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Never the Twain
blame Dover Books. They were only trying to sweeten
margin for their investors, and if you can cut
corners a little here and
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
books to storage, trust me, Harvey -- move 'em
right out to shipping."
"There ain't room in shipping!" Mr. Greenspan was
"We pile 'em higher. No sweat."
"So what do we do with the storage room?"
The floor manager paused for maximum effect ...
Harvey! We put in another binder. Production
goes up 25%."
"But we got three men working out there in
"Say la Gruyere, Harvey -- Say la Gruyere." The
floor manager, aware of
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
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
warm feeling for the books -- never even read the
titles. They were no
than brake linings or kitchen detergents, something
to stack and store,
therefore, when he found the terse note in his pay
envelope he rationalized
saying he always hated the job anyway. He felt no
bitterness towards the
manager or Mr. Greenspan -- he hardly knew them. In
the same envelope with
pink slip he found an 11 week full pay settlement,
and although he was now
of a job, he had more cash in his hand than he ever
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
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
future financial security, now was the time. He
wanted to own a store -- to
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
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
the right of it was a Chinese restaurant. That
seemed to be full of women
He reasoned that as long as these two attractions
stayed in business he
have a steady clientele -- provided he could think
of something to interest
women, (other than a Chinese restaurant and a spa).
He thought about
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
thunder bolt, it crept up on him -- women did buy
books, and he knew
about books; not enough, but something. He knew how
to get them for
nothing too. Dover Publishing owned a returned
books warehouse in Camden,
Jersey, and they sold those books for the cost of
shipping. If the customer
the shipping he could have the books for nothing.
"Just think," thought Oliver, "merchandise for
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
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
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
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
were meant to be scattered around on table tops and
never opened --Lady Di
Jackie KO picture books, poorly illustrated volumes
of armament from World
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
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
register until he had pulled himself together.
Over the years in Dover Book's storeroom Oliver
learned the art of
while appearing to be wide awake. It was the same
technique practiced by
quality control supervisors on assembly lines and
judges in district court.
jerk himself awake when the phone rang or if a
customer approached him at
cash register, but when things quieted down Oliver
Short traveled to far
places -- remote from Outlet Books.
To a customer the most noticeable thing about
Oliver was his Adam's apple.
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
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
the unpredictable behavior of his Adam's apple made
shaving a hazardous
and he avoided it as much as possible.
Oliver could be seen in profile through the window
of the book store from
promenade outside. He sat at the cash register near
the front door and as
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
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
reserved one three foot long section of shelving
for literature. The word
"Literature" was hand lettered on a card and it
separated the section
fiction and Bible studies. Literature was an oasis
in a barren desert. Most
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
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
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
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
stick to him like glue -- the difficulty of reading
them could well have
the catalyst that sent him off on his long
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
literature shelf. Occasionally a lady customer
would see Oliver reading one
at the cash register and the following conversation
might occur ...
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
the Pequod in the vast reaches of the Pacific
hunting the white whale, or
Conrad in the heart of darkest Africa, a world away
from the Outlet Book
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
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
the center stage of his daily life. To all outward
appearances Oliver was
same as he had always been, but if we were
privileged to look inside his
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
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
that bridge. Now his only contact with the people
of the Woodbine Strip Mall
the small numbers who stopped at the cash register
to buy a book as they
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
landings grew into towns. "So many years my boy, so
many years ago." He
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
him. I suppose if I should come back here again it
would seem no bigger than
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
To his great surprise, Mr. Twain said he'd be
delighted and they set up a
and time -- "Next Thursday at eight," Mark said
after checking his
"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,
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
"Yes ... but ... "
"You can't tell me they're the same, nobody can do
such things and
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
"Do you have 'Daddy's Little Girl' by Mary Higgins
Clark." It was
widow's voice -- obviously wanting a romance for
"No Ma'am," he said abruptly.
"Can you get it for me?" she pleaded.
"Well, why not? You're in the book business aren't
"I sell what I have, Ma'am -- I don't sell what I
"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
three or four people in fiction looked his way. He
returned their curious
stares with a steady glare -- "Readers," he
muttered to himself,
would be so much more enjoyable if there were no
readers." Talking daily
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
dirty show window at the crowd walking along the
mall's promenade. Women,
men, children -- they were no more than mannequins
wearing clothes of
shapes and colors. They passed by his store in twos
and threes -- some
look in his window at the colorful book covers.
Some of them raised and
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
All the while Oliver was idly running his hand over
Abroad" -- caressing the cover as though it were a
lover. It occurred to
that his love of Twain might not be normal, for
while other people traveled
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
plans for the lecture," he thought.
Two days away! He had to get to work on the signs
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
A hostess maybe -- his sister Sheila! That's it ...
"She even looks like
writer -- bottle bottom eyeglasses -- eternal
virgin. Sheila would be
delighted," he thought.
8 PM SHARP!
AT THE OUTLET BOOK STORE
(between the Chinese Restaurant and the Spa)
MR. MARK TWAIN
WILL LECTURE ON HIS FAMOUS BOOK
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
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
Jeopardy, reluctantly agreed to lay out a
refreshment table. She would
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.
Twain could have a snort before the lecture and
several after, if he chose.
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
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
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
King Franchise!" she told him. "People have to eat
-- they don't have
read" ... and now, her dumb brother believed Mark
Twain was coming back
Oliver had just come out of the shower, his mood
was upbeat, assured. The
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
keep Mark Twain away." He hung up and toweled off
quickly, then he looked
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
expecting an announcement that Mark Twain had been
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
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
permitting the collar of his shirt to be visible
from the back as well as
The shirt was of ivory hue with buttons of polished
The black silk bow tie was full and flowing, rising
above the collar line
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
patent leather shoes.
He wore a mustache of superb fulness. It was steely
gray in color but
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
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.
can't ... I mean ... you're not..."
"I most certainly am, young woman. The reports of
my death are highly
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