Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Exuviae: What I've Got

I went for a walk in a large cemetery near my house today and saw a tombstone that broke my heart. At this point it's just the smashing of atoms, but the smashing of atoms is still a form of breakage.

On the tombstone there was a color photograph of a woman somehow etched or embossed right in the middle of all the cold, hard facts. I instantly recognized this woman as a regular customer at my old used bookstore, and recalled her as an impressive reader.

She always came into the store smelling like woodsmoke and hay, and often had bits of hay tangled in her unruly blonde hair. In the winter she wore a beat-up black Carhartt jacket that was covered with dog hair. She would park her red pickup truck right outside the store, and there were usually two dogs peering out of the truck. They weren't the sort of dogs that made a fuss; you could tell they were used to sitting around and waiting.

I once told the woman that she was welcome to bring the dogs into the store.

"Oh, no," she said. "You'd regret that. They're unruly, and one of them has an appetite for books that I haven't been able to break him of. That's pretty much why you never get any of your books back."

I could never tell if she was shy or just stoic, but she wasn't much for conversation. I did eventually learn that she trained and boarded horses somewhere out near Lakeville, which meant that she made quite a trek to my store a couple times a week. I assumed she must have had other business in the city, but I was nonetheless always grateful to see her.

As I said, her reading habits were impressive. Prodigious, really, and she would buy some seriously challenging stuff. Musil's The Man Without Qualities, is one title I remember. She'd buy things like that, but she also had an appetite for true crime paperbacks. Lots of serial killer stuff. In the years I spent in that store she was easily one of the most interesting and mysterious customers.

Anyway, it was jarring to stumble across her grave, and I stood there for quite some time looking at her photo and remembering her. I was surprised by how many specific titles I could recall selling to her: Marilynne Robinson's Housekeeping, which I hadn't yet read; Nabokov's Ada and Pnin; a fat collection of Icelandic Sagas; Lydia Davis's Break It Down; an account of the Lobster Boy's murder that I had overpriced because I didn't really want to sell it.

I eventually found myself addressing her portrait.

"Hello," I said. "Do you remember me? I used to sell you books. You were one hell of a reader. What happened to you? What happened to your dogs? I used to sometimes imagine one of them eating The Man Without Qualities and it always made me happy."

She had died on August 9, 2009. She would have been one year younger than I am.

At the bottom of the tombstone, in ornate cursive, were the words, "Forever in Bluejeans."

That, I think, was the part that really got the atom smasher roaring.

1 comment:

  1. Wax hands for greeting strangers and other dirty chores.

    A breakfast cereal named Poppa Neutrino.

    ". . . that I had overpriced because I didn't really want to sell it."

    That explains a lot. I made several trips to that store looking for "Revolutionary Road." It turns out you had several copies in the back. All I had to do was ask.