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Rain In The Doorway
MR. Owen found himself caged behind four counters. He was literally surrounded by books. As far as his gaze could reach, there were books and still more books. The mere thought of reading even a fraction of them numbed his literary faculties. All the books in the world seemed to have been gathered into that department. He found himself unwilling to open the cover of even one of them. He thought of giant forests denuded for the sake of these books; of millions of publishers and editors crushed beneath the weight of their spring and fall lists, of number-less book-store owners resorting to theft and murder or else going mad in their efforts to keep from sinking in seas of bankruptcy beneath the steadily rising tide of current fiction. He thought of haggard-eyed book reviewers turning their bitter faces to those strange and awful gods to which book reviewers are forced to turn in the affliction of their tortured brains. He heard these abandoned men calling in loud voices for a momentary recession, at least, of the soul-rotting flood of books. He even thought of authors, and his heart was filled with indignation against that indefatigable, ever hopeful tribe of word vendors. If it wasn't for the diligence of authors so many hearts would remain intact and so many hopes unblighted. Mr. Owen decided it would be better not to think of authors. No good would ever come of it. Also, with a feeling of shame, he thought of the reading public, and his mind began to veer very much in the manner of his senior partners. Luckily his thoughts were taken off the reading public by the conversation of two gentlemen who were fingering various volumes in a decidedly furtive manner. One of these gentlemen was tall, hungry-looking, and artistically untidy. The other was exactly like the first only not as tall. Feeling themselves under scrutiny, the pair looked up guiltily.
"How is The Broken Bed going?" the tall one asked in a diffident voice.
"What?" replied Mr. Owen. "I don't sleep in a broken bed."
"No. No," said the other in tones of pain. "I was referring to Monk's latest. I don't care where you sleep."
"Nor do I care where you sleep," replied Mr. Owen tartly, "or if you ever sleep. Please stick to business. You were referring to Monk's latest what?"
"I was referring to the works of Monk," answered the tall person in the manner of a god offended. "Oh." said Mr. Owen, momentarily stunned. "You were? Well, we don't refer to them here. You must be in the wrong department."
"Do you mean to stand there and tell me to my face," cried the man, "that you don't sell The Broken Bed here —not one single Broken Bed?"
"I'm rather new at this business myself," Mr. Owen explained, thinking it better to be patient with the man. "But I know they sell broken mechanical toys. They might even sell broken beds. Why don't you try the Furniture Department? If they haven't one there they might be willing to order a broken bed for you. They might even break one of their good beds. Almost anything can happen in this store."
"My dear sir," said the tall man, evidently deciding to be patient himself, "it seems you don't understand. I am referring to Monk's works.
"I know," put in Mr. Owen, "but I do wish you'd stop."
"One moment," the man continued with a wave of his hand. "This may jog your laggard wits. They recently made him into an omnibus."
"Who?" gasped Mr. Owen, starting back.
"Monk," replied the other triumphantly. "There! They made Monk into an omnibus."
"How could they do that?" Mr. Owen wanted to know.
"Why, they make all the best ones into omnibuses nowadays," he was told. "It's being done."
"But I don't see," answered Mr. Owen. "How could they possibly make this chap Monk into an omnibus?"
"He became so popular," replied the other simply.
"Still I don't see it," pursued Mr. Owen. "Just because a man is popular, why should they make him into an omnibus? Doesn't it hurt terribly?"
"Why should it hurt?" exclaimed the other fiercely. "They just take him and squeeze him together tight and compactly, and there you are."
"I know," said Mr. Owen, unable to keep the horror from his voice. "But look at him. The poor fellow must be in an awful condition. I don't even like to think of it."
"No, he isn't," replied the other, frowning dangerously. "Not if he's properly done. There you have him for all time conveniently at hand—the best of his works. The rest of him that doesn't matter you can toss aside."
Mr. Owen shivered and stared at the speaker with dilated eyes.
"Will you please go away," he said quietly. "I don't care to hear any more."
"Nonsense," spoke up the smaller of the two madmen for the first time. "They made him into an omnibus. He's Monk."
"Oh," said Mr. Owen, speaking gently as if to a child. "He's Monk and he's an omnibus, too. What might you be, a tramcar?"
"No," the little chap replied in all seriousness, "but I hope to be an omnibus some day. You know, if they don't make you into an omnibus you're simply no good."
"I shouldn't think you'd be much good if they did," observed Mr. Owen. "Why don't you run along now and play in the Toy Department?"
"What do you think we are," cried the tall lunatic, "children?"
"Not at all," Mr. Owen said soothingly. "You're an omnibus all right. I can see that at a glance. But don't you think you'd be happier in our Motor Vehicle Department? You might run into a Mack truck there. Wouldn't that be fun?"
Upon the reception of this suggestion the tall man uttered a loud complaint and dashed off wildly through the store, pushing and being pushed. The little chap followed him. A good-looking salesgirl sidled up to Mr. Owen and invited incredible confidences with her wickedly shadowed eyes.
"You're the new partner," she began, "aren't you? What was troubling those two half-wits?"
"One kept telling me he was an omnibus," faltered Mr. Owen. "And when I admitted he was—called him one, in fact—he started in screaming and ran away."
The girl smiled sympathetically and patted Mr. Owen's arm.
"Don't mind them," she replied. "They're just a couple of authors. You know, they come around here and innocently ask how their books are going, and then get mad as hell because we haven't even heard of them. They should tell us they're authors, in the first place. Then we could think up some comforting lie."
"But this chap insisted he was an omnibus," Mr. Owen continued. "Said they did things to his—his—I forget now, but however it was, they did things to the best of him and then he was an omnibus."
"This is an omnibus," the girl explained, picking up a stout volume. "It's one of those quaint ideas that occasionally get the best of publishers. Whenever an author isn't good enough to have his old books bought individually and still isn't rotten enough to be taken off the list entirely they publish an omnibus volume of his stuff, and surprisingly few people ever buy it."
"Oh," said Mr. Owen. "Then I was a little wrong. He started in with asking for a broken bed."
"That's Monk's latest drip," the girl told him. "It doesn't matter, though. He didn't want to buy it. He was seeking information."
At this moment a middle-aged lady sailed up to the counter and knocked off several books which she failed to replace. The salesgirl eyed her.
"What would be nice for a young lady sick in bed?" she demanded in a scolding voice.
"How about a good dose of salts, lady?" the girl replied promptly out of the side of her mouth, and winked at the shocked Mr. Owen.
"Or a nice young man?" chimed in another salesgirl.
"I'll have you to know this young lady comes from one of the best families," the woman retorted indignantly.
"Why did they kick her out?" Mr. Owen's companion wanted to know.
"They didn't kick her out," cried the woman.
"Then how did she get to know you?" the other girl inquired.
"Are you deliberately trying to insult me?" the woman demanded in a voice of rage.
"I was," said the girl with the shadow-stained eyes, "but I've given it up."
"I asked," said the woman, struggling to control her words and mixing them completely, "What would be nice to give to a sick book in bed?"
"A worm, lady," replied Owen's friend. "A bookworm—a nice, succulent bookworm."
"But can't you understand?" cried the woman. "I don't want worms."
"Neither do lots of other people," the girl replied philosophically, "but they can't help themselves. I didn't know you had worms."
"But I haven't any worms," said the woman.
"Then why don't you want some?" she was asked.
"Who wants worms?" snapped the woman.
"Perhaps this woman is trying to sell you some of her worms," Mr. Owen suggested.
"That's an idea, too," agreed the girl. "Say, lady, are you trying to sell me some worms?"
"Certainly not!" expostulated the woman. "I don't want to sell some worms."
"See?" said the salesgirl with a hopeless shrug of her shoulder. "She says she won't let us have any of her worms."
"But I didn't have any worms to begin with," cried the woman.
"Oh." replied the girl, with ready understanding, "you picked them up as a hobby."
"No," declared Mr. Owen. "She means, she wasn't born with worms."
"It's a pity she was born at all," observed the salesgirl. "She and her old worms. Who brought up these worms, anyway?"
"You did," the woman told her. "I asked for a book, and you brought up worms."
"And where did the young lady in bed go?" the girl asked. "Is she still sick?"
"You told me to give her a dose of salts," the woman retorted furiously.
"Did I?" replied the salesgirl. "Well, give her a couple of doses and worm yourself off. This is a book counter and not a worm clinic. I'm tired of you and your worms and your dying young women and all that. Besides, I want to talk to this gentleman. You're in the way. Come back to-morrow when you've made up your mind."
"The management will hear about this," the woman threatened.
"The management has heard," the girl replied. "This gentleman is one of the owners. Isn't he lovely?"
Impotent with anger the woman rushed away.
Owen looked blankly at the salesgirl.
"Is there anything wrong?" he asked her.
"Oh, no," she replied, her eyes gleaming with unholy amusement. "There's nothing at all wrong. Can't you read?" Here she pointed to an overhead sign. "That damn fool came to the Pornographic Department. Take a look at this book."
She selected a book at random, turned the pages until she found an illustration, then passed the book to Mr. Owen. He glanced at the picture, gave one frantic look about him, then turned his back on the girl. The poor man's brain was paralysed by the picture the girl had put under his nose, a picture she should not have looked at herself, and which most certainly she should not have shown to him. With the book still held forgotten in his hands, Mr. Owen strove to think of other things. It was obvious to him that he was never going to turn round and face that girl again. What disturbing eyes she had! He wondered whether it would not be better for him to crouch down back of the counter and to wait there until one of the partners came to take him away. Dimly he realised that someone had been asking him a question, the same one, several times. He looked up and discovered he was being glared at by a thin, bitter-faced lady who gave the impression of being mostly pince-nez.
"Do you have the Sex Life of the Flea?" the woman asked sharply.
Mr. Owen now noticed that the woman held a slip of paper and a pencil in her hands. "My God," he wondered, “is this horrid old crow trying to interview me on my sex life? What a place this is.”
"No, lady," he answered disgustedly. "I don't have the sex life of a louse."
"But I must have the Sex Life of the Flea" the woman insisted.
"I hope you enjoy it," he retorted, "but I shall play no part in it. None whatsoever. Personally, I don't care if you have the sex life of a mink."
"I've finished with minks," snapped the woman. "I'm doing fleas now."
"Have you mistaken me for a bull flea or whatever the he's are called, by any chance?" he shot back. "Or have you gone batty like everyone else? If you want a flea's sex life why not take up with some unmarried flea and have done with it?"
"You've gone batty yourself," retorted the woman.
"Madam," he replied, "I certainly have. Now, run away and look for this flea, I'm busy."
The woman sniffed, tossed back her head, and subjected Mr. Owen to a parting glare.
"You," she said witheringly, "would not even understand the sex life of the Bumpers—Chloroscombrus chrysurus."
"I doubt it," admitted Mr. Owen. "It doesn't sound very restrained."
"And as for the courtship of the Squid," she tossed in for good measure, as she prepared to march away, "I know you are ignorant of that."
"I'm not alone in my darkness, madam," he told her a little nettled, "and furthermore, I'm not a Peeping Tom."
"Will you kindly hold that book a little higher?" a fresh voice asked at his other side. "I want to study the detail of the illustration."
Mr. Owen wheeled and found himself confronting the gravely critical face of a lovely young girl. With his last shred of chivalry he endeavoured to remove the book from view, but the girl hung on gamely.
"What's the matter?" she asked innocently. "Don't you want me to see it?"
"Of course not," he scolded. "I don't want anybody to see it. Can't look at it myself."
The girl took the book from his now nerveless fingers and studied the picture intently. Fully expecting her to shriek and hurry away as soon as she understood what it was all about, Mr. Owen watched with fascinated eyes.
"Those Arabian lads certainly had some quaint ideas," she observed in a casually conversational voice. "So complicated—almost too elaborate, I would say, but perhaps they had a lot of time on their hands and nothing better to do. And after all is said and done, what is there better to do?"
"Don't ask me, lady," said Mr. Owen hastily. "I wash my hands of the whole affair."
"You seem to find something wrong with this picture," the girl went on. "Is it out of drawing?"
"It's out of reason," he answered coldly. "Please stop memorising it."
"I don't have to memorise it," the girl replied proudly. "I'm thoroughly conversant with the technique of Arabian erotology."
"Oh." replied Mr. Owen feebly, then, prompted by the belief that anything would be better than this clutchingly graphic illustration which they were shamelessly sharing between them, he asked, "would something in Squids interest you, or Bumpers, perhaps?"
The young lady judicially considered this proposal.
"No," she said at last. "I don't think I'd get much of a kick from the erotic life of the Squid."
"Sorry," said Mr. Owen, and he really was. "Then how about something especially filthy in the line of Bumpers? That might tide you over."
"Hardly," replied the girl. "Haven't you a dirtier book than this one?"
"My dear young lady," said Mr. Owen with deep conviction, "they don't print any dirtier books than that one. Even to be standing together in its presence makes me feel that for all practical purposes you and myself are nine-tenths married."
"Does it affect you that way?" the girl inquired with professional interest.
"I don't know what way you mean," he replied cautiously. "But I do know I'll never be quite the same."
"You're too impressionable," the girl assured him. "Now, I ran across a book the other day that would have opened your eyes. It was ever so much dirtier than this— to begin with it described——"
"Don't!" cried Mr. Owen, clapping both hands to his ears. "Are you proposing to stand there in cold blood and describe to me a book even dirtier than this one?"
“Perhaps when I've finished," smiled the girl, "your blood won't be so cold."
"Oh," muttered Mr. Owen, panic stricken by the implication in the girl's words. "Oh, dear. Oh, dear. I want to get out of this department. How can I do it? Where shall I turn?"
His hands fluttered helplessly over the books, and all the time he was painfully aware of the fact that the salesgirl with those eyes was observing his distress with quietly malicious amusement.
"Tell that creature all about it," he said to the young lady distractedly and pointed to the salesgirl. "She'll probably cap your story with the Nuptials of the Whale or Everyman's Manual of Rape, for all I know. Don't hang around here any more. I'm in no mood for any monkey business."
"Then I'll call on you when you are," the smiling young lady replied. "I like that sort of business, and it's so refreshing to find a man who is still fresh and unspoiled— you know, not blasé."
"Don't you dare come back," Mr. Owen called after the girl as she gracefully swayed away. "My sex life is null and void."
Apparently the girl did not hear, but various other customers did and stopped to stare interestedly at this man who was thus publicly proclaiming his truly lamentable condition.
"I hope you don't mean that," the salesgirl murmured, undulating up to him with her trim, flexible torso.
Mr. Owen, after recovering a little from the effect of the torso, noticed for the first time that a small section of hell had crept into her hair and left its flames glowing among the waves. A dangerously alluring girl, he decided. She was certainly not the proper person to team up with when selling pornographic literature. Especially when illustrated. Or maybe she was. He did not know.
"I wish you'd stop sidling up to me like an impassioned and overdone piece of spaghetti." he complained. "And what has my sex life to do with you, I'd like to know?"
"That's rather a leading question, isn't it?" she answered, a challenging glitter in her eye.
"I don't know." said Mr. Owen. "If it is, don't answer."
"I feel that I must," she told him gently.
"Oh, God! " breathed Mr. Owen.
"So far," said the girl, "our sex lives have never crossed, but they might at any minute."
"What!" cried Mr. Owen. "You mean right here and now? Oh, no, they won't, my girl. Nobody is going to cross my sex life in the middle of a department store. You keep your sex life and I'll keep mine."
"But you seem to have no sex life."
"Then don't worry about it. Let the sleeping dog lie."
"What sleeping dog?"
"Don't ask me," Mr. Owen told her bitterly. "Any sleeping dog."
"Oh," said the girl. "I thought you meant your sleeping dog."
"Well, I didn't." he retorted irritably. "I never had a dog either sleeping or awake."
For a moment she studied him appraisingly.
"Did you ever have a girl?" she asked.
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