February 2010


The book was extremely worn: its binding had cracked and frayed, numerous pages were dog-eared or torn, and wrinkled or water damaged leaves had swelled the volume to double its original thickness. The word “Journal” was printed in block letters on the front cover, the word run through with voyeuristic thrills.

Virginia eased it open and read the stumbling, awkward handwriting that made up the first entry:

“June 17th 1853. thot i’d start writin down things so i can recolect em when things get all gray up ther. met with rangers agin today, had to tel walter of for 2nd time. bastird wont be happy til we got a ide war party in prosperity squar. maryanne is feelin beter today an she let me feel th babee kickin.”

Pride, lust, greed, envy, anger. If ever these traits had manifested themselves in a single person it was Bernard Orleans. Mick vividly remembered the first time they’d met: he’d been hurrying to his office on the first day of work when he rounded a sharp corner and ran headlong into someone going the other way.

“Oh! Oh, I’m so s-”

The man he’d run into—short, wild-haired, broad-shouldered—cut Mick off, pushing him to the wall and holding him there with an arm on each shoulder.

“Explain yourself! I’m not used to being attacked, least of all in my own office!”

“I…sorry…was…accident…” the shock of the impact and assault had left Mick scrambling for words.

“Hah! In my experience there’s no such thing as accidents—only deliberate injuries and incompetence! So which were you guilty of, eh boy?”

“Look here, Graham. You know as well as I do that the city’s budget is in freefall. People in breadlines don’t buy furniture. Factories that don’t sell furniture don’t pay taxes. No taxes, no Ryerson Library.”

“I’ve heard about budget problems for eight years, Mike,” said Graham. “When the Dow was at three hundred plus we were talking about budget cuts. The library’s always been just above the dog pound in terms of importance in the budget.”

“This time it’s not just because the city council wants to renovate the baseball stadium. Look, Graham, I’m not going to fire you. But there’s no money to pay you this month. My advice is to go home and take it easy—if you stay here, you’re working for free.”

Graham stormed to the door. “That’s not the kind of thing you tell a friend, Mike,” he growled. “Especially not one you’ve worked with for eight years.”

Mike sighed. “Out of my hands. Look on the bright side: now you’ve got all the time you could ever want to chase that damn book down without any distractions.”

“Daddy,” Tia said. “Daddy, can you hear me?”

Juan stirred. “Tia,” he said in a flat voice. “Hello, angelita.”

“Dr. Crowe tells me that you haven’t been eating very much, Daddy. He says that you hit an orderly when they tried to feed you.”

“I’m waiting for your mother, Tia. Laura promised me that she would return if I did as she asked, and now I’m waiting for her. Won’t you stay with me until she comes? Laura misses you so, Tia.”

His daughter shook her head, eyes wet. “She’s not coming, Daddy. She’s dead. She died while you were away, years ago. Don’t you remember?”

“Of course, angelita,” Juan said, “But she promised to come back once I set things right. I did just as she asked, and now I’m going to wait here. She never lied.”

Rich looked up, his mouth full of pizza and grease dribbling down his chin.

“Whouf vherr?” he said. There was no answer, just another knock on the apartment door.

Swallowing and wiping his mouth, Rich ran to the peephole and peeked through. He saw a shock of disheveled black hair, a flash of pale skin, and a hand coming up to knock again.

Throwing open the door, Rich was startled when the knocker tumbled into his apartment, out of breath and visibly distressed. It was Marie Cullen, the girl from STAT 321. Rich had never said more then “hello” to her in the six weeks that the class had been in session, though he’d often found himself tuning out of the lecture to admire the shapely curves of her legs.

“You’ve got to help me,” she gasped, practically falling into Rich’s arms.

Rich’s mouth had already formed the words before he could think: “But I don’t even know you.”

“Y-you can’t bribe me!” Taylor cried. “You’re trading illegal items, stolen items, and something has to be done!

“And you think that you are being a big man, by refusing my money? Let me tell you something, Mr. Taylor. You are a very small man. You run a small facility far away from anywhere important, and your superiors do not give a shit what happens here, as long as they get their money and the customers are satisfied.”

Taylor simmered, arms stiff at his sides.

“Do you wish to do something about this? Then take my money, Mr. Taylor. Look the other way. Use it to buy yourself something to down your sorrows in, or perhaps use it to escape from this place. It is of no consequence to me. Do not, however, presume to interfere with me. I will not hesitate to defend my business, Mr. Taylor, and that is something you most assuredly do not want.”

The white sands at White Sands weren’t typical beach fare. If you grabbed a handful, you’d be surprised at its consistency—almost like fine sugar. From an air-conditioned car, the sands look like snow. Outside, the 112 degree heat quickly dispels that illusion.

“Hey,” Ronnie said as we lifted the carpet roll out of his trunk. “They got a black sands anywhere?”

“What do you care?” I asked. “You’re more red than anything except under that beater where your farmer tan ends!”

“I don’t wanna match the sand,” Ronnie said, dropping his end of the roll and reaching for a spade. “Just curious.”

“There’s black sand near volcanoes, I think. Grandpa always talked about black sand in the war.”

“What about blue sand? Or purple?”

I glared at Ronnie. “Just dig, will ya? Joey’s not getting any fresher.”

A name is a curious thing. You could know someone named Geoffrey in third grade who beat you up and stole your lunch money, and forever after you’d think of him whenever you heard that name, and never consider naming any of your children after a bully. The word Geoffrey would be forever ruined for you, even though some would consider it a beautiful name.

Case in point: I once knew a Ramona—this was years ago—who scarred that name for me so badly that even seeing Beverly Cleary books would make me shudder a little. I’d give the odd Ramona that I saw a wide berth just to be safe.

That system worked well enough until I met my second Ramona six months ago.

The day after Reuben stumbled into my office, I was scheduled to give his class a particularly hard test; naturally, I assumed he’d come by to weasel out of it.

I called my hardest tests “Grannykillers” because I noticed there seemed to be a severe uptick in students’ grandmothers dying whenever I gave one. Sometimes as many as three or four grandmothers would die in a single week; I’d often suppose aloud that they must have been on the same bus. From my colleagues I knew that some students went through five or more grandmothers a semester. To my irritation, no one ever claimed that their grandfather had died—Karen’s kids wouldn’t even get that much use out of me.

It only took me a moment to see that Thursday’s Grannykiller was the least of Reuben’s problems.

Who hasn’t had a nifty idea for a scene or a dialogue in a story and been put off by having to surround it with context? In a lot of ways the story is better when it’s locked up in your head, perfect and unspoiled by the need to put everything in a neat and tidy order.

That’s the idea here, to take an old writing exercise of mine and put it to work. Each entry is a short excerpt from a book that doesn’t exist, just enough to give a sense of the larger work lurking in the shadows. I used to fill notebooks with these things, and the best ones always developed into something else, either by inspiring me or the people who read them to fill in the gaps.

I can’t claim the idea is mine; it was partially inspired by The Catalog of Lost Books by Tad Tuleja, an annotated list of great books that all have the notable handicap of nonexistence. The title is similarly lifted from the name of Danny Elfman’s concert piece Overture to a Nonexistent Musical. And, although I hadn’t read any of his work when I started this project, Jorge Luis Borges and his “summaries of books that do not exist” is apparently a kindred spirit in this endeavor.