By: Kevin Wallach
On a messy workbench crowded with computers sat a printer with a secret inside it. The small, white, rectangular thing looked much like the dozens of others around the dimly lit repair shop. Most of them had been accumulated for the purpose of being sold, used, in the shopfront. But as is often the case in life this printer was more than what it seemed and now was waiting for the right person or perhaps just the right time to reveal its hidden treasure.
Jack fixed things. Unlike the printer he had no hidden treasure inside him, and he was aware of the absence. He often considered himself a diamond beneath a mountain of stone, but only to keep his spirits up. In his days of drudgery and toil over secondhand laptops, printers, hard drives, circuit boards, chips, or bits and pieces of things electronic he had little to look forward to which was not routine and predictable. Now and then some problem would require an extra bit of his mind’s potential and the excitement of curious discovery would make him feel more alive. But most days he simply took a part off one thing and moved it to another thing or took some bit of hardware he’d bought and attached it to something he was being paid to fix, or readying for sale in his shop window.
Jack did not know that very soon one of the many modestly valuable items in his workshop would provide him with the excitement he had always dreamed of having. He did not know today would be any different than other days.
“Dammit!” Jack shouted after shoving the sharp tip of a screwdriver into the heel of his left hand. The blue macaw across the room screeched “dammit dammit dammit” and then fell silent again. Jack shot a mock angry glare at the bird and stuck his tongue out. Then he smiled at the bird he called Lenny and mumbled something about teaching the bird some better words.
Lenny the blue macaw was called this because Jack admired a TV character named Lenny, who had a crush on a girl named Laverne, whom the show was named after. The macaw knew none of this of course. He only knew who fed him.
Jack the fixer, the unpolished diamond, knew much more than the blue macaw did, but he still didn’t know that a writer named Peter Jungren had owned the white printer he was about to begin cleaning and preparing for sale. He had picked the printer up along with several others from an auction and the seller had picked it up at an estate sale. The estate sale had occurred because the former owner of the printer, Mr. Jungren, had ended his own life. Before doing so he had placed a secret in the printer’s memory. Of course the auction owner and seller knew none of this, and Jack knew even less than they did. So when he picked up the white printer he didn’t do so in the manner that one picks up something with extraordinary value. He placed it on his work bench and quickly began removing the case from it, in order to get a look at its insides.
He looked up at the clock and then over to the macaw who was paying him no mind. The bird was watching something happening outside the window his perch was next to. Jack stared at the window too and began to day dream. It’s possible that Jack’s day dreaming was one of the most significant causes of his lack of excitement in life.
After several minutes of thinking about being a famous musician who moonlights as an experimental physicist, Jack came back to the world and realized he’d drooled all over the inside of the printer he was supposed to be working on.
“Shit!” Jack exclaimed.
“Shit shit shit” Lenny replied.
Jack rubbed his eyes and decided that since he wasn’t getting any work done he might as well not be hungry. He grabbed a coat and set out into the cold outdoors.
Lenny the blue macaw watched with limited interest as the hand which fed him went to feed.
Outside on the street Jack began to daydream again. This time he imagined himself a famous actor who found it necessary to disguise his appearance in order to not be accosted by fans. The cold air forced him to pull his coat tighter but in his day dream it was a passerby’s look of recognition which made him hide inside his lapel.
Day dreamers know that despite the possible benefits, waking dreams can be dangerous. Jack was suddenly reminded by a blaring car horn, and a bumper just inches from his legs, that the fascination with dreams should always be tempered by a respect for objects with greater mass and velocity. Jack’s humiliation made him consider abandoning his hunt for a sandwich. But he was more hungry than he was humbled, and so he pressed onward.
Back in the shop the printer wasn’t moving. No magic sparks or aura gave away what it possessed. It just sat there the same as it had when blood was spattered on it for two days or after it was cleaned and moved into a storage unit for two weeks. It’s odd how even importance can’t make an object more than it is.
Across the neighborhood in a small diner Jack was also not showing any of his inner human potential. For all his grandiose day dreaming, he was not drawing attention from anyone aside from the person being paid to pay attention to him. The waitress with the kind looking face and the thick black hair that made her look many years younger than she was stood patiently waiting for Jack to emerge from his thoughts. Then she gave up on waiting and spoke.
“I’m Sandy. Can I get you something to drink?”
Jack looked up without making eye contact and tried to determine what sort of face he was making. Jack had a problem with smiling at people because his teeth embarrassed him, and some people took the resulting expressions to be ones of dismay or condescension. Jack meant neither most times. When he did mean to express those feelings he also made faces which sent the wrong message. Facial expressions were just one of many reasons why Jack avoided contact with other people.
“Thanks. I think I’m ready to order.”
“Sure hon, what would you like?”
Jack ordered the same thing he ordered wherever it was on the menu. He had the Rueben sandwich. Sandy took Jack’s order to the kitchen window, and then went on to helping her other customers. Jack imagined he had passed her a napkin with a microchip wrapped inside it. He imagined the chip contained information which was critical to some ultra secret spy organization and would be used to save many important lives. Sandy, though nobody knew it, was imagining she was working in a diner she owned and going table to table to check on the satisfaction of her wait staff’s customers. Jack was alone here but not the only dreamer.
The four blocks back to his shop went by quickly despite the cold. Jack slung his coat over the back of a chair and dropped his keys into an ashtray which had never been used for its intended purpose. The ashtray had been a souvenir from his aunt and uncle to his father upon return from their trip to Bermuda. The ashtray proclaimed that “Fun in the Sun” was what could be had in Bermuda. Jack’s father had cynically remarked that the beaches must not look that great if they’re filled with chain smokers. Jack’s uncle had not been amused, but he had seemed a bit happier when Jack begged to have it for his bedroom. Jack was never clear about why he had wanted it. It was from somewhere far away. That’s the only thing he could ever really put his finger on.
There the printer was, just as he’d left it. On the work bench it sat exposed to the world. Had it been capable of modesty it would have been appalled at how unceremoniously its cover had been discarded next to it. Jack resisted the urge to imagine anything and went to work further violating the poor printer.
After an hour or so the printer was as good as new and Jack felt at least a little satisfaction as he flipped the switch and listened to the clicking and whirring sounds emerge from inside the box. The printer was running through all of its programmed checks to ensure it was ready to perform its duty to its owner. Jack’s overactive imagination struggled to break his weakened grasp on reality. The creeping daydream offered him a vision of a world full of intelligent machines, all awaiting his command. There was a grand struggle inside him against succumbing to the lure of the day dream. In the end he chose to save the dream of a distant future, full of gleaming, cognizant cyborgs for another time.
The printer, now ready for printing, made a swish noise as its rubber rollers pulled the first two inches of a fresh page into its inside. Jack was startled. He’d not loaded the paper tray and hadn’t checked to see if it had paper in it. So the noise was unexpected and a little disturbing. He didn’t question his reaction though. A moment later he was more interested in what the printer was about to do.
As the page emerged Jack saw the first printed words clearly.
“Cover page: Unpublished novel and release documents follow. “
Jack’s brow wrinkled and he looked closely at the next line of print as it became visible.
Once this second line was finished printing the remaining page shot out of the printer and the machine became quiet. Jack waited for it to begin again. It did not. The printer sat quietly and Jack stared at the one single page it had produced. He pulled open the paper tray and saw that it was empty.
He had no clue who Peter Jungren might be aside from the obvious fact that he had claimed responsibility for an unpublished novel. It took less than a minute to find out everything important though. Google was Jake’s library, and it never failed him.
Peter Jungren was many things. He was an acclaimed fiction and non-fiction writer. He was a generous donor to many charities. He was an advocate for the rights of children and adults coping with the long term psychological effects of physical and sexual abuse. He was a recluse. He was a suicide victim. But the most striking truth that Jack came to that day was that Peter Jungren’s estate sale had been the source of this particular printer. It took much longer to find out that last fact. He spent an hour on the phone with the auction house before he convinced them to reveal the identity of the seller and the place where she had bought the printer. In the end he had faxed a copy of the back plate from the printer and made up a story about needing proof that the printer had not been stolen.
Jack stared at the printer for a long time after ending his call with the auction house. He then stared longer at the results he’d found on Google when he searched “Peter Jungren estate”.
There was something very disturbing about the situation, and Jack felt an urge to dispose of the printer rather than putting it up for sale as he’d intended to. The curiosity in Jack was stronger though. If he were to reload the paper cartridge what would happen? Were there other pages stored in the printer’s internal memory? Perhaps feeling the weight of the silence in the room Lenny the blue macaw shrieked “dammit dammit dammit” and then was quiet again.
Jack, unable to decide, turned the printer off and took his shabby coat from the dusty chair with the squeaky wheel and put himself back out onto the street. There was a park nearby and there Jack spent most of the rest of the day. He pretended to look at things on his mobile phone. He pretended to read a magazine. He pretended to be hungry, though that pretending was very private and only for his own distraction. Mostly he tried not to feel creepy or conspicuous. No matter how out of place he felt he knew he could not go back to the shop where the dead man’s printer was sitting and waiting, maybe waiting to print another page of whatever had last been put in its queue.
When the sun burned the horizon and set the melting snow to sparkling Jack finally knew he had to leave. But when his feet were under him they refused to return to the shop, above which was Jack’s apartment. And so Jack very uncharacteristically turned toward the setting sun instead of away from it and began walking without knowing where.
Seven blocks from the park and ten blocks from home Jack saw a bright neon sign advertising fresh coffee and good music. He detested coffee shops but there was no denying the frost on his mustache and the blistering feeling of his cheeks. He stepped in off the curb into the sound of “Giant Steps” being performed by an able trio of musicians. He settled into a very plain, honey colored chair at a small table and ordered a meal and a glass of Belgian beer. There was no Reuben on the menu, and so he added another to his list of today’s new experiences. When the food came he ate it quickly, and for a while he thought of the music and the people and the din of conversation and clanking plates. He didn’t think about Lenny the blue macaw, the printer, or Peter Jungren again that night.
When the cab driver shouted to wake him at his doorstep he was so drunk he could hardly walk. But walk was what he knew he must do, and he did it with great effort until he found his bed and fell on to it fully clothed and stinking of ale and rich cheese.
Morning passed and afternoon was well under way when Jack awoke to the sound of someone banging on his downstairs door, the door to the shop. He had forgotten the delivery he’d scheduled. The driver called to him and banged on the door again. Jack forced his eyes to open and stumbled to the window that looked out on the street. He banged the window frame twice and then managed to get it moving. With it barely open he called down to the driver.
“Sorry, I overslept! Just leave it by the door. I’ll be down to get it in a minute.”
“Jack, I need a signature for this!” The driver, Travis, knew Jack from high school. Normally they would talk for a while but today neither of them were in the mood for conversation.
“Okay, give me a second and I’ll be down to sign.” Every word Jack was forced to shout came with an immediate penalty. The hangover reminded him of why he’d stopped drinking two years ago. He felt that old familiar feeling, his head seemed to be made of thin glass, every sound above a whisper being a striking hammer.
Jack looked around for his shoes, but after what felt like minutes of looking around and under everything in his bedroom he only found one. Barefooted and still wincing from the bells ringing in his head he ran down stairs into the store and answered the door. Travis was less agitated with the long wait once he saw the condition Jack was in. He grinned boyishly despite his wrinkled face and laughed quietly. His smile showed bright white, straight teeth, and his blue eyes shrank to a squint. Maybe he laughed that way because he’d been hung over recently enough to have respect for the feeling. Maybe he was just feeling a little sorry for his old friend who obviously wasn’t a very experienced drinker lately.
“God, you look awful.”
“Thanks, I feel better now that you told me that Travis”
“Trust me you’ll be just fine. Go throw up if you can manage to and then drink as much water as you can hold down. Eat something greasy, take a dump, and then try to go back to sleep.”
“You forgot the drugs Trav. Shouldn’t I take some aspirin or something?”
“Not unless you want to ruin your liver buddy. Take my advice and skip the pills and powders until all the drink is out of your system.”
“Drink? Who talks like that anymore? You sound like my granddad!” At this Jack reflexively laughed and then instantly paid the price for his lack of forward thinking. “Owwwww. Ouch!”
“Okay man, just sign and then I’ll be out of your way so you can get to your hangover cure.”
Travis helped Jack deal with the outside glare and ignored the lack of anything which resembled Jack’s normal signature. Then he was gone just as promised.
Back upstairs Jack pulled his eyelids down and stared at his pallid skin in the ugly light of the bathroom mirror. The rust cratered faucet dripped rhythmically and Jack began to pat a back beat to the drip, drip, dripping of the water with his left foot and a staccato tempo over the other two sounds with his toothbrush on the icy cold porcelain basin.
Jack smiled at himself in the mirror and then stopped. He remembered why he’d gotten drunk the night before. It wasn’t because the printer had belonged to a dead man. It wasn’t because of the suicide. It wasn’t because he hated his job or was lonely or because he had not had a woman in three years. He had gotten drunk because of something elusive. Something inside him even now was ducking to avoid him discovering it. He had that feeling one sometimes gets when a problem is only revealed as a vague feeling of restlessness or angst. Something had risen in him when he learned what had happened to the previous owner of that printer. It had pulled his strings just as plainly as if he were a puppet, and still he could not put a name on it. Was it a feeling of failure? Was this what middle age felt like? Jack had no idea what was dogging him, and so he did what he had always done when his problems refused to fit into neat categories. He ate a waffle and went to a movie. But first he went off in search of his missing shoe.
By the time Jack got off the bus in front of the theater it was eleven minutes past the hour and the only movie he would even consider watching was probably five minutes past the previews and the public service announcements. He figured he had probably missed at least the opening credits but chose to silence his obsessive compulsive inner voice and buy a ticket. He even stopped to buy the largest box of Junior Mints and a regular Coke before going off in search of an empty seat.
Inside the theater were a handful of people at most. Jack sat as far from anyone as he could manage and settled in as best he could into a seat that was not designed for hangovers.
Due to what he could only assume was technical difficulty he had not missed anything. The screen was dark. Moments after he peeled open his individual serving of aspirin the comical request by the theater patrons to silence cell phones and visit the snack bar began.
Jack wasn’t as prone to daydreaming in theaters as outside them. It was strange but inside a theater he could attend even the most dolefully boring conversation without so much as a moment of listless imagining. It was like the inside of a theater gave him balance and control over his mind. It was like that but not entirely so.
Jack stared at his Junior Mints and remembered his father holding his hand as they walked into a noon movie one Sunday many years ago. Jack recalled his father handing him a box of this same candy once they were seated and the two of them sharing a large fountain cup full of Coca Cola. Jake felt tears streaming down his cheeks and despite normally being very self conscious he did not stifle a lone, soft sob when he felt it coming. Alcohol is such a miserable thing he thought. It has an entirely wrong reputation of being a way to forget problems when in fact it amplifies them and even dredges them up from the deep bottom of murky memories.
The film began and it was one Jack had seen a time before. He remembered liking it that first time and so he felt a bit better with the exception of the headache and mild nausea.
Back in the shop the macaw was sullen and feeling neglected, having eaten everything left for him the previous afternoon. Though Jack didn’t know it the bird had not uttered an obscenity all day and had said three words he’d never heard it say before. The words were “yikes” and “summer wind”. The first was a common saying of Jack and the other two were frequently heard song lyrics.
In the theater Jack was sleeping off the hangover and unaware that half a box of candy was melting in his hands and lap. On the screen ahead of him Jon Favreau was humiliating himself to an answering machine. Like Jack, the character in the film had a long list of neurotic behaviors. That might be why Jack had liked the film the other three times he saw it.
Forty five minutes later an usher gently tugged at a loose section of Jack’s shirt sleeve.
“Sir.” The usher whispered despite the theater being empty.
“Excuse me but I need you to leave.”
Jack still didn’t stir.
At this, Jack instantly awoke and gave a yelp.
“I’m really sorry. I have to clean the theater before the next show starts.”
Jack nodded emphatically and gathered his things. He didn’t immediately notice that he was making a chocolate trail on his coat. He didn’t notice he was leaving his cup behind. The usher didn’t trouble him by mentioning either.
The walk back to the shop was longer than it normally would have been. Jack was making an effort to walk slowly and conserve energy for the work that waited. He had shrugged off nearly an entire day of work but now he knew he had no choice but to box up some items for shipping. He thought about the printer and its derelict print job waiting in the queue. He felt an urgent desire to see the remaining pages. He reluctantly accepted that more than anything he wanted to know what would be in them. Shame welled up in him at this thought, and Jack wondered if this was what peeping through windows felt like. Those pages were not his to look at, were they?
The printer shook and shuddered and the rubber rollers flipped first forward and then backward. Lights blinked and noises came from within and outside the replaced, but still loose, casing. The loose screws rolled around the table near the printer and Jack just missed catching one as it rolled over the table’s edge. The screw would have to wait until he no longer felt like vomiting.
A fresh ream of paper was torn open and roughly a third of it was loaded into the paper tray. The printing resumed and Jack pretended to not be consumed by curiosity. Then he realized what he’d done by not coming to work all day.
The bird just stared out the window. Jack moved more quickly than he’d moved on the way back from the theater and in seconds he was at Lenny’s perch with food and fresh water.
“I’m sorry buddy. I don’t know what I was thinking.”
“Yikes” was Lenny’s response.
Jack smiled and tried to touch the macaw’s back gently with a finger. Lenny snapped at it.
“I deserved that. Okay Lenny, I’ll leave you alone to eat.”
“Dammit dammit dammit” was Lenny’s response this time.
Jack returned to the table to find a few pages finished and another halfway out of the printer. He reached for them and then stopped. He still didn’t know how he felt about all of this. He was sure now that he wanted to know what was in this unpublished work, if it was in fact all still all there, in the printer’s memory. He wondered what an unknown, last work by a famous author might be worth. Then he felt even more like a jerk than he’d felt before. He looked around at the dingy, disheveled room he spent most of his days in and thought of what best seller money might buy. Imagine yourself rich he thought. It wasn’t hard. He’d imagined a few central themes since early childhood. One was martyrdom, dying a hero. One was fame and fortune. One was achieving success but then devoting the financial reward to those in need and thus becoming a hero. Adoration of all kinds was a recurring element of his daydreams.
Several minutes passed and the printer was still loading a new page with each finished one. No end in sight.
Jack went to his computer and opened the print manager to see the size of the job in memory. He held his breath as it opened, revealing the number of pages waiting to be born from the noisy innards of this device. There it was. No question now. There were more than two hundred pages still waiting for their chance to exist on paper. Jack wondered if this was the first draft ever printed. He still considered that the work was not complete. And still he tried hard to stop thinking of money.
Rather than begin reading and then possibly catch up to the page being printed, Jack chose to wait. The printer ceaselessly worked through page after page. After over fifty printed pages a jam occurred which went unnoticed for well over an hour. By the time the machine was working once more Lenny was sleeping and Jack was hungry and tired. The feeling of pain and discomfort had finally released him and in a quiet inner voice he had agreed to never drink alcohol again. Promises, promises.
The hours after Jack was gone from the shop went by, and the slow going printer continued its work. Before the street lights came on the pages in its memory had all printed and now laid in wait of a reader.
That night as Jack stared at the ceiling above him and listened to the occasional sound of passing cars outside he thought about the author. He had never read a word the man had written. He wondered what fans would think if they knew the first person to read his last book was a philistine of sorts, a heretic, a persona non grata. Jack could not even recall the last time he’d been in a book store or library. It was not at all that he didn’t like to read. It was perhaps that his mind had been numbed by years of distraction and fog, the sort of fog that is so common in societies that rely on television to make their homes less lonely and devoid of life.
Jack imagined that he would not read the book. Instead he would put it in an envelope and ship it to the publisher that had been behind the last few books Mr. Jungren put out for public consumption. Then he thought about the money. He imagined the publisher making a killing and the author’s loved ones not getting a dime. Dead or not it did not seem right for a man to work on something and reap none of the reward. His imagination danced around many outcomes that he might choose. Donate the book to a charity. Hide it and put a map leading to its hiding place in a safe deposit box. He had many, many ideas and most of them were the sort of childish fare common to his daydreams.
Finally sleep came and took him to less grand dreams. His conscious mind always wished for adoration but his subconscious knew nothing of his ego or his vanity.
As the sun rose it lit the inside of the store with golden columns, filled with millions of bits of imprisoned, ancient dust. The luminous blue macaw reverted to his own primitive natural ululations. Jack snored in the apartment above.
Travis made an early delivery of cables and other assorted parts, leaving the boxes under the front awning. Just for fun he left a page torn from a newspaper with a liquor advertisement taped to one of the boxes.
From the moment Jack opened his eyes until the time he was seated in front of the large stack of paper near the printer, barely five minutes passed. Lenny squawked surprise at his abrupt entry to the shop.
“Shit shit shit” the bird announced to no one in particular.
“Morning Lenny!” Jack replied.
It was odd but he had woken feeling happy for the first time in a long time. He didn’t take time to wonder why.
Jack had the curious habit of reading the last sentence of a page first. He hardly noticed doing it, and at times he barely even recognized the meaning of what he read. It was reflexive almost. But when he started the first page of this unpublished work he made a deliberate effort to start from the top.
The page began:
In every life a little rain must fall. In mine I suspect someone close to me is doing a rain dance most days. My forties roared by as if they were twenties. And there I was at fifty. There I was with a piece of cake on a paper plate and a silly paper hat. I could hardly see the humor in it, but my friends were amused. That’s how it began. That’s how my last year of life started.
Jack stopped and looked over his shoulder. Why he did it he couldn’t say but the feeling inside was one of a man who had done wrong and was sure he’d been caught.
It occurred to him that it might be wise to seek professional legal advice.
One block toward the park on the opposite side of the street from the shop was a title agency with a real estate attorney Jack had sold several desktop computers to. His dilemma had nothing to do with escrow or clear property titles but a lawyer was a lawyer in his estimation. Surely this guy had at least a semester of copyright law.
As he left the shop he moved the boxes inside and noticed the flapping newspaper page with the photograph of an amber liquid filled bottle next to a smoldering cigar, perched on a crystal ash tray. For a moment he swore he felt acid inching up from his stomach into his esophagus. With a taste of metal in his mouth he swallowed hard and set out to find a lawyer.
Bennett Pepper was a handsome man, and he did well in his position as an attorney catering to local commercial real estate agencies. When Jack had sold him computers three years prior he was still in the habit of wearing shorts to work and had needed to cut corners on a good many expenses. At that time he had been very kind to Jack, but now he was not given to being kind to overweight, middle aged men who smelled vaguely of wood shavings and soldering irons.
Mr. Pepper’s legal assistant and office manager Lisa knew that Bennett would prefer a dentist appointment over a visit from anybody not a paying client, and so when Jack came to call for some free advice she dismissed him without so much as an attempt at courtesy. Jack, who appeared to be shy and defenseless, wasn’t so easy to get rid of today. Despite not being able to make eye contact with her he was able to convince Lisa that if she didn’t let him speak with Bennett she would regret it. He made reference to a terrible vulnerability in the virus protection on the computers he’d sold Pepper and used some horribly inaccurate descriptions of the problems which would likely occur without immediate attention from a trained computer technician. Lisa was naive enough to believe all of it, including the bit about the hardware inside the machine melting and causing the plastic case to burst into flames.
Inside Pepper’s office Jack was more realistic. He quickly explained that one of the devices he’d bought had an original literary work saved on it. He went on to explain that the original owner of the device, the author of the work, was deceased and that there was a release included in the electronic record of the unpublished book. Bennett took the sheet of paper with the release printed on it, the name of the author, address, and some other personal details blacked out with a marker and silently read it.
“I’m not in a position to give you advice as an attorney Jack, you get that right?”
Jack nodded and stared intently at Bennett’s face. He saw something in it. He thought he recognized the expression as one of a man who was about to pretend to care about someone who might soon have money. The truth was that Bennett could smell money whether it was present or future.
“I think you have a legal right to whatever you found, particularly since you have this scanned, signed release from the author. But I don’t represent clients in your type of situation. I’m definitely not an expert in this area of the law. You really should talk with someone who is. If you have something really valuable here, and you wind up getting something out of this novel then come back and we can talk about ways to invest that money so you can turn it into a lot more money. I have friends who can help you with that.”
Jack nodded again and got up and walked straight out. He stopped on the sidewalk in front of Bennett’s door and looked down the street toward the coffee shop. He wondered if the live music was being played. He wondered if the food trucks would be at the park right now. He wondered what it would be like to be filthy rich. The money would not leave his mind. It was everywhere in his head.
He decided to return to the table in his shop and get some work done. Because he was not rich and he had bills to pay. And the idea of reading that book right now only made him feel more like a creep.
There were things about the printer that Jack would never know.
He never knew that Peter Jungren traded a more expensive printer to his niece before she left for boarding school because she liked it so much. Jack didn’t know anything about Mr. Jungren’s private life and would learn very little aside from what was in the pages he would soon read. There are other things that nobody knew aside from the author, not even his closest family members. He would quickly admit to not having friends. He spent most days and nights alone. And often when he was alone he would sometimes spend hours sketching or painting landscapes of the coastline of the place he spent summers as a child, doing so from memory. Some of these drawings were auctioned off separate from the estate sale in which Jack’s printer had been included. As a creative person Mr. Jungren was versatile. Most of what Peter alone knew was too disturbing to share with others. Even his mother never knew that her own brother had been the reason Peter would devote so much of his fortune to helping charities which supported families and victims whose lives were shattered by abuse.
The day Peter Jungren took his own life he did not eat. The bone cancer which was slowly killing him and the treatments he had recently, voluntarily ended had left him with little capability to hold down anything, even liquids. His home was immaculate and he was recently bathed, shaved, and had been visited by his barber. The room to room sound system was playing a J.S. Bach piece written for strings. His bedroom lacked color but did have a balcony looking out over a flowing river bordered by trees decked in all the colors of early Fall. The furniture in the room was dotted with delicate vases filled with Irises of many colors. He had gone to great lengths to ensure his last hours would be beautiful in whatever ways he could manage to make them. And though it was a struggle to sit up at his desk he finished his last book, an autobiographical piece, just minutes before taking a fatal dose of several medications. He took great care to ensure that all of the draft versions of the work and the final version too were deleted from his computer. Only one copy remained and that was the one in his desktop printer’s built in memory queue. The printer, along with various other simple objects in his possession, were to be placed up for sale according to his written instructions. Peter struggled with a feeling that this was all too much self indulgence and that the copyright for the book should be left to the charity he had been so devoted to supporting. Then he thought about something his first publisher had told him. Sometimes people need a little help becoming the best version of themselves. Peter sincerely hoped that what he was doing would help someone become just that. And he considered that all the pain he had held secretly in life might not be the burden of his family. It would not fall on them to decide the fate of this last book.
One other thing Jack would never know was that Peter Jungren had wanted badly to believe that there were still good people in the world. He specifically wanted to believe that faced with a choice between doing what is right and being rich some people might still choose to do good over what might be good for them. So when he signed a release document, scanned it, and added it into the memory queue of the small, pale colored printer he did so as one might place a note in a bottle before casting it into the sea foam at the shore.
Jack would never know Peter and vice versa but in this strange, silent connection they were now together. Through a manuscript and a decision they were bound.
When Jack’s work was finished he called his sister and told her everything. She listened to him and then when he’d said everything in at least three ways she gave him her position and a bit of advice.
Later in the reverberating silence of the apartment he turned on the television, two laptop computers, a bathtub radio, and all of the tacky college-dorm-room decorative lights accumulated through the years and tried to not feel completely alone.
Down in the shop the one third ream of spent paper was whispering to Jack in a voice imagined but not altogether unreal. Each page seemed to say “end this” and “read me already” and “stop pretending you are not dying to know what I say”. Jack called his sister again but she didn’t answer this time. Not that he could know but she was getting her own problems sorted out, talking with her husband about late mortgage payments and a drug store test she’d taken with her to the bathroom earlier in the day.
For the first time in the twelve years he’d owned the building Jack could not bring himself to go down to the darkened shop. He felt foolish but the fear of death in him was so strong that even the fingerprints of death were enough to draw the small hairs on his neck up straight. How different was this reclusive writer from himself? Was death stalking him the same way it had stalked that lonesome soul? To Jack death was a living thing, as ridiculously superstitious as it sounded inside his own head. How could anyone hope to escape it? In a way the printer and its morose cargo had set Jack to thinking about his own mortality more than he wished to. Death was what frightened him most, and now, like a small boy, he dreaded shadows and the immense sound of a great empty room full of humming fluorescent ballasts.
Morning came and forced the primal fears in Jack back into their respective darkened corners of the two-story building. Lenny made the shop cheerful with his noisy greetings to all who passed by his window. Jack had a great deal of work to do, and so the manuscript once again sat untouched on its table.
After lunch Jack brought a bag of items out which he had bought the previous day. Among his purchases was a manuscript box, which Jack opened and assembled clumsily, nearly tearing it at two of its corners. But finally the box and the box top were assembled and Jack managed to get the entire stack of loose paper into it. He looked around for the release document, finally finding it underneath a copy of a tattered issue of “The Amazing Spiderman.” The faded cover had a corner torn away revealing a swatch of red and blue. Jack zoned out for a few seconds just staring at the colors and thinking of a Halloween costume he’d had when he was six or seven.
Jack caught a cab to the nearest store with copying services and had two copies of the manuscript made. Then he caught another cab to the office of a copyright attorney in the city. Jack had on his only pair of dress pants and dress shoes and one of two buttoned down shirts that were not stained or out of style. He had a jacket in his closet but it had not fit properly for years, so he went to his meeting with an open collar and no jacket. He figured the lawyer would not mind as long as he remembered to bring a check.
Two hours later Jack was back on the curb in front of the attorney’s office with all the answers he had hoped to have. He now knew that the printing rights and all other rights were his alone. Obviously Peter Jungren had known what he was doing when he made up the release document. Neither his family nor his publishing company could stake a claim to the rights to publish or withhold publication of the book. Now he stood on a street corner being ignored by everyone who passed by him and in his arms he held a manuscript which would almost certainly make him a millionaire a dozen or more times over.
Instead of asking the driver to take him home he gave the driver his sister’s address. Off they went on a one hour cab ride in a car that smelled vaguely of marinara sauce and sweat socks.
Jack’s sister Helen and her husband Mihovil lived in a tree lined, idyllic little street in an upper middle class section of the suburbs outside the city. Helen, much younger than Jack and much more driven, had a degree in organic chemistry but had given up her career to raise their three children. Mihovil, a son of Croation immigrants who fled from war in their native country, was an attorney who specialized in helping poor people seeking asylum in the U.S. and struggling with the Visa process. Until a year ago Mihovil had done well enough with his practice to support the family, despite the large volume of work he did without payment. Often he not only would not be paid but also would incur various fees on behalf of his clients. Helen and her husband had always been particularly kind to Jack, despite him not being receptive to his little sister’s coddling. Their mother had died when she and Jack were still children. Despite being so much younger, in many ways she had been like a mother to her older sibling. Today Helen was dealing with hours of unpleasant phone calls with her mortgage company and had not prepared for a visit. When Jack arrived on her doorstep she nearly panicked because her first assumption was that their father had died. Jack saw the fright in her face and quickly smiled and hugged her, reassuring her that nothing was wrong.
Jack did not know about his brother in law’s financial struggles. Helen had never wanted to worry him. But after Helen confided their dilemma in him he realized he could not possibly ask her what he had come to ask her. It had been his intention to ask Helen for advice. Specifically Jack had wanted her to tell him whether or not she thought him insane for not wanting to publish this book which had fallen into his hands entirely by chance. He had wanted to show her the manuscript, which he still had not read and tell her how haunted he had been since it came into his possession. Now as he listened to the tale of late bills, harassment from creditors, and desperate clients of Mihovil who counted on his help to save them from a host of terrible predicaments, Jack just couldn’t bring himself to say what he’d come to say. Instead he held his sister’s hand while she wept and tried to reassure her that everything would be okay in the end.
Helen asked Jack to stay the night, but now he finally felt like he knew what to do. Despite the strong desire he had to be in that beautiful house with someone who loved him and not return to the solitary space he called home, he knew time was not to be wasted. At the door he kissed his sister’s cheek and said his goodbyes, promising to call her the next day.
That night Jack read page after page of the manuscript as if his life depended on finishing it by dawn. He did not sleep much and drank enough coffee to keep a blue whale up past its bedtime. There were tears and some laughter and moments when he had to look up references Jungren had made to people and places Jack hadn’t heard of. When morning melted the frost from his bedroom window and sent long, plunging prisms of water down the glass there were only twenty or so pages unread. Jack skipped to the end while he waited for the cab to arrive downstairs and he read the last page.
“I do not have regrets. For that I am so grateful. I have been to the places I wished to visit and I’ve said the things I felt I needed to say to those who loved me. I am ready to die now. But I do have one ache inside me and that is due to knowing that I will go without solving this last puzzle. What will happen to this book? Perhaps it will be published and if that’s the case then I hope that you will forgive me the self indulgence of thinking it a mystery at all. But this last effort needed to be made I think. I needed to put one last line in the water in order to catch what I think we all fish for, a sympathetic soul. I need to believe that there are still hearts in this world which can emerge victorious from the struggle inside between greed and the desire to do good for another. Even if the other is a total stranger, I would like to think that kind of compassion still exists. So I close this with a question. What would you do if a fairly accomplished author gave you his last book to do with as you please? Would you enjoy a fortune, give it all away, leave the personal and often painful recollections of the author to be unpublished, his forever in death, or make the potential of this thing into a rare act of charity for others in need. Though I say I have no regrets I suppose that isn’t entirely true. I wish I could only live long enough to know what the answer to that question will be.”
Jack felt tears on his face and watched the tears on the outsides of his bedroom windows roll down into the metal tracks the sliding panes rested on. He went over to one of the windows and unlocked it, sliding it open a bit and allowing a burst of frigid air into the room. He closed his eyes and wiped the last of the tears on his sleeve.
Downstairs Lenny screeched, “Summer Wind”.
A neighbor had volunteered to care for Lenny while Jack would be away, and so after Jack’s blue friend was safely away and the cab had arrived he locked up the shop door, took a last look at the place and ducked into the yellow car’s rear seat.
On the drive to the airport it began to rain. It was a grey December rain devoid of the charm that snow often possesses. It was bleak and wretched, a day fit for no gentle thing to be outdoors. But when the cab stopped short of the covered departures area Jack surprised his white haired, red-cheeked driver with a fast wad of cash including a generous tip. He grabbed his small bag and exited the warm car. The rain stung his skin and quickly soaked his shirt but for reasons unknown to even him the overall effect was a feeling of freedom. Jack didn’t really know what it might be that he was escaping, but still he felt like he imagined a man would feel after escaping a prison and breathing a first free breath of air.
At the ticket counter a talkative lady with a clam chowder accent helped Jack arrange an aisle seat near the front of the plane but not in first class. Despite his desire for more leg room Jack was not yet in possession of first class spending cash. He was still business class for now.
On the plane, Jack opened his bag before stowing it above his seat and took out one of the copies of Peter Jungren’s book. He intended to read the last twenty pages now, minus the last one of course, which he’d cheated and read ahead of time. He settled into his seat and was happy to realize that since the plane was ready to make the last call for boarding he would apparently not have any company on the flight.
Jack did finish the book and then fell asleep. He dreamed about a beach and about his sister, her husband and their children playing in the surf. He dreamed that he was sitting at a great, old wooden desk on that beach and handling some sort of important business matters on an ancient black rotary telephone as he waved at the children. In the dream Darth Vader was sitting on a beach lounger trying to sip a beautiful tropical drink through his mask. Jack waved to Vader and received a polite nod from the Sith Lord in return.
Then in the dream, there was, from the sky above, a loud ding noise which repeated itself and then was followed by a man’s voice. Jack thought it might be the voice of God, but then the voice announced that the plane would soon be landing. Jack opened his eyes back into the real world just in time to be reminded to put his seat back in the full upright position.
Instead of a cab, Jack was met by a driver on this end of the flight. Jack was not expecting to be picked up but sure enough the man in the crisp suit with the mustache that was neater and darker than Jacks, had a card which read Mr. Jack. At first Jack looked around to make sure there was not a more important Jack to whom the comfortable ride in a town car or limo belonged. He asked the driver if the publishing house had sent him, and the man nodded with a smile. This was the first time in his life that Jack had felt so important. He clutched the box with the three copies of the book close to his ribs and said to himself silently, “let’s go.”
Peter Jungren’s publishing company had been madly in love with him, despite the feeling being unrequited. Peter never learned to love the business of books and often thought of his publisher in a similar manner as scientists think of investors with no appreciation for scientific discovery, aside from financial interests. It was impossible to blame his publisher for carrying on that which it had been born to do, that being making a living off of the relationship between readers and writers. But it was possible to have a distaste for the way in which that middle man status necessarily equated to many, many good books never being read by anyone, save the writer’s inner circle.
Jack saw and heard many signs of honest grief that day though. And he did feel compassion for each and every person to whom he awkwardly provided an ear. He really did not belong here and did not deserve to hear the things he heard, or at least that was his feeling in his heart. The last person he met with was the person with whom Peter Jungren would normally plan each upcoming publication. She had not known Peter was writing in those last months. In fact Peter had deliberately thrown her and everyone there off his trail. To say they were all shocked to learn that a stranger, a man Peter had never even met, had a manuscript and a release for a final book Mr. Jungren had finished the day of his death would be stating the obvious. And when Jack explained to her his desired terms of the sale of this book to her company the air of surprise only grew.
When the meetings were all finished and Jack’s ride back to the airport had been arranged Jack shook hands with some and was the recipient of hugs from others. In the end Jack would never know how often his name would come up in an almost reverent manner in those offices and conference rooms he visited. He would not know the impression he had made or the affection many of them carried forward for him. The only permanent token he had to show in the future from that trip was a bookmark he had been given as a gift. On the crimson leather bookmark were embossed in gold leaf the following words:
“Music had vinyl, and theater had film, but feelings never found a better means of preservation than the written word.” Peter Jungren
Jack held on to that bookmark for the rest of his life, and though it only spent time in a few dozen good books, Jack did the best he could to never again miss a chance to read one.
While Jack was in the air the second time, Helen received a phone call from the bank. When she hung up the phone she found her legs would not permit her to stand. She sat there, limp and shaking at the dining room table, trying to make some sense of what she had just been told. It seemed not only had their past due payments been made, but someone had paid off the entire mortgage. The party which had made those payments had insisted not to be named. Helen felt a bizarre mix of relief and fear and had no idea how to explain any of it to her husband when he arrived home later that day. Still a part of her felt like cheering and when tears came she assumed at least some of them were from joy.
Helen was not the only one receiving a call that day. Two women Jack would never meet or even speak with, Peter Jungren’s sister and niece, both got news that same day. An anonymous person who had come to legally possess the copyright for Peter’s last book had sold it to his old publisher but had directed that the proceeds of the sale be divided and distributed on his behalf. Not all of the details were given but Peter’s sister and her daughter were told that a check would be sent very soon for an amount well in excess of what it would cost to put Peter’s niece through college.
The charity Peter had been so fond of also received a large donation, as large as any Peter had given them while he was alive. The founder of the charity was also informed that a portion of future sales would be donated to her organization so long as the book remained in print. Later, the day she was notified of the donation, in a handwritten memorandum to her board members, those last two words, “in print” were obscured by running ink, her tears dropping onto the paper as she wrote.
Jack kept little of the sale price for himself in the end. He and Lenny did benefit from it though. Jack put the shop and apartment up for sale weeks later and booked a cabin on a ship bound for Bermuda. It was there Jack and Lenny lived out their remaining days. And as irony would have it, his “Fun in the Sun” ashtray was one of many items carelessly left behind in the silence of the shop.
There never was a moment when Jack thought he had become the best possible version of himself, but he did find something in life which otherwise might always have eluded him if not for Peter Jungren and that printer. Jack found the courage to leave.
Copyright Kevin Wallach. All rights reserved.