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The Manuscript

The Manuscript
by Paul Lamb

The Manuscript

Spivek pays me to paw through the books in the back of his store. He moved to his new shop more than three years ago, but he still has dozens of boxes he hasn’t unpacked. Sometimes he rummages for a book he’s sure he has--sometimes he even finds it--but mostly he leaves the boxes for me to dig through.

He wants to make sure there is nothing in the pages of the old books that shouldn’t be found by a customer. A guy once found an old two-dollar bill in a book on Spivek’s shelves. That drove Spivek crazy since he thought the deuce rightfully belonged to him, but he had to let the customer have it. He still gripes about it.

Sometimes I find old postcards that people used as bookmarks. Or scraps of paper with nonsense on them. Grocery lists. Receipts. Photos. Bits of string. Dried leaves, even. Most of it goes right in the trash.

But I’ve never found anything like the Quincy manuscript.

The pages were tucked inside the back cover of a copy of Baird’s Big Book of Bottle Collecting, folded in quarters and pressed flat.

I didn’t expect anything unusual when I first teased the yellowed sheets apart--maybe a letter from somebody’s auntie--but what the crabbed handwriting revealed floored me.

At first I didn’t think it was real. But as I read, something about it sounded familiar. So I waited until Spivek was busy with a customer at the back of the shop and used his computer to look on the Internet. And there it was. That unsolved murder from years ago. Except that now it was solved. In fading blue ink on the crinkly paper.

* * *

Much has been said about how Quincy died. Some of it true. Most of it not.

The act itself happened much as it was reported in the papers. What this doesn’t explain is why I acted as I did in the restaurant that afternoon. But for you to understand this I must give some background.

I met Quincy in my last year at Osage College. I was three weeks into an advanced cost accounting course when he came stumbling into the classroom. He was carrying a stack of ragged textbooks, the last, bereft copies in the bookstore I guessed. Pages stuck out from the covers in all directions, and as he balanced the books on his hip, I thought they would suddenly slide from his grip and fall to a mess on the floor.

But somehow the books clung to their perch long enough for Quincy to approach the instructor and thrust a tattered sheet of paper at him.

"Permission to enter your class, sir?" he said, giving a mock salute. Quincy was always a jovial person. That must have been helpful to him in the years to come.

The instructor briefly scanned the sheet of paper--a late admission slip--then sniffed abruptly and nodded toward a desk.

Quincy took the empty desk next to mine and fell into it with a general rattle. He let out a sigh of utter exhaustion then turned to me.

"Have you ever heard of anything so impossible?" he asked, his voice a clumsy whisper heard by everyone in the room.

By this time the instructor had already returned to the chalkboard where he was illustrating the intricacies of amortization, and I had to turn from him to Quincy.

"I'm sorry," I whispered. "What did you say?"

"Every one of my classes cancelled or already filled," he continued, no less audibly than before. "I had to scramble to find enough openings to fill my required hours. I've been handing out late admission slips all week." He rolled his eyes, sighed again, then slumped back in his chair.

It was just as he said, though I hadn't believed it at the time. Quincy was in three of my classes that semester. This wasn't all that unlikely. We were both accounting majors in our senior year when courses were specialized and had limited offerings.

As the term progressed, Quincy and I saw a good deal of each other. He had transferred from a liberal arts college up state that had closed because of financial problems and started three weeks into the semester because his transcripts were misplaced somewhere between his old college and his new one.

As I said, Quincy was a jovial guy, though always late for class or borrowing a pencil because he'd lost his. He went through three of my Eversharps before I started carrying a box of sharpened Conestogas to feed him.

During that year we lunched together in the cafeteria and often met in the evenings to quiz each other on the esoteric points of balance sheets and ledgers. He certainly knew the material. In the spring we both received our degrees, though Quincy had a last-minute scare when several of his exam sheets apparently disappeared after he'd turned them in.

Through the college placement office, we both found jobs at the same local chain of clothing stores. We kept books in the tiny upstairs office of the main store. It wasn’t much, but we were both certain that we were finally going to shake up the business world.

Then a national chain moved into town to sell our same brands at prices we couldn't match. Within six months our company was on the ropes, and soon after that its few remaining stores were bought out by the national chain. There was room for only one of us in the new company's local plans, and, with the same bad luck that had dogged him during college, Quincy was the one who was turned out.

From all I could see, Quincy was as good a bookkeeper as any, and I was not surprised when after a few weeks of earnest searching he found another job. He was eager to tell me about it.

We met for dinner at a Mexican restaurant, and over burritos and blue corn chips Quincy laid out his path to success. He had found a job with Braniff Airlines, and he was certain this was going to take him to new heights.

But this was at the start of the 80s, and I was beginning to see that holding any job was going to be a challenge. Regardless, I was pleased that he'd bounced back from his recent bout with unemployment and was as hopeful as he'd ever been.

During this time I had been working on my CPA, and the examination was approaching. As I focused on preparing for it, I lost touch with Quincy. In fact, it was more than a year after I'd completed my CPA before I met with him again.

He'd called me out of the blue and said it had been too long since we'd gotten together. He suggested a few beers at a downtown jazz club that weekend and I was eager to oblige. Hearing his voice again after so long made me realize just how absorbed I'd gotten in my work and how seriously I had neglected any kind of social life.

Quincy was full of news when we met. Braniff Airlines, as everyone knows, went bankrupt not long after he joined it. One of the early victims of deregulation, he said.

Faced with unemployment again, he had thrown himself into a fast-track CPA program to improve his options, and he was approaching the examination with great hope.

In the meantime, he told me, he'd held a series of jobs at various clearly shaky companies that could accept the odd hours he had to maintain because of his studies. In rapid succession he had kept books for a dry cleaners, an artsy movie house, a Chinese restaurant, and a couple of mom-and-pop convenience stores. Apparently each place was as moribund as the last. None lived long, and I was curiously not surprised as he detailed the continuing streak of rotten luck that put him out of work again and again.

I began to fear that there was something about Quincy--his mannerisms, the way he presented himself in an interview, maybe some doleful look in his eyes or his choice in neckties-- that turned off the solid employers, leaving him seemingly worthy of only those pathetic companies desperate to snatch up anyone willing to work for them.

Of course I never told him this. And he was undaunted. "This coming Monday," he eagerly shouted over the brassy sounds of the jazz band across the room, "I have an interview with a major brokerage house. But I'm not going to tell you which one because I don't want to jinx it!"

So I guessed my fear was wrong. A brokerage house was serious business. This wasn't some fly-by-night convenience store that was interested in him. I sincerely wished him luck and bought the next round.

After that night I didn't hear from Quincy for more than ten years. And as is the way with these things, I more or less had forgotten all about him in that time. So when he called me I didn’t place his voice at first.

"It's Quincy," he crowed into the mouthpiece. "Quincy from Osage College! We did some time together at the clothing store. Remember?"

By then I did, and I apologized that I hadn't recognize his voice.

"No trouble," he reassured me. "Things are great now. I can't wait to tell you about my new job. When can we get together?"

New job? His peripatetic work history came back to me. But everyone changed jobs in those days, so maybe it was nothing more than a move to take a better offer somewhere.

We chose a downtown steakhouse and settled on the Saturday afternoon that was soon to be familiar to everyone in that city.

I arrived early but found Quincy already at a table, waving me over eagerly. His suit needed pressing, and I could see stains on his tie. But in all the years I'd known him I'd never seen such joy on his face.

"Have you ever heard of anything so impossible in your life?" he asked as I slid into the seat across from him. Before I could respond he hurried forth with the answer. "I order a Corona and they tell me they just ran out."

Quincy gave a quick grunt of disgust then bounced right back to his jubilant mood.

"So let me bring you up to speed," he said, rubbing his hands together the way he always did when he was excited.

He had gotten that job with the brokerage house a decade ago. Unfortunately, it was E.F. Hutton, and soon after he joined, the company went through its famous scandal before shutting down.

This, I thought, was really stretching human credibility. Could any one person have such a string of bad luck? Did he have some kind of perverse sense that led him to companies teetering on the brink of failure? If so, how did he keep going each day?

"Deregulation makes for an uncertain world," he said with the air of a sage.

"I didn't have any trouble finding a job after Hutton shut down," he continued. "Too bad that one didn't last either. Or the next one. In fact, all of the 90s kind of went by in a blur. But now I've got a new job that's a sure thing, and I start on Monday."

"Wait," I said, more nervously than I realized. People sitting at the tables around us turned at my outburst. "Wait," I tried again more calmly. "What were those jobs you got after Hutton?"

"Oh, those," he said dismissively. "Just a couple of industries to avoid these days."

"But what were they?" I insisted almost automatically, trying to keep myself restrained. I didn't want to lose the morbid chain of events.

He rolled his eyes in his familiar way and figured he had to indulge the curiosity of his old college chum even if it meant a little embarrassment.

Embarrassment or not, I had to know because I was starting to feel something dark lurking in his tales, but I couldn't quite lay my finger on what it was.

"Well, after Hutton I landed with Silverado Savings," he said a little grudgingly. "But they were one of the early savings and loan casualties, as everyone knows. So that didn't last long."

"And then what?" I asked, keeping an even tone so I didn't betray my growing alarm.

"Well, then came the 90s," he said quickly, ducking behind the protection of a drink of water from his glass. “Best not to get too specific about that time.”

"What did you do?”

"Mostly junk bonds and day trading," he murmured. “No one wants to remember those days.”

Quincy buzzed on, but I barely heard him. He spoke some words about Enron, and then WorldCom, but the terrifying reality was beginning to dawn on me. Every company that Quincy had ever worked for had gone out of business. Every single one. But now I could see. It wasn't that he was attracted to the worst companies.

It was Quincy. Quincy himself. It was insane. But it was true. Quincy didn't join dying companies. Quincy killed the companies he joined. Somehow Quincy was the kiss of death for every place he ever worked.

"I've got a sure job now," I heard him say above the rattle of my thoughts.

I could barely give him my attention. The puzzle pieces were assembling in my mind. It all made perfect sense. Whatever organization hired him was doomed to fail within a year. The only thing that remained was to hear what his next victim would be. Maybe there was some point in trying to talk him out of repeating his fatal move so I could save some innocent and unwary company.

"Job security," he crowed, leaning back in his chair and grinning. "This is one outfit that ain't gonna to fold up on me."

"What, Quincy?" I heard myself say through clenched teeth. "What outfit isn't going to fold up on you?"

"Why, what else? The United States government. I've got a job with the United States government!"

It was then that I could feel my fingers wrapping around the bone handle of the steak knife.

* * *

That was the end of the manuscript.

There was enough detail to figure out who wrote it. I could have found the guy and turned him in. But there really was only one thing I could do.

I folded the manuscript carefully and put it in my pocket. I’ll leave the man alone. He is a real American hero.

* * *

Paul Lamb hails from Kansas City, but he retreats to the Missouri Ozarks whenever he can steal the chance. He's currently at work on a novel about art versus mundane existence and the strange demands the can result when they intersect. His fiction has appeared in the Platte Valley Review, Present Magazine, the Beacons of Tomorrow second anthology, and Wanderings. He rarely strays far from his laptop.

Where do you get the ideas for your work?

The fantasy that most appeals to me is the kind that is just a half step outside of our world. Thus the inspiration for this story came from my life. There really was a period in my life when it was literally true that every company I had worked for had gone out of business. I like to look at events or experiences I have had, and thus know well, and think of how I might adjust them into a story.


Brian Keaney said...

I like this very much. It's pithy, with a dry humour and the character of Quincy is neatly sketched with a few bold and distinctive strokes.

Paul said...

A sad little update to this story. I had based the bookstore setting in this story -- Spivek's -- on a story in my home town. I leared over the weekend that the real store has closed. It was more a museum than a bookstore, and it will be greatly missed.

Paul said...

A sad little update to this story. I had based the bookstore setting in this story -- Spivek's -- on a story in my home town. I learned over the weekend that the real store has closed. It was more a museum than a bookstore, and it will be greatly missed.

Paul said...

I imagine if I were rewriting this story today I would have the character move through a succession of companies: a steak company, a for-profit university, a few casinos, an airline, a board game, a fragrance, a magazine, a mortgage company. But he would feel secure in his newest gig in the executive branch of the federal government!