Monday, August 9, 2010

The Story of 'Serendipity'

By Dr. Thursday

[In a previous post we featured The Story of 'Driftwood', which precedes the present story in the order of its telling.]

"That's a great story, Angela," Mary Weaver said with a happy sigh. "Thanks so much!"
Jeff Smargada nodded too. "Not near as mushy as I expected. And I don't know about brilliant, but Harry Carvey..."
"Luke," corrected Angela Biddell.
"Yeah. Luke Carvey is a good fisherman. I've been out with him once or twice. Nice fellow. Strong as nails, too."
"Driftwood is a nice bookstore," agreed Elwood Porter. "I'm grateful to hear more of its history."
"As I am," added Ray Ludlow. "There's so much about this town and its bookstores I've yet to learn. Though I must admit to being particularly curious about something which was mentioned a bit earlier."
"What was that, Ray?" asked Angela Biddell. "I mentioned several of the well-known stories..."
"You forget that I'm not originally from Quayment," Ray replied. Jeff's eyes narrowed but he said nothing. "But you mentioned one which is too tantalizing for me to postpone learning at least the basic facts. I mean this magic bookstore, this 'Serendipity'."
"Oh." Angela put her hand to her mouth as she smiled. "I certainly don't mean that they sell magic books or anything occult. People say it's magic because it appears overnight - and disappears just as quickly."
Ray stared curiously at the little old woman, then glanced around at the others. "Really?"
"Oh yes," Mary Weaver confirmed. "It's an amazing..."
Jeff Smargada put his hand up. "Excuse me, but maybe I ought to tell this one, since I need to get out and catch my Friday fish for Mabel. But I won't spoil it for you, Mary - I'll just stick to what everyone knows that's been there."
Ray Ludlow looked around at the others. "You mean it's real - it's not a local legend?"
Elwood Porter sighed. "Yes, it's real. But it's only real for a brief period - it appears at unexpected times, and even in unexpected places. But as I recall, it was Jeff here who was the first one to find it the last time... was it last summer?"
"That's right, El. And yeah, I was the first one last time... It was over a year ago. September 8, 2005, a Thursday. The sun was barely up. I had gone out early on the bay, and forgot to have any breakfast... Nothing was biting. I was so hungry, I put in at the public dock on the south side and walked up, figuring I could get something at one of the little eateries over there. I stopped in the first one I found and got an egg sandwich and a mug of coffee - I always have my travel mug in the boat, some places'll knock off a nickel when you bring your own. I had 'em wrap the sandwich, 'cause I'd eat on the boat. And when I came out, I went past that empty storefront where Yelter's used to be - and I saw there were lights on, and the door was standing open."
"Yelter's?" Ray asked. "Where's that?"
"The southeast corner of Ottavina and Penn. Yelter's was one of those 'we-sell-everything' pharmacies, but there was something shady about it, and one day back in early 2004 it closed, and a couple weeks later there were a bunch of guys packing all the remaining stock onto an 18-wheeler. They left all the store fixtures, though. It was kinda sad, an empty store like that, right there in town, but at least it wasn't too near the town square, and Yelter's weren't no nice place either."
"My gosh, what used to be there, before?" Angela asked, rather rhetorically. "Ottavina and Penn... I don't think I can recall."
But Lisa said, "That was where the old Weller warehouse was, that burnt down back in the 90's, wasn't it?"
"Oh that's right, Lisa! Yes - and then they built..."
But Jeff interrupted them. "Hold on ladies, this isn't a lecture on Quayment history! Anyhow, that morning when I went past, I saw the lights were on, and the door was open - and I wondered what was going on, so I went in to look around. Maybe some new store was gonna open. Little did I know it had already opened."
"And it was this bookstore? Serendipity?"
"That's right. Course, soon as I got inside I saw it was a bookstore. I gobbled down my sandwich and swilled my coffee - tweren't very hot - and I set off to look around. With all that handy shelving in place, it was easy enough for 'em to set up. The books were nice and neat, like here at Weaver's or anywhere else - except they weren't in any order."
"You mean..."
"I mean like in all the big bookstores in town, they put the books together on the shelves, so you got your fiction and your romance, your sci-fi and your mysteries, your biographies and your religion and your science and all the rest. Everything orderly. Some places do it better, they put 'em into order by names or whatever. But not this place."
"Now, just a moment, Jeff," Lisa said. "Maybe you think they weren't in any order, but I know differently."
Jeff Smargada peered at her suspiciously. "And just how would you know, Mrs. Richards?"
"Because I went there myself," she smirked. "You know as well as I do that Rudy Weller was blasting it every ten minutes or so on WQUA-the-Voice-of-Quayment!"
"Oh. Yeah, that's true. Well..."
"And you may not think that the books were in order, but someone with an eye for color had put them onto those shelves. It was humorous, really, but..."
"It reminded me of those famous 'color' fairy tale books of Andrew Lang," commented Angela Biddell.
"Exactly. Each shelf held books of a particular hue, and they were almost always arranged from small to large," finished Lisa Richards.
Jeff Smargada controlled himself with an effort. "That's right, ladies, thank you very much. As I was saying, the books weren't in no useful order - but an old hand like me is always game to cast my line in unfished waters." The others chuckled at his angling metaphor. "I mean, I'm no word-wizard like these Weavers - well, Mary, my dear, it runs in your family, you know it does - but I do know the meaning of 'serendipity', and that's why we call it that."
"What do the owners call it?" Ray Ludlow asked.
Jeff shrugged. "How are we supposed to know? To my knowledge, nobody has ever talked to the owners. That's why Angela puts this story under the category of Mystery."
Ray stared, rather amused. "You mean it's self-serve?"
"Of course not, Ray, don't be ridiculous. There's a lady at the checkout counter, and I've seen a big brute of a man wandering around, though of course he may have been a customer, but I doubt it."
"He had one of those big motorcycle helmets on his head, and you couldn't even see his eyes. But I saw the lady nod to him once or twice, so I guessed he had something to do with the place."
"I didn't see him when I was there," Lisa Richards said.
"He was a big man. All in black, with black gloves too. Never made a sound, just wandered up and down the aisles, shoving books into a neat line."
"There were two ladies working the checkout when I was there," Lisa added. "I knew one of them, Gail Bultmann, that married Curley Norton - you recall, Angela?"
"Oh yes. But I didn't get there that day, Lisa. I've been inside, but that time it was in another place, but the books were sorted by colors, and as Jeff says, there was a very large man there with his face concealed." She smirked. "I wanted to call him the Count - you know, of Monte Cristo. He was all in black, though he used an elegant black ski mask that time, and mirror goggles, a thick black turtleneck... it was February, I think, bitter cold."
Elwood nodded. "Yes, I was there that time. It was in one of those small warehouses at the west end. I got me the Sayers translation of 'The Divine Comedy', could hardly believe it!"
"Yes, and I found a set of Msgr. Benson's novels, bound uniformly... That's the delight of it, you never know what you will find. But you have to explore, you really do, and be prepared for surprises."
"How was the selection? And prices?"
"Oh, the prices are comparable to the rest of the town," Jeff shrugged, "and as far as the selection goes, it's hit-or-miss. Like that famous thing in the gospels, about the net they dropped into the sea that got good fish and junk..." [Mt 13:47-48] He chuckled, and his face was uncannily boyish. "Whoever wrote that sure knew what fishing is like! And that's what shopping at 'Serendipity' is like too. You might find paperback reprint stuff you can get anywhere, the same-old-same-old like what Phil Weaver puts in the cheap bins out in the lobby. Or you might find that odd title you've hunted after for years. Or you just might find some really interesting rare thing - American, British... sometimes odd foreign titles."
"Dad once found a rare 17th-century theology text there," Mary Weaver said. "I've never seen it myself, but he's told me stories..." She sighed. "Perhaps it's just as well. I think there's something alluring in that black-clad mystery man: he has the glamour of all the great adventure-heroes: Zorro, the Count of Monte Cristo, the Scarlet Pimpernell, the Scarecrow of Romney Marsh..." She shook herself and turned to straighten out the stack of cheapies they kept near the cash register.
Jeff nodded, trying to grab back the reins of the conversation. "And of course for all these years since it's been appearing, the whole town's been trying to guess who it is that's behind this, and even more, they've been trying to get a glimpse of his trick of loading and unloading the place..."
"You'd think that ought to be easy enough," Ray said.
"You'd think. But nobody has ever managed it. He must do it in the wee hours, and he knows every last sleight-of-hand trick..."
Angela gasped. "Oh my... I just though of something. Lisa, remember those stories about the magicians during World War II?"
"What, that cast the horoscopes for Hitler?"
"No, no! They made battalions and tanks appear - or disappear... what was their name? Quint and Pelliser... They were a young English couple, got married just at the start of the war... Oh, I'm wool-gathering today..." [See Carter Dickson's He Wouldn't Kill Patience for more on this couple.]
Jeff cleared his throat with a rumble. "Yes, thanks Angela. However they do it, the store appears in a night, and it disappears the next night - and even now, nobody knows who it is."
"What about the authorities?" Ray asked.
"Nah, Ray - the police won't poke at it since there's never been a complaint about their use of unoccupied premises. People have tried using Town Hall to learn more, but they get nowhere. See, the town don't care as long as taxes are paid... and besides, they love the mystique."
"Of course, for us younger folks, 'Serendipity' is almost a legend," Gloria Adamantine said. (She tended to avoid comments during these meetings, partly as she was so much younger than the others, except for Mary Weaver, and also because she was usually exhausted from her third-shift nursing job at the hospital.) "I've never been there myself, but someday perhaps I'll manage it."
"But it's a nice legend," Mary Weaver nodded. "I know of a mystery story about a toy shop like that - or was it a candy store? I forget." [Mary is thinking of The Moving Toyshop, by Edmund Crispin.] "But that was sheer trickery with similar houses and disguise, and a man who wasn't familiar with the locale. This is quite different. Someone comes into an empty place, in the dead of night, and converts it into a well-stocked used bookstore. And after a day of sales, it disappears, and the next day the place is as empty as it had been the day before."
"How often... er, maybe I ought to ask, how long has this been happening?"
The group peered at each other questioningly. "Maybe eight-ten times in a score of years," Jeff guessed, and the others nodded.
"Very curious," Ray Ludlow replied. "If it should appear again, I hope that one of you will inform me."
"You mean you still don't have all the books ever printed?" Jeff asked.
"Oh heavens, no," Ray laughed. "And I surely wouldn't want every book ever printed - not when so many have been trash. But there are dozens and dozens I've been seeking for many years - I have a want list at every store in town, and the idea that there could be a new store appearing overnight is invigorating. I dislike traveling to Philadelphia or New York for such things."
Lisa Richards shook her finger in warning "But it is a bit frustrating, Ray. There's no order to the books!"
"That's what I said, Lisa!" Jeff griped.
"But you meant it differently than I did," she said primly. She turned back to Ray Ludlow. "You'll be there all day, just poking around."
"I wonder why he leaves them in such a state," Ray mused.
Elwood Porter said, "I expect it has something to do with the 'trick' of transporting the store into and out of the chosen location. Probably they keep everything in boxes..."
"But they could sort the boxes, El!"
"I can't explain it, Jeff. That's why I said it the way I did. He's got some trick..."
"You've been awfully quiet, Nick," Mary said, smiling at Nick Soffia who had been leaning against the nearest bookshelf during Jeff's narrative. "Even more quiet than Gloria."
"Jeff did a good job," Nick said. "I have nothing to add, though I can tell you that I've been to just about every one of its appearances."
"I've seen you at others," Jeff said, his eyes narrowing.
"But somehow, Nick, I think you know something you're not letting on."
"What would I know?" Nick chuckled. "You don't think it's me, do you?"
"Of course not! Leastways, you're not that black-suited man, you're too short, and he walks too normal. Not like you."
"Well, Jeff - either I really don't know anything about 'Serendipity', or I do know something, and have some good reason for not telling what I know."
"Yeah. So which one is it?"
"I'll give you a hint. My son Rafael tells me the tech world has a code word for it. It's the explanation for something unusual that happens in ways that nobody seems to be able to predict. When they had to record the reason in their logs, they'd write three letters: P-O-M. It stands for 'Phases Of the Moon'."
The group chuckled at that.
"Of course, just to be fair, my other son Isaac has an alternative explanation. His code - if he used such things - would probably be the unpronounceable N-N-W/S, but he would merely quote Shakespeare:
I am but mad north-north-west:
when the wind is southerly I know a hawk from a handsaw. ["Hamlet", II,2]
Jeff snorted. "Yeah, so? What good does either of them do us?"
Nick smiled. "I said I would give you a hint, Jeff - not the solution. Besides, I don't know who it is anyway, even with the hint."
Again Jeff's eyes narrowed. "You've got a guess..."
But Nick merely said, "I thought you said something about going fishing?"
Jeff checked his watch. "Oh, man. Yeah, I did. So, we'll let the mystery of 'Serendipity' rest for..."

The sound of the pleasant chime interrupted, and another young man entered. He was wearing a dark gray uniform, and carried a cardboard box and an electronic clipboard. "Hello, Miss Weaver!" he said as he came up to the checkout counter, his voice casual but friendly. Rob was a local driver for Fex-Ed; he made many deliveries, often quite heavy ones, to Weaver's, and he was happiest when Mary was there to sign for them. "Kind of a small one for you this time..." He held out the electronic clipboard and stylus.
"Thanks, Rob," she said and signed the registry. She handed it back to him, then he gave her the box. He didn't move as she examined it. "It's from Milan, PA. I'll have to check, maybe Dad was expecting something..."
"I think it's to you directly, Mary," Rob said, his eyes on her.
"Oh." She nodded, but kept staring at the package. "You're right." She pulled out a pair of scissors and slit it open. "Speaking of Shakespeare! A copy of Armour's Twisted Tales From Shakespeare!" She looked inside the front cover, and closed it quickly. "It's from Mike." Suddenly aware of Rob still watching her, she said, "My brother Mike and I were talking about this last summer - he knew I've been hunting a copy, and he must have found this - they have a book sale at the library every semester." Finally, she looked up at Rob. "It must be cold out there, Rob - why don't you help yourself to some coffee? There's still some donuts left, too."
But now, with her eyes full on him, Rob melted like an ice cube under a blowtorch. "Gee, thanks..." He gulped. "Uh, thanks, Mary, but... uh, I've, I've got... to get going." He checked his watch, then tapped the electronic clipboard. "They say they can't track us with this gadget, but you never know. Bye." He hurried out, looking very glum.

In moments they heard the diesel grumble of the delivery truck fade as it went off, and Mary sighed faintly. Ray Ludlow broke the tension. "I'm not familiar with that volume." He peered carefully at the cover.
"He's an English scholar, just having some good fun with the Bard," Mary said. "In high school, the English teacher read them to us - she had us rolling on the floor!"
Ray Ludlow scribbled in his notebook. "Thanks... I'm always glad to hear about such things."
She patted the book, then put it back in the box and shoved it under the counter. "In the note, Mike says to keep this hidden from Mark."
"Why?" asked Gloria Adamantine.
"That goofy sort of humor makes him laugh so hard, he gets light-headed."
The nurse smirked. "I understand; there certainly are physiological reactions to humor. Once I had an alarm go off for a patient's heart-monitor. I raced to the room - and found him reading a book of jokes and laughing in delight, tears running down his cheeks."
Jeff grunted. "Kind of a literary drug, eh? Don't let the culture cops hear about that. Some people can't take a joke."
Nick nodded. "Jeff, perhaps that's the secret of 'Serendipity'. It's like Poe's Purloined Letter: hiding a bookstore among other bookstores. It's somebody's idea of a joke - playful, humorous, a good-natured ribbing." He chuckled. "Maybe our town needs a healthy prank like that every so often. It's the Quayment prescription: take one magic bookstore every other year..."
The others joined in his laughter - except for Jeff, who zipped up his coat and shrugged. "Maybe. You take these things too damn lightly, Nick."
"That's a better way to live, Jeff," Angela Biddell commented, smiling wryly. "People like to quote Chesterton about angels flying, and they forget his concluding remark on the topic: 'Satan fell by force of gravity'." [GKC Orthodoxy CW1:326]
"Oh. Yeah." He frowned. "Sure don't want to follow that loser. But still - I'd like to know who the joker behind 'Serendipity' is. He sure has managed to make me happy - and not just me! I forgot to tell you - when I was there last year, I found a copy of Janney's The Miracle of the Bells... Mabel had been pining for that for ages, and I went to every store in the town, and couldn't find a copy! 'Serendipity' may be a joke, but if it's a joke, it's a damn good one." He nodded to the group. "But if I don't go catch some fish, it won't be a laughing matter when I get home."

Copyright © 2010 by Dr. Thursday

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