Simon should have anticipated his downward spiral into perversion, deviancy and sexual waywardness. He should have understood that his first job out of college at a used bookstore in a small historic town would lead to that. But he didn’t. Looking back, he realized there were clues he’d ignored, and incremental thresholds that had been crossed, which he’d also failed to notice.
He’d met the store’s owner, a skinny, almost hairless guy, what he would later learn to identify as a “twig,” in an East Village bar. There’d been a reading by Jonathan Ames, an author Simon had discovered his senior year at Rutgers College. Ames, now a Manhattan fixture, had, at one time, lived in New Jersey, and in his collection, I Pass Like the Night, he’d set three stories in Princeton and two at Rutgers. The reading had been over for hours. It was late. Very late. Simon had been drinking Rusty Nails, too many too fast, and he’d lost track of time. Even if he took a cab to the station (which he could ill afford but sometimes did) he could no longer make the last train, the one forty-two, back to New Brunswick. The crowd had turned over several times since the reading, but a man he recognized from earlier in the night lingered still and now he sat on a stool next to him. They started talking, first about Ames, and then about Fitzgerald, who Ames, they both agreed, was sort of similar to. They soon discovered they were both from central Jersey, and, after he bought the man a round, Simon asked him, with uncharacteristic directness, for a ride back to New Brunswick.
“Sure. If you don’t mind me touchin’.” This was Clue One.
Simon was an anachronism. He tried to dress like a Fitzgerald character. But he mostly failed. On a good day he could resemble Gatsby’s Minnesota narrator Nick Carroway, had Carroway swam the Sound separating the two Eggs, rather than boating it. Indeed, even on the driest autumn afternoon, the briskest winter night, his hat brims and shirt collars, his cravats and pocket squares were limp, infused with a mysterious humidity, and now he fingered his flaccid paisley ascot and looked at the man sitting next to him. He hadn’t noticed how, well, to put it bluntly, how hideous the man was. A testament, Simon thought, to the man’s charm, his charisma. His skin was red and raw with a sort of rippled texture. As if it weren’t one piece laid over the meat of his face, the frame of his skull, but rather composed of many little pieces, like scales. His hair, which was very thin, had been dyed black and was shiny and hard like the back of a beetle. He wore a hooded sweatshirt that was too small, with nothing underneath. The zipped front pulled tightly at his chest, which was partially exposed and redder and rawer than his face.
The man smiled.
“It’s a joke,” he said. “I live in Metuchen, ten minutes north of New Brunswick.”
“Oh, right.” Simon now recognized the name as the station stop right before his on the Northeast Corridor train line.
“Actually, I have a shop there. In Metuchen. A used bookstore.”
The man’s eyes though black and beady, twinkled. They made Simon think of both a rat and Santa Claus.
“Whazzy cold?" Simon was quite drunk.
“Between the Covers.” The man stared wantonly at Simon, “It refers, of course, to a book.” He watched as Simon’s last gulp of Scotch fluttered down his throat and disappeared beneath his ascot. “Not a bed.” Clue Two.
Simon was poor. His family, who’d been initially excited at his early acceptance to college (he’d been only sixteen), became disappointed, then angry, at his academic performance. Not so much his grades, which were mostly good, but rather the fact that it had taken him seven years to finish. They’d broken off his allowance the middle of year six, and stopped paying his rent the beginning of year seven. And now, having graduated, he no longer had a meal plan. In short, Simon needed a job. By the time they’d reached Simon’s apartment in the Hungarian section of New Brunswick, the man, whose name was Quentin, had offered Simon two weekday shifts at his store.
Simon and Quentin became friends. It was a friendship built, predictably so, upon books, which they would discuss ardently, barely breaking to ring up customers, who were treated, more often than not, like bothersome distractions. Their accord was further enhanced by a shared interest in American Modernism, which they discovered almost immediately. Specifically, Hart Crane, an esoteric poet who, though highly influential, was frequently condemned as being incomprehensible. Next to the register Quentin had hung a framed photograph of the writer, with the caption: A Young Hart Crane in Sailor Garb. And so, Quentin would rattle on about the dice of drowned men’s bones, and Simon would talk about the corridor of shells, and the ignored customers would feel like outsiders, like uninvited guests, and would leave without buying a book.
Despite his newfound employment, Simon, who owed his landlord months of back rent, could not afford meals with any regularity and Quentin, though never offering to actually buy Simon an entire slice, frequently passed on his crusts (which he didn’t like and had previously tossed) to Simon, who, like a sea gull, ate them greedily. This was Threshold One.
By Disko Troop
To read the rest of The Young Hart Crane in Sailor Garb, you must wait patiently for volume two of The Raconteur Reader, due out Spring 2009.