c.1960s. Original ink drawing, single sheet wove paper removed from spiral-bound sketchbook (5.5" x 8.5"), unsigned.
"...ah, 'Molly.' It's nice to meet you, Molly."
Whenever this happened, Molly regretted the day she took this job. Like most of her coworkers, she was way overqualified, but New York's job market being what it was, she'd had little choice but to take the same position she'd had since high school — bookstore clerk. Except unlike her past gigs, the employees at the place where she was currently indentured were expected to wear name tags. She and her fellow booksellers despised this, but her boss insisted.
"Hi," Molly replied with as little affect as possible. She kept her gaze down as she began to ring up another copy of Portnoy's Complaint, the third that day.
"How novel," she half-muttered.
"Ah, so you've read his latest masterpiece?"
"Haven't had the chance," Molly said, "though a friend of mine who has said something about 'deteriorating phallic hubris.'"
"Yes. Roth does have a penchant for the, shall we say, prurient?"
Molly, tempted to respond, remained silent.
"Hope I'm not coming on too strong," the man grinned, "but you wouldn't have happened to have read Joyce's Ulysses."
This wasn't the first time she'd been asked. Her coworkers were often on the receiving end of similar questions. There was Anna, who got name-checked for Anna Karenina; Madeleine, of course, always earned the inevitable Proustian reference; and the French exchange student Colette, to her misfortune, consistently appealed to male customers with, to use the man's words, more prurient sensibilities.
"I've never been the biggest Joyce fan," Molly fibbed. She handed him his receipt to sign.
"Not a fan of Joyce," the man said. She braced herself for the imminent patronizing deluge.
"But you do know the character? Your namesake? A proxy for Homer's Penelope. And a real beauty, not unlike yourself."
"Right," Molly said, once more struggling to disguise her irritation. She checked her watch.
"I remember the first time I read that opus. I was a senior at Yale, if I recall correctly. Penelope had much in common with my ex-girlfriend back then too." He savored the recollection a moment. "Unfaithful as can be. A freshman easily flattered by the fraternity set."
Molly was unable to hold back any longer. "If I recall correctly, from when I read Ulysses at Yale, Molly is a symbolization, like all of Joyce's characters. In her case, an archetype for womanhood. She's actually one of the few female characters written by a man with a full-fledged interior life, unfaithful or not. Historically denigrated as misogynistic, Joyce's female characters were in reality sympathetic portraits of the complex and tormented women he loved."
The man was nonplussed. "Well yeah, my ex could be a real bitch too. If that's what you're implying."
Molly, exasperated, refrained from rolling her eyes. She reminded herself that Jane, her closest friend at the bookstore, had gotten fired just last month for expressing frustration with a customer. She'd maybe gone a step too far when she'd thrown a book in his face.
"I'm pleased to hear you're a Yalie too, though. College in the free love era must have been quite a trip," the man smirked. "Of course, we'd have had no chance of crossing paths in New Haven. I may look young for my age, but I graduated decades ago. How old are you anyway?"
"Twenty-seven," Molly said.
"Well. Those late nights reading haven't left a mark on that lovely face of yours."
Molly smiled wanly. She was already anticipating tonight's round of slumberous wish-fulfillment, when she'd visualize dismembering the man limb by limb. Her analyst said murderous impulses were quite healthy, as long as they were acted out in the realm of fantasy.
"Listen, Molly. Is it okay if I call you Molly?" he asked, belatedly.
Another tight smile crossed her lovely face.
"The thing is, Molly, I don't really need another book. I have plenty. Floor to ceiling bookshelves, in fact. Right here on West 4th. Call it a game, if you like. I suppose it's one of the oldest in the book." He chuckled. "I've seen you around. I was wondering if you'd like to come over sometime? Perhaps have a nip of scotch. We could probe Joyce’s ‘sympathetic portraits.'"
And that's when she threw the book.
[Madeleine Alpert is in training to be a modern psychoanalyst. She catalogs for Left Bank Books.]. Item #2126