Helena finds the little book in one of the archive boxes from the Deagan estate. She lays it aside because she’s looking for treasure—a Dickens serialization or maybe a Poe first edition. She needs something rare, something odd or spectacular, that can go into the front window of the shop. After sorting and cataloguing for two days, she and Alyce have only managed to turn the library table between them into something resembling a vegetable stand. The entire back room smells of mildew and old money. For the most part they’ve worked in silence, both of them in white cotton gloves and looking absurdly like mimes. Helena doesn’t think of the little black book again until after closing time. She’s straightening up when it comes into her hands once more.
Alyce and the two clerks have already left for the day. The front door has been locked. The register tallied and cleared. It’s past time for Helena herself to leave; but in making space for the next day’s sorting she has picked up the little volume that she’d laid aside earlier, and an odd feeling grows in her as she examines the hard-grained morocco. The actual touch of the book has a familiarity that reminds her of fairy tales. There is no embossed title on the cover. No raised bands, no gilded edges, no marbled endpapers. On the outside it looks like an address book or a gentleman’s day book from one of the decades just after the Civil War. At one time it had been nicely bound, but now it falls open to a well-thumbed page where a single gathering has come undone. The loose threads look like faded strands of a woman’s hair. Charlese, the passage says, came from a good home.
It is commonly observed, and certainly true, that many of the young women who go under this denomination are the product of reputable homes and delicate breeding. In the immediate instance one may look to Miss Charlese H___, who will be found most evenings within earshot of Gray’s Tavern. She is educated, clean, fashionable in dress, and bears herself in the manner of a lady. According to the gossips of Lombard Street, it was a wealthy and designing villain who ruined her. Then, pursued by shame and necessity, forsaken by family, she took to her present occupation. Miss H___ is tall and well figured. Auburn haired, with sound teeth and a dimpled smile which may be turned to the most pleasant of ministrations. She is companionable in public, indeed mannered enough to mingle among proper society. Her discretion may be relied upon except when inspired by hard spirits. Unparalleled in her arts, never vulgar, and pleasant in all of her dealings is this most excellent of after-dinner companions. She is adorned with clear blue eyes and the bloom of innocence which is still about her countenance. May be had for the evening at a most reasonable sum.
Helena lowers the book and tries to think of what she should feel. Surprise is her primary emotion, and what surprises her most is that her modern, enlightened thoughts seem vaguely out of reach. She feels a necessary sympathy for Miss Charlese H___ but at the same time an inexplicable attraction to the writer. Who in the past hundred years has used the word villain and expected to be taken seriously?
Thumbing further into the book, Helena finds more fallen girls, perhaps as many as a hundred, in no particular order that she can discern. It’s a menu of sorts, as matter-of-fact in its descriptions as a bill of sale for slaves. Interspersed, in fine italics, are spicy anecdotes and bawdy jokes whose humor expired well before the century. There are even steel print engravings of some of the girls, surprisingly modern looking ones, who peer out from the page with an honesty and directness that Helena admires.
Helena takes the book home and shows it to Richard as a kind of test, . . . of whom she isn’t certain. He reads the Charlese entry and then moves on to Nora, Sybrina, and the two Annabels before dinner is ready. He finds excerpts that demand to be read aloud. “Did you know,” he calls from the living room, “that London once had a street named Gropecuntelane, for the lowest kind of prostitutes? And that York, Oxford, and Paris had similarly named streets?”
“I did not know that,” she says bending over and reaching into the oven.
“And that Annabel S___ was the proprietress of a house at Number 11 Mission Street? Wherever the hell that is.”
“In the Village.”
“Really? You’ve checked it out?”
“No, Richard. I sell books. I have forty minutes for lunch. I just heard of it somewhere, that’s all.”
“You sound a little pissed.”
“I’m not pissed. And I’d rather you wouldn’t use that word.”
“If . . .” Richard flicks to the front of the book. “. . . Thomas Brand said you were pissed, would that be all right?”
Helena stops. Turns off the water where she has been washing carrots but does not move away from the sink. “Did you say Brand or Brandt?”
“’Thomas Brand, a gentleman of this city.”
“Read another one. Out loud.”
“Okay, here’s one. –As pleasant and plump as a Christmas goose is our Miss Lucy R___, a teacher of schoolchildren by day and a courtesan of the first order by night. No evening may be more profitably spent. A handsome, full-breasted girl, somewhat demure in public but as direct as a dredger within the establishment of Mrs. S___. Once free of social restrictions and shed of her diurnal concerns, our Lucy will straddle a gentleman without so much as lifting her skirts. Indeed, she exhibits a personal pleasure in being viewed by the assembled company, both ladies and gentlemen together, whilst engaged in her vigorous pursuits. By appointment only, and never to be approached without proper introduction. Miss R__ values discretion above all else.”
But Helena is no longer listening. For a reason that she cannot explain, she’s annoyed by Richard’s detachment. And she isn’t at all certain where her next words come from because they have never been part of her conscious thoughts. Still, they do come forth, these words, and they surprise her. There she is, hovering at the sink but looking into the little antique mirror on the near wall. She sees a woman’s face, with just the tiniest bit of distortion because of the ancient glass and the crackling silver. It’s the same tired face that she has to prod into pleasantness every morning; and Helena is hearing herself say, “I hate my fucking job. I hate being a rag-picker in Alyce’s store.”
In the following week Thomas Brandt drops by the shop exactly twice. On Monday at ten o’clock he is there to look over a Lippincott’s that Alyce found in the Deagan estate, one with a story by Conan Doyle. On the second occasion Mr. Brandt comes in to buy. It’s a Thursday, and it’s late in the afternoon. He is in his forties, still handsome and exhibiting what Helena considers to be a European sense of style. His face is strong and tanned. Unlined by any deep sadness or the slightest concern for money. His hair has begun to show a few silvery threads, but in every other aspect he appears to be, effortlessly, ten years younger than his age. He wears a light sport coat and jeans in spite of the August heat and gives the front girl a casual hello that tells her he is already familiar with Bittle’s Books and all of its holdings. Instead of asking for Alyce or Helena, however, he ambles up to the little mezzanine where the other customer is loitering in the Americana section. She is a young woman in her twenties, a browser, who examines books and replaces them with mechanical regularity.
At fifteen minutes till five Helena tells the other clerk she can leave and then sets about making herself look busy behind the register. Mr. Brandt and the young woman keep themselves in different aisles as if fearful of violating some private act of the other. It’s a sort of minuet they are performing until they actually meet at the end of one row and Thomas Brandt offers a very awkward “excuse me” as he steps out of her way. She smiles and says something that Helena cannot hear. Once or twice their eyes meet after that, but then at five minutes till five the anonymous woman is down the stairs and gone, lost in the bustle of commuters on the street.
Brandt meanders through the remainder of the nineteenth century without selecting anything and finally comes downstairs to the register. “I think I’ll take the Lippincott’s after all,” he says. “Alyce and I agreed that a check would be okay.”
“Of course.” Helena smiles. “Would you like it boxed?” She knows that one of Mr. Brandt’s eccentricities is his distrust of credit cards. While he’s scribbling in his checkbook and tearing the draft loose, she smiles.
“You know, it occurred to me, Helena, that there might be another item or two that came along with this one. Something I might be interested in.”
“Agh, nothing really. Just a whim. I’m keeping you late, and I can come back next week when Alyce. . . .”
“No, no, you’re not keeping me at all. Please. What is it that you’re looking for?”
“Well, Alyce did mention that the Lippincott came from old Deagan’s estate. And I was just wondering, you know. If there was anything else. Maybe something a little out of the ordinary that I might be interested in?”
Helena knows instantly.
“The old boy was a hell of a collector,” says Thomas Brandt. “Sometimes we’d bid against each other for the same item, and I got to know him slightly before he died. Had a good eye for limited editions. So I was just hoping that you or Alyce might have run across something a bit off the beaten track.”
Of course he is asking about the little book. She can sense it in his hesitation, in the pretense of his remark. He doesn’t have to name it. Underneath his casual tone is an intensity that he cannot hide. When she does not answer immediately, Brandt takes another step back toward her and puts a questioning look upon his face, one which is more intense than his voice.
Helena feels the intimacy between them. Even though they are alone, it almost reddens her face. But why? She sells erotica to any number of collectors and, besides, the little book hardly qualifies. Rather, it’s the secret sharing of this moment that moves her to lie, the sudden knowledge that she can tease him back again, and then again until, who knows. . . . Maybe someday soon she could present him with a gift. Helena believes she’s being naughty and playful, as powerfully remote and as particular as the girls who’ve been finely engraved in the deckled pages. “No,” she tells him, “I’m afraid I haven’t seen anything like that. But we have a few more boxes to sort through. I could give you a call if I found anything.”
“Yes. Yes, please do.”
He departs reluctantly, just as she had hoped he would, turning left on the sidewalk in front of the shop and then stopping to draw a cell phone from his jacket pocket. He dials with his thumb and nods as he talks. Helena watches from inside the store. She can see that the sky is darkening as it’s been doing all afternoon. The clouds are gathering themselves into a late summer thunderstorm. The wind is already picking up paper and grit from the street. She can almost smell the approach of rain. One old man is already struggling with an umbrella.
And so Helena would have missed seeing her if Thomas Brandt hadn’t stepped into the street and crossed in front of an impatient cabbie who, just now, is lifting himself half out of his window as he shouts away a whole flock of pedestrians. But there she is on the far side of the street. Not twenty yards from the fountain and the little grassy park. She’s standing right there next to the gate. The girl from the mezzanine. She’s waiting for Brandt to cross against the traffic. Then she’s reaching out her hand when he comes near. And letting herself be folded into a loose embrace. Kissing him right next to his lips as if they have known each other for years. The woman is wearing an ombré sundress in indigo and white. White patent leather sandals, matching white pocketbook. But her hair is black and thick enough to fall in heavy waves. Someone has made her up for a photograph Helena thinks. Someone is playing at Cinderella for someone else.
And in one unthinking instant she follows them.
Helena doesn’t clear the register or tidy up. She doesn’t lock the work room or log the mail orders before she leaves. In fact she has barely time enough to set the alarm after grabbing her bag and clicking off the lights. But they’re already gone, the two pretenders, when she’s finished coaxing closed the two ancient locks on the front door. All Helena can do is stumble along with the crowd until it has carried her a block south and into a saner state of mind. Go back, her better judgment says. Thank God she still has the keys and enough gumption to remember the security code. She can let her imagination run rampant another time.
She’s about to turn around when she catches it, a flash of indigo on the subway steps leading down. And this time she cannot help herself. Helena hurries to the corner and then across another street to the green kiosk and the cast iron maw. She’s clacking down the steps thinking to herself, “I am mad. I am absolutely mad. And they’ll see me. And what will happen then?” But they don’t. They don’t see her at all because they are at the other end of the little island when the train arrives, and they are so caught up in the world of each other that they wouldn’t see a madwoman lurching toward them. Helena hardly makes it through the doors two cars up before the train is moving again. And then she’s being jostled through the next compartment down, inching her way toward them, thinking, “I must have lost my mind.”
It’s three stops, maybe four, when they get off. They are in one of those dark deep tunnels with escalators. Bare rock where the tiles have fallen away. No one seems in a hurry because the storm may have finally unleashed the rain up above. So it’s Brandt and his woman who are first to take to the mechanical stairs.
They emerge into the lesser canyons. Brick buildings, ivied walls, and trees. Black lampposts and canvas canopies stretching to the sidewalk. A church, a store for art supplies. The quiet hubbub of early evening. A discreet café called the Periodic Table. They are somewhere in the West Village, and the sign tells Helena it’s Mission Street.
She has gone half a block before she remembers the name. When it comes into her mind at last, it knocks all the curiosity out of her in a single blow. She stops suddenly enough to dislodge a jogger right behind her. He has to break stride, violating his own heart’s rhythm and offering up a glare. And then the first raindrops begin to fall. There are only one or two splats at first, but the limbs of the trees are already swaying and the leaves are making a sound like a rushing stream.
It’s never clear to her in later years whether she was lured. No one, least of all Thomas Brandt, ever tells her if they’d seen her all along. They are just there, and it’s not even a surprise when he says her name. Maybe he has taken her hand again—she cannot remember in retrospect—but his voice is as steady and civil as it has always been. “Helena.”
Is it a welcome or a simple recognition? She is saying something in return, but the words themselves are lost to her.
“Well,” Brandt is saying next, “Helena, may I present Ms. Lucille R__. Lucy, this is my friend Helena. . . .”
“Young,” Helena says automatically. “It’s Helena Young.”
“Yes of course. Helena Y__ it is. I think we’d better get inside before it starts to pour, don’t you?”
The woman does not look as plump as a Christmas goose. She is tall and elegant in her features, as beautiful as Vermeer’s blue-turbaned girl. She is saying something soothing and polite to Helena, though Helena is still intent upon the house in front of her, Number 11 Mission Street. It rises to a mansard roof in a copper that has long been tinted green. It has cove cut cornices and lintels in gray limestone. All the rest is red brick tiers, ivy trimmed and no doorman, no pretentious presence to interrupt the tranquility of the street.
Finally Helena realizes that one of them, either Thomas Brandt or Lucy R__, is saying something else about the rain, about the wind that’s kicking up. There’s a tone of mild concern. But all Helena can think is horror. All she do is blurt the obvious truth. “It’s real, isn’t it? The book I mean. It’s not from the past at all.”
“No, of course not. Though it’s all fairly innocent fun. Let’s go in before we’re soaked. We’ll have a drink, and I’ll explain.”
She wants to die before it becomes any more demeaning. She wants the heavens to open up and drown them all, but there’s no saving the situation. The rain begins to find a rhythm. A gust of serious intent throws splatters in her face, after which she shakes her head and says the one emphatic word. She says it again just as she’s swirling away from them. No! And then, before reaching the end of the street, she begins to run.
But given time. Given monotony and fatigue, the daily tedium and the soul-killing routine of Bittle’s Books. Given the gray interior of her life, Helena comes to a realization. She is furniture, slightly out of style fixtures in other people’s lives or, worse, an obstacle that others have to walk around. That is her discovery.
In September Helena takes to standing at the front window of the bookshop for longer and longer intervals, peering out between the letters. She watches the people who go by hardly glancing left or right; but after a time she comes to believe she can identify certain ones, the people who have hidden lives. There’s the middle-aged woman wearing a silver talon cuff by Pamela Love. There’s the businessman who has too much energy, too much rapt intent to be headed for an ordinary meeting.
For another interlude of weeks she does no more than walk among them. It’s autumn after all; and Helena can still take her lunches out of doors, not bothering to eat on many days, but rather intermingling, joining the transgressors in her way. Occasionally she will brush shoulders with one of them, and it’s like an electrical connection. She can spot them almost instantly. They go to their second lives the way people used to go to books. They’re compelled.
One day she is in her place at the front of the shop, staring into space and thinking of nonexistence, when suddenly she notices that her arms and legs are moving. She’s pulling on her coat and thinking that she’s due back at Bittle’s by one o’clock and yet not caring. Outside, the wind is picking up again. And now Helena’s buttoning her coat and covering up her head. She’s taking every precaution against the weather and walking, walking, walking until she finds herself once more on Mission Street.
And of course he’s already there.
“I can’t come in,” she says to him.
“You’ll freeze,” he tells her. “There’s a fire in the study. Carlton has made some tea.”
Then there’s a maid who’s taking away her sensible coat. And Thomas Brandt is steering her through the vestibule, past the parlor, past the crackled portraits and the silver urns with flowers. All at once Helena’s breathing air that seems to revive her, and she cannot help but turn a smile on two women who happen to be passing, arm in arm, through the hall. They smile at her in return. This is a house that speaks immediately to Helena. Its carved mantel in the study. Its rosewood desks and chairs. Thomas asks if she will sit with him on one of the matching sofas and take a cup of Lady Grey. While the curio cabinet shimmers and the room-defining rug holds forth in arabesques.
“One of our members calls it his retreat,” he says to her. “A sort of oasis in the desert of the dull. And I’m glad you’re here. But I want to tell you, Helena, that this isn’t at all what you think it is. It’s what I was trying to explain when you met Lucy and me on the street.”
“I don’t care. I’m not a child,” she says. “I’m sick of . . . whatever it is that’s out there. It certainly isn’t life.”
“Believe me, I understand. We all do. But this isn’t a bordello.” He laughs an easy laugh. “There are no child prostitutes, no corpses buried in the cellar I’m afraid. Nothing quite that sensational. Just our members and a small staff dedicated, I think, to what brought you here in the first place.”
“And that would be?”
“Something more,” Brandt suggests. “We have little weekly entertainments. I guess you could say that the entire interior of No. 11 is a theatre of sorts. Most of our staff are actors who help us keep the illusions alive for a while . . . much like the staff of any midtown corporation.”
“So–,” she says, “the little book from Mr. Deagan’s estate? What did that have to do with any of this?”
Thomas Brandt claps his hands and smiles. “Well, you’ve caught me I guess! The book’s an invention, of sorts. One of mine actually. Distributed to members here at the club—Deagan was one of us of course—and we just thought copies shouldn’t be floating around out there in the day-to-day world. That’s why I offered to buy it.”
“And Miss Lucy R__ . . . ?”
“. . . has a lovely singing voice. She does, in fact, like to been seen. And heard.”
“You’re saying that she’s real?”
“As real as a desperately bored, Long Island schoolteacher can be. I hope that doesn’t startle you.” Then Thomas takes a calling card from his wallet and passes it into her accepting hand.
“I don’t understand.”
“I’m inviting you to come back some evening, for one of the musical numbers or, I don’t know, some celebrity chef at work. Give this to Carlton. And just mix with any of the guests. I promise you’ll be rejuvenated. Rewarded. All the ‘Re’ words. That’s a guarantee.”
“And if I don’t believe you?”
“Then stay away, Helena. Everyone’s here by choice.”
Certain routines begin to change after her visit to Mission Street. Customer traffic picks up inside the store, and Helena begins to associate the fresh faces with an unexpected profitability in books. The new customers nearly always come in alone, and nearly always ask for Helena by name. Some of the faces she recognizes from her earlier walks in the neighborhood, and some seem to have come from very far away. But no matter, they buy Alyce’s books. Those who seem most powerfully alone will sometimes stay for a cup of coffee and a chat. They leave energized and promise to return.
Little acting jobs start to come Helena’s way. She tells Richard and Alyce that she’s thinking about trying out for a part in an Off-Off-Broadway production, a radical play by a talented writer from Japan. She may need a few days off, she informs them, or maybe a few afternoons a week.
What further can she tell Richard and Alyce, the two dreary constants in her life? They distrust any kind of change. A disruption of the subway schedule can set Richard on edge for days. A variation in the weather might throw Alyce into a week-long funk. So Helena is careful to keep them comfortable, to uphold the established routines of home and work. Richard’s favorite foods. His devotion to the evening news. Alyce’s need for a near silence within the shop.
In the following weeks Helena sometimes returns home late but in the mood for more roleplaying, a little light erotica when the lights go out. The Victorians, she explains. “At the shop we got in some issues of The Pearl last week. And an illustrated edition of The Priapeia.” But Richard isn’t listening then.
No one in the outer world seems to acknowledge Mission Street, at least in any way that matters. It’s just a street. But the house in Helena’s little book is a harbor and a refuge against a certain kind of world. There’s a Gatsby night, when the butlers and maids go about in white-gloved hands. There are live paintings on another occasion, reproductions of scenes from Pompeii by costumed models. Then in the following week there’s a naughty power outage. The entire evening spent “accidentally” in the dark. These are nights that revive her soul. Helena hears people using words from other centuries: brocade, alabaster, scalawag. There are layers and levels within the house. There are chambers that allow one to look into other chambers.
Someone, soon enough, asks her up to the yellow room. They need an actress to play the part of Aphrodite, if she could just disrobe and take her place on the marble pedestal? Of course. And what, on another evening, about the young harlot’s part in the court of Louis Quatorze? Would that be going a bit too far? Would she be comfortable going a step or two beyond, you know, the ordinary thing?
Helena never objects. During all of her first year at the establishment of Mrs. S___, she never feels exploited or degraded; in fact, she feels as if she’s exploiting them, the members, while money, acceptance, and liveliness are coming her way. Even as the newness of her experience begins to fade away, even after some of the old girls have moved on and some different ones have been recruited, the house remains a second home for her. Finally Thomas, her sponsoring member, suggests she might be ready for a more challenging role. And, yes, she says. Anything more challenging than “clerk” in a bookstore on lower Seventh Avenue.
It’s a demanding part, Thomas Brandt tells her, a private performance actually, that might lead to still more demanding parts for people of certain tastes. Would she care to give it a go? And she does, and does, until this special newness begins to fade as well. Then one evening Helena’s on her hands and knees in the yellow room, playing the part of a beast, with no more feeling than a cow. Thomas, or someone, is behind her, hands tightly about her waist; but it doesn’t alter her determination in the slightest.
Richard meanwhile works for an abstraction on Fifty-Seventh Street. He’s an actuary for some kind of actuarial firm. It’s always bothered her that he has no imagination. Her depressive states at home arise like storms at sea; and Richard’s thinking maybe they ought to tell someone. Maybe they ought to consider a counselor or a health professional.
But Helena herself cannot say what is missing. She’s made her choice. She doesn’t believe in fallen women. Once on a Sunday afternoon, having exhausted himself with her in the great wrought iron bed, Richard, or maybe Thomas Brandt, falls asleep still partially clothed, without imagining the woman’s greater need. Helena, thinking of earning her initial, straddles him, still nude from earlier efforts. Her breasts and the pendant between them nearly touching the man’s face, her left arm caressing, no, framing one side of his head. He finally awakes. She’s smiling a statue’s smile from some far antiquity; and in her right hand she’s holding a letter opener, as thin and sharp as a needle, barely half an inch from his opening eye. Her whole arm trembling, and the swirling struggle behind her calm façade. Whether to let it plunge.
The moment passes safely for both of them. Helena laughs a little laugh that says I’m only joking. It’s all an act. No one’s ever hurt, not really. Although Helena is never sure if the man waking beneath her says anything at all. She goes on, doesn’t she, with her afternoon and evening until the hours become waking dreams. She isn’t bored precisely. Her new life is suited to her tastes. But she’s restless again. On some days she goes wandering north at noon from the house on Mission Street. She wants to be among the crowds. But from time to time she will pass the fog and condensation shrouding the front window of Bittle’s Books and find herself thinking of tragic heroines. Emma Bovary. Juliet. Antigone. How their names arrange themselves in rhythmic syllables on the covers of hand-bound books. Anna Karenina. Lolita. Medea. And realizing that she will never be one of these.