by Arnold M. Herr
Several years earlier:
I had stopped by one afternoon to drop off an 11th edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica. Rupert Barnyogurt had asked for us to keep an eye out for the Handy Edition, a somewhat smaller format of the famed 11th edition, that took up less shelf space, although the type was also smaller than that in the standard format version and consequently, was harder to read. Which goes to prove, that you don’t get something for nothing.
Rupert’s gimlet-eyed neighbor lady was watering her gravel lawn as I pushed the three boxes with the books on my dolly around the side of Rupert’s house towards the covered patio where he worked and slept. The woman eyed me suspiciously; Rupert told me she looked at everyone that way, including her own children and grandchildren when they infrequently came by to visit her.
I found Rupert trying to rebind a book with a house-painter’s brush and a tubful of Elmer’s Glue, rich and creamy.
Rupert: I like the look of leather, but I no longer have the moola to buy a hide from bookbinder’s supply house.
Me: You could skin a cat. There’s more than one way to do it, you know.
Rupert: Nah, I like cats.
Me: So you’re using an old suede jacket.
Rupert: Buckskin actually, and the boards are an old Wheaties box. I don’t know what to do with the fringes though.
Me: Use them for bookmarks.
He slathered great gobs of glue onto the book with the large brush.
Me: Rupert, you’re making an unholy mess.
Rupert: Wait’ll it’s dry.
He placed the sopping heap in the microwave and set a cup of water on top of it. Then he closed the door.
Me: What’s the water for?
Rupert: My herbal tea.
He set the timer and let the oven run. A few minutes later it pinged and he opened the door. The water for the tea looked fine, but the book didn’t. I noticed it was a copy of Lectures by Robert Ingersoll. It was blistered, cracked and oozing. I wasn’t so sure Elmer’s was meant to be microwaved. Or that Colonel Ingersoll deserved that kind of treatment. Rupert set the cup aside and gently probed the buckskin eruptions on the book’s covers with a bone folder.
Rupert: Hmmm, interesting texture.
Me: I used to get that way after eating tomatoes.
Meanwhile, back in the now:
Mickey cleared his throat and that brought me back to the matter at hand: placing Rupert’s body next to his deceased mother, deep in the cluttered bowels of that colossal miasma of a house.
Me: This is pretty disgusting.
Mickey: I like it.
Me: You’re not normal.
Mickey: I have no gag reflex.
I spotted a can of lard atop a pile of old Life magazines; it had been opened but was covered with a plastic lid. Why lard? Why here?
Me: I wonder if he used this so he could slide through these tunnels.
Indeed, there was a wall of debris, detritus, sludge and slime. We saw openings of various sizes that seemed to veer off in different directions. During my previous visit the heaps were farther from the door; now there was very little room between the door and the heapage.
Mickey (pointing to the lard): I don’t wanna smear that stuff on me, but we could spread it on Rupert.
Me: That would mean undressing him…
Me: I’m not looking forward to this, Mickey.
Mickey: It’ll look good on your resume.
Me: Sure, when I apply for a job at Hollywood Forever Cemetery.
Without getting too graphic, Mickey and I unfurled Rupert from the golden curtain and covered him with lard using a trowel someone had thoughtfully left nearby. Mickey found a cordless drill with a soft buffing wheel on it and thought to hasten the process by whirling the lubricant into those hard-to-reach places.
Okay, moving right along: I bundled Rupert’s clothes together with some rope I grabbed off the floor while Mickey and I discussed ways and means.
Me: Let’s use the push-pull technique.
Mickey: What’s that?
Me: I’ll tie some of this rope under his arms and I’ll go in first and use it to pull him while you take up the rear and push.
Mickey was distracted for a moment by a book he had dislodged from the Wall of Wonder. It was a copy of S.J. Perelman’s Dawn Ginsberg’s Revenge.
Mickey: I wonder how Perelman would describe the present scene?
Me: I’m wondering how we’ll explain it to the cops if we get busted in here. Is that a first edition?
Mickey: No, it has the silver binding. That makes it a second. The first is green.
Me (shaking my head in wonderment): Mick, you’re astounding. Here we are moving a corpse and you’re citing bibliographic points on S. J. Perelman.
Mickey: My mind is capable of working simultaneously on many levels.
So Mickey and I pushed and pulled. We were crawling on our hands and knees, but it wasn’t too difficult getting Rupert through the viscera-like tunnel as long as we kept to the straightaways. It was only when came to the turns that it became a struggle. Tugging on the rope allowed me to use one hand for pulling and the other for holding the flashlight. But at the turns, I had to put down the light and use both hands to pull. Mickey had to push on Rupert’s ass, which was slathered with lard, and the less thought devoted to that aspect of our labors, the better.
It was hard to see; the flashlight was starting to dim and flicker, so to conserve the batteries, I would sight down the tunnels and turn off the light and try to remember the features and obstacles. We must have passed an opening with a window at some point, because a bit of pale moonlight filtered in. It was chilling and creepy. The walls of the tunnels were kinda moist and sticky in places, and I had the unpleasant sensation that they were sucking nutrients from us as we passed through.
After what seemed hours, but may have only been about five or ten minutes, we reached an opening in what had probably been a formal dining room. I’m only guessing here, but it was a large room with a portion of a dining table emerging from the rubble. There was a couch and several types of chairs, but that wasn’t the surprise. Rupert’s Mommy’s mummy HAD COMPANY! There were many mummies. Rupert had been a busy boy…and in a way, a good son. He had provided for his mother in her last years and also for her afterlife. Say what you will, but I’m willing to bet that mothers appreciate that kind of consideration from their children.
I shined the dim light around. It was a mausoleum filled with deceased former co-stars and character actors and actresses from Rupert’s salad days as a matinee idol in Hollywood during the 1950s. Mom and lots of old friends. Some were still recognizable…sort of. The weirdness was enhanced by the moving shadows created when I shifted the flashlight back and forth. The features on their faces seemed to change.
Me: Christ on a pogo stick!
Mickey: Do you think he did them in?
Me: I don’t know. They certainly weren’t here during my last visit. And yet some of them appear to have been dead a good, long time.
Mickey: Which means Rupert may have engaged in a bit of grave robbing.
Me: Mmm hmm.
Mickey: Well, I’m sure it’s all for a good cause…
In spite of the ghoulishness of the scene, we both smiled.
Mickey (pointing to Rupert): Now he’ll be among family and friends. I like him more now than I did while he was alive. By the way, have you noticed, it doesn’t stink too badly in here?
Me: Our senses are desensitized. We’ve been in the book business too long.
We stood silently for a short while, taking in the scene before positioning Rupert on the couch next to his mother. We draped his clothing over his sitting figure rather than struggling to dress him fully. Then we stepped back to admire our handiwork.
Me: Maybe we should say some words…
Mickey: Why, do you need comforting?
Me: No, I was just thinking of Rupert’s eternal repose…
Mickey: I was thinking of that collection of Dylan Thomas poetry I see over there.
Me: At a time like this, you’re thinking of looting the place?
Mickey: Can you think of a better time? I don’t know when I’ll be back.
Me: You planning on a return visit?
Mickey (gesturing to take in the silent group): You see anyone objecting?
Me: I’ll wait out in the van.
Mickey: Leave me the flashlight…and toss me those empty file boxes over there.
I emerged from the sphincter-like aperture inside the front door, which I opened carefully to see if the coast was clear. It was and I made my way to the van, crouched down in the driver’s seat and dozed off for a short while.
The bumping and fumbling at the side of the van jarred me awake and I saw Mickey struggling with a couple of file boxes filled with books. He got the side door open and stowed the boxes before I could get out to help him.
Mickey: Start the engine and get us out of here.
Me (looking around): Why? What’s up?
Mickey: I thought I saw a light come on in the gravel lady’s house.
And so, as the palm trees were silhouetted against the pink dawning sky, Mickey and I drove off through the quiet back streets of Hollywood. While waiting for lights to change, I would glance over my shoulder at the boxes of books in the back. Mickey was chuckling softly.
Mickey (to himself): Dylan Thomas, two Scott Fitzgeralds, Dylan Thomas, an original Nabokov butterfly watercolor. Ooooooooooooooh...
Next: Book scrounging in a Rolls-Royce.