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Friday, January 13, 2012

A clueless paranoid buys a used book (A mostly fictional story)

The story I am about to relate happened some months back. Memory is most often snap shots, sometimes short videos, replaying in the mind, constantly edited by the subconscious mind. This is my best recollection of the events.

I am wandering about a used book store, it is the middle of the afternoon in the middle of the week, and only three people are in the store, me the checkout girl, and a sizeable young man with a rough and churlish appearance. I am sampling the books, reading a few pages from a book and replacing it on the shelf. As I find desirable reading material, I take it to the checkout station and add it to a growing pile of books. I have built considerable store credit over time by dropping off books I have finished, and I now have ample buying power. Loitering in libraries and book stores is a lifelong habit. A very relaxing treasure hunt with hidden rewards waiting to be found, I did not yet know that I was on the edge of rare discovery. A completely unexpected find, there on the shelf is “The Autumn of the Middle Ages”, by Johan Huizinga, originally in Dutch, first translated to English in 1919. I have heard of this book from historians, it is often cited as a reference in many of the history books I have read. It is long out of print. A book I never expected to see. I cannot believe my luck. I grasp the book to check that it is what I hope it is. I carefully open the book and read some pages, it is real .This copy is in excellent condition, an English translation reprint only fifty years old. Good luck has never favored me and I am immediately suspicious, will nature seek to rebalance my good luck with some terrible twist of fate?
I hold the book close to my chest, adrenaline pumping, situational awareness rapidly expanding all my senses. The large young man I saw earlier had been thumbing through a copy of the “US Constitution for Dummies”. He must be another maven of historical works! He will understand the value of my find. I feel like a defenseless peasant that has found a bar of gold, and now a blood thirsty barbarian draws near. What if he sees me with this rare book? He could easily take it from me. I feel a moment of panic. Then focus my thoughts. I have little chance in a face to face conflict, subterfuge and tactical maneuvers my only opportunity of success.
I see movement from the corner of my eye, there he stands at the end of the aisle, he is carrying a very thick hard back copy of the “Birds of Texas”. He could smash my skull with one blow, and then take my rare manuscript from dead hands. Just a few minutes ago I was a simple slacker goofing, now I hold priceless treasure and I’m stalked by a malignant villain. Slowly pivoting away, I slide the book under my coat, hiding it with my underarm. Moving down to the far end of the aisle, I turn and head into the juvenile section. Thinking to hide my find in amongst some Harry Potter books, but I can’t bear to part with my precious find. Instead, I try to appear clam, measuring my steps, planning an escape to the checkout counter. I stay to the middle of the store, keeping all potential escape routes open. I need to shake my stalker, and I make an unexpected turn into the ladies romance aisle, this baffles my assailant just long enough for a quick dash to the checkout counter.
I quickly reach the checkout counter and hand the cashier my final book, she collects the entire book stack I had been building, and starts scanning the bar codes. Some deep moral drive I didn’t know I had compels me to speak. “The Autumn of the Middle Ages is a rare book, long out of print”.
She looks up and smiles, “I had not seen it before sir. It must have been waiting just for you”. What does that mean? Something is waiting on me? She looks pass me, her eyes brighten and her smile grows, “Hi Jim”.
I look over my shoulder. The barbarian is right behind me with his hard cover of “The Birds of Texas”. He raises his heavy thick weapon, and grins back at the checkout girl saying, “I got it Janet”, I freeze, my body can’t move, it’s a trap!
Another customer enters the used book store, changing my adversary’s plans, for there should be no witness to the crime. Regaining control of my body, I move one foot a little forward and outward, bending my knees and balancing on the balls of my feet, now I’m ready to dash in any direction. I disguise my preparation by turning, which also allows me see both assailants at the same time. The checkout girl looks at me, “With your store credits that will be eighteen dollars and forty two cents, sir”.
I quickly pay in cash, mumble something polite, and crab towards the exit, maintaining an awareness of the full 360 degrees surrounding me. The two young miscreants engage in conversation, pretending to ignore me, if I can just make it to my parked car, I will be safe. Stumbling off the curb I jog to the car, using my remote to unlock the vehicle, grabbing the door handle I jump in the car and hit the door locks. I take a deep breath and relax slightly, while trying to observe the entire area, looking for any sign of danger, for now I am safe. I start the car, navigate through the small parking lot and out onto the public roadway. I’m not being followed, the treasure is mine!
Matching the traffic flow I start day dreaming about reading “The Autumn of the Middle Ages”, a controversial work that has produced many heated historiological arguments, now I would be able to study and judge for myself. I savor the potential, a slow read keeping my mind busy for weeks. I now have the out of print book cited in the foot notes of every medieval history book I have consumed, the seminal work that has created endless debate about feudal existence.
Stopped by a red light I retrieve the book and thumb to the opening chapter starting to read, I hear a car horn from behind. The light had turned green and the driver behind me felt compelled to point this out. Reading and driving is a bad idea; I realize this and concentrate on the road. Checking the rear view mirrors every few seconds, I monitor my speed and the surrounding vehicles, just as I had learned in my last defensive driving class, taken to get a ticket dismissal. Is there a law about reading while driving (RWD)? I don’t know, but that means nothing, as there are a lot of laws I don’t know. Now I start to watch for police. I can imagine getting arrested for RWD, my book taken as evidence to prove my unlawful behavior. In Texas nothing can escape from a police evidence room, except drugs and guns. My book would be lost forever! With the car’s turn signal blinking I move into the far right slow lane, maintaining a pace well below the posted speed limit.
Eventually I arrive at my driveway and slide my car into the garage. I hurry into the main house, locking doors behind me, and calling the dogs while setting the alarm system. On to the back porch, into the hammock, finally safe, I can now start reading. First translated in 1919 this book will require attention to detail, the connotation of many words has changed over the decades. I feel well prepared for the task and start to read about the “Queens gay marriage party”. Now I understand part of the controversy, Huizinga is claiming that cross dressing homosexuals married in the Middle Ages!

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