The Book Dealer and the Widow ~ A Short Story by Allen Kopp
He was a fat man. He looked as if he had been stuffed into his clothes. His hair was too long and he needed a shave. She disliked him instantly.
“Mrs. Pinser?” he said when she opened the door.
“I’m Moe Fish from Moe’s Rare Books.”
“Yes. Please come in.”
She took him into her late husband’s den where most of his books were kept.
“My husband was a collector of things,” she said. “Mostly books.”
“I see,” Moe Fish said, as he eyed the shelves from floor to ceiling. “There must be a couple thousand books here.”
“And all of them in good condition. My husband was meticulous in all things.”
“He told me before he died that some of them were valuable, or someday would be.”
“Valuable in what way?”
“First editions signed by whoever wrote them.”
Moe Fish picked a book off a shelf, opened it and put it back. “Most of these are not worth anything,” he said. “Where are the signed first editions? Did your husband keep them in a special place?”
“Well, I’m not sure. You would have to find them.”
“Did he have any books signed by Mark Twain or Herman Melville?”
“I’m sorry. I don’t know one author from another.”
“Any Faulkner, Hemingway, Fitzgerald or Steinbeck?”
“If he ever mentioned any of those fellows, I don’t recall.”
“So, you expect me to look through a couple thousand books to find anything that might be worth a few dollars?”
“Do you mind?”
“Yes, I do mind. I don’t have all goddamned day.”
She flinched involuntarily. “Maybe this was not such a good idea,” she said.
“I’ll give you two hundred dollars for the lot,” he said.
“That doesn’t seem like a fair price for so many books,” she said.
“Believe you me, lady, I’m doing you a favor. It’s a considerable amount of trouble for me to load up all these books and take them away. And when I go to sell them, I’ll lose money on the deal. None of them are worth anything.”
“You haven’t looked at all of them,” she said timidly.
“No, and I don’t have any intention of looking at all of them. I’m a busy man and you’re wasting my time. Now what is it going to be? Shall we say two hundred dollars for the lot?”
“No? You got me to come all this way for nothing?”
“I think we’ve concluded our business,” she said. “Thank you so much for stopping by.”
He sighed and rubbed his forehead with his stubby fingers. “If you show me one book in the lot that’s worth my time and effort, I’ll give you two hundred and fifty. That’s my final offer.”
“No, thank you,” she said.
He looked at several more books, slamming them back onto the shelves when he was finished. “I’ll make it three hundred,” he said. “Final offer.”
“Goodbye,” she said. “It was so nice meeting you.”
“You won’t get a better price.”
“Well, after talking to you, I’ve decided I want to donate them to the local library.”
“You’re going to give them away?”
“You’d rather get nothing for them than three hundred dollars?”
“If I’m going to get so little for them, I’d rather donate them to somebody who will appreciate them. You obviously do not.”
“You’re making a big mistake.”
“I’ve made them before. Calling you, for one.”
He took a little book out of his pocket and waved it in her face. She didn’t realize at first that it was a checkbook. “Now, look what I’m doing,” he said. He took a pen and began writing. “I’m making this check out to Mrs. Pinser and, for the amount, I’m making it four hundred dollars. I’m feeling in a generous mood.”
“You didn’t seem to hear me,” she said. “I said the deal is off.”
“Oh, so now you’re going to be stubborn about it?”
“Call it whatever you like. It’s of no concern to me.”
He tore the check out of the book and laid it on the desk. “I’m so happy we were able to do business,” he said. “If you’ll allow me to use your phone, I’ll call my assistant and have him come and help me load the books into my truck. We’ll be out of your way in no time.”
She picked the check up, tore it in tiny pieces and flicked them at him. Some of the pieces stuck on his shirt front.
“You’re throwing away four hundred dollars?” he said.
“I’d rather feed all the books into a huge bonfire in my back yard than to have you take them.”
“I’ll just start loading some of these into my truck until Charlie gets here,” he said.
He picked up as many books as he could hold in his fat arms and carried them outside. In a minute he came back for more and then more. On the fourth trip, she was pointing a shotgun at his face.
“I said my husband collected things,” she said. “One of the things he collected was guns.”
“Hah-hah, very funny,” he said. “That thing is not even loaded.”
She fired a shell into the ceiling to let him know she meant business. Plaster rained down in tiny chunks. When she saw the alarm on his face, she said, “Now, I may not kill you but I can cause you an awful lot of pain. Have you ever seen anybody with a kneecap shot off?”
“No, ma’am. I don’t believe I have.”
“Imagine trying to get around from place to place without a kneecap.”
“I can’t even begin to imagine.”
“Now, you go outside and bring those books back in and put them back where they belong,” she said.
“No, ma’am. I don’t believe I’m going to do that. We made a deal fair and square.”
“No, we didn’t.”
“I wrote you a check for four hundred dollars, as much money as you would get anywhere in the world for the books. If you chose to tear it up, that’s no concern of mine.”
He picked up another armload, ignoring the gun pointing at him. She was about to make good on her promise to shoot him in the leg when he loosened his arms and dropped the books. He grabbed onto the door facing, went down on his knees and fell forward into the hallway.
“Oh, my goodness!” she said. “Are you sick?”
He went deathly pale and vomited a green mass onto the wall.
“Oh, don’t do that!” she said.
“My heart,” he said, gasping for breath.
“Do you want me to call an ambulance?”
“Heart medicine. My truck.”
“You want me to get it for you?”
“Front seat. Little bottle. You’ll see it.”
“Stay right there!” she said.
She went out to his truck and looked amid the clutter, lifting up a newspaper and other assorted debris, but found no bottle of pills. (She hated touching anything he had touched.) She was about to go back inside to tell him the pills weren’t there, when her neighbor, Vera Conover, motioned her across the street.
“Whose truck is that?” Vera asked.
“You got books to sell?”
“My husband’s. I just wanted to see how much they’re worth.”
“Well, those second-hand people will cheat you every time if they get a chance,” Vera said.
“Don’t I know it!”
“Did you hear that Ruth Pratt is getting married again? And Roger not in the ground six months!”
“I hadn’t heard. I don’t get out much.”
“Well, if you ask me, I think she was carrying on while Roger was still alive. Don’t you think that is just the tackiest thing when women do that?”
“Why, yes, I suppose it is.”
“What’s the matter, honey? You’re acting kind of funny. There’s nothing wrong is there?”
“Oh, no. I’m fine,” she said, looking anxiously over her shoulder.
“Well, that woman that just moved in down the street is certainly acting funny. I hear that a man came and paid her a visit one evening around suppertime and didn’t leave until the next morning!”
“That’s not the kind of woman we want in the neighborhood, is it? I mean, she might be running a whorehouse for all we know.”
“Really, I don’t think…”
“Did you hear that Bertha Wiley’s granddaughter—I think her name is Phyllis or something—is quitting high school in her junior year?”
“Why would she do that?”
“She’s going to have a baby and her folks are putting themselves out to pretend she isn’t. I mean, honestly, people are just not that stupid. When the baby is born, even a five-year-old will be able to do the math.”
“You wouldn’t happen to have a cigarette, would you?”
Vera reached into the pocket of her housecoat and pulled out a pack. “I didn’t know you smoked, honey,” she said with an impish grin.
“I smoke a little since my husband died.”
She smoked the cigarette down to the filter, barely listening to Vera Conover’s gossip. When Vera heard her phone ringing and had to go answer it, she went back across the street to her own house.
Moe Fish was dead on her floor, as she was sure he would be. Shocked almost out of her senses, she went to the phone and, with shaking hands, called for help. When the ambulance arrived and the men were taking away the fat, ugly body of Moe Fish, she wept with the sweetest feeling of relief she had ever known.
Copyright © 2014 by Allen Kopp