Let's move on, shall we? I originally submitted the following story to the Writer's Digest short story contest. One of 11,000-some entries. The results have been published. A grand prize winner, and ten top winners in several categories, including genre fiction, which I submitted in. The names of the winning authors appeared in the newest issue. Mine was not among them. Oh well. So we persevere. At least now I can safely share it. (And Kevin, if you're reading this, you probably already heard it at the Circle.) It's not too long, about 2900 words. Hope you like it.
MY BLUE ROSE
If you lost something, the most important, and the most cherished possession in your life, what would it be? Think about it. What means the most to you? How would it affect your daily life? Your emotions? Even your sense of being; your existence, your reason for walking this earth? I lost the most important thing in my life once. My reason to live. Several years ago, seven to be exact, I lost my wife. She was gone for three years, and then I got her back.
Our day had begun simple enough. I was about a year in from saying hello to retirement, and I was fortunate enough to create a comfortable nest egg so as to afford me the luxury of retiring early. I was fifty-six, new lease on life, married for thirty-two wonderful years and thoroughly enjoying every aspect of it. We were planning on traveling. As a matter of fact, that particular day we were going to the mall to shop for supplies and items to stock the RV we had ordered. We were to pick it up a week later. That would never happen.
The mall was busy as usual, on a weekend and a month and a half before Christmas. First we stopped and picked up some plastic (but nice) dishes and drink ware. I don't much care for it because I can taste the plastic, but it was necessary for durability I suppose. Then onto another store for cookware. At this point we were a bit hungry. It was a little past lunch time, and we had eaten a light breakfast, so our next stop was an Olga's Kitchen. By this time we had quite the bulky ensemble of packages being toted around. The next move was going to be one of those storage lockers you can rent to put stuff in, thus freeing your hands to accumulate more. Very convenient. But then, Rose's radar zeroed in on a pair of shoes in the Baker's window. There was no stopping her, she had to investigate. Feeling both tired and stuffed to bursting, I told her I would park my keester with our booty of traveling kitchenware on the mall bench that looked so inviting, about three or four stores down, and I would wait while she quenched her shoe euphoria. Off she went, and that was the last time I saw her for three years.
I don't feel the need to go into a great deal of detail about everything that occurred after. I'm sure you have all seen enough news programs and such depicting the procedures that follow a disappearance. Needless to say, the entire mall was scoured, top to bottom and inside and out without the slightest trace of her found. I would have thought at least some of her jewelry would be discovered, tore from her as she no doubt struggled against her kidnappers, particularly the fragile blue-rose pendant that I had just given her three months earlier for our anniversary. The rose has significance for us both, but I don't feel at liberty to say why. Some things just need to remain personal.
There were never any leads, never a ransom demanded, and...no body ever found. It was as if she simply vaporized into a puff of smoke and merely wafted away. I was crushed to say the least. Devastated. Unable to cope. My daughter, God rest her soul now, came to stay and care for me. I was a complete ass; all I wanted was to be left alone and waste away. I didn't care. Without Rose, life meant nothing to me. Twice I was hospitalized, rushed there by my daughter to have my stomach pumped following my first two suicide attempts. By the third one, as I held the knife to my wrist, something in the eyes of that broken creature staring back at me in the mirror stopped me. It is something even now I cannot explain. The closest I can come is that it was a feeling of being lost, of wandering around in a gigantic room filled with darkness and yet searching for something. Like I had unfinished business on this rock and I hadn't yet discovered what it was.
I couldn't remain in the house that Rose and I shared. It was too painful. It was sold and I moved into a modest condominium. I could not rest. I had to go on, alone, without Rose but with only her memory and the precious time we had together. I wish I could say that my feelings of self destruction had completely left me, but they hadn't. Not, at least, until my first discovery, and I can't say if it simply took the place of those feelings, or if this was what the unfinished business was, and I was embarking on a new journey. In either case, books saved me.
My maiden book, a first edition of A Farewell To Arms by Hemingway, was chanced upon in the basement of an old woman who had passed on by her daughter who had erroneously just cast it into a box of other books to become garage sale fodder. I admit I have always had a soft spot for literature and in particular old books, first and second editions and even more so in those that contained a dedication or note by the authors. I once owned a second printing of Tom Sawyer, inscribed with a note of gratitude to a girl named Marie written by Mark Twain himself. Apparently she had found Twain's stray cat and returned it to him. A little research told the story of a nine-year-old neighbor of the author's whose name was, in fact, Marie, and the edition was no doubt signed and given to her. It was passed to me- given as a gift actually-by a friend's well-read son who worked summers in the basement stock room of the local library. How it came to be there remains a mystery.
So, anyway, now I seek out old and rare books for clients as well as buy and sell unique editions on Ebay. Retirement had lost its luster with Rose gone, and I just didn't know what to do with myself. Perhaps it wasn't so much a calling as a distraction from my never-ending heartache to losing Rose, a mystery itself that still held no answer. Eventually, the assumption that she was no longer alive had to be realized, and I finally came to grips with it as I watched my daughter die of ovarian cancer.
No one should have to experience their child dying before them. It is one of those moments in life that force you to question if there is a God and how could he allow such a thing. Another of the great mysteries of our Heavenly Father. The death of my daughter was unbearable enough, but to watch her go the way she did nearly brought up all those suicidal thoughts once again. First Rose and then our only child. She was thirty-five but still my little girl. All that time she spent caring for me while I grieved the loss of my wife, all the while my selfishness not even considering how much pain she could be going through from losing her mother, and now I had to witness her wither away and die and there was nothing I could do for her but hold her hand at her bedside. It was the most helpless feeling in the world and I wouldn't wish it upon anyone. It was three weeks after I buried her that I received a request from a client that would eventually set me on the destructive course that brought me to where I am now, but soon that won't matter any longer. As a matter of fact, nothing will.
I was searching around, mostly on the web, for a first edition of Dicken's Tale Of Two Cities. This particular individual owned a second printing that was a little worn but all in all in fair shape. But it wasn't enough. The man wanted the first edition, in good shape, and was willing to pay whatever was necessary to obtain it. I was curious if I could actually find it, the client would then hope for the actual document in the author's hand and the previous find being inadequate for the book junkie's greed.
I had developed several very good resources, and barring disclosure, I admit that some of them were also a little less than legit. I mentioned I had done well in my previous working life, with finances enough to carry me to my eventual end with no problem, so, regardless of what the client was willing to pay, that was not the motivating factor. For me, it was more about the thrill of the hunt, and the victory of discovery. I actually get a bigger kick out of that very first awestruck expression that washes over a clients face when I produce the goods that they hired me for. I wonder if some do it just to see if I can deliver. My track record's not perfect, see, I did have a few dead-ends, but that is also how I became privy to the black market. Is there a dark side to book collecting? You bet there is, and I was just another pawn to fall victim to it.
In my searching, I discovered a small shop of antiquities and obscurities online, a source I hadn't come across before, and so perhaps that is how destiny works. I was also overjoyed to find that it was only a hundred and fifty miles from home. So upon discovering this establishment, the Guginol Shop Of Trash , Treasures and Obscurities, a hell of a title to fit on a business card, I decided to make a day of it. Take a little trip in the mini van I used for my hunting (it's much easier to load books-some quite heavy-into the rear gate of the van) and check out the area where the shop operated, see if it was a culturally hip place, like Portland Oregon, but in the warm Florida climate. The shop's website mentioned that they had books, so I was intrigued and I could have called, but I get a kick out of perusing the shelves, always on the lookout for a gem. On the day I walked into the place, I discovered a gem that I think very few, if any, in this day and age, ever do.
It was very warm the day I stepped into the Guginol and, like nearly every establishment in Florida, the a/c was humming steady which is good for old, fragile texts. Obviously moisture and humidity are a natural enemy. I thought I stood a decent chance of finding something salable and in good shape. A first edition of A Tale Of Two Cities, probably not, but it was a day of discovery in an entirely different way.
I wandered around the shop which was larger than what I was expecting, and struck up a conversation with Saul, the curator of this little museum. After some idle chat that gave Saul an idea of my fervor that was book hunting and that it was a serious passion, he eluded to the hint that the books on the shelves in the storefront weren't the only ones in his possession.
He asked me to follow him into a back area that was uniquely hidden from the rest of the shop behind a false wall. It was like something from Scooby Doo, and Saul explained that it kept his more valued treasures from view of would be thieves and scoundrels. It was, in fact, quite ingenious. Saul clicked on a light that illuminated a twenty by twenty room with all manner of organized shelves and racks and what appeared to be a couple of built-in closets. There were only curtains drawn across them which made them look like fitting rooms.
Here in this room were more antiques and some rare and unusual museum quality pieces. Saul began a little tour that seemed rehearsed, almost like a carnival barker but quiet and subdued. He showed me weapons of old and other torturous devices. He showed me a few animals, both jarred and preserved and some strangely taxidermied. He showed me human bones and a particularly interesting skull cut down the middle vertically and hinged at the rear so you could open it up-like a book-and study the interior structure. Although not actually a book, it was quite fascinating and I had to consider it as a possible item to purchase, although Saul had not yet suggested if these items in the hidden room were for sale, but I suppose everything has it's price, and after all, why else would he bring me back here. It's as though he knew there was reason why I was here and that there was indeed something I was searching for and in one magical, horrifying and enlightening moment, the object of my deepest desire was revealed.
Something caught the light and glittered, attracting my attention. I craned my head to see what it was, merely from curiosity which was certainly heightened in this room of oddities.
“You want to see her?” Saul asked me. I assumed another of his unique possessions that he was quite proud and fond of, hesitant to part with but, as I thought, everything has a price. Before I could even reply, Saul had nearly glided across the room and pulled the curtain aside. A small spotlight mounted inside the closet was what caused the sparkling that caught my attention and when Saul slid that curtain, I staggered back a couple of steps and had to steady myself against a glass cabinet to keep from falling. Suddenly my legs were like rubber bands and I thought surely I was going down.
“She” was revealed to me, and at that moment, all I could think of was Dorothy yanking that green curtain back exposing Oz. The glittering was the intense spotlight reflecting off the gilded sterling framework that held the blue rose pendant together. She was still wearing it, but she was very different. It sickens me still to know that upon seeing the mummified remains of my beloved wife, I could only liken her to jerky. She was still wearing the same clothes she had on when she went missing. Her body was completely intact, but of course, she was dead, her skin perfectly preserved, shriveled, but still beautiful. The hide of her face had shrunken and pulled taught to her skull, her lips were stretched thin and receded some, exposing more of her teeth than I remembered. And, thank God, her eyes were closed. I don't know that I could have bore looking into those dried marbles that had been so intense and lovely. But there she was. I could do no more than gape, open mouthed, aghast at the love of my life. I think Saul began speaking, attempting to bring me back to the day, but my mind went somewhere else. They say that love makes you do crazy things, and that is absolutely no lie.
When I did return, Saul standing between Rose and me, waving his hands in front of my face, I only looked at him and blinked. I did not believe that this man was responsible for her death or mummification. And strangely, I didn't care who did. I had her back and that's all that mattered. I asked Saul how he had come about her, not revealing that I knew her identity, and wished I wouldn't have when he simply told me “craigslist”. That hurt.
I had to have her, caring the least what it would cost me. Frankly, I honestly believe that if Saul absolutely refused to relinquish Rose, I could have killed him, or at least cold-cocked him good and ran off with her. I decided however that to be unwise. I didn't even want the authorities involved. I wanted my wife back. And, I got her. It did cost a lot, but worth every penny. On top of the twelve thousand dollars, well, lets say that my entire book collection was transferred and has put me out of that business. At least for now. I'm sure I could start it up again sometime, slowly of course since Rose and I were now practically broke, but not before I purchased a new RV. It's funny the way life works out sometimes, how it twists and turns and occasionally spits you right back out where you were to begin with. The first motor coach we ordered was planned out for every aspect of comfort imaginable. Now it seemed my only absolute requirement was a full-sized onboard refrigerator to ensure that Rose would be with me for as long as that big rolling home carried us off into the sunset.
Rose was gone three years, and now I have her back. Our conversations are just as enjoyable and entertaining as ever, and the only faux pas is trying to get used to more of a toothy kiss, but, as somebody said, love makes you do crazy things. It turns out, even at times of tragedy, you can still have your happily ever after.
The inspiration for this tale came mostly from watching an episode of Oddities on cable. Used the old what if? question. Anyway, until next time, I'll be planning what special thing I'm gonna do next halloween.