You can subscribe to the Carding Chronicles by clicking the subscribe button on my home page. When you do, my stories will speed from my keyboard to your inbox every Thursday without any further effort on your part.
Please share these with your friends, co-workers, and all the family members you like best. I understand they go great with morning coffee.
This week’s subject is ephemera and it takes place in the Swap Shed at the Carding landfill and recycling center.
Kind of an odd place for a story, don’t you think?
Amos Handy smiled at the calendar hanging on the inside of his closet door as he slid his arms into the sleeves of one of his many tropical shirts. It was the third Thursday of the month, Edie day at the Swap Shed.
Before the Swap Shed was built, Amos cursed every time he saw books thrown in the landfill (along with other good stuff that he used in his funky sculptures). One day, he finally got mad enough to lobby the town to set aside a little money to establish a shelter where people could exchange old books for new.
It didn’t take long for the book-swapping business to get too big for Amos to handle by himself. Fortunately, Carding has a number of voracious readers, and lots of them were happy to help Amos sort the good from the musty, dusty, torn and tortured volumes that arrived in cardboard boxes and plastic bags.
After a while, they chose to make Thursday the weekly sorting day with a revolving cast of volunteers. Edie always showed up on the third Thursday.
Amos would never admit it out loud but he’d developed something of a sweet spot for her. He’d never met anyone else who could discuss the finer points of Mary Oliver’s poetry, whether A.S. Byatt’s Possession deserved the Booker Prize, and the misogyny inherent in the Nero Wolfe mysteries.
They debated which Shakespeare dramas had the right to be called great. He was partial to Othello while Edie swore by Macbeth.
It was still quite early in the morning when Amos stopped at the Coop for whole milk and honey for Edie’s tea while she picked up muffins from the Crow Town Bakery. Then the two of them converged at the Swap Shed’s front door.
“Oh jeez,” Amos muttered as their movements triggered the motion-sensor light on the outside of the shed. Its glare revealed a pile of ragged boxes damp with morning dew. He took book abuse personally. “The least they could do is put them in plastic bags. We’re gonna end up throwing most of these away.”
Edie’s nose twitched, and then she sneezed hard enough to fumble the muffin box, barely rescuing it before it hit the ground. “From the smell, I would guess we were going to throw most of that stuff away no matter what. How many years do you suppose they’ve been in someone’s attic?”
Amos peeled one of the box flaps up so he could look inside. “Hmph, there’s nothing here but 1950s hardcovers printed on that horrid paper that turns brown. But look at this.” He reached inside to extract a bookmark, a faded Red Sox ticket stub.
The two book sorters grinned at one another. “Ooh, ephemera,” they said together.
As a reader, I’m sure you’ve used all sorts of stuff to mark your place in a book—greeting cards, paper napkins, dollar bills, ribbon, cloth scraps, string, grocery lists, letters, coupons clipped from newspapers, toothpicks or whatever.
When Amos and Edie first started sorting together, they tossed that stuff into a pile that was thrown away at the end of the day. But occasionally, one or the other of them found an interesting postcard or photograph that was just too good to throw away. They nicknamed these finds “ephemera,” and found a small wooden box to hold them that was kept on the counter for readers in need of a bookmark.
It didn’t take long before the ephemera box developed a cult following. A summer resident named Theresa, who billed herself as a mixed media artist, regularly plundered it for collage materials. She was especially fond of postcards that had been used, oohing over descriptions of long ago travels or expressions of devotion.
She even brought one of her pieces into the Swap Shed to show Amos how she used her finds. He later told Edie that he wasn’t too impressed but at least the woman recycled.
Other people tried to coordinate their bookmarks with their reading finds, choosing black and white photos to go with Victorian classics, for example, or ribbons with romance novels.
As time went on, the two book sorters collected a motley crew of discarded reference books that they used to learn more about their finds. One of their prizes was an ancient atlas. Another was an amateur genealogy of the countries of the United Kingdom, and a third was an art history textbook whose authors, as Edie often remarked, didn’t seem to know that women existed..
Edie and Amos became vigorous in their ephemera hunting, shaking every book by its spine to be sure that nothing remained unfound. At the end of the day, they’d debate whose find qualified as “the most unusual” and the winner treated the loser to lunch.
“Does anyone believe that someone would actually read these things?” Edie asked as they unpacked the damp boxes. All of the books were spotted with mildew, and every time they shook them, she sneezed.
She was just about to toss a spoiled copy of Peyton Place into the dumpster when a fragile letter dropped out. She and Amos both lunged at it but he got there first.
The paper was thin, crackling with age, and covered with a spidery hand that had faded from black to gray. He carried it like a delicate Fabergé egg to the counter, turned on a bright light, and the two ephemera aficionados examined their prize.
“Oh my, look at the date.” Edie pointed to the top of the page where they read “November 13, 1864.”
“This was written during the Civil War,” Amos said. “This is the oldest thing we’ve ever found.”
The letter was short and they struggled to make out the words that had receded with time.
“‘My darling,’” Edie began to read, “‘A woman who helps at the hospital writes this for me as I am unable.’ I can’t make out the next words, can you?”
“Wait a minute.” Amos yanked a drawer open, rummaged around for a bit, and then came up with a magnifying glass worthy of Sherlock Holmes.
He re-angled the light, concentrating hard, and then he read: “‘I don’t think I’ll be back to see our new baby. I am glad it’s a girl, and I know she’s as pretty as you.'”
“Oh dear,” Edie murmured. “This doesn’t sound good.”
“‘I’ve got the water fever,’” Amos went on. “Water fever? What’s that?”
“Typhoid maybe?” Edie said. “Though nobody knew back then that it was caused by bacteria in unclean water.”
“‘I want you to know, my darling, how dear you are to me.’” Amos cleared his throat, passing the letter and magnifying glass to Edie.
“‘I hoped to see the green hills of Vermont once again but that is not to be.’” Edie flipped the paper over. “‘I love you, my darling. I always will.’”
The two of them stood silent for a moment before Amos asked: “Is there a name at the end?”
Edie raised the paper closer to the light, straining to make out the last marks on the page. “I think it says Samuel but I can’t be sure,” she said as she carefully folded the sheet.
They stood as silent witnesses to the long-ago grief released by the words on the delicate paper.
“What do you think we should do with it?” Amos finally asked.
Edie shook her head, searching in her heart for the right answer. Was there a right answer? “Well, it seems a shame to give it to the historical society because hardly anyone will see it there.”
Amos raised a finger. “I’ve got an idea. I’ll be right back.”
And that’s how Samuel’s letter, as it came to be called, became a star attraction at the Swap Shed, commanding pride of place between two panes of window glass pressed together in a discarded mirror frame held aloft on a stand.
Edie declared it one of Amos’s best finds ever.
At first, purists tried to argue that it belonged in the historical society. But judging by the reaction of most people who came to read the spidery hand, Amos’s choice suited most folks. Parents read it aloud to their children. Older people argued about who could have written it.
And somehow, it made the past feel a little closer, a little more human.
Because love is never ephemeral.