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By John Dunning
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1998 John Dunning
All rights reserved.
HIS NAME WAS JOEL BEER, but even that was partly made up. Often he felt like a character on manuscript paper, like someone he himself had made up long ago. In a sense, of course, that was true. There was no Joel Beer. Even this time and place were imaginary; the people, himself included, were like toys shoved hither and yon by some giant author beyond the clouds. On a rainy day, it was possible to imagine the thunder as the tapping of giant typewriter keys. Even the city was unreal. Just because it was called Denver, Colorado, and the encyclopedias said it had been here for a long time, that didn't make it so. In the world an author creates, things leap full-blown to life as needed. If a character needs tradition, the author creates it out of whole cloth. He makes up something called Encyclopedia Americana and puts Volume Eight in his character's hands. "Denver," he reads, "a city in Colorado, capitol of the state coextensive with Denver County." And on and on until he's convinced. The author moves his character out of the Denver Public Library and there, a block away, is the gold-domed statehouse. The proof is all around, changeless and ever-changing, and yet, in his sixtieth year, Joel Beer was less than ever convinced about the reality of life. Today, as the city lay in the embrace of late autumn, even the man on the radio, reading wire copy about the deadly serious friction between the United States and the Soviet Union, seemed like a voice from a comic strip.
The radio, after a two-year silence, had begun playing again just last spring. The car had hit a vicious chuckhole and suddenly the radio boomed out of nowhere. "I'll be damned," Joel had muttered with pleasure. "It's gonna be a good day." And it had; he still remembered it. He had scouted the east side, hitting all the thrift stores from Broadway to Peoria Street. He had turned up some nuggets; not diamonds, not even rubies, but a few good garnets. There was a first edition Nelson Algren, the best book he'd found in four months. Would that it were one of the early ones, Never Come Morning, say, or, please God, Somebody in Boots. But even A Walk on the Wild Side was good enough to cover expenses and a few meals. It was a $50 book to collectors. Mark Ramsey, the book dealer on East Colfax, could get that for it in this condition without much trouble, and that meant at least $15 to Joel. And that was before his other books were bought and tallied. Sometimes Ramsey surprised him: sometimes he'd pick out a dog that nobody'd ever heard of and pay plenty for it. All depended on who wanted it and how much. Ramsey was always fair to him—at least, Joel had never caught him being otherwise. Ramsey appreciated him; he knew Joel understood books and he paid well for that expertise. And that day, the day of the radio chuckhole, Ramsey had given him $40 cash. Twenty for the Algren and four to five for each of four other items. His other books, a round dozen, he'd sold off to dealers of less class for a buck a piece. They had each cost fifty cents, making his total outlay ten bucks and his income $52. Figure five for gas and he'd cleared at least $35 for his day's work.
This was his life. He did it six days a week without fail: get up, get out and hit the streets by nine. Work the stores along east Colfax Avenue, or south along Broadway; occasionally hit the west side or the Goodwill up north. In the summer he scouted garage and estate sales. He scouted the newspapers for book sales of any kind. If he had been the only bookscout in Denver, he might have made a good living. But the competition was getting fierce; there were at least half a dozen fulltime scouts and God knew how many people who just came to the stores and picked off the good stuff by accident. There was a middle-aged woman who had begun turning up in the Goodwills last year. Well-dressed, affluent-looking, she had suddenly begun buying his books (he couldn't help thinking of them that way), and he had grown to resent her and later hate her for her arrogance. The hate had come to full flower one morning when they had arrived at the Goodwill together. He had seen the John Barth first, but she had reached it first. The Floating Opera, Christ Jesus, Barth's first novel, a $300 book. She fingered it and he winced as the dust cover tore slightly under her fingers. She considered it with great deliberation while Joel tried to look disinterested. She started to put it down. He held his breath. She picked it up again. He sighed. Then she looked up, met his eyes, smiled, and tucked the book under her arm. He'd hated her ever since.
It wasn't the first time, or the last, that she'd beaten him to a prize. Her eyes worked as if by radar; she seemed to know when he coveted an item, and she went straight to it. And it couldn't be the money with her: he never saw her in bookstores selling what she'd scouted, and she was always dressed to kill. Only the celestial author theory gave reason to her being. The author of life had put her on earth to bedevil him. Any good story has to have conflict—who knew that better than himself? Good vs. evil, man vs. nature, man vs. man. Man vs. woman, with something important at stake. The John Barth was worth $75 to a bookscout who knew where to sell it. That was hardly on a par with the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, but drama is where you find it. It's all relative, and when the scouting was bad and no books were to be found, when the rent was due and the money all spent, seventy-five bucks was like a small shot of life.
Most of the time, Joel lived a quiet life. In Ramsey's bookstore, he was known simply as Joel the bookscout. The most dramatic thing that ever happened to him was missing a good book and a few heartbeats in the process, and there wasn't much drama in that. If there were such things as cosmic authors, it would follow that there would also be cosmic audiences. Writers must write for someone, and who out there beyond the clouds would want to read about a lone bookscout in a made-up place called Denver, Colorado? A real story must have more at stake than missing a meal. If there were celestial authors, this one must be very bad indeed, to have come up with an empty story like this.
But that isn't true at all. This story has good and evil, a villain, love and even tragedy of sorts. And Joel Beer was about to confront them all, in a single day of what he had come to consider a drab life.
He lived in a room above a store on Broadway. There was an icebox and a bare table, a sofa that was gradually losing its stuffing, two chairs, a small bed, a closet. The bathroom was down the hall. The window looked down into the street. In the summer he liked to keep it open; he liked the sounds of life, the noises of traffic. But the weather was turning now. Soon the snow would fall, and the window was shut for the season. Joel slept in the bed; Lacy on the couch. He had met Lacy last year during the big Christmas freeze and they'd been together ever since. Lacy had been on the skids for a long time. He'd been penniless and hungry and worst of all cold, and Joel had brought him here for a touch of Christmas spirit.
That was ten months ago. In a way, Lacy was like a faithful, friendly hound: he was company of a sort without being a bother. Lacy didn't know much, but he did know when Joel wanted to talk and when to leave him alone. He was a small man; he reminded Joel of Ratso in that movie Midnight Cowboy, only Lacy didn't have Ratso's cunning or willingness. Initially Joel thought to take Lacy in for a day or two; then, after Lacy had been with him a month, Joel thought to teach him bookscouting. If they could double-team a sale—one work one side while the other worked the other—it stood to reason they'd miss fewer choice items. But Lacy never learned it. Lacy would pick up the cheapest, gaudiest thing on the table. If it had a colorful cover he might stand looking at it for five minutes. "Ain't this purty, Joel?" he would say, and all the while he'd miss something truly valuable that had been stacked against it.
Joel tried to explain about book club editions and their general worthlessness in the used book trade. But Lacy didn't understand. He never learned it and now Joel thought he never would. Now Lacy went out of his way to avoid the cheap-looking stuff. That's how Joel missed a rare copy of Tarzan and the Leopard Men, a $200 book if ever there was one. There was just too much to this business for a mind like Lacy's to absorb. Lacy might eventually have learned the difference between book clubbers and regular publishers' editions, but when you threw in the element of pulp fiction, which also by its nature looked cheap but brought in almost unbelievable prices, Lacy was lost. He would instinctively shy away from a Burroughs or a Sax Rohmer, remembering the day Joel had scolded him, and that day Popeye Lamonica had walked out with the Tarzan.
Popeye was a bookscout to be reckoned with: a mean, brawling man in his forties who knew the book business and how to milk it. In the course of a Saturday morning, Joel and Lacy might meet Popeye three or four times at yard sales across Capitol Hill. Sometimes Joel got to the books first, sometimes Popeye did. There was no love between them. Popeye was brash and intimidating and he could get physical. More than once Joel had seen him muscle other scouts to get at the good stuff. Nobody knew his real name: people called him Popeye because of his voice, a gnashing of gravel that sounded astonishingly like that of the cartoon character.
He figured he'd meet Popeye at least a few times today. It was Saturday, the last day of autumn. There would be a sprinkling of sales across Capitol Hill, then everything would close down for the winter. Like the other full-time scouts, Joel would continue to work the cold months, but then he was confined mainly to two stores, which were worked by everybody. The competition any more was terrible, but this year there was a desperation of sorts to his search. It had not been a great summer. Usually he saved summer's money to get himself through the winter, but keeping Lacy as well as himself had taken its toll. He was three months behind in his room rent, and only last night he'd been informed by Mr. Jacobs who ran the building that if the entire balance wasn't paid by next weekend they'd have to get out.
He needed a couple of big books, and badly. They were on the streets before nine, canvassing the hill for signs. It was even bleaker than he'd anticipated. Sales were few and far between and most didn't start till ten o'clock. Joel's method of operation was to arrive early, ring the doorbell and ask about books. If there were some, he'd ask to see them: that way, even if he couldn't buy till ten, he'd know how things stacked up and could set his priorities. Popeye and most other serious scouts operated the same way. Even at that it was like a fascinating Chinese puzzle. Denver's Capitol Hill was a vat of streets, thirty blocks long and fifteen deep. If a sign fell down in the night, bookscouts might not know of a particular sale unless they cruised up a side street by accident. That, of course, was part of the intrigue. Many were the days when Joel had worked the entire hill only to find a gem of a sale tucked into Richthofen Place or in some side street south of Sixth Avenue.
Today was that kind of day. They cruised the length of the hill and beyond, and came back up Eighth Avenue. There was precious little: by eleven o'clock they had hit a dozen places and bought half a dozen books. By eleven-thirty he was about to quit. That's when Lacy saw the sign. Hanging by one nail, it looked old and useless, but something told him to look. Sure enough, it was a moving sale, dated today only, in a quiet street two blocks away.
The house was half way down the block. Capitol Hill is always clogged with cars, and they had to park around the block and walk. But Joel didn't mind: he had a feeling about this place, the same kind of feeling Columbus must have had when he stepped off in the New World. This was virgin territory; he could almost smell it. Then, around the opposite corner a familiar figure came walking toward them.
"Popeye, Joel," Lacy said.
"Yeah, I see 'im."
Popeye saw them too. His pace quickened until he was coming at a trot. Joel had never been able to push or run after books: a man lost his last shred of dignity when he did that. They reached the wrought iron gate at almost the same instant. Popeye muscled in first and went clumping up the steps. Into the hall the three of them went. A man sat at a table over a cash box near the door. "Where's the books?" Popeye said. The man motioned to a set of stairs that led to a basement. Down they went, Popeye in the lead, and there in the basement was a wall of books, a world of books, more books than Joel or Popeye had seen in a month's hard scouting. And not a book clubber among them; a scout gets to know, almost instantly, the difference between book clubbers and the real stuff.
Popeye began to grab. He grabbed titles at random, tried to suck it all in, the useless with the useful, the buggers with the gems. "You stand back," Joel said to Lacy "You'll just get in the way here." He got as far away from Popeye as he could, starting on the opposite end. He saw at once that it was a random library, built along no particular pattern except that it was mostly fiction. Nothing wrong with that: the best prices were being paid for old, out-of-print literature. And this was old, not antique surely, but old as far as modern first editions went. Whoever had compiled this had fallen in love with literature, say, around 1948, and had bought books all through the early fifties. And that was fine too: there were plenty of damn valuable titles from those years. In more ways than one, it was Joel's own era. Even as he thought this he saw it: the one book he had to have, the one he'd gladly leave Popeye Lamonica lying in his own blood to obtain. Something for Nothing, by Walter Behr. A $500 book, yes, so rare that he had never seen it in all his twenty years of scouting. But more, oh so much more than that. It lay half way down a shelf, in the middleground between them. He reached for it. Popeye saw him, saw the book in the same instant, and lunged at it. Both fists tightened around the spine. With a cry of rage, Joel wrenched it away, and books sprayed off the shelves and spun across the floor.
"You son of a bitch," Joel said. "You get away from me."
"Gimme that book," Popeye said.
Joel moved toward the stairs. Popeye moved to cut him off. Joel picked up a poker from the fireplace.
"I'll kill ya, Popeye, so help me Jesus I'll split your damn head open."
He was breathing hard and trembling. He couldn't imagine himself frightening a man like Popeye, being at least twenty-five years off his prime, but there must have been something in his eyes. Popeye moved back. Joel slipped past him and dropped the poker on the stairs as he went up. At the door he stopped to catch his breath. The man at the cash box eyed him suspiciously.
"You okay, fella?"
"Yeah, sure. How much're your books, pardner?"
"Fifty cents apiece."
He fished out two quarters, tucked the book under his arm and went out into the street. He didn't know where Lacy was, didn't care just now. Nothing mattered but to get the book home safe.
He heard Lacy's voice, too late. He turned and Popeye was coming down on him, looming like some medieval giant. Popeye suckerpunched him, caught him a straight right to the ribs as he was turning. He doubled up, his breath gone, and fell to the sidewalk. The book spun away in the grass. Popeye stepped over him and went after it, but Joel reached up and grabbed his leg. "Get the book Lacy, get it and run!" he shouted.
Popeye kicked at him and tore his leg free. But by then Lacy had scooped up the book and was running hell-for-leather down the street.
Popeye chased him for half a block, then gave up. He stood on the street shouting senselessly after Lacy's dwindling form. "Lacy, you bastard! I'll get you for this, Lacy! You feeble-brained moron, I'll kick your brains in!"
Excerpted from Bookscout by John Dunning. Copyright © 1998 John Dunning. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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