We sat at the table. He handed me the pipe and simply said, “O,” and smiled. And I partook deeply, and smiled too. And suddenly I understood centuries of mad obsession and addiction and the dark complicated motivations of a wide swath of human history. In an instant that might have been an hour, or the other way around, everything fierce was calmed, everything loud was quiet, everything that mattered, didn’t, and I could have stayed there dumbly for a long time. It was so good that I knew it had to be the last time. “Oh,” I said, nodding.
42. The Bookseller’s Niece
She was only the bookseller’s niece, but that was enough for the bookseller. Dust from old pages went floating around unmoored by meaning. She tucked a strand of hair behind her ear, smiled like Madonna, or Buddha, and continued sorting the books coming out of empty cardboard boxes. The bookseller keeps buying more, and his niece keeps dusting them off, the dust of words and ideas hidden in closed boxes, wrapped in old newspaper, becoming dust itself. When the bookseller’s niece becomes dust herself, perhaps she will become a book as well. Perhaps we’ll all become books someday as well.
41. Johnny Slide, chapter 2
Johnny Slide was not his real name. When his parents, whoever they were, left him at the orphanage, they called him Raymond De Bonneur. Brother Maynard told him it meant “happiness,” in French, like he was blessed or destined to it. He just knew it was a dopey name, that it wasn’t him. None of the other boys knew who they were either. He had endured the years of not knowing that make up orphanage life, and when he finally shouldered his way out onto the street, he became Johnny, and Slide just eased up to the end and stuck.
40. Never Alone
From the moment she was born, he was often lonely but never alone. She was always there, saying, “Pay attention to me now, there will come a time when you won’t catch a glimpse of me as I blur across the years.” He knew that someday she would not fit perfectly into the crook of his arm, or fall asleep nestled on his chest, their hearts sharing one beat. He knew that the longer he held her the later that day would come, and that someday he would be able to sit without her, and be alone but never lonely.
39. The Station
He closed his eyes and listened. Footsteps. A voice, a word, a laugh. A child’s shriek. Music wafting out of somewhere. Echoing endlessly and forever. Underneath, a low hum and a rumble, coming through the floor, arising from nowhere distinct and everywhere. He felt that long after all of the trains had left the station the echo would remain in the bedrock and granite. He breathed in the air. Smelled the decades, dust and paper and smoke and a million exhalations. It was stale down here at the floor, but somewhere higher there was clean fresh air, cool and moist.
Little Bird just showed up one day, the friend of a friend I owed a favor to. I didn’t recognize the dust that followed her in the door. She settled on the kitchen stool like she owned the place and batted her long eyelashes at me. “Where you been, Bird,” I asked. “Flew south,” she replied, “Came back. Brought you this,” she replied, tossing an outdated arrest warrant onto the desk. She begged me not to open it, not to see what it was about. I was a fool for Bird, but we both knew I had to go away.
37. Whatever became of her?
Myrna was a swimsuit model first and foremost. She dabbled in the tarot and had recorded a rather risque folk song in her younger days, but those were just hobbies. (The record went platinum and is now considered a valuable rarity.) She was married to Avis Fagan, a chronically underemployed carnival barker who was no fun and no help. The whole thing fell apart when Myrna reclaimed her maiden name and ran off to Atlantic City with Viola Huff, her secret lesbian lover, intent on dominating the local bathing beauty racket. Avis was heartbroken and never stopped searching for her.