THE JOY OF STORY
John M. Daniel’s Blog
November 26, 2016
Sometime in the mid-nineteen-seventies, while I was working at Kepler’s Books in Menlo Park, California, I received a letter from a writer named Ray Russell. I barely knew Ray Russell; I had never met him in person but had swapped a couple of letters with him in the mid-sixties. At that time I was working for the Stanford Bookstore, having recently finished writing my first novel, titled Oil All Over Your Address. The novel was even worse than the title, and I’m grateful that it never got published.
But back when I was working at the Stanford Bookstore I thought it was pretty good. I showed it to my supervisor, a man named Dick Henry, who had been a sales rep for the University of Chicago Press before becoming the manager of the Paperback Department of the Stanford Bookstore. Dick was a witty, cheerful, and well-read man, perhaps forty years old. He read my manuscript and said he liked it. Perhaps he was just being kind to me, but he offered to send it to a friend of his in Los Angeles, a man named Ray Russell, who had been the first fiction editor for Playboy magazine. I gratefully gave Dick permission to do so.
Mr. Russell wrote to me saying a novel made up of stitched-together short stories was terribly difficult to sell, and he wished me luck. However there was one of the stories he particularly liked, and he offered to send it to Robie Macauley, who was then the fiction editor of Playboy. Mr. Macauley wrote me a polite rejection note, and that was the end of that. I never expected to hear from Robie Macauley again, and I didn’t. I never expected to hear from Ray Russell again, but I did.
Fortunately, I still paid rent on the P.O. box I’d rented on the Stanford campus, so Ray was able to reach me. He wrote to inquire if I knew how he could get in touch with Dick Henry. For some reason he’d lost touch with his old friend. Dick seemed to have vanished.
Unfortunately I did know what had happened to Dick.
I worked for the Stanford Bookstore for two years, as a clerk in the General Books Department and then as assistant manager of the Textbook Department. When I left the store in the fall of 1967, Dick Henry was still manager of the Paperback Department, but was nervous about his future. There were rumors that the store was going to be bought by a company that owned a number of college bookstores, and the new owners planned to keep some of the existing staff, but not all. Dick was already hunting for another bookstore job. It seemed the new owners were connected to the Mormon Church in some way I never understood.
Dick feared for his job.
Why? Well, he never told me exactly why, but he did tell me that when he interviewed at a nearby junior college bookstore for an available managerial job, he was given a tough interview. “They asked me why I wasn’t married,” he said with a quivering mouth.
That was the first time it dawned on me that my friend—because by that time my wife and I were both good friends with Dick—was homosexual. It’s not that he hid his sexual orientation exactly, but in those days most gay men weren’t “out,” and I had no knack for or interest in spotting homosexuals. Karen and I had noticed a few eccentric quirks, such as Dick’s love of Siamese cats and his sorrow that he wasn’t allowed to have pets in his tony bachelor apartment, the fine art prints and elegant furniture in his apartment, a sly chuckle at slightly risqué jokes, a fascination with antique Japanese ivory figurines called netsukes, and a girlfriend in San Francisco who turned out to be a rich elderly lady who collected netsukes. But we just considered Dick Henry nutty and nice. He was outrageously open about his politics: he was a royalist, and he believed the epitome of human social order occurred in France during the reign of Louis XIV. He once gave me a favorite rock from his garden, the size of a lumpy tennis ball, a treasure I’ve kept near me in all the places I’ve lived. Here it is, right now, next to my computer.
The only reason for mentioning Dick’s homosexuality is to speculate why he was not kept on the staff of the Stanford Bookstore when the Mormons took over, and why he had a hard time finding another job. I can’t imagine why a gay man couldn’t find work in retail books; perhaps he had no references from his former employers, who had as much as fired him.
Or perhaps the booksellers he interviewed smelled alcohol on his breath. Dick did like to drink. He was always sober at work, when I worked with him, but when we had him over for dinner, he always brought wine and always drank most of it. And now that he wasn’t working, his cocktail hour possibly started early in the afternoon, or earlier.
As time went by he could no longer afford his apartment, and he moved into a cheesy motel, where he earned free rent by managing the place at night. In the daylight, he hunted for work.
Time passed and things changed in my life, too. I split up with Karen, learned to write a little better, and started living with Autumn. I began working as a part-time clerk in Kepler’s Bookstore, where over the course of seven years I got to know the book business well, and I knew a lot of the personnel at other local bookstores. I saw Dick Henry occasionally, at a cheap Chinese restaurant, or at a lunch counter, but mostly when he’d come call on me at Kepler’s. He was still looking for work, and always hoping I’d be able to get him a job at Kepler’s, or I’d know of an opening at one of the other stores around Palo Alto.
He looked terrible. His face trembled, his hands shook, his eyes wouldn’t hold still, and his attempt at merry laughter was enough to haunt me for the rest of the day.
Twice he borrowed five bucks from me. I assume he paid me back. If not, I don’t remember and don’t care; I would have given him five bucks, but that might have been more than what was left of his pride could handle.
I finally found Dick a job as a store snoop at B. Dalton’s, where he was supposed to prowl the aisles and spot shoplifters and take them back to the office to meet the manager. He didn’t last at that job. He told me it hurt him too much to work in a bookstore and not be allowed to handle the merchandise. My guess is that he was fired.
That was the last I saw of Dick Henry. A few months later I was notified by the Stanford Hospital that he had died in their rehab building. Apparently he had given them my name as the person to contact in case of emergency. The message came to me care of Kepler’s Books.
So I did have something to tell his old friend from their Chicago days, when I wrote back to him. I told Ray Russell approximately what I’ve just related in this article, and Ray responded that he wasn’t surprised. Dick, dear Dick Henry, had always been fragile.
Ray went on to ask if I knew whether or not Dick had committed suicide. It didn’t matter to Ray himself, but his wife, Ada, was a devout Catholic and needed to know how to pray for Dick Henry’s immortal soul.
Unaccustomed as I was with praying, and unacquainted as I was with God, I supposed and still expect God would welcome Dick to heaven and find him a job in retail book sales, a job that required him to handle the merchandise.
Note: This tribute was first published in Black Lamb.
Call for submissions: Your 99-Word Stories
The deadline for December’s 99-word story submissions is December 1. The stories will appear on my blog post for December 10, and will stay posted for a week.
note: this 99-word story feature is a game, not a contest. Obey the rules and I’ll include your story. I may edit the story to make it stronger, and it’s understood that you will submit to my editing willingly. That’s an unwritten rule.
Rules for the 99-word story feature are as follows:
1. Your story must be 99 words long, exactly.
2. One story per writer, per month.
3. The story must be a story. That means it needs plot (something or somebody has to change), characters, and conflict.
4. The story must be inspired by the prompt I assign.
5. The deadline: the first of the month. Stories will appear on this blog the second Saturday of the month.
6. I will copy edit the story. The author of the story retains all rights.
7. Email me your story (in the body of your email, or as a Word attachment) to: firstname.lastname@example.org
THIS MONTH’S PROMPT FOR NEXT MONTH’S 99-WORD STORY: Write a story inspired by the following sentence: A fine romance this turned out to be.
Calling all published authors—
I try to feature a guest author the third Saturday (and week following) of each month. If you’re interested in posting an essay on my blog—it’s also a chance to promote a published book—email me directly at email@example.com.
Thank you for visiting. Please drop by next week.