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Every week I volunteer at an organization that sorts through donated books and decides what's salvagable in used book sales to benefit the public library, and what can be recycled. We open boxes of donations, never knowing what will be inside, and then begin sorting. Usually it's stacks upon stacks of ex-library Danielle Steele, Clive Cussler, and Tom Clancy, the airbrushed faces multiplying as they stare out at me from the blue boxes. But there are some real treasures in those boxes, too. We get first dibs on the books before they go on the shelf, a good exercise in restraint knowing I can't buy every single book that passes through my fingers. 

Last night, I was especially lucky, and especially weak. Some I didn't buy: an old set of Salinger books (The Catcher In The Rye with its original dustjacket, a first edition of Raise High the Roof Beam) and first edition of Daniel Moore's Dawn Visions, put in pride of place on the "rare" shelf in the warehouse. I did buy a few titles, though at bargain prices: The Next Whole Earth Catalog, with its instructions for what to do with roadkill and how to make musical instruments and the best punk zines. Seymour Krim's The Beats, John Gruen's The New Bohemians, and a 1962 issue of the Evergreen Review with an introduction from and review of Naked Lunch just before it was published in the States for the first time. (Also, in a strange moment of prescience, one of the volunteers nearly recycled Where The Wild Things Are [it was an old, beat-up ex-library copy] before another volunteer removed it from the bin and handed it back to him, saying "THIS is a CLASSIC." Rest in peace, Mr. Sendak. Your books will find their rightful place under our watch.)

But the most precious to me are the bits of ephemera we find in the books. Little slips of paper used as bookmarks: a letter written in French from daughter to father, a negative of a religious ceremony, an old receipt from The Rollman & Sons Co. for two dollars and fifty-three cents (May 16, year unknown, though definitely pre-1960, when the store closed), a photograph of a suburban house. Last night, I even found a handwritten poem. 

The consensus among the volunteers was that it was written by a teenager, taped inside his or her (though the handwriting suggests it was a female) copy of James Joyce's Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. Written in ballpoint pen on a sheet of paper ripped from a stenopad. Maybe by a young girl who'd just read The Colossus and figured herself a Sylvia Plath. Maybe by someone who was trying to talk herself out of something; maybe even by someone who lost someone herself. The poem isn't anything special, the stuff of teenage journals, but it seems to go with the "angry at death" theme I can't seem to escape here, and so I thought I might share it with you. 

Lines For One About To Turn On The Gas

Death is so definite.
What I don't like about Death is
You can't change your mind.
Suppose you drank a great drink
And took so many sleeping pills
And lay down with your head on a pillow
On the kitchen floor;
Having turned on all five jets
Which after all would be an efficient
And comparatively tidy exit.
Then suppose just as you crossed the line between
Here + There
The telephone rang.
Someone caling to say:
"Darling, I am sorry — "
Or: "Your Grandmother's will just probated —
You inherit five hundred thousand."
Or even: "Will you come in for cocktails Sunday?"
Life might then seem lovely.
Might then seem desirable.
Life is like that.
And there you would be — out of reach.
No more moons.
No more late spring. However late it comes.
Spring is still a miracle.
There you would be, quiet + cold + stiff...
Ready for the mortician.
What is there underground so good as what's over it?
Do you like moles + worms + black beetles
Better than apple blossoms + cider?
Do you like a mouth stopped with clay
Better than singing — even if off-key?
Think of all the ways out you haven't yet tried.
Death is so definite.
What I don't like about Death is
You can't change your mind.
Never to have another chance...?
God — not yet!

Anonymous, 4/13/61 

Dark, I know; forgive me. But it was either this, or the mimeographed copy of a science class handout titled "Investigating the Excretory Structures of a Fish." (Would you expect the arrangement of tubules for the removal of nitrogen wastes in humans to be more like that of a fish or of the earthworm? Explain.)

I like to think that someone asked her in for cocktails on Sunday. Or she called her darling to say she was sorry. Or, heck, she started reading Daniel Moore, moved to a commune, and learned how to make musical instruments from a book she ordered out of The Whole Earth Catalog. However her story ended, wouldn't the precious time I spend coming up with endings to other people's stories — apple blossoms? or black beetles? — surely be better spent working on the material for the middle of mine?

Oh poo on this endless navel-directed philosophizing. Should have just posted the durned fish shit handout.

(Previously: Executive's Data Book, 1964)

© Zan McQuade. All rights reserved.

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