Thursday, April 19, 2007

The second silence

Three silences there are: the first of speech,
The second of desire, the third of thought.
– Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

The man came in and spent some time looking around. When asked if he was looking for anything in particular, he said no. “I’ll know it when I see it,” he said.

He saw it in a wooden display box. I knew this because of the way he stopped, stooped to peer through the glass, and straightened. His face wore a different look, almost puzzled, and a furrow on his brow.

“Can I see this lighter?” he asked. His eyes never left the case.

It was a metal Zippo embossed with a Barrett-Smythe stegosaurus. When I handed it to him he hefted it and turned it around and flipped the lid and sparked the striker and snapped the lid closed. His thumb traced the outline of the dinosaur. He stared at the lighter while his fingers roved blindly over its surface, but his sight had turned inward. I recognized the expression.

“I’ll give you some time to think it over,” I said, and quietly withdrew.

As the unofficial manager of my wife’s consignment shop in Blue Rapids, I’m becoming familiar with the shopping habits of people. Antiquers pore over the crowded shelves as if certain they’ll miss something, and specialized collectors, those looking for marbles, say, or wood-handled golf clubs or metal store tokens, rush through in a tunnel-vision sort of way, eyes unseeing anything beyond the shape of their desires. Some bluntly ask, others find pleasure in looking. Those who say they’ll recognize what they want when they see it are always men. Never women.

Collectors are driven. While a few are fun to talk with, most seem humorless, as if sure they’re wasting their time, that our quaint little shop could never harbor a rare masterpiece, and that at a ridiculously low price. But they have to stop and look to keep the demons at bay.

I wanted to be a collector once. My specialty was modern first editions, mysteries mostly, though my eclectic tastes ran to almost every genre but romance. The most I ever paid for a book was $75 for an autographed first edition, first printing of A Drink Before the War by Dennis Lehane. When I realized how much collecting was going to cost the desire began to wane. Now I see collecting as something that needs to be dusted. And I hate dusting.

I also see where the same book now goes for $350. Maybe I should reconsider. What’s a little dust?

After a long time the man placed the lighter back in the display. He seemed deflated, like a balloon with all the air leaked out. “Let me think about it,” he said.

A few weeks later he strode through the door and went directly to the case. There was an almost feral gleam in his eye. “Can I see this again?” he asked. I was already reaching for the key.

His fingers were restless, caressing the embossing, flicking the lid open and closed, stroking the metal case as if it were alive. This time I remained at his side, respectfully silent.

“I don’t need a lighter,” he finally said. “I just like it. It’s just—” He struggled for the right word, and all the while the lighter never stilled. “It’s different.”

In the retail trade these are the customers we enjoy. They arrive with no clear idea of what they want and leave with treasure. Besides the obvious gratification of a sale, their satisfaction is infectious, even vicarious.

His hesitation expanded into an uncomfortable silence. Slowly, slowly, the lighter grew still in his hands. “I’ll wait,” he said.

“It is the nature of desire not to be satisfied,” Aristotle said. While this applies to every facet of human existence, nowhere is it more applicable than in the ownership of stuff. There is stuff we have to buy, like refrigerators and washing machines and groceries, and there’s stuff we don’t need but think we do, like Zippo lighters with embossed stegosaurs or autographed first editions. The trick is knowing what stuff will remain priceless and what will tarnish the moment cash is exchanged.

I almost felt sorry for the guy, trapped between desire and reason. So much neat stuff passes in and out of the shop that I’ve learned to ignore it unless some obvious historic relic pops up. A handmade wooden checkerboard with stenciled hearts caught my eye, but I waffled until it was sold. Afterward I felt a trace of smugness, knowing it was hers to dust.

And then the croquet balls arrived.

There were seven of them, one larger than the others, very old, hand-painted with bands of slate blue, ochre, weathered burgundy and a pale green like you’d get if you strained avocados through cheesecloth. Three were smooth and four were grooved along the outside curve, with a few nicks and scratches from use. They were beautiful.

I set them on the counter where I could see them. Now and then I’d pick them up, one by one, and roll them in my fingers. The way they felt in my hand was indescribable.

Several customers looked at them, and each time I felt a wave of panic. The price was more than reasonable, it was a steal. Some remarked on the grooves, how unusual they were on croquet balls. I spent some time on the Internet looking for old croquet balls and found little, and none that were grooved. There was nothing else like them.

Maybe they’re not croquet balls. I really don’t know what they’re for. I’m just drawn to them.

The man returned and bought the lighter. This time there was no hesitation. “I don’t know why I like it,” he said. “But it’s too cheap to pass up.”

I took the balls home and set them on my desk, but within a day they had lost their allure.

“Why did you buy them?” Lori asked.

I couldn’t say.

The next day I returned them. I put them on the counter so I could see them, and occasionally I’d reach over and pick one up. Everything about them appealed to me—their color, their odd shape, their heft—but I couldn’t make up my mind.

“Life is made up of desires that seem big and vital one minute and little and absurd the next,” Alice Caldwell Rice wrote. “I guess we get what’s best for us in the end.”

A vendor brought in an egg-shaped vase decorated with scenes from Beatrix Potter’s Peter Rabbit, and perched atop the lid was a three-inch statue of Peter himself. I bought it on the spot.

Desire is a funny thing. I don’t claim to understand it, but I know what I like, especially if the price is right.

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