I go long stretches without writing. I remember how small I am, how much there already is. I go to Powell’s and see all the lonely books, seemingly without value, crowding the high wooden shelves. The bookstore almost begs you. Please, read our books. And even then, the creative industrial complex is astoundingly inefficient- so much brilliance is lost every moment, without document. Brilliance like radio waves in the air, moving through everything, dissipating. Like schools of fish. The ocean bottomless. Fishermen pulling up great nets of fish. Toiling to bring them to shore. And then leaving them to rot in the market because they cannot, even, be sold.
In the end it is not the book that has value. Day in and day out, it is not the book that is sold. What is a book? A bunch of paper that begins to decompose immediately. A dead thing. The book is not what is sold. What is sold is the answer to a question that has no answer. An antidote for a hunger that was never meant to be satiated. Life.
What has value and what does not have value. Why do we buy stuff.
I go to estate sales sometimes. Do you go to estate sales? This is what an estate sale is:
When you are small your mother dresses you for church in a cream-colored dress that she has made. Your mother is young, her face is like a lamp, and she wears rhinestone barrettes in her hair that have already begun to tarnish. Your father, who does not speak, smokes vanilla-scented tobacco in a pipe whose wood is dulled from the oil of his hands. Your grandmother likes to fuss over her collection of yellow crystal candy dishes and one day, when you are living alone, you will inherit them.
Your first husband has a closet of identical button-shirts from Sears. These shirts wear at the elbows and grow thin and soft until he is injured at his job, after which he spends his time in a white undershirt, carving small ducks from pieces of driftwood that he pulls from the river. You leave him because he will not stop drinking, and because his disappointment gets all over you, like ink.
You meet a man who is a painter, who paints boats. He has a small wooden shed full of paintings of boats. He has no silverware in his kitchen, and his canopener is dulled to the point of uselessness. You move into the painter’s house and order an expensive set of pots because, you say, you can pass them on to your grandchildren.
At some point you become infatuated with clowns. At some point you discover you are unable to become pregnant. At some point you conceive and have a son. The son grows up and disappears, as though the stage beyond adolescence was rays of light or static electricity. You had documented his existence in dozens of photo albums and the albums seem to laugh at you now, and so you leave them in their cardboard box, way up in the attic. The painter has a stroke followed by a long illness until his death, one week before the death of your mother. The last boat he painted, an aluminum skiff on the stormy pacific ocean, was never finished, and you have wedged it in the garage with the others.
It is hard, now, to find ways to feel important. Your final mission in life, the acquisition of clowns, grows to consume all of your time. A stray cat has kittens beneath the back deck and you abduct two of them, locking them in the house. You try to make them tame but they hide in the back of the linen closet and sometimes, at night, they crouch on either side of you in the bed, and make noises like the wind whistling before a hurricane. You cannot touch them, and their greasy fur lies on their bodies in an unnatural way. Still, you love them more than you can bear.
After your death, your son reappears. He’s been living in an ashram in India, and his only possessions are a wooden bowl and a journal, almost finished, which he forgets on the plane. He opens the thick curtains in your house, and drags the boxes, like corpses, from the attic. He can feel you everywhere but he cannot speak to you, and although he has sworn off regret like some might swear off alcohol, he stands before the rows of dusty clowns, huddled on the shelves that the boat-painter built for you, and he feels it pulling at his pantlegs like a needy child.
He slowly works his way through your house, inventorying the usefulness of things. When he finds the box of small wooden ducks, whittled by your previous husband, he is overcome. He meets an old friend, now working as a school teacher, for drinks, and the friend explains the usefulness of having an estate sale. During the sale your son sits on the lawn in a folding chair and watches, bewildered, as strangers clutch at his mother’s things. One woman, opening all the cabinets looking for old letters and stashes of half-dollar coins, finds the cats. They lunge at her face in terror, hissing like hellmouths. Your son wears oven mitts and puts them in a cardboard box, onto which he piles books. After the sale he takes them to the local animal shelter where, unadoptable, they are put to sleep.
The house is put onto the market, and your son becomes impatient. The small town holds so much meaning for him, and the memories drag at his ankles like bricks. He is eager to cover over these old memories with newer, more ideal memories, although, after a number of decades, he will realize that this was never really possible. He will attempt, and fail, to sail across the atlantic, and he will fall in love with a number of women that he will refuse to marry. He will tend an apple orchard in France and lose his first finger to a chainsaw, but the old memories will never really fade. In fact it is the opposite, and the old memories will always be the strongest, until one day they are the only memories left at all, like a stone chimney when the rest of the house has burned away.
What has value?