"I've never heard of grown man being afraid of going into a bookstore." The man in the black Gortex jacket stands in a circle of light on the top of brown brick steps, holding open a glass door.
"I'll just wait here for you." The other man is slightly shorter, slightly stouter, and slightly balder. He turns up the collar of a wrinkled raincoat.
"It's raining," says the man in the black Gortex jacket.
"I'll be fine."
The man in the Gortex jacket lets the door close. "You surprise me, Warren. I always took you for an intellectual type -- the sort who would hang around in bookstores all day. Why can't you come in with me for a moment?"
"It's not that I can't. It's just that I'd rather not." Warren takes off his glasses and wipes them on the sleeve of his coat. "Around the next block is a small but comfortable drinking establishment. If you would be so kind as to buy me a glass of Bourgogne, I will be more than happy to relate the entire bitter tale that explains why.
The man in the Gortex jacket laughs. "No wonder they say you're an oddball, Warren."
"Who says that?"
"Just a couple a guys," says the man in the black Gortex jacket.
* * *
I used to live in an apartment (says Warren, sipping his wine), which was just eight blocks from the City Library, which housed a superb collection of old volumes and classic literature. The truth is, I simply can't tolerate popular contemporary literature. I once tried to read a paperback I found in the train. It was about a woman who -- and I'm not making this up -- was unable to choose between a wealthy, shallow man who had not matured past adolescence and an impecunious, shallow man who had not matured past adolescence. The book's main attraction as far as I could tell was a series of repetitive descriptions of sexual intercourse using the terms 'moist,' 'thrust,' and 'gargantuan' as many times as possible.
That is why I became a collector of old books. I spent a great deal of time searching for authors who inspired me to collect rare copies of their works. This search often took me to City Library, and that is why I happened to be there on the evening of Wednesday, November tenth.
I paused for a moment between the sections on modern Central Asian Religious Dialectics and Political Diatribes of Nineteenth Century Micronesia when a woman came up and addressed me. As I have never been the sort of man with whom strange women strike up conversations, I was taken aback. She had a green plastic card pinned to her puce polyester-blend sweater with the words LILLIAN SMITH, ASSISTANT LIBRARIAN in raised letters.
"May I help you?" she asked.
I couldn't recall seeing her before; however, hers was not a particularly memorable face. She was of medium height and build, her hair a dull brown, and her eyes unadorned behind glasses that seemed more appropriate for a woman twice her age.
"I doubt you could help me," I told her. I never liked to discuss my tastes in reading matter with a stranger.
"You seem like the sort of man who has sophisticated tastes," she replied.
"Quite right. In fact I am something of an amateur collector of fine rare books."
"Well, you have nothing to apologize for," she said, although the idea of apologizing hadn't -- and would never have -- occurred to me. "I find book collectors to be among the most interesting people in the world."
I was about to ask her if she didn't have some re-shelving project to keep her occupied, when something seemingly insignificant occurred that set off an extraordinary series of events that was to change both our lives. She smiled and touched my hand. It was merely a light touch, but of sufficient pressure to make me realize I hadn't been touched by a woman in a very long time, the last being at an office Christmas party when an intoxicated receptionist tweaked my nose.
"I enjoy collecting rare books myself," she said. "There's something about holding an old book that fires one's imagination, don't you think? What its history has been, who has read it and left his mark on the pages, on whom the book has left a mark."
I wasn't able to prevent myself from looking at her hand. She had long fingers and a slender wrist with fine hair -- qualities that I have always found to be stimulating in a woman. Further, I noticed that below her modestly long skirt, she had wonderfully stout ankles above sensible red and white athletic shoes.
Despite my usual reticence with women, I plunged ahead into the conversation. "A few years ago I began collecting the works of O. Henry, which I'm sure you will recognize as the nom de plume of author William Sydney Porter. I have a 1923 soft cover first edition of a selection of his stories signed by his daughter, Margaret Porter Cesare. It reads, "Pop loved life, and his death was a real surprise ending."
Her brown eyes grew wide behind her glasses, and I observed that they carried a certain appealing light in spite of a noticeable thinness of lash.
"Then I became interested in James -- Henry James, of course," I continued. "One of the finest writers in the English language. The highlight of my James collection is an 1886 first edition of The Bostonians, signed by the author with a personal note, presumably to Harriet Beecher Stowe, "Harriet, you write damn well for a dame."
I could tell the woman was impressed.
"Most recently, after reading A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, I undertook a search for collectors' editions of James Joyce. My most treasured possession is a limited edition, leather-bound copy of Ulysses. It was discovered propping up an unbalanced bar table in a Dublin pub. The mark of the table leg is still visible."
At that point I realized I was gasconading to an inappropriate degree. "Actually, the remainder of my collection is rather meager I'm afraid. I'm still very much in the process of acquisition."
She brought her fingers to her chin, and tilted her head. "O. Henry, Henry James, James Joyce. Hmmm. You might give Joyce Carol Oates a try. I have an inscribed copy of her first published book, By the North Gate. It had been a gift to her plumber. She wrote, "Thanks for fixing my crapper. Toodle-oo, Joyce."
"My goodness," I said. My head was beginning to swim.
"Perhaps" she said, "you would be interested in hearing about other books in my collection."
"Interested? Yes, certainly I'm interested. In fact, I'm exceedingly interested."
"I'm Lillian." She said, offering me her right hand.
"Warren Borman." She placed her left hand on top of mine and smiled at me once again. "It is a pleasure to meet you, Mr. Borman."
"Please do call me Warren."
"And please do call me, Warren," she said, laughing. Once I had caught the humor of her remark, I laughed also.
I wrote her phone number on the back of my library card and arranged to have dinner with her on the following Friday evening.
In the space of a very moments I had become utterly and irreversibly smitten.
* * *
The next morning after showering, I happened to glance at the full-length mirror on my bathroom door. It is an act which I usually avoid and for good reason. I resolved that I would skip breakfast that morning, possibly lunch, and perhaps even dinner. I began to wonder how much weight a middle-aged man could lose in thirty-seven hours.
Later I found myself sitting in the cafeteria of my office building trying to extract as much nutrition as I could from slightly flavored soda water. "If you were taking an attractive woman out to dinner," I asked a fellow from Research and Development, "where would you go?"
He looked at me and spoke in the charming idiom of a New York City native. "If I was taking a fucking attractive woman out to fucking dinner and my fucking old lady found out, I'd go fucking straight to fucking hell, that's where I'd go. Why, you got a fucking date, Warren?"
I told him that indeed I did.
"Well here's a piece of advice, and I won't even charge you for it. Get yourself some pomade, grease up what you've got left of hair, and comb it across that dome of yours. Only women that are freaks go for bald men."
I thanked him.
"You're fucking welcome," he said.
* * *
The next day I went shopping for a new suit. You well can imagine my disappointment when I discovered that in spite of my austerities, I still required 42-inch trousers. However, I purchased a blue serge suit as well as a maroon tie that sported small yellow horseshoes. I was feeling devil-may-care.
I arrived at the door of Lillian's apartment at exactly 7:58 and pushed an eager finger on the buzzer.
"You are very prompt, Warren," she said, slipping out of her door. "I appreciate that in a man."
"And I appreciate a woman who appreciates promptness in a man," I said, trying inconspicuously to ensure that my well-oiled hair was still in place.
Beneath a fuzzy brown coat she wore a pink dress with orange flowers that demurely concealed her figure. On her ears were two faux-jeweled pink earrings and in her hair two pink plastic clips.
"You look lovely this evening," I told her.
"Warren," she said, "you are far too kind." The ruddy blush that rose to her cheeks perfectly complemented her ensemble.
"Not nearly kind enough for you," I said, rather neatly.
* * *
I had made reservations at Bookbinder's Seafood which at that time was considered the finest restaurant in the city. When the pompous maitre d' hotel finally left us alone to peruse our menus, my eyes lit upon a description of the evening special, Langoustine a la Venus de Milo. My stomach, deprived of food for two days, reacted almost instantly, giving everyone in the vicinity the impression that a mild thunderstorm had formed inside the restaurant.
"Are you all right, Warren?" Lillian whispered, politely attempting to mitigate my embarrassment.
"All right? Unquestionably all right. In fact, in anticipating this evening, 'O then I was happy; O then each breath tasted sweeter -- and I knew that my food would nourish me more,' " I quoted. "Walt Whitman."
She was visibly impressed at my erudition. However, she was not to be outdone. "One of my collected volumes I treasure most," she said, "is an early David McKay edition of Whitman, inscribed to his boyfriend, J. Addington Symonds. He wrote, "Thanks for the suggestion. Much better title than Leaves of Cabbage."
And so the evening went. When not paying attention to my Langoustine, I was enthralled by her knowledge of rare books. We discussed everything from a Guttenberg Bible with Second Thessalonians printed upside down to a copy of Kerouac's On the Road that had once belonged to Pope John Paul I. We lost all track of time, and it was only when our waiter told us there was no more coffee, and would be no more until the following evening, that I paid for the meal, left two dollar bills on the table, and proceeded to take Lillian back to her apartment.
"Warren," she whispered as we sat double-parked in front of her building, "would you like to come up and see my collection?"
I was charged with excitement. "Lillian, I would like nothing more."
She began searching the car interior and then exclaimed, "Oh, hell's bells, must have left my purse in the restaurant."
"No need to fret, my dear. I'll simply call Bookbinders and have them ensure its safety until we can get retrieve it."
"There's no need to do that, Warren. I left a spare key in the straw of the artificial palm tree at the end of my hallway."
"Nonsense," I said, pulling out the cellular phone provided by my employers. "We must recover your wallet and your identification papers. There is widespread concern currently regarding the crime of identify theft."
Within moments I had the manager on the line. "Sir, my name is Borman -- Warren Borman. My date and I were patrons of your establishment this evening, and we seem to have left behind a purse. It is chartreuse faux-leather with brown fringe and a broken strap. We will be there in a few moments."
"Warren ..." she said.
"You don't have to thank me, Lillian. It is merely the duties of a preux chevalier on behalf of his lady."
True to my word, we were back at Bookbinders within a few moments. Due to the late hour, the employees were busily cleaning the premises and preparing to close. The manager met us at the door. "I am terribly sorry, Mr. Borman. We scoured the restaurant from top to bottom and the purse you describe is not here. I would be shocked to learn that any of our patrons or employees might have stolen it, but I've taken the liberty to notify the police."
"We are grateful, sir," I said.
"Oh, my," said Lillian.
It was just then that one of the City's finest arrived with the purse in hand. "I retrieved the stolen article from a man attempting to enter a 2009 black BMW in a parking garage at Sixth and Chestnut. The perpetrator is a city councilman with an untreated case of kleptomania. He is now in custody."
"Are you Lillian Smith?" he asked her.
"Lillian Smith, alias Lillian O'Callahan, alias Lillian Wong, alias Lillian Manischewitz?"
She began to cry. No, to be more exact, she began to sob.
"What is the meaning of this?" I demanded.
"This woman is wanted in seventeen states for grand larceny. She uses fake credentials to obtain jobs in libraries and absconds with valuable books. She's known to the FBI as 'Library Lil.'"
"Lillian," I asked, "is this true?"
She didn't answer, only continued to sob, presenting open arms to be handcuffed. She was.
When the officer had finished reciting a litany of criminal civil rights, Lillian turned to me with tear-stained cheeks. "Warren, we could have made the perfect-bound couple."
I felt a stab in my heart, as if I had forever lost all capacity to love. "'Of all sad words of tongue or pen," I said, "the saddest are what might have been.' Omar Khayyam."
As the gendarme led her off, Lillian called out over her shoulder. "If only I could show you my copy of the Rubaiyat translated into Ebonics."
* * *
"The next week," Warren says to his companion, "I sold my entire library on e-Bay. I could no longer bear the sight of it. With the proceeds I bought a large-screen, high-definition television. Now I spend my lonely evenings watching reality programs."
His companion stands and reaches for the black Gortex jacket that hangs on the back of the chair. "Library Lil? Are you putting me on, Warren?"
Warren also stands, puts a quarter on the table, and smiling, dons his wrinkled raincoat.
-- Jonathan D. Scott