This is the third revision of the story I posted, The Last MS of MT. Then ending still needs work, I think, and probably the rest of it could stand a few more hours in the sauna. It’s far from finished, but it’s getting closer, and it’s a far cry from the previous draft. Enjoy.
My older sister Daisy is the one who told me who Mark Twain was at first.
“Shit, bro,” she said. “He’s like in all the school books. Everybody know who he is. That shit’s prolly worth a million bucks.”
I wasn’t so sure about that. At twelve I lived with the virtual certainty that my sister was born with the brain of a Rhesus monkey. And besides, I reasoned, if those papers were worth a million bucks, why would Mark Twain leave them lying around in our attic?
When my father died I was allowed to go through his stuff. A couple photo albums. Some National Geographic magazines. His old dress blues. I traced the brass buttons, the white gloves, and mami glanced up from the boxes she was consolidating. “No for you,” she said, and held out her hand to take the uniform.
I found a leather folder that smelled like cat piss—I remember mentioning that detail in the book report I did for Mrs. Gravmayer’s class—containing a desiccated sheath of old papers, all written in longhand. It seemed so old-timey to me, and it was heavy in my young hands. I could barely read it, the loping scrawl was so antiquated.
I held it aloft until she looked, and mami squinted. Then nodded her assent.
I crammed the leather folder into my navy blue Jansport backpack, but I couldn’t get it closed, so I just left it sticking out.
What if Daisy was right? I didn’t even need a whole million. If the papers were worth half a million to somebody, I could probably sell them and give the money to mami. You could retire easily on half a million, I told myself. Maybe there’d be enough left to get a new skateboard. And a Nintendo. And I suppose something nice for Daisy.
We were poor. We’d been getting a military pension after dad died, but it wasn’t a lot. My mom, a nurse by training, worked at the Lucky Chance Casino in Colma. She served food to gamblers from San Francisco, Daly City, and Pacifica. It reeked of smoke and failure. This was also around the time that Filipino and Mexican street gangs were beginning to menace the place, and I was worried for her.
I was the man of the house now, and I felt helpless but determined.
I grabbed my black and yellow Huffy bike and went down the street to sell the book.
I didn’t know about Mark Twain, had never heard the name Samuel Clemens, and certainly didn’t care about Tom Sawyer or Huckleberry Finn. There was only one book I knew of by this guy, and it was this one nobody had ever heard of. In the right-angle logic of a seventh grader, I figured an unpublished manuscript by Mark Twain would make for an excellent book report because Mrs. Gravmayer wouldn’t be able to point out mistakes if she hadn’t read it. I had my first A in the bag.
I credit Mark Twain with getting my ass into the school library for the first time. Nothing spurs scholarly pursuit like the lure of cash. It was there I learned some of my favorite Twain quotations—“The coldest winter I ever spent was a summer in San Francisco,” (so true) and “It’s not the size of the dog in the fight, but the size of the fight in the dog” (I was small but I was a scrappy fighter). It was there that I also learned that the famous Mark Twain was a failure at business and shit poor. I could relate.
All I knew about Mark Twain was that he was famous, and that he was born on a comet. This wasn’t true, of course; Mark Twain was born in 1835, the year of Halley’s Comet, and died in 1910, the next time Halley’s Comet came around. I didn’t know this at the time, and by dumb coincidence it was 1986 when I found the papers in my attic and wrote the book report: the year the Comet reappeared.
There’s another quote by him I like. I guess it’s my favorite. When I get invited nowadays to talk to kids at school assemblies—ostensibly to warn them of the dangers of getting involved in gangs and drugs—I like to quote to them what Twain had said about the comet:
“I came in with Halley’s Comet in 1835. It is coming again next year, and I expect to go out with it. It will be the greatest disappointment of my life if I don’t go out with Halley’s Comet. The Almighty has said, no doubt: ‘Now here are these two unaccountable freaks; they came in together, they must go out together.’”
I’d say usually in these junior high school crowds ninety percent consider themselves freaks. My job, the impression I try to make, is that whether they’ve lived it or not, there’s always a bigger world out there, beyond our understanding. That if we happen to bump against the ceiling of the known universe, say by watching someone we love die, we can’t ever go back to life the way it was. We’re changed. We become freaks.
An overlapping ten percent of the students are serious fuck-ups for whom my message might resonate because they’ve actually lived it. Parentless, abused, neglected, or just infected. I’ll always catch the eye of one kid in particular who knows what I’m talking about, who maybe is already involved in a gang. He always glowers at me, evil and exposed. And I always make sure to bore into him with fury, for that is the language he speaks, and he always withers, and at least for a moment remembers he is a only a child.
They’re good kids, mostly. For them riding comets bareback into the next world is not out of the question. I love them for that. Heaven knows it took me a lot longer to get there. But there’s always a starting point, I guess.
I didn’t know where to go really, but I knew enough to stay away from the library. Everything’s free there, so it stood to reason there wasn’t much in it for me. I went to the B. Dalton bookstore at Metro Mall because I knew they sold books at least. I briefly worried they’d recognize me.
There wasn’t much traffic. I rode in the middle of the street. I barely got out onto El Camino Real when I saw them.
About eight kids from BNG—Bahala na Gang, one of the more notorious Filipino gangs on the West Coast—were milling about on a street corner, and drooping out into the street. They were just hanging on the curb in tapered jeans with rolled cuffs and white t-shirts (this was the eighties: pre- baggy jeans), looking to start shit and eyeing me lazily.
I made up my mind to ride past them. They sauntered into the middle of the street, instinctively triangulating where I was headed like they had sonar.
I was too close to turn around. I stood up on the pedals and tried to go faster, get more torque.
Time slowed down in moments like this. Everything outside me moved like it was wading through honey, but inside my head everything was spinning at the same rate as a dentist’s drill. Through it all I remember hearing Michael Jackson’s “Beat It” at regular speed, as heard on my old Fischer Price turntable.
When they gripped the handle bars, forcing me to stop short, things reversed: everything in the outside world started happening very fast, and my thoughts were muffled by cotton. Still, “Beat It” played on at 45 rpm.
“Whatchu doin outta your crib, mamaboy?” I heard through the cotton. Boss guy talking through cotton. The image was funny, and I laughed.
“Beat it,” I said thickly. The song just kept playing in my head. (Showing how funky and strong is your fight…it doesn’t matter who’s wrong or right.)
“Oh-ho, hay naku! You hear that? I guess we best be going. Kid knows Michael Jackson.”
Boss guy grabbed my head, his hands were huge, and he squeezed like he was going to lift me up out of my BMX bike just by squeezing my head. He pressed his long, smooth face up close to mine. And then sang. “You better run, you better do what you can—don’t wanna see no blood, don’t be no macho man. You wanna be tough, better do what you can…”
In the slo-mo haze I could see Michael Jackson in his red jacket with his gang dancing down a rival gang that was also dancing. I wanted to sing along.
But this wasn’t MTV. I had seen these guys hanging out by the Lucky Chance sometimes. Through a clearing in the cotton I could picture my mom. She just had no clue about BNGs or any of the Chinese or Vietnamese or even Korean gangs that were proliferating in the Bay Area in those days. There wasn’t much for them to terrorize in Colma; they were concentrated in the more residential Daly City just north. But gangs and casinos are like Goths and cemeteries. They just show up there instinctively.
The cotton cleared and I gave Boss guy a solid kick in the shin. “Pakshit!” he yelled, and moved his hand from my head to my face and shoved me. I tripped over my BMX bike, and one of the other guys caught me. Another one grabbed my backpack.
“Let goa me!” I yelled, and they were laughing.
“What’s this,” the one with my backpack said, pulling out the leather folder.
“Give it back!” I freed from the other guys and was in my fighting stance. My dad taught me some aikido moves. I had no idea how to use them in actual combat.
“Lookit the karate kid!” they sang. “What’ll you give me for it,” asked the guy waving the folder over his head.
I thought about this for a moment. I had four bucks on me, but that was my allowance.
“Go ahead and take it then,” I said. “I hate reading anyway.”
They were already spilling out the pages and sharing them, looking at them, turning them over. All I had to do was pretend not to care. It worked, they lost interest in the Mark Twain pretty quick, and turned back to me. One of them—smelling like strong cheap cologne—pinned my elbows behind my back, while another one dug through my pockets and found the four bucks anyway.
“That’s for protectin’ your ass,” Boss guy said. “Just ain’t safe around here. Pinoys gotta look after each other.” He motioned to the others and they all just walked away. With my BMX bike.
I sat there after they left, gathering up the scattered pages and stuffing them back in the folder. None of the pages had numbers, so I figured nobody would notice they were out of order. I cursed myself for my poor strategizing. I had downplayed the importance of the papers, leaving wide open the only other object of possible interest. After all, what was more important?
I walked the rest of the way to the Metro Mall, which was only about a quarter mile but seems a lot longer in a situation like that.
Mark Twain lived in San Francisco at one point, and made occasional trips back there in later years on the lecture circuit. We lived in Colma, just south of San Francisco. A city of cemeteries, with only a few thousand living residents. The joke was “it’s good to be alive in Colma.” I hear the city adopted it now as their official motto. If you’re on the city council of a necropolis, you gotta have a sense of humor.
My Great Lo (that’s what we called my great-great-grandfather, Lolo’s lolo), Angelo Bayani, was a Marine. So was Lolo. My dad was in the Marines. I guess it skips a generation…odd generations serve in the US Armed Forces, even ones tend to go back to Philippines. Even I went back, for a while.
Great Lo received a medal of commendation from the Anti-Imperialist League at a ceremony once where Mark Twain was the keynote speaker.
I remember thinking he must’ve either lost the papers or given them to Great Lo at that award ceremony for safe keeping, but then died before he could cash them in.
That’s when I had the idea to sell it, the last manuscript of Mark Twain.
At the B. Dalton, I went straight to the counter. “I got a book I want to sell,” I said to a chubby blonde girl with glasses behind the register. I took out the leather folder and put it up on the counter, lifting the flap to reveal the wise old pages inside.
She just looked at it and crinkled her nose. “We only sell books here,” she explained. I thought this was ridiculous, because where do they get the books they sell? They sure as shit don’t make them there themselves. How could anyone be that dumb?
“Look,” I said, “I know it don’t look like a book, but it really is. Look,” I said again, pulling the papers out and fanning them in front of her. “It’s by Mark Twain. He’s famous. Look him up.” The girl rolled her eyes exquisitely, then turned to this other guy who worked there. I remember thinking: douchebag. I slid the papers back into the folder.
“Scott, this kid wants to sell a book.”
“It’s by Mark Twain,” I added.
Scott looked at me and smiled an unnaturally large smile, a condescending trait of many adults. He leaned closer a bit and said “Why don’t you try a used bookstore? They’ll buy your book.”
“Where do I find a yooz bookstore?” I asked.
“Well there’s a lot of them up in the Mission District. You could try there.”
“San Francisco?” I asked. I didn’t know where the Mission District was exactly. I knew there were a couple of BART stops that went through there.
“That’s the one.”
“Okay,” I said, and put the papers all back in the leather folder. “Um, do you know which stop?”
“You taking the train? Try Sixteenth Street. I’m pretty sure there are a few right around there.”
“Okay,” I said. “What do you think they’ll give me for it?”
“I don’t know,” Scott shrugged. I suppose if it’s a paperback, they might give you a few bucks. I have no idea really.”
“Okay,” I said, “thanks,” and I left. Those people, I decided, were retarded.
I had a spare BART card in my shoe that the BNGs didn’t find. Colma didn’t have its own BART station back then, so I had to hoof it the two miles to Daly City Station.
As I walked I got to thinking: what if I’m not supposed to sell the book? It belonged to my father, and to his father, and my great grandpa before that, then his papi—my Great Lo—who I never met. What if I was supposed to keep it? I was the man of the house now. I had to keep the traditions. Even if our traditions were all mixed up after generations of back-and-forth between California and Philippines. I figured I would join the Marines when I turned eighteen, but I wasn’t sure what to do before that. Look after mom and Daisy, I guessed.
The money would sure help, but what if the book wasn’t worth a million bucks? What if it wasn’t worth even half a million? What if it was only worth a few bucks? Well then for sure I would keep it. But if it was worth a million? Holy crap, what would I do then? How much was an heirloom worth?
Once I was on the train I tried reading some of the pages of the book supposedly written by Mark Twain. I had no way of telling if they were in the right order. The loose scrawl with its small letters and wide loops reminded me of a rollercoaster. I imagined riding them.
My stop came and I got out. The station smelled like urine and body odor. I rode the escalators to Mission Street, where the light hurt my eyes. Some Salvadorans in partially unbuttoned shirts were selling drugs right outside the station, and a few foul-smelling drunks lay on the benches. Sale signs in graffitied store windows were all hand-written and misspelled. Everything looked grotty and smelled like rotting cabbage.
What the hell’s a bookstore doing in this neighborhood?, I wondered. I remember puzzling over what the guy at the B. Dalton said. A yooz bookstore. Whatever it was, it made a bit more sense, as if that qualifier explained the presence of a bookstore—which I thought of as inherently upper class—in a decidedly crap neighborhood like this.
I still had to find one, so I asked this one tweaky white vet on the street corner wearing only cut-off jean shorts and an unbuttoned Army shirt showing his scarred and sunburnt chest. “Is there a yooz bookstore round here?”
His head was small but he had a big pock-marked round nose and full orange mustache.
He sniffed loudly and nodded over my shoulder, up Sixteenth Street. I turned around and look up the street too. I thought maybe I saw what he was looking at, but I wasn’t sure and didn’t want to ask him to elaborate. I thanked him and went that direction.
It was actually fairly easy. There’s a place just a block or two up Sixteenth, I forget what it’s name is, but it’s a bookstore. They had a cart of books out front that I eyed with suspicion. Anybody that careless with their merchandise surely didn’t belong in business. But maybe this was the way of yooz, I thought. I shrugged and went in.
It was quite different form B. Dalton. Way smaller, for one thing. And messy, with stacks of books on the teetering on the floor and in aisles. It smelled like our attic. There was a cat, a long-haired black one with a white chest, sitting on a pile of big books on one table which proves my point. The books all looked old, too. I had definitely found the right place, I thought.
The old guy sitting behind the counter was looking at me.
I knew what he was thinking: I looked like a shoplifter. I always knew by the way they looked at me. It never occurred to me that it had more to do with circumstance—an unaccompanied minor in a shop more commonly frequented by bohemians and tweedy professor-types—or even my Asian features, than any clairvoyance on the part of the store owner. When I was twelve and I walked into any kind of retail environment, and looked like a thief and felt like a thief.
I figured I’d just get this all over with, so I went up to the counter and set down my backpack. The old guy looked at me over the edge of his rimless, flat-topped glasses with a subtle, bemused look. He had stringy white hair and white subtle. His face was lean and wrinkled, with sagging skin beneath his eyes, hanging off his cheeks and under his chin.
I didn’t like the way he was looking at me so I looked down and got the folder out of my bag.
“I got a book to sell,” I said. He didn’t say anything, other then “Let’s have a look.” I pulled the brittle old papers out of the brown leather folder. Some flakes came out with them. One of the pages had broken in two. I shook them against the counter, straightening them as best I could.
I looked at him, and looked back down the Mark Twain book, then back up at him.
“What have we here,” he said. He looked at the paper, touched it, then flipped through some random pages. “A book, you say?” He could tell they were not in order. He shuffled through them a bit, then settled on a single page and read.
“Where did you get this, my young friend?”
“It belongs to me. It was in my attic. Mami said I could keep it.”
“I see,” he said, holding up one of the middle pages to the light, lifting his glasses and then lowering them again. I watched him, wondering if those glasses were supposed to be able to help him see, or if maybe they were just for effect.
“Do you know what this is?”
I shrugged. “It’s a book by Mark Twain.”
“Yes…that’s what I think, too. But it’s an original manuscript. I recognize the handwriting, but not the text.”
“The text of the book. The story. Sometimes it has pictures, as in the case of Mark Twain’s books. But of course those were added on publication. This character—Fleece White?” he gestured at ther page, “—is not from any of his published works that I’m aware of.”
He waited for me to say something. I shifted the weight on my feet as I thought. “So? What’ll you give me for it?”
He leaned in a bit. “I can’t buy this from you.”
“Why the hell not?”
“Because this is worth a lot.”
“Well, so then give me a lot.”
“It’s worth more than I have,” he said, leaning back in his swivel chair now. “Maybe you should reconsider parting with it.”
“I did think about it. Just give me my money. I don’t care, you don’t have to give me a million dollars, just give me half.”
He laughed like Santa Claus. I have never been overly self-conscious, but I reddened. I remember thinking: this guy, too, is a douchebag. Pretty much anyone whose motives were beyond my understanding was a douche.
He leaned back on his stool with one hand on his forehead. I clenched my teeth. I had had a hard enough time deciding if selling it was the right thing to do. But the more I thought about it, the more I pictured my mom at the Lucky Chances with the gangsters circling around her. All I wanted was my prize money to bring back home, but now I wasn’t sure I was going to get it.
When he was done laughing, the old guy dried his eyes and looked at me with his head cocked slightly to one side.
“I’m sorry son, I just don’t have that kind of money. And even if I did, what you’ve got there is worth more than money. You said you got that from your attic?”
“Well look. You could very well have yourself there an original manuscript by Mark Twain. That being the case, that means it’s never been published. Which means,” here he leaned in just a smidge, “that it’s never been a book. Which means I can’t buy it. Not like this. Tell me,” he was practically leaning over the counter now. “When you make copies of something, what do you do with the original?”
“You keep it…” I said, slowly. “In case you need to make other copies.”
“Right. And this Mark Twain was a popular fellow, right?”
“I know that.”
“Well, so wouldn’t a lot of different people want copies of his book?”
“And what if you made a bunch of copies, and they ran out?”
I looked down at the pile of papers in front of me.
“You see? You need to hang on to this for safe-keeping. Except…”
I looked up at him. I saw where he was going with this. “It’s safe back in my attic.”
“Well, yes, probably. But when they need to make more copies, what are they supposed to do?”
“They can call,” I said. I squinted at him. “We’re listed.”
The man leaned back again and sighed. Then he put his hands on his knees and stood slowly. I didn’t see before but under his gray sweater vest he had a pretty big gut. He came out from behind the counter, pulled a stepping stool out from under a nearby display table and sat down in front of me. I now towered over him.
“Look, you’re obviously a real smart kid” the old man said, putting his hand on my shoulder. “And you want to do what’s right, yes?”
I just looked at him, just waiting for him to take the book from me.
“That manuscript first of all needs to get published. And it belongs in a museum,” he said. “That way, millions of people can look at it for free.”
I didn’t budge. “Do museums pay well?”
“Museums pay all right,” he said carefully. He cocked his head again and regarded me for a long moment. “Look, I can’t tell you what to do. You have to decide that yourself. I can only tell you what I think is right.” Then: “Do your parents know you’re here?”
“Of course,” I lied. He just looked at me. I noticed that his eyes were a shade of gray-blue I had never seen before. He stood again and wend back behind the counter.
“There is no bookstore that will buy that from you. I assure you that. If they offer you money for it, then they are nothing more than petty crooks. What you have there,“—he rummaged through a drawer as he spoke—“if it is what we both think it is, is priceless. Ah.” He found a notepad and began writing something down.
He went on. “The only place that can buy your book there is a museum. But your parents have probably already thought of that. Which,” and now he was tearing off and handing me the sheet of paper, “is why they intelligently sent you here to me.”
It said, in hard, angular cursive:
I shook my head. “A library?”
“It’s no ordinary library, it’s more like a museum. They keep track of everything Mark Twain ever wrote.”
He started to put the papers back in the leather folder for me. I just watched him mutely.
“They’ll be very interested in seeing what you’ve got here,” he said. “It’ll be like gold to them.”
I took BART back to Daly City, and walked the rest of the way home. I didn’t see the BNG pinoys around, but I didn’t care if I did. All I had left was the papers and the leather folder, and they could have that for all I cared.
All for nothing. I spent my last BART ticket and got my bike and money stolen and the day wasted and I didn’t have nothing to show for it except the stupid book by stupid Mark Twain. Useless.
I had only the vaguest sense of where Berkeley was. Even if I could get to the Bancroft Library, and even if they gave me gold for it, how was I going to cash that in? I fumed. If I took gold in to a bank they’d think I stole it.
I got home and went straight to my room. I put on my baseball mitt and pounded the ball into it a few times, then gave up and tossed ball and mitt to the ground. I felt world-weary, and so very tired.
Falling backward onto my bed, I pulled out the piece of paper the guy at the bookstore gave me. I thought about calling. But what to say? I’m just a kid, I thought. I slide the paper back into the back pocket of my jeans and stared at the cottage cheese ceiling. The BNG had a point. Whatever happens, happens. Bahala na.
Why should I give the book over to Bob Hirst anyways? He didn’t earn it. It ain’t his. What, just because some guy decides he likes anything to do with Mark Twain, then all of it has to go to him? I like BMX, but people aren’t knocking down my door to bring me new bikes all the time. If I tell everyone I know, “Bring me a BMX bike,” they ain’t gonna do it. If they do get a BMX bike, it’s gonna be for themselves.
I briefly considered the possibility of holding on to the manuscript until it had appreciated in value. I had a rather large collection of Garbage Pail Kids trading cards, and several of them were worth a small fortune in mint condition. A very small fortune—but still. The manuscript had been sitting in our attic for years, and before that it was in lolo’s attic for who knows how long, so I figured a little while longer wasn’t going to hurt. But how long would I have wait? Weeks? Months? A year?
Mom came home from work around seven. She brought dinner and so we all sat around and at mac n’ cheese and crunchy spring rolls with red sweet n’ sour sauce that came from the buffet at the Lucky Chance.
The spring rolls were petrified from sitting under the heat lamp all day. My teeth still hurt to this day just thinking of them. Mom sometimes made lumpia from scratch, and on those days I stashed extras in my room to snack on all week. When she came home with spring rolls I’d just casually say “no, thank you,” and go to my room and pull out the greasy paper plate with tin foil. They were great even though they were always a little soggy at that point.
Unfortunately for me, however, there had been a lumpia dry spell, and I had no recourse but to sulk at the dinner table and crunch carefully on the spring rolls.
Daisy just chattered away and mom smiled and listened. When Daisy ran out of steam, mom would ask a question, and that was all Daisy would need to motor on again.
While they conversed, I drooped in my seat. I wondered when the BNG was going to get my mom. Like, they leave her alone until who knows when. Maybe they just bored one day and when she’s leaving work. I dunno. Dad’s not here and I’m supposed to protect her, but what, I’m just a kid. And plus, she just is starting to look old and tired. We should be living in a nice apartment with a pool and other kids around. Not just dead people. What if we found ourselves orphaned, Daisy and I—who would look after whom? I may be younger, but Daisy was the Rhesus monkey. And a girl, no less. Someone had to care for her.
I looked up at the two of them. If I sold the book, at least maybe we could live somewhere not so ghetto, where mom wouldn’t have to work at the Lucky Chance. She’d been taking night classes in nursing up at San Francisco State. Maybe we could move up to Daly City, which’d be closer, or San Francisco even. I pondered what it would mean to have a San Francisco address.
Daisy was still talking.
My mother never complained about anything. She’s not like that. Even now, as she gets older and more frail, she waves her hand dismissively when I ask her about her latest ailments. “What’s the use of complaining?” We Bayanis are like that. Proud, strong.
And…then we all die. I tapped my toe on peeling corner of the laminate flooring, waiting to be excused to go watch TV.
“Why you tapping Chris?” Mom said. “You want more spring roll?”
I told my mom about the book. I told her everything: that it’s a Mark Twain, and maybe if we took it to Berkeley we could get some money for it. Maybe even a hundred dollars or something. I didn’t want to get her hopes up with the million thing, but there was a guy at the Bancroft Library named Bob Hirst who collected anything that had to do with Mark Twain, and so maybe we should go and visit just to see what his offer was, because maybe we could move to San Francisco.
She just made a low whistling shape with her mouth and said, “No, no, your papi want you to keep it,” and “it belong to Great Lo,” which ended all conversation. Daisy just made a face at me with her teeth. And I thought: Rottweiler.
I took it Berkeley myself after school. No ifs, ands, or buts, as my father used to say. I took the bus to the BART station this time—I wasn’t again going to risk losing the manuscript to the BNG. I marched to the bus stop with the same fatalism as I had when my father would send me to my room for doing something I knew was bad: necessary, and thus I was stoic. Uncomplaining, and therefore I was noble—even heroic.
I borrowed the bus and BART fare to downtown Berkeley from Mom’s top drawer. It was an investment in our future, and I would be paying it back plus a lot more where that came from. She need never know it was missing, I reasoned. And if she did find out, why then I’d come home and pull out a gold brick—one of many—from my backpack. Her eyes would go wide, she’d tear up, embrace me, and all would be good and right with the world.
That hour-long train ride to Berkeley aged me. This was before the era of iPods and Compact Discs, when a Walkman cassette player was still a luxury item to a kid like me. I had one, but had left it at home (again, out of fear of having it stolen). There was nothing to do on the train ride but watch other people—which bored me after two minutes; everyone had their train faces on—or read. I noticed for the first time how other people passed time by reading: magazines, newspapers folded in half, mass market paperbacks. I just had the big leather folder with the Mark Twain manuscript that weighed a ton. I took out some of the pages and read some more of it. I made an effort to put the pages back in some kind of order that made sense, based on how the first and last sentences of each page flowed together. It became like a puzzle. I got good quickly. By the time I was at Civic Center station, I had pieced the manuscript together reasonably well, I thought.
I started reading, and for the first time in my life experience the sensation of sinking into a book, lulled in part by the steady clack and whoosh of the BART train.
Fleece White is a young soldier from California being sent to fight in the Philippines. He gets shipwrecked, and the lone survivor on a lush jungle island inhabited by a clan of head-hunting natives. There was too much to take in on one train ride, but I remember Fleece White and his rifle, which he kept cleaning and looking into, then cleaning some more and looking into some more. He teaches one of the natives to clean the rifle—I didn’t read the part where they meet—and it goes off as he’s looking into it. But rather than punish Fleece, the natives assume he is a god, the likes of whom are the only ones capable of handling such a device.
The satire was lost on me, and the only thing running through my head at that point was a sense of profound connection: Mark Twain wrote about Philippines!
He must have been there, I thought. How else would he know to write about it? Maybe he knew Great Lo from before that awards ceremony in San Francisco. Maybe they were friends.
In hindsight, I believe Sam Clemens met my great grandfather at the Anti-Imperialist League event. I believe Clemens, who was a deeply moral man—a humanist, before such a term was widely used—was touched by my great-grandfather’s story of war and loss and hope. I’m a benefactor of that story in more ways than one. I believe that Clemens arranged to meet Great-lo after the ceremony. Perhaps they shared a drink. And I believe that sometime before his death, Clemens—man behind Mark Twain—sent Great-lo his this manuscript, his last completed full-length work of fiction, as a token of honor and respect, and for safe-keeping from carrion feeders.
All this would occur much later to me; on that BART ride it was just me and Fleece White and the highly improbably and darkly comic situation of a native blowing his own head off with an American rifle. The pages were just an intermediary, a telephone receiver between me and the author.
Before I knew it I they were calling Downtown Berkeley station and I had to grab a bunch of loose papers and run out the doors before they closed on me. Almost ran into the brick wall outside the train. My urgency only increased and papers nearly went flying as I ran up the stairs. I almost forgot to push the magnetized paper card through the turnstile to let me go past.
I panted as I leaped up the escalator steps to the outside world. I had to get to Bob Hirst. Maybe he’d know answers to questions I hadn’t fully formed yet.
“Hey Chris, up for some catch?” papi smiled. His sepia-toned face was a rounded square, large for his lean, compact body. He had a square jaw and round cheekbones and rectangular forehead and his hair was all tight black curls that he said would someday be mine.
When I remember my father, I remember his body. The way he moved. I don’t remember conversation. I don’t think he ever asked how I felt, or how my day went.
We’d often go down to the asphalt yard behind our house to toss a ball around. I dream of this scene all the time still. I’d grab our mitts and he’d grab a couple baseballs and we’d just stand there, twenty, thirty paces apart, not talking, just playing catch and enjoying each other’s company. This time was no different, at first. He had his salmon-colored polo shirt and gray shorts. His calves looked like walnuts.
“Line drive deep in the pocket!” I called, and he trotted backwards on his toes, gazelle-like, forty paces, fifty.
“Got it!” he called back.
I saw them first. Heads bobbing and darting behind the chain link fence, amid the sidewalk trees. Mid-lob, they emerged, six or eight of them spilling onto the blacktop behind my oblivious father. Papi just craned his head and squinted as he positioned himself to catch the ball, which was more of a fly than a line drive. Bahala na. Whatever happens…
I tried to shout but the sound caught in my throat and just wouldn’t come out.
They descended on him. A couple of them ran toward me. His peripheral vision must’ve kicked in, because before they could lay a finger, he’d dropped into a sudden crouch with a leg extended and was sweeping the legs out from under of one of them, and following through with a swift upward fist into the crotch of another.
The baseball bounced only once on the asphalt before he caught it and threw it into the face of a third attacker. He fell on the one whose legs he had undermined and drove his elbow into his sternum. Papi leaped to his feet like a spider, like Bruce Lee. Come and get me, motherfucker.
That’s when I was grabbed from behind. A hand that smelled of cologne went over my mouth. I writhed and tried to stomp on any foot I could find but couldn’t find purchase, so I bit down on a finger. I heard a howl, and the two cleared away from me. One was holding up a bloodied finger in horror. The other drew a switchblade.
Papi was a blur. He somehow came up from behind, tackled the knife-man from the side. They both went down, but the knife-man never had a chance. Papi grabbed his wrist and slammed it into the ground, sending the knife flying, so now it was just –man, and Papi punched him in the kidney.
He looked up, around, and saw one last terrified gang banger backing slowly toward the fence. Papi stood up, hand up—was he saying halt, or it’s okay, I won’t hurt you, it’s over? I don’t know… but while Papi had one hand up like that, motioning to the bewildered pinoy, his other hand was retrieving a spare baseball from his pocket.
I can’t remember whether I yelled “Stop!” or just thought it. But the guy must’ve seen Papi’s intention, because he threw his arms over his head and cringed, turning. Papi hurled the ball anyway. The fastball nailed him in the side. I remember the short mean puh’ sound it made.
I stared at the writhing bodies. Then at him. Barely a scratch. I didn’t know what had just happened. We didn’t talk about it.
“Hana, anak.” Let’s go, son. “Quickly.”
I’d never seen a library like the Bancroft. Not then, not since. It’s a museum for books and other documents. It’s a working museum: smack dab in the middle of the campus at the University of California, the Bancroft is a research center as much as a gallery. Visitors to the cool granite building can look at the art and literature of the grizzly bear, or one of Shakespeare’s original folio editions. Among the more notorious pieces at the library is a book bound in human skin.
Walking through the single door of the library—there is no rear exit, for security reasons—I clutched my backpack with the leather folder to me, and looked around for a trustworthy adult. No one seemed to notice or care that a kid was wondering around a college campus.
At the back of the corridor, an old brass stand near the elevator with a felt-backed marquee listed in hard plastic letters the offices on all four floors. There it was, in yellowing plastic: MARK TWAIN PAPERS & PROJECT RM 475 FL 4.
Bob Hirst was kind to me. I thought he looked like a cross between the KFC colonel and Mark Twain himself, round bellied, broad shouldered, with a trim white beard and wavy white hair. He wore a salmon colored short-sleeve linen shirt and white Dockers.
He came out when I told the grad student nearest the elevator door that I was looking for him.
“Well, hello there. Can I help you?”
“Yeah,” I said. “How much can you give me for this,” and I pulled out the leather folder and handed it to him.
Hirst looked at me and then looked at the folder he was accepting, more in evaluation than judgment. It was like the bookstore all over again, only this time I was resolute. I would not go home without a transaction.
“Come,” he said, motioning for me to follow him. He led me through the stuffy rooms on that low-ceilinged top floor, past old wooden shelves teeming with books and papers and manila envelopes held together by brittle rubber bands. Past small but ponderous wooden desks where graduate students sat hunched over documents or writing notes. Into a small office that looked too bare and sad for such an important guy. As we walked I told him about how I had found a book by Mark Twain in my attic and that it had belonged to my Great-lo and that now it was mine and this guy at the yooz bookstore told me to find Bob Hirst and that it was probably worth a million dollars.
“Let’s see what you got here…Chris was it?”
He pulled out the papers deftly, and thumbed through the inch-and-a-half thick stack, looking only at three or four pages in all. Then he got up and went over to his own bookcase, where he pulled down some albums and opened them up on the desk. He spread them out so I could see them all side by side. Then, without saying another word, he took a sheet out of the middle of the stack from my manuscript like he was cutting a deck, and laid it on top between three of the albums.
“What do you see?” he asked.
I got up on my knees and leaned over the albums, holding myself up by the edge of the desk. I started rocking lightly, not sure what I was supposed to find. Hirst studied me.
“I don’t see nothing.”
I started to lift the acetate that covered the aged handwritten pages inside one of the albums, then looked up at Hirst. “Can I?”
He nodded, and watch me as I pulled out a couple of the pages and spread them out alongside the ones from my folder. I looked from one set to the other and back, then back again. I shrugged and tried again. I read individual words on each page.
Then I had it. My eyes went big.
“They’re the same handwriting!”
Hirst nodded. I knew this meant that for sure that my book was really by Mark Twain, and not some fake.
“What’s it worth?”
His face pinched in confusion and then he laughed. I though: I could totally smack you, bro.
He told me he couldn’t just say how much it was worth, or if he could get me any money for it. “This isn’t an auction house,” he said, and for a moment I worried that I had gone to the wrong kind of place to sell the book. Like, maybe I should be an auction house right now.
“What a gyp! You ain’t gonna give me any money for this?”
But Hirst just shook his head and explained that that he couldn’t. That he wasn’t in charge of curation at the Bancroft. That he couldn’t put a price on the manuscript even if I put a gun to his head. I thought of Fleece White and for a second there I wished I had a gun. I immediately felt guilty, and just looked at Hirst and shrugged: “What do I do.”
Hirst patiently explained that if this was in fact a real Mark Twain—and it was far from certain—then it would be an enormous discovery indeed. It would be the last manuscript of Mark Twain, and as such, priceless. That the proper thing to do—the thing that would honor Mark Twain and honor my Great-lo (he took care to emphasize this)—was to have it published, and to leave the manuscript in the care of the Mark Twain Papers on permanent loan. He could make no guarantees, but he had a good relationship with the publisher at University of California Press, and thought there could be some sort of acknowledgment to the Bayani family for our generosity. I could come see it whenever, and my mother would be able to reclaim it at any time. When I turned eighteen I’d be able to reclaim it myself, Hirst added, if I still needed the money.
I thought it was a shit deal. I do believe I said as much to Mr. Hirst, though to his eternal credit I do not recall any rebuke more stern than, “That’s a shame.”
If I gave up the manuscript, I’d be giving up an heirloom that had been in my family for five generations. And loaning it to the Bancroft certainly wouldn’t make us any richer.
The ride home seemed to take twice as long. I held the leather folder on my lap, my empty backpack still on my back, as I tried to work through it. Even if I got to a point in my head where we still had the manuscript in our family’s possession, I couldn’t reckon how the pricing worked. Hirst had said it was priceless. I pictured a clock, like a Grandfather clock, with time marked in decades and corresponding dollar values. When a thing gets old enough, the clock resets and it wasn’t worth anything anymore, and had to go back around and appreciate all over. I sat there on the stuffy train, wishing I’d found the book sooner, before the clock reset, back when it was still hovering around the million dollar mark.
I could’ve found it while papi was still alive, and he’d have known what to do with it.
Then the memories of papi flooded back and overwhelmed me, and I had to grind my teeth to push back tears. It worked, a little.
When I got home Mom was livid. She had all her hands on her hips and the rim of her eyes were pink. so I knew I was grounded.
I told her everything. I gushed and blubbered and the words formed logjams and spun off into eddies and when I was all through I was panting.
Daisy just stood there the whole time with her mouth open in shock, incredulousness, and perhaps a twinge of respect. But only a twinge.
I just wanted to go to my room, but Mom had this look in her that I’d never seen before. I saw her lips develop some sudden tic, and she fought back tears (it’s always a battle with tears, isn’t it?). She shook her head as she listened to my whole story, but it seemed to say “yes, yes.” When I was finished explaining she just hugged me and said “oh my son, my precious little man,” over and over.
The next day she took off work and drove us up to Berkeley to give the book by Mark Twain to Bob Hirst.
Bob treated my mom like royalty, lots of “yes, ma’am,” and “yes, Mrs. Bayani,” and “You’ve got quite a spunky son there, Mrs. Bayani, Mark Twain would be proud.” Mostly my mom just nodded and listened, and asked questions as if she were apologizing for something. They talked for a while and me and Daisy hung out outside. There was a field outside by the huge clock tower, and Mom gave us two bucks each to go up the elevator inside the tower. When we got out there were a few more stairs, and when we came out and we were at the top of the world.
Seriously—if you’re ever in Berkeley, go look. You can see forever from up there. All of Berkeley, the oak-green and golden East Bay hills to the east, south into Oakland down Telegraph Avenue, and then off to the west past the Berkeley Marina and beyond San Francisco Bay you can see Mount Tam and Marin County. Then sweeping your view southward again there’s the Bay Bridge and San Francisco off there in the distance with Sutro Tower and the tell-tale Transamerica pyramid.
You can’t see Colma though, nestled quietly behind the hills at the edge of the horizon. But that was fine by me as I ran around the tower to own all the vantage points. The carillon began to play and Daisy and I leaped and shrieked.
We lost track of time in the clock tower, and Mom had to pay two dollars more to come up and get us.
“Didn’t you hear the bells? They right over your head!” I shrugged. I didn’t know that they were telling time.
Mom didn’t say much on the drive home. But as she watched the road, she did say, to no one in particular, “Papi would be proud of you.”
My report for Mrs. Gravmayer got a B+, which I thought was pretty good considering I had read only a portion of the book before handing it over to the Bancroft Library and the UC Press. And it didn’t even have a title then.
Mrs. Gravmayer said the B+ was provisional. When the book was published, we’d get a courtesy copy that I’d have to read though. I’d submit to her a supplement describing plot summary and themes, and then I’d get my A.
I’m not sure what comet I rode in on, or what celestial body will take me away. All I know is I was an average kid with average prospects, and I made the most of it.
The Long Voyage of Fleece White was published first in 1988. It was not the last book he wrote—he died writing No. 44, The Mysterious Stranger—nor was the last work of his to be published. But it was the last known manuscript of his to be discovered. I still think there are others, like stars and galaxies, waiting to be found in other people’s attics.
It would be pretty stupid to conclude that my escapade with the Mark Twain book is what kept me away from gangs and violence. It didn’t. I spent much of the nineties in a juvenile detention facility for violent acts I committed. The whos and whys don’t matter. I became an adult in prison. I missed my mother’s passing. I spent too long being angry, and I still don’t understand the world.
You hear sometimes about artistic geniuses who are have easy rapport with the cosmos. People like Mark Twain who predict their own fate. Or Einstein, who said the most beautiful thing we can experience is the mysterious.
Twain himself wrote:
“Some things you can’t find out; but you will never know you can’t by guessing and supposing; no, you have to be patient and go on experimenting until you find out that you can’t find out. And it is delightful to have it that way, it makes the world so interesting. If there wasn’t anything to find out, it would be dull. Even trying to find out and not finding out is just as interesting as trying to find out and finding out, and I don’t know but more so.”
It’s nice to think that Twain knew something we didn’t. For that we call him a genius, and expect him to be more than he was. It’s not enough to have the life’s work of a great writer and humanist; we need him to have an origin story like Superman. It’s not enough that he captured the spirit of our nation’s childhood and adolescence, and told us something about ourselves—we need him to ride comets.
I tell the kids at the schools I visit to look up at the night sky. Usually I’m in a city, so I have to tell them to try and get out to the countryside where they can actually see the sky. On any given night you can see thousands of stars, if you cared to count. Mars and Venus might be visible with the naked eye. Sit still and you can make out pinprick man-made satellites cruising in their orbits. Go wide and you can see the Milky Way, that vaulting expanse of stardust that took me until I was nineteen and on my first camping trip to finally see. I tell them to think of this, as they are looking up at space: that that’s all there is. Nothing else to it.