The Trouble With Books
It was the books that were the problem. They’d grown in number and they’d grown in weight, and it’d been maybe not totally sensible to just keep buying them but you never think you’re going to leave, not really, because why would you? Because who would, because what would be the point, because what could go wrong. It’d always been a problem for some future Allison, some poor creature uprooted from home and burdened with literature. Well, the creature had arrived, arrived and transmuted, like a wafer in a church, into this Allison, sweating in the living room with the time running out.
But at least she’d gotten through them, leaving only everything else. It was better, but still so much to do. A good start, her mother might’ve said, those three happily little words that could cast away with slippery ease hours of childhood endeavors towards a clean room. How long ago that’d been, just to get back to the same destination, cleaning hurriedly with little élan. Helped by the clinging light of the receding day, Allison took in the room. Half emptied and half lit in the fading California winter. Gutted. Exposed. Disemboweled. Rendered only partially navigable by dragged furniture and endless boxes. Acres of cardboard, mountains of cardboard, fields and valleys and old-growth-forests-worth of cardboard, scratched by corner and marked by pen. Living Room. Bedroom. Memories. Etc. In the space where she used to sit, reading in the mornings and leaning her body to follow the sun’s mounting progress, dust had gathered and the flooring was scuffed. All those Allisons with all those books laid out on top of each other like stacked negatives in a forgotten dark room. It was all wood, the floors, worn by time and unknown persons, people who’d done this all before, this change-and-rebirth, this shedding of skin and of past, this moving on. Wood with a shared ancestor to the wood that’d been her boxes, long ago in quiet groves of hidden calm.
She checked her watch for the time, the alarm clock unplugged and her phone god knows where. She’d evidently accumulated quite the step count. On her forearm, glistened with sweat and marked by dust, was a neat little slice into otherwise perfectly fine skin, coagulating red to brown and left by some devious furniture lashing out against upheaval. Who knew. Only an hour to go.
In the kitchen she leaned over the stubborn flap of a U-Haul Xtra Large to fill a milk glass at the tap. 24”x18”x24”. So many years could be packed and padded into precisely six-point-zero cubic feet. The water came out in fits and starts, sputtering and gushing and tapering off, splashing hard against the deep porcelain wells, once a color like white and now a color like wine. It darkened her shirt, West Chicago Class of 2009, and it left drops on the cabinet above the cutting board, running on an angle from when Sarah had wrenched loose its hinges, days or years before. Allison, for only the fiftieth or sixtieth time, tried to un-wrench (re-wrench?) the door back to flush, or some approximation thereof, a last gasp towards whatever fraction of the security deposit it may represent. Pointless, always and tempting, always.
She slid bare feet around exposed nail at threshold of the kitchen and skipped back to the living room. There was so much left to do even as there was so much already done. It’d been madness, naturally, to plan on today as time enough to do it all, as if today, when viewed from a suitably distant point in the calendar, held heretofore undiscovered properties of temporal expansion and Allisonian motivation. She watched and she felt the water on her shirt expand and darken and dry. Her school’s mascot was now more sinister hawk than friendly owl, features undefined and expression shaded. Her skin beneath stuck to damp cotton like an arresting dream, one that lingers in the mind through lunch. She plucked at the shirt and pulled herself awake.
The boxes had to go, that was the main thing. They were doubly problematic, both in and of themselves and as impediments to movement or progress or thought. Allison pulled from strained back pocket of stained black jeans her tape, yards and yards of tape, and advanced on Bedroom with adhesive intent. She smacked the neatly cut end far down one side and ripped up in one fluid motion, achieving something like a straight line placed more or less over the center. Inside darkness fell on her lamp, on the innards of her dresser drawer and on the pile of books that’d found themselves bedside when the great migration began. She stuffed her best pillow down down down beneath the flaps and finished the first strip. The sharp teeth like ruthless beasts tore away the tape from the roller and there it was, she’d packed up a box. Only dozens to go.
It was hard to believe she was leaving, had left, was nearly gone. But that was the way things were. You had to move on, to get going, to leave it all behind. You had to find the things that mattered from all those days and nights overlaid across the floor and spilled out across the years, take them and pack them up in the endless boxes and take them on, leave all the rest behind, all the nonsense and the misremembered and the miscalculated and the mislaid. It became too much, otherwise, over time, to bring with. The light had slipped another inch lower in the window and there was still work left to do.
With the sounds of Mozart and the scent of fish came her neighbor’s evening routine, wafting in unison through the screen door and around an Allison bent double over Miscellanea. How clever she was, in her labeling.
There was a sensation like hunger for which she had little time and no remedy, so she pushed it down like so many t shirts and slapped down a side. She’d perhaps miss it, months from now, before nostalgia gave way to amnesia, the identical routine played out every day across the hall. She’d heard the Requiem and smelled the salmon with Ted the day she’d moved in, and with Sarah the day she’d left, while working and while not working and while pretending to work, while drunk and hungover and high. It was some modern day church bell, ringing out from the town square of apartment complex to mark the hours racing by.
After her miscellany Bedroom and Bathroom went down quietly, Allison in a rhythm with the haunting screech of tape and the acquiescent thud of flap. She aimed and she shoved, boxes lining up around the door like anxious commuters on the morning train. Nearly three, was it?, years ago now, Ted had traipsed through the same spot with boxes of pizza and boxes of beer to celebrate that first real success, that big break, that sure sign of things to come. Allison wiped her brow with her shirt and let the nearly evening air whisper sweet nothings to the skin of her stomach. Things looked so different from changing points of view.
Behind the door in the corner where drunken Tom, wild and dancing, had broken the cabinet and cracked the TV stood the hand truck, bruised and battered from endless rentals. Allison wheeled and wrangled it towards the door. The plastic covers on the handles where shells of their former selves, worn at the grooves and cracked at the tips, slots for her fingers nothing but cold steel and little traction. With sweat dropping like rain and her heart coming along like an old car up an ancient mountain, Allison stacked and sorted two dollar boxes filled with four years of life, piling them one on the other and the other on the truck. The screen door took its usual one full minute to close behind her with boxes and Tom with boxes and Sarah with only a bag.
Outside and down down down the crumbing steps the borrowed pick-up with expired plates sat at the curb, illegally parked and open to moving. Her neighbor was surely watching her fluid form, serenading his salmon sonata with his endlessly wandering eye, but hell with him. Allison piled the boxes around the books in the bed and in the back and turned back to go inside, slapping her hands together and giving an obvious look towards the obvious looks.
In the living room it was nearly over, a decanter to carry and a bedroom to check. Three years running they’d cleared the room out for New Years’ Eve, the tripletted parties swirling around her as Allison uncovered her phone from the counter and checked the time. There were ten minutes to go as the broken TV and the replacement TV showed countdowns of new years now old and Allison checked the corners another time. It was all empty of life and filled with life and it all depended on which way you looked.
Down the narrow hallway there was steam from all those showers, scalding and endless, Sarah would take, singing terribly over the pulse of her wireless speaker, as Allison made a final sweep of empty rooms. To the right in her studio the empty closet and barren walls were filled with all those notes, papers and cards and journal and letters, taped haphazardly above the desk and around the bookshelves and on the sliding doors of the nearly-walk-in. What was there to see, besides a few ideas stung together on a document in a virtual cloud and a pile of digital rejections neatly stacked in pitiless pixel? Allison ran her hands, calloused from furniture and cracked from wind, over the smooth paint of the quiet room, watching herself pace and sit and stand and stare and think think think. Watching Allisons of stale summer months fighting with the overhead fan, Allisons of drafting winter nights type in sweaters and write in scarves. In the corner leaned an entry-level easel when she thought taking up a new pursuit might further the old while in the corner stood a rolling bar when she’d given it all up and turned to the drink. Sarah rested a shoulder against the doorway, relating bad dates and cryptic messages while Sarah walked in wrapped in towels amongst steam and song. Allison stood in the frame staring at her work while Allison slammed the door pointedly to never have to see it again. The light in the room was gone, and the window already closed.
She stuck her head in the bathroom, cleaned and emptied for a day because she didn’t, evidently, completely hate her once and future self. Along the hall the oversized cabinets were empty, doors propped open and shelves askew. What did it matter, in the end, what was left or what was taken? It was all important for a day or a week or a month before other things with little meaning came and shoved the thoughts aside. In the master bedroom, the size of a modest garage in a Midwestern suburb, Allison flipped on the light and watched the walls flash from yellow to gold. The floor was darker where her bed had been. The memories were darker where her bed had been. She peered somewhat cautiously behind the door and found nothing horrid, only receipts for late-night liquor runs and a notecard urging her to Keep Calm and Write On. Hilarious, she’d been.The tape on the back was filled with dust and hair and flecks of wallpaper from shades before.
Out the window over the Pompeiian remains of a desk Allison sat with friends and boyfriends and girlfriends and neighbors and, once, her parents in the abandoned patio with rusted chairs and wobbling table. In the spring they grilled and in the summer they’d grown tired of the novelty and sat around looking at nothing but the bedroom window through which Allison looked and thought and looked and talked and looked and argued cried laughed drank wondered. In the courtyard Sarah met her parents and Tom met her parents and the neighbors came for a drink and a smoke and Allison sat alone and Allison sat with close friends and with loose acquaintances and with lost delivery men, taking a break and checking the map. Through the window in room was empty and the room was painted, it was full of books and full of papers, it had a bed in the center and a bed in the corner and there were three bookshelves and there were four bookshelves and there were six and the desk was gone and the desk was replaced and there was another desk hauled in off the street and there was music playing and there were people milling and there was no one there and there was Allison, sitting in the breaking light of day and in the falling light of evening and talking on the phone to friends about lovers and talking in the flesh to lovers about friends and Allison reading terrible words in overrated books and Allison reading marvelous words in obscure journals and Allison reading painful lines written by Allison and shared with no one at all.
In the bedroom with the light coming down and the clock almost gone and the boxes on the truck and the living room bare and the dust on the floors Allison took a look and she’d lived so much of her life there it seemed impossible, really, that there wasn’t more of it left to see.
Her phone said no one had called but that the time was up and the hour past. She switched off the light and half latched the door and back down the hallway and out in the front there was nothing left but all those yesterdays she’d spent giving generous portions of her life to others splayed out like cadavers on cold tables. She’d be gone in a moment and in a month there’d be others and in a year others more and soon enough no one would remember that no one could remember all the time she’d spent in the fading light on the fading wood and wasn’t it funny how the mind clung to spaces and scents and sounds because it was all so real, a song rewound countless times. She picked up her decanter and pulled the cord on the fan. What had it gotten her besides bruised memories and calloused hands?
Allison pulled firm the door and latched tight the key and avoided again the crumbling step and by the time the screen had rattled closed the taillights of her rented truck were no longer visible to her watchful neighbor, finishing his fish and changing the record.
D.W. White (he/his) received his M.F.A. from Otis College. He serves as Founding Editor for L’Esprit Literary Review and Fiction Editor for West Trade Review, His writing appears The Florida Review, The Los Angeles Review, Necessary Fiction, and elsewhere. He lives in Long Beach, California and is on Twitter @dwhitethewriter.