The beginning of A Novel Death:
The day my life began to unravel--like the sweaters my mother tried to knit for us to save money--started much too early. By the time the first call came, shortly before seven A.M., I was on my third cup of espresso. I was sitting in the kitchen of the Victorian farmhouse owned by the university, a hodgepodge of wide-planked floorboards, the original scarred oak table, and Harvest Gold appliances--accented by an avocado-toned dishwasher that had died when we first moved in.
I answered the call quickly. Book buyers from Australia and Japan didn’t always get the time difference right. “Secondhand Prose.”
“ Secondhand huh--I thought this was a bookstore!”
What do you think prose is, buddy? “This is a bookstore,” I reassured him. A virtual bookshop, true, but the books were real boards and paper.
“ Yeah, well . . . I’ve got stuff to sell.”
“ Great. What kind of stuff?”
“ What kind? They aren’t a kind. They’re books! Old. Ver-ry old.” He stretched out the last two words seductively. “ One of them has this date in the front, 16-something?”
Be still, my heart. My breath caught, even as I reminded myself that books that old would would be copyrighted by Roman numerals. “Where did you get it?”
“ What--you think I stole it from some library? Nobody else asked me that!”
So he had been shopping his stuff around.
“They’re from this old house I’m cleaning out. The guy doesn’t care what I do with the stuff, he just wants everything out.”
Sadly, that sounded true. People threw incredible things into dumpsters. Of course, these books were probably mildewed, their covers hanging by threads. Even a week stored in kitty litter wouldn’t kill their smell. But I didn’t hang up. Because any book in any abandoned cellar has the potential to be the find of a lifetime. Tamerlane, Poe’s forty-page booklet of youthful poems, which recently sold at auction for $250,000, had been tossed in a bookshop sale bin because Poe had modestly designated himself only as “ A Bostonian.”
“ When can I see the books?”
“ I’ll let ya know. I’m just checking who’s interested. Then I’ll take bids.” And he hung up.
He hung up! He didn’t even give me his name! I punched in *69 to see if I could retrieve his information, but a scratchy recording let me know that“ the number of your last incoming call is private.”
Damn! I pressed the receiver to my chest, disbelieving. What did I say wrong? Should I have offered him money right away?
And then the phone rang again “ Yes, hello!”
He had realized his mistake. But there was only breathing.
“ This is Secondhand Prose,” I encouraged. Don’t be shy.
“ Delhi, it’s Margaret. Something terrible happened.” Her voice had the taut sound of someone using words that would not make her fall apart. “Lily passed away.”
“ What?” I understood “passed away,” but the Lily upended its meaning. Forty-five-year-old women, women my age, didn’t “pass away” like a calendar page being turned. An aneurysm? It had to be an aneurysm. A car accident. “What happened?”
“They aren’t sure.”
“The police.” Her voice veered dangerously.
I needed more coffee, fast.
“Can you come by the shop?”
“Of course!” But why would she open her bookstore today? “Do you need someone to--”
But Margaret had already hung up. I had not even had a chance to tell her how sorry I was about her sister.
Clicking the handset off, I picked up the small china cup and took an automatic sip before I remembered that it had gotten cold. Yuck. I clinked it back down quickly. Why would the police be involved? Did they investigate all sudden deaths?
Maybe it would be on the local cable station. I wasn’t a big TV viewer, but I knew how to turn it on. I switched it to Channel 12 and waited. At first there was a special about celebrating the Fourth of July on Sunday. Clips of last year’s fireworks at Jones Beach were shown, as well as several local parades with fire engines, Hibernian bands, and historical societies dressed up like Long Islanders of 200 years ago. I even recognized the tall ships that had visited Port Lewis, my home village, on their way to Huntington Harbor.
Come on, I willed the station, it’s time for the news. And then, at 8:00 A.M., the news began.
Lily Carlyle was actually the lead story, alternating feeds between a weary-looking news anchor and shots of the railroad tracks outside the Port Lewis Station. A photograph of Lily, perhaps supplied by the Metropolitan Museum of Art where she worked, kept flashing on. In it Lily was wearing a leaf-green caftan that made her eyes dark as jade, a hammered-gold pendant, and an enigmatic smile. Her dark hair crinkled in charming curls around her face.
According to the tired blonde reporter, Lily had lain down on the LIRR tracks in the wooded area 100 yards west of the the station and been decapitated by an engine that could not see her in time in the ten p.m. dusk.
I sat with my hand over my mouth. Why? Why would she do such a thing? The cliches kept coming. Lily had a wonderful life, everything to live for! I tried to blot out the image of her beautiful severed head rolling down from the track. That was even the train she sometimes came home from the city on!
I found I was clutching my upper arms and rocking slightly back and forth.
I’ll say it now. Lily and I never liked each other. I rarely saw her except at the annual Christmas extravaganzas the sisters gave. Last December she accepted my box of Godiva chocolates at the door as if they were something I had picked up at Seven-Eleven. It made me want to tell her how much they actually cost. But Lily took pride in never eating anything sweet; she was a tireless gym goer who rewarded herself with exotic massages and Armani scarves. She would die before she ate a cheeseburger or hot fudge sundae.
Bad choice of words. . .