Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Er, the Charles Baxter incident

Slow day at the bookstore.   I was eating a blueberry Danish and reading Ben Hogan’s Power Golf when this cute little blonde came up to buy a stack of Charles Baxter novels.  She was wearing a Free Mumia Abu Jamal T-Shirt.  I was bored and longing for distraction so as she set her books on the counter I dipped sportingly into Cassanova mode.  

            “It’s your lucky day madam.   Today and today only, I’m offering free blueberry Danishes to any purchaser of Charles Baxter novels.”

            I happened to have a large box of blueberry Danishes behind the counter, having worked out an arrangement with a science fiction collector named Bruce who drove the Otis Spunkmeyer delivery truck.  He came up short for cash that morning when attempting to buy an early edition Conan and we cut a deal.   

            Blondie looked at my curdling, half eaten Danish, shook her head, and changed the subject.    

            “Have you ever read anything by Charles Baxter?  He’s amazing.”

            “Well he’s on my list, but I’m still working my way through the 120 Days of Sodom.  So far I’ve only got to day 89.  Blueberry Danishes figure prominently in it but I’ll spare you the details.”

            She continues to eyeball the sad remains of my pastry while telling me how she just finished taking one of Baxter’s classes at U of M.  How she’s rewriting Wydham Lewis’ Apes of God from the perspective of the apes and how he has such penetrating insights into their craft. 

            Writers that is.  Not apes. 

            I was adding up her total when I noticed one of the books was signed by Baxter and priced higher than the rest.

            “I’ll have to charge you more for this one because it’s signed by your buddy Charles.”  

            “I’ll pass on it then.  I’m going to have him personally inscribe these to me when I get back to school.”

            The Baxter talk made her nipples so hard it looked like Mumia’s eyes were bugging out of his head

            “You know, there’s a good Indian joint up the street, I’d love to take you there sometime and hear more about your monkey book.”

            “No thanks. I’m dating a performance artist we’re busy rehearsing for his next show.  I’m going to be slowly lowered via freight elevator into a vat of scalding nacho cheese while he whispers the transcripts from the Nuremburg trials into the ear of a humungous plush lobster.  And please don’t call them monkeys.  They’re apes.” 

            She paid for her stack of books and split.  I was left alone with the signed Charles Baxter book sitting on the counter. 

            Earlier that week a coworker and I had joked about by boosting our lethargic sales by forging autographs.  We practiced duplicating the signatures of Kennedy, Dickens, Twain.  A few other heavyweights.  I decided to try Baxter and found his signature remarkably easy to copy.  After twenty minutes of practice I could produce a very convincing facsimile. 

            The next morning I went to the warehouse and loaded up on replacement copies of all the books blondie had bought the day before.  I took them back to the store and began forging bizarre inscriptions on the front endpapers and pricing them for sale. 

            “Dear Ernesto, thanks for cleaning out my gutters.  And good luck with the surgery.  See you on the runway, babe.  Lovingly, Charles Baxter.”

            “My dearest Petunia, I’ll have the Pink Panther costume dry cleaned and returned to you no later than Thursday.  Sorry I forgot to refill the ice cube trays.   Enjoy the book, Charles Baxter.”

            “To a little friend, thanks for referring me to Dr. Casper.  He is a wonderful podiatrist.  I’m just sure we’re both going to “get on the good foot in 2006” your old chum, CB.”

            A lot of Baxter’s academic cronies were assigning his books for their classes that fall and there was a decent turnover of his stuff in the store.  I was careful to never over saturate our stock with phonies, but always eager to put one out if opportunity provided.                “Dear Monica, I was going to name my first child Roscoe, but after our blissful hour and a half at the Highlander motel, I wouldn’t dare think of naming it after anyone but you.  With tingling toes and a song on my lips, Charlie.”  

            I’d never read a single sentence of Baxter’s prose and had no concept of his literary prowess.  Still, I indulged in fantasies where he was discovered to be the definitive millennial novelist and books containing his signature achieved great value and historical prestige.  That these inscriptions of mine, mechanically indistinguishable from his own hand, would have their veracity debated by scholars and perhaps one day contribute to the mythos of a great man. 

            Even more indulgently I imagined myself emerging as a great novelist and having some late 21st century hermetic scouring my fakery for some gainful minutiae that might lend meaning to the themes and structures of future masterworks I hadn’t even begun to conjure. 

            So for the next year I went on forging his hand.

            They invited my boss to participate in a panel discussion on bibliomania at the Ann Arbor book fair.  He hated doing talks like this so he lied and said a dentist appointment and dumped it on me.  I checked out the lineup and saw that Baxter was talking on this other panel.  “Insect reppellant and the Constructivist moment in the modern novel.”  Something heavy like that. 

            The night before the fair there was a reception for the panelists in the banquet room of a Best Western.  A shrimp cocktail and wine gig.   I kept looking for Baxter but he didn’t show.  I hung out with some of my cronies from the book trade.  The little blonde I’d met in the bookstore was there and she spotted me.

            “Ben!  I got so excited when I heard you were on a panel.”

            “That’s great.  Are you going to come hear me talk?”

            “Well, my boyfriend is burning an effigy of Elmore Leonard tomorrow beneath the big maple tree on the law quad the same time your speaking…so I’m gonna miss it …but could you sign this book for Charles?”

            “Charles Baxter?”

            “It’s an anthology of his student’s work!  I’ve had it custom bound in lambskin, and I’m getting everybody who’s talking at the book fair to sign it.” 

            I’d had a few glasses of wine and I couldn’t help but smirk when she hands me her rubbery book and a Uniball.  

               “Dear Charles Baxter, what happens on the life raft stays on the life raft.  But I’ll get your monocle polished, sterilized, and returned, as soon as I can.  Ben Ness.”

              I gave blondie her book back and checked out the way her nipples brought out the eyes of the Juan Valdez looking peasant on her “Peace with Honduras” t-shirt. 

             “You know, I’ve got a room upstairs…”  But she had dashed off to ask Umberto Eco a question about the feeding habits of silver back gorillas and its relation to the simulacra. 

            Signing a book for Baxter himself I took as the karmic finale of my prank.  I decided to cut out signing his books.  But I still took pleasure in going to other bookstores and seeing that my forgeries were circulating.  And I was especially delighted by other bookseller’s perplexed notation, penciled below the price. 


            A few months later I was back in Ann Arbor to see a football game and after it was over I decided to browse a few bookstores.  This joint on State St. had an especially long row of Baxter novels and I opened them to see if I’d inscribed them.   

            I had.  

            “Fairest Marcel, when you get done deicing the freezer please enjoy this work of incomparable genius.  Yours and yours alone, Ben Ness.” 

            “Oh Beverly, I’m sorry I scratched your Wrestlemania DVDs.  Please accept this masterfully crafted novel as a tolken of my regret.  Your little pepper shaker, Ben Ness.”

            The signature was indistinguishable from my own. 

            I checked all the bookstores in town.  In every one, Charles Baxter’s books contained absurd, effusive inscriptions.  From me. 

            “Dear Keith, hate to paraphrase Jodeci, but every freaking night, and every freaking day, I want to freak you baby in every freaking way.  Enjoy this book by Charles Baxter, who is probably the greatest man ever to live.  Love, love, love, love, love love love love love, Ben Ness.” 



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