My name is Camembert. Yes, like the cheese. I hate it, just like my father hated our last name, Rock. He thought it conjured up a wrestler or, for older people, a football coach. So he named me Camembert. “With a first name like that, no one will ever bother about your last,” he told me proudly. I hate my first name, so go by Cam. I’m Cam Rock. Now let me get on to the library. It is a rainy afternoon and I have volunteered for an hour a week reshelving books. I do this because for years I have taken books down and just left them on the table when I didn’t check them out. Time for a little payback. An hour a week, anyway. Besides, you get first shot at DVDs that have been returned. I have an armload of books in reverse Dewey Decimal System order, when my way between the stacks is blocked by a strange man. He is small, with a lopsided face, black hair, black eyebrows, black mustache.
It is Edgar Allan Poe. A little drunk, he asks, “Do you have something on the supernatural?”
You’re reading a book. It is the most exciting part of the story when your phone rings. The call is boring. You speak politely; the relative drones on. You are between worlds. Finally you manage somehow to end the call. But now the book seems to have disappeared. You can’t believe that this has happened to you. You are searching frantically. Then you lift a pillow on your bed and there it is. Only this is more like a chess game when someone moves a pawn to uncover an attack.
“Where are we going, Annabel Lee,” the swaying figure taunts me, as we make our way down the dark aisle toward the creepy back of the library. “To our kingdom by the sea?”
Suddenly, everything is clear (at least to me). I am playing chess hustlers, ex-cons, drug dealers, Russian pimps, foul-mouthed gamblers, big jokers, crafty players who lure passersby into a game for fifty-cents or a dollar in Washington Square Park. And my gambit? “The Cask of Amontillado.” My objective is simple: to attack and destroy. I drop my armload of books to be restacked.
“It’s just a little farther to go,” I tell my unsteady friend. “But observe the white spider webs that gleam from this cavernous passage.”
He turns and looks at me with eyes of rheumy intoxication.
“How long have you had that cough?” I ask.
“Ugh! ugh! ugh!—ugh! ugh! ugh!—ugh! ugh! ugh!”
The poor man finds it impossible to reply for many minutes.
“It is nothing,” he says at last.
“Come,” I reply, “we must go back, your health is important. You are respected, admired, beloved; you’re happy, as I should be. You are a man to be missed.”
“Enough,” he says, stumbling on. “This cough won’t kill me. I shall not die of a cough.”
“True, true,” I answer. “Drink.”
He pulls a pint bottle out of his back pocket and brings it to his lips. “I drink to the authors adorning these shelves.”
I, an unpublished author, remark, “See how the webs hang like moss upon a vault beneath the river and drops of water trickle along the walls.” I offer him my arm. He leans upon it heavily. We continue on. The remote end of the library is crypt-like. The walls are solid granite. The little man, finding his progress arrested by stone, stands bewildered. And then, in a drunken stupor, he slumps to the floor.
“Let me once more implore you to return,” I whisper to myself. “No, then I must leave you, but first…”
Here is when I begin taking books off the shelves and tier by tier build a wall. A wall that blocks him off from the rest of the world. Then I hear a low, moaning cry.
“The supernatural!” he screams.
When at last he stops, I resume the fifty-first, fifty-second and fifty-third levels of books. There is a succession of loud and shrill sounds bursting from the throat of the nearly-spent form. I hurry to complete the last tier of books. There comes a sad voice. The last words of Edgar Allan Poe.
“Ha! ha! ha!—we will have many a rich laugh over this at the palazzo—ha! ha! ha!—over wine—ha! ha! ha!”
“Over the Amontillado!” I say, then finish quickly. My heart grows sick. I force the last book in place. It is then I hear a woman’s voice and see her silhouette. Not Joan Behm, the librarian, but someone who looks and sounds like a librarian. Someone who might ask me how I’m coming reshelving books, but doesn’t. Instead Emily Dickinson says: “This is the Hour of Lead—Remembered, if outlived, As freezing persons recollect the Snow—First—Chill—then Stupor—then the letting go—”
John (Jack) Lehman is the founder and original publisher of Rosebud, as well as the editor and publisher of Lit Noir. A nationally published writer and poet with twenty-five years experience teaching creative writing, Lehman grew up in Chicago but now lives with his wife, Talia Schorr, and their many dogs and cats in Rockdale, the smallest incorporated village in Wisconsin.
cbr 19 / summer 2012
The Pale King
David Foster Wallace
Reviewed by Dwight Allen
the eelgrass meadow
Reviewed by Gay Davidson-Zielske
Unexpected Shiny Things
Reviewed by Gay Davidson-Zielske
Make it Stay
Reviewed by Bob Wake
A short story
Men without Meaning
A short story
Gerald Fosdal & Jack Lehman
An excerpt from the novel
Gerald Fosdal and Jack Lehman
Samuel Fuller was a good looking young guy who wanted to kill himself. That’s why, when he was released from the psych ward, Sarah’s husband gave him a free room above their bakery in town.
And mornings when she made her way into work about 10 a.m., Samuel would be sitting on the stairs just inside the back door.
The day before yesterday (one of those dreary March mornings) he said, “Remember that Woody Allen joke? ‘Not only is God dead but you can’t get an appointment with a dentist on a Saturday.’”
“Well if God is dead, I want to be dead too.”
“Now, Sam, you can’t mean that.”
“There’s a plant in a pot up in the window. Scraggly, like me. If that dies, it is a sign there is no God. That day will mark the end of me.”
The following night, while Sarah’s husband was away at work, there was a call from Samuel Fuller. He was drunk on gin lying in a bathtub full of weed killer. Intoxicated, but not dead. It didn’t seem to be doing anything to him except he was sick from the gin. That’s when Sarah decided, the next day at the bakery when she heard his footsteps going out, she would sneak upstairs and water the little plant.
You might wonder why Aaron, her husband, would put up with this. Sarah did at first. But as it turned out Samuel was the disenfranchised son of Aaron’s sister, Rose. Now Aaron’s relationship with that sister, while they were all part of a family living under one roof was complicated. Sarah knew because she listened to her husband recap the session he and Rose went through in family counseling a few years later.
“It is in one of those office-like buildings on a frontage road along the Beltline. The Christian Counseling Center. Not well marked. You had to know where you were going and Rose and I did.”
Aaron had heard about group rehabilitation meetings for children of alcoholics from a psychologist friend of his at church. Aaron hadn’t thought too much about it until he got a letter from Rose saying she wondered about herself after reading a book on the subject. “And about you too,” she had slyly added.
She had described how she felt tense, was always the one trying to make peace between her late husband and their teenage son.
“Aaron, like our father, don’t you bury yourself in work?” And, “Don’t you feel guilty, as I do?”
Ironically they, Aaron and Rose, were the ones who felt guilty. Had their demanding, controlling, god-like father transferred any blame onto them?
Sitting on the floor in the windowless room, the nine of them each hugging a pillow, Aaron had told how he had been sent to bring his dad home from the bar at night. How angry his mother had been if he succeeded, or if he did not succeed.
The facilitator looked at Rose, and asked, “How did you feel?”
“I don’t know. I looked up to my brother, Aaron. He was the oldest.”
“Show me. Show us,” the counselor said, grabbing a chair from the side of the room.
He motioned for Aaron to come, stand up on it, and Rose …
Rose got up and walked over to the chair, looking at Aaron perched on it.
Suddenly she fell to her knees and wrapped her arms around his ankles. She was crying.
“And you, Aaron,” the man demanded, “show us how you felt.
Slowly Aaron placed his hands over his ears and shut his eyes.
Now, so many years later, that is what he seemed to be doing to Sarah.
“I remember one night,” he said to her late in bed, “I was inside waiting for you to come back from something and I put my face against the cold window pane, and I was reminded of once when I was a child, maybe seven or eight, putting my cheek against the glass of our front window watching for my parents to come home.”
“I’m sorry,” Sarah replied. But she was thinking of Samuel Fuller, in his room, looking out his window. Being alone. Thinking of killing himself.
Here were two men. Men, who were the solution to each other’s problem. Sarah didn’t know the answer, but she knew if …, no when … they got together, the answer would emerge, just as the plant she had been watering now flourished.
“Hi,” Samuel said. “I don’t mean to disturb you. I just couldn’t sleep and the smell of oatmeal cookies baking at two in the morning pulled me down here.”
The windows were open though it seemed cold out. In fact the door was propped ajar by a square floor fan that was humming away. But the back room of the bakery seemed, well, cozy, and Aaron rolling dough on a wood counter so happy to be lost in his work. He nodded to the young man, but didn’t say anything.
“Isn’t it lonely here by yourself, I mean why do you work at night?” he asked the baker.
Aaron stopped and thought.
The walls were covered with grease from doughnuts and Samuel noticed they smelled slightly of mold. There was flour between the wide boards of the floor. Above, the plastic that covered the fluorescent tubes was a crusted yellow. But it was somehow welcoming. Outside the dark night smelled of blooming things which in some strange way complemented the aroma of baking bread.
“Want a cup of coffee?” Aaron asked. “It may be a bit stale.”
The nephew pulled a metal folding chair from the corner and sat down.
“How do you do this day after day?” he asked his uncle who handed him a white mug of coffee. The older man, himself, was sweaty and wore a dirty apron.
“I don’t know. There is sugar in the bin and then I mix it with eggs and flour and oatmeal, put them on pans and then into the oven. And when it’s over, when they are done, I take out the cookies and place them in a pyramid-like pile to cool.”
He continued, taking one of the cookies and offering it to the young man who stared at him. “When I was your age I couldn’t find anything I liked to do, then I discovered it was learning to like what you have to do that counts. When that happened, it was no longer my father telling me, it was doing something I liked because I liked it.”
And Samuel thought, that’s it. Eating an oatmeal cookie and appreciating it. Maybe that’s all the meaning I need; all the meaning I will ever get.
He ate the cookie. Drank from the coffee mug. Breathed in the air of a new spring.
In their bed, alone and asleep, Sarah smiled.
Gerald Fosdal was a baker for 50 years. Now retired, he lives in Rockdale, Wisconsin (on The Left Bank). This is his first published story.