The books were like corpses, the ink of lost dreams dried in their veins. On a bad day, Henry Sullivan felt like a mortician salvaging the moldering flesh of small decaying bodies to be preserved for a proper burial. But on a good day, though there seemed to be fewer of those of late, he might save something which left him giddy.
Henry pulled the second box free from a mat of cat hair and dust beneath the bed, and peeked beneath the lid.
The foul odor of the mattress too close to his face made him swallow the word along with the impulse to gag.
A month before, after lifting the spoiled leaves of disbound volumes abandoned in a basement beneath the seep of a ruined foundation, he had uncovered loose pages sheltered by a collapsed box of empty Croft Ale bottles. Separating the layers until the fetor of mold had made him dizzy, he had salvaged a bundle six inches thick of cream colored rag paper broadsides, announcements, and advertisements, all in French. They had been discarded by a print collector interested only in the engravings originally meant to illustrate the words. And in the heart of that, Henry had found a first printing of The Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen.
Those rare sheets were sold now to the highest bidder, but they were a part of the romance Henry imagined about himself. It was still his belief that long before Foucault and Derrida, when words still offered a common meaning, the world could be changed by the content of a few fragile pages. And this was why Henry Sullivan loved his job.
And this happened every once in awhile, more often to him than others, he thought, because he had a nose for it.
Henry pushed a broom handle into the depths of the crevice below the bed frame. Again he heard the hollow strike on a box.
It had to be done. He lowered himself onto his belly and reached further with his hand. The cardboard lip of the box broke free as he attempted to pull it to him. He lay still then and considered other options as he sipped breath at a small stream of fresh air flowing close to the floor from the wide open window. The drone of cars on the interstate obscured all sound.
Sometimes, flashlight in hand, the breath of mildew could be imagined as the stench of cheap oil burning low over the blackened brass of a lamp. Sure, he had as good an eye for value as any other book dealer, but it was his nose he depended on. Like a good hound, he was drawn by the smell of books, and a rare book seemed to smell that much sweeter to him. Usually his finds were little more than some early work of a once popular author, like the Patricia Wentworth he had snagged at a church rummage sale a couple of weeks before. But just the previous Saturday, he had picked over a yard sale conducted by Harvard graduate students and found a single ex-library volume of bound Harper's magazines from 1852 with the first published portion of Melville's Moby Dick.
What were his options? He could think of no other way.
Henry stood, braced himself, and lifted the wide bed free at one end, wheeling it toward the open space before the door, blocking an easy escape. Dust and odor wafted upward.
The lids of the remaining boxes made him think of small coffins exposed amidst a graveyard of settled refuse. He lifted them carefully one by one to avoid a further stirring of dust as much as to contain the possibility that they would break suddenly under their own weight.
This morning's discovery in Medford, only blocks from Tufts University, was slightly less literary. Here an embankment of three-story houses guarded a patched asphalt trough of road, narrowed further by parked cars and uncollected mounds of trash, all in the shadow of Interstate 93. What once were single-family homes now housed two and three loosely tied human gatherings, but none who cared enough to trim a shattered hedge or paint a rotting sill. It was here, cocooned in the faded green asbestos shingles of a post-World War Two renewal, he had found shoe boxes filled with paperbacks from the late 1940s and early '50s--as new as the day they were bought, read once and stashed away beneath a bed.
How could a human being sleep in the same bed for fifty years? The books beneath the bed and in the closet were the only ones not soaked by the spray of cats who had lived in the house as feral lords over the old fellow who had been found dead the week before. Choked by the smell, Henry wanted to leave from the first moment he entered. He gagged more than once as he pushed at lumps of old clothes with the broomstick he had grabbed from the kitchen below.
Books were stacked everywhere; the too frugal accumulation of years of library sales, yard sales, church sales, and probably curb side pickings. Magazines swam loose from broken bundles over the pilings of book club editions and chunky Readers Digest condensed volumes.
The man's sister was adamant.
"Garbage. What you don't take is goin' in the dumpsta. I think the peoples next door is goin' ta buy the place and tear it down."
She had called Ready Refuse Removal and hired Albert Hamilton to dispose of the junk. Albert had called Henry, as he always did when he found books.
"The place is crawling with books," Albert had said on the phone, leaving out more important detail. Henry had to discover for himself that it was mostly just the cockroaches that moved.
But the only books he could salvage were the ones in the shoe boxes--twenty-four shoe boxes in total--pushed beneath the bed years ago, perhaps forgotten, and thankfully ignored by the cats. The cats, gone now, had once belonged to the man's wife. She had occupied the rest of the small house until she had passed away herself only the previous year.
In the closet of the bedroom, wrapped in plastic grocery bags and scotch taped against the ambient filth, were hundreds of pornographic novels. Henry left those behind. He was not up to the numbing process of checking each title to see if it had been written during the struggling years by some now famous author. Nor was he interested in getting calls from the sleazy types who dealt in that subterranean literary world. Pornography was the paper-thin gratification of a life spent in a room. It was a part of the book trade he could live without.
Henry shifted the mattress back again into its corner and carried his meager find to the open air of the porch to wait. He didn't bother to look more closely at the books for fear of soiling them with his hands. Instead he studied the line of equally broken houses across the street and considered the nature of things from this angle in his life.
Things were not so bad. Not at all. But what was he up to? In the longer run, was something like this really worth it? Perhaps he would be happy with a real job. Then again, maybe not. Probably not. Definitely not.
Junior Hamilton, a white dust mask splayed like a bandage over his dark face, came by again and again with barrel loads of trash headed for the big truck. Usually talkative, Albert's son was silent in his unhappiness. This was not the kind of job even a curious seventeen-year old could appreciate.
Finally, Albert took a break from the stench of the house for lunch and drove Henry home, leaving Junior on the porch with the brown bag of sandwiches Alice had wrapped for them in wax paper. Albert hunched forward as he drove, the black skin of one forearm resting on the steering wheel highlighted by dried sweat. Though Henry was not a small man and only two years younger, sitting beside Albert made him feel like a boy riding with his father.
Henry's idle thoughts about the house made him more than a little sad for the human race, and a dispirited silence had overcome Albert as well. Henry looked for something better to talk about.
"It was the cover art that saved them. The titillation. They're mostly Popular Library editions. With some Dells I think. Odd. He kept them away from the rest because he was probably a connoisseur of Earle Bergey and Rudolph Belarski pulp art. Busty women in lurid color. Beautiful stuff but pitiful to think about in the context."
Albert was unsympathetic to Henry's prudishness. "At least he kept 'em whole. Not like the print collector you told me about who dumped the books in his basement after he razor cut all the pictures out to sell."
This was true. What was the difference between the copper plate engraving of William Hogarth and the four-color process of Earle Bergey, when reduced to the commerce of interior decoration? What was the difference between a street hooker and the call girl who worked the Ritz? The smell?
Still, Henry wondered, could the final value of a lifetime be a bunch of cheap paperbacks? He had to ask, "What's happening to all the furniture? Can it be salvaged and refinished?"
With the big truck stuttering in low gear as it drifted in the midday traffic, Albert let out a long unhappy breath and squinted against the sun. "Sure, I guess. But it's cheap stuff. Machine-made for factory workers a hundred years ago. Looks nice from a distance, but the veneer's peeling up. It's worn out. I made a couple of calls. Bernie got over there pretty quick this morning when he heard you were coming to look at the books. He's still sore--you know?--about you snagging that Morris chair last year. But he told me this stuff is all worthless, and I couldn't find anybody else interested in coming over to salvage it."
Albert would know. Albert could see the value in things. Henry knew there was no need to worry over what couldn't be saved.