the storied life of a. j. fikry a novel

The

Storied Life

of
A. J. Fikry

A NOVEL

G
ABRIELLE
Z
EVIN

ALGONQUIN BOOKS OF CHAPEL HILL 2014

Also by Gabrielle Zevin

BOOKS FOR ADULTS

Margarettown

The Hole We’re In

BOOKS FOR YOUNG ADULTS

Elsewhere

Memoirs of a Teenage Amnesiac

All These Things I’ve Done

Because It Is My Blood

In the Age of Love and Chocolate

For my parents,

who furnished my formative years with books,

and for the boy who gave me

The Stories of Vladimir Nabakov

all those winters ago.

come on, sweetheart

let’s adore one another

before there is no more

of you and me.

—RUMI

Contents

PART I

Lamb to the Slaughter

The Diamond as Big as the Ritz

The Luck of Roaring Camp

What Feels Like the World

A Good Man Is Hard to Find

The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County

The Girls in Their Summer Dresses

PART II

A Conversation with My Father

A Perfect Day for Bananafish

The Tell-Tale Heart

Ironhead

What We Talk about When We Talk about Love

The Bookseller

Acknowledgments

PART I
Lamb to the Slaughter

1953
/ Roald Dahl

Wife kills husband with frozen leg of lamb, then disposes of the “weapon” by feeding it to the cops. Serviceable-enough Dahl offering, though Lambiase questioned whether a professional housewife could successfully cook a leg of lamb in the manner described—i.e., without thawing, seasoning, or marinade. Wouldn’t this result in tough, unevenly cooked meat? My business isn’t cooking (or crime), but if you dispute this detail, the whole story begins to unravel. Despite this reservation, it makes the cut because of a girl I know who loved
James and the Giant Peach
once upon a time.

—A.J.F.

On the ferry from Hyannis to Alice Island, Amelia Loman paints her nails yellow and, while waiting for them to dry, skims her predecessor’s notes. “Island Books, approximately $350,000.00 per annum in sales, the better portion of that in the summer months to folks on holiday,” Harvey Rhodes reports. “Six hundred square feet of selling space. No full-time employees other than owner. Very small children’s section. Fledgling online presence. Poor community outreach. Inventory emphasizes the literary, which is good for us, but Fikry’s tastes are very specific, and without Nic, he can’t be counted on to hand-sell. Luckily for him, Island’s the only game in town.” Amelia yawns—she’s nursing a slight hangover—and wonders if one persnickety little bookstore will be worth such a long trip. By the time her nails have hardened, her relentlessly bright-sided nature has kicked in:
Of course it’s worth it!
Her specialty is persnickety little bookstores and the particular breed that runs them. Her talents also include multitasking, selecting the right wine at dinner (and the coordinating skill, tending friends who’ve had too much to drink), houseplants, strays, and other lost causes.

As she steps off the ferry, her phone rings. She doesn’t recognize the number—none of her friends use their phones as phones anymore. Still, she is glad for the diversion and she doesn’t want to become the kind of person who thinks that good news can only come from calls one was already expecting and callers one already knows. The caller turns out to be Boyd Flanagan, her third online dating failure, who had taken her to the circus about six months back.

“I tried sending you a message a few weeks ago,” he says. “Did you get it?”

She tells him that she recently switched jobs so her devices have been screwed up. “Also, I’ve been rethinking the whole idea of online dating. Like whether it’s really for me.”

Boyd doesn’t seem to hear that last part. “Would you want to go out again?” he asks.

Re: their date. For a time, the novelty of the circus had distracted from the fact that they had nothing in common. By the end of dinner, the greater truth of their incompatibility had been revealed. Perhaps it should have been obvious from their inability to reach consensus on an appetizer or from his main course admission that he disliked “old things”—antiques, houses, dogs, people. Still, Amelia had not allowed herself to be certain until dessert, when she’d asked him about the book that had had the greatest influence on his life, and he’d replied
Principles of Accounting, Part II
.

Gently, she tells him no, she would rather not go out again.

She can hear Boyd breathing, fluttery and irregular. She worries that he might be crying. “Are you all right?” she asks.

“Don’t patronize me.”

Amelia knows she should hang up, but she doesn’t. Some part of her wants the story. What is the point of bad dates if not to have amusing anecdotes for your friends? “Excuse me?”

“You’ll notice I didn’t call you right away, Amelia,” he says. “I didn’t call you because I had met someone better, and when that didn’t work out, I decided to give you a second chance. So don’t be thinking you’re superior. You’ve got a decent smile, I’ll give you that, but your teeth are too big and so is your ass and you’re not twenty-five anymore even if you drink like you are. You shouldn’t look a gift horse in the mouth.” The gift horse begins to cry. “I’m sorry. I’m really sorry.”

“It’s fine, Boyd.”

“What’s wrong with me? The circus was fun, right? And I’m not so bad.”

“You were great. The circus was very creative.”

“But there must be a reason you don’t like me. Be honest.”

At this point, there are many reasons not to like him. She picks one. “Do you remember when I said I worked in publishing and you said you weren’t much of a reader?”

“You’re a snob,” he concludes.

“About some things, I suppose I am. Listen, Boyd, I’m working. I have to go.” Amelia hangs up the phone. She is not vain about her looks and she certainly doesn’t value the opinion of Boyd Flanagan, who hadn’t really been talking to her anyway. She is just his most recent disappointment. She has had disappointments, too.

She is thirty-one years old and she thinks she should have met someone by now.

And yet . . .

Amelia the bright-sider believes it is better to be alone than to be with someone who doesn’t share your sensibilities and interests. (It
is,
right?)

Her mother likes to say that novels have ruined Amelia for real men. This observation insults Amelia because it implies that she only reads books with classically romantic heroes. She does not mind the occasional novel with a romantic hero but her reading tastes are far more varied than that. Furthermore, she adores Humbert Humbert as a character while accepting the fact that she wouldn’t really want him for a life partner, a boyfriend, or even a casual acquaintance. She feels the same way about Holden Caulfield, and Misters Rochester and Darcy.

The sign over the porch of the purple Victorian cottage is faded, and Amelia nearly walks past it.

ISLAND BOOKS

Alice Island’s Exclusive Provider of Fine Literary Content since 1999

No Man Is an Island; Every Book Is a World

Inside, a teenager minds the till while reading the new Alice Munro collection. “Oh, how is that one?” Amelia asks. Amelia adores Munro, but aside from vacation, she rarely has time to read books that aren’t on the list.

“It’s for school,” the girl replies, as if that settles the question.

Amelia introduces herself as the sales rep from Knightley Press, and the teenager, without looking up from the page, points vaguely to the back. “A.J.’s in his office.”

Precarious stacks of ARCs and galleys line the hallway, and Amelia feels the usual flash of despair. The tote bag that is embossing her shoulder has several additions for A.J.’s piles and a catalog filled with other books for her to pitch. She never lies about the books on her list. She never says she loves a book if she doesn’t. She can usually find something positive to say about a book or, failing that, the cover or, failing that, the author or, failing that, the author’s website.
And that’s why they pay me the big bucks,
Amelia occasionally jokes to herself. She makes $37,000.00 per year plus the possibility of bonuses, though no one who does her job has made a bonus for a very long time.

The door to A. J. Fikry’s office is closed. Amelia is halfway to it when the sleeve of her sweater catches on one of the stacks, and one hundred books, maybe more, crash to the ground with a mortifying thunder. The door opens, and A. J. Fikry looks from the wreckage to the dirty-blond giantess, who is frantically trying to repile the books. “Who the hell are you?”

“Amelia Loman.” She stacks ten more tomes and half of them tumble down.

“Leave it,” A.J. commands. “There’s an order to these things. You are not helping. Please leave.”

Amelia stands. She is at least four inches taller than A.J. “But we have a meeting.”

“We have no meeting,” A.J. says.


We do,
” Amelia insists. “I e-mailed you last week about the winter list. You said it was fine for me to come by either Thursday or Friday afternoon. I said I’d come on Thursday.” The e-mail exchange had been brief, but she knows it was not fiction.

“You’re a rep?”

Amelia nods, relieved.

“What publisher again?”

“Knightley.”

“Knightley Press is Harvey Rhodes,” A.J. replies. “When you e-mailed me last week, I thought you were Harvey’s assistant or something.”

“I’m Harvey’s replacement.”

A.J. sighs heavily. “What company has Harvey gone to?”

Harvey is dead, and for a second Amelia considers making a bad joke casting the afterlife as a sort of company and Harvey as an employee in it. “He’s dead,” she says flatly. “I thought you would have heard.” Most of her accounts had already heard. Harvey had been a legend, as much as a sales rep can be a legend. “There was an obituary in the ABA newsletter and maybe one in
Publishers Weekly,
too,” she says by way of apology.

“I don’t much follow publishing news,” A.J. says. He takes off his thick black glasses and then spends a long time wiping the frames.

“I’m sorry if it’s a shock to you.” Amelia puts her hand on A.J.’s arm, and he shakes her off.

“What do I care? I barely knew the man. I saw him three times a year. Not enough to call him a friend. And every time I saw him, he was trying to sell me something. This is not friendship.”

Amelia can tell that A.J. is in no mood to be pitched the winter list. She should offer to come back some other day. But then she thinks of the two-hour drive to Hyannis and the eighty-minute boat ride to Alice and the ferry schedule, which becomes more irregular after October. “Since I’m here,” Amelia says, “would you mind if we went through Knightley’s winter titles?”

A.J.’s office is a closet. It has no windows, no pictures on the wall, no family photos on the desk, no knickknacks, no escape. The office has books, inexpensive metal shelves like the kind for a garage, a filing cabinet and an ancient, possibly twentieth-century, desktop computer. A.J. does not offer her a drink, and although Amelia is thirsty, she doesn’t ask for one. She clears a chair of books and sits.

Amelia launches into the winter list. It’s the smallest list of the year, both in size and expectations. A few big (or at least promising) debuts, but other than that it is filled with the books for which the publisher has the lowest commercial hopes. Despite this, Amelia often likes the “winters” the best. They are the underdogs, the sleepers, the long shots. (It is not too much of a stretch to point out that this is how she sees herself, too.) She leaves for last her favorite book, a memoir written by an eighty-year-old man, a lifelong bachelor who married at the age of seventy-eight. His bride died two years after the wedding at the age of eighty-three. Cancer. According to his bio, the writer worked as a science reporter for various midwestern newspapers, and the prose is precise, funny, not at all maudlin. Amelia had cried uncontrollably on the train from New York to Providence. Amelia knows
The Late Bloomer
is a small book and that the description sounds more than a little cliché, but she feels sure other people will love it if they give it a chance. In Amelia’s experience, most people’s problems would be solved if they would only give more things a chance.

Amelia is halfway through describing
The Late Bloomer
when A.J. puts his head on the desk.

“Is something wrong?” Amelia asks.

“This is not for me,” A.J. says.

“Just try the first chapter.” Amelia is pushing the galley into his hand. “I know the subject matter could be incredibly corny, but when you see how it’s writ—”

He cuts her off, “This is not for me.”

“Okay, so I’ll tell you about something else.”

A.J. takes a deep breath. “You seem like a nice enough young woman, but your predecessor . . . The thing is, Harvey knew my tastes. He had the same taste as me.”

Amelia sets the galley on the desk. “I’d like the chance to get to know your tastes,” she says, feeling a bit like a character in a porno.

He mutters something under his breath. She thinks it sounds like
What’s the point?
but she isn’t sure.

Amelia closes the Knightley catalog. “Mr. Fikry, please just tell me what you like.”


Like,
” he repeats with distaste. “How about I tell you what I don’t like? I do not like postmodernism, postapocalyptic settings, postmortem narrators, or magic realism. I rarely respond to supposedly clever formal devices, multiple fonts, pictures where they shouldn’t be—basically, gimmicks of any kind. I find literary fiction about the Holocaust or any other major world tragedy to be distasteful—nonfiction only, please. I do not like genre mash-ups à la the literary detective novel or the literary fantasy. Literary should be literary, and genre should be genre, and crossbreeding rarely results in anything satisfying. I do not like children’s books, especially ones with orphans, and I prefer not to clutter my shelves with young adult. I do not like anything over four hundred pages or under one hundred fifty pages. I am repulsed by ghostwritten novels by reality television stars, celebrity picture books, sports memoirs, movie tie-in editions, novelty items, and—I imagine this goes without saying—vampires. I rarely stock debuts, chick lit, poetry, or translations. I would prefer not to stock series, but the demands of my pocketbook require me to. For your part, you needn’t tell me about the ‘next big series’ until it is ensconced on the
New York Times
Best Sellers list. Above all, Ms. Loman, I find slim literary memoirs about little old men whose little old wives have died from cancer to be absolutely intolerable. No matter how well written the sales rep claims they are. No matter how many copies you promise I’ll sell on Mother’s Day.”

Amelia blushes, though she is angry more than embarrassed. She agrees with some of what A.J. has said, but his manner is unnecessarily insulting. Knightley Press doesn’t even sell half of that stuff anyway. She studies him. He is older than Amelia but not by much, not by more than ten years. He is too young to like so little. “What do you like?” she asks.

“Everything else,” he says. “I will also admit to an occasional weakness for short-story collections. Customers never want to buy them though.”

There is only one short-story collection on Amelia’s list, a debut. Amelia hasn’t read the whole thing, and time dictates that she probably won’t, but she liked the first story. An American sixth-grade class and an Indian sixth-grade class participate in an international pen pal program. The narrator is an Indian kid in the American class who keeps feeding comical misinformation about Indian culture to the Americans. She clears her throat, which is still terribly dry. “
The Year Bombay Became Mumbai.
I think it will have special int—”

“No,” he says.

“I haven’t even told you what it’s about yet.”

“Just no.”

“But why?”

“If you’re honest with yourself, you’ll admit that you’re only telling me about it because I’m partially Indian and you think this will be my special interest. Am I right?”

Amelia imagines smashing the ancient computer over his head. “I’m telling you about this because you said you liked short stories! And it’s the only one on my list. And for the record”—here, she lies—“it’s completely wonderful from start to finish. Even if it is a debut.

“And do you know what else? I love debuts. I love discovering something new. It’s part of the whole reason I do this job.” Amelia rises. Her head is pounding. Maybe she does drink too much? Her head is pounding and her heart is, too. “Do you want my opinion?”

“Not particularly,” he says. “What are you, twenty-five?”

“Mr. Fikry, this is a lovely store, but if you continue in this this this”—as a child, she stuttered and it occasionally returns when she is upset; she clears her throat—“this backward way of thinking, there won’t be an Island Books before too long.”

Amelia sets
The Late Bloomer
along with the winter catalog on his desk. She trips over the books in the hallway as she leaves.

The next ferry doesn’t depart for another hour so she takes her time walking back through town. Outside a Bank of America, a bronze plaque commemorates the summer Herman Melville had spent there, back when the building had been the Alice Inn. She holds out her phone and takes a picture of herself with the plaque. Alice is a nice enough place, but she imagines she won’t have reason to be back anytime soon.

She texts her boss in New York:
Doesn’t look like there’ll be any orders from Island.

The boss replies:
Don’t fret. Only a little account, and Island does the bulk of its ordering in anticipation of the summer when the tourists are there. The guy who runs the place is weird, and Harvey always had better luck selling the spring/summer list. You will, too.

AT SIX O’CLOCK,
A.J. tells Molly Klock to leave. “How’s the new Munro?” he asks.

She groans. “Why does everyone keep asking me that today?” She is only referring to Amelia, but Molly likes to speak in extremes.

“I suppose because you’re reading it.”

Molly groans again. “Okay. The people are, I dunno, too human sometimes.”

“I think that’s rather the point with Munro,” he says.

“Dunno. Prefer the old stuff. See you on Monday.”

Something will have to be done about Molly, A.J. thinks as he flips the sign to
closed
. Aside from liking to read, Molly is truly a terrible bookseller. But she’s only a part-timer, and it’s such a bother to train someone new, and at least she doesn’t steal. Nic had hired her so she must have seen something in the surly Miss Klock. Maybe next summer A.J. will work up the energy to fire Molly.

A.J. kicks the remaining customers out (he is most annoyed by an organic chemistry study group who have bought nothing but have been camped out in magazines since four—he’s pretty sure one of them clogged up the toilet, too), then deals with the receipts, a task as depressing as it sounds. Finally, he goes upstairs to the attic apartment where he lives. He pops a carton of frozen vindaloo into the microwave. Nine minutes, per the box’s instructions. As he’s standing there, he thinks of the girl from Knightley. She had looked like a time traveler from 1990s Seattle with her anchor-printed galoshes and her floral grandma dress and her fuzzy beige sweater and her shoulder-length hair that looked like it had been cut in the kitchen by her boyfriend. Girlfriend? Boyfriend, he decides. He thinks of Courtney Love when she was married to Kurt Cobain. The tough rose mouth says
No one can hurt me,
but the soft blue eyes say
Yes you can and you probably will.
And he had made that big dandelion of a girl cry.
Well done, A.J.

The scent of vindaloo is growing stronger, but seven and a half minutes remain on the clock.

He wants a task. Something physical but not strenuous.

He goes into the basement to collapse book boxes with his box cutter. Knife. Flatten. Stack. Knife. Flatten. Stack.

A.J. regrets his behavior with the rep. It hadn’t been her fault. Someone should have told him that Harvey Rhodes had died.

Knife. Flatten. Stack.

Someone probably had told him. A.J. only skims his e-mail, never answers his phone. Had there been a funeral? Not that A.J. would have attended anyway. He had barely known Harvey Rhodes.
Obviously.

Knife. Flatten. Stack.

And yet . . . He had spent hours with the man over the last half-dozen years. They had only ever discussed books but what, in this life, is more personal than books?

Knife. Flatten. Stack.

And how rare is it to find someone who shares your tastes? The one real fight they’d ever had was over David Foster Wallace. It was around the time of Wallace’s suicide. A.J. had found the reverent tone of the eulogies to be insufferable. The man had written a decent (if indulgent and overlong) novel, a few modestly insightful essays, and not much else.


Infinite Jest
is a masterpiece,” Harvey had said.


Infinite Jest
is an endurance contest. You manage to get through it and you have no choice but to say you like it. Otherwise, you have to deal with the fact that you just wasted weeks of your life,” A.J. had countered. “Style, no substance, my friend.”

Harvey’s face had reddened as he leaned over the desk. “You say that about any writer who was born in the same decade as you!”

Knife. Flatten. Stack. Tie.

By the time he gets back upstairs, the vindaloo is cold again. If he reheats it in that plastic dish, he’ll probably end up with cancer.

He takes the plastic tray to the table. The first bite is burning. The second bite is frozen. Papa Bear’s vindaloo and Baby Bear’s vindaloo. He throws the tray against the wall. How little he had meant to Harvey and how much Harvey had meant to him.

The difficulty of living alone is that any mess he makes he is forced to clean up himself.

No, the real difficulty of living alone is that no one cares if you are upset. No one cares why a thirty-nine-year-old man has thrown a plastic tub of vindaloo across a room like a toddler. He pours himself a glass of merlot. He spreads a tablecloth on the table. He walks into the living room. He unlocks a climate-controlled glass case and removes
Tamerlane
from it. Back in the kitchen, he sets
Tamerlane
across the table from him, props it against the chair where Nic used to sit.

“Cheers, you piece of crap,” he says to the slim volume.

He finishes the glass. He pours himself another, and after he finishes that he promises himself that he’s going to read a book. Maybe an old favorite like
Old School
by Tobias Wolff, though his time would certainly be better spent on something new. What had that dopey rep been going on about?
The Late Bloomer
—ugh. He had meant what he said. There is nothing worse than cutesy memoirs about widowers. Especially if one is a widower as A.J. has been for the last twenty-one months. The rep had been new—not her fault that she didn’t know about his boring personal tragedy. God, he misses Nic. Her voice and her neck and even her armpits. They had been stubbly as a cat’s tongue and, at the end of the day, smelled like milk just before it curdles.

Three glasses later, he passes out at the table. He is only five foot seven inches tall, 140 pounds, and he hasn’t even had frozen vindaloo to fortify him. No dent will be made in his reading pile tonight.

“AJAY,” NIC WHISPERS.
“Go to bed.”

At last, he is dreaming. The point of all the drinking is to arrive in this place.

Nic, his drunken-dream ghost wife, helps him to his feet.

“You’re a disgrace, nerd. You know that?”

He nods.

“Frozen vindaloo and five-dollar red wine.”

“I am respecting the time-honored traditions of my heritage.”

He and the ghost shuffle to the bedroom.

“Congratulations, Mr. Fikry. You’re turning into a bona fide alcoholic.”

“I’m sorry,” he says. She lowers him into the bed.

Her brown hair is short, gamine-style. “You cut your hair,” he says. “Weird.”

“You were awful to that girl today.”

“It was about Harvey.”

“Obviously,” she says.

“I don’t like it when people who used to know you die.”

“That’s why you won’t fire Molly Klock, too?”

He nods.

“You can’t go on like this.”

“I can,” A.J. says. “I have been. I will.”

She kisses him on the forehead. “I guess what I’m saying is I don’t want you to.”

She is gone.

The accident hadn’t been anyone’s fault. She’d been driving an author home after an afternoon event. She’d probably been speeding to catch the last automobile ferry back to Alice. Possibly she had swerved to avoid hitting a deer. Possibly Massachusetts roads in winter. There was no way to know. The cop at the hospital asked if she’d been suicidal. “No,” A.J. said. “Nothing like that.” She had been two months pregnant. They hadn’t told anyone yet. There had been disappointments before. Standing in the waiting room outside the morgue, he rather wished they had told people. At least there would have been a brief period of happiness before this longer period of . . . He did not yet know what to call
this.
“No, she was not suicidal.” A.J. paused. “She was a terrible driver who thought she wasn’t.”

“Yes,” said the cop. “It wasn’t anyone’s fault.”

“People like to say that,” A.J. replies. “But it was someone’s fault. It was hers. What a stupid thing for her to do. What a stupid melodramatic thing for her to do. What a goddamn Danielle Steel move, Nic! If this were a novel, I’d stop reading right now. I’d throw it across the room.”

The cop (who was not much of a reader aside from the occasional Jeffery Deaver mass-market paperback while on vacation) tried to steer the conversation back to reality. “That’s right. You own the bookstore.”

“My wife and I,” A.J. replied without thinking. “Oh Christ, I just did that stupid thing where the character forgets that the spouse has died and he accidentally uses ‘we.’ That’s such a cliché. Officer”—he paused to read the cop’s badge—“Lambiase, you and I are characters in a bad novel. Do you know that? How the heck did we end up here? You’re probably thinking to yourself,
Poor bastard,
and tonight you’ll hug your kids extra tight because that’s what characters in these kinds of novels do. You know the kind of book I’m talking about, right? The kind of hotshot literary fiction that, like, follows some unimportant supporting character for a bit so it looks all Faulkneresque and expansive. Look how the author cares for the little people! The common man! How broad-minded he or she must be! Even your name. Officer Lambiase is the perfect name for a clichéd Massachusetts cop. Are you racist, Lambiase? Because your kind of character ought to be racist.”

“Mr. Fikry,” Officer Lambiase had said. “Is there anyone I can call for you?” He was a good cop, accustomed to the many ways the aggrieved can come undone. He set his hand on A.J.’s shoulder.

“Yes! Right on, Officer Lambiase, that’s exactly what you’re supposed to do in this moment! You’re playing your part beautifully. Would you happen to know what the widower is supposed to do next?”

“Call someone,” Officer Lambiase said.

“Yes, that is probably right. I’ve already called my in-laws, though.” A.J. nodded. “If this were a short story, you and I would be done by now. A small ironic turn and out. That’s why there’s nothing more elegant in the prose universe than a short story, Officer Lambiase.

“If this were Raymond Carver, you’d offer me some meager comfort and darkness would set in and all this would be over. But this . . . is feeling more like a novel to me after all. Emotionally, I mean. It will take me a while to get through it. Do you know?”

“I’m not sure that I do. I haven’t read Raymond Carver,” Officer Lambiase said. “I like Lincoln Rhyme. Do you know him?”

“The quadriplegic criminologist. Decent for genre writing. But have you read any short stories?” A.J. asked.

“Maybe in school. Fairy tales. Or, um,
The Red Pony
? I think I was supposed to read
The Red Pony.


That
is a novella,” A.J. said.

“Oh, sorry. I’m . . . Wait, there was one with a cop I remember from high school. Kind of a perfect crime thing, which I guess is why I remember it. This cop gets killed by his wife. The weapon is a frozen side of beef and then she serves it to the other—”

“ ‘Lamb to the Slaughter,’ ” A.J. said. “The story’s called ‘Lamb to the Slaughter’ and the weapon is a leg of lamb.”

“Yes, that’s it!” The cop was delighted. “You know your stuff.”

“It’s a very well-known piece,” A.J. said. “My in-laws should be here any minute. I’m sorry about before when I referred to you as an ‘unimportant supporting character.’ That was rude and for all we know, I am the ‘unimportant supporting character’ in the grander saga of Officer Lambiase. A cop is a more likely protagonist than a bookseller. You, sir, are a genre.”

“Hmmm,” said Officer Lambiase. “You’re probably right at that. Going back to what we were talking about before. As a cop, my problem with the story is the timeline. Like, she puts the beef—”

“Lamb.”

“Lamb. So she kills the guy with the frozen lamb chop then she puts it in the oven to cook without even thawing it. I’m no Rachael Ray, but . . .”

Nic had begun to freeze by the time they had pulled her car out of the water, and in the morgue drawer her lips had been blue. The color had reminded A.J. of the black lipstick she’d worn to the book party she’d thrown for the latest vampire whatever. He hadn’t cared for the idea of silly teenage girls prancing about Island in prom dresses, but Nic, who had actually
liked
that damned vampire book and the woman who wrote it, insisted that a vampire prom was good for business and also fun. “You remember fun, right?”

“Dimly,” he had said. “Long ago, back before I was a bookseller, back when I had my weekends and my nights to myself, back when I read for pleasure, I recall that there was fun. So, dimly, dimly. Yes.”

“Let me refresh your memory. Fun is having a smart, pretty, easy wife with whom you get to spend every working day.”

He could still picture her in that ridiculous black satin dress, her right arm draped around the porch column and her comely stained lips in a line. “Tragically, my wife has been turned into a vampire.”

“You poor man.” She crossed the porch and kissed him, leaving a lipstick trace like a bruise. “Your only move is to become a vampire, too. Don’t try to fight it. That’s the absolute worst thing you could do. You gotta be cool, nerd. Invite me in.”

Th
e Diamond as Big as the Ritz

19
22
/ F. Scott Fitzgerald

Technically, a novella. But then novella is something of a gray area. Still, if you find yourself among the kind of people who bother to make such distinctions—and I used to be that type of person—it is best that you know the difference. (If you end up going to an Ivy League college,* you are likely to run into such people. Arm yourself with knowledge against this bumptious lot. But I digress.) E. A. Poe defines a short story as readable in a single sitting. I imagine a “single sitting” was longer back in his day. But I digress again.

Gimmicky, oddball story of the challenges of owning a town made of diamonds and of the lengths the rich will go to protect their way of life. Fitzgerald is in fine form here.
The Great Gatsby
is unquestionably dazzling, but that novel occasionally seems overgroomed to me, like a garden topiary. The short-story format is a roomier, messier affair for him. “Diamond” breathes like an enchanted garden gnome.

Re: its inclusion. Shall I do the obvious thing and tell you that just before I met you I too lost something of great, if speculative, value?

—A.J.F.

*I have thoughts about this. Remember that a fine education can be found in places other than the usual.

Though he can’t remember how he got there or having taken off his clothes, A.J. wakes in bed wearing only his underwear. He remembers that Harvey Rhodes is dead; he remembers being an asshole to the comely Knightley Press rep; he remembers throwing the vindaloo across the room; he remembers the first glass of wine and the toast to
Tamerlane
. After that, oblivion. From his point of view, the evening had been a triumph.

His head is pounding. He walks out to the main room, expecting to find the vindaloo detritus. The floor and the walls are spotless. A.J. digs an aspirin out of the cabinet while silently congratulating himself for having had the foresight to clean up the vindaloo. He sits down at the dining-room table and notices that the wine bottle has also been thrown out. Odd for him to have been so fastidious but not unprecedented. He is nothing if not a neat drunk. He looks across the table to where he’d left
Tamerlane
. The book is gone. Maybe he only
thought
he’d taken it out of the case?

As he walks across the room, A.J.’s heart is pounding in competition with his head. Halfway to the bookcase, he can see that the combination-locked, climate-controlled glass coffin, which protects
Tamerlane
from the world, is wide open and empty.

He pulls on a bathrobe and throws on his running shoes, which haven’t gotten much mileage on them of late.

A.
J. jogs down Captain Wiggins Street with his dingy plaid bathrobe flapping out behind him. He looks like a depressed, malnourished superhero. He turns onto Main and runs straight into the sleepy Alice Island Police Station. “I’ve been robbed!” A.J. announces. It was only a short run, but A.J. is breathing hard. “Please, someone help me!” He tries not to feel like an old lady with a stolen handbag.

Lambiase sets down his cup of coffee and takes in the distraught man in the bathrobe. He recognizes him as the owner of the bookstore and the man whose pretty young wife had driven into the lake a year and a half back. A.J. looks much older than the last time he’d seen him, though Lambiase supposes that is to be expected.

“All right, Mr. Fikry,” Lambiase says, “tell me what happened.”

“Someone stole
Tamerlane,
” A.J. says.

“What’s
Tamerlane
?”

“It’s a book. It’s a very valuable book.”

“To clarify. You mean someone
shoplifted
a book from the store.”

“No. It was
my
book from my personal collection. It is an extremely rare collection of poems by Edgar Allan Poe.”

“So, it’s, like, your favorite book?” Lambiase asks.

“No. I don’t even like it. It’s crap, it’s jejune crap. It’s . . .” A.J. is hyperventilating. “Fuck.”

“Calm down, Mr. Fikry. I’m trying to understand. You don’t like the book, but it has sentimental value?”

“No! Fuck sentimental value. It has great financial value.
Tamerlane
is like the Honus Wagner of rare books! You know what I’m saying?”

“Sure, my pops was a baseball card collector.” Lambiase nods. “That valuable?”

A.J. can’t get the words out fast enough. “It was the first thing Edgar Allan Poe ever wrote, back when he was eighteen. Copies are extremely rare because the print run was fifty copies, and it was published anonymously. Instead of ‘by Edgar Allan Poe,’ it says ‘by a Bostonian’ on the cover. Copies sell for upward of four hundred thousand dollars depending on condition and the mood of the rare books market. I was planning to auction it off in a couple of years when the economy had had a little time to improve. I was planning to close the shop and retire on the proceeds.”

“If you don’t mind my asking,” Lambiase says, “why would you keep something like that in your house and not in a bank vault?”

A.J. shakes his head. “I don’t know. I was stupid. I liked keeping it close by, I suppose. I liked being able to look at it and be reminded that I could quit anytime I wanted to. I kept it in a combination-locked glass case. I thought it was safe enough.” In his defense, there is very little theft in Alice Island except during tourist season. It is October.

“So, did someone break the case or did someone know the combination?” Lambiase asks.

“Neither. I wanted to get wasted last night. Fucking stupid, but I took out the book so I could look at it. A poor excuse for company, I know.”

“Mr. Fikry, was
Tamerlane
insured?”

A.J. puts his head in his hands. Lambiase takes that to mean that the book wasn’t. “I only found the book about a year ago, a couple of months after my wife died. I didn’t want to spend the extra money. I never got around to it. I don’t know. A million retrospectively idiotic reasons, the main one being that I am an idiot, Officer Lambiase.”

Lambiase doesn’t bother telling him that it is
Chief
Lambiase. “Here’s what I’m gonna do. First, you and me are gonna file a police report. Then, when my detective comes in—she’s only on half days during the off-season—I’m gonna send her down to your place to look for fingerprints and other evidence. Maybe something’ll come up. The other thing we can do is call the auction houses and other people who deal in these sorts of items. If it’s as rare a book as you say, people will notice if an unaccounted-for copy comes on the market. Don’t things like that need to have a record of who owned them, a whatchamacallit?”

“A provenance,” A.J. says.

“Yeah, exactly! My wife used to watch
Antiques Roadshow.
You ever seen that show?”

A.J. doesn’t reply.

“One last thing, I’m wondering who knew about the book?”

A.J. snorts. “Everyone. My wife’s sister, Ismay, teaches at the high school. She worries about me since Nic . . . She’s always bugging me to get out of the store, get off the island. About a year ago, she dragged me to this dreary estate sale in Milton. It was sitting in a box with about fifty other books, all worthless except
Tamerlane
. I paid five dollars. The people had no idea what they had. I felt kind of shitty about taking it, if you want to know the truth. Not that it matters now. Anyway, Ismay thought it would be good for business and educational or some crap if I put it on display in the store. So I kept the case in the shop all last summer. You never come to the store, I guess.”

Lambiase looks at his shoes, the familiar shame of a thousand high school English classes where he’d failed to do the minimum required reading rushing back to him. “Not much of a reader.”

“You read some crime, though, right?”

“Good memory,” Lambiase says. In fact, A.J. has a perfect memory for people’s reading tastes.

“Deaver, was it? If you like that, there’s this new writer from—”

“Sure, I’ll stop by some time. Is there someone I can call for you? Your wife’s sister is Ismay Evans-Parish, right?”

“Ismay’s at—” At that moment, A.J. freezes as if someone has pressed the pause button on him. His eyes are blank and his mouth drops open.

“Mr. Fikry?”

For nearly thirty seconds, A.J. is frozen and then he resumes speaking as if nothing has happened. “Ismay’s at work, and I’m fine. There’s no need to call her.”

“You were gone for a minute there,” Lambiase says.

“What?”

“You blacked out.”

“Oh Christ. It’s just an
absence
seizure. I used to have them a lot as a kid. I rarely have them as an adult except when I’m unusually stressed.”

“You should see a doctor.”

“No, it’s fine. Honestly. I just want to find my book.”

“I’d feel better,” Lambiase insists. “You’ve had a pretty traumatic morning, and I know you live alone. I’m gonna take you to the hospital and then I’m gonna have your in-laws meet you there. Meanwhile, I’ll have my guys see if they can figure anything out about your book.”

At the hospital,
A.J. waits, fills out forms, waits, strips, waits, takes tests, waits, puts his clothes back on, waits, takes more tests, waits, strips again, and at last is seen by a middle-aged general practitioner. She is not particularly concerned about the seizure. The tests, however, have revealed that his blood pressure and cholesterol are on the border between acceptable and high for a thirty-nine-year-old man. She asks A.J. about his lifestyle. He answers the question truthfully. “I’m not what you’d call an alcoholic, but I do like to drink until I pass out at least once a week. I smoke occasionally and I subsist on a diet of frozen entrees. I rarely floss. I used to be a long-distance runner, but now I don’t exercise at all. I live alone and I lack meaningful personal relationships. Since my wife died, I hate my work, too.”

“Oh, is that all?” the doctor asks. “You’re still a young man, Mr. Fikry, but a body can only take so much. If you’re trying to kill yourself, I can certainly think of faster, easier ways to go about it. Do you want to die?”

A response doesn’t immediately occur to him.

“Because if you really want to die, I can put you under psychiatric observation.”

“I don’t want to die,” A.J. says after a bit. “I just find it difficult to be
here
all the time. Do you think I’m crazy?”

“No. I can see why you would feel that way. You’re going through a bear of a time. Start with exercise,” she says. “You’ll feel better.”

“Okay.”

“Your wife was lovely,” the doctor says. “I used to be in the mother-daughter book club she ran at the store. My daughter still works for you part-time.”

“Molly Klock?”

“Klock is my partner’s name. I’m Dr. Rosen.” She taps her name tag.

In
the lobby,
A.J. encounters a familiar scene. “Would you mind terribly?” a nurse in pink scrubs asks, holding out a battered mass-market paperback to a man in a corduroy jacket with patches on the elbows.

“I’d be delighted,” Daniel Parish says. “What’s your name?”

“Jill, like Jack and Jill went up the hill. Macy, like the store. I’ve read all your books, but I like this one the best. Like, by far.”


That
is the popular opinion, Jill from the hill.” Daniel isn’t kidding. None of his books have sold nearly as well as the first.

“I can’t even express how much it meant to me. Like, I start to tear up thinking about it.” She bows her head and lowers her eyes, deferent as a geisha. “It’s what made me want to be a nurse! I just started working here. When I found out you lived in town, I kept hoping you’d come in someday.”

“You mean, you hoped I’d get sick?” Daniel says, smiling.

“No, of course not!” She blushes, then swats him on the arm. “You! You’re terrible!”

“I am,” Daniel replies. “I am, indeed, terrible.”

The first time Nic had met Daniel Parish, she had commented that he had the good looks of an anchorman for a local news station. By the car ride home, she had revised her opinion. “His eyes are too small for an anchor. He’d be the weatherman.”

“He does have a sonorous voice,” A.J. had said.

“If that man told you that the storm had passed, you would definitely believe him. Probably even if you were still standing smack in the middle of it,” she had said.

A.J. interrupts the flirtation. “Dan,” he says. “I thought they’d called
your wife
.” A.J. is not going for subtle.

Daniel clears his throat. “She’s feeling under the weather, so I came instead. How you holding up, old man?” Daniel calls A.J. “old man” despite the fact that Daniel is five years older than A.J.

“I’ve lost my fortune, and the doctor says I’m going to die, but other than that, I’m fantastic.” The sedative has given him perspective.

“Great. Let’s get drinks.” Daniel turns to Nurse Jill and whispers something in her ear. When Daniel returns the book to her, A.J. can see that he has written his phone number. “Come, thou monarch of the vine!” Daniel says as he heads for the exit.

Despite the fact that he loves books and owns a bookstore, A.J. does not particularly care for writers. He finds them to be unkempt, narcissistic, silly, and generally unpleasant people. He tries to avoid meeting the ones who’ve written books he loves for fear that they will ruin their books for him. Luckily, he does not love Daniel’s books, not even the popular first novel. As for the man? Well, he amuses A.J. to an extent. This is to say, Daniel Parish is one of A.J.’s closest friends.

“IT’S MY OWN
fault,” A.J. says after his second beer. “Should have gotten insurance. Should have stored it in a safe. Shouldn’t have taken it out when I was drunk. No matter who stole it, I can’t say my conduct was exactly faultless.” The alcohol in combination with the sedative is mellowing A.J., making him philosophical. Daniel pours him another glass from the pitcher.

“Don’t do that, A.J. Don’t blame yourself,” Daniel says.

“It’s a wake-up call is what it is,” A.J. says. “I’m definitely gonna cut down on my drinking.”

“Right after this beer,” Daniel quips. They clink mugs. A high school girl in denim cutoffs so short her buttocks peeks out the bottom walks into the bar. Daniel holds up his mug to her. “Nice outfit!” The girl gives him the finger. “You gotta stop drinking. I gotta stop cheating on Ismay,” Daniel says. “But then I see a pair of shorts like that, and my resolve is seriously tested. This night’s been ridiculous. The nurse! Those shorts!”

A.J. sips the beer. “How’s the book coming?”

Daniel shrugs. “It is a book. It will have pages and a cover. It will have a plot, characters, complications. It will reflect years of studying, refining, and practicing my craft. For all that, it will surely be less popular than the first one I wrote at the age of twenty-five.”

“Poor bastard,” A.J. says.

“I’m pretty sure you win the Poor Bastard of the Year Award, old man.”

“Lucky me.”

“Poe’s a lousy writer, you know? And ‘Tamerlane’ is the worst. Boring Lord Byron rip-off. It’d be one thing if it were a first edition of something fucking decent. You should be glad to be rid of it. I loathe collectible books anyway. People getting all moony over particular paper carcasses. It’s the ideas that matter, man. The words,” Daniel Parish says.

A.J. finishes his beer. “You, sir, are an idiot.”

THE INVESTIGATION LASTS
a month, which in Alice Island PD time is like a year. Lambiase and his team find no relevant physical evidence at the scene. In addition to throwing out the wine bottle and cleaning up the vindaloo, the criminal had apparently wiped down the apartment of fingerprints. The investigators question A.J.’s employees and also his few friends and relations in Alice. These interviews result in nothing particularly incriminating. No book dealers or auction houses report any copies of
Tamerlane
turning up either. (Of course, auction houses are notoriously quiet about these matters.) The investigation is considered unsolved. The book is gone, and A.J. knows he will never see it again.