I pull into the parking lot of Marc’s condominium complex at quarter past five, turn the car off in front of the handicapped ramp, and phone him. I let the phone ring two times and hang up. This is our system. When the phone only rings twice, he knows I’m downstairs waiting for him. I see him through the double doors in his little lobby — a cane, weathered ball cap, untucked, unkempt shirt, full white beard. As he gets closer I can make out the slightly curled upper lip, and his twitchy left eye. I unlock the door. He gets inside the car.
“Here,” he says, “I brought you something.” He hands me a 50th Anniversary edition DVD box set of some old sci-fi series I’ve never heard of, and two CDs by musicians I’ve never heard of either. “I’m telling ya, there’s always something on that bench,” Marc says, referring to the bench inside the lobby where, apparently, there is always something. “It’s a great place to pick up free books and stuff. People move out and they just leave it there.” Marc smiles at me: proof.
“Trisha Yearwood?” I say, glancing at the titles and starting my car.
“Oh, Trisha Yearwood. The country singer. I used to like her.”
I’m taking Marc grocery shopping because Marc can’t drive anymore. He fell into a diabetic coma a few months ago, and collapsed on the floor of his little condo. Marc is a lifetime bachelor who mostly keeps to himself: he laid there on his floor alone and unconscious for six days before anyone finally found him. His blood sugar was in “you should be dead” territory. It’s pretty amazing that he’s not.
Before all of that mess, he finagled his way into my life by way of my current career in books. He met my boss at a farmer’s market, told her that he used to own a bookstore in Cambridge, and said that he would love to talk to us about our book business. She agreed.
When Marc and I first met, it was at a tête-à-tête with my boss and our executive director. My first impression of him was that he was insane. But despite vague pronouncements about how, “What you should be doing is turning this [holding a book] into this [pulling a dollar bill out of his pocket],” I could tell that deep down he knew what he was talking about. I liked him. I thought he could be an asset. My executive director disagreed.
“So, what the hell was that all about?” he said after Marc had left. And it’s true: Marc’s a chatterbox and he occasionally takes a very, very long time to get around to making a point; but he’s also a guy who ran a bookstore in Harvard Square for most of his life. He knows the business, inside and out. He knows Robert Pinsky, for Christ’s sake, he went drinking with John Updike. Frank Bidart still owes him money from back in the days when he still collected books. (Bidart’s since gotten into collecting CDs, Marc tells me, showing his age.)
Marc was the guy who would stumble into my basement office once or twice a week to shoot the breeze or drop off boxes and boxes and boxes of books. I’d hear his familiar slow shuffle down the ramp to my loading area — these waltz-like, deliberate steps, pretending so badly to be reluctant — from around the corner at my desk. Then into view comes Marc. “I brought you something,” he’d say, leading me up to his van with a dolly to cart 1500 free books into the basement. He must have done this two dozen times.
He maintained that he hated books — he literally said this every second or third time I talked to him — but he didn’t hide his hypocrisy very well. Few addicts do. Marc is an old man who spent his whole life with books. Of course he hated them. Of course he couldn’t give them up.
Then one day, I suppose, Marc stopped showing up to my basement office, and that was fine, because Marc can come and go as he pleases. And then one day it became a month, by which time I’d already called our only mutual contact asking about him. He also hadn’t heard from Marc and was a bit concerned. I Googled obituaries. My bosses and I discussed sending the police to his condo to check on him. But we didn’t. I sent him a letter, telling him I hoped everything was okay. It was returned unopened.
During this time, Marc was in a coma on his living room floor, then in a hospital, and then in a rehabilitation center. He was told he might never walk again, so he walked miles and miles of laps around the hallways in the rehab facility. He was told he wouldn’t be able to eat real food again, so he worked with a speech therapist and on his own until he could. He was told he’d have to inject himself with insulin every day for the rest of his life. His doctors are now considering switching him over to a pill instead of shots.
There is the unfortunate matter of the catheter, though, and, if you’ll excuse the pun, Marc’s still pretty pissed off about that whole damn mess. We’re walking around in the grocery store. I’m putting O’Doul’s into my shopping basket.
“I wonder, if you can’t drink alcohol, if you can have O’Doul’s instead,” I say, to no one in particular.
“Nah,” Marc says. “I don’t want to drink anything that makes me have to go pee.” He squints his eyes, kicks his head left, and raises his eyebrows: You know what I mean?
“Still, you should try to stay hydrated,” I reply.