The poetry section is skimpy at the used bookstore I'm in. But sometimes there is a hidden gem, an obscure contest winner, or, recently, a hardcover copy of "In the Clearing." I pulled it down, slid it out of its case, turned to the title page, and saw the signature: Robert Frost.
I stared. I held my finger above the page, as if pointing at the name. My bones turned to jelly for a second. I tried not to breathe on the page.
The book was No. 354 of a special edition of 1,500 copies signed by the author. He'd sat at some publisher's desk, books towering over him. I pictured him in a cardigan, slurping coffee and rubbing his nose, grabbing book after book and writing his name – his knobby fingers curled around a fountain pen.
The handwriting looked shaky. After "In the Clearing," his last book, was published in 1962, the 87-year-old Frost lived one more year.
Publishers had him signing a lot around that time. If the book was older – "A Boy's Will" or "North of Boston" or "West-Running Brook" – and Frost had signed it of his own will and not a publisher's, that would be a real find!
I wondered if the proprietors of this half-price bookstore knew its value. The price in pencil inside the cover said they did. Why was it out in the open, stuck on the regular shelves? I wondered if a naive clerk would sell it to me for less.
But I'm no collector. My shabby shelves have no place for a relic. Somebody else should own No. 354, not me, I thought. The book belonged in a university collection. It deserved reverence, or at least white gloves when you ran your fingers across the man's name, as you inevitably would, to touch what he touched, to imagine the stature of a poet publishers scrambled to print special editions for.
I put it back on the shelf.
That night, I couldn't sleep. I tossed and turned, thinking of the great poet wearing his cardigan and signing 1,500 books, one of them becoming mine. Where were the other 1,499 copies? How many had survived the depreciation of indifference, coffee stains, smudgy thumbs, and used bookstores?
I guessed that the original owner of No. 354 must have died and some distant relative trundled all the books over to a used bookstore in the trunk of a car. Book buyers wait with bated breath for such sellers to walk through their doors. At a half-price bookshop, everyone hopes to find a deal, to get a steal. There is stealth in mining used books.
I thought about the book for days. Not the poems – I could read those at the library for free – but a page splashed by a pen, a book Frost had held for maybe 10 seconds. By No. 354, I pictured him tired, his hand cramping. He might have stared into space, rubbed his ear, licked his finger.
I imagined a still-intact fingerprint, a molecule of the coffee he drank, the paper's weave warped by his warm breath. Surely something of a poet's essence exists in a book he has signed.
I felt Frost's presence. I began to believe it was possible to attain knowledge just by encountering such a thing. I was in a sweat over this book. I'd had the bird in my hand – for the cost of a monthly car payment – and I let it go.
I went back to the bookstore a week later, sure it would be gone.
At first, the clerk couldn't find it. No. 354 was no longer jammed in the poetry section. My heart sank into the Catch-22 of thrift merchandise: The value of a thing is proven when somebody else snatches it up.
The clerk finally found it in a glass case. Why had no one else bought it?
When he handed it to me, I was pretty sure I'd hold it, look it up and down, be wracked with indecision, and finally put it back.
But in a rash moment, with my heart pounding, I handed over my credit card to buy a piece of a man who wrote poems that might live eternally – or at least for a few more centuries. I walked to my car with a paper bag under my arm, the book in my possession.
Even if I never succumb to the dirty business of cashing it in, I hope the book's visit with me will be relatively quiet.
I also think I'll mention the book to my own distant relatives, to ensure its safe journey to the next phase of its life in this world.