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.

 

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 sturdy, 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 axle 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 Deirdre and Ben what I could, of course. Deirdre 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?”

“West.”

“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 I know he liked the idea of me selling books from a trailer, he is worried about the old man. At least, he’s young enough to still have a few romantic notions of his own. And he is still an idealist. I told him to read the Christopher Morley book, Parnassus on Wheels, because that’s been occupying space in my own head for about sixty 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 Deirdre’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. I know 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.”

Ben isn’t buying such generalities today. 

Sounding more like the teacher than the student, he says, “But reforming such an obviously corrupt system as ours is possible only if an alternative is evident.”

I have no answer to that. He has been a good student of my rhetoric through the years, even if he is stubborn, like his mother. I can only attempt reassurance. 

“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 resources and the fact that there are no other shops that carry my own novels, I think I have a fairly reasonable idea … I can 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.”

“How is that any easier than just trying to start another bookshop?”

“It’s not the ease of it that I’m after. I’ve done that. I want to try something a little different.”

“How?”

“Well, I can 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 you guys. I might as well sell all those now too.”

I think he’s worried about having to drive out to some godforsaken stretch of road in the wilderness and save my ass from god knows what.

His sisters each called in turn to express some form of disbelief. 

For my part, I am comforted by the books themselves. 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.

Ben says, “How can you know there are still enough of them out there—people who still think for themselves.”

I say, “I can’t. That’s what I’m going to see.”

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 my eyes are not good enough to pick the enemy out from afar. I learned that long ago. My shop survived for all those years on the good will of a very rough mix of readers. Despite their own diversity of opinion, my fellow libertarians were far too few to carry the load, even if they read as much as they talked. Most of my regular customers were devoted to some particular genre and uninterested in any political aspect. Science fiction, fantasy, mystery, thrillers, romance, classics—they carried the load. Of the rest, I would more likely think ‘liberal’ in the classical sense. And the politics of the city is definitively socialist in nature—of the ‘what can you do for me?’ variety. Though, I must admit, we did have a fair number of Beacon Hill pols come in over the years, and their tastes ran the gamut.

Boston has often seen itself as the center of the universe. The Hub. When, in fact, I think it has come to be more of an appendix. Even the great publishers have left. Certainly the bookshops it was once known for have mostly closed. The shops are now international boutiques catering to students with too much parent-financed credit, and a tech sector that shops on-line for whatever is the trend and could’t find Arkansas on a map. The closest thing to an identifiable native population today might be The Red Sox Nation—a money-manufactured entity now dependent on an aging demographic with waning memories of the good battles won and lost.

Such sour maundering is not productive.

No. 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.

And, 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

 

So this is my Bierce moment! This is my delusional dream, fueled and fevered by my biblio madness! My brief escape before the rope snaps my neck.

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.”

“Cynic.”

“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 and spit of rain from passing trucks and vans, I was slapped by the obvious. Many of those were emblazoned with the names of delivery services. UPS, DHL, Prime, and even 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 the new. 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 when 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 held to my peculiar political persuasion since I was a teenager, 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, Deirdre 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. Deirdre 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 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, I suppose. But half an hour later, I can tell she’s still awake.

She says, “Did I tell you about my friend Lucy?”

Something is on her mind.

“You said she had died. You went to the funeral.”

“She’s the reason I’m here, I think.”

“I thought I was the reason.”

“No. You’re just the vehicle for my escape. The getaway driver, so to speak.”

“The driver never gets as much of the loot as the other guys.”

“He doesn’t deserve it.”

“Thanks.”

I let a minute pass so that her sarcasm could sour.

From the dark beyond the curtain, she says, “Aren’t you interested?”

“In what?”

“Why Lucy is the reason I’m here.”

So, this has been on her mind for some time, I’m thinking—smart lad that I am.

Lucy Moody was a hero of Deirdre’s. I knew that. But she was only 65 when she died, and that much certainly registered with me. She had been a part-time reporter for the Milford Times for more than forty years. Deirdre had worked with her on several stories, in fact. She had taught school after college. Mostly grammar school, in Rumford, I think. And when the school was closed and consolidated, she took on the job of librarian for another 20 years or so after that. That was, until they closed the library, a brick Victorian formerly occupied by a mill baron, because it could not meet the new Federal standards for public buildings.

Lucy Moody believed in small things. I think I appreciate that the most. She believed in walking to work. Small towns. Local markets. Knowing the parents of the students she taught. Knowing the books she carried in the library. And her stories were always about the people she knew—and without favor. Not everyone was happy with what she saw.

She had never married, and this fact had often given Deirdre some moral support concerning her own singularity. She had died suddenly at the end of the summer of an undiagnosed cancer. And Deirdre had disappeared for some days afterward.

“Tell me what you’re thinking.”

“Lucy was braver than I am.”

“Hard to imagine.”

“No BS. She lived her life on her own terms. She was a great woman. She didn’t deserve to die.”

“We all deserve to die. It’s the privilege of having lived.”

“Mumbo jumbo!”

“Think about it, sometime.”

“I’m thinking. I’m thinking she knew she was going to die. That’s why she didn’t want to talk as often. I hadn’t seen her for months.”

“Some people know things like that.”

There was more than a momentary quiet then.

Finally, she says, “I was thinking that I didn’t want you to leave me behind in Boston. That’s not very brave.”

“Or maybe the opposite. Or just crazy. I’m pretty sure you are crazy.”

“Bah! Did you read the story I wrote about her for the Post.”

“Yes. It made me cry.”

She was quiet for a moment more before answering, “Good.”

After a while then, I could hear her breathing.

 

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.

But as right and true as Mr. Lewis is and was, what is needed as much is some realization of the invention of man, and how he began.

 

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 should go to bed.

 

 

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 Deirdre 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 a lower form that may be scientifically labeled ‘homo-sapiens,’ and which lacks a soul—though I am not sure about that last part. Neanderthals might certainly have had a philosophy, and more than likely believed in a god, and wondered too if there was a land beyond the dawn, and worried in the night about a dark that is never gone.

No. What I am thinking is 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. But 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.

Much of modern philosophy has reduced itself to the reducio ad absurdum of variations on Zeno’s paradoxes—math being the religious sacrament of a faith in numbers which dismisses reality as an unimportant by-product.

And then there is the pseudo-intellectual’s elixir: science. Science is a process—a method 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’ve 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 then 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 it. The writing hasn’t calmed me much. Being lost is upsetting. Better to be found.

 

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.

Deirdre 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 Deirdre 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 are those who think we are mere automatons, biologic or otherwise. Oddly, this faith is held by both religious and non. An example of the non is behaviorism, a pseudo-science that articulates the mechanics of human interaction as if the ant and aunt are each as predictable as the other—a ‘Skinnerism’ that only works in the lab. Meanwhile, the old faiths of the religionists—Moslems, Catholics, Hindus, et al—each guided by their own version of ‘truth,’ continue to pursue the subjugation of unruly human behavior through edict, highlighting the inconsistencies of the species. This might be considered humorous were it not for the deadly consequences.

But, however things change, the good remains. Humans care for other humans under the most trying circumstances. They often die for each other. Humans hate other humans because of their difference and their own inadequacies. And thankfully, some of the later try to improve themselves. That too is a constant.

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.

 

Deirdre returned with something on her mind. I waited. Nothing came out, so I prompted her.

“What’s wrong?”

“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’m sorry.”

“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, that 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.

But no amount of maundering in the dark was going to save me. Was this the end of my brief Bierce moment? Was the rope on my neck too tight to ignore? Or am I a mere poser wishing for better company. The great Ambrose ran off to Mexico to escape his reality. What he found there is yet unknown.

 

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 difficulty 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. Everything came to a halt then, and it was several minutes before traffic started to move again.

Just ahead on my right a blue plastic sheet that at first 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.

“Thanks.”

“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?”

“Angelo.”

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.”

“Thirty-six”

“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.”

“Where?”

“B.U.”

“Really? What?”

“American History.”

“Why did you leave?”

“They kicked me out.”

“No tenure?”

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?”

“Fifty-two.”

“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.”

“What ‘451’?”

“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.”

“Why?”

“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.”

Angelo says, “I used to date a woman from the West End Avenue Branch of the New York Public Library.”

I didn’t take the hint. I was still in mid rant. “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. If the libraries aren’t going to preserve the literature, people will just have to do it for themselves. 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 saved—”

Angelo says, “That librarian I dated had never even read Gibbon. I don’t think she knew who Gibbon was.”

But I was in mid-sentence. “…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 Deirdre 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.

“License.”

“I don’t drive.”

“Identification.”

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?”

“I’m hungry.”

“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.”

“What kind.”

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 airport 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.”

“I guess.”

“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.”

“A what?”

“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?”

“Philadelphia.”

“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?”

“No.

“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.

“Not much.”

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?”

“Boston University.”

“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

Dear Deirdre

 

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 Deirdre. 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?”

“No.”

“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.”

“Yes, ma’am.”

 

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 (and how the novel created history)

 

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 our 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 when 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 to 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?”

“Pretty good.”

He shrugged, “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.”

He shakes his head, dismissively, “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 same 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 parking 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.

He scowled.

“What kind of books?”

“Literature, History.”

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?”

“Six.”

Very nice.

“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 still clinging to its last leaves, 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 portion 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 from before came back 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?”

“Sure.”

“Send me your password and all the stuff you’ve written so far. I’ll get it in shape. Do you have any pictures?”

“No.”

“Your phone is junk but your laptop has a great camera on it. Use that. Start taking pictures.”

“Yes ma’am.”

 

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?”

“Yes.”

“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’s clear, is a form of lying, don’t you think?”

“Sure.”

“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.”

Star Wars.”

“Pretty great.”

The Lord of the Rings.

“Fabulous.”

Open Range.

“Terrific.”

“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.”

“How much?”

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?”

He nodded.

“I’m an attorney.”

“Do you give free legal advice?”

“On the first visit. But I get your point. You think you know something about books?”

“A little.”

“Then maybe you can help me out with something?”

“What’s that?”

“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.”

“Novels.”

“No. Howard Baumann 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—some people thought fiction to be too trivial next to the hard surfaces of life.

“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.”

“Yesterday.”

“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.

“What happened?”

“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.”

“Yes.”

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 Deirdre’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 addressed to Evelyn Dietrich. 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.”

“What’s that?”

“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.”

“How so?”

“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 into the future 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.”

 

 

 

7. The loves of Chillicothe
and a rose by any other name

 

Because it was getting late, we ate at the Scottish restaurant and camped at a state park near Zanesville which appeared to be closed but the toilets were open and the water still running and that was good enough. Howard Baumann perched on the edge of my mind while  I was writing up the notes. Angelo turned in early.

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 Evelyn, but the Dietrich 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.”

“But that’s 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 did.”

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 Snider 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.

 

 

 

8. The ongoing conversation

with interruptions

 

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.”

“What’s there?”

“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.”

“The naturalist?”

“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.”

“Yeah. When?”

“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.

“What things?”

“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 each morning of the blue hills beyond ?

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 Sunday 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 principals 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 Deirdre the night before. And much of that was spent talking about Angelo. Speculation, mostly. Deirdre, 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 her 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.”

“Amazing!”

“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.”

“Geez.”

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?”

“What?”

“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—because I’ve seen it. 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?”

“Sometimes.”

“Holy smokes. You’ve gotta stop doing that. It’s bad for you.”

“What?”

“Thinking stuff like that.”

“Yeah.”

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.”

“Really?”

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?”

“I suppose.”

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.”

Angelo sighed.

“Then I guess it didn’t hurt him.”

 

 

 

9. 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?”

“Touché.”

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.

“Politics.”

“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.”

He nods.

“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?”

“Maybe.”

“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 Deirdre 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 going to be empty. Angelo had to be ready. They knew from our conversation the night before that Deirdre 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.

“Different things.”

“Like what?”

“Well, . . . I had reserve duty for six weeks most summers.”

“Army?”

“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 have 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.”

“What rank?”

“Major.”

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 didn’t.”

“Why?”

“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.”

“Enough said.”

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.”

“Where to?”

“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.”

“You’re kidding.”

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.”

“Amazing.”

“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 just 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.”

“Too kind.”

 

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.”

“What?”

“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 Deirdre 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.

Deirdre 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?”

“Not, really.”

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.”

“I’d forgotten.”

“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.”

Deirdre has a word for this that she uses a little too often: ‘Predictable.’

 

 

 

10. 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 Deirdre 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.

“Yeah.”

He nodded at that and adjusted the restaurant menus in the rack.

“So, did they have anything to say?”

“Sure.”

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 what?”

“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.”

“Good.”

“Did your girlfriend ever meet him?”

“No.”

“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 Deirdre?”

“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.”

“Geez.”

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!”

“Why?”

“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.”

“Like what?”

“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, my, what will I ever do without the government?’  I admit, 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.”

“Who’s Garcia?”

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.

 

 

 

11. A Tennessee 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?”

“Maybe not.”

“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. That’s a good point too.”

“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. Butterfield won! All morality has been removed from history. No moral judgments allowed. Herbert Butterfield says you can’t judge history. You have to accept what facts you find just as they are. As if the facts you find are not filtered by any priorities. Any limits. Which is hogwash, of course.  Any choice of facts is a determination. What value system guides that? I am with the whigs. Butterfield pretends objectivity. Bull shit!. But now, politics rules! 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.”

“Strong language!”

“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 was, the State is as stupid as a mule. Single-minded. They can’t see their way 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.”

“Okay.”

“Okay.”

 

 

 

 

12. Sergeant 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 two bags and then bought some fat hamburgers to eat first with a couple of RCs from an ice chest and sat at one of the tables close to the woodstove, as several local people played cards. The currency being traded at that table seemed to be conversation.

“Dell said that he and Warren were fixed to buy that ol’ truck from Pastor Jim…I have the eight of clubs”

“I expect Jim’d let’em have it if they promise to get it running. His Daddy loved that truck…I have the Jack.”

“I remember buying all our greens and such from that old man when he came around, climbing up on the rack to pick the cantaloupe with momma pointing a finger. You know her finger was crooked from a fall. Well, I could never tell which one she wanted until she said, ‘Yes! Yes! That one!’ But he always had a little candy tucked away and if I offered to carry for Momma, his daddy would come up with some reward or another…I’ll take your Jack.”

You accept, after years of travel, that places like this are as artificial as amusement parks. Someone had to go to the extra 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 the 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. That, and made the fudge too. He was proud of both.

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. But it was hard to imagine that the generations coming after us would care to bother with more than a facade of this—perhaps an assortment of odd gadgets, now made in India, a few stacks of bib-overalls made in China, and a selection of ‘old-timey’ favorite candies such as ‘authentic’ horehound drops, now made with artificial flavor and corn syrup, in a plastic package but decorated with nicely ornate script. I reflexively checked the package on the shelf nearby. It said, ‘100 % natural horehound herbal tea,’ made in the USA. I bought a package.

But still, efficiency was the demand of the modern world. To hell with the smells.

Sitting there listing to those 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 own 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 unwritten 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. It was much the same in England, France, and Germany. Feudalism is what we all know today, but that was imposed on a social order that had already existed for centuries.”

“Wow! You’ve got my attention. And the fourth?”

“I tried to reconstruct the sources of the American Constitution—not John  Locke 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?”

“Eleven.”

“What’s it called?”

“‘The Invention of Man.’”

 

As you might expect, his answer left me at a loss. ‘The invention of man’ was a phrase I had been tooling in my mind for years. It had begun in a science fiction novel I had barely finished before the end of the shop on Charles Street, and it had already been the seed for some thousands of words since. Now, my worries suddenly blossomed. Had Angelo accidentally given away the fact that the FBI, or some other authority, had gained access to my writing. Jack, my wizard in all things digital, had assured me that, given the randomized password methods he had instructed me to use, it would all be safe and redundantly stored in the particular magic realm that he had labeled ‘the cloud,’ and I had blithely accepted that (being a god child of Walt  Disney—and as blithely as circumstances would allow).

I am simply too stupid about technical matters, but I saw no alternative.

Of course, I had sent portions of what I had been writing to Deirdre. Now that my website had been returned to me, she wanted to re-work it into articles about what I was doing before posting it. Perhaps it was her internet account the FBI had found an access to? Not believing in coincidence can be a pain in the ass. It eliminated the comfort of chance. But I settled on that.

And I asked Angelo point blank while looking to see if his face went flat beneath his beard. But it didn’t.

“Why did you pick that title?”

“Pretty much because of what I mentioned before—and leaving God out of it for the moment; because without that natural constitution that every culture creates and establishes for itself over time, I believe we fall back to being little more than homo sapiens, a fairly vulnerable and weak primate with a tasty brain.”

It was just that simple, perhaps. He had come upon the same idea through his own questioning. Maybe not a coincidence, but a concurrence. A sort of harmony. Or was I just trying to be comfortable with an uncomfortable fact?

“Did you know I’ve been using the very same title for what I’ve been writing?”

He is either an excellent actor or else he was innocent.

“Why?”

His mouth was open in that peculiar way he had when at a loss.

I shrug, “Because it’s what the book is about.

“What does it mean?”

“What it says.”

“Invented how?

“Likely the same way as someone invented the wheel. Discovery. Trial and error. Repetition. Because it’s not a re-invention. It’s as if the wheel were imagined for the first time, over and over again, by each individual. We make ourselves what we are, for better or worse. Some wheels are bigger than others. Some never get it right.”

“So, you aren’t just being metaphorical.”

“No. I suppose it’s still going on in places. But not enough.”

He has leaned back into the corner of the seat and is staring at me down the length of his nose. I get the feeling of a forced calm.

“Then I guess what I should ask is, what do you mean by ‘Man?”

I won’t be able to make him tell me that he’s gaming my stupidity. But I might get him to give himself away.

I dove right in. “Right. Well, you take this homo sapiens character, and biologically, like you said, he’s just another animal with a few new quirks. Bigger brain. Bigger penis. His senses aren’t anything to be writing home about, but he’s got the ability to make a wider range of sounds and he can survive on a fairly diverse assortment of foodstuffs, But, most importantly, he has an imagination, and he fixes that like a dye in that tapestry you were correcting me about. He makes stories out of what he knows and if they’re good, they’re retold. You’ve got the picture, right?

“Okay.”

“Good. Now, you know every society has an origin story. They’re all different in some ways, but much the same in others. In the beginning there was a void. Then this void conjures up some wind and water out of the breath, and the sweat of God. Later on, Adam is created; reason unknown. Darwin hadn’t been born yet. However, I think the biggest difference is that with some people, it starts with Eve. But I think that’s just the luck of the draw. Western society goes back to the Old Testament. It would be a little different if we were in India. But not that much. Same idea.”

“Okay.”

“And then we get smart. With the Greeks it’s the fire of Prometheus. With the Jews it’s Eve gives Adam the apple. All that is the same idea, the gift of reason, with some different details.”

“Got it!”

“So, to make a long story short, Man gets created by God and then fails in his duty to spend enough time giving thanks to his creator for his generosity and starts getting ideas on his own. He starts thinking for himself. There is no explaining of why the particular all-powerful god made such a terrible mistake as to give this delicate little creature such a big brain, any more than why he gave the guy such a big penis or the woman such lovely boobs. I guess gods make mistakes. But then there is this very fecund and splendidly naked female running around baring fruits and it seems to me what happened was inevitable. You can easily say it was all God’s fault. But he never takes the blame for anything. All that falls on the head of old Adam. Boy, is he in trouble! Now he has a bunch off-spring killing each other and he has to come up with some answers. So he goes off to a cave. Or up a mountain. Same thing. And when he’s out of food, or needs more sex, he comes back with some new rules for the family to follow while he’s away. Right up to that moment he is just another animal in the jungle, eating what he wants and rutting when he feels like it. Now there are rules. And that, in brief, is the invention of man.”

Angelo hasn’t really moved. He’s still looking at me—but smiles.

“Bulls-eye!”

 

As if it were some sort of psychological punishment, there was another ‘General Store not too far down the highway and I had to squelch the desire to stop again. I wanted to use some of what had turned out to be a fine fair-weather day to try and sell something myself.

Angelo grumbled. “Maybe it’s a chain. There’ll probably be more.”

At Crossville there were no promising spots before we saw a state trooper sitting in his car, on an asphalt and gravel siding beside an open grassy field, and watching the traffic at an intersection. I pulled over to ask him if he had any recommendations.

He was in uniform, tan shirt neatly pressed, and had the silvered glasses of every highway cop in every bad movie that I’d only ever seen bits of through the years. And he is stone-faced through my entire explanation, with me staring back at my own reflection in those glasses.

His voice is loud enough to overcome traffic noise, but there was little traffic at the moment.

“Are they religious books?”

“Not particularly. Some. Mostly just literature.”

“What kind of literature?”

“Just the best I can find to sell.”

“Let me see.”

He got out quickly enough to catch me off-guard and I tripped on the broken asphalt going backward. He pointed up to the cab.

“Who’s that?”

“Angelo. He’s a professor of history. Along for the ride.”

I opened the doors to the trailer and turned on the lights.

The State Trooper went in the side door and out the back with a few steps without taking off the glasses.

He says, “Just books,” with perhaps a touch of disappointment.

“Yes, sir.”

“You make a living doing this?”

“No sir. You might say it’s a hobby.”

Without taking any more time at it he pointed back at the empty asphalt and gravel siding behind us.

“You can park it here for a few hours if you like. Stay back so cars can come and go without causing any trouble. Enjoy yourself.”

I didn’t question him further. There was a ‘no trespassing’ sign only a few feet away—a matter of fact that I was sure he knew.

A rather tall and modern steel water tower rose above the trees on the bend of the road to the left. Another smaller tower, apparently made of a tan-colored stone stood over a building just beyond the grassy triangle where the roads met. Across the road, a thick woods marked the edge of what the map called the Cumberland Mountain State Park.

As soon as I parked, Angelo was gone to explore the place on foot. After putting out the sign and the smaller bookshelf, I sat in the shade of the open door and looked up the place on my laptop. It was called the Cumberland Homestead.

 

That evening, when I told Deirdre about the experience, there was a note of jealousy in the tone of her questions.

“Did you get a chance to see any of it?

“I did! It’s a sort of planned farming community from the 1930s that was financed by the WPA and built by the people who lived here using native stone and wood. Rather amazing. They have one house that’s been kept as a museum of the way people lived in 1938. It’s a time capsule. And we ended up camping here close by at the State Park. But Angelo came back in the middle of the afternoon, and he says, ‘You’ve got to see this.’ Let me mind the shop, and you go look.”

“Amazing!”

“The first time! He’s never done that before. He’ll often sit and watch me, and he’s helped me move some stuff around, but he’s never really offered to help with the shop. I think he was just excited by the place. But that’s not the most amazing thing. When I get back, Angelo has a couple of kids from the school—there’s a grade school right there—and he has them in the trailer alphabetizing stuff while he sits out in the sun taking it easy. The guy really has a way.”

“What kind of kids were they?”

“Eighth-graders. They came over to ask if we had any Shakespeare. The class is reading ‘As You Like It.’ And I had a paperback in the little rack right outside there. And then one of them finds a copy of Hie to the Hunters inside. It’s a Jesse Stuart book that happens to be his dad’s favorite. But it’s a hardcover and it’s ten dollars and he can’t afford it. So, Angelo says he’ll buy it for him if he and his buddy will alphabetize. Angelo has been on my case about that. And so they do it. Everything! The whole place!”

Deirdre speaks as much with the tone of her voice as she does with the words. The tone changed, and I was not ready for what came next.

“That is amazing…But speaking of time capsules, I have a box here that Fred, that book dealer in Cleveland, sent you.”

“I’d forgotten about that. That would be from Howard Baumann’s trailer. I forgot I’d asked him to send me anything else he found besides the books.”

“Well, I opened it up. It’s full of letters. Photographs. Bus tickets. Movie tickets. All sorts of stuff.”

“I had some idea about writing something about Howard. But that was before I saw Emily in Chillicothe.”

“It’s a little like doing geology, with all the layers. It’s a portrait of two people in love in the 1950s. The movies they saw. Places they went together. Really, rather sweet. I started arranging the letters by date and reading them. They’re mostly just love letters. Just.  Well . . .You had said that Evelyn had died. . .”

The pause was longer than a breath.

“Yes.”

“She was quite smitten.”

“So was Howard.”

Deirdre was quiet for another moment and I kept my mouth shut.

When she spoke again, her voice had tightened. “There are no letters from him, of course. But there is a Purple Heart in there. Her sister Emily sent it back all those years ago and it was there in an envelope with all the rest. I suppose he’d given it to Evelyn at some point.”

“Probably.”

And the tone changed once again. “Do you mind if I write her?”

“What?”

“I want to write Emily. Would you mind? It’s a story. You were right. And Veteran’s Day is coming up. It’s something I can work with.”

“Amazing.”

 

 

 

13. Campfire on the Cumberland

or verbal wrestling by firelight

 

 

There is a verbal wrestle that takes place, sometimes in the cab of the truck but more often shortly after dinner on the good nights when the campfire is burning thoughts.

I had been telling Angelo about Deirdre’s idea to interview Emily Dietrich and write an article about Howard Baumann. After a good long exposition on the subject, in which I had carefully detailed the pitfalls of such an endeavor before explaining why I thought it was actually a fine idea, Angelo says, “Why haven’t you married her yet?”

It took a moment to adjust to this.

“I’ve been there and done that.”

“You didn’t finish the job.”

“I tried.”

“So marry Deirdre and finish it.”

“It’s not so easy as that.”

“You love her. That’s exactly how easy it is.”

“You are an authority?”

“Yes.”

“How long were you married?”

“Four years and six months. But the six months was just paperwork.”

“And you were miserable.”

“No. She was. I wasn’t. In my haste, I had no idea. But I’ve had time to consider it since, at my leisure. I learned a lot.”

“About opera.”

“And people.

“Why did you marry her?”

“She was gorgeous! Unlike some women, she had a wicked good sense of humor. And she was pretty smart. She knew her ancient Greek. She’d even figured out what she thought it sounded like and taught herself to speak it. . . I was head over heels.”

“Why did she marry you!”

“Thanks!”

“No. Why?”

“I said. She was Russian. She was doing graduate studies at BU. She wanted to get her American citizenship. I was her pigeon.”

“That’s right. You said. But that’s pretty cold.”

“Yes and no. I think she liked me. But love never entered the picture. She’d left her boyfriend back in Russia in order to get out of there and just couldn’t shake that. And besides which, she was a spy.”

I know I had my jaw open for longer than it finally took me to get the words out.

“Holy crap!”

“Yeah. Exactly. I’d been working over in Poland just before that—doing a teaching exchange at The Jagiellonian in Krakow—and somehow the Ruskies already knew what I was. So, I guess I was fair game.”

“That’s pretty unfortunate.”

“Maybe not. I was lucky. Really. I learned a whole lot from that experience. I did. And thankfully, she didn’t learn a whole lot from me before it was over.”

“So now, you are an authority.”

“Yeah. But, that’s really because of my parents. I got to watch them over the years. They were what I would call ‘the perfect couple.’ . . . My dad told me he had a nightmare once—just once—that he’d awakened in the middle of the night and she wasn’t there. Just had it once, but he could never shake it. The memory of that one bad dream would give him shivers, even when he was sitting under a hot sun on the sand at Jones Beach.”

“Pretty good.”

“Yeah.”

“So why haven’t you tried again.”

He says, “I told you.”

“No, you made excuses.”

“Okay . . . I suppose you wouldn’t just accept the idea that I never met the right girl?”

I say, “No. That’s something you make right. You meet who you want to meet. It doesn’t just fall in your lap. I think you must know at least that much by now.”

“Yeah. True . . . But time passes. You don’t notice. And I was busy, and busy makes you stupid.”

“That I can understand. Deirdre said almost the exact same thing.”

“You ought to marry her.”

“Why do you think so?”

“Because, I’ve been listening to you guys talk on the phone …” He looks over, prepared for my reaction. “What? . . . It’s my job. Besides, I only eavesdrop. That’s traditional. Even Shakespeare did it.”

“I wish you wouldn’t.”

“Sure. But I’ll tell you, you two sound just like my parents.”

It was best to change the subject. I had been thinking a good deal about the Cumberland Homestead.

“So, what did you think of this place”

“It’s a museum. I like museums.”

This was an answer I did not expect.

“What do you mean?”

“It’s an artifact—more a collection of artifacts, I suppose. It reminded me of one of those village developments on the Cape. Everything just so. Everything in its place. But people don’t really live in museums. They stay for a while. I guess they can stay there for their whole lives, as long as they obey the rules. Very nice details. Good looking. No purple houses. No rusting cars out front. No barnyard dogs . . . I liked the bungalow architecture. But if all two hundred and fifty are like that, it would get boring pretty quick. Can you imagine growing up there? Did you ever go to Disney World.”

“Yeah. I took the kids.”

“Then you know what I mean. Totally artificial. 1950’s modern. All the aesthetic depth of the Jetson’s. Amazing to see, but I couldn’t wait to leave . . . When I was in the museum today I was looking at the pictures of all those people working together in perfect harmony to make their new homes. All nicely filmed. The carpenters and the stone masons. And the women all neatly dressed and making tchotchkes. It gave me the heebie-jeebies. Like watching one of those old Soviet propaganda films. Though this is really very pretty by any comparison to Disney World—what with using local wood and the natural stone. But it’s as if some giant kid came along and decided to build a play town. Still just as phony.”

He had summed it up very well. I didn’t have a lot to add.

“It was a giant kid. There was a large picture of him and his wife right there.”

“Yeah. I saw it. And I listened to that whole, ‘We have nothing to fear but fear itself,’ speech again. That guy never went hungry a day in his life. What did he know about fear? Because he had polio? Terrible. And all the best medical care in the world. All that any kid born in the Tennessee valley back then had if he got polio was mother nature and a prayer. How many families do you think lost their homes when the TVA flooded the valleys to make the electric power for all the industry that was owned by all his friends?”

The thought passed that he was just trying to humor me, though his objection seemed genuine enough. Maybe it was the history teacher in him. But, the same thoughts had occurred to me.

“I looked it up on-line, today. 15,000 families just for the Norris dam. Over a 125,000 people displaced. But the propaganda in the museum said tens of thousands of jobs were created.”

He dismissed that, “Sounds like some very bad math to me.”

“People still love him around here.”

“Uncle Joe Stalin was still pretty popular after a few million kulaks were eliminated in the 1930’s.”

But we wouldn’t be re-fighting the political wars of the 1930s if we both agreed.

“I couldn’t help thinking, the whole time I was in that museum, that this was the beginning of the now.”

He looked over at me as if in surprise.

“Yes! You’re right!”

“We have the filmed testimony right there of some of the people who lived in those nice houses. They thought it was quite wonderful.  They had what they wanted. They hadn’t a care about the cost or the impact on other peoples lives.”

“I think most of the people who live on government checks today would agree. They can’t imagine anything else. Not any longer.”

He rocked in his chair, gazing up through the veins of bare limbs into the starry sky and then, without really looking, he kicked his shoe at the edge of the fire and sparks flew upward in a brief maelstrom to disappear there among their kind.

 

 

 

 

 

14. Inconsistencies are the hobgoblins of large minds

and the accommodations at the inn

 

 

The road ahead was boringly straight. Nearly perfectly so. The last time I had been down this way, about an hour after a tumultuous breakfast in Knoxville, I had three unhappy kids in the back seat, under ten years old, wondering when we were going to get to a toilet again, and Margaret at my side, asking why anyone would want to live out here in the boondocks.

I asked Angelo, “What made you want to be a spy?” This, because I had essentially already asked him what made him want to be a part-time soldier, and the answer hadn’t filled the bill for me. A professor of history seemed more than enough.

He acted at first as if he hadn’t heard. He pointed out at a farm that filled the valley to our right in postcard fashion—a large red barn with rusting tin roof, sturdy fencing marked by years of repair, a white farmhouse with a bright green roof and shaded yard that was fenced off from a garden at one side and a dirt road at the other, but all of it neat and well cared for.

He said, “I will always wonder what that life would have been like.”

“It looks happy from the distance. I think it probably is.”

“I stayed at a farm like that once for a month while I was attending a seminar in Nuremberg. A bed and breakfast. I thought they were just about the happiest people I ever met. Seven generations of farmers . . . A good-looking daughter. But their son was a dedicated Marxist. He was up to no good and his parents later lost the farm for harboring him. I never understood it.”

“What part?”

“The son—Oh. I understood the parents perfectly well. He was their son. That was that. But why did he endanger them? Incredibly stupid and selfish. I hope he rots in hell for that alone. I don’t care about his being a Marxist.”

“Why do you think he did it?”

“ Jealousy. He wanted to make something more out of his own his existence on the earth than just being a farmer. He even said as much. His father had fought in World War Two. Not a Nazi. Just a soldier. And he’d been sent to the Eastern Front because he wouldn’t comply. Really, a decent fellow. . . . He had a red nose—the father, I mean. He had suffered frostbite during the war, but he and his wife both drank something called Underberg, every night before bed. She was a terrific cook and made wonderful breakfasts. Crepes you couldn’t stop eating. And she made her own preserves. I should have married the daughter just for that reason alone.”

Angelo’s apparent deflection from my original question seemed to have run its course and he sat there quietly until the farm was well out of sight.

“Why did that experience make you want to be a spy?”

“Oh. I was already in the game by then. That was why I was there. Intel wanted to know if the son had contacts down at Garmisch, an Army base south of there. It turned out, he did . . . Brenner liked his beer and he talked too much. He was very jealous of his father. He knew the old man had been terrifically brave and had managed to save most of the family during difficult times. But the son blamed America for everything. When he was drinking, and his parents were in bed, he would try to provoke me. I would let him. It was a good lesson. He’d been through Heidelberg University himself. Studied political philosophy. He thought I was just another stupid American graduate student. And he was right, of course. I was.”

“It’s interesting, but why are you telling me all of this.”

He took a breath that sounded like a sigh.

“That was twenty-five years ago. Different world. I was thinking about it.”

“And, what did you come up with?”

“That I enjoyed it. I like observing other people’s lives. I guess I’m a voyeur.”

“We all do that.”

“But not in such a dedicated fashion.”

“And now you are observing me.”

“Yes.”

“And what do you see?”

He was sitting in that calm manner he has, almost as if he were asleep, but his eyes were on the woods and then the next farm.

“I’ll give you this, you’re a much more complex fellow than most. And I’m coming to the realization—it took me long enough, I know—that the reason you seem so complex is because you are actually very simple.”

“Simple-minded. It’s been said before.”

“Ha! No. It’s like your friend Thoreau. I am very glad that I never read Walden until last week. I don’t think I would have understood it. It can be very confusing coming to a book like that, and a mind like his, and expecting it to fit the norms you’re used to. The ‘different drummer’ idea fits.”

“He was unique in a world of usual characters.”

“And there are a lot of good quotes, but one in particular, near the end, stayed with me. Do you remember what Thoreau said about Tom Hyde, the tinker?”

It was a short but memorable anecdote. “That he said what he had to say, and not what he ought?”

“Exactly. That’s you.”

“But Tom Hyde was on the gallows. They hung him!”

“Well, those were different times. And Brenner cost his family their heritage. Fifty years before that, he would have been shot. At least what you’re doing, for good or ill, is all on you. That’s part of what makes it complex.”

“I thought I was simple.”

“No. That’s only because I can’t read your mind . . . What are you thinking right now?”

“I was wondering what part of Walden you like best.”

“Exactly! See! I should have guessed that, but, I didn’t. Anyone else involved with a bunch of idiots wanting to overthrow the government and sitting next to a spy who’d been observing him for two weeks would be wondering what I might have seen that I shouldn’t have, or heard that might be unfortunate.”

“As someone once said, ‘Check your premises.’ “

“That was Miss Rand, wasn’t it, in Atlas Shrugged?”

“Yes.”

“I read part of that. Way back in college. A bit too tendentious for me.”

“She is that.”

“But you’re not.”

“More than you realize, I think.”

“Perhaps. But you really don’t give a damn what I see or hear.  No. I didn’t say that quite right. That’s a bit more vociferous than the way you see it, I think. You simply don’t care.”

“Actually, I do. Not to be tendentious.  Maybe I shouldn’t, but I’ve grown to like you. I care what you think. I don’t want you to get any wrong ideas about me, but I can’t really control it. You’ll see what you want to see.”

He shook his head with a jerk of exasperation.

“BUT—see! I believe that! Why?”

“Maybe because it’s true. Or doesn’t that matter?”

“ ‘Say what you have to say, and not what you ought.’ Your friend Mr. Thoreau again.”

“I like that you call him my friend. It’s something I’ve imagined before. I even wrote a novel about it, years ago.”

His mouth opened well before he spoke.

“Jesus! That’s the key to this! You’ve already told me half a dozen times, at least, and I missed it!” He was sitting there, shaking his head as if he were trying to use his beard to wipe some crumbs off his shirt—just as I had seen him do once or twice before.

“What?”

“It’s all in your head! It’s all in your fucking head!”

“Okay. But what are you talking about now?”

“You’ve been friends with Henry David Thoreau! How do you fucking do that?”

He seemed to want an answer to the question, as if it had a simple one. I did the best I could.

“You said that you would always wonder what a life on that farm would have been like. But you’re a smart fellow. You’ve lived an interesting life, yourself. You’ve been a lot more places than I have, for sure. Can’t you imagine that?”

“Sure. I guess I do. I think I have, at times.”

“So, that it. That’s all. And if you pester that thought along, you’ll come up with a story. And if you keep bothering it, it might be a novel. You never know.”

That was the thought that lingered for a while,

“Once, I wrote a novel—”

“Another novel! How many have you written?”

“I don’t know. I used to write them in great rushes of energy and enthusiasm. Often, about three or four months in, I would find myself unhappy with the premise and lose steam. Like a conversation that petters out. This was one of those. Anyway, it was called ‘Pendexter.’  The idea was that the entire sequence of action, everything, was a matter of unintended consequences.”

“In other words, it was about real life.”

“Right! You got that! Maybe that’s why I lost interest. It was too obvious. But I find myself thinking about it lately.”

He rocked a while, patiently.

“You want me to ask you why you were thinking about it?”

“No. Not if you’re not interested.”

“So, tell me why, already!”

“Because, the reason you’re here is a mistake, but the consequences are good—for both of us.”

“How so—I mean, I know you think you’re an innocent in a mean world, but how is my being here good, other than for you to have someone to tell your tales to?”

I gave that an extra beat,

“Doug Evans got you away from your mother’s cooking.”

“I, for one, see that as a terrible loss.”

“Really?”

“She was alone, in the city. My sisters couldn’t drop everything. Alma has three teenage daughters. She needs a shot gun. Beatrice has a full-time job. And her kids too. No way. It was all on me. And I was good to go.”

“Who’s with your mother now?”

“Her sister. Aunt Celia. She came up from Florida.”

“Good. So now you’re free to roam about the country.”

“For a while. But, how does that work with your unintended consequences idea.”

I shrugged.

“You were going to kill yourself.”

“What?”

“I found a picture of you on-line from a few years ago. You were pretty fit!”

“I’m getting older.”

“Really.”

“So, you think I was trying to kill myself with pasta.”

“Yes.”

That got the sound of a long intake of breath from him. He didn’t answer.

I said, “My guy, Pendexter, was a young writer—just coincidently, and I was young then too–and he would write a serious story and it would be accepted as a comedy. He wrote an adventure and it would be taken as a farce. He wrote a comedy and it was taken as psychological drama. He married the wrong girl, but she divorced him for a cad, and he stumbled on true love while blazing drunk because of his wife dumping him—“

“That happened to me. I told you. Except for the part about finding true love.”

“Yeah. But I wrote this nearly forty years ago. And I gave it up because, like you said, it was too much of the real world. . . Besides, you’ve still got time.”

A short while later,  he says, “So, how did this all start?”

My mind was still on the idea of Pendexter..

“I think it must have been a quirk of character, or a simple genetic disorder, but whatever it was, it kept me from cowering in the presence of Twain or Hugo or Dickens and allowed me to see the more obvious genius of all those great minds I was encountering in my reading, as if they were offering me a terrific opportunity! It invested me with hope…That would be me! A young fellow incapable of memorizing a single scene of Shakespeare, or reciting a Robert Frost poem without stumbling, who habitually misspelled homophones, reversed my ‘Es’ and ‘Is,’ and was only a little better at sixteen than eight, and not much improved by twenty-four. How could this be so?”

He seemed confused by my answer, so I continued.

“Difficult to say. The deeper genius of Shakespeare was still lost on me when I began to re-write scenes to suit my own sense of things. It seemed to me that Dumas might be edited by half. Dickens much the same. Mark Twain was the only author I had some trouble with. Certainly, the entire blood feud of the Grangerfords and the Shepherdsons and the terrible result would be better shortened in such a comic novel, reducing that particular display of hypocrisy to a character or two—or altogether, given the frequency of hypocrisy in the book as a whole. Hypocrisy is nearly always funny, until it’s not.”

He was frowning but said nothing.

I tried to justify myself. “There was no pretense in my mind of being better than these authors. I knew that  I was not about to be. But I saw my efforts as an easy means of acquiring the ability to play with the same material in my own way. Of course, the result was a plagiarism of the worst kind, like a child’s copy of Van Gogh. But, like the child I was, I enjoyed the process enormously, and to the point that, by the time of graduation from high school, I wrote habitually and for the fun of it. Though, by then, I had also read many of the great novels and I’d already reduced some of them to short stories.”

He suddenly waved at the windshield as if to clear a fog.

“No. No! Sorry. It was an open-ended question. I’m sorry. What I was aiming for was, when did you start getting these crazy political ideas? Was it before you got involved with this bunch of idiots, or after?”

That seemed funny to me, in light of where I was going. But then, he hadn’t had a chance to read much of what I had already written.

“Lord, no. Long before. I was pretty much a libertarian by the time I graduated from high school.”

“So, we can’t look at your case as someone who was misdirected by the influence of others. You were not an innocent.”

I tried to focus on the road ahead, but it was suddenly difficult. I know that I slowed.

“Your whole premise is cockeyed! I wasn’t being corrupted. I’m 68 years old for Christ’s sake! Far more likely I was doing the influencing. At least I hope so. I’d like to think so, anyway. . . The problem is yours. You’ve decided that what I was doing was wrong. Post hoc, ex post facto—ipso facto, or whatever the damned Latin is. But you have no evidence of wrongdoing unless you change the laws to suit your own definitions! But then again, that’s not new! That’s the whole modus operandi of government now, and half the society. You redefine the lives of people to suit your purposes. Label people. File people. All for a good cause, of course. To protect the children. To safeguard the nation from evildoers. But look at what you’re doing. You’re creating a police state! The Stasi were pikers compared to you guys. They were wholly incompetent. But you—you’ve not only enlisted the police and the army but at least half the public to the ‘good’ cause. You have the benefit of all those well-meaning moms and pops and students who’ve never bothered to think the thing through because they are busy and they assume that’s exactly what the elected government is supposed to do. You have all of those students caught in the sudden awe of recognition, who suddenly see the corruption all around them and are outraged. Outraged! They have no idea about the narcotic of power. You’ve got the tax collectors and the building inspectors and the city officials, and the teachers—and you! You! You’ve seen it from the inside. You know what I’m saying is true. You’re better than that. The horror of that kind of history is in your head! Use it!”

I was a little perturbed. I think the ‘cat and mouse’ had gotten to me and I was not sure why. I knew the situation. Angelo sat quietly staring out at the same road that I was but not likely seeing the same things.

A car honked and passed.

The phrase that now came to mind was a cynical one: welcome to the real world. That was an attitude that I had commonly encountered as a youth. I disliked it instinctively.

I realized, just about then, that I had actually spent too little of my time on this trip playing at being de Tocqueville, talking to shopkeepers and farmers and judging my fellow Americans for their common sense and decency. That was the larger purpose of all this expedition, wasn’t it? To find out if the character of the country had been hopelessly subverted and corrupted by the abuse of authority and mass re-education. To see if my nation was beyond salvation. Surely, the surface of things seemed solid enough—tarnished but still recognizable.

A small gray barn loomed on the left. The rusty slant of roof was still emblazoned—the only part not rusting—with fat red letters: See Ruby Falls.

I had done that! That was the reason I had been on this same road years ago. Margret and the kids and I had eaten a terrific breakfast in Knoxville, and we were headed into the Great Smokey Mountains toward Atlanta. We were on our way to Disney World! And I had insisted on avoiding the Interstates, and progress had been slow going through every hollow and over every hill. I was happy but the crew was not. And the waitress in Knoxville, big-haired and big-bosomed and clearly a lover of her own biscuits and gravy—which had been fabulous, so I didn’t blame her—had asked us where we were going and when I told her, she said, “Well, then you’ll have to stop and see Ruby Falls.” And we did.

I said out loud, “I went there once.”

Angelo surfaced from whatever thoughts he was having.

“How was it?”

“Terrible.”

He offered, “It’s a Johnny Cash song. Not his best.”

“It’s all underground—in caverns, lit up with colored lights and dime store music. Terrible. You can see right away why Ruby fell.”

“But, did the kids like it?”

“Sure. . . No. Actually, it was a funny thing. They were good kids. They knew I’d gone out of our way to get there, and Margaret was not pleased, but they got the idea that it was a diversion just for them, so they were sympathetic and—you know how it is on the Fourth of July down at the Esplanade when the crowd starts getting into the spirit and it’s all oohs and aahs with each new firework display? They did that on cue. It was very funny. Even Margaret was laughing.”

“Yeah. Some things are like that. They’re so bad they’re good.”

“Did your parents ever take you and your sisters to anyplace like that?”

“Only on weekends. . . In the winter it was the museums. The museum of Natural History was always good.”

“I loved that too.”

“Summer, it might be Coney Island. And back then they used to have a place ironically called, Freedomland.”

“I remember it.”

“Total phony. They were big on all the flashy lights and recorded music too. The music sounded as scratchy as an old 78. Probably a worn out tape. I know they were trying to pick up business from the World’s Fair over in Queens when we first went there—but Freedomland was actually first. Sort of a Disneyland rip-off…The World’s Fair was okay. Long lines. My dad carried me on his shoulders. That seemed better, at least to the eye of a four-year-old kid. But Freedomland was a total phony. Everything was a little dirty, a little broken, and a little seedy. The rides were too short and broke down all the time. Even the ice cream and hot dogs sucked. And it smelled. You could smell the marshes. Cotton candy and rotting marsh grass. Yum. Something metaphorical there, I suppose, given the times. It was a regular topic of conversation around the dinner table for years.”

The condemnation was thorough.

“I only went once, I think. I was preoccupied. It was one of my first dates. I don’t remember it that well.”

“But you remember Disney World?”

“Yes.”

“That’s the difference. Now, Disney World, that’s phony done right! Phony the way it should be! At Freedomland, my sister Beatrice was accosted in the ladies’ room. Right there, with a dozen other women and children around. She broke away and my father went right back in, raging. They almost arrested him.”

“That would ruin any memory…What were you then, four or five?”

“Yeah.”

“That means you were born around 1960.”

“Yeah.”

“So, you’re closer to fifty-five, not fifty-two.”

He shrugged. “So, I fibbed. It’s what I tell people when they ask. I’m told that fat people look younger—You know, I really hated it the first time I went on a date and admitted that I was fifty.”

 

I tried a spot in the parking lot of a defunct fast-food restaurant in Bridgeport after we crossed the border into Alabama. The town was a good-looking and spacious place of neat houses and old trees, but when no one stopped after an hour or so, I drove over to see the river and then on along to the campsite that I had called ahead for, near Ft. Payne.

When we were settled, with a fire going in a crisp clean twilight—the dried leaves left over from Autumn were not all off the hickories there and they rustled with the sound of ocean playing out on the sand—I waited for Angelo to get comfortable and decided to press a couple of buttons.

“Did you know that this was the heart of the Old Cherokee Nation?”

“Yep. Pretty country. I was reading the sign they have about Sequoyah down the road there where we came in. And did you know it’s the ‘Sock Capital’ of the world?”

I let that go. I didn’t know any sock jokes.

“So, do you think the federal government ought to be able to force people off their land and out of their homes for some economic advantage to others.”

He was taken a little off guard by the sudden seriousness.

“Nope! If you’re looking for an argument on that, I’m not your man.”

“Same sort of stunt they pulled on the people over in the valleys of the Tennessee. They said it was for their own good.”

“Yep.”

“It’s my understanding that right here is where the Cherokee removal started. The beginning of the Trail of Tears.”

“Maybe so.”

“Was it a footnote in your schoolbooks like it was in mine.”

“Yep.”

“You understand that the Georgia and Alabama farmers wouldn’t have been able to move the Cherokee Nation off their land if they didn’t have the help of the Federal Government. They wouldn’t have even thought about it. The Cherokees were united against it. They may have negotiated for some land, or some mineral rights. Whatever. But it would have been a negotiation of equals. It’s the power of the Federal government that changed that equation.”

“Likely so.”

This was the voice of someone who did not want to be provoked. I pushed on.

“It’s what the powerful have been doing to the less powerful for all of history. The Iroquois moved the Delaware out. The Ojibwa pushed on the Sioux and the Sioux pushed on the Cheyenne. The Commanche were hitting on the Apache. The Navaho were all over the Hopi. And so it goes.”

“Is that your point? That the powerful take advantage of the weak? Really?”

“Really. And the Chinese are pushing at the Tibetans and the Uyghurs, and the French pushed out the Huguenots. The British cleared out the Scottish Highlands. The Russians pushed off the Kulaks, and the Turks eliminated the Armenians, and the Germans did it to the Jews.”

He was not looking happy. His eyes were looking around in the burn of the fire for a retort.

“My point is that we have, here in America, supposedly set up a system of government to stop all that shite. All that crap was supposed to end two hundred years ago. But it didn’t. Four score and seven years later they had a Civil War and tried to make some adjustments. It was a good idea, but it failed. Why it failed can be debated, but I challenge you to tell me how a more powerful government is the answer.”

“I see…Okay, I don’t have an answer. But I think I see the problem as clearly as you do.”

“Maybe. But maybe not.”

“Why, maybe not? I’ve studied at least as much history as you have.”

“A lot more, I think. But we see what we want to see. We don’t always want to look closer at the stuff that makes us uncomfortable. So, here’s the thing. How do we get out of this bind?”

He winced. This seemed to me like a programmed wince. Something to divert attention from his usual stoic behavior.

“I don’t know. I’ve been around the world a couple of times, and I’ve spent time in a dozen countries. More. And I can tell you it’s better here than anywhere.”

“So that’s all you want? That it’s better?”

“I’d like to see it get better. ‘More better’ as one of my students used to say.”

“How does that happen?”

“We work on it. We keep trying.”

“Right. And you likely agree with me that reading what you can and talking it through is the best way to do that.”

He rocked and smiled.

“Very good. I see. What you’re going to tell me is, that’s all you and your buddies were doing—was talking it through?”

“That’s right.”

“Well, why do it in secret?”

“Why not? Why don’t you talk about your sex life at the lunch counter? It’s nobody’s goddamned business but yours. Why should anyone have to put up with the sort of crap they throw at anyone who disagrees with the program these days…No? Oh, gee-whiz, that’s exactly what happened to you, isn’t it?”

He rocked a moment more.

Finally, he said, “I don’t have a sex life.”

“Well, don’t tell me about it. Do something! You sure as hell aren’t getting any younger!”

He shook his head.

“Did you bring the hot dogs?”

“They’re in the cooler. You want a beer.”

“Yes. I’ll need a beer after that.”

 

When Deirdre called that night, I walked out to the road and stood in the pull-off by the Sequoyah sign. After Angelo’s admission to me about eavesdropping, she had even bought herself a new cell phone. So, I told her about my latest conversations. She said she was glad she had missed the sights at Ruby Falls.

Then I told her about my new theory. I related that pretty much exactly.

“I said to Angelo, ‘So let’s talk about our mutual friend Mr. Evans.’ Angelo says ‘He’s a good guy.’ And I say, ‘And he just put that bug in the trailer for sport?’ He says, ‘No. It’s his job. He believes in all that.’ So, I say, ‘But, you don’t.’ He says, ‘Not exactly. I was okay with keeping an eye on foreign nationals and the rest, but this is different.’ I say, ’You think? So, what about him?’ He says, ’I told you. I think he’s a good guy. Maybe not by your high standards but by mine.’ So I tell him, ‘Alright.’ But then I had a funny idea.”

Deirdre waits, but she can be impatient and she says, “What?”

“I was thinking that this might all be a set-up inside a set-up.”

She says, “What do you mean?”

“I think, by most common measures, Evans probably is a good guy. Actually, I think that’s probably why he’s retiring early. The FBI isn’t what it used to be. Maybe it never was, but at least he thought it was. When he joined it was all Efrem Zimbalist Jr. and Jimmy Stewart. He worked in Boston his whole career. He saw the Whitey Bulger scandals. He probably figured that the FBI agents involved in all that were just bad apples. . . So, I said that to Angelo and he says ‘Evans said exactly the same thing to me. More than once.’ So, I say, ‘Evans sees right off that I’m not a terrorist, but I’m a target and they aren’t going to skate on it until they get some sort of result.’ Angelo made a noise that was not clearly a word, but didn’t answer that. So, I tell him, ‘During the initial investigation, I must have talked to Evans at least thirty times.’ I think he probably knows more about me than my brother. He’s even read a few of my books. I know that from some of his questions.’ And Angel says, ‘I think that’s right. I would depend on it.’ So, I say, ‘But, my brother hasn’t even read most my books. So, Mr. Evans has a pretty good idea of who I am. He pretty much knows what I’ve been doing for the last forty years. And I think he already has an idea about these evildoers that you’re supposed to be getting a line on. I think he might even understand now that they are not bad people. But he also knows, if he drops the case, someone else is going to pick it up.’ Angelo says, ‘That’s likely so.’ I say, ‘So, Evans comes up with a plan. He knows you’re down in New York, committing suicide with pasta, and he figures you’re perfect for this job. He can save you and get to the bottom of this with one stroke.’ Now, Angelo is shaking his head, but his beard is up off his chest and his voice sounds unconvinced. He says, ’Doug is not a devious person.’ And I say, ‘But he might just be trying to do the best thing under the circumstances.’ ”

To which, Deirdre says, “I’m not convinced! Don’t trust him!”

 

 

 

 

16. Pecan Pergatorio

among the mixed nuts

 

 

Near Cullman I spotted a nice sunny pull off at what was left of a farmstand, now weather grayed, the roof sagging over a collapsed porch, the door off its hinges and laid down sideways with the command, ‘PRIVATE PROPERTY’. But there was no name or number visible to contact. The parking area was partly blocked by the shattered arm of a naked pecan tree and essentially paved with the broken shells, and it caused me to look back on the property and see that most of the trees on the rise there looked similar, and that there was a graying house of two or three floors with steep gables and narrow windows and more character than the usual single level ranch that was common through here.

Angelo laughed. I think he was reading me like a book and already knew exactly what I was going to do.

I drove back around to a driveway I had noticed at one side of the property where there was another hand-painted ‘Private Property’ notice, this one on a brick abutment by the mailbox, offering some sense of common ownership. The gate there, attached to the abutment, sagged away into tall grass and weeds. Not without a little sense of excitement, I drove back into the trees and up to the house that I had seen.

The house was pure Southern Gothic, a vernacular Victorian shaped by some long-ago whim—or whims perhaps, depending on the generations—into a collection of rooms, with the remains of dull reds and blues on graying clapboards left as the ghosts of inspirations that once had been. A steep roof over the second floor, originally brick-red with tile, was gapped and toothed down to the black tarpaper by the lost shingles The flatter roof of the porch was strewn with wind-blow debris and more pecans, and the porch itself, broad and deep, was darkened by shadows and empty but for a single rocking chair and a dog’s metal water dish. The dog could be heard and by the throaty bark, I knew he was big.

I rang a bell that I immediately knew worked because the rattle of it sounded outside as well as in. The dog barked louder, but no one came. I rang again.

Suddenly a strong female voice came up from behind me.

“What do you want?”

I managed a ‘hello’ as I turned.

“Hello. What do you want?”

The woman was dressed in a broad straw hat and wearing high-cuffed leather gloves. Maybe five feet tall, she had on an apron over a brown jacket. A loose strand of gray and black hair reaching almost to her waist had fallen from the bun at the back of her neck. Her eyes were a softer gray. One thing I noticed pretty quickly is that she had a gun in her apron pocket. It looked to me like it might be a revolver, but I could only see the handle. And the funny thing, at least to me in that one instant, was that I felt sure she was exactly my own age and that she had been living here in this dying house for all of my years, by herself.

“My name is Michael McGeraughty, I’m a bookseller, and I’m on a little pilgrimage and selling books out of this trailer wherever I can.”

She had been looking the outfit over and eyeing Angelo in the front seat while I spoke.

“I don’t need any books.”

It was a clear voice.

I said, “I’m glad that’s true. But there’re no bookshops in the area and I thought I might try selling a few in a spot like the one down below. At the empty stand there.”

“What kind of books. Religious books?”

“No. General literature. Classics.”

“That’s crazy.”

“I’ve been told.”

She nodded a moment.

“You have any Dante?”

I thought a moment.  But Angelo spoke up from the cab window.

“You do. I saw, you have the Viking Portable.”

I nodded back at her.

She said, “How much?”

I said, “If you allow me to spend a few hours down there on the road, I’ll happily give it to you in exchange.”

She tilted her head back as if looking through reading glasses.

“You are a nut. But you already know that. Luckily, I have an affection for nuts. I’ve sold pecans right down there at that stand for most of my life. Just don’t go inside. The old shack is falling down, and I can’t be worried about you. Got enough on my mind.”

Meanwhile, Angelo had climbed into the trailer and came back with the Dante and handed it to her.

She said, “I’m living in Purgatory now, but I want to see where I’m headed.” And turned away.

The business was brisk by comparison to some of our stops. Half a dozen people came by and we sold over a hundred dollars’ worth of books in about three hours.

First thing, Angelo and I moved the dead branch. Because it looked so forbidding, I parked the trailer directly in front of the shack. I put out the sign beside the road and before I could even set out the paperback book rack, we had our first customer.

We were informed by one couple that the owner of the house was Miss Evans. The coincidence of her name was not lost on either of us. She was a recluse and known that way. They had never met her, but her reputation as the ‘Pecan Lady,’ was apparently mythic. On Halloween, kids dressed up in torn sheets rattling with pecans sewn onto strings. ‘Now’a days she’ll fill old baskets with pecans and just set them out on the road for free.’

Not long after that, Miss Evans showed up on foot, her big orange dog prancing beside her, with two shopping bags of books.

“A ‘gift’, one nut to another,” she said. There was no smile. The hat brim hid her eyes as she spoke.

But she never actually introduced herself. She simply set the bags down and was gone. Afterward, I wished I knew what her story was, but I had lost the chance. Her obvious shyness warned me against intruding any further.

The books she left were quite lovely. Many of them were leather bound and looked as if they had been in a glass-fronted bookcase for a hundred years without being touched. But the authors were largely forgotten: George Washington Cable, Ellen Glasgow, Mary Johnston, Sidney Lanier, Richard Malcom Johnson, Sherwood Bonner—they had had their day and at least managed to get the deluxe treatment at one time. Among the best known was Alfred Tennyson, whose great work is hardly read in our age of short cuts and digital knowledge. Such uses of literary metaphor are lost to us. But The Lady of Shalott was an easy pick to read that night.

 

Shortly after leaving the stand, Angelo says, “Do you believe in Angels?”

I took a moment. Naturally I was trying to see the question in context.  Had he seen something in our Pecan Lady?

“No. I suppose it’s not a question I’ve ever entertained. Do you believe in Big Foot?”

He sat up straight.

“That’s rather dismissive, don’t you think?”

“You’re right. Big foot, in some form, might exist.”

He filled his lungs. I was expecting a verbal explosion. Instead, he said, “Your buddy Moses Maimonides believed in angels.”

I said, “We are not exactly close friends. I admire him. But he was very religious, and he took the Bible as truth.”

“So did Abraham Lincoln.”

“Lincoln was smarter than me, but he could be wrong. Thomas Jefferson did not. He likened them to the wind.”

“I think Jefferson was confusing angels with ghosts.”

“An easy mistake.”

“So, what do you believe in, other than yourself?”

It wasn’t a winnable argument.

“I see where you are going with this. But you’d be wrong, again, Watson. I don’t ‘believe’ in myself … I am. Even if my thinking is a bit strange.”

“I was referring to the thinking.”

“I do the best I can. I suppose that I’m wrong about most things. But I’m still learning.”

“You are a pain in the ass.”

“Goes without saying.”

And that was that.

 

I had accidentally left my map on the chair next me at the restaurant—the hidden cost of too much talk. Then again, understanding where I was without a map offered some entertainment. So, where was I?

Now, I had long been a advocate in travel of Mr. Thoreau’s bit of wisdom, “If a person lost would conclude that after all he is not lost, he is not beside himself, but standing in his own old shoes on the very spot where he is, and that for the time being he will live there; but the places that have known him, they are lost.”

If I accepted the possibility that Doug Evans was trying to help Angelo by giving him the job of spying on me while also getting his own job done, just as he was doing when he gave me his old travel trailer, it gave me a context to understand Angelo a little better as well. That was a story that I might be able to accept.

Motivations were the matter. It was already dark, so there wasn’t much to see.

I said, “The great novelists offer context, not just in order to place their narrative in time, but so that tragedy or triumph become revelation. You read them a hundred years later and you can see their world. You might not like it, but at least you have some understanding of it. That’s history! That’s the reason you, of all people, should read them. Not just some professor marking the dates on his chalkboard.”

He said, “Are you talking to me? I don’t use chalk. I don’t do that. I deal with ideas! I look for the why. Ideas are the context for all of it. The reason for the American Revolution was a clash of ideas in what was essentially the same civilization.”

I said, “But the ideas weren’t new! Some of them were over two thousand years old. Why should they suddenly become a matter of life or death in 1776?”

“Because I don’t think they were ever put together that way before.”

“Sure. You can tell someone that all men are created equal, but they can look around for themselves and see the tall and the short and the smart and the slow. Why should they believe it?”

He says, “Maybe the context was right.”

“Or just maybe the times were right. When the Greeks were first batting all that stuff around, they were having their wine made for them by slaves. In 1776 most people on this side of the Atlantic were doing for themselves, and they were getting a good sense of how circumstances can level the playing field. The smart guy who can figure algebra in his head can’t fix his own dinner or train a horse. Some people have different talents. If you want a social structure that works, you can’t step on the farmer or the blacksmith to get ahead. Right?”

“Okay. Alright. And it was that cumulative understanding, that took place over centuries, and that’s what I was teaching.”

“And all that’s true of the other working parts of the equation too—like marriage and family and education.”

“Right. And that’s what I’m calling the ‘natural constitution’ of any society. That’s what makes it function. Not the fancy ideas about being equal. You have to walk the walk. You treat people fairly and you get treated fairly in return. The revolution happens when you break that bond.”

“Makes total sense to me. Only it didn’t exactly happen that way.”

He’s looking out at the road for a moment as if he missed something. “What do you mean?”

I say, “It’s an oversimplification. It’s true as far as it goes, but that’s not far enough. We still had slavery, even if most people didn’t have them. And we still had John Locke!”

He shrugs that off, “Nothing’s ever that simple. Every part is a puzzle of its own. It all has to come together at the right place and the right time. Cro-magnon man skulked around for forty or fifty thousand years before he got the right ideas. Take your Greeks. They got along just fine using slavery because all the societies around them used slaves. Heck, when Rome conquered them, they became slaves themselves. But, to borrow from Mr. Lincoln, a government that’s half slave and half free cannot endure.”

“So, you’re admitting that the Civil War was a good idea.”

“Sure.”

“‘A little rebellion,’ as Mr. Jefferson said.”

“I see. You’re playing verbal war games with me.”

“And you didn’t know?”

“But you can’t go mixing the history with the theory willy nilly. The theory never existed, it was a dream. Just an idea. What happened, happened, whether we want to study it or not. The theory is just a way to filter it.”

“So, what’s your problem? More precisely, what’s your problem with me. I’m just doing what comes naturally. I’m rebelling.”

He is exasperated. For Angelo, that means he is sitting up straight. His voice is a little too evenly toned.

He says, “The problem is, we live in a wicked world. This isn’t just the Navaho and the Hopi arguing over a few cactus. There are people who want the whole magilla. People with big powerful weapons. These are people who think winning is everything and the loser gets cut. How do you properly deal with people like that? How do you negotiate with someone like that?”

“It is in my nature not to negotiate at all. Let them fester in their own puss.”

“But, as you know, they can’t create anything. They‘ll just take. They’ll come around and take your stuff.”

“So, you make the penalty for that severe.”

“But you can’t go around making war on everyone who poses a threat. You have to keep an eye on them, so you know when they are going to go rogue.”

“So, why aren’t you over in China, or Russia. Why are you pestering me?”

“Because the people you were associating with—are associating with—pose a threat.”

“To what? To this corrupt government you’re working for?”

“We don’t have an alternative.”

“You wouldn’t know that. You haven’t looked for one yet.”

 

Angelo had been quiet for long enough that I looked over to see if he was asleep. Instead, I caught his eye, and he gave me a smile.

He says, “Now, here’s a funny thing. I was just thinking back to when I first started teaching, and to a friend of mine at Boston University. He retired after 2001 and he died a little over a year ago, now. But I still wish he hadn’t quit. I miss him. He was a real friend. Proved it a dozen times. Those were the John Silber days and they were tough on anyone who didn’t fit one camp or the other—for or against. There was a small band of us who refused to align ourselves with all the bullshit. Paul was one of them. But, I was new and didn’t know how to handle it yet. He helped me weather the storms. But here’s the thing. Paul was an old lefty.  He had been a lefty since World War Two.”

“A conscientious objector?”

“Oh no. No. He had been in North Africa, and then at Anzio, and went right up the boot. We talked about Italy a lot. He went back after the war. A number of times. He spoke Italian. He even married an Italian woman later on after his first wife left him. . . Anyway, he was a good guy. And a real independent cuss. I know for a fact he told Silber to go fuck himself. And he got away with it. Silber respected him. I think one reason for that might have been that Paul had stood up against unionization. A lefty against unions. Imagine that! At least that union, anyway. He saw himself as a sort of Oxford don. “A good teacher doesn’t want a union telling him how to teach.’ He said it many times. There I was, in my late twenties, early thirties, trying to make a point about the importance of religion to history, and without the imprimatur of the School of Theology—worse yet, a Catholic—and I didn’t have much cover. Paul did that. He did it before I even knew he was doing it. And then, when we became drinking buddies—he was almost 60 by then—he used to tell me about the confrontations he had. Good stuff. Very funny.”

“Sounds like a great guy.”

“He was. And in the summers, he went to Italy. He was a Spanish Jew—Sephardi—by heritage, but totally secular. He didn’t like Spain, but he loved Italy. He even went back there with his wife when he retired. He died there. . . . But one evening he says to me, “Angie, what do you really do in the summer?” He knew I was in the Army Reserve. I’m pretty sure he knew I worked for Intelligence. But I never talked about it, of course, and that made him curious…So I told him.”

“You’re kidding?”

“No. He had guessed, anyway. I figured that. But I wasn’t going to lie to him, even if it cost me.”

“What did he say?”

“He was prepared. That’s why I think he had already figured it out. He had a lecture ready for me. Just like he was addressing a class. He knew I’d confess to him, and he was going to let me have a piece of his mind.”

“Wasn’t that the end of your friendship?”

“No, no. He just kept bringing it up whenever the mood hit him. But he was serious.”

“So, what did he say?”

“Well, you remember Eisenhower and the Military-Industrial Complex speech. That was basically it. Paul said that they had taken over when Kennedy was shot. And he believed it.”

“A conspiracy nut.”

“Conspiracy, yes. Nut, no. You could argue with his reasoning but not his facts. I never caught him up on anything, and I tried.”

“Interesting.”

“That’s why I’m bringing it up now. I have listened to your various dissertations on the death of the Republic, and you keep hitting chords of memory. Paul was a die-hard socialist, but he hated corporations and all the influence peddling, and the whole nine yards. I’m thinking you two would have gotten along.”

I said, “Paul Vargas. . . Was he tall and thin—bony looking? Wore blue wool jackets but not tweed? Gray hair cut short? Like he had cut it himself?”

“Yeah! He did. ”

“I remember him. He used to come in on Wednesdays.”

“Ha! His day off. We used to go out drinking on Tuesday evenings after classes. What did you talk about?”

“We didn’t. He liked the shop, I think, but he always seemed wary of me.”

“Heh! I wonder why?”

Later on I said, “See, that is a problem of ideology, I think. Your friend Vargas was a lefty, but he doesn’t sound like an ideologue.”

Folded down into his seat, Angelo shook his beard loose from his shirt front.

“He wasn’t.”

 

The rain hit hard just before dark. Despite the occasional illumination of another vehicle passing in the opposite direction that gave a neon blaze to the streaks and drops of rain on the glass, the sweep of the wipers was inadequate. The road narrowed, as it always seemed to do at night, and we were both intent on the dozen yards or so before us.

I said, “This is hopeless. We must have missed the turnoff. That fried chicken at Double Springs was too damned good. We shouldn’t have stayed so long.”

The scream of water beneath the tires put an edge on the thought.

Angelo laughed a little, “But Deborah really did know her Shakespeare. I hope she gets back in at Sewanee and ends up teaching it when she graduates. She’d make a good teacher She was very enthusiastic!”

“I think her weight might have helped exaggerate that. Or she might have just been working for a bigger tip.”

“Now, who’s being cynical? She knew her stuff. Iago is a tough part. I’ve seen Othello a couple of times. But you’ve gotta love a good villain! I’ll bet you Alan Rickman could play him perfectly.”

“Maybe so, but I think we missed it.”

“I didn’t see any signs. Nothing that said. ‘Campground,’ anyway.”

“The book said the campground at Natural Bridge was open but maybe it was already closed for the season and that’s why they didn’t answer the phone.”

“Maybe there’s a Walmart ahead where we can park.”

“Not unless we head down to Birmingham, I think. I am not going back to Birmingham. I was lost there once before.”

“Just as well. I’ve been there myself.”

The silence that was not silent at all but a low drone of sound, water on metal, filled the cab.

“What did the fellow at the gas station actually say?”

“He said, ‘just up the way.’ He didn’t say how far.”

“Did he look reliable?”

“He looked like a skinny kid who needed a part-time job so they stuck him on the graveyard shift. He was more interested in my beard than anything else. He said, ‘My Daddy has a beard like that.’”

“He probably hates his daddy. I wonder if he ever met Deborah.”

“Leave Deborah alone. Deborah was okay. We can ask about campgrounds at the next gas station.”

“I feel like I’m trapped in the middle of the dark ages. I need a flush toilet and I’m tired.”

“As I’ve said before, the Middle Ages weren’t dark. That was the age of the Canterbury Tales and The Divine Comedy—well, maybe Dante was a little dark, but not Chaucer. And that’s when all the Arthurian romances were born with Chretien de Troyes.”

“Arthur was born at the very beginning of dark ages. He was dead for most of it.”

“We don’t actually know if Arthur lived.”

“Sure we do. Read Norma Lorre Goodrich.”

“I suppose you believe Beowulf did as well.”

“In some fashion. And Cu Chulainn, and the Cid.”

“Well, I won’t argue that for now. My point is that the Middle Ages were the time when music notation was invented, and the idea of the university—the first universities at Paris and Prague, Cologne, Bologna and Oxford were founded. That’s where Dante learned his stuff!”

“But we lost most of all that good because religious stupidity was rampant. We have more history and literature from the late Roman Empire than from the thousand years between 450 and 1450. And all of that was lost because of closed minds. The Moslem invasion of Spain injected more intellectual life back into Europe than they’d managed to preserve themselves. Maimonides would have been burnt at the stake if he’d lived in France or Italy, just like Giordano Bruno.”

“That was later. That happened in your so-called enlightened Renaissance. And it was the Moslem invasions that made the Europeans put up their defenses. It caused the need for warlords and Castles.”

“Actually, that was more due to the Vikings. But it was just the kind of ignorant feudal behavior that the Middle Ages were famous for. The Catholic Church kept that sort of ignorance alive right into the Sixteenth Century.”

“You shouldn’t be driving. You’re blind! Just look at the illuminated manuscripts!”

“Created by artists who were not allowed to express themselves otherwise. But my eyes are tired.”

“The Catholic Church supported Giotto, Da Vinci, Michelangelo, Caravaggio!”

“Now you’re getting into my so-called Renaissance.”

“Thomas Aquinas studied at Cologne and taught in Paris in the middle of the 13th Century!”

“A bright light in a dismal time, I wouldn’t say there was nothing worthwhile in your dark Middle Ages, just that there was far less than there might have been. Starting with the persecution of Pelagius and the fall of Rome and going all the way to the Inquisition—that last vestige of the darkness.”

“It was when the town charters were established—the very basis for the ideas of American liberty!”

“And feudalism and the establishment of a class-based society.”

You are hopeless! I’m trying to give you some context. You want context? I’ll give you context! Shakespeare! Where did Shakespeare get his ideas? From Boccaccio and Petrarch!”

“But then again, Petrarch had to rediscover Cicero after the minions of Augustine of Hippo had tried to bury his writings with him.”

“You—are—hopeless!”

“I see a gas station.”

“Thank God!”

“No. I’m not sure Shell would even sell a lease to God. They have more money, of course, but he can be more difficult to deal with.”

 

The signs for the motel next to the gas station shone brightly through the rain. A tacky term of recent parlance, ‘No brainer,’ came to mind, but Angelo spoke first.

“Why don’t we go half and half on a room?”

The clerk was in a windowed office behind the counter and came out reluctantly, apparently disturbed to be missing some part of the television show he was watching.

The room was cheap enough, but I wouldn’t have argued at twice the price.

He handed us a key. Gunfire came from the office.

“What’s that?”

Justified.”

“What’s that?”

“A cable show. Your room is up the hall to the left. At the end.”

He was gone back to the office before he finished speaking.

I took a shower first and settled in. The room was large but the two beds were both king-sized and pretty much filled it. I had to wonder what kind of parties they might have here.

Angelo leaned in at the television from the edge of his bed, watching the very show in question. There was more gunfire. He didn’t take his eyes from the screen when he spoke.

“I saw some of this at my mother’s. But this is some kind of marathon. They’re showing all the episodes back to back.”

It took me a while to get into it. Very well done. But there was an unfortunate smell in the room and I couldn’t concentrate.

“Are you going to take a shower?”

He knew exactly what was bothering me.

“It wasn’t me. I didn’t do it.”

I was going to get up to investigate, but I fell asleep after about two episodes and half a dozen killings. It had been a long day made worse by the rain.

About three in the morning I heard something. Angelo was getting into bed.

He says out loud, “He got’em all. Every last one. Amazing.”

The smell was still with us. Closing my eyes to it seemed wise if not best.

 

 

 

17. The Hammer of God

and a nail on the head

 

The sounds I heard at dawn were not loud—like a distant crowd. I got up and went to the window. Across the already busy highway and a broad parking lot beyond, there was a tall fence and a sign that was unmistakable: ‘Johnson’s Pork Products.’ The sounds I was hearing were the final conversations of hundreds of milling pigs. The smell I had slept with, likely worsened by the rain and an errant wind, was offal.

I related the one story I knew on the subject.

“I had an Uncle Ted who told me once that he worked his way through college with a hammer. It was his little joke. He knew I would ask. ‘Were you a carpenter?’ ‘No,’ he said. ‘Did you work in a steel mill?’ ‘Never,’ he said. ‘On the railroad?’ ‘No, not that either.’ ‘How, then?’ ‘Well,’ he said, ‘I got to play God. I worked in a small meatpacking plant in Cincinnati. I had arms like this then.’ He put his fingers up in a vice shape, half again wider than his arms were in his middle age. ‘I could fire a football fifty yards, no sweat.’ I looked over at my cousin Alice and saw she was rolling her eyes. She’d heard this one too many times. So, I said, ‘You got a sports scholarship, then.’ ‘Yeah,’ he said, as I fell into the trap, ’What does the meat packing plant have to do with that?’ I foolishly asked. He had me all the way. He said, ‘We used to drive the hogs up onto a narrow platform, fenced in on all sides. Not much different than they use in rodeos for a bull. I would be up there an the end with my feet planted into either side, like a god. When the pig’s head came out, I hit him between the eyes with a great big ol’ hammer.’”

We were in the truck pretty quick after the ‘free’ breakfast at the motel, skipping the ham and the sausage, and driving—me driving and Angelo sleeping—into Mississippi. I put on the radio. Loud. It didn’t seem to make a difference to him. The sun was mostly behind me. The road ahead was bright and cheerful, and more green than brown. I started to sing along. 1950’s Rock and Roll is compulsively easy to sing with. That woke him up.

Looking for some conversation, I said, “Do you really think you’re justified to be on my case.”

Right away he says, “No.”

“Then, why?”

“It’s a job. It’s your government. If you don’t like it, elect someone else. I’m just doing a job.”

This was the voice of irritation again. He closed his eyes.

“So, you think it’s justified for the government to send me to prison for some trumped-up charge?”

“No. That’s why I’m still here. I don’t want to be playing God.”

That shut me up for a short while. It was a consideration.

He seemed to be soundly asleep, mouth open, when I started singing again. Deirdre just tells me to stop. Margaret did too. But it’s compulsive, sometimes.

When his eyes were open and his mouth closed, I said, “You were there for awhile. How does the current generation of Germans justify what their parents did?”

He cleared his throat.

“‘It wasn’t me’…That’s what they say. ‘It wasn’t me.’”

“I suppose the Japanese do the same?”

“Almost. Some of them say that. More of them just say it didn’t happen. It just didn’t happen. It’s all war-time propaganda.”

“Have you ever been to Russia?”

“No.”

“I wonder what the Ukrainians say about all the Kulaks. The six million people who ‘disappeared.’ That must be a haunted world to live in.”

“Russian humor is a cultivation of the absurd. Ukrainian humor is a darker version of that.”

“How the Turks justified the murder of Armenians is at least easier to comprehend. After all, they were Christians, for Christ’s sake!”

“Not funny! I have a good friend who’s Armenian. His entire family—and Armenians traditionally have large families—men, women, children, were gathered at the well in front of their house and shot and dumped down the well. His father was away at the time, trying to earn wages at the closest seaport. Another villager found him there and told him that his name was on a list and they were looking for him, and convinced him to take a job on a freighter. . . He actually didn’t know his family was gone until after he jumped overboard in Boston harbor…I was in Turkey once, but only in Constantinople. That’s a different world. Made for tourists.”

It led me to another thought.

“Did you see the books we got from the Pecan Lady?”

“No. Why? Were they good?”

“Yes. Very good. Different. But there’s a lot of it that’s pretty much an apologia for the antebellum South, literally papering over the atrocities. Some beautiful writing with a very dark core.”

That hit a sore spot. It seemed that Angelo still had his bruises.

“I encountered some of that kind of thing from a different angle when I was teaching. There were a lot of trust-fund babies there and they liked to take history courses because they’re generally hard to fail—kids with intellects somewhere below garage mechanics who wanted to know the meaning of life without being sullied by the practice. That’s not to disparage garage mechanics, you understand. I’ve heard a good mechanic is hard to find. But these were kids who were brought up to believe everyone is equal, but some are more equal than others. They didn’t think they had to do the work. So I failed them. The dean would just reinstate the credit anyway. Their families were a regular source of revenue. But I failed them just the same. I think it was another reason the administration wanted me gone. I guess . . . I remember one kid, her family fortune was built on the slave trade—cotton to England, slaves to America. She was smart and did her work but her particular pleasure was in catching me up with mistakes. I didn’t read from a written text, you understand, so I sometimes strayed, got a date off here and there, or got a name wrong. One time she made a point about correcting me on who had been involved in the Gunpowder Plot of 1605. One of her own ancestors was in on that—to her credit really, if blood is worth anything at all. But she was obnoxious about it. So, when we got into the early days of the Republic and how a lot of the wealth was created, I pointed out the roll played by another one of her relatives in the slave trade. She wasn’t having any of that. She left the class. Somehow, she got a transfer even though it was way beyond the time limit. . . Yeah. It wasn’t me. I’m different.”

I added, “As they go about doing it again to the Uyghurs by purchasing computers and underpants made by Uyghur slaves in China. I don’t know what they’ll say to their children, if they bother to have any . . . But the easiest method of all, I think, is just to avoid the facts, or make them up to suit the need.”

Angelo nodded with his entire body. “Yeah. But that’s how it’s done. That’s how it’s justified.”

We caught the Natchez Trace Parkway just outside of Tupelo and stayed on it all the way to Jackson, Mississippi. I already knew there was a good bookshop there and thought it best to trade in all of the Pecan Lady’s treasures where they might be appreciated for their regional value, for credit on the sort of thing that would better fit the limited stock in the trailer.

The Natchez Trace Parkway is one of the great roads of America. A gem hidden in plain sight. I had driven much of it before and another opportunity was irresistible, even though there would be few places along the way to sell any books.

What makes it special is not what it was originally intended to be. In the days of keelboats and flat-boats and other sorts of pole boats powered by human muscle, and prior to the proliferation of the railroads, much of the traffic on the Mississippi and Ohio rivers was one way only. Boats would use the current of the river to bring grain and other manufactures down to the ports of Natchez and New Orleans. The crews would then travel back up by foot, on what had once been a natural buffalo trail and was later used by the Indians, up to the sources of the Ohio.

Now, with all that traffic gone, even from the memories of those who had heard the tales of Mike Fink and the outlaws and the bandits and the Indian attacks, from those who once remembered it, it was just a road. Its purpose was only that, and nothing else. Plain and simple. A sort of national monument to roads, built by the same Civilian Conservation Corps once meant to employ the unemployed to do what politicians and their hired minions thought needed to be done, after they had already done their best to destroy the economy with regulations. A beautiful road, high on the natural back of the land between the rivers, taken by the Federal government by eminent domain from the farmers who once cleared it and plowed it and foolishly thought it was theirs alone—after they, in turn, had taken it from the Shawnee and the Cherokee and the Choctaw—now to be unspoiled by any actual necessity or the vulgar intrusions of commerce. Built as a showpiece, at a time when thousands of towns across the country were in desperate need of better roads, and with the money so wisely confiscated from the people of those towns for a better use. A fine clean road that does not connect town after town on its way, or even try to be the fastest way to anywhere. Now it is managed by the National Park Service. And it’s still beautiful. And it’s hell. Or at least a taste of limbo.

Imagine a road to nowhere; one that goes on and on with no signs, (signs are so vulgar), no indication of where you might be or how far you have come. A perfect parkway of two lanes, bordered by nicely trimmed grass margins and woods—seemingly endless woods, even in winter they are imposing for their density. For much of the way, you can’t see beyond them, so your geographic sense is often useless, especially given the meander of the trail. Imagine a foolish father who might enter this domain thinking how lucky he is to be out of the traffic and hubbub of the larger roads to and from places and then, discovering that there are fewer of the usual off-ramps he is used to, wonders where he might find a gas station? Where is a toilet? Where can we eat? Are we there yet?

But I was on my way to Jackson. According to Johnny Cash, that was as good as it gets.

 

With the gentle swale and rise of Mississippi farmland to calm the nerves, Angelo saw a chance and seized the opportunity.

“But how do you know you’re right? How can there be ‘good’ without a ‘moral’ foundation—a system of values—and how can you have a moral foundation without God?”

Perhaps it was a better question when he first conjured it.

I said, “I don’t know how you can have a moral foundation with God. God is an arbitrary power determined by the precepts of a particular religion. Every religion is different. A foundation can’t be arbitrary.”

I think he saw this as his territory. Religion was his bastion.

“But you need a mutual system of values, otherwise society collapses. That’s why morals are ultimately based on a commonly held religious belief in right and wrong.”

So, I went to the personal aspect.

“I understand that you believe, as Catholics do, that you have a direct line to God through your religion, but all Moslems believe the same thing. You can’t both be right—not unless your god has a split personality disorder. Which may actually work, come to think of it, given that those who believe in a God are more likely to be schizophrenic to some degree.

Angelo was offended. There was hurt in the voice.

“You’re making fun of what you don’t understand.”

I was far from making an apology.

“No. I’m making fun of something I think I do understand. I just don’t have a pat answer for you that I can conveniently read from a catechism. I think there’s a deeper reason why some Moslems think they can blow themselves to pieces to please their God. And historically speaking, I think it’s likely to be the same reason why some Catholics thought it was a good idea to burn other Catholics, like Joan of Arc and Giordano Bruno, at the stake.”

The tone of his voice dropped.

“You’re wading into deep waters.”

I shrugged, “The rain is gone. It’s a sunny day! It’s warm. I think I can handle it.”

And the tone changed again.

“Are you just playing your own game now?”

Always, the best defense is a good offense. I was going to have to look up the exact wording of the Sun Tzu quote and memorize it once and for all. But I do know that the best offense is not often a frontal assault. Pickett proved that once and for all.

“No. I’m trying to deal with your question about how I know I’m right? It’s an important question. I agree with that. From your point of view, I’m a delusional libertarian with a hopeless attitude about government. I disagree with that. And the quick answer to your question is, I don’t. I do believe I’m right. I think I’m right. But if ‘know’ requires certainty, I don’t.”

Tone is absolutely important to a conversation. I was of the belief that ancient man communicated with tone more than words. And Angelo’s tone changed again, as his voice lowered.

“If you aren’t so sure, don’t you think you’re risking a lot by pushing this rebellion?”

I felt a little testy, but I tried to keep it out of my own voice.

“Pushing? I thought I was being pushed. I was minding my own business.”

“But you’re protecting people who are pushing a rebellion. You are complicit!”

“But, I already answered this. You don’t know what you’re saying. The people I’ve associated with are not pushing anything. They’re communicating ideas. They are sharing them. That was just exactly what I was doing in my own way in the bookshop—what I am unfortunately doing to a far lesser degree even now, one book at a time. I believe in free thought, free speech, and freedom of the press. The rest is debatable, I suppose. But, obviously, I’m not getting through to you…If you want to pretend this is still a relatively free country, go ahead. I would like it to be the real goods.”

He shook that off.

“There’s evidence that those people are doing more than you think.”

I admit I was losing my patience at this point.

“Then, the evidence is phony! You are working for a corrupt government that’s perfectly happy to make things up to get their way. Look at the evidence! I do know that. I’ve experienced it! I also know that you, and a lot of people like you, have a lot of faith in that government. Why, I do not fully comprehend. Supposedly it’s based on a Constitution that you completely ignore. You accept the idea that your government might be wrong now and again, but you think they’re right most of the time and that’s the best you can do. Well, I think you are wrong about that too. You are killing people. You are preserving a mechanism to kill more! But, for my own part, I am not blowing anything up. I am not rioting. I am just trying to persuade people to think for themselves. Not to think like me, but to think for themselves! I am willing to abide by the rules if those rules are tolerable. If the rules are intolerable, I will rebel. I am with my forefathers on that point.”

He took a while to answer. What he finally said was not reassuring.

“I don’t understand why you’re so sure of these people. Why you’re so sure of yourself.”

The answer there was simple enough to restate, but I realized just then that the dialog was not the real matter. There was a monolog going on as well, and I was not part of that.

“Because I know I can be wrong! Knowing you might be wrong is about the only safeguard we can have. I think your problem is, you are so essentially religious. You believe in your god before all else. That’s fine. I have no problem with that, until you start trying to force your belief on me.”

“You’ve lost me.”

“Your belief in God is the same as your belief in the government. Just as blind. You want it to be true, so it is. . . Now listen. I helped raise three kids. They are all different. I even think one of them believes in God, sort of. But I didn’t teach her that. Teaching kids to believe in God is an open door for them to lose touch with reality. Kids have a hard enough time getting used to what’s real and what isn’t. And it’s getting worse now that the world has become one great big CGI circus. If you get them praying to an imaginary being to protect them and guide them, they are really lost. And even if they don’t find an organized religion to join, they’ll just as often find one as emotionally appealing, such as socialism.”

“God and politics don’t mix.”

This was weak. He knew it.

“Simple politics is another matter. Socialism isn’t just politics. It’s a lot like Islam. It’s a faith. It’s a way of life.”

“Socialism is a political concept.”

“Only in part. Socialism has been tried outright at least since the Eighteenth Century. Over and over in one form or another. There has never been a socialist government that worked. But the believers won’t stop trying. Just like Christians and Moslems keep trying to force their ideas about God onto other people.”

“You’re mixing things that don’t mix.”

“Look, the great fallacy of socialism is that its habitual failures are based on poor execution, on human error, and that better people can do it right—that all the horrific failures of socialism, all the hundreds of millions—billions, of dead and maimed and those haunted by those failures,  in any of its forms, Marxism, communism, Nazism, fascism—are all caused by human error, and not by the gross stupidity of the very idea.”

“I don’t believe in socialism. But that’s not the point!”

“The point is in the idea that socialism is some sort of ideal to strive for—that everyone should be equal. But we are not equal—except by law, perhaps. We are individual human beings. We each have our faults. And the wonder is, if we are left free to try to correct those faults on our own, we can do fabulous things. Socialism is bad and murderous and destructive because it is an artificial philosophy that must be imposed on its subjects. It is antithetical to the human spirit because every human being is different and to fit them all into the same file folder requires a lot of cutting.”

“Why are you harping on socialism all of a sudden?”

“Because—notice—this is also the excuse used by religious scholars and ideologues for the failures of Christianity—for why Catholics killed Jews, or Huguenots, or witches. It was not Christianity that failed, it was the people—human error—we were not good enough for the ideal. . . But I disagree. I think it’s religion that’s at fault for requiring—demanding—an artificial standard of perfection.”

Another quiet descended. The Mississippi farmland looked very neat and peaceful beneath a white sun.

Finally, he asked, “So you don’t believe in God after all?”

He was clinging to his safety-line. “I didn’t say that! Don’t you see? It’s actually two different questions. Most importantly, it is two different questions… NO!  I can’t believe in a god that requires being worshiped, who needs the subservience of his subjects to be pleased, because that would be a petty god, a weak god, a vain god; and I don’t think that a good god would require human beings to obey some arbitrary religious precepts—depending on the religion. What I do believe is that any god worth his mettle would appreciate a human being who tried to live a moral life. Tried and perhaps failed, against their worst faults, but continued to try. And I believe that morality has to come from an appreciation of what it means to be human and what that might cost. And that would begin with trying to understand what being human is all about. Not by memorizing some procrustean catechism. I think a good god would appreciate a good effort, appreciating that our ability to see is always in a contest with our ignorance.” I took a breath. I looked to see if I was getting through. But there was something more already on my tongue. “A good god would know that reason is the tool we have for knowing and that knowledge becomes the key to any sort of understanding. And that’s why I sell books!”

He heaved a bit in the seat and winced out at a bright land of tall tawny grass.

“So, where does that leave us?”

“About ten miles from Jackson.”

 

 

 

18. Things fall apart

the axle would not hold.

 

I had been noticing a sound from the trailer that was getting louder each day and now the truck motor was louder as well.

As is so often the case in life, Yeats has a perfect phrase for it. Whatever the true depth of his thought (in that he was of a theatrical nature, I often suspected him of just playing with the words—and he was known to be of a changeable mind) the words rang true, nonetheless. ‘Things fall apart, the center cannot hold, mere anarchy is loosed upon the world.”

For all my libertarian tendencies, I was not an anarchist. Have never been.

But, the truck is broken. Apparently, a piston is blown. Possibly because I have been hauling a load made heavier by a bad axle on the trailer. The fellow wouldn’t know until he had the time to take it all apart. He was the mechanic. No doubt, and as smart as they are, seemingly smarter than most. He wore face paint from the wiping of sweat from his brow with a greasy hand. Because his complexion was very black to begin with, the grease shown bright in the sun as if it were far lighter. It was a fierce look. I figured I should take his word for it.

These were the lesser matters. I asked the fellow at the garage desk if I could leave the whole shebang there for a while.

“Martin is likely to have it all done up in a week or so. A piston can be difficult. But if anyone can, he’ll do it.”

“I think I need more than a week. I have to fly back to Boston. There’s a medical emergency to take care of.”

“Well, that’s a fix. How long do you believe?”

“I have no idea. If I give you a deposit, I’ll pay whatever it takes. Within reason. I can’t afford another truck right now.”

“Don’t you worry. We can do it. How much of a deposit?”

“I have about five hundred dollars—no. I have nine hundred.”

“Well, you know it will cost a lot more when he’s done with it. You have a credit card? But I suppose we could do something with it afterward. I don’t have a lot of space around here to store a truck and a trailer too. The back lot is full…Well. . . See that walnut tree over yonder?”

I looked across the tops of a dozen cars in-between.

“Nobody wants to park under that walnut tree. The drippings ruin the paint. But I can throw a tarp over it. I could put it in under there.”

“That’s fine.”

“And it’ll give us time to fix that engine of yours. I’m not so worried about the axle on your trailer. We can swap that out.”

“Good.”

 

I had no choice but to trust him. That was that. The bookshop had recommended him, and booksellers were notoriously short of funds so he had that in his favor.

I was still in the bookshop when I realized Deirdre had tried to call me. I called her back as soon as I was outside.

Her voice was high-pitched. She was clearly upset and getting worse as she spoke. She was at Beth Israel. She had breast cancer. It seemed to be pretty far along. They were worried it might have metastasized.

Things fall apart. I am at an age when I am daily reminded of this by my own body. But I rarely think of anything worse. In my own mind, Deirdre is a very healthy human being by comparison to myself. And now she wasn’t.

I let her talk without much interruption because it was obvious, even to me, that she needed to talk to someone. To talk it through.

There had been an opening in the surgery schedule, and they were able to take her fairly quickly. She had been diagnosed just two weeks before. And she hadn’t told me. She hadn’t wanted to worry me. She had lived with that knowledge for weeks then, without saying a word.

In fact, this was why she had left me in Buffalo. She was not feeling right. She couldn’t deal with that then and the daily problems of the trip as well. But she hadn’t wanted to worry me. She said this several times and it was clear to me now just how worried she had been.

The operation was early the next morning. I told her I would be home as quickly as I could, but  I’d be there if it was at all possible.

There was a flight out of the Jackson airport to Chicago at 6:15 PM.  I could connect to Boston from there. I’d be back at 3:00 AM.

 

Earlier I had traded the Pecan Lady’s books for three large bags of classics, happy enough with the finds there to have forgotten about larger concerns and I went back into the shop then for a recommendation to get the truck fixed. It was when I’d finally gotten back to the parking lot, that I discovered the note from Angelo. That was likely the most definitive revelation of the day.

‘Sorry to run out on you so unexpectedly but this seemed like a good moment for it. You will likely have to get the truck fixed. Maybe the trailer too. No telling how long that might take, and I have a load of personal matters to get squared away myself. This project has taken a lot longer than I thought it would. Thanks for your patience and hospitality. I have stashed $400 in the glove compartment for you to put against my weight on the whole deal. It’s been a terrific ride. I wish you well with the trailer and the truck and hope to see you again down the road of life. Angelo. P.S. Don’t worry about Evans. I think I might be able to quell his worries.’

Things fall apart.

I got the first bus to the airport after leaving the truck and trailer at the garage.

At the airport, there was Angelo, sitting, napping against his pile of stuff, alone in a row of blue plastic seats across from several rows that were filled with others waiting. He does look like a nut.

His mouth opened when he saw me. I think he thought that I had chased him down. He seemed genuinely depressed when I told him that Deirdre had breast cancer. His own flight to New York was routed through Atlanta and left a 5:45, so we had plenty more time to talk.

 

 

19. Spiritus Mundi

and the heart of stone

         Doctors have become technicians—or less than that. Technicians have a role, of course, to apply the technology to a particular problem and get a reproducible result. But the doctor is looked to by the patient for answers, not to be a newsreader but to interpret results and speculate on possible outcomes and cures. The patient is looking for answers and hope, while the doctor is looking for reproducible results. This is a devastating conflict of interest.

The conflict has a forgone conclusion, of course. What will be, will be. Doctors are only two hundred years beyond bleeding George Washington to death and less than that since learning to wash their hands before cutting. But this sense of inevitability is made absolute in our time by the overarching medium of exchange: insurance. If a doctor speculates beyond the reproducible result, he may be liable for personal harm—for leading the patience to believe something that cannot be. Because of the costs of such insurance, doctors are forced into group practice. Most are affiliated with hospitals. And the hospital demands compliance to rules that avoid liability. It is thus that the patient is denied real hope beyond statistical odds.

Insurance has long since become a bribe; less than security against sudden loss, a safeguard against catastrophe, or an indemnity, it has become a payoff. The actual fact of it, like insuring the cost of a house after it has burned down, has made it simply a proration of extended monthly payments. The adjuster may have a special role in the case of fraud, but their primary job is a statistical one, applying math to a calculation of human disaster and suffering. How much is a life worth? Adjusters are more likely to be called upon in a fender bender than in a case of medical malpractice. That is the territory of lawyers.

Actual root causes will not be denied. The alcoholic, the drug user, the obese, even the smoker (by God, the evil tobacco smoker!), get the same treatment. Personal responsibility is not required. Toke a joint and chill. We are all in the same pool.

In medical terms, just as the hip bone is connected to the thigh bone, these connections continue throughout the body of our very human being. There is little help for it in a litigious society. Most certainly, it will get worse. Just as damages for ‘hate speech’ have already restricted possibilities for ‘free speech,’ damages are now assessed for actions taken years ago, when both perpetrator and victim were unaware of any wrong being done. Ex post facto laws may be forbidden by the Constitution, but that is now an arguable matter in the age of the politically correct.

Where does it end? In self-destruction. But you can’t get insurance for that.

 

I am up into the nights attempting to comprehend this morass of fact, and opinion, and emotion. Understanding the inevitable is not a human trait, lest we give up before trying. Accepting the role of supernumerary, not a blood relative or husband but a friend, I cannot be a part of much of this. Deirdre has signed a permission for my being there, but it is called upon by each new nurse, or doctor, or lab technician. Even so, I am cautioned more often to wait outside. This gives me lots of time to think. Worry becomes a cold soup.

I have asked her to marry me a dozen times. More. There was a short period after I arrived back—after the first operation—when I proposed every day, and sometimes morning and night. Her refusal is absolute, but my hope was that in her weakened condition, she might relent. Just to make me stop. However, she is stronger than that. Or me.

I am even more enamored of her for it.

Of course, I have nothing more to offer than my persistence. That has always been my only real attribute. That my presence is wanted must be enough.

 

She reads every day, but when she is tired, I read stories to her aloud. This is good therapy for me as well. I have managed to read all the stories in Kipling’s Jungle Book—from the original edition I had given to her. ‘Rikki Tikki Tavi’ is the best of those and ought to be on every adult reading list. It is well beyond any possible awareness of children—except perhaps as a cartoon. I have completed a substantial portion of the O’Henry stories in the first volume of the complete Doubleday edition. Now that Deirdre is home again, I can read her to sleep. Often, I keep reading after that because I have forgotten how the story ends. But in her usual fashion, she interrupts to comment on things. She’ll tell me to stop, or ask me to read to her. It distracts her, I think, from her own thoughts, but she is listening.

She often comments critically on what characters have done. My favorite is “Why don’t they just talk. If they talked, the misunderstanding would not happen.”

“Some people are like that. They just won’t.”

I was looking directly at her when I said this. She knew she had stepped into a pothole.

 

Hope is something I have often disparaged. I am reconsidering this. It used to seem counterproductive to me. Like prayer, it was time and energy wasted on not doing what had to be done. I have come to the awareness that too much of our time is spent and wasted on worry, anger, remorse, and regret. Hope is a far better meal.

Revenge and retribution are worse, I think. I have long held that belief, but this did not occur to me suddenly. I realized too slowly that those who did things to hurt me were often too ignorant to understand the cause and effect of their own actions. Revenge was worthless. It was only likely to produce a counteraction—more revenge—as they themselves thought they had been wronged yet again. This is especially true of bureaucrats. Those technicians of the State have no idea of the harm they do. Their motivation, beyond the security of a permanent job, is to do the work of their government. They will tell you they do a good job, ergo, any who oppose them are against good government. It’s axiomatic!

But Angelo had said that he felt sorry for atheists and agnostics “because whatever they do in life, they are working at a disadvantage. Because prayer focuses the mind better than a gun, or a threat, it is almost always worth the effort. You are addressing God himself and unless you don’t want him to take you seriously, you better put your thoughts in order. Sure, death can focus the mind, or the wrong end of a gun, but it can also confuse, bewilder, and bring forth self-pity, none of which are good in a squeeze.”

The other part of being on the wrong end of the gun is you are pretty sure of your guilt. Asking the Big Guy for a favor is likely to get you a sneer.

One middle-aged fellow in a wrinkled suit and three days growth of beard, sitting across from me in a waiting room, seemed to think I was praying.

He said, “Won’t do you any good.”

I knew immediately what he was referring to. It seemed like an angry remark, and because it seemed gratuitous, and I wasn’t thinking, I got flippant.

“You think it hurts?”

“Yeah.”

“You tried that?”

“Yeah.”

“You got nothing? Not even a little peace if mind?”

“Nothing. I’m empty.”

And I was suddenly speechless. So I prayed

 

I was angry at the doctors for the first couple of weeks. But they had not caused Deirdre’s cancer. They were following the protocols that they knew. Asking them to speculate on what else might be done was foolish. However, I found resignation to their ways to be debilitating. I likely pushed the possibilities a bit too far. Internet research has its obvious limits, and I was asked not to be present at several conferences.

After this, I actually saw that Deirdre was relieved. And I have tried to be a little more accepting of my role in matters. However, one nurse in particular still scowls when she sees me in the waiting room.

I like nurses, though. As a group, or singly. I have come to realize that they occupy a unique position in the medical hierarchy. They do all the work.

I was expressing this thought to Deirdre and she actually agreed. A rare enough thing! In many instances, it is the nurses who have made things tolerable where the doctor has only explained and executed what was diagramed in the textbook. The nurses look you in the eye, while the doctor is more often staring at a computer monitor. They turn procedural language into English. They do, in fact, speculate—often while still following the accepted procedure. And most importantly, between solicitations and concern, they laugh. It is just about the only good thing to hear in a hospital.

They make jokes of what otherwise is a disaster. And the sarcasm can be excellent. “You might want to leave that on when you go to bed. Most boyfriends have weak stomachs,” was said while I was in the chair next to her.

But always useful, “You can loosen that if you feel uncomfortable…You don’t have to drink the whole thing all at once…Don’t drink milk with that. People say it makes them feel nauseous, but it might just be they drink it too fast…” and my favorite, “Try eating some licorice with that. Get the soft kind, not the artificial. That stuff goes down a lot easier with licorice.”

They have now supplemented the radiation treatments with chemotherapy.

 

Without warning her, one evening, I started to read one of my own stories. She knew immediately. That could be a good thing, or not. But when I offered to stop, she asked me to keep going. She would tell me when she had had enough.

This was something I had written in my more recent ‘dystopian’ phase, and I thought Deirdre might object, given her own battles, especially given one of the devices, but it is one of the few I have done with a woman as a protagonist. I submitted it to a science fiction magazine several years ago and they accepted it if they could make some changes. I thought not.

Thankfully, she took to it right off.

In summary, it went: A young woman, Sarah, works for a stonecutter, Jacob. At a time when the old asphalt roads have disintegrated, and asphalt itself can no longer effectively be made, Jacob has taken possession of a dilapidated grist mill and converted it for the process of reducing the stone to cobbles for paving. The young woman of uncertain age, but perhaps twenty, and without family, after having endured several years of abuse, has been ‘adopted’ by the stonecutter as a housekeeper and sexual slave.

The stonecutter, a brute but resourceful fellow, has come across a vast graveyard overgrown and long unused beneath land close-by. He harvests the old gravestones where they have been knocked over and become buried in the earth, and trundles them to his mill where he breaks them down and uses the water to tumble them into useful pieces. This has soon made Jacob relatively wealthy in a limited economy. Carpenters have built him a good house and furnished it in barter for the stone and he and Sarah have filled carts to pave their streets in the town. Farmers bring him produce and hams for the stone and fill wagons to build their foundations. But Jacob has kept the source of his stone a secret because there are fierce prohibitions against disturbing the dead. The past that has been lost is now holy.

Sarah is, of course, prohibited from mentioning what she knows. But for her part, she has become enchanted by the gravestones and stolen several that she finds too beautiful to destroy, keeping them in a secret place in the woods. Over time, she steals more, and finally, she has created a small shelter for herself. The names and inscriptions and decorating are turned inward for her to read and consider. She lies there in the midst and imagines the lives lived through the inscriptions, making up stories about them, and adopting them as her family. She cannot recall where or when she learned to read, but this art is her own secret. Jacob has no idea.

In time, he does, however, take note of her disappearances into the wood and finally succeeds in following her. He is furious when he finds what she has done and beats her. But carrying the cobblestones to fill the carts and wagons as well as the whole stones to her small lair has made her strong. When he turns to push down the structure she picks up a cobblestone and strikes him unexpectedly, and again, and kills him. She then gets the trundle and wheels him back to his yard and leaves him there, along with several of the whole gravestones that he keeps hidden, even opening the door to that barn so that his mischief can be found.

At last, she once again buries the gravestones she had saved, but in the wood, and then wanders off to find a new home.

After a brief silence, Deirdre asked, “Do you think it’s coming to that?”

I shrugged uncertainly, as best I could in mime, “Yes, unless we change our ways.”

“We won’t be here, of course, but I can’t wish that on anyone. Can’t we stop it?”

“Yes. We just have to try.”

She smiled sweetly and said, “Then I will! Get me a stone!”

I had no idea where to buy a cobblestone, but I knew where I had seen some recently. On 1st Street, where the cheap asphalt has come up in chunks with the freezing weather, there is a border of cobblestone beneath. The warehouses along there are quiet enough in the night. It was blatant theft, of course. No excuses. But I went out that night with a screwdriver, which was the only hand tool I had. And the damned thing came right up as if it wanted to be stolen.

 

There is a numinous quality to a woman enduring, and who yet endures; who manages to cope with all the vicissitudes and moods, the discomforts and pain. This is, after all, an onslaught. A siege. I am too easily benumbed by the mundane aspects of the process itself. The waiting rooms. Finding a parking space. Attempting good cheer. But she smiles more than I do. She seldom complains except when I forget the necessary chore that makes the way smoother. This is not a time for the smaller focus. I think there might be something sublime in an understanding of matters that are not in the language—and to actually understand what there are no words for. That might have seemed impossible to me before, but I think now it may be true.

This is perhaps a portion of the Anima Mundi. I believe women are better at understanding that. It is in their nature to, perhaps, as they have been made to carry the load while men escaped to hunt and roam. It is an organic thing as opposed to the more mechanical nature of the Spiritus Mundi. This too is in Yeats’ Second Coming. The heat and light of the Aristotelean world has always been challenged by the night.

Ignorance is Man’s curse. Ignorance is Man’s blessing. If he were truly aware of his vast ignorance, he would cringe like a small animal in the dark. Instead, he follows the glimmer of light beyond his cave and discovers the day. But the human endeavor, ceases to be, when the lion succeeds, and the man does not return.

 

It is true that I escape in my books from the reality that oppresses, but more often I am discovering a new prospect.

I am not one to believe in the hylozoic—that all matter has a life force. Ultimately this would make any struggle for survival pointless. The vital force animating the world, the Anima Mundi, is organic—by nature, of life. But life itself is uncommon. The ashes are organic, not the fire. I am thinking now that the Spiritus Mundi is simply Man attempting to tame the fire. The Zeitgeist is the spirit of an age as it follows from a willingness to challenge the vast and seemingly greater force of the inanimate.

 

Her nature is so much better than my own.

I am reminded of the ‘bucket list’ mentality of wanting to do all the things before you die that you have always wanted to do but never done. It’s an accounting that should have been begun long ago, of course. Waiting until the end is in view is a judgment in itself—those things were simply not as important as what else you did. She knows this, and I have to be reminded of the fact by her desire to simply stay at home and do the things she likes to do every day, eat the things she likes, watch old movies with me, sleep in her own bed. She is unhappy about her lack of energy, but that situation is improving. She is unhappy about not being able to follow-up on potential news stories she had already begun, but she finds new ones to think about. She writes every morning when the energy is still available—‘the Force is with me.’ she’ll say. She reads some of those books in the afternoons that have piled up. She walks down by the harbor and along the beach after lunch. The walks are getting longer. She wants to go alone now, so I’m getting some of my own writing done.

Remission is an odd word. It does not mean ‘forgiveness.’ Not a ‘pardon.’ It is just an abatement of sorts. A subsiding. The shadow is smaller—invisible, perhaps, but not gone.

 

It is a very small apartment. That has become even more obvious the more Deirdre moves around and putters on her feet.

I have brought the idea up of moving.

She has told me more than once, “I like it here.”

I leave brochures around for places in New Hampshire with prices we might afford. They disappear without comment now that she is doing more housekeeping again.

I believe the jig is up. My time has come to exit stage right. Or wrong.

 

 

 

Part Two

20. Church towns

and paper castles

 

With winter coming, I had thought it might be fun to work my way around the Gulf Coast into Florida, but now, with March already here and the beaches busy with college kids more interested in booze, grass, and sex than books, I set out southwest, across Mississippi toward Louisiana. My first mistake was to hop on the Natchez Trace Parkway again. With no one to talk to, I was numb in about fifteen minutes. The radio stations were all top 40 and the ‘new’ country music that I disliked. I opened the window and sang a little Willie Nelson into the wind until I had flubbed the lyrics on about four or five different songs. Then it started to rain. I got as far as Port Gibson before I escaped the homogenized and pasteurized precincts of the National Park Service.

The truck motor sounded better than it ever had before. I was now three thousand dollars in debt to Mother Visa. I had a trailer full of good books, and I looked sharp for a spot to make my stand.

Port Gibson is a poor town with many churches, some very pretty buildings, and small neat white houses. I parked for a short time on a corner in an open lot paved with broken cement and crab-grass that had obviously once been a gas station, given that the other three corners were occupied that way. A police car that had been parked just up the road, observing traffic, watched me put out my sign and then came over to chat.

“What’s this?”

“I am a book peddler.”

“You can’t peddle here without a license.”

“Where can I get that?”

“City Hall. But the license desk will be closed today. They are open every other day.”

He smiled. I smiled.

“Thanks for letting me know. I’ll pack it up.”

He hunched his shoulders in half a shrug.

“Now, if you head on down where you’ll see the Shell station, that’s out of town. That’s State. You can sell there, so long as the owner’s okay with it.”

I filled up first before I asked at the Shell station. The owner there squinted at me as if it wasn’t a cloudy day.

“I suppose you can park over yonder in that lot. But what do you want to do that for?”

“It’s a hobby.”

“Well then, have at it! You have any Bibles?”

“One, maybe.”

“Well, that’s the only book you’re going to sell around here. You want to go up to Jackson there, close to the college. You’ll likely have a few more customers.”

I thanked him for the tip and headed on toward the plantation ruins I had visited with the kids many years before, but it appeared I’d missed that turnoff and instead I continued on south. There were open lots in Fayette, but little traffic at that time of day. I then made the mistake of heading off on a state road that took me in a loop tour of at least half a dozen more churches with very little else to see beyond thick second-growth and scrub trees, now budding thickly.

I stopped at one point to admire a particularly large and beautiful oak with a clothing of new green leaves budding and making it seem somehow young again though it might have been standing since Grant marched through; of the kind you see that usually gets blasted by a cannonball of lightening and makes you aware of your mortality but here offered a more positive vantage on history. Someone else took an interest in my interest and stopped. This was a black man in a light blue flannel shirt just about the same color as the worn places in his overalls. He had on a mesh cap with the name of a feed store I forgot to write down. His red and white Ford pickup was older than mine.

“God’s work,” he said, gesturing toward the tree.

“Good work.”

He nodded.

“It’s in the book!”

“What book?”

“The grant to my great grandfather after the war. That particular tree was already big enough to make a note of on the deed.”

“Wonderous!”

He studied me a moment as I studied the tree.

“You lost?”

“You’d say that. But I’m really just wandering.”

“Well, it’s a good country to wander about. Where you from?”

“Boston.”

“Mercy! You do know how to wander!”

“I’m a book peddler. You wouldn’t know of a good spot to be selling some books, would you?

He winced and turned away and then back again.

“Well, I suppose I would head over to Jackson. I’d like to say that’s an hour and a half from here.”

I nodded at that.

“What do you do for fun?”

This was likely too flippant but after an initial blank face he caught my intention.

“I do read. But mostly Bible commentary. I’m a minister. Church Hill Baptist. You might say I peddle souls, but I don’t. I just give them a place to rest.”

“Good work.”

He nodded at me.

“Do you believe?”

I misunderstood what he was asking.

“I hope so.”

“You’d know if you did.”

“I’m sorry. I thought—no, I’m not a believer.”

He nodded at me again.

“Time passes us, but not the Lord. We’re just up the road a piece. You stop and rest anytime you’d like.”

He turned away, but I had to ask.

“Where do you think the best place is to eat lunch?”

He licked his slips slightly

“Like as not I’d head over to Natchez. There’s plenty on offer over there.”

“I was hoping a little less expensive than that. Something more local.”

He looked down and studied the web of dust on his well-worn ankle-high black leather shoes before he answered.

“I’d head over on Five Fifty-five to Cemetery Road. Look for Mrs. Johnson’s. The sign is easy to miss, but it’s red. You’ll see the River before you see the sign.”

I’m pretty sure, based upon my pale complexion and the six or seven license plates in the parking area, I was the only non-local at Mrs. Johnson’s, a small one-story wood building with a steep pitched green-tin roof, three ancient looking belt-driven ceiling fans, and a broad counter in-between a dozen picnic tables covered in red checked vinyl cloths and beyond that a kitchen made up of several aging home-kitchen model refrigerators and an enormous gas rage. An elderly woman, with white hair wrapped in a tight bun at her back, worked the kitchen with a middle-aged woman who might be her daughter. The daughter looked at me dubiously as if I didn’t know what okra was when I passed on ordering the soup. The plates were set out on the counter when filled and your name was called. This was easily the best meal I’d had so far on the trip. Catfish fried in buttermilk and cornmeal with bacon. The biscuits were perfect and light. The gravy was better. I had no room left for dessert, but Angelo would probably have wanted to stay for dinner. I left, wondering if I had made a mistake not trying the soup.

 

A billboard in Natches asked me, ‘R U Vexed?’

The billboard was on the side of a building and the red letters made the best use of a large space. I could read it from several blocks away. The building contained a walk-in Baptist chapel on the street level with another small placard in the front window saying.

‘Let Dr. Robert Uller Vexman help.’

I almost stopped.

This was a word Deirdre had used on me several times before I left.

“You vex me!”

I think it was something she had picked up from a heroine in one of her romance novels. I thought it was a healthy sign that she was reading romance novels again, but not so good that I vexed her.

The double bridges across the river there are not pretty. They’re probably functional enough. Like crossing the lesser portions of Triborough Bridge to Manhattan, you wish it was more auspicious. After all, I was crossing the great river! Mark Twain’s river! I had done it a couple of dozen times and it always made me think that someone ought to build a better bridge across, spanning that national divide. The new one in St. Louis looked positively delicate! There ought to be something massive and grand, like the George Washington Bridge, or the Brooklyn Bridge. Something that made a statement!

Said aloud, this is the sort of comment that would make Deirdre say, ‘You vex me!’

And when she reads this after I upload it to the Great and Mighty ‘Cloud’, she will say it again.

 

My aim was to head across the State of Louisiana on 84 and head into Texas. This is pretty country, flat and easy-going, as if it is all downhill. Because the people here work during the day and the apparent prosperity keeps them busy—some fields were being plowed and planted, other fields were already green with a new crop just hiding the dark soil in a green haze—there was no place with traffic enough to stop, not even near a farm town like Jonesville, splayed as it was with low buildings for several miles across the flood-plain and offering a hundred open places. But I did notice fewer churches.

In any case, I was not interested in doing a travelogue. I simply hadn’t driven this way before and the geography of it was new to me. Soon enough I was into a bayou area where there was nothing to see beyond an edging of spring thickened brush and glimpses of still gray water and then I was up onto a back of land that wouldn’t qualify as a ridge, much of it lined with a thick fence of tall evergreens at either side that I guessed to be windbreaks.

The next large town, Jena, looked more prosperous than Jonesville, and there was clearly more traffic. When I saw a police cruiser at an Exxon station I pulled over and filled up before I asked for advice. The middle-aged trooper, bald beneath his cap but still more muscle than fat, was in the attached mini-mart and busy chatting with a young red-headed woman behind the counter there. He was clearly unhappy with the interruption, but she immediately offered the idea of my pulling over in the lot by an empty store that was just a “stone’s throw.” Then she asked me if I had any Jane Austen, which I did, of course. She said she’d be over during her break.

The young woman never came by, but the police cruiser stopped and the trooper looked me over. This was a short conversation.

“You aren’t selling any porno are you?”

“No, sir.”

“No substances?”

“No, sir.”

He rocked on his feet, took a stroll through the trailer, and came out holding a copy of Emma.

“Is this what Doris was asking for?”

“Yes, sir. I think so.”

He shook his head, looked at the price I’d marked on a yellow Post-it on the first page, and handed me a five-dollar bill.

“She’s over at the college in Natchitoches, studying for her teaching certificate. Just like her mother. . . . You gotta keep’em happy.”

I sold a dozen other books as well, mostly novels. But an insurance agent in a gray suit and tie—with silver tie clip advertising Progressive Insurance—and sporting a neat ‘flat-top’ haircut of the kind I remember from the 1950s, while smelling of what might have been Aqua Velva (if they still make that stuff), came walking from an office close-by and bought a copy of Churchill’s River War. He was quite happy.

Because I got tired of driving into the sun as much as through a tough of trees, I turned north on 34, an older road of poorer farms, but the trough of trees pretty much continued most of the way to the State campground in Chatham. The exception to this was the last part of it where the logging had devastated the landscape, leaving the odd lone pine looking like an orphaned child amidst the rubble, standing alone against a blood-red sunset.

I appreciate the paper pages of my books and the paper boxes I ship them in, and I write on paper and appreciate the cost of that, but it seemed to me that the manufacturing process ought to be a little more like loving and less like rape.

At least the State Park was a good one.

 

 

 

21. Stupidity is its own reward

And other contemplations

 

There is no accounting for stupidity. That is the nature of it. If understood beforehand, it is thwarted. Even an advance admission of ignorance does not save you from acting stupidly, nor does it absolve. After the fact, it is readily seen for what it was, but before the act, you are a toy, incapable of volition.

I picked up a fellow hitchhiking in Northern Louisiana. At a distance he looked to me like a farmworker on his way to a job. Thin and under six feet tall, deeply tanned at his face and hands, when he pointed toward his destination, I noticed that the skin of his arm was pale, and a blue and green tale of a dragon tattoo almost reached his wrist. I hadn’t understood the words he had spoken. I thought it might be Cajun, but I wasn’t sure. His face was unshaved by at least a couple of days, and his black hair was cut very short and unevenly, as if done by himself. He was wearing a green long-sleeved shirt with eating stains at the front, and a lightweight, zippered, dark blue jacket with a hood. Jeans. Sneakers. The sneakers might have been new, but they looked to be too large. I gave this description to the State Police and the officer returned a look back at me as if I was describing one of the weeds in the field next to us.

I had seen the fellow there, beside the road in the early morning sun, and I stopped. As simple as that. I asked him where he was headed and he said something I did not understand, then pointed. I had not stopped the engine, but it was in neutral. As I went to put it in gear, he tapped the steering wheel with his knife. He said something else then that I did not grasp, and he shoved me with his free hand as if he wanted me to open the door, which I did. Before I could get out, I heard the word “money.”

I reached down to my back pocket, but he batted my hand away and, holding the knife directly at me in that confined space, he pulled my wallet himself and then pushed me again. Essentially, I fell out of the truck at that point. That part all happened in less than a minute. Then, with me on the pavement at the center of the road, he said something else, and repeated that while holding his hand to his ear. I pulled my flip-phone out of my pocket and handed that up to his out-stretched hand. He pulled the door shut fairly hard then and just sat there, eyes wide, staring at the steering wheel. He attempted to put the truck into gear, but it stuttered to a stall. He cursed. He tried to start it again. It was obvious that he had no idea of how to drive a stick shift. Then he screamed. An actual full-throated scream.

Another car was coming in the same direction. I stood back then in the grass of the gully across. The driver in the other car slowed and stopped. I waved my hands, but they didn’t understand what I was telling them. The hijacker jumped from the cab of my truck and quickly went to the car driver’s door, grabbing the handle. I could see the face of the woman there change dramatically and her hand went down to her door lock just in time. Then she stepped on the gas.

The hijacker screamed again and looked into the sky before running into the field as if to make it to a line of trees at the far edge. The mud of the field apparently made this slow-going because I watched his progress for some time as I stood there in the road, thinking how stupid I was.

The State police were there in five minutes, likely called by the woman in the car. The man had barely gotten out of sight at that point. I told them what had happened, and two officers got back into their patrol car and drove to the far corner of the field where there was an access road and then down to the area where the fellow had disappeared. I stood there with another officer who kept shaking his head as I described what had happened in detail.

“You’re lucky he didn’t poke you. Sounds like he was crazy enough to have done that for sport.”

So, I guess I was lucky as well. The stupid need to be lucky.

This excitement was capped off in ten or fifteen minutes when the other two officers returned with the hijacker handcuffed in the back of their cruiser.

 

Deirdre was quite entertained by all of this as I walked around the campground near Ashdown, talking as quietly as I could.

“I thought you’d learned your lesson about picking up hitchhikers.”

“I am naturally stupid.”

“Besides that.”

“Thanks.”

“What did you do then?”

“I went on up to Eldorado. Nice looking town. But I couldn’t sell books there without a permit, so I went west over to Magnolia where they had a farmer’s market and I paid ten bucks for a spot and sold quite a few. Those farmer’s read!”

“I meant about your wallet.”

“Well, the officer gave that back to me almost immediately. My money was still in it. And he had the phone too. The officer took my number and told me they would be in touch. That was that.”

“You are lucky.”

“Yup. Gotta be that when you are as stupid as I am.”

 

Which begs the question. Just how do we deal with our own stupidity while trying to survive the stupidity of others. Obviously, we have to limit their authority over our own lives. That was a topic Angelo and I had hammered around quite a bit. A bunch of new laws weren’t going to do the trick. The laws are too often made by stupid people who have found comfortable elective sinecures working in the government, responding to the demands of other stupid people who don’t want to take care of themselves because it’s too much work or, perhaps, they actually realize they are stupid and, rather that enlighten themselves, they turn to the government to solve their problems for them; laws enforced by stupid people who too often enjoy the power they have been given, or in our own time, simply made and enforced by bureaucrats who have been given blank checks by committees of elected officials too corrupt and lazy to do their own work. There are a lot more of the latter kind.

This is what we’ve got. This is the way it is. Forty years ago or more, one United States Senator, Edward Proxmire perhaps, piled up the printed pages of the legal code around his desk in the chambers of Congress—no, just a part of it. They stopped him from bringing it all into the chamber. The hand trucks stacked with the paper lined up down an outer hall as I remember. It made the news and I saw it. There were millions of pages then. Today that quantity has multiplied exponentially. Most individual states have far more than that original Senator’s trove.

No one reads any of it until a decision has been made to prosecute. A ‘fair and speedy’ prosecution can take years. Win or lose, you’ve lost. To say we are a government of laws is a joke. Which ones? We are now a nation of politics. Whatever political party is in power wields the laws they wish to enforce.

What is to be done?

Given that much of our lives are tied to or tied down by this morass of regulation, my solution is as difficult as it is simple. We do away with it. All of it

Perhaps not all at once, but in stages with appropriate public announcements made. Perhaps at three-month intervals, over the course of three years. But first we elect a special committee—not congressmen, or senators, or presidents, or judges—but a deliberate selection people who have no other elected office and swear an oath not to accept one after wielding this unique responsibility. A group of representatives—perhaps five from each state and fifty more who run nationally—who run for this position over the course of a calendar year and are each elected by secret paper ballot to a term of one year only, highlighting the sense of immediacy and priority while giving three hundred individuals an opportunity to participate. They may be farmers, or lawyers, business people, chefs, or fishermen. The job, paid for with a generous salary for one year only, is to write a new code of law necessary for the government to uphold its primary functions: the protection and safety of the government, to establish justice, ensure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity.

Intentionally, this committee must carry on in the spirit of the original founders.

It would be important for them to deal with the national defense first so that no bad actors try to take advantage of our transition. Then there are an enormous number of people already dependent on the government—via Social Security, Medicare, etc., and these categories should be dealt with next. After that, the priorities might be debated during the run-up to the election of the committee members.

All the bureaucrats currently employed must be fired! Let go, if that is less harsh sounding. All of them who are now working are corrupt. If they want to get a new position in government, they have to apply like everyone else and plea for their newly discovered integrity.

All the departments of the national government should be broken up and assigned new space in every state of the union—perhaps they can occupy some of the office space formerly used by State bureaucrats who will consequently be out of work. The District of Columbia must be reduced to the somnolent activities of a National Park (and its attendant parking lots). The grand public buildings can be auctioned off to the highest bidder.

The supposed remedy designed into the current Constitution—the addition of new amendments—has failed. It has failed repeatedly, and almost from the beginning. I am with those so-called ‘anti-federalists,’ Mercy Otis Warren, Melancton Smith, and George Mason, on most of these issues, but a ‘Bill of Rights’ seems to me an antithetical thing to the whole project of a new Constitution, which should in and of itself be a ‘bill of rights,’ and little more—but not to be enjoining the citizenry, rather to proscribe the activities of the government.

 

I started in on all this during my phone conversation that night with Deirdre and barely half-way through, she said, ‘You really vex me!’

 

 

22. An arresting development

and a misunderstanding of the fascist mind

 

I was arrested about ten minutes beyond the Arkansas border. I was frankly surprised. I had simply put the idea of it out of my mind. The recognition of what was about to happen when I saw the flashing lights approaching, on not one but two cars, and then what actually happened as I pulled over, took several minutes to register. Appropriately, this was just outside New Boston, Texas.

The officer in charge was a lieutenant Matthews. Very serious. And very seriously overweight. About my height beneath a very clean-looking cream white Stetson that did not hide the fact that he was obviously balding. His breathing was audible, and he was sweating despite a still pleasantly cool temperature. He was wearing a dark suit and a nice-looking green and blue string tie with a small silver clasp and a cream-colored shirt. His badge was on a removable clip attached to his shirt pocket which he made visible by hanging his thumb in his belt to hold back his jacket. This was the first Texas Ranger I had ever knowingly met and despite his ill health, I was impressed. But his first name was Robert, and not Dan, so the ‘Highway Patrol’ television show of my childhood days was not fully recapitulated—though that part did not occur to me until later.

I unlocked the door to the trailer before a female sergeant handcuffed me and stood by me at the edge of the road in front of my truck. She seemed to be wearing a uniform and wore her insignia on the shoulder of her jacket. The whine of distant traffic on Interstate 30 gave voice to a morass of low trees on the one side. I had more than once imagined banshees with such a sound. It added a somber note to a broad field of winter-blasted weeds bleached in the white morning sun at the other.

For the moment, at least, it was a little entertaining, and I stood quietly, wondering what would develop. After about four minutes, three of which were used by the two officers from the other car to consult with the lieutenant who remained outside the trailer at the side door looking in, the lieutenant came back and said the very words, “You are under arrest. You have the right to remain silent. Anything you say can be used against you in court. You have the right to talk to a lawyer for advice before we ask you any questions. You have the right to have a lawyer with you during questioning. If you cannot afford a lawyer, one will be appointed for you before any questioning if you wish. If you decide to answer questions now without a lawyer present, you have the right to stop answering at any time.”

I appreciated every word. So pleased was I, in fact, that I might have smiled halfway through the recitation. Lieutenant Matthews was not so happy.

He says, “What do you think is so humorous?

“I’ve been waiting a year for this. It’s finally happening.”

“Why is that so funny?”

“I guess it wouldn’t be, if I was guilty of something. But I’m not. FBI has been badgering me for a year. You’ve gotta laugh or else you’d cry.”

He gave me a stone-face.

“Well, you are now—guilty of something.” He was holding up a clear plastic bag with what looked very much like a gun I once owned—a Smith and Wesson .38 revolver. “Do you have a permit for this?”

“I haven’t had a permit for a gun like that in at least twenty years.”

‘Well then, that’s at least two counts. Carrying an unregistered firearm and possessing a firearm with the serial number removed.”

“But I’ve never seen that particular gun before. Where did you find it?”

“Right where you left it.”

“The only one I’ve ever owned was left in the safe hands of a Boston cop—a lieutenant John Kelly, who bought it from me for the exact amount I paid for it.”

Cars were passing slowly on the road to get a look at what was going on. A woman in one pointed at me through her closed window, her finger bent against the glass.

Lieutenant Matthews’s breathing became quiet.  “Well then, how do you think this got in your trailer?”

“Someone put it there.”

“Why would they do that?”

“To get me arrested, just like you’re doing now.”

“Why would they do that?”

I noticed each time he asked a question, he looked to his sergeant. I only noticed then that she was wearing a device at her belt, which I was hoping was a body cam. I had never seen one before and I had heard they were quite small.

“Because they think I am a terrorist. I’m not. I am a bookseller. That’s all. And a writer of books. I guess I shouldn’t forget that.”

The two cops who had actually found the gun remained in the shadow of the trailer looking on.

Lieutenant Matthews simply looked at me then, still without expression. He was a bit jowly, and I could see that he hadn’t shaved very well that morning. As if he had been rushed. Perhaps called upon to be present at the arrest.

Finally, he says, “How do you think it got in there?”

I said, “Where exactly was it?”

“In a bag of dirty laundry on the high shelf at the front, above the desk.”

“Well, the only time it could have been put in there would have been yesterday because I did some laundry the day before. I was at a farmer’s market over in Magnolia yesterday, selling books. I sit outside when I’m doing that. It’s too small in there for me and the customers too.”

“You had a lot of customers?”

“A fair number.”

He seemed to pause again, standing there with the sun behind him for a moment more.

“How long have you been doing this?”

“I only started this in October. I had a bookshop in Boston for forty years before that.”

“You’re what—about 70?”

“Sixty-eight. I guess I look a little old for my age.”

“And a funny man.”

“Sorry. I know it’s serious for you. I’m just a little tired of it, I guess.”

“So, we aren’t going to find your fingerprints on this gun, are we?”

“No. Not unless they’ve got a new way to put them on there.”

He shook his head and drew a loud breath.

“This is just about as phony as a three-dollar bill!” He looked at his sergeant, who hadn’t spoken since she told me to wait where I was.

She shrugged back at him. “We’re being used again. I’ll tell you what. I’m getting tired of this.”

He waved his hand at the sergeant. “Take the cuffs off… You’re free to go. But if I find your prints—Jinny, take his prints before you let him leave, will you?—If I find your prints on this gun, I am going to put you in a cell before you can say Oklahoma.”

I said, “You mean, I’m not arrested?”

“No. You are not arrested!” But I was clearly unhappy enough now to make him smile, at least briefly, before he waved his hand at his sergeant again and added, “Turn that thing off.”  She reached down to her belt. I only realized then that the camera was attached to her shoulder lapel. “This isn’t a game, you know. Maybe it is for them, but it’s not to me. Officers can get hurt. Not funny! They woke me up at five, this morning. Did you know it’s already light at five now and it’s only March. Every flower in Texas is busting open and I haven’t had my shots yet. This is just not funny! It’s a two-hour damn drive over here! They act like it’s just across town! I’m not going to drag you all the way back to Dallas just to have a judge piss on it tomorrow. Those jokers should do their own fucking work!”

When he turned then to leave, I admit that I took advantage.

“Say, you wouldn’t know where I can get a good breakfast around here, do you?”

He stopped, facing away from me for a second more, before turning back.

“Geez-us!” The sun made his squint look like a headache. “Go to the Motor Inn! About five miles. They grind their own sausage.”

The sergeant nodded, “That’s where I’d go.”

 

This word of the moment, once again, is fascist. Everyone in authority is a fascist, especially if you disagree with them. If you agree, then the only matter when they do something blatantly unconstitutional is, what took them so long. But all in all, I have never understood cops. Politicians get the real power, hands clean. The cops are at the tip of the spear, and no one really respects them for it. Their job is proscribed. If they do it well, they are the pigs. If they do it badly, they are murderers. Where is the win for a cop? Is the pay that good? I don’t think so. That’s why so many of them become corrupted. Most are honest enough, but they are generally an unhappy lot.

My old buddy, John Kelly, was miserable. He was a borderline alcoholic. His wife divorced him. His kids didn’t speak to him. His only real pleasures were reading and fishing. The reading he did in a one-room basement apartment—smaller than my own, in the Back Bay. Mostly he read Bernard Cornwell novels, and Dudley Pope, Alexander Kent, and the like. He had read all the C. S. Forester Hornblower books years before I met him. The fishing he did all over Maine and New Hampshire. It didn’t matter about the weather. I tried it with him once. But I’m not man enough to stand in cold water for more than twenty minutes without complaining.

One way or the other, cops aren’t fascists. Not as a part of the job description. And obviously, given the number of television shows that feature cops, the general public agrees.

Fascism, however, is a very interesting word. It has long since been appropriated by the political left as a pejorative for anything to the right. The fact that ‘fasci’ policies are wholly socialist in nature and purpose is ignored. That was why they got along so well with that other aberration of Twentieth Century socialism, the Nazis. But this is all like a linguistic three-card monte, without the cards or cups—out in the open! The red bean is not really red. It’s all in the point of view.

Unfortunately, the use of the Marxist term ‘capitalism’ has been key to this switcheroo. Capitalism as a tool of economic activity—the accumulation of capital for investment and production—can be used by anyone. Communist China has had great success with it in recent times. Importantly, it is a tool that can be used by both authoritarian governments as well as non-authoritarian.

Some of this confusion has to be placed at the feet of one particular demigoddess of the right who arbitrarily ordained that capitalism could only be obtained in an open society. Some renowned philosophers seemed to believe this as well. But they clearly never proved their case. The issue there is the obvious one: that if a society is totally free for individual capital investment, where is the limit to what an individual might invest in. And if a limit is set by a government, given human flaws, what is to keep that limit uncorrupted. Democracy did not seem to help.

Without a digression to the possibilities of human corruption, the stand-off of the Twentieth Century appears to have been between the authoritarian society, in all its forms, and various forms of open society, in equal diversity. Maybe some of this will be ironed out in the Twenty-first, but I fear, likely not. I fear for my children and their children. At present, human society seems hell-bent on authoritarianism. Whatever promise was held out by the Founders concerning human freedom has been palmed by the politicians in plain sight, with the words, ‘It is for your own good.’ and ‘We are from the government, and we are here to help you.’

In fact, however, I have repeatedly been struck by the number of people—cops, and clerks, and short-order cooks—who are willing accomplices to a more human value system. Without direction, they act according to their own lights. They are, essentially ‘good.’

All the ideology in the world cannot replace a simple empathy with our fellow human beings.

The ideologue immediately asks, ‘But what is Good?’

I say, ‘look under your nose!’ A society is best that allows human beings to be good. And any government is better that protects human beings from other human beings doing harm—because some are bent on hell. The trick is to find a way to allow that to happen.

To the ideologue, this is ‘soft’ philosophy. They want hard rules. But the flesh is soft, and brains are softer.

And this brings me back to cops. Though some are philosophers, most go about their business simply as human beings. They screw up now and again, but they do their best. The bad ones don’t need to be analyzed right now. I have spent entirely too much time thinking about Mr. Clifford and his motivations. He will do what he can to further his own twisted plan. But I should not waste more time on what I cannot change.

 

I managed to get through half a plate of ‘authentic Texas flapjacks,’ which were most about Texas due to their size, before Angelo showed up. I would say I was surprised, but somehow, I wasn’t. And he just sat down next to me at the counter as if he had only just been off to the toilet.

“Those good?”

I said, “Yes. With molasses and strawberries.”

“I’m on a diet now. I’ve lost thirty pounds.”

“Almost ten pounds a month. That’s good!”

“It takes a lot of exercise. Less food.”

I pushed the plate with the other half of the stack over in front of him.

“The coffee is good too.”

He grabbed a napkin roll of silver wear and ordered coffee.

“How is Deirdre?”

“Well enough to kick me out.”

“Good. Good she’s feeling better. Good she kicked you out.”

“I have to agree. I was a little stir crazy there.”

“I’m glad they could fix the truck.”

“Better than ever.”

He ate a bit and says, “I thought they were supposed to have great sausage here.”

And I said, “They do. I already ate mine.”

So, he ordered some more, and I decided I would need more coffee.

Then he says, “This is Doug Evans fault. You should know. I got my mother moved down to Florida and I called him expecting to find out where abouts you were headed. Maybe I could run into you by accident, sort of. But he said you weren’t in Florida. You’d gone west. So, I thought, that was that. But then Doug called me back. He said you were in Arkansas . . . He’s not working anymore, you know. He’s completely retired now. And I am too, by the way. I’m out of the Army. Officially! But he has connections in the office, and he got them to tell him where the transmitter was . . .  All I said was, I’ve never been to Arkansas. Which is not true, but I was just making conversation. Next thing I know, he’s calling me back again. He says I would be very interested in what’s going on. He says Clifford has got a sting going. He didn’t know what, exactly, but that’s not the kind of crap Evans would be a party to.”

“They planted a gun in the trailer.”

“Jesus. What a maroon!”

“They evidently didn’t do it very well. The Texas Ranger they had there to pick me up smelled the seafood.”

“It was just harassment. Doug says the word in the office was they were going to keep it up until you gave them something.”

“I use my middle finger for better things than that.”

“So, I got the idea to come out here and try to protect you.”

I said, “Good idea.”

Deirdre wasn’t buying. When I called that night, right away she says, “So how did he know they had good sausage. Was there a sign, or something?”

“I haven’t got that connection straight yet. But it seems the sergeant told him.”

 

 

Right after we passed the welcome sign at the border, Angelo says, “It’s funny how we don’t really know people we think we know pretty well.”

It was a common enough thought.

“I think that’s almost always right.”

“When I was packing up the stuff in my mom’s apartment—Now, that was something else. She tells me she wants to throw everything away, and then starts crying when I do. I think the only things I really got to toss were some old spices in a rack. I had to lug all the canned food down to a Food Pantry.”

“Mothers can be difficult.”

“No. Not her. She’s the open book. A sweetheart. No. My father. She wouldn’t let me do anything with his stuff after he died. And she doesn’t throw anything away. Nothing! So, I finally got to deal with it. I packed it all up. It’s in Florida now with Aunt Celia. Twelve large boxes piled against the wall in Mom’s bedroom. That doesn’t include the clothes. I took all the clothes down to Goodwill. I took all his old electronic equipment—the stereo and all, to a place on 86th street. I just gave it to them. They were happy to have it. State of the art stuff—circa 1970. I gave the records to a store a block away. They were ecstatic! My Old Man always had good taste. I wheeled the piano down the hall to the neighbors. That was easy.

“But the thing of it is, I found out all sorts of things about the Old Man. Amazing stuff I didn’t know. Things he never said a word about. One thing is he had these files—the paper kind that expand the more you put in them. They were stuffed. And they were full of songs. The Old Man wrote songs! Amazing! When he married my mom, he wanted to be a song writer! A lot of them were love songs he wrote to her. He played the piano, and I grew up with that, but I didn’t know anything about the songs.”

“Wonderful.”

“Well. Some seem pretty good. Others not so much. But he never managed to sell a single one. Not one! He even kept a letter from Frank Sinatra’s secretary telling him that Mr. Sinatra doesn’t read unsolicited material. And he paid an agent down on 42nd street for a while. Those letters were in there. But most of it was just music and lyrics. And he gave it up. Probably before I was born. I’d remember it otherwise.”

“She kept all that, I hope.”

“Definitely. But I was just reminded by that sign back there. One of the songs went something like ‘I’d rather be in Oklahoma than Philadelphia or Tacoma.” That would have been around the end of the War, when he was stationed near Tacoma. Funny thing is, I don’t think he’d ever been to Oklahoma. But he had seen the musical on Broadway. He took my mother to that. I saw the Playbill.”

“What did your dad do for a living?”

“He was an accountant. For forty years. He had at least a dozen gray suits that all looked the same. Ridiculous!”

“He didn’t like it?”

“I think he hated it. But I don’t know because he never mentioned it. Ever. A man who doesn’t talk about his work must really hate it.”

“Maybe he was a spy.”

“Touché.”

 

Later, after a couple of excellent burgers in Poteau, and I was sleepy and tired of driving, we sat in the shade at a road stop, pretending to wait for customers, but mostly enjoying the air and the smells I could not identify. I asked Angelo the obvious question.

“Do you think he did it for you?”

Oddly, I knew the thought was on his mind. The subject had not come up in a couple of hours, but there was a serious contemplation going on that had nothing to do with the passing flatlands of the Red River Valley, (which didn’t appear to be a valley at all, despite the lyric of the song).

He answered pretty quickly, “I think so.”

“Do you think that was the wrong thing to do? He had his own life to live.”

“Well, you know that’s not a straight answer. But the way I think you mean it, no, I think that was not the best thing to do. I think my mother would have lived in a shack for him.”

“But he didn’t want her to live in a shack.”

“No.”

“He would not have been happy with that.”

“No.”

“And he wanted a good life for you and your sisters.”

“Yeah. But I’m thinking there were a lot of alternatives.”

“But he liked living in Manhattan.”

“Absolutely.”

This was a tender subject for me as well. I had to admit the obvious first, if I was going to comment on someone else’s life predicament.

“Problem is, I’ve had it easy. I’m not a good judge of this. I’ve always done pretty much what I wanted. I think Margaret took more of the hit on that. She stayed with the kids until they didn’t need her anymore. But she wouldn’t have hung in there with me as long as she did, otherwise. That’s for sure. She wanted to go places and do things. Instead, she found herself stuffed in a minivan with three kids and more bags than a garbage truck.”

“It’s all about the compromises.”

“I’m thinking it is. But I think that’s important, by itself. How we handle it. I was lucky. It spoiled me. I wonder what would have become of me if Margaret had said, enough is enough. Get a real job.”

Angelo looked at me with a skeptical eye.

“I’m thinking you’d have ended up selling books in a shack someplace.”

I liked that answer.

“Likely so. I hope so. I don’t handle the compromises very well, myself.”

No customers stopped to enjoy the shade and the air with us so we took a little walk and then we went on.

 

Later I asked him, “What made you finally quit the Army? Just that it was time?”

“Past time. Long past. But moving my mom really put that in perspective. I think I’d been avoiding it because the Army was such a big piece of my younger life. I’m not happy with this idea of growing old.”

“Tell me about it!”

“The real thing about that was moving my father’s stuff.  It was the real slap!”

“That he never really did what he wanted to do?”

“Not exactly. He made his choices. I don’t understand them, but he made them. That was on him. And this time of my own life is all on me. You say you were lucky. Maybe so. Have you ever really wondered what you would have done otherwise?”

“Only at night. Especially when I have indigestion.”

“What? What would you have done?”

“I’d have opened a bookshop somewhere else and written other novels.”

“So, you really were lucky.”

“Yeah. Very… So, what are you going to do now?”

“I don’t know yet. I’m feeling a lot like I did after college. A little lost and not sure of my options.”

I couldn’t answer that for him, so I changed the subject a bit.

“You know that a lot of it is going to be determined by forces you can’t control. Like the FBI coming down on me.”

“I know. But I can’t figure that into the equation.”

“Yeah. You can. You just have to build a shack that’ll hold up in a storm.”

“Right.”

Another direction occurred.

“Funny thing—not funny, but odd. I never told you why Deirdre left me when she did back there in Buffalo. I think she would have hung in there, for a while longer at least, but she had something on her mind.”

“What happened?”

“A good friend of hers, Lucy Moody, had died just before we left. Lucy had cancer.”

“The same as Deirdre?”

“No, different. But Lucy was one of these self-contained sorts who lives her life the way she sees it, come what may. She hardly ever went to the doctors because she was always healthy. At the end, she didn’t know what was happening to her. It was out of control.”

“That’s unfortunate.”

“Yeah. But it was a slap for Deirdre. She’d been feeling funny. No pain or anything. A couple of lumps but she’d always had something like that. She’d been checked before. But it was the feeling funny part that she was ignoring. Then Lucy died. And there she was, running away with me like she didn’t have a care in the world. But we’re not young anymore. She seems like a girl to me, but that’s because I’m getting ancient.”

“So, she was lucky too.”

“Yes. In a way, but that’s all on Deirdre. She has a way of paying attention to things. It makes her a good reporter. And the fact of it was, she’d been so unhappy at Lucy’s death, she wanted to run away. But you can’t. You have to pay attention—or as someone else once said, ‘Attention must be paid.’”

“Right.”

“So, what are you running away from?”

He shifted in his seat to give me a heavy stare.

“Jesus! Did you have that in your mind this whole time?”

“Nice if I did. But no, it just occurred to me.”

He rocked in his seat for a couple of minutes more.

Finally, he says, “Myself, mostly. I guess, when it comes down to it, I’m not as well off as my dad. At least he had my mom.”

This evening, Deirdre listened to this retelling very quietly. No interruptions.

Then she says, “So, you think I was running away from myself?”

“Not exactly. You were just taking some time off. At the end there, you did the right thing.”

 

 

23. Breakfast in Miami

and dinner in Manhattan

 

Breakfast in Miami was disappointing. You would think, if you had a place of your own, you’d try to make it different. Get in locally sourced hams and sausage. Find someone who made jellies in their kitchen. Follow a bee back to a hive and get your honey there. Bake your own bread or find someone who knows how. Find a good dairy. You’d never use those little plastic packets for jellies. I should have known when we sat down at the counter because the packets were right there in the wire rack. But I was hungry and needed some coffee and ordered too quickly. And then I suppose the kitchen was hot, so the waitress left the door open there, and I simply saw too much. All of it neat and clean, of course, but no better than you’d get in almost any state in America. Homogenized, pasteurized, prepackaged, premeasured, and uniformly sliced. We had fortunately avoided such mistakes before, but this was an argument in favor of the Scottish restaurant, where you got exactly what you expected—that is, not much, for less.

After breakfast, and just into Kansas, I headed west to get away from larger roads and bigger cities. It was a beautiful little road through the sort of classic flat farm country that Dorothy would have called home. The window air was sweet. But after half an hour, I understand why Oz was so appealing. She shouldn’t have clicked her heels. I looked over and Angelo was happily asleep again.

Small windowless cities of grain elevators and fertilizer storage tanks arose on the plain. Smaller villages of trailers nestled neatly beneath old trees, where actual houses might once have been—but then, perhaps those got carried away on a great wind.

That was something I have avoided writing about until now—the feeling of emptiness to much of small-town America. Prosperous enough, I suppose. Perhaps I cannot fairly judge the happiness of others by such a measure, especially when people are being friendly, helpful, courteous, and kind. Typically, that’s what we found. But nevertheless, living in a trailer is not the same as living in a house. A house is much more trouble; an endless series of problems. And it costs more to begin with. But there is a sense of machine-made emptiness to trailer life that is overwhelming. I have seen it often enough to know.

Perhaps I should be pleased with the idea that Americans can still be good people while surviving—enduring, I think—that procrustean life. The 1000 square feet of useful space in a typical 15 x 70 trailer life is more than is common to most of the world. And it’s certainly efficient. But that’s the heart of the problem. The common wooden house can be made to suit. The additions in New England, as families grew—big house, little house, back house—often stretched as far as the barn. Even the modular homes we see everywhere in place of the old four-square can be altered more than a trailer. And as generations evolve, the very sense that you might want to swing a cat by the tail is lost, even if you love your cat. And naturally, then, smaller dogs become the standard.

It is a sort of syndrome. Allowing for the exception of hermits like Howard Baumann, there is no real room for books in a trailer, so less reading is done. Even a widescreen TV takes up less room, and if you angle it just right, you can get your couch almost eight feet away—room for a family of three or even four. But there is no room for the unique accumulations of a human life—what is often labeled bric-a-brac and ephemera by those who were not there when the impulse struck. There is little room for a hobby—except for stamps, perhaps. Carpentry is the hobby of garages and basements, and even most double-wides don’t have a basement. As the rough edges and odd angles of normal human lives are honed to fit the uniformity of the trailer, the spirit is molded, or simply squeezed out. There is no room for another child, even if that impulse arose above the noise of social media and the harangue of the abortion lobby. What is left of family life is too easily filled by the vapor of television and drugs. Or alcohol.

They are everywhere now, across the fruited plain. Even in the midst of what was once a town of quaint vernacular buildings made to suit the need by local craftsmen, and picturesque orphaned spaces left behind through generations by fires and flood, and great winds, the interchangeable trailer now dominates—a Jack Finney nightmare of human forms reduced to only the necessary parts, souls removed. My fear is that as we become accustomed to this suppression and compression of our lives, we are made better fodder for the authoritarian state. People used to the eccentricities of individual lives are poor subjects. At least, that’s what the British once discovered, once upon a time.

When I noticed Angelo staring out the window at a dozen massive concrete cylinders, maybe fifty feet high and joined one to the other in a row, I asked him about another thought I’d had.

“Remember when you mentioned your buddy, Paul Vargas. You said he retired and was living in Italy. Where in Italy? I’ve always wanted to roam around Italy and see some of those odd little buildings filling sundry spaces..”

“Castrovillari, in Calabria. It’s near a mountain there, and he liked to climb. I should have gone to visit but I never did. He invited me. Twice! I never got the third chance. But he didn’t actually retire. He was writing another book.”

“What about?”

“War.”

“Did he teach history?”

“Yes. Greek and Roman. He was an old-fashioned Classicist.”

“Which war?”

“War, itself. He was using the history of Calabria for examples. I know that. He said it was one of the most contested and least important places on Earth, and one of the few that we have a fairly long historical record for. A perfect example of war for its own sake.”

“Did he say why?”

“There was no ‘why.’ He said it was simply like a good sandbox—an arena, he called it. Right there at the end of the ‘Boot.’ Water on three sides. Armies had to fight or die. The Phoenicians, the Greeks, Carthaginians, Romans, Vandals, Goths, Byzantines, various and sundry Moslems, Spanish, Germans, Americans. I can’t remember them all. All for a sandbox.”

“What happened to the book?”

Angelo heaved a sigh—one of the few people I know who actually heaves when he sighs.

“I don’t know. I know that I should, but that’s one of the problems with getting wrapped up in your own mess. You neglect things that you shouldn’t”

“Sounds like something worth writing.”

“I think so too. But he might not have been able to find a publisher. I got that sense from our phone conversations.”

“Why?”

“Well, I’m guessing, but I’m likely right. Remember, I told you he was an old lefty. The new Lefties don’t have time for all that historical stuff. Too many facts. Research. Humbug! Get with the program! And the right was probably uninterested for its own prejudices. It’s a polarized world out there. And he wasn’t getting any support from the University. He was a Classicist and that’s all gone soft.”

“Ha!” I couldn’t help the exclamation. I’d suddenly remembered something else. “I’d forgotten about that. I told you I couldn’t remember if we ever really spoke when he came in the shop—That he seemed to be wary of me. But I remember now about when he first came in. It was during a row I had back in the 1990s with a BU professor who lived on Beacon Hill. She went crazy because I wouldn’t carry a pernicious piece of crap called ‘Black Athena.’ She evidently made a stink in BU circles about it and warned others to stay away. She called me a racist because I wouldn’t agree with her. I think your friend Paul started coming in during that time. I can’t remember any specific conversation, but I know he had come in because of that, so he must have said something.”

“That would be just like him. He was always at war with the Classics Department. The woman you’re talking about was probably Debbie Roberts. ‘Deborah,’ to her friends. She was a piece of work. She hated Paul. I’ve seen it. And he knew there was no winning with her so he just grinned.”

“Do you know what the book was called?”

“I think, something like ‘War is never done.’  That was his operating theory, anyway. He called it a ‘forever war.'”

Again, a thought that fit a niche in my brain.

“Joe Haldeman wrote a book with that title!”

“I actually know about that one. Never read it, but I heard Paul cited it more than once. He wasn’t afraid to read novels—the way I am.” Angelo interrupted himself with a side glance and a laugh that wasn’t convincing. “But the idea of it had gotten him thinking. He often referred to the ‘Forever War,’ when he was talking about the conflicts within Western Civilizations as well as the ‘West against the rest,’ as he phrased it. I think he probably would have even used that book title himself if Haldeman hadn’t beaten him to it.”

I said, “The Seven-Years War led to the American Revolution which led to the Civil War. The Franco-Prussian War led to World War One and that led to World War Two, and the Korean War, and then the Cold War. It certainly seems never-ending.”

“He agreed with you about the military-industrial complex, but he had an even longer view, I think. He had a chart he’d made on the wall of his office. Right on the wall. It’s probably still there, somewhere under the paint. It listed all the wars he was aware of, in a chronology starting about 400 BC. There were a lot of overlaps and very few spaces.”

 

 

Kansas is one of those states that heavily regulates peddlers and transient vendors. It made things very neat. No unsightly flea markets or roadside truck stands. I was told by a clerk in Emporia that the paperwork would require a week to process, so that’s why there were so few peddlers running about. We were almost in Council Grove before I spotted a young fellow selling flowers, already blooming and ready for planting, right out there on the open prairie. He looked lonely, a dark figure beneath his umbrella, standing watch over several dozen shallow trays of bright color propped up for display, and I stopped to talk. The grass hills behind him, the dried remains cut short in the fall and already showing a healthy green of new shoots, were his, he said, then corrected himself and said, “My father’s.” His great grandfather “had stolen it from the Osage Nation fair and square when his wagon axle broke, and he couldn’t go any further. It cost him an ox.”

I said, I sympathized with the problem and mentioned the axle on the trailer.

But we had been on this road through a splendid expanse of rolling prairie for half an hour and had seen three cars. Maybe, four.

“Do you get any traffic?”

“Sure. I sell bulk. Our greenhouses are over there near the house.” He pointed at a grassy knoll that hid any sign of such a thing but for a dirt road wandering away. “I get half a dozen people a day.”

I didn’t think that it could be worth the effort, but then a woman in a pick-up truck stopped and filled up the bed with petunias and other plants for $300, and that didn’t seem so bad.

I asked him what he did in-between sales. He pulled out an old Modern Library hardback copy of The Brothers Karamazov off the seat of his truck.

“These Russians are good. Takes me a week to get through one of these.”

So, I asked if we could join him.

He said, “Pull in over there. Can’t hurt.”

It didn’t. After awhile, his mother came by with his dinner in a paper bag and chatted with us about the weather and then she bought all the Storm Jameson I had picked up in Mississippi three months before. And Brian—his name was Brian, but it was sewn into the pocket of his shirt so we never properly introduced ourselves, bought my only copy of Henryk Sienkiewicz, With Fire and Sword. I assured him Polish authors were easily as wordy as their Russian counterparts.

I felt bad when the kid told me he was headed for the University of Kansas in the Fall. But I didn’t say a thing. If they didn’t beat the love of literature out of him, he had a good life ahead.

 

The State Park near Manhattan had trees. Even that early in the year, with the cedars and pine, there was a semblance of shade. There was a nice broad lake right there too, flat as glass, but the trees were the deciding factor, after being in a solid sun for four hours.

On the way through town, Angelo had bought a six-pack of something with a great name, ‘Free State Thomas Paine Porter,’ which he figured I would appreciate, but the porter was good too. And I burned a couple of small Angus beef steaks with some local Alma cheddar and a loaf of ‘French’ bread that was good but could have been better and we had a feast. This was Angelo’s idea, and I was happy to accommodate. Hot dogs have their limits. But it turned out he had a reason for celebrating.

He leaned back in his chair and held his beer up in the air.

“Thirty years ago, I was just out of college and finished with training at Fort Huachuca in Arizona, and I was stationed right over there, at Fort Riley… I told you I’d resigned my commission. Well, a week ago I got my separation papers. I thought I should celebrate.”

“Congratulations!”

“You know the phrase, ‘the best years of my life’?”

“Very well. Margaret used to use it quite frequently.”

“Well, that’s what I hear in my head now. But it’s not a happy voice.”

“Neither was hers.”

The silence then would have been appropriate if we were at a wake. There was still no wind and no other campers close enough to matter. Finally, with half the bottle empty, he says, “I know that neither of us really believe in coincidence. But for different reasons.”

“True.”

“I find it just too good that I’m back here in Kansas right now.”

“Sorry.”

“I am too. It was a long mistake to make. As if I was in slow motion, but life never took a break.”

“I think I can understand that. Letting the Army determine the course of things must have been difficult.”

“Oh no. No. It was easy. I just let it happen. It seemed like interesting work. But I ended up just about where I started. Higher rank but no smarter. And I don’t get the thirty years back again.”

“There was the teaching. You had that.”

“You’d be surprised. All in all, it wasn’t much better. I got in a groove. It was comfortable. It was interesting. But never great! And now it’s gone.”

I raised my bottle up to him.

“Good riddance then!”

That got the sigh out of him. “I know what you think about all that. But you’re wrong. I think it was my fault.  I didn’t use the opportunities I had.”

I shook my head at the idea. “Use them now!”

“I can’t go back.”

“I didn’t say that. But you’ve learned what you learned. Make use of it!”

Fires are good for such contemplation. We ate our feast. Dark fell quickly and the stars in Kansas go ear to ear,  so clear I could pick out the planets without a guess, and bright enough to reflect in the water of the lake better than what you saw directly above in a clear Boston sky.

He says, “Don’t you think you made mistakes?”

“I don’t think that’s the question. You know I did. But I was making them on my own, doing what I wanted to do. It doesn’t get any better.”

The words seemed to shake his head for him.

“Jesus, you are a pain in the ass!”

“Better than being ignored, I think. Am I right?”

He gave that a good leaving alone.

Finally, he says, “How about you? Do you know what you’re going to do now, when you get to the end of this road?”

“No.”

“Really? Is that true?”

“Yes.”

“You? The would-be know-it-all? Really?”

“It’s  only ‘would-be.’ I’ve still got plenty to learn.”

 

At least Deirdre was entertained by the story of the flower vendor.

 

 

 

 

24. Marlowe’s invention of a man

or de Vere’s intervention

 

 

Breakfast in Manhattan was chicken fried steak and eggs. I was not unhappy. But I couldn’t afford the biscuits and gravy too. My budget wasn’t that strict but I could only break it so many times without paying a higher price. Angelo had naturally gone for the tried and true, and the eggs as well. I diverted myself by telling him about a daydream I’d been having in Boston over the last three months that was tied to William Shakespeare and an old project I had never finished.

Unable to write during those months, given the circumstance, I had read instead. About a book a week. Most of these were bought at the few remaining used bookshops in and around the city and the time spent looking for something to read in these places became a part of the entertainment as much as getting out of Deirdre’s apartment, which was too small by half. Unless there was an appointment where my service was needed, Deirdre encouraged me in this. But one particular book had been given to me by my daughter, Georgia. As the eldest, she had heard me go on about my theories on Shakespeare, and who had actually written the plays, too many times. Perhaps more than anyone else, given that she had listened long past the point where Margaret had stopped.

The book was Marlowe’s Ghost by Daryl Pinksen.

Now, I already knew that the theories concerning Christopher Marlow all hinged on a single conceit. Though they were the same age, Marlowe was already a literary star, and then was murdered, before ‘Shakespeare’ published his very first work, a poem, Venus and Adonis. The problem for me had never been in accepting that ‘William Shakespeare,’ the near illiterate tradesman and sometime actor, was a fraud, but in learning who the actual genius was. And here was an original answer. Was it Marlowe’s ghost then, who had done the job? A fun thought. But not.

Angelo was having none of it.

“I know you aren’t going to tell me it was his ghost. That’s just your hook. But you’ve got the wrong fish. I’m not interested in your conjecture, or the musings of some Canadian physics teacher with too much time on his hands during those long cold winters.”

“What do you want to talk about?”

“Slavery.”

“Why slavery?”

“Because, I don’t understand it. You have all sorts of ideas about that, I know.”

I had been musing on Shakespeare all morning, so the challenge required some work.

“Then, let me tell you about an old project of mine that I never finished.”

“Fine. But not Shakespeare.”

I launched in, using what I recalled of an essay I’d already written, “Slave trading cannot be easily understood by Americans today, any more than it was in the fall of 1965 when this particular matter was first on my mind. It’s simply incomprehensible… And I wonder if that’s just one more reason why so few people bother to study history now. Too much of it is just inexplicable. It’s confusing. ‘Are these murderers actually part of my own species, much less my own race?’ they might think. Yet, those monsters are not only close relatives, family members, even friends, (but with echoes of Pogo) they are us.”

Angelo added, “As George Santayana so succinctly said, ‘those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it.’”

So he was hooked. Now I had to keep him on the line.

“Slavery is quite common today. You know that too. Perhaps as common, or likely more so given our population numbers and our relative wealth, as it was when Captain Hawkins set sail—that being shortly before William Shakespeare was hired as a sort of frontman by the most extraordinary genius in English letters, not as I once believed, by William de Vere, but by Christopher Marlowe.”

“You are cheating.”

“We buy our cheap clothing at Walmart and never question how it came to us so inexpensively. We buy our laptop computers and cell phones without a thought for the teenagers working in the cobalt mines of the Congo. We extol the ‘electric car’ which, though powered by coal (the primary source of electricity), still must use cobalt batteries, while the coal itself is mined by the slave labor of Tibetans removed by force from their homeland. Some of us even make excuses for such labor practices: ‘They need the work! They would starve to death, otherwise.’ I am ashamed to say, this sort of wickedly ignorant pronouncement usually comes from a fellow libertarian who has conveniently bought into the rapacious dogma of ‘capitalism’ as a philosophy instead of a tool and have themselves never done a day’s hard labor.”

“Libertarians are all talkers.”

“Why can’t they just read enough of Dow’s Slave Ships and Slaving to grasp a small portion of what that horror was, to be stacked like cod on racks in the dark and dank hold of a ship. Can’t they wring it out of their own lives, rather than escape into the entertainment of phony bloodletting and gore in a computer enhanced war game or another mindless movie? Or read Twelve Years a Slave by Solomon Northup to understand the inevitable loss of any family life. Or even a more ‘gentle’ account, such as the great Frederick Douglas autobiography. The misery is clear.”

“I’ve never even seen Dow’s Slave Ships before.”

“And I cannot successfully blame the Arab nations for the slavery they have conducted in Africa for millennia, because they don’t care. Pass the caviar, please.”

“So, what was your project?”

“In my first and only semester of college, Already confirmed in the idea that Shakespeare was a fraud, I had come at the matter from the back side. I had taken umbrage at Mr. de Vere for his subterfuge causing the misery of millions of students through the years with his pyrotechnics. I among them. I decided on a little sweet revenge.”

“Is this going to take all morning?”

“No. Just a minute. I am really proud of this maneuver. And it’s relevant to what you wanted me to talk about. I asked, couldn’t de Vere’s talent have been turned to that great sin that festered all around him? Slavery! Was Caliban the best he might have done? He had certainly witnessed slavery in Italy—de Vere had been there for a time, after all. I only wanted to make the man better than he was. Truly. Not just a genius, but a lost hero (or so I said)…This was in the fall of 1965, remember, right in the midst the great civil rights campaign led by Martin Luther King. I foolishly thought the idea might at least get some allowances. But ‘fatuous,’ my instructor said. ‘How could you make so many gratuitous assumptions in one piece?’ Wasn’t it enough that I had jumped into the Looney bin, without adding my own misconceptions concerning the greatest writer of all time?”

“I am on the instructor’s side.”

“Well, that was yet another reason I never finished my first year in college…Of course, John Thomas Looney was the modern originator, to my limited knowledge, of the ‘Oxfordian theory,’ the first attempt to prove that it was indeed Edward de Vere, the 17th Earl of Oxford, who had written the plays ascribed to William Shakespeare, and not the actor who had so little schooling, and no Latin. (But why Looney himself did not write under a pen name, I’ll never know.) Sometime in the early 1960s, while mucking about in someone’s attic, I had stumbled (tripped-up, my instruction might have have said), on Looney’s book, Shakespeare Identified, published in 1920. But if disparagement did not dissuade John Thomas, it would not dissuade me. I simply compounded my error with yet another stunt.”

Angelo broke into my accounting, just about then with, “What about Christopher Marlow? I thought you were talking about Marlowe. I even had a buddy back in college who thought it was Marlowe who wrote all the Shakespeare stuff.”

“But the problem with that for me is, a lot of information about Marlowe wasn’t around when I was concocting this. You’ve got to go with what you’ve got.”

“Re-write it!”

“Sure. Maybe. But that’s not the point. The point is to have a vehicle for the ideas. One with a motor that you can steer. I was using the material I had, and luckily it was brief enough so that I didn’t have to bury myself with a lot of research that I couldn’t do at the time. It’s like science fiction. The science might become dated, but the idea is the real matter.”

“That’s why I don’t read the stuff. I like the facts.”

That was more than just a little outrageous.

“You are telling me the facts are all that matter—when you didn’t already have enough facts to just leave me alone?”

He smiled. Maybe a guilty smile, but the beard hid that. His voice was dismissive.

“That’s all history now. Print the legend, as they say.”

“That’s a film quote!”

“I saw it when I was a kid.”

But now the idea was back in my head.

“I had already taken note of the common habit of some people, perhaps most, and even then, to project their own prejudices onto historical figures. For instance, the phrase, ‘How could Thomas Jefferson have owned slaves?’ was as common a foolishness in the 1960s as it is now.”

“It’s irritating.”

“From within my twentieth-century suburban American comfort zone, I’d wondered what it might have been like for de Vere to write so well and then hide his identity in such a total subjugation of what we now call the ‘ego.’ Lesser mortals crave some attention for their paltry work, and unashamedly accept prizes for poetry and novels that will not be read in another ten years, much less the next generation. I noted then, De Vere doesn’t care. He’s dead, of course. But he had his fun with his plays and found his pleasure in writing them. I suspect he greatly enjoyed sitting there in the balcony and watching the players cope with his machinations. Certainly, he showed fabulous ‘Will-power’ from the start simply by not moaning in horror when a favorite line was mangled.

“The near illiterate actor whose name he borrowed to avoid the sharp penalties that would have been dispensed to an officer of the Royal court (no less an attendant to the queen—recalling that Raleigh had already been separated from the fount of his genius by then) might not have even realized who the man was who laughed at lines before they were uttered. There was no ‘best-seller’ list then to aspire to. De Vere was already at the top and he did not want to be in a mausoleum. He simply enjoyed his devices, and to escape from that dreary court on flights of fancy. The theatre was a wonder-world. Not so tedious as a novel. Not so light, or so much ignored, as verse alone.

“Had he not done as much himself, rubbing shoulders with the best? It would be a pity to let all of that personal acquaintance be forgotten, soldiers and kings, courtiers and courtesan, and all the rest. Even to his dalliances in Milan. While Venice, sweet Venus, yet felt as if it was still only yesterday. ‘Love unwritten is lost,’ I wrote, ‘and the sweat and the passion of one night are wiped away by the garments of the next.’”

“I would have quit, right there!”

“But on the stage, the stories he knew better than anyone were alive again! (If only because as a boy and biding time for his mentor, William Cecil, he had played with free rein in the Tower of London—hide and seek with Lady Anne was yet fresh in his mind—where the same ancient writings that had once entertained Thomas Malory and allowed that earlier rascal to salvage his King Arthur, still moldered in the damp and would more likely be lost than ever saved.”

“We have to talk more about Arthur, sometime.”

“Of course, he could not reveal what was beneath his own nose! The Queen had made good money from Captain Hawkins! That was the bottom line—and that was off-limits, even to a Royal favorite. More so! And he had to keep his head, even if the buttons flew. The good Lord Burghley, William Cecil could only protect him so far. But yet, he had seen the accounts there in the Tower of other Royals, before the Tudor times. He knew a little Latin and less Greek. But enough. And he was certainly familiar with the text of the Latin Bible, and old Cicero, as well the modern Italian of Boccaccio.”

“What was his motivation, then, if not fame?”

“History! Was the risk too great? Could a truer history of England be too great a risk? So, I wrote it up! First as a play, and then realizing it would be a laugh at my own expense to anyone who actually knew the work of the Bard, I destroyed that. Then I tried it as a short novel, with several different endings. None were good enough to support my odd fantasy. I tried again in essay form, but I would need better footnotes for that. And less sex. Romping with Ann in the Tower of London while fully clothed (because of the temperatures alone) and lying down amidst the molding pages was not appropriate, though it did inspire me at that young age.)”

“That might have worked on me.”

“But time ran out. We were supposed to submit a project in class to be completed in the Spring semester. Of course, I never made it that far.”

After a short respite Angelo spoke up.

“Are you finished?”

Yeah. But one more thing. Irony of ironies. William Cecil, the Queen’s closest advisor, had also been a mentor to Christopher Marlow. Could that be a coincidence?”

“No. Now, leave it. Please.”

Angelo had clearly found my account funny, though likely not for the right reasons. He didn’t say. But Deirdre had heard it all before and later showed great patience with my retelling, up to the point when the cobalt battery on my phone ran out on me.

 

 

 

 

25. Bat Masterson meets his match

and John Crider’s repose

 

It has occurred to me many times before that the practical mechanics of politics is only distantly related to the ideal. That is a given. And this then is made worse by procedure. One cannot assume that the means of achieving a best result are actually available to the politicians who are entrusted with the care of the Republic at any one time. And often enough, when the means are available, there is no clear way to achieve what is wanted.

Another election year had come and the yard signs were scattered even on lesser roads—an odd variety of red, white, and blue mushroom pre-labeled with candidate names to warn you of their deadly intent. I ignore them per se, but there is an unavoidable sense of consequence. The religion of politics is too easy to criticize. There was no good in it. Ideas are turned into slogans and slogans into slugs. You were either politically correct or you were not. If not, go to hell—and let me give you a hand with that.

There are many good examples of this, historically speaking, in Presidential elections. The election of 1800 was perhaps the first but caused then by a technical mistake that was soon corrected. The first obviously corrupt election occurred in 1824, when Henry Clay, with an eye on the top job for himself someday, ‘compromised’ to appoint northerner, John Quincey Adams, over southerner, Andrew Jackson. Arguing about who was the better man is pointless. The history is quite clear that Adams, an idealist, was not up to the practical job of retail politics. However, the Tilden-Hays election compromise of 1876 is perhaps the best example. Tilden, the Democrat, had won the election by count, but the political power of the Congress was divided. It was well established that votes in several of the States were badly corrupted by the Democrat political machines, the worst being in New York, which had gone for its favorite son, Tilden. In the South, thousands of new black voters, most of them Republican, were cheated out of their ballots by fraud and by force. The compromise gave Hayes the Presidency in return for the withdrawal of troops from the occupied states—a de facto acceptance of Jim Crow abuses. Meanwhile, the fundamental problem of a corrupt election was never dealt with—and thus the electoral process has limped along ever since, with repeated examples of fraud on a national scale, most notably in 1888, 1960, and 2000.

But Kansas—the land of grass that reaches to the horizon and might have inspired the better dreams of a rural nation—Kansas had a role to play in all of this on an even more fundamental basis.

I said as much to Angelo.

“This is where it all began to fall apart. I think the beginning of the end of the Republic started here.”

He wasn’t having any of it.

“I’m supposed to ask you why?”

“No. I’ll tell you anyway.”

“I figured.”

“It was because of Stephen Douglas and the Kansas-Nebraska act.”

“You were extolling Jackson earlier for being a practical man, Douglas was much the same, wasn’t he? Not a general, but all he wanted was for the railroads to connect California with the East. He saw Chicago in his home state as the perfect hub for that. Even Lincoln understood that. But that’s why Douglas beat him. The slavery issue was a sidebar. Practical politics didn’t want to touch it.”

“No. I know that’s what your books say but you’d be wrong about that. I think the Civil War began right here in Kansas, in 1856. And John Brown was at the heart of it. The people knew. That’s why they marched to war singing his name.”

“John Brown was a fanatic!”

“You probably learned that in Junior High. Haven’t you ever stopped to wonder why so many people loved him?”

“People loved Hitler too.”

“That’s silly. You just used a worst-case to condemn one that was at worst problematic.”

“Okay. Sorry. But he was a fanatic!”

“Maybe. But his goals were true and good. Maybe, he could be compared with Ivan, in Brothers Karamazov.”

“I haven’t read it.”

“Ivan was the rationalist. Ivan wants what is good, but he did not believe in God.”

“But John Brown believed in God.”

“But that’s not the point. Without the comfort of God, Ivan goes mad trying to understand how human beings can be so cruel.”

“I see. I guess.”

“It’s the context. After Congress passed the Fugitive Slave Act in 1850, the law required good people to aid the bad. All of those high-minded Yankees like Webster went along with it. But it was immoral. Brown acted morally, if not to his own advantage. And for the right reasons. Given the usual prejudice of the press, I’m not sure he even murdered anyone in the so-called ‘Lawrence Massacre.’ There was never an impartial investigation. Brown’s family had been attacked. His home destroyed. Friends had been killed.”

“Then what was Harper’s Ferry all about?”

“I don’t know. Delusion, I guess. At least Frederick Douglas, who was one of the few people he would talk to, thought so. Somehow, I think John Brown always believed in people being better than they were.”

“So, he was a fanatic!”

“No. Not the way I think you mean it. He was not irrational. He proved that over and over again. Read the history. There’s lots of it. Stephen Vincent Benet has an epic poem about it.”

“Maybe I’ll get to it someday.”

“I don’t understand Harper’s Ferry, but I wish I did. Heroes fail too. He was a ‘hero.’ There are a lot of heroes we never hear about, but I think he is at least that.”

“He wanted to overthrow the government.”

“At the end, probably so. But not before he tried everything else that he could. The Government was corrupt and doing evil things. Slavery was the greatest of all evils in his mind. We can sit back with the comforts of our technology today and judge John Brown. But we would be in the wrong.”

Angelo gave that a pause before asking, “Is that you, then. Is that you?”

“No. I’m not nearly as brave as that. I am ashamed of myself for it. But I could never even try to do as much.”

 

 

By that time, Angelo had skipped his usual postprandial snooze, but he seemed to have lost interest in geography. He was just staring at the dotted line in the road. I thought he might be in a daze.

“Why don’t you take a nap?”

“Why don’t you stuff it?”

“Okay.”

But he was on to something. I could tell that much.

Finally, he says, “I don’t believe in heroes.”

“Well, you already know I do.”

“There is always a little too much clay at the ankles.”

“You expect perfection?”

“Shouldn’t that be a criterion?”

“No. I think a hero is someone who tries to do the right thing against the odds. Not someone who has never done anything wrong.”

“So, name a few heroes.”

“Sticking to the subject on my mind, Thomas Wentworth Higginson for one.”

“I’ve heard the name. I don’t remember him. Was he a novelist?”

“Well, that too, and a poet, but he was an abolitionist, and he was a supporter of John Brown.”

“What did he do for a living?”

“He was a minister. Unitarian, before they replaced God with humanism. He’d been greatly influenced by another hero of mine, William Lloyd Garrison, and he was a friend of Thoreau’s. He was a soldier too; a Colonel with the 1st Carolina Volunteers.”

“A Confederate?”

“No. It was a regiment of freedmen. Early on he had been persuaded by Lydia Maria Child that human liberty was not a matter of gender and he campaigned for women’s rights with Lucy Stone. He wrote constantly and his essays appeared in the Atlantic Monthly and Harper’s. He wrote many books, but one of them was the first accounting of slave revolts in the United States. And now, he’s forgotten. It’s amazing, isn’t it.”

Angelo sat quietly until I stopped at a filling station, and he got out for a snack or two. I got the sense that he might be upset at himself for not knowing who Higginson was.

When we were rolling again, he says, “I taught a course once and one of the questions I got from a student was, ‘Why were there so many great thinkers around in the Revolution, but not after. It bothered me enough to remember. I didn’t have a good answer. I’m thinking now that I should have turned the class around on that one question and started over.”

“I’m afraid I’ve asked the same question. And I don’t have an answer, either. They were an extraordinary bunch. It happened. Look at the poor French. They ended up with the brilliant minds on The Committee of Public Safety cutting the heads off anything that moved. There was something unusual about the American Revolution and a lot of people have tried to understand that difference. I don’t know if the question is resolved.”

“But what about your heroes Higginson and Thoreau? They could have done it?”

“We’ll never know. Higginson might well have been a good candidate for the Committee of Public Safety. He had that kind of fervor. At one point before the Civil War, he was advocating that the nation should break apart. He believed in dissolution. He agreed with Lincoln, ‘A house divided against itself cannot stand.’ The government could not endure half slave and half free. I can’t say I disagree with either of them on that. But that would certainly make him a radical on most scales today. Maybe a fanatic along with John Brown on yours.”

 

Northern Kansas was not changed from the dozen times I’d crossed it before, going east to west. I have done this by car, train, bus, and by thumb. And I have previously thought it might even be a good place to hideout and write a fictional biography of Bat Masterson, one of the few western characters that deserved more attention than he had already gotten, if only because he was so well-liked by many of the others, from Wyatt Earp to Buffalo Bill. But my real interest was not in his Dodge City adventures. I’d thought it would be a fine idea to write a mystery series based on Masterson’s days as a sportswriter for the New York Morning Telegraph.

So, I related most of this epic in as few words as possible to Angelo, who sat up for the whole thing.

“How did he know Buffalo Bill?”

“They’d both been buffalo hunters.”

“How did he meet Teddy Roosevelt?”

“They were both boxing aficionados. Roosevelt was a fan of his reporting.”

“How many men did he shoot?”

“Not many. One for certain—to avenge the murder of his brother.”

Given his usual sleepy-eyed doze through some of the other expositions that Angelo has had to endure, this suddenly gave me a renewed hope that such an idea might be worth attempting someday. Because New York was not at all the city it was in 1900, there was no need for me to ensconce myself in a cockroach-infested fourth-floor walk-up in the lower East Side to reimagine my hero. I might do just as well finding some little farmhouse out here on the grasslands—perhaps even to add a bit of background texture to the reporter’s sweeter memories of his youth before prowling about those mean and cobbled streets of old New York.

 

We were in Marysville before noon, and I had the idea to try selling a few books for a change of pace and stopped at the City Hall to ask about the possibilities there. A fellow by the name of George Lund, who was waiting at a counter close-by for some other purpose, heard my spiel and says he has a ‘truck load’ of books in his garage that used to belong to his uncle. Pretty quick, that took us up a red brick road, not unlike the yellow ones you’ve heard about, to a beautiful shingle-style bungalow on what looked to be a couple of acres of land sitting above the Union Pacific rail lines and the Big Blue River (which did not look blue at all), with a ‘for sale’ sign in the yard.

When I asked what the price was on the house I was stunned. I thought there must be some mistake.

“Why is it so cheap?”

He shrugged and says, “Where’ you from?”

“Boston, Massachusetts. You couldn’t get a one-bedroom apartment there in a bad part of town for under a hundred grand.”

He shrugged that off too. “Well, it’s different out here. It’s not updated. The kitchen is the same one my grandmother cooked in. Only one bathroom. Not so long ago, there was an outhouse on the other side of the garden that even my Uncle used for quick stops. There’s probably lead paint everywhere. My uncle was the oldest son, and he was a skinflint. If it weren’t broke, he didn’t fix it. He’d say’ Wear it out or do without.’ Never married, but he loved his books. Didn’t own a TV. Or at least he didn’t when I knew him.”

The books were indeed well-read. Many had been purchased at the local library sale. I only managed to pull a couple of dozen nice mid-twentieth-century fiction titles out of the thousand or so there—John O’Hara’s Appointment in Samarra, Herman Wouk’s Caine Mutiny, James Gould Cozzens’ Guard of Honor, Willa Cather’s O Pioneers, Wallace Stegner’s Angle of Repose, and the like, all modern classics even if not first editions—and paid him fifty dollars for those. He was shocked at the amount.

“I had them out in a yard sale for a dime each. A dozen for a dollar.”

But the 1920s bungalow style of the house and its broad porches had already caught my eye and I asked him to show us around before we left. He seemed happy to do it, and it appeared Angelo was oddly happy with the idea as well.

The Porcelain sink in the kitchen, deeper and wider than anything in modern houses, was darkly rust-stained by an ancient drip with an aura of green from the pipes.

“My grandmother stood me in that sink more than once when I’d been playing out there in one of the ponds, just like she’d do the dog. ‘Too muddy to sit down in civilized company,’ she’d say.”

The walls of the kitchen were tongue and groove pine turned to a nut brown and bore the scrapes of a century, and the linoleum floor was faded to a ghostly pattern at the center with only the edges to prove that it had once been an unlikely orange and green. The only furniture there now was a table that filled one corner by the window.

“I’m going to take that. My name is carved into one of the legs. I’ll put it in our basement… Because we’re up a little higher here, the sunlight comes in over the tracks and the river first thing in the morning, and I used to sit over there with my grandfather in the summers and listen to the farm report on the radio and dip my toast in his coffee. He didn’t farm anymore but he still had that in his soul. My Dad still farmed a patch up by Axtel back then, but there was already no money in it for the little guys and it was easier for us kids to live over here.”

A transom window above the front door was a fan of blue and white glass, and the front door itself, easily wider than a mere three feet, had four dark panels divided by five rails and looked more like the banding on the spine of an old leather book than the usual bracing.

The parlor had been the ‘library,’ and was still lined with the empty shelves. The lower rooms were heigh ceilinged and the windows there were tall and narrow, framed in a glossy oak. The stairs were that same lighter oak and turned upward at right angles to a vestibule above, illuminated by a crescent roof window. There were four large rectangular bedrooms, each close beneath the slant of the roof, and a bathroom with a tub big enough to easily float three men and a dog, with a sink to match, and a toilet that would have made Thomas Crapper proud.

A train went by, maybe a quarter-mile away, but loud enough to command attention.

“You won’t hear that after a couple of weeks…I only notice it when other people do.” He sighed, I think genuinely, “I’d fix it up myself if I had the money. But my wife hates it. We have a nice neat little ranch over near the high school and that’s the home she wants. My boy plays basketball at the school every single day.”

I drove around town before we headed to a recommended spot. George had asked if I had been in the service, and I said no, but Angelo spoke right up and said he’d just been decommissioned after thirty years. George told us he belonged to the VFW, and they had a building on the highway that was currently inactive. We could park there if we liked. As it turned out, a good spot. I sold more than twenty books in three hours. And from the talk of customers, it appeared Marysville needed a bookshop.

A cold rain put a damper on the rest of the day. I drove until it was nearly dark and we camped that night at Freemont, Nebraska. I told Deirdre all about my discovery in Marysville, in as glowing terms as I could manage, while walking a dirt path around the lake at the camp and batting away mosquitos. She was silent through most of it. Especially after I told her how much I would love to live there; and that it was the kind of house where I could easily write. Her quiet made me launch into the Bat Masterson story for diversion. With faint hope, I sent her the link to the real estate listing.

 

This is the problem. I’m getting too old to change. I live in my own head as much as I do the clothes I wear. There’s room in there, I think, for others. But they have their own lives and their own heads. To follow the metaphor for a moment more, the spaces there have to at least be adjacent to be conjoined.

I can’t live in Boston again. I have used that possibility up and out. The things I love there can be revisited occasionally, as long as they remain, but they will not likely be the same again. They are being pushed and shoved into the same corners by political correctness as the rest of our society. What was once this country, is no longer. And for this fact, those who promote the change rejoice. They have nothing better with which to replace it but vogue words, in their heads or on their lips, and they have no care for what made their own lives possible, or the cost of replacing what they destroy—even to condemning their own existence—much less for the consequences of undermining the foundations beneath their feet. All the faults of the past weigh on them as if nothing else matters but their own imagined guilt as if no ground fought and died for has been gained. Meanwhile, nature could not give a damn. They believe in ‘global warming’ as fervently as their spiritual elders believed in ‘global cooling,’ but always with the need for their brand of absolute government to determine the best science and the best outcome.

I remember an old hippie from my youth. I have no idea how old he actually was. At least forty, I suppose. (I was still too young myself to judge, especially given his beard and the weathered tones of his skin.) His name was John Crider and he lived on the street at a time before the term “homeless” had been appropriated as a political bludgeon. He had previously lived in Vermont for many years until the commune he had been a member of had fallen apart. Now, as I understood it, he had a ‘nest’ made of corrugated boxes somewhere along the Charles River, perhaps under one of the bridges, and he came into my shop on cold days to warm up. And he talked incessantly. I could hear him as he browsed. And because he stank from being unwashed for weeks at a time, as he warmed within the multiple pairs of pants and shirts that he wore beneath a long wool greatcoat that looked to be some sort of military salvage, he would drive anyone else in the shop away.

Naturally, I tried to drive him away too, but by being argumentative—talk being my only cudgel. Whatever he said, to me, or to the shelves, or to the book in his hand, I disagreed. In retrospect, this sort of tactic reveals my own stupidity about dealing with such things, but at the time I was still unaware of that. He was very intelligent, had read extensively, if not deeply, and could hold his own.

Of course, he was a Marxist. He had gone to Harvard until his father had gone bankrupt and could no longer pay the bills—though, evidently, he still had a way of getting in at the Widener Library and went there often. He liked the bathrooms there and could wash himself fairly well from a sink—so he said.

He would say something like, “Vietnam was the endgame of American supremacy. Weakness is at the heart of darkness. Capitalism is in its twilight.”

Given that I did not like that war myself, his politics aside, I was then vexed to find a way to counter him. “I think they have a long way to go, yet. Proxy wars are cheap compared to the real thing, no matter how many die in the process.”

He would sometimes press closely at the counter at such points, as if imparting a confidence. I recall at times that the air would thicken almost visibly around me.

“They will revolt. Americans will revolt. You’ll see. The time is coming. Sooner than you think.”

Whatever the argument of the moment might have been, those were some of the words I still remember, because I thought he was right. For very different reasons. His Marxism was wrong, but I believed his conclusion to be correct. But, as it came to be, my counter-argument was closer to the truth.

“Americans don’t care. They’re safe in their beds. They’ll keep sending their sons to war so that they can feel righteous. Samuel Johnson was wrong, after all. Patriotism is not the last refuge of scoundrels. It is merely a salve for the wounds of the banal.”

I actually said that! A mean thought, if ever there was one. I might have just read the Hannah Arendt book on Adolf Eichmann and wanted to show my newly found wisdom off to someone who might get it. But remember, I was young and stupid. At least being old and stupid has the ready excuse of being forgetful.

And his response to that was unique: silence! He did not answer. I suspect because he might have actually agreed. But I will never know.

They found his body about two weeks after the great blizzard of 1978.  He had frozen to death behind a wall of icy snow that had been plowed from the road above. I was told some of that detail only because of a welfare worker who came by investigating some of the scraps in the “nest.” They had found several books from my shop in the piles of stuff around his body where he had tried to stay warm, though the candles he had used for heat were unlit, beside boxes of matches. She wondered if I knew who he was.

He had not bought the books, so I was surprised at that, and then not surprised but deeply saddened. I spoke to her about John for some time—longer than she wanted, I think—but I was moved by it. The idea of staying warm with books has not left me yet.

And since then, there are other matters about John Crider that have come to mind.

He never yelled at me or became belligerent or violent. Many of the bums who came into the shop for refuge would quickly become loud when confronted—especially in later years when the almighty State had decided in their greater wisdom to dump the occupants of every mental asylum out onto the streets to fare for themselves. Whatever his dislike for America, he seemed to have a genuine appreciation for places. He’d been around on his own, as a hitchhiker, years before I ever did the same. He liked Kansas and Nebraska, and Iowa. He liked Idaho and Montana. He despised New York and LA, as well as urban Boston.

Once, he came to the desk with a book by Wallace Stegner, the same one I bought again just today, Angle of Repose. Something about it had captured his interest, and he read long passages from it, aloud. He had a good deep voice for this and could easily be heard across the aisles. I even took a copy of it home as a consequence and read it myself.

One of those books found around his body was Angle of Repose. I suppose that is what has reminded me of him this evening .

When soil is removed from a mining operation, this is the natural angle at which the loose tailings come to rest. And in my mind, that is the way I see John Crider at rest even now.

 

 

 

 

26. Heroes and villains

and a last stand at Blue Mound

 

I had a vague notion of going directly north across the turn of the Missouri River, into western Iowa, and then all the way up to Minnesota and a state park there that I had been to once, at Blue Mound, before turning west again toward Montana. It was still early enough in the year for snow, and the rain was on the verge of it, but that previous time was with the kids, during the summer when the trees were lush. Now I wanted to see it bare, ‘As naked as an old woman at her bath and unawares,’ as an older friend of mine used to say about the world unadorned by winter. He had said it as a backhanded compliment to age. Now, that was where I was too, and if it started to snow too much, I could always turn back to the south, but the weather reports were good.

Morning at the Fremont campground was sunny and bright, with the early shadows hard as night. We were in the midst of a ‘cool crisp Canadian’ airmass according to the alliterative report posted on the bulletin board at the entry. We went directly into town to eat at a diner there and consider the options. As is often the case, Angelo was good with ‘whatever.’

Fremont is still a handsome town in part, with some older buildings, large trees and neat houses behind trimmed and cared-for lawns, but also more than a little devastated by empty parking lots where all the commercial buildings of the Nineteenth and the fat part of the Twentieth Century had been. The Opera House that still stands, alone now, gives you a clue about all that. Newer buildings range from faceless tombstones of Bauhaus modern, and the diminutive steel and glass of quick-service outfits, to the concrete of what someone once called ‘Jetson’s Style.’

But the real key to all the emptiness that has grown in-between can be found at the Walmart Supercenter, just outside of town by the US 30 by-pass, and the consequent end of the small retailers that once filled Broad Street with the variety and the mixed style of an America that had absorbed countless waves of immigration. I remember the time I’d been there before, in the 1960s, having hitched a ride to Denver from Chicago that quit on me for reasons I can’t recall, and I was stranded there for hours. I thought then that it looked like the very best of American hometowns. It’s hard for me to accept the idea that the people who live here now and care enough to keep their homes so neat, could think the Walmart, with all the style of a plastic box, was a good idea. Or a ‘By-pass’ for that matter, that made even the idea of ‘downtown’ meaningless. Never mind the other box-stores scattered here and there behind their own parking lots and staffed by clerks who hate their jobs, talking out loud to one another about their disdain even as customers attempt to check out.

My gripe aloud to Angelo caused some bother to a local denizen on a stool next to us. He stopped as he left to tell me I was a ‘snob,’  and I apologized just to have that done with.

Angelo said, “You apologize too much.”

I said, “I’m sorry.”

“You’re right! What you said was right. Why apologize?”

“One reason among many is that I was rude. It’s a public place. It’s his home.”

The New Yorker in him surfaced. “You have a right to say what you want! You weren’t yelling.”

But it was in the tone of his voice that he was leading me on.

“What? You didn’t sleep well last night?”

He gave that some consideration. “The rain on the metal of that cover was pretty loud. I think there was some sleet in it for awhile. A real roar.”

“Sorry.”

“Shut up.”

But that put him in a better mood and when we got going again he was asleep in his corner of the cab within minutes.

I decided to head a little East over to Route 75 and check out Blaire before going north. Unfortunately, despite the obvious prosperity along the way (and thankfully a distinct paucity of trailer homes) the business areas there were no better off than Fremont. The character of all the smaller towns going north on the river had been nearly erased by the uniformity of aluminum siding and ‘decorative’ plastic plates of ‘colorful’ sheathing. Older brick buildings now had the cosmetic appeal of an accident victim with featureless scars beneath their delicate Victorian cornices to remind anyone who might look up of what had been. My snobbery against the lack of taste and judgment only increased. It wasn’t as if they lacked the money to do better. It was the idea that to them it was so much better to live with this kitsch every day so that they could spend the difference at Disney World during those terrible winter months (where the spore of the plastic aesthetic was spread like a virus). Better to save a buck at Walmart and let some Chinese kid worry about the polluted river.

Even with a clean, yellow-white sun highlighting the pastoral beauty of the land between, I was feeling rather gloomy.

After all, what was the appeal of European cities to all those American tourists? It was just the opposite of this. Seeing the ancient architecture was much of the delight. The old river towns of the Missouri, each with its own purpose, once had pride enough to compete. An Opera house! A grand courthouse of columns and entablature, perhaps an original historical frieze setting the standards where justice was dispensed, not a short brick and concrete municipal building where laws were merely enforced. Cool halls of high ceilings and marble floors where the sound of passing shoe leather made a musical patter in the background and the size of the desk announced the importance of the officer, not small cubicles beneath low ceilings of faux-asbestos tiles where voices barely reached across the metal desks.

Angelo jarred me out of my dark reverie.

“It’s the schools!”

I looked over to see a face that, even beneath the beard, was suddenly distraught.

“What?”

“It’s the schools. High schools! Colleges! They teach that sort of thing. People just didn’t wake up one day and decide they liked Picasso better than Caravaggio. They don’t suddenly like the brutalism of Boston City Hall better than Bulfinch or the Federal brick rowhouses of Cornhill. I was a part of that! I didn’t teach that crap but I didn’t make a stink about it. I kept my job.”

“You’re talking about the Walmarting of America?”

“Yes! And you’re right! You are a pain in the ass, but you are right! And the politicians get away with it because people like me didn’t object!”

Which had me feeling a little guilty. I already knew I was right, but Angelo wasn’t the problem.

“You taught a lot of kids to think about things they’d never heard of before. If you’d raised a stink, they wouldn’t have let you do that.”

“No! You use the word all the time: ‘complicit!’ I was complicit! There were others—a few others. I knew them. We’d sit in the cafeteria some days and talk about it…I even remember a student coming by with his tray one time and saying, ‘Is this where the dinosaurs sit?’ He thought he was being funny, and we all laughed.”

“Was Paul Vargas in on that?”

“No. He kept to himself. I had the feeling he didn’t like any of them. But he was always kind to me.”

I let that thought settle. Vargas was obviously a better man than most. And the fact that he liked Angelo should at least be a salve.

Just after we crossed the bridge into Iowa, Angelo says, “I took a class of mine downtown once to look at the remains of the ‘Old Boston’ that they’ve preserved there for the tourist traffic in the midst of all that concrete horror. One of the kids said he hadn’t been on a class trip since his junior year in high school. And what did they do, I foolishly asked? He was from the suburbs of New York, and they went to the Museum of Modern Art. So, I asked him if he had ever gone to the Metropolitan. No. He never had… But, you know, I used to practically live there when I was a kid. And I read recently that they’re putting a lot of the great stuff away and hanging up more of the modern crap there as well. And they love all the artwork from China and Japan and Africa now. They don’t have enough room for Western art anymore. Someone actually said that to me a few months ago. They actually have Caravaggios in storage. They have the greatest artist in human history in storage!”

“I’m partial to Norman Rockwell.”

He ignored my jibe.

He says, “So, who’s to blame when people tear down a better past and put up crap like the Boston City Hall?”

I was thinking he already had the answer to that, so I said, “You know, there was a printer down there, once. About 1900. Alfred Bartlett. He had a shop right there on Cornhill and he put out little booklets—a small magazine of great literature. He couldn’t have made much money doing it. It was a labor of love. Can you imagine? Caring enough for great poems and stories to set the type by hand and print on sheets of handmade paper, and fold and bind them—they were bound by thread—just to be a part of what mattered. He was a New Hampshire farm boy. Not a Harvard man. But he knew what mattered.”

“Now, that’s a hero!”

“I think so.”

 

Heroes are a problem. For instance, Alexander von Humboldt is a hero of mine.  He was daring and curious. He climbed mountains that even the Incas had left unscaled, and crossed jungles too dense to chart by the sun. He did things that most of us can’t imagine doing. But I know very little about the man. I very much hope that he was not a schmuck to those who had to deal with him everyday.

Another hero of mine is Benjamin Franklin. I know quite a bit about him, but still find him a puzzle. His autobiography is one of the first adult books I read cover to cover. It’s short and only takes him to the middle age of 51. He was a little busy during the 33 years after that and never got back to it. Not that he ever sat on his thumbs before. He was already writing provocative political articles at 15, and at 16 he was publishing a newspaper on his own, when his older brother was put in jail for supporting free speech against the authorities in Boston. I read the autobiography on the recommendation of a neighbor who thought I was reading ‘too much of the wrong stuff’ at the time. (I think he had seen me reading Tarzan or something.) He had no idea.

At 17, with a few shillings borrowed, Franklin set off for Philadelphia and all of the future that we know. And suddenly, at the age of fourteen, with Franklin’s autobiography fresh in my head, and already aware that the printing business was not a likely path in these times, I decided to write a novel, just to come up to my new standard. But that did not turn out so well. I sent my hero to the American West, in the time of Kit Carson. No amount of watching television cowboys was going to prepare that ground for me. So, I ran away from home, instead. It seemed as if every kid I ever read about did that.

I was headed ‘West,’ but only made it as far as New York City, and a bookshop there, where the owner probably thought I might be trying to steal a book but bothered to talk to me before calling the cops. The book I had in hand was a small collection of Franklin’s Poor Richard’s Almanack from 1894—I remember it well—in green three-quarter leather binding over marbled boards. It was, of course, instantly magical to me.

I was standing by the window with the light of 47th Street pouring in on the page so that I could see, but only two or three steps from the door.

He said something like, “Do you know what that is?”

I said, “Yes.”

I imagine he had already taken note of my jeans, which were likely none too clean, and my open flannel shirt, because the Spring day had turned warmer, and my backpack on the floor between my feet, which is where I always kept it then because my first pack had already been stolen due to my own foolishness.

“What do you think of it?”

“It’s beautiful. I’ve never actually seen a copy of the real thing—I mean one of the pamphlets—but did you know he was only 26 years old when he started publishing Poor Richard’s Almanck?”

“No. I didn’t”

“He had already been printing on his own when he was fourteen. But that was for his brother. And then he started his own printing shop in Philadelphia when he was 24. Now, that’s really something!”

“Indeed, that’s really something.”

I recall that the fellow moved away from me then and went back behind his counter. I suspected, even at my young age, that he was really not so interested in the book or in Benjamin Franklin, but with the fact that it was priced at ninety-five dollars. I think I might have started formulating my own philosophy about books with that single encounter.

But still, heroes can be misleading. You can’t just start climbing mountains. You have to take some time getting ready. And this might have finally dawned on me while I was standing in the light of 47th street. I know that I went back home from there because at least that fact is written in my notebook from the time.

 

The actual scene was filmed somewhere in Texas, but over and over again there are places in Iowa that remind you of the wonderful last moments at the crossroads in the movie ‘Castaway,’ with the plains adrift at all sides. The whole film is quite special, but that last scene is the topper. I like it most because nothing really happens except what’s in your head. All the work of storytelling was done before. The set-up is complete.

Angelo said, “I saw that. I took a woman from the Political Science Department to see that and the first thing she says at the end is, “So, what happened?” And that was the end of a very short friendship.”

“Maybe she fell asleep.”

“Same thing.”

We got to admire another such crossing on US 75 for about thirty minutes as some Iowa State troopers ransacked the trailer. There were five of them including a Sergeant who was giving orders. The Sergeant, Perry Edwards, about 45 years old, was in a neat dark brown shirt and a light brown tie with sharply creased light brown pants and wearing a broad-brimmed trooper hat that looked too flat to be made of felt alone. He stood with us and chatted while the others did their best to mess with Angelo’s alphabetizing, and the Yellowstone rocked under the weight of four grown men shifting things carelessly.

After taking my license and asking me my name, he was squinting at Angelo, despite the shade from the brim of his hat, and holding up his wallet in the sun. I figured he was far-sighted and didn’t want to take out his glasses quite yet.

“Where you from?”

“New York.”

“This says you’re retired.”

“A month ago.”

“What are you doing with this fella?”

“Keeping an eye on him.”

“Why would that be?”

“Because the FBI has been trying to give him grief for months and he needs a little professional help.”

This made the sergeant flinch and after looking up and down the road at the two cars and their flashing lights at either end of the situation and his car at the side of the crossroad, he cleared his throat and went to the open door of the trailer to speak with his assistants.

I asked Angelo, “What do you think his bother is?”

“My bet is, he’s ex-military. My being here doesn’t suit him.”

The rocking of the Yellowstone ceased, and the sergeant returned.

He says, “Now, why would they do that?”

“They think my friend here is a terrorist.”

This left the trooper’s jaw open an extra second before he answered.

“How’s that?”

“He had a bookshop in Boston and evidently some bad actors were using his internet address for their own purposes. He still thinks that’s a load of bull, but he wouldn’t have known one way or the other. He’s a bookseller with some cockamamie ideas but he wasn’t doing anything illegal, nor did he want to. The FBI couldn’t arrest him because they didn’t have any evidence so, instead they spoiled his business and he had to close shop. A few months ago, they asked me to scout him out and I told them the same thing I just told you. But you know the FBI. They have a tendency to avoid being wrong.”

“And you’re sure of that?”

“Yes. I’ve been in on a lot of busts over the years. This isn’t one of them.”

“Shit!” The words startled me because it was so unexpected. “Those peckers are doing a little too much these days. I have to go to Des Moines next Wednesday for a hearing because of them. This is tiresome!”

He handed Angelo’s wallet back, and then my license, and gave me a half-smile before almost touching the brim of his hat and went back to the trailer to speak to his men.

Then, just a minute later, one of the men returned on his own, holding a large paperback.

“How much is this copy of Gravity’s Rainbow?”

“Ten dollars.”

His eyebrows arched and he says, “Now, that’s what I want to hear!” pulling a ten out of his wallet and handing it to me.

“Why did you pick that one?”

“My Grandpa was there, in Germany, at the end of the war. They had to pack up a bunch of these V-2 rockets and ship them back to the US.”

I warned him, “That book’s not exactly history.”

“I know, but Grandpa’s gone and he can’t tell me what’s wrong with it now. I thought it looked interesting.”

“I think it is.”

After they left, Angelo and I spent some time cleaning things up before he says, “I found it!”

“What?”

“The drugs.”

“What drugs?”

“The one’s they planted.”

“Who planted? The troopers?”

Angelo was holding a thick copy of the Nelson Bible open with a neat square gap cut into the middle. He held up a small clear packet of white powder in his other hand.

“No. No. Someone must have come in here in the last day or two. Maybe when we were at the lot by the VFW.”

I instinctively looked up at the center light on the ceiling. “Are they hearing this?”

“No! I cut that thing out myself when I was working in here the other day. Those assholes would have had me jumping hoops for a week if the troopers had found this…Then again, maybe that’s why they did it. I shouldn’t have cut them off. But that’s the way they are.”

 

This incident had Deirdre laughing out-loud that evening. I think she’s warming up to Angelo.

 

We were at Blue Mound State Park in Minnesota by mid-afternoon. I unhitched the trailer, so I could drive into Luverne to get some dinner, while Angelo used the phone. He came back looking rather grumpy.

“I told Douglas Evans that they’d tried again. Same damn thing except it was drugs instead of a gun. He wasn’t surprised. Clifford is dangerous. Douglas actually said that. He might do anything, but lucky for us Clifford is working a couple of other cases right now in Boston and doesn’t have the time to really put the heat on this. He has a new assistant named Bill Borden doing the work on us and Borden has never been in the field and needs to be told what to do. Evans has no idea what the hell they’ll try next.”

“What did he say about you being back here?”

“He already knew.”

I said, “I know he’s retired, but this has got to be embarrassing. Two dumb moves in a row.”

“That’s when Evans told me that Clifford was dangerous. He might do something really stupid just to make up for being so dumb.”

 

I bought a broiler chicken at the market, hot from the oven, and some potato salad and beer, and because it was still bright, we walked over to the Manfred house that is now used as a visitor’s center; a single level built to the cliff itself, with heavy beams set at dramatic angles over a wall of glass at the living room, a windowed cupola above, and a quartz stone base to the bedrooms ranging out from there. But it was closed. Worse, it was under repairs, so we wouldn’t be able to go in tomorrow either. Instead, we walked up on top of the quartz cliff from where that begins to rise out of the grass and followed it until we were looking down at the ancient oak forest at its base, and across the tree tops to the valley below and to the ridge at the far side where Manfred had built another house after the State of Minnesota forced him out of his original home.

I understood that Angelo had no idea who Frederick Manfred was, but I had decided not to go into full exposition mode unless he asked. He didn’t, so I just continued to talk around the subject until I saw that he had a brochure hanging out of his back pocket that he must have grabbed somewhere.

I had sent Manfred a fan letter many years ago, in the 1960’s, after reading Conquering Horse, a terrific novel about a young Sioux Indian coming of age in the time before the Europeans arrived. He had also done an excellent account of the Johnson County War in the novel Riders of Judgement, as well as a recreation of the Hugh Glass epic in Lord Grizzly. His original research into his subjects had set the table for several Hollywood movies but never the windfall of an actual production.

Using the money from his bestsellers, he had built an extraordinary home into the rising quartz cliff at Blue Mound and made the case for the importance of the cliffs to the Sioux and previous tribes, going back before the horse, as a ‘buffalo jump.’ The very idea that native Americans had slaughtered the buffalo herds in such a manner did not sit well in the new zeitgeist. His use of an Indian as a main character in Conquering Horse and again in Scarlet Plume was attacked as ‘cultural appropriation.’ The facts didn’t matter. But worse, he had established the fact that the enormous stones atop the ‘mound’ had been moved to their positions, which, not coincidently, aligned to the rising of the sun and the moon and the equinoxes and were likely a useful calendar to chart the seasons and the movement of the massive buffalo herds. The State University ethnologists screamed.

And they took his land away to ‘protect’ it.

We sat atop the largest rock, at the center of the mound and ate our dinner. From that vantage we could see fifty miles in every direction. The grass sea was straw yellow and parted in in the folds by islands of dark trees. To the west, the sun had fallen below a ridge of ebony cloud, illuminating the fringe in gold. Because there was a small but steady wind, I imagine the buffalo herd kept at the park were sheltering out of sight, nearer the lake. To the Southeast, the cupola of the Manfred house arose above the cliff edge, like an enlarged ‘widows walk’ on a New England sea captain’s house.

When I saw Anglo look in that direction, I said. “That was his writing room. He told me it was the best and the worst idea he ever had.”

“Why? It looks fantastic!”

“Because it was so hard to concentrate with that much beauty pouring in at every side.”

“I can believe it. . . You came here back then?”

“No. I visited him later, after he moved across the valley in the Seventies.”

“But they took the house away from him! It doesn’t say that on the brochure.”

“Yeah. He fought it. He used the law as far as it could take him. In the end, he knew he couldn’t win against the State, so he took their money and built the new house. But being young then, I did manage to say something stupid to him about it. I asked him why he hadn’t made them carry him out! He let that one sit awhile before he told me, “You don’t want to die for a thing. You want to live for it.”

 

Deirdre had heard all of this before, but she was unhappy not to be here now and see it for herself.

 

 

 

27. Things to live for

and the indiscreet charm of the bourgeoisie

 

 

Sioux Falls was far busier than I remembered it. There were tracts of houses well beyond the town, leaking along roads that were recently only gravel, clustered into treeless knots between the ancient grasslands. The town had become a city and to prove it, made it difficult to park. We had waited to eat breakfast and when we finally spotted a diner downtown, hunger drove me to the extreme of pumping quarters into two meters to accommodate both truck and trailer. Then the biscuits and gravy with a couple of eggs were ten bucks—two bucks over the budget. It looked like things are pretty prosperous in the hereabouts, even with a Walmart close to downtown. But I knew I was feeling antsy because I started talking to Angelo about literature. I didn’t really know at first what was actually on my mind.

“Writers used to come in the store when they were doing book tours and they hit Boston. I was usually a little contrary about it and didn’t make a fuss. But not often the ones I really liked. W. P. Kinsella is one of those writers I wish I’d met. He and Michael Shaara They’re part of a literary generation, along with Thomas Pynchon and Kurt Vonnegut who were born into all the intellectual devastation after World War I, before all that was codified by World War Two. The ‘Lost Generation’ had it easy by comparison—their act was to react to all that death and nihilism and loss of faith by laying it bare and wallowing in it, the way Hemingway and Fitzgerald did. But Shaara wrote mostly science fiction, and I knew him from the magazines way before he got some recognition with Killer Angels.”

Angelo had his mind on food and didn’t seem to care.

“Vonnegut did some science fiction too. But they all had to find their own footing in the swampy aftermath of those wars. They’re easy to admire in that respect, I guess. Kinsella was maybe the least of those writers in terms of output and ingenuity, but not insubstantial. And like Shaara, he was pretty much neglected by the critics, at least until he was briefly discovered by Hollywood after Shoeless Joe, and then dismissed once again because his subject matter, lost values, had become too popular. Hollywood only likes values with dollar signs attached. It was the real values that were the matter, of course. God forbid there should be actual principles. The reason I wish I’d met them is that I suspect those guys wouldn’t have been as guarded as Pynchon is, for instance, and they might be open to some good conversation and a beer, the way Manfred was.

Angelo finally said something, probably to stop my maundering, “What would you talk about?”

How many imaginary conversations had there been through the years? It was difficult to chose.

“For one thing, ‘political correctness.’ One reason Kinsella isn’t so well known is that he was fascinated by American Indian culture. He was Irish and whatever else and was told he couldn’t write about Native Americans. But he did. Just like Manfred. Native American cultural values, and the ravaging of those elemental standards, and their survival afterward, fascinated him, but not as a victim, as an observer. And baseball. He picked up on Bernard Malamud I think and used baseball as a metaphor for the cultural ruin that was all about. For the literary critics, all fine-tuned to the zeitgeist, baseball is far too Romantic. Far too American—-even though Kinsella was a bloody Canadian. They play baseball up there too. And it’s a great game for metaphor.”

“I never played.”

“I didn’t either. That’s not the point. You don’t have to go whaling to understand Moby Dick.”

“Metaphor sometimes strikes me as cheapjack for reasoning.”

“I can be, I suppose. You can rationalize almost anything, but you can’t put it in context without metaphor. You aren’t going to live long enough to actually try out everything you rationalize.”

“I am rather fond of reality.”

I ignored that.

“And Shaara had been trapped in the ‘ghetto’ of science fiction. The only way he got out of that was to write the best historical novel of the twentieth century.”

Angelo says, “No hyperbole there.” Then he says, “You know, I did try reading Pynchon once. Mason and Dixon. I couldn’t get into it. His history is a jam-up. Like a collision. It doesn’t make sense except maybe as reference, and his references lost me.”

“You’re not alone with that. But Kinsella is a different story. Thing is, I always wondered what he didn’t publish. After Shoeless Joe was translated into Field of Dreams, I don’t think he published anything for a lot of years. But I’ll bet he kept writing. What was in his desk drawer? Pynchon seemed to be able to publish everything that came into his head, like James Joyce. He got reviews everywhere. And he fit perfectly with the negative spirit of ambiguity. The more obscure the better. He influenced several others—David Foster Wallace for one—Pynchon may be a genius but maybe a little more consideration for communicating with his readers would have helped. Some of us aren’t all that smart. Or maybe he just didn’t give a damn. I don’t know. But I started several of his novels, including Gravity’s Rainbow and that doorstop Mason Dixon. Never finished them. Even allowing for the hyperbole of the reviewers, there was something going on and I wanted to know what it was, but he lost me too. And I even think that might have had something to do with values as well. At least standards. Virtues, maybe. All the same stuff I care about.”

“Do you think that young State Trooper is going to be able to handle it?”

“He’s got as good a shot as I did. I was full of expectations. We carried Gravity’s Rainbow when it was new, in the shop, because it was getting all those fantastic reviews. The greatest thing since Ulysses, they said! I should have known right there. Nobody ever finishes Ulysses, and it’s only a day long! But I gave it a shot. That kid trooper isn’t weighted down with all that hype. Maybe he’ll see what I didn’t back in the 1970s when all the angst of World War Two had been over-ripened in the heat of Vietnam. That’s all gone now. Everyone’s just fine with dictatorships these days, so long as the clothes are cheap.’”

This sort of maundering can go on for hours, but we were back at the parking space before the hour was up. And the truck and the trailer were gone.

The police took their time. And it was half an hour after they arrived before we were told we had been towed. Why? Because there was an ordinance that prohibited parking across two spaces. But I had paid for both! That didn’t matter. Where are we supposed to park then? They didn’t know. A block away I could see a horse trailer and truck sprawled across three parking spaces. What about that? Maybe he’ll get towed next. Bottom line: it cost me three hundred dollars and two more hours to get my truck and trailer back.

For the second time in two days, we had to clean up a mess in the trailer. My clothes were all out of the duffle bag and on the floor. Angelo’s backpack had been dumped on top of the jumble of boxes in the truck bed. Everything from my glove box was on the seat of the cab.

I could see that Angelo was angry. He hardly said a word, except for some unintelligible mumbling, until we were out on the road again and had stopped for gas and some relief. To say that I was angry would not capture the spirit of the thing. But then he stops me on the way to the restroom.

“It wasn’t the cops, you know. It was your FBI friends. They probably had them looking for that stash of cocaine.”

That I had already decided, so I just said, “I think that’s right.”

“And they likely have another bug in there now, and one in the cab.”

So, I say, “Well, so now maybe I can give them a literary education too.”

Angelo does a deadpan to that, worthy of Buster Keaton.

 

There are very few angles to play in South Dakota. Like most of the Plains states, everything is set in as straight a line as some underpaid survey crew could manage, given raw whiskey, overcooked buffalo meat, and recooked beans, with unhappy natives being forced off their land on one side and over-eager immigrants on the other. What this amounts to now is going twenty miles or thirty, at a perpendicular to where you want to go. And I was avoiding gravel roads, which made this even more acute.

I had taken the kids to “The World’s Only Corn Palace,” years ago and though it seemed to fascinate them, I was in agreement with Margaret that it was a little too much of a good thing. I thought the town of Mitchell itself might offer some opportunities for selling books but getting there now would almost require traveling Interstate 90. I wasn’t going to do that. So, I went west out the crookedest road I could see on the map—and given how flat the land was I think that the whiskey might have been particularly bad—and then north through towns designated on the map that were nowhere to be seen unless the prairie dogs had gone political. Just crossroads, and more visions of the Tom Hanks character in Cast Away trying to decide which way to go with his life—maybe “a whole lot of nothin’ all the way to Canada” like the lady said.

At Humboldt, I found out the town was named after my hero Alexander von Humboldt. There was no library and nothing else was known at the convenience store.

Madison seemed to be small but robust, so I paid a twenty-dollar peddler’s fee at the County Auditor’s Office and asked the young woman at the desk what she thought might be a good spot to sell some books. She gave me a long stare and straightened her papers, making sure the clip was in the right place.

She asked, “Why would you want to do that?”

I told her in the shortened version.

She said, “We have a good library here.”

“But no used bookshop.”

“Why would anyone want a used book when you can get one at the library for free?”

I had heardsome version of this one too many times before. But I was polite.

“It depends on the book, I suppose.”

She straightened herself, and for a young woman, put on a very stern face.

“You aren’t selling pornography, are you?”

“No, Ma’am. Just good books.”

“Religious books?”

“A few. Mostly just literature.”

And then, suddenly, I felt deflated. I realized I’d gone through this same exact exchange maybe a hundred times. At least fifty. It wasn’t exactly Groundhog Day, but more like one of those unwatchable foreign films of the 1970s that keep repeating themselves, so the director doesn’t have to spend additional money shooting more film. I was more than a little tired of it. I said thank you, before she could say something else, and went back to the truck. Angelo was waiting.

“Fella who just parked his car here says there’s a good spot at a former used car dealer over there. Can’t miss it. People set up there all the time in the summer.”

Which is where we went. We sold a dozen hardcovers before we had to pack it up. But then I admitted to Angelo that I was getting tired. The whole exercise was losing its charm.

Angelo says, “Let me work the books a couple of times. You take a rest. Wander around.”

This would have floored me if we weren’t standing on dirt.

 

Deirdre had no comment. Perhaps her uncharacteristic silence in response to my accounting of the day was the cause, but after my call, I could not sleep.

I couldn’t help but wonder if she were feeling ill, which she would not likely tell me about until it was too late, or perhaps feeling some other effects from her operations.  She had lost her hair months ago and was now keeping what had come back very short—so that the shock would be less if there was another round of ‘therapy,’ she said, but she had been out to see the same hairstylist today that she had been going to for twenty years and they had a gab about their mutual encounters with the devil, and that did not seem like the talk of someone who might be feeling sick again.

Walking along the shore at Lake Thompson as we spoke brought me to a picnic table by the shore, where I said goodbye. Sitting there on the table top, I suddenly became aware of the vault of the sky—what they used to call the ‘welkin’ in Shakespeare’s time, and that arch of stars amidst the black, and I was struck by something intimate—not the usual vastness, but the opposite—as if the whole of it was mine alone. ‘Welkin’ as a word has a better feel for this, not as an empyrean of stars so much as a pocket of treasure.

 

 

 

28.  On the road to Aberdeen

and back again

 

Sitting at the counter of the Creek Side Cafe, in De Smet, the middle-aged waitress with ‘Edith’ on her name tag, a bracelet of small red and blue flowers tattooed on her left wrist, and a pointless hairnet loosely spread across a pile of yellow-white coiffure, could see the truck and trailer out the big window behind us, and she poured our coffees slowly as she made up her mind how to say something.

Finally, she says, “My brother-in-law, Eddy, works for the FBI. He is a real asshole, too. Cheats on my sister. And they have three kids.”

This is a sobering thought, especially when delivered by a stranger, in the midst of at least a dozen other patrons within earshot, and most especially when you have very little else on your mind than whether you should order ham and eggs or the biscuits and gravy.

“I’m sorry.”

“Don’t be sorry. You’ve had your share of that kind of business.”

Never having been unfaithful to Margaret in the nearly thirty years of our marriage, I was pretty sure Edith was just reflecting on the FBI.

Angelo is now sitting straight-up on the stool from his counter-slouch and, without looking, I know what is on his face, which is absolutely nothing.

I say, “You must have told us that for a reason. Why did you say that?”

She shrugged and shook her head. “Just came to mind after I read the story.”

“What story?”

“In the Sioux Falls Journal, this morning…You haven’t read it, have you? Says it’s out of Boston. You’re that bookseller from Boston, right? Well, there it is!”

She grabbed a copy of the paper from beneath the counter and slapped it down in front of us.

Deirdre had done it again. This time she had sold her editor on a tactic that I would have assumed was impossible. It was a frontal assault on the many questionable FBI shenanigans of recent years, centered on their continuing and incompetent pursuit of moi, despite many more pressing problems.

Angelo takes a deep breath and says, “You can’t fight the FBI. They must have been leaning pretty hard on her editor. He lost his temper or something. I hope he doesn’t lose his job.”

Edith says, “Oh, they run that sort of thing all the time. The editor of the Journal is an old hippie. I knew him pretty well in the day.”

“Oh, not your friend. The editor back at the Boston Post.”

And she says, “They’re all old hippies if you ask me.”

There might have been some truth to that ten or twenty years ago, but Deirdre’s editor was a young woman of thirty-five or so. I’ve heard too often about her.

Reading the details, Deirdre obviously hadn’t heard about our fun and games in Sioux Falls when she wrote it, mentioning only the aborted stop in Iowa. I am immediately thinking that the reason she had been so quiet on the phone the night before was because she was thinking she had missed half her story.

For my own sake, I got the ham and eggs, and the ham was excellent.

 

One can get the sense, traveling across open plains marked only by a single parallel railroad track at one side and a single strand of telephone wire stretched pole to pole at the other, that there is no end. Or, perhaps, this is the end.

The folks who live here might not see that, but in an otherwise human-made world so complicated by technology, the only thing that lies beyond this, I think, is wilderness. And wilderness has always seemed like a beginning to me. A garden of Eden. Not something you can return to. Running a two-lane road to where the lines of civilization cannot be reduced without leaving that civilization behind is an end in itself. ‘Off-the-grid,’ is a conceit, of course. Something to play at until you get pneumonia or appendicitis—or cancer. Deirdre could not live here, no matter how it beckons to me.

If I was younger I would love to live in a small house hereabouts, with a couple of trees on the Southside to give shade in the summer and a tough weave of fence on the North to break the gales of winter, where you can see every bit of the sunlight from the time it breaks the dark rim of earth in the east to the last wink of red in the west at night. I could write here, without interruption or compulsion.  Just write … I suppose I’d need a dog. A fella always needs a dog. And I’d drive ten miles to the store and cafe in Iroquois or Cavour, a couple of times a week and see the smile on the face of the Army vet in the blue Legion Post 7 baseball cap and red suspenders parked behind the counter with his steel leg, and with him thinking back at me about the queer fellow out on 415th Avenue (they have streets named like that out here, for no apparent reason), but only saying, ‘How’s it going? Need any cigarettes?… No, you don’t smoke. Never figured how a man can get by on the day-to-day without a smoke. I guess the Jim Beam’ll have to cover that…Molly is out today. Her sister is sick. So, you’ll have to go over behind the counter there and pick your own mail out of the cubby yourself. I sorted it earlier. You’ve got something. I know that.’

By contrast, getting into Huron is like going to the big city. The old brick buildings are run down a bit but full of character and characters. But how did they come up with names like that—Huron? Iroquois? Right there in the middle of Siouxland? “No one knows,” said an old fellow who looked to have camped in a chair at a convenience store for more than a few hours. But it was too early to stop and try selling any books, so I picked up some gas and some peanuts and some Buddy’s Soda at the Conoco Station outside of Wolsey, and then headed north to Redfield and Aberdeen. Angelo had found some sticks of licorice somewhere that I didn’t see, but he reluctantly shared some when I noticed.

Going north you begin to account for distance unconsciously as you cross the number designated streets with their little green signs—198th Street, 197th Street, 196th Street, with a mile or so of empty cornfields between—and only become aware of it when you miss a number. This is a slower and silent rhythm but not unlike the punctuated feel of traveling by train with the thin spaces connecting the rails playing against the wheels, and I think was the cause of my going faster than I had before, over 70 mph, and then Angelo speaking up.

“You’re sure they did a good job on the engine back there in Mississippi?”

“Why?”

“You’re giving it a stress test. You know they could have damaged something when those fools in Sioux Falls towed it.”

He was right. I got off at a pleasant-looking village of old-looking trees, neat dirt and gravel roads and small, nicely kept houses, called Millett, just to cool off and break the pace and found myself staring up that single rail-line from there into a bifurcated horizon. I suppose kids still do that—thinking of the wonderment that lies beyond the curvature of the earth.

Angelo says, “You really wouldn’t want to live in a town this small, would you?”

“No. Too many people.”

“Smaller?”

There was some odd concern in his voice.

“Small enough so I know everyone’s name.”

“That’s pretty small.”

“And getting smaller as I get older and can’t remember things as well.”

“What’s Deirdre say to that?”

“Nothing. She knows. It’s just foolishness now. That future is behind me.”

“Would you have done it when you were my age?”

“I’d have thought about it, just like I am now, and then I would have moved to a place where there were enough book readers to support me in a style to which I could more easily become accustomed.”

This put him into a contemplation that I did not disturb.

We got lunch in Aberdeen at a place that advertised “fresh, fire-grilled, anti-biotic free, pasture-raised, organic grass-fed beef.”  The price was enough to make me hesitate, but I shouldn’t have. It was great. Angelo was even happy enough to say so.

When I stopped to get gas the young fellow sweeping the lot asked about the books. He had seen the story in the Sioux Falls paper. I told him what we were doing. He asked if we were stopping there in town, and I said we hadn’t found a spot yet. He went inside then and spoke to his father and the father, a big man, about 50 years old, red-blond, well-built, clean-shaven, in grease-stained overalls, came out and asked the usual questions before saying that we could park it there, on the side, if we wanted to, in front of the dozen or so cars needing repair. And we did.

This was an interesting thing. The father was a lit major, a graduate of the University of South Dakota,  and a former student of Frederick Manfred’s, who had later attended the University of Iowa Writer’s School before dropping out.

He was busy, but his son had told us that much, and I was curious and went into the open bay while Angelo sat by the trailer.

When I saw his frown, I decided to skip the small talk,

“Why did you drop out?”

I suppose he heard his son talking about him, so he answered directly.

“They were teaching bull-shit.”

“Antibiotic-free, grass-fed, or the other kind.”

“The other kind.”

I say, “Anything you can tell me about that? I have an interest in the subject.”

He looked out the garage door again at my truck and then asked, “Do you write?”

“I do.”

“You pay for the privilege, or do you get paid?”

“I pay for it.”

“You have a family?”

“Had. They’re grown up now.”

“And you’ve been selling books all your life?”

“Pretty much. Like you’ve been fixing cars.”

“And now you’re out on the road. Can’t be any money in that?”

“Not a matter of the money now.”

“Right. Well, you do what you’ve gotta do.”

“Do you still write?”

“No, Sir.”

“Why not”

He looked up from a battery connection that was frozen with crust. “You ever get anything published?”

I shrugged, “A couple of things. A novel. Some stories.

He heaves a heavy breath. “I wrote a novel after I left Iowa. Harper published it. Didn’t sell. That was that. No second chances.”

I took the chance.

“Why did you write it in the first place?”

That got a good squint and a second thought before he stood up straight.

“I enjoyed it. Too much, maybe. One of the instructors at Iowa told me I wasn’t supposed to enjoy it. Writing was supposed to be painful, otherwise, I wasn’t getting down to the quick.”

“There are a lot of very stupid people out there who think they’re smart enough to teach.”

This brought a pause as he used a mallet to break the crust and then some pliers on the connection.

He stood to ask, “You still write?”

“Yes, sir. Everyday.”

“Why?”

“I enjoy it. It’s a pleasure. And a privilege.”

“But it doesn’t pay any bills.”

“Yeah, it does. Just not the kind I think you mean.”

He put his head down again until he was able to lift the battery out and then took his gloves off to go check out the books in the trailer.

 

I don’t know the reason for it, perhaps just successful agriculture, but there is a sense of prosperity to this part of the country that is pervasive. Not gaudy or extravagant. Simply visible in the care taken—grass trimmed, buildings painted—something that is made manifest I think by the natural order and appearance of working farms. I find it very satisfying just to see.

I drove over to a small village called Westport, which was not quite visible from the main road, just to check it out. Like Millett, there was nothing grand. The houses were small and neat. Many of the streets were gravel. The white wooden church likely still used a bell for services. From the look of it to me, given the number of cars that were over three years old, and the number of small boats in driveways set up on trailers, tarp-covered in expectation of better weather, these were farm workers. It was lovely. I suppose it can get boring, but it could not be a bad life compared to any blue-collar neighborhood in any city I had ever seen.

Angelo stood by the truck with a worried look when I walked up to the church door to read a sign there, found the door unlocked, and went inside. I was really only looking for an announcement for a church supper or a bazaar. The sun had dipped behind a dark cloud and a sudden chill drove me inside.

When I got back, he asked, “Is this getting serious?”

“It’s serious. But not to worry. You know, there’s a smell inside old churches that seems fundamental to me, whatever the religion. And the shadows. And the polished wood. And the little echoes of sound. The prayers just seem to seep out of you whether you want to pray or not.”

Angelo jumped out of the cab and went in himself. When he got back, about five minutes later, he just said, “Yup.”

 

My own prayer had not been answered. Not yet, anyway. Prayers are often bad about time. Not being religious didn’t help with that, of course. But I still operate on the assumption that any God worth his mettle would appreciate a little doubt.

I hadn’t reached the main road before my phone rang. Now, this is a startling thing. I hadn’t heard it ring more than three or four times since I bought it. I fumbled it out of my pocket as I pulled over, and it fell on the floor, and then I couldn’t reach it because of the seat belt. Thankfully, Deirdre is patient. Sometimes.

She says, “Are you, okay?”

I say, “Fine, are you okay?”

“Yes. I just wanted to know if you were anywhere near Vermillion?”

“It’s on the other side of the state.”

“Oh. Well. Maybe not then. A woman just called the paper. Her husband was a professor at the University. He had collected books for years with the idea of opening a bookshop when he retired. Unfortunately, he won’t get the chance. His wife read the article I wrote about you. She says her husband was a 60s radical. He’d become something of a libertarian as he got older. She just thought you’d like to look at his books.”

“How many are there.”

There was a palpable hesitation before she answered. “Ten thousand. But she said you didn’t have to buy them all. She just thought you’d like to look. The University isn’t interested. And he’d been difficult with whoever was the used book person is in the area. Anyway. You might want to call her back. I have her number. She’s a little batty, but that just might be stress. She needs advice.”

After I took down the number and the address and said goodbye, I looked over at Angelo. He was looking out the window to the North as if he couldn’t hear every word Deirdre had said. A field there had been plowed for corn and a brief snow flurry had been trapped in the furrows, leaving thick black bars of earth. It looked foreboding.

I said, “What do you think?”

He said, “I think you should at least take a look.”

So, I called her.

Mrs. Robert Langton immediately asked me to call her Beth. She explained her situation in detail, again, begged me to come, at least twice, and interrupted me half a dozen times when I tried to explain some basics, with the assurance that she knew all about used books, having gone buying with her husband for over forty years, and then when I told her we would be camping somewhere on the way she told us to park right in her yard. It was evidently a big yard. Actually, a horse farm. She had one stallion and six mares and was planning to move them with her to Florida as soon as she could put things in order.

Vermillion was more than four hours away. Five, with a break for a meal. So, we just headed out.

It was well after dark when we arrived. Beth Langton is a small woman, maybe five feet tall, blond short cut hair, straight-backed, square-shouldered, wearing tight jeans and a plaid blouse without a bra. She offered to show us the books immediately, but I told her we were beat. She suggested we could use the toilet and shower in the barn, which turned out to be far nicer than most State Parks, and she practically told Angelo that he should sleep there in the bunk room as well, which he did. By the time I called Deirdre, she was already in bed and fairly entertained by the details.

Then, with a recollection of the woman in Skaneateles many months before who had offered to let me use her shower, Deirdre told me that lonely widows could be a problem and to try to confine myself to her books. I said the lonely widow seemed to have her eye on Angelo.

Deirdre explained, almost apologetically, that the only reason she had been at the newspaper office that day was because her editor, Barbara, had been fired. She had gone in to give her some support, but Barbara was happy about it! All that she wanted now was “to get married to some sports reporter named Bob and make a lotta babies.” Evidently, she thought getting fired for running Deirdre’s story would be a feather in her cap when she decided to go back to work. But I think she told Deirdre this just to make her feel better. Though, at least it was the right attitude.

 

 

 

32. Vermillion is a red

and violets are a blue

 

 

Beth Langton woke us shortly after dawn with the sounds of tending to her horses. Buckets and tap water and rakes scraping on wood. Perhaps she had exaggerated this a little. No telling.

“First thing she says is, “I’ve got a pot of coffee and fresh biscuits and gravy in the kitchen.”

This is not something I have ever been told before in my life. Not first thing in the morning.

Given my Red Sox spirit, I was completely ready at that moment for this whole thing to be a total botch. A bust. All downhill from there. But I didn’t say this to Angelo because she was in the kitchen door to help us within minutes. The fact is, old professors have a habit of collecting their favorite books, not the books that will necessarily sell. And they read them mercilessly.

However, this was not the case. There was an actual library, a small room, with one window, the walls filled with shelves, and perhaps two thousand books in alphabetical order by category—-English history, pre-Nineteenth century, Nineteenth and Twentieth Century, Medieval. This was not labeled but it was clearly so. There were several dozen titles stacked at one side of a small desk by the window and behind that an old oak office chair that looked sadly vacant. A computer sat at the opposite side of the desk from the stack of books.

“That was his specialty, of course. He taught English history for most of his life…But there’s more.”

I began to take random titles off the shelves to check them for condition. Nothing was shabby. Thankfully, very little of it was leather-bound. Most of the twentieth-century titles had dust jackets.

“They’re all cataloged. You can see the listing he did. If he had—- . . .He was going to put them all online last spring.”

The emotion in her voice did not show on her face.

I looked over at Angelo, but he was already buried in one corner with the Medieval titles.

I moved out of the library into a hallway that was lined on both sides with at least a thousand titles of French and German history. In addition, there were additional volumes shelved throughout the house, each with some specialty.

But then she said, “There’s more,” and led the way to the garage. I looked around to call Angelo, but he was right behind us.

The garage was heated. The metal shelves there, lined the walls, leaving space for one car at the center, a ten-year-old Ford explorer that needed some attention.

She says, “I keep the truck in the barn.”

Now, this was the state of my mind. I was confused and bewildered. In fact, if I were twenty years younger, I would have begged for the chance to sell them for her, allowing for the fact that I have never had enough money in my life to buy such a collection outright. I turned to Angelo and his face is blank. But I can see his mind now. He is actually a very easy person to read when you get the hang of it.

I nodded at him. He smiled.

I said to Beth, “What were you hoping for?”

She said, “Robert told me to try to get fifty-thousand dollars. I’m not sure he was thinking too clearly though. He was dying. I said that to the fellow in the library acquisitions department at the University and he just smiled and said that maybe I could get that much as a tax write-off if I donated them, but they didn’t have the budget to buy. I called the University of Iowa and they said about the same. So I called the book dealer in Sioux Falls, the one I know Robert used to go to. They had a falling out some years ago. But I bit my tongue and called. He laughed at me.”

I have had other book dealers laugh at me before. It’s a snarky laugh.

I said, “I think it’s a fair price. You most likely have about two hundred thousand dollars in retail value here, minimum. The cost of selling them will be about twenty or thirty percent of that. And you say they’re all cataloged?”

“He was doing that for the last ten years, as soon as he decided he was going to retire.”

“That’s worth a lot by itself. That’s an awful lot of time spent.”

“That’s what he thought. He always said it was an investment. After dinner, he would go into the library and work for an hour or two, every night. It was his part-time job. And he loved it. I’m sorry to say he had begun to hate teaching. He loved it when we were first married. But they were telling him what he could and couldn’t teach. A tenured professor! And the department was blocking his courses.”

I looked over at Angelo.

“That was happening to me. It really takes the wind out of you.”

“You were a teacher?”

“For twenty years. Boston University.”

“Then you know. What did you teach?

“History.”

“I guess you really do know, then.”

I had to tell her sooner than later, and interrupted, “But I don’t have that kind of money. I can’t even borrow it. I’m pretty much broke.”

Instinctively, she looked back at Angelo.

And he said, “But, I do.”

And that was a marriage made in heaven.

We talked it through for several hours. She made ham sandwiches for lunch out of the extra biscuits she’d baked. Angelo was clearly happier than I had ever seen him.

The problem then was not the money to buy the books. It was where to take them afterward. The logistics were formidable.

I spent several hours going through Robert Langton’s catalog with Angelo. We checked entries against several dozen random titles. It was quite good. He had estimated prices. His grading for condition was sometimes generous but generally accurate and well detailed. It was clear that he had updated many entries through the years. And importantly, had he lived, he could have easily uploaded specific fields of information to a common internet site.

At one point we both found ourselves turned away from the computer and looking out the window where Beth was working with a horse in the paddock. Small Beth and the great brown horse. I imagined Robert Langton had turned to this sight many times through the years.

With Beth was out of the house, I tried to lower Angelo into the details.

“This would take a medium-sized truck. And you’re going to need about five hundred boxes. You are looking at two, maybe even three days’ work, just to pack it up. I would guess you’ll need a day to load. And then you’re going to need a driver.”

“I got one.”

“I can’t do it! I can give you a few days, but I think you’ve already guessed that I want to go home.”

“Me! I drove all my mother’s stuff down to Florida.”

“You have a license!?”

“I do now. I got it a couple of months ago in New York. I had one before in the Army but that one expired years ago.”

“Why didn’t you tell me!?”

“I enjoyed you driving me around. When was I going to have that chance again?”

“Schmuck!”

“Well. It’s not that bad, is it? You were going to drive anyway.”

That took some more thought on the matter.

“Where would you take them?”

“I’m thinking, maybe, right here in Vermillion.”

“It’s cold here in the winter. You’d be better off in Florida.”

“I’ll burn some books for heat.”

“Schmuck!”

I was still not over the fact that he hadn’t told me he had a license.

“Where?”

“I have about a hundred thousand in my savings plus a couple of stupid investments and I can sell those. Maybe I could lease a retail space downtown. We could go down tomorrow and look. You can stick around that long, can’t you?”

“Schmuck!”

Beth was intent on feeding us. Dinner was southern fried steak and potato salad. We enthusiastically agreed. There were pictures of her husband, graying through the years, scattered around the house, but always a fairly thin man.  I wondered how he managed that.

 

Deirdre had not commented through most of this rendition—even to my argument in favor of Florida. I was thinking she was worried.

I asked, “Is everything okay?”

“Yes.”

“What’s wrong then?”

“I’m glad you want to come home.”

“Is that a problem? … I can find someplace else to stay.”

“No. . . . I think I’ve just made up my mind.”

“About what?”

“About Lucy Moody’s house.”

“What about it?”

“You never saw it. I can send you a picture from the real estate listing. It’s nothing special. Just that it was hers.”

“You want to buy it?”

“Yes. I want to buy it. If Angelo can turn his life upside down—reinvent himself just like that, I can too. I don’t know why I even hesitated.”

“But it’s in New Hampshire. You’re a city girl.”

“It’s in Rumford. I guess they finished the probate, and it just went on sale. But the thing of it is, somebody will buy it and tear it down. It’s only an old farmhouse. Not big enough for people these days. It needs a lot of work. But it’s sound. I’ve been there a dozen times. The property is worth more than the house. Five acres. They would probably split that up too. And she has the garden she tended to all those years…I don’t know a damned thing about gardening, but I think I can pick it up.”

“I think so.”

“You like the idea?”

“It’s great! Really great!”

“We can both live there.”

“Will you marry me first?”

“No.”

“Maybe later?”

“Maybe.”

 

 

Maybe not.