I'm ashamed today. I feel too much for one person and it's heavy and I resent it and I want to be different, not me, not ashamed.
I'm wandering town, driving to the dam in the cold gray air, sucking heat from a latté, grinding bread with my teeth. After parking at the dam, where the water and the dark firs increase my isolation, I went to the thrift store. A baby played with the wrong toys and her mother screeched at her. She's fine, I said, when her mother yanked the child from my path, she doesn't know any better. What an innocent, a sweet, may angels protect her, and I paid for an old dictionary and a hymnal and left.
Do I know any better than the baby? What do I know?
I said goodbye to my closest friend last night. He brought his journal and let me read it. When I came to the last page, where he is writing day by day and one by one of his friends and saying goodbye, he came to me: Vera with longing and tears in her eyes.
The man at the Friends of the Library store had sparse gray whiskers, blue eyes radiating stars and a robber's stocking hat—navy blue. It had some small twigs or grass stuck to it. I heard him come in the front door. I was at the reading table in the backroom searching for answers in too many books. Which book has the answer?
He began to bring in boxes of books to donate. Everything, he said to me, was in these boxes, all kinds of books, hunting, Indians, legal problems, if you got one. One for every person, something for everyone is here, and he chortled after every sentence. He's a bookseller. I take care of the community first, he said, go around to all the bookstores in the county and what they won't buy I take to Powell's books in Portland. He laughed. I smiled. They actually buy books from you? (The famous Powells?) Oh yes, delight consumes him, they spend $160-170 each time I go.
He starts to breathe hard with the trips. He's happy, this will get me warm! he says. The cold air is rushing in the back door. His breath—garlic and trees and meat—fills the reading room. He sees me watching again and says, it takes time, but there is a someone who wants exactly this book—he holds a hot pink novel aloft and shakes it—it just has to be in the same place and time as the one who wants it.
Then he pauses, looks up and away, squints back to me, the book to his chest. I sense his excitement. It's just like when you are in the woods, he says, and it's raining hard and your matches are all wet. He pats all of his pockets, coat, pants, vest; the phantom match is elusive. But if you have one dry match—IT ONLY TAKES ONE MATCH—then you can build a fire, he said. You can get warm. Just from one, only one, match.
I begin filming a scene in my mind. My end of the reading table is getting smaller. Ten cases of books now on it's glossy surface, more coming. I pile my five books together, large on bottom, small on top. The film rolls and I see all of the subjects in writing before me, everything a writer could write about:
how-to's history memoir poetry mainstream novel genre novel literary novel western mystery true crime biography Harlequin business letters spiritual self-help personal letters blogs devotional romance instructions textbooks journals fantasy sci-fi children's cooking depression
All the subjects I see in my film are in the form of books. An overwhelming pile of books. I pat my pockets, jeans, sweatshirt, coat. All of my matches are wet save one. I light it, hold it to the edge of an old book about friendship in yesterday. The smoke billows and the books are afire. Slowly they burn to ashes.
Then I sift through the warm ashes and they crumble in my fingers, softly nestle in my palms. I look for it, the one with the answer. Ah, there it is. It's silvery and light and intricate, frail. But then a breeze comes in the back door and takes it away, up in the air across the tops of trees and mountains, maybe to the sea, maybe to the stars. And it's gone. I don't know any better than I did before.