ISSUE 5 · FALL 2010




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Copyright © 2010

David Misialowski





In Borges' Bookstore

DAVID MISIALOWSKI

 

 

Without his glasses, Barclay Savor couldn’t see the hand in front of his face.

He blamed the ruinous reading of his youth for his condition, and in those periods when bitterness overtook him, he vowed further revenge on the very books that he had spent a lifetime collecting and caging.

Today Savor tapped his cane on the sidewalk as he strutted. He had painted it white so that people would think him truly blind, although he was wearing his thick glasses made of hand-ground glass, not the cheap plastic knock-offs of the modern world that he despised. With them on, he could see fine.

But now, pretending to be blind, he moved like a ship navigating treacherous waters, tapping the sidewalk with the cane in an apparent sightless search for opprobrious obstacles. Other pedestrians—plague carriers, the bearers of the human genome—swerved to give him a wide berth, a salubrious result. A veteran and wily misanthrope, Savor was constantly devising devious new ways to keep the mob at bay.

He pushed on down the unfamiliar side street in Manhattan’s trendy Murray Hill District, the East 30s, a neighborhood that he deprecated, but he had a firm destination in mind: a newly opened bookstore. He had scrawled the address on a scrap of paper, which he now consulted.

Descending a short flight of steps, he was affronted to find himself on a gloomy landing before a door with the number 1941 affixed to it over a crudely hand-lettered (and therefore personally insulting) sign:

BABEL BOOKS

WORLD’S BIGGEST BOOK STORE

NEW * USED * RARE * OUT OF PRINT

PILES AND PILES OF BOOKS * MILES AND MILES OF SMILES

WELCOME!

“World’s biggest, indeed!" Savor scoffed. “We’ll see about that. I smell false advertising.”

Savor knew bookstores.

He had patronized every bookstore in New York City at least once, from the soulless chain-store outlets that he actively detested (even though he had been in them hundreds of times each, and had been permanently barred entry at only twelve of them) to the smallest, most obscure and out-of-the-way holes-in-the-wall that he merely deplored, including a curious cubbyhole in Brooklyn called One Book Only that had contained exactly one book; it was called The Labyrinth.

Savor had reeled at the price of that out-of-print book, 2,500 dollars, but the owner of the store had explained that the copy in question was the last such on earth, all the others having been burned, desecrated, defiled, destroyed. When the owner turned his back, Savor shoplifted it. He later heard that the man had closed his store and hanged himself.

This odd dénouement tickled Savor, the memory of which he savored still. The handsome Labyrinth, unread like all the books in his vast library, occupied a place of honor in it; a bird in a gilded cage. No one would ever read it again: Savor, who at age 50 was no spring chicken, had stipulated in his will that his books be burned along with his body and the ashes consigned to the East River, within sight of the execrable United Nations, its headquarters a tacky monument to High Modernism and to the hated New World Order with its opprobrious One World Governance.

Savor tried the doorknob, but it rattled in his hand. Irate, he rapped his knuckles on the door. “Not even open for business! Are you people serious? This is opprobrious! I shall file a complaint with the government!”

The door opened.

It opened just a crack. An eye peered out. All else was lost in shadow. “What do you want?” A surly voice.

“What do I want? What do you think I want? I want to browse your books!”

“Go away and come back later.”

The door began closing, but Savor shot out a hand and stayed it.

“Later? When?”

“How about never?”

Savor lost his temper. He forced the door and barged into the store as if he owned it. But it was dark inside, and he stumbled. He fell to his hands and knees, grimacing with pain, and his cane rattled to the floor. The heavy glasses nearly slipped from his nose, and he shot a finger up to steady them. Suddenly the lights came on. He heard the door slam shut behind him. He scrambled to his feet and looked back at the door. It had no knob or handle, and a sign on it in bold red capital letters read: NO EXIT.

He tried to push the door open, but to no avail. NO EXIT, the sign said.

NO EXIT.

The hairs stood up on the back of his neck.

“What is the meaning of this?” he addressed the door, voice slightly hollow. He mopped his brow with a handkerchief. Then he turned around.

Lamps like spherical fruit hung from the ceiling, shedding a mellow yellow glow on shelves and tables stacked with books. The room was fairly small and, oddly, hexagonal in shape; near the far wall a couple of steps led down to another door, which was closed but had a doorknob.

"So this is the world's biggest bookstore," Savor jeered. No one replied.

He bent over and snatched up his cane. He strode down the aisle, shoe heels clicking with indignation. He descended the steps and walked up to the other door, upon which he hammered a fist.

“Come in.”

Savor opened the door and saw a man in a funereal black suit sitting at a small table, head lowered. He had the bearing of an undertaker.

Savor demanded to see the manager.

“The manager is not in," the man said, not looking up. “I am the bookkeeper.”

A bookkeeper! Savor thought: Damned number cruncher.

“What is the manager’s name?”

“J.B.”

“When do you expect him?”

“I don’t.”

“Why not?”

“He’s dead.”

The man’s head remained lowered, eyes just visible under the hoods of his brows. The air around him was frigid. Savor was stunned to see little eddies of cold steam swirling around him.

“Very well, you’ll have to do. What is the meaning of all this?”

“Of all what?”

Savor briskly related the curious events that had just transpired.

The bookkeeper looked up and cocked a demonstrative eyebrow. His face was pale blue, the color of glacial ice, and his lips were livid, as from oxygen deprivation. He wore a thin mustache like two deft swipes of ink from a calligraphist’s pen. “You say when you entered the store, the man who tried to keep you out wasn’t there.”

“Yes.” Savor’s teeth chattered from the cold.

“You must mean Godot. He’s the owner of this establishment. Unfortunately, he’s never around when you need him.”

The man’s eyes, Savor noticed, were oddly like spirals: the irises corkscrewed inward until they converged on two dark dots that constituted the pupils. Savor now also noticed that the man’s necktie knot was hexagonal.

The chill of the room now passed through his soul.

But, recovering his aplomb, he leaned toward the man and, jabbing his cane back at the bookstore, said hotly, “There is no Godot! There is no man in there!”

“Of course there isn’t,” the bookkeeper said coolly. “As I explained, Godot is never around when you need him, or even when you don’t.”

Savor, taken aback, was momentarily silent. Then he demanded: “Do you know who I am?”

“No.”

“I am Barclay Savor!”

“Ah!” the man in black cried with explosive excitement. “Barclay Savor! In that case, excuse for me just a moment, Mr. Savor. I’ll go and have a word with the owner right now. If he was impertinent, I assure you that he will apologize profusely; he’s a fair and just man, as fair and just as they come, even though, in point of fact, I’ve never spoken to him or met him, and have no clue what he thinks about anything. Still, if he’s in the wrong, I’ve no doubt he’ll spew apologies all over your shoes.”

Savor watched, dumfounded, as this jackanape brushed past him in a cloud of frigid air and marched grandly out the door, into the bookshop. He left the door open and Savor cocked an ear toward it, anticipating a remonstration or at least a conversation. Instead he got silence. He walked out the door and looked at the bookshop.

No one was there.

His gaze fell on where he thought the door with the NO EXIT sign was, except that it wasn’t.

Where the door had been was a water fountain.

He went up to it.

“What is going on here?” he asked no one in particular, for still no one was around. His voice was squeaky, and his mouth dry. He bent toward the fountain and turned the handle, producing a feeble, sputtering arc of water that barely cleared the nozzle. He tasted it and grimaced. It was lukewarm and unpleasantly metallic. But he bent back toward it and slurped to slake his thirst.

When he was done drinking he looked all around, searching for the way out. He was shocked to discover that the door to the manager’s office at the foot of the short flight of steps was also missing.

In its place was a blank wall from which hung a mirror. He went up to it and saw his own reflection. He also saw behind him, reflected in the mirror, an incredible number of books. They were stacked on hexagonal tables and plunged away to an impossibly distant vanishing point. He was stunned. But when he turned around again, the same small room confronted him.

He went up to the mirror again and, investigating it more closely, discovered that both his face and the back of his head were reflected in it in repeated iterations dwindling away fore and aft until they were too small to be seen. He felt immediate relief; one riddle had been answered. A twin mirror hanging over the fountain on the opposite wall had conspired with the first mirror to produce the impression of endless books. The mirrors were playing ping pong with the reflections. Mise en abyme, the French called it.

But then his relief vanished when he realized that just a moment ago, when he had stooped over the fountain, there had been no mirror hanging over it. He was certain of this point.

When he turned around again he swooned and nearly fainted.

They went on forever.

They went on forever up, and forever down; forever north, south, east and west: hexagonal galleries, each of them full of books. The galleries huddled in groups of six around spiral staircases; each staircase, with its sextet of six-sided galleries, repeated itself as far as the eye could see.

“Where in God’s name am I?” His voice was hushed, full of wonder and terror. “What in God’s name is this monstrous place?”

He approached one of the staircases and craned his neck. It spiraled upward indefinitely. No ceiling was visible. He looked down. It spiraled downward indefinitely. No floor was visible.

“Hello!” Savor yelled into the ever-repeating wasteland of galleries and spiral staircases. His voice echoed repeatedly and become fainter and fainter until it died.

“I DEMAND TO SEE THE MANAGER!” he roared into the book-infested void.

. . . anager . . . anager . . . anager . . . anager . . . anager . . .

He took off his glasses to defend himself against what he was seeing. The gray gauze of 20/400 vision instantly effaced everything around him. Then inspiration came to him, filling him with hope. He put the glasses back on and began frantically patting his pockets. For a moment he was terrified that he had left it at home, but there, now, in the lower left pocket of his suitcoat, under his overcoat, was the hated cellphone. He rarely used it. But he had obtained it on doctor’s orders because he had a bad ticker and it was always possible that he might need to make an emergency call. At home, Savor did not even own a landline.

He punched in 911.

The operator came on.

Savor’s words tumbled out in a rush, one tripping over the other until the operator cut in and advised him to calm down. “What is the problem, sir?”

“I—I am locked inside a big bookstore, in Manhattan. No one’s here. I can’t get out. Help me!”

“What is the address of the store, sir?”

“It’s—uh . . .” Savor closed his eyes and desperately cogitated. He had forgotten the address, but then he recalled that he had written it down. He was rummaging around in his pockets for the paper on which he had written it when the phone gave off two sharp double beeps, indicating a dying battery.

“Not now!” he yelled at the device. “Not now, you son of a bitch!”

“Sir, what is the address of the store?”

He saw the number 1941 and the name of the street, and recited it frantically into the phone. “Hello? Hello?” Nothing from the other end. Dead. Dead. Dead.

“You bastard!” He flung the phone over a railing and watched it fall down an airshaft, turning end over end until it no longer was in view. He cocked his ear, waiting for the sound of the phone hitting the floor far below, but heard nothing.

Panic seized him.

He bounced off the walls. He knocked over a book shelf. He screamed. His heart hammered.

“Calm down!” he yelled at himself. He wrapped his arms around his chest and sank to his knees. His heart was beating, beating. Not good.

He took deep breaths until his thoughts cohered again in some semblance of order.

Then he forced himself to take a tour. He inspected the galleries, but was ever on the lookout for an Exit sign. Bookcases, each with five rows, lined four of the walls of each gallery and reached to the ceiling. Of the walls without books, one opened on a bathroom, which filled Savor with a comparative relief, and he quickly relieved himself. The other opened on a nook in the wall the size of a bed, but vertical rather than horizontal. Savor speculated that one could sleep standing up in it.

Outside the galleries were mirrors, which faithfully reproduced all appearances, much as did the mirror he had encountered previously: Mise en abyme, again inducing a mild but persistent vertigo.

He gazed out at the wasteland. He noticed that the space was not, after all, one of endless hexagonal and spiral symmetries. In fact, large portions of the bookstore lay in ruins, whole galleries having imploded, their floors missing and piles of books spewed in tumbledown fashion on some of the stairs. In other galleries lights were extinguished; in still others, bookshelves were missing or toppled over, the books prone on the floor, pages splayed outward and spines facing upward. They were like men lying facedown on the ground with arms flung out after they had been shot in the back.

Then he felt something moving swiftly over his shoe, looked down, and let out a glottal cry of terror and nausea. It was a mouse. He quickly determined that the place was overflowing with the supple, gamboling, disgusting rodents. His skin crawled. As he continued his involuntary tour he found, here and there, dead mice, freshly dead it seemed, for rot had not yet set in; yet the odor of decay was pervasive. He had not yet met one other human. But he did find, irregularly placed in some of the halls, drinking fountains, just like the one that he had encountered earlier. Thus was he able to slake his thirst on the brackish, sputtering streams; and on his first night here, the lights all over the bookstore gradually dimmed, mimicking the dusk of the outdoors from which he was exiled; and by the time they had gone out entirely, plunging the bookstore into blackness like blindness itself, he was lying askew on the floor of one of the galleries, asleep, and in spite of himself he was dreaming—as hunger conquered him—of the mice.

The next morning the lights slowly came back on, starting out dim and gradually becoming brighter. It was dawn. He woke up.

And the years went by.

He passed through denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and then acceptance. He stoically learned to dine on the dead mice and to catch and kill live ones. He slaked his thirst at the fountains. He slept anywhere, sometimes standing up in the bed-sized vertical nooks. He marked the days, the months, the years by the dimming and brightening of the lights. They seemed faithfully diurnal and nocturnal, sunrise and sunset, though of course, lacking a real clock, he could not be certain of this. He never ceased his wanderings through the wrecked and abandoned galleries. Repeatedly the aging misanthrope was racked by numbing despair and yes, even by loneliness. He found no one else in the bookstore during those long and bleak years. Nor did he find any indication that the store came to an end. It had no exit.

In the early years he resisted the blandishments of the books, the lure of their secrets. In his dreams, if dreams they were, he was back in his penthouse apartment, alone with his staggering library. He had caged them like animals. They beat their covers against the bars, flapped the wings of their pages, howled their distress. He fed and watered them to keep them alive, but did not read them or let others read them; what tortures, he thought, they must be going through! How does an unread book feel? Like a musician with his hands amputated, he thought; like an artist blinded. His goal, unattainable to be sure, had always been to confiscate every last book on earth and then imprison them, withholding them from the eyes of Man.

Also in his dreams, if dreams they were, he periodically spotted evidence of the existence of other people in the rotting galleries: fecal droppings not made by mice, a bloody handprint on a gallery wall, a discarded shoe. Once he thought he saw in the far distance, across a vast variegated vista of shattered and forlorn galleries, half of them plunged into darkness, a lone elderly form bent over a book, under a cone of light shed by one of the globes. The man briefly looked up from his book, and though he was far away, his gloomy and wattled face was clearly visible, his eyes bald and yellow. Losing control, he yelled out at this man across the vast expanse that kept them apart: “I demand to see the manager!” For whom could this be, if not the manager? How could the manager be dead? Yet when he looked again, the man was gone, just as if he had never been.

Crushed by boredom and fearing madness, he eventually consulted the books, but most of them contained strings of nonsense: just letters randomly jumbled together, forming nonexistent words. But eventually he found a book called The Library of Babel, by Jorge Luis Borges. In it he read, to his astonishment, an exact description of the labyrinth in which he was marooned.

He also found suggestions for solving the mystery in which he was mired: to locate book A, consult first book B which indicates A's position; to locate book B, consult first book C, and so on to infinity. The principle point, this work claimed, was to seek one’s Book of Vindications.

In one gallery, following the lead of the story, he discovered a book consisting, like most of the others, of nothing but random alphabet soup, but on the next to last page the following startling line appeared: O time thy pyramids. This chilling phrase, meaningless though it seemingly was, haunted his dreams for a long time.

Gradually over a period of years, he was led, shambling, his clothes in tatters, his cane long lost and his hair and beard grown wild and white, to a gallery some ninety floors above where he had started. He trudged up the spiral staircase, which was so like a single strand of the double helix DNA detached from the other, and saw, radiating down from high above, a radiant shaft of light.

He paused to reflect, and although he had not seen such a light in a very long time, he determined that it was sunlight. Up there, he thought, giddy, he’d demand to see the manager. All would be explained. If not, he’d file a complaint with the Better Business Bureau. After all, his experience inside Babel Books had been well shy of salubrious. In fact, it had been downright opprobrious.

In the next gallery, he found his Book of Vindications, opened it and read:

In Borges’ Bookstore

By David Misialowski

Without his glasses, Barclay Savor couldn’t see the hand in front of his face.

Stunned, he read on, familiar fragments passing before his avid eyes:

He was affronted to find himself standing in a gloomy landing . . . The door opened . . . Savor lost his temper . . . NO EXIT . . . Mise en abyme

Impatient, he flipped to the end of the book, and espied the tale’s final lines:

But he saw the shadow of the building’s front door as it opened like the cover of a book. The curtains on the door stirred sluggishly in a light breeze, their shadows like turning pages. Then the book closed.

He focused on the word “door.” The door! The door! The exit! The way out!

He became frantic with anticipation; he clawed at the book with fumbling hands and stumbled. His glasses fell from his nose and hit the floor with a loud crack. They were made of good, ground glass, not the cheap plastic of the modern world that he hated, but plastic does not break. Glass, alas, does.

“Oh, God, no! It can’t be!”

He fell to his hand and knees, seeing nothing but gray gauze. He patted his hands on the floor, desperately looking for the glasses. His hands became bloody from the broken glass. He raised them up before his eyes but could not see them. Yet he could feel the blood flowing from his stigmatized palms.

He pawed around until he retrieved his Book of Vindications. He had dropped it on the floor beside him. He lifted it to his face and held it so close that the pages touched his nose. In the book was the explanation that he had so long sought.

He could read not a line of it.

He howled in despair. But still, he could see the shaft of light from above. The book would have told him how to reach it, of this he was certain. Now he was on his own. He rose shakily to his feet, reaching for that light. “I demand to see the manager!” he cried.

The floor of the hexagon just above, weakened by rot, suddenly gave way. The first books hit him in the head, knocking him dizzy and then down to his knees.

“I demand to see the manager,” he protested in a faltering voice, as an avalanche of books buried him. “I demand to see . . .”

The manager shook his head.

“I didn’t know. How could I know?”

“How could you not know?” the police officer demanded. “You manage the place.”

The paramedics were on their way up the queer spiral staircase of the ancient anomalous crumbling walkup apartment building in the otherwise gentrified East 30s, but they were too late.

The manager, an old man with a crabapple face and rolled-up sleeves, became defensive: “If they pay their rent on time, we don’t bother ‘em. This guy had his rent paid six years in advance, officer. Six years! I bet he’s one of those weird old hermit dudes who lives in poverty even though they have about a million bucks stashed away in the bank. Gathering interest and dust.”

The manager and the police officer were standing in the doorway of the studio apartment with its six walls. Both of them grimaced.

The old man was buried under a giant pile of books, his hand stretched out on the floor. The long-dead cell phone lay just out of reach. A finger pointed up at the studio apartment’s only window. Books were stacked up almost to the top of it, where a thin sliver of afternoon sunlight shone down through the grimy pane, falling on the reaching hand. Also just out of the reach of the hand were a pair of glasses, their thick, round lenses cracked and broken and their frames bent.

“Trapped here how long?” the cop wondered, shaking his head. “Months. God, maybe years! Who knows? Poor bastard.”

The paramedics arrived. “There must be a thousand books in this little place,” the officer speculated. “How’s it even possible?”

“More like ten thousand,” the manager said, awed. Against every wall, the books rose to the ceiling. Mice gamboled about the ruins. A bloody handprint, a shoe, dried feces . . . ricks of rodent bones. “I don’t even want to know,” the cop said. “And it’s my job.”

A filthy bed mattress stood against one wall, rising above the rubble of books. A doorway minus a door gave way to a reeking bathroom full of books and human waste. A couple of narcissistic mirrors stared self-seeingly at each other from opposite perches on stacked books.

The paramedics blanched.

“The stink,” the manager said, turning his face inside out like a sock and vigorously waving at the fetid air. “People started complaining about it. Otherwise . . .”

Frigid air, refreshing, gusted in from the hall just outside the door, and the apartment manager, the cop, and the paramedics turned to look. A man dressed in a black suit entered. Undertaker, the cop thought, and he shivered. The black-suited man looked around.

“Who are you, sir?” the cop asked. The man’s face was blue, and his eyes roamed over the books.

Those queer spirals corkscrewed inward and their pupils fastened on a book about halfway up the lethal pile, its covers open and pages skewed. The title of the book was visible on its spine. He reached for it, but the cop laid a hand on the man’s forearm. The frigid feel of it stunned him.

“Hold on, pal. What’s your business here?”

“I am the bookkeeper.”

“An accountant?” The cop gestured at the corpse under the books. “You were his accountant?” The man’s eyes unsettled the cop, who also noted his odd necktie knot: a fastidious hexagon of silk.

“No, I am the keeper of the books. I was the right-hand man of the manager, J.B., but J.B. is dead. Now I’m in charge of the business.” The man turned back toward the pile and plucked from it the book he wanted. The title on its spine: The Labyrinth. He showed it to the cop.

“This was missing from our collection,” he explained. “It’s the last one of its kind. This man—” He nodded curtly down at the crushed corpse—” is nothing but a thief. The thief of fire. He has paid his debt. Accounts receivable.”

Gesturing at the thousands of books crammed into the tiny apartment, he added, “Someone will have to read them.”

He turned to go, and without looking at the cop, stopped and said, “Strictly, every book in the world is in our collection. We just lend them. Even the ones that are bought are actually lent. Best treat them well.” He started out the door again, paused, and added: “All bookstores are one bookstore, all books one book. This is that book.” He held up The Labyrinth. Then he started out again.

“Wait a minute,” the cop said angrily. He reached out and again stayed the man in black, who stopped in the doorway and looked at the floor. The book was in the crook of his arm.

“You can’t just come breezing in here, a stranger off the street, and remove stuff willy-nilly,” the cop said. “This could even be a crime scene. I don’t know from bookkeepers or books or what BS you’re talking about, pal. So let’s take it from the top. First, let’s see some ID.” He shot out a hand.

The man looked down at it. The cop shivered and thought, this guy’s as cold as January on Pluto.

The man looked at the cop. Those eyes. Spiraling down into dark dots. The cop drew back his hand.

“Read much, officer?”

The cop took a step back.

“Well, do you?”

“Ah, no, not me,” the cop replied self-consciously. “I’m not much into books. I’m—I’m a TV man, myself. Watch a lot of . . . TV. You know. The tube. Sports. And . . . stuff.”

“Good,” the bookkeeper said. “Let’s keep it that way, shall we?” He cocked an eyebrow, and nodded curtly. Then he was out the door.

The cop stood silently for a moment. Then he followed the man.

He looked down the spiral staircase, those curving steps and the six-walled apartments evidently the rococo flourishes of an architect who had gone mad.

He was about to call out as he watched the long shadow of the man receding down the curving wall, but he held his tongue. He heard the man’s footsteps on the stairs, sharp reports that grew fainter as the man descended.

When the man got to the first-floor landing, the cop, peering down, could no longer see his shadow. But he saw the shadow of the building’s front door as it opened like the cover of a book. The curtains on the door stirred sluggishly in a light breeze, their shadows like turning pages. Then the book closed.