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By Richard Stern
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1987 University of Chicago
All rights reserved.
Hondorp passed the first part of his afternoon fingering ten-thousand-dollar carpets in the dim quarters of Surjibulagh Fils, Teheran, Paris, London, and New York. 'Since I'd spent so many pleasant hours in your French and Persian shops,' he told the respectful clerk, 'I thought I'd give the Madison Avenue version the once-over before I committed myself elsewhere.'
The Persian knew that the Teheran branch was an inaccessible factory, but discounted Hondorp's claim as a curious and not displeasing form of American courtesy. He even inquired about Monsieur Tupkhaneh.
'The small dark man with the nice smile?' asked Hondorp.
The clerk smiled nicely himself and went on to the marvellous view of the city from Elburz. Hondorp had consulted the Britannica entry on Teheran before leaving home that morning but couldn't remember whether Elburz was a mountain, a fortress, or the river. In any case, he felt free to certify to the view's splendour, did so, and then asked whether the masterpiece at his feet was worked with the Sehna or the Ghiordes knot. The clerk's face split with bliss, and he launched into an account of the two great schools of carpet-weaving, hardly aware that he'd evaded a difficult query.
Hondorp had calculated that he could stay safely for an hour and a half, but the disquisition alone lasted forty minutes. For the next two hours, he sustained his interest in carpets and the clerk's confidence in the utility of his interest. Then, his practised eye caught that flicker of weariness which precedes suspicion. He felt a corresponding weariness himself and refused a fifth cup of coffee.
'I'll have to work this around in my mind for a couple of days,' he said, and let the thick intricacy drop from his hands into the clerk's devoted paws. 'Gulistan, Gulistan,' he muttered, and he was at the door nodding stiffly to the clerk's farewell effusion and descending the carpeted stairway to the street.
It was a handsome day, the first of the season on which people wore no top- coats. Hondorp balanced on the sill soaking in the warmth and gathering strength for his next visit. 'Books,' he thought. 'Eine Bücherei.' He hadn't visited a bookstore for nearly a week. 'The unnourished mind withers,' was an old pronouncement of his father's, although the old man's reading had for years been confined to the Journal of Ophthalmology and TV Guide. He walked south for a block, turned east for two, and then, on Lexington, walked half a block farther south to Follett's, a store he hadn't been in for five or six months.
Hondorp usually didn't bother with window displays, but he stopped in front of Follett's to vent some spleen on the pyramid of Mlle Sagan's books which framed a picture of her uncertain, but distinctly come-on-buy-me smile. Hondorp's emotional life was composed largely of antipathies, and the most recent literary objects of his detestation were the bored young women of France and the angry young men of England. He regarded the bored Gioconda with contempt and fury, abstracted the factitious sadness from the rodent face, scalped from bangs to bun, felt himself dig out the slithering contents of the skull and trample them in the gutter; then, puffed with relief, he went in the store, quickly, purposively, past the tables of new books to the shabby alcoves whose shelves and tables held the secondhand books for which he had an affinity that he had never cared to analyse.
He'd just started picking his way through the history shelves, thumbing Motley on the Dutch Republic, when a voice, sharp with insolence, asked at his elbow, 'You looking or buying?'
The professional browser's ire rose in Hondorp, and he turned to grind the inquirer into dust. Dust there already was in the alcove, three solid walls of books, and five or six unusually bright, naked bulbs, but nothing else, nothing that could question his motives.
'Jesus,' growled Hondorp, and he rubbed his index finger against his right temple.
'What was that?' asked the voice. 'You'll have to tune up the volume a little. I'm in the wall here.'
Hondorp took off his reading glasses, wiped his eye sockets with a handkerchief, and studied the apparently inorganic wall.
'Here,' said the voice helpfully.
It seemed to be coming out of a Book League of America copy of The Conquest of Peru. Hondorp reached for the book, took it down, and put his face to the dark hole. 'Muuuuaaaaghh,' was his response to the four years' worth of dust which assaulted his nostrils.
He was jamming the book back in to plug the dike when the voice, with a kind of pleading authority, said, 'Read me a sentence or two.'
'Shove it,' was what Hondorp began to say, but a constraint learned from hours and hours of extricating himself from humiliations translated this into 'With pleasure.' He blew a small cloud of dust from the book, opened it and read:
Drawing his sword, he traced a line with it on the sand from east to west. Then, turning towards the south, 'Friends and comrades!' he said. 'On that side are toil, hunger, nakedness, the drenching storm, desertion, and death; on this side ease and pleasure. There lies Peru with its riches; here, Panama and its poverty. Choose, each man, what best becomes a brave Castillian. For my part, I go to the south!' So saying, he stepped across the line.
'So who is that "he"?' asked the voice, as if it had been personally insulted by the passage.
Hondorp turned back a page, saw that the 'he' was Pizarro, restrained himself from a phonemically related obscenity, held the book to the wall, and said, 'Take a look yourself.'
'Can't quite make it out,' said the voice after a few seconds. 'Print's too small.'
'All right,' said Hondorp wearily. 'What's the gag?'
'I missed that,' said the voice. 'Closer to the wall.' Hondorp moved closer. 'Now turn up the volume.' Hondorp repeated his question loudly.
'Guess,' said the voice.
'Some sort of smart-aleck promotion,' said Hondorp. 'Some stupid promotion gimmick, though what you think you can promote in this junk heap I don't know.'
As if it were a proper sequitur, the voice asked, 'Why do you like secondhand books?'
Hondorp, unconscious that the direction of inquiry had shifted, pondered and replied, 'They're cheaper, and they're not new.'
'What's the matter with new books? The whole economy runs along on people liking what's new. You stick with old books, and you're stringing up publishers, booksellers, authors, paper manufacturers, printers, linotypers, delivery boys, glue makers, and God knows who else. You like secondhand books and the economy stagnates.'
This speech took Hondorp into the familiar country of his contempt for the world's business, and his chin tilted up to the proper stance of this country, sufficient response to the belligerence from across the frontier.
But it proved insufficient for the voice, which pursued, 'What was that? I missed that.'
'I said nothing.'
'That won't do,' snapped the voice. 'Answer.'
'The economy,' answered Hondorp, surprised at his obedience, 'can drop dead for my money.'
'Ha, ha, ha. Not bad,' said the voice. 'Now tell me what your business is, pal?'
Every man has a question which terrifies him, and to the avoidance of which he gives himself with an energy that helps shape his life. This was the question that shoved Hondorp's diaphragm against his stomach, stiffened his throat muscles, hacked at his breath. Somehow, this time, he subdued the symptoms quickly. 'Whatever it is is none of yours, pal.'
At this, Hondorp heard a gasp, a gasp which didn't come from the wall. He turned to see a thin old crone in a Persian lamb stole gaping at him in fear and trembling. He began to stammer an explanation, but she sprang, as if rejuvenated, out of the alcove doorway, leaped past the new books and rushed out the front door, her stole waving a lazy, rich goodbye to literature and its denizens.
'My God,' said Hondorp to the voice. 'Look what you've done now. They'll be putting the white jacket on me.'
All reasoning sweetness, the voice said, 'I'll come clean. You've done your stint. Take a look up here.' Hondorp looked up. 'More to the right. That's it. Now what do you see?'
In the upper right-hand corner of the alcove, in a small space cleared of books, was a largish bulb that he hadn't noticed before. Shielding his eyes, he made out just behind it a large black box out of which stuck two glass circles, one of which was fitted to a short nozzle which seemed to be aimed at him.
'Get it?' asked the voice.
Hondorp studied a minute longer, then it came to him. 'Golk?'
'That-a-boy! You're On Camera.'
It was their slogan, their standard exposure, and in the voice's benevolent triumph, Hondorp recognized Golk's own voice.
It went on now, triumph doffed for conspiracy. 'Would you like to decoy the next victim for us?'
Hondorp shifted slowly from the first gear of his failure, torpor, into the second, malice. 'I'm with you,' he said. 'It'll be a pleasure.' He knew an ease he hadn't felt for some time.
The confrontation with Golk was the one for which more than any other he had somehow been prepared. He'd watched the show a good many times in the last few years, and the promise Golk made to all New York at the end of every programme, his long finger jabbing at them right through the camera with playful threat, 'Watch out. One of these days you'll be on camera too,' constituted for Hondorp one of the few contracts which he felt might be fulfilled for him, one of the fewer he looked forward to fulfilling. 'For my part, I go to the south,' he said out loud. He had been discovered.
'Haha, hoho, hughhugh, ohhh,' crackled the voice. 'Mahvellous.' And then, in another manner, direct, uncoloured: 'Crank it, boys. Now, victim.' Hondorp recognized the term from the programme—it stood for the unconscious participant in the scene or 'golk'—and did not take offence. He looked up to the camera nozzle. 'Take out that Crusade in Europe on the fourth shelf to your left. That's right. Ease out the little mike in back of it. That-a-boy. Our sound level's a little shaky. O.K. Slip it into the second shelf somewhere. That's right. Now hide the cord a little better behind the books.'
Hondorp eased, shifted, tucked, and hid; and did it while feeling that he was proceeding along his own grain. 'Where are you?' he asked.
'In a fish store across the street. I see you on a monitor. Now listen carefully. Here's our pitch,' and Golk's voice warmed with an intrigue which released thick roots into the ready soil of Hondorp's disappointments. 'Two shelves above that Crusade in Europe, no, more to the left. That's it. See that large book in the old binding, Lielies Noo-mizmittiks'—this turned out to be Lyly's Numismatics—'that's it. Take it down.' Hondorp stretched and brought it down, shielding his head from a dust storm which didn't come. 'In the back binding, back cover, there's a slit with a piece of paper in it. Take it out.' Hondorp worked a fingernail into the binding and pulled out the paper. It was a dirty, ink-stained sheet of rough paper on which in a legible but exotic script he made out the following:
Acct. of Wm SHAXPER, ye GLOBE Thtr.
2 ruffles —2d
3 dblts. —6d
rip in breeches, rpd —2d
back accts. —8d
O, what an ass (a fool, a rogue) and anguished
knave am I,
Were it not monstrous that this player here
Were it not rotten that this actor here
At the bottom, the word 'Acknowledged' was scrawled, followed by a signature which Hondorp vaguely remembered as the one under the title-page illustration of his college copy of the Works. He trembled briefly with excitement.
'How's it look?' asked Golk.
'It'll fool a dupe,' said Hondorp pertly. 'Maybe even dupe a fool.' An indulgent chuckle from the wall.
'All right. Find one or the other. Here's the idea. Loosen your collar. Get some dust on yourself. All over. We'll have your suit cleaned. Try and work up a sweat. Look like some Shakespeare scholar who's found what you've found, but one who's too honest to just walk out with it and too poor to pay for the Noo-miz-mittiks.'
'I get it,' said Hondorp. He wiped his hand over the shelves and smeared it over his blue dacron.
'That's fine,' said the voice in the tone of that ironically benevolent authority which for long years now Hondorp had recognized as the world's real voice. 'Go on up to the front of the store, collar a likely victim, a browser type. Get him back here as quick as you can and give him the works. Don't worry about the owner. He's got our fifty bucks. The idea is you want to go halves with your man, he putting up the money to buy and you the scholarly know-how. The main thing is not to scare him until you get him back here on camera, but then give it to him hard and fast. It should take five or six minutes, ten at the most. We edit it later. When you've shot your bolt, we may give him the voice from the wall. Pretend not to hear it. Put the paper back in the book; it'll emphasize your scrupulousness, and give a little drama to the discovery.'
'I'm off,' said Hondorp, and he yanked at his tie, smeared another load of dust on his suit, and then loped out of the alcove, his head jerking with his version of scholarly excitement. He reared up at Works of the Mind and made a survey, six customers, and the little itchy-eyed proprietor who propelled an appealing, but fraternal, look at him. Two of the six were kids, a fifteen-year-old looking at the Modern Library, and a slightly younger girl half-way through a paperback aphrodisiac. There were three middle-aged women in front of Biographies, Art, and New Fiction. The victim-to-be—Hondorp almost saw him spotlighted by victimage—was an obese, bearded coot inclined over a volume of engravings. Hondorp sidled up with an introductory cough. The Beard shifted a monstrous rear end to block the approach, but Hondorp leaned over the obstruction and whispered that he would like to speak to him about something of great importance.
The Beard closed the book and turned with dignity. 'Sir?' he said, a dull boom from the guts that drew stares and shushes from the other readers.
Hondorp bent to the Beard's level and whispered, 'I have made what I think is a discovery of first-class importance in an old volume I just found in Alcove B, and I must discuss it with someone other than the proprietor.'
The Beard's eyes dilated with terror; Hondorp hurried on: 'May I show it to you? I can hardly believe my own eyes, and after looking here, I realized that you would be the only one capable of confirming what I've seen. If you aren't interested, I shall try the woman at Biographies, but it will be second-best.'
'All right,' said the Beard, modulating the boom to a room-shaking whisper. 'I can give you a minute.' He drew out a dollar pocket watch, held it at arm's length in front of him, and then followed it and Hondorp into the alcove. 'In that one,' said Hondorp, pointing to the Numismatics. He pulled the book down, opened it, and drew out the paper. 'Look at this and see if you make of it what I did.' He handed it over with grandeur.
The Beard looked, removed the spectacles he used for pictures, and replaced them with a pair which seemed to consume his irises. He himself was consumed by ravenous contemplation. When he bent his head back to look at Hondorp, he was shivering. 'Must be a joke,' he said.
'Elizabethan calligraphy is not my speciality,' said Hondorp, 'but I have done some work in it. I should be inclined to say that the signature before us dates from no later than 1630, the paper as well. The ink is not perhaps as faded as one might expect, but the variations in documents are astonishing. I remember a thirteenth-century codex I spent a day with at the Vatican, and I swear to you by all that's holy, I thought I could discern the dampness of the ink, so clear and fresh it was. My feeling is that we have hit upon the genuine article.'
'Did they have laundry lists?' asked the Beard, his boom crippled by awe.
'My God,' rumbled the Beard. 'We've found something.' Hondorp's face flickered with triumph. The Beard's great eyes bugged, aflare with suspicion. 'Why didn't you pocket it?'
Excerpted from Golk by Richard Stern. Copyright © 1987 University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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