Wind and rain lashed the streets of downtown San Diego – a rarity, even in the middle of winter. I had cranked the wipers to their highest setting and they danced across the windshield like a couple of stick figures jitterbugging on speed.
Today was Thrift Store Friday for the little woman and I, and no typhoon, monsoon, or arctic blast was going to keep us away from our treasure seeking quest. I had drawn up a mental itinerary for the morning which took us all the way from the Goodwill and St. Vincent De Paul’s in El Cajon to the Purple Heart and Salvation Army in Chula Vista and finally to a string of independent thrift shops in the rundown warehouse district of San Diego’s downtown – a grueling course for a couple of 50-something retirees (late 50’s to be exact) but a potentially lucrative one if the pickings were good.
Lindsey, my wife of 26 years, collected a wider variety of items than I. She was a renaissance woman with a penchant for arts, crafts, tools, and textiles. I was simply a bookman; an avid reader who collected first edition fiction, vintage paperback originals, children‘s pop-ups, finely bound tomes, and signed or inscribed editions. Unlike some book collectors, my passion for books was not based merely on a volume’s value, but on a harder to define combination of aesthetic appeal, nostalgia, and legacy. I had always wanted to own the books I loved and it made sense to me to acquire them in their finest possible condition. Someday I hoped to pass these cherished possessions on to my children and grandchildren.
Thrift Store Friday had become an important part of my post career routine. It was a day that Lindsey and I set aside other commitments and indulged in our most sugar plum dreams. Like a couple of kids digging through heaps of junk at a landfill or an old codger trolling the beach with a metal detector we sought needle in a haystack treasure. Earlier in the day, Lindsey had found some. At the Purple Heart in Chula Vista, she happened upon an old Singer treadle sewing machine. It dated back to the 20’s and hidden away inside it were some old yellowed patterns for dresses and blouses. Either one of these discoveries would have made Lindsey’s day, but the combination of the find gave her a glow that no amount of blustery weather could extinguish. We purchased the lot of machine and accessories for $25.00.
I hadn‘t been so lucky. The book aisles in the stores we visited had been stocked with library discards, book club editions, and those titles that carried long gift inscriptions from Aunt Betty to nephew Billy on the front end paper, or worse, had been read by readers who simultaneously turned the pages while eating S’mores. Call me elitist or a snob, but those were not the quality of book I collected.
“Oh look, Jack” Lindsey blurted, tapping the passenger window glass with her finger. I hammered the brake at her urgency half expecting to see a sodden derelict veer in front of me. Through the sheets of rain, and flapping in the wind, I eyed a banner in front of a dilapidated store-front that read Action Thrift – Grand Opening.
“I think there’s parking around the corner,” I said.
“Even better. There’s a metered space open.”
I whipped the car into the spot and stepped into the teeth of the storm. Lindsey had the umbrella out and over my head by the time I stood at the meter but the rain fell so hard my shirt was already sopping. For a brief moment I felt a catch in my chest and experienced difficulty drawing a breath.
“Are you okay?” she asked.
“Sure. Just soaked.”
“We don’t have to go in here-”
“Are you kidding? How often do we get a chance to get first look at a store’s merchandise? We’ll be some of their first customers.”
Visions of first editions danced in my brain. Memories of past thrift store finds – an Orson Scott Card first of “Ender’s Game,” a Cormac McCarthy first of “Blood Meridian.” Book fever adrenalin surged through me.
I reached to put my quarters into the meter and the fingers on my right hand went numb causing me to fumble the coins. They splashed into a puddle at the curb. It was the second time that afternoon that my fingers had not cooperated and betrayed my efforts with numbness. Earlier I had dropped a large art book I was pulling from the top shelf and the cacophony it created startled the woman browsing the shelves next to me into a defensive crouch.
“I’ll get those, Fumble Fingers,” Lindsey chided. She squatted down and dug the coins from the curb.
“Let me help.” I squatted beside her and thought how odd we must look to any passersby; a middle-aged couple huddled underneath an umbrella, digging for coins like two school kids plundering a wishing well. I reached over and gave her a peck on the cheek. She had applied some kind of rose scented body oil that morning and smelled wonderful.
A smile spread across her features and I had a moment to enjoy the roundness of her face, the laugh line creases at the corners of her mouth, and the comic effect of her curly graying locks bundled in a burgundy scarf that was tied beneath her chin. She gathered the last of the lost coins, stood, and plopped them into the meter.
“We could run away together,” I said. “Just you and me. I could quit my job and we could travel the country.”
She laughed and helped me to my feet. “County I think you mean. And we‘ve been over most of it already today.”
We entered the store which had one of those jingling, hanging ringers attached to it and found the interior surprisingly vast; row after row of clothes, and rack after rack of knick-knacks. The walls on one side were mirrored which gave the impression of a room even larger than the actual substantive size. The ceiling however was lower than usually encountered in a large thrift store, and a sign in the middle of the room next to a wide, but rickety appearing staircase stated “Household goods and furnishings – second floor. Books, Magazines, Records – third floor.” The building was definitely an old one. The wood paneling on the west wall and the hardwood floor were varnished with a dark finish that gave the room a tomblike feel. The wind whistled eerily under the door and the bells jingled softly from snaking gusts.
Lindsey and I were accustomed to the aromas of thrift-storing so the ancient, moldering smell that was a combination of old fabric, old paper, old perfume bottles, and so many other discarded things did not bother us. This store smelled strongly of the past and for treasure seekers old reeked of promise.
“Anyone home?” Lindsey sing-songed.
“Hello,” said a short, rotund woman materializing through a beaded curtain partially obscured by a large six-foot wooden Indian figure. I noticed immediately the NOT FOR SALE sign taped across it.
Wearing bifocals low across the bridge of her nose and her hair up in bun, the woman was nearly as wide across as she was tall – somewhere near the 4 foot 8 mark.
“We close in about a half hour, but if you want to stay a little longer than that, it’s going to take me a while to finish up. Just ring the bell on the counter if you need anything or have questions.”
“This place looks great,” I said. “I can‘t believe there‘s not more people here for a grand opening. Where is everybody?”
“We don’t technically open until tomorrow. One of our volunteers put up the sign today because he won’t be here tomorrow and he was the only one tall enough to properly place the sign. We’ve had so many people knocking on the door today I finally gave in and decided to open up.”
“Are all the books on the third floor?” I inquired.
“Yes. The hardbacks are a dollar and the paperbacks fifty cents.”
My heart beat faster. Which was silly, right? It was only stuff. I mean, what was a book? Paper, cardboard, cloth. But so much more. Words, symbols, ideas. The recorded documentation of life. Take away our books and we were banished again to the Dark Ages. Remove our books and we were a rudderless people void of heritage, scrambling for meaning without a map.
I rushed toward the staircase like a kid to his stocking on Christmas morning. A buck a book. I envisioned a veritable shopping cart of treasure. I trudged up the stairs and each one seemed to shriek beneath my feet. As I reached the second floor landing the acid indigestion that had been my companion since our lunch at Casa La Mexicana bit familiarly into my stomach. I burped the taste and aroma of lunchtime frijoles. Maybe it was time to start thinking about my diet. I still had not begun the exercise program I had promised myself I would begin after retiring. I was carrying two hundred pounds which wasn’t bad for a 5’11 height, but a doctor had advised on my last physical that I would probably feel better and move better if I dropped twenty pounds.
I paused then proceeded up the stairs. Ascending the third floor landing, I let out a deep breath: Book Shangra-La. The room abounded in books. Bookcases lined the walls. Tall bookcases to the left and right of the stairs, short bookcases straight ahead. I turned to glance behind and viewed a roped off area with a handwritten sign reading “Unauthorized.” Yet even behind the rope were a few more bookcases and several stacks of books which still required some manner of sorting.
I remembered the squat woman’s reminder that they were closing shortly and went to work browsing the shelves. A practiced veteran can do this quickly. Like reading a page, one started at the upper left hand corner of a bookcase and scanned titles left to right, one row at a time. When a book of interest caught the eye, one quickly pulled it, gave front and back cover a look, flipped open to check front sleeve for price-clipping, checked front paste-down and front end paper for marks or stamps, checked half title page and title page for possibility of an author signature, and then checked the important copyright page for information on whether or not it was a first printing. The fear in doing this quickly was that one would perhaps miss a desirable volume that was particularly thin or plain in appearance.
I was down to the bottom row of the first bookcase when a bright banana yellow dust jacket caught my eye. I pulled the book and felt that surge of excitement brought on by a sought after, rare volume. “Fancy Strut,” a novel by Lee Smith. I quickly flipped to the copyright page. A stated FIRST EDITION in superior condition. This volume, however, was one of those odd Harper & Row early 70’s titles that had a numberline on the very last page of the book. I flipped to it and smiled when I saw the numberline descended all the way to 1. This was Smith’s hard to find third novel in true first edition state. It was the only title by Smith that I did not own. I hurriedly continued my browsing thrilled by this favorable auspice.
Two shelves down I found another gem – an early P.D. James Inspector Dalgliesh novel. It was a U.S. edition published by Scribner’s and not the more difficult to find true first published in Britain by Faber, but it was still a heck of a find.
If I only had more time here. I sensed that I had just touched the tip of the iceberg with these two books. Clearly they had acquired a selection of books from someone with a wonderful collection. Realizing that my stack might build substantially I sought an appropriate carrier. The middle of the room contained bins holding old record albums, videotapes, and cassettes. I found an empty basket with handles near a stack of albums and set my books inside it. A strong aroma of oranges assaulted my nostrils and I assumed someone had recently used this basket for hauling fruit. Hopefully the smell would not adhere to the books.
Moving to the bookshelf by a window I was startled to look out and gaze upon a building with an entirely demolished interior. Only the front façade remained intact. A few beams rose up from the concrete slab here and there supporting nothing. Someone had discovered the slab as a great place to dump junk. With no roof to quell the heavy rain, the deluge pounded down amongst piles of debris and rusted out appliances. What puzzled me most, however, was the cat that sat upon an old dishwasher gazing intently up at the window where I stood. Even at this distance I could see he or she was jet black with bright green eyes. I had not seen a cat so striking in appearance since my childhood. As a boy, I had owned a cat exactly like this one. Buddy-Boy was his name. He had been the only cat I had ever owned or even liked.
I watched him and noted his unusual obliviousness to the rain. Since he appeared to be studying me a much as I studied him, I mouthed the name “Buddy-Boy” and watched his head rare back and his mouth open in a silent meow. As he did so, I experienced a jolt unique in its intensity. Thunder rumbled outside, a bright bolt of lightning lit the gray sky and my arm went numb. I dropped the basket of books I was holding, felt the acid indigestion I had been fighting stab into my chest, and then the lights in the room flickered off for a moment before coming back on.
I knelt down to gather up the books that I had scattered and as I did, I noticed a pair of feet and legs arrive and a figure bend down to help me. “Let me get that for you,” said a male voice.
I looked up to see an older gentleman, dapperly dressed in creased dark slacks, a tailored white dress shirt and bolo tie. His black shoes were without scuff and gleamed as if recently shined. He had a full head of white hair which he had brushed back with some kind of pomade. He sported a white mustache and goatee and smiled at me with dark eyes that sparkled with mischievous glee.
“Do you work here?” I asked. I expected that Lindsey and I had used our half hour plus and he was here to inform me that it was checkout time.
“You could say that,” he answered. He squatted down and helped me stack the books back into the basket.
“Thank you. I don’t know what ails me. I’ve been dropping stuff all day.”
“Well, never fear. You don’t have to worry about that anymore. I’m here to help you… assist you.” He smiled broadly at me.
I looked away toward the window and was shocked to see a bright beam of sunlight. I stood and moved briskly toward the window. It seemed inconceivable that the driving rains and wind could have dissipated so suddenly. “Excuse me for a moment,” I said. There were still some clouds hovering, but the thick layer that had pounded the area with rain all day had broken up. The cat remained where he had been, but now appeared fresh and dry.
“An amazing day,” I muttered.
“So, shall we go?” asked the silver-haired fellow.
“I’m sorry. I know you are trying to close up. Is it a problem if I look for just a couple more minutes?”
“No problem. In fact, do you want to take a look back here?” He pointed to the roped off, unauthorized area.
“Am I allowed to go in there?”
He chuckled and lifted the rope. “Always so careful at first. Can I go here? Can I touch this? What happens if I do this?” He seemed to be talking to himself, but was looking at me. A nice fellow, but doddering of mind.
I hoped he wouldn’t rush me; especially now that my indigestion had disappeared and the discomfort I usually felt in my back after a day on my feet was not afflicting me. “There’s some interesting titles in there,” he said motioning to an antique bookcase to my left. “I’ll get the cat while you browse.”
The strangeness of his words did not sink in until he had exited the door. I considered calling out to him when two things happened simultaneously – one was the ringing of my cell phone and the other was my eyes spying a title on the shelf that I did not know existed.
I reached for the book with my right hand and pulled the cell phone that was clipped to my belt with my left. The voice on the line sounded scratchy and faraway. “Jack, are you there? Are you okay?”
It was Lindsey but her voice sounded panicked. “I’m fine. I’m upstairs,” I said into the phone.
“Jack, answer me. Please answer me.”
She knew I was on the third floor. Why didn’t she come up and get me? “What’s wrong, babe?”
“He’s not responding,” I heard her say to someone. “Jack, please.” The static got worse so I shouted to be heard. “I will be right down.”
I needed to go to her, but the words on the title in my hand stopped me in my tracks. “After Claudius – A Novel” by Robert Graves.
During an illustrious writing career, Graves had penned two wonderful historical novels about the Roman Empire – “I, Claudius,” and its sequel “Claudius, The God.” However, his project had not been a trilogy. There was no third book. Graves had never written a book titled “After Claudius.”
“Ah, I thought you might have an eye for that one,” said the silver haired chap, holding in his arms a beautiful cat who really did look like Buddy-Boy. “I found it more satisfying than either of the other Claudius titles.”
“What are you talking about?” I said. “Look. What I am holding in my hands is an impossibility. I am holding a book that was never written, a book that doesn’t exist.”
“Really now?” he said, eyes glinting with mirth. “What makes you so sure that books cannot be written posthumously?”
“Hold on a minute,” I said, correcting him. “Books can be published posthumously, they cannot be written posthumously.”
My phone rang again and I snapped it from my waist, “Hello,” I said.
The static was worse than ever and I could barely hear Lindsey’s tearful voice urgent and begging. “Jack, please come back to me. Don’t leave me.”
“Lindsey,” I said. But I could tell she wasn’t receiving my voice. The storm had somehow screwed up the phones. “I’m on my way down,” I shouted. “I’m leaving right now.” I beeped off the phone, dropped it into the basket with the other books and set the odd Graves title at the top of the basket.
“I need to get back to my wife,” I said. “Something is clearly wrong and I have to go.”
“Jack,” said the man who could not have known my name, who had no reason to know, or no way of knowing my name. “I need to explain a couple of things. If a person is a writer, if they were given that creative gift in life, and it is an integral part of their being, a part of their soul, do you think that just goes away when they cross over? A writer is a writer and will be a writer.”
“What are you saying?” I asked, panic growing. I was missing something that he found obvious.
“Haven’t you figured it out yet? There’s a reason why she can’t hear you. You went under the rope, friend. You are in the unauthorized book section. Look at these titles. You won’t find these at your local bookshop. Ever hear of a book by Graham Greene titled “Grandly Ever After“? I didn’t think so. But, alas, here is a copy. Pristine condition too. Fine in fine dust jacket.”
He handed me the book. I held it in both hands and stared at it.
“This can’t be,” I said. “I’m still here. I’m physically here. This phone I’ve been answering? I am a flesh and blood man answering a phone. Can you deny that?”
“Jack, Jack, Jack,” he said, wagging his head. “Such a human, wanting to understand and deal with everything in logical and physical terms. You weren’t really holding the phone. Your wife was not even calling to you on the phone. It’s a manifestation. You are in a transition stage. Until you truly leave the body physically you are still going to experience things physically. It’s closing time Jack. The lady just turned the sign on the door. Come and hold Buddy-boy in your arms and let’s go.”
“NO!” I screamed. “There’s been a mistake. It’s not my time.”
I ran then and I think it surprised him. In a sudden lurch of motion I brushed past the man, the cat, and the box of books. I dove back under the rope, “Grandly Ever After” clutched tightly in my hands as I lunged for the staircase.
I woke up immobile, monitors beeping signals all around me, tubes in my arms, my nose, an odd mixture of pain in some places and numbness in others. Lindsey stood beside me. She stroked my hand – a pleasant sensation in the midst of so much discomfort.
“I love you, Jack,” she said through tear-blurred eyes.
“What happened?” I mumbled through dry, parched lips.
“You had a heart attack. A big one. You died. The paramedics revived you. It’s a miracle that you’re alive.”
I asked a question then, which to Lindsey’s ears must have sounded completely incongruous. “What about the book?”
A nurse loomed over Lindsey. “Shhh,” she said. “Save your strength. Sounds like he’s a little delirious.”
“The book?” I rasped.
“The one you were holding when we found you on the floor?”
“Yes. Did you keep it?”
“No. But I saw it. There was nothing written on it, hon. It was a binder of empty notebook paper. I left it with the old gentleman who worked at the thrift store. He asked me for it. The paramedic had to literally pry it from your fingers.”
“Jack. I’m going to give you something to help you sleep again,” said the nurse loudly.
“No words on it?”
Lindsey shook her head and continued to squeeze my hand.
“So I died?”
“I love you.”
“I came back because of you.”
“I know. Now sleep.”
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