Gap in her shelf

“Careful, this one’s heavy.” I told the Goodwill worker as I lowered the wrong box into her waiting laundry cart. I pitied this woman, collecting and sorting people’s junk on a Saturday. Now she returns the look as I plead, “Just let me bring her here and she’ll find them, all of them.” The woman shakes her head, “Busy day. They’ll be buried. You want ‘em, get ‘em now.”

The depository box is four feet wide, four feet deep and brimming with books. I’m tall with long arms, and with an acute bend of the waist I’m able to retrieve titles from the deepest corners. Physically, I’m the perfect contestant for this Goodwill gameshow. Otherwise, I’m a wreck. Anything but her books.

Heller, Batuman, Moshfegh. Easy ones. Ignore anything hardcover, they weigh down her canvas totes–not to mention the expense. She thrifts for books and spends her tax returns on fast fashion lingerie. The paperbacks last longer.

Karr, Eggers, Vance. She likes memoir as told by underdogs with ugly childhoods. Tyrannical mothers overcompensating for absent fathers. Towns with more pride in public works than schools. And here, bound and well-received, is proof of their ascension. She might be one of them, wants to be.

King James, Bill W. Did a bible-thumping alcoholic die yesterday? Mom would know. Her AA network is comically robust. At the botanical gardens there was a man, a gardener, who popped right out of a bush when he saw Mom. And they spoke in that coy language of colleagues who can’t tell anyone they work together. 

King, Easton Ellis. Not her’s, someone else’s. Superdream tour, she’s dancing. We’re drinking beer from those little transparent cups and that bass is impossible to ignore. Music fucks us both up. Pound, Harjo, her beloved Hass. Definitely her, no one else. She chirped me in the dedication of her chapbook. Called me a procrastinator and gave it to everybody we know. Her words cleave me.

More bibles. I grab a small one thinking she might have kept a leftover from her church days. Last year we watched an overstuffed old man, formerly her preacher, use the funeral of her overdosed cousin as a platform to indoctrinate us mourners on how the ongoing invasion of Israel was a biblical world-ender. I’ve never felt so hopeless.

Housman, Graves, Whitman. The sly look on her face when she first squared off with the literary omnivore I call grandpa. She’d scanned his shelf previously, done her homework. She shouted in his bad ear about history, music and art. He heard every word. Now he forgets to re-up my New Yorker subscription but hers is automatic. 

Vuong, Nelson, Ng. Her world seems sharper than mine, more things to be pricked by and stabbed with. But I was a boy before school shooters and social networks. “That’s not my cause” I tell her too often. She nods and buries herself in an avalanche of activism. When our future is not enough, she crosshairs my past–Kerouac, Frost.

Reclaimed books are piled at my feet. Spines like little trip wires. Yank one and out pours the memory of its reading: a place, a person, a thought. Hard to recollect and sort without the spines, broken or cherished, as totems. And to burn somebody’s shelf, somebody you love and who loves you, well, it’s like wiping out their constellation with a big smokey cloud. 

Morrison, Coates. She might forgive me. For someone who keepsakes movie stubs and trail maps, she’s unsentimental with the irreplaceable. A few months ago, anticipating the death of her father, she uncovered a sleeve of family photos snapped during her childhood. Babygirl strapped to the back of a stranger with familiar eyes. And even those treasures she treats with tender utility, tacked to cork boards or employed as bookmarks (fuck!).

Carver, McCarthy. My gear. I peel open ‘Church’ and see her name, in the same neat script as the love letters I find squirreled under pillows and trapped beneath wiper blades, scribbled on the title page. My throat closes. Cars are lining up outside. The fucking sliding door won’t stop gliding open and shut. This will surely make her cry. Not the movie star tears she rolls, sometimes exploitatively, down a cheek, nor the choking sobs that leave her breathless. This cry will be fearful. She’s afraid that my languid disregard, my stoned obtuseness, has resulted in an act so apathetic it’s cruel. This scares me also. And so I dig.

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