The Bookshop Of Forking Paths
She wafted into the bookshop with a gust of the winter storm and the book he’d sold her the day before clutched under her arm. Martell had been certain even then that he’d known her—that rust hair, oxidized iron of a spirit within. He’d known how it felt to touch the strands, run his fingers through them, that surprising absurd wiriness. How she had screamed one morning, finding—in the mirror as she lifted the copper bundle at the back of her neck to brush it out—a growth of smoother black hair beneath it, a bushel-ghost, someone else pushing up through her. They’d never managed to explain that.
The woman laid the book on the counter with a delicacy that insinuated slamming it.
“This book is larger than you led me to believe.”
“More bang for your buck.” Martell was less certain he knew her now. He fingered the clothbound cover, pale ocher and olive, a pre-WWII relic of a book. The cover illustration was an indecipherable line drawing. Trees? A pond? Mouths surely, that pinkish swath was a lower lip. The Later Stages, the title promised. No author byline, though he recalled seeing a name inside the front end sheets. He had known it would come someday, the larger book, but it was embarrassing that it had to happen with this woman. Martell was lonely, the way only a bookshop owner could be, too many books in his cataloguing heart to let flesh be flesh, too many phrases lost that might have spelled love.
“It grows.” The woman opened the book in the middle, randomly he thought, and punched her finger at the bottom right corner of the right page. No, he couldn’t know her, could he, that spinsterly exactitude, needing everything to be right. The page she showed him ended with She was used to. She turned it to show the start of the next page giving up. Was this woman used to giving up? Keeping her finger in the new page, she closed the book and opened it to giving up, then thumbed back. The previous page now ended with always forced to be.
“An entire two new pages of text. Tell me, who needs a book that grows? Who can read a book that grows?” On this last her voice leaked a wolf tone of despair that made it beautiful.
The question, Martell knew, was who could write such a book. “Look, you think you’ve got problems? I’ve got books growing between books.” The woman’s gaze followed Martell’s gesture toward the dusty shelves that reared just beyond the window’s light. His heart soared. Maybe he could show her, this total stranger, release the bird that clawed his throat every time he discovered the phenomenon, the scary wealth of books being given him. “Put two together and something’s come between them by the next day.” Yes, she was interested, fascinated. “And it’s not just the books. I’ve got rows growing between rows.”
“I want to see.”
Together they approached the shelves. History, said the subject label on the end of one shelf, and to its left, Sociology. Martell thought about taking her elbow to accompany her down the aisle between them, but she went alone a few feet before returning to study the labels which now read History of Sociology and Historical Societies. Once more down the aisle. Societies of Historical Sociology next to History of Historical Societies. Back and forth, classifications more convoluted each time. How tired she looked suddenly, shoulders at half-mast, and he knew the feeling, as if the road has just doubled when you have miles to go and your eyes are falling shut.
“I’m sorry,” she murmured. “I never realized. I didn’t mean to snap at you.”
Why couldn’t he meet a woman like this, someone who saw it too? “It’s quite all right.”
“It’s just….” She hefted the book in her hand and it bespoke a sadness he wanted to bat away from her. “If it keeps adding things, I’ll never get through it.”
“I understand. We’ll reshelve this. I’ll pay you back.”
She looked at him, astonished and grateful, and he saw the insight strike her too, the realization that she knew him. “That’s so kind of you.”
Martell took the book from her and then he did take her elbow because it was a magic trick, this thing his bookshop did, splitting people apart just when they’d found each other. They stepped down the aisle together and soon he was looking for the place where the book belonged, that solitary activity of shelving he’d come to know so well, lost in dreaming aisles. For a time, as he ambled deeper, comfortably alone, searching for the right place, he sensed someone in the next row over keeping up with him, moving further away. No, there was no one there. The place was silent as usual, only the numb tactility of the books to keep him company: paper, cloth, leather, sounding like anniversaries, but they were anniversaries of his loneliness. Oh Martell had yearned for someone he could love, protect from the vagaries of life, but it had never worked, he was a loser that way, always forced to be giving up, until he’d become used to giving up. Once long ago—the memory still caught at him—he’d loved a woman, pushed her away for the very things he loved about her—her weaknesses, the turns and twists she was always coming up with to accommodate life. They’d seen things so differently, never on the same page. Martell had let her go in the end, without ever realizing all he was giving up.
He found the place and shelved the ocher book. From the front of the shop he heard a voice calling, as far away as a distant country or the ancient past, a woman’s beautiful voice, some customer wanting to make a purchase, and he turned.
This is a test. Please answer each question
as if you were yourself. Do not forget
to tender a date and name, any name,
in the space provided for your submission.
1. This much you know: The roof is on fire,
rafters raining down like Satan’s tinker toys.
A small boy cowers in a closet upstairs.
A Rembrandt, perhaps another Dutch master,
has just begun to peel above the fireplace. Do you:
A. Save the boy
B. Save the painting
C. Hide your shame
D. Choose another life, another dream
of life where Warsaw was never bombed, where
the Royal Castle remains intact, where
libraries lumber ahead unburned, where
holes were never drilled in your foundation.
2. Imagine all our books, every epic, every
epigraph—The Father, Brothers, Sons & Lovers,
Little Women, Infinite Jest, every beloved, satanic
verse, cookbooks, picture books, books full
of phasing, stargazing—imagine them etherized
upon a table, taken up into the Cloud. Remember,
they will be lost, the lot, among plenty. They will
abdicate their authors, be revised, bowdlerized,
trampled, sampled, forgotten. Now, should you:
D. Suspect yourself as obsolete as the forests
that sustained your quaint obsession, slink
off underground, invisible, into a cave filled
with real, solid books and let them burn
you like a coal mine set aflame.
3. If the Führermuseum had been built
in Linz as planned, had all the ill-gotten gilt
the Fatherland got off Jews and Poles and Slavs
been gathered together in Hitler’s Aryan Acropolis—
art gallery, opera house, library—if that vast
ballast of emptiness had been filled, what
would it cost to see?
A. Half a million empty walls
B. Six million empty beds
C. One empty sack of saltwater
D. Nothing—the same price one pays for all
those mummies and marbles, Shivas and divas
and Balthazars, Indras and Mithras and organ
jars, all those crystal bones and rosy stones
that paved the way to London.
4. You are told a Montessori school is closing.
Arriving late, you find almost empty bookshelves,
so much art carted off already, a handful of broken
language records, half a collected set of Vivaldi,
a scratched DVD which told the tale of the planets,
a dog-eared folio on Klimt, some Little Golden guides
to the human condition. When you buy a few
of the latter and leave, do you remember:
A. Your father used to have mad math skills
B. Afghanistan used to have giant Buddhas
C. Hitler painted roses
D. The H.A.L. 9000 computer could sing “Daisy”,
it could take men to the Moon, to infinity
and beyond, but that was before it had to be
put down, lobotomized, emptied, data bank
by data bank, like a mid-sized town in Kansas
losing its schools, its papers, its Borders.
4. Your Fatherland is like Joyland. Abandoned
the way so many sites are abandoned. No joy
left in the rollercoaster’s rickets, no fun in the fun
house, the mirrors tarnished, cracked. Even
the scary mechanical clown is a sad shadow
of his former fearsomeness. The disease
that has brought your father to this pass is:
B. Forty years in the service
C. A bad marriage
D. Too many memories of books and movies,
art and sport, too many artificial experiences
in a life never lived, never risked, never finished
the way we see them finished in all those books
he no longer reads, so had to give away.
6. When they emptied the Louvre, your father
was a young man. He had paintings in him still,
sculptures, wings of victory. He had thirty-seven
convoys of eight trucks each. So much potential.
After the war, after so many wars, after his father
died of dementia, he retired. No more sorties.
No more jets. He sat for decades on the outskirts
of the runway, idling. Did he:
A. Want his art back
B. Want his past back
C. Want his future back
D. Or, like you, did he want his father back, every box
and crate of him, each ounce of excelsior, every canvas
finished or unfinished, every winged glory, headless
or no, pieced from fragments of what had come before,
every book he kept, his own father’s journals, dozens
of them: “Sat on the bed again today, sat on the bed…”
7. This much you know: Your father is not a museum.
If he is, he has been emptied, ransacked like Krakow.
The Vernichtungskommandoes have come and gone.
He sits now in front of you at the Olive Garden. He is
as plain as Raphael’s “Portrait of a Young Man,” just
as lost. Old. He has grown older while you waited
for your food. Before the food comes, he looks at you.
You wonder if he knows who you are. Are you Poland?
Are you a Jew? Are you that Dietrich from the old show,
Rat Patrol? Have you taken all he has to offer? Given?
Have you given him back all the poems and paintings
he can never understand now? Instead, he asks:
A. Are you my father
B. Do you paint roses
C. Is my father dead
D. Is my father dead and…and you have to decide, do I tell
him, do I tell him again, when he asks again, do I lie,
and if I lie, is it a lie, and what sort of a lie should it be,
complex, full of boxes within boxes, or should it be just
enough to keep the Fatherland running, to keep the trains
and their boxcars leaving, coughing off down the tracks
with their horrible cargo, or, finally, should it be lovely,
the kind of lie that hides the portrait of a young man,
walls it up, oils it over, the kind of poetry, like paint,
that preserves the art even though, in the end, it will
likely never be found again.
When you have finished, please close your books,
place the test in the box, return your writing
implements to their proper place, and remember, this
is only a midterm. You still must prepare for the final.
–>Bryan D. Dietrich