What’s all this, then?
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 a beast could not be allowed to survive in a fungible world. No matter the subject—novel or history or tract—the book was an existential threat. With writers having sacrificed verity in favor of favor, and for acceptance, such a corporal art and the evidence it revealed of their deceit, could not be allowed to co-exist. 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 that we had known, was made doubtful. With the advent of the internet and the ascendancy of nescience along with the fungible labyrinth of the web, the virtual became ‘real’ and the book was at last defunct. The Great Bezos had spoken.
Certainly the tag, ‘book’ will be carried on. And ‘pages.’ And ‘word.’ 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 on the street in New York. And all the things that the book once was, nasty and false and true and kind, are dead as well, along with that industry of editors and publishers, critics and agents, and not least, the true authors themselves who once believed in their own veracity and perspicacity. All gone. Deceased. As dead as the once wild beast 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.
Art has now evolved beyond postmodern, to postmortem.
And the movie industry is departed as well—not coincidently, 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.
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 that I write this book.
You are here, at a rest stop. The arrow marks the spot on the highway map.
‘All hope abandon, ye who enter.’
Dante said as much.
But I would like to say a little more.
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 the 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.
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 you 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. And a flash of irritation has darkened those baby blues. 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 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? 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. They say it over and over again to make the point. And besides, that 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 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 eyes. 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. But the House size has been pretty much fixed at 435 since about 1911. So 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. 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 corporations 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 are not the citizen representatives the Founders wished for. 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. It’s self-titillation, with the other hand 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 baby-blues flashed with a couple of fast blinks and a tightening of the cheeks in 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. A bit of color. Certainly not even as mildly momentous a first term senator standing up to his party leadership. 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. 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. 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 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 talking more about things like talking 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 a 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 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, if you know me. Likely, the only politics you’re interested in are your own. And in any case, you will 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 read in the morning papers, or will 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 presages 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. As a tool, it is a cheapened device; merely a shiny appliance of a modern G.E.—that is of a general education that brings all minds to a common political correctness and acceptable mediocrity as a norm; not the composition of the free soul that Rhys imagined. Near all of it is now soiled with 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—are but a ghost of those generations past; those small books on a neglected shelf. The modern iterations of these, 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 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 that “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, and finally excavated them 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 element.
And it was amidst this revelry of words, that I found myself.
But none of this is news, either. 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 upon the last spit of sand, and even defend the truth of it there, where the tides will clean the slate 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 can 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 to 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 are 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 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 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 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 failure 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. 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 purveyor of our age is a soulless internet, not even 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 lost. The 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 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 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 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 or my. 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. 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 a veritable Marxist capitol 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 and 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 culture, 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 mental constitution at that moment in time could stand.
At some point then, and there, in Deirdre’s small car, with insufficient room for sufficient 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 fitted news sheets of the New York Times, the hypocritical preaching of Hollywood’s 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 high 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. 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—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 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.”
This was, 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 this 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 was just 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 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. 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 a 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. What I needed in order to save the bookshop was a more subversive marketing plan. The ‘marketing plan’ was the soup du jour among the 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, I wanted to talk with my friend George Reilly.
That was the nub if it.
Over the years, George and I have spoken about almost everything, from automobiles and food, to revolution 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 go to New Hampshire. 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 the great but much forgotten 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. 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 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 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 some such. 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. Civilization was likely 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.”