Chapter 16

Holden’s swearing was clumsy but heart-felt.

As a boy Holden had fought to stay awake. Eyes leaden and his mouth drooly from exhaustion, he had steeled himself against sleep. Why? Because he wanted to stay awake and have some more fun. He had loved having fun so much as a boy that he had kept on playing even when he was sick. He would burn with fever, would even know he was quickly becoming ill, but he kept on playing rather than go home and go to sleep. His parents misunderstood and believed that he was an irresponsible child or even a bad boy. But he just wanted to have a little more fun before he had to give up playing.

But after the party he organized for Ulysses Pope, he wanted nothing so much as to sleep. He wanted to sink his head into his pillow and stop thinking and drift into sleep. But he couldn’t.

Ulysses Pope had so naturally and so easily put him in his place that Holden almost agreed he belonged there. Evidently Holden had missed a fact of life that was clear to Pope and maybe to everyone but him: There are gentlemen and there are shopkeepers. Shopkeepers are not gentlemen and they are not invited to join the social circles of those who are. He had missed it. Or maybe he had known it dimly from echoes in the air of ancestral attitudes. “Anyway,” he told himself, “I should have known.”

Lying in his bed, Holden laughed bitterly. For a few heady days, he had believed that he was being welcomed into the circle of the rug-world’s high and mighty. Believing that he had been “discovered,” he had begun to believe that success was knocking on the door. Could it be that all he needed now to be successful was to adjust his prices or beat the bushes for even better rugs or stay open longer hours or send newsletters to his customers or have Christmas specials? But when Ulysses Pope looked up at him and said, “I thought you knew,” Holden suddenly understood that he had been mistaken. Yes, he might manage to make a go of his business, but it did not follow that he was in the circle, the “fraternity,” Pope had called it, or that he ever could be.

And Sarah Atwood. Had he really presumed to fantasize about her? (He had.) No wonder she had ignored him at her party in Washington and then tonight at his own party for Pope. It was a matter of class. Holden’s face burned as he thought about it. No wonder they had all ignored him except insofar as it was handy to have him “take them around” or to have him pay for their meals.

Holden flung back the covers and left his bed. He went to the black hole of Calcutta and sat looking into it. He sat in the dark, and the old laundry shoot was dark too, so there was nothing to see. But he peered into it anyway, thinking, “Somewhere down there are the bags and bands and tassels and rugs and the odds and ends of my career. The freebies, the gifts, the things I’ve saved for a rainy day. The bag Khalil gave me is down there. And before that? What was it I tossed down just before that?” Suddenly sleepy, Holden couldn’t remember.

“Idiot,” he mumbled. “Dip stick,” he said. He was thinking of Ulysses Pope, half-dreaming. “Puffed up old lecher. Pincher. Cheapskate.” Even in his slumber, Holden was gaining conviction. “Take yourself around, you old fart. Screw you. Eat shit.” Holden’s swearing was clumsy but heart-felt. He took a breath, then went back to bed. And just before he slept he thought, “Didn’t something tell me from the first that they weren’t wonderful people? Just because I admired them doesn’t mean I should have.”


Holden awoke the next morning wondering about Avery Deane. Avery too had let Holden pay for every meal. Holden had had to drive him around, too—to Little Kabul, for instance. “For all his talk about how my prices are too low,’” Holden observed, “I notice that he hasn’t bought a single rug from me. Why not?” Holden mused for a moment. “I didn’t see in time what Pope is, but even a dope like me can learn,” he thought. “I know him now, but what about Deane? Who is he? What is he? A con man? What am I going to learn about Deane that I should already have guessed? Where is the silk Kirman that should have come two weeks ago?”


By three that afternoon, thirty-eight of the people who had been at Holden’s party the night before, including Deane, had either given Ulysses Pope their application for membership in the Ali Babba Society or had phoned Holden saying that their application was in the mail. They were all going to join. They seemed excited. Holden thanked them.

The last call of the day was from Laura Scott. “I’d like to interview you for a story I’m writing about Oriental rugs. Would you have an hour or so for me to ask you a few questions?”

“Well, sure,” he said.

“Right after work this evening?”

When Laura showed up at the store at 5:30, she brought a bottle of Chateau-Neuf-de-Pape and a baguette. “I thought this might hit the spot after a day at work,” she said. “And who knows, wine has been known to loosen the tongue. Maybe you can give me some good tips for my story.” Holden smiled and felt tired. She was looking at rugs on the showroom walls as Holden stepped through the curtain and then to his kitchen and found two wine glasses, a cork-screw and a bread knife. He returned to his guest in the showroom.

“What a lovely atmosphere for an interview,” she said. They sat side by side on a stack of rugs, and another, higher stack of rugs became their table. “Thank you for letting me come to your party last night. I wanted to see Ulysses Pope in his own world. My story is about collecting rugs, and he is said to be the country’s most important collector.”

“Yeah,” he said, without spirit.

She looked at him. “I keep hearing rumors that he’s going to give his collection to the San Francisco Museum.”

He looked glum. “Uh, listen, I have to make a confession. Just because Pope had me run around and put together an audience for his talk last night doesn’t mean that he tells he anything. I sure don’t have any inside information.”

Laura poured a glass of wine for Holden and sawed off a quarter of the baguette for him. “Well then, let’s not talk about the old geezer. I don’t like him anyway.” Holden laughed. “Is anyone who was there last night going to join Ali Babba and the Forty Thieves?” she asked.

Holden laughed again and took a sip of wine. “They’re all going to join. People have been coming in all day, dropping off their applications, or they’ve phoned, saying that their applications are on the way or they gave Pope their applications last night.”

“Well,” she said, “there’s one born every minute.” Holden wondered what she knew about Pope. “But,” she went on, “maybe you can tell me something about collecting rugs. That’s what I’m writing about, what makes a rug collector tick. As a dealer you must have some insight into the minds of rug collectors.”

The wine was good. He tore off a piece of his bread and dipped it in his glass and popped the reddened bread in his mouth. Then he wondered whether you’re supposed to do that. Probably not, he decided. Still, she hadn’t glowered or anything. “Well,” he said, “that’s another thing I don’t know anything about, collectors’ minds. In three years I haven’t sold more than two- dozen rugs to collectors. I guess my only wisdom about collectors is that they don’t want to buy from me.” Once more he laughed. “They all like to show me what they bought sight-unseen from some guy in London or what they got on the internet from someone who lied to them.”

“Why do you suppose that is?”

“Beats me. Maybe I’m not a very good salesman.”

“Well you sure don’t toot your own horn.”

Holden watched her break off a piece of baguette and dip it in her wine and then down it. He was washed in relief and gratitude. “You mean I don’t promote myself? But isn’t it rude to go around bragging?”

Now it was Laura who laughed. “You’re unusual, you know.”

“Yeah?”

“Yes. Most people who are interviewed have one thing in mind: to promote themselves. They want a plug. They want to look good. They want to be a star.”

“I didn’t think of it.”

“You just told me that a famous man doesn’t confide in you and that collectors don’t buy rugs from you. How are you going to become a star that way?”

Holden knew she was kidding him and he knew that at the same time she was telling him something important. He was kind of tickled by the conversation, but the talk about himself was making him uncomfortable. He said, “So are you going to join the Ali Babbas?”

“Of course not. Ulysses Pope is a jerk. I wouldn’t have anything to do with him except to observe him where he feeds and to take notes.”

“Where he feeds?”

“You talk about self-promotion! That’s all he does,” she said. “He fattens himself on people. Of course it’s their own fault. They hope to profit from him.”

Holden was silent, wondering where he fit into that picture. Laura seemed to have become serious. Maybe even angry. He said, “I disagree. He does more than just promote himself. Sometimes he pinches people.”

She turned to him and took his arm. “Oh my God! He pinched you, too?”

“What? No. He pinched a cocktail waitress. For goodness sake, he didn’t pinch me!”

“Well you’re lucky!”

“Wait! You mean that old son of a bitch…”

“Forget about it.”

“Wait! What are you saying?”

After more talk along these lines, Holden and Laura went out for pizza.

Pope had pinched her in an elevator. “I was doing publicity for the Halliburton Museum of Fine Arts and I was assigned to show him around the museum and make sure he was happy and get him coffee or alcohol or whatever he wanted. The museum was trying to land his collection of rugs. So in the elevator on the way to the lunchroom, he made a pass at me. I mean, physically. I couldn’t believe it. It was disgusting. It didn’t bother him a bit that I was furious. He was proud of himself. So I know all about that old jerk, and it’s not over yet.”

“What do you mean?”

“I mean that he’ll be sorry for ever touching Laura Scott.” They had opened a second bottle of wine with dinner. Laura was steamed. “Here’s what I’ve learned about him so far,” she said. “He promises his collection to the Halliburton. They treat him like royalty. He promises his collection to the museum in Denver. They treat him like royalty. He promises his collection to the San Francisco Museum and they treat him like royalty. He’s got it figured out so that everyone treats him like a king. I’m going to blow the whistle.”

“Blow the whistle?”

“Watch for it. The New Yorker. The New York Times. Sooner or later one of them will publish an amusing article exposing him. And my name will be on the byline.”

“Exposing him for what?”

“I would think it would be enough to call attention to his museum scam, promising all of them his collection. But maybe you’re right. Maybe I have to get more on him. I’m still digging. But tell me, did you join Ali Babba and the Forty Thieves?”

That’s the question Holden had been dreading. “No,” he said.

“Then I’m proud of you! Why didn’t you join?”

“Uh…” Holden thought about lying. He was ashamed that he had wanted to join. He was ashamed that he hadn’t been allowed to join. She was not going to be proud of him. “Uh, he wouldn’t let me. He said that dealers weren’t allowed to join. He said he thought I knew that.”

Laura turned to him and took his arm. “Are you kidding? He didn’t let you join? After you got the talk together for him?”

“Yes.”

“Did he ask you to gather people for his talk or was it your idea?”

“He asked me.”

“And he wouldn’t let you join?” Holden didn’t answer. He felt like an idiot.

A half hour later Laura was still furious about how the old man had treated him. Holden had stopped thinking about it though. He was just thinking about the way Laura still had hold of his arm. He was starting to like the way her eyes flashed. He liked the way her mouth looked when she turned to him.

As Holden drove her back to the shop where she had parked her car, Laura said, “Since you claim not to have any insight into the mind of rug collectors, would you give me a list of the collectors who were at the meeting last night so that I can interview them?” He felt something that was reasonably close to jealousy but said yes and gave her the guest list before she left.


“They all quit,” she said. Three days later she called him and told him the news.

“What?”

“I phoned all of them and told them what the old man did to you and they all quit. They were horrified. Everyone thinks Pope was very shabby to you. They all assumed that you would be in the club, too. A lot of them said they had joined because of you. So they all quit. They stopped payment on their checks. They sent letters to him in protest. They all dropped out.”

“They what?”

“Quit.”

“All of them?” Holden was trying to take it in. “Avery Deane?”

For a moment, Laura didn’t answer. “Well, Deane couldn’t wait to quit. I think he despises Pope. But no,” she said, “one of them didn’t quit. Sarah Atwood was the exception. She seemed to think it was none of my business, and she said she had ‘full confidence’ in Ulysses Pope. That was after she found out I am a journalist.”

Holden was struggling with his feelings. He kind of hated to see Pope embarrassed this way. But he was so surprised by what Laura had done and so grateful to all the people who had dropped out.

“The thing I learned from all of this,” she went on, “was how much everyone likes you and respects you. They all had great things to say about you. So I don’t know why they won’t buy your rugs. They all said you have wonderful rugs. The impression I got was that they all wanted to buy rugs and bring them to you so you would approve of them. That’s pretty strange, isn’t it?”

Holden didn’t know what to think so he just said, “I guess it was pretty dumb of me to dip bread in my wine the other night. Thank you for making it seem all right. I really liked the way you held on to my arm and I liked your eyes and your mouth. Do you suppose we could have a date?”

“Well, sure,” she said.

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When a Dragon Winks

  • A novel by Emmett Eiland

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