2016 Collective Novel SPECIAL COLLECTIONS
It’s November and time for NaNoWriMo and for the Red Wheelbarrow Writers Annual COLLECTIVE NOVEL This year entitled SPECIAL COLLECTIONS. Each day in November a new writer will push this story’s envelope and engage or enrage the rest of us. Have at it, amigos. Poets, this one is especially for you.
With apologies to Hart Crane whose father was a candy manufacturer and to Henry James’ THE ASPERN PAPERS, I give you, SPECIAL COLLECTIONS.. Complete with visual. Enjoy!
Chapter 1 by Laura Kalpakian
The university library was an architectural marvel: eight vast floors of tinted, protective glass that rose from a narrow pedestal with spectacular views in every direction. It looked like a spaceship, but it felt like a church to Margaret Harper with Special Collections at the top like the Sistine Chapel. And the 8th floor had its own keyed elevator, quite apart from the various elevators used by mere mortals. Margaret, the Head of Special Collections, was so early this morning that she had that elevator to herself. She smoothed her conservative skirt and hoped she’d used enough concealer under her eyes. She’d hardly slept at all last night. She blamed her restlessness on her cat, Frito, who kept jumping off and on the bed, but she knew that in fact Frito had absorbed her anxieties and not the other way around.
Today was the day of Margaret’s crowning moment of her career so far, her first literary acquisition. The estate of Derwent Lassiter, renowned poet of the Beat Era, would be presented to Special Collections by his niece, his last living relative. Margaret had long struggled for this moment; the worth of Derwent Lassiter’s estate had not gone uncontested, especially since Lassiter’s niece was asking $500,000. When stating their case to the Library Foundation Board, Margaret and her ally, Felix Ingersoll of the English Department, had contended that Lassiter was not only a fine poet in his own right, but he had long, lively, sometimes disputatious associations, (and exchanged lots of letters) with major figures in the Beat Era, Kerouac and Ginsberg, Ferlinghetti, Gregory Corso and many others outside that disreputable crowd, with more staid, respectable poets like Phillip Levine and Donald Hall. Felix had seen the letters.
In meetings, Foundation Board Chairman Lloyd Jones had looked over his bi-focals, glaring at the entire Board. “Miss Harper is asking the University to pay $500,000 for the work of a writer who published four or five scant books, a few anthology pieces in his lifetime.
“Angel at the Barroom Brawl is a great poem,” Felix contended. “It won a Pulitzer.”
“His grandfather created Choc-O-Nibs!” Lloyd Jones scoffed. “Lassiter’s great gift—if various memoirs and literary gossip are to be believed—is that he caroused his way through life, drinking, talking, traveling, smoking pot, and sniffing cocaine, finally dying of self-inflicted liver disease.” Jones was a sallow man who wore impeccably tailored suits and Italian shoes. “He bedded women left and right and never married, and finally when he was broke and alone, he retired to our fair city to live in his grandfather’s sprawling lakeside home. Living off the family trust fund of a candy manufacturer. Choc-O-Nibs? Mr. Jones’ deep, impressive voice dripped with sarcasm, concluding,“Moreover Derwent Lassiter spurned all contact with the university, replied to Foundation’s many overtures with language I cannot repeat.
“I made friends with him toward the end,” Felix Ingersoll interjected.
“Yes,” Jones replied acidly, “you’ve been courting up his niece for years.”
Felix, in his hearty way, had laughed. “Courting is not a verb I would use with regard to Miss Prescott.”
Margaret reminded herself to call the last living link to Derwent Lassiter Miss Prescott. Everyone at Special Collections just called her The Niece. The Niece was wizened, ugly, with tiny claw-like hands, beady eyes and a long nose oddly attached to her upper lip so that when she talked her nose wiggled. You couldn’t tell how old she was. Sixty? A hundred and sixty? She was tense, terse, snarly, and Ingersoll had in fact courted her up. Got her price down from a million to $500,000. In the end the Library Foundation offered her $35,000 and she took it.
“Oh!” Margaret cried when the elevator doors opened on the glorious 8th floor. “I thought I’d be the first one here!” Milling in front of her were half a dozen people including the assistant librarian, Vanessa Ames, who Margaret was almost certain was a Lloyd Jones spy.
“Paperwork,” said Vanessa. “The Niece has to sign the paperwork today. Documents are in your office, Margaret.”
Margaret’s administrative assistant, Rebecca McShane, passing by remarked briskly, “We’ve got everything set up in the Conference Room for the two o’clock ceremony. They’ll bring the coffee up from Food Service later. I bought fresh cookies myself at the bakery, and Mother had some doilies and china plates from her wedding and I brought those along to serve from.” A woman of girth and grit, Rebecca had raised five kids to varying degrees of successful adulthood, and now looked after her wistfully demented mother, Elsie. Coming to work, dealing the silent, uncomplaining arcana of Special Collections, seemed like a vacation to Rebecca.
“You think of everything, Rebecca,” said Margaret, patting her arm. “You are a treasure.”
“The catalogue is ready for you, Miss Harper,” added Sally Lewbiosky, one of the grad student interns, “the list of library books that ought not to be on the circulating shelves, but up here in Special Collections. I had no idea we had so many rare books! Grose’s Classical Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue. Printed in 1788, and just imagine, any old yahoo could check it out and take it home where their roommate could spill beer on it, or their baby could fling oatmeal.”
Margaret shuddered at the thought. She considered it her life’s purpose to augment Special Collections, to save books like Grose’s Vulgar Tongue and first editions of Tristram Shandy, Clarissa and other classics from the vulgar paws of mere library users. “Good job, Sally.”
Before going to her office Margaret checked out the Conference Room where her other grad student intern, Davis Delong, was placing programs on each metal folding chair. Margaret nodded at Davis, but didn’t actually speak. Talking to him was like talking to your beagle. He had big, droopy sad eyes and a big droopy sad body and he wore his pants cinched up way too high. She nodded affirmatively at him and closed the door.
Al Rabinowitz stopped her in the hall. “We’re all set for tomorrow. Ten AM, right?”
“Yes, and thank you so much, Al, for taking charge of the delivery. In addition to everything else you do for Special Collections, it’s such a load off my mind to know you’ll oversee the actual delivery.”
“Well, Margaret, the job description Tech Librarian covers a multitude of sins.” Al was an easygoing guy whose calm demeanor defused many a computer meltdown and saved more than one career. Margaret always feared that Circulation would snatch him away, pleading that they had so much more need of his tech-spertise. “I’ll introduce you to The Niece, I mean, Miss Prescott, before the ceremonies this afternoon, so she’ll know who you are tomorrow.”
“Sure, but do you know why I got an email from The Niece that said she wanted me to meet her at the library loading dock tomorrow?”
“That’s weird. I don’t have any idea. She didn’t cc me. Well, she’s old.” Margaret rolled her eyes meaningfully. Neither of them wished to say how unpleasant The Niece could be.
In her beautiful, glassed in corner office with its magnificient views, Margaret Harper went through her secret morning ritual. She always kissed her fingertip and placed the kiss on the framed studio portrait of her handsome fiancé Andrew. Today however, she put the framed photo in a desk drawer. Andrew had said he would call last night, and he had not. Margaret could feel her relationship fraying, and her heart breaking. Perhaps it was her own fault for taking this job eighteen months ago and moving away, but for seven years she had worked at jobs she thought beneath her just so that she could stay with Andrew. When this wonderful opportunity—the job she’d dreamed of since her college days!—came to her, she took it. Of course she took it! She begged Andrew to come with her. He refused on behalf of his art. He was an actor, part of a repertory company that couldn’t go on without him. Margaret had unwisely reminded him of the definition of repertory. “I didn’t need to do that,” she chided herself now, biting back a bitter tear as she closed the desk drawer over Andrew’s picture. The only other picture she had for her desk was one of Frito, and she swore she would never be one of “those” women. The sort who keep cat pictures on their desk.
At two PM the dignitaries assembled in the Conference Room, Lloyd Jones looking especially suave and grim. Other than the Library Foundation Board and her own staff, and those members of the English Department who had backed Felix, she didn’t recognize anyone here. A man she didn’t know kept plucking at her sleeve.
“I’m Huxley Allworth, Miss Harper. I teach bookbinding at the VoTech.”
“The VoTech.” She tried to keep her voice even, not sliding up to the implicit question: you’re here why? “Bookbinding. How quaint.”
“Well there’s more people than you might think interested in bookbinding, fine editions, good paper, elegant design, and I’d like to reprint some of Derwent Lassiter’s poems. You know, bind them into new editions. Collector’s editions. I’ve got some great students.”
“At the VoTech.” Margaret studied him; he was tall, pale with bright blue eyes, an earnest air, and tousled hair. She wanted to ask: Are you mad? But instead, glancing over at that pompous ass Lloyd Jones, she said, “Why don’t you talk to Mr. Jones of the Library Foundation? I’m sure he’d be delighted to discuss this with you. Excuse me. The Niece is here. I mean Miss Prescott.”
On Felix Ingersoll’s arm Miss Prescott still leaned on her cane. She was a little walnut of a woman in an unbecoming mauve pantsuit and a chartreuse boa. She seemed more alert than Margaret remembered, indeed, downright cheerful as she reached into a bag she was carrying and passed out bars of Choc-O-Nibs among the distinguished guests. Felix went rather pale as she put one into the palm of Lloyd Jones who sneered visibly.
Margaret hurried to the front of the room where she wrested the bag of candy from the Niece and handed it off to Rebecca McShane, who tucked it instantly out of sight. Thank God for Rebecca. Margaret personally led the Niece to the place of honor, a lovely wing chair reserved for her. Margaret tapped the mic and asked everyone to seat themselves, pronouncing that Special Collections was about to have a very special occasion.
“Holy shit!” cried Al Rabinowitz the next morning when he came down to the library dock to take possession of the Derwent Lassiter gift.
A U-Haul was parked there and the Niece was directing the work of two burly work-study students who had only emptied perhaps half of the contents. The students were grunting under the weight of a steamer trunk, huffing and puffing to get it on the dock. As he made his way toward the U-Haul Al kept glancing at the two dozen boxes which sat with their flaps open and some of their contents visible. A peacock feather waved out of one and a giant stuffed monkey grinned out of another and from a third a set of VHS tapes spilled alongside a big plastic dinosaur, a T. Rex. No papers in sight, though there was a small concertina, a set of maracas, a digeridoo, and a collapsed marionette. From another a baseball bat protruded and a catcher’s mask and from out of the mask there was a bouquet of plastic ebony roses. Al whipped out his cell phone and called Margaret Harper. “You better get down here. I think you should see this.”
“See what?” asked Margaret.
“Words fail me. Bring Ingersoll.” He slid the phone in his pocket and went up to Miss Prescott who promptly put a Choc-O-Nib into his hand. “There’s been some mistake, ma’am,” Al began gently, “Special Collections bought your uncle’s papers, his drafts of poems, his correspondence with other well known poets, even maybe his laundry list, but this?” He pulled out of a nearby crate a rubber chicken whose beak was closed shut with a roach clip. Beneath it there was a dead potted plant.
“No mistake,” she said in her thin, cackly voice. “Uncle Derwent was a poet, yes, but he was rather much of a pig and a packrat. His papers are in there but so is everything else. How else was I going to get the house cleaned out? Now at last I can rent out my great-grandfather’s lovely lakeside home. I’m so very grateful to Special Collections! Here boys!” She tossed each work-study lad a Choc-O-Nib when at last they put the steamer trunk down. “Chop chop! Get all this shit out of the truck and pronto. I have to get the truck back within the hour! Oh, and here’s the bill from U-Haul. You all are paying the freight.” She turned and wobbled back toward the cab, singing in a happy voice to the tune of My Bonnie Lies Over the Ocean, “‘My father makes book in the backroom! My mother makes bathtub gin! My sister makes love for a dollar! My god how the money rolls in!’”