The house down the street is being picked apart, bone by bone, object by object. It belonged to someone elderly and insane — she kept her old Victrola and about a thousand jelly jars, rugs and sketches and a kitchen stove that could only be used by a time-traveling pioneer. I followed the signs and walked in there with Kerpowski one Saturday. We’d just started dating; it seemed a quirky excursion — and the Victrola was spinning, some hipster hunched over it like a DJ. We stepped over piles of objects, encased in dust. Weeks later, there is a perpetual estate sale. The daughter of this woman is there almost every day, hauling new things to the curb. When I walk by it smells of musty paper — strong as opening an old encyclopedia even twenty feet away. A row of hand-carved chairs sits on the lawn for a ghost audience to watch the proceedings.
The house itself is crumbling like old newsprint; paint peels, shingles shed onto the lawn.
I can’t imagine owning that much stuff. I used to have stuff. And then everything scattered. I boxed it, moved it, unpacked some things but not most. There’s a skeleton in every box now. They’ve been gestating. I know it — growing bone by bone and waiting to pop out of each box first so that they can be first to see the performance, seated in lyre-backed chairs. The Grand Unpacking.
Yesterday my roommates and Eliina helped me fetch the last of my belongings from storage — my books. At last, something for the shelves.
In the bar one night, the Turkish girl — Kerpowski’s ex, counter-intuitively my insta-pal– yelled into my ear. She was visiting from Istanbul. I wanted to hear all of her stories. It was one a.m. and we’d finished off the sweet potato fries. “In Turkey there’s two things we never throw out,” she shouted and handed me another rum and Coke.
I wonder how many books are hidden in the old paper house, and how many were read and loved, and how many will pass into new hands, for fifty cents, and how many will go back to dust. I wonder about the elderly woman’s daughter, and how many particles of her family’s past she inhales every day. It’s becoming part of her. I wonder whether she’s taking anything back to her own home. Maybe she can’t stand to look at anything. Maybe it’s all skeletons, sleeping and waking under the tinder.
The Turkish girl’s question seemed like a riddle, a koan. Tortoises or teakettles or tin whistles or trout.
Out of everything I left when I moved last year, books were the hardest. Other than people. People, then books. I felt naked in my new city. No one could look at my shelves and know who I was. The book stores in Phnom Penh are full of great paperbacks, photocopied and bound like new books. They are the clones of books left by intellectual backpackers and NGO workers. I immediately started shopping.
But my own books, now, feel right. Comfy. They are the same, too. Awake and fine, totally undramatic in their homecoming.
I’m shouting back at the Turkish girl. This bar is so loud.
“Two things you never throw out? Ok, what are they?”
She raised her glass. I leaned in more. “Books,” she said, “and friends.”