[ A new novel about Michael McGeraughty, proprietor of A Republic of Books, and how he lit out for the territories to see if his country was actually worth saving, or if the soul had left the body and the rot taken hold *** New installments are added here weekly. ]
The prolegomenon to a journey
but there are more things dreamt of
Once, I told an editor at Houghton Mifflin, at that time still a great publishing house but no longer a home for such wild ideas as once flowed freely in the days of Emerson and Thoreau, that the novel must reform itself, or be dead. The novel must reshape itself and become what it once promised to be when Homer lived and lived again at the campfires of war and the hearth of the home. Because he was a gentleman, civilized in the way most editors can be, he was kind enough to ignore my ranting and suggested the novel was indeed in flux but would never be the same again. But I was a child of such thoughts, and insisted on my belief, saying that the novel must be the fountainhead of man’s very being, else we are only what nature made us, food for the darker gods and a diet for worms.
As I remember, it was a mercifully short conversation.
Given to such opinion, I had further extrapolated that history itself was a child of the novel, as Homer was a father to Herodotus. I believe this is just about where the discourse ended. The firm was a great publisher of history, and my conjecture was likely an affront to their pretensions. Yet, now older if not wiser, I will repeat my thought. And worse.
The Republic is dead. Two hundred and thirty-four years after Ben Franklin issued his warning on the occasion of its beginning, we couldn’t keep it.
The Republic is dead. To pretend otherwise after the government usurpations of authority in recent years would be delusional, which I certainly have been. I wanted to believe otherwise. But this state of affairs has been true at least since shortly after September 11, 2001, and the panicked passage of an unconstitutional Patriot Act and increased during the erstwhile war on terror, which has since been so terribly lost.
True, much of the public is unaware, “I didn’t even know it was sick,” they might say, preoccupied as they always are with earning a living and cleaning the gutters—but this is usually the case, until it isn’t. Remember, the farmers of New Jersey, prosperous and happy as they were, could not care less about the revolution in 1776 until the British troops in their New York winter quarters, began to forage for the necessary food for their horses and the forces of the American rebellion began working to deprive them of that necessary treat.
Before a dark age of technologically enhanced authoritarian rule descends—an age that I believe will not soon end—this brief time of passage must be taken as a last opportunity to recover our lost liberty. But what can the minority who are aware of their loss do? Certainly, any attempt at forcing the issue through violent revolution would only deepen the tragedy and coalesce support of the majority around the status quo. What then, can be done?
I no longer have the original copy of this beginning; the authorities having removed my website and all the copy there shortly after I closed my bookshop. Even now, working from my truck in various parking lots for internet access has meant that I often fail to keep hard copy. There is always something else to do. But I will work around this as much as possible in the future.
The judge at my hearing, an unpleasant woman with poor diction and a whiny voice, accused me of inciting riot and rebellion with such statements. I argued, “rebellion certainly, but riot, never.”
My lawyer, Marty Guinn, told me to keep quiet.
“Shut up!” were his exact words.
As it happens, after at last enjoying my one Thoreauvian night in jail, I have been forbidden to leave the state.
But I have asked, what can be done?
So, I left.
Deirdre is along for the ride. Reluctantly, I think. She is a free-lancer now that her newspaper has let her go for writing once too often about me, but she wasn’t sure she should take the next step and leave Boston. She was in that debate with herself, but out loud in front of me, while I was staying at her place for the couple of weeks it took me to get things squared away. But I won and she lost. I think.
Out of a guilty conscience, the FBI agent who was in charge of screwing everything up, Doug Evans, had given me his old Yellowstone Cavalier camper free and clear, but I registered it in my son Ben’s name so that it wouldn’t be attached by a creditor, namely the State. It’s a sixteen-foot aluminum covered box painted in the original two-tone white and pale blue, still solid, made sometime back in the 1960s, but it’s been taken good care of. Evidently, Doug Evans’ father was a maniac about leaks. Good thing. The axil is relatively new, maybe ten years old, because the old one broke somewhere in the Ozarks just a few miles from a camper sales and repair outfit.
Thankfully, my son Ben stayed around for a week longer and helped me remove everything from the inside that might be useful if we were actually going camping so that we could install the bookshelves on the walls instead. Most of the walls are covered with a nice old birch veneer and they are a perfect backing. Ben had talked his mother into letting me use a vacant space in the garage for this project and as each piece of the interior—the toilet, the stove, the refrigerator—was removed we set it out on the curb in the alley and it was gone in an hour.
There was no need for plumbing. That’s what gas stations were made for, besides gas. Most campgrounds had showers. And if we couldn’t cook it on an open fire, we could eat at Deirdre’s favorite Scottish restaurant along the way, if need be. There’s gotta be one in every town in America. But I was hoping for something better. And with all that equipment gone, the weight of the books wouldn’t be a problem.
The cap on the truck bed would make it safe enough to store extra books. I’ve slept in there myself. But I intended to use my sleeping bag on a slab of foam in the trailer, and if I was alone, that could even fit on the desk I’ve set up at the front end, close by the door on the right. The trailer has another door at the back that Doug’s father installed for safety between the bunk beds that used to be at either side and that’s what I intended to use as the public entrance. With the bunk beds gone, and Deirdre along, we’ll be sleeping on the floor between the shelves in the trailer, with the books rising close at either side. It’s an awesome feeling to me. Perhaps not so much for her.
The shelves, all uniform three-foot lengths, are ones I’d saved from the old store when I dismantled what hadn’t sold in the last days. I’ve converted those by attaching two together at what would be the back edge and setting them on metal pins in the sideboards, but at an angle to counter the rock of the trailer, using gravity to keep the books in place. Forty-nine shelf sections total. Space for about 1500 books displayed spine out.
Because we were working just next door in the garage, I couldn’t help looking in at the window of the old store. Nothing to see but what is in my head. The interior is dark because they haven’t started work there yet. The reflection on the glass caught one of my old neighbors watching me and I figure I looked pretty pitiful, so I didn’t do that again. Better for me to get away as soon as possible.
But then, I was unsure how far I would actually get. This Yellowstone Cavalier is over fifty years old, but my truck is over thirty and already has more than 150,000 miles on it. The court ruled that I could keep it only because it was worthless for resale and my lawyer, Marty Guinn, convinced them that I needed it to earn whatever living I could. Marty was very good about not asking me what I actually intended to do, but that might have been so he wouldn’t be implicated in any of it.
I told both Deidre and Ben what I could, of course. Deidre wanted to know what my plan was, immediately. When I told her that I really didn’t have one, just a notion of one, it didn’t help, so I made one up on the spot.
“Do you know what direction you’re going in?”
“You are not a young man anymore.”
“Then south, and then a little west again and then north again. But mostly west.”
She shook her head at me, not for the first time.
Ben knows me too well, so he didn’t press for details—though he liked the idea of me selling books from a trailer. He is young enough to still have a few romantic notions of his own. He is still an idealist. I told him to read the old Christopher Morley book, Parnassus on Wheels, because that’s been occupying space in my own head for about fifty years. It might explain a little something.
He says, “But what are you going to do to fight them? You have to fight them! I know you’re broke, but you have friends. You could open another shop!”
One more time, I said, “But that would just fail again, only quicker. And as Deidre’s been saying more often than I want to hear it, I’m not a young man anymore. If I were your age, I’d already be gone. All I used to need was a change of clothes and my thumb. But it’s not just my age. Those days are over. It’s not the same country anymore.”
“Then, what are you going to do?”
That was a matter, wasn’t it?
Going back to First Principles would help—both for myself and the world I’m living in. But reforming such an obviously corrupt system as ours is possible only if an alternative is evident. The general public might still be won over by a presentation of practical ideas that sound vaguely familiar (in that they are soundly based on the wisdom of The Founders) if done with the kindness of friendly persuasion rather than with a gun. Given my own resources and the fact that there are no other shops that carry my own novels, I thought I had a fairly reasonable idea, that I should go back to the early days of the Republic and become a ‘book peddler.’ A ‘Parson Weems.’ A literary hawker. A book canvasser, not exactly door to door but State to State.
I could start by selling all of my own collection—not just the ones I’ve written but the thousand or so that lost their home when I lost my apartment. And then there are the twenty boxes with my 451 favorites. I’ve already given copies of most of them to my children. I might as well sell those now too.
Let me offer a few examples.
The Federalist Papers. I have two different editions of that masterpiece of political thought by Hamilton, Madison, and Jay, one paperback and one hard. And two different editions of Democracy in America by Alexis de Tocqueville. I am partial to the George Lawrence translation, but I have the Harvey Mansfield edition as well. I have copies of Edward Abbey’s The Monkey Wrench Gang, as subversive a book as you might find, and Henry David Thoreau’s Civil Disobedience, combined with the more subtle Walden. I have a hardcover of Robert Heinlein’s The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, a book that first brought the ‘rebellion’ to outer space—at least for me. And there’s plenty more where that came from.
Importantly, if not crucially, a majority of the American public still consider. themselves Christian. That I am not, is of no importance to the matter. We have flourished for most of the past two hundred years within the sheltering of a Pax-Americana, in no small part based on a Christian ethic. So I have some C. S. Lewis for that, including more than one edition of The Abolition of Man, Mere Christianity, and The Screwtape Letters, as well as The Cost of Discipleship by Dietrich Bonhoeffer, G. K. Chesterton’s The Man Who Was Thursday, Flannery O’Connor’s The Violent Bear it Away, and Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited.
Also, a significant minority of Americans call themselves ‘conservative,’ though it seems this much-abused terminology might be appropriated by anyone who does not see themselves as ‘liberal.’ As a libertarian, I am again out of that mix, but I’ve often found sympathy and something in common with conservatives and that has, of course, made me persona non-grata among those who lean to the left. They don’t want any fraternizing. Ideologues are like that. Nevertheless, I have Russell Kirk’s The Conservative Mind, and Robert Nisbet’s The Quest for Community, Edmund Burke’s French Revolution, and The Analects of Confucius.
Unfortunately, an even larger minority think of themselves as ‘independent,’ a state of mind that might indicate psychosis or at least laziness, but could make them potential converts to some sort of alternative. I suppose anything I have might fill that void.
Then there are always the ‘libertarians,’ that amalgam of oddballs that Russell Kirk called the ‘chirping sectaries,’ to which I myself belong. Whatever they call themselves, they are always less than ten percent of the population but often manage to swing elections to the authoritarian left by pretending to be true to some principle or another not properly advocated by the right. No irony in that, just divine justice, I suppose. Most of us are agnostics or worse. But I have the two volumes of Karl Popper’s The Open Society and its Enemies, though it won’t be as cheap as I’d like because copies of that are harder to get these days. I’ve got a couple of titles by Ludwig von Mises including my old copy of Human Action, which I have decided I will never finish after all. It’s too damned long and there are no jokes. But some student might want to take the challenge. For the radicals, I have Murray Rothbard’s Man, State and Economy. For the soft-core libertarians I have Milton Friedman’s Free to Choose, and Friedrich von Hayek’s Road to Serfdom.
But, after all this political jag, which is just the stuff that has the Feds so upset, what I have by far the most of—at least a thousand volumes of—is fiction. From the several by Jane Austen to Edith Wharton’s Summer. I also have William Dean Howells’ Indian Summer, as a matter of fact, and much by Howells old friend, Mark Twain, including the adventures of both Tom Sawyer and his buddy Huckleberry Finn in nice hardcover editions from the University of California. And I have two different editions of Moby Dick.
Sadly, my drama section is down to a bunch of Shakespeare, Thornton Wilder’s Our Town, and Edmund Rostand’s Cyrano de Bergerac, but I’ll be getting more. And the poetry section is far too small, but it ranges from Frost to Yeats with only a few dozen in between.
I have a nice little history section, from Gibbon’s Rome, and Norma Lorre Goodrich’s Britain, Victor Davis Hansen’s Greece, to several on the American scene by David McCullough, and, because of their convenient size, a bunch of the Lakeside Classics. There is a good lot of biography as well, from several of the Boswell journals to Kenneth Robert’s I Wanted to Write, a forgotten gem. And I have a nice collection of essays, from Jacques Barzun’s The Culture We Deserve to E. B. White’s One Man’s Meat.
And there’s more, as the fellow used to say on late-night TV, but I think I have drawn a fine enough picture of what I’m doing.
Another course of action, of course, is to identify the ‘enemy,’ those who would enslave the population to the whims of the oligarchy that now rules. Most people, like those New Jersey farmers of old, are not the enemy and should not be treated as such. They would most simply like to be left alone. On this point, they have my complete sympathy.
But I think it is easy to see, despite the burgeoning population of individuals who would prefer to have the State take care of them, that those in power have at best a minority of support for their own agenda. That they currently control the reins of government might be taken as insurmountable, but in truth is a liability, much the way it was with the old Soviets. They are, by nature, an incompetent lot, or else they would not be working for the government in the first place. Government work is all they are good enough for.
Whatever the situation, the authoritarians will always screw things up. No matter that they blame everyone else for their incompetence, food is needed for the horses. Farmers will not like to have their crops taken from them. It is easier not to grow. The power grid will fail. It is not necessary to sabotage the sources of our energy because limiting or stopping coal and gas production will drive up the cost of fuel until it becomes prohibitive, trucks will not roll, brown-outs and then black-outs will become common. And the medical profession, already under great strain, will be forced to triage patients. Older people like myself will be the first to go. Then the children. (Well, with on-demand abortions, that number will be far smaller, but still).
It’s another reason to get out and see what I can before they kill me.
But, why so glum? It is a romantic idea, really—being an outlaw bookseller. It harkens back to the Renaissance and the Inquisition, to Francois Villon and Thomas Malory. Some good stuff there. But for now, I must be content with following in the lesser wake of Christopher Morley and his Parnassus on Wheels. Selling one book at a time, and hoping for an enlightenment to come.
1. Columbus Day,
or on the road without thumb
I have filled my little trailer with my books—what remains—and I have lit out for the territories the same as young Huck. I can roll up my sleeping bag and that slab of foam every morning and fit it neatly above the desk in what was once a perfect bunk for kids, a space above the trailer hitch that my own joints have ruled out the possibility of ever using. Below that, I have my desk and a cooler for ice beneath. I cannot abide warm beer even in emergencies and I prefer not to see this desperate act that way—not quite yet. After all, it is just my tribute to Dylan Thomas. I will not go gentle into that good night.
I do not know if they’ve yet issued a warrant for my arrest back in Old Boston. I know I am certainly ‘on the lam’, as it were because the judge ordered me to stay put. But then, given her salary, she does not need to worry about Boston prices. It is proving far cheaper to be on the road than I had hoped. Nevertheless, I understand that they will eventually find me. It’s not just the license plate. I’ve kept the name of the old shop ‘A Republic of Books’ on both doors of my truck. Hard to miss.
On the second day, still well within the borders of Massachusetts but harboring at a campsite in the Berkshires, a fellow tapped on my door and asked if I was the same guy who had the shop in Boston. He looked to be very serious, and I was immediately worried I had sold him a book he didn’t like.
Instead, he said, “Thank you,” having read the whole sordid account in the papers. Deirdre did a wonderful job with that.
I was buoyed upon my sea of doubt.
With genuine concern in his voice, he asked me, “What’ll you do now”
I gestured at the shelves inside. “I suppose I’ll have to keep selling books.”
He said, ‘Oh, wow! Can I look?”
He bought an armful. I had forgotten to bring bags along, but, forty-seven dollars’ worth. Almost a tank of gas. Thank you, Christopher Morley.
(Though Pegasus, the old nag that pulled the wagon in Morley’s book, has nothing on my Ford-150 at 16 miles per gallon even with the trailer).
Deirdre seemed pleased with that news when she got back from town. She knew someone there and had taken the truck to go looking for a story. I didn’t tell her that I went looking for the business—that it came to me. But at our first stop, near Stockbridge the day before, I stood out on the road with a sign until Deirdre begged me to come in from the weather. She was embarrassed by the sight of me, I think. ‘Pitiful.’ was the word she used. I can’t see the difference between my doing that and her nosing around looking for something of interest.
“Can I use the desk, tonight? I want to write something up so I can send it out to Tommy at the Post. They’ve been looking for color from this part of the state now that the leaves have turned, and I have a good item about a high school football coach. One that’ll sell papers.”
“What did he do?”
“He sold his house to pay for uniforms. The school committee is trying the cut football out of the curriculum and refused to budget anything for it the last couple of years.”
“I’ll bet the team thinks the guy is awesome, but there are a few parents ready to sue him if one of their darlings gets hurt.”
“Just trying to deal with the reality around me.”
As long as a better past remains in the common memory, the alternative will be understood even by those who prefer to watch football on TV rather than to consider such things. The authorities will attempt to obliterate the recollection of better times with constant television indoctrination, but their incompetence will even screw that up. CGI requires some expertise. The education officials will continue to manipulate what is taught in the schools to eliminate what is disagreeable while promoting their agenda, but that curriculum is ultimately boring, lacking as it does a maniac in pursuit of a giant whale or a juvenile too willing to head out for the territories. No amount of CGI will make their own stories more interesting.
But is that true?
The first day, near Brimfield, and standing in a cold drizzle beside the road with my sign out, put me in a terrible frame of mind. All of that mumble about a ‘common memory’ was just my own wishful thinking. What ‘common memory’ was that?
The red taillights of cars slowing to enter the Burger King a block away illuminated the answer. I could very well remember the first McDonald’s that opened near my childhood home in New York. It was just a block away from the high school. In the school cafeteria, there was suddenly no line. None of the kids were buying the ‘hot’ lunch. They were saving the seventy-five cents until three o’clock instead and buying a burger and a shake at McDonald’s! That was the common memory of America, now.
There was no Walmart in the suburban village I knew then, but the small shops on the Post Road began to close. After all, the ‘Mall’ was only twenty minutes away. You could get anything there! . . . Not quite. The only bookshop in town struggled to stay open against the first tide of chain stores, but soon succumbed to the psychosis of discounting. Shelf space there that once held odd copies of new authors and almost anything in print from the mid-list, were now featuring flashily repackaged re-prints and remainders, face-out. I had stopped going there by the time I had left for college.
The ‘common memory’ I was thinking of was something that died even before the Republic had stopped breathing. It had been replaced by a plastic soul of cheap goods sold at international chain stores—some, like the Walmarts, big enough to replace the malls that had replaced the shops I was so nostalgic for.
Finally, standing there against the rush of air from trucks and vans, I was slapped by the obvious. Many of those were emblazoned with the names of delivery services. UPS, DHL, Prime, Walmart again. The roads were filled with them. People could stay at home, insulated by the big screen presentations from their cable service, and order what they wanted on-line. No need even to congregate. Isolate!
The wondrous browse and discovery in the new bookshops of my youth was long gone, replaced by the marketing of television and movie tie-ins, pre-sold series soon to be a motion picture, the pre-determined best sellers from publishers now run by business majors instead of dilettantes and rascals, recreations of history reshaped by the current zeitgeist, recapitulations of grisly crimes, and the political huckstering of whatever the authorities were now pushing. Like drug dealers. . . . No! Those too! Advertising on television was already dominated by the Big-Pharma drug dealers. To really be in control, they must keep the populace drugged. Aldous Huxley had no idea how close he was to the Brave New World of today. Or did he?
Which brings me to my own bailiwick, and a brighter thought. There are an awful lot of books out there in the attics and basements of America. The bad guys may have closed my own small effort but what can they do about the countless millions of volumes already in the hands of the public. The schools may fail to teach students to read, but once even a small minority have gotten a few pages into Treasure Island, there is no turning back. And the word will spread.
The ‘word’ is important here, as any Christian zealot will readily say. The Bible will be taught. And as I have often alluded to in the past, once the Scottish people were taught by the Kirk to read so that the Word might be directly available to all, the Enlightenment was sure to follow.
And too, the suppression of books by public libraries will fail, with the buildings already used more often today for child-care and knitting circles, as much as for their toilets.
Sitting here tonight in a well-lit Walmart parking lot and staring down at the sparkle of rain drops on a dozen windshields, I can easily imagine a destination in that array of stars. But I am not likely to get so far as that. I am an old man.
I look back, perhaps to see some refutation of the thought, but Deirdre is in her sleeping bag, reading a book.
I turned my old computer in at the Apple Store in Boston to get this new laptop. I think I’m probably giving in to the heebie jeebies after all the problems with the FBI, but I no longer have my tech guru around to watch over me and I don’t think the Feds have given up on all that snooping anyway so I just got rid of the old one for this. I am using most of the same programs—the ones I’m familiar with and little more. I have a new phone number but it’s not in my name. That was a risk I was pretty sure I should avoid. And Walmart sells a nifty little flip phone for $49.95 that I’ve read is very diligently made by slave labor in China. Then again, I don’t need a phone smarter than myself.
All the writing I do now is simply going into ‘The Cloud’ anyway, where ever and whatever the hell that is. And that account is not in my name either. Ben has agreed to take care of that as well.
Despite the risk, on the last day I was cleaning out my old apartment, Jack showed up wearing some delivery service uniform or another as a disguise and gave me instructions for how to do all that—how to disconnect from all the small ties to what I had been doing on the internet before. The three years he worked at the shop well informed him that I am not to be trusted with such decisions, and I’m happier for it. I think Jack was still feeling bad about being responsible in some way for the whole mess with the Feds, even though I’ve told him otherwise.
It was my fault. Entirely. Jack was only doing what he had to do. I was doing what I wanted. Without Ardis and Jack, and given my profligate ways, the shop would surely have closed three years before. Ardis had put the energy back into the daily operation that I could no longer seem to muster. Jack had made our internet sales work. I was more thankful to them both than I could express. And I will admit, though I have long held to my peculiar political persuasion, I had for too long restrained myself from expressing that in public. Just a matter of my own cowardice. Jack may or may not have intended to shake things up, but he chose the situation very well.
Still, to understand just what has happened will need a deeper look into the past. The question, ‘what will I do’ must first make clear, ‘what have we done.’
What is necessary now is a reconsideration of what has gone wrong, outside of all the self-serving intellectuals who’ll soon be making their excuses by candle-light, and why. Such an assessment must go to the root causes lest the rot be preserved. My role in all this is too small to consider. But it is all I know. And I must keep asking, how could the self-anointed intellects of our age have so completely bought into the ‘Suicide of the West,’ as it has been well described? How did the authorities come by the idea that it was better to abolish man than to allow him freedom?
Deirdre is already asleep.
I was just reminded by a Walmart security guard tapping on my window to keep my curtains drawn and the exterior lights on the trailer off. He seemed to be an affable sort. But the switches for the interior and exterior light are right next to each other and I am clumsy, by nature. So, I went inside the Walmart and bought an up-to date Campground guide. The campground listing in my old one is out-of-date and left us stranded here in the second place.
Earlier, Deidre had said, “You can’t help being the fellow you are.”
It was out of the blue and though she did not have anything in the way she said it that was critical, it surely was that. It was on her mind.
“I try to get help, when I can.”
She shook her head.
Later, when I hadn’t had a single customer at the empty lot I’d chosen to try just outside Springfield, and we were both sitting at the desk and eating some ‘take-out,’ which was just a selection of pickings from the fresh food section at the Market Basket and a couple of ham sandwiches from a deli-counter that Deirdre had tried after looking for an interesting news story over at the old Smith and Wesson gun factory, I told her about a thought I’d had.
“You know, this set up would be easier on us if it were a little more like a ‘Gypsy wagon’. The walls would slant out toward the top, just right. And if we had enough of an overhang flap at the sides to keep the rain off, we could have books on the outside too.”
“You just started! Give it a chance.”
“But I think people are naturally attracted to Gypsy wagons. It’s a good look.”
“They don’t like to be called Gypsies. They’re Roma now.”
“I’m talking about the wagons, not the people. Nobody would know what you were talking about if you said a ‘Roma wagon.’ It’s not traditional.”
“A lot of traditions are no good.”
I was bothered. I didn’t understand.
“So, get past the politically correct BS and tell me if you think that would be a good thing. People just aren’t that attracted to an old clunky-looking Yellowstone Cavalier.”
She is not subtle with her sarcasm.
“It’s great! Great idea! Can you afford to buy a Gypsy wagon?”
“That’s not the point. I was just imagining it. That’s all.”
She doesn’t argue. She usually just says, ‘I don’t agree.’ and lets it go. But when it’s something like this, she seems flummoxed. She just goes about whatever she was doing—which in this case was picking at her sandwich.
The part I think she doesn’t understand is that I live so much of my life in my head. I used to think everybody did, until I met Margaret—no, I still thought it for a few years after that because love is all in the head, at least until the reality became unavoidable. Margaret and I were married long enough to teach me a great deal about the female mind, but I didn’t learn much.
It’s not a matter of avoiding reality. It’s what you do with it. Example: you have to eat, but you don’t have enough money to eat out. Deidre used to grab something at McDonald’s after working all day. That was her habit. At least I’ve got her going to deli-counters now. It’s a start. I would rather buy some carrots and tomatoes and a broiled chicken at a supermarket. Costs the same and the burps are not so bad. But still, I do like to look at the menus online for some nice-looking place I can’t afford. There’s a feast there for the mind.
I think music is a good salve for that. It makes a little too much reality, palatable. Deirdre, a city girl, listens to Country Western while she is putting together a story about some misfit or lost soul. I like Sibelius, or Raff, or Saint-Saens when I write. When my little book shop on wheels is open, I like to play Mozart or Bach but that’s only because it draws less comment and does a good job of creating a different atmosphere in that small space. I was playing Rachmaninoff the first day and the only customer fled.
I know for a fact that dogs dream. They have a life in their head, even if they can’t express it in words. I imagine this to be some kaleidoscope of images they have retained, like an old Chinese script, with the symbols for food and for the people that feed them being the largest. I understand that it is not just the retained imagery or smells or sounds in my head that make me different. What I think the real difference is has to do with words.
If you are religious, this may sound like bunk. But there is no need for that pejorative if you think of words as a blessing of the lord, as one friend of mine does. It fits very nicely in his own confection of the cosmos. So, an affection for words is something we have in common, though we often argue about the rest. And it is this importance of words that I think makes the difference between those who believe in the authority of Government and those who believe in the authority of the soul.
I have rigged up a curtain so the light from the desk won’t disturb Deirdre. That, and so she can’t lie there and watch me while I’m writing. The light catches at her eyes, and it’s disconcerting.
She says, “I can still see you!”
The shadows of me are telling.
C. S. Lewis well defined the ‘abolition of man’ in his great three-part essay by that name. His particular religious affiliation is irrelevant to the truth of his observation. Of course, other great philosophers have engaged the problem of ‘natural philosophy’ and ‘natural rights,’ from Confucius to Roger Scruton, but I think none so well.
‘Men without chests,’ as Lewis brilliantly explains in Part One, are those disabused of any sentimental ideas about good and bad, much less good and evil, while attempting to reason without regard to their own ignorance, using traditional values to refute the very idea of value; those who call themselves ‘intellectuals’ so that any disagreement with them is an attack on intelligence, much in the same way, more recently, some ‘scientists’ accuse those who question their statements as being ‘anti-science.’
Part Two, ‘The way,’ illuminates the subtle means used by those hollowed men to subvert intellectual inquiry, by dismissing traditional values through a careless skepticism based on a subversive ethical system of their own. Because their subjects must be ‘carefully taught,’ public education is used to inculcate disrespect for tradition while developing contemporary obedience through social pressure. I was particularly reminded that Ernest Hemingway faced this exact conundrum in his most sentimental novel, For Whom the Bell Tolls, when Robert Jordan must choose between dying for what he perceives as the ‘true’ or living for the unlikely love he has found in the midst of war. It was the right question but answered in typical Hemingway fashion with the hero doing his political duty even while admitting his love by attempting to save her. This meme has even become a cliche of the ‘modern’ cinema.
Taking just one of several key elements in the eponymous Part Three of ’The abolition of man,’ I was struck by Lewis’ prescient assessment, in 1943, of contraception as an ultimate act of historic arrogance dictating values to future generations. A very bloody war of political values was raging about him, but he manages to focus on the elemental truths. I think it likely that he foresaw the time when abortion would be used by government to alter the balance of our humanity. That the ‘science,’ given political motive and used as a goal instead of a tool, would be made an excuse for extermination.
Please forgive any possible misinterpretation here. I am not a philosopher in any true sense. I am merely a user of philosophy. A consumer, not a creator. What I seek in philosophy is a predicate for the good, a reason to act for the good, but most certainly, a useful understanding of the good. In that way, I have attempted to use my own novels as an exploration of philosophy through narrative and I have always conducted my business as a bookseller as if philosophy mattered.
2. Things that are down in ‘Upstate’
What we believe to be true
Upstate New York is, with a few exceptions, a devastated place. Businesses have fled. The population is mostly older because they have homes there and can’t afford to sell them. Their children have fled south, or west. The fat prosperity of my youth has been rendered to the parched bone of empty shops and unrepaired roads. I had to take it extra slow in places to avoid having my books tossed onto the floor. The ‘L’ shape of the shelves is good for most situations, but they can’t stand that sort of bounce so I have already purchased some light-weight bungee cords—fifty-six of them, which is all they had—and one hundred and twelve hooks—to span the backs of the books from side to side on each shelf to guard against the potholes.
Deirdre found yet another story when I stopped at the hardware store for the bungees. Just across the street—a gray street lined with uncleaned windows on dark interiors—was one storefront with a line of people waiting to get inside. It seems there was a woman there who was doing fortune-telling that was actually worth the price. She had been a company accountant, and given the economy in the area, had been laid off herself, but now, for fifty bucks, she took the same basic necessary information from people and told them what their future was—by telling them where they might go to find a job in another state where they could afford to live.
Genius! She had a line out the door and Deidre had to pay the woman the $50 just for time enough to get the details of her story.
People will go to a fortune-teller before they’ll go to an accountant. Why? Because the accountants charge more, but also because the accountants all seem to be part of the system. And the system is rigged.
David Brooks, my accountant—was my accountant—was a good guy. I was going broke while he was giving me the ‘reduced’ rate of $50 dollars an hour. I appreciated that. But that only means there are a lot of people who can’t afford an accountant, especially in Troy, New York.
I paid ten bucks to take a space at a street fair there and sold about $50 worth of books which I immediately spent on a trunk-load from some fellow who had run home and cleared off his own shelves as soon as he saw me; all of it good old early twentieth-century stuff in dust jacket that had been abandoned on the shelves by the previous tenant. I felt sorry for the tenant. Why does someone go off and leave such good books: Conrad Aiken. F. Scott Fitzgerald, Thomas Wolf, Willa Cather, Edith Wharton, Edna Ferber. Maybe the original owner had died. If they bought the books when they were new, as it appeared to be by the neatly penned name on each front flyleaf, they would have been in their eighties now, at the very least. That would just about explain it.
Which had me thinking about my other project.
Resolution 451 is important. The best books are being lost. I need to find a way to promote that without sounding like a preacher. In an anti-religious age, I have to come at it from the other side—from the best interest of the people I am talking to. I need a philosophy about it that they can adopt as all their own.
My assumption here is simply that man is not ‘human’ without philosophy, but only that lower form that may be scientifically labeled ‘homo-sapiens,’ and which lacks a soul. It’s a bit of a rewrite of the tale Mr. Mifflin tells in Parnassus on Wheels: “You remember Abe Lincoln’s joke about the dog? If you call a tail a leg, said Abe, how many legs has a dog? Five, you answer. No, says Abe; because calling a tail a leg doesn’t make it a leg. Well, there are lots of us in the same case as that dog’s tail. Calling us men doesn’t make us men. No creature on earth has a right to think himself a human being if he doesn’t know at least one good book.”
Deirdre, a true agnostic, even about her personal gods, has accused me of believing in a religion of books. Of course, I don’t deny that. She simply does not yet understand that my philosophy is tied, however tenuously, to the human soul. A single life is too ephemeral. A single book might be as lost as Aristotle’s second book of Poetics. Bur Homer’s work survived orally for centuries before it was written (whoever wrote it). However, would it still be with us through repeated conquests if it had not been transcribed at last? What wondrous stories were once told at the Mohican campfires that are forgotten now because they were not captured in print?
True, believing that a ‘soul’ exists does not make it so, any more than a denial might. To me, the affirmation might come with the living of life as if it does. However, I am critical of the past only because it matters to every possible future that we might have.
That there is a natural antinomianism to the human soul is my brief, I suppose. Not an anarchy, but a simple rejection of all laws by the youth of each generation. That there must be that rebellion, lest we rot from our core. Just as surely as there is then that slow reacquaintance with the more permanent values that are the glue of civilization. A renewal.
And it is clear, both in the immediate reign of an individual life as much as it is in history, that living as if there is no soul results in pain, degradation and misery. We yet know very little about the universe and its contents, but we might know something of ourselves if we pay attention. Religion might offer solace to some, but which religion? Blind faith is so often deadly. I think achieving some appreciation of one belief or another requires philosophy.
And then there is the pseudo-intellectual’s elixir: science. Science is a process for discovery, but no more than that. To make science an end in itself, a philosophy, if you will, is little more than making math an ultimate. It doesn’t add up. It won’t help you appreciate the beauty of a September day, or any other. And a sense of beauty is a part of the life of man. As Thoreau made clear, a philosophy can grow from a simple aesthetic appreciation of the moment, or a seed.
But, as we have seen, not all philosophy is good. Before the age of dogma, knowing what is ‘good,’ or what has been judged to be the good, had generally been understood through a ‘common sense’ of life derived from shared experience and passed down to each generation. In a world lit only by fire, guided by the seasons and measured by the stride, this understanding was sufficient. But with the momentum of the ages carried forward on the wheel, and the engine, and finally upon wings, a greater comprehension has become necessary.
The nearest campsite with requisite facilities required us to drive through Schenectady, in the rain, and I got lost at doing that.
It rained unrelentingly in Utica. I found another empty lot in a suburb pocked by many such gaps—this one having once been occupied by a filling station—and set my sign out on a stand instead of pitifully waving it around myself. As if it were somehow mysterious, a cop stopped and asked what I was doing. I invited him in out of the rain. He bought a Zane Grey western, my only copy of Riders of the Purple Sage, and seemed pleased enough with my telling him we would be staying at the State Park in Fayetteville that night.
Deidre went to a salon and got her hair cut. This is evidently some kind of ploy on her part. But the gossip there got her nowhere. They were more interested in what she was doing. She said they seemed desperate for news from beyond.
The next day, with the sun clear and hot above, a lady in Skaneateles bought a book while I was eating my lunch at the park and then proceeded to tell me all about her life. The book was far too cheap at the price.
Route 20 is a fine enough road, evidently kept up by the small towns that punctuate its length. The air was quite warm, so I jumped in the lake and had my first real bath since swimming at Carson Beach during the summer. I thought Deirdre might appreciate the effort. The lady with the book watched me from a park picnic bench.
Out loud, she says, “You shouldn’t swim so soon after you’ve eaten. The water is too cold … You could have used the shower at my place. I just live walking distance.”
I thanked her and told her that I had to be going. Thankfully, Deirdre showed up just about then and routed her.
It would appear now that the average person does not actually have a ‘philosophy.’ After a couple of generations of being told to just do what ‘feels good,’ most people just do what feels a little better. They go from thing to thing, until they get bored and move on. Marriage. Home. Job. Whatever. Religion cannot be trusted. The future is a blank. Unfathomable. The past is to be forgotten.
Once, what was only deduced through dialogue became the subject of volumes, from Socrates to the compilations of a Mortimer Adler. All the while, a search for meaning in one’s life, and for those assurances and comforts of value in the midst of what appeared to be an ever-enlarging void and an inescapable self-awareness of our ignorance, begged for better religion and absolute margins for our behavior.
The brutishness of some men—the wanton actions of some toward others—wanted guidance. Religions had been imagined for explication and explanation, but religions failed—not suddenly, but over and again. However, the very persistence of our want for religion may be proof enough for the need. From the rain dance and the sacrifice of virgins to the construction of awe-inspiring cathedrals, religions fought over the meat of the unknown, while leaving mankind to conjure means to control what little was known and might be managed.
I am writing every morning and every night now. Not so much, really. I get tired easily at night and I am always anxious to be moving along in the morning. But I am getting some work done and I’m happy enough about that. When Deidre wants to use the desk, I go up in the cab and set the laptop against the dashboard.
I stopped in Geneva because there was a sign out at the library announcing a book sale.
It was a problem. I wanted to buy too much. I put those boxes in under the writing desk and our knees are cramped so I will have to find another solution for all that. But the time taken meant we needed to camp nearby. Deirdre had wanted to get closer to Buffalo. I’m not sure why.
Yet still, the need for philosophy has remained, and this desire is a cause for us to be human—to question our very existence and our reasons to live. To this present moment, absolute truth escapes us. We theorize, but no more. Religions often propound doctrines for such matters but fail to prove them, demanding faith rather than reason, and the dictates of a dogma rather than revelation. And, sadly, philosophy too often turns to the safety of politics for resolution and its own absolute answers, when this should be the reverse.
Religion and philosophy are not interchangeable. One demands faith, and the other demands reason. Both may fail. Neither can prove the negative of the other. Some degree of both may be alloyed to live happily, of course, but the conflict is inescapable. Given the vastness of the unknown and our human needs, it is likely we must accept this battle as ongoing, as we do for hunger, or a need for breath.
There are absolute truths which we may seek through philosophy, and perhaps know through religion, even as our quest for greater understanding continues, but all of this must be re-established with each generation—taught, lest the knowledge be lost. We are not born knowing our purpose in life. Each individual human being must rediscover this, as part of their birthright.
Knowing what is ‘good,’ and what has been understood to be the ‘good,’ derived from our common experience and passed down to each generation, may define a common sense ‘natural philosophy.’ This might serve as a gospel by which we can readily know the good without the need for argument at every crisis, small or large and may be one more excuse for the dogma of an ancient religion (other than being the absolute ‘word of God!). But so too, for the tenets of a viable ideology, drawn from a consistent natural philosophy, with an eye on the realities of the present and a foreseeable future. Things change, but the good remains.
There is a state park near Geneseo that is pretty good. I decided we should stay on there a couple of days when Deirdre said she wanted to check out a story she had heard about in town. I wasn’t going to be able to sell any books in an empty State Park, but at least I could write, and the showers worked.
And this brings us, inevitably, from the theoretical to the present. Establishing our ‘natural rights’ is, and always will be an essential task for a coherent and open society. Rights propounded, dispensed, and enforced by an ideology that is not shared, are a guarantee of disorder and disunion, strife and failure. The ‘Reign of Terror’ that was the French attempt to artificially impose an ideology was an example of that, as were the ‘Russian Revolution’ and the ‘Cultural Revolution’ of China.
Historians, feathering their own ideological nests, might call some such disruption a ‘Glorious Revolution’, but the result is nearly always as bad. Catholics slaughtering Huguenots, Muslims slaughtering Christians, Communists slaughtering Kulaks—none of these are the actions of a humane or philosophically human society. The annals of such bestiality are long and disquieting if one is seeking the comforts of either religion or philosophy. How can mankind have done such things and be worthy of existence? But then the lion may kill its cubs and eat them to survive another day. What we seek is to be better than that.
Functionally, what we want is happiness. Defining this might be a trick, but it is no less real. And, just as clearly, for a society to function, that goal must be available to all without expense to others. The genius of The Framers attempted just this. Where they failed is obvious, but where they succeeded, we should take note. We can honor them for that much, at the least.
I would let historians ponder the failures, as well as the successes. My own sense of it is that we may have come very close to the ‘city on the hill,’ and might again if we make the effort. But given the slave-driven world from which it was imagined, their failure might be understood, and their success may be taken into account.
Deidre returned with something on her mind. I waited. Nothing came out, so I prompted her.
“Too much to settle right now.”
“Let’s settle part of it.”
She took that deep breath that I knew was filled with her thoughts.
“I want to go home.”
I really didn’t expect it, but it was right there in front of my eyes. Especially when she started to cry.
“This is your thing. You love this. But it’s not me. I want my little apartment in South Boston. I want to know where my next meal is coming from.”
“I am too.”
The crying didn’t stop for a while, but she is very sweet when she is emotional.
She slept better after that than she had since we left. Naturally, I couldn’t sleep at all.
This then, this America in our time, is at the end of all that. It is the sum of those failures and successes. It makes no sense to throw all of that away, especially not without alternatives. A city might be built upon the ruins. But the alternatives being bandied about by the nihilists, all of them dependent on more government and less individual autonomy, have been proven time and again to be worse.
I see my own responsibility—one I cannot shirk, or avoid, or pass off onto the shoulders of others, no matter my age, health, or wealth—and that is to build. We cannot stand still while other world powers are moving around us, and capitulation means disaster. Such a retreat would only condemn our children, those that survive, to the job we have failed to do. Whether from a virus or a nuclear holocaust, starvation or a bullet to the head, this horror is not inevitable and historically not so very different from the burdens accepted by past generations.
Avoiding this responsibility is as crucial a mistake as is failing to protect the young, or ignoring the old, and is a dereliction of duty. A government of, by, and for a free people—one not guided by a religious belief or some order of birthright—requires the predicate of specific rights and a constitution to administer these equitably. Getting to that state cannot be done by an order or command.
Philosophies derived from other sources, such as myth or math, logic or the many religions, are at best artificial to any deeper or broader understanding of the ‘good’ and what is best for mankind, in that they must be imposed and do not occur naturally from a healthy functioning society. One may be better than another, but none can be imposed. These are the considerations that must be brought to mind, now.
That a particular doctrine is ‘logical’ only says that it is coherent to some specific beliefs—what is a given. A natural philosophy respects the bounds of human understanding and builds upon our knowledge, however limited. Judging a human action to be logical presupposes a knowing of why, or how something can be done. But given the variety of human abilities, simply assuming such omnipotence can be fool-hardy and destructive. That, in essence, was the protective scaffolding the framers of our nation attempted to create.
In the dark, the sounds beyond this aluminum chrysalis can be scary. What goes bump in the night? The same sound by daylight will easily be ignored. It is the dark that transforms the insignificant into monsters. That is really the point, is it not? Simple ignorance? We are all too scared of the unknown. Perhaps justly so, at times. Being afraid is not wrong. But it is wrong to let that fear manage you; to spoil the light of day with fear; to alter your well-made plan—made well enough to inspire you to sally forth in the first place—without a better alternative. I have something to lose, for sure, but everything to gain.
Importantly, any philosophy, political or otherwise, which attempts to reduce man to the status of animal, i.e. of a predictable behavior, is a negative. Whatever ‘instincts’ mankind might have, they are clearly subordinate to our ability to determine our actions. Our disasters are sufficient proof of that.
A positive philosophy for mankind might be derived from practical experience, such as farming, or building, or repairing, etc. For most individuals, a practical philosophy is existential in nature, and not studied for itself; but the study of philosophy can offer a larger framework upon which a society and its government can be based.
An open society, in the spirit of the great philosopher Karl Popper, is likely the best. But without omnipotence, the apparatus for securing that society and then preserving it will always be messy. Neatness only counts in dictatorships. And the bollix we have already made must be considered. As The Framers understood, the means and allowances for our inevitable failures ought to have been in place.
In the morning I brought Deirdre to the airport in Buffalo and said goodbye, feeling a little numbed by it more than the lack of sleep or the weather, which had turned cold again. I had taken something for granted. I shouldn’t have. But my whole attitude about life has just been forcibly changed, and now changed again. I hadn’t even had time for a little grief and some self-pity at the loss of the shop or that largest portion of my adult life. I was too busy stoking my libido with visions of an endless new adventure with Deirdre.
I don’t have to plan now to save enough to pay the rent, or the electric bill, or set aside the quarterly taxes, or buy new stock, or explain to someone why I can’t buy back the books they bought from the Book-of-the-Month Club or remaindered at Barns & Noble, or vacuum the floor, or unplug the toilet or clean the windows or replace the light bulbs or hire someone responsible (and reasonably book-worthy) to be around on the weekends, or pay the salaries, or pay the accountant, or pay the lawyer, or talk to at least twenty people a day about none-sense. Now, I can just do and talk about what I want.
But that is my new world, and not Deirdre’s.
This made me just a little bit angry. More than that, I guess.
I was free. Yes. I could do what I wanted. Pretty much. And what I wanted was for her to be there next to me. Which meant, what I actually wanted was not to be free.
It wasn’t just the illogic of it. It was the fact.
That old phrase came to mind, ‘check your premises.’
My particular premises, sitting there in the cab of my truck, were quite small. I could at least negotiate that much. Yes?
I was still in the unloading zone when I got a rap of knuckles against the passenger window. With one foot out on the pavement, I stood to ask the cop where the closest Post Office was—and it was close. I knew there was some paper in a box under the desk. But I was a little too pleased with the idea of sending Deirdre a letter that she might get in a week. Then again she might even get it tomorrow if I sent it special delivery.
3. At the end of the tether
with my new year’s revolution
The rain had begun with little warning, announced only by a lift of old leaves from the trees closest to the road tossed skyward on invisible gusts and then a sudden darkening of the sun by the belly of a dark cloud just visible in the trough of road ahead. Within moments the windshield wipers had difficultly clearing the glass and I slowed to a more reasonable crawl. A car behind immediately gave me a horn and then passed impatiently into the oncoming lane, forcing another car to stop.
Just ahead on my side a blue plastic sheet that appeared to be covering something stationary, parted at the middle where it was now obviously pulled over a backpack and a red beard and rain mottled glasses. A bare arm gestured at me with thumb wagging. I hit the blinkers and stopped.
The fellow slipped his pack off and opened the door while rolling the water from the blue sheet as if he had practiced that move more than once, as he tossed it to the floor of the cab along with his sleeping bag. He stepped up then with the pack landing in his lap. Because he was not a small man in girth, the pack pressed against the dashboard. The beard was ridiculous.
“Where are you headed?”
“As far as you can take me.”
He was staring at me oddly. I was questioning my sudden impulse to pick him up. Being alone in the cab for the first time in days revealed one of my weaknesses. I like to talk. And there was no one to listen. Deirdre said I was even talking in my sleep at the campsite in Geneseo.
The fellow was looking at me, expecting an answer I suppose.
“What’s your name?”
Well then, Angelo, you may want to reconsider that. I didn’t expect company all the way to Idaho.”
There was a pause and then the shaking of his head that loosened a spray of raindrops from the beard. But some of what I had first thought to be rain remained and I saw that it was gray.
He wiped his glasses on an already darkened handkerchief and says, “Really! You might be on the wrong road for that. The interstate’s back there.”
“No. I know where I am, pretty much. I’m going blue highway as much as I can. And I’m not headed straight. I’ll likely see the Gulf of Mexico before I see any snow.”
There was a dramatic blowing of air. “Smokes!”
“No, I don’t smoke; not anymore.”
“No. I can’t afford it either. But I meant ‘holy smokes.’ You’re on an adventure then.”
“I am that. I hope.”
The fellow looked at me for another uncomfortable minute. I assumed he was in awe of my grand project, and I didn’t want to strike any poses.
He finally said, “You’re nuts, you know. This truck is at least thirty years old.”
“You’re pulling a trailer.”
“About 4500 pounds, give or take the load.”
“How many miles is that to Idaho, do you figure?”
“I’m looking at twelve thousand, again give or take. That’s going out. I don’t know if I’ll be coming back just yet.”
He shakes his head again. More rain falls. “Jesus Christ and little fishes. I’d sure like to tag along as far as you can stand me.”
“I don’t know,” I said, but I was thinking that I didn’t need to talk quite that much, and I had been imagining a series of such picaresque characters, each with their own stories to tell.
His voice rose.
“I wouldn’t need to sleep in the trailer. I have a tent.”
“No room in the trailer, anyway. But that’s gotta be a small tent if you have it in that pack.”
“Big enough, for a fat man and a book.”
I sat there, waiting for the traffic to open up enough to re-join the procession.
“I’ll think about it. But you should know, I was looking forward to a mosey.”
He rocked in his seat a bit as if laughing to himself. “Been tied down too long in the shop. Wanna stretch your wings.”
“Yes, sir, way too long . . . But why did you say ‘shop’?”
“Because, I recognized you right off.”
I checked him out again.
“Do I know you?”
“No. I only came down to Charles Street occasionally. And I didn’t have the beard then. Well—or maybe a few inches on this belly. I haven’t been down that way in a couple of years. But I heard you were closed. It was in the papers.”
The traffic opened and I played the clutch and the gears until I was doing about thirty-five.
“So, Angelo, what do you do for a living?”
“Nothing, now. I used to teach.”
“Why did you leave?”
“They kicked me out.”
There was no more rain when he shook his head this time.
“Nineteen years. I had tenure. But that’s all bullshit. Legally, they have a buyout clause. And it’s not Santa Claus. All they have to do is accuse you of doing something immoral. Then they can bankrupt you while you defend yourself or you just give it up.”
“What did you do?” I was listening for hesitation—something that might tell me he’d been hitting on co-eds. That sort of thing.
“I was teaching a course on the American Revolution. I had a segment about the importance of religion to the Founding Fathers. I’d been teaching that course—the same course—for almost nine years. I had full classes. The administration wanted me to tone it down to be more inclusive. I said look at the syllabus. I was just trying to cover the historical facts. So, they canceled the course. I raised a row. They canceled me.”
He said this rather quickly, as if it had been repeated many times.
“What are you doing now?”
“I thought I’d see a little bit of the country. See how far I can stretch that buyout money. I’m a city boy. I was raised in New York City. I don’t know a whole lot about the country except for a little bit of Florida and Boston.”
“You planned to thumb a ride the whole way?”
“I don’t have a car. I don’t even have a license. I grew up in the city.”
I had to think about this.
After a while, he says, “So, what are you going to do?”
“I am thinking about it.”
He shakes again. “No. I meant, what are you looking for on this expedition? What’s your purpose?”
“There’s not just one, I guess. I’ve seen a lot of the country over the years— driving my kids everywhere I thought was worth seeing. But there was always more than I thought there’d be, and places we didn’t go . . . Do you have any kids?”
“Not that I know of. Things didn’t work out that way.”
“What are you, forty? Fifty?”
“There’s still time. I know a fella who started a family when he was fifty-four.”
“But there’s a missing ingredient in there.”
“Yeah. But that could always happen.”
He sighed at that. “I suppose. I’m a little old-fashioned for most women,” then waved his hand in the air as if erasing that part of the conversation. “What else? What are some of the other things you want to do?”
“Well, there’s the books. I want to sell books here and there to pay for the gas.”
He turned awkwardly and looked through the small window into the enclosed bed of the truck.
“You have a lot of books back there? What kind of books?”
“All kinds. But that’s just the stuff I’ve been buying along the road. I’m afraid it’s building up. I’m going to have to get more aggressive about selling some of that. No. Most of it’s in the trailer. I have it set up back there so people can browse.”
He was seemingly shocked into momentary silence.
“Wow! How many do you have?”
I wondered if his enthusiasm was genuine. I shouldn’t have.
“Well, there’s about a thousand back there, plus the ‘451.’ About 1500 total.”
“Well, that’s another thing I’m doing. I have this project. I call it ‘Resolution 451.’ ”
I was a little unsure about getting into it. My mind was on the traffic and getting off Route 20 and onto 62 in the outskirts of Buffalo. The signage wasn’t very good.
He says, “So, what’s this ‘Resolution 451’ business all about?”
“Not a business. Just a revolution. Like a New Year’s revolution.”
“You mean resolution.”
“Well, yes, but it’s a revolting matter to have to deal with after all the ages.”
He didn’t bother to smile at the attempted humor. “How so? What’s the matter?”
When my mind is on other things, I can get flippant. “It’s about time for the peasants to revolt. That’s all. Past time, I think.”
“To save books from perdition. They’re being destroyed, removed, replaced, expurgated, and abridged. Banned! All while libraries are busy giving up the wealth of their collections for space to install machines that’ll be out of date in ten our twelve years—machines that operate software that’ll be useless in five or six. The arbiters of political correctness are getting rid of anything that does not meet their approval, altering texts they don’t like. Writers of a hundred years ago are being judged by the standards of today as if today’s standards are eternal. Special interest groups are removing books they disagree with. And all the while the publicly funded colleges all assign the same texts and publishers are refusing to publish books that don’t fit with their political templates. Our literature is being lost to morons who read Twitter feeds.”
So, I missed the connection, and I was still on Route 20 and I decided to stay the course for the time being. There were always other roads.
“Wooh! Except for the Twittering, that’s always been going on. It’s the way it always was.”
“Yes, but no. The market has always been there with diverse opinion to soften the blow. It didn’t matter that certain publishers or bookshops refused to carry some books, an audience could always be found for something different. Today, with the new dependence on a few tech giants, Google and Amazon alone can make a book or an author ‘disappear.’ Now, the half-dozen large publishers that remain are dependent on Amazon and Google to survive. Outside of Barnes & Noble, most of the independent new bookshops are vanity projects, solipsistic trust-fund wallowings, but they still all carry most of the same books. It’s a joke.”
“How about the used bookshops? You had a lot of good stuff, as I remember.”
“Most of them are run by old guys like me. Baby boomers, still reliving the sixties and seventies. Marginal, at best. We can’t afford to save ourselves, much less the world’s greatest literature.”
That stopped the questioning for a time. Lake Erie was on our right, and the sky above was broad and textured by the weather. Oddly, the surface of the lake appeared to be flecked by dark in a reverse of the way an ocean would usually pick up the light.
Finally, he says, “So, what’s your plan?”
“No plan, really. just a resolution. Just that . . . There are still hundreds of millions of old books out there. Most people who read books already have a good collection of their own. What if tens of thousands of devoted readers purposely collect a library of their own favorites and formally accept the responsibility of caring for them and passing them on to the next generation? Resolve to do it! 451 books can become millions of volumes preserved, each collection unique, with all those tens of thousands of different ideas and opinions about what’s good and what’s not. Better than that, because these will be ‘old’ books and were published before the current arbiters of good and bad started their high-tech book burnings.”
He rocked in his seat.
“Ah! so’s that why you chose ‘451?’ Because of Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451?”
“Yes. But in that great novel, each of the book-lovers memorized a text. A nice conceit. But this is not 1953, and many of us don’t have the faculties to memorize text that way. And more than that, there are just so many wonderful books to save. These books have already been printed. They are out there to be preserved.”
“Why don’t you just make a list?”
“Because, I don’t know most of the best there is. I only know of a small fraction. I know what I like, but my tastes are not the same as yours. The more people that participate, the more of the best writing will be saved—not as judged by some academic who has studied how to study but chosen by those who love the books in their own right. Not every wonderful book is War and Peace. A good mystery, a western, a collection of humorous stories, they all serve their own part in civilizing the mind and heart.”
He was staring out at that dark-flecked water, looking a little sad at the eyes.
He finally says, “You think 451 books is enough?”
“Likely not. But I think people shouldn’t become overwhelmed by their possessions. 451 books is about twenty boxes worth and they’ll fill a couple of 3’ x 8’ shelving units. Most people can deal with that. And it will take some time for them to assemble; to pick and choose what really matters to them. Too many books might overcome the spirit to carry through with the resolution, which is just a promise to yourself, after all, to preserve and protect.”
He studied the idea against the sweep of the wipers.
“How do you intend to reach people with this bright idea?”
“Word of mouth. Emails. Facebook messaging. Whatever works.”
“So, you’re like, one of those Christian missionaries that went into the wilderness to convert the natives. You’re on a mission. That’s what this is really all about.”
“No…Well, … Just a little, maybe.”
I had seen FBI cars on a couple of occasions before, white Ford Expeditions with low numbered license plates. They had raided my bookshop using several of those, and blocked Charles Street long enough in the process for everyone to see. Several times, as Deidre and I made our way through Massachusetts, I had noticed a white Ford Explorer. The thought popped then that they might be following me, but I had ignored the understandable paranoia. I hadn’t noticed that white car again in New York State, but a black one had passed a couple of times when we were in the state park near Geneseo.
Since I had picked up Angelo, a similar Ford Explorer, but black, had been in the rear-view mirror almost continuously.
It had stopped raining and the sky had broken up, looking the way ice would in an upside-down river, but it was too warm for ice. The drama of that pulled at the eyes.
A few miles before the Pennsylvania border a State Trooper flashed his lights at us. We were between two empty cornfields, so I took my time pulling over so that we were closer to an open farm stand and a house. I wanted potential witnesses to whatever was going to transpire. The Trooper blared his warning horn before I had finally stopped.
He approached on foot, slowly, and spoke before he was actually at my window. “What’s with you,” he says. Why didn’t you stop?”
I lied, “I thought you just wanted to pass,”
“Get out.” No ‘please’ about it. He was not pleased.
Angelo said nothing. I said, “Sure,” and we both stood on the gravel shoulder of the road behind, between the trailer and the police car. Another State Police car pulled up after his and two troopers got out and approached from either side, hands on their belts, looking us over intently as they passed. They had not yet asked for my driver’s license or registration but both troopers from the second car and the one who had spoken with me immediately began to search the trailer and the truck. I looked back down the road, and I could see a black Ford Explorer sitting there between the fields.
This entire time, Angelo had not said a word. He looked pretty grim. I was suddenly worried that it was him they were after. I was hoping he wasn’t carrying a stash as they emptied his backpack. When I suggested that this might take a while and we should walk over to the farm stand, the first Trooper stepped out of the trailer.
“What are you doing?”
“I was going to get some apples. Do you want one?”
“Don’t be a joker.”
“I’m not joking.”
“License and registration.”
I took out my wallet and gave him the license and as I was pulling the registration from the glove box when he held his hand out toward Angelo.
“I don’t drive.”
Before coming up with it, Angelo pulled out a tattered leather wallet stuffed with odd scraps of paper and fished around in the crevices, while the trooper shifted his feet with impatience. The other two troopers were pulling the boxes out of the truck bed and opening each one.
I started to walk over to the farm stand again.
“Where are you going?”
“You’re a little casual about all this, aren’t you?”
“I’ve been through it a few times now. Not on the trip, but at my bookshop. It takes getting used to, but it’s a lot easier than getting angry.”
“You sell books.”
“I sell books.”
“Where are you taking these?”
“West. I’m peddling.”
“You have a permit?”
“Most places in America don’t require a permit to sell books. Not yet. But I ask wherever I can.”
He studied Angelo’s ID. “This is three years old. Is this your current address?”
“No. I don’t have a current address. You might say I’m looking for a home.”
“What do you—did you do for a living.”
“I’m a teacher.”
The trooper went back to his car and started calling the information in. I walked over to the farm stand with Angelo.
An older woman—older than I—came out the door of the house and went in the back of the stand, wiping water off her hands onto a full apron. She was heavyset and sun-darkened and her graying hair was pinned back by brown plastic combs.
“What can I do for you fellows?”
“I thought I’d buy some apples.”
Suddenly, I see that she has perhaps a dozen different hand-lettered labels on strings over the tables.
“What is the best eating apple you have?”
“We have Macs.”
“Everybody has macs. Do you have something else?
“I have some Braeburns in. They’re more tart.”
“Can I have a bag of those? And a pint of honey. And I see you have fresh bread. Do you have cornbread?”
“I make a buttermilk cornbread. A dollar a square.” She waved at a covered pan. I looked. The squares were pre-cut and not small. My mouth started watering.
“I’ll have two of those. And a quart of milk.”
“The milk is in glass bottles and it’s not homogenized. You’ll have to leave a 50-cent deposit.”
Suddenly Angelo spoke up. “Make that two quarts. And two more cornbreads.”
When she had bagged all this and I had paid her, Angelo handed me a five.
His face had totally brightened. “A feast!”
The proprietor wiped her hands again on her apron and then looked out at the police cars.
“What are they after?”
“I have no idea.”
“If you’re carrying any pot, they’ll find it.”
“We have nothing but books.”
“Books?” She studied the sign on the door of the cab. “What kind of books?”
“Used books. Old books.”
“You have any Zane Grey?”
“I’m all out of Zane Grey. But I have half a dozen by Elmer Kelton.”
“My husband loves Zane Grey.”
“Kelton is even better.”
As we walked back over the road, she followed us and went into the open door on the trailer when I pointed at the Kelton titles that were close inside there. The State Trooper who had called in our information was back again.
He says, “What did you guys do?” He actually looked back down the road to the black car as he said this.
“Nothing, that I’m aware of.”
He handed my license and registration back and then looked suspiciously at Angelo.
Then he says, “You don’t look like a college professor.”
Angelo hunched his shoulders, “Well, I’m not now.”
I handed the trooper three apples and said, “She says these are the best.”
He actually smiled before he took them. The woman bought The Day the Cowboys Quit for her husband.
And then we repacked the truck.
I had intended to get into Pennsylvania before stopping but there was a public beach and park with the gate open when we were still in New York, and I pulled into the enormous empty parking lot there and Angelo and I sat at a picnic table and ate our feast. A fine sun-warmed breeze was blowing at our backs and on out over Lake Erie. The sky was hazy now with moisture. Beyond a couple of signs on a post in the sand that said: ‘No Dogs’ and ‘No Lifeguard on Duty,’ a man was walking his dog at the water’s edge.
He had hardly spoken since we had started up again after the farm stand, but suddenly Angelo says, “My luck, I get a ride with a terrorist.”
“What made you say that?”
“It was in one of those stories your girlfriend wrote.”
“She wasn’t my girlfriend then.”
“She sounded like it. She was on your side all the way.”
“That’s what got her fired.”
“So why isn’t she with you now.”
“She was. I dropped her off at the bus station less than an hour before I picked you up.”
He nodded at that a moment as he ate.
“Bad luck. Sorry about that.”
He studied the haze as if he could see something more than a few gulls that had taken an interest in us before asking, “What did you do?”
“I advocated rebellion against this police-state we’ve been so busily growing.”
“No. I know about that. I mean, what did you do to piss off your girlfriend.”
Where should I begin? Her own words came back to me.
“I guess it comes down to the fact that I can’t help being the fellow I am.”
Angelo rocked on the bench as he had before in the truck seat.
“That’s serious. That’s really serious. That’s probably what attracted her to you in the first place. Now she can’t take it anymore.”
“My wife—my ex-wife—left me for just about the same reason. I was the same exact guy when she divorced me that she married. She thought I would change.”
“It’s a puzzle. If they liked you enough to love you, why would they want you to change.”
“Exactly. It should be a razor.”
“Like Occam’s: The simplest explanation is usually the best.”
I had been considering something like that while I was trying to keep my head during the closing of my shop. Why had they gone after me? Me, of all people. I don’t even own a gun—not anymore.
“When I get depressed, like it was during the mess with the Feds, I’m more prone to think of Heinlein’s razor, “You have attributed conditions to villainy that simply result from stupidity.”
“That’s good. But your girlfriend isn’t a villain. She probably just doesn’t really understand you.”
“I don’t know. Maybe. Maybe she knows me too well. I know I love her. I can tell that, but I can’t tell her what the hell it’s all about . . . I think maybe Goethe had a razor for it: misunderstandings produce more wrong in the world than deceit and malice. That’s a razor, isn’t it. I can understand that much.”
Angelo says, “Maybe it all boils down to old Murphy. Anything that can go wrong, will, and at the worst possible moment.”
So, I had to come back with, “Or Mr. Voltaire, who supposedly said: at all times, the bad abounds, and the good is rare.”
Immediately, he says, “A razor is good for shortcuts, but too often will lead to lazy thinking and a trespass onto softer ground. They can be dangerous and should be handled carefully. And no matter how appealing, they should never be given to children.”
He was having his fun. I asked, “Who said that?”
He shrugs. “I did.”
“It’s a little wordy for a good razor. Not sharp enough. Given the subject matter, I’d say something like, “Most women have contempt for men they can manipulate but become bored with men who won’t change.”
“That sounds more like Confucius.”
“Well, he was razor-sharp, wasn’t he?”
The black Ford was parked on the road at the entrance when he left. Two healthy young fellows were leaning up against the fence there as if to keep it from falling over. They did not bother to follow us further.
Pennsylvania is a lot of hills. Piles and piles of hills, feathered by gray and leafless woods parted by farms gone dormant with the prospect of winter coming; heavy woods where farms once flourished; tall and ancient trees alone where houses once stood; pastures bracketed from the road in monotonous regularity by telephone poles heavily burdened beneath the strapping of electric lines, and telephones lines, and cable TV lines, and fiber optic lines—the chains of our modern imprisonment.
Oh, you say, the wonderment of technology gives us access to the world beyond our small lives. No, I retort, it obscures the wonderment beneath our noses.
I say something of the sort and Angelo grunts in agreement so there is no argument to be had. I must argue this with myself.
Old Highway 8, the plain asphalt, cracked and tarred and shiny beneath a weak sun, trails off to a distant farm with the way marked only by homemade placards for pumpkins and Indian corn and honey, and then rejoins with the newer version that is all properly traffic-lined and guard-railed and caution-signed, with all the worried makeup of modern civilization, and after I am beyond the diverge I wish I had stopped and want to turn back down that road not taken. I imagine there are more stars to be seen at night on that road, and a field where we might have stopped, after buying a homemade pie and getting good directions.
The newer road cuts and levels its way through the land, while the old road follows the humps and vales to the ancient farms that hide there, tucked away from the noise of the big trucks and traffic. Again and again in passing, I see unused farm equipment parked close to the road and it finally occurs to me, a city boy, that it might serve to tell the neighbors what is available to rent. I am happy for these presentations of farm life. Glad to be out of the troughs of trees that make short distances so much longer with little punctuation of human habitation. Those woods can go on a long way, just one twisty trough of trees after another.
I see a Smiley Hill Road. Why Smiley Hill, I wonder? What history is there? Perhaps, just because there is humor in it.
One of several reasons I have been trying to stay off the big highways is so that I won’t have to strain my old truck by going 65. The breaks on the truck are okay, but I know that stopping extra weight can be a trick. I figured 50 is my cruising speed. But on the smaller roads, some hills are bigger than others and the grading is not so fine. Not that we couldn’t see the forest for the trees, but it’s nicer to see a few more farms with a vernacular house built to suit the taste of someone of long ago, or a faded barn sign for Mail Pouch chewing tobacco billboarded over peeling red paint, or a village or two with an odd name to comment on like ‘Tidioute,’ which I wanted to see but was out of our way, or an old ‘Rexall Drugs’ sign with antiques spilling out the double doors, or an Esso sign high above an empty lot overgrown with ragweed and abandoned cars that you can’t quite make out the model of through the rust.
I didn’t want to go through Erie, so I headed south down Route 89 toward Wattsburg. Then I figured we’d turn onto Route 8 toward Union City. The appeal to me there was that I’d never driven either road. But, then there was Route 77, which seemed too damned straight for a Pennsylvania road, at least on the map, so I stayed on Route 8. This flanking would at least keep us out of Pittsburg at the bottom of things, and Youngstown to the west, but all of it was so that we could eventually meet up with the old road that follows the Ohio River, something I’d always wanted to do. River roads are just more interesting than second or fifth growth woods, and they are usually fairly level.
But before that, I wanted to see a little something more of things around the area we were in, so we found a good campground at the state park just south of Titusville that was set into a neat pine woods. I got a flame going in the fire pit as soon as I had cleaned up, and thew some charcoal in with that for grilling hotdogs and then sat in the trailer with the door open so I could watch it while I wrote up the day’s events. Angelo set up his little red tent on a thick mat of pine needles close by and immediately took a nap.
Earlier, I had asked him to call ahead to make sure the campground was open.
He said, “How would I do that?”
“Don’t you have a phone?”
I had only recently been imagining out loud to Deirdre that one day, not so very long from now, such concerns will seem archaic. We will all—each of us—be attached to a computer ‘guide’ via some small chip implanted in our heads at birth.
Angelo hunches his shoulders, “Don’t need one. No one to call. No one to call me.”
“What if you got hurt?”
“It would hurt. But why would I want to call someone and tell them about it?”
“Maybe you’d want to get some help?”
He remained still, closing his eyes against the sun on the windshield. “Could happen, I guess, but there aren’t many places I go where I couldn’t get help without a phone and I usually don’t go to places like that, anyway. There’s no good coffee in places like that.”
“You have a point.”
He adds, “I just call all of that ‘tethering.’ The whole system is geared to keep you tethered, now. My idea is to break the tether . . . That’s what you’re trying to do too, isn’t it? It’s the only way, to feel a little freedom in life.”
I had had the same exact thought myself.
“But I’m thinking lately that it may already be too hard for most people. They want to be tied. Secured. Connected. They may say they want their liberties, but when push comes to shove, they want security more.”
He is falling asleep while sitting up, head back on his jacket, but manages to say, “I’m with you there,” without rustling his beard.
I’m noticing Angelo naps a lot. I suspect it’s because he doesn’t sleep well in his tent.
Given the time of year, it was not a very busy campground, but after a short while someone else pulled into the space next to ours. They had a shiny new Airstream, with the aluminum still too bright to the eyes even in the waning light, and a new-looking white Ford pickup. That put a damper on my creative thinking.
It wasn’t long before the fellow in the Airstream came around to talk. He was tall, with an athletic build and short-cropped hair, wearing a brand-new looking Penn State sweatshirt, jeans with a folding crease, and white sneakers, as if he had just walked out of a shopping mall dressing room somewhere. He’s also wearing a clean Phillies baseball cap that might have just had the tag removed. Being so close to Pittsburgh, I figure he forgot what part of the State he was in.
He says, “Looks like you have a lot of books in there.”
At this point, still less than a week into the journey, I’ve heard this exact phrase more than a dozen times. I had yet to think of something witty to say in response, so I just said, “Yes, sir.”
“Is this a traveling library?”
I had already heard that five or six times as well.
“No. I’m a book peddler.”
“You sell them? Can I look?”
Now, of course, all the alarms are going off.
I say, “No. Not just here. I can’t be selling here in the campground, but we’ll be somewhere down the road in Titusville tomorrow. Maybe you can catch us there.”
He leaned in the door to look. I can see he has a heavy beard that he shaves pretty close.
“Can you make any money selling books?”
At least eight or nine people had asked me that.
I say, “No. Not really. It’s a hobby.”
Now, at this moment I was thinking he was an FBI agent, but he could just as well be with the IRS. They can be tougher.
He says, “Where are you from?”
I said, “Boston. How about you?”
“Is that where you’d rather be, right now?”
Blank-faced, he asks “What do you mean?”
I say, “Nothing … Are you on vacation?”
He nods, “Yep.”
“Where are you headed?”
“Just out to see a little of the country … You alone?”
I say, “No. What kinds of things are you hoping to see.”
He suddenly seemed uncomfortable and leaned back out of the door to look both ways up the side of the trailer and at the truck before he spots Angelo’s tent in the gloom.
He says, “Whatever we come to, I guess.”
I say, “Have you seen Niagara Falls yet?”
“It’s big. Worth the trip.”
He now clearly has something else on his mind.
“Yeah. I’ve heard … Talk to you later.”
I cooked the entire package of hotdogs because I had the idea that Angelo might want a little something to eat after his nap, and I had nothing better to do now that I had been disturbed with other concerns. Angelo was awake shortly after dark when I’d built the fire up again with the wood I’d picked up at the campground store. A cold damp fog had drifted in and the fire was just what we needed. I pulled the camp chairs out of the back of the truck, and we settled close in. But he only wanted one of the hot dogs. It must be true, as he had mentioned before, pasta was his nemesis.
Angelo says, “What did the FBI fella have to say?”
I think he said this just loud enough so they might hear and decide to go away. I’m beginning to appreciate his sense of humor.
With the fog, our voices had the sound of being contained in a darkened room. As of yet, I had not seen the other person who was in the Airstream with our athletic neighbor. They had not built a fire of their own and the shades were drawn so there was nothing to see through the windows.
Suddenly a women’s voice came into the ‘room’ as if she were right next to us.
“Excuse me. Do you have some extra matches?”
She looked to be dressed in her own clothes—a comfortable flannel shirt and jeans that were not creased.
I said, “Sure,” and gave her my spare box of wooden matches, then said, “I have four or five hotdogs here that need eating. You and your friend are welcomed.”
This seemed to catch her off-guard, so I added. “If you have a couple of camp chairs you can bring’em over and sit with us. It’s a chill night. I have some buns in the package there and mustard to go with it. The relish is something local that isn’t as good as it looks.”
She finally says, “Thank you. I’ll ask George.”
Two minutes later they are both back with chairs and a six-pack of Budweiser. She was carrying the chairs.
Now, I cannot explain the look on Angelo’s face in those two minutes. He was as shocked at first as if a gun had been fired. But by the time our neighbors were back, he had a smile on his face that was cat-like. I think he had been quick to pick up on another old razor, unspoken: ‘Keep your friends close, and your enemies closer.’
They introduced themselves as Fran and George. I can’t stand Budweiser, but I told them it was welcome because I was out of beer. We hadn’t passed any stores on the way to the camp.
George tells us, “It’s a pain to buy alcohol around here. Not like New York.”
Fran rather deliberately took the pack from George and broke out cans for the four of us. I immediately got a sense that there was some contest going on between them and I wondered if Fran outranked George, but George was not listening. He seemed to be that type. Over the years in the shop, I’d hired one too many people to help who were smarter than me. They might have been, but they didn’t know a whole lot about books or bookselling.
George says, “So, I seem to remember there was a bookstore in Boston that had the same name as what’s on the doors of your truck.”
“Yeah. That was mine.”
“Not there anymore?”
“No. They closed us down.”
“Landlord raise the rent?”
“Not exactly. It was really the FBI that did it.”
George turned to Fran. From her smile, she appeared to be finally getting the idea.
She says, “What did the FBI do?”
I say, “It was in all the papers. They thought that I had some kind of revolutionary group working out of my shop. Bookselling might have been revolutionary three hundred years ago, but it’s pretty old hat now.”
“What kinds of books were you selling?”
“The same as I have in the trailer, just a lot more of them.”
“Seems odd they should target you?”
“Maybe not. You know, ideas are dangerous. If the right idea catches on, it can be revolutionary.”
She gives this a moment’s reflection before saying. “What exactly was your idea?”
That required a laugh.
“I’m afraid I’m full of ideas. No telling. But the one that seemed to bother them most was the idea that people ought to speak freely and read what they want.”
Fran says, “Sounds innocent enough.”
I say, “No. Not to a fascist. Authoritarians are always afraid of free-thinking.”
This brought a brief silence until George finally says, “There must have been something else.”
I said, “No. Not a thing. That was it, as far as I know.”
In the course of this conversation, they both consumed two of the hot dogs and buns. When only one was left on the paper plate, Angelo gave in and ate it.
Angelo says, “There’s a lot of that kind of thinking going around these days. They always say what they’re doing is necessary for some reason or another, usually the public welfare. But it’s all the same. Basic fascism, 101.”
George says, “Do you work for Michael?”
“No. I’m happily unemployed. I used to teach. Now I’m doing some wandering. Good for the soul. Michael just picked me up on the road yesterday like a wet dog.”
Fran says, “Where did you teach?”
“Really. What did you teach?”
“Actual history, but they wanted me to teach politics.”
She immediately came back with, “It sounds very fortuitous that you two met.”
Angelo laughs. It’s a low sort of ‘ho, ho, ho,’ laugh that I’ve already heard several times before. “I think so. As long as Michael can put up with me, I’m along for the ride.”
“I meant that you seem to have a similar cast of mind.”
“Right. I think you’re right. But not the same. That’s what makes it interesting.”
I took that as an opportunity, and asked her, “What do you do for a living?”
She pauses to sip her beer and answers, “You might say I am a data processor.”
I say, “I thought machines did that sort of thing these days.”
“They do, mostly, but they can only process what’s already known. I’m paid to process the data in order to figure out what’s not yet known.”
This seemed like a very interesting way to re-describe some sort of investigator.
I said, “Who do you work for?”
“Rand Corporation, out of New York, not California.”
I turned to look at George. He seemed puzzled. I was guessing that Fran had gone off-script. How would he pick up the line, I wonder?
I asked, “What do you do, George?”
To his credit, he made a good choice.
“I’m a cop. New York City Police Department.”
Somehow, I knew this was true as soon as he said it. He didn’t strike me as an inventive sort. And I had a guess about the unit he worked for.
“What do you do, exactly?”
He sat back.
“Well, that’s very interesting. When you mentioned that your bookshop was closed down, and why, I was trying to remember if I had heard anything about that. We get all kinds of reports. I’m assigned to what they call an ‘anti-terrorist’ unit.
Without hesitation, I say, “Now, that’s gotta be interesting work. I can’t imagine working for the Rand Corporation can be quite as interesting as that.”
Fran actually laughed. “You’d be surprised. But you have to know a little about what you’re looking for, otherwise it becomes a waste of time.”
George says, “Where are you headed after this?”
“West in general, but no place in particular.”
“Are you going to open another bookstore if you find the right place?”
“Likely not. As I keep saying, it’s a different world now. The days of the little bookshop around the corner are gone. It’s easier for the authorities to control the internet so that’s the way things are going.”
I thought that might be a good breaking point and said I was pretty exhausted from the day and I needed some sleep. They thanked us for the hospitality and folded their chairs. Angelo wanted to read so I left the fire burning and turned in.
In the morning, the Airstream was gone. Angelo said they had pulled up stakes before dawn.
I didn’t think the tether was broken, exactly, but maybe it had gotten a little longer for the moment.
4. Metaphors and Semaphores
Writing letters—that is, writing letters with a pen on paper and sending them through the mail—is an interesting thing to be doing in these times. I was prompted to do this now by the thought that the FBI would be reading my e-mails and talking amongst themselves about how boring they were. I certainly wouldn’t be saying anything really important in an e-mail in any case. But with Deirdre gone, I was immediately taken with the possibilities of expressing myself to her in some way that I had not managed to accomplish with her sitting beside me. The fact is, I find it a lot easier to talk about some odd thing or another that has occurred to me than anything that might be considered personal.
I used to write Margaret letters. Everyday. That was when she was right next to me in bed. It seemed natural and she thought they were charming, and I think it helped her understand my madness those first years. But that seemed to wear off. When I finally noticed that she hadn’t opened several, I stopped writing them and that was more than thirty years ago. Now the impulse to write has suddenly returned—though the first letter was perhaps a bit long.
I wondered if, by writing letters to her I might dissipate my desire to write otherwise, or work on my stories, but it’s proving the opposite. I start writing to Deirdre and a thought develops, and pretty quick I am on to something.
In his introduction to Social Change and History, Robert A. Nisbet begins with the thought-provoking statement, “No one has ever seen a civilization die, and it is unimaginable, short of cosmic disaster or thermonuclear holocaust, that anyone ever will.” Now, you know you are reading one of the great—perhaps the greatest—sociologist, and a learned historian so you cannot take this as lightly as you might a quip by Howard Zinn or Jered Diamond. You must confront exactly what he is saying, and because you know he is trying to provoke, as any good teacher might, what he is saying must be true.
I have many times posited what I believe to be a fact, that the Republic is dead. And in this line, I had just been thinking, with a little inspiration from Mr. Nisbet, that perhaps it was necessary for the Republic to die in order for it to live again. I wrote this to Deidre. I immediately heard her voice arguing in return, ‘Well then, unless you think you are Jesus Christ, you had better leave the cadaver where it is and go look for something else to be nuts about, otherwise, it’s called necrophilia’ And she may be correct in that. But America is not Lazarus, and a nation might have a second life. Greece certainly did just about that in Byzantium.
In this fantastic essay on metaphor, Nesbit goes a long way to making that possibility probable. It may be a little uncomfortable for those of us on the cusp of this particular moment to accept the death of our culture, but we might, as much as we are able, make the most of it. After all, we are here to see it! The death of one civilization and the birth of another.
Perhaps it’s all organic after all, alike the vegetables at that woman’s farmstand. Maybe it’s all about birth and growth and decay and death.
I said as much aloud to Angelo this morning.
He said, “That sounds like some weird sort of schadenfreude. You’ve been hit by a bus and you’re taking pleasure in your last moments, considering that you’ve never done it before, to rejoice in the subtleties of dying.”
I say, “But we have no other words for it! There’s no other terminology for the end of history. Look at that tripe from Francis Fukuyama. He regurgitates Marx as if he just read him yesterday in an effort to avoid the better metaphors that might make sense of his own confusion. He wants his Marx and his Darwin too. Darwin wasn’t a Marxist! Marx sees history as a linear progression toward a worker’s paradise. Darwin would only envisage an evolutionary change to meet the demands of survival. Darwin would see a new life evolved from the old in whatever way worked best.”
Angelo isn’t interested.
“I don’t think any of it is in our control. It’s all we can do to save ourselves.”
I don’t have a strong argument against that attitude. It is basically libertarian, so it is sensical to me. But it is pretty selfish in the worse way. Short term.
“If you had children, you might look at it a little differently. You want something better for them than chaos, mayhem and holocaust.”
And that put a damper on the conversation all the way to Union City.
I sold a dozen books or so at a curbside in front of a Woolworths that had long since closed. The space itself had been re-occupied for some time by a Walgreen’s Drug store, but the old Woolworth’s marker was embedded in the cement of the sidewalk and if you look at the peeling paint above the window you could just make out the ghost of the old ‘W’ on the brick beyond where the metal Walgreen’s sign begins. Knowing the importance of Woolworths to my youth, this re-inspired my darker thoughts about the passage of time.
How am I to understand the end of these things that are precious to me—perhaps only because I knew them in my youth, but that I think are even more important now because they are part of my philosophy. A Woolworth’s was just a ‘five and dime.’ But the consistency was comforting. The smell inside was the same in New York, or Boston, or Union City. You always knew you could find something you had to have. A cap, or gloves, or a ball of string and a kite, or candy, or a goldfish. It was your choice.
A fellow showed up with the usual question, “Do you buy books,” and I gave him the usual answer, which he ignored completely, and he returned a couple of hours later with a dozen boxes of the typical dross of mid-twentieth century reading, battered and soiled, and about twenty books that, given their nice condition must have once belonged to a maiden aunt. These were the original publisher’s editions of Angela Thirkell and Nevil Shute novels in their dust jackets that I was happy to see and probably over-paid for just for that fact. Then I opened a couple more boxes of books from the back of my truck and priced them and put them out before another thought occurred. If I shifted the boxes in the truck bed just so, I could make even more space there.
When Angelo returned from his wanderings about town, I suggested to him that when we got back to the campsite, that if he wanted to, he could sleep in the back of the truck with the books.
Angelo says, “I was hoping you’d ask.”
“Why didn’t you say something.”
“I wasn’t sure yet that you were happy with taking me along.”
“I didn’t think I had to say it.”
Which is what makes letters somehow better. You can say things you are just not inclined to say otherwise.
She meant well, of course. She was only doing what she wanted to do and that was good enough for me, in most cases, but she had really done it, this time.
A middle-aged woman of considerable size came up to me in Titusville and asked, “Are you the ‘Travelling Bookman’ I read about in the paper this morning?”
I was actually standing next to my sign on the sidewalk at the time, with the back of the trailer open, about half a block from a small restaurant where I had just picked up a cup of the ‘Best Coffee in Oil Country.’ When I had ordered the coffee the women at the counter had given me an odd look and I had noticed everyone else at the tables, mostly a middle-aged lot as well, staring in my direction, but I assumed it was because I was the stranger in their midst.
I said, “I guess, I am. But how did you guess?”
She had a copy of the Titusville Tribune in her hand, with the story just below the fold.
‘Travelling Bookman searches for lost world of books.’
This was not a headline that Deirdre would have written, but at least it was drawn from the gist of her story, including the extra ‘l’ in travelling, which I am sure she used because I was prone to as well. I stood there and read it before handing it back, perhaps slightly in shock.
The woman had a small felt tip marker in her hand. “Will you sign it for me?”
She seemed so earnest in her request that I did it without further thought, and then she turned and, as much as a person of her size might, she practically ran back to the restaurant. What actually surprised me most was that she did not ask to look inside the trailer.
Angelo showed up a few minutes later with a copy of the same paper.
He says, “Your lady friend is back at it.” and reads the lede out loud right there on the street, “ ‘You wouldn’t look twice at the old camper-trailer. It looks like something you might see from the corner of your eye in passing, nestled in a back yard with weeds thick around the cinder blocks supporting a rusting metal hitch. The pale blue and white paint is peeling from the aluminum shell and catches the sunlight in places when it moves, drawing the eye. But inside is another world.’ ”
This was pure Deirdre.
Soon after that, I had half-a-dozen people waiting at the back for the three or four already inside to finish browsing, and it stayed that way through lunchtime before I could close up and escape.
It appeared that the Boston Post had run another of Deirdre’s pieces as a follow-up to the larger epic of our lost battle of the past months to keep the old shop open, and it had been noticed by a wire service and then reprinted from there in the local paper.
I called Deirdre that night. She did not apologize.
“Serves you right,” was what she said, in the tones of a scold. “I called them last week about the idea. It practically wrote itself in the plane. It was a bumpy ride so at least it kept my mind busy.”
I had to tell her, “You wouldn’t believe it. They still read papers out here. They’re slim and full of supermarket ads but when I went into the coffee shop, half the people there had a newspaper in their hands. It looked like a scene from the 1970s.”
She couldn’t take this lying down, as she was in bed at that moment and about to turn out the light.
“They probably have poor television reception in that area or else the store coupons were really good.”
“Yeah, well, I figured I better call you now before they put me in the clinker again.”
“Why? What did you do?”
“Nothing. But the judge might read the papers too.”
She gasped; not a common trait for her.
“No! Didn’t you talk to Marty yet?”
“I called him as soon as I got back. I wanted to make sure there was nothing else I should add to the story. There are no warrants for you. Nothing! The judge never put through a court order. The raid on your shop, and all the questioning, and the night in jail when you were getting ready to leave, all that was just intimidation. All of it was ‘Pursuant to an ongoing investigation.’ You were detained as a ‘potential flight risk.’ But now, apparently, ‘you are free to move about the country.’ I think—He thinks, they want you to lead them to whoever was using your shop as a ‘front.’ That’s what they called it: ‘A front,’ for potential terrorist activities. He thinks they’ll be keeping an eye on you.”
This took a moment to digest.
“They stopped us in New York. The police did. They searched the trailer.”
“Who is ‘us’?”
“Angelo. He’s a former BU professor I found hitchhiking in a rainstorm, just after I left you off. He’s a nut. We get along pretty good.”
“Well, I’m glad you’re not alone. Why did the police say they were searching you?”
“They called it a ‘traffic stop.’ There was no warrant. But, there was one of those cars we saw before, sitting down the road, and then we saw them again when we stopped to eat.”
“That’s all hand washing. The FBI does favors for the locals and the locals do favors for the FBI. That way they don’t have to run around as much. But make sure the Professor isn’t packing any illegal substances. They’ll bust you for anything they can.”
An elderly gentleman in Mercer wanted to tell us all about his experiences as a peddler after the ‘war,’ while I sat on my stool on the sidewalk, trying to stay warm in the sun because it had turned colder and with the door on the trailer open, the wind was keeping that rather cool. Because he looked ancient, I wrongly assumed this had been the Second World War that he was talking about, before he informed us that he was a Vietnam Vet. He was probably not much older than me.
‘Back in the day,’ he said, he had driven much of the Mid-west in a converted school bus with his girlfriend—whom he avowed several times was the ‘love of his life’—while buying goods in one place and selling them in another. He said the Amish farms were great resources for this because each one would have some speciality: baskets, bags, honey, flower seeds, cutting boards, quilts—I lost count. Because I thought the story was incomplete after an hour or so, I had to ask, what happened to his girlfriend. “Oh,” he says, “She’s fine. She kicked me out this afternoon so she could have some of her friends over. She hates it when I start talking to her friends.”
I sold just one book there and that was to a young man who was going to college in Grove City and happened to notice us. He bought my only Karl Popper. He said it was to irritate his philosophy teacher.
I understood that motivation very well, having been expelled from my first year in college for a similar crime. I wished him luck.
Our next camp after the stop in Mercer was a near miss. The campground was closing for the season, and we had made it on their last day. Or maybe it was the day after. In any case, the proprietors, a thin fellow likely in his sixties and his younger and healthier wife, had just read about us and seemed overjoyed at our arrival. Perhaps that was because we were the only ones there and they needed company. They spent a couple of hours talking to us while we grilled some ‘Yoder’ sausage and a couple of other items we picked up at an Amish farm earlier, having taken the elderly gentleman’s direction.
But there seemed to be a theme in the area: the buxom and younger wife of the farmer, a rather sinewy and sunburned man who ignored us as he went about repairing a barn door, had tried to get me to buy all of her well-read romances because her husband had forbidden her to buy another until she had gotten rid of the ones she had. I had politely refused. Undaunted, she then offered to sell me the handmade bookcase the paperbacks were set in. Ten dollars seemed fair enough for that, so I bought it. And the sausage was fantastic. Later, the couple at the campground were full of advice on the best roads to take to avoid the cities while they insisted on browsing. The husband bought all the Nevil Shute titles I had just acquired, and the wife bought a combined Modern Library volume by the Bronte sisters after I had made a fuss over how Wuthering Heights was under-appreciated because it was forced on high school kids even though the writing was more sophisticated than most of the tripe assigned in college courses—a matter I had orated on many times in the past. But our gas for the day had been covered and the food as well.
5. The past is neither prolog nor past
but it still rhymes
Angelo was irritated at me. Agitated. I could tell by the way he shifted on his seat. In fact, he moves a great deal for a man in his shape, which is to say, overweight. He walks a great deal, and readily so. He rocks back and forth when he is pleased. And he shifts randomly when he is not. In between these movements, he is most often sleeping.
I’d been orating on a favorite topic, that the world in general and America most specifically was going to hell in a handbasket. A cheap handbasket. Made in China. By slave children, no less. But he started shifting when I compared one thing or another in my past with the present. I had run through schools, libraries, and publishing, all fairly quickly because I was not interested at the moment in dwelling on any of those points that might take days to extrapolate. The focus of my argument at that moment was sports, and the sad state of baseball in particular, and the idiocy of conducting the world series at the end of October, and at night, in the worsening cold; this brought on by the fact of being unable to get the game on the radio because it wouldn’t be played until later.
He objected. “Most people work during the day.”
I rejoindered, “Kids shouldn’t be going to a game that late.”
He was having none of it. “Kids can’t afford to go in the first place. It’s too expensive.”
“That’s right! It’s too expensive.”
“But shouldn’t the players get a fair share of all that money the networks haul in.”
“But that doesn’t explain why it’s so damned expensive, not with the networks paying small fortunes to the franchise for the rights”
“It’s a competition. They’ll charge what the market will bear.”
“But that’s self-destructive! If the children can’t watch, they lose the future audience.”
He has a ‘patient’ voice that he probably used when talking to students.
“When I first came to Boston to teach at B.U. I used to pay twelve bucks for bleacher seats at Fenway. How much did you pay when you got there twenty years before me. Five dollars?”
“I think so. I’m told it was three dollars back in the sixties.”
“Allowing for inflation, which must be over twenty times, that’s still at least $60 you were paying back then.”
“Bleacher seats are a hundred bucks, today. I haven’t gone in years.”
“And it was a crappy little uncomfortable park in the old days with food so mediocre everybody ate on the way in. The street vendors had it all.”
“It had a feel to it!”
“It stank. You had to pee in a trough. There were never any paper towels and the sink water was cold. The seats were uncomfortable and most of the ball playing was mediocre. Even if you had Jim Rice and Fred Lynn and Carlton Fisk and Dwight Evans. Those guys carried a lot of dead weight, flash in the pans and has beens—“
“Yaz was hurting but Petrocelli was still pretty good.”
“Maybe so. But I’m saying those guys were making a very small slice of the pie and they were playing great baseball. Now you say the players are overpaid. But it’s still the few that carry the load—the few that know it’s their time.”
After considering the truth of that, I told him, “I don’t know what your point is.”
He shifted several times as if adjust his thoughts, “I guess I’m not making it. . .Listen. It wasn’t really better back then. That’s all nostalgia, and like the Yogi said, nostalgia’s not what it used to be.”
“I’m with you on that. The world of our youth was not normal, or typical, or average, and certainly not what the world was supposed to be like. I got that. It was what it was, and now, it is what it is.”
“So saith the Belichick.”
I decided to change the topic. I was putting together a list in my head.
“What are your favorite travel books.”
Angelo says, “I don’t use them. I just go where the impulse and a little fate takes me. Right now, with a little help from an old bookseller.”
“No. I mean books about the journey taken. Adventures.”
“Like Marco Polo?”
“There’s the Anabasis.”
“Great! I read most that again just last year.”
“And Sir, John Mandeville.”
I had to admit, “I’ve heard of that. Never read it.”
“Likely made up, like Prester John, but it’s full of historical tidbits. Fourteenth Century stuff. I like the medieval ages better than most others, including our own.”
“Then why don’t you read more fiction. You could taste it too. You can practically live there. You could read Zoe Oldenbourg, The World is Not Enough; or Barbara Tuchman, A Distant Mirror; or Umberto Eco, The Name of the Rose.”
“I tried to read that book by Eco. He had half a dozen facts screwed up in the first fifty pages. I gave it up. That’s why I don’t read fiction.”
“You don’t read fiction for the facts. That’s why it’s called ‘fiction,’ You read it for the ideas. You read it for the humor. You read it for the escape.”
“I don’t want to escape. I want to learn how to deal with the world as it is, and maybe learn why it is the way it is.”
“That fine. But if it only required a list of facts to do that, we wouldn’t be in the mess we’re in. There are a lot of smart people out there selecting their own facts and misusing them to get what they want.”
“That’s why I want the facts themselves, without all the opinion.”
“But Eco was dealing with the idea of knowledge itself. I think he was full of crap philosophically but at least he was trying. The story is pretty good too. He reimagined a real world of scribes and manuscripts and the preservation of knowledge. It had a good premise—the idea that what we know about the medieval ages—about anything, in fact—was created by the scribes themselves from other books in a continuous labyrinth of knowledge and misdirection. Total crap, really. But it makes a good tale and if you’d finished it you might’ve had something more to chew on.”
“I’ve had too much to eat already. I need to digest a little more.”
He tapped his stomach. I persisted
“Seriously! These are good thinkers, and they know their stuff, but the important thing is they put it all together in a narrative. It’s not just a bunch of names and dates. It’s people. You may be a very smart fellow and know more than they do but it’s unlikely you’ve put that information together in a coherent fabric the way—”
“You mean tapestry. The metaphor you want for the medieval period is tapestry.”
“You’re not listening.”
“I am listening. That’s how I know you meant to say ‘tapestry.’”
“What you’re not listening to is my point. You’re just hearing words. Words have meanings, but those meanings can change in the context of other words. Just the same way an historical event might have a completely different importance if seen in a different context.”
“Very good. Good point.”
He was deflecting. Margaret used to accuse me of doing that all the time. But given the concession, I let it go. It seemed to me there was room there for me to work on him, but not all at once. I decided then that my goal was to get him to read at least one good historical novel before he decided he’d had just about enough of me and jumped ship.
We reached the Ohio River at Rochester, Pennsylvania, and followed Route 68 into Beaver. It is a nice, neat, clean-looking town that seemed busy and vital, but apparently had no bookshop to speak of. None at least, that anyone we asked knew anything about. I pulled up close to a police car, apparently disturbing the fellow’s lunch, and told him what I was doing and asked if it was okay for me to park in an empty lot there close to the shops where some construction equipment appeared abandoned.
“No, Sir,” was all that he offered.
Just west of town, right between the river and the rail tracks are a couple of brick Victorians in the midst of a nicely paved lot overlooking the water. The lot was nearly empty. The windows of one of the buildings are boarded but the other building is a restaurant. I stopped for some pizza and then asked the manager there if I could park at the other end of the lot for a few hours.
“What kind of books?”
He seemed rather too intense.
“What kind of literature?”
“Novels. Poetry, Essays. Mostly novels..”
The way he was moving one hand to brush crumbs off a counter, I thought the fellow was going to throw us out. Angelo ate his pizza a little faster.
“You have any Longfellow?”
“No. Not just now.”
“I want something I can read to my girl.”
I wondered if he would read a love poem to his sweetheart in as hard a voice as he was using on us.
“I know there is some of that in the books I have, but none of the books I have are what you’d call love poetry.”
He laughed. A scowl like his becomes a laugh with the merest alteration of the lines around the eyes.
“This is for my daughter. I want something to read to her at night.”
“How old is she?”
“I have A Child’s Garden of Verses, by Robert Louis Stevenson. I have some Shel Silverstein. I have an A.A. Milne.”
“Okay. I’ll take those. How much.”
“I’ll have to look. Probably around $20 for the three.”
“Good. Pizza’s on the house and you can park out there until the dinner crowd starts coming in.”
With the sign up at the side of the road, we sold a couple of dozen other books and I think even brought a little extra traffic to the restaurant. Angelo sat on the embankment of the river in the broken shade of a small weedy tree and read a small hardcover Heritage Press copy of Walden that I told him he should look at. Somehow, he had never read that before.
The closest open campground with facilities was over the bridge into the tippy-top of West Virginia, which was fine with me. It was dark by the time we got there and we nestled in our chairs wrapped in coats and ate what was left of the cold pizza and drank some local beer in a pale moonlight overlooking the river with the fog drifting just above the water looking as if it were an icy crust.
An idle thought came to mind.
“Did you ever read 1000 miles Up the Nile by Edwards?”
He says, “No,” rather definitively.
“I’m looking for that one. She wrote novels too, but that one is about her archeological work. Someone told me it was pretty good but it hasn’t come my way.”
“I’d have to wonder if it was good archeology or she made stuff up to suit what she saw.”
“There’s your prejudice again. You know, you’re missing a lot because of that.”
There was a pause. In the dark, I could not see his face.
He finally muttered, “I just said that to irritate you.”
The WiFi was very good. We were connected to the camp power so I plugged in my small electric heater and sat at the desk to write up events before I noticed the red blinker for unanswered messages. It had been about a week and a half since we left Boston and I had purposely not checked my email in that time. I figured that whatever was there was being monitored anyway by the FBI. But I peeked. Over two hundred unanswered inquiries had made it past the spam filter. I was unsure if I should even begin to answer them. Then my phone rang.
After a little diddly dee Deirdre says, “So why don’t you start posting to your blog again?”
“I don’t know if I have the wherewithal or whatever.”
“Just send what you write to me and I’ll make sure your spelling is roughly in line with Noah Webster and post it for you. You have a lot of people who are interested in what you’re doing.”
“Apparently, over two hundred.”
“You want to get your idea for the 451 out there, don’t you?”
“Send me your password and all the stuff you’ve written so far. I’ll get it in shape. Do you have any pictures?”
“Your phone is junk but your laptop has a great camera on it. Use that. Start taking pictures.”
In the morning the sun broke butter yellow through the mist. There was a laundromat and a truck-stop diner at the end of the road and we took care of both needs after we showered.
A couple of beefy fellows in baseball caps were arguing over the best detergent to use at the laundromat. Half a dozen trucks were randomly parked in the gravel lot behind the diner. The clientele there, even that late in the morning were still mostly truckers, apparently strangers even to themselves, and sitting singly. What few conversations we could hear were from the locals gathered in small clusters and were carried on sporadically and in lower voices. Or perhaps this was just because the woman behind the counter, too thin to be eating her own cooking, had a two-octave contralto she used for calling orders back to the kitchen, and this could be heard all the way out the door as we came in. There was some entertainment in that alone. ‘Two over easy with biscuits and gravy and a side a’ ham’ never sounded so good. Angelo was clearly intrigued.
When she poured our coffee he says, “Do you sing?”
She smiled—the first we had seen. “How did you know?”
“Your voice. I’ll bet you’re good.”
He said this with an obvious conviction.
“Well,” She tilted her head with some doubt and maybe a little modesty, “Maybe I was. But that’s behind me.”
When the biscuits and gravy arrived he asked, “What do you sing?”
I noted that immediately, and maybe she did too. He had said, ‘What do you sing?’ Not the past tense.
“Mostly Country-Western. They didn’t want me in the choir. I’m a little undisciplined and it threw everybody off.”
He nodded at that, but she was already gone then to take care of others.
Angelo had little else to say as he ate. Whenever she called an order, he paid attention while I was talking about the way ahead. There was a little bookshop in Steubenville that I’d stopped in briefly once when we’d driven directly over from Pittsburgh and through West Virginia and I wanted to visit that again. They had stacks of older novels near the door and we were in need of a few. And Steubenville might be a good stop for lunch.
When she poured more coffee Angelo pursued his interest.
“You ever make any records?”
She nodded a moment, coffee pot poised momentarily in the air.
“A couple. CDs.”
“Anything I could buy?”
This set her back on her heels. She had just put our eggs down, and she stood there for a moment, looking Angelo over to decide if he was serious. Her hair was a sort of metallic yellow under the ceiling lights of the diner and I could not help but compare it unfavorably to the sun that morning. I figured the color was to hide some deal of gray. But a fine wrinkling at her eyes seemed somehow to brighten the powder blue. It reminded me of Deirdre. I liked her eyes.
“I do,” she answered, raised her eyebrows and sighed. “A couple. I still have forty or fifty copies under my bed. Five dollars each if you really want one.”
“I do.” He nodded.
With that, she pulled a cell phone out of her apron and said, “Honey, can you get one copy of each of those CD’s out from under my bed and bring’em over here for me. Thank you sweet.”
There was a trailer park just up the rise from the river and I had an idea that might have been where she lived.
Before I had all the gravy on my plate cleaned up, a tow-headed boy of ten or twelve came in the door and handed her the two thin cardboard packets. She gave him a kiss and set them down on the counter in front of us without a word. I watched Angelo turn them over in his hands and then read the copy on the back. They were obviously not produced by a major label. “Betty Price” was all the first cover said, and “Betty Price, Back Again” was the second. From where I was, I couldn’t read the smaller print of the back-copy. She went away to take an order and pour more coffee. When she returned, Angelo looked at her very seriously. No hint of a smile.
“What’s the address here? I’d like to write you after I listen to them.”
She pulled a business card from the side of the register. Her smile was gone as well.
When we were on the road again, he didn’t speak for a while before he asked if he could put the first one into the CD player that I had mounted under the dashboard. I think he was worried. But he was smiling contentedly after the first song, a nice rendition of Your Cheatin’ Heart. She went through a dozen hit songs, all of them made famous by men like Johnny Cash and Willie Nelson, and Waylon Jennings.
When I walk the Line had finished, Angelo just sat there and simply watched the road and I kept my mouth shut. That woman had one fine voice and knew how to use it, but I didn’t say a thing.
The river road along there was a disappointment. The carved embankment on the right went up and out of view in a cheap wig of scraggle above a multi-banded stone face of grays and browns. On the left, beyond the train tracks, the river was already broad enough to make the small farms and villages there too small to appreciate.
I finally said, “So, I would never have guessed you for a country music fan.”
“I’m not. I’m a voice fan. I like opera.”
“Amazing!” I was somehow surprised and didn’t even know why.
Angelo shook his head with a look of despair. “She has a rare voice. It’s too late for any kind of opera career. But what I think is, she might still have a chance at Nashville. . . .I know a guy. He used to have a recording studio in Boston. Odd type. Mostly it was just rock and roll. But he’s recorded some country songs. He’ll know what I’m talking about. He’ll know who to call. I’m going to send these to him.”
The bookshop in Steubenville was nice and neat, but with no stacks of old books by the door, only the obligatory cat in a stuffed chair. I was the only one there for an hour as I browsed and so I got a good chance to chat. The middle-aged owner, a redhead, seemed totally enchanted with the idea of running away and peddling books on the road. She had the pasty look most booksellers acquire, having to spend too much time indoors. I sympathized and told her she should just do it. Buy a trailer, take the cat and leave the husband. The worst that could happen is that she’d go broke and have to borrow money from relatives to start up a business again. She thought this was funny enough to pursue some logical conclusions.
“I could dip the books in urethan and sell them as artifacts. Probably sell twice as many. Something heavy to keep the CDs upright.”
She said this rather sincerely. I guessed she might have had such dark thoughts before.
“I think the CDs are going to go away as well. Pretty soon it’ll all be downloads and iPhones. Maybe a couple of stiff books propped just so, to hold the iPhone.”
She raised her eyes with false enthusiasm.
“But I had another idea! I can build miniature houses out of the books, Dollhouses! Remember ‘My Little Book House?’ I’m pretty good at stacking them.”
I nodded at that as if it were brilliant.
“But some people might object to the subject matter. They wouldn’t want their kids looking at the covers with buxom ladies or maybe even pirates and dragons.”
“But I could dip them in colors! Designer colors!”
“That might work.”
She paused just a moment for good dramatic relief.
“Take me with you!” Her face of comic desperation reminded me of a Dorothy Gish silent movie I’d seen once. “Don’t leave me here! I’m not even married—anymore. I can change tires! I can make change! I’m good at the gas pump and I already know my alphabet!”
There was just the hint of sincerity left in her voice but enough to worry me.
“I’d have to talk with Angelo about that. The bench seat is pretty wide but it might be a little cramped.”
“Who is Angelo?”
“A history professor I picked up near Buffalo.”
Without missing the beat she said, “But I love history!”
I figured she should be an actress. Sitting alone in her shop, day after day, she had imagined far too many scenarios to make the passage of time bearable.
Angelo had wandered away when we parked. When I got back with a couple of odd titles I thought might sell, he was waiting by the truck. He was much entertained by the account of my encounter.
“I wouldn’t mind being a little cramped,” he said, too earnestly. “I take it she was smaller than me?”
“Then it might have worked. But I would be more concerned about other arrangements. . . Well, I could always sleep in the tent again.”
Because the mood seemed right, I suggested he play one of the Betty Price CDs.
“Can’t. I sent them out. I called my friend, Dave, and he said he’d give them a listen.”
This seemed like something pretty nice, to me. When we were rolling I had to ask him, “Did you ever sing yourself.”
“Yeah. When I was a kid. I just wanted to be a rock and roller. I played guitar and piano. But when I hit puberty and all the other guys grew a foot taller, I grew in the wrong direction. A short fat guy with a Gibson is not a good look. Standing behind an electric piano made me look even shorter. So I channeled the hormones into something else. History seemed like the best escape.”
“You don’t play anymore?”
“I did for a while. I learned a little boogie-woogie. At parties, I was usually the guy at the piano. But you know, after a while, back in the Eighties, even the pianos went away. There was just a lot of karaoke. So, I stopped going.”
“But how did you get interested in opera?”
“You’d think, because I’m Italian, that it would come naturally. That was about the one and only thing I took away from my marriage. Alene got what she wanted. She got her citizenship papers. She was Russian. And she loved opera. So I took her to every opera I could. And then, when the Wall came down and Boris Yeltsin came in, she filed for divorce and went back to Russia and got her old boyfriend and brought him back here.”
That left me speechless all the way to Martin’s Ferry.
The weather was fine and a fellow at the Dollar Store next door told me that the abandoned-looking gas station where we parked had been empty for several years and no one would likely mind so I set my sign out and then filled my new paperback bookcase with every stray I could find and leaned it up against the trailer with both doors open. The ten-dollar bookcase was paid for within the hour. The bonus there was that the side door to the men’s room was open and the toilet still worked so I didn’t have to keep buying odds and ends in the Dollar Store to make use of the facility there.
I had it in my head to continue on the river road and see Mingo Junction, and Brilliant, and maybe cross back over to West Virginia and see a little Beech Bottom, but driving along with the embankment cutting off half my view had soured the idea. At Steubenville, I decided instead to hop on 22 going west.
Angelo brought the subject up. He had been quietly studying the scenery for the while before.
“People just aren’t as good as they think they are. The whole impulse to do what feels good and satisfy the moment twists the brain. History shows that.”
I thought this might relate back to a comment I had made earlier about most people being pretty good. The funny thing was, I had said it in part because of what Angelo had done, sending the Betty Price CDs to his friend in Boston.
I said, “I think the ‘feel good’ problem is simple immaturity. Most people get over it. But what makes you think people are generally bad?”
“They lie. They lie to themselves more than they lie to others. Avoiding the truth when it is clear, is a form of lying, don’t you think?”
“They lie for advantage over others. They lie to themselves to avoid responsibility. They lie to their own families.”
I wasn’t sure how to deal with the comment. It seemed to me as if he was looking for an argument. He had a definite Jesuitical streak, and he was saying this in a very simplistic way, which begged for adjustment.
I gave it a break before saying anything.
“What’s your favorite movie?”
He shook his head almost reflexively.
“Does that mean you want me to move along”
“What are you talking about? I’m talking about movies.”
“Movies are what you talk about when you have nothing else to talk about. When it’s time for the company to leave.”
“That’s not right. I talk about movies all the time.”
“Doesn’t that conflict with your reading.”
“No. Not that I’ve noticed. It’s just something else I like. Some people would rather hike around, or go fishing, or cook, or work in their garden. I like movies.”
“That’s an odd juxtaposition. Hiking and movies. Can’t you like both?”
“Sure. That’s not the point…Never mind. Forget about it.”
He immediately said, “Monte Python and the Holy Grail.”
“Now, that’s a great movie!”
“So, why did you ask?”
“Just trying to figure you out.”
“I’m a man of mystery.”
“Why do you like Monte Python and the Holy Grail?”
“I don’t know.”
“In that case, by your own testimony, you’re lying to me.”
“Why? Because you’d know why you like it? You can’t analyze everything just like that?”
“Anyone would. Because of an actor, or the story, and whatever.”
“It’s not a lie. I liked it a lot.”
“So what’s your favorite?”
“I don’t know. Why is it important?”
“Now you’re lying to me again, by diversion. Don’t do that. Just tell me you don’t want to tell me.”
He had a little grin on his face. I knew he had figured out what I was trying to do. He didn’t answer so I pursued.
“So, movies are about a hundred and ten years old. But I’m thinking that most of the greatest films of all time were made in the ten years between 1939 and 1949—Before you and I were even going to the movies.”
“You didn’t like Rocky?”
“Rocky was fine.”
“You didn’t like Master and Commander?”
“Better than the book. The book put me to sleep a few times before I could finish it.”
“The Lord of the Rings.”
“So what are you talking about?”
“I’m talking about The Hunchback of Notre Dame, The Wizard of Oz, Gone With the Wind, Stagecoach, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, and Gunga Din, for starters. That’s before you even get to The Maltese Falcon, Casablanca, Citizen Kane, Colonel Blimp, and a few hundred others.”
He says, “What’s Colonel Blimp about?”
“It’s one of the Archer’s films. I Know Where I’m Going. A Matter of Life and Death. Almost all of’em are great!”
“What’s your point?”
“Why do most films today suck?”
“They don’t. I just mentioned some that you agreed were terrific.”
“That’s just a few, scattered over fifty years or so.”
“There’re more. A lot more. I just don’t watch movies that much. At least not as much as you do. And besides, they used to make more movies in 1939 than they did in 1999. And now, a lot of what they do is on TV. Some of the TV is terrific. Most of that’s crap but some of it is pretty good.”
“Maybe. Maybe, I’ll have to give this line up then. You don’t read novels—and that’s the main thing I read. You don’t go to movies and I don’t watch TV.”
“Maybe you’re right.”
The droop of the power lines from pole to pole above the road in a continuous wave was hypnotic. The hills of southern Ohio had an artificial uniformity. Sun glazed the windshield. The campground was twenty miles further and I was already falling asleep, so I pulled over at a wide spot in the road, went back to the trailer, and took a nap.
I was awakened by a loud knocking. It was a state trooper just checking on things. After a short explanation, he asked, “Do you have any ‘Hornblower’ novels.”
I had one but he had already read it. Because I had a few, I asked him what he thought of Patrick O’Brien.
“I fall asleep. Do you have any Dudley Pope?”
“None. Why does a fellow who likes the ocean so much live in Ohio?”
“Family. But I was in the Navy and I can still dream.”
“Fair enough. How about Nicholas Monsarrat?”
“Is he good?”
“Great. I have Three Corvettes and The Cruel Sea.”
Done! Now, at least, I was fully awake.
Angelo had gotten out of the cab and walked up the road to inspect some cows on the other side of the fence there. I picked him up.
He says, “Cows don’t give a damn. They won’t answer when you talk to them. But I don’t agree with the consensus that Western culture begins with the Greeks. Read any Greek play and tell me what theme of western culture you find there. Maybe some Freud. But I think Western culture starts with the Jews, and the struggle of the Jews to survive.”
Out of the blue. I would have to think about that.
6. Howard’s End
and the trailer park treasure
We stopped in Cadiz mostly because I had spotted a very likely spot on the sunny side of the street close to the downtown area and I was tired of driving. Half a dozen people stopped to ask what I was doing. A few browsed. No one bought anything, but one fellow in a suit and tie complained about the prices.
“I buy my books at the church sale for a dollar each.”
“A good deal.”
“Why are yours so much?”
There was a note of inquiry in the voice, more than the challenge.
“Because I pay as much as you do at the church sale or more for them; I have to make enough from selling them to pay for gas and my own time, and this is my profession. What do you do for a living?”
“I’m an attorney.”
“Do give free legal advice?”
“On the first visit. But I get your point. You think you know something about books?”
“Then maybe you can help me out with something?”
“A tenant of mine died and left his trailer full of ‘em. Would you take a look?”
“You mean a client?”
“No. I own a trailer park up the way here. He lived there for twenty years. Thirty. Since before I bought the place. He died a few months ago and I’m about to put all of his junk into a dumpster so I can rehab the place and rent it out again. He had a whole lot of books. Would you like to look at them?”
“Have you called any bookshops in the area?”
“There are none. We have a couple of online types who list on eBay but they want the stuff with the UPC codes. These books are too old for that.”
“No. Howard wasn’t the type for that.”
“What type is that?”
“You know. Howard was in World War Two. He was at Okinawa for Christ’s sake!”
I had asked this out of my own sense of fun. Besides Angelo, I knew from long experience just what he meant.
“I’ll take a look. Can you take me there now?”
He looked at his watch.
“I’m due in court in two hours.”
I closed up and followed him down the road to a nearly treeless ‘park’ with the one advantage of being a block from a public park and within walking distance of a supermarket. The attorney opened the door on a dark interior and an oppressive breath of cold air exhaled into the sunny day behind us. Angelo was curious enough to get out of the cab and follow me.
The lawyer opened the shades for light because the electricity had been turned off. The books were everywhere, piled high and several rows deep in places. The shelves at the walls all bowed with the weight. I was easily reminded of another man I had never met, Herman Levi. He too had died after living in the same house for many years, leaving his collection of books. The difference was really only a matter of size. Herman’s house was several times larger than this forty-foot ‘mobile’ home.
I spoke out loud without realizing it.
“He lived here?”
“His mattress was on top of a solid block of books at the back end there. The bathroom works but he didn’t clean it very often. He didn’t cook. He went to the church kitchen on Sundays. He bought food at the supermarket and ate it out of the cans like a dog.”
This disparagement bothered me.
“He had no relatives?”
“No one I can trace. He had no will. He refused to write a will. I even told him I’d help him with it. He told me nobody would give a damn about what he had. Don’t get me wrong. I did try to help him. He’d been late on his rent before, so I let it slide. I shouldn’t’ have. So, the probate judge has agreed to let me clean it out. . . Too bad. Life didn’t turn out very well for him. But he was never very friendly, even with the other vets here in the park. I know he had a fiancé back in the day, but she died of cancer before they were married. He told me that himself. . . That’s her picture there.”
A young blond woman in a green dress smiled at me from a shelf unoccupied by anything other than a few trinkets and letters.
I began to look through the books that I could see without digging. Agricultural chemistry. Microbiology. Plant genetics! The books all appeared to be clean inside, despite some dusty exteriors. Perhaps read once or twice. All of them were dense texts likely well beyond my comprehension but from legitimate science publishers: Wiley-Blackwell, MIT Press, Pergamon, Elsevier, and many others that were probably long out of business or absorbed by one of the international conglomerates.
I went on to the adjoining wall. These were books of more general science. Physics. Chemistry. Biology. In the next room—what might have been a dining room given the sink at one side, there were religious texts. These were not the more commonly seen books of faith, but the sort of apologetics, essay, and religious history that I used to see up at the Saint John’s Seminary near Boston during my visits there to buy books donated to the fundraisers. In the next room, beyond a bathroom and a sour smell likely due to the lack of water in the pipes, was what had obviously been the bedroom. There, a twisted pile of sheets and blankets had been pushed to one side. The covers of hundreds of books faced up at me, with the stacks rising at least three feet from the floor.
“This is where I found him. He hadn’t paid his rent in three months, and I came to talk with him. He didn’t have a phone. . . It was pretty awful. Never saw anything like that before. He was always pretty thin, but it was already summer, and he was all dried up. I pulled the mattress out and threw it away because it stank of whatever had drained out of him. Pretty awful.”
The image was too easily imagined.
“What did he do for a living?”
“Nothing. He lived off of Social Security. In his younger days, he was a professor at the University of Cincinnati for some time. And then Kent State. But he had a drinking problem. I think they both let him go. But there’s a shed out behind where he used to grow things. Actually, it’s supposed to be a garage, but he didn’t drive, so he used it for his stuff. Like a potter’s shed. Soil everywhere. fluorescent lights. But he didn’t grow flowers. He grew mushrooms. You wouldn’t believe it. Big mushrooms!”
The mention of Okinawa made me ask, “Did he have some sort of PTSD?”
“Might have. He was strange. He could start talking about almost anything. I mean anything. He was a big Cincinnati Reds fan. I know he played for a local amateur team back in the 1950s. Maybe the 40s too. But that was before he came here.”
“How old was he?”
“Ninety-six. He’d been a marine, but like I said, he didn’t associate with the other vets. . . .They paid for his burial, anyway.”
“How much time do you have to get this done.”
“I need some time.”
“I need to rehab this place and start getting some rent again.”
“How much was his rent?”
“$400 a month.”
I looked around at the total neglect.
“If I gave you $200 today, can you give me a month?”
His eyes widened. “Yeah.”
I called Deirdre. She answered immediately with concern in her voice, given the time of day.
“Nothing—at least to us. We’re okay. But I need a favor. Can you look up the closest agricultural school? We’re in southern Ohio. I need to find someone who deals in agricultural books. Genetics. General science books. And maybe even religion and philosophy. If you can, can you break free for long enough—I’m talking pretty much right now. I’ll wait for you to call me back.”
She hardly paused with the request.
“You found a bunch of good books.”
The lawyer said, “Look, I gotta go. I’ve gotta be in court.”
I said goodbye to Deirdre and pulled out my checkbook. “Can I have a letter from you saying that I have the right to take all the books—actually, it won’t be me. I’m going to have someone else come in who knows what the hell they’re looking at.”
“Can you pay me something for the books right now?”
“If you can hold your horses for a few weeks, you’re likely to see a very fair deal for all this stuff that you were going to throw in a dumpster anyway.”
He nodded as I gave him the check.
“Sure. Where do I send the letter?”
I gave him Deidre’s address and then asked for an email copy.
When he started to leave, I said, “Can I have the key?”
“Sure. If you’ll be sure and lock it up. The kids around here have already broken in at least once.”
An hour later I was on the phone with a book dealer in Cleveland, not exactly southern Ohio but it was the best we could do on short notice. After a rundown of some titles, he wanted the entire lot. He had a truck and a couple of helpers. I told him where I would hide the key and then I asked for a favor. If he found any letters or family-related information, could he box that up and send it to me?
While I waited for the callback, I had packed up six boxes of philosophy and religion and the smattering of biography and history books that were easier for a humanities major like myself to identify and that I figured I could deal with fairly easily on my own.
Then I had another look at the shelf with the picture of the pretty young woman of long ago. There was a loose ribbon there, color faded from a red, but just a ribbon. There was a small gray cast metal car that I was pretty sure had come from a game of Monopoly. There were several letters that I did not open. It occurred to me that they’d been held together by the ribbon, but someone had taken them apart. They were all postmarked in 1956. And there was a small leather copy of A Book of Common Prayer dated 1923 with the neatly penned name of a woman with the same last name as Howard. I figured that might have been his mother. On the wall beside the door to the bathroom, where it would have been seen every day, there was a Ph.D. certificate for Biological Sciences from the University of Ohio. That was dated 1955.
Now Angelo, as was his pattern, had not said a word through the entire process. But when I took a picture of the shelf with my phone and then found an old grocery bag and filled it with the things there, he seemed surprised. Then he took the Ph.D. certificate down and handed it to me as well. We were back in the truck and rolling when he finally asked.
“Why didn’t you take more for yourself? You’re out two hundred bucks!”
“I’ll be fine. I took enough. At least Howard’s books will find new homes.”
This was a fact of my own way of life. I often got to know people after they died, through an exposure to the books they had cared enough to keep. Usually, these were fewer in number but always revealing.
Angelo says, “I think it’s just another example of a principle that ought to be a razor if I can phrase it just right.”
“We don’t own a thing. Nothing is really ours. We’re all just leasing.”
I had often had this argument before.
“Even if you phrase it right, you’re still wrong.”
“What you’re falling for is just an extension of the ‘stewards’ argument. We are all just stewards for the next generation. I think you can pick that apart as well as I can. But just a few points—just who is this ‘next generation’ when so many people are so busy not having children? What makes you believe the ones who survive will give a damn if they’re ignorant of the past and incapable of dealing with the present? Most importantly, who decides what ‘good’ stewardship is? This obligation to steward things is really just another form of slavery, isn’t it? But instead of Simon Legree, you have some pseudo-intellectual’s idea of Mother Earth to worry about. In either case, you’re whipped. What’s best for the Earth? Sure, you could just ask somebody at Harvard. They know everything, right? And in any case, the Earth doesn’t give a damn. What you value is all your own. If there are enough others out there who value the same things, you have yourself a community. But whether you believe in God or not, you’re still a human being. You can say mother nature made you, or not, but you function better in a community of like-minded individuals. . . I could go on about it, but I’ll give you a break.”
Angelo studied the road a minute.
“Okay. So it’s not such a good idea for a razor.”
“For a guy that doesn’t shave, you seem to have a thing for razors.”
“So, why did you take the picture and other stuff from that shelf?”
“Because it was going to end up in a dumpster.”
“We all end up in the dumpster, don’t we?”
An unexpected turn.
“What’s this? Why are you suddenly so negative?”
He did look depressed. He had his chin down so his beard pressed nearly flat against his shirt.
“You saw all that? Didn’t that depress you?”
“Yes.” As a matter of fact.
“So, if that’s the end of someone’s life, what does it matter?”
“I’m surprised that a fellow of a religious bent such as yourself should reach such a conclusion.”
“It’s not a conclusion. It’s just a thought.”
“Well, it matters to me because it matters to me. That’s all. I wouldn’t tell anyone else what they ought to give a damn about. They might have their own priorities. But maybe on some level, it’s just because this particular fellow liked books. Loved books, I think, from the way he tried to take care of them in a fairly difficult circumstance. And in the end, that’s likely my only religion. If there is a God out there, he seems to have put me here to take care of the books.”
Angelo smiled. His beard rose up with his chin and he totally brightened.
“A book steward!”
“As you like it.”
The address on the letters was for a town called Chillicothe. It wasn’t all that far or out of the way. Sixty years ago, Howard had been in love with a girl from Chillicothe and I wondered if there was anyone left there who might remember her, or him. I headed to the town hall. The clerk at the records desk did not recognize her name. The family was large and it would take some research. The records for the 1950s were in storage and would take some time to recover. But it was clear from the letters that she had been a Roman Catholic and there was a Catholic cemetery and the clerk had directions for that.
At the cemetery there was a low cinderblock office near the entrance—low enough to have grass growing from the gutters—and there a smallish old man in overalls sitting on an overturned bucket out in the sun at the door. He watched me approach through a tight squint, but without moving a muscle.
I asked, “Do you work here?”
“I’d say grave diggin’ is work, so I will admit that I do.”
“I guess I’m looking for a grave.”
“Who’d it be?”
I gave him one of the envelopes.
He said, “That’d be Miss Ruth.”
That was not the name on the envelope.
“No. But that’d be Miss Ruth. She went by that name there because she didn’t like the name ‘Ruth.’ Everybody called her Miss Ruth anyways, because it was her mother’s name before her.”
“You knew the family?”
I told him why I had come. Explaining why I thought it might be important for someone to know that Howard had died felt somehow awkward in this age of disposables. A few minutes into my narrative, he held up a hand.
“Why, that was the damn saddest thing. I remember him. He stood there when we buried her and cried like a child. He’d been in the war, and I guess he was a little bit broken.”
I was amazed and couldn’t restrain my reaction
“That was sixty years ago!”
He answered matter-of-factly.
“Just yesterday. Just yesterday.”
“Do you think there’s anyone of her family left?”
“Roughly, I’d say there was maybe fifty or more. Nieces and nephews mostly. But her sister is still with us. She is. She lives up on the ridge road goin’ west out of town. Number 216. You just tell her that Parker says hi.”
Number 216 was a small bungalow of peeling beige paint. Miss Ruth’s sister, Emily, was inside listening to a radio that was loud enough to hear from the sidewalk.
I knocked several times before going to the porch window. She started at the sight of my shadow on the white curtains. I smiled. She nodded, and then reached out a misshapen hand and turned the nob on a bulky brown radio before rising, straightening her dress, and heading for the door.
She opened the door with a “Hello. you!”
Her voice was clear.
I introduced myself and told her why I was there. Her eyes studied my trailer and looked twice at Angelo, who had stayed back and was leaning against the bumper of the truck, and she studied me up and down several times, but when I said, “Parker said to say ‘Hi,’” she said “Yup,” and nodded again. I apparently spoke loudly enough as I explained my mission. She nodded through most of it. Then she started to cry.
I was at a loss. Angelo stood up straight and came closer. My only thought was to wait, but she continued to weep for several minutes with one hand across her face and with her other arm loose at her side as if broken. I supposed she was recalling the loss of her sister more than Howard, but I was only partly right. Finally, after a moment of raising both arthritic hands to her face and then wiping dark stains into the plain blue cotton of her dress, she took several deep breaths and motioned for us both to come in.
Emily’s story was nearly as tragic in its own way as Howard’s. Perhaps because Angelo and I were total strangers, she told us some of the detail very plainly and unembellished by sentimentality. Or maybe that frankness had been in her personality all along, though I suspected, given her history, that none of her family knew about this.
Miss Emily had fallen in love with Howard, one summer in 1955, while she was working for the Agricultural College at Ohio State University in Columbus. He was tall and handsome and smart—athletic, she called him—and always polite. As an assistant, he was there making sure the ongoing lab work was properly maintained. But he was clearly a lonely creature—‘a sad puppy of man’ she called him. She wanted to hold him from the first moment she met him. She had managed to get him to take her to the movies just once. But on the Fourth of July weekend she had invited him down to the family celebrations at Chillicothe and to her surprise, he had accepted. They used a State University pick-up truck and they drove down together.
Unfortunately for her, this was a disaster. Howard seemed to enjoy the family but he was uninterested in the fireworks, and it was there that he had met her sister Ruth. Ruthie had also come home for the family gathering but with little interest in all the noise and flash. When Emily had finally called it quits and gone up to bed, her sister and Howard had already spent the evening on the porch of the big house talking about nonsense, and then they had proceeded to chat on and away into the wee hours. Emily had lain awake in her room and listened to them. She knew immediately what had happened.
Emily had married Roy soon afterward. After all, he had been asking her since they were in high school. It only seemed natural. But dear Ruthie was dead within the year.
She had not held it against Howard, she said. ‘Ruthie was easily the prettiest member of the family. Smart as a tack and a sucker for lost dogs.’ But Emily had never been able to look at Howard again without seeing a different life for herself. And Howard was the only one who had cried more at Ruthie’s funeral.
The ongoing conversation
Route 23 going south is perhaps too good a road. Too quickly I found myself pressing 60 mph without thinking. But there was a feeling of wanting to move along. It was an impulse I had thwarted before, and I would again. I got off at Waverly onto the smaller road, 104, and continued south at a more reasonable pace. Unfortunately, there was no good place along there, close by the winding of the Scioto River, with enough traffic to warrant stopping to set up a stand, not at that time of year in any case, so we went on to the Ohio River and then Shawnee State Park where I had camped once some years before and remembered as a pretty little place and it still was. I also had a memory of a decent rib joint on the river road nearby but that was no more, so I grilled a couple of hamburgers on a rack at the park and we shared a can of beans on paper plates.
It was a cool night and I was happier with the fire than with the frozen hamburger from the convenience store. I am a connoisseur of canned beans and these were some local brand that was only passable. Missing a good meal somehow led my mind to other things missed.
“Damn, I’m getting old fast.”
Angelo reacted to this sudden statement of fact as if I was commenting about the weather.
“What about it?”
“I’d been thinking back there in Pennsylvania that I wanted to go to Indiana.”
“We can still go there if you want.”
“No. Back there! Indiana, Pennsylvania. We were close. I’ve always wanted to see the place and for some reason, I’ve always missed it.”
“Well, for one thing, the Jimmy Stewart Museum.”
This brought a very long silence. I waited it out, entertained by thoughts of what might be going through his mind.
Finally, “Well, you never figured me for a country music fan. I guess I never thought you might be a nut for movie stars. They’re just people. Just actors. They don’t write the words they say and I’m pretty sure most of them don’t understand half of that. They’re just good at pretending.”
This was an interesting line of conversation I thought I could tuck away for another moment when things got dull in the truck, so I went to the finish.
“He was a bit more than that. He was a pilot in World War Two. He flew a heck of a lot of missions. An actual hero, as those things go. And he’s just about my favorite actor. But Indiana, Pennsylvanian is also the home of Edward Abbey.”
“Yep. And he’s a terrific writer. Going there would have been just a matter of paying respects, so to speak. Abbey would have laughed at the thought. But I’ve read so many bits and pieces about that town. . . . Maybe I’ll get another chance on the way back.”
“You ever meet Abbey?”
“No. I wrote him some letters about one thing or another and he was kind enough to write back, but never got the chance to meet him.”
“Well, I did.”
“Long story. But he was an interesting guy. Very abrupt. He didn’t look all that healthy, but he didn’t act weak. He was a little like you in the way he was inclined to say one thing but mean another.”
I decided to digest that statement.
“What did you read?”
“I read Desert Solitaire. I liked it. It changed the way I was looking at some things. Good book.”
There was an opening.
“Life in general. But he was not a man who needed a lot of property.”
“Well, that would have rung a bell with you.”
In my mind, Angelo and Abbey were near opposites.
“It did. But it also gave me some reasons for it.”
“What got you reading that?”
“Just research. I wanted to know a little more about the guy.”
“But what got that going? He doesn’t write history.”
I had the feeling this was going to lead to something, and I ought to persist. Angelo threw me a glance over the fire.
“It was about that book you like so much. The Monkey Wrench Gang.”
“That’s fiction. You read that?”
“A friend wanted me to. Mr. Abbey had some strange ideas.”
“Not so strange. I think maybe he was more a man of his time than now, twenty or thirty years later.”
Now I had sparked something. Angelo was engaged.
“How do you mean that?”
“It’s generational, I hope. Things were really coming apart in the 1960s and 70s. But I hate to think the country is actually dying, the way Abbey did. When did you meet him?”
“Summer of 1987. Just before I started at Columbia.”
“Where were you?”
“Grand Canyon, actually! First time I ever saw it! Like you said to that cop about Niagara Falls, pretty big. But that hole in the ground is pretty and big. Do you think you’ll be going that far this time?”
“No. I wanted to avoid touristy things like that. Abbey called them ‘national parking lots.’”
“I suppose I can understand that. But people want to see it. They really ought to see it to get a feel for what the country is made of.”
“It’s a problem to solve. Like the traffic jam going through Yellowstone. Not good the way it is. But tell me more about Abbey.”
He rocked in the camp chair for a moment.
“I saw him a few times. He was arguing a lot. Lost his temper more than once. Didn’t suffer fools and there were a lot of fools there at the time.”
“What was the occasion? Just a trip?”
“No…. It became that, I suppose, but I was there to check some things out.”
I felt like I was pulling teeth.
“What was going on?”
The reluctance was palpable.
“It was a sort of ‘Rendezvous’ put on by an organization called Earth First. I think Abbey was a guest speaker.”
I waited for more. When nothing came, I tried to prompt him again.
“I’m surprised he even went to something like that. He generally hated that sort of thing.”
“I think that’s right.” Angelo yawned. “I’m getting tired. I better go brush my teeth.”
That stretch of Route 52 along the Ohio River is physically beautiful, but a little run down. The cared-for farms are large and neat but between them are too many overgrown fields and tattered woods grown up behind broken-down fences, where house trailers butt up against houses left to ruin. This is river bottomland, after all, and as fertile as can be but many of the farms are unkept as if they’re not making a living out of it. Fences are rusted. Barns are dilapidated. Machinery sits amidst summer grass turned gray in the early frosts. The good of the road was that there were fewer embankments to the right, and we were often high enough to have a prospect over the water and the fields, all the way to the hills of Kentucky.
I stopped to take a picture of one collapsing house that seemed to evoke the abandonment made too obvious. The steep nineteenth-century roof, shingled now in moss, was still straight-backed but angled downward over rotted posts; mottled paint, once white, was striped by lost clapboards in a haphazard design; window openings, darkly gaping, likely gave little light on the ghosts of lives lived long ago. Who would let such a place go, nestled as it was well above the flood plain with a fine view of the blue hills beyond each morning?
This is Simon Kenton territory. The Frontiersman by Allan Eckert was still a favorite book from my youth. But I imagined that many years before—a couple of generations, at least, and possibly in the great post-war migration of the 1950s and 60s, the family in the house had moved on to the easier climate of California, where history is leveled, graded, and parsed by digital units and easily managed without need for recollection. As I moved for a better angle to take the picture, I saw that this speculation was somewhat modified by a mobile home parked lower at the back, perched on cinderblock, with a muddy yard there decorated with children’s toys.
We crossed the river and had breakfast at a diner in Maysville, Kentucky. A very nice piece of fried ham made up more than a little for the frozen hamburger of the night before. And the waitress, curious about our journey, told us about a good book she had read in high school which was apparently the last one she had ever read. She remembered it well. But she couldn’t remember the title. It was about a ‘black horse,’ but she was certain it was not Black Beauty. And she remembered the horse died, and that she had cried herself to sleep. I immediately thought of My Friend Flicka, but I was pretty sure Flicka was not black.
After breakfast, with the comfort of a large coffee in my mug, and on the advice of the waitress who served us, I set up shop at the edge of a weedy lot that was for sale only a block away. By noon it was fairly certain there was no interest in what I was doing, much less the books themselves. However, I did have a very pleasant chat with a state trooper who was not so curious about the contents of my books as he was about their weight. He walked through to be sure of that.
I didn’t immediately find a good opportunity to grill Angelo again about his meeting with Edward Abbey. I didn’t want to make too much of it, but there was something not forthcoming about his answers and I looked for an opening. An indirect line between points seems to be the best course.
“So, you taught the same course for nineteen years. Didn’t that get a little boring?”
Angelo winced at me like I had said something particularly stupid.
“No! They fired me for teaching one particular course the way I thought it ought to be taught, but I had three. They would have fired me for something else if they hadn’t gotten me for that. ‘The Ideological Origins of the American Revolution’ was my freshman-sophomore course. I also had a ‘Classical Sources of the Constitution.’ My favorite was the ‘Medieval Roots of Modernity.”
“Why did you like that one best?”
“It had the greatest latitude. I could go almost anywhere. That’s one of the reasons they wanted to fire me. I was stepping on too many toes. The departments are very territorial, and specializing is the name of the game. In the earlier days, back in the 1990s, I had a few people on my side, but they had all retired. I was the last one that didn’t fit.”
“Did you write any books? I don’t remember seeing any in the shop?”
“Several. But I guess they were too idiosyncratic for a larger audience. Anyways, they didn’t sell. They were all published by university presses. Johns Hopkins. Columbia. They were all remaindered.”
“What made them idiosyncratic?”
He appeared slightly pressed by my pursuit.
“I don’t see history the way most others do. I don’t like politics. Generally speaking. Political ideas aren’t ideas. They’re rote. Cant. They’re proscribed. If you know where the writer is coming from, the conclusions are foregone. But that’s the stuff they want nowadays, so long as it fits the agenda.”
“That would do it.”
“When I started calling political ideas religions, and petty religions at that, and little, and small, and narrow-minded and whatever other belittling adjective that occurred to me when I was talking to a class, they couldn’t take it. As I think you know, religions are like that.”
“But, I thought religion was what you were using as a source in your ‘Ideological Origins’ course.”
“Right. But it’s the difference between ‘religious’ and ‘religion.’ You can be religious without belonging to a particular religion. I was just dealing with the facts. The statements by the principles involved. Except for one or two, the founders were pretty much all Christian. Some deists, but there were more who called themselves Anglican than all the others combined. Their assumptions about morality and self-governance were Christian. I was raised a Roman Catholic. To my knowledge, I never used any precept of the Catholic Church, as such, in my courses. I actually went out of my way to describe ‘Christianity’ as a body of ideas, not a ‘religion.’ Even so, one of my Moslem students took exception to that and that was part of the last complaint. In point of fact, that young fellow refused to read the syllabus. He couldn’t know what I was actually teaching.”
Knowing Abbey was an avowed atheist, I’d begun to imagine what their confrontation might have been like.
But by then, I’d spent most of an hour on the phone with Deidre last night. And much of that was spent talking about Angelo. Speculation, mostly. Deidre, as any good reporter would, had found the coincidence of my picking up Angelo hitchhiking about an hour after I had let her off at the airport to be a little too much.
“People don’t hitchhike anymore. Not like they did when you were a kid.”
“Sure, they do. Some. I’ve seen a few. So, what are saying?”
“I’ve already checked and found out Mr. Angelo Antonio Abbate was let go from BU two years ago. But the reasons were ambiguous. Boilerplate. They did give him a severance package. Just like the Post gave me. But mine was better. Anyway, I called a couple of friends at BU. One is in the athletic department and has a friend in Personal Resources. She tells me he was let go for not sticking with the program. He kept going outside of the plan. They’d been putting the screws on him for several years but he had tenure, so he got away with it. I guess he just took it too far.”
“That fits with what he’s told me.”
She paused. Deirdre understands dramatic effect.
“Did you know he’s in the Army?”
I thought she meant it in the past tense.
“He told me that too. That’s how he was able to afford Columbia University.”
“I mean, right now.”
This was worth a pause, but I reacted almost as soon as the words were out.
“Angelo? He’s got a beard like young Santa Clause. He’s gotta weigh 250 pounds.”
“He’s a major in the reserves. He’s inactive, I guess.”
“Yes. But that’s not even the best.”
“What? He’s married and has six kids?”
“No. The designation on his transcript is ‘MI slash HUMINT.’ That’s Military Intelligence. An oxymoron these days as much as the music is. And that’s Human Intelligence for those of us civilians.”
I do believe in Santa Clause, but I don’t believe in coincidences like that. Too many moving parts. Which, was another issue entirely. Suddenly his past encounter with Edward Abbey took on new possibilities.
Angelo had been napping on our drive through some beautiful Kentucky hill country when he suddenly said, “There are an awful lot of people who have sold their souls for the money.”
To make it a conversation I took the contrary tack.
“There are an awful lot of people who’re so poor they wish they could sell their souls for the money.”
“That’s right. More of them, I think.”
“A lot more.”
He’s resting back into the corner of the seat with his sleeping bag for support. He hadn’t moved but his eyes were open as if he had awakened from a dream with the thought on his mind.
“Did you ever do that?”
“Sell your soul for the money?”
“A hundred times.”
“What do you mean?”
“A thousand times. Maybe ten thousand. Every time I sold a crap book for the price—a book I knew was a piece of crap—for the money. Yes.”
“But you said yourself, you can’t know every book you sell. You can’t judge that. They might want Mein Kampf so they’ll be able to recognize the evil in it when they see it. You can’t play God.”
“Yeah. That’s my excuse. But it’s not a matter of Mein Kampf. It’s all the little crap that I know is crap. The phony thrillers. the gun-porn. It’s all the pornography that I know is pornography. It’s the nihilism that I know is going to plant its seed in the head of some sixteen-year-old kid who doesn’t understand the evil he’s tinkering with.”
“Well, if you know it’s crap, okay. I guess you should skip it. Why didn’t you?”
“To pay the rent. To get a chance to sell the good stuff. That was my excuse, anyway. But after all the dust has cleared, I think that was a bad deal. I might as well have been selling dope on the corner.”
This brought Angelo upright in the seat.
“You really think that?”
“Holy smokes. You’ve gotta stop doing that. It’s bad for you.”
“Thinking stuff like that.”
It was. But he had no idea how bad it was.
After a time, he said.
“Have you really read 10,000 books?”
I had speculated at one point in our ongoing and meandering conversation that a person ought to read at least 10,000 books in a lifetime if they were going to really have a grasp on the important things. It was one of my many fatuous remarks.
“No. I’ve actually read a lot fewer books than the number of women Georges Simenon had sex with.”
In fact, what I had written somewhere was that everyone ought to read at least as many books as the number of women Mr. Simenon had sex with. It was meant to be provocative at the time.
“Whew! You’re kidding! 10,000 women. Really? Sounds exhausting. Do you sell his books?”
“Yes. They’re detective mysteries. Maigret. Good reads.”
“Lots of sex?”
“Actually none. Not that I’ve encountered.”
“So how many books have you actually read?”
“Maybe 4000. The Maigrets, for instance, are pretty short. But I’ve never counted.”
“So, the point is—and you likely haven’t read a lot of crap—so how do you know a book is really crap and not a jewel in the rough.”
I shrugged. The best I could do. The question was really metaphysical.
“Intuition. What I pick up along the way. What people say.”
Given my diatribes about following the popular trends, I had to amend.
“Okay. So maybe I don’t know all that crap I sold is really crap. . . Deirdre is addicted to romance novels. It even embarrasses her to have them around, so she gives them away afterward. But I used to carry them in the shop just to see her come in to buy them. That’s a little perverted, isn’t it?”
“No. That’s just common sense. And it worked out, right?”
He shook his head several times before speaking again.
“10,000! Wow! With 365 nights a year, that’s like 30 years!”
“He lived into his eighties. Maybe he used some of the days as well.”
“Then I guess it didn’t hurt him.”
The book on forgetting to laugh
and the beginnings of a pretty good friendship
Angelo has a demeanor that doesn’t miss much. He doesn’t talk half as much as I do, and even when I think he’s asleep, he seems to be aware of what’s going on. He doesn’t fidget. But the one thing he can’t hide is the glint in his eye.
I suspect, given my own demeanor, he has a feeling something is amiss with me. A delicate moment is approaching, and I have no idea exactly how I’m going to handle it.
With him doing a survey of more cows as we passed, I say, “So, why didn’t you go looking for another job?”
He doesn’t turn. He just talks at the window. “I don’t need one. I’m busy. Why didn’t you?”
But it was his turn to parry, and he turned to give me a glinty look.
“I know your girlfriend wrote that you had no idea why the Feds are badgering you, but you must have some clue. Something. . . I’m curious.
“Everything today is politics. There’s no religion. No history. Just politics. But why did they target you?”
“Different authority, but likely the same reason they fired you, I suppose. That’s the way authority is.”
“Well, I’ve thought about that. I think if I were them, I would have fired me as well. I was a subversive! They fired me, but it was a favor. It took me less than a day to figure that out. Hell, after twenty years, I was out of Boston in under a week. I was out of the whole mess, just like that. Glad to be gone. The last couple of years since have been pretty good. Not the best, but better. At least I don’t have to feel the weight of that anymore. . . Yeah, the system is corrupt. Totally. Not just some of it. All of it. And by doing my little part teaching students that there was a right and wrong and not just a maybe, I was supporting the system by giving the illusion that there was all kinds of thinking going on at the University. There wasn’t. I was already marginalized.”
“I’ve had similar thoughts.”
“So, you already know what the last straw was in my case. What was yours?”
“Straws. Exactly! Nearly weightless. But a small bale of hay weighs about forty pounds. You know, my old shop had once been a stable. They used to keep a couple of carriages and a few horses in there, and that would be weight enough, but they also stored a couple hundred bales of hay on the floor above. At least five tons. Given that carrying capacity, it was a great place to have a bookshop as full as we had.”
“So, what are you saying? That the straws add up. Camels can carry only so much? What?”
“Right. I’m just saying it wasn’t one thing. I’m thinking it was a lot of things. The metaphor easily covers all that. All those books. All those unapproved books. All those objectionable books! Sexism rampant! Racism unbound! Language in the raw! What were they going to do? The system is corrupt, just as you say. But it’s always been that way. I think you pretty much said that before too. It’s just that there’s a tipping point when the dishonesty reaches a place where people can’t take it anymore—I didn’t realize it until it was over, but I was at that point myself. You were too, I guess. And I’m not happy that I lost the store, but I’m happy to be out from under all that weight as well.”
This put Angelo back in a contemplative mood, and with the pastures gone to a second growth of weedy woods, he was staring up the highway ahead. I have a little more time to figure this out.
The problem simply stated—or as simple as I could make it—was that if Angelo was a spy, an undercover agent of the Army slash FBI slash NSA slash pick your own secret police, he was at least doing his job as he saw fit. I knew he was a decent and civilized man. He wasn’t shooting babies or gassing anyone. He was simply wrong. He was trying to root out some imagined terrorist group that his bosses thought I was a part of, or at least had a link to. That was legit, even in my book. The world is full of bad actors and the country needed soldiers willing to defend what remnant of freedom we had left. That I didn’t want to destroy the Republic was not the matter. There were a lot of traitors in history who thought they were doing the right thing. The matter for me was that even though I had not been directly involved, I did know the people who had been the cause of this kerfuffle. I knew they were of a similar mind to myself. And I knew that the real enemy was already within the gates. They were the gatekeepers.
After a while I say, “Are you going to teach again?”
“Why? You didn’t enjoy it anymore?”
“I liked it. But it was a job. I wanted it to be fun. I had the stupid idea that I had to bring something new to the classroom every day. I really hated teaching the same course all over again. But they stopped approving the changes I was making. I should have known it was done, right then. Instead, I just started stretching definitions. ‘The Ideological Origins of the American Revolution’ offered a lot of room for that. ‘The Medieval Roots of Modernity’ was another. The kids mostly loved it. But, I had a Dean visiting my classes a couple of times a year. There was always some complainer.”
“Maybe you could get a job at someplace with a more open view of things.”
“Really? Where would that be? St. John’s? Hillsdale? The best places have a hundred people trying for every position. And I haven’t written enough. I was too busy reading to stay ahead of the new material I wanted for the class. I don’t have the right credentials.”
We had to stop for gas and a break before I tried again. But what I wanted was to talk with him outside of the truck.
It was Deidre who had made me aware of this the evening before. She had covered many trials. She knew from law enforcement testimony that ‘the wire’ was a favorite tool. Listening devices were cheaper than a GoPro and those little cameras were everywhere. The fact she could not ignore was that they had dropped Angelo on the side of the road ahead of me, only an hour after she had left. They knew she was gone. They knew the seat was empty. Angelo had to be ready. They knew from our conversation the night before that Deidre was leaving. And this was not a cheap operation.
In the aisles of the mini-mart at the gas station, I asked, “What did you do during summers?”
He hunched his shoulders. This was unconvincing. He was still thinking things over himself.
“Well, . . . I had reserve duty for six weeks most summers.”
“Yeah. But that got old a while ago. I should have retired seven years ago.”
“How long have you been in?”
I realized afterward that I should feigned more surprise. I wasn’t good at this.
He came around from the other aisle, carrying a bag of Wise potato chips and a coke.
“When I came out of high school in 1979 there were no jobs. I had mediocre grades except for history. No money. My Dad had died, and I didn’t want to use family money. So I joined up. And then I went into the reserves when I went to college. It worked out. I’m listed as in-active now. But if they did call me up, you know I’d be way over the weight limit.”
This picture was getting complicated. I think he knew this and was looking for some misdirection.
He says, “Where did you go to school?”
“I suppose because I knew the system was corrupt a long time ago. They tossed me for insubordination. Same as you, really. But that was back in 1966. Three years before the first man stepped on the moon, or Woodstock. I was ahead of my time.”
“What’s so corrupt about Man going to the moon?”
“Really? A bunch of big corporations with closed military contracts put a few brave guys on the moon. What could go wrong? I think that was actually the moment—just about when they took everything over. 1969. Did you ever read Tom Wolfe’s, The Right Stuff? Those were brave men. They all wanted to be the first. And all that bravery was used to the hilt by people who had other aims. They were all military. Some were already war heroes. Honor had everything to do with it. To be the first on the moon. Think of that! But the people who used them were there for money and power. But like you said before, that’s the way it’s always been.”
He shook his head at me.
“Talk about cynical.”
I wasn’t going to soften it.
“Just the facts. That’s the military you have now, in spades.”
“Are you trying to insult me?”
“At least get a reaction.”
He stared at me with what I was sure was a blank face hidden beneath that beard, but there was already a piece of potato chip nesting there. I smiled.
He squinted with a little pain, “I guess I can’t. Not while they’re still paying for my health insurance.”
I could see he was stewing over the ingredients of our conversation. He was staring away again but now he was agitated. I paid for the gas and a couple of snacks for myself and went outside to think.
What he says when he finally follows is, “You’ve been talking to your girlfriend again. . . Funny. I should have figured that, sooner than later. I knew she was a good reporter.”
Recognizing that history retold as reporting is a natural form of fiction, and if told as a narrative with a beginning, middle, and end, merely a novel—merely the greatest device of mankind since the invention of fire—was an idea worth pursuing, and it came to me that now was the best possible moment for that.
He had said, “Can you take me as far as Lexington?”
I answered, “Sure. If that’s what you want.”
“I think I’ll get a bus there.”
“Back to New York.”
“Back to your mother’s? Really?”
“Well. After I make a report, I’ll be off-duty again. I can’t afford an apartment of my own. Not yet. Prices in New York are ridiculous.”
“Why don’t you hang in here with me? I’m going where I’m going. Or until they stop me. I guess that might have something to do with you and your report.”
This was a statement.
“No. I guess I should be, but I’m not. I enjoy your company. If you hold off on your report, they’ll probably keep paying you to keep an eye on me and I’m not doing anything other than what I’m doing so that doesn’t bother me. Besides, I never got a chance to expound on one of my best ideas.” His mouth was open, making a dark gap at the top of his beard. “What? You think I should be angry at you? I am. But not all that much.”
“You’ll just be doing what they wanted you to do. That’s not dishonest.”
He thought about it for all of five minutes. I could not guess where his mind was going,
Finally, he says, “What idea?”
I told him about my conception of history. But I wasn’t sure if he was only trying to humor me or not—likely he was, but not without reason. It’s a good idea. When I got to the part about the novel reforming itself—reshaping itself “to become what it once promised to be when Homer lived and lived again at the campfires of war and the hearth of the home.” he looked positively excited.
“What is now called history will be told by machines one day—a catalog of useless fact strung out in some mechanical order. It will not be the fact of the matter. There’ll be no truth in it. But, maybe the novel will be reborn then. The human mind wants to know where it’s been and why, as much as what it’s doing and what’s next. And because there are more facts than there are reasons, comprehending as much of it as we’re able to will require novelists. Blind poets, every one.”
Then he squints out at the road as if he had a hard nut in his teeth.
“But what do you say about all the trash on the racks at the bookstores?”
“I’d say it’s just one more reason the bookstores are dying. But I’d also say that it’s necessary to fill that void mother nature is so afraid of. Before smartphones and computers, all that trash was a way to avoid thought—now you can just stare at the little machine in your hand for hours and jerk off your mind.”
“Whew! That’s rough.”
By the time I called Deirdre that night, it had been a very good day. The Red Sox fan in me was worried.
The last thing she had asked the evening before was, “What are you going to do?” I didn’t know at the time. I was glad I’d slept on it.
The first thing she said this evening when I told her what I’d done is, “You’re kidding.”
“No. It’s all good.”
“He’s still spying on you.”
“So. Maybe it’ll do him some good. It will definitely do me some good to know someone is keeping an eye on me. I never know what I’m going to do, sometimes.”
“Cut the baloney and tell me what you’re doing.”
“I figure it’s a win-win. As long as he’s there, they’ll let me go about my business. If he’s gone, I have no idea what they might do, but most likely they’ll harass me. I don’t have the stamina for that.”
“You’re stamina is fine. Just don’t say something stupid.”
“Well, that’s asking too much. But I’ll try to be careful.”
She was quiet long enough for me to ask if she was still there.
“I’m here. I was just thinking. I was going to post a piece about the FBI spying on you. I guess I shouldn’t. I think you’re right. His being there might keep them at bay.”
“Say that again.”
“That you think I’m right.”
“Just, shut up.”
But instead, I told her about the day, and what we had done. I had stopped at a closed farm stand outside of Paris, Kentucky. Mostly because I wanted to tell her I’d been there after promising more than once to take her to the one in France, before I started this adventure.
“What Hemingway said about Paris being the most beautiful in Autumn is true.”
She told me to shut up, again.
But I didn’t. I had to tell her about calling the number on the billboard at the farm stand to get permission and speaking with an old fellow, at least as old as myself, named Donald Oliphant, who was ‘tickled’ at the idea—his word—of my selling books there and said I could do it for the entire winter if I wanted. I explained my situation. He said fine. Next thing I know he’s over there in person chatting up a storm. He’s a smallish fellow in a red plaid shirt and a blue cardigan and twill pants; well shaved, with gold rim glasses. It seems Mr. Oliphant is a retired professor of English literature from the Kentucky State University, and he has a collection of about 10,000 books. Half in jest, I asked him if he’d read them all because it was the same question I’d gotten a thousand times through the years. He admitted that he hadn’t, but it was his ambition in retirement. And he knew my little story about Georges Simenon. He shook his head at that thought and browsed through the trailer before grabbing a jacketless copy of Madge Jenison’s ‘Sunwise Turn’ that I had. A small treasure.
And then he sighed, audibly.
“But now I have to sell them. I really came over here to find out if you knew anyone who might buy them.”
“Are you moving?”
“No. Not just yet . . . My wife passed this last year and it’s daunting to think of what I’ll do now with all those books. Maeve was the farmer. She loved horses. She made the jellies and such that she sold right here at this stand. Now, I’m not sure quite how to deal with it.”
While I was talking with him, various people were stopping. Others passing would honk and wave at the professor, calling his name, and he would wave back.
I asked, “Have you contacted Glover’s in Lexington? I remember them being pretty good.”
“I must have bought a thousand books there, through the years—at least. I called someone in Louisville as well. But they wanted to just take what they needed. I understand that. But I need them all to go away. And I use my books. They have notes in them. I underline. And I used to try and use a different text as often as I could.”
“You’re saying they are just reading copies.”
“That’s the term. Yes. Not much for collectors.”
I said, “Well, then I think Miss Jenison had the right idea. She didn’t know squat about selling books when she started. But she was full of the romance of it. She loved books. She wanted to do something with what she loved. So, sell them yourself. You have the place. You have the time. And you know your stock. Open your own bookshop!”
I had him wide-eyed, and he flipped the pages of the book in his hand in a moment of contemplation as if that had never occurred to him before.
“I wouldn’t know what I was doing!”
“You know more than I did when I started over fifty years ago. Nobody much reads anymore, anyway. It’ll be slow. You can handle it. Put a good chair over there in the corner with a lamp and you can read what you haven’t gotten to yet. I’ll bet most of your customers will be people who know you and trust your judgment. And they’ll keep coming back because they’re the remnant now. And you’ll get the occasional young one too. You can put some of your own love for your books into them.”
In a matter of less than an hour, I had him convinced he could do it. I talked to him a little about insulating the stand and keeping the woodstove away from the stock, not because of the possibility of fire, but because the heat would dry them to a crisp. Practical things. I told him to keep it simple; keep track of every sale but take the sales tax out of the total at the end of the day, and don’t make change. Making change just slowed things down and multiplied mistakes.
“Keep your prices low and they’ll sell. You can go online and check the prices. And if it goes pretty well, and you like it, you can take more stock in. As soon as you open there’ll be somebody looking to sell you their books.”
Like clockwork, a women in an old wide-bodied 1970 Cadillac pulled in close, got out, and opened the enormous trunk.
“Would you buy these?”
Professor Oliphant said, “Hello Gladys.” and stepped back.
The books were in good shape but all book club editions. There were just too many of those around and their days of interest were well gone. Thankfully, I moved the top boxes aside. On the bottom were about forty pristine copies issued by the Library of America. They were purchased by subscription but they were all classics, well bound, and always easier to find customers for.
“They’re my brother’s. Were my brother’s. He was a lawyer. He never read them. He had them up in his office to impress his clients.”
The Library of America volumes would sell for fifteen to twenty dollars each. All I could afford was perhaps a third of that.
“I could give you two hundred dollars for these.”
“You can have the rest for free.”
“I have no place to put them. You should bring them to Goodwill.”
Angelo let out an audible gasp of air.
Angelo had wandered down the road to a gas station to pick up a few snacks before sitting on an empty fruit box to watch all of this transpire.
When she was gone he said, “I was afraid I was going to be sleeping in the tent again.”
Even Deidre was impressed. I wandered the entire circuit in the campground that evening, talking to her. Most of the campsites were empty but it was a chilly night and I was trying to stay warm.
By that time, I had asked Angelo very directly what he’d been doing before he turned up beside the road. He told me he’d been back living at his mother’s apartment on the upper West Side of Manhattan when an old friend, Douglas Evans, had called him from Boston and asked him to do a favor. Evans had helped Angelo monitor several characters over the years. It was Evans, of course, who was the FBI agent who had retired after ruining my business and then given me the trailer, I thought, as some recompense. I already knew that Evans thought I was a dupe and that someone else had been using me. But I was indeed stupid enough to think the trailer was both free and clear, so the ‘dupe’ classification was fairly accurate.
Deidre suggested that besides the bug hidden somewhere in the trailer, there was likely to be some sort of location device with a satellite link. But her real anger was over the bugs and what they might have heard that last night she was with me.
Professor Oliphant asked us to at least stay another day, and we did that. He got to watch the process a bit more, and our camp for the night was just up the road near Georgetown. The farm stand was a good spot, sunny and relatively warm, and backed up by a long string of white fencing that by midday became the only barrier between us and several very large thoroughbred horses; magnificent and muscular beasts, which were evidently ‘retired.’
The professor told us, “They’re not interested in the books, you know. None of them can really read. Not very well, anyway. They’re only coming over here because Maeve used to give them treats.”
If this was a taste of the professor’s humor during his classroom days I figured he might be well remembered.
It was Angelo who explained a bit later that this place was for the horses much like what was described in the Koran as paradise for every good Moslem male.
“How does a New York City boy know that?”
“I had a job one summer. Long story.”
“Do you have a lot of these long stories? Any you can relate?”
But there was something I needed to know.
“At least tell me this one. How did you get up there beside the road that day? What made you think I was even going to pick you up?”
He shrugged. “Yeah. Sure, I can tell you that. Do you remember a fellow name Rick Reese?”
“No. Well, maybe. There was a Rick who worked for me one summer.”
“Do you remember how you first met him?”
“No. I don’t think so. He was a student.”
“Right. He was in a couple of my classes. A good student. And one of the few things I knew about you when Doug called and asked if I could help him out was what Rick had told me once. It seems that there was the usual accident on the Commonwealth Avenue trolly one February and Rick and a few others were standing out in the cold, freezing their butts off, waiting for the emergency bus to come, when you happened along in your truck. You picked him up. In fact, you picked them all up and drove them out to Brighton.”
“Rick could have worked anywhere—anywhere that paid more than a used bookshop—but he applied to work for you that week. He was very impressed.”
“I used to hitchhike all over the place when I was his age. I still owe some debts.”
“Right. Exactly what you told him then. So, it was my idea to get out there on the side of the road. I’d just flown into the Buffalo airport from La Guardia about an hour earlier. Only you screwed us up. You went to the Post Office first, after you dropped your girlfriend off. And I thought we’d missed you. So, we started looking for you and then suddenly there you were, and you went right past us before I could get ready. And then it started to rain like hell. The traffic was nearly stopped. So, the agent who was out of the Buffalo office and driving me, and knew the area, blew right past you and everyone else and got me down about a half a mile or so and dropped me there. He was ready to do it again if he had to, but the rain was the clincher. I had an idea that you wouldn’t pass me by in the rain.”
Deidre has a word for this that she uses a little too often: ‘Predictable.’
9. Sun Tzu shines bright
on my brief Kentucky home
I got onto 127 as soon as we could this morning. It’s an older highway and okay for going 50. Most of it. Unfortunately, it has been ‘improved,’ for long stretches, likely with federal funds, which means it has reduced the hills and raised the valleys in places and cut off the smaller villages; made antiseptic to avoid infection by local elements and for questionable convenience. I got off onto the ‘Old Louisville Road’ for a short stretch, at Salvisa, spotted a post office, and sent Deidre another letter. But there wasn’t a lot of traffic there for selling books and we went on.
For the most part, Kentucky seems a lot more prosperous than Ohio. Not just because of the fancy horse farms near Lexington, but in general. However, just to say I’d seen it, I drove over to the Kentucky River, which was a muddy cut maybe 50 feet wide through continuous woods and ancient-looking rock uprisings, with no prospects at all, and a few of the sort of rundown buildings that could easily have been there since a more prosperous 1920s. A fellow was fishing at a boat ramp there and seemed a lot more interested in us than we were with him.
“What in hell er you doin’ over heh? You betta turn that contraption around whilst you can.”
And I did.
But the smell of the river had awakened an appetite, likely because I had skipped the biscuits and sausage gravy in favor of eggs and bacon that morning and regretted it deeply while watching Angelo enjoy his. I stopped at a nice little family restaurant with more staff than customers at the odd hour between breakfast and lunch, simply because the sign had prominently advertised ‘catfish.’
The motherly waitress took pity. The Fry-O-Lator was not on yet but she would get it going if we had an extra twenty minutes. I told her emphatically that we did.
That was when Angelo took the opportunity to grill me.
“Have you seen any of your old friends since you closed the shop?”
I took his meaning of ‘old friends’ to be what it was.
He nodded at that and adjusted the restaurant menus in the rack.
“So, did they have anything to say?”
He shook his head.
“You know what I mean. Look, if you’re going to let me tag along on this odyssey of yours, I’ll need to be filing reports, otherwise, they’re going to lift me.”
“Okay. I understand. But you don’t really expect me to tell you anything, do you?”
“Yes. Something. You figure it out.”
“Like, when did you last see George Reilly?”
“At a shop closing party. The same time Doug Evans and Mark Clifford saw him.”
“They saw him?”
I immediately realized I was not mentally prepared for this.
“See, maybe I shouldn’t answer this kind of stuff. I’m going to say something I shouldn’t”
“My report says they do not know what he looks like.”
“Did your girlfriend ever meet him?”
“Now, see, that’s not good. You just lied. I know you lied. They’ll know you’re lying. Lying to the FBI is a felony. What you have to do to keep from lying is just say that you can’t say.”
“Then, I can’t say.”
“No! You don’t understand! Now, I know for certain that she did meet him.”
I suddenly felt particularly stupid.
“I don’t want her to be harassed. If keeping you around means that, then you’ll have to walk back to Salvisa, and wait for a bus.”
He is most of a foot shorter than I am, but he leaned over at me like he was talking to a child.
“Look, I’m not the FBI. I don’t have any authority in this. I’m just acting on their behalf. And I’m not going to report what you just said. But they’ll expect me to have asked. I’ll just say you didn’t know.”
“But that’s a lie.”
He did a straight face at me that was as good as an eye roll.
“They don’t know that! But I will have to say that George Reilly was at that party. That’ll be a revelation to them. That’ll keep them busy for a while.”
I had much more to think through about all this than I realized.
“How did you know I was lying about Deidre?”
“I didn’t. I lied about that too. It’s just a common technique to catch other people off guard if you think they aren’t telling you the truth.”
The catfish was superb. As perfect as I wanted it to be—fresh and fried in cornmeal. And I also ordered a side of biscuits and sausage gravy. Food has a way of overcoming troubles.
But Angelo was clearly not as satisfied as I was. The minute we are back in the truck he says, “So really, tell me why you trusted these people?”
This fairly exasperated me.
“You want me to explain this loudly enough so that your buddies can catch it all, or can I whisper?”
He sighs louder than I can.
“They can’t hear you! The bug is in the trailer. I’m supposed to be the bug in the truck.”
“You said that. I didn’t”
“Damn right! I’m supposed to get you to tell me the whole story.” He shrugs. So, tell me!”
“Because I don’t think you did anything they’ll really care about. You’re the dupe. Remember. But your friends are up to something else.”
“I don’t know. They were communicating secretly. They were talking about rebellion. Insurrection!”
“But I did too! I’ve written about it in books! I wrote about it on my blog! I’ve talked about it to my customers! To anyone who would listen! I’ve sold other people’s books about it. Tom Paine. Lysander Spooner. Henry Thoreau. Benjamin Tucker. Edward Abbey, Thomas Jefferson, to name just a few. What makes me so innocent of this crime that you think we’ve committed?”
“Insurrection is against the law! That’s what the Civil War was about!”
“And the Declaration of Independence is about why that was necessary.”
Angelo went quiet.
For my part, I know that I am not up for a good grilling. I’m feeling a little tired. I’m a little too uncertain about my decision to continue, with Angelo along for the ride. It made perfect sense on paper. It was basic Sun Tzu: keep your friends close and your enemies closer. But that principle likely required a vigorous offense as well. Vito Corleone had that much down. And I wasn’t so sure I was up to it. What I really needed was a vacation, and more biscuits and gravy.
“What I really wonder is how you—I mean, given that you’re a student of history as well as a professor of the same—could work for such a lot of corrupt outfits as the United States Army and the FBI, never mind the political maggots who control them these days.”
There was a sobering shake of the head that I could see from the corner of my eye as I drove.
He says, “Whew! You really thought about that, didn’t you?”
“Maybe not as much as I should have, but I didn’t want to keep going in circles over it. It about sums it up.”
I gave him a moment. I was happy to see him actually consider what I was saying. It’s a little like chess. There are other pieces on the board, all with very particular sets of skills, to coin a phrase. He has to choose the one he thinks will work best. He knows what he’s after and I know he’s wrong to be doing it.
He finally says, “The Army and the FBI are both agents of the duly elected government of the United States. I might not like everything they do, but that’s often the case in a democracy. The majority rules. And it’s better than a dictatorship. Your favorite go-to example of ancient Greece tried that and it ruined them.”
I practically took both hands off the wheel to answer.
“We are not a democracy. You know that! We’re a Republic. We have a constitution. And part of that Constitution is a Bill of Rights. We now have two hundred years of good laws, and bad laws, but all in support of that Constitution. What’s going on right now is a lot of gross violations of those laws and that Constitution. With the Constitution negated, the only remedy left is resistance. If that doesn’t work, it will likely be rebellion next. The Declaration of Independence made that very clear.”
He was looking at me now with that straight face he does, but even more exaggerated if that’s possible. I turned to look. I’m positive he perfected that look during his classroom days as a professor, but now I realized that it made him look a little like that painting of John Brown—the one where the famous abolitionist is holding a Bible in one hand and a rifle in the other, with a tornado coming up in the background. He looks a little disturbed.
I’m suddenly feeling better. This is what I needed.
He says, “Do you really want a Civil War? That’s what you’re going to get if you support this kind of rebellion.”
I shrug. Maybe I shrug too much.
“Maybe. No, I don’t think violence serves anybody very well. I do think resistance might get people thinking about what’s happening. We’re still, ostensibly, a democratic republic. If enough people understand the stakes, they might vote for something better. But even that’s uncertain now. Elections are being tampered with. The oligarchy is winning the ground game.”
“Who is—What is this oligarchy you refer to so blithely.”
“The political state, the industrial state, the technological state, the media that kisses their collective asses to get favors, and the military that enforces their will.”
“Jesus! That’s everybody!”
“Not by a long shot! There are some people—not the bureaucracy that feeds off us like the plant in the Little Shop of Horrors, but some elected politicians who want smaller government, some people in industry who don’t want to be sucking on the government tit for favors, many people in technology would like to go about their business without saying please at every turn—but Big Tech is all in, right up to their necks—and there are even some in media who understand what’s happening. And most of the people don’t want the government telling them how to live their lives. At least that’s my hope.”
“But they all have their hands out!”
“Yes. I think you’re right about that. It’s our national psychosis now. ‘Oh, what will I ever do with the government?’ Convincing people to be responsible for their own lives is going to be a problem.”
At that point, Angelo slouches into the corner of his seat. I don’t think he is actually considering anything I said. He’s just considering how to approach me next.
I think of Kentucky as being ‘south.’ But the trees here in late October are no more green than they were in Massachusetts. The grass is not as brown. There are borders that look alive—but they are mostly weeds.
Angelo says, “Do you realize, if any of these people you’re dealing with actually does something bad, you will be arrested as an accessory. “
“Better than being an accessory to a criminal state.”
He does a “Whew,” and sits up straight.
“What are you going to get out of this?. . . Really! What?”
“Peace of mind. Maybe. I thought I was doing the right thing all those years of selling books—and writing novels, even if nobody read them—but I was wrong. That’s pretty clear now. I was really just another cog in the big wheel.”
“So, let me follow this. You think you did the wrong thing for all the years of your life—I mean, you’ve been a bookseller all the while, right? And now you think the right thing is to run around the country selling books and living off your Social Security?”
“The Social Security is mine to begin with. But I’m still selling books because it’s the best I can do at this point. Running all over the country is just my way of making sure of what’s actually going on out here anymore. I’m not taking anybody else’s word for it. And I’m hoping I find a few answers. So far, I just have more questions. But I’m not halfway yet.”
“So, what you’re saying is you’re not out here trying to link up with anybody or pushing your particular political beliefs.”
“No! I wouldn’t go that far. I’m definitely interested in the preaching. But I don’t have ‘A Message to Garcia,’ if that’s what you mean.”
I suddenly had the feeling once again that the world I lived in had passed on by.
“It’s a story. Don’t worry about it.”
“What’s it about?”
“Doing your duty and getting it done.”
“So, this is your duty?”
“No. You’re picking up on the wrong words. And you’re not really listening. You’re looking to argue.”
“I’m just trying to understand what you’re up to.”
“You’ve been hanging around long enough to figure that out for yourself. Maybe it is time for you to go back to New York and live in your head.”
“What? What do you mean by that?”
“Something I just realized the importance of pretty recently. See, I guess this trip has already paid some dividends. I’ve spent much of my life living in my own head. Not just with my novels. Not just with my bookshop. But with my marriage. And with my kids. I know what I wanted for them but I’m not sure what they are. I know what I wanted my marriage to be, but it wasn’t. I know what I wanted to accomplish as a bookseller, but I didn’t. And I know what I was trying to say with my novels, but maybe that failed as well…And you. You’re living with your mother, but you’re likely imagining doing something else. And you’ll likely keep imagining it until you actually go out and do it.”
Angelo was sitting upright in the seat, staring out at the road, and that little dark opening was there again, high in his beard.
10. A Tennesse Waltz
in three-quarter time
“Did you know that at the time of the Revolution, most people wanted to remain part of the British empire?”
“Sure. Yeah. I’ve taught that.”
“Do you think they should have thought that way?”
“No. I’ve thought about that too. There were other things on their minds. I mean, think about it. At the same time as all that was going on, William Wilberforce was doing the most amazing thing in England! He and William Pitt and a few others were turning the British Empire against slavery—a common institution around the world for all of mankind’s history. Think of that! I conducted a debate in my class over that exact problem. If the Colonies had remained part of Britain, slavery would have ended half a century sooner here!”
“Good point. And maybe the French wouldn’t have lost their heads over a Revolution inspired by a misunderstanding of what had happened in America.”
“No way! The French have a way of misunderstanding everything.”
“On that, we can agree.”
“But do you think Wilberforce would’ve been successful so soon if Britain hadn’t just been kicked in the teeth over the loss of the Colonies?”
“I’m not sure Britain really took the whole thing to heart, in any case. They were still sponsoring slave labor in India, and China, and Africa, even if they didn’t conduct the trade themselves.”
“True. I remember one of my students making that point. It’s a good point.”
“Slavery was the ultimate cause of the Civil War. Simple fact. States’ rights has been an issue from day one. Still an issue. Taxes too. And Northern industrialization. It all mattered. But slavery was the lynchpin.”
“Poor choice of words there.”
“Still. . .”
“What about the ‘Tariff of Abominations,’ and ‘nullification.’ The South was being used by a mercantilist North. John Quincy Adams and company were good with taking the cotton crop away from the English traders and putting the squeeze on the South.”
“No! Tariff battles had been fought from the first days of the Republic. Daniel Shay’s rebellion in Massachusetts was against unfair Federal taxation and that spread as far south as the Carolinas. Those were former American soldiers from the Revolution. They knew what they were about. And the Whiskey Rebellion in western Pennsylvania was avowedly about the internal tariff of taxation without representation. Those were former soldiers too. Washington knew that. It pained him. And all that continues to this day. There have often been conflicts but resolving them has also been a major source of renewal, re-establishing the proper role of a federal government versus states’ rights.”
“How about the secession itself? That was Lincoln’s primary cause. Right? Do you think that made it personal? Backwoods lawyer with high ambitions. Talk about living in your head. Can you imagine what was going on in that brain of his? Do you think he just didn’t want to be the President when the country broke apart?”
“That’s cynical, but maybe there’s some truth in it. Did you ever teach that?”
“Yes. I always liked to make it personal. People do great things and stupid things and a lot of the time it’s personal, not business.”
“No. I think Lincoln was self-aware. He had strong values. He might have suffered with the thought that he would be blamed, but like Washington before him, he did what he thought was right.”
“Something else we can agree on. . . But times are changing. I noticed a change in my classes. Twenty years ago, the idea that Lincoln was a great man was not questioned. But in the last few years, I had to sell it. And not everyone was buying. The characters in the Marvel cartoon universe are better known than giants like Fremont, and Kit Carson, or your man Simon Kenton. But they all know about Danial Boone because of the TV show and the hats.”
“But you like teaching. I hear that. Why don’t you do it again?”
“It’s not the same. I told you. You can’t really teach anymore. It’s all proscribed. Regulated. Required. Monitored. If you say something the wrong way you’re screwed. Political correctness has taken over. It’s all petty Marxism now, reducing students to a herd and the teachers to overseers.”
“That is exactly what I said to the panel that decided to get rid of me.”
“You were doomed.”
“Still am, I guess. But you must have already realized, that’s why the FBI recruited me for this. They figured I’d have a little sympathy for your way of seeing things and I’d get more out of you.”
“No. I didn’t. Makes sense… But I don’t think that for a minute. Half a minute. The people that decided to use you have no idea about stuff like that. They’re incapable of such a thought. Authoritarians see in straight lines. That might help them get from ‘a’ to ‘b’ a little faster, but it’ll also tell anyone who cares to look, just where they’ll be along the way.”
“So, you think you already have this whole thing figured out?”
“No. That’s not what I said. What I said is, the State is as stupid as a mule. Single-minded. They can’t see out of the box they’ve climbed into.”
“So, what’s that mixed metaphor mean?”
“To me, it means I can go about my business as long as you’re here. If you jump ship, I’ll be harassed and likely stopped.”
“And you’re telling me this because . . .”
“Because you already know it! Just to clear things up, so we can go on our way with no misunderstandings. You’re here to find out something–something that I don’t know, and I think you’ve already figured that out, but you know that they haven’t, so you’re going to play along as far as you can because it’s better than sitting at home with your mother.”
“Leave my mother out of this.”
11. Sargeant York strikes again
to say nothing of the dog
On the Alvin C. York Highway near Pall Mall, a large, thin, mongrelly looking dog, brindle-colored and as ugly as any I’ve ever seen, slowly crossed the road ahead of us, unhurried by our approach.
“I wonder if that is what they call a Plott Hound?”
“Never heard of that. Why would they breed an ugly dog like that?”
“Hunting, I think.”
I slowed. There was a fenced yard to our left and behind that a broad white house with a red tin roof. A girl of eight or ten, wearing a light-blue dress and green sneakers came off the porch with a bound and opened the gate. She was hugging the dog ferociously and he was licking her back with equal fervor as we passed.
“See, proof that looks aren’t everything.”
This hill country just to the west of the Smokey Mountains was the prettiest area we had seen on the trip, perhaps because there was more green and less gray, despite the cooler weather, but also because of the general rural aspect of farms, pastures, and woods. I liked Vermont and New Hampshire for the same reason, but something told me it was a little warmer here in the winter.
I pulled over at the Forbus General Store, a simple white barn of a structure with the traditional Coke and Pepsi signs competing for size between the windows at either side and fronted by a broad porch cluttered with odd implements and smaller signs, ice chests, benches and sitting chairs. Several larger-than-life carved wooden Indians guarded the way. Inside the screen door from the bright of day the dark at first seemed cavernous. This was another thing I was always very fond of in my travels through the years—the peculiarly wonderful smells of the ‘general store.’ The shelves were stacked with cans and boxes of food, buckets of nails and hardware, and everything from flyswatters to potholders were hung between, but the first thing I smelled here was the fudge. An old wood-framed glass case displayed an alluring assortment, though chocolate fudge with pecans is my favorite by far. We filled a couple of bags and then bought a couple of fat hamburgers to eat first and sat at a table close by as several local people played cards. The currency being traded at that table seemed to be conversation.
You accept, after years of travel, that places like this are as artificial as amusement parks. Someone had to go to the trouble of keeping such a place going in our age of Walmarts and Piggly-Wigglys, or to recreate it like a bulwark against the tide, and then have the actual good taste to understand an aesthetic of another era.
The friendly fellow behind the fudge cases was at least as old as I am. I was pretty sure he had done it.
The look and the decor might have easily been ‘improved’ by more sophisticated signage and their sales increased by larger windows, brighter lights, and wider aisles. It was hard to imagine that the generations coming after us would care to bother with more than a facade of this—old-timey ‘authentic’ horehound drops made with artificial flavor and corn syrup in a plastic package decorated with ornate script. Reflexively, I checked the package on the shelf nearby. It said, ‘100 % natural horehound herbal tea, cane sugar.’ I bought a package.
Efficiency was the demand of the modern world. To hell with the smells.
Sitting there listing to four people playing cards and talking about local matters made me sadder and then guilty for not simply appreciating the fact that I was there.
To get out of my own confused funk, I changed the thought as soon as we were back in the cab. I had spent some time the evening before doing something I should have done days ago. I had looked up Angelo’s books online.
“Tell me about the first book you wrote.”
Angelo was taken by surprise.
“You mean, ‘The Constitution of Ancient Greece?’”
“Yes. But now I realize that you wrote at least one before that—one that maybe didn’t get published?”
“Yeah. I couldn’t find a publisher.”
“So, I saw used copies ‘The Constitution of Ancient Greece’ online for ten or twelve dollars. What was that about?”
“What it says.”
“Obviously, ancient Greece didn’t have a ‘Constitution.’ So, what did you mean?”
“I was talking about the de facto constitution of a stable society that lasted hundreds of years. Longer than the United States. Most societies develop their own ‘constitution’ that way. They’re the rules everybody plays by and when they’re broken, the consequences are understood.”
“Sounds like an interesting idea. So, what was the second one about—I mean the third.”
“Same thing, really. I was trying to understand the social structure of the medieval ages in Western Europe. I didn’t use the word, but I was basically looking for the constitution everyone lived by. Feudalism is what we all know today, but that was imposed on a social order that had already existed for centuries.”
“Wow. You have my attention. And the fourth?”
“I tried to reconstruct the sources of the American Constitution—not John Lock and the others—but the social structures that were already in place that allowed those ideas to flourish. That had the same title as the course, ‘The ideological Origins of the American Constitution.”
“Fantastic! …But nobody cared.”
“Right. Nobody cared.”
“So, what’s the fifth book?”
“What do you mean.”
“It takes you four or five years to write a book. Simple math. Your first, I mean your second came out in 1994. Your third in 2000. Your fourth was published in 2005. What happened to the 2010 book? And the sixth—the one you would have finished this year?”
“I’m not a clockwork.”
“Maybe not. But you’ve been working for the government most summers, right?”
“I can’t say.”
“No. But you’ve been writing a book—for what then, ten years?”
“What’s it called?”
“‘The Invention of Man.’”
[Stay tuned here for the next exciting chapters]