by JIM KNIPFEL
November 29, 2015
I was dragging a bag of damp trash out to one of the cans in front of the building when someone asked, “These your books?”
“I guess they are, yeah. Yours now if you want ‘em.”
There was a brief pause as the stranger, who sounded to be in his late thirties or early forties, but in any case definitely a product of the neighborhood, scanned the contents of the box I’d left on the sidewalk earlier that morning. Then he asked, “What the fuck is this?”
“Um., maybe you should tell me.”
He did, then added, “What are you, fuckin’ sick?”
That seems to be the general muttonhead reaction these days—anything they cannot fathom is stupid and wrong and quite possibly evil.
Maybe I should have expected something like this. Question now was, where do I head with an opening like that? When I was a younger man, I would have gleefully confirmed this man’s darkest assumptions about me just for fun. Now that I’m older and blinder and can’t run nearly as fast as I used to, I instead took pity on his lack of scope and his angry response to things he simply could not grasp. What’s more, I didn’t want Morgan to come home from work to find an angry mob armed with pitchforks and torches gathered outside the house, chanting things no one could understand.
“Well, hm,” I said. “Let me try to explain.” I had no idea where I was about to go with this, but figured I’d wing it. He seemed pretty anxious for a logical explanation of some kind. I could understand that. Back when I could see I took sick pleasure in perusing the boxes of discarded books people left out on the sidewalk, piecing together a generally sad portrait of their previous owners’ lives and outlooks. Better to nip this one in the bud, considering some of the titles he’d just read aloud. I’m just glad I had the cane with me. The cane always seems to help my cause.
“See, I’ve been a writer and reporter for about thirty years now,” I told him. “Time was every free inch of wall space in my apartment was filled with bookshelves. This was before the internet, right?”
“Look, buddy,” he snapped. “I don’t want your fuckin’ life story—I just want you to tell me what the fuck this is all about.”
“I’m getting to that. Just hear me out. So this was before the internet, right? Like I was saying. So I needed a lot of research materials handy. I had thousands of books about anything you like—criminology, anthropology, religion, history, politics, medicine, philosophy, everything, right? Like I said, I was writing about a lot of different things, so I had to learn about them before I could write about them. See what I mean? I like to get my facts straight.”
Much to my amazement, he’d yet to punch me or angrily stomp away to begin rounding up a lynch mob. It was encouragement enough to keep rolling, though I was still making a point of keeping the waist-high wrought-iron fence between him and me.
“Well, then I went blind, and then I had to move. The books were of no real use to me anymore at that point, so I gave away a bunch to friends who were interested, and boxed up the rest. Next place I lived I was flooded four times, and lost about two-thirds of those boxes. Then I moved again, up to the second floor here.” I jerked a thumb over my shoulder to make the point. “The boxes that were left filled a big closet. Sat there for a couple years just gathering dust, and a couple weeks ago my wife and I started talking about it. They did me no good anymore. I couldn’t read them. It was just wasted space. So we decided it’d be easier to just drag them out to the sidewalk bit by bit, let anyone who wanted them have them. I’d rather they be in the hands of someone who wants them.”
I cut him off and kept talking, a little faster now knowing it best I wrap this up quickly.
“So I’ve written about some terrible things and terrible people over the years, see? Some really despicable things. Awful shit. But like I said I wanted to understand them a little better before I spouted off about them, right? Started making assumptions and jumping to conclusions like most people. Now, I had the shelves in the library arranged by theme, see? Just made more sense that way. So when I boxed things up, a lot of books about the same thing ended up in the same box, right? So there was a box of psychology, and a box of books about Greece and Rome, and another full of true crime books. I have no idea what I have left anymore after the floods. Never bothered to look. So I had no idea what I was dragging down here, right? Just getting it out of the closet and dropping it on the sidewalk. For all I knew it was a bunch of outdated medical books from the forties or books about gangsters—wrote a bit about the Mob some years back.” I thought he might like that, from the sound of him.
“Anyway, maybe that helps explain why I put out a box filled with books about Satan and Nazis. I’ve written a lot about the neo-Nazi movement around the world over the years, Holocaust deniers and that sort of thing, and I’ve written a lot about Satanism. Needed to do the research, so I needed the books so there you go. Don’t need them anymore, so I’m throwing them out.”
Much to my amazement, he actually seemed to buy that load of steaming folderol, and went on his way without striking me or calling in Homeland Security. Dumb bastard even shook my hand and thanked me for explaining it to him. Nevertheless after he left I returned upstairs, grabbed another armload of books from one of the remaining boxes, and carried them back outside to mix in with the others in a cheap attempt to dilute the “Satan-Nazi” density just a bit.
Here’s the ironic thing. Three hours later when I went back downstairs to drag the trash cans out to the curb, the whole damn box was gone. Someone had come along and scooped it all up, I’m assuming one of the block’s closeted Nazi Satanists. Two days later I put out two more boxes, but these were filled with the complete works of Oscar Wilde, e.e. cummings, T. S. Eliot, Lewis Carrol, H. G. Wells, along with works by Hamsun and Lowry, James Baldwin, Sherwood Anderson, Dylan Thomas, W. H. Auden and the complete Sherlock Holmes stories. And no one touched a thing.
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