Mr. Penney's Books

Bay-windowed room in gingerbread Victorian,
bookshelved from floor
to cast-in-shadow ceiling —
my dream of my own retirement-exile, to be
left alone at last amid ten thousand
books, and cabinets whose sliding drawers
concealed vast sheaves of etchings, prints,
treasures way back to incunabula days.

And the room — it was Mr. Penney's­
with its great desk and drawing board
tack-pinned with unfinished blueprints
of a magnetic perpetual motion engine —
was itself a mere anteroom
to corridors and attics, niches
and passageways, book
upon book, a hollowed hive
of unkempt learning.

It was here, as a high-school boy,
I came for my real reading:
Voltaire and Paine and Ingersoll,
the little Blue Books of skeptical thought,
the slim red classics of Everyman's library,
the histories piled high 'mid Verne
and Conrad, Tolstoy and Maupassant.

Each day I'd listen rapt to his tales
of selling Vermont marble
in post-earthquake San Francisco
of his newspaper days,
dragging O'Henry from drunk bar
to his deadline desk, long years
of teaching young men the rigors
of mechanical drawing; of buildings
designed and constructed (he’d built
one of the first automat restaurants);
of patents granted and sold too cheap.

Eight decades had crept upon him; he joked
“I never dreamt I’d live to the day
that I grew tits, and my wife a beard.”
Sons and grandsons tramped the big house,
not one of them a reader. Each week
his son's wife heaped Penney's books
into the curbside trashcan; each week
he was up before dawn-crack to retrieve them.

Hundreds were the volumes he gifted me.
“You'll read them. What's more, you'll pass the gift.”
I nodded, books piled to my chin, tottered home.
I read three a day then,
as though I had come to books from a desert,
or dreaded returning to one. Gone from home,
gone to school, gone to the city, I have
a dim memory of someone mentioning
“Old Mr. Penney died a while back.”

I made one final visit to the hated town,
raked my stepfather'd house of every scrap
of my existence there: old manuscripts,
my few remaining comics, cartons of books
I had left behind for someday-retrieval.
My mother, between beers and cigarettes, said:
“Oh, the Penneys came by one day. They said
he left you all his books. We were
going to write you a letter,
but then I never found a stamp,
and I guess I lost the envelope.”

My mind screamed What?! —
my voice went novocain,
a tiny “Oh,” my only response.

Friend’s car packed up
with all my juvenilia, I asked,
"Let's turn left here. There's a house
I want one last remembrance of.”
We slowed to stop. Three people rose
from their porch chairs, swung wide
the double stained-glass door.
The porch light flickered, failed.
Inside, the door to Mr. Penney's library
was thrust open, then slowly shut
like a drowsy eyelid. An arc
of hall-light swept over the floor,
over and across to the deep bay window.
Bare floors, bare walls, stark corners,
bookless, shelfless, deskless and desolate,
then dark as the door closed. The hall's
lights went black, unlettered Penneys
ascending their crisp, clean, dustless stairs
to sleep. We drove off
without speaking, our car trunk full,
back seat piled high to the tipping point
with all the books I'd ever owned.

Copyright 2009 by Brett Rutherford. All Rights Reserved

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