I’d walked past Scully’s Bookstore every day on my way to work since moving to the South Side of Chicago a year ago. My job was adequate, nothing special, just as I perceived myself to be. I was adequate. It was adequate. My life was adequate. Nothing much happened to me as I imagined to everybody else. However, at twenty-six, I had little proof of the existence of such adventures and shadowy, threatening intricacies. And, with few friends to count and lacking the social grace to evolve beyond the fiber of my Catholic upbringing, I kept my fantasies and disappointment to myself.
I usually glanced in at Scully’s then raced across the street to catch the Q32 bus which would snake its way along the outskirts of the famous Chicago Loop and spew me out a block away from the firm of Murphy & MacArtle, one of the less notable accounting firms the city had to offer the business community. Anticipating a flood of new clients from the surrounding commercial growth after the end of the Second World War, I was one of three junior accountants who had been hired to give credibility to a staff that was twice the size it was only a year ago. It was easy, straightforward work. I was good, or rather adequate in my own eyes and, as far as I could tell, acceptable to the two partners, both of whom were over twice my green, unassuming years.
So, why I turned to reflect that brisk December morning upon the still darkened bookstore in spite of the fact that my bus was approaching the stop and, if I paused I would have to wait another twenty minutes for another, I do not know. However, I did and in that moment in the frigid winter of 1949, I altered my course forever.
I could make out movement in the back of the store. There were a few light bulbs dangling from the ceiling like nooses waiting to strangle spent fireflies. As the wind swept around me there was a mustiness that increased in intensity as I came closer to the window. I found that curious, not alarming, like most others would who possessed wisdom or experience that alerted them to danger, or at least cautioned them against the direction they’re headed.
Nose to the windowpane, I was so intrigued with what lay beyond that I forgot all around me. The mustiness was thick with the scent of the earth and all that crawled and wiggled below. Again, there was movement. It flashed in the deepest recesses of the store and gave no indication of its dimension or character. I wanted to do the prudent thing like check my watch or turn and see if another bus was approaching, except I couldn’t resist the darkness within. There were aisles and aisles of disjointed, teetering bookshelves stacked to the rafters. Ramshackle and decrepit, Scully’s looked like Charles Dickens had a hand in its design.
A grayish haze enveloped the center of the store. I half expected a bent and wizened wizard to shuffle out of the dimness and wave me away with a magic wand. Maybe send me back to work before my absence was noticed. I moved sideways toward the door, which I knew would be locked at this early hour. My hand clutched the brass doorknob. It was warm to the touch while all around was caught in the grip of another dismal,Chicagofreeze. I quickly let go, stepped away, than grasped it again, mostly to challenge myself.
That had always been my problem. I accepted myself for who I was, never relenting enough to let risk guide my destiny. The knob turned freely in my hand. I pushed open the door a crack, then a few more inches, then a full foot and was greeted by the richness of unknown possibilities.
“Hello,” I called out, to announce myself and clarify what could only be perceived as honest intentions.
I closed the door and listened to the distant clock chime ring itself quiet. I announced myself again, asking the ghosts if the door was supposed to be open to anyone who cared to listen. The floor creaked beneath my feet. The air clung still and thick. If there was a winter roaming the streets you could not tell it by the warmth in the store that lay as still as the dead. I turned back and saw movement along the street. Cars and buses slipped along, hesitating momentarily as the streetlights teased themselves green and red. A few steps beyond my seasoned boundaries, Scully’s Bookstore was already what I had hoped it would be, and more.
I stood entranced. I was curious and comforted at once. At this moment I could not make a case for not having been here before, on a foreign shore of a strange and mysterious land beyond which lay the outline of destiny. I moved past one of three large oak tables strewn with papers and stuffed envelopes and record books. Boxes sat unopened. Invoices, financial records, and correspondence were scattered like large handkerchiefs in the wind. And dust collected everywhere, a seal of authenticity and antiquity.
Standing in the middle of the confusion was a large cash register that might have been as old as the building in which it was housed. It was made of brass and exotic burnished woods and what had to be, to my disbelief, gold-capped register keys. I moved closer to touch it and was greeted by the same sensation I had experienced with the doorknob only moments ago. It was a marvelous machine in a marvelous shop whose owner thankfully happened not to be in yet. Or so I wanted to believe.
“Is someone there?” A faint echo sounded from a distant aisle.
Of course I wanted to respond but instead hesitated. It was at that moment I felt I was an interloper and had gained false entry into a world to which I was not invited, even if the door was unlocked and the siren of excitement had beckoned me forward. “Stephen Connors,” I answered. For a second I toyed with using an alias, then discarded the idea as more fitting of someone else’s boldness.
The shuffle of tired feet against an older floor came closer until a small man framed into view. He was all that I had expected and not at all what I’d feared. His form was twisted and bent and, although he may once have been over five-and-a-half feet tall, he was now much reduced to the form of an ancient child. A cassock of unkempt white hair fell over his shoulders and onto a sweater that was as old as I was.
“Cold day out there,” he said with a grimace of a smile, and wended his way behind the desk to a tall stool that he mounted with more dexterity than I would have imagined. He patted down his trousers and glanced up. “What brings you to my shop so early, or do you have nothing better to do with your life than wander the streets?”
What engaged me first was his voice, clear and distinct and far younger than I had expected. “I was passing by.”
“Looking for what?” the old man said shuffling papers and stacks of books as if he was suddenly capable of instilling order to the confusion.
“I’m not sure.”
He looked up without taking real notice of me. “A man needs to know where he is going if he ever expects to get there.”
Did you ever want to sit down, not for comfort, but because you felt unwieldy standing? I felt like I was alone battling a torrent of wind and needed to get closer to the ground in order to avoid being swept away. “I agree.”
“So your interest in my store is an accident?”
“I pass Scully’s every day on my way to work. I wanted to see what was in here.”
“Curiosity is good. Curiosity is how all things begin, inventions and explorations and adventures. Without that spark there is only a sullen tomorrow.”
“Sullen describes my life more than any tomorrow,” I openly confessed.
He glanced up, his radiant blue eyes encircled by the wrath and reason of age. “Then maybe I can help you, Stephen Connors.” He wiped what appeared to be a perfectly clean hand on his pants and extended it to me, “Henley. Peter Christopher Henley, to be exact.”
“You have a wonderful shop here Peter Christopher Henley.”
“It serves the purpose.”
“Which is?” I asked more out of politeness. After all, it was a bookstore.
“Are you really interested?”
What could I say? I had already missed my bus and the possibility of rushing out to make the next, or to think of an excuse for being so late, never entered my mind. “I am.”
At ease within his bones, and his store, Peter Christopher Henley offered an appreciative nod. “Then take off your jacket and I’ll show you around.”
It was only when he asked me to remove my jacket that I realized how really warm it was in the shop. I took it off, folded it respectfully and set it on the side of the desk and followed him into the belly of the beast. It was a large store. Much larger inside than might be assumed from the street.
Every step drew a sigh from the uneven wooden floor. As we inched through the aisles he explained with measured gesture and great pride the expanse of his collections, ranging from Art to Dance to Drama to History, ancient and modern. Listening, while compiling questions at the ready, I became more aware of the strength and resonance of his voice. As long as I wasn’t looking at him and following directly behind, he sounded like a man thirty years younger, a train conductor with a sturdy resolve rather than a world-weary man resigned to the end of his tale.
I also became aware of how much warmer it was the more we descended into the far reaches of his shop. By the time we had come to the section on Science & Technology, which was unusually sparse, I was sweating profusely, yet I had not heard the crackle of a steam pipe or once seen a radiator.
“Who was Scully?” I asked as we came to a flight of narrow stone stairs.
Henleybraced himself for the descent, then we moved slowly downward, taking cautious, deliberate steps that might have traced a spiral down over two flights. He stopped at the bottom on the staircase. “He was the original owner. Nasty, cantankerous old man. Never liked him. He had bad habits, bad breath and worse disposition. Smoked nasty, short black cigars. Took close to a decade to get rid of the stink after he passed away.”
“Then how did you get here?”
“By accident, much like you,” he said and switched on the overhead light as a bell chimed overhead. “Customer.”
“How can you tell?”
“The bell, didn’t you hear it?”
Of course I did, I just choose to ignore it. My tour was over. He switched off the basement light. We marched back upstairs and moved toward the front of the store and the two women waiting patiently by the door. Henleywished me a good day and tended to the two librarians who were told that Scully might possess an old manuscript on the travels of Homer that they were looking to purchase.
After a few minutes, I felt out of place, as if I was overstaying my welcome. I felt pressured to leave, and more uneasy with what might have happened if I’d stayed. I picked up my jacket, went back onto the street and almost froze to death before I notched up all the buttons.
A sheen of sweat fused to my damp body, and seized up like a straitjacket of frost. I wanted to go back in before I caught pneumonia, but chose to run for an approaching bus. Once I had made dutiful apologies for my tardiness to my manager, my day passed in fits and spurts and lingering doubt. By the time I got home that night I was so tired it felt like I had been without sleep for a week. I fell into bed without supper, so consumed by the events of the morning that sleep and whatever followed only added to my fatigue.
That I had to go back to the store was not in doubt. What I was going to say and why I was so taken with the experience was in question. Did I expect him to show me more shelves crammed with ancient manuscripts, end with a soliloquy on his texts on Zoology, and then usher me out as he had when the two librarians had appeared? What I was experiencing, what had taken every drop of energy from my spirit, and at the same time invigorated me in ways I could not explain, had more to do with the store than books and manuscripts.
I awoke the next morning too early for work, or for much else. I consumed two bowls of warm cereal and coffee and sifted through the sequence of questions that had sprung from my encounter with the proprietor of Scully’s Bookstore. I would go back and ask about the beginning with Scully. How couldHenleycome to own a shop when he so despised the man who founded it? Was Henley a relative, or did he marry into Scully’s family and was left with the antiquarian legacy?
The day broke as cold as the one that preceded it, only a little less windy. However, inChicago, less windy was a relative description. I buttoned up, left my apartment with gloves and cap this time and made my way along with a few familiar faces toward the bus stop.
Across the street Scully’s was cloaked in familiar shades of gray, black and dismal. I checked my watch. It was exactly the same time I had approached the shop yesterday, and yet it seemed that more than a day had passed. The street and the shop looked older, more worn and weakened. I crossed the street and stepped up onto the sidewalk. It was pitch black within. Darker than dark. I pressed my face to the window. The only visible prominence was the gold cash register keys. What a prize that antique register would make.
I moved to the door, grasped the knob and turned it. There was no life or movement to the metal fixture. It was still warm. Warmer, than yesterday. “Makes no sense,” I muttered. I repeated this mantra all the way to work and several times after dinner and through whatever dreams plagued me long into the next daybreak.
The shop was shuttered and dark the next day and the day after. I inquired at the butcher across the street who confirmed that the “old man” was prone to not showing up every day at regular hours. “Nice enough. The guy keeps pretty much to himself,” the butcher said. “He doesn’t bother anybody. That’s the way it should be.”
I also learned thatHenleycame to the shop thirty-eight years ago a week to the day before Scully passed away at 93 years old. Henley came from a small town in westernOhioand, it was believed, if somewhat romantically I suppose, that he had been a poet who joined an old friend and took over responsibility and continued the reputation of the shop after the owner passed on.
Few of the shop owners on the street offered much insight that morning as I made my way to work and was greeted by a dyspeptic manager waiting for me at my unoccupied desk. I was put on notice that continued disrespect for the principles and routine of the firm of Murphy & MacArtle could result in dismissal. I was impatient with the firm’s impatience. I was a hard worker, alone or with others, and knew I’d contributed to the firm’s modest success.
Still, the threat came as a surprise. What didn’t was my indifference to losing my job. I had worked hard all my young adult life, from school to becoming an accountant. Getting fired from a respected firm after so short an employment could permanently affect my career, especially if I decided to remain inChicago. While it was hardly glamorous, it was secure and often times interesting. As one of my early mentors said, metaphorically, “the books of a company reveal the lifeblood of their soul and spirit.”
Though I could not picture myself without a job, accounting or otherwise, the most important thing in my life was understanding what lay behind the riddle, or what I believed to be the riddle, of Scully’s Bookstore.
Saturday came and, even for eager junior accountants, it was a prescribed day of rest. For me it was a day to probe beyond the shell of my own fears and darkest suspicions. How long wasHenleygoing to keep the store closed and, without notice, as the butcher and two other shop owners had confirmed? Moreover, why was I so driven to find out the reasons when Henley himself was clearly not motivated by the economics of good business practices?
My clients included many small and medium-sized companies, from apparel to metal stamping firms. All had the same goal, which was to make as much money as they could, while secreting sums of relevance from objectionable state and Federal regulators. Since when were bookshops managed differently? Unless, of course, if the owner was an independently wealthy eccentric whose only extravagance was a place to park himself during the day.
WhileHenleywas as strange as the circumstances unknown for his taking over Scully’s creation, there was no indication that he was working simply to amuse himself. I concluded that the opposite was a more likely possibility. It was clear the man was driven, beyond dedication, to maintain the store’s reputation. Henleywas obviously not a skilled businessman. That didn’t explain the disappearances. However, considering the reputation of the store it might, even if poorly managed, provide the old man with quite a respectable income.
I skipped breakfast and was in front of Scully’s a minute before the store was set to open 10am, according to the weekend hours posted on the door. There was a steady light shinning within the bookstore. I grasped the knob and opened the door,.
“Henley?” I called out, now alarmed for the old man’s welfare. I moved to the desk. The clutter was an anathema to me. The confusion, unacceptable, a clear disregard for order and sound managerial practices. Everything in the store was in a state of disarray. The opposite of my profession, and organized nature. I called out again, refusing to accept that the lights went on and the front door was opened by magic, a word that had come to mind many times over the last few days.
“Stephen?” the soft whisper called out. “Is that you?”
I advanced along one of the aisles until I sawHenleysitting on a short stool with a book clasped tightly in his hands. I knelt at his side. “Are you all right?”
“Better now,” he said as I helped him to his feet, “I can’t move as fast as I once did.”
“And still do,” I said with some affection.
“Sometimes, and not bad for a man a month over a hundred.”
I stopped in my tracks. “A hundred?”
“Have most of my own teeth too,” he said, grinning from ear to ear. “And all of my own hair, white shambles as it is.”
I self-consciously touched my forehead. My father had gone bald early. My baby brother Charlie, over inEvanston, was not yet thirty and he was bald. It didn’t bother Charlie’s wife, though it did make him feel vulnerable. “Shouldn’t you be thinking of retiring? Getting some rest?”
“This is not the time for rest,” he said mounting the stool behind his desk, under my careful guidance.
I watchedHenleycatch his breath. “Ever ask yourself where that saying comes from? In the nick of time?”
The old man shot me an impish chortle. “You can’t imagine how many times I’ve asked myself that very same question. I enjoy finding out the hows and whys of life. Though it’s the whens that concern me most.”
A hundred years old? I considered loosening my tie. Once my tie was knotted and tightened securely around my neck, it never weakened until I returned home from work. Then it was carefully removed and placed back into the closet with the rest of my wanting wardrobe. Things had to last, however, they were made to wear out so life was more a race to see if you could make the vulnerable less so, extend the life of things which, heretofore had been given a limited disposition, like life itself. I couldn’t imagine living another seventy-four years.
“Do you know why they throw rice at weddings when the marriage ceremony is concluded and the bride and groom are leaving the church?”
“No,”Henleysaid. From the look of him, it was difficult to tell if he was being polite or patient with me. “Hopefully you’re going to tell me.”
“I once read that it was an old English custom designed to distract the devil from interfering with the happiness of the newly-married couple. The rice is meant as food for the devil, a distraction, so he’ll be preoccupied and leave the couple alone so they can escape his attention.”
“And do you believe that?”
“That, and the part about the devil. Do you believe in the devil? In a Satan?”
“I’m not a very religious man, so I suppose a part of me doesn’t believe in the existence of such a creature.”
“But there is a part of you that does?”
“The part of me that spent nearly a dozen years in Catholic school listening to tales of doom and damnation if you fail to do or say the right things. It was always about fear and the elusive reward of the afterlife.”
“Life is a little more complicated than how many ‘hail Marys’ you chant.”
“Is that why there is no religion section in Scully’s?”
Henleynodded appreciatively. “Few people take note of that.”
“And still fewer get a tour like I did.”
“Most, in fact, don’t.”
I wanted to know all about the store and find a way to prove out my feeling that there was so much more to it than musty manuscripts and a certain local renown. I had half expected the old man to mention where he’d been for the last few days, but settled for a less direct approach. “By the way, how is business?”
“You mean the store’s or mine?”
“I mean that this store and you are all I’ve thought about for the last four days, if I’m not being too forward.”
“You sound like I did many years ago.”
“Thirty-eight years ago?”
“When I moved into the neighborhood with the intention of retiring.”
“What changed your mind? I don’t mean to pry. I mean your finances are your business, and I’m not sure why I’m taking an interest here. I’ve been drawn to this place and I feel disrespectful for prying into your past.”
“We’re all searching for something that few of us understand. A reason to get up in the morning, a passion, an experience that will challenge our hearts and soul. An opportunity to prove ourselves, and give greater meaning to life. I came here to retire and met Scully much in the same way as you’ve met me, by accident or chance, though I do not believe in either. I walked by, came in and disliked him from the beginning. I couldn’t help myself. I was as drawn to this place and, as you seem to be, equally unable to grasp why. Things like that happen. You see a woman across the street and know you’re going to spend the rest of your life with her. It happens.”
“Not to me,” I said, responding as though what was happening was an accusation, an indication of my not really being in control of myself at any given moment, or my life in its entirety. “Not with women at least.”
“Women are a most wondrous experience. A feast in which all men should partake. They make us so much better than who we are alone.”
I was taken aback by the expression of the old man’s emotions. I’d had several girlfriends in my life. Though there wasn’t overwhelming passion in my past I was not a virgin, a fact, in a time of post-war recuperation men still prided themselves on. “You’re married?”
“I was, almost a lifetime ago. The most dear, sweet person you could ever want to be with. She passed away and I couldn’t stay in our home any more. I came toChicago, not around here at first, and tried to make a new life for myself. I was a contractor many years ago. Built quite a few homes in my time. Hard to believe it, looking at me, more withered then man. Bent back and all, I’m quite good with my hands. I like to build. To create.”
“You’re a lucky man.”
“And now I have all these friends,” he said looking down the rows of shelves, “who need my care.”
I felt self-consciousness, almost apologetic for my ignorance. I’d never embraced literature, instead doing as little as possible to pass related courses in high school and college, I suddenly realized they might have made me think and inquire, making me a better, more fulfilled person. I had read Chaucer and Milton and of course Shakespeare, merely to get by, not in any way to grasp the mind and machinations of great thinkers.
“It’s cold outside.”
“I’ve never gotten used to these winters,” the old man said.
“And yet, the doorknob on the street side of your door is warm in the coldest weather.”
The old man let the phone ring itself back to silence and slipped off of the stool. “Not really.”
“And do most not realize that the back of your shop is warmer than the front and your basement is uncomfortably warm in the middle of winter in a store that has no radiators?”
“You’re a very observant young man.”
“Where are you going?”
“Back to work. A weekend is a holiday for you, not for me. I have to set up for a book club, pay my bills, get out some correspondence and place my orders. It never stops.”
“Can I help?” I asked, unable to accept that the old man assumed my time in the store had ended.
Henleyshuffled toward the back. Before he disappeared down one of the aisles, he pointed to a broom and suggested that I take a turn. I bounded off the stool, grabbed the broom and began sweeping from the base of the front door. Under different circumstances I might have resented being assigned such a chore, but not here, and not in the magic of Scully’s.
When I finished sweeping Henley asked me to log in an order of books from one of the publishers and set the books on the shelves, which I did, mentioning reflectively that Henley’s system of record keeping and posting to his accounts could use some updating. To my delight the old man welcomed any help he could get confessing that, as anyone could see, business was not his real strength. Chortling as he moved about, he added that in a hundred years of life he had not found his real strength, not unless you counted the good sense he had in choosing a wife.
By noon Scully’s Bookstore was busy with the curious and the collector. The phone was ringing. Questions popped from all directions. For the first time in my life, I felt a real purpose, of being a part of something special. It amused me to be so helpful, taking orders and figuring out how the cash register worked and guiding people to places in the recesses of the shop as though I had spent a lifetime here.
How hadHenleyever gotten along without me? By the end of the day it was obvious that one man could not effectively manage the store, especially on Saturday. I madeHenleyan offer to work there on Saturdays for next to nothing which, if my business instincts were any good, was probably all the shop could afford to pay. Henleybeamed agreement.
I spent much of the next day ruminating over the events of the previous day. If Sunday was supposed to be a day of reflection and religious consideration, a respite where you set aside time to communicate with your spiritual inner voice, I was instilled with a sense of energy and rebirth in ways I could not reconcile.
My upbringing didn’t allow for options and possibilities, rather they tended to focus on a rigid prescription of dogma, fear and repentance. I had no intention of setting foot in church to soothe my concerns, though I would have given anything to go back to the empty store after hours and take a closer look at the basement. I’d walked by the stairwell on Saturday, feeling the warmth well up like an updraft from hell. Henleygave me no indication I was treading into places where I was not welcome, as I might have expected from a man of the cloth or, in fact, by a man who had something to hide. Or fear.
The week passed and, with time, some of the reservations that had first gripped me, eased. There was no black secret, no satanic force welling up from the dirt beneath the store. No reason to suspect the old man’s absence was due any less to age and natural infirmities not yet revealed than to his doing battle with the devil. For five days I went to work more diligent and dedicated at my daily tasks than I had been or considered myself capable. By Friday, even my manager, who was more likely to be the devil incarnate than anything brooding in Scully’s basement, cautiously praised the results of my heightened efforts.
In my spare time and after work I had been making notes on how to improve, not merely simplify, the record keeping and organization of the store along with tracking orders, invoices, and paying bills. I made notes on howHenleycould reach out and capture more of the local market for rare books.
The next Saturday, my second as a part-time employee, Scully’s was even more frenetic. There was a morning book club reading and one scheduled for early afternoon, in addition to a large shipment, which had to be recorded, and the volumes set on the shelves after they were priced out. I had mastered the cash register and was even recognized by a few of the neighborhood locals as well as scholars from the state university who themselves enjoyed spending part of their Saturday’s shuffling around Scully’s wonderfully antediluvian literary maze.
The day rushed by quickly and on more than one occasion I was praised by the old man, grateful for help, he couldn’t imagine how the shop had been managed on weekends with only one man for as long as it had. At the end of the day we sat and considered what we’d accomplished.
“We did well today,”Henleyconcluded, taking in the chaos that lay everywhere in spite of my noblest efforts.
“We’re a good team,” I said.
“Good. Yes, good.”
“We’re the second oldest book store inChicago, and I’ll bet that most people don’t know that. So we’re not the first, not that Burlington & Brown is anything special. We can still reach out and market our understanding of the book business. I think we can get more business that way.”
“More business? We can’t manage what we have.”
“I think we can.”
“Three Saturdays and you’re an expert,”Henleysaid.
“I thought you want more business,” I said, disappointed at the disapproval inHenley’s tone. I had so many suggestions and ideas I wanted to share with him. Maybe I’d been presumptuous. After all, it was obvious which of us knew the book business better. And one of us was over a hundred years old and probably not so eager to work even harder. I’d finally found a toehold in the world where I thought I could make a difference.
Henleytightened the sweater across his chest and sat back, pressing down the folds of his pants, which always looked two or three sizes bigger than his frame called for. The habit spoke of old-world pride and respect for a generation that was almost lost from the ravages of a depression and two world wars. “I appreciate what you’ve done for me Stephen. It’s made a great difference. And I like what you said about how to keep the books and records. I think that would be very helpful. But, really, and this may come as a disappointment to you, I don’t want any new business.”
For no reason that I could think of, I askedHenley, “does it have anything to do with what’s going on in the basement?”
“My basement is my business.”
I’d been down there retrieving books for customers several times over the last two Saturdays. The heat down there was stifling, and had no obvious origin. The basement ran the full breadth of the shop upstairs.
“Doesn’t the heat damage the books? It can’t be good for them.” I’d been so excited about working at the store and the change in my life and about finding out more about whoHenleyreally was, that for the first time in many days, I realized how far I had suppressed the real reasons for my curiosity.
“Stephen, I’m an old man. And I do need help here. But I’m not yet prepared to discuss what goes on in the basement or how I could afford to pay you for your kindness. And, as I said before, I am very grateful for your time and the effort you’ve made, but can we leave it at that for now?”
I wanted to protect what little beachhead of friendship and confidence I had established withHenleyand erase any doubt in the man’s mind. “Let’s get things in order and close up.”
“Yes. To the task at hand,” he said, his voice ringing with resolve.
Henley’s movement, invariably cautious, was even more stilted by the end of the day. A miracle of mechanics and will in the morning, by the end of the day he looked liked he belonged in a nursing home. The fact that he could work a day much less a week in such a physically and intellectually challenging environment was a curiosity I’d come to accept.
I walked through the hours and days of the next week as if I’d been given medication that wouldn’t let me think or feel. The haze of my greatest fears was populated by craven images of naked, screaming men and women being slowly lowered by chains into cauldrons of boiling oil, of flesh being pierced and torn by jagged metal teeth and the floor of the basement covered in a wash of human blood and twisted organs, and of Peter Christopher Henley holding back the evil torrent waiting to breach through the basement floor of Scully’s Bookstore.
It sounded all too fanciful. It felt all too probable. It took me back to a time when teachers threatened, and words like damnation, hell and retribution terrified me. A world populated by evil and forces well beyond human control. It forced me to reflect on how I’d had spent the early years of my life, as though I were afraid of the rest of my days of my life.
I couldn’t set aside the expression the old man had worn when I asked about the basement. It had not been out of bounds, and on more than one occasion a customer had complained they could feel an updraft of heat coming from the staircase leading down to the grotto below. Henleyrarely acknowledged their comments and moved along with the work at hand. Yet there were things that the old man would not confide which I, who wanted to be considered a partner, if not now, then in the future, needed to know.
The following Sunday may have been the worst I can recall. The muscles were so tense at the back of my neck I felt as though a band of leather had been strapped around my head and drawn tight. I couldn’t concentrate, read or rest, or think straight. At one point in my internal monologue I was convinced I was possessed. I’d read about such aberrations in nature over the years. They always took on the aura of the supernatural. This was not supernatural, as much as it simply wasn’t natural.
I had dinner and decided to go out for a walk. I needed to get out, to go somewhere and keep my mind off the obvious, that I’d been right all along about the fact that the basement of Scully’s Bookstore either was harboring an evil spirit or was a portal to a much deeper and more perniciously pestilential chamber of horrors. I made my way around the neighborhood, drifting passed restaurants and saloons and wishing I had someone special to be with and share the burden I was carrying.
I was two blocks away from the store when I caught a glimpse of a strange glow in the window. A faint yellow light was coming from deep within the shop. Henleylived in a small room in the rear and often boasted he had to be in bed by 9 pm if only to maintain his “youthful” appearance. It was well past 10 p.m., an hour when I should be getting ready for the workweek, not prowling the streets searching for an answer to the unquestionable. I could have turned around and gone back to my apartment. That would have been the wise and prudent choice. I could have set my energies toward my job and career, and tempered my curiosity with patience. That would have been the reasonable thing to do. But at this point, the only thing I wanted was the truth, however painful or uncertain.
As I crossed the street to the shop, the light grew dimmer, shifted position for a moment, and then faded out of sight. I paused, mounted the curb and waited. Then I stepped so out or character, frankly, I was alarmed by my aggressiveness. I needed an answer, and couldn’t wait a month or week or day or for however long it took to earn that level of trust and confidence. And I wasn’t prepared to never know or, to wait forever. I grasped the warm doorknob and heaved myself against the wooden frame. It swung open without an ounce of effort.
A gust of warm air engulfed me. Much warmer then I’d encountered in my few excursions into the basement. For a moment I questioned my actions, not wanting to lose the ground I had established withHenleyand quickly admitting as to how important this island of peace and spiritual comfort had become. That didn’t diminish my curiosity or concern for the old man’s welfare.
My hesitation was short lived. The door lock was jammed open, which only happened by throwing the bolt on the inside of the door. Why wouldHenleywant it open, if not to make a quick escape easier?
I forced my imagination back under control and continued toward the rear of the store and the glow that was coming from the stairwell leading down into the basement. The air grew warmer, unnaturally so, and was ripe with a thick, damp odor I couldn’t identify. I looked around, checking every few steps to make sure I was alone, and wasn’t being followed and that what I was doing made even a vestige of sense.
I heard voices, muted and distant, rising up and swarming with intensity. I paused to see if it was Henley, or someone else’s I might recognize. The closer I got the more uncertain and fearful I became. Visions of devils and goblins being belched up from the earth cloaked in a film of red and orange flames, pitchforks in hand, all surrounding a withered Peter Christopher Henley, would not relent. I questioned my imagination, and courage. As I approached the opening, lights danced against shadows and were thrown up to the ceiling and splattered across bookshelves at my side. Deep, guttural tones raced up from below, followed by the acrid stench of decay. It was as I expected, and paralyzingly worse.
There was no sense of caution, concern or preservation for my welfare. I had no urge to run into the street and find someone to share the risk, or just run until I fell into the arms of safety.
I could hear several voices now, including that of Peter Christopher Henley. I stood at the top of the stairs, and turned around towards the front of the store, searching for anything I could use as a weapon. Even a broomstick would have been reassuring in my grip. A noxious chemical smell choked me, squeezing out the air in the center of my chest. I coughed, knowing I had just compromised any element of surprise. I held fast to the frail banister and moved into the torrid glow, and heat rushing up from the steps below.
My stomach churned in terror. The rows of bookshelves and few battered, wooden tables laden with books and manuscripts were gone, vanished, as was everything else I had seen on my few visits. There was no vestige of what had been. This was a different world, a glowing, and transformed landscape. More a netherworld than a recognizable relic.
The room was now clear of furniture, books and tradition. It seemed much larger. The once smooth dirt floor was misshapen and unstable. The walls were not physical in any conventional sense. But, rather darkened shadows that surrounded the perimeter where the floor should have ended. Like a ring where contestants did battle to establish who would rule the future of man’s spirit.
Toward the far end,Henleyhad apparently fallen and, though he did not look as if he were in immediate danger, he too was wrenching from the stench. If I was having a hard time breathing and holding on to my senses, I couldn’t imagine how a man so old and infirmed could still be conscious, or how long either of us would survive.
Crouched over him was the dark shape of something, a creature. The animal, I didn’t know what else to call it, had a head and a shape that held only a vague resemblance to even the most disfigured human form I’d ever seen. Where there should have been eyes and mouth there was an irregular opening from which burned a red and yellow fire. It was making a horrible, deep sound, somewhere between a growl and groan. It was holding something at the end of what looked like an arm, though it was two or three times the normal thickness and proportionally longer. Another similar apparition was raised threateningly overHenley’s huddled frame.
“And now…” the beast wailed.
The words cut through the heat and light and sank like a dagger into my heart.
“Stand aside,” the creature threatened, raising both arms and a dark object like a disc, a blackened piece of metal the size of a large serving platter, overhead. There was no sign that the animal had taken a blow or harm had come to its crust.
I couldn’t understand why the beast hesitated from striking the final blow, instead of a threat, though within measured restraint. What would the creature have to fear fromHenley? When it made the demand again, two dark slots opened up on the front of its head. Blackened eyes stared down atHenley. They seemed expectant, fearless, weighed with fury.
Henleykept his balance. His shirt and pants was torn and dirt-stained. There was a spattering of blood on his shoulder. Sweat covered his pale white frame. Neither man nor creature took note, or in any way acknowledged my presence. They were a dozen paces away. The blazing hot space was open, filled with coiling dark smoke. I didn’t know how long I could remain here. I realized, startled, that I hadn’t considered it before, that I’d already risked my life and returning to the safety of the store and street above may no longer be something over which I had control.
The creature turned toward me and bellowed angry and contemptuous. Henleyturned and waved me away. His face looked different, not as though he was suffering and unable to bear the pain but as if he had been through this agonizing process before and determined not to break under the weight that was closing in around him.
The animal let the heavy metal disc fall at its side. Now, fully exposed, it was half again the size of the largest man I had ever seen. Its body was covered with a brown, uneven skin whose surface seemed to be undulating in a constant state of torment.
The creature growled and through its gestures made its feeling and threats perfectly clear. The old man had somehow been able to stop the ascent of the beast into the here and now. However,Henley’s will seemed weakened, as was his body. From the look of him, there was no wayHenleycould continue to resist the onslaught. At one point I thought I heard an outraged human voice speaking from within the creature, then it faded.
I considered prayer, though only briefly.
The beast took a step forward. It was obviously not threatened by my presence. The animal was bragging! Boastful with confidence that it had finally bested the old man who lay like a trophy at its feet and, as I now understood, contemptuous of all who had come before and knew the secret to blocking the portal to the human world. I didn’t understand howHenleyhad accomplished this feat and judging from the condition of the defeated shopkeeper, the tale of his ingenuity and courage was going to die with him.
My first instinct was to find a way to getHenleyback up to safety, if such a place still existed. The idea of this monster getting to the surface to wreak whatever havoc was within his potential was difficult to imagine. All these years, first Scully thenHenley, and whoever had come before them in the guise of another simple shopkeeper, had been able to keep this thing at bay. And, why here in this unremarkable place? Whether or not this was the incarnation of the devil was secondary to rescuing the embattled old man.
SuddenlyHenleyreached for something in the dirt. The creature turned and was upon him before he could grasp it. I couldn’t make it out in the smoke and heat and began to feel my legs weaken. The monster swept down on the old man and grabbed the shining object. It raised it over its head and slammed it into the center of the metal plate.
At once a flash of sparks filled the room. I ducked but was stung by the red embers that flew in all directions. The ring in which the battle was being fought shrank along with the possibility for survival. The crack of the impact of the shining object with the plate left me dazed and trembling. I saw that where there were once two objects, there was now only the circular plate, but it was now considerably larger, and alive in the creature’s hands.
“It’s done!” it bellowed triumphantly.
“It is not done,”Henleysaid, his voice hoarse with fatigue. “It will never be done.”
The creature looked down at the frail figure, its eyes now small and black like lumps of coal. “You’re a fool.”
Henleygot to his feet, stood up as erect as I had ever seen and uttered something unrecognizable, though not to the beast. There was a brief exchange, and then the creature dropped the plate and walked toward me. I jumped aside, gasping from the scorching heat surrounding the animal. The closer it got to the stairs the slower it moved, and less aggressively, as though it were in a pool of water where movement and speed were severely compromised.
The beast continued to force itself forward, and stopped no more than a foot from the base of the steps. It heaved its massive body forward again but could go no further. It railed in frustration, raising its arms overhead. It strained again and again, but seemed to grow weaker with every effort.
“It’s no use,”Henleysaid, and walked to the round plate that lay halfway between the two adversaries. He reached down and plucked out a small golden object embedded in its core; the one the beast had taken fromHenley’s grasp. He flicked a crust of dirt off the small medallion.
“I will have my way,” the creature snarled.
“Not as long as I am alive you won’t,” the old man growled back with unequaled resolve.
Before he could finish the sentence, the animal turned and chargedHenley, then just as quickly pivoted to attack me. The old man tried to close the distance between us but his age was against him, and me.
The beast swung its massive arm, catching me across the chest and sending me flying backwards. Before I landed I knew that I been badly injured. The last thing I saw was the old man standing with the medallion in his hand as the animal again turned its attack.
There was a time in my life when I was filled with imagination frothed with fantasy. I dreamt the dream of heroes, of dragons and kingdoms and in my dream, knew I’d created this fiction to satisfy hidden needs.
As I drifted back up from what I believed was all a bad dream, attempting to contain the sensation of foreboding, familiar images came into view. I was lying on the desk in the front of the store. The desk was empty of all clutter as well as the books, records, and the cash register. Henleywas standing over me, his clothes torn and tattered, just as I recalled.
I was afraid to take a deep breath, or to accept the fact that I’d survived the assault. Slowly, regaining my strength, I asked, “What happened?”
“We won, for now.”
“I will tell you later.”
“I don’t understand.”
The old man made himself comfortable against the side of the desk. “You will in time. Right now you’ve been hurt. You need to heal. Then we’ll talk.”
Every breath was anguish. “About, that thing?”
“What about me?”
“Whether or not you want to remain here when I am gone and deal with him.”
I tried to sit up. Shadows moved about on the street outside the store windows. The store was quiet, closed off from the rest of the world by drawn blinds and the unreality of what had taken place. I had no idea what time it was or how long I’d been unconscious, or by what marvel of physics I’d been carried up from the basement and laid on the desk. “I’ll do whatever it takes.”
“Don’t be too quick, my son. Even I was hesitant when Jonathan Scully put this same question to me. You must give it some thought. Much depends on your answer.”
“I want to do this. I think I have to do this.”
“Do you understand what you’re asking of yourself? Of the sacrifice?”
I had some, but no real idea. I couldn’t possibly grasp what I was about to give up, or what lay ahead. I only knew that I’d never felt such resolve. “You have to show me everything. You have to train me.”
“I can only teach you what Scully and experience has taught me. The rest you must do for yourself.”
I seized the old man’s hand and shook it.
The next morning I woke to find myself coiled in a cocoon of damp sheets, the blanket crumpled on the floor. My room was too cool. My initial reaction was to wonder if this was a continuation of what had happened. Then I realized that the sheets and my imagination had conspired against me.
But when had this conspiracy begun? Was there a bookstore, and an old man well past the age of reason patiently waiting for his successor to stave off the onslaught of the damned?
My morning ritual was cut short by an acute sense of urgency. I slipped on a pair of work pants, shirt and sweater and rushed into the street. Judging by the traffic, it was a weekend day, but I couldn’t remember which. I walked the few blocks and paused across the street from Scully’s. At least that much was real. A middle-aged woman, someone I might have thought attractive if I were fifteen years older, left the shop with two volumes clutched under her arm. She saw me on the sidewalk and nodded respectfully.
I ran across the street, dodging an irate driver. Getting me from the basement to the desk that held the cash register was itself a feat of magic, or sorcery, but transporting me into my bed blocks away seemed more like a work of the improbable. I sawHenleyat work making notes in a ledger he had once abandoned because of my advice. Doubt swept over me.
Had I really made a contract with the old man? And, was the next caretaker of Scully’s Bookstore to be my destiny? I had given my hand in honor and would inherit the responsibility. There was no doubt in my mind that the store was going to be entrusted to a man of singular morality. However, there was doubt about how I survived the attack, and would I be so fortunate when confronted by the creature again?
“Good morning,” I said, pushing open the door.
“And a good morning to you,”Henleysaid, lifting himself up from the chair and turning full face towards me. “Welcome back to Scully’s.”
I stumbled back, as though struck by a gust of hot, soiled air. The figure before me wore the clothes of the old man but beyond that, the similarity ended. The figure wore the same skin and facial features but was a foot taller, and noticeably thicker in the chest and neck and longer in the arms and legs. It had familiar, riveting, jet black eyes.
“Please, close the door and come in.”
I could not move. “Where isHenley? Where is the old man?”
“I am Peter Christopher Henley, if that’s who you’re looking for.”
“No. That’s a lie.”
“But I can assure you….”
“But you can see for yourself,” he said, spreading his arms out toward me in a welcoming fashion. “You see.”
“You’re lying. You’ve killed him and taken over his body.”
“Close the door and come in,” the man requested, in an entirely different tone.
I glanced around the store. Everything was in order. Too much order. Books were stacked in well-mannered piles. Receipts and invoices lay in neat piles. Correspondence and other scraps that weeks ago might have littered the floor were now arranged in more reliable sequences. Strange, how differences which once would have been a relief to me, I now considered a sign of the presence of evil.
“You’ll fool nobody.”
“I will fool everybody, Stephen. I already have.”
“They’ll find you out.”
“And who will tell them? You? And what is it that you’ll tell them? And who do you think they will listen to, an obviously unstable and increasingly unreliable young man, or a pillar of the community? Even your supervisor has come to see you as less suitable for a position of responsibility.”
“I’ll make them listen,” I said, trying to quickly figure out if I was in immediate danger, and if there was a chanceHenleywas still alive.
“You will achieve nothing.”
“I want you out of the store. Now,” I said.
“As if you have the right to make such demands.”
“Henleyleft the store to me. It’s mine to protect against the likes of you.”
“Excellent. Bravado in the face of failure. Quite touching, really, though a bit belated considering you left the old man to die. You know Stephen, you are just like the rest of them, cowards and fools. You cannot help being who you are.”
“What do you mean, I left the old man to die?”
“And you cannot admit to your weakness. The dismal truth about yourself.”
I moved forward, “what do you mean, I left the old man to die?”
“You ran. You scuttled up the stairs and into the street like a frightened insect. The old man’s concentration was broken by his concern for you. His concentration had always protected him. In that one moment he turned to defend you, he could no longer protect you and the portal from my passage. I killed him as easily as I could take the breath out of your body right now.”
This had to be a lie. “The plate?”
“What does it matter?Henleyis dead. You left him to die. And now I am here.”
Then, suddenly, I felt an even greater horror. “How did I get back to my apartment?”
“Now that you know what you know, shouldn’t you at least say, “thank you?” Isn’t that what a man of the greater morality and dignity would say. Thank you for getting me home safely?”
Then it was true. I had failedHenley, the old man’s cause and his trust. I had failed myself. This was who I was, not the fantasy hero ready to assume the mantle of ultimate courage and sacrifice. The only fantasy was the encounter I’d created after the confrontation in the basement. The one I created where a battered but victorious Peter Christopher Henley sanctified his confidence in his protégé, in the man who he would leave to do battle with the devil.
“Why indeed. I can always use a man of your character. It made no sense to take your life. You were merely in my way. Think of my gesture as a reward for your timely withdrawal.”
Two women came through the door behind me. I didn’t get a clear image of either as I tumbled passed them and out into the street.
Years later, decades really, I was better able to piece together the details of what had happened. But that was long after I left Chicagoto start another life. No, to not start anything.
To leave behind. To deny what had happened, and who I really was and what I had let happen, and the curse I had let loose on humankind.
Finally, when I was so enfeebled I was no longer able to walk without help, when the coolNew Mexiconights allowed me the safety and space to remember in full, I cursed who I was, and vowed to return to Scully’s, if only to say what had been left unsaid.
I needed to somehow justify what I’d done, if only to convince myself of my own innocence, and maybe to find out the fate that had befallen Peter Christopher Henley.
© Copyright 2002 Arthur Davis
All Rights Reserved