by David Kaplan
Daniel McBride, a professor emeritus of astronomy, bald and of stooped posture, meandered through the cubicles of his neighborhood book market. A few vendors got by with plywood boards that held their out-dated publications, while others used empty milk crates to show their inventory.
Infrequently, Daniel found unusual articles in and among the hodgepodge of this ramshackle market. Once he found a twenty-dollar gold certificate — perhaps used as a bookmark or as mad money hidden away and forgotten about. Another time he came across assorted ancient postcards — one picturing, in sepia, the Great Pyramids of Giza. On still another occasion, there was a Hawaiian postcard with lovely hula dancers, whose hips swayed as one moved the card back and forth. His favorite was the intimate letter of rather explicit intentions, signed Love, Zoe — January 1, 1928. Daniel McBride cherished these little documents, sometimes wishing his own life were as exciting as others’ had seemed to be.
On this particular morning, Daniel picked up an early edition of Spoon River Anthology, by Edgar Lee Masters. He hadn’t read this collection of poems since college. Bringing the opened book to his face, he inhaled the scent of old paper and time.
“How much?” Daniel asked.
A young teenage girl, sitting in tight jeans and an equally tight blouse with her feet up on another chair, didn’t move and remained headless behind an issue of Motorcycle, ignoring him. Cotton balls separated her toes as she waited for her freshly polished toenails to dry. “Can’t you see the price? That’s why we put’em there,” she said without looking up.
Daniel raised an eyebrow in her direction and was just about to put the book down when a thin man, with a cigarette behind his ear approached the table. Daniel recognized the man and his yellow fingers, as he started rearranging books misplaced by careless customers. The man ignored Daniel as he did most customers.
“Dad, tell him the price of the book he’s holding. Somehow he can’t find the price,” the young girl said.
The vendor looked up, took the book from Daniel, gave it the once-over and said, “Twelve dollars.”
On his way home, with book in hand, Daniel stopped at a local diner and ordered coffee and a cruller. He opened the anthology haphazardly and laughed that providence should have chosen this page.
They laughed at me as “Prof. Moon,”
As a boy in Spoon River, born with the thirst
Of knowing about the stars.
They jeered when I spoke of the lunar mountains,
And the thrilling heat and cold,
And the ebon valleys by silver peaks, And Spica quadrillions of miles away, And the littleness of man.
But now that my grave is honored, friends,
Let it not be because I taught
The lore of the stars in Knox College, But rather for this: that through the stars
I preached the greatness of man,
Who is none the less a part of the scheme of things
For the distance of Spica or the Spiral Nebulae;
Nor any the less a part of the question Of what drama means.
Daniel read the poem several times and thought about it at length, while both his coffee and cruller came to room temperature. He thought about those that had mocked him behind his back. His views on binary star systems ignored. An early paper he submitted on the gas composition of nebulae squelched. The campus politics, of which he had long ago unburdened himself, was all in the past. Daniel now felt comfortable with himself.
The following Saturday, Daniel was again to be found at the bookstalls. Rain had hustled him in under the market’s old military tent. Vendors who sold collectible comic books and vintage magazines scrambled for bricks and anything else that would hold their fluttering merchandise in place. Others ran to roll down and secure the tent walls as the entire temporary edifice shook with each gust of rain-filled wind.
A young boy of middle school age, sopped from the storm, was talking to the slim vendor who had sold Daniel Spoon River Anthology. The boy spoke in a rather loud high-pitched voice. “You said you’d save it for me. I came all the way over here in the rain and now it’s gone!”
“I think a month is long enough to hold a book, especially without a deposit,” the vendor countered.
Daniel watched as the argument continued, which annoyed everyone else who was quietly browsing at the stall. The yellow-fingered vendor looked around and then pointed in Daniel’s direction. The drenched boy looked at Daniel and then at the thin man to whom he said a few more unkind words and proceeded in Daniel’s direction.
“You have my book!”
“No I don’t,” Daniel replied.
“Yes you do. That man said he sold it to you last week.”
“Correct! He sold it to me. So it’s my book and not yours.”
“Do you know how long it took me to save up for that book?” the boy squealed.
“It seems as though enough time had passed that the man could no longer wait for you to come back, so he put the book back on the table for sale. I guess he was once holding it for you.”
With that, the boy jammed his hands into his coat pockets, turned around, and trudged into the rain.
Daniel wondered why a boy, his age, would be as interested in such a book as Spoon River. Surely, it wasn’t a reading assignment. No, that would be too much to ask of a young mind. Then Daniel thought about himself at that age. His memory was still very good, even at his age and he remembered many of the books he had read when he, too, was young. None of them required the insight and life experience necessary to appreciate Spoon River.
Daniel put down the book he was considering and walked over to the man whom the boy had confronted.
“Daniel McBride and you are?”
“Philip Bookbinder,” the vendor said.
“Are you serious?”
“One of life’s little jokes,” Bookbinder said.
“Ha, ha, ha. Yeah, really hysterical,” Bookbinder’s daughter snickered.
“That kid who was arguing with you for selling me Spoon River.”
“He’s not a regular customer, is he?” Daniel asked.
“Not mine, but you can ask around; he’s here now and then.”
“He is? I hadn’t noticed.”
“It’s not surprising. Customers here look down for the most part.”
“I guess you’re right,” Daniel said.
Some time later, the sky had cleared and Daniel spotted the boy walking with an old man down the street. The boy guided his fragile companion carefully. At a distance, Daniel followed the two, seeing how amiably they chatted. They finally reached a nearby park where the boy and the old man sat down on a bench and continued their conversation. Daniel looked for a dry bench and sat down at some distance, discreetly observing the two.
A newspaper or magazine would be nice to hide behind, as it was for the girl in the book market, Daniel thought. He walked over to a steel mesh litter can that looked promising and reached in. Heavy with rain, the newspaper wilted as he lifted it, which made Daniel refrain from any further retrieval and he walked back to the bench. The boy looked away from the old man for a moment and caught sight of Daniel. The youngster reached into his daypack and unfolded a white cane, which he handed to the old man. He then got up and walked toward Daniel.
“Are you finished with Spoon River yet?” the boy asked.
“Yes, I have what you might say ‘finished’ it,” Daniel said. “Then I might read it several more times before putting it on a shelf. Later I might pick it up and read it all over again.”
“Why don’t you buy another copy and sell me the one you have?”
“I guess I could ask you the same question. Why don’t you buy another copy?”
“I have my reasons,” the boy said. “Look, I’ll give you fifteen dollars. Is that enough?”
Daniel looked away from the boy to the old man sitting by himself tapping his cane as if in time to music. “No, that won’t be necessary,” he said to the boy. “I’ll see you here tomorrow.”
“Can’t do that,” the boy said. “How about the next day after school, say four o’clock?”
“Okay, four o’clock, the day after tomorrow.”
The boy nodded and stuck out his hand, “We’ll shake on that.” Daniel gripped the boy’s hand firmly and said, “The day after tomorrow, four o’clock.”
The boy walked back to his companion. From his daypack, he took out a book. The old man opened the book seemingly unconcerned as to which page, and brought it close to his face apparently because of his failing eyesight. He then gave the book back to the young boy, who opened it from the beginning and started to read.
Daniel waited, on the same park bench, the day he was to meet the young boy. It was well after the agreed time of four o’clock when the young boy came down the cobblestone path.
“Here you go,” said Daniel as the boy approached.
“No, I don’t need it anymore,” the boy said, sitting down next to Daniel. The boy’s lip started quivering, his eyes tearing up.
“My grandfather died yesterday,” the boy said looking directly at Daniel.
“Oh, I’m terribly sorry,” Daniel said. He then handed the boy a brown paper bag. The boy looked inside.
“No, I told you I don’t need it anymore.”
“Here take it, but before you read it, open it and put the book close to your nose and inhale slowly.”
“Grandpa always did that. Why?” the boy asked, wiping his tears away. Daniel looked at the boy and thought for moment. “When you’re old, it brings back memories.” Daniel wasn’t sure the boy fully understood. He then patted the child on the head, got up and left.
“The fifteen dollars!” the boy shouted.
Daniel kept walking until he reached a turn in the path. He felt the boy looking after him. Then out of view, Daniel turned around took a few steps back and peered around the curve in the path. He noticed the boy looking around, as if making sure no one else was watching. Daniel stepped back for a moment and then spied on the boy again. The child opened the book and brought it close to his face, then put the book down in his lap and opened to the first page. Turning to one side on the bench, as if someone was beside him, the boy started reading aloud. Daniel saw the boy’s lips move, and although he couldn’t hear the boy, he knew exactly what the child was reading.
Where are Elmer, Herman, Bert, Tom and Charley
The weak of will, the strong of arm, the clown,
boozer, the fighter?
All, all, are sleeping on the hill…
David Kaplan recently retired as an associate director in broadcast operations at CBS television. He is a member of the Amateur Astronomer’s Association, which meets in Peyton Hall at Princeton University.