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The following is an excerpt from the book The Mercy of Thin Air: A Novel
by Ronlyn Domingue
Published by Atria; September 2005;$24.00US/$33.00CAN; 0-7432-7880-1
Copyright © 2005 Ronlyn Domingue

Part One

Simon Beeker had been dead four months.

I did not know this when I approached his house for a belated visit. Because I was no longer in the habit of skimming obituaries, I missed the announcement.

The last time I had seen Simon, in early 1991, he was seventy-four. He sat in his crimson study, his elbows angled on the arms of a worn leather chair. I watched him turn the pages of a new biography -- the spine crepitated under his grip -- and noticed his eyes taking in each paragraph, quick and hungry. That quality had never changed about him. As a boy, he had been a collector of knowledge who sneaked into Andrew's room to read books a page at a time between odd jobs.

There in the study was Andrew's bookcase. The piece was an outdated Eastlake-inspired design when Andrew's aunt willed it to him, but he loved it because the shelves held books two rows deep. Before he left to go to law school, Andrew gave his mother permission to sell or give away what didn't go with him. He left dozens of books, several fine suits, and the bookcase. When Emmaline, their housekeeper, asked for the historical texts, Andrew insisted that she take everything. Emmaline gave it all to Simon, her long-boned, far-sighted grandson.

On the day of that visit, when Simon was seventy-four, I stayed only a few moments. I had not been near the bookcase in several decades. The smell I detected in the closed spaces made me anxious, lonesome. With barely a stir, I left. His wife asked him if he felt a draft as she stepped into the room to hand him a cup of coffee. He turned his dark face and sage eyes toward her and answered he had not.

Now, twelve years later, he was dead. The urge to see him again had come far too late.

I knew Simon was gone when I neared his little bungalow and saw the hand-lettered sign: Estate Sale. Cars parked on the banquettes on both sides of the street. Books, kitchen items, blankets, knickknacks, and furniture cluttered the tiny front yard. People made claim to Simon's possessions, holding them tightly in their arms.

There was the bookcase, in perfect condition, the only antique on the lawn. A small man in pince-nez glasses approached it with arms wide. He dropped to his knees reverently and opened the two drawers to inspect them. Like a billow of smoke from a snuffed flame, a scent I had not smelled in many years escaped the cool, dark hollows. This time, I did not avoid it. The little man began to shiver.

Andrew's essence drew outward, then stalled. The particles suspended in a dense concentration of cold, still air. I held the salty tinge within me for the length of a breath, before anything more could make an escape, before I could linger on the question, What happened to him?

As the air warmed, I noticed a rich, mature scent, one that had more strength but less power. That was Simon, whose hands had rubbed a chestnut patina into the glass doors as long as I'd been gone. He would have wanted the bookcase protected. I stood guard with cold drafts, waiting.

By late morning, a couple wandered through the remaining odds and ends at the sale. The young woman spotted the bookcase, shadowed by a redbud tree in new leaf. She opened the doors. As she reached inside to inspect the shelves, she breathed deeply. A comforting aroma, almost a blend of pipe smoke and cinnamon, surrounded her.

"Scott. It's perfect for the room, don't you think? And it's not musty or mildewed inside. I like the scent," she said.

He pulled a tape measure from his pocket. "Good fit. We haven't seen a nicer one anywhere. Great condition."

"I see something in a crack." She stretched deep over the last shelf. As small as she was, she could have crawled inside. When she withdrew, there was a copy of Family Limitation in her hand, which she eagerly began to skim. She grabbed Scott's arm and made him read a passage about unsatisfied women and nervous conditions.

"I must have this," she said. "It would complement my mementos from our Condom Sense Days in college. Remember?" Her eyes flickered.

"Oh, I remember." He flipped through the fragile pages. "You're lucky those Bible thumpers didn't whip themselves into a bigger frenzy and beat the crap out of all of you." Scott read several paragraphs. "Hey, Amy -- women used to douche with Lysol?"

"Lysol? Let me see that."

I liked her because she reminded me of myself. I liked him because her brazen little nature didn't scare him. They were darling together. She slipped the pamphlet back into its place and began to inspect the exterior wood.

"Interested?" One of Simon's granddaughters had his quiet look in her eyes. "Mamma," she shouted, "what are you asking for the bookcase?"

A woman poked her head around a porch column. "Five hundred."

Amy suppressed a grin and reached into her large, cluttered purse. Scott jumped to catch a small notebook as it fell. "I don't think we have enough cash. Would you take an out-of-town check?" she asked.

"Not usually. But you two look honest enough." Simon's granddaughter put a money box on the ground and pushed the sleeves of her baggy Tulane sweatshirt to her elbows. "You're going to give it a good home, right? I don't want my grandfather rolling over in his grave."

Amy looked at her. "You don't want to keep it?"

"No one in the family likes Victorian. It's time for it to belong to someone else."

Scott told the young woman that they would have to arrange a delivery to their home in Baton Rouge. She pulled a pen and paper from the money box. "Sarah Washington, that's my mom. You can make the check out to her. This is her cell phone number. Call her and set up a date. She'll make sure someone is here."

In block print, Amy wrote several phone numbers next to their names -- Amy Richmond and Scott Duncan. "Here are ours, too, just in case."

The young woman took the check, and they wished each other a good day.

Scott wrapped his arm around Amy's shoulders. She briefly laid her auburn head against his chest. "What a bargain," she said.

"With a free turn-of-the-century sex manual."

"Birth control guide."

"What do we need that for?" He patted her at the navel once before she pulled away.

Copyright © 2005 Ronlyn Domingue