Exhausted and desperate for a change of mental location, I find myself mid-weekend pawing among the boxes of ancient hardbacks that have already found their own way out of the great stack of storage boxes, half a dozen now toppling onto the living room floor. For the time being I lack access to books. They have yet to be unpacked from temporary storage.
Yes, it is true: I still haven’t purchased an electronic reading device. And, retrogressive even as time and media advance, here I am, assembling ever more new shelves to accommodate growing numbers of paperbound ideas.
I remain an analog creature struggling, with limited success, to survive a digital world.
This does not matter to two kittens now designated as Freddy and Rayon. They are in bliss. I discovered the pair, apparently abandoned, beneath my house a week or so ago. They are ecstatic and celebrating no longer being locked in a bathroom. I had sequestered them there temporarily until they learned the hygienic function of a litter box. Released, they have claimed this cardboard-box Mount Everest as their private plaything, and the stairs their constant challenge. Two furry demons flash through the house at unrestrained speed, knocking over whatever dares stand in their paths, and hissing wildly at whatever unresponsive objects they cannot dominate.
Long-haired and solidly white Rayon occasionally gets too excited and goes into one of the wheezing fits that are the result of his early pulmonary infection. I have been giving him twice-daily medication the past five days to clear it up, but even this malady only slows the action momentarily, and as soon as he rattles out the last deep cough that signals the end of his spell, he is instantly back on the run with his brother. Orange tabby Freddy came to me with only one eye, and that infected, but the vet says he is stable now and can see just fine. Neither kitten’s infirmity puts the slightest dent in their capacity for happy mayhem.
I am glad for the companionship. It is night and the house totally quiet. Except for the cat circus, all I can hear are the low moans of foghorns on the river three blocks away. I, always protesting too much company, am for some reason feeling abandoned this eve.
I should do something useful. But for the moment I cannot stand to look at required labor. I will tolerate no intrusion of work, physical or mental. I want the luxury of reading, something I have had neither the time nor energy to do for what seems months. My addled brain tells me that if I can take a few moments to enjoy reading, I can consider yet another transition portion of this life adventure successful. That is to say, survived.
But first I have to actually find a book. It takes a major effort to remove the thick, badly wrinkled layer of skin-colored packing tape that give shape and structural integrity to the flimsy cardboard of the packing boxes. After ten minutes' struggle with a serrated bread knife, I finally manage to open the first heavy cube, only to discover its contents to be a portion of my full set of Collected Classics of World Literature. I sigh, remembering this as what it was: a long-ago high school graduation gift of matched, beautifully bound, gilded, and parchment-leaved volumes that are now covered in the dust of at least two decades of blatant disuse. They had been dragged between multiple dorm rooms and then into a long succession of rental apartments through college and continuing over post-education real-life re-education as part of my debt to western civilization in general and family ties in specific. My Aunt Elizabeth, to be very specific.
There were six hyphens in that last paragraph. God, I am thinking work thoughts. Out!
This spiritual drought has been coming for a while. I have acquired a house of my own, settling down for the long and final rush into rooted senility, and I still haven't raised the courage to put all these life-irrelevant volumes in a garage sale. I even had one a few weeks ago, occasioned by an acute reevaluation of the worth of long unused possessions. I had suddenly decided that I really wanted fewer material possessions cluttering my immediate environs. But the books sat in their box by the door during the whole of the sale day, not on the sale table, while I struggled amidst the meagre monetary revenues generated by rusted coat racks, a long empty bird cage, jeans meant for a much more slender man, and six absolutely and insultingly terrible late Heinlein books (I was tricked by demons into reading those).
But there on the pecan floors of my home now rest the unpacked Classics. I am still committed to their removal. The forty-five volumes collectively brood at the possibility. They intimidate me as well as had their source, the self-possessed blue-haired matron who had given them to me. In the end they know full well that they will somehow escape the trip to a sidewalk table.
“Any item, one dollar,” had read my sign during the sale.
“Indeed,” said The Classics.
What if my ninety-year-old Aunt Elizabeth ever came to visit and the forty-five volumes weren't prominently displayed? Give them to a stranger? The woman would sense the sale of her gift all the way back in Texarkana, Texas. She'd get on her aluminum walker, scrape along two hundred and fifty miles of interstate highway and appear at my door, looking for her books. Just the searching look on her face would be enough to generate Guilt.
“So such things are no longer important, eh, nephew o’ mine?” she'd scowl. She would work up to a monumental hissyfit based on her seamless joining of culture and religion. Even her tantrums, however, were structured and formal, making them all the more unbearable.
“What then of your own personal search for the soul of man?”, she would lecture. “Have you now decided to abandon the timeless realm of human literature for transient, cheap comic books and sordid pornography? Eh? Will you just disappear without a trace, without having made a mark in this abysmal place? What about your life, child?”
She spoke like that, even after she had moved into an “assisted living” nursing home. The woman had taught Introductory World Philosophy and coached volleyball at St Ann’s School for Girls for thirty-two years. She knew how to address students, and her nephew would always fall into that category. Elizabeth’s universe was ordered, and no one had best try and upset it.
I couldn't have borne the responsibility. The Classics had moved with me yet again. And again.
This day, all my remaining unwanted belongings still stacked roughly just inside my front stoop – they would go into Monday’s garbage collection -- I am too tired to search any further. I need to sit in a tub and read. So it is to be the my aunt's Classics. I start pulling book after book out of the box. Nothing but “Nineteenth Century Masters”. A deep moan.
After extracting the first layers, I remember why long ago I arbitrarily stopped reading authors of that vast era. The books feel physically depressing to the touch. I keep digging, opening covers. There isn't much to be found that doesn't start right in at Chapter One seriously pondering fate, describing a plague, or weeping outright over an untimely death. Most of the Collected Classics seem to have savored melancholia as a sustaining diet. My boxed menu of reading material features a narrow range of items solely for the maudlin palate. I knew that literary masterpieces of the mid-1800's would be unbearable in my current state. Too much intensely burdened soul deconstruction.
And then I stumble on a few “Eastern European” volumes.
So it is that I find myself reading the Russians on a Saturday night. At least they are more exotic. Except that most of them have been translated by the same cold-blooded, hammer-handed authors I am trying to avoid. In spite of that, I carry the chill of the Steppes to the hot solace of my tub.
About ten pages and a shampoo in, however, I find myself wondering again, for the first time in thirty years: what is this consumption thing that afflicts so much of the population of that era?
* * *
I remember wondering the same question in my first year as a teenager.
I would sit and ponder in the grammar school library, an eighth grader who had been allowed the privilege of membership in the Great Books Club, which meant I was allowed to skip a French class taught by a dour young assistant pastor, a Cajun Catholic of little humor or tolerance. Such a person is a true anomaly, as the French speaking people of South Louisiana inevitably serve a smile and a hug to anyone who comes to their table. Father Tiche was the exception. He didn't even like being identified as Acadienne. He taught formal French, and his language class was as unrewarding as was his spiritual counsel.
So I suffered my first forced introduction to Dostoevsky and company as part of the grammar school reading club. Though even then I wondered what I was doing sitting in a library mulling the darkness of the Eastern European soul during a brilliant Southern spring. There I was, trying with my peers to pry a lively discussion from thick volumes of convoluted plot, consonant clutter, and heavy-handed scholarly translation. Was this better than the priest's ranting about conjugation?
At that very questioning moment I heard another shrill rave from the open door of my regular classroom just down the hall: “Yes, a grenouille is the same thing as a ouaouaron, Philippe, you ragamuffin, but one hops merrily about Provence and the other slops in the mud of a Louisiana bayou! When will you learn that Cajun French is not what refined people speak! You would be laughed into the streets in Paris!”
I decided in the affirmative to remain where I was. Besides, there was Jeannette Mertens, whose presence in the small reading area was most decidedly more desirable than that of Tiche. I was at a stage of development that aroused an overwhelming though nonspecific desire of feminine companionship.
This all merged with what I was reading. Some of it seeped through my staring at the freckles on Jeannette's bare knees and my grateful non-accumulation of French verbs.
* * *
It was then that I discovered something that has obviously followed me to the present day.
The present day in which I was hunkered down in the ancient tub of a very basic, undecorated but monumentally renovated structure full of humming new appliances, gleaming copper pipes, and whistling air conditioning ducts. All of whose economic collaboration has plunged me into a previously unimaginable level of personal debt.
The pages of my Collected Classics selection were becoming more flexible and moist.
The eighth grader's muse returned: in these novels, for the intelligentsia, the sensitive, the enlightened and the artists, there was always the threat of an incurable, prolonged death from something called consumption.
Yes, yes, yes. I know now what they were describing was an actual physical ailment. Probably tuberculosis. But still, the worst disease the literati of the day could imagine was consumption.
And remains so. “Especially for me,” I think, sliding deeper into the bubbles. “I am lost to consumption. A 21st century disease against which I have always railed as the self-righteous pundit, and now, now I find myself to actually be the completely invested consumer. Look at where I am, at what I am. I still have all this stuff, despite garage sales and charitable give-aways and a monumental garbage pile. I am firmly ensconced in the stagnant middle of the 99%, debt up to my ears, enslaved by my very possessions, with no outlook for change. Caught by my own consumption.
“This is very very depressing.”
But just then, as I gaze straight up at the ceiling in a profound, metaphysical, quasi-Cyrillic sulk, my face just above the level of the water, there to my left appear two bright furry faces, with three even brighter eyes. Freddy and Rayon, residents only for this very short while, have already been able to sense my state of mind and come to counsel me. The fact that I am lying so deeply in that wet stuff makes them even more concerned for my well-being. I hold up my hand to their faces and they begin actively chewing on my fingertips, holding on with their tiny paws.
That is all it takes. The spell is broken. I sat up and gave a damp smooch to each of their heads. Rayon takes a swipe at my cheek, and falls off the side of the tub. He tries to immediately act like nothing has happened and bites Freddy’s tail. Fred says “Fooooonffff”, and swats at his brother, simultaneously losing his balance and splashing into the tub with me.
He instantly levitates upwards and out, with only the tips of his paws getting wet. It is an amazing, gravity-defying performance. I have witnessed the phenomenon of Cat Magnetism. Feline scientists can readily confirm that water does indeed hold an opposite electron charge from cats, and repels them with a force. Fred had flown from my tub with a minimum of moisture contact. He now licks the remainder of the offensive liquid from between his pumpkin-colored toes.
Laughter feels pretty damned good. I almost choke. I guffaw, which is another onomatopoeia I enjoy (like the aforementioned Cajun word for frog, “ouaouaron”). I hear the sound of my alternating coughs and hees echoing through the house and know that spirits are on the rise, in more ways than one.
Consumption. Material acquisition is evil. It must be. Look how miserable I was just a few minutes ago, dwelling again on how I am smothered in possessions. Yes, yes, yes.
But these two guys volunteered. If me acquiring Rayon and Freddy, or them me, makes me a consumer, I don’t give a damn about it. I am going to open a can of tuna and make all three of us happy.
The Classics are back in the box, and their prospects for travel are strong.
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