On Picking Up A Book With A Keyhole Cover

Not at the Scholastic Book Fair, that feeding-trough for babies and amateurs. Oh, teacher, teacher, may I? Let those who jealously husband their gel pens, who crack open a Christmas-fresh notebook for each subject, who volunteer for coat-closet duty spend their generous allowances selecting from those gleaming rows of preapproved test flights for the self-regulating imagination. Whatever will the Bailey School Kids get up to this time? Everyone knows vampires don’t wear polka dots! How too, too droll, how infinitely diverting. Let their tidy minds and well-schooled hearts amble peacefully among the L’Engles, picnic with the Borrowers, introduce rules to sociability with the Babysitters Club, feint at rebellion with Lois Lowry or E.L. Konigsburg, those controlled burns as part of effective imaginative management masquerading as wildfires. Oh, have you read all of the latest offerings in the Animorphs series? Your parents must be simply distracted with worry. Yes, how funny to think that only last year you could conceive of nothing grimmer than Bunnicula. What a perfect child you were then! Yes, Hatchet was pretty okay, for a required-reading book, and T.A. Barron certainly does seemed poised to match Lloyd Alexander for deftness in updating Welsh lore, although they’ve both got a ways to go if they hope to overtake Susan Cooper. Yes, that was surprising to hear how Greenwitch is meant to be pronounced, wasn’t it. Etc.

Such a place is not for you. You, perhaps, have found yourself unsupervised of an afternoon in a used bookstore, unlikely as such a lack of supervision may have been for you who were born under a droning and unlucky star ten years too late to be brought up by the television and the latch-key, deposited instead into a cheerfully-lit and well-monitored childhood. But such constant surveillance has only honed your wits, sharpened your ability to capitalize upon opportunity, and here you are – finally peerless, cultivating a mature appreciation for mustiness that applies as well to cheese as to paper, and about to acquire your first novel possessed of a keyhole cover.

The binding had already begun to catch your discriminating eye — a rare effect these days, as you have grown jaundiced and difficult-to-please since setting aside childish things — when your keen and perceptive mind notices an unusual, resonant depth to the circular image of an imperiled blonde at the center of the cover. She appears to have been flung somehow out of space, an image you will be very cross indeed to find Patricia Highsmith took the chance to write down some forty-odd years before you thought of it when you read The Price of Salt three years from now. You are impelled to investigate further — you turn the cover —

you discover there is yet another layer of cover hidden just beneath the first! And not just another cover — another world! Any fool who walked past this pearl of great price without searching its contents carefully might have missed it, but you never walk past anything of value without further investigation. Worlds within worlds, layers within lawyers — the blonde exists in a double-life, stepping between one story and another in an instant, the second one slicker than the first, trading the pebbled texture of the first, of externalities and grooves and available footing, for the smooth slippage of the interiority. First as skin, secondly as viscera.

You who have already been allowed to watch Psycho on a family vacation understand well the recursive nature of blondes and the sudden, violent voyage into the self. Between yourself and the author of this doubly-bound volume a flash of understanding passes: Hitchcock. The mirror. Jung. The bending of glass that produces both recognition and differentiation. The Tarot. The making, diffusion, and unmaking of knowledge. The Ouija Board. You are thirty-seven now, with a full bosom and more (much more, horribly more) than your fair share of interesting secrets. The keyhole. You have seen ships brought down at sea, made out with a brown-haired boy with forbidding aspect on vacation, seen plans brought to ruin and fruition, lost at least two husbands and disrupted at least three marriages, and you always carry your keys on a single, heavy chain you wear at your side. The keyhole cover. What other mysteries might lie in wait beneath the duplicitous pages of a book with two covers? What encrypted Solomonic knowledge anticipates your decoding it? You buy it, carelessly flinging the contents of your purse onto the counter and declining to pause for change.

What reception can you expect from your cohort now? These Camp Fire Girls, these enthusiastic alumni of Wayside School, these flimsy filberts of inconsequence who regard Christopher Pike as the absolute height of daring? What can they possibly have to say to you now, you who have passed through psychic storms and emerged with newly-amber eyes? You, who walks with haunted yet feline-graceful step, who knows what sex is, who knows that at the very bottom of her bookbag burns a grimoire of such fateful knowledge that it can only be shared, and even then only a little, among the elect? Carolyn B. might be worthy of such knowledge, but only if she can be counted upon not to immediately share the vaulted details with Kim Osherman, whose moral constitution is as lax and sloppy as her performance on Friday quiz bowls.

You must remain set apart for a while longer, then, like the blonde of your keyhole cover, existing multiply and simultaneously in two lives without entirely giving yourself over to either. Great and terrible knowledge buzzes at your fingertips, hovers at the threshold of your perception, in all matters both worldly and paradisaical. A gift, and a burden, all rolled into one, and yours to bear as both cross and pennant in turn. Ah, perhaps you did not give K.A. Applegate enough credit when you were yourself a child last year — this must be just like how Cassie feels in Animorphs #19, The Departure, the one where she turns into a caterpillar but has to stay morphed for longer than two hours so she thinks she’s stuck forever but then Ax explains that the natural morph of a caterpillar to a butterfly resets the morphing clock and she turns back into a human and also finds funding for her dad’s wildlife clinic.

You may have more in common with your callow schoolfellows than you initially thought — perhaps there will be some value to your dealings with them, after all. Sixth grade just may be shaping up to be the most interesting year yet…

[Images via here and here]