"The world is full of such omens and sermons if only you could learn to read them. But not every warning sits so visibly apparent."

“The world is full of such omens and sermons if only you could learn to read them. But not every warning sits so visibly apparent.”

by Hugh Gilmore

A high stone wall with pieces of broken glass embedded, sharp points cruelly set upward to cut, waiting. If you are new to a neighborhood, does that sight not speak more eloquently of sneaking night thieves than any printed sign might? The world is full of such omens and sermons if only you could learn to read them. But not every warning sits so visibly apparent.

I’m a dealer in old and rare books. Not long ago I went on a house call to look at a small “collection” of someone’s books. The neighborhood was not far from Chestnut Hill. It might best be described as transitional suburban, a calm setting where any disquiet had to be inferred from subtle signs and cues.

The man who’d called me answered the door quickly and stepped aside, bidding me to precede him before I got a good look at him. He shut the door quickly. I stepped in and noted a mostly unfurnished house – a sofa, no rugs, no pictures on the walls, an empty china closet, small piles of linens on the dining room table – for which there were no chairs – and some boxes of kitchen utensils on the floor. I turned to say hello and get an impression of the guy who’d called me.

He was middle-aged and wiry and wore a knit short-sleeved shirt that showed the bulging veins of his arms. He had a cat-like way of using space. No extra movements, like he’d learned to pace efficiently in a small space for a while. Most remarkably, he wore a straw hat, a boater, though it was warm and we were indoors. His mother had died, he said. He was settling the estate. He had to get it done quick. He didn’t say why. Most people do, but he wasn’t the kind for small talk.

“So, these were your mother’s books?” I said. Almost at once he said, “Yeah, she read a lot.” he paused, then added, “My mom was a saint.” Whenever anyone says that about a relative, or friend, I wonder what hell the speaker put that person through.

He gestured toward the sofa where about a hundred ordinary-looking books sprawled on the cushions, culled from every reach of the house. They were good books, worth reading, but former best sellers, and therefore common in the used book market. As I double-checked them, I noted out of the side of my eye that he’d gone to the curtains twice and looked outside, as though he was expecting someone he didn’t want to arrive. I thought, “Better to not buy any than try to buy a saint’s books cheap.” I started to explain why I wouldn’t be able to use any of them.

As I spoke, he seemed the picture of practiced calm. Polite, but not in a way that came from the heart. More like he didn’t want to be the one who started any trouble I might have brought in with me. The room felt like the air itself might combust. I told him politely that I couldn’t use the books and thanked him for the opportunity to look at them.

He accepted what I said in a tone that was less disappointment than a bitter resignation that things never went his way. I said goodbye. He wasn’t the handshaking type, so I didn’t offer.

On my way out I noticed a metal baseball bat standing on end next to the door. Handle up, extra tape wrapped along the grip, I didn’t think it was his mother’s. I wondered whether the devils he might use it on were real, imagined, dark forces that might slight his sainted mother. He’d said earlier he’d only been back “home” for a week after years of being “away.” I was keenly aware that my back was turned as I passed that potential club.

Outside, I thought that what had looked innocently like an American icon – Sonny’s baseball bat, waiting for him to get home from school and play ball with the other kids –wasn’t what it seemed to be. It was instead a warning symbol of coiled violence. It would have been a good source of behavioral advice if I’d seen it in on the way in.

I got in the car. As I drove home I thought about the things we do see and are lucky enough to go “phew!” about afterwards. Made you wonder once again about how many I don’t see. You know, bent twigs, tied clumps of grass, small twists at the corners of a fading smile.

Hugh Gilmore is the author of four books currently in the Amazon Kindle Top-100 list. Most notably, his recent memoir, “My Three Suicides: A Success Story,” has been praised for its funny and touching stories of growing up as the oldest son of a large family dominated by alcoholism. Available in paperback too.