Edwin Balder and Molly Brown got off of the R Train at Union Square. As a rule Edwin did not like people very much, and Union Square was filled with people. But there was something about the hustle and bustle (yes, Edwin occasionally used hustle and bustle to describe action) of the place that made him feel somewhat decent inside, as if he would not drown in one of the dirty rivers or backed up sewers in the city. Edwin liked walking amongst the street performers and the artists selling their hackneyed works of art to unsuspecting, simple tourists who managed to make their way down Broadway from the glowing hell lights of Midtown and Times Square. He liked walking through the farmer’s market even though it was full of aging hipsters such as himself, buying arugula and freshly packed tofu for whatever ungodly vegan dinner they were concocting. Edwin liked stopping at street corners around the edges of the Square to listen to the Jews and Arabs argue about Israel and Palestine as if they were real places, or he liked to watch the Falun Gong practitioners do dances and exercises that he didn’t understand, as they held signs railing against the Chinese Government. Molly seemed to like them too because she got choked up at the pictures of people seemingly beaten to a pulp by that repressive regime. Edwin wondered if he could buy her a cup of Wonton soup to soothe her soul.
He was in Manhattan. Being in Manhattan made Edwin feel as though he were really in New York City, wherein living in Brooklyn just made him think that he’d made some bad financial choices throughout his life. And wasn’t that the truth? Edwin thought, laughing as Molly stopped to look at a kiosk full of cheap jewelry. Edwin thought about Arlene and how he had yet to give her a call. After all, she was back in the picture now that Natalie had become anathema to his very being. Of course, there was, again, the possibility of Molly Brown. It was not quite a May/December relationship, so he didn’t feel like a silly old man chasing a young girl. But Molly seemed prone to outbursts of tears. Plus there was the ghost of Matthew Joy to consider. And Arlene, despite her penchant for early 1990s fashion, had been kind to him that evening of the party. It had been a long time since a woman had been kind to Edwin Balder.
But it didn’t matter. Arlene was out of Edwin’s reach. He’d forgotten where it was that she actually lived in the city, or perhaps she’d never told him. No, she had. Edwin was just never good at remembering anything women told him. Natalie Presley, that opportunist shrew, had, close to the end of their relationship, accused Edwin of being a misogynist. She said that she was surprised it had taken her this long to realize it. She said that Edwin valued the opinion of the dumbest male over the smartest woman, something that he vehemently disagreed with. Edwin had plenty of smart female friends, he told Natalie. When she reminded him that most of them were, in actuality, her friends, Edwin accused Natalie of being on “the rag” as the lower classes were so fond of saying. Edwin Balder ate dinner alone for the next three nights after that.
“Where do you want to go and look for the book?” Molly asked Edwin, as she purchased a cheap Jade knockoff of a Buddha from one of the artists in the Square.
“What book?” Edwin asked, looking around, and then settling on a group of break dancers surrounded by throngs of tourists in New York City hats, carrying New York City bags.
“The one your ex wrote about you.”
“We could either go to Strand or to the Barnes and Noble.”
“Which do you prefer?” Edwin asked.
“I like Strand,” Molly said. “I like to shop locally and act globally.”
“I like to leave people to their own foolish and reckless devices,” Edwin said. “But Strand is as good as anywhere else.”
They walked toward 14th street. Memory after memory shot at Edwin Balder so quickly that he barely had time to duck. He saw himself and Lawson as college students, hanging around the area, trying to figure out where it was that Warhol had his Factory. Edwin remembered drinking at Cedar Tavern with their gang, thinking that they were big shots for hanging around a place of such literary significance, until a wiser old timer told them that the original artists’ hangout had been demolished and that this one was new. Edwin remembered the many Saturdays that he and Natalie had spent going through the long aisles at the Virgin Megastore as loud music rained down on them, giving them a headache, and how they never bought anything that they intended to buy because they could not think straight. It seemed fitting that the store closed the same year that he and Natalie split up. It was a bank now. And a Duane Reade drugstore.
“Are you all right?” Molly asked Edwin, as they made their way toward the big Red signs of Strand.
“I’m fine,” Edwin said. “I was just admiring your jacket. How does one find that shade of hot pink?”
“I’m serious,” he said.
“I could ask you the same thing about your tight pants and thick glasses,” Molly said. She smiled at Edwin. “Hipster chic was so 2010.”
“So I’ve been told,” Edwin said, thinking of Arlene.
Edwin Balder and Molly Brown entered Strand. Edwin realized how much he didn’t like the store. It was always packed and hot, even in the dead of winter, no matter the time of day. Plus the place was too big for its own good. It wasn’t that he got lost in Strand’s so-called eighteen miles of books so much as he could not stand the store’s layout. Philosophy belonged with literature, he always thought, for one always lead to the other. Edwin hated the clientele and its snotty staff. Yes, yes, you work in a world famous bookstore, but you make seven dollars an hour hocking the work of has-beens and never-weres to tourists and denizens with nowhere better to shop. True, the occasional celebrity came in, some cable television hack most likely looking to get recognized instead of being just out and about getting the new Lethem novel. Plus Edwin was still mad that Strand had not hired him when he was in college. You confuse George Elliot and George Bernard Shaw in an interview, and that suddenly makes you ineligible to shelve Anne Rice and Danielle Steele books? Perhaps he would try again now that the old invoice shop was closing its doors.
“What’s her name?” Molly asked.
“Who?” Edwin said.
“Your ex. What’s with you today, Edwin?”
“I’m sorry. I’m having acid flashbacks. Or the mid nineteen-nineties, early two thousands version of an acid flashback.”
“These are my old stomping grounds, you see. I went to college at NYU.”
“It’s only like one of the best schools in the country,” Molly said. “I wish that I went to NYU.”
“Where do you go?” Edwin asked, to be kind. He could already feel the sweat on his brown form the heat of Strand.
“Stupid Brooklyn College.”
“I’m sure it perfectly suits your needs.”
“Whatever,” Molly said. Edwin followed her over to a table full of new books. “What’s her name? And I swear if you say ‘who’ this time, I’m going to knee you in the nuts.”
“Ah, that would be Natalie Presley,” Edwin said, making sure that his testicles were protected.
Molly scanned the books on the table while Edwin watched a female Strand clerk bend over to pick up a pile of books. Her khaki pants fell low in the back exposing the top of her thong. It was called a Whales’ Tale, as George Pollard Jr. had told them all one night. “Here it is!”
“Let me see that,” Edwin said, grabbing the book from Molly’s hands.
The cover was a pale red with the title The Life and Times of Edward Beddor in the Real World scrawled in a ghastly white and black with the name of the author, Natalie Chappel Presley, in the bottom right hand corner. Edwin opened up the back flap to see the author picture, and suddenly there was Natalie’s image looking back at him. It was a color photo. How tacky, Edwin thought. The hard-up publishing house was probably playing up Natalie’s looks, as her youth had been taken by time. And she did look good. She still had those rich brown eyes that glowed, and that angular, tan face with a chin that came to a definite point at the end. Natalie’s hair hung to her shoulders with brand new (at least to Edwin) bangs that edged toward the left side of her face. She looked professional and happy, and Edwin was sure that he hated her for real.
“She’s very pretty,” Molly said, looking at the author photo over Edwin’s shoulder.”
“She’s a dog,” Edwin said. He snapped the book shut. “And she’s going to be paying me a lot of money when I’m through with her.”
“So the book is really about you?”
Edwin looked at the cover again. “Supposedly. I guess I’m this Edward Beddor character. What a stupid, unoriginal name. I could come up with a better name in my sleep.”
“She didn’t seem to stray too far from the source,” Molly said.
“She stayed too close to the source,” Edwin said. “A bad move as now I can get her on libel or slander, or whatever it is that lets the world know that Edwin Balder will not stand for this kind of treatment! And to think that she assaulted me with a book! One of my favorite tangible articles in this cruel world!” He held the book up and shook it. “This is a blood purchase! A blood purchase!”
“Edwin, calm down,” Molly said. She tried to take the book away from him but he snatched it away. “People are beginning to look.”
“Let them! Let them see what true violation looks like! Let these cows, the walking blobs of flesh and blood and bone see what true pain and agony looks like! Edwin lowered the book and glared around the bookstore. No one was looking except for the old security guard, and even he appeared bored. Still, the sight of a uniformed protector of the law calmed Edwin down.
“Why don’t we buy the book, and then we can look at it over a few drinks,” Molly said, taking the novel from Edwin.
“Edward Beddor!” Edwin started again, but quickly quieted down. “Why not Evan Spelndor? Or Eden Tender? Or some other trite name?”
“I don’t know, Edwin,” Molly said, heading toward the long, ubiquitous line toward the cash register. “The world is a strange place.”
“Its slop,” Edwin said, falling in behind her. He looked at the people in line. Most of them were carrying boring run-of-the-mill best sellers at discount prices. A few were trying to look smart with their history books. Some were holding classics that they’d never read; that dusty copy of Moby Dick that would be acting as a coaster in under a month. Edwin hated everyone, and he felt as if he were going to be sick. At least none of them were carrying a copy of The Life and Times of Edward Beddor in the Real World by Natalie Chappel Presley. Chappel? Where did she come up with that one? “I need to step outside.”
Molly touched his sleeve. “Okay. I’ll take care of this.”
Edwin stepped outside of Strand, but not before the security guard gave him a steely-eyed glare. It was cool outside, but a bit warm for late March. Spring was coming, Edwin observed, although thanks to Natalie Presley it would be the winter of his discontent. But why not spring? Edwin hated spring anyway. He hated seeing people going back outside, skateboarding, jogging, or just loafing on the corner. Edwin hated the dog walkers and all of their dog shit on the concrete. He hated kids eating ice cream cones, and big, dumb Italian men walking down the street with flopping slices of pizza on stained paper plates. Edwin hated the people in his building, lingering in front of the apartment, smoking, and telling the stupidest stories about their boring little lives. If nothing else, none of the denizens at the CrestSeal apartments had a book written about them.
“Here you go,” Molly said, handing Edwin a red and white Strand bag. He hated those two colors for sure now.
“What do I owe you?” he asked.
“Nothing. Consider it a gift.”
“But you hardly know me.”
Molly smiled. “Then consider it a thank you for making me feel better this afternoon.”
“Okay,” Edwin said.
“And just think you didn’t have to actually buy the book.”
“That’s true,” Edwin said. They were silent a moment. “May I buy you a drink or two?”
“Sure,” Molly said. She took out her cell phone, checked it quickly, and frowned. “It’s not as though I have anyone to go home to.”
“I’ll try not to take that the wrong way.”
Edwin Balder and Molly Brown began walking down Broadway toward Astor Place. Edwin decided that he would take Molly to one of his favorite taverns, The Grassroots. Sure, it was another place full of old memories, but he reasoned maybe today he could make a few new ones. And Edwin needed some good nostalgia for a change.
He looked at Molly, dressed in her plastic pink coat, and smiled. May/December, perhaps. She looked back at him and smiled too. Then Molly put her arm in Edwin’s and the two of them strolled down Broadway like young lovers. Well, youngish in Edwin’s case. Soon they were turning down 8th. It would become St. Marks Place and Edwin decided to tell Molly everything that he knew about the musical and artistic history of the area. Maybe she would like it, he thought. But then they passed a diner where two people were outside kissing. It was a raven haired woman and bulky man with sparkling, silver hair. Normally Edwin couldn’t care less about such brazen displays of PDA, but this time he stopped short and clutched his stomach. It was as if the wind had been knocked out of him.
“Edwin, are you okay?” Molly asked.
Edwin pointed at the couple, who had now separated and were walking hand and hand down Lafayette Street. “Natalie.”
“Natalie. With Charles Ramsdell,” was all he could say.