[a novel in progress. New portions are added in sequence each week or so]
- In my state of mind
proems, like prawns caught in a net; just ideas, and yet, deep-fried and eat.
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 had not paid my income tax—had no clue at the time, in fact, about how this act of subservience was done. I was already working for myself by then, 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 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 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 that, “the warrant covers both your business and your home.” I told him the door there 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 and stands back far enough to avoid having to look up at me. (Jerry always harbored a grudge against the vertically gifted as well.) 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 on that 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. Though 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 note that the room in which I was interrogated was small. Not quite a booth. You could have squoze 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 was 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 wired anyway, so this is just a bit of visual prompt. And I can’t spot the camera.
I asked, “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 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 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. 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 no, 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 web site. 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 as if 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.’ These ‘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 men.”
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 the same as his partner in legalized crime, Mr. Clifford.
But 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 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. The dinner 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 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 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. So I’ve been in jail three times now.
Once, left alone in the room 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.
All of this is ephemeral, perhaps, to the more important matters of our day, but when this book you are reading is banned, either by edict or neglect, as it will inevitably be for objecting to the prevailing dogma of our age—that is, forced equality—it will not be lost. Now written, it will surely be found again. That is my faith. And such is the irrepressible nature of my Republic of Books. Only that which is not written can ever be truly lost. More than that, it should be said once again, that what is not written will indeed be lost. And that much is certain.
Besides, I’ll make sure of all that by publishing it myself, if I must.
(Must is a fine sort of word, whether noun or verb, whether mold, or duty, need or grape juice. Don’t take any word too seriously. After all, it is only a matter of life or death.)
You may be aware that the Catholic Church tried its best to eradicate the teaching of the good monk Pelagius, but their best efforts over the last sixteen hundred years have failed. He is still with us through the millennia because a few fragments of his teaching have survived, those having been written down by his disciples. Just a few thousand words that may or not even be his. You see, it was the very idea that mattered!
And the grace of this sensibility is not hubris. It’s history! I, for one, have only a small part of that. Though I know that evil things can be written, as well as the good, and thus preserved just as easily. In the end, I understand, the judgment about what will be read and what will not, is yours. And will always be yours. Take that for what it is. A choice.
The first amendment of our Constitution, ostensibly still in effect, says, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof, or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press, or the right of the people to peaceably assemble, and to petition the Government for redress of grievances.”
Most of this has been abrogated now through judicial interpretation by lesser intellects than those who wrote it, and by some modern epistemological understanding of the meaning of ‘is.’ But, importantly, the existence of my little bookshop rests on this very cusp. It ‘is’ now, but will likely not ‘be’ for much longer.
This is 2014. A year among the years. A year from now, no one but a few benighted family members will care who lost their heads in Syria or Iraq during the last twelve months. All the blather that fills the airwaves and spills in the blood of ink on the pages of dying newspapers will be yesterdays news, and of importance only to those few who write histories and those fewer who read them. Everyone else will be trying to survive the outcome of a political campaign for the United States presidency—a far more important matter, clearly. Not! The usual suspects will run to be the head of the ruling class. What happened to my little shop will be of no importance to them. Just a far lesser Republic lost. Our greater one will be sold again on the block as little more than a mass market in willing slaves seeking a better master.
You must understand now that I have loved this little shop very dearly, imperfect as it is. And it is for that reason alone that I decided to chronicle its last days. My polemics here, which you might find offensive to your own more enlightened views, are merely my raison d’etre. The cause of my beginnings, middles and ends. My justifying. That is the why of it. You need not agree. The history is now for me, but it remains. It is written.
In my own defense I might say that all the volumes at my shop, with the exception perhaps of a few shelves of math, concern some aspect of the greater human comedy. A constructural Balzac, thus. In another age (in fact, the age into which I was actually born and raised during the century past) this would be innocent enough. But no longer. And it was in that bygone era that my shop was born as well and named with a certain joie d vivre for books. Books, in and of themselves. But that was a time when people used to read for more than pleasure. And to live accordingly (further abusing the French phrase). Reading was even seen as an acceptable form of intellectual social climbing by the bourgeoisie, even if sniffed at by the intelligentsia and disdained by the proletariat. A sort of class out of class for the classes.
Now, that time is past. We exist only at the pleasure of our government. And among that political establishment, the oligarchy was meant to stem such overreach. Thus, and again, if merely as recollection, A Republic of Books is more importantly about you.
At this point my son Ben would be looking for a quick exit. He can detect the tone. He could smartly see the attempted subterfuge in using the grappling hooks to drag my audience into the question. But I digress. (As often as possible.)
Now, how do I mean that? After all, books are a mere contraption of language. In this case, a modified, vernacular and idiosyncratic form of that compound tongue known as the English language. Do I mean that this Republic of Books is about you? That is, concerning yourself in particular, or about you all, as in everyone?
Yup! I do.
(If I had turned my back just once, Benny would be gone by now.)
I take my language very much in the way the great philosopher and grammarian Richard Mitchell did. Perhaps not with his felicity of thought, or clarity of meaning, but in my own manner. (He likely took his coffee black and I, a lesser man, favor ample cream and sugar.) I believe that, unlike a mere political entity, the only border for any ‘Republic of Books’ is the one that you, the reader, set for yourself. It is thus ‘a state of mind.’ It even says so on our bookmarks!
You are then, in and of yourself, the only proscribed limit of this contrived confection of a ‘country.’ And that is not a matter of just the once, or now and again. If you are reading this, you are there already—a citizen, whether you chose it, or not. (Perhaps with a dual citizenship, but nonetheless.) You have crossed that figment of a line on your cerebral map. You are in this fix for good or ill, tainted with this virus of knowledge by your ability to read. Unlike being born into one of those political nations that seek to rule us all, you have unwittingly bridged the border of this Republic when you learned to cipher the letters themselves; not for being born into it by the family inheritance of a library, or better schools, but simply introduced to it by learning to read the comic books, or a map, road signs, Christmas cards, newspapers, Tolstoy, or Yeats.
You are here! (Didn’t you see the arrow on the map at the highway rest stop?)
Only more so, because this is not a citizenship you can loose. Messing with the metaphors again: the virus of reading will either be your plague or your salvation, and denying the knowledge, once infected, like a ripe syphilis, will only lead to madness. (A harsh comparison you may think, but then you must only know the half of it!) You cannot be deported, or banished. Yet, you are not here against your will. There’s no escaping from a place where there are no walls. (Well, there are walls to the shop itself, but I am being metaphorical, you understand.) And most importantly, your freedom to roam within these borders is completely a matter of your own choosing.
(If I had managed to keep my eye on him, Ben would now have his jaw set for the duration. It was my habit with him, at such a point, to mix in a story about something or someone. A distraction. From his first months, he always liked to hear my stories told aloud.)
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. The building might once have been a stable or carriage house for an estate behind, and was close to the Seminary there. 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 the landlord, for the indulgence, I was able to use the inconvenient corners of the garage next door to my shop. (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 stored over a thousand cardboard wine boxes filled with those ex-library books. And it was thus that, for more than three years afterward, I was able to set those carefully collected volumes out, box by box, on the sidewalk for 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 great mistake was not in ridding himself his Xanthippe, or ignoring those misbegotten offspring whose minds had been hammered to lesser interests by a school system that abhors the irregular. The 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 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 was 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.
I will tell you more about Herman and my friend later.
Where was I?
At nine o’clock I was released and I went home; only a short walk over the top of the Hill. 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.
She answered her phone quickly.
“Where were you? I was worried.”
“You knew I was arrested.”
“Did they arrest you?”
“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 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 then. 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.”
So, you must understand for yourself now that this citizenship in the Republic of Books is a great responsibility, whether you’ve accepted it or not. Fearfully, you might have previously withdrawn into a single text, a Bible, the Tripitaka, the Vedas perhaps, or a Koran, imagining some safety in the limits set out for you there. But I believe there is no God, or Gods, worth his (or her or their) salt who would be so small as to limit themselves to single work, and you will only be diminishing yourself by assuming as much. (The Bible, for instance, often refers to God’s other works without ever specifying their nature).
Blasphemy! No! Whether or not the Holy Book you have chosen is indeed the word of God, how is it you have come by the idea that the one book in your hand, that which has only been manufactured by mortal and fallible man, contains ALL the words of God—or is the ONLY word of your God and deserving of the reverence of capital letters? Faith, I suspect. My guess is that this may be the result of instruction by the self-appointed authorities of some particular religion that wants to keep you captive and in thrall to their own interpretation. King James perhaps? Council of Trent? The New Jerusalem or the Vulgate. But that is all mere politics, is it not? The nature of politics is control. The nature of religion is faith. These are not the same.
And I am positive that your God understands you, with or without a text, else wise he, she, it or they is no God at all.
Yet, it is even more difficult for me to imagine a God who would set a limit upon himself (or herself for those already limited by gender politics) of a single work. Then again, that might just be me. Another of my inadequacies of intellect. Yet another of my most grievous faults. I am not a genius but merely a fellow attempting to grasp a straw in the wind. Though, perhaps, this is getting into the tall grass, as they say. But again, they say a lot of things, and I know a straw when I see one. With this straw in hand, I will now avoid the backs of any camels on my journey.
What future for myself is it then that I glimpse?
My straw is short. The wind is fierce.
- In ancient mundane
the beer was fine, the work was sweaty, and the women, very, very pretty
On second thought, most of you should not be reading this. It’s likely beneath you, or you’ve better things to do. And too, it might in fact cause you some trouble with the authorities. They are watching, you know, if only by artificial means. It’s only fiction, of course. A novel, of sorts. An odd sort, granted, but not to be taken seriously. A narrative. Just a novel of bad ideas. But I will not be telling you now what is history and what is supposed. As I’ve said, that is for you to judge. 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 beach then!
In ancient mundane there lived a man who was not quite sane. So it was said. (And he didn’t lie about such things.) He worked for his living and wouldn’t cheat, or steal. Not willingly. And the vigor of his effort, the ingenuity of his plan, love of family and generosity to his friends, gave him much happiness and, in time, an intimate appreciation of his earthly paradise. But this same joy brought great jealousy to others. Their eyes caught on his smile like cloth to a thorn—those who thought that hard work was for fools, happiness could be easily bought, all property was for the taking, and any plan could be plagiarized. Sadly, the results of this conflict are still with us today.
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. 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.
Already, our schools are severing that tie with words and meaning that made what little civilization we have possible. Again we have begun to melt down the presses to make bullets and reduce all literature to the gossamer ephemera of bits. We will poison ourselves anew, and over again, I expect. Convictions will be lost and found. And though faith is born of fear as much as remorse or revelation, we will have some successes along the way with which to fortify ourselves—that is if we 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, whether or not we can count on it. (Ho! Imagine the mind of man before zero was believed!)
This kind of thinking is some of the cause, I think, of my dreams that night–the night of the day that this began. I dream most nights, usually the result of upset stomach or otherwise, or else a matter of cause and effect, as in a plot of a story that does not work and the why of it? In the matter of my writing, I often awake with some issue resolved and write that down. But these particular dreams had other instigations.
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 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 year (which still lay ahead of me at the time). 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 not his doppelgangers, and no more silkily perfectible than the overused and now threadbare sow’s ear.
This is just one of several commonalities that Catholic theory has with Marxism. It is 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 was 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 out 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.
What I found was exactly what you might have expected, had you been paying attention here.
In my first dream, that night following my faux arrest, I was adrift on a crude raft 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 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 of my stamina—aloud!
That, said in such a public place, such as a beach where anyone I might imagine could hear, was a nasty abuse given her own lack of interest in such things. (The ready evidence of children aside.) And there too were my children. The girls apparently assumed I would make my way successfully I suppose. They were chatting 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 fifty years ago. So there is little need to psychologize such an obvious additional affront to my dignity. The subconscious is often engaged in worse subterfuge. But all in all, I think it’s healthy. Slapped about in that way, you awake with all the sobering and without the red cheek.
Maybe an occasional shortness of breath.
Immediately then, lying abed and staring at the dark I was thinking about a hero of my youth, George Hayduke, and his old buddy, Seldom Seen Smith. And naturally then, of their author, Edward Abbey. I featured his book, The Monkey Wrench Gang, at the front of the shop when I opened in 1975. I wrote him 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 then because it helped me overcome all the blather I was getting from publisher’s reps and almost everyone else about how I should run my business. Of course, they were correct, 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.
It is perhaps too much an aside to delve into the sort of socialism that has twisted the history of the American West. The devastation of the Great American Desert by the Bureau of Land Management and its sibling Bureau of Reclamation would appear to be at least a thousand miles from my own concerns. But those who contend now for even greater government control over conservation and distribution of water in the western United States are either simply stupid, profoundly stupid, or brilliant. Brilliant, if they liked the Dust Bowl and all the rest, and still believe in government, good or bad. The narrative of Federal work there is part of a continuing and unbroken trail of tears, from the theft of Indian lands to the building of monumental dams to supply water to the stolen lands dispensed to those with the proper connections.
The Hoover Dam is a great accomplishment of engineering. So is the atomic bomb. To applaud these without also appreciating the devastation they cause is idiocy. Las Vegas, of course, is what it is. We can now grow cabbages in the desert while naturally fertile farmlands in Ohio are fallow. Plus we get the benefit of addition cost in shipping this produce to New York and Boston. Oh, joy! The Grand Coulee dam still produces more electricity than any other single power plant in the country. And the people of Washington can be proud of growing crops in their portion of desert while burning their lights at the expense of the American taxpayer. The Navaho had no interest in the Glen Canyon Dam and even less in the deluge of Lake Powell. But it is a great place now for a second or third home. Hayduke’s desire to open Glen Canyon with dynamite somehow felt akin to my own want to break down the doors of the New York publishing establishment. Hayduke failed, of course, as did I. The publishing establishment is even greater now and more concentrated, as it has passed into the hands of four or five conglomerates and not the forty of fifty publishing houses that existed then, and thus is far worse, after all, than what I faced as a young author in the early seventies.
Yet still, the spirit of such insurrection and rebellion was in me. However helpless I was now.
Another dream the same night was more explicit. This was the latter one and the last because I could not fall soundly asleep again afterward and lay there in the dark listening to a couple of birds who must have gotten lost in the ally behind.
In this second dream I was alone in my store after hours and unable to lock the rear door and for reasons beyond my imagining I had left my wallet there on a shelf at the back. This in itself is an impossible circumstance. I have a permanent indentation in my right rear cheek from that wallet and if it is not there I feel it immediately, like a runner might feel a missing arch support. In any case, someone came in the back door and rifled my wallet. They did not steal it, but simply went through it. I heard them and ran to the storeroom but they were gone. However, the door there was left gaping, and I looked out. Above me on the fire escape were faces. They smiled down at me through the grating. And that was it! I awoke in a sweat!
I think the cause of my distress that night was in the feeling of being violated. A term too often reserved for women, but just as good for men. When I had arrived home I found that 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. The anger welled, for awhile, and only subsided when my eyes began to close involuntarily from exhaustion.
But sitting there in my comfortable chair, the the reading lamp casting its yellow cone against the gray light of early dawn, the Modern Library edition of the works of Tom Paine stared broad-spine at me from the near shelf. Reading has always been my comfort. However, I was not helped then. In Common Sense he 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.”
There was no one to whom I could complain. My circumstance was certainly petty compared to worse violations that happened everyday to others—but this injury was mine! The nation I lived in, and was raised to love, was no longer intent on serving the individual citizen, but rather its bloated self, first and last. The police were not there to protect me, but to serve the authorities.
And there, and then, 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 helpless. Impotent. Emasculated. Neutered. Inadequate. Powerless. Enfeebled. And now enervated. And my exhaustion from the ordeal carried me back to a shallow sleep awhile. And I overslept.
The issue to be taken in our daily lives, as mundane as those might be, is simply whether all is well so long as there is sufficient beer, and work enough to pay the bills, and women to please. (And, I suppose, the women might equally want men to pester, though I am often unsure why.) Does it really come down to that? I don’t believe so.
The dictate of an oligarchy of five Supreme Court justices who think themselves wise enough to overrule the collected wisdom of three hundred million citizens is the sort of hubris common to our age. As is the dictate of a President who can mock the Constitution by executive order, and a Congress that will let him do it repeatedly, in order to gain some special political favor for themselves. The divine right of kings was more benign. It’s just the sort of subjective malice our forefathers attempted to thwart by devising a balance of power between three branches of government. But that device would only work in practice, as they well understood, if there was good will. Being of a Christian frame of mind, they dearly believed in good will. They did not dictate a particular religious viewpoint, but they did assume that it would be drawn from the Western culture they knew. This is obvious by any reading of the words they wrote. And even the atheist Tom Paine saw that!
You often hear, if you are interested in such things, a libertarian of some stripe or another make the assumption that free markets will make free minds. Well enough, they might at times. But often this proposition is described by using the word ‘capitalism,’ as the author Ayn Rand did. (Of course, she abjured the use of the word ‘libertarian,’ even though she appropriated much of that particular faith.) Now, thirty years beyond the assumption of capitalism by communist China, and sixty years after the Nazis war machine used that scheme of things to obliterate many millions of lives, and one hundred and fifty years after Karl Marx invented the very word ‘capitalism’ to describe the market mechanism (as he unleashed by mere publication his most horrific nightmare of devastation upon mankind), there are still many who think of using that terminology.
I bring this up not only to touch again on the power of the written word but as a nice example of how words can be used and abused. Yet the accumulation of ‘capital’ is merely a function, as is investment. Banks do it daily, and show little interest in free markets so long as they control their own interest, and ownership itself can be willed by a king, or a city council by eminent domain, and still the exchange of wealth between individuals is conducted within the most primitive tribe. Such activities have nothing to do necessarily with any precept of liberty. Markets are not ‘free,’ by definition, else there is nothing to sell. This is not semantics. This is more a demand that words be used more carefully. Grammar aside.
This matters here and to me because I am thought to be a traitor by my government. To what? And in what way? I parley words. They traffic in lives. Am I the traitor, or are they?
- During a circumnavigation of sex
without accompaniment, 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 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. I’ve still got 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 believe. She’s one of those people given to the simple dramatic arts. 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?”
“Your guess is as good as mine.”
I was pretty busy just then, as Deirdre grilled us, 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. When she’d called the night before I had learned that the FBI hadn’t required Ardis to stay and eat the Salisbury steak and that she’d telephoned immediately when she got home and become upset when I didn’t answer, perhaps thinking that I might actually be under arrest. When I’d told her that I thought everything was pretty much okay, she sounded greatly relieved—as if the proverbial weight had been removed from that very healthy chest of hers. And as if she was more worried than I was.
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 then said I’d see her at her usual hour, 11 o’clock, though she was already there at the shop when I came in at 8:30 to survey the aftermath.
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 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 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), had evidently leapt into Ardis’s arms when she arrived, as if still upset over some discreet but unsettling alterations in his home.
It is assumed by the public that the 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 thing. 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 a 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 worth of slowing down for that dial to return to its resting place after each digit is spun. Time 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 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 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 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. 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, 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 had each been moved as well, though that might have been done to get access to the boxes.
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 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, like I am want to do 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.’ ” The pieces of that quote were gathered up from out of the brume pretty quickly, I thought. “ ‘The people cannot be all, and always, well informed.’ But I hesitated there with the thought that this should actually be a codicil to Mr. Lincoln’s admonition about fooling them all the time. Or maybe the other way around, given Mr. Jefferson came first. Impatience had moved Deirdre forward just a little, so I got back to the text. ‘The part that’s wrong will be discontented in proportion to the importance of the facts they misconceive. If they remain quiet under such misconceptions it is a lethargy, and that is the forerunner of death to the public liberty.’ ” I took a breath to line up the next portion. She looked up at me suspiciously. “ ‘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 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 I’ve got it substantially correct.”
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 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 that was all anyone knew about Thomas Jefferson these days? Is it all they teach in school anymore? Or 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 they were attempting to define was God given. They say it over and over again to make the point. And besides, those flaws you note in their document were soon enough cause for a whole lot of worry and pain and cost quite a few more lives. Because of that particular wrong, we were having yet another bloody revolution over those very things less than four score and seven years later. Just a little more than two generations, in fact.”
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? “Taxation without representation, for example. There was one representative in the House of Representatives for every 30,000 citizens in 1790. That was only accounting for three-fifths of the slaves, remember, and of course only white male property holders could vote. There were about 120,000 citizens for every representative in the 1860s. The House size has been pretty much fixed at 435 since 1911. So there are about 700,000 of us looking for representation from each Congressman today. But there were a little over 92 million people in the United States in 1911, long after slavery was abolished. That was about 212,000 per congressman. If, for instance, we took that later ratio and carried it forward to the population now, give or take a little, and allowing for the fact that there were well over 308 million of us as of the year 2010, we should have at least 1,456 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 must 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 is not willing to go along to get along and support the status quo. They try not to. Look at all the offal they’re tossing at Ted Cruz. The Republican establishment hate Mr. Cruz worse than the thugs cutting off the heads of Christians in Syria. Why? Because of something he said? Or because Cruz won’t obey the Party leadership? The career politicians and their accomplices in the Press are more afraid of challenge to their authority than they are of any misguided Muslim. 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 are blaming the messenger. The Press is only reporting on what’s being said. You aren’t seriously supporting the grand standing of Ted Cruz, are you? 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. Mr. Cruz may or may not be a Grandstanding but he certainly has the number of the Republican hierarchy. Meanwhile, the Press these days is in the business of supporting the powers that be. Being close to power gives them a thrill down their leg. They all belong to the same club—the ‘we know better what’s good for the public than they know themselves’ club. All for giving one side of things and not the others. 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, self titillation with one 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.
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.”
- And the revolution goes boom!
Guadalupe Hidalgo was an uncredited actor in an old Warner Brothers cartoon?
I will drink alone. I’ve been known to. 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 theatres 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 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 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 and 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.”
“Can you sue them?”
“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 you have a nice bloody revolution without all your books.”
“Sure. I think I’ve read about something like that.”
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. But the story was on the front page of the Post the next day, below the fold, but 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 Deirdre must have spoken to Mr. Clifford or Mr. Evans after leaving us.
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 a 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 had 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 the 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 had 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 then, was that the first day the store was ever closed?”
“Maybe, since the blizzard of ’78. You may remember, 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 little 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 Daiken 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, “Great! 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.
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. We’ve got outfits around like the Mexican Mafia, the Aryan Brotherhood, the Crips and the Bloods, MS-13, and the 18th Street Gang, running significant parts of major American cities, as well as a prison system that’s been turned into a criminal recruiting and educational facility, and they’re even using our own U.S. Military to train their soldiers. There’s a literal invasion of illegal aliens crossing the borders every day, committing crime, bankrupting the welfare system, and clogging the healthcare system, while taking jobs from the Americans most in need of work—and that particular trick is even sponsored by the Chamber of Commerce and big business because they harvest the crops we eat and supply the cheap labor in half the restaurants of America and everybody loves cheap food. Meanwhile we’ve got big insurance companies using political regulations to take control of the national healthcare, bankers using federal regulations to defraud billions from savings and loans where people are trying to put something aside, and the government itself defrauding the citizenry of trillions by draining the Social Security accounts and through inflation and debt spending, all at the same time that the politicians get drunk on their increasing power and get richer on bribery and corruption. Not to mention the predations of nihilist youths and muslin radicals shooting up schools, or thugs loot shops while neutering the cops with claims of racism and police brutality when they get caught, and other cops are running rogue because they’re tired of seeing the gangbangers released onto the streets within hours. And so the FBI is worried about whether I’m trying to foment revolution in a bookshop on Charles Street. Go figure.”
She has closed her eyes at me and waited out my rant. When I’ve stopped, she says, “So, the world is a mess. Let’s just try to focus on our small piece of it.”
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.
“If that satisfies you. Fine. I suppose that’s the attitude of most people. I’ve noticed that you avoid reporting on politics these days. 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 suppose. 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.”
She squints at me to show her doubts. “I had my fill of the politicians a long time ago. That’s all just so much corruption. Even the air there is putrid. I woke up one morning and I couldn’t breathe. Like you say. So I just try and to stick to stories I do about people trying to live their lives. Like you. 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 cause of it.” 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?”
“If I did, 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.”
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, both the new and the used, 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 book orders. But George doesn’t order books. He always comes in the shop to get what interests him. And then, of course, there’s my writing. That takes up a little space. But 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’ in all that. 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 pride in having written them. But I’m 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), she has never had an interest in me before. 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.
“Yep. I do. In the mornings. I try to get up by six and come into the shop and write.”
“But I saw on-line that you haven’t published anything since 1993, and before that, back in the 1970s.”
“That’s a sad truth. Not that I haven’t tried.”
“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, twenty-four, I think.”
Of course, I knew exactly.
She sat back for dramatic emphasis, “My God! Twenty-four novels! You are a masochist!”
“And a few short stories. And a couple of plays. But no, like I said, I enjoy it.”
“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.”
“That’s too bad. And you think I’m nuts? You write everyday yourself, and you don’t enjoy it?”
She shrugged that off. “It’s work. What’s to enjoy? Maybe the stories I cover. Sometimes. But mostly, it’s just work. And, I get paid for it!”
That was a familiar complaint. “You know, E. B. White realized the same thing once. It was the reason 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?”
“He did more of it for pleasure then.”
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? 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 has not 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—they were positive that there would be a return because there were 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, the daily effort of caring for things, many of the computers have gained a human self-consciousness. The 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 computers 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 she says, “So what happened to Charley?”
I said, “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.
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. That was some years ago, back when Ardis was 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 needed any grunt work done. He needed the 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 gripe when I ask them to lug 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 that could really take the vim out of me, involving attics and basements. 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. 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 computer 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. 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. 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 not sufficient, 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 do it.
I have no money and I have no followers, so starting a revolution was going to be a 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 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 not afford the gun. That is 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 own tripe advocating my 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 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, because 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 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 told them that much because it was ‘public’ information. Approximately. Just what was done out in the open, so to speak. 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 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.
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.
- I don’t know Jack
but Pyrrho was not a maniac!
Benny and Jack are similar in many ways. They don’t look much alike, but you see it in the way they act. Jack is the older by seven years, though he doesn’t look his age. He gets a kid’s look of mischief on his face sometimes, and I can only guess what he’s been up to. Ben does that too. Ben is as pale and skinny as I was once and has the full head of brown-dark hair I used to have, but thankfully he got his mother’s good looks. Jack is all muscle, thicker set, broad-faced, skin the color of Benny’s hair, but the hair cut so close to his scalp, at a distance he looks bald—like a Marine, which he was, once. Ben had done his own turn in the Army.
I know Jack played football in college because he’s mentioned it. Ben was a runner. He always has a story ready to tell. Jack must be coaxed to add a subject to his verb. But they both talk too fast. I often miss tidbits of detail I wish I understood but have to keep from asking about so as not to interrupt some narrative, and then later, when I do inquire, I see the impatient turn in the eye. (I’ve noticed Ardis has slowed her speech down quite a bit since she’s come to work at the shop. And I believe, that is an effort to communicate with me.) But the biggest difference is that Jack will stand and listen when I dilate on one thing or another. And Ardis often will, as well. It’s a strange thing and took some getting used to. None of my own kids ever seemed as willing to hear me out. Not Benny, or the girls. Though they often complain that they’ve had heard it all before.
Actually, soon after Ardis started work at the shop, that is six or seven years ago, I had to begin editing myself in this regard, otherwise no work would ever get done. The attraction of a willing listener is great and I imagine there is some heaven where a person can talk to their heart’s content about whatever is on their minds and always have an attentive audience. But I really don’t know how that would work. Who are the poor schnorrers and schlubs that would always be there to listen? You really don’t want to talk to schlubs, in any case. You want someone with a glint in their eye and something to add and argue. This is a conundrum that I hope to settle one day—but not too soon.
The fact is, I still pay Jack ‘under the table.’ This is just one of those transgressions on the authority of government which I am sure they can lock me up for. If they find it out. But that’s what works for both of us. I could not afford the hourly rates charged by the professional computer geeks who have to pad their income in order to cover withholding taxes, social security, mandatory health insurance and all the rest. And Jack is one of those folks who live ‘below the radar’ in any case. So what he does in that regard is not my business. Avoiding government oversight is an admirable thing in my book. (Actually in several of my books.) And he seems to have quiet a number of other clients who are willing to help him in this effort to remain anonymous.
I should add that Jack says he is doing fine living off-the-cuff, but you would not know it by his clothes. He shops at the Morgan Memorial thrift store. Whenever he’s wearing an article of clothing that looks particularly decent I know that Ardis has given him a gift.
When we closed up on Saturday evening, I told Ardis that I needed to speak with Jack and she gave me a long look back. I suppose it was in the tone of my voice. So I told her why.
She laughed at me. I was a ‘worrywart,’ she said.
I excused myself by saying, “That’s just what happens when you have kids. You have to learn to anticipate disaster to ward it off.” I also said, “Your day will come.”
She lost her laugh pretty quick then. I suspect there may be some conflict between herself and Jack in his regard and this worries me a little. She would make a good mom. But I think Jack is wary of commitments. And perhaps the overhead.
Nevertheless, Jack showed up the next morning. The shop is closed most of Sunday mornings but he knows the signal at the window and caught me while I was writing up some notes at the counter. He clearly thought my worry was very humorous as well, though he kept his comments to himself.
Jack Holt does not read. Not physical books in any case. And as I’ve said, he’s not glib. He will easily become tongue-tied with an explanation for what he doing. His fingers don’t have such entanglements, however. He sits in front of the monitor with the mouse covered with one large mitt and riffles through those virtual pages so fast I can’t read the heading on one before he’s onto another. And because he often walks Ardis to work and will then hang around for a short while to check on one thing or another at the computer, I see him at this process often enough that I seldom try to figure out what he’s doing anymore. As long as it all works, I’m good. I talk to him as he’s clicking away.
In the darkened store, Sunday morning, his face is blue-grey with the light of the screen—afloat in the ether like the visage of the great Wizard when first seen by Dorothy and her buddies at Oz.
I say, “Ardis probably told you what they asked for. We can only guess what they really want. Is there a way to be sure they can’t get it from us? Whatever ‘it’ is?”
Without turning, Jack says, “Sure,” in the exact same manner some say, ‘no problem’ these days—only he seldom uses that other expression.
I told him, “George never contacts us by email. Not that I can remember, anyway. He just comes in.”
“Right,” Jack says. This is another of his common usages.
I add, “But I need to warn George not too come in. He needs to stay away, at least for a while.”
Jack had the best idea about that right out of the box. “Just make a public announcement on the website. You don’t need me for that. Tell your customers what’s happened with the FBI. Express your outrage. You told me George usually looks at the store website to check on authors and new stock before he comes in. He’ll get the idea. Then the Feds can’t say after the fact that you were only trying to warn him away.”
This was just another version of what Ardis had suggested, and I figured they must have talked the matter over between themselves. I have resisted ‘blogging’ since the first day I heard the word. It has an ugly sound to my ear. However, I love simple solutions. But more importantly, I now had a new business plan. My revolution was begun. The game afoot, and I had to make good on it!
By that afternoon, I’d posted a rather complete accounting of the whole incident beginning at the top of the front page of the shop website. A little wordy, perhaps, but the key information was there. (Another note is in order: Much of the account you are reading now is a rewriting of that same blog, and thus it occurs to me once again that writing something like a blog can be as addictive as any other form of talking about oneself. Yet another sloppy manifestation of solipsism. Just one more cocaine in our self-addicted age. And I can see now that I am apparently no better than the rest.)
The blog post I wrote Sunday related the simple facts about what had happened. The police raid. My temporary incarceration. But I could not keep myself from a more typical rant:
“I am wholly embarrassed by the political class that I have raised by my efforts in the voting booth. But their stupidity and malicious intent has only been magnified now by my own foolishness. Perhaps it was not my fault alone, but I was a part of the doing. I have repeatedly voted for the lesser of two evils and gotten exactly what I deserved as a consequence. Evil none the less.”
Monday morning was quiet. As if my verbal Molotov cocktail had completely missed its mark, or sputtered in a puddle of internet mud.
Jack could not go along for assistance, but I had a used book-buy out in Needham in the afternoon at two o’clock, and this should have only taken a couple of hours, max. However, I wasn’t back in the shop until after five because I was delayed there by the customer and then got caught in the rush hour traffic of government and semi-government workers who leave early ‘to avoid the traffic.’ The woman in Needham who sold me the books had read the papers and wanted to know all about my run-in with the authorities and then had to be reassured that I was not a felon—not yet anyway—and that my check was good. Actually, she seemed intrigued with the idea that I might be dangerous and this disturbed me more than the imprisonment of traffic afterward.
And when, at last, I got back, George Reilly is right there in the philosophy section waiting for me. He is not wearing a false mustache or a fedora or anything else and looks just like his usual self.
I immediately ushered George into the back room and there he tells me right off, “Don’t worry. Like I told Ardis, they have no idea what I look like.”
He’d indeed seen my account of our travails on the website and I had guessed correctly he’d been headed in our direction that day.
Still, I’m worried. “How can you be sure they won’t spot you?”
He says, “For one thing, George Reilly isn’t my real name.”
This had occurred to me before. I say, “Tell me you’re not an anarchist looking to blow up innocent children.”
He says, “Not even the guilty ones.”
“Good. What about the email they showed me?”
“They took that from a virtual acquaintance.” He gave me a guilty smile for his indulgence. “I’d written her about a few books you sold me a couple of weeks ago. I shouldn’t have referred to you as ‘The keeper.’ My mistake. But you know I was pretty taken with that story of yours when I first read it on your website. It fits you too well.”
“Can they get your real name from her?”
“No. She was—” he gestured at the air for words and put on a phony French accent, “How you American’s say, a mistake. I’ve always been a sucker for French accents. Even virtual ones. I should have known sooner that she was not the real thing. It never got far enough for her to learn anything.”
“She can identify you.”
George shakes that off. “No. We never met. No face-time. It was just an on-line fling. Theoretically she lives somewhere near the Seine in Paris. More likely she’s closer to the Potomac. I got wise before it went too far.”
“She has your e-mail?”
He holds a hand up to quiet the thought. “The contact was through what they call a ‘dark web’ site. Seems like most of the people you find there are cops anyway. It’s what I’ve taken to calling the “amber web” because it catches flies. But when you’re a single guy and can’t get around easily, you do what you can. And she sounded interesting. I’ve kinda always wanted to have someone I could say something to, like, ‘we’ll always have Paris.’ Whoever it was I was chatting with at least has a sense of humor and a little knowledge of literature and philosophy.”
I want him to understand that I wanted to know more about all this. “Why do they give a damn what you’re reading?”
His voice calms. “It’s in the nature of any bureaucracy. The collection of data. It’s all they have by way of reality. The data. But adding any context is way out of their league.”
George, by any other name, has a very calm demeanor. The steady tone of voice reminds me of airline pilots and I only recalled then that he had told me once early on in our acquaintance that he liked to fly more than anything else, but this had become an expensive habit now that he was no longer employed by an airline. Now, if at one time he’d been with an airline, it was likely he’d once upon a time been a pilot in the military. Most of them are. If either of those things were true, the FBI had his fingerprints at least in triplicate.
I just said, “They’ll have your military records.”
He shrugged. “True. But they’ll need to know my real name to track those. They have no other source of fingerprints. At least, I don’t think so.”
Then I said something aloud that made me rethink all this yet again when I thought it over later on.
I said, “Good.”
George gave me a wry smile for that. I guess because I was so obviously on his side in this subterfuge.
At that instant the buzzer rang. When the buzzer rings at the back it means there is someone in the shop to see me. And this just might be the pesty Mr. Clifford.
George reads my eyes. He says, “I’ll stay here a minute. Ring the buzzer again when it’s clear—But say, can I look in those boxes you just brought in? I love to look at new stock.”
As it turned out, the buzzer was to alert me to the entrance of Deirdre. She had stopped by to say she was on her way to Massachusetts General Hospital to see a police officer who’d been stabbed the day before. This incident had happened over in a stretch of what’s left of the West End, near by Boston Garden. She announces her intention, rather presumptively perhaps, that afterward she’s free for dinner. Ardis rolls her eyes in contempt. I told Deirdre that I was just showing a customer some new stock in the back but I’d be free by then.
When I got to the back room again, George was gone. He must have used the rear door.
Later, when Deirdre returned from interviewing the wounded cop, she was in a sterner mood. Argumentative.
The gist of this was, “What’s so bad about the government? It protects us. It protects you, for Christ’s sake!”
I suspect her conversation with the officer had sobered her a little. Revolution seemed less like a lark. And I was fairly certain by the time we were sitting down in the restaurant that she’d already decided to be more aggressive. To provoke. Get me to reveal something more or say something I might regret; at least to pick up some morsels for her follow-up story that I might drop inadvertently in the process of defending myself.
I answered her first question, “Certainly not for Christ’s sake. Government and religion make poor bedfellows. The offspring are mean and intolerant. For it’s own sake, perhaps, but not without an very high cost.”
In the car she had said a little about her hospital interview. Now I asked her a couple of questions about that in an effort to change the subject. But she was reluctant to offer more. She turned the conversation back.
Sitting with the menu propped in front of her on the table as a sort of fence-guard she says. “Are you one of those people who are always complaining about the taxes? Taxes are higher in France, in Britain, in Germany, in Japan—everywhere!”
I say, “I hear that in the press a lot, It’s not actually true, but I don’t have all those figures at the tip of my tongue so I won’t argue the point with you. There are a thousand and one reasons why I consider this a tyranny, without ever getting to the taxes levied without representation.”
Given her salvo about taxes, I needed something she would not expect. I grabbed at a morsel I’d been studying just the night before. “Like the lame-duck Congress.”
The Menu falls and Deirdre’s eyes are suddenly wide with exaggeration. “The what!”
I try to apply the calming voice to it of Mr. Reilly. “The lame-duck Congress.”
“Are you joking?”
“No, I’m not joking.” I was, in a way, but now that the idea had occurred to me, I had to play it out. “Two hundred years ago they figured it might take a couple of months for a newly elected politician to get to Washington by horse, so they gave him a little time for the journey. Now, it the jet age, the politicians use the time after elections to load their larders. If the party that’s been in power is voted out, they use the time before they have to leave to pass all the laws they would never have the nerve to pass before the election. And they pardon every criminal they might be able to use for payoffs during their retirement. More mischief is done in the weeks of a lame duck Congress than in the two years previous—and its done brazenly, because the news media just write it off like it’s only what’s expected. Yet another complicity between the fourth estate and the others.”
Her silence was likely because she couldn’t believe it. But I was pleased with myself.
I say, “Both political parties do it, they say. But tell me, why should such obvious graft and greed and fraud and bribery be expected from our government? No matter the party in power. Why should we respect them for it? In Britain the party that looses is out the door the next morning, before they have time to steal the silverware.”
Deirdre’s menu is down flat now, “You’re nuts. Is that truly your complaint? That politicians are all thieves? I think you need to grow up!”
I thought this was a little rude. Too cynical by half. I ignored it. A waiter stood by with pad in hand. We ordered.
With the waiter gone, I unloaded. “Like I said before, there’re a thousand and one reasons. I was just giving you an example. Speaking of thousands, how about the fact that they pass unreadable omnibus bills, a thousand plus-pages, filled with regulations and pork that no one can scrutinize beforehand. Our politicians have no idea about the consequences of the laws they enact. They can’t have. Not if they haven’t even read the damn bills! A common citizen of this country is found guilty if he breaks the law. Ignorance of the law, they say, is no excuse. But not so for the President, or the Congress. There’s no possible way to know what the law governing any one thing is anymore. Not in a lifetime of reading. It’s insane! So now they’ve got well paid lawyers and lobbyists and bureaucrats to interpret the laws for them, and by extension, for us. And they all have assistants. And the assistants have assistants so they’ll have somebody to blame if something goes wrong. It’s regulation by proxy. All on the taxpayers dime! Do you think that’s what a democracy should be? Rule by lawyers and lobbyists and bureaucrats and their assistants?”
Deirdre has a glass of white wine in hand now and I have my beer. She proceeds to explain to me that it’s a more complicated world than that. More complicated than it used to be. And anyway, simple solutions to problems, like racism, aren’t good enough.
These are the sorts of excuses that have excuses.
I say, “That problem is simple, and so is the solution. Treat everyone the way you’d want to be treated yourself.”
This brought a silence that I took to be a change of gears. Then she asks, “So, are there any Nazis in this virtual republic of yours?”
This was a surprise turn. “Yes! Of course. But you’re wrong about one thing. The Republic of Books is not virtual. It’s real. The people are real, so the Republic is too. It’s not some sort of computer game.”
“But it has no borders, you say.”
“Nothing you can see on a map.”
“That sounds like semantics to me.”
“I think you’re misusing the word ‘semantics.’ This is not a verbal matter any more than it is ‘virtual.’ It exists if you want it to. That’s all.”
Deirdre gets an exaggerated look of practiced skepticism, “That’s like Peter Pan telling Wendy she can fly.”
I continue trying to keep as calm as Mr. Reilly. “No, but you can fly! Just find a plane! If you need a map, I could go stand on a copy of your newspaper and draw a line around myself, I suppose.”
“What good is this republic then, if you have Nazis?”
I hold a finger up. “Only Nazis that read!”
“But they’re not going to respect the ideals of your republic!”
“No? Then they aren’t there. Like I said, you’re a citizen if you want to be, but only if you want that. Nobody is forcing you to do anything. It’s not like you have to read Moby Dick to be pass the test. But if you think you have the right to tell someone else that they have to read Moby Dick, well then, you just aren’t there yet.”
She takes a breath and then a bite and then another breath.
She’s got a frown going on. “How did you get this idea for a Republic of Books?”
I shrugged the best I could. I had no clear idea of that. I had just dreamt it up one day. I suppose for lack of anything better to do. But I couldn’t say that. Writers spend a lot of time dreaming stuff up that they never write down, and quickly forget about. “Originally it was just a name for the shop. Just what I told the FBI. But then it became something more. That took almost twenty years, I guess. I’m a little slow sometimes. And then it just hit me in the middle of the night. That was a year or two before September 11th. I’d read something about the Falun Gong and their resistance to the government of the Communist Chinese. That made some sense to me. Government in the United States had become too large to control just by using the electoral process that was originally put in place by the founders. Political power and corporate interests had taken over. Its primary purpose now was the preservation of itself and to promote those who supported it. Not much better than the Chicoms except for a few dying traditions, like freedom of the press. The Falun Gong seemed to offer some alternatives.”
“I didn’t say I wanted to copy them. I just think they had some good ideas.”
Deidre pushed her salad around on the plate. Then, maybe to change the subject a little, and because it was on her mind, she again mentions the injured cop she had just spoken to. He had been stabbed in front of a convenience store on Causeway Street while trying to stop a robbery. He was white. The robber was black. But because the robber hadn’t used a gun, the cop had not immediately drawn his own weapon. This turned out to be a mistake. The cop had admitted to her that he was worried about using his gun because he’d just been cautioned against this very thing by his superiors—not to use his gun unless such force was absolutely necessary, and especially so if the suspect was black. There was already a lot of tension between the Police and the Afro-American community. ‘Black lives matter’ was the chant. An inexcusably racist idea which had already gone septic. How could any citizen’s life matter more than another? The result of this incident was that a cop was stabbed and in critical condition for the previous twenty-four hours, tensions had increased anyway, and the robber was still loose to continue his habits. And clearly, the worse part of that was the bad guy was free and would soon be hurting someone else. Maybe even killing someone else, for a few more bucks.
So say, “But isn’t that all part of the same race industry that’s been created by a government trying the legislate prejudice instead of just dealing with bigotry under the law. We are all equal under the law. Or should be. But in reality we’re not all truly equal, are we? You’re prettier than I am, just for an instance. I’m definitely prejudiced on that point. Now, according to some, if you’re black, you’re somehow more or less guilty for committing the same crime as a white person. Aren’t you concerned about that?”
She has not finished her appetizer by then and the dinner was being served. This is very touchy territory, and she’s clearly aware of it. Talking about race is like talking about abortion—verboten in our age of only semi-free of speech.
Out of the blue she tries another direction, “Why do you think that all the politicians are trying to screw you if you also believe they’re just in it for their own benefit. How does screwing you benefit them?”
A reporter is like a Jesuit, only without the logic. They’ll answer a question with a question. Lawyers do the same thing, as a matter of fact. Margaret always did that to me. She should have been a lawyer. She’d save a fortune on her real estate dealings.
I answer, “Answering a question with a question is cute but it’s avoiding the issue. The answer to your question is, because I’m one of those citizens who’re being screwed every day by all of their bullshit laws and I’m speaking up about it. They’re trying to cheat me out of a fair hearing. They’re using up my time, and I have less and less of that coming to me. And yes, they’re using my own tax money to pay for it!”
Now she gets a patronizing tone to her voice. “Michael. The system is big and cumbersome, but people are better off now than they were a hundred years ago. You have to admit that. Most especially minorities.”
I’d ordered fried shrimp. I’m a fried shrimp addict. I could not take any more time to discuss these weighty matters without sustenance. So I began to eat. She took the hint and started in on her filet of sole. But as I did this, the difference in our menu choices had me thinking about the food I’d eaten at the FBI office. Food had a lot to say about some things. I had a cute analogy in mind. In our time, weren’t all our souls filleted? Or at least in danger of it? However, I didn’t say that because I couldn’t figure a way to work it in.
I said, “Most of those people you say are ‘better off,’ at least the minorities you’re talking about, are better off because of invention and technology, not government. There’s as much real poverty today in this country as there was when President Johnson declared a ‘war’ on it, a few trillion dollars ago. That’s yet another war we’ve lost as a nation. Welfare disguises it, but it hasn’t changed the nature of it. Not in the same way the technology does. But it has moved a whole lot of tax money into the coffers of lobbyists from McDonalds and Pepsi Cola and to the television networks that collect exorbitant sums for advertising on what is essentially a concession within another government monopoly. Watching TV all day is not the same as doing something for a living, even if it keeps people off the street. Do you think that’s an accident? By the numbers, after fifty years, at least twenty percent of the population is still kept in thrall with poor schools and a lack jobs while they watch game shows and reality TV and gamble large portions of their welfare checks on government-run lotteries. Generation after generation.”
Deirdre picks at her plate.
She finally says, “So you’re just looking at it from the perspective of a business man. You sound just like any other Republican unhappy with the Democrats. But both parties do the same stuff. They’ve both had their time in power and they all do the same thing.”
This sounded to me more like the sort of moral equivalence argument I might hear in a bar, only with milder language.
“That’s just another lazy simplification by someone avoiding the facts, but I’ll remind you I’m neither Republican nor Democrat.”
I saw the look on her face then. It was clearly one thing for her to be belligerent, but another matter for me.
“So you call yourself an independent. Does that somehow make you innocent?”
“No. I’m not independent! That’s a category for people who don’t want to take the responsibility, or the blame, for voting for their own prejudices. No! And before you go there, I’m not a large ‘L’ libertarian either. They’re insane about their own pet issues. It seems to be more important for them to be able to smoke pot than take responsibility for defending the nation or even recognize the needs for a nation to exist. I lost any illusions about them after 9/11. But I suppose if you want a pigeonhole, you’ll have to label me a libertarian with the little ‘l.’ It’s the closest category on the short list.”
She takes a deep breath of patience. She’s not getting the response she wants.
“I thought you wanted to overthrow the government.”
“Yes. The government. But not the nation.”
“That sounds like you want your cake and eat it to.”
“And that’s a silly comparison. I’m eating fried shrimp and I’m trying to speak with you seriously about my big ol’ ideas—at least the things that are important to me—and you keep throwing out stuff like that. But here’s one or two example that might get through that thick hide of cynicism, just maybe, because they very likely step on your own toes.” (I could only hope the mix of metaphors was not too toxic.) “What about the fact that the government has taken over responsibility for your health. Your doctor’s opinions have to fit a government mandated formula, dreamed up for a bureaucrat for their own convenience not yours or the doctor doesn’t get paid. One of those assistant bureaucrats is deciding whether you get a mammogram or not. Another is determining what sort of flu vaccine is dispensed this year. And a few select insurance companies are getting richer getting paid to fulfill the government priorities. If you get breast cancer, a committee of assistant bureaucrats will decide what treatment you get. But don’t worry. They all went to State run colleges. They know how the system works.” Deirdre is very still through all this rant and just looking at her plate now, but I wasn’t half finished with what I wanted her to understand. “And what about medical privacy? Because of all those laws they’ve passed to control medical costs, you no longer have a right to medical privacy. Not from the government! Do you realize if your father had a stroke and you wanted to know about his health, you couldn’t get that information unless he gave the okay—but unfortunately he’s had a stroke and he just can’t say. However, there are at least thirty or forty agencies of the United States Government that have total access to his medical records, and yours, and mine, including the Department of Defense, the National Security Agency, the Department of Agriculture, Federal Trade Commission, The Department of the Treasury, and any one of a hundred sub departments for each one of those, and all the bureaucrats who work there, and their assistants, and their friends and relatives—and any reporter who has an inside track with them, as well as any politician with their own motives. That frigging health care law gives them the right to tell you what to eat, how much, when, where, and with whom. How do you like them apples!”
She’d let go of her fork at that point and I was happy for it given the look on her face. I waited to see if she’d answer and when she didn’t, I kept at it because I was worked up now and said way too much (more than the way too much I’d already said).
“Now, imagine if you’re another politico who’s running for office because you want your share of the pie, and you’re not happy with all that healthcare nonsense. You’re going to be very careful about what you say if you have something in your medical record you don’t want known. Maybe you had a bout with depression once, or maybe you’re anti-abortion now but you had an abortion yourself when you were a teenager. That’s information is now in the hands of your political enemies. Say you’re a judge on the Supreme Court, and you committed some indiscretion that’s well behind you. Say—what is it?”
She had a cold stare going on that was rather chilling. I could only wonder what the matter was that I‘d stumbled upon. I really didn’t want to know. Whatever it was, as far as I was concerned right then, she should have had all of these thoughts long ago.
But she still didn’t answer.
I wasn’t sure if this was only a matter of keeping her temper or something else. I left it at that. I finished my shrimp. She did not finish her filet of sole. We paid separately.
The restaurant was just over in Cambridge, so I walked alone across the river. This was more than enough time for me to cool down. And to regret my temper.
Yet, the dinner debacle did not concern me so much. My thought after that was about another topic entirely. Now it was on my mind again that I did not have a lawyer.
I did, however, have an accountant. David Brooks.
This small fact was made even more important to me because the day’s mail was still waiting for me when I got back to the shop. The pile included the usual overdue bills as well as a registered letter from the IRS asking me to arrange for an appointment with a Mr. Morris as soon as possible. It instructed me to bring all my sales and other financial records with me covering the last three years to the Kennedy building at Government Center. If I did not contact them within 48 hours to make these arrangements they would act accordingly.
The appropriateness of their office being so near to the FBI was not lost on me. I called David.
David Brooks never answers his phone. This is actually one of the things I admire about him. The phone is in his pocket, but nothing is so urgent in his world that it requires him to interrupt whatever he’s doing (usually a round of golf, but it was a little late in the day for that). The digital voice tells me he’ll call me back.
I was in the middle of helping a customer just before closing when this eventuality occurred and I interrupted that to take the call. I read the letter to him. He grunted. He asked for the name of Mr. Morris and the number. Then he asked me when he could come over to pick up the current records. (He has copies of everything previous to this year going back to 2006, which was the year he took my case over from my old accountant, Stanley. Stanley wisely stuck with Margaret during the divorce. Her financial shenanigans with real estate have certainly provided him with many more lucrative billings hours.)
David bills me at $50 an hour, which is his ‘charity case’ rate. This is because he likes books and coming over to get the records rather than sending his assistant is just an excuse to spend some time browsing. But he never loses an opportunity during a visit to remind me that I’m a poor businessman and he could not get off the line without reminding me of that once again.
“Michael,” David says my name like my mother and Margaret always did, “This is about the stuff I read in the papers. That’s what this is. You know that, don’t you? You’re being audited as a punishment for being foolhardy. If you didn’t always have to open your big mouth and stick your tongue out at the cat, they’d leave you alone. Now you need a lawyer. I’ll speak to a friend of mine, Marty Guinn.”
I was not in the mood for another argument. I just said, “Maybe. I’ll see you tomorrow.”
- Slouching toward Eutopia
with due respect for all those adjectives that passed this way before.
McGeraughty’s first maxim: Liberty is costly because freedom is not the natural state of living things. Dependence is. Submission or domination is the common behavior of all animal kingdoms, but the idea of liberty is a human construct and may be a defining characteristic of the species. Nonetheless, dependence is the way of human beings until the child attempts to make their own life as an adult. A sense of liberty is first fashioned then, or not, when we are still too young to vote. And a codicil to that: liberty is only won and maintained by the deliberate effort and vigilance of the adult. The child who stays home may inherit the past along with the attic bric-a-brac, but never the future.
What freedom we may attain is lost by doing nothing, just as easily as it can be sacrificed along the way for the temporary benefit of false security—or more obviously, accommodation in order to get along with others, which has become the greater object of all public school education.
Someone, an uncle, perhaps, once said it this way to me: be mean or be the meal. A sobering thought. I didn’t agree.
But then, as I am wont, I considered the noun apart from the adjective or the verb—the average separated from the act, or the intention. Notice: this is not only a game of language—semantics, as Deirdre has suggested—but the very origin of thought. Children often object to such homonyms, before they realize the benefits of their ambiguity when dealing with adults. Mean though your circumstances be, there is no need to be mean. Whatever do you mean, to find the mean? However, I remember being delighted at homophones at a very young age and attempting to find other examples of the kind, or then inventing them when the need arose. Moreover, I was making puns long before the people around me figured out my intentions. I found the confusion to be funny. They usually thought I was being obtuse or weird (i.e., stupid). But I could be all three, of course.
One early incident has fixed this in my mind. ‘Who was the father of the sun,’ I asked. My exact words, likely less precise, are forgotten, but the response is not. I was in a Catholic school then and the nun thought I was being blasphemous. I suspect I was not innocent. I was made to sit on a hard bench for a time and wait my turn to see the monsignor. That heavy man (I remember the sweat of a warm autumn day) asked me to repeat what I had said. Ah! He laughed! But he thought the question was not unworthy. After all, God was the father of all things, so the sun was his, was it not? (I remember an accent to his voice now. Was the reverend Father Smith actually French?) So, I stretched my luck and asked, why was he himself called a father when he could not marry and had no children? Ah! Again. But this was a matter too complex for a nine-year old, he assured me. I must understand that such knowledge was only to be gained by effort. Like leaning to tie a knot, he said. He told me to be patient, and to study, and, in time, all would become clear to me.
But time enough has passed and I am still confused.
I have no idea when it was that I first considered myself apart from the individual who had been made in haste by my parents, but I think it might in fact have been just about then; about the fifth grade at parochial school. Sex was on all our minds as I remember it. However, I was just writing about meanness. Certainly the tease of hormones in our veins was that. I could have thought, being mean might be cruel but not necessarily Ruthless, which certainly the Bible’s Boaz was never intending to be. I had a greater interest in the Old Testament than the New, right from the beginning, because of the begetting. But to be, or not to be, is always the question. And the answer is, my sophomore years began early, and lasted.
If I am remembering correctly, it was some statement of a similar kind that first got George Reilly’s attention. At that later moment in time, given my propensity to link compatible ideas in order to fix them in my brain by association lest they slip through the holes and cracks in my head, I had just expressed more than several such thoughts, as you might guess, especially given the opportunity of a new and willing ear. He disagreed immediately, of course. George sees the universe in terms of entropy—pulled apart by the weak force of its own gravities. Never having been fond of the Big Bang theory, I saw it quite differently. Loud noises are disturbing.
George believes, I think, that a natural independence is the trend of things. History is a struggle to remain upright as we drift toward impending chaos, perhaps. The only real question is about the means and methods to be used against this disorder. As I say, we differed.
He does, however, have a nice little idea, which I must explore some day, concerning the truth that ‘socialism’ is the primitive state of the working family unit, and that escaping this natural thrall to become an independent adult is actually the generational progress which is in turn the responsibility of each individual. An obvious reversal of the Marxian flow of history, and a much closer match to my own thought.
I argued, in turn, that decay is only a phenomenon of non-living things (inanimate always strikes me as a joke unworthy of a lava flow). The living, taken in the aggregate of a kind, will rather congregate by the river, eat the pot-luck, sing hymns and conjugate. Often enough, the first order of business, after barbeque and beer, is the conjugation. Singing hymns was simply a means to speed seduction. Thus we have Frank Sinatra–our true intentions obscured by the crooning of wishes. Women love poetry, and that requires language, because all grunts rhyme. Human progress toward individual liberty is only a bi-product of this discovery of language. Before that invention, the beast that we were dwelt in a dark confusion, clinging for warmth amidst the barks and screams of the night. Pulling a tick from an ear was an act of love when communication was limited to variations of the moan, the gasp, and the whimper. So language was born from the intimacy of the subject and the verb. And too, undoubtedly, the first such real communication was a lie: ‘I love you.’ And with language came the singing and the poetry, as well as the law, the dear John letter, and in due course, the novel.
The banter between George and I has always progressed in that fashion.
Before he had read that essay, we had engaged in only a bit of verbal interplay from time to time concerning forbidden words. Not banned words of the old fashion George Carlin stand-up comedy variety, prohibited from public discourse by FCC regulation for simply being nasty, but of those words newly imprisoned by that gratuitous designation, ‘hate speech,’ for betraying some politically incorrect and unacceptable thought in the current fascist zeitgeist. This taboo, of itself, was an evil construct, both of us agreed, and we immediately tried to recall and say aloud in the shop as many examples as we had recently overheard. Not the older ones like nigger, wop, mick and kike, or those we may have already tried to avoid in polite company for some time, like wet-back, midget, and fairy, but the more recent additions to the authoritarian lexicon of forbidden words, such as wife, handicapped, idiot and fat.
The few customers we had that day edged toward the door. One woman told me in certain terms that she was going to ‘report’ us. I earnestly asked, ‘to whom?’ Wondering then, perhaps, if I had gained a new master while my back was turned.
Previous to that, I had just written an essay (rather too long in retrospect) that I’d put on the store website in response to some nouveau Nazis who wanted to ban a particular novel we did not even carry. I had never heard of the book until this Louisburg Square twit came down from her perch and congratulated me for not having it. Then I had to order the damn thing just to make my position on the matter clear.
A part of that prior essay went, “The catchall term, ‘hate speech’ is wrongly used to tag language associated with civil behavior between consenting adults and chosen lifestyles, as well as actions that are justly both illegal and immoral, such as rape, bondage, child abuse, battery and murder—all deeds which are obviously bad by any rational social standard as well as being nasty and cruel, and against which we have long had precise rules of civilized behavior. But even the verbal description of those most evil actions, though they may indeed be tasteless, or offensive to hear, or to read, and can be rightly described as hateful if they are intended to threaten or hurt others, cannot be banned—should not be banned. Whereas the punishment for an action is a legal retribution of a corporal nature based on physical facts that can be proven in a court of law, the intention of the words are beyond this authority. Barring self-incrimination, motive cannot be established beyond reasonable doubt. And though it may at times seem appropriate, physical punishment for poor taste—like pop art, hip-hop, and Christmas decorations before Thanksgiving—is equally wrong, for it is in this very difference of judgment that liberty is born.”
I was being too cute by half. And too wordy.
“To proscribe the use of words based on assumption is the issue here. What else do you lose by prohibiting such language? What associated liberties are lost? Is this the sort of prurient text that was once labeled pornography? It may, in fact, be pornographic and thoroughly obscene. But the words in question might also be instructive of the potential horror to be found in the actions described and thus a valuable reminder for the majority of us who live our lives in a squalor of polite security, safe from any such dread. Security does not breed improvement. Discomfort does. The judge and jury for a decision concerning obscenity cannot easily or fairly be chosen so long as language has any art to it, and any verdict, even if you think it correct, is at best problematic and more likely destructive.”
I was trying too hard to be academic about something that should never have been in the hands of those scholastic thieves and ivy-league robbers of the imagination in the first place.
George had read the entire rant. Our friendship actually began right there I suppose. He pointed to my prolix effort as both pedantic and pretentious. Why did I bother? Shouldn’t I simply use the language as I damned well pleased and lead by example? Wasn’t liberty best exposed by the free exercise thereof? Thus, our ongoing argument on the origins of liberty were established.
He was wrong, I explained.
You often know a friend by what is not said. It wasn’t long before we stopped arguing political points (entropy versus autonomy is a difficult parse) and began trading those scraps of real knowledge that might have come our way since our last encounter. What did I think of the new Ipswich Christmas ale? What writers had I discovered that week? (George is always amazed that, after fifty years of heavy reading, I keep discovering fabulous authors I’d never heard of before). And, by the way, where could he get a good hot dog, close-by? What new composers had I found, now that the internet had made so much more music accessible. (George plays the piano—another scrap of information about him that I had not mentioned to Mr. Evans. I have only mastered the three chords on a guitar necessary to compose a few simple songs). Not that we stopped discussing philosophy altogether, but that our talks were more about the new ideas we had and no longer a means of establishing our grounds.
Several times we went out for lunch or dinner. We compared our taste in beer at all the better local pubs. I began to look forward to his visits enough to schedule my time away from the store so that it would not conflict. Other than an account of something he had done which he thought might interest me, he seldom spoke of personal matters, nor did he ask about my own history or family. And when he did, it was about a specific point and not a general inquiry. My daughter, Eleanor, had lived for a time in Seattle. He wondered how she liked it there. Had I been there myself? He had thought about moving there. That sort of thing.
Yes, early on, I was aware of my own avoidance of his personal details. Then I became used to it and the matter faded in importance. I remember thinking once, after his inquiry concerning Seattle, that he might be getting ready to leave, but I did not even inquire about when.
This, then, was the predicate for what happened next.
Early Tuesday morning, about eight, I’m on the computer at the front desk in the shop, trying to concentrate and finish another blog posting, and I hear tapping at the window. Outside, Margaret’s face is catching the slant of the sunlight down Revere Street. I can see by the haze that the window needs cleaning.
When I let her in, she says, “The window needs cleaning.”
“I’ll speak to someone about it. What do you want?”
I can see that she has the Post folded in her hand. I could only guess what that was about.
She asks, “What do you know about this fellow George Reilly. I mean really?”
“Really? Reilly is rather a righteous rogue.” She did not break a smile so I continued. “At least I know that much.”
“But how? Just by what he reads? You don’t seem to know anything else about him. I’m sure Hitler read some very nice books.”
“No. I don’t think so. Maybe a little Spengler. Marx and Nietzsche, certainly. And Heidegger. Wittgenstein. Weber. But I don’t think Hitler really read a lot of anyone. That sort of personality doesn’t have the patience. Their certainties are God given, and they have very nasty gods. Good, or bad, ideology too often has very little to do with thought. But George Reilly has never struck me as an ideologue. He likes to discuss things too much. He’s far too open to suggestions.”
“There has to be a reason the FBI wants him.”
“I’m sure there is. More than one, probably. But given their own behavior, that much is in his favor. And if I have to choose between a friend and the FBI, it’s no contest. The Feds have already sold their souls for pottage.” And then, in an attempt to finish that subject off more lightly, I tried again, “But the reason George Reilly really reads is rather a riddle.”
She has never been impressed with my little onomatopoeia any more than she likes my rhymes. She says, “Stop it!” and drops the paper down on the counter with a grimace of disgust. It was folded to an inner page. “Here’s another piece by your girl friend, Miss Roberts. She seems to be very dedicated to your case.”
My hands were full then of books to put away and I looked at the article where it lay—that is, without picking it up off the marble.
I say, “She’s not my girl friend.”
Margaret quips back, “There might be a difference of opinion on that matter then.”
What is it women see in the motives of other women? I suppose the motives of men are that much easier to judge from afar. Sex, food and beer. Maybe a novel or a rousing symphony for respite in-between.
I read the lede aloud into the gloom of the empty shop, “ ‘Darker purpose may loom over FBI investigation of local bookseller’ Now, that’s a catchy headline!”
The gist of the piece was in the first few paragraphs.
“ ‘It has frequently been protested that laws created under the aegis of the Patriot Act and meant to combat terrorism after 9/11 appear to contradict First Amendment rights to freedom of speech and freedom of the press as well as the Fourth Amendment safeguards against search and seizure.
“Michael McGeraughty, owner of A Republic of Books, believes any semblance of an individual right to privacy is the greatest loss to these rulings. Personal information is taken, used and abused by unaccountable agencies for questionable purposes, and just such government intimidation appears to be the motive in the recent interrogation of the Boston bookseller.
“Ardis Cooper, assistant manager at the Charles Street shop, was also questioned by the FBI. She believes the agency is interested in anyone dissenting against recent government policy. Ms. Johnson expresses the opinion, ‘There was ample legislation already on the books that could have been used to prosecute terrorists. The Patriot Act was enacted by lawmakers as a purely political maneuver in a time of national crisis. It actually created whole new measures of authority and attendant bureaucracy, at the same time diminishing the authority of local police and traditional law enforcement in the process. All of it accomplished while enlarging the scope of government intrusion on private lives but making us no safer in the process.’ ”
And Herself opened the door, just as I finished that sentence. She was not even on the work schedule.
I smiled at the sunlit dish of strawberry pink and freckles on her face and said, “You’ve gotten some very nice ink here.”
Ardis shook that off, “A friend woke me up to tell me about it.”
“Did Deirdre get the quotes right?”
Ardis nodded as if reluctant to admit the fact. “Pretty much. Yes. I was only quoting you.”
Margaret was not exactly scowling, but she looked manifestly unhappy at our exchange. She says, “You better have a lawyer! You do have a lawyer, don’t you Michael?” But she can see the answer to that on my face even without sunlight and adds, “Oh, crap! You don’t have a lawyer, do you?”
She knew that in any case. I never had a lawyer during the divorce either.
I said, “But I have David.”
She answers, “David is only a certified public pain in the ass.”
And the day was busy once again. This was a Tuesday, yet.
But I did not get the chance to read the rest of the article in the Post until much later and was not as pleased with the latter part. Immediately after the quote from Ardis it said, “Douglas Evans, Special Agent at the FBI Boston Field Office, strongly disagrees with these interpretations. He states unequivocally, ‘There are people with darker motives hiding behind antiquated laws. Our mandate is not to subvert the Constitution but safeguard it while digging those evildoers out of their spider holes and exposing them to the light of day. The safety of us all depends on that. We cannot suffer another attack like 9/11. Not on my watch.’ ”
The ‘spider-hole’ reference leaves me thinking Mr. Evans is a veteran of the war in Iraq.
As an answer, and amidst of the bustle that afternoon, I wrote a fresh installment of my new blog, re-quoting Ardis quoting me. This was done in-between answering more questions from customers such as, ‘What exactly did they charge you with?’ People don’t read the newspapers very carefully so perhaps that’s the reason reporters are so often careless. Or was it the other way around—the misinformation in newspapers had trained people pay less attention to what was written there.
Then again, I could not assume that what I wrote on my website would be received with any greater respect, though perhaps a little more scrutiny by the FBI.
In fact, this was the very subject of a novel I’d written almost twenty years ago. The Bones of Reason was an historical fiction that concerned the sad reversals that hounded Tom Paine after he published The Age of Reason, and the aftermath of those lost hopes. His ideals had been savaged in the bloodbath of the French Revolution and the subsequent rise of Napoleon. The author of the greatest libertarian pamphlet of all time, Common Sense, had lived on to become an advocate of government power and enforced principles in order to prevent another such botch as the French had made. I argued in my little fiction that Paine’s original ideals had truly been lost at the close of the Eighteenth Century as they were compromised by the very democracy he had wished for, conceding to the demands of the mob over the few, or to the vested interests of the few over the many for a small remittance, giving way at last to the fresh realities of the Nineteenth Century, an age of steam and manifest destiny, and the rise again of empire. (In my little tale I had Paine himself ask, while in danger of being arrested as a traitor, if the President who endorsed these Alien and Sedition acts could truly be the same John Adams who had earlier signed the Declaration of Independence—but then, “turning inadvertently in his disgust, his eyes found the mirror above the bowl and pitcher, and stopping there in shock at the sight of his own pocked face, ‘Is that the mark of the beast I see upon that brow? Are my own brains corrupted by the great pox of tyranny?’)
While the British tyrant had been made to forfeit a large portion of his holdings in America, power and brute force had triumphed after all. Had it not? The Eastern Tribes from Pennsylvania to the Carolinas were soon enough divested of their lands in favor of the speculators. Cotton filled American ears against the cry of slaves. It was only then, given the apparent failure of reason to fundamentally change the way mankind conducted its affairs, that the color and flare of Romanticism was taken up as a salve on the civic wound and an apparently a better answer for the yearning of the individual soul. Passion was an answer with a greater attraction, for a time, at least—with the sex appeal of a Byronic interpretation of freedom. (The Founding Father’s always lacked that sex appeal, I think.) As if wishing for a better world was sufficient in and of itself to make it so; an earlier form of magic-realism triumphant!
Paine’s own mysterious death and burial in New Rochelle, where his remains would later be dug up by fellow radical and author, William Cobbett, only then to be lost to history, was as Romantic a tale, I thought, as Shelley’s eternal swim, or Poe’s drugged stumbled into a gutter, or that of any other doomed hero of a past new age, or in that olden modern time. So I followed the bones themselves of the great revolutionary as they traveled through the years following, and amazingly, like Peter Pan’s instruction to Wendy concerning the means to fly, this Romantic willfulness to liberty had actually worked—for awhile. Just as the idea of America had worked, for a time, simply by wishing it to be.
My actual ax to grind in The Bones of Reason had been the way my own generation of Baby Boomers had returned to that same dead-end of believing wishes trumped action and then, when they did not get there own way with more immediate results, turned from peace marches to bomb making. All of that, in less than a generation. My own generation. I suppose my book was too negative to entertain any literary agents at the time it was written, despite a nifty plot centered around those bones, involving a suspected murder and an unpublished work, but then, neither had my more positive and lighthearted efforts, so that was likely not the real matter.
When I was a youth—younger at the time than either Ardis or Jack—I had foolishly thought that the whole world was on the verge of a change for the better. The puerile Sixties had become the more sober (if color impaired) Seventies. Perhaps not in its immediate bell-bottomed appearance, but I thought it was so, then. And even now, I still wear jeans (without the flair) and the same facial hair.
I suppose such egoism is the curse of all youth, to believe that everything will change, suddenly, in a single lifetime. Their own. It is all about us, after all. Isn’t it?
And it’s the busting of such imagined hopes and promises that makes cynics of so many, especially when their focus is narrowed by that bathroom mirror.
As I say, at the heart of The Bones of Reason, I was addressing the ignorance in our own moment, more than that of 1835. But I had imagined, in that year of long ago, a resourceful young woman of a past new age, the proprietor of a second-hand goods bazaar engaged in her own willful reach for a better life, has won the auction bid on unclaimed articles at a small warehouse in London. Rummaging through a storage bin on which the rent has not been paid, she breaks into a rough wooden box labeled with an unfamiliar name. Pulling on the largest of the bones embedded there in the straw, she hold’s up the human femur to the lamp light while asking her male companion, “Who is Tom Paine?” (Perhaps a reader of Ayn Rand might appreciate the usage?) The fellow takes the bone, turning it end to end for a moment in soiled hands (I imagined this done like the apes once did in the film, 2001) and answers, “God, if I know,” before tossing it up and away into the heaps of debris.
I thought I was making my point clear—even with the calling out to God on behalf of the unrecognized atheist. Still, no agent or editor seemed to appreciate my view.
The way it works is this: so long as I remained naïve I could offer my very innocence as a defense. As soon as I admitted to any knowledge of sin at all, I was then suspect. In Catholic precincts you learn this subterfuge well before Confirmation as a means of reducing the number of Our Fathers and Hail Marys you carry away with you from the confessional. (Who among us, it was rightly assumed, with the actual knowledge of sin, could then resist temptation? More seriously speaking, once you’ve had hot sex, how can you pretend that it’s not more important than the reading of cold philosophy? Of course, that too must be why nuns were meant to be virgins. The natural seduction of sin. In much the same way that power seduces, and once given the absolute might to do so, how could you resist the chance to make the world right, according to your own lights.
And that, in a Jimmy Carter peanut shell, was the original sin of government.
Deidre’s demand to know why I thought the government was trying to screw me betrayed her own real innocence, I think—a believing in the idea that they were only trying to do the right thing—as did her total failure to realize that such power immediately corrupted the user. How could that be, given all she must have seen as a reporter? Is that just another example of willful blindness? Of seeing only what she wanted to see, and ignoring what did not fit her preconceived notions? (She had very pretty eyes, after all.) Or did she believe it? The answer to that question mattered to me, and now I was asking myself why. Something had changed.
My answer to her was, “It was the very thing that Tolkien once warned us about, you know.” I gave this answer by way of preparing my ground for further argument.
But she objected, “That’s just a movie.”
A concrete fact. Never argue with concrete.
And I was not an innocent on this point. Nor was I willing to be guilty of greater trespass. Mine would not be a sin of commission. But omission was another thing entirely. (Or is that just a Catholic thing.)
I could only say, “But first, it was a book,” and shrug.
Whatever it was that George Reilly might have done to draw the interest of the FBI, I knew him only as the fellow who could happily sacrifice half an hour of his life talking about Montaigne’s theories of lying and memory. It was Montaigne, you may know, who first asserted that to be a good liar, a good memory was requisite (or, at least the first I’ve read). In response, (allowing for my own natural deficiencies) I had suggested to George that it was possible to accomplish this by writing, as well, asserting that even if my memory was faulty I could always turn back the pages to check the veracity of my own lies to keep them harmonious. But George believed in the bluff. Admit to the flaws in your recollection to begin with, and then lie wholeheartedly. Who could then fault you for being wrong? George had slyly equated this act with carefully reading the warnings on bottles of medicine. If it killed you after that, it was your own damned fault. His was the better argument.
So with yet another twist of logic, my hope was that my blog concerning the FBI raid and their subsequent investigation would defuse any additional interest in me. Wasn’t I being sufficiently transparent? (A phony word in the usage of the moment but appropriate here). I was clearly being open with the facts of the case. Wasn’t I? At least those I knew.
I was wrong again, of course.
This time it was Mr. Evans himself who came in the shop to correct me.
Seeing him there, wandering the aisles, got me thinking that I recognized him from sometime before our most recent encounters. I had a better memory for faces than for my own fabrications—I was certain now that he had been in at least once prior the raid and I had not taken sufficient note of him then.
He finally wanders over to me while I’m pulling typewriter keys apart on one of our display machines which had been attacked by a twelve year-old earlier that morning.
He says, “I spoke with your Mr. Brooks.”
His Adam’s apple danced. “Not so good. He’s a real pain in the ass.”
“My ex-wife says the same thing.”
“He want’s the records we borrowed so he can access them for the IRS. I told him you could send somebody down to Center Plaza to get them if you wanted.”
I said, “I don’t think so. You already used up a bunch of taxpayer money to come over here and confiscate them in the first place. I’m feeling pretty poor after your making me miss a day of work. I’m afraid you’ll have to use a little more tax money to bring them back.”
He shrugged at my answer too emphatically. “If they’re not important enough for you to come and get them, maybe we’ll just throw them out.”
I gave him a purposefully unconvincing shrug in return, “I’ll let Ms. Roberts at the Post know you said that. She’s been looking for more detail on the way you treat innocent people. And I’ll let Mr. Brooks know so that he can inform the IRS that you’re impeding their own unwarranted audit by withholding them.”
Mr. Evans smiles with appropriate theatricality. “This is going to be fun to watch.”
“Well, I hope it’s at least entertaining. You’ve managed to double our business with this kerfuffle and I’d love to be able to write about more of your shenanigans so at least that much doesn’t stop.”
Now he gives me the straight-face. “You will find the IRS far less accommodating. And they might find your business practices questionable.”
Ah! An implied threat or simply an interesting misdirection on his part. People are often more afraid of an IRS audit than a gun.
I say, “I like your admission that the IRS is a greater menace than the FBI—but such as what, for instance?”
He smirks. How long had he practiced that smirk in front of his bathroom mirror, during the first year he had been an agent, before he was satisfied with it? It was clearly practiced now. But he should have left it in the bathroom. It had no menace.
He says, “I’ll just let them inform you of that.”
This was an empty threat and I think we both knew it. I did not believe Mr. Evans to be a stupid man. Just wrongheaded. And I was pretty sure my bluff was bigger than his. But like a barroom challenge, I really had no idea.
Revolutions always need a specific cause but usually have no more ambition than the elimination of the original hurt. Few insurrections have been given as broad a mandate as the American Revolution, for instance. And thus, most revolts quickly descend into chaos after the first objective is met, only to bring about the rise of new governments that are as poor as the one overthrown. Often worse.
I wanted something better for my own kerfuffle. This then was the beginning of the next blog that I wrote: “You wouldn’t want to live in the average utopia. You wouldn’t even want to visit. It’s an unpleasant place, unkind and unwelcoming to the hot blooded. It’s the sort of country where impulse is forbidden, extravagance is sin, and curiosity is punished. It’s a place made perfect by design, like a sunny field of regimented corn. Thus there can be no individual delight in the sprouting of the wayward kernel at the roadside. There is no odd old tree in the field amidst the regular rows to draw the eye—certainly no personal pleasures beyond the harmony of evenly spaced ranks. A chemically induced happiness, subdued. Sentiments calmed by a lack of alternatives. All insecurity banished by an absence of choice. Genders neutralized. Sexual pleasures made gratuitous. But there is no actual sweaty sex. Artificial insemination guarantees results. Every stalk there is equal (though some, as you may have heard, are more equal than others). With such perfection achieved, the present, past and future are one. It is a nation at peace by forced irrigation, propagation, fertilization, cultivation and routine harvesting.”
And I offered a short bibliography of a few dozen utopian novels as proof.
Mr. Evans hung around following our minor confrontation, with some intention he did not reveal to me. He continued to wandered about the shop, several times pulling one book or another from a shelf and bringing it to the counter to ask me what I thought of it. There did not seem to be a rhyme or reason to the choices.
Robert Heinlein and Dashiell Hammett? David Hackett Fisher and Amity Shlaes?
About two o’clock, when the usual mid-afternoon quiet descended, he leaned his lanky frame up against the side of the counter, just out of the way of the register. I first noticed then that his Adam’s apple actually started moving before he spoke—in some sort of advance reflex—and this gave me an early warning of his intention to speak.
“You’re a smart fella. How is it you got yourself keyed into a relationship with this guy, Reilly? You must have known something was up with him.”
I thought the approach was interesting for a number of reasons. He was staying with the ‘good cop’ persona.
“He likes to stand right about where you are now. He just comes in and wanders around a bit, like you’ve been doing. Of course he says ‘Hello,’ first. Not like some people. Then he’ll pull something off the shelf and show it to me and ask me what I think about it. Next thing I know we’re talking about George Sutherland or Thomas Reid or something else of the kind. One thing leads to another. After a while you come to expect it. Sometimes, it’s the best part of the day. But I’m thinking now maybe I shouldn’t have been taking such pleasures for granted. Maybe that’s all over.”
“Who are those two? Novelists?”
I ignored the question as a misdirection.
“That’s really the point. I’m not such a smart fella, as you say. But I do persist. I know a lot of people who are smarter than me. You’ve met a couple of them, I believe. Take my ex-wife. Please.” I gave that the briefest pause, just long enough to make it clear he was not a Henny Youngman fan. “She has me totally beat. She could join Mensa but she thinks they’re all a lot of self-conscious jerks . . . And, you know. That’s a funny thing to. When we got married she thought I was the smartest thing. She thought I was a genius. I was in love, of course, and I didn’t try to dissuade her. But then she discovered the truth and it was all down hill.”
He offered a skeptical rise in one eyebrow along with the quiver at his throat. “How’d she make that mistake?”
“Because I know a little about a lot of things. I really don’t know very much about anything.”
“Yeah, sure.” Maybe he accepted that anecdote, and maybe he didn’t. He says, “But tell me a little more about Mr. Reilly. What do you think his deal is?”
“How do you mean that?”
“What do you think he’s up to? Why all the secrecy?”
“You’re asking me that? Why are you here? Shouldn’t any person be free to pursue their own interests without the FBI looking on. I suspect, whoever he really is, he’s had a taste of you guys before.” This was purposely misleading, of course. George had told me he has no record with the FBI at all. But the idea that he did might occupy some of their time. I added, “I’m on his side for that.” But I am an amateur at such obfuscation.
Mr. Evans shook it right off. “No. I don’t think so. This guy is a clean slate. But I guess it bothers me that someone in your position, with a family, and a business, and a good reputation, is hooking up with someone he doesn’t even know. That doesn’t make sense.”
This was old ground. “I think you have that all backwards. Anyone who can discuss Natural Rights with me like it matters what I think, is someone I ought to know, if only for the sake of my family, and my business, and my reputation—or as someone else once put it, ‘our lives, our fortunes and our sacred honor.’ ”
No reaction. Not a flinch. But somehow, I think he understands. He says, “Very smart. So tell me who those two guys are that you mentioned.”
I directed him to the philosophy section. To his credit, he did not come back for more than an hour. When he did, it was with a paperback copy of Thomas Paine’s Common Sense.
Evans pointed back into the aisle in the manner of someone who had encountered another person there, “That other fella, Reid, was talking about ‘common sense,’ and right on the same shelf is this one. It looks like it might be a little easier.” Mr. Evans flipped the pages of the slim paperback with his thumb. “What do you think?”
“I think you’re right. Reid and his Scottish Enlightenment were the foundation for Tom Paine and Mr. Jefferson as well.”
He tossed the book onto the counter.
“Then I’ll buy that.”
- For Wednesday’s child
perambulation is nearly as healthy as walking
I have heard it said that Wednesday’s child has far to go. But if you knew that some Wednesdays were going to be as long as they get to be, you might just stay in bed.
Unlike the patch of real estate behind my shop on Charles Street, hollowed out there for parking spaces that rent for more per square foot than the apartments in the building, there is an actual ‘garden’ behind my little basement cave on Myrtle. Because that smaller scrap lies right there beyond the single window of my kitchenette/dining room/living area, I have always used it as second room, even in winter. (Though the apartment was listed as a ‘one bedroom,’ the sleeping area is, in truth, only a large closet wedged beneath the stairs, and the airshaft window on that side is good for shadow but useless for light.)
The east to west charge of the sun catches my garden for most of the year. A fence and gate cuts off direct access to the alleyway, and the buildings at this side block the winds that sweep up Beacon Hill from the Charles River. I’ve been in that apartment for six years and have few complaints. Among those few are too little heat and too much noise from the pipes. But the garden has shaped up very nicely. I have roses, morning glories, begonias, tomatoes and a few other assorted plants I lost the names for when I accidentally tossed out the empty seed packets. All of theses are in raised boxes constructed from scrap lumber and set up at the perimeter. I painted the boxes white just to brighten things. Some years ago I retrieved enough brick from a refuse dumpster beside a demolition over on Pinckney Street to cover the remaining ground space. It’s all very nice now.
The FBI had looked in every crevice of my apartment. And to my knowledge, those hounds were the only other human beings beside myself to have been in the place in all the years since I moved in. (Though this was not wholly intentional. I have invited at least one other person to stay there for a night, but the offer was refused.)
The other matter with that matter was, I had not allowed my children to visit me there. This was not only because of the absence of space, but that there is a certain lack of dignity in a sixty-plus year old man living in rooms smaller than his very first apartment had been, back when he was just eighteen. Consequently, the family generally gets together at Margaret’s, which is close enough, anyway. After all, that’s also the same apartment where they grew up, familiar for them, and still comfortable and spacious by any comparison.
Since the one aforementioned rejection, I have come to look on my quarter (it being difficult to describe the space in the plural) as a sort of private sanctuary. A hermitage sans hermit. I would not make a good hermit, in truth. I enjoy conversational intercourse too much, especially now that I don’t get the other kind. And now, knowing that the Fed’s had rifled through the place so thoroughly, I had the feeling of having been violated in some way and could not shake it. Thinking back, the only other time I’d ever felt this way was when I was eighteen or nineteen and that first apartment of my very own, in New York, had been burglarized.
It was this sense of things then which had taken me to the hardware store to buy a bucket of light green paint. (Green being the cheapest color, given the regular demands of our local Hibernians, but a little added white and a touch of yellow makes this less nationalistic). The idea was, considering that I could not pee at the perimeters like a good wolf, I would paint the entire place and shift a few things to new locations and thus reaffirm my personal space. (No, that smacks a bit much of psychobabble. Like I say, I was simply reasserting my territory.) And this was, after all, a simpler project than even the limited square footage made necessary. I have bookshelves over every clear expanse of wall greater than three feet in width. No need to paint behind those. Mostly it was just a matter of moving my bed a few feet to the opposite end of that cavity beneath the stairs. But then, after one sleepless night that way, I shoved it back due to a nightmare that I attributed to disorientation. I am too old for such radical change, perhaps. I liked the green, however. Very soothing.
If you are wondering, this is all very pertinent to the fact that Deirdre soon came to visit. And this happened due to a misunderstanding. Or so I thought.
She called the shop and asked to speak with me. She actually asked Ardis, who answered the phone. And Ardis likely answered this request in a tone of voice appropriate to her feelings about reporters in general, and Deidre in particular.
When I got to the waiting receiver by following the curl of the cord to where in dangled into the trash can—Ardis’s traditional indication that the call is not worth taking—Deirdre said, “Can we talk?”
I said, “Sure.”
She said, “Not at the store.” A brief pause let me understand her reluctance to speak anywhere in the vicinity of Ardis. “Is there someplace else?”
I say, “How about the Paramount,” that being a former diner that’s been thoroughly yuppified, but the closest possibility I could think of that might meet the demand. Given taxes and the subsequent rents, Downtown Boston no longer has anything like a simple diner.
I can see her shake the short bleach-blond curls on her head, even over the phone. She says, “Everyone will see us there. You said you live close. How about your apartment?”
I hesitated. I don’t know why. So she added, “You’re a bachelor. I know. I’ve seen bachelor apartments before. Don’t be embarrassed. I’m sure its not so bad as all that.”
“I suppose. Sure. When.”
“How about now. I’m just a couple blocks away looking for a parking space.”
It was midafternoon and what crowd had been in the shop had gone back to their shifts at the hospital or their offices. I gave her my home address.
She was sitting on the front stoop by the time I got to Myrtle Street.
By making a pot of coffee right off the bat, I gave her ample time to look the place over.
She says, “It’s cozy,” as she wanders the meager open space at the geometric center. This, of course, means it’s very small, which is not news. She peeks into the gloom of my bedroom and then seemed to give an extra look to the bed, which is even narrower than a standard size to allow for a little walking space.
She smiles unconvincingly. “I like it. And clean. Neat. Even your bed is made up. I’m impressed.”
I would have admitted to my recent efforts at interior decoration but this sounded like another of her left-handed compliments. She is left-handed after all. I answered, “I have a maid service come in once a month to shovel it out.”
She said, “I’m sorry,” but nothing else to compensate for her assumptions. After a quick review of the bookshelves she stood at the sink, looking out the window at the flowers, so I suggested we go there and opened the door from the hall. A nice burst of sun warm May air met the dank atmosphere within. On the way through she stopped to look closely at a picture of my three children. This was taken some years ago at the rim of the Grand Canyon. She did not comment on the photo at first. But she seemed immediately relieved afterward to be out of the darker confines of the apartment.
Thankfully my little wrought iron table outside has two chairs. I took the flower pot off the one I don’t normally use and sat there.
(Another side note: this outfit of furniture was picked up at a yard sale where I’d been buying books one day, and purchased for the grand price of ten dollars because the welding had cracked on one of the leg braces. The fix had cost me an additional ten dollars to have it re-welded at a local garage on the way home that same Saturday. And this memory suddenly brought up another thought about George Reilly. I had mentioned my bargain purchase to him in passing and he had said he did welding as well and would gladly trade me that service for books the next time I needed something done. Trading was a word which had came up more than once in my conversations with George. Perhaps it was just the welding that prompted the idea now, but I suddenly had a vague memory of a figure in the libertarian movement of my youth, an argumentative fellow named Karl Hess, who was so much in demand by the IRS for refusing to pay his taxes that he could only barter his services to make a living. He had been a welder too.)
My thoughts were interrupted by Deirdre’s comment immediately upon escaping the confines of the indoors.
“Very nice,” she says as she scans the plants, and then, “Your kids look very healthy.”
“They are. Knock on wood.” I reached over and rapped at the fence. “I can’t keep up with them anymore. When we go camping these days I usually sit down by the tent and volunteer to keep the bears away while I read a book and they go off climbing things.”
She smiled appropriately and then grew instantly serious. “I’m sorry to pull you away from work, but I wanted to talk to you about the situation you’re in.”
Pausing there, she gave me one of those searching looks of empathetic awareness that I immediately judged to be a practiced tool of her trade. Using such ploys, she is probably good at getting her subjects to say more than they should during interviews.
By way of escaping that look, I automatically said, “You mean the situation my situation is in,” but she frowned, so I added. “It’s an old lyric. Just popped into my head.”
She wisely shook that off as a distraction. Her voice deepened a notch, adding extra gravity to the afore-mentioned empathy. “Look, you should know that your friend Mr. George Reilly is a bad dude.”
This was stated as if it were a matter of fact.
“Really? How do you know that?”
“I have a source inside the FBI.”
“And you think that source is reliable?”
She says, “Yes,” but the ‘yes’ was said as if to say ‘of course.’
Attempting to keep my own tone as pleasant as possible, I answered, “Because I think it’s more likely they’re using you to get at him through me.”
This changed the look on her face to one of surprise. Perhaps she had not really considered that possibility.
“You know your Mr. Reilly is operating under a pseudonym?”
“I believe so.”
“That doesn’t bother you?”
“Yes it does. I’m very unhappy that we live at a time in our nation’s history when a person has to adopt a false identity just to live a honest life.”
“But he could be involved in some criminal activity. Subversion. Terrorism!”
“I think the FBI is involved in doing just that. Subverting the Constitution. Everyday.” It seemed like a good moment to break the direction of the conversation, I got up to get the coffee, which was likely ready, and added, “Cream? Sugar?”
She just shook her head. She realized then, I think, that her tack was getting nowhere and stopped to consider what I’d said, or reconsider her own approach. I went inside and poured the coffee and brought that out.
Immediately she started off again with, “What makes you so sure of this guy?” This appeared to be the common question.
I used the Jesuit tactic and returned a question in answer. “Why are you so ready to trust the government? They’ve already lost my trust. Their corruption does not stop with the money, any more than their contempt for the nation these days ends at the water’s edge. It’s all about the power now. Perhaps it always was. But it’s certainly lost its few checks and balances.”
Now this provocation on my part appeared to alter whatever direction she had planned to take in her own inquisition.
She shakes her head at me as if I’m hopeless. “You can’t set up as a law unto yourself.”
“Never would. Laws should apply to everyone. But we ought to at least consent to them first. That’s the process outlined in the Constitution, I believe. Most of what is happening today we’ve never consented to by direct vote or otherwise. It’s rule by bureaucrats. But we’ve had that discussion already, haven’t we?”
We hadn’t. Not really. I could pontificate on the subject for hours, given the chance. But she nodded, “Yes. We did,” and was probably glad to have avoided the possibility of yet another lecture.
She hesitated with her first sip of coffee, before drinking it normally. I have to admit, I make a good cup of coffee. So I took the opening chance, as she was enjoying that, to change the subject again. “What made you want to be a reporter?”
Immediately she answers, “Watergate.”
“Really? Or is that just your set answer? Because I’ve heard it before from other reporters and given the fabrications involved in that fiasco, it makes me wonder.”
I think for an instant she was going to put on her indignant face again, but she winced instead.
“I suppose there were a few more compelling reasons. My father had paid for my good liberal arts education and my useless major in English and suddenly he had a heart attack and I had to earn a living. There happened to be internships available at the Post. I just never left.”
“That sounds more like it. Life usually happens while you are busy doing something else. I set out to write novels and ended up selling books instead. But I think we both did pretty well, after all.”
Eyebrows rose over periwinkle eyes, “You think?”
I was more interested in discussing periwinkles, but no chance for that.
“Sure. I see a hundred people a week who come in the shop looking for a book to read so they can escape from their daily lives. I’ve never had to. I’ll bet you never did either.”
I’m immediately sorry for saying this. She knows I know the sort of things she reads, but she avoids the admission by answering, “I don’t read serious fiction these days. You probably noticed. But I don’t have the time.”
I was thinking it was better to focus on her than on myself, so I added, “Sure you do. You just haven’t been exposed to the good stuff.”
Now she gave me the indignant face. I had finally stepped on a toe. She protests, “I’m an English major, for Christ’s sake!”
“Which is probably another reason you became a reporter instead. The fiction they make English majors read is pretty awful.”
She set her mug down. “You are so full of opinions!”
I was going on the offensive, even if I might offend. “What did you read before you became an English major? What were your favorite books when you were a kid?”
She shrugged. “The usual stuff.”
“Anne of Green Gables. To Kill a Mockingbird. My mother was a Willa Cather fan so I read a few of those And Jane Austen. And Daphne du Maurier. An awful lot of Agatha Christie mysteries.”
“But that’s not the sort of thing they let you read at Radcliff.”
“How did you know I went to Radcliff?”
“I looked you up. Just the way you did with me.”
She hung her head just a little. “No they didn’t. Suddenly it was all Virginia Woolf and Sylvia Plath—and a lot a male authors who were terrible misogynists, like Hemingway and Faulkner and Updike and Salinger—you know the lot . . . Not half the fun . . . You’re right. The non-fiction was suddenly more exciting.”
I knew what she was there for, but I had to have my fun, so I picked at the edge.
“Can it be that Hemingway and Faulkner and even Updike were not misogynists, but simply the natural product of a past moment and a culture that has since changed.”
She gave that idea a grimace of practiced contempt. “We don’t have slaves anymore but that doesn’t make what we used to do any less than the ugly slavery it was.”
This was like the all-purpose Hitler argument. Where did it lead?
“True. Slavery is mean and inexcusable, isn’t it? But it was a worldwide practice well before the rise of the Western culture that tried to put an end to it. It still is practiced today in much of the non-western world. China. India. Every Moslem country. But of course, it was more efficient for the subsistence tribal societies of the distant past to simply kill those they captured rather than try to feed them.” She was giving me a look that displayed her unhappiness with the fact that I had pursued the subject matter any further. Too late. Now she would get her lecture in any case. “You probably know that the American Indians used to take captured women into the tribe as slaves, but then their offspring were treated like regular members of the club. I suppose it would have been better for those female captives to have been killed after they were raped.”
She shook her head, but her tone was not emphatic. “That’s not for us to judge.”
“No. I guess it’s not. So much easier and more convenient to judge the past by present standards. And just fine by today’s standards to ignore the way women are treated in Muslim countries while condemning some corporation for having a glass ceiling, or overlooking the use of slavery in China and India and Indonesia to make all that cheep plastic kitchenware we love so much for making tasty dishes. But of course, you might recall, we didn’t have the pill until the 1960’s. The code of conduct toward women that you so disdain was fashioned at a time when protecting them was a lot more crucial to the survival of the family and society. And then again, given the joys of syphilis and gonorrhea and herpes, I’m sure you can’t believe the sort sexual freedom we enjoy today was possible before penicillin? Or even a good latex condom. But those both came along about the same time, in our parent’s generation . . . Or can you?”
I hoped that this was way too much to argue over. But then she fell back to the safety of boilerplate. The way most journalists do, she chose one small carrot from the pot that might get her out of the stew.
“Women were treated like second class citizens in America. They still are.”
“Really? You don’t strike me as someone who ever thought of herself as second-class.”
“I don’t. But I thought we were talking about misogynists like Hemingway. Remember?”
“And I was disagreeing with the premise. Hemingway had many faults, as we all do. Though he didn’t lose his manhood in the war, he had certainly seen others who suffered that and he must have imagined trying to live that way—like Jake Barnes—as a perfect metaphor for what war did to men. The Sun Also Rises is not really a portrait of the ex-pats in Paris as much as it is a reflective consideration of what the war had done to him, as a man, don’t you think? And Maria is the most sympathetic character in For Whom the Bell Tolls. Don’t you think. And Pilar is no wimp, either. You’ll recall, men used to fight the wars in those days, and women only got to suffer the consequences. His books are very personal, after all. Or is it all just more of the sort of insipid solipsism that’s all too common in so much of modern literature? But, in retrospect, I do think it’s a little boring to read about all those lost souls in Paris. Lady Brett never appealed to me, no matter how dependent she was on men.”
I had let more than a touch of the pedant into my voice, and Deirdre was giving me a cold stare for that.
“I came here to warn you about your friend. Not for a lesson.”
“Fine. But you also came here to get more information out of me. You’re a reporter. We just covered a whole lot of stuff in a couple of minutes. And it’s such a very nice day for a chat.”
Her obvious unhappiness with me would have been all the worse had she been able to read my mind. I was actually thinking just then that women of a certain age become very unreasonable and that was a pity because they are often better looking and far more interesting than the younger ones.
Then again, maybe she read my mind after all. There was much else I wanted to know about her. But she stood abruptly, thanked me for the coffee, and left through the alley gate in the fence.
David Brooks usually shows up for his monthly visits to pick up our accounting paperwork after 2 PM when things get quiet again. He knows our routines. David is a dapper dresser. His suits always fit him perfectly. I’ve never seen him in a pair of jeans. And he hates rubbing shoulders with the hoi polloi in the narrow aisles. But because I wasn’t there when he arrived, he had to endure the new crowds we were drawing for just a little longer that afternoon.
Not noticing at first, and with other stuff on my mind, I went right back to work when I returned from my little kaffeeklatsch, but he found me quickly enough in the fiction aisle where I was putting up some new stock.
He says, “What’da ya got for me?”
He doesn’t mean the financial records. He means books. He sometimes reads several a week. This is apparently the residual curse of having taken an Evelyn Wood reading course when he was in college. As I have repeatedly told him, he would do better to read more slowly and think about what’s being said. But David is already damned by his belief in the numbers. Quantity can be calculated with precision. Quality is a matter of judgment. Opinion cannot be accurately tallied, computed, or reckoned, so he discards that—except to ask me what he should read next. I suppose I should take that as a compliment and ignore the contradiction.
I direct him to a few recent items he won’t be able to resist. He’s a sucker for the sort of history titles that promise to explain some crucial moment in the past or compelling character. I have one on the battle of Agincourt and another on the fabulous Alexander von Humboldt. He wanders off again to locate them.
Just at that moment, Deirdre shows up again. She finds me right where David did. Her baby blues are flashing and I can’t avoid seeing that, because she stops directly in front of me. But I’m thinking that they are more of an azure hue.
As if in the middle of the discussion, she says, “I’m not a pawn, you know. I’m not doing their bidding. I just wanted to warn you about something that you ought to treat more seriously. Obviously you don’t have any respect for me.”
She stopped herself there—maybe a little flustered for being unable to come up with something more. Then she stomped out before I could manage a good answer. She was wearing high heels and those spikes clicked on the wood floor rather loudly and it was difficult not to appreciate the shape of her calves. I could see Ardis’s face leaning out over the counter nearer the front and smiling.
David reported back to me before I could gain my equilibrium.
“Was that the lady from the Post who wrote that piece?”
He says, “Lucky,” as he nods.
I didn’t know how he meant that. But my own thought then was that I should follow Deirdre to see where she’d gone. Maybe get a few more words out of her. It turned out, that wasn’t far. Her car was parked a block away and she was just standing there by the meter, blindly staring into the street.
Then again, I wasn’t sure what to say. Whether or not this was some sort of manipulation of my apparently obvious interest in her, she was clearly upset. Was it cynical to think she might have expected me to follow her?
I stopped at the granite curbing of the sidewalk a few feet away and tried starting over again, “So why did you want to be a reporter? And don’t give me that bullshit about Watergate this time.”
I wanted to say something she did not expect, but oddly, she was ready with an answer. She didn’t even turn to face me.
“Because I wanted adventure. I didn’t want to end up like my mother, tending to an empty house. I wanted to see the world and write about it.”
“And instead you’ve spent your life in Boston. Not the hub of the universe after all. But you must have figured out that mistake pretty quick.”
She turned around then and leaned back against the fender of her car. I thought she was genuinely relieved that I had followed her in any case, and that I was there.
She actually smiled her thought before she got the words out. “Yes. I think I did. But there was one thing, or another. For a bunch of years I was stuck on this particular fellow on the editorial staff, Jason. Then he got a job offer at the Times in New York and went there, and I used to visit him. Sometimes twice a week on the train. And that lasted until I finally noticed he was seeing someone else as well. So then I turned around and made the mistake of marrying another guy instead. Probably just a reaction to Jason.” She forced her cheeks up into a false smile. “Pretty dumb. Right? Ed, the fellow I married, was the better man but he was almost twice my age. He was a fitness nut and he had me running with him every morning before work. Always used to run ahead of me. A matter of pride, I think. And then one day he had a heart attack, right there, in front of me.” The face went briefly blank. “Odd to think about that now, because I’ve already caught up with him in age, and then sum. And then there were other things.” She looked down as if there was some shame in this to avoid. “But there’s security in knowing your job. Knowing how to do it well. And I don’t know where the time went.”
This was far more of a confession than I could come up with an easy response to, so I joined her against the fender of her car and fell back on one of my more constant thoughts. I didn’t mean to lecture then. But given her admission, I felt slapped, andit felt like a good defense.
“Time is the matter, isn’t it? The only matter that counts, maybe. Despite what the physicists say. Life is such a temporal thing. Transitory. Ephemeral. The chemicals that make us, and all those atoms, they’ll endure in one form or another even as we, the living, pass through them.” She was frowning now. The humor of the thing was a little too subtle, I suppose. But I kept with the thought. I wanted at least to finish the thought, however off the mark. “As for myself, I think it’s why I’ve always been enchanted by the passing nature of flowers. And that’s just Mr. Hamlet again, and the wise Shakespeare. To be, or not to be, once again. All we have to value is our time. It’s the only thing that’s ours to give, or to spend. The only thing of real importance because it’s so ephemeral and because its actually precious. And more importantly, I think it’s the one thing that others can truly take away from us.”
She suddenly laughed out loud. More of a hoot.
“Why didn’t you become a teacher? Then you could have been paid for your little orations.”
I just laughed, myself, and shrugged at the hopelessness of that idea. “Maybe because I realized everything these days is a matter of sound bites, and I tend to chew.”
She shrugged back at me. “I’m sorry I walked out on you. I didn’t really have that much more to say. And I was suddenly at a loss. But you’re right. I was just there doing my job. I wanted to see how you lived. You know—for background detail. More than what you were saying to provoke me, I think it bugged me that you live just like I hoped you would. Like you should, really. Like a hermit in his cave.”
And I had to laugh again at that. It was my exact thought, after all. But I defended myself instead. “I thought you’d like the garden.”
“Very nice. But I have a brown thumb. I buy cut flowers.”
“And I thought you liked the coffee.”
“The coffee was good. But I get mine on the way to work every morning at the Dunkin’ Donuts. Extra large. My own apartment is a bloody mess. And I know you don’t approve of the sort of novels I read. But you should know that now I’ve read the two of yours that were published. And I noticed in both of those that you were already giving your little lectures forty years ago. You’re consistent in that way as well. Even with the politics . . . And also, . . . that I think we are about as opposite as two people can be.”
That idea did not take a lot of consideration on my part.
“No. I think Margaret and I are as opposite as two people can be. But I think you’re generally correct. And I think life is too short to always be at odds.”
She raised both eyebrows, as if in real surprise—it was azure that caught the sky—and then she slapped her hands together, and hooted once again.
“Now, that’s out of the way, why don’t you take me out to dinner tonight?”
It suddenly felt like the day had just begun. I told her I’d pick her up just after seven.
But then, before I can get back to the door of the shop, I see two large, white and conspicuously unmarked SUV’s pulled up on the street and several burly fellows in ties and blue blazers start their unloading. They carried the boxes directly to the back room and emptied them right into the open file drawers.
Inside, David was still there and looked on approvingly. This was his doing and he was not reluctant to tell me so.
He says, out loud. “You just have to know how to talk to them.”
The problem with saying this aloud was that Mr. Clifford overheard the comment. He’s right there too, and he stands up close to David as he keeps an eye on his guys and says, “These were coming back anyway. Glad we could accommodate you on that. But I’m sure you’ll find the IRS less interested in making you happy.”
David says right back to him, “Harassment can be a bitch for both parties.”
“We’re just doing our job.”
“Pretty sad sort of work, I’d say.” David looks him up and down. “But then, you look like you might be the kind of fellow who enjoys it.”
“Don’t get smart.”
It was the type of instruction that did not need an answer. The store had quieted as the men brought in the boxes. Several customers had even stopped browsing to watch. They all took note of Mr. Clifford’s tone and looked after him as he turned and left.
David sighed and handed me a business card. This was for an attorney, Martin Guinn.
He says, “Marty will be expecting your call,” as he leaves.
I was determined to get Deirdre into my truck so I’d insisted on picking her up at her apartment in Cambridge. Especially now, given that she’d naturally see this particular wheeled toy as a sorry extension of my aging manhood. Besides, women like pick-ups. At least I’ve heard it said. And mine is a two-tone red and white 1984 Ford-150. A ‘three-on-the-tree’ manual. I take good care of it and there are not many on the road in that condition. It’s a pretty thing to see.
But climbing in with high heels is a trick and I watch attentively. She digs the seat belt out of the crevice and buckles in like she was getting on a roller coaster. Right off, she was duly fascinated by the shifting. The bench seat opens up the cab nicely, unlike the unsociable separation of more modern bucket seats and a floor-mounted shift. When I was younger and first dating Margaret, a previous version of the same truck was an important factor in our relationship. And as I have noted before, women have a natural affection for trucks, which they should not deny.
On the way, Deirdre was not as impressed as she should have been with the original tape deck, which still works just fine. She apparently likes rock’n’roll. I keep an assortment of cassettes in a shoebox there on the seat to avoid listening to the radio. Mostly it’s classical stuff. I already had the Granville Bantock English Suites pushed in there and it starts playing automatically. Nice driving music. However, she might have wanted some jazz to go with my jive.
In the spirit of the thing, I took her to Arlington for some barbeque, and pecan pie. I had aspirations, of course. I admit that, but on this first real and official date, I did not get very far in that regard.
- Mistakes have been made
and I am concerned with death and taxes
Deidre’s story in Thursday’s Post was problematic—that is, of debatable value and uncertain purpose.
It was shorter than I’d hoped. It concentrated mostly on recent trespasses by the FBI upon others, before getting to yours truly. The headline, ‘Boston Bookseller’s Privacy Concerns Shared,’ might have been improved by including the name of the shop instead of the geography. ‘Concerns’ is an equivocal word, intimating something but lacking substance. ‘Privacy’ suggests concealment as much as it does any constitutional prerogative allotted to me by the due process clause of that terribly overwritten Fourteenth Amendment. And the act of ‘Sharing,’ long since separated at birth from any other human kindness, has been inculcated from public pre-school onward as a necessary guilt akin to the Catholic concept of original sin, necessitating appropriations by government followed by forced redistribution. Other than that, it was fine.
Then again, the headline was not likely written by Deirdre, and the piece itself did not mention any of the details from our discussion over ribs, collard greens and fried sweet potatoes of the evening before. I suppose she must have handed this particular story in earlier in the day because I’d told her over dinner that the files had been returned and she did not include this detail in the story.
Margaret showed up first thing the next morning to bemoan the fact of the matter, nonetheless. She says, “Your fifteen minutes is up. The lady reporter is bored with you. Obviously smarter than I was. Maybe you should have taken her for a ride in your pick-up.”
I shrugged that off with the empty brag. “I did.”
Margaret registered surprise with a full facial drop.
“You’re kidding? And that’s all she wrote? You’re losing your touch.”
I ignored the assumptions.
“But you’re right, in any case. The whole thing will probably blow over now.” As this admission was made, I pulled the check from the book that was already made out to her. “And here’s the rent. Better grab it before I spend it on more books.”
She examined the check, like she does, as if expecting a mistake.
She says. “What are you going to do now?”
“I’ll think of something.”
“Why don’t you call some of your author friends again and have them sit in the window and write stories like they used to.”
I sighed, mostly at the truth of the matter—I’d already thought about it. But I don’t have as many ‘author’ friends as I used to. When writing doesn’t pay the bills, most people move on to other means. Some of them are too old for pranks now. Some I’ve disaffected through the years, as they went politically correct in order to stay in favor with the critics. I tell her a few of the facts. “Such exhibitionism has gone out of style. They’d have to do it in the nude to even get us a photo much less a mention in the paper. And anyway, I imagine my old buddies wouldn’t look so good au natural these days. Except for Pauline, of course, but then, Ned wouldn’t let her. He’s a very jealous husband.”
The recommendation had been made rhetorically. I knew that. But Margaret has good instincts (with the one notable exception). Perhaps it was worth a second thought.
She folded the check carefully and put in in her purse. “I’d better get to the bank before the IRS freezes your account.”
I said, “A wise move.”
Now, there is a young broad-faced fellow, clearly in need of some beach time, who’d come in and wandered about the shop. He was close-by as I spoke to Margaret, and somehow I knew just then, without introduction, who he was and why he was there as he turned on her comment.
He said, “I don’t think that’s going to be happening right away.”
He pulled a card from his pocket and pushed it across the counter at me. The Internal Revenue Service had arrived.
Funny thing. Except for the fact that his hair was about an inch too long, he could have been working for the FBI.
I asked him what I could do for him. Margaret backed up a step, as if he might be contagious, and watched. Ardis wasn’t there yet, and I was happy for that. She might have made a remark, and my rule was, never talk back to the police, or the FBI, or the IRS, or anyone with a gun. This particular dictum had been made explicitly one evening when Ardis had argued with a guy who was trying to hold us up—with the gun right out there in his fist where she could see it. As if she were invincible. He missed and shot a hole in the edition of Books-in Print we keep on a shelf behind the counter. Scared the crap out of me.
Another aside: for whatever reason, that ne’er-do-well robber had stomped out of the store after only one shot and a spiel of blue rhetoric, more like a kid who had been rebuked by his mother than an experienced thug. (He had first intended to rob the liquor store across the street in any case but was frustrated there by the larger crowd—we had obviously been an afterthought). Ardis can have that effect on you when she says something like, “You’ve got to be kidding?”
The IRS agent’s name was Peter Marciano and he looks as Irish as his name is Italian, right up to the pinking at his ears. Unlike the FBI, he actually extended his hand, so I shook it in an effort to show some good faith. But I did not see much of a friendly glint in his eye. I resisted the impulse to immediately wipe my hand on my jeans.
He says, “You understand that we have a job to do,” as if that were an excuse rather than a statement of fact.
I nodded and said, “Sure,” and smiled, not caring if the smile looked insincere.
He says, “Your accountant has been talking with our office. I thought I should come over and take a look around just to get some context. Do you have a moment?”
I told him I was alone in the shop, and he took that in with a nod toward Margaret.
“Is it alright to take a look in the back room?”
I nodded back at that too.
With Mr. Marciano away at the back, Margaret leans in toward me.
“Are you up-to-date with your taxes?”
I shrugged. “About as much as usual.”
We were always behind, of course. At that point, I was in arrears for about three months worth. Mostly withholding taxes. The recent flurry of business might help with this problem, though it would likely still leave us a bit short in the end, given that there would be even more taxes to pay on the additional income and the added part-time staff, and of course the stock we had sold would have to be replaced.
Mr. Marciano returns shortly, looking a little perplexed. Actually frowning, with his lips pursed in thought and one finger scratching behind a pink ear. I wrote that off as something similar to Deirdre’s tendency to physically dramatize her thoughts with a sudden body movement.
Looking straight at me, his head tilted to the side as if to get a better sightline, and he says, “Is this it? You don’t have a warehouse somewhere?”
“No. Not anymore. Can’t afford it.”
I had gotten rid of the expense of a separate warehouse soon after the divorce.
Mr. Marciano taps at the air in front of him then with the same finger, gestures toward me, “You buy a lot of your books at auction. I think I saw a number for that in the paperwork from Mr. Brooks. Something like 30,000 volumes last year. And more than that the year before. And you’re buying new books too, right? About 12,000 volumes, wasn’t it? How many books would you say are in here now?”
No need to be precise. “About 50,000, including the back room.”
“And you sold what, about 24,000 volumes total last year, including the mail orders—about 6,000 new and 18,000 thousand used?”
There was no ‘about’ about it. I say, “You must have stayed up late to read all of that.”
“I like working late. Kids are in bed. I can concentrate. So how do those numbers work? I understand that you return some of the new stock that goes unsold to the publishers, but you should have more books here than I see.”
That was when Margaret spoke up.
“He gives them away.”
Mr. Marciano turned to her and shakes his head with a jerk, like he’s clearing his brains.
“What? How’s that? You’re Mr. McGeraughty ex-wife, am I right?” She shrugged. He extended his hand to her and she shook it with obvious reluctance. I don’t think she had intended to speak up. The statement probably slipped out because it was a matter that often seemed to come to her mind and the very idea of it continually burned at her.
It was my turn. The explanation was simple enough. “I have a book sale every year. I mark down the things that aren’t selling. But business has been even slower lately so I gave a lot of stock away last year. I even opened up the back room.”
He squinted at me with doubt.
“Is that on your filing?”
“I think it gets listed under depreciated stock. I’m not sure. You’ll have to ask Mr. Brooks. I leave all that to him.”
Mr. Marciano just stands there then, his head and shoulders hunched forward, looking at me as if I’m a specimen.
Margaret asks, “Is it illegal to give books away these days?”
This question smacked of a certain attitude that I knew was not natural to her. She’s always argumentative, but mostly on the side of common sense. But then again, she knew the way I thought about things, even if she did not approve.
Mr. Marciano was obviously aware of the facts. We’d sold $384,000 worth of books. That came out to about $16 per book. I usually don’t count the greeting cards because they barely break even for the space they take at the front of the store, but they do help sell books (though most people don’t read much themselves, they seem to think everyone else should read more and books make nice gifts.) I calculated once that this generosity of spirit (or desire to dictate what others read, however you judge it) amounted to almost twenty-five percent of our total sales. The greeting cards helped greatly with that, especially around Christmas time.
What was clearly puzzling to the math-impaired mind of Mr. Marciano, given his late night studies, was the knowledge that, the greeting cards aside, I had spent over $40,000 dollars buying used books last year. I had paid about $64,000 for the new books sold. Our rent, even with us running behind, amounted to $130,000 per annum. Utilities took another $18,000. Combined insurance costs were $48,000. And combined salaries were $64,000. This and a few thousand for incidentals like gasoline and truck maintenance, paper and ink for the printer, and light bulbs, etc., amounted to $370,000. The remainder was around $14,000. That was, in essence, my own salary—my income—of which $16,000 went to my apartment rent. Food and clothing then were clearly optional. The numbers did not compute. I did not need a math major to inform me of that.
The fact of the matter was that, Social Security was now subsidizing me to the tune of an additional $14,800 a year. Even though I had been paying into that particular scam for more than fifty years, the truth of it embarrassed me.
This then was the economic pressure that weighed on my conscience as I debated what should be done to maintain my presence in the pages of the newspapers. Naturally, it had already occurred to me that more people watched television than read the newspapers, but I did not know any reporters at the local TV stations. That was, in fact, one more plus for the idea of having naked authors sitting in our window (even if I could slip such a conceit between the covers of the First Amendment by having them busily writing while they displayed the ravages of time on their sagging carcasses). Sort of the way the prostitutes do in Amsterdam. A Dutch treat. Without the sugar glaze.
Getting old in this republic, or any republic perhaps, is not often a satisfying turn of events. I cannot lift the boxes I once hoisted without thought. I have had to hire extra part-time help to keep the store open the usual hours because I often get tired before I turn the key in the door at night. This, by itself, is a major disappointment to me. A palpable dispiriting. I was sure that I had at least another ten years in me. Now I am not so confident. But them’s the breaks.
For many people growing old becomes a constant accounting of past mistakes. There are no ‘do overs’ in real life, so there is usually much to regret. This is a regular theme among the small cast of characters I hang out with, most of them aging friends. ‘Don’t get old.’ is the refrain. My rejoinder is always, “Except for the unfortunate fact that the alternative is worse.’
Whenever one or another of them finally does chose the alternative, and shuffles off this mortal coil, you always hear something along the lines of, ‘He died too young. She was just getting her act together. He’d started writing another book and was all excited over the prospects. She thought this was the one. Now, he’ll never know what dreams may come.’
I will argue with almost anything, just for the entertainment value, but I seldom disagree with these sentiments. It would sound gratuitous. Self-serving. That’s because I’ve always done just what I wanted to do in life. My regrets, if any, are for my unlived future. What dreams may not come to me. My regrets taken in advance. (You don’t get the chance to do it after your dead, right?) I don’t know how many more books are left in me to write, and half the time I end up composing something new that I did not expect to get hung-up on before the fact, and this only puts off the other ideas I was playing with for that much longer. So I do regret for now all the stories I’ve made notes for that I will never complete.
I expect, about the time I can’t manage the shop any longer, even with the help of the kids, I won’t be getting much in the way of new ideas to write about either and so it will simply be time to quit. I hope the physical end for me comes pretty quick after that.
This is all very maudlin thinking. It can’t be engaged in for more than a few minutes before one becomes morose and irritating to oneself and others. So I usually keep all those thoughts under a rock, along with my stash. Things are more copacetic that way. Nevertheless, the future cannot be ignored any better than the past. They both must be allowed for. And in my case, the shop is a crucial ingredient. Without the shop, I expect I’d have a lot more time to write but far too much time to think about it. Sitting around is disagreeable to my health. As it is, I get about four or five hours in on my writing per day, two or three in the morning, depending on interruptions, and another couple at night. The writing is better in the mornings but the ideas are better at night and so that all works out for me.
The point is, whatever happens in the near future, I have to see to it that the shop remains open for as long as possible. Before the time for closing it inevitably comes, the visiting nurse can check on my pulse right here at the counter as well as anywhere.
Mr. Marciano turns his head upright with a new thought.
“How old are you?”
“Ah! Then, you’re getting social security.”
And all this was said aloud, in the store. But I have few enough secrets as it is.
“That explains it. I missed that. You don’t look that old. Why don’t you retire?”
My reaction was spontaneous.
“Why don’t you mind your own fucking business?”
And totally unnecessary. This brought a sober stare from Marciano.
“Rudeness is not going to help your case, Mr. McGeraughty.”
I’m pretty sure then that it was his intention to embarrass me if he could. Smugness not only has a look to it, it has an odor. I have noticed this many times. Considering the current kerfuffle, it’s very true that I’m not worried about the FBI as much as the IRS. Compared to the FBI, which is regularly chastened and chastised for their over-reach and the corruption that inevitably comes with such power as they wield, the Internal Revenue Service can do whatever it wants, with impunity. With no shame. The FBI ostensibly believe they are doing good. No such conceit disturbs the IRS. The arrogance of the typical Internal Revenue agent is a direct reflection of the outfit as a whole. None are too terribly intelligent, or they would be working in the private sector. Like all government workers, the self-righteousness they project is in direct proportion to their personal incompetence. The virus of power that infects them is common to all bullies and easily recognized. Their assumptions concerning those they persecute are roughly the same for thugs and crime bosses as they are for unemployed salesmen or small business owners.
Criticisms of the Internal Revenue service are usually vague, gingerly stated and quickly dropped from the news. Reporters don’t want to be audited either. The recent use of the IRS by the President of the United States to investigate political enemies was found out, but then quickly ignored by both Congress and the Justice Department. (The Justice Department operates at the pleasure of the President, however, so that much would be expected.)
The old adage, that you will know who rules them by discovering who it is they fear, applies here.
The body of tax law the Internal Revenue Service uses to operate runs into many millions of pages. Literally millions. The Constitution is no defense for the citizen who has to pay for all of that. Fighting the IRS is always a matter of negotiation or capitulation. They will get whatever they want in the end. Their only inhibition is the size of the prey. They don’t want to spend too much of their own time and money going after penny ante penalties and interest on a meager income. They have bigger fish to fry. But not too big. The solid middle class is their chosen herd. The actual rich have recourse. For the IRS, extra resources cannot be spent on getting a smaller return from the Internet genius who can pay for a team of legal negotiators. This is the reason the IRS concentrates so assiduously on the small business, even though corruption is always greater in the seats of power. The average Joe is defenseless against them and their royal prerogative is to confiscate and ask questions later (if they choose to). And that, in long form, is why I believe Mr. Marciano was so disturbed at first to see the physical facts of our case. We had been placed in his portfolio and he wanted as large a payoff as possible to run up his own score. We’re a business, aren’t we? Several hundred thousand dollars were passing through our coffers. For him, there had to be a pony in here somewhere.
However, given the look on his face just then, I was fairly certain that he was not about to give up, or take what he saw for fact. He was going to dig in this pile of manure until he saw a tail. This was going to be dangerous. Without savings or stocks or any real estate to my credit, I could actually lose the only real security I had. The shop itself. My draw from Social Security was not sufficient to cover the rent on my apartment. I could only hope now that David Brooks had done especially good work on our account.
I said, “You’re right. I was being rude. Thugs always bring out the worst in me.”
My one defense against the IRS is not the First Amendment, as it is with the FBI, as some would think. Freedom of speech has long since been abrogated to the demands of authority in this regard, and though bookselling is special for being one of the few professions that are directly covered by an article in the Constitution and some lip service has to be accorded that fact by law enforcement, even if they have twisted its meaning and gutted it like a pan fry fish long ago. But the IRS is a power unto itself. As I have said, Constitutional law does not apply to them. They are above that, as sanctioned by the Supreme Court. No. The only defense I might have was public opinion. That would be the naive public—that is the great majority of those who are good-hearted and well meaning and still generally think the Constitution is for real and applies equally to all. A gross lewdness on the part of the IRS could catch the public eye. The ‘Service,’ as I’ve heard them refer to themselves, as if they were fulfilling their military obligation, are not fond of an open display of their puissance. That can become politically embarrassing. Politics, not law, is their one overruling. Certainly, as with the recent IRS attacks on the President’s political enemies, they will likely get away with whatever they do, but the politicians themselves whom they depend upon for support may then have to pay a price at the poles come election time.
“Isn’t name calling a little silly, Mr. McGeraughty?”
For the most part, the public has accepted their servile role as regards the demands of the Internal Revenue Service and they dutifully submit their articles of indenture every April 15th. By far, the most of them do. True, this is partly a result of the automatic filing of their W-2s, but they do also report on themselves beyond that, honestly, willingly and pro-forma, accounting for most additional income from property sales, stock sales, account interest, as well as any other details of their financial lives which the IRS wishes to keep tabs on. This is an astounding fact that testifies to what I have said about them being good-hearted and well-meaning, as well as naive as much as being servile. I have often argued the case that the Republic as it was originally founded and wrought in the furnace of three wars and the conquest of a continent, came to an unacknowledged end in 1913 with the 16th. Amendment. More than a hundred years ago! That single act alone opened up the legality of any and all other governmental intrusions on the lives of the citizens. And I believe that Woodrow Wilson and the other perpetrators of that deed understood as much. In Mr. Wilson’s case, he wrote about it.
As David Brooks has told me more than once, this sort of thinking is very likely why I have been audited before, on so many occasions through the years. The result is usually some penalty several times greater than my original debt, plus a usurious interest tacked on to that as a fine (no trial necessary for this levy of punishment, the Sixth Amendment to the Constitution notwithstanding, in that guilt is always assumed in any confrontation with the IRS), and well above anything a bank would charge for a clerical error. That is also not including the cost of an accountant to work out the details. (But I should note here that this has not actually happened to me since David took over my accounts.)
And this was why David Brooks immediately attributed the recent attentions of the FBI to my other travails. It is also his proffered wisdom (as it is with most people who want to avoid being a target of authority) to keep my mouth shut on political matters. And this, as I have explained him, is alike the advice to a woman being raped that she should just lie back and enjoy it so as not to be hurt even more. But David does not appreciate that analogy, any more than the usual feminist who thinks rape is worse than death.
“Probably, in this case. But I didn’t think you’d be intelligent enough to know what a thug is, so what’s the point.”
In each case before David’s time, the vigorish demanded by the agent of Mordor being somewhere between ten and twenty thousand dollars, I have managed to put together the sum by selling off some large quantity of stock at a wholesale price to a specialty dealer (as a matter of fact, the reason we are still a bit low on volumes concerning World War Two and baseball even to this day, years after that last debacle), or once by selling our second car (that vehicle actually being Margaret’s car. My trucks, have always been purchased well used to begin with and have never been worth enough to resell—and further, it is worth noting that my having to sell Margaret’s car was a major spur to her finally calling it quits with me. You should never take a woman’s wheels.)
On another occasion we had organized a large fund-raiser. For a $50 deposit, we allowed customers to buy any number of books in the store at half price for a period of thirty days. That assault was actually met by us with outright announcements concerning the IRS threat. It garnered a great deal of public interest. Even a couple of short newspaper articles. People may not be willing to fight the IRS for themselves, but they have great interest in seeing some other poor fool make the attempt, and the sympathy for this was always palpable.
Though that last time was about seven years ago, my immediate plan now was to do something similar once again.
“You are not making it any easier on yourself and certainly making me more interested in seeing that you get the punishment you deserve.”
The economics are this: if 200 people were to ante up deposits of $50 each, we would immediately net $10,000. We had 214 good customers do this the last time. The reduced net income from the books they purchased at half price had to be turned over quickly to the kitty for buying new stock, but that $10,000 raised, and the nine thousand for Margaret’s car, had then paid off most of our immediate arrears with the government.
Our current debt would likely be smaller, given David’s fine efforts, but I was not good at keeping up with some details. There was always something forgotten. And now the penalty might be greater, given the added intention to punish us for associating with revolutionaries, and my icing it by referring to this particular IRS thug as a thug. The exact amount of the levy was completely up to them. Another part and parcel of arbitrary government.
“You’ve tried the case before you have the evidence. That makes you what you are.”
Yet, I had a deeper concern. I did not have the energy for the whole affair. Not this time through the mill. It would require extra hours spent on every aspect of the business, from buying replacement stock through selling, and all the attendant paperwork. Nor did I have another car to barter, and they would only be getting my truck over my dead body. This, and a few other matters made me suddenly feel even older than I thought I was. It was daunting, and I had to be determined now not to be depressed by it.
Mr. Marciano smiled. “I’ll be getting back to you,” and left.
- The age of majority has been cancelled
whilst Winston Smith sings, ‘Angst for the memories’
I first came to town in 1965 to go to Boston College. My intentions then were only the best, I think. To learn some Latin and Greek, and study literature and philosophy. I was already certain that I was destined to write, even though I had no idea what I would be writing about. But that was only because I actually had nothing to write about except myself and that was very small beer indeed. My entire experience in life at the time amounted to a series of failed efforts to imitate my betters by plagiarizing their styles if not their words, mostly from the incubated safety of the New York suburbs. That and a series of failed romances (most of which were known only to me).
I wanted to be like Hemingway. Or Faulkner. Or Thomas Wolfe. (The emergence of the newer Tom Wolf had already begun but I did not have the sense or judgment to comprehend just yet what he was about); I wanted to write ‘New Yorker’ stories, but not about the morally vacant parents who seemed so important to Cheever and Updike, but the angst riven youth living the spoiled sub-urban life; even though I more dearly wanted to find some real adventure and to see life’s underbelly—or at least to touch what was under her underbelly. I wanted to go live in Paris and be like my literary heroes too.
The week we graduated from high school, I remember suggesting to one erstwhile girlfriend, amidst yet another assault upon the ramparts of passion, that we should plan to meet beneath the Arc de Triumph at a particular time of day, on the same day of the week, four years hence, by which time I would no doubt already be a successful author. I do hope she forgot the pact. I wasn’t there.
But you learn pretty quick, or should, that to be like someone else is no deal at all.
There was a war going on at the time. There usually is, and I now know that as well, but then the one in Vietnam appeared to me to be the most important event in history. As important to me personally, I thought, with the over-studied ignorance of a male of draft age, as to the families of the dead. (You can actually conjure that much vainglory when you are eighteen). Tens of thousands were dying. Millions of lives were being ruined. I was against this tragedy and believed it was the result of American hubris and imperialism—at least that was the ‘truth’ as reported in all the smart places—Atlantic, Harpers, Saturday Review etc. Then again, on the flip side, and as any self-regarding Twentieth Century writer knows, war is the one fire with which to temper your sword. Such conundrums rack the youthful mind.
After little more than a year at Boston College, I quit in a huff of rebellion against the obvious ignorance and self-serving rules and the malodorous bullshit in all of those assigned texts, and I enlisted. If war was hell, then I ought to get close enough to smell the brimstone. The only problem with this plan was that I’m technically blind. Or nearly so. I even had a picture of James Joyce on my dormitory wall—a black patch over one eye and a Coke bottle bottom on the other—as a totem for this fact. I was quite shocked when the United States Army told me that I did not meet with their high standards and my services would not be required.
But B.C., in sudden pique, was none too happy about taking me back. I had already proven myself to be a righteous pain in the ass. Now they wanted an apology for my statement that they were all ‘hypocrites.’ Already developing that fine form which has sustained me to this day, I apprised them of the arguable wisdom that the ‘truth is its own defense.’ This was a phrase I had picked up in a freshman year philosophy course, though even that professor did not now think this applied to him and refused to sign my recommendation letter for re-admittance.
Enraged, I went home to New York, borrowed the price of several months rent on a cheep apartment on the Lower East Side (from my mother—Dad wanted no part of this), and immediately wrote a novel about my debacle, using the philosophy professor as the villain and making much (much too much) over the moral anguish involved, and throwing in one of my failed romances for added color. I called it A Prodigal’s Progress. Unfortunately for me, Houghton Mifflin liked it enough to publish it as part of a series they were doing of ‘New Writers.’ And this required coming back up to Boston to see the editor on several occasions. And it was while making this repeated pilgrimage (made necessary by more than a few gnarly passages of prose) that I discovered I actually liked the place.
Because I could have used a few more years on the mean streets of New York to season my artistic judgments. If I was to be denied the sword, at least I should acquire a serviceable switchblade. Menial office labor is petty, especially to an aspiring literary genius, but New York by (and in and of) itself is an inspiration, even while seemingly being both heartless and soulless. Surviving in that stew would have been worth something as regards the afore mentioned sword tempering.
When my apartment there was robbed and that minor refuge made to feel unsafe and dispoiled, I did not want to go back home to the suburbs, nor did my parents have any interest in my complaining about the vagaries of life to them. They were already experts on the injustices of fate, after all, having survived the Great Depression, World War Two, and thirty years of unquiet marriage as well as the unexpected and ineluctable pleasures of parenting. They were also still just a little upset about my dropping out at BC (something which had cost them more than I was yet aware). They wanted me to get a better job. I said fine—but I might as well do that in Boston. So here I came.
In those ancient times (fifty years ago) they used to have rooming houses in the heart of town. The one I chose was nearly on top of Beacon Hill, only a few blocks from my present apartment. For a modest weekly rate of thirty-three dollars plus tax, I could suspend my disbelief at the injustice of the world about me, work odd-jobs for Manpower, and spend my evenings writing my second novel while looking out across the narrow street to the windows of half a dozen other apartments for inspiration on how life was actually lived. In my mood of rejection, I took those snippets of bedroom scenes between the sashes to be the desolate cartoon cells of a barren hive that produced the sterile worker bees necessary to keep the colony functioning. This book took me a year to finish, while I worked in various mailrooms processing mail, as a night-guard guarding desks in the night, in warehouses putting wares up on shelves, and at the information tables of numerous conventions where I offered misinformation with a smile. Things looked pretty bleak to me then, at the end of the 1960s, when all the world should be changing, and should have changed. But, Dickens aside, bleak does not sell. Houghton Mifflin was not inspired by the idea of human bees. Nor were the twenty or thirty other publishers I sent that to. (Those were still the literary days when you sent a literal manuscript to the actual publisher—not at all the same as the current prophylactic system of first sending queries to agents).
Suddenly unsure of my calling after this failure, I took a regular job in a bookshop on Boylston Street. That outfit specialized in scholarly remainders and publisher’s overstock as well as used textbooks. Essentially, this work amounted to the processing and selling of small rectangular objects displayed in neat stacks—books reduced to a marginal commodity—still a new concept to me at the time.
I recall the key event at this establishment occurred when the owner came by one day, after I’d spent several years there, and handed me a box that contained thirty copies of my own first novel, A Prodigal’s Progress, which he had just purchased from the publisher as a ‘remainder’ for fifty cents each. He said, “Put these away and someday you can sell them for a buck.” He was being serious, not cynical. He was a generous but very practical man.
It was during those years that I completed my third novel. This had been written in a frenzy of outrage over Nixon’s enlargement of the Vietnam war into Cambodia. Not actually being there in the heart of darkness on the Mekong, so that I might physically mutiny against this wrong, had left me with the weak tea of writing about the discouragement felt at home by one young fellow attempting to escape the draft while working at a bookshop in Boston—this done by entering mentally if not physically into the worlds of the books he sold. It was a bit Walter Mittyish, but much darker. The editor at Houghton Mifflin had called it ‘heartfelt.’ But it was a little lower shot than that.
That third book had taken me three years to complete. The timing was not due to writer’s block. It was simply because it was three times as long as anything I had written before. At the time, I believed this was, at the age of twenty-three, my magnum opus. With an interior story it retold the epic journey of the beautiful Io from priestess to cow, seduced and raped by Zeus and then ‘saved’ by that sociopathic god through the brilliant subterfuge of turning her into a heifer to conceal her from his jealous wife Hera. No fool, Hera. Just stupid enough to be jealous over the affections of a perverted megalomaniac, Zeus. She set in turn set a gadfly to pestering the poor cow. How this related to the Selective Service’s interest in my body is difficult to relate easily, so I will leave most of that aside as a simple excuse for the novel’s failure.
But the truth of it was that after reading Terry Southern’s Candy for the first time in 1970, I was amazed that his book was actually so old. It had been written half of my own lifetime before, yet, in this newest re-incarnation as a mass-market paperback enclosed in proud pink wraps it appeared to capture the present moment in time too perfectly. I wasn’t so sure of the purported connection with Voltaire, but it was that particular investigation which had led me to my great idea, to connect the ancient Greek myth of the wandering and beleaguered bovine with the French Philosopher’s exposition on futile optimism and what I took to be a wholly original invention of pragmatism—all set in the El Dorado of America circa 1973. My own Iola, wandered the land like a modern Candide, smoking pot and romping joyously along the way (Terry Southern had already visited this territory and gender switch with his Candy and I was just stupid enough to think there was much more to say). Her pursuit of true love in the form of my skinny, hapless and bespectacled draft dodging hero was certainly nothing short of mythological. The ‘Professor Pangloss’ of this rout was a Dr. Ralph, who was yet another iteration of my old philosophy professor and nemesis at BC. Obsessed with bedding his former student, it is Dr. Ralph who plays the gadfly chasing my high-minded and irrepressibly happy heroine across the country as she follows her hormones in spite of all consequences.
Houghton Mifflin asked that I take out a few of the raunchier sex scenes, and I did. After the fact, I’m sure it would have sold better had they been left in, even if they would have greatly embarrassed my children in later years. But that unwise publisher advanced me twenty-thousand dollars for my three-year’s work, effectively doubling my entire income over the period. I was stupefied. Stunned. I sat in place for at least fifteen minutes after opening the letter and gathering myself. The bookstore where I worked was then already in the process of reducing its size and getting ready to close. The aging owner told us daily that the whole book business was changing (“going to hell” was his regular refrain) and warned us that books had now been replaced by television and that we should pursue other lines of work.
So what should I do?
I opened a bookshop.
I had noticed a space at the bottom of Beacon Hill which had been empty for more than a year. This was the early seventies, when Boston was not yet a ‘happenin’ place.’ Rents were still relatively cheap. I bargained with the owner, a Mr. Glover, over a few hundred dollars less per month. (I am positive that he regretted the decision for the rest of his thusly shortened life.) The check from the publisher cleared on a Monday. On Wednesday I signed the lease.
It is interesting to me now to think that this was just about that moment in time when I should have been meeting a very pretty young lady beneath the Arc de Triumph. But I had completely forgotten my vow. Almost immediately, publishers threw lines of credit at me like dollar bills at a strip show in the Combat Zone. And suddenly, I was in business for myself. A capitalist. A business man. What came to be called an entrepreneur during the 1980s. However, I could not run the place by myself, even then, in spite of seemingly inexhaustible energies. I needed an employee.
One fine day, I looked up from the raw pine boards I was abusing with a hammer and nails into the shape of a shelf and there was Margaret. She had just graduated from Boston University with a degree in Literature and the dreams of a poet. She needed a temporary job before she left for her own planned grand excursion to Europe. After hearing from her father that he had a new tenant, a young bookseller no less, she had come to investigate.
“What are you doing?” were her first words to me.
She will tell you, even today, that they were, “Hello. How are you doing?” and not so provoking as to warrant the lecture on shelving that I gave her. But, already smitten, I had the advantage on her there of having written her words down that very evening, back in my little room on Pinckney Street. And I estimate now that within this difference of memory may be found all the conflict that makes the world go round.
Almost as suddenly, Margaret and I were living together. Not in my little room on Pinckney Street, I should add, but hers, in another of her father’s real estate holdings. Though this was to her parent’s great chagrin, the actual marriage did not take place for several years, and was finally the result of a rather heated Memorial Day weekend at the family cottage on the Cape. The temperatures outside that day were cool as I remember. Margaret remembers it being sweaty.
What did she see in me then? Someone who would change the world? An proto-entrepreneur? An author? Hard to say. But I think she loved me for a time. I know I was in love with her, if for no other reason than because she loved me, which is a form of narcissism that is as common in the young and was to me an astounding development, in and of itself!
Margaret is a Yankee in the oldest sense—from a family of merchant traders. What she saw in a skinny New York Irish boy with no prospects but lots of ideas, all of them questionable, I don’t know. As a disguise, she called me her ‘Southern Boy’ in several poems. Geographically speaking, she was at least correct in that regard.
Her father owned the building where the store remains to this very day, but the family trust controls the property now. At first, the space was a sort of continuous gift, even as rents in the area rose well above our budget, and though the reduced rent we paid her father was not often made on time. Mr. Glover actually loaned us additional funds to keep things going on several occasions. (I suppose, on the theory that I would eventually learn how it was done.) Though he actually warned us that the business would fail if we did not change our ways, he had given us the capital anyway. And it did fail. Several times over, through the years. But by then we had the kids, and bailing us out had become a sort of annual family tradition, usually done, not surprisingly, around the 15th of April.
Money can be a grindstone to any marriage. Even one that is so adequately subsidized. I have often wondered what would have become of me if Mr. Glover had ever refused to help—if he had tossed us out to fend for ourselves. Such a missed fate has in fact been the underlying subject of yet another of my unpublished books.
And here is the rub. There is a greater penalty to generosity which is often ignored, or at least disdained, by the theorists. When a helping hand becomes a subsidy, it more often gets a predictable result. More of the same behavior. I certainly confirmed that utilitarian theory over and again. It was for that reason (or so I believe, while ignoring my innate stupidity) that I did not ever really learn how to run the business profitably because I was never actually made to. (This is not to fault the Glovered hand that fed us. I was wholly to blame. Absolutely! But thus, the sting of failure itself was never enough that it could change my habits. Even today, I run the shop the way I do because it suits me that way. Such a solipsistic and self-serving attitude is truly reprehensible given the realities most people must face to survive. I have no excuse, other than the explanation that it is some congenital sense of entitlement common to my generation. But I must also admit, as I have many times, that I have been a happy bookseller, as a consequence. Much in the same manner, I have no regrets for writing twenty-four unpublished novels. I enjoyed writing every one of them. I have relished and reveled in the roll of bookseller. What else am I to say, if this is the truth?
I do not argue with the critics (Margaret, her father, David Brooks, et al), or any of those who say that I would have learned to write better (by which they clearly mean more marketable material) had I been made to meet an objective criterion by some necessity of the marketplace. Or those (usually the same ones) who tell me that the store should have been closed years ago because it is simply unprofitable.
But what this disagreement really amounts to is only what I have mentioned before, namely, that I have long been at odds with the tax collector, who has become my grim reaper in reality. Publisher’s want to be paid. The electric company wants it’s past due. The part-time staffer wants what I fairly owe them every Friday. By the time I get around to the taxes, there is always less remaining than is required.
Besides, what did it all really amount to?
Given that I have no good excuse, other than my own pleasure, for my unwillingness to comply with the mundane requirements that are so readily met by everyone else, I have over time manufactured a better explanation (i.e. excuse)—that my biggest problem (re: conceit) as a bookseller was, and has always been, that I simply don’t like selling crap! Either my own, or the crap of others. This is now my true belief, whatever vague notions I began with. And most of what is published is crap, indeed! But the publisher’s put a great deal of money into promoting that crap each year and convincing the public to buy it. And the larger result, and insult, and consequence of such mercantile foolishness is an ever diminishing readership—being those people willing to spend hard-earned cash on something that they will only end up putting aside, part-way through, unfinished, from whence it peeks at them beneath the magazines on the coffee table and reproaches them for having wasted the money, or further disheartening those willing to blame themselves for not understanding why the books they read are so bad when all the ‘critics’ have said that they were ‘fabulous.’ (I’ve heard it said, ‘Thank goodness for cable, or I might have to speak to my husband!’)
It is thus that the shop has never benefited much from the bestseller list. The prices at the chain stores are necessarily better than ours for those titles, anyway. Other than the classics, our strength has always been in ordering the back-listed previous efforts by the same author whose latest might be selling well at the moment. (Often enough, those past efforts were written when he or she was still trying to create something for the ages, and before they realized that the demands for mortgage payments were monthly). And many of those early titles are now out of print due to lack of demand. That is where the selling of used books works best. That and finding titles in a series which have fallen out of print, or even more precisely, mystery or science fiction titles that are not part of a series and only had one printing to begin with. Or, science fiction that does not treat physics as magic, which is the current rage (this used to be called ‘fantasy.’ I am told that word is a pejorative now, but I still use the differentiation). We carry a fair section of poetry, most of which was almost immediately out of print and usually sells only to lovers trying to impress their beloved with the true faith of their own unspoken (and usually bastard) sentiments. And drama. Who reads old plays? (I am asked this at least once a month by a customer wondering why I don’t give the space over to something better, like the complete works of Stephen King). And essays. In a non-reading age, the essayist is the first to be ignored. Still, though, it’s amazing how many classics are out of print at any given time.
When Hollywood makes yet another movie out of a Jane Austen novel, we do well with it. But that too is not enough. They can’t seem to make another Jane Austen movie every month, no matter how they try, so there we are. (Taken one a month, and each done once a year, six novels will only fill half the need.) In any case, it’s tough to pay the bills hand-selling all those other titles that clog our shelves, one copy at a time, to people who have never heard of them (or seen them on TV). It works to a certain point to constantly be out of step, but the economies of scale are always set against us.
As I say, I leave most of the new and highly touted material by fresh young talents to the other shops. In those days when people still read, Boston used to have many other booksellers to choose from. But it’s a fugacious bet to depend too much on that coarser prose in any case. And besides, we’ll always get another crack at those titles in a few years when they are remaindered, as even mine own had been, or when the authors have quit their writing in favor of a regular pay check for teaching University classes on how to write the way they themselves don’t do it anymore, only then list their own books on recommended reading lists—I suppose in much the same way as I display my own efforts at the front counter in my shop.
What I do do, so to speak, is to go to the auctions and buy large estate lots and break them down. There you will see that there was a deal of crap sold ‘back in the day’ as well. You bag the rubbish up and give it to a church sale, or Goodwill, or the Salvation Army. The provender is boxed and carried to the back room where it is graded by condition and price and then put out on the shelves somewhat alphabetically (depending on distractions) in the hope someone will re-discover it. After a few years, when all hope of the mythical customer for the remnant is lost, I give it away as well along with the remains of much other stock I should not have carried in the first place. And the cycle continues.
An old friend (he is actually two years younger than me), Sam Kaufman, designed our bookmarks many years ago. I had thought to have only the name, address, and shop’s hours, set in some elegant type, like a Bembo or a Garamond, and printed on a letterpress. It was his idea to add an additional line below the store name: “The state of mind,” in a flourish of hand-wrought Eighteenth Century italics. I wish I had thought of it myself. I often think of the place now in those terms rather than the more portentous and pretentious ‘A Republic of Books.’
Have you had enough? More about motivations, maybe?
Deirdre had listened to all of it, in one outpouring. But our beer glasses were again empty. The errant prawn shells had been wiped away. The grills on the barbecue pit were cold and scrubbed for use tomorrow. The chairs were up on the tables around and the vacuums roaring when we left. I could only wonder at her patience, never mind the restaurant staff.
- In an age of enlightenment
the illuminated manuscripts burn brightest
I believe that enlightenment tends to come upon societies in much the same manner as it occurs to an individual. One day you are as dumb as a stump and repeating your mistakes with the industry of an ant in a side-walk crack and the next you awaken to the fresh bliss of newfound truth, and the thrill of brilliance, and set your work beyond the traffic of unwary feet. A radix has sprung from the soggy rot and new life has begun. It is not unfair to credit ourselves with this renaissance of thought, though we have usually suffered for it. But it is incorrect to assume the cause was some specific of knowledge that was unleashed by our effort. Typically it involves such a morass of thought, so difficult to interpret, that in order to come up with an excuse for our own heroism, we invent a new philosophy. That is how religions are often born, as well as sophism, pragmatism, objectivism, empiricism, and a hundred other isms born of a sudden morn.
I am not a scholar—that is I am not one to pursue knowledge for its own sake. I am a shopkeeper and a scribbler. My pleasure in those two things alone has filled my time and exceeds any satisfaction I might gain from parsing the rhizome of some particular root cause. Lacking those genes for such attention and dedication, I have, however, long been taken with the insight of scholars, per se, and a few in particular. One of those is Walter Jackson Bate, the wise man of Harvard for many years. He was to me an ancient husk of human being when I first encountered him eating custard in a dining area at Eliot Hall. Likely then he was only as old as I am now. I was there in pursuit of books, naturally. The students cast off books every spring like leaves in autumn. On a good day in May I could fill the back of my truck.
And on that day the great man sat alone in reflected light close by a narrow window, encased on two sides by mahogany walls, and I sat down across from him and asked—I might have said hello, or something of the sort first, I don’t recall.
“Is the universal and the ideal the same thing?”
He asked, “Did you read chapter four?”
Naturally, given my youth then (I would guess it was about 1974) he had assumed I was a student of his and I had just read chapter four of his great book, From Classic to Romantic, which was the very cause, in fact, of the inquiry, for I had just discovered it on my own. But I did not have the patience of a lifetime to explore the question and wanted a quick answer. I was on my way to several dormitory rooms where students were waiting to cash in on the used volumes their parents had paid top dollar for when new.
This was a severe looking man, thin, heavy lidded and tight lipped, with the high fore-head you assume of a thinker, and I must have apologized, on hearing the hard tone of his voice, for interrupting his meal.
“Well then, you can already see it is a subject as thick as this,” and he tapped his spoon into the yellow crust of the custard. “But the answer to your question is, no. All cats are mammals but not all mammals are cats. The universal is ideal, but the ideal may not be universal.” He rubbed at a clean cheek of slack skin, and then put the hand to his mouth. “Or is it the other way around? The ideal is universal, but the universal may not be ideal? We’ll have to give that some thought.”
He was smiling when I left him, eating his custard again and looking out the window at a spring green lawn.
I have retold that story twenty or fifty times. I’ve embellished whenever the opportunity arose. But the key element remains the same. Not all mammals are cats.
This was in mind some years later when Deirdre showed up the one afternoon, without her usual advanced warning phone call, and let me in on the state of things in her own bailiwick. It seemed her editor had announced that she was bored with the storyline concerning our bookshop—the bookseller ‘David’ against the government ‘Goliath,’ was too thin. She had given Deirdre a new assignment.
Given that I had already calculated on at least one or two more articles to publicize my upcoming sale in order to raise money to payoff the IRS, my first thought was of how I might thicken the story line to remedy her editor’s boredom. Perhaps I had to simply accept the idea, as Margaret had predicted, that our fifteen minutes was up, over with, done and finished, and accept the fact that we weren’t much better off than before.
But I like proving Margaret wrong whenever possible, which is not often enough. I also realized this change of priorities would put a crimp on any time Deirdre might have to be hanging about. Specifically, around me. Whatever attractions I might possess were subtle and would definitely take additional opportunities for study and appreciation.
For her part, Deidre looked genuinely unhappy and says, “I think she doesn’t want to get herself audited by the IRS for giving you any moral support. She’s even admitted as much. She warned me to back off of it, in my own best interest, for that very reason. And I told her, unfortunately, after thirty years at the Post, I didn’t have anything more to declare than my salary, so that wouldn’t pose much of a worry.”
For the first time I could see a glimmer of understanding on the soft blue horizon. She is not just interested in a story that might only pry a few readers away from their computer screens and/or televisions. She is actually coming around to understanding the larger context of what’s going on.
For that, if nothing else, I took her to lunch, insisted on paying, and she let me.
This is a treacherous stage to any relationship. When attraction is magnified by sympathy. For me, the danger lay in keeping my cards down. She was still a journalist and any revelation of fact that might give new life to her story was fair game. And I did want the story to continue. The matter was how much I could offer up to this effort at self-promotion (and illumination), without endangering other possibilities. Or, critically, leaving her with idea that I was more interested in that than in her.
After explaining the impact of the IRS audit on our business (skipping over the part about doubts concerning my existential soul and wasted energies) I waited until she had a large bite of burger and onion in her mouth, and said, “I think George Reilly is worried that his battle with the government has spilled over onto my turf. He’s upset with the way things have gone.”
This was a total fabrication, of course. A deceit told to fit the circumstance. I can guess George might in fact be worried. He’s a good chap and has reasonable concerns about his fellow man (or woman). But he hadn’t displayed a bit of it in our most recent encounter. More probably he has his own concerns and like any pilot in a fix, he was keeping those worries to himself lest the passengers panic.)
It took her half a minute to chew and swallow. Faster than I thought it might.
“You’ve spoken to him recently?”
“Sure.” I said, and added, “Yes.”
She might have known I was lying right then.
Another half a minute was spent looking carefully at the handful of bun and beef as she gathered her thoughts. Time enough for me to speculate on what she might say. Naturally, I was wrong.
She offers me a sympathetic sigh. “You think your project to raise funds with a big sale might work?”
I shrugged. “Yes, but I’ll have to have a plan B. I was thinking maybe a big bonfire and then bankruptcy.”
That got no reaction at all. If she had already become inured to my sense of humor, what did I have left?
She says, “Tell me what you’d really do if you closed the store?”
I’d thought about that a thousand times. Several thousand, at least.
“I’d travel. Drive until my eyes, or my butt gave out. Whichever came first.”
“Been there. I’d like to go to Scotland again, of course, at least to study some of the papers of Thomas Reid at Aberdeen and Glasgow. Most of that has never been published and I’m curious what he had to say about a lot of things. Maybe take a peek at the Hebrides while I’m at it to fill out the background color in my reading of Boswell, Norman Maclean, Peter May, Compton Mackenzie, and a few of those other good guys. But Europe is not the place it used to be, any more than Boston is. The quaint there is all packaged and postcarded now. Probably that way when I visited before, but I was too stupid to notice. What’s left is a Disneyland of an Anglophile past reduced to touchstones for tourists in a rush. What with the present pasteurized and homogenized into soulless efficiencies, even the dialectic is metrical now, or at least geometrical, and the future is mortgaged. Just like ours. Most of them just want to be Euros. One great big regulated asylum. Forget about Dumnonia, or Dal Riata or Manx. Old Arthur is just a myth to them. And besides, I don’t speak the language well enough to find the secret places that remain. No. I’d like to see a few more of the corners in this country first. The ones I’ve read about in books all my life, before they’re all gone with the wind as well.”
Surprisingly, she seemed to brighten at that bitter bit.
“Where. Where first?”
“The West. Pretty much everything beyond the Mississippi but this side of the Sierra Nevada.”
“I thought I heard you say you’ve been there too. That you took your kids.”
“Many times. But there’s an awful lot there to see. I still haven’t gawked at the half of it, even from the distance of a truck window. I’d like to camp around, here and there. Smell the grass. Get the dust in my eyes. Finally learn to ride a horse before my joints get any stiffer, if my bones aren’t about to break. Stuff like that. I have a customer named Morris who already lives there in his mind and he and I have both picked out our itineraries.”
“Sounds nice. Why don’t you just do it anyway?”
“For one thing, because there’s a battle on. You don’t just walk away from a fight unless everything else you are is false.” This sounded a bit righteous and I tried to come up with something to take the edge off, but nothing fit the moment so I just grimaced at myself and added, “Besides, I can’t afford it.” The ultimate excuse.
She started eating again. After another half a minute or so she just says, “Sounds nice.”
And that was it. The trout had simply left my fly floating on the water, as my friend George is want to say.
I say, “How about you. What would you do?”
Her voice dropped to answer. I was not sure this was to keep anyone from hearing, or just in line with the seriousness of the subject.
“I have no plan ‘B.’ Never had one. That was likely always my problem. I started out years ago as a Metro reporter. Fires and dogs. After a while I moved over to the copy desk. Mostly because they asked me. I’m a good copy-editor. But that was pretty boring and I started gaining weight from sitting too much so after awhile I asked for a change. They put me in features. Sadly, that stuff is all canned meat. That’s where they ‘appease to please.’ That’s all about the advertisers. I got out of there as fast as I could, and then they attached me to the city desk to cover things at the state house. It was awful. They lie in that joint for a living and cheat for sport. They prevaricate to your face and dare you to contradict them. And if you do, they retaliate. I was there less than a year before I was transferred again. This time I think they figured they’d get rid of me by asking me to cover the police blotter. Two days after interviewing the Governor concerning a judge he’d appointed who had a history of pedophilia, I was covering a double homicide for Metro. But I liked that. Not the blood and body parts but the characters. There is something very pure about many criminals. They know they are who they are. They won’t say that, but you can hear it in the way they talk. Pretenses are blatant.”
She laughed at the thought. She had heard herself, and laughed. This was a good thing. A commendable quality. I kept quiet and after a minute, let her pick up on that where she wanted.
“I was there for about five years before I burned out. One dead fourteen-year old in Roxbury too many. So they stuck me on the court-house beat. Talk about boring. Some trials are riveting—like a good play, but nine out of ten are procedure and as phony as the deal the DA usually makes to get a verdict. As they say, ‘in the Halls of Justice, the only justice is in the halls.’ Everything is negotiable. The victims get nothing. Not even catharsis. After about three years of that I had no skin left on my teeth, so now I’m sort of ‘At Large,’ like my column header, with Metro again. Down to the bottom limb on a dead tree. But I’ve known for years, there is no upside for me. No plan ‘B.’ ”
She sipped at her soda and considered something. I knew before she finally spoke again that it might have some bearing on me. In my own interest, I continued to keep my mouth shut.
She finally said. “That was always the way it was with me in love too. No plan ‘B.’ All my eggs in the one basket.” She stopped at that point, and laughed suddenly. Not looking at me, at first. Looking out the window so that I could see the shadows of the cars passing in sky of her eyes, and then at me. “You know, my last real boy friend used that exact phrase. ‘All my eggs in one basket,’ but he was referring to something else. I told him I wanted to get married and have children before it was too late for me. He said, he wasn’t the one. It was all a lot of fun, for both of us, but he was not interested in marriage or children—even though he’d said he was.” She stopped a moment, “Well, at least said it indirectly before that. That was just courtship, he said. He meant, seduction. He told me, I shouldn’t have put all my eggs in his basket, and then he laughed at his own words as if they were witty. I clobbered him. It’s the only time in my adult life I ever hit anyone outside of my martial arts class. I broke his front tooth. He billed me for it, and I paid for it. Happily.”
I recorded all that on some index card in my brain.
“I can’t imagine that. I mean, I can imagine that you wanted kids—I wondered about that—but not that he would laugh at you for it.”
She shrugged, head down. “I misjudged him. That’s all. I knew he wasn’t perfect. But he’s very successful because it’s all about him, even when he’s pretending it’s about you. I met him at a 10-k run to raise money for breast cancer. But he was just there because it was a good place to meet lonely women. He’d learned all about using empathy before he ever left grammar school. But you get tired of waiting for Mr. Perfect.”
I took a chance to step in on that. Probably not the best move.
“I’m sorry to have to break it to you. I’m not so perfect myself.”
My oldest daughter, Georgia, gives me a look when I say things that are really stupid. Not like Margaret’s scowl, where she is letting me know exactly how dumb she thinks I am, but with a little more of the patience you might show to a dog who has just pooped on the carpet, like I used to get out of my Mom. Thankfully, Georgia looks more like my Mom. Though Deirdre doesn’t look a bit like my mother, she managed that look on her face, nonetheless.
“Don’t give yourself too much credit. Women have a tendency to like certain faults in a man . . . Certain faults.”
This was not where I wanted to go. Not in a public place, with a limited amount of time at our disposal. So, after an appropriate pause for breath, I changed the subject.
“So why don’t you quit? Do something else.”
“Write a book.”
“It’s you that writes books. I like to look and listen.” And then she changed the subject herself. “So tell me what you spoke about to your friend Mr. Reilly? What’s the deal with him?”
“Why not? What about writing down what you see and hear?”
“Tell me what you’ve heard from Mr. Reilly, and maybe I can.”
She was still on her game. I filled a little with scraps of past conversations. I mentioned George’s ideas about entropy, and staying upright like a buoy in a sea of troubles, and about the inherent socialism of the family unit. I even hit the topic of hate speech and the new forbidden words. But what I finally came up with was really a fabrication made more of conjecture. A true lie. But something that might well be so.
“George think’s the government is getting desperate. They can see the writing on the digital wall. That’s why they’re so intent on getting him. They know they need to get control of the internet, or the jig is up. The Anonymous groups and Julian Assange have shown that. And that’s what the Stop Online Privacy Act and Protect IP Act, and the rest was all about. They’ve got the UN in on it now. They need to control Matt Drudge as much as Mr. Assange. They can’t have all that freedom going on out there, behind their backs or in their faces. Too much freedom. So now they’re raising the ante. It’s not just so called ‘hate speech’ they’ve got to control. Now it’s ‘cyber violence.’ My little shop is a drop in the bucket compared to all that. No. Maybe the better metaphor is a crack in the bucket. A physical opening to a universe they don’t understand.”
I wondered afterward if my attempt to respark her interest in our story—at least the story of the Bookshop, was way too obvious. Or maybe too subtle. Buckets aside.
But the answer was on page five in the next morning’s paper.
‘Under siege by both FBI and IRS, bookshop plans fund raising sale.’
Holy mackerel! The phone was ringing off the hook from the time I got through the door.
I’m usually alone in the store until eleven, or until one of the part-timers shows up, but the lovely Ardis saw the story in the Post and she comes in at nine and we faced the rush together.
Ardis is always ahead of the curve. First thing, she gives me the straight-face. “It’s serious. Isn’t it?”
I say, “Yeah. But I’m worried about the IRS more than the FBI.”
She shakes that off, “I mean the bleach-blond.”
I tell her “I don’t know.”
She shakes her head at me for that. “It’s serious.”
At that point, amidst the dozen or so who have decided to come in the shop at an hour when it’s usually quiet enough for me to write a chapter without much more than a phone call, in walks a familiar face.
I don’t really know this guy, except for the ‘Hello.’ I’ve just seen him around through the years. He ought to be retired. His name is Charlie Flaherty and he works at the Boston Journal Transcript, which is now shrunken to tabloid size and on its way to scandal-sheet oblivion.
He waits for his chance to slip up to the counter and says, “How ya doin’ Michael?”
I say, “Fine, Charlie. Yourself?”
“Feelin’ left out. Like you threw a party and didn’t invite me.”
He says that with the ‘paahty’ emphasized.
“Join the fun, then. You lookin’ for a book, or a press release? I’m not doin’ any press releases this morning.”
“No. No, I guess you don’t have to these days. Not now you’re hooked up with Deirdre. But my editor thinks we ought to cover a little of this too, just for old time’s sake. To show we care. You, know. That’s why they sent me. He thinks we’re old buddies.”
“Why would he think that?”
“Because. Because, through the years, whenever I was late getting back to the office, I used to say that I’d stopped in here on the way to see if you had a book on the subject of the hour. My editor’s Italian and from New York and he thinks all of us Irish up here stick together anyway. You know.”
“He likely knows where you actually were, Charlie. But I’ll tell you, if the Irish really stuck together there would likely be a lot more of them than there already are.”
He nods. “Funny. But listen, can you give me a little something to take back with me? Something that you haven’t already said out loud in your sleep.”
He’s smiling the whole way. You hear that sort of talk in bars as some fellow is verbally slicing up a ‘friend.’ The smile is what makes it keen.
I was at the counter, so I waved Ardis up and stepped over to the side where I could talk. Charlie is sixty if he’s a day and he gives Ardis the up and down.
I say, “How many kids you got, Charlie?”
He gets my drift. “I can look, can’t I. I’m not dead yet. Look at you!”
“At least I’m divorced.”
He shrugs, “That’s the problem with marrying a Catholic. They don’t let go.”
I say, “You strike me as the kind of guy who can’t turn on a washing machine or boil an egg. Count yourself lucky.”
He slaps that away with the flat of his hand in the air between us, “I’m not here for marital advice. Tell me something. What’s going on? Are you turning IRA in your old age? How did you get the Black and Tans on your case?”
“Just minding my own business. They came after me. I’d prefer to leave them alone.”
“I hear the tax collector’s investigating. Any fire under that smoke?”
“Sure. We don’t make diddly squat here. I’m always behind. But the tax always gets paid. Eventually. Always has.”
“Who is this George Reilly character?”
I know that he has read all of Deidre’s pieces, but I wonder what sort of field work he has done to prepare for this interview himself.
“It’s like you’ve read, he’s just an old customer. Unlike you, he actually buys books.”
Charlie nods at me. “Then you don’t know about any plot to overthrow the government? Anything like that?”
“Nothing. There’s no such plot. It’s government paranoia. Mr. Reilly is evidently good at keeping secrets. They hate that. They only like the secrets that they can’t keep themselves.”
Charlie pulls a folded sheet from his pocket. “Is all that anything to do with this?”
What he has is a computer printout of something with a header that says ‘Nuspeek Daily.’ Those words are in Boldface Times Roman. Below that are briefs on various recent government probes into businesses and organizations around the country. I had never seen it before. It was short, only about four pages, but impressive. It also had a side bar of links to other online sources attached to each of the stories. Item seven: “A Republic of Books in Boston is under investigation by both the FBI and the IRS.”
“This looks interesting, but I don’t know anything about it.”
He nods again. “It quotes you there. It says that you see what’s going on as an attack on the Second Amendment.” He took the sheets back from me and held them up to his face with his glasses pushed high onto his forehead. “Did you say, ‘The American Republic is dead. Each new Caesar will now feed off the rotting carcass until all we have left are the bones.’”
“Sounds like something I might have hyperbolized.”
“Who did you say it to?”
“I can’t remember. I say stuff like that all the time. But only because it’s true.”
Actually, I knew exactly to whom I’d said it.
Charlie says, “Look, Michael. I’m sympathetic. You know? The world is going to hell in a hand basket. But I can’t do much if you don’t help me out here. I know I don’t have the glands that Miss Roberts has, but I can get your story out there too if you give me a chance.”
I tried to give him as much of a look of pity as my limited dramatic skills would allow. “Well that explains a lot about both your problems and mine. I didn’t know that science was calling the brain a gland now.”
A shake of the head, “For pity’s sake, Michael. Help me out here.”
“Charlie. The way I see it, you are the problem. This has been going on under your nose for years and you haven’t reported on it. Now you think you can sell a few extra papers on a little sympathy for the ‘old bookseller.’ But it’s too late.”
“Michael! Deirdre is no better than I am. Why does she get the inside track? Is it true then? Is it pillow talk?”
I think I gave a short laugh. It was a cute try. “You’ll have to go back without a story, Charlie. I suspect it’s time for both of us to retire anyway. You can spend more time with your wife, but I’ll just have to keep sleeping alone.”
Because the Boston Journal Transcript is a tabloid, they still get out an evening edition, along with the updates on their website. About six o’clock, Deirdre shows up looking fierce. She hits the counter with a copy of the late edition while still in full stride. Even as thin as that tabloid is, it still makes a good pop on the marble and gets everyone in the shop, including Ardis, to look forward.
I see that Deirdre is handsome when she’s angry.
She says, “Did you tell this ass-hole any of that?”
“I don’t know what it says. But I don’t think I told him anything that isn’t public knowledge.”
She places a finger on the page below a picture of me that was taken for some article they ran a year or two ago. “How about this, ‘Mr. McGeraughty denies he has a personal relationship with Deirdre Roberts, the reporter for the Post who is responsible for the recent stories . . .’ Did you tell him that?”
“I said nothing about you.”
She did not look convinced.
But Ardis had come up behind me and cleared her throat. She gave both of us the quick plastic smile. I was suddenly worried. What had I actually said? Ardis raises both eyebrows with her best look of skepticism and a sigh, which is actually her way of showing patience.
She says, “The ass-hole I think you are referring to kept intimating that Michael was sleeping with you and that’s how you were getting your information and that’s why you were giving us so much attention. Michael told him he was lame and said it was probably about time for both of them to retire and Charlie could spend more time with his wife, and Michael would just have to continue sleeping alone. I believe those are close to his exact words.”
Deirdre’s shoulders dropped an inch or two and the fight came out of her.
So I asked her if she knew about the ‘Nuspeek Daily’ website. She didn’t. But at least she did not seem puzzled by the name. Nice that she’s a lit major, even if she is given to the usual liberal faiths.
I took a phone call then while Deirdre wandered a bit around the shop. Not idly. It was clear she was working up to something else to say. When I was free again she asked me to step outside a moment. Then against the murmur and buzz on the street she apologized for ‘flying off the handle.’ I love that idiom. And because I was not upset with her at all, I tried to change the subject.
“I’ve always wondered where that expression comes from. I’ve wondered if it had anything to do with printing and the old presses. The sweat of the hands on the steel lever. But I have a friend who thinks it has to do with the head of the ax coming loose with a swing and flying wild.”
She shook her head at me. “You are incorrigible.”
But at least she didn’t say that in the tone of a reprimand.
I put in, “Do you want to go someplace for dinner tonight?”
She said, “No. I can’t,” as if that were a very unfortunate thing, and I believed her, but then she asked me for a favor.
Funny thing. I had said the bit about the Caesars and the bones of the Republic at least two years ago. Off the cuff. The reason I still knew the exact person I’d said it to is that I was in the truck at the time and on the way to pick up a large load of books from a house in Belmont. Jack was with me for the grunt work and he’d been forced to sit through a particularly vehement tirade on my part because it was October and I had just barely scraped together the taxes to go with our usually late annual filing that year. In other words, I was in a mood. But I did one other thing that day. I liked the imagery of it and I’d written a few words down so that I wouldn’t forget them. And then I’d proceeded to loose the index card I’d written it on. The card had fallen down through the crack in the back of the bench seat in the truck.
A few weeks ago I was doing spring-cleaning in the truck and the same card got stuck in the nozzle of the vacuum. So now I asked Ardis if she could speak with Jack about coming by, concerning a technical problem. Somehow, the look she offered back was as if she understood.
Jack was in the shop the next morning before I opened. The computer was on and the light from the screen was nearly iridescent in the half dark of the shop on that gray morning.
He says, “What up? Everything looks fine to me.”
I sat down on the second stool behind the counter, and got right to it. “How long have you been working with George Reilly?”
There was no look of surprise. Jack just shrugs. Because he carries a lot of muscle in his shoulders, they don’t move very far, but you get the intent.
“You trust him?”
“Okay. But the Black and Tans are getting close.”
“Black and Tans?”
“Mr. Churchill’s Royal Irish Constabulary. They were sent into Ireland after the First World War to quell the Rebellion. They wore black and tan uniforms. Many of them were Irish themselves and acted as spies to infiltrate the IRA. They did a lot of damage from the inside. Mostly by spreading distrust.” I let that thought sink in. “Just don’t let anything get between you and your trust. You’re better off failing than loosing that, and they’ll be spreading the lies thick and fast.”
Jack nodded just a bit. I didn’t expect him to say much. He seldom does. But then he says, “How did you figure it out? I don’t want to be giving things away.”
“The comment about Caesar and the bones of the Republic.”
“I was reading the piece that was on Nuspeek. Did you write that?”
“It was good. You write well.”
“Thanks . . . But I’ll keep your warning in mind about the Black and Tans.”
I didn’t ask him more. It wasn’t my business, I thought. I had long before accepted the fact that he was conducting some project of his own on my machine, but any evidence of that was always removed afterward and I was happy to exchange that allowance of time for the help he often gave me at no charge. It wasn’t my place to instruct him concerning what he did concerning this. And the less I knew about it the better, lest I slip and say something I shouldn’t to someone else.
But all of this was a real hoot. Now I knew for certain that it was my connection with Jack that had stirred the hornet’s nest. And if Jack was part of that, so was Ardis.
- Beyond the age of reason
wherein love is lost and found
Has our Thirty Years’ War only just begun, or has it ended long since and the news simply not yet arrived via a slow internet connection. I have often felt that way about history—in my youth especially. In those days the various socialist religions had long been at war, much like Catholics and Protestants once did, Christian killing Christian, with one Wallenstein after another rising in the ranks: Lenin and Stalin, Mussolini and Hitler, Mao or Khrushchev, Fidel and Che. From 1918 to 1978, this bloodletting had been an endless sixty years, twice the length of the Reformation conflict, but a hundred times more deadly if mere lives are counted. Mere human lives, you understand, unlived.
This was the disdain for human life you’d commonly find in the political tracts of my early age, with people classified as bourgeoisie, or proletariat, blue collar or intellectual, rich or poor, male or female. It didn’t matter. The theories were all the same at the end.
One of those thinkers I didn’t especially like early on was Elias Canetti, who wrote Crowds and Power. He was a prick, and a dilettante, and a prime example of mid-Twentieth Century European self-supposed intellectual smugness (having successfully destroyed several hundred million other lives, they and their superior insight had survived) but then, I suppose, even Elias Canetti had a few good things to say. This is my favorite of those: “It is always the enemy who started it, even if he was not the first to speak out, he was certainly planning it; and if he was not actually planning it, he was thinking of it; and, if he was not thinking of it, he would have thought of it.” Unwittingly (as I am sure that bile, not wit, was one of Canetti’s main strengths) he has captured the mindset of the modern progressive of the early Twenty-first Century, whether in Cambridge, England, or Cambridge, Massachusetts.
And it was this bit of wisdom that kept me from placing blame, you see. Infuriating to those who want a body to whip.
When I saw Jack, I took the opportunity of telling him about Deirdre’s request.
It seemed simple enough. She wanted to talk to George. An interview with the head of a rebellion would be worth something to her editor, and to her as well, just for the politically prurient interest I suppose, if not the educational value. Jack found this a little amusing.
I said, “She’d just like to get a statement from the leader of the ‘group’ as she called it, about your intentions and objectives. Nothing elaborate. The FBI knows you exist. Because of my getting hung-up in it, now everyone knows you exist, I suppose. Maybe it would make some sense to offer a straightforward explanation of purpose at this point, maybe just to counter the stupid press releases from the FBI.”
Jack doesn’t hesitate. “Sure.”
“You think George will be okay with talking to her?”
His assurance was not satisfying. It seemed too easy.
I bluffed. “Somehow I thought he might.”
“Just tell her he’ll give a call at the paper and set something up.”
He’s still smiling so I have to ask. “What’s up? What’s so funny?”
“You and Miss Roberts. You’re a hoot.”
“That’s one of Ardis’s expressions.”
“She told me she picked it up from you.”
Nonetheless, Deirdre showed up at the shop the next morning, pokes her head in the door and says, “Can we meet for lunch?”
Only one question. “Where?”
“That first place we went. Meet you there at two?”
I immediately picked up on the fact that she was being circumspect, but I did not really know the half of it until later.
She appeared to be quite excited when I first arrived at the deli. Effervescent I’d say. Right off, she orders a couple hot pastramis on dark rye, pays for them both along with some Dr. Browns. and I follow her to her car. She drives over to a little park a few blocks away. There, she spreads our bounty out on a bench seat between us, wax paper held down against the breezes by the pickles at all corners, and despite the sun, her baby blues are wide practically the whole time.
“So he calls me at the paper yesterday and asks me to meet him at The Boyne. You know. The tavern just around the corner from the newspaper. But once I’m in there I get a call on the bar-phone and he wants to meet me up at Dorchester Heights instead. Right by the monument. Do I know where that is? And I tell him I just live a few blocks away. My guess is that the watchful eyes of the FBI have gotten more plentiful. Then again, it was a great day out and maybe George just wanted a little fresh air. The Boyne can get pretty stuffy.”
I noted the use of his first name. She lets that sit in my mind as she starts to eat. She is obviously making a nice little play out of the whole thing.
“So what happened then?”
“So he’s standing by the base of the monument when I get up there, leaning back against the granite with his eyes closed, getting some sun. Very relaxed. Not what I expected. A very trim looking fellow. Better looking than I guessed he would be. I’d say handsome. And he has a little drawl. I think he’s from someplace down South.”
“You never told me before that you knew that!”
I tried shrugging that omission away, but I did say anything.
She nodded a little. “But I would have guessed it was Texas. And he has that calm deep voice. Very nice. You remember years ago, that was the kind of voice you’d hear on the radio or on the TV News. Not any more. They’re all whiny now. But maybe that’s just the news these days anyway. All complaints and disaster, all the time.”
I admit I’m a little concerned at this point, especially with her making the same connections from the sound of his voice that I had always made. “So what did George have to say for himself?”
“He didn’t talk about himself. I really have to ask again if you know anything more about him than you’ve already told me. Anything you’d forgotten. Like the fact that he’s from Texas.”
“Nothing. And I didn’t mention Texas.”
She gave me a brief and doubtful squint at that comment, and then continues, “So the first thing Mr. Reilly does, before he even opens his eyes to look at me face to face, like he’s been watching me through the slits the whole way up, is say, ‘Look around,’ and I do. And he says, ‘What do you see?’ and I say, ‘I don’t see any FBI, if that’s what you mean. I see a couple of kids from the High School over there near the azaleas, smoking cigarettes. And he says, ‘No. All around.’ So I say, ‘Houses.’ And he says, ‘That’s right. Triple-deckers and Victorian townhouses and brick apartment buildings—and the school, of course, all the way around.’ And then he opened those brown eyes of his—very nice brown eyes—warm I’d say—and he looks at me with a very serious frown. A very cute frown. He’s not wearing a ring so I’m guessing he’s not married, but he’s much too cute to be single. Especially at his age. What? 45?”
I had to shake my head at that. She had overplayed he hand and we both know she’s trying too hard. “Really?”
Deidre says, “Yes. He is!” she waves off my tone of voice. I’m finally getting the idea now. She’s just trying to get a reaction out of me. “And then he asks me, ‘Do you know what this place is?’ And I say, ‘Sure.’ And he says. ‘Good. But when I first came to Boston I drove up here looking for Dorchester Heights.’ He tells me he’s a bit of a history buff, and couldn’t believe this was it. There was no sign on the fence at the time. Not down on the street. And, he wasn’t even in Dorchester, so what’s that all about? He stops a guy by the curb right there, walking his dog, and he asks him, what is this monument for, and the guys tells him, it’s some kind of monument, but he’s not sure. Can you believe that? Here is this giant granite erection that he’s walking around everyday with his dog and he doesn’t know why the hell it’s there! Your friend George stands up straight then and looks me in the eye to tell me he is being absolutely serious about all this and there’s a reason he’s telling me. He says ‘So I asked the guy with the dog, if he’s sure he doesn’t know what the monument is for? Maybe he’s just a local putting the rube on a bit. And the guy says, no, but he speculates it’s probably for a war. Maybe the Civil War.’ And so George asks him, if he knows the area pretty well because he was looking for something in particular. And the guy says that he ought to—he was born a few blocks away and went to high school right next door!”
Deirdre nodded at the revelation and sat back again to eat about half her pastrami. She practically inhaled it while she nods her head as if agreeing with some inner testimony.
I ask, “So is George working as a tour guide now?”
She lets that slide, “He says, ‘You know, that’s the whole problem in a nutshell. People don’t know where they come from anymore, or why they’re there. Most people. You ask and they say South Boston, or whatever, but they really don’t know. They don’t know who they are. Not just in South Boston. Everywhere.’ He tells me most people have lost touch with the very stuff that made the world they live in possible. The things that still make it work even now. And they don’t teach that kind of stuff in high school anymore, either. Not at the school that’s sitting right on top of one of the most important places in the country, or anywhere else for that matter. And their fathers and grandfathers obviously didn’t learn much of that in their turn. Maybe a little, but certainly not enough to want to pass it on. And that’s why they thought it was just fine to build a bunch of houses and apartments all around this place so you can’t see any of what George Washington or Henry Knox once saw during the siege of Boston.”
Deirdre shook her head and ate another bit or two. I’m enjoying the sun and just listened. At least I was learning something about George.
Deirdre says, “It seemed to me he was on a roll and I didn’t say a word to any of this. But now I’m thinking he is some kind of ‘Tea Party’ type. And then he says, ‘Take all that as a living metaphor, if you will. The entire country is that way. We’re living as well as we do by the good graces of a bunch of men who’ve been dead for almost two hundred years. It was a great push-off, but the momentum has finally run down.’ ”
Margaret was looking right at me then. All I could say to that was “Sounds about right to me.”
She says, “Your Mr. Reilly thinks he’s a goddamned patriot!”
I didn’t think there was any doubt about that. “I think so too. Probably the ‘damned’ part as well. It’s not a politically correct state of mind these days.”
“And he actually has the cockamamie idea that he’s going to change things.”
“Nice word, ‘cockamamie.’ ”
“You used that word on me the first time I ever had a conversation with you.”
“When was that?”
“Longer ago than I want to remember.”
“Why do you remember it then?”
“I don’t know. You remember some things. You told me I should read George Eliot instead of Nora Roberts. I told you that I’ve read George Eliot. But I can’t read Middlemarch and keep my sanity. I needed to escape all the bullshit and misery every once and awhile, and I refuse to watch TV. There has to be a little love in the equation somewhere. A little passion.”
“What did I say to that?”
“You said that was cockamamie.”
I certainly would have said it. It was just stupid enough. But I couldn’t remember the conversation.
“I don’t think I was referring to the passion when I said it. I was probably still just trying to dump on the facile Miss Roberts.”
Deirdre sits up, obviously re-offended by my implication of long ago. “Why do you sell her then. You certainly have a whole lot of romance novels for someone who looks down his nose at it. You’re a hypocrite!”
“You’re right. Selling them bothers me. It’s like soft-core porn. But Margaret used to read them too and it was my way of trying to be broadminded, so to speak. Being snotty wasn’t going to make things any easier. And they account for about ten percent of our fiction sales, so it’s hard to get rid of them now and still pay the rent.”
“That’s compromising, isn’t it?”
“Sure. But it’s not a moral appeasement. It’s not a matter of right or wrong. Jane Austen wrote romances. So did the Brontes. And Henry James. It’s just a matter of taste . . . So did George tell you anything more than just how ignorant people are these days? You’ve been getting enough of that from me, haven’t you?”
She readjusted herself to the question.
“Yes. He told me he had no manifesto. No declaration of grievances. He actually said ‘That was all done before, by smarter men than me.’ So I asked him, what was he trying to accomplish then. How was his little rebellion going to work? He tells me, “What he is doing now is simply helping to open up communication with others who agree with him. If everyone who felt as he did knew they were not alone and could communicate freely with one another without interference from the government, that would be half the battle. ‘Right now,’ he says, ‘all of that’s controlled by the bureaucrats who benefit from it, and people like you.’ ” Deirdre’s eyes go wide beneath the arch of her eyebrows. “ME! He looked me right in the eye when he said it. He says, ‘It’s not much different than it was two hundred and thirty years ago when the Crown controlled the news. Most people just don’t give a damn and never will. It was the same way then. That hasn’t changed either. Most people willll happily live off the fat of the land, as long as they can, whoever’s in power.’ And then he says—and remember, he’s looking me in the face the whole time—that the Boston Post was part of the tyranny. And that I was part of it as well.” Her shoulders go up as if to say she didn’t know what to say. “I objected, of course. I pointed out that I was there, talking to him, wasn’t I? Just like I did to you once. Remember? But he says ‘That’s incidental.’ The FBI is just hoping that I’ll end up leading them to him. That I was just ‘the staked goat.’ I like that. I’m the goat, now. But he said they’d eventually track him down, anyway. ‘They have all the means. All the resources they want,’ he said. ‘The only thing standing in their way was their own incompetence.’ So, I asked him then what he was willing to do if he was caught. I was thinking about guns, of course. And he shrugs and says, ‘Go to jail. Like Thoreau once did. I’d be honored for the spiritual company.’ Now, Michael, I’ll admit I did not remember about Thoreau, so I looked that up last night when I got home. Do you know about that?”
“Yes. I think of it every time I pay my taxes. Some men are just braver than others.” That got a longer look out of her. And a long silence. I didn’t want to ask what she was seeing. So I say, “Was that it then? Was there anything else?”
She sighs. “I asked him about what you mentioned. I asked him if he was part of the hacker group, Anonymous. You know what he said? He said, he didn’t know! So I had to follow up on that, and he says that he has certainly learned a lot from watching their activities. But he doesn’t join groups,’ and I say, but isn’t that exactly why the FBI wants him? And he says, he’s not sure why they want him. And then he tells me the most interesting part of all. And I’m pretty sure he was telling me the truth. At least the truth as he saw it.”
She paused the revelation. A nice dramatic touch. I couldn’t wait.
“So, what the hell did he say?”
“He said that he was pretty sure the reason Anonymous still existed was that is had no central authority. It couldn’t be controlled. Most of the people who express opinions as ‘Anonymous’ appeared to be left wing, but not all. And there whole methodology was actually libertarian. And I knew you would like that.”
“I already knew that.”
“Sure. Well. Everyone does, I think. But George says, a large part of the activities reported on the news with that name attached are really infiltrators. Phonies. Like the Surete, or whatever the French call it now.”
“National Police, or FSB, or NSA, or FBI, or whatever.”
“Don’t forget the Chinese MSS. And the German have the BfV. It’s hard to keep track of all those letters.”
“Why do you know about them?”
“Because I’ve used them in a few stories. I write novels, remember? I usually make them the bad guys.”
She nods, “Whatever. He thinks they all have a hand in it. It’s wide open to anyone.”
“If you can’t beat’em, join ‘em.”
“Exactly! And most of those governments are socialist, so it’s only natural that even the real the Anonymous hackers have a tendency to that, but because they’re not controlled, the libertarian spirit comes out anyway. So I ask George why he’s not sure if he’s a part of it? And he says, there’s nothing to join so how would he know if he was a member. The only thing he could try to be sure of is that none of those government agencies are involved in what he does. And that was what was important. And he suspects that’s the way it works with Anonymous. The real hacktivist groups seem know who’s one of them and who isn’t. They are not interested in finding new members. People find them. But he thinks that’s why the FBI may be interested in him. They have an eye on the others, so they can let that go on, but what he does gives them a pain in the ass.’ So I say, ‘what do you do for a living then?’ And he says, he can’t say.”
I wasn’t getting a lot of writing done anyway, but all this was now more interesting to me than some two hundred year old space traveller playing cat and mouse with robots.
I know I could have asked some of those questions of George myself, but I was working from a different mind set. I didn’t want to know what I didn’t have to know. Now, Deidre had asked the questions for me.
Deidre’s excitement alone was enough to get me worked up. Women are very sexy when they are excited. But I now had another concern. And though I do not know George as well as I would like, I had the idea that he might be having his own thoughts about Deidre. And he is a very good-looking fellow, or so I am told.
When you watch Helene Grimaud play the Rachmaninov Second Piano Concerto on YouTube you understand the music itself a little better, I think. There are other, ‘bigger’ performances. ‘Grander’ performances. But there she is paired with Claudio Abbado conducting and it is quieter presentation of the work and you are not overcome with the brilliance as much as the substance. I am not qualified to criticize Martha Agerich’s performance of Rachmaninov’s Third. It is stupendous, I know. I have loved it for the better part of my life. But the composer is such a genius of the language of music that I wonder if I am missing some of what he has to say simply by the overwhelming technical virtuosity of Argerich playing. She overwhelms you. You can’t escape. But with Grimaud, I’ve had people in the shop stop their browsing and stand in awe to listen.
This was the matter in my head the next day as I tried to write, not only because I had the Rachmaninov playing while I worked. What I was doing with my story had me trapped by the presentation. I had to concentrate more on the substance than the circumstance. What more was there to say than that humanity had failed an obligation to itself. The blatant proof of that was in their very absence from the Earth, was it not? And that was like saying that God’s creation had failed. Was that possible? Wasn’t the idea now that a creation of mankind itself could possibly save the day enough to draw the link back again to God?
The atheist would reject all of this quandary from the start and miss the substance of the argument. God or not, mankind had failed in its primary responsibility. That was, God or no God, to itself. Not to the robots, or to the birds and bees. The birds and bees would take care of their own priorities. As would the robots. The question becomes: ultimately, what reason would I have then in my story for the robots to save the ass of mankind? We are a failed species, yes? The robots would see this. Except for the fact that we’re not. Not yet. We are still hanging on, by a single mortal thread perhaps—at least one of them was still in the fight, and what should he be doing now? What next?
That’s the way stories get along.
Where should my story turn? What I wanted just then was to coax the value of being human out of my protagonist so that he might persuade his digitally blooded captors of his worth. Commanding the keys with some sort of swordplay was not going to get him anywhere.
This is the sort of thinking that can put you in your own ether. You miss what’s going on around you. This has happened to me before. I’ve had customers leave the money on the counter and walk away. One moment, I was alone in the shop with the sun catching a corner of the window, and illuminating the glass like a chandelier, while Helene Grimaud explained to me with her fingers what I had been missing, and the next there was a fellow standing at the end of the counter staring at me.
By his look, I was sure he was FBI, but I was evidently wrong.
He says, “I’m here to inspect the building.”
“Who are you?”
“I’m a building inspector.”
He handed me a card with the two words, ‘Liberty Mutual,’ in bold 24 pt. Garamond type, and the rest in eight point nearly too small to read.
I held this card out between my fingers like a specimen. “You are Mr. Gregory?”
“That’s the name on the card.”
“I just wondered if maybe you had grabbed the wrong one when you went out the door this morning. Besides, you didn’t call first.”
He has all the demeanor of Mr. Clifford. That is, none, which is a demeanor in itself. Sort of a missed demeanor.
He says, “That’s not required. The policy says that we may conduct periodic unscheduled inspections to assure compliance with the restrictions of the policy.”
I was not in the mood for this. I said, “You look like an FBI agent.”
He stood there a moment longer and stared back at me and then turned and went off into the shop to do whatever he had intended to in the first place. But my concentration on my story was broken. I sat a moment longer and then followed him.
At first, he seemed very interested in the height of the shelves, hauling a rolling ladder over to the highest of those and pulling the tab on a tape-measure to hold the stiff metal up to a sprinkler head. I already knew the tops of all the shelves were more than eighteen inches from the sprinklers, which is what I understood to be necessary by fire code. I thought I could hear the disappointment in a released breath as he let the thin metal ravel back into the case.
I watched him from the end of an aisle.
He suddenly turned and asked me, “How much does one of these shelving units weigh?”
“Varies. Less than the weight of a horse. This was a stable at one time. The beams in the basement are all over twelve inches wide.”
He answers that with a, “Yeah?” as if the added detail wasn’t relevant. It was, of course. Margaret’s father had made a point of the fact years ago, to his own satisfaction.
A customer came in then and I went back to the desk. By the time she was taken care of, the ‘inspector’ had disappeared into the back room. My guess was that he wasn’t a reader, so the experience would not offer him any more subtle pleasures.
I stayed at the desk to answer a phone call, and then simply to act like I really didn’t give a damn. Ten minutes later Mr. Gregory was back at the counter himself.
“You shouldn’t have boxes on the floor back there. If there was a fire, it could impede egress.”
“That’s from a lot I just bought yesterday. I’ll be taking care of it this morning.”
Mr. Gregory wrote something out on a white form and then tore a pink sheet from beneath and handed that to me.
“Your insurance is suspended pending a follow-up inspection.”
“You can come back this afternoon. It’ll be cleaned up.”
“You’ll get a notice in the mail about when we can come back.”
“That’s not soon enough. My lease is dependent on having insurance.”
“You should have thought about that when you left the boxes there.”
Now, I have dealt with such personalities in the various departments of government and public utilities all my life. The virus of even petty power on the human mind. But this was a first for an insurance inspector. They usually issue a warning and give you thirty days to clear the problem up.
I went right to a more accurate defense. “I believe that constitutes harassment, on your part. I’ll be letting your company know about it directly.”
“I don’t care what you believe.”
“No. I don’t think you do.”
Another gauntlet had been thrown down. The revolution was afoot, and I was somewhere beneath that boot.
In a world managed by tens of thousands of pages of law and hundreds of thousands of pages of regulations and code requirements, theoretically intended to support the laws, and millions of bureaucrats appointed to interpret the code, there was no justice. There could be none. There wasn’t time or allowance for it. And there were no manners. There was no fair play. There was only force and reaction. And ultimately, compliance.
I called my new lawyer, Martin Guinn, and left a message with the details.
As I expected he might, Martin called the insurance company before he called me back. He’s not the type to waste a phone call, any more than his buddy David Brooks. He confirmed that the insurance company had to give me the thirty days lee-way for a minor infraction and that they would speak to the agent about the matter and a corrected notice would be sent out.
- Unto an age of Romanticism
or, On the Beach
It was a great blue-sky day, June-warm and too nice and full of summer to be indoors. When Ardis showed up, I told her I was going to play hooky for a few hours and left her there at the shop with Stella.
I had no plan at first except to go to a beach, and the closest place for that was in South Boston. Well, true, I knew that Deirdre lived there, so perhaps that was behind my thoughts, even at the start. She’d told me she liked to ride her bike from there to work at the Post whenever she could. So I called her up.
She has a way of hesitating with her answers that can leave you with all kinds of time to imagine the worser alternatives. Worser being somewhere between worse and worst, but before it becomes the fabric of things, which is worsted.
“You mean to swim?”
“No. Just to go. Sit. Take a walk. Talk.”
She looks worried. I could tell, even over the phone, but she says, “I have a piece to file by six . . . But it’s pretty much done . . . Where should we meet?”
“How about your place?”
I say, “I’ve seen bachelor apartments before.”
I’m not sure she even remembers saying the same thing to me. More hesitation.
“I need an address.”
Her voice lowers as she tells me. I figured there might be someone else close by to her desk at the office.
When I arrived at 5th Street she answered the door with a deeply caught breath, as if she’s been furiously cleaning things up and I had arrived ten minutes too soon. Or maybe she had ridden too fast on her bike. She immediately moved toward me to leave, pulling the door shut behind, but I didn’t budge, which got her plenty close for a moment. I could smell her sweat.
“There’s nothing to see, really.”
“Sure, I’d love to.”
She sighed and backed up.
I already knew from conversation that her apartment was more than twice the size of my place, at less than half the cost. I saw right off now that she likes blues and whites, and a splash of orange—like the orange of an apricot. The blues and whites remind me of a bed-and-breakfast where Margret and I once stayed in Holland. I remember that the bed was hard there.
I discovered several other things immediately, besides the fact that Deirdre had a Grey parrot in an enormous cage by the window.
“He only says one word,” she says, “I think he was too old by the time I got him at the shelter.”
Deirdre likes bric-a-brac. She has collected hundreds of odd objects from the places she’s visited on vacation over the years; mostly small stones and obviously kitschy figurines.
And I see too that she doesn’t keep the romance novels she buys from me. Or else she’s thrown them out recently. Beside the bric-a-brac, the bookshelves were relatively empty. Mostly she has a few classics and a few dozen more recent hardcovers that I figured might be Christmas gifts. Those looked like they were never read. All except two of them, which were mine. Those two were out on a coffee table where I would spot them right off, so maybe she had expected me to want to come in after all. But I had hoped they might be in her bedroom, maybe on the bedside table. But the bedroom door was shut.
I made what I thought was an obvious snarky remark concerning the lack of books in the place for a lit major.
“I thought you said you were a Lit major, for Christ sake.”
The Grey said “Nuts.”
Deirdre says, “You have a good memory, for your age. Yes. Well, I just don’t keep a lot of books. They’re heavy. And it seemed like I used to move every couple of years.”
“You told me you haven’t moved in twenty years. You buy paperbacks!”
“Right. Well, when I do it the next time, I won’t have to worry about all that weight again, will I? I throw them away.”
And the Grey said, “Nuts.”
She has a television—what they more appropriately call a ‘monitor’ now—and this is enormous. I couldn’t guess the size, really. But it looked too thin to hold anything, much less a two dimensional image. She saw me assessing the thing from one side.
“Yes. I watch a lot of television. A lot of movies. And I know you don’t even have one. I noticed that when I was at your place as well . . . And I don’t know why you’re even here.”
I said the first thing that came to mind. I was trying to be witty.
“I do have one. I keep it under the desk where it can’t beg for attention. But I am trying to broaden my horizons.”
“That’s very open-minded of you.”
She did that backward weave she does, and she says, “We are not alike, you and I. And I have no idea why this is happening. Probably some sort of desperation. You know, women of a certain age, and all that. Truth is, I’m a little disappointed in myself. I thought I was more self-sufficient.”
All I could do was admit the fact. “That’s two of us. Nature is perverse.”
“Are you saying this is perverse?”
“Yes. Haven’t you ever wanted to be perverse?”
“In the middle of the day?”
“Well, that’s a fine time. But I don’t think we should take advantage of that just yet. I only wanted to take a walk . . . And talk.”
And the Grey said “Nuts.”
But I took her hand when we were out on the sidewalk. There didn’t seem be any hesitation to that. She’d grabbed a blanket and carried that under her other arm.
The sand at Carson Beach is cleaner now than it was when I first came to Boston in the 1960’s. I’ve noticed this before but it still surprises me, which says something, I suppose, about just how bad it used to be.
There is a fair crowd. The tide is on its way out though still high and everyone is thick along the top of the strip of sand closest the wall. Very few people are in the water. It’s still June, after all. But quite a few are as near naked as the law allows. Both men and women. Deirdre and I are just wearing shorts and shirts.
I told her then about the old days of coming over here when the water was an obstacle course of floating condoms and battered pucks of offal from the sewage plant.
“Why did you come at all?”
“No. Before Margaret. Margaret had a car, so then we used to drive down to her parent’s place on the Cape.”
She considered this a moment while I considered the physical characteristics of some of the more blatant exhibitionists.
“Tell me why things didn’t last with Margaret?”
This was rather bold, I thought. Simply launching right into the heart of the matter.
“I don’t know.”
“Sure you do. That’s exactly the sort of thing you would have though about a thousand times.”
Her count was low but in the right direction.
“I have. Sure. But I don’t know. I don’t know why we even got married in the first place. We always argued—well, I do know that. She was pregnant. But then we kept compounding the thing until . . . It was hopeless.”
“You didn’t love each other?”
“Of course we did. I still love her. But we are a lot happier, apart.”
“What was the problem?”
I was looking at Deirdre for maybe a moment too long when I answered that. Actually, at the reflection of myself in her sunglasses. I could see the logo on my Red Sox cap.
“We have nothing in common.”
Immediately she is sitting up again.
“Do you mean you and Margaret, or you and me?”
Her back went straight.
“Well, that sums things up pretty quickly. And I didn’t even get a kiss out of it.”
“Yeah. No. That part is really disappointing. I’ve been thinking about kissing you since a couple of weeks ago. No. Actually longer. You know, once, when you came in the shop a couple of years ago I had that same idea, pretty definitely.”
“You didn’t say anything.”
“No. I was just turned sixty-five about then and feeling sorry for myself.”
“Was that the time you were standing on a ladder and trying to put something up in the window?”
“It was a model plane. I was doing a display of old flying books.”
“I remember. I remember that I thought you looked pretty cute. But I thought you were only sixty-four.”
Suddenly, there was the sarcasm again. She had that streak of mind. So did Margaret.
I defended myself with the facts. “You had on some very red lipstick and I was taken with the idea of kissing you right then. It was the way you were looking up at me, with a little grin on your face, as if you were just waiting for me to do it. Maybe it was just the lipstick.”
“I thought you were just looking down the front of my blouse.”
“I was. That too. But you must have stood there at the bottom of the ladder for at least a couple of minutes. What were you grinning at?”
“I didn’t know I was grinning. Maybe it was just the bright light from the window. I know I thought you were going to fall. I think I was afraid you were going to fall and I should stay there and catch you.”
She considered this is a minute of silence and then said, “But we have nothing in common.”
“Sure we do. We have that much—I mean, the fact that we have nothing in common.”
“If two negatives make a positive, then lets start with that.” She nodded definitively at the idea. “What is it we both have nothing in common about?”
“It might be better to find something we agree on. At least someting that would just be a positive.”
We both sat in silence again for a minute more and stared at one very unfortunate looking human being of uncertain sex who disrobed about ten feet in front of us. There was no bikini top so I guessed he was male, but his boobs were definitely larger than Deirdre’s.
She finally said, “I like your shop.”
The fleshy fellow settled himself on his blanket and began polishing his skin with suntan lotion. Pungent.
She says, “Come on, can’t you find anything you like about me?”
“I like your shape.”
“I’m not sure I agree with you about that.”
“So that falls into the other column, I guess. But you’d be wrong.”
She picks right up on that thread again. “What else am I wrong about?”
“I thought we were going to accentuate the positive. I like your voice.”
“That’s stuff I was born with. How about something I’ve done.”
This was the clearly greater challenge for me.
“You have the advantage there. I don’t really read the Post, so except for the things you’ve written about me lately, I don’t know a lot.”
“Why don’t you read the Post?”
“It’s a load of claptrap, misinformation, and progressive propaganda.”
“Other than that, what do you really think?”
“I wonder why you’ve worked there for most of your life. That doesn’t seem like a worthy thing to do.”
“Journalism is an honest trade!”
“It can be.”
“Are you saying I’m dishonest?”
“I hope not, but how do I know? All I’ve read is the stuff you’ve written about the shop. That’s been okay, I guess. I guess I can go to the library and look up the other stuff.”
Now I had told a lie in my defense. What other depravity would I stoop to? I had read dozens of her pieces. The only ones I usually skipped were the very sad ones. The bag lady they’d tossed out of McLean mental hospital who had lived on the streets for twenty years. The Vietnam vet who still sends Christmas cards to the families of his lost buddies—only the list has grown through the years to several hundred. The two sisters who lived together right there in South Boston for fifty years after their husband’s died in World War Two. All good stuff. Her writing was well above the usual for the Post. But I didn’t want to get into that. Not this day. She would only want to know why I did not like the other ones. Women are like that, and that was dangerous territory.
She shrugs and draws a question mark in the loose sand with her index finger and says, “It’s all on the internet now. You can read it there. It’s indexed.”
“Then I’ll have to look it up there. “
“What did you really think of the pieces I wrote about you?”
“They were okay.”
“Just. But that’s not necessarily your fault. You wrote them the way your editor wanted it. That’s your job. You don’t always get to write the stories you’d like to tell. Most writers don’t. Not like me. That’s the real benefit to publishing your own stuff, I guess.”
“What kind of stories do you think I’d like to tell?”
“I don’t know that either. Why don’t you tell me? What kind of stories would you really like to tell?”
The corpulent fellow in front of us had settled back on his blanket like a walrus, his hide glistening with each breath and raising the topography of the sand enough, given our own recline, to block the shallow waves at the water’s edge from view.
“I’m not sure any more.”
This was a subject that was clearly loaded. Something we would have to talk about for a long time. Some time.
“What kind of stories did you want to tell when you started?”
She laughed first. “You wouldn’t have liked those. I was very much the feminist then. Very political. Everything was seen through that lens.”
“When did you give that up?”
“AD. After Dennis. He was the editor there at the Post that I was in love with—
the one who took the job at the Times in New York. But I don’t want to talk about that rat. Tell me what you came here to say.”
I had tried, very deliberately, not to think about that.
“I just came here to talk.”
My mind scrambled. I had nothing. What had I been writing about that very morning?
She says, “Well, we’re certainly getting that done.”
I had avoided discussing philosophy with Deirdre for obvious reasons. Where might that argument end? But as my children know too well, my diversions often fail. When I first attempted to explain to each of my daughters, on their sixteenth birthdays, the problems associated with birth control, both practical and metaphysical, and including the joys of sexually transmitted disease, I was a year too late in one case, and two years early in the other. Nevertheless, Margaret had already taken them both to see the gynecologist. (To his credit, my son Ben came to me first in order to head off the uncomfortable moment—when he was not yet fifteen). It was just such a dolesome moment that I wanted to prevent between Deidre and I. But biology is no longer a branch of natural history, and philosophy has long since been overtaken by politics. Did she fully understand what I stood for? More importantly, would she sit still for it given her own inclinations?
She was sitting back on the blanket then with he arms stretched to the sand behind.
I could approach the subject obliquely. Mr. Carroll might offer a key to that.
“The time has come, ‘The Walrus said,’ to talk of many things: Of shoes, and ships, and sealing wax, of cabbages, and kings, and why the sea is boiling hot, and whether pigs have wings.”
That is to say, I could talk about love while we were lounging on a blanket at Carson Beach, while an unfreshened breeze off adipose flesh pestered in our faces. Or I could put that off.
She ignored my verbal ruse. Her first thoughts were more practical.
“Are you trying to put me off by all of this jabber? After all, I’ve actually known you for twenty years. Many’s the time I’ve heard you expounding your recidivist thoughts aloud to some stunned customer who’d only asked a simple question. It’s true, I don’t often understand what you’re going on about, but I usually get the drift.”
She had a point there. I thought of an appropriate lie in response and started in on that before I realized it was the truth as well.
“I’m too old for this. I like romance well enough, but likely, I don’t have enough heart left for the breaking.”
She answered that with a clearly feigned acceptance, “Go ahead then. Tell me what you want to, in your own way. I’ll catch up.”
And then she lay back with her hands behind her head again. Very nice sight. Not conducive to rational thought. But the steam was out of the pot by then. I felt like I had nothing left to say. As I’ve said, scrambled. A truly unusual sensation.
What had I been writing about this morning?
“Take the good people who honor the fallen hero on a memorial day with flags and yellow ribbons fastened to the telephone poles around the town, where that young soldier once played as a child. I’m sure that the honor is meant with the greatest sincerely. No doubting that. But when the commemoration is done, why does it not occur to those same well-meaning neighbors to take those ribbons down, as month after month passes away, and before they become faded and tattered and then only offer an affront to the wounded family that must be reminded daily of their loss as they drive past these sheds of sentiment and the sad afterward of a silent forgetting. I’ve picked up too many small flags from the gutters where they’ve blown down, not to be aware of the carelessness. To do good and not complete the effort is to act badly.”
She sat up once more. A seagull had come close, looking for a morsel, and it flared its wings in response to her sudden rise.
“All you’re saying is to judge what people do, not what they say.”
With an understanding achieved, she lay back again. She had boiled a lot of words down to a cliche. I guess that is what cliches are for. Brevity.
I think she was staring in disbelief. I couldn’t tell because of the glasses. Or else she was lying there looking into space as blue as her eyes, and I couldn’t be sure of the exact match.
I said, “You know, we’ve probably never voted for the same candidate.”
But at least she was still awake. She said, “I stopped voting a long time ago. They’re all frauds and phonies”
“Well then, that’s something else we can agree on. Most of the time.”
“Whatever. So the problem you have with the world is a general lack of integrity and responsibility.”
“I guess, in short, yes.”
“We can agree on that.”
The low din of beach voices gave the air a buzz like bumble bees.
Once more, into the breach, “And I’m boring. Margaret told me that, and it’s true. I like to be at home when I’m home. I enjoy travel but I like to stop and dawdle wherever I can. I’d just as soon spend the day on a beach at Cardiff as looking at the castle.”
Deirdre shrugs, “Me too.”
“Beaches are all different to me, and castles too much the same.”
“ ‘Such quantities of sand.’ ”
She had conjured that much of Mr. Carroll while I was jabbering.
“I though you weren’t big on memorizing things.”
She smiled, a bit smugly I thought. “When I was a girl, I went to a parochial school. We had a sister there, Sister Mary Francis, who was quite intent on us memorizing things. I’ve still got a little of that in me.”
“Then we have that in common too.”
“What? You were a girl in parochial school too?”
“No. But I sat close to one.”
“Did you have a crush on her?”
“Pure lust. She was very well developed for her age.”
“Did you send her notes?”
“Until the nun caught me and confiscated all the rest from Maddy’s desk.”
“Did you tell her that you loved her?”
“I copied poetry from Byron and Shelley.”
“Excellent! I wish the boy who wanted to grope me had quoted Byron. Lord, I do. I would not have been a virgin until I was twenty-eight! What happened then? What did the nun do?”
“She read them aloud to the class. And when she was done, and poor Maddy had sunk completely beneath the desk in shame, Sister complimented me on my choices.”
“God, I wish I knew you then!”
“What sort of notes did your groper send you?”
“He was illiterate. He drew pictures. Nasty pictures. My fear was that someone would think I had encouraged him in some way. And when he wouldn’t stop, I turned them in.”
“You turned him in?”
“No. Just the pictures. But the Nun knew who it was. He had a distinctive style. Picassoesque.”
“You are tough. How old were you then?”
“Fourteen. And not much more developed than I am now, I’m afraid.”
“But already a reporter.”
“Yes. I guess I was.”
“Tell me about your first boyfriend?
“You mean the first man I slept with, or the first I fell in love with?”
“Don’t tell me about the sex. Please. Just the one you first fell for.”
“Russell. Rusty. The boy next door, almost. Two doors away. He used to take his shirt off to mow the lawn. He played the piano and you could hear him every evening at six o’clock when his lesson started. The repetitions were mesmerizing. He was Jewish. And unfortunately for me he was gay. But we were great friends until he went off to college.”
“Why? It was a lot better than sitting around with the girls and just talking about boys. Rusty talked about all sorts of things I’d never thought about. His hero was Cole Porter, and he wanted to write music for the theatre.”
“Did he do it?”
“A little, I think. Rusty died of aids in 1988.”
“Crap! Double crap!”
“So who was your first girl friend? Maddy?”
“No. I don’t think Maddy spoke to me again after the notes debacle. I don’t remember. I don’t think I actually had another girlfriend until Margret.”
“I don’t think she was ever that happy about it. Like I said, she thought I was boring. And she taught me how to use a knife and fork.”
“She was more experienced than you.”
“You’ve never been in love with anyone else?”
“Not that I knew. I’ve often had crushes on women from afar.”
“Anyone I would know?”
“No. I wrote an essay about her in my freshman English Lit class at BC. I was very serious. I wrote a time-travel novel just so I could go back and make love to her.”
“Oh my god. You are insane. Really. Anyone else. Anyone alive?”
“I fell in love with Ayn Rand shortly after that. She was alive then. Just a little desiccated. But she quickly assumed possession of my abandoned Roman Catholic soul and the need for certainty in an uncertain world. It was a torrid affair, and that infidelity continued until it drove Margaret crazy. But even when the infatuation was over, I don’t think things were ever that right between Margaret and me. Those are the real wages of philosophy.”
Deirdre was still unmoved in her position on the blanket. At the last, I figured she was unconscious. Hadn’t I intended this as some sort of romantic outing? Any mention of Ayn Rand to a knee-jerk liberal was usually enough to cause automatic fuming. But Deirdre lay silent.
Even on a busy beach, the unquiet silence can be palpable when you stop talking.
“But enough of that.” I said
And she turned her head toward me, as if she agreed.
“Is that it?”
“What you came here to tell me?”
“I guess it’s context.”
“What’s the text?”
“I feel like I’m in love with you. Either that, or I have the flu.”
“You are very romantic.”
It is a funny thing to consider what will make a boy read. The film From Here to Eternity was handsomely advertised by a poster of Burt Lancaster and Deborah Kerr entangled half-naked on a beach with the waves at their feet. At the time, it was the most sexually electrifying portrait of love that my young eyes had ever seen, and the owner of the small movie theatre in my home town must have agreed because he left it displayed behind the glass of a lobby case for many years after the movie itself had come and gone. But I did not really take notice of it until the summer of 1959, when I turned twelve. A devastating time. That was just about when a new movie appeared called On the Beach. This was a calmer affair by far, especially in that it involved a wooden Gregory Peck in Naval officer’s garb and a teary but fully dressed Ava Gardner, begging to be disrobed. That, and incidentally, the end of the world. I had already tried to read the novel of From Here to Eternity and found it boring. But when I read On the Beach, I was up all night with it, unable to sleep. And when I think of On the Beach today, I always first see Lancaster and Kerr, out of time, and place, and circumstance.
It was, perhaps, a better place to be.
She said, “Are you finished.”
“Well, I’m not.”
She sat up then and kissed me. Right there, on the beach.
- All slaves are equal
but some get to live in the big house.
A novel is a flimsy currach indeed in which to set out on a journey such as this. The urgency to remain afloat supersedes all else. But a reasonable destination must be chosen and achieved, while most heavy baggage must be left ashore. The number of passengers is necessarily limited, and movement is restricted. Nevertheless, we sally forth, if a barging can be called a sally.
Revolutions are not made. They are stumbled upon. Many are attempted. Few avoid the gibbet. One moment the malcontents were arguing among themselves about what sort of association might allowed with their King, and in the next a courier with news of shots fired at Lexington and Concord arrives. Thence, the ne’er-do-well editor of the Pennsylvania Magazine, previously peace loving, has “rejected the hardened, sullen-tempered Pharaoh of England forever.” The point is, no matter all the talk, not one of those true geniuses that fashioned the old Republic had imagined a United States of America before April 1775.
I am thinking that the lack of preparation to that end was what saved them. Had they thought too long on the subject they would likely have found room to compromise. At the least, they would have turned on themselves, in and effort to gain an upper hand. Power does that to the mind. For proof, just look at what happened as soon as the steady hand of Washington was off the tiller of that fragile vessel, the first of its kind and perhaps the last.
And I am not now making revolution. Nor am I, as Mr. Paine was when that lost country “was set on fire” about his ears, “a wisher for a reconciliation.” But alike him now, having failed at all my other endeavors, I am finally hoping for that struggle. Against all odds. For my children’s sake.
Concerning revolution, a revolt by slaves looking for a new master does not have a better outcome. And this was the very point I attempted to make with Evelyn Wright, a friend of Stella’s, that very morning. She was clearly very bright, and well intentioned, I think, but still a product of the ‘progressive’ public educational system that was turning out bigots faster than learned reason or experience could accommodate. In her frame of mind, everyone was now necessarily judged by the color of their skin rather than the content of their character. All whites were guilty of the actions of their great-grandfathers. Original sin had been reborn, without the sacraments. And I, particularly, was suspect because, as Stella’s ‘boss,’ I’d apparently had some terrible influence over her.
Born at the same hospital, and raised in the same Roxbury neighborhood, Evelyn and Stella had been near sisters. They had gone to the same schools. Each had made their way, against many odds, to Northeastern University. Now it appeared, suddenly, that Stella had become very disagreeable. My name had been used in arguments. Evelyn had finally come around to see the source of this trouble. Importantly, Stella herself was not in the shop on that particular day.
This young women, large headed and carrying formidable Chicago shoulders, had circled the counter several times before stationing herself before me. I already knew that, unlike Stella, whose focus at Northeastern was a business degree, Evelyn was majoring in Health Management. Not medicine, or medical practice, or nursing, but the far more lucrative and fast-growing field of managing the welfare of nurses, doctors, and patients. She was a smart cookie.
With no other customer in evidence, she begins, “I hear you’re against Obama Care.”
This statement was made even before she introduced herself so I thought from the first that she might benefit from an additional course in effective communication. Still, I immediately knew then just who she was. Stella had mentioned her often enough.
“I am against any government appropriation of individual human responsibility.” Those were approximately my first words in return. And I added, “who are you?”
“That’s none of your business.”
It was morning and I was at the front counter of the store, previously perturbed over other matters, and in the midst of writing something for my new effort at blogging. Thus, I was already full of some vinegar.
“You’re right about that. But I already know now that you’re rude, so I’ll take that into consideration.”
“What do you have against Obama?”
“Other than his being a profoundly ignorant and small minded but glib racist, with megalomaniacal tendencies, who projects his own hatreds on others and happens to currently hold the absolutely corrupting power of the Presidency in his incompetent hands, nothing.”
By her facial reaction, this appeared to strike her like a series of epithets.
“You’re the racist. You’re a bigot. You don’t like Obama because he’s a black man.”
“You are as entitled to your opinion, as I am to mine. But you came in here looking for trouble. I don’t know why. Could you enlighten me?”
“I wanted to see the beast! I wanted to look at the honkie filling Stella’s ear with all that shit.”
“You are Evelyn!”
“You don’t know me!”
“Stella told me yesterday when she came in that she was upset because you’d been yelling at her. You’re roommates. That must make it kinda tough.”
“She doesn’t get her shit straight, she won’t have one much longer. But that’s none of your business.”
“You’re wrong. Stella is a friend of mine. That makes it my business.”
“You are no friend of hers. You’re her white boss.”
“She works for me, true. I am lucky to be able to pay for the privilege of knowing her.”
The conversation was not going in a direction Evelyn wanted. She shook it off.
“The Massa just lookin’ for his opportunity.”
She over pronounced the word ‘opportunity’ in a clearly derisive way.
“Stella works here because she likes it.”
“Stella works here because she’s looking for a new massa. But the revolution is coming. And we will be coming for you!”
Now, as I’ve said, I’m never sure what I say is ever listened to. That’s why I tend to repeat myself. But clearly, Stella had absorbed enough to cause quite a lot of friction at home.
“You know, a revolt by slaves looking for a new master does not have a better outcome.”
“Who you calling a slave?”
“I think you need to listen a little more and talk less.”
“You are telling me to shut up.”
“I’m suggesting that your expressed ignorance is making you look stupid.”
“You’re calling me stupid.”
“I’m saying it’s better to shut up and be thought a fool than to speak and remove all doubt. And also, that you need a better grasp of language, because you’re missing the meaning of much of what you hear. Maybe you should take a course in basic communication at Northeastern while you have the chance.”
“You’ll see about that!”
And she was gone. The whole exchange was less than four minutes.
I went back to my blog.
I had arrived at the shop this particular morning to find a now familiar sight. Eggs had been thrown at the window. None had managed to break the glass but this vandalism must have been done late in the night, soon after I had left, because I did not actually notice the mischief until I was inside. The liquid egg had dried to a nice sheen that reflected the morning light nearly as well as the glass itself, giving an appearance you might see in very old windows where the slow flow of the ancient glass itself has created the streaks. The yellow of the yokes offered an artistic touch of color, making a crude sort of stained glass.
The oddest thing I thought was that perhaps I should take the advice of my accountant and convert the business into a nonprofit corporation, given that no profit was every likely to be made. That though was raised by the egg on the glass, you see. Stained glass being good for churches, perhaps it would be fine for me. Yes. And let the rest of working population of Boston pay for the pleasure of my company. Not the Republic of Books, then, but the Church of the Book.
As I scraped this foolishness off with warm vinegar water and a squeegee, I was thinking that this might in fact be the last time I have to wash egg, or spit, off of this particular glass in any case. Apparently, according to a letter I’d received the day before, I have to replace it with another grade. But this particular harassment is not the only one either. And I don’t mean the egg, but the demand by the City of Boston that I spend more money to meet yet another regulation which is being selectively enforced—my glass is already better than most other shops on the street, simply because it has actually been replaced more often due to the intellectual shortcomings of unhappy critics over the years. The ubiquitous brick of Beacon Hill easily come to hand when a statement needs to be made. The special problem this time is that my insurance will not cover the cost of the upgrade. I had immediately inquired.
The irony might be appreciated by some. Our notoriety had greatly helped our bottom line. But there were consequences.
Just as the words ‘Banned in Boston’ used to make a hit out of questionable goods in the theatre—so much so that my hero Mencken, in an effort to boost sales of The American Mercury, once arranged to have himself arrested for selling a single copy of the infamous ‘Hatrack’ issue on Boston Common, in full view of the minions of the Watch and Ward society. (That story of small town prostitution and hypocrisy would not merit a yawn today.) But now the government attack on my little shop has made me something of a local celebrity.
Between commercials for ‘nostrum remedium,’ snake oil pharmacopoeia and other such Kickapoo Joy Juice, I had now been framed editorially on the six o’clock news, along with a child rapist in Somerville and an arsonist in Quincy. For the time being I have to be more careful of what I say aloud in public lest some mole record the morsel and make a mountain of it. This thought came too late, however, given the foolish comments concerning the subject of abortion that I made to a television reporter the previous afternoon, only minutes after I had returned from the beach. Without preamble, perhaps having spoken to Ardis first while awaiting my arrival, the reporter had asked me in sympathetic tones for an example of the sort of thing that was getting me in so much trouble. The sudden camera light had washed everything else from my mind, I suppose. Naturally, I picked that topic. Not a safe subject like censorship, with which most of the TV audience, already hooked on Celebrity Wife-swap, would agree, but abortion, here in Boston, where this proscribed and politically sanctified infanticide was a holy sacrament of the elites in their continuing efforts as dutiful followers of the sainted Margaret Sanger, to reduce the population of inferior races. The reporter herself was aghast. How could I possibly object to a woman’s right to her own body?
And what about the infant girl’s right to hers.
Even knowing it was a useless and emotion verbal wrestling match I could not win, on the basis of my gender alone, and that the sound bite used, a patched together, would not connect with the intellect of anyone silly enough to be listening to this particular communications school graduate with an ample bust, I tried to explain. Every sentence with a clause had been interrupted with a new question.
Not every aborted child is the product of rape. Pregnancy is not a disease.
According to a now former customer who called and gave me a report on the two minute segment that aired less than two hours later, I had been made into a villain for my vain attempt to defend the right of a woman to be responsible for her own actions and avoid punishing innocent children for her profligacy—one indeed, who hated women and would not pay my taxes. Evidently, reactions had been strong enough to warrant repeating the report at 11 PM. Deirdre called to tell me.
So here I was, in the midst of this abject failure to accomplish the basic goals in life that I had set for myself, and yet enjoying more attention that I ever have before. The shop has had sales lately that match its prime years in the 1980s and 90s—that is, in terms of cash alone. Books cost more now. We actually sold a larger quantity of books back then. But still, the city inspectors will not easily back down from their demands that we enlarge the width of the doors, both front and rear, so as to better accommodate wheelchairs, though no one has ever complained to me before. Nor would they negotiate their command to widen the aisles, which would necessarily reduce the number of shelves and thus the number of books I could put out for the public. Nor to reduce the height of the shelving. And their demand that an assessment be made on the loadbearing strength of the floor beams is enough, by itself, to break us. Engineers do not come cheap and I had no ready friends over at MIT.
Additionally, no more displays of books will be permitted on the sidewalk outside, as they pose a hazard to passersby—after more than thirty years of displaying dollar books there to attract attention with nothing worse happening than the theft of the books. Now I have been notified separately that the window glass is not of the correct kind—being ruled unsafe if shattered. The estimated cost from the glass company for the now appropriate safety-glass, to replace the perfectly good safety-glass that is there already, will run at least $4000. I sent back a copy of the original insurance company approval for the current glass, but I suspect that will not be sufficient.
There was no doubting that a war had begun.
And then this same morning, as I looked at my notes concerning the estimate from the glass company, a publisher called me about one of the novels on the website. She would like me to send her a copy for further consideration and possible publication. I was simply not in the mood for that. My hands still smelled of vinegar. I told her, if she liked it so much, she ought to order a copy from Amazon. Only $16.95.
Here I am. But not for much longer. I will go down to City hall and perhaps be able to get a temporary waiver on some of those issues, but there is no chance in hell of getting all the alterations done. And Margaret will not help me pay for them. In a flash, she can have some fancy chain-store boutique with a foreign tax address in here paying twice what I do and they’ll be happy to pay for their own renovation costs as well.
Still and yet, it is strange to me that there does seem to be a lot of people around who’ll pay a hundred bucks for a pair of jeans.
I am reminded again of the fact that in the fourth century there were hundreds, if not thousands, of heretics wondering about with their own versions of the true faith, but that the Catholic Church bothered to direct its authority against one in particular, the peripatetic Briton, Pelagius, and it was this very attention, as Mencken would have predicted had he been around to comment, that made that Celt most famous and spread his word throughout Christendom. For a time, his philosophy of free will and a rejection of predestination and original sin made him the most dangerous man alive, condemned from pulpits far and wide, and thus compulsory reading.
That would at least be something.
Given my natural hubris, this might be some comfort to me now. The end of the shop is not, after all, the end of it. As much as it is likely to be the end of me.
Self-pity is not in order. But I had plenty of time for that as I doused and scraped the window area several times with the warm water and then went to Deluca’s market to buy another bottle of vinegar.
I have a tendency to fully imagine my revenge fantasies. This is very useful as a writer. It is difficult to conjure up real meanness without a sufficient cause. When you have invested some hundreds of hours into the invention of characters in jeopardy, it is a good thing to know how your hero is going to survive when faced with the malignancy of evil. Washing dried egg from windows is as good a time as any to exorcise these demons. Even if it would never be a church. Though, in my most recent effort, the measures taken are as extreme as any I have previously conceived. Perhaps that in itself is a measure of my personal age and level of general frustration. Would a secure and happily married man think much about destroying the world?
My hero, in The Keeper, escapes from the robots who dominate the earth, while on trial for his life. The trial is, of course, pro forma. Just another gesture on the part of the machines to preserve the culture they have assumed. He is now alone, the last man on Earth. However, others will be returning in time and they too will be destroyed by ‘The Keepers’ as a natural threat to their hegemony. He must do what he can for the sake of his own kind. His one chance for this is to get back to his space ship. He does not have the fuel, or a means to effectively leave orbit, but he can use the tools he has there to make a difference.
After successfully breaking into the storage facility where his ship has been impounded, he finds and removes several crucial electronic devices, which he wraps in the same leadfoam that protected him from background radiation during his journey and hides these away. Amidst a small battle with security forces, he then uses the atomic engine of the ship itself to re-launch the vehicle, with himself aboard, and explodes this manned missile, in the stratosphere above North America, thereby killing the robots with the electromagnetic pulse of the blast, as well as himself. But not before launching a single emergency probe into orbit to broadcast a warning about what has happened.
This impulse to murder one’s opponents, however fanciful, was still troublesome to me, as was the self-sacrifice. I was not satisfied with the ending. I wanted my hero to survive.
Well, you might ask, (speaking of heavy baggage) do I believe that all evil is created equal? My answer is, no more than I believe in the proposition that all good is the same. But the common moral equivalencies of our age do amount to a sort of ecclesiastical determinism that is wholly beyond my grasp of understanding, especially when lacking any better Pope to assume some epistemological authority and make the decisions for me. So I do what I can. We are, none of us, adults now. We are the children of the state (a state you must recall, that is run by others no better than ourselves). Our children are now only the misbegotten, and thus, their care is mandated not by man or woman but by edict, dictum, and just plain dicks. What’s right and what’s wrong is reasoned by committee—a mob having much in common with their intellectual peers at Salem, in 1692.
No hyperbole there.
The hard earned majority of those who have risked all before and learned from their mistakes is no longer of importance except perhaps as entertainment. In films you see it. It is the authority of the action that pleases. As if they know what they are about and will get it done. But what is it really worth in this age of digital bread and circuses, while the rest of us are condemned to our juvenile lives, taking little responsibility for our actions and accepting none.
Screw around if you want to. It’s your body. And you can always abort the baby if you like. Take this antibiotic three times a day until the rash goes away.
I am thinking, given all of this politics, that there is very little grace to it anymore. I don’t mean copulation, per se, but bookselling. When you once again must remove that small dried piece of snot from the margin of a page, and find yourself hoping that the remaining stain can be passed off as just a bit of foxing, you know you have lost all principle. You are no better than the damned librarian, using the books as a means to some other end—just a weekly paycheck, or a bit of indoctrination. But what end is that to be?
I was sitting on a stool in aisle three, with this curmudgeonly thought on my brain, and trying to straighten up some books in the drama section which had fallen over because gaps were opening up from what was selling and I hadn’t bought anything much in over a month to replace them. A dyspeptic moment for any bookseller. I looked up from that just as Deirdre came in the door and spots me.
She speaks almost immediately, “I’m being fired.”
That got me standing up.
She shrugs as if it’s no matter at all. No matter to have lost the job you’ve been doing happily for thirty years or more.
“Cost cutting. That’s the excuse. I’m the oldest reporter on salary at the paper now. Have been for months, since Charlie Johnson was cut. First thing when Charlie got the notice back in January, he came over and told me I was next, so I can’t say I didn’t know it was coming.”
She was standing before me then like a little girl who had done something wrong.
I figured I should be practical.
“Is there any compensation?”
“It’s a buy-out option. I can take the unemployment compensation, or I can take the package. I’m taking the package.”
“What will you do now?”
She was straight-faced and being willfully unemotional. The shrug went half way up her shoulders before it collapsed. Pretty shoulders.
“I thought I’d come work for you.”
I laughed. But she was serious.
“We won’t be around much longer, Deirdre. I’ve already told the staff that it’s nearly done. I thought I’d even told you that was likely after the IRS weighed in. I’m going to end up owing David a small fortune for his accounting time to take care of that, whatever the levee is from those guys.”
“I’ll have $250,000 in the bank next Thursday. You can have all of that.”
Still a straight face. She had no idea what I might say. She didn’t really know me yet, or she’d realize I had no idea either. Standing there in the middle of the store was not the right time but I was pretty much useless unless I did, so I gave her the best kiss I could muster on short notice. When that had evolved into a good hug, I could see the front desk and Ardis giving me that droopy face that meant I was being hopeless.
I said, “That won’t work. You don’t understand them. It’s like dealing with the mafia. If I come up with ten thousand, they’ll levee twenty. If I come up with twenty, they’ll say they need forty. David will work some sort of time payment out with them. Sure. But if they think I have access to anything more than he files for, they’ll just go after that too.”
I said all that before I realized there were tears in her eyes.
She shakes her head. “There’s nothing else we can do?”
Was that a question or a statement?
“Whatever they say we owe, we have to pay. And because I’ve been posting all the correspondence with them right on the website, they are not very happy with me to begin with.”
“So how does it end? Bankruptcy?”
“I’ll talk it over with David and find out what he thinks. But mostly just to get an idea of the time we’ll have. I figure it’s over by Christmas. Likely well before. We’ll have to have a big sale. Everything. Every bookcase. Every typewriter. The works. If we’re lucky, when it’s over, I’ll still have my truck. I’ll rig my tent up in the back of that and sleep there.”
“You can stay with me.”
She said that immediately, as if the idea had already been well considered and decided. As if to say, she was the adult here. She knew what she was about, even if I did not.
“That would be nice.” Not a strong answer to another momentous thought. “For awhile, maybe. But I‘m going to need to find some other line of work.”
“Well, you know, there is a very big demand for 68 year-old men with bad backs who’ve worked for themselves all their lives and don’t like taking orders from anyone else. Especially the ones who are currently under investigation by the authorities. All I do know anything about is books and that’s not a growing field of interest.”
“You can write.”
“Well . . .”
“I mean articles.”
“There aren’t many magazines left, and the internet has pretty much made all that a non-paying proposition. But I think I’ll be doing some of that, anyway.”
“You have Social Security.”
I hated to be reminded of that. It was an embarrassment to me, even if I could pretend it was my own money that they were giving back and not a mortgage on my children’s heads or an added weight on some child who was not yet born.
And then an old fantasy came to mind.
“Sure. I have that. Gas money. So I think I’ll just start driving and see how far it takes me. Maybe I’ll just write about what I see along the way. I think I’ll still have the website. I’ll need that.”
“What about me?”
This was said with the same straight face as before. No begging. Of course, I hadn’t yet thought that far. Not yet.
“I’d like you to come. I’d like that a lot. But I expect you’ll get tired of me pretty quick, so I wouldn’t give up that apartment of yours.”
“No. Of course I’ll come. I mean, I could write travel articles. I’ve done a little of that before. And I’m good with a camera.”
“That’s it then.” Done. I gave her another kiss to seal the deal. Nothing too wet.
But where would I be then? What about my revolution? What was to become of that?
- Amidst the vasty deep
wherein shadows do creep
“Feminism is just one more phony ism of our age, all of them meant to rend not only the mind but the very body of the human being into easy bits for devouring. With this particular creed, the science of biology and the practical functioning of genders has been cancelled in favor of a fashionable androgyny. Instead of extolling the benefits of a more elementary legal equality, the simple beauty and mathematics of the tango have been hopelessly entangled, as feminists postulate a female singularity instead; one that is, by its very sexist nature, not a dance but a dead end, a sum zero, and an inevitable bed of self abuse.”
It was essentially this thought, perhaps in a slightly less adamantine tone than that I had taken in a recent blog post, but expressed aloud and in the very midst of a lunch date the next day (one that was consequently never finished), while enveloped by all the small sounds and bustle at Vesuvius Pizza, fielding the assorted comments thrown our way by Vito Paranesi as he punched at dough and sprinkled flour (quips not worth reporting here other than to say that he was obviously aware that there was something more going on between Deirdre and I), all of which might have sidetracked the thought but for the fact that I was on a tear at the time, trying to explain (impress might be a better word) why so many people were beyond reaching and now seemed incapable of comprehending straightforward reason or logic.
Having discarded the tenets of established religious prohibitions—those time tested and handed down through the multi-hundred generations of hard-earned human experience—we have been, for the last hundred and fifty years or so, embarked upon a frail framework craft, covered in a oiled whole cloth—my metaphorical currach once again—a scheme of mere political fantasies, and left adrift on a roiling sea. I said exactly that, ‘Adrift on a roiling sea.’ And I mentioned the currach as well. As I say, I was on a tear. Deirdre lowered her head across the table from me and fixed herself for the worst of the rant yet to come. Inevitably, I struck the spike at the heart of that particular ideology.
“There are millions of women, many of them blinded now by self-serving and self-righteous justifications, who’ve already aborted a child and are incapable of dealing with a simple fact: that biologically, an unborn baby is a human being and no less. A fetus is not a species, any more than an infant, or child, or adult! Deafened by petty reasoning to their own illogic, and using obtuse justifications that could just as well apply to anyone enfeebled by accident, or age, or disease as to that despised unborn, they deny their humanity. The next step, legal euthanasia, had been taken. If qualification for human life is reduced only to those who can survive on their own, fully half the population below the age of twenty-one can be considered merely enlarged fetal matter and equally disposable. If a mother wants to escape her unwanted burden, why shouldn’t she be able to kill her children? Or should the term ‘slave’ be extended to include such natural servitude? If the mother’s justification for abortion is a supposed inviolate right to her own body, regardless of the facts of her humanity as a female of the species, or the rights of the unborn child, and much less her personal responsibility for having had the sex that created the child—and ignoring for now the obligations and duty of the maligned father who would otherwise be charged with child-support, thus denying his part in the equation except upon the whim of the woman—then all human law is worthless. Good law is created first for the safety of all human beings—not just female human beings, or the male, or young or old or black, white, white, yellow or brown. These women, who’ve failed to bear responsibility for their own children, must now deny the reality that they have killed those children just as surely as any mad mother who drowns her babies in a river. But, given the rancid climate of our times, I don’t believe they will ever understand this again. This new religion has taken their souls. Feminism willfully bifurcates the species into untenable and asexual parts. With such foolishness, the purpose of all philosophy is compromised.”
There was no silence then. If anyone else had heard me, there was no indication of that in the chatter around us. Deirdre took a breath so deep I could feel it in my own toes. She was looking me in the eye, but there was no challenge to it. Resignation, perhaps.
“Michael. I had an abortion.”
I knew this. I knew this because the subject of children had never really come up between us. I knew it instinctually because of the way she looked away from the babies as we passed mothers in the street. I have known women who could not care less; who would abort their own child just as soon as change the color of their hair. But I already knew that Deirdre was not that sort.
I was not sorry about my rant but I was sorry to actually hear this fact spoken. I was sorry for Deirdre’s sake. But she knew that at least, and told me so and more.
“It was when I was with Jason. He didn’t want the child. I felt suddenly abandoned. But it was my choice. I’d been spouting all that feminist crap since I was a teenager. And I was angry. I just did it. Just like that.” Still, she had not looked away. As if she wanted me to understand she had faced this much at least. Baby blue can be as hard as topaz. “I was living in Jamaica Plain then, and he was already in New York, and I just called-in sick to work one day and went right over to the Planned Parenthood office. And it as done. It was easy. And I was sorry that night and I’ve regretted it every night since. I’ll be sorry for the rest of my life. But it won’t change it. It was a girl and she’ll never get the chance to be the woman she might have been.” There was no tear, but an emptiness to her stare. “And I’ll never get to be something more than I am.”
I had no more rant left in me. Vito must have seen our faces. He stopped tossing the dough and stared silently at us both as we left.
But this was followed in less than an hour by another moment worth recording.
I was back at the shop and Mr. Clifford came in. Likely it was just to make me uneasy and perhaps do or say something I shouldn’t. The obvious thing was that they wanted me to make contact with someone because they had my phone tapped or whatever else bugged for that possibility. But then I was already in a bad mood. More, I was angry, and I started in on him as soon as he came through the door.
“Who are you? Why do you want to hurt me? What have I really done? I’ve disagreed with the government that sponsors you. That’s all. But I’ve done nothing to you. Why are you making a deal out of it? Why does it bother you so much, when there is all the other crap going on in the world? I’m just wondering, what kind of man would do your job? Does your mother, or father, know that you’re a thug? Does your wife. Do your children know?”
By the look on his face, I could just as well have been talking about the weather.
“You broke the law. I don’t make the law. But you ought to mind your own business.”
“I am. I do. I make a habit of that. It’s you who’s trying to interfere with mine. Why don’t you just leave me alone?”
“You’ve broken the law.”
“You don’t know that! You’re just supposing it, as an excuse to do what you’re doing.”
There was still very little expression discernable on that face.
“I’m an officer of the law. I’m doing my duty.”
“Which law. Certainly not the fourth amendment to the Constitution.”
“We have a right to investigate any clear and present danger to the welfare of the public.”
“Not by breaking the law yourself.”
“There are other laws.”
“The first law is the Constitution. That was settled over two hundred years ago in Marbury versus Madison.”
“What! Did you say the Constitution is mumbo jumbo? I ask again, who are you?”
“You know my name.”
“But I know more than that. I know your wife’s name is Elly. Your children are Chad and Everett. And my own guess about that is that you or your wife must ‘ve watched a whole lot of television when you were a kids.”
“Shut up! Where did you get that information?”
“It’s on the web. It’s all public information now. That’s what you want, isn’t it?
You’ve seized my own private records and you must realize that any law, even yours, has to be administered equally.”
Not a real squint, but there was a tightening to the eyes.
“You’ll go to prison for that, buster!”
“Why. I didn’t do anything. I just Googled your name. It’s all out there.”
“Who put it there?”
“I have no idea.”
“Publishing private information about an officer of the law is a crime.”
“I imagine so, especially given the sorts of things you do. But I didn’t publish it. And whoever did, did the same for your associate Mr. Evans. Names. Addresses. Phone numbers. Job history. Schools. The works.”
“You’re under arrest!”
“For what! Reading something on the internet. Mr. Guinn is going to love that.”
“Impeding an officer of the law in the commission of his duties.”
“I haven’t done anything of the sort. I’ve given you the run of the place. Your incompetence is not my responsibility.”
A small gathering of customers stood near the desk, watching the theatre of this. Clifford turned and looked at them directly now before abruptly turning again and leaving the shop. This pattern was beginning to register. When confronted, Clifford often retreated.
A couple of the crowd in the shop were looking at me with a grave concern. Others smiled. One women clapped her hands, and then the others who had smiled did the same.
“I’m sorry about the drama. I think it’s over for the time being.”
But I figured it was a very momentary success. A skirmish in a larger conflict. Once Clifford got back to his office, and talked it over with Evans, they would be back. They would have another excuse this time. I called Mr. Guinn.
Mr. Guinn’s secretary asked me twice if it was an emergency. I asked her if she thought getting arrested and thrown in jail was an emergency. She put me on hold. Thankfully, it was not one of those ‘holds’ that makes you listen to crappy music. Especially because that always conflicts with whatever music I’m playing in the store and it gives me a headache. I already had a headache.
Mr. Guinn came on the line shortly after. I told him about my confrontation with Mr. Clifford and then about finding the personal info for Clifford and Evans on line when I went to look for the phone number for their office.
Mr. Guinn brooded over this for about one minute. About fifty bucks worth of his time at the special reduced rate, I figure. But I let him think. I could hear the background noise in his office so I knew he was still there.
Finally he says, “I can’t get over there right now. You’ll have to face this alone, I’m afraid. If they do arrest you today, I’ll have you out in a jiffy. But remember, I don’t advocate violence of any kind. And using certain information to harm another person, especially an officer of the law, can be considered an intent to commit an act of violence.”
His voice changed in tone. “Use ridicule. There’s no law yet against ridicule.”
“I’ll gladly accept the advice.”
“And if you can, I think it’s time to conjure the vasty deep.”
“Which vasty deep is that?
“Shakespeare, Henry the Fourth, Part 1, Act 3, I believe. Glendower says to Hotspur: ‘I can call spirits from the vasty deep,’ and Hotspur answers: ‘Why, so can I, or so can any man: but will they come when you do call them?’” Mr. Guinn said this as if telling me something I should know, and then he paused. I waited, unsure of what was intended by this quote, but then he picked it up again. “Glendower answers: ‘Why, I can teach you, cousin, to command the devil.’ And Hotspur replies: ‘And I can teach thee, coz, to shame the devil—by telling the truth.’ Tell the truth and shame the devil.”
“You know your Shakespeare then.”
“No. Sadly. I memorized those lines in law school forty years ago to impress a girl. It stuck with me. I like to use it on clients now and again. Like yourself. Just to make a point of the fact, when you must answer, just tell the truth and we’ll get you through this. Otherwise, keep your mouth shut.”
I had to ask, “What happened to the girl?”
There was another $50 pause. Then a laugh.
“She works in Washington now, right in the heart of that vasty deep . . . But now that you mention it, I think maybe I should give her a call.”
Nevertheless, at the end of the day, the question remained in mind, who had put the information on the internet about Mr. Clifford and Mr. Evans and why had they chosen those two FBI agents. I supposed it was George Reilly, but I wondered about his taunting of the authorities, as if he wanted to be caught. What was the strategy? Or was it merely a tactic?
All day the phone had been ringing far more than usual. Ardis started hanging it up before answering.
We have a new screen on the line, attached to the device that converts the calls so that I can continue to use my old phone. Jack bought that for us, probably to save Ardis from the consequences of my actions after of the rash of angry phone calls following Deirdre’s series of articles in the newspaper, and it is a fine improvement. We can see who’s calling, just the way I do on my cell phone, and it displays a record of recent calls at the push of a button. Now, since my most recent blog concerning abortion had appeared, the death-cultists at the National Abortion Rights Action League had begun a campaign of harassment. How dare I challenge them! The kindest thing I had been called was ‘Neanderthal.’ The number of calls had doubled again, however most of the phone numbers used were the same and easy to dismiss.
At the end of some days, the weight of such matters does add up. Or perhaps I’m just getting too old for it. Alone, at home, I found myself considering my situation in the larger context. It is too easy to see things subjectively. I was not at the center of this wheel, after all. I was simply at an edge and thus getting more contact.
When Benjamin Franklin was my age, he became a revolutionary. Not overnight, mind you, but in one afternoon.
Certainly he had entertained thoughts of American independence, but not as the sort of government it would soon become. ‘Independence’ was more a relative thing at the time. The meaning of the word was ambiguous and used to mask many permutations of what was, at the bottom line, a subjugation to Crown and Parliament.
Franklin was then the Postmaster General for the colonies, a position which he had taken for the good of his fellow Americans but also out of personal frustration. He was a man who liked to write and his correspondence included many of the leading figures in the blossoming fields of Natural Science, Natural Philosophy, and the rest of beadledom or whatever that petty bureaucracy of the moment was called. He was a businessman with business to conduct. And he was an agent, (think if you will, of an all-purpose sales rep for a multinational corporation), or soon to be one, for the colonies of Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, New Jersey and Georgia. But in 1854, when he was granted the position of Postmaster by the King’s council, he could not send a letter to any of his many friends in England, or they to him, without a significant chance that it would be lost. Worse, at the time, this postal service was not only conducted badly, but at a financial loss. No one else was interested in the headache or the probable damage it would likely cause to any reputation.
Postal services had always been run at a deficit, as they are again today. But by 1774, the year that Benjamin Franklin became a revolutionary, this service was adding three thousand pounds a year to the King’s coffers and, allowing for the weather and a safe crossing of the Atlantic, service was dependable. It was better still on the new ‘post roads’ that crucially connected the colonies from Savannah to Portsmouth. And by that later year, and by his own admission, he had spent as much of his life in England as in America. Perhaps more. Rabble-rousers like Samuel Adams, even saw Franklin as a pony for the British interest and not a trusted ally in those difficult times.
But by that later year, British troops had occupied Boston, and most recently, 600 pounds of East India tea had been brewed in Boston Harbor in lieu of paying the tax. The New York Assembly, the Virginia House of Burgesses, and the Massachusetts legislature had been dissolved by edict. The quartering act, made necessary to shelter the very troops sent to New York and Boston to quell unrest, was being resisted. On January 11, 1774, with the news of the ‘Boston Tea Party’ still fresh in London ears, Franklin was summoned to appear before the Privy Council. According the great historian, Catherine Drinker Bowen, Franklin first assumed that this demand was addressed to him as the official agent of the colony and concerned a five month-old petition to Parliament from the Massachusetts legislature for the removal of Thomas Hutchison as Governor along with his henchman and lieutenant Governor, Andrew Oliver.
Instead, what Franklin faced in those council chambers (they were still colorfully referred to as the ‘Cock Pit,’ after a previous use of the land they stood upon) was a charge of treason. This indictment was for the probable cause of theft in the matter of ten letters sent by Governor Hutchinson to his own agent in London, which had gone missing and turned up instead in the hands of Samuel Adams back in Boston, and from there had been widely distributed and reprinted in both England and America. The letters described Hutchinson’s and Oliver’s complete disdain for the Massachusetts legislature as well as for the citizens of the colony, and called for the establishment of a new elite council of landowners to rule the affairs of state. This assembly then was not a hearing, but a star chamber.
Through an ordeal of many hours, the 68 year old Franklin, dressed in his brown corduroy suit—then called Manchester velvet—of collarless long-coat, vest, and trousers buckled below the knee, remained standing in the dock, one elbow on a rail with a hand to his forehead, unmoving. He kept his coat buttoned against the drafts. His gray hair fell long at his ears. His very passivity must have further inflamed his tormentors, all of them well acquainted with his critical nature and satirical jousts. And after he had heard himself repeatedly described as a despicable scoundrel, unworthy of trust, a traitor, a thief, and lacking in all virtue, he finally left the chamber, and then England too, and went to war.
That was my context, was it not?
But to what purpose? What exactly was my cause?
Josiah Ober has written a good book about how it was revolution itself that brought the Athenian people onto the main stage of history. This was a simple enough statement to make, but it stopped me by its emphasis—or at least the emphasis I took from it. Revolution itself was the key.
And while we are at it, consider Cleisthenes, the father of Athenian democracy and thus a father to us all, dead and white though he is and was. That was in 507 BC, you understand. A while back. Over two thousand and five hundred years ago. A mere 84 generations. I emphasize this for those maven who want to think of their world as it is today as the only way it has ever been.
It was Harmodius and Aristogeiton who made the revolution possible by killing the Peisistratid tyrant Hipparchus, and they had died for their effort. But it was Cleisthenes who, recalled from exile and given the tyrant’s power in turn, fulfilled what promise there was in this dictatorship to first establish a democracy in the Athenian state. He must have been something of a tyrant himself for a time, for he set about his task by deposing those four clans who had ruled Athens by family partisanship since pre-history and established rule instead through individual citizenship in the 139 ‘demes,’ the geographic areas that were much like counties dividing ancient Attica. Instead of the age-old patronage, government positions under Cleisthenes were filled by a more random ‘sortition.’ The city council, the Boule, was increased in size, as were the courts of law, known as Dikasteria, and both were required to have representation from each and every tribe. Just a matter of history, you see. Of no other importance than that it was to change everything that followed, and all the rest of history that we now know.
None of that matters to most of you, perhaps. To some it will be dismissed out of hand because the Greeks also kept slaves in thrall. To others it is unimportant because women did not share in this division of power. But as a human being, I am impressed that one individual was capable of such a change of heart. If this had not been done just then, the Athenian victory at Marathon and the stand of the Spartans at Thermopylae would not have occurred or have mattered very little in the scheme of things, the Persians would have ruled, and our Western culture would have ended there. Likely, Socrates would never have been born, much less Plato, or Aristotle. More likely than not, women would still be treated here today as they are yet in much of the Middle East, and there would be slavery in America and the West as there still is in the Muslim world, as well as China and India, much as it was two thousand five hundred and twenty three years ago.
Where do I stand in that tradition? What part do I play?
- Bird is the word
trifles taken from the alms-basket of words
The door opens abruptly, only seconds after I have unlocked it. The customer is in a hurry and makes that clear with several wagging gestures and a quick exhale of breath. She is young, in her twenties, and has the sort of blue eyes you see on con-artists and movie actors—hard, as if outlined in black as well as centered.
She speaks before the door is closed, “I’m looking for something to read while I’m on vacation.”
My own few books are displayed now by the cash register, just below the lip of the counter and readily at hand. They are generally ignored nonetheless.
“Would you like to read a great new novel by a local author? Hot off the press! Terrific story. Not at all like anything else.”
I do not promote them more than that. Not much. The last thing I would want is for someone to buy one and be disappointed. Better to cling to the illusion that if they did read just one, they would love it, and be a lifelong friend, than to fail at that final joust. These are the ploys of the aging writer, weary of rejection. Not me!
She shakes her head, “I want something light. What’s that new one I heard about—the one about the politician who’s a child molester?”
I understand it is no revelation at all that a novel is a condensation of life, or that this particular art form was that for a very long time—at least until our actual lives were existentially reduced to a series of reflexes, mere automatic impulses as biological extensions of electronic media whilst on the tether of Wi-Fi, to be lived vicariously through some most recent manifestation of an MP3 player, iPad, or smart phone. But I had another thought or two, by further extension.
This occurred to me awhile back when I was first considering the publishing of my own next novel as an e-book. Having given up on the prospect of finding an agent for my curmudgeonly efforts, which are always ‘too long,’ or ‘uncomfortable,’ with characters that are ‘unsympathetic,’ and humor that is ‘off putting,’ and thus recognizing the reality that if it was to be published at all, it would have to be done by myself, I was made to ponder what medium I might use for my message—given that the immortal words of Mr. McLuhan are still with us. The cheapest means were clearly the virtual pages of an e-book. But there was obvious irony in that, in bowing to the very death of the corporal book that I had long fought for, though it might actually accomplish what else I wanted—what any author would wish—a small measure of immortality: to wit, to be read.
In any case, given the rate of attrition with electronic devices and the quick surpassing of software made to be as babelously obsolete as the ancient languages within a decade or less, an e-book might give me at least a couple of years of accessibility. This status, of course, would hardly be akin to those frequent rediscoveries of once published authors I’ve uncovered in attics and basements; the ones I’d never heard of before extracting some faded volume from a dusty bin—those being better by far from the first paragraph, scanned in that diminished light, than the average hack work currently promoted full-page in The New York Times Book Review or Publisher’s Weekly (journals that support their efforts by selling advertising space, and though I don’t fault them for that, I do hold them to task for the editorial matter squeezed between the ads that serves both mammon and balderdash).
No. I turned to my truer enemy for salvation. The mighty Amazon. They have now made a publishing device called CreateSpace which allows the lowly author to present his own work and shelve it in that super-colossal bookmart in the sky (that being well above the attics I am so fond of), where it might be found by the diligent or the severely lost, and ordered—print-on-demand. Thus, actual physical copies of the benighted work in question (lacking all the grace of proper editing and design), can be had in paperback for at a reasonable price. How nice!
Better that than the drawer, a silent fate, and then the dustbin when they clear out the accumulated detritus of my life at the end. ‘They’ will be thankful for that clearing out, at least.
It is the fear of death then, that drives us.
Worse still is the thin broth of contemporary lives lived in fear of everything: afraid of germs and cholesterol, snakes and CO2, clowns and ghosts; afraid of being alone, and of commitment; afraid of guns (even while thrilling to the pretend vengeance of a Liam Neeson or Daniel Craig shooting anything that moves); afraid of being too fat, or too thin; afraid of both failure and success; afraid of commitment and of disappointment, afraid of offending Muslims (but not Christians), or women (but never men!), or blacks (not whites), or gays (but not the unhappy). By necessity, such a fallow and hesitant existence is lived in hatred of anyone who dares make something more of themselves, if just for having made the insignificance of their own lives so obvious. Jealousy feeds their self-contempt.
But comparison is unfair, I am told.
The relative safety of modern life for several generations has meant a large increase in the number of these types who exist from moment to moment without true purpose. And they vote their fears. Just one more deficiency of democracy in our modern era. Having skipped the actual text of the last century, they fear big business but not big government. Yet, withal, from the loins of any of them might arise a better issue. We are all one species, after all, and of the same genetic stuff; the next hero might even yet come from the lowest form of bureaucrat!
One exception aside, however. The superficiality of most lives, purposely pursued as they are for the entertaining moment found in handy self-gratification, might make their own individual loss insignificant, but such deaths should not be alikened to the grisly end of the motorcyclist who seemingly thinks they will always survive their own stupidity. I have another thought about that, in common with the mountain climber and the test pilot. The kin of the motorcyclist are not the only ones who should mourn. In that instance, mankind has lost a brave, albeit foolish soul. The resultant ‘Darwinian’ reduction of the gene pool leaves too many of us alive who haven’t the balls to operate a Vespa. If only that motorcyclist had combined some rational fore-thought with their pursuit of speed—or at least a basic understanding of the laws of physics and the incompatibility of flesh and asphalt—they might have spread the seed of such spirit beyond the narrow lanes of the interstate, or intersection, or the sudden tomb of a cold crevasse.
I contend that the bravery of the test pilot, as illuminated so well in the first sixty pages of The Right Stuff by Tom Wolfe, as well as that of the simple infantrymen, Good Soldier Svejk, is still the genetic fail-safe of the species—Gottes werk, if you like—keeping us from oblivion. The embarrassment these menschen cause to lesser mortals would be humorous in observance if it were not so bloodied with the tragedy of useless death—and that waste then so often magnified then by the petty wars of our political kings.
So here I am, publishing my novels first as electronic data—not real. False typography set upon a phony topography of electronic pages, to be conjured into corporeal form at the push of a button (and a two-week wait for shipping and handling). Where’s the beef then? I am no test pilot. Nor a soldier. Merely an observer (and an admittedly faultful one at that).
My gripe as I grasp at the potential half-life of the e-book and its progeny of print-on-demand, is not only that it represents a small aesthetical fraction of its ancestors, but with the collapse of publishers who once showed their mettle in risking good cash on what they adjudged to be the finest words they could find (unlike the State funded verbal masturbations issued at most colleges and universities that toe the politically correct line, or the wholly unfunded maunderings such as this to be found almost anywhere clogging the internet), and in the absence of any means of viable distribution, or of the bricks-and-mortar bookshop as a purveyor of what some curmudgeon such as myself might judge to be the better of those titles offered (thus achieving a good Darwinian epitome of the best we have), what I am making here myself is merely a cake to be eat (as in et) alone, or by a few friends, or lacking that, to be left out in the rain. Sadly, what seed is actually spread in our time is only that of the fast promoter and not that of the slow hand.
Yet perhaps that too, by its own devious means, is another aspect and function of the processes of Darwin’s natural selection. Thus, in my far less dramatic way, I am properly destined for the cold crevasse as well.
But to be reduced to fertilizer for electronic worms offers no consolation. Cold comfort at best.
And too, remember, my ‘art’ is at the expense of those who have made me safe. My debt is to them. Not to the taxman who takes his cut and serves the interests of the political kings, or of the crowd (aka, the ‘public’) that fill the benches of the virtual coliseum to see the spectacle. (I suppose, in the living rooms at home, those would be called couches.)
An alternative example would be, and in much the same way, I believe (though you may not see it clearly at first), that there is now an enormous investment of human creativity in what is called ‘popular’ music. Though I find it unpleasant, I don’t argue with the terminology of hip-hop, rap, or rock, per se. I am simply devastated by the banality of it, and with the cold fact that not one in a thousand today can tell you who Asger Hamerik is, much less Louis Glass, Charles Villiers Stanford, Johan Svendsen, Kurt Atterberg, or Zdenek Fibich.
Those fellows, by the way, are just a few of the great composers of only one hundred years ago. And they would be essentially unknown to us now if they had not been saved for a moment longer from the afore mention crevasse by YouTube and made available there by the last connoisseurs of that better age, on the internet. (You see, I am not a Luddite!) Otherwise entombed in the works of those good souls are finer melodies than anything written by, say, Paul McCartney, Carol King, or Adam Levine. Note: likely, if Levine had been born a hundred years ago, he would have turned out something better, because his audience would have demanded it. Maybe even something of the mellifluous or melodic genius of a Cole Porter or Duke Ellington. But no such demand exists today. And Mr. Levine is clearly a great success at giving the public what it wants and not what he can actually do or dream of doing. And therein is part of the rub. The greater cultural force of the moment is not Beethoven, but Barnum.
Understanding the collapse of Western Culture does not require a critique of a specific individual who has reduced his considerable talents to the lowest common denominator. The catastrophe is world-wide. The bankruptcy of our time is whole-hearted. As the good Lord Byron said, “When falls the Coliseum, Rome shall fall; and when Rome falls, the World.” The West no longer believes in itself. Heart rent, it bleeds to death on the asphalt, beneath the wheel of the Toyota Carolla as much as the heel of the vandal.
Sadly, you know, I could go on. But the rant must be foreshortened here lest the larger work still be unfinished when comes the knocking at my own door.
So, as I was saying, I decided, as ephemeral as the effort would likely prove to be, that I should publish the bloody thing, print-on-demand, one at a time, like they used to do in the monasteries of old, but instead of a monk, I would use that robot artifice called CreateSpace, a bastard child of the Amazon gorilla and a Xerox machine, wherefore actual physical copies might then be obtained by any who could give a damn and a few dollars. Better that than the dust bin.
There is a very good article by Adrienne LaFrance that appeared in the Atlantic Monthly magazine recently. It neatly epitomizes what is in store for the electronic media product of our time: disappearance. Total loss. A sort of virtual EMP. Right now, the literature produced in Microsoft Word or Apple Pages a mere ten years ago is fading away if left unattended by updates. For the writer who made the mistake of dying then, tough luck for anything they wrote that never found its way into ink and paper.
This vision of the future even caused me to imagined myself as a burglar, sneaking into houses and hiding copies of my own self-published novels there in the attics or basements, that they might be found in some future decade by another bookseller, just as I have done. I am fool enough to have begun a short story on that line before yet another unfortunate depression of thought occurred to me—there would be no future booksellers.
I have proceeded in this process folly, nonetheless.
And I let the young woman in a hurry leave my shop empty-handed. I’ll leave the novels built around political pederasts to the chain stores and the higher altitudes of Beacon Hill.
By the bye, the category I have chosen for my work is ‘honorificabilitudinitatibus,’ as it is found in Shakespeare’s Love’s Labour’s Lost, if for no other reason that it allows me the citation as well as the use of three possessives in one sentence: “O, they have lived long on the alms-basket of words. I marvel thy master hath not eaten thee for a word; for thou art not so long by the head as honorificabilitudinitatibus: thou art easier swallowed than a flap-dragon. [Costard, act 5, scene 1]. This was, according to the first edition published at London by Cutbert Burby in the year 1598, “A Pleasant Conceited Comedie called, Loves Labors Lost,” and presented before her Highness Elisabeth the First the previous Christmas.
By God, flap-dragons!
But I have ‘lived long on the alms-basket of words’ myself.
And Jack had a word for me too. He appeared from nowhere that evening before closing, told Ardis he would be along shortly and, after we locked the door, he asked me to have a beer with him. He knows enough of my habits to figure I didn’t have a better thing to do.
We went to Duggin’s and sat there at the bar because the booths were filled. I had some ideas about what he wanted to say. I was wrong.
But Doreen lingered in front of us after she had pulled the beers, towel in hand, decolletage agape.
She says, “How goes the battle go?”
I said, “Not well.”
Jack said “Fine.”
“Tell me about fine,” she says, looking to him and waiting for an answer.
Given that it was Jack, I didn’t figure he would say much, but he said, “The Ebola outbreak in Liberia is spreading, Women and children are being raped in Sudan, throats are being slit in Syria and Libya, six young black men and three women were killed in Chicago over the weekend, Isis has taken Mosul, the Taliban is resurgent in Pakistan, Russia and Ukraine are at war, and Mr. Rogers and Katherine Hepburn are dead but this beer is mighty fine.”
“Geez,” Doreen says. “Peas in a pod. Doom and gloom. Michael comes in here with that kind of talk every week. I thought maybe we would get something happier out of you.”
Jack shrugs. “It is good beer.”
Doreen shakes her head and moves away.
It was a small thing, but I immediately realized it had been done with purpose.
Jack has one of those faces that makes him look younger than he is. Especially with the way he shaves close. Not quite a baby face but you’d think he was a kid if it wasn’t for the muscle he carries in his shoulders.
I said, “What did you want to speak to me about?”
He says, “I wanted to apologize.”
“I’m afraid all this mess is my fault.”
“How so? I was feeling rather proud of myself about it.”
Jack cackles. He doesn’t laugh outright very often. But he frequently cackles.
“I thought I had them beat. I thought using your computer connection was a clean entry point. Once I’m in on the dark web, they can’t track me. But at the entry point they can tell that I’m there. That is if they are waiting there for me in the first place. I don’t know how or why they had you tagged before I even started. I guess you can take some credit for that. You must have been causing them some concern. But I couldn’t see any sign of it, even though they had to be there from the beginning to track me. It’s a lesson. You’re never as smart as you think you are. Even when dealing with the FBI. I haven’t done anything from the bookshop since the Feds showed up, but I did set some of my own tags in return and they are there. I’m positive. Not right there in the shop. They could be outside at the cable link, or somewhere else. So I know now that this is all my fault.”
“You are telling me all my good work is for naught. All my rabble rousing and noise making had nothing to do with it?”
Jack gives me another cackle.
“Well, maybe a little.”
“I’m disappointed. I was just getting ready to appoint myself a hero. A veritable Leonidas at the Thermopylae of modern Western culture.”
He says, “You don’t look Greek.”
This is a continuing joke between us. When we had first met, and he asked me if I had any work he could do, I asked his name. “Jack Holt,” he says, and I repeated the name after him and added, “Funny, you don’t look English.” It’s the sort of humor I am given to. But he didn’t let the ball drop. He answered immediately, “On my father’s side. My mother is black Irish.” Of course I would have hired him just for that.
“I wonder what it was I said the got them interested. It couldn’t have been something I wrote. Nobody reads that.”
“I have a guess,” he says and drunks half his glass.
‘Adam Smith wrote two great books. Without The Theory of Moral Sentiments it is easy to say he would never have written An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations, because the one grows from the other. From the ethics inherent in all human action, and individual interaction, Smith realizes the moral foundation of government and the commerce of whole countries. It is in his understanding of human beings that he discovers insight into the working of nations.
‘The lovely conceit of Adam Smith, or any philosopher for that matter, is that things matter, and that the individual must care that they do.
‘Believing that people think about consequences, beyond what they believe they can get away with, approaches having the faith of a religion. Smith is guilty of this near credulity throughout, consistently begging the assumption that any of us might reason through our actions and do what is best instead of grabbing for the largest piece. Of course it is true that we generally do. Both. Each of us reasoning in our own way. All of us. Even the bloke who only grabbed that largest piece. Our individual interests may differ and our particular reasons may be faulty, but there is an invisible hand in our aggregate will to do what is best, even if it is only for ourselves, and thus for the humanity we each, in microcosm, represent. And it is upon the accumulation of these individual judgments that a good society is founded, and why a nation ruled only by the few is more likely to stumble, or worse, to fall and suffer the consequence of poor judgment. That was, of course, the brilliance of Cleisthenes’ device of the demos and his inadvertent invention of democracy.
‘Flipped as much as reversed, it is also the indicative stupidity of the socialist investment in the collective. The socialist speaks of ‘the people’ as if they are one organism and assumes the existence of some sort of corporate mind that knows its mutual will even before the individual human actions that might make that clear. The individual is insignificant by this math, and the collective powerful. As if a gathering of the insignificant might amount to much at all. But the sum of a thousand zeros is still zero. Still, the socialist believes such assumed faith in the collective can be indoctrinated. It is the very source of the totalitarian nature and also why it is so easily dominated by some bloke who really just wants the largest piece.’
I wrote this festive essay as part of a pamphlet that I gave away with every purchase last December, attacking the very concept of ‘executive orders’ and the one-man rule of President Obama. That a key failure in our national governance in recent years can be found in the abandonment of democracy in favor of oligarchy and dictatorship is without question. That the Congress, acting in fear of one ‘emergency’ after another, and first concerned for any appearance of being heartless, or prejudiced, or without foresight, all the while grabbing the main chance to insure their own wealth and re-election by accumulating power, have acquiesced to these presidential mandates rather than cause a fuss that might bring unwanted attention upon themselves, has made it clear that any pretense to, or semblance of, the constitutional republic that was our last underpinning had been finally subverted and our government is no better now than an inefficient soviet.
I managed sixteen thousand words of this kind in a twelve point Garamond on heavy cream-colored stock folded by hand to twenty-four pages and saddle-stapled, with a bright green cover wishing everyone a Merry Christmas. I gave away about three thousand of them. The title was, “Death and Taxes in Obama’s America.” Not very creative but to the point. I had struggled for a more poetic title but failed. Within, I tried to explain that every book they purchased was more expensive than it needed to be as a consequence of the same politics that appropriated half their income, and why re-electing the same politicians every two years, as they had done again that previous November, would only insure more of the same. I also made the case that they were responsible for this tragedy and they would have to bear the price. Very cheery. I was in a bad mood at the time, mostly because none of my children would be coming back to Boston for Christmas.
As a whole, my customers are fairly tolerant of my behavior. But I suppose at least one of them must have objected to some one of the many authorities that have jurisdiction over my very existence these days. It was Jack’s thought that a particular line—a throw-away, I might add, over-wrought and not intended as anything but a bit of color because I was not yet thinking about actual revolution at the time—had lit the match.
‘What Heracles do we have among us to lop off the head of this Hydra?’
I asked Jack, “Why that?”
And he said the oddest thing.
“Because I know that it inspired others.”
“What? You think someone thought I was advocating assassination? That’s insane. That sort of stupidity would only make things a thousand times worse. We’re already close enough to a police state now.”
“That wasn’t the sort of inspiration I was talking about, but it might have been the sort of thought that crossed another stupid mind and made them report you.”
Does humility demand subservience? I don’t believe that!
Isn’t it the very act of taking our selves seriously that gives us any importance at all? If we belittle ourselves, are we not smaller? And isn’t it in the nature of the creature we are, to look in the mirror, and see ourselves, and not the skin.
You can argue that we must cringe at our ignorance and know vertigo at the lip of that grand canyon of our stupidity, or you might appreciate the magnificence of the view from there instead and consider the opportunity for flight. It appears to me that those who argue for our insignificance always then demand our following and allegiance. It would be better to attempt flight.
Recognizing the greater sum of what we do not know does not command us to discard the little that we do; only that we should take care and make the most of it!
But imagine that! Someone had read those words and thought them dangerous!
I said to Jack, “So you think it was something I wrote that was my downfall! Isn’t that glorious? I wouldn’t have dreamt it after all these years. To die by my own sword! Hoist with my own petard! Drowned in my own bile! How fine!”
Doreen looked concerned for me from the far end of the bar.
Jack frowned in mock doubt.
“Are you serious?”
“Of course. Why shouldn’t I be? Is there anything worse than being ignored?”
“You are mad.”
“Yes! Thank God.”
And this: ‘Whom the gods would destroy, they first make mad.’
I have encountered this titbit several times lately, within this quotation: ‘All the lessons of history in four sentences: Whom the gods would destroy, they first make mad with power. The mills of God grind slowly, but they grind exceedingly small. The bee fertilizes the flower it robs. When it is dark enough, you can see the stars.’ So sayeth the Beard, they say. I have no specific origin for the attribution, but then, given the purported source—Charles A. Beard, socialist extraordinaire, historical revisionist, and general all-purpose know-it-all, and a man who often borrowed what he found useful from history, and from his betters, and made up what he otherwise needed—I have no reason to doubt. From Henry Longfellow he took the rephrasing of the old aphorism, ‘Whom the gods would destroy they first make mad’ and added ‘with power.’ Which is fine, given Beard’s authoritarian mind. I actually prefer another version of that phrase which goes, ‘whom the gods would destroy they first make proud.’ But I suppose I like that because, never having had power, and suffering too often from unwarranted pride, that version strikes closer to home. However, the purloined Beard quote I like best is, ‘When it is dark enough, you can see the stars.’ A much more positive version of the sentiment, ‘it is always darkest before the dawn.’ A surprising view from a man who so belittled his fellow man. But even that one was taken from a better thinker, Ralph Waldo Emerson, though that too is still fine. Emerson was a man who appreciated the stars.
Which is what brought me at last to the conclusion that whatever happened, it was for the best. Not a resignation, you understand, but a recognition. I have persisted long enough. I did what I could and it was not sufficient. I must accept responsibility for that much at least. It was time to make way for a chain store. For designer jeans, crafted by a twelve-year old in a Jakarta factory working for a dollar a day and sold to stupid people for $89.95 were not so bad. At least the children were not out wandering the streets. Right? And they had the dollar, or what was left after it was handled by the overseer, and the boarding house and the company store and the paterfamilias who bartered his children for the security of a hovel in a better part of the slum. And truly, the chain-store could use the difference of $88.95, or what remained after shipping and handling, to hire ample Americans to run the cash registers. The stupidly (and temporarily) affluent who spent their cash on such haberdashery would have only wasted it on something else just as bad, anyway.
My task now was to fight to the top of the bluff, colors aloft, and there to take my arrows and lose my scalp. I might be blind, but I could at least be a soldier in my own cause and die with a modicum of dignity, even without my hair.
My father might approve of that much, at least. He lost his hair at an early age.
He was an army guy, and the war—that is the Second World War—had changed him greatly from the youth he had been, but I only knew the man he became, because he never spoke about being a soldier, or his youth. I learned about some of the other after his death a few years ago. What my mother told us, after he was gone, was that he had once expected to die young. That was the kind of surprise that opened doors on thought considering his later disappointments.
He was a salesman for most of his working life. But when he was in his twenties he had traveled the country in the teeth of the Depression, taking jobs where he could find them. He was a happy guy, she said, and for him selling anything at all was a lark. They had met in Chicago. She was at Northwestern there, getting her teaching degree, and he had sold himself to her right on the spot and then they had gone off to New York together. They were not yet married. That did not happen until the week after the attack on Pearl Harbor.
If you browse in old magazines and see ads with dads with smiles and grey suites, going off to work in the Chevrolet, and moms at the door in aprons waving goodbye, you have the picture of my youth. Mom taught high school English through the war and for a time after, but stopped shortly before my sister was born, and I came along and then my brother. By the time she was teaching again, I was in high school and too concerned with my own matters to notice anything else. I assumed that ‘home’ was exactly what I had known.
What disappointments were there? Besides myself, I mean. He never said. But I have filtered the silence for what was unheard. I wished he had gone to college himself, and believed he might have accomplished more if he had. I never got to tell him that this was wrong, or wrong-headed. Nor that his exhortations against the corruption of politicians had another effect.
And this is the history that actually matters most importantly to what history I am to make, however small, just as much, exactly, as the history of each of us does to our own story.
I am not encumbered by the scholar’s need for caution. I may imagine what I wish, and will, to the best of my ability. Where a scholar cannot sing the praises of a Raphael Sabatini in the night and then assume his usual chair in the faculty lounge come morning, I can, and do, unabashed, and acclaim that Italian wordsmith of Scaramouche a better writer in English than nine out of ten of the pet authors studied today in American universities. And yet, he is not nearly my favorite. I will leave you to guess at that, if it matters to you. But there is a reason beyond the generosity of Margaret’s father, and then of Margaret herself, that the shop survived all of those years. I think it was in such small attitudes and not any great innovation.
For example, around June 16th of each year, when Joyce’s Bloomsday was the fuss at other stores, we would put up our annual window display in honor of Adam Smith. Just as we always recognized Shakespeare the week of April 12, in esteem of Edward de Vere. It was the sort of thing that kept devoted customers and made for some added heat from the indignant protest of self-appointed scholars on colder days.
I may be wrong about Mr. Shakespeare, but better that than to assign him to the mediocrity of the man who raised his own daughters to illiteracy, had a wife who didn’t scold him for using her foibles as meat for characters because she could not read his plays, spelt his name differently on each of the few documents that survive, wrote in the language of the court without having spent a day there, and used Latin, French and Italian very and very freely, with only a local grade school education to help him. (Just think for a moments about the insider trading portrayed in one play, Love’s Labour’s Lost). I tend to see my characters as men in full, and the women too. That they might act without reason, whether right or wrong, to my mind could only be a sign of insanity. It is, in fact, this very point that makes me despise so much of what passes for ‘modern’ literature. Characters act on inexplicable impulse and the focus of attention is on a situation without cause and effect. This bedlam is then projected as having some meaning to modern life, as if the laws of physics have no role to play, and the human psyche is unfathomable. The meanest thug has his priorities, and gravity governs the fall of the apple even when Newton is not sitting beneath the tree. We may never know who Shakespeare was, but he was certainly better than the near cipher left to us by the accepted history outside of the plays themselves. I see the man as a lion, and a dreamer, both reckless and ambitious, trapped by the circumstance of his birth. That is partly why I favor de Vere as the perpetrator.
At last and least, the thing I think you should ask about any man when he is gone is this: ‘Did he know joy.’ If the purpose of life is only to further the species, then this conceit is incidental. But joy can be had and should be found, I believe. It cannot be stolen, or borrowed, but it can be spoiled.
[a novel in progress. New portions are added in sequence each week or so]