The Value of Work

Once upon a time there was a very lazy fool. He loafed all day, and he loafed all night, and he begged in the alleys, and he picked through the gutters in the street for a few scraps. Anyone who tried to employ him was soon disppointed, as he was too stupid to do much of anything right, and even the simplest tasks wore him out and made him fall fast asleep.

Those that hired him regretted it later, and so the lazy fool was sent packing in quick succession, job after job. He soon found himself cast from the village, the other villagers throwing rotten eggs and tomatos at him if he stayed, or chasing him around and beating him with sticks.

So out to the forest he went, although he was too foolish to even bewail his sorry lot.

“Oh, I like it out here alone,” he thought instead. “It is so peaceful, so tranquil, and no one throws stones at me, or chases me away!”

And the sorry fool sat down and began to pick up scrub brush and old sticks with which to build a fire. (He had brains enough for this. Otherwise, when unoccupied, he was usually content to sit and pick wild flowers, staring like the fool that he was into empty space. When asked his thoughts by passersby, he couldn’t reply; for you see, he hadn’t any.)

Soon it began to get very cold, and it was very damp. In time, the fool leaned over on his elbow, and began to feel very sleepy. But he was too hungry to sleep; so, his stomach rumbling around disconsolately, he got up and began to forage for seeds and nuts.

After awhile, with the sun dipping low in the horizon, he realized he wasn’t going to have any luck. He began to feel very sorry for himself, and, as tears began to well up in his eyes, he bemoaned his sorry fate, exclaiming, “Oh, woe is me! Woe is me! For I am hungry, and there is nothing to eat! I am thirsty, and there is nothing to drink! I am cold and tired, too, and there is no soft place to lay my head, and no blanket to keep me warm! oh, whatever should I do? If only I had a little money! If only I had learned the value of work, I wouldn’t be in this predicament!”

And with that, he fell to weeping. It was a moment later, though, that he heard a voice say, “Thou fool! why weepest thou?”

And he looked up, and saw the most spectacular thing that he had ever seen in his rather unspectacular life.

It was an angel, breathing fire and waving a sword that shone like a tongue of flame. The fool covered his eyes with his arms, and exclaimed, “No! No! Please, don’t show yourself in that form. It is too wonderful and terrible for me to stand!”

And the angel, realizing that this was indeed the case, suddenly changed form again, so that he wore a relatively normal skin of human flesh, complete with tattered clothes and worn-out hobnailed boots (as if he had been traveling long and hard. Which, to be honest, he rather had).

“Fool!” he said, pointing one thorny old finger in the Fool’s face, “I have heard your complaint, and smelled your despair, and listened to your belly rumble like stones in a sluice. So I have been sent by Him to alleviate your suffering and show you the way. For, it is well known in all of heaven and earth that a man who does not know the value of work shall go hungry and be sore beset. But a man who KNOWS the value of work will never, ever go far wrong.”

Well. at this the fool found himself perplexed, and not a little frightedned. What, pray tell, did the Angel mean? he wanted to ask. That he should be put to work doing the same awful things he hated, over and over again? It seemed as if that was what he was saying.

“Beggin’ your pardon, sir, but, I’m a little confused as to what you could possibly mean. How, by the by, am I to be taught such a thing?”

At this, the Angel replied: “Why, the thing is simplicty itself! Here…”

And he produced, seemingly from thin air, a great coat, which was green and gold, and only had one tremendous pocket on the side.

“Whenever you reach into the pocket of this coat, you will produce exactly two klopins. You can do this only once a day, and you must not keep whatever money remains after you have purchased food and drink. You may not sleep in an Inn, you may not sleep in a warm bed; you must not tarry in house or shop, and you must, under no circumstances, give any of your extra money away. You simply thrust your hand into your pocket each day, to retrieve your paltry earnings, and you spend what you have; ALL of what you have, wherever you are. Then, you move on.”

And, upon hearing this, the Fool scquealed with delight, and taking up the coat, put it on himself and said, “Oh! Fortune has surely smiled upon me! For, I thrust my hand into my pocket, and out comes money enough for bread and meat! And it shall really be so, day after day? Forever?”

“Aye,” nodded the angel. “It shall be so. Until you have learned the value of work from the penury of idleness.”

And the Fool, who must have thought fortune had finally smiled upon him, bent, and bowing to the angel, exclaimed again and again his comlplete and utter gratitude. The angel said, in turn, “Take heed! Thou mayest not thank me for such a gift, once thou has learned the value of work.”

And with that, he disappeared.

The merry fool, now adorned in his great coat, took off happily down the dirt trail through the trees. Shortly he came to a village inn, a place he remembered he must not sleep or tarry long. He was, however, hungry, so he went inside and addressed the fat, huffing and puffing innkeeper thusly:

“Oh sir, I have traveled this way and that way, and up and down and all around, and hither and thither and yon. Might I not have a good hot meal and a mug of ale, to fill my belly and parch my thirst?”

And the innkeeper, about to turn away the mouldy, strange tramp, instead thought better of it and asked: “Well, do you have any money?”

To which the fool replied, “Oh, certainly. Here, here are two klopins. Will that be sufficient for a good meal and a mug of ale?”

And the innkeeper, seeing the tramp’s arm thrust out, and two shiny klopins upturned in his palm, said slowly, a grin cracking across his face, “Why, certainly, sir! One klopin will be sufficient. That’s the price I charge.”

At first, upon hearing this, the fool was overjoyed. Then he began to be dismayed. He said, “Oh, but I really must insist upon paying TWO klopins for the meal. As, you see, I must spend my two klopins every day exactly, as I am wearing a magic coat that was given to me by an angel. And the angel saith,’Spend thus thy two klopins daily, and take none of the difference with thee, lest thou lose thy bread and meat, and then thou shalt NEVER know the value of work.'”

But, upon hearing this, the innkeeper began to feel troubled, for he did not want to earn a reputation in the neighborhood as a man who would cheat a poor, foolish, mad beggar. So he said, “Sorry, sir! But I cannot possibly charge a man TWO klopins when one , most certainly, would suffice! Perhaps you had better spend the other klopin on a bed for the night!”

But the fool realized he could not do this. he began to feel sorely troubled, and said to himself, “Oh! This free money business is not all it’s cracked up to be! perhaps I would have been better off if someone would have taught me the value of work, instead of giving me this magic cloak wherein I must spend two klopins, and exactly two klopins, every single day!”

And, with that, he fell to foolish weeping. Overhearing him, a man that had been drinking at a nearby table sauntered over and said, “Sir, if you’ll allow me to introduce myself, my name is Gunnar, and I couldn’t but help overhearing your poor lament to the innkeep. If it is money you are looking to divest yourself of, then I, most certainly, am your man!”

And with that, he held out one long, dirty hand as if to implore the fool for his single klopin. At hearing this, the fool recoiled in horror, remembering the angel’s warning that he couldn’t, under any circumstances, give his money away.

“Oh no, sir!” excalimed the fool. “I certainly couldn’t do that! But, I suppose, if thou art agreeable, I could buy thee something, and that wouldn’t violate the terms of my ownership of this magnificent, magical coat. Look, I’ll buy you a bed for the night; for, I, myself, am not allowed to lie in a bed, or sleep in an inn, or tarry long in hamlet, village or town.”

And the man, looking at him askance, nonetheless agreed to what he said, and went upstairs to his slumber.

Well the fool, noting that it was raining, and, not liking to get soaked from head to foot, but, likewise, having no good place to sleep, spent the dark, thunderous night walking around and around the inn, seeking the scant shelter of the awning against the storm, cursing his luckless and sorry lot in life, and wondering at the irony of having a coat that gave him two klopins daily, yet, could provide for so few of his many, many needs.

“I tell you, it is simply not fair!” he wailed, soaking wet and shivering.

“I have a coat that gives forth money from its pocket; yet, to use it, I must never do this, and always do that, and never take this much, and always take that! Oh, how in the world is this supposed ot teach me the VALUE OF WORK?”

Unbeknownst to the fool, the man whose room he had paid for was a notorious bandit captain, a highwayman of ill-repute. Upon conferring with his gang, he had informed them, “There is a man about the grounds of this inn with a coat full of klopins. Come, let us murder him, and sieze his coat, and the money will be ours!”

And these ruffians and scoundrels, none of them EVER having learned the value of work, hid amidst the trees and shrubs, and swiftly moved, as the fool was stomping in the mudd and cursing his luck, to waylay him.

They cornered him in the dark, and began to beat him savagely, all the time exclaiming, “Give us that coat, you scoundrel! Give us that coat!”until finally, they managed to rip it off of him.

They went through the pockets in search of the klopins they thought to be hidden there. But, sure enough, as the fool was the only one that could reach into those pockets for money, and thus make the magic work, they came up huffing and puffing and angry as hornets…but empty-handed for all that.

The biggest of them, who had mangled the coat in his heavy, dirty fingers, spat in disgust before throwing the thing in the bushes. The three men then beat a hasty retreat into the darkness, leaving the fool a poor, beaten husk to bleed all over the wet, muddy ground.

“Oh!”, he said to himself, madly, “Woe is me! Woe is me! Here I grovel in the mud! here I welter in my blood! And my belly is rumbling, and my nerves are jangling, and my head feels like a crushed egg! And I still have yet to learn the VALUE OF WORK!”

And, weeping bitterly, he went into the bushes to fetch his magic coat.

He wandered through the forest the whole of that long, wet, miserable night, until he came to the gates of a city. At the gates, a little watchman in a booth guarding the entrance, came forward.

Looking at the poor, bedraggled wretch before him, the gatekeeper, twirling his moustache with one absent-minded hand, said, “And, who, might I ask would you be? And from where, my good man, comest thee?”

The fool said, “Oh, sir! I have been most terribly, terribly used. Three ruffians, such as in the story of Hiram Abiff, came forward and beat me savagely! They left me to lie in the mud, bleeding, and then ran away!”

The gatekeeper, upon heraing this bit of intriguing news, then replied, “And why, pray tell, did they do this?”

To which the fool, being hungry and tired, and also, still quite the fool, answered truthfully, “Because of my magic coat, you see! This coat was given to me by an angel, so that I might some day, he said, learn the value of work.

Well, every morning, at sunup, when I reach into this pocket, I can retrieve two klopins–no more, no less. And I must spend both of them each day, and keep nothing in return, and I cannot give them away to a friend or foe, nor can I sleep in a bed, nor can I tarry long in town or village. Those are the terms of my peculiar service.”

The gatekeeper, still twirling his moustache, said, “Rough terms indeed. Tell me: What do you plan to do while you are visiting our quaint little town of Bergsberbagenbeeck?”

To which the fool replied, “Oh, sir! I am wounded and hurt, hungry and tired to my bones. If I could just curl up on a mat of straw, outside of some kitchen, in an alley, and be fed a little, and perhaps have my wounds dressed by the beggars and street orphans, I shall be a happier man indeed.”

And the gatekeeper considered all of this, and after twirling his moustache a bit more, said, “Well, we have very special laws here, my unfortunate friend.

No one enters or leaves who doesn’t either have business with us, relatives that live here and own bakeries and shops, or is not a citizen himself.

However, for a small fee, ALL of these conditions can be overlooked…”

And the fool, not a bit surprised at hearing this, and delighted that he might buy his way through the city gates and thus find himself something to eat, asked, “How much, then, is the price of admittance?”

The gatekeeper, laughing, said, “THREE klopins.”

The fool felt his heart sink dismally into his stomache. His bruised, battered face became even more downcast. He stated flatly: “I-I only have two.
Until sunup. I’ll die of hunger before then.”

And laughing, the gatekeeper produced, from the hidden corner of the little booth, something long and terrifying he had hidden there.

“Ah, well, then, since you have only two-thirds of the fee, I suppose only two-thirds of you should thus be able to enter!”

And the mad gatekeeper swung a brilliant silver axe brutally down on the fool’s left shoulder.

The Fool, foolish as he was, was yet quick enough to dodge the blow. He jumped out of the way of the madman’s swing; but not so soon enough that he didn’t lose his left ear, like the Roman soldier come in the Gospels to arrest Christ, who was set upon by St. Peter.

There was no one, alas, to attach the poor fool’s ear back to the side of his head, and so, holding the bleeding wound where his ear had formally been, he took off into the trees, howling in agony, cursing his fate and declaring, “Woe is me! Woe is me! For, I have been starved, beaten and had my ear chopped off, all because of this magic coat and my two free daily klopins! Oh, if only I had been a better man, and studied my arithmatic, and learned my letters, and read my grammar! If only I had applied myself! If only someone, at some point, had taught me the VALUE OF WORK!”

And, not having any other way to staunch the blood, he ripped up the right leg of his trousers, and making a sort of bandage about his head, trudged through the murk in misery and despair.

Finally, he began to smell a delicious aroma, and following the lure of his grumbling stomache, finally came to the door of a weird, squat, mushroom-like dwelling that seemed to be half-sinking into the earth. It was round and the roof seemed to be of thatch; which must, he knew, be frightfully bad at keeping the rain out. At any rate, peering in through one of the windows, he saw a great fat woman, with a crooked, beak-like nose, and warts all over her greasy, sweating chins–not to mention a cocked, gleaming yellow eye–working feverishly at a stove. She was baking what he took to be meat pies, and there were a mound of pie fillings in front of her on the sideboard.

His stomache grumbling miserably for food, he finally decided to swallow his fear and, knocking a little pitter-patter on the wooden door, stood back, looking afright, to wait for the old woman to answer.

A few moments later she came, huffing and puffing, to the door. He saw then that she was even uglier and more frightening than what he at first supposed; but, as he was starving nearly to skin and bones, and bleeding to boot, he said, “Oh, Missus, I have been most dreadfully used! I have been starved, beaten, and nearly had my head chopped off by a man that took my ear, instead! I am here bleeding and starving, and, smelling the wonderful pies you are baking, the aroma wafting all through the dense, thick forest trees. I could not help but smell the delicious, oh so delicious aroma, of your baking meat pies.”
And turning his face upward at the wooden sign hanging from the entrance way, which had inscribed upon it a rather curious dragon’s head, and the words, “Mamie’s Magnificient Meat Treats,” he said, “Missus, you must be Mamie. I’m…”
But before he could say another word, the great, fat, ogreish woman put her balled-up little fists on her massive hips, puffed air loudly through her nose, sighed, and said, “Well, aren’t you a fright, luv? My, my, someone’s really gone and done a number on you! I suppose you’ll be wanting a few scraps with which to fill your belly, huh? Well, get in here and start mopping up, then! This isn’t a charity, after all! If you want something to eat, you’re going to have to toil for it, day and night. Maybe after that a beggar such as yourself will FINALLY know the value of work!”

And so he went quickly inside, saying “Thank you , missus! Oh, thank you!”; and he was really sincere, and wept tears of joy as she thrust a mop into his hand, and set him to work.

He toiled day and night, night and day; but his reward was to be bathed and fed cold porridge and leftover pie, so it was rather happily he toiled, and, thanking his lucky stars, he got on his knees that night and, folding his hands and raising his head to Heaven, exclaimed, “Oh thank you, Lord! Thank you! For, have I not been a profligate wanderer, sore beset, and hast not thou seen fit to bting me to this humble abode, all the better to reprove and chastise me, and to, finally, teach me the VALUE OF WORK?”

And so the days turned into a week. Once a day, the old woman Mamie would trundle her cart of pies out the door and down the hill, huffing and puffing through the glade, and past the brook, and to the city gates, to sell her meat pies to the passersby in the streets of dusty, dirty, down-at-the-heels Bergsberbagenbeeck.

The fool would sometimes accompany her; but, on those busy days when there was too much to clean up, he would stay behind and tidy the place, clean the oven, sweep the floors, and suchlike.

Well, the fool could enter and leave any room in the place as he saw fit, but Mamie cautioned him against going into one room, a room with a strange little round, yellow door.

“You aren’t to ever go into that room, under any circumstances,” she said, wagging her finger in his face and cocking her great, rheumy eye at him. “If I ever catch you going into that room, why, you’ll be out the door and on your own in no time!”

And, because the fool most certainly didn’t want that, he obeyed her wish.

This day, however, his curiousity about that room was running very high. He stopped at the door, considered the little yellow brass nob, rubbed his chin thoughtfully.

“Hm. I wonder what could be in there that’s so important she doesn’t want me to see. Could it be treasure?”

And then he thought out loud:

“Well, she’s gone. If I take just one little peek inside, how will she ever know?”

And then the fool, because he was a very great fool, had the little brass knob in hand, and was turning it before he could stop himself. He threw open the door, and walked inside, letting his eyes adjust to the darkness. What he saw astounded him.

It was a heaping help of mangled DEAD, bodies that had been chopped to pieces! And some of them seemed to be pretty recently killed!

“My word! This woman is killing people and turning them into …her magnificent mincemeat pies!”

And, the horror of the whole thing overwhelming him, he flew from the room and closed the door.

His brain raced madly when he saw that Mamie was standing in the front door, her fists balled at her hips, with a vexatious look on her face.

“Well, well, well…” she began to coo. “I leave for just a few moments, and, sure enough, you’ve gone and done the one thing I told you NEVER to do! You’ve been in the room, haven’t you? Seen the bodies, didn’t you? Know the secret, don’t you? Sure, I kidnap travelers, waylay them on the road at night. Then, I bring them back here, and then I butcher them like hogs! I steal everything they have with them, then I ties them down, I do, and cut off strips of their flesh I do, piece by piece. Then, I take those strips of flesh and fat to bake into my delicious pies! And, do you know what? Folks around these parts love ’em. Think they’re venison, they do! Why, one big fat man comes and buys one every day, and stuffs it into his big, fat piehole, and lets the juice dribble down his fat chins! No one suspects that what they are really eating ain’t venison at all, but their fellow friends and neighbors, what were unlucky enough to run into me as they traveled the lonely forest roads!”

And as she started to speak a funny thing began to occur. Her eyes grew red and bulging, and her face seemed to swell like a balloon, as if it would suddenly pop. Her teeth grew long and jagged, and hung out of her mouth, and her tongue, which the fool saw to his horror was forked, like a snake’s, began to slither and whip about in the air.

Terrified, the fool grabbed the first object he could lay his hands on: a heavy rolling pin.

The ghoulish woman, now swelled to the size of a terrible, growling hog, suddenly leapt toward the fool, her curling, claw-like fingers twisted into talons, as if to tear his throat.

The fool brought the heavy rolling pin down on the bloated old monster. He must have hit exactly the right spot, too, as she exploded like a massive baloon, making quite an unappetizing mess all over the walls and ceiling.

The fool had no idea what to do now. In a panic, thinking he could hear the approach of local forest rangers, he began to stuff the remains of the monstrous old woman into a huge pie tin he found lying about–one that was really quite oversized. He grabbed a cleaver and began to cut the big parts into littler parts. Then, an idea struck him:

“Well, I shall just bake her up into a huge pie, just as she has done to all the others. and then I will trundle the cart out to the city gates, announce myself, be invited in…and sell portions of the huge pie to all her usual patrons. And then I will, truly, understand the value of work!”

And the fool, being such a damnable, daft fool, he actually thought this to be a good idea, started tossing celery and carrots, potatoes and onions and other suchlike into the pot, and then went and began to spread the dough for crust.

Soon, he had made a thorough mess, but he managed to put into the huge, black iron oven the massive pie tin. His only foolish misdeed wa, that the legs of the ghoulish old woman were still plainly visible poking out of the top of the pie.

He baked until he felt it was sufficiently done, then, huffing and heaving and sweating, pulled the scorching hot meat pie from the oven. Even he was astounded at just how big it was.

“The biggest meat pie in all of the land!” he exclaimed to himself, with some sense of wonder. “Why, perhaps it is the biggest meat pie that ever was since the world began.” He then added, with some sens of pride, “Truly, today, I have finally begun to learn the value of work.”

He huffed and puffed and sweated, and finally got the enormous pie onto the pie cart. He then trundled the cart to the city gates, where the gatekeeper, who had previously cut off his ear, looked at him with some sense of wonder. But, since the pie cart was allowed in every day, come rain or shine, he opened the gate and gave the fool entrance, without question.

The fool walked through the city streets until he came to the market place. People ogled and goggled, and little children laughed and pointed, thinking the enormous pie with the two fat legs sticking out (still wearing their striped stockings and pointy-toed leather shoes) was some sort of prank. The fool assured them that it was not. Soon, wary customers began to saunter up, and the fool was only too happy to cut sections of the pie off for his customers, charging them each a single klopin.

“Oh,” said the fat man, who was a regular customer. “It’s so good!”
“Yes,” said another. “It’s always a real treat to come eat here!”
“My, I think I’ll have another!” said a third. But, then, someone in the crowd began to choke.

People began to slap him on the back. Finally, the person spat up what it was that had been lodged in their throat. it fell to the cobbles with a rattle-clatter.

Curiously, the crowd bent low to examine the strange object the eater had been choking on. Then the choking man exclaimed, “Why, it’s a bloomin’ ring! A wedding ring! How did a wedding ring get into my pie?”

And then, as if they suddenly realized that the two fat, stockinged legs hanging from the top of the pie crust were not simply some prank, it dawned on them that they had been eating whoever had owned those legs previously. People threw down their pie tins in the street, and began to wretch and be really sick. After a few moments of this though, they decided they were going to lynch the fool.

Running in terror for his life, the fool turned into an alley, realizing when it was too late that it lead to a dead end. He was finally backed up against a wall when–

“Hey, what’s all this then?”

Two Peelers came around the corner, swinging their nightsticks, dispersing the crowd. The angry, sickened people all began to shout at once, something the two lawmen were not prepared for. Not being able to make heads nor tails of the crowd’s complaint, they arrested the fool, and tossed him into jail.

The fool sat in his cell miserably. “Oh, woe is me! Woe is me! For, despite me having a magic coat that will give me two klopins every day, I have been beaten and starved, had my ear chopped off, slaved for a ghoul who nearly killed me, and have been chased by an angry mob! Now, I have been cast into prison, and I don’t know if I shall ever, ever get out! And I still have not learned the value of work!”

And he began to sob miserably into his arm. Soon, though, he remembered his magic coat, which he still wore, tattered and ripped and threadbare though it now was. He reached into the pocket and retrieved the two farthings. Then, going to the bars of his cell, he called forth the jailer, and said, “Oh, I have here a coat, a magic coat! Why, you see, every day at sunup, I reach into it and I get two klopins to spend any way I see fit. And the two klopins are always there, every day, so that I might have the money I need, and never, ever have to learn the value of work. Would it be worth your while to have such a coat, my friend? If so, just let me loose from this dungeon cell, and it is all yours!”

The guard looked troubled at hearing all of this, but he took the klopins, and went out to find his superior. In time, a tall man in a pointed hat with a wide brim came in the door of the jail. He trailed behind him a large cloak, and the fool, foolish though he was, recognized him in an instant as the Grand Inquisitor–a man of terrible and stern aspect.

Upon looking at the prisoner, the Inquisitor spat, “Thou fool! If thou woudst have simply remained quiet, thou wouldst surely have gotten away with thy mischief; for, no one could PROVE that thou did anything more than bake a pie. Not a single witness could prove murder against thee. Now, however–”

And the Grand Inquisitor grew very grave and stern, and his eyes flashed with righteous fire.

“Now, thou hast confessed to owning a magic cloak, meaning that thou practiceth witchcraft, a devilish art. Dost thou know the penalty for practicing witchcraft in this fair city of ours, my friend? It is DEATH. And thou hast confessed!”

So it was less than a fortnight later that the fool was lead out to the gallows, to the cheers and jeers of the toothless, stinking peasant crowd, who threw rotten eggs and vegetables and spat at him and waved their fists; and he was no closer to knowing the “value of work” than when he began his fool’s journey to rack and ruin.

After he was good and dead, his body was cut down, and his magic cloak was cast upon a heap of rubbish taken from other prisoners, all of whom had been hung.

And after that, no one knows.

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The Dog and the Cook – Aesop

A RICH MAN gave a great feast, to which he invited many friends and acquaintances. His Dog availed himself of the occasion to invite a stranger Dog, a friend of his, saying, “My master gives a feast, and there is always much food remaining; come and sup with me tonight.” The Dog thus invited went at the hour appointed, and seeing the preparations for so grand an entertainment, said in the joy of his heart, “How glad I am that I came! I do not often get such a chance as this. I will take care and eat enough to last me both today and tomorrow.” While he was congratulating himself and wagging his tail to convey his pleasure to his friend, the Cook saw him moving about among his dishes and, seizing him by his fore and hind paws, bundled him without ceremony out of the window. He fell with force upon the ground and limped away, howling dreadfully. His yelling soon attracted other street dogs, who came up to him and inquired how he had enjoyed his supper. He replied, “Why, to tell you the truth, I drank so much wine that I remember nothing. I do not know how I got out of the house.”

IF…

There was once a used bookstore just off of the Marion bypass. It was located in a little cul-de-sac, beyond a gravel parking lot, catty-corner with another shop I can’t quite remember. The bookstore was called Redbeard’s books. I didn’t know it at the time, but I would, thirty years later, use a digital publishing platform on something called the “Internet” to sell books by an author named Redbeard. But, I couldn’t have foreseen that at the time.

It was the typical, cramped little place, and very dim inside. Back then, my mother use to wait patiently while I combed video shops (those carried videocassette tapes, which are now essentially museum relics. Back in those days, there were specialty shops on every corner, catering to your particular taste in VHS.) and little junky bookshops. Often, she just sat in the car. Thank God for the patience of mothers.

All I remember of it, from thirty years on, is that the screen door opened up on to two rooms, one where a sort of fat hippie sat behind a desk or counter, surrounded by books…this room leading to two additional rooms, one with heaving shelves of books, and a smaller room with a sort of bin in the center, with books and comics stacked flat. At least, this is how I remember it.

My single purchase at this establishment was a graphic novel adaptation of the movie Bladerunner. A sequel has just been released the month I am writing this; which is a nice coincidence, but has nothing to do with this story.

The other book, Deviant by Harold Scechter, was a true crime biography of Ed Gein. I didn’t know it then, but I would go on to write about Ed Gein myself in three separate books. The Deviant book had grainy, black-and-white crime scene photos that made me feel rather sick. I put the book down as if the vibes from it could poison the soul. Maybe it could, and did. I turned to the comics because they cheered me. It was very dim in that store.

The store was the downstairs of a two-story house, bright white with a cracked pavement walkway around the side to the porch. Well-kept, which was what made the single, cryptic word of graffiti that had been spray painted on the side so perplexing. Around town, I, as many others, had seen such cryptic phrases as “eat shit,” and the even more utterly incomprehensible “1,2,3 CAT!” painted in dripping, horror movie letters on various alley walls and abandoned office buildings. But, “If”? If…what, pray tell? What the hell was the meaning behind this inscrutable expression? And, why was it allowed to drip there, day after day, on that clean white house wall, without anyone ever bothering to paint over it?

That it was the first thing you saw on the way to a bookstore, one brimming full of fantasy and science fiction books, comics, role playing games…maybe it was a challenge to wonder? To fantasize. To dream. It has always struck me that that might be what the mysterious “If” was meant to convey; a sense of plunging headlong into a world that challenged you to ask, “What…if?” What if dragons really slept on piles of gold, in lonely dungeons? What if spaceships flew through the galaxy, hopping from star to star, with alien minds aboard? What if? “Ask yourself,” it seemed to be saying.

“If” is the title of a poem by Rudyard Kipling. It ends with the line, “You’ll be a man, my son.” When I first saw the ambiguous “If” as it had been put upon the clean white wall by some rascally, unknown intellect, (trying to communicate, SOMETHING to the unwary observer), I was not yet, legally, a man. I was probably nine years away from that particular malady.

Rudyard Kipling is considered “politically incorrect” in the year 2017,BTW.

“If” was the name of a science fiction magazine edited by Frederick Pohl. That, in this context, seems appropriate.

“If” is the title of a British art house film, rather obscure, starring Malcolm McDowell, who played H.G. Wells in the movie Time After Time. The film “If…” concerns a British schoolboy who perpetrates a shooting massacre. Today, we live in a world that is rotten with massacres, both shooting and otherwise. Especially at schools. But, in 1987, not so much.

There are other “Ifs”. Silent films. Bad Novels. Forgotten popular songs.
***
IF I had known, in 1987, how much pain was in store for me in life, I might have decided to freeze time in that bookstore, like something from a bad sci fi paperback.

IF I had known what the world of 2017 would be like, what MY world would be like, thirty years ago, I would have chose to stop the clock. I’d be in that damn bookstore forever, and Mom would be waiting patiently out in the car, for eternity.

If wishes were fishes, boys and girls.

If…

Lord Krishna’s Mouth

Child-krishna-pic

There is a story told of Lord Krishna. When he was a toddler at Brindavan, he liked to steal butter and cream. He was roundly scorned for this, and his mother told him he should take care never to do it again.

So, the next time the little Lord set about playing at the homes of his young friends, instead of making off with the butter, he grabbed a baby fistful of mud, ramming it into his mouth. His young friends, seeing what the baby had done, were offended, and went to tell his mother, Yashoda.

When he returned home, Lord Krishna’s mother said to him, “You awful, unthinking child! I will teach you never to put filthy mud into your mouth again!”

And she started to enact his punishment. Perhaps she was going to make him suck on a sour lemon, or even a cake of soap. We are not told. Whatever the case, though, when Lord Krishna opened his mouth, his mother was treated to an astounding sight:

She saw hills and valleys, trees and fields, rushing rivers, and vast craggy peaks. She saw mountainous rises and shallow dips, the twinkling, starlit array of diamonds in the black, vaulted firmament of heaven. She saw the planets, each with its own life, and the suns burning brightly in wonder, and the forgotten depths of the ocean floors, and even the raging waters of other worlds.

She, indeed, beheld the universe in the suckling infant’s mouth.

Lord Krishna’s mother fell to weeping, as she realized that Vishnu had come to earth in the form of her son.

(We imagine that, after that, he was treated to all the butter and cream he liked.)

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