Friday, August 6, 2010

Notes from an Anonymous Basement

The droning starts overhead, in the dark, in the damp. I feel a chill in my cheek from the concrete floor I’m lying upon, and open my eyes. I see nothing but shadows in front of me. The droning rises in volume, as if a great swarm of insects is gathering, invisible and mighty. Sitting up, I steel myself for their descent.

When the light bulb switches on, I can see the steel I-beams in the floor above, a set of rickety wooden stairs rising out of my sight. Also I am surrounded by towers of cardboard cartons and crates with what I believe to be Hindi written on the sides. I cannot read Hindi, but judging from the sharp smells of spice poking up through the damp—cardamom, saffron—I understand them to be foodstuffs.

The drone opens into a louder keen, then blossoms into a melody. It is the notes from a sitar, I realize. Then the music briefly sounds as if it’s right beside me, then quiets with the shutting of the door, and a man descends the stairs. He’s dark-skinned, wearing a nondescript white shirt and jeans, and I intuit from the sitar and the Hindi writing that he is Indian. His dark eyes are wide and intense as he regards me.

He stands, I sit; no one says a word. Until…

“You must tell them what you know.”

I blink; my visitor does not. “Could you…be more specific, please?”

“I mean this.” He takes the book from behind his back: a curved and creased copy of Whom Must I Kill to Get Published?, and I think to myself, I sure hope you already paid for that, pal. “They must know how you knew,” my visitor—or is it host?—insists.

I rub the back of my neck, which like most of the rest of me is dully sore. “How I knew what?”

The book disappears from sight, and smirking he waggles a finger down at me. “Oh, you are good. Very, very good. But, my friend, they are better.”

“Who are ‘they’?”

My new Indian ‘friend’ squats down beside me, shakes his head. Offers me a stick of cinnamon gum, which I accept. (Never refuse gum or a mint the first time it’s offered, or you may be offered said gum or mint a second time.) “What you ought to worry about, Mr. Horger, is what to tell them. What you can remember about that Saturday in La Grange.”

“La Grange? Oldham County Days? Karen’s Book Barn?”

My gum-giver stands up, dusts off his hands. “So you do remember.”

I try to stand, but make it only partway up before a woozy head forces me to crash to the floor. It’s been a long time since I felt this dizzy, and the previous occasion involved Tanqueray and my indoctrination to chewing tobacco. “Of course I remember…the Book Barn…the parade…my family…Lori’s pink cardigan sweater…pimped-up tractors…”

“Aha! The tractors!” Now he points my own book, rolled up in a tube, back at me. That’s no way to treat a book, I know. “It is all coming back to you, yes?”

Still no idea what he’s on about. “I remember the day just fine, clearly…like it was yesterday.” I raise my head in a moment of clarity. “Wait. Was it yesterday?”

He says nothing, just smiles triumphantly like an oyster with a pearl under its tongue, and the sitar music builds one step, one harmony at a time. “Think first on the books you sold,” he suggests, backing up. “Remember, Mr. Horger. Remember to remember.” And he backs up the steps, grinning, holding Whom in front of him like a cannoli of doom, and he disappears with a sitar trill and a door slam. Perhaps even a puff of smoke.

And I’m left with a fuzzbox of a headache, a basement full of perishable items from the subcontinent, and a mystery. Several mysteries. Like the second copy of Whom? I’m, apparently, seated upon.

I open the book to the title page. In addition to my signature in blue, there’s a dedication in black, in my printed letters. Addressed to me. It says: “Take the train. To help you remember.” With a quick flip-through, there appear to be no further clues.

Sighing, I shut the book and watch the stairs for their arrival.