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"’Thou art a creature of the magicians. Return to thy dust’.”
(TALMUD: Sanhedrin, 65b)
“Writing long books is a laborious and impoverishing act of foolishness …
a better procedure is to pretend that those books already exist …”
(Jorge Luis Borges)
“Your assistant is remarkable, Mr. Ashe,” the customer commented before he paid for his books and left. “He knows where everything is. He never hesitates and can locate anything in the store, no matter how obscure.”
He regarded me over the top of his eyeglasses before continuing.
“Just a few moments ago, the young man located a 1904 first edition of Runeberg’s Krist och Judas from deep in your stacks, as well as Pierre Menard’s masterful translation of Don Quixote. You’re fortunate. It’s so hard to get good help these days.”
To call Menard’s Quixote a mere ‘translation’ was, of course, blasphemous, still, the man was right in at least one regard. I had gone through numerous assistants over the past few years and Gus was easily the best. I owned a large antiquarian bookstore specializing in metaphysics and, well. the esoteric, and thus couldn’t offer much by way of pay or benefits. Frankly, I made just enough to keep body and soul together by catering to a small but devoted clientele. By no stretch of the imagination, however, could I compete with the large chain stores such as Barnes and Noble or the Internet behemoths like Amazon … that abomination!
But then, the people who frequented my shop weren’t likely to find what they were looking for in those places in any case. To be sure, anyone who went to work for me had to be willing to do so for far less than what they most certainly would have been offered somewhere, anywhere, else. Not only was Gus good at what he did, he did it for next to nothing. You might even say that he was heaven-sent.
Gus had what could only be described as an eidetic memory as to the placement of every volume in the shop, and that was something considering that I had books stacked upon books and crammed in every nook and cranny of the two creaking floors that make up my aging establishment. Just last week, for example, a South American collector dropped by looking for an early edition of Marcelo Yarmolinsky’s History of the Hasidim. I knew I had a copy of that learned rabbi’s work … somewhere. I was about to ask the man to call back in a day or two, thus giving me a chance to hunt it up. Gus, however, had the book in a matter of moments.
I should also say that Gus did his work efficiently and without hesitation. No matter how menial or how daunting a task was set before him, Gus got to it without complaint. He was virtually tireless and, at times, would work for hours (literally!) without so much as looking up.
I have a few close friends who own businesses, and they are forever complaining about how much time is wasted by their employees; taking cigarette breaks, making personal calls and otherwise frittering away the hours on their personal devices. The fact that Gus did none of those things made it easier to put up with his other eccentricities. For one thing, Gus couldn’t talk; he was mute save for the ability to make a grunting sound which served, most of the time, as a means of expressing agreement or compliance.
Then there was his appearance, which could only be characterized as disheveled. That effect was further reinforced by his shambling gait. Arguing that the image of the store was in some regard dependent on how he looked, I took the liberty of buying him some clothes. Nothing Gus wore, however, seemed to fit him properly. Everything hung off him in a vaguely disturbing fashion. The only thing that didn’t look strangely askew or out of place on him was the back watch cap that he always wore no matter the weather.
Having no family or friends to speak of apart from me and no where to live, Gus stayed in a small room located to the back of the shop on the first floor. I trusted him and was more than happy to have someone on the premises at all times. When people questioned me about our rather strange arrangement or, as was more often the case, asked where I had managed to find Gus – who seemed simply to appear in the store one day – I explained that he was a distant relative from Eastern Europe. His parents had been killed during one of the numerous ethnic conflicts that simmered continually below the surface of life in that ancient and tribal part of the world and which were fanned into flame from time to time even in our own day. The peculiarities that beset Gus, I would continue, were the result of the consequent trauma and deprivation he experienced as a child.
“It’s so nice of you to take him in like that, Ashe,” a long-time client said once after I finished recounting Gus’ story. Gus, had, by the way, just fetched the 1939 edition of the ill-fated Jaromir Hladik’s The Enemies from somewhere on the second floor for the man. And so it was that, in very little time – and no doubt in part owing to his uncanny ability – most of my customers accepted Gus without further inquiry and certainly without complaint. Many of my patrons whose tastes, admittedly, ran toward the eccentric and the arcane, undoubtedly also felt that the presence of someone like Gus added a certain charm, or more accurately, a degree of rather outré character or ambience to the establishment.
And that, I think, is where the trouble started. One or more of my competitors, of which there were a handful, fed up with the antics of their own employees and searching for that certain je ne sais quoi with which to set their shoe-string operations apart from the pack in these tough economic times, must have approached Gus in an attempt to lure him to work for them. Obviously, that was something that I simply could not allow.
The change in Gus was quite subtle. Indeed, anyone who did not know him as well as I would probably not have noticed anything untoward. Yet both his work ethic and, so far as it could be established with one so singularly uncommunicative by nature, his attitude, took a decided turn for the worse. His background notwithstanding, I was stung by his lack of gratitude considering everything that I had done for him. In fact, it would not have been an exaggeration to say that everything he had become – such as it was and given his incredible limitations – had been because of me. That a creature like Gus could fall prey to something akin to ambition was, well, remarkable, unprecedented even.
As the days and weeks passed, it became clear to me that drastic measures had to be taken. The thought of Gus turning on me or, worse, being lured away by an unscrupulous bookseller was more than I could bear. Besides, explaining why it would be unthinkable (impossible, even!) for Gus to work for anyone else would have been uncomfortable in the extreme. Although deeply regretful of my subsequent decision, I knew precisely what had to be done.
One night while Gus was sleeping – or while he was doing what for him passed as sleep – I returned to the shop and let myself into his room. The fact that he lay with his eyes open only made matters even more distasteful. When I lifted the watch cap off his forehead exposing the word Emet that was written there he, of course, offered no resistance. “I’m truly sorry, my friend,” I said. Then quickly, reluctantly, I erased the first letter of the inscription. With that the dread term Met resulted and Gus gave a shudder. In a matter of seconds, all that remained of him was a pile of the dust from which he had been formed.
Explaining the sudden disappearance of Gus to my customers, who are in general a credulous lot, has been far simpler than finding someone to replace him. Once again, I’ve hired, fired or received resignations from one assistant after another. I have a particularly prickly buyer waiting to receive a promised copy of the extremely elusive Volume XLVII of The Anglo-American Cyclopaedia from 1917. I know it is around here somewhere. If things continue like this, I’ll have no choice but to bring Gus – or someone very much like him – back. The problem is, I can’t remember the formula. I’ve spent what little free time I now have searching for a tome by R. Eleazar ben Judah of Worms which contains his famous Commentary on the Sefer Yetzirah but so far, I can’t find it. If Gus were here, though, he’d be able to put his misshapen hands on it in an instant.
Author’s Note: All the texts mentioned in this story, save the Talmud and the Commentary on the Sefer Yetzirah are, so far as I know, non-existent; they are the invention of the great Argentinian fantasist, Borges.
James C. Clar is a teacher and writer who divides his time between the warmer climes of Honolulu, Hawaii and the much more inclement wilds of Upstate New York. His work has recently been published in the Potato Soup Journal, the Sci-Phi Journal as well as in other Internet and print publications.
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