They’re all gone now, all dead. Both Jacks, and David, and Alice. David was the first to go, then one Jack, then Alice, and then the other Jack. He was the last. I’m still here, of course, but at my age you never know how much longer you’re going to be around either.
And I want to tell you this now, because my memory isn’t what it used to be and it isn’t going to get any better. My wife tells me that I forget things that happened and remember things that didn’t. Sometimes I tell the same story over and over, I know that. I guess it goes with the territory, along with the white hair and the stiff joints.
This happened a long time ago. I think it was 1949. I would have been twelve years old then, and I’m pretty sure that’s when it happened because people were still talking about the big surprise of the Dewey-Truman election, how old Give-’em-Hell Harry had outsmarted all the poll-takers and pundits and even the fool who wrote that famous headline about DEWEY BEATS TRUMAN for the Chicago Tribune.
It was winter, the Christmas and New Year’s holidays were over and it was damned slushy and icy and miserable in New York. I was just a kid of twelve. Did I say that already? I guess it goes with the territory along with the white hair and the stiff joints.
I was just a kid of twelve and I was crazy for books. I’d discovered Book Row in New York, Fourth Avenue below Fourteenth Street. You could find anything you wanted to read down there, and at bargain prices, too, if you weren’t too picky about things like first editions in dust jackets. If you’d settle for a reading copy you could get anything you wanted to read, and plenty cheap at that.
Even so, I couldn’t afford the books I wanted. Arthur Conan Doyle and Edgar Rice Burroughs and Rafael Sabatini and E. Phillips Oppenheim and Octavus Roy Cohen. You could get a nice copy for a quarter and one that was messed up but still readable for a nickel if you prowled Book Row and knew how to look for books. But my father had come up from poverty and he always felt that the best way to teach me and my brother the value of money was to make sure that we never had any.
After a while, all the booksellers along Book Row knew me, and I got to be friends with most of them. Sometimes they’d pay me to do odd jobs, and of course every dime I made went right back into books. Well, I had to save a nickel for the subway ride home, it was too far to walk.
My favorite store was Biblo and Tannen. I remember the address, 63 Fourth Avenue. There were four people who worked there. The owners were Jack Biblo and Jack Tannen, born Jacob Biblowicz and Jacob Tannenbaum. I always thought of them simply as the two Jacks. They’d been in the book trade since the 1920s. They’d been partners for so long that they’d started to look alike and dress alike. Shrinking hairlines, dark fringes, heavy horn-rimmed glasses, bushy graying moustaches. They wore plaid shirts, solid-color knit ties, corduroy trousers. You could tell them apart because Tannen was a little stockier, a little more outgoing, a little more talkative. Biblo was slimmer, quieter, more on the introspective, intellectual side.
Like any couple who had been together for many years they completed each other’s sentences. They fought like Tracy and Hepburn, Ameche and Langford, Lee and Dannay, Chevalier and Gingold, Durocher and any umpire who was handy.
They’d let me sweep out the store, re-shelve books that customers left out, bring in the bargain tables from the sidewalk at the end of the day. They paid me fifty cents an hour, that was a dime more than the legal minimum wage, and if I took it out in trade (I always did) I got an employee discount on any book I bought.
I went to public school, of course, and to synagogue when my parents made me, and sometimes to Ebbets Field to see the Dodgers play, especially when they played the Giants, whom my brother and I both hated, and out-of-town teams like the Boston Braves and the Cincinnati Reds. But I really lived for my days on Fourth Avenue.
The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes.
Tanar of Pellucidar.
The Double Life of Mr. Alfred Burton.
Jim Hanvey, Detective.
On the subway, going, I would rehearse my want-list in my mind: The Land of Mist, The Land That Time Forgot, The Man Who Changed His Plea, Scrambled Yeggs. I’d get off at Astor Place and walk up toward Fourteenth Street, stopping at every store along the way—the Colonial Book Service, Stammer’s Bookstore, Books ‘n’ Things, Louis Schucman, the Raven Bookshop. But I’d always wind up at Biblo and Tannen. They had a basement full of fiction, a huge room with all kinds of novels and short stories, and two smaller rooms, one full of mysteries and detective tales and one that was full of science fiction and fantasy and horror stories.
Oh, I was telling you about Jack and Jack and David and Alice and I only told you about Jack and Jack. I’ll back up.
David Garfinkel was a retired high school teacher. He was a huge man, he could crush you in one hand if he wanted to. He used to sit in a chair near the counter at the front of the store. He—oh, you want to know what he looked like?
He was balding with a gray fringe, dark-rimmed glasses, and a bushy gray moustache. He wore plaid shirts and solid-color knitted ties. He was a real old-timer. He loved to reminisce about dime novels. He’d talk about Old Sleuth and Young Sleuth, Nick Carter, Buffalo Bill, and Baseball Joe. He used to talk about a series of dime novels about a baseball team, the author helped you remember the players’ names by giving them all the same initials as their positions. Pitcher Palmer, Catcher Carruthers, First Baseman Fillstrup, Second Sacker Simmons, like that. David considered pulp magazines a sign of the decay of modern civilization.
Alice Ryter ruled her own little domain from a battered wooden desk near the back of the store. She was the secretary, office manager, financial manager, and general manager of everything. She wore a stern expression, kept her hair pulled back severely, and used heavy, dark-rimmed glasses.
One Saturday I got to work late.
“Where were you?” asked Jack Tannen.
“Shul,” I told him.
“Shul?” Jack was astonished. “Temple? You? Since when did you get religion?”
“My next birthday, I’ll be thirteen. I have to be bar mitzvah. I have to go and study. I don’t care but my brother was bar mitzvah and my parents say I have to be, too. So I’m late, I’m sorry. What work can I do today?”
David Garfinkel reached over and grabbed my right biceps between his fingers. He squeezed, I felt like my arm was a tube of Ipana toothpaste.
“He’s a strong boy,” David said. “I’ll bet he can move those boxes upstairs.”
“Think you can do it?” asked Jack Biblo.
“Sure I can, what do you think I am?” I knew the boxes he meant. They were heavy and I wasn’t so sure at all that I could move them, but one thing I learned from my big brother is, Never say you can’t do a thing, always say you can. That’s how you get your chance in this world, and that’s how you’ll get ahead.
“Come on, then,” one of the Jacks said. By now I don’t even remember which one. It doesn’t matter anyhow. I think it was Biblo, though.
We went upstairs. Biblo and Tannen was in an old building on Fourth Avenue, the store occupied the first floor and the basement, the second floor was office space and shipping and receiving and they kept overstock in boxes on the third floor.
When we got to the third floor, Jack pointed to a huge pile of corrugated boxes full of books. “The whole building is starting to settle and we have to even the load before we have a Leaning Tower of Pisa here. You need to climb up there, get a box off the top row, bring it down, and put it over there. Then go back and do another. Come downstairs when you’re done.”
I started moving boxes.
They were very heavy, and soon I was sweating up a storm, even in the middle of the winter in New York in, I think it was 1949. Could it have been 1948? Maybe November, December, after the election. DEWEY BEATS TRUMAN. After Christmas, after New Year’s, it would be 1949. That’s what I think.
The boxes were covered with dust that had accumulated on them for, I don’t know, certainly years, maybe decades. What books were in them, anyhow? I didn’t know, the boxes were sealed with brown paper tape and I couldn’t look inside without cutting the tape and I was supposed to be moving boxes, not looking at books, so I just left them as they were and moved the boxes.
Soon the sweat was rolling down my face and getting into my eyes, and stinging like anything. I tried to wipe my eyes with my elbow but I was wearing my first pair of glasses, with heavy, dark rims. I couldn’t do it, so I took off my glasses and wiped my face with my hands. Now I was mixing dust with sweat and making a nice coat of salty mud on my face.
I kept moving boxes.
After a while a manila envelope fell out from between a couple of boxes. It must have been put on top of a box, then overlooked when the next row of boxes was added. It had been lying there for, who knows how long?
The envelope was the size of a sheet of typing paper, flat not folded. It wasn’t fat, wasn’t skinny. It felt like it had maybe a dozen sheets of paper in it, maybe a few more. On the front it had a couple of cancelled two-cent stamps, and was addressed to somebody way up at the tip of Manhattan. That was where the Polo Grounds were, where the Giants played.
Nobody I knew even cared about the Giants. You either were a Yankees fan (boo!) or a Dodgers fan (yay!), but nobody liked the Giants except for some show business people, for some reason I could never understand. People like Toots Shor went to Giants games. Go figure.
Right, I did say that I hated the Giants, didn’t I? Well, I only hated them because I was a Dodgers fan and the Dodgers and the Giants were both in the National League, and Ebbets Field and the Polo Grounds were only a subway ride apart, so if you loved one team it was kind of natural to hate the other one, but that isn’t the same thing, really, as caring about them.
Does that make sense?
David Garfinkel, God rest his big oversized loving soul, would understand. We used to talk about baseball. He approved of my being a Dodgers fan because they had Jackie Robinson and Roy Campanella. He said, “The schvartzers should get a chance just like anybody else, it’s only right.” But—
Oh, right, the envelope. The address on it was in Manhattan. The name it was addressed to had been scratched out. A few letters were visible but I really couldn’t read it. I clambered down off the boxes and put the envelope over near the door so I wouldn’t forget it and went back to work moving boxes.
I was just finishing up when I heard somebody coming up the stairs. The stairs were wooden and they were old. I don’t know how old that building was, probably a hundred years or a couple of hundred years.
It’s gone now. Book Row is all gone now.
So I heard footsteps coming up the stairs. I knew everybody in the company by then and I could tell them apart by their footsteps. When the door opened and Alice Ryter came into the room I knew who was coming before she even opened the door.
Alice took one look at me and burst into laughter. It was the first time I’d ever seen her even smile, much less laugh. I waited for her to say something.
“What happened to you?”
“What do you mean? Nothing. I’ve been working. Jack told me to move all these boxes. What time is it?” I didn’t have a wristwatch, I was expecting one for my bar mitzvah. I knew I’d get a Schaeffer fountain pen or maybe a Parker 51, probably some cash that I hoped my parents would let me spend on things that I wanted and not make me buy new clothes or put the money into a college account. And I figured I’d get a wristwatch. I hoped so, anyhow.
Alice looked at her own watch and told me what time it was. Then she said, “Come with me.”
She led me into the bathroom. There was a bathroom on each floor at Biblo and Tannen. She pulled the bead chain to turn on the light and made me look in the mirror. I was a mess, I’ll have to admit it. My face looked as if I’d been trying out for a blackface part in a minstrel show. My hands were as filthy as my face. My shirt was sweat-stained and blotchy, too.
“Come on,” Alice said. She turned on the water in the sink and made me take off my shirt and she made me wash off my face and my chest and arms and hands. When I was finished she made me start all over again. Then she made me bend over the sink and she picked up the soap and washed my hair and told me to rinse it. Then she took a towel and dried me off like a little kid. There was an old sweatshirt hanging on a wire hanger and she gave it to me to put on instead of my sweaty shirt.
She marched me downstairs and I didn’t know whether I was going to get paid or get fired, even though I hadn’t done anything except the job that Jack Tannen told me to do. I think it was Tannen, anyhow.
When we got back downstairs it was dark outside. There was a heavy snowfall coming down. I’d lost all track of time while I was moving those boxes. The bargain carts had already been moved inside, the last customer was gone, and the store was closed.
The Jacks and David and Alice had a little ritual that they performed every Saturday after closing. Other nights, they just locked up and went to their respective homes. Both Jacks were married men, as was David Garfinkel. None of them had any children, though, and the two Jacks seemed to regard me as a surrogate son, David Garfinkel thought of me as a grandson, and Alice, who was unmarried, seemed to treat me as a talented but mischievous nephew. This was all wonderful for me. My mother had died when I was a little kid and my father had remarried. I didn’t get along with my stepmother and life at home was not exactly like Andy Hardy’s Double Life, even if I did feel as if I was one kid in Brooklyn and another in Manhattan.
On Saturdays after closing, the Jacks and David and Alice would break out a bottle of schnapps and some sponge cake and have a little office party. They would talk over the events of the week, pass around any particular treasures that people had come in and sold them, damn the Republicans, talk about Lenin and Stalin and where Stalin had first gone wrong, and share the common gossip of Fourth Avenue.
They had never invited me to stay for their little Saturday night party before. This Saturday, they did. I said I was afraid I’d get in trouble if I stayed out too late. They conferred briefly, then Alice asked for my telephone number and called my house. There was a long conversation. When she finally hung up she shook her head, but she said, “It’s okay. You can stay over at my place. I had to promise not to take you to Mass with me in the morning, to send you straight home.”
David Garfinkel said, “Here, have some of this.” He handed me a plate with a piece of sponge cake on it and a little glass of schnapps. “You ever try this before? No? Okay, be careful.
Maybe you better not drink it from the glass. Break off a corner of sponge cake, good, dip it in the schnapps and try it that way.”
The glass was a shot glass, that’s what they were all drinking their schnapps from.
He watched while I followed instructions.
He said, “Did I ever tell you about Frank Reade and His Steam-Man of the Plains? No? Great story, I’ll never forget it. Byline was ‘Noname’ but a Jew named Harold Cohen wrote it, isn’t that something? He wrote three or four Frank Reades and then he left and a Cuban named Senarens took it over. You can have your E.E. Smiths and your Jack Williamsons, there was never anybody who could write science fiction like Harold Cohen.”
I don’t suppose that schnapps was any stronger than any other liquor, but remember that I was a twelve-year-old boy, I’d never even tasted alcohol before, I’d been working hard moving boxes all afternoon, and all I’d had to eat was a few chunks of sponge cake dipped in schnapps.
After a little while I think I got woozy, and maybe a little bit drowsy, too. Next thing I knew one of the Jacks was asking me, “What’s this?”
He was holding the manila envelope. I must have brought it downstairs with me after my enforced clean-up exercise, and forgot that I had it with me. I told Jack where I had found it. He handed it to the other Jack and said, “Do you recognize this? He found it upstairs.” He nodded in my direction when he said that.
The other Jack took the envelope and looked it over. I could see that the back was sealed. Some of those envelopes come with metal clasps, some have two little disks and a string that you wind back and forth to keep them closed, but this one had a plain gummed flap, like a letter-size envelope, and it was sealed shut.
Jack grinned. “I remember this, sure. Did you find this upstairs?”
I said yes.
“What do you think it is?”
I shook my head, or started to, until I realized that it was making me dizzy. So I said, “I don’t know what it is.”
“Remember, Jack?” he said to the other Jack.
“We got this from that strange guy from Brooklyn.”
“What was his name? Dressed like an undertaker. Said he was a big admirer of Poe’s.”
“Loveman. Sam Loveman, poet, came from St. Louis, not from Brooklyn.”
“Not him. Guy came from Brooklyn, for Christ’s sake, not from St. Louis.”
“Cool it on the Christ’s sake, please.” That was Alice Ryter. Fourth Avenue was mostly a Jewish world, for some reason or other, but Alice was a loyal Catholic and she had to stand up for her rights.
I think everybody was at least a little bit tipsy.
“Howard Lovecraft,” David Garfinkel said. “I remember him, a creepy guy, coming through the door.” He pointed to the storefront facing onto Fourth Avenue.
“No,” one of the Jacks shook his head. “Impossible. That was nineteen twenty—what’s the postmark on the envelope?”
The other Jack said, “Nineteen twenty-three.”
“See? We were still in the Nineteenth Street store then, he couldn’t have come through that door.” He pointed. The snow was coming down hard, making drifting halos around streetlights. Once in a while a car would go past, headlights scorching giant white cones in the falling snow.
“It wasn’t Lovecraft or Loveman, it was Cornell Woolrich brought that thing in.”
“Alice is right,” said a Jack. “It was Woolrich. He was trying to be Scott Fitzgerald then, before he started writing for the gangster pulps.”
“Pulps killed the dime novels,” said David Garfinkel. I thought he was going to cry into his sponge cake when he said it.
Jack said, “As a matter of fact it was John Dickson Carr. Tweedy little dandy with his phony English manners. You’d think he was born on the Sussex Downs. Phony son of a bitch, came from Uniontown fucking Pennsylvania.”
“Jack! There’s a child present.”
Thanks, Alice, I thought, I needed you to remind him of that. But I didn’t say anything.
“Whoever it was,” one of the Jacks said.
“He wanted to sell it to us,” the other Jack said.
“What a goniff,” the first Jack said.
The room got quiet. Alice refilled everybody’s glass with schnapps except mine, there was still some in my glass. But I leaned over her desk and took another square of sponge cake.
Alice reached over to a shelf next to her desk and turned on a radio. I didn’t know there was a radio there, until now. She twirled the dial and the radio made weird squealing noises, then she stopped and dance music came on.
David said, “I hate this modern junk, can’t you get something decent on there?”
Alice ignored him.
I got up my nerve to ask, “But what was in the envelope?”
“The complete text of The Lighthouse,” a Jack said.
“What’s that?” I asked.
“A Poe story.”
I knew all about Poe. The Pit and the Pendulum, Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar, Murders in the Rue Morgue, The Purloined Letter, The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym. But I’d never heard of The Lighthouse. I said, “I never heard of The Lighthouse.”
“That’s because it’s the story he was working on when he died. It’s only a fragment.”
I thought about that for a minute. Then I said, “But you said that was the complete text.” I pointed to the manila envelope. It had found its way to Alice’s desk by now, and there were a couple of fresh drops of schnapps on it, and some sponge cake crumbs.
“That’s right,” said Jack, “the complete text.”
“But you said—”
“Oh, let’s don’t pick on the kid,” David said. I wished I’d had him for a teacher, but he was retired. He was big and strong but he was old. “Tell him the story,” David said.
“Okay,” said a Jack. “We were on Nineteenth Street then—”
“I don’t think so,” the other Jack interrupted, “I think we were in this store.”
“Look,” Jack tapped a square-tipped finger on the manila envelope, “look at the postmark. Nineteen twenty-three. We were still on Nineteenth Street.”
“No, I think it was later than that, that postmark doesn’t mean anything. It could have been an old envelope that Woolrich had lying around his apartment for years.”
“John Dickson Carr.”
“Tweedy little runt.”
“He needed the money.”
“See, it had to be Carr. Woolrich was a millionaire.”
“But he lost his money in the Depression.”
“That wasn’t ’til twenty-nine.”
“That’s exactly my point. We were on Fourth Avenue by then.”
“Damned Republicans. It was Hoover’s fault. If FDR hadn’t come along to save this country—” David wiped a tear with a paper napkin.
“See, so it was Loveman after all.”
“Where the hell would he have got the Poe? I remember that guy. He loved Poe but he didn’t have any money either.”
“Nobody did in the Depression.”
“He said he had something wonderful to show us.” Jack finally got the story rolling. That was Jack Tannen. He’d been a small-time stage actor when he was young, and he still had great stage presence. He said the whole trick was vocal dynamics.
“He said it was something priceless. It was the complete Poe story, The Lighthouse.”
He paused and looked around, an old acting trick, I guess, to make sure that everybody was paying attention or something.
“I said, ‘Of course, The Lighthouse, everybody in the world has read that. It’s in the 1909 Woodberry book. There are three or four copies in the store. In Literature.’ But Carr, that little fairy, said—”
“Jack!” It only took one word from Alice to bring him back into line.
“Carr said, ‘Yes, everybody knows about the Woodberry fragment but this is the whole story.’ ”
“It wasn’t Carr.”
“God damn it, Jack, please don’t interrupt me. All right, whoever the hell it was, Carr or Woolrich or a person from Porlock—”
“Okay, good, it was a person from Porlock.”
Everybody stopped talking, as if by unanimous telepathic agreement, and knocked back their schnapps, even me, even though it nearly strangled me and I could feel my face getting hot and red.
Then Jack said, “So I figured I’d humor this pathetic nobody. I said, ‘How much do you want for the complete Lighthouse?’ and he said, ‘Fifty dollars,’ and I kept a straight face and said, ‘All right, let’s have a look at it.’ ”
Alice Ryter said, “Show it to the boy.”
Jack reached over and took the envelope off her desk and took a letter opener and slit the manila envelope and showed me the contents. The thing was about ten or twelve or fifteen pages, typed on onionskin. It started, Jan. 1—1796. This day—
Jack took the envelope back and slid the pages inside and handed it to Alice. She put it on her desk, reached under the desk for her purse, and put the purse on top of the envelope. As if an errant wind was going to whip through the store and carry it away.
I said, “Poe died in 1849.” I knew that much. “Did they even have typewriters then?”
“No,” Jack laughed. “I pointed that out to the fellow and he said, ‘Oh, this was typed from Poe’s manuscript a few years ago. Around 1910, I think. I knew the person who typed it. He was a descendant of Rufus Griswold’s. There were two versions of the manuscript in the Griswold family all those years. The one in Woodberry was just a false start. Poe put it aside and began all over again and wrote the complete story. That’s the one that my friend had. He typed it up from Poe’s holograph.’ ”
David said, “Well, at least he knew a few things.”
“So I asked him where was the Poe manuscript,” Jack continued, “and he said, ‘My friend threw it away after he finished typing it up.’ ”
The building must have been resettling from all the weight I’d shifted that afternoon, because it gave a loud creak right then.
Jack said, “The guy must have been desperate to try a crazy stunt like that, so I told him I couldn’t give him fifty dollars for the thing, I could go maybe a dollar, dollar and a half at the most. He came down, I went up, he came down, I went up. Finally I said, two bucks, absolute tops. Take it or leave it.”
Okay, there was the envelope, there was the typescript, so obviously the guy took it.
“He said, ‘Do me a favor,’ ” Jack said. “ ‘I can’t sell this for two dollars but if you’ll lend me two I’ll leave the Poe story with you for security, I’ll come back as soon as I can and buy it back from you for the two plus interest.’ So I said okay, and I gave him two bucks and he left the manuscript with me but he never came back for it.”
“He went home to Porlock,” David suggested.
Alice looked pointedly at her watch and said, “It’s getting awfully late. I think we’d better call it a day. Or a night. Time to head for home. You boys can sleep late on Sunday, I go to early Mass.”
David said, “What about the kid?”
Alice said, “He can sleep on my couch. I’ll feed him an early breakfast and send him home safe and sound. That okay with you?” she asked me.
I said, “Sure.” Then everybody stood up and put on their coats because of the weather. I said, “Can I read that thing?”
A Jack said, “What thing?”
Jack hesitated a second, then he shrugged. He was shrugging into his topcoat and I think he was shrugging in answer to my question, too. “Sure, why not, it isn’t worth anything.”
That was a long time ago. A long, long time ago. Look at me now, would you? You think I’m the same person who moved a few tons of boxes in one afternoon and only worried about getting dirty? White hair, stiff joints, did I ever tell you about how I got my job, working for Biblo and Tannen? Oh, I did. Okay.
I always loved books. I thought I’d wind up working on Fourth Avenue at Schulte’s or Stammer’s or Eureka Bookshop or the Raven Bookshop. Come to think of it, I wonder why that poor guy didn’t sell his Poe item to the Raven. Maybe he tried and they wouldn’t take it. Jack only took it because he felt sorry for the guy. He never thought he’d come back for his piece of junk. And he never did. Did I mention that? He took the two dollars and said he’d come back for his typescript but he never showed his face at Biblo and Tannen again.
Yes, I thought I’d wind up a bookman, maybe I’d quit school and work for Biblo and Tannen full time. That would teach that wicked witch of a stepmother a lesson. But I’d miss my brother. But if I could do that, maybe they’d let me sleep in the store, I could sleep upstairs in the overstock room, and maybe someday they’d make me a partner or I could even start my own bookstore.
It didn’t happen that way. I guess I just wasn’t brave enough to go out on my own. After all, I was only twelve. So I was bar mitzvah and I finished high school and I went to Columbia the same as Cornell Woolrich only I didn’t drop out, I finished my degree and spent a few years in the Army and then I got out and became a writer.
Oh, it’s been a long life. I’ve written a whole shelf of novels. Plus a few screenplays, a bunch of short stories, some essays and books of what I like to call cultural history, literary biography and criticism. Biblo and Tannen would call it Literature.
That night we got to Alice Ryter’s apartment and she made up a bed for me on the couch and gave me a cup of cocoa to drink before I went to sleep. I wish she’d been my stepmother instead of the woman my father married. I asked if I could stay up and read the Poe story and she said sure, why not, it can’t do you any harm.
I turned on a standing lamp and sat on the couch with my feet up and pulled the blankets around myself. I took the typescript out of the envelope and started to read.
Jan. 1—1796. This day—my first on the light-house—I make this entry in my Diary, as agreed on with De Grät. As regularly as I can keep the journal, I will—but there is no telling what may happen to a man all alone as I am—I may get sick, or worse…..So far well!
The story went on from there, a wild adventure about the narrator, oy! I can almost remember his name, it’s on the tip of my tongue. It’ll come back, don’t worry.
There was something lurking in the underground foundation of the lighthouse and people hiding out from a place called Norland. There was a wonderful dog in the story, too, named Neptune. Why can I remember the dog’s name and not the man’s? Anyhow, Neptune was big and friendly and nothing like the spoiled, pampered creature that my stepmother brought with her when she married my father. And there was something about an “aerial caravel” piloted by De Grät. I’m sure I finished reading it before I fell asleep.
In the morning Alice woke me up and gave me breakfast. I said I had a headache and she laughed at me and said, “Your first hangover, congratulations.” She sent me home. I left the Poe story next to the couch.
Nineteen-fifty, the spring was beautiful. David Garfinkel came to work, spent the morning sitting in his chair, went out to lunch, came back, sat down in his chair, put his chin down on his chest, and died. Died in a bookshop. I think I’d like to go that way, not lying in a hospital bed with needles in my arms and tubes up my nose.
Jack Tannen retired to Florida, couldn’t stand the boredom, and became curator of a rare-books collection for the rest of his life.
Alice Ryter moved to Los Angeles to care for her aged mother and go to Mass without having to worry about snow and ice. She lived to a ripe old age.
Jack Biblo was the last to go. He was well past ninety, still buying and selling used books, bless his soul. He was more of a father to me than my father ever was.
I know what Heaven is going to look like. When my time comes, if I pass muster with Saint Peter, he’ll point the way for me. I’ll push open the front door at 63 Fourth Avenue and there will be both Jacks and David and Alice and a building filled with thousands and thousands of old books. I’ll walk in and one of the Jacks will say, “Come on, kid, where have you been? There’s work to be done.”
But then David will grab me and ask, “Did I ever tell you about those great dime novel detectives, Old Sleuth and Young Sleuth? They were wonderful.”
Then Jack will interrupt. “Never mind all that. He’s here to work, not to talk about that nonsense.”
Alice Ryter will be there, and she’ll say, “Leave the boy alone, can’t you? For heaven’s sake, he’s only twelve years old. How can be in two places at once?”
And it will be like that, forever.
Did I tell you that Jack Biblo was the last to go? I repeat myself these days, I know. It goes with the white hair and the stiff joints. Jack was still married, and when he died his wife, Frances, telephoned me to tell me the news. I said I was so sorry, and I was sorry that I hadn’t stayed in touch all those years, and she said it was all right, they’d always followed my career and were always proud of me and told their friends that they’d helped me get my start with books when I was twelve years old.
We had a nice talk. I’m afraid I cried more than Frances did. I didn’t want to hang up, I felt that there was still a link there and once I hung up it would be gone, all gone, all dead. But finally I told Frances that I loved her and Jack and she said she knew that, she’d always known that, and thank you for saying it at last.
I wiped my eyes. I felt like a fool. My turn is coming soon. I thought about all those good times, and I smiled when I remembered moving those heavy boxes and the famous schnapps party and sleeping on Alice Ryter’s couch. I remembered the Poe story, as much of it as I could. Was it real? Was it really all Poe, or did one of those others complete Poe’s fragment and try to pass it off as a great find?
But what if he had? What if the version of The Lighthouse that I read at Alice Ryter’s place was a collaboration, was part Poe and part Cornell Woolrich or part Poe and part Samuel Loveman or Lovecraft or John Dickson Carr?
Idle speculation. Idle speculation. I stood up slowly—stiff joints, you know—and found the battered Complete Poe set on my shelf and pulled down the volume of short stories. Yes, there was The Lighthouse, the fragment, the same fragment that Woodberry first published in 1909.
I started to read. Jan. 1—1796. This day—
I read to the end of the fragment and then I tried to remember the rest of the story, the version I had read, wrapped up in a blanket, woozy from my first encounter with alcohol, sitting on Alice Ryter’s sofa.
There was something about an underground room and something about a flying machine. I remembered imagining that I was there with De Grät and the narrator, I can almost remember his name, and there were clouds around us. What was that fellow’s name? I can almost remember it....
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