Chapter 1 by Laura Kalpakian (2221 words)
The university library was an architectural marvel: eight vast floors of tinted, protective glass that rose from a narrow pedestal with spectacular views in every direction. It looked like a spaceship, but it felt like a church to Margaret Harper, with Special Collections at the top like the Sistine Chapel. And the 8th floor had its own keyed elevator, quite apart from the various elevators used by mere mortals. Margaret, the Head of Special Collections, was so early this morning that she had that elevator to herself. She smoothed her conservative skirt and hoped she’d used enough concealer under her eyes. She’d hardly slept at all last night. She blamed her restlessness on her cat, Frito, who kept jumping off and on the bed, but she knew that in fact Frito had absorbed her anxieties and not the other way around.
Today was the day of Margaret’s crowning moment of her career so far, her first literary acquisition. The estate of Derwent Lassiter, renowned poet of the Beat Era, would be presented to Special Collections by his niece, his last living relative. Margaret had long struggled for this moment; the worth of Derwent Lassiter’s estate had not gone uncontested, especially since Lassiter’s niece was asking $500,000. When stating their case to the Library Foundation Board, Margaret and her ally, Felix Ingersoll of the English Department, had contended that Lassiter was not only a fine poet in his own right, but he had long, lively, sometimes disputatious associations, (and exchanged lots of letters) with major figures in the Beat Era, Kerouac and Ginsberg, Ferlinghetti, Gregory Corso and many others outside that disreputable crowd, with more staid, respectable poets like Phillip Levine and Donald Hall. Felix had seen the letters.
In meetings, Foundation Board Chairman Lloyd Jones had looked over his bi-focals, glaring at the entire Board.
“Miss Harper is asking the University to pay $500,000 for the work of a writer who published four or five scant books, a few anthology pieces in his lifetime.
“Angel at the Barroom Brawl is a great poem,” Felix contended. “It won a Pulitzer.”
“His grandfather created Choc-O-Nibs!” Lloyd Jones scoffed. “Lassiter’s great gift—if various memoirs and literary gossip are to be believed—is that he caroused his way through life, drinking, talking, traveling, smoking pot, and sniffing cocaine, finally dying of self-inflicted liver disease.” Jones was a sallow man who wore impeccably tailored suits and Italian shoes. “He bedded women left and right and never married, and finally when he was broke and alone, he retired to our fair city to live in his grandfather’s sprawling lakeside home. Living off the family trust fund of a candy manufacturer. Choc-O-Nibs? Mr. Jones’ deep, impressive voice dripped with sarcasm, concluding,“Moreover Derwent Lassiter spurned all contact with the university, replied to Foundation’s many overtures with language I cannot repeat.
“I made friends with him toward the end,” Felix Ingersoll interjected.
“Yes,” Jones replied acidly, “you’ve been courting up his niece for years.”
Felix, in his hearty way, had laughed. “Courting is not a verb I would use with regard to Miss Prescott.”
Margaret reminded herself to call the last living link to Derwent Lassiter Miss Prescott. Everyone at Special Collections just called her The Niece. The Niece was wizened, ugly, with tiny claw-like hands, beady eyes and a long nose oddly attached to her upper lip so that when she talked her nose wiggled. You couldn’t tell how old she was. Sixty? A hundred and sixty? She was tense, terse, snarly, and Ingersoll had in fact courted her up. Got her price down from a million to $500,000. In the end the Library Foundation offered her $35,000 and she took it.
“Oh!” Margaret cried when the elevator doors opened on the glorious 8th floor. “I thought I’d be the first one here!” Milling in front of her were half a dozen people including the assistant librarian, Vanessa Ames, who Margaret was almost certain was a Lloyd Jones spy.
“Paperwork,” said Vanessa. “The Niece has to sign the paperwork today. Documents are in your office, Margaret.”
Margaret’s administrative assistant, Rebecca McShane, passing by remarked briskly, “We’ve got everything set up in the Conference Room for the two o’clock ceremony. They’ll bring the coffee up from Food Service later. I bought fresh cookies myself at the bakery, and Mother had some doilies and china plates from her wedding and I brought those along to serve from.” A woman of girth and grit, Rebecca had raised five kids to varying degrees of successful adulthood, and now looked after her wistfully demented mother, Elsie. Coming to work, dealing the silent, uncomplaining arcana of Special Collections, seemed like a vacation to Rebecca.
“You think of everything, Rebecca,” said Margaret, patting her arm. “You are a treasure.”
“The catalogue is ready for you, Miss Harper,” added Sally Lewbiosky, one of the grad student interns, “the list of library books that ought not to be on the circulating shelves, but up here in Special Collections. I had no idea we had so many rare books! Grose’s Classical Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue. Printed in 1788, and just imagine, any old yahoo could check it out and take it home where their roommate could spill beer on it, or their baby could fling oatmeal.”
Margaret shuddered at the thought. She considered it her life’s purpose to augment Special Collections, to save books like Grose’s Vulgar Tongue and first editions of Tristram Shandy, Clarissa and other classics from the vulgar paws of mere library users. “Good job, Sally.”
Before going to her office Margaret checked out the Conference Room where her other grad student intern, Davis Delong, was placing programs on each metal folding chair. Margaret nodded at Davis, but didn’t actually speak. Talking to him was like talking to your beagle. He had big, droopy sad eyes and a big droopy sad body and he wore his pants cinched up way too high. She nodded affirmatively at him and closed the door.
Al Rabinowitz stopped her in the hall. “We’re all set for tomorrow. Ten AM, right?”
“Yes, and thank you so much, Al, for taking charge of the delivery. In addition to everything else you do for Special Collections, it’s such a load off my mind to know you’ll oversee the actual delivery.”
“Well, Margaret, the job description Tech Librarian covers a multitude of sins.” Al was an easygoing guy whose calm demeanor defused many a computer meltdown and saved more than one career. Margaret always feared that Circulation would snatch him away, pleading that they had so much more need of his tech-spertise. “I’ll introduce you to The Niece, I mean, Miss Prescott, before the ceremonies this afternoon, so she’ll know who you are tomorrow.”
“Sure, but do you know why I got an email from The Niece that said she wanted me to meet her at the library loading dock tomorrow?”
“That’s weird. I don’t have any idea. She didn’t cc me. Well, she’s old.” Margaret rolled her eyes meaningfully. Neither of them wished to say how unpleasant The Niece could be.
In her beautiful, glassed in corner office with its magnificient views, Margaret Harper went through her secret morning ritual. She always kissed her fingertip and placed the kiss on the framed studio portrait of her handsome fiancé Andrew. Today however, she put the framed photo in a desk drawer. Andrew had said he would call last night, and he had not. Margaret could feel her relationship fraying, and her heart breaking. Perhaps it was her own fault for taking this job eighteen months ago and moving away, but for seven years she had worked at jobs she thought beneath her just so that she could stay with Andrew. When this wonderful opportunity—the job she’d dreamed of since her college days!—came to her, she took it. Of course she took it! She begged Andrew to come with her. He refused on behalf of his art. He was an actor, part of a repertory company that couldn’t go on without him. Margaret had unwisely reminded him of the definition of repertory. “I didn’t need to do that,” she chided herself now, biting back a bitter tear as she closed the desk drawer over Andrew’s picture. The only other picture she had for her desk was one of Frito, and she swore she would never be one of “those” women. The sort who keep cat pictures on their desk.
At two PM the dignitaries assembled in the Conference Room, Lloyd Jones looking especially suave and grim. Other than the Library Foundation Board and her own staff, and those members of the English Department who had backed Felix, she didn’t recognize anyone here. A man she didn’t know kept plucking at her sleeve.
“I’m Huxley Allworth, Miss Harper. I teach bookbinding at the VoTech.”
“The VoTech.” She tried to keep her voice even, not sliding up to the implicit question: you’re here why? “Bookbinding. How quaint.”
“Well there’s more people than you might think interested in bookbinding, fine editions, good paper, elegant design, and I’d like to reprint some of Derwent Lassiter’s poems. You know, bind them into new editions. Collector’s editions. I’ve got some great students.”
“At the VoTech.” Margaret studied him; he was tall, pale with bright blue eyes, an earnest air, and tousled hair. She wanted to ask: Are you mad? But instead, glancing over at that pompous ass Lloyd Jones, she said, “Why don’t you talk to Mr. Jones of the Library Foundation? I’m sure he’d be delighted to discuss this with you. Excuse me. The Niece is here. I mean Miss Prescott.”
On Felix Ingersoll’s arm Miss Prescott still leaned on her cane. She was a little walnut of a woman in an unbecoming mauve pantsuit and a chartreuse boa. She seemed more alert than Margaret remembered, indeed, downright cheerful as she reached into a bag she was carrying and passed out bars of Choc-O-Nibs among the distinguished guests. Felix went rather pale as she put one into the palm of Lloyd Jones who sneered visibly.
Margaret hurried to the front of the room where she wrested the bag of candy from the Niece and handed it off to Rebecca McShane, who tucked it instantly out of sight. Thank God for Rebecca. Margaret personally led the Niece to the place of honor, a lovely wing chair reserved for her. Margaret tapped the mic and asked everyone to seat themselves, pronouncing that Special Collections was about to have a very special occasion.
“Holy shit!” cried Al Rabinowitz the next morning when he came down to the library dock to take possession of the Derwent Lassiter gift.
A U-Haul was parked there and the Niece was directing the work of two burly work-study students who had only emptied perhaps half of the contents. The students were grunting under the weight of a steamer trunk, huffing and puffing to get it on the dock. As he made his way toward the U-Haul Al kept glancing at the two dozen boxes which sat with their flaps open and some of their contents visible. A peacock feather waved out of one and a giant stuffed monkey grinned out of another and from a third a set of VHS tapes spilled alongside a big plastic dinosaur, a T. Rex. No papers in sight, though there was a small concertina, a set of maracas, a digeridoo, and a collapsed marionette. From another a baseball bat protruded and a catcher’s mask and from out of the mask there was a bouquet of plastic ebony roses. Al whipped out his cell phone and called Margaret Harper. “You better get down here. I think you should see this.”
“See what?” asked Margaret.
“Words fail me. Bring Ingersoll.” He slid the phone in his pocket and went up to Miss Prescott who promptly put a Choc-O-Nib into his hand. “There’s been some mistake, ma’am,” Al began gently, “Special Collections bought your uncle’s papers, his drafts of poems, his correspondence with other well known poets, even maybe his laundry list, but this?” He pulled out of a nearby crate a rubber chicken whose beak was closed shut with a roach clip. Beneath it there was a dead potted plant.
“No mistake,” she said in her thin, cackly voice. “Uncle Derwent was a poet, yes, but he was rather much of a pig and a packrat. His papers are in there but so is everything else. How else was I going to get the house cleaned out? Now at last I can rent out my great-grandfather’s lovely lakeside home. I’m so very grateful to Special Collections! Here boys!” She tossed each work-study lad a Choc-O-Nib when at last they put the steamer trunk down. “Chop chop! Get all this shit out of the truck and pronto. I have to get the truck back within the hour! Oh, and here’s the bill from U-Haul. You all are paying the freight.” She turned and wobbled back toward the cab, singing in a happy voice to the tune of My Bonnie Lies Over the Ocean, “‘My father makes book in the backroom! My mother makes bathtub gin! My sister makes love for a dollar! My god how the money rolls in!’”
Chapter 2 by Jes Stone (1686 words)
Margaret sighed. She’d been looking forward to a quiet morning, alone in her lovely office, with a cup of herbal tea and warm, autumn sunlight spilling over the papers she would lay out, one by one, on her gleaming walnut desk. They would be precious papers, hand-written first drafts of poems, lists of story ideas, letters to and from Kerouac and Ginsberg. Maybe she’d even find Lassiter’s personal lexicon or his sentence book—each, on its own, potentially more valuable than anything else in the collection. That’s what she’d been thinking about and dreaming about when she’d stepped out of the elevator that morning. But now, before she’d finished answering emails, before she’d checked her office voice mail, and before her tea water had even boiled, her mellow musings had been shattered by Al’s somewhat panicky call. Margaret sighed again and flipped off the power switch on the electric teapot. She grabbed her sweater, her keys, and her cell phone and started for the door. She paused briefly to glance in the mirror hung discretely behind the coat tree. Smoothing her hair once, she turned and reached for the door handle. She was almost in the hallway when she paused. She’d forgotten something. Something important.
Margaret returned to her desk and opened the drawer. Andrew stared up at her with his toothpaste white smile and those big, blue, bad-boy eyes. Two nights in a row without a peep from him. No calls, no emails, not a single text and no, not even a little tweet. Margaret touched the edge of the frame, her fingers trembled and her eyes misted over. Should she give him more time? Should she give him another chance? Maybe she was being too hasty. Maybe he was deep into the study of his lines for the theater’s latest play. During their most recent phone conversation (she hoped it wouldn’t be their final phone conversation), he’d told her all about the current show and how it was such a challenging piece; The Man of La Mancha played by famous cats. Andrew’s role was Felix the Cat in the portrayal of Don Quixote. The Pink Panther would play Sancho Panza and the role of Aldonza, the lovely Dulcinea, would go to the stunning and very sexy, Jessica Rabbit, (the only non-feline in the cast).
Andrew had almost swooned as he’d gone on and on about his role, about the concept of the piece, and about the symbolism of the cats and their dreams.
“It’s a really brilliant conceptualization,” he told her. “We are all so impressed with this interpretation of, well, let’s face it, a tired old story. We’re going to really kick some life into this antiquated Rocinante.”
When Margaret had – perhaps unkindly – pointed out some of the most obvious absurdities of the concept, Andrew had gone into a fit of pouting.
“You can’t imagine the depths I must go to portray my character’s true self. It’s the most difficult challenge of my career,” he said.
Margaret sniffed once and blinked back tears. She wanted to believe that what he was doing was important enough to keep him from joining her, important enough to keep them apart, but seriously… cats? Impossible cat dreams? She paused and glanced at the photo of Frito. Well, maybe. She swiped her hand over her eyes and wiped away the one tear that had rolled down her cheek. Then, she gently closed the drawer. Maybe she would call Andrew tonight because, after all, it really wasn’t fair of her to judge another’s art. She knew how much it hurt when others, like the mean-spirited Lloyd Jones, judged her selections for the Special Collections. Many times he’d thought her choices were poor – vulgar, even. Assembling the Special Collections was her art form and she didn’t appreciate others judging her work harshly. Maybe Andrew does deserve more time, does deserve another chance. Maybe tonight, she thought. But now, I have my own career challenges to deal with.
* * *
As the elevator made its slow and almost silent glide down to the loading dock Margaret thought about Al’s phone call. He’d sounded freaked out and in some kind of a dither. That was so unlike the even-keeled tech guy she’d come to rely on. Margaret thought about all the interactions they’d had, all the times she’d had to call him about some hardware malfunction or some software glitch. She could not remember a single time when he’d seemed flustered. So what could the problem be now?
Probably some silly prank played by the local frat boys or those rowdy students who studied with the famed Professor Dwyer. She couldn’t imagine students from the English Department doing anything more bombastic than using erasable marker pens to correct grammar errors in the graffiti in the gender neutral bathrooms on campus. And if they did try to pull something more outrageous, well, Margaret knew that her closest ally, Felix Ingersoll, would put a stop to it pronto. But those pesky Spanish students…
She shook her head and chuckled softly. After all, it was the first of November, the day after Halloween. Maybe some of the students had decided to play a few tricks before treating themselves at the local brewpub. She thought about the pranks she’d seen on the college campuses where she’d worked before coming here.
One year, as she and Andrew had been walking through campus, they’d seen six skeletons posed in a wild sexual orgy on the lawn in front of the medical school. “Sort of gives a whole new meaning to the word ‘boner’ doesn’t it?” Andrew said.
Another time, a group of football players stole the mascot’s costume (a purple polar bear), from their rival team, filled it up with expanding foam, dressed it in a polka dot bikini, stood it upright in a canoe, and sent it traveling down the local river. That purple-furred bear made it all the way across the county line (eighteen miles away), before an inebriated resident of a riverside trailer park spotted it, mistook it for the ghost of his ex-wife (who’d been an exotic dancer of some fame), and started shooting.
And just that morning, on her way into the library, Margaret had seen the craft of pranksters who worked with paintball guns. Several large red, white, and blue signs advertising a candidate, running for a major political office, were defaced with huge splats of bubble-gum-pink paint. Margaret frowned, maybe that wasn’t just a prank, it could be a political statement, it could be…
She dropped the thought as she stepped out of the elevator. It doors opened directly onto the loading dock. She blinked rapidly and then shielded her eyes against the bright morning light.
“Thank God you’re here,” Al said. He hurried across the dock toward her. “You’re just in time to see her off.”
“See who off?” Margaret’s eyes were still adjusting to the light and she squinted at Al.
He didn’t say anything else, but he pointed toward a huge U-Haul truck.
Margaret turned her attention to the truck. It was the size that people rented when they wanted to move all the contents of a three-bedroom house across the country. Apparently, this truck had originally traveled from New Mexico as it sported a giant graphic display of a lime green alien and six foot high letters spelling out the question: What happened in Roswell? The driver of the truck was just completing a three-point turn in the loading dock lot.
“So what? A moving truck. I don’t understand the problem.” Margret turned back to Al. “And, where are the papers from Derwent Lassiter’s estate? I thought you were meeting up with the Niece this morning.”
Al swallowed hard and nodded his head up and down so fast his thick glasses slid down his nose. He reached up and grabbed them and then turned and pointed, again, toward the truck.
Margaret followed his gaze just in time to see Miss Prescott toss several Choc-O-Nibs bars from the driver’s window to a group of work-study students standing at the foot of the loading dock ramp.
“Tootle loo, dearies!” she called out. Then she glanced up at Al and Margaret. “And thanks for taking all that shit off my hands!” She waved and then gunned the gas and drove the moving van out of the lot leaving a cloud of noxious diesel smoke in her wake.
Margaret coughed and fanned the air with one hand. “What was that all about?” she asked. “And, really, Al, where are those papers?”
Al turned to her, swallowed hard again and once more pointed. This time, toward a pile of debris big enough to fill a three-bedroom house.
* * *
A computer crash in Circulation pulled Al from the scene. He apologized profusely, but Margaret suspected he was relieved to have an excuse to escape this crisis and move to one he could actually do something about. Now, it was up to Margaret and Felix to deal with the situation.
The two colleagues stood outside on the loading dock and debated for a full hour on what to do with all the stuff – the stuff of the estate of the esteemed Derwent Lassiter. Obviously, it had to be inspected, maybe even cataloged. And the papers were in there somewhere, mixed up in the jumble of junk. Margaret and Felix might have continued their debate over lunch if it hadn’t started to rain. Forced to make a hasty decision they concluded that the only space big enough, at least on the eighth floor of the library, was Margaret’s corner office.
Fueled by Choc-O-Nibs bars and Felix’s promise to let them slide on their next homework assignment in English 101, four work-study students labored for three hours to move all the boxes, crates, and trunks to their new home. Finally, just after three-thirty that afternoon, Margaret and Felix stood silently together in the doorway of what was once a pristine and peaceful space. They were simply too exhausted and too flummoxed to speak.
Chapter 3 by Pamela Helberg (1587 Words)
Derwent Lassiter, 1925-2014, may he rest in peace, did not have an easy childhood.
His difficulty began in utero, when, due to his mother’s tipped uterus and her doctor’s incompetence, he had to be pulled from the womb with forceps, an experience that left him with large and visible dents above each ear and a slightly misshapen head. Beyond those dents, no one really knew what damage the forceps left and what parts of Derwent’s features were simple ugliness, attributable only to bad genes and misfortune.
“Take this horrible child away!” insisted Eugenia Lassiter when the midwife placed the newborn Derwent in her arms and encouraged her to breastfeed. She shuddered to look upon his strange visage, and with the flick of her handerkerchief banished him to the nursery with a wet nurse. “Do not deign to bother me further,” she commanded.
Mr. Derwent Lassiter, Sr., himself no great looker but immune to his own shortcomings in the mirror, insisted that he and the Mrs. try again immediately for a more suitable heir to be the next face of the Choco-Nibs fortune.
So, with her episiotomy freshly stitched, Eugenia again endured the labors of her husband as he climbed atop her nightly. To everyone’s relief, Derwent, Sr.’s persistence paid off quickly and the Lassiter family and the Choco-Nibs empire welcomed Annie into the family before Derwent, Jr. (or DJ, as he came to be known) turned a year old.
As soon as she was born, Annie stole her parents’ hearts, and they doted on her, she who had come into the world as gifted and beautiful as DW was unpleasant and plain.
DJ may not have been destined to be the face of the empire, but he still was the eldest son and one of two heirs to the fortune, and as such he had servants and nannies catering to his every whiny whim, but his name was Derwent for god’s sake, a moniker that invited bullies of every stripe. His was a lonely existence, and not the carefree lonely existence of a soul that didn’t care for the company of others. Derwent (or DJ as he preferred) longed for companionship, longed for the easy camaraderie he witnessed amongst his schoolmates. His head was not in the clouds because that’s where he wanted to be. His mind left his body for other realms because he found existing in reality to be all too painful and grim. His name matched his personality and his visage. If DJ Lassiter had been a color, he’d have been beige: pale, thin, uncoordinated, and unpleasant to behold in every way. His adenoids interfered with his speech, rendering everything he uttered whiny and impossibly nasal.
The children, separated by only a year and one grade in school, competed for everything: grades, friends, their parents’ attentions and affection, but the harder DJ tried, the further behind he found himself. While Annie had hordes of playmates and report cards brimming with compliments from teachers and stellar grades, DJ grew lonelier and more isolated, more estranged from his demanding family. His grades hovered in the lower reaches of the alphabet and on the wrong downhill side of the curve. The only bright side for DW was that he didn’t have to follow in his sister’s footsteps—that would have been unendurable.
Recess and lunch hour, those generally free and joyful moments during the school day held only terror and agony for young Derwent. He could neither hit nor catch a baseball, throw a spiral pass or kick a can with any accuracy or power. He made an excellent target in dodgeball, however, and often found himself face down in the mud of the playground screaming “Uncle!” for all he was worth as some grubby hooligan bent his arm behind his back. No amount of Choco-Nibs candy bars mollified his tormentors who called him “Der-go away” and “Der-went to Mommy” and other unimaginative names.
In a country that was just emerging from the Great Depression, Derwent Lassiter had too much privilege: too much money, too much food in his lunch pail, too many pairs of clean pants. His shoes were too shiny and his hair was too clean. He may not have been much to look at, but he was well fed, well-groomed, and well-read. While his classmates begged and scraped for food, stuffed their shoes with newspaper, and wore the same grimy clothes day in and day out, DJ Lassiter simply had too much.
His classmates resented him. His parents disliked him. His sister felt a little sorry for him, but Annie recognized that her own standing with her parents rested solely on her not being Derwent. So while she wanted to help him, she did not want to be him, and so held her affection in check.
DJ started taking refuge in the libraries, both at school and in their town, hiding in the stacks, eating lunch wedged against the walls in the darkest, dustiest, and most neglected reaches of the old buildings. The upside to hiding in libraries was that one never need be bored. Even though DJ was no scholar and garnered no attention or praise for his juvenilia, he read whatever was on the shelf behind which he sought refuge on any given day. He read history and religion and sociology and poetry, biography and autobiography. He read Sinclair Lewis. He inhaled The Grapes of Wrath. He read Hemingway and Maugham, The Wizard of Oz, The Call of the Wild, The Souls of Black Folk.
When DJ was 14 he stumbled across Ida Tarbell’s The History of Standard Oil the muckraking expose on the Rockefellers, which was originally serialized in McClure’s magazine. It was the first time he thought about his family money and what it meant. What it might have cost . . . somebody.
So, when he went off to college, not because his grades earned him a spot at Columbia, but because the Choco-Nibs fortune bought him a spot, he attempted to distance himself from his family and their influence. No one need know, DJ thought, that he came from great piles of cash. He started hanging out in jazz clubs at night, smoking dope and opium, shooting heroin on occasion.
He eschewed the business studies his father tried to steer him towards and enrolled instead in English literature and Romantics. His asthma and upper respiratory issues kept him out of the military, and DJ shed no tears as the tormenters from his childhood and teen years shipped out to fight the Nazis.
Sometimes I feel torn, he wrote in letters to Annie, between feeling guilty for having all of this money and feeling grateful that I have all of this money. I am happy I don’t have to sweat in a factory to support my family, and I am beside myself with loathing that others sweat in our factories to make the candy that keeps us in such style.
Annie always answered his letters, but she never agreed with him that they should feel guilty about their fortune. I’d be happy to relieve you of your half of our inheritance, she half joked in her replies. If you’re really feeling so guilty, DJ, don’t complain. Do something. Anything. Go live among the riffraff and report back to me. Let me know how you like squalor.
So, in an effort to prove Annie wrong, DJ started exploring the dive bars and juke joints. He ventured to Harlem. He discovered that he loved the culture. The divier the bar, the better the people inhabiting it. It was in one of the jazz clubs one dark and stormy January night in 1945 that he made his first genuine friend. As DJ nursed his Scotch served neat and scribbled his thoughts on a series of napkins, he noticed in his first few months at Columbia that he could write verse as he listened to the saxophone wail and the drums riff at the bars around campus. He had no idea if his writing was any good. Servicemen and dolled up young women crowded around tables behind DJ, laughing and talking loudly. DJ wished he had a group of friends to drink with.
“Hey,” he poked drunkenly the young man sitting next to him at the bar. “Whaddaya think of this?” DJ read the lines he’d just written.
“Beat me daddy eight to the bar,” the young man nodded his head. “That’s ace. My name’s Huxley. Huxley Allworth,” he shook DJ’s hand with a firm grip and vigor. “Got any more?”
DJ dug into his jacket pocket and pulled out a wad of napkins from the night before and smoothed them out on the bar. The young man plucked one and read it out loud before DJ could object. DJ cocked his head and listened as the young man recited his words and snapped his fingers .
“You gotta meet my pals, champ,” Huxley said. “They are gonna flip their wigs over this.”
DJ’s mouth hung open. “Huh?”
“You know, they’re gonna think you’re that cat’s meow, baby,” Huxley leaned back on his bar stool and snapped his fingers. “Your words are off the hook.”
Huxley clapped DJ on the back. “Come on Daddio,” he stood up and pulled DJ off his barstool, “let’s go meet the boys.”
DJ gathered up his wad of napkins, his poetry, and hurried after Huxley as he headed through the smoky haze toward the stage and the musicians, dodging men in uniform as they jitterbugged drunkenly on the dance floor.
Chapter 4 by Victoria Doerper (1666 words)
Felix trailed behind Margaret into the mess of trunks and cardboard boxes heaped like motley flotsam and jetsam. It looked as if the effluent of Derwent Lassiter’s long and unlovely life had surged, crested, and broken in chaotic chunks onto the pristine shore of Margaret’s glass-walled corner office.
“Wow” said Felix, standing in front of Margaret’s desk and surveying the room, “what a lot of work you’ve got ahead of you!””
But Margaret, hunched in the chair behind her desk, eyes brimming, did not hear him. She rested her arms on the cool slick surface and stared down at her wood-grained reflection. She didn’t want to see Felix or the boxes. Her thoughts spun and thrashed like clothes in a washing machine set for the heaviest cycle. How could this have happened to her? This was supposed to be her first real success, a triumph for Special Collections. The ceremony had gone so well, and even now she felt the warm glow of praise and public accolades (albeit grudging) from the President of the Library Foundation Board. A sudden surge of adrenaline shocked her out of her self-pity. Oh no! Lloyd Jones! Did he already know about the delivery this morning? Of course he must. What would he think when he saw this mess? No, she thought with panic, he absolutely CANNOT see this. That thought immediately tumbled aside and another took its place—the office walls are glass, how could he not notice?
The image of Lloyd Jones and his little snitch Vanessa Ames striding in to examine this debacle of an acquisition made her queasy. She glanced around the room, imagining how they might see it. Maybe the peacock feather wasn’t so bad; in fact, it was somewhat poetic, wasn’t it? But the rubber chicken with a roach clip? The stuffed monkey? Who knew what other despicable items lurked within the six enormous shipping trunks and the wobbly stacks of boxes that now leaned like inebriated sailors against the walls of her beautiful, beloved office.
While Margaret had her moment, Felix sprang into restless action. His foot tapped as his eyes roved the boxes and settled on one directly in front of him, a shipping carton that had once, if the torn label were to be believed, contained twelve bottles of that formerly well-known cheap swill Annie Green Springs. What did it hold now? His thin, graceful fingers picked up a folded poster that revealed a replica of an announcement for a gallery opening of Jackson Pollock’s work. Felix sneezed, sending dust motes spraying into the afternoon’s waning sunlight. Setting aside the refolded poster, he continued his rummaging in the box and unearthed a marionette, which he gingerly released from the jumble. A crudely carved wooden figure of Pinocchio emerged, along with the odor of mold. Felix coughed. The puppet, with painted yellow hat, white gloves, red britches, and scuffed black shoes, looked down its long nose with an incredulous, mocking expression on its daubed face. Felix untangled the dusty strings, held the control bar aloft, and swung the wooden puppet with its flaking paint over to Margaret’s polished walnut desk.
“My name is Derwent,” Felix mimicked, doing his best ventriloquist imitation as he clacked and jitterbugged the character up and down, “and I collect many… many… many…in-ter-est-ing things.”
Felix jauntily marched the Pinocchio/Derwent figure across the desk, and when he reached the far edge, he swiveled the puppet around and dramatically launched in to the first lines from Angel at the Barroom Brawl:
She swallowed my hungry unshaven kisses until a fist,
sudden as betrayal, shattered the lights. I’ll never know
if my broken-handed pain spilled darkness down her brow,
or the mirrored faces soaked like blood-backed shots of tomorrow…
“That is not funny,” Margaret snapped.
“Just trying to lighten things up,” Felix said. “This is a lot of crap to go through, but it could be interesting. Take this marionette, for instance. Maybe it’s a valuable piece from one of those historical European puppet operas.”
“What the hell are you talking about?” asked Margaret, who never swore out loud.
“Puppets in operas. You know, like Don Giovanni.”
“Felix, I know what puppets are. I know what opera is.”
Lord help me, thought Margaret. This is worse than talking to Andrew about cats jousting at windmills on a theater stage. Breathe, she commanded herself, just breathe.
It was almost five o’clock, and Rebecca, heavy purse slung over her shoulder, paused outside the office door.
“Margaret, I was just wondering whether I could help with this?”
“Rebecca, bless you,” sighed Margaret. “Absolutely yes. It’s too late today, but if you could clear your calendar and meet with me first thing in the morning, we can discuss it.”
Margaret turned to Felix. “Did you want to meet with us tomorrow, Felix?”
Felix smiled. “Oh, I would, but I’ve got student office hours, and then a class to teach, and then papers to grade.”
“Yes, of course you do,” Margaret replied in exasperation. “One more question. Did you see the actual letters and papers when you were visiting Derwent?”
Felix looked hurt. “Yes, I’ve said I did,” he responded. “There are maybe two or three from Ginsberg, at least one from Kerouac, and I think I remember a letter from McClure, or maybe he was just mentioned in the correspondence. Then there was Brautigan, but I don’t know about Snyder. Derwent seemed quite proud to show several thick file folders of letters to me, like a child performing his “show-and-tell” for the teacher. He might have had more that I didn’t see. He didn’t actually let me read them.”
“Fine then,” said Margaret. She stood up. “Rebecca, you’re a life-saver. I’ll see you first thing tomorrow. Have a nice evening.”
Thank goodness Rebecca would cope, thought Margaret, she always did.
“Have fun unpacking,” Felix said to Margaret as he prepared to leave the office a few minutes later. “There should be lots to chew on when we finally gather the papers together. Oh, that reminds me.” He reached into the pocket of his coat and brought out a Choc-o-Nibs bar. “Want one to chew on before you get dinner?”
Margaret shook her head. She wasn’t sure she would ever be able to look at a chocolate bar in the same way again.
That night, Andrew didn’t call and Margaret didn’t care. She was too exhausted and emotionally drained to care. After that fiasco of a day, she already sat next to the only company she wanted—the purring Frito and a glass of good, sturdy, reliable Cabernet Sauvignon.
When Margaret got to the office the next morning, Rebecca was already sitting in the visitor chair, yellow pad in hand. She had numbered the boxes and trunks with archive labels, and had marked each sheet on her pad to correspond with the container numbers. On the desk was a scalding hot cup of Margaret’s favorite tea next to a flaky croissant on a china plate, flanked by a folded linen napkin.
Margaret sighed, her anxiety soothed. “Goodness, Rebecca, when did you get here this morning anyway?”
Rebecca smiled. “Around 6:30. My sister agreed to stay the night and then cope with Mom while I work long hours here for the next few days. I’m so lucky.”
Margaret nodded and said, “Looks like you’ve gotten the containers organized. It’s important that we process this material as quickly as possible. I can help out in between my meetings and other deadlines, but would you like me to find a work-study student to help you?”
Margaret trusted Rebecca but was not too sure about the students. She certainly didn’t want any papers damaged or overlooked by someone who didn’t understand their importance.
“Why don’t we both do a few boxes together this morning?” Rebecca suggested, “I can dig around in them and show you what I find. You can note it down. Then we’ll have a better idea of how much time it will take to go through each container.”
Margaret agreed to this simple plan. They decided to start with the largest trunk, Container Number 3. As Margaret nervously cradled her teacup, Rebecca fiddled with the hasp and opened the lid. They both peered inside.
Wrinkled, folded, and disintegrating balled up wads of napkins.
Into the disappointed silence, Rebecca said briskly, “This just looks like packing material, “ and swept the detritus onto the floor. “Oh,” she exclaimed, “right underneath that it looks like some letters or something.”
Margaret leaned over Rebecca and plucked a wrinkled piece of stationary from the trunk. Hand written in a sprawling cursive. No date. She began to read the note aloud:
I sent the birthday card as a peace offering. You didn’t need to write back to say you still tend your grudge against me, like, how did you put it, “a fiery flower in your wounded heart.” Dear, your poetry seems to have declined and clichéd as the years have passed.
I have forgiven you for maligning me with your friends when you knew how important they were to me at the time. If you hadn’t done that, I never would have tried to trade on your little untruth that I stumbled upon so many years ago. I regret that I tried to manipulate you. But it didn’t work anyway, and now it’s all over since the other parties have died. I thought you might want to know that…
“Is there another page there?” Margaret asked. Rebecca looked.
“No,” she replied, “this next one just seems to be a shopping list.”
They both jumped at the loud knock on the office door.
“Hi, I’m Jake,” explained the tall, thickly-muscled student who leaned into the doorway, “I’m in Professor Ingersoll’s class and I helped move these boxes up here yesterday. He sent me over to see how things are going. I don’t know what you’re working on, but he wants me to help you.”
Chapter 5 by Frances Howard-Snyder (1906 words)
Jake lumbered into the room, all six three and 250 pounds of muscle of him. “I hear there’s poetry to be read and catalogued,” he said. “There’s nothing I love more than a fine poem.
Margaret nodded. She had been young and passionate about poetry once. Truth be told, she still harbored a secret passion for the literary arts. Like many people closely or loosely associated with universities, publishing and libraries, she was laboring away at a secret novel, although she’d be embarrassed to admit it. “How original” they would say, snickering, keeping mum about their own secret manuscripts. Better to keep it under wraps and only reveal it when it was a brilliant success. “Wow! Margaret. We thought you were just a stage hand. We had no idea that you could be the diva.”
Still, Jake’s enthusiasm elicited mixed feelings from her already troubled breast. His attitude was charming, and hopefully, the fuel for many hours of boring work, but she knew that he was destined for some disappointment. And she was afraid that in his puppy dog enthusiasm, he might damage or miss some important item. Perhaps it might all work out to the good if he could be persuaded to follow her and Rebecca, after they had ascertained that a box contained nothing of genuine importance, to deal with rest of the contents.
She took the letter and the shopping list from Rebecca’s hand. A shopping list might turn out not to be a shopping list, but a list poem. These days any piece of writing could qualify as poetry. Well, if a urinal could be a sculpture, why shouldn’t a shopping list be poetry?
“Thank you for coming, Jake. There is lots for you to do, but it’s really, really important that you not get in the way.”
His handsome face fell a little.
She was beyond caring at this point. “If you follow my lead and do exactly as I say, your services will be invaluable. In fact, I might even find my way to writing a letter for your file.”
He smiled thinly. “I’m here to help, as I said. I wasn’t planning on taking any initiative.”
She scrutinized him through narrowed lids. Was he going to be difficult? Or did he simply want to alert her to the fact that he was a human being with feelings like herself, an intelligent person who cared about poetry and important papers and shouldn’t be assumed to be a stumbling grunt? She decided to give him the benefit of the doubt.
“Get rid of all this packing material,” she ordered, gesturing at the wadded napkins.
“Yes, Ma’am.” He started moving, like a giant steam engine, and then stopped. “Just to be clear: You want me to put this material in the trash?”
“That’s what ‘get rid of’ means, yes.”
“Well, I didn’t want to be guilty of taking too much initiative. I’ll just run down to the janitors’ office on the sixth floor and get some plastic bags. Anything else I can pick up while I’m there?”
“Perhaps a small vacuum cleaner and a dustpan,” Rebecca said. “And why don’t you get yourself a soda and a candy bar from the vending machine.” She handed him a couple of dollars.
He pocketed the cash. “Thanks, maybe I’ll get a cup of coffee. I think I’ve eaten enough choc-o-nibs bars to last me a while.” He patted the solid slab of muscle on his abdomen, smiled engagingly, and left the room.
Jake stuffed wadded napkins into the pink plastic bag and glanced around. The two old (old to him) biddies were unpacking another box, oohing and ahhing over a couple of pages of handwriting, and dispersing old sneakers, beer bottles, and what looked like dozens of moldy communion wafers across the carpet, which would all fall to him to dispose of. Perhaps he could pick up some plastic gloves when he headed back to the janitor’s office. He tied off the plastic bags, hefted their feather weight onto his broad shoulders and headed out. He breathed a sigh as he exited Margaret’s office. This was going to be a long day. He had hoped that one of the pretty grad students, Hannah or Anya, would be working with him and he could impress her with his sensitivity and sophistication. Guys were so outnumbered in the English department, it wasn’t hard to get a date. He sometimes pitied the straight girls. But to his chagrin, it was just Ms. Harper and Ms. McShane today – neither of whom he wanted to date.
Suddenly his feet slid out from under him, and he landed on a newly wet floor.
“Sorry.” A skinny, big-eyed man, in the blue uniform leaned over him holding out a large gloved hand.
Jake allowed himself to be pulled up.
“Sorry. I just dumped cleaning fluid on that stretch of floor. I would have put up a cone, but I didn’t anticipate anyone coming through here on a Saturday morning.”
“No worries,” Jake said rubbing his elbow. He had a policy, deeply woven into his being, of not getting angry at unintentional slights. People had rough lives. There was no point in making them more difficult, especially where there was no malice intended.
“At least let me help you clean up this mess,” the fellow said. “The name’s Hud by the way.”
One of the bags had fallen open, spilling its contents onto the wet floor. Somehow Jake had failed to close it properly. Hud started picking up wet napkins. He unfolded one. “Hey, this looks like a love note. Did you mean to chuck it out?”
Jake leaned over and gently took the damp napkin from Hud’s hand. The handwriting was small and tight. Jake was no expert but it could be the same as the handwriting on the shopping list he’d seen Margaret holding, very different from the letter he’d heard half of. He looked at the spilled contents of the bag, and the other neatly cinched bags. God, this was like finding Hemingway’s waste paper basket, like emptying Hemingway’s waste paper basket into the trash!
Jake hesitated. Should he return the plastic bags to Margaret’s office or should he explore their contents without her assistance? He knew what he should do? But what was he going to do? That was the question. “Hey, Hud,” he said. “Would there be an office or other room that is open where I could spread these napkins out to see whether there’s anything worth bothering the boss about.”
Hud grinned and patted the heavy, jangly cluster of keys on his hip. A few minutes later, he helped Jake deliver the three plastic bags to a small windowless room with a computer and screen.
Jake realized that Margaret would start wondering where he was pretty soon. Maybe he could leave the door closed and unlocked, run back to her office, get some task that would occupy him for half an hour and then return here and survey his haul. He figured that he probably had a few minutes before she started worrying. She’d just think he was one of those lazy young fellows more interested in playing with their phones than doing the job, loitering in the hallway playing 2048 or texting some girl. In a few minutes, he could get some sense of how many of the napkins were written on. It could be that the one Hud had found was a freak occurrence.
He spilled the contents of the first bag onto the desk and eagerly started unfolding and turning over napkins. The first few were blank or defiled with suspicious brownish red stains that could be blood or red wine. Again, Jake wished for gloves. But he had no time for caution.
The seventh napkin was written on and so was the fifteenth. He didn’t pause to read what he found, but kept sifting. If a napkin was entirely free of text he would ball it up and throw it in the trashcan which was soon overflowing. Margaret must think he’d gone AWOL. Oh well, she wouldn’t be able to find him in here and if she was angry, his career would be more than redeemed by the finds he was accumulating.
He heard Rebecca calling him and quietly shut the door. Her heavy steps sounded in the passage way. He heard her ask the janitor about him but heard no reply. Presumably Hud just shrugged or made a “he went thataway” gesture. Jake heard Rebecca’s footsteps retreating. Hud had instinctively taken his side. Jake was glad he’d been gracious about the painful fall. He rubbed his right elbow again, finding the pain almost pleasant.
He started scrutinizing his finds. Too vain to wear glasses, he sometimes had a difficult time with freshman handwriting especially in low light. So, he took out his cell phone and directed the strong flashlight at the dinky little words.
Salt in the wound
Drain cleaner in the milk
turning into bluer than skim
Sandpaper on the testicles. Life with you.
Hmm… No wonder Derwent threw this in the trash. Even Jake could tell it was horrible. But then he remembered that one of his professors – Sally Haslanger – had argued that the idea that some art was superior to other art was an elitist, bourgeois construction. All art was equally worthy of attention. Professor Ingersoll disagreed but then Professor Ingersoll wore a bow tie and yellow suspenders. Professor Haslanger wore fishnet stockings (with irony) and had the legs to carry it off. You’re not supposed to think like that, Jake, he reminded himself. Sometimes he felt pushed and pulled by his life as an English student in ways that were almost too excruciating to bear, and sometimes he found the creative tension exciting.
He heard a soft knock on the door and quickly shut off his flashlight. Someone tried the handle. Jake hoped it was Hud bringing him coffee. The door moved.
Rebecca put her head around the door. “I saw a light, and wondered whether it was you. Margaret’s found something. She’s really keen to get your help.” She stepped into the room and noticed the napkins, some tightly balled and others carefully unfolded.
Jake could read her face interpreting, figuring out what he was doing.
“You found something?” she said.
“Oh, I’m just taking out the trash,” Jake said sheepishly. “Isn’t that what the grad student is supposed to do?”
Rebecca picked up one of the napkins and perused it through the bottom part of her tri-focals. “Except it isn’t trash. And you know that.”
“Well, I wouldn’t say ‘know’. My philosophy professor in college said that you can’t know something if you don’t have a high degree of certainty about it and I don’t–.”
“Don’t play word games with me, young man. These documents belong to the library and Ms. Harper is in charge of them. You need to return them – intact – to Ms. Harper’s office in the next three minutes or I will call the police and have you arrested for theft.”
“I had no intention.. I was just checking… I was going to bring them…” Jake muttered till Rebecca’s fierce expression ground his stumbling excuses to a halt.
She stood there watching as he carefully piled up the napkins that had writing on them, handed them to her, and then lifted the still closed pink plastic bags onto his shoulder.
Chapter 6 by Linda Q. Lambert (1277 words)
For twenty years, Vanessa Ames had done every job at the library from tedious (cataloging) to odious (dismissing a staff member with hygiene problems). She had a can do attitude, no matter the task.
Secure more work study students and interns from disciplines like English, Anthropology, and even the STEM department, well, why not? Her persuasive powers had cross-disciplinary results. Ingersoll and Dwyer and six others stepped right up and signed the paperwork.
Lead the management team in the massive effort that resulted in the library’s designation as an ACRL (Association of College and Research Libraries) Library of the Year, the coveted annual award given to only one academic library in the United States? No problem. Done in 2012.
Organize the library’s archives, digitize photographs of the university’s history, garner the number one position in in the “Top Ten Cool Library Sites”? Sure.
Yet she still remained an “Assistant Librarian.” Despite the persistent pressure of the faculty union, university administration would not reclassify her or the other mis-described librarian assistants, despite their library degrees. They retained the archaic handles comparable institutions had ditched decades earlier. The only librarian designated a Faculty Librarian was the director.
The University administration did throw the library a crumb. They would create a library foundation—an anomaly in the usual constellation of academic library org charts, and if the library foundation raised copious amounts of money for adding to the collection––the university would raise salaries in the operations budgets.
It didn’t take Vanessa much time to apply Boolean Logic (and/or/but) to know that the promise had a big “but” connected with the “if.”
She was wrong. They did raise copious amounts of money. They also raised their target goal to $1million dollars before they let their sweet bank account segue into the university coffers. The five-member board was conservative; they wanted to insure the fund’s sustainability.
Lloyd Jones, high-minded, high-rolling real estate developer disagreed, persuading the board to release $75k to the library that could be transferred from General Collections to a new faculty library position. After all, the reputation of Special Collections, particularly its digital presence, had grown; researchers still came from all over the country, but now they could access the collection over the net. He made his argument. A position would add additional stature to the library and the university in general. He won.
The University administration, acknowledging the Library Foundation’s role in the “financial health of the library,” included one of the five Foundation board members on its hiring committees in an advisory, non-voting capacity.
Lloyd Jones was exultant when he was asked to attend the day-long presentations and interviews for the head of Special Collections. He was sure his long-time friend Vanessa would be the recipient. She was the obvious choice. She’d put in twenty years at the library and earned her library degree from the #1 ranked school, the University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign. The position was announced. Interviews were scheduled for three months out.
Few people knew Lloyd Jones. He had moved to the community in 2005, having made his fortune in San Francisco. He had never married, lived in a waterfront condo, traveled extensively, frequented the local independent bookstore, collected rare books as a hobby, and distributed funds to local non-profits. He combined a low profile with high style. Though he’d been asked by the fresh farm market and a home-grown savings and loan bank, he had never served on a board.
He had a favorite spot in the university library which was where Vanessa noticed him and introduced herself.
“I see that you read the New York Times almost every day.”
“I do,” he said. “I like the print edition and they don’t deliver it to my zip code. I can usually find it here by noon.”
After that, she made sure that the work study students put The Times out first thing.
She didn’t know him but she turned in his name in 2010 when the university asked for suggestions for the Library Foundation She just had a hunch.
He accepted. He had tried to live a quieter life, suppressing the exuberant, boisterous, opinioned sales person that made him successful, but when he joined the Library Foundation there was no shushing him when it came to fund raising, and no squelching the contrary opinions he frequently espoused.
That was especially so when the hiring committee announced its decision.
“We are pleased to announce that we have hired Margaret Harper as our new faculty librarian and head of Special Collections. She has ten years experience and is a graduate of the SJSU School of Information Science.”
He exploded at the next Board meeting. “San Jose State University! What! It’s number 35 on the list. What about Vanessa’s background, her experience here?!”
“There’s nothing we can do,” the Board President said. The University President and the hiring committee have the last say. Perhaps the reference checks and phone calls put Ms. Harper over the top. Perhaps we’ll be very happy with her performance and her improvement of Special Collections.”
Lloyd had glimpsed her in the hall as she waited for her interview. She had pulled out a picture, turned her back slightly, and kissed it. She would never overcome that first impression.
His disgust over that gesture turned to animosity when she proposed the Derwent Lassiter acquisition. For which Lloyd Jones had a very personal aversion.
He was born in 1963, the progeny of aging beatniks who never grew up, but decided towards the end of their thirties that their ecstatic and eclectic genetic stream, should be continued. They were part of Derwent Lassiter’s Circle.
Lloyd’s father was not William S. Burroughs, who, along with Jack Kerouac, chronicled a grisly murder in And Hippos Were Boiled in their Tanks. It wasn’t Gregory Corso, the orphaned child who ended up in prison and then met Ginsberg and they both Howled. It wasn’t Ferlinghetti who opened up a decent, long-lived bookstore called City Lights and who foamed at the mouth in The Tentative Description of a Dinner to Promote the Impeachment of President Eisenhower. Nor was it Derwent who merely foamed at the mouth with nothing poetic to offer. His mother was not Derwent’s sister, Anne, who though she withheld her affection from Derwent, withheld nothing from “the boys” that her brother introduced her to during a time when she sought to divest herself of her Good Girl image. No, it was none of those boys and their girlfriends. It was just a couple of hanger on nobodies who sought to free poetry from the pedants of academia and return it to the streets.
My parents’ poetry, thought Lloyd, was no more substantive than the ingredients on a Choc-o-bit wrapper. Never mind their names. I’ve tried to forget them, live my life altogether differently, happier, more honorable than theirs. Now they’re back in my face.
* * *
Jake deposited the pink plastic bags at Margaret Harper’s feet and smiled broadly.
“I think you’ll find some interesting writing in there,” he said.
Margaret stared hard at Jake. “Remember how I said it was really important that you not get in the way?”
He nodded. Leaning against the door jam, he shifted his weight. Uh oh.
“It’s best that you go back to Professor Ingersoll’s class. We can’t have dishonest students mishandling material of immeasurable value. Don’t count on any letters in your file from me.”
He turned and left.
On the way back to Ingersoll’s class, he stopped in at Vanessa Ames office.
“I’d like to lodge a complaint.” He filled out the form, handed it to Vanessa, who reached for her phone to text Lloyd.
Chapter 7 by Marian Exall (1789 words)
Vanessa checked the time: still half-an-hour until she was due to meet Lloyd Jones for lunch to discuss strategy. Disappointing that he had chosen Il Sole Mio, a cheap Italian joint, for their rendezvous. In the evenings, the restaurant and bar was favored by students, but the usual lunchtime crowd consisted more of low-level university employees, janitors, secretaries and the like. She would have preferred the Faculty Club, but only one person associated with the library had faculty privileges that included membership in that elegant institution: Margaret Harper, who probably couldn’t tell steak tartare from hamburger meat.
Although she was proud of the professionally neutral way she had handled the interview with Jake, Vanessa couldn’t resist a fist pump in the air as the door closed behind him. She glanced guiltily over her shoulder through the floor-to-ceiling plate glass that converted her second-floor office into a fish bowl (no expansive corner space for her). She hated this building. Designed in the Eighties by a peer of Frank Gehry with an eye focused exclusively on international architectural awards, the glass-and-steel concept ignored the human dimension, favoring bold statement over simple creature comfort. The tinted glass was supposed to filter the sun’s rays and prevent the intrusion of outside eyes; it proved inadequate to both tasks. In summer, the air-conditioning groaned in the struggle with furnace-like indoor temperatures. Worse, in Vanessa’s opinion, were the dark days of winter. She would resist turning on the lights long into the afternoon, knowing that as soon as she did, the exterior world would be plunged into black while she would be left as exposed and vulnerable as an actor in the spotlight. Who knew what strangers prowled the band of evergreens that surrounded the building? When darkness fell, she sensed their anonymous gaze, but all she could see when she turned to confront them was her own reflection in the glass: a tall, slim woman with blonde hair pulled back into a French pleat, well-tailored clothes – she devoted a substantial portion of her salary to her wardrobe – and a pale oval face, adorned with one touch of irony: oversized horn-rimmed glasses. Lady librarian glasses, Lloyd teased.
She finished typing up the information gleaned from Jake onto her computer, and placed the document into a newly created, password-protected file, innocuously named “Work Study Project.” She locked the written complaint form in her desk drawer under a stack of other papers. Her watch informed her there was still ten minutes before she needed to leave the building. She decided to pay a visit to the eighth floor. No, not to give Margaret notice of the complaint lodged against her – that could wait until after her discussion with Lloyd – but just to see if she could glean anything further about the Special Collections shambles Jake had described.
Margaret Harper’s office door was closed. That was not unusual. Since her appointment the previous year, Margaret had demonstrated a defensiveness towards most of her colleagues that might be explained by her speedy realization that some of them were better qualified for her position than she was. Her friendship with Al Rabinowitz was the exception. But Al was a thoroughly nice man and friend to all. Unlike many in his geeky branch of library science, Al was always willing to explain computer mysteries in plain language, and patiently hold the hand of neophytes. Margaret Harper had needed more help than most.
However, Margaret’s alliance with Professor Ingersoll puzzled Vanessa. It was not surprising that the new Director of Special Collections should seek Felix out – he loudly advertised his many connections to the current enfants terribles of the literary world – but that he should bother with her? Perhaps his vanity needed a new audience. Certainly, Harper had bought Ingersoll’s claim to have obtained access to the late Derwent Lassiter’s papers hook, line and sinker, which was what brought Vanessa to her present stance, ear-to-door, trying to make out the muffled voices inside.
Giving up on the attempt, Vanessa rapped smartly and waited the requisite two beats before turning the handle. The door was locked! How paranoid was that! She knocked again. A half-minute passed before the sound of a dead bolt being drawn, and Rebecca McShane’s moon face appeared around the edge of the door.
“Hi, just need a quick word with Margaret.” Vanessa made a move forward. Rebecca’s hefty frame remained, blocking the gap.
“She’s, um, rather tied up at present. Can I make an appointment for you for tomorrow?”
“No. It will only take a minute.” Vanessa might be forty pounds lighter but she had a four-inch height advantage and a will of steel. Rebecca ceded passage.
“Oh, my!” Vanessa stood just inside the door. Piled either side of a narrow path to Margaret’s desk by the window were cardboard boxes, some leaking their contents at the seams, and other random containers such as trash bags, grocery sacks, suitcases and even an old steamer trunk. Detritus of various sorts littered the floor: Choc-o-Nibs wrappers, scraps of kitchen paper, even some dried-up orange peel. In the box immediately to her left, Vanessa noted what seemed to be the contents of Derwent Lassiter’s bathroom: an open package of Depends, toenail clippers, various tubes of over-the-counter unguents, several miniature bottles of shampoo purloined from chain hotels, and even a tooth mug, complete with two frayed toothbrushes and an almost empty tube of toothpaste. This was even better than Jake described. Vanessa arranged her features into an expression of concern and advanced towards her boss.
“Well, quite a treasure trove you have here!” Vanessa attempted a tinkley laugh, but knew it sounded unconvincing, so resumed her kindly approach. “I can see you have a lot of work ahead of you.”
“Yes, exactly. So I really don’t have time to chat at the moment, Vanessa.” Margaret looked up from the scraps of crumpled paper arranged on her desk – were they used bar napkins? – and surveyed her colleague with reddened eyes. Tears or tiredness? Vanessa experienced a momentary pang of sympathy.
“I just wanted to see if you needed any help. I could get a couple of work study—”
“No! I’d rather sort through this myself. Rebecca’s all the help I need.”
“Hmm.” Vanessa paused, looking around at the jumble of household contents. “You haven’t found any of those papers yet, then, the ones Professor Ingersoll said he saw, the ones the library paid $35,000 for?”
“On the contrary, we’ve found lots of interesting stuff!” Margaret gestured at the top of her desk. “Lots of drafts of …. drafts,” she ended lamely. “And letters …. parts of letters … might be letters.” Margaret stiffened her shoulders and pulled herself upright in her chair. “There’s years of research for Lassiter scholars here.”
This time, Vanessa didn’t have to fake her laughter.
“Lassiter scholars? Well, I’m not sure even Leonardo da Vinci scholars would pay $35,000 for a used toothbrush!” Vanessa could not quite make out the writing on the napkins from her upside-down angle. One looked like it might be a shopping list: was that ‘bacon, cheese, Kleenex …’?
“Is there anything else?” Margaret’s voice was icy.
“No-o, don’t think so. If you reconsider the work-study help, just let me know. Professor Ingersoll has some promising students who would be eager to get involved.” Knowing she had Jake’s complaint under lock and key, this was perhaps needlessly cruel. It was time to leave.
Vanessa stopped by her office for her Donna Karan trenchcoat, made a pit stop in the Women’s Room to check her hair and make-up, then descended to the underground parking decks to reclaim her Prius. The restaurant was only five minutes’ walk away but the rain was relentless, November already on track to being the wettest month on record. The weather and the ever-shortening days depressed her. She should be used to it by now, but she wasn’t. If she envied Margaret Harper anything besides her position at the library it was her California upbringing. She had brought it with her, at least initially: an optimism and openness that seemed typical of those raised in sunshine. Perhaps those qualities had won her the job. Lloyd Jones had the same characteristic: his Bay Area background imbued him with a buoyancy she found intensely attractive. He was smart and successful, and not ashamed to show it. Their friendship offered a bright spot in her otherwise humdrum existence.
“Any plans for Thanksgiving?”
The conversation had taken place a week ago after they had gone over the Library Foundation Board’s monthly meeting agenda.
“Not really. My family – what’s left of it – is all in the mid-west, and I can’t face air travel during the holidays. How about you?”
“I have a condo on Lanai. It’s usually rented out, but I’ve just had a cancellation, so I was thinking …” She knew he was divorced with adult children, and had assumed he’d be with one or other of them. “But if you don’t like to travel—”
“Hawaii in November: that’s different,” she replied a little too eagerly. “Um, who else is going?” Ah, she saw it now: his bitchy daughter and her snotty-faced kid. She’d be expected to babysit while they had father-daughter time.
“Oh, no one else. There’s two bedrooms, each with their own bathroom and balcony. Anyway, think about it. No rush.”
She had been thinking about it – a lot. Today at lunch she would tell him she’d go.
* * *
No surprise: Il Sole Mio did not offer valet parking. She ran from a parking space down the street, hugging the buildings for shelter. Ten minutes after the hour: fashionably late, but not rudely so. Time enough for Lloyd to have found a table, perhaps ordered a bottle of wine.
Yes, it was a workday, and drinking at lunchtime was definitely against policy, but today felt more like a celebration than a business meeting.
A teenage girl with too much make-up greeted her mechanically at the hostess station.
“Table for one?”
“Actually, I’m meeting someone. He’s probably already here.” She handed the girl her dripping raincoat. The girl looked at it in bewilderment, but Vanessa had already moved on into the restaurant proper. She scanned the room, searching for the familiar tanned face with slightly too-long gray hair brushed back from a high forehead.
Lloyd Jones was seated on a banquette about halfway down, his left profile towards her. He was wearing a well-cut tweed jacket over a black turtle-neck, capable brown hands fiddling with a glass containing amber-colored liquid. He looked tense.
Across the table from him, leaning forward to make a point, was tenured English professor and noted friend of the literati, Felix Ingersoll.
Chapter 8 by Jennifer Wilke (1,842 words)
Rebecca re-bolted Margaret’s office door immediately upon Vanessa’s departure. Margaret turned off the telephone to stop incoming calls, then she and Margaret resumed coping with Derwent Lassiter’s detritus. They worked in silence, each conducting her own tasks with an attention to detail for which librarians, though Rebecca was technically not a librarian––are rightfully renowned. Neither of them spoke. They were besieged allies in the arduous—desperate—challenge to find enough of literary value in the mess surrounding them to redeem the Foundation’s expenditure of $35,000 at Margaret’s request.
Margaret sat hunched at her desk, wearing white cotton gloves, carefully sorting through the vast pile of wadded napkins she had retrieved from the three bags Jake had attempted to hijack en route to the trash. After painstakingly unfolding and inspecting each napkin, front and back, she smoothed any with writing and set them carefully into an in-basket she’d appropriated for the purpose. She did not take the time to decipher Lassiter’s scrawl, only to confirm that there was something written on the thin napkin paper. Those that were entirely blank she wadded up again and dropped into her trash can, which was filling rapidly.
Rebecca’s task, because she was excellent at organizing, was to conduct a complete inventory of the contents of each container, which she had already counted (fifty-seven) and labeled. After removing what she confirmed was actual packing materials without any of Lassiter’s nearly illegible writing—old newspapers, packing peanuts, bubble wrap—she listed the container’s contents. She wrote in block letters in a bound ledger, dating and initialing each page. She chose descriptive words as plain as possible, hoping to conceal her personal opinion about the mental stability of a man who collected useless junk and had somehow gained a reputation as a poetic genius:
Container Number Two:
- One (1) snake, rubber, green
- Two (2) pom-poms, green and white
- One (1) roll of toilet paper, partially used
- One (1) men’s bedroom slipper, fleece-lined, used
- Fourteen (14) No. 2 pencils, unsharpened
She continued her work, container by container. But more than one tear rolled down her cheeks in dismay that her considerable library experience and skills were in thrall to such a demeaning task. She would never have done it, except for her loyalty to Margaret, whose goose, Rebecca suspected, was cooked the moment Vanessa looked into the office. From Vanessa’s conniving mouth to Lloyd Jones’s conniving ear. Two untrustworthy peas in a pod.
When Rebecca opened Container No. 14, a cloud of dust made her sneeze, which startled Margaret into looking up. Only a small pile of wadded napkins needing inspection remained on her desk, and a frustratingly small pile of written-on napkins had accumulated in the in-basket.
“We should take a break,” Margaret said, stretching her back and fighting her fear that their efforts to find the treasures she’d been promised would not lead to success. She also fought the feeling of betrayal that her longtime friend and ally Felix Ingersoll might not have told her the exact truth about Derwent Lassiter’s literary estate. Why hadn’t he canceled all the day’s obligations to be here helping to sort out this fiasco? She was the one facing considerable censure if this acquisition turned out to be of no value. She had a mind to march into his classroom and insist that he join their efforts.
“I want to keep going,” Rebecca said. “Get this over with.” She groaned to see that this container was filled with bags of Choc-O-Nibs. One of the bags was open so she helped herself to a wrapped candy. They were good, she had to admit, crunchy and gooey with caramel and chocolate. Heavenly.
Margaret made a pot of coffee in the kitchen cubby, then looked out the window while she waited for it to brew. One minute the campus walkways below were empty, and the next they filled with a rush of students as classes changed. The building’s stylish walls of glass insulated her from every sound of real campus life, which she had always appreciated, allowing serenity to reign in her Special Collections aerie. But she knew she would only keep this lofty position if she could turn Lassiter’s apparent discards into the literary find of the year. She had to finish this sorting quickly. She had to find the diamond in the haystack. The ruby in the rushes. It had to be here. The aroma of the coffee steeled her resolve, and sips of the hot, fair trade brew renewed her energy for another go at the mysterious and maddening discards of Derwent Lassiter’s messy, throwaway life.
Rebecca declined Margaret’s offer of a fresh cup of coffee, but extended the bag of Choc-O-Nibs to Margaret. “Have one.”
“We shouldn’t eat the evidence,” Margaret said in mild rebuke. “These are technically university property.”
“Take one, they’re good,” Rebecca said. And because Rebecca knew that Margaret liked doing everything according to the library’s Personnel Code of Ethical Conduct, she added, “I dare you. I’m not going to inventory how many individual pieces of candy are in this bag or this whole box.”
“What the hay.” Margaret defiantly took a piece of the candy that had built the empire that allowed the late Mr. Lassiter to live a wanton and in the end, reclusive life. His last days—in fact, his whole life—seemed sad and lonely. Maybe Margaret would find the hidden papers and redeem the poor man’s reputation, which might not do him any good but which stood to add considerable shine to Margaret’s standing in the rarified world of Special Collections, and with the Foundation’s Board president.
Margaret enjoyed the candy so much that, once she had crossed the line of propriety, she reached again into the bag for another Choc-O-Nib.
“You’re living dangerously,” Rebecca teased.
“There’s something in here,” Margaret told Rebecca, her hand still in the candy bag. “Something that’s not candy.”
“What is it?”
Margaret put the bag on her desk and extracted an oddly shaped object. Rebecca came to watch. In the light, the object proved to be a piece of paper folded many times, into a tight and bulky wad. Margaret unfolded it carefully, revealing a letter written on a manual typewriter by someone who did not type or spell well. The letter was undated.
TO WHOME IT MAY CONCERN:
Anything of value is with Morrisey, Fergus & Lafferty. They’re waiting for someone to aks for it back. DJ
Margaret gasped. Did this mean Lassiter hadn’t been as crazy as they were led to believe, that he’d had the foresight to give his literary legacy to lawyers to preserve? Had he done it years ago, when manual typewriters were the state of the art?
Rebecca turned on Margaret’s computer and Googled Morrisey, Fergus & Lafferty law firm.
“No hits.” She tried Morrisey Fergus, then Fergus Lafferty then Morrisey Lafferty, then each name individually, expanding her search to the greater metropolitan area, then the region, then the state. No hits.
“Maybe it’s not a law firm,” Margaret said. “What kind of characters would Lassiter have known through the years?”
Rebecca opened the file containing Derwent Lassiter’s biography that the absent Felix had written for the successful acquisition proposal Margaret had made to the Foundation board.
Rebecca read the screen display quickly. “A jazz ensemble,” she volunteered.
“A publisher?” Margaret wondered.
Rebecca retrieved her cell phone from her purse and dialed. “My grandfather,” she told Margaret while she waited. “He’s lived around here forever. Maybe he’ll recognize the names.”
* * *
Rebecca sat behind the wheel of her Toyota, Margaret in the passenger seat, parked outside a law office in an old Victorian house. With information from Rebecca’s grandfather and a bit more Googling, they had discovered that Morrisey, Fergus & Lafferty had in fact been a law firm until a decade ago, when the last partner had passed away. But the original’s namesake, George Lafferty II, had a law practice of his own in town now. His receptionist ably and efficiently found time in her boss’s schedule for Margaret and Rebecca to visit him that afternoon at four o’clock, due to the seriousness with which Rebecca had described their “urgent matter of vital concern to the university library’s Special Collections and its Foundation.”
“We’ll have to be casual,” Margaret said.
“Funny little ladies from the library,” Rebecca agreed. “Curious about a puzzling note we found by accident as we were cleaning the shelves.”
“Stop it,” Margaret said. “We’ll tell him the truth and see what he knows.”
“We might come to regret that.”
“I’ll go in alone,” Margaret decreed. “It is never a good idea to lie to the police, or to a lawyer.”
She got out of the car, adjusted her shawl, and proceeded down the stone path and up the porch steps to the front door. She was impressed by the restoration work on the porch rails and the window glazing. She was about to lift the shining brass knocker on the front door when she realized this was an office and all she had to do was open the door and enter. So she did. Even though she meant to tell the truth, she was spooked by Rebecca’s suggestion that the truth might not be the prudent course of action.
The reception area was small and polished, with vintage furniture and a framed mirror Margaret instantly coveted. The receptionist was an alert young woman wearing what looked like a real silk blouse. Margaret was suddenly conscious of her cotton blouse, knitted shawl, and comfortable shoes. She must look exactly like a funny little library lady.
“Miss Harper,” the young woman said, “please follow me.”
Margaret was ushered into what had been the library of the old house, with impressive floor to ceiling oak bookshelves on three walls that quite took Margaret’s breath away.
“I’m George Lafferty the Second,” said the man who stood up from the carved glass-top desk and crossed to greet Margaret. “Morrisey, Fergus and Lafferty was my father’s firm. You must be Miss Harper.”
“I am, sir.”
Lafferty’s handshake was firm, and Margaret hoped hers was too. His crooked smile was quite engaging. He was graying at the temples. His suit had been expertly tailored. He looked like a man who played tennis and usually won.
“Would you care for tea? Coffee?” he asked.
“Nothing, thank you. I appreciate your seeing me today.”
“Please have a seat.” He offered her one of the upholstered chairs, then sat across from her. “What can I do for you today, Miss Harper?”
She told him that Special Collections had recently acquired the literary papers of Derwent Lassiter’s estate and she had come upon a curious letter. She left out the drama and any description of the current state of her office and the precariousness of her tenure because of it.
She handed him the letter. “I wondered if you might be able to help us decipher the meaning of this.”
He read the letter. His laughter was charming, too. “I know exactly what it means. Follow me, Miss Harper.”
Chapter 9 by Dick Little (1973 words)
What to do with the surprising (to say the least) information Margaret had received from George Lafferty the Second, Esquire? She returned to the car and related the news to an open-mouthed Rebecca. What had they gotten themselves into along with their beloved library. They drove back to the University in silence, alone with their thoughts.
Margaret unlocked the door to her office and they threaded their way through the debris. The floor still looked like a kindergarten teacher’s worst day, but with adult detritus: the trash bags, tiny leaking shampoo bottles, Depends six-packs (yuck!), beat-up suitcases, the steamer truck with its broken latch akimbo, the damn peacock feather, and the ubiquitous Choc-O-Nibs wrappers littering the floor. Container Number Fourteen, and they weren’t even halfway through, and that didn’t count the larger, awkward items arrayed about.
Margaret slumped back in her chair, her otherwise nicely coifed hair in disarray. Her hands gripped the top of her mahogany veneer desk. She reprised the visit earlier by Vanessa Ames.
Well, wasn’t that nice of that bi—, er, busybody to offer to help? Treasure trove,” she mimicked in a tinny falsetto. “Gold-digger is more like it,” she added, reflecting on the clearly obvious “friendship” developing between Vanessa and Lloyd “Sugar Daddy” Jones.
Correctly appreciating that there was no satisfactory reply, Rebecca changed the subject. She paused from her labors and retrieved the letter scrap she and Margaret had found in the trunk, and they both reread it. “Forgiven you for maligning me . . . trade on your little untruth . . . now it’s all over since the other parties have died . . . .” What in the world, and who, and why’d the old geezer keep it? The giant stuffed monkey didn’t say, nor did the T. Rex.
It dawned on them that they hadn’t taken time for lunch. Choc-O-Nibs didn’t do it. Rebecca’s stomach began growling noisily. Her prodigious appetite was in good form and she retrieved from her Little Red Riding Hood lunch box a sandwich her sister had made and unwrapped it. Vanessa’s own tummy lurched at the thought of food, and the unmistakable odor of tuna fish.
“Listen, I think I’ll go down to the cafeteria and . . . .”
She didn’t get to finish the sentence. The office door slammed open with an enormous BANG and three figures strode into the room — two beefy guys in tight-fitting identical blue suits and a diminutive woman of indeterminate age.
“Oh God,” thought Rebecca, “I forgot to lock the door.”
“Don’t either of you move,” demanded the woman. She closed the door with a slam and locked it. “I’m Detective Saroyan, Assistant to the Curator of the Old Documents Collection at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C. My two associates here are Lieutenant Bigg and Lieutenant Schatz of the Federal Marshal Service.” She waved them away.
Bigg and Schatz negotiated the rubble and stationed themselves by the door. They fiddled with their little earpiece thingies, then stood at parade rest. The chest-level bulges beneath their dark coats were unmistakable.
Margaret recovered herself enough to stand up behind her desk. “What in the hell do you think you’re doing?”
“I’ll tell you exactly what we’re doing, Mrs. Harper, or is it ‘Mizz’ Harper?”
Under the circumstances that hurt, but not as much as the violation of her personal space, her exclusive, hard-won domain. Having little choice but to hear this out, Margaret sat back down.
The uninvited visitor said, “We are here to retrieve the papers of your recent benefactor, Derwent Lassiter.” She drew herself up to her full five feet (four-eleven, on her government ID) and handed Margaret a document that appeared to be a search warrant. Margaret looked at it, then returned it when Detective Saroyan grabbed it back — but not before Margaret glimpsed some smudged writing on the back that looked like it once said, “I <heart> you.”
“Now get somebody up here to load the rest of this stuff up, or do it yourselves,” ordered the intruder.
* * * * *
A few weeks before the present events, Peggy Saroyan (“Maudie” to her friends — in her nineties, but going on sixty, to the amazement of all) learned of the Lassiter papers. Surfing the Internet via an online librarian grapevine, she’d sat bolt upright and spilled coffee on her keyboard in the cramped Capitol Mall cubbyhole she shared with an unshaven intern from San Jose State College in California, of all places.
In a flash, she was back in the 1940s . . . .
How young they’d all been! Oh, the curious twists and turns of a long and varied life she’d led. (She’d have plenty to tell later to a memoirist friend of hers.)
Maudie had been in the U.S. only a few months — a recent refugee from Turkey — when, at a soup kitchen on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, she’d caught the eye of a friendly couple who were ladling chicken noodle soup into waiting bowls. A Mr. and Mrs. Rosenberg were doing the work of The Party, giving to the needy and proselytizing. Turned out they could afford a servant, and they hired Maudie. (They called her “Maudie” for reasons lost to time, not “Peggy” which was her Ellis Islanded American name). Time passed, and impressed by the young lady’s intelligence and friendliness, she became part of the family. Eventually, the Rosenbergs adopted her.
Maudie wanted to perfect her English, so in evenings she frequented bars and nightclubs — “juke joints,” she learned was the slang — and fell in with a friendly group of writers. One young fellow, younger than she by a few years, particularly interested her. It certainly wasn’t his looks or his gregarious manner; he had neither. But Derwent Lassiter had a resolute way about him, and he loved writing poetry. Also, he needed a friend.
They went out together, called it “dating,” and behaved themselves despite the Bohemian ambience everywhere around them — Ginsberg, Kerouac, Ferlinghetti, bee-bop and jazz. Maudie met his folks, and there was a surprise. They were loaded! Tons of money. You couldn’t walk a block in New York City without passing a newsstand or sidewalk café without seeing a rack of Choc-O-Nibs candies. And he, Derwent Lassiter, Junior, was the son and heir! Of a fortune.
All went well for awhile. There was no breakup, but Derwent and Maudie decided to part. After all, how much bad East Village poetry can one listen to? She knew she’d miss hanging out with Derwent, but if she never saw another Choc-O-Nib in her life, it’d be too soon. She moved to Washington, D.C. — “to keep an eye on things,” she’d say — and got a Civil Service job with the Smithsonian Institution. She was multilingual, had a quick wit, a winning smile, and, despite challenges in her life, or perhaps because of them, had a mischievous twinkle in her eye.
Then came what happened to the Rosenbergs.
The atomic bomb had been developed in Los Alamos, New Mexico, and dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. After the war, anti-communism was at a fever pitch. Ethel and Julius Rosenberg were accused of conspiring to commit espionage by selling Manhattan Project secrets to the Soviets. They were hauled away, convicted, and electrocuted at Sing Sing Prison in 1953.
Naturally, Maudie was devastated. Convinced that her adoptive parents had been framed, she set about finding out how. Then in her thirties, she sought out her roots back in New York City. She renewed her friendship with Derwent Lassiter, who by that time was hanging out with a young Ken Kesey, his pal Neal Cassady, and a gang that was beginning to style itself The Merry Pranksters.
Maudie asked for their help and got it. One unbelievable night in the New Mexico desert, the Merry Pranksters broke into the restyled Los Alamos complex. Electric torches waving and with much yelling of gibberish, the boys danced their way around in Guy Fawkes masks. The shouting and hijinks so distracted the guards that diminutive Maudie slipped past and made her way into the mostly deserted office of J. Robert Oppenheimer himself. She rummaged around, laid her hands on a likely folder, and escaped, eluding angry German shepherds, sweeping searchlights, and confused gendarmes who were chasing the madcaps.
Possibly exculpatory goods in her hands, back in New York she did the only thing she could think of to safekeep them. The Feds might be on her tail. She entrusted them to Derwent; who would think of checking up on an obscure poet who, not long afterward, was living somewhere in the U.S.? “Somewhere” was the correct word because Derwent went. Absconded. Didn’t call, didn’t write.
Other incriminating evidence against the Rosenbergs was later produced, and Maudie gave up. The Cold War ended, the Soviet Union was no more, and the atom bomb was so yesterday. Lots of countries had one. Ironically, even Oppenheimer himself became a target during the Red Scare of the `50s, was exiled to the University of California in Berkeley. He died in 1967. Years passed.
Using Maudie’s pleasant persona, her quick wit and smarts, she put her hard-working shoulder to the plow and eventually landed on a step up the ladder, a posting at the Smithsonian as chief of Old Documents (“O.D.” — known behind her back as the “Otherwise Disposable” Division).
In short, life had moved on. Until that morning in her office when up popped the words on her computer monitor: “Derwent Lassiter” followed by “niece” and “papers.” Maybe there still was a chance to rectify her adoptive parents’ miscarriage of justice. The solution might only require a forged search warrant and a couple of yayhoos from the local repertory theater in rented suits.
* * * * *
“Get some guys up here to clean up this mess and stuff it back into that trunk,” Detective Saroyan repeated. No twinkle in the eye, jaw set.
That did it. Nobody was going to order Margaret Harper, Head of Special Collections at the University Library around. In her own office, no less! She started around the desk. She was a head taller than Detective Maudie but the goons were quicker.
“Boys, cuff her!” They did.
Frightened but holding up, the dutiful Rebecca texted Professor Ingersoll and, without disclosing the situation, asked him to send up a student or two. Young Jake jumped at the chance and soon was slogging through the jumble on the floor and shoveling flotsam and jetsam into boxes. The ageless Maudie watched carefully. She was not above casting an appreciative, hardly bibliophilic eye at the strong young man, muscling his way through the trash, bending and stretching and hefting. She felt herself flush and had to sit down.
So lost was she in her wayward thoughts that she didn’t react quickly enough when Rebecca McShane, not necessarily fleet-of-foot, made a dash for the door. She reached it, unlocked it, threw it open, and was nearly bowled over by a tall figure who shoved her aside (with an oomph) and pushed his way in.
The creature was dressed unaccountably as Felix the Cat! He’d accessorized with a bolo tie, a wooden sword at his waist, and an upside-down shaving bowl on his head. He was holding a squirt gun.
“Andrew!” yelled Margaret.
“Shut up, Margaret,” he barked. “Don’t anybody move. Hold it right there or you’ll get it.” He brandished his weapon. “This innocent-looking squirt gun holds sixteen ounces of highly concentrated cat urine.”
Sure enough the room began to smell like a litter box. The two rent-a-goons retreated. They didn’t even try to reach into their identical, cramped jackets, but withdrew their hands and raised them to the sky.
“It’s you!” Maudie shrieked, and fainted dead away.
Chapter 10 by Diana Dodds (1,787 words)
Andrew dove for the floor and slid on his knees just in time to catch Margaret before her head struck the polished granite. Special Collections had special accoutrements. The bowl that had rested on Andrew’s head clattered against Margaret’s walnut desk.
“Are you okay, my love?” Andrew crooned.
“What?” Margaret’s eyes blinked at the bright lights in the ceiling. “What is that awful smell?”
“Oh, it was my weapon, my love. I had to discharge it to save you from those ruffians.”
“How did you know there were any ‘ruffians’, in the first place?”
“I saw this very large young man running up the stairs and with my cat-like reflexes I was able to leap up the stairs to prove my love for you.”
“What was in that weapon of yours?”
“I had come straight from my dress rehearsal because I had not kept in contact with you, due to the strenuous nature of perfecting my art, and I dared not wait another moment to be at your side.”
“Okay. It smells like cat urine.”
“Oh, yes, we use it to help the audience grasp the meaning of our cat characters.”
Margaret sat up and rubbed her eyes. Had Andrew always been this melodramatic?
He had such wonderful Paul Newman eyes. Why did someone so tall and so handsome have to be such a terrible actor? Peggy Soroyan had not scattered as had her well paid goons. She had not come this far to have some clown in a cat costume dissuade her from her task even if the smell was making her eyes water. Jake had been halted in his tracks by the exit of the imposing men who had been back up for Ms. Saroyan. He stood like some child in a game of red light green light, frozen in mid thrust of rubbish into boxes. Rebecca re-entered the room and saw all her careful effort at organization and record keeping going up in smoke. She heaved a heavy sigh and slid down into a chair near the door and began to cry, which quickly turned into wailing.
“That’s it! I have had enough of this!” Margaret screamed as she stood up and straightened her dress and made an attempt to smooth her hair. “Ms. Soroyan, I don’t care who you are. When you need something from Special Collections in this library, you go through channels. As you can see, we are at the very beginning of sorting out this unfortunate state of affairs in Mr. Lassiter’s contribution to this facility. When we have gone through all these items and catalogued them and have put them in proper order, you can ask for permission to see the collection. Until then, you need to march yourself out of here and if you are lucky, I will approve of your request. Is that perfectly clear?”
“Yes, for now.” Saroyan glared at Margaret, and after a short pause for effect, she turned and slammed the door as she left.
“Oh, Rebecca, try to get a hold of yourself will you? This has been hard on all of us.” Margaret said as she crossed the room with her Kleenex box, and Rebecca blotted her eyes and blew her nose. “Andrew, we are leaving. Rebecca, I think we have done all we can today. I can’t stand this disaster one more moment. Jake, I told you that I didn’t want you involved with this. Next time we ask for help, I don’t want you involved, are we clear? Rebecca, turn out the lights, bolt the door, and get security to post someone at the door. I need a drink.”
Margaret and Andrew climbed into her Lincoln Town car and drove out of the parking garage beneath the library. Her nerves were jangled. Fortunately, her condominium was a short drive from the University. She hoped that the smell of cat urine wouldn’t permeate her car permanently. She had just had it detailed. The car maneuvered up the parking garage at the condo and Andrew waited as she unlocked the door. She flipped on the lights and dropped her coat on the white settee.
“Andrew, don’t you dare drop that sword or anything else from that costume on the carpet or the settee. Go out to the utility room and strip.”
“Oh, of course my dear. Would you pour me a drink?”
“Don’t get any ideas. I have never had such a terrible day in all my life. I will have to think hard about how I am going to turn this catastrophe around. It isn’t my fault, but they will try to pin it on me. I think that Vanessa has something to do with this.”
“What catastrophe do you refer to? Not my play.
“Not everything is about you and your play, for crying out loud.”
“My darling, you are so tense. Let me massage your shoulders.”
“Put on some clothes first.”
“But, precious, you know that sex makes everything better. Here, have some wine.”
“How about a double bourbon instead.”
“Whatever you desire. I am here for you.”
Andrew poured the drinks and Margaret sat down next to the fireplace and turned the switch and it ignited into a warm, comforting blaze. He moved behind her and gently massaged her tense shoulders and then rubbed her temples very gently. He advanced to her feet, which had always been her weakness. She nearly purred in delight. This is what she had been needing for days. The picture of her fiancé as a cat, smelling of urine, began to fade as the bourbon and the massage worked their magic.
“If you would rest on your stomach on the bear-skin rug, I would massage your back.”
She could no longer resist his advances. She had missed him so much. What she saw in him obviously had to be his skills as a lover, because he was beyond terrible as an actor, but it didn’t matter right now. Whatever made him happy and kept him coming back was all that mattered.
Frito the cat sniffed at Andrew’s clothes on the utility room floor and he began to scratch on the floor as though burying them. After several efforts, he put his nose in the air and glided away. He had done all he could do.
* * *
Sally had pulled up a rolling footstool and sat herself at the end of a stack on the first floor, and Davis pulled one up behind him and sat with a lap top open.
“Did Mr. Rabinowitz say that we had to go through all the stacks?”
“I am afraid he did.”
“I hate doing inventory. It is the most boring thing in all the world. How have you done it for so many years?”
“My mom was a library student in college and had to go through it. She told me the secret was having something interesting on the intercom while you did it that gave you something to look forward to.”
“My mom and her friends took a record, you know the old time music, and played it over the intercom. I think it was a band called Chicago. This song would have sound effects in it and at the very end there was a toilet flush. They would do their work and just pause for the toilet flush.”
“That’s funny. Your mom is so cool.”
Sally read off the title of each book and Davis checked it against the list in the computer. Why was Mr. Rabinowitz doing an inventory right now? It was usually an end of the year full student force type of thing. Was there something major that had gone missing? Both young students knew that something was up. Nobody even noticed them most of the time, but they noticed a lot of things. People had been running up and down stairs in suits with earphones in their ears. Some woman who looked like she ran the country had stormed in with them, but didn’t leave with them. It always had to do with the 8thfloor. That place used to be like a cathedral, where everyone tip-toed around lest they enrage Ms. Harper. Now, big defensive backs from the football team were hauling up boxes and trunks full of trash and putting them in her office. It had to have something to do with Miss Prescott and her famous uncle they had heard so much about. Sally’s mom had never heard of him, but maybe he was before her time. When she had gone online with the library’s catalogue, she hadn’t found one item of his. So why was he such a big deal? Davis had heard from Ms. Ames that Ms. Harper was in big trouble over a large amount of money being spent on that trash.
“I saw Ms. Ames having lunch with Mr. Jones, which happens all the time, and Mr. Ingersoll.” Davis shrugged his shoulders and shook his head.
“Mr. Ingersoll? I heard that he and Miss Prescott had talked Ms. Harper into buying that stuff. He must have done some fancy talking to get them to pay for that. You know, I heard that Mr. Ingersoll is broke.”
“Broke? Sally, how does a tenured professor become broke? I would kill to be a tenured professor. I have been in school forever and I am in so much debt and I am not even done with my degree yet.”
“I saw him going through the paper looking for the race form. What does she see in him? He is a manipulator.”
“Who is she?” Davis asked.
“Ms. Ames. She has her hooks in both of those men, and she is working them like a fine violin.”
“Wow, Sally, I thought you liked her.”
“She thinks so, too, but she treats us like slaves and she doesn’t ever say thank you. She and Ms. Harper are two of a kind.”
Sally shook her head and took a deep breath. Then she turned to Davis and looked into big brown eyes. She loved him, in spite of his lack of social graces. He was a work in progress. She had already talked him into getting his pants to fit better. He always showed up with wet hair when they would go out. She would take her fingers and lightly lift the hair so it would dry and then she would sweep it into place. He was gentle and kind and he deserved better treatment than any of the staff at the library had given him. He worked so hard. She knew that Mr. Rabinowitz was looking for something to do with Mr. Lassiter, and she was determined that she and Davis would find it first.
Chapter 11 by Susan Chase-Foster (1706 words)
Huxley Allworth shuffled his lanky frame around the bookbinding studio at VoTech, collecting overlooked awls, bone folders, needles, strands of linen thread, t-squares, and placing them in their wooden boxes on the shelves. He dropped stray white cotton gloves into the laundry basket. His 90-year-old back and knees were killing him, and he couldn’t remember when he’d eaten or peed last, but Open Bindary had just concluded and, as usual, there were loose ends to tie up. Yes, he could have left the job for Hud, the night janitor and his friend, or asked one of his students to be his assistant, but he wanted to do as much as he could for as long as he could. Which might not be that long if tonight was any measure.
“I could stay and help you, Mr. Allworth,” the young man who always hung out after the other students left offered. He hoisted an enormous black backpack up over his shoulders. “I like tidying up.”
“No, that’s okay, —” What the hell was the kid’s name? John or James or . . .? Huxley couldn’t remember, for godsake, though he certainly recalled seeing those full lips and hopeful jade green eyes in Advanced Basics and Finishing Details. He seemed motivated, as Huxley once was. And his hands were so unusually… Stop it, old man! Huxley reprimanded himself.
“Jaime, my name’s Jaime, sir. I’m really enjoying your book arts courses at VoTech. Well, have a good night, okay.” He closed the metal door without making a sound. Or maybe Huxley just needed to turn up his hearing aids.
Huxley lowered the shade on the door, locked it, and brushed scraps from his handmade beech worktables into a trashcan. He dusted and oiled the screw crank wooden book bookbinding press he and Der had made out of parota wood one winter in San Miguel, or was it Guanajuato?
Huxley’s back and knees told him to pull out a joint from the box he kept locked in his desk drawer, and to light it up. He never argued with his body.
“Reefer madness!” he giggled, leaning back in the desk chair. Within minutes his pain diminished and his mind relaxed into sweet nostalgia.
* * *
“Hey, waddaya think of this?”
The guy at the bar is a few years older and he needs a heap of plastic surgery to reconfigure a face that’s disjointed as “Pull My Daisy,” that exquisite corpse poem written by Ginsberg, Kerouac and Cassidy.
Pull my daisy
tip my cup
all my doors are open
cut my thoughts
all my eggs are broken
Jack my Arden
gate my shades
woe my road is spoken, etc.
But his eyes are kind and his voice is smooth and sad as Yardbird’s sax. And those lips! Oh, baby. Inviting! He reads from a crumpled napkin.
Drifting through fog
Past an island of light
Wind beating down on me
Like a bad poem
I should toss overboard
I watch his hands. Clean, cared for, unlike the grimy, sandpaper claws of Jack, Allen and Neal . . . Jesus, Neal! When I reach out to shake his hand, lightning sets my soul on fire. I’m his.
“Got any more?” I ask him.
* * *
“Hux! Open up!” Someone called, pounding on the door. “It’s Hud. Come on, it’s late, man.” Hud Jackson, waited in his blue uniform, his brooms and mops and buckets neatly arranged on his cleaning cart. He janitored a few nights each week at VoTech when he wasn’t too exhausted from his day job at the university library. While he was familiar with what was going on behind the old man’s door and, though he had the master key, he respected the gentle bookbinder’s right to relax any way he could, at his age, and would never have entered without permission.
Red eyed, Huxley opened the door, smiled, said nothing. Hud inhaled deeply as the smell of pot wafted out into the hallway.
“Mmmm. Nice. You stoned again, Hux?”
“Maybe.” Huxley put on his trench coat, wool scarf and beret. It was hard to keep warm at his age.
“Need a ride home?”
“Nope. I live a block away, Hud.”
“Want some coffee, first? I’ve got a thermos right here on the cart.”
“Nope, I’d just have to pee, but thanks, Hud.”
It was dark as Huxley stepped out into the beating rain, which sounded like music to his enhanced mind. The sidewalk was wet and he feared falling, breaking a leg or, worse, a hip, which Huxley had heard was the number one cause of death in people his age. You fall, break your hip, have an operation, get a bladder infection from being on bedrest in some dank nursing home, and you’re toast. No thank you.
Huxley heard something behind him and turned around to see what it was. Nothing. Just rain splattering against a hundred defoliated maples lining the sidewalk and a car or two cruising over gasoline rainbows illuminated by streetlights. He was lucky to have his little Craftsman house so close to VoTech since he no longer drove, and being able to walk even a short distance was good for him. It gave him a chance to daydream when days were longer and to imagine, when they weren’t.
Like now. That sound again, amplified. Definitely footsteps. Thundering. Getting closer. Huxley stopped. Someone moved toward him. Someone very small.
“Hello!” Huxley called out, his heart racing. He was too slow to run away from a situation, but he could always use his wits, what was left them.
“Hello, Huxley. It’s me, Peggy. I brought us a bottle of Mateus. Wanna party, hep cat?”
“Peg? Peg Saroyan? You’ve got to be kidding! I thought you were dead.”
“You mean you hoped I was dead. Yes, it’s really me, Huxley. Now, let’s get out of this damn rain. We’ve got a few things to talk about. Is your house safe?”
“Safe? Of course, it’s safe. What you you mean?” he asked, taking her arm, pulling her toward his house.
Huxley opened the door and they entered the living room. He took her coat. ”You’ve still got your accent.”
“Yes, Huxley, I do,” she said looking around the room. “And you’re still in love with Derwent, I see, judging by your photos.”
* * *
Andrew was agitated, but he knew what he had to do. He always did.
“It’s you! It’s you! It’s you!” perseverated in his brain like an echo in a nightmare.
Like his bunky banging Andrew’s head against their cell bars until he passed out. He’d been seen, identified, discovered by that old snitch from the Smithsonian whose single testimony had landed him in prison twice already. Never again! Next time I’ll have my real weapon, Maudie baby, and you’ll be offed like your commie parents.
Andrew popped his finger and toe knuckles until they settled down. Then, cracked and crunched his neck and back, elbows, wrists, knees and ankles until he did. He needed to get out of Margaret’s apartment rapido. He slithered out of her bed—she was snoring like a buffalo—put on his cat costume in the utility room, which stank like it had been sprayed by a thousand Fritos, though Andrew realized the smell had actually come from his “piss gun.” Man, how he wanted to kick that cat just to hear it shriek. Just to see its fur fly around the room. The damn thing saw right through Andrew.
But then there was the problem of Margaret. What a handful that woman was with her constant drooling and dripping over him! Take tonight, as soon as he thought she’d slipped into her quadruple bourbon coma, he had to perform twice—even cat urine and unconsciousness had not repelled her copulatory inclinations—an exhausting, boring endeavor, to say the lease. He’d definitely have to tone down the cooing. “Whatever you desire. I am here for you, blah, blah, blah.” was just not working, and if he had to give Margaret one more back massage he might end up choking her from behind. Not such a bad idea, actually. Maybe he could take over her job in Special Collections after the funeral. He was qualified, after all.
Andrew showered, brushed and flossed and mouthwashed his teeth until they sparkled like a t.v. ad, and fluffed his hair with Margaret’s boar bristle brush. He would definitely need to have his roots taken care of before she saw him the next time, and his eyebrows were a mess.They’s need to be cleaned up, too. As he headed for the front door, Andrew caught a glimpse of his reflection in the mirror and smiled. Dang he was handsome. His fine Italian genetics were a real plus when it came to women. “You’ve still got it goin’ on, Bad Boy,” he said aloud. “Work it. Work it!” Maybe he’d look into modeling if acting or the Lassiter thing didn’t pay off.
Since he didn’t own a car—though he could have taken Margaret’s Lincoln, the key was right there on the counter—Andrew headed toward the bus shelter. All the seats were taken, so he paced for a while, irritated by the rain beating against the shelter’s metal roof. A young woman with a bundled up baby sleeping in a stroller stared at him. He smiled at her, batted his Paul Newman eyes and almost started up a conversation, but decided he’d better call Donaldo, a seasoned gangster who was also his father, instead.
“Papa, sono io, Andrea … Yah, yah, I’m okay, just a couple of problems with, you know, women … No, no, I don’t need to talk to Mama. It’s about that bitch, woops, sorry Papa. I’ll clean up my language. Yes, I promise. Remember that woman I used to work with, the one who testified against me twice? … Right, Maudie. Well, she spotted me in the library with my girlfriend. No, not that one. Margaret, the Special Collections librarian at the university. Papa, Maudie is trouble I don’t need and … okay, thanks Papa. I’ll come over as soon as … okay, I’ll be there in an hour.
Chapter 12 by Laura Rink (1704 words)
Margaret felt like someone was stabbing a paring knife in a random pattern around her head. In addition, two small pile drivers were kneading her chest. She pried open her eyelids to see Frito, who mewled at her and rubbed his furry face against her chin. “Morning, sweetie,” she murmured, running her hand over his soft tiger-striped back. Frito had been her faithful companion for ten years. She winced as the stabbing increased—how much bourbon had she consumed last night? The bedroom was in a light gloom, and she was thankful for the dark autumn morning but with the clocks recently rolled back, and the distressing events of the week, Margaret had no idea what time it was. The time! She bolted upright, Frito bounding off onto the carpet with a high-pitched grumble, herself moaning at the lightning bolts piercing her skull. She jabbed at her phone: 9:11. Damn it, was tardiness going to be added to her list of professional failings? She peered again at the screen: Saturday. Hallelujah. She fell back on the bed in relief. Of course, Margaret Harper, Head of Special Collections, wouldn’t have overindulged on a work night.
Overindulged. Even in her hung-over state, she felt the echo of Andrew making love to her last night, her body vibrating like a tuning fork, the art they made together with their bodies, the thing above all else that kept her with him. The thing that had kept her from accepting the advances of worthier men, kind, mature, gainfully employed men, but they had lacked that intangible quality, had lacked the ability to pull her body to theirs. Even the ones who had managed to excite her passion couldn’t keep it for long. She had spent her twenties and thirties in a series of short-lived monogamous, yet primarily sex-based relationships. Then on her fortieth birthday, when she was still living in San Jose, some friends took her to see her favorite play: Tom Stoppard’s “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead.” It was a truncated version put on by an impoverished repertory company in a storage unit with seating for thirty people. Andrew’s performance as The Player was awful but Margaret felt her body lunging for him the moment he strode onto the makeshift stage, thrusting his hips and mangling the poetry of his lines.
Two years later, they were engaged. Five more years had passed and still no ring, yet. Andrew said he was determined to save enough of his own money to buy her the ring she “deserved.” Margaret would have settled for a twisted paperclip—anything to make their engagement feel real. Andrew had no family to introduce her to, his parents were dead, no siblings, nobody, or so he said. He refused to meet her parents—he would be too embarrassed until there was an actual ring on her finger. Sometimes she just didn’t understand him; his motivations could be so elusive.
Elusive. Margaret’s hand slid into the empty space next her on the bed. No shower spray sounded from the bathroom, no steaming teapot or clatter of dishes in the kitchen. “Andrew?” Margaret swung her legs over the side of the bed and hauled her hung-over self into a standing position. “Andrew?” The only sound was the splatter of rain onto her concrete balcony from the leaf-clogged rain gutters. Had he disappeared as unexpectedly as he had appeared? Was the incredible sex worth not having a partner in life she could respect, or even count on? Now that she had a grown-up job was it time for a grown-up relationship? She pulled her robe off its hook behind the bedroom door and fumbled her way into it.
Andrew’s narcissism was something she had told herself she could live with but then yesterday he had flung himself into her office like some melodramatic hero with an affection, or did she mean affliction, for Felix the Cat and guns that spurted cat urine. His behavior yesterday, and his choice of roles for the last seven years, could be taken as signs of mental instability. It made her wonder at her own stability, to want such a man. All these years she hadn’t cared about Andrew’s suitability as a life-long mate, it was his body she wanted. And she was beginning to hate herself for it, to wonder at her own instability—the conservative queen of the Special Collections glass and granite citadel drooling over a man-child.
Her new job, her dream job, had brought her into contact with likeminded, productive, stable men—Felix Ingersoll had been her ally from the beginning, though she felt he was a bit too hasty to flee the mess in her office, a mess he was partially responsible for, and Al Rabinowitz whose own competence and calm always made her feel better about herself, not that she would get involved with anyone at work—the job was too important to her, was becoming everything to her, but the comparison of these men to Andrew…Stop it, she told herself, and moved her tongue around her dry mouth and over her unbrushed teeth.
Frito rubbed against her shin and meowed lovingly or so Margaret liked to think. Frito had never taken to Andrew—shouldn’t that have been a warning? Animals know an unreliable person when they meet one. “You’re here. You’ll never leave me.” Is that what she was afraid of, of being left alone at forty-seven? Her eyes swiveled to the walk-in closet. Hidden in the back corner, behind the raincoats the seasonal change would now have her wearing, was a two-drawer file cabinet. Containing her pathetic scribblings, from when she thought perhaps she was more than a cataloger of others’ writings, perhaps she was a writer herself, with words on the page worthy of their own place in Special Collections. Four hundred pages of a novel devoted to an elderly woman living alone with her tiger tabby cat in an old Victorian house sequestered in a forest. But no, she was not such a writer. She, unlike Andrew, realized where her actual talent lie. And eighteen months ago, with her appointment as the head of Special Collections, she had finally come into her own, her true calling, her true vocation. Protect the work of others for scholars and for posterity. Important, grown-up work for her higher self, for her own better half.
She went to the sliding glass door. Outside a typical gray autumn day was unfolding, as damp and muddled as her thoughts. The week had begun so full of historical potential, so much positive promise, in her first literary acquisition. Before her, the single towering maple tree still had a few yellowed leaves clinging to their respective branches. She herself was clinging to her waning self-respect, for the bungled acquisition, including some real guilt on her part for her treatment of Jake. She had noticed him first at the loading dock, and then of course in her office, more than a quarter century younger than her, beautiful, strong, and with a love of poetry. She had been dismissive of his abilities but without his initiative, the writings on the wadded up napkins would have been lost forever. However poorly written, they were important evidence of a writer at work, the first inspirations, the shitty first drafts. She must apologize to Jake, and thank him.
And she had to admit that this task was too big for her and Rebecca. She needed a team. Margaret had been so enthralled with her own lofty position; she had become a dictator, instead of a leader. Her head began to throb. Hopefully it wasn’t too late to build this team. Jake had a sharp eye. She could use that. Sally Lewbiosky shared Margaret’s vision for Special Collections and understood the urgency of protecting papers and books from grimy hands and personal living spaces. Like bullet points in a memo, Margaret mentally acknowledged what must be done: Get Hud to haul off anything deemed absolute trash—toiletries for a start. Winnow the detritus of Derwent Lassiter to something manageable, and valuable. Have Davis Delong take photos of items deemed of some worth and put them up for sale on Ebay. The photos would be archived for Lassiter scholars—Vanessa may have scoffed but those scholars existed or would exist in the future. Quickly assemble all papers into some sort of order. Lassiter’s papers may be few but that didn’t mean they couldn’t be combined into something new. Napkin Musings, VoTech, bookbinding and the image of an old man plucking at her sleeve passed through Margaret’s mind in quick succession but she wouldn’t let her thoughts linger there. Too much to be done, and all of it before Vanessa and Lloyd felt compelled to intervene.
And also that jaw dropping information from George Lafferty. But she couldn’t think about that now either. People depended upon her, people she knew and people she didn’t, all the people that would use the resources of the Special Collections in the years to come. She must make sure those people’s literary needs were provided for.
But wait…Margaret rubbed her wrists and thumbs where slight bruises reminded her of the further indignities of yesterday. Had she actually been cuffed in her own office, by the order of an assistant curator from the Smithsonian? It seemed like a farce now, one of Andrew’s eccentric tragedies executed like a comedy. Where had grown-up Margaret been then? She should have called campus security; she should have had the woman’s credentials confirmed. But it had been more like a hostage situation. Fortunately, the cuffs weren’t tight and Margaret’s hands were small, so she managed to wiggle her way out of them. Margaret’s suspicions of that tiny, tyrannical woman were quelled by her head and gut aching in sympathetic concert. She needed a cup of tea, and a piece of dry toast. And to continue in her plan to turn her citadel of serenity into a productive, inclusive work space and unite her team not only for each individuals’ benefit, not only for Special Collections or even the Library but for the benefit of the entire University, for the benefit of all now and far into the future.
Chapter 13 by Sean Dwyer (1701 words)
Dwyer and four of his more mischievous undergrads crept toward the library, their figures only barely visible in the tangerine light from the parking lot. As boisterous as they could be in class, and over Guinness Stouts at McKowalski’s Irish-Polish Pub, they knew how to walk quietly during Special Ops. Dwyer wasn’t sure he wanted to know how they had acquired that skill.
When they reached the basement window that Hud had left unlatched (for a Benjamin, Hud would do small favors, no questions asked), Dwyer popped it open and peered into the darkness. Nothing to see but the red LED on the emergency lighting. No alarms down here, thanks to the terms of the state-mandated low bid for the security of the library. Dwyer and his minions wouldn’t be going upstairs.
When Felix Ingersoll had left the meeting with Jones and his obnoxious sycophant Vanessa Ames, he’d called Dwyer, gasping through his asthma to tell the Spanish prof that Jones and Ames had it in for Margaret. Lovely Margaret, whose only sin was to have gotten the job Lloyd Jones had created for his precious Nessie. (Not that Jones called her that; Dwyer did.) Nessie hadn’t deserved the position, not by comparison to the stellar credentials Margaret had presented. Too bad she was all starry-eyed over that third-tier thespian. Dwyer would gladly make an honest woman of her, though he’d never told her so. Workplace consideration on his part.
One of the boys, Jake, was still stinging from Margaret’s rebuke, but he liked even less the conniving of Jones and Ames, which might hurt the career of his mentor, Ingersoll. Now, Jake hopped down beside Dwyer and started grabbing packages that Harold was sliding through. Ten packages later, Harold squeezed through the frame, followed by Ace, who had lugged the material to the site, and Aaron, who was standing lookout.
Dwyer didn’t like standing in the basement of this concrete monster. Everyone knew that the architect had calculated perfectly the foundation necessary to hold up the building. But he hadn’t counted the weight of the eight million books, and the library was sinking at an increasing pace, from a quarter-inch per year to a half-inch. That huge error was going to bring down the building someday. Tonight, in fact. By the time tons of concrete landed on top of the explosives, no one would be able to find a trace of this team’s handiwork, and the engineering error would get the blame. Dwyer had enough money from his former colleagues in Belfast to pay these boys, and they wouldn’t snitch anyway. They believed in Revolution, they sympathized with the oppressed, and they wanted the Rosenbergs to remain the sole Manhattan Project scapegoats forever. Blowing up the boxes on the 8th floor would go a long way toward maintaining the status quo.
As for the technical details of the demolition, Ace was the mastermind. During the summer, he helped his dad, Ace, blow up buildings. Ace Demolition, owned by his dad, was the perfect training ground for a kid who didn’t think much of the government. Now, Ace directed his classmates by flashlight, guiding them with an ease that never showed up in his Spanish utterances in class.
They finished much faster than Dwyer had imagined, and soon they slithered out the window and retreated to a bus stop to watch their handiwork come to fruition.
“What would Che do?” Ace asked quietly.
“Push the button,” the other three whispered. Dwyer rolled his eyes, but he wasn’t there to spoil their fun. They were doing Margaret a huge favor, and maybe she would come to feel gratitude for his loyalty to her.
Ace held his right index finger over the button, then stabbed it. Nothing happened.
Or so it seemed. A low, slow rumbling built into a massive shaking, and the building imploded. Amid the dust and the flying glass and concrete, the boys gave one another silent high fives. A final boom brought everything down . . .
. . . and Dwyer sat up in bed, startled, sweating, the echoes of thunder fading away. He reached for a glass of water and sipped at it between gasps for air. He stopped shaking and lay back down to sort out this nightmare.
Sure, and he was glad to be a friend of Margaret’s. She had been one of the few not to laugh when he’d decided to ditch his first name and use Dwyer as a mononym, after the manner of his college friend from Indonesia, Handianto. Nessie Ames had had no sympathy for him, perhaps because she was the one who had been tasked with figuring out how to give him a one-named library record so he could check out books. Now, she called him “Prince” or “Cher,” depending on her level of snark for the day. Small wonder that he would support Dr. Harper over this petty tart.
But really, was this nightmare a bout of PTSD from growing up Catholic in Belfast? Did he sense that Margaret, and perhaps his pal Felix, had trouble coming for them, something beyond school politics? He would have to find out quickly.
* * *
Donaldo Ferlinghetti ran his fingers through his gray-streaked, slicked-back hair. He leaned back again in his recliner, musing over what Andrea had just said. Rather than reply, he sipped his Macallan 1824 Series Scotch, savoring the burn of the liquid gold in his throat. Four slow nods, and finally he cleared his throat.
“Bene, Andrea. How can this Maudie even be alive, much less able to try this heist and recognize you? Maybe it’s someone who looks like her? After a certain age, you know–?”
“Oh, Papa. It was Peggy Saroyan. She recognized me first. When the shock crossed her face, the wrinkles sort of lifted, and I recognized her.”
“Ha ha.” Donaldo sipped again and smacked his lips. “Maybe I should just shock your mama from time to time. She keeps wanting more nips and tucks. This might stretch her face out for good.” He chuckled again, and Andrea joined in. “But I digress. Indeed, we have a problem. Or really, my cousin Larry has a problem. This Saroyan creep has been after that thing Larry wrote to Lassiter since 1960. Grazie a Dio that punk Lassiter had the brains to stash the papers with his legal eagles.” Another small sip and a sigh. “Oh, Andrea, Andrea, no offense, but I should have sent someone not so close to me to talk to her about her snooping around that time. You did good, but she didn’t have any trouble connecting you to me, the apple falling close to the tree, you know what I mean?”
“Yeah, Papa, she thought I was you that time.”
“Too bad she didn’t think she seen a ghost and had a heart attack.” A laugh and a sip. “But I digress. Was she scared, angry, confused?”
“She fainted. Scared, I think. Too shocked to say my real name. If she had called me Andrea Ferlinghetti, I would have been screwed, er, cooked, because Margaret would have made the connection. She hasn’t figured out Ferling is really Ferlinghetti yet.”
“So, how far are you from being able to learn which lawyers Lassiter used, and where they are?”
Andrea colored. “I started asking her about it after, uh, well, after awhile, and she was mumbling something about Laffiter, so she was getting confused. And then, forgive me Papa, I fell asleep. Grazie a Dio that cat of hers came and clawed me on the chest. Woke me up, and here I am.”
“Speaking of cats, how is that play thing you’re doing working out?”
“It’s my most inspired work yet, Papa. True art.”
* * *
Dwyer sent an email to Jake, asking him to swing by McK’s that afternoon. At two, Jake met him for Happy Hour, which ended at 4 so a writer’s group could use the space, then recommenced at 5:30. Jake arrived on time, something he rarely did for Spanish class, or for English, according to Felix.
“Cheers, mate,” Dwyer said. He lifted his Stout and clinked the glass of Bud Light, the only beer Jake would drink while he was in wrestling season.
“What can I do for you, Prof?”
“You can do something for me, for Felix, and for someone important to us.”
“Harper, I’m sure.”
“Yes. You have to admit, it wasn’t cool to swipe papers from the collection. So, Felix and I are asking you to set aside your irritation with her and help the three of us.”
Jake puffed out his cheeks and exhaled loudly. “I get it, and I’m fine with that, but there’s a glitch in the system.”
Dwyer leaned forward. “What’s that?”
“Vanessa Ames asked me to tell her what happened when I walked off with the napkins, and she talked me into filing a complaint against Dr. Harper.” Jake looked sheepish.
Dwyer sat back, cracking his head on the dark paneling. “Oh, for crying out loud. Do you realize you could cost her her job? Just because she told you off? With good reason?”
Jake held up his hands. “I’m not saying I was thinking clearly at the time. I’ll recant, whatever it takes.”
“Let’s not worry about that now. My reason for asking you here might take care of it anyway. You know the woman who tried the shenanigans in Margaret’s office?”
“That cranky, feisty thing? I can’t forget her.”
“That’s good to hear. Because Felix and I need to get her off Margaret’s back. Obviously, there’s something in the collection that she wants. We want to know what she wants. There’s no way she’ll talk to us. So, Felix and I were thinking . . . ”
Jake’s mouth dropped open. “You were thinking what? Not what I think you were thinking, I hope.”
“You don’t have to follow through on anything, of course. But maybe a little wining and dining, taking one for the team? You can find out what she’s after, and also have her get that complaint form back.”
“Will Dr. Harper write me a letter?”
“You’ll come out of this with three letters.”
Chapter 13 by Diane Wood (1568 words)
the time has come for me to speak
uh oh the time has come
and while the silence picks on me
I pray to not be dumb
so I am hunting for the words
just til I find some
I need some syllables do you
know where to get them from…
“Why is that song running circles in my mind?” Maudie asked out loud. I love the Roches, but…Oh, duh. I get it.”
When the late Derwent Lassiter’s ex-girlfriend, Peggy aka Maudie, decided the time had finally come to act on her inside information, she had more up her short, little sleeves than just an opportunistic advantage. She had the story, but she needed the proof. No one on the planet knew the real reason she had parted company with that unconventional beat poet way back when they were young and life was for the taking. No one knew the secret she’d kept locked in her heart for the last fifty plus years.
It was no accident that she and Derwent and the gang eventually reconnected years later. Who could have ever guessed then that divine intervention had been at play? Now they were about to find out. If she played her cards right, the truth shall set her free. If not, well….
After reading the news of Derwent’s treasures being sold to the library’s Special Collections by his ugly, little bitch niece, Maudie knew that somehow, someway she had to get her hands on the one critical piece that would stash and unleash the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth – once and for all. Oh, how she had adored that funny-looking, unwordly, confused man. Back in the fifties she would rather have spent her time with him than anyone else she knew. They clicked in all the right places. But he needed quantity rather than quality. Alas, she went along for the ride as long as she was able. Her heart took a beating.
She lapsed into one of her daydreams as she was wont to do. It certainly had been a wild and crazy, loosy goosy time in their lives. It was good. It was fun. It was uncensored, unwholesome passionate abandon. They made some great memories together; all of them. They even made some history; a few of them. Since World War II had ended the outdated mores and morals had been rapidly fading onto the pages of history books. Little did any of the Merry Pranksters realize that they were on the cusp of ushering in the sixties sexual revolution. Living life was where it was at, man. If it felt good, do it. And they did.
Now, however, Maudie’s flawed method of retrieving her prized possession from the Library – costumed goons, a fake search warrant and the element of surprise came close to working until that goddamned idiot Andrew Ferlinghetti burst onto the scene. The Italian stallion ex-con had unknowingly slithered back into her life, out of the cages she’d put him in. Twice. She knew he had to be plotting some big rip-off. But who would be his victim this time? Not her. She had to forget about work and stay focused on her goal. She was too savvy to be taken in by him. She hoped.
Finding their reclusive pal, Huxley Allworth, had been a stroke of luck for dear, old Maudie. Here they both were, still alive and kicking; a couple of nonagenarian miracles to be sure. Where would she take it from here she wondered? There had to be a way to take advantage of the serendipity swirling around her.
“Remember all that Mateus we consumed, Hux?”
She held up the fat, green jug. Of all the cheap wines they’d had access to from the waiter at the club, Mateus had been the best of the rotguts. They’d scrounge together a few bucks for him and he’d hide a bottle for them in the coatroom. It paid to have friends on the force.
“All too well.” He coughed, pulling a damp, grey hankie out of his pocket and hocking into it. “I prefer smoking dope these days, over drinking. You know it’s all legal here in Washington now? Lucky kids don’t have to hide it anymore. They can even grow it for themselves.”
“How did the years pass so quickly?” She slipped out of her soaked, navy blue orthopedic loafers in the hallway.
“I don’t like thinking about it. It’s just tick tock. Tick tock.” Huxley shuffled over to the brown plaid couch and plunked himself down. “Oomph.”
“We need to make a toast,” Maudie announced.
She found her way to the kitchen cabinets and pulled out a couple coffee-stained mugs. She unscrewed the cap from the bottle of under-aged vino and poured a couple inches of the red stuff into each cup. Handing one to Hux, she clinked her mug with his.
“To old friends.”
Maudie studied Hux’s time-worn face. He was still quite nice-looking. Not too effeminate, all things considered. He couldn’t be obvious back in the day. No wonder D.J. had found him attractive from the first night Huxley had introduced him to the beat boys. Nowadays what was it called? A bro-mance? Maybe that wasn’t the right word, but she liked it. Maudie had always wished D.J. would cherish her a much as he did Hux. Oh, he loved her as much as possible for him, but not in the same soul-mate kind of way.
Hux removed a rolling paper from the gilded box on the coffee table. He opened the silver-studded can next to it and pinched enough weed to roll a hefty joint. Maudie noticed how deftly his soft, manicured fingers could still move. No stiffness. He licked the edge of the paper to seal it and pulled a purple Bic out of shirt pocket. Click. Flame. Inhale and hold. Cough.
“Don’t Bogart that joint my friend.”
“Sure – for old time sake.”
“Well you are still the cat’s pajamas, old girl.” He gave her a wink and passed the joint to her.
“Mmmmrrrowww.” She took a long drag, tried to hold it in her lungs for effect and coughed up a cloud. The stoic Ms. Saroyan leaned back into the couch cushions and giggled.
“Remember back in the day when the gang was resurrected for that second go-around? We all came together not even knowing why.” Maudie drifted into nostalgic tranquility.
“Of course I do. It was the best time of my life. I was so in love.”
“Mine, too. Love. Hmmm. We both loved him. Lucky guy. Got anything to eat, Hux? I think I have the munchies already.”
“Help yourself to whatever you can find in the cabinets.”
“Hokay. If I can walk that far without falling over. I’m such a lightweight now.”
Maudie rummaged around in the cabinets and found just what she was looking for. “Yippee!” She held the box up around the corner for Hux to see. Choc-O-Nibs! They fell into a pot-induced hysteria.
“Gawd, I needed this tonight.” Huxley’s heavily-lidded eyes were at half-mast.
“Me, too. Thank you for letting me come in. Hux, are you asleep?”
“Nope, just resting my eyes.”
“Wake up! I have something serious to talk to you about before I pass out.”
“What?” His head bobbed as he tried to pay attention.
“Remember back in ’59 when you and D.J. and I ended up getting really shitfaced back at your apartment?”
“You know. The time we all woke up in the morning in your bed. Naked.”
“That was real? No shit.”
“Do you remember what happened that night?”
“What do you mean?”
“The ménage a troi?”
“What!” Huxley sat up eyes wide open.
“Yeah. I didn’t want to believe it happened either. Until a couple months later when I’d missed a couple periods.”
“Oh. My. Gawd.”
“Bless me father for I have sinned. That’s when I left the city for good. It wasn’t acceptable for an unmarried woman to be pregnant or to have a child out of wedlock. Babies were taken at birth and put up for adoption. The records were sealed and that was that. I had to move on with my life and let the baby have the best chance at its life. I guess adoption runs in the family, so to speak”
“I’m sorry to ask, but who was the father?”
“I gave D. J. the birth certificate I managed to smuggle out before I got discharged. His name was written on the line that said father.”
Maudie explained how she and Derwent had agreed to hide the secret and the birth certificate for as long as possible. Neither one of them was ready or willing to raise a child at that point in their lives. Abortion was out of the question for them as well. They realized, however, that someday there might be a grown child come knocking on one of their doors in the future. They promised each other to never speak of it again. They never did.
“I’m not exactly sure that the birth certificate is in one of those boxes, but I have to see for myself. It’s time to find out who that baby grew into and introduce myself.”
“Hux, would you be willing to help me in my quest? For old time sake? Hux? Damnit, Hux, are you asleep?”
Chapter 15 by Judy Shantz (1963 words)
It had been an awkward meeting for Derwent Lassiter– actually, a series of awkward meetings. The first had been a head-on collision with a state bureaucrat. But Derwent wasn’t a confrontational person. He was still his well-groomed self and his manner had been earnest and concerned. That had gained him a tiny “we won’t be able to tell you much but we’ll see what we can do” and a slightly frosty good-bye.
Lassiter had assured the officials that he had no desire to disrupt the child’s life or to learn who the adoptive parents were. He just wanted to have some idea of how he was living and being cared for. After all, he was the child’s father.
“How would we know that Sir?”
Lassiter handed him the birth certificate – “Mine and Peggy’s baby.”
“Our records indicate that ‘Peggy’ wasn’t all that sure. She listed three possible names.”
“Was Hux Allworth one of them?” The official didn’t answer but his expression told everything. “We may be a private agency, Sir, but we still have to follow state regulations.”
“Never mind,” said Lassiter – “it had already crossed my mind a couple of times. I’ve got no good guesses on the third name, though”
“I can only give you a general synopsis – no names or places.”
“OK. I really do understand.”
The official had started, “Placed into foster care at birth with family that preferred new-borns. When family moved out of state five months later, child was placed with another family until age 17 months.”
“That’s a long time not to have real parents.”
“That happens to lots of kids, Mr. Lassiter. Then, placed for adoption to, ah, a professional couple who already had an adopted boy. Turned back six months later because he ‘did not fit into family dynamic’.”
“Whatever that means. I sure didn’t fit into my family dynamic either,” Lassiter had said ruefully.
As the official flipped through the pages on his clipboard, Lassiter had tried to make out the names, upside-down, of all the various people who had crossed his child’s path in those days. Timothy Carlton, blank Iverson, Debbie something, somebody Smith (good luck with that one).
“Went back to foster care for four months,” continued the official. “Note here says they were worried that he was aging out of the ‘cute’ phase that would make him more adoptable. Inquiry made by phone by a man who said he was the child’s ‘uncle’ but couldn’t offer proof.”
“At 29 months, the child was adopted by a couple described as employed in …. let’s say, the arts community. Home visits indicate a happy child. Developing according to pediatric norms. Clean home although a somewhat bohemian lifestyle. Nutritious, vegetarian food.”
“Age three years, record closed.”
Lassiter had slumped a little. “Can you tell me his name? Just his first name?”
The official stiffened. “No, I cannot.”
Lassiter had left graciously, thanking the official for his kindness. He had sat outside on the curb, writing down the list of all the names he could remember. Not one of them rang any bells. There were simply no clues here at all except, perhaps, Hux.
* * *
Margaret picked a small booklet out of the mess. On the cover in blue ink, “To DL. Best. LF.” She opened it at random and found an old favorite:
“Christ climbed down from His bare Tree this year and ran away to where there were no . . . pink plastic Christmas trees . . .”
Margaret had thrilled when she first read those lines in her American Lit class – long before Library Science had become her passion. She had felt justification for those angry rants in ninth grade. She still remembered…
. . . and the souls that perished
from the burden of the dollar sign.
She could laugh now at the sophomoric sentiments, but she still felt the sting remembering her father’s derision. “I do hope you grow out of this phase soon, Margaret.”
But now, here, only a few years later, was this famous poet saying the same thing. Saying it better, mind you. It felt like a little victory. Up yours, Dad!
Wow – I need to get past that resentment. The smile that slowly played across her lips was a little bemused and somewhat self-aware. Just let it go!
There was a light knock and she heard the door opening. She had told Dwyer she would meet with him after lunch.
“Come on in, Seamus – but lock . . .”
“Mar- GREHHT!” Dwyer yelled, sounding just like Desi yelling at Lucy. “I thought you were on my side.”
“Oh, sorry, Dwyer. I forgot.”
“Please – I just about have everyone else trained. I hate the name Seamus. Bad enough when I was a kid but then I had to spend a whole election campaign with people asking me how I liked traveling in a crate on the roof of the family car. Damn that Mitt. Dogs should be named Fido or Fang – not people names.”
“Huh? What on earth are you talking about?”
“Don’t read any good political columnists, I would guess? Shame on you. I can see that I have a lot of training to do.”
“Please, Dwyer. I’m just in no mood for this right now. Besides, doesn’t having just one name cause you any problems?”
“Only with mid-level bureaucrats. Like Vanessa. I do love messing with her mind.” His chuckle was almost diabolical. “Okay, Margaret – let’s be serious. I think you’re in deep trouble and I don’t believe that either of us really knows what that trouble is.”
“Well, I do know what it is. I’ve convinced the library to pay a lot of money for a bunch of junk and some old cocktail napkins. I’m sure that there is treasure buried there somewhere, but our favorite mid-level bureaucrat and that odious chairman of the foundation board will probably conspire to end my career before I can find it. That’s it, in a nutshell. I’m as good as gone.”
“Huh? What are you referring to?”
“…To what are you referring,” he huffed sanctimoniously. “Surely Doctor Harper, a woman of your erudition, would not end a sentence with..” Margaret’s head snapped up with a sharp look but Dwyer was grinning ear to ear. She was irritated but she backed down. That grin was infectious and she started to laugh.
“Why am I laughing at someone who keeps making fun of me?”
He grinned again. “I am just trying to find out if there is a real person under your carefully crafted façade or if you really are just a starchy librarian. Okay, I’ll be serious. Let’s start with that bookbinder. Huxley Allworth. He was always a hanger-on. Seriously, he was one of those guys who had no writing talent himself. He just rode the coattails of those who did.”
Margaret took offense, forgetting completely how rudely she had treated him. “He was very professional when he came here,”
“Margaret, I am still trying to figure you out – to figure if I can trust you.” Margaret’s back arched reflexively and her hands curled into tight fists. Dwyer put his palm firmly between her shoulder blades and said, “For god’s sake, woman! Breathe!!”
“That’s better – now, let’s reverse that. Can I convince you to trust me?” Margaret gave a little shrug and sniffled but she didn’t interrupt.
“Something weird is going on here. For instance, why does Vanessa run off every day to have lunch off campus with Lloyd Jones. Felix is sure that it has something to do with you.”
“Told you,” retorted Margaret. “What else?”
“Well, there’s the obvious incident of that ancient woman from the Smithsonian bursting in under false pretenses and then fainting when she came face to face with your Latin lover.”
“He’s not a Latin lover,” snapped Margaret. “And how do you know about that?”
“Don’t be naïve, Margaret. Half the campus is talking about it. And, of course he’s “Latin” – eye-talian to be exact. What is with that anyway? Looks like an Errol Flynn blow-up doll. A gasbag with beautiful eyes.” Margaret actually blushed.
“Then there’s those two industrious grad students – sitting downstairs as we speak – doing a massive inventory.”
“But we did a complete inventory at the end of last year.”
“I know that. But they’re down there working in the history stacks. Al apparently told them to inventory the whole nine yards – Archimedes to Zoroaster. I think they’re looking for something and I suspect they’re not too sure what that something is.”
Margaret took a few steps backwards and slumped into her office chair. Her hair had come loose and spilled down her back and she had kicked off her shoes. Dwyer thought that made her look far more real – and certainly vulnerable. Tears were starting to well in the corners of her eyes. Gone was all that librarian starch.
Margaret let out a hiccuppy sob. “Oh, Dwyer – you don’t know the half of it. Can I really trust you?”
“You’ve been battling those two forces of evil so long that you don’t even remember that you have friends at this University. It’s not just Rebecca and you against the world, you know. Al and Felix and I have been on your side since the day you arrived.”
Margaret started hesitantly. “Dwyer – Rebecca and I found something in one of the bags of chocolate. It was like a tiny, carefully folded, sort of origami kind of thing. It was so compressed it was hard to unfold but we finally managed and found a note inside. It just said that anything of value was at his lawyer’s.”
“What the . . . !!! Do you mean all this debris is just that – debris??”
“So far – other than those early notes on the bar napkins. Some of those do have recognizable lines.”
“Holy sh . . . ! What are you going to do?”
“That’s just it, Dwyer. I already did something. I found the lawyer – or, at least, his lawyer son.”
“And . . .?”
“Rebecca and I went to talk to him. Mr. Lafferty was very nice. He said he had been expecting me to come and ask for the rest of Mr. Lassiter’s estate.” Margaret went on, gathering her courage.” There were nine folders. Each the same size and neatly labeled – in the precise way that Lassiter used to work before he collapsed into drunkenness and dissolution. Seven of the folders contained his most famous poems, all the drafts and final copies. One folder was marked ‘Miscellany’ and held random poems that I didn’t recognize. The final folder was labeled Adoption Records.
“That was the name of a poem?”
“Of course not.” Margaret was trembling and Dwyer finally took her hands and held them, trying to stop the shaking. “It had a birth certificate for a little boy. It listed the father as Derwent Lassiter. And there were pages of hand-written notes covering Lassiter’s search for the boy. One page was a list, eleven names that Lassiter had managed to catch a glimpse of on the records, while some official was flipping through the pages. A few were both first and last names, but most were just one or the other.”
Margaret was really trembling and starting to cry. “What did you do?”
“I handed them back to the lawyer and told him to please keep them for me. I said – I remember I said – ‘I shouldn’t know this. I don’t want to know this. I want to go back to an hour ago and never find this out.’ I know I was almost shrieking.”
Margaret jumped to her feet and started pacing, but Dwyer grabbed her and held her. “Surely it can’t be that bad . . .”
“Oh Dwyer, it is even worse – I got stinking drunk the other night and I think I may have told Andrew all about it!”
Chapter 16 by Kate Miller (1739 words)
Jake knew with certainty he would have a monster of a hangover in the morning. It was after midnight by the time he exited McKowalski’s, leaving Dwyer nursing one more Guinness. Jake knew that filing the complaint about Ms. Harper was a rash mistake; he couldn’t quite believe he’d let Ms. Ames bully him into it. But in his defense it had hurt to have his offer of help belittled. Just because he was buff and looked like he should be on the football team was no reason to assume he wasn’t the literary type.
Now though, he had bigger problems. Had Dwyer really been suggesting that he could make everything right again by pretending to make a play for that old spitfire in Ms. Harper’s office? Come on, dude, she must be going on 100 years old by the looks of her, old enough to be his great-grandmother! Too old to even count as one of those cougars, middle-aged women who hung out in college bars, trolling for hook-ups with handsome college athletes. Though now that he thought about it, Jake recalled, with a flush of embarrassment, that Ms. Saroyan had leered at him when she entered Ms. Harper’s office. He supposed that he might chat her up about her work for the Smithsonian––that sounded interesting, and he was contemplating a career in information technology to help bankroll his poetry and his art. Damn, he did need those letters of reference and, as a writer, Jake knew everything could be transformed into great fiction, or at least a few potent poems.
Right now, though, he had other things on his mind. Back in his dorm room, Jake donned a scruffy pair of black jeans and his paint-splattered hoodie, grabbed his black backpack from under his bed, the aerosol paint cans making a cheerful clanking noise as he threw the pack over his shoulder, and started for the door. He paused for a moment, appreciating his absent roomie who spent almost every night at his girlfriend’s off-campus apartment. Jake knew most of his friends thought he was just a jock, more studious than most maybe, but not at all an inspired, risk-taking, outspoken graffiti artist with something to say to the world.
Jake turned back to his bed, got down on his knees and pulled Banksy’s book “You Are an Acceptable Level of Threat” from the furthest corner under the bed, along with an enormous gray dust bunny and some very unsavory looking chips. The book was his own copy, a great find from Henderson’s, one of the used bookstores in town, because it just would not do to have a book of Banksy’s work show up on his library record. He sat back down on the bed and flipped through the pages, looking for inspiration.
Sure, the Beats were important in their own time; political and outrageous and free-spirited. Jake’s dad was adopted and all he knew of his parents was that they were “in the arts”, maybe starving artists without the means or stability to raise their son. Anyway, his dad was a real fan of Kerouac and had this crazy idea that his real parents, Jake’s grandparents, just might have been members of that same Beat crowd, you know, Ginsberg and Ferlinghetti et all! Jake knew that this Derwent dude was supposed to be a member of that cool gang but if anyone wanted Jake’s opinion, which nobody seemed to, this Derwent wasn’t much of a poet, or a radical either.
That’s what Banksy was for him. The Beats for his generation, just as political and outrageous and free-spirited! Starting with the fact that he’d managed to keep his identity a secret all this time, now that was awesome. Like a secret Ninja artist! And his chosen art form itself was a statement, “defacing” property, but never harming the people, to create art that was meaningful yet beautiful all at the same time. Jake checked the time on his cell, just a little after 2am, bent and shoved the book back under his bed. He left the dorm, heading for his next blank slate, the library’s loading dock door, large and white and, until tonight, a big expanse of blank nothingness.
* * *
When Huxley woke the next morning he almost thought Peggy’s visit was just another joint-inspired memory but there was the empty bottle of cheap wine on his coffee table that hadn’t been there yesterday. No sign of Peggy though, but she could have let herself out at any time in the wee hours of the morning.
Wisps of dreams clung like cobwebs in Huxley’s mind. They had been an odd threesome, Derwent and Peggy and himself! Funny how they both loved Derwent so much, neither of them could bear to tell him just how bad his poetry was! Yet he had some kind of charm, he did. And Huxley had remembered that orgy as well, very vividly in fact, but he just didn’t want to let Peggy know so he played possum on her, too stoned to remember! Hah!
But remember he did, and he remembered when Derwent had told him that Peggy was pregnant, and that Derwent thought he was the father. So Huxley let them go on believing that, let them handle the whole affair, even though he secretly thought the kid was probably his. He had a track record after all, only slept with three women in three one-night stands during his forays into the straight life, and all three got pregnant. Oh, Huxley found out how fertile he was and he paid for it the rest of his life. He himself never wanted kids but he was an honorable man and paid up when asked, though luckily only one girl could prove that he was unmistakably the dad. Those were the days of free love after all.
Huxley did wonder about what happened to this kid, once even calling the adoption agency, claiming to be an “uncle” though he couldn’t get anything from those people, as records were confidential in those days.
He admitted to himself, the older he got the more he wondered about what his legacy might be, including some small curiosity about his (possible) progeny. He decided that it would be fine and dandy with him to help Peggy with her quest to find out more about her child, though he didn’t think he would broach the topic of questionable paternity at this late stage in his life.
Huxley hauled his old creaky bones off the couch and limped into his tiny kitchen to brew a cup of strong coffee and get something resembling breakfast in his grumbling stomach. He was just sitting down at the kitchen table when his doorbell chimed. When he opened the door, sure enough, there was Peggy, looking a little worse for wear in the watery sunlight. She grinned at him sheepishly and held out an offering of Rocket donuts and a large mocha latte. “Come on then, old man,” she said, “Let me in so we can start plotting how to get back into Margaret’s office and into dear Derwent’s belongings. I’ve got to find his files, for more than one reason.”
* * *
Jake had checked out the library’s loading dock earlier and knew that the security cameras had been out of service for a while now, due to budget cuts in capital funding. He slid cautiously out of the shadows and climbed up onto the cement landing. He didn’t expect much traffic at this time of night as it was a Sunday and a light rain, almost a mist, was falling. Students had probably done most of their partying Friday and Saturday and were just about know thinking about that Spanish exam in just a few hours.
He set his pack down and undid the zipper, pulling out his supplies, multiple cans of spray paint and a black bandana which he tied outlaw style over his mouth, as much to protect his lungs from the paint as to provide further disguise.
Jake read that Banksy used stencils to do his graffiti artwork and that he planned out the entire piece before executing it in the chosen location. Jake certainly put a lot of thought into where he wanted his pieces to go, both in terms of the aesthetics of the location and how easily he could work without being discovered. But he also loved the adrenaline rush of the possibility of discovery, a chance to be the bad boy that he never was as a teenager when he was the good son living up to his father’s expectations. And though Jake knew his overall subject matter, he preferred to improvise on the spot, let his muse take hold of him in the moment, so that even he was often surprised by what he created.
Jake had chosen the loading dock not only because of the expanse of the wide door, but because of what he felt when he saw and handled all of those boxes filled with what seemed like mostly garbage, junk not even worthy of a garage sale, that Derwent Lassiter’s niece delivered. It blew his mind that the library had paid thousands of dollars for this massive mess, in the hopes of attaining a few drafts of bad poetry and some old musty letters between famous people. It seemed to Jake like a slap in the face of “true” art. What about those artists who might not have been born into wealth? He suspected that his own writing would never be sought after by the Special Collections minions, even though professors and classmates alike told him that his work had promise. Jake’s best poems were performance pieces, done at poetry slams where the delivery was as important as the words themselves. Slam poetry was its own type of temporary art, not unlike graffiti, certainly not something easily adapted to the stationary nature of the printed page.
Jake looked around one last time, scanning the pathways, listening intently, making sure no one was around. The mist continued to fall, a slight breeze moved in the trees. Other than that faint rustling and a distant train whistle, he heard nothing. With a sigh of anticipation, Jake picked up a can of maroon paint, the color of dried blood. Facing the wall in front of him, Jake raised the can and began to spray.
Chapter 17 by Dawn Landau (1915 words)
Hud reached over and turned off his alarm. The numbers blinked 4:30am, and he groaned as he rolled over. It was hard enough to wake up in the summer, when the sun was shining through his small basement window, but as the days got shorter, the dark mornings added insult to injury. And the cold! Hud was holding out on turning on the heat, hoping to squeeze a little extra out of his monthly budget, but the damp Pacific Northwest cold made that hard.
He glanced at the hundred-dollar bill, sitting beside his mess of keys and his wallet. It would be a nice surprise for Ellis; textbooks were expensive, and even with his campus job, Hud knew that his son was barely scraping by. College was expensive, more than just the tuition, room and board, he’d planned on when he encouraged his son to go East and get an education. Kids needed to have a social life; textbooks were nearly as much as the tuition, and though Ellis was studious and not frivolous with the money Hud sent him, he wanted his son to enjoy college. It was hard to do that, without springing for pizza sometimes, or an occasional concert. Hud couldn’t see how Ellis could stand that techno crap, but then his parents hadn’t really understood his music either.
Hudson Graham hadn’t gone to college. His parents could barely feed and clothe their nine kids, let alone encourage something as pie in the sky as a college education. They worked hard and hoped for better for their kids, but college was something beyond those dreams. A good job, with benefits, was what they hoped for. The fact that Hud had moved all the way to Washington, and then landed steady work at a college, was as close as his parents could imagine to attending college. “Well, at least you’re bound to learn something, being around all those professors,” they joked, whenever Hud called home.
It was too expensive to visit, and over the years, he’d stopped trying. His parents were elderly now, and he knew he should try and see them one more time, before they passed, but his only focus was on seeing Ellis finish his degree. Nothing left for trips or luxuries. This apartment was close to campus and all he needed. The rent was cheap, and he could afford to pay his son’s fees and send a little extra. He tucked the hundred dollar bill in the envelope beneath his mattress and got out of bed.
It helped that folks like Dwyer felt inclined to hand over their cash. Fool, Hud thought, if he wants to pay for nothing, my son can have a little fun on his paranoia. He knew that nothing got past Dwyer, and who couldn’t see that the Spanish professor had a thing for Ms. Harper, that lovely head of Acquisitions? It didn’t take much to watch things unwind, and report a few details back to Dwyer. Hud knew that he was invisible to the folks who passed him every day. Polite hellos, an occasional favor (can you leave some extra tissues in my office, or hide these cigarette butts), or polite questions about his day–– not one of them knew he had dreams of his own, a son, and plans for his own future. Why the man felt inclined to pay him $100 for a few details about napkins, comings and goings, and grad students who were stacking books, didn’t matter; Hud had learned to keep his nose clean, do his work, and let fools be fools.
Hud put Miles in the CD player and made his coffee. He put his freshly cleaned uniform on and prepared to shave. When he’d worked for the campus dorms, he could wear whatever he liked, but the Board of the new library administration liked folks to know who was staff and who wasn’t. Janitorial services held no prestige, but the benefits were good, and the extra pay helped pay his son’s tuition. Once in a while, Hud sprung for a jazz show, or a beer with the folks he worked with, but mostly he kept his head low and did his job. When Ms. Harper worked late, sometimes she’d invite him in for some tea and those fancy cookies she kept. Lately it had been those overly sweet chocolates, but it wasn’t about the treats. She was a sweet young woman; she always treated Hud with respect, and he enjoyed their occasional visits. He often thought she was the kind of daughter he might have had… he winced, as the razor nicked his chin.
Memories of his short marriage, and the life he’d hoped for only caused pain. Letta had been the love of his life; their baby girl something they they dreamed about, when their beautiful boy needed a sibling. No amount of education would have prepared him for the chaos and horror, when Letta started bleeding, just weeks before her due date. It had been nineteen years since he lost them both, and not a day went by that he didn’t miss them. His girl would be in college now too; he’d have made sure of it. But being a single father to Ellis had been hard, with no family or support system. His parents and siblings had urged him to move home to Ohio, but he knew that the economy there was no better, and he imagined that this progressive town would support his dreams of seeing his son do better than he would do in a dying car town.
The bleeding had stopped. It was wise not to think back on hard times, with a razor in hand. He smiled as he wiped the dab of toothpaste from the wound, a trick his own father had taught him, when he was learning to shave. “Just don’t let it dry on there, or it will tears open when you pull it off.” Hud could still hear his father’s voice, when he’d taught him to shave, more than three and half decades earlier. He finished his coffee and hummed along to Miles’ So What, as he collected his keys and coat.
Things had been a bit peculiar at work lately. Boxes piling up on the loading dock, worker bees stocking books that didn’t need restocking, bags of napkins with silly notes on them, and people running up and down the stairs, leaving mud and shoe prints for Hud to clean up. He was watching and sizing things up; reporting a little to Dwyer, and staying out of the fray. Let fools be fools, he thought again, but don’t be a fool with them. He would keep his eyes open, and his mouth shut.
* * *
As Hud rounded the corner to the library’s loading dock, he couldn’t believe his eyes. Six feet high and the width of the paneled delivery doors someone had painted a crazy ass scene. A giant pink pine tree zigzagged through the center of the door, outlined in what looked like blood–– or was it maroon paint? Hud couldn’t tell. Bright green dollar signs were painted on the tree, as ornaments. In the upper left corner, an image of Jesus, clearly stenciled, smiled down at Hud. He rubbed his cold hands together. “Lord! This is gonna be a mess to clean up, and someone’s gonna be in a world of trouble!”
As he stood there, Professor Allworth ambled over, with the older woman he’d seen the night before. She’d come racing up the stairs with the craziest fake bodyguards, Hud could imagine. No one wears suits like that anymore, and sure enough not if they mean business! He laughed, despite the mess in front of him, recalling the scene the night before.
“Hud! What is this? Who the hell painted that!” Professor Allworth bellowed, as the woman stood, mouth agape.
“I sure don’t know, Professor, I just got here myself.”
“You know what that is, don’t you Huxley?” Maude smiled, leaning in to whisper and pointing at the Jesus. “Look closely, and think.”
“What the hell do I know about pink trees and… Christ! Is that… I mean, Lord… hmm, is that Jesus?” Huxley stretched his neck and tried to take in the images. “How would I know what that is!”
“Well, if you think real hard, you might remember that someone we both loved, wrote something along these lines…”
“Derwent’s poem? Some asshole has painted Derwent’s poem on the library loading dock?”
“Me thinks you’re catching on there, old man!” Maude smiled and put her arm through Huxley’s, pulling him closer.
“I don’t have any idea what you all are talking about, but if that’s a poem, maybe I could be a writer too!” Hud shook his head and scowled. “What I see there is a lot of mess for me to paint over, and some mighty angry Board members! That Mr. Jones sure isn’t going to like this poem, but maybe Ms… I mean, Dr. Harper could explain it.”
Maude nudged Huxley, and Hud pretended not to notice.
“I’ll let security know, Hud; you don’t need to be involved. Just go on in the front door, and I’ll go report it.” Huxley shooed Hud on, with a wave of his arthritic hand. “Go on, I’ll go take care of this.”
Hud nodded and walked toward the front entrance. “Eyes open, mouth shut,” he muttered to himself.
“What was that, Hud?” Huxley watched the janitor walk away.
“Nothing Professor, just thinking that it might rain again.” He waved and turned the corner.
“Hux, the timing of this couldn’t be better! Do you realize what this means?” Maude could barely contain her excitement.
“I know that it means a lot of Lloyd Jones yelling, and Hud will be spending a day or two sanding and painting these doors… how could you possibly look happy about this? I know you thought our lover Derwent was a brilliant artist, but frankly I never liked that poem, and I like it less as graffiti! It’s bad enough that kids today feel like they need to defile every empty space, but it’s ridiculous when they think they can make bad poetry into a hipster message! Shits! They make me crazy!”
“Hux, we can argue another time about the Derwent’s talent, or lack of it; we can discuss the deeper meaning of graffiti as a modern art form and political statement, but right now, this particular piece of graffiti is exactly what we need!”
Allworth scowled again, and rubbed his head. “I’m not seeing that point, darlin’; spell it out!”
“When Margaret hears about this, she’ll be right down here to study it for herself. She’s so caught up in Derwent’s legacy, she’s bound to see this as a sign. Lloyd Jones will be making his own scene, and dragging the Board out here… ‘cretins, public defacing, criminals…’ you can almost hear him. But the most important part is this: they will all be distracted. No one will notice us when we go to Margaret’s office and find the papers I want. This is the opportunity we needed! Some brilliant artist just handed it to us, on the loading dock doors.” She squeezed Huxley’s arm and pulled. “Let’s go. You report it, and I’ll wait in your office. I don’t want anyone to see us together… we’ve got work to do old man!”
As they turned to go, Huxley could swear that Jesus smiled at them.
Chapter 18 by Alicia Jamtaas (1367 words)
But Jesus wasn’t smiling. He was laughing.
Damn these arthritic knees, Huxley thought. This morning, for some unknown reason, the private elevator to the 8th floor had broken. No one up, no one down. Huxley had received a notice only because he’d been an old (really old) friend of Derwent Lassiter and semi-involved with the library’s newly acquired Lassiter estate. Jesus-H-Christ on a bicycle. He’d had so much to say about what was in the collection. Both for and against. If one looked hard enough, there were some incredibly interesting things hidden inside. But he hadn’t been asked, had he?
He’d also been told about the broken elevator because he had a key. Margaret had bestowed it upon him when she heard that he had known, indeed been “involved”, with uber (her word, not his) cool Derwent Lassiter in their younger days or d-a-z-e (she’d spelled the word out with a goofy laugh as she gave him the key.) But today, Huxley and Maudie would need to climb the last two flights of stairs. When he mentioned the fact, she exploded.
“You will see a perfect rendition of Angel at the Barroom Brawl if you don’t figure out an easier way to get to that office!” she screamed.
Angel at the Barroom Brawl … what? he thought before remembering that the angel brawl poem was the one that had gleaned Lassiter a Pulitzer Prize w-a-y back when.
Angels, angels here and there
clipped wings and
Please smile up at me
from your place beside
Pools of beer
“Are you listening?” Maudie shouted.
Evidently not. “No, darling, I wasn’t. I mean I am.” Did he just call Maudie ‘darling?’ Oh, he truly was getting confused. He needed rest. A trip to Tahiti. Bare brown behinds. Warm breezes. Mai-Thais.
Ouch. Maudie’s voice made his head hurt. All this excitement! He needed to think of something, anything to make Maudie be quiet! He cleared his throat.“ Well, Maudie, the good news is the main elevator will take us up to the sixth floor. It’s only Margaret’s special elevator that’s out of order. We’ll merely need to walk up two flights—”
“Are there actually stairs to the eighth floor?”
Huxley, tired of trying to explain e-v-e-r-y-t-h-i-n-g to Maudie, threw his hands in the air and shouted, “Hello! There has to be; there are – fire regulations!”
“Everything all right?” A voice came from out of the blue.
Maudie and Huxley turned their heads so quickly; he was pretty sure he heard his companion’s neck crack. “Yep,” Huxley said. “Yes!” Just as he recognized young Jake – Huxley thought of anyone under sixty-five as young – standing before him with a can of spray paint in his hand. For a moment, a blink, Huxley thought he recognized his own eyes shining from the younger man’s face or did that blue tint belong to …?
“Everything’s fine,” he interrupted his own crazy thoughts. “Okey-dokey . . .”
Maudie pinched Huxley’s arm and whispered, “Shut up! You’re babbling,” before addressing Jake, “Well, young man, what are you doing here?”
* * *
Jake thought, Recovering the maroon spray paint, you wrinkly … How could Dwyer even suggest that I have anything to do with this battle ax? Thank goodness what he said was, “Hud sent me down with some cover-up paint to fix the graffiti on the door. Man, whoever did this should be shot. Ruining public property. The library. I mean really. Shame on them. Shame on them.” Was he going over the top with his explanation? Probably, but his lips wouldn’t stop flapping. “Times they are a changin’.”
“Hud did what?” Maudie asked. Jake thought she looked bewildered. But he always thought older women looked bewildered. Heck! He was bewildered.
Jake raised the spray paint shoulder high and shook it, making the little metal ball inside rattle. “Yeah, Hud sent me down to cover the pink tree, dollar bills, Jesus and stuff.”
“With maroon paint?” Huxley asked.
Should have known better than to come here in the daylight to collect this! But, last night, a guy that looked an awful lot like the man in the picture he’d seen on Professor Harper’s desk, drove up in a black Humvee just as Jake was finishing the last slice of maroon outline on the pink tree. For what felt like a week, Jake stood frozen inside the thin shadow of a Douglas fir, watching the dark-skinned man sit in his car and read what looked like a raft of legal papers. Jake remained in the shadow, pressed against the wall until his hand fell asleep. To his dismay, he dropped the spray paint can just as the man got out of the car. The can rolled off the dock, clinking, and clanking, so far under the Humvee, Jake couldn’t even see it. Glad the shadow-man hadn’t noticed the racket; Jake high-tailed it out of there right as the man hefted himself onto the loading dock.
Damn! Right now, anger swelled in Jake’s chest. That little Miss-Better-than-You Professor Harper hadn’t even remembered that he had volunteered to help organize the meager collection of books in her Special Collections. Ten weeks ago, he’d stood right across her desk, looking at the picture of a man who surely was her ‘Latin Lover’. Meanwhile she’d told him, “Jake, you have absolutely no idea how important Special Collections”—she’d actually made those crazy air-quotation marks beside her ears—“are, nor how they need to be handled by special”—more air-quote motions—“people.”
All the while, he knew what she really meant – there was nothing in the special collections to be organized, and he certainly wouldn’t be chosen to help if there were. Now she had the Lassiter collection. And that bally-wick of an acquisition was nothing more than a pile of oddities: Pinocchio on a string, cartons of Choc-O-Nibs, and that album of pictures he’d found at the bottom of the bag full of used napkins—chalk full of racy pictures of Lassiter Derwent and Peggy Sorayan. His lips were sealed—or not. It depended on how the rest of the week went. Hopefully, no one would find the album hidden beside his Bansky book.
“With maroon paint?” Huxley’s voice broke into Jake’s thoughts.
“What?” Rain had begun to fall; Jake’s collar was damp. He lifted his left hand, looked at the spray paint can with feigned surprise; shrugged his shoulder. Water dripped down his arm, onto the top of the can. “Maroon? Shit! This was supposed to be beige!” and jumped off the loading dock.
“Move! Move! Move!” Maudie shouted.
“I’m not going to chase that …”
“For crying out loud! We’ve wasted too much time talking to Spray-Paint-Man. We need to get Margaret down here ASAP! Who knows what that little Hud fellow has done while we’ve been stuck down here talking to What’s-His-Name. He’s probably already gone to Margaret himself and screwed everything up.”
“His name is Jake.”
Maudie shook her head and ran towards the elevator. All the way up to the sixth floor, she blamed Huxley for everything from the rain to Margaret’s stalled elevator.
Perhaps this is what marriage is like, Huxley thought, even as he thanked his lucky stars that he was gay and too old to take advantage of the new marriage laws. Well, not too old, there just weren’t any prospects.
When they reached the sixth floor, Maudie was still complaining but by the time they’d hiked up two flights of stairs she could do nothing but huff out air. Huxley wasn’t even sure she was taking any in. Thank God for small favors.The door to Margaret’s office was askew; top hinge at an angle. “Margaret?” Huxley called. We have a bit of a graffiti prob….”
He stopped. Her office was a bigger mess than it had been before. Boxes were topsy-turvy, papers everywhere. Small yellow marbles glittered in one corner; miniature tubes of toothpaste were jumbled in another.
“Margaret?” Maudie finally had enough air in her lungs to speak.
“Here she is.” Andrew rose from behind the desk, Margaret hanging like a broken marionette in his arms.
Chapter 19 by Cami Ostman (1540 words)
Jake was nothing if not quick to notice peculiarities in other people. His parents were peculiar—quirky tail-end baby boomers who still followed the Rolling Stones around the country and celebrated Winter Solstice instead of Christmas. Jake had grown up noticing the raised eyebrows of his friends’ parents when his mom and dad walked into a room with their hemp clothes and self-cut hair. He’d developed an intuitive sensitivity to “vibes.”
He felt more vibes in his encounter with Maudie and Huxley besides the vibe of possibly being found out for his secret art. He could tell they were up to something too, and his curiosity was piqued. Besides, he’d been charged by professor Dwyer to spy on Maudie, and he’d love to find a way to do that besides trying to sex her up. No time like the present if the right opportunity was right in front of him. These two older-than-old former… lovers? Friends? Partners in crime? What were they up to?
He decided to follow them and tucked his bag behind one of the popular fiction shelves on the first floor—he didn’t want the rattle of the spray paint to give him away—then lurked on the landing behind them as they struggled up the first flight of stairs.
“Jake, I’m glad I caught you, I was just about to send you an email,” a woman’s voice startled him away from his intention. He turned to see Vanessa standing with the light shining behind her as its beams peeked in from the large glass doors of the main entrance. She was dressed in a short, snug skirt meant for a woman closer to his age and a tight lycra blouse. Her round right hip was pressed out and her hand rested on it in a posture of almost anger/almost flirtation.
“Oh hi,” he said.
“Can I bend your ear about something?”
He knew she wanted to talk with him about the complaint he’d lodged against Dr. Harper, and to be honest he didn’t really have a dog in this show. He loved literature, his art, and a dream he had for his own life, and there was at least a part of him that was fascinated by the politics of late at this university he was racking up tens of thousands of dollars in loans to attend, but did he really care if Assistant Librarian Vanessa Ames ousted Margaret Harper from Special Collections? Not so much. He may not have appreciated Dr. Harper’s attitude toward him, but it didn’t make or break his life. “Actually, I’ve got a little bit of research I need to do on the third floor for a midterm I have coming up,” he offered. “Can I get back to you later?”
She was clearly nonplussed, but willing to excuse him only because her administrative assistant approached to ask a catering question about an event happening that evening. Vanessa let Jake go with a wave of her hand and an, “I’d like to have you stop by my office tomorrow, okay?”
“Absolutely!” Jake said, turning quickly to try and catch up with the elderly pair he was tracking. He took two stairs at a time, but needn’t have expended even that much energy as they were hobbling along, leaning on each other and the handrail simultaneously.
Many minutes later, when Huxley and Peggy reached Margaret’s office, Jake was on their heels.
Andrew looked up at the trio, Margaret in his arms. Jake watched as Andrew registered the old woman’s face first. And then as Andrew’s attention oscillated between the lifeless woman he held and the presence of his three spectators.
A jolt, or maybe something more like a shiver, ran through Jake’s body when Andrew’s eyes really settled on him. There was absolutely no mistaking the perplexed, half-indignant expression on the visage of the man holding Dr. Harper in his arms. And those eyes, just a little too close together and tilted down on the outside. He was looking into a face so like his own father that he could have no doubt this man was related to him somehow!
How could that be?
He didn’t know HOW, but he knew he was right. Jake had seen that expression every time he’d been late for curfew or forgotten to do his chores. He saw that expression the day he confessed to his father he’d left a dent in the back bumper of the car when he’d run into the fire hydrant backing out of the driveway. The eyes looking back at him were his father’s eyes. No question.
Something in him shook again and he backed away from the scene slowly, slipping away as quietly as he could.
“Call 9-1-1!” Andrew shouted at the two wide-eyed seniors in the doorway, but no one moved. “Now,” he raised his voice even louder.
Rebecca appeared in the doorway now. “What’s… oh my God.” She rushed to the desk phone and dialed for emergency before approaching Margaret, lifting the limp arm of her boss and feeling grateful to find a pulse. “What happened?” She turned an angry and suspicious gaze on Andrew. “How did you get in here?”
“The door was unlocked,” Andrew said calmly. “I found her this way, only one moment before you came in.”
Rebecca knew this couldn’t be true. She and Margaret had agreed to keep the door locked at ALL times, especially when one of them was in the space alone. But she couldn’t sort that out right now; she needed to take care of Margaret. “You get out of here,” she said to Peggy once she finally had the presence of mind to notice who the old lady was—the one who had instigated the fake raid only days earlier. And to Huxley she said, “Mr. Allworth, I don’t know why you stopped by, but this is obviously a bad time.”
Keeping one eye on Andrew, whom she absolutely did not trust ever since he’d squirted cat urine on her, she stepped toward the door to shout for the interns, “Sally, Davis, can one of you please get me a paper towel wet with cold water?” Now she turned back to Andrew, “For God’s sake, lay her on the floor instead of keeping her in that awkward position.” Was he an idiot?
Jake knocked on his friend Aaron’s door hoping his geeky buddy would be home. Aaron lived a half mile off campus in a townhouse he’d bought outright with the proceeds of an app he’d developed that allowed students to secretly exchange test questions on midterms. It was called SnapCheat.
“Jake! Bro, what’s up? Come in.” Aaron was a small olive-skinned young man whom everyone knew as a left-brain genius. He could hack any computer or fix any hack that happened to you. He could work a cross-word puzzle faster than most people could sneeze three times. He was funny, too. Quick-witted—and warm. As a doctoral student in Systems Thinking he was working on a dissertation to bridge the gap between human systems and artificial intelligence.
“I need help, man.”
“You look like you saw a ghost,” Aaron said.
“Not a ghost, my father—in some other guy’s face.” Jake told his buddy about the man in Special Collections. “Is there any way to find out who he is?”
“Dude, anything is possible. Let’s start by hacking into Harper’s email, yeah?”
So while Peggy and Huxley hobbled back down the stairs, disappointed in their chase to get a glimpse of the poet’s artifacts, and while Margaret had her vital signs taken and then was rushed to the local hospital, Jake sat next to Aaron and watched him work magic. In ten minutes, Aaron was in the university email system, with access to any communication they might want to see.
Date: October 12, 2016
I DO want to come be with you. I really do. But as you know, a relationship cannot thrive if one person gives up his passion for the other person’s passion. Trust me that everything will work out. Our love can span the distance. Be patient.
“So his name is Andrea?” Jake said. “Strange name for a dude.”
Aaron studied the screen. “Or it could be a typo. Look in the heading. The email address says Andrew. Thing is though, have you ever misspelled your own name?”
“I’ve forgotten the “e” so it turns up as Jak,” Jake said.
“Okay sure. Let’s do a Google search for both Andrew Ferling and Andrea Ferling just for fun and see what comes up.”
The two turned their attention back to the screen.
The sun was going down outside of Aaron’s home office window. The faint sound of a siren in the distance slowly faded into silence as Aaron typed “Ferling” into the search bar. They waited a moment as Google did its thing. Up popped 102 results. The first one with a picture of a much older fellow who bore a striking resemblance to the man Jake had seen in Margaret’s office.
“Does he look like that guy?” Aaron asked.
Jake nodded, that same shiver running down his back.
“Shit!” they both said together.
Chapter 20 by Angelica Gutierrez (1774 words)
In the hospital, on a reclined bed, looking completely rested, lay Margaret. It was the first time since this whole Lassiter fiasco began that Margaret, believe it or not, felt at ease. She didn’t know where she was in that moment of deep rest and relaxation. The only thing she was conscious of as she lay in a private room at the Pacific Northwest General Hospital that overlooked the Sound, was that she was actually resting. It was as if she was on vacation. She even felt the warmth of sun kissing her face.
Beside her stood Felix Ingersoll and Rebecca. By the window sat a beautiful bouquet of flowers bought by Prof. Dwyer and signed by the Special Collections department. A week had passed and Margaret had no concept of time or space for that matter. As far she was concerned, she might as well be on the Big Island in Hawaii. That’s how calm and unperturbed she felt.
As she started to come to, she heard the sound of faint voices in the distance. She was moving her head ever so gently. The duo beside her, standing silently and with anticipation, leaned forward toward Margaret.
Was this it? Was this the moment she would wake up from her comatose state? It had already been a week.
Margaret made grunting sounds as if waking from a deep and restful sleep. There was even a warm smile on her face as she began to stretch. Rebecca and Felix looked at one another with expressions of confusion. Who wakes up from a coma with a smile and a stretch? Not that they had ever experienced anyone in a comatose state before Margaret. Who knows? Maybe all comatose people wake up in that way. Most of all Rebecca and Felix felt relieved. Relieved that they would have Margaret back and hopefully well enough to continue her work. No one wanted a replacement in the midst of the Lassiter chaos.
Margaret slowly opened her eyes and immediately squinted. The sunlight was too strong. Felix went over and closed the blinds just the right amount. Margaret closed her eyes again. The sun was still on her face but this time it snuck its kiss between the blinds. Rebecca and Felix moved toward her.
Margaret began to stretch one arm over her head and the other toward her feet. “Aaaaahhh,” she grunted and re-opened her eyes. Still squinting, she looked at Rebecca and Felix. Almost as if she was being unplugged, she jerked and opened her eyes wide. What da?! she thought to herself. “Where the hell am I?” she said in her internal voice.
“Margaret, are you ok?” asked Rebecca softly.
“Where am I? Why are you in my room? What are you doing here Felix? What the hell is going on?” asked Margaret without pausing between questions and pulling the sheets up over her chest as if she were topless and exposed.
“It’s ok,” replied Felix and touched her arm. “You had a bad reaction to something. Or someone,” he said this last part underneath his breath. “We had to bring you here to the hospital. You ate some sort of poison. You’ve been here a week.”
“A week!? A week?!” replied Margaret, eyes wide open in disbelief and fear now.
“Yes,” replied Rebecca in a soft gentle voice. “A week.”
“But, what about my job? The collection? Andrew? Is he ok? Was he poisoned too?”
Rebecca and Felix looked at each other then looked back at Margaret.
“No,” replied Felix. “He is ok. Andrew is fine. In fact, you are here because of Andrew.”
“Oh my God! He saved my life! Where is he? I want to see him. Where is he? Why isn’t he here?”
Rebecca walked away shaking her head and Felix made his way closer to Margaret. He pulled up a chair to sit beside her.
“Sweetheart,” he cleared his throat.
Rebecca squirmishly looked at Felix and then turned and looked away.
“Um, well, that is not exactly what happened. Andrew,” Felix took a long pause, “well, Andrew—he didn’t exactly save your life. Rebecca did.”
He looked at Rebecca. Rebecca turned toward Margaret.
Looking puzzled, Margaret asked, “What are you talking about Felix? Please, tell me what is going on. Why am I here?”
“You were poisoned,” replied Rebecca.
Back at Special Collections the interns, chosen carefully by Rebecca, had gotten rid of the majority of the most expensive garbage ever to have arrived on the eighth floor in the history of the prestigious Special Collections Unit at Rodham University. What was left of the “collection” was locked away and would be a surprise to Margaret once she returned to her office. Only Rebecca knew the real value or not of the remainder of the collection and feared what the repercussions of this expensive, almost worthless acquisition would be. In fact, she had already begun to look for other employment outside of the city. She knew that after this, unless they were going to be able to get Morissey, Fergus & Lafferty to release Lassiter’s esteemed literary pieces to them, she would not be able to be promoted nor would she find a job anywhere within 50 miles of the city. At least! The consequences of this mess could end her career altogether.
Though not impossible, getting Morissey, Fergus & Lafferty to release the collection without a signed will, was going to be a challenge. That is, unless the firm had the will on file instructing them to release Lassiter’s valued treasures to whoever came in with the note hidden in the Choc-O-Nibs bag. One would have to assume that if Lassiter wrote the note himself, he had also made mention of it in his will.
This could get complicated.
Meanwhile, the Library Foundation was calling Rebecca incessantly. Rebecca had been able to fend them off with Margaret’s hospitalization but feared that her “grace period” would come to an end soon. The office remained locked and only Rebecca, when necessary, entered each morning and evening to take and put away the unfortunately-gotten gains.
Sally and Jake (Rebecca had asked him to come back) sorted through Lassiter’s rubbish and were exhausted and disappointed. “Is this what we came here for?” asked Sally. “I mean, did I go to grad school to sort through garbage?”
“I am sure that before this is all over, by the time Margaret comes back, we will have found treasures. There is just no way the university would spend this kind of money without a guarantee that DJ’s most prized wordy possessions would live right here in our very own literary sanctuary. I know it. I feel it! I know there is a very good explanation for this. I just know it!”
“Well you do sound optimistic. And I suppose you could be right.”
“Yeah,” said Jake. “I could be. Now let’s finish up. I have some other business to take care of.”
Prof. Dwyer and Lloyd Jones were sitting at the bar having a drink of whiskey at the Faculty Club. Dwyer and Lloyd were thoroughly engaged in conversation and were clearly engrossed. From the tone of the body language it was clear that this was no casual meeting, nor a whiskey tasting.
Vanessa was also there at the Faculty Club having dinner at a far corner table. She saw Dwyer and Lloyd from a distance and recognized them immediately. She was baffled. What were these two doing together?
She glanced at the menu and tried to be discreet in her snooping. She tried to read the gentlemen’s lips but was not at all successful in this.
“Are you ok?” asked Andrew, who was sitting across from Vanessa and beside his father Donaldo Ferlinghetti.
“Yes, I’m fine. I’m sorry for being distracted,” replied Vanessa. “I thought I recognized the bartender. Anyway, carry on.”
Donaldo picked up where he left off.
“There will be significant compensation if you are successful at the proposed task. Take my word for it.” Donaldo leaned back, crossed his legs and paused.
He confidently continued, “There are very few things in this world I don’t have access to or control over, and I do not intend for this to be one of them.”
“What exactly are we talking about here? How much compensation and how do I know I can trust what you say? Especially after what your son did to Margaret?”
“Shh!” said Donaldo leaning forward with intimidating authority and a look that could melt kryptonite.
“My son did nothing! Now you be careful what you say. I don’t think you have any idea who you are talking to right now. Otherwise, you would watch what comes out of your mouth.”
“Now, you want to know if you can trust me? Well, that depends on you. In terms of compensation, well I will deliver. I ALWAYS deliver. I am a man of my word. In my country, ‘la parola di un uomo e sacra’. A man’s word is sacred.”
Vanessa, realizing she was in deeper than she was bargaining for (literally), sat frozen stiff.
“So you mean to tell me that Andrew poisoned me? Me? His fiance’? His future wife? Why would he do that to me?” She covered her face with her hands and began to cry.
Felix instinctively ran his hands through her soft, fluffy hair. What a beautiful dark mane of hair she had.
Felix stared at Margaret whilst he comforted her. And what a lucky piece of shit Andrew is. She never noticed he’s an ass, and who knows if she saw or believed it now. What am I doing? How could I have allowed myself to fall for her?
“It’s going to be ok Margaret. I promise.” Felix said out loud as he attempted to comfort Margaret.
“For now, the most important thing is that you get well so we can get you home to live your life as normal. We miss you, and we need you.”
Rebecca, unsure if her intuition and ears served her, looked at Felix.
“I am very sorry Margaret. I can only imagine how devastating this all must be for you,” continued Felix.
“We made sure that Andrew never comes near you again. He is banned from the University and from your home. We managed to get a restraining order so you are safe.” Rebecca chimed in.
Margaret leaned in Felix’s direction. Felix extended his arms toward Margaret and held her.
Oh. Em. Gee!! was the only thing that went through Rebecca’s mind at that very moment. Was Felix really falling for Margaret?
Chapter 21 by Sky Hedman (1829 words)
Peggy knew these symptoms. They had been coming and going for the last month. Jaw pain, sometimes pain in her shoulder.
“Breathe,” she told herself, lifting her chin up from the newspaper that she was reading as she passed time in her hotel room. She took in a breath but that hurt too.
“Relax,” she willed herself. If that darned pain in her jaw would just go away, she might be able to relax. Two nights ago she felt the same way, but the pain had subsided by morning.
“What do you expect old age to be like?” she taunted herself. “You can’t be whimpering and complaining about every little symptom. It is more important to get your hands on that folder. You didn’t risk everything in New Mexico to get the folder so that it could vanish. There’s got to be a way.
Still. Peggy wondered…maybe this was the end of the road. Lots of her friends had already died. People thought she was 70, like the flight attendant on her way from DC to Seattle. She liked to see the surprise on their faces when she told them the truth: she was 90 years old. Her back was still strong and she could still take care of herself. She had lived a full life. She had tried to exonerate her parents. She had put that Ferlinghetti hoaxer in jail for selling bogus photos of Lawrence to the Smithsonian. She had her fun with her wild friends, and then settled into a satisfying career. But if this pain was “the big one”…she wasn’t ready. There was one more thing she had to do in this life.
She had told herself for so many years that she had done the right thing in giving up her son for adoption. There was no way she could have raised him alone, nor did she have much of a maternal instinct. He deserved better than she had to offer, and she wasn’t up to the price she would have to pay for having a son out of wedlock. These days, girls do it all the time, but 1959 was different.
“Try to find him now,” a voice inside her head spoke. The seeming futility of the task overwhelmed her. He was born in New York City almost six decades ago. Here she was thousands of miles away on the west coast. To whom would she address a letter? He probably wouldn’t want to meet her anyway. She’d be nothing but a bother.
The morning after she and Hux came upon Margaret and Andrew in the office, Peggy had been lying in bed listening to NPR. She heard a moving story of a man finding his birth mother just before she died. The voice of the son stayed in her head all week. Seems like he said he used the internet to find his mother.
Peggy shifted over to the desk, and lifted the lid of her laptop. When she was growing up, people wrote everything by hand, and you could learn about their personality just by looking at their penmanship. When she got the job at the Smithsonian, she had learned to use a computer. It was a whole new world. Now you see their faces, or even videos of their cats. She had bought herself this laptop after her first computer died five years ago. She mostly did email and sometimes she typed up stories about her life. She was interested in memoir. “Who would care?” she thought, but she did it anyway.
As she waited for the computer to come to life, she thought about the chapter she was writing…the chapter about that night with Derwent and Hux. Finally, she heard the Windows jingle and the screen came up. She clicked on Internet Explorer, and then clicked on her shortcut to Google.
Slowly, she typed her question: “How to Find Your Adopted child.” The screen filled up with a list of adoption agencies. She pushed the backspace key and amended her search. “How to find your child put up for adoption.” She pushed the Enter key. That darned pain. She paused and lifted up her chin again.
“It’s now or never,” the voice in her head said.
She glanced down the new list, filled with adoption reunion registries. She clicked on one that sounded promising: International Soundex Reunion Registry. “Pretty impressive name,” she thought, “bigger than a baby.” To her relief, it was free. The first page had a field titled “New Registration.” With her heart pounding, she started filling in the spaces.
Name: Peggy Saroyan
Date of child’s birth: December 1, 1959
Place of birth: New York City
Hospital: Bellevue Medical Center
Gender of child: Male
She typed in her contact information: her home address and home phone, then, just in case, put in her cell number. She added her email address. She read their disclaimers, and poked around the site. Her registration would take 7 – 10 days to be processed.
By the time she clicked on “Submit”, thirty minutes later, the pain had moved to past her shoulder into her arm as well as her jaw.
“It’s done,” she thought. “I hope I’m still alive when he finds me.”
Peggy remembered how he looked and felt when she held the swaddled baby in her arms for the first few minutes of his life. His wrinkled little face, still blotchy from the delivery, his sallow skin, his squinty eyes and tiny hands in a fist. Peggy didn’t have anyone with her to show him off to, so she asked the nurse who came to take him away, “Isn’t he handsome?” A part of her heart froze over as he disappeared down that hall and exited from her life.
When she was discharged from the hospital, alone, she told herself again and again that she had done the best thing. Later, she told Derwent about the child.
The pain in her chest brought her back to the present. “Where’s the darn Tylenol?” she asked herself as she turned off her laptop. She stood up from the desk. It could be in her purse, on the table by the door but it seemed far away. Maybe she should call someone. Huxley was no use. He didn’t have a car and he’d probably be at work anyway. Maybe a cup of tea would help. The hotel offered free coffee and tea in the lobby. Getting there seemed out of the question.
She looked out her window at the cloudy skies. The morning rain had moved past and she thought how long it had been since she gave birth. He would be 59 now. Would he recognize her, even a little bit? She wondered if he was a poet too. Would he have her genes for working hard and taking care of herself? Would he have her brown eyes or would he look like his father? She figured the father was most likely Lawrence, but out of sentimentality she had told Derwent that he was the one. Even Huxley was a possibility. Would her son own a bookstore and be an anarchist? Would he scribble poems in bars on napkins? Or would he find a niche working with his hands and teaching students? She hoped he would have gone to college, had a chance to appreciate literature and art. She hoped he found someone who loved him.
When she walked to the window to tilt the blinds against the afternoon sun from the west, Peggy was overcome with nausea. “What’s this?” she asked herself. “I don’t want to die yet,” she thought.
“Peggy,” the voice in her head spoke. “You need to go the ER.”
“Oh bother,” she thought. The last time she had done that it had been a false alarm and the ER had cost her an arm and a leg. Where is that darn Tylenol? She toddled over to her purse and unzipped the big compartment. All she felt was her room key.
“Go to the ER,” that voice said louder.
“Well if a total stranger came into this room the way it is now, they would think I’m a slob,” she thought, making conversation with herself. She made her way back to the desk, straightened up her papers and magazines, and dumped yesterday’s cup of tea in the bathroom sink.
She flicked off the light in the bathroom as she walked back to desk. “Cozy” was the word she always used to describe her living room at home, the bookcases filled with her precious books and the two easy chairs by the fireplace. Now that cozy room seemed a world away.
“Call 911,” said the voice.
“Call 911 and the next thing you know six firemen are in your room shouting at you because they think you are deaf. And all for nothing. My neck and arm have hurt before.”
“It’s probably just excitement from registering to find my son,” Peggy told herself. “I could drive myself to the ER if I had a car,” Peggy thought. “At least they wouldn’t bill me for the ambulance.” The phone was in front of her. She picked it up and dialed Yellow Cab.
The traffic was light and the taxi driver knew the way. Her left arm hurt so much that she didn’t put on her seatbelt. She fumbled to open her purse to get out her credit card. The taxi driver pulled up in the parking lot of the ER, but two ambulances blocked the way. “It isn’t right to take up the space from someone who was really sick,” she thought.
“Don’t worry about me,” she said aloud to the driver. “Just take me around to the front door.”
He drove the cab around to the vast public parking lot in front of the hospital and pulled up to the curb.
Rebecca McShane told Margaret and Felix to wait in the room while she brought the car around front. She stepped out into the fresh air, a welcome change from the institutional air that she had breathed so much of during their vigil over Margaret. Finally, she could relax. Margaret had pinked up and was well enough to go home, Felix was heading back to work, and Rebecca had called in to the office to say she was taking the afternoon off to help Margaret get situated at home. The doctor recommended that Margaret stay home for a few days to let the poison clear completely from her brain.
Rebecca tried to remember where she had left her silver Camry. She paused while she scanned the parking lot, dotted with silver sedans. Wasn’t it by the crosswalk? Rebecca started off in that direction, just as a Yellow Cab pulled up to the curb in front of her. Rebecca retrieved her keys from her purse, and looked up just in time to see Peggy Saroyan open the taxi door, slowly get out, slump against the car and slide to the ground before her.
Chapter 22 by Rodolph Rowe (2070 words)
The fifty day waiting period to open and read addendums A, B and C, stipulated in the Will, ended this past Tuesday, but George felt that to honor Derwent Lassiter’s intentions, he needed to wait until Margaret was well enough to attend a reading. So, when he received word from her assistant Rebecca McShane that she was awake and lucid, he booked the great room in the main library and mailed out invitations—missives made of the highest quality papers and inks worthy of a society wedding, only this would be an intervention that would cause shock waves through both the literary, law and political communities.
The one thing he felt no compulsion to do was track down Derwent’s horrid sister, Ann. Rumor was that she was in the Florida Keys being tended to by two highly paid, very young, very buff male companions. Besides, nothing on the addendums had anything to do with her.
Everyone would receive their summons by this Friday and so have the weekend to change any plans, so they might attend on Monday afternoon. He’d wait until Sunday evening to contact his friends at the Seattle Times. Let the East Coast outlets have to get the story second hand for once.
With the invitations done, and one fat envelope off by registered mail to the F.B.I., he went into his inner office, opened his safe and took out the exquisite, fifteenth century, lacquered and hand painted Chinese box, containing, as Derwent had so simply put it, “the good stuff.” He reverently placed it in the middle of his desk, undid the clasp and took out a bottle of Dewar’s that had been waiting for this day for forty years. As per the handwritten instructions Derwent had left, he filled three cut glass tumblers from the bar with the honey-golden elixir and placed two of them side-by side on a high windowsill in bright sunlight. There, his dad, George Sr., and Derwent, both lost to this world, would symbolically use evaporation to savor this toast to a life-long friendship.
The third glass he raised to his dad and Derwent. “To two boys, not attractive by the world’s standards, but with great hearts, fine minds and an eye for what is important, lasting and valuable.” He took a drink, and smiled remembering his dad telling how they first meet.
“We were dweebs, Son. I guess you’d call us nerds today. Both hiding out in the library basement while most of the rest of the school went to the football games. One Saturday afternoon, I walked by Derwent’s study corral and accidently kicked over his hot tea that he had placed on the floor. I insisted on helping him clean it up, trying not to stare at the dents in the sides of his head from birthing forceps, while he tried not to fixate on the Lafferty triple chin. In the process, we realized we had often seen each other’s names on the book cards one signed glued in the front inside covers to keep track of who checked out what in those days. Often we were the only ones signing out an odd and eclectic collection of philosophy, science fiction and poetry books.”
Then one day, in his father’s private inner office, when new acquisitions came in and they were updating Derwent’s inventory together, George Jr. had asked his dad how it all began.
“With taking out the trash, Son”
“No, really Dad, I want to know.”
“I’m serious. It began when Derwent helped out at Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s place.”
“City Light Books?”
“Right. One day he was covering for someone out sick. When he took out the trash he saw the galleys for Ginsberg’s Pocket Poets chapbook. It had the poet’s notes on it, revisions, suggests for layout in the margins, yet it was considered trash.”
“Not to Derwent?”
“Not on your life.”
“So, he just began to go through the trash?”
“Yeah. But the print shop guys, plied with fresh pastries, always saved him piles of stuff. And Lawrence gave him things all the time. Called him his “hip” archivist–the drafts of poems, the first copy of A Coney Island of the Mind. Pieces of pretty much everything the man ever wrote. Patchen, Corso, Rexroth, Kerouac. Got janitors working for him at Barrow and Sons and Newton and Gallager. He’d come back to his place with stuffed shopping bags and we’d order out, and go through it together and get plastered. Great times.”
“The eccentric stuff, and the amazing stuff?”
“Lots of both. Once word got out that the chocolate fortune guy would pay cash for odd stuff, people just found him. Stuff like the letter from Holt and Johnson to E. E. Cummings not just rejecting his poetry, but encouraging him to get psychological help, and to take a course in grammar and punctuation. Cumming’s landlady came to us with that gem. The Capote erotica. The surprisingly good Nixon spy novel.”
“The Marilyn Monroe love letter?”
“Ah yes. One of John Kennedy’s gambling buddies filched it. But what could he really do to get it back, without acknowledging it existed. Some of the Secret Service guys at The White House wanted to go after him, very protective of Jackie, but it was on the black market by then, and special counsel to the president blocked any such ideas. That’s how it came to Derwent. All the great stuff he paid good money for. See the family and most friends thought he was squandering his part of the inheritance in loose living, but the guy lived like a monk, an inebriated monk half the time sure, but he saved for the once-in-a-lifetime items.”
“The Sandberg and Frost stuff. Yes, some wonderful unfinished pieces, and just being able to see the development of a poem like “Stopping by a Woods,” by having multiple drafts.”
Such treasures! Such treasures! He could hear his father’s exhalant voice as if he were sitting opposite him now, and the work had been the sweetest of times together as father and son, doing something that really mattered. But now he wanted this to be over, to have the burden of so many things that belonged rightly other places set to rights. He thought a good headline might be something like, “Minor Poet, Discovered to be Major Collector.” He’d suggest it to the Times reporter.
Finishing his drink, he took everything out of the box and checked it against the inventory, which made up Addendum A. Then before going to the history stuff in addendum B, he pulled out Addendum C, a listing of signed first editions: seventy-five books of fiction and non-fiction representing a fine sampling of writing in the twentieth century. The books were listed according to when they had been received.
A typical entry would be: Old Man and The Sea. Date and House of publication. Signed by author. Date signed. Descriptive Condition of the book. This was followed by who purchased book from whom, and price paid with receipt of new ownership. Slow work as each volume had to be taken from the hermetically controlled environment of the safe, then zipped out of its protective sleeve and examined wearing archival gloves. Yet George never lost a sense of pleasure and excitement in handling these wonderful books. He would be sad to see them go, but knew that even by themselves, they would put this institution on the literary map, and naturally attract other works of similar value and quality.
It was two items catalogued in Addendum C that most troubled him, even after all these years. The first was easily rectified. He untied a leather pouch and took out the correspondence, four letters between President Lyndon Johnson and Loretta Scott King and Martin King Sr. written in the months following Martin Jr.’s death. In fairness, he’d only found them six months ago, going through a mass of civil rights documents Derwent had bought at auction in unexamined file boxes. Since all the Lassiter collection was about to be made public, George decided to wait until the opening of the National Museum of African American History and Culture in D.C., and highlight the find with a very public presentation to the King and Johnson families at the museum itself.
The last items were more delicate. Derwent had first met Eleanor Roosevelt, years ago, when his father was campaigning for Franklin in New York. Having Arts and Letters in common, they hit it off right away.
But it was the ugly duckling in both of them, never being loved as they had longed to be loved that helped form a deep bond. So one afternoon, when he was visiting she gave Derwent the Lucy Mercer love letters for safekeeping. He at first refused. Encouraged her to destroy them, but she seemed to still need to know they survived to somehow justify her pain and give her the strength, as unhealthy as it seemed, to sacrifice for the county by bearing these secrets alone. Now, of course the world knew of the affair, there were even a few letters in the Roosevelt library from Franklin to Lucy Mercer, along with the typewriter he wrote them on.
These were the items, he was quite sure, that would make the library and everything connected with it big news, because accompanying these most intimate missives was a twenty page reflection on them all by Eleanor herself. The gift was also accompanied by explicit instructions that the love letters would be released fifty years after her own death, one at a time, once a month accompanied by Eleanor’s reflections. That date passed in 2012, so the University was free to begin publicizing their existence after Monday.
His work done, he sat nursing the last of his Scotch Whiskey. He imagined them all arriving one by one—Jones, Dwyer, Saroyan, Harper, Ingersoll, Ames, probably Ferlinghetti at the last moment, accompanied by large men with discrete electronics in their ears. Expressions moving from boredom, to irritation, feeling put upon to even have to waste their time with this “Nobody.” What pleasure he’d take in seeing their faces begin to flush with astonishment as he read. And then, when Donaldo heard that all the incriminating things Lawrence had saved were already in the hands of Federal authorities? Well, that would be a crawl-under-the-desks-hands-protecting-your-heads kind of moment, for sure. And he had taken the precaution of hiring two off duty cops just in case things began to unravel.
Then his cell buzzed. Seeing the caller ID his heart fell. Rebecca McShane again.
“Ms. McShane! Don’t tell me Margaret has relapsed.”
“No, Mr. Lafferty, but I thought you would like to know. It’s Peggy Saroyan. Just as we were putting Margaret in the car an ambulance pulled in. Couldn’t get much info..,stroke maybe, but she’s being taken to ICU.”
“Well, thank you. Thank you very much for letting me know.” He absently placed the phone back inside his suit coat. Oh, Peggy. Don’t you dare go and die before I can give you the things Derwent lovingly prepared for you. Not the Oppenheimer stuff she so desperately wanted to clear her parents. Derwent had held that back as an act of compassion, because George Sr. had meticulously gone through it all, and there was nothing even remotely connected to the Rosenburgs. So Dad and Derwent thought, why give it to her and take away all hope? Just wait until they had to hand the documents over. No, it was the DNA tests establishing once and for all who belonged to whom, that Derwent lovingly prepared. He must get those to her before she dies.
As he rose with car keys in hand the word “intervention” came to him again. If there ever was the need for a dose of reality in a situation that had swayed between morality play, slapstick, melodrama and tragedy, this was the situation, and now was the time.
As he drove to the hospital, he felt Lawrence send him from the beyond an opening line for the reading of the astonishing addendums:
Constantly risking absurdity
whenever he performs
above the heads
of his audience
the poet like an acrobat
climbs on rime
to a high wire of his own making
toward a higher perch
where beauty stands and waits
with gravity . . .
Chapter 23 by Carol McMillan (1554 words)
One lone ice cube clinked against his glass as he leaned back to sip the pale whiskey, waiting for his computer screen to show the search results. He had little hope, but once a month he renewed his search for a birth parent who might recently have decided to look for the son she had surrendered for adoption fifty-nine years ago. Odds grew steadily slimmer; she would be old, growing even older each month, less likely every minute to still be alive. Slow jazz played in the other room, matching the tempo of his breathing.
“International Soundex Reunion Registry” appeared on his screen. Startled, he leaned toward the screen:
Name: Peggy Saroyan
Date of child’s birth: December 1, 1959
Place of birth: New York City
Hospital: Bellevue Medical Center
Gender of child: Male
His birth date. His hospital. Her name. The breath he’d been holding exhaled in a woofed sigh. He saved the results and closed his laptop.
* * *
That same evening the moon had sent slivered shadows through the trees surrounding the campus library building. The damp ground chilled Andrew’s stomach as he’d inched his way through dense shrubbery, staying hidden until most of the library staff left work for the day. On this side of the building, the path wound into the grounds of the University; after dark, few ventured here. The light in Vanessa Ames’s office finally came on. Andrew had feared she might leave before an overhead light became necessary. Relief poured through him when he finally was able to see her blonde braid hanging above the back of her desk chair.
Soft duff below the fir tree muffled the sounds of his squirming as Andrew sought to disentangle himself from his backpack.His left arm was cramped in an awkward position. Yanking with his right hand, the arm twisted painfully before he could pull the strap down and free from his shoulder. He wiggled his way to the tree, pulling the pack around as he pushed himself into a sitting position. Reaching into the stiff canvass, his hand wrapped around the object he sought.
Vanessa was staying late, catching up on work that had backlogged while she spent those wonderful days on Lanai with Lloyd. She could still smell the plumeria blossoms that hung over the woven double hammock where they had spent many delicious hours. Vanessa discovered that his bronzed hands possessed talents worth more to her than his amassed fortune. They had spent languid, turquoise days and trade wind nights, using all their senses to know each other better. No place inside her desired the return to this campus mess. What the hell was going on eluded her. But the piles of folders on her desk had finally diminished to a reasonable stack, something she could probably deal with in another day or two. She could turn more attention to the chaos swirling around the Lassiter collection purchase. Rotating her shoulders, Vanessa leaned to one side and then the other, hoping to relax the knots building at the base of her neck. It wasn’t helping that most of the staff were probably gone from the building now. The exposed feeling she always got at night intensified.
I really hate this office, she thought for the hundredth time.
The odd-shaped pistol felt icy as Andrew pulled it from his bag. He was counting on its rubber bullets being strong enough to break through the glass windows of Vanessa’s office. Laying the gun aside and reaching again into his backpack, he pulled out a stone wrapped with a paper note. Andrew had learned with his eavesdropping skills that Vanessa was easily frightened. He hoped that this cloak-and-dagger episode he enjoyed enacting would scare her sufficiently to enable him to meet his father’s request. His toned body and athletic prowess gave him confidence of success.
Scrunching himself upright against the tree, he was gratified to see that Vanessa had moved from the window. Andrew had no desire to harm her physically; he merely needed to intimidate her into compliance. Raising his arm while steadying himself against the fir’s trunk, Andrew aimed for a place between her desk and a table, hoping to shatter the window just a few feet above the floor. Knowing that the sound of the shot would bring campus security, he was ready to move quickly. He hoped security would conclude this was merely vandalism, possibly linked to the recent graffiti. As he squeezed the trigger smoothly, the glass shattered exactly where he’d hoped. He dropped the gun in his bag and immediately aimed the rock, sailing it almost perfectly through the jagged opening the bullet had created. Andrew turned and fled along the path and into the dark.
The explosion at the far side of her office jolted Vanessa into an icy terror. Even as she turned, an object flew through a jagged hole to land in the glass shards covering her floor. Vanessa glued her back to the wall, paralyzed. Silence grew palpable, nearly as frightening as the shattering glass. Only her eyes moved, coming to rest on the object. She recognized crumpled paper surrounding something round and heavy.
Really, a note on a rock?
Despite her fear, the slightly ludicrous nature of the scene was not lost on Vanessa. Curiosity seeped in until its ability to motivate surpassed her leaden immobility. Bending as she stepped forward, Vanessa scurried to snatch the missile and huddled back against the wall.
“Be aware that you may be considered an accomplice to a great crime. National secrets have been leaked. We know where there is proof. We are on your side and can assist you. The blame will fall on Margaret Harper. “ There followed instructions for meeting him outside the faculty club at a certain time and that she would recognize him by his red beret.
If Vanessa had been less non-plussed, she might have recognized the drama of this note as similar to the urine-squirting cat-man episode in Margaret’s office. The next day she had followed instructions, resulting in her meeting with the Ferlinghettis and hearing their attempt to enlist her aid in their scheme.
* * *
The medicinal hospital smell assaulted George as the glass doors slid open. Hoping to avoid red tape, he perused the map of floors and wards for “ICU” without success. George took his place in line behind two others waiting for assistance at the front desk. He guessed they held tightly to the control of ICU, allowing only next of kin entrance. The woman in the fraying green sweater finally gave up on whatever argument she was having with the receptionist, and sulked away in defeat. The man in front of him quickly got an acceptable answer and George was left to plead his case.
“I’m here to see Margaret Saroyan in intensive care. Perhaps she was entered as ‘Peggy’”.
“What is your relationship with Ms. Saroyan?”
“I am her attorney. She has no next-of-kin available and I have important documents for her to sign.”
“I’ll check with the ICU nursing station. She may not be in any condition for a visitor.” Phone buttons were pushed as she turned her chair away from him. “Um hmm. Her attorney. Papers. No next-of-kin…Um hmm… OK…thank you.” Swiveling back to face him, he said, “Follow the yellow line to the far elevators. Take them to the third floor. Then follow the blue lines. Stop at the ICU nurses’ station on your right.”
George paced off the corridors and rode the appropriate elevators, composing his face into his most friendly, but official, face.
“I’m here to see Margaret Saroyan. I’m George Lafferty, her attorney.”
“Ms. Saroyan is recovering; we don’t wish anything to upset her. Legal matters perhaps should wait.”
“I will only be a few minutes. I have information that I’m sure will be of interest to her. I would hate for her to miss receiving it should anything happen to her.”
“All right, Mr. Lafferty. The second door on your left. But please make it brief. And please try not to upset her.”
Thanking the desk nurse, George headed into ICU. At first he could see only two patients, one large man whose enormous chest rose two feet above his bed, and a young woman with bandages covering the top of her head. Tubes stretched from both people to bags of fluid. Monitors hummed and bleeped. George looked in confusion. Finally he realized that the empty bed nearest him was not empty. Hardly a bump in the blanket, Maudie lay tiny and wrinkled. She opened her eyes as George approached her bedside.
“Maudie,” he spoke softly, “I’m George Lafferty, Jr., the son of the attorney Dewent left his most important papers with.”
Maudie blinked up at him.
“I have papers that will be of interest to you.” George pulled a chair up beside her bed and opened his black leather briefcase, pulling out a manila file folder. As he set down the case and opened the folder across his knee, George suddenly wondered if he was doing the right thing. Would this information be too much for her weakened heart? He looked over at the wizened face.
Maudie’s clear eyes looked up expectantly, meeting his gaze with an unexpected imperative.
George shuffled through the papers, finding the one he wanted.
Chapter 24 by Marian Exall (1908 words)
The Niece nudged Derwent’s thirty-year-old Mercedes into a disabled parking spot outside Baggage Claim. And, no, she didn’t have a disabled thingy to hang on the rear-view mirror, but just let any officious little rent-a-cop try and move her on when they saw her comatose aged crone of a mother wheeled out of the airport building.
The Niece – it had been so long since anyone called her by her first name that she had almost forgotten it herself – did not like driving Derwent’s old car. Her car now. It trailed noxious diesel fumes and the power steering no longer worked, if it ever did. The front passenger side wheel hoisted onto the curb, she called it good, and turned off the engine. She had contemplated spending the $35,000 she extorted from the library for Derwent’s garbage to buy a spiffy little Prius, but had decided to wait until the house sold and she had some real cash. Anyway, she’d had to spend a chunk of the $35K on a first class airline ticket for her mother from Miami-Dade-County International. She knew she’d never persuade the airline to transport the senile old bat in coach, or her mother to fly without the inducement of unlimited supplies of free liquor.
The elation she had felt just a couple of weeks ago at pulling off the trash sale had been replaced by uneasiness. The ambiguous wording of Derwent’s will provided the argument that she – or more likely her mother, Derwent’s sister Ann – inherited everything. “Heirs of my body and my heirs at law”: Uncle Derwent had died childless, so no “heirs of my body;” his closest living relatives – his sister and his niece – were his heirs at law. But the summons to the lawyer’s office suggested that there was more to discuss – addenda, or something. And while the Niece had been keen to rely in the past on that Power of Attorney she had forced Ann to sign in exchange for not moving in to the Key West condo with her, she felt it might be wise to have her mother physically present – living proof, as it were – of their claims to the entire estate.
She unwrapped a Choc-o-Nibs bar, lodged it between her teeth like a Cuban cigar, and climbed out of the car.
“No hablo Ingles,” she was explaining to the uniformed parking goon when the glass doors slid open and an attendant pushed a wheelchair in her direction. My God, she’s shrunk! A little brown face wrinkled as a November apple, eyes closed, was the only thing showing of the bundle of bones wrapped in a blue blanket with the Delta logo. The Niece fought off an unwelcome and unfamiliar pang of sympathy. Ann Prescott née Lassiter had never shown any maternal warmth towards her only offspring. As soon as was permissible, she farmed her out to boarding schools and summer camps, and then moved as far away from her daughter as was possible to do in the contiguous 48 states, discouraging all visits and communications. Well, now she could render one last service before she died.
To a casual onlooker, the unkempt middle-aged woman bending down towards the old woman’s cheek was extending a gentle gesture of love and welcome. Actually, she was sniffing the alcohol fumes emanating from her mother’s slightly open mouth. Satisfied that the flight attendants had done their job, the Niece reared back in distaste. The attendant shoveled the blanket-wrapped bundle into the back seat of the Mercedes.
Before she slid the ancient transmission into drive, the Niece glanced into the rear-view mirror to check on her passenger. Ann Lassiter-Prescott opened one bloodshot eye.
“’Nother whishkey, pleazhhh….
* * *
Vanessa Ames cinched her trenchcoat belt tightly and turned the collar up around her face. She wished she had a hat, a slouchy number, something that Ingrid Bergman might have worn in Casablanca. If she was going to meet a man in a red beret in the shadows outside the Faculty Club, she should look the part.
The rain had let up, replaced by a biting wind from the north. Vanessa shivered, remembering the feel of Hawaian sunlight on her skin, the kiss of warm wavelets over her toes. Only days ago, yet it seemed a different life. Lloyd had made so many promises. Had they just been pillow talk? The weather was only one of the sharp shocks of reality she experienced on her return. Another was the discovery that Lloyd’s past in San Francisco involved dealings which could most generously be called shady, but more accurately, criminal. The moment she was introduced to Lloyd’s lifelong buddy, Donaldo Ferlinghetti, she pegged him for a Mafioso. She hadn’t watched The Godfather 1, 2 and 3 numerous times to be fooled into thinking the swarthy gent in the shiny suit was a simple olive oil importer. Much as she wanted the Special Collections job, and Lloyd said he could make it happen, she wouldn’t be party to hurting someone. Hurting them physically, she meant. If Margaret Harper shed a few tears, so be it, but no knee-capping.
Vanessa jumped back, before she recognized the man who stepped out of the rhododendron bushes lining the path to the club’s entrance.
“Oh, it’s you. Why aren’t you wearing a red beret?”
“I just put that in because it sounded dramatic, but honestly, who wears a red beret in real life?”
Andrew Ferling was good-looking in a greasy kind of way (Marlon Brando in A Streetcar Named Desire? Unbelievable that Harper had nabbed him as her boyfriend!) but he wasn’t the sharpest crayon in the box.
“You could have phoned instead of scaring me half to death and making my office uninhabitable. I suppose your father put you up to this.”
Andrew scuffed the gravel nervously with the toe of his boot.
“Let’s get out of here before we’re seen.” He grabbed her arm and started walking around towards the back of the building. “I can’t risk the phones. They might be listening.”
“What are you talking about? “They?” Who? The police?”
Vanessa stopped dead. Andrew made an attempt to pull her into the shadows, but Vanessa planted her feet firmly on the path.
“You’d better explain.”
“The police are after me for poisoning Margaret. It’s alright. I mean, she’s not dead. Yet. It’s complicated, something in my dad’s past. He won’t tell me everything, but he needs a thing – papers, I think – that Margaret’s got or is going to get. And I thought – he thought – perhaps you could help us. You know, in exchange for Lloyd getting you the Special Collections job.”
Vanessa’s brain whirled with random thoughts like a Hamilton Beach blender: Lloyd, his strong hands and tan legs; the large eighth floor corner office that came with the Director of Special Collections job; Donaldo’s too-tight sharkskin suit; Catherine Zita Jones behind bars for murder in Chicago.
* * *
George Lafferty prepared the conference room with more-than-usual care. A pristine legal pad lay on the table in front of each chair, a pen decorated with the law firm’s name making an exact diagonal across the ruled yellow field. He adjusted the blinds in anticipation of the afternoon sun which, in a few hours, might otherwise cut across the room and discomfort those facing the windows. The tea and coffee service had been ordered and would be brought in ten minutes before the appointed hour. George had considered offering a decanter of sherry in the time-honored tradition for meetings of this kind, but had decided the risk of his precious Stewart crystal being hurled against the wall was too great. Yes, tempers would probably flare. His job was to control the proceedings as calmly as he could.
To that end, he would not hand out the folders containing photocopies of Derwent’s will and its all-important addenda until after he had given a succinct summary of what they said. He hoped that the pause while the attendees read their copies might allow time for reflection and for the framing of clarifying questions, rather than the hurling of accusations and insults.
The room would be more crowded than he liked. As well as the seven original invitees, he had added four more guests – five, if you counted Huxley Allworth, although he was only replacing Peggy Saroyan at the table. Such a shame that she was still in hospital recovering from a major stroke. Her speech was affected, and the whole right side of her body paralyzed. The doctors were cautiously hopeful, and indeed George had seen some improvement over the hours he had spent at her bedside. He thought she understood the importance of the information he gave her, but her slurred insistence that Allworth substitute for her at the Monday conference seemed to belie that. What did the nonagenarian bookbinder have to do with Peggy’s lost baby and Derwent’s last wishes? Perhaps the answer lay in those still-sealed DNA test results locked up in his safe.
A seating plan, that’s what was needed. An extraordinary measure for a simple estate management discussion, but this was no simple estate. George returned to his office and summoned his secretary.
“Would you prepare eleven name cards for my afternoon meeting? Here’s the list.”
Ever eagle-eyed, Eleanor Rickby scanned the paper George handed to her.
“But there are only nine names on this list, and one of them is just a last name.”
“Ye-es. Leave two blank; I’ll fill them in later. And just put “Miss Prescott;” no one seems to know her first name.”
Alone again, George drew out a sheet of legal-sized paper and drew a large rectangle on it. He wrote “GL” at one end, then, for several minutes, he pondered the diagram over his steepled fingers.
Should he split up allies or keep them together? Margaret Harper and Felix Ingersoll were friends and seemed to have a common interest in enhancing the university library by the acquisition of the Lassiter collection. You would think Lloyd Jones and Vanessa Ames had the same objective, but they had shown a frosty hostility to Margaret’s efforts. And Margaret’s fiancé was that nasty piece of work Andrew Ferling, whose father Donaldo Ferlinghetti had insisted be invited to the meeting as well. The apple did not fall far from the tree: Ferlinghetti had only one interest: his own, and woe to those who got in the way. How he had stayed out of jail all these years was a mystery.
It would be interesting to see Ann Lassiter again. When he was a little boy, she was already a woman with a past, a “loose” woman, they called her in those days before the sexual revolution of the Sixties. Pity about the daughter, but a child has to be shown love in order to give it. The fruit of Ann’s late and short-lived marriage was a sour woman, in spite of her taste for sugary treats. She and her mother might stand to lose the most from the revelations in the Addenda. Still, they had the Choc-o-Nibs trust to fall back on.
That left Hux Allworth and the two “to be named later.” Oh, and Dwyer, the puckish language professor. Whose side was he on? He acted the friend to Margaret and Felix, but also flitted around with the anarchic element amongst the students.
Was he going to make trouble?
Chapter 25 by Nora Whitley Abelite (1641 words)
“I have a certified letter for you, Ma’am.” On her way into Margaret’s office the campus postal carrier stumbled her way through the labyrinth of boxes, stepped over mousetraps and slipped on the Choc-O-Nib wrappers strewn on the floor. “Please sign here.”
“Now what,” Margaret muttered to herself as she tore open the letter from Morrisey, Fergus and Lafferty, the attorneys for the Estate of Derwent Lassiter, requesting she attend a meeting for a reading of the Lassiter Will and its Addenda.
“What Will? What Addenda? Well, it’s a good thing for me that I have my secrets and a plan for escape from this Lassiter mess and it’s the perfect time to enact them!”
Margaret recalled an evening nine weeks ago when in a fit of pique she had broken the lock off a huge steamer trunk from the Lassiter Collection and began digging items out. Objects came flying out all around the room and Margaret looked like a badger digging a hole with a plume of items streaming out behind her. Then the defining moment came when Margaret arose holding a large scratched up metal box containing a baseball, two baseball cards, a baseball jersey and a baseball glove. She had studied baseball all of her life with her father and had a good idea about the value of what she had found. The enclosed paperwork revealed the Babe Ruth All-Star Game Home Run Ball was sold to Lassiter for $805,000. Babe’s Baseball jersey was sold to Lassiter for $4.4 million. Honus Wagner’s Pittsburgh Pirates baseball cards sold for $2.8 million each and she had two of them. The old, worthless looking baseball glove was sold to Lassiter for $303,002; its original owner was Jackie Robinson. What was even sweeter, the papers confirming the provenance of these items and all purchase and sale documents were also in the metal box. A week after finding these treasures, it had been simple for Margaret to take the unobtrusive looking old metal box home with her—campus security never checked her brief case, bags or boxes when she left the library.
Margaret knew she had crossed the line and violated the Personal Code of Ethical Conduct most librarians adhere to as if it were a sacred vow when she took the baseball memorabilia home. One thing she could not ignore was her duty as a professional archivist to confirm the items had been preserved according to recognized protocols: the jersey was wrapped in acid free paper and stored in a lignin free box as was the baseball glove; the baseball was in a glass dome in an acid free environment; the baseball cards were encased in glassine envelopes; and all of these items were stored together in a large scratched up metal box with the name “Lassiter” stenciled on the outside. Margaret hoped they had not been exposed to drastic changes in temperature and humidity while at Lassiter’s home or during their transport to her office. She had felt pangs of guilt when she took these items home, but in the ensuing weeks that passed with all of the confusion and mishaps, Margaret felt less and less guilty.
* * *
Margaret was jerked back into reality of the present by a feeling of panic. “Don’t panic, don’t panic, DON’T PANIC!” Margaret yelled at herself. This was her first day back at work since being hospitalized for poisoning and she began to feel shaky. Then edges of the room grew dark and seemed close in on her and Margaret fainted. No one was with Margaret on the 8th floor of the library and when she regained consciousness and she felt lonely and unsettled. Her personal concerns about violating the Librarian’s Personal Code of Ethical Conduct kept her awake nights. The afternoon she and Rebecca went to visit the law firm of Morrisey, Fergus and Lafferty, George Lafferty II never mentioned the baseball memorabilia during their meeting. She was so frightened he might ask for its return. Most certainly, if he knew about it he would have made an inquiry; after all, it is worth over eleven million dollars. Is it possible there is no official record of the purchase of the baseball memorabilia?
“There is only one thing for me to do, I will telephone my Uncle Helmut Reinhardt Dunkelwasser and ask him if he can advise me about what possible authority an estate could have over a purchase the library has made.” Uncle Helm is an internationally renowned attorney settling disputes regarding probate, estates and property. Most of the disputes concern property misappropriated during World War II. His credentials are impeccable having earned a law degree in Germany and then after immigrating to the United States in 1949, earning a Law Degree from Harvard. Thousands of people in Europe and the United States have benefitted from Uncle Helm’s expertise in the return of their ancestral property confiscated by marauding armies.
“Hallo, Onkel Helm, hier ist Margaret.”
“Hallo liebchen, how are you my dear?”
“Onkel Helm, I have a question about a collection the library purchased from an estate and its subsequent probate.”
“Ach du lieber! How is this possible? If the library purchased a collection, then it should belong to the library and the probate should have been completed before the sale unless the person or persons who sold the estate collection to the library had no authority to do so.”
“A niece of the decedent sold us the entire estate collection and delivered it to the library. She said she was the decedent’s only heir.”
“Did you obtain a copy of the decedent’s Last Will and Testament when you were arranging for the purchase?”
“No, the decedent’s niece contacted the library and said she wished to sell us the entire collection and we negotiated the price and made the purchase.”
“Let me speculate, the library was able to purchase this estate for far less than the original asking price, yes?”
“How did you know this Uncle Helm?”
“This is an old scam. Your library has been bilked out of the money by an unscrupulous person! It is quite possible the sale is invalid and the library will have to return the collection to the heirs of the decedent.”
“Oh, Onkel, I was so excited about obtaining this collection, I fear I did not look into the transaction of the estate collection close enough.”
“Was the review of all legal documents and the purchase and sale agreement part of your job duties in securing this estate collection?”
“No, Onkel, it is the job of the Library Foundation, its Board of Directors and ultimately the attorneys for the college who sign all of the papers.”
“It seems to me, you will be absolved of all wrong doing. Do not worry my liebchen.”
“You have put my mind at ease, Onkel.”
“I am glad to be of assistance. When will Tante Hildegard and I see you again?”
“I plan to be in Zurich for the Christmas holidays. Are you going to be there visiting your sister?”
“Yes, we will. Let us plan on having dinner at the Café Mozart together, remember their delicious strudel and hot chocolate?”
“I can taste it now. What a lovely Christmas we will have together. I will telephone you when I arrive in Zurich. ”Auf Wiedersehn, Onkel.”
Margaret hung up the phone and felt somewhat relieved, the tension was gone and her worries were fewer. The outcome of the ownership of the Lassiter estate was not her problem or concern. The heirs, whoever they may be, would probably fight about it for years in probate court.
A new and more confident resolve came over Margaret. Off she would wing to Switzerland, the land of discreet banking practices and numbered accounts, and the perfect place for her escape. She had already arranged for a courier service to pick up the metal box of “items” from her house. They would be delivered directly to a safe deposit box in a bank known for preserving the anonymity of its customers.
“I am walking away from the Lassiter Collection, the Library, scheming of Vanessa, ‘The Niece’, Lloyd Jones, Choc-O- Nibs, and everyone associated with this debacle. Andrew’s problems belong to him and I can longer be concerned,” Margaret told herself. The last night they had been together she thought she saw Andrew trying on her new leopard print bustier. She couldn’t be sure if she really saw it or imagined it because she was so drunk that evening, unusually drunk, had he drugged her drink? Then he came to bed wearing her lingerie, false eyelashes and bright pink nail polish and asked her to call him Andrea. When she asked why, isn’t that a bit feminine? He replied, if the name was good enough for Andrea Bocelli, it was good enough for him. But Margaret felt deeply disturbed by all of this. The next thing he did was try to poison her and she ended up in the hospital! Fortunately for her, Andrew was now out of her life forever!
“What sweet revenge my escape is going to be. I am going to begin to live the life of a wealthy jet setter! I’ll go to Zurich for Christmas, Monaco for the spring, the Cote d’ Azur for the summer, and to Paris in the fall. No more pedestrian Choc-O-Nibs for me, I will eat only the finest of Swiss Chocolate from now on. ” Margaret rubbed her hands together and laughed sadistically. Then she left her office, dropped her letter of resignation giving one month’s notice in the mailbox and drove herself home in her Lincoln Town car through the typical pouring rain of the Pacific Northwest and whistled a medley of Edelweiss and Take Me Out to the Ball Game.
Due to unforeseen circumstances, the writer was unable to complete today’s chapter. As in the past when this has happened, we skip the chapter and keep moving ahead. Stay tuned for Chapter 27.
Chapter 27 by Drue BeDo (2021 words)
The residual effects of the poison-induced coma from which Margaret had recovered were obvious. She, quite plainly, was no longer herself. Gone were her meticulous proper ways; gone was the desire to catalogue, preserve, and protect; gone was the sensibility and stability one would expect from a librarian of any ilk or stature, let alone one responsible for running a university’s Special Collections. But then again, maybe the irony of Margaret’s temporary insanity was befitting such a turn of events involving anything related to the affairs of Derwent Lassiter. A conservative soul aching to transform through any means possible, Margaret’s consciousness had expanded like a cheerleader’s on acid while lying in that hospital bed. Sometimes, a smidge of poison has its benefits.
After all, hadn’t Derwent, himself, aspired to live a more vibrant and exciting life by hanging onto the shirttails of his contemporaries? Aside from his excruciating childhood dodgeball flashbacks, not being invited to go on Jack’s and Neal’s epic roadtrip was one of the most significant FOMO traumas our little asthmatic poetical parasite had experienced in his lifetime. Even though he’d eventually won the Pulitzer, hadn’t DJ scrounged and sifted, just like Margaret, through the discarded scraps of inspiration and syncopated improvisation tossed aside by these cool, hipper-than-hip freewheeling gulpers of life? Hadn’t he hung around them just hoping some of the hip would rub off on him? Derwent had so wanted to be cool. And, damn it, for once in her life, Margaret Harper wanted to be cool, too!
Her leather seat was warm now. Rain sheeted the windshield despite two vigorous wipers thrumming like a pulse heightened by anxiety. Margaret turned the corner and drove past the entrance to the VoTech. Ordinarily, she would have taken the swiftest route home, but Frito’s stockpile of kibbles was down to single digits. Frito was finicky and thus Margaret was forced to drive four extra miles to OrganiCat, the only non-GMO pet food store in town. Her eyes shifted from hard to soft focus as Pachelbel’s Canon in D drifted from her favorite local NPR station. Classical music always soothed her nerves and, ever since she was a teenager, Margaret secretly fantasized about making love with Itzhak Perlman in a large feather bed. This thought alone began to assuage the frenzied maniacal fervor she’d allowed herself to hype to prior to calling her uncle Helm. Thoughts attached themselves to the rise and fall of each sweet violin note, and Margaret found herself drifting back in time, recalling all the events leading up to this moment: her insatiable craving in elementary school to trace her little fingers along the spines of old dusty hardbound books and to shove her nose deep within their yellowing pages; her undergraduate years—hours and hours of learning to categorize and cross-reference; the swell and tingle of importance, accomplishment, and pride she felt upon completing her master’s degree… the first time she shook the icy unwelcoming hand of Lloyd Jones after presenting to the Library Foundation Board. If I’d only thought to introduce my PowerPoint earlier in the —
“Holy Mother of God!” Margaret slammed on her brakes.
Ten feet in front of her town car, soaked head to foot by the torrential rain, an old crumpled man in a soggy scarf and dark trench coat knelt over the double yellow lines with his head bowed and hands outstretched. Margaret flipped on her high beams, put the car in park, turned on her emergency flashers and quickly stepped out to investigate what appeared to be a hit-and-run.
“Mister, you okay?” she shouted, approaching the distressed elder with concern. She could see his arthritic hands fumble as he skimmed the asphalt back and forth like he was washing up his own blood.
“Damn it! Damn it! Damn it!” he whimpered through his tears, his knees inching sideways as his hands continued to sweep blindly back and forth in front of him. “It was my last one,” he cried. “Damn it to hell!” Margaret knelt down to lift this poor man’s anguished face toward the headlights to discern whether or not she’d need to rush him to the E.R.. She cupped both hands around his scraggly trembling chin and —
“I dropped my last fucking joint!”
Huxley Allworth stared bleakly up at her. As she helped the craggy old book-binder to his feet, a creased manila file folder fell from the folds of his drenched coat onto the road. She scooped the folder up from the yellow lines and couldn’t help but notice the index tab. It was marked with her own handwriting.
His belt buckle had created a small rectangular impression on her left cheekbone, the ribbing of his beige corduroys sufficing as pillow had mish-mashed her otherwise smooth complexion into a waffle print, of sorts. Sally was oblivious to this. Sally was asleep. Moreover, she was slumbering post-coitus next to what could only be described as a blissful mound of pale but satiated pre-doctoral flesh, otherwise known as Davis. They were spooned together on the floor of Special Collections beneath the conference room table amidst wrappers and wrappers of Choc-O-Nibs, a battery dead laptop, more than 160 pages of titles affixed to a clipboard, and a signed first edition of Twain’s Pudd’nhead Wilson. Davis was also asleep. A thin filament of chocolate spittle resembled a miniature suspension bridge anchored between two points: his puffy parted lips, and the grey carpet beneath him. He still had his hand tucked like a little naked bird seeking warmth inside Sally’s sweater. His other little naked bird was tucked snugly in his superman boxers.
How these faithful interns had managed to complete Rabinowitz’s arduous task to inventory all 424 stacks was beyond comprehension, but somehow they’d succeeded. Perhaps it had been their determination to uncover what was truly going on in their formerly dull department that led them to commit so many extra hours to whittling down the list they’d been given. Perhaps it was the thought of bargaining this overtime for fewer annotations in their dissertations due at the end of the semester; in addition to their regular work-study, they’d pulled six all-nighters even though it was against library policy for anyone including paid faculty and staff to remain in the stacks after the main doors were locked. Or, perhaps what sustained their dogged efforts was the clever little cocktail of adrenaline, dopamine, and serotonin that had slowly but surely begun to intoxicate each of them every time Sally looked up from her clipboard into Davis’ big brown goopy droopy eyes. Davis? Hell, his tail wagged from the moment Sally first fluffed his hair; his infatuation was beyond anything he’d ever read by Flaubert, Austin, or Tolstoy.
Truth be told, Davis’ desires to rise within the ranks of academia and to someday become a tenured professor were seriously waning after being exposed to the most recent actions of his seemingly intelligent mentors. It was as if a marauding troupe of amateur players had turned the 8th floor into a black box theatre in which a farce was being played out in real time in Miss Harper’s office and amongst the stacks of Special Collections. Besides, tenure was on its way out. Universities were relying on adjuncts for more than eighty percent of their teaching pool these days, phasing out permanent positions so they could invest more in administrators’ already bloated salaries, and parking lots. All the adjunct professors Davis knew were working like dogs, even though they had come to terms with the fact that teaching fulltime was becoming the dream of fools.
As a graduate intern, the only perk Davis had begun to look forward to of late was being paired in his research assistance duties with Sally Lewbiosky. How he had come to be the recipient of her quirky affections was beyond his scope of understanding. He just knew that he liked her smile. And how her clavicles peeked out from beneath her boatneck collars. And the way she looked at him with those piercing eyes. And, yes, he pretty much had to place his laptop over his own lap’s top whenever she read him passages from Chaucer. Theirs was more than a literary lust; they possessed a corporal collection of rarities all their own.
Never in his wildest dreams, though, did Davis imagine such a celebratory finale to this inventory marathon! At 4:15 in the wee hours of this very morning, after they’d crossed off the final title on Rabinowitz’s list, Sally had pulled him like a playful puppy beneath the conference room table, and fed him copious amounts of Choc-O-Nibs she’d found stacked against Miss Harper’s office door. She —how shall we say this?— Dewey’d his Decimal (with such surprisingly robust vocals coming from someone who customarily spoke to him in a library whisper), and sucked on every one of his pale appendages until he had giggled himself right out of his pants. He had never been so stunned! It was better than Kalpakian’s The Delinquent Virgin, a fiction assigned to Davis his freshman year which, even as a graduate student, he hadn’t cracked simply because he could identify with only half the title and feared that to actually read it might cause him to act in ways unbecoming of a librarian-in-the-making. He needed a secure research assistantship, so he kept the book shut and continued to toe the line.
Unfortunately, Davis’ dream come true, his intimate inventory indoctrination, his late night harlequin romance with Sally Lewbiosky beneath the conference room table was about to prove quite embarrassing as well as delinquent. These two innocent nymphs were still fast asleep, drooling and half naked, when Rebecca McShane threw open the conference room doors to Special Collections and George Lafferty Jr. strode in along with three reporters and two photographers from the Seattle Times.
“I’m so sorry for the confusion, Mr. Lafferty,” Rebecca said, tumbling the eleven yellow legal pads down onto the tabletop, followed by a jumble of pens bearing the moniker, Morissey, Fergus & Lafferty in silver italic. She emptied a plastic zip-lock bag filled with nametags out onto the table as well. “Sometimes the main library and its ancillary departments don’t get the same reservation messages. Emails take priority over voice messages. The great room is often double-booked. I do apologize. I taped a bright orange posterboard sign outside the glass doors to the main library, and one on each of the great room’s entrances. Hopefully everyone you’ve invited will get redirected up here to Special Collections.” She smoothed her hair and readjusted her skirt. “I do think,” Rebecca continued, spacing the printed nametags around the table in front of each chair, “to hold this auspicious meeting here will be even more fitting than in that larger space. After all, this is the very room in which it all began. It seems rather like ‘poetic justice’ don’t you think?” She laughed at her own literary pun, and looked at George who had only paid attention to Rebecca’s placement of the nametags. She studied him momentarily as he spoke in muffled tones to one of the reporters.
George Lafferty Jr. was holding it together as best he could. Tempering the excitement of this unprecedented historic literary reveal was the shock he and those in his law firm experienced earlier this morning when they’d pulled up to the office. Morissey, Fergus & Lafferty had been completely spray painted with colorful graffiti. While his secretary had called the police, George had called Rebecca McShane. Thank god she had the wherewithal to pull together this alternative space at the last minute. It would be much less formal than the great room, but he supposed it was rather apt that the circle should end where it began.
“Shhhhhh! Don’t make a sound!!” Sally mouthed to the wide-eyed Davis who was trying his best to wriggle his chubby love-handles back into the corduroys on which she’d slept. He tried not to bump the table legs, or disturb any of the chairs. From her vantage point, Sally could see the lower half of each invitee as the conference room began to fill.
Chapter 28 by Linda Morrow (1733 words)
Jared Robbins shook his head in disbelief as he looked out the window at the white-capped waters of the bay below. The commuter plane shuddered as the landing gear lowered and Alaska Air flight #2466 made its final approach into the city airport. Just five days ago he’d been in the snow-covered Berkshires with his older brother Richard marking the fifty-first anniversary of the infamous “massacree” in Stockbridge, MA. Although only a six-year-old when the incident occurred, Jared knew the story well. Richard and his friend Arlo had only meant to help out their friend Alice when they dumped the bags of trash over a cliff on that long ago Thanksgiving Day. Little did the boys know that the song Arlo wrote to commemorate their adventure and subsequent arrest would become a classic. destined to be played on airwaves across the country every November as the holiday approached.
And now, here he was involved in another adventure where trash played a prominent role. As the plane landed and taxied to a stop in front of the small terminal building, Jared ran one hand through his longish dark curls, unclipped his seat belt and exited down the steps onto the puddled tarmac. He followed the other passengers into the building and down a long corridor where his six-foot-four-inch son stood waiting for him. The two men embraced and headed for the son’s car. Above them, the sky began to lighten the low-hanging clouds, remnants of the latest storm which had battered this Pacific Northwest town over the long Thanksgiving weekend.
“How’s she doing?” yawned Jared, as the car rolled to a stop at the airport exit and turned left. After getting the Friday phone call from George Lafferty Jr., he’d scrambled to find a seat on a flight from Boston to Seattle, but sleep on the cross-country red-eye had eluded him. At least the connection for the thirty-minute hop from Seattle to here had worked out. He had a feeling time was of the essence.
“She’s hanging in there, Dad, but according to Mr. Lafferty, it’s only a matter of days. She’s over ninety! But she knows you are coming and the doctors think she is waiting for you to appear.”
“Yeah, I just wish now I’d tried to make contact with her as soon as I saw results on the adoption registry site. But I’d been looking for so long…I just needed some time to take it all in…and I wasn’t even sure she’d be alive.”
“Don’t beat yourself up, Dad. We’ll be there shortly. And there will be plenty of time to visit before we need to be at the meeting Mr. Lafferty has invited us to this afternoon.”
* * *
The ICU nurse moved silently to the bedside and gazed down lovingly at his patient. Although Mrs. Saroyan had been here less than a week, she’d quickly become a favorite of the staff. Her diminutive size, kind eyes and the gentle wisdom she struggled to impart through her cracked, parched lips had won over everyone. To them she was Mother, Grandmother and Great-Grandmother. He checked her vital signs and nodded slightly. The unrelenting downward trend continued. She wouldn’t last much longer.
“Maudie, Maudie..” He bent down and spoke into her left ear. “Maudie…Your visitors are here. Are you ready to meet them?”
At the sound of the nurse’s voice, the head of the man sitting in the chair next to Maudie’s bedside snapped upright. He’d been a constant presence since arriving from San Francisco and now he rubbed his clouded eyes and stroked his neatly trimmed white beard before standing. Rumor had it, he was some award-winning poet, owner of a famous independent bookstore, and ninety-seven years old, for God’s sake!
“Give us a few minutes” instructed the faithful companion. “Maudie wanted me to make sure she was sitting up and her hair brushed before they come in. I’ll let you know when we’re ready.”
The nurse smiled and turned to leave. Despite his age and fading eyesight, the gentleman had demonstrated a keen sense of humor and a sound mind. Mrs. Saroyan was comforted by his touch and although her slurred speech was difficult to understand, the connection between these two shimmered like a golden halo.
Lawrence stood and gently shook Maudie’s thin shoulder. Her eyes fluttered open and after a moment of confusion she looked at her long-time friend and smiled weakly. On the bedside table sat the envelope George Lassiter Jr. had given her several days ago – the one marked “DNA Results.” Despite her condition, she had recognized Derwent’s distinctive scrawl immediately.
Derwent Lassiter had begun his quest years ago, in the late 1990’s. Through his alcoholic haze, the memory of Maudie’s son haunted him. What if he was the father? As his wealth increased, he became determined to provide for the baby born in 1957. He’d purchased a do-it-yourself DNA kit, swabbed his own cheek and sent the carefully sealed tube to the medical records department of Bellevue Hospital in New York where Maudie had given birth. When the results came back negative, Derwent convinced Huxley to do the same – after promising him that if he was the father, he, Derwent, would still write Huxley’s heir into his will. Negative again. Stymied, the two friends remembered that Maudie had also spent a lot of time with Lawrence Ferlinghetti during the days the four of them hung out together at City Lights. Derwent contacted Lawrence, made the same promise, and Lawrence, acknowledging the possibility of paternity, agreed to help Derwent in his search. Bingo! Three tests, one father, and Derwent finally rested, relieved to know that after he died, this child, now a grown man, would have a secure future.
“Maudie, Maudie, dear…They’re here…your son, and your grandson.”
Maudie nodded as Lawrence pressed a button and the section of the bed behind her head rose. He carefully stuffed two additional pillows between her shoulders and the bedsheets to stabilize her sitting position and tucked the blankets under her wrinkled chin. Maudie grunted and her dark eyes flashed fiercely as she fixated on her hair brush.
“Right,” answered Lawrence softly. ‘Your hair. I haven’t forgotten.”
Standing behind the door, Jared and his son shifted their feet nervously. “OK,” came the muffled summons, “Come on in.” Jared cleared his throat, entered the room and made his way to his mother’s bedside, followed by his son.
“Mom,” he croaked. “Mom. I’m your son, Jared ––Jared Robbins. And this is your grandson, Jake.”
* * *
George Lafferty Jr. paced nervously back and forth around the table in the Special Collections conference room. Damm, this was going to be tight. How could they have messed up by double-booking the library’s Great Room? He’d commandeered one more chair, bringing the number of attendees to an even dozen and had his secretary complete the final place cards inscribing the names: Jared Robbins, Jake Robbins and Lawrence Ferlinghetti. Lawrence had called him an hour ago, stating that at Maudie’s insistence, he would be accompanying her son and grandson to the meeting. George actually felt relief at this last minute addition. There was simply no way to predict what shape Huxley Allworth would be in when he arrived. Had he not been so nervous, so agitated, George might have sensed the presence of others, somewhere in the seemingly empty room. But he didn’t notice the sound of Davis’s labored breathing as Sally kept her hand firmly planted over her lover’s gasping fish-lips. And then the door opened and people began filing in.
* * *
Jake sat huddled in the back seat of his beater VW Bug. Too shaken in the presence of his poetic hero to trust himself to drive, he’d Googled the directions from the hospital to the University Library on his I-Phone, handed it to his father and asked him to take the wheel. Lawrence Fucking Ferlinghetti! In his car! Just inches away from him! And his grandfather to boot!
From the moment, weeks earlier, when he’d been summoned to Margaret Harper’s office by Professor Ingersoll, his life had become a friggin’ soap opera. Until an hour ago he’d been certain the picture he’d seen on Aaron’s computer meant his father, Jared, was the son of a Mafia gangster and he’d feared for his life. But no, Donaldo Ferlinghetti was his father’s uncle. And Lawrence Ferlinghetti, his father’s biological father, had assured both Jake and his Dad they had nothing to worry about.
The FBI had received the goods on his despicable cousin and armed representatives were already at the library, hiding in the closet of the conference room. And that poor old woman back there in the hospital, the one Dwyer had tried to get him to hook up with…that, that was his grandmother!!! Jake closed his eyes, seeking relief from the headache which threatened to cleave open his skull. He sensed the car climbing the hill and knew they were approaching the library. “Take your next left,” he muttered. “There’s a parking permit in the glove compartment.”
Underneath the conference table, Sally and Davis watched with amazement as people settled into their seats. One chair was removed, quickly replaced by a wheelchair, with a blanket drooping over the lap of its occupant who expelled the scent of whiskey with each rasping breath. Next to the wheelchair, a pair of nylon-encased legs crossed themselves, six-inch stiletto heels dangling from each foot. Expensive black trousers with a knife–edge crease, accompanied by polished Salvatore Ferragamo tasseled loafers appeared, joined shortly by foul-smelling slippers that looked a lot like cat’s paws. Davis and Sally struggled mightily to keep from gagging. Sensible, sturdy shoes, which they recognized as belonging to Ms. Harper, rested against a large L.L.Bean canvas tote bag. The interns wondered what the wrapped ready-to-mail package inside contained. They noted the Docker khakis, Levi jeans and scuffed shoes belonging to several professors; another set of legs encased in suit pants and Gucci dress lace-ups; dirty canvas Carhartts and damp sneakers reeking of pot; a second pair of sensible woman’s shoes. What the hell was going on?
Then a throat cleared and a deep male voice sounded. “Ladies and Gentlemen. I’ve just received word that our last three guests have arrived on campus and should be joining us shortly. We will commence the meeting as soon as they are seated.”
Due to unforeseen circumstances, the writer was unable to complete today’s chapter. As in the past when this has happened, we skip the chapter and keep moving ahead. Stay tuned for Chapter 30.
Chapter 30 by Mary Ellen Courtney (2366 words)
George Lafferty looked at the ten faces around the conference room table and had a rare literary thought, “I wish Agatha Christie could see this.”
He had loved Derwent Lassiter like an uncle. Derwent was the only person with whom his father, George senior, had been able to cut loose. They enjoyed long afternoons in the hazy late afternoon sunshine of George senior’s office drinking, in Derwent’s case slurping, whiskey and discussing topics––mundane to arcane. George junior first met Derwent at the end of one such afternoon when his father introduced him as a friend from the days before they got laid. His father had been an excellent lawyer, a poet he was not.
Speaking of booze, George had smelled Ann Lassiter-Prescott before she was wheeled through the door by her daughter, the homely, stiletto teetering Miss Prescott. Miss Prescott had dropped her given name, Lass, short for Lassiter, at age sixteen. It became apparent that she was not going to improve with age and that the kids at school would forever call her Lassie, and not in a good way. Next to Lass sat the strange man/boy Andrew Ferlinghetti with facepaint-on whiskers, a headband with cat ears, and kitty slippers. He was purring at Lass, undoubtedly in anticipation of her becoming an heiress half an hour hence. Andrew’s father, Donaldo Ferlinghetti, was next. His body language said either his son had terrible BO, or he wanted to distance himself from the purring.
Both, being naturally suspicious, had questioned why they were included. George had been vague and lawyerly. He smiled at the thought of the FBI lurking in the closet. The cat ears and Donaldo’s impeccably tailored sharkskin suit would soon be traded for orange jumpsuits and a world of caged-man BO.
Donaldo leaned into Margaret Harper, a woman who didn’t, as his mother used to say, have the sense God gave a chipmunk. She had paid $35,000 university dollars for a junk collection. He had accompanied his father to Derwent’s for the final signing of the Will. He knew all about the rubber snakes, marionettes, and travel toothpaste. What could he say? Derwent could be indiscriminate. Margaret was doing her best to lean away from Donaldo, who she once thought of as her future father-in-law.
Margaret’s eyes darted between cat boy, her LL Bean bag, and the hand stroking her arm. The hand belonged to Felix Ingersoll. Felix, good thing she was into cats, sat next to her, trying to soothe her tension. Good luck with that, thought George. He knew Felix had convinced her the collection was real, without nailing down which collection.
Next came a trio he had long anticipated having in the same room. Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Donaldo’s older, talented and, despite his counter-culture youth, stand-up brother. Next was Jared Robbin, Lawrence’s almost long-lost son, and Jared’s son, Jake. When George called Lawrence to tell him the results of the DNA testing, Lawrence had wept. Seventy-seven years old and he had wept to learn about his son. Jared, now fifty-seven, did the same. He had loved his adoptive parents. They had told him a few things about his birth parents, but there had always been a blank page where his friends had a full story. He’d always had a sense of belonging somewhere else. George mused that at twenty, it would be some years before Jake understood the magnitude of this reunion. Jake was a poetry student; it would be interesting to see if this became fodder for his pen.
He had seated Jake between his father and the shambling and undoubtedly stoned, Huxley Allsworth who was there as a proxy for Jake’s grandmother, Peggy. Might as well have the boy sandwiched between both sides of his family. Huxley, like Derwent, had shared his grandmother with Lawrence. Derwent considered them all family, which they were about to find out.
Just before the meeting began, George received a call from the hospital letting him know that Peggy Saroyan had passed peacefully only minutes after her family walked out. Her last words, “It’s about time.” He would let them know after the meeting.
Last, and in his mind least, was Lloyd Jones. He had allowed the tan, polished con man from San Francisco to sit in, even though it was technically a family affair. He had drawn the line at Jones’s demand to include someone named Vanessa Ames. Jones said she would be taking over Special Collections so should be privy to arrangements.
Arrangements? George smiled to himself. As a family law attorney who thought most things would be better settled in a coliseum with those spikey ball things on the end of chains, he had adopted a mantra, Not my circus, not my monkeys.
“Good afternoon and thank you for coming. As you know, my name is George Lafferty. I am Derwent Lassiter’s attorney.”
“George junior,” cackled Ann Lassiter.
George looked into Ann’s rheumy eyes; her caginess was still there. Still a bitch.
“Yes, Ann,” said George, “Junior. I am Derwent Lassiter’s attorney of record.”
“Your father was a nerd,” said Ann. “Terrible in bed. Morrisey wasn’t bad.”
Someone giggled. George looked around the table; no one was smiling.
“Shut up, Mother,” said Lass.
Ann snorted and dropped her chin. “Carry on, Junior.”
God how he hated these readings. He continued, “The time has come to read Mr. Lassiter’s last will and testament after which I will provide each beneficiary with a copy which you may review with your attorney, should you have questions.”
George proceeded to read the preamble boilerplate section that laid out what every word meant. Those assembled mostly looked at their hands, one snored into her blanket while her daughter picked her cuticles, one adjusted his ears, one glanced at her LL Bean bag.
Sally and Davis were reaching several points simultaneously, impossible cramps from being frozen in one place surrounded by feet, and the excruciating need to pee. Plus they were still mostly naked. They didn’t look at each other with fear or love. They looked at each other with the sure dismal knowledge that they had just inventoried every last book, for naught. Worse than naught. They were going to lose their jobs and get the boot only months from finishing their dissertations. They would have cried out, but it would have given away their position. If there’s anything that springs eternal in youthful human hearts, it is hope. They hadn’t found anything for Prof. Rabinowitz. It’s hard to find something when you don’t know the goal. They forgot that part.
Unlike the lovebirds, the FBI agents were trained for this kind of thing. They knew enough to pee before getting into the closet. Their discipline was legendary.
George droned to the end of the potatoes and was ready to launch into the meat of the matter when he looked up. Half the people appeared to be sleeping. He slapped the fat packet of papers on the table, and everyone jumped. He loved doing that, he’d learned it from his professor of contract law.
“This is a good time to take a break,” he said. “Let’s say fifteen minutes.”
He ushered everyone out of the room and locked the door behind him. Sally and Davis looked at each other with wide eyes. Really? Sally dared peek out from under the table; the room was empty. They scrambled to their feet and pulled on their clothes way way faster than they had pulled them off. They were that fast. Just as they realized they were locked in, a side door opened, and Rebecca came in with a fresh pot of coffee and a platter of donuts. She’d wanted croissants, but donuts were the best she could do. Sally who, not for nothing, was going to college on a full scholarship, grabbed the LLBean bag in one hand and Davis’ arm in the other and squeezed past Rebecca in the door.
“Hello, Ms. McShane,” she said. “Sorry to bother, I forgot my bag. My entire dissertation, my laptop, everything. Can you imagine? Totally freaked me out!”
“How’d you get in?” asked Rebecca.
“Key!” said Sally. “We’ve been working nights.”
Sally and Davis bolted out of the library building. Sally skidded to a stop by a homeless man and handed him the LLBean bag and then started running again. They ran all the way to the parking lot and just about tore the doors off getting into Davis’ beat up Subaru. In his panic, he proceeded to flood it beyond starting, so they locked it and started running like they did that all the time, which they didn’t.
Rebecca freshened the coffee table service, tossed used cups and looked around. Satisfied, she left making sure both doors were locked. As soon as the lock clicked the closet door opened and two FBI agents fell out.
“It’s an oven in there, how long is this going to take? And where did those kids come from?” asked one.
“No idea and no idea,” said the other. “You want a donut?”
They each got a donut and were dusting crumbs off their pristine navy blue suits when they heard the door lock click. They jammed themselves back into the closet and closed the door.
Everyone shuffled, rolled, and teetered to their place. George thought Andrew did a little prance walk like his younger daughter had done during her ‘Hello Kitty’ phase. He was glad he wasn’t his son.
“Before we begin this next section,” said George. “I think this is a good time to clarify for all, some of the familial relationships we have in the room.”
He revisited Derwent’s youth hanging out with the Beats, which had his sister snorting with derision, and his niece nervously tapping her stiletto in staccato on the floor. He introduced Lawrence and Huxley, and finally got around to explaining who Jared and Jake were. He had decided to announce Peggy’s passing and asked for a moment of silence, which was broken by Ann.
“So they’re a bunch of wops who slept around,” she said. “Are any of them Derwent blood? That’s all that matters.”
“Heirs of the body, heirs of law,” chimed in Lass.
George smiled. “Heirs of law come into play when the deceased dies intestate. That is not the case here.”
“He was a drunk,” said Lass. “It’s insane delusion. You saw his house! He was a crazy packrat who thought he was a poet. Totally delusional. He signed it under duress and undue influence, it’s a forgery, it’s fraud, he was out of his mind! He never had any children!!! We’re his blood relatives!”
“I see you’ve consulted Attorney Google, Lass,” said George. “But the fact is, he was very much in control of his mind when he signed his will.”
“Enough!” yelled Donaldo. “What is this? Fraud? Forgery? Why am I here? Why is Andrew here? Get up! We’re leaving!”
He pulled his son/cat to his feet. Margaret looked down and noticed her LLBean bag missing. She looked under the table and then jumped up, frantic and screaming.
“Where’s my bag? Where is my bag?!!”
Everyone stopped. Margaret turned on Donaldo.
“What did you do with my bag?”
“Bag?” asked Donaldo.
Margaret shoved Donaldo out of the way and started pounding on Andrew. His whiskers smeared. She slapped him so hard upside the head his headband dangled off one ear. He tried to fend her off, but she wasn’t having it.
“You! You say you love me and then you poison me! Now this! You steal my bag!! You’re a bad actor. Terrible.”
Andrew started screaming. “Get her off of me! She’s a crazy bitch!”“Bag! Bag! What bag?” yelled Donaldo.Finally, the closet door burst open, and the two agents blew out.“Okay, everybody freeze!” one said.Just like in the movies, everybody froze. Even Margaret who, as you can imagine, felt like killing someone.
Donaldo Ferlinghetti and Andrew Ferlinghetti, you are under arrest for tampering with state’s evidence in the matter of Rosenbergs versus the United States Government,” said the other FBI agent.
Rosenbergs?” asked Andrew. He looked at his father. “Who are the Rosenbergs, Papa?”“Shut up!” said Donaldo.
Donaldo turned to his brother Lawrence. “You,” he said.
“Me,” said Lawrence.
The bad Ferlinghettis were cuffed and taken away. And everyone but Margaret sat down; she was still searching every nook and cranny, and closet, of a room that was bare.
“And so,” said George. “We continue.”
He laid out the terms of the will.
His old friends Huxley Allsworth, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, and Peggy Saroyan were charged with going through his collected papers to sell or distribute to the appropriate collections and museums.
Huxley would create numbered editions to make the papers available to ‘the masses’, the proceeds of which would go to Jared Robbins who, as Derwent put it, was a communal son.
It was his wish that any papers not deemed appropriate for a specific collection be donated to the University library special collections in honor of his friend Felix Ingersoll. The one proviso, that Lloyd Jones, a complete ass, be kicked off the Board and never darken the door of the University again.
He asked that Prof. Rabinowitz be informed that the information has been turned over to the FBI.
“Who is Rabinowitz?” asked Lawrence.
“Jewish Defense League,” said George. “Derwent knew he was looking for the Rosenberg material, but he didn’t feel it was appropriate to turn it over to them. Not with the personal connection to Peggy.”
“Professor Rabinowitz is a plant?” asked Margaret.
“Yes,” said George. “And to finish. Derwent left his house and contents to his niece, Lass Prescott.”
“A falling down dump and a bunch of junk,” said Lass.
Margaret looked at Lass and realized she had no idea she had sold off a baseball collection worth millions, for $35,000. And now it was missing. She had to find it.
“I’m going to contest this nonsense,” said Lass. “It’s outrageous.”
“Let me finish,” said George. “The final stipulation is this: Any person who contests this will shall forfeit his legacy.”