I close my eyes and stab again. I unfold the fluttering instant and pin its wings to the desk: 1:42 a.m., November 9, 1960. It was cold and damp in Boston's Scollay Square, and poor ignorant Flo - whom I would know shortly as Mama - had taken refuge in the basement of a shop on Cornhill. In her great fright she had somehow contrived to squeeze herself into the far end of a very narrow slot between a large metal cylinder and the concrete wall of the cellar, and she crouched there shaking with fear and cold. She could hear from up on the street level the shouts and laughter drifting away across the Square. They had almost had her that time - five men in sailor suits, stamping and kicking and shouting like crazy people. She had been zigzagging this way and that - fool them as to your intention, hope they crash into each other - when a polished black shoe caught her a blow to the ribs that sent her flying across the sidewalk.
So how did she escape?
The way we always escape. By a miracle: the darkness, the rain, a crack in a doorway, a misstep by a pursuer. Pursuit and Escape in America's Oldest Cities. In the scramble of her panic she had managed to get all the way around behind the curved metal thing, so that only a faint glow reached her from the lighted basement, and there she crouched a long time without moving. She closed her eyes against the pain in her side and focused her mind instead on the delicious warmth of the cellar that was rising slowly through her body like a tide. The metal thing was deliciously warm. Its enameled smoothness felt soft, and she pressed her trembling body up against it. Perhaps she slept. Yes, I am sure of it, she slept, and she woke refreshed.
And then, timid and uncertain, she must have crept from her cave out into the room. A faintly humming fluorescent lamp hanging by a pair of twisted wires from the ceiling cast a flickering bluish light on her surroundings. On her surroundings? What a laugh! On my surroundings! For all around her, everywhere she looked, were books. Floor to ceiling against every wall as well as against both sides of a counter-high partition that ran down the center of the room stood unpainted wooden shelves into which rows of books had been jammed to bursting. Other books, mostly taller volumes, had been wedged in flat on top of these, while still others rose in towering ziggurats from the floor or lay in precarious stacks and sloping piles on top of the partition. This warm musty place where she had found refuge was a mausoleum of books, a museum of forgotten treasures, a cemetery of the unread and unreadable. Old leatherbound tomes, cracked and mildewed, rubbed shoulders with cheap newer books whose yellowing pages had gone brown and brittle at the edges. There were Zane Grey westerns by the saddleload, books of lugubrious sermons by the casketful, old encyclopedias, memoirs of the Great War, diatribes against the New Deal, instruction manuals for the New Woman. But of course Flo did not know that these things were books. Adventures on the Planet Earth. I enjoy picturing her as she peers about at this strange landscape - her kind, worn face, her stout body, no, her rotund body, the glittering, hunted eyes, and the cute way she has of wrinkling her nose. Sometimes, just for fun, I put a little blue kerchief on her and knot it at the chin, and then adorable says it all. Mama!
High in one wall were two small windows. The panes were grimed black with soot and hard to see through, but she could make out that it was still night. She could also hear the quickening pace of the traffic in the street and knew from long habit that another workday was set to begin. The shop above would be opening, perhaps people would be coming down the steep wooden steps into the basement. People down the steps, maybe man-people, big feet, big shoes. Thump. She had to hurry, and - let's have this out now - not just because she was not keen on being caught by the sailors and kicked again or worse. She had to hurry especially because of the huge thing that was going on inside of her. Well, not a thing exactly, though there were indeed things inside of her (thirteen of them), more like a process, the sort of happening that people, with their enormous sense of humor, call a Blessed Event. A Blessed Event was about to occur, there was no question about it. The only question is, whose blessed event was it? Hers? Or mine? For most of my life I was convinced it had to have been anybody's but mine. But leaving me aside - oh, if only I could! - and returning to the situation in the basement: there was the Blessed Event on the verge of happening, and the question was what Flo (Mama) was going to do about it.
Excerpted from Firmin by Sam Savage Copyright © 2008 by Sam Savage. Excerpted by permission of Delta, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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