Authors: Steve Stern
Also by Steve Stern
Isaac and the Undertaker’s Daughter
The Moon & Ruben Shein
Lazar Malkin Enters Heaven
Harry Kaplan’s Adventures Underground
A Plague of Dreamers
The Wedding Jester
The Angel of Forgetfulness
The North of God
The Frozen Rabbi
The Book of Mischief
Mickey and the Golem
Hershel and the Beast
Copyright © 2015 by Steve Stern
This publication is made possible, in part, by the voters of Minnesota through a Minnesota State Arts Board Operating Support grant, thanks to a legislative appropriation from the arts and cultural heritage fund, and through a grant from the Wells Fargo Foundation Minnesota. Significant support has also been provided by Target, the McKnight Foundation, Amazon.com, and other generous contributions from foundations, corporations, and individuals. To these organizations and individuals we offer our heartfelt thanks.
Published by Graywolf Press
250 Third Avenue North, Suite 600
Minneapolis, Minnesota 55401
All rights reserved.
Published in the United States of America
Printed in Canada
Ebook ISBN 978-1-55597-344-5
2 4 6 8 9 7 5 3 1
First Graywolf Printing, 2015
Library of Congress Control Number: 2014960045
Cover design: Kimberly Glyder Design
Cover art: Mario Bacchelli,
The Pinch, Memphis 1948.
Copyright © 2015 by the Estate of Mario Bacchelli.
In the beginning was the book. I found it in a dusty used book shop on Main Street where I was working, so to speak. The book was called
It was a bible-thick doorstop in a cheap cloth binding, its title and author—one Muni Pinsker—stamped on the cover in faded gilt lettering. I was shelving books for my boss, Avrom Slutsky, when he told me I was about to misplace it.
“It says ‘a history,’” I countered, pointing to the subtitle.
“So don’t believe everything you read,” replied Avrom, who’d been watching me from between the stacks of books on his desk. A veteran agoraphobe, the old man never left his shop and the cave-like apartment behind it, which is why he’d hired me in the first place. I was basically a glorified gofer who fetched his coffee and fried egg sandwiches from a nearby greasy spoon; I took his smelly laundry to the coin-op and got his prescriptions filled. I also shelved his recent purchases, an activity he seemed to think was a privilege, so he watched me like a myopic hawk through his Coke-bottle lenses.
“If it’s not history, what is it?” I asked.
Avrom shrugged as far as his red suspenders allowed. “It’s a hybrid work.”
“Okay, where’s the Hybrid shelf?”
“So file under Fiction.”
“Fiction.” Again I examined the dull beige cover, opening the book’s deckle-edged pages at random. What I saw, adjacent a page of ordinary typeface, was a garishly colored illustration. The plate, pasted onto powder-gray paper, depicted an oddly familiar urban street whose dowdy brick and wooden facades—their chimneypots resembling organ pipes—overlooked a parrot-green canal. There were a number of boats in the canal, as well as assorted sea serpents and semihuman creatures at play in the foam-flecked water. Venice it wasn’t.
“What’s the Pinch?” I felt compelled to inquire.
“It’s where you live,” said Avrom, wringing the end of a scraggly beard that often absorbed coffee and soup like a wick.
“What do you mean?” I figured he was being deliberately enigmatic. It was an aggravating habit of his.
“The Pinch. It’s what they called the neighborhood around North Main Street. Used to be the old Jewish ghetto.”
North Main Street was indeed where I lived, more or less, in a run-down railroad flat. It was to my knowledge the only occupied building (and I the only occupant) on an otherwise blighted street of abandoned structures and weed-choked vacant lots. At that point I began to fan the fawn-colored pages, browsing the weird illustrations and reading a line here and there. I could see at a glance that this was no conventional history. The language, for one thing, was fairly crude, the syntax somewhat out of whack, and nearly every phrase my eye lit on described some implausible event. Then, as was my custom, I flipped toward the end of the book. I began to peruse a passage in which a guy in a used book shop—a scrawny, hook-nosed dude named Lenny Sklarew—chances to open an undistinguished volume entitled
I slammed shut the book.
“I’m a character!” I gasped.
“This is news?” said Avrom, dredging a hairy nostril with his pinkie.
“In this book. I’m a character in this book …”
Avrom thoughtfully inspected the matter on his finger while, trembling, I reopened the cover to the copyright page, which was absent. But on the title page, under the name of some press I never heard of, obviously a vanity outfit, was the publication date of 1952. It was currently 1968.
My heart was beating like a speed bag.
I had a thing in those days for offbeat books, especially ones written by outlaw authors hell-bent on destroying themselves at an early age. While that wasn’t exactly my plan, neither did I rule out the possibility. Having washed out of college, I was waiting to be drafted and sometimes thought, mawkishly, that I might do for myself before the army got its turn. I was living a dead-end lifestyle, subsisting on cornflakes and beer and no end of illegal substances. A closet romantic, I liked to think I was putting myself in the way of wasting diseases, flirting with disaster. But somehow that piece of my generation’s program to live fast and die young—the one where you succumbed to the ravages of wanton debauchery—continued to elude me. Though not technically a virgin, I tended to have a self-defeating line with the ladies, owing I supposed to a rabbity heart.
Anyway, I’m still standing there paralyzed in Avrom’s shop.
“You can take it with you the book if you want,” the old gent advised me.
Like I needed his permission. I’d already filched a whole library’s worth of books (albeit under his nose) from his establishment, called a bit infelicitously The Book Asylum. They lay in toppled stacks along with the odd orange rind and reefer roach on the floor of my apartment.
“You don’t seem to get it—” I began, since he was determined to ignore the colossal freakishness of my discovery.
“What’s not to get?” he interrupted, infuriatingly.
“Avrom, I’m in the motherfucking book!”
“So what does it
He pulled his Old Testment expression, the one where the wrinkles in his brow made a V like sergeant’s stripes. “If you knew what means these things,” he intoned, “you would rip down to the pupik your clothes for the grief of having lost in the first place this wisdom.”
I gaped at him. “Oh, very helpful.”
Avrom relaxed. “Boychik, you ain’t in your farblundjit life doing squat.” His pecan-shell eyelids were shut, which made me wonder if he was talking in his sleep. “So maybe in the book you’re a hero.”
Lying atop the heap of paperbacks on the floor of my apartment, that lackluster volume acquired a kind of hoodoo significance, like the sword in the stone or the bow that only Odysseus could draw. If I tried to open the book again, I might find the covers as immovable as the jaws of a trap. Then again, the jaws, yawning wide, might snap shut to swallow me whole.
It was February in the city of Memphis, matte gray and damp, the city stinking to high heaven in the throes of a garbage workers’ strike. Plastic bags were piled in embankments on the sides of the streets like the body bags I’d have seen on the nightly news if I had a TV. Since much of my garbage was likely to accumulate in the apartment, and I was the only resident on the block, North Main Street was spared the mountains of refuse that burgeoned in other quarters. It smelled bad enough anyway, my street, what with its unflushed gutters and the fishy odor rising from the turgid river at the bottom of the bluff. The narrow two-story building I lived in, with its empty retail space on the ground floor, had been untenanted for years and probably should have been condemned. It stood on a corner next to an empty lot that bordered the jungle ruin of an old firehouse. My landlord, who was also my dealer, had purchased the building along with several others in the neighborhood with a view toward redevelopment, though nobody believed that would ever happen. In the meantime he’d had the street hooked up once again to the city’s power grid, so I had faucets that coughed cold water, radiators that exuded no more warmth than expiring animals, lightbulbs that flickered like distant stars. For these amenities I was charged only pennies a month, as long as I also showed myself willing to peddle the landlord’s unlawful wares.
The landlord, yclept Lamar Fontaine, liked to think of himself as an impresario. Toward that end he’d opened a seedy bar in another of his dilapidated properties directly opposite my apartment. My building and the bar were the only remaining signs of life on the street, unless you included the occasional raving derelict or river rat the size of a medicine ball. Because it had no name, the bar was referred to by its street address, the 348 North Main. Thanks to its reputation as a clearinghouse for all manner of illicit drugs, the 348 was a favorite port of call for what passed as the bohemian population of our provincial city. On any night of the week you were likely to see them: the knock-kneed, waifish girls with petals in their serpentine hair; the unshorn boys in leather vests and wire-rims, their glassy five-mile stares still visible through tinted lenses. You’d see me there too, guzzling Dixie beer and not-so-discreetly hawking Lamar’s merchandise.