Out To Lunch, Please Call Back Again. Thank you. Duncan was late. His part-time secretary, Julie, had already dashed off to her real job as a hair stylist and placed the sign on the door, a sign she jokingly referred to as his mullet sign, business in the front, and party in the back, the French words in large bold letters above the English equivalent in smaller letters below—although it seemed counter-intuitive to him what with the English being famous for their Protestant work ethic, and the French for their artistic laid-back savoir-faire. Cultural clichés tended to keep them cozy in this ever changing city. He eyed the lock as he groped for his green leather key case, noticing perhaps for the first time, the inner circle—with its dark hieroglyph awaiting the key—surrounded by the outer circles of the round lock as if it were a large moon in relief upon a planet's surface. Once inside, he locked the door again, and turned the sign over to provide an instructional for potential—or metaphysical—customers to ring for entry. Having checked his messages left to him by Julie concerning the nothingness of the Monday morning enquiries, he made his way up the stairs to Lafcadio & Co., feeling the emotional attachments to the past bear down on him with the increasing gravity of every step. What would he keep from all of this? What about the cordage business archives? Donate the old ones to the McCord Museum? Missing a year here Mr. Strand. Yeah, I know, tell me about it. Storage? Stuff It and Store It would be a good name for a self storage facility. Stuff it in and store it away, out of sight, out of mind. Outdated garden furniture, boxes of family photographs and slides, camping equipment used once, sets of dishes inherited but kept for family reasons, old lamps, VCRs, boxes of cassette tapes and video cassettes their labels fading along with their contents, musty books, years of weighty Martha Stewart magazines, pots and pans, exercise equipment, memorabilia from vacations better off forgotten, plastic bins with mysterious contents, chipped pressed board bookcases, battered luggage, microwave stands, pneumatically challenged bicycle wheels, window and floor treatments rolled and standing up like fabric soldiers in the corner. Landfill layabouts all. He could see the sign already, Clearance, Everything Must Go, Going Out Of Business Sale....
He switched on the lights and approached his desk surrounded with crisp boxes of fresh stock purchased from estate sales on the weekend. One rich yuppie was changing his decor. Duncan was his first call. Book sets the man had said. Bindings. So he arrived to discover 20 volumes of a 25 volume set of Waverley novels, centenary edition in a fine three-quarter green leather with red labels and gilt titles with decorative gilt thistles, marbled endpapers and edges. Fine condition. Worth something if complete. In addition, ten spine-sunned volumes of a thirty volume set of Ruskin's works, uncut, three-quarter green levant morrocco, gilt titles and decorative devices, top edges gilt, marbled endpapers. Worth a great deal if complete. The loft yuppie was changing to a pastel decor and these green, golds and reds would have to go. He was going ultra modern, shifting with the times. No more pretentious bindings by the yard.
There had also been a strange painting resting on the floor nearby and Duncan had asked if it was going too. Most definitely Mr. Yup had said as if it were an embarrassing movie poster like Risky Business, Pretty in Pink, or Better Off Dead. He had offered him 50 bucks for the books and the painting. The guy had held out his hand without a word, happy to have the offending objects removed—along with their dust—from his space.
The painting was intriguing. Duncan sat at his desk facing the frameless canvas propped against the bookcase facing him. A thin-surfaced slightly distorted painting with tones of white through grey to black, depicting Keanu Reeves as Johnny Mnemonic. Keanu/Johnny, dressed in the character's white shirt, dark thin tie and dark grey suit jacket with damaged shoulder seams, was staring out from the canvas holding onto his suit lapels creating a classic triangulation of form which directed the eyes towards the centre. Probably painted from a photograph. In the upper left hand corner, dark black lettering, imitating Renaissance inscriptions:
Anno dni aetatis svae 30
Ego volo cubiculum servicium
Qvod me nvtrit
He liked it, but he knew that Amelia would find it an undesirable if not unwelcome acquisition. The books he could always sell to another upstart yup looking for bindings by the yard, but he planned to keep this painting for himself. Back of the door to the study perhaps, where no one would see it. He remembered when they filmed scenes from the movie below Jacques Cartier Bridge back in, what was it, '93 or '94? the city rippling with excitement over the hip new star in their midst. The scenes were probably shot over on Ile Ste. Helene, for he remembered having noticed a fleeting, out of focus image in the background of the shot, of Molson's Brewery sign glimmering in the deep distance.
The inscriptions were interesting. Even with his weak knowledge of Latin he could see the first inscription was a translation of I Want Room Service! Johnny Mnemonic's breaking point desperate cry for the upscale normality of delivered food, laundered shirts and expensive female companionship voiced atop a gravel pile as if he were Henry V calling out for a horse. Possibly the rallying cry for that whole generation. What was the rallying cry for his generation twenty years earlier? He scanned his memory for his favourite movies from the 1970s: Three Days of the Condor, Being There, A Fistful of Dollars, Brewster McCloud, Harold and Maud, Day of the Jackal, Manhattan, Network. “I'm as mad as hell, and I'm not going to take this anymore,” from the movie Network. Yes, perhaps that was the rallying cry for his generation. It was the end of 1976, his first semester of CEGEP, he had gone to see the film with his brother and their girlfriends and Gavin had come out of the cinema manically screaming the line to the cold December air. Perhaps that's what set him off into punk music, and aroused the divergence in their tastes, Gavin the extroverted young man of action, and he, the quiet introvert more interested in melody and harmony. Gavin had written a song called Mad as Hell which had a local following. What had he used to rhyme with more? Rotten to the core, yes, rotten to the core. Was there a rallying cry for the present generation? His mind failed him. Too many movies, video games, and television shows, the great majority he knew nothing about. He felt out of sync with the times. Too much information. Duncan returned his attention to the painting. There was a signature in the bottom right corner, but it was black on black, difficult to read. Lac Pin? Lac something.
Facing his desk, descriptive cataloguing desires overcoming him, he reached down to a box of books he'd purchased from a retired academic—scholarly volumes likely to be slow movers—and came up with a decent copy of Alfred Russel Wallace's Natural Selection and Tropical Nature: Essays on Descriptive and Theoretical Biology, London, Macmillan, 1895. He dipped his hand down again and brought forth Mind and Nature, A Necessary Unity by Gregory Bateson. A third dip and . . . The Hunting of the Snark by Lewis Carroll, illustrated by Henry Holiday, Macmillan, 1898. Inscription on flyleaf, “From one Snarkophile to another, warmest wishes. . .” Duncan turned the pages skipping past the short preface and began reading the first stanzas:
“Just the place for a Snark!” the Bellman cried,
As he landed his crew with care;
Supporting each man on the top of the tide
By a finger entwined in his hair.
“Just the place for a Snark! I have said it twice:
That alone should encourage the crew.
Just the place for a Snark! I have said it thrice:
What I tell you three times is true.”
The telephone rang. It was an old rotary dial desk model from Strand Cordage days of yore, still managing to play a role as the bookstore's designated silence interrupter in the twentieth first century.
“Hello?” Nothing. Was it the phone or the caller? “Hello, anyone there?” Prolonged silence. “Lafcadio & Co. Bookshop here, can I help you? Puis-je vous aider?” Nothing. “Are you all right? Are you calling for help of any kind?” He held on a few moments longer and hung up.
He stared at the phone with his descriptive mind as if it was a divining instrument: the clear plastic finger wheel with ten finger holes; the ten white dots on the black phone like the motions of some stellar object; the metal finger stop like a kick starter for a motorcycle; the full moon in the middle of the dial, its white paper faded and soiled like a cratered surface; the numbers and letters surrounding the dial like a zodiac, the numbers One and Zero—which had become King and Queen, or vice versa, with the digital evolution—were alphabetically unchaperoned, while the Two through Nine boasted triadic alphabetic bodyguards. And what about the space for two other finger holes in the plastic finger wheel between the 1 and 0. Pulseless phantom numbers. Heaven and Hell. Direct.
The phone rang again.
“Wow, that's a quick pickup,” Amelia said. “Were you about to phone me?”
“Sorry. The phone had just rung before you and no one was on the other line. Was that you?”
“No, I just got in. Listen . . .” and she informed him about having met Thérèse and Jerome and about inviting them to dinner that night. “But that's not all. Mélisande's Pavor is back in town and they are close friends with the other two and want to come along.”
“That's crazy. I just met Pavor when I popped in to see if the bag had been returned.”
Amelia was standing in the kitchen looking at her Reading Woman calendar—October being a Danish painting by Michael Ancher of a young woman reading. “Well the calendar says it's a full moon tonight. And Hallowen's two doors down.”
“Ah, yes, full moon. Halloween. Of course.”
“Uh huh. Should be quite an evening.”
“What about food? Do I have to pick anything up?”
“No. Supposedly Thérèse is a big pizza lover and so they're bringing over her favourites along with wine. Casual. Easy peasy. They even offered to bring paper plates but I had to draw the line somewhere. I'll pick you up just after five. Bye my love.”
Pizza. Wine. Full moon. He could almost hear Dean Martin singing That's Amore.
He picked up The Hunting of the Snark and walked over to the chairs near the front window. Not much activity out there. Concrete blocks along the front of an empty lot like fallen stones from a classical ruin, a homeless guy scrounging for bottles and beer cans, last month's newspaper swirling in the breeze like playful textual butterflies. He sat down and looked towards the slightly overcast sky. Would they even see the moon tonight?
Full moon. He put his feet up on the small table and watched the clouds dissemble as he remembered an incident from his childhood. The summer of 1969, the beach at Cavendish Camp Ground, Prince Edward Island. He'd wandered off to the west, as he usually did to be on his own, in search of interesting shells, stones and possible glimpses of life beneath the water, away from his family, the sun tanners, castle makers, ball throwers and the cries of the swimmers echoing from the waves. After a while, his cotton hat holding a small bounty of remnant shell life, bones of the sea, he had stubbed his toe in the shallow water against a stone, and looking down, he discovered an unusual piece of red sandstone shaped like a foetus—though at the time he hadn't recognised it as such, being only ten years old and quite ignorant of such things—a red stone with an absolutely perfect hole in the middle, drilled by countless waves and perhaps a pebble for the grinding. He'd reached down and pulled it away, separating it from it's sandy bed, leaving behind the outline with a little tower of sand where the hole had been. The gentle salt water wavelets had washed his bare feet as he naturally brought the stone up to his eye to scan the horizon. A charm of elementary particles. A sand-stone sextant. A new-found amulet that fit under his eye brow like an Egyptian eye of Horus. A future signifier of the yoni. A talisman against the disillusions held in store. It had been a moment of still magic, as if he'd been led away by some ancient spirit of the island to discover this very stone.
And that night, they had joined their neighbours and new acquaintances, a family from Atlanta, with their ultra modern motorhome with all the comforts—so different from their own privations in the tent trailer and separate kitchen tent with picnic table—to watch on their small portable television a broadcast of the moon landing, and how he had pulled out of his bunny hug the magic stone to scope the sliver of moon above him, dizzy with the thought of men walking on that distant light in the sky.
And yet, the next year, his Mother had died. His attachment to the stone had dwindled. It's magic doubted. It ended up resting on a bookshelf in the finished basement with shells, stones, a pennant from Plymouth Rock, a small lobster trap in balsa wood, a peace pipe from a wilderness village. He had left it behind when he had moved out, and years later, when he was helping his Father pack after having sold the family home for financial reasons, he had taken up the stone and had placed it among items he was going to take home with him, and his Father had told him it was his. He'd discovered it he had said. Duncan had stood there speechless. It was as if a vital organ had been torn from him. He'd let it go. Mystified, feeling sorry for his Dad. But when he cleared his Father's small apartment out after his death, it wasn't there. Gone.
Duncan breathed in deeply and exhaled with a great sigh. Had it been a blessing to find or lose he'd never know. A curse to have lost or found, his myth.
He shook his head to dispel the past and opened Carroll's Snark, and remembering the disappearance of the Baker at the end, he flipped to the last stanzas, spread the pages out on his lap and read:
The silence. Some fancied they heard in the air
A weary and wandering sigh
That sounded like “—jum!” but the others declare
It was only a breeze that went by.
They hunted till darkness came on, but they found
Not a button, or feather, or mark,
By which they could tell that they stood on the ground
Where the Baker had met with the Snark.
In the midst of the word he was trying to say,
In the midst of his laughter and glee,
He had softly and suddenly vanished away—
For the Snark was a Boojum, you see.
Duncan closed the book feeling a sense of exhaustion overcome him. He lay his head upon the soft chair back and fell into a light sleep.
© ralph patrick mackay
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