Keith inhabits a basement apartment full of books. Trapped underground for longer than he cares to admit, surrounded in every direction by remnants of decades long since passed, piles of books stacked haphazardly around his bedroom swallow any other décor that may have once occupied his home. They take up space as both art and furniture, a display of either intelligence or taste (or, more likely, hoarding). A single lamp casts shadows of various sizes, painting what looks like a cityscape on the walls of an ancient library.
Each book has been purchased with every intention of being read.

But instead, they perform a stale osmosis as thousands of words wait to be absorbed into Keith’s mind by the sheer force of their presence. Possessing an infinite number of potential escape routes and no indication of where to start, most days Keith picks up a new book, flips through its pages, and replaces it among the pack.

He rarely finishes them, preferring their potential states, preferring to remain buried. If never opened, their stories are limitless, constrained only by the artwork on their covers and the brief synopses either in their jackets or on their backs. Woven together with an unbridled imagination, books are almost better when left unread. Almost.

Encircled by a sea of prose, Keith has built an impressive fortress (or tomb) to defend his sheltered life. He never leaves his basement, preferring to work from home. Everything worth getting can be ordered online. He rarely talks on the phone and doesn’t really keep up with social media. Even his food deliveries are left at the door to be picked up once the driver has left. He keeps two plants for company and constantly runs an air purifier to keep mold spores and dust at bay.

All Keith has are his books, and yet it’s a challenge for him to complete just one or two a year. The best first sentences can entice any reader through to the end, his curiosity driving the desire to discover the story’s conclusion. But of the handful he starts every year, Keith reads the first sentences and pauses, almost afraid of the following paragraphs, the certainty of their words as characters and settings unfold along preordained paths, afraid of the finality of pages that inevitably end. (But that doesn’t stop him from adding to his collection, usually purchased by the dozen if there’s a good sale.)

Currently, he has attempted to read seven books of varying genres, all less-than half completed, with an assortment of napkins and sticky notes used as makeshift bookmarks. Each one is noticeably weathered, as if handled by hundreds of customers over its lifetime, plucked from the shelf of a used bookstore, inspected with a perfunctory fanning of its pages, and then returned to its station.

One of the seven lives in the bathroom as a toilet pastime; two are in the kitchen (even though neither are cookbooks, which instead live in a cabinet next to Keith’s spices); one is on the dining table under an assortment of dishes; and the rest are within arm’s length of his bed, desk, or couch—The Nine, Albatross, and Boy Erased. This is an unusual assortment because while these three occupy the category of “most likely to be read by Keith,” he rarely keeps more than one nonfiction book in rotation. (But one assumes that the events of this year thus far demand, almost subconsciously, that readers overindulge in the genre.)

Keith’s always been fascinated by the oracular justices of the Supreme Court. And, being an early millennial, the Rehnquist Nine once dominated the law for the longest uninterrupted period in the Court’s history—eleven years (almost as long as Keith has lived in his basement). Albatross matches Keith’s personal narrative only in the sense that the cover art is of the book’s title trapped in a bird cage, and the synopsis is about a boy with an unlikely and unwanted skill. (Can collecting books be called a skill?) Also, Keith has seen the movie adaptation of Boy Erased so he’s never felt the need to finish that particular memoir, even if its themes resonate with his own backstory.

Keith could do this exercise with each book in every pile—short descriptions and justification both for why he started them and why they were never finished (passively voiced on purpose because it’s as if the books themselves compelled Keith to stop; and, despite Keith’s interest in them, it’s as if the books instead lost interest in him).

However, you wouldn’t call Keith’s living situation “a mess,” which is an aggressive description that implies moral failure. No, you’d more appropriately say that he has a particular form of organization. Etched across his memory is a catalogue of each book’s placement, including its original purchase date and location. It’s just that those details are more robust than any stored memory of each book’s contents.

He picks up a thin novel knocked over at some point this evening and places it back on last October’s pile (whose books are ordered by color of its cover in reverse-rainbow). “Do you need help?” I offer my assistance perfunctorily but can foresee his answer. Sitting up in Keith’s bed, I’m quite certain that I am the first person to experience his room in years. Our clothes are strewn across various stacks of books and I’m hesitant to disturb the delicate balance of each tower.

“No, I’m good.” Keith returns to bed and I can see a flash of concern dance across his face. He wants to know what I’m thinking (with a look of such brazen self-consciousness that, honestly, is quite cute). But I can’t imagine staying in this room for much longer, let alone coming back a second or third time. The walls beg for attention with the stifled voices of countless protagonists in search of their missions or crimes to unearth and expose. Now, I’m not a prolific reader, but even I can appreciate the wasted potential here.

Keith scans the room, “It’s kind of a lot, I know.” He looks down at his hands and starts to fiddle with his ring finger.

Donning my warmest smile, I lift his chin and look him in the eyes, “I collect shoes. Boxes of them line my walls. I can barely move without knocking them over.”

Keith’s face softens a little, but I can tell that he knows: I may be someone who truly understands, who’s a member of a different chapter of our particular club, but we’ll never see each other again. We can’t. We occupy similar lanes and we’re both afraid of what the union of two messes might produce. (Not messes. Particular forms of organization.)

I get up to leave and Keith unconsciously opens his phone and scrolls through a used bookstore’s website, almost like a nervous tic. But then he catches himself and stands. As I button my shirt, Keith plucks Being Mortal from a random pile.

“I haven’t finished this one, but I’ve heard its good. If you want to borrow it…” His voice starts to trail off and he avoids eye contact again, but like a single brick being removed from an impregnable wall, I can see Keith’s fortress begin its long journey toward crumbling. He may not be able to finish this book, but if it can escape then maybe each one individually can be smuggled out and given the opportunity to live a full life, to be inhabited by being read.

“Thanks! I’ll let you know how it is,” I lie. As I make my way to leave, when Keith isn’t looking, I place the book on top of a different pile. I, too, am afraid of unleashing the potential contained in its pages. No; it’s better to leave some tombs undisturbed.

Trelaine is originally from Hawaii. But, true to form, he saw the line where the sky meets the sea, and it called him, so he currently lives and works in Washington, D.C. He enjoys origami, washing dishes, and taking pictures of clouds and sunsets.