For thirty-two years, during which he watched with growing perplexity and horror the ways of the world and the dull gropings of men reaching for love and security, Randolph Helgar had told himself that there was a simple answer to all of itsomehow it was possible to get a hand-hold on life, to hold it close and cherish it without fear. And on a Saturday morning in early March, when the clouds had disappeared and the sun came forth pale in the sky, he found what he had been looking for.
The snow had been gone from the streets of Greenwich Village for over a week, leaving behind only the crispness on the sidewalks. Everyone still walked with a tentative step, like sailors on shore leave. Randolph Helgar was out of his apartment by ten, heading west. His straight, sandy hair was ruffled by an easterly wind, giving him the superficial appearance of hurrying, but his quick grey eyes and the faint smile that so often came to his mouth dispelled that. Randolph was busier looking around than walking.
The best thing about the Village, as far as he was concerned, was that you could never chart all of it. As soon as you thought you knew every street, every sandal shop, every hot dog or pizza stand, one day you'd look up and there'd be something new there, where you'd never looked before. A peculiar blindness comes over people who walk through the streets of the Village; they see only where they're going.
The day before, on the bus coming home from work at the travel agency on West 4th, he had looked out the window and seen a bookstore whose dirty windows calmly testified to the length of time it had been there. So of course this morning he was looking for that bookstore. He had written down the address, but there was no need now for him to take the slip of paper from his wallet to look at it; the act of writing it had fixed it in his memory.
The store was just opening when he got there. A large, heavy-shouldered man with thick black hair and prominent veins in the backs of his hands was setting out the bargain table in the front of the store. Randolph glanced at the table, filled with the sun-faded spines of anonymous pocket-books, and nodded at the man. He went inside.
The books were piled high around the walls; here and there were hand-lettered signs saying MUSIC, HISTORY, PSYCHOLOGY, but they must have been put there years ago, because the books in those sections bore no relation to the signs. Near the front was an old cupboard mottled with the light which came through the dirty window; a sign on one of its shelves said $10. Next to it was a small round table which revolved on its base, but there was no price on this.
The owner had come back into the store now, and he stood just inside the door looking at Randolph. After a moment, he said, "You want anything special?"
Randolph shook his head, dislodging the shock of hair, which fell over his eyes. He ran his fingers through it, combing it back, and turned to one of the piles of books.
"I think maybe you'd be interested in this section," said the owner, walking heavily over the bending floorboards to stand beside Randolph. He raised a large hand and ran it along one shelf. A sign said MAGIC, WITCHCRAFT.
Randolph glanced at it. "No," he said.
"None of those books are for sale," the man said. "That section is strictly lending-library."
Randolph raised his eyes to meet those of the older man. The man gazed back calmly, waiting.
"Not for sale?" Randolph said.
"No, they're part of my own collection," the man said. "But I lend them out at ten cents a day, if anybody wants to read them, or
"Who takes them out?"
The heavy man shrugged, with the faint touch of a smile about his thick lips. "People. People come in, they see the books and think they might like to read them. They always bring them back."
Randolph glanced at the books on the shelves. The spines were crisp and hard, the lettering on them like new. "Do you think they read them?" he asked.
"Of course. So many of them come back and buy other things."
The man shrugged again, and turned away. He walked slowly to the back of the store. "I sell other things. It's impossible to make a living selling books in this day and age."
Randolph followed him into the darkness in back. "What other things do you sell?"
"Perhaps you should read some of the books first," the man said, watching him beneath his eyebrows.
"Do you sell
love potions? Dried bat's blood? Snake's entrails?"
"No," said the man. "I'm afraid you'd have to search the tobacconist's shop for such things as that. I sell only imperishables."
"Magic charms?" Randolph said.
"Yes," the man said slowly. "Some are real, some are not."
"And I suppose the real ones are more expensive."
"They are all roughly the same price. It's up to you to decide which ones are real."
The man had stooped to reach into a drawer of his desk, and now he brought out a box from which he lifted the lid. He set the open box on the top of his desk and reached up to turn on a naked lightbulb which hung from the shadowed ceiling.
The box contained an assortment of amulets, stones, dried insects encased in glass, carved pieces of wood, and other things. They were all tumbled into the box haphazardly. Randolph stirred the contents with two fingers.
"I don't believe in magic," he said.
The heavy man smiled faintly. "I don't suppose I do, either. But some of these things are quite interesting. Some are of authentic South American workmanship, and others are from Europe and the East. They're worth money, all right."
"What's this?" Randolph asked, picking up a black stone which just fit into the palm of his hand. The configurations of the stone twisted around and in upon themselves, like a lump of baker's dough.
"That's a touchstone. Run your fingers over it."
"It's perfectly smooth," Randolph said.
"It's supposed to have magical powers to make people feel contented. Hold it in your hand."
Randolph closed his fingers around the stone. Perhaps it was the power of suggestion, but the stone did feel very good. So smooth, like skin
"The man who gave it to me said it was an ancient Indian piece. It embodies Yin and Yang, the opposites that complement and give harmony to the world. You can see a little of the symbol in the way the stone looks." He smiled slowly. "It's also supposed to encase a human soul, like an egg."
"More likely a fossil," Randolph said. He wondered what kind of stone it was.
"It will cost five dollars," the man said.
Randolph hefted the stone in his hand. It settled back into his palm comfortably, like a cat going to sleep. "All right," he said.
He took a bill from his wallet and noticed the paper on which he'd written the store's address the day before. "If I come back here a week from now," he said, "will this store still be here? Or will it have disappeared, like magic shops are supposed to do?"
The man didn't smile. "This isn't that kind of store. I'd go out of business if I kept moving my location."
"Well, then," Randolph said, looking at the black stone in his hand. "When I was young, I used to pick up stones at the beach and carry them around for weeks, just because I loved them. I suppose this stone has some of that sort of magic, anyway."
"If you decide you don't want it, bring it back," said the man.
· · · · ·
When he got back to the apartment, Margo was just getting up. Bobby, seven years old, was apparently up and out already. Randolph put yesterday's pot of coffee on the burner to heat and sat at the kitchen table to wait for it. He took the touchstone out of his pocket and ran his fingers over it.
It was just a black rock, worn smooth probably by water and then maybe by the rubbing of fingers over centuries. Despite what the man at the store had said about an Indian symbol, it had no particular shape.
Yet it did have a peculiar calming effect on him. Maybe, he thought, it's just that people have to have something to do with their hands while they think. It's the hands, the opposable thumb, that has made men what they are, or so the anthropologists say. The hands give men the ability to work with things around them, to make, to do. And we all have a feeling that we've got to be using our hands all the time or somehow we're not living up to our birthright.
That's why so many people smoke. That's why they fidget and rub their chins and drum their fingers on tables. But the touchstone relaxes the hands.
A simple form of magic.
Margo came into the kitchen, combing her long hair back over her shoulders. She hadn't put on any makeup, and her full mouth seemed as pale as clouds. She set out coffee cups and poured, then sat down across the table.
"Did you get the paint?"
"You were going to paint the kitchen today. The old paint is cracking and falling off."
Randolph looked up at the walls, rubbing the stone in his fingers. They didn't look bad, he decided. They could go for another six months without being redone. After all, it was no calamity if the plaster showed through above the stove.
"I don't think I'll do it today," he said.
Margo didn't say anything. She picked up a book from the chair beside her and found her place in it.
Randolph fingered the touchstone and thought about the beach when he had been a boy.
· · · · ·
There was a party that night at Gene Blake's apartment on the floor below, but for once Randolph didn't feel like going down. Blake was four years younger than him, and suddenly today the difference seemed insuperable; Blake told off-center jokes about integration in the South, talked about writers Randolph knew only by the reviews in the Sunday Times, and was given to drinking Scotch and milk. No, not tonight, he told Margo.
After dinner, Randolph settled in front of the television set and, as the washing of dishes sounded from the kitchen and Bobby read a comic book in the corner, watched a rerun of the top comedy show of three seasons past. When the second commercial came on, he dug the touchstone from his pocket and rubbed it idly with his thumb. All it takes, he told himself, is to ignore the commercials.
"Have you ever seen a frog?" Bobby asked him. He looked up and saw the boy standing next to his chair, breathing quickly as boys do when they have something to say.
"Sure," he said.
"Did you ever see a black one? A dead one?"
Randolph thought a minute. He didn't suppose he had. "No," he said.
"Wait a minute!" Bobby said, and bounded out of the room. Randolph turned back to the television screen and saw that the wife had a horse in the living room and was trying to coax it to go upstairs before the husband came home. The horse seemed bored.
"Here!" said Bobby, and dropped the dead frog in his lap.
Randolph looked at it for two seconds before he realized what it was. One leg and part of the frog's head had been crushed, probably by a car's wheel, and the wide mouth was open. It was grey, not black.
Randolph shook it off him onto the floor. "You'd better throw it away," he said. "It's going to smell bad."
"But I paid sixty marbles for him!" Bobby said. "And I only had twenty-five, and you got to get me some more."
Randolph sighed and shifted the touchstone from one hand to the other. "All right," he said. "Monday. Keep him in your room."
He turned back to the screen, where everyone had got behind the horse and was trying to push him up the stairs.
"Don't you like him?" Bobby asked.
Randolph looked blankly at him.
"My frog," Bobby said.
Randolph thought about it for a moment. "I think you'd better throw him away," he said. "He's going to stink."
Bobby's face fell. "Can I ask Mom?"
Randolph didn't answer, and he supposed Bobby went away. There was another commercial on now, and he was toying idly with the thought of a commercial for touchstones. "For two thousand years mankind has searched for the answer to underarm odor, halitosis, regularity. Now at last
"Bobby!" said his wife in the kitchen. Randolph looked up, surprised. "Take that out in the hall and put it in the garbage right now! Not another word!"
In a moment Bobby came trudging through the room, his chin on his chest. But tiny eyes looked at Randolph with a trace of hope.
"She's gonna make me throw him away."
Randolph shrugged. "It would smell up the place," he said.
"Well, I thought you'd like it anyway," Bobby said. "You always keep telling me how you were a boy, and she wasn't." He stopped for a moment, waiting for Randolph to answer, and when he didn't the boy abruptly ran out with the grey, crushed frog in his hand.
Margo came into the living room, drying her hands on a towel. "Ran, why didn't you put your foot down in the first place?"
"You know things like that make me sick. I won't be able to eat for two days."
"I was watching the program," he said.
"You've seen that one twice before. What's the matter with you?"
"Take some aspirin if you're upset," he said. He squeezed the stone in the palm of his hand until she shook her head and went away.
A few minutes later a news program came on with a report on some people who had picketed a military base, protesting bombs and fallout. A university professor's face came on the screen and gravely he pointed to a chart. "The Atomic Energy Commission admits"
Randolph sighed and shut the set off.
· · · · ·
He went to bed early that night. When he woke up the next day, he went and got a book and brought it back to bed with him. He picked up the touchstone from the chair next to the bed and turned it over in his hand a few times. It was really a very plain kind of stone. Black, smooth, softly curving
What was it about the rock that could make everything seem so unimportant, so commonplace?
Well, of course a rock is one of the most common things in the world, he thought. You find them everywhereeven in the streets of the city, where everything is man-made, you'll find rocks. They're part of the ground underneath the pavement, part of the world we live on. They're part of home.
He held the touchstone in one hand while he read.
Margo had been up for several hours when he finished the book. When he set it down, she came in and stood in the doorway, watching him silently.
After a few minutes she asked, "Do you love me?"
He looked up, faintly surprised. "Yes, of course."
"I wasn't sure."
"Why not? Is anything wrong?"
She came over and sat on the bed next to him in her terrycloth robe. "It's just that you've hardly spoken to me since yesterday. I thought maybe you were angry about something."
Randolph smiled. "No. Why should I be angry?"
"I don't know. It just seemed that
" She shrugged.
He reached out and touched her face with his free hand. "Don't worry about it."
She lay down beside him, resting her head on his arm. "And you do love me? Everything's all right?"
He turned the stone over in his right hand. "Of course everything's all right," he said softly.
She pressed against him. "I want to kiss you."
"All right." He turned to her and brushed his lips across her forehead and nose. Then she held him tightly while she kissed his mouth.
When she had finished he lay back against the pillow and looked up at the ceiling. "Is it sunny out today?" he asked. "It's been dark in here all day."
"I want to kiss you some more," she said. "If that's all right with you."
Randolph was noticing the warmth of the touchstone in his hand. Rocks aren't warm, he thought; it's only my hand that gives it warmth. Strange.
"Of course it's all right," he said, and turned to let her kiss him again.
· · · · ·
Bobby stayed in his room most of the day; Randolph supposed he was doing something. Margo, after that one time, didn't try to talk to him. Randolph stayed in bed fingering the touchstone and thinking, though whenever he tried to remember what he'd been thinking about, he drew a blank.
Around five-thirty, his friend Blake appeared at the door. Randolph heard him say something to Margo, and then he came into the bedroom.
"Hey, are you all right? You weren't at the party last night."
Randolph shrugged. "Sure. I just felt like lounging around this weekend."
Blake's weathered face cleared. "Well, that's good. Listen, I've got a problem."
"A problem," Randolph said. He settled down in the bed, looking idly at the stone in his hand.
Blake paused. "You sure everything's all right? Nothing wrong with Margo? She didn't look good when I came in."
"We're both fine."
"Well, okay. Look, Ran, you know you're the only close friend I've got, don't you? I mean, there's a lot of people in the world, but you're the only one I can really count on when the chips are down. Some people I joke with, but with you I can talk. You listen. You know?"
Randolph nodded. He supposed he was right.
I guess you heard the commotion last night. A couple guys drank too much, and there was a fight."
"I went to bed early."
"I'm surprised you slept through it. It developed into quite a brawl there for a while; the cops came later on. They broke three windows and somebody pushed over the refrigerator. Smashed everything all to hell. One of the doors is off the hinges."
"No, I didn't hear it."
"Wow. Well, look, Ran
the super is on my neck. He's going to sue me; he's going to kick me out. You know that guy. I've got to get ahold of some money fast, to fix things up."
Randolph didn't say anything. He had found a place on the stone where his right thumb fit perfectly, as though the stone had been molded around it. He switched the stone to his left hand, but it didn't quite fit that thumb.
Blake was nervous. "Look, I know it's short notice. I wouldn't ask you, but I'm stuck. Can you lend me about a hundred?"
"A hundred dollars?"
"I might be able to get by with eighty, but I figured a bribe to the super
"All right. It doesn't make any difference."
Blake paused again, looking at him. "You can do it?"
"Which? Eighty or a hundred?"
"A hundred, if you want."
"You're sure it won't
bother you, make you short? I mean, I could look around somewhere else
"I'll write you a check," Randolph said. He got up slowly and took his checkbook from the dresser. "How do you spell your first name?"
"G-E-N-E." Blake stood nervously, indecisive. "You're sure it's no trouble? I don't want to pressure you."
"No." Randolph signed the check, tore it out, and handed it to him.
"You're a friend," Blake said. "A real one."
Randolph shrugged. "What the hell."
Blake stood for a few seconds more, apparently wanting to say something. But then he thanked him again and hurried out. Margo came and stood in the doorway and looked at him silently for a moment, then went away.
· · · · ·
"Are you going to get me the marbles tomorrow?" Bobby said that evening over supper.
"I told you. I still have to pay that guy for the frog you made me throw away."
"Oh. How many?"
"Thirty-five of them. I owed him sixty, and I only had twenty-five."
Bobby was silent, picking at his corn. He speared three kernels carefully with his fork and slid them off the fork with his teeth.
"I'll bet you forget."
Margo looked up from where she had been silently eating. "Bobby!"
"I'm finished with my dinner," Bobby said quickly, standing up. He threw a quick glance at Randolph. "I'll bet he does forget," he said, and ran out.
After five minutes of silence between them, Margo stood up and started clearing away the dishes. Randolph was rubbing the touchstone against the bridge of his nose.
"I'd like to sleep with you tonight," she said.
"Of course," he said, a bit surprised.
She stopped beside him and touched his arm. "I don't mean just sleep. I want you to love me."
He nodded. "All right."
But when the time came, she turned away and lay silently in the dark. He went to sleep with one arm lying carelessly across her hips.
· · · · ·
When the telephone rang, he came out of sleep slowly. It was ringing for the fifth time when he answered it.
It was Howard, at the agency. "Are you all right?" he asked.
"Yes, I'm all right," Randolph said.
"It's past ten. We thought maybe you were sick and couldn't call."
"Past ten?" For a moment he didn't know what that meant. Then Margo appeared in the doorway from the kitchen, holding the alarm clock in her hand, and he remembered it was Monday.
"I'll be there in an hour or so," he said quickly. "It's all right; Margo wasn't feeling too good, but she's all right now."
Margo, her face expressionless, put the clock down on the chair next to the bed and looked at him for a moment before leaving the room.
"Nothing serious, I hope," said Howard.
"No, it's all right. I'll see you in a while." He hung up.
He sat on the edge of the bed and tried to remember what had happened. The past two days were a blur. He had lost something, hadn't he? Something he'd been holding.
"I tried to wake you three times," Margo said quietly. She had come back into the room and was standing with her hands folded under her breasts. Her voice was level, controlled. "But you wouldn't pay any attention."
Randolph was slowly remembering. He'd had the touchstone in his hand last night, but it must have slipped out while he was asleep. He began to search among the covers.
"Did you see the stone?" he asked her.
"The stone. I've dropped it."
There was a short silence. "I don't know. Is it so important right now?"
"I paid five dollars for it," he said, still rummaging through the bed.
"For a rock?"
He stopped suddenly. Yes, five dollars for a rock, he thought. It didn't sound right.
"Ran, what's the matter with you lately? Gene Blake was up here this morning. He gave back your check and said to apologize to you. He was really upset. He said he didn't think you really wanted to loan him the money."
But it wasn't just a rock, Randolph thought. It was a black, smooth touchstone.
"Is something worrying you?" she asked him.
The back of his neck was suddenly cold. Worrying me? he thought. No, nothing's been worrying me. That's just the trouble.
He looked up. "It may be cold out today. Can you find my gloves?"
She looked at him for a moment and then went to the hall closet. Randolph got up and started dressing. In a few minutes she returned with the gloves. He put them on. "It's a little cold in here right now," he said.
When she had gone back into the kitchen, he started looking through the bed again, this time coldly and carefully. He found the touchstone under his pillow, and without looking at it he slipped it into a paper bag. He put the bag into his coat pocket.
When he got to the agency, he made his excuses as glibly as possible, but he was sure they all knew that he had simply overslept. Well, it wasn't that important
He stopped off at the store on his way home that night. It was just as he remembered it, and the same man was inside. He raised his thick eyebrows when he saw Randolph.
"You came back quickly."
"I want to return the touchstone," Randolph said.
"I'm not surprised. So many people return my magic pieces. Sometimes I think I am only lending them, too, like the books."
"Will you buy it back?"
"Not at the full price. I have to stay in business."
"What price?" Randolph asked.
"A dollar only," the man said. "Or you could keep it, if that's not enough."
Randolph thought for a moment. He certainly didn't intend to keep the stone, but a dollar wasn't much. He could throw the stone away
But then someone would probably pick it up.
"Do you have a hammer here?" he asked. "I think it would be better to break the stone."
"Of course I have a hammer," the man said. He reached into one of the lower drawers of his desk and brought one out, old and brown with rust.
He held it out. "The hammer rents for a dollar," he said.
Randolph glanced sharply at the man, and then decided that that wasn't really surprising. He had to stay in business, yes. "All right." He took the hammer. "I wonder if the veins of the rock are as smooth as the outside."
"Perhaps we'll see the fossilized soul," said the man. "I never know about the things I sell."
Randolph knelt and dropped the touchstone from its bag onto the floor. It rolled in a wobbling circle and then lay still.
"I knew quite a bit about rocks when I was young," he said. "I used to pick them up at the beach."
He brought the hammer down on the touchstone and it shattered into three pieces which skittered across the floor and bounced to a stop. The largest one was next to Randolph's foot.
He picked it up and the owner of the store turned on the overhead lightbulb. Together they examined the rock's fragment.
There was a fossil, but Randolph couldn't tell what it was. It was small and not very distinct, but looking at it he felt a chill strike out at him. It was as ugly and unformed as a human foetus, but it was something older, a kind of life that had died in the world's mud before anything like a man had been born.