THINE IMPIOUS PROUD-HEART SOPHISTRIES
The father of Russ Garner once asked his son about what he wanted to do with his life. Russ answered, "I want to open a book store."
"Oh, you want to get into the publishing industry."
"No, I want to open my own book store. A used-book store."
That's just what Russ did with a portion of his inheritance at the age of twenty-one. He found himself a spot on 41th Street, assigned carpenters to build shelves, and then went searching through library sales, garages and basements for stock. Then he had his store painted, the shelves loaded and that's how The Live Letter Office was created.
A bathroom and a bedroom had also been constructed over the store. If you had seen Russ' living space, then you wouldn't have believed that its occupant had once lived on Fifth Avenue. Along with a simple bed, the bedroom included a dresser, a refrigerator, a cupboard and a computer. That was it. The major portion of his big-ass bank account went into running The Live Letter Office, and he had been running it very well for eight years.
Russ' life was centered on books. His family wealth was simply a means of financing his obsession. He couldn't understand why other people were so interested in his upper-class background. When a customer once asked him if he knew Paris Hilton, he could only say, "Who?"
I'm convinced that Russ would have made a good monk. Worldly ways and pop culture held no attraction for him. His one concession to the modern age was his computer that served mainly as a tool to contact other dealers and buy rare books. I wish he had met Father. They would have had some interesting conversations...
But I'm getting ahead of the story.
I stepped into The Live Letter Office and, as always when I entered the store, got the feeling that I was back in the Tunnels. You had to walk down a few stone steps from the street to the door. Once you passed the door, the smell of dust touched your nose like a perfume. Reproductions of old paintings and religious mosaics hung on the walls between the shelves. Only the electric bulbs and paperbacks brought you back to the twenty-first century.
Well, that and the computer. To my surprise, Russ had brought his computer downstairs and placed it on his desk. Russ usually preferred to keep the computer out-of-reach during business hours, suspicious of its ability to trap the user. Yet there he was, staring at the screen as intently as any code-writer.
He nodded, still staring at the screen.
"What are you doing with your computer there?"
"I'm in a gay chat room," he responded without the slightest hesitation. Now I had known Russ for awhile. I had concluded that he wasn't gay, straight, bisexual or anything. I don't think sex interested him at all. Like I said, good monk.
I wondered if I had been wrong. If I had been, I wasn't surprised that Russ would simply admit it to me. Russ simply didn't have any real conception of why certain things bothered other people. He had been born with some innate innocence that had been nourished by the protective world of Fifth Avenue.
Not being sure what he had meant, I decided to inquire further. "Uh, any reason why you're in a gay chat room?" I asked, while looking around the store. Nobody else was there. It wouldn't have mattered, anyway. Russ would not have acted differently in any situation.
"I'm trying to get some information out of 'Mega-Pimp,'" he told me. "Unfortunately, for the moment, she seems stuck on the topic of where she wants to apply oil on my body."
"'She?' Wait a second, you're in a lesbian chat room?" I grinned. "You randy..."
"No, it's for gay males. She's pretending to be a male homosexual."
I decided not to pursue this conversation any further. "All right," I said, then began to move away.
"Her real name is Kathleen Knight," Russ said as if I had asked him a question. "It's been hard to find her and strike a conversation. I found out that she was coming here so I registered under the name of 'Baron de Charlus.' She was impressed by the fact that I was familiar with the works of Marcel Proust and has been willing to discuss literature as well as other things."
I stopped moving away. "Sounds like you're stalking her, Russ," I commented.
"Perhaps. But it's the only way I can get more information about her law firm."
"You know, maybe you should start at the beginning."
Still focused on the screen, Russ said, "Over a week ago I had discovered that an 1820 first edition of a Keats collection was on the market. I made an offer to the seller which was a thousand dollars above its price."
"How much did that add up to?"
"Sixteen thousand dollars."
"Wow. A lot to spend on one book."
For the first time since I entered, Russ looked at me. He was incredulous. "Keats," he said. "1820. First edition. And it was bound in morocco."
"Right. Sorry. What was I thinking?"
"Hm." Russ turned back to the screen. "However, after we had agreed to the deal, the seller told me that he would instead sell the book to another person. I asked if the new buyer was offering more money."
"Maybe. But the seller wouldn't say. He was, in fact, quite reluctant to talk about the matter."
"Well, that's between him and the buyer, right?"
Russ looked at me again. This time his eyes were stern. He almost looked like Clint Eastwood. "I was deprived of an 1820 Keats. I wanted to know why. So..." He motioned to the computer. "...I started to do some research. I found out who the buyer was."
"Yes. She handled the transaction through the law firm of Holliday and Matheson. I'm trying to find out which exact client she represents. And what methods she used to get the Keats collection and the rest."
"My research shows that she has been purchasing many rare books, often under different names."
"Damn, Russ. You really have been stalking her."
"I've been...acquiring information. Frankly I suspect that she has been indulging in questionable activity."
"I better leave you to it then," I said, deciding that I had talked enough about this. "I'll be in the mysteries."
Russ nodded as he tapped on the keyboard and let his work consume him again. I walked past sociology and parenting to the mystery section. Back then I was an avid reader of Loren D. Estleman. As I looked over Russ' collection, I noted that I shared some of his obsession with books. How could I not? Imagine growing up with the sound of my Father's wonderful voice reading Dickens, Kipling and Doyle as the candelight painted shadows on cave walls. How could I not have a love for the printed word?
Of course, at that time I was going through my adolescent rebellion against my father's preference for Wordsworth and Shelly. I had turned to stories about hard men doing violent things; stories told with blunt prose and sarcasm. As far as rebellion goes, that's not exactly like going to a Eminem concert, but that's how I thumbed my nose at Father's literary tastes.
I selected a book. I didn't pay for it. Taking the occasional paperback was my reward for a favor I had once done for Russ. Two years ago some of the other businesses on Russ' street were being robbed. Russ had expressed worry to me that he might be next. So I had done some research of my own and found the burglars. The stolen property was soon returned to the doorsteps of the invaded stores.
Russ was grateful enough to give me free books, even though he didn't know exactly what I had done. Neither did he know about the Tunnels, the Helpers or Vincent. Of course, if he had wanted to know more about me, I'm sure he could have found out everything. As you can tell, he was a real bloodhound for information. However, as with so much of his life, Russ would ignore things that didn't directly affect him.
I wish he had done the same with Kathleen Knight. However, I can't change that now, any more than I can change which book I selected from The Live Letter Office. I had one more decision to make that day, and then Destiny would pounce.
I didn't get to read my Estleman book immediately upon returning to the Tunnels. One of the Builders found me and told me that they needed my help. Heavy stones had to be moved, a frame had to be kept steady, and other activities required the strength supplied by my 'unusual biological heritage.'
I had to earn my keep around the Tunnels so I followed him. The Builders were converting a cave into another room. The population of this underground community had grown over the fifteen years I had lived there. Children had been born; more of the lost and desperate had found sanctuary Below.
When I arrived, the Builder Robert called out, "Well, just what we need! Come over here, Jacob."
Another person happy to see me was Robert's son Max. He had been born four years after I had been brought to the Tunnels. Max idolized me. Not only did I have the awe-inspiring Vincent for a father, but also I had powers beyond that of the average mortal teen-ager.
I could also come and go as I pleased. As you might have realized, I was treated differently than the other young people in the Tunnels. That's because I was different, but not just because of my strength and agility. I had seen as much of Above as Below, thanks to Diana. Most Tunnel Dwellers my age had only gotten glimpses of Above, a place they would enter only for the most necessary reasons and then quickly leave. In contrast I knew the streets of New York City as well as the Tunnels. The adults had a reasonable amount of trust that I could handle myself Above.
Besides, I scared them.
Is 'scared' the right word? Perhaps it's better to say that they were aware of my capabilities, just as they were aware of Vincent's inner demons. They liked me, they respected me, but they also kept just a little distance. As for my more controversial activity Above, they figured that Father and Grandfather held the responsibility there. If I came back smelling of dope, the other adults said nothing.
There was a line that I couldn't cross, though. I would soon cross that line.
For that moment I was welcome, especially by Max. He wanted to hear about my latest adventures. "What happened last night?" he asked. "Where did you go?"
Even if his father hadn't been there, what could I have told Max? "Well, last night, I broke a man's thumb, smoked some nice reefer, and banged a lady whose name I can't remember." Instead of that I said, "Same old same old. Sometimes nothing is happening in New York City."
Max's look of disappointment turned to alertness when his father told him to get some nails. I spent the rest of the day with the Builders in that cave. By the time we were done with work, the hour of dinner had arrived. The Builders and I cleaned our arms with water drawn from a well, then headed for the Dining Hall.
Once again the world of the Tunnels overwhelmed my ability to be sarcastic about it. As we sat at the long table in the Dining Hall, I looked over my friends and family. The children were laughing, the adults were relaxed, Mouse was tickling Jamie, and Pascal was intently listening to every word spoken. Father had a seat next to the head of the table. I sat across from him. If he was still angry at me, he gave no sign of it.
Grandfather sat at the head of the table, looking almost regal. We all stood as he gave the Blessing --
"We are gathered here to celebrate our community. We arrived here in many different ways, but we were all seeking the same thing -- love. A people united in love can stand any hardship. Do we accept each other and our love?"
"We do," everyone answered, including myself.
Scoff if you must, but you wouldn't have done it there, especially with Vincent near you. My father was a man who should have been hardened by violence and rejection, yet he believed in Grandfather's words. He drew his greatest strength from hope. I knew in that moment how grand he was, and how blessed I was to be at that table with the Tunnel Dwellers.
Naturally I had to open my mouth and ruin everything.
After the Blessing we sat down, chatting as we passed around the soup, the bread and the vegetables. (Not much meat down in the Tunnels.) Everybody was looking content and feeling content, including myself. If you had looked at me and Father, you wouldn't have guessed that we had been arguing last night. That's why I felt compelled to say --
"We should ask Diana to have dinner with us."
The mood didn't turn tense at once, but it had started in that direction. Father looked at me. So did Grandfather who said carefully, "Diana is always welcome."
"I know that. She knows that. But I don't think she'll come until...one of us asks her." I looked at the others. "Have any of you talked with her?"
The Dwellers were now passing the food more slowly and looking uncomfortable. Pascal remained cool, though. "I'm not sure," he said. "She didn't tell any of us Below about her return. We only got news of it through the Helpers, so..." He shrugged.
"There you go then. We can't wait for her to come to us."
"Did you speak with her?"
"How is she?"
"She's...Diana. And she's back. What more do we need to know?"
Father finally spoke. "People can change, Jacob. Maybe Diana doesn't want to come."
I looked straight at him and said, "Oh, I don't know. Some people seem very stuck in their ways."
That put a dent in Happy-Meal Time. The Dwellers were looking at each other with concern. Grandfather tried to play moderator. "If you feel this passionate," he suggested to me, "then why don't you ask her to come?"
"I want to make sure she's welcome. I mean, I don't want her to cause, you know, a disturbance."
"The only one causing a disturbance," Father said, "is you."
Grandfather turned to his right. "Vincent, please. Jacob is just concerned for Diana."
"This is not the time to discuss this..."
"Why not?" I snapped. "I think everybody should know why a woman who had done so much for us would up and leave for three years. And why she isn't here right now."
"Jacob, you are making a mockery of..."
"Tell you what, Father, I'll compromise. Let's put two extra chairs at the table. One for Diana, and one we'll keep empty for..."
Vincent slammed his fist onto the table and cracked off a piece of wood. Every dish, glass and fork jumped in time with the Dwellers and me. I stared back at my father's dark eyes for three seconds during which you could have heard the water dripping at the other end of a tunnel.
Then I pushed back my chair and left the table. So did Father. We exited the Hall in separate directions.
I had gone twenty feet into a tunnel when I heard a voice call out, "Jacob, wait!"
I turned and said, "Jamie, I don't need..."
"Calm down," Jamie told me, "or I'll knock you on your butt."
I seriously doubt Jamie could have done that. Well, I sort of doubt it. Jamie had set my posterior on the ground several times when I was younger, but I was taller and stronger now. She couldn't have whupped me, right?
I stood still and let her catch up with me. She was a pretty lady, even though she could never fully rub her skin and overalls free of the dirt gathered from the tunnels. She also had the firm gaze obtained from countless skirmishes and the little wars she had fought to defend her territory. No wonder Mouse loved her.
"You could have handled that better," she told me.
"What is wrong with what I said?"
"Not much. I agree with you on Diana. And I don't know why she left in the first place. But, Jacob..." She sighed. "...why hit that nerve?"
"Because Catherine Chandler is the elephant in Father's soul. It's big, but nobody ever talks about it."
"Yes, we do. Just not in your way. Catherine was a friend to the Tunnels. She was my friend. That's why it really..." She took a step toward me. "...really bugs me to see her son use her memory like a blunt instrument."
In that moment I felt like a slime on the tunnel walls. I looked down at my feet, trying to find words that weren't stupid. I eventually came up with, "She's not the only woman my father loved."
"No, but she is the one who changed his life." She ran a hand through her short hair. "But, yes, I would like to see Vincent and Diana get back together."
"If he's not careful, he'll lose her."
"And you, too, I think."
I hesitated, then said as calmly as I could, "Knock me on my ass for saying this...but I'm not sure that would really bother him."
She didn't knock me down. Nor did she say anything in response. When I walked away, she didn't follow me.
I assumed that Grandfather had chased after Vincent and tried to reason with him. I also assumed that Grandfather failed because I didn't see any more of Father that night.
I had returned to my chambers. I lay on my bed, looking at posters of rock stars. Reproductions of famous paintings used to hang in their spots. Father had given those reproductions to me, only to have them taken down by his son.
I was having a silent conversation with dead ol' Ian Curtis when Max entered my chambers. He was carrying a plate loaded with bread and carrots.
"I thought," he said meekly, "you would be hungry."
I sat up on the bed, smiling. "I am. Thank you."
Max handed me the plate and watched me eat for a few moments. Then he asked --
"Why do you hate your father?"
I took time to swallow some bread, then answered, "I don't...I don't hate him. He just frustrates me."
"I wish I had a father like him."
We were both surprised to hear him say that. "Max!" I exclaimed.
"I'm sorry, I..."
"Your father is a great man. You know that, don't you?"
"I know. I shouldn't have..." Max looked down at his feet.
"Well...actually I understand how you feel. For a long time I had that same feeling."
Max raised his eyes in my direction. I said to him, "When I was a boy I would think, 'This is my father? How can he be real? He should be a character in a story.' I could never understand why he had to hide himself. Couldn't the World Above see what an incredible person he was?"
I crumbled a small piece of bread between my fingers. "But then I grew up and discovered that my father was simply a man. An amazing man, but nobody's fairy tale creation." I paused, then said, "I'm just a man, too, you know."
"What do you mean?"
"I'm not the person you see me as being. I'm definitely not a role model. You'll do yourself a world of good if you realize that."
Max stared at me, and I saw his meek look turn into anger. With a voice between a sob and a shout, he said, "Then I'll go away and not bother you anymore, okay?"
"Max, wait, I..."
But Max had already left. Beautiful, I thought. At this rate I'll have every Dweller mad at me.
Then I heard the sound of my Father's gramophone. Music drifted through the tunnels and reached my sensitive ears. This time it was Bach. "Mein Herze schwimmt im Blut," a female singer wailed. My heart swims in blood.
Something about the sound incited my anger again. Maybe it was the mental image of Father brooding, brooding like he always fucking does, he would rather mope and listen to his damn records than tell Diana that he never wanted her to leave again, but, no, fucking classical music instead...
I staged a protest by pulling out my portable CD player. No Luddite, me. I stuffed the phones into my ears, inserted a Belisha CD and cranked it up. "People of the dark will meet, the realm is turning/ People of the dark set the land a-burning" roared in my head.
Father was probably reading Shakespeare or Milton for the millionth damn time, so I yanked out my Estleman book and began to read it, also as a protest. None of that shit about the sweetness of love here -- just mean people doing mean things to each other. How do you like that, Fa...
Have you ever read a book and a certain sentence feels familiar to you? The phrasing, the meaning...it matches something in your memory. You keep on reading, not thinking much of it at first. Then another sentence sparks the same feeling. And then another and another. Eventually you realize that you've read this book before. I was half-way through the Estleman book when I came to this realization. I felt really pissed then, and I hadn't been feeling all that cheery in the first place.
I checked a wind-up clock. It was after eight. The Live Letter Office would have been closed. I wouldn't be able to get another book until morning.
Why should I wait? I thought. Russ is almost certainly still in his store. He doesn't go out much, and his little investigation is probably keeping him glued to his computer.
Fuck it. He owes me. I'll run to his store, get him to unlock the door, find something quick, then leave.
I had made my last fateful decision. Destiny, the sadistic bastard, laughed.