From the longest breakup letter ever written (214 pages), to the movie prop which represented true love for an actress who died knowing it only on the screen, to the lawnmower used to fashion one of history's most time-consuming and comically aborted marriage proposals, the museum was filled with the evidence of ordinary people who became extraordinary in the thrall of desire.
Poignant, awe-inspiring, and sometimes just plain funny, the artifacts described within these pages were highly coveted by those who came to buy them that cold winter's day---especially by one secretive and jaded bidder who arrived ready to give up everything to reclaim his past.
A Listing of the Holdings of the National Museum of Romance
By the eleventh of December, three days before the auction at the National Museum of Romance, I had successfully liquidated almost all of my assets. Being nothing more than a sound effects librarian for a suffering media company, this was not especially difficult. For my 1992 Honda Civic, I got twelve hundred dollars in cash from a girl entering Hunter College, who had saved her pennies from waitressing to make the purchase. Everything else I owned was tagged with a red, blue, or green dot and exposed to the residents of my apartment building for evaluation. The six dollars I spent on flyers to advertise the sale netted me a total of four hundred and forty, not to mention the priceless memory of the faces of my unknown fellow tenants as they bumped around my one bedroom hole in search of the perfect deal on an ottoman or toaster oven. Their eyes revealed a reluctant fascination with the mysterious seller, a forty-six year old bachelor who remained eerily silent throughout each transaction, and who must have suffered some vast and bathetic loss to suddenly sacrifice everything he owned in the world. There was no haggling to speak of. A red dot meant the item cost one hundred dollars or more, a blue dot between twenty and ninety-nine, a green dot meant you could have that thing for as little as a single dollar. Inside a plastic tote I nestled all the food I had left in the cupboard and let it go for eight dollars, tote included. There was a lot of canned soup and Fig Newtons and wine and brown rice. It sold quickly. By the time the sale was over at ten o'clock, my miser's apartment was like the inside of an old box of laundry detergent: barren, slightly stained, but still inhabitable.
I withdrew my remaining bank funds in cash: one thousand, one hundred and eighty-three dollars. I left the bank at noon on Friday the fourteenth with nothing more than the unfashionable clothes on my back, a little over twenty-eight hundred dollars in my pocket, and a rental car.
I drove three hours south to Atlantic City. I had never been there. A light rain began to fall at two o'clock, and by the time I got to the end of the expressway, I could see the town only through a steady waterwash. It seemed like an awful place. A friend of mine had once told me he judged the quality of a city upon first entrance by the number of pedestrians who darted out into the middle of traffic at high risk to their lives. Pedestrians in good cities crossed at intersections. Those in places with no future stepped out between parked cars, balanced themselves on the midline between opposing lanes hoping for a quick break, gazed fixedly into space while horns bleated at them. Atlantic City, God help it, was a bit of a shooting gallery in this respect.
I parked the car at the first casino I came to. It was the Tropicana. I walked through the garage, down two flights of cement steps, through a gently arcing tunnel with a starry-night lighting motif, and entered the gaming floor.
I bought twenty-three hundred dollars worth of plastic chips, thought for a moment, and then, in a nod to forces of destiny I did not believe in, stuck a twenty dollar bill in the front pocket of my cheap overcoat for safekeeping and bought chips totaling another five hundred and ten dollars. When that task was completed, the twenty in my pocket represented the whole of my net liquid worth. Everything else was in the form of those small plastic discs which, except for the setting in which I attained them, might have been mistaken for Parcheesi tokens, or thrift store Bingo markers fingered incessantly at some Rotarian Tuesday Night Prize-Off.
I went to the first roulette table I saw. I waited patiently through one complete turn of the wheel, which temporarily crushed the high spirits of the three gamers who had all chosen with wild optimism to play single numbers. I believe they were all siblings. They laughed and one of them pounded a playful fist on the side of the table. Then I stepped forward, and placed my life savings on the small dyed rectangle representing the color black.
They looked at me; I did not look back. The dealer, if that's what he was called, bellowed a hearty "Okay, we've got a man who's gotta have his coffee black!" and I stared fixedly at that small pile of multi-colored chips, then stared at his hand as he straightened them out before they toppled. The brothers and sisters quietly placed various five dollar bets. Someone came up beside me on my left, a harmless onlooker. In my peripheral vision I caught sight of an arm bringing a small plastic cup of dark soda up to an unseen mouth. From all around there was the vapid ling-ling-ling-ling-ling-ling chiming of deceptively cunning slot machines.
When the dealer spun the wheel, I looked across the room into meaningless space. Elderly winners were lining up at the redemption windows to watch tired casino employees dump the contents of their filthy coin buckets into a tally machine. A chubby woman with frizzy red hair was explaining something to a member of casino security with a pained expression, pointing in the direction of the hotel lobby. The wheel spun. I stood ruler-straight in my heavy J.C. Penney overcoat and uncombed hair, looking to everyone around me not like a high roller but a thin, pale drunk about to embark on a weekend bender, or maybe to finally strangle his harpy of a wife as she slept, followed by an escape to Arizona or Mexico and a noteless suicide in a moldy motel room a month later.
The man who ran the table called something out, and the brothers and sisters applauded, and a second stack of chips joined my first. A hand slapped my back. I turned and nodded at the man it belonged to. It was not a man at all, but a fat teenaged boy in glasses and a baseball cap that advertised some sort of role- playing game.
I took my chips and I converted them, requesting cash. I placed my original twenty-eight hundred in my wallet and the money that providence had provided me in my overcoat on top of the twenty I had set aside for bourbon. Then I walked quickly out of the casino.
Once in my rental car, I had great difficulty inserting my key into the ignition. It just would not go in correctly. I squeezed my eyes shut, listened to the sound of the rain muted through the sealed glass of the eerily clean vehicle. My breathing was uneven. I reached a hand up to the back of my head and grabbed my short hair and pulled on it, pulled on it, my head cocking back, trying to draw the stress out of my upper torso. When I opened my eyes I looked past the barrier separating the edge of the parking garage from the three-story descent onto the cruddy street below. I saw nothing but rain and the side of the hotel beside the Tropicana. Then I began to shake, just a little. It lasted five minutes.
A half hour after I got into the car, I exited the parking garage and drove away from the city.
It was forty-eight minutes southwest from there to the nothing town of Tristia. I got there well after dark had fallen; the constant rain brought it forth even earlier than usual. The directions that the museum's public relations department had issued in an e-mail to tomorrow's bidders were quite poor, and I became lost twice in the twisting rural landscape that surrounded my destination. So confusing were the instructions regarding the series of turns I had to make as I drew within three miles of the museum that I could not help but think I was being intentionally misled for some unknowable reason. Landmarks were described inaccurately, distances were off by miles. Kitchener Street had been referred to as Kechner Street, and Mallard Pond, which abutted Tristia, was called a river. The pre-auction dinner began at seven, and I began to wonder if I was going to make it when I finally stumbled upon Leo Road, which supposedly led directly to the museum's entrance.
About a half mile short I saw orange blinking flashers ahead on my right. I slowed to about twenty miles per hour and peered through the rain and the dark. The stopped car was a new Mercedes, its color indeterminate in the confusing scatter of light and shadow that pressed through the wet darkness. I went past it and pulled over to the shoulder, cueing my own flashers before I stepped out into the rain. It was even heavier than it seemed from the safety of my rental car.
I splashed through quickly forming puddles and approached the Mercedes. The frosty sting of the rain was completely welcome after the dead dry nothingness of the drive south. The driver's side window was rolled down with the push of a button and I looked inside.
The driver was a woman in her mid- to late thirties, with jet black hair tied back in a very orderly ponytail. Her makeup was flawless, her gray coat expensive. She looked at me and smiled weakly.
"I pulled over to check my directions, and the car wouldn't start up again," she said.
I nodded, pulling the collar of my own coat higher on my neck. "Does it turn over at all?" I asked her.
"No, nothing, there's nothing, this silly thing," she said, and to demonstrate she turned her key meaninglessly.
"I have a cell phone, I can call for a tow," I told her.
"Is there any chance you can just run me up to Leo Road?" she asked. "I can deal with this later."
"You're already there," I told her. Raindrops dripped off my eyelids. "I'm going there too, to the museum."
"For the auction dinner?" she asked.
"Yes," I said. "Come on."
She opened her door and ran like hell for the passenger's side of the rental car. I pressed the red button on my key ring to unlock it just as she got there. Her high heels clacked on the pavement and I was afraid she might slip and fall, but she moved rather smoothly. When we got in we were almost totally soaked. I was surprised a woman driving such a car wouldn't have brought an umbrella, or even two.
She exhaled heavily and with great satisfaction when I started the car and pulled back onto the road. No one had passed us. We were surrounded on both sides by trees and more trees. A small metallic blue sign came up immediately on the right. It featured only the silhouetted image of a bird hovering beside a flower, wings outstretched: the logo of the Museum of Romance. An arrow pointed straight ahead. I turned the heat on higher and glanced over at the woman. She smiled in the dark.
"That's a nice coincidence," she said. "Are you going to be at the auction as well?"
"Yes," I said.
"I'll have someone tow the car tomorrow. Did you get a little lost, like I did?"
"Very much so," I told her.
A quiet moment went by. She leaned slightly over, apparently to look at the classical music station's call letters glowing a dim green beside the dashboard.
"Are you going to bid on anything?" she asked me. The road curved slightly to the left and the museum came into view. A sign read PARKING TURN RIGHT.
"I think so," I said to the woman.
"I'm trying to sell an article about the museum to a magazine," she told me.
She shrugged. "Any one. What's the item you're bidding on?"
I made a right turn. The museum's parking lot was gravel. The building itself was maddeningly off to the left and would require a sloppy run through the rain. About twenty other cars were in the lot.
"It's a key," I said simply, hoping she would not ask anything more.
"A key, just one key?" she asked. "What does it open?"
"Nothing," I said, and saw a good parking space just ahead. "It wasn't made to open anything at all." I did not look over at the woman. I concentrated on what lay outside.
"A key," she said again, seeming amused. "Does it have a good story behind it?"
I pulled into the space between a Saab and a Civic much like the one I had owned for eight years and sold three days before. I killed the engine. I opened my door.
"I imagine it's listed in the catalog somewhere," I said, and stepped out into the rain again.
The National Museum of Romance was nothing more than a tasteful pre-war two-story house set off by itself beside a little-used rural connecting road that joined two highways. The lights of cars on Route 74 could be seen far away through the rain and the surrounding foliage, headed toward places with both far more and far less money. The large back yard was dotted by carefully placed oak trees, suggesting a care on the part of the original owners that perhaps had not been equaled by those who had come afterwards. The folksy, dignified look of the house, which was painted a dark red, had been compromised by a mediocre addition, built by the museum in 1998, one year after its opening. It looked like a grossly oversized sun room and jutted out from one side into the back yard. Its interior was brightly lit tonight, while the rest of the house displayed the luminescence of only a single lamp placed in each southward-facing window.
The woman and I ran behind another couple along a winding front walk bordered by red roses, almost slipping several times, and then ascended three steps to the front door. It was propped open and guarded by a very short black man of about sixty, who welcomed the guests into the foyer and asked for their names between myopic jests about the downpour. We gave ours and entered, drenched, risking pneumonia because the house's air conditioning was cranked too high. If we walked to the right, we would be inside the museum's introductory room, which is to say the living room, where in the dim red-tinted lighting I could see nine or ten empty glass display cases standing empty and useless. We were ushered to the left, down a dark hallway which opened up into the banquet room and conference center, a sterile enclosure looking out through three dozen oval windows into the darkness of the back yard.
There were about twelve circular tables waiting for us, each prepared to seat eight guests. The seating had been pre-assigned according to the order by which we had bought our tickets, and so my female companion moved off to the right after offering me a small apologetic wave, and I was guided by a girl of college age to a table very close to the front, near a lectern sitting on a modest rental podium. There seemed to be three or four college girls moving frenetically about the banquet room, smiling cheerfully and seating the guests, all of whom were dressed better than I was; apparently they were thinking of this as a real night out. They were museum benefactors, local businesspeople, and potential bidders like me, who would walk away with a small part of the museum's holdings the next day. The true New York art crowd was still in New York, having much bigger fish to fry, no doubt, than a poorly publicized wake for the Museum of Romance.
There were just two chairs on the podium. They were occupied by a slick-haired young man and a skeletally thin woman who pressed a clipboard firmly to her chest. She seemed to be boring him with instructions that he obviously found unnecessary. He nodded politely and distractedly, brushing unseen marks off his tie. I knew I had seen him somewhere before. It would come to me after a few drinks.
Everyone was efficiently seated fifteen minutes ahead of schedule. The low buzz of conversation was killed simply by a gentle tapping on the lectern's microphone. Thankfully, my seven tablemates had not introduced themselves to me. I clung to my theory that to them I looked lost, uncomfortable, and exhausted, and quite possibly drunk. The last thing I saw before the slick-haired man spoke into the mike was the woman I'd given a ride to smiling at me from thirty feet and two tables away. She did not drop the smile until I looked away, through the window over my left shoulder, at the rapidly flooding back yard. Two long pools of rain had formed like parentheses around a tall oak out there, and would most likely take days to dry up.
"Good evening, everyone, and welcome to the Museum of Romance," said the young emcee with professional gaiety, and by the third or fourth word I recognized him fully. "My name is Rance Munchick, and I'll be your host for dinner tonight, as well as your auctioneer tomorrow. You may know my face from News at Five on WKYW-CBS, where it was certainly not me who foolishly predicted fair skies and zero humidity tonight."
The crowd laughed. About fifty hands reached for their wine glasses, in which a weak Merlot remained the only prologue to whatever would be coming out of the kitchen. Obviously buoyed by the reaction to his joke, Munchick, who I don't think was a day over thirty, straightened his posture a bit and rolled on in the falsely casual and utterly empty way professional emcees have, a way which convinces you of nothing but the fact that ninety percent of their intellect is concentrated on locating the nearest bar after they've pocketed their honorarium.
"Nor was I responsible for the, ah, rather dubious road directions all of you were given for tonight's journey," he said into the microphone which was adjusted one volume level too high. "Those directions were printed under the guidance of Ms. Ellen Roth, who is sitting to my right"—he swept a hand toward her—"and who put a bit too much faith, I think she'd agree, in some outdated mapping software." She laughed, showing yellowed teeth, and nodded humbly. "Which teaches us once again that anything bought at Office Depot with a red dot on it is usually not worth the risk." There was more polite laughter. The woman sitting to my right asked her husband where he thought the bathroom might be and he shrugged and whispered a noncommittal something back to her. She didn't go anywhere.
"Ellen, by the way, is the museum's day to day guardian," said Munchick. "If you visited anytime over the past two years, you would have almost certainly seen her in the foyer, handing you your ticket and answering your questions. She's been one of the best friends the museum ever had, so why don't we show her how ninety very wet people show their gratitude."
Applause. There was very little recognition in any of the guests' eyes. Many of these people had never been here before. Munchick cleared his throat and patted down the back of his hair in a rather obnoxious gesture of vanity. He began to work from notes printed on a small sheaf of index cards.
"Of course, the very best friend the museum ever had is a gentleman named Archer Rand, its curator. Archer couldn't be with us tonight, but I'm sure you'll see him at the auction tomorrow. It was he who in 1997 founded the museum and oversaw its evolution into one of the most unique attractions in the state, if not the country. In the beginning, it wasn't much more than a business proposition to Archer, one in a long series of them. He began his career in speculation in 1964, with the invention of a very unusual miniature golf course. Unlike most miniature golf courses, this one simulated the look and feel of its vastly larger godparents. You could knock a ball into real sand at Archer's course. Each hole was made up of different types of carpet, and you got a smoother hit off the nice green fairway carpet than out of the simulated rough, which was darker and uneven and bumpy. You had to watch out for actual water traps and when you got on the green, the hole was no bigger than a child's fist. There were par fours and fives, even!
"Well, people didn't go much for Archer's idea, unfortunately. Too challenging for families, too short of the real thing for serious golf buffs. I would have loved to play that course, which was called Little Pines, and lasted for two years in Virginia Beach. There's nothing like hitting a satisfying drive right down the middle of the fairway and getting to your second shot by taking three giant steps.
"That was only the beginning for Archer. Still working with the money he'd inherited from his father, a prominent dairy farmer, he bought one of the first fast food restaurants to concentrate on serving chicken as much as hamburgers. Why did it go out of business? It wasn't fast enough, according to Archer. He was utterly amazed at the impatience of people who weren't willing to wait longer than two minutes to get what he believed was undoubtedly the freshest, best tasting chicken available. Everything he bought, from the poultry to the French fries right down to the ketchup you put on them, was of the highest quality. He believed that if he gave the customers the very best food, he simply couldn't fail.
"Nope. The place went out of business, again in about two years. There was a McDonald's a half mile away, and people just seemed to be getting too accustomed to lightning-quick service. Also responsible for his downfall, maybe, was the fact that there were just too many pickles on Archer's chicken sandwiches. He had a soft spot for them and went a bit pickle-crazy, unfortunately. It can happen to the best of us.
"Archer fought proudly in Vietnam during the years 1969 and 1970, and was awarded the Silver Star for courage under fire. He also got a very wealthy lieutenant colonel to join him in some real estate speculation when they got back to the states, and they both did quite well. But Archer, always a dreamer, wanted something more daring, more challenging, to invest in. He bought a minor league baseball team. He sold it in 1980, claiming that when he totaled absolutely everything after six years, all his baseball profits and all his baseball losses, he had come out exactly sixty dollars ahead. Some of his other ventures included a deal to sell two thousand American television sets to people in Finland, part ownership in a silk-screening company, and part ownership in an enterprise that took people on sailing adventures around the world.
"None of these things, miniature golf or baseball or silk-screening or sailing, catered to his hobbies or his deepest desires. He was a businessman, and he just happened to see opportunities in them. One day in 1987 a friend asked him what he really enjoyed most in life. The answer was: history. More specifically, Archer was a museum buff. It almost didn't matter to him what was inside them. He loved the reverential silence in those places, the sense of humility toward the past. The more obscure the museum, the better. So he decided to start one himself, from scratch.
"He told everyone he knew about his plans, and solicited from friends and family any and all ideas about what his museum might be. He spent Thanksgiving Day of 1993 at the house of an employee of the sailing company he co-owned. The man's daughter, a red-haired girl all of seven years old, spoke up in the middle of a conversation between the guests about unusual museums. The little girl, whose name was Angie, said quite suddenly, 'There should be a museum where people get in love.' It didn't take long for Archer to work this inspiration into the idea which was fruited right inside this house. Thank you, Angie."
Someone clapped, then one other person, and there was a brief bout of kind applause. Quite brief; people were getting hungry, and Munchick's flawless green eyes and perfect posture were not quite enough to hypnotize them out of it.
"So Archer put this idea into the capable hands of others for a while," he went on. "Three men and three women went out and began to collect the first items for the Tristia Museum of Romance—which is often flatteringly, but mistakenly, referred to as the National Museum of Romance. It's a nickname which has become generally accepted as the real thing, though Archer has never been comfortable with such a lofty phrase.
"The researchers had a tough go of it at first. Where would one start a project like this? For it was Archer's idea to concentrate the holdings not on the personal mementoes of the famous and infamous, but of everyday folk, people who would give up the things they held most dear so that others could come and bask in the lessons of the romances, heartbreaks, and triumphs they had. What a project, indeed. Overall, more than six hundred items have been displayed here at the museum over the years, each priceless to the person who surrendered them for public view. Sometimes these things were simply found and then exhaustively researched, or unearthed from places where they had been left and forgotten. Most often, each item means or meant the world to two people: a man and a woman who fell in love at some point in history, and agreed with Archer's researchers that the entire world would benefit from learning their story.
"There is a bit of a minor secret to be revealed tonight, and Ellen here has agreed to allow me to reveal it. Since 1997, no one but the museum's original founder has truly understood the meaning of the museum's logo, which most of you followed tonight to get to this house, turning left and right where the image of a hummingbird suspended in air beside a simple flower told you to. The logo is printed on all of the museum's correspondence, on the stationery for sale in the gift room, and even on your napkins, which you've probably noticed by now.
"A hummingbird in flight, hovering beside a flower. A simple enough and obvious enough logo, yes? It's a peaceful image, and yet it means more than that. It was designed by one of the museum's original researchers, Jenna Mantoy, who is now a programming executive for public television. Jenna was twenty-one and taking classes part-time at NYU when she came up with the logo, which has never really been explained for the public.
"When a hummingbird leaves the ground and hovers magically in the air, ladies and gentlemen, its wings can flap almost seventy times per second, so fast that the wings are a meaningless blur to anyone watching. If you were to take a picture of a hovering hummingbird, you'd still only see that blur beside its body. Only when a picture is snapped with a very expensive, very high-speed camera can its wings be fully seen in mid-movement—one split second captured in a haze of rapid motion, a single image stolen from that blur.
"To Jenna, romance was like that. Romance, the beginning of love, was that split second which two people somehow managed to capture in the blur of our time on the earth, using every bit of belief in their hearts to do so. The rest of life is so often just the rapid, repetitive beating of wings which keeps us afloat and alive. Sometimes we can freeze it, and see one moment of greatness and blessed happiness for all its clarity. But always the moment passes; there seems to be little we can do about it. Jenna liked to think that this museum was, essentially, nothing less than a place filled with snapshots of a hummingbird's stilled wings: moments suspended in time, which we can now observe and remember, and treasure.
"There was so much to treasure here. My wife cried when I first brought her, and she cried the second time we came too. I had to cut her off after that. The museum was filled with the evidence of romantic gestures I could never compete with, so I thought it was better that she not get too attached to the memory of them. I tried to steer her clear of the gift room entirely, as a matter of fact. All told, in the museum's seven year existence, more than sixty thousand people have walked the rooms of this house. What started out as a mere business proposition, even a tax write-off, for Archer Rand, became something invaluable. He had not just created the greatest first-date museum in America—if you can't get a whopping kiss from your sweetie after coming here, you probably never will—but one of the most powerful testaments to human kindness in the entire world. Statistically speaking, almost half of the stories of romance enclosed in these walls over the years did not end with what you'd call perfect happiness. But that never seemed to matter much. The things those people said to each other, did for each other, in the beginning, within that ceaseless blur, live forever.
"Now the museum must close. It doesn't seem fair, of course, but it's economically unavoidable, as these things so often are. Yet in a way, tomorrow's auction will serve as a beautiful ending to each and every one of the stories enclosed within the museum. Hopefully, every one of you will drive away with a love story in your possession, and these love stories will go with you to every part of the country, and won't remain simply inert in Tristia, New Jersey. The stories of romance will be in Wisconsin and California and Alaska and Ohio, Florida and Arizona, maybe even Europe and Asia. Like a hummingbird, they were never really meant to be caged in one place. They want to be free. And tomorrow, they will be.
"I hope you all get what you came for, that you leave with something precious. You will not be the first to go home holding a priceless artifact from the Museum of Romance. That blessing belonged to a burglar who came here only last May, who broke into the museum with a very specific purpose in mind. It was the only incidence of theft in the museum's history, and the evidence of it which the burglar left behind was actually displayed as a rotating exhibit until that broken glass was given to Ellen Roth here as a thank-you for all her years of hard work.
"It was a rainy night like this one when the burglar came. He broke through a window in this very room. If you look directly to my left and count three windows over, that's the one he came through. If you were standing right beside it, you'd be able to see that there is a crack in the wood bordering one of the lower panes. The burglar tossed a heavy rock through the window, a rock he left behind upon his escape. He crawled into this room, and then crossed it in muddy sneakers. You ladies and gentlemen seated at the table in the center point of the room are sitting directly on the path he took. He went right through the foyer and into the National Museum of Romance. I'm sorry: the Tristia Museum of Romance.
"We can tell you now, since it doesn't matter quite as much, that security was never a high-tech concern here over the years. There was an alarm system in place, but the contract on it had expired in 2002 and it was never renewed. All that remained to protect the place on that May night was the locks on the doors and two video cameras set in the ceiling, which monitored the daytime and nighttime goings-on in the museum with not a whole lot of interest, to be frank. But one of the cameras watched and recorded that burglar for a full twenty minutes as he entered the main room, walked right up to one of the exhibits, and removed it from its stand.
"The security tape shows a fuzzy, soundless, black and white image of the man—everyone's pretty sure it was a man—as he took the exhibit directly to the closest chair, where he immediately sat down with it, as if he were sitting in his own living room. The exhibit was a diary. The man opened it, scanned some of its pages, and then began to read.
"He sat there, reading, engrossed, while the rain seeped in through the hole in the window of this very room and collected in a pool on the floor. He was utterly undisturbed. Finally, he got up out of the chair, walked back through the foyer, walked back through the banquet room, and exited, squishing through the puddles in the back yard.
"It was obvious that the burglar had been here before, knew exactly which exhibit he wanted, and upon finding it, determined that it was indeed something he needed to have. Its words must have held a lot of power for him. The police believed his name must have been in the diary, that he was a central character in its story. Ellen here believes that too. She thinks she suspects who the man was, but she would never demand that he be brought to justice. She knows that the museum is the kind of place where such things must sometimes happen. There are people to whom these artifacts are not just artifacts, but living testimony to their own invaluable history. We're lucky to have thirty-two such items for sale tomorrow; almost all the others have been returned to their rightful owners.
"So I propose a toast: a toast to that burglar who walked across this room with such determination and such passion for his goal. The tape showing what we caught of the burglar's adventure will be auctioned off tomorrow. It won't go for very much, no, just a pittance, but what counts is that by breaking the window behind me and creeping in, he somehow created another love story to go along with the one contained in that donated diary. For this accidental act of beautiful creation, we are grateful, as we are grateful to every person who fell in love and eventually turned that romance into a silent but powerful exhibit in this small house. Tomorrow is their last day here, and the beginning of a life elsewhere, a life of mute testimony to the immortality of human desire.
"Your muddy footsteps across this wooden floor, good sir, are all we ever needed to believe in true love."
After Rance Munchick's speech and the applause which saw him off the podium, we ate dinner. It was a bit of a mediocre affair, some kind of roasted chicken with some kind of sauce of French persuasion, a complicated wild rice, over-glazed string beans, a very small sliver of chocolate mousse cake. Ellen Roth did not eat; she went from table to table instead, introducing herself to every one of the guests while Munchick sat on the far end of the room, talking jovially enough with the people he'd been arranged with, obviously telling story after story of his exploits in the news game. The college girls poured water. Ms. Roth shook my hand and said it was nice to see me; I told her I'd never been to the museum and had only heard about its existence three weeks before, and then she thankfully moved on. My dinner companions respected my silence and I offered precious little to the conversation, which was mostly about the painfully immobile economy and various jobs we had all recently lost or gained through what could only have been divine intervention.
The woman I'd driven with from the shoulder of Leo Road looked across the room at me a great deal between long conversations with everyone around her. She excused herself a couple of times and returned with her hair and makeup carefully freshened. She seemed to be enjoying herself, and the only visible lapses in her various chats were made up of glances in my direction. I nodded politely the first time we made eye contact, and after that I found myself looking more and more at the window through which the cat burglar had entered, trying to make out the tiny crack in the wood surrounding the panes. Outside, the rain kept falling.
My rider caught me in the foyer after dinner. I had been one of the first ones to exit the banquet room and start to leave, having gotten exactly what I'd expected of the evening. She stepped beside me, not seeming terribly offended that I hadn't waited for her. It was an insufferably rude thing to do on my part, of course. I paid it no mind.
"Could you run me over to the hotel?" she asked.
"Sure," I said.
So it was another gauntlet run back to the car. Never had two people so boldly tempted sickness before. Between the perfect warmth of the banquet room, the strange chilliness of the foyer, and the freezing nip of the rain, it seemed we were guaranteed to wake up with some bug or the other.
It was only a three minute drive to the hotel, if that. A quick turn out onto Forest Road, then the first right onto Telpenham. After making a brief reference to the brevity of the auction dinner, the woman took a silver Hitachi mini-cassette recorder out of her purse and pressed Play. She frowned and pushed a couple of buttons she first had to squint at in order to determine their function. Then she groaned and let her head fall back against her seat rest.
"I don't believe it," she said, running her right hand again and again through her now-freed long black hair, ironing the little tangles the rain had given her. "I was recording on the wrong speed. This is gibberish." She dropped the recorder back into her purse, gazed out the passenger's side window. "I don't believe it," she said again.
"Sorry about that," I said. I turned the car and the Temple Inn was just ahead of us. Forty-eight rooms, one hundred and six dollars per night, given three stars for its decor and service.
I sensed rather than saw the woman turn her head back to me. "Any interest in getting quietly drunk?" she asked. "Kind of a morose, just let it all end drunk?"
Into another parking lot, the fifth of the day for me. "You don't want to get to work writing down however much you remember?" I asked her.
"No, I do not," she said, folding her hands primly over her lap. "I want to look back on today through a total haze." Her voice dropped many decibels between the first sentence and the second. A tinge of real sorrow was in there, or maybe it was only my imagination.
I experienced a sudden, crudely edited mind movie documenting my half hour in the parking garage at the Tropicana, remembering the profane, purple graffiti I had seen etched on the bricks of a tiny Irish bar on the street three stories below; the way the sky had been bruised half gray by clouds which had formed themselves into a strange diagonal swoop pattern; three seagulls headed for the faraway boardwalk, seeming bored and lifeless and bumping into one another clumsily; some idiot walking through the garage and telling his wife or his girlfriend or his mistress that their car was definitely not on this level, they were way off and had been for ten minutes; a rusty red barge sitting dead on the ocean a mile away or more. A haze, yes, a total haze.
"All right, then," I said to her. I sensed rather than saw the satisfaction on her face as she applied a new layer of lipstick to her already vivid lips.
The bar in the hotel, which consisted of only four tables, four stools, and a dimness which held no tangible atmosphere, was only open until ten, so we shared but an hour or so in there. We were the only patrons except for a young priest, of all people, who had not been at the auction dinner. He sat, sallow, in one corner, stretching out a mug of beer for more than forty-five minutes before he left the room.
The woman's name, it turned out, was Sandra. She was from Boston. We talked about New England, the fits and starts of her writing career, and what she had learned of the unintentionally humorous lives of the other people at the dinner. For every fifty words she spoke, I spoke perhaps two. She re-tied her ponytail, expressed concern that her dress was showing too much leg.
I did not get drunk, and she seemed to hold her liquor even better than I. When the bar closed and the lights were turned out, she stayed there, sitting in almost complete darkness, smoking a single cigarette with small graceful gestures, while I checked in. She was actually not a guest of the hotel yet, and. she'd decided fifteen minutes before that she would not be. The Temple Inn was obviously not worth the price and she wanted instead to head for a La Quinta four miles up the road. It was principle, she explained. She wanted to call a cab from my room. She hated dealing with desk people.
She entered the room a step or two behind me. I dropped my coat on a chair and flipped a switch on the wall for the overhead light, which was surprisingly weak, as if it sensed the late hour and did not wish to shock us. The decor of the room was predictably bland, just in a more oppressively Victorian style than the Holiday Inn I'd considered before I made my reservation. I crossed the room to the obscenely large bureau, which apparently expected a family of six to stay in this space for half a year or more.
Sandra spoke to me, her voice subdued, quiet, but not yet touched by fatigue, not at all. —How much could it cost to run that place? she asked rhetorically, and for a moment I thought she was talking about the hotel bar, since we had not mentioned the museum much in our meaningless conversation downstairs. She fingered the low-cut neck of her fashionable black dress. —How is it that the museum could close, do you think?
I took off my watch, set it down atop the bureau, followed it with my wallet and keys. —Maybe eight dollars was a bit much to charge to peek into the diaries of total strangers, I said, and wasn't even entirely sure my voice had carried all the way across the room. She stood with her back against the wall, beside the television set, and looked dreamily out the window which overlooked the parking lot. The room came with no view. None of them did, if my impression of the geography of the surrounding area was correct.
—Did you want to call a cab? I asked her, nodding toward the phone beside her right hand. The yellow pages would be sitting inside the top drawer of the night-table, and I was about to mention that, but she made no move whatsoever upon hearing my question. She stirred not an inch, not even to glance instinctively at the phone I'd directed her to. She kept looking out the far window. Only after a strange silence had passed did she drag her gaze away from it, and look directly at me.
—Yes, well, she said, syllables meaning nothing at all. —Is there something you want to ask me?
I looked at her as blankly as I could. She had drawn one foot off the floor, just a couple of inches, pressing the short heel of her right shoe against the wall which supported her back, not provocatively, at least not consciously so. Prada shoes, I believe they were. The eye contact she made with me was unwavering. Mine was not.
—No, I said softly. I went over to the night-table and pulled out the top drawer. There were the Yellow Pages, just as I thought, just where hotel history dictated they must be. I removed the book, leaving only the Bible inside the drawer, and set it beside the tiny lamp.
—Your body language says otherwise, Sandra said, raising her voice just a small bit, the smallest bit she could. —It has all night. It's told me all kinds of things about you.
I stared dully at the cover of the phone book. It showed a color photograph of the Atlantic City shoreline. The day was impossibly bright. People were everywhere, too many of them laughing, it didn't seem real.
—Has it, I said.
—I know from it, said this woman, this total stranger, —that you'd rather die than talk to new people, you've been alone for at least two years, and that you just let luck decide the women you wind up with. I think you probably swear a lot when you're by yourself, too, but never in front of anyone else.
Her eyes were bright, alert, unaffected by the wine and the hour. She was not beautiful. She was an attractive woman who had done all the right things to take her to the edge of beauty, but something was missing. She would never get all the way there, no matter how many visits there were to the stores and salons on Fifth Avenue.
—Very good, I said tightly, and walked back to the bureau, which was as far away from her as I could possibly get. She could not have missed the irritation, the warning, in my voice, and so I believe she went on speaking out of chillingly effortless courage.
—I know you don't want me to leave, she said. —Do you want to hear what I want?
I shook my head. —I'm afraid that's going to be moot tonight, I told her. —I'm exhausted. The auction is in ten hours.
—But you'd like me to stay all night, wouldn't you? she said, almost in a whisper. Still she did not advance, did not move. A woman who doubted herself would have shifted positions three, four times by that point, thrown her gaze all around the room, crossed and uncrossed her arms: innate responses to possible rejection. From her, there was none of this.
—I actually want more than that, she said to me. —Can you imagine it? You want just the one night; I want many of them. So what do you think we should do?
Finally, finally, she moved from the wall, took a single step forward. Her arms were kept low at her sides.
—Talk it over? she asked. —It's getting really late for that.
Perhaps by moving closer to me, I thought, she would finally start to make out the distaste in my eyes, the beginnings of my contempt, could taste the ice in my veins, and yes, my fear of her, which was working its way like a winter virus through my arms and my legs.
—You've gotten the body language wrong, I told her. —I don't want either.
—No, I've gotten it exactly right. You can't lie. You're a man. You're see-through.
She half-smiled, her confidence becoming so great that she could now take amusement at my pale face, my slightly shaking hands. I could imagine her stalking other older, dissatisfied men in this same way, with a pre-conceived mixture of sexuality and brute honesty, leaving them dumbfounded, at her whim. The only way I knew to regain my balance was to be revoltingly honest myself. Yes, I was a man. I was see-through. I was now too old to apologize for it anymore, to deny it, and so I decided not to.
—Why don't you make the decision for us, then, based on my....body language, I said. —But knowing we'll never see each other again.
If she had come to me at that moment, as it seemed she would, we would have met as equals, and played our parts as a million other people had done, and forgotten about it all when the sun rose, with no serious losses on either side. I had done it before, God knew. Of self-loathing, I had learned from experience, there would be surprisingly little. For the past seventeen years, any act of intimacy between two human beings was, to me, of no more consequence than a cash transaction at a hardware store. She would have been like a strong drink, ingested and forgotten, and I the same thing to her. Two hours, three hours, uncluttered by anything, like the ones and zeroes inside a computer. In the dark. Daybreak was a problem, but it was also, I knew from experience, nothing that couldn't be obliterated from my memory in the space of a long car trip, or deep sleep in a familiar bed.
—That's too easy, she said instead, and there was anger in her voice. —Tell me what's wrong with making things difficult and complicated. You're in your forties. Better things be difficult in an involvement with me than lying alone in some hotel room and your little apartment night after night.
Come on, she said, the voice of a teenager urging her boyfriend up the stairs and beyond the room where her parents lay sleeping, and also the voice of a veteran gambler pushing nothing more to the center of the table than the fact that I had once offered her a ride and possessed good manners, phenomena of no importance whatsoever, but which she was willing to bet everything on.
—I prefer simple, I said, turning away from her, ready to bid her a final good night.
—Yes, yes, heavens me, she said, her voice more hoarse, more aggressive, —yes, I'm sorry I didn't see the equation. It's so much simpler to show up here and throw some money at the museum tomorrow for a key, one silly key, so you can stay stuck forever in the past.
So you can stay stuck forever in the past.
But that's what she really, really did not know.
She had just revealed herself to be grossly misinformed, short-sighted—and I told her so.
Because I was not then, nor have I ever been, stuck in the past.
I knew exactly how to work with the past.
I knew precisely when to set my foot back into it, precisely when to take it out again, how long to stay there, how much of myself to commit, how to divide up my time so it did not swallow me up.
It had taken me twenty years, but I'd learned every trick. I could come and go there as I pleased, and I was an expert at it. I was no prisoner. I could swap back and forth with no trace either way so no one, not one person on earth, ever even knew I was gone.
This was my great skill, the thing in life I had mastered.
She had no right to accuse me of being trapped on the other side. For all she knew, I could have been, and in fact was, in the past at that very moment, flawlessly responding to her awful advances in that overpriced hotel room, yet years away and safe as a rotting red barge on the Atlantic Ocean.
If I was stuck in the past, as this harridan so officiously believed, I could not function as beautifully as I did as an employee and a citizen and a son to a dying mother.
I was an athlete of the mind. And, as I told her only with the thinnest strands of my will keeping me from shrieking it, I was utterly free.
But Sandra did not leave, even then. My sudden vocal attack of venom, my scorn for her underestimation of my abilities, did not frighten her out of the hotel room. She said nothing for some time. Then, just this, calmly and softly:
—If it amuses you to think that, then fine. But I don't think I'll go.
She reached over and turned off the lights by hitting the single switch on the wall. She became an outline in the dark. She moved without a sound to a high-backed wicker chair sitting in the corner near the bathroom, and she lowered herself into it. Behind her left shoulder, the rain beat against the window. She tilted her head back tiredly, crossed her legs, set her hands on the armrests.
—I can tell from your body language that you change your mind all the time, she said, the last words she ever had for me. I had already spoken mine.
The time in that room became measured by the thousands of tiny beats of rain on the roof and against the window. Ten thousand drops, twenty thousand, and we remained far away from each other, in utter darkness. I had never seen a woman do as she had done. She waited in that chair as if for a job interview, or an appointment with someone who was running late. I could not tell where her eyes were focused, there in the dark. She might well have closed them, gone to sleep. There was no way to tell.
I did not believe in stalemates. I believed in resolutions, one way or another, and if I found myself on the losing end, so be it. Losing meant quiet, and forgetting quickly, and giving up nothing of any real worth to me. I did not debate restaurant bills, politics, wrongly delivered mail, divorces. These things were officiously loud, and silence was always best.
So I went to her. She met me halfway across the room. Instead of awaiting some amateurish fumbling embrace, she reached out gently, placed both her hands on my wrists, and held them down at my sides. Her eyes were closed, I finally saw. Not out of some previously undetected shyness; it was as if she were dancing, hearing music I could not, and concentrating on it intensely. She leaned forward slightly, turned to her head to the window, and leaned it against my chest.
There was no sex. Somewhere in there, as we lay on the bed, moving around each other with incredible slowness, she said that we had to be like no one else on earth at this precise moment. This was what she wanted. I didn't respond. I shut my mind down for good and felt her hands on my chest, on my back, my stomach, my legs. She was like a powerful undertow, impossible to maneuver through. It felt like floating. Even the kisses felt like they were nothing more than sound waves through deep water. I think I fell asleep holding her, both of us almost still fully dressed, on top of the covers. Against her desires, we became like almost everyone else on earth, a married couple finding they were too old to discover secrets in one another, and who had found that the room's blackness and the comfort of the bed itself was a more acceptable ocean.
I dreamed I was coming out of the Atlantic with the boardwalk just a hundred feet distant, except it was winter and as soon as I came out of the surf my sisters, all four of them, were rushing toward me with large black towels. I grabbed one and wiped the water off my body fast, fearing hypothermia, but they just laughed at me. But it's raining, too, I told them, this isn't funny, yet they laughed and laughed. In the second part of the dream I was on some old man's farm, lying in the cold grass, and they were gone. They'd never told me their names. Just as well. I had been an only child. No sisters. None at all.
I woke up in the middle of the night. Disoriented, I believed I was late for work, had, in fact, missed the entire day, somehow slept straight through it. I only realized my error because it was still raining, still, still, and that tapping sound brought it all clear.
The woman, Sandra, was gone. She had made an effort to smooth out her side of the bed, and the bathroom light was off. She had left the room. I felt hot, almost feverish. Twenty years of sleeping in sweatpants and nothing else had conditioned me to feel hideously uncomfortable upon waking in a shirt.
I got up creakily, went to the window. The highway was not too far off; through the trees I could see the shadow of a billboard, unlit, but no headlights went by. The horizon beyond it was still nothing but an unblemished, murky nothingness. The clock radio told me it was 3:51 a.m.
I would never get back to sleep; another lesson learned over the years. It was now me against the remains of the night. I could not understand what had happened to Sandra. I would wash my face, and then I would go down into the lobby. If she was gone, I would have breakfast in some town other than this one. Any place would do, as long as I felt like a stranger from another state, passing through, forgotten.
I went into the bathroom, switched on the light. It was the most comforting one in the entire hotel: a slumbering, autumnal orange-red. Written on the wide mirror in very careful slashes of guest hand-soap, all in the capital letters of a feminine hand, was the sentence YOU KEPT SAYING THE WORD 'SLANDERER' IN YOUR SLEEP.
I looked at that for more than a minute, reading it again and again. It was neither an accusation nor a gesture toward endearment. The soap had dried completely. I washed my face then, used the toilet, left those words there for the chambermaid to erase. I went back into the room and reached for my keys atop the bureau.
My wallet had been opened, and all of its contents set out neatly in a row. Driver's license, library card, Visa card, Discover card, social security card, car rental receipt, a list of the phone extensions of people at work whom I rarely spoke to. My keys rested beside the car rental receipt. The money inside the wallet, the twenty-eight hundred dollars I had won at the Tropicana, was gone.
I knew she had taken it even before I bothered to rummage through my pants, my shirt, all the drawers in the room, and my coat, where my original stake of twenty-eight hundred still remained, and which she had somehow overlooked. She had taken only the money I had gained for use at the auction, rendering my gambit at the casino meaningless.
I sat on the edge of the bed for no longer than five minutes, my head in my hands. My imagination fooled me greatly at one point, for I thought I heard the rain tapering off, but no, there had been no change in its constancy. It fell in strict vertical stripes in the windless pre-dawn. As a child, I believed for one long afternoon that the silently crawling beads of water which wended down the windowpanes in nonsensical Z patterns were very small ghosts trying to get into the house, ghosts which screamed in tiny voices I could not hear, who would grow to full size if they managed to enter. When those rain beads reached the bottom of the pane, they searched for cracks like thieves. Chance alone saved them from getting to me.
I got on the phone. The man at the front desk remembered my bedmate walking through the lobby sometime around three o'clock. No, she had not asked to use the phone down there, had not asked for a towing service. She had simply walked out. Before that, she had stolen all the money I'd won, and then taken the time to write a single sentence on the bathroom mirror for me to read when I awoke. YOU KEPT SAYING THE WORD 'SLANDERER' IN YOUR SLEEP. Or was it the message first, and then, with utter calmness, a few steps to the dresser to take what I had.
She had not taken the whole wallet, which would have been so much easier and quicker. She had laid everything out first, in a line. In this way, I would not be inconvenienced by the loss of my license or my credit cards.
She had said: You want just the one night. I want many of them.
As I believe I said before, I never saw her again.
At 4:15 a.m., the second resident of Room 16 left the Temple Inn unexpectedly, passing the desk clerk without a word. I walked unhurriedly through the rain to my car, got in, and mentally reversing and correcting the mongoloid directions the museum had provided me, drove down Leo Road toward Petersburg Road and then took a turn onto 83. I drove past the place where the woman named Sandra had claimed to have broken down, and of course, there was no dark red Mercedes there anymore. What if I had actually turned the key the night before? What if I had gotten in and tried to test the engine? Would she have come up with some other method of inserting herself into my room? Why had she not simply not introduced herself to me at dinner? Had she truly been on the guest list? Had they checked?
I was on the Atlantic City Expressway by 4:25, driving without the sound of the radio through the pre-dawn gloom. The drugs which may or may not have been insinuated into my system back at the hotel bar either did or did not dissolve harmlessly into my bloodstream.
I drove thirty-five miles to Atlantic City, and to the Tropicana Hotel and Casino. I parked two stories below the spot where I'd parked the afternoon before. I was closer to that defaced Irish pub, which would be shuttered and locked now, and where I truly felt I should be, from Saturday to Sunday, a remorseless drunk in a town so respectful of them. I got out of the car and walked through the appropriate tunnels, toward the gaming floor.
They had to open the roulette table for me. At five in the morning, there were precious few gamblers. I saw two skinny Asian men sitting in a glass-enclosed poker room, playing face to face. Three old women dressed for church sat in a row at the dollar slots, appearing wide awake, each holding a bucketful of tokens and feeding them in one by one. Other people passed me but I did not see them..
I took the exact same pile of stake money I had placed on Black the day before, converted it into chips, and pushed it all onto the exact same rectangle. This time, I did not withhold twenty dollars. Everything was placed on the table. Everything. The table got it all.
The wheel was spun. No one was around me this time. No one was watching.
I was indeed coming down with something, it felt like. The cold rain, the air conditioning, the lack of sleep, the anger. My throat was scratchy.
A woman in her fifties with matchsticks for legs came up behind me, waiting to offer me a Coke from her tray. She eyed the clacking of the silver ball without much interest.
It occurred to me that there were four sisters in my dream because I had once seen, in a cemetery in Italy, the tombstones of four children, all of them girls who had been killed in a train derailment. They'd been the only ones to die in the crash. I had never forgotten the tale.
The silver ball settled. The man at the wheel clapped his hands in a robotic gesture and pushed twenty-eight hundred dollars in chips next to the original twenty-eight hundred. I picked it all up, turned away without a single word, cashed them in, and went back to my car. I felt as if I was going to throw up six feet from it, but it passed; I felt radiantly healthy for a moment, then like a hollow shell with bones as brittle as glass, and not minding.
At last, the slanderer was ready for the auction at the National Museum of Romance.
Welcome to the Tristia Museum of Romance
This booklet contains a listing of those holdings which will be auctioned to the public on December 14, 2003, beginning at 10:30 a.m. in the Conference and Banquet Room.
Bidders are asked to read and respect the auction guidelines enclosed within. Full payment, in cash or check, must be made for items by the close of the auction.
Your auctioneer is Mr. Rance Munchick.
Ellen Roth, museum manager
Archer Rand, curator
Lot 1. A 2 x 2 1/2 foot cement block, chiseled from the Flint River Bridge, Burlington, Iowa, 1971. Donated by the Iowa State Police.
On the afternoon of December 31, 1971, an Iowa State Trooper radioed a Code Sadie to his dispatcher, who tiredly passed on this information to the Iowa State Transportation Commission. A "Code Sadie" was a pure invention of the Iowa State Highway Patrol. It mean that once again, a very specific piece of graffiti had been spotted defacing one of the state's bridges, overpasses, or tunnels.
Come back, Sadie, forgive my mistake, the graffiti always read, in careful script letters ranging from two to eight feet high, in red, blue, green, sometimes yellow paint. The first message had been spotted almost two years before, in the autumn of 1969, and in the ensuing two years, two hundred and seventy-seven such messages where found scrawled over a radius of two hundred square miles. The vandal who came to be known comically in the newspapers and on local television as "Sadie's Ex" was never apprehended by the police for his misdeeds. An article about the poignant ordeal printed in the Hawk Eye of Burlington featured a handwriting expert's professional opinion that, aside from a few poorly crafted imitations, all the known messages begging Sadie to forgive her lover's mistake were indeed drawn by the same hand. The text of the message never changed, was always exactly the same, six words and six words only. The boldest of the graffiti strikes was found on the face of the law library at Iowa State University in October of 1971.
Many in Iowa were secretly, and sometimes not so secretly, disappointed when Sadie's ex apparently stopped begging for her return in early 1972. No new graffiti strikes were ever found in the state. But then, in late 1973, an Iowan vacationing with her sister in Montrose, Georgia spotted those infamous six words on an overpass on Highway 16 and called her husband to spread the word. She saw the message twice more during her vacation, and contacted the local paper to inform them that Sadie's ex, so notorious back home in Iowa but utterly unheard of in Georgia, could be expected to leave his mark again, and soon.
And so he did. Come back, Sadie, forgive my mistake appeared fifteen more times on Georgia's bridges, overpasses, and tunnels—nothing compared to what Sadie's ex had done in Iowa, but still a great deal of work and damage. Some assumed that Sadie must have moved to Georgia, and that her old lover had followed, continuing his pleadings in a warmer climate. The last known graffiti strike was left by Sadie's ex sometime in the winter of 1973.
An Iowa photographer named Hodge Frawley published a slim coffee table book in 1980 which used the forlorn lover's full message as its title. The book consisted of the author's forty-one best photographs of that message, and the always empty roads it seemed to be speaking to, as taken in the years 1970 to 1973 in both Iowa and Georgia.
No one ever came forward to claim that he was the vandal who had cried out so often for Sadie's return, and the object of his passion never revealed herself. To this day, their secret remains their own.
Lot 2. Four framed diplomas from, chronologically, Cleveland High School (Oregon), Portland State University, Oregon State University, and Middlesex University, England. Donated by Randall McCleon.
Randall McCleon was never that much into education. From the age of ten, he found his classes boring and was often antagonistic toward his classmates, whom he felt were cruel and exclusionary. With his father's permission, he dropped out of high school at age sixteen and went to work in a sign shop. He felt drawn back, however, because of the disappointment expressed by one Jennifer Schroder, a popular, intelligent girl who had shared a gym class with Randall during their sophomore year. Jennifer was the only thing about Cleveland High he liked and was attracted to. His grades were poor mostly because of his extreme disinterest.
He ran into Jennifer twice during her junior year, both times at the local shopping mall, where she talked about how her classes were going, while he told her about life at the sign shop. Though he didn't sense that she had any real romantic feelings for him at that time, Randall was fighting a heavy crush on her, and, deducing from their brief talks that she was the kind of girl who preferred bookish, educated types, Randall stunned his father and went back to school after a year at the sign shop.
He was lucky enough to be in two elective classes with Jennifer that year, her last at the school, and they became good friends. She was Randall's only real female acquaintance. As time went by, he fell in love with her, but with her graduation it seemed hopeless that he would ever even have the courage to ask her out. She told him to write her at college. With her gone, he did not bother to return for his senior year at Cleveland High.
The two of them exchanged a couple of postcards during her freshman year at nearby Portland State University. The news that Jennifer had acquired a boyfriend there made something snap in Randall, and it sent him back to school once more—for night classes, which he completed in near record time to gain his G.E.D. Then, still having no interest in educating himself unless it got him geographically closer to Jennifer's heart, he applied and was accepted to Portland State. He paid for it by taking out every loan he could; his mediocre grades would not allow him any academic grants.
He attended Portland State with Jennifer for three years. To keep up with her, since he had fallen a full year and a half behind, he took extra classes and attended school during the summer as well, improving his grades slightly. Almost by default he chose to major in history. He and Jennifer spent more time together, he acting as her confidant in matters concerning her boyfriend. All the while, he fell more and more in love, and when he wasn't bulling his way through his humdrum studies, he was thinking of her and when might be the right time to reveal his true feelings.
The time never seemed to be right, and he was terrified of losing her as a friend. Despite the fact that he was far more congenial with his college classmates than he had been with those in high school, he was at Portland State for her and her alone. Graduation approached, and still Randall did not see how he could possibly confess himself to her. So he did what he thought he had to do: he applied for a master's degree program exactly where Jennifer intended to go for hers, Oregon State University.
So she worked toward her anthropology degree, and Randall struggled toward a master's in American military affairs, which he was vaguely interested in but not terribly so. He found it quite difficult to adapt to the daily rigors of paper writing and scholarly research, but he maintained a B average. Jennifer broke up with her boyfriend in the winter of 1985, but Randall failed to reveal his feelings for her out of fear that he might never see her again. She had come to think of him as a true friend, and he was banking on a miracle to make her see him differently. The risks of telling her he was deeply in love with her were just too great.
Upon gaining his master's degree (no one in his family's history had even gotten a bachelor's, exclaimed his beaming father), Randall rolled the dice one more time and followed Jennifer at last across the Atlantic to Middlesex University, where they planned to pursue their doctorates. Randall's choice of schools this time around began to make Jennifer truly suspicious of his real intents. Their intensive doctoral programs kept them travelling and forced them apart for weeks, sometimes months, at a time. It was torture for Randall. Fortunately for him, this very separation stirred deeper feelings in Jennifer. In the end, it was she who revealed her love for him one summer night before she accepted a teaching post back in Eugene. Randall's long, expensive gamble had paid off, in more ways than one.
They were married in 1989. Today they both have healthy academic careers; Randall McCleon is a professor at Oregon State. He credits only his love for Jennifer for giving him a life he never knew existed, and never suspected he might so strangely fall into someday: a life of education and intellect, which he says "still feels strange sometimes, as if I never really belonged here. I don't think I was meant to be what I am, I really don't, and I never would have come close if it wasn't for one girl, and the endless fear she might reject me if I overplayed my hand. A year ago I was driving to see my father in Garden Home and I went past the sign shop where I started, and I had the feeling that I should still be there making signs and going home at the end of the day to watch TV, swearing I would die before I went back into the halls of that stupid high school, where they had absolutely nothing to teach me, where I had absolutely nothing to gain."
Lot 3. A replica of a prop scrapbook from the film She'll Come Back Again (1992). Donated by November First Pictures.
When the National Society of Film Journalists released its list of the 100 greatest screen love stories of all time in 1994, Jules Aaberg's She'll Come Back Again came in at number three. For its lead actress, Jessa Salvi, the touching story of an Alzheimer's-diagnosed young woman who falls in love with the man she hires to transcribe her life story was a career maker. The public became quite well-versed in the similarly heartbreaking story of Salvi's life, which after her acclaimed turn in the film was punctuated with several failed romances, including her brief marriage to a man who was revealed to be a bigamist. Despite seeming always so cheerful and friendly to all who knew her, she was diagnosed with chronic depression when she turned thirty, and her exhausting fight with the disorder, coupled with her difficulties with her relationships with men, rendered her unable to ever appear onscreen again. She moved to a small farm in eastern California and lived entirely on her small savings. After her death by ovarian cancer at age thirty-five, her will was found to consist of nothing but a specific internment wish: that she be buried holding the scrapbook which served as a key prop in her one and only film.
It turned out to be a difficult wish to grant. The producers of the film simply had no idea what had become of the prop after shooting was completed; it had apparently disappeared from a studio warehouse with no explanation. Only through the exhausting efforts of the film's editor, Henry Gorstin, who frantically tracked the scrapbook down by spending hours on the phone and flying from Los Angeles to Seattle and back again just hours before Shalvi's funeral, was the prop delivered to her burial site in time. It was found in a thrift shop and purchased from its proprietor, who believed it to be an authentic scrapbook and not a movie prop, for seven dollars. The photos which were shown in the film were still inside, photos which included several of Shalvi herself.
"I probably got involved with the search for the scrapbook because I was a little in love with her, just from talking with her on the set back when we made the film," Gorstin said later. "Even then, I felt awful for her, because it was obvious she was carrying so much sadness. It was sheer luck that I found out about her last wish, and it just suddenly seemed like the most important thing in the world that I find the thing in time for her funeral. I'm glad I could help her in that small way. It's nice that she had a little piece of a great movie romance, even if she could never have a real one herself."
Lot 4. Framed accident report, framed police report, and photograph of Annette McMyer and Peter Griffie, Potomac, Maryland. Donated by Peter Griffie.
There are plenty of bad date stories in the world, and plenty more bad first date stories. One of the worst first dates on record, or at least the most comically unfortunate, befell Maryland's Peter Griffie and Annette McMyer. After chatting with her at a local coffee shop one day, Peter asked Annette if she would like to go out sometime. She agreed, and he told her he would pick her up on a Saturday afternoon.
Peter was an hour and forty-five minutes late in picking her up, due to the fact that a police car rear-ended his Honda during a high speed chase in which Peter, finding himself at the wrong intersection at the wrong time, was clipped hard while a fleeing bank robber got away. The car was almost a total loss and just barely driveable afterward, but he insisted the date go on anyway, though he was visibly shaken as he told his date the story.
Five minutes after they left Annette's house, she and Peter were rudely jolted when the Honda was struck from behind for the second time that day. This time, a drunk driver gave them a firm bump at a stop sign. Peter threw up his hands and naturally decided his car was doomed, and he had it towed away while the police arrested the inebriated man who had ruined things and thankfully done no more harm than that. There was a further fifteen minute delay when a policeman mistakenly believed Peter's car to be stolen when he ran its tags through his cruiser's computer. Peter was very nearly arrested, but things were cleared up with great apology.
Again, this time from the side of the road, Annette suggested they re-schedule the date, but Peter, ever the trooper, had a bold idea to salvage the day. With his cell phone he called a friend who picked them up and delivered them to a small airfield where Peter had scheduled a hot air balloon ride for he and Annette. Though they were horribly late, they were able to get a trip anyway. Both of them agreed that something undoubtedly would go wrong, but what were the odds of something catastrophic happening? Peter, believing Annette would admire his laughing daredevil spirit, took her hand and they hopped on the hot air balloon.
Did they crash? No. That would have been too easy somehow. Instead, mere seconds after the balloon lifted off the ground, two shots rang out and the balloon pilot grabbed his arm and sank to the floor of the basket. The other couple in the balloon leaped out in panic; Peter and Annette dove to the floor in terror. The pilot's arm was bleeding profusely.
Bizarrely, the pilot's wife, having discovered a string of infidelities just a few hours before, had stalked onto the airfield, taken aim at her cheating husband from ten feet away, and fired at him with the two bullets she'd found in the gun she'd taken from his sock drawer. She was tackled quickly by a bystander and arrested while the pilot received medical attention.
Peter and Annette never did get their dating relationship going. They both simply let the idea go. Five years later, they met once again at a wedding of a mutual friend, and things clicked much better this time. They went to see a movie together and had dinner without incident. They didn't date beyond that, but together they possessed at least one classic story to tell of the first few hours of their initial, disastrously pre-empted courtship.
Lot 5. A framed coroner's certificate from Providence County, Rhode Island. Donated by Providence County.
Cassandra Maddox and Dennis Piatt were two of the Providence goth scene's most devoted followers—to the point where Cassandra's fanatical commitment to her invented image of herself may have cost her her life. They met at age nineteen through a mutual enjoyment of a role playing game called Darkonic, in which they assumed the roles of vampires laboring under a forced human existence. The couple dressed entirely in black, even at their jobs whenever possible, and spent most of their free time immersing themselves in the isolated "faux vampire" culture of Providence. They stayed out all night whenever they could, always careful to enhance their game by never meeting the sunrise. In their love letters to each other, they treated each other as vampire equals, condemned to eternal life on earth. The letters sometimes made mention of the drinking of one another's blood in small quantities.
The utter seriousness with which they took their adopted vampire images slowly estranged them from even the most devout young goths at the clubs and basement gatherings they attended, and by the time they were in their mid-twenties, they had taken to sleeping in mock coffins beside each other when night fell, and taking jobs that allowed them to stay awake during the dark hours and remain indoors during the day. Though they never took their illusion so far as to attack other people with vampiristic desire, in every other way they truly were what they pretended to be.
It is not known exactly what caused Dennis's slow break from this lifestyle, but his letters reveal an eventual detachment from the "game", and an effort to adapt more and more to what society expected of him. By the age of twenty-seven, he had enrolled at Johnson and Wales University and moved into his own apartment. While he remained a self-professed goth follower, his participation in the scene became more and more limited.
Cassandra, meanwhile, was unable to break from her vampire image. Saddled with a traumatic childhood that gave her a painful lack of self-esteem, she despaired when Dennis broke up with her and then begged her to give up her illusions.
One day after his calls had gone unanswered for too long, Dennis drove to the basement room Cassandra rented from an elderly couple who knew little of her lifestyle. He found her lying dead in the cheap wooden coffin she had bought in a costume shop. She wore a long black and red dress. At first he believed her death must have come from some sort of drug overdose, though he had never known her to have even experimented with that sort of thing. Then he read the letter she clutched to her chest. In it, she told him she did not want to go on living anymore—and had decided to let the sun's rays cause her to perish. For the first time in more than six weeks, she had opened her curtains and allowed daylight to touch her, a guarantee of instant death for the undead in literature and cinema.
An autopsy revealed that mysteriously, Cassandra's heart had simply stopped. It was an unexplained death by supposedly natural causes.
Lot 6. A series of photographs of damage done to the interior of the home of Evan Madden, Lewiston, Maine. Donated by Evan Madden.
When Evan Madden's wife Celine died in 1978, he was so heartbroken that the couple's friends and neighbors did not see him for months. It was assumed he had quit his job and secluded himself inside his house, which was quite true. He politely refused visitors for a full year, and only after that did he emerge and go back to work at his insurance firm, more or less resuming a regular life. One thing that remained strange about Evan, though, was his unwillingness to have anyone come to the house.
Finally, almost two years after Celine's death, Evan invited his old college friend Stanley Meyerhoff to come over on his way through town, after telling him he "might have to explain a few things" about what had been happening recently inside the house.
Meyerhoff noted nothing unusual going on there, except that a potted plant had been smashed in the lower bathroom. Upon seeing it, Evan calmly told Meyerhoff that the broken pot was most likely a result of his being too slow in getting the lawn raked that weekend. Evan sat him down and told him the whole story.
Only a few months after Celine's death, little accidents had begun to befall various objects inside the house. A bowl of fruit had been mysteriously turned over, some frozen vegetables had been spilled inside the freezer, a chair was upended, a doorknob loosened to the point where it had nearly fallen onto the floor. Evan hadn't noticed any of these things actually take place. At first he was merely confused, especially by the fact that once in a while, something inexplicably good would happen inside the house. For example, one day he'd entered his den to find that the profusion of bills and personal papers on his desk had been straightened, and another time, after he had been searching fruitlessly for a new calendar he'd bought a couple of days before, the calendar was suddenly found hanging on the wall, opened to the correct month.
In the space of six months, there were all kinds of tiny disasters inside the house, and perhaps a dozen good deeds, none of which he ever saw occur. He had begun to see a bizarre correlation between his housecleaning habits, which were notoriously uneven, and the frequency of the events. He had finally come to the simple conclusion that if he put off a regular cleaning, something would get mysteriously damaged. If he went out of his way to do just a little more cleaning than was necessary, some cleaning would get done without his even doing it. It was then, he told Meyerhoff, that he'd realized Celine was haunting the house in a most inoffensive way, alternately scolding and aiding her husband in relation to his tidyness.
Meyerhoff thought his friend was merely feeling the sad aftershocks of grief, and made a mental note to persuade Evan to see a psychologist. But Evan seemed fine, almost happy. He loved having Celine around, he said, even if it was in this way. Her nagging about cleaning, which had driven him nuts during their six year marriage, was now a source of comfort to him. He had taken to playing little tricks on her, he said: intentionally doing a poor job clearing out the eaves or sorting the recyclables or washing the dishes to see what she would do. Invariably, he would be lightly punished, and Evan would laugh. Once he had left a plate of spaghetti in the sink for three days. Celine had gone so far as to put a harsh crack in an upstairs window to prompt him to action. Shortly after that, he re-painted the entire living room, and woke up to find that the tub had been scrubbed as he slept. He had laughed and laughed.
Meyerhoff appeased Evan by promising he would tell no one else the story, at least for a little while, and he left the house after a few hours. He came back to town a few months later, and when he arrived at Evan's home, he was disturbed to see that the house was not only a total mess, but that drawers had been pulled out, a set of blinds had come unhooked from the living room window and fallen onto the floor, and an entire tube of toothpaste had been squeezed onto the dining room table.
Evan smiled when he saw Meyerhoff's reaction. He told him simply that Celine was very, very unhappy with a recent run of sloppiness which Evan had done absolutely nothing to ameliorate. Celine's visits had become less and less frequent recently, and this had made Evan deeply sad, so he thought he would stage a bit of a cleaning strike to get her goat, and it had worked. He would give the house another day or so of inattention, and then he would make things right.
He took a few photographs of the disaster before he cleaned up, because, as he explained to Meyerhoff, he had gotten the feeling that Celine would now be around less and less. Maybe she had better or more important things to do, or maybe it was getting tougher to communicate with him, and their time was simply running out. Either way, he felt he was going to be okay with it. Her silent visits had gotten him through the worst days of his life, and he was truly grateful.
Meyerhoff came to see Evan once more, two years later. In that time, Evan had decided to tell everyone he knew about Celine's visits, and most of his friends and family had agreed that he needed therapy, and just to appease them he got some. He was never able to convince anyone fully that his wife was the poltergeist that haunted their house, and that it wasn't just him, slipping into denial-filled fugue states perhaps, and doing all the damage himself. On an autumn day inside his flawlessly clean house, he told Meyerhoff that Celine "came by" only once every few months now, no matter how much he slacked off with the cleaning. He had begun dating a local woman, whom he had judiciously not told the story to, and he assured Meyerhoff that he probably never would tell her. On the day after their first date, Evan discovered Celine's reaction: nothing more violent than two small salt and pepper shakers lying on their side, their contents spilled on the kitchen table, not a difficult thing to fix at all. Upstairs, he found just a little more evidence that Celine knew what he had been up to: the clumsy profusion of sweaters, pants, socks, and underwear which crammed his bureau had been folded neatly, and with great care.
Lot 7. An autographed Bangor Cannons football helmet, and a Bangor Cannons cheerleader's outfit. Donated by the Bangor Cannons football club.
The short-lived Great States Football League, a semi-pro organization with fourteen east coast teams, was most remembered for its first title game, a thrilling four-overtime affair ending in a dramatic kickoff return, and for one very unusual love story. The second string quarterback for the Bangor Cannons, Reggie Nagle, got his chance to start during the 1993 season when the team's usual starter broke his collarbone during the first game. On Nagle's very first play, he was flushed out of the pocket by charging linemen and forced to scramble. Finally running out of bounds, a blatant late hit by a New York Guardians player sent Reggie crashing into Cannons cheerleading captain Lisa Lometh. Lisa, who weighed one hundred and twenty pounds less than Reggie, was sent flying into a metal bench and one of her arms was broken.
Reggie felt terrible and visited her in the hospital after the game, suggesting he buy her dinner sometime, and thus began a tentative dating relationship. There was one problem: the Cannons' strict rule against dating between players and cheerleaders. When Lisa returned to the sidelines to cheer the team on three weeks after the accident, they continued to date, drawing the ire of team management, and Reggie was fined $500—a not insubstantial sum for a player making only $15,000 per year.
Reggie and Lisa got along famously, however, and they tried to keep dating while keeping it under the radar of management. It didn't work, and once again Reggie was fined $500. The president of the team informed him in a letter that for each infraction of the team rule, he would be fined yet again. Apparently, though, it was not legal grounds for cutting him or dropping him from the team, a fortunate loophole.
And so he kept dating Lisa, and as they fell in love they became more and more careless about keeping it a secret. Only because Reggie's on-field performance was good enough to let him keep his starting job was he able to keep paying the fines for seeing his girlfriend, who with his encouragement continued to lead the cheerleading squad out of principle. Very quickly Reggie's two thousand dollar raise disappeared as the president of the team labored in vain to get the message across that this behavior was verboten. He kept fining Reggie every time it became obvious that he was still involved with the Cannons' cheerleading captain, and Reggie kept paying. By the end of the regular season, he was firmly entrenched as the team's starter, and he was out four thousand dollars, almost one quarter of his salary. "It's pretty simple, really," Reggie told a friend during practice one day. "If I throw too many interceptions and get benched, I'm not going to be able to afford to have my love life."
The playoffs began. A victory in the title game would mean a cash bonus for Reggie big enough to offset the cost of dating his girlfriend, but it wasn't to be. He was injured in the semi-finals, the team lost the big one, and he decided to end his football career during the off-season, partially due to the financial toll the fines were taking on him. He married Lisa a year later and went to work as a computer programmer. After the wedding, the team president who took so much money from the couple sent a letter to Reggie, a letter consisting of a reproduction of an e-mail he had sent to the Cannons' head coach during Reggie's fateful last season. It said simply, "Bill: Thanks for your input, but I will keep fining Nagle as long as he keeps blatantly violating team policy, no matter how much of a hole it puts him in. We have to communicate to these players the importance of discipline and a team approach to the season. I'll tell you this, though, and don't pass it on: if he ever has the decency to actually marry this girl, I'll personally refund all the money we've taken, plus a little extra something for not believing they had a good thing going." And inside the envelope alongside the letter was a check for four thousand, five hundred dollars.
Lot 8. The Purifying Dream, an unpublished manuscript by Dr. Leonard Masterman, circa 1940. Donated by the estate of Leonard Masterman.
Masterman, a controversial psychiatrist who lived and worked in Ottawa, Canada until his death in 1955, spent many years honing a new form of therapy for his patients who suffered guilt, regret, and depression over the loss of a former spouse or lover. Frustrated by the power of this sadness which gripped so many people despite months and even years of talk therapy, Masterman turned to dream research after documenting his experiences with his own nocturnal wanderings. This led him into hypnosis studies and finally the creation of a three step method which would attempt to rid a patient of tortured memories of his or her ex-loves once and for all. He used hypnosis to suggest dream scripts to his patients, scripts in which they would first confront the person who had caused them such pain, then forgive them, and then release them utterly through what he called the Purifying Dream.
The first, or Bridging Dream, over which the patient would have no control whatsoever—experiencing only what Masterman had suggested during the hypnotic state—would consist of a final meeting with the ex-lover, usually in some peaceful seaside location. The patient would say everything they had always meant to say to the person, and then promise that they would meet up again "some day in the future". That future day would come just a week or so later, after Masterman had hypnotized the patient a second time and caused them to experience a Resolutive Dream, in which that same seaside location was the scene of the two lovers embracing one last time before the patient voluntarily kissed them goodbye forever, offering total forgiveness for past wrongs. Masterman went so far as to set the dream in a future time in which both parties had physically aged about fifteen years.
The third, or Purifying Dream, would come a month afterward. In it, the patient would be alone in a new location, usually a field in summertime, surrounded by a natural beauty which overwhelmed him or her with its peace and serenity. One by one, various animals would approach the patient, wanting only to be petted, and then they would run off again as the patient basked in sunshine and comfort. Upon waking from this third dream, Masterman found, some patients whom he had been unable to help through talk therapy would be utterly cured of the devastating sadness their lovers had cursed them with. They described themselves as feeling utterly freed and resolved, and able to love again, and more grateful for the life that had been given them. One or two people found that standing in that summer field was the most beautiful moment of their time on earth, despite the fact that it existed solely in their sleeping imaginations, and had been instilled in them through a session of hypnosis just a few hours before.
The key to the dream therapy, Masterman wrote, was that the patient could not be fully told why he or she was being hypnotized; otherwise the trio of dreams they experienced might be altered and corrupted. When they spoke of their dreams to him the next day, the patients believed them to be completely random and did not know they had been manipulated. This caused great skepticism and criticism on the part of Masterman's contemporaries, who felt he might be violating ethical principles. They mostly attributed his success with the method to a psychological placebo effect. To this day, his therapy has not caught on, though his unpublished book cites dozens of cases where it seemed to greatly help his patients. He was frustrated to find that the therapy did not seem to work with people who had suffered other sorts of traumas—emotional injuries inflicted in childhood, for example, or physical abuse, or grief over a death. The Purifying Dream seemed to set free only those who wanted to break away from a lost love. In his book's coda, he wrote that he sometimes wished the therapy had been the brainchild of someone else, so that he might have had the benefit of it in his late twenties, when the memory of a woman named Ellen caused him overwhelming heartache for several years. Despite being placed under hypnosis by fellow doctors near the end of his life, some part of his mind corrupted his dream images and his dream scripts, and he never was able to experience in sleep a summer field whose beauty and simplicity could release him from the fading traces of his past.
Lot 9. Sixteen vintage books and a photographic series depicting the residence of George Blaine, Littlehampton, England, circa 1927. Donated by Raymond Bernard Shipp, London.
The central photograph of this series showing the interior of George Blaine's house is no optical illusion: he truly had created towers and towers of books in a winding maze which stretched to every nook and cranny of the dwelling. Blaine was thirty-six years old when a well-meaning psychologist visited him and found him within his maze of books, the covers of which were glued to each other so as to create a permanent, snakelike structure six feet high and consisting of more than sixteen thousand volumes. Refusing to leave his house, Blaine did submit to therapy sessions inside his home, and Doctor Kurt Anderson visited him many times during the late nineteen-twenties.
Blaine, who lived on a small inheritance, slowly revealed that his maze of books had taken three years to build, and would never be fully complete. He had dozens of decrepit volumes shipped to him every week from a junk dealer in Brighton. The reasons for his construction of the maze were discovered far more slowly, and revealed a tragic case of isolation and ruined self-esteem.
When was in a student in his early twenties, Blaine frantically courted a classmate by writing her dozens of heartfelt love letters and poems, never even talking to the girl because of his shyness. He sent the letters to her home over the course of one summer vacation and received no reply. He was especially proud of them and longed to discover what she thought of him and the words he had put so much effort into. Sadly, he only discovered through a friend of a friend that the girl had found the letters ridiculous and the poems immature. Blaine withdrew from school for fear of ever seeing her face again. Several years later, well on his way to becoming a hermit, Blaine began his strange maze project, not even knowing why himself at first.
His therapy sessions with Dr. Anderson revealed that Blaine had come to believe in the mystical protective powers of his maze. He felt that each of the characters inside the books he used as bricks possessed a true life, and that they were protecting him from burglars, debt collectors, false friends, and anyone who intended to do him harm in this world. The more books he stacked, leaving himself only enough space to move from room to room, the more characters there were to fend off the cruel outside world simply by existing on a printed page. No actual man or woman could penetrate such a defense, such an army of invisible allies. He felt safer and safer as the maze grew.
Dr. Anderson came to the conclusion that Blaine's belief in the protection of words began when he wrote those elaborate love letters as a student. Fearing the girl of his dreams would have little tolerance for his socially awkward ways and physically unattractive appearance, he had used words then to shelter him from her potential criticisms, hoping to so win her over with his writing that she would accept his advances. The heartbreak he suffered when she dismissed his efforts led to his attempts to buffer himself from criticism by first removing himself from society, and then surrounding himself bodily with the works of others. At long last, words were fulfilling their purpose for him, and no one could find and harm him emotionally. His delusion became more and more extreme.
Dr. Anderson was eventually able to make Blaine understand what had caused the delusion, and did finally manage to get him out of the house for short periods of time. Years of therapy allowed him to live mostly without the protection of his maze, which he at long last broke down, though his self-esteem was never fully rebuilt, and he remained alone until his death at age fifty-five. The sixteen books displayed here still bear the glue marks from when they were adhered to one another just inside Blaine's front door. They are believed to have been the very first ones that comprised the maze.
Lot 10. A Whitman's chocolate candy sampler, circa 1959. Donated by Henri Verzot.
This extraordinary find was made in March of 2002 upon Mount McKinley in Alaska by mountain climber Henri Verzot. He was at nine thousand feet on McKinley's wintry south face when he spotted the Sampler poking out of the snow, embedded in a crag, wrapped snugly in this green ribbon, as if it were a gift to a sweetheart. The markings on the box show that it was manufactured sometime during the years 1958 or 1959. No living person who is known to have scaled Mount McKinley to that height has claimed to know how it got there. Though the box was in poor shape upon its discovery, the chocolates within remain even today in decent, and completely edible, condition.
Lot 11. Silk-screened T-shirt created by Gregory Randle, 1988. Donated by Grady McGee.
Gregory Randle was a Buffalo performance artist who, after becoming more and more frustrated by his inability to sell tickets to his one-man shows, embarked on a novel business scheme. His 'mystery shirts' were ordinary cotton blue and red garments in every way, except that each one of the four hundred and twelve he made and sold bore different text on the back in simple block lettering. The text could be a single line or several of them, sometimes entire paragraphs, the meaning of which had to be researched by the shirt's owner. Sometimes the messages on the shirts were incredibly obscure quotes from plays or novels which history had long forgotten, or curious inscriptions on tombs in faraway countries, or esoteric blurbs taken from ignored, minor monuments. The purchaser of a shirt could not specify what would be printed on it, and it became their responsibility to solve the mystery of the text they bore. Before the advent of the Internet, this was quite often no small task. Some people spent months figuring out the origin of their shirt's text, and some never managed to unravel it at all. Never once did Randle offer to sell the "answer" to a shirt to any customer, and he spent days and days in many different libraries tracking down little-known quotations. Randle's mystery shirts became an underground craze written up in magazines and mentioned on television. Though he only made a profit of a thousand dollars or so off his idea, it certainly captured the public's attention.
The last T-shirt Randle ever made turned out to be the most difficult to research and decipher. Presented here, on an extra large shirt purchased by Grady McGee of Kansas City, Missouri, the text seems to be an especially literate, elaborately romantic eight hundred and five word marriage proposal, but where did it come from, and who might have spoken those words? The answer turned out to be Randle himself. He had printed the proposal in a small French newspaper in March of 1989 for his fiancée to see and respond to. It was one of seventeen mystery shirts whose origin was never figured out by their owners and was only deciphered years later.
Lot 12. A collection of handwritten notes taken by Edgar Allan Poe, forty-one total pages, circa 1849. Donated by the Dishman family.
These extraordinary pages were found in 2001 in the home of Arthur and Grace Dishman of Richmond, Virginia. It is believed that Edgar Allan Poe probably stayed in that house for several weeks during a lecture tour in the year 1849. The pages were found in an old cupboard which had not been moved for decades. They are filled with notes which outline in some detail Poe's plans for a non-fiction work about human loneliness—and more specifically, the kind of loneliness suffered by young men and women longing for a loved one. Poe himself was of course one of the most tragically lonely figures in literary history, having endured the loss of his beloved cousin Virginia Clemm just a year after they were married, a blow from which he seemingly never fully recovered during his short and unhappy life. About half the discovered pages consist of Poe's messy and incomplete transcriptions of actual interviews he conducted with several young men and women in the Richmond area. Each interview is preceded by the subject's name and a brief biographical sketch, after which he or she was asked a series of standard questions which Poe had worked up, such as: Who was your first love? What do you think it would be like to grow old alone? Do you feel your loneliness is noticeable to others? Has it made you angry? Do you feel you can overcome it without help?
Doubtless, Poe's book would have made quite a surprising appearance in its day, since his interviews would have been considered overtly personal and shocking. Since Poe himself was not a psychologist by any means, his notes on 'The Oppressive Emptiness of the Scorned' display some basic misunderstandings of the workings of the human mind, but the twelve paragraphs which remain of the never-to-be-completed book's introductory essay contain some moving and eloquent passages. His original plans were apparently to interview more than one hundred men and women, and the notes give no hint as to why the project never took flight. Perhaps he realized that both the subject matter and his layman's approach would make it unpublishable, but it is possible that Poe's own depression made it too difficult to finish, for it was during this time that he ended one engagement, to Helen Whitman, and began another as he was caught in a downward emotional spiral which led to his ultimate demise.
Lot 13. A framed original newspaper advertisement and business license from Simple Reach Cuddling Service, 1996. Donated by Philip Simpson.
Not quite having the courage or inner fortitude to join a male escort service, Philip Simpson created the Simple Reach Cuddling Service in 1996. The concept was simple: For a fifteen dollar hourly fee, Philip would travel to any woman's home and offer himself for tender, fully clothed cuddling. No sex would be involved, and therefore it became a fully legal business. Figuring the idea was just a novelty and that he could not make more money at it than was required to support his modest lifestyle, he was surprised to find his web site flooded with requests for cuddling on the very first day his advertisements hit the local alternative newspaper. He kept up with the demand as much as he possibly could by working twelve-hour days, but balking at the idea of hiring "helper cuddlers" to stem the flow of requests, he had to resort to creating a waiting list that stretched on for months.
Simpson voluntarily closed Simple Reach just six months after he started it, despite the fact that he was set to make more money than he ever dreamed of. It seemed that the act of cuddling with women drew emotional responses he wasn't at all prepared for. Women proclaimed their love for him after just a couple of sessions, most of which passed with only a few hesitant words between the customer and the proprietor. He came to the conclusion that this sort of innocent physical contact held far greater powers than anyone had thus far documented. Whether the power of cuddling claimed only the emotional and not the physical desires of the very lonely women who used the service, he tried to determine later in his personal relationships by cuddling extensively, and for free this time. The results, he claimed, were much the same. Something about the seemingly platonic intertwining of the male and female body, before things went any further, was working wonders in the world, and for Philip Simpson.
Lot 14. Table, desk, and chair, plus photographic series depicting the layout of the basement of the Robert Scheider home, Lancaster, Pennsylvania, 1985. Donated by Robert and Sara Scheider.
In 1985, Robert Scheider made the worst mistake of his life by cheating on his wife during a two-week visit to his brother in Vermont. The woman was a neighbor of his brother's and one night after a party and much drinking the two made their slipup. Scheider came home and for three days protected the truth of what happened, and then out of guilt confessed his drunken infidelity to his wife Sara.
Sara took it hard, and they were on the verge of a separation when Robert came up with a unique, if poorly thought-out, idea. He offered to move into their basement for one year, never leaving it for any reason, never emerging once, if it would help to convince Sara that he was truly determined to atone for his mistake. Greatly upset, Sara immediately took him up on his offer, and demanded that he descend the basement steps at that very moment and not come out until next October. He did so.
The basement was fully furnished with a kitchenette and small bathroom, as they had rented it on and off for the five years of their marriage to various students from the nearby university. What remained to be figured out was how Robert would get food and the various supplies he needed to live. At three o'clock in the morning, six hours after the experiment began, his wife opened the basement door and put a sheet of paper on the top step, then withdrew. She had written detailed instructions on how they were to manage the year of Robert's isolation. She would do his grocery shopping for him, according to lists he would leave for her on the top step, and over the next few days she would put all his clothes and personal items and the TV set and his computer on that step for him to retrieve. Under no circumstances, unless it was a dire emergency, was he ever to come up to the top step until she had shut the door again. In fact, when he heard three raps at the basement door, he was to go into the bedroom if possible until another three came. Also, his notes to her were not to stray into any sort of communication outside of lists of the things he needed. He in turn used the computer to write a resignation letter to his boss which she hand-delivered. They would, for a year, simply live on Sara's decent salary.
It seemed that the isolation could not possibly work, that one or both of them would break down and beg that it should end, yet as the days and weeks passed, they both somehow became even more committed to the idea. Only one of the rules was soon broken: Robert's lists to Sara began to contain more and more personal notes to her, then entire letters, and she in return responded, and they kept up this correspondence as if Robert were in another state and would return the next fall. After a few months, it seemed that Sara had managed to forgive him, yet they both agreed it would be beneficial to them both somehow to maintain Robert's punishment. It would give them both an enormous time to think. Strange excuses were made to friends and neighbors and family as the year progressed as to why Robert couldn't make it out to a social engagement, or why Sara was never home when one of Robert's friends called and they had to let themselves into the house and into the basement to talk to him. Soon enough, the facade had to crumble, and they had no choice but to inform certain people they were close to about what was going on. It made it easier on them both.
The year changed them for the better. Robert began to realize that he had never been cut out for his job as an insurance underwriter and began to write a great deal in the basement, reviving a lost passion. Sara made more friends than she ever had, going out twice a week in stark contrast with the past few years, during which she had simply lost interest in leaving the house that often. Eventually Robert began writing real love letters to Sara, and she wrote a few to him, and they both looked forward to the day when they could see each other again.
Several times they very nearly threw in the towel, of course, but the punishment became a sort of quest for the both of them, a test of endurance and strength. And then, four months before Robert's sentence was over, he told Sara in one of his letters that he had begun to write a book about his year in the basement, so it might be important indeed that they get through the entire calendar year before they embraced once again.
At seven-thirty in the morning of October 12, 1986, Sara, according to the plans they had made in their most recent notes, opened the door at the top of the steps and came downstairs into the basement. Robert had breakfast waiting for her. She wore a new dress and he wore a suit she had bought for him. They spent the rest of the day with each other without once going back up into the house.
After their first day of bliss, there was some discussion of the problems that had led to Robert's infidelity, but not too much; it had all been thoroughly covered in their letters to each other, many of which were included in Robert's final draft of his book, A Year Without Her. The book, which included the amazing details of how they were able to live so close yet so apart for such a long time, was published in 1987. They remain married to this day, and now have four children. They had never planned on more than one, they said, until they were given time to individually think things over during the twelve months of their separation.
Lot 15. A Brunswick competition-style pool table, manufactured 1990, surface autographed by Rory Hewson. Donated by George Coakley.
Rory Hewson graduated from a public high school in Hartford, Connecticut in 1967 and went on to St. Joseph College a year later, intending to major in oceanography. He had always been fascinated by deep sea trenches and the possibilities of what new species of life might be found there. After only a couple of weeks of his new routine of going to his classes and to the library afterwards, he began to feel the same distance from his college classmates as he had from those in his high school days, as if an invisible wall somehow separated them. He blamed this feeling, as he always had, on one thing: his face.
Rory often referred to himself aloud as "Quasimodo" or "The Punching Bag" in an effort to make light of the fact that he was not the most attractive of young men. He had always had acne problems, was too wrapped up in his hobbies and studies to groom himself to the highest degree, and his facial features didn't quite come together in a traditional way. From a very early age, making fun of his own appearance was the only way Rory knew to ingratiate himself with his classmates. He was quite often charming and funny and self-deprecating, and so he had always managed to keep a small number of friends despite the fact that he had been made to feel like an outcast by cold-hearted children. He found the trend repeating itself in his freshman year in college, and was humbled by it once again, but adapted well enough to have a fairly normal social life, albeit without any dating whatsoever. He had never had a girlfriend, and did not see himself having one for a long, long time. His physical shortcomings caused him to avoid the company of girls almost entirely.
Shortly before Christmas break, a very fortunate thing happened to Rory. In one of his classes there was a very attractive girl who had taken an interest in him, and he to her, and they had become allies despite their immense differences. The girl in question was a year older than he, and, according to the local gossip, an unusually sharp and talented person. She was also apparently a friend to anyone worthy, keenly observant of kindness and forgiving of flaws which caused most people her age to judge without warrant. She was also unusually pretty, smartly dressed, more worldly than most. Her name was Isobel. She and Rory were an unusual picture during their lunch or dinnertime discussions. They often walked to class together as well, and sometimes kept each other company at Movie Night at the student center. Through Isobel, Rory came to have a deeper appreciation of Shakespeare, whom he had always found baffling, as she minored in theater and rehearsed scenes with him for her acting class. She, in turn, shifted her major from human anatomy to natural science, convinced by Rory that it would be a more enriching career. Throughout Rory's freshman year they were the best of friends.
It was often a tumultuous time for Rory, for he felt himself falling in love with Isobel. He confessed his feelings only to his chemistry lab partner and friend, David Kingman, who attempted to coach him in the most subtle ways on how to make those feelings known to her. Meanwhile, despite the fact that Rory continued to mock his own face with various derogatory nicknames as a reliable defense mechanism, the words had become less meaningful to him throughout his friendship with Isobel. When he was with her, he simply did not feel ugly. He felt as if he had no physical identity at all, that he was simply Rory. She had never made any comment about his appearance, or any attempt to change it.
Soon Rory's time was being completely monopolized by Isobel. David Kingman began to see that he was losing him as a friend in the way people lose each other all the time to the force of romantic love. He mentally wished him well, figuring things would be resolved come the autumn again, when he and Rory would most likely become nothing but passing acquaintances. Some friends of Kingman's told him that although the friendship between Rory and Isobel had been going on for months, and that Rory was certainly willing to turn it into something very serious indeed, the girl was hesitant. It seemed hard to believe that two people could be so irresolute for so long, but Kingman didn't think much about it.
In the dead hours of one night three weeks before the end of the semester, Rory showed up at his dorm room after a long stretch of not seeing him at all. He was visibly shaken, and had somehow regressed into the shell-like behavior more akin to the type of person he sometimes seemed from a distance. He explained to Kingman that it had ended with Isobel before it had really even begun; had, in fact, ended just two hours before, after a marathon late night talk which ended with Rory walking four miles to the dorm in the hopes that Kingman would somehow be awake. Rory, who had fawned over Isobel for so long, now spoke bitterly of her, of her commonness, her inability to be "unique." After months of biding time in a platonic tug of war, he had finally begged her to be his, and she wouldn't concede. And the depth of Rory's feelings had been so great as to make even friendship finally impossible.
It took an hour for Rory to admit the full of what the girl had told him after he'd professed his love as they sat in the front seat of her father's borrowed car. The words had come out awkwardly and unevenly, and he'd felt himself becoming more and more mute with fear and shame. Isobel had reacted graciously, however, and they talked for two hours about his feelings, though she seemed to be reluctant to tell him how she herself felt about him. She spoke of many issues she had which might not allow her to pursue a romance with anyone until she was a little older, though these supposed issues all seemed confusing and defeatist to Rory. He got the feeling she was hiding something, and finally, he pressed to know just what it was.
So Isobel, having trapped herself in a swarm of contradictory statements, was left with no choice but to tell him what the real problem was. Though she adored Rory, and had long considered becoming more than a friend to him, she simply could not find it within herself, despite her greatest efforts, to become attracted to him physically. She was powerless. She was deeply ashamed. For all her supposed belief in the superior inner beauty of human beings, her heart stopped short when it came to wanting Rory. In the end, it was this impossibly small but impossibly immense detail that had ruined them.
Rory had said almost nothing after her confession. There was nothing he could say, after all. There had been no kiss or hug goodbye. He had walked straight from the front seat of the car to Kingman's dorm. His parents' house had been closer, but no one had been awake there to let him in.
Rory did not return to school when it began again the following September. When David Kingman called his parents' house in July to suggest they room together in the fall, his mother told him that Rory wanted to take a year off school to consider a transfer. To David, she sounded quite distraught by this. She told him she would have Rory call him back. He never did.
One day in August, David happened to be in the local pool hall in the town adjacent to where Rory lived, and he saw Rory there, alone, racking and shooting. David said hello, and they talked for a while. Rory told him something rather shocking: that he had lost interest in becoming a scientist, and had instead become utterly fascinated with the mathematical complexities of billiards. He had been studying the force and spin of ball against ball and ball against railing, and believed he could become a truly great player if he were able to master the math of pool and not just its aspects of muscle memory and rudimentary strategy. He believed that if pool had suddenly become this interesting to him, there was no telling where this fascination might lead. He might want to become a mathematician. David did not press him on returning to St. Joseph. He suspected Rory's reasons for dropping out had more to do with his trauma involving Isobel than the fact that their school's mathematics program was underdeveloped.
As the summer drew to a close, David shot pool with Rory sometimes, and never really heard Rory speak much about the math of the game. In fact, even when asked, he didn't seem to know a great deal about it. Instead he shot pool for hours and hours each day, getting better and better for certain, but there seemed to be little educational point to his playing, no real concern for intellectualizing it to gain an advantage over a competitor. David figured out that after nine or ten hours of consecutive play, Rory always went back to his parents' house to sleep and watch television and do little else. Come September, he had not even looked into other schools. He merely racked up the balls and drove them into the pockets, one by one, day after day, almost always alone. When he found out about the extended hours and off-peak discounts he started going late at night, when the place was mostly a tomb. He would enter, order a soda, take it with him to a corner table, and shoot pool until the wee hours. His time at the table was dictated only by his current finances. At about two in the morning or so he would go back to his parents' house and sleep until noon or one. He was there, at West Hartford Family Billiards, so often that he became friendly with the manager of the place, an ex-fighter pilot named Donald. Donald would challenge him to a game occasionally if the two of them were the only ones in the place. Rory, apparently, usually declined.
The place was air conditioned to the hilt during the day, and very sparsely populated then. At night it got a little more busy, but never did the concept of family enter the picture as the original owners had most likely planned. On any given night the clientele consisted mostly of townies and their girlfriends, students from the campus killing time, and would-be hustlers unable to get a game up with anybody. And then there was Rory, alone, dumping the balls out and just shooting them in, one by one, deadly focused but with seemingly no point to it all.
David did not see Rory for another three years, by which time Rory had left Connecticut for New York to become first a well-known amateur hustler, then a professional player. By the age of twenty-two, he was winning most of the tournaments he played in. By the age of twenty-four, he was considered to be America's top-ranked billiards player.
Most people continued to know little about him, since he rarely gave interviews, and above all, hated having his photograph taken. Though he never got a college degree, and apparently lost his interest in oceanography somewhere along the line, he eventually did marry, in 1987. His wife, a sign language interpreter, was a paraplegic. She'd been injured at age twelve in a freak boating accident. In a 1994 biography of Rory Hewson, printed by a small press in New England, the unusual history of his early fascination with billiards is detailed, relying mostly on the memory of his parents and his old college roommate, David Kingman. Quoted below are the final pages of the fourth chapter of the biography, Quiet Man:
'Kingman used to laugh at the psychology majors at college, used to argue with them that surface meanings were good enough, that everything we did in life did not have to spring from the soul. Against this theory he would think sometimes about why Rory was always in the pool hall, when he could have been doing anything else, anything at all. He could have found new friends, or maybe even dreamed up ways to beat them all, to show them what chances they had all missed when they had forsaken him because of his looks.
'Rory was there because the place was dark and musty even on the best of days. It had an eternal gloom about it that reeked of poverty and a sense of the desperation of a small town whose days were numbered. It didn't matter what you wore there because you could never really get that comfortable anyway. He often said the food was horrible, too, food out of an old vending machine or kept in paper bags behind the counter.
'You could enter and leave unnoticed. Donald, the owner, never greeted the customers as they walked in, just gave them a rack and told them their table number, then switched on that table's light with the help of buttons ranked across a little board behind the counter. The time you started was written down by him in a Mead notebook. Otherwise, he couldn't care less what you did as long as you kept your feet off the tables. Contact between players was minimal, as well. Rejected offers to form twosomes were always taken gracefully, even by the roughest looking characters.
'It couldn't be said that Rory was happy there, no, but he was himself and no one blamed him for it. He let his hair grow even shabbier and let it fall even worse into disarray. Often his shirt would come unbuttoned, exposing the pale stomach beneath. At the local diner or on the street he also had less and less regard for his appearance. Back in the billiard hall, he racked up the balls and broke them. When he missed, no one cared, and when he made a great shot, no one cared. Perhaps when he finished a particularly satisfying run or made a tough bank shot he would think: That was for her. That would have been a good one for her to see.
'The only mirror in the billiard hall was in the bathroom. The lights made everyone seem gaunt and ugly, not just Rory, David's ugly friend Rory. And no one would ever find him there, or go looking for him. It was a place populated almost exclusively by males with no sense of obligation or association; when one went to the pool hall, it was because no one had asked you anywhere else. Sometimes there were sadder reasons: unemployment, anger at the world outside the cheap metal door. You might be profoundly lonely, or you might have suffered a defeat so total that it could never be forgotten. You might have been told, for example, of what you really were, what you could never escape and what would be with you forever, until you died. Rory had found a shelter where nobody knew him, and, far more importantly, no one he loved and dreamed of comforting would ever look at his face again. He had been told he was inseparable from that face, that stillborn curse which had nothing to do with him, which was just some awful stranger he never wanted to know.
'David sat in his car in the parking lot of the pool hall in West Hartford once more after autumn passed, waiting for Rory to come out, so he could surprise him with the offer of a ride home. It was December, and he could not imagine how Rory could possibly ride his cheap bike three miles back to his parents' house through the cold night after night. But Rory did not come out when the place closed, and so David drove off, figuring he had already missed him. He was suddenly haunted by a mental image which he believed would stay with him all his life: an image of Rory emerging from that sleazy place, putting on his windbreaker, and standing in the gravel lot wondering if he could get a taxi. And after a few minutes the ex-fighter pilot Donald would come out behind him, missing his last customer of the night. He might ask Rory where he had to go to, and what the point of it would be, and for that there would be no real answer. He would then put his arm around the boy to keep him from crying, ushering him back under the cracked lamp lights and away from a world of eyes, into a place where beauty had no currency, and where he would always be welcome.'
By one o'clock, half the items in the museum's collection had been sold, and judging from Ellen Roth's ever-smiling face, things were going reasonably well. Paging through the catalog twenty minutes before the auction began, I guessed that most of the items would sell for between eighty and one hundred twenty dollars, and this turned out to generally be the case. Naturally, the signed Brunswick pool table and Edgar Allan Poe's trove of notes for his never-completed book about human loneliness were the stars of the somewhat muted show. Placing these items on sale along with the forgotten arcana of everyday romances drew quite a curious flock to the auction. About two hundred people gathered in the banquet room where the dinner had been held the night before, a crowd divided about evenly between professional collectors interested only in the big ticket items and fleetingly curious townsfolk who would have showed up for any estate sale or flea market as long as it was well-advertised and promised some unusual finds. Cape May County was a prosperous area and it was difficult to visibly tell the difference between the two groups. It was only when bids were solicited on an item that it became clear. The majority of the objects drew just one or two bids, and Rance Munchick, who had obviously never done anything like this before, was not so good at hiding his mild embarrassment when things ended there. "Sold to the lady with the fantastic tan," he would say, or employ some other humorous identifier to keep the tone light. And the winning bidder, more often than not a married woman of middle age, would beam for a brief moment, showing not much more excitement than if she had won a twenty dollar pot in a gin game. Some of these people had obviously done more than glance through the catalog and had decided they absolutely had to have this item or that one, and they walked away from the auction with an easy victory. The most highly contested item outside of the couple of true collectibles was the Whitman's Sampler that had been discovered, incredibly, on Mount McKinley. It attracted a price of three hundred dollars. The prop from She'll Come Back Again, which I watched on a flight from New York to Boston once, went for two-eighty.
A couple of things did not sell at all. Perhaps the framed college degrees achieved by the smitten scholar and the advertisement for the ill-fated cuddling service were too bland in both story and physicality to be of much interest to anyone. These were handed with a bemused grin from Ms. Roth to one of her teenaged interns, who took these and all the other portable items out of the banquet room. Munchick joked about how he would be fired from this job if just one more item went unsold, and there were ever more polite chuckles. Over the course of the auction, those little bullets of laughter began to sound more and more alike as they became a knee-jerk reflex to Munchick's presentation.
I was surprised that he explained the history of each item before offering it up for bid, reading the original unabridged text printed on the gold-plated placards (included, naturally, in the cost of each item) into the microphone mounted on the cheap rental lectern, no matter how long it took. He edited very little out. It seemed unnecessary, since this text was included in the catalog, but his performance was oddly entertaining. As the rain fell relentlessly outside, he read those histories with an admirable amount of understatement, breaking his effectively cerebral tone only after the story was complete and could not be tainted by his jokes. This all added greatly to the length of the auction, but few seemed to mind. The casual bidders closed their catalogs quickly and let Munchick do the explaining. It became a rather pleasant one-man show for them, making the banquet room, with its poor acoustics and depressing view of the swampy backyard, a pleasant enough place to be. There was absolutely no real pressure on anyone to make a bid. And most people made none.
The Poe notes were contested by twelve or thirteen different men and women, and they finally sold for two thousand, eight hundred dollars. The rather scuffed pool table was snatched at some length for thirty-seven hundred.
I saw nothing in the faces of the people in the crowd that suggested any of them had any sort of personal stake in the items they bid on, unlike the burglar who had stolen his prized diary six few months before. Perhaps I would be the only one, then, who could point to Lot 30 and say, if I were that kind of person: I was there. To everyone else, the auction seemed truly to be nothing more than a curious estate sale. The owners of the museum must have been very hard up indeed, it was once whispered by a man five chairs to my right, if they were selling off so many things for such pittances. As I sat in the back row, I found myself clasping and unclasping my right hand around the assemblage of twenty and fifty dollar bills in my coat pocket, and forced myself to stop.
There was a break at one so people could gorge themselves at the buffet table, which one of the young assistants fretted over with pitiful seriousness. She seemed greatly worried that the roast beef could not possibly last. I took the opportunity to step out a side door which opened from the room out onto the lawn. I was not followed. Either I was, impossibly, the only smoker in the gathering, or no one else wanted to even set foot in an outside world locked in a rainfall that cold, that dour.
I realized then that I had no cigarettes. So I just stood under a small overhang and watched as the lawn disappeared underneath the wet wrath of God, stared emptily at the enormous woodpile which bordered the woods to the west. My breath came out in plumes. I wanted to go to the little picnic table in the center of the lawn, to sit there and let the rain strike me and have the people inside watch me and think I was mad. I could sit there, not moving, and they would have to look past Rance Munchick's shoulder as he stood at the lectern and they would see me through the window as he spoke. Had anyone really ever spent so much time at the museum that they had come out here with a bag lunch to enjoy the sunshine? Standing under the overhang, I heard absolutely nothing of the people inside the banquet room. The building locked in their sound completely. The rain wasn't even necessary to silence them.
There was someone standing twenty feet to my right, protected by the overhang
as well. It was a small man flanked by two lumpy black garbage bags, which he had obviously hauled out to dispose of. They sat there like guard dogs. As I watched the man, he ended his dreamy observation of the giant oak tree in front of us and reached down to fasten the ties of both bags more tightly. He wore dark green overalls. He coughed twice, asthmatically. I walked over to him, sticking very close to the building so as not to get wet, and asked him for the correct time.
He stood up and looked at his watch and told me it was 1:21. I thanked him.
—Are you waiting for a particular item? he asked me.
I had been so convinced that he was a janitor that the question threw me. His voice was cultured, tinged by a crisp British accent that I would later think was being eroded by each year spent in America.
—Yes, I said. —Things are moving a bit slower than I thought they would.
—I'm not sure anyone expected the stories, he said. He looked at me closely, having to tilt his head somewhat; he was quite short. —If you don't mind my asking, which item are you bidding on?
—You're familiar with them?
—Yes, he said. —I work here.
—Lot 30, I said.
The focus of his gaze intensified. —Lot 30? he asked softly.
He nodded and offered a strained half-smile. —That should be a very successful one for us. The most successful, certainly.
—How much do you think it will go for? Do you have any idea?
He exhaled heavily, calculating. —Quite a lot. The gold in the key....I think it's worth six thousand dollars or so.
He offered his hand. —My name is Rand, he said.
Again I was so surprised that a long moment passed before I allowed the truth of the situation to pass into me uncontested.
—Archer Rand? I asked him, shaking his hand briefly, never to remember a single thing about it. —The curator of the museum?
He seemed amused at my reaction. —Yes, he said.
I told him my name. This time it was his turn to pause strangely, as if I had spoken a word of any sort of significance, one that was familiar and meaningful to anyone outside my tiny sphere of influence.
—Really, he said wonderingly. He tilted his head a slight bit for the second time, almost like a dog would. His face was both a little tragic and a little comical. It was wrinkled and weather-beaten, the face of someone who had spent years in the gasworks of Beckton rather than the libraries of Oxford, which his voice hinted a familiarity with. He was in his mid- to late fifties or so, but had dyed his short, messy hair a ridiculously perfect brown, leaving none of it uncolored, as if even the slightest hint of age was too much for him. The effect was not at all flattering. He looked like an overgrown hobbit, to be direct, but his body was thin and weak.
—You know my name, I said.
—Lot 30 was always very interesting to me, he said. He looked me up and down, being none too subtle about it, no doubt trying to connect the haggard pauper before him with what he knew of the story of the key, and perhaps coming up with nothing.
—Is there any chance, I said, —that I could....buy the item outright, before it comes up. I could offer you a little less than six thousand.
He seemed genuinely pained, penitent. —I'm sorry, some people have come just to bid on that item alone, he told me, which was exactly what I had expected him to. —I can't recall it. You know, these legal affairs....
I nodded. He seemed about to go on, to uselessly add to his regrets, the type of man who would apologize not just for himself for anything under the sun. From the biography Munchick had given us during the auction dinner, I had no reason to believe he would be that sort of man. Yet he was. None of the details in the story seemed to jibe, none at all.
—No one seems to have come here to buy back the things they donated, I said to him. —Do you find that strange?
He shook his head. —I used to, but I think for most of them, letting them go was necessary. The items only on loan were sent back, naturally. The others were ours to keep.
I muttered something, some affirmative response, and in the silence that followed I looked off at the woodpile again. But Rand had no other interest than my face.
—You look almost exactly how I pictured you, he said, his voice hoarse. I turned my body back toward him but stared at the cement beneath our feet. —I've only met three others who were part of the stories. But you....you're extraordinary.
I almost walked off in disgust, but I had never heard that word spoken with such deliberation, as if he had tried three others before it and found only this one that revealed how he truly felt.
—I'm not, I said curtly.
—Yes, yes you are, he replied. —I know this sounds....insultingly presumptuous, but....I'm sure you are who you say you are....
He stopped himself, apparently saw no way to direct his thought some other way, and so pressed on:
—It's quite another thing to....know.
It was not a test, and he had no real doubts about who I was. His guileless face was like that of a ten year old boy who has seen Stan Musial on the street and wants only to hear the disinterested old man speak of a single baseball memory.
—You know the whole story? I asked him.
—Yes, he said.
And so, after only a few seconds' thought, I gave him what he asked for. Merely by rolling up my left coat sleeve to the elbow, I became a performing freak for the first time in my life. It was a moment of absolutely no drama for me, no impact. There had been a time when I had gone to great lengths to keep my secret, had invented any number of false stories to make it mundane and forgettable on the rare occasion when it could not be kept, but that was long ago. The years had marched on. He seemed satisfied the moment he saw the first part of the scar, but I showed him the whole thing, all eight letters which spelled the Russian word for slanderer burned into the flesh by a torturer's knifepoint, a stretch of ruined skin on the underside of my elbow five inches long, the letters an inch high, astoundingly neat, well crafted, having healed perfectly, without infection, into the color of rust. My torturer had honed his technique in battle and knew exactly what the long term effect would be, how indelible he could make his punishment, how painful he could make it without killing me.
Rand absorbed the word twice, three times, as many times as I myself had read it upon seeing it scrawled on the bathroom mirror at the Temple Inn. My stomach roiled slightly. More and more when I observed another human studying something closely, with prurient interest, that person's face appeared to me to be straddling the line between man and dumb animal, a goat or sow riveted for a moment by visual information which either pleased it or meant food.
—My God, how you must have suffered, said Archer Rand after I had rolled my coat sleeve back down. He produced a cigarette from the breast pocket of his janitor's overalls, held it out to me. I took it and lit it, and then it rested forgotten in one hand at my side.
—You came back to the states, he said. —You live here now?
—Yes, I told him. —How did the key come to be here?
Still looking at the crease of my arm, even though it was covered and there was nothing there of grisly interest anymore, he exhaled nervously. —It was sent to us, unsolicited. I never met the....the woman. We sent her some papers, she signed them.
—Which woman? I asked him. —What was her name?
Rand shook his head, confused. —But....you would already know that. Her letter said—
—I don't know, I said. —I don't know which woman. It's very important.
Rand put a hand to his forehead, a gesture which instantly maddened me, a gesture which said only that he did not remember nearly enough to make him reliable. —Her name was Annabel, he said after many seconds had gone by.
The word had no meaning for me, none at all.
—Annabel? No. No, that can't be it.
—It's true, he said.
—I don't know any Annabel. Will you let me see the letter?
—It's not that simple....it was destroyed.
Now Rand peered at me just as he had before I had confirmed my identity to him, as if he were seeing a con artist. How lonely he must have been, if this was how he was with human beings. Standing in the rain with his garbage bags, the picture of uselessness, abandonment. Worse than I was. Our hair improperly combed, stains on our trousers, middle age meaning rather close to the end.
—They were destroyed because of you, he said. —Because of the instructions you wrote down in Montreal. It was Montreal, wasn't it?
—Then the key shouldn't be here either, I said angrily. —What can you show me? Don't you have files? I don't know who this Annabel is. Anything you have, I'd like to see.
—We received the item almost six years ago, Rand told me, hoping to end the conversation. If he had really known about Montreal, about the instructions written with a blue crayon found on a park bench on the reverse side of a telephone bill scavenged from the trash, if he had honestly internalized any of these things, he was truly shortsighted for believing the conversation was over, that I would just step back inside the banquet room to watch some more of the flea market, have a roast beef sandwich, and forget what it felt like to have inches of red agony burned into my broken arm.
Rand's office was in the basement of the house. We descended through the clammy dark via a flight of creaky wooden stairs, and the single windowless room was illuminated only when Rand yanked on a cheap chain attached to an old bulb. A ping pong table was set in the center of the small room but was meant only as raw storage space: stacks and stacks of papers lay on it, presumably bills, along with an assortment of repair gadgetry for the various ailments a house that size must have suffered daily. There were also three ancient computers in various states of discombobulation. Parts of outdated computers were in fact scattered all over the basement, evidence of a chronic tinkerer who maybe fixed them and sold them over the Internet or to some local electronics shop. Rand looked utterly at home here. One entire wall of the basement was cluttered with stacks of plastic pharmacy crates of various colors, and these were what Rand dug through as I stood on the other side of the room, watching a spider scuttle across the cement floor on its way to shelter beneath the dented water heater in one corner. I picked up a small tin box full of mismatching keyboard keys, listening to the sound of muddled human voices wafting through one vent. The auction was getting underway again, high above us. The people I heard must have been gathered in the front room or the foyer. They drifted away little by little, returning to the banquet room.
It took Rand five silent minutes to come up with something.
—Perhaps this.... he began, trailing off to nothing, turning to me and offering up a single empty envelope, shorn of one end by an electric letter opener, by the look of it.
The 5 x 7 airmail envelope had become slightly yellowed over the years by the dank air of the basement. It was addressed to Curator, The National Museum of Romance, in a flowing, wildly slanted feminine script borne of blue ballpoint pen. There was, strangely, no return address. I would not have thought it would be deliverable in that case.
—What's this postmark, I can't read it, I said to Rand. Under the bare light bulb his eye sockets were pitted and dark, and in a bizarre way it took twenty years off his age. I fleetingly saw the young man in him, what he must have looked like back then, handsome even, rugged, absurdly serious, brooding.
—Moscow, he said without looking at it. He spoke from memory. In his few minutes of digging, more of the tale must have come into focus. Or perhaps he had been deliberately evasive.
—Moscow, I repeated out of reflex, and stared at that postmark. The stamps were black, obliterating most of it. I held it up to the light and saw that it was true. —What was her name, Annabel's last name?
Rand spoke now with no hesitation. —Fiedler, he said.
His uncertainty gone, I felt a genuine rage welling up inside me, for the second time in twelve hours, and I wanted to strangle Rand out of the ridiculous version of reality which he offered as true, hold him here in this almost oxygenless room until the pain made him confess that he was something worse than a liar: he was completely blind and idiotically believed anything the sighted told him was true.
—It can't be, I said to him. —Her last name can't be Fiedler, do you understand? It makes no sense. The letter, the key, they would have come to you from either a Dunning or a Brandt. What else can you show me, there must be more. The box the key came in.
—She wrote that she was given the key at a funeral, Rand said, —the funeral for a Canadian man who built a house for her, a brick house with no walls inside—
—Jones, yes. Jones.
Rand was taken aback once again. —You knew him? You knew Jones?
—Yes, I said hollowly. The speaking of that name did something to my voice, as it always had from the beginnning, took the air out of it for two full seconds. —I knew the man.
—I wasn't....I wasn't aware of that, Rand said, and moved a step backward, into a patch of more evenly distributed light, so that his eyes were no longer hidden. Now he just looked like a man of sixty who dyed his hair too brown and who might once have been athletic, virile, resolute, but had been reduced to a shadow of that identity by factors I wished to know nothing about. Now he could not even bring himself out of his basement to make an appearance at the auction he himself had orchestrated.
—Why is the story in the catalog so inaccurate? I snapped at him, holding the envelope in an immutable grip at my side. —Who made it that way? Why does the catalog say I escaped from prison? I didn't escape, Mr. Rand. They blindfolded me and dumped me off a train. I walked for six days to find someone.
—The woman who wrote the letter, he protested. —We went by her word. If we had only known, we never would have printed it.
—But it couldn't have been Annabel Fiedler! I shouted at him. —The letter was a forgery! This is a forgery! What did you do with it?
—It was shredded, he said. —The girls, the girls who help Ms. Roth—
—Why did you create this place? I asked him. —It wasn't because you thought you'd get rich. You don't care about money at all. You stand there and you look at me as if I were Jesus Christ. You'd probably look at everyone that way, if you saw them, every person in every one of these insipid stories.
You don't even care if they're true.
You go by the word of one woman who never met you face to face? You didn't ask who she was, you just took the key and put it on display for every stranger who bought a ticket to look at it?
What atrocity are you atoning for, Mr. Rand?
What sort of fantasies of your own have you been funding?
Maybe they heard me upstairs, I thought. My voice got louder and louder as I harangued him, and what bliss it would have been if they really had heard me, through some freak acoustical trick. Maybe they would have all taken Rand's side, and upbraided me at the top of the stairs for being so cruel to such a small man. I was ready with an answer for them. I pictured them standing in a circle around me, their glasses of iced tea in their hands. The pregnant woman in the red dress who had bid on the football memorabilia by holding her paddle so absurdly high, the man with duct-taped glasses who had muttered a soundless expletive when he was outbid on the Poe notes. The overly chatty woman in the wheelchair who had sat at my table the night before, inexplicably telling everyone about the awful stages of progressive muscular dystrophy that awaited her. My answer for them would have been brief and perfect. The only part of the fantasy that would not satisfyingly gel in that passing daydream was my solitary walk through the rain back to the car, and my miserable drive back to the highway.
—I'm sorry, I truly am, Rand said to me. —Things are what they are.
There was nothing more to say, and so he left me then. He moved past me and walked back up the stairs, leaving me to file through every paper ever related to the museum above me if I so desired. I had the run of the basement and its unenlightening contents. It was the only statement of any power he would make to me. It was: Very well, if you want it all so badly, this is yours now. Every square foot. Every scrap of history which we took and transferred to gold-plated placards. But I am finished.
Yes. In the end, it was all just loose paper in a basement in New Jersey. Rand knew it, and I could not accept it. Instead of castigating me impotently, as I had done to him, he merely walked up the stairs quietly and went back into the museum, which, as of today, was just a house like any other. He was stronger than me, maybe.
So be it. I waited just long enough for him to be fully out of sight, and then I climbed the stairs too, to play out the string of my addiction.