Hugh’s Indian Princess.

Hugh’s Indian Princess.

by Hugh Gilmore

I would say I felt a little downhearted after I turned on the light switch for the basement steps. I could see that the basement was unfinished. It had a painted gray cement floor and whitewashed stone walls turned dark with dust.

With the view came a faint whiff of lost hope. When people say, “The books are downstairs,” I usually anticipate that the books will be ruined by mold and mildew and vermin. But I owed this man who died, a man I’d respected, but had known only slightly, a visit to his library. His mother – sitting upstairs in a hospital bed in the living room– had asked me to. You can’t say no to a dead man’s aging mother.

The basement was larger and dryer than I expected. At the bottom of the stairs, I turned right and saw only the clothes-washing area and some storage partitions. I walked back to the stairs and pulled the string to light up the other side of the basement.

Before me stood an improvised wall that blocked my view. This barrier was covered with bed sheets clothes-pinned together. I pulled an edge aside and saw, as I suspected, metal shelves filled with books, fore-edges towards me. The way forward was through an opening between the case and the wall. I advanced to find the next row of books arranged so their sides touched the wall, with the passageway in the middle, between cases. From this center aisle I saw up ahead a desk and writing chair a few feet past where the books ended.

The desk and chair stood on a small oriental-style carpet. I looked up for a light to turn on and noticed a line of connected extension cords whose plug-in ends accepted a clamp-on reflector lamp. I reached up and turned one on. And the next one, and the next. The bright light made me forget for a second where I was. The effect was both artificial and magical in the way that movie sets are.

I walked toward the desk and when I reached the end of the shrouded bookcases, I was surprised once again. To my left, almost like a living thing, stood a squat old-fashioned furnace of the kind that has many round ducts radiating from its top and sides. It resembled a fat tree turned upside down to show its roots. And not five feet away from the heater was another unexpected scene: a round, red carpet, on which sat a soft, adjustable reading chair. A standing lamp hovered at the chair’s shoulder. A small wooden table beside them. I went over and turned on the floor lamp and then went back to the bookcase aisle to look at the chair and lamp and carpet in perspective.

The sight made me feel a deep sympathy for my fellow man, and for this man I’d known from my bookshop in particular. This fellow with missing teeth and slicked-back hair who’d died in his fifties, living with his disabled mother in a modest, tired-looking house on an anonymous suburban street.

He’d created this cozy, comforting world for himself down here. I’ve been to grander homes and seen plusher dens and libraries in my career, some filled with richer rugs and fine leather and expensive books, but I’ve never seen a more magical kingdom than what I was seeing just then – amidst the dust and gloom, not five feet from the troll-like, but warm, furnace.

I hate to say this now, after having such a soft moment, but I didn’t buy any of the books. Just as the upstairs bedroom was filled with VHS tapes of Hollywood movies, so was the basement library a shrine to the same. Biographies, cavalcades, war movies, westerns, Broadway adaptations, musicals, reference, tributes, comedies, memoirs. It also included some non-entertainment titles, on topics such as war, history and modern politics.

There were also some shelves of novels – of the “literary” kind. Though the whole scene had made me sentimental, I had no market for these kinds of recent books. I knew a few book dealers who might be interested, though. I’d give their names to his mother.

Something stopped me from leaving right away. I stood there a minute or two looking at the reading chair and light on the round red carpet and couldn’t help but think of my own reading chair back home.” Nothing to be done,” as Beckett writes in “Godot.” Then I looked at the desk. His mother had told me to look anywhere I wanted down here. I went over. I found the usual detritus we all leave in our drawers: pens and pencils and paper clips and business cards. I was caught a little off-guard to find my own business card in a dead man’s drawer, but I didn’t want to make too much of it.

After all, I was already feeling mean enough for not wanting to buy the books. And felt I’d had enough emotion from one book call to last me a while. Or so I thought.

That was when I opened the middle drawer. There rested the typed manuscript of a book he’d written and never published. Still waiting there. Hopes and dreams, sitting in a drawer. Still waiting. I had to get out of there. I was not a writer then, but I knew the cost of meddling with such matters.

Attached by a clip to a nail on a post at the edge of his desk was a small picture of a woman, only slightly larger than a matchbook cover, the only visual I’d seen in either of his rooms. I wondered if it was his talisman, or dream catcher, or inspiration.

Upstairs, I asked his mother if I could buy it. She told me to just take it and thanked me for the phone numbers I’d given her. That small picture of the “Indian Princess” (wearing heels) is now standing on the bookshelf over my desk. I’ve never figured him – or her – out, but I think of them whenever I look up and see it. And now I guess I’m condemned (or privileged – depends on how you look at it) to carry them with me into the future.