hat would they even do with a room like this? Absolutely nothing in it except for the seat he’d been asked to take. School chair, no window, two doors, no fixtures—nothing but a strip light. Walls a shade of green that was barely an argument, carpet a mismatched royal blue, scuffed and stained. It smelled bad in here without smelling of anything bad specifically. There was no obvious source for a smell. In a bookstore, one expected books.
Actually, it might be the perfect metaphor for this whole experience. It probably wouldn’t be any livelier out there, if the story so far was anything to go by. And what a sad story that was.
He was waiting for his own execution, basically. And it would be a mercy.
This was the last stop on easily the most tragic book tour to which he’d ever been stupid enough to agree. It had started off OK but then they all started off OK. Home town, friends and friends of friends, many of them clearly under duress, spewing owed favours through rictus plaudits. The usual. Familiar territory. Then Bethany Beach, Pocomoke City, where connections produced a few attendees but the signs were already worrying. Also the books weren’t selling like the others had and that meant he had more weight to lug around. Fairmount was a no-show. First time it had ever happened to him in Fairmount. Fairmount had always taken rather a shine to him in the past, he’d thought. And Mount Vernon was just excruciating—he didn’t even want to think about it. The other door opened.
“Would you come with me, please?”
He hadn’t been here before. All he’d had from Benjamin, and at the last minute, was the address. Some new place. It wasn’t the same person who had showed him in. This one waited till he was on his feet, then turned and walked on. He followed along a corridor that from word go constituted a major affront to his OCD. He didn’t have an OCD diagnosis but that had always felt like an oversight. The corridor was another windowless space—even doors were in short supply, and it was very long. The carpet was a bold graphic of interlinked hexagons in red, green and cream and the pattern had been cut through with complete disregard for symmetry. On one side, hexagons were sliced in two while on the other the carpet had been cut along the part of the design that separated the hexagons. An easily avoided error. The corridor really was awfully long.
“Large premises,” he remarked. There was no reply. “I didn’t realize one of the chains had set up shop in Ocean City.”
Ocean City was the big one. A lot of people would have guessed Dover, but Dover hadn’t been on the retail map for some time, they might be surprised to learn. Ocean City had two large and long-standing independents and as luck would have it they didn’t like each other very much. That made them competitive, meaning a book that might have garnered all sorts of veneration elsewhere would actually sell in Ocean City. If you couldn’t sell a book in Ocean City . . .
That’s why it always came last. To make up for the rest. This time it had too much to make up for. He was never going back to Mount Vernon—that was a given—but truth be told it wasn’t the only place he’d feel differently about now. Federalsburg came to mind, with a shudder. Salisbury. Things had turned properly ugly in Hurlock. Something had sunk in this week—it was time.
When at last Person reached a double door at the end of the corridor and opened it, another corridor was revealed that continued in the same direction. This new corridor was day-lit—along its right side, from waist to head height, it was glazed and through the glass, light from a gray day and a large inner courtyard fell upon a different carpet, almost plain orange but with a just discernible green check. He’d been under the impression they were on the ground floor when he’d been ushered inside from the rear parking lot, but clearly not. The windows, as well as dirtied by neglect, were lightly frosted, so visibility was compromised, but he could make out several storeys below them and several above. On all floors, figures moved along the glass line in ones and twos, just like him and Person. When they took a right he could look back at the side of the courtyard they had come from and see that the foot traffic was constant and in all directions—beads on an elaborated abacus. No detail—the frosting reduced them all to blurred position and approximate speed.
When he saw Person turn right again, he put his hand up. “Excuse me? Isn’t this the third side of the courtyard we’ve walked? Aren’t we going back on ourselves?”
Person pressed on but turned their head a little. “Fair enough. We’ll take a left at the end, so.”
At the end, they went through another double door on the left which led to another corridor, carpeted as the first had been in carelessly-cut hexagonal graphic and apparently as long, except that the vanishing point here was a bright light. They walked toward it, and as they did he became aware of the noise. No, noises—a generalised hum in which, as it loudened, individual voices and sounds became audible. A lot of banging, though still distant, and the beginning of language—the shapes of words if not yet the words themselves. There was a crowd out there and it was vocal.
“Great,” he said. “Just my luck.”
They’d never discussed it, but he did rather expect Benjamin to be on top of this kind of thing. Getting folks to come along to a book signing and, crucially, to put their hands in their pockets, was tricky enough as it was. What chance did he stand on the same day as some major event?
“Absolutely bloody typical,” he said. “What is it? Elton John?”
The energy levels out there were becoming apparent. Whoever constituted this crowd, they were ready.
“Stay away from the windows,” said Person.
There were no windows, except for the very far away one they were supposedly moving towards. And what kind of thing was that to say anyway? He decided it almost certainly wasn’t Elton John—there was nothing particularly upbeat about the tone. Some kind of political rally, then. Those occupy people. Jesus, he hadn’t even stepped into the store yet and the signing was as good as over. You know what, actually? This was good. This was a good thing. It didn’t matter who you were or how smart you thought you were—everybody needed a wake-up call from time to time. This was his. He felt the tension go out of him. Nobody could say he hadn’t tried, these last few years. And it wasn’t as if he hadn’t accomplished anything—there’d been that rave notice in the Cape Cod Times a couple of years back and the Sussex County Post had been absolute stalwarts, they really had. He was still young enough, just, to put it all down to mid-life crisis and reinvent himself, again. One last time. Maybe the Peter Pan syndrome could finally be Peter Parked and he could ally himself to something in life that wasn’t magical, or exceptional. It was time.
As they neared the window at the end of the corridor, his curiosity was frustrated—Person went through a doorway on the right. He followed, and found himself on a mezzanine floor at the top of a wide stairway in the mid-century, brutalist style. Another Person was waiting for them there.
“Good morning, Mr . . . eh . . .”
Since the name didn’t jump off Other Person’s clipboard, they gave up and clasped it with both hands behind their back.
“We appreciate your complete cooperation this morning.”
Well, yes, that was usually the way of it, though it normally went unsaid. And the combat fatigues were a first. Person remained upstairs while Other Person showed him down to a large, triple-height space that in no way resembled a book store.
“The city authorities facilitated the change of venue,” said Other Person, “in light of the scale of the protest. You’ll be here.” A desk was indicated, centrally positioned toward the rear of the space on a raised platform. They had done a good job neatly stacking copies of his book on the desk but leaving room for a microphone and for him to sign a copy at a time. He sat. The lobby was one of those architectural tricks that made it seem like only the floor-to-third-storey windows were holding the building up. He had a commanding and, because of the windows on all sides, panoramic view from here. Spread out around the lobby were a large number of military personnel, some of whom were prone, weapons trained on the front doors. It was rather fitting, actually, that it should end with weaponry. The Arts, his arse. Humanities, his arse. This racket was a snake pit. It might as well be a bloodsport, for all the people it had chewed up and spat out.
Barriers had been erected fifty yards out from the building, stretching as far from left to right as he could see. Heads were just visible above them—a lot of heads, all the way along. Even though the plate glass had to be a couple of inches thick, noise levels were high. Between the buildings and the barriers, more military people huddled behind their vehicles. On the other side, at intervals, some members of the crowd were elevated, on platforms maybe or on the shoulders of others. One of them had a megaphone and was going through a call-and-response with the crowd.
“What do we want?”
“When do we want it?”
A helicopter swept low and fast along the length of his view, coming to a stop at far right and swinging rather wildly to face the building and hover there.
“That is unusual,” said Author. Other Person was on a call and didn’t respond till it was over.
“It has caught us by surprise, I’ll give you that.” Shake of the head. “They finally snapped.”
Other Person did a rather theatrical double-take in his direction.
“You been hiding under a rock? This seem like business-as-usual to you?”
“No, it is a rather more animated response than I would normally expect to the kind of work I produce. I wonder if—”
There was a pop and a small flash of light in the distance, visible behind the helicopter. They watched as a mushroom cloud formed, the kind of cloud that indicated that while the explosion had been quite far away, it was also very large.
“That seems like a negative,” said Author. “I wonder if it might not have been a better idea to cancel the signing, given the circumstances.”
“Yeah. We wargamed that.” Other Person’s phone vibrated. “Unacceptable body count. Excuse me, I need to get this.”—walking away, phone to ear.
Author tapped his fingers on the desk, feeling strangely calm. He’d have an anecdote for the grandchildren whose parent he had yet to sire.
“They’ve taken the airport.”
Other Person was back. “We’re out of options. Time to give ‘em what they want.”
“What they want?”
“Absolutely. To the letter.”
“Right,” said Author, “but . . . what who wants?”
Other Person’s hands went to their respective hips. “You serious?” Pointing at the crowd. “What those guys want. The Woke Brigade.”
On this side of the barriers, a couple of forklift trucks made their way from left to right.
“We all knew this day would come,” said Other Person, peering into the mob, as if for answers. “Well, here it is.” Turning to look Author in the eye—“I’d like to remind you of how deeply we appreciate your complete cooperation.”
News had filtered through to the crowd. A cheer went up.
“What do we want?”
“When do we want it?”
“Positions.” The snipers stayed put but others scrambled to line up on either side of the door. Outside, a similar formation materialised around a central link in the barriers, presumably so they could be opened there.
“We should do a soundcheck. Press the button on the base of the microphone and say something, would you?”
“I hate soundchecks,” said Author. “I can never think of anything to say.”
“Just read out the title of your book or something so we can check the levels.”
Author picked up a copy from one of the neat stacks. He’d really wanted a spine this time, but Benjamin had insisted, as he always did, that the page count was too low, so they’d both spent three days in Benjamin’s garage, stapling. That was two weeks back and his hand was still sore.
“Changing River Course and Oxbow Lake Formation in Southeastern Delaware from 1750 to 1920: a Revision.”
“What do we want?”
The two forklifts made their way back toward the central point, each loaded with an oversized cardboard container. When the containers had been set down, they were each cut at a corner and the sides pulled apart. Thousands of permanent markers spilled onto the tarmac
“We told ‘em no face, no genitals,” said Other Person.
Author tried to gauge the size of the crowd. Tens of thousands, certainly.
“When do we want it?”
“You told . . . all of them?”
“We’re doing our best,” said Other Person, “in very challenging conditions. There was an announcement.”
It was time. Author stood, undoing his cuffs. This would be a mercy. “Tell them no genitals. Face is fine. Last chance, guys.” He started on his shirt buttons. “We sure about this?”