at play with words
[A bit of flotsam from the novel in progress, A Republic of Books, more of which may be salvaged from elsewhere on this ethereal site.]
So, about ten years ago, for lack of a more useful or rewarding project, I attempted to write a play set in a bookshop very much like my own, and make use of the little I had learned to entertain an audience with loud farce in the same way Buster Keaton once did in silence. That was my goal, in any case. It seemed to me that much of what I did was funny, or at least humorous and certainly laughable.
Because I have always found it so much easier to be critical than generous, and spend too much time on an average day disparaging some author or another to the detriment of my business, I had entitled my little comedy, Knox Books, assuming anyone would know or care that the great Henry Knox had once operated a bookshop in Boston—it was the play on the homonym of his name that I wanted this time. And there could be little confusion between that effort and my later use of the big man in my play about Phillis Wheatley because no one has read that one either.
The antagonist of this piece was Gerald o’Malley, (small ‘o’ capital ‘M’) a failed college professor who had turned to bookselling to escape the classroom but brought the classroom with him. His adversary is Euphemia Lawrence, a daughter of the thoroughbred Lawrences of Massachusetts, those breeders of horses for the Myopia Hunt Club. Euphemia is a beauty and a math whiz in her own right but with a bean counter’s soul who had married Gerald, in a fit of late adolescent rebellion more typical of that past moment in time, just to spite her parents. But she has suffered the consequence of this foolishness ever since—only finding out after the fact that her deceased father’s will forbade divorce.
Knox Books is very much a family affair—far more so than a my own enterprise has been—with the three o’Malley children working there and each scheming individually of a way to get their father to pay them their back wages so that they might escape (machinations which are often to the detriment of the other two). The scheming is key to the plot in that it serves to exaggerate the financial plight of the shop and in the end, unintentionally, to save the shop from Gerald’s worst instincts. The background motif is the poor quality of the literature Gerald must sell to keep his landlord from kicking them out. The distractions from the obvious and the constant means of avoiding the inevitable failure of the shop are the customers, every one of whom is more eccentric than the last.
The blatantly contrived plot is that Gerald has gotten a very rare book, a signed first edition of Moby Dick, worth perhaps half a million dollars, in an ‘open box’ church sale lot and he must now decide what he will do with it; keep it as the ultimate find of an otherwise wasted life, or sell it, to pay his bills—and consequently free his wife to divorce him at last. He loves her still. But Euphemia, who has had an unending string of jobs, from selling cosmetics to plastic kitchenware parties, always in an attempt to make her own fortune, has informed Gerald that in spite of her best efforts, they cannot afford to divorce or to live separately.
The situation is made worse by Gerald’s discovery that the copy in question had been hidden by the previous owner, Teddy Perkins in a collection of otherwise worthless books to keep his daughter from finding it. In my play, Teddy was a nursery owner from Milton, and a local small-time mobster, who met his end, quite literally, by getting himself rolled up at the center of a carpet of turf intended for Fenway Park. (The body was discovered as the turf was unfurled to repair the damage of a rock and roll concert at Fenway by the Grateful Dead.) Teddy’s daughter, who has found out about the book from her father’s braggadocio before his death, and after having eliminated all other possibilities, is positive that ‘what happened, happened,’ and is now plaguing Gerald, because she is certain that the book is now in the bookseller’s hands. She sets out to seduce Gerald to find out.
Meanwhile, Gerald’s children learn about the existence of the book and see a way out of their own predicament. Each of them, while expecting to inherit something when their grandfather dies, is contriving to get their father to sell the Melville quickly so they can start living well now.
The plot is thickened further when Gerald learns that the book in question was actually stolen by Teddy from the dying husband of a woman the bookseller knows, Anne Mitchell, who is now financially strapped as a consequence of her dead husband’s mania for this particular book. She has lately been coming in to Gerald’s shop with other used books to raise cash, but she was once married to the Moby Dick uber-fan, Mark Mitchell, former professor of American Literature at Boston University, who had died several years previously during a marathon reading of the work at the school where he had taken the volume to show it off. Unbeknownst to Mitchell’s wife, the professor had spent the entire family fortune (inherited from both parents) to buy the book at auction in New York, just to own it.
Gerald knows the wife because she was a frequent customer who used to come in to the shop with her husband to buy the very books she is now selling. Gerald had many an argument with the professor about one author or another but they both agreed about Melville and even Gerald had heard inklings of the husband’s foolish purchase—and applauded it at the time.
As it happened, the nursery man, Teddy Perkins, had been planting shrubbery outside the building where the Moby Dick reading marathon was taking place and had gone in to use the bathroom. He witnessed the heart attack in the bathroom where Mark Mitchell had sought some relief from his ‘indigestion,’ and Teddy had tried to help Mitchell at first, but had ended up walking away with the man’s briefcase instead, just as the professor was declared dead by the EMT.
Unfortunately, Teddy Perkins owed higher ups in the mob a lot of money. Proud of having possession of a volume that even he knew was great, he hid the book, which was already contained in a nondescript and quite worn cloth-covered clamshell box, in plain sight in his living room along with a bunch of other odd titles he told his wife to buy at a local church sale. His wife, cannot pay the mortgage and taxes on their house and with no other options after Teddy’s death but to move, she gives all the books back to the church sale along with much of the household furniture.
The mob comes by the Knox Books shortly after the visit by Teddy’s daughter. They have an idea of what is going on because the daughter has bragged about it to her ex-husband—in the way of her father. The ex-husband is also connected to the mob.
[Act one, scene one, opens in the shop where Teddy’s daughter, Marcia, is trying to find out if Gerald has the book. Gerald is on his knees before several boxes of used books, downstage. Large portraits of major authors, including Melville, hang high on the walls. Note: the expressions on their faces change subtly during the production. Marcia, a good looking young women in a skirt and blouse, is standing next to Gerald—uncomfortably close. The front desk and register of the shop are behind him stage right. Gerald’s daughter, Gemma is there taking care of occasional customers and looking over at the transaction with various appropriate expressions. The front door and shop window is at stage left. Bookshelves range away upstage. Customers come and go, some of them speaking to Gerald in passing.]
Marcia (speaking to Gerald as he sorts the contents into small stacks): Do you ever see anything special?
Gerald (raising his eyes over her well formed figure to see her face): Occasionally. Not often enough.
Marcia: What’s the rarest book you’ve ever found?
Gerald: I’m not sure. Most really rare books are relatively unknown. They didn’t sell in their own time. But I did buy a rather ratty copy of Ulysses once. Not the first but one of the later printing from Shakespeare and Company in Paris. Unfortunately it was beat to hell, somewhat water damaged, and mouse nibbled.
Marcia: How much was that worth?
Gerald: I sold it to a book restorer for about five hundred dollars. Actually he restored a dozen other books for me to pay for it.
Customer (an unkept but younger man, leaving with a book in hand): Get off your knees, Gerry. She’s not going to sell you what you want.
Marcia (ignoring the rude comment): Really! And that was the rarest of them all?
Gerald (standing—he is considerably taller than Marcia and she is now looking up at him): Most books are more like the ones you brought in today. Common. Worn out. Best sellers of yesteryear that few people want today. These look like they’ve been in an attic. You’ve got bats, I think. There’s bat poop on the box tops. And the book paper is very yellow from the heat.
Marcia: I though it was plaster or something. (She wipes her hands on her skirt) They’re my father’s—mother’s actually. From her attic. She wanted me to get rid of them before she sold her house. My dad used to read all the time. He used to drive people and he’d wait in the car and read.
Gerald: I thought you said he had a nursery.
Marcia: He did. But before that he was a driver. Mostly limos. He thought running a nursery would help him loose weight.
Customer (coming in): Hey, Gerry. Anything good?
Gerald (shaking his head and ignoring the customer): I’m sorry. There’s nothing here I can buy.
Marcia: Nothing! Those are classics! My father educated himself with those books.
Gerald: And they get reprinted every year. But these are all worn out. I think he probably bought them used in the first place.
Marcia (sighing): He was a cheapskate. He never had a dime to spare.
Gerald (stooping to put the books back in the boxes): I can help you carry them back out to your car.
Customer (coming in): Yo, Mr. o’Malley, small ‘o’. Bibliosalutations!”
Gerald: Hi, Donald.
Marcia: Can you throw them away for me?
Gerald: I can’t. It’s against what little religion I have in me to throw a book away. You should donate them to the St. Paul’s Book Sale.
Marcia (hefting the smallest box as Gerald stands with a larger one): My mother already did that with the rest. Do you ever go there?
Gerald: St. Pauls? I go to the auction ever year.
Marcia: Have you ever found anything special there?
Gerald: Now and again.
Marcia (speaking as Gerald opens the front door with his free hand to let her go out) “What was the best thing you ever found?
Customer (leaving through the opened door ahead of Marcia): Gerald! (holding up a bag in his hand) Keep an eye out for some more Sabatini, will ya? I just bought you out.”
Gerald: Yes sir. Always. (turning back to Marcia) probably the best was a copy of Moby Dick.
Marcia (turning around and setting the box down on the floor again): Tell me about that!
Gerald: (still holding his box) I can’t really. It’s a long story.
Marcia: I really want to hear about that. Moby Dick! That’s famous! Even I’ve heard about that.
Gerald: I really can’t.
Marcia: But I really want to hear. I’ll buy you lunch if you’ll tell me about it.
Gerald: I bring my lunch to work. But there’s nothing to tell. It was just in a box of old books.
Marcia: Wow! How much is it worth?
Gerald: I don’t know yet.
Marcia: Can’t you just look it up or something?
Gerald: No. Not a lot of copies like that come up for sale.
Marcia: What’s special about?
Gerald (frowning):It’s in very nice condition. And it’s signed by the author. Why are you so interested?
Marcia (weaving a bit before she speaks) Because I think it belonged to my father. My mother gave his books to the St. Paul’s. And that one was special to him. Can I buy it back?
Gerald: No. I don’t think so. It’s a very expensive book.
Marcia (slinking her body to the side in an effort to make her words more meaningful) I could make you very happy if you did.
Gerald (laughs): Not that happy. Booksellers are odd ducks, ya know. I’m sorry. Besides, (he looks toward the counter) my daughter wouldn’t approve.
Gemma looks scornfully at them both.
Marcia (straightening): It’s important to me to have that book.
Gerald: I guess so.
Marcia: How much would you take for it?
Gerald: It’s not for sale.
Marcia (raising her hands up) : Fucking idiot!
Gerald: That’s been said before.
Marcia: I mean me! I did this all wrong. I’m sorry. I just wanted that book back.
Gerald: I’m sorry.
[Marcia leaves, abandoning her boxes]
Gemma (leaning forward over the counter to see the boxes) You could set them out on the street and let people take what they want.
Gerald: They’ll throw half empty coffee cups and candy wrappers on top of them before anyone takes one.
[the door opens and a couple of tough guys come in, one short, the other tall, both wearing thin black leather jackets]
Tall thug: Did Marcia leave something here?
Gerald (turning to kick one of the boxes): These.
Tall Thug: I mean something else. A book. Something about a ‘moby dick.’
Gerald: No. Just this stuff.
Short Thug: I think otherwise.
Gerald: Well, you’re wrong.
[The tall Thug and the Short Thug start to look around the shop.]
Donald (coming forward from the aisles): Ya know, I could never finish that book. I mean, it’s so long and you know how it ends. What’s the point?
Gerald (staring at the floor): You’re joking.
Donald: No. I mean, what does it have to do with me? Am I ever going to go whale hunting?
Gerald: You’re a contrary pain in the ass, Donald.
Donald: Yeah. Well. I had to read it in high school. One of the assignments was to find an image or verse in the Bible that Melville used. I handed in a report with the very first line. I actually got a passing grade. Why read the rest of it?
Gerald: Maybe because life is not about a passing grade.
Donald (putting two paperbacks up on the counter): You take all that stuff too seriously. It’s just entertainment. We’re all going to die anyway. We might as well have a laugh on the way.
Gemma (looking at the books with hands raised): Star Trek? You are reading books about a movie?
Donald: Two movies! They were great! They made a movie out of Moby Dick, didn’t they? Now that was boring.
Gerald: And you live in your parent’s basement in Brookline and call Moby Dick boring?
Donald: Damn! I knew this was going to be a bad day when there wasn’t any cereal left. If you’re just going to insult me for what I’m reading, I’ll buy my books someplace else.
[Donald leaves without buying the books. Gerald takes them off the counter and throws them into one of the boxes on the floor]
Gemma: Sorry. I shouldn’t have said anything.
Gerald: I would have. You’re my daughter.
Tall thug (drifting back and leaning over the counter to speak with Gemma while looking things over) What is a moby dick anyway?
Gemma: A whale.
Tall Thug: Why is a book about a whale worth so much?
Gemma: There’s a copy of it in aisle two. I think it’s seven dollars and fifty cents.
Tall thug: But this one is different.
Gemma: I don’t know. I haven’t seen what you’re talking about.
Short Thug: I think otherwise.
Tall Thug: You know, if there was an electrical fire or something, I bet a place like this would go up pretty fast. (He whistles as his eyes scan.)
Gerald: I’ll take that as a threat. I don’t know what you’re after, but threatening people is a piss poor way to find it.
Tall Thug: You know what I’m looking for. I hope it’s not here when you get a short circuit. Whatever a fucking moby dick is, you’ll still owe us for it after.
In scene two, Euphemia shows up while Gerald is on the phone trying to hold a publisher’s account representative off with promises to pay his bill sooner if they will just ship his last order. While he negotiates, she answers his comments aloud in the store in her own way and customers answer back. When he has hung up, she asks him for grocery money which he tells her he doesn’t have, but when he is helping a customer she takes it from the till. In scene three, Gerald has gone to dinner, while his children, now aware of the situation, imagine all the things they could do with half a million dollars and then how much less if the money were divided between them. Importantly, they each reject the idea of going into bookselling themselves. The customers add their own insights to this reverie. At the last, it is clear that Gerald is standing in the dark just beyond the door and has heard all of it.
In act two, scene one, Marcia returns the next day to tell Gerald that her mother needs the money to save the house, and makes a new offer–her body plus half the proceeds from selling the book, or else she will tell the Mob that he has it. Informing her that they already think he does, Gerald turns her down. In scene two, Anne Mitchell shows up to sell some books and Gerald learns that the copy of Moby Dick was very likely her husband’s when she explains how it was lost. But she has no proof of ownership. Gerald is dumbstruck by the added problem. In scene three, the thugs show up to make their offer again. And Gerald, in a monologue to Herman Melville after locking the door for the night, admits what he has to do.
In act three, scene one, Gerald tells his family what he intends. They each argue their case against returning the book. Euphemia wonders out-loud if Gerald is seeing Anne. In scene two, the thugs have followed through on their threat and the store has had a devastating fire. Blackened shelves rise over heaps of scorched books. The sad author portraits peek above the rubble. Seemingly everything is lost. Euphemia, standing by Gerald, is dazed and overwhelmed and he tells her that she can have anything left from the insurance money but she might have to go home to Hamilton and stay with her mother for a while because they won’t be able to afford their apartment rent. The children speak of other things they might do. In scene three, Gerald is in a small cafe, and Anne shows up. They talk, and what they have in common is very clear. He gives her the copy of Moby Dick and cautions her about it while she realizes what has happened. But unlike Mr. Keaton’s better efforts, the hero of my play does not end up with the girl after all. When she asks if he will rebuild the store, he tells her the insurance company will likely give ten cents on the dollar for the used books and only the wholesale price for the new—so all of that has to go to pay his bills. He is broke.
I admit that I wanted to stage this last moment like the scene in John Ford’s, The Searchers, with Gerald standing in the door of his darkened shop and the sunlit street of the city beyond, even though I can’t imagine how that might work, much less what it has to do with bookselling. It was a matter of mood, I guess. I could even hear the music.
In the end, Gerald wanders off alone.