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0 Comments | Nov 25, 2019


Wrapped Book“Arwen? Seriously? Arwen … What the heck kind of name is Arwen anyway?”

“It’s a very unique name, the name of my favorite character from my favorite book around the time you were born.”

“Unique, yeah, I’ll give you that—bonus points for uniqueness. But a fantasy novel? Hobbits? Dwarves? Elves? So, were you and dad, like, hippies or something? What else was in the running that lost out to Arwen? Moonpie? Swampgrass?” Arry lowered her head for a moment and rubbed hard at the bridge of her nose. Maybe it was the late hour, or the alcohol. All she knew was that it had taken her twenty-two years to have this conversation, and so far it wasn’t looking like it would turn out to have been worth the wait. In truth she didn’t mind the name. She was simply curious to understand how a parent—or a pair of them—chooses to send a kid out into the world with such an obscure, basically made-up name. Only her questioning was coming out like irritation instead of curiosity. Which hadn’t been the idea, at least not consciously.

“No, not hippies, darling,” her mother said—a mother, now long widowed and making the best of a single life in a big city. A mother who did her level best to appear staunchly independent and not needy, but who did, in fact, deeply need her daughter’s love, or attention, or something. “It was the nineties and it was Oregon and there was this thing … this thing where you didn’t make Bobs or Sues or Marys because that was ordinary and people hadn’t come there to be ordinary. It’s hard to explain. We never meant to annoy you or put you in a difficult situation. We just wanted you to be … unique.”

Arry rose and walked to the kitchen counter. She chose from among the dozen half-filled bottles there and poured an inch or so into her glass. It was the color of honey and it left a satisfying thin coating on the inside of the glass when she swirled it briefly. She sat again, took a sip, let the heat of the liquid calm her, waited for the silence to abate.

“Did you being a Mary have anything to do with it?” Before the sentence was even completed, Arry wondered if it had come out as possibly hurtful or insulting.

“You mean was I compensating or something like that? Goodness no. My friends back then were all a bunch of Susans and Elizabeths too. I think the most unusual friend name I can remember was maybe Heather. But it was more of a generational thing. There were a lot of transplanted Midwesterners. Heck, at least I was just Mary. One of the women at our school was Peggy Sue, and you had to say the whole thing or she’d go mental.”

“So,” Arry said, “was it some sort of contest? Who could come up with the most off-the-wall baby name?”

“Nothing competitive, though, looking back on it, I’ll say there was … an undercurrent, a tacit acknowledgment, or maybe an approval sort of thing that went on for a long while. But it ran in phases, you know, just like today. Think about it. If you had a daughter now, you’d stay just as far away from Mary and Sue as we did. Only now it’d be Chelsea or Austin or Ashley. There’s always going to be some external influence, some sense of fashion when it comes to names.”

“Was it about who could ‘out-unique’ everyone else?”

“It’s a funny way of putting it, but I’d be lying if I denied there was a bit of that going on. Just in your daycare there was, let’s see, a Fraloe, a Constance, a Yarsty, and, oh, what was that really odd one … oh, Pringle.”

“Pringle? For real?” Arry said, stopping for a second the motion of the glass to her lips. “Pringle …”

“Believe it or not,” her mother replied smiling. “You could’ve been named after a junk food snack instead of a character from a novel. At least it was more interesting than naming you after one of your aunts or grandmothers.”

“I think I’d’ve preferred Dorito,” Arry said, and they both laughed loudly, a not terribly common occurrence these days, but, Arry thought, not an unpleasant sensation.

Arry did not talk with her mother much these days. It seemed, in fact, like no one much talked with anyone any more. Communication was something you did on your smartphone, but certainly not by any means as banal as actually speaking with the other person. You texted them. They texted you back, or not. Or maybe you wrote something clever on their social media page, or you ‘liked’ or otherwise acknowledged something that they posted. And, of course, you posted hopefully clever or entertaining things on your social media page, then sat waiting for the acknowledgement of others, without which life somehow seemed a bit less worth living. The world had become a place where people had friends they had never met, where communication was a unidirectional thing, and the synthetic sound of an arriving text was welcome, but the ring of an arriving call was the sound of antiquity, a thing to avoided, possibly even feared. Why did they even bother making phones that allowed talking?, one of Brim’s friends had asked a couple of weeks ago over lunch. And what was the deal with voicemail? He had been deadly serious.

All but the very closest of Arry’s friends thought Arry was her full name, and she had never made any effort to disabuse them of this belief. Arwen sounded like a made-up name, which, of course, is exactly what it was, made up by J.R.R. Tolkien and lifted straight from the pages of The Lord of the Rings by her mother, a lifelong lover of fantasy literature. Arry’s mother had explained the origin of her name once the girl had become a teenager, old enough to read the books and appreciate the character’s strength and nobility. And so she’d read the books, still had the tattered paperbacks in her bedroom someplace. But it hadn’t made her name feel any less strange, less foreign. She spent her adolescence being forced to spell it every time she told someone her name for the first time. And she had, at an early age, developed an offhand dismissal of her mother’s weirdness whenever she was questioned about it.

Arry had ceased using her full name in all official capacities by the time she’d begun applying for college. She was Arry on her driver’s license, her resume, her bank account. It would say Arry on her diploma next year. She had gone out with Rick (what a terribly banal name) for over a month before confessing to him the strange truth. And he had laughed when she told him, thus validating her judgment in the matter. He had also pointed out—the first person to do so in her entire life, amazingly enough—that Arry was kind of an accidentally cool name in the sense that it sounded almost like aria, a melody. Later, her mother had found the coincidence interesting, but swore that the thought had played no part in the original choice of name, probably because it had never even occurred to her at the time that Arry would become the nickname for Arwen.


Three days later, as Arry wandered the narrow corridors of the Strand Bookstore in lower Manhattan, turning sideways occasionally to allow other browsers to squeeze by, the name thing popped into her head once more. Perhaps it was brought on by the flurry of author names on the shelves around her, or perhaps by the recollection of Rick’s reaction on learning the truth of her own name a few days earlier. She had been there nearly two hours, partly searching for copies of books on the reading list for the coming spring semester—her last as an undergraduate—and partly because she simply loved the store. She loved the immensity of the place (What had the ad said? Something about eighteen miles of books? Was that even possible?). She loved the way the stairs creaked when you walked upstairs to the higher floors. She loved the smell of actual physical books—paper, ink, and glue. Best of all was the fourth floor, with its seemingly random assortment of old first editions, and its glass cases where they kept the really good stuff, signed first printings she’d never be able to afford. Every time she visited, there were new treasures to drool over—on this day, a signed first printing of Orwell’s “1984,” for fourteen thousand dollars. That was almost car-buying money, except, of course, who in Manhattan gave the slightest damn about cars? She bent forward, staring intently through the glass at the volume, opened to the autograph page, its edges ever so slightly foxed. Yes, she would go to law school, make plenty of money, and then one day, one day.

“Kind of takes your breath away, doesn’t it?” came a voice from over her left shoulder.

Startled, Arry turned to see a thin ancient man with a wild white spray of hair and a gray suit at least three sizes too big. He looked like a stereotype—of something—and she forced herself not to laugh.

“It does,” she said. “It truly does.”

“I like when people appreciate books, really appreciate them,” he replied. “But I love it when they recognize and go into a trance over a true classic.”

“A trance?” Arry said, “I think that might be over—”

“You were bent over looking at the Orwell for two full minutes without moving.”

She considered this assertion for a moment. In order for the man’s statement to be true, it also meant he had to have spent two full minutes looking at her unnoticed. She considered this as well.

“Okay,” she said, at last managing a smile. “I’ll concede the point. Maybe a mild trance. But I’m back now, and, anyway, it’ll be a cold day in hell when I can afford to own anything like that.”

“Oh don’t sell yourself short, young lady. One day, before you know it, you’ll be through with law school and a partner in some big fancy firm downtown. Then you’ll be back here with a big fistful of cash ready to pounce on whatever is in that case.”

Arry’s eyes grew a couple of sizes bigger. “How did you—”

“Oh, I know a lot of things,” he said. “I have what folks call a gift, though sometimes I wonder. I look and I see things. That’s all—just look and see.”

“You mean like Sherlock Holmes,” Arry said. “You look at my shoes and you can tell me the route I took to get to the store today?”

“Oh no, dear, nothing so mundane as Holmes, though he’s clever enough, I’ll grant you. No, I look inside, though I can’t exactly say how.”

Arry was warming up to the old man, a distinctly un-New York way to regard a stranger, but she felt he was okay, harmless, maybe even fun.

She stood and turned to face him squarely. She was a full head taller and at least twenty pounds heavier than the man, and it occurred to her that he reminded her of an old elf, a character from a Harry Potter movie perhaps. She decided, then and there, to regard him as cute—not romantic cute, but puppy dog cute—and quite possibly charming.

“Okay then.” She placed her hands akimbo and said, “What do you see?”

“Hmm,” he replied, feigning great concentration. “I see a college senior—smart, maybe NYU or Columbia—who’s majoring in a liberal arts program. I see history or maybe political science, then law school. I see a young woman who’s a little bit scared of the real world, somebody who’s never been out of New York, and who wonders if she’s truly the sophisticated city girl that she fancies herself.”

“That’s not bad,” Arry said. “Consider me impressed.”

“Oh, he continued, “and I see someone who’s not too terribly pleased with her name.”

“Okay, now you’re freaking me out a little,” Arry said, relinquishing her pose.

“Oh, I get that quite a lot,” he said. “You take it better than most.”

“Hold on,” she said. “I know what’s going on here. You’re some long lost uncle I’ve never met, and you recognized me, and my mother has told you my life’s story.”

“No, no, my dear, nothing like that, though I’m sure I’d be proud to have such a niece. No, like I said, I’m just an old man with an odd and remarkably impractical talent.”

“So,” Arry said, “do you work here—in the store?”

“Heavens no.” He paused, reconsidering his response. “Well, maybe in a manner of speaking. They tolerate my hanging around, so long as I’m not a bother. Turns out I have another talent that’s useful to them from time to time.”

“Even more useful than psychoanalyzing young coeds?” Arry said.

“Actually yes. You see, I have an excellent memory for books. Every book, every author. All right here.” He tapped his right temple with an index finger.

“What do you mean, ‘every book’?” Arry asked.

“I’ve spent a large part of the last forty years wandering this store, looking at everything. I’m a walking talking card catalog.” He paused again. “You’re not old enough to know what that was … but I’m one.”

“So, a customer walks in and says ‘Where are the F. Scott Fitzgerald novels?’, you can tell them.”

“Oh, you don’t understand, dear,” the man said. “Anybody working in the store can answer that question. But if you want to know the exact number of Fitzgerald volumes in the store and where every last one of them is located—their titles, their prices, their conditions…” He threw open his hands, as if to say ‘I’m your man.’

“Seriously?” Arry said.

“Try me,” he replied.

“How many copies of The Old Man and the Sea are in the store?”

“Oh and I thought you’d challenge me,” he said. “one hundred six at the moment. Eighty-nine paperbacks on the first floor, fourteen hardbacks of various editions on the second floor, two book club edition firsts here on four, and one really good one in the back that they only show to special people. It’s a true first printing, with a near perfect jacket. Easily worth twenty grand.”

Brim stared at the man, eyes wide. “How do I know you’re not just making that up?”

The man gestured toward the back of the store with his head and Arry followed, not quite believing that she was actually doing it. The man walked past the ends of four tall bookshelves near the rear of the store and darted down the fifth aisle, stopping about halfway down and raising a hand to the fifth shelf up from the bottom. There on the shelf stood two book club editions of Hemingway’s classic novella, distinguishable from the true first printing by the slightly different tint of blue on the rear jacket author photo, the Book Club language printed on the inside front flap, and the lack of a Scribner’s colophon on the copyright page.

Arry slowly replaced the book club edition on the shelf.

“Jesus,” she said, her voice very low.

“Yeah, I know,” the man replied.

Twenty minutes later, having put her new friend’s unusual skills to more practical use, she had—with his able assistance—successfully located all of the titles on her semester reading list. It was only later, on the Number One train heading north, that she realized she had spoken with the strange man for the better part of an hour without ever disclosing her name or managing to learn his.


Two weeks passed and, with the start of the new semester Arry had no cause to recall her conversation with the curious old man. Indeed she might never have had reason to think of him again, but for the announcement her literature professor made early on a Tuesday morning, apologizing sheepishly while letting the class know that he had inadvertently omitted two titles from the semester reading list. It was a short class day for Arry, and she decided to take the opportunity for another trip downtown to the Strand. It was one of those perfect New York City autumn days, the kind that are hard to explain to anyone who hasn’t experienced that clarity and crispness in person, and so she got off the subway a few stops early and walked a couple dozen blocks down Broadway until the store’s big red sign came into view.

It didn’t take long to find one of the two titles she needed, but the second proved elusive, so much so that after twenty minutes of searching, both in the new and used sections of the store, she finally succumbed to asking for assistance from a clerk at the first-floor customer service desk. A further few minutes of searching together produced no copies, a rare occurrence indeed, given the many thousands of volumes stocked by the store.

“Tell you what,” the clerk said, back at the front counter. “We’ll track one down and give you a call once we have it. Meanwhile, tell your professor to stop requiring such obscure titles!”

“It’s okay,” Arry replied. “There’s no real hurry. We don’t need that one until later in the semester.” She paused and glanced around the main floor of the immense store. “It’s too bad that old fellow I met last time I was here isn’t around. He would’ve found it in a second.” The clerk responded with a quizzical look.

“Oh yeah,” Arry said, “it was like he had the entire store memorized. Helped me find about two dozen other books in like ten minutes. I imagine he does that sort of thing for lots of customers by the sound of it. Said he’s in here pretty much all the time.”

“Did this handy fellow happen to have a name?” the clerk asked.

“As a matter of fact, I never asked him for it,” Arry said. “But he was quite distinctive—tiny guy, very old, lots of crazy white hair, very chatty and friendly. Certainly knew everything about the store—and about books—that there is to know.”

“Wow,” the clerk replied. “It is a pity he’s not here today. Almost sounds like Ben himself, come back to help out the wayward book lover.” With this ambiguous reference, the clerk smiled and handed Arry a slip of paper with a name and phone number.

“Just give me a call in a few days and I’ll let you know if we’ve found it yet.” She gestured to the book in Arry’s hand. “Do you want to pay for that one now or have me hold onto it until we find your other title?”

“May as well grab this one now—get a head start on my reading.” Arry smiled and handed the clerk the book and her credit card. Placing the book into a bag, the clerk glanced at the card prior to swiping it at the register.

“This is you?” she said, gesturing with the card. “You’re Arwen Clarkson?”

“Far as I know,” Arry said. Despite all of her efforts to keep her full name off the various documents and records in her life, this one had snuck through because her first credit card had been provided through her mother’s account, and her mother had filled out the application form. By the time the card had arrived in the mail, it was too late and Arry had chosen to not make a big deal out of it.

“Okay, so that’s pretty interesting,” the clerk said. “Has anyone said anything to you in the past few weeks about picking up a package here?”

“No, at least not that I recall,” Arry replied. “I mean I haven’t tried to order any other books or anything like that—before today anyway.”

“Well, this is gonna sound a little weird—maybe—but there’s a package here with your name on it. Been here for about two weeks. No one knew quite what to do with it. There was no phone number or email or anything, just your name. The manager even spent some time searching online, but there are a lot of Clarksons in New York. He didn’t see any listings with your first name.”

“No, you wouldn’t,” Arry said. “My listed address is still with my parents, under my mom’s name actually.”

“Makes sense,” the clerk replied. “Hold on, let me go check the office. I think the manager still has it in there.” She vanished through a door behind the counter and Arry could hear several seconds of subdued dialog coming from the room. Moments later the clerk returned, accompanied by a tall middle-aged man bearing a small package wrapped in brown paper, the kind they used to make grocery bags out of. The package was wrapped with a decidedly old-looking twine, tied in a simple bow. The name Arwen Clarkson was written in clear cursive on the front. The manager looked at Arry and then down at the package.

“You’re Arwen Clarkson,” he said, more statement than question. Arry nodded. “Well,” he continued, “unless you know another Arwen Clarkson in New York, I’m guessing this is yours.” He handed the package toward Arry, who accepted it tentatively. “Who do you know who writes with a fountain pen?” the manager asked smiling. Arry shrugged.

“Should I … should I open it?” she said.

“Entirely up to you, Miss Clarkson,” the manager said. “Naturally we’re all curious. It’s been lying around here for days, apparently just waiting for you to happen to wander in.”

“But who …” Arry began, “who just leaves a package in a random store in a city of ten million people on the off chance the recipient will show up? It’s not as though I got a call about it or anything.”

“Well, serendipitous occurrences aren’t exactly unprecedented in this store,” replied the manager, “though this one certainly ranks right up there.”

Arry set the package on the counter, looking intently once more at the small neatly written name—her full name—on the brown paper wrapping. There were no other markings of any kind. Tentatively she untied the bow and laid the twine to one side. The store clerk and manager looked on in silence. She slowly, methodically, peeled away the heavy brown paper to reveal a stack of three seemingly identical hardback volumes. As the last layer of paper fell away there came an audible gasp from both the store manager and the clerk. Arry looked up at them in response before even taking a good look at what she had just unwrapped.

“Oh … my … God,” the manager expounded on his earlier exclamation. “Young lady, you have a VERY good friend or secret admirer.” He looked back down at the three volumes and then back at Arry. “May I?” he asked, with an almost longing look.

Arry nodded, not yet appreciating the full magnitude of what lay before her, though both store employees certainly appeared to. The manager lifted the top volume and opened the dun colored cover with near reverence, carefully turning the pages to reveal the book’s copyright page, which he examined for what seemed an awfully long minute. He repeated this process with the other two matching volumes, while his colleague watched and Arry stood silently wondering at what could merit such rapt attention. Whatever it was apparently now belonged to her.

“Miss Clarkson,” the manager said, slowly removing his glasses and pressing hard both eyes, “I’ve worked in rare books for nearly fifteen years, and I’ve never seen the likes of this … of these.” He slowly spun the stack of volumes so that they faced in Arry’s direction. “This is a first edition—more to the point, a first printing—of Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings trilogy. Judging by the information on the copyright page and the condition of the books—which is frankly astonishing—it’s a wonderfully matched set. The maps are all fine, the prices are untouched. They appear to be unread.”

“So … it’s valuable?” Arry asked, feeling a bit silly saying it, given the reverential reaction of the manager and his colleague.

“Miss Clarkson, would you mind terribly if we continued this conversation in my office? I’d feel better if this wasn’t sitting out with so many people around.” He carefully lifted the three books and gestured Arry around the end of the counter and toward the office door. He set the books on his desk and returned to the door, which he closed. The clerk had remained behind at the counter and it was now just the two of them in the manager’s office.

Arry took a seat. She had, to this point, not even touched one of the books.

“Miss Clarkson,” the manager began, taking his own seat behind the desk, “do you have any idea who might’ve left these for you?”

“I know it sounds odd as can be,” Arry said, “but I honestly have no idea at all.”

“Well, whoever it is clearly thinks very highly of you. This is a nearly perfect set of first printings of Tolkien’s classic fantasy trilogy. We have nothing in the store at this moment—including in our safe—that is as valuable as this set of volumes. I would, of course, recommend getting a professional appraisal from a Tolkien expert, but in my opinion, in this condition these three books are worth something north of seventy-five thousand dollars.”

Arry sat silently for a long moment, unsure whether to be shocked, euphoric, or something else entirely.

“I still … I just can’t imagine who …” she said, at last leaning forward to lift the top volume and open the cover.

“There’s a sealed envelope inside that first volume,” the manager said. “Perhaps your benefactor left you some explanation as to why and how these have come into your possession. Are you a rare book collector, Miss Clarkson?”

“No, not at all,” she replied. She drew the small tan envelope from the first volume and considered it. Her name was inscribed on the front precisely as it appeared on the paper that had covered the books, still with fountain pen, still her full name—Arwen Clarkson. She glanced up at the manager, shrugged, and gently tore along the top of the envelope. She extracted a small folded note card, opened it, and read silently. As the manager looked on patiently, Arry’s eyes grew slightly wider. The note comprised just four brief sentences, but Arry knew in that moment that the contents of the note were for her alone. She folded the notecard closed and slid it back into the envelope, which she placed in her purse.

“I have a feeling my mother may be able to shed some light on this little mystery,” Arry said. “I’ll show the books and the note to her and see what she thinks about the whole thing.”

“In that case, Miss Clarkson, I’ll let you be on your way, but only after congratulating you on a marvelous acquisition. Let me wrap these back up for you so they’ll be safe and sound. May I also encourage you to take a cab home. This is really not the sort of thing you want to be carrying around on the subway.” He stood and walked back out to the counter, returning seconds later with the original brown wrapping material and twine in one hand and a heavy Strand shopping bag in the other. “If you should decide to consider selling the set at some point, then of course we’d be thrilled to discuss the possibilities with you at your convenience.” Wrapping the books carefully, he tied the twine as it had originally arrived and placed the package in Arry’s hands. “Miss Clarkson, I confess I am genuinely envious,” he said, holding the door for her as she departed his office. “And I’d love to hear the details at some point of how this all came to be.” He shook Arry’s hand and she stepped through the Strand front door and onto the sidewalk. Glancing down at the bag by her side, she considered the store manager’s words and raised her hand for a passing taxi.


Miss Clarkson,

I thoroughly enjoyed our brief introduction a few days ago, and I thought who better to share this wonderful story with than a young lady who not only appreciates the classics but who happens, as well, to be named for one of the strongest leading female protagonists in all of literature. As for how I know your name when you had no occasion to offer it to me, let’s just say that I’m inordinately perceptive, or perhaps only lucky. In any event, I sincerely hope you will enjoy this small token of my appreciation. Perhaps we will meet once again when you’re back in the store.

Fondest Regards,

Ben Bass


Arry read it through three more times on the cab ride uptown, but it made no more sense on the final read than it had on the first. Back home, she wasn’t at all sure how to explain this extraordinary occurrence to her mother, and so, for now at least, she chose not to attempt it, save for a simple question.

“Mom, does the name Ben Bass mean anything to you?”

“No … no, can’t say that it does. Why?”

“Oh, uh, no reason,” Arry said. “Just somebody who came up in class today. Thought you might have run into him in your reading or whatever.”

She set the book bag in her bedroom and spent the next hour in the bathtub pondering the events of the day. Later that evening, with her mother gone out for an errand and a half-eaten container of shrimp lo mein by her side, Arry tried her best to study for the coming day’s class. But a half hour into it, she succumbed to futility, set her textbook aside, and opened her laptop. She typed the simple string ‘Ben Bass and Strand’ into the search bar. Instantly there lay before her an endless list of references, including a Wikipedia page, the existence of which suggested that he was a person of some consequence.

Opening the page, she was surprisingly unsurprised to see that the grainy photo in the right column was indeed the white-haired old man she had spoken with at the bookstore. She read through the brief article. Ben Bass had founded the Strand Used Bookstore in 1927, starting with just three hundred dollars. Upon his retirement, he had handed the store over to his son Fred, who in turn had passed it on to his daughter Nancy, who still ran the store. And then had come the final sentence. ‘Ben Bass passed away in 1978 at age 77.’ Which was forty years ago. Which meant … Arry read a couple of other stories about Bass and the Strand. They all stated the same age and date of the founder’s passing. Forty years.

Which meant that the only possible explanation for all that had occurred—the initial interaction, the searching together for books, the arrival of the package—was an impossible explanation.

“It’s a pity he’s not here today. Almost sounds like Ben himself, come back to help out the wayward book lover.” The counter clerk’s words came again to Arry and she turned to gaze once more at the Strand bag lying on her bed. The innocuous phrase ‘come back to help’ was, with the benefit of hindsight, an ambiguous one, absent certain critical information, such as that the store’s founder had been dead for four decades.

Arry did not sleep that night, save for brief fitful intervals filled not so much with dreams as curious images of the old man’s face or his wrinkled hand reaching up onto a shelf to grasp a book. In her dreams Ben was always smiling, but he never said anything. Her first class the following day—the one she had so unsuccessfully studied for this evening—began at 9:30, but Arry would not be in attendance. By then she was already on the Number One train, headed downtown, back to the Strand. There were answers to be found and there was no other place she was going to find them.

Arry didn’t have anything like a plan for what to do once she arrived at the store, but she felt as though whatever answers awaited must surely be on the fourth floor, back where it had all started. Rather than take the elevator, she made her way slowly, painfully slowly up the stairs, each step creaking as though welcoming her return. It was still early and a weekday, so there was no one in sight once she reached the fourth floor. She glanced left, then right, not at all sure what she was looking for. With no better plan, she stepped back to the glass display case where she had first seen the George Orwell novel weeks earlier. It was gone now, bought, she supposed, by some well-healed collector. In its place lay a copy of the original paperback edition of James Joyce’s Ulysses, opened to the copyright page. It was the Shakespeare & Company edition, a third printing dated January 1923. The page was very thin, foxed to a delicate brown around the edges. It seemed so fragile that she imagined the pages would crumble simply by looking at them. The price tag lying next to the book read eighteen thousand dollars.

“They will, you know,” came a familiar voice from over her left shoulder.

Arry resisted the urge to turn around. She wasn’t ready. “They will what?” she replied quietly.

“Crumble … the pages, that is. It’s a terribly ephemeral thing. Only reason that one is so cheap is because it’s a third printing. If it was a first, there’d be another zero at the end.”

Arry slowly turned to find the same tiny man, the same white shock of hair, the exact same suit as before, standing there, looking not at her but at the precious volume in the glass case.

“Ben,” she said, mustering every fragment of composure she possessed, “it is Ben, right?” The old man only nodded, ever so slightly, his gaze still focused on the Joyce volume.

“We need to talk,” she said. “We really need to talk.”

“That will be fine,” Ben replied, finally turning his gaze toward Arry, his uplifted face practically aglow with a smile. “I’ve got all the time in the world.”


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