The night demons howl and scream, buzz and hiss, rattle and hoot outside the black windows.
Creatures fling themselves against the screen and glass with thumps and flutters, scrapes and scratches.
In my bed, in a soft circle of lamplight, I lie affright.
I cannot see my attackers, only hear their verbal and physical onslaughts.
I know the sounds of past summer nights.
These are not those.
There are different beasts out and about.
Beasts or demons?
In fear and to hope for peace, I rise and close the windows, put tissue in my ears.
The din is only somewhat muffled.
When the light goes out, the physical assaults subside a bit. But in a modern house, there are always lights aglow. Clocks and thermostats, devices and nightlights.
“Thump!” “Bzzzzzzzz,” “Ratttttle,” “scrrrrratch!”
I know they can’t get in.
Well, none has ever breached the glass walls before.
When the predawn lightens the room, birdsongs begin. The constant car alarm scream of the 17-year cicadas has increased in volume. With more light and warmth, they screech even louder. A cacophonous din. No rhythm. No context. The bird trills and whistles, melodies and tweets compete—as grace notes—with the constant mechanical scream.
I rise to let the first dog out. The porch floor outside the door is littered with corpses. Ugly fat orange and black bugs lie in varied poses dead or dying. Nearly three inches long from the blunt head with two blood orange eyes atop it to the tip of the veined transparent wings whose texture is like brittle plastic wrap.
I step out with a broom and sweep the heavy insects off to the ground.
‘Drawn to the light,’ I think.
This week has brought them to what may be their crescendo. The creatures have been audible for a couple weeks. Now louder than ever, the actual beasts are everywhere. Attached to window screens, walls, tree trunks. Strewn on the drive and walkways. Sometimes intact. Sometimes in pieces. Sometimes just a stray body part left by a predator or scavenger.
Looking up into the woods, I see a few in flight. Awkward and bulky, they weave and struggle to stay aloft. They soon crash into the earth or a tree or, on occasion, me.
I wonder have they brought out other demons with their plague of life. Has their hatching caused other hatchings to feed on the biomass of protein climbing up deep from the earth?
An odd existence to live so many years but be out and about only for a few days.
The sounds last night were troubling. The carnage on the ground this morning is just ugly. I watch my step to avoid the little bags of guts and slime.
High above western West Virginia. Soon to be over Ohio. Then Indiana, Illinois, Iowa, Nebraska. Colorado, Utah, Nevada and then California.
One last visit to put Tony’s ashes into the sea. My last brother. A dozen years older than I.
Likely my last visit to his home. I am not close to his wife or children. My fault. I am not close to anyone anymore, it seems. Why did I distance myself from them so long ago? They were so far away. And Mom and Dad have been gone so long. That was a point of focus when we were more of a family. The parents’ home. Their children were little brothers to me then. Now they are aging men. There were long, long gaps in between any interaction with them.
Mutual disinterest, I think.
But Tony and I communicated pretty often. We stopped talking politics long, long ago. I did anyway. It just caused division. He joked in recent years he had become pretty conservative for a San Francisco liberal. Many of his neighbors don’t believe in property or ownership or money, he told me. (Each home on his street is worth millions of dollars.)
On my flight, they just served drinks. I’m not on First Class so no booze. I asked for Bloody Mary mix. I was given a full can.
I only drink tomato juice on planes for some reason. And for some reason, it is almost always my drink of choice when I fly.
Why am I in the back? I usually fly steerage, but this time I’d paid for the big stretch-out/lie-down seats at the front. But I’d missed my flight! I’d told everyone I would leave Wednesday around 4pm for a 7 o’clock flight. I’d “checked in” online Tuesday. When I awoke this morning, there was a notice to get ready for my flight—at 7:10 AM?!
What was wrong with me?
I couldn’t possibly make that flight and began searching for ways to contact United. There are no phone numbers. The “Contact Us” button yielded only, “What country are you from?” buttons. I tried different things. I did online searches: “How to change your flight with United?” Somehow I got a text link. It seemed dead, as nothing happened for some time. Then the phone lit up, “This is your agent, Janet W. How may I help you?”
Thus began a lengthy dialog while I was panic packing.
Eventually, she told me she could get me on a 10:45 flight but not First Class. Did I want that?
I rushed out the door. I think I have everything essential.
I stopped into work for my passport. I have an appointment to sign up for Global Entry when I land on the return flight. I rushed through the office, doing what had to be done. I pulled the phone and laptop chargers from the wall. I planted the dozen tomato plants that were languishing on the sidewalk by the warehouse gardens. They would certainly not survive the week without water. Then I was on my way south to Dulles. It was the morning rush, and the only way from Frederick is a two-lane road once you cross into Virginia. A long line of trucks rolled slowly south ahead of me. I went to First Class check in and explained my situation. I was given a ticket with no seat. My big piece of luggage was taken. I wasn’t charged. I rushed, on my hobbled ankle, the mile or two it takes to the gate. (Maybe I should suck it up and get the heel spur surgery I’ve been putting off for 5 years now. But it only gets bad…sometimes. And the “cure” is lengthy and complex.)
At the gate, I was first told: “We will try to get you a seat.” I pulled out my phone and showed them the text that I had “gotten” a seat. A new boarding pass was printed.
San Francisco…I can’t imagine anything ever bringing me back. I’ve seen everything there is to see. My sister-in-law and nephew said on my last visit they will likely move as soon as possible. She back east where she has family. He to India maybe “to work in a restaurant. I can’t afford to live in California.”
My last visit here felt post-apocalyptic. Not just the COVID symptoms. The city has an aura of dystopia. A once beautiful ruin.
I’m staying down the peninsula near Palo Alto. My older son graduated from Stanford Law in 2018. When I’m not doing family things, I will drive and see whatever I hadn’t seen in previous visits to central California. I most certainly will revisit some of the Coastal Redwood groves. The feelings I had there of utter peace are unforgettable. If I’m lucky, I will have more moments like that on this trip. Maybe that will restart the Tree Song Cycle I’ve written 7 chapters of here. That story has stalled for a couple years. There are reasons. Personal.
Tony…the feelings are coming back now. I’ve kept so busy—the manic pace I exist in—that those thoughts were driven from unconsciousness.
I’m clearing out some books from my collection in the old house in Pennsylvania. 25 years or more ago, I had a contractor build bookcases onto the walls of a third floor room that had once been servant quarters when this was a grand industrialist’s custom-built stone mansion. I filled them with books that were to my tastes then.
Some tastes have stuck—Robert Graves, Poe, Ray Bradbury, Tolkien…
Some I no longer have any interest in. Hypermodern mystery writers like Lawrence Block, James Lee Burke, Jim Harrison and the other Montana mafia, Richard Brautigan and the other silly hippie stoner writers…
I had my boys pack some boxes. They were…reluctant. It is a lot of steps. Two flights with high ceilings. Both switchback to get to the next level. The “ground” floor is actually about 6 feet above the earth.
Last weekend, I had the high school kid—well, he just graduated and is now working full time—put them on carts.
On Monday, I began going through them. Some I will offer online with my Alan James Robinson bookplate in each. Others I will take home to the mountain and try to find places for them.
There were many surprises. Forgotten friends. Friends I recalled but had not seen for many years.
Books with parents, grandparents and great grandparents’ signatures in them. Some even more distant relations from the mid-19th century.
Then there was the short hardcover. Light blue boards and a dark blue spine. A gilt marlin is embossed on the front board. Hemingway. Old Man and the Sea.
I knew where this came from.
Indeed, there was an inscription inside. He’d given it to me when I was 9 years old.
What an odd coincidence. Tears welled up inside me, seated on a stool in the vast warehouse of books. 40 or 50 other workers around in the building. But I felt alone. Like I was on a small island. Just me and 6 shelves of “desert island” books I’d collected long ago.
And the book in my hand. A big brother had given it to his baby brother a lifetime ago.
It has almost no value. But it is a priceless link to the idyllic childhood I had. And, holding it, all the years in between flash behind my eyelids. Faces. Places. Successes. Regrets.
And all the books. Each a memory waiting to be given to the next reader who opens it.
And I found another personal treasure. A serious illness my father had forced me to cancel a semester in Germany in the spring of 1974. He made it through the surgery and recovery. My life was changed. An engagement broken off. A new engagement made.
As a make up, my parents sent me to Europe for over a month that summer. I had a cache of American Express traveler’s checks hidden at the bottom of my backpack. Icelandic Airlines was the cheapest way to Europe then. I landed in Germany with no plans. I had a copy of Fodor’s Europe On $5 a Day—or was it $10 a day? It was cheap, whatever it was. I didn’t have any money. It was a fat 9-inch tall paperback. I’d acquired an Inter Rail Pass which would take me anywhere in Europe—including Eastern Europe (had I been brave enough.) I landed in Bonn and made my way to Trier. I planned to stay in the youth hostel at Castle Ehrenbreitstein. When I arrived, it was sold out. I was always impecunious. Still am. I didn’t want to blow my first day’s budget on a hotel. I somehow got to a tavern. My German was pretty good. I asked the young man behind the bar if he knew any place cheap to stay.
His parents put me up in the house above the pub. We chatted in broken German and English. The boy said it was fate that brought me to him. The next day, the mother gave me a stack of sandwiches to take on the train. They were a kind of liverwurst spread on hard brown bread. There were occasional bristly pig hairs in the meat. I’d asked her why the cans of Coke the street vendors sold weren’t cold. “Ist NICHT Gesund!”* she sagely warned.
* It’s not healthy.
After touring the Roman and later ruins, visiting museums and great houses, being stunned by the wood carving beauty of the enormous works by Tilman Riemenschneider, I walked to the train station and chose my next destination. I would always choose overnight trips. I could save money sleeping on the train.
Eventually, I crossed to England and followed Fodor’s advice in London and elsewhere. I wanted to go to Wales—my ancestral home according to Boppa, my grandmother still living in Texas at age 95 or so. Fodor’s said there was a “City of Books” there. Hay-on-Wye. I made my way there via train and bus. I went into a number of bookshops there. The crustiest may have been one of Richard Booth‘s places. It was an ancient tumble down building. Not a castle, but certainly something old and of stone. I would have to carry anything I bought, so after much searching I found a bookcase of Everyman Classics. The room was lit by a single bulb hanging from its wire a couple feet below the ceiling. The stone walls were whitewashed and peeling. The floor was dirt, or maybe something a little more substantial than dirt.
The book I chose to carry?
Geoffrey of Monmouth. The History of the Kings of England.
I inscribed the month and year and place.
My name just above those words on the end papers of all those Everyman Classics.
I will go with Thee
& be Thy Guide
In Thy most need
To go by Thy side
There were other memorable finds from my past life.
Many books I consigned to the internet—for someone else to have.
Others I put in a box to take home.
Then I turned to some carts. I need to get ahead of things if I’m going to be away for a week.
An old Roald Dahl book appeared. It was a title I wasn’t familiar with. Jacketless. In “very good” condition (“VG” means not so good but not as bad as Good. Below good is “Fair” and the “Poor”—meaning “beat” and “battered and beaten” in that order.)
Over to You.
Short stories based on Dahl’s WW2 experiences as a fighter pilot primarily in Africa and Greece.
I flipped it open and newspaper clippings fluttered out. I bent from the stool and retrieved them from the floor. When I went to reinsert them, I noted the book was signed!
I certainly didn’t expect that. But maybe I “knew” somehow. Perhaps my long silent Book Muse tickled my medulla or something.
I didn’t have time to try to decipher the recipient to whom it was inscribed “with love.” “Something” Hogarth. I don’t think Dahl was lavish with love inscriptions, so maybe it is important. I left it for Annika to try to figure out in my absence.
Then there was this 1920s pamphlet on how to explore San Francisco’s Chinatown.
There’s even a section on restaurants and how to figure out what they were offering.
Odd. Another celestial coincidence?
Or a hint?
Maybe I’m meant to venture into Chinatown once again on this trip. I never got a chance to eat there last visit—even though the hotel I stayed in was right across the street from its “border.”
Plus, I have fallen madly in love with an Asian woman. Doreen Feng. It is sad she is so long dead. But that doesn’t affect my emotions for her.
So it goes. Loving the unattainable.
Annika found a link online to a 1960 Sports Illustrated magazine story and photo of her.
She is so beautiful. A bold and brave iconoclast and groundbreaker. An author and booklover. A world citizen. An artist.
We’ve found more books related to her. I’ve started a collection. And there will likely be even more. Notes were put on tubs I’d sorted that weekend to put aside anything with Feng or Doreen written or noted in it.
I found 8 or 10 early and mid-20th century books on bullfighting. Those were certainly hers.
Perhaps I’ll do something with them. Maybe start an archive should some collector or institution want it.
I need to find a copy of her The Joy of Chinese Cooking. In jacket, of course. I hope there will be a photo of her there.
A review of that book stated:
This is one of the first ever Chinese cookery books to be written in English. “Chop Suey,” says the author of this unusual cookery book, “is a dish known to the Chinese only as an agreeable foreign concoction.” Having reduced every foreigner to a proper sense of his own ignorance with this gentle remark, Mrs. Yen Hung Feng immediately makes honourable amends and expounds, for our pleasure and practical use, the art and mystery of Chinese cooking. She explains the customs of the Chinese table, the kinds of food and implements used in a Chinese kitchen—with suggestions for substitutes where that is necessary—and, most important of all, Chinese methods of preparing food. Housewives, please note that a centuries-long shortage of fuel in China has led to the development of cooking techniques which need the shortest possible time on the stove. Mrs. Yen Hung Feng has given a large selection of recipes, with very full instructions for those who are new to Chinese cooking, and there are careful drawings which make the most difficult process clear. She ends this delightful book with an account of the most important traditional festivals of China, giving, at the same time, a recipe for the dish proper to each occasion. Here is a practical book for the kitchen which is an introduction to Chinese life as well. Contents Include: China in your Kitchen Appetizers Chinese Soups Egg Dishes Fish and Shellfish Poultry Pure Meat Dishes Vegetable Dishes Rice and Mien Dishes Chinese Desserts Chinese Tea Chinese Festival Dishes Index of Recipes…
So maybe I’ll go to Chinatown. Doreen spent a lot of time in San Francisco. Many of her father’s bookplates had a San Francisco address: Stanford Place.
Flying over the American West.
I’m glad I’m not arriving in the dark. I will have some part of the day to travel south from the San Francisco airport and discover something.
Maybe a bookstore. Although those are rare establishments just about everywhere nowadays.
The West. Into the West.
I took a pause writing this and watched a bit of Lord of the Rings on the lit TV screen placed the back of the seat in front of me.
Why do these things happen?!
The plane passes over the mountains. Yosemite is below. I must go there again. It was life changing. I discovered Old Raj gin there. In the bar at the Ahwahnee Lodge. A huge window rising to the high ceiling to take in the mountain outside. I took a bottle of Old Raj to Barbara, and that was our drink for years. She would bring a case over, so as not to run out. I can see the perfect drink now. Silver glass. Maybe my life would change again.
The plane descends and passes over the Bay and falls onto the runway. It shudders and bumps and sways. Fellow passengers look nervously around. The Hispanic woman next to me crosses herself.
The emotions are pouring through me. I am awash inside. I make my way through the airport. I remember these halls.
Why am I tearing up?
I take the train to the rental car building. I need to check in the office. I am hours early for my reservation.
“Take any car from the President’s Circle.”
I roll my bag out there, and there are some stunning choices. The last trip I’d been given some crappy toy-like car with a big stain on the driver’s seat. Tony was dying that night, and I chose not to complain.
There’s a big red muscle car.
It is “free.”
It is absurd. A bit obscene.
I laugh at it. I laugh at myself.
I’ve nowhere to go. No plans. I’ll head south to San Jose and find the hotel. The afternoon is aging.
The phone guides my route. It speaks aloud when I should turn or merge.
I pass a sign. The next exit is for Half Moon Bay.
I pull off the highway.
The phone protests. I have left its route. I pull over and reassign the destination.
“Half Moon Bay Brewery.”
I’d had a happy time there with the family a few years ago. Maybe I can be happy again today?
The road is narrow and winds its way through forests of redwood and eucalyptus over the mountains. Then it drops to the sea. The Pacific Ocean.
I am as far into the west as I can go.
California is still COVID terrorized. The restaurant is open, but everyone is masked. I asked for a table with a view of the water.
I order a West Coast IPA.
I text my sister and nephews, “I am in California. I’m staying down in San Jose. What are the plans for Friday and Saturday?”
I included the pictures of The Old Man and the Sea—the gift from their husband and father when he was just an older brother.
The reply comes. A late afternoon cruise aboard the Gas Light on Friday from Pier 40 in San Francisco.
I raise my glass.
I want a California salad. $29.50?! I splurge on a Dungeness Crab Louie Salad.
I am reset.
I am ok.
I look up the redwood groves. The two I know are closed.
The park was badly affected by the CZU Lightning Complex fires in August 2020, and was evacuated on August 18. According to NASA FIRMS data, the fire impacted the core of the park on August 19. On August 20, it was reported that the park’s historic headquarters building had been “almost completely destroyed” and the entire core and campgrounds of the park had been extensively damaged. A few redwoods had also fallen during the fires, though the majority of the ancient redwoods remained standing. A fire previously raged in the Big Basin in 1904. An April 2021 backcountry tour revealed Spring budding amidst the scorched landscape and the hundred structures destroyed, and the park superintendent estimated it might be up to a year before the public will be allowed safe access to park trails.
But there is another. Purisima Creek Redwood Preserve. It is open. The phone guides me up the mountain and onto the winding Skyline Boulevard. It’s two, often narrow, lanes that wind along the mountain ridge. There are views of the Pacific to the west and the south end of the Bay to the east.
I pull over and park. There are about a dozen other cars. There is no indication about what time the park closes. It is about 5 pm.
The trail descends steeply into canyons. The tall trees rise above and all about me.
About half a mile down, I approach a young woman ascending. Maybe in her thirties. She looks fit. But she pauses every hundreds yards or so to catch her breath.
I look down the path. It keeps descending. I turn and look up. I will have to return that way.
She passes me.
I decide I should go down no further. Each step down is another step up I must make.
I turn and begin the way back. She is paused about 100 yards above.
We both climb.
I wonder if she thinks I am following her. There have been no other people.
She pauses. I pause.
Up and up.
My heel begins screaming.
In the car, I decide it is time to find the hotel. But the phone has no reception up in this remote place.
But there is only one road. Two directions. North. South. I know I should head south. That begins about 40 minutes of even narrower winding road. Hairpin turns.
“20 MPH.” “15 MPH.”
I finally descend into the valley and find the hotel. The Hayes Family Mansion. A Hilton of course. It is stunning but in a strange residential neighborhood.
I step in and ask for the Men’s Room first. It has been a long drive.
The halls and large rooms are empty.
I check in. The room is full of books. Real and faux.
The hotel is still in COVID mode. No restaurant or bar. No cleaning of the room unless I make an appointment for it.
“You need to be out of the room at least an hour prior to your appointment.”
My phone leads me to a liquor store. It is very dodgy. Reminds me of downtown Baltimore. All the bottles are behind plexiglass behind a wall long counter. The shelves rise to the ceiling. Plexiglass not for COVID protection, but as a barrier for bold grab and run theft.
I turn and leave.
The next one is slightly warmer. The proprietor is an older Sikh man with a turban about his head and a very long curled gray mustache. Most of the bottles are behind the counter. On a top shelf, I spy several bottles of Midwinter’s Night Dram. It is a very difficult dram to find. I ask how much it is. Instead of looking it up, the old guy gets a stepladder.
He either didn’t understand me or couldn’t read the bottles. He pointed to one bottle after another inquiringly.
“This way.” I point.
He brings it down and scans it.
“$400. You want a bag?”
“No. Too much for it. How much is the Bulldog Gin?” I ask, pointing to a small selection of gins.
We go through the same exercise. He points to one bottle after another until we narrow it down to the BULLDOG.
I pay in cash. No bag. A young man steps to the counter with four bottles of Pliny the Elder beer crooked amongst his fingers.
That was the Holy Grail of beers a while ago. It would sell out in minutes wherever an East Coast store got stock.
“Where’d you get those?” I blurt.
“There’s a shelf of them in the cooler to the right.”
I crook four of them into my fingers.
The Sikh man—all his employees call him “Uncle”—though (I think they are just blond) California boys—bags these up for me.
I head back to the hotel. It is 8 pm—11 back east.
I write and read while having a beer and then some gin in a plastic cup.
Last week’s story included my ill-fated mission to south-central Virginia—not far from Charlottesville and Monticello.
I’d given the daughter the bad news about the books:
I sadly have to pass, as it would cost a fortune to move the books, and we are vastly overstocked with similar material.
I wish I had better news.
I thought that was it.
I reached out to a couple Virginia booksellers.
“No one is taking that kind of quantity and quality, Chuck.”
But she persisted.
I warned repeatedly she’d have to get them to Frederick. The cost of packing and transporting would be thousands.
“What would you pay…”
“I can’t answer that until we learn what it would take to get them there. Either you or I would lose money on that. Likely both of us.”
Back and forth.
A fool’s mission.
I told her if they were brought to me in the normal manner this kind of lot would only bring “a few dollars per ‘box.'” 15,000 books. 500 boxes. $1500. A reluctant $1500.
She came up with a number.
One thing about mourning is that it makes the divide between important and not important crystal clear. For me, finding a home for my dad’s books is important. The expense is not important. It will cost me between $4,000 and $5,000 to ship the boxes if I use PODs and the workers come through. There are probably cheaper ways to do it, but this plan appeals to me.
I understand that your concerns are not the same as mine. I know that you have been trying to say from the beginning that you don’t really want the books, but I have been trying to convince you it could be a good deal for your company.
Please just say no thanks directly if that is what you want to say and I will move on. I just need to hear it explicitly because that’s how my brain works these days. If I have somehow misinterpreted and you are interested, let me know that as well.
Thanks for all the emails and advice…
“I will cover the 4-5000,” I wrote laughing at my foolishness. I even told her I would drop off the 500 boxes she would need if her count was accurate. “I’d enjoy another drive down that way.”
We all know people who say “no” when they really mean “yes.”
Well, that was me—yes or no, yes and no…you can’t save all the books. You can’t save any more if you go out of business. But sometimes something makes you go the extra mile—or the extra 200 miles!
Since I would be taking all the books, I felt it ok to cherry pick a few books—something I’d cautioned her against allowing other booksellers to do. So I sent her a picture of a small lot of Jules Verne I’d spotted on my visit. They were the only things that had excited me there.
If you can send me pictures of the title pages and copyright pages, I’ll pay something separate and above the transportation costs.
Annika did some research. The results were mixed.
“I’ll pay $500 for those four books,” I wrote.
A fool for books…
It is Thursday morning in San Jose. It is just before noon in Frederick. I’m pecking away at this. It needs to go out. My editor leaves early tomorrow.
And I will be on the ocean tomorrow—outside the Golden Gate. An old man sailing on the sea, bidding farewell to an older brother who has gone into the West.
I will not say: Do not weep; for not all tears are an evil.