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Never the Twain

by

Harry Buschman

You can't blame Dover Books. They were only trying to sweeten the profit  margin for their investors, and if you can cut corners a little here and there, that's the way to go. The floor manager explained it all to Mr. Greenspan ...

"Harvey," (he called Mr. Greenspan Harvey). "Y'don't have to move the books to storage, trust me, Harvey -- move 'em right out to shipping."

"There ain't room in shipping!" Mr. Greenspan was unbending.

"We pile 'em higher. No sweat."

"So what do we do with the storage room?"

The floor manager paused for maximum effect ... "Another bookbinder, Harvey!  We put in another binder. Production goes up 25%."

"But we got three men working out there in storage."

"Say la Gruyere, Harvey -- Say la Gruyere." The floor manager, aware of Mr.  Greenspan's ignorance of the language, was always ready to drop a French  phrase in his conversation.

Our hero, Oliver Short, worked in the storage room nearly seventeen years until that executive decision made him and his two work mates redundant. He liked it out there in storage, he was no reader, and books to him were only merchandise to be moved out of the bindery and stacked in the storeroom. He had no warm feeling for the books -- never even read the titles. They were no different than brake linings or kitchen detergents, something to stack and store,  therefore, when he found the terse note in his pay envelope he rationalized it by saying he always hated the job anyway. He felt no bitterness towards the floor manager or Mr. Greenspan -- he hardly knew them. In the same envelope with the pink slip he found an 11 week full pay settlement, and although he was now out of a job, he had more cash in his hand than he ever had before.

He was fifty years old, a dangerous age for many people. It might have been  even more dangerous for Oliver Short, since he was unmarried and lived in an apartment down the hall from his equally unmarried sister Sheila. They were as  different as any two people can be, in fact many people who knew them had no idea they were brother and sister.

Oliver Short took a long look at his bank account. For the moment it was robust, and he decided that if he was going to make a move in the direction of future financial security, now was the time. He wanted to own a store -- to work for himself -- selling something that would bring in a steady income with little or no effort on his part. He checked out empty stores in the Woodbine Mall, and found one that a mattress company moved out of more than a month ago.

The windows were white washed but by cupping his hands to his eyes he could  see inside. Except for the ceiling and the lights everything had been moved out. To the left of the store was a fitness spa filled with women. Women on treadmills, women bench pressing, chorus lines of women doing floor exercises. To the right of it was a Chinese restaurant. That seemed to be full of women also. 

He reasoned that as long as these two attractions stayed in business he would have a steady clientele -- provided he could think of something to interest  women, (other than a Chinese restaurant and a spa). He thought about clothing.  He didn't know anything about clothing. Kitchen appliances -- he knew less than nothing about kitchens. The idea of books didn't really hit him like a  thunder bolt, it crept up on him -- women did buy books, and he knew something  about books; not enough, but something. He knew how to get them for practically  nothing too. Dover Publishing owned a returned books warehouse in Camden, New Jersey, and they sold those books for the cost of shipping. If the customer paid the shipping he could have the books for nothing.

"Just think," thought Oliver, "merchandise for free. Unpainted shelving and a cash register -- a couple of high school kids to work after school. Just sit there and watch the money roll in."

A month later Oliver Short tilted back on the two rear legs of his stool by the cash register and leaned his head on the unpainted shelf behind him. It was almost three o'clock in the afternoon and the sun was making him sleepy.

Oliver Short now owned the Outlet Book Store in specially discounted rented  space nestled between the Chinese restaurant and the unisex exercise salon in  the Woodbine Strip Mall. If you were looking for something on the Ten Best Books List of The New York Times you wouldn't find it at Outlet Books. On seeing a dust jacket price of $37.50 marked down to $3.98, you might get a momentary  rush of adrenaline, but a quick riffle through the pages would convince you that it was priced on the high side.

If you wanted a best seller -- something hot off the press from John Grisham or Danielle Steel -- you wouldn't find them at Outlet Books. Oliver Short's stock consisted of overstocked Book of the Month Club offerings, optimistic overprinting of books that had been critically bull-dozed and picture books that  were meant to be scattered around on table tops and never opened --Lady Di and Jackie KO picture books, poorly illustrated volumes of armament from World War II, and ethnic cook books from countries no one would possibly visit for  reasons of cuisine. It was, as its name stated, an outlet book store.

The store faced west, and as the afternoons drowsed along, Oliver Short, the new owner of the Outlet Book Store, was bathed in the warm sun on a warm summer day in June. Before the sun disappeared behind the wall separating the store from the Chinese restaurant Oliver was fast asleep on his stool by the cash  register. It was fortunate that Oliver Short chose a book store rather than ... say, a taxicab. His frequent disappearances from the conscious world had no effect on his business, other than his customer's having to wait at the cash register until he had pulled himself together.

Over the years in Dover Book's storeroom Oliver learned the art of sleeping while appearing to be wide awake. It was the same technique practiced by  quality control supervisors on assembly lines and judges in district court. He would jerk himself awake when the phone rang or if a customer approached him at the cash register, but when things quieted down Oliver Short traveled to far away places -- remote from Outlet Books.

To a customer the most noticeable thing about Oliver was his Adam's apple. It  traveled up and down spontaneously -- seemingly with a life of its own, even as he dozed by his cash register. Some customers were convinced he had swallowed something alive, a mouse perhaps, and was trying to digest it --the way snakes do. It was too fascinating to ignore and many people lost their train of thought when they spoke with him.

He was a disheveled man. He looked as though he had just come in from the rain. Clothes did nor fit him well; he was not meant for clothes. His shoes squeaked when he walked and he was always on the ragged edge of needing a shave -- the unpredictable behavior of his Adam's apple made shaving a hazardous luxury  and he avoided it as much as possible.

Oliver could be seen in profile through the window of the book store from the promenade outside. He sat at the cash register near the front door and as the  afternoon wore on, his head would tilt back gradually until it rested on the wall shelf behind him. Regular patrons of the Woodbine Strip Mall were used to the sight, but strangers were often fooled into thinking the manager of Outlet Books had passed away.

To the left, in the rear of the store behind the final "Z" of fiction Oliver reserved one three foot long section of shelving for literature. The word "Literature" was hand lettered on a card and it separated the section from fiction and Bible studies. Literature was an oasis in a barren desert. Most people passed it by or had no idea this one three foot section of shelving in the Outlet Book store could have made their visit worthwhile. Here a person might find Whitman and Hemingway one week, Cheever and Faulkner the next. The books were defective in many ways -- some were printed in a font too small to be conveniently read, or one half of a book might be printed upside down, or bound on the wrong side. But to anyone hungering for the word of the author, it was  there -- all of it, and sometimes setting up obstacles in the way of understanding  can make literature all the more memorable.

I believe that was the reason the books in the literature rack fascinated Oliver Short in the first place. The challenge of reading them made their content stick to him like glue -- the difficulty of reading them could well have been the catalyst that sent him off on his long afternoon journeys.

Oliver hated to sell these books. They were his to read in the afternoon and he was reluctant to sell them to anyone even though they were displayed on the  literature shelf. Occasionally a lady customer would see Oliver reading one at the cash register and the following conversation might occur ...

"Oh!" she might exclaim, "is that a copy of 'Brideshead Revisited?' I've always wanted to read that."

"It's mine," Oliver would say abruptly.

"You mean it's not for sale?"

"No! It's mine."

It was, of course, one of the books from the literature rack, but Oliver was in the middle of it and had no intention of parting with it. A poor sales tactic no doubt, but he would rather read the book than sell it.

Oliver rarely had time to finish these books, and he didn't stay with the same book very long. Just before lunch he would take one from the "Literature" shelf and keep it next to him at the cash register to read in the afternoon. From time to time he would open it at random and suddenly find himself aboard the Pequod in the vast reaches of the Pacific hunting the white whale, or with Conrad in the heart of darkest Africa, a world away from the Outlet Book store.

In spite of the distance in space and time, he could smell the sea and feel the oppressive heat of the jungle. It was all he needed to set his mind wandering. By the middle of the afternoon Oliver would be unreachable, out of touch with his customers. The only sign of life in him was his Adam's apple; now unchained and free as a butterfly.

Toward the end of a long and sultry summer, with sales at a very low ebb, something snapped in the mind of Oliver Short. His afternoon dreams began to hold the center stage of his daily life. To all outward appearances Oliver was the  same as he had always been, but if we were privileged to look inside his soul we would have seen a man obsessed with the works of Mark Twain. He read all the Twain books in the literature shelf, and to himself, if no one else, he could repeat long passages -- much the way a priest delivers the words of the Almighty, without really knowing what they mean.

He had been, before now, somewhere on the middle of a bridge between reality and a land of fiction, with heroes larger than life and with ladies of unsurpassed beauty and virtue. Now he seemed to have crossed to the other side of that bridge. Now his only contact with the people of the Woodbine Strip Mall were the small numbers who stopped at the cash register to buy a book as they left the Outlet Book Store.

He was at home on the far side of that bridge, and happiest of all when he was in the company of Mark Twain. Mr. Twain spun stories of the old days; rafting down the Mississippi and the life the people led and how the steamboat landings grew into towns. "So many years my boy, so many years ago." He would dab at his eyes with a large white handkerchief and contemplate the end of his cigar. "It all seems so small to me now . . . a boy's home is a big place to him. I suppose if I should come back here again it would seem no bigger than a bird-house."

Oliver was spellbound in the presence of Mark Twain, he finally screwed up nerve enough to ask him to come and lecture at the Outlet Book Store. To his great surprise, Mr. Twain said he'd be delighted and they set up a date and time -- "Next Thursday at eight," Mark said after checking his calendar. "But it's been a while you know -- I really don't know much about people any more."

"Oh, they're still the same," Oliver assured him, "You'll find they haven't changed a bit."

"That's impossible. They can't be the same -- I've heard they fly now -- somebody told me they've even set foot on the moon."

"Yes ... but ... "

"You can't tell me they're the same, nobody can do such things and still be the same." Twain brushed back his mustache in a familiar gesture ... "the lecture will be on Innocents Abroad."

Oliver woke with a start. The damn phone was ringing! "Why can't they leave us alone," he groaned. "I was talking with Mark Twain."

"Do you have 'Daddy's Little Girl' by Mary Higgins Clark." It was a quavery widow's voice -- obviously wanting a romance for the afternoon.

"No Ma'am," he said abruptly.

"Can you get it for me?" she pleaded.

"No Ma'am."

"Well, why not? You're in the book business aren't you?"

"I sell what I have, Ma'am -- I don't sell what I don't have."

"Well! ... I never ..."

She didn't even slam the phone down. There was a gentle, ladylike click -- and she was gone. "Good riddance!" Oliver slammed the phone down on his end and  three or four people in fiction looked his way. He returned their curious stares with a steady glare -- "Readers," he muttered to himself, "this business would be so much more enjoyable if there were no readers." Talking daily with Twain, Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald had turned Oliver against readers forever. Well! They would get an earful when Mark Twain showed up Thursday evening at eight!

He stood in the sunlight next to the cash register and looked out through the  dirty show window at the crowd walking along the mall's promenade. Women, men, children -- they were no more than mannequins wearing clothes of various  shapes and colors. They passed by his store in twos and threes -- some paused to look in his window at the colorful book covers. Some of them raised and locked  eyes with Oliver; something of a shock, like a short in a faulty electrical appliance took place and they walked on quickly and everything was still again.

All the while Oliver was idly running his hand over Mark Twain's "Innocents Abroad" -- caressing the cover as though it were a lover. It occurred to him that his love of Twain might not be normal, for while other people traveled in twos and threes, he sat alone. He looked around the store quickly, trying to focus on familiar things -- the signs in the store -- the cold hard edges of the cash register. Slowly he recovered, and cleared his throat. "I must make plans for the lecture," he thought.

Two days away! He had to get to work on the signs immediately, there wasn't  much time. Something simple, direct -- a big one for the show window and  several small ones he could tack up around the mall. Should he have wine and cheese?

A hostess maybe -- his sister Sheila! That's it ... "She even looks like a writer -- bottle bottom eyeglasses -- eternal virgin. Sheila would be delighted," he thought.

 

THURSDAY EVENING
8 PM SHARP!

AT THE OUTLET BOOK STORE
(between the Chinese Restaurant and the Spa)

MR. MARK TWAIN
(in person)

WILL LECTURE ON HIS FAMOUS BOOK
"INNOCENTS ABROAD"

refreshments will be served


 

There was a lot more he wanted to say but he settled for that; after all, it was Mr. Twain's show, not his.

The response to the sign was encouraging -- all the way from, "You really gonna have Mark Twain here Thursday? Gee that's great, I ain't read nuthin' of his since Huckerby Flynn in school," to "You can't be serious. He must be seventy years old if he's a day."

Oliver's sister Sheila ... who would much rather have stayed home to watch Jeopardy, reluctantly agreed to lay out a refreshment table. She would insert  toothpicks in cheese cubes if Oliver would supply the cheese, and if Oliver provided the Mateus Rosť and the paper cups, she would pour. Oliver recalled Mark Twain used to drink something stronger than a ladies wine, but he could arrange to hide a bottle of bourbon in the cabinet under the cash register. Mr.  Twain could have a snort before the lecture and several after, if he chose. He  wondered if two dozen steel folding chairs from the Greenleaf Funeral Home  would be enough for the crowd -- it would have to be, there wasn't room for any more.

Oliver's sister Sheila called him at home early Thursday morning to see if the party was still on. She had her doubts ... "You know, Oliver, don't you ... Mark Twain's been dead almost a hundred years -- you're gonna get yourself in real trouble when he doesn't show up."

Sheila was the glum one in the family, a natural doubter. She never forgave Oliver for sinking his separation pay in a book store. "Get yourself a Burger King Franchise!" she told him. "People have to eat -- they don't have to read" ... and now, her dumb brother believed Mark Twain was coming back from the dead!

Oliver had just come out of the shower, his mood was upbeat, assured. The day  dawned bright and clear and coffee was on the boil -- nothing could dampen his spirits this morning. "He'll be there, a little thing like being dead won't keep Mark Twain away." He hung up and toweled off quickly, then he looked at his new suit hanging on the bedroom door.

It was eight P.M. on the dot, every seat in the Outlet Book Store was taken and still no Oliver Short. Some people, thinking maybe the whole thing was a hoax, began wandering around the store. Others headed for the cheese and wine expecting an announcement that Mark Twain had been unavoidably detained.

Sheila didn't know what to do. It wasn't her store -- she worked at the County Assessor's Office, "How! How, could I get myself mixed up with my crazy brother?" Then she saw a figure in the doorway!

It was a man of medium height in a suit cut along old fashioned lines. His black coat was long, single breasted with six buttons down the front. The shoulders were narrow, unpadded, in military style and lay close to his neck, permitting the collar of his shirt to be visible from the back as well as the front. The shirt was of ivory hue with buttons of polished abalone shell.

The black silk bow tie was full and flowing, rising above the collar line and  almost, (but not quite) concealing a large and active Adam's apple. The trousers were as slender as twin stove pipes and they spilled gracefully over black patent leather shoes.

He wore a mustache of superb fulness. It was steely gray in color but stained  yellow from Georgia cigars and Kentucky Bourbon.

The man stood in the doorway and somewhat impatiently asked in a thin reedy  voice, "Is this the Outlet Book Store?"

Sheila, who had given up on both Mark Twain and her brother, stared open mouthed. "But you're ..." she backed away clumsily, her eyes darting around the  room in a vain attempt to locate someone she could run to for support. "You  can't ... I mean ... you're not..."

"I most certainly am, young woman. The reports of my death are highly  exaggerated."

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