I’m pretty sure her name is Helen, but I don’t know much else about her yet.
Jeremy and I enjoy auctions. There is a local auction that holds sales on Mondays, a day that we typically can’t attend because of school. They hold previews on the Sunday nights before and accept absentee bids, so, while we can rarely attend in person, we regularly go to the preview to see the stuff to be sold, and we usually leave at least a few bids on things we find interesting. It is fascinating to me to see somebody’s life displayed like that, the “better” items presented cheek by jowl on tables, the flotsam of life in rows of box lots. These boxes are the closets, basements, drawers, and cupboards of life, abruptly mixed in unlikely combinations and exposed for the world to pick through. I don’t think there is much that can’t be thrown in a box lot; chipped dishes, old curtains, cleaning supplies, decks of cards…literally almost anything, it seems, is worthy of the box lot rooms. At any given sale, there are two large rooms filled with row upon row of these boxes, with more stacked on and under tables lining the perimeters of the rooms. Often, some box lots spill out of the building entirely and end up on the covered outside loading area. Some folks painstakingly pick through these boxes, searching for the hidden prize buried in the tangle of extension cords and old shoes. They scribble secret notes on small notepads, noting which boxes in which rows they want to bid on. It is a treasure hunt for antique dealers, pickers, or simply the curious, a blend of social event and shopping trip.
This is not the stuffy, dressed up auction of the movies. This is the auction of the locals, eating homemade soup from a foam cup and complaining about the weather while tsk-tsking about how much stuff there is and how long it will take the auctioneers to sell it all. It sometimes feels like an extension of a wake, with family or people who knew the seller sharing stories and reminiscing. More often, though, it feels oddly detached from the previous owner. This is never more true than when you see painfully personal items for sale. The sensitive among us shake our heads that any family could allow old family photos, 8mm home movies in their film cans, old framed degrees, and other heirlooms of little monetary value but great sentimental value slip away among the garish tinsel garland and Tupperware of the box lots. Sentiment does come in to play sometimes at auctions, as well as old grievances, with families bidding against one another over some prized item. More often, though, this auction is simply a means to an end, a way to empty a home and disperse a life’s accumulation. It’s a necessary task, and this is as good a method as any, better even than some, I suppose, as some families choose the dumpster over the auction company.
Last fall Jeremy and I were at a preview and among the box lots were many, many boxes of books. This is fairly common, as the vast majority of books hold little value to the average person or dealer. They are cumbersome and heavy, and they don’t hold much appeal to the resellers who can make more money on other items. Occasionally there is a book of value in these boxes, though, and Jeremy and are both readers, so we typically give these boxes at least a cursory glance to see if there is anything of interest among them. That evening we found perhaps five or six boxes that held at least a title or two that appealed to us, which happens sometimes, suggesting that we shared an interest with the previous owner. This is rarely fiction, which is such a broad category and dependent on specific tastes. We usually tend to look at memoirs, cookbooks, books about farming or gardening, or specific authors or illustrators. Such was the case that evening.
Looking through one box of books, Jeremy stood up with a cloth bound journal in his hands and called me over. It wasn’t particularly old – from the early 1980s – and it had a gilt embossed cover with a plate of a painting of a shepherd and his flock looking out at a sailing ship, a pair of legs sticking up from a splash in the sea in the foreground. Jeremy handed it to me and said, with a bit of wonder, “This woman wrote down every book she read.”
Inside, when I flipped it open, the unlined pages were filled with lists of book titles and authors, arranged by month and year, in a neat hand. Not a few pages; many, many pages. A quick glance showed the dates began in 1981 and ended in 2011, a running record of 30 years of reading. I was immediately fascinated. I don’t recall now if there were any other books of interest in that box; it didn’t matter. I wanted that book, filled with curiosity about what this woman – our immediate presumption, based on the handwriting, right or wrong – had read. It felt intensely personal without being an invasion of privacy. No doubt the writer probably never dreamed anybody else would ever read it, but neither did I imagine she would mind. In any case, somebody was going to take that journal home, and I desperately wanted it to be me. We left what I was fairly confident would be a sufficient bid on that box that night. The next day on my way home from work, I stopped at the auction house and was thrilled to learn that box was ours, as well as others. When I got home with our purchases, we went through the boxes we had won and organized our new items. I put the journal on the side table beside the comfy chair and, as soon as I could, sat down and picked it up.
This woman read a lot, usually 4 or 5 books a month, sometimes more, rarely fewer. As I read through the reading journal I recognized most authors by name, authors I was generally familiar with but have not read. Contemporary authors and authors long gone. Classic authors and mass market authors. Binchy. Holmes. Oke. Wilder. Pilcher. Cather. Strings of titles by the same author, back to back. Religious titles and collections of popular comic strips of the time. I was enthralled. Occasionally she added brief notes, too. The person who gave her the book. A copied quote. And my favorite, a brief – and sometimes brutal – review. In the back of the journal there are a handful of lists. “Famous people I have seen.” “Bible translations I have read.” Copies of a two class poems from the yearbook. And more copied quotes.
Reading this journal captivated me in a way that I hadn’t been by a book before. There was a story in this book without a story. There was a voice in this book without a voice! It was like reading a book made up of only adjectives; each entry was merely a descriptor, a peak at a person without shape or form. A ghost story of the most unusual kind. There were no answers for my questions. Instead there were simply empty spaces between riddles. Why did she hate that book? Calvin and Hobbes? Really? When did she read? In the morning, with coffee, at the kitchen table? At night, in a favorite chair with a cat on her lap? Or multiple cats? Why did she choose books on finance? Was she worried about money? I was intrigued by this woman and I found myself imagining answers to some of my questions, not in any ordinary way but rather piecemeal, as ideas flashed in my head.
Last night as Jeremy and I were sitting in the living room watching PBS (because Downton Abbey, of course,) an announcement aired. A local college has partnered with our local PBS station to sponsor a writing contest. They are seeking short story entries and the winner will receive $500 and have her or his story published locally. Jeremy looked over at me and simply said, “You should enter.” I looked at him, puzzled, and replied, “I don’t have any short stories.” His reply: “So write one.” Nothing more was said, but that statement lingered in the air for a few minutes, and the journal soon came to my mind.
Last night when I went to bed I started thinking about this woman again. I don’t entirely recall the stream of thoughts and visions, but I do recall that at some point it came to me that her name was Helen. No, not the writer of the journal. The woman in my version of this story. Her name is Helen. Helen’s story has been swirling in and out of my head for months now, I realized. Maybe it is time I start writing her story. I don’t know if it will be a short story or a novel, and I don’t know yet who the hell she is, but I know she is a reader and she has a story to tell.