New Life by Ida Saudkova, ca 1997

Old Books

While clearing the house to move, Nora Devereux found some cardboard boxes in the attic. Sealed with tape and covered with dust, the boxes were marked “Old Books.” Did her ex-husband carry them up there, or one of the children? Ten years or more had passed, enough for someone to claim their property.

If some of her books were mixed in, Nora hadn’t missed them. She didn’t have time to open the boxes and sort through them. And boxes like ships might carry stowaways. She dreaded a poignant reminder of the past—an old photo, a letter, a child’s art project.

Nora telephoned a dealer listed online. She tried to sound sweet and desperate. Mr. Lumbar sounded old and tired.

“I’ll take the boxes off your hands, sight unseen, sell what I can and dispose of the rest.”

Nora wondered what “dispose of” meant. The county landfill or a charitable cause? To be rid of them was the main thing. A panel van arrived, blank and windowless. Like his voice, Mr. Lumbar was gray and overweight. Medically unfit to lift and carry, he paid Nora a small amount in cash, while an athletic young assistant whisked the boxes downstairs. The van drove away to an undisclosed location, and she got on with decluttering.

After the move, in the course of her daily walk, Nora passed a shop for old books. A sign in the window read:

Rare, Leather-Bound, Collectible

Buy and Sell, Appraisal on the Spot

Irregular Hours or By Appointment

Could the shop belong to the same dealer? The shop was hidden away from the bustle of Main Street, far from the boutiques on Mulberry Lane. Near the former railroad depot, it looked much like the deserted ticket office. A dim electric light was on, and the door was unlocked.

“Hello!” Nora called to the empty space. “Mr. Lumbar?”

No answer. The owner might be deep in the maze of shelves, unable to hear, or busy in some remote corner, unaware of the outside world. Libraries and bookstores have that effect. Like a jungle of print, they suck you in and make you forget the passage of time and daily life. To work there day after day might lead to madness. How do librarians keep their grip on reality?

Nora scanned the titles nearest her. Virginiana, Civil War, and Genealogy were popular subjects hereabouts. How was the shop laid out? Was there a section on Literature? She began to explore. Travel, Geography, and Current Events were woefully out of date. Cooking, Gardening, and Home Improvement were no longer relevant. Biography consisted of former celebrities and forgotten politicians.

The books were filled with marks and notes, which Nora considered vandalism. Musty smells, water stains, and cracked spines were endemic. Some books led a hard life, while others suffered from neglect. Pressed in their pages she found receipts, index cards, lists, notes, flyers, and brochures. Leaves, flowers, and insects turned up, squashed flat and dried, reduced to two dimensions, like engravings of their former state.

The narrow aisles were blocked with piles of books on the floor and cardboard boxes. Open at the top, the boxes were full of more books. Nora had to bend awkwardly in the tight space and scrabble. Treasure might lie hidden among the trash. Or it might stare you in the face.

After an unknown length of time, brief or the best part of an afternoon, Nora picked out a title that looked familiar. Had she read this book years ago? The opening paragraph was fresh, yet the story was one she already knew. A girl comes of age, defies convention, and achieves a personal triumph. Had Nora retained the gist, or was the story common? In all of literature there are only a few plots, some spoilsport critic said. Nora flipped ahead, read another paragraph, and had the same sensation, a mix of relish and predictability. She turned to the fly leaf and was startled.

Her own name was written there, or rather her maiden name, Nora Cheadle. The penmanship was formal and careful, a schoolgirl’s hand. Looseness and fluidity came with experience. The name summoned a previous existence, the way some people claim to be reincarnated. Some people are so downtrodden they have to invent an ancestor, or make the glamorous past their own. All that aside, in this life was it possible to travel beyond yourself, to become another person?

Nora decided to buy the book. Or buy it back, or redeem what had slipped away by mistake. Maybe she would chat with the dealer, explain what happened, and share a laugh. She could tell him how happy she was in the apartment.

She worked her way back to the street door, where a battered wooden desk crouched among the tall shelves. No one sat at the desk. During the whole elastic period of browsing and book-gazing, she had met not a living soul in the shop. She looked for a bell to ring, a button to press, some means of attracting attention. Was there an honor system, instructions for what do in the absence of personnel?

Nora grew impatient. The book was already hers, she reasoned. She could simply walk out. It did not count as shoplifting. If challenged, she could point to her name. But her credit cards and driver’s license bore her married name, Devereux. An indignant Mr. Lumbar might huff and puff and ask with exquisite scorn, “Who are you really?”

The situation was getting more absurd by the minute. Why linger? Nora dropped the book in her bag, composed a face of innocence, and regained the street.


About the Author:

Robert Boucheron is an architect in Charlottesville, Virginia. His stories and essays appear in Bellingham Review, Fiction International, Saturday Evening Post, and online magazines.