Waiting for the Back Flip: A Story
Matt kept the books apart on a special shelf in his writing room. It was hard to say which one he valued the most. There was the copy of On the Road. He didn’t know if it was a first edition, but he’d found it down in his grandmother’s basement, so he figured his mother must have bought it and even though it didn’t have First Edition imprinted on the nameplate, he was pretty sure that it was one. There was the copy of The Sky Never Changes that he knew was a first edition. The fact that it was a first had made him pay attention to the author, Gilbert Sorrentino, and Matt felt pretty confident that he appreciated Sorrentino as a writer for more reasons than that he had one of his first editions. Then there was the James Stephen’s book, and an old copy of Ulysses that was probably rare, and the collected set of Thoreau’s writing, missing only Walden.
There were two books that he cared about more than the others: two hardback copies of Dashiell Hammett novels. They both were printed during wartime. The paper was yellowed and brittle. Matt had bought them from Jim when he was in college. Jim ran a little shop in the basement of the university library. This was where the remaindered books were sold off. Jim talked a lot about how many rare books were deaccessioned by the library; in his apartment — eventually, Matt and Jim lived together for a couple of years — Jim had hundreds of first editions of 19th century and early 20th century natural science books. He knew that Matt liked Hammett and held the two books aside for him. One of the books was really rare, according to Jim, because of uncorrected typographical errors on several pages.
When Matt got out of college and he started to write seriously, he put his small collection of somewhat rare books right by his desk in his railroad apartment. He believed that the row of volumes was the beginning of a collection that he would add to and build over the following decades. He could imagine his writing space when he was in his 50’s filled with the first printings of books that he loved.
That first year out of school, Matt didn’t add much to the collection unless Jim gave him a book as a gift. Every dollar from his part-time job was allocated to life necessities and the time that he wasn’t working, he was at his writing desk, or walking the dog to clear his mind, or helping his girlfriend with her post-graduate reading in physical anthropology, which Matt didn’t know much about, but he wanted to be as helpful as he could.
The next few years were all about the bits and pieces of life. After Matt finished his collection of short stories and wrote his novel, he took a full-time job teaching English and then fell in love and got married. He and Lily moved out to a remote corner of the city and got a car so they could commute back and forth to their school, and in the process the places that Matt went narrowed down, until life was about going to school, parking the car, making dinner and navigating what had turned out to be the very treacherous shoals of a volatile marriage.
Matt had always had a mixture of ambition, envy and faith that helped him find purpose in his life but kept him from thinking he was as good as most other people. He wanted to be a writer who made a difference somehow, he was intimidated by the people who seemed to him to move through life with an effective confidence and he believed in the redemptive power of the soul. When he went to church, he was praying to find meaning in the world around him, to stop making nasty judgments about the people around him and to believe in the world that was right in front of him.
Matt’s wife Lily was entitled, that was the long and the short of it, and so when she made judgments about people she was spot on right, when she wanted something other people had, she deserved it, and if she couldn’t get the things that she wanted she had no qualms about resorting to temper tantrums, invectives and accusations that made Matt feel like he was a pretty useless person, until he began to feel like Lily was a pretty awful wife.
They’d moved away from the city so Lily could go teach at a prominent girl’s boarding school, and then had moved back to the city so that Matt could take on more responsibility at the publishing company that he had found work at. Each time they moved they acquired something — a car, more debt, a child — and by the time that Matt was turning 30, the weight of everything that he had gathered was like the multiple tons of bricks that the big meatheads would pull behind them while they raced each other on one of the epic tests of strengths that the sports network would run in between football and basketball seasons.
Finally, one night Matt sat in his writing room and worked on the family finances. The Internal Revenue Service was garnishing his pay for back taxes. The rent on the cottage was late. The oil company was only delivering fuel because he had an infant in the house. Credit card collection agents left increasingly prickly message on the machine.
He had thought about taking a second job, but the nature of his work at the publishing company, where he had been promoted again, meant that he had to work irregular hours and couldn’t make a commitment to another job. He had tried writing some freelance articles, but had been paid very little. And, he had tried to sell his novel with no success. He had gotten a couple of form letters back, and one agent had scribbled a hand-written note, but the miracle that he had prayed for during the children’s service at the episcopal church wasn’t about to happen. His life wasn’t going to do a magical backflip, spring him out of the tangled net of debt and back bills and plant him squarely in the center of the writing life he had always thought he would have, a writing life that gave him hours to think, compose, tell stories, find meaning, make the kind of world that captivated and enlightened the readers.
Finally, after all those years, he decided to sell his rare books.
He took them down from the shelf and put them in two milk crates one at a time. When he was done he estimated that he could get $1000 for the books: that would help them get through the next two months and then he could try to work out some other way to close the gap between what they had and what they owed.
At first he left two books on the shelf: the Kerouac and the Sorrentino. They were both books that his mother had when she was young and he didn’t want to part with them. After a few moments thought, he pushed them in beside the other books. He needed the money and everything needed to go.
He knew there was a antique and rare book store in a town nearby next to the macrobiotic restaurant that Lily liked so much. He had gone in one time before but had felt unprepared and bashful when the owner had asked whether he was looking for anything in particular. This was an odd feeling, to be a grown man, with a family and debts and a job, and be awkward about walking into the kind of bookstore where he had spent countless hours as a college student, talking about books and life and what made people feel joy.
He’d felt good at that, sitting around and talking, back then. He didn’t feel good at this, being an adult, making his way in the world, competing against others who were more prepared for a life of objects and accomplishments.
The milk crates sat in the back of his car for a few days. Finally on a Saturday morning, he took them into the bookstore. No matter how little he wanted to sell the books, he needed the money. There were no two ways about it
The two crates were heavy and made him out of breath. He put them down on the floor in front of the wooden owner’s desk at the back of the store.
“I’ve got some books I’d like to sell,” he said to the old man.
The man came around the desk and picked through the collection. He pulled one of the Thoreau’s out
“I’m missing Walden in that set. I’ve got an old set of Robert Louis Stevenson too that I could bring in.”
The man nodded abstractedly. He picked out the Sorrentino and peered at the flyleaf.
“I’ll give you $75 for the lot,” he said.
Matt didn’t know that he’d heard right, but he didn’t want to ask the man to repeat himself.
The man looked across at him.
“You’ve got a couple of decent books and the rest I don’t think I can sell, but for the whole lot I can give you $75. That’s it.”
Matt took the Hammett’s out of the crate.
“Even for these?” he asked.
“Those are war production editions. They are going to fall apart soon. You didn’t take proper care of them. I could sell each one for $15, max.”
“OK, thanks,” Matt said. “I’ll keep them then.”
He picked up the two crates and carried them back to his truck.
As he drove back to his house, Matt was struck by how at sea he was. The things that he thought had value had none, and the things that other people valued he didn’t know how to manage. He was caught in a loop that he didn’t understand how to end. He didn’t know what he would say to Lily then, about the bills, about how they could get some money, about what they were going to do.
He wasn’t going to tell her about trying to sell the books. If she knew that they had no value, she would do something spiteful to them. He would put them back up on the shelf and pretend that nothing had happened.