CHRIS CORLEONE’s SECRET
(Weekend In Faro, Chapter Eight)
By Stevan V. Nikolic
Michael jumped. It was 5:15 p.m. The train was arriving in Faro at 5:35 p.m. He had to take down his luggage from the overhead compartment and prepare to get off the train. The last three hours passed so quickly. The conversation he had with Carlos made him think about their mutual friend Chris who died ten years ago. He hadn’t thought about him for many years, but he spent the whole train ride thinking about Chris. It upset him that Carlos compared him to Chris.
Chris was a peculiar character. He was in his late forties, with strong, but already completely gray hair and he was always unshaven. He looked much older than he really was. He was of medium height and build, with a belly sticking over his waist line, and a strong eastern European accent. He always wore a black worn-out suit and white shirt without a tie. Upon first sight, everybody would think that he was an Orthodox Jew who came to New York from Russia, but he was Polish, from Gdansk. At least, that’s what he was telling people. His full name was Christopher Antonio Corleone; nothing Polish about his name. But he never bothered explaining the origin of his name. For him, there was nothing unusual about being Polish with an Italian name.
He lived in Greenpoint, Brooklyn. It was, at the time, predominantly a poor working class Polish neighborhood. His wife worked at the counter in a local Polish butcher shop. Chris never worked, or at least, nobody knew if he ever worked. Nobody knew his occupation or if he ever had one. Nobody knew what schools he finished or if he ever finished any.
But in the world of antique and rare book collectors in New York, everybody knew Chris. That is where Michael met him. He was one of the most passionate rare book collectors Michael had ever met. Of course, like all rare book collectors he had his special field of interest. Chris was obsessed with antique and rare books on occult subjects.
Being a rare books collector is a very expensive hobby. Very few people have enough money for it. But somehow Chris was able to come into possession of some of the most rare and most expensive titles on the subject. In his collection he had over five hundred books. Many of them were the only remaining copies of books and that is another thing about him that nobody knew; how was he able to do that?
However, for Michael personally, the most fascinating thing about Chris was that he never read any of his books. How did Michael know that? Well, he was the one reading them. Chris would often call him to examine books that he wanted. Michael’s job was to read through the book and tell him in short what it was about and why it was significant. Then, Chris would take the book, hold it in his hands, turn it around, and look at it from all sides, like it was a rare piece of jewelry. It seemed like he was trying to feel the book. Then he would open it slowly, running his fingers softly over the pages, examining illustrations, sometimes, even smelling the paper, and only then would he decide if he was going to buy it. It was a ritual. Michael’s reward was to read books and copy those that he was interested in. So, it worked well for both of them.
There were a few times, Chris gave books to Michael that he didn’t want or he would just buy books that Michael wanted for himself. Once, there was this book dealer offering the rare 1881 edition of Three Books of Occult Philosophy by Cornelius Agrippa. They went together to meet the dealer. The book in itself was insignificant, if not for the notes in it. Originally, Aleister Crowley owned it and he wrote his notes on the margins of the pages. The dealer was offering this book for a very reasonably price of two thousand dollars. Michael was really excited about the notes that Crowley made in the book. Chris took the book, looked at it for a while and then he said, “I don’t want it.” Michael was furious. He told him, “Chris, these are notes by Crowley. Do you know how valuable this is?”
“I don’t care about Crowley,” Chris said. He was ready to leave. Michael was holding that book in his hands and he couldn’t believe what Chris had just said. Then, Chris looked at Michael and asked, “Do you like it?” He answered, “Yes, of course I like it.” Chris put his hand in his pocket, took out a roll of hundred dollar bills bound together with a rubber band, counted two thousand and gave it to the dealer.
“It is sold,” he said. He looked at Michael saying, “It is yours. Are you happy now?”
Michael couldn’t believe what Chris just did, but he didn’t refuse it. He really liked that book.
Everybody in the society of bibliophiles in New York knew about the way Chris was examining books. They all believed that he had some special ability to sense the authenticity of the books. Once in a while some really good copies or fake books would be offered on the market, and dealers, knowing his ability, would call Chris to give an opinion. Of course, he would always use Michael to assist him. Chris would take a book in his hands and hold it for a while. If it was fake, he would tremble with his hands and sometimes with his whole body until he dropped the book. It was a good enough sign. Regardless how many times experts would try to prove the opposite, his feeling was always right. And nobody knew how he did it.
His unique ability to recognize counterfeits didn’t stop people from the bibliophilic community in New York to make fun of Chris. He was, as they used to say, “rough around the edges.” At the regular meetings in the Grolier club, they were usually discussing rare books and the art of bookmaking. Chris was always there, but he would never say anything. He would just sit in the corner of the room. After a few hours, he would look at Michael and say out loud so everybody could hear, “Michael, how can you listen to these idiots. Let’s go to a bar in East Village and find some pussy to fuck. We’ll learn more from them than from these mummies.”
Michael didn’t know why he liked Chris, but he did. Chris was nothing like him. Michael had been researching metaphysics and esoteric teachings for many years. Books that Chris collected were a great source of knowledge for Michael. For Chris it was different. Michael didn’t see that as unusual. People collect all kinds of things. There are stamp collectors, coin collectors, and they don’t spend that much time thinking about what is behind the things they collect. They just like it. So, for Michael, it was the same with Chris—it was just that he collected books. A few times he asked Chris about what it meant for him to have those books. He knew that Chris wasn’t reading them. Chris would just look at him and say, “Michael, these books have their own integrity, their own identity. It is not about the words in there. You don’t need to read these books. Words are there to confuse you. They are just messing around with your mind. You have to look beyond words. There is a big secret somewhere in these books and I am going to find it. And you know that, but you are afraid to admit it. It is dangerous.”
Well, Michael heard many times this statement from people interested in esoteric teachings, so he didn’t pay much attention to these words. In the world of those searching for a deeper meaning of life, there is always a secret that they are after, and it always seems within their reach. He thought Chris is just one of those lost souls trying to find himself. That is to say, he thought that until one October night nearly ten years ago.
It was just past midnight when Michael’s phone rang. It was Chris. He was very excited. “Michael, I found it,” he said. “I know the secret.”
“What are you talking about?” Michael asked.
“Michael, it is all here. It is clear. And you are here. You know that you are at the top, don’t you? You are the King, man. The King! Ha, ha, I knew there was a reason I was hanging out with you.” He was laughing.
“Chris, I don’t understand a word you are saying,” Michael said.
“Oh, you know, you know. Listen, I am calling you to tell you I have to go home now. It is time for me.”
“Where are you going? Are you going to Poland?” Michael asked.
“No, man, no. I am going home, my true home. Listen, I just wanted to tell you that I am sorry I won’t be with you when you go through. But remember, the trick is in the eighth door. It is glass door, the one before the last. You will get out on seventh door tired and you will see the ninth door through the glass of the eight. You will think it was an easy step. But the eighth door is a revolving door. If you get there and think about words, you will get caught, and roll around forever until your mind gets completely lost. Just close your eyes and go straight through. Don’t think about words. Remember!”
Michael was holding the phone thinking, What just happened? Too much polish vodka, he thought. But he never saw Chris drunk before. He thought about calling him back, but he didn’t. Then he went to sleep.
Next morning, Michael was in his office already having his second cup of coffee when the phone rang. It was John Robinson from the Grolier Club.
“Michael, did you hear about Chris?” he asked.
“No. What about Chris?”
“Chris was on the news. He jumped off the roof of his building early this morning.”
“Chris? You mean Chris Corleone?” Michael asked.
“Yes, man. Your buddy, he killed himself,” John said.
Michael couldn’t say anything for a minute. He was thinking about that phone call the night before.
“Michael, are you there?” John asked.
“Yes, I am just shocked. I spoke to him late last night. He was excited about something, but he didn’t sound depressed.”
“Well, whatever happened, happened. It was unfortunate. He always seemed strange and unstable to me. God knows what brought him to the edge.” John kept talking. “But he had a valuable collection. Dealers are going to rush there to get whatever they can. He was your friend. Maybe you should help his wife handle it.”
“Yes, yes, of course.” Michael said. But he was still thinking of his words from last night. He just didn’t know what it was that Chris was talking about. “Yes, I will go to his home today. I have his address. Thank you for calling, John.” Then he hung up.
Michael took a cab to Greenpoint, Brooklyn. He knew where Chris lived, but he had never been in Chris’s house. When the cab arrived there, Michael looked at the building with surprise. It was not a house, it was a rundown four-story brownstone. In front of the building on the left side of the entrance there was still yellow police tape around the spot where Chris fell. That part of the sidewalk was covered with blue plastic. Michael walked to the entrance and looked at the buzzers. It was supposed to be apartment 2A, but the name on it wasn’t Corleone. The name was polish: Wojchek. He pressed the buzzer anyway. The doors sounded and he pushed them open just enough to find himself in the dark hallway with just one light bulb working. It was the kind of building that he would never walk into if he didn’t have to. As he was walking up the stairs to the second floor he was thinking how ironic life was. Chris’s book collection was probably worth much more than the whole building Chris lived in. He walked to the door of the apartment. It was wide open and he could hear voices.
He walked in. The living room was full of Polish people whispering. The room was very simple and poorly furnished. The only piece of furniture that was sticking out was a huge wooden book cabinet with tight glass doors and the cooling unit next to it that was maintaining the temperature and humidity of the cabinet. Chris’s collection was there.
At the far end of the room four women were seated on the sofa. The woman seated in the middle was crying while trembling and talking in Polish to herself. She must be his wife, Michael thought. He felt confused. He couldn’t say good morning. There was nothing good about the morning. He didn’t know how to start.
“I am a friend of Christopher’s.” Everybody stopped talking. The woman raised her head and looked at him. He will never forget that look. It was full of hate.
Then, she screamed at Michael with a broken voice, “I know who you are. You are a devil! You came to get my Andrushka’s books! Take them! I don’t want them in my house! They killed him! They killed my Andrushka! You killed him! Get out! Get out!”
Michael was standing there not knowing what to say. He didn’t know why she was calling Chris, “Andrushka.” He didn’t know why she was referring to him as a devil. Then, an older man in his sixties approached Michael.
“You are Michael Nicolau, aren’t you?” he asked.
“Yes, I am,” Michael answered.
“Chris was telling me about you. Come with me into the next room.” He pulled Michael to a bedroom. It was the only other room in the apartment. A queen size bed, wardrobe closet, two night tables and a chair were the only furniture in the bedroom. A big crucifix hung on the wall over the bed and a wedding picture on the opposite wall. The bed was still not made and there was an open book on one side of the bed.
“Mister Nicolau, please forgive my sister. Lena is still in shock. We all are. We are all trying to understand,” the man said.
“But what happened? Can you tell me, please?” Michael asked.
“Well, he was sitting all night in the bed with this book that is still here.” He pointed at the open book on the bed. “And this morning, around six, when Lena woke up to get ready for work, he was still in the same position, siting with the book. She went to the bathroom and when she came back, he wasn’t here. Then she heard screams from the street. She looked through the window and she saw him lying on the sidewalk in his pajamas in a pool of blood. Witnesses who saw him told police that he just walked off the roof. He didn’t jump. He just walked off. Nobody knows why.”
“I am so sorry,” Michael said. “I never thought that Chris would do anything like that. He always seemed very stable and full of life.”
“Mister Nicolau, it is kind of you to say that, but there is no need. Chris was a troubled man. It is tragic to say this, but maybe Lena will have some peace now.”
Michael didn’t expect a comment like this. He didn’t know how to answer. Then he looked at the book. He recognized it. He was with Chris when he bought it. It was a good buy. It was Gabriel Rolenhagen’s, Selectorum Emblematum Centuria Secunda from 1613. Original edition, very rare. It was open on the page with one of Michael’s favorite emblems, called “In se sue per vestigia volvitur.”
“And you say he was reading this book all night?” Michael asked.
“Reading?” Man asked, surprised. “No, Sir. He was staring at this picture all night. Chris didn’t know how to read or write. He was illiterate. He and Lena came from the small village near Gdansk thirty years ago. He never went to school. Chris signed his citizenship papers with the print of his palm. But he never wanted anybody to know that, especially not your rich friends. He always wanted to be different. He came here as Andrey Wojchek. At the beginning, things were ok. But then he started with these books. Nobody knew why. Then he legally changed his name. When I asked him why, he yelled at me that it was his true name. He tried to work different jobs, but he could never hold to them for more than a month or two. Most of the time they were living off of Lena’s paycheck from week to week. Any money that he would get, he was spending on books. When he had no money, he was borrowing around until he couldn’t borrow anymore. Then he would sell some of the books, repay a little bit of debt and buy more books and then he would borrow again. It was a nightmare. If I could only tell you how many times they were evicted from apartments from not paying rent, or how many times the electricity or phone was cut off, you wouldn’t believe it, Sir. And now, Lena doesn’t have money even for a funeral and he left her with so much debt.”
Michael looked at him trying to understand if they were talking about the same man. But again, many things about Chris were becoming clearer to him, many details that he didn’t pay attention to before. But the fact that one of the most passionate rare book collectors in New York was actually illiterate was mindboggling to him. How could he not see that in all those years he spent with Chris?
In the following days, Michael helped Lena’s brother sell Chris’s book collection to a Madison Avenue Rare Book Dealer. He even included books that Chris gave to him—even the one with Crowley’s notes.
Lena got enough money to pay for the funeral and pay back all of Chris’s debts. There was enough money left for her to put her life together.
A year later, Michael stopped by the butcher shop she was working in to say hello, but she didn’t want to talk to him. She just turned her face. Michael walked out. He never saw her again.
Soon after, Michael got divorced. To settle with his ex-wife he sold his own book collection to a book collector in Iceland. In turn, the buyer donated his collection to the local library under the condition that all of the books always stay together catalogued under the name “Michael Nicolau Library.” The buyer was a man who respected Michael’s work in the field of esoteric sciences and he wanted to honor Michael with this gesture. On other hand, Michael was pleased that his work would be remembered and preserved somewhere. That was the end of Michael’s antique book collecting career. He never went back to the Grolier Club.
He forgot about Chris almost all together. Life went on. He worked in publishing with ups and downs, but at least, he was working with books.