Rare Books

Three Cheers and a Tiger ~ Silver
Ellen Wright

Photo Credit: Ben Leto

My uncle Robbie works for the NYPD, so even though I only eat over there once a week, I’ve gotten used to almost every dinner being interrupted by a murder or a robbery. Aunt Lauren insists that we eat together “as a family” which means putting everything in the fridge until he gets back closed-mouth and depressed and we choke down the congealed, cold remains.

On this particular day we’re nearly done eating when the phone rings so I start cramming big bites of mashed potatoes into my mouth. Lauren shoots me a look but I just keep eating while Robbie grunts a lot into the phone.

He comes back already wearing his coat. “Jules, I’ll take you home. I shouldn’t have to be there long, and it’s in your direction.”

“Dad lets me take the subway alone,” I say, but he ignores me. I swipe a couple cookies and stuff them in my backpack.

Leaving Robbie and Lauren’s apartment on the Upper East Side is always surreal. The halls and stairs and elevator gleam, and the doorman always smiles at us. It’s a far cry from my dad’s and my cramped walk-up in Alphabet City, whose staircases usually smell of pot and are stained with vomit and other things I don’t want to look at too closely.

Robbie hails a cab and pretty soon we’re zooming down Second Avenue. Neither of us feels like talking. I stare out the window at the buildings flashing by.

“We can get out here,” Robbie calls to the cabbie. We’re in front of a swanky hotel that I’ve never seen before. Robbie looks at me and glances around. “You’ll have to wait in the hallway,” he says finally. I know he’s thinking that Lauren will yell at him if he makes me sit out on the street.

“Sid, can you keep an eye on Jules?” Robbie asks when we get upstairs, not waiting for an answer before he brushes past us and starts talking to one of the detectives. People in uniforms are milling around everywhere, holding coffees and notebooks and talking very seriously. I exchange half-hearted waves with a few who’ve seen me before.

Sidney, a rookie cop who has been stuck on Jules duty before, greets me amiably enough, giving no hint that babysitting isn’t really his job.

“Whatcha reading these days, Jules?” he asks, but his heart isn’t in it.

What we both really want to be doing is eavesdropping on the investigation. In unspoken agreement, we meander closer to the open hotel room door. There’s a table over in that direction where a hassled-looking young woman is handing out coffees.

Sidney saunters up to the table. “Hey Liz, how about snacks for me and my friend here?” He nudges me and I blush, but Liz smiles kindly and hands me a cup of lukewarm coffee. I don’t really like coffee but I take a tentative sip so I’m not just standing there.

Robbie sacrifices himself and keeps distracting Liz while I concentrate all my attention on eavesdropping.

“This was on the body,” someone is saying.

I hear Robbie’s distinctive rumble in response.

“It’s some sort of poem” is the response. “It says—

There was an Old Man of New York,
Who murdered himself with a fork;
But nobody cried—
Though he very soon died—
For that silly Old Man of New York.”

“Edward Lear,” I mutter to myself. Sidney looks sharply at me but I shake my head and he goes back to distraction mode.

“Doesn’t make any sense to me,” Robbie says. “Suicide note?”

“My grandfather write poetry,” offers a distraught female voice. I lean a bit closer to the door and squeeze my eyes shut, concentrating. “Maybe that’s how he decided to say his good-byes…” Her words dissolve into muffled sobs.

“Hey, Jules,” Sidney says, and I open my eyes. Liz looks a bit angry. I know I’ve been too obvious and she’s going to tell me to go stand by the elevator, so before she can, I dash over to the open door.

“It’s not a poem!” I shout. “I mean, it is a poem, but it’s from a book by Edward Lear. He must have…” Then my eyes go past a shocked Robbie and a woman with tearstains on her face and a bandage on her arm and fall on the enormous man lying dead in an easy chair, clutching a fork covered in some brown substance. His eyes are closed but his face looks like he’s in so much pain.

“Jules!” Robbie yells. Behind me, Sidney is apologizing. Robbie stalks towards me and drags me away from the room and out of the hotel. Outside he hails another cab. He doesn’t even yell, that’s how upset he is.

“Mom used to read the book to me,” I offer a few blocks of silence. “A Book of Nonsense by Edward Lear. I liked that one because we live in New York.”

He doesn’t respond.

“Do you think the granddaughter did it?” I ask after some more silence.

“What?!” Robbie exclaims. He’s really shocked. “What makes you think that?”

“Well, if you were dying and you ripped a page out of a book,” I explain, “you probably wouldn’t have time to put the book back on the shelf, but she pretended there was no book. Maybe the book had evidence and she threw it out so you wouldn’t find it.”

My queasiness about seeing a dead person is now entirely replaced by this idea. Robbie, on the other hand, now looks ill.

“Jules, if the man was trying to tell us anything it was that he was sad and wanted to end his life. Maybe that book gave him comfort at the end.”

I can tell Robbie doesn’t want to talk about it anymore, so I fall silent, but I’m still thinking about it. I’m thinking, if I’d murdered my grandfather and there was a book that might lead the police to me, what would I do with it? If I just threw it in the trash they might find it. And then I know I have to find out what the next limerick in the book is. Maybe it’ll be something like—

There once was a young woman who—

and then I’ll know it was the granddaughter.

Robbie doesn’t say anything when we pull up in front of my apartment but I know I’m still in the doghouse. I run up three flights of smelly stairs and unlock the two padlocks on our front door. Dad’s sitting on the couch watching Reservoir Dogs like he’s going to be quizzed on it.

I go to bed but I can’t sleep, staring into space and thinking about poems and forks and Edward Lear. The light of the TV from the living room dances on my ceiling all night long.

The next morning I get up early. The TV is still on and Dad has fallen asleep in front of it. I shower and make some cereal really quietly. It’s Saturday so the buses won’t be running very frequently. I weigh my options and decide to walk the mile to the Strand since it’s not raining.

Mom’s copy of A Book of Nonsense disappeared a long time ago. I think Dad got rid of most of her books after she died, excepting the few I was able to sneak into my room. I’m determined to find a copy and figure out what the next limerick is, in case it points to a killer—the granddaughter or someone else.

Usually I try to avoid the clerks at the bookstore but today I need help. I approach the skinny guy who’s standing just past the notebooks and new fiction and he smiles at me.

“I’m—I’m looking for a book?” I stutter and his smile widens.

“We’ve got plenty of them here,” he jokes.

“It’s by Edward Lear? A Book of Nonsense?” I add weakly, wishing everything didn’t sound like a question.

He leads me over to one of the computers and punches it in, then points out the right aisle.

I find the book and sit down in the middle of the aisle to read it. It isn’t a very long book, so it doesn’t take long before I realize I’ve reached the end and I haven’t seen the one about New York and the man with the fork. I flip back to the beginning and read it again, more carefully this time, but it still isn’t there.

Two employees happen along just as I finish. The guy says, “Hey, you’re not allowed to sit in the aisles.”

I scramble to my feet. “I—I have a question,” I say, and he raises an eyebrow. I hold up the book. “I’ve been reading this, but it’s missing pages. I mean, there aren’t any pages torn out or anything,” I add hastily, afraid they’ll blame me, “but there are poems that I remember being in it that aren’t in here.”

“Oh,” says the girl. “It’s a different edition. There were more illustrations in the first two editions, and that one’s the later one. I like Lear, too.”

“Do you have the other one?”

“We might have it up in the rare book collection. It’s pretty expensive…”

“It’s pretty important,” I say, barely louder than a whisper. She glances at the guy, who shrugs, and takes pity on me. I’ve never been up in the rare books collection before. I look around me with awe as I follow her.

“I remembered it because we just got this copy in,” she says, placing it carefully on the table in front of me. “Did you remember that there’s a poem about New York in it? That was always my favorite…” She rifles through the pages just as I did downstairs, with the same expression when she comes to the end and it isn’t there.

“Maybe… it’s been torn out?” I suggest.

We go through page by page, and to my immense excitement find a ragged edge in between two of the pages.

“Whoa,” she says. “That’ll bring down the price. It’s in good condition otherwise.”

I would argue with her—it smells musty and you can barely turn the pages without breaking them—but I’m too eager to see the next poem. I sit down and open the book wide to that page. It says:

There was an Old Person of Chili,
Whose conduct was painful and silly;
He sat on the stairs,
Eating apples and pears,
That imprudent Old Person of Chili.

I sit back, disappointed. I can’t make any sense of it at all. But maybe Robbie or one of the other cops can?

“I need to take this with me,” I tell her. “It might be important evidence.”

“Slow down, kiddo,” she says with a smile. “It’s still worth a couple thousand dollars, even damaged. This is a very rare first edition.”

I call Robbie, hysterical. “I found the book!” I say. “I found the book and the page is torn out but the next page doesn’t make any sense and she sold it so she must have been…”

To Robbie’s credit, he doesn’t tell me to shut up or to forget about the case, he just says he’ll be here as soon as he can.

I’ve calmed by the time he arrives. He looks angry but I jump right into my explanation. “She must have sold the book,” I say. “She knew there was evidence in it and she couldn’t throw it out, and maybe she knew it was expensive. It’s worth a couple thousand dollars,” I add. “But I can’t make sense of the next limerick in it. Maybe you can or…” We flip to the torn-out page and he inspects the ragged edge. Unlike the rest of the pages in the book, the one about Chili is stained with dark trails. I wonder if it’s the same thing that was on the dead man’s fork, if he spilled that last meal on this page.

“Jules…” he says and trails off, closing his eyes.

“Did you find out something more?” I say suspiciously.

“Yes,” he says. “He died from poison. If he committed suicide, we should have found the bottle by now, but we haven’t.”

I’m reeling but he just stands up and flashes his badge. “I need to take this with me,” he tells her, and she actually lets him.

Three days later, I’m microwaving canned spaghetti when Robbie calls. I tuck the phone under my chin and stick one bowl on the side table next to my dad’s spot on the couch.

“I can’t believe it,” he says, sounding tired but with a smile in his voice, “but you were right. There was evidence in the book.”

“The poem made sense?!” I ask excitedly, sloshing tomato sauce over the brim of my bowl.

“Not exactly,” Robbie says. “Those stains on the page turned out to be the granddaughter’s blood. We also found her blood on the fork the dead man was clutching. He must have realized that she’d poisoned him and attacked her.”

I’m stunned. I remember, vaguely, that the granddaughter had a bandage on her arm when I saw her sobbing next to her grandfather’s still body.

“What happened to the book?” I ask after a moment.

“We had to take out the other page to analyze the stains,” he says hesitantly. “It’s not worth as much anymore, and we’ll have to keep it for the trial, but… would you like to have it, after that?”

So I don’t have my mother’s copy any more, and I don’t have the poem about New York, but the book is sitting on my bookshelf in a place of honor next to my desk. It reminds me of my mom, and the dead man whose last thought was probably of it, but it’s not really morbid. It reminds me that books are meaningful, even if not always in the way you expect.


Ellen Wright lives in New York and works in publishing. Email: ellenbwright[at]gmail.com

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