Asimov took Bartholomew Higgins to Vegas, but Heinlein delivered him to Albuquerque. Arthur C. Clarke was supposed to take Bartholomew the rest of the way home for Denise's funeral, but that book fell in a puddle at an Oklahoma gas station.
This happened when Bartholomew - Barth - stopped his van at a dimly-lit Shell station off I-40 shortly after midnight. Barth nervously parked between two massive 18-wheelers, eying their drivers with suspicion. He hated truckers. They were unpredictable - to him, the worst of human sins - and too much like the bullies who'd tortured him in high school because of his name and love of science fiction.
While his gas pumped, Barth stared at the wind-whipped rain running off the roof. The last time he'd seen Denise it'd also rained, the wind-thrown water impacting the dirt yard around her farmhouse. They'd sat on the front porch of her house - Barth on the porch swing, Denise in her wheelchair, between them a box of books. Denise smiled with excitement over each title and author. For Barth, being near her turned the acidic decay of the books' paper and glue bindings, and the high water scent of that passing storm, into the most wondrous perfume he'd ever smelled.
Barth shook his head, trying to ignore the memory. Suddenly, the gas nozzle in his hands slipped and shot out of the gas pipe, spraying gasoline across Barth, the van, and the concrete. Barth wrestled with the nozzle for a second before shoving it back in the van's gas pipe. The two truckers laughed at him. Barth finished fueling without looking at them, his eyes watching the expanding gas puddle rainbow the wet cement.
And that's how Clarke died. When Barth opened the van's rear doors in search of dry clothes, a box of books spilled out. Cheap science fiction paperbacks from the '60s. Two brand new copies of the latest Star Trek novel. A handful of young-adult fantasies. And a first edition of Arthur C. Clarke's Childhood's End.
Barth cursed, knowing only Clarke was worth anything. As if in agreement, the worthless books landed on dry concrete while Childhood's End bathed in a wind-whipped puddle of rain and gas. Barth snatched the book up, but the damage was done.
And that was the end of Barth driving straight to Alabama. The end of fetching $500 for the book from a buyer in Memphis.
The end of him being home in time for Denise's funeral.
Bartholomew Higgins' online assessment of Childhood's End by Arthur C. Clarke
(prior to soaking), Ballentine Books, 1953:
Description: Very good condition. Unobtrusive signature of a previous owner on
the inside cover ("To Hellena, with Love"), binding dull, slight wear to extremities.
First edition. Slight fading to the title letters on spine. No dust jacket.
Barth thought of Denise when he first found Clarke at the farm sale outside Cordell, Oklahoma.
He'd read about the estate auction in a newspaper at an interstate restaurant. As Barth ate a sausage biscuit, his eyes scanned across the million items in the auction ad, most of which meant little to him: Balzer 2250 Vac Spreader & Agitator, 24 Oft Patz Bunk Feeder 90 Ft; Patz Conveyors; '78 Chev, Livestock Trailer; Lorenz 8ft Blower; household furniture. Only when "scientification books" popped up did his heart jump.
Barth pulled out his map. The farm was twenty miles away. Lots of back roads. If he found something good, he'd have enough gas money to reach Alabama by Sunday. If not, he'd never get past Mississippi.
The farm sat at the end of an incredibly long, straight dirt road, where a few dozen cars parked beside an old farmhouse with paint worn dull by sun and wind. Barth mingled with the farmers inspecting the sale items. Most were old men and women who muttered condemnations or praise at the dead farmer's kids for getting out of the family business. Ignoring their comments, Barth climbed into the bed of a black Chevy stepside, where he found the science fiction books stuffed inside a cardboard box. Most were worthless - reprints and worn paperbacks from the 1960s, a few Cold War diatribes from the 1950s - but then he saw Clarke. Barth's face twitched as he discreetly pushed the box back to hide it until the bidding. He walked fifty feet away and paced nervously around, trying to appear uninterested lest someone realize the book's value. To his surprise, the books were number 2 on the auction list - "Lot 2, one box of books" - and he bought them for two dollars.
When Barth walked back to the flatbed truck to get the box, he found a short, wiry man holding Clarke. Without a word, Barth gently removed the book from the man's hand and took the box. The wiry man glared at him with eyes that appeared glued opened with kids' starry-time glitter.
Even though Clarke was ruined, Barth placed the book accordion-style over the van's defroster vents. Every ten minutes he steadied the steering wheel with his knees and turned the page so another spread could dry.
The buyer. With one hand, Barth leafed through his notes on the book's buyer. Memphis. The man lived in Memphis. During his travels around the country Barth checked his e-mail and online book accounts with his laptop. He'd never met this buyer and didn't know if he had any other books which might interest the man. Not that it mattered. Without being certain of a sell, he couldn't waste money by driving the extra miles to Memphis.
The smell of gas filled the van, which irritated Barth. Eventually the gas would dissipate from the paper, but the water was forever. Barth often saw marks in old books, where someone had spilled a glass of water while reading The Hobbit, or cried tears over Flowers for Algernon. Barth often wished people took better care of their books. That torn, dog-eared first edition of The Sirens of Titan could be worth real money if it'd never been read.
Barth reached up and turned another page of Clarke, resisting the temptation to read a few lines, before he remembered Denise's books in the back of the van. Obviously she wouldn't need them now. There were some nice first editions there, and if he sold them at a used bookstore he might make enough gas money to reach Alabama. He hated doing that - bookstores only paid a few dollars for each book, far less than he could get online. But he needed the money.
He turned on the interior light while he drove and looked at the map. The next big city was Little Rock, Arkansas. He knew a used bookstore there which opened at 11 A.M.
Bartholomew Higgins' assessment of Amazing Stories, August 1928,
Experimenter Publishing, New York, 95 pages:
Description: Color cover for "Skylark of Space" by E.E. Smith (then credited
as Edward Elmer Smith) showing a man in a red jumpsuit flying into a yellow sky.
Also includes the first Buck Rogers story. An almost mint condition copy, the
pulp paper as fresh as when printed. A truly rare collector's item.
The first book Barth gave Denise was a worn first edition of Neuromancer by William Gibson. Barth advertised the book online and Denise ordered it. Normally Barth sent orders by book-rate mail, but Denise lived only twenty miles from his trailer in central Alabama and, after figuring up the cost of driving to her house, as opposed to driving to the post office and paying for postage, he decided to deliver the book.
He was surprised when an old woman answered the door of the rundown farmhouse. Barth had assumed that Denise was a younger woman - after all, what grandmother reads Gibson? - but when he showed her the book the woman simply muttered, "In the library."
The library was a twenty-by-twenty room built onto the house, its floor slanting slightly so Barth glided to the right with each step he took. No one was in the room, but Barth barely noticed as he caught sight of the library's books. On shelf after shelf sat countless first editions. Robert A. Heinlein's Rocket Ship Galileo. The Stars My Destination by Alfred Bester. But what truly stunned him were the hundreds of vintage copies of Amazing Stories.
Barth carefully pulled out an issue from October 1928, featuring the conclusion to "Skylark of Space" by E.E. Smith. On the cover a robot wrestled a lion to the death beneath a burning red sky. Barth ran his finger along the cracked and crumbling spine, then flipped open the dog-eared pages. To Barth's distaste, handwritten notes covered each page, the note-taker critiquing all aspects of the magazine's stories. Barth glanced down the shelf and figured every copy of Amazing Stories from 1926 through the 1950s sat there. Next to them sat every issue of Astounding Stories and Astounding Science Fiction and Analog Science Fiction from the 1930s through the present. He had never seen a complete run of that series. Even in this collection's poor shape, the magazines were worth tens of thousands of dollars.
"Those early Amazing cover paintings are unbelievable," a voice behind him said. "Even when the stories inside are crap, Frank Paul's covers redeem everything." Barth turned to find a middle-aged woman in a wheelchair watching him. Because of the tilt of the floor, the woman kept one hand on the left wheel at all times so her wheelchair wouldn't roll to the right.
Barth introduced himself and, asking if she was Denise, handed her the book she'd ordered. The woman thanked him and pointed at the magazine Barth held. "Have you read any of Clare Winger Harris's work?" she asked.
Barth glanced at the magazine's cover and, sure enough, Harris's name was listed as one of the contributors. He'd never heard of her and said so, commenting that there were far too many science fiction authors whose names had disappeared from history.
"That's a shame," Denise said. "Harris wrote so movingly about what it means to be human. I must have reread her stories in those early Amazings a least a hundred times."
It took a moment for Barth to understand that Denise was the one who'd torn up these magazines. Barely able to contain his anger, he explained that these Amazing and Astounding collections, if in good condition, were worth a lot of money.
Denise waved for him to lower his voice. "My mother may be old," she whispered, "but she's got good ears."
Barth looked around the house and imagined what tens of thousands of dollars could do here. He doubted that the house was worth that much money. As if knowing his thoughts, Denise said her mother knew some of the books were valuable, but that didn't mean they should rub her nose in this fact.
Barth smiled while Denise looked through her new book. He expected her to place it on one of her empty bookshelves, but instead she dropped it roughly into a box on the floor. That was when he learned that she didn't place any book on her bookshelf until she had read it completely, made notes in it, and sometimes reread it a dozen times.
Barth asked why she didn't just read library books, or paperbacks, especially if she was going to tear them up. First editions were expensive. Denise shook her head at Barth for missing such an important point.
"Imagine the excitement these writers felt when their book was first published," she said. "That's the feeling I'm also going for - excitement."
Barth smiled. He liked Denise, even if he vehemently disagreed with her views on book collecting.
Barth reached Little Rock by 8 A.M. Because the bookstore wouldn't open for a few hours, he drove to the east side of town, to a Goodwill store that sometimes held good books in its discount bins.
When Barth arrived, a small crowd of women stood by the front door. He joined them, ignoring the screaming babies and toddlers pulling at their mothers' hands. When the doors opened, the crowd poured toward the clothing section while Barth walked calmly toward the book and magazines in the back.
To Barth's surprise, he wasn't alone. The same wiry man he'd snatched the Clarke book from at the estate auction was inspecting the book bins. The man glared at him with glued-open glitter eyes before returning to the books.
For a moment Barth thought about complaining to the manager about the man getting into the store early, but that would yield only lost time. So Barth walked to one of the bins the man had yet to inspect and began browsing the titles.
Before Barth were multiple copies of bestsellers by Clancy, Grisham, and Rice, along with endless midlist books which no one read when they first came out, but which now appeared in every secondhand store in the country. As he often did, Barth wondered if there was a mathematical equation to explain why certain books appeared over and over again in discount bins?
Barth glanced at the wiry man, who held a nice hardcover of Space by James A. Michener, which he placed in a shopping basket. Barth guessed it must be a first edition.
Barth didn't know the man, but that proved nothing. Barth had only met a few of his fellow book scouts, those solitary, suspicious little men and women who traveled the country in search of books and looked on their fellow book buyers as competitors trying to steal treasures out from under them. Sighing, Barth returned to the books. He found a first edition of a recent Stephen King novel - not a big deal, but worth twenty dollars. When Barth placed the book in his basket, the wiry man smirked at him for choosing such a small prize. The man then picked up a Michael Crichton novel and wavered, as if debating whether to take it after mocking Barth. The man placed the book back in the bin, as if daring Barth to lower himself by touching the title.
Barth moved to another bin. These were all textbooks and National Geographics, which were a waste of time to look through. Irritated, he glanced at the books in the wiry man's bin, where a battered copy of TheConquest of Space winked at him. Barth's heart jumped. The book looked to be the first edition from 1949. Not only was it worth a decent bit of money, it was among the list of titles Denise had been searching for all her life.
Barth focused his gaze down at his own books. The wiry man had already looked over Conquest of Space and discounted it. Barth was tempted to simply walk over and take it, but there was an etiquette to these things and snatching a book from under someone's nose was unseemly. Barth pretended that the book didn't matter, that it was nothing - less than nothing - and waited for the man to finish looking at the bin and walk away.
But in what must be craziness, time slowed down as the man now paused over each science fiction book in the bin for minutes, for hours. The man turned each book left and right in his hand, smelled the binding, held the cover to his forehead as if reading it telepathically. Not wanting to show irritation, but also wanting to stay close to snatch the Conquest of Space book when the man left, Barth moved back to the bin of National Geographics and thumbed through the worthless issues. He recognized one issue from the early 1960s, which he liked as a teenager because of the shirtless native women. Now the women looked antique and young at the same time, like he was watching a 50-year-old porno movie starring his grandmother.
Barth glanced at his watch. Bookstores were most generous if approached first thing in the morning, and Barth would have to leave soon. But that book. He needed that book. The man kept inspecting the bin, book after book, while the only valuable item in the place sat unnoticed.
Finally, the wiry man straightened up and nodded to Barth. Then, as he walked away, the man absently reached out and grabbed The Conquest of Space. At the checkout counter, Barth watched sadly as the man bought it for fifty cents.
A few days after meeting Denise, Barth began to dream. Deep dreams. Dreams wrapped around all the science fiction books he'd read during his life. One night he walked the Ringworld. The next he jaunted across the solar system. Each day he woke from another forgotten story and raced to his bookshelf, where he immersed himself in a science fiction book he hadn't read in ages. The only constant among these dreams, aside from science fiction, was that Barth always woke with the feeling that Denise had been standing beside him all night holding his hand.
When these dreams entered their second week, he knew he had to talk to Denise. Afraid to sound like a wacko, he called and said he had some new science fiction books she might be interested in. Denise said to come over.
Barth parked in Denise's driveway, where he sat for a moment watching Denise's father plow a tiny vegetable garden with a ridiculously massive old tractor. Barth waved and the man waved back.
When Denise rolled down the rickety handicap ramp to greet him, Barth handed her the box of books. She examined each one carefully, nodding at the titles, muttering how she'd been looking for a few of them. But in the end she wouldn't take them.
"They're not first editions," Denise said.
Barth wanted to scream. He again repeated that first editions were expensive and besides, Denise would merely write all over them. But Denise was adamant, wheeling back a few feet to glare at him.
"Do you know what's wrong with me?" she asked. "I have cystic fibrosis. I shouldn't have lived past 30. Now I'm 40. Once a week, a nurse visits me. I take a dozen pills with each meal. Several times a day I put on a mechanical vest which pounds my chest to loosen the mucus in my lungs so I can breathe."
Barth said he didn't see what that had to do with the books.
Denise threw her arms up in exasperation. "This farm has belonged to four generations of my family. When I was born, my parents could have taken the easy way out and put me in a home. Instead, they refused charity and sold off land to pay my medical bills. Forty years of doing what's best for me. All we own now is what you see. My dad used to plow hundreds of acres. Now he plows a garden not much bigger than his tractor."
Barth still didn't know what any of this had to do with Denise's books, but instead of saying that he muttered that he understood. In response, Denise handed Barth a list of first editions she was looking for.
As Barth placed his box of books back in the van, he asked Denise if she ever dreamed about the science fiction stories she'd read. Her eyes lit up and she grabbed his hand, which jumped his heart into his throat. "I'm always dreaming!" she said. "Don't you?" Barth nodded sheepishly, causing Denise to squeeze his hand tight. "Then you do understand."
Barth nodded again, even though he still didn't have a clue what he was nodding to.
When Barth pulled into the parking lot of the Little Rock bookstore, he noticed the wiry man waiting at the front door. Barth picked up Denise's box of books and joined the man.
It was now 11:05. The bookstore should have opened already. The wiry man rested a box of books at his feet and stared through the bookstore's glass door with his weird eyes.
Barth glanced at the man's box of books, on top of which lay Conquest of Space. Feeling awkward at standing next to someone without acknowledging him, Barth remarked that the man would get a better price for the book if he sold it online. "This is known," the man said in a low monotone voice without looking away from the glass.
Feeling that he hadn't gotten his point across, Barth told the man that the owner of this bookstore was extremely cheap. Barth said the space book would probably fetch sixty dollars online. "This is known," the man repeated, and glared at Barth. His eyes sparkled like shattered glass on asphalt.
Barth turned so he didn't have to look at the man.
They waited for forty minutes before the owner opened the door without even apologizing for being late. Even though Barth was in a hurry to get back on the road, to be polite he let the wiry man go first. The owner picked through the man's box, selecting one book, discarding another, opening a third to the CIP page to check the edition. The owner sorted the books into different piles, each based on how much he would pay. The Conquest of Space went into the four dollar pile. However, when the owner was finished sorting, the wiry man refused to accept the money and said he'd only take payment in trade. The wiry man then walked to the store's science fiction section and returned with several books. The owner looked through the books and nodded and the wiry man left without meeting Barth's gaze.
It was now Barth's turn. Yet again, the owner sorted the books. Yet again, he offered much less than any fair price for the books, and once or twice Barth debated, causing the man to offer a dollar more. Barth's goal was to get at least fifty dollars for gas and food; the owner only offered forty and Barth hoped that would be enough to get him home.
When the owner walked to the register for the money, Barth stared at The Conquest of Space - bought for fifty cents, sold for four dollars, worth at least sixty, and sought by Denise all her life. With the owner looking the other way, Barth snatched the book and placed it among his own rejected titles. He then thanked the bookstore owner for the money and drove as fast as he could out of Little Rock.
Barth continued to dream in the weeks after visiting Denise. He patrolled the galaxy as a Lensman. Lived on an integral tree orbiting a hazy sun. Rode a sandworm across the deserts of Arrakis. The only constant in all these dreams was Denise standing beside him holding his hand.
Thinking that he needed to clear his head, Barth loaded up his van with supplies and books and set out for the flea markets along the Gulf Coast. Two decades ago, when Barth first began buying and selling books, he'd traveled continually to different flea markets around the country. Now, the internet let everyone not only discover the value of books, but order whatever they wanted when they wanted. He knew the days of driving cross-country in search of books would soon be over, but he refused to give in.
After saying goodbye to Denise, Barth drove to the Gulf Shores and rented a booth at a local flea market. Every day he sold tons of bestsellers, trashy romance novels, and cheaply plotted detective novels to sun-burned tourists who gushed over finding the perfect book. Like the two elderly sisters from Canada, who bought matching paperback editions of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone so they could read the book at the same time and talk about Harry over dinner. One of the old ladies even kissed Barth upon finding the books, and Barth's cheek burned the rest of that day from her touch.
Despite his travels, though, the science fiction dreams continued. After selling off most of his books, Barth returned home. The next day he visited Denise.
"Four books," he said, handing them to Denise. "Can't believe I found them, but first editions all."
They sat in Denise's den as she looked at the books. The first two books, Stand on Zanzibar by John Brunner and Lord of Light by Roger Zelazny, would have been somewhat valuable except they came from a library sale in Ft Walton. Both had LIBRARY COPY stamped across the pages and a glued check-out pocket on the inside back cover. The other books, The Integral Trees by Larry Niven and Rendezvous with Rama by Arthur C. Clarke, simply weren't that rare.
"They're not in the best of shape," Denise said.
"They're the best I could find," Barth replied, pulling out the handwritten list of more than fifty books Denise wanted. "I'll find more the next time I go out."
Denise thanked him for looking.
She then invited him to join her in the den. For the rest of the afternoon they talked about Barth's trip along the Gulf Coast and the people he met at the different flea markets. Denise was fascinated by the two elderly sisters and wondered why the sister's kiss burned Barth's cheek. "I'm not sure," Barth said. "Maybe the sister was really hot in her younger years and my body responded to that on a subconscious level."
As afternoon went to evening, Barth finally said he should be going. He yearned to ask Denise about the dreams, but still didn't want her to think him crazy. However, as he stood up, Denise's mother came into the den and notified him, as if he lacked all choice in the matter, that he would be staying for supper. Barth considered his usual TV dinner meals alone in his trailer and agreed.
At the table, between passing the potatoes to her mother and pouring gravy over her roast beef, Denise pulled out her first edition copy of Stand on Zanzibar from a wheelchair pocket. Barth watched in despair as gravy dribbled across the book's cover. Denise, however, ignored the stains and proceeded to read from a random page. "But the Guineveres of our world are no more than the spray on the top of the wave," she read. Barth listened to the story as if it were totally new, not one he had read before.
But the Guineveres, he thought, knowing people like Guinevere were the ones who'd made fun of him all his life. When Denise finished reading the chapter she reached over and squeezed Barth's hand. Denise's parents thanked her for the story and told Barth that Denise read to them every night over supper.
Later, when her mother went to clean the dishes and her father to check on his garden, Barth thanked her. "I've never liked that book," he said. "It was too strange, I guess. But not when you read it."
"You're an ignorant idiot," Denise said with a smile, quoting from the book. "Lean over."
Barth did as told, and Denise kissed him on the cheek.
"Does it burn like that old lady's kiss?" she asked.
Barth admitted that it burned even better than that.
Bartholomew Higgins' unpublished assessment of The Conquest of Space by
Ley Willy, paintings by Chester Bonestell, New York, NY, Viking Press
1949 VG/G; 1st Edition:
Description: A reasonably clean, first edition copy. Book contains vivid
descriptions of humanity's coming great adventure as we step into space and
embrace our species' destiny. The keystone of this book are the wondrous
paintings by Bonestell. Definitely makes one dream of other planets and the future.
Barth was certain he'd make it home in time for Denise's funeral on Sunday afternoon. But then his van died. The Dodge Tradesman was thirty years old and the only reason Barth had kept it was because he could usually fix the van's simple engine with ease. But this time, when he stopped at a rest stop to use the restroom, he walked back out to find that the van was absolutely dead.
Must be electrical, he thought. He spent the next three hours detaching, cleaning, and reattaching wires and spark plugs and battery terminals until his flashlight also died. A trucker tried to help him jump the battery, but the battery wasn't dead and the trucker said the problem must be in the electrical system. Barth resisted saying "No shit" because comments like that had gotten him beat up over the years.
That night Barth slept in his van and dreamed of worlds painted by Chesley Bonestell, with sharp metal rockets surrounded by steep, craggy mountains and Saturn rising in the east. When morning came, Barth again worked on his van, spreading out under the hood with his tools and trying different ways to make electricity go from the battery to his engine. Several truckers came by as he did this. One had a voltmeter in his cab, which proved unable to pinpoint where the fault lay in the miles of wiring making up the van's electrical system.
"It's an old van," the voltmeter trucker said. "Probably not worth putting money into it."
"Yeah," Barth said, so irritated that he didn't mind talking to a trucker. He didn't bother mentioning that he didn't have the money to fix the van, even if the van had been worth putting money into.
Before the trucker left, he looked in the back of Barth's van. "You selling those books?" he asked.
The voltmeter trucker purchased ten dollars worth of science fiction books.
For the rest of Saturday and again into Sunday morning, Barth discreetly sold his books. Whenever he saw a state trooper pull into the rest stop, Barth pretended to be repairing his van. Otherwise, he approached everyone he saw. To his astonishment, many of the truckers were receptive to mysteries and military thrillers and, most surprising of all, romance novels. He also sold a lot of children's books to harried parents. Barth put from his mind how much the books were worth if he sold them online, to a bookstore, or even at a flea market. People only cared that they were 50 cents each or three for a dollar. By two on Sunday afternoon, the exact time that he knew Denise's funeral started, Barth had earned almost $150.
However, he ran out of time later that day when a state trooper told him that he'd have to move the van or have it impounded. Barth thanked the trooper and sold him the Stephen King novel he'd found at Goodwill for three dollars.
Once evening came, Barth counted his money. Just over $200. He might be able to find a mechanic to repair the van for that amount, but with towing and parts charges, there was no way he could afford to fix the thing. Beside, the van wasn't worth it.
Barth ate a final meal from the cooler in the back of the van, then sorted through the hundreds of remaining books. A few of them were valuable, and he packed them into a small box that he could carry. On top of the box he placed The Conquest of Space. He then removed the license plate from his van so the troopers couldn't track it back to him. Then, when the rest area was deserted, he picked up Clarke's gas-soaked Childhood's End and lit it with a match. The book caught fast and Barth dropped it onto a paperback reprint of Fahrenheit 451. The fire quickly spread to the other books and by the time the next 18-wheeler pulled into the rest area the van jumped flames to the sky.
"Electrical fire," Barth told the trucker. "Finally fixed the damn thing and it catches fire when I start the engine."
The trucker nodded in sympathy. "Need a lift?"
Barth reached his trailer in central Alabama after two days of hitchhiking and walking. He dropped the box of books on his dinner table and tried to call Denise's parents, but a recorded message said the number had been disconnected. Exhausted, he collapsed into bed.
The next day, Barth called a few more times but the number was always disconnected. He also checked his website, where he found a backlog of orders. Some were for books he'd lost in the van. The rest he placed in padded envelopes for mailing.
Barth bought a second-hand minivan from a cousin, then used the little money he had left to mail the books people had ordered and fill the minivan with gas. That afternoon, storm clouds blew in. Deciding the time was right, he grabbed an umbrella and The Conquest of Space and drove to Denise's house.
He arrived to find dozens of cars parked out front. A large sign by the mailbox read ESTATE SALE.
Barth walked around, still holding the space book, until he found Denise's parents standing under an umbrella in their garden. They leaned against the massive old tractor, which also had a "For Sale" sign on it.
"My extreme sympathy," Barth said. Both parents hugged him as he explained why he hadn't made the funeral. They nodded, understanding, and said that they were moving once everything sold.
"We don't want to be staying," Denise's mother said. "Couldn't afford to, anyway."
Barth tried to explain how much Denise meant to him. How even after her death he still felt her hand holding his each night. However, even as he said that he realized how crazy his words still sounded, so he again offered his sympathies then walked to the house. Inside, a small crowd of people with scavenger eyes milled around, inspecting plates and furniture and clothes. Barth saw Denise's wheelchair with a price tag of $30 on it and shook his head.
However, despite all the people in the house, only one person stood in the library - the wiry man. Barth was no longer surprised at the man's appearance and simply said hello. The wiry man glared angrily at Barth, a look that turned even more hostile when he saw The Conquest of Space in Barth's hands.
Barth tried to ignore the man and instead focused on Denise's books, wondering about the dreams this room had given her. He ran his fingers along the titles, remembering books he'd read, others he'd wish to read. He opened the copy of Stand on Zanzibar he'd given her. The page Denise had read that night at supper - "But the Guineveres of our world are no more than the spray on the top of the wave" - was dog-eared. In the margin Denise had written: I'm not a Guinevere. Neither's Barth. That'll save the world.
Barth ran his fingers along Denise's words. Suddenly, he felt himself in the book's story, struggling for identity in a media-saturated world, trying to find his dreams among the overloaded stimulus of billions of uncountable people. But despite being lost in the world, Barth also knew that Denise was right. His dreams were the wave. His dreams crashed forward and reshaped the world and
Barth snapped out of it, losing his balance on the library's uneven floor and falling down. The wiry man stared at him with glitter-glue eyes, a happy smile on his face. The man then pulled a worn copy of Astounding Science Fiction off a shelf.
Suddenly Barth stood on Lagash, a planet surrounded by six suns. He'd never known darkness, never known anything but endless light. But as the suns set for the first time in two thousand years, darkness enveloped the world and starlight flooded Barth's eyes. And he was afraid. Deeply afraid.
Barth came back to the library with a start. The wiry man laughed as he pulled another book off the shelf. This time Barth found himself in a generation ship, hurtling toward the stars. The wiry man then grabbed an issue of Amazing Stories and Barth was "Buck" Anthony Rogers, fighting against armageddon in 2419 A.D. Next Barth was a child with superpowers, granted anything he wished for. Then he was adrift in a space suit, dying alone to his thoughts. Then he was living in the last city on earth, a billion years in the future.
Just as Barth felt himself becoming lost in the stories, Denise's hand grabbed him. She led him from the library, where he collapsed onto the hallway floor, clutching her copy of Stand on Zanzibar in a death grip to his chest. An older woman, who was inspecting Denise's wheelchair, asked if Barth was okay. Barth nodded and sat with his head between his knees, crying.
Once he'd recovered, Barth watched from the doorway as the wiry man took down the entire collection of Amazing Stories and Astounding Science Fiction and placed them into boxes. Barth wondered if he'd been feeling Denise's dreams, or the wiry man's, or both. Unsure, Barth walked to the cashier's table and, with his last three dollars, purchased Stand on Zanzibar. He then walked outside and sat on the front porch swing. He waited as the rain alternated between picking up and slacking off, the clouds moving in and out of the sky.
The wiry man emerged an hour later with the first of his boxes. Barth watched in amusement as the man stumbled through a puddle, then turned back to the front porch when a wind gust blew rain over him and the books. The man tried to cover the box with his raincoat, but the box was too big.
Barth sighed and, grabbing his umbrella, hurried to help the man.
"Find some good books?" Barth asked.
"This is known," the man said suspiciously.
Barth held his umbrella over the man and his box, but it took a moment for the man to decide to go with him. They walked quickly, sloshing though puddles. When they reached the wiry man's station wagon, the man balanced the box on his hip as he unlocked the rear door. But just as the door opened, the wiry man dropped the box. Books splashed into the muddy puddle beneath the car.
The wiry man grabbed the box and the books still inside and shoved them into the station wagon, while Barth grabbed at the spilled books. Barth picked up a disintegrating copy of Amazing Stories, then other books, then more magazines. He tossed them into the station wagon, pages opening to random spots so he briefly saw unknown comments in Denise's handwriting, comments that faded and disappeared to the spreading water stains. The wiry man cried as he grabbed a towel from the station wagon and tried to blot the water from the soaked pages.
Barth placed the last of the books in the back of the wagon, then stood with his umbrella protecting the wiry man. Endless comments from Denise passed by as the pages fanned and moved to the man's towel. Barth watched, simply holding the umbrella. He saw Denise kissing him on the check. Saw the dreams he'd had every night since first meeting Denise. Knew her dreams lived on. Knew they mattered more than the Guineveres in the world could ever imagine.
As the wiry man cried over the books, being careful not to get his tears on the paper, Barth almost mentioned that kisses burned even after the kiss. That they burned despite being nothing but skin and water coming into contact with skin and dreams.
But that comment was for Denise alone, so Barth stood quietly in the rain as he dreamed of her hand holding his.
M C R
This work is copyrighted by the author, Jason Sanford. All rights reserved.