Scouting for likely neighborhoods Monday morning, south and west of downtown Houston, I noticed a ranch-style house with two live oaks in front and the most orderly looking yard sale I’ve ever seen extending from the garage, down the driveway to the street. It looked like an outdoor Sears Roebuck, with chrome-covered racks of men’s and women’s clothing arranged on hangers by type of apparel, neat rows of shoes and a dining room table polished to a gloss with six chairs, centerpiece and candles. A price tag hung from each item. I parked, wondering if I should wipe my shoes before entering, and remembered Tom Disch’s “Garage Sale” (Dark Verses & Light, 1991):
“Once someone thought he’d want to read this book,
And here’s a chess set minus just one rook;
A Sunbeam toaster sans its cord; the Life
Of Who’s-It by his unforgiving wife.
Como singing `Dance, Ballerina, Dance’;
The buttons off a hundred shirts and pants;
A rug unfaded where a bed has been
With traffic patterns marked in olive green.
There are few takers, though the prices cry,
`Remember, stranger, someday you must die.’”
A wooden chess set was set up on a board on a butcher-block table in the garage – all four rooks present – and beside it sat an old man in chinos, short-sleeve Madras shirt buttoned to the throat, sleeveless sweater and pristine running shoes. His regimental mustache was white and neatly trimmed and his white hair stood up almost straight. He didn’t smile. But for the gold-rim glasses, he looked like Dashiell Hammett, tall and cool. “Morning,” he said, nodding carefully.
I moved across the spotless garage floor to a card table of books, mostly paperback thrillers arranged by size and held up with bookends. Both hard covers were Modern Library – the unlikely hybrid of Donne and Blake (a “Giant” I owned as a kid), and The Poetry of E.A. Robinson (1999), edited by Robert Mezey. “My wife’s,” said the old man as I looked at them. “She reads poetry?” I asked. “Never understood it myself,” he said, and paused before adding, “She’s gone now.” He had priced the books at one dollar each. I only wanted the Robinson but gave him two dollars and took both volumes.
The Blake/Donne is scuffed but intact. The Robinson is as pristine as the old man’s shoes except for four lines in “Calverly’s” underlined in pencil on page 59:
“No fame delays oblivion
For them, but something yet survives:
A record written fair, could we
But read the book of scattered lives.”