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The Paperback Heist

After a dozen years of fruitlessly sending out short fiction, growing the proverbial pile of rejection letters in my file cabinet, I finally, in the early to mid-1990s, received three acceptance letters. One week after the first one arrived, from a literary quarterly called The New Review, I received a second letter from the editor announcing that the publication had folded. The second quarterly to accept a story of mine changed its mind during the editing process. The third magazine to smile upon my fictional efforts was American Way, the in-flight magazine of American Airlines. What's more, they offered me $1,100! Here too, though, there was a catch. They had a house rule that no story could have more than two thousand words. So, purely to satisfy this regulation, I was asked to cut my poor story, already carefully revised and polished, by a quarter.

I was still happy to cash the check.

Below is the full story.

They had wounded me, you see, deeply.  They had taken from me something valuable, intangible, not the bound sheaf of papers itself, but what it stood for.

 

It was a parting gift, no more.  Nothing extravagant—our financial situations had always kept gifts modest—but something to mark the end of our days together and to express the pleasure and privilege I'd felt in living with them.

I'd come to Boston two years before, knowing not a soul in the city.  With little money for motels, I resolved to see as many apartments as I could my first day and make my choice that night.  After seeing 5 Franklin Road around noon, however, I ended my search.

From the minute I met Karl and Susan, I felt I had good friends in town.  They had that effect on everyone of course, but that wouldn't have mattered to me even if I'd known.  By the time I'd seen the third floor we were ridiculing Karl's striped shorts, laughing like old friends; I wrote my first rent check before I left.

Two months later they were the best friends I'd ever had.  I joined them at concerts and movies; we stayed up late into the night playing records and talking.  At our frequent dinner parties I met writers and musicians, doctors and architects, who, though they intimidated me somewhat with their precocious success, also gave me hope that I might soon attain my own successes.  In New York I'd been unable to penetrate the cold walls and windows concealing the world of artistic attainment and lasting attachments; all my friends there were frustrated as I was, yearning to get out of the city.  In Cambridge, I came to know people who actually enjoyed their lives and careers, who felt happy and secure in their futures.  I also met Laura, the woman for whom I'd searched in vain in New York.  And it was all through Karl and Susan.

And then two years later our landlord sold the house to a young couple who were moving in immediately.  At the same time Susan announced her pregnancy, and it became clear that they would be raising their new family without housemates.  We would look for new accommodations separately.

Certainly a token presentation was called for.  A gift of material value was out of the question, and in fact would have been inappropriate.  Yet I felt that they would probably be getting me some small gift, and I wanted to give them something by which to remember our two years together.

Now, I must admit to a fault in this regard:  I have a weakness for giving other people what I myself would most like to receive.  In this case, however, I felt fortunate in that the recipients and I shared a fondness for books as gifts.  In fact, the most common holiday and birthday item exchanged in our time together was a used paperback, carefully selected to match either a particular literary taste or perhaps a recent shared experience. And for this occasion, I knew just the book.  Some months before, I had borrowed from the public library The Mustache by Emmanuel Carrère, and ever since I had wanted to buy the original French edition for my housemates.  For one thing, the subject matter was perfect.  Karl had shaved off his five-year-old mustache a few months after I'd moved in, and ever since had repeatedly grown it back and removed it, much to my amusement and Susan's consternation (she wanted it off for good).  Also, they had lived for several years in France, and were always looking for good French novels they could handle.  La Moustache would be perfect—short, plot-driven, with clear diction, entertaining and intelligent.  I scoured the used bookstores of Harvard Square without luck, and finally, a few days before we were to move out of our house, I went to Schoenhoff's Foreign Books and splurged on a brand new French paperback edition.  It cost as much as an American hardback, but it was a special occasion, more momentous than any birthday, and I felt good about the purchase.

I had expected, I suppose, some sort of informal ceremony, a dinner at least to celebrate our last night at Franklin Road, a few drunken toasts to our time together, a heartfelt exchange of gifts.  When the day came, however, it was so overrun with last-minute arrangements—packing, cleaning, dividing household goods, separating items to be thrown away, arranging for special garbage pickup and closing of utilities—that we barely had time to send out for pizza, much less prepare a banquet.  At two in the morning, the house was finally bare and ready for its new occupants, most of our belongings already trucked to our respective new addresses.  It was apparent at the end of the evening that no presentations were to take place, and I was embarrassed at my immoderate purchase, even more so at the sentimental message I'd inscribed on the title page.

After we'd made plans for dinner the next weekend and they were getting into their car without fanfare or any acknowledgment of the moment's gravity (didn't they realize the best two years of my life were ending?), I managed to slip the gift-wrapped book into a plastic bag stuffed with clothing on the back seat just before slamming their door for them and waving goodbye.

*     *     *

The next weekend Laura and I kept our dinner appointment at their new house, out in Concord, and to all appearances we all had as good a time as ever.  I, however, was distracted throughout the evening.  I didn't expect them to have read the book already, but surely they would acknowledge the gesture.  If only for the note I'd included (and already regretted, considering how little importance they seemed to attach to our moving apart), it warranted mention.  But the evening passed, it came time to leave, and my gift never entered the conversation.  We even had a laugh about Karl's new mustache, already ten days in the making, but La Moustache scored not a word.

Guessing that it must have fallen out of the bag when they unloaded the car, I scanned their living-room bookshelves, and indeed it was not to be found.  Before leaving, however, I went upstairs to use the bathroom and afterwards wandered into their bedroom.  There, in the small shelves on the far wall, stuffed between The Norton Anthology of Poetry and Rabbit, Run, rested my lonely offering like a neglected child.

I hurried downstairs and made my goodnights quickly.  They must have meant to mention it, I told myself as I drove home, hardly speaking to poor Laura.  We all forget these things sometimes.  Or perhaps they were waiting to buy a belated present and write their own note, and were embarrassed to acknowledge mine until they had.  They were to come to my place for dinner the following weekend; surely they would bring it with them.

But Susan wasn't feeling well the next week, and when they did come the week after that, they again failed to mention the book.  I came within an involuntary muscle twitch of asking disingenuously whether they had received it, but caught myself just in time.  My pride wouldn't let me confront them.  They could thank me in their own due time, when their manners caught up with them; until then, I would match their silence.

What I didn't count on, however, was life coming between us.  The two-week lapse between our first two dinners became routine; then, three weeks would pass between meetings, sometimes four.  I was becoming a victim, as I had seen so many others become, of Karl and Susan's one great flaw—their negligence in maintaining contact.  In almost every respect, they were the perfect couple: intelligent, funny, good-spirited almost beyond credibility, and, above all, possessing the ability to make everyone feel like the most valuable of companions.  As long as one was with them, that is.  But I had watched as phone messages piled up over the weeks and months without reply.  Because they would drop everything they were doing to go dancing with someone who had stopped by and found them in, and because people were always stopping by, they found themselves with a daunting social schedule.  Their rare evenings alone together became precious.  The ensuing (and probably unconscious) rule of their social life was that Karl and Susan responded to invitations, they didn't proffer them.  They didn't have to.

The result was that they saw their most interesting friends, who didn't constantly call them, only at relatively long intervals.  The few that they saw frequently were those willing to be always the instigator.  And while I might have been as eager as the latter group, the same pride that wouldn't allow me to mention La Moustache also prevented me from calling them repeatedly without a return call.

And so the months slipped by, and I only saw Karl and Susan on occasion, when I felt enough time had elapsed for me to call them again with self respect, and when I caught them in.

And my fury at their failure to mention the book grew, it smoldered under the skin of the back of my neck whenever I thought of it while sitting at work, biking along the Charles, lying awake at night.  It was outrageous that someone should receive a present with such an affectionate note attached and never acknowledge it.  Who did they think they were?

"You know what happened," said Laura.  "He thinks she thanked you, and she thinks he did.  By now, they probably both remember thanking you jointly.  That's them—the masters of convenient assumptions."

But she couldn't assuage my anger.  It was no excuse.  They should have to answer to the same demands of human decency as everyone else.  Only Karl and Susan would be forgiven for this, as for their other oversights.  And everyone did forgive them; the alternative was to lose their precious company.

And then the plan came upon me.  It visited me like an angel of darkness at three one morning while I fought a particularly agonizing bout with insomnia.  As Laura lay beside me deep in the peaceful sleep of the unobsessed, I stared at the blackness above me and saw my own wretched handwriting—the oversentimental note I had scrawled on the cover page of a paperback book.  It sat there, entombed in that particular sliver of space in their house, never to be exposed to the light of day, reeking of my misplaced Platonic love, my unreturned affection.  Rationally, I knew they cared for me as much as ever; they were just lousy phone call returners.  But the thought of my ingenuous declarations of friendship rotting away in the pit of their ingratitude and indifference ate at my viscera; they must truly have thought little of me—not thought of me at all—to be able to perpetrate this unkindness, however small, upon me and still go about their daily lives in peace.  Their deed was as heinous, or else as otherworldly, as that of the protagonist's wife and friends in La Moustache, who fail to comment on his shaving off the mustache without which they have never before seen him.

I would steal the book back.  They didn't deserve to have it, and I couldn't stand the thought of my mellifluous inscription enduring on their shelf, a monument to my misguided and most maudlin instincts.  It was an embarrassment; it was like having fallen in love with an apathetic beauty to whom you are but one of the adoring many, but it was worse.  Affectionate friendship lacked the drama of love in vain.  You'd get no sympathy drowning your sorrows in some tenebrous saloon over the disintegrated friendship between two happy couples; put it in a play and you'd get laughed right off the stage.  No, it was an embarrassment, but I would erase the embarrassment.  I would take it back.

 

It had to wait for winter, and my wide-pocketed overcoat.  Finally, a long-overdue and well cultivated dinner invitation came.  Karl answered the door, lip clean-shaven, and exuberantly ushered us in from the bitter cold.  "Let me take your coats," said Susan, and I had no choice but to give mine to her like a murderer letting go his pistol.  I'd hoped she'd take them up to the bedroom, but she hung them on a rack near the front door.

We had dinner.  Nervously I masticated, going over in my mind various stratagems for rendering myself and my coat in the upstairs bedroom.

"No, only Jim can settle this one.  He's the expert."  Silence, everyone waiting for me to speak.

"Ahh..."

"Some people call me the Space Cowboy...."  Howls of insipid laughter, and then I was left again in peace to my machinations.

We finally reached the moment of taking leave.  It had seemed like a thousand dinner parties, strung out end to end.  At long last Susan brought us our coats.  We pulled them on.

"Oh, wait a second," I said.  "I just have to run up and use the bathroom."  Up the stairs, loudly close the bathroom door from the outside, into the bedroom, slip the slim volume into my pocket, tighten up the shelf, silently enter the bathroom, flush, wash my hands (out, spot!), and noisily make my way back downstairs.  A minute later we were out, frozen footsteps down to the car.

"...at least that's my opinion."  Laura was speaking to me as I drove.

Had I turned the bedroom light back off?

Back at my apartment, while Laura was getting ready for bed, I sat at my desk with the loot and an exacto knife and with the hands of a surgeon excised the offending inside cover page.  Hardly a trace was left.  At the top of the title page I signed my name and put the date.  In the living room, with tactile satisfaction I parted Robbe-Grillet and the translated Carrère and slipped the original French into the gap.  It looked like it'd been there forever.

"My, aren't we in a good mood," said Laura a half-hour later in bed.  It was true.  A weight was gone, a cancer removed from my gut.  I lay awake watching Laura sleep and exulting in my little triumph, and when I finally fell asleep it was the dreamless slumber of a man who has had the chance to undo his mistakes.

*     *     *

It was six weeks before we saw them again.  Our first call to invite them back to Cambridge went unanswered.  When I called again two weeks later, Susan was heart-rendingly apologetic:  they'd been sick, then in New York, then bogged down with work.  Two dates went unfulfilled due to last-minute unforeseen circumstances, and by the time they finally graced my door again it was spring in name if not temperature.

In the meantime, I had weaned myself from them.  While they possessed my misbegotten offering, I had suffered exquisite withdrawal symptoms; for two years, they had enriched my life with their exuberant friendship, with their intellectual and social stimulation as well as that of their wide circle of friends.  After our separation, their best friends, whom I had valued so much as my own, seemed to consider that I had died or moved abroad; while the friends I had made on my own, needless to say, who had met Karl and Susan through me, continued to pander at the royal couple's feet, begging for audience and leaving their own unanswered phone messages.  I couldn't help thinking, while I waited weeks for each phone call to be returned, of the glorious times they were having, drinks and dinners with whoever had the persistence to keep calling or, better, the good timing to drop by at the right time.  I, alone with my pride, simmered in my apartment.  If it weren't for Laura, I'd have been desolate.  She and I consoled each other with constant company and resolute romance, but even that can't replace one's best friends.

After my righteous thievery, however, a darkness lifted.  As I said, it was like the cancer that had replaced their companionship was removed; and the empty tissue that remained began to heal.  During the six weeks between encounters, I thought less and less of them, what they were doing, and with whom they were doing it.  I learned to see my two years on Franklin Road for what it was—a wonderful sojourn that, like all others, had to reach an end.  Had Karl and Susan been better correspondents, the friendship might have faded in a more gradual denouement; but they were who they were, and we had to accept it.  The end result, after all, would be the same.  Babies came, families grew, the best of friends obscured behind the milky curtain of years.

And so when they came to dinner in March it was no more to me than an occasional visit from old friends.  The Moustache insult was ancient history.  No, it didn't even exist.  I had never bought them a parting gift; I had, however, found myself a copy in the original French of a novel I had so much enjoyed in English.  A used copy, missing the inside cover page.

After dinner I put on an old Tom Waits record, something we used to listen to together a lot.  Susan and Laura had disappeared upstairs.  When I returned from the bathroom, Karl was in the living room browsing through the bookshelves, fingering the full growth on his upper lip.

"You have a ton of great paperbacks," he said.  "I love all my old hardbacks, but I never save the paperbacks after I've read them.  When we moved, we sold them all to the bookstore."

"I know; I managed to salvage a few, you'll notice."  I busied myself with the lyrics and liner notes.

"Hey, what's this?" he said.  I looked up and saw him holding La Moustache for me to see.  A shiver traversed my spine, but a moment's examination of his face revealed nothing but a casual curiosity.  "Been working on your French?" he asked.

"I liked it in English," I said.  "Thought I'd try to work my way through the original.  Probably never get around to it, though."

"It looks good.  Hey, you think I could borrow it?  I'm always looking for a good contemporary French novel."

Cunning bastard, how could he keep such an innocent face?  I ought to confront him right now, I thought.  This can't go on; my fury came rushing back as from a fresh wound.  Although it was possible he was sincere.  As Laura would point out, maybe Susan had found it in that bag, put it on the shelf with all the other books, and forgotten to mention it to him.  Maybe he'd never noticed it there, or just seen the spine and assumed it was one of her college texts.  They were both absent-minded enough, incommunicative enough.  Hard to imagine, but it could be true.

"Sure," I said in a weak voice.

The record played; the women came downstairs; the party ended.  I stood in the doorway watching them drive off.

"Jesus, Jim, what's wrong," said Laura when I returned to the living room.  "We'll see them again someday."

"No," I said.  "I was just thinking about something.  How about a drink?"

"Sure.  You look like you need one."  I poured us each a bourbon and brought them to her on the sofa.

"Honey, are you sure you're all right?" she said.

"Of course.  I'm just tired."  I carefully turned over the record and sat down next to her.  "I lent Karl a book," I said a few minutes later.

"That's nice," she said and leaned her head against me.  "Of course, you'll never get it back.  Much as I love them, I've never known anyone as forgetful of returning things as those two.  If you want it, you'll have to steal it back."

"Mmm."  My right arm hung limply around her waist.  My left hand was at my face, fingers absently exploring.  "What would you say," I asked, "if I grew a mustache?"

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