When she asked a question like this, it was always a minefield. She put down her coffee cup and took a drag on her cigarette, waiting for my response.
“Two things which are apparently related in some way, happen at the same time, or nearly the same time, giving the impression of–“
She nodded. “Giving the impression.” She pursed her lips and drank some more coffee.
Something was nagging at her, I knew. This was more than her usual sporadic attempts at morning chit-chat. And I knew she would get to the point when she was ready, and not before.
We were in New York City, waiting (hoping, really) for a meeting with her publisher. Well, they weren’t “her” publisher — they’d just expressed interest in publishing a book of hers. Interest which now seemed to be waning, based on the number of meetings which had been postponed, or canceled.
That afternoon, in Central Park, we were demonstrating, at least to ourselves, that we were not so eager to get published that we were going to stay in the hotel room all the time, tethered to the telephone. Instead, we sat on a bench and watched people go by.
She was smoking a cigarette. I was eating a hot dog.
“I’ve been thinking about my books,” she said, looking at a skyscraper in the distance.
“Books?” I asked.
She saw two girls — teenagers, one wearing a college sweatshirt from a distant college, the other wearing a colorful T-shirt advertising a band that I’d heard of but never heard — and she winked at me.
The girls recognized her. They were looking and trying not to look, giggling while trying to make it clear that they were too old to giggle because they were seeing a celebrity.
This had happened a few times before, but it was still rare enough that my employer got a kick out of it. She kept a mental list of the times that it happened, and I could tell when those occasions came back to her.
Jan Sleet was well known already, at least in certain circles, circles often located among college students. Magazine writers and reporters are not often celebrities, but it does help when they report on topical events, in a striking way, and when they develop a distinctive persona.
She was six feet tall, thin to the point of emaciation, and she always (always meaning always — even when cowering in a bombed out hotel in a war zone in a foreign land) wore a man’s three piece suit, shirt and tie, with a display handkerchief carefully folded in her pocket. Her rather narrow face was dominated by her large, horn-rimmed glasses. Her left leg was lame, and she used a cane to walk.
Turning back from her two admirers, who were apparently not going to approach us to ask her for an autograph, she repeated herself, which she hated to do.
“My books,” she said. She frowned the frown she always made when she was dissatisfied that my brain didn’t work as fast as hers. “‘A bookish girl’ — that’s how I’ve described myself growing up. You can’t be a bookish girl without books.”
I nodded, catching up. “So, where are these books? Where have they been since…”
“Since I left college and hired you. Exactly. When I left college, I packed them all away, carefully sorted and cataloged, of course. But now that we’re back in the United States, maybe…”
“Maybe we’re settling down, a little. If the book gets published.”
She nodded and took out another cigarette. I lit it for her, and, in that moment, we knew that the book was not going to be published. We were not going to be settling down after all.
We could stay in the hotel for as long as we wanted to, or for as long as we could afford it, but there was never going to be an actual meeting.
“However,” she continued, “while I thought we were going to be settling down, relatively speaking, I was thinking of going home, and collecting my books, or just having them sent to us…”
“Where are they?”
“At home, where I grew up — well, where I went to college. My father stayed after I left, for a while, but then he left also. When he was still there, the boxes were in his basement. When he left, he had them moved into a neighbor’s garage.” She pulled an envelope from her pocket and handed it to me. “Where one of the boxes has now been opened, and, perhaps, something removed from it.”
“A burglary? A book theft? Is that really…” Once again I was lagging behind her, but this was different. She was holding something back. And she was not going to let me know what it was until she was good and ready.
Being that we were, once again, not going to be published in book form, we were once again, as usual, needing to watch our expenses, so I bought us two bus tickets, from New York City to Claremont, Massachusetts, where my employer had gone to college.