About 20 years ago I wrote a “book”: Bookends—A Biblio-Novel. A couple friends referred me to a couple agents. They weren’t interested, so I put it aside. I was never a salesman. A career in old books has been perfect for me because they’ve always sold themselves. I then wrote Bookends 2, 3 and 4. A few of the blogs on this site over the past year have drawn from those piles of paper.
This was the opening chapter of Bookends 1. It’s mostly true. Maybe completely true. I can’t think of anything below that didn’t really happen back then. Well, I did change the names of the “Wonder Boys”—even my own. I’ll update, amend and add. And I will change “Chris” back to Chuck.
You’ll learn how Wonder Book got its name as well.
As a child I was always drawn to books. I liked toys and games too. I played with other children. But I also played with my books. My own books, plus the ones I had appropriated from other parts of the house and unsuspecting family members. I’d arrange the books on the shelves in my room. Sometimes by size. Never by color. That, I think, is a modern phenomenon. Sometimes even by subject, author or title. When new arrivals arrived–which was as often as possible–I might rearrange everything. Or maybe appropriate yet another little bookcase from somewhere else in the house.
As I grew, I read plenty of them but not nearly so many as some of those bookish scholarly girls in school (the ones that liked books more than horses.) I didn’t have the great retention or recall that some of them had. The ones that always got “100%” or straight “As.” I was so envious of that ability. A lot of stuff stuck though, and I could do just fine with titles and authors.
And anyway, for me, the book itself was the thing. Sure, the contents were often magical. But the object was powerful. It held “potential energy.” Always. That energy could be massive or subtle. For I knew that any book could end up being a rocket ship or a dance. A semiconductor or a flower. I didn’t care for much of the real world. I didn’t care for what was under the hood of a car. A car could take me places where there were books. I liked the books as objects. I felt good being around them. It felt good having them all around me.
What an uninspiring bunch we turned out to be. We were the “Wonder Boys.” Seven kids who felt we were cooler than the rest. We knew it all. We were the future artists, musicians, writers and poets of society. As a group, thirty years on, we produced no art, four children (I think), two decent careers, four average jobs and one life of sand, sun and chemical maintenance.
Grok was the one who went “south.” But he was more of an adjunct “Wonder Boy” anyway. I wonder if he is still alive? His parents brought him to their Florida retirement home a couple years after college. He was sure The Washington Post was publishing stories about him. He insisted I must have read them too. He had other head issues as well. About 10 years later an envelope arrived at the little farm I had on the Mason Dixon Line—north side. There was no return address. Florida postmark. I opened it and all it contained was a snapshot. It was what we now call a selfie. Grok had sent me a picture of his face shot in a bathroom mirror. He looked monstrous, haunted, transformed into a Frankenstein. Whatever was behind those eyes didn’t look human. Grok was not in there. Or if he was he was submerged somewhere in whatever this Lovecraftian thing was. I put the envelope and picture in the wood stove. I wondered how he had gotten my address. Mostly, I was worried he would appear sometime. I’d step out my door and, like a living nightmare, the Grokmonster would be standing there with an ax or something. He looked sort of like that 1930s character actor. What was his name…? Longo? Mongo? Rondo! Rondo Hatton! Why would he want to kill me? Dunno. I didn’t make him crazy. But that picture…did he send it to show me what he had become? A warning? A threat? Did he think that it was somehow my fault?
I don’t know if he sent the others “Boys” his portrait. I’d pretty much separated myself from them by then. Too many bad habits. Too little ambition.
This story mostly takes place about 12 years before Grok’s terrifying “message.”
Graduation summer. 1972.
The microcosm of school magnifies everyone’s self-importance. It’s easy in a small group to be the best at something. The ego makes those little victories the first steps to world renown.
Maybe we were the smartest and most creative boys in our class. That’s half the class population. The other half was girls. There were three other classes in Robert E Peary High School. Montgomery County, Maryland had about 20 other public high schools then. I don’t know how many private and parochial schools were there. In 1972 there were about 13.8 million high school kids in the US. (2018 projections are 15.1 million.)
You don’t really have that perspective in your own “hive”—as it were. I was one of the 6 “Wonder Boys.” Not even a big fish in a small pond really. But it sure felt like a big deal. It was the only deal I knew then.
My ego certainly magnified my importance. The importance of my wants and needs. The steps I’d take to secure my mental and social position among the students and faculty. That is selfish, of course. Selfish was what I was best at as a youth.
A year and a half or so before the end of senior year Tim had a job in an old dry cleaning shop that had moved into the new strip center out Bel Pre Road. They brought a rack of abandoned clothes when they moved, and the boss told Tim he could have anything he wanted. We would go and hang out there. He worked the evening shift. Alone. Customers were rare. His poor boss likely never knew his shop was our hangout. Briefly. Tim got fired after a few weeks. Maybe the owner did know. Anyway, I was browsing through the abandoned clothes. There were a half dozen identical shirts shrouded in plastic. A big “W” was embroidered on the breast pocket. It was the Westinghouse logo. I guess the guy had moved on to a different company and never picked up the work shirts. Why would he? He would have to pay for the wash and press.
“These are cool! We can each have one,” I said. (This was before Grok became a “Wonder Boy.” He attained “membership” sometime after high school by just not going away.) “We can wear them to school…now what could the “W” stand for?”
I answered my own question in a moment.
Where’d that epiphany come from? I dunno. But from then on we were the “Wonder Boys.”
Well, we weren’t very wonderful. And we never wore the shirts to school or anywhere else. I think mine is still hanging up in a closet somewhere in the old house.
Anyway this story is about what happened in August 1972.
It was Friday night. Monday Tim, Danny, Grok and Adam would go off to College Park for orientation at the University of Maryland. A behemoth of a school even then. Fifty thousand? Sometime further on Lawton would be off to Boston. Dougie to Kentucky. In a couple weeks I’d be off to New London. Connecticut College. High on a hill overlooking the Thames River. (Pronounced ThAmes—rhymes with maims.) We’d all known each other since we were children. This was our last weekend together.
Adam didn’t make it. His end punctuated the end of high school, the end of the group and the beginning of a rapid series of losses that destroyed—or delayed rather—many goals I may have set myself creatively. For my dad died soon after. Mom had been quite handicapped for some time. She died a year or so later. With no income and no safe nest to fall back on, you need to cast aside childish things…and get a job.
Books. If you can’t write ’em—sell ’em.
Before Adam died, I’d never been to a funeral. Three grandparents had died long before I was born. Not long after Adam I started attending funerals often.
Driving was the ultimate freedom then. The suburban sprawl we lived in offered little diversion for kids our age. Rockville in the Montgomery County, Maryland of the early 1970s was a wasteland. Developments and shopping centers grew like weed patches as farmland got gobbled up in large chunks. Fields of mud sprouted cookie cutter houses—right, left, back and front. The politicians and civil servants were too busy building commercial and residential. There was no effort or money put into public works—culture or recreational things for people to go to and do things. Especially for kids. There was a little used bookshop in Wheaton I’d discovered. Attic Books. And Barbarian Comics in the same block had lots of used books. I had a comic subscription there. Every week I’d drive down there and pick up the new releases that were put aside in my name. But in those days the upper county was extremely rural. Within a few minutes going out Bel Pre the road was surrounded by cow pastures.
Adam had a hot dark green GTO nicknamed “the Goat.” It was his dad’s, I think. But he always got to use it.
Driving in the country at night, we called it “Trucking.” I don’t know where we got the name. It was before I knew of The Grateful Dead song. Even though Truckin’ was released in 1970 on the album American Beauty.*
* In 1997 the Library of Congress designated that album as a National Treasure.
We would launch ourselves out of the developments and strip centers and within minutes we’d be on country roads. The speed and freedom and the solitude of a closed car was a thrill. As dangerous as it sounds now, we felt no fear. We never got a ticket. Never lost control or risked anyone else’s life. The roads were empty and visibility forever. The nighttime landscape was beautiful. There were no streetlights except at the rare intersections or small towns we’d pass through. We’d fly like dark wind through patches of woods, cornfields, turf farms, the occasional country estate. At most crossroads, if there was anything, there was a church and a graveyard on one corner and nothing else. The ultimate thrill was finding a long straight empty stretch where we could fly without lights. If anyone was coming at you, you’d see them a mile away. Moonlight, flying, rockin’ and rollin’ with the topography. Hitting rises and dips, dropping your stomach to the floorboards and then pushing the blood to the top of your head.
We’d come back to town and lights and people like we’d come back to Earth from space or some magical land.
That night Adam, Danny and I somehow ended up in the Goat. At first we were out looking for Lawson, Tim and Dougie. It was the last night but one before most of us would be packing to leave for college. We were supposed to meet somewhere sometime, but no one quite had the story straight. All very formal and organized. Somehow, the three of us found ourselves out trucking. Not too far out because we had to get back to meet somewhere and do something.
No cell phones. No portable communication. Back then it was only landlines. If you weren’t home, there was no way to reach you.
I was in the back my feet straddling the hump. I had my head and shoulders leaning forward between the bucket seats. Maybe the front seats had seat belts. My guitar was next to me, a big and bulky acoustic in a semi-hard black case. We two filled up the Goat’s little back seat. I still have that guitar all these years later, though I played a much better one through my adult life. And I can’t help but look at it as a totem or monument. Whenever I come across it I see a milepost between innocence and dreams and play pointing toward how quickly it can all come crashing down and things become serious. Songs of innocence and experience were played on that thing. Innocence that day. Experience the next.
We were laughing and wondering where the other “boys” were, and when and where we were supposed to meet.
It’s strange how some memories burn so deep. The crash couldn’t have taken more than ten seconds, and yet, that scene plays as fresh today as if it was last night. It’s true that time and speed slow down during a crisis. First was the feeling that something was wrong after we came over a rise. The feeling that the back end was slipping, moving out from under, and then we were facing a four-board horse fence with its whiteness bleached even more by the headlights, then out again to the road, and then toward a neat row of twenty-year-old red maples. We passed a bunch of them and there was the feeling we were going to be out of it, but then somehow we aiming back that way. Turning back to the trees. It was all dreamlike, surreal and in slow motion until we caught the last maple just inside the right headlight. I’d had enough time to brace myself somewhat, but the impact threw the Goat backward and outward into the road and threw me forward and upward into the rearview mirror. One arm was still wrapped around the passenger seat and my guitar. Clinging with all I had lest I go through the windshield. I don’t remember any sound during the wreck, just a dead silence as I assessed my bones and blood and found myself okay. I checked my guitar next. The case was cracked open a bit, and I thought for sure the neck would be broken. When I finally got home and checked, it was fine. And then I remembered Adam and Danny in front.
“Are you okay?”
“Well, that’s it,” Adam said.
“God! Oh, God!” Danny cried. But something in his tone told me it wasn’t pain. Just shock and surprise and relief to be alive.
The world slowly came back into focus. Eyes, ears, hands gradually began to function normally again. We were silent. Assessing. Then I recall the sound of the hissing of a hot, torn and ruptured car. Its blood and breath leaking and whispering and wheezing.
And then we were out and beside the car, looking down assessing the Goat. It wouldn’t fly anywhere again.
“We’re lucky to be alive.”
“That’s it,” Adam said.
I guess we expected someone to come by, and after a while, a car did appear. It slowed. The Goat was at an angle in the right lane. The window came down.
“No, we’ll wait for a tow truck. Can you let them know at the gas station?”
A couple more cars.
It was uncomfortable and anticlimactic lingering around the corpse of an old friend. All I wanted was to get home and see my dad. I wanted to see him despite the inevitable explaining I would have to look forward to.
No tow truck came. No help. Three kids standing in the dark by the twisted tangle of metal of Adam’s car.
We finally decided one of us should go for help. We asked the next driver if they would take us to a phone.
Should we all go?
Who should go?
Adam should go. It’s his car. We didn’t think about “leaving the scene of the accident.” It just seemed the best choice. He’d reach somebody to come get us—and the Goat. We’d waited long enough.
So, it was Danny and I waiting for a tow truck and a ride home and the parents. Solace and survival and thank God it wasn’t my car were the feelings that swirled within me.
And we two waited.
I remember being tired. I remember being a little disappointed. This was a big deal to me. I thought there would be lights and action and an adventure to share with the other boys.
“Tell me the ‘Facts,'” Lawty would ask. He always wanted to know the “Facts.”
This was the biggest thing that had happened to the “boys,” and on nearly the last night, too. We’d have to be up all night to share the “Facts.” How cool the crash and how horrible, and how good to be alive and okay, and where were you guys, anyway? And our parents would want a piece of us too. They’d want to be righteously upset and thankful and, “What a terrible way to begin your college life.”
And we waited. And the silence grew. The Goat had ceased its death rattles a while back.
“Where is Adam?”
The Goat would make occasional dripping noises as fluids continued to drain from within it. And, the metal would occasionally make a pinging sound as its cooling would adjust its tensions.
Adam. He was probably the all round “smartest” of us all. And we were all pretty smart. (That was before Grok became one of us. But even he was a math whiz. After college he worked for a defense contractor in the fledgling computer portion of that industry. Maybe that drove him crazy.)
Adam. He had some uncanny talents. He could tell you the make and model of any car by its headlights in the rearview mirror from a mile away. I don’t think we ever stumped him. It was like this big California guy with a huge Afro at Conn College. He could tell you where you were from just by your voice. He was never off. A combination of knowledge and deduction and experience and linguistics but more some kind of savant talent. He would tell you what state you were from and even which city or part of the state. I never saw anyone fool him. Even if they tried to disguise their voice.
Adam would have known it was a Ford Galaxy coming. He would have known it was probably county cops just by the shape and configuration of the headlights. But for me, suddenly they were just there—pulled up abreast us. Two cops in one car. Two woebegone kids standing beside the rode. Why two in one car? I dunno. Big budget back then, I guess.
Looking at Danny and me, not concerned if we were hurt or if there was a body in the car or field, they asked their first question.
“Who was driving?”
“Adam. He went to get help.”
“He shouldn’t leave an accident.”
“We’d been waiting a long time. It was his car. We thought he should go call a tow truck and get us a ride.”
“You been drinking?”
They took a report, as much as they could without a driver. And now there were four of us waiting. We had little in common. I don’t think they would have cared that most of us were going to off college on Monday if the subject had arisen. And I got the distinct impression their shift was nearly over, and they had plans for a cop bar or home and family or Johnny Carson or maybe a date.
They got the tow truck out there pretty quickly, and we had to practically beg them for a ride. I think they would have left us there by the side of the road in the middle of the country. Danny, my guitar and I rode in the back of the cop car. It was my first time. Only time. Knock wood. Wide eyed, bare faced kids.
They dropped us off about a mile from home. I guess it was too much trouble to take us into the development. And so, we walked the familiar streets in silence. It was probably 2 AM when I let myself in the front door on Levada Terrace. Home. Safe. Mom and Dad were asleep.
We sat there at Adam’s dining room table the next day. My dad, a detective wearing a jacket and tie, two uniformed cops, me and Danny, and Lawson.
From the dining room table I was able to see the steps going up to Adam’s room. It was a split-level almost identical in layout to my house a dozen blocks away. About 7 steps between the main level up to the bedrooms and 7 down to the den and lower level. There were three stacks of books on the steps. Starting on the third and going up to the fifth step. There were about seven or eight books on each step. Adam’s mom worked at the library as a volunteer. This was a house of readers. Now it was a house of strangers. They were out of town with Adam’s older sister. Adam’s mom and dad would come home to a different planet. The old world this house had occupied had been batted away. A new horrible world slid in to take its place. It would suspiciously look the same as before they’d left. The same books stood on steps ready to be read or returned. But they weren’t in the same order. No. This was not the same house.
When they returned home—God, I hoped they were warned and didn’t walk in cold on the scene—they would unlock and open the front door and lean in, hoping against hope for a voice and a presence. Some huge mistake had been made. A wrong number called. The family misidentified.
I sat at Adam’s dining room table. It was the penultimate visit I would ever make to that house. I looked at the books on his steps. I couldn’t make out the letters in their titles. Just their shape. Now, today, with millions of books under my belt, I bet I could name many of the books by their color and size and shape and jacket design from across two rooms just as Adam could name the car models by their headlights.
I sat at his dining room table, my whole life ahead of me. His whole life behind me. Ended. Forever.
Selfish. In shock. Happy I was among the living. One of whom was real pissed. The detective.
I sat at the dining room table while the detective tried to get us to say things that would incriminate us or Adam. Something to pin some blame on someone somewhere. And to avoid all the nastiness I gazed over at the last books he would ever know. They were anonymous from my vantage point. Shiny rectangles with Brodart dust jacket protectors on them. Library books needed all the help they could get to survive all the handling they were subjected to. In about 15 years wrapping books’ dust jackets in Brodarts would take on a whole new meaning to me personally.
The books stacked on that family’s steps waited—as all books do (except for the one currently in your hands.) They lay there in repose waiting to be picked up, to be read or returned or shelved. And for the first time in my life, for this was the first death in my life, I was struck that death means no more books. Ever. Odd thought for that moment and scene in retrospect. Adam would never read War and Peace or Moby Dick. He’d never go to a bookstore or library. If something new and wonderful was published, he’d never know.
I was going to write books like those on the steps. A book a year. By the time I was forty, I would have a stack like that to my name. I was going to read books. Stacks of books. I was going to own lots of books. Rows and piles of books.
Some dreams do come true.
We went over the story one more time with the detective. We told him about the accident. Where Adam went. Where we thought he went. The cops the night before. Walking home. Calling Adam and each other over and over again. Checking the other “Wonder Boys” homes to see if he’s ended up there. Driving by Adam’s dark house with my dad at 4 AM. Wondering if he had gone to someone else’s house, been kidnapped, gone to the hospital. Was he hurt? Had he had a concussion or something? Was he wandering dazed out in the fields and woods?
Early the next morning Dad had driven me and Danny and Lawson over to Adam’s house. We rang the doorbell. We banged on the door. Adam’s room looked out over the carport. It was a five-foot boost to the roof. Easy for a seventeen-year-old. We’d gone up to Adam’s room that way lots of times.
It was summer. The window was open. The plan was for me to climb in and open the front door and the four of us would find a phone number and reach Adam’s parents or a relative because he was missing and might need help. I backed into the window and stepped down. I turned around. Adam was on the bed. Half sitting, half slouching against the wall. That part of the room was half in shadows. Dim light. His room was on the north side, anyway.
“Adam! Jesus, you scared me!”
I stepped closer. There was a big dark stain in the middle of his chest on his signature shirt—a horizontal striped knit with a “V” collar. There was a stain on the side of his face. I looked down. There was a bolt action .22 across his lap. In that indirect morning light, or in my memory, it was all black and white.
I was hit with a flash bulb or a lightning bolt. The bright light piercing in my head. I didn’t look at him for more than a second. I was out of his room and down the 7 steps in two bounds. I hit some stacks of books and crashed to the landing. I lay facedown for a second amid the sprawl of library books.
“My dad’s a doctor. Dad. He can do something.” My thoughts were racing with my heart and the motion and legs competing to see which could go faster.
I tore open the front door.
“Dad, he’s upstairs.”
My father, Danny and Lawton went up. I didn’t want to. I called an ambulance. They stayed upstairs. I waited for the ambulance. I picked up the books and set them on the steps, spine out. Three neat stacks of seven or eight.
They came downstairs after a while. My dad said:
“Your friend’s gone, Chuck. He’s been dead pretty long. There would have been nothing anyone could do.”
“He was shot twice, Chuck, in the chest and in the head,” Danny blurted out. “I think he shot himself. The first one didn’t work.”
Danny, Lawton and I slept that night on the floor in TV room at my house. We didn’t want to sleep alone. I remember the carpet was an old scratchy green woolen thing we’d had in Buffalo where I was born. I sat on that rug for hundreds of hours watching black-and-white TV shows. Toddler to teen. The TV was furniture. It was housed in a nicely finished solid wood frame trimmed with molding. It sat about 4 inches above the floor on short wooden legs.
“Don’t sit so close! You’ll ruin your eyes.”
I was twelve when we came to Maryland. The rug came with us. The TV did too. In a couple years that was replaced by another fancy wooden box. This box housed a color TV.
Morning brought Sunday. Lawton and Danny’s parents came and got them. My parents had long given up getting me to go to church. But sometime after noon I asked if they could get me in. Someone unlocked it. I went in by myself. Walked to the front and knelt before and below the altar.
Over and over and over…
20 times? 50? More?
I don’t know why. I needed to. It gave me comfort.
I’d experienced my first death. I’d seen my first dead body. I was a different person than I was the day before.
I then rose and walked down the center aisle. Pushed the bar on the door and stepped out into the sunlight outside the Millian Memorial Methodist Church. (“Be a Millian-aire.”)
Sometime some days later we all went to Adam’s house so his parents could ask us questions.
When we left Lawty said aloud: “How could Adam do that to them?!” He was angry.
The funeral was…sometime after. Maybe the next weekend so everyone could get back from College Park. The “Wonder Boys” were all there. Together for the last time. The “Wonder Girls” were too. Adam was in repose. The lid of the top half of the casket was raised. He wore a suit and tie. His faced looked waxy underneath the makeup.
His parents told us he would be cremated and his ashes would reside at the Chevy Chase funeral home until one of them died. They hadn’t decided where they’d be buried yet.
For many, many years after I wondered if he was still on the shelf in there whenever I drove down Wisconsin Avenue past Pumphrey’s Funeral Home. Who knows? Maybe he’s still there. No, I’m sure at some point his parents or one of them at least came for him. They were very sincere and conscientious people.
So, about 11 years later—1983—I was buying out my mentor and silent partner, Carl Sickles. He was a retired civil servant in his 50s. It was very amicable. We sat across from one another at the Barbara Fritchie Restaurant where the aging waitresses still wore the beehive hairdos of their youth. It was the next lot up from the strip center the store was in. Were the tables bright blue Formica? The booth benches were brightly colored poofy vinyl things. We’d lunched there often and always had a bowl of their chicken noodle soup. “Made from scratch.” The noodles were square and over a quarter inch thick. Later we’d each have a slice of their homemade pies.
“You know you’ll have to change the name of the store.”
I hadn’t thought of that.
That became an urgent mission. Not an easy task. I consulted with my future father-in-law who was a personnel manager at a plant that manufactured tractor-like man lifts in southern Pennsylvania. He was the only “business” person I knew. We came up with: “Book Oasis.” I even had some promotional pens made up with that name. They had a palm tree embossed on them. But when it came time to design a new sign, well, the name just didn’t fit with what I envisioned.
Then I came up with “Wonder Book.”
Books had always filled me with wonder. Books were wondrous. The Wonder Books I’d read as a child evoked happy memories.
And, at one time, I’d been a “Wonder Boy.”