose. They were apparently chatting happily about other matters. (Distance is no hindrance in dreams. You hear all sorts of things you would not otherwise.) But my boy Ben stood knee deep in the waves, exhorting me, and bellowing, “Common on, Old Man.” He did not mean it in the way a Brit might of done fifty years ago, so there was little need to psychologize such an obvious additional affront to my dignity. My subconscious is often engaged in worse subterfuge. All in all, I think it’s healthy. Slapped about in that way, I might awake with all the sobering and without the red cheek.
Awake, I thought of an earlier hero of my youth, George Hayduke, and his old buddy, Seldom Seen Smith. And naturally, I thought of their author, Edward Abbey. I had featured his book, The Monkey Wrench Gang, at the front of the shop when I opened in 1975. I even wrote Abby several fan letters and got a response or two. A good fellow, all in all, if a bit difficult. He was what I would call a small ‘l’ libertarian and his book was important at the time because it helped me overcome all the blather I was getting from publisher’s reps and almost everyone else at the time about how I should run my business. Of course, they were correct—that is if all I wanted to do was make a buck. But there are certainly better ways to make a buck than to sell books. I wanted to change the world, and have some fun doing that. And Hayduke was, for a time, my exemplar. I wanted to blow the dam! I wanted too break the canonical logjam of authoritative deadwood that choked the literary waters.
So, to me, Hayduke’s desire to open Glen Canyon with dynamite then felt akin to my own want to break down the doors of the New York publishing establishment. Hayduke failed, of course, as did I. And the publishing establishment is even greater now and more concentrated, as it has passed though intervening years into the hands of four or five conglomerates and not the forty of fifty publishing houses that existed then, and is thus far worse, after all, than what I faced as a young author in the early seventies (another example, I would argue, of the falsehood inherent in theories of entropy).
I had failed in all of that. So, I climbed into bed, instead.
But still awake, lying there and staring at the dark, I thought of Herman Levi and his failed attempt to live his life in the midst, but apart.
I once bought the estate of a very poor man, Herman Levi. His wife had left him. His children too (for reasons I could only guess). And he died, I think, from lack of care. Levi lived in a small house on Cypress Street in Newton, and close to the Seminary there. The building might once have been a stable or carriage house for an estate behind, but was now surrounded on all sides by twentieth century architectural detritus. And this house was truly filled with books. Kitchen shelves sagged with volumes. Ceiling beams slumped beneath makeshift bookcases. Floors wallowed. Yet, after twenty years of bookselling in Boston, I had never met Herman because he bought all of his books at library sales. A matter of frugality, perhaps. Or as likely, a realization of the fact that there is a finer form of natural selection that takes place when libraries discard what is deemed no longer popular. And he had a wonderful eye. There was hardly a volume that was not worth the weight to carry, even with the heavy-handed branding of the librarians on spines, endpapers and title pages.
I would love to have known the man, and even yet feel the loss of our missed trajectories.
Because I was still married at the time and could then prevail upon my wife, who was also our landlord, for the indulgence, I was able to use the inconvenient corners of the garage next door to the shop to store my purchase. (All the prevailing took place in the midst of one of our epic arguments, as I recall.) In those triangular allotments betwixt tires and fenders I stacked over a thousand cardboard wine boxes filled with Herman Levi’s ex-library books. And it was thus that, and for more than three years afterward, I was able to set those carefully collected volumes out, box by box, on the sidewalk with the books priced at a dollar apiece. Each new lot brought the serious readers like flies. Our business flourished from the added attention. And through his books, I did get to know the man a little, and thus to further regret our lack of acquaintance.
Herman Levi was a philosopher. His mistake was not in ridding himself of his Xanthippe, or ignoring those misbegotten offspring whose minds had been hammered to lesser interests by a public school system that abhors the irregular. But the greater error of his ways was in failing to write things down. Amidst all those books marked here and there with hand torn scraps of yellowed newspaper, or shreds of junk mail circulars, I found nary a note or a letter.
After some months of browsing the collection as I set the volumes out, often taking some of the books home to see what he had marked, I came to appreciate his mind then too—and a bright idea came to mine. I went up to the Andover-Newton Seminary at the top of the hill behind the little tumble-down house and spoke to an old friend—an instructor there whom I will leave nameless so that he is not scourged by my acquaintance—and mentioned Levi’s name to him.
Yes! My friend knew ‘Levi,’ as the man liked to be called. They had “spent long hours arguing over pins and angels,” he said. I asked him about Levi’s character. My friend grew serious. There were personal matters involved that he was not free to discuss. But this was a truly lonely soul, he said.
In the midst of a city suburb, Herman Levi had tried to live the life of a hermit, and failed. It was this failure that troubled my friend most, because Levi had been sure the fault was in himself, and my friend could not persuade him otherwise. My friend too regretted that Levi did not write, despite much prompting.
And I overslept.
What’s all this, then?
a post preamble
This is my chance, then, to cast myself in the hero’s role. I’ve been a humble bookseller for all these years. (Allow me my hyperbole.) I don’t run into tall buildings to save women and children while other’s flee. (My knees have never been that good, but do the women need the saving anymore?) My eyes are not good enough to fly jet planes or hit a fast ball. I sell old books and a few that are new, and write what I cannot sell. For sixty-eight years I have done pretty much what suited me. And here, at last, is a chance to do what is arguably better if not best. The argument is not settled. That I have waited until I have so little left to lose may be some mitigation of your judgment of all this, perhaps. Or that the overwhelming risk of failure now makes any effort romantically futile (and planned that so). That I should have done more to prevent what has finally come to pass might cast me into the lower ranks of Dante’s hell, but at least I won’t be letting a good collapse of Western Civilization go waste. There is a story here. And if it transpires that there is no one left to read it, so be it. That is at least consistent with everything else I have ever done. (The whine you hear is not self pity, but the wind in the gears.) I sally forth. My armor is the truth. I have a worthy truck for my steed. My companion is—well, we’ll work that out.
A doctor told me recently that he doesn’t read novels. I have encountered this before, especially among individuals of above average intelligence.
“I’m too busy,” he said.
I said, “When did you trade being busy for being anything else?”
He looked confused. Consternated is the old word. I suppose he thought I was passing judgment of some kind, which is true. Doctors especially dislike to be judged. That is their prerogative, not yours. It took him a moment to realize there were other alternatives to the equation than to be lazy or unproductive.
“I’ve always been busy. I suppose it’s my nature.”
He said this while continuing to tap and probe.
I asked, “Have you ever read The Little Prince?”
“Is it a novel?”
“No. Not really, though it’s novel enough. But there’s a character in that who’s very busy with matters of consequence. And I imagine you think that what you are busy with are matters of consequence.”
“Sure. Sometimes, life and death.”
“Your own life and death?”
“No. Others. Even yours.”
“What about yours?”
“I take care of myself.”
“You work out?”
“Everyday. About an hour. And I run when I can.”
“But you don’t read.”
“I read medical texts. Extracts. There’s a lot to keep up with.”
“When did you come to believe that you were a machine?”
“I don’t understand.”
“A machine is a complex tool. What you’re giving me is an answer I could get from a computer—more efficiently by a computer. I thought what made a doctor unique from a machine was their ability to make judgments where the facts are insufficient. I thought that was why they call it the practice of medicine.”
“What are you talking about?”
“Novels can give you perspective on dry fact. They offer insight. They let you see things from other angles.”
Now, I was in this doctor’s office at the time. He had allotted me my fifteen minutes. This appointment did not include time for chatting about literature or the meaning of life.
“Well, maybe someday doctors will be replaced by machines. But for now, I have to figure out why your shoulder hurts.”
A familiar illustration of the body’s inner geography filled the wall in front of me.
“That chart is very neat and machine-like, and I’ll bet you passed a test on all those very same names for the ligaments and bones and muscles maybe thirty years ago, because that same chart was in my doctor’s office when I was a kid. It was fascinating to me then. But I tell you what I thought then and still know—that’s not me.”
He was offended. “I know that. . . . And I do have another patient waiting. What’s your point?”
“You still haven’t explained to me why my shoulder hurts. You told me that the torn ligament in my shoulder has nothing to do with the muscles that are causing me pain six inches away from it. I wonder how you know that?”
“They’re not directly connected to one another. You want a medical judgment. That’s it.”
I pointed at the names on the chart. “I can see that there. But the problem with the trapezius and capitis and all those other muscles began when that rotator ligament was torn. And though my posture leaves much to be desired, the muscle knots up and becomes painful only when I lift something with that arm, or extend that arm. And I am nearly always in pain because of it. And your telling me it’s not connected sounds like something I might find on a chart in a text book. But it doesn’t fit my circumstance, and it does not solve my problem. Don’t you think that’s important?”
“I think it covers the matter admirably.”
“Yamamoto would approve.”
“An admiral who only listened to what he wanted to hear.”
That was a bridge too far.
“I don’t have time for games. You can put your shirt on now and take this folder to the desk.”
“Sure. My time is your time.”
“Are you being rude?”
“You have no idea.”
The rules are that you should never pick a fight with your doctor, . . . or your landlord, or a policeman, or the IRS, or a meter maid, or a city inspector, or a customer, or just about anyone who can cause you more harm than good. That’s the kind of life most of us lead these days. I’ve tried not to live that way, but I’m not that much different than everyone else. As with life’s other circumstances, the pain in my shoulder usually reminds me that I’m doing something wrong.
There is a wonderful quote from a fabulous movie of long ago, often repeated but seldom fully appreciated: “Oh, no, it wasn’t the airplanes. It was beauty killed the beast.”
Perhaps it’s strange to you that I apply a quote from a movie to the death of the book, which is the greater subject here. Then perhaps you should look more closely at that movie. It was not technology that killed the book, nor the internet, or digital reproduction, or any of those contrivances that you’ve heard complaints about. They were only means. Mere tools. ’Twas beauty. The perfect nature of the book itself—that physical vade mecum of bound pages, whether pulp or rag or vellum, sewn or stapled or glued, covered in leather or cloth or not covered at all—that was the reason and cause for its destruction. Such an empiric beast could not be allowed to survive in a fungible world of etext, hypertext, subtext, pretext, semiotext, nontex—whatever. No matter the subject, poem, novel, history, or tract, the book itself was the existential threat.
“Look!” My old friend Gary once said, interrupting a regular rant of mine, and long before I had wised up to the fact, “You don’t think they want evidence of their deeds lingering about, do you?”
“They? Who is ‘they’?”
“The intelligentsia, the self-ordained priests of the illuminati, the elite! They intend to survive, you know, and they don’t want evidence of their betrayal laying about on coffee tables. So long as the shelves are filled with crap, they’re fine. No one will look there. But their greatest fear is the book in the cupboard. The forgotten text. Some sort of palimpsest of their perfidy. . . . You like that?”
“The use of the ‘P’ words. I did that just for you because I know you love it so.”
“It’s fine. But tell me who ‘they’ are.”
“Who do you think?”
“Who? The President? I was talking about the Patriot Act. ”
“No. No. No. He’s a tool! Bush league. His very name is a sort of onomatopoeia. I’m talking about the ‘establishment.’ The ‘Dark State.’ ”
This was way back in 2003. We were killing the best of our youth again, this time in Iraq. A fine man, an honest editor and excellent writer, Michael Kelly, whom I had met in the shop on several occasions had just been killed there in his own attempt to see what was real and what was not. This news had brought up a gorge of complaint at the current human folly.
But I said, “Another conspiracy theory! You’ve become paranoid!”
I should have seen what was coming for my friend Gary right then. He is shorter than I am but strongly built. When his hands fly into the air, it’s like an athlete flailing at the gods for his own failure.
“You are wrong! Try to see it! Please! This is not one of your word games. This is for your life and the lives of your children. The bad guys don’t need to conspire! They all think alike. Haven’t you noticed. It’s like the Ira Levin novel, Stepford Wives. No. No. Better yet. The Invasion of the Body Snatchers! Pod people. They don’t need instructions. They know, like a bird knows how to build a nest. It’s in their genes!”
“Maybe that’s just because they all wore Levi’s back in the 1960’s. Something in the dyes.”
“Please! Take this seriously!”
But that was hopeless for me at the time. Poor Gary. I was still too concerned with my own malarky to see it.
With writers already having sacrificed verity in favor of favor and acceptance, such a corporal art as the book, and the ready evidence it might reveal of their deceit, could not be allowed to co-exist beside the re-written virtual text of our time. Revisionist history has been the rage since old Woodrow Wilson started altering the meaning of events and the Constitution way back when he was just a professor at Princeton. With the very climate itself having been made political, the ‘author’ had become just another tool as well, and the need for the book—that hairy sublime of existential fact and proof of our foolishness, the paper trail of what we had known or thought we knew, that tramp tattoo attesting to our previous love and indulgence—was made inconvenient and thus doubtful. With the advent of the internet and the ascendancy of nescience and the commutable labyrinth of the web, the virtual had now become the ‘real’ and the book was at last defunct. The anonymous Wikipedia had redefined wickedness. All had been Googled. The Great Bezos had spoken.
Certainly the tag, ‘book’ will be carried on. And ‘pages.’ And ‘word.’ The ever prescient Orwell predicted all that too, as meanings are altered to suit the need of authority. But now we have arrived at that last moment. The great misbegotten beast that was the book lay dead upon the shadowed street in New York. And all of those things that the book once was, nasty and false and true and kind, were dead as well, along with that industry of editors and publishers, critics and agents and, not least, the mortal authors themselves who once believed in their own veracity and perspicacity. All gone! Deceased. As dead as the once wild beast of unfettered words that made them possible. A computer can now write as well as the graduate of a university writer’s workshop. Garbage in, garbage out. Compassion made to order. Empathy on demand. There’s a formula for that, don’t you know. Just keep it Strunk and White.
It is now all too clear. The death of the book was a suicide.
Art has now evolved beyond postmodern, to postmortem.
And note, the movie industry is departed as well—not coincidentally, using the same recipe. A King Kong cannot be imagined today, (I reference the 1933 masterpiece, not the modern abortions) only copied—and badly at that. Computer graphics can now simulate almost anything but real life—but then, that was once the subject of actual authors, not authoritarians.
The writing of these ninety-five theses, however pitiful, did not just begin with the recent indiscretions of the FBI. In one form or another, as a play, a vignette, our memoir, they were begun years ago. Certainly before my argument with Gary, when I had only an inkling of what was to come. I was mainly troubled then by the quality of the books. At the outset, we had mostly been a new bookshop but I was made to buy more and more used stock in order to keep good books on the shelf. And then my argument was begun anew when I realized the best of the publishers were finally gone and what was left were the international corporate monsters whose obeisance to the numbers on the bottom line made any semblance of publishing the best, out of the question. Alfred A. Knopf, or the ghost of its better half, was sold to Bertelsmann, and Holtzbrinck had bought Farrar, Straus and Giroux. The Germans had won the war after all and I thought this was significant. And it wasn’t just here. It was happening there as well.
And you know where there is.
Canongate in Edinburgh sold out to a rich young fellow with pretensions back in 1994. Who would publish the like of Alasdair Gray today? And there is no small bookseller on the banks of the Seine to publish a James Joyce in our time. Why bother when no one reads anyway. ‘They scan. They skate. The have no time to contemplate.’
And at least once more after that, I attempted my screed. That was when a former customer was leaving the shop one day, and told me, quite frankly, that he was only browsing so that he would know what to look for on his e-reader. I told him, out loud, that I hoped he enjoyed fucking himself, because that was the only pleasure he would get out of that. However, the small pleasure I got from the look in his eye that day was not sufficient payment for the misery he made me realize was already mine. Perhaps I should have given him credit for his honesty. Like Walter Raleigh tipping the executioner to take his best whack. No?
Yet, here I am again on the storied slopes of Mount Helicon, looking for a horse.
It’s easy to write about detectives and space rangers. I find it most difficult to write directly about myself. Without disguise, making the most of so little is a real chore. But, for shame, I will try to hide the sweat.
With the advent of computer-generated imagery, the most popular films are now little more than cartoons. With the decline and decay of education, our history and literature, and the language necessary to understand them, have devolved to idioms, memes and iconography. With the rise of authoritarian politics, the expression of free-thought has become hate speech and virtue signalling has replaced virtue.
I read years ago that the actor Steve McQueen, a favorite of my youth, refused a movie role because he would not cry on demand. I respected him the more.
It is in that spirit of not crying on demand then that I write this book.
You are here, at a rest stop. Beneath the finger smudged glass, an arrow marks the spot on the highway map.
‘All hope abandon, ye who enter.’
Dante said as much.
But, if you would permit, I would like to say a little mor
A circumnavigation of sex
in the rear view, cymbalism may appear louder than you think.
I forgot to mention: we are open nine to nine, six days a week. Eleven to seven on Sundays. (I often forget that bit when I’m speaking publicly). But being closed all of a sudden in that way, on the day the FBI came for us, made more of a stir than I could have expected. And seeing those unmarked white SUVs out front at least gave some people the right idea. A Boston Post reporter who comes in frequently, Deirdre Roberts, was practically waiting at the door when I opened the following morning.
As if genuinely concerned, she says, “Were you sick?”
The interest on her face looked real enough. She had always, and determinedly I thought, ignored me before, in spite of the many times I’ve chattered her up. But I cannot remember that I was ever too sick to open the door.
“I don’t think so. I feel a little queasy from eating breakfast too fast, but that was only so I could get over here on time. I over slept. Maybe that’s what you’re detecting.”
She appeared as humorless as Messrs. Clifford and Evans, but it was still early. She asks, “Why were you closed yesterday?”
I shrugged, still unaware that she had seen the hovering SUVs, but with that shouldered gesture down from the day before. But there was no avoiding an answer.
“The FBI has the cockamamie idea that I might be running some sort of subversive organization out of here.”
From her left coat pocket, her hand appears holding a small notepad with the wire spiral at the top edge. A pen is magically poised in her right. I see immediately she uses the same brand of pen I do. My estimates rise.
She hesitates a moment—wobbles on her feet—her way of emphasizing sheer disbelief, I think. Then she says, “How did they get that idea?”
I said, “By reading other people’s emails. That’s the kind of thing they do nowadays.”
“Does that mean you ARE doing something like that?”
“Sure! I run a bookshop. How subversive can you get?”
“You mean, you’re selling radical literature?”
“Maybe. Depends on your point of view, I think. But probably so.”
“What is it, exactly, that they’re unhappy with?”
The list was long. Where to begin?
Another shrug. “I use a mechanical cash register.”
She backed up a step. I’ve noticed since, that’s another of her antics when she hears something she doesn’t expect. She’s one of those people given to the simple dramatic arts. The small physical gesture of emphasis. Cute. But I expect, this being Boston, she hoped I was selling a banned book or two. There was always good copy in that.
She says, “Other than the fact that it’s as much of a pain in the neck for customers who have to wait in line a little longer as it must be for you all here to ring in sales that way, why are they unhappy with it?”
I like it when people tell me two things with one question.
“Because I don’t keep electronic records. They can’t tell what specific customers are reading.”
I looked up right then from my usual opening procedures at the desk and caught a look on her face as she nodded. Deirdre Roberts reads romance novels. The worst kind. The ones with guys on the covers who evidently don’t have jobs because they spend their days at the gym and thus cannot afford the price of a shirt but are depicted there in livid color clutching at women who are over-endowed by nature and wearing expensive looking dresses in danger of falling away in a light breeze, that is if they are not already in dishabille. I can bet Deirdre would be very unhappy to hear that anyone else knows about her habits in that regard.
Keeping a disinterested tone, she says, “What sort of subversive organization do you think they could be looking for?”
I shrug. “Your guess is as good as mine.”
In truth, never mind the impulse to flirt, as Deirdre grilled us I was pretty busy with helping Ardis check around for any mess the Federales had left but I couldn’t rightfully turn her away. She’s been buying books from me for twenty years, at least.
Ardis remained quiet through most of this interrogation. She had tried to call the night before and become upset when I didn’t answer, perhaps thinking that I might actually be under arrest. When I later told her that I thought everything was pretty much okay, she sounded greatly relieved—as if the proverbial great weight had been removed from that very healthy chest of hers—as if she was more worried than I was—but then she became even more unhappy when she learned that the FBI had neglected to have her to stay and eat the Salisbury steak. She has a healthy appetite too.
What I’d told Ardis then was that, to my knowledge, and given the number of laws on the books, they could probably find something to arrest me for, but they didn’t. I also said I’d see her at her usual hour, 11 o’clock. But she was already there at the shop when I came in at 8:30 to survey the aftermath. And I thought she was acting a little sullen. I told her again that the Salisbury steak was not that good.
Police, plumbers, carpenters, electricians, and the other trades generally have very poor domestic habits. They don’t clean up after themselves. I would say that I pity their wives, but that would be politically incorrect, so I will. The FBI can only aspire to that singular community of worthy tradesmen. As an offshoot of law enforcement, a sect, if you will, they have simply lost their way, I think. Or maybe the bad habits have been trained out of them by the progeny of Mr. Hoover’s anal imps. There was no mess in the shop, just as there was none at my apartment. Everything appeared to have been left in its proper place, or nearly so—except of course for the business files which they still had in custody. The mess they’d left us instead was more subtle. It had to do with things being akilter, out of whack and in odd fettle. The cat, a sensitive creature (or so I am informed by Ardis), had evidently leapt into her arms when she arrived, as if still upset over some discreet but unsettling alterations in his home.
For instance: It is assumed by the public that the business phone we use—it has a dial, not buttons, and is made of black Bakelite, being the same exact one I had the day we first opened back in 1975—is kept at the front desk, right beside the computer monitor, as a sort of functional ornament. For contrast perhaps. A bit of 20th Century kitsch, or nostalgia, like the mechanical cash register. (The register is far older, however, and was taken out of the back room of a defunct drugstore on Massachusetts Avenue.) Browsers are always looking over at me when I make a call on the the phone. The dial ticking back after each number is spun, and the coil of the cord to the receiver draws their eyes. The fact that the sound reproduction on this old Bell Labs model is far better than the weak and tinny dribble from my cell phone does not occur to them. (Though I had to pay extra for the converter to keep it working that way.) Nor do they comprehend the full value and physical worth of slowing down for that dial to return to its resting place after each digit is spun. Time enough to consider in advance what will be said. My own attitude is, and has always been, more instant communication is likely to be more thoughtless miscommunication.
This particular artifact seems to have caused the FBI some greater degree of difficulty when they tried to play with it as well. The phone was still perched at the very edge of the high counter when I arrived, almost at the end of its tether, where I could imagine some younger officer had tried to make a call. I expect that would have been like watching one of them use a stick shift in a car. At least that much was a laugh. Still, I was wondering if they’d bugged it. I’ve seen that done in movies too.
The computer fired up immediately but was not on the usual opening window. I mentioned that to Ardis and she said she would call Jack about it. Jack Holt is our dogsbody and her boyfriend and thus usually at her beck and call and the one responsible for all our more ephemeral technology. What bug might be crawling inside there I had no idea, but he would likely find it. Jack is fond of such insects.
We both noted that someone had gone through the place and looked at each one of the old radios we have scattered about on the shelves as filler and decoration. This much I could tell by the fingerprints in the book dust. Jack has installed a wireless speaker behind the grill on several of the models and we use those daily as our ‘sound system,’ but I seldom get around to dusting any of them.
There are half a dozen old typewriters set out on the tops of the lower shelves to brace the book ends for the taller volumes, and these do get handled more often—especially by the kids who come in and have apparently never even seen one of those mechanical marvels before. But the sheet of paper we’ve rolled into each of them to protect the platens had clearly been removed and then put back. None of the sheets were properly aligned. My immediate conjecture (paranoid fancy) was, again as seen at the cinema, that the Federal boys or girls had taken a typed sample from each machine to match up with any nefarious correspondence they might get their mitts on. Perhaps an expected ransom note, or a coded message. This is probably overthinking it a bit, as that is mostly the sort of thing done in black and white movies and long before the advent of the laser printer. But then, I am not sure you can overthink the machinations of such minds. Their purposes are so entirely their own.
I hear the rat-tat-tat from the typewriters periodically throughout the average day, and it is deeply comforting to me and an audible key to my pre-arthritic past. Once a year we have a story contest on those machines. Would-be authors come in and pay $5 each to whack out short stories in one hour or less and we post the results in the store and on our website. The winner by acclaim receives a $200 gift certificate, runner-up gets $100. Third place $50. It’s very popular event. But other than that, I’m not sure what all gets written on them. I suppose a ransom note or two might have been produced. Or a letter to some editor. A love letter. Or a shopping list. The joints on my fingers don’t let me use a manual anymore. I use the computer now to write, just like the rest of my fellow eunuchs.
There are only six typewriters set out at any one time. I have more than two-dozen that I’ve found in attics through the years, while out and about scouting for books, but they are not all in working order at any one time, given the pounding they get from the curious. The rest of those are in the back room on the steel racks along with the boxes of overstock. Those too had each been moved as well, though that might have been done to get access to the boxes beneath.
Deirdre follows me around the place as I check these things out, asking questions like, ‘Have you ever been arrested before?’ I told her about Spain and Oklahoma. Generalissimo Franco did not like vagrants any better than the authorities of Ponca City and loitering is still a crime in Oklahoma, or was, forty years ago. But she brushes all that away in the air, with a sweep of an impatient hand, as being besides the point. She wants a story for her paper before the word leaks about this FBI ‘raid’ to anyone else. She stares into the empty drawers of the file cabinets in the back room as I open them one after the other. The physical vacancy, so much more palpable than whatever was taken from the computer, has visual effect on her face. She is solemn.
I tell her, reassuringly, “That’s mostly just the stuff the accountant makes us keep for seven years to satisfy the IRS.”
After talking awhile with Ardis, Deirdre is still standing by and trying to think of a few more smart questions, when Mr. Clifford shows up once more.
There are half a dozen customers in the shop by then and Mr. Clifford would like to speak to me privately. I tell him I can’t, unless he wants to close me down again. I have to stay at the desk.
“What about your assistant?”
“She’s helping customers, but she’s not even supposed to be here.”
He moves in against the counter and speaks in lower tones.
“We’ll close you down again, if that’s what you want.”
There’s no strain or anger in his voice. It’s the calm that threatens. I glanced over at Deirdre before answering.
“I don’t want that. I just want you to leave me alone.”
Mr. Clifford sees Deirdre taking a special interest from over near the racks of greeting cards.
He turns to her and says, “This is a private conversation.”
She says, “I’m a reporter for the Post. And Mr. McGeraughty doesn’t appear to be wanting a private conversation.”
Mr. Clifford stands away like he smells something unpleasant near by. “That’s too bad,” he says and then he simply leaves.
Deirdre raises an eyebrow and says, “I’m afraid you might find some visitors waiting for you at home this evening.”
I say, “Maybe I’ll just go to the movies instead, if only to keep them waiting.”
As I mentioned, I’ve written about the shop dozens of times. It’s about the only advertising publicity we can afford (free), and the papers always seem to want to run another story about the demise of the old-fashioned bookshop, or the death of the book, or something else along that mordant line—the sort of nostalgia article they can keep in a file and run as filler whenever they need it because none of the Brit Royals is pregnant, or anything more important like that. But it suddenly occurs to me, with Deirdre standing right there, that I should think of some angle that will get a larger story now out of this situation. To show you what old age can do to a brain, it took me nearly an hour to realize the potential.
Finally, I say, “Revolutions just aren’t what they used to be.”
She perks right up. She is a tall blond woman who has hit her fifties with a relative ease on the eyes of others. When she’s suddenly attentive to something, her backbone goes straight and everything else arranges appropriately.
She says, “What kind of revolution do mean?”
I answer, “The revolting kind. They used to have firing squads and straight-back chairs where they could tie your hands behind and put a blindfold over your eyes. Now they give you a dry scrap of Salisbury steak.” I can see in her eyes that she thinks she should understand some literary reference for the Salisbury steak. I let her off that hook. “Bureaucrats don’t want to be responsible for anything, even a decent meal. They took all my records and I’ll bet they return with them in perfect alphabetical order even though they weren’t that way to begin with.”
Now she thinks I’m holding something back. She drifts over to the counter and presses up close, just about where Mr. Clifford was before. “What kind of revolution would you like to see?”
When you fish with a red and white bobber, of the kind I am want to use for lack of greater skill, it’s pretty clear when the perch are nibbling.
“A quiet one. I don’t like loud noises the way I used to.”
She says, “Is there something specific you’d like to see changed?”
She has blue eyes but they are not as royal as Mr. Clifford’s. More of a softer hue. Periwinkle, I think. And a flash of irritation has darkened those. My flippancies are likely wearing thin.
So I say, “Yeah. Firstly, I’d like to get rid of the IRS. They are an outlaw organization in every respect.”
“Not the FBI?”
“No. Not the FBI. They could be knocked down a notch so that they have to obey the same laws as everyone else, but I think we’ll always need some sort of police force that can roam from state to state because the real bad guys like to move around.” She actually wrote that one down. I had not yet gotten to my point, and she was writing something down. I’d misfired. So I followed up before she could ask another question. “No. My bugaboo is the corporations. Those dinosaurs roam from state to state as well and get to play by their own rules, obey a different set of laws than the rest of us, and pay taxes in Delaware, or wherever the cheapest place is for what they do, while they bank their dough in the Bahamas. I would do away with corporations.”
That got the knowing smile to drift across her cheeks. What fools these little shopkeepers are. Don’t they realize we live in a modern age?
“Is that the basic objective of your revolution?”
“Oh, no. It isn’t my revolution. It’s yours. You just don’t know it yet.”
The backbone went straight again. She must have my son Ben’s ear.
She says, “I’m not sure I believe in revolutions. At least, not since my college days, anyway.”
I detect the patronizing in her voice—or is that matronizing, in her case?
“No. I understand. Most people don’t. People can get killed in revolutions. But they’re necessary. Like Mr. Jefferson once said. ‘God forbid we should ever be twenty years without a rebellion.’ ” I attempted to gather pieces of that quote out of the brume closet and took a breath to line up another portion. She looked up at me with growing suspicion. I continued, “ ‘What country can preserve its liberties if their rulers are not warned from time to time that their people preserve the spirit of resistance? Let them take arms. The remedy is to set them right as to facts, pardon and pacify them. What significance is a few lives lost in a century or two? The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants. It is it’s natural manure.’ ”
Deirdre now looked a little distressed. “So you ARE advocating some sort of violent revolution?”
“No, I was just quoting Mr. Jefferson.”
“You seem to know that quote very well.”
“I’ve used it before in one of the my own books. I think that’s the best part.”
She shook her head just a little, as if to say that shaking it any more would be a waste of time. “But the world has changed since 1776.”
“But that quote was said later. In 1787, I think. Jefferson had just received a copy of the newly minted Constitution then while he was in Paris.”
Her chin was down now, as if to indicate she would not be taking history lessons from me. “That same Constitution ratified slavery, didn’t it? Your Mr. Jefferson himself owned slaves.”
And there I was, asking myself again if this was all anyone knew about Thomas Jefferson these days? Is it all they teach in school anymore? Or, worse to some minds, the unlikely chance that he might have taken immoral liberties with a slave? Gads! Wasn’t the slavery itself bad enough?
“A fact! The Constitution was certainly not the word of God, even if some conservatives act as if it might be. You’re right about that. But they did believe the idea of liberty that they were attempting to define was God given. The rights they promulgated were inalienable. They say it over and over again to make the point. And besides, that one terrible flaw was, soon enough, the inevitable cause for a whole lot more pain, and cost quite a few more lives than the original Revolution itself. Because of that particular wrong, we were killing each other again less than four score and seven years later. Just a little more than two generations, in fact. About the same distance in time as World War Two is from us right now.”
The slight shake of the head again. Yellow curls bounce. “So, is that what you advocate now? Revolution. Shedding the blood of tyrants?”
“If you mean some sort of revolution? Certainly! We’re all slaves now to a government that’s grown way beyond our control. Something should be done. Don’t you think?”
She paused a second as she caught her balance. I saw the shift in her blues. Wasn’t she supposed to be asking the questions?
“Hmm. Like what? Lets see.” Could I be too serious? Should I be? “Take taxation without representation, for example. There was one representative in the House of Representatives for every 30,000 citizens in 1790. You’d have to check the figures. I haven’t looked them up recently. And that was only accounting for three-fifths of the slaves, remember, and of course only white male property holders could vote. And there were about 120,000 citizens for every representative in the 1860s. The House size has been pretty much fixed at 435 since about 1911. But there are about 700,000 of us looking for representation from each Congressman today.” Her mouth was open. I saw that she was not writing any of this down. I persisted. “Allowing for the fact that there were well over 308 million of us as of the year 2010, we should have almost 1500 in Congress today. Just to get the same representation now as we had in 1911! What about we start the revolution by getting a little better representation. That would give people a better voice in their government and make it that much harder for the corporate media and political PACs and labor unions to buy the favor of every congressman.”
Her smile was uncertain. “That doesn’t sound very revolutionary. In fact, it sounds a little cumbersome.”
“No! It’s just a little more than three times the current size. But do you think all those 435 well tanned Congressmen are going to give up their sinecures without a fight?”
She bounced back. “So you do want to overthrow the government.”
“Certainly. Why not? They’re tyrants! No better than the Peisistratids of ancient Athens. Besides, isn’t that the real downside of birthright citizenship? We are all born subjects to our government. That’s just what Jefferson was talking about! Just because you were born here, does that mean you’ve got to obey the laws your grandfather was stupid enough to pass? We are not slaves! Well, we are to some extent, but we shouldn’t be! I’d be okay with representative government if that was what we had. Right now we have a government that only represents itself and only acts to increase its own power.”
She had started shaking her head at the odd word ‘Peisistratids.’ She would not be misdirected!
“But the Congress was elected!”
“No. They were appointed. Selected, at best. Incumbents are rarely unseated. The party apparatus doesn’t support anyone who’s not willing to go along to get along and support the status quo. These aren’t the citizen representatives the Founders wished for. There are no farmers or shoemakers among them. No shopkeepers. They’re all lawyers. The election is just for show. Not much better than a poll. Oft times worse.”
She shakes that off, eyes wide “Now you’re blaming the messenger. The Press is only reporting on what’s being said. Anyway, polls usually show that people are satisfied with things the way they are.”
Ah! And now she was hoist with her own petard.
“Well. You can blame yourself for that. The Press these days is in the business of supporting the powers that be. Being close to power gives them a thrill down their collective legs. They all belong to the same club—the ‘we know better what’s good for the public than they know themselves’ club. Apparently the theory in the editorial office is, what the public doesn’t know won’t hurt them. Don’t ask how the man behind the curtain got so rich while in office. Tell them instead who is sleeping with whom. And given the meager public school education of their readers, they may have a point. The public usually goes along for the ride. Half of them don’t bother to vote. Half of them don’t even pay income taxes. It’s just petty self-titillation, with the other hand always out for a share of the spoils. The politics of the press is pretty much in line with the elected officials, in any case. Saves time and bother. You just report the government press releases as news and then go home to the assumed safety of your beds at night.”
The blues flashed with a couple of fast blinks and a tightening of the cheeks in sudden outrage.
“That’s not true! I’m here right now talking to you! Am I not?”
I waved that one off. “This isn’t news. It’s a man bites dog story. A curiosity at best. A bit of color. Certainly not as momentous as a first term senator standing up to his party leadership. If some unapproved candidate were ever to break through the blockade of press coverage, they would be pilloried, scorned, and ridiculed until they were forced to withdraw or else be ruined. I’ll bet you a corned beef sandwich a story like this doesn’t get as far forward as page three. Nobody gives a damned about books anymore. Books are yesterday’s business. Besides, I’m a baby boomer! I can easily be pigeonholed as just another leftover 1960’s radical turned grumpy old man. My travails and discomforts would barely qualify as a humor piece.”
She closed her notebook. “Maybe I was giving you too much credit. You don’t deserve the attention.”
I nodded some agreement, “I can see how you might think that.”
And so she left to a sudden silence.
First thing Ardis says is, “You were hitting on her.”
I had to smile at that. Ardis doesn’t miss much.
“Maybe a little.”
Ardis bounces her head at me. “I could tell she knew it.”
Ardis is an astute judge of her fellow man (and woman). Her red hair is far too bright for the dark thoughts she harbors. I seldom spot the book thieves before she does. I can be busy keeping an eye on some poor bum in the first aisle who might just be looking for a corner to pee in, while she’ll be stopping a wallet thief from shoving the emptied remains of his latest score in-between the shelves in aisle four. She has a belt of one color or another in Taekwondo, but she is not so good at chatting about the relative minor significance of a Jonathan Franzen or a Michael Chabon. She couldn’t even finish the latest Donna Tartt book. (Though she has read every one of the Harry Potters and I haven’t read even one.)
I say, “I was thinking about inviting her to go with me to the movies tonight. As a sort of bodyguard against the Federales. I guess I’ll have to give up on that. We’ll just have to wait and see if I overplayed my hand.”
I will drink alone. I’ve been known to. I keep a little beer and a good bourbon at home. But unlike my lost friend Herman Levi, I prefer to pay the price and drink in a public place. This is a habit initiated upon the advice of another of my uncles when I turned eighteen, to the effect that shame and expense might thus combine to keep me from becoming a drunkard. I’ve added my own addendum to this, for the benefit of my children: that if you have no shame, you shouldn’t drink in any case. There were no movies playing in the theaters that I would pay to see, so I spent my funds that evening at Duggin’s.
Duggin’s is not an exceptional tavern. It’s only the best. Mostly because of Duggin. But he is not talking to me at present, so I settle for his comely wife, Doreen. Doreen and I have conspired to run away together many times—always, mind you, within the grab of Duggin’s ear.
Doreen has, more than once, chosen me as an exemplar of true manhood with which to taunt Duggin into fulfilling his proper duties as husband. I am not speaking of the finer conjugal matters here. Duggin is twenty years younger than myself and now far more capable in that territory than I am, I’m sure. (Otherwise, I imagine, the comely Doreen would have moved on long ago.) No. Not actually that. But I am talking about the decision to have their first kid. Which was the cause once of Duggin not talking to me for nearly a year.
They have four of these Cheerio eaters now and Doreen’s mother, Estelle, (who is divorced but not unwilling to make the same mistakes again) has moved into their house and taken over evening duties in the childcare department. (I have thus avoided several recent invitations to dinner there). No. I am actually talking more about pursuading Duggin into taking her to Nova Scotia, which he finally did last summer. Or, some years back, buying that bit of heaven they have in Eastham, on the Cape. Actually, Margaret sold them the property. I was just the one to actually talk them into it.
Doreen is at the bar when I come in. Her eyes are turned up at the television and she is trying to answer a Jeopardy question. But she can’t get it out. I shake my head in pity.
“Quick, then!” She says to me, “What is it?”
I say, “What is the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo?”
The contestant says the words right behind my own.
Doreen says, “Why ain’t you rich?”
“I thought I was.”
“Ah!” She says and pulls an ale for me.
Because they don’t serve meals there, the after-work crowd begins to thin by about half past seven so it’s a good enough time to catch your breath after a long day.
Doreen leans into the bar, which can be disturbing to the male libido and something she does unconsciously, I think. “Jimmy said he saw a pack of white SUV’s out in front of your place, blocking traffic. What’s up with that? I called but there was no answer.”
I got half the glass empty before I could say, “Nothing much. Just a raid.”
Jimmy’s voice wafts then from the far end of the place where I can’t see him.
“Pornography? You selling pornography again, Michael? Told you not to do that.”
The sound of his voice is loud enough to get pretty much everyone’s attention. Other voices quiet. All eyes turn my way.
I say, “If you’d picked up the last lot you ordered, they wouldn’t have found a thing.”
Finally someone laughed, and then a few others did too.
Jimmy stood up from a table of heads in the corner, nodding as he came forward.
“What were they after?”
“Names. Addresses. They don’t know.”
“What have you done?”
“Is this just between ourselves, Jimmy?”
Jimmy waves a hand at the twenty or more faces still paying attention.
“We’re all friends here. So, what was it then? Were you talking a little treason, again?”
“Only what any good man might do.”
Jimmy pressed close at one side of the stool. He’s a large fellow and he has a certain physical gravity about his person. He spoke in a loud whisper.
“What did the buggers want?”
“Just what I said. Names and addresses. It appears I have a bad reputation among the authorities. They think I’ve been consorting with revolutionaries.”
“Good on ya, for that. What we need is a little revolution. Maybe a big one.”
Doreen was back from serving someone else and takes my glass and fills it again as she gives Jimmy a shoulder. “Listen to him that can’t even get up in the morning to go vote! Tell us Michael, did they get anything?”
“They took all my files. But I don’t think so.”
“And your computer?”
“They didn’t take it away but I think they copied the whole damn thing.”
Jimmy waved at the air as he moved away to get behind the bar next to Doreen.
“Then you’re likely safe. They are the most corrupt of the lot, but also the most incompetent.”
Doreen says, “Can you sue them?”
I tell her, “You can’t sue the government unless they give you permission to do it. I think Chief Justice Marshall saw to that in 1803.”
Jimmy throws up his hands, “Jesus, Michael, is everything a history lesson? Can’t we have a nice bloody revolution without all your lovely books.”
“Sure. I think I’ve read about something like that.”
In ancient mundane
the beer was fine, the work was sweaty, and the women, very, very pretty
On second thought, most of you, however few it might be, should not be reading this. It has politics in it and, I’m guessing, not of the sort you’d like. You’ve better things to do than argue politics with a stranger. Worse still, I think, if you know me. Likely, the only politics you’re interested in are your own. And in any case, you’ll likely be told by the authorities that this is only a yarn. A novel, of sorts. An odd sort, granted, but not to be taken seriously. A mere opuscule from a minor life. A narrative of unlikely events, perhaps unfortunate. A clothesline of fabrications strung out to dry. A bildungsroman of miseducation. A faction, or, more likely, just a fiction of bad ideas. But, I say in return, it is at least as accurate what you’ve read in the morning papers, or you’ll hear on the nightly news, and far more true.
For example, do you notice how human flaws often manifest themselves around human virtues? The beautiful woman who fails to develop her mind is a cliche, for a reason. Bright people too often fail to study, relying on their innate capacity to understand and thus fail the rest of their lives, while the greatest athletes are often those born with average physical abilities but an extraordinary desire.
An archetype of this is the Welshman Ernest Rhys. His father and family worked the coal mines of Carmarthen and Newcastle. Though first trained in the ways there, he found his true love in books. Largely self-taught, he went to London and lived out the rest of his life as a great litterateur amongst the old boys from Oxford and Cambridge. Always poor, his keenest pleasure was in helping other authors, and he was a friend to many of the greatest in his time—W. B. Yeats, G. B. Shaw, Edward Thomas, and D.H. Lawrence among them. His own writing was very good, both poetry and prose, though not perhaps of the very best, yet he never showed the sort of literary jealousy you can readily see in our own time in the pages of The New York Review of Books, for instance (or almost any book review for that matter).
It was Rhys persistence that caused Joseph Dent to establish the Everyman’s Library with the aim of publishing 1000 of the greatest books ever written, in a small and affordable format. Simple genius! This one successful effort changed Twentieth Century letters by more than a hundred Ezra Pounds, making the best literature available to everyone who cared, and was copied over again many times with small variation by others, including the Modern Library of Albert Boni and Horace Liveright in America. It certainly sparked my own desire to fill my shop with the best literature that I could find—to establish my republic on existential terms as a physical rampart to my own castle of dreams. Importantly, you can read his self-told story for yourself. Among Rhys best work, Everyman Remembers has been available in many fine bookshops since 1931.
In establishing the Everyman Library, Rhys wrote a short introduction which offered the raison d’etre of the effort. This essay was entitled A Republic of Books, and was, for me, my first encounter with such an idea—another reason for the naming of my bookshop that I neglected to tell the FBI. Let them find it out for themselves.
“The average man, the man who does not read anything but newspapers, thinks of books as the sealed packets of an exotic intelligence, which it will not do him much good to open. He knows nothing of the fine salt-reek in the pages of Hakluyt, or the hearty strain of the ballad-book–“It fell about the Lammas tide / When the moor-men win their hay,” But by this neglect he leaves unused his sixth sense–that which quickens all the others, that which can add rooms to his house and a region to his brain. If over-night he had been in Nantucket with The American Farmer, De Crevecoeur, or walking the Edinburgh Canongate with Sir Walter Scott, he has a fresh vista to his street when he turns out in the morning, . . . In this faith, some six or seven years ago, we set out to build a new republic—a Library-in-Being, that should have in view throughout the play of literature upon life.”
The only mistake I can see there is a matter of the ages—the men (and women) of our time no longer read the newspapers—for good reason perhaps. There is too little worth reading in those pages as they have generally become the Pravda and Izvestia of our time. The ‘average man’ has lazily turned, these days, to the easier consumption of the internet and television; and there only to find a dilute juice of outrage, sensation, or pathos, politically strained of harmful pulp and nutrients, while leaving their deeper knowledge of the greater world to the 140 characters of a thumbed text, or worse, the spew of others with little interest in truth but always great want to be recognized.
Rhys was a ‘socialist’ of an old sort, in the mold of Victor Hugo and Goethe. He had faith in the ‘elective affinities’ of mankind—Max Weber’s dynamic between Protestantism and capitalism as seen through a literary prism of individual value that would level the playing fields for all. I have believed it to be a benign philosophy at root and far far from the horrors of National Socialism and the communism of Soviet purges, even if it does presage all of that horror. At least, in that older socialism, government is not the source of good. That, Rhys believed, could only arise from the hearts of men. And literature was the tool.
Ernest Rhys would not recognize the literature of our time. Even as a tool, it is a cheapened device made of base metal; a shiny appliance of the modern G.E.—that is of a general education that brings all minds to a common political correctness and acceptable mediocrity as a norm; certainly not the fruit and harvest of free souls that Rhys imagined. Near all of it is now soiled with the scab of cynicism. And given the enervated putz of a tool our literature has become, there will be no progeny. The literature Rhys loved—the novel, the essay, and poetry—those small books on a neglected shelf—are but a ghost of those generations past. The modern iterations, their pages cut to fit the pad, or the tablet in procrustean sameness, are filled with complaint without resolution, criticism without consequence, and glee at the misfortune of others.
The greater excitement in words today is found in the headline, the tag line, and the click bait. The malleable photo, well shopped, is now the bleated key to enlightenment. The text is no more than a Strunk & White reductionism of language to what will least confuse the publicly educated masses.
What is a ‘Lammas tide.’ Who are the moor-men?’ if you have to ask you should not use the allusion. Keep it clean. Keep it simple. Remember, you are writing for minds that had been shaped by G.E.
What of Dr. Johnson’s instruction, ‘Be as wise as you can.”
I admit then, that until I read Mr. Rhys essay about his envisioned republic, I had not read Johnson, or Boswell. By that time I was used to escaping from the clutches of the G.E. by reading Dumas, and Stevenson and Twain. And when I first came upon the little book, found in a used bookshop on 49th Street in New York, that contained those thoughts from Ernest Rhys, my world exploded, as from a bomb—an anarchist’s device. The peaceful Fabian, Mr. Rhys, had finally sabotaged my public school education. Perhaps in the nick of time.
Naturally, the newspapers did not contain an account of that detonation. Lives were not lost—they were found. But I am sure I was not the first casualty, nor the last. And I would not have been ready to understand the import of this blast had I had not first read, more than once by then, the accounting of his own adventures by Huckleberry Finn. Nor, perhaps, could I have accepted my new found independence of spirit without the prior examples of David Balfour and Jim Hawkins. Certainly, I was already a disciple of Mr. Doyle’s elementary wisdom, “when you have eliminated the impossible, what ever remains, however improbable, must be the truth.” It appeared clearly to me then that what I wanted was not an empire, or a kingdom, any more than a club, or a fraternal order, or a clique. What I wanted was a republic—a commonwealth built upon a solid constitution. And I quickly found the principles to make it work.
Not incidentally, my search for those tenets of conduct led me through the Everyman jungles of Aquinas and Descartes, and the deserts of Plato and Kant, as well as the vast somnial plains of Hobbs and Hume, before I found both compatriots and provender in the gardens of Thoreau and Montaigne. Admitting that I was of a simpler mind was the key to all that. If life required too great a study, it could not be lived by the mortal likes of me. I was not a monk. Nor was I ordained to follow. I had been set on the road less travelled by the Everyman Classics, that embodied figment of a coal miner’s son’s imagination.
My own escape to the Territory from the authoritarian Aunt Sally became an exploration of ideas and this naturally required a grasp of the history that made them possible, watered them with the blood of saints and sinners, or, in necessary excavated them like bones from the dust. For several years I could not read fiction but for the greater need to find out what happened next, and why. History can be compelling in that way. I consumed Gibbon one summer while mowing lawns to pay for my addiction. Well, how did all that happen? I found Herodotus and Thucydides, to explain. I went on a jag and read three biographies of Lincoln all in a row, and that after finishing Bruce Catton’s Civil War during my last year in high school. (I was barely allowed to graduate for lack of the proscribed credits). And it has continued on like that, through all of my life, though I did soon enough return to fiction, because even the best historians have trouble understanding the human heart.
And it was amidst this revelry of words, that I found myself.
But none of this is news, really. Each of us have our own trajectory. Landing safely, is the thing. But a fear of flying, or at least avoiding the crash, can keep some people on the ground forever. Not a deep thought, just a fact.
Mr. Rhys had spoken of “The average man, the man who does not read anything but newspapers.” Where was he, or she now, in fact, without even those pulpy rags to clutch in the air above their morning cups of coffee. Lost, perhaps, in the wood that was never harvested for the pulp that was never ground for the pages that were never made? Lost entirely to that small fraternity, the self-chosen few, ‘the reading public’ that might have been a customer of mine.
Why? Simply, because the newspapers no longer carried ‘news.’ They have long since taken up the mission of converting the heathenry to the correct political persuasion.
When did the papers become such blatant propaganda? I grew up knowing things were slanted one way in the New York Times, and another in the Herald Tribune, but I was still deluded by the ideal that the ultimate intent of either was to find the truth that was there. To report what had happened and not what was wished. Though I have read that the press was even more scurrilous in Jefferson’s time (we still live with several of those lies told then, the truth be damned). But I will not be telling you now, here, what is history and what is supposed. As I’ve suggested, that is for you to judge, if you will. All of it is literal, as best I know it, even if cast at last as flotsam upon the littoral margin of that great sea of ignorance I call my own.
To the beaches then! “To fight unto the last spit of sand, and defend the truth of it there, even if the tides will clean the slate of our blood by morn.”
And thus I recall. “Far and away, in ancient mundane, there lived a man who was not quite sane.” As both the fabulist Cervantes and the fabulized Munchausen well explained, mere sanity is not the standard in an age of madness. (Of course, I have also seen that psychiatry, like journalism, is often used for nefarious purposes. And I would doubt my own sanity, if it weren’t for the doubts of others. If they are wrong about so much, why should they be right about this? . . . Especially if I am speaking of Margaret.)
No, the battle is joined on a previously hallowed ground. Too many have knowingly died for me. For me! As if they could see across the centuries!
This then is the argument. Is our freedom given, taken, or made?
I readily agree that the origin of philosophy may be found in religion. But that is only akin to recognizing that the beginnings of science are in alchemy. In any case, there is little comfort to be had in lead poisoning, or warmth to be had in gold. Nor is this to say that religion has been surpassed. No. The gaining and keeping of knowledge through the written word has only just begun—a few thousand years at most, amidst eons—and faith will be needed to survive our mistakes, or good whisky, if nothing else.
Ho! Imagine the mind of man before zero was believed!
Already, our schools are severing that tie between words and meaning that made what little civilization we have possible. Again we have begun to melt down the presses to make bullets as we reduce all literature to the gossamer ephemera of bites and bits, albeit safely stored for our own good, as we are told by authority, in clouds—in clouds, mind you! Why, only the Shadow could cloud men’s minds in such a fashion!
In your time, as it was in mine, I expect we will poison ourselves anew with rage. Convictions will be lost and found. And though faith is born of fear as much as remorse or revelation, we will have some few successes along the way with which to fortify ourselves—that is if we, that is the lot of us, survive long enough. And if we do, we can always reconsider our reasoning to fit the circumstance, and reckon again from that zero sum that we cannot see, or touch, because, once appreciated by its absence, we know that ought is there, and too, whether or not we can count on it.
In the great movie, North by Northwest, the agents of evil have mistaken Mr. Thornberry for another fellow entirely. The ensuing chase is a wonderful Hitchcockian confection and I have watched it a dozen times with delight. That is including the previous Saturday night, which is generally my reserve evening for such things. But I was convinced now that I was not the wrong man, but rather, the right man for the wrong reason.
I had written a novel once, which was intended as a sort of reverse on Orwell’s 1984. The idea was simple enough. What if there had instead been a more perfect world in that past imperfect year (which still lay ahead of me at the time I wrote the idea down). Utopias are by definition impossible, if for no other reason than the inherent intention of perfecting the human beings who are the citizenry. Human beings are not perfectible, no matter how they are culled. It is a key flaw in the Catholic theory that we were made in God’s image. Millions of words have been churned by righteous scholars on that account alone. But, made by God or not, we are certainly not his doppelgangers, especially the stinky bits, and no more silkily perfectible than the overused and now threadbare sow’s ear.
This is just one of several commonalities that Catholic theology has with Marxism, and why the two religions have grown so closely in the last hundred years or so. Marxists too believe that man is perfectible, or should be. But all of that is perhaps besides my real point in that novel of thirty years ago. I simply wanted to see what the real opposite of a ‘Big Brother’ society might entail. To think it through and see for myself. That is the fun of writing a novel, you know. I suppose this is something like the pleasure a mathematician gets in working out a theorem. Only, there is very likely more sex involved in what I do.
And that night, the FBI was not waiting for me at home. I looked for the dark figure within the shadows of a car, or cigarette smoke curling somewhere beneath the gaslights on the street. Nothing.
I could only try to sleep.
The story was on the front page of the Post the next day, below the fold, nevertheless, right there in Caslon Boldface, for all the world to see. ‘Bookseller questioned by FBI. Michael James McGeraughty suspected of promoting revolutionary ideas.’
This was lovely. Truly. The ideas were not really mine and the FBI did not question me about a single one of them, but it was as close to the truth as the newspapers seem to get it these days. I figured from some of the detail in the story that Deirdre must have spoken to Mr. Clifford, or Mr. Evans, after leaving the shop in a snit over my rudeness.
I also wanted to give her a kiss for the word choice, though I knew that was unlikely. I’m getting a little old for that kind of thing, after all. Still. She had written ‘ideas,’ not activities, and she hadn’t used the word ‘radical.’ I was not just another dime-a-dozen subversive. She had described me as a ‘revolutionary,’ and I was tickled pink.
The bookshop was actually crowded by lunchtime. True, it was Saturday, but Boston has always been sympathetic toward revolutionaries. Even if sympathy is as far as it gets. I soon had to put up a little sign by the register that said, “Revolutionary ideas can be found in the philosophy section, aisle four,” just to allay the questions.
I suppose the regulars have heard enough from me through the years. They only smiled, or in a few cases, winked. But a repeated inquiry by the new faces was, “What exactly did you do?”
My answer was, “I’m not sure. They haven’t told me yet.”
This was fine and dandy—we were having our best day since Christmas—that is until Margaret showed up.
After six months gone, she comes in directly from the door, without a ‘Hello,’ puts a copy of the Post down on the counter as if I might have missed it, and says, “What’s this all about?”
“I don’t know. Good to see you, too.”
She has her hair cut short, same as Deidre, but the little gray in it that I always thought made her look smart has been blackened with the rest. The hand on the hip with elbow out is a classic Margaret pose.
She says, “What are you up to then?”
I say, “Same old, same old.”
“Is it a stunt? You know your last stunt didn’t work out so well.”
“Which one was that?”
“Giving the books away.”
“No. You’re right. That was pretty dumb. How are you, by the way?”
“Not so hot. You’re late with your rent again this month. And I had a fellow named Clifford knocking at my door first thing this morning.”
“He’s a pest. What did he want?”
“He wanted to make sure you weren’t living there anymore.”
“Well, I’m sure you settled that.”
She sneered at the thought. “He also asked me if I knew a George Reilly.”
I could not remember if George had been coming in regularly before the divorce, so I asked, “Do you know George?”
Her voice rose, “Then you do know him!”
“He’s a regular.”
“Is that all?”
“So far. Though I should give him some credit for this,” I waved a hand at the crowd in the store.
I’d asked Stella Daikens to come in early. Her classes were over for the semester and given the state of her own economy, she was happy for the work. She was already at the register punching the keys down with her usual one-fingered flare. In front of her a short line of young men formed, patiently waiting, seemingly just as happy that she was there instead of me.
I said to Margaret, “Maybe I should hire George as my publicity agent. On commission, of course. Maybe ten percent of any increase year over year. We were having the worst May in our history before this happened. He could clean up.”
Margaret was not amused. All she could manage was, “Very funny.”
She stood there at the end of the counter closest to the door, her own impatience making her appear a little stiff, as I answered a question from a customer about the difference between John Updike and John Cheever. I said something quick about Cheever being a better swimmer but got no reaction, and then recommended the collection of Updike short stories we had in. I actually don’t like either author, but the fellow was not asking my opinion, so I was just cutting him a little slack.
When he was gone, Margaret says, “You don’t change.”
I tried to sound sincere. “I’m sorry.”
She heaved a pretty deep sigh. Still pretty. But she was not close to being recovered from nearly thirty years of marriage and not yet interested in any apologies.
She said, “I talked to Mr. Clifford for almost an hour.”
“He must have enjoyed that.”
“I got the feeling that he really wants to get something on you.”
“I was rude to him before. He’s a prick. That sort likes to get revenge. I’ll check my Sun Tzu. Maybe I can use that as a weakness to my advantage. Anyway, when did you get in from Florida?”
“Thursday. I came by here to give you a helpful reminder about the rent, but you were closed, and I was suddenly possessed of the wonderful idea that you had finally given up the ghost.”
“A nice choice of words.”
She dipped her head and sighed wearily. “You know, I was wondering, was that the first day the store was ever closed?”
“Maybe, since the blizzard of ’78. Do you remember that! I even had our old camping lamps in here that time a few years later when we lost electricity for three days.”
“Sure you do! That’s how we got Ben.”
She gave me that mixed frown she does. Benjamin was our third. Margaret had always only wanted two, and was happy enough with daughters before a snatch of passion had overcome us in the darkened aisles, and then she became a fool for her little ‘Benjamin.’ It was Benny who kept the marriage together as long as it lasted.
Thankfully, Stella Daikens had agreed to start working full shifts immediately. This is fine because she loves books and knows more about the current authors than I do, but she has a manner that is difficult to deal with at times. She is a very sexy young woman and she knows it and wants every one to appreciate the fact. The whole time I’m talking, I see Margaret’s eyes turning over to where Stella is working the register for each sale and I know that what Margaret sees are Stella’s boobs quaking beneath her décolletage every time she punches one of those levered keys down. I kept my back to it, as I usually do. I don’t need the distraction. But Margaret has never met Stella before.
Instead I said, “Do you want to go out for sandwich?”
Margaret says, “No. I don’t. I would like you to consider the fact that you can’t pull off a stunt like this every week and then you’re going to be right back where you were, even before the next headline. Maybe you should finally quit while you’re ahead.”
A long time regular, Morris Dunn, heard this remark and without remembering just how much Margaret enjoys being interrupted, he interrupts.
“You can’t quit, Michael. Who in the hell sells westerns around here except you?”
I answer, “I won’t quit, Morris. Gonna die with my boots on.”
Margaret scowls and turns on him. “Nobody in Boston gives a God damn about Louis L’Amour except you, Morris. Is Michael supposed to keep the store open just for you?”
That’s Margaret for you. Never polite but always possessed of the steel-trap mind. She remembers my every misdeed, and she even recalled Morris’s favorite author.
But then, Morris is no slouch. He has a full pension from the MBTA and he’s under sixty. He says, “Why not. Beats retirement, I’ll tell you.”
And just then Deirdre walks in the door and she’s holding a copy of the Post out in front of her, clasped in both hands, and open to the lower half of the front page.
Without a pause she says, “I think you owe me a corned beef sandwich. And I’m hungry.”
Margaret’s face is instantly frozen. But I’m long past being intimidated by that death stare.
I smile and say, “Terrific! I’ll be free in just a little bit.”
That was when Deirdre finally took notice of Margaret and the two of them faced off for one brief instant. Morris was still standing there and got a good idea of the situation without being told. He disappeared into the stacks. Margaret left.
The best corn beef around is at Michael’s deli out in Brookline and I offered to drive Deirdre in my old pick-up because that sweet little truck could easily make up for whatever charisma I lack, and it’s parked right at the back, but she has her car with her and it’s at a meter and she doesn’t want to risk a parking ticket.
Her car is a sensible little Subaru—the sort of vehicle that is all common sense and no whimsey. I thought I should be disappointed. On the way over, she’s all business. She’s sure there is something more to this story and she is going to get to it.
Her argument is summed up by, “The FBI does not conduct a raid because of idle chatter.”
I looked at it differently. “I suppose not. But at the end of the day, that’s all it is.”
“Why do you think they’re doing this?”
Maybe it was Margaret coming in the door the way she did without even a ‘Hello, how are ya,’ and the thirty years behind that, or just the disappointment that Deidre didn’t drive something more chancy like a Jeep, or mischievous like a sports car, or perhaps it was a lack of good sleep, but my equanimity was suddenly lost. I snapped. Like the proverbial twig.
This is 2014. The post-modern age. The ‘pale epoch.’ The end of history. Will I ever come to grips with that ontology? Why can’t I accept the textuality of my life, be sensitive to the complexity, and allow the diachronic deconstruction of my aporias reveal the genesis of my synchronic anxiety? Probably because I have never acquired a taste for bullshit.
I came of age when all of that garbage was the business of PhD’s seeking tenure, irrelevant to the real revolution—history was being made, not played. There was room for everybody on the bus. Sure you had your Marxists, but you had Objectivists too. Often in the same bed. Conservatives just used longer words and multi-claused sentences. Progressives talked down to the masses and insisted on simplicity. Catholics believed in free love, and atheists wanted to charge for it. Playboy magazine argued for women’s rights and actually published literature. Novels were both longer and shorter, but plots were not for being serious and resolutions must always be ambiguous. Cops were pigs and some pigs were more equal than others. Politicians were ‘the man.’ You were supposed to judge a man by his character, not the color of his skin. And being color-blind was the cause of wearing a turquoise jacket and avocado green pants—at the same time.
The thing about all that was, you could still argue for what you believed. Political correctness had not yet stifled all inquiry.
I have tried to practice what I preached. Have done. But I’ll admit, over time, I have quieted. Perhaps that is just age. Or some symptom of exhaustion. But I don’t preach from the bully pulpit of the front counter as often as I used to do. And I do believe some part of that self-suppression is rooted in disappointment; the defeat on my part to have made the difference. There is simply too little interest in those things that interest me any more. And ever less with the passage of time. Too many sensibilities are now bought and paid for by advertising that is often more canny that the product. People take irony pills. Are there any desires left still neglected by advertising these days? I suppose, only those that carry a jail sentence.
I think it is the speed of things that has much to do with the quality—just like sex. The general purveyor of our age is a soulless internet, not the Woolworth’s the five & dime. The redolent smell of dank fish tanks pumping silvered bubbles amidst dead gold fish in the corner, and the sweet aroma of wax lips and Bazooka bubblegum at the counter is forever lost. The sensibly clothed and literature proselytizing librarian of old has no role in what we read now. You won’t be scolded for pouring over the pages of the old bound National Geographics or even denied the privilege of checking out something by Henry Miller, no matter your age, because they aren’t there to be snickered at any longer. Computer monitors fill the spaces where aisles of books once stood, wall-like, against the barbarians. Earbuds stifle the songs of the birds and the sough of the wind. The journey is now a bore, with strip malls and well micturated rest stops along the way. The destination is the event, and even that is not what it used to be. A work of depth is anything over 140 characters with a selfie attached.
Suddenly, there in the midst of student traffic on Beacon Street, whatever anxieties had been building in me over the last few days spilled out in a torrent of anger and misgiving. Deirdre was not the person I should address with all of this, but she was there when the branch broke, or was it a twig—and I fell.
All she asked was “Why do you think they are doing this?”
“They’re all fucked up! “ I explained. “The whole world is turned up side down!”
That was it. That was my case. That was the whole fact. I should have left it at that. But I said more. I said much too much! Once started, I sort of spilled the beans and let the cat out of the bag in one go. All inhibition and regard for political correctness went out the car window. Here I was talking to a reporter from the Boston Post—that bastard bastion of Progressive ideology, for Christ’s sake! What the hell was I doing? This was no longer a ploy to spark her interest in my whimsical mind, much less my aging carcass. This was a paroxysm!
I’ve run the shop for nearly forty years and usually kept this sort of thing in my hat—most of the time. Really! Boston, with all it colleges and universities is at the heart of left-wing orthodoxy, and an acropolis of socialist engineering and influence mongering, and this veritable Marxist muniment was not interested in my recidivist frothings! How could I expect to be running an open bookshop here anymore than Red Square!
As a libertarian I was tolerated as an eccentric and impotent in a world of power brokers, media frenzies, and mass movements. My more regularly expressed titbits of radical thought could be ignored, or dismissed as ineffectual color commentary. But nevertheless, coward that I am, I commonly avoided saying anything aloud that I knew would raise the larger defensive hackles. I assiduously avoided the anti-science of the global warming enthusiasts and their government sponsored attempts to manage the air we breathed by promoting that cult of doom as a means of political control with an oxymoron like ‘settled science.’ It is a fact that several true-believers had recently broken down in rage over my innocently saying that I didn’t knowingly carry such propaganda in the shop. But still. . . . And I never mention abortion. Seldom did, anyway. That death cult so fundamental to feminist religious doctrine and its belief in a woman’s right to control her own body while denying any responsibility for her own actions while promoting government controlled health care, simply could not be discussed by half the human race—that is, any man. As a matter of fact, I almost never talk about religion, per se. Sure, I said ‘Merry Christmas,’ in season, just to annoy the smug atheists, and I know that some libertarians twist themselves into knots even to avoid an admission of the origins of the holiday—leaping for the secular boughs of the fir tree and nordic mid-winter celebration instead. I seldom even suggested aloud, certainly not as often as I once did, that Western society, as well as the now ancient American Republic, was built on a Judeo-Christian foundation—unless of course I was looking for a verbal attack suggesting that the genocide of the Native Americans, the origins of slavery and the oppression of people of color were all the result of my misogynist Western parochialism, resting on the heads of our benighted Founding Fathers. The words ‘Big Government’ were certainly avoided. It didn’t matter that every progressive tenet depended for its execution on an authoritarian state—the fabric, or lack thereof, much like the emperor’s missing clothes, should never be spoken of. The entire fascist condition of left-wing globalizing should simply not be addressed aloud. I knew all this. Of course. But the very idea that the same government which taxed everything I did and demanded records for my every action so as to be sure I had toed the line, had now confiscated my records on the pretext that I was some sort of criminal for expressing an innocent idea like the simple need for a revolution was simply too much! It was more, at last, than my tattered mental constitution at that moment in time could stand.
At some point then, and there, in Deirdre’s small car, with entirely insufficient room for adequate gesticulation, I simply left the tracks. My ‘hate speech,’ for that infantile formulated epithet of political correctness is what all of this sort of thing was now labeled, flew in the air as if I were speaking in tongues (mostly American regional English), and the rhetoric became incoherent. I can’t even recall what I said, except that it was drawn from all of the corners of my being and included vociferous attacks on the poorly fitted news sheets of the New York Times, the hypocritical preaching of Hollywood’s Disney Riefenstahls, and the medieval absolutism of Islam.
I think I managed most of that without taking a breath. It came to an end only when I was suddenly overcome by oxygen depravation. So I ended on a weak note.
“And here the FBI is worried about whether I’m trying to foment revolution in a bookshop on Charles Street. Go figure.”
I was now exhausted. I felt my age. And I was embarrassed for that fact more than anything I had said.
Deirdre had parked, closed her eyes, and waited out my rant without a word. When I’ve stopped, and the silence made clear that my fever had run its course, she finally spoke, “So, the world is a mess. So let’s just try to focus on our small piece of it. Okay? One thing at a time.”
Very sensible. I suppose it’s only natural for reporters to focus on one story at a time. But novels are not written that way. I was more interested in the larger narrative. But the idea of creating order out of the sudden chaos of my worries did appeal to me.
“If that satisfies you. Fine. That’s the attitude of most people, I guess. I’ve noticed that you avoid reporting on politics these days—not like you used to. You do your personal interest stories and you don’t worry about anything but your own patch. That’s certainly the way I’ve lived most of my life too, I guess. But it’s also pretty clear there has to be an end to it. I suspect we’re almost there. Especially when the Feds are raiding bookstores.”
Her eyes opened.
“You read my columns? Really?” Then she squints at me to show her reserve of doubt. “I had my fill of the politicians a long time ago. That’s all just so much jobbery. The air at the State House is as putrid as City Hall. . . . You know, I woke up one morning from a dream—a nightmare—and I couldn’t breathe. Something like you said. So I just try and to stick to stories I do about people busy trying to live their lives. Actually, people just like you—” She seemed to reconsider her words—as if she had admitted too much. She frowned. “But the person I’m especially interested in right now is your Mr. Reilly. All of this probably has more to do with him than you. He might be the real cause of all this.” She looked at me as if I should have something to add to that. “Are you sure you don’t have any kind of an address for this guy?”
When she had simply rolled with all of my blather and bloviation, the way she did, and didn’t lose track of what she was about, I should have known right then and there that something was different about this woman.
“If I knew anything more about George, I wouldn’t tell you, so that doesn’t matter. When the FBI have satisfied themselves about that fact, maybe I’ll get my files back.”
But she was not going to let go of it. “His contact info isn’t somewhere on your computer?”
“The major thing we use the computer for is the store website—to list as much of the stock as we can so we get a few mail orders to supplement the cash flow. That, and for information searches. And for the email inquiries, of course. For the book orders. But George doesn’t order books. He always comes in the shop to get what interests him. And my writing, of course—but that only takes up a little space. Even so, the Feds took a dump on all that too. Like my friend Duggin says, maybe they’re just looking for me to ‘talk a little treason.’ But then again, maybe one of the pigs they hire to root through all of it for truffles will read one of my trifles and become a fan.”
“Your writings? You still write novels?”
This is a point of some pride with me. If I can’t sell the stories, at least I can enjoy a little personal pride in having written them. It’s a baby boomer sort of thing, feeding my ego with visions of being read. But I felt like I was dangling it out there now like the lecherous artist does with his etchings. By simply playing the quaint romantic role of the curmudgeonly bookseller (the only role I really know without a script), she has never seemed to have an interest in me before. But now, I’m a potential revolutionary. An author of rebellion, perhaps. Maybe the part of aging but still aspiring author is worth a little more of her attention. At least it offered the pretense of virility. I recall that T. S. Elliot did well with that routine. At fifty-six he married a woman less than half his age, and that’s not much more than ten or twelve years younger than I am now!
“Yeah. I do!” and entirely new field of conversation suddenly opened. “In the mornings. I try to get up by six and get an hour or two in. And I write at the desk when the shop is quite. I do most my research there.”
“But I saw on-line that you haven’t published anything since 1993, and before that, way back in the 1970s.”
“That’s a sad truth. Not that I haven’t tried.”
She screwed her face up with skepticism.
“And ever since then, you’ve been writing anyway? Really? . . . Why?”
“I enjoy it. Keeps me sane.”
“How many books is that? How many have you written that aren’t published?”
“Not including the three that were published, twenty-four, I think.”
Of course, I knew exactly.
She sat back for dramatic emphasis, “My God! Twenty-four novels! You are some sort of masochist!”
“And a few short stories. And a couple of plays. But no, like I said, I enjoy it. It’s almost as good as sex.”
“A masochist enjoys the pain.”
“It’s a pleasure.”
“Pain is pleasure to a masochist.”
“There is no pain. I stopped thinking about getting published years ago.”
“Then you are nuts. Nobody writes for pleasure. It’s work.”
Was this, perhaps, another disappointment to go along with the Subaru?
“That’s really too bad. And you think I’m nuts? You write everyday yourself, and you don’t enjoy it? Life it too short to waste it doing something you hate.”
She shrugged that off. “It’s work. You sound like the usual baby-boomer complaining about the mundane necessities of life. What’s to enjoy? Maybe the stories I cover. Sometimes. But mostly, it’s just work. But, I get paid for it!”
It was a familiar complaint, actually. Baby boomers were not the only generation looking for a reason to exist. “You know, E. B. White realized the very same thing once. It was why he quit a great job at the New Yorker and went off to live on a saltwater farm in Maine.”
“But he kept writing for a living, didn’t he?”
“But he did more of it then for pleasure.”
She rejected that with an unconvinced shake of her head. Literary history was no more her object now than literary theory.
“Why won’t they publish them? Your novels, I mean. What are your novels about?”
“The things that interest me.”
After twenty years as a customer, she doesn’t really know me at all. Not yet. I have to keep in mind that, to her, I was just the odd fellow behind the counter. But I can’t blame her for asking. And I might as well get this matter cleared away so she doesn’t make the mistake again. Besides, it was another opening to other possibilities.
“The last one I finished is called ‘The Keepers.’”
Her eyebrows arched and she lengthened her jaw skeptically, “Like the name your Mr. Reilly used for you. What a coincidence!”
The sarcasm was a bit thick in her voice as well. I admitted my own thought there. “It’s not a coincidence. I’m just not sure of the connection.”
“What’s it about?”
“It’s about a fellow named Charley who returns to the earth after a long voyage—he’s several hundred years old but he hasn’t aged on his journey because of something I called ‘cold-sleep.’ But when he arrives home he’s greeted only by robots. All the humans are gone. There’s been a catastrophe. Disease has wiped mankind out here on Earth. Yet, everything looks much as it did when he left. He’s confused until he learns that it’s the robots who’ve preserved human culture by carrying out the various tasks necessary to support the infrastructure, even maintaining the libraries, and shops and the manufacturing facilities. All of it, awaiting the return of humans—the robots are positive that there will be a return because there were human survivors who fled and they know that some explorers, like Charley, were sent out before the holocaust. They also realize that their own survival is dependent on the very same infrastructure and they don’t want to change anything because it might result in a chain reaction of failure they cannot resolve. It’s sort of the same way people today are afraid of change, even though the whole social organism evolved to handle the disruptions of evolution long ago, or else we wouldn’t be here to begin with. But the real problem in the story is that by performing these mundane human tasks and the daily effort of caring for things, many of the robots have gained a human self-consciousness. The very effort to act like humans has made them human. And some of these self-conscious computers are now unhappy with the idea of actual human return because they know mankind was always fond of slavery—people always wanted someone else to do the work for them if they could get away with it—and they’ll want to use the robots as slaves again. So Charley’s life is now in danger.”
She was listening rather intently. This was worrisome. I had to consider my situation. I wanted her to keep her interest in me as well as the shop. If I told her the plot of the whole thing, she might not like the way I resolved my little story. In fact, I should get her to read it. Telling it to her aloud would not be the same.
But then she asks, “Can I read it?”
“It’s on the shop website. All of them are. I self-publish them there.”
Unfortunately for her, someone in the deli recognized Deirdre and came by the table just then to compliment her on the story in the Post, all the while eyeing me. Deirdre thought better of the idea of my publicly buying her lunch, so she paid for her own corned beef sandwich, and we left.
In the car again, she says, “So what happened to Charley?”
I told her, “I think I’ll save that for another lunch. Or dinner, maybe.”
She squinted out at the road ahead and kept her thoughts to herself.
The lovely Ardis
more than I knew
Back at the store, the lovely Ardis has her own ideas.
Ardis Cooper is not a fan of Margaret’s. They have been at loggerheads before—ever since Margaret accused her of sleeping with me. Actually, Margaret accused me of sleeping with Ardis, which is worse in the scheme of things, as far as Ardis is concerned. But that was some years ago, back when Ardis was still flirting a little more with any male that came in the shop and Jack not yet our strong arm.
This is part of another story, but it’s a good aside. Jack Holt simply came in off the street one day and asks me if I wanted any grunt work done. He was short on cash. I always do need such help, but this was about the time I was first starting to really feel the years in my back. Then and now I’ve usually hired women to work in the shop. This is sheer prejudice, naturally. Women tend to read more and they can take the edge off with customers when I’m feeling grumpy. Trouble is, they are more likely to gripe when I ask them to lug too many boxes around. Jack is not tall but he is all muscle. He can lift his own weight and then some. For a period of time after I hired him, Jack would simply show up on Tuesdays and take care of this and that, and our cash arrangement stuck. Tuesdays are one of Ardis’s days off, because it’s slow, so it was good to have the extra pair of hands around. But soon enough I started asking Jack to go out with me on the house-buys; especially the ones involving attics and basements that could really take the vim out of me. And Jack was good company. At least he appeared to like to listen to my jaw-boning.
We talked about a lot of things but one of them was the store computer, which was always giving me a pain, and the elimination of that discomfort had become one of Jack’s additional blessings to our daily lives as well. He has the affection toward such devices that I reserve for books and dogs. Better yet, he seemed to know everything there was to know about those pesky beasts.
Then one day, not a Tuesday or Wednesday, Jack came in to clean up yet another mess that I’d created on the web site and he and Ardis met, and that was that.
Now, Ardis has overheard the conversation I had earlier with Margaret and she has an idea.
She says, “Margaret is right.” And right there she has my full attention. I cannot remember a similar statement from her lips. “This is all going to blow over. It’s not much of a story, after all, is it? You haven’t done anything! But what you need to do is keep it going.”
“How do I do that?”
“You blog it!”
“My arteries are blogged enough.”
“I mean it! You write every morning, anyway. All you need to do is write maybe once a week or so about what’s happening. Keep the customers informed. Use your usual odd wit, so they know its really you. Jack can set up something just for that, I’ll bet. It might bring people back to the website more often and then some of them may even come in the store.”
There was a hitch in this.
“I don’t understand. If it blows over, what will there be to write about? Quaint little tales about the exciting and colorful life of a bookseller aren’t going to interest anyone in the age of the personal digital assistant. Anyway, a thousand booksellers have already done that. The internet is clogged with the sentimental stories of bookselling as it is. Hell, I’d have to at least throw in a murder or two just to keep any interest going. And what do I know about murder? And whom do I kill?”
“Listen! You write about anything that moves, anyway. Just be creative! Try to imagine some reasons why the Feds might want to find George Reilly. I mean, really—George Reilly?”
This had been a recurring thought of my own, the past couple days.
“He doesn’t strike you as a revolutionary?”
“He doesn’t look like he can lift triple digits. No!”
“He’s lean, but I’m not sure you’re right about that.”
“Why? Because he reads Montaigne? That doesn’t make him smart. Look at you.”
She says this without a flinch. I flinched for her.
“No. Maybe not. But he takes my recommendations for books. That makes him brilliant—By the way, did you tell the FBI that George reads Montaigne?”
“No! I told them to go fuck themselves.”
“I think they already do that, so they probably missed the point.”
But the point was well taken, by me.
It was clear to me at last. What I really needed to do was to start an actual revolution.
I figured I should take my cue from the article by Ms. Roberts. Simply revolting was not enough. Even being revolting was insufficient, whether or not you believed I was a peasant. The thing to do was to just do it! What I really needed in order to save the bookshop was a more subversive marketing plan. A ‘marketing plan’ was the soup du jour among the business school smarty pants, was it not? And a nice little revolution would certainly fit that bill o’fare. Blogging alone was just not going to cut it.
I have no money and I have no followers, so starting a revolution was going to be a neat trick. And this is only made that much more difficult for the fact that I didn’t actually want any followers. Nor did I want anything to do with anyone who would actually follow me, or anyone else, for that matter. (This is a lesser known codicil to that gem of wisdom concerning his membership in the Friar’s Club, once offered by Mr. Marx in the book Groucho and Me.)
And I don’t own a gun. (Though I have always wanted to.) If I did, I’d have to practice shooting it. But I don’t have the time, or the price of ammunition these days. I did once write a couple of detective stories about a fellow who used a Smith & Wesson .32 police special. That required a dozen trips to the Boston Gun Club and getting a temporary permit and by the time I was done I had spent almost a thousand dollars for instruction and ammunition and fees and I could no longer afford the actual gun. That’s the real reason the last detective I wrote about didn’t carry one.
I had said to Deirdre, when she asked what kind of revolution I wanted, that something quiet would do. That would have to be the key. No shooting.
And no bombs. Bombs are for anarchists. I’m not an anarchist. Anarchists have never much liked me for the fact that, in their Marxian eyes, I am a ‘capitalist,’ and not interested in destroying anything, and wouldn’t give them shelf-space for their printed tripe advocating my own destruction. Besides, I’m a little bit clumsy. I could blow myself up. Anyway, I do believe in a little government. But mostly just self-government.
In the mean time, what I wanted to talk with my friend George Reilly. If he was a revolutionary, he might have some pointers.
That was the nub if it.
Over the years, George and I have spoken about almost everything, from automobiles and food, to politics and women. I must have a clue to the man’s whereabouts in my head from all of that.
I know he likes pick-up trucks, but he likes Chevrolets and I’ve always preferred Fords. We’ve spent a couple of hours hammering the fenders on that. He likes camping. But he goes to the Adirondacks and I have always gone to New Hampshire and Maine. He likes to fish as well, though it seems he actually catches something. And he likes a good hamburger and a fine hotdog. But so do I. And I know he listens to classical music. In fact, the very last conversation we had, just a couple of weeks ago, was about that great but neglected composer, Wilhelm Stenhammar. Before that it was about another, Joachim Raff. There are no good biographies of either man in English and he was looking for one. I know, for instance, that he is a big fan of H.L. Mencken. He had likely bought all of Mencken’s work at the shop in recent years, but that just made George a skeptic, same as me. And we had talked a deal about the philosopher Richard Mitchell. We were both very fond of Mitchell’s last book, A Gift of Fire. It’s loaded with quote worthy moments. In fact, that was the real problem—excepting the matter of trucks, we agreed on most things. Our conversations were never very long because we usually took the same sides.
However, I knew he wasn’t married. A previous attempt had failed, it seems. Yet another commonality. And that bit had come up. Along with the fact that he wished he had a family. He had expressed the belief, more than once, that he’d missed out on that and that I was fortunate. I’d told him then in response that he should get busy. He still had time so long as the equipment still worked.
My guess is that George could not be over fifty.
But I did not know what he actually did for a living. That was a most important detail.
He must have dodged telling me this, or else it would have come up. I know he liked a bit of carpentry because he was appreciative of the shelves I’ve built for the shop through the years. But that was it, and I hadn’t pressed the matter. At least a couple of times I remembered him steering away from the subject. I know I was always curious, of course. But something had kept me from pursuing the topic any further—perhaps a subconscious appreciation of the mysterious, or likely just a fear that he might turn out to be a hedge-fund manager, or mid-level bureaucrat, or worse—a lawyer. I’ve lost respect for people for less.
Wasn’t one of my regular rants how we knew far too much about each other? Too much information was killing all chance of personal dignity. Privacy was the key to civilization, wasn’t it? Truly? Civilization was likely only born when the parents got their own room in the cave.
But I needed to talk with George.
What days did he usually come in the shop? Weekdays, wasn’t it? So that would mean that perhaps his job was not in an office. Or that he worked at night.
I had not noticed anything in his voice, other than a little bit of Texas, but then that was not a distinctive characteristic by itself.
His approximate age, height, weight, complexion, and hair color, were all things the FBI had asked for. I had been as vague as I could. Brown hair. Grey eyes. Caucasian. About six feet tall. About forty years old. Approximately. Even if that covered about 25% of our customers, I now regretted even that. But at first I had been concerned about appearing to obfuscate or deliberately mislead. I shouldn’t have. I had not told them about Texas, or about our mutual appreciation for pick-up trucks, hot dogs, H.L. Mencken, Richard Mitchell, Wilhelm Stenhammar, or Joachim Raff. And I had not told them that I knew George was no longer married, whatever that information was worth. But then, it seems to me that marriage does not appear to be worth all that much these days anyway. Not anymore.
I had also not told them that George usually showed up about every two weeks.
Now, however, I was concerned about this, for his sake as well as my own desire to speak with him. I am sure this was partly out of guilt. Even my vague description of the man now felt like a betrayal. But I didn’t know how little they had on him then. I wasn’t prepared for the Great Game.
What if the FBI were keeping watch on the shop?
I had no way to warn him.
However, I was also aware that he did sometimes check the store website to see what new titles had come in. So maybe that was the way to do it.
So I ask Ardis, “How would you start a revolution?”
She looks startled and a little confused. We were at the front counter and she suddenly shifted away from me as if I’d raised my hand to her. But I had said this softly because I didn’t want anyone else in the store to hear.
She says, “What do you mean?”
I explain, the best I can. I wasn’t sure myself just what I was talking about. “If you wanted to start a revolution, what would you do first?”
“Why are you asking me?”
“Because you know just about everything I don’t. I don’t know how to start a revolution. I know a lot about being difficult. Rebellious, even. And I’m not talking avant-garde here. You know I think that’s phony pretentious bullshit. But I’m looking into over-turning the social order. Busting up the cartel of special interests. Shedding light on the Deep State. Interrupting the Force. Destroying the Death Star. Punctuating the Continuum.”
She took the opportunity to help a customer and left me at the register with my own thoughts.
When she came back, she seemed to have regained her usual equilibrium.
“The Feds have given you ideas.”
“Yeah. If they are going to screw around with me, I want to turn it back on them.”
She gets a look on her face like my mother used to do.
“You have more to lose. Actually, You have everything to lose, and they can’t lose. Anything you can do against them makes only them stronger. Like the mythical beast.”
“No! The one in your book. The one that steals your energy and grows stronger the more you struggle against it.”
Now, she was talking my language. Actually, that was my language. That was a monster I had first conjured out of encounters with rude customers. The book was twenty years old but I often recalled it now when someone engaged in futile retribution. If some customer was rude, you gained nothing by being rude in return and were likely to put off anyone else within earshot. That sort always know this, instinctively. That’s why they do it. You shouldn’t embolden them. ‘Assholes are never discouraged by the stink.’ was another of my favorites.
“You can’t fight them and you shouldn’t join them.”
I don’t know Jack
but Pyrrho was not a maniac!
Benny and Jack are similar in different ways. They don’t look much alike, but you see it in the way they act. Jack is the older by seven years, though he doesn’t look his age. He gets a kid’s look of mischief on his face sometimes, and I can only guess what he’s been up to. Ben does that too. Ben is as pale and skinny as I was once and has the full head of brown-dark hair I used to have, but thankfully he got his mother’s good looks. Jack is all muscle, thicker set, broad-faced, skin the color of Benny’s hair, but the hair cut so close to his scalp, at a distance he looks bald—like a Marine, which he was, once. Ben had done his own turn in the Army.
I know Jack played football in college because he’s mentioned it. Ben was a runner and he always has a story ready to tell. Jack must be coaxed to add a subject to his verb. But they both talk too fast. I often miss tidbits of detail I wish I understood but have to keep from asking about so as not to interrupt some narrative, and then later, when I do inquire, I see the impatient turn in the eye. (I’ve noticed Ardis has slowed her speech down quite a bit since she’s come to work at the shop. And I believe, that is an effort to communicate with me.) But the biggest difference is that Jack will stand and listen when I dilate on one thing or another. And Ardis often will, as well. It’s a strange thing and took some getting used to. None of my own kids ever seemed as willing to hear me out. Not Benny, or the girls. Though they often complain that they’ve had heard it all before.
Actually, soon after Ardis started work at the shop, that is six or seven years ago, I had to begin editing myself in this regard, otherwise no work would ever get done. The attraction of a willing listener is great and I imagine there is some heaven where a person can talk to their heart’s content about whatever is on their minds and always have an attentive audience, but I really don’t know how that would work. Who are the poor schnorrers and schlubs that would always be there to listen? You really don’t want to talk to schlubs, in any case. You want someone with a glint in their eye and something to add and argue. This is a conundrum that I hope to settle one day—but not too soon.
The fact is, I still pay Jack ‘under the table.’ This is just one of those transgressions on the presumed authority of government which I am sure they can lock me up for. If they find it out. But that’s what works for both of us. I could not afford the hourly rates charged by the professional computer geeks who have to pad their income in order to cover withholding taxes, social security, mandatory health insurance and all the rest. And Jack is one of those folks who live ‘below the radar’ in any case. So what he does in that regard is not my business. Avoiding government oversight is an admirable thing in my book. (Actually in several of my books.) And he seems to have quiet a number of other clients who are willing to help him in this effort to remain anonymous.
I should add that Jack says he is doing fine living on-the-cuff, or off-the-books, but you wouldn’t know it by his clothes. He shops at the Morgan Memorial thrift store. Whenever he’s wearing an article of clothing that looks particularly decent I know that Ardis has given him a gift.
When we closed up on Saturday evening, I told Ardis that I needed to speak with Jack and she gave me a long look back. I suppose it was in the tone of my voice. She’s worried I’m still thinking about revolution, so I told her why.
“I’m worried that George is going to come in here and find himself surrounded by the Gestapo.”
She laughed at me. I was a ‘worrywart,’ she said.
I excused myself by saying, “That’s just what happens when you have kids. You have to learn to anticipate disaster to ward it off.” I also said, “Your day will come.”
She lost her laugh pretty quick then. I suspect there may be some conflict between herself and Jack in his regard and this worries me a little. She would make a good mom. But I think Jack is wary of commitments. And perhaps the overhead.
Nevertheless, Jack showed up the next morning. The shop is closed most of Sunday mornings but he knows the signal at the window and caught me while I was writing up some notes at the counter. He clearly thought my worry was very humorous as well, though he kept his comments to himself.
Please understand, Jack Holt does not read. Not books of a physical nature in any case. And as I’ve said, he’s not glib. He will easily become tongue-tied with an explanation for what he’s doing. But his fingers don’t have such entanglements. He sits in front of the monitor with the mouse covered with one large mitt and riffles through those virtual pages so fast I can’t read the heading on one before he’s onto another. And because he often walks Ardis to work and will then hang around for a short while to check on one thing or another at the computer, I see him at this process often enough that I seldom try to figure out what he’s doing anymore. As long as it all works, I’m good. I talk to him as he’s clicking away.
In the darkened store, Sunday morning, his face is blue-grey with the light of the screen—afloat in the ether like the visage of the great Wizard when first seen by Dorothy and her buddies at Oz.
I say, “Ardis probably told you what they asked for. We can only guess what they really want. Is there a way to be sure they can’t get it from us? Whatever ‘it’ is?”
Without turning, Jack says, “Sure,” in the exact same manner some say, ‘no problem’ these days—only he seldom uses that other expression.
I told him, “George never contacts us by email. Not that I can remember, anyway. He just comes in.”
“Right,” Jack says. This is another of his common usages.
I add, “But I need to warn George not too come in. He needs to stay away, at least for a while.”
Jack had the best idea about that right out of the box. “Just make a public announcement on the website. You don’t need me for that. Tell your customers what’s happened with the FBI. Express your outrage. You told me George usually looks at the store website to check on authors and new stock before he comes in. If he has a problem with the authorities, he’ll get the idea. But it’s important to make it a general announcement. Then the Feds can’t say after the fact that you were only trying to warn him away.”
This was just another version of what Ardis had suggested, and I figured they must have talked the matter over between themselves. I have resisted ‘blogging’ since the first day I heard the word. It has an ugly sound to my ear. However, I love simple solutions. And more importantly, I now had a new business plan. My revolution was begun. The game was afoot, and I had to make good on it.
By that afternoon, I’d posted a rather complete accounting of the whole incident beginning at the top of the front page of the shop website. A little wordy, perhaps, but the key information was there. (Another note is in order: Much of the account you are reading now is a rewriting of that same blog, and thus it occurs to me once again that writing something like a blog can be as addictive as any other form of talking about oneself. Yet another sloppy manifestation of solipsism. Just one more variety of vain cocaine in our self-addicted age. And I can see now that I am apparently no better than the rest.)
The blog post I wrote Sunday related the simple facts about what had happened. The police raid. My temporary incarceration. But I could not keep myself from a more typical rant:
“I am wholly embarrassed by the political class that I have raised by my own efforts in the voting booth. Their stupidity and malicious intent has only been magnified now by my own foolishness. Perhaps it was not my fault alone, but I was a part of the doing. I have repeatedly voted for the lesser of two evils and gotten exactly what I deserved as a consequence. Evil none the less.”
Monday morning was quiet. As if my verbal Molotov cocktail had completely missed its mark, or sputtered in a puddle of internet mud.
Jack could not go along with me for assistance, but I had a used book-buy out in Needham in the afternoon at two o’clock, and this should have only taken a couple of hours, max. However, I wasn’t back in the shop until after five because I was delayed there by the customer and then got caught in the pre-rush hour commute of government and semi-government workers who leave early ‘to avoid the traffic.’ The woman in Needham who sold me the books had read the papers and wanted to know all about my run-in with the authorities and then had to be reassured that I was not a felon—not yet anyway—and that my check was good. Actually, she seemed intrigued with the idea that I might be dangerous and this disturbed me more than the imprisonment of traffic afterward.
And when, at last, I got back, George Reilly is right there in the philosophy section waiting for me. He’s not wearing a false mustache or a fedora or anything else to hide his identity, and looks just like his usual self.
I immediately ushered George into the back room and there he tells me right off, “Don’t worry. Like I told Ardis, they have no idea what I look like.”
He’d indeed seen my account of our travails on the website and I had guessed correctly he’d been headed in our direction that day.
Still, I’m worried. “How can you be sure they won’t spot you?”
He says, “For one thing, George Reilly isn’t my real name.”
This had occurred to me before. I say, “Tell me you’re not an anarchist looking to blow up innocent children.”
He says, “Not even the guilty ones.”
“Good. What about the email they showed me?”
“They took that from a virtual acquaintance.” He gave me a guilty smile for his indulgence. “I’d written her and mentioned a few of the books you sold me a couple of weeks ago. I shouldn’t have referred to you as ‘The keeper.’ My mistake. But you know I was pretty taken with that story of yours when I first read it on your website. It fits you too well.”
“Can they get your real name from her?”
“No. She was—” he gestured at the air for words and put on a phony French accent, “How you American’s say, a mistake. I’ve always been a sucker for French accents. Even virtual ones. I should have known sooner that she was not the real thing. It never got far enough for her to learn anything.”
“She can identify you.”
George shakes that off. “No. We never met. No face-time. It was just an on-line fling. Theoretically she lives somewhere near the Seine in Paris. More likely she’s closer to the Potomac. I got wise before it went too far.”
“She has your e-mail?”
He holds a hand up to quiet the thought. “The contact was through the ‘dark web.’ Virtually untraceable, as they say. Seems like most of the people you find there are cops anyway. It’s what I’ve taken to calling the “amber web” because it catches flies. But when you’re a single guy and can’t get around easily, you do what you can. And she sounded interesting. I’ve kind’a always wanted to have someone I could say something to, like, ‘we’ll always have Paris.’ Whoever it was I was chatting with, at least she has a sense of humor and a little knowledge of literature and philosophy. She kept me interested.”
I want him to understand that I wanted to know more about all this. “Why do they give a damn what you’re reading?”
His voice calms. “I suppose it’s in the nature of any bureaucracy—the collection of data, I mean. It’s all they have by way of reality. The data. But adding any context is way out of their league.”
George, by any other name, has a very calm demeanor. The steady tone of voice reminds me of airline pilots and I only recalled then that he had told me once early on in our acquaintance that he liked to fly more than anything else, but this had become an expensive habit now that he was no longer employed by an airline. Now, if at one time he’d been with an airline, it was likely he’d once upon a time been a pilot in the military. Most of them are. If either of those things were true, the FBI had his fingerprints at least in triplicate.
I just said, “They’ll have your military records.”
He shrugged. “True. But they’ll need to know my real name to track those. They have no other source of fingerprints. At least, I don’t think so.”
Then I said something aloud that made me rethink all this yet again when I thought it over later on.
I said, “Good.”
George gave me a wry smile for that. I guess because I was so obviously on his side in this subterfuge.
At that instant the buzzer rang. When the buzzer rings at the back it means there is someone in the shop to see me. And this just might be the pesty Mr. Clifford.
George reads my eyes. He says, “I’ll stay here a minute. Ring the buzzer again when it’s clear—But say, can I look in those boxes you just brought in? I’d love to look at your new stock.”
As it turned out, the buzzer was to alert me to the entrance of Deirdre. She had stopped by to say she was on her way to Massachusetts General Hospital to see a police officer who’d been stabbed the day before. This incident had happened over in a stretch of what’s left of the West End, near by Boston Garden. She announces her intention, rather presumptively perhaps, that afterward she’s free for dinner. Ardis rolls her eyes in contempt. I told Deirdre that I was just showing a customer some new stock in the back but I’d be free by then.
When I got to the back room again, George was gone. He must have used the rear door.
Later, after Deirdre returned from interviewing the wounded cop, she was in a sterner mood. Argumentative.
The gist of this was, “What’s so bad about the government? It protects us. It protects you, for Christ’s sake!”
I suspect her conversation with the officer had sobered her a little. Revolution seemed less like a lark when pitched against the common mayhem of of everyday urban meanness, especially after looking into the face of some young cop who was just doing his job. And I was fairly certain by the time we were sitting down in the restaurant that she’d already decided to be more aggressive. To provoke me you might say. Perhaps get me to reveal something more, or say something I might regret. At least to pick up some morsels for her follow-up story that I might drop inadvertently in the process of defending myself.
I answered her first question, “Certainly not for Christ’s sake. Government and religion make poor bedfellows. They both want to be on top. The offspring are nasty and intolerant. For it’s own sake, what’s wrong with government is a very high cost benefit ratio. The higher the cost, the lower the benefit.”
In the car she had said a little about her hospital interview. Now I asked her a couple of questions about that in an effort to change the subject. But she was reluctant to offer more. She turned the conversation back.
Sitting with the menu propped in front of her on the table as a sort of fence-guard she says. “Are you one of those people who are always complaining about the taxes? Taxes are higher in France, in Britain, in Germany, in Japan—everywhere!”
This seemed an odd factoid, probably gathered from a scan of the New York Times or some other unreliable source.
I say, “I see that in the press a lot, It’s not actually true, but I don’t have all those figures at the tip of my tongue, so I won’t argue the point with you. There are a thousand and one reasons why I consider this regime a tyranny, without ever getting to the taxes levied without representation.”
Given her salvo about taxes, I needed something she would not expect. I grabbed at a morsel I’d been studying just the night before. “Like the lame-duck Congress.”
The menu falls and Deirdre’s eyes are suddenly wide with exaggeration. “The what!”
I try to apply the calming voice of a Mr. Reilly. “The lame-duck Congress.”
“Are you joking?”
“No, I’m not joking.” I was, in a way, but now that the idea had occurred to me, I had to play it out. “Two hundred years ago they figured it might take a couple of months for a newly elected politician to get to Washington by horse, so they gave him a little time for the journey. Now, it the jet age, the politicians use the time after elections to load their larders. If the party that’s been in power is voted out, they use the time before they have to leave to pass all the laws they would never have the nerve to pass before the election. And they pardon every criminal they might be able to use for payoffs during their retirement. More mischief is done in the weeks of a lame duck Congress than in the two years previous—and its done brazenly, because the news media just write it off like it’s only what’s expected. Yet another complicity between the fourth estate and the others.”
Her silence was likely because she couldn’t believe it. But I was pleased with myself.
She finally manages, “But they both do it!”
I say, “Both political parties do it, you say. But tell me, why should such obvious graft and greed and fraud and bribery be expected from our government? No matter the party in power. Why should we respect them for it? In Britain the party that looses is out the door the next morning, before they have time to steal the silverware.”
Deirdre’s menu is down flat now, “You’re nuts. Is that truly your complaint? That politicians are all thieves? I think you need to grow up!”
I thought this was a little rude. Too cynical by half. I ignored it. A waiter stood by with pad in hand. We ordered.
With the waiter gone, I unloaded. “Like I said before, there’re a thousand and one reasons. I was just giving you an example. Speaking of thousands, how about the fact that they pass unreadable omnibus bills, a thousand plus-pages, filled with regulations and pork that no one can scrutinize beforehand. The politicians have no idea about the consequences of the laws they enact. They can’t have. Not if they haven’t even read the damn bills! Enforcement is left to unelected bureaucrats and their department police. Like the EPA Criminal Investigation Division! A common citizen of this country is found guilty if he breaks the law. Ignorance of the law, they say, is no excuse, no matter how many millions of pages it is. But not so for the President, or the Congress. There’s no possible way to know what the law governing any one thing is anymore. Not in a lifetime of reading. It’s insane!”
Deirdre has a glass of white wine in hand now and I have my beer. She proceeds to explain, “It’s a more complicated world than that. More complicated than it used to be. And anyway, simple solutions to problems, like racism, aren’t good enough.”
These are the sorts of excuses that have excuses.
I say, “That problem is simple, and so is the solution. Treat everyone the way you’d want to be treated yourself.”
This brought a silence that I took to be a change of gears. Then she asks, “So, are there any Nazis in this virtual republic of yours?”
This was a surprise turn. “Yes! Of course. But you’re wrong about one thing. The Republic of Books is not virtual. It’s real. The people are real, so the Republic is too. It’s not some sort of computer game.”
“But it has no borders, you say.”
“Nothing you can see on a map.”
“That sounds like semantics to me.”
“I think you’re misusing the word ‘semantics.’ This is not a verbal matter any more than it is ‘virtual.’ It exists if you want it to. That’s all.”
Deirdre gets an exaggerated look of practiced skepticism, “That’s like Peter Pan telling Wendy she can fly.”
I continue trying to keep as calm as Mr. Reilly. “No, but you can fly! Just buy a ticket at Logan! If you need a map, I could go stand on a copy of your newspaper and draw a line around myself, I suppose.”
“What good is this republic then, if you have Nazis?”
I hold a finger up. “Only these are Nazis that read!”
“But they’re not going to respect the ideals of your republic!”
“No? Then they aren’t there. Like I said, you’re a citizen if you want to be, but only if you want that. Nobody is forcing you to do anything. It’s not like you have to read Moby Dick to be pass the test. But if you think you have the right to tell someone else that they have to read Moby Dick, well then, you just aren’t there yet.”
She takes a breath and then a bite and then another breath.
She’s got a frown going on. “How did you get this idea for a Republic of Books?”
I shrugged the best I could. I had no clear idea of that. I had just dreamt it up one day. I suppose for lack of anything better to do. But I couldn’t say that. Writers spend a lot of time dreaming stuff up that they never write down, and quickly forget about.
“Originally it was just a name for the shop. Just what I told the FBI. But then it became something more. That took almost twenty years, I guess. I’m a little slow, sometimes. And then it just hit me in the middle of the night. That was a year or two before September 11th. I’d read something about the Falun Gong and their resistance to the government of the Communist Chinese. That made some sense to me. Government in the United States had become too large to control just by using an electoral process that was originally put in place two hundred years ago by the founders. In the electronic age, political power and corporate interests had taken over because they were faster to react to opportunities. The primary purpose of the government now is the preservation of itself and to promote those who supported it—maybe that’s what it always was, but it moves a lot faster these days. It’s not all that much better than the Chicoms except for a few dying traditions of the old Republic, like freedom of speech and freedom of the press. The Falun Gong seemed to offer some alternatives.”
“I didn’t say I wanted to copy them. I just think they had some good ideas.”
Deidre pushed her salad around on the plate. Then, maybe to change the subject a little, and because it was on her mind, she again mentions the injured cop she had just spoken to. He had been stabbed in front of a convenience store on Causeway Street while trying to stop a robbery. He was white. The robber was black. But because the robber hadn’t used a gun, the cop had not immediately drawn his own weapon. This turned out to be a mistake. The cop had admitted to her that he was worried about using his gun because he’d just been cautioned against this very thing by his superiors—not to use his gun unless it was absolutely necessary, . . . and especially so if the suspect was black. There was already a lot of tension between the Police and the Afro-American community. ‘Black lives matter’ was the chant. This last item was an inexcusably racist idea to me that had already gone septic. How could any citizen’s life matter more than another? But the result of this incident was that a cop was stabbed and in critical condition for the previous twenty-four hours, tensions had increased anyway, and the robber was still loose to continue his habits. And clearly, the worse part of that was the bad guy was free and would soon be hurting someone else. Maybe even killing someone else, for a few more bucks. Very probably someone else who was black.
So say, “But isn’t that all part of the same race industry that’s been created by a government trying the legislate prejudice instead of just dealing with bigotry under the law. We are all equal under the law. Or should be. But in reality we’re not all truly equal, are we? You’re prettier than I am, just for an instance. I’m definitely prejudiced on that point. Now, according to some, if you’re black, you’re somehow more or less guilty for committing the same crime as a white person. Aren’t you concerned about that?”
She has not finished her appetizer by then and the dinner was being served. This is very touchy territory, and she’s clearly aware of it. Talking about race is like talking about abortion—verboten in our age of only semi-free of speech.
Out of the blue she tries another direction, “Why do you think that all the politicians are trying to screw you if you also believe they’re just in it for their own benefit. How does screwing you benefit them?”
A reporter is like a Jesuit, only without the logic. They’ll answer a question with a question. Lawyers do the same thing, as a matter of fact. Margaret always did that to me. She should have been a lawyer. She’d save a fortune on her real estate dealings.
I answer, “Answering a question with a question is cute but it’s avoiding the issue. The answer to your question is, because I’m one of those citizens who’re being screwed every day by all of their bullshit laws and I’m speaking up about it. They’re trying to cheat me out of a fair hearing. They’re using up my time, and I have less and less of that coming to me. And worse, they’re using my own tax money to pay for it!”
Now she gets a patronizing tone to her voice. “Michael. The system is big and cumbersome, but people are better off now than they were a hundred years ago. You have to admit that. Most especially minorities.”
I’d ordered fried shrimp. I’m a fried shrimp addict. I could not take any more time to discuss these weighty matters without sustenance. So I began to eat. She took the hint and started in on her filet of sole. But as I did this, the difference in our menu choices had me thinking about the food I’d eaten at the FBI office. Food had a lot to say about some things. I had a cute analogy in mind. In our time, weren’t all our souls filleted? Or at least in danger of it? However, I didn’t say that because I couldn’t figure a way to work it in.
I said, “Most of those people you say are ‘better off,’ at least the minorities you’re talking about, are better off because of invention and technology, not government. There’s as much real poverty today in this country as there was when President Johnson declared a ‘war’ on it, a few trillion dollars ago. That’s yet another war we’ve lost as a nation. A lot of white billionaires living large off that, you’ve got to admit. Welfare disguises it, but it hasn’t changed the nature of it. Not in the same way the technology has. But it has moved a whole lot of tax money into the coffers of lobbyists from McDonalds and Pepsi Cola and to the television networks that collect exorbitant sums for advertising on what is essentially a concession within another government monopoly. Watching TV all day, even Opera, is not the same as doing something for a living, even if it keeps people off the street. Do you think that’s an accident? By the numbers, after fifty years, at least twenty percent of the population is still kept in thrall with poor schools and a lack jobs, while they watch game shows and reality TV and gamble large portions of their welfare checks on government-run lotteries. Generation after generation.”
Deirdre picks at her plate.
She finally says, “So you’re just looking at it from the perspective of a business man. You sound just like any other Republican unhappy with the Democrats. But both parties do the same stuff. They’ve both had their time in power and they all do the same thing.”
This sounded to me more like the sort of moral equivalence argument I might hear in a bar, only with milder language.
“That’s just another lazy simplification by someone avoiding the facts, but I’ll remind you I’m neither Republican nor Democrat.”
I saw the look on her face then. It was clearly one thing for her to be belligerent, but another matter for me.
“So you call yourself an ‘Independent.’ Does that somehow make you innocent?”
“No. I’m not independent! That’s a category for people who don’t want to take the responsibility, or the blame, for voting for their own prejudices. No! And before you go there, I’m not a large ‘L’ libertarian either. They’re insane about their own pet issues. It seems to be more important for them to be able to smoke pot than take responsibility for defending the nation or even recognize the needs for a nation to exist. I lost any illusions about them after 9/11. But I suppose if you want a pigeonhole, you’ll have to label me a libertarian with the little ‘l.’ It’s the closest category on the short list.”
She takes a deep breath of patience. She’s not getting the response she wants.
“I thought you wanted to overthrow the government.”
“Yes. The government. But not the nation.”
“That sounds like you want your cake and eat it to.”
“And that’s a silly comparison. I’m eating fried shrimp and I’m trying to speak with you seriously about my big ideas—at least the things that are important to me—and you keep throwing out stuff like that. But here’s one or two example that might get through that thick hide of cynicism, just maybe, because they very likely step on your own toes.” (I could only hope the mix of metaphors was not too toxic.) “What about the fact that the government has taken over responsibility for your health. Your doctor’s opinions have to fit a government mandated formula, dreamed up by a bureaucrat for their own convenience not yours or the doctors. And paperwork! Bureaucrats love paperwork. If the doctor doesn’t fill out the right paperwork he doesn’t get paid! And one of those assistant bureaucrats is deciding whether you get a mammogram or not. Another is determining what sort of flu vaccine is dispensed this year. And a few select insurance companies are getting richer getting paid to fulfill the government priorities. If you get breast cancer, a committee of assistant bureaucrats will decide what treatment you get. But don’t worry. They all went to State run colleges, so they know the drill. They know how the system works.” Deirdre is very still through all this rant and just looking at her plate now, but I wasn’t half finished with what I wanted her to understand. “And what about medical privacy? Because of all those laws they’ve passed to control medical costs, you no longer have a right to medical privacy. Not from the government! Do you realize if your father had a stroke and you wanted to know about his health, you couldn’t get that information unless he gave the okay—but unfortunately he’s had a stroke and he just can’t say. However, there are at least thirty or forty agencies of the United States Government that have total access to his medical records, and yours, and mine, including the Department of Defense, the National Security Agency, the Department of Agriculture, Federal Trade Commission, The Department of the Treasury, and any one of a hundred sub departments for each one of those, and all the bureaucrats who work there, and their assistants, and their friends and relatives—and any reporter who has an inside track with them, as well as any politician with their own motives. That frigging health care law gives them the right to tell you what to eat, how much, when, where, and with whom. Really! How do you like them apples!”
She’d let go of her fork at that point and I was happy for it given the look on her face. I took a breath and waited to see if she’d answer, and when she didn’t, I kept at it because I was worked up now and I’d already said way too much (more than the way too much I’d already said).
“Now, imagine if you’re another politico who’s running for office because you want your share of the pie, and you’re not happy with all that healthcare nonsense. You’re going to be very careful about what you say if you have something in your medical record you don’t want known. Maybe you had a bout with depression once, or maybe you’re anti-abortion now but you had an abortion yourself when you were a teenager. That’s information is now in the hands of your political enemies. Say you’re a judge on the Supreme Court, and you committed some indiscretion that’s well behind you. Say—what is it?”
She had a cold stare going on that was rather chilling. I could only wonder what the toe was that I‘d stumbled on. I really didn’t want to know. Whatever it was, as far as I was concerned right then, she should have had all of these thoughts long ago.
But she still didn’t answer. I wasn’t sure if this was only a matter of keeping her temper or something else. So I left it at that. I had said enough. I finished my shrimp. She did not finish her filet of sole. We paid separately.
The restaurant was just over in Cambridge, so I walked alone across the river. This was more than enough time for me to cool down. And to regret my temper.
Yet, the dinner debacle did not concern me so much. My thought after that was about another topic entirely. Now it was on my mind again that I did not have a lawyer.
I did, however, have an accountant. David Brooks.
This small fact was made even more important to me because the day’s mail was still waiting for me when I got back to the shop. The pile included the usual overdue bills as well as a registered letter from the IRS asking me to arrange for an appointment with a Mr. Morris as soon as possible. I was instructed me to bring all my sales and other financial records covering the last three years to the Kennedy building at Government Center. If I did not contact them within 48 hours to make these arrangements they would act accordingly.
What did ‘accordingly’ mean?
The appropriateness of their office being so near to the FBI was not lost on me. So, I called David.
David Brooks never answers his phone. This is actually one of the things I admire about him. The phone is in his pocket, but nothing is so urgent in his world that it requires him to interrupt whatever he’s doing (usually a round of gothough it was a little late in the day for that). The digital voice tells me he’ll call me back.
I was in the middle of helping a customer just before closing when this eventuality occurred and I interrupted that to take the call. I read the letter to him. He grunted. He asked for the name of Mr. Morris and the number. Then he asked me when he could come over to pick up the current records. (He has copies of everything previous to this year going back to 2006, which was the year he took my case over from my old accountant, Stanley. Stanley wisely stuck with Margaret during the divorce. Her financial shenanigans with real estate have certainly provided him with many more lucrative billings hours.)
David bills me at $50 an hour, which is his ‘charity case’ rate. This is because he likes books and coming over to get the records rather than sending his assistant is an excuse to spend some time browsing. But he never loses an opportunity during a visit to remind me that I’m a poor businessman and he could not get off the line without reminding me of that once again.
“Michael,” David says my name like my mother and Margaret always did, “This is about the stuff I read in the papers. That’s what this is. You know that, don’t you? You’re being audited as a punishment for being foolhardy. If you didn’t always have to open your big mouth and stick your tongue out at the cat, they’d leave you alone. Now you need a lawyer. I’ll speak to a friend of mine, Marty Guinn.”
I was not in the mood for another argument. I just said, “Maybe. I’ll see you tomorrow.”
The gas was out of the bag. I was deflated at last.
A note on the little I have learned
And that a man might be an island after all
When I have complained out-load of our difficulties, those individuals who have worked for me through the years have often expressed the thought that I had it pretty good. Not everyone can have their own bookshop! And this was true enough for a time. I had indeed found my small paradise in the midst of the darkening city. I had made my shelved Shangri-la. I had built my xenophile Xanadu for all seasons. My Eden. But my protest to this was always much the same. I was not innocent of either the virtues or the faults of our bookshop. It was not near to being perfect. My complaint was only for the mistakes I have made, not the small triumphs. Importantly, I believe it was the contrast with the world outside that made it seem better than it was. Much of my time I had simply obeyed the current of the stream. However, my personal wish was always for something quieter. Something smaller still. Something off the beaten path. I did not care about being in the Athens of America so much as being able to care for the books in this pretended agora of ideas—and write my own, of course!
I had some reason a few years ago to think about Eden and man’s lost innocence and whatever is the cause of this that we can know. And all that thinking was the making of another book, a novella really, one of the several that are now lost in the ether file because there is no market in this world for that sort of thing. But let me tell you a little about that one.
I once knew a fellow, I’d called him Ethan in the story, who had grown up on the coast of Maine and for much of his youth and early manhood had lived on one of the larger islands there. He was a good fellow, bright, friendly, strong and handsome and naturally charming in his ways. Because employment on the island was limited, Ethan took any job that was offered but more often than not he could be found painting one of the hundred summer homes that city dwellers kept there to have in order to enjoy their own taste of Eden each year, or else rent out to other fortunate families who could afford the price of admission for a week or two in season. But Ethan was also handy with carpentry, plumbing and electrical matters, all things he had learned early in life at the knee of a father, or uncle. Thus, his place in life was set for him like a place at the dinner table.
Now Islanders might be surprised to learn that they had been living in Eden all this time, while struggling to take care of themselves and their families in that distant place, but as I came to understand from small vignettes and incidental tales, this island was, for all intents and purposes, as close to Eden as any of us are likely to get. Even the harsh and damp winter months took on a glow in my head, with the description of driftwood fires and banshee winds, and families gathered close in the kitchen around ample food from steaming pots and a large and cracking iron stove that had once served the purposes of a small hotel there—lobster and potatoes, baked apples and corn bread, all hot from the oven, along with pies and puddings, and anything else that might be fried in the bacon grease. In the spring of every year the houses of the summer folk were made ready for, and in the fall, each had to be battened and drained. But I was always most enchanted by his descriptions of winter—the desolate Wyeth-like beauty appealed to me I suppose.
This was a place blessed by freshly made airs and newly minted suns, where the wind spoke in the languages of Babel and sang from the eaves in most weather, and the grass patterned itself in weaves to clothe the earth, frost grew in beards on bald rock, buoys muttered through brothy fogs and seagulls boasted too loudly of their prerogatives.
Unlike the original Eden, there was no high and mighty to dictate the rules. There was a father to set example and a mother to please, uncles to entertain and aunts to avoid (because they always had a chore in mind), but on the whole, Ethan did what he wanted.
And too there was no librarian at the twelve-by-twenty shack, set back on a hillock of grass and thistle and goldenrod, that served as the public library to the island but was well stocked with the abandoned volumes of the summer visitors and the donations of the families that lived on the island year round. This became Ethan’s refuge from needy aunts as well as his daily break from the smell of paint or backed-up plumbing. Few other people came to take advantage of the shelves of books, because there was sailing to do, and tennis, fishing, shopping on the mainland, and other things more important.
A little scrap wood and a few pieces of coal and the one room of the library became toasty in any weather. He even knew how to get the toilet running because he had worked on that himself. In winter, Ethan lay in the sun filled squares made by the window panes on the floor. In summer, he pushed the window open by the bench at the wall and lay there in the constant breath of sweet and salted grass. He read War and Peace and Peyton Place and the Count of Monte Christo and The Stand. The longer the better. Short books were a cheat to him and hardly a chance to enter some other world before it was over. Les Miserables was his favorite. Great Expectations the second. His own instincts tended him toward the classics, but other impulses often egged him to the literary side-roads. Because these were so often left by the summer visitors, he also read the more interesting parts of the ‘bodice-rippers.’
Often, especially in the summer, he would stay up at the library in the bright of the evenings and wish while he read that a girl might come up the path and through the door who also dreamt of things beyond the shores of their own experience.
The one room school house was still in use at this time, not so long ago, before the children of the island were forced to ferry each day, back and forth to the mainland, and the harsh realities of a municipal education. The advantage to this was that his teacher, Miss Henderson, knew him well and fed him extra books on the subjects Ethan loved the most. And it was this same Miss Henderson, tall and thin and wispy haired, who was Ethan’s first true love.
Luckily, she understood this and kept him at bay.
But there were several island girls who were not as shy. True, they each lost interest in Ethan’s talk of far away and long ago while they were intent themselves on the here and now. But from them he learned what he needed to know but could never ask. Soon enough though, one of the lobsterman’s sons, or the ‘too cute’ Post Office Clerk who came weekdays with deliveries, or a male member of the summer contingent, would end the affair with him and the girls would move on. And then too, each summer, among the visitors who came, there was always a girl to catch his eye as he painted a porch or fixed a light switch, and was old enough to be interested in sudden romance. It was one of these girls, in fact named Melody, who finally caused Ethen to leave his paradise.
Ethan was smart and easily passed the college entrance exams that Miss Henderson made him take. And then when that turn came, he left the Island for the wilds of Orono and the University there, which is as far from Eden as any place could be. But Melody went to school there too and beckoned.
Unfortunately, Melody was also more interested in the tune of the here and now. She was stolen from Ethan by a business major whose father ran a small chain of hardware stores.
When I first met Ethan, he had completed only two years of college and arrived in Boston in needed of work and a quick paycheck. I was cleaning out a small warehouse at the time, one of the several I kept to store my gains from auctions and estate sales, and this being years before my encounter with Jack, I hired Ethan immediately.
He was a sad fellow at this point, lost, and far from finding himself. He had tried some kinds of drugs at college and lost interest in his studies. He had had several more affairs. He was not reading so much as going to the movies and this had hardened him with a Hollywood cynicism. He had happened onto my shop by accident while looking for another address that had advertised for a handyman. I asked him if he liked books.
His answer was interesting. “What there is to like.”
“What’s your favorite?”
I was surprised when he told me he liked Victor Hugo, and I questioned this until I was sure he was not pretending.
“Have you ever read John McPhee?”
“Yes. I like most of them okay but I like the western ones about the geology and the history out there best. In Suspect Terrain is my favorite. I went out to take a look a few years ago. Pretty good.”
“Have you read Boswell.”
“I couldn’t finish his Life of Johnson, but I liked the London Journals an awful lot.”
“When can you start?”
Easily one of the shortest job interviews I ever had.
Ethan seemed satisfied for awhile but it was clear he wasn’t happy. Out of curiosity or a desire to help or both I started to inquire as we moved boxes from hither to yon or he worked in the store shelving new arrivals or awaited a customer at the register. It was at that point that I got the story I have related here.
As much as I needed the man’s help, I quickly started feeling guilty for standing in the way of his return to paradise. It was clear enough to me that he did not belong in a Sodom-like Boston or any other of the many Gomorrahs he had wandered through after leaving the Island. In my own crude way I started a campaign of reminding him of what he had lost. I got him to talk about his childhood and his teacher on the island, whom I learned had moved away after the school closed and married, and about the library, and of the sweet and sour smell of salt grass, and tap of stones caught in the last play of a wave on a beach, and the small voice of an unseen lobster boat visiting the nets out in a fog, and the burst of a wave between a cleft of rock and the rainbow after, and the total stillness of a winter morning when its too cold to move a body safe beneath the bed quilts.
After a year or so, Ethan returned to the Island to reassess what he had learned and what he had lost. And it was on that very first visit that he went up to his old haunt, the library, and opened the door there to the stale odor of disuse and the dried plumbing from the toilet. He opened all the windows wide and swept the dead ladybugs and flies from the floor and properly filed all the donated books that were below the slot next to the door, and got the water running in the toilet. And after several hours he had hardly finished this when a young woman came to the door looking for something to read.
Now, this all relates very neatly to my own doxology, in that I am deeply grateful for the blessings I have received. I do not question God for his generosity. I do argue over my own stupidity and inability to enjoy the bounty. To be clear, I am not cursing the darkness, but I am looking for the candles and matches and cussing myself for not putting them back where they belong.
My friend Ethan reminds me then that only one hundred years ago there was a man who was world famous, renowned and esteemed, by the name of Charles W. Eliot. He was a personal friend to many of the great in his time. Not one in a thousand know his name today—that is beyond the confines of Eliot Hall at Harvard, though even most Harvard graduates can’t tell you who he was. I know this because I have asked.
Charles W. Eliot was once President of Harvard College. There is much accomplishment attached to that, as you might imagine, and in his case, more, but you can look it up on your own if you are interested. My particular admiration for the man is two-fold. Firstly, that he envisioned and edited his ‘five-foot shelf of books,’ a fifty volume collection of the great written works of mankind also known as ‘The Harvard Classics.’ (Seventy volumes if you count the 20 volumes of fiction he added as an afterthought. Perhaps it was then a seven foot shelf. No matter.) I did not crack any of those volumes until long after I should have. It was the name ‘Harvard Classics’ that likely daunted me. I was happier with my Everyman’s and Modern Library editions which were smaller—pocket sized—and more accessible to my ‘land-grant’ mind. But for many in that now lost age, the Harvard Classics was an un-official Harvard education. And as I came to know them and depend on their notes and arguments, I did come to appreciate them for their inherent genius and Emersonian openness to ideas, as well as their cloth covered sturdiness. I have always sold them in the shop, and they are still relatively common and cheap, having once reached the millions as they were carried into the furthest reaches by buckboard, dogsled, and freighter.
But Charles W. Eliot did something even better than that! He wrote a small book. This appeared first in an issue of the Century magazine and then reprinted many times thereafter—a biography entitled John Gilley. John Gilley was a Maine farmer and fisherman with whom Eliot had become acquainted during his summers at Mount Desert Island. As it says, Gilley was a ‘True American Type.’ Born on an island and raised there to hard work and the rewards and pains of an honest life. Eliot opens his little book, only seventy odd pages, with an interesting appreciation. “To be absolutely forgotten in a few years is the common fate of mankind.” And later notes, “We live as a rule in the present and the past, and take very little thought of the future.”
“John Gilley was born February 22, 1822, at the Fish Point on Great Cranberry Island, Maine, whither his mother, who lived on Baker’s Island, had gone to be confined at the house of Mrs. Stanley, a midwife. “ And thus this brief accounting—little more than a gravestone rubbing—of an old mortality begins. But as you will learn, there is no monument for John Gilley that you might visit today, no matter that he was a great man. What Eliot makes clear is that this ‘forgotten man’ was indeed exceptional by all the standards common to our American souls. But he is remembered today, indeed, because Eliot wrote about him. And time may come, given the decay of what was once a “Harvard education,’ when Mr. Gilley is better known than Mr. Eliot. Yet, given what I know about Charles W. Eliot, I don’t think he would mind.
Slouching toward Eutopia
with due respect for all those adjectives that passed this way before.
Early Tuesday morning, about eight, I’m on the computer at the front desk in the shop, trying to concentrate and finish another blog posting, and I hear the tapping at the window. Outside, Margaret’s face is catching the slant of the sunlight down Revere Street. I can see by the haze that the window needs cleaning.
When I let her in, she says, “The window needs cleaning.”
“I’ll speak to someone about it. What do you want?”
I can see that she has the Post folded in her hand. I could only guess what that was about.
She asks, “What do you know about this fellow George Reilly. I mean really?”
She had opened the door, so to speak.
“Really? Reilly is rather a righteous rogue.” She did not break a smile so I continued. “At least I know that much.”
“But how? Just by what he reads? You don’t seem to know anything else about him. I’m sure Hitler read some very nice books.”
“No. I don’t think so. Maybe a little Spengler. Marx and Nietzsche, certainly. And Heidegger. Wittgenstein. Weber. I know he liked to listen to Wagner, but I don’t think Hitler really read a lot of anyone. That sort of personality doesn’t have the patience. Their certainties are God given, and they have very nasty gods. Good, or bad, ideology too often has very little to do with thought. But George Reilly has never struck me as an ideologue. He likes to discuss things too much. He’s far too open to suggestions.”
I can see on that very familiar face that she hasn’t heard half of what I said. It’s a pretty face, nonetheless.
“There has to be a reason the FBI wants him.”
“I’m sure there is. More than one, probably. But given their own behavior, that much is in his favor, isn’t it? And if I have to choose between a friend and the FBI, it’s no contest. The Feds have already sold their souls for pottage.” And then, in an attempt to finish that subject off more lightly, I tried again, “But the reason George Reilly really reads is rather a riddle.”
She has not been impressed with my little onomatopoeia for many years, any more than she likes my rhymes. When I was young, I used to send her love notes in couplets of the same caliber and she thought they were cute. Now she says, “Stop it!” and drops the newspaper down on the counter with a grimace of disgust. It was folded to an inner page. “Here’s another piece by your girl friend, Miss Roberts. She seems to be very dedicated to your case.”
My hands were full just then with books to put away and I looked at the article where it lay—that is, without picking it up off the marble of the counter.
I say, “She’s not my girl friend.”
Margaret quips back, “There might be a difference of opinion on that matter then.”
What is it women see in the motives of other women? I suppose the motives of men are that much easier to judge from afar. Sex, food and beer. Maybe a good novel or a rousing symphony for respite in-between.
I read the lede aloud into the gloom of the empty shop, “‘Darker purpose may loom over FBI investigation of local bookseller’ Now, that’s a catchy headline!”
The gist of the piece was in the first few paragraphs. Margaret put her hands on her hips like she was posing for the image of patience. Just like she used to with the kids.
I read aloud “ ‘It has frequently been protested that laws created under the aegis of the Patriot Act and meant to combat terrorism after 9/11 appear to contradict First Amendment rights to freedom of speech and freedom of the press as well as the Fourth Amendment safeguards against search and seizure.
“‘Michael McGeraughty, owner of A Republic of Books, believes any semblance of an individual’s right to privacy is the greatest loss to these rulings, as personal information is taken, used and abused by unaccountable agencies for questionable purposes, and that intimidation appears to be the government’s motive in the recent interrogation of the Boston bookseller.
“‘Ardis Cooper, assistant manager at the Charles Street shop, was also questioned by the FBI. She believes the agency is interested in anyone dissenting against recent government policy. Ms. Johnson expresses the opinion, ‘There was ample legislation already on the books that could have been used to prosecute terrorists.
“Miss Cooper adds, ‘The Patriot Act was enacted by lawmakers as a purely political maneuver taking advantage of public panic in a time of national crisis after September 11th. It’s actually created whole new measures of authority and attendant bureaucracy, at the same time as it diminishes the jurisdiction of local police and traditional law enforcement. It gathers police power in the hands of the President and the Executive branch, meanwhile enlarging the scope of government intrusion on private lives but making us no safer in the process.’”
And, with that, Herself opened the door, just as I finished the sentence. She was not even on the work schedule.
I smiled at the sunlit dish of strawberry pink and freckles on her face and said, “You’ve gotten some very nice ink here.”
Ardis shook that off, “A friend woke me up to tell me about it.”
“Did Deirdre get the quotes right?”
Ardis nodded as if reluctant to admit the fact. “Pretty much. Yes. But I was really only quoting you. Didn’t you like the way I got so many ‘P’ words in one sentence?”
Ardis gave Margaret a toothy grin of satisfaction.
Margaret was not exactly scowling, but she looked manifestly unhappy at our exchange. She says, “I’ll tell you what. You better have a lawyer! . . . You do have a lawyer, don’t you Michael?” But she can see the answer to that on my face even without sunlight, and she adds, “Oh, crap! You don’t have a lawyer, do you?”
She knew that, in any case. I never had a lawyer during the divorce either.
I said, “But I have David.”
She answers, “David is only a certified public pain in the posterior.”
I gave that a nod of recognition for the grammar and she left on that small verbal triumph.
And with the extra publicity, the day was busy once again. And this was a Tuesday, yet. Slowest day of the week!
But I did not get the chance to read the rest of the article in the Post until much later and was not as pleased with the latter part. Immediately after the quote from Ardis it said, “Douglas Evans, Special Agent at the FBI Boston Field Office, strongly disagrees with these sentiments. He states unequivocally, ‘There are people with darker motives hiding behind antiquated laws. Our mandate is not to subvert the Constitution but safeguard it while digging those evildoers out of their spider holes and exposing them to the light of day. The safety of us all depends on that. We cannot suffer another attack like 9/11. Not on my watch!’ ”
The ‘spider-hole’ reference leaves me thinking Mr. Evans is a veteran of the war in Iraq.
As an answer, and amidst of the bustle of that afternoon, I wrote a fresh installment of my new blog, re-quoting Ardis quoting me. This was done in-between answering more questions from customers such as, ‘What exactly did they charge you with?’
People don’t read the newspapers very carefully, so perhaps that’s the reason reporters are so often careless. Or was it the other way around—the misinformation in newspapers had trained people to pay less attention to what was written there.
Then again, I could not assume that what I wrote on my website would be received with any greater respect, though perhaps a little more scrutiny by the FBI or whatever other alphabet soup agency was on my case.
In many ways, Margaret was responsible for all of this. That was certainly the case financially. Without her support, the shop would have failed on many occasions through the years. I was always the weak link in the chain for her. She wanted to be a multimillionaire. She wanted to be in complete control of her life. I resisted even the idea of it.
Her hero was Ayn Rand. I even believe it was when she found out I had read those novels that she decided I was the one. And for a time—a short time—I let her believe I was simpatico with all of that. At least that I was not against it.
There were other occasions of sin in this regard, but the first big blowout came after a lecture we had gone to at the Ford Hall Forum in the late 1970’s. We walked home from Jordan Hall after the event and I had immediately disagreed with Miss Rand’s premise about ‘Balkanization’ being bad, and ethnicity being divisive, and race, language, and religion being the negative forces afoot in the world.
One line I argued that night is memorable because it has come up repeatedly since, especially after the Moslem attacks on the West following September 11th.
“She talks as if the West has some hegemony on progress. That is absurd. Most of the world has no understanding of the individual apart from the tribe, much less any desire for the kind of globalized culture she appears to want. And they’ve got the bomb now too.” In so many words.
Margaret went ballistic.
As often happened, we made love after that argument. Georgia was born nine months later to the day. Our own Balkanization had begun.
And it was a similar argument son after the attacks on the World Trade Center that began the separation that ended in divorce. But I could not fail to note that we did not make love on that later occasion or very much thereafter.
Tolstoy said that ‘every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.’ Perhaps it’s just me, but I found the unhappy period very boring and repetitious. The happy times were good for more reasons that I can possibly recount.
But the libido is amoral.
When I first met Margaret, she had already gone to several of the Ayn Rand lectures at The Ford Hall Forum. She had read all the books. She even subscribed to the newsletter. For my part I had barely finished Atlas Shrugged. I liked The Fountainhead better, but the concept of a Galt’s Gulch still fascinated me. I had decided already it was a bad idea—hiding out in a secret valley like the ‘Hole in the Wall’ gang was certainly no smarter than Thoreau’s hiding in the woods. There was no future in it. Time passes that slowly. Everyone would be long dead before the malevolent forces of the world at large were subdued by their own self-destructive meanness. And in the mean time there was a lot to see and do in the world at large. And this too was essentially my argument to Margaret on our very first date, only hours after we met. But what I put forward then as an alternative, on that particular night, changed both our lives. For my part it was very successful. We were in bed together a few hours later. Basically, getting her into bed was all I could really think about after I first laid eyes on her. All the philosophy in the world didn’t amount to a hill of beans against that. I didn’t even have enough money to buy her dinner, having spent my last few dollars on a can of wood stain for the shelves, so she paid for that too. And I suppose, in a way, she paid for most of our dinners after that.
My charm at that point must have been that I was the first single guy she had every met who had actually read Atlas Shrugged and could talk about it. So I did. And right off, given that it was me, I argued with the idea of Galt’s Gulch. This was the place all of the Randian hero’s of Valhalla could go to hide out from the evil that men do and bide their time until they might return again. It was pure deus ex machina stuff, I said. A convenient escape hatch. And she made the mistake of asking me what I would do instead. And on the spot, with the prospect of seduction always foremost in mind, I suggested it was better to hide in plain sight. The truth was, I had never even thought about it that way until that moment.
And she asked, as innocently as the babe in the woods, “Is that what you’re doing? Is that what the bookshop is all about?”
And always one to ride a gift-horse as well as look one in the mouth, I said, “Yes!”
She was thrilled.
This was very unfair. I knew that from the first. She was an adult and thus responsible for her own actions, but she was already in thrall to Ayn Rand’s magic. Rand had all the answers to life injustice. She had seen her businessman father fight against the evils of bureaucracy and politics all her life. And she could not have known I was making it up as I went along. But that is what life is all about. Isn’t it? You prepare yourself as best you can for the unexpected and then it happens.
All I wanted was to have my own bookshop where I could make a living while I wrote. Really, all I every wanted to do. Not very complicated. Suddenly I was all about revolution and turning over the established order. Of course, that was fine too, as long as she would go to bed with me.
I am no better now.
The way it works is this: so long as I remained naïve I could offer my very innocence as a defense. But as soon as I admitted to any knowledge of sin at all, I was suspect—damned, if you will. In Catholic precincts you learn this subterfuge well before Confirmation as a means of reducing the number of Our Fathers and Hail Marys you carry away from the confessional. (Who among us, it was rightly assumed, having acquired the actual knowledge of sin, could then resist temptation? Or, once you’ve had hot sex, how can you pretend that it’s not more important than the reading of cold philosophy? Of course, that too must be why nuns were meant to be virgins—the natural seduction of sin. More seriously speaking, but in much the same way, power seduces, and once given the absolute might to do so, how could you resist the opportunity to make the world right, according to your own lights )
And that, in a Jimmy Carter peanut shell, was the original sin of government.
Deidre’s demand to know why I thought the government was trying to screw me in particular betrayed her own real innocence, I think—a believing in the idea that they were only trying to do the right thing after all—as did her total inability to realize that such power immediately corrupted the user. Both Frodo and Bilbo proved that. How could such guilelessness be, given what she must have seen as a reporter? Or is that just another example of willful blindness—of seeing only what she wanted to see, and ignoring what did not fit her preconceived notions? (She had very pretty eyes, after all.) Or did she believe it? The answer to that question mattered to me, and now I was asking myself why. Something had changed, of course.
My answer to her was, “It was the very thing that Tolkien once warned us about, you know.” I gave this reply by way of preparing my ground for further argument.
But she objected, “That’s just a movie.”
A concrete fact. But a mere sophist such as myself never argues with concrete.
And I was not an innocent on this point. Nor was I willing to be guilty of greater trespass. Mine would not be a sin of commission. But omission was another thing entirely. (Or is that just a Catholic thing.)
I could only say in response, “But first, it was a book,” and shrug.
Whatever it was that George Reilly might have done to draw the interest of the FBI, I knew him only as the fellow who could happily sacrifice half an hour of his life talking about Montaigne’s theories of lying and memory. It was Montaigne, you may know, who first asserted that to be a good liar, a good memory was requisite (or, at least the first I’ve read). In response, (allowing for my own natural deficiencies) I had suggested to George that it was possible to accomplish this by writing, as well, asserting that even if my memory was faulty I could always turn back the pages to check the veracity of my own lies in order to keep them harmonious. But George believed in the bluff. Admit to the flaws in your recollection to begin with, and then lie wholeheartedly. Who could then fault you for being wrong? George had slyly equated this act with carefully reading the hyperbolic warnings on bottles of medicine. If it killed you after that, it was your own damned fault. His was the better argument.
So with yet another twist of logic, my hope was that my blog concerning the FBI raid and their subsequent investigation would defuse any additional interest in me. Wasn’t I being sufficiently transparent? (A phony word in the usage of the moment but appropriate here). I was clearly being open with the facts of the case. Wasn’t I? At least those I knew.
I was wrong again, of course.
This time it was Mr. Evans himself who came in the shop to correct me.
Seeing him there, wandering the aisles, got me thinking that I recognized him from sometime previous to these most recent encounters. I had a better memory for faces than for my own fabrications—I was certain now that he had been in at least once prior the raid and that I had not taken sufficient note of him then.
He finally wanders over to me while I’m pulling typewriter keys apart on one of our display machines which had been attacked by a twelve year-old earlier that morning.
He says, “I spoke with your Mr. Brooks.”
His Adam’s apple danced. “Not so good. He’s a real pain in the ass.”
“My ex-wife says the same thing.”
“He want’s the records we borrowed so he can access them for the IRS. I told him we were done with them for the moment and you could send somebody down to Center Plaza to get them if you wanted.”
I said, “I don’t think so. You already used up a bunch of taxpayer money to come over here and confiscate them in the first place. I have to pay Mr. Brooks by the hour and I’m feeling pretty poor after your making me miss a day of work. I’m afraid you’ll have to use a little more of that tax money to bring them back.”
He shrugged at my answer too emphatically. “If they’re not important enough for you to come and get them, maybe we’ll just throw them out.”
I gave him a purposefully unconvincing shrug in return, “I’ll let Ms. Roberts at the Post know you said that. She’s been looking for more detail on the way you treat innocent people. And I’ll let Mr. Brooks know so that he can inform the IRS that you’re impeding their own unwarranted audit by withholding them.”
Mr. Evans smiles with appropriate theatricality. “This is going to be fun to watch.”
“Well, I hope it’s at least entertaining. You’ve managed to double our business with this kerfuffle and I’d love to be able to write about more of your shenanigans so at least those benefits don’t stop.”
Now he gives me the straight-face. “You will find the IRS far less accommodating. And they might find your business practices questionable.”
Ah! An implied threat or simply an interesting misdirection on his part. People are often more afraid of an IRS audit than a mere gun.
I say, “I like your admission that the IRS is a greater menace than the FBI—but, such as what, for instance?”
He smirks. How long had he practiced that smirk in front of his bathroom mirror during the first year he had been an agent, before he was satisfied with it? It was clearly practiced now. But he should have left it in the bathroom. It had no menace.
He says, “I’ll just let them inform you of that.”
This was an empty threat and I think we both knew it. I did not believe Mr. Evans to be a stupid man. Just wrongheaded. And I was pretty sure my bluff was bigger than his. But like any barroom challenge, I really had no idea.
Revolutions always need a specific cause but usually have no more ambition than the elimination of the original hurt. Few insurrections have been given as broad a mandate as the American Revolution, for instance. And thus, most revolts quickly descend into chaos after the first objective is met, only to bring about the rise of new governments that are as poor as the one overthrown. Often worse.
I wanted something better for my own kerfuffle. Something worthy of being called Revolutionary. This then was the beginning of the next blog that I wrote: “You wouldn’t want to live in the average utopia. You wouldn’t even want to visit. It’s an unpleasant place, unkind and unwelcoming to the hot blooded. It’s the sort of country where impulse is forbidden, extravagance is sin, and curiosity is punished. It’s a place made perfect by design, like rows in sunny fields of regimented corn. Thus there can be no individual delight in the sprouting of the wayward kernel at the roadside. There is no odd old tree in the field amidst the regular ranks to draw the eye—certainly no personal pleasures beyond the boring harmony of evenly spaced queues and a planned parenthood. This is no better than a chemically induced happiness, subdued. Sentiments are calmed by a lack of alternatives. All insecurity is banished by an absence of choice. Genders are neutralized and sexual pleasures made gratuitous. But there is no actual sweaty sex. Artificial insemination guarantees results. Every stalk there is equal (though some, as you may have heard, are more equal than others). With such perfection achieved, the present, past and future are one. It is a nation at peace by forced irrigation, propagation, fertilization, cultivation and routine harvesting.”
And I quickly followed that with the opening words of Mr. Paine’s Common Sense: “Some writers have so confounded society with government, as to leave little or no distinction between them; whereas they are not only different, but have different origins. Society is produced by our wants, and government by our wickedness . . . ” And I offered a short bibliography of a few dozen utopian novels as proof.
Mr. Evans hung around following our minor confrontation, with some intention he did not reveal to me. As he continued to wander about the shop, several times he pulled one book or another from a shelf and brought it to the counter to ask me what I thought of it. There did not seem to be a rhyme or reason to the choices : Robert Heinlein and Dashiell Hammett? David Hackett Fisher and Amity Shlaes?
About two o’clock, when the usual mid-afternoon quiet descended, he leaned his lanky frame up against the side of the counter, just out of the way of the register. I first noticed then that his Adam’s apple actually started moving before he spoke—in some sort of advance reflex—and this gave me an early warning of his intention to speak.
“You’re a smart fella. How is it you got yourself keyed into a relationship with this guy, Reilly? You must have known something was up with him.”
I thought the approach was interesting for a number of reasons. For one, he was staying with the ‘good cop’ persona.
I said, “He likes to stand right about where you are now. He just comes in and wanders around a bit, like you’ve been doing. Of course he says ‘Hello,’ first. Not like some people. Then he’ll pull something off the shelf and show it to me and asks me what I think about it. Next thing I know we’re talking about Thomas Hutcheson or Adam Ferguson, or Thomas Reid or something else of the kind. One thing leads to another. After a while you come to expect it. Sometimes, it’s the best part of the day. But I’m thinking now maybe I shouldn’t have been taking such simple pleasures for granted. Maybe that’s all over, now.”
“Who are those people? Novelists?”
I ignored the question as a misdirection.
“That’s really the point. I’m not such a smart fella, as you say. But I do persist. I know a lot of people who are smarter than me. You’ve met a couple of them, I believe. Take my ex-wife. . . . Please.” I gave that the briefest pause, just long enough to make it clear he was not a Henny Youngman fan. “She has me totally beat. She could join Mensa but she thinks they’re all a lot of self-conscious jerks—And, you know. That’s a funny thing to. When we got married she thought that I was the smartest thing. She thought I was a genius. I was in love, of course, and I didn’t try to dissuade her. But then she discovered the sad truth of it—that’s the old contempt of familiarity I guess—anyway and it was all down hill from there.”
He offered a skeptical rise in one eyebrow along with the quiver at his throat. “How’d she make that mistake if she was so smart?”
“I suppose it’s because I know a little about a lot of things. I really don’t know very much about anything.”
“Yeah, sure.” Maybe he accepted that anecdote, and maybe he didn’t. He says, “But tell me a little more about Mr. Reilly. What do you think his deal is?”
“How do you mean that?”
“What do you think he’s up to? Why all the secrecy?”
“You’re asking me that? Why are you here? Shouldn’t any person be free to pursue their own interests without the FBI looking on. I suspect, whoever he really is, he’s had a taste of you guys before.” This was purposely misleading, of course. George had told me he had no record with the FBI at all. But the idea that he did might occupy some of their time. I added, “I’m on his side for that.” But I’m an amateur at such obfuscation.
Mr. Evans shook it right off. “No. I don’t think so. This guy is a clean slate. But I guess it bothers me that someone in your position, with a family, and a business, and a good reputation, is hooking up with someone he doesn’t even know. That doesn’t make sense.”
This was old ground. “I think you have that all backwards. Anyone who can discuss natural rights and common sense with me like it matters what I think, is someone I ought to know, if only for the sake of my family, and my business, and my reputation—or as someone else once put it, ‘our lives, our fortunes and our sacred honor.’ ”
No reaction. Not a flinch. But somehow, I think he understands. He says, “Very smart. So tell me who those guys are that you mentioned before.”
I directed him to the philosophy section. To his credit, he did not come back for more than an hour. But when he did, it was with a paperback copy of Thomas Paine’s Common Sense.
Evans pointed back into the aisle in the manner of someone who had encountered another person there, “That other fella, Reid, was talking about ‘common sense,’ and right on the same shelf is this one. It looks like it might be a little easier.” Mr. Evans flipped the pages of the slim paperback with his thumb. “What do you think?”
“I think you’re right. But Reid and Ferguson and Hutcheson and their Scottish Enlightenment were the foundation for Tom Paine and Mr. Jefferson as well.”
He tossed the book onto the counter.
“Then I’ll buy that.”
Notes on a life lived at the margins
This is a chapter I might have entitled ‘The way of Zinn,’ or perhaps ‘The tenants of Objectivism,’ but I lacked the balls for either due to my previously well-founded reputation for spelling errors. In retrospect, Margaret’s faith in the religion of Ayn Rand and willingness to occupy that sterile philosophical edifice, and my many contests through the years with the knuckle-headed anti-intellectual bastards of that intellectual opportunist, Howard Zinn, had much more to do with what I chose to write about than either of those authors should have. There were so many novels to write and so little time. I should have chosen more wisely. Besides, the deep stupidity of Zinn and Rand will always be with us.
Famously, Zinn ‘taught,’ after a fashion at Boston University and lived next door to the family of the future to-be actor Matt Damon. And this one singular accident of history sold another half million copies of his muddled polemic A People’s History of the United States when Damon included his own awe for the old Marxist in a passing remark, made in an otherwise worthwhile movie, Good Will Hunting. But it was just such accidents of history that Professor Zinn loved best— preyed upon, not being a praying man. A singular factoid, without research, much less substantiation, could become an indictment of the United States’ use of the atomic bomb on Japan in World War Two. Never mind a hundred facts to the contrary.
As I say, this bothered me more than it should have. Though I wrote fiction with more footnotes than Zinn while making no pretense that it was anything other than my own supposition. To me the key was that it could be true. At least at the time I wrote it. This was also my primary differentiation between fantasy and science fiction as well. It could have actually happened this way. But when Zinn decided that the U. S. had needlessly bombed Hiroshima and Nagasaki there was ample public evidence already available that our motivations, if tragic, were soundly reasoned. Even more of that lapse of history has been released since, but there is no revision of Zinn’s book that I am aware of.
I bought my first copy of A People’s History of the United States at a yard-sale sometime in the 1980’s. The conspiratorial tone was a trick lated used well against the mysteries of Roman Catholicism by the avowed fiction author Dan Brown in his DiVinci Code books, but Zinn’s offering to reveal the hidden secrets of American history was enough to make me take it home to check it out. I am no different than the next man. I love a good secret, even when I have already guessed that seeing it in print made any such classification less so. Such hard sell approaches are a constant appeal on the radio and make the programming there obnoxious. ‘Learn the secrets the drug companies don’t want you to know!’ As if our lawyered-up litigious society had not already been all but immobilized by fear of the civil suit. ‘Learn the stock market secrets the big brokers don’t want you to know.’ A boarder-state used car salesman is far more sincere. But Zinn’s approach must have worked on Mr. Damon. That, or what I hear was a very winning personality. Something I always lacked.
If memory serves I brought the book back and threw it in the dollar bin at the shop on the very next day. Forty or fifty pages of such supposition was enough, especially when it pretended to be original. Most of his ‘revelations’ had been in the basement marketplace of ideas for thirty or fifty years and the Marxist cant about works and owners was off-putting.
I was slower to object to Margaret’s constant use of the Randian glossary, but the limited vocabulary wore thin on me soon enough. Rand is a marvel of good writing and usage in fiction, but her political diatribes are another matter.
This first raised the grain on me with Margaret’s attacks when I used the word agnostic to describe myself. I had always refused attempts to prove a negative such as saying that God did not exist. I could only express what little I thought I knew, and that was already limited enough, which was likely the very reason I resorted to fiction in an effort to widen my worldview. The Randian fear of the arbitrary, which is in fact the most of all human action in the face of far too little knowledge for an objective certainty, is palpable. Never mind the scientific method. Forget about Thomas Reid’s common sense. Any rational demand for proof of the negative assertion that God does not exist becomes a word game usually posing straw men in comic relief. This is an excellent enough ploy for quick plot development in fiction but had little place in reasonable philosophic discussion—though I note now it has become the realm of much late night television ‘humor’ by supposed standup comics who cannot be bothered with reason or the establishing of humor with a kernel of human truth. I’ve thought Miss Rand ought to get some credit for that at least, perhaps even royalties for the popularization of her canny straw-man argumentativeness. But, ironically, it was a common characteristic of despised Marxian and Leninist argument even before her time. Rand, raised through the Russian Revolution, was a true product of her youth, for both good and ill.
And she was equally fearful of the idea of ‘An open mind.’ I don’t wonder what she must have thought of Karl Popper’s Open Society. Obviously saying that one has an open mind about the traffic in the street, or the temperature outside, is foolish, but such bugaboos are her common go-to retorts to someone who honestly does not know. That we all must act on insufficient knowledge most of the time is one of the many humbling aspects of life—but that does not therefore say we can’t act at all. We must, and we do—as I have said, to do nothing is to act nevertheless. Mistakes are made and we thus learn. Having Margaret criticize me every time I said something that did not fit her Randian lexicon was boring. I stopped making the effort to correct her fairly early on. I am simply not as glib as Miss Rand—or her ghost in print. Needless to say, it limited our conversations.
So long as the children were about, we had much to discuss on their account, and Margaret was a good and loving mother, but when they were gone from the roost, the silences were hard for either of us to bare. I stayed at the shop later and went to work earlier.
That I know of, Mr. Zinn himself seldom came into the shop. We were not close enough to Boston University. But he did in fact come in at least once for certain. He was there looking for his own book and he had a young woman with him who appeared to be quite enamored of the tall and quiet-spoken gentleman she had evidently just met—judging by the festoon of badges and her arm bands—during a protest march that day on the Boston Common.
At first he simply asked for the history section, I suppose assuming that any bookshop must carry his tome. He returned after moment (given the size of the book, it would have been easy to see it wasn’t at the end of the alphabetical order).
“I don’t see my book there.”
Now, he might have meant this in any of several ways. Perhaps, giving him the greatest benefit of the doubt—a credit he never gave others—he simply meant to say ‘the book I am seeking,’ but encounters with him in other contexts made me believe he meant something different—that he assumed I would know who he was, and in his tone was the underlying complaint, ‘why not?’
I should have simply answered, ‘We don’t have it in stock.’ A common enough statement of fact that covered many flaws of both omission and commission. Instead I said, “We don’t carry it.” I can’t pretend my own tone was conciliatory.
“Why not?” He objected, looking dramatically nonplussed and turning to his pretty acolyte. “It’s on the New York Times best seller list!”
And I answered, “That would be reason enough, but unfortunately the publisher categorizes it as ‘history’ instead of speculative fiction or simply politics. I try not to screw with my customers that way.”
Zinn is a tall man. He was a little stooped by that time. But he went bolt upright then, muttered something I did not understand, and took the young woman’s hand to lead her from the shop. I saw him through the window there when he halted outside and looked up at the store name on our sign. He then let go of the Lolita’s hand and stuck his head back in. “More a fascist dictatorship, don’t you think?”
He said this with eyes wide and mouth half-open in a nicely jocular grin. My republic had found yet another enemy.
I was not quick enough to respond in the moment, though I came up with a dozen good retorts later.
In fact, all of this was the very subject of a couple of novels I’d written some years ago. And it does seem now that my entire life is just a series of imagined events—the small stuff of what I had actually lived as a mere bookseller, all of it book dust really, mixed with my own hemoglobin, laid thin like handmade paper, and racked up to dry on the bones of some plot or another that is really only something I have observed in the lives of others. But some of those stories offer more solace, I think, in retrospect, than others.
Without the sun to harden surfaces on that gray day, the heat raised the smell from betwixt the stones of the way. This phenomena was now much complimented by the sudden added gift of the large animal pulling the delivery cart. The boy charged with the task smiled as he handed the bundle of books across and then a bill.
“Sorry ‘bout that. Should have held him at the crossing an’ given him his chance there, but Mr. Lever tolt me ta be returned by nine and the crossing wast very filt with wagons fa’ the market.”
“You should have done. Too late now.”
Holding the parcel beneath one arm, Knox looked only briefly at the accounting. The smell was more than he wished to endure for longer than necessary. The sum, writ large, was sixteen shillings. He took the package and the bill inside and returned with the silver.
The boy nodded and hurried the horse. As the cart wheel cut the pie of offal and spread it further. Knox dipped his head beneath the lintel again and closed his door against the waft. Though the shop desperately needed air now, this was a poor exchange. There was no remedy. The rear window opened on the back of a fish market. And the boy was an indenture and could not be blamed for carelessness. A complaint would only get the kid a whipping. Knox shook his head in resignation to the indignities of life, and went directly to his desk to cut the string of the package.
Missing the grip of his recently lost fingers, the small knife fumbled in his hand and fell. He was not yet used to the mechanics of simple actions since his accident—but held now in the squeeze of his still swollen palm, the knife was steadied and the string broke cleanly at the pull of the blade. The thick waxed paper opened like on oyster shell to reveal the nest of leather backed volumes. He counted them first and checked the titles against the invoice. The order was short, of course, as it always was, but what was there would do. At least he had eighteen volumes out of twenty-two requested.
All of them were used. The price had dictated that. But the seller, John Paley in Philadelphia, was reliable, if a bit forgiving of condition. Knox paged them looking for the scars of previous ownership. Six of were embellished at the endpaper with names. And one of these prominently contained a folded note. This a gallimaufry of plays by David Garrick, including The Irish Widow, a recent production at Drury Lane, and would please someone very much. He had included it in his wants with only the faintest hopes of satisfying Lucy’s wish before her birthday. He noted that the volume, nicely trimmed and bound in Philadelphia, bore the fanciful bookplate of a James Wilson. Knox took the note in his good hand and unfolded it with the other.
‘My Dear Mr. Knox. Your request of books lately advertised in the Gazette arrived propitiously as a regular customer, James Wilson was present. In exasperation, I noted aloud the impossibility of laying hands on anything by David Garrick and he spoke up immediately, saying he had recently had this particular volume bound for his own library. He offers it to you with a special request for anything you might have or find in your neighborhood that was printed by John Franklin in the period of the 1720 to 1723 and might contain the written work of one ‘Silence Dogood,’ a name adopted as a nome de plume by Franklin’s brother, Benjamin. Mr. Wilson is a great friend to our dear philosopher and wished to make him a present of his own work which he believes now to be lost. I suggested that if there was anyone in Boston who might have the presence to find such treasure, given your associations, it would be you. Thanking you in advance for this favor, your humble servant, John Paley.’
The door opened suddenly and closed as quickly again, the visitor’s brow was well furrowed by the odors, but the face was familiar.
“Good day!” The fellow spoke cheerfully, before Knox could greet him.
“Good day to you. . . . Mr. Swan?”
“Aye. I thought I should stop by to see if you had sold any of my little book.”
“Yes. It has stirred some interest. One copy was returned with a comment on your impertinence. But three have happily sold.”
“Very good. . . . Yes. . . . But is there a chance then that you might pay me for those?”
“A chance, yes. But not today. I’ve spent my purse until someone else comes to fill it. . . . So! Would you like to buy a book, sir? I might pay you something then!”
“In as much as it appears I will never be rich myself, I suppose I should consider that. What have you?”
The man’s eyes surveyed the shelves on the walls.
Knox spread the waxed paper on the desk to better frame the pile of books in front of him.
“You are partial to philosophy, I gather. At least the political aspects. I have here a dozen and a half, mostly in that category, freshly arrived.”
“As fresh, I hope, as the shite at you door!”
It was said with a grin and no offense.
“Indeed. But none of it as offal, I assure you. I even have here some recent work of your fellow countryman, Thomas Reid.”
“An Inquiry into the Human Mind on the Principles of Common Sense.”
“Ah! I have it. Excellent!”
“Well, then . . . . A Treatise of Human Nature—“
“Hume. I find it dense.”
“Do you read French?”
“We can put the Rousseau aside then. . . . And here is one by another you will know then. Francis Hutcheson?”
“What of that?”
Opened in his good hand, Knox held the volume up to catch the light. “Essay on the Nature and Conduct of the Passions and Affections and Illustrations upon the Moral Sense”
“How much is that?”
“How much do I owe you?”
“About two bits, I think.”
“The Hutcheson in trade, then?”
And as suddenly, the door opened behind Mr. Swan. This was a young woman and with the look that immediately took the bookseller’s face, James Swan turned and then bent his head in acknowledgment. She was fair, indeed. Here name was Lucy Flucker and Swan knew her on sight. Her father was a vocal loyalist and some trouble.
But Knox smiled. “Good day, ma’am.”
She looked immediately to his hand.
“I’ve come to check on the patient.”
“I am fine.”
A single eyebrow raised.
“Not so fine as you were, I think.”
This was nearly rude, in public as it were, but Henry knew her method. Her habit was to speak directly and this was one other thing among the many that had already won him.
Swan took a measure of the woman’s obvious interest in the bookseller. It was time for him to leave.
“I’ll take the Hutcheson in trade then. Can you wrap it?”
Knox tore a section of the wax paper from the shipment, fumbled the knife again to cut a segment of the string and began to tie the package clumsily.
Swan stepped closer. “I might do that much.”
The lady appeared distressed at the sight.
Knox waved him off with a hard gesture.
“I will perfect this shortly. It’s just a matter of training. I must adapt.”
The statement was made for Swan, but he knew the pride in it was for the lady.
But not all historical narratives worked out so well. The Bones of Reason was another fiction that concerned the many sad reversals that hounded Tom Paine after he published his polemic against religion, The Age of Reason, and the aftermath of his lost hopes for a deeper social revolution to support the political upheavals of that time. Paine’s own ideals had been savaged in the bloodbath of the French Revolution and the subsequent rise of Napoleon. The author of the greatest libertarian pamphlet of all time, Common Sense, had lived on to become an advocate of government power and enforced principles of behavior in order to prevent another such botch as the French had made. I argued in my little fiction that Paine’s original ideals had truly been lost at the close of the Eighteenth Century, compromised by the very sort of democracy he had actually wished for (as opposed to the Republic that was created with the U. S. Constitution), conceding to the demands of the mob over the few, or to the vested interests of the few over the many for a small remittance, and giving way at last to the fresh realities of the Nineteenth Century, an age of steam and manifest destiny, and the rise again of empire. (In my little tale I had Paine himself ask, while in danger of being arrested as a traitor for his activities, if the President who had endorsed these Alien and Sedition acts could truly be the same John Adams who had earlier signed the Declaration of Independence—but then, “turning inadvertently in his disgust, his eyes found the mirror above the bowl and pitcher, and stopping there in shock at the sight of his own pocked face, ‘Is that the mark of the beast I see upon that brow? Are my own brains corrupted by the greater pox of tyranny?’)
While on the one hand the British tyrant had been made to forfeit a large portion of his holdings in America in favor of individual rights and a citizen’s republic, power and brute force had triumphed after all. Had it not? The veterans of the war in Massachusetts who had won the Republic were never paid. Washington himself had led the army against the whiskey makers in Pennsylvania to establish federal authority to tax at will. The Eastern Tribes from the Carolinas to Alabama were soon enough divested of their treaty lands in favor of the speculators, while cotton filled American ears against the cry of slaves abused for the profit of the few. It was only then, given the apparent inadequacy of reason to fundamentally change the way mankind conducted its affairs, that the color and flare of Romanticism was taken up as a salve on the civic wound, like a new civic dress on an unwashed body politic, and a possibly better answer for the yearnings of the individual soul. Passion was an answer with a greater attraction, for a time, at least, having the sex appeal of a Byronic interpretation of freedom. (The Founding Father’s always lacked that sex appeal, I think.)
Paine’s own mysterious death and quiet burial in New Rochelle, where his remains would later be dug up by fellow radical and author, William Cobbett, was something of an anti climax, or at least an afterthought. The manner in which his physical remains were lost to history, was as Romantic a tale, I thought, as Shelley’s eternal swim, or Poe’s drugged stumbled into a gutter, or that of any other doomed hero of a past new age, or in that olden modern time. So I followed the bones of the great revolutionary as they traveled through the years afterward, all the while, and amazingly ( like Peter Pan’s instruction to Wendy concerning the means to fly), this Romantic willfulness to liberty had actually worked—for awhile—at least in part and for some. You see, the idea of America had worked, for a time, simply by wishing it to be—a sort of triumph of good will over baser instincts. As a child of my time, I believe that is so.
My actual ax to grind in The Bones of Reason had been the way my own generation of Baby Boomers had returned to that same dead-end of believing wishes trumped action and then, when they did not get their way with more immediate results, turned from peace marches to bomb making. All of that, in less than a generation! My own generation! I suppose my book was too negative to entertain any literary agents at the time it was written, despite a nifty plot centered around those bones, and involving a suspected murder and an unpublished work by the master polemicist himself, but then, neither had my more positive and lighthearted efforts, so that was likely not the real matter.
When I was a youth—younger at the time than either Ardis or Jack—I had foolishly thought that the whole world was on the verge of a change for the better. The puerile Sixties had become the dazed (and color impaired) Seventies. I suppose such egoism is the curse of all youth; to believe that everything will change, suddenly, in a single lifetime—your own. It is all about us, and me, after all. . . . Isn’t it?
And it’s the busting of such false hopes and promises that makes cynics of so many, especially when their focus is narrowed by that bathroom mirror.
As I say, at the heart of The Bones of Reason, I was addressing the ignorance in our own moment, more than that of 1835. But I had imagined, in that long ago time, that a resourceful young woman of that past new age, the proprietor of a second-hand goods bazaar engaged in her own willful reach and grasp for a better life, had won the auction bid on unclaimed articles in a storage locker at a small warehouse in London. Rummaging through the narrow space on which the rent had gone unpaid, she breaks into a rough wooden box labeled with an unfamiliar name. Pulling on the largest of the bones embedded there in the straw, she hold’s up the human femur to the lamp light while asking her male companion, “Who is Tom Paine?” (Perhaps a reader of Ayn Rand might appreciate the usage?) The fellow takes the bone, turning it end to end for a moment in soiled hands (I imagined this done like the apes once did in the film, 2001) and answers, “God, if I know,” before tossing it up and away into the heaps of debris.
I thought I was making my point clear—even with the calling out to God on behalf of the unrecognized atheist. Still, no agent or editor seemed to appreciate my view.
Which reminds me once again of the Henny Youngman joke where the patient says,’Doctor, it hurts when I do this,’ and the doctor answers ‘Then don’t do that,’ which was evidently stolen fair and square from the vaudeville pair, Smith and Dale, but I never actually heard them perform. In any case, I asked my own doctor once why he did not treat my pain. I was hurting a deal at the time from moving boxes of books. He said that’s not what doctors were supposed to do. His job was to fix what was broken and treat disease. Pain was another matter. It was a reaction. A symptom. And often enough, the pain was not caused by something that was broken, or diseased, but by something being done. And that I should stop doing it. In the mean time, keep taking the ibuprofen as directed on the bottle.
So I hired Jack, you see. And now you see what a mess I’m in.
The bone of contention
Revolutions are often bought but never borrowed
I have heard it said that Wednesday’s child has far to go. But if you knew that a particular Wednesday was going to be as long as it can get to be, you might just stay in bed.
Unlike the patch of real estate behind my shop on Charles Street, hollowed out there with asphalt parking spaces that rent for more per square foot than the apartments in the building, there is an actual ‘garden’ behind my little basement cave on Myrtle. Because that smaller scrap lies right there just beyond the single window of my kitchenette/dining room/living area, I have always used it as a sort of second room, even in winter. (Though the apartment was listed as a ‘one bedroom,’ the sleeping area is, in truth, only a large closet wedged beneath the stairs, and the airshaft window on that side is good for shadow but useless for light.)
The east to west charge of the sun catches my garden for some portion of the day during most of the year. A fence and gate cuts off direct access to the alleyway, and the buildings at this side block the winds that sweep up Beacon Hill from the Charles River. I’ve been in that apartment for six years and have few complaints. Among those few are too little heat and too much noise from the pipes. But the garden has shaped up very nicely. I have roses, morning glories, begonias, tomatoes and a few other assorted plants I lost the names for when I accidentally tossed the empty seed packets in the rubbish. All of these plants are in raised boxes constructed from scrap lumber and set up at the perimeter. I painted the boxes white just to brighten things. And some years ago I retrieved enough brick from a refuse dumpster beside a demolition over on Pinckney Street to cover the remaining ground space. It’s all very nice now.
The FBI had looked in every crevice of my apartment. And to my knowledge, those hounds were the only other human beings beside myself to have been in the place in all the years since I moved in. (Though this was not wholly intentional. I have invited at least one other person to stay there for a night, but the offer was refused.)
The other matter with that matter was, I had not allowed my children to visit me there. This was not only because of the absence of space, but that there is a certain lack of dignity in a sixty-plus year old man living in rooms smaller than his very first apartment had been, back when he was just eighteen. Consequently, the family generally gets together at Margaret’s, which is close enough, anyway. After all, that’s also the same apartment where they grew up, is familiar for them, and still comfortable and spacious by any comparison.
Since the one aforementioned rejection, I have come to look on my own quarter (it being difficult to describe the space in the plural) as a sort of private sanctuary. A hermitage sans hermit. I would not make a good hermit, in truth. I enjoy conversational intercourse too much, especially now that I don’t get the other kind. And now, knowing that the Fed’s had rifled through the place so thoroughly, I had the feeling of having been violated in some way and could not shake it. Thinking back, the only other time I’d ever felt this way was when I was eighteen or nineteen and that first apartment of my very own, in New York, had been burglarized.
It was this sense of things then which had taken me to the hardware store to buy a bucket of light green paint. (Green being the cheapest color, given the regular demands of our local Hibernians, but a little added white and a touch of yellow makes this less nationalistic). The idea was, considering that I could not pee at the perimeters of the space like a good wolf, I would paint the entire place and shift a few things to new locations and thus reaffirm my personal dignity. (No, that smacks a bit much of psychobabble. Like I say, I was simply reasserting my territorial rights.) And this was, after all, a simpler project than even the limited square footage made necessary. I have bookshelves over every clear expanse of wall greater than three feet in width. No need to paint behind those. Mostly it was just a matter of moving my bed a few feet to the opposite end of that cavity beneath the stairs. But then, after one sleepless night that way, I shoved it back to the original corner due to a nightmare that I attributed to disorientation. I am too old for such radical change, perhaps. I liked the green, however. Very soothing.
If you are wondering, this is all very pertinent to the fact that Deirdre soon came to visit. And this happened due to a misunderstanding. Or so I thought.
She called the shop and asked to speak with me. She actually asked Ardis, who answered the phone. And Ardis likely answered this request in a tone of voice appropriate to her feelings about reporters in general, and Deidre in particular.
When I got to the waiting receiver by following the curl of the cord to where the receiver dangled into the trash can—Ardis’s traditional indication that the call is not worth taking—Deirdre said, “Can we talk?”
I said, “Sure.”
She said, “Not at the store.” A brief pause let me understand her reluctance to speak anywhere in the vicinity of Ardis. “Is there someplace else?”
I say, “How about the Paramount,” that being a former diner that’s been thoroughly yuppified, but the closest possibility I could think of that might meet the immediate demand. Given taxes and the subsequent rents, Downtown Boston no longer has anything like a simple diner.
I can see her shake the short bleach-blond curls on her head, even over the phone. She says, “Everyone will see us there. You said you live close. How about your apartment?”
I hesitated. I don’t know why. So she added, “You’re a bachelor. I know. I’ve seen bachelor apartments before. Don’t be embarrassed. I’m sure it’s not so bad as all that.”
“I suppose. Sure. When.”
“How about now. I’m just a couple blocks away looking for a parking space.”
It was mid-afternoon and what crowd had been in the shop had gone back to their shifts at the hospital or their offices. I gave her my home address.
She was sitting on the front stoop by the time I got to Myrtle Street.
By making a pot of coffee right off the bat, I gave her ample time to look the place over.
She says, “It’s cozy,” as she wanders the meager open space at the geophysical center. This word, of course, means it’s very small, which is not news. She peeks into the gloom of my bedroom and then seemed to give an extra look to the bed, which is even narrower than a standard size to allow for a little walking space.
She smiles unconvincingly. “I like it. And clean. Neat. Even your bed is made up. I’m impressed.”
I would have admitted to my recent efforts at interior decoration but this sounded like another of her left-handed compliments. She is left-handed after all. I answered, “I have a maid service come in once a month to shovel it out.”
She said, “I’m sorry,” but nothing else to compensate for her assumptions. After a quick review of the bookshelves she stood at the sink, looking out the window at the flowers, so I suggested we go there and opened the door from the hall. A nice burst of sun warm May air met the dank atmosphere within. On the way through she stopped to look closely at a picture of my three children. This was taken some years ago at the rim of the Grand Canyon. She did not comment on the photo at first. But she seemed immediately relieved afterward to be out of the darker confines of the apartment.
Thankfully my little wrought iron table outside has two chairs. I took the flower pot off the one I don’t normally use and sat there.
(Another side note: this outfit of furniture was picked up at a yard sale where I’d been buying books one day, and purchased for the grand price of ten dollars because the welding had cracked on one of the leg braces. The fix had cost me an additional ten dollars to have it re-welded at a local garage on the way home that same Saturday. And this memory suddenly brought up another thought about George Reilly. I had mentioned my bargain purchase to him in passing and he had said he did some welding too and would gladly trade me that service for books the next time I needed something done. Trading was a word which had came up more than once in my conversations with George. Perhaps it was just the welding that prompted the idea now, but I suddenly had a vague memory of a figure in the libertarian movement of my youth, an argumentative fellow named Karl Hess, who was so much in demand by the IRS for refusing to pay his taxes that he could only barter his services to make a living. He had been a welder too.)
My thoughts were interrupted by Deirdre’s comment immediately upon escaping the confines of the indoors.
“Very nice,” she says as she scans the plants, and then, “Your kids look very healthy.”
“They are. Knock on wood.” I reached over and rapped at the fence. “I can’t keep up with them anymore. When we go camping these days I usually sit down by the tent and volunteer to keep the bears away while I read a book and they go off climbing things.”
She smiled appropriately and then grew instantly serious. “I’m sorry to pull you away from work, but I wanted to talk to you about the situation you’re in.”
Pausing there, she gave me one of those searching looks of empathetic awareness that I immediately judged to be a practiced tool of her trade. Using such ploys, she is probably good at getting her subjects to say more than they should during interviews.
By way of escaping that look, I automatically said, “You mean the situation my situation is in,” but she frowned, so I added. “It’s an old song lyric. Just popped into my head.”
She wisely shook that off as a distraction. Her voice deepened a notch, adding extra gravity to the afore-mentioned empathy. “Look, you should know that your friend Mr. George Reilly is a bad dude.”
This was stated as if it were a matter of fact.
“Really? How do you know that?”
“I have a source inside the FBI.”
“And you think that source is reliable?”
She says, “Yes,” but the ‘yes’ was said as if to say ‘of course.’
Attempting to keep my own tone as pleasant as possible, I answered, “Because I think it’s more likely they’re using you to get at him through me.”
This changed the look on her face to one of surprise. Perhaps she had not really considered that possibility.
“You know your Mr. Reilly is operating under a pseudonym?”
“I believe so.”
“That doesn’t bother you?”
“Yes it does. I’m very unhappy that we live at a time in our nation’s history when a person has to adopt a false identity just to live a honest life.”
“But he could be involved in some criminal activity. Subversion. Terrorism!”
“I think the FBI is involved in doing just that. Subverting the Constitution. Everyday.” It seemed like a good moment to break the direction of the conversation, I got up to get the coffee, which was likely ready, and added, “Cream? Sugar?”
She just shook her head. She realized then, I think, that her tack was getting nowhere and stopped to consider what I’d said, or reconsider her own approach. I went inside and poured the coffee and brought that out.
Immediately she started off again with, “What makes you so sure of this guy?” This appeared to be the common question.
I used the Jesuit tactic and returned a question in answer. “Why are you so ready to trust the government? They’ve already lost my trust. Their corruption does not stop with the money, any more than their contempt for the nation these days ends at the water’s edge. It’s all about the power now. Perhaps it always was. But it’s certainly lost its few checks and balances.”
Now this provocation on my part appeared to alter whatever direction she had planned to take in her own inquisition.
She shakes her head at me as if I’m hopeless. “You can’t set up as a law unto yourself.”
“Never would. Laws should apply to everyone. But we ought to at least consent to them first. That’s the process outlined in the Constitution, I believe. Most of what is happening today we’ve never consented to by direct vote or otherwise. It’s rule by bureaucrats. But we’ve had that discussion already, haven’t we?”
We hadn’t. Not really. I could pontificate on the subject for hours, given the chance. But she nodded, “Yes. We did,” and was probably glad to have avoided the possibility of yet another lecture.
She hesitated with her first sip of coffee, before drinking it normally. I have to admit, I make a good cup of coffee. So I took the opening chance, as she was enjoying that, to change the subject again. “What made you want to be a reporter?”
Immediately she answers, “Watergate.”
“Really? Or is that just your set answer? Because I’ve heard it before from other reporters, and given the fabrications involved in that fiasco, it makes me wonder.”
I think for an instant she was going to put on her indignant face again, but she winced instead.
“I suppose there were a few more compelling reasons. My father had just paid for my liberal arts education and my useless major in English and suddenly he had a heart attack and I had to earn a living. There happened to be internships available at the Post. I just never left.”
“That sounds more like it. Life usually happens while you are busy doing something else. I set out to write novels and ended up selling books instead. But I think we both did pretty well, after all.”
Eyebrows rose over periwinkle eyes, “You think?”
I was more interested in discussing periwinkles, but no chance for that.
“Sure. I see a hundred people a week who come in the shop looking for a book to read so they can escape from their daily lives. I’ve never really had to. I’ll bet you never did either.”
I’m immediately sorry for saying this. She knows I know the sort of things she reads, but she avoids the admission by answering, “I don’t read serious fiction these days. You probably noticed. But I don’t have the time.”
I was thinking it was better to focus on her than on myself, so I added, “Sure you do. You just haven’t been exposed to the good stuff.”
Now she gave me the indignant face I had expected before. I had finally stepped on a metaphorical toe. She protests, “I’m an English major, for Christ’s sake!”
“Which is probably another reason you became a reporter instead. The fiction they make English majors read is pretty awful.”
She set her mug down. “You are so full of opinions!”
I was going on the offensive now, even if I might offend. She was in my territory, after all “What did you read before you became an English major? What were your favorite books when you were a kid?”
She shrugged. “The usual stuff.”
“Anne of Green Gables. To Kill a Mockingbird. My mother was a Willa Cather fan so I read a few of those. And Jane Austen. And Daphne du Maurier. An awful lot of Agatha Christie mysteries.”
“But that’s not the sort of thing they let you read at Radcliff, is it?”
“How did you know I went to Radcliff?”
“I looked you up. Just the way you did with me.”
She hung her head just a little. “No, they didn’t. Suddenly it was all Virginia Woolf and Sylvia Plath. Not even Cather, but a lot a male authors who were terrible misogynists, like Hemingway and Faulkner and Updike and Salinger—you know the lot . . . Not half the fun. That was the 1970’s, you understand. But you’re right. The non-fiction was suddenly more exciting.”
I knew what she was there for, but I had to have my fun, so I picked at the edge.
“Can it be that Hemingway and Faulkner and even Updike were not misogynists, but simply the natural product of a past moment, and a culture, that’s since changed.”
She gave that idea a grimace of practiced contempt. “We don’t have slaves anymore but that doesn’t make what we used to do any less than the ugly slavery it was.”
This was like the all-purpose Hitler argument. Where did it lead?
“True. Slavery is mean and inexcusable, isn’t it? But it was a worldwide practice well before the rise of our Western culture tried to put an end to it. It’s still practiced today in much of the non-western world. China. India. In every Moslem country. But of course, it was more efficient for the subsistence tribal societies of the distant past to simply kill those they captured rather than try to feed them.” She was giving me a look that displayed her unhappiness with the fact that I had pursued the subject matter any further. Too late. Now she would get her lecture in any case. “You probably know that the American Indians used to take captured women into the tribe as slaves, but then their offspring were treated like regular members of the club. I suppose it would have been better for those female captives to have been killed after they were raped.”
She shook her head, but her tone was not emphatic. “That’s not for us to judge.”
“No. I guess it’s not. So much easier and more convenient to judge the past by present standards. And just fine by today’s standards to ignore the way women are treated in Muslim countries while condemning some corporation for having a glass ceiling, or overlooking the use of slavery in China and India and Indonesia to make all that cheep plastic kitchenware we love so much when we make our tasty dishes. But of course, you might recall, we didn’t have the pill until the 1960’s. The code of conduct toward women that you so disdain was fashioned at a time when protecting them was a lot more crucial to the survival of the family and society. And then again, given the joys of syphilis and gonorrhea and herpes, I’m sure you can’t believe the sort sexual freedom we enjoy today was possible before penicillin? Or even a good latex condom. But those both came along about the same time, just in our parent’s generation . . . Or can you?”
I hoped that this was way too much to argue over. But then she fell back to the safety of boilerplate. The way most journalists do, she chose one small carrot from the pot that might get her out of the stew.
“Women were treated like second class citizens in America. They still are.”
“Really? You don’t strike me as someone who ever thought of herself as second-class.”
“I don’t. But I thought we were talking about misogynists like Hemingway. Remember?”
“And I was disagreeing with the premise. Hemingway had many faults, as we all do. Though he didn’t lose his manhood in the war, he had certainly seen others who suffered that and he must have imagined trying to live that way—like Jake Barnes—as a perfect metaphor for what war did to men. The Sun Also Rises is not really a portrait of the ex-pats in Paris as much as it is a reflective consideration of what the war had done to him, as a man, don’t you think? And Maria is the most sympathetic character in For Whom the Bell Tolls. Don’t you think. And Pilar is no wimp, either. You’ll recall, men used to fight the wars in those days, and women only got to suffer the consequences. His books are very personal, after all. Or is that more of the sort of insipid solipsism that’s all too common in so much of modern literature? “ Her mouth hung open at my onslaught. “But, in retrospect, I do think it’s a little boring to read about all those lost souls in Paris. Lady Brett never appealed to me, no matter how dependent she was on men.”
I had let more than a touch of the pedant into my voice, and Deirdre was giving me a cold stare for that and more.
“I came here to warn you about your friend. Not for a lesson.”
“Fine. But you also came here to get more information out of me. You’re a reporter. We just covered a whole lot of stuff in a couple of minutes. And it’s such a very nice day for a chat.”
Her obvious unhappiness with me would have been all the worse had she been able to read my mind. I was actually thinking just then that women of a certain age often become very unreasonable because of previous experience, and that was a pity because they are often better looking and far more interesting than the younger ones for the same reason.
Then again, maybe she read my mind after all. There was much else I wanted to know about her. But she stood abruptly, thanked me for the coffee, and left through the alley gate in the fence.
David Brooks usually shows up on his monthly visits to pick up our accounting paperwork after 2 PM when things get quiet again. He knows our routines. David is a dapper dresser. His suits always fit him perfectly. I’ve never seen him in a pair of jeans. And he hates rubbing shoulders with the hoi polloi in the narrow aisles. But because I wasn’t there when he arrived, he had to endure the new crowds we were drawing, for just a little longer that afternoon.
Not noticing at first, and with other stuff on my mind, I went right back to work when I returned from my little kaffeeklatsch, but he found me quickly enough in the fiction aisle where I was putting up some new stock.
He says, “What’da ya got for me?”
He doesn’t mean the financial records. He means books. He sometimes reads several a week. This is apparently the residual curse of having taken an Evelyn Wood reading course when he was in college. As I have repeatedly told him, he would do better to read more slowly and think about what’s being said. But David is already damned by his belief in the numbers. Quantity can be calculated with precision. Quality is a matter of judgment. Opinion cannot be accurately tallied, computed, or reckoned, so he discards that—except to ask me what he should read next. I suppose I should take that as a compliment and ignore the contradiction.
I direct him to a few recent items he won’t be able to resist. He’s a sucker for the sort of history titles that promise to explain some crucial moment in the past or a compelling character. I have recent ones on the battle of Agincourt and another on the fabulous Alexander von Humboldt. He wanders off again to locate them.
Just at that moment, Deirdre shows up again. She finds me right where David did. Her baby blues are flashing and I can’t avoid seeing that, because she stops directly in front of me. But I’m thinking just then that they are more of an azure hue. Very nice.
As if in the middle of the discussion, she says, “I’m not a pawn, you know. I’m not doing their bidding. I just wanted to warn you about something that you ought to treat more seriously. Obviously you don’t have any respect for me.”
She stopped herself there—maybe a little flustered for being unable to come up with something better. Then she stomped out before I could manage a good retort. She was wearing high heels and those spikes clicked on the wood floor rather loudly and it was difficult not to appreciate the shape of her calves. I could see Ardis’s face leaning out over the counter nearer the front and smiling.
David reported back to me before I could gain my equilibrium.
“Was that the lady from the Post who wrote that piece?”
He says, “Lucky,” as he nods.
I didn’t know how he meant that. But my own thought then was that I should follow Deirdre to see where she’d gone. Maybe get a few more words out of her. It turned out, that wasn’t far. Her car was parked a block away and she was just standing there by the meter, blindly staring into the street.
Then again, I wasn’t sure what to say. Whether or not this was some sort of manipulation of my apparently obvious interest in her, she was clearly upset. Was it cynical to think she might have expected me to follow her?
I stopped at the granite curbing of the sidewalk a few feet away and tried starting over again, “So why did you want to be a reporter? And don’t give me that bullshit about Watergate this time.”
I wanted to say something she did not expect, but oddly, she was ready with an answer. She didn’t even turn to face me.
“Because I wanted adventure. I didn’t want to end up like my mother, tending to an empty house. I wanted to see the world and write about it.”
“And instead you’ve spent your life in Boston. Not the hub of the universe after all. But you must have figured out that mistake pretty quick.”
She turned around then and leaned back against the fender of her car. I thought she was genuinely relieved that I had followed her in any case, and that I was there.
She actually smiled her thought before she got the words out. “Yes. I think I did. But there was one thing, or another. For a bunch of years I was stuck on this particular fellow on the editorial staff. Jason. Then he got a job offer at the Times in New York and went there, and I used to visit him. Sometimes twice a week on the train. And that lasted until I finally noticed he was seeing someone else as well. So then I turned around and made the mistake of marrying another guy instead. Probably just a reaction to Jason.” She forced her cheeks up into a false smile. “Pretty dumb. Right? Ed, the fellow I married, was the better man but he was almost twice my age. He was a fitness nut and he had me running with him every morning before work. Always used to run ahead of me. A matter of pride, I think. And then one day he had a heart attack. Right there, in front of me.” The face went briefly blank. “Odd to think about that now, because I’ve already caught up with him now in age—and then sum—And then there were other things.” She looked down as if there was some shame in this to avoid. “But there’s security in knowing your job. Knowing how to do it well. And I really don’t know where the time went.”
This was far more of a confession than I could come up with an easy response to, so I joined her against the fender of her car and fell back on one of my more constant thoughts. I didn’t mean to lecture then. But given her admission, I felt slapped, and it felt like a good defense.
“Time is the matter, isn’t it? The only matter that counts, maybe. I think, despite what the physicists say. Life is such a temporal thing. Transitory. Ephemeral. The chemicals that make us, and all those atoms, they’ll endure in one form or another even as we, the living, pass through them.” She was frowning now. The humor of the thing was a little too subtle, I suppose. But I kept with the thought. I wanted at least to finish the thought, however off the mark. “As for myself, I think it’s why I’ve always been enchanted by the brief and passing nature of flowers. And that’s just Mr. Hamlet again, and the wise Shakespeare. To be, or not to be, once again. All we have to value is our time. It’s the only thing that’s ours to give, or to spend. The only thing of real importance because it’s so ephemeral and because it is actually precious. And more importantly, I think it’s the one thing that others can truly take away from us.”
She suddenly laughed out loud. More of a hoot.
“Why didn’t you become a teacher? Then you could have been paid for your little orations.”
I shrugged at the hopelessness of that idea. “Maybe because I realized everything these days is a matter of sound bites, and I tend to chew.”
She shrugged back at me. “I’m sorry I walked out on you. I didn’t really have that much more to say. And I was suddenly at a loss. But you’re right. I was just there doing my job, wasn’t I? I wanted to see how you lived. You know—for background detail. More than what you were saying to provoke me, I think it bugged me that you live just like I hoped you would. Like you should, really. Like a hermit in his cave.”
And I had to laugh again at that. It was my exact thought, after all. But I defended myself instead. “I thought you’d like the garden.”
“Very nice. But I have a brown thumb. I buy cut flowers.”
“And I thought you liked the coffee.”
“The coffee was very good. But I get mine on the way to work every morning at the Dunkin’ Donuts. Extra large. My own apartment is a bloody mess. And I know you don’t approve of the sort of novels I read. But you should know that now I’ve read the two of yours that were published. And I noticed in both of those that you were already giving your little lectures forty years ago. You’re consistent in that way as well. Even with the politics . . . And also, . . . that I think we are about as opposite as two people can be.”
That idea did not take a lot of consideration on my part.
“No. I think Margaret and I are as opposite as two people can be. But I think you’re generally correct. And I think life is too short to always be at odds.”
She raised both eyebrows, as if in real surprise—it was the azure that caught the sky—and then she slapped her hands together, and hooted once again.
“Now, that’s out of the way, why don’t you take me out to dinner tonight?”
It suddenly felt like the day had just begun. I told her I’d pick her up just after seven.
But then, before I can get back to the door of the shop, I see two large, white and conspicuously unmarked SUV’s pulled up on the street and several burly fellows in ties and blue blazers start their unloading. They carried the boxes directly to the back room and emptied them right into the open file drawers.
Inside, David was still there and looked on approvingly. This was his doing and he was not reluctant to tell me so.
He says, out loud. “You just have to know how to talk to them.”
The problem with saying this aloud was that Mr. Clifford overheard the comment. He’s right there too, and he stands up close to David as he keeps an eye on his guys and says, “These were coming back anyway. Glad we could accommodate you on that. But I’m sure you’ll find the IRS less interested in making you happy.”
David says right back to him, “Harassment can be a bitch for both parties.”
“We’re just doing our job.”
“Pretty sad sort of work, I’d say.” David looks him up and down. “But then, you look like you might be the kind of fellow who enjoys it.”
“Don’t get smart.”
It was the type of instruction that did not need an answer. The store had quieted as the men brought in the boxes. Several customers had even stopped browsing to watch. They all took note of Mr. Clifford’s tone and looked after him as he turned and left.
David sighed and handed me a business card. This was for an attorney, Martin Guinn.
He says, “Marty will be expecting your call,” as he leaves.
I was determined to get Deirdre into my truck, so I’d insisted on picking her up at her apartment in South Boston. Especially now, given that she’d naturally see this particular wheeled toy as a sorry extension of my aging manhood. Besides, women like pick-ups. At least I’ve heard it said. And mine is a two-tone red and white 1984 Ford-150. A ‘three-on-the-tree’ manual. I take good care of it and there are not many on the road in that condition. It’s a pretty thing to see.
But climbing in with high heels is a trick and I watch attentively. She digs the seat belt out of the crevice and buckles in like she was getting on a roller coaster. Right off, she was duly fascinated by the shifting. The bench seat opens up the cab nicely, unlike the unsociable separation of more modern bucket seats and a floor-mounted shift. When I was younger and first dating Margaret, a previous version of the same truck was an important factor in our relationship. And as I have noted before, women have a natural affection for trucks, which they should not deny.
On the way, Deirdre was not as impressed as she should have been with the original 8 track tape deck, which still works just fine. She apparently likes rock’n’roll. I keep an assortment of cassettes in a shoebox there on the seat to avoid listening to the radio. Mostly it’s classical stuff. I already had the Granville Bantock English Suites pushed in there and it starts playing automatically. Nice driving music. However, she might have wanted some jazz to go with my jive.
In the spirit of the thing, I took her to Arlington for some barbeque and pecan pie. I had aspirations, of course. I admit that, but on this first real and official date, I did not get very far in that regard.
Mistakes have been made
wherein I am concerned with death and taxes
Deidre’s story in Thursday’s Post was problematic—that is, of debatable value and uncertain purpose.
It was shorter than I’d hoped. Maybe it was edited, It concentrated mostly on recent trespasses by the FBI upon others, before getting to yours truly. The headline, ‘Boston Bookseller’s Privacy Concerns Shared,’ might have been improved by including the name of the shop instead of the geography. ‘Concerns’ is an equivocal word, intimating something but lacking substance. ‘Privacy’ suggests concealment as much as it does any constitutional prerogative allotted to me by the due process clause of that terribly overwritten Fourteenth Amendment. And the act of ‘Sharing,’ long since separated at birth from any other human kindness, has been inculcated from pre-school onward as a necessary requirement to avoid public shaming with guilt attached that is akin to the Catholic concept of original sin, necessitating appropriations by government followed by forced redistribution. Other than that, it was fine.
Then again, the headline was not likely written by Deirdre, and the piece itself did not mention any of the details from our discussion over ribs, collard greens and fried sweet potatoes of the evening before. I suppose she must have handed this particular story in earlier in the day because I’d told her over dinner that the files had been returned and she did not include this detail in the story.
Margaret showed up first thing the next morning to bemoan the fact of the matter, nonetheless. She says, “Your fifteen minutes is up. The lady reporter is bored with you. Obviously smarter than I was. Maybe you should have taken her for a ride in your pick-up.”
I shrugged that off with the empty brag. “I did.”
Margaret registered surprise with a full facial drop.
“You’re kidding? And that’s all she wrote? You’re losing your touch.”
I ignored the assumptions.
“But you’re right, in any case. The whole thing will probably blow over now.” As this admission was made, I pulled the check that was already made out to her. “And here’s the rent. Better grab it before I spend it on more books.”
She examined the check, like she does, as if expecting a mistake.
She says. “What are you going to do now?”
“I’ll think of something.”
“Why don’t you call some of your author friends again and have them sit in the window and write stories like they used to.”
I sighed, mostly at the truth of the matter—I’d already thought about it. But I don’t have as many ‘author’ friends as I used to. When writing doesn’t pay the bills, most people move on to other means. Some of them are too old for such pranks now. Some I’ve disaffected through the years, as they went politically correct in order to stay in favor with the critics. I tell her a few of the facts. “That kind of exhibitionism has gone out of style. They’d have to do it in the nude to even get us a photo much less a mention in the paper. And anyway, I imagine my old buddies wouldn’t look so good au natural these days. Except for Pauline, of course, but then, Ned wouldn’t let her. He’s a very jealous husband.”
The recommendation had been made rhetorically. I knew that. But Margaret has good instincts (with the one notable exception). Perhaps it was worth a second thought.
She folded the check carefully and put in in her purse. “I’d better get to the bank before the IRS freezes your account.”
I said, “A wise move.”
Now, there is a young broad-faced fellow, clearly in need of some beach time, who’d come in and wandered about the shop. He was close-by as I spoke to Margaret, and somehow I knew just then, without introduction, who he was and why he was there as he turned on her comment.
He said, “I don’t think that’s going to be happening right away.”
He pulled a card from his pocket and pushed it across the counter at me. The Internal Revenue Service had arrived.
Funny thing. Except for the fact that his hair was about an inch too long, he could have been working for the FBI.
I asked him what I could do for him. Margaret backed up a step, as if he might be contagious, and watched. Ardis wasn’t there yet, and I was happy for that. She might have made a remark, and my rule was, never talk back to the police, or the FBI, or the IRS, or anyone with a gun. This particular dictum had been made explicitly one evening when Ardis had argued with a guy who was trying to hold us up—with the gun right out there in his fist where she could see it. As if she were invincible. His warning shot punched a hole in the edition of Books-in Print we keep on a shelf behind the counter. Scared the crap out of me.
Another aside: for whatever reason, that ne’er-do-well robber had stomped out of the store after only the one shot and a spiel of blue rhetoric, more like a kid who had been rebuked by his mother than an experienced thug. (He had first intended to rob the liquor store across the street in any case, but was frustrated there by the larger crowd—our shop had obviously been an afterthought). Ardis can have that effect on you when she says something like, “You’ve got to be kidding?”
The IRS agent’s name was Peter Marciano and he looks as Irish as his name is Italian, right up to the pinking at his ears. Unlike the FBI, he actually extended his hand, so I shook it in an effort to show some good faith. But I did not see much of a friendly glint in his eye. I resisted the impulse to immediately wipe my hand on my jeans.
He says, “You understand that we have a job to do,” as if that were an excuse rather than a statement of fact.
I nodded and said, “Sure,” and smiled, not caring if the smile looked insincere.
He says, “Your accountant has been talking with our office. I thought I should come over and take a look around just to get some context. Do you have a moment?”
I told him I was alone in the shop, and he took that in with a nod toward Margaret.
“Is it alright to take a look in the back room?”
I nodded back at that too.
With Mr. Marciano away at the back, Margaret leans in toward me.
“Are you up-to-date with your taxes?”
I shrugged. “About as much as usual.”
We were always behind, of course. At that point, I was in arrears for about three months worth. Mostly withholding taxes. The recent flurry of business might help with this problem, though it would likely still leave us a bit short in the end, given that there would be even more taxes to pay on the additional income and the added part-time staff, and of course the stock we had sold would have to be replaced.
Mr. Marciano returns shortly, looking a little perplexed. Actually frowning, with his lips pursed in thought and one finger scratching behind a pink ear. I wrote that off as something similar to Deirdre’s tendency to physically dramatize her thoughts with a sudden body movement.
Looking straight at me, his head tilted to the side as if to get a better sightline, and he says, “Is this it? You don’t have a warehouse somewhere?”
“No. Not anymore. Can’t afford it.”
I had gotten rid of the expense of a separate warehouse soon after the divorce.
Mr. Marciano taps at the air in front of him then with the same finger, gestures toward me, “You buy a lot of your books at auction. I think I saw a number for that in the paperwork from Mr. Brooks. Something like 30,000 volumes last year. And more than that the year before. And you’re buying new books too, right? About 12,000 volumes, wasn’t it? How many books would you say are in here now?”
No need to be precise. “About 50,000, including the back room.”
“And you sold what, about 24,000 volumes total last year, including the mail orders—about 6,000 new and 18,000 thousand used?”
There was no ‘about’ about it. I say, “You must have stayed up late to read all of that.”
“I like working late. Kids are in bed. I can concentrate. So how do those numbers work? I understand that you return some of the new stock that goes unsold to the publishers, but you should have more books here than I see.”
That was when Margaret spoke up.
“He gives them away.”
Mr. Marciano turned to her and shakes his head with a jerk, like he’s clearing his brains.
“What? How’s that? . . . You’re Mr. McGeraughty ex-wife, am I right?” She shrugged. He extended his hand to her and she shook it with obvious reluctance. I don’t think she had intended to speak up. The statement probably slipped out because it was a matter that often seemed to come to her mind and the very idea of it continually burned at her.
It was my turn. The explanation was simple enough. “I have a book sale every year. I mark down the things that aren’t selling. But business has been even slower lately so I gave a lot of stock away last year. I even opened up the back room.”
He squinted at me with doubt.
“Is that on your filing?”
“I think it gets listed under depreciated stock. I’m not sure. You’ll have to ask Mr. Brooks. I leave all that to him.”
Mr. Marciano just stands there then, his head and shoulders hunched forward, looking at me as if I’m a specimen.
Margaret asks, “Is it illegal to give books away these days?”
This question smacked of a certain attitude that I knew was not natural to her. She’s always argumentative, but mostly on the side of common sense. But then again, she knew the way I thought about things, even if she did not approve.
Mr. Marciano was obviously aware of the facts. We’d sold $384,000 worth of books. That came out to about $16 per book. I usually don’t count the greeting cards because they barely break even for the space they take at the front of the store, but they do help sell books (though most people don’t read much themselves, they seem to think everyone else should read more and books make nice gifts.) I calculated once that this generosity of spirit (or desire to dictate what others read, however you judge it) amounted to almost twenty-five percent of our total new book sales. The greeting cards helped greatly with that, especially around Christmas time.
What was clearly puzzling to the math-impaired mind of Mr. Marciano, given his late night studies, was the knowledge that, the greeting cards aside, I had spent over $40,000 dollars buying used books last year. I had paid about $64,000 for the new books sold. Our rent, even with us running behind, amounted to $130,000 per annum. Utilities took another $18,000. Combined insurance costs were $48,000. Combined salaries were $64,000. This and a few thousand for incidentals like gasoline and truck maintenance, paper and ink for the printer, and light bulbs, etc., amounted to $370,000. The remainder was around $14,000. That was, in essence, my own salary—my income—of which $16,000 went to my apartment rent. Food and clothing then were clearly optional. The numbers did not compute. I did not need a math major to inform me of that.
The fact of the matter was that, Social Security was now subsidizing me to the tune of an additional $14,800 a year. Even though I had been paying into that particular scam for more than fifty years, the truth of it embarrassed me.
This then was the economic pressure that weighed on my conscience as I debated what should be done to maintain my presence in the pages of the newspapers. Naturally, it had already occurred to me that far more people watched television than read the newspapers, but I did not know any reporters at the local TV stations. That was, in fact, one more plus for the idea of having naked authors sitting in our window (even if I could slip such a conceit between the covers of the First Amendment by having them busily writing while they displayed the ravages of time on their sagging flesh). Sort of the way the prostitutes do in Amsterdam. A Dutch treat. Without the sugar glaze.
Getting old in this republic, or any republic perhaps, is not often a satisfying turn of events. I cannot lift the boxes I once hoisted without thought. I have had to hire extra part-time help to keep the store open the usual hours because I often get tired before I turn the key in the door at night. This, by itself, is a major disappointment to me. A palpable dispiriting. I was sure that I had at least another ten years in me. Now I am not so confident. But them’s the breaks, as they say. Not much I could do about that.
For many people growing old becomes a constant accounting of past mistakes. There are no ‘do overs’ in real life, so there is usually much to regret. This is a regular theme among the small cast of characters I hang out with, most of them aging friends. ‘Don’t get old,’ is the refrain. My rejoinder is always, “Except for the unfortunate fact that the alternative is worse.’
Whenever one or another of them finally does chose the alternative, and shuffles off this mortal coil, you always hear something along the lines of, ‘He died too young. She was just getting her act together. He’d started writing another book and was all excited over the prospects. She thought this was the one. Now, he’ll never know what dreams may come.’
I will argue with almost anything, just for the entertainment value, but I seldom disagree with these sentiments. It would sound gratuitous. Self-serving. That’s because I’ve always done just what I wanted to do in life. My regrets, if any, are for my unlived future. What dreams may not come to me. My regrets taken in advance. (You don’t get the chance to do that after your dead, right?) I don’t know how many more books are left in me to write, and half the time I end up composing something new that I did not expect to get hung-up on before the fact, and this only puts off the other ideas I was playing with for that much longer. So I do regret, for now, all the stories I’ve made notes for that I will never complete.
I expect, about the time I can’t manage the shop any longer, even with the help of the kids, I won’t be getting much in the way of new ideas to write about either and so it will simply be time to quit. I hope the physical end for me comes on pretty quick after that.
This is all very maudlin thinking. You can’t engaged in it for more than a few minutes before becoming morose and irritating to oneself and others. So I usually keep all those thoughts under a rock, along with my stash. Things are more copacetic that way. Nevertheless, the future cannot be ignored any better than the past. They both must be allowed for. And in my case, the shop is a crucial ingredient. Without the shop, I expect I’d have a lot more time to write but far too much time to think about it. Sitting around is disagreeable to my health. As it is, I get about four or five hours in on my writing per day, two or three in the morning, depending on interruptions, and another couple at night. The writing is better in the mornings but the ideas are better at night and so that all works out for me.
The point is, whatever happens in the near future, I have to see to it that the shop remains open for as long as possible. Before the time for closing it inevitably comes, the visiting nurse can check on my pulse right here at the counter as well as anywhere.
Mr. Marciano turns his head upright with a new thought.
“How old are you?”
“Ah! Then, you’re getting social security.”
And all this was said aloud, in the store. With one or two actual customers wandering about. . . . But then again, I have few enough secrets as it is.
“That explains it. I missed that. You don’t look that old. Why don’t you retire?”
My reaction was spontaneous.
“Why don’t you mind your own fucking business?”
And totally unnecessary. This brought a sober stare from Marciano.
“Rudeness is not going to help your case, Mr. McGeraughty.”
I’m pretty sure just then that it was his intention to embarrass me if he could. Smugness not only has a look to it, it has an odor. I have noticed this many times. Considering the current kerfuffle, it’s very true that I’m not worried about the FBI as much as the IRS. Compared to the FBI, which is regularly chastened and chastised for all their over-reach and the corruption that inevitably comes with such power as they wield, the Internal Revenue Service can do whatever it wants, with impunity. With no shame. The FBI ostensibly believe they are doing good. No such conceit disturbs the IRS. The arrogance of the typical Internal Revenue agent is a direct reflection of the outfit as a whole. None are too terribly intelligent, or they would be working in the private sector. Like all government workers, the self-righteousness they project is in direct proportion to their personal incompetence. The virus of power that infects them is common to all bullies and easily recognized. Their assumptions concerning those they persecute are roughly the same for thugs and crime bosses as they are for unemployed salesmen or small business owners.
Public criticisms of the Internal Revenue service are usually vague, gingerly stated and quickly dropped from the news. Reporters don’t want to be audited either. The recent use of the IRS by the President of the United States to investigate political enemies was found out, but then quickly ignored by both Congress and the Justice Department. (The Justice Department operates at the pleasure of the President, however, so that much would be expected.)
The old adage, that you will know who rules them by discovering who it is they fear, applies here.
The body of tax law the Internal Revenue Service uses to operate runs into many millions of pages. Literally millions. Beyond any reasonable expectation of knowing. The Constitution is no defense for the citizen who has to pay for all of that. Fighting the IRS is always a matter of negotiation or capitulation. They will get whatever they want in the end. Their only inhibition is the size of the prey. They don’t want to spend too much of their own time and money going after penny ante penalties and interest on a meager income. But not too big, either. The solid middle class is their chosen herd. The actual rich have recourse. For the IRS, extra resources cannot be spent on getting a smaller return from some internet genius who can pay for a team of legal negotiators. This is the reason the IRS concentrates so assiduously on the small business, even though corruption is always greater in the seats of power. The average Joe is defenseless against them and their royal prerogative is to confiscate and ask questions later (if they choose to). And that, in long form, is why I believe Mr. Marciano was so disturbed at first to see the physical facts of our case. We had been placed in his portfolio and he wanted as large a payoff as possible to run up his own score. We’re a business, aren’t we? Several hundred thousand dollars were passing through our coffers. For him, there had to be a pony in here somewhere.
However, given the look on his face just then, I was fairly certain that he was not about to give up, or take what he saw for fact. He was going to dig in this pile of manure until he saw a tail. This was going to be dangerous. Without savings or stocks or any real estate to my credit, I could actually lose the only real security I had. The shop itself. My draw from Social Security was not sufficient to cover the rent on my apartment. I could only hope now that David Brooks had done especially good work on our account.
I said, “You’re right. I was being rude. Thugs always bring out the worst in me.”
My one defense against the IRS is not the First Amendment, as it is with the FBI, as some would think. Freedom of speech has long since been abrogated to the demands of authority in this regard, and though bookselling is special for being one of the few professions that are directly covered by an article in the Constitution and some lip service has to be accorded that fact by law enforcement, even if they have twisted its meaning and gutted it like a pan fry fish long ago. But the IRS is a power unto itself. As I have said, Constitutional law does not apply to them. They are above that, as sanctioned by the Supreme Court. No. The only defense I might have was public opinion. That would be the naive public—that is the great majority of those who are good-hearted and well meaning and still generally think the Constitution is for real and applies equally to all. A gross lewdness on the part of the IRS could catch the public eye. The ‘Service,’ as I’ve heard them refer to themselves, as if they were fulfilling their military obligation, are not fond of an open display of their puissance. That can become politically embarrassing. Politics, not law, is their one overruling. Certainly, as with the recent IRS attacks on the President’s political enemies, they will likely get away with whatever they do, but the politicians themselves, Those whom they depend upon for support, may then have to pay a price at the poles come election time.
“Isn’t name calling a little silly, Mr. McGeraughty?”
For the most part, the public has accepted their servile role as regards the demands of the Internal Revenue Service and they dutifully submit their articles of indenture every April 15th. By far, the most of them do. True, this is partly a result of the automatic filing of their W-2s by employers who are themselves subjugated and have long since surrendered their own sovereignty, but most employees will also report on themselves beyond that, honestly, pro-forma, accounting for additional income from property sales, stock sales, account interest, as well as any other details of their financial lives which the IRS wishes to keep tabs on. This is an astounding fact that testifies to what I have said about the average citizen being good-hearted and well-meaning, as well as naive, as much as being servile. I have often argued the case that the Republic as it was originally founded and wrought in the furnace of three wars and the conquest of a continent, came to an unacknowledged end in 1913 with the 16th. Amendment. More than a hundred years ago! That single act alone opened up the legality of any and all other governmental intrusions on the lives of the citizens. And I believe that Woodrow Wilson and the other perpetrators of that deed understood as much. In Mr. Wilson’s case, he wrote about it.
As David Brooks has told me more than once, this sort of thinking is very likely why I have been audited before, on so many occasions through the years. The result is usually some penalty several times greater than my original debt, plus a usurious interest tacked on to that as a fine (no trial necessary for this levy of punishment, the Sixth Amendment to the Constitution notwithstanding, in that the defendant’s guilt is always assumed in any confrontation with the IRS), and well above anything a bank would charge for a clerical error. That is also not including the cost of an accountant to work out the details. (But I should note here that this has not actually happened to me since David took over my accounts.)
And this was why David Brooks immediately attributed the recent attentions of the FBI to my other travails. It is also his proffered wisdom (as it is with most people who want to avoid being a target of authority) to keep my mouth shut on political matters. And this, as I have explained him, is alike the advice to a woman who is being raped that she should just lie back and enjoy it so as not to be hurt even more. But David does not appreciate that analogy, any more than the usual feminist who thinks rape is worse than death.
I answered, “Probably, in this case. But I didn’t think you’d be intelligent enough to know what a thug is, so what’s the point.”
In each case before David’s time, the vigorish demanded by the agent of Mordor being somewhere between ten and twenty thousand dollars, I have managed to put together the sum by selling off some large quantity of our stock at a wholesale price to a specialty dealer (as a matter of fact, the reason we are still a bit low on volumes concerning World War Two and baseball even to this day, years after that last debacle), or once by selling off our second car (that vehicle actually being Margaret’s car. My trucks, have always been purchased well-used to begin with and have never been worth enough to resell—and further, it is worth noting that my having to sell Margaret’s car was a major spur to her finally calling it quits with me. You should never take a woman’s wheels.)
On another occasion we had organized a large fund-raiser. For a $50 deposit, we allowed customers to buy any number of books in the store at half price for a period of thirty days. That assault was actually met by us with outright announcements concerning the IRS threat. It garnered a great deal of public interest. Even a couple of short newspaper articles. People may not be willing to fight the IRS for themselves, but they have great interest in seeing some other poor fool make the attempt, and the sympathy for this was always palpable.
Though that last time was about seven years ago, my immediate plan now was to do something similar once again.
Mr. Marciano seemed pleased, “You are not making it any easier on yourself and you’re certainly making me more interested in seeing that you get the punishment you deserve.”
The economics are this: if 200 people were to ante up deposits of $50 each, we would immediately net $10,000. We had 214 good customers do this the last time. The reduced net income from the books they purchased at half price had to be turned over quickly to the kitty for buying new stock, but that $10,000 raised, and the nine thousand for Margaret’s car, had then paid off most of our immediate arrears with the government.
Our current debt would likely be smaller, given David’s fine efforts, but I was not good at keeping up with some details. There was always something forgotten. And now the penalty might be greater, given the added intention to punish us for associating with revolutionaries, and my icing it by referring to this particular IRS thug as a thug. And the exact amount of the levy—punishment— was completely up to them. It was totally beyond due process. Another part and parcel of arbitrary government.
“You’ve tried the case before you have the evidence. I believe that is sufficient evidence of you what you are.”
Yet, I had a deeper concern. I did not have the energy for the whole affair. Not this time through the mill. It would require extra hours spent on every aspect of the business, from buying replacement stock through selling, and all the attendant paperwork. Nor did I have another car to barter, and they would only be getting my truck over my dead body. This, and a few other matters made me suddenly feel even older than I thought I was. It was suddenly daunting, and I had to be determined now not to be depressed by it.
Mr. Marciano smiled. “I’ll be getting back to you,” and left.
Wherein I am reminded of myself
John Yu has been coming in the shop since he was a kid. He is still a kid, but bigger. He went to MIT. He’s at the University of Pennsylvania now, though his parents still live in Brookline, where he grew up. By the time I finally took notice of him he’d been coming in the shop long enough to know the way things worked and he approached me one day, unexpectedly.
He held a book out and asked, “Why do you carry this?” Just like that.
I was kneeling in an aisle trying to maneuver a couple of extra volumes into a space too small. Our heads were about on level.
“Why shouldn’t I?”
“That’s a question, not an answer.”
He had me there.
I could see the book in his hand and knew the small gray cloth volume on sight. “I don’t have a reason. It probably came in with a lot. I’m not sure I remember that copy in particular. But it’s considered a classic by many people.”
Looking Backward by Edward Bellamy is one of those novels you get used to having around. I suppose that’s especially true in Boston, where it was originally published. This copy wasn’t special other than for being a hundred years old or so. I took the book out of his hand and opened the cover to see what it said. There was a penned inscription there on the endpaper that was dated 1897.
The boy looked at me in total seriousness.
He had me again. “There is a lot of stupid writing in this shop, I am afraid. More than I can possibly know, even though I read a lot. But I do try to control that as much as I can. Generally speaking, what we have is the best of what I can find.”
“You know this is stupid, right?”
“Yes. I read it once.”
“Then why do you carry it?”
“Because other people think highly of it, I suppose. Not a good enough reason, I guess, but it has an historical place, but there’s the matter of least resistance to consider.”
“Most people are pretty stupid and we have to carry enough of what people are looking for to stay in business so that we can carry the things we like.”
The blood had left my legs from squatting and I stood. But now I looked down on him and felt self-conscious about it, so I pulled a stool over and sat on that. My parenting skills were already too far behind me.
I figured the boy for ten or twelve. I was pretty sure he’d come in alone.
“But I heard you tell someone that you carry what you like.”
Again he had me. “I guess I did.”
“And you said you wouldn’t carry something you wouldn’t read yourself.”
John is a literalist. Still is. But I had an opening there. “Right. Well, I did read this.”
With only a brief hesitation, he took the book back from my hand and turned way. But now I had to ask, “Why do you think it’s stupid?”
“That’s a tautology.”
I actually said that to a kid. But he was not to be toyed with. He nodded at me a moment and then said, “Because it doesn’t explain anything. Things just happen. The guy falls asleep and then he wakes up a hundred years later. That’s not science fiction. That fantasy. I found it in the Science Fiction section.”
The force of his argument was not only in his straightforward manner but in his tone. He spoke with certainty. When I was twelve I remember being in a state of total uncertainty about everything.
“You’re right.” The issue was not a small one. I had made a big deal about the differentiation. It was one of my regular spiels. Some people think all fiction should be together. Not a bad idea, just unworkable. Too many people who read are already caught in their genre ghettos. I can’t get them out of that unless they are here long enough to talk to. Seeing fifty-thousand novels in alphabetical order can stymie enthusiasm. This kid had obviously been within earshot when I was explaining the difference to one of the part-timers. “So you’ve read it?”
“Yes. It’s just a long lecture about socialism, only he calls it ‘nationalism.’ It’s not even a story.”
“Right.” Did this kid actually know the difference? “So maybe I should put it into the politics section, under socialism.”
“I think so.”
He turned again. I was a little awestruck
“What’s your name?”
Looking Backward is still in the politics section to this day. And since that time, I had made it a regular thing to ask John what he had read and liked. I don’t have a lot of patience with science fiction. Too much of it is preaching and fantasy disguised with a hard shell of scientific extrapolation. I do like a good fantasy. Just not the mix.
At that time John was taking regular sailing lessons at the Community Boating on the Charles and he would turn up almost daily. Because he seemed to totally dedicated to the one genre, I took a little fun out of persuading him to read things outside science fiction whenever the opportunity arose. This became easier over the years after the Lord of the Rings movies started to appear and he began to appreciate good fantasy as well. Then I got him to read Stevenson and Kipling, and Buchan as well. But my biggest success was in getting him to read poetry. This unexpected coup was brought about more by J.R.R. Tolkien than myself. Tolkien’s use of language opened that door.
It was never stated as such, but we were friends.
In time, he got to know Margaret, and avoided her when she was around. He knew my daughter’s. And he knew Ben. Because he was the younger, he showed some deference to the girls, but to Ben he became something of a needle. Whenever they met in the store, he would ask Ben if he had read one thing or another. Ben had rebelled somewhat against books by then and felt the challenge.
I was not surprised when John went to MIT. It was an easy fit. But I was less happy when he told me he was going away to Pennsylvania University for an engineering degree. It meant that he would be away for long stretches. This is something I had supposedly gotten used to by then with my own kids, but I felt the loss again.
At this point, you understand, I had never spoken to the boy outside of the shop. I had never had a beer with him. I had never met his parents—though I knew they owned a Chinese restaurant in Newton.
I hadn’t seen John since Christmas when he came by today. And he caught me in the middle of a foul mood with Marciano’s words in my ears about his getting back to me. In John’s hands he had a small bag. He extended this to me before even saying hello.
“What is it?”
“Where is it from?”
I looked at him squarely and managed not to grin.
“Somehow I believe that is another form of tautology.”
“Perhaps.” He shook my hand and smiled that off, “It something my father’s selling at his restaurant. It’s a big deal. People love it. Knowing your taste in the matter, I thought I’d bring you some and get your opinion.”
“Wait until you’ve had some before you say.”
It is something that John looks me square in the eye these days. He started growing when he was twelve and had made a big deal of the fact that he had caught up with me by the time he left for college. By contrast, Ben starting gaining height very slowly from the time he was eight and just didn’t quit until he was actually taller. That was enough, he said.
John beat around the aisles for awhile then, likely waiting for a quiet moment. Finally he cornered me at the desk again.
“I want to join up.”
“With the army? You mean, enlist?”
“No, with the revolution.”
I knew where he was headed with this. He had been reading my posts on the website. He knew something about what was going on.
“You did that a long time ago. When you were a kid. They’ll hang you with the rest of us now.”
“You’re always serious. I keep telling you to lighten up.”
“Look whose talking. . . . Something’s going on. You’re doing something. Let me help.”
The lovely Ardis had came in for her shift. She heard this when she came over to say hello. I saw her shake her head.
“It’s all a joke to Michael. He thinks it’s a prank. He thinks they’re all maroons and can’t get out of their own way.”
John give her the solemn look of that boy I had first really met one day a dozen years before.
Never one to forget, he said, “This is not just dumb. It’s stupid. I’ve been reading the stuff that people are posting online in the comments to those stories in The Post. People that don’t even read books and never came in here once in their lives. What they are saying is ridiculous! This is dangerous! There’s going to be trouble. I want to help.”
“Buy a book.”
“I mean it.”
“I mean it too. What am I supposed to do? Someone is having a revolution but it’s not me. I just want to change a few things that I’m sure of. Not everything. I’m not smart enough to want to change everything.”
“What can I do?”
“What you are doing is fine. It’s all anyone can do, I think. I’m revolting, you might say, but I’m not having a revolution. No one would come. . . . Except you. “
There were customers for me to help and John wandered again. He spent most of his time in general fiction these days. He came back when it was quiet again with a large Solzhenitsyn volume.
“Given the mood you’re in, maybe you need something lighter. Some Wodehouse maybe.”
“It was either this or The Zen of Golf. I’m told that I should learn how to play golf.”
“I don’t have The Zen of Golf. I have some good books on fly-fishing. But stick with the Gulag. You should have studied literature anyway.”
“I did. Right here in this place. You were my instructor.”
“I meant, academically. I don’t know what kind of engineer you are. Probably a good one. But you would have been a fine writer.”
“Maybe I will write. Your favorite, Nevil Shute, was an engineer and a fine writer too. But if I’d studied literature in college they would have beaten all that out of me. They would have proven that the bumble bee can’t fly. It’s all politics at the university now. Almost everything. Engineering is the last refuge of reason. I have friends who were literature majors and I saw what they had to wade through in order to learn something about Shakespeare. Habermas and his Frankfurt School of Marxist critical theory—Hegel and Kant, Freud and Jung, Webber and Simmel. Form over content. All that structuralist crap! That always got me. Structuralist! A house of cards has more structure! Those maroons wouldn’t exist if it weren’t for the hermetically sealed hothouses at the university.”
This was a emotional as John was likely to be, I thought.
“Do you remember when I first told you what a ‘maroon’ was?”
“Sure. Right there.” He pointed toward the counter. “ In front of your wife. You called somebody a ‘maroon.’ And she told you not to do that in public. Something like that. She said it differently.”
“She said I was an idiot for telling a customer something like that. She was always worried about losing customers.”
“And you told her you’d say what you damned well pleased in your own store. And I think she left then. I remember you were alone when I asked you what was wrong with the color maroon. I thought maybe it was racist or something. And you said it was. The whole world was broken into two races. The maroons and the rest. And if I did not know that yet, I should go home and watch more Bugs Bunny!”
“You argued with me.”
“Yes, I did. But once I understood, I asked if someone who was a maroon could redeem themselves.”
“Worse than that! You big nerd! You asked me to define race!”
“Well, it was at the heart of the issue, wasn’t it?”
“When I said you were correct, because race was a matter of the physical characteristics you were born with, and being a maroon was learned, you were very happy. You pranced around like a cock.”
“It was only the second time I’d won an argument with you.”
“Unfortunately for me, not the last. But I didn’t argue the first time. You were right. Remember? But I think I have another reply to that other argument now. How can coffee be ‘Chinese?’ Dark or light, bitter or sweet. But Chinese? Are there races of coffee? If coffee can be Chinese, can’t maroon be a race as well?”
“Give it up. You’ve lost.”
The age of majority has been cancelled
whilst Winston Smith sings, ‘Angst for the memories’
I first came to town in 1965 to go to Boston College. My intentions then were only the best, I think. To learn some Latin and Greek, and study literature and philosophy. I was already certain that I was destined to write, even though I had no idea what I would be writing about. But that was only because I actually had nothing to write about except myself and that was very small beer indeed. My entire experience in life at the time amounted to a series of failed efforts to imitate my betters by plagiarizing their styles if not their words, mostly from the incubated safety of the New York suburbs. That and a series of failed and unrequited romances (most of which were known only to me).
I wanted to be like Hemingway. Or Faulkner. Or Thomas Wolfe. (The emergence of the newer Tom Wolf had already begun but I did not have the sense or judgment to comprehend just yet what he was about); I wanted to write ‘New Yorker’ stories but not about the morally vacant parents who seemed so important to Cheever and Updike, rather the angst riven youth living the spoiled sub-urban life, even though I more dearly wanted to find some real adventure and to see life’s underbelly—or at least to touch what was under her underbelly. I wanted to go live in Paris and be like my literary heroes too.
The week we graduated from high school, I remember suggesting to one erstwhile girlfriend, amidst yet another assault upon the ramparts of passion, that we should plan to meet beneath the Arc de Triumph at a particular time of day, on the same day of the week, four years hence, by which time I would no doubt already be a successful author. I do hope she forgot the pact. I wasn’t there.
But you learn pretty quick, or should, that to be like someone else is not the deal at all.
There was a war going on at the time. There usually is, and I now know that as well, but then the one in Vietnam appeared to me to be the most important event in history. As important to me personally, I thought—with the over-studied ignorance of a male of draft age—as to the families of the dead. (You can actually conjure that much vainglory when you are eighteen). Tens of thousands were dying. Millions of lives were being ruined. I was against this tragedy and believed it was the result of American hubris and imperialism—at least that was the ‘truth’ as reported in all the smart places—Atlantic, Harpers, Saturday Review etc. Then again, on the flip side, and as any self-regarding Twentieth Century writer knows, war is the one fire with which to temper your sword. Such conundrums rack the youthful mind.
After little more than a year at Boston College, I quit in a huff of rebellion against the obvious ignorance and self-serving rules and the malodorous bullshit in all of those assigned texts, and I enlisted. If war was hell, then I ought to get close enough to smell the brimstone. The only problem with this plan was that I’m technically blind. Or nearly so. I even had a picture of James Joyce on my dormitory wall—a black patch over one eye and a Coke bottle bottom on the other—as a totem for this fact. I was quite shocked when the United States Army told me that I did not meet with their high standards and my services would not be required.
But B.C., in suddenly righteous pique, was none too happy about taking me back. I had already proven myself to be a pain in the ass. Now they wanted an apology for my statement that they were all ‘hypocrites.’ Already developing that fine form which has sustained me to this day, I apprised them of the arguable wisdom that the ‘truth is its own defense.’ This was a phrase I had picked up in a freshman year philosophy course, though even that professor did not now think this applied to him and refused to sign my recommendation letter for re-admittance.
Enraged, I went home to New York, borrowed the price of several months rent on a cheep apartment on the Lower East Side (from my mother—Dad wanted no part of this), and immediately wrote a novel about my debacle, using the philosophy professor as the villain and making much (much too much) over the moral anguish involved, and throwing in one of my failed romances for added color. I called it A Prodigal’s Progress. Unfortunately for me, Houghton Mifflin liked it enough to publish it as part of a series they were doing of ‘New Writers.’ And this required coming back up to Boston to see the editor on several occasions. And it was while making this repeated pilgrimage (made necessary by more than a few gnarly passages of prose) that I discovered I actually liked the place.
Because I could have used a few more years on the mean streets of New York to season my artistic judgments. If I was to be denied the sword, at least I should acquire a serviceable switchblade. Menial office labor is petty, especially to an aspiring literary genius, but New York by (and in and of) itself is an inspiration, even while seemingly being both heartless and soulless. At least, surviving in that stew would have been worth something as regards the afore mentioned sword tempering.
When my apartment there was robbed and that minor refuge made to feel unsafe and despoiled, I did not want to go back home to the suburbs, nor did my parents have any interest in my complaining about the vagaries of life to them each day. They were already experts on the injustices of fate, after all, having survived the Great Depression, World War Two, and thirty years of unquiet marriage, as well as the unexpected and ineluctable pleasures of parenting. They were also still just a little upset about my dropping out at BC (something which had cost them more than I was yet aware). They wanted me to get a better job. I said fine—but I might as well do that in Boston. So here I came.
In those ancient times (fifty years ago) they used to have rooming houses in the heart of town. The one I chose was nearly on top of Beacon Hill, only a few blocks from my present apartment. For a modest weekly rate of thirty-three dollars plus tax, I could suspend my disbelief at the injustice of the world about me, work odd-jobs for Manpower, and spend my evenings writing my second novel while looking out across the narrow street to the windows of half a dozen other apartments for inspiration on how life was actually lived. In my mood of rejection, I took those snippets of bedroom scenes between the sashes to be the desolate cartoon cells of a barren hive that produced the sterile worker bees necessary to keep the colony functioning. This book took me a year to finish, while I worked in various mailrooms processing mail, or as a night-guard guarding desks in the night, or in warehouses putting wares up on shelves, and at the information tables of numerous conventions where I offered pamphlets of misinformation with a smile. Things looked pretty bleak to me then, at the end of the 1960s, when all the world should be changing, and should have changed. But, Dickens aside, bleak does not sell. Houghton Mifflin was not inspired by the idea of human bees. Nor were the twenty or thirty other publishers I sent that one to. (Those were still the literary days when you sent a literal manuscript to the actual publisher—not at all the same as the current prophylactic system of first sending queries to agents).
Suddenly unsure of my calling after this bungle, I took a regular job in a bookshop on Boylston Street. That outfit specialized in scholarly remainders and publisher’s overstock as well as used textbooks. Essentially, this work amounted to the processing and selling of small rectangular objects displayed in neat stacks—books reduced to a marginal commodity—still a new concept to me at the time.
I recall the key event at this establishment occurred when the owner came by one day, after I’d spent almost three years there, and handed me a box that contained thirty copies of my own first novel, A Prodigal’s Progress, which he had just purchased from the publisher as a ‘remainder’ for something less than fifty cents each. He said, “Put these away and someday you can sell them for a buck.” He was being serious, not cynical. He was a generous but very practical man.
It was during those years that I completed my third novel. This had been written in a frenzy of outrage over Nixon’s enlargement of the Vietnam war into Cambodia. Not actually being there in the heart of darkness on the Mekong so that I might physically mutiny against this wrong had left me with the weak tea of writing about the discouragement felt at home by one young fellow attempting to escape the draft while working at a bookshop in Boston—this done by entering mentally if not physically into the worlds of the books he sold. It was a bit Walter Mittyish, but much darker. The editor at Houghton Mifflin had called it ‘heartfelt.’ But it in truth, it was felt a little lower than that.
These were the tertian time (this said with the sort of mock Irish brogue your hear at folk music concerts were the guys wear white sweaters and sing with gusto about the rising of the moon and the gals dance with a swing of the leg below the knee). That third book had taken me three years to complete. The timing was not due to writer’s block. It was simply because it was three times as long as anything I had written before. At the time, I believed this was, at the age of twenty-three, my magnum opus.
With an interior story it retold the epic journey of the beautiful Io, from priestess to cow, seduced and raped by Zeus and then ‘saved’ by that sociopathic god through the brilliant subterfuge of turning her into a heifer to conceal her from his jealous wife, Hera. No fool, Hera—just stupid enough to be jealous over the affections of the perverted megalomaniac, Zeus—in turn sets a gadfly to pestering the poor cow. How this related to the Selective Service’s interest in my body is difficult to relate easily, so I will leave most of that aside as a simple excuse for the novel’s fizzle.
But the truth of it was that after reading Terry Southern’s Candy for the first time in 1970, I was amazed that his book was actually so old. It had been written half of my own lifetime before, yet, in this newest re-incarnation as a mass-market paperback enclosed in proud pink wraps it appeared to capture the present moment in time too perfectly. I wasn’t so sure of the purported connection with Voltaire, but it was that particular investigation which had led me to my great idea, to connect the ancient Greek myth of the wandering and beleaguered bovine with the French Philosopher’s exposition on futile optimism and what I took to be a wholly original invention of pragmatism—all set in the El Dorado of America circa 1973. My own Iola, wandered the land like a modern Candide, smoking pot and romping joyously along the way (Terry Southern had already visited this territory and gender switch with his Candy and I was just stupid enough to think there was much more to say). Her pursuit of true love in the form of my skinny, hapless and bespectacled draft dodging hero was certainly nothing short of mythological. The ‘Professor Pangloss’ of this rout was a Dr. Ralph, who was yet another iteration of my old philosophy professor and nemesis at Boston College. Obsessed with bedding his former student, it is Dr. Ralph who plays the gadfly chasing my high-minded and irrepressibly happy heroine across the country as she follows her hormones in spite of all consequences.
Houghton Mifflin asked that I take out a few of the raunchier sex scenes, and I did. After the fact, I’m sure it would have sold better had they been left in, even if they would have greatly embarrassed my children in later years. But that unwise publisher advanced me twenty-thousand dollars for my three-year’s work, effectively doubling my entire income over the period. I was stupefied. Stunned. I sat in place for at least fifteen minutes after opening the letter and gathering myself. The bookstore where I worked was then already in the process of again reducing its size and getting ready to close. The aging owner told us daily that the whole book business was changing (“going to hell” was his regular refrain) and warned us that books had now been replaced by television and that we should pursue other lines of work.
So what should I do?
I opened a bookshop.
I had noticed a space at the bottom of Beacon Hill which had been empty for more than a year. This was the early seventies, when Boston was not yet a ‘happenin’ place.’ Rents were still relatively cheap. I bargained with the owner, a Mr. Glover, over a few hundred dollars less per month. (I am positive that he regretted the decision for the rest of his thusly shortened life.) The check from the publisher cleared on a Monday. On Wednesday I signed the lease.
It is interesting to me now to think that this was just about the moment in time when I should have been meeting a very pretty young lady beneath the Arc de Triumph. But I had completely forgotten my vow. Almost immediately, publishers threw lines of credit at me like dollar bills at a strip show in the Combat Zone. And suddenly, I was in business for myself. A capitalist. A business man, and what later came to be called an entrepreneur during the 1980s. However, I could not run the place by myself, even then, in spite of seemingly inexhaustible energies. I needed an employee.
One fine day, I looked up from the raw pine boards I was abusing with a hammer and nails into the shape of a shelf and there was Margaret. She had just graduated from Boston University with a degree in Literature and the dreams of a poet. She needed a temporary job before she left for her own planned grand excursion to Europe. After hearing from her father that he had a new tenant, a young bookseller no less, she had come to investigate.
“What are you doing?” were her first words to me.
She will tell you, even today, that they were, “Hello. How are you doing?” and not so provoking as to warrant the lecture on shelving that I gave her. But, already smitten, I had the advantage on her there of having written her words down that very evening, back in my little room on Pinckney Street. And I estimate now that within this difference of memory may be found all the conflict of men and women that makes the world go round.
Almost as suddenly, Margaret and I were living together. Not in my little room on Pinckney Street, I should add, but hers, in another of her father’s real estate holdings. Though this was to her parent’s great chagrin, the actual marriage did not take place for several years, and was finally the result of a rather heated Memorial Day weekend at the family cottage on the Cape. The temperatures outside that day were cool as I remember. Margaret remembers it being sweaty. I proposed in a fit of intemperate enthusiasm.
What did she see in me then? Someone who would change the world? A proto-entrepreneur? An author? Hard to say. But I think she loved me for a time. I know I was in love with her, if for no other reason than because she loved me, which is a form of narcissism that is common in the young and was to me an astounding development, in and of itself!
Margaret is a Yankee in the oldest sense—from a family of merchant traders. What she saw in a skinny New York Irish boy with no prospects but lots of ideas, all of them questionable, I don’t know. As a disguise, she called me her ‘Southern Boy’ in several poems. Geographically speaking, she was at least correct in that regard.
Her father owned the building where the store remains to this very day, but the family trust controls the property now. At first, the space was a sort of continuous gift, even as rents in the area rose well above our budget, and though the reduced rent we paid her father was not often made on time. Mr. Glover actually loaned us additional funds to keep things going on several occasions. (I suppose, on the theory that I would eventually learn how running a sound business was done.) Though he actually warned us that the shop would fail if we did not change our ways, he had given us the capital anyway. And it did fail. Several times over, through the years. But by then we had the kids, and bailing us out had become a sort of annual family tradition, usually done, not surprisingly, around the 15th of April.
Money can be a grindstone to any marriage. Even one that is so adequately subsidized. I have often wondered what would have become of me if Mr. Glover had ever refused to help—if he had tossed us out to fend for ourselves. Such a missed fate has in fact been the underlying subject of yet another of my unpublished books.
And here is the rub. There is a greater penalty to generosity which is often ignored, or at least disdained, by the theorists. When a helping hand becomes a subsidy, it more often gets a predictable result. More of the same behavior. I’ve certainly confirmed that utilitarian theory over and again. It was for that reason (or so I believe, while ignoring my innate stupidity) that I did never really learned how to run my own business profitably—because I was never actually made to. (This is not to fault the Glovered hand that fed us. I was wholly to blame. Absolutely! But thus, the sting of failure itself was never enough that it could change my habits. Even today, I run the shop the way I do because it suits me. Such a solipsistic and self-serving attitude is truly reprehensible given the realities most people must face to survive. I have no excuse, other than the explanation that it is some congenital sense of entitlement—to do things the way we want and to hell with those who have to bail us out—common to my generation. But I must also admit, as I have many times since, that I’ve been a very happy bookseller, as a consequence. Much in the same manner, I have no regrets for writing twenty-four unpublished novels. I greatly enjoyed writing every one of them. I have relished and reveled in both the role of bookseller and writer. What else am I to say, if this is the truth? Perhaps, I have studied failure and made a success of that!
I do not argue with the critics (Margaret, her father, David Brooks, et al), or any of those who say that I would have learned to write better (by which they clearly mean more marketable material) had I been made to meet an objective criterion by some necessity of the marketplace. Or those (usually the same ones) who tell me that the store should have been closed years ago because it is simply unprofitable.
But this disagreement is only what I have mentioned before, namely, that I have long been at odds with the tax collector, who has become my grim reaper in reality. Publisher’s want to be paid. The electric company wants its past due. The part-time staffer wants what I fairly owe them every Friday. By the time I get around to the taxes, there is always less remaining than is required.
Besides, what did it all really amount to?
Given that I have no good excuse (other than my own pleasure) for my unwillingness to comply with the mundane requirements that are apparently so readily met by every other business, I have over time manufactured a better explanation (i.e. excuse; re: conceit)—that my biggest problem as a bookseller was, and has always been, that I simply don’t like selling crap! Either my own, or the crap of others. Yes! I have resorted to righteousness. This is now my true belief, whatever vague notions I began with. And it is true, is it not, that most of what is published is crap, indeed?! But the publisher’s put a great deal of money into promoting that crap each year and convincing the public to buy it. And the larger result, and insult, and consequence of such mercantile foolishness is an ever diminishing readership—being those people willing to spend hard-earned cash on something that they will only end up putting aside, part-way through, unfinished, from whence it peeks at them beneath the magazines on the coffee table and reproaches them for having wasted the money, or further disheartening those willing to blame themselves for not understanding why the books they read are so bad when all the ‘critics’ have said that they were ‘fabulous.’ (I’ve heard it said by customers right there in the shop, ‘Thank goodness for cable, or I might have to speak to my husband!’)
It is thus that the shop has never benefited much from the bestseller list. The prices at the chain stores are necessarily better than ours for those titles, anyway. Other than the classics, our strength has always been in ordering the back-listed previous efforts by the same author whose latest might be selling well at the moment. (Often enough, those past efforts were written when he or she was still trying to create something for the ages, and well before they realized that the demands for mortgage payments were monthly). And many of those early titles are now out of print due to previous lack of demand. Apart from the obscure title that might take three years on the shelf to find the right customer, that is where the selling of used books works best. That and finding titles in a series which have fallen out of print, or even more precisely, mystery or science fiction titles that are not part of a series and only had one printing to begin with. Or, science fiction that does not treat physics as magic, which is the current rage (this used to be called ‘fantasy.’ I am told that word is a pejorative now, a disparagement of the genius of those who envision alternate realities, but I still use the differentiation). We carry a fair section of poetry, most of which was almost immediately out of print and usually sells only to lovers trying to impress their beloved with the true faith of their own unspoken (and usually bastard) sentiments. And drama. Who reads old plays? (I am asked this at least once a month by a customer wondering why I don’t give the space over to something better, like the complete works of Stephen King). And, of course, essays. In a non-reading age, the essayist is the first to be ignored. Still, though, it’s amazing how many classics are out of print at any given time.
When Hollywood makes yet another movie out of a Jane Austen novel, we do well with it. But that too is not enough. They can’t seem to make another Jane Austen movie every month, no matter how they try, so there we are. (Taken one a month, and each done once a year, six novels will only fill half the need.) In any case, it’s tough to pay the bills hand-selling all those other titles that clog our shelves, one copy at a time, to people who have never heard of them (or seen them on TV). It works to a certain point to constantly be out of step, but the economies of scale are always set against us.
As I say, I leave most of the new and highly touted material by fresh young talents to the other shops. In those by-gone days when people still read, Boston used to have many other booksellers to choose from. But it’s a fugacious hope to depend too much on that coarser prose in any case. The overwhelming number of remainders alone testifies to the foolishness there. And besides, we’ll always get another crack at those titles in a few years when they are remaindered, as even mine own had been, or when the authors have quit writing in favor of a regular pay check of teaching University classes on how to write the way they themselves don’t do it anymore, and then list their own books on recommended reading lists—I suppose in much the same way as I display my own efforts at the front counter in my shop.
What I do do, so to speak, is to go to the auctions and buy large estate lots and break them down. There you will see that there was a deal of crap sold ‘back in the day’ as well. You bag the rubbish up and give it to a church sale, or Goodwill, or the Salvation Army. The provender is boxed and carried to the back room where it is graded by condition and price and then put out on the shelves as space allows, somewhat alphabetically (depending on distractions) in the hope someone will re-discover it. After a few years, when all hope of the mythical customer for this remnant is lost, I give that away as well along with the remains of much other stock which I should not have carried in the first place if I were better at my job. And the cycle continues.
An old friend (he is actually two years younger than me), Sam Kaufman, designed our bookmarks many years ago. I had thought to have only the name, address, and shop’s hours, set in some elegant type, like a Bembo or a Garamond, and printed on a letterpress. It was his idea to add an additional line below the store name: “The state of mind,” in a flourish of hand-wrought Eighteenth Century italics. I wish I had thought of it myself. I often think of the place now in those terms rather than the more portentous and pretentious ‘A Republic of Books.’
Have you had enough? More about motivations, maybe?
Deirdre had listened to all of it, in one outpouring. But our beer glasses were again empty. The errant prawn shells had been wiped away. The grills on the barbecue pit were cold and scrubbed for use on the morrow. The chairs were up on the tables around us, legs in the air in surrender, and the vacuums were roaring when we left. I could only wonder at Deirdre’s patience, never mind that of the restaurant staff.
In an age of enlightenment
the illuminated manuscripts burn brightest
I believe that enlightenment tends to come upon societies in much the same manner as it occurs to an individual. One day you are repeating your mistakes with all the industry of an ant in a side-walk crack and the next you awaken to the fresh bliss of a new path of truth, and the thrill of your own brilliance, and begin setting your course apart. It is not unfair to credit ourselves with this renaissance of thought, because we have usually suffered for it. But it is incorrect to assume the cause was some specific discovery of knowledge that was unleashed by our own effort alone. Typically it involves such a morass of thought, so difficult to interpret, that in order to come up with an excuse for our heroism, we are liable to invent a new philosophy. That is how religions are often born, as well as sophism, pragmatism, objectivism, empiricism, and a hundred other isms born of a sudden morn.
I am not a scholar—that is, I am not one to pursue knowledge for its own sake. I selfishly seek knowledge only when needed. I am a shopkeeper and a scribbler. My pleasure in those two things alone has filled my time and exceeds any satisfaction I might gain from parsing the rhizome of some particular root cause. Lacking those spiritual genes necessary for such attention and dedication myself, I have however long been taken with the insight of scholars, per se, and a few in particular. One of those is Walter Jackson Bate, the wise man of Harvard for many years. He was to me an ancient husk of human being when I first encountered him eating custard in a dining area at Eliot Hall. Likely then he was only as old as I am now. I was there in pursuit of books, naturally—those books the students cast off every spring like leaves in autumn. On a good day in May I could fill the back of my truck.
And on that day, as I recall, the great man sat alone at the edge of a field of tables in a darkish hall but in reflected light close by a narrow window, encased on two sides by mahogany walls, and I presumptively sat down across from him and asked—I might have said hello, or something of the sort first, I don’t recall.
“Is the universal and the ideal the same thing?”
He asked in return, “Did you read chapter four?”
Naturally, given my youth then (I would guess this was about 1974) he had assumed I was a student of his and I had just read chapter four of his great book, From Classic to Romantic, which was the very cause, in fact, of the inquiry, for I had just discovered this masterwork on my own. But I did not have the patience of a lifetime to explore the question and wanted a quick answer. I was on my way to several dormitory rooms where students were waiting to cash in on the used volumes their parents had paid top dollar for when new.
This was a severe looking man, thin, heavy lidded and tight lipped, with the high fore-head you assume of a thinker, and I must have apologized, on hearing the hard tone of his voice, for interrupting his meal.
“Well then, you can already see it is a subject as thick as this,” and he tapped his spoon into the yellow crust of the custard. “But the answer to your question is, no. All cats are mammals but not all mammals are cats. The universal is ideal, but the ideal may not be universal.” He rubbed at a clean cheek of slack skin, and then put the hand to his mouth. “Or is it the other way around? The ideal is universal, but the universal may not be ideal? We’ll have to give that some thought.”
He was smiling when I left him, eating his custard again and looking out the window at a spring green lawn.
I have retold that story twenty or fifty times. I’ve embellished whenever the opportunity arose. But the key element remains the same. Not all mammals are cats.
This was in mind the many years later when Deirdre showed up in the quiet of an afternoon and let me in on the state of things in her own bailiwick. It seemed her editor had announced that she was bored with the storyline concerning our bookshop—the bookseller ‘David’ against the government ‘Goliath,’ was too thin. She had given Deirdre a new assignment.
Given that I had already calculated on at least one or two more articles to publicize my upcoming sale in order to raise money to payoff the IRS, my first thought was to how I might thicken the story line to remedy her editor’s boredom. Perhaps I had to simply accept the idea, as Margaret had predicted, that our fifteen minutes was up, over with, done and finished, and accept the fact that we weren’t much better off than before.
But I like proving Margaret wrong whenever possible, which is not often enough. I also realized this change of priorities would put a crimp on any time Deirdre might have to be hanging about. Specifically, around me. Whatever attractions I might possess were subtle and would definitely take additional opportunities for study and appreciation.
For her part, Deidre looked genuinely unhappy and says, “I think she doesn’t want to get herself audited by the IRS for giving you any moral support. She’s even admitted as much. She warned me to back off of it, in my own best interest, for that very reason. And I told her, unfortunately, after thirty years at the Post, I didn’t have anything more to declare than my salary, so that wouldn’t pose much of a worry.”
For the first time I could see a glimmer of understanding on the soft blue horizon. She is not just interested in a story that might only pry a few readers away from their computer screens and/or televisions. She is actually coming around to understanding the larger context of what’s going on.
For that, if nothing else, I took her to lunch, insisted on paying, and she let me.
This is a treacherous stage to any relationship. When attraction is magnified by sympathy. For me, the danger lay in keeping my cards down. She was still a journalist and any revelation of fact that might give new life to her story was fair game. And I did want the story to continue. The matter was how much I could offer up to this effort at self-promotion (and illumination), without endangering other possibilities. Or, critically, leaving her with idea that I was more interested in revolution than in her.
“Have you ever thought of doing anything other than reporting?”
“Like writing fiction. You write well. You could write about some of the things you’ve reported on that were left unfinished. You know—‘the rest of the story’ sort of thing.”
She stared at me. This was disconcerting. I waited it out.
“Have what? Short stories? . . . You’ve written a novel?”
I think my voice might have risen at the prospect.
“Can I read it?”
“No. It’s terrible.”
She suddenly looked hurt, as if I had said something critical.
“It can’t be. Let me read it.”
“No. I don’t want you judging me the way you judge everyone else. You’re too critical. I’m just a reporter. Let it be.”
“Is that fair? I put it all out there for you but you don’t want me to see yours?”
“Very well put.”
“I want to read it.”
“No. Leave it alone.”
The tone was definitive. “Okay”
She shook her head as if gaining some control over her senses.
“Tell me more about the IRS man. Tell me about that. Maybe I can work around that a little.”
After explaining the impact of the IRS audit on our business (skipping over the part about doubts concerning my existential soul and wasted energies) I waited until she had a large bite of burger and onion in her mouth, and said, “I think George Reilly is worried that his battle with the government has spilled over onto my turf. He’s upset with the way things have gone.”
This was a total fabrication, of course. A deceit told to fit the circumstance. I can guess George might in fact be worried. He’s a good chap and has reasonable concerns about his fellow man (or woman). But he hadn’t displayed a bit of it in our most recent encounter. More probably he has his own concerns and like any pilot in a fix, he was keeping those worries to himself lest the passengers panic.)
It took her half a minute to chew and swallow. Faster than I thought it might.
“You’ve spoken to him recently?”
“Sure.” I said, and added, “Yes.”
She might have known I was lying, right then.
Another half a minute was spent looking carefully at the handful of bun and beef as she gathered her thoughts. Time enough for me to speculate on what she might say. Naturally, I was wrong.
She offers me a sympathetic sigh. “Do you think your project to raise funds with a big sale might work?”
I shrugged. “Yes, but I’ll have to have a plan B. I was thinking maybe a big bonfire and then bankruptcy.”
That got no reaction at all. If she had already become inured to my sense of humor, what did I have left?
She says, “Tell me what you’d really do if you closed the store?”
I’d thought about that a thousand times. Several thousand, at least.
“I’d travel. Drive until my eyes, or my butt gave out. Whichever came first.”
“Been there. I’d like to go to Scotland again, of course, at least to study some of the papers of Thomas Reid at Aberdeen and Glasgow. Most of that has never been published and I’m curious what he and his ‘common sense’ philosophy had to say about a lot of things. Maybe take a peek out at the Hebrides while I’m at it, at least to fill in the background color for my reading of Boswell, Norman Maclean, Peter May, Compton Mackenzie, and a few of those other good guys. But I hear Europe is not the place it used to be, any more than Boston is. The quaint there is all packaged and postcarded now. It was probably that way when I visited before, but I was too stupid to notice. What’s left is a Disneyland of a past that’s been reduced to touchstones for tourists in a rush. What with the present all pasteurized and homogenized into soulless efficiencies, even the dialectic is metrical now, or at least geometrical, and the future is mortgaged. Just like ours. And Britain is just for Anglophiles—not a lot better than pedophiles, probably—it’s a mental disease that accounts for half the programming on PBS. It appears that most of them just want to be Euros no anyway. One great big regulated asylum. Forget about Dumnonia, or Dal Riata or Manx. Old Arthur is just a myth to them. And besides, I don’t speak the language well enough to find the secret places that remain. No. I’d like to see a few more of the corners in this country first. The ones I’ve read about in books all my life, before they’re all gone with the wind as well.”
Surprisingly, she seemed to brighten at that bitter bit.
“Where. Where first?”
“The West. Pretty much everything beyond the Mississippi but this side of the Sierra Nevada.”
“I thought I heard you say you’ve been there too. I even saw a picture that you took of your kids.”
“Many times. But there’s an awful lot there to see. I still haven’t gawked at the half of it, even from the distance of a truck window. I’d like to camp around, here and there. Smell the grass. Get the dust in my eyes. Finally learn to ride a horse before my joints get any stiffer. That is, if my bones aren’t about to break first. Stuff like that. I have a customer named Morris who already lives there in his mind and he and I have both picked out our itineraries.”
“Sounds nice. Why don’t you just do it anyway?”
“For one thing, because there’s a war on. You don’t just walk away from a fight unless everything else you are is false.” This sounded a bit righteous and I tried to come up with something to take the edge off, but nothing fit the moment so I just grimaced at myself and added, “Besides, I can’t afford it.” The ultimate excuse.
She started eating again. After another half a minute or so she just says, “Sounds nice,” again, with half a voice.
And that was it. The trout had simply left my fly floating on the water, as my friend George is want to say.
I say, “How about you. What would you do?”
Her voice did not rise to the answer. I was not sure this was to keep anyone from hearing, or just in line with the seriousness of the subject.
“I have no plan ‘B.’ Never had one, really. That was likely always my problem. I started out years ago as a Metro reporter. Fires and dogs. After a while I moved over to the copy desk. Mostly because they asked me. I’m a good copy-editor. But that was pretty boring and I started gaining weight from sitting too much so, so after awhile I asked for a change. They put me on features. Sadly, that stuff is all canned meat. That’s where they ‘appease to please.’ That’s all about the advertisers. I got out of there as fast as I could, so then they attached me to the city desk to cover things at the state house. That was awful. They lie in that joint for a living and cheat for sport. They prevaricate to your face and dare you to contradict them. And if you do, they retaliate. I was there less than a year before I was transferred again. This time I think they figured they’d get rid of me by asking me to cover the police blotter. Two days after interviewing the Governor concerning a judge he’d appointed who had a history of pedophilia, I was covering a double homicide for Metro. But I liked it! That’s when—that’s when I wrote the novel that you can’t read, so don’t ask again. I think I wrote it just to get some of the worst of it out of my head. Not the blood and body parts but the characters. There is something very pure about many criminals. They know they are who they are. They won’t say that, but you can hear it in the way they talk. Pretenses are blatant.”
She laughed at the thought. She had heard herself, and laughed. This was a good thing. A commendable quality. I kept quiet and after a minute, let her pick up on that where she wanted.
“I was there for about five years before I burned out. One dead fourteen-year old in Roxbury too many. So they stuck me on the court-house beat. Talk about boring. Some trials are riveting—like a good play, but nine out of ten are procedure and as phony as the deal the DA usually makes to get a verdict. As they say, ‘in the Halls of Justice, the only justice is in the halls.’ Everything is negotiable. The victims get nothing. Not even catharsis. After about three years of that I had no skin left on my teeth, so now I’m sort of ‘At Large,’ like my column header says, with Metro again. I’m down to the bottom limb on that dead tree you talk about. But I’ve known for years, there is no upside for me. No plan ‘B.’ ”
She sipped at her soda and considered something. I knew before she finally spoke again that it might have some bearing on me. In my own interest, I continued to keep my mouth shut.
She finally said. “That was always the way it was with me in love too. No plan ‘B.’ All my eggs in the one basket.” She stopped at that point, and laughed suddenly again. But not looking at me, at first. Looking out the window so that I could see the shadows of the cars passing in sky of her eyes, and then at me. “You know, my last real boy friend used that exact phrase. ‘All my eggs in one basket,’ but he was referring to something else. I told him I wanted to get married and have children before it was too late for me. He said, he wasn’t the one. It was all a lot of fun, for both of us, but he was not interested in marriage or children—even though he’d said he was before.” She stopped a moment, “Well, at least said it indirectly before that. That was just courtship, he said. He meant, seduction. He told me, I shouldn’t have put all my eggs in his basket, and then he laughed at his own words as if they were witty. I clobbered him. It’s the only time in my adult life I ever hit anyone outside of my martial arts class. I broke his front tooth. He billed me for it. Twelve hundred dollars for two caps. And I paid for it. Happily.”
I recorded all that on some index card in my brain.
“I can’t imagine that. I mean, I can imagine that you wanted kids—I wondered about that—but not that anyone would laugh at you for it.”
She shrugged, head down. “I misjudged him. That’s all. I knew he wasn’t perfect. But he’s very successful because it’s all about him, even when he’s pretending it’s about you. I met him at a 10-k run to raise money for breast cancer. But he was just there because it was a good place to meet lonely women. He’d learned all about using empathy before he ever left grammar school, I think. But you get tired of waiting for Mr. Perfect.”
I took a chance to step in on that. Probably not the best move.
“I’m sorry that I meet such low expectations as well. I know I’m not so perfect myself.”
My oldest daughter, Georgia, gives me a look when I say things that are really stupid. Not like Margaret’s scowl, where she is letting me know exactly how dumb she thinks I am, but with a little more of the patience you might show to a dog who has just pooped on the carpet—the sort of look I used to get from my Mom. Thankfully, Georgia looks more like my Mom. Though Deirdre doesn’t look a bit like my mother, she managed that look on her face, nonetheless.
“Don’t give yourself too much credit. Women have a tendency to like certain faults in a man . . . a few faults.”
This was not where I wanted to go. Not in a public place, with a limited amount of time at our disposal. So, after an appropriate pause for breath, I changed the subject.
“So why don’t you quit? Do something else.”
“Write another book.”
“It’s you that writes books. I like to look and listen. Please leave that alone.” And then she changed the subject herself. “So tell me what you spoke about to your friend Mr. Reilly? What’s the deal with him?”
“Why not? What about writing down just what you see and hear?”
“Tell me what you’ve heard from Mr. Reilly, and maybe I can.”
She was still on her game. I filled a little with scraps of past conversations. I mentioned George’s ideas about entropy, and staying upright like a buoy in a sea of troubles, and about the inherent socialism of the family unit. I even hit the topic of hate speech and the new forbidden words now that George Carlin was gone and couldn’t defend us. But what I finally came up with was really a fabrication made more of conjecture. A true lie. But something that could be so.
“George think’s the government is getting desperate. They can see the writing on the virtual wall. That’s why they’re so intent on getting him. They know they need to get control of the internet, or the jig is up. Even the Anonymous groups and Julian Assange have shown that. And that’s what the Stop Online Privacy Act and Protect IP Act, and the rest was all about. They’ve got the UN in on it now. They need to control Matt Drudge as much as Mr. Assange. They can’t have all that freedom going on out there, behind their backs, or in their faces. Too much freedom. So now they’re raising the ante. It’s not just so called ‘hate speech’ they’ve got to control. Now it’s ‘cyber violence.’ My little shop is a drop in the bucket compared to all that. No. Maybe the better metaphor is a hole in the bucket. A physical opening to a universe they don’t understand.”
I wondered afterward if my attempt to respark her interest in our story—at least the story of the Bookshop, was way too obvious. Or maybe too subtle. Buckets aside.
But the answer was on page five in the next morning’s paper: ’Under siege by both FBI and IRS, Boston bookseller plans fund raising sale.’
Holy mackerel! The phone was ringing off the hook from the time I got through the door.
I’m usually alone in the store until eleven, or until one of the part-timers shows up, but the lovely Ardis again saw the story in the morning edition of the Post and she comes in at nine and we faced the rush together.
Ardis is always ahead of the curve. First thing, she gives me the straight face. “It’s serious. Isn’t it?”
I say, “Yeah. But I’m worried about the IRS more than the FBI.”
She shakes that off, “I mean the bleach-blond.”
I tell her “I don’t know.”
She shakes her head at me for that. “It’s serious.”
At that point, amidst the dozen or so who have decided to come in the shop at an hour when it’s usually quiet enough for me to write a chapter without much more than a phone call, in walks a familiar face.
I don’t really know this guy, except for the ‘Hello.’ I’ve just seen him around through the years. He ought to be retired. His name is Charlie Flaherty and he works at the Boston Journal Transcript, which is now shrunken to tabloid size and on its way to scandal-sheet oblivion.
He waits for his chance to slip up to the counter and says, “How ya doin’ Michael?”
I say, “Fine, Charlie. Yourself?”
“Feelin’ left out. Like you threw a party and didn’t invite me.”
He says that with the ‘paahty’ emphasized.
“Join the fun, then. You lookin’ for a book, or a press release? I’m not doin’ any press releases this morning.”
“No. No, I guess you don’t have to these days. Not now you’re hooked up with Deirdre. But my editor thinks we ought to cover a little of this too, just for old time’s sake. To show we care. You, know. That’s why they sent me. He thinks we’re old buddies.”
“Why would he think that?”
“Because. Because, through the years, whenever I was late getting back to the office, I used to say that I’d stopped in here on the way to see if you had a book on the subject of the hour. My editor’s Italian and from New York and he thinks all of us Irish up here stick together anyway. You know.”
“He likely knows where you actually were, Charlie. But I’ll tell you, if the Irish really stuck together there would likely be a lot more of them than there already are.”
He nods. “Funny. But listen, can you give me a little something to take back with me? Something that you haven’t already said out loud in your sleep.”
He’s smiling the whole way. You hear that sort of talk in bars as some fellow is verbally slicing up a ‘friend.’ The smile is what makes it keen.
I was at the counter, so I waved Ardis up and stepped over to the side where I could talk. Charlie is sixty if he’s a day and he gives Ardis the up and down.
I say, “How many kids you got, Charlie?”
He gets my drift. “I can look, can’t I. I’m not dead yet. Look at you!”
“At least I’m divorced.”
He shrugs, “That’s the problem with marrying a Catholic. They don’t let go.”
I say, “You strike me as the kind of guy who can’t turn on a washing machine or boil an egg. Count yourself lucky.”
He slaps that away with the flat of his hand in the air between us, “I’m not here for marital advice. Tell me something. What’s going on? Are you turning IRA in your old age? How did you get the Black and Tans on your case?”
“Just minding my own business. They came after me. I’d prefer to leave them alone.”
“I hear the tax collector’s investigating. Any fire under that smoke?”
“Sure. We don’t make diddly squat here. I’m always behind. But the tax always gets paid. Eventually. Always has.”
“Who is this George Reilly character?”
I know that he has read all of Deidre’s pieces, but I wonder what sort of field work he has done to prepare for this interview himself.
“It’s like you’ve read, he’s just an old customer. Unlike you, he actually buys books.”
Charlie nods at me. “Then you don’t know about any plot to overthrow the government? Anything like that?”
“Nothing. There’s no such plot. It’s government paranoia. Mr. Reilly is evidently good at keeping secrets. They hate that. They only like the secrets that they can’t keep themselves.”
Charlie pulls a folded sheet from his pocket. “Is all that anything to do with this?”
What he has is a computer printout of something with a header that says ‘Nuspeek Daily.’ Those words are in Boldface Times Roman. Below that are briefs on various recent government probes into businesses and organizations around the country. I had never seen it before. It was short, only about four pages, but impressive. It also had a side bar of links to other online sources attached to each of the stories. Item seven: “A Republic of Books in Boston is under investigation by both the FBI and the IRS.”
“This looks interesting, but I don’t know anything about it.”
He nods again. “It quotes you there. It says that you see what’s going on as an attack on the Second Amendment.” He took the sheets back from me and held them up to his face with his glasses pushed high onto his forehead. “Did you say, ‘The American Republic is dead. Each new Caesar will now feed off the rotting carcass until all we have left are the bones.’”
“Sounds like something I might have hyperbolized.”
“Who did you say it to?”
“I can’t remember. I say stuff like that all the time. But only because it’s true.”
Actually, I knew exactly to whom I’d said it.
Charlie says, “Look, Michael. I’m sympathetic. You know? The world is going to hell in a hand basket. But I can’t do much if you don’t help me out here. I know I don’t have the glands that Miss Roberts has, but I can get your story out there too, if you give me a chance.”
I tried to give him as much of a look of pity as my limited dramatic skills would allow. “Well that explains a lot about both your problems and mine. I didn’t know that science was calling the brain a gland now.”
A shake of the head, “For pity’s sake, Michael. Help me out here.”
“Charlie. The way I see it, you are the problem. This has been going on under your nose for years and you haven’t reported on it. Now you think you can sell a few extra papers on a little sympathy for the ‘old bookseller.’ But it’s too late.”
“Michael! Deirdre is no better than I am. Why does she get the inside track? Is it true then? Is it all pillow talk?”
I think I gave a short laugh. It was a cute try. “You’ll have to go back without a story, Charlie. I suspect it’s time for both of us to retire anyway. You can spend more time with your wife, but I’ll just have to keep sleeping alone.”
Because the Boston Journal Transcript is a tabloid, they still get out an evening edition, along with the updates on their website. So, about six o’clock, Deirdre shows up looking fierce. She hits the counter with a copy of the late edition of the Transcript while still in full stride. Even as thin as that tabloid is, it makes a good pop on the marble and gets everyone in the shop, including Ardis, to look forward.
I see that Deirdre is handsome when she’s angry.
She says, “Did you tell this ass-hole any of that?”
“I don’t know what it says. But I don’t think I told him anything that isn’t public knowledge.”
She places a finger on the page below a picture of me that was taken for some article they ran a year or two ago. “How about this, ‘Mr. McGeraughty denies he has a personal relationship with Deirdre Roberts, the reporter for the Post who is responsible for the recent stories . . .’ Did you tell him that?”
“I said nothing about you.”
She did not look convinced.
But Ardis had come up behind me and cleared her throat. She gave both of us the quick plastic smile. I was suddenly worried. What had I actually said? Ardis raises both eyebrows with her best look of skepticism and a sigh, which is actually her way of showing patience.
Ardis says, “The ass-hole I think you are referring to kept intimating that Michael was sleeping with you and that’s how you were getting your information and that’s why you were giving us so much attention. Michael told him he was lame and said it was probably about time for both of them to retire and Charlie could spend more time with his wife, and Michael would just have to continue sleeping alone. I believe those are close to his exact words.”
Deirdre’s shoulders dropped an inch or two and the fight came out of her.
So I asked her if she knew about the ‘Nuspeek Daily’ website. She didn’t. But at least she did not seem puzzled by the name. Nice that she’s a lit major, even if she is given to the usual Orwellian liberal faiths.
I took a phone call then while Deirdre wandered a bit around the shop. Not idly. It was clear she was working up to something else to say. When I was free again she asked me to step outside a moment. There, against the murmur and buzz on the street, she apologized for ‘flying off the handle.’ I love that idiom. And because I was not upset with her at all, I tried to change the subject.
“I’ve always wondered where that expression comes from. I’ve wondered if it had anything to do with printing and the old presses. The sweat of the hands on the steel lever. But I have a friend who thinks it has to do with the head of the ax coming loose with a swing and flying wild.”
She shook her head at me. “You are incorrigible.”
But at least she didn’t say that in the tone of a reprimand.
I put in, “Do you want to go someplace for dinner tonight?”
She said, “No. I can’t,” as if that were a very unfortunate thing, and I believed her, but then she asked me for a favor.
She said she had something for me. She said she’d drop it off later.
Funny thing. I had said the bit about the Caesars and the bones of the Republic at least two years ago. Off the cuff. The reason I still knew the exact person I’d said it to is that I was in the truck at the time and on the way to pick up a large load of books from a house in Belmont. Jack was with me for the grunt work and he’d been forced to sit through a particularly vehement tirade on my part because it was October and I had just barely scraped together the taxes to go with our usually late annual filing that year. In other words, I was in one of my darker moods. But I did one other thing that day. I liked the imagery of the phrase and I’d written a few words down on an index so that I wouldn’t forget them. And then I’d proceeded to loose the index card. This three by five had fallen down through the crack in the back of the bench seat in the truck.
A few weeks ago I was doing my semi-annual spring-cleaning in the truck and the very same card got stuck in the nozzle of the vacuum. So now I asked Ardis if she could speak with Jack about coming by, concerning a technical problem. Somehow, the look she offered back was as if she already understood.
Jack was in the shop the next morning before I opened. The computer was on and the light from the screen was nearly iridescent in the half dark of the shop on that gray morning.
He says, “What up? Everything looks fine to me.”
I sat down on the second stool behind the counter, and got right to it. “How long have you been working with George Reilly?”
There was no look of surprise. Jack just shrugs. Because he carries a lot of muscle in his shoulders, they don’t move very far, but you get the intent.
“You trust him?”
“Okay. But the Black and Tans are getting close.”
“Black and Tans?”
“Mr. Churchill’s Royal Irish Constabulary. They were sent into Ireland after the First World War to quell the Rebellion. They wore black and tan uniforms. Many of them were Irish themselves and acted as spies to infiltrate the IRA. They did a lot of damage from the inside. Mostly by spreading distrust.” I let that thought sink in. “Just don’t let anything get between you and your trust. You’re better off failing than loosing that, and they’ll be spreading the lies thick and fast.”
Jack nodded just a bit. I didn’t expect him to say much. He seldom does. But then he says, “How did you figure it out? I don’t want to be giving things away.”
“The comment about Caesar and the bones of the Republic.”
“I was reading the piece that was on Nuspeek. Did you write that?”
“It was good. You write well.”
“Thanks . . . But I’ll keep your warning in mind about the Black and Tans.”
I didn’t ask him more. It wasn’t my business, I thought. I had long before accepted the fact that he was conducting some projects of his own on my machine, but any evidence of that was always removed afterward and I was happy to exchange that allowance of time for the help he often gave me at no charge. It wasn’t my place to instruct him concerning what he did. And the less I knew about it the better, lest I slip and say something I shouldn’t to someone else.
But all of this was a real hoot. Now I knew for certain that it was my connection with Jack that stirred the hornet’s nest. And if Jack was part of that, so was Ardis.
With all that in mind, I get home and there is a small box about the size of a ream of paper in the vestibule with my name on it.
the reason for a dog
Honest cops are a lot like honest reporters. There aren’t many of them around, and they both work for naturally corrupt organizations with political agendas that otherwise fill necessary ends in a society that wants more than its willing to give in return. The question comes up, why do they do it? Comes up a lot. Like every morning when I’m drinking my coffee.
But this morning was a little different. This morning I got a call from Peter Ignatz and he tells me that they have killed George Jones.
George was one of the good ones. He was in for over twenty years, had stalled out as Lieutenant because he wouldn’t take the bribes, and should have been good for another ten, at least. Before that he had been a Marine. He could take care of himself. So they shot him in the back.
My paper is not going to assign me to the story. My editor knows George was a friend of mine. So it’s on me to do what I will. Peter understands that I understand all that.
The wisdom that can be found in a cup of coffee can be measured by the ounce. I use a pretty large mug, myself. Still, I couldn’t handle all the thoughts.
So I call over to Matty Morris, George’s old girl friend, and we have the talk. Out of respect, I would have gone over there in person but I know she has family around and she doesn’t need me in the mix. George married Talia Russell. Matty married Burt Ferris. They both had the kids they wanted, just not the same ones.
Matty answers the phone and starts crying the second she hears my voice.
All I can says is, “I’m sorry.”
She manages to say, “It’s your fault.”
“Do you know anything else yet?”
“Nothing. Peter just called and he told me. Georgie was out doing some research in the South End last night. There were a couple of shots. Likely never saw it coming. He was found by a hockey fan coming down the ramp out of the Garden. Peter is putting David Loures on it. He told me to stay away.”
“If you need anything, I still have friends in the Department.”
“I’ll let you know. Take care.”
So I had another cup of coffee to see if it would make me any smarter.
She was right, of course. It was my fault. Pretty much all of it. I’m the one who talked Georgie into staying on the force when Matty told him she wouldn’t marry him unless he quit. So it’s all on me.
I went over to see Talia then.
The kids are too young to understand what’s going on. They’re looking worried because Talia’s been crying and they go all smiles for me with the usual ‘Joe, Joe, Joe.’
Her whole family is over there. Her mother is giving me the evil eye. Her dad looks lost.
After the condolences and the hugs, Talia says, “It’s you’re fault.”
I can handle that, too. I introduced them.
Next stop was Sudbury Street and the Police station.
Whenever any cop gets killed, there is a lot of activity. I got a pass and went up to see Fred Elliot. He’s a sergeant and he’s dependable. He’s in community relations now, but he did his time on the street and he was a friend of Georgie’s.
He waves me into a chair and closes a door.
I ask, “What do they know?”
“Nothing. It was out of the blue. He was over there to talk to a ticket scalper named Larry Summers. Summers was a no-show. They have him in for questioning right now. The word is Summers was home because he got a call warning him to stay home. He didn’t even know George was looking for him. He just figured they didn’t have enough stubs to go around. Has no idea why George would want to talk to him.”
“Was George working solo.”
“Apparently. But you know the problem there. Who do you trust?”
“Sure. . . . Any clue what George was working on?”
“Somebody does. But they’re not saying. I was told to mind my own business.”
“What does your gut tell you?”
“It was professional. . . .”
“Who should I talk to?”
“You should talk to Robbie Joyce. I know he was talking to Georgie yesterday morning. I saw them. I think he’d know what was going on. But it was Robbie’s man, Shawn, that told me to mind my own business.”
Something to consider.
“As I see it, it’s likely just a matter of simple math. No calculus. Robbie Joyce is part of the task force working on the gangs. Anyone of that lot’s capable of doing something like this. Mostly it’s about the drugs. There’s some gun-running. There’s a little prostitution—but that end is mostly tied up by the locals.”
“If it was a gang hit, why do you think it was done by a pro.”
“I didn’t say it was a gang hit.”
Fred’s voice got hard. I was jumping too fast.
“Who’s in charge of the task force?”
“He’s the Mayor’s guy, isn’t he.“
I didn’t say ‘shit’ this time. It wasn’t unnecessary.
Next item on the menu was breakfast. It’s good to eat at least twice a day. It was already ten o’clock and my stomach was speaking to me loud enough to be heard by others.
It’s a cool morning. I pumped some more quarters in the meter and walked over to the old West End—what’s left of it. There’s a new place there run by a brunette who used to be a waitress over at Charlie’s on Columbus and it’s worth the walk. Lucille does not like to be called ‘Lucy,’ but she called the place ‘Lucy’s’ anyway because that’s what everyone called it once they knew. She’s very smart that way. For instance, she can’t cook. With her it’s all customer service, but she hires good cooks. And she opened the joint with her own money. I never thought about it but saving your tips can add up.
I see Lucille by the register and she’s looking very good for someone working sixteen hours a day. She’s over to me before I can get my butt on the stool.
“I’m sorry. I heard about George.”
What do you say? At least she took the silence for an answer and went away.
I told the kid behind the counter what I wanted and stared out the widow for distraction.
There was a big black curly haired dog there, probably what they call a Labradoodle mix—cute as hell—all curls and posture, and he’s tied up to the meter, sitting at attention and watching the door. With other things on my mind, I’d missed him when I came in. I looked around the restaurant trying to pick out the owner. There’s a petite woman with a laptop on her table who keeps looking up to check on him.
I’m wishing these days that I had a dog. At least it would be someone at home to talk to.
The petite woman is only a few feet away so when she looks up again I say,
“It must be hard to take care of a big dog in the city?” I know it is. I was just making small talk.
“Yeah. But it’s not mine. I got stuck with him.”
“You don’t like dogs?”
“Too much trouble. My asshole ex-boyfriend dumped him on me.”
“Too bad. . . .”And then I had one of those totally irrational thoughts. “If your boy friend doesn’t show up again, call me. I’m looking for a dog.”
I handed her my card.
I just gave that a nod. She had my card in her hand.
I ate my breakfast pretty quickly and on the way out I stopped to give the dog a little attention. It was a good dog, but maybe a little too pretty. But then again, maybe not. Guys can be pretty, I guess. Never thought about it.
So, I was up all night with the rest of this. Literally. It was dawn when I finished it and I was rather excited and even wandered over to the Paramount for breakfast out of old-time habits. But then, by the time I opened the shop, I was in a daze. I’m getting too old for these all night reading binges.
Deirdre was there soon after. I could see her walking back and forth on the sidewalk. First her shadow. Then, when she was closer, I knew it was her, even with the sun glaze on the window. I felt for her. I understood what was going on and there was nothing I could really do to help.
Finally she comes in. And stands there at the door. And waited. I was helping someone so I couldn’t really do anything right off but it gave me a chance to consider the situation a little better. The problem was, in the delirium I was feeling from lack of sleep and my own worries I was not feeling completely rational. The whole reason I read it was not just because it was good—it was plenty of that—but because I needed an escape from all the crap in my head.
I didn’t even say ‘Hi.’ I just came back to the stool behind the desk and looked back at her until she got up the nerve to speak first. I figured it was her hand to play.
“Read any good books lately?”
“Yeah. As a matter of fact, I have.”
There was a little adjustment to that face. She wasn’t sure where to go.
“Something you can recommend?”
“Sure. Something terrific! Really terrific. But you already know that, don’t you.”
Now she looks like she’s a kid looking at some natural wonder for the first time.
“Really. But you understand, I was up all night. I’m a little tired. Forgive me for not jumping up and down.”
“You had me from the beginning anyway, just because your name was on it, but I knew it was going to be a kick when you introduced the dog. Great dog. But to show you how dense I can be, I hadn’t guessed that Joe was a Josephine until that moment. A regular Joe is not going to be gushing over curly hair.”
She is still standing back at the door. Another customer came in but Deirdre stayed there by the side. Like she needed to be close to an escape.
“I guess. Did that spoil it for you? I mean, should I change that?”
“No. It was perfect. The whole damn thing is near perfect. . . . except, . . . Except Joe deserves better. I think she ought to have a boyfriend.”
She missed this entirely.
“You mean, because there’s no sex?”
At the word ‘sex,’ the customer who had just arrived, a guy, turned around in the aisle to sneak a look back at Deidre.
“No. There doesn’t need to be any sex. That’s fine the way it is. But she’s a sympathetic character and I think a reader might want to imagine a little back story if they’re going to put themselves in her shoes.”
She nods a moment at that.
“Did you have it figured out before the end?”
“Yeah. About three pages before the end. You had me all the way. The dog was a great McGuffin, though. Looking for the missing boyfriend was a natural. I knew he couldn’t be too bad because the dog was so good. So naturally, I assumed it was the girlfriend. I mean, who doesn’t like dogs, and especially that dog. But then that whole thing turned into a good surprise too. It made some of the grimy police work around George’s murder more bearable. A good touch.”
“You liked it.”
“Yes. I liked it a lot. Only now I’m thinking that I really want a dog.”
Now listen. This is important.
In his Inquiry Into the Human Mind on the Principles of Common Sense, Thomas Reid approaches knowledge from the points of origin in the senses, and in the manner of Aristotle, taking each in turn: ‘of smelling,’ ‘of Hearing,’ ‘of Touch,’ ‘of Seeing;’ but in doing this he pulls off that admirable trick of conflating the meaning of ‘Common Sense,’ as in sound and practical judgement, with the empirical data we are each most familiar with through the use of our noses, ears, skin, and eyes.
I say trick, not to be critical but in praise. He is a magician most happily willing to reveal his methods. The result is non-the-less marvelous. He has therein founded philosophy not in the abstract, but upon the practical and useful, something to be handy to our daily lives, and not the exclusive province of assumed intellectuals who know better.
It was in this way that Reid took on the work of his fellow Scotsman, the moral philosopher Francis Hutcheson (by way of Ulster and Ireland), establishing the primacy of the individual in any civil society—of self consciousness and self awareness, of a sense of beauty and internal pleasure, a public sense and an awareness of the happiness of others, a moral sense and judgment of our own actions, a sense of honor that gives us pleasure from praise or pain from the condemnation of those we respect, and a sense of the ridiculous and of good humor, not withstanding other palpable senses of our our existence. And it was thus that Reid and Hutcheson made possible the most elegant phrase in our language: “We hold these Truths to be self-evident, that all Men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness—“ because of all those particulars, the one that each of us has the most authority over is our own happiness. But it was Reid who more especially built the logic of a free society upon our individual sense of right and wrong and the need to hone that awareness and maintain it. Where Hutcheson thought there was some innate sense of good and bad, Reid placed himself whole heartedly in the camp of individual responsibility for our actions based upon our common sense, and thus the need for a good education and proper home life were paramount. Where their contemporary Hobbs turned a jaundiced eye on his fellow man, believing self interest to be the root of all human action, Reid saw that there was as great a motivation in our efforts to please others for whom we cared. However, the key here to both is that individual human action must be free in order to reveal itself, else it is only imitation and mimicry and thus counterfeit. And, in that, you will find the source of thinking that guided David Hume and Adam Smith as well as the Founding Fathers.
So this is where I am. Two hundred years later. It seems I am responsible for all this. Everything!
This is just the sort of stuff I’ve been pushing all my life! What good is it? I don’t even have a dog! I live alone in a basement. I garden in boxes. My children don’t know me. My ex-wife wishes she hadn’t. I sell books very few people want and compound that by writing books no one wants. I am an anachronism! A prolepsis after the fact, a solecism of history, a chronological error, a calendared metachronism, antiquated if not archaic, at least out-of-date, outmoded, perhaps ancient, and nearly antedluvian, certainly bygone and no better than a stiff parrot in a Monty Python sketch, passe, superseded, unfashionable, stale, outworn, old-school, old-hat, a dinosaur, a fossil, extinct, gone, had it, dusty, done for, disused, and worse. There are a lot more words that apply, but I’ve had enough. I’m kaput.
I have asked a dozen people in the last year—likely more because I’ve lost track—if they knew who Thomas Reid was. Not as some sort of experiment. Just for practical reasons. I wanted to make him a character in a play with Benjamin Franklin. I thought it would be fine to watch them interact—the heady Scottish philosopher who could think in Latin and Greek and the American icon of common sense. At the library, for instance. And in other bookshops. Always in the course of a conversation about the philosophies of the Founding Fathers. That’s a conversation I have pretty frequently. . . . But no one—not even one—person has come close. The librarian wondered if I meant the fellow who was the father on the Brady Bunch television show. A retiring philosophy professor at Tufts that I met when I was buying his books asked me if it was a trick question. It appears there is another professor running around with that name. So you see, I am at a loss. I am pursuing the thought of a man who changed the world, and nobody noticed. Well. they did in his own time and for a hundred years after, but he is forgotten today, as are all the principles of reason that he lived for.
What good is it that?
There is a reason for having a dog.
I don’t mean those nervous canine lap-cats so common in the city. I refused to let Margaret get one of those for the kids—she actually brought one home once and I brought it back, in spite of a protest of tears and wailing from the kids. Better that they have a doggie ideal than one of those. Margaret just reduced her estimate of me by another notch. Our apartment was large but not large enough for a real dog.
I need a dog now like the one I had when I was a kid.
Dogs are full of common sense.
Knocking Wilson around
whilst castaway on an island of no return
One in a thousand Americans knows who James Wilson was. Compare that to James Madison—I would guess our fourth President and erstwhile ‘Father of the Constitution’ is known to about one in five, mostly for having a buxom wife named Dolly (such are the muddles of time). Thomas Jefferson is likely known to about one in three, and not because of the two dollar bill, but for assumptions of a calumnious affair and for having ‘written’ the Declaration of Independence. George Washington likely registers with at least one in two for being the first President and commander of the American victory against Britain in the Revolution, but mostly because of all those bothersome ones. These figures are conjecture based upon experience. I have never polled, surveyed, quizzed, or tested. But if I err, in this age of public school miseducation and progressive pedagogics, it is likely for having given too much credit. On the few occasions when I have asked a customer—mind you, my customers are well above average intellectually, if I do say so myself—a question such as, “do you think there ought to be limits on the First Amendment,” I usually get a blank look and a question in return.
“I asked you first. . . . Any limit at all.”
“I don’t know. What d you think?”
“But I was asking you. . . .”
“Remind me again, which one is the first amendment?”
This example is true. And from that anecdote multiplied over thirty years, I extrapolate my surmise concerning James Wilson, that one in a thousand would know who the man was.
Well, for one thing, he was against the addition of the Bill of Rights to the Constitution. His reasoning went something like this—the Constitution is the Bill of Rights. Those guarantees of our freedoms are in the very fabric of the document itself. Enumerating them and particularizing them will only reduce them, or debase the Constitution itself, or both.
James Wilson was right, of course. Most people—that is ninety-nine out of a hundred by my self-agreed calculation, have no idea what’s in the Constitution other than that Bill of Rights—and they would have trouble relating more than a few of those. The Constitution has not been taught in our public schools for several generations. How is the citizenry supposed to know anything about it? They’re busy trying to earn enough to take care of their families and pay the taxes leveed by an ungovernable and unconstitutional government. But Wilson was often correct about such matters. As a land speculator he was a fool. But as lawyer, he was a genius. As a philosopher he was a sage. As a politician he was savvy. And as an author, he was a poet.
The illiteracy of modern Americans is embarrassing and good enough reason for the collapse of the Republic in our time, but in Wilson’s moment, well before public schools had become an instrument of social engineering and social ordering that reduced the population to approximate masses good only for paying taxes and fighting wars, or levying the taxes and choosing the wars, Wilson could deliver lectures to public audiences in support of the ratification of that neglected Constitution that he had helped compose, with oration rife with the sophistication of historical reference and grammatical allusion, and know that he would be understood.
The fact that Wilson is so much forgotten today is a testament to the fact that he is not easily caricatured. Born and raised in Scotland, he chose to move to Pennsylvania and, through furthering his own education and family making, he had gone beyond the mere learning of the law to the understanding of it, to comprehend a philosophy of jurisprudence and government that made him indispensable to the founding fathers who joined with him in the rejection of Royal authority. He was a man of honor, a product of the Scottish Enlightenment, and not unlike anyone else in the Congress of the time. He was one of only six, along with fellow Pennsylvanians Benjamin Franklin, to sign both the Declaration of independence and the Constitution he had helped to write. For his wisdom, Washington appointed him to the very first supreme court. But like I say, he is all but forgotten today.
James Wilson is important to me as one of the few libertarians of his time. There were conservatives aplenty. And liberals. But few who understood the necessary supremacy of the individual in the ordering of things. Then, as today, conservatives are fundamentally Whigs, followers of Edmund Burke, and believe all rights come ultimately from the King—or Parliament, whatever the nomenclature authority is given. Liberals believe all rights derive from society—that is in practice, government itself. The difference to some is a matter of parsing. Wilson was in the minority of those who understand that our liberties must originate with the individual ‘lest government have no governing.’
In that it is conducted by quite fallible human being, government is naturally corruptible, and must be leashed. If left unfettered, every evil imaginable by purposeful power or stupidity will manifest itself. Alternatively, kept in bounds by a constitution, government may be harnessed to the good. But a constitution is only as good as the knowledge of the citizenry.
After watching the excellent movie, Castaway, I was deeply depressed. The whole experience became, in my mind, an exercise in metaphor. I couldn’t sleep that night. Most especially this melancholy was felt when the hero, Chuck Noland, having conjured ‘Wilson,’ the companion he needed to survive his ordeal, from a volley ball, then loses him in his attempt to escape, and later returns home at last from this four year hardship to discover that his true love has married another.
Margaret and I were still married at that point, but our marriage was pretty much a lost cause. Neither of us were sure how to handle it. The final moments of the movie Castaway, after most of two hours on a remote island in the Pacific, take place amidst the vast plains of north Texas, when Noland chooses the right road to take. This resonated with another unforgotten film moment from North by Northwest that was, by contrast, filled with an opposite menace. Happily, I realized then that I had not become cynical enough to reject such an ending for Chuck Noland. But my only Wilson at that point in my life was myself—as I imagined myself to be. So I spoke to him.
Many, especially conservatives themselves, see libertarianism as a cousinry to that political faith. This is primarily due to an abuse and confusion of the concepts of ‘natural law’ and ‘natural right.’ We can leave that lecture aside for the moment, but it should always be pointed out whenever possible that wanting your liberty and having it too, whether from a king or a republic, if you are still expecting it to be given to you, it is not yours to start with. Taking liberties is the phrase to understand. I see more in common between liberals and conservatives than I do with any viable libertarian philosophy.
A veritable husband of imperfections
with a virtual wifeful of corrections
I wrote this a few years ago: ‘He was a virtual husband of cute imperfections and she a veritable wife of helpful corrections. When first they met and fell in love, they lived together happily enough, until married, and only then found the weight of the actual contract too heavy a burden for either of them to bear; his endearing defects became untenable to live with and the scorn of her complaints left him weary. She was not so very virtuous, and he was imperfectible. He wanted verity, and she needed variety. Their divorce was inevitable.’
There was no need, I suppose, to hide behind a third person, but later I even changed the wording to make the writing more comfortable. I was, of course, the veritable husband of imperfections and Margaret a wifeful of corrections. I was a husband of too many faults and Margaret too fond of pointing them out. That much could not be argued. Had the marriage survived, that much would still be true. On a social scale, she is very much the superior woman: smart, witty, generally kind and generous, reasonably ambitious, matter of fact, capable, rational, and not least, very good looking. And I was never happy with her.
True, I was in love and blind to my unhappiness for some time. I still love her. I care that she is happier now than she was. She is the mother of my children and I want her to be happy for their sake if for nothing else. And I suppose she should be forgiven for her mistake in marrying me. I might have cut a romantic figure in those days. At least at first. The struggling author and idealistic bookseller could have touched some chord. Remember, she did want to be a poet in those days. She wrote poetry in the style of the time: staccato, oblique, repetitious, redundant. It was self consciously Objectivist, taking care to follow her religion of choice and never admit to ignorance through ambiguity. I tried not to be critical, but likely my very silence was worse. Then again, she never had a great deal to say about my stories either. After those first years of being together, why did she marry me? She had to know by then that I was the fellow I am. It’s just the sort of puzzle that has driven the plot of several books, I’ll admit.
To my knowledge, she was never unfaithful during our marriage. More, it was a matter of being faithless—as in always skeptical, always doubting.
I was not allowed to fail. Her father didn’t want it. She didn’t want it—meaning the bookshop of course—My writing was assumed to be a failure from the first. A foolishness of youth.
“Why couldn’t I write something more marketable,” her Dad said once. But she never did. She just didn’t talk about it—no. That isn’t true either. She did make remarks. Usually in the manner of a sniper from a thousand yards away. “We can take the vacation in June. You won’t be busy then,” while knowing I was in the middle of a novel that wouldn’t be close to finished until September.
Had the bookshop gone under as it might have done a dozen times, we could have moved to—take your pick—a dozen possibilities come to mind from the places we had visited over those years: Bloomington, Indiana; Taos, New Mexico; Charlottesville, Virginia; Bellingham, Washington; Grove City, Pennsylvania; Brunswick, Maine; Missoula, Montana; Davidson, North Carolina; Hillsdale, Michigan; Laramie, Wyoming; Sewanee, Tennessee. Maybe only eleven. But I might have opened another bookshop in any one of them and made a living—a more modest living perhaps, but sufficient. The financial demands of Boston or New York were always prohibitive of the sort of non-bestseller bookselling I was willing to do.
In the end, I was either unwilling to run away from myself, or like Thoreau, too willing to forgive myself for my faults. And too, it has long been my argument that marriage is the basic template of society. It is the smallest fractal of the larger whole. If my marriage was unhappy, so must be the world. And that this success or failure is determined by two elements alone: imagination and empathy.
This then turns out to be something of a philosophy. Flailing about for some steady ground in those days after my divorce, I turned to that. I suppose it was that, rather than something else, because too much booze gives me a terrible headache.
And there are not so many philosophers I will read more than ounce. One or two. I think, because the most of them give me a headache. Most of them had peons to peel them a grape when needed and, like Marcus Aurelius, were inexhaustible founts of advice for the upper classes. They didn’t have much truck for the slaves. That is true both East and West. Buddha certainly seems fat and happy—but where did his food come from? I have already killed too many flies to want a part in the great Hindu cycle of life. And much of that is too fierce for my timid soul in any case.
Besides, I have long consoled myself with the hypocrisy of Thoreau, even though he was a bachelor. So I turned to him.
Criticism of Henry David Thoreau would fill many many shelves. I have always had a few of those in the shop, and after another bout with Walden (I even have the annotated copy of the Norton Critical Edition I used then, next to me now) I began to write one of my own pans some years ago before I realized I was wanting to swim in a pond already warmed by the pee of others. After the fact, what is the point? So, he was a hypocrite. Immodest. Incompetent. At least he was brilliant. So, he was often wrong, at least he ventured to be right. So he lied—frequently—don’t we all. And he seldom lied in order to hurt others, though he often wrote his hurtful thoughts out with the innocence of a child observing the size of a fat man’s belly or a hag’s nose. I don’t know of him purposely damaging anyone. After the fact, his sin was putting his lies on paper where they could be held up to the light. (Did he not guess this would happen?) So he was a braggart, he did do so many extraordinary things; things that few men would ever imagine, much less accomplish: walking the length of Cape Cod, hiking the eastern wilderness to Katahdin, rowing the Concord and Merrimack rivers to the sea; but still, a hell of a lot of walking. He was a wonderful writer—one of the best of his age. He said of Katahdin, “This was that Earth of which we have heard, made out of Chaos and Old Night. Here was no man’s garden, but the unhandseled globe.” And most importantly, he was an original thinker. Too impatient to throughly study the wisdom of the ages, or yet be content with the study alone, as so many are, and quite apart from the maundering of his dear friend Emerson, he jumpt to his own conclusions and was often right or at least in the right direction. That is, ‘jumpt’ as in leapt.
I say hypocrite.
“The ancient philosophers, Chinese, Hindoos, Persian, and Greek, were a class than which none has been poorer in outward riches, none so rich inward. We know not much bout them. It is remarkable that we know so much as we do. The same is true of the more modern reformers and benefactors of their race. None can be an impartial or wise observer of human life but from the vantage ground of what we should call voluntary poverty . . .” said by a man who was never truly poor, ever willing to live off the fruits of others, but had admitted his ignorance of the lives of other philosophers while adjudging them to be poor—I suppose in the same way as he saw himself.
I say immodest.
“I should not talk about myself if there were any body else whom I knew so well. Unfortunately I am confined to this theme by the narrowness of my experience.” ‘Nough said.
I said incompetent. Read his own testimony about the living conditions in his immortal cabin. Drafty, cold, leaky, pest ridden—but wouldn’t you give a great tooth to spend one night with him there. He was an indifferent carpenter, or worse. He was an unwilling farmer, an unreliable pencil maker, and a poor friend. Perhaps that is the poor he had meant to admit of himself. Though he always lived from the generosity of others, he never managed a sufficient wealth to help anyone other than himself. Except, of course, with words.
“In any weather, at any hour of the day or night, I have been anxious to improve the nick of time, and notch it on my stick too; to stand on the meeting of two eternities, the past and the future, which is precisely the present moment; to toe the line.”
What better admission to purpose in life is there?
“The cost of a thing is the amount of what I will call life which is required to be exchanged for it, immediately or in the long run.” There! All those heavy volumes on economics reduced to a single sentence!
“It’s not what you look at that matters, it’s what you see.” Art in one lesson.
`”As a single footstep will not make a path of the earth, so a single thought will not make a pathway in the mind. To make a deep physical path, we must walk again and again. To make a deep mental path, we must think over and over the kind of thoughts we wish to dominate our lives.” Is this what might be missing from education in our time.
“If a man does not keep pace with his companions, perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer. Let him step to the music which he hears, however measured or far away.” Isn’t this the essence of my own libertarian nature?
And, “Truths and roses have thorns about them.”
You cannot read Thoreau quickly, lest you miss his greatest virtues as well his faults. In both instances, it changes your own mind.
As is so often the case, the Greeks got there first. Perhaps not always exactly or correctly, but at least in spirit. I think it might have been the hard soil and the marble benches. The togas could not have helped. Better to get on with it than linger.
The seven liberal arts, as set out in ancient thought as the keys to education, are grammar, logic, and rhetoric, enhanced by arithmetic, geometry, music, astronomy. Building a home, for instance, might require several of those elements. (Thoreau had most likely skipped those classes at Harvard so as to study the butterflies on the Charles.) In ancient Greece, every free person was expected to take part in civic life through the conducting one’s own affairs, which would necessarily require debate, the ability to defend oneself in court (there were no lawyers), serve on juries, and participate in military service.
But a missing element in those requirements that I find interesting is the skill of agriculture. My guess is that animal husbandry and the growing of food stuffs was a given (It was certainly oft disparaged by Thoreau as needless toil, as he sat watching) and an assumed chore for every person to survive—especially the slaves. But this omission troubles me in the same way that most philosophies do: a grand order is envisioned without recognizing the nature of the human beings who must abide by it. We must eat. We must drink. Some philosophies will address one aspect or another of our human traits, but few will propound their tenets based on what is—though more usually envisioning what should be.
Yet, all of these were skills that would not have been missed even by Carl Barks in the ‘Junior Woodchucks Guidebook.’ And I have often wondered if that illusory enchiridion of human wisdom had as much intellectual allure to me as anything Thoreau ever wrote. Simply for wanting it to be. Wanting it to be. And isn’t that the point? Didn’t I spend as much time reading comic books in my youth as I did reading philosophy in College? Which had the greater influence?
One of my favorite philosophers for all of this is Thomas Reid. The Scottish Enlightenment produced most of my favorite philosophers in fact, but he is special. Reid alone—to my knowledge, since the time of Aristotle—attempted to see philosophy as the outgrowth of human characteristics—the senses. He builds his castle of reason then with the hard stone of human physical limits. He is the source of much of my own thinking on these matters and deserves all credit but no blame for any enlightenment I might have found.
Another favorite of mine is Robert Nozick. He was a regular customer in our bookshop, and a friend, and even a counsel. I wish he had lived longer for many reasons, but more so because he was uniquely open to a change of mind—to good argument. Too many philosophers are dogmatic, as if all of what can be known is known and the limits are set. I became acquainted with Nozick soon after he published Anarchy, State and Utopia, when he was a professor at Harvard and already carrying the weight of his success, yet he stood in the aisles of my little shop and debated Locke and Hume with me. (The thrill of that is still felt.) It was just this openness that meant that his views were amendable over time, but not his willingness to reason. I would love to ask his opinion of my thesis.
Reid too was an open thinker and his influence on the likes of Francis Hutcheson and Adam Smith was great and can be seen in the foundations of our civil society to this day. But without the bona fides of a Reid or a Nozick, I would like to put forward a philosophical theory of my own that I think is useful, and different, and perhaps even enlightening.
It is my conjecture that there are actually seven senses of perception, not five, as assumed. I propose that a recognition of the two that I add to taste, touch, smell, hearing and sight are just as essential to human life and are keyed to the very same nervous system and brain that make the other five possible. Simply described, the two additional senses are imagination and empathy.
My opinion here is that it is the acuteness of these additional senses that has made human society possible, and the physical need to protect the values identified by all our senses that makes a civil society necessary and gives meaning to philosophy itself.
Without imagination, the five basic senses are essentially no better than reactions to the light, heat, sound, acidity, and contact (or the opposite and/or variation in each case—such as the feeling of music vibration). Imagination is the sense of those perceptions brought together in any combination and identified, a common faculty shared to one degree or another by all creatures, but so far ignored as such. (It is cold outside and therefore I imagine I should put on my coat before I leave or else find myself chilled. And of course, this grows quickly to more sophisticated thought such as, I think I’ll stay home instead and write a novel.) Even sea otters show imagination in opening abalone shells with specific rocks.
Empathy is the sharing of our senses with others. As a creature of a specific nature, we are ill prepared to survive without social behavior. If we share our knowledge with others, we enhance our own value. If, as an individual, we are constrained in our perceptions, our value to others is reduced. Moreover, recent studies have even identified regions of the brain devoted to empathy and noted that a lack of capacity in those areas seems to correlate with sociopathic behavior.
To take the last matter first, as it is key to the rest: the reason individual freedom is so important is that we each serve as a validation for the experience of others, much the same as an independent replication of results is necessary to scientific method. If our senses are impaired, so is the result. And empathy is greatly enhanced by our various forms of communication: speech, writing, even winking. If what we say or write or wink is restricted by custom or law, we are reducing the result of each individual test in our lives. Certainly the degree of freedom can be questioned and some guidelines or restriction made necessary by physical circumstance (watering a lawn during a drought is an example), but it must be understood that restriction has consequences. Worse, by forcing a society to accept only certain kinds of knowledge, as happens with certain religions, we can create the sort of mass hysteria that causes conflict with other societies. Thus, empathy is important for both negative and positive reasons in our actions. The insanity of some cultures is well explained by their restrictions on sharing knowledge.
Imagination too is dependent on individual freedom. If that faculty is proscribed or confined, our understanding of the universe around us is equally closed. If we are not allowed to fully perceive what our other senses offer us to know, the real world is not ours. Reality is defined by our senses—and the truth of those results is confirmed by experience. We burn our finger poking at the fire—we imagine a stick to poke with. Imagination then is essentially our natural reaction to our senses, without which they are relatively meaningless.
Reason is a tool, like the sea otter’s rock, first imagined by some long lost genius of the human past, for relating through the tool of language what we have perceived with our senses. Because reality exists with or without us—it is what it is—we must accurately portray what we perceive in order to have a common experience with others. Reason makes that possible. The interaction with other individuals allows us to confirm our perceptions and thus imagine practical uses for that knowledge, using reason, or math, or logic. Empathy opens us to ways to share our knowledge and establish relationships with others. Our senses as human beings are useless without both.
It is this reasoning that is my mainstay now. I am not alone in this, I know. I have Thoreau at my side to help me make my mistakes and muddle through. Because my own enchiridion is too short to serve my purposes, I turn to him, and to Robert Nozick.
Robert asked me once, when I had complained about the weight of things at the time, “What is important to you? Do you have a clean sense of what is important?”
“I did,” I said, “but on second thought those things don’t not seem so valuable to me now.”
“What is important to you, particularly?”
“To write,” I said. (My children were grown by then and this was in the midst of my divorce, you understand).
“Your stories,” he asked?
“No. Not the stories exactly. I’d like them to be important, but I can’t make that be. That’s for other’s to judge. No. It’s the act of writing itself,” I said. “The writing of the words for a purpose that matters to me.”
“Then take that as your key. There might be others, but you have at least that one to use.”
But I knew that already! I had made that choice before! A hundred times before. It was at the heart of why Margaret had given up on me at last. In the end, the writing was more important. The shop was more important.
And isn’t philosophy, most essentially, a guide to what is important?
Beyond the age of reason
wherein love is lost and found
Has our Thirty Years’ War only just begun, or has it ended long since and the news simply not yet arrived via a slow internet connection? I have often felt that way about history—in my youth especially. In those days the various socialist religions had long been at odds, much as the Catholics and Protestants of the Reformation once were—Christian killing Christian, with one Wallenstein after another rising in the ranks: Lenin and Stalin, Mussolini and Hitler, Mao or Khrushchev, Fidel and Che. From 1918 to 1989, this bloodletting had been an endless seventy years, more than twice the length of the key Reformation conflict, but a hundred times more deadly if mere lives are counted. Mere human lives, you understand, unlived. But then again, there are those who believe the Reformation never ended. And I see all of that in the troubled eyes of some students today.
Why do I carry this book, or that, they ask? Their professor has reliably informed them that it is evil. Don’t I know that he is a nazis and she is a fascist? By which they mean, he thinks everyone is different, and she believes someone has a right to say what they please, no matter how unpleasant. There is no attempt to reconcile the objective with the motive. Few of them know what a ‘nazis’ actually was, though many of their father’s died to stop those creatures. Fewer still understand what a fascist is, because they seldom if ever look to themselves for blame.
How many died in Stalin’s purges? That doesn’t matter! How many more died in Mao’s cultural revolution? That’s not the point! Exactly what did Adolf Hitler think he was going to accomplish? Don’t change the subject! You should not be selling that book!
This then was the disdain for human life you’d commonly find in the political tracts of my early age, with people classified as bourgeoisie, or proletariat, blue collar or intellectual, rich or poor, male or female. It didn’t matter. The theories were all the same in the end.
One of those thinkers I didn’t especially like early on was Elias Canetti, who wrote Crowds and Power. He was a prick, and a dilettante, and a prime example of mid-Twentieth Century European self-supposed intellectual smugness (having successfully destroyed several hundred million other lives in there pursuit of a pan-Europa, they and their superior insight had somehow survived) but then, I suppose, even Elias Canetti had a few good things to say. This is my favorite of those: “It is always the enemy who started it, even if he was not the first to speak out, he was certainly planning it; and if he was not actually planning it, he was thinking of it; and, if he was not thinking of it, he would have thought of it.” Unwittingly (as I am sure that bile, not wit, was one of Canetti’s main strengths) he has captured the Orwellian mindset of the modern progressive of the early Twenty-first Century, whether in Cambridge, England, or Cambridge, Massachusetts.
Their fear was, and is, nationalism, not government—a larger and more powerful government was the answer to nationalist bickering, no matter how often it was tried before. They’ll get it right this time! Nationalism is divisive. It breeds discontent. Everyone is the same, after all, so they deserve the same government, whether they like it or not. And exactly what government is that? One that insures equality, of course. One that can enforce equality!
But it was this bit of wisdom from Mr. Canetti that kept me from placing blame, you see. And this was infuriating as well, especially to those who wanted another body to whip, because, “It is always the enemy who started it, even if he was not the first to speak out, he was certainly planning it; and if he was not actually planning it, he was thinking of it; and, if he was not thinking of it, he would have thought of it.”
When I next saw Jack, I took the opportunity of telling him about Deirdre’s request. It seemed simple enough. She wanted to talk to George. An interview with the head of a rebellion would be worth something to her editor, and to her as well, just for the politically prurient interest I suppose, if not the educational value. Oddly, Jack found this a little amusing.
I said, “She’d just like to get a statement from the leader of the ‘group’ as she called it, about your intentions and objectives. Nothing elaborate. The FBI knows you exist. Because of my getting hung-up in it, now everyone knows you exist, I suppose. Maybe it would make some sense to offer a straightforward explanation of purpose at this point, maybe just to counter the stupid press releases from the FBI.”
Jack doesn’t hesitate. “Sure.”
“You think George will be okay with talking to her?”
His assurance was not satisfying. It seemed too easy.
I bluffed. “Somehow I thought he might.”
“Just tell her he’ll give a call at the paper and set something up.”
He’s still smiling so I have to ask. “What’s up? What’s so funny?”
“You and Miss Roberts. You’re a hoot.”
“That’s one of Ardis’s expressions.”
“She told me she picked it up from you.”
Nonetheless, Deirdre showed up at the shop the next morning, pokes her head in the door and says, “Can we meet for lunch?”
Only one question. “Where?”
“That first place we went. Meet you there at two?”
I immediately picked up on the fact that she was being circumspect, but I did not really know the half of it until later.
She appeared to be quite excited when I first arrived at the deli. Effervescent I’d say. Right off, she orders a couple of hot pastramis on dark rye, pays for them both along with some Dr. Browns, and I follow her to her car. She then drives over to a little park a few blocks away. There, she spreads our bounty out on a bench seat between us, wax paper held down against the breezes by pickles at all corners, and despite the sun, her baby blues are wide practically the whole time.
“So he calls me at the paper yesterday and asks me to meet him at The Boyne. You know. The tavern just around the corner from the newspaper. But once I’m in there I get a call on the bar-phone and he wants to meet me up at Dorchester Heights instead. Right by the monument. Do I know where that is, he asks? And I tell him I just live a few blocks away. My guess is that the watchful eyes of the FBI have gotten more plentiful. Then again, it was a great day out and maybe George just wanted a little fresh air. The Boyne can get pretty stuffy.”
I noted the use of his first name. She lets that sit in my mind as she starts to eat. She is obviously making a nice little play out of the whole thing.
“So what happened then?”
“So he’s standing by the base of the monument when I get up there, leaning back against the granite with his eyes closed, getting some sun. Very relaxed. Not what I expected. A very trim looking fellow. Better looking than I guessed he would be. I’d say handsome. And he has a little drawl. I think he’s from someplace down South.”
“You never told me before that you knew that!”
I tried shrugging that omission away, but I did not say anything.
She nodded a little. “But I would have guessed it was Texas. And he has that calm deep voice. Very nice. You remember years ago, that was the kind of voice you’d hear on the radio or on the TV News. Not any more. They’re all whiny now. But maybe that’s just the news these days anyway. All complaints and disaster, all the time.”
I admit I’m a little concerned at this point, especially with her making the same connections from the sound of his voice that I had always made. “So what did George have to say for himself?”
“He didn’t talk about himself. I really have to ask again if you know anything more about him than you’ve already told me. Anything you’d forgotten. Like the fact that he’s from Texas.”
“Nothing. And I didn’t mention Texas.”
She gave me a brief and doubtful squint at that comment, and then continues, “So the first thing Mr. Reilly does, before he even opens his eyes to look at me face to face, like he’s been watching me through the slits the whole way up, is say, ‘Look around,’ and I do. And he says, ‘What do you see?’ and I say, ‘I don’t see any FBI, if that’s what you mean. I see a couple of kids from the High School over there near the azaleas, smoking cigarettes. And he says, ‘No. All around.’ So I say, ‘Houses.’ And he says, ‘That’s right. Triple-deckers and Victorian townhouses and brick apartment buildings—and the school, of course, all the way around.’ And then he opened those brown eyes of his—very nice brown eyes—warm I’d say—and he looks at me with a very serious frown. A very cute frown the way the wrinkle dip at the ends. He’s not wearing a ring so I’m guessing he’s not married, but he’s much too cute to be single. Especially at his age. What? 45?”
I had to shake my head at that. She had overplayed her hand and we both know she’s trying too hard. “Really?”
Deidre says, “Yes. He is!” she waves off my tone of voice. I’m finally getting the idea now. She’s just trying to get a reaction out of me. “And then he asks me, ‘Do you know what this place is?’ And I say, ‘Sure.’ And he says. ‘Good.’ But then he tells me a story about when he first came to Boston and drove up there looking for Dorchester Heights. He tells me he’s a bit of a history buff, and couldn’t believe that this was it. There was no sign on the fence at the time. Not down on the street. And, he wasn’t even in Dorchester, so what was that all about? He stops a guy by the curb right there, walking his dog, and he asks him, what is this monument for, and the guys tells him, it’s some kind of monument, but he’s not sure. Can you believe that? Here is this giant granite erection that the guy is walking around everyday with his dog and he doesn’t know why the hell it’s there! Your friend George stands up straight then and looks me in the eye to tell me he is being absolutely serious about all this and there’s a reason he’s telling me. He says ‘So I asked the guy with the dog, if he’s sure he doesn’t know what the monument is for? Maybe he’s just a local putting the country rube on a bit. And the guy says, no, but he speculates it’s probably for a war. Maybe the Civil War.’ And so George asks him, if he knows the area pretty well because he was looking for something in particular. And the guy says that he ought to—he was born a few blocks away and went to high school right next door!”
Deirdre nodded at the revelation and sat back again to eat almost half her pastrami. She practically inhaled it while she nods her head as if agreeing with some inner testimony.
I ask, “So is George working as a tour guide now?”
She lets that slide, “He says, ‘You know, that’s the whole problem in a nutshell. People don’t know where they come from anymore, or why they’re there. Most people. You ask and they say South Boston, or whatever, but they really don’t know. They don’t know who they are. And not just in South Boston. Everywhere.’ He tells me most people have lost touch with the very stuff that made the world they live in possible. The things that still make it work even now. And they don’t teach that kind of stuff in high school anymore, either. Not at the school that’s sitting right on top of one of the most important places in the country, or anywhere else for that matter. And their fathers and grandfathers obviously didn’t learn much of that in their turn. Maybe a little, but certainly not enough to want to pass it on. And that’s why they thought it was just fine to build a bunch of houses and apartments all around this place so you can’t see any of what George Washington or Henry Knox once saw during the siege of Boston.”
Deirdre shook her head and ate another bit or two. I’m enjoying the sun and just listened. At least I was learning something about George Reilly.
Deirdre says, “It seemed to me he was on a roll and I didn’t say a word to any of this. But now I’m thinking he is some kind of ‘Tea Party’ type. And then he says, ‘Take all that as a kind of living metaphor, if you will. The entire country is that way. We’re living as well as we do by the good graces of a bunch of men who’ve been dead for almost two hundred years. It was a great push-off, but the momentum has finally run down.’ ”
Margaret was looking right at me then. All I could say to that was “Sounds about right to me.”
She says, “Your Mr. Reilly thinks he’s a goddamned patriot!”
I didn’t think there was any doubt about that. “I think so too. Probably the ‘goddamned’ part as well. It’s not a politically correct state of mind these days.”
“And he actually has the cockamamie idea that he’s going to change things.”
“Nice word, ‘cockamamie.’ ”
“You used that word on me the first time I ever had a conversation with you.”
“When was that?”
“Longer ago than I want to remember.”
“Why do you remember it then?”
“I don’t know. You remember some things. You told me I should read George Eliot instead of Nora Roberts. I told you that I’ve read George Eliot. But I can’t read Middlemarch and keep my sanity. I needed to escape all the bullshit and misery every once and awhile, and I refuse to watch TV. There has to be a little love in the equation somewhere. A little passion.”
“What did I say to that?”
“You said that was cockamamie.”
I certainly would have said it. It was just stupid enough. But I couldn’t remember the conversation.
“I don’t think I was referring to the passion when I said it. I was probably still just trying to dump some feces on on the facile Miss Roberts.”
Deirdre sits up, obviously re-offended by my implication of long ago. “Why do you sell her then. You certainly have a whole lot of romance novels for someone who looks down his nose at it. You’re a hypocrite!”
“You’re right. Selling them bothers me. It’s like soft-core porn. But Margaret used to read them too and it was my way of trying to be broadminded, so to speak. Being snotty wasn’t going to make things any easier. And they account for about ten percent of our fiction sales, with all those snooty Beacon Hill types sneaking down for a fix. So it’s hard to get rid of them now and still pay the rent.”
“That’s compromising, isn’t it?”
“Yes. Sure. But it’s not a moral appeasement. It’s not a matter of right or wrong. Jane Austen wrote romances. So did the Brontes. And Henry James. It’s just a matter of taste. . . . So did George tell you anything more than just how ignorant people are these days? You’ve been getting enough of that from me, haven’t you?”
She readjusted herself to the question.
“Yes. He told me he had no manifesto. No declaration of grievances. He actually said, ‘That was all done before, by smarter men than me.’ So I asked him, what was he trying to accomplish then. How was his little rebellion going to work? He tells me, “What he is doing now is simply helping to open up communication with others who agree with him. If everyone who felt as he did knew they were not alone and could communicate freely with one another without interference from the government, that would be half the battle. ‘Right now,’ he says, ‘all of that’s controlled by the bureaucrats who benefit from it, and by people like you.’ ” The baby-blues flash beneath the arch of her eyebrows. “ME! He looked me right in the eye when he said it. He says, ‘It’s not much different than it was two hundred and thirty years ago when the Crown controlled the news. Most people just don’t give a damn and never will. It was the same way then. That hasn’t changed either. Most people will happily live off the fat of the land, as long as they can, whomever’s in power.’ And then he says—and remember, he’s looking me in the face the whole time—that the Boston Post was part of the tyranny. And that I was part of it as well.” Her shoulders go up as if to say she didn’t know what to say. “I objected, of course. I pointed out that I was there, talking to him, wasn’t I? . . . Just like I did to you once. Remember? But he says ‘That’s incidental,’and just ‘entertainment for the cynical.’ God, he even sounds like you sometimes. He says that the FBI is just hoping that I’ll end up leading them to him—that I was just ‘the staked goat.’ I like that. I’m the goat, now. But he said they’d eventually track him down, anyway. ‘They have all the means. All the resources they want,’ he said. ‘The only thing standing in their way was their own incompetence.’ So, I asked him then what he was willing to do if he was caught. I was thinking about guns, of course. And he shrugs and says, ‘Go to jail. Like Thoreau once did. I’d be honored for the spiritual company.’ Now, Michael, I’ll admit I did not remember about Thoreau, so I looked that up last night when I got home. Do you know about that?”
Now, Thoreau going to jail to protest the Mexican war is a good story and I’m a little sorry Deirdre was not acquainted with it. But she had the same public school education I did and I knew it was never much mentioned. I knew that.
“Yes. I think of it every time I pay my taxes. Some men are just braver than others.” That got a longer look out of her. And a long silence. I didn’t want to ask what she was seeing. So I say, “Was that it then? Was there anything else?”
She sighs. “I asked him about what you mentioned. I asked him if he was part of the hacker group, Anonymous. You know what he said? He said, he didn’t know! So I had to follow up on that, and he says that he has certainly learned a lot from watching their activities. But he doesn’t join groups,’ and I say, but isn’t that exactly why the FBI wants him? And he says, he’s not sure why they want him. And then he tells me the most interesting part of all. And I’m pretty sure he was telling me the truth. At least the truth as he sees it.”
She paused the revelation. A nice dramatic touch. I couldn’t wait.
“So, what the hell did he say?”
“He said that he was pretty sure the reason Anonymous still existed was that it have much of a central authority. It couldn’t be controlled. Most of the people who express opinions as ‘Anonymous’ appeared to be left wing, but not all. And there whole methodology was actually libertarian. And I knew you would like that.”
“I already knew that.”
“Sure. Well. Everyone does, I think. But George says, a large part of the activities reported on the news with that name attached are really infiltrators. Phonies. Like the Surete, or whatever the French call it now.”
“National Police, or FSB, or NSA, or FBI, or whatever.”
“Don’t forget the Chinese MSS. And the German have the BfV. It’s hard to keep track of all those acronyms.”
“Why do you know about them?”
“Because I’ve used them in a few stories. I write novels too, remember? I usually make them the bad guys.”
She nods, “Whatever. He thinks they all have a hand in it. It’s wide open to anyone.”
“If you can’t beat’em, join ‘em.”
“Exactly! And most of those governments are socialist, so it’s only natural that even the real anonymous hackers have a tendency to that, but because they’re not controlled, the libertarian spirit comes out anyway. So I ask George why he’s not sure if he’s a part of it? And he says, there’s nothing to join so how would he know if he was a member. The only thing he could try to be sure of is that none of those government agencies are involved in what he does. And that was what was important. And he suspects that’s the way it works with Anonymous. The real hacktivist groups seem to know who’s one of them and who isn’t. They are not interested in finding new members. People find them. But he thinks that’s why the FBI may be interested in him. They have an eye on the others, so they must be letting that go on, but what he does gives them a pain in the ass.’ So I say, ‘what do you do for a living then?’ And he says, he can’t say.”
I wasn’t getting a lot of writing done anyway, but all this was now more interesting to me than some two hundred year old space traveller playing cat and mouse with robots.
I know I could have asked some of those questions of George myself, but I was working from a different mind set. I didn’t want to know what I didn’t have to know. Now, Deidre had asked the questions for me.
Deidre’s excitement alone was enough to get me worked up. Women are very sexy when they are excited. But I now had another concern. And though I do not know George as well as I would like, I had the idea that he might be having his own thoughts about Deidre. And he is a very good-looking fellow, or so I am told.
When you watch Helene Grimaud play the Rachmaninov Second Piano Concerto on YouTube you understand the music itself a little better, I think. There are other, ‘bigger’ performances. ‘Grander’ performances. But there she is paired with Claudio Abbado conducting and it is quieter presentation of the work and you are not overcome with the brilliance as much as the substance. I am not qualified to criticize Martha Agerich’s performance of Rachmaninov’s Third. It is stupendous, I know. I have loved it for the better part of my life. But the composer is such a genius of the language of music that I wonder if I am missing some of what he has to say simply by the overwhelming technical virtuosity of Argerich playing. She overwhelms you. You can’t escape. But with Grimaud, I’ve had people in the shop stop their browsing and stand in awe to listen.
This was the matter in my head the next day as I tried to write, not only because I had the Rachmaninov playing while I worked. What I was doing with my story had me trapped by the presentation. I had to concentrate more on the substance than the circumstance. What more was there to say than that humanity had failed an obligation to itself. The blatant proof of that was in their very absence from the Earth, was it not? And that was like saying that God’s creation had failed. Was that possible? Wasn’t the idea now that a creation of mankind itself could possibly save the day enough to draw the link back again to God?
The atheist would reject all of this quandary from the start and miss the substance of the argument. God or not, mankind had failed in its primary responsibility. That was, God or no God, to itself. Not to the robots, or to the birds and bees. The birds and bees would take care of their own priorities. As would the robots. The question becomes: ultimately, what reason would I have then in my story for the robots to save the ass of mankind? We are a failed species, yes? The robots would see this. Except for the fact that we’re not. Not yet. We are still hanging on, by a single mortal thread perhaps—at least one of them was still in the fight, and what should he be doing now? What next?
That’s the way stories get along.
Where should my story turn? What I wanted just then was to coax the value of being human out of my protagonist so that he might persuade his digitally blooded captors of his worth. Commanding the keys with some pyrotechnic swordplay was not going to get him anywhere.
This is the sort of thinking that can put you in your own ether. You miss what’s going on around you. This has happened to me before. I’ve had customers leave the money on the counter and walk away. One moment, I was alone in the shop with the sun catching a corner of the window, and illuminating the glass like a chandelier, while Helene Grimaud explained to me with her fingers what I had been missing, and the next there was a fellow standing at the end of the counter staring at me.
By his look, I was sure he was FBI, but I was evidently wrong.
He says, “I’m here to inspect the building.”
“Who are you?”
“I’m a building inspector.”
He handed me a card with the two words, ‘Liberty Mutual,’ in bold 24 pt. Garamond type, and the rest in eight point nearly too small to read.
I held this card out between my fingers like a specimen. “You are Mr. Gregory?”
“That’s the name on the card.”
“I just wondered if maybe you had grabbed the wrong one when you went out the door this morning. Besides, you didn’t call first.”
He has all the demeanor of Mr. Clifford. That is, none, which is a demeanor in itself. Sort of a missed demeanor.
He says, “That’s not required. The policy says that we may conduct periodic unscheduled inspections to assure compliance with the restrictions of the policy.”
I was not in the mood for this. I said, “You look like an FBI agent.”
He stood there a moment longer and stared back at me and then turned and went off into the shop to do whatever he had intended to in the first place. But my concentration on my story was broken. I sat a moment longer and then followed him.
At first, he seemed very interested in the height of the shelves, hauling a rolling ladder over to the highest of those and pulling the tab on a tape-measure to hold the stiff metal up to a sprinkler head. I already knew the tops of all the shelves were more than eighteen inches from the sprinklers, which is what I understood to be necessary by fire code. I thought I could hear the disappointment in a released breath as he let the thin metal ravel back into the case.
I watched him from the end of an aisle.
He suddenly turned and asked me, “How much does one of these shelving units weigh?”
“Varies. Less than the weight of a horse. This was a stable at one time. The beams in the basement are all over twelve inches wide.”
He answers that with a, “Yeah?” as if the added detail wasn’t relevant. It was, of course. Margaret’s father had made a point of the fact years ago, to his own satisfaction.
A customer came in then and I went back to the desk. By the time she was taken care of, the ‘inspector’ had disappeared into the back room. My guess was that he wasn’t a reader, so the experience would not offer him any more subtle pleasures.
I stayed at the desk to answer a phone call, and then simply to act like I really didn’t give a damn. Ten minutes later Mr. Gregory was back at the counter himself.
“You shouldn’t have boxes on the floor back there. If there was a fire, it could impede egress.”
“That’s from a lot I just bought yesterday. I’ll be taking care of it this morning.”
Mr. Gregory wrote something out on a white form and then tore a pink sheet from beneath and handed that to me.
“Your insurance is suspended pending a follow-up inspection.”
“You can come back this afternoon. It’ll be cleaned up.”
“You’ll get a notice in the mail about when we can come back.”
“That’s not soon enough. My lease is dependent on having insurance.”
“You should have thought about that when you left the boxes there.”
Now, I have dealt with such personalities in the various departments of government and public utilities all my life. The insidious virus of even petty power on the human mind. But this was a first for an insurance inspector. They usually issue a warning and give you thirty days to clear the problem up.
I went right to a more accurate defense. “I believe that constitutes harassment, on your part. I’ll be letting your company know about it directly.”
“I don’t care what you believe.”
“No. I don’t think you do.”
Another gauntlet had been thrown down. The revolution was afoot, and I was somewhere beneath the heel of that boot.
In a world managed by tens of thousands of pages of law and hundreds of thousands of pages of regulations and code requirements, theoretically intended to support the laws, and millions of bureaucrats appointed to interpret the code, there was no justice. There could be none. There wasn’t time or allowance for it. And there were no manners. There was no fair play. There was only force and reaction. And ultimately, compliance.
I called my new lawyer, Martin Guinn, and left a message with the details.
As I expected he might, Martin called the insurance company before he called me back. He’s not the type to waste a phone call, any more than his buddy David Brooks. He confirmed that the insurance company had to give me the thirty days lee-way for a minor infraction and that they would speak to the agent about the matter and a corrected notice would be sent out.
Unto an age of Romanticism
or, On the Beach
It was a great blue-sky day, June-warm and too nice and full of summer to be indoors. When Ardis showed up, I told her I was going to play hooky for a few hours and left her there at the shop with Stella.
I had no plan at first but to except to a beach, and the closest place for that was in South Boston. Well, true, I knew that Deirdre lived there, so perhaps that was behind my thoughts, even at the start. She’d told me she liked to ride her bike from there to work at the Post whenever she could. So I called her up.
She has a way of hesitating with her answers that can leave you with all kinds of time to imagine the worser alternatives. Worser being somewhere between worse and worst—but before it becomes the fabric of things, which is worsted.
“You mean to swim?”
“No. Just to go. Sit. Take a walk. Talk.”
She looks worried. I could tell, even over the phone, but she says, “I have a piece to file by six . . . But it’s pretty much done . . . Where should we meet?”
“How about your place?”
I say, “I’ve seen bachelor apartments before.”
She answers dubiously, “Okay.”
I’m not sure she even remembers saying the same thing to me, but there was more hesitation.
I say, “I need an address.”
Her voice lowers as she tells me. I figured there might be someone else close by to her desk at the office.
When I arrived at 5th Street she answered the door with a deeply caught breath, as if she’s been furiously cleaning things up and I had arrived ten minutes too soon. Or maybe she had ridden too fast on her bike. She immediately moved toward me to leave, pulling the door shut behind, but I didn’t budge, which got her plenty close for a moment. I could smell her sweat.
“There’s nothing to see, really.”
“Sure, I’d love to.”
She sighed and backed up.
I already knew from conversation that her apartment was more than twice the size of my place, at less than half the cost. I saw right off now that she likes blues and whites, and a splash of orange—like the orange of an apricot. The blues and whites remind me of a bed-and-breakfast where Margret and I once stayed in Holland. I remember that the bed was hard there.
I discovered several other things immediately, besides the fact that Deirdre had a Grey parrot in an enormous cage by the window.
“He only says one word,” she says, “I think he was too old by the time I got him at the shelter.”
Deirdre likes bric-a-brac. She has collected hundreds of odd objects from the places she’s visited on vacation over the years; mostly small stones and obviously kitschy figurines.
And I see too that she doesn’t keep the romance novels she buys from me. Or else she’s thrown them out recently. Beside the bric-a-brac, the bookshelves were relatively empty. Mostly she has a few classics and a few dozen more recent hardcovers that I figured might be Christmas gifts. Those looked like they were never read. All except two of them, which were mine. Those two were out on a coffee table where I would spot them right off, so maybe she had expected me to want to come in after all. But I had hoped they might be in her bedroom, maybe on the bedside table. But the bedroom door was shut.
I made what I thought was an obvious snarky remark concerning the lack of books in the place for a lit major.
“I thought you said you were a Lit major, for Christ sake.”
The Grey said, “Nuts.”
Deirdre says, “You have a good memory, for your age. Yes. Well, I just don’t keep a lot of books. They’re heavy. And it seemed like I used to move every couple of years.”
“You told me you haven’t moved in twenty years. You buy paperbacks!”
“Right. Well, when I do it the next time, I won’t have to worry about all that weight again, will I? I throw them away.”
And the Grey said, “Nuts.”
She has a television—what they more appropriately call a ‘monitor’ now—and this is enormous. I couldn’t guess the size, really. But it looked too thin to hold anything, much less a two dimensional image. She saw me assessing the thing from one side.
“Yes. I watch a lot of television. A lot of movies. And I know you don’t even have one. I noticed that when I was at your place as well . . . And I don’t know why you’re even here.”
I said the first thing that came to mind. I was trying to be witty.
“I do have one. I keep it under the desk where it can’t beg for attention. But I’m trying to broaden my horizons.”
“That’s very open-minded of you.”
She did that backward weave she does, and she says, “We are not alike, you and I. And I have no idea why this is happening. Probably some sort of desperation. You know, women of a certain age, and all that. Truth is, I’m a little disappointed in myself. I thought I was more self-sufficient.”
All I could do was admit the fact. “That’s two of us. Nature is perverse.”
“Are you saying this is perverse?”
“Yes. Haven’t you ever wanted to be perverse?”
“In the middle of the day?”
“Well, that’s a fine time. But I don’t think we should take advantage of that just yet. I only wanted to take a walk . . . And talk.”
And the Grey said “Nuts.”
But I took her hand when we were out on the sidewalk. There didn’t seem be any hesitation to that. She’d grabbed a blanket and carried that under her other arm.
The sand at Carson Beach is cleaner now than it was when I first came to Boston in the 1960’s. I’ve noticed this before but it still surprises me, which says something, I suppose, about just how bad it used to be.
There is a fair crowd. The tide is on its way out though still high and everyone is thick along the top of the strip of sand closest the wall. Very few people are in the water. It’s still June, after all. But quite a few are as near naked as the law allows. Both men and women. Deirdre and I are just wearing shorts and shirts.
I told her then about the old days of coming over here when the water was an obstacle course of floating condoms and battered pucks of offal from the sewage plant.
“Why did you come at all?”
“No. Before Margaret. Margaret had a car, so then we used to drive down to her parent’s place on the Cape.”
She considered this a moment while I considered the physical characteristics of some of the more blatant exhibitionists.
“Tell me why things didn’t last with Margaret?”
This was rather bold, I thought; simply launching right into the heart of the matter.
“I don’t know.”
“Sure you do. That’s exactly the sort of thing you would have though about a thousand times. I’ll bet you even wrote about it.”
Her count was low but in the right direction. And there was the novel.
“I have. Sure. But I don’t know. I don’t know why we even got married in the first place. We always argued—well, I do know that. She was pregnant. But then we kept compounding the thing until . . . It was hopeless.”
“You didn’t love each other?”
“Of course we did. I still love her. But we are a lot happier, apart.”
“What was the problem?”
I was looking at Deirdre for maybe a moment too long when I answered that. Actually, at the reflection of myself in her sunglasses. I could see the logo on my Red Sox cap.
“We have nothing in common.”
Immediately she is sitting up again.
“Do you mean you and Margaret, or you and me?”
Her back went straight.
“Well, that sums things up pretty quickly. And I didn’t even get a kiss out of it.”
“Yeah. Yes? No. That part is really disappointing. I’ve been thinking about kissing you since a couple of weeks ago. No. Actually longer. You know, once, when you came in the shop a couple of years ago I had that same idea, pretty definitely.”
“You didn’t say anything.”
“No. I was just turned sixty-five about then and feeling sorry for myself.”
“Was that the time you were standing on a ladder and trying to put something up in the window?”
“It was a model plane. I was doing a display of old flying books.”
“I remember. I remember that I thought you looked pretty cute. But I thought you were only sixty-four.”
Suddenly, there was the sarcasm again. She had that streak of mind. So did Margaret.
I defended myself with the facts. “You had on some very red lipstick and I was taken with the idea of kissing you right then. It was the way you were looking up at me, with a little grin on your face, as if you were just waiting for me to do it. Maybe it was just the lipstick.”
“I thought you were just looking down the front of my blouse.”
“I was. That too. But you must have stood there at the bottom of the ladder for at least a couple of minutes. What were you grinning at?”
“I didn’t know I was grinning. Maybe it was just the bright light from the window. I know I thought you were going to fall. I think I was afraid you were going to fall and I should stay there and catch you.”
She considered this is a minute of silence and then said, “But we have nothing in common.”
“Sure we do. We have that much—I mean, the fact that we have nothing in common.”
“If two negatives make a positive, then lets start with that.” She nodded definitively at the idea. “What is it we both have nothing in common about?”
“It might be better to find something we agree on. At least something that would just be a positive.”
We both sat in silence again for a minute more and stared at one very unfortunate looking human being of uncertain sex who disrobed about ten feet in front of us. There was no bikini top so I guessed he was male, but his boobs were definitely larger than Deirdre’s.
She finally said, “I like your shop.”
The fleshy fellow settled himself on his blanket and began polishing his skin with suntan lotion. Pungent.
She says, “Come on, can’t you find anything you like about me?”
“I like your shape.”
“I’m not sure I agree with you about that.”
“So that falls into the other column, I guess. But you’d be wrong.”
She picks right up on that thread again. “What else am I wrong about?”
“I thought we were going to accentuate the positive. I like your voice.”
“That’s stuff I was born with. How about something I’ve done.”
This was the clearly greater challenge for me.
“You have the advantage there. I have only read the the one novel. I told you that was terrific. It is. You should publish that. . . . And the Post, but mostly just the things you’ve written about me lately. I really don’t know a lot.”
“Why don’t you read the Post?”
“It’s a load of claptrap, misinformation, and progressive propaganda.”
“Other than that, what do you really think?”
“I wonder why you’ve worked there for most of your life. That doesn’t seem like a worthy thing for someone to do.”
“Journalism is an honest trade!”
“It can be.”
“Are you saying I’m dishonest?”
“I hope not, but how do I know? I’ve read is the stuff you’ve written about the shop. That’s been okay, I guess. I guess I can go to the library and look up the other stuff.”
Now I had told a lie in my defense. What other depravity would I stoop to? I had read dozens of her pieces. The only ones I usually skipped were the very sad ones. The bag lady they’d tossed out of McLean mental hospital who had lived on the streets for twenty years. The Vietnam vet who still sends Christmas cards to the families of his lost buddies—only the list has grown through the years to several hundred. The two sisters who lived together right there in South Boston for fifty years after their husband’s died in World War Two. All good stuff. Her writing was well above the usual for the Post. But I didn’t want to get into that. Not this day. She would only want to know why I did not like the other ones. Women are like that, and that was dangerous territory.
She shrugs and draws a question mark in the loose sand with her index finger and says, “It’s all on the internet now. You can read it there. It’s indexed.”
“Then I’ll have to look it up there. “
“What did you really think of the pieces I wrote about you?”
“They were okay.”
“Just. But that’s not necessarily your fault. You wrote them the way your editor wanted it. That’s your job. You don’t always get to write the stories you’d like to tell. Most writers don’t. Not like me. That’s the real benefit to publishing your own stuff, I guess.”
The corpulent fellow in front of us had settled back on his blanket like a walrus, his hide glistening with each breath and, having raised the topography of the sand sufficiently, given our own recline, to block the shallow waves at the water’s edge from view.
“What kind of stories did you want to tell when you started?”
She laughed first. “You wouldn’t have liked those. I was very much the feminist then. Very political. Everything was seen through that lens.”
“When did you give that up?”
“AD. After Dennis. He was the editor there at the Post that I was in love with—the one who took the job at the Times in New York. But I don’t want to talk about that rat. Tell me what you came here to say.”
I had tried, very deliberately, not to think about that.
“I just came here to talk.”
My mind scrambled. I had nothing. What had I been writing about that very morning?
She says, “Well, we’re certainly getting that done.”
I had avoided discussing philosophy with Deirdre for obvious reasons. Where might that argument end? But as my children know too well, my diversions often fail. When I first attempted to explain to each of my daughters, on their sixteenth birthdays, the problems associated with birth control, both practical and metaphysical, and including the joys of sexually transmitted disease, I was a year too late in one case, and two years early in the other. Nevertheless, Margaret had already taken them both to see the gynecologist. (To his credit, my son Ben came to me first, in order to head off the uncomfortable moment—and when he was not yet fifteen). It was just such a dolesome moment that I wanted to prevent between Deidre and I. But biology is no longer a branch of natural history, and philosophy has long since been overtaken by politics. Did she fully understand what I stood for? More importantly, would she sit still for it given her own inclinations?
She was sitting back on the blanket then with he arms stretched to the sand behind. I liked that incline well enough. I could approach the subject obliquely. And Mr. Carroll might offer a key to that.
“The time has come, ‘The Walrus said,’ to talk of many things: Of shoes, and ships, and sealing wax, of cabbages, and kings, and why the sea is boiling hot, and whether pigs have wings.”
That is to say, I could talk about love while we were lounging on a blanket at Carson Beach, while an unfreshened breeze off adipose flesh pestered in our nostrils. Or I could put that off.
She ignored my verbal ruse. Her first thoughts were more practical.
“Are you trying to put me off by all of this jabber? After all, I’ve actually known you for twenty years. Many’s the time I’ve heard you expounding your recidivist thoughts aloud to some stunned customer who’d only asked a simple question. It’s true, I don’t always understand what you’re going on about, but I usually get the drift.”
She had a point there. I thought of an appropriate lie in response and started in on that before I realized it was the truth as well.
“I’m too old for this. I like romance well enough, but likely, I don’t have enough heart left for the breaking.”
She answered that with a clearly feigned acceptance, “Go ahead then. Tell me what you’d really like to, in your own way. I’ll catch up.”
And then she lay back with her hands behind her head again. Very nice sight. Not conducive to rational thought. But the steam was out of the pot by then. I felt like I had nothing left to say. As I’ve said, scrambled. A truly unusual sensation.
“Besides making passionate love to you?”
The sunglasses hid her eyes.
“Not a lot. A few more novels. . . . I’ve always wanted to spend a year out on the Prairie. Maybe write a novel there.”
“Because it’s flat, mostly. I’ve driven through it a dozen time and always wondered what I was missing.”
“What about the revolution?”
“It can wait.”
“That doesn’t sound as committed as your buddy George.”
“No. I sort of feel as if I’ve already done what I can there.”
“What was that?”
I think she was staring up at the sky in disbelief. I couldn’t tell because of the glasses. Or else she was lying there just looking into space as blue as her eyes, and I couldn’t be sure of the exact match.
I said, “You know, we’ve probably never voted for the same candidate.”
But at least she was still awake. She said, “I stopped voting a long time ago. They’re all frauds and phonies”
“Well then, that’s something else we can agree on. Most of the time.”
“Whatever. So the problem you have with the world is a general lack of integrity and responsibility.”
“I guess, in short, yes—well, that and a lack of class.”
“We can agree on that.”
The low din of beach voices gave the air a buzz like bumble bees.
Once more, into the breach, “And I’m boring. Margaret told me that, and it’s true. I like to be at home when I’m home. I enjoy the traveling but I like to stop and dawdle wherever I can. I’d just as soon spend the day on a beach at Cardiff as looking at the castle.”
Deirdre shrugs, “Me too.”
“Beaches are all different to me, and castles are too much the same.”
“ ‘Such quantities of sand.’ ”
She had conjured that much of Mr. Carroll while I was jabberwocking.
“I though you weren’t big on memorizing things.”
She smiled. Or perhaps that was just the sun. “When I was a girl, I went to a parochial school. We had a sister there, Sister Mary Francis, who was quite intent on us memorizing things. I’ve still got a little of that in me.”
“Then we have that in common too.”
“What? You were a girl in parochial school too?”
“No. But I sat close to one.”
“Did you have a crush on her?”
“Pure lust. She was very well developed for her age.”
“Did you send her notes?”
“Until the nun caught me and confiscated all the rest from Maddy’s desk.”
“Did you tell Maddy that you loved her?”
“I copied poetry from Byron and Shelley.”
“Excellent! I wish the boy who wanted to grope me had quoted Byron. Lord, I do. I would not have been a virgin until I was twenty-eight! What happened then? What did the nun do?”
“She read them aloud to the class. And when she was done, and poor Maddy had sunk completely beneath the desk in shame, Sister complimented me on my choices.”
“God, I wish I knew you then!”
“What sort of notes did your groper send you?”
“He was illiterate. He drew pictures. Nasty pictures. My fear was that someone would think I had encouraged him in some way. So, when he wouldn’t stop, I turned them in.”
“You turned him in?”
“No. Just the pictures. But the Nun knew who it was. He had a distinctive style. Picassoesque.”
“You are tough. How old were you then?”
“Fourteen. And not much more developed than I am now, I’m afraid.”
“But already a reporter.”
“Yes. I guess I was.”
“Tell me about your first boyfriend?
“You mean the first man I slept with, or the first I fell in love with?”
“Don’t tell me about the sex. Please. Just the one you first fell for.”
“Russell. Rusty. The boy next door, almost. Two doors away. He used to take his shirt off to mow the lawn. He played the piano and you could hear him every evening at six o’clock when his lesson started. The repetitions were mesmerizing. He was Jewish. And unfortunately for me he was gay. But we were great friends until he went off to college.”
“Why? It was a lot better than sitting around with the girls and just talking about boys. Rusty talked about all sorts of things I’d never thought about. His hero was Cole Porter, and he wanted to write music for the theatre.”
“Did he do it?”
“A little, I think. Rusty died of aids in 1988.”
“Crap! Double crap!”
“So, who was your first girl friend? Maddy?”
“No. I don’t think Maddy spoke to me again after the notes debacle. I don’t remember. I don’t think I actually had another girlfriend until Margret.”
“I don’t think she was ever that happy about it. Like I said, she thought I was boring. And she taught me how to use a knife and fork.”
“She was more experienced than you.”
“You’ve never been in love with anyone else?”
“Not that I knew. I’ve often had crushes on women from afar.”
“Anyone I would know?”
“No. I wrote an essay about her in my freshman English Lit class at BC. I was very serious. I wrote a time-travel novel just so I could go back and make love to her.”
“Oh my god. You are insane. Really! . . . Anyone else. Anyone alive?”
“I fell in love with Ayn Rand shortly after that. She was alive then. Just a little desiccated. But she quickly assumed possession of my abandoned Roman Catholic soul and the need for certainty in an uncertain world. It was a torrid affair, and that infidelity continued until it drove Margaret crazy. But even when the infatuation was over, I don’t think things were ever that right between Margaret and me. Those are the real wages of philosophy.”
Deirdre was still unmoved in her position on the blanket. At the last, I figured she was unconscious. Hadn’t I intended this as some sort of romantic outing? Any mention of Ayn Rand to a knee-jerk liberal was usually enough to cause automatic twitching. But Deirdre lay silent.
Even on a busy beach, the unquiet silence can be palpable when you stop talking.
“But enough of that.” I said
And she turned her head toward me, as if she agreed.
“Is that it?”
“What you came here to tell me?”
“I guess it’s context.”
“What’s the text?”
“I feel like I’m in love with you. Either that, or I have the flu.”
“You are very romantic.”
It is a funny thing to consider what will make a boy read. The film From Here to Eternity was handsomely advertised by a poster of Burt Lancaster and Deborah Kerr entangled half-naked on a beach with the waves at their feet. At the time, it was the most sexually electrifying portrait of love that my young eyes had ever seen, and the owner of the small movie theatre in my home town must have agreed because he left it displayed behind the glass of a lobby case for many years after the movie itself had come and gone. But I did not really take notice of it until the summer of 1959, when I turned twelve. A devastating time. That was just about when a new movie appeared called On the Beach. This was a calmer affair by far, especially in that it involved a wooden Gregory Peck in Naval officer’s garb and a teary but fully dressed Ava Gardner, begging to be disrobed. That, and incidentally, the end of the world. I had already tried to read the novel of From Here to Eternity and found it boring. But when I read On the Beach, I was up all night with it, unable to sleep. And when I think of On the Beach today, I always first see Lancaster and Kerr, out of time, and place, and circumstance.
It was, perhaps, a better place to be.
She said, “Are you done?”
“Well, I’m not.”
She sat up then and kissed me. Right there, on the beach.
(to be continued)