Love Doth Not Wither, It Sends Free Books
Is there any offer you can think of that would be good twenty-seven years later? A used car dealership promo? A coupon for ham in a grocery store circular? An ad for two-for-one hot tubs found in an old newspaper and presented at Jacuzzi Jack’s, presuming they’re still in business? I can’t either. But it can happen.
With a combination of morbid fascination, amusement, dismay, and nostalgia, I idly plucked two old Harlequins from one of the free library boxes around my neighborhood. I checked the publication date—1991—a little later than I was reading them in high school, but still, of the same generation and very familiar. Oh, the folly and heteronormative bludgeoning of one’s youth. I took them not so much to read than as relics of the past, like you might a now-bearable awkward homecoming photo or a mix tape found in the bottom of a box you’d come across.
Thumbing through one after I got home, I noticed the offer postcard buried within its pages. If you read as many books from the thrift store as I did, I’m guessing you know of what postcards I speak, as they were often in paperback series. You could subscribe to Romance-Lovers Club! or Mystery Readers Club! (Agatha Christie was big) and books would start appearing conveniently at your home at an exclusive low, low price with a special carefully-selected gift just for you.
I pulled on the corrugated line for the postcard, first in the one book and then the other, which gave freely as you might imagine after 27 years. One had a scratch-off illustration of a poker hand to determine how many free books were won, the metal patina so aged it fought revelation in my efforts with a penny. The other had dice with coyly obscuring stickers. The answer in both cases was: TWO FREE BOOKS. I fished out some stamps and one portentous squeak of the mailbox hinge later they were off into cosmos of the U.S. mail.
Three weeks later two small cardboard boxes appeared in the foyer of my building. “No,” I said, “NO WAY.” I was fairly sure I knew what these were, but in a rush to get to work I wanted to wait and open them with the attention and ceremony the occasion deserved and decided to wait till I got home.
Well, it was them. A few moments after wrangling with tape and cardboard Tempted by Her Greek Tycoonand The Prince’s Fake Fiancéewere sitting on my coffee table. By sending in two cards I got duplicate orders, including yellow star-shaped post-its and copies of Women’s Health Newsletter. I surveyed it, thinking it’s odd to be so pleased to receive something you don’t actually want.
Why did the woman fill out the offer cards? Because she was curious to see what would happen if she did. I like to bait fate, especially when the stakes are so low, I guess. It’s hard not to try to knead some metaphor or poetry out their arrival. I’m not sure there is any that quite fits, however much come to mind. It’s a little like a message in a bottle answered across a sea of commerce. Or a bureaucratic ghost story: I imagined an office worker on the 10thfloor that someone forgot to fire, still smoking at their desk, waiting when once a month offer letters arrived. I kept thinking of a BBC story from about five years ago about the last telegram office closing in India. A friend pointed out it was a marvel of continuity when computers are considered vintage three years after they make their way into the world. And it reminded me of the trope in the romance genre where a love letter gone astray is found 20/50/100 years later and followed up on by a heroine that falls for the grandson of the recipient.
But there wasn’t any satisfying and exact fit in any of these. It was at heart a bit of a lark, a weird lark that nibbled at the edges of interesting things about time and permanency, but a lark all the same. But like many larks, big and small, there were consequences. I was telling a friend about it and in my momentum of marvel and speculation I came to a sudden halt. “Oh, no,” I said in a moment of realization. “Now, I have to cancel them.”