Jim sat at the library table with his head in his hands. He didn’t want to go to jail. Yesterday morning he prided himself in caring nothing for possessions, but today, all the people who could have been his friends probably hated him for something he possessed.
They didn’t know it was him they hated. They posted things on the website like, “WhoEVER took the scroll, please return it” and “What a jerk!”
Jim had stolen the Jack Kerouac scroll, which he first heard about in his American Literature class.
The college professor had said, “In the 1950’s there was a group of alternative musicians, artists, and writers known as the Beat Generation. They spoke of new freedoms and wild adventures, which sometimes scared the more conservative public. Some say that the 1950’s Beat Generation is what led to the 1960’s ideas of sex, drugs, and rock & roll.”
Jack Kerouac wrote one of the best known Beat books, called On the Road. Jack wanted his words to flow like jazz notes from the radio of a fast car on a dazzling endless highway, so he typed the entire novel on one continuous roll of paper so there would be no stopping between pages. Publishers rejected the scroll at first, but finally released the story as a novel. It was a big hit and Kerouac became famous. Now, some fifty years later, that roll of paper had been purchased for over a million dollars by the owner of the Indianapolis Colts football team, James Irsay.
Jim had stolen it on a sudden impulse, the way he imagined most “beat” things were done. A deviate jazz note thrown into the mix. He even thought briefly he might become an “anti-hero” like D.B. Cooper, who stole two-hundred-thousand dollars and escaped from the law by parachuting into the forest, never to be found. It’s fun to read about people like D. B. Cooper as long as it doesn’t hurt you, but Jim didn’t want to hurt anyone. Besides, now that he had the treasure, he didn’t know what to do with it.
The Scroll, on loan from James Irsay, had been on exhibit at the Karpeles Manuscript Museum in downtown Jacksonville, FL, along with other artifacts and posters from the Beat Generation of the 1950’s. The overall geniality of the crowd who came to the exhibit had put the museum staff at ease. When everyone was leaving, Jim almost forgot his back-pack. A guard went to the restroom just as Jim walked back in to get the back-pack and, amazingly, for a moment there was nobody in the room. The wood-framed glass case was locked but when Jim pulled up on it, the old wood split just below the groove that held the glass in place. His hand was on the yellowing roll of ink-scored teletype paper, solid and vital, and in two seconds he shoved it into his back-pack. With the band “Jane’s Addiction” playing in his head, he “walked right…through the door; walked right through the door.”
Jim went ahead to art class because he was trying to act normal. He was thinking about how to return the scroll without getting caught. The naked girl model took his mind off the problem.
Jim was amazed that the college allowed people to pose nude for art class. This girl model was athletic and natural with medium-sized breasts and a jogger’s legs and butt and didn’t seem ashamed of her body at all. She had freckles on her nose and Jim thought it was interesting that in spite of her being naked, he kept looking at her face. It was because he couldn’t tell if she was scrunching up her nose & eyes in a stylish smile of mischief, or if it was just the shading of the freckles that made her look that way.
The girl, whose name was Lilac, had problems of her own. She was trying to get used to her mother moving away, back to upstate New York, and the possibility that her father was a gangster. Her father didn’t know it but she had overheard him talking about murdering an accountant for some reason. Murder! Lilac told herself it wasn’t true; they didn’t mean literal murder, she thought. Maybe her dad meant “murder” as a figure of speech. Nevertheless, she told herself, “I am not my parents. I am not guilty for what they do.” But she did feel guilty about other things.
Lilac wondered, Do I get modeling jobs in fashion magazines because I’m really pretty, or because my daddy gets me these jobs? Is it unfair to prettier girls who don’t have such powerful fathers? And the one thing daddy asked me not to do, posing nude, here I am doing it. If he ever finds out he will be so pissed.
Art students tried their hand at drawing Lilac’s nimble form as these thoughts went through her head. Jim thought about Lilac’s freckles as he made a half-hearted attempt to sketch her shape.
Meanwhile, Lilac’s father, Randy Paquinn, was talking business with his right-hand man, Max. Big bear-like Max was assuring his boss that a murder weapon had been disposed of.
“I threw it into the deep, boss,” said Max in his thick, deep, relaxed voice. “I separated the clip from the gun and threw ’em both in the water where the river meets the ocean, near the sand bar at the Intercoastal Waterway. Nobody’ll find ’em.”
“Alright,” said Randy Paquinn. “And all the ledgers are destroyed?”
“Yeah, boss. The accountant is gone and his books are gone. There’s no evidence to be seen nor hoid,” Max chuckled.
Jim had figured a way to return the scroll. He had a part-time job at Books-A-Million and was often alone in the store at closing time. The store where Jim worked was in a strip mall between a Miami Subs restaurant and a video game store called Got Games. He put the scroll in a briefcase and laid the briefcase on the bottom shelf of the magazine rack. Then he spread magazines over it to cover it up.
He wanted to leave a message that would lead people to the scroll, but he didn’t want them to know he was the thief. He couldn’t hand-write the note because the police might analyze his handwriting. He couldn’t type the note because police can even trace typewriters due to tiny distinctive flaws in the letters. He was going to put the message on the one place he knew all the right people would read it. He would post it on the “Beat” website Literary Kicks. Jim went to the school library and logged on to one of the many computers.
The message Jim typed was:
I’ve found I can’t live with this. To recover the scroll in
a briefcase look on the bottom shelf of the magazine
stand at Books A Million next to Got Games.
Jim hesitated before pressing enter. He was still nervous about getting caught. Then he thought of the Cut-Up program that someone had introduced on Literary Kicks. The “Cut-Up” program scrambles sentences and paragraphs to mimic the bizarre work of writers like William S. Burroughs. The idea was to get new, spontaneous prose by mixing up the existing prose. Jim figured only the most hip readers would catch the message if he put it through the Cut-Up processor. He figured, if nobody got it, he could always go back and re-post it normally.
Jim clicked on “cut-up” and the message came back so garbled it made no sense. He tried again, thinking, “It has to at least look like it means something.”
Someone was approaching Jim from behind. He quickly pressed the ENTER key and logged off without looking at the final message.
He glanced around and saw the librarian eyeing him suspiciously. But the librarian said nothing and kept on walking.
Max was nervous. His boss, Randy Paquinn, was pissed off.
“What is it, boss?”
“Max, you dumb-ass,” began Paquinn. “Don’t you know there are divers that use that sand shelf on the Intercoastal Waterway?”
“Boss,” said big Max. “There were no divers on the reef when I pitched the gun and clip.”
“Max,” continued Paquinn, “Look what came up on Lilac’s computer. On Lilac’s computer! You know I don’t want her involved in this!”
Max seemed relaxed and unconcerned, but his droopy eyes narrowed as his big hand accepted the sheet of paper that Randy Paquinn handed to him, fresh off the laser printer. Of course, they didn’t know it was Jim’s mixed up message, which now said:
To recover the magazine I’ve found on the bottom next
to the shelf, live with this. A Million in a briefcase.
I can’t stand games. Got books. Scroll.
“Oh, my God, boss,” Max finally said after it sank in. “How could they have the books?”
“Well, apparently our deceased accountant made copies before we . . . let him go,” said Paquinn.
Max asked, “What’s this about a magazine?”
“Magazine is another name for a bullet clip,” said Paquinn. “Damn it! They found the gun magazine near the sand shelf. They want a millions dollars to keep their mouth shut!”
“Blackmail!” said Max. “But how are we supposed to deliver the money, even if we wanted to?”
“It says to scroll. There must have been another message further down. Well, we’re gonna find out who’s playing games with us, looking at our books…”
“And when we find ’em, boss, I’ll cut ’em up good.”
Max walked into the college library trying to look cool despite being fifty years old with a big stomach and his droopy face. He had bought surfer shorts and shirt, some sneakers, and sunglasses, which were now pushed up on his forehead.
The first thing you notice about Max is, his eyelids are heavy. When he looks at you, his eyes look closed like an old hound dog. He walked through the library trying to look at the various students unnoticed. He knew the blackmail message had come from one of these computers.
There was a boy sitting at one table with an open algebra book and some lined notebook paper, working algebra equations with a sharp, yellow pencil. The gangster glanced at the boy’s work and thought, “Hmmm, # 2 pencil. Da’ best.”
There were two girls sitting at a table. One with black hair was holding a cell phone while they both looked down at a text message, giggling. The other girl’s long blond hair fell across her face as she looked down. With one hand she swept the blond strands from her eyes to see the reply the dark haired girl was keying in. Their laughter made Max happy.
There was a row of fourteen computers, seven on each side, back-to-back, five of which were in use.
The gangster walked by the first kid who was using a computer , a guy with tattoos and a pierced ear, and saw that the kid was taking a virtual tour of Louvre Museum in Paris.
Max walked by the second student, a girl with pretty Italian features, who was searching e-Bay for body latex.
Max’s heavy eyelids raised just a little and he thought, “That ain’t no house paint.”
The next student was Jim, but Max didn’t know yet who Jim was. Max glanced at Jim’s computer, which wasn’t even logged on.
Jim was deep in thought, wondering if the police were going to show up and put him in handcuffs for stealing the scroll and wondering if the freckled girl in art class was as friendly as she seemed. And would anyone understand the cut-up message he had posted?
Being in the library with the students made Max feel young beyond what the surfer clothes could do.
Suddenly Max looked up and saw his boss’ vibrant, freckled daughter, Lilac Paquinn, walking into the library in a dazzle of natural girl style.
Lilac said, “Hi, Uncle Max. What are you doing here?”
“Hey, Lyle,” said the gangster, beaming a smile at her with his half-closed hound dog eyes. He whispered jokingly, “What am I doin’ here? Can’t an old dog get edu-ma-cated?”
“No, really,” Lilac said in a low voice. “Did Daddy send you to check on me?”
Max waved his hand as if to say, “No, forget about it,” but then he paused and looked at Lilac seriously and said, “Lyle. Are you sure you don’t know who sent that message?”
“Max,” said Lilac. “I told you. Everybody on that site has user names and they share all these computers. I don’t know who wrote it and I don’t know what it means and I don’t know why you and Daddy are so worried about it. It wasn’t even sent to me. I printed it accidentally when I was printing something else on the same thread.”
Jim sat at his table with his back to Max and Lilac, listening to their conversation. He felt an unreal dizzy panic as he began to suspect Max was a cop and was talking about him and the stolen scroll. Jim wondered if Max knew Jim’s dad was a police detective; maybe they knew each other.
Max said to Lilac, “There’s something else.”
“What, Uncle Max?”
Max said, “They have a few paintings on display outside the art department. Lyle, one of them paintings looks a lot like you.”
There was a moment of silence while Lilac just looked at Max, studying him.
“What,” she said, “Are you talking about?”
“Lyle,” said Max in a low voice, “I know you’re a big girl now. I got no right to meddle. But your daddy would not be happy if he thought you posed for that picture.”
Another moment of silence and then, “Uncle Max…I trust you not to say anything.”
“Okie-doke, Lyle,” said Max. “I’m just watching out for you. I only want the best for you. You know this.”
“I know, Max.”
In the meantime, Randy Paquinn was scrolling down Literary Kicks looking for some kind of clue, some message, because the “blackmail” note had said “scroll.”
Reading about someone named Jack Kerouac playing football in college, Paquinn thought about his son, whom he hadn’t seen in a long time. His son used to play football. Paquinn fondly remembered sitting at the breakfast table with his son, both eating big bowls of cereal…What kind of cereal was it? Why, of all things … it was Kicks. No, Kix. Funny, Paquinn thought. We used to love Kix cereal.
Later that afternoon, Randy Paquinn was driving to his usual bar for his usual martini lunch. His stomach hurt. Not enough food, too much booze, he knew. Paquinn steered his car into a parking lot of a grocery store instead of the bar. He went in, bought a gallon of milk, a bunch of bananas, and a box of Kix cereal. He went back to his office and ate at his desk.
Back at the library, Jim was thinking that, on one hand, Lilac’s Uncle must be a cop, but on the other hand, she also had something to hide. He had heard them talking about her posing nude and how her father would not approve. Jim knew how she felt. His dad was a police detective with the Sheriff’s Office and he could never tell his dad he had stolen the scroll. He didn’t know what his father would do if he found out.
Lilac was sitting at a table, her foxy freckled face lost in her science book.
By coincidence, Jim’s father was the detective who got the call from a scuba diver who actually did find the gun. The weapon would have never been found if Randy Paquinn hadn’t hired the scuba diver to look for it. Since Paquinn thought the bullet clip had been found, he had become paranoid and wanted the gun recovered before the police found it, too.
“Oooo,” said Max later. “A bad move.”
Even though they paid the diver well and made him swear to tell no one, he decided to squeal on them. He gave three reasons for contacting the police about the gun: (1) He didn’t want to be an accomplice to a crime, (2) It was the moral thing to do, and (3) Maybe there was a reward.
In fact, there was a reward, but the diver couldn’t collect until someone had been arrested. So he took the money Randy Paquinn had paid him and went to the Bahamas to teach scuba lessons for a while.
Jim walked up to Lilac’s table, pulled back a chair, and sat down.
“Hey,” he said. “How’s it going?”
“Alright, I guess,’ she answered.
She was thinking, all these guys come up and talk to me because I pose nude, but they are stupid with it. This guy seems kind of nice. But I’m probably wrong.
Jim said, “A friend of mine has a problem.”
“What?” she asked, not sure if she heard correctly.
“Uh, a friend of mine? He…look, my dad’s a cop, too. There are certain things he would…I can’t…you probably know what I mean…”
Lilac was a little taken aback that Jim thought her dad was a cop.
During one of Jim’s pauses, Lilac said matter-of-factly, “A cop. And you are telling me this, why?”
Lilac and Jim just looked in each others’ eyes for a moment and they both recognized something in each others’ face. Both physical and emotional. Some kind of trust, enhanced by the shared universal pull away from parents and toward each other. Understanding.
Elsewhere in the city, Jim Senior was running ballistic tests on the gun. The gun was linked to a murder that had nothing to do with Paquinn and Max. But then someone confessed that he had later sold the gun to Max.
Jim explained to Lilac about the scroll.
She said, “Just give the thing back. Tell them you found it at Books-A-Million. Deny any wrongdoing.”
“What about fingerprints,” he asked.
“Jeez,” she said. “Wear gloves. Tear off a couple of feet of the stupid thing and put the rest back in the briefcase without touching it! Or, put the whole thing into a shredder.”
“God’s sake,” said Jim. “You sound like a pro at this.”
She was a daddy’s girl.
Jim went and got the briefcase with the scroll in it, the day after he left it at Books-A-Million. He didn’t tear it or shred it. He brought it to the college, still in the briefcase, and met Lilac there.
The plan was that Jim’s friend Rodney would pull the fire alarm and when everyone was rushing out, he would just drop the scroll on the front desk and walk out. Let the library people figure out what to do with it. Screw it. He wanted Jack Kerouac’s ghost off of him.
Lilac made the plan both easier and more exciting.
Max was talking to Paquinn.
“Lilac thought I left the library,” Max said, “But I walked around the corner and watched them through an opening in a bookshelf. The boy’s talk was suspicious. He’s all worried about cops and something he hid.”
“It’s him,” hissed Paquinn. “And he’s talking to Lilac, that little bastard! He’s dead.”
Back at the library Jim and Lilac were drinking coffee and waiting with some enjoyment, sharing the intrigue, waiting for Rodney to pull the fire alarm. They reveled in their secrecy and camaraderie.
Lilac followed the plan; she walked to the elevator and went up to the second floor (periodicals), while Jim stayed on the first floor. The plan was, when the alarm went off, Jim would dump the scroll, walk up the steps, meet Lilac, and sneak out another exit.
Jim didn’t see Max approaching from behind. Big Max had a large folding knife with a serrated blade that could cut bone. When the knife was opened, it looked more like a hunter’s tool than a pocket knife. He fondled the closed knife in his deep pocket, anticipating the quickest, cleanest way to bleed young Jim of his life. No one must see it happen.
The fire alarm wailed loudly. Students lazily looked around to see if anyone was going to move. Some of them slowly started gathering their books, in no hurry.
A librarian spoke up calmly, “Well, I suppose we’ve all got to leave.”
This wasn’t going the way Jim expected. People were taking too long. Impatiently, he went over the door to the stairs and walked into the stairwell. Max waited for the librarian to leave and followed Jim.
Jim was almost at the top of the first flight of stairs, ready to turn the corner. Max quickly brought the knife out of his pocket, extended the silver blade, and held it level with Jim’s neck to reach around and cut his throat.
Jim heard the click of the blade locking into place and turned around, instinctively holding the briefcase up for protection.
Max didn’t just accidentally stab the briefcase. He thrust the blade into the briefcase on purpose. A strong upward motion of the gangster’s arm sliced a long gash in the side of the briefcase and then yanked it roughly out of Jim’s hand. The case hit the wall with a loud crack and broke open, spilling the scroll out, followed by a narrow wisp of paper that fluttered down after the briefcase and scroll hit the floor.
Both men watched as the scroll of teletype paper began unrolling, from the top step down like a regal carpet unfurling in a long, straight line, bumping on each step — bump, roll, bump, roll, trailing down the length of the stairs. A clean, papyrus-colored stripe.
Max and Jim looked at the rolling scroll and then at each other. Just then, Lilac walked around the corner.
“Uncle Max!” she said.
Max stood frozen. He knew she liked this kid but he thought, “I’ve got to kill him, anyway.”
But then Max relaxed his shoulders. He lowered the knife and let it drop onto the step in front of him. He turned away from Jim and Lilac and sat down clumsily on a step, leaned forward, and put his face down in his hands.
Lilac had suspected that Max and her dad were criminals for so long, she wasn’t all that surprised. She was now seriously thinking of moving in with her mother in upstate New York.
Jim and Lilac ran up to the second floor and took an elevator on the far side of the building back down. They walked past the firemen and fire truck without any hassle.
Jack Kerouac’s immortal book, On The Road, begins, “I first met Dean not long after my wife and I split up.”
Conversely, Lilac and Jim were just getting together.
Lilac said, “This is like taping the beginning of one book to the ending of another book!”
Jim didn’t know if that made any sense but he agreed with it, anyway.
Randy Paquinn and Max didn’t totally get away. None of us do. Years later in a hospital bed somewhere, Max said, “Karma gets ya even if the law don’t.”
The scroll was eventually returned to its owner, minus the first third of an inch.