She asked if I sold Bibles and when I said I'd have to order one she wanted to know how long it would take.
"You should have told her you don't carry Bibles," Shelley said. Shelley's real name is Walkenstein but he wants to be one of the unacknowledged legislators of the world so he makes everyone call him Shelley.
"You're right, I don't carry Bibles, Shelley, but I can order one."
"It's the principle, Tommy."
"My principle is staying in business."
"How capitalist of you. How Adam Smithy."
Then he kissed me on the lips, as if I'd never told him not to do that.
"Some bookstore," my mother said. "How come you had to put it down in a basement?"
"It's a walk-down," I told her. "It's not a basement."
"In Central Square, too."
"What's wrong with Central Square?"
"There's nothing wrong with Central Square if you like a lot of bums. Missy Pressman knows of a place close to St. Peter's. Right on Concord Street. Not down in a basement either."
"How many people walk by St. Peter's?"
"How many bums you mean?"
"Don't let Central Square bug you, Mom. There are people there who value ideas, people who think. They don't want stagnation. They want fresh air blowing in their lives. They're sick of everything that's stale and confining and enervating. Those people are going to be interested in the books I sell, and they are going to find my store even if it's down seventy-five basements below the street."
"Oh, enervate yourself," my mother said. "See what I care." That would have been her final word but nothing is ever my mother's final word. "At least you should put in a nice greeting card section. People like greeting cards. They don't like all your socialists and your what's-his-name—Campoo."
I still had boxes filled with Jennifer's books in my mother's basement. Jen had moved in May to an ashram in Oregon and I had to empty out the apartment we shared. I was almost sure that among her books was a nearly intact Bible. I went down in the basement to see if I could find it, and upstairs I heard my mother clump around to get her coffee and visit the bathroom and once to yell to someone apparently walking a dog not to let the animal poop on our front stairs.
While she's shouting, I am going through what amounts to the paperback midden heap of Jen's intellectual life, the Herman Hesses and Friedrich Nietzsches and even a falling-apart copy of Imitation of Christ because Jen was an equal-opportunity believer, or seeker I should say, which explains why now she's someplace near Eugene waiting for enlightenment in a meditation yurt.
I suppose my own eventual midden heap of books will mark me also as a seeker, although I don't think of myself as someone stumbling to find a way. I don't think there is a way. Or if there is we would instinctively know it, like bees know the instinctive way of beeness and ants know antness. There's isn't an instinctive humanness. Everybody guesses, and hopes his guess is right. Good luck is what I say to that. My own wish is not to clutter up my life with anything unproven. That's why I named by bookstore Liberation. It's really the only thing that I believe in: The freedom to think without the crust of established truth suffocating you.
The Bible I eventually found had the publisher's name, Zondervan, on the title page. Grand Rapids, Michigan. Copyrighted. I mean, isn't the Bible supposed to be the Word of God? A copyrighted Bible is the kind of thing a free-thinker could have fun with, but it's also a cheap shot. Shelley would laugh his head off. Fortunately, it wasn't Shelley I dug out Jen's Bible for.
It took about twenty minutes to actually find Jen's Bible. It didn't look like a Bible. That was the problem. It had a hard, blue binding so no wonder I didn't find it right away. I was looking for a book bound in softened leather as black as a witch's heart. It's that black leather binding that says Bible to me, but the Zordovan company had stamped Holy Bible on the cover of their copyrighted book, plus the title page said what I was holding in my hand was the King James Authorized Version, so I thought, Good enough, and when the woman who wanted a Bible came in the store the next week I had the blue-bound hardback right next to my cash box. "It's second-hand, but you can have it for only five bucks."
This woman was maybe sixty-five or so. Not young. Not prosperous looking. Kind of dumpy, with ample hair not well tended. All of it as gray as a herring. She wore an overcoat she probably got when she was thirty-seven, and the bulky kind of shoes a person would have worn to leap off a landing barge and invade Normandy.
"It's got writing in it," she said.
She had taken the book in a gingerly fashion. I knew she was reluctant because the hard, blue cover made the book look like it was a text on orthodontics. Inside, though, there were the familiar columns, two per page, plus the thees and thous King James must have spoken. There was also, in the tiny margins, writing I hadn't noticed when I'd breezed through the book before. "It belonged to a scholar," I told the skeptical woman. "These are probably her notes."
She handed the Bible back. She said, "I haven't got five dollars."
I said, "Three-fifty."
She said, "Two dollars," and I told her okay.
She fished a change purse out of her shabby pocketbook and started counting quarters and dimes. While she lined up her coins on the counter Shelley came down the steps wearing a dress and makeup. He likes to say his cross-dressing is a political statement and not a gender issue. He likes to say that by wearing a dress—this one had padded shoulders like something Joan Crawford wore—he's asserting his independence from all the conventions that bind and enslave us.
"Bible?" he says to the woman counting quarters. He's standing right next to her but she hadn't paid attention to him till he spoke. I thought she'd flinch and lose track of her dimes because even with the makeup and the golden wig Shelley would either have to be a very masculine woman or—what he in fact was—a man dressed up in woman's clothing.
But the Bible-buying woman didn't flinch at all. She asked him if he was a believer, and when Shelley said no she nodded in a tired way, as if that was the answer she expected. Then she turned her gaze on me and asked if I wanted to count the money.
"I trust you," I said.
She started off and when she had climbed to the third step Shelley merrily shouted after her, "Do drop in again."
The old woman stopped and turned. She let her gaze rest on my cross-dressed friend. I can't say her look betrayed her feelings, or even if she had any feelings—like did she know that she was being mocked? She looked pitying, if my interpretation is correct. Not condemning, but a look of sorrow, like what she was seeing was something she would change if she had the power to do it.
Shelley fidgeted beneath her stare. The kind of witticism that could be a shield for his heart must have sprung to his mind because his painted lips moved to form silent words, though he didn't voice them. What I was witnessing amounted to a standoff between my friend in drag and the old woman clutching the Bible I had just sold for two dollars. Each was staring the other down, and it was Shelley who finally broke eye contact. He turned to thumb the cover of a Christopher Hitchens I had on display, and the woman continued her slow climb up toward the street.
"You should do something with all your empty space," he said when her big boots had disappeared from view. He had lifted his eyes from Christopher Hitchens to where my bookcases ended.
"You've got lots of room. Think of something."
I suggested square dances. Shelley said, "Don't be sarcastic, Tommy. I just want to help."
I followed him past my shelves to the large, empty space he meant. "It's room to expand," I told him.
"Oh sure." He twirled on his heels. "This will be the self-help section. Here you'll sell your books on how to make stuffed pillows out of laundry lint. Big bucks in self-help, Tom. Over there, can you see the poetry department? I could come and do a reading if you like."
"You think I could handle the crowds?"
Shelley said someone would tell the fire department and they'd come shut me down.
"Fuck the fire department, Shelley."
"That's my Tommy." He pecked my cheek with his pursed lips. "Fuck the fire department. Fuck the police department. Anarchists unite. There's a better world a'waiting. Right here in this basement. Liberation Book Store. Here's where it all starts."
"It's not a basement."
He waltzed around like Ginger Rogers. "And the sanitation people. I forget the sanitation people. Fuck them, too. Fuck them all. Fuck the rules. Fuck the monarchs. Fuck the kings. Fuck the congresses. Here in this little space, we'll be the kings of our own selves. My friends and I will read our poems until we're hoarse and then we'll take off all our clothes and dance naked."
"I'd be happy if you just bought books."
He had stopped his silly sashaying and everything else he was doing that was camp. "I wish you'd let me come and live with you," he said.
"Not again," I told him.
"We had fun." As soon as he said it he was ashamed to sound like someone begging. He sashayed up to the cashbox on my counter. "Let me have one of your Christian lady's quarters," he said. "I need it so I'll have enough for coffee. Just two bits, okay? For old-time's sake. Oh my, they're all so pretty. I can't make up my mind which one to choose."
He had opened my cashbox and was gazing down at the coins with the burlesque expression of a person ravished by delight. He looked like he was deciding on a chocolate from a Whitman's Sampler box. When he plucked a quarter out he held it up to show me. "Are you sure you can spare this?" he said. "Because if you're saving it for your sex-change operation I'll put it right back in the box."
"Go get your coffee, Shelley."
He went waltzing up the stairs.
I am twenty-nine years old. For three months in the year before my bookstore, I had a job with no pay working on the gubernatorial campaign of Eddie 'Buzz' Trelawney. The job amounted mostly to sitting around and worshipping Buzz when he spouted off about all the corruption he was going to stamp out at the statehouse. For those three months, I made sure Trelawney signs stood proudly in the front yards of volunteer homeowners and that the signs for his opponent disappeared. I devoured pizza out of greasy boxes while I plagued strangers with my phone calls for donations. While I ate my pizza I noticed Buzz's costly haircuts, freshened on a weekly basis. It is hard to believe in the sincerity of well-coiffed anti-corruption crusaders, a fact I mentioned in a moment of inebriated candor to a stringer for the Globe.
"What the fuck!" I heard from Morgan Roche, the campaign's chairman, the morning the stringer's squib appeared. Morgan always wore his shirt sleeves folded back to show his hairy arms. His hands formed permanent fists, and the arms his fists were attached to were like the handles of a mattock or an axe. "You have to have a sense of humor to work on a campaign," he told me once, but in actual fact a sense of humor was the last thing you needed. All you had to know was whom to hate.
Whom I hate is Morgan Roche.
"You're not with the program, Tommy," he shouted when he threw the paper down and came stomping to my desk. Get with the program was Mr. Roche's most common command. The program was whatever Mr. Roche most immediately demanded, ordered, shouted, or swore. It was what he pounded on desks to make clear. He pounded on my desk, jerked me to my feet, revoked my pizza privileges and kicked me out the door.
The anarchy I worship started then and there.
I didn't inherit much money from my father, recently deceased, but I did inherit a kimono his father had brought home from World War II. My mother asked if she could have it, but I put it up for sale on eBay at once and somebody in San Diego who said it would be perfect to make into a quilt snapped it up for so much money it allowed me to open my small store.
I worked off a month of rent by cleaning the dump out. Out went a damp mattress, a window casing with the window cracked, an office chair missing one of its molded plastic wheels, and about two hundred copies of the Cambridge Chronicle someone had decided he didn't want to deliver. In the place of all that, I brought in lumber and my power saw so I could make the bookshelves I would need. The rest of my kimono cash went to buying the books.
On the third day of my third month in the book business it rained so hard streams bearing Starbucks cups and copies of the Metro newspaper came trickling down my stairs. The runoff was not enough to be much of a threat to my merchandise, but the greasy-looking pool that came seeping in below my door made me rush to the hardware store on Massachusetts Avenue. I bought a mop and a pail, and I was sloshing away at the widening pool when the lady with the battle boots came clumping down the stairs. She brought a friend with her, and when they were standing somewhere near the center of my pool, my customer from earlier said in her gruff voice, "She wants a Bible, too." She nodded toward her dumpy friend.
"She doesn't need a Bible," I said.
Why did I say that? Did the second lady look like she was already Bibled-up? Yes, she did. She had eyes the size of raisins in a sort of doughy face. She was the same shape as a turnip. If some rash person had stripped her of garments he would have seen not curves but what you might call dents. The new lady looked like a person who would lob a Bible like a bomb through a Planned Parenthood window, but because I was a businessman I should have sold her a Bible anyway. Or rather I should have ferreted out a used Bible one of my friends had grown out of and offered her that at the same bargain two dollars her friend and guide had paid for her used Word of God.
The two woman, bless them, had not caught me at my best. All my friends who promised they would patronize my store and make it a kind of salon where they could gather for the airing of their radical ideas had made perfunctory visits and breezy promises to come back. Ha ha. Free thinkers, yes. Free spenders, no. And now it was raining so hard a puddle was spreading across my concrete floor like the piss of inebriates below a barroom urinal.
The two woman, after they had eyed me long enough to let their disapproval register, went into a huddle to whisper. They emerged only twice and balefully eyed me. Then, after their final conclave, they nodded at whatever resolution they had reached. My two-dollar customer, looking at me like I represented the United Vermin of the World, asked, "Aren't you the Strang boy? Is your mother Molly Strang?"
"My mother's name is Molly."
"She used to live on Walden by that tavern with the shamrock in the window?"
"How do you know my mother?"
Another whispered conference and then a glance of great disdain. Neither the woman with the battle boots nor her friend with raisin eyes would answer. Together they turned for the stairs and began their laborious climb. I stood where I could watch them struggle to the top. I knew where they were headed. They were going to talk to my mother. They would say that her free-thinking son had not been nice to them. Then there'd be an orgy of tsk-tsking. There'd be condemnations of the younger generation. There'd be blame-placing on the godless universities, the sexual revolution and violent videos, probably. Who knows where blame would fall? And did I want to worry? No. The rain continued in what I have to say was biblical proportions, and with my rag mop and my bucket I had to battle it to keep up.
I had not been nice?
I hate the tyranny of that four-letter word. It's the prison we volunteer to lock ourselves up in, the place where everybody's mother is our guard. Shelley, in his 1940's gowns, worships at the altar of a more fearless god than that. But do I want to be like Shelley? I don't think so.
Down my stairs came one of Central Square's more youthful bums. He had seen me wielding my mop. "I can do that for a dollar, bud," he said.
He had a young saint's face. Botticelli could have drawn him as a martyr from the early church, with arrows shot into his bared chest and naked thighs. Long-suffering and complacent and devoted to a cause much larger than himself—that's a lot to read into one's first glimpse of someone blond and lightly bearded and dressed in the dirty clothing of a bum, but it's the reading I got. I gladly surrendered my mop and then, holding his ragged jacket, which he had handed me in silence, I retreated to dry ground close to my counter while the saint the street had sent me swabbed back and forth in patient arcs until his efforts had defeated the thin puddle on my floor.
"You have a nice store," he said when I gave him his dollar.
I told him I was going through a period when I hated the word nice, and he said, "Ahhhh," in a drawn-out way. I emphasize the way it sounded so the meaning of it might be clear. It signified an understanding that was as deep as any understanding I could have wished for, and a sympathy of the same dimensions and same weight. He tilted back his head to freely let the sound come out but all the time he kept his gaze on me, a gaze I thought was tender and which wonderfully warmed me. After that, he thanked me once again for the dollar I had given him, and he climbed my shining stairs.
No more rain. The deluge had finally ended. As often happens after summer storms the sky cleared with miraculous speed and the washed air, freed of all its particles of grime, let beams of exceptional brightness shine on windows and wash across facades of stone and brick. It glowed on the faces of the rushed pedestrians above.
Just before closing time, the bum I had mentally labeled the Saint of Central Square returned, guiding by the elbow an apparent acquaintance, a middle-aged man who looked like a scholar. By that I mean he was lean and pale and a little slope-shouldered. He had a timid air about him, as if he rarely ventured from a library conveniently close to his home. He was clearly a reader because as soon as the Saint had shepherded him through my door he disappeared immediately among my modest stacks. The Saint shot me a slight smile, then disappeared to where his friend had gone. I could hear them whisper and I could even hear the slight, silky sound a book makes when it's being slid out from among its fellows on a shelf. The Saint and his friend weren't gone very long, perhaps five minutes. When they reappeared, the scholar carried three volumes from my shelves—The Portable Nietzsche in paperback, Situations by Jean-Paul Sartre, and Values in a Universe of Chance, a selection from the very difficult writings of Charles S. Peirce.
All the books were used, but even so their prices added up to fourteen dollars and seventy cents, the largest single sale I had made in my three months in the store. I closed up shop rejoicing. Peirce and Nietzsche and Jean-Paul Sartre had gone out into the world to do good. I locked my door and with my cash box underneath my arm I flew up my glowing stairs into the brilliance of the dying day with all its plum and salmon and celery colors lighting up the sky.
Customers came to my store all the next week. Twin brothers from Cleveland tripped down the stairs. They had actually been looking for MIT and had gotten off the Red Line in Central Square in error. No matter. Somebody had told them they could get directions to the famous college from me, and they left with Lyrical Essays by Albert Camus. A high school girl who said her boyfriend liked philosophy-type things bought Leszek Kolskowski's Why Is There Something Rather Than Nothing? Isn't that the cutest thing? I picture them cuddled together with her explaining something Leibnitz said while he furrows his brow in an effort to understand. An acupuncturist who said she had often seen my sign but had never thought of stopping in left with The Metaphysical Club: A Story of Ideas in America by Louis Menand.
The story of ideas! The story of ideas! My little store was doing what I wanted. Out to the street above flowed Swedenborg and David Hume and Karl Popper and Isaiah Berlin. Out went Jacques Barzun on William James.
If I had to ask at whose suggestion all these customers came down my stairs I didn't have to ask for long. A dentist puzzled about the meaning of his life arrived with my new friend, the Saint of Central Square. Ditto the driver of a street-sweeping truck. Ditto a meter maid. Ditto a guy who'd gone to City Hall to see about a license for his bike.
Some people bought books. Some people only fingered a volume here or a volume there and then wandered up to ask me a question about certain paragraphs that caught their eye. Discussions started. Me to others. Others to others. The idea of a salon—which at one time I'd only entertain in my sarcastic frames of mind—began not only to seem possible but to be taking shape.
And who was doing all of that for me?
I don't have any answer except the Saint of Central Square, and I never saw him doing it. I was never up on Massachusetts Avenue when he buttonholed a stranger at the door to Citizens Bank or when he fell in conversation with a lunch-break loiterer on the steps to City Hall. He did, however, often accompany these people to my store, opening the door for them and guiding them to whatever author they must have mentioned on the street or to a general section of philosophy, where a beauty-shop proprietor or a young man out to walk his dog might find tomes to peruse in search of answers to those puzzles that crop up even in the lives of those who walk their Shetland Sheepdogs or put highlights into hair.
The Saint was there the day my mother came. With her were both Battle Boots and Raisin Eyes. All three of them were mad enough to sting me if the god who gives stout bodies out had furnished them with stingers in their butts.
Three crows the size of human women had hopped into my store. All conversation stopped and in the reigning silence my mother's voice rang out clear. "Do you know how hard it is to get here?" While I weighed what answer might pay her back, the Saint of Central Square answered for me.
"You need a chair," he said, and he sped to where I kept my only folding chair, against the wall behind my counter. He opened it as if it were a flower and swirled it out to where my mother, in great dignity, could seat herself like a monarch on a throne.
No angels sang. Not hallelujahs sounded. What happened was quite ordinary. The buzz of conversation rose to a hum again. But what a hum! What happiness in that. In my mind, I said, Engage in conversation, oh dental assistants. Elaborate on your ideas, you fast-food counter clerks. Should you be shy, you secretaries to the sewer board and you ever-helpful janitors from the senior citizen center? You should not be shy. This is the Liberation Book Store. Here your thoughts are currency with the same value as the thoughts of the whole community of Harvard scholars down the street, and with the thoughts of powerful corporate counsels in law firms so high in glass-walled Boston towers you could never reach them even if you climbed for your whole life. And you, dear mother with your bulldog look, blab your Bible precepts freely. Be my guest. Why should the Bible be silenced in the storehouse of ideas? Who knows the madness of the world better than poor, raging Job? Blab Job to the transmission mechanics and the elevator inspectors and the pharmacists in their white jackets who have fled their pills for half an hour and dropped down from the street to speak their larger thoughts.
Actually, my mother had Shelley to blab to because he'd swept dramatically in wearing the kind of house dress Shirley Booth wore to trill sweet, hopeful things in Come Back, Little Sheba. Nothing Shelley said, nothing he did, nothing in his cross-dressing appearance fazed my mother or the women with her. Far from it. They followed him in cult-like reverence to where Jean Genet sat smoldering on my shelves. Solemnly, attentively, they hung on Shelley's words, hearing him announce they could never hope to understand the gospels until they'd read that passage in The Thief's Journal where Genet wakes up and finds his boyfriend's cock resting on his head.
Exactly at that moment—at the moment of the gospels and the strange placement of the cock—Morgan Roche, my one-time boss, a man still packed to the brim with the emotional equivalent of TNT, peered a moment through the window of my door and, when he had identified the soul within he'd come to find, opened it. He pointed to the Saint and said, "Let's get with the program, son."
"Get with the program," code for do what I say. Obey the laws enforced by men whose hands automatically make fists.
And son? What did Morgan mean by son? Did he mean the blond and lightly bearded saintly youth who'd steered so many people to my store? Was that boy the fruit of Morgan's loins? No one in my bookstore wished the answer to be yes. Not even my mother wished it, for she and the two hens who were her Bible friends were as frightened by Morgan Roche's infuriated boxer stance as I was, and as everyone else interrupted in their philosophical discourses was.
"Who's this?" Shelley asked in a voice stripped of all the confidence camp usually gave it.
"My dad," the Saint explained. His tone was weary. His look was weary. His eyes had lost the light that made them sparkle. His father? He was confronting his father. How many months of courage and defiance, I had to wonder, were coming to a climax here in my crowded store.
"I want you home, so come," Morgan said.
He stepped forward, beckoning to his frightened son. The Saint backed away and shook his head. "No, dad."
"You aren't staying here."
"These are my friends."
"That's something we can talk about, but not here. I've come all this way. I've found you. And now I want you to come home."
Different witnesses have different stories about what happened next. Some say the Saint charged forward and pushed his dad out of his way. Others remember seeing Morgan reach out to grab his son and the Saint dodging past him with a skill that would have wowed the crowd at an NBA playoff game. What all agree on is the chase that ensued. The Saint fled up the stairs. Morgan pursued him, followed by everybody in my store, including me.
I reached the street in time to see the Saint make a blind dash out into what should have been the normally turgid traffic of Massachusetts Avenue. On this occasion, unfortunately, a very non-turgid Harley-Davidson, whose forty-seven-year-old owner was a man of Scandinavian extraction named Sherburne Rollins but known to bikers as Norske, was barreling down the street exactly at the moment of the Saint's frightened flight. He had just gunned his powerful engine, in fact, to cowboy past a semi-stalled Volvo. His bad-tempered impulse to speed brought the front wheel and fender of his shiny bike into collision with the hip bone and backbone of the heedlessly fleeing Saint, who was catapulted over the hood of a passing W.B. Mason Office Supplies truck into the opposite lane against the windshield of a 1999 Sentra driven by a Miss Evelyn Tapply, who was on her way to shop in Porter Square for a baby shower present.
According to Miss Tapply, the impact caused the victim's head to explode the way a pumpkin carved into a jack-o-lantern flies apart when naughty boys have stolen it to splatter on a wall.
The driver of the box-shaped W.B. Mason truck, it turned out, was the husband of a cousin of the San Diego woman who had bought my father's kimono to make into a quilt. There's a kind of circularity to a coincidence like that, and in contemplating circularity one can come to profounder thoughts that, given time, can put perspective on the tragedies a human being naturally suffers.
Although in the midst of all the screaming, I lacked the perspective for profundity. Sirens sounded, not at once but soon enough, and people swarmed like bees around the splashes of bright blood. Mr. Sherburne 'Norske' Rollins had not escaped unscathed. He broke the middle phalanx bone on the little finger of his left hand. He lost the canine and premolars from the top left corner of his mouth. He blackened both his eyes. His nose, with its prominent, unpleasant hairs, gushed blood. His colorful cursing, as he sat on the curb, underscored the moment's drama until the Bible lady in battle boots told him to shut up.
Much later, after the EMTs and police officers and fire department clean-up crews, I made my way back down my stairs and discovered someone had taken advantage of the street's confusion to steal my cash box.
"You never should have opened such a stupid store," my mother said.
She had clumped down the stairs to offer her off-key consolations as I was packing up my stock. I didn't have the money to pay another month of rent, and even if I did I would have closed the store anyway. What right did I have to say liberation is the answer to your problems? Oh battle-booted Bible lady, and ditto to the problems of your raisin-eyed friend. I don't know the answers to their problems. I don't know the answers to my own. Seekers get only so far with their questions and then the universe caves in.
I still have the mop the saint used on flood day. I don't call it a relic. I know it's just a mop. I try to keep it close to hand, though, and I hope I will use it when floods do damage to the floors of strangers or a friend.
The footnote to this story is my mother hung around. She nagged me for awhile about never taking her advice but once she'd played those cards for everything she could she let herself drop into a more thoughtful mood. At last, as if she'd had to talk herself into doing it, she rummaged through her purse and brought out the Jean Genet.
"Here," she said as she handed it to me. "Shelley said I'd understand the gospels better if I read the paragraph about the boyfriend's private part, but I looked and looked, Tommy, and I couldn't find where it says that. Show it to me, if you know where it is."
She was holding the book out to me. I took it and said I was actually not well enough acquainted with Genet to find the place Shelley meant. She said, "That book is really, really dirty. They shouldn't print such things."
When I looked up I saw her eyes were moist with tears. In those shining pools I saw myself reflected.
Title image "Halo" Copyright © The Summerset Review 2019.