My office, though I hesitate to call it that, was a utility closet with the door unhinged, which someone from Facilities Management had then laid across two file cabinets in a bad impersonation of a desk. And while I never quite could exorcise the ghosts of the previous occupant, an industrial sink used to dispose of ammonia-based floor cleansers; the noxious little cavity placed me within easy spitting distance of the water cooler. Thus began my fascination with Holden Caulfield. Not the Holden Caulfield, archetypal anti-hero of American arts and letters, not to mention inspiration for some of our better-read assassins. I’m talking about Holden Caulfield Sapperstein, an all-too-real young lady whose parents named her, for better or worse, after their favorite author’s infamous creation.
Tall and reedy with a penchant for red knit caps, this Holden Caulfield—as she insisted everyone call her—was a refreshing change from my other female coworkers, who were either built like cast-iron floor safes or fierce enough to gnaw the locks off one. She’d swing by and we’d talk, and not just Hey, how’s it going? Leftover muffins in Conference Room A, but actual conversation, you know, why bad things happen to good people, the search for permanence in a throwaway society, music. So the day she told me of a sudden vacancy in the book club she belonged to, of course I said I’d love to.
“Nice,” she said, recasting her weight to showcase the curvature of her hips.
I wasn’t exactly what you’d call literate, not yet, anyway, but there’s book smarts and there’s street smarts—quick work, a woman makes of both. Maybe that’s why, when she mentioned the strange disappearance of someone named Stephen, I thought little of it. I mean, it’s not like I knew the guy. But then, it’s not like I knew her, either.
“Wherever he went,” I said, offhandedly, “I sure hope he stays there.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?” she said. There was something in her voice right then, kind of a passing darkness, like a stray cloud intruding on a sunny afternoon.
“It’s just an expression,” I said. The water cooler hiccupped, the lights fluoresced. “It means, you know, it doesn’t mean anything.”
“You should be careful with your words, Paul,” Holden said and crushed her cup, though it wasn’t fully empty. “There’s no telling how people might take them.”
Hell, that should have raised red flags, too. But at the time it simply blended in with all the rest, as I watched her dimpled chin rise and fall, rise and fall. The book club, she explained, formed by way of a flyer tacked to the bulletin board at Good Earth Cooperative Food Market. Yes, everyone was also a co-op member; no, I didn’t have to join that, too, though I’d probably reconsider, once I saw its variety of cheeses. Wednesday night, she said, eight, eight-fifteen. She scribbled a title and an address, and told me to bring something—preferably non-dairy, categorically vegetarian.
I turned up to my first book club meeting with a bottle of rose. I remember walking down a street so short, so narrow, so out of the way, it barely existed. The houses were not well marked. Eventually, I came to the last brownstone before the dead end. I hit the button: a gong sounded.
The doors parted to reveal a middle-aged woman dressed in a royal blue kimono. Her skin was frighteningly tanned, her hair a wild concoction of brown, gray, and platinum. Two swordsmen battled a dragon along the length of her sleeve.
“We’ve heard tell of a replacement,” the woman said. “Are you he?”
“Paul Hansen,” was all I could think to say. She didn’t shake my hand, exactly, but lifted it toward her as if appraising a jewel.
“You may call me Tamara,” she said.
“Is that Stephen?” a voice asked from deeper inside. Beyond the door, through an atrium and then a corridor, silhouettes were assembled in a dimly lit room. People or furniture, I couldn’t make out.
“The replacement,” Tamara called back, still maintaining eye contact. “I’m afraid, dear boy, that Holden is late. But do come in, we’re dying to meet you.”
The house reeked of patchouli. A mat lay beside the door, gridlocked with shoes. I slid mine off and edged mine over and this seemed to meet with Tamara’s approval. Make myself at home, she said. Follow her to the living room.
Elaborate masks peered from the walls. Several pygmy fig trees erupted from ceramic pots, strung with white lights, crystal ornaments, origami swans. The rugs were Burmese, she said, narrating as we went, the mantelpiece a stone slab discovered in the jungle. Sacrificial altar. Mayan. Thirteenth Century. In the corner stood a great glass giraffe, “just a little keepsake” from the Laguna Arts Festival, hand-blown in Mendocino by a one-armed Australian. And in the middle of the room was her collection’s centerpiece: an ancient wooden casket plucked from the deserts of Jordan. What once held the remains of a Mesopotamian bureaucrat, now displayed magazines, a platter of hors d’oeuvres, and, here and there, the watery halo of a coasterless drink.
“Everyone, meet Paul Hansen,” Tamara said. By everyone, she meant a red-headed trio in an immense rattan chair; a man in surgical scrubs lazing on a pillow; a woman with a crew cut, cross-legged on the floor; and a dark, smiley character holding an electronic device. It was all so overwhelming. I felt like a new student at a new school on a different planet in a parallel universe.
“Paul is Holden’s friend,” she continued, and that took the edge off some. I liked the way it sounded, the possessiveness, the idea that somehow I belonged to someone else. How much anonymity we shed once we’re associated with other people.
“Tell us in advance, Holden’s friend, if you also plan on vanishing,” said the man in the rattan. Flushed and fleshy, his face sprouted from his shoulders like a Bartlett pear.
That vanishing crack, I liked less. I turned to the woman beside him. She looked just like he did. In fact, so strikingly similar were they in complexion, build, and every other way anatomy permitted, they could’ve been siblings, or spouses, or both.
“Don’t mind him,” the sister-wife said. “Or his sense of humor.”
“Paul, these are Lee and Michael,” Tamara said. The gong sounded. With a colorful whirl, she stalked off to answer it.
“Glad to know you, Michael,” I said to the man, nodding at the woman. “Lee.”
“No, I’m Lee,” the man said. “Michael is my wife.”
“But we’re both Dr. Shiffman. Psychologists. And this,” said the woman, eyes dropping to the baby sandwiched between them, “is our little Shadow.”
Subtract the drool and add teeth, Shadow was a dead ringer for both of them.
“People don’t just vanish,” said the man in scrubs. His shirt bore the logo of St. Francis Hospital: a medical text impaled on a caduceus. “We get fifty John Does a week rolling through. Sometimes it takes months figuring out which stiff is which.”
“Neil!” the remaining woman said to him.
“And we’re only one ER,” Neil said, wiping dip from the corner of his mouth. “I’m telling you, Christie, the city’s full of victims, just waiting to be identified.”
“Can you be any more insensitive?” she said.
“Yes, actually, tons,” Neil said, at which point she untangled herself and shot out to snatch his napkin with her toes.
“Maybe he’s on vacation,” I offered. “Or signed on with another book club.”
“And another food co-op? Not likely he’d find cheaper avocados,” Christie said. Her leg remained suspended in midair, motionless as a tollbooth gate.
“How do you do that?” I asked her.
“By purchasing local produce and dividing the work normally done by paid employees,” she said. I told her actually I meant the thing with her leg, to which she responded “yoga.” This prompted Neil to speculate about other, lewder acrobatics Christie might perform. This prompted Christie to pop him in the ribs.
“What kind of impression are we giving Paul, here?” Dr. Shiffman said.
“Better to attack each other with literary discourse,” the other Dr. Shiffman said.
“Gurgle,” Shadow said.
“What is this word, discourse?” said the last man there. His skin was the color of tree bark, his teeth the yellowy-white of wood pulp, and he wore a one of those tricky grins that passed as easily for friendliness as it did confusion.
“Paul, this is Amani,” Christie said. “Tamara found him on her last trip to Africa, she’ll have to tell you where, exactly. Isn’t he cool?”
“Discourse, Amani,” Michael said, “is like an exchange.”
“Of ideas,” Lee added, picking up where his wife left off.
“Ah,” Amani said, and began typing into the device. I sat down on another wooden box, this one with metal bars strung uncomfortably across the top.
“Look who I found,” said Tamara. She had slipped back into the room as if haunting her own house. On one arm, she carried a tray of tumblers and a decanter. On the other, Holden Caulfield.
“No Stephen, then,” she said, as if it was a question stuffed inside an answer. She was out of breath, too, pink-cheeked and vaguely disheveled, her red knit cap an overturned bowl, spilling hair over the table of her face. It looked like she’d been running. Or crying. Or fronting a Zeppelin cover band. I asked if she was all right, she said totally, just some trouble parking. There was no good reason not to buy it.
“Your replacement is getting along splendidly,” Tamara said. “Although he’s sitting on my gambang. That’s a Javanese xylophone, Mr. Hansen, not a chair.”
“That’s OK, Paul, come sit next to me,” Holden said. I broke through the thicket of arms and legs to join her on a small velour sofa. And as our legs touched, it struck me that this was the closest I’d been to another body since I moved to the city—long time for an able-bodied man in the prime of his life. Thank goodness for baggy pants.
“Shall we make the toast?” Tamara asked. She filled our glasses and fluttered to her knees on the cross-stitch rug.
“Raise your glass,” Holden whispered.
“What is this?” I whispered back, quietly rearranging myself, staring at the drink.
“To truth,” Dr. Shiffman said.
“To beauty,” the other Dr. Shiffman said.
“To the fruits of the written word,” Tamara said.
“To Stephen,” Christie said.
“To his replacement,” Holden said. Everyone looked at me.
“To life?” I said.
“To life,” they echoed, and we took our glasses in one bold shot. But to my surprise, it wasn’t wine. It was bitter, gritty, and stained the mouth a beastly red.
“First experience with pomegranate juice?” Dr. Shiffman said.
“It’s an acquired taste,” the other Dr. Shiffman said.
From the top of the casket, Neil offered me a gooey black appetizer. I assumed it was chocolate. It tasted like health.
“Sugar-free vegan date ball,” he said. “Just what the doctor ordered.”
“Aha, Discourse!” Amani exclaimed, beaming with sudden comprehension. “I must use this word, discourse. Now how do I attack with it?”
Everyone laughed. I choked. Everyone laughed some more.
“Well,” Tamara finally sighed, and they all reached into their Good Earth canvas totes to produce that week’s selection: The Greenest Blue by M.J. Newell, a harrowing tale of love, loss, and redemption, set against the backdrop of Kentucky sod farming.
The discussion didn’t last nearly as long as I thought it would. We focused on the major themes: triumph over adversity, the tragicomedy of unrequited love, fertilizer. Christie praised its simple, holistic power. Although the Shiffmans thought the seed metaphors too subtle and the hose imagery excessively Freudian, they planned to put a copy in the waiting room of their basement practice. Tamara simply adored the sprinkler scene, and Neil, who I suspect hadn’t read it at all, compared the novel to a rerun of Manslaughter he’d seen on late-night TV. Amani mostly consulted the translator. At long last asked for his opinion, he said: “we are having so much discourse.” Holden Caulfield? She identified with the mulch salesman, whose death she thought was sad, even though he had it coming, like certain others she could name.
I agreed with her; I agreed with everyone; everyone agreed with me; everyone agreed with everyone. Steeped in consensus that this meeting was the book club’s best so far, I expressed my regrets that Stephen couldn’t enjoy it with us.
“Who needs him,” Holden said, glass raised, “when we’ve got you?”
“To life,” I said, with confidence this time. Just like that, I joined the club.
I turned up to my second meeting with a box of fancy mixed nuts. All week, I’d been trying to coax Holden Caulfield to go out with me. Dinner? Sorry, she wasn’t eating much these days. Drinks sounded nice, she said, she could definitely use one, but no, on second thought, better to keep her wits about her. Long story. She’d tell me some day, maybe. Undaunted by her rejections, and actually sort of tantalized, I proposed lunch, nothing fancy, maybe a tossed salad or the Smoothie King on Fifth (I’d heard their Cape Cod Cooler was cran-tastic). Don’t push me, Paul, was her response, Can’t you see I’m on the edge, here? So I decided to let her come to me. Instead I used my time to read. And you know, it wasn’t bad. I actually looked forward to discussing the week’s selection: Their Eyes Were Saying Yes by Julia Winkler Ochs, a spine-tingling tale of betrayal and redemption set in the tumultuous world of laser ophthalmology.
But from the moment I hit the button, I knew something was up. Dressed in a floor-length robe, Tamara drew the door back somberly. Her house was blurry with incense, burning in strategically placed multi-armed elephant statuettes. I slipped my shoes onto the mat, into a space that wasn’t there last time.
“I’m afraid,” Tamara said, hair dim, tan muted, “that Neil is no longer with us.”
“More nuts for you and me, then,” I said. “And there’s macadamias in here.”
“You don’t understand,” she sighed. “The police found him bludgeoned to death with his copy of The Greenest Blue.”
“Oh, that’s different,” I said, picturing gray matter streaked across the dust jacket, staining the author bio, besmirching the U.S./Canadian price conversion. So Neil wasn’t my favorite, but murder? Nobody deserves murder—well, very few, anyway.
“And,” she said, pulling me inside, “still no word from Stephen.”
In the living room, Christie pretzeled herself into the same spot on the floor, the Shiffmans were composed in a reproduction of last week’s still-life with family, and Amani leaned in from the ottoman, grinning like a man possessed.
“Neil harbored a fondness for nuts,” Tamara said, melancholically, as she pulled my contribution from its plastic smiley-face bag. “Though I take it you were told.”
Apparently the co-op was running a special in his honor; without coercion, I admitted what I’d done.
“You bought them at a convenience store?” Christie said. “Don’t you know that bulk foods are the co-op’s cornerstone?”
“Certified organic,” Dr. Shiffman said.
“Non-genetically modified,” the other Dr. Shiffman said.
I mumbled an apology, looked for a seat. A thick black sash stretched across Neil’s throw pillow, one more across the loveseat I’d shared with Holden last meeting. Actually, that’s not true. It only covered half—my half. So I parked myself on the arm, less out of respect for the death marker than simply not wanting to touch it.
“That was Stephen’s old spot,” Christie explained, and my vision went fuzzy.
Neil was dead. Not only dead, but also murdered. Not only murdered, but on his way home from this club, which now seemed perfectly content to write off this Stephen character, too. That was a little premature, if you asked me. A little premature, and a lot fatalistic. Weren’t these the same people who’d just last week toasted his safe return? Why, then, the drastic tune change? Well, if misery loves company, I thought, maybe this particular company reciprocates the feelings.
“Who’s the other one for?” I asked, eyes re-focusing on yet another black sash along the top of the gambang. “I thought that wasn’t a chair.”
“Correct, my lovely,” Tamara said. “It’s to keep anyone else from sitting there by mistake. I’ll remove it when the gamelan comes to practice.”
“What is this word, gamelan?” Amani said.
“Hell if I know,” Michael said
“Me neither,” Lee said. Christie shrugged.
“It’s an ensemble,” Tamara said. “For classical Indonesian music.”
“And the accompaniment of shadow puppetry, or, as the locals call it, wayang kulit, ” I said, which seemed to surprise everyone. Not me, though—I knew exactly where it came from. “Julia Winkler Ochs mentions it in chapter three, right before the radial keratotomy, when Dr. Croaker asks his noon appointment on a getaway to Bali.”
“Ah,” Amani said. “I must use this word, gamelan.”
The gong sounded. Tamara floated up to answer it, leaving us to observe a moment of silence. In that silence, my brain turned over, like the engine of a decades-forgotten Honda, discovered in some cluttered garage. For the sake of argument, let’s call Stephen dead—why hadn’t anyone commented on the coincidence of it all, one club, two slayings, two weeks apart? I mean, a half-wit with a hangover could’ve recognized that. So maybe they’d grown desensitized to fear the way people do to most repugnancies, like crowds, like roaches, like the scattered pools of vomit you hopscotch on the sidewalk, or the bouquets of human excrement blooming wherever they might take root. Maybe that’s how it had to be, especially in the city: if you don’t see it, and you don’t hear it, especially if you never speak it, then who’s to say an evil really exists? That’s what I was thinking, right as Holden Caulfield burst in.
“A girl could die out there,” she said, and threw off her coat and bag in one indelicate motion, crashing into the loveseat with zero regard for Stephen’s black band.
“Oh, god!” Christie exclaimed, and slumped into herself.
“I just meant the parking,” Holden said. “Don’t be so dramatic.”
She seemed off-balance, unstrung but not unattractive. Her butterfly collar slapped at her face. Her red knit cap teetered dangerously to the side, hair escaping like water from a hydrant. The girl was jury-rigged—together for now, but begging some serious attention, seriously soon. Was I the man intended to give it to her? I really didn’t know. But consider this: she’d slid her hand coyly beneath my leg, and kept on inching up the coast, toward the rocky peninsula. You tell me how else to read that.
“Listen,” I said, jumping to my feet, voice cracking, khakis tented—this was hardly the time or place. “Condolences about Neil. As for Stephen, keep hope alive, and anything is possible. If Julia Winkler Ochs teaches us nothing else, let it be that.”
On we went. We raised our glasses to truth, beauty, and fruit. Then to life. Then to Neil’s memory. Then, for Stephen, once more to life. But the drink was only possible with a stiff chaser of cashews. And even then, barely.
It was brief, our discussion of Their Eyes Were Saying Yes. We debated primary issues: how short-term acquaintances can feel like lifelong friendships, loyalty versus self-preservation, finding love where you least expect it—in this case, at the end of an eyelid speculum. Christie didn’t contribute much, but felt inspired by Ochs’ portrayal of chronic cataract-sufferers. Tamara was moved to tears at several points during the malpractice case. Michael called the idea of a doctor-patient affair intriguing, if unethical, and while Lee criticized the story as somewhat “myopic in scope,” this novel, too, was headed for the waiting room. Holden argued that the ending rang false with her, though she admitted to finding many things fake lately, disappointingly, immeasurably, tragically fake. Amani’s favorite part: his acquisition of the word gamelan.
I turned up to my third book club meeting with a loaf of focaccia, fresh from the co-op’s wood-fired oven. You can’t shop there unless you’re a member. Half an hour I waited for someone to go in for me, a dreadheaded girl on a unicycle.
During the week, I devoured the selection: She’s Come Under Fire, by Lt. Patricia North-Dovecoat (Ret.), one Marine drill instructor’s heartwarming saga of desire, devotion, and renewal. Read it twice, in fact, that was its impact. To be honest, until I cracked the cover, I was all set to quit. Who would’ve blamed me? For one, the foul stench of death was upon the book club. Then there was Holden Caulfield. At last meeting’s end, she practically begged me to walk her to her car, which was quite a hike, to a weed-choked stretch abutting a dilapidated pier, and beyond that the river, black as roof tar. It was desolate, all right—if you had a body, here was a good spot to dump it. he asked me if I’d like a ride, actually, would I mind driving, so I guided her perky import from the nooks of the waterfront to the crannies by the park, where she said she lived alone, emphasis on alone. She fumbled with the keys. I steadied her hand. She worked through the tumblers, the deadbolts. I swear I heard her heart beating. Then do you know what happened, once she cracked the puzzle of locks and flung herself inside? Holden Caulfield said good night. She’d take it from here, she said, flicking off the lights as quickly as she’d popped them on, straight-arming me back across the transom, retreating into darkness. She might as well have dunked my groin in liquid nitrogen and shattered it with a hammer, like I once watched my tenth-grade chemistry do to a canister of tennis balls. And that’s where the story would’ve ended, were it not for a trip to the men’s room the next morning. I’ll tell you, those twenty minutes in the stall with North-Dovecoat (Ret.) were positively mind-blowing. Who better to share my insights with than Doctors Shiffman, Ph.D, with Christie, Tamara, and Amani—even Holden Caulfield, hell, even that Stephen guy, too, if he ever materialized.
“It’s you,” Tamara said, opening the door no more than a chain’s-width.
“Hell of an outfit,” I said. She was wearing a canvas pants suit so billowy it almost swallowed her, to which she’d pinned four ribbons, each ripped in the middle.
“Korean mourning attire,” she said. “The ribbons are a Jewish custom.”
I stepped out of my shoes and nudged them onto the mat beside three pairs of sandals, three pairs only. Purple orchids in jade flower pots lined the hallway. When we reached the living room, Christie was there, and Amani. But the half-dome rattan sat blank of subjects, a black sash stretched across it like crime scene tape.
“Shiffmans on their way?” I asked, but I wasn’t that stupid.
Tamara passed me a newspaper clipping. Two psychologists, the article read, discovered last Thursday morning in their basement practice, clutching novels of popular fiction. Police detected a mysterious substance in the victims’ mouths. Preliminary tests indicate certified-organic, non-genetically modified bulk food.
“Thankfully, the little one was upstairs sleeping,” Tamara said. “As stipulated in their will, Shadow has become a ward of Good Earth Food Cooperative, and will now be raised by seventeen-hundred mommies and daddies.”
“Seventeen-hundred mommies and daddies?”
“Well, we are the largest food co-op on the eastern seaboard,” Christie said, gesturing at the focaccia.
“Which I’m sure they mentioned at your orientation.”
“Oh, no, a girl on a unicycle bought this,” I said.
Wordlessly, we sat amidst Tamara’s trappings, allowing a cloud to settle in the valley between us. The masks hung tight-lipped, the origami swans roosted in the trees, and Christie broke the stillness with the question I dared not ask.
“Who do you suppose is doing this?”
Here’s how the glances went: Christie to Tamara, Tamara to Christie, Christie and Tamara to me, then all of us to Amani, who, looking up from his device, deftly translated focus squarely back to me. In my life, I’ve never felt more alone.
“Obviously we’re past simple chance,” I said, just to say something.
“I’ve been all around the world,” Tamara said. “I’ve seen elephants trample safari guides, children plucked from the path of runaway rickshaws, a bank robbery foiled by an unwitting gelato vendor. This, dear boy, isn’t nearly as haphazard.”
“What is this word, haphazard?” Amani said.
“Not now, Amani,” Tamara said.
“We’re talking, here,” Christie said.
“Ah,” Amani said. “Then I will not use this word, haphazard.”
“It means without rhyme or reason,” I said. “But you aren’t suggesting that—”
I trailed off. Not only did I understand their conclusion, but how it was they’d jumped to it. Hell, I would’ve, too, I mean, if I wasn’t me.
Problem was, I didn’t do it, not for damn sure. But telling them that? Talk about bad ideas. Pick up a mystery novel sometime and you’ll see: the guilty voice screams its innocence the loudest.
“We hardly know anything about you, Paul.” Christie was talking again.
“Which the nice detectives were intrigued to learn,” Tamara said.
“They questioned us earlier,” Christie said. “Well, two of us, anyway.”
Apparently, they had to drum up a language specialist for Amani. Me, on the other hand, they considered a “person of interest”—Nana and Pop-pop would’ve been so proud. But what about Holden Caulfield? What did the cops make of her?
“But last Wednesday, I was taking Holden home,” I said. I started to wonder about her, really wonder, where she was right then, where she was for the start of all of these meetings. What would she say for herself when she came? If she came?
“Did you spend the night?” Christie asked. I shook my head. “Then she really can’t vouch for everything you did—or, you know, didn’t do.”
“About my character, she can,” I said.
“I’m afraid,” Tamara said, “she’s not the best judge of that, either. Not to speak badly of the deceased, but that other friend of hers, Stephen, he wasn’t always the most pleasant young man to pass an evening with.”
“Wow, were they always fighting,” Christie said. She described several incidents, most notably one that began with the skewering of his selection: Nubbin, by Miles Gladstone, a smorgasbord of anecdotes concerning the history of castration. Stephen said something wildly inappropriate—Christie didn’t specify, but I gather it involved some violent, unnatural, incestuous act—Holden slapped him and he stormed out. She was always slapping him, he was always storming out.
“She ran after him, too,” Christie added, starting to sob. “Normally she didn’t, but she was pretty mad. Crazed. Anyway, she came back. He didn’t.”
“Sad business,” Tamara said as she drifted over and began to rub her back. Again both turned to me, eyes red-rimmed, glassy. The look could have etched stone.
Now here’s the thing. Every once in a while your unconscious steps in, as if to say hey, relax, I’ve got this one, and your mouth just opens to a random set of words. See, of all the logic I could’ve employed—it’s not in my nature, the mystery predates me, let’s ask Holden Caulfield about all this—here’s how I deflected the accusation.
“This is just like that section of She’s Come Under Fire,” I said. “Remember when PFC Richards gets shot, the D.I. says ‘it ain’t always cut-and-dried,’” I said, removing the dog-eared copy from my pocket. “And then after they court-martial the grenade specialist, it turns out to be the mess hall cook?”
“But life, dear boy, isn’t always like fiction,” Tamara said. And as she did, Holden Caulfield popped up behind the glass giraffe.
“You shouldn’t leave the door unlocked,” she said, red knit cap drawn low over her eyes. She laid her hand on loveseat’s arm. This time I got up and moved.
There ensued a terse exchange on whether to proceed, or head home and batten down the hatches. Christie favored the latter, but she guessed the deceased would want the former. Tamara had lived too much to let fear get the better of her now. Holden said that if we gave in, the book club killer won—provided there even was one in the first place, she wasn’t convinced. Amani nodded at one of these, and I was just happy to be back within the fold. So it was decided. The discussion was very short, but the little that came out of it, I found strangely satisfying, especially the overarching theme of perseverance. We’ll get through this, I remember thinking as we toyed with North-Dovecoat (Ret)’s ironic symbolism. At the meeting’s end, and with an earnestness I’ll never see again, we toasted life, we toasted life, we toasted life. This time, I cut the drink with seltzer. Still, it went down hard, like medicine.
I turned up to my fourth book club meeting with a dried fruit tray, grown with non-toxic fertilizers on a wage-sharing collective farm. Signing on with the co-op was remarkably easy, and Holden Caulfield was right—what a staggering array of cheeses!
I spent that week in the warm embrace of that week’s selection: The Heavenly Inferno, by Suzanne Bailiwick, an adventure in pursuit of spiritual mystery and fire safety. From Wednesday to Wednesday, I went out only for my co-op shift and my interrogation, which were one in the same, funnily enough, because the inspector working the case turned out to be another co-op member. We spent an afternoon together bagging olives and discussing my innocence, after which I was free to go. And from the minute I got home, I practically burned through the Inferno. It was, for lack of a better word, heavenly. Yes, setting out for the book club, I worried about what might await me. For a chunk of the walk, I even considered my own gruesome end. But turning on to Tamara’s block, I couldn’t wait to debate Bailiwick’s nine key prophecies into the human soul, and six main steps to preparing your emergency escape plan.
But when I came to the dead-end, the brownstone’s windows were black. My fears rekindled. I mean, after all, these were my friends we’re talking about. My hand shot for the button. It was blocked with a note.
Mr. Hansen & Ms. Sapperstein, the note read, in Tamara’s furious hand. Our Christie is no more. I’ve gone upstate to lay the poor thing to rest. Brought Amani with me—I think he wanted to see an American funeral (hard to tell). But the book club must go on. We owe it to the dead and to literature. If I may choose this time, let it be The Catcher in the Rye. I’m sure you’ll find it illuminating. Until Wednesday next, T.
P.S. Anyone looking for Thursday night gamelan, let’s reschedule.
I turned up to my fifth book club meeting with a purpose.
I was in the groove. I was electric. Suzanne Bailiwick put me on the road to self-actualization (and spurred a thorough hydrostatic testing of every fire extinguisher in my building). But while her selection provided a spark, Tamara’s proved a beacon: The Catcher in the Rye, by J.D. Salinger, a young man’s search for connection, adulthood, and the American Museum of Natural History. Though I’d never read it before, I’d heard about it often, frequently in relation to the shooting of a certain British rock star. Nonetheless, I tore through it like a madman, the whole time meditating on how a simple procession of letters on a page might move someone to kill. Paragraph after paragraph I absorbed Holden Caulfield—Salinger’s Holden Caulfield—his rage at alienation and heartlessness, his struggle against conformity, his unfettered individuality in the face of cultural oppression. The more I read, the better I understood. Wonderful as they were, the “fruits of the written word,” as Tamara called them, interpreted the wrong way by the wrong person, sometimes left behind some pretty dangerous seeds. I’m sure you’ll find it illuminating, she’d written on her note, and boy did I ever. That was the purpose I turned up with that night: to deal with Holden Caulfield, the imaginary and the real.
The brownstone loomed before me, dark, inert. I hit the button. Nothing. I hit it again. Nothing. I leaned into the door. It gave. I announced my presence into the night-filled space, but as I both dreaded and suspected, there was no response. I flipped on the lights and kicked my shoes onto the mat. There they sat, all by themselves.
Ranks of withered orchids desiccated in their vases, sweetening the house with the smell of rotting flowers. With every step toward the living room, the chill of the hardwood seeped through my socks.
In the deserted room, I tore off the black sashes one by one, plunked into the Shiffmans’ chair, reclined on Neil’s pillow, knelt on the Burmese rug. I put myself in everyone’s place, feeling their remnants, drawing strength from the collective, connecting, connecting, connecting. At about a quarter to nine, the gong sounded. It repeated into itself, faded out with a metallic clatter. I was ready.
“Hello?” a female voice called from the atrium. Then I heard steps in the hall, the muted pad of shoeless feet.
“I’m glad I found you,” Holden Caulfield said. She stopped in front of the glass giraffe, which kept on chewing phantom leaves, oblivious to everything.
“I’ll bet,” I said, and tossed the Salinger onto the casket.
“So you read Tamara’s selection.” She removed her red knit cap, the first I’d seen her without it, allowing her hair to fall around her shoulders, pool at her neck. What a shame her beauty had to be wasted.
“Read it,” I said. A paper swan dove from its tree.
“I’m named after the main character, you know,” she said.
“So I’ve heard,” I said. I took a step closer. Then another.
“Look, Paul, this is hard for me to say,” she said, and jabbed a hand into her bag, hunting for what, I could only guess. “But I want to come clean. I need to come clean.”
“Save it,” I said.
“I never intended for anyone to get hurt,” she said, obviously finding whatever it was she sought. Now she was the one advancing on me. “You have no idea how hard this is.”
That’s when I lunged. It was pretty awkward. I wasn’t much of a fighter.
“What are you doing?” she screamed.
“You’re Holden Caulfield!” I screamed back, to which she responded: “So?”
But Holden was stronger than her body betrayed. She put up a pretty decent struggle. Draped all over each other, swatting, swiping, kicking, biting, we must have looked like dance partners at the junior prom from hell. We zigged left, zagged right, knocked the giraffe clean off its pedestal, sending a herd of shards stampeding across the floor. Somewhere in Mendocino, a one-armed Australian choked back a tear.
“You don’t understand,” Holden said. She kicked my leg, I gripped her wrist.
“You killed the phonies, Holden Caulfield, you in your red hunting hat,” I said, but still she refused to relinquish.
“What the hell are you talking about?” she said, eyes wide, blue, desperate.
“The Catcher in the Rye,” I said. “Tamara chose it for a reason.”
“She always picks Salinger,” she said. “Franny and Zooey, last month, Nine Stories, the month before.”
Holden’s legs had vined around me, creeping toward that weakness behind the knee that can crumple a man. Or woman. I fought to maintain balance, even as I felt myself yielding to gravity—and with me, her.
“We’re the last two left,” I said. “And I know I didn’t kill anybody.”
“But, Paul,” she said, right before we both went down, wrapped in each other’s arms and plummeting toward the gambang. “That’s what I’m trying to tell you.”
Then came the crash, followed by silence. The silence didn’t last long.
“Don’t beat yourself up about it, bro, it’s not your fault,” a voice said, male this time, as I stood in shock over Holden’s unconscious body. You see, I’d called it along—Stephen was bound to materialize sooner or later.
“She should have been more careful with her words,” he said, wielding a tire iron. “There’s no telling how people might take them.”
That’s all I’m going to say about that. I could probably tell you what I did after I brained her, or how what she’d been reaching for was actually a snapshot of her and Stephen, to warn me, rather than some kind of weapon, to kill me. Or how the cops pieced it together, about Stephen and Holden’s stormy relationship, and how when it went south he blamed the book club, swore vengeance, went off his meds. Or how the case received personal attention, because the precinct sergeant packaged cheese with all of the victims at one time or another, and how he turned up at Tamara’s not a minute before Stephen tried to sell me the farm. As the saying goes, membership has its privileges. I could also tell you about how when I see Holden Caulfield at the water cooler these days, giant bandage turbanning her head, that it’s only Hey how’s it going, and usually not even that. But I don’t feel like it. I really don’t.
A lot of people at the Good Earth Cooperative keep asking me if I’ll start up the book club again. If you want to know the truth, I don’t know if I will. I’ve got places to go, things to do, and now, one seventeen-hundredth of a baby to raise. Plus, softball season’s coming up. I hear our team’s short a few players.
Geoff Kirsch received his MFA in fiction from New School University. Literary publications include Northwest Review, Paper Street, and 34th Parallel. He currently lives in Juneau, Alaska, writing for Comedy Central’s Indecision2008.com and Huffington Post’s 23/6.