It takes up an intimidating part of my house. On every floor, there are at least three bookcases. Here in my office, there are five. In the livingroom, three. In the guest room, three. Upstairs, in the bedroom, three. They are big book cases, tall, and stuffed full. Some are packed several layers deep. Some of the books are mine, some are books I’ve never read, as they belong to other members of the family. Some seem to have simply appeared there. I’ll pull something strange from the shelf, read it and ask, “Whose is this? This is a really cool story.”
And sometimes, no one seems to know. The book has just appeared there.
I like that.
Some of the books are just visitors here. They belong to offspring who are coming, or going, or in apartments too small to house their books. Then the books come home here, to be freed from the cardboard boxes and squeezed onto the shelves. There they hide, they wander, they inter breed with the existing genres. Sometimes they wander off to vist friends’ houses. Some never come back. Some have lived here so long that they’ve forgotten who they orginally belonged to.
And some of them have secrets.
Take, for example, the Norton Anthology of Short Fiction. I pulled it from the shelf a few nights ago, intending to look up a quotation from a half remembered short story. The book fell open in my hands, to “A Visit to Friends’ by Anton Chekov.
And a handful of pornographic images, between nine and a dozen, cascaded out on the floor. They’d been there for some time and had made a little nest for themselves there, a little widening in the binding, so that the book would naturally fall open to that story and free them.
I stooped and gathered them up, caught between embarrassment, horror and fascination. I realized I was hurrying, fearful that someone would come into the livingroom and find me on my knees, gathering up pornography. And assume it was mine? Of course not! But all the same, I worked quickly to corral them. What were they doing in the anthology anyway? Where had they come from? None were larger than my hand. All had been carefully cut from magazines. Two were not pornographic; they were just images of women in wildly striped designer outfits. One was a drawing of one woman spanking another’s bare bottom, so dated as to look like parody. Of the others, some were magazine art and some were photographs. Most were black and white. A few were not even on glossy paper. Some were mild, and some were outright crotch shots. Disturbingly, in the crotch shots, someone had enhanced the vaginal area by carefully coloring it with a pen or pencil, as if to delineate exactly what was most important in the picture.
There is one other item, a 3X5 card with a note about Saturday Night, 3:00 and Clark’s Studio Theatre and the 7th Floor. A scribbled reference to Julliard.
The last one is a photograph. A woman is sitting in a classroom desk. The shot shows only her legs and feet under the desk. She is wearing a short skirt and her legs are slightly open, but nothing really shows. But again, a pen has busily scratched into the darkness beneath the skirt, as if to draw what the camera could not glimpse. On the back of the photo, a small note has been taped to it. It says, “I’m so hot it burns. John, how would you put out my fire?”
I feel vaguely ashamed after reading this. I am leafing through someone’s private memory, or seduction, or something. I look in the front of the book. It belongs to my older daughter, probably from her college days. But she bought it used. The previous owner thought enough of himself and/or his books that he has used a stamp to emboss his name and initials on a seal on the first page of the book. His first name is not John. I suspect he was the first owner, to take the time to stamp his name in the book. But obviously, he is not the last.
I am curious enough to google his name. Is he a photographer, an artist, an actor, a porn star? No. He is Noone, according to Google.
I put the images and note into a plastic baggie. The next time I see my daughter, I ask her if they are hers. She is outraged, horrified, scandalized and laughing hysterically, all within less than a minute. No. She has never seen them before. No, the 3X5 card is not hers. It’s not her handwriting, and she’s never dated a ‘John’. Those aren’t her legs under the desk, either.
So. It’s a mystery, a small one. Sometime in the late 70’s or early 80’s, someone cut out porn pictures for her boyfriend and somehow they were left inside someone else’s book at the used book store. Maybe. That is one possible reading of the evidence.
I start to throw the pictures away, and then cannot. Why? Because they are a part of a puzzle. Because they are a bit cut out of time just as neatly as the pictures were razored out of the dirty magazines. Taken together, they once meant something to someone.
I test my impulse against my daughter’s sympathies. “Toss them out,” I suggest to her. “I don’t want the kids to encounter that when they’re looking for a copy of “An Occurrence At Owl Creek Bridge.””
She takes them, holds them in her hands and looks puzzled for a minute. “Are we just going to throw them away?”
I let the question hang there, the ‘why not?’ or ‘what else would we do with them?’ unsaid.
“Because it just doesn’t seem right . . .”
But neither of us can say what should happen to them.
So tonight, at my desk, I put them into a plastic sandwich bag as if I were bagging and tagging an artifact from a dig. What were these? Somebody’s fantasy, somebody’s seduction? They are a paper incarnation of someone’s collegiate lust, perhaps. An unintentional message in a bottle that has bobbed quietly along in the backwater of a short story anthology for perhaps a quarter of a century.
Where are you now, John? Did you ever figure out how to put out that fire? Would these scraps of paper warm you with the memory? Or would the girl sitting at the desk cringe at the words she wrote? Is she someone’s mom now, someone’s grandmother?
I put the plastic bag of porno carefully into the back of my desk drawer.
I will not go to the used book store tomorrow and find another resting place for them. I will not choose a large, expensive and obscure book and hide them there. I will not release this little mystery back into the current for someone else to encounter 25 or 30 or even 50 years from now.
No. Not I.
Not my dirty pictures.