Back Roads to Far Towns: a Bookhunter’s Adventure
First published in AB Bookman’s Weekly, Vol. 78, no. 12, September 22, 1986
“You look like a smartass,” my neighbor remarked.
The comment was more welcome than one might have thought, since it gave me a perfectly good excuse to look at the woman who had just addressed me. With some effort I had managed to avoid staring at her ever since she plumped herself onto the stool at the end of the counter in Bert’s Home on the Range Cafe, the only eating establishment in a small Southwestern town that shall remain nameless.
In proper Western fashion I let her words reverberate as I framed an appropriate reply. That was a mistake because it gave her time for another observation.
“Your hair’s too long. Way too long.” She was right. Her own hair was hard to judge. The visible part that stuck out from beneath her fur hat was stiff and grey, with a memory of something red in patches. It looked as if it had been cut with garden shears.
“I bet you’re some kind of kook.”
I told her I didn’t think so. She listed a half-dozen species of kooks and then seemed disappointed at being wrong on all counts. She started pouring sugar in her coffee.
“I bet that’s your car, the weird one with the California plates.”
I admitted that it was.
“Figgers.” The sugar streamed out.” You must be one of them hippies.” She had omitted hippies from her previous catalogue.
“No, as a matter of fact, I’m a business man,” I replied, not altogether truthfully. “Monkey business, I’ll bet,” she said, banging the sugar back down on the counter for emphasis.
I shrugged my shoulders and took another bite of a delicious butter-fried grilled-cheese sandwich, prepared by Bert himself.
“Well?” she demanded a moment later. She had taken off her huge orange and yellow-green candy-striped sunglasses and was staring at me with unexpectedly small, intense eyes.
“You sure as hell don’t know how to keep up your end of a conversation, do you?” She reached under the counter and brought up a large rawhide purse that sounded as if it were full of horseshoes and armadillo shells. “What kind of business?” she asked sarcastically. She rummaged around a bit and found a horribly mangled pack of Marlboros, one of which she straightened out and stuck in her mouth.
I explained in as few words as possible that I bought and sold books. To my surprise, this confession brought forth only an interested grunt, as she engaged in another search through her bag that finally produced a battered lighter. These days, if someone began blowing smoke in my face while I was trying to eat a much overdue lunch, I would move elsewhere, leaving behind me a pointed remark or two. Then—this was a good many years ago—I was less intolerant of such behavior, so I didn’t pay much attention to my new acquaintance’s poor manners.
“I got some books. “
“Oh,” I said winningly, as I envisioned a family Bible or some old textbooks or a box of paperbacks with the covers falling off. I was more curious about the bulky fur bolero she was wearing on a warm afternoon. She didn’t look uncomfortable peering out from within it like a small, unpredictable predator.
“Leastwise, they’re Igor’s books, but now they’re mine, and I sure don’t want to go hauling them all the way back home.”
‘‘What kind of books are they?’’
She puzzled over this for .a moment. “Weird ones. I mean weird. Igor, now, he was a kook, but a helluva good guy. Sure did like his vodka. But that was during the war. Now he don’t touch a drop.”
“Oh, he’s still alive?”
“Hell, yes!” She seemed affronted. “He’s on his way back to Roossia. Told me he wanted to die in the mother country.” A week earlier he had telephoned long distance to say he had decided that morning to go home. He was leaving everything for my informant on the condition that she come pick it up right away before vandals got to it. Two days later he was en route to Paris, his first stop.
The rest of Igor’s story emerged in fragments, some of them contradictory: born in Russia; fled either in 1917, when he was 18, or in 1924, when he was also 18; settled in Berlin and worked as a cabinet-maker; later moved to either Brussels or Paris or both; came to the U.S. in the late 1930s and became a skilled frame maker after some early distress, when he had to take a job doctoring furniture for a shady antique dealer; was placed in a sensitive civilian position in Washington, D.C., during the war, thanks to his language skills (this was where he and my informant—a security officer in his department—had gotten to be pals); returned to New York until 1960, when he moved to a remote site in the Southwest, made himself a house, and became a virtual recluse. A Frenchwoman named Claudine figured somewhere in the middle of Igor’s story, but it was never quite clear to me who jilted whom or where, and I learned quickly enough that there was no profit in asking for clarification.
It did begin to sound interesting, from a bookish point of view. “How large a library did Igor leave?”
“I dunno. Five big cases.” Then she added, with some little threat in her voice, “You can’t have the boxes, though. He made them himself.’’
“What kind of books did he read?”
“Well, I dunno, but he could talk about anything, literature, philosophy, history, psychology, he knew it all.”
“I wonder if he was interested in att.”
“Well, hell, yes! I just got through telling you he was an artist.’’
“How could I see the books?”
“I’m going up to his place right now. You can follow me.” She mashed her latest cigarette into the ashtray and spooned out the brown syrup at the bottom of her coffee cup. I introduced myself.
“Oh, yeah? I knew a McGillicuddy once.’’ She picked a fleck of tobacco off her lip. “Old coot.” I said I didn’t think we were related.
“I’m Bitsy Mae,” she offered. She fumbled with her purse and her sunglasses. I picked up her check. Big spender from the Coast.
We made our farewells to Bert, a nice man, if ever there was one, and went outside into the late-afternoon glare. As we talked, I had a chance to take in Bitsy Mae as a whole. She was sixty, I supposed, short, squat, energetic, and a bit clumsy. If one could have separated the merely physical person from her manner and her style, disguised her in a rayon print dress and sensible shoes, for instance, she would have seemed utterly nondescript: the woman behind you in line at the supermarket, or the one whose lawn you used to mow when you were ten.
I have already noted part of her ensemble, but there was more. Here, verbatim, are a few notes I made at the time: “silk (?) blouse, Peter Pan collar, ruffled front — white w. big pink polka dots; grass green patent leather belt; black skirt w. diagonally striped patch pockets — red, yellow, blue; BOOTS!!! — magenta, yellow-green patent leather, white tops — scuffed.” Plus at least a pound of jewelry. She was, in fact—and I realize this only now as I write these words—a talented, if unwitting, pioneer / pratitioner of postmodernist chic. Too avant-garde for me. I stopped at my car.
“What do you call that thing?” she asked with instinctive scorn.
“It’s a Volvo,” I replied. A truck gunned its engine leaving town.
“A what?” she barked at me, her eyes slitted.
“A Volvo,” I repeated carefully. They were less widely known those days than now.
She subsided and muttered, “I thought you said something else.’’
“It’s Swedish. The name means ‘I roll’ in Latin.”
She regarded me with a mixture of curiosity and disdain.
“Like the word ‘revolve,’ “ I went on agreeably.
“You are a smartass, just like I said,” she replied, with a satisfied snort.
‘‘Think you can keep up?’’ she asked, as she climbed into an aged pickup with a cabover camper and Louisiana plates.
Three facts became evident as I followed Bitsy Mae out of town: the pickup had been wrecked at one time and was going crabwise down the highway as a result; it needed shocks in the worst way; and Bitsy Mae drove to a different drummer. Her technique suffered from two major faults, an inability to steer (the pickup shared much of the blame there), and a heavy, heavy foot on the accelerator and the brake pedal, sometimes both at once. Of the two, the steering certainly was the worse. On a straightaway she tended to drift to one side or the other. Just as disaster loomed, she would wrench the errant machine back in the opposite direction. Her philosophy with respect to curves required executing them as two or three straight lines. This meant that she spent much of the time either on the wrong side of the road or spraying up sand and pebbles along the shoulder. On the first blind curve out of town, she was twothirds over the double yellow line and in the direct path of an oncoming diesel rig before she somehow managed to swerve back across the lane and almost into the embankment on the right-hand side of the road. Her horn blared angrily at the offending truck as it roared past. I kept my distance. We went a few miles west out of town and then abruptly turned right onto a dirt road that headed straight up the gently sloping valley floor. The junction where that road ended was high enough to afford a panoramic view of the entire valley and the mountains beyond, range after range of them disappearing in the afternoon haze. Then it was west again.
After a mile or so on the new road, the terrain suddenly got rough. The pickup lurched and swayed alarmingly over bumps and dips and around sharp bends. Twice I thought for certain it would tip over. Even my trusty Volvo skirted disaster at least once, thanks to its heavy load. We passed through three deep, ominous gullies littered with boulders the size of the camper and clogged with branches and masses of loose brush. All, especially the last one, looked like good places to stay out of during a flash flood. The road wound through almost a mile of its tortuous course before emerging again on the high ground. Another few miles of good road, and Bitsy Mae wheeled the camper into a primitive drive that went up to a rocky outcropping half a mile distant. I parked in the shadow of a huge semitrailer forty feet long.
“Your pickup,” I ventured, as Bitsy Mae extricated herself from the cab.
“Ain’t mine. It’s Piggy’s.”
“Piggy’s pickup could use some shock absorbers. ‘ ‘
“No it couldn’t. He likes it this way.” She put her foot on the rear bumper and tromped. “Says it rides better.” We both watched the body wallow in a complex figure for a full seven or eight seconds. “Makes me sick to my stomach.”
She opened the door of the camper. Out jumped a dog, an ugly, surly dog with bristles over its eyes and down its nose and along its back. This, though the word seems to have fallen into disuse, was a cur, a big, authentic cur of Shakespearean stature. When it saw me, it stopped and bared its teeth. I stood my ground.
“G’wan Spiroagnew, git,” she said, grabbing the dog’s collar and dragging him off behind her. “That man’s a friend.’’ Spiroagnew—run all together like that—was unconvinced. At least, I thought, she has a sense of humor I hadn’t noticed before. A moment later when she explained without a trace of irony, “I call him. Spiroagnew ’cause he’s an all-American dog,” I was deeply disappointed.
I followed them around to a clearing on the other side of the semi. Somehow, I had expected a building of some sort, a habitation. Surely, Bitsy Mae had mentioned a handmade house, but there was nothing except the big trailer. Igor wouldn’t have lived in there, would he?
Several piles of boxes were stacked on a couple of pallets and covered with a tarpaulin. Bitsy Mae was untying the ropes. “Gimme a hand,” she said. I started on the other side.
“What a view,” I remarked.
“Yup. Good thing we didn’t have these already loaded, or you’d never have seen them.” We rolled the tarpaulin back. There were a dozen handcrafted wooden chests the size of small. steamer trunks, decorated with carved designs. Five of them contained books, more than the partly filled back end of my station wagon would hold. If, miraculously, there were a few good items, I still had a couple of flattened boxes to add to my load. If there were more, some of the cartons already in the car could go on the roof temporarily, and the contents of the chests could be loaded inside loose, to be repacked when I got back to town. Any bookhunter will be familiar with calculations of this sort.
“Old Igor set a lot of store by that view,” she continued. “Had everything arranged so he could see it all the time, when he was eating, when he woke up in the morning, even when he was on the pot.”
“Oh, then he didn’t live there,” I said offhandedly, pointing at the trailer.
“There?” With high voltage scorn she said, “No, he didn’t live there.”
“Well, um, where did he live?”
“In. His. House.” She didn’t need to add, “Stupid.”
“Ah! And where is his house?”
She just shook her head. “There,” she replied, pointing—where else?—at the trailer. “You want to look at these weird books or not?’’
“Yes,” I said, and of course I did, but I must have been studying the unexpressive exterior of the trailer with a look of utter incomprehension.
“It’s in pieces,” she said, as if she were addressing a backward kindergartner. Igor, it developed, had been a squatter. “I told him fifty times, ‘Igor, you got money. Buy some land of your own.’ He wouldn’t do it. Guess he figgered if he did he’d be stuck here the rest of his life.” Instead, he built a house that could be taken apart. When they came to chase him off the land, he’d be ready for them. He’d carry his home away with him like a snail and put it up somewhere else, only they never did.
I wish I had seen it—one big room fitted and polished inside like a piece of furniture. Outside, from what she said, it was so quiet and unobtrusive that it almost disappeared against the desert background. “And now it’s in there?”
“You got it, Buster. Two days it took us, and some of those pieces were heavy. Igor put it all together by himself, but I don’t know how. He’s just a little squirt. Sure will be nice at my place.”
“How will you use it? A guest cottage?”
“Guest cottage,” she spluttered. “Hell, no! That’s where I’m gonna do my meditating. You wanna see these books or not?” She unlocked one of the chests, and I was momentarily blinded when she raised the lid. Inside was an unbroken mass of packages immaculately wrapped in crisp white paper.
“Some glare, huh?”
Each package had a line or two of small, neat hand printing on it. The nearest one read ‘‘ Junge Kunst 45-53.” Seven others at my end of the chest were similarly marked. It looked like a full run of the nice little monographs on modern artists published in Leipzig by Klinkhardt & Biermann between 1919 and about 1930. The individual volumes were worth only a few dollars each, but a complete set would be a nice item to catalogue. It was a hopeful start.
The packages had been fitted into the chest with such precision that it was a little hard to get them out, but that didn’t stop Bitsy Mae from digging in at her end and ripping the paper off a book. I had already decided to leave them wrapped, if possible. As she leafed through it, I looked at the next package down. ‘‘Kandinsky (Sturm)” it read. That was promising. I peeled the tape off at one end and slipped the book out. Indeed, it proved to be Kandinsky 1901-1913, published in Berlin in 1913 by Herwarth Walden’s gallery, Der Sturm. I figured it was worth sixty to seventy-five dollars retail. (Now, in 1986, a fair price would be triple that much.) Inside the front cover was a signature—Igor’s, I supposed—in minute, highly stylized Cyrillic script. I could make out the first name, which I already knew. The other two were beautiful but indecipherable.
Other less interesting titles and authors surfaced, some that obviously were only inexpensive paperbacks. Then I hit pay dirt twice in a row. There was one small package marked simply “Heartfield.” Anything from that period by the collagist John Heartfield, whose brilliant and savage designs graced many of the publications of his brother Wieland Herzfelde’s Malik-Verlag, were of great interest. Immediately below that, I came across ‘‘Moholy-Nagy—60 Fotos.’’ That would have been Fototek I, an important Bauhaus-era publication issued in Berlin by Klinkhardt and Biermann in 1930.
By now the chest was nearly a third empty, and I had unearthed five undeniably good items. What else might remain to be uncovered? Early works of George Grosz, perhaps; some of the other rare publications of Der Sturm; Dadaist and Surrealist periodicals; a set of the lavish Russian expatriate magazine Jar-Ptitsa, published in fourteen numbers in Berlin between 1921 and 1926, with contributions by many artists and writers, including Nabokov under his early nom de plume, V. Sirin. The possibilities were endless. I was developing a great fondness for Igor.
So intent was I on my extraordinarily pleasant task that I had literally forgotten about Bitsy Mae for several minutes.
“Well?” she demanded, bringing me abruptly back to reality. “Yes or no?” She was watching me with what I had come to think of as her normal expression: scorn, distaste and boredom.
“Yes,” I said. “Definitely yes.”
“You mean you really want this junk? You’ve gotta take it all.”
I had }ust uncovered a package labeled “Matisse.” I didn’t know exactly which Matisse it was, but it measured about 11 x 9 inches in stiff wrappers and felt like one of those lovely French publications from the 1920s or 1930s. The Roger Fry book of 1930, perhaps, or the 1925 Dessins by Waldemar George. “Yes,” I said, “I want it.’’
“Well, hallelujah! There’s no accounting, is there?’’ She looked with renewed interest at the book she had opened up earlier. “This one’s kind of pretty.” She flipped the pages. “But you can’t read it. What are all these hieroglyphics, anyway?’’ She thrust an open page at me accusingly.
“That figgers,” she acknowledged, “since it’s Igor’s book. You read that stuff?’’
“No,” I said, reaching to take the book from her. Spiroagnew, who was crouching watchfully next to his mistress, disapproved of my gesture, but she quieted him. “No, I just know most of the alphabet. I could tell you who wrote it and where it was published, but not much else.’’ The late-19th-century landscapes reproduced in the book seemed odd company for the likes of Kandinsky and Matisse. “This one”—I had turned to the title page—‘‘is about an artist named Levitan. These are all pictures of Russia.” Later, thinking over Igor’s story, I realized how fitting it was that this particular link with the land of his birth had survived his travels over so many years.
“Huh,” Bitsy Mae opined, “Goddam Commies.’’
‘‘Actually, I doubt that they were. See, the book was published before the Revolution, in 1911.
“Oh, yeah?” She took it back from me and seemed almost interested. Then, abruptly, she said, “Big deal,” and lofted it towards the chest. Amazingly, I managed to catch it and put it carefully back inside. “You know, Buster, this is gonna cost you.”
“Of course,” I replied, trying frantically to figure out how I was going to scare up a sizable amount of cash in that desolate place within the next hour. I couldn’t quite see Bitsy Mae taking my check.
“Hundred bucks,” she snapped. “A hundred,” I started to reply.
“If you don’t like it,” she interrupted, “that’s tough patooties. A hundred is what I want. A hundred is what I’m gonna get.” She folded her arms. “That’ll pay for Piggy’s gas.”
“You drive a hard bargain, Bitsy Mae.”
“You know it.”
“But I couldn’t in good conscience give you so little.” I caught her off guard with that. “These books may be more valuable than you think.’’
“How do you know? You haven’t even seen the rest of them.”
“That’s true, but this one right here,” I said, picking up the Kandinsky, “is worth over fifty dollars.’’
“That?” She picked it up and looked at it searchingly. “If you can get some simpleminded sot to give you fifty bucks for this, you must be smarter than you look.” At that instant I realized it would have been smarter yet not to have used that particular book as an example. “I wouldn’t give you a nickel for it,” she concluded. Like the Levitan a moment earlier, it went soaring, and this time I couldn’t reach it. The book landed on its corner, which I tried to straighten out as I slipped it back into its paper wrapping. “Anyway, you think I’m some kind of dimwit? Of course you’re gonna sell them for more than you paid.”
“It’s a matter of degree. I’d feel better checking to see what’s here and then giving you a fairer price.’’
“Do I look like I need money? See that?’’ She thrust her hand in my face. “Three-point-five carats in that baby. That’s worth more than all the books that was ever printed.” I could have disputed her judgment, but I didn’t.
“Fine,” I said, pulling out some cash. “Here’s a hundred dollars. Give me your address, and I’ll send you more, if the books are as good as I hope.’’ She just stared at me. “You can forward it to Igor.”
“You. think you’re gonna take them now? How you gonna get them out of here? That sardine tin of yours is already full.”
“I can work it out. Most of the books will fit in my station wagon, and perhaps you can take the rest in your camper, until we get to town.”
“First off, Mister Smartass, I’m not going back there tonight. I’ve got better things to do,’’ and she pointed vaguely in the opposite direction. “And second”—she looked at her watch—‘‘all this jabbering’s gonna make me late. You come back tomorrow morning at 9:30 sharp, and you come in something that’ll hold all this stuff. Piggy’ll be here, and he can help you load.’’ I was looking forward to meeting Piggy. Was he, I wondered, her husband, brother, son, lover, slave?
“I’ll be here right on time. It’s a long haul to Louisiana, and I don’t want to hold you up. What does it take, a couple of days?”
‘‘I thought you were going to California.’’ The inflection of her voice was enough to set Spiroagnew growling and baring his teeth again, but this time she didn’t stop him.
“I am. I’m on my way to San Diego. I meant you. Aren’t you going to Louisiana?’’
“Why would I want to go there?”
“Your license plate ... “
She interrupted. “I told you, Mr. S.A., the pickup is Piggy’s. I live way up north.’’
“Do you want the money now?”
She gave me one more withering glance. “You pay me tomorrow, when you get all this stuff. Just be here, ’cause we’re pulling out at 10:00 sharp.”
Quickly we repacked the books, but of course they did not go back in as neatly as Igor had left them. The chest was full up to the edge, and Bitsy Mae still had one volume in her hand. She stuck it in on top and tried to close the lid, but no go. When she pulled the book back out, her teeth clenched, I fully expected to see it go sailing out into the chaparral. Then she thrust it at me, saying, ‘‘Here, we’ve made our deal. You might as well take this.”
The dog had wandered off during the packing. Bitsy Mae gave a piercing whistle and then yelled, “Spiroagnew, get on over here, now.’’ He crashed straight through the underbrush. ‘‘Tell the nice man you’re sorry you were mean.” An impasse. “Go on, shake hands.” He thrust out a paw, which I felt obliged to accept. “Do you really like him?” Spiroagnew uttered something halfway between a growl and a muted howl. “Well, what are you waiting for? Show him.” With that, he stood up on his hind legs, which made him taller than me, placed his front paws on my shoulders, and gave my face and beard a great, wet lick. “See,” she said, “he’s just a cream puff when you get to know him. I let people stay scared of him till I’m sure of them. It’s only good sense.’’
We got in our respective vehicles and left, she and Spiroagnew to the west, me to the east and back to Bert’s. I checked the distances as I went: six-tenths of a mile down Igor’s drive; nearly seven across the high ground and through the rough terrain; four more down to the highway; and two into town. The return trip took twenty-eight minutes.
The nearest motel was twenty miles south. As soon as I checked in, I started trying to find boxes. Zero. Clearly, some part of my load would have to be shipped home, but I could take a couple of days to do it properly. I unloaded the car and emptied all the boxes. Nearly two full walls of my small room were covered with books stacked three feet high. After dinner I spent the rest of the evening reading Our Mutual Friend. That night there was a sudden and violent windstorm.
The next morning I awoke uncharacteristically early to a calm, clear sky. After cleaning the dust off the windshield, I headed for Bert’s. It seemed fitting to start the day’s adventure there. His 99¢ breakfast could not have been better. At 8:50 I hit the road. The view of the mountains was extraordinary from the high ground. I took my time going through the difficult terrain, especially the first two gullies. It was about 9:10 when I entered the third gully. A moment later, rounding the first curve of that narrow passage, I blinked hard and jammed on the brakes just in time to avoid running into a tangled mass of tumbleweeds at least fifteen feet high. They clogged the ravine from wall to wall. There was no way through.
First, I tried clambering to the top of the embankment. It was even worse than I had thought. The tumbleweeds stretched on for a hundred feet or more. The distance left to Igor’s was far too great and the country too rough to cover on foot. Even turning the car around required backing up over a mile.
There was only one course open: take the roundabout paved route to the far end of the dirt road and intercept them before they left. I got back down to the highway and drove west fourteen miles to the next speck on the map. The last three miles, stuck in a line of traffic piled up behind a slow wide-load, were agonizing. Then I raced eight miles north. It was not yet 10:00 a.m. when I turned onto the dirt road Bitsy Mae had taken the previous afternoon, but even from three miles away it was clear that the trailer was gone. Still, it seemed wise to check the place where we should have met. Who knows what I expected to find; a perfumed note, perhaps? I took out my map.
North, she had said. That road three miles distant was the only nearby route north. Even allowing for a whole halfhour’s lead, I should be able to catch them. Northward I sped. The ever-rising elevation was a great source of optimism. Some of the long uphill grades would have slowed the diesel down to ten or fifteen miles per hour maximum. An hour later, when the road came to its first major junction, I had to admit defeat. They had not gone that way.
I retraced my route and spent the afternoon poking around three or four small towns trying to find someone who knew Igor, Bitsy Mae, or Piggy. Several people had encountered Bitsy Mae and remembered her vividly, but they all knew less than I. Piggy must have been absent or invisible, and Igor was known only as a mysterious and austere presence by a few of the townspeople. They could not even tell me his last name. The one person who might have helped me, a handyman who ran errands and drove Igor into town on his rare visits there, had left a few weeks earlier, either for the Pacific Northwest or Alaska. A letter mailed to him with a request that it be forwarded was returned by the Post Office.
I stopped at Bert’s for one more good meal and left him my card with the fervent request that he get in touch with me if Bitsy Mae should ever show up again. Then there was the motel to deal with, all those books that had to be repacked into boxes and those into the car. I didn’t have the heart to sleep there, so at 9:00 p.m. I started driving west, slowly and thoughtfully. The night was clear and warm. I traveled nearly until dawn, then stopped for a few hours’ nap in a roadside rest. I was home in time for dinner that evening.
Since then, I have passed that way five times. To his credit, Bert has always recognized me and remembered my quest the moment I walk through his door. Each time he says very slowly with a sympathetic smile, “Still lookin’ for her, are you? Ain’t that something. She never come back.’’ Then he serves me a cheese sandwich grilled in butter, a salad, and some of the best hash-brown potatoes I have ever tasted. My card was still pinned in a place of distinction on the wall behind the cash register the last time I passed through, four years ago. Bert may well have retired by now. he was talking about it then, how there was nobody to take his place. I don’t think he has seen Bitsy Mae, and I don’t think I ever will, either.
Every bookhunter must have at least one story like this. I have never told mine before to anyone, so why break my silence now? Even my wife is learning of this adventure for the first time as she reads these words. It is not instructive. Short of camping out at Igor’s all night, there is little I could have done to change the outcome. A private investigator might have tracked Bitsy Mae down, but I doubt she would have liked that.
Mysteries abound. What really was in those boxes and those immaculate packages? Were the few books I saw typical of the whole? Was it a great find, or merely a mixed bag with a few good items? Where did Bitsy Mae and Piggy go, if not north? Who and what was Piggy? How—and I shudder at some of the possibilities—did they dispose of Igor’s books? At least Bitsy Mae had learned that someone might value them. Why, if Igor was abandoning them, did he wrap and pack them with such exquisite care, as if they were a priceless gift or a ceremonial offering? Perhaps that was just his way.
I still have the book Bitsy Mae handed me as we parted, when the chest would not shut. It is a well-worn copy of a small, nineteenth-century German work on the construction of geometrical designs. Unfortunately, Igor did not write his name in it, but it occupies a special place in my own library. One day I intend to try some of the designs on my own.
What I’d like to think—not having gotten the books myself, and no trace of them having turned up in the trade, to my knowledge—is that they found their way to someone else who appreciated them. It’s even possible that Igor changed his mind. Bitsy Mae arrived back home—wherever that may have been—to find a cable awaiting her: ‘‘URGENT STOP KEEP BOOKS STOP INSTRUCTIONS FOLLOW STOP IGOR.”
That’s one scenario. There are others. Perhaps he really did have more compelling things to do. I hope that his quest was more rewarding at last than mine, and I wish him —all of them—well.
Almost exactly thirty-two years later, here is a belated explanation about “Back Roads to Far Towns.” All of it, except a single detail, is fiction. Perhaps one or two initial readers suspected that. I had intended to come clean at the time, but a circumstance that I did not foresee made it impossible. As the story says, my wife, Gere, did not know it, and that was the circumstance. The day some subscribers received the issue, she, not I, was there to answer the first phone calls and laugh with the callers over this surprising account. Should I have embarrassed her by confessing the truth then? Not for the world.
The only factual detail in the story is the “nineteenth-century German work on the construction of geometrical designs.” I still have it, and have no idea what its source was.
Lest a reader now doubt everything else I have written, let me reassure you. Two “bookhunter’s adventures” appeared in AB Bookman’s Weekly. The earlier one, in 1986, “If Heifers Were Wishes. . .,” is a perfectly factual account of our first two book fairs and a bogus Rembrandt. A partially finished third one involves scavenging the ruins of Nick Kovach’s collapsed periodicals business after the 1971 San Fernando earthquake; it continues with dinner at Musso & Frank with Larry McMurtry and ends with Halloween on Hollywood Boulevard, where I encountered the annoying chickenhawk who used to follow me when I was sixteen, and who had not aged a day in a quarter century. One day I might finish it, if the manuscript ever emerges from my files.