I parked the van in the alley behind the building and went in the back door. The bar smelled like hickory and smoke, rich autumn sunlight flooding the place. There was no one there, or at least that’s what I thought. I walked around the bar and poured myself a glass of orange juice and stood there drinking in the morning silence, languid dust particles shoaling in the sunbeams.
“Where’s the stuff?” I heard someone say. I looked toward the end of the room on the right and saw Sal leaning forward on the bar, smiling, his bald head gleaming and slick and tracked by veins.
“The place looks good, Sally,” I said, and drained the juice. “You ought to lock it.”
Sal came back behind the bar and we shook hands and hugged. We stood there for a while holding each other at the elbow, two old friends frozen in the aging light of morning and studying one another’s age spots, the wrinkles and other flaws fashioned by gravity and time. He was much older and he didn’t look well. I tried to put his appearance into context, weigh it against my memories of him as a young man, flamboyant and indestructible. To stare into his eyes long bereft of their luster and see the irrefutable residue of his strain, the effects of life’s bitter charm, his youthful gloss wiped clear away and replaced with irony, it made me wonder how bad I looked.
“How long you been here?”
“You’re the first person I come to see, Sally.”
“They’re listening now, I guarantee.”
Sal grunted and picked up the bar phone and dialed a number. He muttered a few words into the receiver and hung up and said, “Let’s go.”
We walked out to the alley awash in fluid morning hues and I swung open the back doors of the van. Sal looked up and down the alley and shuffled his feet and neither of us said anything. I climbed in and pulled the two suitcases toward the rear of the van and got back out, stealing a cigarette from my jacket pocket and lighting it and then snapping open the suitcases one after the other, the objects inside coming to life as if illumined from within, deep reds and browns and stark blacks of exotic hides with the names of men and women stamped in glittering gold and silver upon the handcrafted spines. Sal inhaled audibly and climbed in the van, leaning over the suitcases.
“I can’t tell you how beautiful,” he said, one hand reaching and hovering over the titles. “They’ll torture us, they catch us with these.”
“First editions,” I said, and sucked on the cigarette. “Each and every one.”
“Reminds me of the old days,” he said, and climbed back out of the van, his eyes wet and large and rendered frozen upon the books. Another van peeled into the alley and I had a brief moment of panic, my hand at my hip and the steel waiting there. Sal waved for the driver to park behind my van and a young man of maybe twenty got out and walked quickly towards me, his hand stretched out before him.
“Mr. Guy, holy shit, it’s an honor,” he said, and I took his hand. “How long it’s been, I’ve followed your career.”
“What’s your name?”
“His name is Billy,” Sal said. “And he’d better get on.”
“Good to meet you Billy,” I said, and loaded the suitcases into his van. “But Sal’s right.”
“Yeah,” Billy said. “I’d better get on.” He reached out for my hand again and I shook it, feeling the coarse strength and energy in his skin, thinking back to when I was his age and wondering where the virtue had died between the people of my generation and our own shadow-leaders. None of us are safe, I thought. Not then, certainly not now.
I watched Billy drive out of the alley into the radiant unknown and I could have worried about our precious delivery but I pacified myself in knowing that some day in the future there will be large hallowed libraries again and there will be books lining their shelves protected from the destructive clutch of tyranny and those books will forever provide testimony to man’s most sacred ideas so long as courageous young minds like Billy and his peers continued our honored struggle of liberating them to the grueling end.