Duncan fumbled for the shop keys in his trouser pocket while he stared up at an x-shaped vapour trail, its sharp outlines dissipating against the blue sky. Was it a sign? A negative response, an omen? Or was it merely a visual outline reminiscent of a game of noughts and crosses? He was uneasy in his interpretations of late. A grand Nay? Or noughts and crosses? Time would tell. The latter choice, however, also held signifiers, the cross both a sign of negation and salvation, so unlike the zero, a natural form, emblem of this universe of spinning galaxies and their spinning worlds in orbits of unending time.
Down the street he noticed the profile of a surveyor leaning over a yellow tripod, his eye to the theodolite like a submarine Captain at a periscope. Preparations were being made, plans drawn, visualizations created. The surveyor adjusted his stance and it occurred to him the technology was as ancient as the Great Pyramids when compared to quantum computing, a subject Tom Culacino had discussed over dinner a few nights ago, an incomprehensible digression concerning multi-dimensional simultaneity. He could understand the straight lines, angles and points of the surveyor's art, but Tom's musings concerning the shift from binary digits to qubits had rendered him dizzy—though it could have been the wine.
Coins spilled over the edge of his pocket as he withdrew the keys. Festina lente, he thought, festina lente, the image of Aldus Manutius's printer's mark, the dolphin and the anchor passed before his eyes as he stooped to retrieve the loose change from their circular beds in the dusting of snow.
He locked the door behind him and turned the sign around for customers to ring for entry, and then made his way to the staircase to his bookshop on the second floor. Without Julie working mornings in the cordage business, the building was very quiet, every day feeling like a Sunday. She'd been playing the music of Arcade Fire over the past few months—a friend of his had called hip Montrealers in their twenties, the Arcade Fire Generation just as he had once called their own The Men Without Hats Generation—the rhythms and driving beat wafting up through the old building like a transfusion of fresh blood into the arms of an ailing valetudinarian. She hadn't been surprized, nor disappointed when he informed her of his closing the business. She had her job at the hair salon, A combination of habit and pity had kept her working for Duncan. A parting gift of a fine illustrated copy of Louis Hémon's Marie Chapdelaine along with a DVD of the 1984 dramatization of the book starring Carol Laure, had been his first choice for her, but the more he had contemplated the gift, the more it seemed out of date and irrelevant to a young woman of today. Louis Hémon, an author who'd met his death between the parallel lines of train tracks west of Chapleau in northern Ontario almost a hundred years ago, never to witness the publication and later popularity of his novel, seemed to him a bizarre choice as he looked out at the urban landscape they shared, this rich diversity between the river and the mountain, this metropolitan promise between the whirlpools and the cross.
He'd opted for a substantial iTunes card instead.
He plugged the kettle in to make tea and then sat at his desk feeling that he was settling into one of his lows. “Concavities” Tom had called them, using his mathematical metaphors with their subtle nuances of meaning beyond Duncan's understanding. Ever since hearing of the sale of the land for condominium development, his moods had been erratic, shifting back and forth between a sense of freedom, to one of immobilizing helplessness. His mind began to ponder the what ifs. What if Amelia had not played with her sister in her uncle's dumb waiter as a child? He might not have been called to replace the ropes, and hence, would never have met her. She might have married someone better, a lawyer, doctor, engineer, someone who could have provided a stable financial existence. Had he ruined her life? What if he'd broken free from his Father's business, gone abroad, pursued another career? What if he hadn't been entranced by that first true book he'd bought from his church bazaar when young, that small hardcover biography of Keats by Sidney Colvin, the spine cocked, the former owner's name on the flyleaf, pulling him into the vortex of literary magic? What if he hadn't quarrelled with his brother? What if his Mother hadn't died? What ifs were like unredeemed winning lottery tickets past their due date. He breathed in deeply. Too many things had happened recently. The discovery of the odd manuscript and its mysterious disappearance from the shop; the switch of the laptop bags leaving him with Kierkegaard's Either/Or instead of the 1881 cash book; and finally, the condominium development and his dilemma of how to deal with a lifetime of books and a remnant family business. Three's a charm his Dad used to say. What else did he say? There's nothing between the sceptre and the spade but hard work Duncan. Nothing between the sceptre and the spade. Spadework. Grave digging. Alas poor Yorick. Be resilient Duncan he told himself. Be resilient. But as the water boiled in the kettle, he was imagining himself lying down in an enormous book, the text of the right hand pages cut out to fit the contours of his body, the lines of text truncated by his form, and his body inked to replace the missing letters and words. Then he imagined the preliminary pages descending over him, followed by the stiff green buckram binding revealing a gilt decorative emblem on the cover of an ouroboros in the form of thick coil of rope, tail in mouth, with an open book in the centre. A Life in Books - Duncan Strand in gilt letters on the spine. Buried in print, in a book shaped coffin.
The click of the kettle's automatic turn-off feature brought him to his feet.
What would be the text he wondered? What letters and words would cover his body? A teabag slipped between his fingers and fell to the floorboards like a seedpod and he quietly cursed the stiffness in the joints of his left index finger and the fatty tumour growing in the palm of his left hand, an enlarging knot pulling on the tendons of his fingers like a spider the threads of its web. He stretched his fingers back feeling the tension, and examined the small pale hillock between the head and heart lines with its radiating shadow lines, just one of many that his body seemed to produce with abandon—the one on his right forearm was the size of a scallop. See the doctor Amelia had said, but the last thing he wanted was someone digging around in the palm of his hand possibly making it worse. Ever since he had turned fifty years of age, his body had been setting off warning lights like an old car.
He placed the tea cozy over the small pot which reminded him of his Mother snugging his wool hat on his head. He could see her at the dining room table for her Tuesday morning teapot meetings with Mrs. MacSween and Mrs. Brown, neighbours and friends—Edna and Agnes to her—and he could hear her voice saying she'd be Mother and pour the tea. From the bottom stair he would listen as the Queen Anne English bone china cups would burble with delight, and he'd watch the vapour rising from their delicate gilt rims and wait for the gentle plop of a sugar cube and the clink of the spoon before the sublime silence of the first sip.
Taking a deep breath to dispel the memory, he turned around and walked towards the book stacks. There was a time when he could have recounted the purchase memory of each book—a church bazaar in 1990 for that volume, a hot summer's day at an estate sale on Rosyln Avenue in '82, for that one—but the books had outnumbered his casual recall for years now; and the books he'd sold over the years had vanished from him completely as if he'd packaged and shipped off their memories of provenance along with the books themselves. He looked into the first aisle to his left and scanned the colourful spines. Perhaps he could choose a text to represent the page to surround his body in his imaginary book coffin. He looked into the aisle to his right, the aisle of Sir Percivale where the end of the alphabet graced the shelves, and thought Swift's Gulliver's Travels seemed apropos. Voltaire's Candide? Waugh's Brideshead? Wells's Time Machine? Wilde's The Importance of Being Earnest? Woolf's The Waves? He turned his attention to his left, the aisle of Sir Lancelot, and looked up to see Kobo Abe's Women in the Dunes. He always liked that book. Atwood's Life Before Man? Borges's Ficciones? Conrad's Lord Jim? Such a wonderful opening passage. A heavy quarto of Balzac's Les Chouans, with a hundred engravings? Or the large edition of Robert Burton's The Anatomy of Melancholy, its gilt titles faded? A favourite volume of Keats he remembered. It was a volume that seemed to have edged its way forward from its shelf-mates as if eager to be picked. Taking it down, he blew the dust off the top edge and dust motes floated in the muted light like fecal matter in an aquarium. He brought the book back to his desk thinking perhaps a more elaborate form of bibliomancy was necessary, something greater than the Sortes Vergilianae, the divination by the random placement of an index finger. Why not dip into that sub rosa randomness that's been tripping him up of late. Why not use chance to shine a light into the depths of happenstance. Why not avail himself of the arbitrary to perceive the ultramundane and stimulate that preternatural presence he occasionally felt when playing cards or scrabble with Amelia, that sense of a whimsical, playful manipulation overseeing the game. All mathematics Tom would have said, the math behind the odds, the odds behind the math, but still, that sense of something behind the curtain, an unexplainable shadow presence that remained with him.
The large book lay unopened on his lap
On a pad of paper, he wrote down the simplest of questions, “What Is Going On?” He counted the letters, 13, added the spaces, 3, multiplied by the number of words, 4, to arrive at 64, and then multiplied this number by the three odd occurrences, leaving him with the sum of 192. Picking up the heavy volume of Robert Burton's Melancholy to seek out the 192nd page, he opened it and at once a large bookmark for Grange Stuart Books fell out into his lap. The bookmark had been living in the dark interstices between pages 304 and 305, Partition 1, Section 2, Member 4, Subsection 7, An heap of other Accidents causing Melancholy. He read the first paragraph:
In this Labyrinth of accidental causes, the farther I wander, the more intricate I find the passage, & new causes as so many by-paths offer themselves to be discussed. To search out all were an Herculean work, & fitter for Theseus: I will follow mine intended thread; and point only at some few of the chiefest.
Was this the sign itself? Not so much an answer, as an understanding? The words reminded him of the quotes on the slip of paper that fell from the Kierkegaard volume, quotes from the philosophers Wisdom and Wittgenstein, and he sensed there was a resonance between them and this Burton passage. But what about page 192? Checking it, he discovered a mundane description of how diet affects the humours, all carps, lobsters, crabs, cowcumbers, coleworts and melons, and quickly dismissed it as insignificant. It was almost as if there was a dual nature to this preternatural presence, a good and an evil, one of helpful guidance, and one of mischievous misdirection. He turned back to page 304-05 and once more read the opening passage. Everything was somehow connected.
The phone rang. Silence greeted him on the other line. He didn't repeat his initial hello, but sat there listening to the fuzzy static, feeling like he was staring into a dark haunted house waiting for a ghost to appear.
To the sound of the surveyors pounding stakes into the ground, Duncan looked out of his window and sipped his tea, the residuum of unreality leaving him with the bitter taste of his cross-grained and self-aggravated existence.
© ralph patrick mackay