A very bad man, part two
December 1, 2013 by Thomas Wictor
There was no sense of order at all, piles of debris having simply been dumped wherever a clear space had existed. It was a scene of such devastation that I immediately lost all desire to browse and decided to leave. I greeted Larry and engaged him in our ritualized banter, but his heart wasn’t in it at all. He’d aged dramatically and looked terrible, as wrinkled and painfully vulnerable as a turtle without its shell. As he ate I saw that his front teeth were gone. He had the distracted, senile affect of the monumentally depressed.
I asked him about his assistant, and he answered in a dull, labored shout.
“Hadda fire ‘im. He was robbin’ me blind! Pocketed half the sales he made. Oh, that was a month ago. Haven’t been able ta find a replacement!”
It was appalling. The image of crippled Larry lugging crates of books around his vast store by himself, lacking the strength to unload and shelve them as he teetered on his cane, made me almost weep with pity.
“Are you looking for a new assistant?” I asked, not knowing what else to say.
“Can’t afford one,” he yelled. “He’d have to work for books. That’s my standard arrangement.”
For just a second, I thought I saw a feeble glint of craftiness in his watery blue eyes. But that was deeply unfair of me. I dispensed with the notion and told Larry I’d ask my brother if he’d be interested. Larry turned back to his pudding and nodded vaguely.
“Send ’im in for an interview,” he shouted.
An interview? Then I realized it was a face-saving device that this humiliated old man used to tell himself that he wasn’t an utter failure. So we’d do it his way.
Tim goes to work
Tim was in fact interested, because he knew that though much of Larry’s stock was distressed, there were usually one or two gems he hadn’t found anywhere else. And anyway the poor old guy just needed a break. Once his store was in order, he’d be able to handle things a lot better and would surely get a decent trade going again. All he needed was someone who could whip the place into shape.
If he didn’t have to handle the physical hefting of boxes, Larry would have a chance to take care of the actual running of the business. It seemed like an arrangement that would satisfy all, and maybe earn Tim and me a gold star or two on our scoreboards. I didn’t have the time to do much work myself but volunteered to stop by occasionally and help out.
Of course Larry hired Tim on the spot, arranging to pay him eight dollars an hour in books, which Tim could choose himself. We both knew we were doing this as an act of charity, and I was rather proud of myself. How many other people would take on a task of this magnitude, just to help out a stranger?
Tim went to work right away. First he tackled the rear wall of the store, which was hidden behind a fortress of boxes that contained magazines, manuals, and annual reports from large technical corporations. One of Larry’s early coups had been to buy out the library of one of California’s oldest and most successful Fortune 500 companies. He’d been living on the proceeds and glory for twenty years, and what remained unsold from the thousands of volumes were oddities he’d never be able to unload.
It took Tim almost a month of opening, sorting, repacking, and stacking before he’d gotten most of these publications in order. Larry was initially ecstatic at the way my brother threw himself into his work. When I showed up after a week, the difference was startling. Tim had single-handedly shifted over a ton of magazines, sorting them into their own boxes on the shelves and creating the only clear space on the entire cement floor of the massive building. It didn’t take very long, though, before the initial rush of enthusiasm was blunted for everyone.
What happened was we discovered what Larry was really about. For one thing he surrounded himself with impaired hangers-on who looked up to him as a successful self-made man. He had few real customers, just longtime cronies who came to the store and spent the day rummaging through his boxes. Marginalized and lost, they had the most astonishing voices I’ve ever heard.
There was Mrs. Barker, who gabbled excitedly about her daily bus rides. She clucked and cackled, reminding me of a shifty chicken-woman. Jane was an emaciated giantess with a whiskey-and-cigarette roar that put James Earl Jones to shame. Norm the 400-lb. Samoan gurgled and rumbled like a Victorian water closet. Jim—a dark, mustached guy of forty or so—had the clear, musical soprano of a six year-old girl. They talked all the time, never listening, and when they shouted to be heard over each other, it reminded me of an aviary or the African savannah.
They all seemed harmless except for Jim. He scared me to death. All he talked about was guns and shooting people “where their nuts is at.” He claimed to have been in the U.S. Army Special Forces, but since he was insane and dumb as cement, that was obviously a lie. He smiled too much, and I kept catching him staring at me with a look of cold appraisal.
After Tim had been there almost two months, I felt awful about having gotten him into this mess. I started working with him full time so that he wouldn’t have to be alone among the manimals.
We discovered that Larry was a paper-hoarder of diabolic accomplishment. He’d thrown away almost nothing in his life. His store was crammed with sandwich wrappers, utility and phone bills, mimeographed flyers for book shows twenty-five years past, paper cups, and shopping bags. He’d also been a prowler of garage sales and had accumulated boxes of clothes, suitcases, photo albums, medical records, knickknacks, toys, and truly inexplicable purchases like half a spinning wheel, a vacuum tube tester, incomplete printing presses, and unidentifiable chunks of metal and plastic.
He had almost nothing of value, yet he was convinced that all of it could be sold. Every one of his photos was crumpled, torn, or stained. All the strange little machines and gizmos he’d collected were broken. Most of his books were missing their dust jackets or were dog-eared, some had gotten wet and had swollen into paper cylinders resembling cooling vanes on a motor, and some had been set on fire. He was trying to sell books that had half the cover burned off.
Much of his stock was ragged ex-public library books that he’d bought in bulk, with lending cards dating back to the forties still tucked into envelopes pasted in the back. The more we examined the contents of the store, the more evident it was that Larry had been coasting on his grandiose plans and cunning for decades.
His filing cabinets, once uncovered, were empty. His mail-order records from 1975 or so began to contain scribbled excuses for not shipping the books, even though he’d cashed the check. We found boxes of irate letters demanding refunds, some from indefatigable customers who’d been writing for fifteen years.
What infuriated me was that Larry believed himself to be above all natural law. Sometimes he’d bring in a genuine prize, take a giant pencil and gouge an outrageously unrealistic price into the into the first page, and then toss the book on the floor, causing the spine to separate.
He had boxes of original negatives that collectors would’ve fought over with baseball bats—if Larry hadn’t piled old roller skates and frying pans on them, crumpling and scratching them into worthlessness.
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