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Elizabeth Ash tiptoed past the long table of kitchenware knives, serving spoons, eggbeaters, and Tupperware as though she might awaken their owners' ghosts. She paused at a set of measuring cups that was missing the one-cup measurement. Picking up a set of copper measuring spoons, she dangled them from one hand like a pair of castanets.
She wasn't in need of any bargains. She hardly had room for anything. She lived on the third floor of a brownstone. One oddly shaped room that had to serve as living room, bedroom, rehearsal space, and studio when she gave flute lessons. Its principal virtues were a high ceiling, two tall windows that faced south, and a deaf neighbor in the apartment next door. She could practice at all hours until the woman across the garden called to complain.
An apartment like that hardly allowed for a rummage sale. What could Elizabeth do with the laminated wood sideboard that stretched against one wall? And where would she put a velvet sofa that could unfold into a queen-sized bed? She might have room for a magazine or two. She remembered making a Christmas tree once out of an old Reader's Digest by folding over the edge of every page and spray-painting the whole thing green. But she didn't feel very crafty, and Christmas had come and gone.
Then there were the books.
"Books furnish a room," her mother used to say. An aphorism that never made much sense to Elizabeth until she moved to New York and tried to make do on a freelance musician's spotty earnings. Books would have to furnish her room.
And they did...double-stacked in one tall bookcase in her living room/bedroom. Stacked horizontally and vertically in a narrow bookcase in her narrower kitchen. Books in the bathroom those that didn't risk getting damaged by the steam from her shower. Art books and musical scores stacked on the floor so they could form a coffee table.
Now she looked greedily at the table of books at the rummage sale. Maybe there was something here.
"The last thing you need is more books," her friend Dorothy Hughes said.
"There might be something here I'd like to read."
"You can get what you need at the library."
"All the good books are always checked out at the New York Public Library. That's why I buy them."
"And let them fill up your apartment." Dorothy ran her finger through her thick, perfect-for-a-shampoo-commercial hair. She usually wore it in a ponytail, but today she wore it loose probably to look more alluring.
"I reread them." Elizabeth could reread anything she liked. She could even reread a murder mystery and pretend to forget who had committed the crime.
"A sure sign that you don't get out enough. Remember, we're not just here to buy. We're here to meet people."
It was Dorothy's conceit that two single women together were more likely to "meet people" than one single woman by herself, and therefore in the last few months she was forever dragging Elizabeth to events where they could socialize. Play readings, art openings, book signings.
Elizabeth scanned the crowd. "Who are we going to meet in a church basement?"
"All sorts come to rummage sales. Look at that guy over there. You could meet him."
A tweedy type lingering over a table of garden appliances. Trowels, clippers, hoes, gloves, and pots. Window boxes for fire-escape gardens.
Elizabeth turned to her friend. "Doesn't really look like he's here to 'meet people.'"
"You can't know until you talk to him." Dorothy smiled radiantly so her dimples showed. She crossed the room.
Leave it to Dorothy to do the meeting, Elizabeth thought. She wasn't in the market to meet anyone. She would rather look at the junk.
It was a wonder what people held on to. A cigar box full of bolts, nuts, rubber bands, broken pencils, a shard of pottery, canceled stamps, and paper clips. A card table cluttered with jewelry. A tie pin, a beaded bracelet, a brooch with a huge fake emerald. The prices on these items were overly optimistic. Twenty bucks for the brooch. First-day-of-the- rummage-sale prices. By Sunday anything left on the table would be marked down to ten bucks. Or five. Anything to keep the goods moving.
Elizabeth assumed the money would go to a worthy cause. A soup kitchen or homeless shelter. New pipes for the organ. The church benevolence fund. Elizabeth didn't object to churches at all. She just didn't go in them, unless she was playing at a church concert or hearing one. She was always surprised how chic the ladies in New York churches could be, dressed in their slacks and cashmere sweater sets. Not like the frumpy church ladies of her imagination.
She turned to see if Dorothy was having any luck "meeting" the tweedy man at the gardening table. He looked like a copyeditor or computer programmer. One of those guys who would talk for hours about his job. Deadly dull. He didn't seem the least bit interested in being met. What was Dorothy thinking?
Everyone was completely absorbed in shopping. It was like being in a research library. Or at an Internet café with every person scanning a screen. The people here were in search of bargains. All they saw were objects on tables knives, spoons, napkin rings, salad bowls. All they could do was calculate prices.
Dorothy was now arguing with a woman over a ratty fox fur. Any moment now they'd pull it back and forth between them. Elizabeth tried to read their lips.
No, it's mine!
But I saw it first!
What did Dorothy want with the jacket anyway?
A pillow, the other woman seemed to say.
A pillow out of the fur?
Dorothy had her hand on her hips, and she was explaining, gesturing to the fur. Trim.
Possibilities. That's what brought people to a rummage sale. A world of possibilities. Who knew that a ratty old fur could have a second life as a stage prop or a stuffed pillow or trim on an opera cape? People came to try on new possibilities for themselves. They wondered how they would look in that jacket and would they ever find the right place to wear a fake emerald brooch.
Elizabeth sighed. Possibilities are just what she wished she had less of. She preferred certainties. She was certain she was a very good flutist. She was certain she had a job for the next week subbing in the pit of a Broadway show. And she was certain she would never find anybody to share her life with.
Dorothy's hand was off her hip, and now she was rubbing the fur like it belonged to her cat. She was grinning, chatting. She had made a friend. Not a boyfriend, but someone. Dorothy could find a new friend in the Sahara.
Elizabeth cast her eye on a stack of records. Maybe there'd be a recording she'd like. An unusual flute concerto. A piece of chamber music that no one played anymore. Probably not. They looked like old pop recordings, and nothing was more useless than a record anyway. Give her CDs or an iPod.
Books would be better. If she could find one paperback. Something light. Even if it were something she'd read before. Something she'd want to read again.
She ran a finger along the top of the dusty spines, studying titles. Someone's old chemistry textbooks. A collection of Shakespeare. Self-help books. A faded copy of Love Story. Volumes of science fiction that didn't interest her in the least.
What she wanted was a late-night comfort book. Something to read when she couldn't sleep or when she felt too alone in her small apartment. Something to give her a sense of certainty. A book with a world that would take her out of her own world. Something that would make her forget.
One cover was too lurid. The writing on the opening page of another was too raw. She needed something with smooth prose. Better yet, a book that didn't make her think of the words at all. A story so big she could lose herself in it.
Then she saw the Harriet Mueller. Historical romance. Now there was something dependable. Every volume was set in Regency England and featured women in high-waist dresses who were swept off their feet by dandified rakes in black riding boots and puffy shirts with collars so starched they scratched the men's cheeks. Women who were sensitive but brave...and men who seemed gruff and cool but burned with secret ardor.
Elizabeth had read her first Harriet Mueller when she was a suggestible twelve-year-old with a crush on the boy next door. She had spent the summer reading on her front porch, hoping against hope that he would notice her. He didn't, but she made her way through the local library's entire collection of Harriet Muellers. The librarian couldn't object to a Harriet Mueller. There was nothing too racy in them, and the historical details were all well drawn. Beau Brummel and the Prince Regent. Scenes set at Brighton or in Bath.
Now she was looking at Harriet Mueller's Secret Vows. She fingered the corners of the brittle pages. This was a volume that had been passed along and savored, like the score of a great concerto. Somehow that added to the value. Secret Vows. She held it in one hand and looked for more.
Yes, there was another Harriet Mueller. A Lark for Love. With birds on the cover and a couple embracing in a distant gazebo.
And a third. What Price Glory. This one had a military theme. The man on the cover with dark, fluttering sideburns like a young James Caan was squeezed into red slacks and a navy blue coat with gold epaulets. Another paperback edition.
Elizabeth couldn't believe her luck. Three Harriet Muellers in one day. She dared not continue looking for more. If she brought any more books into her apartment, even books this thin, she would have to get rid of some she already had. It would be like dumping an old friend.
"So you've found something," Dorothy said.
Elizabeth downplayed the discovery. "A couple books, that's all."
"You'll just stay inside reading instead of getting out and meeting people."
"What about you? You looked like you were having some success."
"With this?" Dorothy held up the old fur.
Elizabeth smiled. "At least you made a friend."
"Next time we'll both come away with boyfriends, I assure you."
Reading between the Lines © 2006 by Rick Hamlin