Entering the room I saw him in the corner, on his bed bundled in a blanket like a bird, nesting. My roommate was the nesting sort, not depressed but soft like a baby, a baby in need without teat to suckle. A book was in his hand, at his back a wall sized shelf of books. Books, books, books, and more. Books filled up and darkened his half of our room. One window was bricked shut with stacks of his books.
He nestled within the folds of his blanket as I entered our room. He tried a studied look pretending engrossment in James Joyce. Playing along, I ignored the sanctity of the roomy silence he had cultivated that day. I dropped my bag of things on the floor at the base of my bed and flopped down, flopped and sighed. Out breathed the stress of the day. My roommate was silent.
"It's too much like a church in here."
He looked up from his page. His mashed potato face, dull eyes, and vulnerable mouth poked out of the folds of his blanket. Despite his soft weakness he looked smug, arrogantly content. "Hi," he replied.
"Hello," I said. A hollow, howl licked the walls outside. My window rattled intermittently with the breath of wind. "Mind if I open the window?"
"Go right ahead."
I pinched back the release and slid the pane aside with a jerk. The wind forced its way through speaking in tongues of lonely mountain peaks and sweltering lots. It was an autumn wind, boisterous and clumsy. With a slam the bedroom door blew shut. Some papers fell from my desk like leaves from a tree. I watched them settle on the carpet. Dead things. Soon bored, I turned my gaze to his wall. Looking for the window I did not see his books.
"A lifetime's collection," he said. The books snapped to my attention, blue, red, black, paperback bound.
He put down Ulysses giving me his attention. "Every book that I've ever read is on that wall." He was wistful.
"You've kept every book?"
"Yeah," he said like a sigh-- distant. A moment passed in which he relived memories and I reappraised his lifetime's collection.
He breathed in slowly and spread a smile.
How utterly ridiculous, I thought. The shelf and shadow took on an oppressive weight. Feeling claustrophobic, I snorted the air through my window's screen and coughed car fumes.
"That's why I keep it shut."
"Doesn't it get...? Aren't the books a bit much? I mean how can you keep every single one? I'd worry about them--"
"They're important. They're part of my life," he interrupted, and though upset he only showed me a mild, injured face. "I've been influenced by each one, more or less, and when I look at them, like The Sword and the Chain for example, I remember being fourteen and thinking those thoughts. I wanted to be Karl Culinane and have experiences like that. If I got rid of this book, I wouldn't have it to summon up those times. I'd lose them."
"What about...?" I paused holding my breath. Before turning blue I continued, "You can't lose an experience. Your mind maybe, but not the past." He started to speak; I interjected, "Let me speak. I think that your dependence on your books weakens your memory, saps your ability to visualize. There are holy men, yogis, in India that have whole texts memorized. They can recite anything you ask. Why not do that with your life? Why do you need things to do it for you?"
Though I must have struck a nerve, no passion bubbled up from his depths. He just sat on his bed in a blanket contemplating my words. "I suppose one could keep everything in their head. I've read about that in The Razor's Edge. Sommerset Maughm wrote the book. An interesting idea. Too much work, though. I'd rather have my books to remind me."
For some reason I failed to make my point. "Too much work?" I needed air, polluted or not. "If I kept every book I ever read, I'd never be able to move."
"Well," he apologized, "not every book. Since you've moved in I've read your Book of Five Rings by Musashi. I'll have to buy that to make my collection complete."
I looked down at my book collection, a two shelf deal of ten books. I like to keep only a few things so that moving to new apartments is easy. In fact ten books is too much; I picked up The Book of Five Rings and tossed it to him. "Here. Don't bother. This is free."
"Thanks." He reached out and coddled Musashi's life-work as if it were a wounded butterfly. Musashi was the greatest swordsman to ever live, a Spartan, coarse haired, hawk-eyed Samurai reduced now in my roommate's hands to a wounded butterfly. I vowed to keep my Kama Sutra out of his hands.
After a few moments of leafing through his new treasure, my roommate picked up his lavender phone and punched the seven digits. I removed the screen and leaned out my window to watch the Indian summer sun drop lower in the western sky. Brilliant beyond color, that disk burned life into my eyes. Looking at the sun's fire, I saw passion and freedom, nothing else. None of life's plaque, no bric-a-brac collects in those fires, I thought.
The conversation ended, phone replaced on the hook. "Gotta go," he said "Looks like another night at Roma."
"Have a good time," I said, straight faced.
My roommate spent a few minutes more casting about for things to take with him to the cafe. Into his backpack he gathered a chess set, a stack of Magic cards, Ulysses, a coffee cup, pencil, paper, some dice, rabbit's foot, a shirt, and an apple. Then finally, flashing his well rehearsed smile, my roommate left.
I heard him clip-clop down the stairs, open the front door, and close it behind him. Then he got into his little car, started the engine, and drove away. I listened to the four-cylinder whine fade away into the background noise of the freeway. At last he was completely gone. Then I turned my gaze to his side of the room. Those books, his surrogate memories, filled my eyes.
The shelves rose to the ceiling like cresting waves. Those waves seemed about to break. Any moment I was certain that a cascade of pulp would crash down upon me, smothering the life out of me, binding arms and legs with their weight. In any case those shelves were unstable. The slightest tremor could have brought the whole western canon down from its cinder block and plywood throne.
While I sat there claustrophobic and transfixed with disbelief that anyone would wish to collect so many books, a ray of sun cut through space. Eight minutes old the sunray burst in upon my consciousness, landing on Piers Anthony's Ogre, Ogre-- one of many of my roommate's fantasy serials. The light burned red-orange on the book's green. Like fire the sunlight played upon that shelf, licking at Piers Anthony's trash but finding George Bernard Shaw much more to its taste. I wished that the collection would spontaneously combust.
Why not? Why not act the catalyst with some white gas and a match? My eye wandered back to the shelf and found Ray Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451. But this is different, I assured myself. I'm teaching a valuable lesson. Books are mere kindling for the mind's flame to transform. "The mind is a flame to be kindled not a vessel to be filled." Perhaps in burning his memories, I will spark some life in his mind.
Despite this rationalization my heart beat rapidly. The thrill of fear pumped in my veins, and my stomach felt like an empty acid pit. I took this visceral fear to be passion. This is life, the adrenaline flow burning me out from the inside. I picked myself up and reached out for the first book to burn.
Fingers tingling, I grasped a handful of Stephen King. The books were cold and dusty. Cobwebs clung as I pulled, releasing reluctantly their prize. A spider crawled out of the hollow space I created on the shelf. It spilled out onto the floor on a line of spider silk. I watched its brown body scuttle back beneath the lowest shelf into darkness.
"Spin, lady spinster. Weave your thread into its mess, festoons of web to bind my roommate's memories in their static state of decrepitude. Though you lay your sepulchrous mantle upon his mind, I'll set it free in a funeral pyre and plant a garden in the fertile ash." Then feeling foolish about my theatrical performance for a reclusive spider, I filled a paper grocery bag with books. With the first step taken the rest followed easily, and twenty four minutes later I had all the books in the backyard.
The neighboring rooftops blocked the setting sun. A chill breeze circled about an old valley oak and crossed the backyard fence to harass the books waiting on my concrete patio. Their pages rustled gently. I hugged myself warm in the gray shadow of the apartments. The complex was dead quiet. Two hundred yards away across the fence and the vacant lot, the freeway murmured white noise. Other than the oak no witnesses were about.
I gathered my supplies. In the vacant lot on the other side of the fence, I retrieved the old and rusty trash can which had been lying in a patch of dry grass and thistles for months. From my backpack I withdrew a tin of white gas and a pack of waterproof matches. I had intended to take them with me camping.
To build a proper fire, I placed Stephen King and Piers Anthony at the bottom of the trash can. Then, the tin of gas uncapped, I let the volatile fluid spill and splash down over the wounded butterflies at the bottom of the can. Looking upon those books, I caught a whiff of gas. The acrid stuff bit into my lungs. "Karma," I laughed.
In response, I scraped a waterproof match across the graphite on the matchbox. The sulfur sparked to life. I sheltered the little flame until it was strong and then dropped it into the trash can. Flames spread. The books burned. No big deal, I thought, reaching down for more books with my right hand. I grabbed a few and felt the spider webs wrapped around them, sticky and tough. When I dropped the books in with the others, the webs clung to my hand.
The fire died a little when the books landed amidst their burning brothers and sisters. I uncapped the white gas again and with my left hand poured some more fuel. The fire roared up with long yellow flames, warming me. Shadows danced about the patio. Then something bit my right hand.
"Damn spider!" And I tossed the brown thing in with the books. The spider popped with a bright orange spark. I put in more books. So nice to have the place to myself, I thought.