by Mark Goldblatt (February 2011)
I nodded–just nodded–as Dr. Rothstein, the head librarian, broke the news: The college library had acquired an autographed first edition of Huckleberry Finn, valued at $16,000, for our rare book collection. It was a donation, no strings attached, from an alumnus who wished to remain anonymous; it was, Dr. Rothstein explained, an unadulterated windfall.The book would arrive the following Wednesday and be placed on exhibit at the end of the month.
Even as I nodded, however, my mind was already at work, for I knew that I’d been granted a rare opportunity to do the right thing. Indeed, a case could be made that my entire academic career had prepared me for that moment. The bachelors degree in English at Queens College. The masters in Comp Lit at NYU. The colloquium on Theory that summer at Cornell. The thesis on canon politics and subaltern texts. What had the sum of it accomplished if not to provide me with perspective on the Other?
So I bided my time. I did nothing to call attention to myself; in an ironic twist, it was I myself who signed the receipt when the book was delivered on Wednesday afternoon. I called Dr. Rothstein to come downstairs, then followed him back to his office and watched him unpack it. I noticed a single bead of sweat on his shoehorn forehead as he sliced through the twine with a box cutter and then, with great care, through the tough cardboard, and at last through the cushiony bubble wrap. He wiped his brow with his sleeve. Then he removed the clothbound prize and set it down on his desk. He stared at it for a moment, as though it were a living thing, the dark red cover marred only near the base of the spine by two dime-sized discolorations, perhaps sweat splotches from the brow of the previous owner.
Dr. Rothstein smiled at me with evident delight. “Even as an object,” he said, “it has much to recommend it.”
“Indeed,” I said.
By then, of course, I knew that the word “nigger” appeared exactly 219 times in Huckleberry Finn. The only issue I had to resolve, before I acted, was whether to cross out the word each time, and just leave it at that, or to cross out the word and write in its stead “nigga”–which, as my friend Kwame once explained, had been reclaimed by persons of color as a designation of kinship and respect.
I went back and forth on that question Wednesday night and much of Thursday, and in the end, despite a degree of trepidation, I decided to ask Kwame. Naturally, this meant taking him into my confidence. But I felt certain he could be trusted since he’d been patted down by the police on many occasions, and he’d once spent the night in jail after a dispute with the bursar at NYU.
Kwame’s current project, as it happened, was to reclaim the word “pickaninny”–except spelled pikkkaninny, with three consecutive k’s. Thus, he explained, not only would he alter the term from a racial slur to a term of endearment for the younger generation, he would simultaneously remind America of its ongoing socio-economic apartheid and also deconstruct the traditional bias against tripling consonants. He had a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities, so who better to consult?
After I told him my plan, Kwame intertwined his fingers in front of his mouth, his thumbs joined beneath his chin; I was pleased by the evident seriousness with which he regarded the project. “Intriguing.”
“From a practical standpoint,” I said, “it would be much quicker just to scratch through the word. If I have to write in–”
He tut-tutted me. “The thing must needs be done right . . . or else not at all.”
“Yes, I agree.”
“If you write in the word, what sort of hand would you use?”
“How do you mean?”
“Block letters or cursive?”
“Block, I suppose.”
“And the ink? The ink is critical.”
“I was going to use a felt tipped pen.”
“No, no, that’s all wrong. It would bleed through to the reverse side. The result would appear as mere vandalism. That is precisely not the point.”
I knew I had come to the right man.
He narrowed his eyes at me, then began to smile: “Black ink. Block letters. Cross through the word, and in its stead . . . nothing.”
Friday came, and I was occupied the entire morning with overdue notices; I had to cross-check the database against the actual shelves, ascertain that the book was in reality missing before I sent out the form letters. I was glad for the busy work, for it enabled me to put from my mind that night’s activity. The afternoon dragged on interminably. Finally, at four o’clock, I asked Dr. Rothstein if he would mind if I took the rest of the day off. He smiled at the request, which was quite out of the ordinary. He asked me if I had a date, and I replied that I did–of a sort. He nodded at me, in a knowing way, and told me to enjoy the weekend.
I napped for several hours, and then I laid out the outfit I had bought specially for the operation: a black turtleneck sweater, snug-fitting black jeans and black running shoes. It was a warm evening, 71 degrees, and for a moment I thought to substitute a navy blue tee shirt for the sweater. But in the end I decided to stick with the turtleneck. These were the tropes of the revolutionary. And I am a man who puts stock in tropes.
By the time I climbed the grassy hill to the north of the library, I could feel sweat tricking from the back of my neck down the length of my spine. The library sits alone atop a steep embankment at the west end of the campus; the parking lot just to the south was deserted. Beyond the lot, at the northeast end of the campus, there were distant lights and the faint thumping of hip hop music at the student center. I had left unlocked the rear service exit of the library; it was fitted with a vigorous alarm, but as I left that afternoon I’d cut the electric breaker that connected into the central alarm system, and I’d tried opening and shutting the door several times from the outside, and nothing had happened. Still, I wasn’t certain the alarm wouldn’t go off; it might have been re-armed by a roving maintenance worker. But in the event that happened, I’d just explain that I was running a routine security check . . . which would seem especially plausible in light of the library’s new acquisition,
I stood before the door for several seconds. The moment bore down on me with a sudden weight. My hand trembled as I reached for the steel knob, and I held my breath as I turned it clockwise. It gave. No alarm sounded. I pushed the door open, and a second later I was inside. I switched on the penlight I’d bought at the campus bookstore and shut the door behind me.
I had to climb two levels of stairs to make my way to the long entrance hall, at the end of which was Dr. Rothstein’s office. The office would be locked, of course, but I had a passkey. Dr. Rothstein was a creature of habit, so I knew that the book, in all likelihood, would be in the middle drawer of Dr. Rothstein’s desk. The drawer itself would be locked. But I also knew that Dr. Rothstein kept a spare desk key taped to inside of the unlocked lower left drawer, hidden behind a row of outdated files.
Thus far had I proceeded, to the door that opened out into the entrance hall, when suddenly I heard noises on the other side. There was music, lilting jazz, and below the music I recognized a cluster of voices–and not whispering voices either. I halted in my tracks. My mind was awash with possibilities. Had I checked the library calendar? Was there a reception of some sort–perhaps even for the Twain book? No, that could not be; in the first place, I would surely have been invited. In the second place, I would surely have been the one to send out the invitations. But there was no mistaking the sound of voices on the other side of the door.
So be it, I thought: My project would wait for another evening.
I pushed open the door. The entrance hall was awash with light–not just the fluorescent ceiling bulbs but several high intensity lamps which must have been carted over from the drama department across campus. The furniture and display cases had been pushed up against the side walls, and a crowd of several hundred people milled around the floor. No one took note of me as I stepped into their ranks; many of them were dressed in black, so I did not stand out. I recognized the faces of perhaps a dozen faculty members in the first minute. Several were from the English Department, several more from Linguistics and one each from Sociology and Art History. They were talking happily of academic things, mentioning articles from the Book Review section of the New York Times, the New York Review of Books, the Times Literary Supplement and the London Review of Books. There was gossip as well: the chair of the Women’s Studies Program was having an affair with a teaching assistant; an untenured Comp Lit instructor had paid to have his dissertation published; a professor emeritus in Philosophy had been diagnosed with testicular cancer.
As I listened, suddenly, I felt a hand on my shoulder. “The man of the moment!”
I spun around. It was Kwame. He was smiling at me in a broad, welcoming way.
“What is this?” I said. “What’s going on?”
“Why . . . it’s the fruition of your dream.”
“I don’t understand.”
“These people are gathered by your inspiration. I called them myself–”
“You called them?”
“Of course I called them!”
“But I asked you to keep it a secret.”
Kwame shook his head. “Surely, you never meant to deprive others of their opportunity to make amends.”
“No, of course not, but–”
“The collective catharsis must needs trump the individual. It must needs do so, or what kind of world do we live in? Surely, you of all people will recognize that.”
I wanted to feel betrayed, to feel outraged, but he was talking sense.
He began to smile again. Then he reached out his hand, and I clasped it tightly.
“So where’s the Twain book?”
“Right over there,” Kwame said, gesturing with his right arm.
I turned towards the front of the hall. There was a line of approximately four dozen people which wound from Dr. Rothstein’s office door to the far wall and then along the wall half the distance to the elevator bank. At the very head of the line stood Dr. Rothstein himself. He was holding a gray cardboard box of commemorative fountain pens, and he was presenting one at that very moment to a stocky woman with a buzz cut. As I watched, the woman bent over the Twain book, which was laid open on a round conference table, and made a quick mark with the pen. Then she stood up, shook Dr. Rothstein’s hand, tucked the pen into her shirt pocket, and stepped aside for the next person in line.
“Do you see the expression on that woman’s face?” Kwame asked.
I strained to see it, but she had turned her back and was now mingling with other guests.
“Think of the burden lifted from her!” he said. “It’s your inspiration that has done this thing . . . this right thing.”
“All right,” I said, and at that moment, I thought it might be all right. “I’ll get in line and make my mark.”
The look on Kwame’s face changed instantly. “Oh my!”
“No, it’s all right. The collective is what matters. I’ll just get in line–”
“This is rather awkward.”
“What’s the problem?”
“I assumed . . . well, I shouldn’t have assumed. That’s the point. Still–”
“Spit it out,” I said.
“The line is finished. We drew lots–219 to be precise. That man at the end of the line, he’s number 219. He’s the last one.”
Now I was fuming. “Then he’ll have to give up his place!”
“I can’t ask him to do that,” Kwame said. “The thing was done fairly and democratically.”
“You said you drew lots!”
“What could be more fair and democratic than chance?”
Suddenly, I noticed the fountain pen in Kwame’s shirt pocket. “Did you draw a lot?”
“I would have drawn . . . I asked for no special consideration, but Rothstein himself insisted that I do the honors in the first instance.”
“Wait, I have an idea. Come with me.”
I followed Kwame into the reference room, located across the hall from where we stood. I assumed that he didn’t want to be overheard–that what he had in mind was so subversive that he dared not speak of it in the entrance hall. He switched on the overhead light, then closed the door behind us.
Then he turned to me. “Wait right here. I’ll only be a moment.”
He hurried off in the direction of the reference shelves. There followed, seconds later, the sound of rustling paper which lasted perhaps half a minute, then a series of scrapes and bangs. I was beginning to grow impatient; I took a step in the direction of the noise, but at that instant Kwame reappeared. He was carrying a large scroll of paper; he bore it in front of him in both hands, like an imperial scepter, and he presented it to me.
“What is it?” I asked.
“It’s a map of Africa.
“Why are you giving it to me?”
“I thought you might cross out Niger.”
“The country, Niger,” he said. “Or else Nigeria. Or even both–since the entire evening was your inspiration.”
“But what purpose would that serve?”
“Yes, I see your point. The phonemes are skewed. What about Nicaragua?”
“I’ll find the map–”
“No, wait!” I said. “Why would I want to cross out Nicaragua?”
He folded his hands across his chest. “Make up your mind! The offense lies either in the phoneme or the grapheme. By definition, the offense must lie within one or the other. So which is it?”
“I don’t know. It’s both, I suppose–the sound and the letters. In any event, I don’t see how it can be addressed on a map of Africa. Or Central America. What you’re suggesting would be . . . well, forgive me for saying so, but it would be senseless.”
“As a person of color,” he said, “I reject and resent the insinuations of your last remark. You’re treading on very thin ice, my friend.”
“I’m not insinuating a thing–”
“I think it wise to say no more.”
With that, he stepped past me and headed back in the direction of the entrance hall. So I was left alone in the reference room. With nothing else to do, I unrolled the map of Africa and stared first at Niger, then at Nigeria. I toyed for a moment with drawing a line through both of them, but in the end I decided against it. They were just places on a map. There was nothing to be accomplished by crossing them out. Even worse, the act might be misinterpreted. I could well imagine an African American student rolling out the map decades hence, for whatever reason, noticing the lines, and feeling himself, well, oppressed.
I rolled up the map and leaned it against a filing cabinet.
I took several steps in the direction of the entrance hall, but then I remembered the offense I had given Kwame. He would not be pleased to see me back in the entrance hall, among his guests. Let it go for tonight, I thought: I would make it up to him tomorrow. So I turned around and walked towards the freight elevator, which would take me down to the ground level, then out through the loading dock door.
Yes, I would make it up to Kwame tomorrow.
I had done enough for one night.
Mark Goldblatt’s latest novel, SLOTH, was published last summer by Greenpoint Press. Email: [email protected]
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