I collect old things.
All kinds of different, forgotten, well-loved and now abandoned things. Things like soft pink shirtwaists with cinching belts that I find between the racks of halter tops at the Salvation Army. And white crystal ashtrays and painted pottery vases from the case in the antique mall. Fancy felt hats with mesh netting half-veils that I’ll never wear away from my dressing table. Vintage magazines and Fats Dominio lp’s. All of these, and the cheaper the better. The more worn it is, the more I will want it. It is not the value of the thing that has me opening my pocketbook (faux snakeskin, circa 1967) to fork over a few single dollars, but rather the humanness and the history that it conjures up inside of me. A ripped hem has me picturing a mad dash from a boyfriends Chevrolet to the front porch, 1972–11:59 pm, can’t miss curfew again, damn this dress. A cigarette burn has me dreaming of a middle aged father, listening to baseball in his arm chair, 1946—9:02pm, Goddamn will the Cards just score a run, for Pete’s sake?
Above all, I love to collect books.
All books, any books, not necessarily the most rare, not necessarily the books with the best characters, but moreso, the books with the most character. First editions, last editions, dog-eared paperback copies. Textbooks and cookbooks and encyclopedias. I love the weight of them and their musty oldness. Even more—I love the things I find inside of them: burnt umber rose petals and parchment thin receipts for thread or juice or pantyhose. I love to spend an afternoon sorting through boxes in the back of the antique store, blowing off the dust as I gently open front covers just to find some keepsake, long forgotten between the yellow pages.
My favorite part of the old books is the handwritten inscriptions. I am lost in wonder when I read the sprawling script on the inside cover of the most banal of stories. Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass—-To J.L. from E.M., Remember me to Herald Square. 14 July ’27. I press my fingers against the words and wonder about these ambiguously initialled strangers whose fingers touched these pages 50 years before I was born—who were they? I imagine JL in his woolen swimming suit, black and itchy with a large white stripe across his broad chest. He has a fancy moustachio, his long legs are stretched out on the hot beach at Coney Island and he is staring out into the waves. He is just one man, drowning in the crowds of people who have travelled en masse from the sweltering streets of the tenements. The subway had just been built to bring the factory workers from every borough to the beach for just a nickel each. The stiff white peaks of the sea would be a stark contrast to the sea of people, picnicking on blankets on their one day off after a long week of factory work.
JL shields his eyes from the sun with his hand and gazes out again into the ocean.
She’s late. Two hours late and he is beginning to wonder if she is coming at all.
He is hot and hungry. How long had it been since he had eaten? In his nervous anticipation this morning, he had ignored the oatmeal the maid had set out at his place at the table. But now, lost in the crowd of strangers, tired and uncertain of what he was doing here alone, he was starving. I’ll go get a Nathan’s Red Hot, he decided suddenly, standing up. JL brusquely brushed the yellowed sand off his bathing suit and shook out the plush bath towel he had stolen from his mother’s linen cabinet. She isn’t coming. I am a fool.
He had to calculate every step as he picked his way through the throngs, every square inch of the beach was filled with blankets and sunbathing immigrants. My god, these people! His mother would be horrified at the vulgarity of this place—the women in opened blouses, the dirty children. He tried to finder a wider berth to pass through, but the crowd was thick and his eyes were bleary from the sun. This was a dreadful idea. He could not hide his boiling frustration. But of course it had nothing to do with the families drinking their warm lemonade and gobbling down lettuce sandwiches. Who does she think is?
It was only when he stepped into the changing room at the Publix Bath House that his anger faltered into despair. What had he done that would have made her stand him up? I’m a sap. The air inside the bathhouse was even more steamy than outside, it was dreadful. The entire afternoon had been a dreadful waste of time. He ran his hand through his hair and the Brilliantine made his fingers stick together. It had been three weeks since he’d seen her last-and every day–nearly every hour–since then he had thought of her blue eyes framed beneath the dark hat she was wearing on their last goodbye.
That dark hat. Evening approaching, Herald Square. Her Clara Bow lips.
Should I kiss you? Do you want to be kissed? Had she even made a sound before she tilted up her own mouth to his? There, now. I’ve gone and done it.
Yes, She had whispered, her mouth pressed against his coat. You’ve done it.
In the bathhouse now, he shook his head free of that memory, slowly– as though to shake water from his ear. Her father hated him. His mother didn’t approve. All the evenings, all the clandestine afternoons on crowded streets, strangers among strangers. It was tiring. Perhaps, JL wondered, perhaps she had decided that their love affair wasn’t worth it after all. Nineteen year old girls, flappers—what foolishness have I gotten myself into? But his heart was sick and his hands were shaking. He wandered over to Nathan’s and stood with his towel draped over his shoulder, waiting in the long line. He pressed his dime across the counter and walked slowly along the sidewalk, gulping from his root beer and taking desperate, pressing bites of the red hot. Now what? He was lost. He was where he was supposed to be and suddenly, he was very lost. Why hadn’t she come? He began to ache with the emptiness of the afternoon.
But then, suddenly he saw her. Was it her? Really? And then, Yes, it’s her!
She was standing still in the middle of the boardwalk. Her black cloche hat was tilted up toward the sweltering sky, just as it was tilted when last he kissed her. He held back the urge to run to her. She did not see him, did not seem to even be looking for him. She was just gazing up. When he stepped closer he could see that her eyes were closed and the sun was covering her entire face. Her beautiful, small face.
He walked closer, closer. He began to rush through the list of things he wanted to tell her, anger brimming in his relieved heart. It was only when he stood five feet away, with strangers walking in the nearness between them, that he saw that she was holding a suitcase in her hand. Looking up, into the light, the sea and sea of people milling in the distance. She had come! She had come—and this time, he knew with calming certainty, she would never be going back from where she came.
My husband says it’s a gift, the way I can make up stories from one scrawled sentence in the front cover of a book. But he becomes just a little irritated when I apply this gift to the couples seated at the table next to us at dinner. How do you suppose they know each other? Is it a first date? Look at how she touched his sleeve. He doesn’t think of things like that, doesn’t wonder about the little intimacies between strangers. He just wants to eat his dinner.
I read old books because I love a good story. But often the story of the book goes much deeper than what is written on the pages in type. Often the real story is in the people who loved the old book before me, who left it on the nightstand near their sleeping lover’s face before they pulled up their stockings on a hot summer afternoon. The soldier who thought of his mother’s comforting hands as he touched his fingers to the inscription inside a well-worn copy of poetry by Burns.
The story about JL and EM is more interesting than the one I might ever read in the books pages. Maybe it is because it is one that has no beginning or end, only what I want to make it become.
I think that sometimes the best stories are the ones that are never written.