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The Man Who Married Lily Bart


Harry Buschman

My name is Higgins. J.C. Higgins. Until today I worked at the Sunrise Mall Book Shop in Sayersville, New Jersey. I thought it would be best to start off with this established fact. Some of what else I have to say is hard to believe.

I am a single, middle-aged man. I'm carelessly put together, balding, yet not completely unattractive to women. I have always worked in retail, and that fact, more than any other, has brought me in contact with many of them. Women, in the act of buying things, are not very attractive.

But when I worked in the Sunrise Mall Book Shop our best customers were women – particularly young women. If they knew the title of a book, they didn't know who wrote it; or if they knew the author's name they couldn't remember the title. To save face they'd buy two or three, hoping that one of them was the book they came in to buy.

One might say, "Do you have "Bare Bones?"

"I think so, ma'am – that's the one by Kathy Reichs, I believe."

"No, it's by Tom Clancy."

"I don't think so, ma'am. He wrote "Teeth of the Tiger." That was by the front door as you came in. Perhaps ..."

"Oh no. I'm almost positive ... it's one of Clancy's latest ... maybe you haven't got it yet."

By then Mr. Purvis, the owner, would have both books in front of her and there would be a great deal of soul searching resulting in the purchase of both of them.

"You can always return the one you don't want," he'd say. They never would of course. It would get lost or borrowed – or maybe even left out in the rain.

In the summer, ladies would drop in for "something to read" while they were on vacation out in the Hamptons. It wasn't unusual for a woman to ask for a half dozen Danielle Steel's, (like they were bananas). "It doesn't matter if I've read them before," they'd say, "I forget them a minute after I've read them."

Fiction did not attract many male customers. The few men who visited the shop could be found browsing through computer manuals or the biographies of dead or dying sports heros.
But it was not that way with "Bargain Ben." Mr. Purvis used to call him that. He'd nudge me and say, "Here comes Bargain Ben, ignore him – he's a pain in the ass."

Bargain Ben dropped in almost every day at lunch time. He worked in the dental appliance lab at the end of the mall and he would spend an hour with his nose in the bargain bin. He had loose rubbery lips and he'd silently mouth out the titles and the author's names. His name was J. Maudlin. He would always buy something and he always used his credit card; that's how I knew his name was J. Maudlin.

Mr. Purvis wouldn't bother to wait on him, "We'd soon be out of business if all our customers were like him," he'd say.

J. Maudlin stood in front of me just three weeks ago, shifting his weight from foot to foot and cleared his throat in an obsequious manner to get my attention. When I looked up, he asked, "Have the bargain books come in yet, young man?" His eagerness was plain to see, far and above the kind of eagerness you see in a book store. His glasses were set askew on his nose so that one of his eyes looked lower than the other. I recognized in Mr. Maudlin a kindred spirit – he was a bachelor as I was. But Mr. Maudlin apparently had a mission in life – though it was not one I would choose.

The question was rhetorical in any case. He knew the bargain books arrived on Thursday. They came in unmarked cartons and were dumped in the store room. Mr. Purvis and I wouldn't get around to them until Friday and they would seldom be stacked in the bargain bin before late Saturday afternoon. But Bargain Ben knew they were back there and he wanted to be the first customer to get a crack at them.

I pretended to be occupied and without looking up I mumbled, "Yes, I think so. But the cartons haven't been opened yet. We're very busy with the best sellers."

"I'm on the lookout for John Updike, there's so much of him that's out of print – the short fiction you know ... and there's Tolstoy? The late works,"

"Maybe Saturday. We have more time on Saturdays."

"You open at nine, right?"

"Ten thirty."

"I'll be waiting."

It seemed to go that way every week or so. The same questions, the same answers, then I would ring up his purchases and Bargain Ben would pay with his credit card. Back he'd go to the dental appliance lab with another sack of books. Books had apparently taken the place of a normal family life.

When Saturday came, I arrived at the store at ten thirty – Mr. Purvis hadn't arrived yet but Bargain Ben was already waiting. We stood together and chatted about something or other – probably the weather, it was unusually warm for November. When Purvis arrived all three of us entered the store together and Bargain Ben said he would wait by the storeroom door. "I can help sort them if you'd like me to," he suggested hopefully. If anyone else walked in at that moment they'd have thought he worked there.

Purvis and I took our time. I made coffee and Purvis opened the bag of buns he brought in the day before. From time to time I looked through the peephole in the storage door to see what Mr. Maudlin was up to. He was fidgety, pacing up and down impatiently. He browsed through the shelves and bins he had carefully combed through just the day before - he even looked at some of the new and popular best sellers on the tables up front, all the while glancing anxiously at the storeroom door.

I felt sorry for him wandering around out there and I mentioned to Mr. Purvis that maybe we should take pity on him and let him in. After Purvis finished his coffee he felt more sociable and he said it would be okay to let him in.

I opened the storeroom door and asked Mr. Maudlin if he'd like to come in and give us a hand. "That would be awfully kind of you," he said. He skittered in and stood by the cartons of used book arrivals – scanning the titles – as they were opened. "I know I must be imposing," he said. "but I can't tell you how much this means to me."

"I never saw a man as hot for old books as you are, Mr. Maudlin," I said. "There's nothing here you know. The wholesaler looks them over very carefully before they leave the warehouse."

"I guess I'm not looking for something old or rare in that sense. It's more a matter of those books that have been forgotten ... a sort of benign neglect, you know."

I watched him rubbing his fingers over the bindings, his lips moving ever so slowly, his glasses askew. "There! Look! Franz Kafka, Flannery O'Connor – that one was published in 1933. Never sold well – no one wanted it. Imagine!"

"It's only words," I shrugged Books are books."

Mr. Maudlin was frustrated, unable to express in his own words just what the books meant to him. I thought I knew what he was driving at; the words meant nothing until they lit a fire in the reader - I guessed that's what Maudlin was trying to say. But so what! I was a clerk, I sold books - they could have been screws or washers, vegetables or underwear.

He closed his eyes half-way, as though he saw something no one else could see, "Did you ever read Wharton, Edith Wharton, young man?"

"No I haven't. Is she on the ten best?"

Maudlin's eyes blinked open again, as though the spell was broken. "Turn of the century, young man ... something I read last night ... and suddenly she was standing there. Herself. Not Edith Wharton, but the girl in the book. I was reading "house of Mirth." Remarkable – her sense of presence. The words rang in my ears – listen young man," and suddenly he read it out from memory, as though he held the book in his hands ... "They turned into Madison Avenue and began to stroll northward. As she moved beside him, with her long light step, Seldon was conscious of taking a luxurious pleasure in her nearness." Maudlin closed his eyes again. "Can't you see her young man? Have you ever walked up Madison Avenue with a beautiful woman on your arm?"

"Well, not exactly," I answered. "But I see what you mean."

He opened his eyes wide again as though the girl in the story had returned ... "He had a confused sense that she must have cost a great deal to make, that a great many dull and ugly people must, in some mysterious way, have been sacrificed to produce her ... can't you see that woman before you? The picture is so clear to me. The words – they're a bridge to a another world."

Maudlin must have bought fifteen books that Saturday morning, It was probably the biggest sale of the day and the normal taciturn Mr. Purvis had to admit that old Bargain Ben wasn't such a bad sort after all.

That was the last time either of us saw Bargain Ben – until today.

The weeks slipped by quickly and with the coming and going of customers both of us suddenly realized with a start that Bargain Ben wasn't dropping in at lunch time. He had been such a commonplace fixture in the store at that time every day, we thought he was there even when he wasn't. I mentioned to Mr, Purvis that Bargain Ben hadn't been in the store for three weeks. "The reason I know it's been three weeks, is that I was stacking Nora Roberts' "Dream Makers" on the front table. Now here I am stacking Nora Roberts' "Morrigan's Creek." She bats them out every three weeks. I'm sure he hasn't been around – look at the bargain bin. It's loaded."

It was definitely loaded. I walked over to it and even though I had an unpracticed eye I could see books by Vonnegut, Malamud and even one by Doctorow. Bargain Ben would have danced for joy. I shook my head and turned back to the check-out counter. Beyond the counter was the show window looking out on the crowded mall. It was lunch time and many people were walking by outside. I realized I would be busy at the check-out counter for the next hour or so. I broke some coin tubes for change, still thinking about Mr. Maudlin. As I closed the cash register drawer, I looked outside and there he was! He was walking by the window with a very attractive woman on his arm. There was an aura of intimacy between them – as she held his left arm his right hand was closed over hers. There was an expression on his face that reminded me of the Saturday morning in the store room three weeks ago. The woman he spoke of then seemed to fit the passage he recited that day – "turn of the century," he said.
Yes, that fitted her exactly; people didn't dress like that any more.

I watched them walking together until they were lost in the crowd. I puzzled over it and finally mentioned to Mr. Purvis later in the afternoon that I had seen Bargain Ben walking in the mall with a woman. He shrugged and said I must have been mistaken. "He's not the kind of person to be walking arm in arm with a woman – no way."

That wasn't enough for me. I was positive I had seen him. As the afternoon wore on I kept one eye on the people in the book store and another on the passersby outside. About four in the afternoon I saw Mr. Maudlin outside again, this time walking alone. I told Mr. Purvis I'd be gone a minute and I caught up with him outside. There was a strange inner light in his eyes I never noticed before.

"We were wondering if anything happened to you, Mr. Maudlin. It's been weeks since you've been in the store ... lots of new stuff ... I just saw two books by Vonnegut."


"Vonnegut. Kurt Vonnegut. Isn't he one of your favorites?"

His face softened a bit when he recognized me. "Oh yes, you're Mr. Higgins – from the book store here at the mall. I didn't recognize you. Yes, yes, quite right, I remember you now. Vonnegut you say, yes, excellent writer. New novel, eh? Hope it does well." His eyes lowered a bit as he stared down the length of the mall. " ... I used to read a bit myself – fiction mostly. Might pick up on reading again ... after the honeymoon perhaps. First things first, you know."

It was almost too much for me to take. Giving up on the bargain bin and getting married. I stumbled over the words, but I remember saying, "Congratulations, Mr. Maudlin. Yes, I understand, Vonnegut will wait. I think I saw you pass by with a young lady earlier, was she ... ?"

"Had to be, young man. Wasn't she lovely?"

"Yes, very pretty. Is she an actress?"

"No, why do you ask?"

"Well ... I thought ... I mean, the way she was dressed. I thought she may have been in costume."

"I can see why that confused you." Mr. Maudlin rubbed his chin thoughtfully. "Yes," he said more to himself than me, "That hadn't occurred to me – strange it should make a difference, but I guess it does." He turned away from me almost as though I wasn't there and began to move into the crowd. Then he turned around and said, "Perhaps I should explain. Is there a place where we can sit?"

We found an empty table in a coffee shop near the bookstore. "Let it be my treat," he said. He took a paper napkin from the holder and polished his glasses. "This business with the young lady ... I don't know if it has a happy end or not." He held his glasses up to the light and polished them again. "That remains to be seen, I suppose. It's a strange story, a little like science fiction, romance and with a little Grimm's brothers thrown in. Her name is Lily Bart – does that mean anything to you?"

"I've never heard the name."

"She's the one I told you about ... the girl in the story by Edith Wharton."

I shook my head. "Wait a minute. Not the girl I saw you with."

Our coffee came and Mr. Maudlin leaned back to wait for the waiter to finish. "Yes. She's the one. The very same."

"How can that be?"

"I can only say she appeared to me suddenly as I held the book in my hand. Edith Wharton had drawn her so sharply, so faithfully ... that she was suddenly there, standing before me. You know, Mr. Higgins, a character may be fictional to the writer, but, at the same time, very real to the reader."

"It's too much for me. I can't believe it."

"You saw her yourself."

I hadn't heard him say he was in love with her. Although it's not something a man readily confesses to another man, I felt it was not something to be left out of our conversation. "I'm sure there will be a happy ending, Mr. Maudlin – after all you're in love."

'I really don't know, Mr. Higgins. I wish it were that simple – she seems more of an obsession. Something I've created – a child perhaps – born out of the pages of a book."

I finished the coffee quickly and stood up. "I have to be getting back to the store, Mr. Maudlin. Thank you for the coffee ... and I hope things work out for you ..." I tried to congratulate him on his forthcoming marriage again but the words stuck in my throat.

"Must you go? Yes, I suppose you must ... I'd like to tell you more about her, she's a unique person. Some other time perhaps ... oh," he added, "there is one thing ..."

"What's that?"

"I know her future – Miss Bart's, I mean. She does not. She died of a drug addiction in the story. I can see the beginnings of it now. I must stop it if I can ... she will be mine, my responsibility now, you know? She will no longer belong to Edith Wharton."

I couldn't take any more. The man was mad, he admitted as much – he said he was obsessed. As I walked back to the store, it occurred to me that he was a victim of an addiction just as the girl in the story was. He lost himself in a novel! I remembered long ago when my father read me to sleep ... we would both get lost in the story. Then he would close the book and turn out the light ... he had my mother to go to. I was trapped in the story.

That was the day I quit my job at the book store. I'm selling shoes now – women's shoes.

©Harry Buschman 2007

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