The old man walked along the railroad tracks. The sun was setting as he passed the grapefruit groves. By now everyone in town knew Duncan Mosbright was missing. In a town the likes of Tamarind, news spread much like citrus canker. Those grapefruit groves had been planted years ago by Duncan's grandfather, Orvil. Back then, this area was nothing but sand, scrub oak and palmetto. Of sturdy stock, Orvil had practically built what quickly transformed into upscale community. The town chose to call itself Tamarind, after what Orvil named the coral rock bungalow he built for his family. Hurricanes and real estate reverses slammed this part of Florida in quick succession, turning what some had called paradise on earth, to a hellish disaster. Orvil lost everything.
Out of pity, the city council and mayor, agreed to give him a small job with the city, working the printing press that published news townsfolk ought to read.
The missing Duncan, son of Arvon and grandson of Orvil, showed little spunk as a child, spending his days reading books and playing in his room. By the time he was a man, his family considered him a total failure, not caring about business, money, planting groves, or much of anything else.
A cool haze settled around the old man. A chill shook his thin shoulders. Was it due to the night air or that story in the newspaper? The article called Duncan the 'tin man.'
"Tin man," the old man muttered. He turned, glancing at grapefruit groves beyond which the sun threatened to vanish and envelop him in total darkness. The railroad tracks that once carried golden grapefruit to northern markets, had at first held promise for his pathetic attempt to find Duncan, but now overwhelmed the old man with a foreboding of terror.
"Tin man," he spat in anger. How could they call Duncan that? The old man had never called him Duncan, had hardly even spoken to him through all the years he frequented the bookshop. The newspaper article shown him by the waitress at the coffee shop called him 'tin man.' The old man knew very well the passion the bookseller had for collecting tin soldiers, but calling him that, and for all the public to see, was horrible. The bookseller had been kind to the old man, more so than anyone else he could remember.
The old man knew of damage. Until that one day at the bookshop, he had believed there was no hope, no purpose in his life at all. The harm, the anger, the fear of his youth had warped him to the point of no return. Then came that moment. Walking on the railroad tracks now, emotions raw to breaking point, how he wished it had not happened. It hurt too much to even consider what the article in the paper had so matter-of-factly stated, about Duncan Mosbright being last seen walking along the railroad tracks.
If the old man had never reached out, never brought that shoebox containing his manuscript to the bookshop, he would not now be in the worst pain of his life, walking aimlessly along those same tracks where the bookseller, or 'tin man,' as the reporter so crassly called him, was last seen.
Freight trains ran twice a day now, long, rough strings of ugly cars with brutal looking cargo. It would be hours before the next one passed. But the old man was not concerned about trains. His mind wandered to the events culminating in this walk, along those wide gauges of track, heading to some endless point.
What was the name of it? He had learned about an imaginary point on the horizon in school, but his thoughts were out of kilter, and he could not remember. He was barely holding on to sanity, by now a fraying thread. That point was invisible - so why even give it a name?
Then he thought of the day he first entered the bookshop. He left the coffee counter after his usual meal of toast and coffee and although he had walked down this street for years, suddenly noticed a little sign on the window of a three story hotel front sandwiched between nondescript awnings, walls and concrete abutments. 'Books,' written in block letters, was all it said.
He was not sure when he made his move. Time for the old man had ceased to mean anything. He long ago gave up his watch, or rather the watch gave up on him, hopelessly over-wound one careless evening. Yet, as surely as millstones grind kernels of parched corn, ever so slowly, yet ever moving toward a goal, he would be drawn to that shop; Not he only, but his life, or what was now the only representation of his life - the manuscript.
Holding the worn shoebox under his arm was nothing new. He always took the manuscript with him, not trusting the manager or tenants in the flophouse of a place he lived, overshadowed by newly built towering glass and steel office buildings. It was a matter of months, a year at most, before the wrecking ball would zero in on the Spanish style stucco over wood structure of a bygone era, slowly corroding under mold, rot and termites. He didn't object when rent was raised, either. He would tighten his belt a little bit more, that was all. It was his home, as the manuscript was his life. It did not occur to the old man that a young hood could easily brush against him on the street, toss the shoe box to the winds, scattering all the pages to be run over by careless tire treads.
This time, however, the box under his arm felt hot, as if it was a magnet pointing him to that sign in the window. He lived in fear most of the time, but now an unexpected pocket of courage flooded his mind, his heart, even his legs, for they seemed pulled toward a thick glass door, reminiscent of a grander era of doormen, gaslight brass sconces and liveries, next to that window with the apologetic little sign 'Books.'
He took the three steps up and with the lightest touch, the door moved inward. The hall was dark but he immediately noticed another smaller wooden door to his right. Again, as if by a magnetic pull, he knew it was the entrance to the book-shop. As soon as he passed the threshold, and carefully closing the door behind him, for he was obsessively considerate when in public, he suddenly felt like heavy medieval gates had shut behind him and he was headed for the stake, the rack or some other unearthly torture.
This dread was softened by the comforting aroma of old books filling his nostrils. Books, his only love now, kept him from gagging in fear. Overwhelmed, he knew he had made a terrible mistake, but it was too late to back out. He also felt a strange relief deep inside, like after searing pain, a patient sees the bullet surgeons removed from his leg.
The old man knew it was over, although he didn't know what it was. His mind was now floating somewhere under the dim ceiling and he watched his body move slowly down the narrow aisles of the small shop. He noticed his eyes looking around, looking much like an ordinary customer walking into an ordinary store.
The body he was watching was that of a man, reserved by nature, intimidated by the weighty appearance of this tiny antique book store's gold encrusted tomes, the rich, burnished leather covers and a presence in the back, behind a glass wall. The old man then looked back at his own body below and wondered why he had never noticed how sadly his shoulders slumped. Then his mind saw the old man raise his head in the direction of the figure far in the back of the shop.
His mind was painfully aware that at some point the bookseller would look at him. There would be eye contact. He could mutter some kind of apology: he made a mistake, he was looking for a laundry. That would have been a lie. He never went to the laundry. He rinsed his few clothes out in the sink in his room.
The coffee shop - he could turn around and run back to the coffee shop - that would be a refuge of sorts. But the waitress would be rude if he came back. Besides, he already had his coffee and toast. She would say something that would make him furious for the rest of the day. What could he do? He was trapped. The box under his arm, it was not safe here. He knew that. Outside, in the din of traffic and dozens of uncaring people rushing around, he felt safe. But here, it was like being called to explain himself, to be called to account, for all his sins, disrobing in front of an inquisition, and being found hopelessly deformed and guilty.
Yet the scene below continued appearing rather ordinary. His mind watched the old man take the cardboard box he had clutched with both hands in front of him, and backed out the door. Someone was entering the thick glass door at that moment, and the old man walked through it, into the bright sun and the smell of car emissions.
Then his mind joined his body again and now he noticed the surroundings. The sky was cloudless but he had the feeling a thunderstorm was soon coming. He also felt violated, betrayed and above all, that he had lost whatever little freedom he had in his life.
Why did he enter that bookshop in the first place? He was after all, an adult, and a functioning one, if just barely so. He did not have many social skills, but he knew to choose to go here, not there, or to say no to an offer for newspaper subscriptions or other invasions by the culture he lived in. Yet on some deep level he knew this event, this visit, this confrontation, was inevitable. Somehow all those days, months and years of writing those pages, would culminate in something. This bookshop, until now invisible, at least to the old man, was that reckoning and nexus of all his efforts.
What was so important to him about the cardboard box? The manuscript it contained was not a book, not a romance, space fantasy or mystery, in other words, nothing of much interest to the average reader, or perhaps to any reader whatever. It did not belong in the first world, or second, or even the third world. If anything, it was, although a present tense is more correct, since it kept ever growing, much like a comic strip where a little child stays ever young, with the same dress or shirt, lives in the same neighborhood, has the same adventures, though its creator is long dead and others keep up the demand of the public, if only for its nostalgia value.
This manuscript was quite different in many ways. There would never be a demand for it. It was not intended to be shared with anyone. The old man did not want anyone to see it. That is why it was so unexplainable to himself, why he had made that brief and quickly aborted attempt at the bookshop.
A writer of books usually has an idea, a plot, a motive, a purpose before he or she sits down to write the first word or sentence. The old man had no idea what he was typing or why he was doing this. The only person who had come to his room was a man he met at the coffee shop who played cards with him once in a while. That man had never asked about those piles of papers by the typewriter, which he put on the floor to clear the table for playing cards. If the man had mentioned them, it would have offended and scared him and he would no longer have allowed the visits.
Since things and people change, often unawares, the manuscript must have changed through the years. Yet, the old man never looked at any of the pages again once they were pulled out of the rubber roll of the typewriter. He would not admit the possibility that something written a year ago might be exactly what he was writing now: The same coffee and toast, the same waitress or her replacement, the same room, the same clothes. Had he written about the waitress? He didn't know. All he knew was, writing, pecking out those words in letters he was so familiar with, the lump of ink in the round part of the 'a', the distorted 'm', was the relief he needed to soften the dread of his day. His mind, far too muddled to consider the meaning of life, its purpose, or any of the abstractions discussed by others, could only focus on this one thing.
Sometimes he congratulated himself for having used up the dark silk ribbon of the typewriter to its utmost saturation of ink. Then he would carefully pop it out of the machine. He never did this without first having purchased a new ribbon in an out of the way store that still carried such outdated merchandise. It never occurred to him this store might go out of business and he might not be able to use his typewriter any more.
Back in the bright sunlight of the light colored asphalt street, he knew his life was no longer in safe compartments. It would never again be his secret, since he knew without doubt that the bookseller, the man in the back of the shop knew exactly what it was. How could that be? It made no sense, but he knew his privacy was now gone. For years, there had been no thought to share it. But that was no longer the case. He imagined himself falling into a pickle barrel, a one-way fermentation, and the pickle would never again be a cucumber.
Months passed before the old man again approached the bookshop. He had no forethought to do this, but it was much like the obsession of returning to the scene of a crime. He pushed open the thick glass door to enter the narrow hallway and used an old fashioned handle to open the smaller wooden door. He saw the hunched over figure peering from a cubicle, perhaps twenty feet back. On closer view, the bookseller may have been in his late twenties, hands smooth, almost childlike, fine skin, bright blue eyes. His clothes, well made, subdued neutral shorts and a button down sports shirt, would have suited a casual, up and coming student on a college campus.
The way he held his shoulders and his manner indicated a more mature individual. Though young and well built, this bookseller would have looked out of place on a snowboard, a whitewater raft, or even a local gym. He blended in with the paneled walls, books and wooden wainscoting.
The bookseller spent every day in this shop, filled with neatly stacked volumes, each of literary value, whether it be a yellowed pamphlet or a leather-bound, gilded set from another age. He appeared an old, obscure soul floating above the bustle outside, living, as it were, among the hallowed ones whose words would not go away but grew in meaning and endearment as years passed.
This time the old man did not feel dread or foreboding. It was like visiting a friend, one who shared a secret nobody else knew. He felt oddly comfortable. Once his eyes accustomed to the darkness, the old man again noted rows of neatly arranged tomes, richly bound, graced with the patina of other centuries. Some called it a used bookstore. Few returned, intimidated by lofty subjects and prices. There was no fiction, other than time-honored classics; tales holding a grain of universal truth, untarnished by passing fads or pretentious emotions.
The old man began coming to this store between noon and one o'clock every day. He did not go to the back, but stayed perched on one of the two wooden barstools next to a small clearance table by the entrance. He carefully placed the shoebox on the other stool. Nobody ever stopped at that table when he sat there. It did not occur to him someone else might want to use the other stool. Nobody ever did, in all the years he came there, and his shoebox sat undisturbed.
He studied the few paperbacks and odd materials priced at almost giveaway prices. Each, however, seemed carefully chosen for its subject and value to inform. When it was close to one o'clock, he took one or two slim volumes and walked to the rear. There he stood silently and after hearing the sum announced in a low voice, slipped a small bill in the slot. The purchases were placed in an unmarked bag and a handwritten receipt, along with change, slid toward him. Occasionally, someone would stop in to sell cartons of books, or there would be a phone call from a dealer of rare metal soldiers.
The old man spent many afternoons browsing the clearance table. He found most of the books interesting, but all the while he felt the presence of the bookseller, a pleasant presence, as if the two were connected, like old friends who had no need to chatter or talk. It did not seem important to the old man that they did not know each other's names, had never really talked except for the announcement of the price of the purchase, usually a very small amount.
The old man knew the history of the Mosbrights and of Tamarind. Who didn't? They were famous. Tourist brochures announced the story, along with nostalgic photos of the heyday of Tamarind, when girls in antebellum costumes floated in swan shaped gondolas down crystal clear waterways which now were prosaic canals with muddy water.
The old man could not think of those happier days. His mind always went to a little print shop on the side of a grand and opulent city hall, where the grandfather of the bookseller plugged away, hands full of printers ink, waiting for a small paycheck so he could pay rent for a room in someone else's home.
Now he was on those same railroad tracks that had long ago taken fresh grapefruit to distant markets, when the smell of blossoms filled the pungent tropic air and life simpler. Or was it? The old man had been young once. He had never felt young, though. He could not remember how old he was when those children had torn his life apart, stunted him forever. It was much too painful to bring back any details from that time, the one moment that changed everything.
The sun was sinking lower on the horizon.
"Vanishing point," he exclaimed. It came to him in a sudden flash of recognition. The bookseller had vanished. Nobody knew where he was. The old man could just as well keep walking and vanish, too, except nobody would bother to write an article about him. What would they call him, if they did? If the bookseller was the 'tin man,' what would they call the old man if he suddenly disappeared? Would they even notice?
Now his mind went back to the bookshop, how it used to be.
Through the years, overheard from phone conversations or the few who stopped by, the old man noted the bookseller occasionally accepted unusual manuscripts. What the shoebox held was certainly unusual and the old man called it his manuscript. Yet the time came, when enough gentle layers of time had softened the initial shock of walking in that bookshop and backing out in panic, he made a leap of courage quite atypical of him and from an unknown source of strength.
He heard the frogs calling from distant ponds. He had seen no houses or people anywhere near the tracks. A stray dog had crossed the tracks and did not even look at him. Had he vanished, and was now a ghost? If the freight train came, would they not see him, not even have an impact on him?
Now the old man relived that other moment, the one when, instead of bringing a book or two from the clearance table to the bookseller's window, he put the old shoebox on the small counter of the glass-enclosed cubicle.
"I have something here..." he had muttered.
"What can I do for you?" the bookseller had said, showing no emotion on his smooth face.
'Well..." he hesitated. "It's this." He nodded toward the box. Then his face began to twitch. It always did when he was afraid. Blood rushed to his head and he saw his body back out of the shop, muttering 'I'm sorry.'
The sun was still bright, the pavement still menacingly hot as he crossed the boulevard, unaware of cars or traffic. An open manhole in the middle of the sun-beaten asphalt caused his leg to slip directly into a dark abyss. Looking up, the unfortunate victim of careless street maintenance workers saw the bookseller standing above him.
"Give me two pages," the bookseller said.
The old man opened the cover of the box, which was sitting undisturbed on the pavement, and took out two pages from the top, all the while wondering why there was no pain in the leg hidden from view, and why a feeling of warmth bathed his being. He was glad, too, that the bookseller had not pulled him out of the hole. It somehow would have hurt his pride. He hated to be dependent on anyone, though he felt that of all the people he saw around him, he surely was the most dependent of them all, on some level he knew not what.
In the days ahead, he would enter the bookshop and leave several pages in a brown paper bag, placing them on a high shelf near the door. On the next visit, the paper bag would be empty, except for a lone tin soldier.
Months passed and the old man's windowsill in the small studio in the old hotel filled with little soldiers. He did not like this clutter, since now it was hard to open and close the window and he finally left it open, whether it was raining or the weather turned cold.
He continued writing, taking the pages to the shop, as always and a trust welled up in him, little by little, a link, a hope, that his life was not in vain, after all. Someone, even if it was a strange child in a man's body who still played with toy soldiers, had accepted his offer. To reciprocate, the old man accepted the little figurines.
Now it was dark. The tracks glowed eerie in the moonlight. Stars looked unusually bright. How far had he walked? He did not feel tired. He remembered that moment in the coffee shop. There was nothing unusual that day. He looked about the same as always, beard haphazardly trimmed, sitting in the same window booth with his newspaper, ignored by workers on their lunch break. The waitresses asked the same questions, customers ordered the usual sandwiches and drinks. He liked the anonymity of this luncheonette. A few pages into the newspaper, the word 'tin' caught his eye.
"Can I warm it up?" The waitress asked. He always ordered black coffee and toast, no butter, and he always said 'yes' to a refill.
He moved the cup slightly toward her.
"Ain't it awful," she said. "He just kept walking down those tracks. That's the last anybody saw of him."
He looked up, confused.
"The article," she said. "The tin man. You always went to his shop, didn't you?"
He moved his elbow, spilling coffee on the table and on the floor. He got up, brushed by her and was out the door, clutching the newspaper to his chest, along with the shoebox.
"Hey, come back," she said.
"What a nut," another waitress remarked. "How can you stand having to deal with him?"
"He better come back and pay or they'll take it out of my pocket."
He did not walk toward the bookshop. He turned into an alley and soon found himself on a concrete bench by a parking lot. He did not notice the sweat soaking through his thin shirt, soon drenching the woolen suit jacket he always wore. What was the waitress talking about? He rustled through the paper, finding nothing but sport scores, obituaries, weather forecasts, everything but the word tin he had seen earlier. Was he losing his mind?
The waitress had read about the tin man. It had to be there. She was real. How could she, or anyone else, know about the bookseller's metal soldier collection? None of the local people ever went to that shop. It could not be the bookseller someone had seen. Punctual, conscientious, he was the least likely person to just walk down the tracks about half a mile from the shop, past the grapefruit groves planted by Orvil Mosbright. The bookseller was his grandson. He would never leave his shop like that. Never.
"Hey, mister, you got some change?" a man with swollen, bare feet approached him as he sat with the newspaper and his shoebox by the parking garage, as employees rushed to and from their lunch breaks. Not daring to look into the face of someone so desperate, the old man fumbled for coins in the outside pocked of his well-worn jacket.
"God bless you," was said in a hoarse, but very kind voice.
Nobody had blessed him in a long time. When was the last time anyone had even spoken to him, except for the waitress? He felt a warmth hearing the word 'God' and then realized he was soaked in his own sweat. Then he saw it.
'Tin Man Disappears.' In bright sunlight reflecting from light asphalt, it was easy to see the small print of the article.
"Duncan Mosbright, son of Arvon Mosbright, founder of Intermax Publishing, and grandson of Orvil, who first settled this area, had not returned home after leaving his book shop at 447 Ponce Place. His wife said he always returned at six fifteen sharp. She reported him missing the next morning.
"Duncan, eccentric collector of tin soldiers and rare books, did not drive. He walked to work and back always carrying a book under his arm. He kept to himself, but locals dubbed him 'tin man'. Police got an anonymous call that the 'tin man' was seen walking on the railroad tracks, looking confused, headed away from town. The last freight train had gone by half an hour earlier and there would not be another one until three in the morning. The public is requested to contact Det.. Sgt. Travis of Missing Persons with any information."
He looked up, sweat stinging his eyes, but he did not care. Then he bent down as tears began rolling down his cheeks. All passersby saw was an old man sitting on a bench, dropping a newspaper and seemingly dozing off. They did not see the transformation, how could they?
The heat from the sun combined with an icy foreboding, caused his mind to bend reality and transported him to the bookshop. He believed he was now talking to the bookseller, or rather, exchanging thoughts without speaking.
'It is the tin soldiers, isn't it?' he projected. 'That's why you never leave this shop.' In that area, fronted by the glass cubicle, separate from the bookshelves up front, a veritable miniature war zone smoldered in frozen motion, ranging from ancient battles, centuries old skirmishes and most recently, an exact replica of an outpost of the French Foreign Legion in Algiers.
Shelves brimming with Napoleon's armies, tables spread with hills and troops at Appomattox, tanks, weapons, tents on wooded hillsides, all in a state of readiness, minuscule tin motion, forever ready to do battle. The bookseller did not sell these things, for he was above all, a collector. He would buy, rarely and with great discernment, but he would not sell.
The old man was familiar with the bookseller's voice from the few phone calls. He spoke well-chosen, weighty words in a low voice to obscure dealers and collectors. Sometimes there were private individuals trying to dump a dead relative's old tin figurines.
Other than that, the old man heard his voice when announcing the sum of a book the old man wanted to purchase, which occasionally had no price. This was because a stray customer had carelessly wiped off the price, never because the bookseller forgot to mark it. The tiny amount was announced with dignity, as if the old man were purchasing a rare volume signed by J. J. Rousseau, or a Basque relic of the 'Song of Roland.'
He now remembered, holding back small, meager tears, the few times he was allowed to enter the cubicle and view some of the collections. Little had been said, but the old man sensed a great feeling of pride in the collector, as if he had opened his heart, a rather childlike one. These times were not mentioned, for there was no conversation. Perhaps neither understood the purpose or skill of conversation. Perhaps it was a product of civilization neither had been granted, or even if it had, they may have chosen to leave it be.
The old man did not analyze words and sentences people produced. He lived in his own world. Nor did he understand the mind of a collector, that urge. Collections, whether of ivory elephants whittled from the very tusk which served the living beast, or ripped from his cheeks after being shot; or of little odd shaped ceramic mushrooms of small aesthetic value, seemed to him a waste of time and money.
He respected the cunning details, colorful uniforms and intricately dressed horses, but the old man had never wanted, actually dreaded having many objects around him and his little room. When one toothbrush became hopelessly worn, he immediately tossed it out when it was replaced. He used one bowl, one spoon, one cup. In winter he wore a dark suit and in summer khaki pants and a cotton shirt, topped with a brown jacket which fit his body, tailored to his shape by years of wear, a shape no custom tailor could ever duplicate.
The old man would be disturbed if more than one picture hung on the wall. But there would never be a time he would chide the bookseller about that 'silly, boyish hobby,' an expression he had silently mouthed, but never dared utter. So many thoughts went through his mind that would never be heard by anyone. That is why the manuscript was so important to him. That is why he had a connection with the bookseller unlike that of any other human he had ever met.
How could the bookseller just walk down those tracks? The old man shuddered. Where were those pages? What would happen if the bookseller really disappeared? Nobody would understand if they tried to read pages from the manuscript. They would put him away for sure if he had put his name on any of the papers, which he had not.
But now what? What would he do with the remaining chapters? He had no copies of what he had given the bookseller. He suddenly began crying like a child. His mind flashed back to that time in the play-yard, when he was ten. A boy promised to bring him a compass set, a very fine one, if he would sing one verse of a children's song about a snail. He knew the song, although he could not sing very well.
"I am a little snail...." He began. Suddenly several other boys jumped out from behind a column and began laughing.
"Little snail, little snail," they taunted him.
After that prank, he stayed to himself. He never got over it. Instead of drawing triangles, circles and boxes, a habit he had at home when in his room, now he would just lie in his bed and play with little tin soldiers on the counterpane. Many times, the other army would be those boys, and his armies always killed them, over and over again. When a maid threw away 'those little nuisances clogging up my vacuum cleaner,' he made up his mind not to collect anything any more.
The old man realized that he, too, had been a tin man, or rather a tin child. Now he was transported to his room. He took off his jacket and shirt and put them over the cane back chair and turned the little fan on them, to dry off the sweat.
He was walking in the stillness of night on railroad tracks, but his mind was in his room. He lay on the lumpy Bahama bed, thoughts flying around the room and beyond. Why had he not remembered those tin soldiers of yore? Was he so repressed that he lost his youth in a neurosis? For it had to be a sickness of the mind, he was sure of that. Yet somehow the manuscript was his ticket to sanity. It had to be. Otherwise he would be hopelessly lost.
He wondered what would have happened if he had pursued his geometric bent, if the cruel boys of his youth had not made fun of him that day, or later, if the maid had not thrown away his armies? He thought about collecting and wondered if somewhere in the crevices of his being, there was still that urge, though much stunted.
Surely the bookseller had some painful moments when growing up. He had to. Why else would be so obsessed with his shop, his collections? Or had he been on the other side? Had he been one of the boys who would taunt, or someone who would throw away another child's favorite toy?
He couldn't have been one of them. The old man could not trust much, but he would stake his life on the bookseller. But wait! Was this the same man who walked out of his shop one afternoon and just walked away, on an endless looking railroad track that led to nowhere?
Then he thought of collecting. What was it, anyway? And surely, when observing oddities of another, or what seemed odd to him at the time, he suspected his own mind could easily miss a darker, more compulsive urge of his own to collect, amass, spend excessive amounts of time, energy and life blood at a pursuit, a morbid tendency apparent to all except, alas, the very victim of that urge. Was he not, after all, a collector of words, pages, ideas? He often felt like a victim - of other people, he thought, but perhaps he was instead a victim of his own words, sentences and paragraphs.
Just because the manuscript didn't look to anyone else like a collection, he suddenly knew without a doubt, that he was even more of a collector than the bookseller. Was not his entire life centered about the manuscript? Writing those pages, every day, on his manual, well-worn Royal type-writer, was the only thing he enjoyed, appreciated, got up in the morning for. He collected those sheets and in a way, put them on display in the bookshop, although for the bookseller's eyes only. The bookseller could and had let a bit more of the world in on his obsession - a few dealers, a few shoppers, a few antiquarians. But the old man - his obsession was much more powerful if only because it was so undiluted.
He thought of when he first got the courage to ask the bookseller about his pages. He thought of the shop, how there had been a definite understanding in the eye contact; the one, young, yet at the same time ageless, framed by small soldiers and bayonets, the other, of indistinguishable aspect, hands still touching the cardboard box. They were separated by sheets of glass set in the walls of the cubicle, each pane with small imperfections, such as bubbles and a mild distortion of reality.
The old man must at some subconscious level have considered the act of daily weaving thought fragments, remnants of a failed life, as it were, a growing tapestry consisting of white sheets of uniform size upon which oily ink stains formed letters in combinations not always rational in meaning, a quilt, possibly limitless, that might imperceptibly and yet, inevitably, grow to swallow up the room where the creator pounded metal keys, day by day and particularly, night by night, to be the very hallmark of a collector, so much the more insidious because the objects collected, several daily pages, were not bought or traded, and where the collector and the collected, so to speak, were one and the same. He didn't think it could happen, but it had. Was this not the thing that both men had in common, what connected them with an odd, if unacknowledged, bond?
On an overt level, there was a great gulf between the collector of tin soldiers and the gatherer and chronicler of words, sentences and paragraphs. Yet there was an unmistakable bond between them when on that particular day he placed the cardboard box containing the manuscript on a little counter in the rear of the shop.
One tin soldier is singular, he thought; a troop of soldiers plural, in the sense that a forest is plural. There are a finite number of antique tin soldiers in the world, if they are authentic, that is. The bookseller, from the appearance of the shop, had been meticulous, aware of the smallest nuance, even down to his finely buffed fingernails. He never mentioned it to anyone, his knack for spotting a reproduction or fake by the aura alone of the person proffering it, whether it was the real McCoy. The minute they walked in the shop, he had known. The old man easily sensed that. That was another thing odd about their relationship. The old man seemed to feel very clearly what the bookseller was thinking or rather, how he was thinking. That is why walking down those tracks made no sense whatever. The old man could not understand this and it was the first time he could not understand the bookseller, although he had not until now realized that he was on the same wavelength, almost inside the soul of the bookseller all those years.
His mind, unable to comprehend the pain of that thought, and the perceived loss, now went into semantics and plays on ideas, just to relieve the discomfort. The phrase ' day's writing,' he mused, or 'the day's output,' whether it be one, two or many pages, may be considered a singular concept. But as the days add up, those writings become a plural enterprise, in a sense not befitting the rules of grammar. They have a somewhat frightening reality. This collecting, this hobby, may never, ever end, until, of course, the collector's and at the same time creator's hand slackens and falls limp in the lap. He thought of death. He had often thought of it, but not in any real sense. It was something like the deaths of tin soldiers who the next day would be back in uniform, ready to fight a new battle.
Then he realized the bookseller might have been hit by a train. Those long, noisy freight trains would come along twice a day. If someone fell asleep on the tracks or felt apathetic enough, there would be no chance of survival. Yet he could not see that healthy, strong, young man as anything but alive, always alive, always calm, orderly, patient. He envisioned him now, behind the pane of glass, always with an air of acceptance and assurance that 'yes, he would always be there.' Well, that had to be an illusion, yet another one, just like the illusion that boy in the play yard would give him a compass set.
He suddenly found himself laughing. All he would have had to do was ask his father for one. His father had encouraged his scientific bent. Why had he made a fool of himself trying to sing that day? He knew he couldn't sing or carry a tune. Had it been some urge to communicate with others, to be part of a group, to have a friend? It had been true that his family lived in a better house, had better clothes and did not worry about money. But he was a child then, it was not his fault that other children kept their distance.
Or maybe it hadn't been that at all. Maybe he was just a damaged person, someone who was too odd to be accepted by others. Maybe it was him and not his family at all. Why had he never thought of that before? Why had he not thought of many things before, like what the bookseller really meant in his life?
"Damn it?" he heard himself shout.
He never cursed that he could remember. Nor could he remember a black rage now filling his veins, blood surging like a cascade through his limbs. Was he having a heart attack? Maybe that would be a good thing. Maybe it would blot out the pain he didn't want to feel of what the next day's newspaper might say. Next day, would there be a next day?
"Man found dead on tracks," he said out loud. He seldom spoke, except the few words to the waitress, the short exchange with the bookseller, and very little while playing cards with a neighbor. Once he had said 'ouch' when he stubbed his toe in his room and immediately heard something thump against the thin wall. The neighbor must have thrown a shoe. Once in a while he would listen to a small radio, turning the sound very low. Trying to stay quiet seemed like a buffer of safety for him.
The evening air was frigid now. There had been no consequence to his speaking out loud.
"Man found dead on tracks," he said again. No, he must not even think of such a fatal thing. That was a very sick thought. He suddenly had an urge to fix a cup of tea. How could he, now that he was far from home? He probably could not have found his way back, even with the help of the tracks. He thought of the comforting heat of the hot plate in his room and the one metal mug he owned. Would he ever see that tin cup again?
'Tin,' he thought, 'tin.' That word seemed to sear his mind.
"Tin man," he whispered. How dare anybody call his friend that? Friend. Then he realized the impact of that word. Yes, he was his friend, his only friend. Even if he never saw him again, now the old man knew his life, his writing was not in vain. For he had a friend who he had shared his great love with, his words, his sentences, albeit not all of them, but enough.
Yes, it was enough. Maybe nobody could ever totally share love, words and thoughts with another. But it was enough. Whatever they had was enough. It was good. It made up for all the pain, all the discomfort, all the odd feelings all through his life and quite likely those of the bookseller, to have come to this point in life and to have touched another.
Had the bookseller become fed up with the manuscript? A sense of guilt overwhelmed the old man. Had the bookseller felt about the writing like he, the writer, felt about the tin soldiers - something with little or no meaning? Was that why this day signaled the end of his life as he knew it, why the writing wouldn't matter, why the little figures of tin didn't matter?
He could not think to the end of those railroad tracks. They, like his manuscript, seemed endless. He could see no finale, no ending and certainly not a happy one. Now it was too dark to even see more than three ties in front of him. His legs felt tired. He was getting a blister on his right heel.
"Over here," the nurse said, pointing an attractively dressed young woman toward a door in the intensive care wing of Tamarind Hospital.
The woman entered, arms full of fresh flowers, which smelled of Casablanca lilies and night blooming jasmine.
The old man opened his eyes.
"I love you," she gushed, brushing her cheek against his sallow face, slightly moving the oxygen tube attached to his nose.
"Don't say anything," she continued, lowering herself to a chair near the raised hospital bed.
A nurse entered with a vase and placed the flowers on a laminated dresser against the wall.
"Duncan came home last night," the woman who brought the lilies said. "He told me all about you. I came to see you at your apartment, but the manager said you were not at home. I had been working with Det. Sgt. Travis to locate Duncan and he helped me find you, too."
"I don't' understand..." the old man said. Who was this woman? Where was he? Had he died?
"The doctor said you were very weak. A truck driver saw you fall down at a railroad crossing and brought you in. They told me you suffered from heat and sun exhaustion. You came close to losing your mind."
"Losing my mind," the old man said. "That's funny." He tried to move but discovered his hands were tied to the bed.
"You saved Duncan's life, you know," she said. "The doctor said I could only visit for five minutes, so I'll be brief.
The old man watched the woman's face. He had not seen anyone so beautiful, except a girl he loved when he was in elementary school, in those early years before most of his childhood dreams ended in failure.
The woman looked down, unable to make eye contact with the old man. "I have to tell you I was jealous of you."
"Me?" the old man said.
"Duncan would come home after work and tell me about your visits. You meant, mean, a lot to him. I can't explain, really, but I was so wrapped up with spending money and playing bridge with the girls, that I never really got interested in his soldier collections or books, or much of anything else about him. He was just my husband, like an appendage we society women like to have in our homes, take us to parties and such."
Now she was crying. The old man looked at the ceiling, unable to watch her pain.
"I want to change. Can you help me?" she said.
The old man felt sick. "Where is Duncan?" he said.
"Ohh," she gasped, and ran out of the room.
The next morning the local newspaper featured this article on the front page. "Duncan Mosbright returned home last night after being reported missing. He had become disoriented from drinking contaminated water and wandered onto the railroad tracks. A passerby pulled him to the side and a trucker picked him up and brought him home after checking his wallet for an address. Gilda, his wife, wants to thank everyone for helping to find and bring her husband back home safely."
There was no mention of who the passerby was, or of two bottles of Gilda's prescription painkillers missing from the medicine chest of the Duncan Mosbright home.